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Thursday, February 14, 2013

50

A Month Alone In: India

Writer Shona Sanzgiri took a trip to India last year, and we asked him about it.

Edith Zimmerman: Shona, how was it, and how did you end up there?

Shona Sanzgiri: India was a mixed bag. And that was my fault. After a bad breakup, I was — surprise — depressed, exhausting my friends, and in a wallowing binge. And what a theatrical bummer: one night I ate an expensive dinner alone and tore up a 200 page manuscript I'd worked on for three years. Smart.

In general I was desperate for social interaction, but whenever someone paid me any attention, I deflected them with my neediness. I had nothing to say and couldn't engage with people in ways that weren't about my perceived suffering. So a vacation sounded like a good idea, preferably to a place that required me to be present.

Coincidentally I had been working on a documentary about India at that time. It attracted a little bit of money and started to seem like it was really going to happen. And I knew that sooner or later I'd have to actually go there and chart the logistics. Having family in Bombay, I decided to start there.

How did you end up on the ... memorable train ride you described in your email?

Right, the most ominous 14-hour train ride ever. 

After two weeks in Bombay, doing little besides visiting mosques and museums and drinking rotgut gin at night, I was antsy. It's a beautiful city, with gothic architecture, swaying palm trees, all specimen of humanity on display. Visually, it's never a dull moment. But meeting people there is damn near impossible. Most travelers stay for a couple days then head elsewhere.

By this point, my documentary was in limbo. I was still freelancing for a few magazines and newspapers, and one of my editors asked me to check out the Goa Literary Festival.

Goa is a beach state four hundred miles south of Bombay, and the preferred getaway for Russian Mafioso, trance DJs from Israel, and the kind of leering ex-cons who hole up in Asian backwaters. It's not the first place that comes to mind if you're looking for literary culture. It's more 'Margaritaville on acid’ than Chapel Hill, let's say. But The New Yorker's Teju Cole and Heems from Das Racist were going to be there. And then if that didn't work out, I planned on knocking back any and all drinks containing umbrellas in them.

Instead of taking an hour long plane ride like a sensible person, I bought a ticket for a train departing at midnight from a station in Bombay that, by the looks of it, neighbored both a swamp and slum. Even at that hour, the place was packed with people, mostly men, just milling around, sleeping on the ground, smoking cigarettes, stray dogs and mosquitoes galore. The schedule in the station estimated that the trip would take 11 hours. Then the train got delayed, so I was now three hours early, and very thirsty.

One thing about India is that you need to carry small bills. Anything over a 100 rupee note and good luck getting change. For some reason, I only had big bills. I relented and forked over something like 500 rupees for a bottle of water — 20 times the asking price.

Around 2 a.m. I boarded the train and found my 'bed.' I'm 6'3" and 190 lbs. This wasn’t a bed, it was a bench made for someone half my size. I leaned back with my feet hanging two feet off the edge, and strapped the laptop to my chest. For the next 14 hours, I lay there listening to the conductor and a passenger yell at each other in the next compartment. Sometimes the conductor would disappear and I thought it was bedtime. Instead he would storm back in every half hour to trade insults. I could also hear what sounded like people jumping on, and off, the train throughout the night.

Travel by train is mostly safe. Mostly. I haven't done it enough in India to give you a definitive answer, not that there is one, but I do know that pickpocketing is a huge problem. In my stupor, I probably looked like an easy target, though no one approached me. Once someone tugged at my laptop strap, but a quick whack with my water bottle sent them away.

Then suddenly it was afternoon and I was in Goa, where a rickshaw took me to the apartment I'd rented on AirBnB from a retired German woman. She served me fruitcake and invited me to dinner with her friends, all of whom were either diplomats or chiropractors. I never figured that one out. Anyway we danced.

Best thing you ate?

The berry pulao at Britannia, a Parsi cafe with high ceilings and chipped walls. Bombay used to have a huge population of Parsis: followers of the Zoroastrian faith who came to India from Persia sometime in the last thousand years and more or less maintain a distinct culture despite their small numbers. They worship fire, and make fantastic bread. They're responsible for most of Bombay's cafes, where you can get excellent snacks like spiced scrambled eggs, called akuri, raspberry soda and caramel custard (flan) for under $5.

But the pulao: wow. It's a mound of steamed rice, stewed chicken, and these little red berries imported straight from Iran, layered with fried onions and cashew slivers: $3.

Also I had some incredible ice cream sandwiches. Again, a Parsi thing: they load up two thin wafers with Indian ice cream — pistachio, cardamom, a sweet, malty fruit called ‘chickoo,' etc. — and it's less than eighty cents.

Smallest thing you ate? (Haha, I don't know, maybe this question is not useful.) Something-est thing you ate?

Hmm. I had a McPaneer sandwich at a McDonald's. This might sound dumb, but I like finding out how other countries do McDonald's. I know Japan used to have a dedicated Quarter Pounder outlet, which I find intriguing despite possessing a stomach that actively rejects Quarter Pounders.

In India you'll find a lot more vegetarian options. And something called the Maharaja Mac, which is a Big Mac they used to serve with lamb. Lamb at Mickey D’s! #globalization

Please tell me about the beaches.

The beaches in Bombay are what you'd expect from a densely populated city that has such a stark divide between the ultra-rich and the staggeringly poor. Some of the beaches are home to nothing but unsightly oil tankers and jagged rocks and used syringes, and others have gorgeous, sprawling stretches of clean sand, water the color of jade, and impossibly romantic sunsets. At night, Marine Drive, the long curved promenade that hugs the bay, is called the Queen's Necklace, on account of the bright lampposts. All of the buildings are done in an Art Deco style. It looks a bit like a gently crumbled Miami.

In the 1930s and '40s, Bombay was a big jazz town. Duke Ellington and Dave Brubeck played there later on. Some nights I'd go for a walk, drinking shaved ice flavored with rose water syrup, trying to get into old jazz on my iPod. I don't like jazz too much, but it was easier at moments like that.

In Goa, the beaches were almost too perfect. In December, the place is teeming with tourists — usually trying to get to the Anjuna Beach Flea Market. You can buy jewelry, sandalwood elephants, engraved bongs made from imitation ivory. It mostly sucks. I bought a dozen elephants and ate an overpriced but passable shrimp curry. There was a Judi Dench lookalike who had clearly been there for years, not at all bothered by the flies that collected on her dissected coconut. She was reading a book and enjoying the attention of a young guy who looked to have been also carved from imitation ivory. Everyone is in their own stupefying, contented bliss; no one is noticing anyone else. Chakras are aligned and such.

One night it got weird. I hiked up a big hill at dusk and watched the sunset, then descended a towering flight of stairs to the beach. I saw a dining table set for two, with a lit candle in the center. Nobody was around for almost a mile, having vacated to the nearest rave cave. It was the loneliest I've ever been, and yet I felt inexplicably tranquil, happy, and safe.

I heard music. You always hear a faint stereophonic thump at about 140 BPM in Goa. I followed my ears and attempted a party. Meaning that I tried to enjoy the music, stumbled around, and napped on a deck chair while everything around me was pulsating and gyrating and trying to mimic the flames of a carefully manicured bonfire blazing in the center of the outdoor dance pit. Still tranquil, still happy, still safe. I got lost trying to find my way and walked down a jungle road in total darkness back to my apartment, with nothing but my iPhone as an impromptu flashlight and the moos of several wandering cows as encouragement.

The beaches are serene and picturesque. But next time, I wouldn't spend so much time there alone. Day four of solitary beach life can be its own private hell. At least I’d advise bringing a book, if not a friend.

Who was your favorite person you met there?

Oh boy. ‘Favorite’ might not be quite the right word. There was the fashion student from London and his coterie of girlfriends. He spoke dramatically about worlds I would never know — in fact that's what he said to me: "these are worlds you may never know."

There was a Dutch graphic designer and his Indian wife who invited me to take DMT with them. A slippery lizard of a man named either John Michael or Mohammad Ali (I kid you not, he alternated between the two names depending on who he was speaking to) suggested we go to a club in the hillside with his friend Mary, a skinny, model-pretty Indian girl who was married to a short, muscly Brit about 20 years her senior. He had a heavy Cockney accent, and always helped himself to my french fries. He claimed to be a reformed skinhead who now just sells magic crystals on the beach. They would sometimes bring their baby to the bar, a little brown cupid, wide-eyed and sweet, but obviously a little denatured by his parents’ bad habits. It made me sad. I gave them money, which back in Bombay, my aunt would say was the stupidest thing I could have done, that the baby probably didn't belong to them, and who the hell did I think I was giving money to former skinheads.

But to answer your question: my cousin and her friends. They're in a band called Spud in the Box, which plays melodic rock in the vein of, I don’t know, Coldplay. They're all between the ages of 18-22, and they went out of their way to make me feel comfortable. They were considerate and generous and charmingly sardonic. They were endearing to me even when singing John Mayer's "Your Body is a Wonderland" to each other in crowded bars.

What was your lowest moment?

I had several, ack. One day I took a ferry from Bombay to Elephanta Island, where there are a bunch of caves with various rock sculptures. When the ferry landed, I just went for a walk on the pier, realized I had to get back to meet a family friend, and turned around and got on the next ferry. My stomach felt like it was going to burst, and I was homesick, longing desperately to talk to someone I knew, as I sobbed quietly into my hands. Then a water wake splashed against the side, and I was drenched. The ferry is a six mile ride either way, and it felt like an eternity. When I got off the boat, an old woman literally grabbed the side of my face to steady her as she stepped onto the landing. I think I just laughed after that.

Best moment? Or, one of?

There were more of those, thankfully. My aunt's colony — an apartment complex, home to members of a specific caste — borders a huge Muslim neighborhood. In the center of this district stands the tomb of a 14th-century Yemeni scholar named Makdhoom Ali. Every year, thousands of people come to visit the tomb, and they hold a 10-day celebration known as the Urs Festival. To the untrained ear, it sounds like a drone strike, which, given the part of the world I'm in — not implausible. Lots of explosions, fireworks, little kids wielding guns, men dancing atop moving buses, bullock carts carrying sound systems that play entrancing Islamic chants and electronic music that incites devotees to go into hypnotic states not unlike a Goan beachgoer. The police also pay tribute, and participate by shepherding the people through the street. The music is so loud I could feel it deep in my chest. The feeling is intense, but for an adrenaline junkie like me, it's a lot of fun.

Another night I rode a motorcycle along Marine Drive with the son of a family friend. He gave me a tour of the city and we drove fast, without helmets, stopping only to smoke cigarettes and talk about girls.

The other best moment was going antique shopping in the Chor Bazar, or Thieves Market. It's one of the largest flea markets in the world, a maze of sketchy storefronts and disassembled car parts, Victorian postcards, scimitars, record players, bejeweled door knockers. Anthropologie, eat your fucking heart out. They say if anything gets stolen in Bombay, it ends up here.

 

If you could pass one piece of advice on to someone else traveling alone there (or anywhere?), what would it be?

Don't go because you're trying to run away from something: you'll just get closer to it, psychologically speaking. Read a book as if you had all the time in the world. Don't be the person who later on regrets not having done something.

Did you CRY at any point? (?! ignore if too personal!)

Ahem. Yes. Notably on the flight back from Goa, a few thousand feet in the air. I was seated in an Emergency Aisle row and feeling angry and frustrated at so many things, I might have punched the door. The soft-spoken old English man sitting next to me leaned in and said, "in a hurry to leave, are we?"

Did anything go horribly wrong?

Not horribly wrong. At its worst, bad times felt like a series of small but salvageable blunders. It was mostly about enduring the loneliness. I realized I wasn't clingy, but I was always comforted with the knowledge that a friend was close by. In 26 years, I had never really been alone before.

At that hillside club, I tried to talk to what looked like two Arab princesses. They resembled the Kardashians. They behaved similarly. In fact, that entire night was about planet Earth rejecting me, and looking up to see John Michael Mohammad Ali the Lizard King shaking his head in disgust.

Was there ever a moment when everything went magically right, or unexpectedly right?

Most days it was smooth sailing, when I wasn't taking pity on myself. Maybe when the fashion student and his girlfriends and I were all drinking pina coladas and an Orbital song came on and I went for a swim: I sort of thought I had dreamed all of this up.

Where to next?

I have this plan to take a very long trip through Latin American, starting in Mexico and ending up in Argentina. It’s unclear if I’ll have a motorcycle and a diary. Italy and Greece sound just as magical — I finished Geoff Dyer's "Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi" some months back and thought the Venice Biennale sounded excessively indulgent in all the right ways. I suppose it's less the specific place I'm interested in, and more the company, the climate, the ineffable mix of things that offer a pedestrian transcendence.

Oh, Iceland. I want to go clubbing and then sit in a geothermal spa.

Previously: A Month Alone in Southeast Asia

Shona Sanzgiri is a writer and editor based in San Francisco. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in GQ, Bookforum, Interview, and The Believer.

50 Comments / Post A Comment

iceberg

is the Hairpin broken? nooooooooo

thiscallsforsoap

Instagram or air pollution?

Leslie Green@facebook

I really loved this piece. At first I thought the author was a woman (just based on a glance at the first name), and was really surprised how...free...I guess, they seemed in India. From what I have heard about others (American women) experiences there, they were not quite so comfortable there. Then I saw the picture with a guy in it (the author, I assume), and realized the author was a man. I would love to see a piece about India by a Western woman, too. I imagine they would be quite different, but who knows? (I'm not very well-traveled!)

craygirl

@Leslie Green@facebook

Ooo, had you heard about the discomfort from people you know in real life, or blogs or something...? I might be travelling to India at some point this year and would love to know more.

mysterygirl

@Leslie Green@facebook : I am a woman who spent a month alone in India! I traveled to Goa for a few days and then spent the rest of my trip in the south. I'm not sure what specifically you have in mind when you discuss comfort, but here's a little bit about my experience: I disliked Goa because it felt like a cheesy tourist place to me, and not to sound prudish, but if I were traveling all the way to a place as interesting as India, I wouldn't want to just do drugs and lie on a beach. But because it was touristy, I felt like rules that you would follow in other places in India didn't necessarily apply-- some women chose not to dress completely covered, etc. So, I could imagine feeling more comfortable there if you were looking for more progressive surroundings. However, I liked the south much better. I should note that I was in a town frequented by Westerners because of its yoga schools, so they were used to having us around, but I found people to be very kind to me as a woman traveling alone, and it helps that many people speak some English (though of course I recommend learning a few phrases in the local language, if even just to demonstrate that you're trying). I didn't go out alone too much after dark, and I did not ride the bus, so I can't speak to those experiences, but on the whole I enjoyed my trip to India very much and plan to make my third India trip next year!

hellonheels

@Leslie Green@facebook I think as long as you have a reasonably adventurous nature and (I think this is key) a cursory understanding of Indian culture, you'll enjoy it. I spent some time in Mumbai for my last job, some of it alone, and I was never really uncomfortable. Being an obviously Western lady (and freakishly tall by subcontinental standards) I was frequently stared at and occasionally approached (and I think the entire staff of my hotel may have Facebook friended me since) but I never felt threatened or encroached upon by any means. In fact I felt like everyone I met bent over backwards to show me the best parts of their city and culture. I would go back in a heartbeat.

Brigdh's@twitter

@Leslie Green@facebook I'm a Western woman who spends part of every year working in India (not alone-alone, since I have co-workers, but I've lived by myself, stayed in hotels by myself, eaten alone, ridden trains and planes and buses and cars and rickshaws alone, gone alone for walks at night, etc). I have never had a single problem in India, and think in fact it's a remarkable safe country. I don't want to idealize it, because obviously every place has problems, but the few times I've been verbally harassed, strangers have leapt to my defense. You might well get ripped off here and there (as the author says, people claiming not to have change is annoyingly common), but I've never been made to feel unsafe.

Leslie Green@facebook

@craygirl I'm so glad to hear about women's positive experiences (above), because I had only heard from one woman about being uncomfortable there (not a good sample size!). My friend went there (I don't know what city) when she was in her early 20s and felt very objectified during most of her trip. She said men would ogle her and yell at her constantly. She had one terrible experience with a cab driver that she believed was trying to kidnap her. This sounds totally wacky now that I'm typing it out, but based on all of my other experiences with her I have no reason to think she was lying/exaggerating/whatever. :)

hellonheels

@Leslie Green@facebook I wonder if the cab thing could have been a misunderstanding? My one stressful experience in India was when I got in an autorickshaw before ascertaining that the driver a) spoke English and b) knew how to get to the place I was going. When I realized this, I tried to ask him to stop so I could get out, but he was extremely determined to get me where I was going even if he had to drive in circles and ask 10 passersby. It totally could have been scary had I not figured out his intentions. And he did get me there, eventually.

karenology

@Leslie Green@facebook I think it really depends on where you go in India. In the North, you'll get a lot more staring and attention from random men. Particularly in the Rajasthan / Golden Triangle area, which is where a lot of tourists end up going. Just like traveling anywhere, you have to use your common sense. In Delhi, for instance, I would not go out and about alone after dark (certainly wouldn't take the bus!), but in Kolkata, at least in the neighborhoods where I stayed, I felt pretty safe because it seemed like plenty of women and children would be out walking around at night.

Note: I traveled for six weeks in India, and had this crazy itinerary that took me back and forth across the country. I never made it further south than Goa, though, which - like everyone else says - is kind of this big tourist bubble. I traveled with my boyfriend, but have some other single lady friends who traveled around India and took trains and were fine. Their advice was to go south!

sony_b

Great post! I've spent a total of about a month in India with a work pal. We start in Hyderabad for a conference and then take some time on our own. The first time we went north to Jaipur, and then hired a guide and road-tripped to Agra. Last year we went to Goa. Next time, Varanasi, I think. Our trips are always interesting because we're both white, very clearly American, but Tori is seriously butch. No one at home in San Francisco would ever mistake her for anything but female (and gay). But it doesn't make sense there culturally - people call her sir, tell her she's standing in the wrong line when we have to queue for security. Best one at the airport - screener says "This is the ladies line" T says "I'm a lady." Screener says "I don't think so." She was also very sorry for me because I was 40 at the time and not married.

Love India. Jaipur was my favorite by far. If you can take the heat, I really recommend doing it in the off-season. It's even less expensive ($40 per night for a really nice locally-owned hotel), and our guide was awesome. We were there in May, which felt like Phoenix in August. Take a siesta and drink a lot of water and it's fine. I'm glad I went to Goa, but I don't ever need to go back.

I spent some time alone in Morocco last fall. Had a blast.

eraserface

6'3?? Damn, girl! Did anyone comment about your height while you were there? Love, A Short Person

districter

@eraserface "Writer Shona Sanzgiri took a trip to India last year, and we asked him about it."

I believe it is a "he" if that makes the height a little more normal.

eraserface

@eraserface My bad! Totally missed that.

Shona

@Leslie Green: You guessed correctly: I am a guy, sadly. But I'm not in any of the photos, btw. That slick haired fellow peddling trumpets was the proprietor of that booth. I too would be curious to read about a Western woman coming to India. There's a great book called Women of the Raj about British women who were brought to India starting in the 1700s. They didn't always have the best time.

@thiscallsforsoap: Hah, Instagram. I was in a filter-heavy period of my life, don't judge.

@eraserface: So I know you're running on the assumption that I'm a heavyset Amazonian, but despite not being that - nobody actually commented on my height at all. That's interesting now that I think about it. Though there is a bit of a staring problem in India - it's best to avoid making any assumptions as to why someone's looking at you, since it's so common.

And maybe just for men of the future who might also have the misfortune to share my name: Shona is a Bengali word for 'sweet.' It's also a pet name, one that I was supposed to grow out of, but never did. My full name is Sushanto, which I'm still not ready for apparently.

Megoon

@Shona Great piece, Shona. But you left me hanging - HOW WAS THE MCPANEER?! The food-styled picture on the box looked pretty good.

sintaxis

I kind of really love that other people also assumed the author was a woman right off the bat... it's such a reversal from other places on the internet!

Shona

@Megoon: McPaneer was not McBad. The taste of the paneer doesn't feature strongly under all that damn breading, but the sauce is good and spicy and with all that crack and saccharine ingested into their products, what doesn't taste good at McDonald's?.

Someday I'll return for the very real Pizza McPuff, Veg McCurry, and the Crispy Chinese, members of The Hamburglar's international crime syndicate.

hellonheels

@Shona Did you happen to try Indian Kentucky Fried Chicken? I seem to recall it being pretty incredible.

Shona

@hellonheels Yeah I did, but I ordered the popcorn chicken, which was worse than its American counterpart. What did you have?

ptthhhbbbbt

@hellonheels I was all about the veg. zingers when I was there- pretty darn good for fast food!

hellonheels

@Shona I think I must have had the Hot n Crispy. The batter was much spicier, and therefore much more delicious, than its American counterpart.

stonefruit

Now I want a McPaneer. Man, American McDonald's needs to step up its game.

PaperbackLady

I love this series! I'm planning on doing some solo traveling of my own in the UK this summer and my mom is FREAKING. OUT. I'm 28 and have traveled to places both in the US and abroad by myself before, but it was always to either visit people or study somewhere.

Chills

@PaperbackLady As a person who lives in the UK and frequently travels alone within it I think you will be fine :)
Where are you going?

PaperbackLady

@Chills I spent a summer in London about 6 years ago so I'm definitely going back. Then I thought I'd travel around to all the spots I missed--the lake district, the cotswolds, yorkshire. I also want to visit Scotland and Ireland. I told her it's probably safer for me to be there than here, quite frankly

dontannoyme

@PaperbackLady Yes it's safer here. You can tell The Awl that too (annoyed at their knifecrime island tag). YY to the Cotswolds and Yorkshire, especially the Dales. Why is your mum freaking out? Can I put her mind at rest? Or is it just the concept of her baby being on her own thousands of miles away? (Something I get completely by the way - I can't imagine ever letting my two babies being allowed out of my sight let alone on the other side of the world)

Lost penguin

@PaperbackLady As a single lady in the UK it is perfectly safe.My only comment would be that people don't necessarily spontaneously talk to you (national reserve and all that), but will be delighted to chat if you start first. If you are from the US, it is totally fine for you to talk to people (more national stereotypes!)

PaperbackLady

@dontannoyme I think it's just that motherly instinct kicking in. I'll tell her!

PaperbackLady

@Lost penguin haha yeah last time I was there in 2006 I kept telling people that I didn't vote for Bush (my own paranoia) but everyone was lovely.I myself am from New England, which tends to be pretty reserved. very similar to the English reserve

Chills

@PaperbackLady I think you're probably right and it is safer here! You'll be fine, especially as you've spent time in London before :) the rest of your potential destinations are all excellent. As someone who has lived in Edinburgh for a few years I definitely recommend Scotland, also if you come during August for the fringe people are a lot less reserved and happy to just start chatting, plus the fringe festival is amazing!

PaperbackLady

@Chills Edinburgh is definitely on the list as is the fringe festival!

Chills

@PaperbackLady Yay! It is the best!

TARDIStime

<3 the pic of the cow just splayed right out on the beach.
He is just sleeping, right?

erika kougar
erika kougar

I've enjoyed most of the posts in this series but this one really rubs me the wrong way. Could the hairpin not find a lady who has traveled on her own in India? I guarantee their report would be enormously different. I had amazing experiences traveling there but it was also the hardest place I've ever traveled solo as a woman. My time in Bombay included being groped in front of a crowd and I had other safety concerns when I took train rides. I know of no other country where your travel experience is so vastly different depending on your gender (and I include most of SE Asia and much of N Africa in that survey).

This also feels, I dunno, kind of colonial -- if the author didn't have relatives in India would he have talked to any Indians at all? Maybe he did and he just doesn't talk about it here, or maybe what most people expect of travel is mostly to meet other tourists, but I'd like to hear about plain old folks in addition to models and Cockney gentlemen.

karenology

@erika kougar I love reading travelogues, and definitely want to read as many perspectives as possible, more than the Hairpin probably has room for on the front page. Having also come back fresh from an India trip, I'd love to read your experiences! I also plan on blogging about my time there, when I get unlazy perhaps, and there are just so many things I'd like to talk about - I had a nice long chat with a Dalit guy who is trying to educate students about the caste system, for instance. maybe the Hairpin should open up a thread where commenters can post links to their own blogs / travelogues.

p.s. sorry to hear about the groping incident, that sounds terrifying. do they have women only cars on Bombay trains? A friend of mine who lives in Delhi feels safe taking the trains because of those cars - she won't take the bus, though, especially after that infamous rape case.

erika kougar
erika kougar

@karenology I don't think I took the train in Bombay, more up north, but designating a train car woman-only doesn't always keep the men out when the train is full.

I'd love to hear your story too! The first time I was in India I traveled during the monsoon so I often got stuck places longer than I had planned to -- but it was a wonderful chance to get to know people a bit better. I used to visit one shopkeeper at the same time every day so I could be there when the local elephant was taken on his rounds and give him a snack ;)

Katelyn

Oh dip. I am a longtime Hairpin aficionado who's been away from the computer for a while and just noticed this series. This is amazing! And beautifully written. And really familiar in parts because I'm living in a tiny town in Vietnam's Mekong delta teaching English at a community college.
Can I... Can I write one of these? I'm very much the only foreigner around, and I have so many feeeeeelings.

sergeant tibbs

yes! this is the second time a mcspicy paneer burger has shown up on the hairpin...i submitted a picture of my half-eaten burger for that post on first pictures from your phone. anyway i'm a (non-white) american living in india if anyone has questions about getting around or traveling as a woman. i'd say it's like traveling in any conservative country, just cover up and be polite and ignore ignore ignore if people are staring at you.

lizard

i just really loved this. I love to travel and spend time alone but sometimes you feel very overwhelmed in a busy ( or quiet) place all alone. Its a melancholy feeling that really helps you sort out a lot of issues

smack

I am just here because of the mention of Mumbai to tell you all to read Beyond the Beautiful Forevers because HOLY SHIT THAT BOOK IS SO FUCKING GOOD.

I mean, also because this is a good series but I am proselytizing.

LaLoba

I am an American woman who looks pretty fucking American because I'm tall and busty and yellow haired. I add this because it makes becoming invisible difficult and that's a factor.

I went to college in India for a semester and then stayed for a while by myself; while I was in the program I also spent a great deal of time wandering by myself and travelling on off time. It is an incredible place and I would go back there in a second; I'd probably be better at it now too.

However, it's not easy. I was assaulted flagrantly more than once and in the way where someone pretends it was an accident often. But there is patriarchy everywhere and there are misogynists everywhere, it just was more exposed there.

Also that was six years ago and that country changes very fast. And also nothing changes. And also everything changes. Etc. etc.

Just do not be a wimp and you'll be fine. And if you are a wimp, go and get stronger. Be tough and be bold and do not be scared or intimidated!

Plan ahead for a volunteer opportunity to give you some local connections in some places.

Myrtle

The untold story I'm longing to hear is an interview with the cow seen lying on the beach.

5dollarhaircut

I'm a woman - "alone" in India right now - "alone" in the way that Shona was "alone" ie there is a support system of people I know here. I went to India actually alone for the first time, and that was terrifying! I'm sorry, but this piece is really disappointing. 14 hour train ride complaint? Try taking one for 28 hours as a western woman. Which, actually, was lovely, and every one chats with you, and wants to know your life story, every one for three cars in each direction. But at any rate, I thought I would throw my hat in the ring and say Hairpin, come on. Traveling alone in India as a woman is so vastly different, if this series is for women, it should really be about women's travel experiences, as they are by and large 100% different in less developed countries. That his low point was punching a door on an air plane is something. Mine was being sick, alone, in a hotel, and having the hotel bell boy force his way into my room and corner me until I had to physically fight him off of me. This is a considerably different set of things to consider for female travelers who actually go places alone. Shona, you seem like a lovely person, no offense intended toward you and your experience, but I think it would be better fit for a different venue.

5dollarhaircut

I'm a woman - "alone" in India right now - "alone" in the way that Shona was "alone" ie there is a support system of people I know here. I went to India actually alone for the first time, and that was terrifying! I'm sorry, but this piece is really disappointing. 14 hour train ride complaint? Try taking one for 28 hours as a western woman. Which, actually, was lovely, and every one chats with you, and wants to know your life story, every one for three cars in each direction. But at any rate, I thought I would throw my hat in the ring and say Hairpin, come on. Traveling alone in India as a woman is so vastly different, if this series is for women, it should really be about women's travel experiences, as they are by and large 100% different in less developed countries. That his low point was punching a door on an air plane is something. Mine was being sick, alone, in a hotel, and having the hotel bell boy force his way into my room and corner me until I had to physically fight him off of me. This is a considerably different set of things to consider for female travelers who actually go places alone. Shona, you seem like a lovely person, no offense intended toward you and your experience, but I think it would be better fit for a different venue.

Shona

@5dollarhaircut No offense taken! I must admit, I had no idea my complaints were up for competition; I definitely had some scarier experiences that were too personal to relay. However, being Indian-American, I'm cautious about how I might represent the country. There's an unspoken axiom when writing about India: you will upset someone. Someone will say you didn't suffer enough, or conversely, that you glamorized your travails. Someone else will say ‘colonial.’

I do think India has a problem with women, there's no two ways about it. Rest assured Indian women know it, too. While I'm not saying a western woman's horrific experiences should go unheard, I would maybe recommend that she, were she even interested in reliving it for a travelogue story < 2000 words, find a way to articulate that important and prescient story with immense sensitivity and hopefully, some insights.

I mean, for the last two hundred years, there's been an avalanche of literature on the subject. The British used the Fear of the Swarthy Rapist as pretext to viciously put down the 1857 mutiny. So with that and poverty porn like “Slumdog Millionaire” or “City of Joy” swirling in my head, I broach the discussion very, very cautiously; also, as a man, as an American man at that, I'm not sure I have standing to talk about it - yet. There seems to be a shortage of new voices or new perspectives on The India Thing. I think Kathrine Boo, as someone pointed out, did an awesome job with her book. Looking forward to more books that continue to mine new angles.

I should also say that I know The Hairpin is targeted to women, but I think Edith and I saw it as a human story more than anything else. A little postcard at best, not exhaustive reporting or a survey on inequality by any means.

And I'm deeply sorry to hear that so many women had such wretched experiences, but moved by the courage and compassion and love you all managed to leave India with.

LaLoba

@5dollarhaircut thanks that's what I was getting at. It's not wrong to write about your story and experiences. It just shouldn't be framed in a way that suggests it is comparable to what women experience in terms of "traveling alone."

I remember sharing some frustrations about being excluded from so many things I was curious about and how if I "broke" certain rules and ended up getting raped, that everyone would blame me for it. And simply that I wasn't allowed or welcome in places or conversations, that i would be solicited for sexconstantly or rather looked at snd then shamed by a stranger yelling at me for being a wanton foolish slut who does not understand ; the million things. And a friend countered by saying it was worse for a man traveling because he couldn't appropriately

Talk to most alone women without them being uncomfortable with it. As I said misogyny is everywhere some people are just more upfront about it.

Beth.B.B.

Thanks Shona for the piece. I love reading about others' adventures into the great unknown. The first time I travelled alone, I went to Malaysia. I was terrified but had an amazing experience, and learned so much about myself and about humanity in general. I haven't lost interest in wandering yet.. and hope never to.

zjone

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