It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….Ok no, I’m not really going to start like that, although that single sentence does aptly describe the turmoil of the constant love-hate mix that I feel about India. And sorry to trick you again, but my title is a little misleading too. What it should actually be is ‘a tale of two states,’ or one state to be more specific. Rajasthan – but split into two halves. Let me explain…
It started not long after I got out of hospital. The jealousy.
You see once I was back on my feet and looking for adventure, I started to notice the split. As I traveled down through Rajasthan, first to Jaipur, then Pushkar, then Jaisalmer, I begun to notice a difference in the experiences of the travelers here. It was like there was a Rajasthan for men and a Rajasthan for women, with each sex experiencing a totally different state. And in my mind, the men’s one seemed a lot better.
Whilst I found myself battling against catcalls, conversations that became sexual advances if they lasted more than one minute, and the constant biting of my lip as I struggled not to punch the next person who touched my ass, the male travelers I met had different stories.
Full of confidence and sauntering around in the type of vest tops I would be dying to wear in this heat, the men I met told me about the nights when they’d partied until dawn with the locals, how they’d spent an enjoyable day in a doorway smoking charras with that sitar playing baba I’d been too scared to talk to, how they’d drunk chai in a spiritual communion with that man that ran the bakers store, or how they’d chewed on paan with the bow legged grandfathers that sit under the shade of a tree outside my guesthouse. How simple it seemed to be for them to just jump on the back of some guy’s motorbike and speed off to adventures unknown, how easy for a conversation with a tuk tuk driver to turn into a feast at his family home!
What was happening here? Had I lost my communication skills completely? Was I failing to open up to Indian culture? Was I closing myself off?
In a desperate attempt to remedy the situation I did go and have chai with that friendly man offering snippets of information in the fort in Jaisalmer. And it ended exactly how tea with a strange man would in any country: awkwardly. And then I realised it is not just me. I do have to act differently to men here because that is Indian culture. It’s all very well swanning around demanding the same experiences as men, but Indian women certainly aren’t doing those things.
Halfway through giving up and resigning myself to the idea that India might never be the spiritual re-awakening I had envisaged, something funny happened.
I was looking for a place to get henna drawn on my hand because I was off to a party with a strictly Indian dress code that evening. I had seen a couple of women with henna on their hands and feet since I’d been here and I thought it looked so beautiful. Somehow I sort of ended up getting a bit of a backstreet job because I got kind of lost and a whole load of people told me that their cousins friend’s friend’s sister could do it. Anyway I ended up in this bedroom with a woman and her mother, with the woman promising me that she was very good at doing henna. I agreed on the basis that she included a cup of chai in the service, and she happily agreed, sending her mother off to the kitchen to make one whilst she started on my hand.
About halfway through the henna process, a cow suddenly stormed into the bedroom. I almost fell off the bed in surprise as it thrashed around wildly, showing the room who was boss. Given that Indian cows, as my friend Jason so aptly put it, usually have ‘zero personality and no intelligence,’ I was quite alarmed to see this cow kicking up a fuss in an odd display of bovine angst.
The woman putting henna on to my hand jumped up and ran into the kitchen, returning minutes later with a chapati. She gave the chapati to the cow and he retreated out of the room slowly, his dark eyes never moving from us until he was gone.
“What on earth was that about?” I asked.
“He comes every day. He want chapati. If we give chapati he go. If we no give chapati he make noise until we fetch chapati. That cow he likes mama’s chapati a lot,” she said.
I could only stare at her, eyes open wide. “Do you mean to say that you are being held to ransom every day by a cow?”
“yes,” she said “for chapati.”
It was then I realised that it didn’t matter which state of Rajasthan I was experiencing, the male or the female one. I might not be drinking and smoking and partying all night with the men, but that’s not what I came here to do anyway. I came to India for a unique experience, and to get under the skin of the culture, and in my own way, I am.
Sure, I have to be careful about talking to men in the street, I have to put up with daily catcalling, and I have to cover up as though I was dressed for the North Pole, but there are moments in India where being a woman is wonderful. Those fantastic moments when an Indian woman lifts the brightly coloured silk veil from her face a few inches to flash me a knowing smile. The times that people plonk babies on my lap because for some crazy reason my gender makes them trust me. The times when little girls bribe me with snacks on the train just so that they can touch my weirdly thin Western hair, only to exclaim, much to my surprise ‘how beautiful!’ All these things and more are what will keep India in my memories for years to come.
It’s not bad to be a solo female traveler in India, it’s just unique. And as it turns out, I quite like unique.