A must read from Ludovica Gazzè, who is a well traveled researcher from Italy, and currently studying in Boston – about traveling and living amongst the men of India! (Warning – Some adult language used ahead!)
Two days ago it was my last Sunday in India. It was a beautiful day, and I was in beautiful Madhya Pradesh (sorry, Uttar Pradesh, but I couldn’t resist the hills, the rivers and the colors of the forest). More precisely, I was in Orchha climbing the hundreds of stairs of the beautiful palaces to get breathtaking views and a little space for myself, alone.
Except, you can’t really be alone here, probably not as a woman. The moment I sit down to enjoy the view, and maybe write something on my notebook, or look at the guidebook, or simply do nothing, somebody comes up. “Your country, miss?” “Would you like to see the dome of the temple? It would be closed after 5 pm, but I can open it up just for you.” To which of course I said yes: more stairs, and a beautiful sunset. And some tip for the guy who unlocked the lock and showed me the way with his torchlight. Not to mention the usual: “Are you married?” I know, I should have worn a ring… But it’s so hot I can’t tolerate wearing jewels.
Maybe it’s the same thing that makes these people stand on top of each other in lines: they might not feel the need for a personal space. You’re there, they’re there: let’s chat. So I figured that to be alone I would have to walk off the beaten path – “but please mam walk in the center because it’s monsoon season and there might be snakes and scorpions”. Be it as it may, I went on the “Heritage Walk” in Orchha, to the temples a little further away from the main monuments (and possibly prettier), under a shining sun, and with the cows as my only company. I figured Indians might not like to walk in the sun, but I thought tourist would be braver. But no, I was alone, and I was enjoying it.
I followed the path, making as much noise as I could to scare away the snakes. I passed a couple of gates, closed but not locked, probably to keep the cows from trespassing (I think I saw these gates in Scotland as well), until a dog started barking, and pretty aggressively. He was staring at me and barking, so I stopped. And then he started running towards me, so I screamed like an idiot and ran away as fast as I could, but he was pretty fast too. Great way to end my stay in India, a dog bite, rabid shots, and probably the US immigration officer will quarantine me. And then I realized the dog had stopped barking. I turned around and I saw a man on the wall of the closest temple: he was smiling/laughing at me, and gestured to come closer. I believe he lives in the abandoned temple, or uses the place as a stable for his cows. Anyways, he gestured that it was safe for me to visit the area, so I happily went on. Until I noticed he was following me, and another guy with him. Or better, I was sandwiched between them. They gestured to go on, and we got to the river, and then took a turn to go to the next group of temples. I kept my guard high, trying to figure out what the hell they were up to. Then the first saw a couple of bulls approaching, and he pulled them away, that is away from me. They waited for me to take my pictures, and then accompanied me back to the gate. When I stopped to take a last photo of a dragonfly they said something and indicated the way I should go, smiling, as if I was lost.
They saved me, like in the most stupid Bollywood movie, from a barking dog. And the first thing I did was to doubt them. Maybe if I had spoken their language I would have been less tense. Or maybe not. Travelling alone is all about balancing the “don’t talk to strangers” advice and the fact that you often need other people, which means you need to find someone you trust. And there isn’t always tripadvisor with its reviews at hand. You trust your guts, you hope, you prey. Travelling alone is also about balancing being open to the new and protecting yourself. Which translates into operating by means of transactions. I pay you therefore you drive me to the station. If in the meanwhile we can chat it’s better, but as soon as you drop me off you have to forget about me. And please don’t stare at me. I know I’m a white woman, but you’ve seen better than this, so move on. Plus I’m tired, dirty and disgusting.
Digression: it’s better if the conversation with the rickshaw driver is not the following one:
Driver: You married?
I told you this is the most asked question ever. But then, it was the same in Kenya, and at some point I got an entire village worth of guys asking me to marry me. So I just answer the truth.
D: I have a wife. 3 sons. 1 is still a baby.
Me: Aw, cute.
D: My wife: good fucking.
End of the digression: this happened in Kashi. Back to the serious thoughts about the transactions. I believe it’s a western thing. The fact that we are not used to favors, not from strangers. We don’t do them (or very few do) and we definitely do not accept them. We don’t like owing anything to anybody. We think there is a reason behind every action, and it has to be some selfish reason, right? If I’m having dinner in Khajuraho, and you, a male, offer me a drink of the local wine (some alcohol, distilled from a not specified fruit, which tastes like maybe vodka and people water down, but it still gives you a headache the next day, believe me) it has to be because you want something (that something) from me. I mean, everybody tells me 50% of Khajuraho men are married to western girls… This wine must make girls crazy. Or maybe Khajuraho men are nice and like to offer you a drink, tell you about their life, and then make sure you hop onto your car and make it to your hotel safely. And then they turn into nice middle-aged men who also work in development, and feed you if you forgot to grab a sandwich before boarding your train (the man was from Lucknow, though, not from Khajuraho).
One thing is sure: Khajuraho men do like women. The guardian of the Jain temple, in particular, a little, plump fellow, loves to hug them. He patently ignored an Indian family and came straight to me to show me the beauties of the temples. “There, the beautiful figure. Love. Sari. Eyes make up. Powder make-up. Love. Vishnu. Ganga”, pointing at the different statues. And a big hug at the end of the tour, as a bonus. “That one? My friend from France slapped him for that.” This was told me by another guy. For free.
The thing is, I don’t want to lose out because I’m a woman. I don’t want to sit back, to stay in the herd and miss some experiences that I would be able to do if I was a man. But I do have to be careful about where I watch, where I walk and what I do. There’s definitely a lot a men pissing in the street, and not making much effort to hide their, excuse me, cocks. And that’s not a sight I enjoy, to be honest. So I do what I have to do, look away and try to find my way. Like the time in Kashi when my auto driver in Kashi asked me if before going to Sarnath I wished to see the sunrise on a boat on the Ganga. Official boat tours are banned these days because of high water (and rightly so: street lamps are halfway in the water, and cables are definitely in there too.
So I didn’t have a safe way. It was either his way or not. And it was so from the beginning since I got in town at 4 am and the bus station is not a pleasant place to wait for sunrise. He had delivered once, by bringing me to my hotel. But maybe he’s as vicious as that: gaining my trust and then, who knows. That day I decided that I wanted the boat tour, and that I could trust the man not to harm me. On the other hand I was 100% sure he would rip me off, but the rupee has been sinking, and my purchasing power has risen. I got my boat tour, and I got a breakfast at the guy’s house, a room less than 6 square meters where he lives with his mother, father, brother and 2 children. I don’t know why he brought me there. I couldn’t communicate with his family, because I don’t speak Hindi. But I was grateful for getting to see his place. And of course, I was grateful because nothing happened to me, despite the risk I took.
But hey, being a woman also has its pros: sometimes you get the best seats, indeed. Modern Delhi metro has coaches just for ladies: this means less people and more importantly less smell. The Jhansi station has waiting room, and toilets, only for ladies, that is until a family comes in, and do you want the boy to sit alone? And the next thing you know the place, and the toilet, is full of men. But who cares. I don’t ask for segregation. Nor do I ask for the best seats, although it was nice in Kenya when they made me sit next to the matatu driver, without all the packs and sacks and the people sitting on top of you. The seat next to the driver’s remains the most dangerous, but comfort beats danger sometimes. I guess what I do ask for is to be able to see a place when I get there, the whole of it. Which is probably more than I ask to my own country, where there are places I wouldn’t go, even if I had jewels between my legs.