I admit that part of India’s magnetic appeal to me was its unavailability. When I was eighteen, I resigned to the fact that traveling there was out for the time being.
Since then, I’ve gone backpacking solo from Burma to the Balkans with no qualms and minimal quibbles, but India’s vastness and horror stories in the news remained, and out of fairness to both the country and my parents, the great India trip was long on hold.
As things happen, I am currently writing this from India.
When the opportunity came up to study classical yoga for a month, I saw it as a chance to seriously practice yoga while spending time in Mysore, a city in the easier-going south of the subcontinent.
When I first arrived at the Bangalore Airport, I felt a wave of relief, for having made it – and a wave of terror that India was no longer an ‘over there’. India was here in the flesh, or rather, I was finally here, taking in my first impressions of a country I had read so much about: as a backdrop for Shantaram, a subject for Paul Theroux, and a notion reflected in the words of Arundhati Roy.
A week later, I’m looking back at which of my expected impressions played out before me, and how my fears and judgments were misplaced.
I expected rickshaws and colorful saris, quizzical headbobs and wandering cows, many-armed Hindu gods and garlands of orange flowers.
The reality is: yes, yep, yeah, all over the place, and still beautiful and amusing all the same. My neighborhood in Mysore has big skies and pastel houses, bougainvilleas and jasmine bushes, chalk mandalas and flowers drawn daily outside front doors, and at least three roaming, nibbling cows a day.
In just one week, I have been delighted in a dozen ways: by the prevalence of Ubers (always less than 5 minutes away), the incredible English spoken by almost everyone I have talked to, and the warm smiles by the locals in my little neighborhood in the outskirts of the city.
One thing I didn’t anticipate was just how pervasive and diverse spirituality is here.
In my first week, I sat near Tibetan Buddhist monks on my flight to New Delhi, saw the bright lights and street fairs for the Muslim holiday Eid, heard the drumming and raucous (90’s dance) music of the Ganesh festival, and visited an active Jain temple.
I expected difficult encounters with daily life; whether as a result of harassment by men, or general unease in being there as a solo female traveler.
The reality is: the media sucks. I had to confront my own biases this past week. I knew beforehand that Mysore is frequented by foreign travelers, and the South presents far fewer problems for women than the North – but still found myself clutching my pepper spray every time I got in a rickshaw those first few days.
This is not to say one should not take precautions, whether that is brushing your teeth with tap water or not walking the streets alone, but to remind myself that horror stories are not representative of the whole population.
As for women traveling alone, I’ve met several backpackers and yoginis that are, like me, entirely on their own and loving it. I have gotten fewer lecherous comments and cat-calls (zero, to be precise) than the average hour walking on the street in New York.
It’s unfair to generalize about such a massive country at all, let alone after a week – but with a bit of care and getting over a few fears, I can say that my first week in India has lived up to my sixteen year old self’s expectations.
After the mild terror I talked myself into, my only consistent worry now is if a coconut will drop on my head on the way to yoga class.