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Many Indian women would like to meet the local people while travelling but are understandably worried about safety. Some tips for women who love to travel.
By Meena Venkataraman
One lazy Sunday, I am talking to a friend. “Have you ever Couch – Surfed”, she asks. “Is it safe?”. I think about my answer. I for one hate travelling like a tourist. Travel after all is as much about exploring and understanding the local culture as it is about the place itself. “It depends, I tell her”, non-committal in my response. And so started a conversation, on how to meet and make friends with locals when women travel. We talk about homestays and travel groups, friends on our tours who double up as guides when we go to visit them and many more.
Let’s get the bad part out of the way. Meeting locals while travelling is always tricky. My experiences have been more good than bad. But there have been heart stopping moments, when travelling alone as an Indian woman, I have had to trust my instincts and formulate a course of action. A friend of mine, who recently travelled to India, expressed her frustration in not being able to read these cultural signs. She said she found the whole travel experience intimidating and the locals at times over friendly. Less than a week later we were to read in shocked horror about the rape of a 23 year old in Delhi. It sent shivers down my spine. She was to conclude that meeting local people while traveling comes with a caveat, “Safety First”!
Over the years, different friends and co-travellers have provided valuable insights into how each of them have perceived this idea of alternate travel, and how they made it work for themselves. Here are a few things to keep in mind.
What I like most about homestays is the option to sample delicious home-cooked meals, stay with a family and enjoy a slice of the local culture for not too much money. There is a whole range of them available, from luxurious mansions leased out by wealthy families, like the Sirohi House in Delhi, to more homely and rustic ones, like the accommodation I found in the Himalayas. Travel and the internet are a marriage made in heaven and arranging a homestay is easier than ever before. Sites like Home and Hospitality, here in the UK, gives you several home stays to pick from at the click of a button. Always read reviews before you decide.
The first time I heard the term Couch surfing, I wasn’t too sure about what to expect. In fact I remember thinking to myself, “It sure sounds dodgy”. But in this era where travel options are literally a click away this idea has taken off with a whoosh.
For those of you who are alien to this concept, Couch surfing is a way to both stay with locals and host other travellers visiting your city. Registration on the Couch surfing website is free and with 6 million members, there are many options to pick from.
We were travelling in Bolivia, waiting for a late night bus. Sitting on a bench, we decided to get some tea. The empty seats opposite were taken up by others. Marked as tourists because of our big bags and my camera, one of them asked us where we were from. That was the beginning of a long and interesting conversation. It turned out one of them was a human rights lawyer and the other a street play artist. At the end of our two hour wait for the bus we had exchanged email ids and made some new friends.
There have been several occasions like these where chance encounters have thrown up the most invigorating travel experiences. From a co-traveller in Peru who insisted on driving us to our hotel when I found myself travel sick, to others who have invited us home hastily scribbling addresses on crumpled paper, or being invited for a special cup of homemade tea in the Himalayas, I have greatly savoured these small encounters. Completely unplanned and totally welcome they are the stuff great travel journeys are made of.
The risk in homestays and other variants of it like Couch surfing, can be offset by requesting references. What’s harder to negotiate are people themselves, for each culture has its own definition of boundaries. From tales of over-friendly guides, to locals who cross the boundaries of being friendly to too familiar, there is nothing like a bad experience to leave a permanent scar on the travel experience for women. Some of these are purely cultural and I try to read up on advisories, treading with caution when uncertain. I have found that dressing the local way can sometimes help you blend in more easily. Trust your instincts and always put safety first.
With the world opening up like never before, it has become easier for Indian women to meet and greet people from across the globe. So pack your bags, go the local way and have a great time of it!
*Photo credit: Meena Venkataraman – Meeting locals in an Himalayan village.
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