As a single, white, privileged woman from the West, I feel honored to be able to speak from personal experience and share with others, particularly women, what it was like traveling to the East for my very first time. This experience came near the end of traveling around the world by myself at the age of 29, starting out in Central/Latin America, and ending up in Asia/India over a 6-month time-frame. When I first set off on this solo woman, backpacking endeavor almost 2 years ago (arriving home in December 2019, right before COVID-19 hit), I didn’t have a concrete plan, other than venturing out to places I’ve always wanted to go, and to explore and experience the other side of the world. I was on a mission to discover the unknown, and thankfully, I have a courageous and determined personality, so that helped push me along. Looking back, it was quite the roller coaster ride between culture shocks, first starting out in the poorest countries of Latin America, then slowly making my way over to the wealthier English-speaking countries of New Zealand and Australia, landing in over-populated Asia, and finally ending in a third-world country, India, just in time to be back home in America for Christmas. And, in retrospect, the course of my itinerary seemed to have played out perfectly well, given the fact that I first spent time discovering more about myself as a single woman in Latin America, where sexism isn’t as apparent as it seems to be in Asia, though worse than it is in New Zealand and Australia, and felt more prepared for the fact that my gender stood out more and made a difference the further I traveled East -- except for the time I spent in New Zealand and Australia. So, after I arrived back in America, I was actually kind of surprised at myself for having decided, rather last minute, to take on this adventure. I was relieved, but also pleased with myself. There was probably a good bit of luck involved for me, but I came out of it more confident, more wise, more worldly, and more appreciative that I am an American woman.
I’ll never forget the comforting feeling of returning home from India during Christmas time, just a day or so after protests in India over the Indian Citizenship Act -- amended to discriminate against Muslims, with out-of-control street bombings and protest marches occurring in the blocks around the hostel where I was staying in New Delhi. Thankfully, I had earlier met a friend in Brazil who I had planned to meet up with in New Delhi, since he lived there. So, when the protests started getting heated, he got me out of that area, and I was able to stay at his place. When I took an Uber the next morning back to my hostel, it was an eye-opening experience, seeing the torched buses and trash everywhere. I checked back into my hostel where the manager told me that if I wanted to get more food for the day, that I needed to do it right then and there (during daylight around noon), as it wouldn’t be safe to go later in the day, so he walked me to the closest market to get a cup of noodles. Thankfully, the streets had been controlled that evening and there weren’t further protests happening in that area, but after leaving for the Taj Mahal in Agra (about a 4-hour train ride), there were delayed train times and unexpected cut-off Wifi and mobile data. At certain times, I didn't have access to communicate with anyone, and that was a scary feeling. But I didn’t have a choice -- I had to trust myself, and my travels during the previous months helped me do that.
If you’ve seen that movie Lion, it really provides an accurate perspective on what it’s like to take a train in India. My experience was quite similar to that movie, seeing the slumdogs and poverty out the train’s tiny little window. I had booked a second class seat, which was recommended. It turned out that I was one of the only women in my cabin, though I could close the curtain of the little booth seat I had booked to keep privacy. The men in the cabin were all sitting in different sections, along with families, and they were loud and obnoxious, so I put my large headphones on to block it out and get some rest. But I never fell asleep on public transportation and always kept my bags right next to me. The hardest part was when I had to go to the bathroom--I had to trust the fact that no one would steal anything (I would always keep my most important items in my small backpack to take with me to the bathroom). One memory I have from the ordeal on that train was having almost missed my stop in Agra. Since the WIfi/data card wasn’t working, all I could do was look at the map app to see where I was, and it was slow, so I didn’t realize we had actually arrived in Agra until I overheard someone say Agra and jumped up to see where the heck I was. I asked the concierge standing outside the train, but he didn’t understand me. Thankfully, a man boarding spoke English, and he helped me get my bags out of the train, literally 2 minutes before it left. They don’t announce the stops like they do here in America, and there are many other obstacles like that, including the foreign language barrier, that you run into unexpectedly. You have to keep yourself on alert mode!. That was definitely a scary moment, along with another one on the way back, when I had to ask a family man where we were because I couldn’t tell based on the delayed map app. On the other hand, I was never approached inappropriately, or felt like I was in danger, while being in or on a train in India. But with respect to taxis or tuk tuks throughout Asia, there were always male taxi or tuk tuk drivers hustling you to get in...that’s just the norm there. And the bathroom rules there are definitely unique: you carry your own toilet paper, you don’t flush the toilet paper, and you often don’t have a toilet seat. The showers are in the bathroom stall, along with the toilets, and you have to sweep the water into the tiny drain in the middle of the bathroom. The Indian bathrooms were probably the worst as it’s just overly populated and difficult to keep clean. It was disgusting going to public bathrooms, and I always had my bags with me, so I had to carry them while going to the bathroom sometimes. You also have to pay to go to the bathroom in almost all of Latin America and Asian public bathrooms -- both to enter and to get toilet paper. On the other hand, the trash on the side of the streets in both India and Vietnam were the worst, it just seemed very chaotic, overpopulated, and dirty everywhere I went, except when I was outside of the cities in a rural area.
Basically the entire last week of my travel around India in trains, tuk tuks, and buses, I had to navigate through various delays and figure out where to go all by myself. Thankfully when I was in Vietnam, the manager of the hostel in Cat Ba helped me book train tickets with her brother who was in the hospitality business and spoke English. They gave me many helpful pointers on what to expect with public transportation in India, especially which train class to choose from, as it’s very difficult to understand. I felt very blessed to be able to speak to someone my age from India in the tourism industry that could recommend certain apps and platforms to use when pre-booking my tickets, and that is something you either have to research yourself or ask around. Anyway, those last few days in India, I started worrying about the possibility of not being able to return home, though I knew that if things got worse, I had met people along my journey that I could lean on.
Overall, my experience in India left me skewed to opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to the Indian culture being so aggressive but also so kind to how I was treated. And in most of the hostels there, it was mostly male Indians, European women, and very few Americans. When I took a tour to Old Delhi, I was lucky to have the hostel tour operator all to myself, so we were able to walk throughout various alleyways where he normally doesn’t bring tourists, including crowded temples and ashrams. I felt like a queen sometimes -- people would stare at me and I didn’t mind it. I wasn’t trying to standing out, though, so I tried to dress similar to Indian women (in loose clothing), but I was wearing my backpacking clothing (with workout/random clothes I started out with from Central America) and bought a shawl and some Indian clothing in Rishikesh so I felt that I fit in just fine. I never felt like I was in danger, other than the possibility that I could get ripped off while walking in crowded areas in the spice market -- which is something that can happen in a busy market area anywhere in the world, really. I’ll never forget that walk through the spice markets, with tons of people out and about, and the view at the top of a building with monkeys and stray dogs everywhere. Keep in mind that you have to take your shoes off when entering many of the ashrams/temples, so thankfully I just wore my socks when outside. But when inside, I had to take them off, and I remember being so grossed out by having to be barefoot with tons of Indians around me. It was really waking me up to my inner-being. Hygiene is the absolute most difficult thing to achieve when surrounded by swarms of people. But that’s part of the experience right? I had wanted the full experience, and there I got it.
Vietnam wasn’t much better. It is also very overpopulated and male dominant, but not as obvious as India. One of the tour operators in the financial province of Saigon (aka Ho Chi Minh) where it’s more capitalist, told me that there are 8.5 million mopeds and 12 million people...that should give you an accurate image. I found that when making my way towards Northern Vietnam it was more showoff/communist, and they were obsessed with singing Karaoke -- mostly male singers. It was hilarious and entertaining. To compare my experience in some of the countries, Singapore was certainly the most clean and less sexist country I visited in Asia, with Cambodia and Thailand next, followed by India. All in all, I felt that I could easily take public transportation in Asia, while in Singapore the subway was very clean and easy to use, and in Vietnam it was mostly $1 scooter rides, and then in Cambodia $3 tuk tuks. Keep in mind, as a woman, you have to stand your ground when bargaining prices for shopping or public transportation. Since you don’t know the true prices, or the native language, you really have to use a lot of common sense and natural multitasking skills.
Before even setting foot in Asia, of course, I was nervous to travel to a third-world country for the first time by myself, but I felt I was ready for it, as I had previous experience traveling and living in Europe as a child in a military family, which had opened up my eyes to various cultures at a young age. Prior to entering Asia and India, I had researched articles on what it would be like to travel around India as a single white woman. And, of course, coming from the yoga community, I had heard various stories of Indian men staring at young girls in creepy ways, and I also read that online as well. But I didn’t assume that would apply to every single woman’s experience. My whole motivation in going to India was to experience the lifestyle of the culture where yoga was born, as I had been drawn by this practice at the age of 19, first hearing about it as a stretch/workout, but then expanding my knowledge of it by getting certified in Costa Rica 10 years later. It was as if I had discovered it to set me up for this exact experience in India, as a solo American white chic, completely out of my body experience--furthering my spirit and nurturing my soul--the purpose of yoga.
At the end of the day, there are always the typical stereotypes of Asians and Indians and I would rather not get into that. But as a yogi, I try not to assume or generalize too much regarding cultures, so I went to each country with an open mindset. Since I had signed up for a yoga training course to further expand my knowledge about the history of yoga, and specifically meditation/pranayama practices, I flew straight into Delhi to catch a layover to the Himalayas. I was flying from Chiang Mai, Thailand, and the plane was mostly filled with Indians, and I was sitting closer to the front in an aisle seat next to two girls from Australia. As soon the plane touched down, even before the announcer could say anything, all the Indians stood up and started unpacking. I thought it was quite odd, like something was wrong as the seatbelt sign was not off and the Indians were all standing up in the plane without getting yelled at. But a few minutes later the announcement came on, some Indians still remained standing and arguing with one another (all men). It was my first real-time experience of the Indian culture and the way I still feel about it to this day: very aggressive and selfish. You could say the same thing about many Americans as well, actually. But, again, not trying to stereotype, this is how I perceived it.
After landing in New Delhi, I had to get something to eat, so I went straight to a food court and found my very first Indian-made roti -- it’s like a huge pancake, with tons of sauces to choose from. Then I had to take a shuttle to the hopper, and that was my first barefooted experience, seeing a man and his daughter on his lap (both without shoes) and the bus driver was going all over the road, honking nonstop, so it was hard to stand still with all my bags at my feet--very similar to some European drivers. When I touched down in Rishikesh, it was dark already and there were a few other Americans on the plane. In the airport bathroom, there were many other “yogis” or white American yoga teachers. As I ventured out of each airport, there was severe air pollution, just as I knew it to be from the various news channels and photos we see in the media here in America. But seeing it live is quite different, as I didn’t know how I would feel. The air, and most everything else, felt dirty and I felt trapped in a way (but then you get used to it--like you do in any climate environment). Thankfully I saw my taxi driver with a sign right away and got in with another Asian yoga teacher who thankfully could speak English. It was a long, winding road through the mountains into the town of Rishikesh and the other teacher started to feel sick, so we rolled down the windows and gazed out at the surrounding buildings and were entertained by the cows sharing the road with our taxi. The roads are basically dirt and gravel, and streets more like alleyways with storefront markets, and cattle everywhere, a lot going on in one place. The taxi driver couldn’t drive us all the way to our ashram because there was a small bridge that only scooters could use, so he stopped at that point, and we had to figure out the rest. This was at 10pm at night. Thankfully, the ashram was only a few blocks away, but we had to ask at the end of a corner shop where to go because we realized we had to turn down another street. Thank goodness we didn’t get lost carrying all of our luggage that night, and I was less afraid because I was with another person.
My experience in Rishikesh was very spiritual as I was there for a yoga retreat with many different cultures participating. There was a woman in charge of the Ashram, while various gurus taught the students, and that seemed to be the norm there. It’s strange, because I realized there were no women gurus, yet there are more women yogis here in the West. It’s the complete opposite there. And the chef was male, similar to what I found in Central/South America: men in the kitchen and women cleaning. Overall, in Asian countries, I did see more female chefs like in Thailand and Singapore, but it seemed to always be a kind of religious aspect of the culture, determining the roles of gender bias. Moreover, it was interesting comparing gender demographics in each of the countries I visited, and I was appalled by how there is still extreme abuse and sexism going on in the East. I’ll never forget visiting the Taj Mahal and Red Palace there, after stumbling upon an NGO with burnt women serving me lunch. It didn’t seem as bad up north in the Hymilanians because they hide it pretty well for tourists, but it’s definitely still very much alive and this in fact needs to change.
Once I reached Delhi two weeks later, it was more so clear to see how men treat women in a large city -- walking around, you mostly just see men. It was especially apparent when I visited Jaipur, the “Pink City,” and met an Indian man outside a palace at a jewelry shop who drove me on his scooter to a floating palace on a lake. When I was volunteering at a yoga resort in Costa Rica, I had gotten used to hitchhiking and found it to be safe, given the circumstances. Of course, there’s always hesitation and a scary feeling of “what could go wrong if something happened,” but in the back of my mind, I trusted my instincts and the universe for having my back, while also having the backup that I had a phone on me and presented a confident feminine character.
The Indian man in Jaipur was very friendly, helping me find scarves for my sisters for Christmas on my last 3 days in India. I finally was able to do some shopping after not being able to take on more things to carry as I was living out of a backpack for the previous 6 months. He would go into the little boutique stores with me and talk to the owners, telling them that I’m American, and then he helped me bargain prices. That night, he took me to this rooftop bar for my last night in India, explaining to me that the women there are required to stay indoors in the Muslim culture and don’t really get out much. Over there, they’re still marrying each other based on the family’s choosing and spend large amounts of money for a 3-day long wedding. I have never participated in an Indian wedding, but I walked by a few with the very loud and obnoxious bright lights and tapestries everywhere. The Indian guy was telling me about his sister’s wedding coming up and all the money they were going to spend on all the 3 course meals with hundreds of invitees. He even invited me! I also met a woman from Spain who was participating in the yoga retreat, but it was her first time traveling alone, at the age of 40. She ended up meeting a man and staying longer than expected! It just goes to show, you never know who you’ll meet when you travel solo. And especially as women, we have the option (even though some cultures don’t accept this fact) to set the boundaries and determine the course of action as we are in fact the basis of survival -- we are the givers of rebirth and possibility. This, in my opinion, should further empower women to get out in the world to discover and grow as much as possible, as each new day is a new birth, and each new experience, is a rebirth.
As an experienced world traveler, you just never know who you’ll meet or who you’ll run into, or how long that feeling will last; but for me, it’s part of the thrill of traveling in general. There’s always uncertainty and a scary feeling at first, but once you get out there and go, it slowly dissipates. You will find that you are actually not alone -- that there are quite a few people from around the world traveling to experience it. You will start to meet like-minded people in similar circumstances from various cultures and backgrounds, and coming together in a strange, odd, place, brings you all together and makes you feel more whole and humbled inside, knowing that we are all one and the same. It may not be for everyone, and it does take a lot of courage to take that extra leap of faith into booking a trip to a foreign part of our world, but the feelings of anxiety before you go don’t even come close to comparing with the gratitude of love you end up gaining for yourself. In my opinion, stepping over that hurdle for the first time is one of the most empowering feelings in the world. I think it’s sad when some people from the West have a negative impression about traveling to the East, and how dangerous or scary it can be portrayed by the media and articles that totally skew the perspective from one traveler to another. I met many backpackers in my travels who had different perceptions about the exact same places I had visited. So, you will never truly know or understand a culture until you actually go there and experience it for yourself. And, if you represent a demographic that lives a dramatically different existence in that different culture, like women do in many parts of the East, you actually have an opportunity to bring the perspectives of your culture to theirs. It may feel a bit more risky, but I feel that fear is the reason you should be inspired to help make a change. Your presence and your confidence should show that there are independent, strong, brave women out there in the world in a variety of cultures, and over time we should be able to finally evolve to the point that all men and women are treated equally, regardless of their gender. That is a dream of mine that I hope becomes reality one day, where men and women are treated equally, no matter what culture you are born into. No matter how far you do or don’t travel. No matter what it takes to be reborn into your true self.