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!

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