A day in the life: Usha Mary, Intrepid tour guide

The trailblazer tells Ben Ireland how happy she is to have overcome cultural challenges to become one of only about 10 female tour guides in India.

Talk us through your typical day…
We run tours over 15 to 16 days usually, for groups of as little as three but up to 16, with guests ranging from 15 to 85 in age. I organise all the transport and logistics, make sure everyone knows where to be, and teach guests all about our culture in southern India and my life experiences. That makes it authentic for people. I run tours to areas in southern India including Kerala, Goa, Kochi, Madurai and Periyar.

Who are your typical guests and had you travelled much before?
I have many travellers from Australia, the UK, Canada, New Zealand and the US. It’s interesting for me, as I’ve not had a lot of chance to travel outside of India, so I get to learn all about their cultures as well. Different guests ask different questions and have different demands – but as long as you talk, and listen, you will find a solution. Before I became a tour guide, I hadn’t travelled farther than Chennai, where I studied. Last year I went to Melbourne, Australia, to speak at a conference. It was my first time outside of India – and I’m 34. It was unforgettable.

I’ve been in my job for…
About two years. Before then, I spent five years as a lecturer in computer science at a college, after I finished my postgraduate course.

I became a tour guide because…
I had wanted to work in the tourism industry from a very young age, but in India, and southern India in particular, there are a lot of cultural barriers. It’s seen as a dangerous thing to do for a woman. When I was working at the college, a group of western Europeans visited in 2015. It was the first time I’d met western European people, and had a chance to talk to them and teach them about Indian culture. I really enjoyed it and wanted to do more – and then the opportunity with Intrepid came up.

Why is it difficult for Indian women to work in travel?
I married in 2012, and when you are married in India, it is expected that you then have a baby. I had a lot of pressure, particularly from my in-laws, to have a baby. When I first told my husband I wanted to be a tour guide, he was shocked. But he’s been very supportive since. My whole family were against it, and wanted me to raise my own family. For the first three months, it was very difficult. My in-laws were not happy, but then they realised how happy I was and realised that I was safe. So now they’ve analysed it, they’re happy for me –and proud. At home, I still have all the same traditions – I wouldn’t change that. In India, women tend to work in travel only behind the scenes, rather than leading tours. There are only about 10 women in India doing what I do.

Have you faced any of the challenges that your family feared you would?
At first, it was difficult. The main issue was sexual harassment. In India, if a woman gives a man her mobile number, they often think it is an invitation to send you messages that you don’t want. It might be asking you to go for a drink or more than that. As a guide, I had to give my number out for business reasons, and people misunderstood. The people I deal with know who I am now. I always say: “Women may like diamonds, but they are also like diamonds – very strong.”

My favourite destination is…
Hampi, in Karnataka. It has Indian history and Hindi mythology, and offers something different for our guests. It’s very calm and has beautiful rock landscapes. Travellers usually say it’s their favourite place too.

I am most commonly asked…
How to cook the food. India is, of course, famous for its food, and I always explain that home-cooked food is three times as spicy as you find in hotels. We love to cook and I like sharing that culture with travellers.

To relax, I like to…
Listen to music and practise yoga. I also speak to my family as much as I can.

What one thing would you take to a desert island…
My husband.

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