The Smart Girl’s Lonely Planet Guide to Surviving Delhi

I use to think that if I were a smart, independent girl with unswaying common sense and a good head on my shoulders then I could go anywhere alone, literally and figuratively. Well…turns out, not everywhere, and certainly, not India. My trip to India this past Dec. taught me two sobering realities:

 1) Unfortunately, in certain parts of the world, it’s still not safe to travel alone as a foreign woman. Whoever put New Delhi as #9 on this NYT travel list, touting Delhi’s bourgie restaurants needs to get out of their cushy bubble and into the streets of New Delhi.

 2) Third world problems put first world problems into perspective. In fact, I will take it a step further and say third world problems put first world problems to rest (more on that later).

The horrific rape incident happened the day I landed in Delhi. I will spare you the gruesome details. It shook the entire country and the people rose up in arms after what happened to a young twenty three year old girl waiting on the side of a street after wedding dress shopping. The tension in the air throughout India from Ahmedabad (where I stayed for my best friend’s wedding) to New Delhi (where the incident happened) was palpable. In India, rape is a prevalent social problem that has finally reached a saturation point and the people, especially the women, are not tolerating this issue any longer. 

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New/Old Delhi.

First off, I want to thank my faithful travel companion/partner in crime, Maria, for sticking w/ me throughout this arduous journey b/c I would not have survived Delhi without you! Truth be told, I have no sense of direction (might as well have a paper bag over my head) but possess the uncanny ability to befriend anyone or anything that moves. Maria, on the other hand, is an engineer by trade with excellent navigation and research skills. When my default friendliness was putting us in jeopardy during shady situations, she reigned me back. When we were lost or needed tips, I sought help from  locals or bargained with vendors for the best deals. Maria was the navigator and I was the diplomat. She memorized the entire Lonely Planet India Guide Book and I prioritized and coordinated itinerary items. Together we complemented each other in the best ways, just like Lewis and Clark (she was Lewis and I was Clark). I just wish we had a Sacagawea or a shaman to guide us…

When we got off our overnight train from Ahmedabad to Delhi, Maria and I were immediately shocked by the amount of unsought attention coming from Indian men. Whenever we were in the streets of New Delhi, men would stare at us, crudely proposition us, or even follow us. One man at Connaught Place, the New Delhi city center, said “I’m not selling you anything” and then proceeded to follow us for four blocks. As a result, we quickly learned to size up situations and take necessary precautions. There was not a moment when we felt safe or were at ease. Our spidey sense and cortisol levels were off the charts! Our priority was clear: securing safety was our modus operandi during this leg of the journey.

We took the following survival tips in Delhi:

Go incognito – The head scarf comes in handy at mosques and after dark in Delhi. One thing Maria and I noticed was you get fewer second glances when shrouded under a scarf or a hat. We A/B tested our hypothesis first with scarves then with hats. She wrapped her curly brown locks in a scarf and I tucked my black thick curls under a red star communist hat from my recent trip to China (my sign of psychological retreat under stress). See Exhibit A. Mixed with the harsh winter winds blowing in from Rajasthan and the excess attention, we found the scarf wrap (Exhibit B) to be both functional and stylish.

Exhibit A

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Exhibit Bimage

Negotiate and hustle – Accept the inalienable truth that people are going to rip you off not in a malicious, stick-it-to-foreigners, anti-globalization kind of way. But rather, locals see foreigners as a cash cow so why now milk them? We were quoted, double if not triple, the standard fare for cab rides. It helped to call our friend’s uncle for price comparison and negotiation.

Pro-tip: Don’t be afraid to say “no”. In America, we love to say yes to everything! Want to grab coffee? Yes! Want to help me on a project Yes! Our default mode is to “yes” but in India, you have to default to “no”. I learned this the hard way from begging children who had lost their youthful innocence. If you pay one kid, a dozen, possibly thirty will swarm around you asking for money. We were chased by two girls after the Ganges River Lighting ceremony. They offered us services we didn’t ask for—dotting our foreheads—and then pursued us for money. This how relieved we looked after running away from them barefoot! 

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STAY CALM AND CARRY ON – The British know a thing or two about surviving trench warfare and staying calm under two world wars. No matter how hard and alarming the situation is—trust me, we had plenty—realize that you are in control of your reactions. 90% of unsafe situations are out of your control but if there is 10% that you can maximize and turn in your favor—do it. We had to resort to our wits and problem-solving skillz when a fraudulent monk almost shanked us in Rishikesh, home of the Beatle’s Ashram. Looking back, something really bad coulda-shoulda-woulda happened but we stayed calm, problem-solved, and got out of a potentially regrettable situation. 

Don’t underestimate the power of serendipity – There was a low point when my travel partner and I mutually updated our Facebook statuses: “Dear India, you are beating the shit out of me. Love, Maria & Bo”. However, every time we hit a low point in India, something magical would happen—a serendipitous encounter or solution would arise—restoring our faith in the universe and, most importantly, in shared humanity. Traveling puts you at the mercy of others and also in a position to see the goodness in others.

Enjoy fleeting moments for what they are – Take experiences as they come, don’t make things happen or feel contrived. You meet each person for a reason. People come and go in your life. Savor the present and relish in perfect moments from the past. Buddha was right: have no attachments. Life is ephemeral.

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Happiness is relative – If a mother, baby, and three toddlers can live in a shack by the street w/ a single light bulb, what do you have to complain about? If two boys can playfully wrestle to the ground in a mosque, one w/ a burnt face and he is still laughing, what do you have that’s so unbearable? Remembering the youthful happiness of those boys despite their poverty and scars made me feel grateful for what I have. I thank my parents for setting me up for success and setting my baseline high so I can achieve more. We tend to forget that much of our lives is a function of when and where we are born. 70% of the world are not as fortunate as we are. 

Adjust your expectations – India is no Eat, Pray, Love (more like Eat, Pray, Spend) trip. In fact, Elizabeth Gilbert never left a 4 mile radius from her Ashram probably b/c she was too scared to see the real side of India and risk bursting her zen spirituality self-absorbed bubble. It’s no Italy or Bali, that’s for sure. Our take on Eat, Pray, Love was EAT a lot and hope you don’t sick, LOVE some (mainly each other), and PRAY A LOT especially before every meal. You never know if you’re going to get the Delhi Belly.

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Breathe. Despite all the physical discomforts and potential danger, in the end, just relax and go with the flow, seriously, breathe. India is the kind of experience that shakes you up, rattles your core, makes you question all your a priori assumptions, while finding what is true and pure (I’m sounding like Hemingway now). Remember, it’s suppose to be hard. India is both beautiful and grungy, spiritual and frenetic, simple and complex, jarring and calming, enigmatic and open. Realize that you will never experience anything like this again—regardless of all the hardships, scared shitless moments, shanty hotels, and crooks you encounter—you are alive and experiencing something unique, one of a kind, like an imperfect snowflake about to melt into your glove. If you can survive, the real, authentic, raw version of India, you can just about handle all your first world problems.

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[DISCLAIMER: We took the Northern India route which is much harsher to foreigners. Our experiences were heightened by the rising social tensions during the Delhi gang rape incident. The country is moving towards a political and social cusp affecting our perception and experiences of India for the first time. My friend who took a much “foreigner-friendly” route South to Bombay and Goa after the wedding had no problems. He was partying on the beach in Goa at the Sunburn festival while we got lost in Rishikesh, searching for Lakshmanjula, the Bridge of the Gods near the Himalayas. There is so much cultural richness in India. I still need to go back for the calm backwaters of Kerala in the South, ride on the camels in Pushkar, watch the sending off of the dead in Varanasi, and dance on the beach in Goa. India, you are incredible and I will be back!]

Trust and believe in Ganesha,

—bo                                  

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