What it’s like on a women’s expedition in India

I can’t remember exactly what night it was on our women’s expedition India that I heard the story, but I can tell you that I will never forget Pad Man.

Our tour guide Anjali leaned across the dinner table as she often did after our plates had been cleared and the male wait staff had left the stage. And she started telling us about how expensive menstrual products are in her country, and how an Indian man revolutionized 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 to learn about Indian women and their lives. Because on previous trips 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 certainly wasn’t about intimate private relationships. So having a real conversation about women’s health care was unexpected and meaningful. I know that it would not have happened if I had been alone, or in mixed company.

Traveling on an all-female group tour was like no other trip I’ve ever been on. Authentic interaction with local women was just the beginning. Every day was an opportunity to feel empowered, happy and grateful to see India up close in a way I never could on my own.

So here are six reasons why I loved mine Women’s expedition to India.

Safety in numbers

There is no sugar coating that India does not have the best reputation as a destination for women. And while I’m sure a lot of it is fearmongering from people who’ve never been there themselves, it’s also a country I hadn’t considered visiting as a solo traveler.

We were a group of five, plus our tour guide. And I can say that I felt as safe in their company as anywhere I have been. Whether crossing streets through chaotic traffic, navigating crowded markets, or taking public transportation, we looked out for each other. And like a school of fish or a cycling peloton, we as a group were stronger together.

Accommodation under the stars

Our overnight camp in the Thar desert was one of the most memorable nights I have ever had – not just in travel but in life.

After a perfect sunset over the dunes and a home-cooked meal, we were treated to live music and a traditional Kalbeliya dance performance by the fire. As the female dancers twirled like snakes, their jeweled clothes glinting in the flames, we were invited to join them. What excitement! Dancing barefoot in the desert with my traveling companions, purring and laughing and holding hands. I could barely keep up with the spinning, but it made me so happy, as if all the worries I had been carrying were shaking off to be lost forever in the grains of sand.

What could be better than all that? For me it was staying up together, cross-legged in our camp beds or tucked under warm blankets and telling stories. With no light but the stars above, we could ask delicate questions about things we had seen here. (How could one learn about Sati, women throwing themselves on their husband’s funeral pyre, without having follow-up questions?) We also shared our own secrets from home late into the night, like a high school sleepover. An experience worth the 17-hour train ride!

Learning from the locals

What I learned most about India on this trip is how little I knew about India.

How could I have lived so much life and not heard of rangoli? These beautiful mandala-like artworks are created from flower petals or colored chalk and bring good luck to the home. In the small town of Nimaj, we joined local women and their children in decorating the entrance to our heritage homestay. They were kind enough to teach us how to work with the chalk to paint a peacock – India’s national bird – and not laugh at the huge mess I made trying to stay within the lines.

In the vibrant city of Jaipur, we visited a local family for a cooking demonstration. Again, how did I go about 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 will never forget. (Especially since she gave us copies of her recipe book.)

It is so easy to rush from one famous monument to the next snappy photos, 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 all 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 eternally grateful for this access, this privilege.

Shopping for good

I am not suggesting that shopping is a gendered activity. But I will say that it was a lot of fun for me to search for textiles, clothing and jewelry with fellow travelers who are just as excited to find the perfect color and will give me a direct answer to “should I buy this?”

We had the chance to visit several cooperatives that directly support rural women artists and artisans with fair wages. Although it might be a few more years before the shops themselves were run by women, there was a real sense of doing good with our purchases. And I think our entire group would agree that if in doubt, take 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 guide Anjali. As a growing number of women working for Intrepid in India, she is breaking with tradition and helping to create a more inclusive environment for women visiting this country.

Besides turning me on Pad man (a pretty funny movie!), Anjali kept us safe, had the best food recommendations and surprised us with mangosteens. Most importantly, she patiently addressed all our tough questions and shared her life stories with us. I have a deeper understanding of India because of her.

Confidentiality and companionship

The other women I traveled with are truly amazing. We were three Australians, an American via Colombia and me, a Canadian. We are at different ages, at different stages in our relationships and careers. And we had the best time together.

As a female solo traveler, I know that joining a group tour can be a little nerve-wracking. In my experience, it’s always worth the leap of faith. This was my first time traveling with an all-female group and the level of camaraderie I felt wasn’t just a bonus, it was everything. There is no one else I would rather take the long train rides or dance in the desert with.

The dictionary definition of expedition is “a voyage or journey undertaken by a group of people for a specific purpose.” For me, the important word is “people”. Of course, I will never forget the splendor of the Taj Mahal, the pleasure of panning 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 traveled as a guest of Intrepid on India Women’s Expedition. Our selection of Women’s expeditions creating immersive local experiences for women who are normally off limits on our regular group departures.

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