I can’t recall exactly which night it was on our Women’s Expedition through India that I heard the story, but I can tell you I will never forget about Pad Man.
Our tour leader Anjali leaned in across the dinner table, as she often did after our plates had been cleared and the male wait staff had exited the scene. And she began to tell us about how expensive menstrual products are in her country, and how one Indian man revolutionised the industry by inventing a low-cost sanitary pad machine and made them available to rural and low-income communities. There’s even a Bollywood movie about him on Netflix, she said: Pad Man.
When I signed up for this Intrepid trip, I was excited for the chance learn about Indian women and their lives. Because in previous travels to countries where traditional gender roles persist, like Morocco or Egypt, I found it difficult to talk to local women. And when I did, it was certainly not about intimate private matters. So to have a real conversation about women’s health care was unexpected and meaningful. I know it would not have happened had I been alone, or in mixed company.
Travelling on a women-only group tour was like no other trip I’ve ever done. Authentic interaction with local women was just the beginning. Every day was an opportunity to feel empowered, joyful and grateful for seeing India up close in a way I never could on my own.
Here then are six reasons why I loved my Women’s Expedition to India.
Safety in numbers
There’s no sugar coating that India doesn’t have the best reputation as a destination for women. And while I’m confident plenty of that is fear mongering from people who have never even been there, it’s also a country I hadn’t considered visiting as a solo traveller.
We were a group of five, plus our tour leader. And I can say I felt as safe in their company as anywhere I’ve been. Whether crossing streets through chaotic traffic, navigating crowded markets or taking public transportation, we looked out for each other. And, much like a school of fish or a cycling peloton, as a group we were stronger together.
Sleepover under the stars
Our overnight camp in the Thar Desert was one of the most memorable nights I’ve ever had – not just travelling, but in life.
After a perfect sunset over the sand dunes and a home-made meal we were treated to live music and a traditional Kalbeliya dance performance by bonfire. As the women dancers twirled like serpents, their bejewelled clothing glinting in the flames, we were invited to join them. What exhilaration! To dance barefoot in the desert with my travel mates, spinning and laughing and holding hands. I could barely keep up with the twirling, but it made me so happy, as though any worries I’d been carrying shook themselves off to get lost forever in the grains of sand.
What could be better than all that? For me it was staying up together, crossed-legged on our camp cots, or tucked under warm blankets, telling stories. With no light but the stars above, we could ask delicate questions about things we’d seen here. (How could one learn about the Sati, women who threw themselves onto their husband’s funeral pyres, without having follow-up questions?) We also shared our own secrets from back home late into the night, like a high-school sleepover. An experience worth the 17-hour train ride!
Learning from locals
The thing I learned the most about India on this trip is how little I knew about India.
How could I have lived this much life and not heard of rangoli? These gorgeous mandala-like artworks are created from flower petals or coloured chalk and bring good luck to the home. In the small town of Nimaj, we joined local women and their children in decorating the entranceway of our heritage homestay. They were kind to teach us how to work with the chalk to paint a peacock – the national bird of India – and to not laugh at the huge mess I made trying to keep within the lines.
In the vibrant city of Jaipur, we visited a local family for a cooking demonstration. Again, how did I go my life without knowing about the power of mango powder? Discovering new Indian foods was a highlight of this trip and learning from an Indian chef was something I won’t soon forget. (Especially since she gifted us with copies of her recipe book.)
It’s so easy to rush from one famous monument to the next snapping pictures, especially in a country as rich in history as India. But these moments of listening and learning from local women are too big to fit on a postcard. Because our group was exclusively women, we had the opportunity to visit homes and interact with Indian women of all ages, to be reminded that despite differences in language, religion and customs, we are much more alike than not. I will remain forever grateful for this access, this privilege.
Shopping for good
I’m not suggesting that shopping is a gendered activity. But I am saying it was a lot of fun for me to browse for textiles, clothing and jewellery with travel mates who are equally excited about finding the perfect colour and will give me a straight answer to “should I buy this?”
We had the chance to visit several co-operatives that directly support rural women artists and craftspeople with fair wages. While it might take a few more years for the shops themselves to be run by women, there was a genuine sense of doing good with our purchases. And I think our whole group would agree that, when in doubt, get the scarf.
A leader who breaks the mold
Working in the travel industry is not a typical job for women in India. Which is just one of many reasons why it was so great to meet our tour leader Anjali. Like a growing number of women working for Intrepid in India, she’s breaking with tradition and helping to create a more inclusive environment for women visiting this country.
Besides turning me on to Pad Man (a pretty fun movie!), Anjali kept us safe, had the best food recommendations and surprised us with mangosteens. Most importantly, she patiently tackled all our tough questions, and shared her life stories with us. I have a deeper understanding of India because of her.
Confidantes and camaraderie
Truly, the other women I travelled with are amazing. We were three Australians, an American by way of Colombia and me, Canadian. We are different ages, at different stages in our relationships and careers. And we had the best time together.
As a solo female traveller I know that joining a group trip can be a bit nerve-wracking. In my experience, it’s always worth the leap of faith. This was my first time travelling with a group of just women, and the level of camaraderie I felt wasn’t just a bonus, it was everything. There’s nobody else I’d rather take those long train rides or dance in the desert with.
The dictionary definition of expedition is “a journey or voyage undertaken by a group of people with a particular purpose.” To me the important word there is “people.” Of course, I will never forget the splendour of the Taj Mahal, the pleasure of paneer or the beauty of a Kalbeliya dance, but the real treasure of my trip to India was the people I met there. I know our paths will cross again, because I will make it so.
Liisa travelled as a guest of Intrepid on the India Women’s Expedition. Our range of Women’s Expeditions create immersive local experiences for women that are ordinarily off limits on our regular group departures.