Three weeks in India: When travel doesn’t quite pan out

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PHOTO BY COLIN RIGLEY A monkey at Elephanta Island off of Mumbai. What this picture fails to capture is the massive number of people trying to take selfies with the monkey. Sadly, we did not see any of them get bit for their trouble. 

Our second plane home landed on Wednesday, October 5, after two flights totaling about 24 hours of travel. As soon as we arrived at the airport in New Delhi, a nasty bout of food poisoning from our last Indian meal kicked in, making for the most wretched flight experience I’ve ever had. Without going into too many details, I went through seven vomit bags, and I spent at least half the time terrified that I was dying.

My boyfriend’s food poisoning kicked in about two hours after mine. We were ecstatic to leave India after three weeks there, and our relief when we landed in Seattle likely appeared exaggerated to our fellow travelers. I’ve experienced intense travel in impoverished countries, countries where I don’t speak the language, countries where the gap between men and women is even greater than the infuriating misogyny that still exists in my own home country. But I’ve always found something to love.

Until now. Until India.

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PHOTO BY COLIN RIGLEY While taking a boat ride on the Ganges in Varanasi, another boat pulled up to ours and the rower began to hand us candles on paper plates filled with flowers. He then demanded 150 rupees for each plate. 

The things I expected to love—the spiritualism, the architecture, the landscape, the people—were somehow absent, save brief glimpses, like something you see out of the corner of your eye but aren’t quite sure of. Varanasi is the spiritual epicenter of India, but as close as I could get was the boy who, unasked, dabbed orange sand on my boyfriend’s forehead and then demanded 100 rupees for the “blessing.” Or the men who offered to let us watch the burning of bodies at the ghats if we were willing to pay a certain number of rupees. The glares at the Hindu temples we visited, curious for more information about that temple’s respective god and purpose.

There were friendly people, kind people even. But they were far outnumbered by the hard stares I received the moment we left the airport in New Delhi, a level of attention I am not accustomed to and do not like and which resulted in my boyfriend panicking about my safety our first hour in India (and for many hours to follow). We eventually learned that he could divert the stares with a hard look of his own, but it was exhausting trying to meet so many aggressive faces in a foreign place where I couldn’t even speak the language. This eventually culminated in my boyfriend yelling “Fuck you, she’s a human being” at a driver who had been staring at me for far too long and who responded to Colin’s own stare with a gesture toward me and a thumbs up. I was less than a person, and while there really isn’t any space that I can expect to occupy without any misogyny, this was far too much and far too constant. At home, I can speak for myself. In India, I didn’t even get a voice. And the looks from some of the women honestly weren’t much better.

I received more of these aggressive looks when I stopped to feed animals, mostly dogs and cats in conditions I don’t think I will forget for as long as I live. I couldn’t save a single one of them, and it’s going to take me a long time to get beyond this, assuming I ever do. And I’m not certain I’ll ever forget or forgive the disgusted looks I received while trying.

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PHOTO BY COLIN RIGLEY I had wondered about what Lonely Planet characterized as a “bun fight” at the top of Tiger Hill to watch the sun rise over the Himalayas. After getting jostled and shoved and watching people throw trash everywhere, I quickly figured out what Lonely Planet meant. 

The landscape may have been beautiful, but it was hard to look past the smog, the mountains of litter and filth that continued to pile higher as we watched. I don’t know that it’s fair to criticize such things when there were countless people starving, without shelter, without medical attention. Is it fair to call attention to the nonexistent sky when the things happening on the ground, directly in front of me, are so blatantly awful? Is it fair to criticize a country that endures such crushing poverty at all?

The thing is, India wasn’t exactly my first rodeo. I’ve visited other countries with correspondingly high poverty rates, and I’ve discovered things to love. Whatever the reason that India failed to translate, I don’t think poverty can ultimately be blamed.

It seemed unfair to tally a list of complaints without at least attempting to summon something positive, something I enjoyed, however small. This is all I could come up with:

  • I loved the food. At least, I loved the food until I got food poisoning. It was the easiest country to find vegetarian food that I’ve ever been in.
  • There was a gecko on the ceiling of the bathroom in our hotel in Varanasi. After Colin and I got past the shock of him being there, he became a sort of roommate who, as it turned out, really enjoyed wet wads of toilet paper.
  • The cows in India give zero fucks. Watch them hang out in the middle of a busy road while buses, taxis, motorcycles, and rickshaws careen past without so much as blinking.
  • Darjeeling. I adored Darjeeling. It was beautiful, clean, fresh, and the Tibetan momos are about the best thing I’ve ever had to eat. Even better, nobody stared at me, none of the taxis tried to cheat us, and no one on the street harassed us. It was like a completely different country.

I’ve spent the last couple of days trying to shake off the memories, the discomfort, the fear, trying to resume a routine I might call normal without this dazed feeling of having been deposited in another world. When I wake up late at night, I panic at the idea that I’m still in a hotel room in India. I can’t stop thinking about the fact that, given the population in India, there was a one in seven chance I could have been born there. I can’t banish the faces of the animals left behind, or cease wondering about the faces of all the women I didn’t see because pretty much everyone we interacted with was a man.

I view traveling as an integral aspect of who I am so when I spend nearly a year planning and preparing for three weeks in another country—a country I have dreamed about since I was a young child—only to have that experience completely and absolutely suck, how do I come back for that? How do I summon the enthusiasm to pick up a new copy of Lonely Planet wherever and dust off my suitcase for future adventures? Do I event want to?

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Comments

  1. I had almost as scary a vacation just going to Kauai as a single 24 year old woman in 1980. I was never afraid to travel alone before this and never wanted or felt the need to travel the world since.

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