Wanderlust and Lipstick: For Women Traveling to Indiaby Beth Whitman
The definitive guide to help any woman traveling to India, this resource includes practical advice on understanding the culture and dressing appropriately, tips on keeping personal belongings safe, recommendations on dealing with the immense poverty, and suggestions on where to stay and how to get around. It also includes listings for more than 60 essential
The definitive guide to help any woman traveling to India, this resource includes practical advice on understanding the culture and dressing appropriately, tips on keeping personal belongings safe, recommendations on dealing with the immense poverty, and suggestions on where to stay and how to get around. It also includes listings for more than 60 essential websites, a glossary of Hindi words, and advice from more than 35 women who have traveled abroad.
Read an Excerpt
Wanderlust and Lipstick
For Women Traveling to India
By Beth Whitman, Amy Scott, Elizabeth Haidle
Dispatch TravelsCopyright © 2008 Beth Whitman
All rights reserved.
I FIRST traveled to India in 1989. As a young backpacker, I was overwhelmed by the difficulty of maneuvering around the subcontinent — booking train tickets took an act of god(s), cashing a travelers check was a three-hour process at a hard-to-locate bank, and finding a restaurant that would serve me (as a woman) at the same time as my traveling companion (a man) was rare — men were always served first. Things are changing.
Many years later India finds herself in the process of explosive growth as a technology hub, as a country on the cutting edge of medical advances and as a popular tourist destination. A developing country? Absolutely! But far more advanced now than one might initially imagine.
Today, traveling from Delhi to Bangalore is as easy as booking (online) a low-cost airline ticket; rupees can be obtained at an ATM machine in seconds; and good, healthy, inexpensive and well-served meals can be found in any city or village that hosts even a minimal amount of tourist traffic.
India is starting to attract more backpackers, businesspeople, tour groups and luxury travelers. But given its size and population relative to these visitors there are still tremendous opportunities to discover quiet beaches, be part of a small group discovering the wonders of a safari park and visit villages in which few (if any) tourists have ever set foot.
Add to this a dash of political stability and economic strength, and you've got the makings for a country well worth a visit (or two or three or four!).
The Indian government recognized that other Asian countries (namely Thailand, Singapore and China) were attracting millions more tourists each year than its own country. In response, they brilliantly launched the Incredible India campaign in the wake of September 11th. Luring travelers with beautiful photos and the promise of "a path to ananda" (wellness, bliss and contentment), the campaign has dramatically helped increase foreign tourism. According to the Ministry of Tourism website (www.tourism.gov.in), the number of travelers to India rose from approximately 3.5 million visitors in 2004 to an estimated five million in 2007.
India has responded in kind to this growth. The government has launched campaigns to train those in the tourism industry (from taxi drivers to customs officials) about hygiene, appropriate conduct, politeness and integrity (including charging fair prices!) as well as safety and security. Anticipating that the demand for hotel rooms will, and in some cities already has, outpaced supply, the Ministry of Tourism is encouraging locals to convert their homes into bed-and-breakfasts.
For better or worse, restaurants, cafés, shopping malls and full-on grocery stores are cropping up in cities and in the countryside. Although the traffic and pollution can be stifling, Delhi and Kolkata have built elevated railway systems that help improve air quality and reduce commute times.
Though backpackers have long been aware of India's treasures, from beaches to temples, middle- to high-income travelers are just now discovering the subcontinent. Travel has become easier and friendlier, luring even those who don't consider themselves adventurous.
Bangalore and Hyderabad are now home to offices for companies such as Microsoft, Yahoo!, AOL, Google and Amazon. Indians who left for greener pastures now find it possible to return to an India in which the infrastructure is beginning to stabilize and where modern amenities are now available. Returning "home," they have begun to have children and are enjoying support from their families and servants (which they can easily afford in India).
But all is not sunny ...
The country is still enough of a challenge to make it interesting. Alexandra, a masters student from Brighton, England, spent eight months there. "I loved the absolute insaneness of it all. It took everything I knew and could relate to and threw it out the window. I saw the most beautiful and breathtaking things, then, in the same instant, the most horrific images."
India is indeed a land of extremes. Bangalore, once the "pensioner's paradise," has grown so rapidly that it's renowned for having the worst traffic in India. You could call it the California of the subcontinent. Slums abound in and around every major city, while the wealthy own the most extravagant of homes and employ many servants.
Population growth has caused an increase in the pollution level and resulting death toll in Delhi even though the city had enjoyed a slight dip in smog a decade ago. Water is in short supply in much of the country and the land is being stripped of its nutrients.
In addition to these problems that result from overpopulation, other issues make India a test for visitors. Sectarian bombings occur on occasion, a result of the ongoing rift between Hindus and Muslims. Religious sites and holy cities can be targets, and random train and market bombings are not uncommon, but they don't happen frequently enough to warrant canceling your trip.
For the woman Wanderluster, there is the challenge of dealing with incessant stares from men and their attempts at catching your attention with their ongoing remarks including, "Madame, Madame, you buy? Please come see my jewelry shop. You need hotel? Rickshaw, Madame?" Under these circumstances, all you can think is, "Serenity now!"
Don't let India's early stages of tourism, nor its challenges, steer you elsewhere, however. This is an exciting period in India's history, and there's never been a better time to visit.CHAPTER 2
FOLLOW YOUR PASSIONS
With more than one billion people, India boasts hundreds of languages, 600 tribal groups, a deeply religious psyche, a growing economy and a prolific arts community that includes Bollywood and traditional and modern music. It's impossible to experience it all in one trip. Instead, home in on your specific area(s) of interest and experience the country in small, digestible amounts, based on your hobbies and passions.
Festivals — Many people travel to India specifically to attend a festival or major religious event. These occur virtually year-round. Many began as either religious celebrations or a way to bless the harvest season; now they often incorporate both.
These festivals are vibrant and colorful occasions that bring together communities. While you're sure to stumble upon celebrations along the way, there are some that are worth scheduling your trip to attend. Note that festivals are based on the lunar calendar, so the actual dates change yearly.
Diwali is the festival of lights and arguably one of the most visually beautiful of India's celebrations because of all the brilliant lamps and bulbs lighting up cities and villages. Diwali falls sometime between mid-October and mid-November and signifies the triumph of good over evil.
Holi is the festival of color and is celebrated in February or March. Both colored powder and water are liberally thrown at friends and strangers alike, all in good fun. Its roots are based upon the myth that Lord Krishna applied color to Radha's cheek because she was so fair-skinned. Now all get to join in!
Kaydin, from British Columbia, spent a year in India as part of a Rotary International exchange program and was fortunate to have been in India during a festival. "Holi is about friends and fun. Beforehand you drink thandai, which is made from cashew milk and includes marijuana. You then smear color over everyone. It's mixed with water and everyone's clothes get ridiculously covered."
Kumbh Mela is a Hindu pilgrimage that occurs every four years at various religious sites around the country. A maha (great) Kumbh Mela occurs every 12 years; millions attend, making it the greatest gathering of humans anywhere. As many as 70 million were reportedly present at the 2007 event in Allahabad.
Pushkar Camel Fair is held every November in Rajasthan. Thousands of foreign visitors compete for tent space with the camel traders that come from around the country to bargain and barter.
Hot Tip! Festival time is popular for Indians living in-country and abroad. Book flights and hotels early if you plan to attend one of these festivals. Treat this as a way to get to know the locals and their customs by asking questions and joining in the celebrations.
Sankrathi is in January and is celebrated differently throughout the country. Homes may be marked by chalk drawings at the doorstep and family members and neighbors may exchange gifts. Villages swell with pilgrims and street performers entertain all.
Film — The first time I saw a Hindi film, I was traveling by (local) bus on my way to Varanasi many moons ago. I shook my young head in absolute astonishment that Indians actually enjoyed the unlikely outbursts of singing, dancing and shimmying that was peppered with simple dialogue.
Many years later I now find these films endearing and seek them out. I regularly rent them from Netflix (www.netflix.com) at home and attend the cinema when I'm in India (without subtitles).
Now that I understand the culture better, it no longer surprises me that Indians love these movies. After a day of honking horns, blowing dust, intense traffic and the constant reminder of the poverty that fills the country, who wouldn't love to tuck away into a dark movie theater for less than a dollar and be diverted by romance, music, dancing and sweeping panoramic views of the Kashmiri mountains (though the movies are now filmed in Switzerland and other European countries due to unrest in Kashmir).
Bollywood, whose home is Mumbai (formerly Bombay) is a large slice of the film-industry pie, but film buffs may already know that the Indian film industry reaches far wider. All in all, India churns out the largest number of films worldwide each year and sells more tickets than any other country.
It's easy to find movie houses in every city, including cinemas that are cropping up in Western-style malls, and Indian films are shown regularly on satellite television channels. According to the Central Board of Film Certification in Mumbai (www.cbfcindia.tn.nic.in), more than a billion people (India's population) go to the cinema every three months. That's an astounding number!
Even though many of the films are shown in a hybrid mix of Hindi and English (Hinglish) without subtitles, you can easily enjoy the experience since attending a movie is not just about the film. You'll be surrounded by babies wailing, couples snuggling and talking, and cell phones ringing, all overpowering the soundtrack at times. Expect an intermission for snacks and a toilet break.
Hot Tip! If you attend a movie in a tiered theater, sit in the most expensive seats and try to sit next to other women or a couple. There have been reports of women being harassed if not accompanied by a male. Don't encourage attempts at conversation from interested men.
You may have an opportunity to make your film debut in a Bollywood flick. Advertisements in city newspapers, particularly in Mumbai, list opportunities for foreigners to earn a few dollars (and I mean a few) by joining the cast and crew for a day of shooting. One traveler I met said he was approached at a train station and immediately jumped at the chance to take part. A day of shooting may be long and it's doubtful you'll get to meet Bollywood stars SRK or Aishwarya Rai, but what an experience to write home about!
Music — While driving from Varkala to Trivandrum with my travel buddy, Kate, our taxi driver, who was definitely pushing 60, cranked up the radio. With a Hindi pop tune blaring from the speakers, he began snapping his fingers and jerking his head back and forth while he checked the rearview mirror to make sure we were enjoying his performance.
I listen to world music almost exclusively when I'm at home. Therefore, any time I travel, I make a beeline to the closest CD or musical instrument store.
Music also plays a prominent role in the lives of all Indians. Whether it's pop music extracted from Bollywood flicks or classical ragas, there's no shortage of ear candy coming from cars, buses, trucks, restaurants, retail shops and even mobile phones.
With so many filmgoers, soundtracks are an easy way for artists to reach a wide audience really quickly. Stay in the country for more than a couple of weeks and you'll recognize the same songs being played over and over on the radio and at wedding processions that roam the streets. The popularity of these songs fades just as quickly as it arises — if you're in search of a favorite song, get to a store quickly to catch it while it's still available.
Of course, India's music scene isn't all about popular culture. Classical music has a wide-reaching audience as well. Generally played on a sitar (a stringed instrument made famous in the West by Ravi Shankar) and tabla (drum), this ancient art form may have a singer accompanying the instruments. Restaurants may provide a free evening of entertainment featuring classical musicians.
Think of all this music as your personal soundtrack to India, ever-changing with the landscape and situation.
Hot Tip! Pick up a few CDs before heading home. They're cheap and lightweight, making great souvenirs or gifts.
Painting — Few places provide artists with as much visual stimulation as India. Whether you are traveling to be inspired by the country itself or by other artists, you'll have plenty to draw upon.
Various distinct styles of painting have developed throughout India. The art was originally influenced by religion and by the rich who funded the arts, namely those of the Raj and Mughal eras.
Fascinated by the culture, Connie studied Indian art at Smith College. "It's easier to understand the art after studying the various religions of India and reading the accompanying primary sources like the Vedas, the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. Having this overview then makes it easier to focus on specific periods of art."
For help in deciphering the variety of painting styles, visit museums in the larger cities where excellent collections have been procured to demonstrate the difference in styles over time.
While traveling with a group of artists, Carolyn visited many studios and was always well received by the locals. "The Indians warmed up to us because we had something in common. We were able to talk the same language."
Dance — Watching one Indian film should be enough for you to realize that Indians love their dance. The shimmying, shaking shoulders of India's best actors make locals and visitors alike want to jump in — it's that infectious. But, like music, Bollywood-influenced dance is not the only style you'll see across the subcontinent.
Traditional and folk styles are also prevalent. Many emerged as part of religious ceremonies and are now performed as entertainment or as part of rituals such as festivals or weddings.
The entertainment sections of local newspapers and Time Out magazines (www.timeout.com) will list performances at major concert halls and venues. Smaller villages that draw lots of tourists may also have nightly performances scheduled specifically for visitors. Examples of the types of dance you might see include Kathakali in Kerala, Odissi in Orissa and Bharatanatyam in Tamil Nadu.
Dance classes are available in schools that offer both private and group instruction. In addition to traditional Indian dance, you can also learn Latin, tap or jazz.
Architecture — You could easily spend a year in India visiting great architectural marvels. While the Taj Mahal stands out as the finest example in the country, arguably in the world, the country is filled with buildings and structures worth a visit.
Religious architecture dominates every village and city and includes temples, statues, mosques, mausoleums and stupas, often incorporating detailed sculptures. Each style draws upon ancient and revered designs that have evolved over the centuries and that have absorbed influences from other cultures. Many are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, such as the ancient temple of Hampi and the erotically sculpted temple in Khajuraho.
With a special appreciation of the artistic work in these buildings, Connie said, "I'm amazed by the attention to detail and the religious expression that comes through in the temples as the embodiment of the deity."
Magnificent palaces and forts, symbols of wealth and protecting that wealth, dominate the architectural landscape but are most concentrated in the Mughal-influenced region of Rajasthan.
I sat in a café on a busy street in Kolkata waiting for the camera hospital (that's what the sign said) to open so that I could retrieve my sick Canon. As I sat sipping my coffee with milk, I watched people pass by this open-aired coffee shop and pause to say a prayer to the Ganesh poster that hung in the doorway.
Excerpted from Wanderlust and Lipstick by Beth Whitman, Amy Scott, Elizabeth Haidle. Copyright © 2008 Beth Whitman. Excerpted by permission of Dispatch Travels.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Beth Whitman is the author of Wanderlust and Lipstick: The Essential Guide for Women Traveling Solo, the publisher of www.WanderlustAndLipstick.com, and the travel blogger for the Seattle Post Intelligencer. She lives in Seattle.
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