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Global travel blog that features travel stories on living, traveling and growing up in cities, villages and towns around the world!
Travelling to India as a solo female traveller at the age of 17 was, in retrospect, not the best idea. People I told of my plans would advise me to ‘stay safe’ without really giving me any advice about how to go about keeping myself safe. However, I wasn’t completely naïve and I understood India to be a challenging destination. Especially if you are young and alone. For this reason I had decided to volunteer at the Sri Ram Orphanage/Ashram in Haridwar, India. I would spend five months there volunteering with the children and use the time to adjust to the country and culture before travelling around alone.
At 17 years old, I was already well travelled. I had flown all over the United States as an unaccompanied minor, I had travelled all over Europe. However, these places are not quite the same as India. People warned me about ‘culture shock’ and people also warned me about the ‘culture shock’ you get when you come home. Hearing about these things can’t really prepare you. Culture shock is really one of those things you can only understand once you have felt it.
I landed early morning at Delhi airport. A women’s only Hostel had sent a representative to meet me, which I am eternally grateful for (thanks Mum). Before I exited the airport I decided to change some money. I had travellers cheques with me in USD, so I thought 100 USD would be about right. I had majorly mis-calculated. As the clerk handed me multiple brick sized piles of notes, I frantically tried to stuff it all into my bag! 100 USD was WAY too much. Finally as I exited into the arrivals hall a huge, colourful, writhing, crowd of people seemed to surge towards me. Somehow, I managed to spot the female representative meeting me and then we made our way to the Hostel. In my room I sorted out my wads of money and got some rest.
The next day taking the train to Haridwar I had a sense of detachment, of being inside the television, of watching myself rather than being myself there in the present. This is probably the best way I can describe culture shock. The sensation lasted about two weeks. After that I was adjusted and felt more myself.
I think anyone visiting India from a more orderly country than the UK, such as Japan or Switzerland, may experience a more powerful culture shock than I did.
The colours of India are vivid. The climate hot and moist. There is chaos, calm, grinding poverty, great wealth, hope, hopelessness, terror, bravado, exhibitionism, modesty, spirituality, consumerism, pure goodness, pure evil. I think you will be hard pressed to find another country in the world with so many conflicting ways to describe the place.
Your senses are inundated at every breath from every direction.
Where had I got to? Well I was arriving in Haridwar at the station. As I was young, the orphanage had sent an American who was staying there to meet me.
When you arrive at the train station in Haridwar, you then take a little ‘rickshaw’ to the outskirts of the town where the Ashram is located. Here I finally found an oasis of calm and welcome. I did my best to contribute, over the five months, sorting through huge piles of clothes, distributing them to the children and making a book showing the children’s arrival photograph and photographs once they had been there some time. I met people I will never forget in my lifetime and I can honestly say the Sri Ram Ashram is a force of great good in India.
Over time I got to know the town of Haridwar and I think my favourite thing about the place is that it is not a tourist destination for Western tourists. Rather a tourist destination for Indians. The town holds a fire ceremony on the Ganga and a big religious festival that I had the opportunity to be there for. I will never forget sitting by the Ganga and sending a little paper boat on fire down the river. The dark sky of the night above my head. The chanting of the religious men, the colour of the fires, the dark water rushing by. The crowds of people always pressing closer.
One of the most funny things about Haridwar is the market place full of tacky tourist souvenirs. I was reminded of English seaside towns, except the objects for sale were things like the “Om” symbol on a neon coloured key chain.
During my stay at the orphanage, I had the opportunity to meet locals. The children, the nannies that took care of the younger ones, the staff, teachers at the school and some of the Americans dedicating their time and lives to the children. The people of Haridwar, the ‘rickshaw’ drivers, fruit stall holders, restaurant owners, shop owners, ‘dobi wallah’s’ (they wash clothes), the holy men, the policemen – all these people combine to make up a rich, colourful tapestry in my mind. How I wish I could show you a glimpse.
Perhaps trying is futile.
I can say that travelling to India will change you. India cannot fail to leave an imprint. For better or worse.
Volunteering can be a fantastic way to contribute to tipping the balance for good and a way to connect with the people and place in a different, more meaningful way. Take care when choosing your project to make sure you are helping an operation run with integrity.
India cannot be visited short term. Anyone going should commit to at least a month. The longer the better. Take time to adapt, soak up the place, process.
Staying safe is important as everyone said. Rather than leave that blank as people did with me, here are a few tips on the matter:
You need to keep your stomach safe: Don’t drink water from the tap, don’t even brush your teeth with it. I took a purifying pump so I didn’t have to buy a lot of water bottles all the time (not eco-friendly). Don’t eat salad. Don’t drink fruit juice (unless from a sealed bottle). Eat vegetarian. Make sure you eat hot freshly cooked food, don’t be shy to send warm food back.
You need to keep your health safe: Make sure you take all the recommended injections prior to your trip.
You need to keep your body safe: Don’t go around alone at night. Take care who you go with alone. This goes for other Western travellers as well as locals/drivers etc. Before you travel around, spend time at a safe place volunteering, until you are acclimated and can better sense when there could be danger. Keep relevant numbers close to hand – police etc.
Sexual Harassment: When in public places in India, it is very common for women to be sexually harassed. You can be pinched, touched and stared at very intensely. Use women only queues when you can. Avoid any situation when you would be alone with a man. On trains book the women only carriages, or if that is not possible the top berth inside a room, not a corridor berth. In rickshaws try to share with other women. On buses sit next to other women when you can. Use services like the women only hostels when available.
Essentials to take: A padlock and chain (for on the trains and hotel room doors). A small shoulder bag to wear out of sight under your clothes to hold your passport, some money, cards, plane tickets, other important docs. Keep money and travellers cheques in multiple places so if something is stolen you still have funds with you. Mini washing line – to wash undies in your room. Rehydration sachets. Mosquito repellent.
Stay away from drugs and alcohol: Getting caught with drugs in India is highly likely to result in serious prison time. Not to mention when you are under the influence you are not in control of yourself and therefore vulnerable. I would even advise staying teetotal when in the country because of the risk of making yourself vulnerable or your drink being spiked. Travelling to party is also something I would argue as being hugely disrespectful. You are travelling in a modest, religious society and it is not for you to ‘import’ and impose another way of life on people in their own country. Party before you go and when you get home.
Lastly, when you get home, talk: When you get home you will feel shock. Shock at the showers, the affluence, the paved streets, the lack of chaos. The feeling can be much like you have been standing on a carpet and someone has whipped the carpet from under your feet. People might not be as interested in hearing about your experiences as you thought. Or people might not want to hear your true experiences and feelings, expecting to hear a kind of picture postcard version of events. My advice is to talk as much as you can anyway, seek other travellers who will understand… start a blog about it…. This can help you to make sense of and process all the information, images and experiences teeming in your mind.