Journey’s Mercies Please!: The Female Traveller in Perspective
By Debasri Basu
A personal anecdote about my exploits as a female tourist travelling single could be the springboard for this essay. Five years ago, I made trips to three places in the span of a calendar year – albeit for different reasons. The first was in January, for a cousin’s wedding in the north-Indian state of Uttarakhand, and I could squeeze in quick visits to Haridwar, Dehradun, and Mussoorie before and after the event. During this tour, I got to meet my cousin’s colleague, who had come to attend the ceremony from Bangalore and had utilized this chance to travel to other tourist spots of this Himalayan province – alone. Slender and smart, she had the mien of the quintessential backpacker and made all travel arrangements single-handedly. She has made several solo trips in the last one decade, and acknowledges it to be her greatest joy. She attests that it has enhanced her organisational skills, sharpened her instincts, made her further aware of her immediate surroundings, and prompted her to reach out to people beyond her social and professional circles. More than the external journey, it is this concomitant development of the self that has been her ultimate reward. Needless to say, I was much impressed by her confidence to undertake such journeys by herself. The fact that she was younger to me, yet had the gumption to handle everything on her own, inspired me to do the same whenever opportunity arose.
It materialized soon enough, in the shape of my visit to the United States that summer. I had family and friends living there, and they had extended me invitations to come and spend some time in their midst. The nitty-gritties of this vacation were taken care of by my dear sister, cousin, and a friend who was settled in New England. Some of the places in the itinerary were covered by us sisters, and in New York City, I got to travel on my own a number of times. Equipped with an internet-connected smartphone, a credit card, and a Metropolitan Transport Authority (MTA) Card, which was valid for both intra-city train and bus rides, I ventured outdoors on the very third day of my trip. My sister had given me a fair idea about the commutes, including subway routes and bus numbers for specific destinations in and around the boroughs. The metro network was rather elaborate and took a bit of time to figure out; moreover, the service was affected by repair works carried out intermittently, as well as the sporadic conversion of all-stop trains into galloping ones and vice versa. Notwithstanding these disruptions, I could navigate my way without much difficulty. Apart from the ubiquitous Global Positioning System (GPS), there was also a nifty app named HopStop, which proved a worthy aid. I first came to know about it from my sister, and was amazed to find the range of information it provided, from directions and modes of conveyance available to estimated duration of the journey, and wait for it – even the number of calories burnt in the process! It made choosing the optimum travel route almost a child’s play, and was quite helpful during the entire tour.
Travelling in the US can be quite hassle-free, particularly in large cities, which boast of a robust public transportation system. However, the situation drastically alters in the rest of the country, where personal or rented vehicles become a necessity. The task is rendered convenient, though, by signboards and road-maps frequently visible at street-junctions, and even the interiors of trains and buses. And then there is the helpful local – like the guy in Manhattan who offered me directions when I, somehow, was facing trouble in coordinating with my location on the cell-phone GPS, and was literally going in rounds while walking from Fifth Avenue to Madison Avenue, where I was to take a bus to the Metropolitan Museum of Art – the famous ‘Met’. More importantly, commuting at odd hours was not an issue, for trains plied at all times, though at longer intervals after midnight, and some establishments too remained open round the clock.
Last year, one of my friends went on a Euro-tour with an all gals’ group; they backpacked across the Continent, and even stayed at youth hostels, instead of opting for the conventional choice of hotels. Contrary to what some Hollywood horror movies might lead one to believe, they did not face any hitches, and readily affirm the gender-neutral travel environment there. This made me wonder whether a foreign tourist, especially the female traveller, could have had it so easy back home. Hikers, mainly from the western hemisphere like UK, USA, and the countries of Europe, travelling in both clusters as well as solo, have been more or less a constant fixture in India. Tourist influx also received an impetus from the Hippie movement, which was in vogue in the 1960s. The subsequent decades have sustained the trend, with people flocking to have a look at the famed archaeological sites, and to get a taste of the exotic. As a young girl, I myself used to be utterly fascinated by their sight in the Chowringhee area – a centrally located neighbourhood of Calcutta [modern-day Kolkata] with budget hotels and curio shops – and remember staring at them, till the time realization set in about the infraction attendant to this act of gazing. I must add that my curiosity hinged on not only their striking appearance but also at the fact that they could travel such great distances from their homes with minimal luggage. This dictum of ‘Travel Light’, which they followed religiously, was a far cry from the tendency of most Indians to carry a load of baggage even for a short trip.
Over the years as I grew up and became more aware, I began noticing incidents involving foreign tourists make news headlines in national and international media for all the wrong reasons. Some were mugged, others faced duping in their monetary transactions with the locals, but what was most alarming was that cases of physical assault and sexual molestation were on the rise. The situation particularly aggravated with reports of rape and gang-rape, necessitating many foreign governments to issue travel advisories. Their growing incidence has only served to bring ignominy to our land where, inspired by the Sanskrit shloka ‘Atithi Devo Bhava’, the guest is supposedly revered as a god. However, in a country marked by contrasts and contradictions owing to its overwhelming heterogeneity, these edifying maxims have fallen short of their desired purpose, resulting in sections of the populace still clueless about the impropriety of their conduct towards tourists in general and women in particular. There have been cases like the January 2014 gang-rape of a 51-year-old Danish woman in New Delhi, when she, in an attempt to reach her hotel during evening, had lost her way (Sultania). The pristine natural environs of the neighbouring province of Himachal Pradesh has been sullied time and again – first in September 2015 when a 46-year-old American tourist returning to her hotel after dinner around midnight was gang-raped at Dharamshala, and in July the very next year when a 25-year-old Israeli woman met the same fate at the hands of two of the six men who had offered her a lift in their car to Spiti Valley after she could not find any other means of transportation (Sultania). The Japanese traveller has come to symbolize the archetypal figure of the tourist on a global scale, and in recent years their numbers have gone up in India too, particularly in places bearing some connection with Buddhism. The country was rocked in September 2007 when two Japanese women tourists complained of being drugged and confined to a hotel-room in Agra for three days, and gang-raped by two to three men (Sultania). Condemnation was quick to pour in, and the issue assumed gravity since the respective foreign embassy as well as the Indian governmental agencies had to step in. Such occurrences have not only tarnished the nation’s image but also jeopardized her substantial tourism industry. The union government had deployed screen-icons like Aamir Khan for spreading awareness about the matter, but the promotional initiatives, part of the ‘Incredible India’ campaign launched by the Tourism Ministry, have made little headway in changing the attitude of a section of our countrymen. Foreign, primarily English, women have been visiting our shores regularly for more than two centuries, usually accompanying their menfolk who were under the employment of the East India Company and later the imperial administration. While they rarely ventured outside unescorted, they, nonetheless, had some occasion to come in proximity with the ‘natives’. The Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 did spawn reports that ‘British women had been violated and mutilated by Indian rebels’, though Indira Ghose, who has researched extensively on the travel writings of these ‘Memsahibs’, terms it a ‘myth’ which ‘could never be proved’ (p. 6). In the light of such a sublime past, these happenings of contemporary times stand deplorable. No doubt, travel-related dangers have increased manifold throughout the world, with terrorism turning out to be a major threat. Even so, in the case of India and some other developing countries, erstwhile concerns regarding inclement weather and unhygienic conditions have been exacerbated by spurt in local crimes. The prospect of a ‘Delhi belly’ has been supplanted by the fear of Delhi as the ‘rape capital’ of India, with the situation growing worse after the infamous ‘Nirbhaya’ episode of December 2012. British newspapers like The Telegraph brought out articles captioned “Delhi rape: how can women travellers stay safe?” highlighting the perils faced by female tourists in the country, and exhorted them to exercise caution even if they were in a group.
It has been, at times, posited that ignorance about language and mores cause tourists to encounter problems in an alien land. Some neo-Marxist postulations about the ostentatious tourist flashing wealth and therefore being responsible, in some way, for his or her own victimization, have also been circulated. Such theories which, through empirical studies, correlate fiscal environment and tourism security have been advanced by Meda Chesney-Lind and Ian Y. Lind (Tarlow 33). In the context of a country like India where millions still languish below the poverty-line, criminal acts resulting in financial profit viz. stealing, robbing, and bamboozling tourists could be cited to establish this link. However, when it comes to sexual crimes, one needs to delve deeper into the prevalent societal conditions to understand the causes for such delinquent behaviour. On the question of women’s status, the subcontinent has exhibited a chequered record; worshipped in the image of a goddess and simultaneously subjected to severe discrimination, the female populace has had to bear the brunt of inequity through ages. The advent of political freedom and economic liberalization, with their presumed affirmative influences, has been unable to usher in any fundamental improvement in the position of women. In a society that reeks of patriarchal extremes, the failure of the various law-enforcing agencies to tackle these problems has led to crimes spiralling up. Lax investigation and slow pace of prosecution have removed the dread of punishment from the minds of lumpen elements, who find it frightfully easy to assail women. Lately, the situation has reached such dire straits that the presence of a male member too is incapable of deterring them. This was evident in the ‘Nirbhaya’ case, as also in an incident involving tourists in October 2014 when a young Bengali couple from Delhi visiting Uttarakhand to spend Diwali at Tiger Falls was attacked by their cabbie and his three accomplices in Chakrata; after the man was robbed and murdered, his female companion was raped and subsequently throttled to death. In this milieu, when even Indian women fall victims to these heinous crimes, the foreigner tourist, already labouring under the impediments of linguistic and cultural barriers, faces a higher risk. As recently as 22nd October last year, a couple from Switzerland were beaten with stones and sticks by a group of five after a row over taking photographs in Fatehpur Sikri near Agra in the north-Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, as a result of which the man ended up with a fractured skull and his girlfriend a fractured left arm, and both suffering multiple bruises (“Swiss tourists”). Consequently, such travellers have to take recourse to safety-tips from official agencies, travel websites, and personal accounts of tourists, while undertaking their journeys. In order to trace a pattern and thereby make people aware of danger-zones, apps like Safecity have been developed in India on the lines of HarassMap in Egypt and Sex Harass Map in Greece. They digitally record these crimes based on reported cases as well as anonymous information from victims. However, technology can help only up to a certain extent; a thorough introspection of the current socio-legal practices and strict implementation of corrective measures, duly aided by renewed emphasis on time-honoured human values, is urgently required to check this menace.
The existence of these maps in diverse continents points to the unsavoury fact that the malaise of sexual violence in public spaces is not restricted to India but is to be found in other countries too. However, it manifests itself with greater virulence in societies where women are deprived of adequate rights and liberties. A friend of mine, responding to her inner call, left her steady job some years ago to reinvent herself as a travel-blogger. She conveys the unfortunate reality that in some places of northern India, a woman travelling alone is refused lodging in even mid-segment hotels. Having carried out several trips to various regions of the country, she has aced the technique of travelling solo. She always carries pepper-spray during her excursions, and staunchly adheres to a list of “Do’s and Don’ts”, especially when interacting with strangers, though this rigid framework can interfere with the casual nature of leisure travels. Nevertheless, she has continued with her habit of travelling single except for trekking when she joins a group, and upholds that at most places people have gone out of their way to lend her a helping hand when they learnt that she was touring all by her own. We both are Bengalis, and take pride in the legendary associations of our community with travelling. The number of Bengali tourists has gone up exponentially in the last few decades, constituting possibly the country’s largest tourist community, and comparable only with the Gujaratis. The Uttarakhand incident rattled the faith of many of my acquaintances who visited semi-urban and lesser-known tourist spots during extended holidays and long weekends. I myself was reminded of my round trip from Dehradun to Mussoorie in a taxi, accompanied only by my two younger cousins. In November of the same year, I had gone to Shillong in the north-eastern state of Meghalaya for attending an international conference, and the day after our presentations, a lady fellow-participant and I hired a cab from Shillong to Cherrapunji for sight-seeing. For the record, the men who drove us on both the occasions were above par; in the latter case, when I was facing a sudden health scare, our driver stopped at a house en route and, playing the role of an interlocutor in the local Khasi language, requested the inhabitants to allow me to rest there. That I could resume the journey and manage to enjoy the remaining part of the trip was purely due to his good offices as well as the hospitality of that family who opened their doors to me. Instances such as these assure that all is not lost yet, by re-instilling the component of trust in the relationship between tourist and host communities which has, sadly, been dwindling on account of the spate of untoward incidents. A gamut of reasons has kept me tied down in the last five years, so much so that I could not take any vacation since that very eventful and memorable year. But as I write these lines I can sense the wanderlust in me asserting its presence once again…and, who knows, I may be back on the trail in near future!
Acknowledgement: In the course of writing this essay, I have been enriched by the views of Lakshana Kripash, Shelley Das, and Urmi Mukherjee. All of them are enthusiastic travellers, and have shared with me their first-hand experiences of going solo to various tourist destinations in the country and abroad.
Ghose, Indira. eds. Memsahibs Abroad: Writings by Women Travellers in Nineteenth Century India.1998. Rep. New Delhi: Oxford UP, 2002.
Tarlow, Peter E. Tourism Security: Strategies for Effectively Managing Travel Risk and Safety. Oxford: Elsevier, 2014.
The world of arts and letters has had an abiding appeal for Debasri Basu since her childhood, and she, in turn, has devoted herself to it wholeheartedly. After completing higher education in English literature, she took up teaching as a profession and is currently an Assistant Professor at a Kolkata college. Work has commandeered the major chunk of her time, yet the call of the pen (or the keyboard, in recent years) is ineludible, and so she tries to maintain the habit of writing, which she picked up as a young girl. There is a blog where she posts, albeit not too regularly, most of her travelogues; a couple of social networking platforms too provide her with a forum to articulate her mental amblings. She does not vouch for their creative quotient, but the very process of writing is therapeutic for her and, therefore, held much dear.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.