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It’s the Best Piece of Plastic Around
in Huffington post!
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in The Malaysian Star!
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Five months into my amazing India travel experience, made possible by India Someday’s absolutely brilliant ‘You Wander We Pay’ contest, I bear the good news that I’m alive and well, perhaps even glowing, as I dream about where to venture next in this country of chaos and charm.
Probably not what you would expect to read if you, like many others I know, have been too daunted to make your way to India, deterred by the countless blogs which warn women endlessly about the dirt, disorder and demeaning behavior of the ‘terrible male species.’
Well, here are six thoughts I think you should keep in mind if heading this way. And fear not, they are not designed to scare the chapatti out of you!
1) It’s pretty damn amazing here! Mind the media!
All too often, it’s the gloom and doom of life that’s presented to us in our media, instilling fear and emphasizing negativity. Keep that in mind! I’m not suggesting bad things don’t happen – they surely do, all over the world. And huge kudos to those who share their experiences and raise critical awareness of gender based violence of any sort. So I say yes, read it all! Hear the important voices of survivors and fellow travelers, increasing awareness and sharing safety tips. There is lots of good advice out there.
Just beware! It’s not the full story! There are thousands of us women who are having stellar, incident-free expeditions through India, immersing in the culture and commotion, day and night, in cities and villages, with women and men – and we are more than safe, we’re having the time of our lives!
2)You will be stared at – You are fascinating!
Whether you’re on the Metro platform in Delhi or walking through a small village in Uttarakhand, you WILL be stared at. You can count on it. All the moreso if you have very fair skin or blonde curly hair! I’ve had people literally come stand a foot away from me, looking me up and down, even sneaking selfie shots with me, as if I wouldn’t notice.
Many women travelers are horrified by this and have told me they feel like sexual objects. While I can empathize, knowing we carry with us our personal and shared histories as women, I personally feel more like an object of cultural curiosity and am not at all offended. Isn’t that a big part of why we’re here too?! One of my favorite parts of traveling in India is the amazing parade of people. I could watch and stare all day!
So yes, I do feel eyes on me, but I feel more like a walking museum of western life than a sexual object. I can feel their fascination with my white skin, my freckles, my smile, my jewelry, my clothes, my bag, my shoes. I feel them wondering about who I am, what I do, how I think, not just what I look like naked. And trust me, I do know that feeling of being objectified – I just happen to feel it much more on the streets of New York City than here in India.
Of course, as with anywhere, there will be some obnoxious souls you might encounter (Indian men will often be the first to warn you about them), but after 5 months of some pretty intense travel through cities and villages, using public transportation, immersing pretty deeply in local life, and following my gut, I’m happy to say that I don’t think that’s the norm. Some men in fact, might not even look at you at all, declining eye contact even while you’re in conversation.
3) Positive Energy is Palpable! Being present. Being open.
I’ve been blown away by the positive energy here in India. Perhaps it’s one of my favorite parts of this country. I’ve traveled to many places around the world and never have I felt so much positivity. From the breathtaking natural environments of wide open deserts (Jaisalmer, Rann of Kutch), to the stunning mountains of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, the powerful rivers, the glorious beaches, the endless farmland, and even the chaotic streets filled with people and cows. The beauty of the land coupled by the brilliant colors of clothing and other textiles can at times even feel over-stimulating and nourishing for the eyes and soul! And then there’s the people – for whom the answer to any question is “yes, possible!”
Take it in! Breathe it! Be present and live in the moment! Savor it! Feel its healing power! Let your guard down!
Put those fear-mongering blogs in the back of your mind – and get to know the locals, even the men! Many travelers come to India and spend their time only seeing sites and enjoying the comforts of their accommodations and fellow travelers but being open to the people and culture will truly enrich your experience. It will also get you the directions and guidance you need, sometimes without even asking (the majority of people simply want to connect with you and help – not get in your pants!)
The eye contact to be made, with women and men alike, especially while circling the white marble floors of the Golden Temple grounds, is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Even while on buses or walking the streets, connecting eyes and exchanging genuine smiles (and perhaps a head bobble too) is powerfully beautiful – and harmless! The majority of people, women and men, are sincerely interested in you culturally, offering you chai because of their Indian hospitality and to interact with you, as a human.
Let your guard down (to whatever extent feels comfy and safe) and be as open as you can. I for one have found myself eating the most delicious meals, experiencing incredible wildlife and even dressing in full traditional Kutch exquisite handmade clothing – all because of my openness.
Embracing the positivity, and moving the fear factor to the backseat (still need the info to inform your gut) will surely offer you a truly memorable India experience.
4) Strength in Numbers!
No, I don’t mean its better to travel with a crowd, though at times, it sure is fun! I mean there are TONS of us out here. Every week, I’m newly inspired and empowered by the caliber of solo women travelers I meet.
And not just westerners. To many Indians’ surprise, I regularly meet awesome Indian women who have quit their conventional jobs, donned their backpacks and are out exploring their incredible country, many of them blogging about it too. Many others are venturing out for long weekends and shorter trips, plotting their grand plans for longer-term adventures.
We draw strength and passion from each other. We women are oozing with cultural curiosity, passion for nature and desire for healing, self-growth and connection, both for ourselves and others.
Despite our masses, many will still be uber impressed by how brave you are (little do they know how much easier it often is to travel solo) and you will still frequently be asked if you are single, if you have kids and why not! Roll with the questions, as you like, having fun and embracing the opportunity for dialogue, even if it feels better to white-lie your answers. All the more interesting if you connect with local women and women’s organizations, bearing witness to their experiences too. One of my favorite moments was chitchatting about periods with the 14 and 19-year-old sisters from Dharamkot whose home I stay in. They loved my diva cup (definitely something I recommend for all menstruating travelers!)
Such an amazing collection of women I feel honored to now know and learn from (and with). From a 19-year-old German, navigating her way through Rajasthan to the Indian woman who left her marriage and is seeking my travel suggestions to the Brit in her 70s covering more of the unbeaten path than any other I’ve met.
An incredible sisterhood – inspiring, empowering and making change!
5) Being your true self!
The more you travel and the more you live, the more you know what makes you tick – what inspires you, challenges you, nourishes you, strengthens you, brings you the most fun and the list could go on. Go after those things and go at the pace that feels right for you, even if it means straying from the path that you’ve read about, think you’re ‘supposed to do’ or see others doing. This has landed me in the most amazing local and nature scenes, connecting with people with shared values and leading me from one great opportunity to the next.
Remember that there are no wrong turns – if you miss seeing a palace, it’s probably because you had an eye-opening conversation or were in a beautiful park. Maybe you were even in your room doing nothing (ha, that’s never really possible – maybe you really needed that extra sleep or to process your thoughts before heading back out!) India is a thoroughly overstimulating place! Staying in one area and unfolding the many layers; moving on to experience another terrain, language, style and cuisine; or venturing to a meditation or yoga retreat– all will offer endless anthropological phenomenon.
In India, when asked “why,” the answer is often “why not?” If you keep this philosophy in mind, following your instincts and true-self will be all the more fun.
6) Good decisions and following your gut (a few little tips)
5 incident-free months of amazing travel through India (not even Delhi Belly!) I realize I might indeed be blessed with some good fortune. I’ve also followed some decent advice for making wise decisions, even though it sometimes means sacrificing something my ‘true self’ (see above) would want to wear or do! Here are some of the tips I find most helpful.
Have I mentioned the vibrant colors and amazing patterns of all the textiles and clothing? Well, dive in! Leave your spaghetti-strap tanks at home (in fact, leave everything at home and carry the lightest bag possible!) Hit the markets and shop for some colorful scarves and cotton kurtas(loose, long tunics worn by Indian women). The hardest part will be choosing! Or wear other clothing that keeps you covered. India is a pretty conservative country.
Covering your shoulders and legs might make you a little hotter temperature-wise but you’re bound to feel much comfier in other ways. It will certainly help make the inevitable staring feel benign and a colorful kurta will earn you an extra smile or two.
Enjoy the conversation! You’ll be asked over and over again about what country you’re from and often the convo can become much more substantive and interesting. Get into it, enjoy it – and as you should anywhere, have your clear set of boundaries. Be ready to ease yourself out of the conversation as soon as you get any sort of “icky” feeling.
The stars can be incredible here. Nothing like stargazing in the countryside, where the dearth of electricity means little light pollution. Its not easy to hold me back from a good night walk, especially when my strong instincts don’t smell any danger, but I make that sacrifice, both in cities and in villages – I don’t do a lot of walking alone outside at night. Thankfully, there’s almost always something fun going on to watch, talk about, cook, eat or play inside!
Local is often better. In big cities, I love taking the public transportation and to get between cities and states, the trains and buses are stellar. Look out for “all-women” cars on local trains, usually all the way at the front or back. Amazing to ride with so much fun color and energy, a packed car full of traditional women carrying things on their heads and contemporary women heading to a whole array of jobs. There are even special lines for women to purchase tickets and some cities now have a fleet of all-women rickshaws.
For long train travel, I recommend either 2nd class AC or Sleeper Car, and in Sleeper, top bunk is best. Lots of stories out there of women who have been groped but I have yet to meet someone this has happened to. I love Sleeper Class because it’s always easy to connect with trusted Indian women, many traveling with their families. They will happily keep an eye on your bag when you go to the bathroom, and will certainly offer you some of the home cooked food they brought on their journey. Because lots of peddlers and other people can come in and out of the train car, being on the top bunk gives you a safe place for your bags and lets you take it all in from a distance. I LOVE these train rides. Overnight sleeper buses are pretty great too; though beware of the double sleeper. It is meant for two and unless you know who you’re sharing it with, it’s probably not a good idea! Again, upper level is more private but bottom level is definitely less bumpy!
Bottom line ladies, as you would/should anywhere in the world, my best advice while traveling India is to be aware, use common sense, follow your gut and make sure to enjoy the fabulous people and positive energy of this blessed country!
Thank you India Someday
Thank you You Wander We Pay
Thank you Incredible India
This article originally appeared on India Someday.
“Was it a lifer?” the thirteen year old asked me, his dark brown eyes wide open with excitement as he followed the bird’s graceful flight. “Hmm…a lifer?” I took some time to ponder what he might have meant before I responded. Too many years working in the criminal injustice system, my first guess had the bird caged up behind bars for decades, though I knew that couldn’t be the case in this nature-rich outdoor sanctuary. He went on to enthusiastically share that he himself had a few lifers on day one of India’s first ever Bird Festival which took place December 4-6, 2015 in Chambal, Uttar Pradesh.
I’ve always thought of myself as a bird enthusiast. I’ve taken countless photos of puffed up cardinals and blue jays in the snowy Ramble of NYC Central Park; I love seeing the woodcocks in Jamaica Bay Wildlife preserve; and have even made it to Papua New Guinea where I excitedly sat in my dugout canoe, binoculars in hand, gazing in wonder at the magnificent feathered creatures. Participating in India’s first Bird Festival however, was an incredibly humbling experience for me, sharing binoculars and scopes with some of the top ornithologists from around the globe and getting a sense of just how deep and layered the world of bird watching can be.
Organized by Nikhil Devasar, avid bird watcher and Consultant for the Uttar Pradesh Eco- Tourism Department, the 1st ever Bird Festival brought together over 100 birding enthusiasts, from India, Kenya, Sweden, England, Nepal, USA and other countries around the globe. Young and old, newbies and veterans, attendees swapped sighting stories and compared gear, always appearing calm and composed, yet with palpable passion for birds and all kinds of wildlife.
Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Shri Akhilesh Yadav, inaugurated the event and proudly welcomed the group of distinguished bird watchers to the National Chambal Wildlife Sanctuary, just one of a dozen sanctuaries in the “bird circuit” of Uttar Pradesh being promoted as part of the State’s impressive eco-tourism mission. With lodges, secure transport and a cadre of professional conservators and wildlife guides, there is increasingly convenient access to protected areas for viewing some of India’s vibrant bird life. The Ganges, Yamuna, Rapti and Gandak rivers coupled by a range of lakes and other wetlands make Uttar Pradesh the ideal stomping grounds for both resident and migratory birds coming from as far as Europe, Tibet, Siberia and China.
Chambal in particular, is home to the Gharial, Gangetic Dolphin and Indian Skimmer, not to mention it being the residential home of the stunning Sarus Crane. Each morning the festival offered three options for bird viewing, including a boat safari in the Chambal River. While I thought the morning fog made for a dreamlike setting, I was quickly reminded of our bird watching purpose and joined in the excitement as the skies cleared and many of us relished in the opportunity to see “lifers.” I’ve since learned this refers to first-ever sightings of a particular bird species!
All geared up with giant lenses, high-tech tripods, cutting-edge scopes and fancy binoculars strapped onto their bodies, the festival family was a joy to be around, everyone generously sharing both knowledge and equipment. As our white tourist cars pulled up to a site, village children and adults alike joined us in curiosity. I loved seeing the most committed of bird-watchers, eager to spot specific species, offering their binoculars and setting up their scopes for the villagers to catch a glimpse of something special. What a joy to gaze out at the spotted owlet with a line of 10 excited boys, hatchets in their hands, ready for the days’ work, savoring in the opportunity to see their land through a whole different lens.
Kudos to Nikhil for inviting such an impressive caliber of birdwatchers, so open to sharing and exposing others to their passion. And such experts!! I would look out and barely see a speck in the air and they could name and provide all of the details of the far-off bird in the distance. Forget about “lifers,” there was a whole language of birding I could barely understand but was thrilled to learn and be around. Each afternoon, the schedule was jam-packed with lectures from expert birders including Nigel Redman, Per Alstrom, Jim Lawrence and Tim Appleton (to name a few) sharing their deep knowledge of particular species, from chats to owlets. Booths were set up to showcase and raise awareness of critical conservation efforts and to promote eco-tourism around the state. Newly designed literature and teaching tools for children were distributed – and it was a pure delight to see huge groups of uniformed students attending the festival’s workshops.
We also had the great opportunity to watch some uber-talented bird artists in action. Jackie Garner offered fabulous workshops on drawings birds while the paintings of Pratim Das were beautifully displayed and sold across the aisle from some of the most stunning bird photography I’ve seen. A great painting doesn’t count as a “lifer” though so during some free afternoon hours, I simply enjoyed the unofficial bird watching opportunities in the picturesque preserve and farm fields. I may have even snuck out to the vibrant streets and villages nearby (I’m admittedly still a bit hooked on the incredible people (and cow and goat) watching in India!)
One of the highlights for me was watching expert bird ringer, Dr. Balachandran of the Bombay Natural History Society. With a brilliant smile, he would hold up a specific bird that had been caught in the light netting, share some information about it and offer beautiful close-up views as the bird was measured, weighed and ringed. Each time, someone new in the group was given the honor of releasing it back to the wild.
An enchanting tent city was set up at the Chambal Safari Lodge where we bird lovers got to camp (or “glamp”) in style, with evening entertainment and mouth-watering Indian meals serving as a perfect setting for chatting about “lifers” and all else bird-related. At night we meandered the fields and scoped the trees for civets, small nocturnal mammals native to tropical forests of Asia and Africa. I chuckled as the topic of raccoons arose; my Indian friends eagerly awaiting an opportunity to one day see the furry creatures so common to our parks and back yards in the US. Together we gazed at the smiling moon and shining stars, sharing stories of the constellations and singing songs around a glowing bonfire.
What an incredible sense of community these little (actually some of those vultures were quite large) winged beings create. We were a beautifully diverse group and I loved the intergenerationality. The festival was not only an incredible opportunity for bird watchers to see India and add to their list of “lifers,” it showcased Uttar Pradesh’s rich natural resources as a vehicle for bringing the international bird watching community together. Dozens of folks had been seeing each others’ photos and even corresponding with one another for years, the festival offering them the first opportunity to meet face to face.
In exciting news, December 2 -4, 2016 was announced for the 2nd Annual Bird Festival, so mark your calendars if you’re eager to be birdy nerdy in India! I for one, have a lot of learning and purchasing to do beforehand. When asked where my binoculars were during the festival, my answer unfortunately was “in the future.” The very near future….along with my “lifer” list.
Thank you Uttar Pradesh.
Thank you Nikhil.
Thank you Birds.
Thank you fabulous bird watching friends.
From divine desert dunes to sacred lakes and simple village life, I’ve been feeling the India pulse and loving it. My India Someday –You Wander We Pay itinerary has been chock full of varied landscapes and city scenes. I can’t lie though – sometimes the cacophony of the cities makes me lose my mind.
I was totally dreading my time in Delhi but ended up liking the big city! Many more thoughts to share but here are some of my initial thoughts written for the You Wander We Pay blog.
Click here to read!
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