Tuesday, October 18, 2011

On Flying Solo

I realized that this is a topic I’ve avoided writing about directly because writing about it requires an acknowledgment of my own positioning here; of gender and race and class and all of those topics with which we are taught to choose our words wisely. That said, my own positioning in relationship to people has fundamentally shaped the experiences I’ve had in India. Frankly, I cannot fit in here, not only because of how I look, but also because I’m a female traveling alone, which is, among most of the general population, a little unheard of. (To make you understand how rare it might be for a twenty-two year old Indian girl to be traveling around the country by herself, I will share the fact that here, often mothers come to cook and clean for their sons and daughters in their college dorms. Pushpa, for example, makes the 4-hour trip from Mysore to Bangalore every Saturday to change her daughter’s sheets).

Side note: The other day while in line for a boat in Kanyakumari, an Indian woman turned to me and said, frankly, “Why you alone? No friends?” Which, like most reminders of my completely solitary existence, made me want to both laugh and cry.

I’ve learned this year that sometimes not fitting in can actually be liberating. We spend so much time as tourists and travelers trying to not seem like outsiders. In Europe, we try to hide American accents and know not to don fanny packs and white sneakers. In Indonesia, because there too I stuck out like a sore thumb, I realized it was actually kind of freeing to know that I could stop trying. I could look confused when trying to find my way somewhere, or make a mess while trying to eat rice with my hands, and I was easily forgiven.

In India, similarly, being an outsider has also made me meet a whole slew of generous and sensitive people who have helped me become acclimated. But I’m also finding that now that I’m traveling on my own, the game has changed a bit, and sometimes, standing out can lead to some pretty negative consequences.

Most of these are harmless, like getting used to being a spectacle and being asked to pose in photos. Other times it leads to situations that have made me feel entirely uncomfortable. It's exhausting, more than anything else, to feel constantly on edge. It's a different mindset to be in and I hate having to assume the worst in people instead of the best.

For the most part, it’s not even that I feel that unsafe here, it’s just that I go to great lengths in order to feel safe. I time my dinners so that I can be back at my hostel by nightfall. I avoid certain streets. I even avoid certain cities. I wear a dorky money belt. I lock my doors. I ignore texts and stares and shouts from strangers.

I spend a lot of time in bed with Anna Karenina.

Being alone limits what I can do, and that’s the most frustrating part. It’s hard for me to work on my project and talk to people about their names, because I don’t feel like I’m in a position to approach strangers. And feeling like I’m missing out on potential interactions is a huge loss. I have no doubt that many of the people attempting to start conversations with me are well-intentioned, I’m just not in the position to take as many risks as I would if I were traveling with others.

Instead of all of this causing me to make generalizations about the place or people (for every one person that has been a bit unpleasant, there are at least two people who have bestowed me with the most amazing hospitality and generosity), it has really made me realize a lot about myself. It is a cliché for western travelers to have to confront more extreme poverty and desperation and attention in India than they’re used to, and in the end it actually reveals something about themselves, but I think it’s a cliché because it’s often true.

The other day, for example, this guy had somehow gotten my number in Madurai (I think, creepily, from the register book at an internet cafe) and was incessantly calling and texting. I kept ignoring everything he said and just avoided my phone altogether. And then I realized, I was being ridiculous. It was my phone and it was fully within my control to do something about it. I answered his call and promptly said, “I don’t know how you got this number but if you contact me again I am calling the police.” And all of a sudden, it was like this whole new kind of power was opened up to me. It took me hours to even think of the idea of making a threat, of even realizing I have the power to make threats. And then it took me hours to process the fact that I had never realized this before; that in my life, I’ve never had to do that.

It is perhaps, because of the slight risk I feel in doing what I’m doing, that it is satisfying to know that I am doing it. As I told a friend recently in an e-mail, I think I love India, but most of the time I’m too on edge to really form an opinion about it. It is satisfying to know that I’m using my judgment, and taking care of myself, and figuring it out. I’ve become a much more assertive person in the past month. I realized the other day I’ve probably looked someone in the eye and said, “Leave me alone”, “I don’t want to” and even a simple “No” more times than I’ve probably said since being a stubborn toddler. I’ve learned to win arguments with auto rickshaw drivers, (“This is supposed to be a prepaid stand!”), lie a lot (“I’m meeting my father in an hour”, “I have a boyfriend in New York”, and, my favorite, “I work for the U.S. Consulate in Chennai"), and stand up for myself. I’ve now had the repeated situation of showing up to a hostel or hotel that had agreed to give me a room on the phone but now, looking at me, suddenly say they are full. It seems that, many places (particularly cheaper accommodations that are not used to foreign travelers), don’t want to be liable for either my personal safety, or what they presume to be my potential promiscuity. Instead of walking away, I’ve learned to insist that they said previously there would be a room available. Magically, so far, a single room has always suddenly become available. Threatening to talk to a manager or threatening to talk to the police feels really unpleasant at times. Even rude. But it also feels satisfying. It’s made me realize that for most of my life, I’m used to getting my way by being a nice girl. Being a nice girl will not get you far when you’re traveling alone in India. It feels as if here I am being forced to stand up to what I feel are my rights, and it’s actually quite empowering.

Perhaps for all of the above reasons, more than the sights and seasides and even the names, it is actually this that I think I’ll be left with from my first solo India experience . I’m left with staring unavoidably into the face of the nitty gritty, adopting the confidence I need to walk with, the louder voice I put on, the more aggressive tactics, the constant guardedness, and the knowledge that despite all this, or because of all this, I’m making it work. And that feels pretty damn good.

Two more weeks to toughen up even further before hitting Delhi on my own.

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