Culture Shock- alone in a sea of men

Maybe my fear was completely unfounded, but I actually felt better hiding my features. They knew I was there, and they likely knew I was white, but they didn’t get to stare directly at me. I was not on display. It was a weird relief.


I noted in my blog about being driven back to Agra through the pitch black back roads and through villages getting around a big traffic jam… One thing I noticed as we drove in the dark on the main highway- there weren’t any women not accompanied by a man anywhere to be seen, and not very many of them either.  Where the heck are all the women? At home because in India, “Nice girls don’t go out at night.”  To situate myself so you, dear reader, will understand this context, I am a liberal, liberated North American women who lives in a city that has a higher population of women than men (like most cities in North America). I have traveled extensively, but I have never in my life been to a country where there were no women to be seen anywhere in public, especially after dark.  This was a completely unique experience, and was the source of my culture shock.

While we were in the jam, a man got out of one of the waiting public buses and asked, since the driver was his friend or cousin or whatever, if he could come with us. I did the first very un-Canadian thing since arriving in India. I said “No.” That is safety rule one for single female travelers- never let anyone else (especially a man) be in the taxi with you if you’re traveling alone- not for any reason. Everybody is somebody’s friend/cousin/brother, after all. They just shrugged their shoulders and gave the head wag, it wasn’t a big deal. I felt badly that the guy was stuck there, but I didn’t know him from Adam, so no dice.

As soon as we took the detour out of the jam, I was back on the phone to my homestay family, letting them know where I was and when they could expect me.  I had the eldest son, Shiron, say hello to the driver too.    Driving through the dark countryside was a little scary as we were passing through a village or two that for the most part were completely dark, and we were driving directly behind one of those pickup truck “buses” that was completely full of young men.  I then did something that surprised myself- I took my scarf and made it into a niquab to cover my head and face.

Since being in India, I had been stared at pretty continuously, for people are curious, and I’m the epitome of white- fair, Germanic featured, and blue-eyed. I understand that I’m exotic.  But to be honest, I just didn’t want to endure all those guys staring at me. I was a bit afraid and I didn’t want even one of them to get a funny idea about “what foreign women are like”, or be offended by my “immodesty” or whatever other thing that could potentially be thought to justify violence of any sort towards me for no reason at all.  This was my way of acknowledging their standards of female behavior and a signal that I wasn’t interested in challenging them, it was a signalling of modesty, it was a signalling of “I’m stuck out here and just trying to get home”, it was a signalling of disinterest in them, but for me it was a buffer against the stares.  I actually felt better hiding my features. They knew I was there, and they likely knew I was white, but they didn’t get to stare directly at me. I was not on display.  It was a weird relief.

There’s basically no way for me to recount this story without being offensive, because what I was essentially experiencing and acting upon was racism: fearing and demonizing the non-white, non-Western ‘other’ and assuming the worst of them- but it was my experience- and women who had lived in India advised me to use the dupatta scarf this way during my visit “as appropriate.”

Maybe my fear was completely unfounded.  I was just proven that the infamous touts of India can actually be a source of genuine help.  But just in case… fear is what keeps you alive, sometimes. Sometimes it’s wise to be a little fearful.  It’s stupid to not pay attention to your own sense of unease. That’s a great way to get yourself into trouble.

(I was a teenager growing up in the big city of Toronto, and not all of my friends lived in “nice” neighbourhoods, so I know what sketchy and potentially dangerous situations feel like in my gut, who in that crowd is genuine “bad news”- I was helpful to whomever else wanted to get out of those potentially sketchy situations before they started because I wasn’t afraid to look like a nerd and pull the chute.  It’s a shame for other people who stayed behind how often my instincts proved right.)   I’ve traveled alone in other countries, and I’ve always been safe because I trust my gut, and my gut was telling me “this is a good time to keep your face covered.” Did I feel like I had compromised my feminist and egalitarian sensibilities kowtowing to local custom? Nope. I just felt like I did the best I could to keep myself safe in a foreign country where violence against girls and women is still a huge problem. Did I feel a bit guilty for assuming the worst could happen? Yup.

I’ll just leave it at that. This was my first big jolt of culture shock while in India.


Reflection- Garbage/Pollution in India

It’s actually quite ridiculous that India has no recycling program nor proper sewage and water works, but it’s definitely a hangover from India’s historical context.

I mentioned, in my last travel entry, the garbage in India.  I talked about it like it was only along the train tracks in the city, but it was literally everywhere.  Garbage in the streets, in the fields, along the roadways, choking the rivers, covering riverbanks in layers of garbage and plastic, garbage tips- literally a downward hill embankment that people just spontaneously made into a garbage tip.  Who knows when, if ever that garbage gets picked up..

When in India, it’s hard to ignore the reality that single serving wrappers and plastic everything are both the bane of human existence and the very thing that gives us the quality of life and health that we enjoy- India simply does not have the infrastructure for human waste and garbage yet.  There were a couple of recycling bins in the bigger towns such as Panaji in Goa, and Dharmsala, that have a very specific context which makes them  places where recycling would be considered desirable and put the resources towards it.

I read an interesting Indian magazine article; an interview with a grassroots social activist working to illustrate the effect that the Indian caste system has on how things get done in the country.  The lowest castes traditionally have the dirtiest jobs handling waste and garbage, the higher castes have never had a part in dealing with it.  So in a weird way, the garbage is a cultural blind spot brought on by the caste system. It’s almost not their fault. The caste system makes it very difficult for the upper caste people to put their minds to problems that are “beneath” them, like sanitation, garbage collection, sewage. It’s actually quite ridiculous that India has no recycling program nor proper sewage and water works, but it’s definitely a hangover from India’s historical context. Bureaucrats and officials in high levels of government LITERALLY have not been capable of wrapping their heads around managing garbage because it should not even be on their radar- they’re too “upper class”, it’s not something they have ever been concerned about in their caste- it just gets taken away. This is literal, India just dumps everything, and the dumps are just about full.  Whereas, there has been very little improvement for the working conditions of those people who belong to the lower caste because there is little top-down leadership on these issues. This activist really hammered that people of the lower caste were dying when working to empty out septic tanks due to suffocation, the oxygen content is so low and the gaseous offsets of the waste literally suffocates them. Most towns and cities have never built sewer systems.  The officials go on inspection and since they don’t see women belonging to the lower caste carrying baskets of human waste on their heads in such a project, they consider the matter fine.  It’s a socio-cultural issue, according to this activist.

India started recycling in 2016. The main dump outside of Mumbai was 97% full by Oct. 2016 said an Indian daily I read on the bus…

Oct. 13 ’16 – Reflection on Grief

[Linda, my older sister, died of cancer in early October, about 2 weeks before her 50th birthday and 3 weeks before my own birthday, in 2013.  Concurrently, I realized that someone I cared about was a “fair-weather only” friend (Male B), after they ghosted from my life the same week she passed away.]

I missed Linda terribly, and I also thought a lot about (Male B) today, which made me cry over, or rather into, my lunch- although it didn’t stop me from eating.  I just talked to myself as I ate, with tears rolling down my cheeks non-stop, like a crazy person, but I wasn’t sobbing or crying- just the tears, coming unbidden, like the words pouring forth.  I think this is the anniversary of Linda’s memorial, or close enough, and that was a horrible time 3 years ago.  I watched myself without stopping the process or judging myself.  What was to be done?  I’m amongst strangers- what do I care if I am strange?  Letting things just be, letting the tears pour quietly forth and the words come out, a new thought about Male B arose.  I know that it takes two to tango, and I know that the ghosting was in response to my behaviour-

I needed to be taken care of by someone, and I was all alone.  I had just lost someone who had taken care of me since I was a kid- I lost my big sister who looked out for me and tried to help me in any way she could all her life.  That I reached out to Male B for that care may not have been “right”, but the desire itself was not wrong.  How I reached out may not have been “correct” because I was in shock, so how I asked and what I asked for was incongruous with the desire and the circumstances- but that wasn’t wrong either.

I wasn’t able to see what I was asking for, I wasn’t able to understand what I needed.  My mind jury-rigged a context, but it wasn’t the context.  I just needed somoene to take care of me, and I was alone at the time, sitting in an empty apartment- my sister’s empty apartment- all alone.  It was probably because I was all alone at the time that my mind was so disconnected from the root of the emotion. It was trying to protect me from being overwhelmed while there was no one there to support me.

Nothing that I did was wrong. Nothing that I have felt subsequently was wrong, and nothing that Male B did was technically wrong either.  Put into an impossible position, what can one do but flee? Understandable and forgivable.  Two poor humans caught up in overwhelming circumstances.  There was no sin.


Nightmare Temptation Reflection- Oct 9

Sure I’m deeply flawed, superficial, irresponsible and selfish- but I’m also already here in India. There is no going back without going through.

2200- First night in McLeod Ganj

I just woke up from one of the worst nightmares I have ever had.  My sister who passed away, and another woman (who?) were literally screaming at me in fury for doing this trip- accusing me of totally forgetting about my “baby”, demanding I pay them back the money willed to me by I don’t even know who, telling me to give up on going back to university ever because of squandering my money on this trip- it got down to the other woman in the dream running at me to attack me.

Well, I don’t have a baby I’m neglecting or abandoning, but I’m willing to admit that this trip to India may be the 2nd biggest financial mistake of my life.  It was awful, though, so much fear, sadness and anger to think that I’m such a terrible fuck-up to my sister.  I did travel on her death day, though.  I need to go to the temple or at least the shrine to honour her…  I’m also reminded of how when Buddha himself sat and intended to sit until he became enlightened, demons visited him and attempted to tempt him away from his sitting.  Sure I’m deeply flawed, superficial, irresponsible and selfish- but I’m also already here in India.  There is no going back without going through.

Reflection Oct. 8- Mumbai

I must acknolege the poverty I saw… Jetty boats pulled up onto the shores of a river- seemingly made out of layers of garbage in some spots…

I saw and must acknowledge the poverty I saw as I drove to and from the airport. Witnessing 3rd world conditions is not a new experience for me having traveled extensively already, and it wasn’t as though I toured the slums but we certainly wouldn’t need to to be faced with the extreme poverty and filth people live with here. Jetty boats pulled up onto the shores of a river- seemingly made out of layers of garbage in some spots; the people living under tarps beside the roads, the dwellings so dilapidated I wasn’t sure if they were structures in extreme decay, or ramshackle shanty huts with stones keeping the ever-present corrugated tin sheet roofs secure.  Yet, everyone I saws was in clean and bright clothing, and laundry hangs out to dry literally everywhere you look.  Even the professional beggars (amputees, the blind, kothis or transgendered persons) looked presentable and clean.  It’s a far cry from the personal filth so typical of Vancouver’s homeless.  Having seen it for just a few short hours, the contrast is so distinct that it seems completely obvious that Vancouver’s long-term homeless are mentally ill or horrifically disenfranchised individuals. A hallmark of mental illness is inattention or resistance to personal hygiene. I’m probably making a terrible assumption here, but it seems like poor people here are simply poor.  I’m sure there are a lot of mentally ill people in the poor population in India, but they do not seem to have been left to their own devices to wander the streets on their own as they are in Vancouver.  It’s pretty sickening to think we Canadians, and especially Vancouverites, are so accepting of mentally ill and disenfranchised/abused people being homeless in the long-term and self-medicating with hard drugs.  The idea that humans beings become addicted to drugs in the absence of meaningful connection in their lives is an interesting thing to consider looking around at the poverty of India- because here, family and community is everything.

I dunno, I don’t know anything, and I know I’m not adequately acknowledging the social structures that keep this extreme poverty in place.  I’m just noticing that it seems very different here- it feels different from anywhere else in the world I’ve been and seen extreme poverty.