India is the land of diversity. From temples to palaces and make-shift huts it permeates with history, culture, religion, tradition and knowledge. Upon travelling to India, Mark Twain (1897) said the city of Varanasi was the “oldest” in the world. Since 1999, I have travelled annually to India and spent 2-3 months studying yoga. It’s a trip that is very dear to me. One reason is because of my love of yoga and the other is for India. Standing at the foot of a 12th century Hindi statue or inside of a Jain temple is more than just a little awe-inspiring.
As a woman travelling alone I have discovered many things about myself, people and life itself. Here’s a bunch of stuff that I discovered from my journeys, which I hope will help make yours a great adventure.....
Part 1: Travel Myths
1. Travelling Alone As a Woman is Dangerous
By now there are more than enough women who have made successful trips by travelling alone. (There's even a book and a movie about it -- Eat, Pray, Love :) I actually feel it is easier to get around alone than in a group. It’s just easier to slip into a crowd and disappear from a pushy vendor by yourself. As well, shopkeepers and hotel staff will give you extra care when they know you are doing it solo. I have also heard women say they interacted more with the locals when they were alone than accompanied with a partner. In those scenarios they were ignored as the men ‘talked’.
It is wise, however, not to have in-depth conversations with strangers. Would you do so in your own country and then get into their car? The same street rules apply no matter where you go.
2. Getting Sick is Par for the Course
Getting sick is not a pre-requisite and can be avoided. A few tips are:
~ Drink lots of water. Most people don’t drink enough and the body gets dehydrated from flying.
~ Don’t eat off the street. There are juicy looking fruits and yummy nuts tempting you. I learned this the hard way and returned to Canada with wipe-worm (a parasite)! Believe me you don’t want the details.
~ Consult a Travel Medicine doctor and not your family doctor. No matter how much you respect your doctor they are not experts in travel medicine and may not have the latest information.
3. The Cuisine is Spicey
Contrary to what people understand as being Indian food it is not only hot and laced with curry. That’s like saying Italians eat spaghetti and meat-balls everyday! While the staple is rice there is a variety of wonderful vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes. As well, the food can be prepared to your taste from very hot to extremely mild.
The cuisine also varies from region to region. If you love chapattis (Indian flat bread) it might be hard to get in the North whereas Naan is more popular. Chai (Indian spiced tea with milk) is found all over India, but coffee is often the instant crap stuff. Also, please note coffee is ordered differently. In India, it’s ordered as ‘separate’ (meaning black coffee with the milk on the side) or ‘milk’ coffee (self-explanatory).
4. It’s Bloody Hot
Like the food most people mistakenly think all of India is hot. If you travel to Shimla, the capital of the Himalayas, you’ll be amazed at the 18 Celsius summer breeze. Shimla is a hill station that was taken over by the British when they ruled India. The British flocked there when the temperatures reached a scorching 50 on the lower plains.
Travelling further north there is snow (yes, snow) and further down in the southern regions are miserable conditions that look like London, England. Depending on when and where you go it is possible to avoid the heat and the monsoon. If not, there are plenty of other hill stations, which are lovely pockets of tea, coffee and spice country.
5. You’ll be Robbed
Just because it’s a third-world country does not mean everyone is out to get you. Having made friends with less wealthy Indians these are the first people to offer you a meal in their home and the last to ask for something in return.
I don’t suggest testing this out, but once I carelessly put a 10 Indian rupee note in my back pocket (this is enough to get you 2 cups of tea). I was shocked when a young Indian guy tapped on my shoulder and pointed to the money sticking out from my pocket. He warned me to be careful. I felt like giving him the money for his good deed!
6. Toilets and Electricity
If you travel in 5-star conditions and go by plane and taxi you will enjoy Western toilets and electrical power 24-7 with a generator kicking in. If you do the opposite by staying in budget hotels you’ll probably still get a toilet seat in an attached bathroom and experience a few black-outs. In both cases, however, you won’t necessarily be subjected to peeing in a hole and using a bucket to flush. Even some of the ashrams have been upgraded from outdoor showers to private ones and Western toilets. However, many restaurants, home-stays, public schools and private apartments as well as residences are not set-up to meet with Western approving eyes. At worst, you should bring your own toilet paper, not look down and pinch your nose. At best, this is a part of travelling to a foreign country.
The first time I was greeted with the squat toilet was while living in South Korea for 2 years. It was a disgusting thing; so I took a photo of it. Honestly speaking, if you want the same conditions you have at home it is better not to travel anywhere. You can read more on India's lack of toilet access here.
Stay tuned for Part 2: Travel Truths!