Category Archives: India

Don’t F*$! With Mother India

I was 22 years old and on my way to sit in the Vipassana meditation course in Jaipur, India. It was spring of 1997. I had been traveling in India mostly alone for a few months by this time.

I was feeling resistance to the impending 10 day meditation, and I had an hour before I needed to be in the main meditation hall for the commencement of the course. I decided to distract my nerves by walking through the forest to the chai hut about 20 minutes away.

When I got to the grubby little roadside hub where the nearest rural village gathered to drink chai and wash clothes in the river, there were several young men sitting on the bridge, eyeing me as I walked past.

It was the same ignorant stare of base male desire that I experienced every day in India…on the bus, in the street. I had learned to ignore it.

But this time, something in my intuition perked up. These boys were latching on to my energy. I felt nervous about walking back to the meditation retreat alone, which entailed a 15 minute stretch through rural forest.

I bucked up my courage and went for it. As soon as I walked back across the bridge, I had a flash of knowing. These motherfucking dumb peasant punks were going to follow me.

Sure enough, I could sense that after I had passed, all three nonchalantly got up and started walking after me…keeping about 30 paces behind. I walked with quick determination, my fury and concern growing.

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As I could hear their approach, I started to fill with rage….and a strange involuntary reflex started to occur inside me.

Time slowed down. With every step I took, I could feel power coming up through my feet out of the Earth…coiling inside me with powerful wrath. It was as though the power of the goddess Kali was sucking up from the hot lava center of the Earth through my feet…steaming into a pressure of rage and power.

I felt them getting closer, and I KNEW that they were going to grab me and drag me into the bushes.

I walked faster, the contained fury filling me up with every step. As I sensed one of the men coming right up behind me, suddenly a flood of pure primal anger spewed forth like lava from the depths of the Earth and raged up through my body like a Volcano.

I felt a hand grab my shoulder…I spun around and – TIME STOPPED. One of the two men was grabbing me. His two friends were right behind, laughing and heading toward the bushes. Their intention was crystal clear. The ignorance of their gesture filled me with primal rage.

With one deep inhalation, my spirit suddenly inflated like a cobra, and with an exhaled PRIMAL ROAAARRRRRRR, for an INSTANT, I manifested as GREAT GODDESS KALI in her MOST WRATHFUL FORM.

The man’s first impulse was to raise his arm to hit me, but in a split second, his face changed. A look of sheer horror shot across his face.

His eyes became wide and his face became white with fear.

Kali was a language that his peanut-sized brain understood. In that moment, he SAW the GODDESS.

He turned on his heel and sprinted away for his life. His friend’s hadn’t seen my shape-shifting transformation, so they had one-second of confusion…looking at me, then looking at him running away. As he was the alpha of the group, they quickly decided to follow in his footsteps, and they all packed off with their tails between their legs, running as fast as they could go.

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I turned on my heel and walked on toward the Meditation Center, shaken by the experience, and sat in complete silence for 10 days through the incredibly healing experience of the Vipassana meditation.

May God bless S.N. Goenka for his commitment to teaching the medicine of meditation.

May all ignorant beings awaken to the intelligence of the Universe.

May all mothers teach their sons to respect Goddesses in all forms.

May all women be protected from abuse and violence, and have access to the innate strength that dwells within.

May all beings be free of suffering and fear.

India is a powerful entity. Traveling there as a woman is very risky. One must have a strong psychology and sense of street smarts. If you don’t have it when you go, you will definitely have it when you leave.

Don’t take Mother India lightly. She is Life, and She is also Death. Most of all, She is MAGIC.

Don’t Fuck with the MOTHER.

Elsa Bella

 

Elsa Bella is a world traveler who currently runs The Jaguar Project, a conservation project that protects the habitats of jaguars throughout Central America. You can join in saving the jaguars by clicking here

 

7 Ways to Get Hotel Discounts in Asia

Do you know how to get hotel discounts and guest house deals in Asia?

I know, saving money on places where you’d like to stay doesn’t sound that sexy – but the more money you save = the more you can travel, and that’s not just sexy, that’s orgasmic! So read on!

Travelling independently in Asia, almost every price is negotiable.

Yes, that’s including the price of your washing powder at the corner shop, and your headache tablets at the pharmacy. So I always negotiate the price of my room.

How do I do that?

I never book through accommodation booking sites.

They operate on commission, so their price will always be higher than booking direct.

Plus, you can’t negotiate price and room type…

And you can’t request a free pick up from the station…

And you can’t ask about other aspects of the guest house…

And you can’t get a feel for the service you might expect when you get there…

And you can’t start to build a relationship with the staff…

So I always negotiate with guest houses directly.

How? If you’ve never done it before, don’t worry one bit. It’s easy. Even if you don’t like bargaining, it’s easy to do over email, and not embarrassing at all:

Step 1 – Research guest houses online and choose a few options

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I tend to use Trip Advisor, and initially search by price. Watch out for a couple of things:

[i] Dates of reviews – Things can change amazingly quickly as staff and seasons come and go – only focus on recent reviews.

[ii] Nationality of reviewers – Travellers from different parts of the world can have really different opinions about everything, including how clean a place is and how far it is from the town centre.

As a Western woman, when I’m researching accommodation in Asia, I look for places with reviews from other Westerners. Especially for India, I look for reviews from other Western women – not those only reviewed by Indian men. [You usually get a quick idea of the reviewer’s nationality from the name and location on their review].

Step 2 – Check prices on accommodation sites

Search the internet for the few guest houses you’re interested in.  If they show up on accommodation booking sites, note the best price they’re offering [Hostelworld, Booking.com and Agoda are good for Asia].

Unless you’re really short of time and really not worried about price, don’t book through them!

Step 3 – Find contact details

Check that internet search again to find an email address or Facebook page for each of your chosen guest houses. If they have web or social media sites they’re often not in English, but you’ll still be able to find contact information on them – or the Trip Advisor forums can often help.

Step 4 – Write to ask for best prices

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I try to communicate some interest and enthusiasm in a place, hoping that’ll encourage the reader to help me [and because I am usually genuinely interested and enthusiastic about a place!] If you’re not sure how to start, you can always look up the weather and refer to that:

Hello WXY guesthouse

I hope you’re really well in X X and not feeling too hot – the internet says it’s going to be 38 degrees today!

I’m an English lady who would love to stay with you next month. I’ve always wanted to visit X X and your guest house sounds great.

What’s the very best price you can offer me for a stay in a single room with fan and balcony, from Monday X November – Sunday Y November [a stay of 6 nights]?

Looking forward to hearing from you soon, and sending very best wishes

Hilary : )

Ms Hilary Mehew hilarymehew@hotmail.com

Step 5 – Agree to the price and book

If you get a price back that’s the same or higher than you’ve seen on a booking site, quote that, asking for a better rate because you can book directly and save them from paying commission.

If you know you want to stay long term, try to get a better price by offering to pay on a weekly basis.

If they really won’t better the price, ask to have free breakfast thrown in with the deal, or a room upgrade, or something else you want.

From the offers you get, and from the “feel” you get for the place [often as important as price!] you’re ready to choose and book.

Step 6 – Ask for free pick up

Fancy a free pick up from the local bus/train station or airport? Ask for one [or failing a free one, a reduced priced one].

Check if they have any guests they’re taking back to the station/airport at the time you arrive – this option often works, especially for airport transfers, when all you have to pay for is the driver’s waiting time and parking charges between someone else’s drop off and your collection.

Step 7 – Re-confirm 3 days before

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I usually do this by forwarding the last email between us, so they can easily see all the agreed arrangements re dates, room type, price, pick up arrangements etc, and tell them how much I’m looking forward to staying with them.

And that’s it!

Honestly, this approach has never failed me. Even when I couldn’t get a better rate, I’ve been able to negotiate a better room, or something else free or discounted, or at the very least got advance notice of when a special promotion will be on.

I also really appreciate arriving at a guest house, having got to know one or more staff members by name over the email, and receiving a very personal welcome.

Welcome to XYZ guesthouse and have a great stay…

hilary-mehew-headshotHilary Mehew is a big smiler and great traveller [it does make her cheeks ache!] She’s travelled extensively, but Asia is her passion – mostly as a backpacker and on business [though not at the same time!]. Years ago she thought she’d go travelling in the region for one year and ended up being away for three and a half. Since then she’s gone back every year for work and holidays. She’s just returned to the UK after backpacking for two years in Nepal, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia. Contact her on hilarymehew@hotmail.com

Quick+Dirty Takeaway

1. Research guest houses online and choose a few options

2. Check prices on accommodation sites

3. Find contact details

4. Write to ask for best prices

5. Agree to price and book

6. Ask for a free pick-up

7. Re-confirm 3 days before

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

His Holiness The Dalai Lama in Zanskar

The Dalai Lama just waved at me with his piece of bread!

I excitedly pick up my own piece and wave it back at him, showing that we’ve already received the traditional chapati in our seating section.

He chuckles and gives another little wave, acknowledging that he has understood me.

After completing my ten day trek through Zanskar, I was told that the Dalai Lama was about to arrive in the area for three days of teaching. 

I’d been staying in a monastery built into a cliff for the past three days. It was located in a quaint village a few hours away.  As if that experience wasn’t cool enough, I then watched as His Holiness arrived this morning in a helicopter and was greeted by hundreds of his own people, the Tibetans.

There were villagers of all ages, many of whom had walked great distances to arrive, and the assortment of traditional clothing was impressive to see.

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Though I was lucky enough to see him speak in my hometown in Oregon several years ago, seeing him speak at this small outdoor venue amongst his own people was definitely more impressive.

Once we watched him arrive, everyone crowded into their sections around the stage. Hundreds of monks sat in lines upfront, and the traditionally dressed villagers crowded behind them.  

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The half dozen foreigners in attendance got to sit up front right next to the stage the Dalai Lama was presenting on, simply because we needed an English translation (lucky us!). 

Occasionally, His Holiness would look over to our section, say something in English, and wave. I couldn’t have been luckier to be so close.

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As he began his presentation, he first touched on the fact that everyone, not just Buddhists, needs to understand religious tolerance, compassion, and love for all in order for our world to function.

He also talked about the fact that in today’s world, we need to become “21st century Buddhists” (or whatever religion you are) which, he explained, means forgetting the ritualistic acts that no longer hold meaning in order to focus instead on truly understanding and practicing what you have been taught.

He then went on to address his own people, and though I couldn’t understand the Tibetan literature, sitting so close to the Dalai Lama surrounded by chanting villagers in colorful headdresses and robes seemed the perfect combination for happiness.

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Though I am no expert on Buddhism, I can’t help but admire the message of peace and love Tibetan Buddhists bring to the world.

After traveling through the Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh areas of India, I can say that without a doubt the Buddhist areas of Ladakh and Zanskar have by far been my favorite.

After hearing the Dalai Lama speak, it is no wonder these people live devout, peaceful, and spiritual lives as it is obviously the way to happiness.

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Shirine Taylor is a 20-year old female traveler currently cycling around the world, and a regular contributor to The Happy Passport. Follow her journey at awanderingphoto.wordpress.com

SUBSCRIBE now for solo female travel tips and get your FREE copy of 175 WAYS TO TRAVEL TODAY! Enter your email address below to download your copy of the book now. 

Quick+Dirty Takeaway

Highlights from His Holiness the Dalai Lama's recent talk in Zanskar:

1. "Everyone, not just Buddhists, needs to understand religious tolerance, compassion, and love in order for our world to function."

2. "In today's world, we all need to become 21st century Buddhists" - in other words, scarp meaningless rituals and focus instead on deeper spiritual understanding and practice.

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

A Stormy Night in Ladakh India

“Dang it, I’m going to get soaked,” think to myself as the heavy thunder clouds up ahead finally break. The small unpaved mountainous road I’m on is headed straight into the storm. Thankfully, if my map is correct, I’ll be hitting a “town,” which will most likely consist of a makeshift stone dhaba (small tea shop) or two, in ten kilometers. I hope to spend the night in one of the small shacks as a sleepless stormy night in my tent doesn’t sound too appealing. Of course, ten kilometers up here where I’m cycling at the speed of a toddler could take me all afternoon: cycling above 4,000m on unpaved roads is no easy feat. Hours pass and I’m finally two kilometers away. So close, yet still so far. And I am indeed completely soaked, and also completely freezing. I stop for a moment to change into dry clothes just before I realize that I have a small river to cross in front of me. Dang it, I just got dry! Instead of pushing my bike through as I usually do, I decide to ride through in order to avoid soaking my new socks and pants. Of course, halfway through I trip, and my bike and I take a plunge into the icy cold glacier melt.

As I slowly pick myself up and begin to proceed on my way, I realize that I’m shaking. I’m absolutely freezing. Night is quickly approaching, and with it, my need for food and shelter is growing stronger. But the sign says only two more kilometers so I push on, there is no way I’m setting up my tent in this wet and cold mess.

I finally see a building ahead and all I can think about is a nice warm meal and my cozy sleeping bag. I’ll finally be able to feel my toes again! But as I approach I realize that something is off, these aren’t small stone dhabas like I’m use to seeing, but rather a large abandoned government building. This is definitely not what I had in mind.

I desperately yell out anyways, and to my surprise, a head pokes out from one of the doors. I ask if he has a room, and he points me into his small section of the building where blankets are laid on the floor. As I realize he is the only one around, in fact, probably the only human within thirty kilometers, I start to panic. I can’t stay here, in an Indian guy’s room, in the middle of nowhere. That goes against everything I have learned about traveling alone as a female. So I leave, I go back outside and stand by my bike in the pouring rain and contemplate what to do next.

The man comes out and tells me in broken English that it’s safe, and that in any case, I have nowhere else to go. The storm will continue all night, he says, you need shelter. So I decide to trust my instincts which are telling me he is just trying to help and follow him back in. He leaves to let me change in privacy, then cooks me a noodle soup with egg while I hunker down in a large pile of thick blankets. As I accept my second steaming hot cup of tea I realize that coming inside was indeed the right decision, though I’m definitely still on alert.

I fall asleep somewhat uneasily, pepper spray in hand under the covers, and am practically scared to death at two a.m. when someone begins viciously knocking on the door. As I cower under the blanket my host jumps up to answer. After speaking with the stranger for a few moments, he announces to me that he is leaving, and tosses me his keys.

Leaving? At two a.m. in the middle of a storm… on a motorcycle? While leaving a stranger with your keys? I quickly remind myself that I’m in India, and in India, anything and everything is possible.

After he leaves I quickly fall asleep again, and awake in the morning to a beautifully sunny day. I cook breakfast, dry my wet clothes on the fence outside, and laugh at the absurdity of a night in the Himalayas.

Shirine Taylor is a 20-year old girl cycling around the world, and a regular contributor to The Happy Passport. Follow her journey at awanderingphoto.wordpress.com

SUBSCRIBE now for solo female travel tips and get your FREE copy of 175 WAYS TO TRAVEL TODAY! Enter your email address below to download your copy of the book now. 

Free Tibet: Let the Voices of Oppression Be Heard

“This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.”

– His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama

Living in a place with so many Tibetan refugees, reading the Dalai Lama’s autobiography Freedom in Exile, and then hearing him speak during the famous and important kalachakra practice here in Ladakh has prompted me to do some research into the fascinating country of Tibet and it’s devastating and unfortunately ongoing downfall.

The Dalai Lama was exiled to India in 1959, where he has since lived as a refugee with over 100,000 other Tibetans.  This exile came about after having tried to negotiate with the Chinese government for a decade once they began their disastrous take-over of Tibet in 1949.

At just fifteen, the fourteenth Dalai Lama was faced not only with the prospect of becoming the spiritual and governmental leader of six million people, but also with the impending doom brought on by the invading Chinese army and the thought of war.

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army invaded during the 1950s in order to “peacefully liberate Tibet,” a ruse ridiculous on every front because a) Tibet needed liberation from no one, it was its own free and happy country, and b) because the following fifty-five years of torture, execution, and war have proven that China’s intentions have been anything but peaceful.

At the beginning the fighting was kept to a minimum in Lhasa as to keep the Dalai Lama in the dark as to what was really going on. Gradually, horrific stories emerged from the countryside where the Chinese had completely taken over.

During years of war and oppression the PLA destroyed thousands of monasteries and tortured, imprisoned, and slaughtered thousands of innocent lives in the most brutal ways imaginable.

Along with increased amounts of violence, the cultural revolution then imposed laws against religion, free speech, and virtually every other aspect of the Tibetan’s traditional lifestyle.

Though they tried to fight back, they were untrained, lacked ammunition and weapons, and were overwhelmingly outnumbered by their obviously much larger oppressor.

Tibet, which had been independent for decades, suddenly found itself engulfed and overtaken by its powerful and ruthless neighbor who would stop at nothing to conquer its people and culture by force.

“Your attitude is good you know” said chairman Mao in 1954 during the Dalai Lama’s visit to China. “Religion is poison. Firstly, it reduces the population, because monks and nuns must stay celibate, and secondly it neglects material progress.”

Mao had greatly underestimated the Dalai Lama who, though he thought parts of Marxism were great (equality for all), knew that material progress was not what counted and that the abolishment of religion would destroy humanity.

In 1957 the situation worsened when China forced monks and nuns to have sex in public, formally ending their vows of celibacy, while the army beat, starved, and raped thousands of others.

This lead to the 1959 Tibetan rebellion during which the Dalai Lama fled to India. China had requested the Dalai Lama’s appearance in secret and without body guards to a celebration, and when the people of Lhasa found out, thousands upon thousands arrived at his palace to protect him.

This was the official beginning of the uprising, which was spurred into action two days later when the Tibetans took to the streets declaring their independence. Then, a week later when the Dalai Lama fled into exile, the Chinese opened fire upon his palace and his people, killing tens of thousands over the coming days.

Nearly thirty years after China had invaded it attempted to get both the Dalai Lama and many of his fellow refugees to return to Tibet.

China wanted to show everyone that it was doing well after the atrocities of the cultural revolution began to leak out to a horrified world. The government wanted to prove that Tibet had indeed progressed under its regime and that it’s people were “as happy as ever.”

The Dalai Lama, being slow to trust China after everything it had done, sent out many delegations of people in order to see what was truly happening in his country.

The delegates, including the Dalai Lama’s brother, were mobbed by thousands of sobbing Tibetans in every village they passed through which caused great distress to the Chinese authorities. Though the spirits of his people were not yet broken and the oppression had united them like never before, his delegates came back with films, photos, and stories that depicted how ruthlessly and systematically the Chinese had worked to destroy their culture.

There were years of famine, countless human rights violations, and the deaths of thousands of nuns and monks in concentration camps.

Sure, there were more hospitals and schools, just as China had promised, but not for the native Tibetans to use, only for the invading Chinese. Progress in his country had flown backwards since the Chinese had come and the Dalai Lama knew it was critical to appeal to the Western world for help, an attempt that sadly didn’t amount to much.

By the 1980’s China had begun its last phase in its conquest of Tibet, one that is still going on today.

In order to wipe out the Tibetan culture by sheer force of numbers, the government has been offering compensation (higher wages, housing…) for Chinese willing to move into Tibet.

Because of this there are more than twice as many Chinese than Tibetans residing in the region. They have deprived the natives of their resources, have ruined the environment (in some cases beyond repair), and have overtaken Tibetan culture by restricting the people’s lives in every domain.

It is now said that there is more of the Tibetan culture left in India where the refugees have settled than in their own homeland. Even to this day  in Tibet, religion, the Dalai Lama, and anything to do with the old Tibet are strictly forbidden.

2008 marked the largest protest for a Free Tibet in over fifty years. Six thousand Tibetans were arrested or beaten for possessing a picture of the Dalai Lama, waving a Tibetan flag, or showing that they are still Tibetan in any way. 

Since 2011, there have been over one hundred monks and nuns participating in self-immolations as well as other protests in a desperate cry for their oppression to be acknowledged. 

In response, China has tightened its security and brutality against the people in their conquest to completely eradicate their culture.

Since 1951 over one million Tibetans have been killed, with over 6,000 monasteries destroyed.

Tibet and it’s people are literally being whipped off the map through routine and widespread torture and oppression, and along with North Korea and Syria, Tibet is ranked as one of the most repressed countries in the world.

The Dalai Lama has traveled around the world in a way none of his predecessors were able to do and has used this opportunity to spread his global message of peace and compassion (winning him the noble peace prize in 1989).

For the last 45 years, he has tried to make the world aware of the devastating situation still happening today in his homeland.

Tibet is nowhere close to being free unless something drastic is done, and even if that happens soon, one can only hope that all of these years of violent oppression haven’t completely destroyed the Tibetan culture to the point of no return.

As the Dalai Lama himself says, “My countrymen and women are today in grave danger of becoming nothing more than a tourist attraction in their own country.”

Shirine Taylor is a solo female backpacker cycling around the world. This post originally appeared on her blog, awanderingphoto.wordpress.com

photo courtesy of National Geographic

Have you traveled to Tibet?

Would you travel there given the situation?  Is “ethical travel” in Tibet possible?

SUBSCRIBE now for solo female travel tips and get your FREE copy of 175 WAYS TO TRAVEL TODAY! Enter your email address below to download your copy of the book now. 

Nepal’s Holi Festival of Colors

As my face is gently smeared with color for the fourth time I suddenly think “Oh! So that’s how it’s done.”

While foreigners viciously throw the powdered color used to celebrate Holi Festival, the Nepalis smear it on your face. gently, with reverence. And I’m trusting them to know how it’s supposed to be done – it’s their holiday after all.

As I parade down the street with my group of friends, we are continually smeared with paint and shot with water guns. This mix of water and color creates a sloppy yet beautiful mess all over our faces and clothes. And little do we know, this is just the start to the crazy festival of colors known as Holi Festival. 

The screaming and singing confirms that we are close before I can see the thousands of colorful Nepalis dancing in the square.

We have followed the crowd, which has led us into the heart of the city to the scene of a bustling party of extreme proportions, and of course, color.

As we try and make our way through we are “attacked” from every side. Being a Westerner, every Nepali wants to smear their own handful of power on your cheeks no matter how covered you may already be.

It’s hard to make any progress when all you see are green, red, and yellow hands in front of your face, but I don’t mind. Today is all about the experience.

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A group of young Nepalis pull us into a dancing circle, and we suddenly find ourselves learning to dance as they do, the music pounding in our ears.

It’s fun, but as I prefer to watch, I quietly sneak out to the sidelines to observe.

Around me there are thousands of young Nepalis laughing and celebrating, and I realize that a city has rarely looked as alive as it does today.

Though smearing color may be the purpose of this gathering, it also looks like a perfectly good excuse for a day off to party, get together with friends, and celebrate life. It’s the buzzing atmosphere that makes this day feel so special.

We sit down to eat at a small outdoor restaurant and watch as children run up and down the street chasing each other with water and color, mercilessly pouring both down on their friend’s heads. What a festival indeed.

I have always seen documentaries of Holi Festival depicting this infamous color-throwing Hindu holiday, but I never thought I would get to experience it for real.

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Though I knew the holiday took place in India, it didn’t occur to me until I saw it with my own eyes that it would also be celebrated in Nepal. 

Being smeared with the powder myself fulfilled my lifelong dream of partaking in the chaotic festival of colors. Creating and receiving a mess has never been so much fun.

Have you experienced Holi Festival? Where? Would you do it again?

by Shirine Taylor a 20-year old solo female traveler cycling around the world, and a regular contributor to The Happy Passport. Follow her journey at awanderingphoto.wordpress.com.

SUBSCRIBE now for solo female travel tips and get your FREE copy of 175 WAYS TO TRAVEL TODAY! Enter your email address below to download your copy of the book now. 

Quick+Dirty Takeaway

1. Holi Festival takes place in Nepal as well as India, Bangladesh, South Africa, and many other countries around the world

2. One part of the Holi festival involves getting smeared head to toe with brightly colored paints, throwing paint at friends and strangers, and using water and water guns to liquefy paint powders

3. You probably don't want to bring your camera or smartphone to Holi Festival!!

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

Shackles, Incense, and Dancing

She has finally arrived.

Beautifully adorned with a sparkling gold and red sari and an elaborate head piece, the bride is being pulled in by a cord which makes her look like a prisoner.

Her head is down, and her heavily made-up eyes are puffy from crying – weddings are a scary affair for an Indian bride.

She has an enormous gold ring in her nose, a large red mark (a tica) on her forehead, and a few dozen bangles (bracelets) on each arm.

Her hands and wrists are covered in a lovely henna design, and around her neck is a curious necklace of ten rupee bills. Her complex and colorful outfit is unlike anything I have ever seen, a stark contrast to the white I am used to seeing on brides back home.

The hundreds of guests who have been dancing to Hindi music for hours while awaiting her arrival stand to watch her enter.

Without making eye contact with anyone, she somberly proceeds over to the corner of the field where an assortment of things are laid out: rice, water, incense, and flowers, all of which will be used later on for part of the ceremony.

She looks downright miserable, and rightfully so. Like many Indian women, this bride has only met her soon-to-be husband, found and arranged by relatives, very briefly, maybe only a time or two before tonight.

She just left her own village, and this may very well be the farthest she has ever traveled alone as her own parents are not allowed to attend the ceremony.

It will certainly be her first time sleeping away from her family, her first night sharing a bed with a man instead of her sisters and mother. She is being married into a new family and house, and with that, she is forced to accept the duties that come along with it.

From now on she will be in charge of taking care of her new husband as well as his family, and will transform into their cook and maid overnight. Though most Indians do not see it this way, from my Western perspective it seems like she is walking into slavery.

A few minutes later the groom saunters in wearing a huge decorated head piece while dancing and singing with his friends. Unlike his wife-to-be, he is not leaving behind his house nor his family, and has no reason to be sad.

He dances his way over to where his bride and a Hindu holy man are waiting to begin the 8 or 9-hour ceremony that will conclude in their official marriage.

“Will they kiss? Or hold hands? Or even sit near each other?” I ask my Indian friend who has brought me to this ceremony.

“Shame on you!” she scolds me gently but firmly – physical contact is absolutely unheard of, even at a wedding.

She explains to me that the marriage is official only after the long ceremony of chanting and rice throwing that will take place throughout the night. Once that is finished, the bride and groom will be free to eat and dance with the remaining guests, though many, such as us, will have already left for home long before the sun rises.

As the ceremony proceeds, a few guests gather to watch, but most stay in the large field in front of the house where the music is blaring popular Hindi songs.

Children, women, and teenage boys all dance enthusiastically together, losing themselves in the music. Others look on laughing, notably the older women with small children drifting to sleep on their laps.

They announce the food is ready, and we rush to be in one of the first few rotating groups to sit on the benches in a large open tent.

The family is obviously wealthy as they’ve served an extravagant meal of rice, dal, and lamb from huge buckets. The second we finish our dinner, the next thirty guests rush in to take our places.

The evening continues as such, with the guests dancing and celebrating throughout the night as the bride and groom sit stoically in the corner, nervous and excited to begin their first day as a married couple.

Or perhaps, in the case of the bride, maybe just nervous.

Shirine is a 20-year old solo female traveler cycling around the world, and a regular contributor to The Happy Passport. Follow her journey at awanderingphoto.wordpress.com.

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Guest Post: My Night in an Indian Slum

“The core of mans’ spirit comes from new experiences.”

Those damn rats! Their tiny pitter-patter is multiplied into a roaring thunder, at least to my sleep deprived brain, as they scurry to and fro on the tin metal roof above my head.

They have kept me awake all night, though I silently acknowledge that they aren’t the only reason I can’t sleep. There is also a passed-out drunk Indian lady curled up half-on half-off the blanket we are using as a bed, and someone is rattling the scrap piece of metal that doubles as a door to the shack next to mine.

I am sleeping in an Indian slum, one of the last places in India you would expect to find a young Western girl who is traveling solo.

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I didn’t exactly plan to be sleeping here, but I can’t really say I’m all that surprised either. I have been taken in by countless Indian families throughout the last few months, so why not experience life in a slum if the opportunity arises?

After all, it’s just a different kind of home. And thank goodness I’m here. Though I’m not exactly sleeping in my current arrangement, it is far better than being stuck on the side of the road with nowhere to go, which was the position I was in the yesterday evening when the girl approached me.

She was young but confident, sporting short hair and an absolutely radiant smile. She asked me, signaling with her hands as neither of us spoke each other’s languages, if she could ride my bike, and I somewhat hesitantly agreed.

It was late in the evening and I had yet to find a hotel or flat piece of land for my tent, but I figured I might as well let this girl have some fun while I was deciding where to go.

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She had obviously never ridden a bike before, so after she climbed onto the seat I pushed her around, a difficult feat considering my bike was already fully loaded with all of my gear.

Pretty soon her younger sister, who had been watching us shyly from the side of the road, came over for a closer look. I helped her onto the bike as well, and began pushing them both to their home across the street, where a lady was waiting in front of six or seven tin shacks that had been built alongside the road.

I was surprised to see this women and her children here because I knew these to be the makeshift homes of construction workers. I passed these workers, predominately men, on a daily basis as I made my way along these treacherous mountain roads, which are always in need of maintenance due to snowfall and landslides.

The construction crews work all day, breaking the large rocks into smaller ones with a hammer before carrying the heavy loads in a basket on their backs. They spend their days in the beating sun, breathing in the pollution and dust from the passing trucks while putting themselves in danger of being hit.

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It is difficult and dangerous work – road workers in India have a very low life expectancy. The woman, who turned out to be the girls’ mother, was herself a worker on these roads. She smiled slightly as I approached with her children and quickly invited me into her home for tea.

As I was sitting in their small shack, a one bedroom contraption that looked like it would fall over with the slightest wind, the girl who approached me first signaled that she wanted me to sleep with her tonight.

I looked at the mother unsure of how to answer until she gave her approval with a nod. Though there were already five people living in the hut, I knew we would make it work.

One of the neighbors, an older lady who had watched me arrive with the children, came over and laughed with me as I struggled to answer her questions in Hindi. After a few minutes she pulled me up from where I was squatting with the others by the fire and led me into another room.

This space seemed to be a communal shack with the dual purpose of a kitchen and shower. There were a few pots and pans on one side, and a lady squatting in the corner with a bucket of water and soap on the other.  Needless to say, she was very surprised to have a Westerner interrupt her shower!

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The lady who had pulled me into the “bathroom” made me strip as she unraveled a beautiful cloth I have come to know as a sari. She wrapped it around me, giggling all the while as she redid it multiple times until it was perfect. She then added oil to my hair and pulled it back tightly.

I was at last ready to be presented, so we marched around the small compound as everyone admired my transformation into an Indian girl.

Just then, as I was parading around in my sari, a note arrived: “Send the girl down here. We need to talk.”

I had no idea who or where this note came from, nor was I excited to find out. One of the women escorted me down the hill and into a small building where three men in their thirties were drinking tea. Apparently these men were the heads of the construction project these families belong to, and they wasted no time explaining that they were in charge.

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They asked me why I was here, and who I was with, but in reality all they wanted was to look at my Facebook profile. After leaving them a fake name I quickly excused myself to join the two children who, much to my relief, had followed me down.

I headed back up for dinner, which was rice and dal like everywhere else in India, before following the older lady into her shack. There was more room there than with the girl and her family, so I laid down and tried to ignore the drunk men (and much to my surprise, women) outside.

In the morning I pedaled away just after sunrise as everyone was leaving for work. There were young ladies, no older than me, who jumped into the back of pickup trucks with small children strapped to their backs.

Though these families have hard lives, they wasted no time inviting me into their home, feeding me, and giving me a safe place to spend the night.

All through India the rich warned me to be careful around the poor, uneducated population, and yet it’s been the poor and the uneducated – those with the least to give – who have ended up helping me time and time again.

Shirine Taylor is a 20-year old solo female traveler cycling around the world, and a regular contributor to The Happy Passport. Follow her journey at awanderingphoto.wordpress.com

SUBSCRIBE now for solo female travel tips and get your FREE copy of 175 WAYS TO TRAVEL TODAY! Enter your email address below to download your copy of the book now. 

 

Quick+Dirty Takeaway

"All through India the rich warned me to be careful around the poor, uneducated population, and yet it's been the poor and the uneducated - those with the least to give - who have ended up helping me time and time again."

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

My Scariest Moment as a Solo Female Traveler

“Destined to be an old women with no regrets.”

I hear the sound of an engine cut out and see a motorcycle parked up above. They are back.

Panic fills me as I grab a few rocks from the ground. I see him approach. He is staring at me intently without any hint of emotion, the exact same way all Indian men look at me.

I feel naked, and his greedy eyes undress me as he gets closer. I quickly run up the small hill I had climbed down moments before for a pee break.

I say “go away,” again, as fiercely as I can, and hold up my rock. He doesn’t come closer, but he doesn’t back away either.

I reach the top of the hill and see his friend, who has parked his motorcycle by my bike. He has that same nasty cold-blooded look in his eyes. I feel my insides shrivel as anger rises up inside of me.

There is no doubt in my mind about what they are planning to do to me, and I have never been so afraid in my life.

India's children: a reminder of Heaven

India’s children: a reminder of Heaven

I grab my bike and quickly pedal away, unsure of how to proceed. They pass by me, staring as they always do. I hope they are gone for good this time –  I have been playing this scary game of cat and mouse for forty minutes now.

I’m at least twenty kilometers out from the main highway, trapped on a small road I thought would be a shortcut. “A shortcut to hell,” I think to myself now.

And that’s when I see them, six of them. They have multiplied. The two men who have been following me have brought reinforcements. Their three motorcycles are parked by the side of the road and they are all waiting for me to pass.

I stop. There are too many of them, they can easily overpower me. One starts to approach me and my heart beats faster inside my chest, I am trapped.

I beg the next couple who pass on a motorbike to stop.

“Help, help me, please!”

I am lucky, there is a women on board, a rare sight in this part of India. And she speaks enough English to translate. I quickly explain my situation as the pack approaches. She tells them to go away but it is no use, they look at her with that same slimy look they give to all women. We aren’t respected here, we are second-class, unworthy. Disposable. I have never felt so angry.

The Sikh people were Shirine's saviors time and time again

The Sikh people were Shirine’s saviors time and time again

She flags down the next older gentleman who passes. Like her driver, he wears a turban that shows he is Sikh, a gentle group of people I have come to trust and respect throughout my stay in India. She explains to him that I need an escort and he readily agrees. My followers are dispersing now, they realize their fun has been ruined.

I follow the man for a few kilometers before he speaks. He tries to ask me in Hindi where I am going, and I struggle to explain that I don’t know. It’s 5pm and almost dark out. I have never been caught this late without a place to sleep, and given my last hour of hell, there is no way I’m sleeping in my tent tonight.

He signals me to follow him to his house and I immediately feel relieved, I have a place to stay. He is kind and gentle, the type of man any child would be proud to call their grandfather. I arrive at his house were his wife, daughter, and granddaughter are surprised yet elated to greet me. I am saved, and within the next few days, I will find heaven in hell.

They serve me a cup of steaming chia before I even have time to change out of my dusty cycling clothes. A neighborhood child peers over the fence, shy yet curious about this newly arrived Westerner. The family later tells me that they have never spoken to a white girl before.

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No one speaks English, but as always, I get by with a few words of Hindi and a lot of charades. They invite me to eat dinner, a meal of delicious Indian curry and rice, before taking me next door to meet the neighbors. I am proudly shown off to everyone in this small village, and pretty soon, they have all demanded that I spend at least one night with each of the different families.

As I sit on the ground next to the ladies they talk and laugh, and though I love seeing their smiling faces, it is hard not being able to understand what they say. I get up and find the children instead as language is never a barrier with them.

They warm up to me quickly and within minutes I have one on my back, and a child grabbing each hand. They show me their rice fields and their cows, and I stop to play with the smallest calf. He is soft, only a few weeks old, and nuzzles me to pet him. I’m in heaven, surrounded by playful children, laughing women, and a cuddly cow.

My anger slowly fades as I spend the next few days enjoying this family’s hospitality. I take a motorbike ride through the rice fields and taste my first stalk of fresh sugar cane. I spend hours with the children, and find myself happily in charge of the one year old granddaughter.

I sleep every night with the grandma, an arrangement I am more than used to now after staying with countless families as a solo female traveler.

The neighbors come over and I am ordered (nicely) to visit them daily. They are all incredibly hospitable, handing me cups of hot tea and different traditional dishes at each and every visit. It is overwhelming at times, the sheer hospitality and kindness, but every minute of overwhelm is worth bearing because of the amazing experiences I come away with.

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After four days I decide it is time for me to continue on my way. They beg me to stay, but eventually relent and let me ride out with two of the men as an escort.

The girls hand me beautiful earrings and necklaces as I leave, and though I am trying to thank them, they end up thanking me. They have relatives forty kilometers away and have already arranged for me to stay with them for the following few nights.

I arrive at my next homestay to find a beautiful sixteen year old girl who speaks nearly perfect English because she attends a private English boarding school. She shows me around, tells me about her secret boyfriend, and immediately makes me feel like family.

I cook with the oldest sister, go out with the teenager and her friends, and visit the Sikh temple with the whole family. Once again I am treated like a queen. I stay a few more days before eventually heading out. They are worried about me so I promise to find a pay phone and call them that night. When I do, they tell me they miss me and that I should give up my bike journey to live with them. I have never felt so welcomed in any other country.

India. It’s heaven and it’s hell, and you are sure to experience both journeying as a solo female traveler.

You will see the savage brutality of inequality and you will learn to stand proud as a woman. You are sure to be taken in as a daughter, friend, and sister by countless amazing families.

I have stayed in a slum, with multiple farming families in the villages, and with wealthy families in different cities. In each and every home I was treated like a queen. Go out and experience it for yourself. It’s worth going through hell to get to heaven.

Shirine Taylor is a 20-year old solo female traveler cycling around the world, and a regular contributor to The Happy Passport.

This post originally appeared on Shirine’s blog, awanderingphoto.wordpress.com.

SUBSCRIBE now for solo female travel tips and get your FREE copy of 175 WAYS TO TRAVEL TODAY! Enter your email address below to download your copy of the book now. 

Quick+Dirty Takeaway

1. Shirine was almost the victim of a gang rape in India.

2. She was rescued by a Sikh family who took her in and protected her.

3. India is both heaven and hell for solo female travelers.

4. Even though she endured one of the scariest moments of her life, Shirine wouldn't trade her time in India for anything and still recommends other solo female travelers visit India.

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

What’s it like to do a homestay in India?

“Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.”

The pressure cooker is whistling, announcing that the rice is almost ready. The tractor drivers in the sugar cane fields out front are taking a tea break, so the rumble of their engines is no longer overriding the silence of the countryside.

I hear a child’s cry from one of the neighboring homes and the chomping of the cows a few meters to my right, but besides that, all I can hear is laughter.

I am squatting beside three radiant women around a small wood fire. A mother and her two daughters are teaching me to make roti, a typical Indian flatbread that we’ll end up eating at every meal.

Though the women – even the youngest girl who is barely nine – can all make their roti into a perfect circle, mine always come out completely lopsided and ugly; a fact that consistently results in a ruckus of laughter and gentle teasing.

I guess I need more practice. I only met these women a few hours ago when I stopped to buy bananas from their roadside fruit stand. Within minutes they had asked me, or rather, they had signaled me (since none of us spoke the same language), to stay at their home for the night.

Though it was barely ten a.m. and I had planned to cycle all day, I readily agreed. Being integrated more deeply into Indian culture and the life of a family is far more important than racking up kilometers.

After lunch the women decide to dress me in a beautiful yellow and red sari that is traditional to the area I am currently cycling through.

It is no longer just the four of us anymore. The youngest two girls, who have been kicked out for lack of space, have been replaced by five women from the neighboring houses.

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I am probably the only Westerner they have ever spoken to and word travels fast – all of the curious women in the area have come to see this young white female who has stumbled upon their small farming village.

They strip me down in their small two bedroom mud hut, laughing when they see that the sari top is too small for my breasts. There are three women working on me simultaneously, I feel as if I am in a beauty salon.

A women in her mid-twenties is keeping the long piece of colorful cloth from touching the ground as her older sister begins to wrap it around me, creating a traditional sari. The third women is working on my hair, pulling it tightly back and into a braid.

Finally I’m ready. They quickly apply some makeup and give me their plastic slippers to wear before hustling me out of the door to present me to the rest of the village.

The women crowd around, laughing, talking, and pointing. They all want their picture taken with me, so I hand my camera to one of the younger girls to start clicking. Though she has never used a camera before and has no idea how to focus it, a few of the picture turn out all right.

It’s overwhelming – I’m not used to being the center of so much attention, but I know I will remember this moment forever.

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I need a break. It is hard not being able to participate in the conversations going on around me, so I eventually change back into my “normal clothes” – an Indian suit I was given by another family I stayed with – before heading out to find the children.

They aren’t hard to find as they too are curious as to who this newcomer is. There are five of them who have been watching this whole episode from the corner of the field. As I approach, they giggle and a few of them turn to run away, but the smallest one sticks around.

I kneel down, put my hands in the prayer position, and say namaste. She smiles and does the same to me, an instant friend. Curiosity wins over the other children and they join her, quickly greeting me before grabbing my hands.

And we are off, I have my new tour guides. They show me their homes, small mud huts like the one I am staying in, and present me to their older siblings who have just come home from school. They too are shocked-yet-elated to meet me.

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I am invited into multiple homes and each family gives me a steaming cup of chia before signaling that I should stay and spend the night with them. I explain, or try to, that I am already staying with their neighbor, but I will be sure to stop by tomorrow.

I know by now that I will be spending at least a few days in this village. The children tug me out of the third house into a game of chase. I catch them and throw them on my back as they scream with glee. Playing with village children has easily become one of my favorites parts of this trip. It is starting to get dark though, so I soon part with my young friends and head back home.

After a delicious dinner of rice and dal with curried vegetables, we wash our hands and feet in the freezing cold stream water and head to bed. It is only 8pm but the electricity has cut out and night has already fallen which makes it hard to do anything but sleep.

Plus I know we will be getting up before the sun tomorrow and I am exhausted. I crawl into bed with the two girls who are excited to have me sleep with them. The mother is in our room too, sleeping with the youngest boy, while the father has his own room next door. It is crowded with three in our small rickety bed but none of us seem to mind. It feels like home.

Throughout India and Nepal I experienced countless homestays such as this, where families, and even entire villages, adopted me for days or weeks at a time.

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My homestay in India, and all of my homestays, have left me with an overwhelming sense of gratitude towards the outpouring of kindness I have been shown since beginning my journey around the world. They have also enabled me to see a glimpse of what life is like in these parts of the world, and given me an insider’s view into the traditions, work, and home life of an Indian family.

Shirine Taylor is a regular contributor to The Happy Passport and is currently cycling around the world. Follow her journey at awanderingphoto.wordpress.com.

Have a question for Shirine? Post it below!

But what if I’m not as adventurous as Shirine? Can I still have an authentic Indian experience if doing a homestay in India sort of freaks me out? 

You don’t have to be as adventurous as Shirine to enjoy everything India has to offer. Homestays are amazing and everything, but there are lots of great ways to see the country if you can’t imagine yourself descending upon a village and spending the night with whomever happens to invite you in.

If you’re more of a “Type A traveler,” you may want to begin your Indian adventure by staying in hotels or guesthouses and exploring villages by day, or doing an organized tour. Our friends at HolidayME have awesome India tour packages that really feel authentic and less touristy than your typical group tour (and we all know how I feel about group tours, so this one must be the real deal!). You can check out their packages here: https://www.holidayme.com/

SUBSCRIBE now for solo female travel tips and get your FREE copy of 175 WAYS TO TRAVEL TODAY! Enter your email address below to download your copy of the book now. 

Quick+Dirty Takeaway

There's much more to India than what you see on the news.

Solo female traveler Shirine was taken in by multiple Indian families during her travels throughout the country, and given food, shelter, and friendship.

Her homestay in India gave her a completely unique perspective into Indian life and culture.

The quick+dirty takeaway of today = people are kind, especially to travelers, and especially to women traveling solo.

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!