Linda Karl, a yoga instructor from the USA, has been to India 13 times since her early 50s – and she still adores the place in her 60s!
Here’s she tells us how her Chicago street smarts helped prepare her for India, why you should consider retiring to the country and what it’s like to explore India as a solo female traveller.
On her first impressions of India
I first went to India, solo, in 2005 when I was 51. I went to study yoga and I stayed for a month. I went to Chennai, in Tamil Nadu in south India, and people told me it was not as "rushed" or "hectic" as north India, that it would be more laid back. Although I had never been overseas in my life before then, when I landed there I felt like I had come home.
Chennai is a huge city. At the time it was about 6 million people, the same population as where I'm from, Chicago, so it did not seem all that different. As it turned out, it DID seem easy and laid back to me and I had no issues or problems whatsoever getting around as a first timer in India. The people were friendly and helpful.
Now when I go back, the streets are louder and busier and there is more air pollution than there was 15 years ago. But the Tamils are still as friendly and charming and helpful as I found them in 2005. I have been to many more places in India since 2005 and the cities in India in general are now faster and noisier but the rural areas are the same -- still slow and laid back.
On what keeps drawing her back
After that first trip, I returned a mere 6 months later in 2006 and when asked "what is it about India?" that made me fall in love with it, I said "the people." I most definitely have a spiritual connection to India. India is with me always – even though I have not been there for 3 years now.
“I have been told more than once by Indians that I am more Indian than American, which I take as a great compliment.”
I have been told more than once by Indians that I am more Indian than American, which I take as a great compliment. The Rumer Godden quote rings very true for me: "Once you have felt the Indian dust, you will never be free of it."
On retirement in India
I think it India is a safe country to travel at any age, but I would say it is a good place to retire or to live part time because living expenses can be cheaper compared to Western countries, certainly health care is cheaper. I know more than a few people who have left their home countries to live in India or to stay for long periods of time in Kerala and Goa.
But remember that it depends entirely on what type of visa you have. You can't just decide to leave home and live in India forever. You can’t do that indefinitely on a tourist visa. And I would definitely tell people to visit India for extended periods of time before you decide. And what will you do for money? Unless you have a business visa a foreigner can’t work in India.
Remember that India is not for everyone. I've met more than a few starry-eyed yoga hippie types who thought India would be the land of incense and spirituality and they went home after two weeks. On the other hand, I know both men and women who have married Indians and can stay there no problem. But that would not be for me!
On connecting with the locals
As a 13-time traveler to India I would say it is important to see the side of India that tourists in a package group usually do not see. A local can "grease the wheels" so to speak to get things done for you if you need help. I would never go on a package tour of India but as a solo traveler I have had serendipitous adventures I never would have had, had I not known local people.
“...listening to his stories about Old Bollywood and all the famous people he had met, like The Beatles.”
For example, I was taken into the Naga Babas' camp at the Maha Kumbh Mela in Haridwar, 2010. In Chennai, on Pongal (a special holiday in Tamil Nadu), I was invited into a school that I was walking by to see the children's Pongal Day performance and treated like a "guest of honor". I’ve ridden on a motorcycle around Jaisalmer during the Desert Festival, and through the back ways tourists don't usually see in Auroville in Pondicherry. I’ve been invited for a special puja for Kali in Kolkata, and to meet and do special puja with Swami Avdeshanand Giri (the spiritual head of the Juna Akhara), at the Maha Kumbh Mela in Haridwar in 2010 on the very special day of Mahashivaratri. I’ve also spent two days with the son of a famous Bollywood director from the 1950s, listening to his stories about Old Bollywood and all the famous people he had met, like The Beatles. His mother was also a famous musician who played with Ravi Shankar and was also his lover!
Connecting locals with also helped me out of difficulties. In 2016, I was doing my yoga retreat in Varkala, Kerala. The day after my people arrived Modi declared 500 and 1,000 rupee notes worthless – which they were for months after we left – so we had no money. We were saved by the help of two of my Indian friends. Being Westerners, we had no Indian bank accounts so we had no way to exchange our now worthless bank notes. My friends took all of our 500 and 1,000 rupee notes. As Indian business owners, THEY could exchange these notes for low denomination ones, like 10 and 20 rupee notes – which they did. We were able to exchange all our high denomination rupee notes thru them to get our money back! At that time I met more than a few Westerners who had no money whatsoever.
On travelling solo as a woman in India
Depending on where you are, I believe a woman traveling alone is more accepted now. I mean, not that it was not before when I first went as I have always gone solo, but I think more people think of it as "no big deal."
Like everything else, peoples' attitudes are not set in stone, attitudes will be different in a city vs. a rural place. In places like Goa and Kerala where there are more western tourists than say, Kolkata, a solo woman traveler is no big deal, at any age. That being said, I've done solo trips to Kolkata and never had problems.
Of course a woman might be asked where her husband is because Indians ask all types of personal questions, but you need a certain attitude to deal with certain things if a woman is going to travel solo in India. Once I was asked, "Where's your man?" I said, "why do you want to know?" and that was the end of it! I use my Chicago street smarts wherever I go.
On waiting for your next trip to India!
The only advice I have is BE PATIENT. The Covid situation is not permanent.
India is not giving tourist visas anyway now and no international flights are allowed until spring at least.
Linda is a Certified Yoga Therapist and a Trauma Informed Yoga and meditation teacher. She teaches online from her website.