India: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

“Be soft. Do not let the world make you hard. Do not let pain make you hate. Do not let the bitterness steal your sweetness. Take pride that even though the rest of the world may disagree, you still believe it to be a beautiful place.”

Asia, more specifically India and Nepal, have taught me more about myself than I could have ever imagined. Spending a year between these countries, mostly alone as a young female, has lead to some of the best and worst experiences I have ever had. The memories of families who took me in, the beauty of the Himalayas, the wonderful nights in my tent, and the constant stares and harassment I received from trying to live in a scarily patriarchal society will stay with me forever. More than that though, this year has shown me how much I value where I grew up and the things, equality of women, openness to difference, and abolition of a ridged social hierarchy for instance, that I take for granted.

There are only so many demands for porn and “I want to fuck you’s” a girl can hear before she looses her patience and respect for a whole country full of men. Sadly, I am hundreds past that number. It’s not just the vicious stares or physical advances (stopped by rocks and kind Sikh grandpas) either, it’s the fact that even the women in this part of the world believe they are worthless, second class to their husbands or fathers who “own” them. Seeing this first hand rather than simply learning about it in a text book has made me a strong feminist, a girl intent on showing the world that women are second class to absolutely nobody.

The constant attention I received due to my white skin has also shown me how much I value the tolerance for different races or ethnic backgrounds I take for granted back home. Though intellectually I know that most of the harassment and comments I found so rude or frustrating stem from cultural differences, it was hard for me to put aside my own views about how our world should be in some of these respects. I’m not saying we are perfect in North America either, we certainly have a long history of discrimination and racism as well, but take this for example as a modern day phenomenon here: Imagine being of Indian descent walking down a street in New York City only to have every single person stop and stare you down, yell out to you “Indian, Indian, come here Indian!!” and attempt to stop you in the streets for a photo purely because you look Indian. That’s how it still is here.

Part of this fascination with “white people” (there are whitening creams in every shop) and the unthinkable treatment of women has to do with the caste system, a ridged hierarchy I have come to see as the demise of India. The Indians born into a lower caste are seen as the “untouchables,” and live their lives in an endless cycle of poverty because society won’t allow them to peruse the same education or professions as the high-caste folks around them. In turn, the high-caste people are even worst because they are born with an undue sense of entitlement they feel allows them to be rude and cruel to anyone lower than them. They don’t see a problem with treating those of a lower-caste like animals just because of their family name, nor with treating women with outright disrespect because us females are automatically below all men from birth. Though many of the wealthy families I stayed with were wonderful to me, I often saw them treat their servants or lower caste people in such a shameful way that it’s hard for me to say that they were indeed good people. Something that happened more than once was when I would play with the servant’s children, the wealthy family would tell me “don’t touch it (meaning the child), it is dirty.” A one-year old beautiful baby girl is not an “it”, nor is she too dirty to love, she is a child who needs care and attention no matter how dark her mother is, or what caste she was born into. This crazy divide leaves Indians in a constant battle amongst themselves because they believe that humans are not born equal and therefore do not deserve the same quality of life. Interestingly enough, the only regions of India I enjoyed did not have this despicable system as they were composed of Sikhs, Muslims, and Buddhists who thankfully don’t follow this shameful Hindu tradition. It is not poverty which is at the core of so many of the problems in India as most people believe, it is inequality.

These combined factors, the inhumane treatment of women, status based upon skin color, and rude unhelpful people (by my cultural standards that is) has lead India to be much more difficult than I had previously imagined. Thankfully, there were things in this part of the world I appreciated and have learned from as well. Living with various families throughout every area I traveled through showed me how much more important family, friends, and a sense of community still is here, something we have unfortunately lost in North America. I loved the many self sufficient farmers I encountered, and the fact that cows walk around, even in the largest cities, as if they rule the world. I also throughly enjoyed Ladakh, Zanskar, Spiti valley, and Suru Valley, and most of Kashmir valley, disputed regions in India which are in no way “Indian” as the people, food, and culture stem from elsewhere. Though I could not see myself returning to the “real India” ever again (I know I know, never say never…) I would love to someday spend a winter in Zanskar and Ladakh, places which become completed isolated when the harsh winter hits. These two extremely hospitable places hold a special place in my heart, both for the beauty of the high altitude villages and mountains and for the traditional yet harsh way of life these people still live.

I set out to cycle around India alone in order to prove it could be done, to prove that the media only gives a bias and negative view into such a huge and diverse country. Unfortunately, I ended up proving that in many ways the media is indeed right. There was hell around every corner and cold blooded stares and harassment from vicious men with malicious intent. But I also proved that there is another side to India, a side I experienced through the amazing women who took me in while I was cycling alone. Who fed me, gave me a safe place to sleep, and even adorned me in their traditional outfits. There was the family I lived with for two weeks who integrated me fully into their small community, who showed me hospitality in India at its finest. There was the slum that took me in when I had nowhere else to go. There was the Ladakhi man who gave us his unfinished (but beautiful) house for the night, and the Sikh man who took us in at midnight after gathering the village in arms because he thought our tent was a car full of drunk Indian men in his field. There was the family in a village so remote that money, electricity, and running water didn’t exist, who invited me to stay even though they themselves barely owned more than a few ears of corn. There was the Sikh grandpa who saved me when I was cornered by four men with less than chivalrous motives, and there was the wonderful guest house in Ladakh which demonstrated to me that tourism doesn’t always have to be harmful to a culture. There were the women I helped in the fields, and the village children who kept me busy no matter where I was. And best of all were the beautiful mountains and high altitude cycling, trekking, and camping throughout the Himalayas, over some of the highest passes in the world, through some of the most deserted places on earth.

India is a place of contradictions. It is the most religious place I have visited yet the most ungodly, a country where the most foul people alongside the most kind. After speaking with other cyclists and backpackers alike I have come to realize that India is a wonderful place for tourists because they see what they come to see (temples, rituals, and Babajis), but a difficult place for cyclists because we see it all. After meeting and speaking expensively with dozens of world touring cyclists I realize that I am not the only one to leave this country with a bitter taste because nearly every single cyclist I have met has said that India was the hardest and most frustrating country they have visited. Though for the moment India in my eyes is split clearly between the good and the evil, I hope to someday see this chaotic country as a fluid mix of them both.

16 thoughts on “India: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

  1. You write so well.I was in India ounce upon a time.
    And even though I am a man I felt pretty much the same thing about India.
    I was backpacking then and I can only imagine what it would be biking it and specially as a woman.

  2. Let me just say a few words about staring. When a baby stares at us, we tend to enjoy it because the baby found us interesting and surely doesn’t mean anything by it. Later we tell the child that staring is rude “cuz the people might not like it”. Although most stares are motivated by curiosity, admiration and affection we don’t want the object of our stare to second guess our motivation. In the western culture, which is now influenced by fast images, many are no longer even willing/able to study paintings, which kinda requires some skill at staring. The only adults who retain the skill are weirdos and/or artists. It is also rather strange that we find it very pleasant when somebody likes our clothes or smartphone but telling somebody he has nice eyes or feet would be often going too far. Therefore, staring at a beautiful person, which clearly is a compliment, is considered rude in most western countries. Isn’t that a shame?

    • True, but often in India the staring was followed by an inappropriate grab, by a man handing me porn, or by a comment such as let me fuck you. After so many instances of that, any man who stared at me was doing it inappropriately in my mind.

  3. Being of Indian descent walking down a street in New York City sure won’t get you much attention. How about being (insert your favorite celebrity) walking alone down a street in New York City? You’d be stopped, touched, hugged, photographed and there would be a heap of disgusting emails waiting for you back home. Well, you get the picture. By going solo to India you in fact agreed to becoming a celebrity – to the locals you are just as special. You break the conventions, dress extravagantly, own expensive things and have the freedom to do what you want, which you use to do things they will never do. In places where most don’t own a TV set and haven’t been to a further or more exciting place than the nearest market town, you are in fact much more interesting than that celebrity in NYC. Even if attention is not why you travel, you signed up for it. Most celebities also don’t do what they do to get harassed by fans and hounded by reporters. Yet people still believe it’s OK to invade their privacy and all the tabloids sell so damn well when they can get somebody’s naked photo. The west is not that different after all. Enjoy your years of fame 🙂

  4. I find whitening cream a joke compared to what we have in the west. We have hundereds of pills to make us slim some of which are harmful. We have teenage girls dieing of anorexia who still think they are fat and others can’t give natural birth due to their low BMI.
    Plastic surgery advertising now target the general public and we have high heels and short t-shirts to damage our health. On top of it, we change our preferences about every hundered years to make it more fun.
    We don’t have the caste system but we do have immigrants in Central Europe who get abused a lot and we don’t really care too much. We no longer discriminate women (much). Instead we found a nice way of disposing of old and sick relatives. We send them to a specialized institution where they get “all the care in the world” so that we can get on with our lives. Try expalining this to the next Ladakh family you stay with. I’m sure they’ll find it just as disturbing.

    • In all porn movies we get , the girls are white ! ( you may say it is eastern European girls……..whatever )
      so common man have a tendency to relate a white women to prostitutes …..and easily available sex , that is the reason of this annoying starring .

  5. An excellent and very descriptive summary of your experience in India. Your writings are very inspiring and excellent food for thought. Thanks for sharing this.

  6. I have been in India as well but only for 6 months (volunteering). Twenty years young European girl with no education, mostly living in a rural village (Haryana state, famous for it’s harassments to woman) and sometimes travelling around. I had great and terrible experiences, just like you did! I even got “touched” by 13 years old boys but also I met the kindest people I have ever met. Ohh, the whitening creams! So few people mention this phenomenon!
    One more thing, did you notice, or was it just with me, that whenever you ask people the directions very few will say that they don’t know? They rather send you to the wrong place than admit it!
    While reading your post I felt the blood in my veins, I was also touched and even nostalgic. Thank you for it! It sums up my experience, I could never write it better!

    When I left India I thought ” thank you for the experience! More of you? – no thanks! I am full!” Now, after six more months I am looking forward to return. I miss the beautiful, ugly truth. I truly believe that in India can happen the best and the worst things It’s like climbing up the mountain with no safety equipment, you never now and the only one you can truly trust is you!
    So much to learn and to teach. Part of my heart I left there, even if I didn’t notice it at that time. I am not even sure that I will ever get over India, so far I remember it every single day.

    Best luck for your travels, earthling!

    • I noticed that too! All the time people would send us in the wrong direction rather thn say I don’t know. So funny! I’m curious now to see what my reaction will be in a year as to how I feel about the country. Happy travels!

  7. Sad, but true. Hats off to your courage and your true explorer spirit to venture into stranger territory and coming up with gems in the form of pictures and blogs. Especially these days when issues of women safety and the cultural hypocrisy are being exposed. Thank you for posting a true picture of my homeland.

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  9. Shirine,

    your adventurous spirit, and your adventures themselves, are admirable, and you have most certainly earned the right to comment on the conventions of the societies you visit, but I think you are, inadvertently, selling Indian women short, both by generalising over all of India, and by measuring their lives using a Western sensibility of liberty (or freedom) as the absence of impediments.

    That many women accept, in some ways, the position that is assigned to them by an archaic system, does not take away from their impressive achievements and gains. Women participate in Indian society and in the workforce in many ways. Even in such activities as day labour, activities where women can rarely be found in the West. Whereas women in the West have the textbook freedoms to do what they wish, the exercise of this freedom (not in all cases, just as in India) tends towards prescribed roles and positions. Is a person who freely chooses to be what society wants them to be any freer than a person who finds ways in a more choice-limiting society to participate in larger ways?

    Consider your analogies in two ways: (1) If you suffer from over-attention in the streets of India, an Asian immigrant to North America might well complain of the opposite: an almost complete lack of interest from the native (white) population. In North America, I would find it a preposterous impossibility to be offered any sort of deep hospitality (or even attention) by those I meet on the street (especially the streets of New York City), or at work, or even in a neighbourhood. And then there are the real experiences, none of which are as pervasive as the harassment you encountered, and I mention here only in passing: being chased with an umbrella by an old lady in Rome :-), being called a “sand nigger” or told to “go back home”, or chased by young men while out jogging, or threatened in a bar, so on. Or if you live in Pakistan, being bombed by the governments of North America. (2) The unenviable invisibility an Indian enjoys in your analogy using the streets of New York is one way to compare things. But consider instead the lives of others. Matthew Shepard in Wyoming. Of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, itself representative of the life of the average black male in the USA, especially New York. Or the scores of Pakistanis and other Muslims swept up into secret prisons immediately after 9/11.

    You are very brave to have taken on such an inspiring adventure and particularly wise and thoughtful at your age (which I hops is not ageist), and fairly spot on in lamenting the behaviour of men (though not “all men”, as you lapse into saying, at times in your writing; I suspect that is unintended) in India, but I also hope that encounters with these strong women will make you consider their own qualifications as strong feminists, albeit in a very different sense.

    Thank you for sharing your adventures with the rest of us.

    • Thank you for your well thought out answer. I do agree with you on many points, but I have a ver different perspective on one. I don’t have an issue so much with Indian women being happy in their roles (housewife, or whatever job is allowed by society) though that in and of itself isn’t equality either (since they don’t have a choice) – for instance where I am now in turkey it is like that and I see no issues – but in India, the women’s place in so many places was to be ashamed of being a women. Of course not all women, and of course more in some areas than others, it baby girls are still killed there at birth because of their gender, women are taught to feel inferior through rape and harassment, and a women’s place was not just “in the house” but rather, “under man” if you look at the caste situation (which I have many other issues with for all sorts of inequality). You are right that I have no right to judge another culture, but I do feel I hav the right to share the harassment I faced daily, the men who tried to grab me, and the porn men would show me and ask from me because those are the daily things I experienced. I too met wonderfully strong women who did so much more than the men in their lives, and of course many Indian women are strong, but that doesn’t mean the society as a whole celebrates equality in the slightest (of course, a generalization, but I personally have never been to a more difficult as a women, and looking at stats and such, it is indeed one of the worst in the world.)

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