“I’m so glad he’s going with you,” my friends and family chorused when they heard I was headed to India.
I wondered what they would have said if I had mentioned that I had always planned to travel there, with or without my fiancé in tow. It was my idea to head to this country that held so much history–it was a country that had captured by imagination ever since I had seen the Disney version of “The Jungle Book” as a child. This interest only further increased as I read more and dreamed more about India, picturing the smells of turmeric and chai.
Of course, for others, there was plenty of reasons for me to be afraid. After news of rape occurring to female tourists and reading about some of my favorite travel bloggers being sexually harassed, there was plenty to deter me from wanting to visit. The media (the travel industry included) has painted a dark picture of India as a location where women should think twice about seeing, citing safety as the main concern.
After my first few days in Varanasi, I realized that their worries were mostly unfounded, and that the Indian people were some of the kindest, sweetest, and funniest people I had met on my travels. Almost every person I met had an incredible sense of humor, and a deep wish to convey their hospitality toward foreigners.
We decided to travel with a tour company since it was our first time there and our knowledge of India’s vast train system was almost nil. Our tour leader was a woman, Ankita, who along with a beautiful laugh and devoted fan base of other travelers who had journeyed with her, wanted to make clear that things in India were changing.
“My father was not thrilled when I told him I wanted to be a tour guide,” she said.“But he can’t fight the times and men can’t fight women who want change.” She had also made clear to her family that she was not planning on agreeing to an arranged marriage–she had a boyfriend from another caste.
She is right. India’s attitudes toward women are altering rapidly. In an area where conservative values are considered the norm, women are the ones stepping out as entrepreneurs, leaders, and reformers of their country. While I saw plenty of women wearing sarees, I saw just as many in the cities wearing pants and riding the metro in the “mixed gender” car, combatting the idea of harassment head-on.
I asked Ankita to take me and a few other women (without my fiancé) out to a local bar to see Delhi’s nightlife. What I found was a mix of women and men chatting with one another, ordering bottles of beer and wine, and wearing almost exactly the same clothing: a t-shirt and jeans. A few of them walked over, intrigued that foreigners were hanging at their favorite watering hole.
“We need more women to come to India,” a young man named Asim told me. “More Indian men need to be able to see that women can do the same things that they can do. Once they see that this helps them as much as their wives and daughters, then maybe things will change.”
In Jaipur, we decided to head to the movie theater in order to see what Bollywood was all about. The darkness of the theater did not hide the many faces: men and women of all ages. The plot of the movie was extremely progressive, even by the United States’ standards. A middle-aged woman accidentally becomes pregnant and she and her husband decide to keep the baby–even with two grown children and a community laughing at them.
As we left the building, Ankita shook her head, smiling. “There is no way that movie would have come out a few years ago. India is changing.”
Fear should not be what drives us as human beings, and travel is one of the most powerful ways to combat fear. It’s what keeps us open to new experiences, new ways of thinking, and open to the idea of change. The world is not going to become less globalized, only more so. Instead of being terrified of what that could do, it’s important that we embrace it wholeheartedly and create the world we want to see.
Header photo by Alex Schnee.