On a good day, Beena Mishra's work begins early. She leaves her home in Varanasi at 4am. She reaches the designated hotel an hour later, picks up her German guests, takes them to the Ganga, shows them the morning aarti, explains its significance, gives them prasad, takes them for breakfast and drops them back at their hotel.
By the time the rest of the temple town has awakened, Mishra has already clocked half a day's work. The remainder of her day is similarly demanding — if the guests so wish she takes them for a ride down the river, introduces them to the city's various markets and returns in time for the evening aarti. During peak season, between October and March, she does this practically every day. Mishra, 43, is one of four licensed women guides in Varanasi — there are 350 in all.
There's nothing new about women tourist guides. But as with other professions that are considered to be the domain of men, these women have to keep proving themselves. They are usually an invisible presence known to only local travel agencies and the odd foreign tourist. Yet they are surviving and in some places, doing extremely well.
All in a day’s work
In Ladakh, Thinlas Chorol started India's first and only all-women travel agency — the Ladakhi Women's Travel Company (LWTC) that provides only-women guides and porters and organises treks, home-stays and cultural and sightseeing tours. The company was born of a need to help women like herself. “In Ladakh, the education system is bad. There is no provision for further studies. All the youth work as guides. There are many women who want to work in the tourism field too but aren't allowed,” she says. She didn't have it easy when she started out as a guide. “It was difficult. Travel agencies refused to hire me.
Our culture doesn't allow women to venture outside and stay with strangers,” she says.
When she started LWTC, there was no money and no bookings initially. But, word of mouth and a few media articles later, today LWTC is clocking over a 100 bookings each year. Chorol now trains other women to be guides. In addition, the concept of home-stays give other women a chance to earn money. The travellers have the best deal — they have a competent guide they feel safe with, they get to live with locals and eat freshly-prepared food that doesn't cost them the earth.
In the nearby district of Manali, another woman is making waves. Single mother Moksha Jetley, 53, is passionate about motorcycling and her travel agency Back 'N Beyond, started in 2008, provides customised biking tours. Born in Punjab, Jetley grew up riding any vehicle she could get her hands on. Marriage, a daughter and a divorce later, she returned to motorbiking after an encounter with a foreign woman who travelled the country on her Enfield.
Jetley is the only guide. She has a backup team/vehicle but leads the pack of travellers herself. “I always travel alone... before a trip I do the recce myself, from start to finish. I'm not afraid...”
Why women? Jetley prefers working with foreigners, saying they are more respectful, appreciative and are very experienced bikers. "Foreigners have different ideas about women in India... they think we are repressed and always stay at home. I'd like to think that interacting with me changes their perception of Indian women,” she says.
In Mumbai, Manjari Datar, 60, has been a guide for 30 years. She is one of the many female guides in the state and one of the few who can converse in German. She deals largely with foreigners. “The rapport is easier,” she says. They look on Datar as a “family person” and conversations with her thus move beyond information and trivia. They open up about their lives, their families, raising of children and relationship problems.
Female guides in demand
After the Delhi gangrape last December, many Western countries issued advisories to women travelling alone to India. The advice given ranges from lowering one's eyes when walking to wearing safe clothes, not stepping out at night and avoiding visiting extremely deserted areas alone. No wonder then that there seems to be a rise in demands for women guides.
Kolkata-based Indu Elahi, who runs Let's Meet up Tours, says there has been a rise in the number of inquiries for women guides recently. “If there's even one female traveller, they are more comfortable with women. It is quite obvious. It's the basic things... feminine hygiene issues, girl talk etc... they feel women can understand them far better than men,” she says.
Elahi's interaction with tourists begins much before they arrive in India. She focuses a lot on safety and security. “I give them tips prior to visits, what to do before coming and how to behave,” she says. Let's Meet Up also offers a 24/7 free call service for tourists who want or need help with anything in the city.
“Let's face facts... every single survey mentions India as one of the worst countries of the world for safety... Safety and security is most important,” says Rakhee Gilani. A business consultant and writer who spent 10 months travelling through India, Gilani used LWTC guides when she visited Ladakh. “They responded to my emails quickly and I really liked the idea of an all women team.” Her only complaint was that besides their 'day jobs', the guides have to return home and cook dinner. “Despite having professional jobs, they are still expected to do their household chores,” she says.
For licensed state or government guides, there are no fixed timings, the pay is around Rs400-500 for a few hours, there is no PF, gratuity or insurance. In most cases, the guides return home to family life and chores.
Yet, the women continue working. “It's not a monotonous, 9-5 job, you can turn down offers if you aren't available, the people you meet are extremely nice and respectful, they will invite you along for a meal and will make sure you are part of their every conversation,” says Datar, adding that she keeps a collection of of letters and notes from grateful travellers. “It's a job rich in experience.”