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Should solo female travelers avoid India?
Following the horrifying New Delhi gang rape, a CNN staffer recounts her experiences traveling alone through the country
When we travel abroad, sometimes we stumble and sometimes we fall -- in love with a country.
In December, I set off on a three-week journey through India, making my way from the north to the south.
Everyone thought I was nuts to go there on holiday; moreover, to travel alone as a twenty-something female. Indians and non-Indians alike expressed dismay, warning I'd be subjected to constant staring, groping and harassment, among an assortment of inconveniences and evils.
“You are a brave, brave woman,” a colleague said, shaking his head upon hearing I'd be travelling mostly by train and bus.
“Brave." This was the invariable reaction to my trip. I sensed it was a euphemism for “crazy.”
I left Hong Kong wondering if I was being foolhardy. But by the end of my first day in India, I started to feel that, true to the tourism department’s slogan, India was indeed incredible.
In light of the horrific New Delhi gang rape, India has been painted with a broad brush as a dangerous, misogynistic jungle for women.
While respecting the validity of experiences of women who have been violated there, I'd like to share an alternative perspective -- of a country incredibly rich in warmth, kindness and humanity.
More on CNN: Manhunt after another bus rape in India
'Men often stepped aside to make way for me'
My first stop was New Delhi, coincidentally on the same day the rape occurred.
In the morning, as I fumbled my way to the Rajendra Nagar metro station, I sought directions from random male strangers on the street, from shopkeepers to shabby men sitting in the bus shelter. Anyone I approached for help immediately stopped what he was doing and patiently tried to help me without asking for anything in return -- a pattern that would continue for me throughout the country.
One aspect of India that struck me was the large groups of men seemingly loitering in the streets, with few to no women present. As a fellow traveler put it, “Men roam in packs.”
A journalist in New Delhi told me the masses of men were unemployed migrants, while the father at my homestay assured me they were employed, explaining that men tended to socialize outside the home, in contrast to women who often gather indoors.
While their numbers were initially intimidating, the men never hassled me and were inevitably the people whom I approached for directions.
I spent my first day in arguably the city’s most chaotic area, Old Delhi, wading through the bazaars of Chandi Chowk and Daryganj. Despite the crowds, I never experienced any leering, jeering or other harassment. Vendors were friendly and helpful.
Throughout the country, I experienced minimal staring. I was never groped in the streets or on public transportation; in fact, men often stepped aside to make way for me. On long-distance trains and buses, I could always count on offers to help me with my heavy suitcase.
When I got lost in Kochi, a young man nearby saw my confused face and spoke with my host on the phone. He helped me flag down a rickshaw, gave directions to the driver and negotiated a reasonable fare.
On the ferry in Kochi, as I sat next to an old lady eating roasted peanuts from a newspaper cone, she turned her palm up, gesturing for me to do the same. The next thing I knew, she poured a pile of peanuts into my hand.
These are but a few examples.
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Are foreigners treated with more respect?
I acknowledge that being perceived as a foreigner can inform your treatment in any country. With my Han Chinese ethnicity and what some have described as a “mixed” appearance, I was often taken to be Japanese and, surprisingly, sometimes Indian.
“Especially when you wear a kurta, they probably think you’re a light-skinned Indian from the northeast,” ventured an Indian friend in New Delhi.
This proved to be true at the Kumbhalgarh Fort, when a friendly Indian couple I shared a car with for the day decided to purchase me a five-rupee admission ticket intended for Indian nationals.
When the gatekeeper questioned if I was a foreigner, the couple countered: “She’s from Nagaland. Nagaland is a part of India, isn’t it?”
Jokes aside, are foreigners treated with more respect and courtesy? Taking it further, would, say, a Swedish woman be treated differently than a Chinese woman? If I have an ambiguous local-foreign ethnicity, but consistently have a positive reception, what does that mean?
Can being a single female actually be advantageous when traveling? Do I cut a more sympathetic, accessible figure?
“People want to protect you,” theorized a young New Delhi-based female journalist.
What I can say for sure is that I was deeply touched by the friendliness and kindness I encountered.
The only exception to the courtesy I encountered was when dealing with autorickshaw drivers, many who take an aggressive, mercenary approach toward tourists. But drivers can be handled with a confident manner, advance research of the market price of a given route and the knowledge you can walk over to another one instead.
Some may deem me naïve to India’s realities or explain away my overwhelmingly positive experience as the privilege of an outsider.
Other single female travelers I encountered -- from the United States, Germany, England and Australia -- told me they generally felt safe in India, aside from uncomfortable staring at times. (Interestingly, I observed that being next to a white female served to detract all attention from me.)
While the New Delhi gang rape was indeed horrifying, I didn’t feel the need for heightened alarm or increased vigilance. The case certainly turned the spotlight on the occurrence of rape in India, but it didn’t indicate a sudden uptick in rape nor did it turn all Indian men into rapists overnight.
Even the homestay hosts I lodged with didn't express particular concern for my safety as a single female traveler. Truth be told, to my amusement, my hosts were much more worried about my unmarried status -- I’m considered over the hill by Indian standards. At one homestay, I was even handed the Sunday matrimonial classifieds to look for a vegetarian husband.
Disbelievers back home
My intention isn't to gloss over any of India’s challenges. It’s often dirty, dusty and dilapidated, with supersize servings of noise and crowds. But there’s also incredible beauty and humanity in what may seem like endless chaos.
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I was troubled upon my return to Hong Kong by how eager people were to demonize India, and how reluctant they were to believe anything good about the country.
My safe and welcoming experience was met with deep skepticism and hasty rationalizations. “You were just lucky.” “It’s safe until it’s not safe.”
If I said I'd been harassed within an inch of my life, my experience would likely have been accepted wholeheartedly.
Last week, a crisis center in Hong Kong said rape occurred every three hours in the city -- shouldn’t I be more worried for my safety back at home?
I’ve lived abroad for a decade now, half in the West and half in greater China, and I’ve traveled on my own to nearly a dozen countries during this time, mostly in Asia. While I’m no Paul Theroux, I believe traveling to the fullest means keeping your mind and heart open, unencumbered by suspicion and stereotypes.
“Someone like you who looks for good things will always find them,” a guide in Agra had told me. India is a land of plenty if you care to see it.
It was easy to be seduced by the Indo-Islamic monuments of the north, the lush hills etched with rows of tea plants in the south, the rhythmic calls of the snack wallahs on the trains, the ambiguous head bobble I unconsciously began to pick up, the languorous wails of qawaali, the gorgeous saris worn even by cleaning women and the depth of religious devotion.
But what touched me the most, setting India apart from the dozens of other countries I’ve visited, was the extraordinary friendly, helpful and courteous people I met -- men and women alike.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Alexis Lai, drawn on the experience she had recently in India. What are your thoughts? Do you feel safe traveling solo? Have the recents events in India impacted your desire to travel there?