By Zenia Anderson
I was sitting in a bar in Mumbai when I first heard about the brutal gang rape of a 23-year-old Indian woman in the nation’s capital. Later, the Indian and international media would make her story known world-wide, prompting demonstrations, calls for the death penalty to be inflicted on rapists, and global sympathy. After spending five weeks in India I had grown to adore the place. It holds beautiful and confronting intricacies, contrasts, and vibrancy. The very best and worst of the human condition can be viewed side by side in the street. Hearing the sobering news about the horrific incident was a swift trip back to reality.
As a pair of 18-year-old females travelling to India, we had encountered many horror stories before our trip had even begun. These stories detailed accounts of rape, theft, drugging, sexual assault, kidnapping, and abuse against tourists. We largely ignored these stories narrated to us by well-intentioned but overcautious relatives, and plunged headfirst into a supposedly dangerous world. India is a place that many people visit, though not all enjoy. It is the truest example of a love/hate relationship I have ever encountered. Many complain of the noise, chaos, heat, undrinkable water, traffic, rubbish, and the smell. However, there is also incredible food, heritage, history, religion, and people. It is mind-blowing to observe the sheer contrast between my own life and the lives of others, and the way in which the beautiful and unexpected so easily transcend all annoyances. India is home to more than one billion people. The population of Delhi is equal to the total population of Australia. You have not experienced peak-hour until you have been to India, trust me.
Our next two weeks were spent in the beachside state of Goa and were fraught with conversations about the attack. I read newspapers which detailed the protests and marches that were sweeping Delhi and the public animosity against the six accused men. Entire newspapers were dedicated to stories surrounding the attack and other sexual assault cases. A story in the Times of India shared a survey naming public locations where women feel threatened in India. The list included railway stations, subways, markets, the street, parks, shopping malls, the work place, and restaurants. I began wondering if I was completely clueless; if I had stupidly overlooked every danger that had apparently been staring me straight in the eye. India, along with many other travel destinations, can be intimidating. We noticed the constant presence of large throngs of men, catcalls, dark alleyways, and the threat of being ripped off or followed, although it was never enough to make us feel truly uncomfortable. During our travels we had not so much encountered a pickpocket, let alone a sexual predator or mugger.
Fear of the unknown is common and, to most, India is about as unfamiliar as it comes. If I were to have heeded the warnings of the know-it-all advice-givers who warned me of my chosen destination, I would not have experienced the most treasured five weeks of my life. Travelling in a turbulent world can be jarring but there is no feeling quite like expanding your perceived comfort zone. Adapting to circumstances and experiencing things that few people are able to do, are exciting and valuable opportunities. Of course, by no means should a person venture unprepared into a place of extreme political conflict or violence, all in the name of adventure and enlightenment. My intention is to encourage the thoughtful traveller. If you’re up for a bit of a challenge and don’t mind your destination being out of fashion or as yet undiscovered by the masses, then your trip will most likely be more interesting and untouched than most.
Horrific events such as the attack of the woman on December 16, 2012 should not stop people from experiencing beautiful and complex destinations. All that is needed is an ample amount of research, some caution, and the ability to go with the flow. Destinations such as Bali, Thailand, Europe, and America will always hold value as popular travel spots in our culture but there are hidden gems awaiting those who are willing to venture off the beaten track. Ditch the package holiday, buy a guidebook, and jump in the deep end. You won’t regret it.