“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.