Last night while lying in bed in our small wood panelled room in Darjeeling, I addressed a nagging question that had been festering at the back of my mind for a while. Why I had not been able to bring myself to write a blog or for that matter even an entry into my diary for the past few weeks. Watching the darkness that was punctuated by the oversized mountain moths blindly hitting the walls, I considered the potential reasons for my writers block…
The practical answer to the question was that over the past few weeks I had lost myself in the book of biblical proportions that is Gregory David Robert's Shantaram. My dertermination to complete the 1000 page long travellers right of passage, meant that there was little time to sit down and write. However, with it finished and passed on battered and front coverless to a fellow traveller, that excuse remains within those pages. My next literary conquest was Around India in 80 Trains by Monisha Rajesh which had the complete opposite effect. Her whimsical and straight talking account of her travels had reignited my desire to put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard) and document my journey in a way that I hadn’t allowed myself since our first destination of Delhi. My blogging partner and best friend Jess, and I had agreed that the most popular blogs to the public where the quick snappy ‘top 5 things *insert generic travel activity* in *insert popular travel destination*.’ Of course this is true and there is no denying that they are ineffably useful to the traveller running out of paid minutes in an internet café looking for quick answers and a safe budget place to stay. So for every place I travelled to for our first month I wrote my favourite places to eat, stay and sights not to miss in what I hoped to be a concise and entertaining post. However there was a problem, in doing this I got down information, facts and figures but was unable to convey any of my true feelings or experiences of a place. India is a country of the heart, and there was non of this heart to be found in my writing. How was I supposed to try and explain to people that to me India smelled of sweat, sewage and jasmine while listing the top coffee shops in Pondicherry? I wanted to write of the disparity within this great country and my struggle to figure out what the hell was going on. Just when you think you are getting to grips with a situation India will throw an obstacle. It could be; a hungry monkey, an oily haired man, a party bus full of drunk young Indians, a booked up train, bed sheets stained with unknown substances or a stroll that you were told would take five minutes by a toothless smiling local man but turns out to be a forty five minute hike along a perilous mountain path (these are known to travellers as an indian five minutes.)
Saying all of this I didn’t want the blog to turn into a self indulgent, deep insight into my mind that only my mum and grandma would have enjoyed. But clearly only writing quick run downs of things to see and do wasn’t working for me as it takes the soul out of the place. So evidently some sort of middle ground needed to be reached.
I was thinking about what I would’ve found useful to know before I came to india that can’t be confined to a numbered list. The first thing that springs to mind and something that I have really struggled with during the trip is being a female traveller in India. I stress that what I address in the forthcoming text is not what I believe to be the experience of Indian women, I would never dream of imposing my opinions onto a culture that I know nothing of. Although I feel that after enduring two months of being ignored, stared at and at time revered, I have earnt the right to write down some thoughts and warnings to those who are planning on venturing to this baffling, beautiful country.
I wish that I had known how hard it was going to be to have my partner recall an interaction with a local and remember how friendly they were. When my experience was so different because the conversation had been between the two men, I was treated as a silent by stander and when I had forced a parting hand shake on the seemingly ‘friendly’ man my hand was looked at like I had dipped it in a pot of month old mutton biriyani and then rubbed it all over a pye-dog. So here I finally get to the point of my blog and offer my humble advise for those of you travelling with your male partner.
After almost a month of interactions like the later, dinner bills being given to Yusef and information only offered to him I found myself taking a back seat. It was completely unintentional and it was only when I found myself getting lonely I realised that I hadn’t really had a conversation of note with anyone apart from Yusef in a long time. We had found ourselves slipping into traditional gender roles within the relationship just for ease. He carried the money because people gave him the bill, he asked for directions because they felt more comfortable with him and on busy streets he walked ahead when the stares started to upset me. I had become a passive shadow. I do not mean to paint any aspect of India in a bad light and I want to impress that ‘mum I am having the time of my life’ but these are things that I feel aren’t spoken about in preparation for India blogs.
I didn’t realise it at the time but the situation was really getting me down. I wanted to get stuck into the culture that i had read so much about by talking to those who lived in it but it felt like it wasn’t for me. That I wasn’t allowed because of my status as a western female. Before my flight my mum had very wisely warned me that I may find myself in situations where I would need to ‘leave my western ideals at the door.’ I completely appreciated this however, knowing that you are in a different culture and that you need to respect it becomes hard when said culture seems to be treating you like a second class citizen.
We had been off the traveller beat and track for a while and therefore had managed to avoid anyone whom was willing to have a interaction with me that lasted longer than asking me where I was from and if I wanted a chai or coffee. Something had to be done, both of us were uncomfortable with the new roles we had been forced into. During a long chat we decided that I would just have to be more forceful with my presence, even if it didn'r feel natural to me and learn to brush off any negativity I received. Trust me, I understand this is all easier said than done and I am aware it isn’t revolutionary advice but with perseverance I started to notice a difference in my mood. By finding humour in situations where I was looked at like a crazy woman for offering a hand shake and knowing that the stares were from a place of curiosity rather than sinister leers, I started to smell the jasmine rather than the sewage.
It is these feelings and emotions that I wished I been prepared for before I came to India. I have spoken to many other female travellers during our journey and we all seem to be united with the same internal battle of wanting to respect a foreign culture but finding it hard to digest how we are perceived in India. We all came to the same conclusion that you never really stop fighting this battle, you just learn coping mechanisms. The best of which is to go with the flow... I know how it sounds but just hear me out for a minute. Being in India is like a being stuck on a raft with 1.2 billion other people careering down raging river. If you resit then you get thrown off into the swirling blue abyss but if you relax and allow your body to move to the rhythm of the water you're in the ride of your life. India's culture is so rich and alien to our own that if you try to make sense of it or analyse someones actions with your western way of thinking you will drive yourself mad and find yourself desperately trying to book a flight home on wifi that makes your grandad look like Usain Bolt.
For the rest of my time in India I have deduced that the most effective way of coping with everything this cornucopia of madness throws at the feminist inside of me is to choose to smell the jasmine... not the sewage.