The easiest way to see the sights of northern India is by hiring a car and a driver. Whilst it may sound decadent, it is relatively inexpensive and covers the long distances between areas of interest. We had a small hatch back car with just enough room for us, the driver and our backpacks. We booked a three week tour through a travel agent in Delhi, although we elected to arrange our own accommodation as it was much cheaper this way. Our driver picked us up in Jhansi and the first stop was Khajuraho to see the hidden temples. We then drove to Orchha and became guests at a wedding reception. Then it was onto Agra to see the Taj Mahal followed by Ranthambore national park for a tiger safari (tiger roughly translates as deer, peacocks, monkeys and birds). Next we crossed into Rajasthan taking in the sights of the pink city of Jaipur and relaxing in Pushkar. We continued on to Jaisalmere to see the golden city and into the northern desert for a camel trek. We then visited Jodphur, the blue city and finally Udaipur. The package also included trains from Delhi to Varanasi, Varanasi to Jhansi and Udaipur to Mumbai. We paid £305 each for the tour. It was the first thing we bought in India and we met people on the way who had paid a little less but we also met people who had paid much more. It is always difficult to know when you are being ripped off and we did haggle the price of the trip down considerably. We settled on a price which we felt happy to pay for the service we received. We also knew it was vastly cheaper than booking a similar trip from the UK. We spent a considerable amount of time in the car traveling between places and got to know our driver well. However it was in that car that one of the most frightening experiences that happened on our trip occurred.
The journey from Orchha to Agra was a long one. We traveled on dusty roads through areas which our driver proclaimed were unsafe to stop. I am not sure how long we had been driving for when we got a flat tyre. Our driver pulled into the side of the road and set to work on fixing the flat. We decided to get out of the car to stretch our legs and were told to get back in, guard our bags and not let anyone see us. A little shocked we did as we were told, he fixed the flat and we continued on our journey. As we drove he told us how we were traveling through ‘bandit country‘ and how everyone here had guns and it was not safe to stop anywhere. We gazed out of the windows at the passing colourful trucks and arid landscape, thankful of our lucky escape.
The scenery rolled by through the afternoon until our peace was once again disturbed by the familiar thud-thud-thudding of a flat tyre on a gravel road. Our second flat of the day was much more traumatic than the first. We stopped opposite some kind of truck stop and the driver got out to assess the situation. We now had three working tyres and two flats. He jacked up the car and took the damaged wheel off. Then he went over the road to chat to some local men at the truck stop, which was now looking more like a trailer park. The hard faced, gap toothed locals emerged to look at us. Children at first, then men. We smiled but tried not to encourage them, fearing for our safety and wondering if we were still in ‘bandit country.’ Our driver came back and told us he had to go to the next town to fix the tyre. He locked the doors, told us to stay in the car, pushed his mobile phone and the car keys through the open window then before we realised what was happening he was gone. He jumped on a truck with our flat tyre and left us on the side of the road, with three wheels and a jack. We quickly wound up the window.
Then the men came. Young men, old men, teenagers and middle aged men, around 25 of them in total. They surrounded our vehicle and began to circle us. They prowled around the car, pointing, looking, leering at us. Some started blowing kisses and knocking on the window. One of them tried the door handle and laughed as he realised it was locked. The pack continued to circle us, shouting to us, blowing kisses, trying to open the doors. Then the car began to move, they were pushing it from side to side laughing at us as we cowered inside. We were frozen in fear by what was unfolding, unable to speak or move. Seeing the mobile phone we decided to call for help, but we quickly realised we had no idea of our actual location to notify the police. The only other number we had was our drivers, and it was his phone we had. We contemplated putting the keys in the ignition and driving the car off its jack. We had no idea how far away the next town was or if a car with three wheels would even move. Our only weapon was a Swiss army knife which was somewhere at the bottom of my backpack. We knew it was only a matter of time before they tipped the car or smashed a window to get to us. We also knew if they did that we would be gang raped by the entire pack. We made our plan that if the car was tipped we would simply run like like hell in the direction of the next town and find a female or family to protect us.
An older man wearing a gray hessian blanket and carrying a large stick had joined the pack of men circling our car. He said something and most of the pack returned to their lair in small groups, laughing as they went. We had no idea what was going to happen next and prayed our driver would return. We continued to watch closely for any sign of an attack, signalling to each other who was near by and what they were doing. Whenever someone crossed the road or walked past our vehicle a wave of panic filled us. The blanketed man stood across the road, staring at the car, leaning on his stick. It was beginning to get dark. The cars traveling the road were becoming less and less frequent. It was becoming more difficult to see if anyone was near us and what was happening. From time to time a few male faces came near to the car and took a peak at us. with each one the feeling of impending doom grew. We willed every passing vehicle to be the one containing our driver, who would be our savior from this hell. As if to taunt us, trucks would stop across the road, and various people would get out, never our driver. We sat like rabbits caught in headlights for over an hour in that car. Another truck pulled up and I saw the sandals and white linen trousers of our driver behind the open door. Almost ecstatic I craned my neck for a better view. It was him! He was back with the tyre. Our hell was over.
Our driver went and spoke with the blanketed man then returned to the car. Unsure whether to hug him or hit him we launched into an hysterical tirade and described our ordeal; making him promise never to leave us ever again. He muttered an apology, refitted the tyre and we continued on our journey to Agra. We sat silently in the car for the rest of the journey thinking about what might have been. It is the only time on my travels when I have felt threatened, intimidated and not in control of a situation. It is also the only time I have ever wished I had stayed at home.
On reflection, I think the blanketed man had been tasked by the driver with our protection. When he came to the car, the others left. He stood guard watching us and appeared to be some kind of elder. Perhaps we were never in any real danger at all and our panic was mainly fulled by our imaginations. However the situation felt extremely threatening and our fear was very real. In recent years the western media has published several stories of gang rape and sexual abuse of women in India. Although sex is often taboo, my experience was that Indian men are often highly sexed and see a white woman as a green light for a sexual liaison. I was touched inappropriately on more than one occasion and found the only way to remain safe was to talk of my husband, who would be meeting me soon. During the times I was traveling with a male companion, I felt safer and I was afforded much greater respect. Although, I was not permitted to make any decisions and would only be offered a cup of chai if the male I was with wanted one. But given the choice, I would take 1950’s patriarchy over abject fear any day.