Three Indian women take on a male-dominated travel industry

Meet three unlikely tour guides changing the face of travel in India.

The future is looking more female in India, where traditional gender roles are facing pressure from the reinvigorated feminist movement sweeping the globe. While women make up less than 30% of India's workforce nationally, leadership at the Delhi offices of PEAK DMC, which functions under Australia-based Intrepid Travel, is trying to change that. As of 2016, Intrepid has hired more women tour guides in India than any of its competitors, and they're planning to add eight more to the front lines this year.

“As a company, it's important to offer all genders the same opportunities, but in a country like India, it's a challenge, especially when leaders need to be on the road for months at a time,” says Ravindra Shekhawat, PEAK's operations manager. To recruit female candidates, Shekhawat and his team put up posters in coffee shops, spoke at universities, and reached out across social media.

Male tour leaders still outnumber women 59 to 11 at Intrepid in India, but Shekhawat is hopeful that these brave female pioneers, who challenged the status quo and jumped hurdles to claim their independence, have paved the way for others. “It will be easier to find more women because we already have these 11, who have inspired their friends to pursue their passions and push past social boundaries,” he says.

An added incentive to hire more women: They seem to be very popular among clients. “Customer feedback says the women are doing very well, and in some cases, much better [than their male counterparts]. Females can come across more sympathetic to passengers, sharing personal stories of their family and their struggles to become a tour leader. That makes it more interesting to foreigners, who might have never expected to be led by a woman in a male-dominated country. It really makes the trip for everyone—seeing how India is changing right before their eyes,” Shekhawat explains.

So far Intrepid has found some remarkable guides to help with that growth, including these three trailblazers.


Hometown: Jodhpur, Rajasthan
Touring Region: Northern India

The six short years that Harshita Tak spent with her grandfather, N.L. Tak, were enough to leave a lasting impression. According to Tak, N.L. was the first person to introduce the concept of “village safaris”—bringing tourists to local countryside communities—to his native Rajasthan back in the 1970s. His pioneering efforts earned him global street cred, reaching as far as the U.S., where Tak says he was featured in Lonely Planet. Nearly 20 years after her grandfather’s passing in 1998, she is finally following in his footsteps.

“He loved Indian culture, so he started showing tourists around using his car as a taxi. He did this almost every single day for 30 years,” Tak recalls. “I remember him bringing home clients and seeing how they respected him. He had earned that respect, the fame and the name. I've always known in my heart that I would try my luck in this industry, going to new places and meeting new people every day as he had.”

When N.L. died, so did his business. His four daughters were all married, and his one son, Tak's father, was perhaps too shy or uninterested to carry on the one-man show. This didn't deter Tak from picking up where grandpa left off. In her early 20s, she dug up videotapes of N.L. in action that his clients had sent him over the years, and she began studying his techniques. She used these skills to launch village safaris at a nearby resort. When she began applying for bigger tourism jobs after finishing university, she was quickly discouraged, and even shamed. “They were like, 'You're mad. You're a girl. You're not supposed to do this job.' That really broke my heart,” she says.

It felt like fate when a friend told Tak about Intrepid's call for female tour leaders. She instantly landed an interview, but was careful not to mention N.L. Set on making a name for herself, Tak still hasn't mentioned her family lineage to Intrepid. Once she secured her dream job, she faced a new obstacle: Her parents, especially her dad, were not supportive, citing safety concerns and societal pressures to “settle down” as reasons to pass up this career opportunity. Tak feels differently. She explains, “I will [get married] someday, but in the meantime, why can't I travel? Why can't girls do whatever boys do? I feel very safe with Intrepid Travel.”

During her eight months with Intrepid, Tak has lead tours in northern India with up to 16 passengers—some for up to three weeks. She’s felt very fortunate to not have encountered any problems on her many adventures, including camel riding across a desert and sleeping under the stars in Rajasthan. The biggest issue she has faced so far is misconceptions from the locals.

“If an Indian girl is wearing jeans, speaking English, traveling alone, and is old enough, then she's free and available. To some that means you can approach her very easily, flirt with her, and have her. That is the greatest thing that I have to be really careful of. That people don't get the wrong message,” she says. Still she believes that her countrymen are becoming more open-minded.

“People are now respecting and accepting that having women in the workplace is equally great. Things are changing, you can feel it. I'm much more confident for it. Also, I've learned how to listen, speak, observe and assess a situation, and make good decisions. You have to have a very high emotional intelligence to do this job. I'm still working on it, but I'm getting there,” says Tak, whose first name—Harshita—means “the one who gives happiness.” Her father is still not 100% on board, but she’s happy with her choice. “Travel feeds my soul,” she says.

Usha Mary, 34

Hometown: Madurai, Tamil Nadu
Touring Region: Southern India

Like many conservative south Indian women, Usha Mary lives with her husband, Aathi's, family and adheres to certain cultural traditions, such as having a respectable job as a college lecturer, consulting her in-laws on appropriate fashion, and wearing a cumbersome sari to bed every evening. As a dutiful wife, she also listens to Aathi gush nightly about his awesome job as a travel coordinator for Marvel Tours. He could tell these chats inspired her, so eventually he encouraged her to pursue travel, much to her surprise. With his support, the same year they tied the knot in 2012, Usha began bringing college students to Tamil Nadu villages to promote education and cleanliness.

Over the next four years, Usha developed such a deep desire to share her culture with others that she became a certified local guide in their city, Madurai. She began leading two-hour temple tours on weekends, keeping her teaching job during the week.

“It makes me very happy to meet new people and learn new things. I really love it,” Usha says. A natural at sharing and connecting, Usha's raw talent was quickly recognized by Intrepid senior tour leader, Charles, who covered the same area. It wasn't long before he recruited Usha to join his team. When she broke the news to Aathi, he advised her to seize the opportunity.

“He really motivated me,” says Usha, acknowledging her partner is a rare breed in this region. “My husband is a very mature and broad-minded man. He knows all the pluses and the minuses of tourism, and he trusts me a lot. He doesn't care what others think.” Those “others” included her in-laws and parents, who were both so adamantly against her taking the Intrepid job that they stopped talking to her for months.

“In India, especially the south, only a teaching job is fit for women. My family begged me not to travel. I would 'lose my power in my home', they said. 'It's not safe,' they said.” Her friends echoed these sentiments, warning “Don't travel alone.” To all of them, Usha responded, “No, I want to travel. My husband understands me, and I understand me. I'm sorry that you don't like this, but I have to do this.”

By October 2016, Usha led her first two-week trip wearing a sari, no less, trying to uphold her traditions. “I felt very guilty,” she admits, crying often then. “I thought, 'Why are they not understanding me?' I love this. I'm passionate about this. I tried to convince them that this is a very beautiful job.” Aathi would call her three times a day to say, “Don't worry. Don't put up with anything.” By trip two, she had changed to jeans and a T-shirt to keep up with her fast-moving passengers.

What appealed to her most about working with Intrepid was having their protection. As a freelance guide, Usha regularly faced sexual harassment from travel agents, such as asking her to meet for coffee in exchange for sending her clients. Intrepid, however, had her back, no strings attached.

This support proved essential during one of her early trips in Mysore when a 20-something hotel worker knocked on her door at 11:30 p.m. “May I come inside your room to watch TV,” he offered. Appalled, Usha turned him away and called Shekhawat. “He sleeps with the phone under his pillow, so he picks up at all hours,” Usha laughs. “I wasn't afraid because he was a young man. But I can't have the same thing happen to my clients next door. Ravi told me to relax, lock my door, and go to sleep. When I went to file a complaint with the hotel manager at 6 a.m., Ravi had already spoken to him, and they had fired the hotel worker. Intrepid is so supportive, and I trust them. But first, I trust myself. Women are like teabags. They don't know their power until they get in the hot water.”

Six months later, Usha hasn't been home a lot, but her presence is strongly felt, as she is now the breadwinner of her family. She recently paid for her mom's cataracts surgery, and she shares her earnings with her family members, who are now not only talking to her, but so proud. “I love my life. I love my country. I love my people,” says Usha, whose main goal is to be the best travel guide possible. “I want my children and my children's children to be like, 'My mother, my grandmother, did this.'”


Hometown: Delhi
Touring Region: New and Old Delhi

Born and raised in India's capital of nearly 22 million, Komal Darira knows how to negotiate pushy rickshaw drivers, who sneakily raise prices whenever they see a slew of Westerners trailing her. Her independence, street smarts, and insider knowledge have served her well as the first female Urban Adventures guide with Intrepid Travel, a role she took on in 2013 at age 19. While studying full-time at university, Darira led three- to 12-hour day tours of up to 20 people, seven days a week, through the most hectic parts of Delhi.

Despite being fearless and savvy, she was not prepared for what happened one evening in December 2015. “I was in an auto rickshaw returning home after a trip ended late, around 10 p.m. Suddenly the driver stopped on a lonely street, and said he wanted to go for a smoke. I said, 'You cannot stop here.' Then he said, 'Get off.'” Shocked, Darira responded, “How can I? It's very dark and I have no data or reception here.” He demanded again with irritation that she get out. “He must have been drunk,” she says. So she dismounted, and he drove off. “I was all alone, about 15 kilometers from my house.”

For 30 long minutes, she tried calling friends and the office to no avail, being careful to avoid the gaze of male onlookers drinking on the side of the road. Taking the bus was not an option. “I was quite scared because of what had happened,” says Darira, referring to the notorious and deadly gang rape of a university student on a moving bus exactly three years earlier.

Miraculously a call from her Intrepid manager finally went through. He reached out because he knew she hadn't made it home yet, and, after reaching her, he immediately called her a taxi. While she waited, she remained cool and confident on the outside, but she was praying hard on the inside. “Anything can happen to you anywhere in the world if you're all alone on the road,” she says. (Read about work being done in India to develop safer transit options.)

When she arrived home, she learned that her family had already formed a search party. She chose not to come clean with her parents then, and instead apologetically told them that a tour had run late and she had no cell reception. It was no secret that they would have preferred to see their scholarly daughter become a doctor, engineer, or teacher. They didn't stand by her at first, and she cried a lot, but eventually her 69-year-old, maternal grandma helped them see her undeniable passion.

“My grandma convinced everyone. People always say the older generations think differently, but in my family, she's the coolest. She told my parents, 'Let her do what she wants. Maybe after getting married, she might not have a good husband who will support her. So it's up to you to give her a good future.'” That's when Darira's mom agreed to let her do it for a year to see what would happen.

Fast-forward four years, she has won two back-to-back “top performer of the year” awards for her extraordinary work at Urban Adventures, where she has helped break down gender barriers. “Today, we have three female guides and five males. But I just received applications from 10 girls to be a day tour guide, which is the best achievement for me,” she says.

Now when others confront her dad about his daughter's career choice—saying things like, “Your daughter is a tour guide? Guide?! You didn't have money to make her study for a good profession?”—he simply responds “Yes, she works with Westerners and I am happy with it.” When one relative called him out, “What marriage prospects will she get you?” he responded, “She is my son.”

When Darira overheard her father's comment, her heart and eyes both swelled. “That was important for me. I can still cry when I think about what he said,” she admits. Now he consults her before making big family decisions. “He thinks that I am more experienced, so he likes to hear my thoughts before doing anything.” Next she hopes to take her city skills on the road, joining Tak and Usha as a multi-day tour leader as early as this fall. She's applying for the job now—though it's pretty much hers.

Cristina Goyanes is a NYC-based writer covering human interest stories, wellness & lifestyle, sports & fitness, and travel. Follow her on Twitter @GoGoGoyanes and on Instragram @cristinagoyanes.
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