Inconsistent India

I shouldn’t have clicked it, but I did. New York Post put out an article today entitled,

“Woman raped and burned kills attacker by dragging him into the flames”

I held my stomach with one hand as I opened the article on my phone with the other. “Surely, the country can’t be getting this fucking bad” I thought to myself. Things were getting ‘that bad’, but, in another country. My country was not the sight of the attack. It had taken place in India, a country where sexual assault, rape, and violent crime against women is up, again.

Damn. Humans are selfish. At least I am. After reading the article and the comments, I thought about myself. I began to recall my own time backpacking through India. I thought about my own uncomfortable moments involving the men there and put my phone down. “Can’t believe I did all that. Backpacked through India.” Despite only being two years ago, it seemed like some wild, impetuous thing I’d done as a teenager/young adult, to which there are many stories. On more than one occasion, I felt threatened by a man in India, and I still feel the same nausea thinking about those moments as I did when they actually happened.

I listened to a podcast on the way home from work, punching my foot to the gas to get to church and receive the good ashes, evidently. Four female hosts talked excitedly about their time in India and how they’ve been trying to re-create their favorite dishes of the country in their own homes here in the states. “Oh…India!” I declared out loud, suddenly and VERY fondly remembering the rainbow array of exceptional food I had during my two week stint. I did not have a single bad meal while in India. The hosts talked of sweet coconut chutney with idli, a better version of pancakes. “Yes, yes! I remember eating that every day for breakfast, it was delicious!” I said aloud in agreement. Writing this now, I’m embarrassed saying that because as you’ve probably guessed, I was alone in my car saying this aloud. A flood of happy memories such as lounging on a private boat on a sunny day in Kerala, dining on the beach in Goa, and laughing so hard my sides hurt in a rickshaw with my husband and our driver in Delhi came pouring into me. India, one of my best trips, I mused.

Same trip, same traveler, two very different recollections. So, what gives? Mixed feelings. I participate in many travel related social media groups. Every once in a while there is a woman who will ask if she should visit India, or visit India solo. The responses are always, “yes!” “hell yeah!” “OMG YES!” These straight up, no hesitation responses always puzzle me. Admittedly, when a woman asks if she should do anything in this group, there are seldom people who say something like, “no” or “let me be honest…”

I’ve been an outcast in so many spheres in my life, that I don’t comment on these circumstances and just let everyone pipe in with their “yeahs” and “yipees” which I’m SURE are well-intentioned. After all, these people are all adults. My strange comment won’t mean much, I’m sure. But, if a friend were asking me if they should visit India, here is what I would say.

I’ve been to 23 countries and God knows how many places in the USA. I mean it when I say, I love every single country I’ve ever visited. I. love. India. There are so many reasons why. I intend on writing another article about the details of my trip to India, but here’s a snapshot.

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India, on one hand, is not what you think. Yes, I did visit the bustling cities of Delhi and Mumbia. But, India is more than just that. The south of India, in particular, is another world entirely. Kerala and Goa are the best parts of Latin America, the Caribbean, and California rolled into one. Think lush greenery, beautiful beaches where people party until sunrise, palm trees swaying in the wind, hippies, yoga in the brightest green tea hills you have ever seen, and the most soft spoken, humble, and normal people you’ve ever met. Kerala is nicknamed God’s own country, and the name is legitimate.

If God used a mighty paintbrush to paint only one part of the world canvas, it was undoubtedly Kerala, and south India as a whole.

Goa was a vacation spot for people who are exactly like the friends and family you know. In fact, nothing could be more typical of a resort town. Older women clinking their wine glasses as they cheered being on a girls trip and away from their stupid husbands. Men slamming down beers and singing “pub style” in small beach shacks, celebrating being away from their annoying wives on a guys trip. Parents dipping their small children into the ocean and laughing at their reactions at seeing the ocean for the first time. Guests ordering plates of fried seafood. People drunkenly singing karaoke at beach side bars and trying to find the perfect souvenirs of t-shirts, sunglasses, and trinkets in small clothing huts. Tito’s lane is full of nightclubs, bars, and restaurants that could fit right into Los Angeles, Miami, or anywhere of the like.

Some parts of Mumbai and Delhi could easily have been mistaken as any big city in my own country. We were shocked to see young couples on…DATES! Dates in chic, hip restaurants which played hip hop music and kept right on part with the edgy molecular gastronomy movement happening everywhere in Europe and the Americas. Young couples held hands and walked along the water. Dads driving middle class cars held the door open for their small children to run in and be dropped off, presumably, at school.

For those who aren’t visiting India to see a different version of the same thing they see all the time, there is room for that too. In Udaipur we visited a temple where men, women, and children sat in colorful and elegant clothing clapping their hands and signing to worship their gods, barefoot and smiling. We visited small shops where artisans create works of art from animal bones, and we caught a performance of traditional Rajasthani performance. Our first day in Udaipur we passed a public bus, except this bus allowed men to sit on top of it when there was not enough room down below.

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India, on the other hand, is exactly what you’d think. As we drove from Mumbai’s airport to our hotel, I was physically sick from culture shock. THOUSANDS of horns were blaring, cars drove in fictitious and self created lanes, cows ran wherever they pleased. At a traffic stop, a man with a missing arm banged his “stump” on my window begging for money. The buildings were gray and dilapidated, trash was abundant, smells were more abundant, and everyone looked at me from outside as the asshole, rich, white foreigner that snapped photos of their day to day life to post on social media later.

When we got to our hotel, I turned on the shower, climbed in, and sat on the floor knees curled to chest and cried. I fucking hate this and I want to go home immediately. (Side note, I no longer felt this way after spending that afternoon and night sleeping comfortably.)

We took a tour that night of Mumbai by night. In addition to our incredible tour guide and driver, we met a couple from Australia who were lovely. This tour made me see Mumbai in a different way, a way I really liked. It should be noted, that people of India LOVE taking photographs with foreigners. So, when two shy young men asked to take a photo with us, I didn’t think this was odd at all. In my world, it is not unusual to throw your arm around the person next to you in the photo, or to step closely to them. In an attempt to break barriers, I said, “come on guys! Group photo with new friends!” I threw my left arm over my husband’s shoulder, and my right over the shy young man next to me. Big mistake. The man began groping me FIERCELY and uncomfortably around me waist and my stomach as the lens snapped. The photo was taken, they thanked us, and ran off with it, and I was left dry heaving and in tears. I was at a loss for words and as I give pause while I write this, I feel sick re-thinking about this. My biggest fear was that this photo would be used in an unwholesome way, not as a memento from having met some cool Americans. I’d like to write more on how I felt, but I’m as much at a loss for words now as I was then. I felt disgusted and even plunged into an acute panic attack/depressive moment as that moment, the feeling of his grimy hands on my as I stood next to my husband played over and over again.

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When riding a train another day in Mumbai, a man put his hand over mine as I held onto the strap. Usually, Mumbai’s trains are a nightmare, and you cannot be mad for people being too close to you or being in your space, you just can’t. But on this day, at this time, there were only 7 of us in the compartment. Twenty straps, and this man had to put his hand ON my hand. I moved it, thinking, maybe this is his strap, the one he uses daily. He again, took his hand and put it over mine again and stared at me as I looked at the floor waiting to get off our stop. I shutter not that this happened, but for how much more could have happened had I not been with a tour group, had my husband not grabbed my hand to show we were married, and had I been alone. Later on in Mumbai, less disheartening, but still a shock to me, when negotiating a deal with a tour operator, I spoke up to explain a concern my husband and I had and was told by the operator to be quiet because this was a conversation to be had between him and my husband, two men, and I had no part in it.

In Delhi, at the Red Fort, three men stared at me in a way that made sweat drip down my neck, every woman knows this feeling. “We want to take a picture with your wife” one of the men declared. My husband, tried to give them an out. “Excuse me? Did you say you would like my wife to take a picture for you? Of the three of you?” The man clarified that, no, he had in fact wanted me to be in a picture with the three of them. My husband gave them a stern no and laughed it off, but again, I wonder, what if I had no husband to say “no“ for me? Would my ”no“ had been enough? A few days after returning home, I read an article about a foreign couple who was stoned outside of the Taj Mahal for denying a photo with a group of men. Could that have been us?

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I will say, there were plenty of places where men were more than respectful towards me. We took a private 24 hour boat ride in Allepey, and the crew of men were professional and accommodating. When my husband became ill overnight I made several demands, spoke sternly, and was given the upmost respect and was spoken back to like a person of equal stature. The men made themselves scarce and stuck to their duties the entire trip, but also made themselves available for polite conversation and to work out every detail with us to make our journey perfect. I felt so comfortable with this crew, that I could have easily been on the boat myself and not felt in danger.

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If you are healthy both in mind and body, have an adventurous spirit, and can roll with the punches, you should always visit India. The bad experiences I had pale in comparison to all of the magnificent ones I had, and given the chance, I would absolutely go back. I personally would not feel comfortable traveling to India alone or with a girl friend. I felt that my husband was not only an amazing travel partner, but a big deterrent in being harassed or taken advantage of, even in terms of being charged for things. There were times where I felt very uncomfortable, because I was out of my comfort zone! Some days were outstanding, but challenging for me because they were so different, not because I felt unsafe or in danger. For example, in Munnar we went on an hour long hike and I had never done a challenging hike before. I was so thankful to have my husband there to physically help me when I felt weak and to know all the right things to say when I felt scared or unsure of continuing. I would recommend visiting India with someone you know and trust who will be your biggest asset when you need support and who you will always be glad you shared such an adventurous and amazing time with.

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One thought on “Inconsistent India

  1. I loved reading your heartfelt account. I’m an Indian woman and we know a few of the bad experiences you talked about and we instinctively protect ourselves against them. So I feel for you. There are a few extra precautions you need to take in India. Friendliness and eye contact, for example are considered as invitation. Women are not brought up to be ‘forward’ and we are usually trained to be the meeker sex.

    But there are many many nice men and people in India. I hope you took away many more positive memories than bad.

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