Leaving India

Here it is. After living and travelling nearly 6 months in this crazy country, I’m on my way to cross the border into Nepal.

Before leaving India I was of course over-excited about going to this country I had been dreaming about for such a long time, discovering the lush greenery of Kerala and it’s backwaters, and my internship in humanitarian engineering.

But I was also feeling anxious. A feeling I never really had in my previous years of travel. Why for India then? When I told people back home that I was going to India for an internship, I got two kind of reactions : excited screams of “oh wow that’s so awesome lucky you I want the same that’s so cool!” (mostly from young people and travellers) , or the rather scary “India?! Are you sure?! You’re going to get sick/raped/eve-teased/murdered/stolen… Really, India?! Take care, be careful, never go out on your own…” (mostly from people one generation above and/or who haven’t travelled much). So in my mind I was definitely from the first category of people: I’m going on an adventure! In India! Yaaaaaaaay! But that sticky feeling of going to a dangerous place was still lingering in a corner of my head, and reinforced by the staff from uni telling me it was SO dangerous to walk outside on my own, so imagine travelling!

Well guess what? I’m alive. And I’m doing good! I have only been sick once, and it was not that bad. Someone did touch my bottom on a totally unappropriate way in a crowd, and I hated it. I got some boob/bottom brushes “not on purpose”. But that happened to me and to friends in western counties too. I haven’t been raped or murdered, I’ve fallen in many minor tourist traps but have never lost more that a few euros or hours. I lost a few things but it was entirely my fault, nobody tried to rob me.

Most of the times I did feel safe walking in the streets on my own. I totally felt safe taking night trains and buses. I did many trips solo and stayed on my own in hotels, with no one intruding into my room.

For my safety in India I had to be more careful than back home, and I had to cover my body with far more layers of fabric than I would have done in the scorching heat. Sometimes I invested more money in a better hotel or in a higher class in the train. One day I even payed the hotel and walked out before sleeping there because I didn’t feel comfortable staying there. Most of the times I visited a few different hotels before settling down in the one that felt safest and most comfortable for my budget.
I ate street food (that was very tasty) and in local restaurants, being careful about washing my hands but closing my eyes on the kitchen’s hygiene. As a vegetarian, I never ate meat and if I weren’t vegetarian I would have rather not tried. I drank local “drinking water” and sometimes filtered it myself to avoid releasing plastic bottles in the environment.
I travelled mostly plastic-free, which wasn’t as difficult as I expected and the most responsible way to travel in my opinion in a country that has nearly no waste management facilities.
Sometimes I paid expensive private transportation to avoid being outside on my own in the dark. Sometimes I even did walk on my own at night, but because of knew the place, the atmosphere and felt safe.
Sometimes I did some stupid things that might be considered as dangerous. Like following strangers on the street, talking to people, walking on my own in dark alleys…

But here’s the thing. I didn’t feel physically threatened like I did taking the metro in Paris in the evening. I didn’t feel afraid for my belongings like in the bazars in China. I didn’t feel that people from the tourist industry, even though pushy and annoying, we’re going to rip me off as much as in China. I wasn’t scared of violence like in the streets in Brazil.

India has taught me so much about how to be myself. I had to fight every day for my personal space, I learned how to say no, I don’t feel guilty anymore walking out of a hotel or restaurant if I don’t like it too much. I had to be assertive. No I don’t want a selfie with you, no I don’t want to visit your shop, this price you’re calling is way too much and please let me just walk on my own. I learnt how to negotiate prices and be happy with the deal. I’ve learnt how to accept decisions that were probably not my favourite choice but best in terms of safety, money or planning.

India has shown me tolerance. In many places there were Hindus, Christians and Muslims all in the same places, temples just besides each other and women wearing headscarvesor hijab, men wearing kippas and turbans, and nobody cared about each other’s religion, they just asked by curiosity. Whatever you need to buy, you can get a good price if you know how much you want to pay. As for hotels, you call your price and it’s probably going to work out.
India is hectic but somehow flows. There’s no way to find the bus schedule but if you walk to the station your bus is just there and leaving in 5 minutes. The trains are almost always late and a mess to book but you can comfortably and very cheaply travel across the country while keeping a low carbon footprint. There’s no traffic rules but few traffic jams. The thing is to surrender and go with the flow. You can’t have a plan, India has a plan for you.

Actually I loved travelling India, both solo and with friends and my mom. I loved most of the places and moments. But sometimes I felt so overwhelmed by the noise, crowd, air pollution and dirt that I just wanted to curl up and cry in a comfortable place and run into the first plane back home. In Gujarat, out of the main tourist tracks, I was met with joy and curiosity, welcomed into homes for chai, protected by women who didn’t speak the same language… I learnt how to ride a scooter and it became normal to me to ride with a passenger on dirt tracks and dodging cows. I felt almost like a local wearing my shawl as a headscarf, wearing a saree or eating with my hands…
That is if you forget the huge blinking signboard above my head screaming out “TOURIST!!! PLEASE COME TALK TO ME”. Because as a solo women, blonde with blue eyes, I can try to fit in or hide as much as I can I will still be noticed from a distance. And drawing in crowds of people asking for selfies, my country, and my “good name”.

India is restless, India is tiring. They have a different approach to time and comfort. Here it is totally normal to leave or arrive at the railway station at 4am. People don’t mind sleeping on the ground in the middle of a busy street, they don’t mind having bananas for lunch. India taught me how to be flexible. Living outside of my comfort zone for 6 months has made me redefine my own definition of comfort.

There is one thing though that made me hate India. They might say they respect women “mothers and sisters” and blah blah blah but as a person? My social status is always questioned and defined by a man. Are you married? Why not? What does your father do? I felt strong inequalities in places local men claimed the opposite. I felt ignored and left aside in professional relationships. I felt sexualised in an absolutely disgusting way by insistent staring. I felt my freedom was robbed away from me when I had to cover all of my body in the ashram to respect the dress code while men not following it were not even frowned upon. I felt my freedom was stolen when I was walking on magnificent beaches and couldn’t swim because I knew it would draw a crowd to me. I felt exhausted by having to tell men ALL THE TIME that no I did not want a romantic or sexual relationship even though I’m single. I felt disrespected when Indian men kept sending me messages on social media to try to meet me saying I’m sexy. I felt disrespected when the male workers building my prototype didn’t even LOOK at me, let alone say hello or talk about my design. I felt disrespected when lines of men stood in front of us, or hid in the bushes at the beach to stare at us. I felt disrespected by the people sneaking pictures of me or shoving a phone in my face saying “one picture?”.

This was the most difficult and tiring part of my time in India. I felt it was easier when travelling with other people, especially with a man.
But I also felt complicity with the local women. When I was totally let down in the workshop, the Tamil women called me to sit down and have chai with them, even though we couldn’t speak the same language. Women always helped me fix my clothing, one lady even stopped another one in the street to pin Audrey’s saree! In the Muslim neighbourhoods I felt very safe and welcome, women smiling at me and protecting me from intrusive men if needed. I felt safe when I was travelling and staying in the ladies only waiting rooms or train wagons. I felt a kind of sisterhood taking care of me.

India, you have challenged me and left me in awe. You have destroyed many of my beliefs, you have been hard on my emotions. But most of all you have built me.
To all the people who told me I shouldn’t go or travel on my own, thank you for your concern, I have been well. I had to pay more attention to my safety, but I never felt dangerously threatened.
To my family and friends and everyone who supported me, thank you! I’m so glad I came here and travelled this country to explore myself.
To all the women who want to travel to India, do it. It is not an easy country, but it’s amazing. Take care, don’t mind spending some money on your safety and learn how to say no. And enjoy!

Travel diary : Bhuj

Well, this could almost become a habit: visiting a place for a few days then writing a post on the night bus to the next place! Uploading the pics from my phone is a pain is the backside though.

Sleeper buses are a pretty convenient way of travelling! Plus landscapes and sunsets are nice through the private window.
Sleeper buses are a pretty convenient way of travelling! Plus landscapes and sunsets are nice through the private window.

So in my short Gujarat trip, my last stop was Bhuj, the capital of the Kachch region famous for its handicrafts. I bought a new t-shirt there, with a cool fabric and embroidery! Mum will be proud of me (as soon as I ditch my horrible grey t-shirt).

My night bus arrived early. At 6am, we stopped at the bus station, the sun had not even risen yet! I hitched a ride on a Tuktuk with a mother/daughter Aussie couple, and crept into the City Guesthouse. Luckily, I was able to check in early morning!Typical in Bhuj: an Oxford with fancy horns pulling a cart on the road. I've also seen donkeys, and even a camel!

After a nap and a shower (bucket of warm water thrown over my head), I decided to go get some breakfast : I skipped dinner because of the night bus and was hungry!
Unfortunately, I still haven’t figured out the workings of Indian cities, and could not find a single place open serving breakfast… I settled for some street food called Dabeli, a kind of burger with spicy mashed potatoes and peanuts. It was super delicious but was so spicy it gave me hiccups! My stomach was also quite unhappy about the spices at that time if the day.

Near our guesthouse, there is a tea place in which I sit down to analyse the map. I meet a French traveller, who gives me some advice on the places to go and also recommends me to take a bus to a coastal city in the south as a day trip!

Just your typical city centre sights: buffaloes bathing in what is supposed to be a massive lake, but is empty because of the absence of monsoon...
Just your typical city centre sights: buffaloes bathing in what is supposed to be a massive lake, but is empty because of the absence of monsoon…

I start my visits in the neighbourhood and go visit the Prag Mahal and Aina Mahal, two ancient palaces in a mixed Indian and Western style. The place has been severely damaged in an earthquake in 2001 and it was shocking to see the poor condition of the buildings! Arches were out of place, cracks stroke through the walls and columns seemed to have become too weak to support anything…
Inside of Aina Mahal was a poorly maintained collection of old things, chandeliers and mirrors. Inside of Prag Mahal there was a very fancy dining room, chipped ceiling paintings, decaying hunting trophies and stuffed animals… I climbed up the clock tower and had a great view over the city.

Destroyed buildings...
Destroyed buildings…

Next thing to visit was the amazing Swaminarayan Temple! This bright white building was all I expected from India! Old architecture, temples, intricate carvings… It was beautiful! It looks bigger than it is on pictures, and apart from all these columns and a nice chandelier there’s nothing inside so it was a quick but magnificent visit!

Escaping to Mandvi

Mandvi Palace!
Mandvi Palace!

As recommended by my new friend, I made my way to the bus station (where dozens of locals came very close to stare at me for a while) and got on the bus to Mandvi, a small coastal town where they build wooden ships.
I visited the palace, which wasn’t that impressive inside: it looked pretty much like my grandmother’s living room. But the building itself was great, and the walk back on the beach was awesome!

Such a nice sunset on the beach! But then I had to rush to be a acknowledgement before dark.
Such a nice sunset on the beach! But then I had to rush to be a acknowledgement before dark.

 

By a very random sequence of events, I found myself trotting on a camel, scaring flamingoes off the beach! Amazing things like that happen when you travel!

Haha, camel!
Haha, camel!

So I was about to walk back from the Palace to the town, a 5km walk on the beach. Unfortunately I took a wrong turn and found myself on a private beach I wasn’t allowed to access. I insisted that I only wanted to walk to the private beach, and they let me through.
On the beach, there was a camel who seemed to be sunbathing! I laughed, took a picture, and when the owner noticed me he called me to come closer and hop on for a picture!
That is how, suddenly, I found myself riding a brightly decorated camel! And then, we started walking towards the shore, and then trotting! In the distance, I noticed some pink flamingoes and as we ran towards them, they started taking off in a flock toward us! What an amazing moment!
I soon realised that riding a camel was even more uncomfortable than I remembered from Mongolia, it is totally different from riding a horse! It feels like it will fall down with each step and it is quite a rough ride.
I was presented with a horse, very brightly decorated itself, and offered to ride it too. As I noticed they had prepared it just for me I accepted. After all, why not!

After this incredibly fun interlude, I started off on my walk back to Mandvi, hoping to make it back before sunset. The walk was very peaceful, as the beach was desert and clean. I enjoyed being by myself and singing, while avoiding to walk on jellyfish. At some point there were some men drinking and smoking on the beach. I politely but firmly refused their company and kept on walking.
When I was approaching Mandvi, I suddenly realised I was stuck: as the tide was coming up, a river had formed on the beach, and I couldn’t easily cross. I packed my bags, removed my leggings, folded up my dress and walked through the river, glad the current wasn’t too strong! Made it!

I sped up to reach Mandvi before dark, and was rewarded by a great sunset. After some street food snacks, I’m on the bus back to Bhuj. Definitely a great escape from the city!

The following day, I visited another palace called Sarad Bagh, which had also been destroyed by the earthquake. Inside, there were several huge stuffed tigers and some great pieces of artwork.

I also visited the Chatedi tombs, some ruins which were even more put to ruins with the earthquake!

Ruins and maharajas at Chatedi tombs: this is India!
Ruins and maharajas at Chatedi tombs: this is India!

 

That was enough of exploring for me, but from discussions with travellers who had been staying there for a while there is plenty more to do, especially visiting nearby villages and handicraft places!

3 months in India

*Wow, I’ve been sick than travelling and haven’t had time to write this article! Now it’s been over 4 months but this is about my third month living and studying in India!*

Hey! It’s been 3 months that I have been living in India, and I am really feeling now all the contrasts that so many people talk about… especially when that feeling that the place is stuck 50 years back in time while people have access to technologies, smartphones, etc.  I used to notice the litter and be “sad but whatever” and now I feel so disgusted by all the trash in nature, especially along roads and railways… how could this ever be fixed?

Becoming local celebrities at a university festival...
Becoming local celebrities at a university festival…

I spent most of this last month in another campus near Coimbatore. With Simona, we were staying at the girls hostel, which was awesome for meeting some very cool Indian girls, making friends and learning more about the culture!

Going to a local beach

The beach was nice, the pervy staring not so much...
The beach was nice, the pervy staring not so much…

One day, we decided to go out and have a swim at the nearest local beach: Dolphin Beach. We had a lot of fun surfing the waves and getting washed out by a few washing machines. The Indians on shore seemed impressed by the fun we were having in the sea, as most of them don’t know how to swim.

While we walked on the beach, we noticed how the thin sand was sticky under our feet, and hoped it was indeed the sand and not something else. The beach was a local toilet; people come here to poop with a view!

When we were about to get dry and dressed, a man lay down a few metres away, tongue stuck out, staring at us. I was feeling totally uncomfortable but didn’t know what to do and turned to my guy friends in despair: “this guy is totally staring at us, it’s disgusting!” To which they replied: “Which one? The guy laying in front of you or the three hidden in the bush?” I thought it was a pretty good joke until I realised it wasn’t a joke…

Maybe it's better to stay in full clothing and fly a kite instead of swimming... There was a nice atmosphere with beach stalls and kites for sunset!
Maybe it’s better to stay in full clothing and fly a kite instead of swimming… There was a nice atmosphere with beach stalls and kites for sunset!

We decided not to change and stay in our wet clothes, and I covered up with my sarong. We walked to the end of the jetty, where people were casually eating ice creams and throwing the wrapping into the sea. Dolphins popped in and out of the waves, as well as cameras around us of local people suddenly feeling an urge to take selfies with a nice background (the Westerners, not the sea!)

3D printing a hand

Look! I made a hand!
Look! I made a hand!

I had a lot of fun 3D printing a hand! It was meant for a prosthetic for a kid in my village who has several limb differences. I started by printing out the fingers, then the palm and then connected everything together with the help of my friend Chris. It was awesome to see it come to life! Well not literally, but it was definitely a cool project to carry on. In the end, I decided not to complete the project as I was missing technical support, medical expertise and experience. If I had at least one of these I think I would have tried taking the project further but I didn’t want to risk hurting the kid or giving him hope and then abandoning him. But it is a project I’d love to try again back home!

Staying in an Indian campus

I was supposed to go to Ettimadai, near Coimbatore, for a couple of days to a week to complete my prototype and testing. Due to unforeseen circumstances such as the death of the Chief Minister and several days of strike, I ended up staying for over 2 weeks! Meanwhile, I made some very good friends on the campus and had a lot of fun with them and Simona!

Travelling with Simona was loads of fun on the train!
Travelling with Simona was loads of fun on the train!

On the day we arrived, there was a “curtain raiser” for a festival happening later in the academic year. There were some food stalls, live music and hundreds of crazy students who taught us some Bollywood dance moves!

I ended up being totally fed up with Indian food. There was no Western Café to cater for our Western cravings and meals were not as enjoyable as before!

Yay, we had pizza! And it was COLD! So cool!
Yay, we had pizza! And it was COLD! So cool!

I wrote about my experience living almost like a student on this article (and scandalised quite a few locals).

We also went out for one day in Coimbatore with Simona and greatly enjoyed our day out!

At the girls’ hostel, we learnt a lot about the Indian life. Especially about arranged marriages, we didn’t think it was that common! Our friends also loved dressing us up in sarees and we also got some beautiful henna tattoos on our hands!

Our new friend Deekshita doing a henna tattoo on my hand!
Our new friend Deekshita doing a henna tattoo on my hand!
I tried to wrap my saree myself: not easy!
I tried to wrap my saree myself: not easy!
Cooking noodles, Indian style!
Cooking noodles, Indian style!

I went with Simona to her village and it was a great experience, I also wrote about it here!

Death of the Chief Minister

Suddenly everyone was watching TV: a lot was going on related to the death of the CM!
Suddenly everyone was watching TV: a lot was going on related to the death of the CM!

While we were in Coimbatore, we learnt that the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu was in hospital, dying. Suddenly, at meal times, the TV was on and girls gathered around the screen to hear the latest news. On the pictures, there was a huge crowd in front of the hospital. We couldn’t understand what was going on. We did some research on the internet, and learnt that if she died, there would be a several day strike, people would burn cars and buses, some would even commit suicide! Needless to say, when her passing was announced, we were locked up in the campus and our projects were on a halt for a few days. Unlike the rulers of our European countries, the chief minister was lovingly called Amma and people were so upset by her death they would actually commit suicide!

Project?

With all of this going on, my project got late with the prototype building and testing. We had done a first trial that failed. Instead of testing first the tractor then the trailer we tried all the system. A bad idea: the trailer broke and then we couldn’t even test the tractor, which broke too! At that point, I was really annoyed by the quality of the prototype.

I was told the rice seedlings weren’t grown enough for trial of transplanting, so we would have to wait an extra 10 days. But after these 10 days (and the death of the CM) my prototype barely got fixed and we didn’t even go out to the field and try it! This was extremely disappointing for me as I hoped to see my prototype work (or not) but also see the reaction of the local female farmers to it.

With nothing else to do, I also learnt a few new ukulele songs!

I taught a girl how to play while the train was stuck in the middle of nowhere!
I taught a girl how to play while the train was stuck in the middle of nowhere!

And on the train trip back, I played them to some pilgrims while we were stopped in the middle of nowhere!

Back to Amritapuri!

Being gone for that long, I felt like I was coming back home when I reached Amritapuri! Most of my friends were still there and we had plenty of stories to share. It was a great feeling to meet them again!

Amma was back too, and the place was very busy, especially with the Christmas celebration to come! I had loads of things I still wanted to do before my departure, but unfortunately, I got sick…

One morning, I woke up with some terrible stomach cramps. My friend Peppiina was leaving that day, so I tried to go downstairs to say goodbye. But after one flight of stairs, I nearly fainted and retreated to my bed, where I stayed for the following 24 hours. As soon as I got up, I was on the verge of fainting. Whatever I had, I couldn’t get out of bed or eat anything.

I had already been sick in Coimbatore, and for a few days I felt extremely tired and even sleeping 10 hours a night wasn’t enough.

I am still grateful I didn’t catch the worse bugs around!

Once I was feeling better, I attended the RAHA conference about humanitarian robotics and presented a poster about my project, and then my mom came to visit for two awesome weeks of travelling Kerala!

Diu

Video Log

Because most of the time my computer is in my backpack and I don’t have much time for writing and much internet for publishing, I made this post in French! So here are the pictures and maybe I’ll translate is someday, otherwise Google might be able to do it for you 😉

Vu depuis Diu : la côte du sous-continent et les bateau colorés !
Seen from Diu: mainland Gujarat
Des vaches bosses et des maisons colorées : sympa comme ambiance !
Cows and colourful houses: I love this atmosphere!
J'ai plus de photos avec des inconnus que de photos de moi seule, il suffisait que je m'arrête de marcher pour qu'une horde de touristes se jette sur moi pour demander une photo !
I will become a professional selfie dodger by the end of this trip, it is not easy to walk around without being stopped for a pic!
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Colourful houses are all around in Diu!
Salon de beauté improvisé dans la rue ! Après ça les filles m'ont invité chez elles à boire le thé, ravies d'avoir une invitée.
Beauty saloon improvised in the streets!
Malheureusement, pas question de se baigner sur ces magnifiques plages !
Unfortunately, here it is advised not to swim despite the beautiful clean beaches…