on the eve of a big decision

I rushed around the house this morning, packing at the last minute, trying not to forget anything I needed for my trip to Toronto, trying to get to the airport on time, trying to calm down about, well, everything. In my haste, I dropped a stack of papers. They all landed perfectly in order, except one. My photo of me and Don Bowling slid across the floor. I picked it up and paused for a minute to think about Don.don

Eight hours from now I’ll be making a big decision about what’s next in my life. I’m honestly not sure yet what the outcome will be, so you’ll have to wait for the details.

I sat down for a second and thought about what Don, my “adopted grandfather” (his words, my delight) would have told me to do. I remembered his stories, his many different paths, major changes, setbacks and adventures.

I thought he must be somewhere out there, finding a way to encourage me…telling me that I just have to remember to write, and to not let anything get in my way or distract me. I lost track of him over the years – we exchanged letters, Christmas and birthday cards for a couple of years but eventually they stopped. As soon as I got a moment to myself today, I looked him up. I learned that he passed away two months ago. April 11, 2016 was 7 years to the day after I sat with him on the square in Florence discussing life, love, and writing.

After I reluctantly left him in Florence, I bought a journal and started scribbling furiously. I vowed to adjust my attitude, take some action, and change my situation. It wasn’t in as dramatic a fashion I had pictured that day on the train, but I did change my situation. That spark of passion led me to Toronto, where my life did indeed get better.

Today I am back in Toronto, which feels like Home. Getting here was pretty special too.

I was settled into my seat, journal in hand, ready for the seven-hour flight to Toronto. I had a premium seat and the one next to me was empty, always nice. After everyone was settled and the flight attendants were closing bins and checking seatbelts, a little old lady made her way to the seat next to me, clearly flustered.

She looked at me with tears in her eyes and said, “I’m very upset. They forgot me and I almost missed my flight.” The gate agents were supposed to bring her in a wheelchair but lost track of her because there were about 5 others on the flight. Her hands shook so much she couldn’t zip her purse so I gently took it from her, zipped it and placed it under the seat. I poured her some water and asked if she feels better now that she’s sitting down. She did. I got out a ginger cookie and saw her eyeing it. She asked where I got it, I gave it to her and she inhaled it. She asked if she could keep the other one for later.

She told me about her home renovation, paint colours, floor choices, her daughter that she likes and the daughter that she…well…doesn’t. I dug her headphones out of her purse and untangled them. I read her nine different movie descriptions and helped her choose one about a dress maker, then reset the system each time she accidentally pushed stop instead of the volume. She thinks marriage is overrated, and she loves Italy. I pulled her coat off for her, then put it back on. I helped her open the individually wrapped pieces of our meal, read the customs form to her, and learned about her grandsons who don’t visit and don’t even like surfing.

I had been reviewing my notes for tomorrow, rehearsing what I’m going to say. She said,
“You don’t need notes honey. You don’t need to explain anything. All you need to say is that you’ve decided what you want to do and you’re going to do it.” I laughed because it really is that simple.

She asked me earnestly, “what if they forget me again?” I told her it doesn’t matter because I can drive a wheelchair. I said I wouldn’t leave her until we saw her daughter, and she grabbed my hand and held on.

The gate agent didn’t forget her this time. He kept telling me he’d take her from here – confused as to why I wasn’t leaving. As promised, I stayed with her until we met her daughter to whom she said, “this is my friend Lauren. She stayed with me the whole time.”

Don and Noreen came into my life during times of uncertainty and fear. They gave me a few hours of their time, and some sweet and simple words of advice that left me feeling energised and confident about what to do next.

I don’t know yet what I’m going to do next. But it occurs to me that if I can learn to be as open and receptive when I’m feeling strong, as I am when I’m feeling scared, it could be anything.

on making lists

listmaking

I like to write lists.

I like to write lists and then re-write them and then separate them and combine them and put some on sticky notes and others in notebooks. It’s not about remembering what I need to do. When I need to remember something, I write it on my hand.

On sticky notes I write the things that I need to carry with me, thoughts that require focus and energy today, things I want to resolve before the sticky side gets fuzzy. Sometimes I have multiple lists : groceries, to do, work tasks, ideas for gifts, books to read. I stick them all to my smart phone (yes, I know there’s an app for that). When I leave the house I decide which ones stay on my desk and which ones get to go with me: which thoughts I am going carry out into the world with me and which ones I need to leave behind.

I buy most of my books for Kindle, so there’s no need to carry my “books to read” list. But it reminds me I should make some time for myself. I enjoy thinking about what might bring someone a smile, and carrying around a list of upcoming birthdays and celebrations brings me a smile.

I procrastinate by making lists. Instead of just tackling an item on the list I might re-write it in a different order – strategizing about the best way to go about my day rather than just going for it. I can’t stand it when one list is written in two different colours of pen. I can’t stand it when lists are written in pencil. Some people would call this OCD, but Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is real for some people so we shouldn’t make light of it.

I write lists in bound notebooks when they require longer term attention, some are ongoing and won’t ever reach “completed” status…they’ll just eventually not make it onto the next revision. I can’t bring myself to cross something off that isn’t done, to simply decide it doesn’t get to be on the list anymore. After all, it was there for a reason. Maybe I write another list called “things I might do someday, if I have time.”

My long list of things I must do is tormenting me right now. It has been for the past couple of months as I try to balance my move to London, changes in my role at work, and constant business travel. Right now I’m in Sweden but my head is in London and my heart is split between Toronto and California.

So today I put “write a blog post” on my list. And I’ll get to cross that one thing off and maybe I’ll get some sleep. Maybe I’ll put that list aside and focus on the lists I like to carry around with me.

Books to Read

  • The Mountain Shadow by Gregory David Roberts
  • Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo
  • Missoula by Jon Krakauer
  • Fast Girl by Suzy Favor Hamilton
  • Something by Oscar Wilde

Gift Ideas

  • A true story about military history that even my stepfather hasn’t heard of
  • “Welcome to the world” gifts for twins that will make their parents say, “of course that’s from their crazy aunt L”
  • Something my mother doesn’t even know she needs for travelling, but won’t be able to live without
  • Something my sister will love so much that she’ll try to make a DIY version for all of her friends

the girl with the ferret tattoo…a stream of consciousness from Toulouse

Toulouse reminds me of Brussels. It doesn’t feel like the France I know (but I don’t know much about France, really). Sitting by the Garonne as the sun set over the lesser known Pont Neuf, it felt more like Florence, actually.

I literally felt myself slow down today. I’ve been so wired lately, so stressed. My mind is elsewhere, and if I were being honest with myself I’d admit I’d rather be at home in Toronto taking care of the million things I need to do before I move to London.


dougswimmingI miss my dog.

The expense and trouble to take him with me to London are outrageous, but last weekend when he was away at summer camp (the dog-sitter’s cottage, I tell him it’s summer camp so he doesn’t think I’m leaving him behind when I travel) I was reminded that my life is so much better with him in it that it’s worth the trouble.


A man tried to talk to me while I sat on a terrace on the Capitol square, eating Ibérico ham and drinking Rosé. I think he was either offering me a joint or asking for food or both, but I don’t speak French and he wore too much cologne. I said no.

Recently a friend told me I am “stoic” and when I asked her if she meant “cold” she didn’t say no. She said “stoic sounds nicer.” Fair enough. This guy wasn’t someone I’d be the opposite of stoic with, but even if he was I’d probably have reacted the same way.


There’s a girl at the next table with a backpack and a book. She’s probably 24 and she smiles at me when I tell the man to go away. We smile at one another when an American couple gets into a loud argument at a nearby table. Briefly, I consider talking to her. But I don’t know if she speaks English (her book is in French but she seems to understand the conversation going on beside her – the American couple, fighting over something he said yesterday). I feel like she wants to have a conversation.

I don’t talk to her because I don’t have anything to say that will inspire her. I won’t be her Don Bowling. What could I say? Follow my advice and in 6-10 years you’ll have changed completely. You’ll be stoic and cities will start to blend together and you’ll listen to the inner voice telling you that you can wait until next year to have that adventure.

Would my 24 year old self be happy with my almost-31 year old self?

24to31


London is a city of neighbourhoods, like Toronto, like San Francisco. Unlike Amsterdam, Brussels, and Toulouse… they have a centre and build out from it. If my life were a city, it would be a city of neighbourhoods.

I’m moving to London one year to the day after I moved out of the home I owned with Mr. Butterflies and we became officially Separated. He’s taking me to the airport.

I was recently criticized for breaking up wrong. Apparently, it is confusing that we love each other but decided not to be together. This person didn’t think I should expect support in coping with my divorce, if I wasn’t even acting divorced. I don’t care. The compassion we have and continue to show for one another is something I’m proud of.


Who are these women in their high heels and cute dresses? It’s 38*C outside. Why do I feel like the only sweaty tourist sticking to her chair and worrying about whether my t-shirt will show boob sweat?

I tried on some dresses today, but felt out of place. I think my uniform of jeans and a cotton top with comfy shoes will need an upgrade if I’m going to walk on the same sidewalks as Kate Middleton.


saufSauf is not the name of the street I’m on.

This reminds me of the time Mom and I got lost in Brussels because we stayed on Rue street for miles.

How is it possible I have such a poor sense of direction? I wonder if I like wandering around and getting lost because it’s really my only option.


I saw a girl with a ferret tattoo. I think it was a ferret, anyway. I’ve only seen two ferrets, and that’s counting the one on Kindergarten Cop (it’s not a tooo-mah).

I like her maybe-a-ferret tattoo because I’m still thinking about it. It’s intriguing. I like my lace tattoo but it’s not that intriguing.

tyson-dog-tattooWhen I got my tattoo, I felt like so uncool next to the shop full of people who don’t give a fuck what you think about their knuckle tattoos and face tattoos, naked ladies and Koi fish and sugar skulls.My tattoo artist and another artist were chatting over the buzz of the tattoo guns. The other artist said that a guy came in wanting his dog’s face tattooed. She said, “I said okay but I need a photo’ and he said he didn’t have one so I said ‘okay then it will have to be pretty generic for the breed.” And then I asked, “how do you tattoo a dog’s face? Is that even legal?” and I wasn’t trying to be funny and no one laughed. Ooooh, I get it now. So uncool.

it’s what i do

A couple of years ago, I was spending a weekend with my grandparents in a Sacramento suburb. It was a particularly eventful weekend, as a local woman had disappeared from the grocery store parking lot down the street from their retirement village. She had just run out for a few errands then her car was found abandoned and her purse was missing. Her husband of 30+ years was on TV praying for her safe return and explaining there was no way she just took off, she’d never do that, it’s just not in her nature. The community organized search parties, volunteers combed the open fields nearby trying to hold onto hope that she’d be found alive and well. 

During a commercial break I asked my Grandma and aunt a question I already knew the answer to: “if you guys found my car abandoned in a parking lot and my purse missing, what would you think?” Grandma smiled and said she wouldn’t worry, my aunt said she’d probably wonder where the next postcard was coming from. Papa chimed in, “I’d check to see if you took all your shoes with you. If you were going to leave, I think you’d take your shoes.” 

No one would assume the worst. No one would go on TV and say the circumstances were suspicious. Not because they don’t love me or worry about me – they do – but they know me. I’ve never disappeared without telling anyone but can’t say I haven’t thought about it many, many times. Plus, it just seems like something I would do – if you know me. In the decade after leaving my childhood home I lived in 4 cities in 3 countries – averaging 2 years in each until coming to Toronto where I’ve been for about 5.5 years – my record.

I’ve been called adventurous, unreliable, brave, a flight risk. Some people say they’re jealous that I’ve lived in such great cities, but I’ll never forget the person who told me she felt sorry for me because I don’t have roots. In the past 5 months I’ve come to accept that she was probably right – I don’t really have a home. I have people all over the world whom I love and who love me, countless places I know I could go if I needed a place to go. But I’ve also come to accept that I don’t like staying in one place, I like to keep moving, it’s what I do. I take what is important with me and leave the rest behind. I maintain my friendships and preserve my favourite memories and move on to the next blank slate.

Five months ago I wrote about my most recent struggle with what to do next, and my decision to stay in Toronto: 

“I didn’t know if I should stay or go, I just wanted to be somewhere I could feel whole – somewhere I could silence the nagging feeling that my life is missing something. Sometimes traveling drowns out that feeling, other times it is yoga. Often I escape it when I’m laughing with my best friend, other times when I’m taking a bath and listening to Norah Jones…I’ve decided to stay here in Toronto, and to continue on the healing journey I started almost a decade ago…That nagging feeling is silenced for now, I know what I need to do and where I need to be.”

I think that was a nice thing to write on New Year’s Eve – a night notorious for making resolutions you don’t keep (I’m also still not in shape, nor have I finished my knitting project. And by not finished I mean not started). It was certainly true, at that moment and for some moments after that.

I think you see where I’m going with this…

I’m moving to London, England at the end of the summer. It is something to look forward to and something to feel hopeful about. I know what to expect: I know it will be difficult sometimes and lonely often and that I should make the most of it because someday this time in my life will be over and I’ll miss it. I’ve always loved London. I like the gloomy weather and the city’s energy and that I’ll be traveling around Europe again. It’s an amazing opportunity for my career and for our company’s growth. I’ll be back in Toronto often so I’ll have the best of both worlds.

I’m not overcome with excitement, nor am I nervous. I’m happy to be moving there but more than anything I’m feeling calm. This feels right – I don’t know if it is right but I know it will all work out however it is supposed to, and I’ve come to accept that this is just what I do. 

my gramma

I love books. I love reading and l love talking about books. Someday, I want to write a book. I love gifting books I know my loved ones will love… and then calling said loved ones to talk about said books. I like the stories, but I love the words. I underline my favourite passages and pause and think about why the writer chose those words. My heroes are the men and women who use words to paint pictures that don’t leave you any choice but to feel the way they felt when they wrote them.

I record inspirational passages in the journal Mr. Butterflies gave me for my birthday 5 years ago: gifted specifically to let me know that he knows how much I love words. I wonder if the author wrote the passage first and the story around it, or if the prose just came naturally. Did they edit several times to make it seem more poetic or did the sentences form themselves on the fly?

It happens in real life too. In the middle of conversations, I sometimes tune out for a moment and think about why a person chose the words they did. My first memory of this was with my Gramma. Gramma almost never referred to herself in the first person when she talked to me. I noticed, but I never understood why, until I did.

Come sit over here with Gramma.

My Gramma had Her Spot on the couch. There were many couches over the years – the most memorable was her teal and purple sectional with a digital print (it was the 90s, obviously) – it had recliners on the ends and a cupboard in the corner piece. My sister and I stored our prized possessions there: a knock-off “Disney” colouring book, car bingo games, a dollar bill we folded and unfolded into origami elephants and swans and flowers, and most importantly, our Pogs and Slammers.

Her Spot was square in front of the TV: arm’s reach from the phone she used to place orders from QVC. She occasionally looked up from her murder mystery to see if we wanted a hot chocolate or some pasta. Our answer depended on how long it was until dinner – we knew we had to save room for Pillsbury biscuits. We giggled hysterically when the tube popped – it scared us every time. If we could convince her to open a second pack we had to promise to eat them all. She knew a top secret recipe that made her biscuits the best in the whole wide world (it was butter).

When I was a teenager, my life was upside-down. Nothing was okay, everything was fucked up and it seemed like no one understood. She’d invite me to lie down on the couch with my head on her lap. We’d watch the shopping channel and she’d comb my hair back from my face. Absentmindedly and rhythmically, her nails softly scratched a trail from the corner of my eye, along my hairline and behind my ear, down to my shoulder. She’d tell me stories about when I was a little girl, when I lived with her while my parents worked. She’d say “this is how Gramma got you to fall asleep when you was a little girl. You was the sweetest little girl…”

Don’t you dare bring that shit into Gramma’s house on Thanksgiving.

When I was 21 I moved to San Francisco. I loved my new life as a ‘career woman’ – thriving in the big city, being all fancy and stuff. I was jet setting and getting pedicures and all sorts of other extravagant things. I left my fucked up life behind for a fresh start and, for a little while, never looked back. Until I looked back. I found myself lonely and lost, and promptly hopped in the car and drove the 7 hours to Gramma’s house. It was Thanksgiving – my compatriots know but for those who don’t: Thanksgiving is the ultimate American holiday. It’s a bigger deal than all the other holidays combined.

It was Thanksgiving and I was a newly minted grown up and so it seemed time to ‘help’ with the preparations. I couldn’t cook (even if I could have, I wouldn’t have wanted to compete with my uncle’s deep fried turkey). I decided that my contribution to Thanksgiving Dinner would be my mom’s signature: “Orange Stuff”.

Orange Stuff is a Ritz Cracker crust with a Cool Whip/Condensed Milk centre and canned mandarin orange slices. I went grocery shopping, prepared the dessert, washed the dishes, and sat down feeling like an adult. An impeccable dinner was served and I looked around, counting my blessings for being part of such an amazing family. It was time for dessert and I was so proud to pull my dessert out of the fridge and serve it to relatives eagerly awaiting Kathy’s Famous Orange Stuff. The family took turns politely complimenting me, I acknowledged their praise and agreed it was pretty good.

Gramma interrupted my moment, shouting across the table, “what is this?” She clarified “this tastes like diet!” and shot an accusatory look my way. I tried to explain but she interjected: “this ain’t Orange Stuff! What’s this fat free shit?” There was no arguing with her, only apologizing…and of course, laughter. I’ve made Mom’s Orange Stuff twice since and I’ll never again dream of using that fat free shit. I never forget the tenderness in her glance, a softness that she didn’t even try to hide as she “scolded” me.

Gramma loves you so much.

A couple of years ago, I introduced my (then) husband to my Gramma. I was equally proud of each of them, and eager for them to meet one another. They were two of the most important people in my life and they both loved each other immediately (I knew they would). While my Grampa and husband sat inside, I stole a moment with Gramma on the porch. She said, “Gramma loves you so much and is so happy you’re happy.”

 

Since I was too little to remember, my Gramma always referred to herself in the third person. This isn’t the first time I’ve pondered, not even the first time I’ve written about it. It’s the first time I’ve shared because there are many people thinking of her right now, and who she was to them.

My Gramma never talked to me as the woman she was – a woman who had overcome so much, a woman who always put others first, a woman who approached every one of life’s ups and downs with grace and strength. As far as we were concerned, she was just my Gramma. Since long before I came along, she lived her life for everyone else. She was someone’s Gramma, someone’s Momma, someone’s wife and someone’s friend. She talked about herself in the third person – she chose those words – because they reflected how she saw herself and how we all saw her.

a new chapter

I’m happy that in a few hours 2014 will be in the past. It has been one of the more difficult years of my life so far.

My marriage ended in August. It was and continues to be a profoundly sad and heartbreaking backdrop to a lot of other things that, on their own, would be cause for celebration.

I spend a lot of time thinking about what might have been, if things were different, if I was different – but they’re not, I’m not. Slowly, those thoughts are becoming less persistent and are being drowned out by feelings of gratitude. I have experienced real love. I was half of a truly wonderful marriage that just wasn’t meant to be – through no fault of his or mine. The way that Mr. Butterflies and I handled our separation, the way we continue to support one another is something I’m incredibly proud of.

Obviously, a new chapter in my life has begun.

And as usual, that leaves me wondering about my next move. Historically, moving to a new city has been my go-to solution for all of life’s challenges. When I’m not happy with my surroundings, I seek out new ones.

Professionally, it’s been the best year of my life. I co-authored a book, spoke at conferences around the world, and tripled the client base for a software solution we built to automate a methodology I designed. I’m growing my team and am confident about the direction our company is going. Imagine my delight when my boss told me he’d support me if I wanted to leave Toronto – that my job would come with me if I decided to go.

Suddenly my biggest problem was choosing where to go next: back to Amsterdam? San Francisco? Portland? Somewhere entirely new? I was paralyzed by the sheer volume of possibilities.

Life transitions tend to make me introspective, as I’m sure they do for most people. I asked myself why I was leaving, and what I needed to make me happy in a new city.  Mr. Butterflies lovingly suggested I consider whether I was running from something or toward something, and as sound as the advice was, I kind of hated the answer. So what if I was running from something? It’s what I do.

The other thing I do is make lists.

Reasons to stay in Toronto:

  • I have formed very important friendships that I couldn’t possibly live without. I’d be back often though…
  • I’ve been in Toronto for five years – that’s longer than any city since childhood. I’ve been here long enough to develop a routine.  It may sound silly, but if you’re even a little bit of a nomad like me you know how exhausting it can be to find a new hair salon, doctor, yoga studio, etc. With the very memorable exception of being convinced to get bangs (ugh, why did I listen?)- I’m happy with all of the above. I do miss proper cobb salads and unsweetened iced tea though…
  • I own a parka, two pairs of snow boots, and a heaping pile of scarves in every fabric/colour combination you can think of. I can’t think of any other major cities where I could continue to get as much out of the significant investment I’ve made in cold weather gear. Maybe Chicago though…

Reasons to leave Toronto:

  • It would be nice to be closer to friends and family in Oregon, or to go back to my expat life in Amsterdam. But then, I’m lucky enough to have a life that lets me see them more often than some of my friends who live just a few blocks away…
  • I need to get out of my comfort zone. I need to push myself to grow. But staying put seems like the most uncomfortable and challenging thing in the world sometimes…
  • It’s freezing cold here in the winter, and in the summer I get whatever the opposite of Seasonal Affective Disorder is, because it’s so hot and humid I am miserable and just want to stay indoors and whine. There are places with much nicer weather. But when I was in San Francisco I distinctly remember missing the seasons…

My simple list of pros and cons quickly turned into a Rubik’s cube. Or maybe a Venn diagram: every single rationale seemed to fit in the overlapping space as both an argument for staying and one for leaving.

I didn’t know if I should stay or go, I just wanted to be somewhere I could feel whole – somewhere I could silence the nagging feeling that my life is missing something. Sometimes traveling drowns out that feeling, other times it is yoga. Often I escape it when I’m laughing with my best friend, other times when I’m taking a bath and listening to Norah Jones.

Without a clear answer, I decided to give it some time. I say “I decided” like it was a conscious effort to just trust that the right path would reveal itself to me in time. But really, there was no trusting the universe, no patience, no certainty. It was a very uncomfortable few months. But as they tend to do, things worked out. The universe did indeed reveal the right path.

I’ve decided to stay here in Toronto, and to continue on the healing journey I started almost a decade ago. I founded the When You’re Ready Project, a community for survivors of sexual violence (including me) to share our stories and find strength in one another. The Project has a long term vision to create a sexual assault registry so that we can combat the problem using reliable information. I feel like everything before this led me here: my unfortunate experiences as a young woman, my choice of a career in a field focused on innovative uses of data and protecting the privacy of individuals, and making my way to Toronto which is the birthplace of many inspirational and like-minded movements and initiatives.

That nagging feeling is silenced for now, I know what I need to do and where I need to be. I’m about to take a bubble bath, listen to some Norah Jones, then get ready to spend the evening with a dear friend.

In a few hours I will say goodbye to 2014 and gladly ring in the new year feeling thankful for everything that has led me to where I am right now. Years ago, a very special friend shared this poem with me. I’ve carried it with me and read it often, and nothing seems more fitting.

The City by Constantine P. Cavafy

You said: “I’ll go to another country, go to another shore,
find another city better than this one.
Whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrong
and my heart lies buried as though it were something dead.
How long can I let my mind moulder in this place?
Wherever I turn, wherever I happen to look,
I see the black ruins of my life, here,
where I’ve spent so many years, wasted them, destroyed them totally.”

You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.
This city will always pursue you. You will walk
the same streets, grow old in the same neighborhoods,
will turn gray in these same houses.
You will always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere:
there is no ship for you, there is no road.
As you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner,
you’ve destroyed it everywhere else in the world. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

on traveling alone as a woman in India

Isn’t it dangerous for a woman to travel alone in India?

Possibly. Likely. Okay…yes. Given the recent highly publicized instances of gang rape and India’s long history of violence against women in general, I think it is fair to say it’s dangerous. But making generalizations about an entire country or its people is an ongoing grievance of mine. Although I’ve been asked the question a number of times, it would be impossible for me to answer, I can only share my perspective…

 Wading in the Arabian Sea

on traveling alone…

Sure, there are some risks to traveling alone…but those are also the most compelling reasons to do so. There is a very real possibility that you could become lost and no one would know where to start looking for you.  I learned many years ago that this specific type of fear/freedom is the adrenaline rush I crave, so I didn’t take any devices with me – no cell phone, computer or tablet (obviously, that’s not for everyone). I love traveling solo and it is a risk worth taking. I worry more about the risk of not ever traveling alone, missing out on the feeling that I can do anything.

That said,  a couple of things to consider when going solo in India:

  • Who is going to look after your bag when you use the bathroom? Western style toilets are a luxury, so if you’re like me you’ll devote many awkward moments to trying to secure your belongings while you hover over a hole in the floor.
  • Prepare to be pitied. When local people learned I was on my own, they always expressed deep concern and sadness for me. In Indian families, three generations live and vacation together; and upon hearing that I have parents, grandparents, siblings, and a husband they were at once confused as to why the whole gang didn’t come and sad for me that I was away from them.

as a woman…

There’s no sense ignoring that fact that women, whether we’re in India or on the couch in our living room, are more vulnerable than men. Throw different cultures into the mix and who knows what to expect.The scariest travel experience I’ve had so far is getting lost in Prague alone, late at night. I turned a corner and was delighted to see the bridge that gave me my bearings, but that quickly faded when I noticed about six men in their early twenties standing around drinking. My only other option was to try and find a detour, but I’d already been lost for about an hour and for all I knew the next street would be even worse.

At first I scolded myself for judging them – maybe they were just a group of friendly young men who would nobly help me find my way. I think that as women we too often let our perceived obligation to be polite override our intuition. That night, I did. I decided to hold my head up high and walk by them with confidence. Luckily I made it only a few steps before deciding to listen to the hairs standing up on the back of my neck. I ducked into a doorway, heart pumping, trying to think about what to do next. Run? Haha, nope. I’m neither fast nor coordinated. I’m also lost. Act tough? Let’s see, do tough people wear pink satin dresses? Nope. If I only I could create a distraction at the other end of the street and sneak by while they investigated. I watch too many movies.

I’ll never know where this came from, but I placed my purse against my belly, under my dress. I arched my back and grabbed my side with one hand, holding my purse belly with the other, took a deep breath and walked slowly toward them, slightly pigeon toed and wobbly. They noticed me approaching…one need not know Czech to understand the universal language of catcalling. Two walked toward me and my heartbeat surged, but I stayed in over-exaggerated-fake-pregnant character. And an amazing thing happened when they got close enough to see me on the dimly lit street, they looked at each other disappointed, uttered what I assume was a dismissal, and let me pass. I smiled and nodded and continued to wobble by the other four who paid no more than quick passing glance.

By making myself seem even more vulnerable than a lost foreign girl, alone in a pink dress, I was safer than I know I would have been if I’d tried to assert confidence. There’s enough in that for a whole library of analysis, but I digress. Being a woman can be scary anywhere. We have to be resourceful in ways even we don’t understand, but that’s how it goes.

India was nowhere as scary as that night in Prague. In the rural villages I visited, the people were lovely and the men looked after me in a paternal way. They were very respectful, never invading my space or making me feel threatened. They stare relentlessly, which is a little bit alarming; but I soon realized they were intrigued by my pale skin, or the fact that I was alone, or were trying to figure out if I was from Germany or Australia. I would smile at them and receive the famous Indian head wag and sometimes a friendly conversation.

in India…

I only visited a handful of cities, with most of my time being spent in Rishikesh (Uttarakhand), Padne (Kerala), and Mandrem (Goa); as such, I’m far from qualified to share my experience on what India is like. I was born and raised in the United States and am far from qualified to comment on that country, either. I can tell you what San Francisco was like in the mid 2000’s, or Eastern Oregon in the 1990’s; but only from my own limited perspective. In India, just like any other country in the world, your safety depends on who you are, where you are, what you’re doing, and when.

My first stop was in Rishikesh, nestled in the Himalayan foothills along the Ganges river.  Rishikesh is known as the yoga capital of the world, and was also made famous to the West by The Beatles, who wrote much of the White Album at the Maharishi Mahesh ashram. My first morning there I woke at 6am to catch a class at Yoga Vini at the base of the Lakshman Jhula bridge. At that hour I found the city so peaceful I was inclined to tip toe.  But that particular day was the Holi Festival, so by 10am there was chaos in the streets. Huge crowds gathered in the squares and on the bridge to dance and throw colours and drink Bhang, a cannabis based drink that leaves them feeling rather happy and a little bit fuzzy. I quickly noticed that the only women in the main squares are tourists, most Indian girls are sensible enough to steer clear of the melee.

I’m glad I went and experienced it, but by early afternoon I’d had enough. A few times I was surrounded by groups of boys who would grab me and push themselves against me under the guise of ‘playing Holi’ which normally includes (lingering and sincere, non-sexual) hugs. I had to stay alert and aware of my surroundings, and found that if I pushed them away and they’d set their sights on the next tourist woman.  I was lucky to be there with two male friends and suspect it was the reason the boys weren’t persistent. Experiencing Rishikesh on Holi is like experiencing Amsterdam on King’s Day: one of the best celebrations in the world but a far cry from what the city is like the other 364 days of the year.

With Friends at Holi FestivalHoli was the only time I didn’t feel safe on this trip.  The next leg of my trip was a week in Kasaragod, in the South.  Kerala is known as “God’s Own Country” in part for it’s natural beauty, but also for the religious diversity. Muslims, Hindus, and Christians live side by side peacefully. I stayed in an amazing resort called Oyster Opera, and was looked after by my wonderful host Mr. Gul. Is it safe? Without a doubt.  My entire second week was in Mandrem, Goa, which could have been any other tourist beach town. In Goa I was with a group of about 20 and staying at a nice resort, doing organized activities. Is it safe? Yes – however I think you have to be more wary of people who will take advantage of you. In Kerala I was treated as a guest, whereas in Goa I was, on more than one occasion, a sucker.

I’ve been asked the question many times: is it safe for a woman to travel alone in India? The answer, like most things, depends. For me, it mainly depends on the subtext which is always evident in the person’s tone. Some people ask with curiosity, wondering if they should or could or would. My answer for them is, “maybe not always, but safety should only be one of the factors you consider when choosing an adventure – think about what you have to gain.” Some people ask with a tone of skepticism, they can’t believe anyone would want to, let alone do it.  My answer to them is, “no, probably not. You should really stay home.” An answer I see a lot in travel blogs and articles is that “you just have to be smart about it.” But I disagree. Women do have to be extra alert when we travel in India, but unfortunately being smart doesn’t protect women from men – in India, or anywhere else. My answer, to my loved ones, “totally safe! Don’t worry about me!”