An American in Himachal: Common sense, culture, and travel

Let me make this clear:

No woman–no matter what she wears or does–deserves to be raped. Ever.

As I vacation in Himachal Pradesh (HP), I see the news report of an American woman raped in Kullu, a popular tourist destination in HP, near Great Himalayan National Park. (Not a location we are visiting, by the way.) According to news reports, the 30-year-old left a Hindu temple alone at 1 am, could not catch a taxi, and accepted a ride from three men in a truck. The men drove her to a remote location, raped her, and robbed her.

My heart and prayers go out to her. I hope the men arrested are her attackers, although that remains uncertain. I hope the Indian government brings the full weight of its judicial system down on the attackers’ heads. After the Delhi rape case, the government tightened it laws around rape. This case may be a high-profile test of those laws.

As I read the account that she was alone at 1 am and accepted a ride from strangers, I have to ask, “Where was this woman’s common sense?” And, then I remember the essay on common sense by cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz. In the essay, he argues that common sense is a cultural system. Much like language, common sense is dictated by our cultural experience. For example, common sense says that if it is raining that you should come out of the rain, but what if you live in Mumbai where it rains for three straight months? Pretty hard to come out of the rain, then, huh? In Mumbai, people play through the rain. They live through the rain. They welcome the rain. The kids start back to school just as the rains hit. Doesn’t make sense does it? Well, not to a Westerner, but it makes perfect sense to a Mumbaiker. It keeps the kids dry and out of the rain during a period when that is damn near impossible to do.

Let me repeat:

No woman–no matter what she wears or does–deserves to be raped. Ever.

Maybe where this woman comes from, accepting a ride from a stranger is no big deal, even at 1 am. Maybe she was taught to believe that people are good and trustworthy. Maybe she found herself in a situation that she did not intend to be in. Maybe her cell phone did not work. Maybe her friends left her at the temple, and she found herself alone and unable to find a taxi, and did what we Americans do best: she improvised. She pulled herself up by her bootstraps and found the only solution available to her, and that solution cost her.

But, this is where common sense becomes cultural. For visitors in another culture, grasping common sense in that system is challenging. You are a stranger in a strange land. If you are an American woman, you will be stared at. It is difficult to interpret those looks. Some may be harmless stares; others are not. Even after more than a year, I still find it difficult to read many basic cultural cues that an Indian would take for granted. The other day, I received another admonition for saying thank you after having a chat and a juice with someone we met at the Sangla Kinner Camp. In the US, it is polite for us to say thank you as we take leave of our hosts. But, I think the next time I am at an Indian’s home, I might just try, “Chalo, Bye,” and see how that works.

Let me make this clear:

India is safe for tourists.

I love my travels here. It truly is Incredible India. I would not trade my experiences here for anything. However, India is neither perfect nor without risks. Just as there are bad people who do bad things in the US, so, too, are there bad people who do bad things in India. Whether it’s naiveté or cultural chauvinism, it is not clear, but many tourists seem to think they are immune to crime. Then, when a crime occurs, they are surprised. Inevitably, a backlash whips through the media, and tourism takes the brunt of that whipping. Good people who depend on those rupees and dollars suffer. Some people might believe that backlash and choose not to come to HP. That would be a damn shame. The Himalayas are magnificent.

In my last blog, I wrote about how my driver gave me instructions for staying safe. He did not assume that I had Indian common sense, so he spelled out every step I needed to take to stay safe. Let me do the same for potential visitors.

Here are my top five tips:

Do not travel alone.

Let me repeat that:

Do not travel alone.

It is one thing for me to walk to Starbucks by myself. It is quite another to go off into a wooded area by myself in search of outdoor amenities. Eat, Pray, Love is a novel, not reality. Bring a friend. The more remote the area, the more critical this advice is. It is essential to have a local speaker as a guide. A driver can double as a translator. This advice might be hardest for liberated American females with multiple degrees to accept, but, really, it is safer to use the buddy system. That includes going to the restroom and shopping. Try to keep your buddy in sight when traveling.

If you think that bringing a friend or hiring a guide will make the trip less authentic or that being alone will make the experience more exciting, think again. More than 1 billion people live in India. You are never alone, even when you think you are. You might as well be alone with someone you know, like, and trust.

Use a travel agency.

Don’t try to plan an excursion overseas by yourself. Travel agencies know the intricacies of Indian bureaucracy. They know that if your are going into certain parts of HP that you will need an inner line permit. They know how to handle that. Let them. You might think you will save money, but trust me, you won’t. Trusted ones include Kinner Camps (HP), Natural Mystic (India and Asia), Cox and Kings (India and beyond), and Palace on Wheels (Rajasthan most famously). Use a guide offered by the agency. Again, this is not the time to skimp on costs.

Hire a driver.

Many American friends think we are spoiled with a driver, but we aren’t. In Mumbai, our driver helps us negotiate the culture and serves as security, especially for me. Working with NGOs takes me to some less desirable locations, often alone. My driver looks after me in those situations. In HP, our driver did the same. In HP, even the Indians were intimidated by the roads, and that is saying something. Do yourself a favor. Don’t assume you can drive here. You can’t. Yes, even you, tough, Harley-riding, former Marine, professional trucker. A driver also means that you can focus on the scenery rather than the road. Rickshaws are fun, but be smart about using them. Short distances during the day are recommended for novices.

Even if you chose to travel another way, using a local guide is advisable. A few months ago, a Swiss tourist was raped traveling through Madhya Pradesh by bicycle with her husband. In HP, we saw a couple traveling the same way. Biking India would be a magnificent way to see the country. Many companies offer guided tours. These guides can’t guarantee your safety, but if something does happen, they can help you get help and negotiate the procedures. In the case of the Swiss tourist, she was not even able to explain what had happened because the police spoke only the local dialect. She had to wait hours for a translator.

Carry a mobile phone that works in India.

For most people, that means adding an international plan before you leave on your trip. SIM cards are very hard to get in India. Don’t assume you will be able to buy one like we did in Italy. Be sure you have the phone number of someone who can help you if you get into trouble. There is no national 911 system like the US. Different regions use different numbers, but it is usually a three-digit code. In Mumbai, the police are 100, and ambulances are 102, but these numbers are not totally standardized across the country. A unified system is in the works, but does not currently exist.

Just Dial is like US 411: 8888 8888. It works all over India. You can use it to find a taxi if needed. We found out the hard way that the restricted area of HP where we traveled has only BSNL (state-run telecom) as a carrier. Airtel and Vodaphone did not work past about Reckong Peo. While it was awesome to unplug from the Internet for some time, the lack of cell service in such a remote area was a concern. Naturally, our driver had BSNL, so in an emergency, he would have been able to call for help, which is why a local guide is so important.

Dress appropriately.

You don’t need to dress in a sari or salwar kameez. Jeans are fine and popular. Buy a couple of kurtas when you arrive. In more conservative areas, they will help you blend in. For women, tank tops are not advised. If you are in HP to hike, then dress like you would in the US. Shorts are OK for guys, but will attract unwanted attention for women. Yes, it’s sexist. It doesn’t matter. Some might argue that they see plenty of young Indian women in Bandra in shorts and tank tops, so why pander to the conservative Indian culture? Because HP is not Bandra, and you are not Indian. Those young women are part of the culture; they can challenge India’s mores and gender roles. You can’t. As a visitor, it is your job to show that you respect and appreciate the culture. Accept it, respect it, and move on. Remember that you are an ambassador for American culture when you travel outside it. You may be the only impression of an American these people ever see, especially in a remote village like Nako or Rogi. Be a positive one.

7 thoughts on “An American in Himachal: Common sense, culture, and travel

  1. Keep saying Thank you, Jean. Someone’s got to teach those Indians some common courtesy – It’ll be useful when they win the exit visa lottery.


  2. Pingback: Lipstick and Politics Talks Sexual Harassment On Indian Television | Lipstick & Politics

  3. Pingback: T is for toilets | Magnolia2Mumbai!

  4. Girl, i think the guy meant that she didn’t needed to say thank you. here it is kinda formality to say it to strangers. may be the guy was tryin to be friendly… difference of cultural common sense again.. but ”admonition” was quite harsh word from the author.. And yeah Thank You could’ve been useful but she was traveling to their culture not the other way round.. well its been more than a year and maybe you’ve grown up now.. oh wait not grown up, ”evolved”.. it won’t hurt your ego.


    • It was an admonition. I was definitely taken to task for being polite. A year later, I would say that Indians do not expect thank yous when hosting. Good hospitality is expected. Many Indians do say thank you. But, really, it was an example of when cultural expectations are different.
      I hope I have grown up, evolved, or whatever you want to call it. At the same time, I hope I never grow up.


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