Following the horrific gang-rape of a 23-year-old in India in December; travel advisories in the US, UK and other foreign embassies have warned women not to travel alone in India, saying they are “at risk and should exercise vigilance.” The incident and a spate of others have affected the well-built image of India globally.
Dhanya Nair interviews Mariellen Ward a professional travel writer, blogger and Indophile based in Toronto (and sometimes Delhi). Her award-winning travel blog Breathedreamgo.comis inspired by her extensive travels in India. Over the past seven years, Mariellen has traveled for almost seven years mostly by herself. AGI quizzes Ward about cultural differences, security and the Indian experience.
Q: You are a self-confessed India lover. Where did this love affair begin?
A: I was always fascinated with India. As a child, I was obsessed with the Arabian nights and painted murals on my bedroom walls of maharajah palaces — a lot like the ones in Rajasthan and Mysore. I remember mooning over photos of George Harrison in Rishikesh, with marigolds around his neck, when I was an adolescent. And as a teenager, I loved burning incense and reading spiritual books — I even dipped into the Bhagavad Gita. Funny, though, I had a mythical idea of India and didn’t think it was a place you could actually go to. It never occurred to me that I could get on a plane and fly to India. It seemed beyond impossible.
Q: Most Westerners feel it’s an exotic land with snake charmers and elephants everywhere. Did you also have such an image?
A: Yes, I definitely had a mythical idea of India. I couldn’t really imagine it as a real place. I simply had no idea what it would be like — but I think I imagined the chaos and clutter of Old Delhi. India has been the greatest adventure of my life; to just not know but to go anyway.
Q: What was your first impression of the country?
A: The first night in South Delhi just seemed surreal. The only thing that really stood out was the acrid smell of the air. I didn’t dislike it; in fact I found it comforting. The next morning, I walked out onto the family’s very large, white marble terrace, which was flooded with warmth and sunshine. We were served tea and breakfast and a shawl-wallah came with fabric and shawls. I sipped tea and shopped with the ladies of the house, and thought I had landed in heaven. Later, my friend and I walked in a nearby park at twilight, and the sky turned pink, and we saw peacocks in the park, and as they screeched and cavorted, I fell in love with India. That was it. My connection was made in the first 24 hours.
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Q: What lessons did you learn from your first travel to India?
A: I learned more about life, myself and the world we live in from travelling in India than anything else I have ever done. I gained an enormous amount of perspective on my place in the world — such as my identity as a middle class person, for example. I learned that I am much stronger than I thought. My spiritual awareness has increased dramatically. By opening up to another culture, I learned how similar we all are; and yet how different cultures can really be.
Q: How is the Indian experience different from other Asian countries?
A: I have lived in Japan and travelled in Bhutan, Thailand and Hong Kong. I have also travelled a lot in North America, Central America and Europe. But India is absolutely unique. There is no place as vast, as diverse, and as chaotic. There is no place with such a rich, ancient culture yet changing so fast. There is no place that makes all your senses explode at once. India is a full technicolour experience. And there is no place with such warm, friendly and helpful people, too.
Q: You were in India during and after the horrific incident of gang rape, and actually ended up returning home earlier than planned. Why was this? What was your reaction when the whole story was getting unfolded?
A: I was upset by the Delhi Gang Rape story, and I still am. It happened when I was in Goa, at a time when I was going through an emotional crisis (feeling extremely homesick). I was in Mumbai, staying with a friend, when the victim died. And I was back in Delhi, my home base in India, when her father made her name public. The whole thing was devastating for so many reasons. Horrible to think that such a lovely young woman went through so much torture and suffering. Horrible to think those men thought they could get away with it because of the pervasive sexism in India. The only good thing about is that it has blown the cover off issues that need to see the light of day; and need to be changed.
I cut my trip short for personal reasons, mostly financial (couldn’t find backers for my India travel blog), but the somber mood of the nation during those weeks sure didn’t help matters. I had never been homesick in India before; this was the first time.
But I do have to say that my “mythical” idea of India has certainly been shattered. For a long time, all I seemed to see was the spiritual light of India, and the beauty. But now I see the dark too. In fact, all I could see was dark for the last couple of weeks I was there, as the media and the nation was swamped with this terrible story, and the outrage that followed.
In fact, it is probably a lot safer than many places. I have very rarely felt unsafe in India and I have travelled from one end of the country to the other, mostly by myself.
Q: Many Western countries have issued warning to women travelers cautioning them from travelling to India. Is that a drastic step? Any tips you can give to travelers, especially solo female travelers?
A: I don’t think India is more unsafe than other countries for female travellers. In fact, it is probably a lot safer than many places. I have very rarely felt unsafe in India and I have travelled from one end of the country to the other, mostly by myself. I have spent about 17 months travelling in India over the past seven years. I was groped by a passerby in Old Delhi once; and followed in Mumbai by a guy who gave me the creeps. I had my phone stolen from my purse by a group of women at a big temple in Mumbai. Those are the worst things that have happened to me in seven years. Nothing else to mention; other than that, people have been very nice (except for the ones who try and overcharge you, of course). But I am quite cautious; I wear modest clothes, plan my travel with safety in mind, and I am careful how I relate with men.
Q: Do you think the country’s attitude towards women and security has taken a turn for the worse since your first trip?
A: I don’t know if things have gotten worse for women. There has been a backlash to the freedom young women are enjoying in the metros. I remember some terrible incidents in Bangalore for example, where gundas were going in to pubs and beating up the women. That’s my worry, that there will be a backlash to the positive changes women are making towards equality and freedom. But these things don’t really affect travellers and foreigners.
Q: In your travels have you seen more Indian women travelling alone? Have you had female travelers from other countries expression apprehension? What’s your message to them?
A: I have seen a few young women travelling alone in India. They are bold and beautiful. My message to them — and to all Indian women is: you’re beautiful, worthy, and powerful. Live your life. Don’t let fear get to you. If you make changes to your life because you are afraid, it means they have won. It’s like terrorism. You can’t let terrorists frighten you.
Q: You’ve said that India is your soul home and muse. Has this perception changed after the incident?
A: Ha, very good question! Whenever I get too down about India not fulfilling my dreams, and not helping me create a sustainable life, something happens. There is a magic in India, and it reaches out and touches me whenever I am at my lowest moments. India chooses you, that’s for sure. Some people visit and hate the place, and can’t wait to leave. But others, like me, fall in love. We become enchanted.
Q: What would be your top Indian experiences?
A: The Kumbh Mela. It is a vast sea of humanity and bliss and getting to know Delhi. I love Delhi; I have spent a lot of time there, living with a Punjabi family in South Delhi. It has its problems, but it’s an underrated city.