To Hitch or Not to Hitch

It is morning and I still haven’t decided. Will I do it? How dangerous is it? Can I do it? At the thought of leaving the hostel to hitchhike the 300 odd kilometres to Chiang Mai, my chest knots itself up and my head goes spinning.

I spend some time on my newsfeed to procrastinate, I google road safety (Thailand is number second in death cases on the road, after Libya) and half-heartedly check bus timings.

Yesterday, I had an argument about whether to do it, in which I revisited a lot of my points from this earlier post.

I think the arguments still stand, but two things make this situation different. One is that I am more tuned in with cautious, or anxious, vibes than I used to be. Therefore, I am more receptive to people telling me that I’m about to do something stupid. Rationally, I still don’t find the particular arguments I encounter convincing (I still think that we tend to exaggerate some risks, like being raped, while neglecting others. I am definitely more worried about car accidents here than about malicious people. And my cursory consultation of the usual sources seems to have shown that, if anything, Thailand is one of the nicer countries for autostopping), but I am faster to doubt myself. But then, I want to update my beliefs on rational grounds, and not because someone got me scared.

The second thing is that, because of the recent changes in my temper, hitchhiking now carries another significance for me. And it feels like now would be an exceptionally bad occasion to not do something because I’m scared.

I decide to give it a go because I want to remind myself that I am able to do things even if I feel scared and that, once I’m in it, reality usually isn’t as bad as I imagine it before I set off.

Just before I go, I have a chat with a girl in my hostel who has hitchhiked in Australia and therefore is sensitive to, and concerned about, my lack of hat or other sun protection. I reply “I might find one on the road” and she laughs about my bad planning. Fifty metres along the main road, there is a shop that sells hats.

I walk on, soon soaked in sweat. “I’ll wait till I’m at the exit of Old Sukhothai, so it will be more obvious that I’m hitchhiking”. This makes me gain time to think, and to collect my thoughts. Whenever a vehicle passes, I find a good reason not to signal – there’s not enough space, it looks like a tourist bus, there’s not enough room to stop. After half an hour, I finally come to a halt, on a place as good as any. I’m having moral doubts, and I feel ashamed. Am I propagating an image of the Western backpacker, who has, or could have, more money than the local population, and yet doesn’t spend any? What are the most likely consequences of my actions? Is it wrong to ask people who probably have less than you for favours? How good is it to ask people for favours at all? Would it really be that much better to spend my time working, to then spend my money feeding the Thai tourist industry (which, in turn, feeds lots of people)? And once I start think about morality, these things are no options at all, go work and spend your money/time really helping people instead of going on holiday!

Still, if choosing only between the two current options – to hitch or not to hitch – it comes down to a question about my goals. If my goal were simply to reach Chiang Mai, I might as well just take that goddamn bus, on danger of never recovering from my persistent air-conditioned cold.

But now that I’m travelling alone again, I aim for experience, I want to challenge myself, and I want to observe how people behave over here.

I stick out my thumb, and alternate that gesture with downward waves of my hand, which is how people stop taxis here. No-one seems to understand. My body language is hesitant; I find it very hard not to cross my arms, occupy my arms, twist my legs. I remember the second morning of my marathon-hitch from Morocco and how I’d persuaded people to stop by what seemed to be sheer force of will; how I’d been sure of myself and trusting in fate; how I’d really made myself believe that this was a glorious morning which would end in an awesome day, and how no challenge was able to stop me getting to where I wanted to be.

It doesn’t work this time.

After a while, I get the first acknowledgements: people indicate that they don’t have space or are not going my way. I feel better – at least some people understand what I’m trying to do. But no-one stops. Someone from opposite the road calls me and tries to say something, but we don’t understand each other. He comes from within a building that looks like it belongs to a university or some ministry.

I tell him where I’m going and give him a text in Thai about what I’m doing and what hitchhiking means. He reads it out loud, slowly. Then he smiles and motions me to go inside his car.

I’m not sure he understood, but I let chance decide – we’ll see where he brings me. Indeed, we drive all the way back to town and, out of all places, he stops right in front of my hostel. However, he doesn’t look at it, but crosses the street with me – to the police station opposite. I’m pretty sure hitchhiking is legal over here!?

Soon, I’m surrounded by a flock of more or less helpful police officers in snazzy uniforms, always happy to help what they perceive to be confused tourists. Out of awkwardness face to all this haphazard effort to help, I nod meekly as one of them asks “bus to Chiang Mai?”. And so, I am conducted to the bus station from where I head to my next destination.

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Thailand! Family holiday (Familienurlaub)

I have never so much as looked at a guidebook about Thailand (okay, I leafed through one for about five minutes once). Now, I’m on an improvised road trip with my dad, my step mum, fifteen Thai people and two Malaysians, somewhere in North Eastern Thailand. As much as I’d like to find out more about my surroundings, I am tempted to stay in the dark for some more time and see how things unfold.

Things are good at that, unfolding. We follow, we savour, we see. Toyota vans, noodle soup and other things, temples – wooden and mosaic, colourful and sobre.

We travel in a cloud of animated chatter, a flock of a species that enjoys, most of all, taking pictures, especially of each other and oneself. And us, of course. We enjoy ourselves, start learning the art of posing, and the art of enjoying the silence when it’s there.

We leave the group when they travel East while we want to go North West, there are lots of hugs and good-bye photos, we make plans to have dinner together back in Germany (two of them live in our German hometown, which is how this all came about).

Our next stop is a spa resort; which lies in stark, but not unpleasant, contrast to my usual travel surroundings. This is a moment that falls into a very clearly labelled “holiday” category.

I spend my time lying around the pool and then, I experience my first Thai massage in such a relaxing environment that I can’t help but look for the loudspeakers producing the chirping, which, instead, originates from real birds.

Once the external pressure falls off, my mind suddenly gets laborious. And so, on my first morning in paradise, I complete a job application, and start reading books on topics I usually find challenging, like statistical modelling. The thinking: “These are things I am usually scared of, so better get them done in an environment in which it seems impossible to be unhappy”.

While that kind of makes sense, I notice that it gets me agitated nonetheless. And on the second day of paradise, after starting on more “serious” reading, I decide that this is also a great place to let go completely, and I fall back on a well-tested relaxation technique of mine – I start reading a Terry Pratchett novel.

Today, we are leaving paradise for a fallen city, that is, the ruins of what once was a capital of Thailand.

After that stop, our paths will also diverge and perhaps that will be the moment to give my journey a twist by embarking on an adventure. (Question: can you plan adventures, or do they have to come as a surprise? Or both?)

10-minute-friends and floating thoughts.

I made six new random friends since I boarded the bus in Jaisalmer yesterday evening. Within a few minutes, I’d introduced myself to the guys across the corridor of the sleeper bus, and my plan of having locals handy in case I was confused worked out fabulously. Plus none of us got bored, and I was invited to stay at their desert school at my next visit. Facebook friend request: sent.

In my next bus, from Jaipur to Delhi, I was alone for quite a while, until two men (again, haha) joined me on my bench. I was first annoyed because that didn’t leave me much space, and I’m suspicious of situations in which I’m required to be physically close to men I don’t know. The ones next to me didn’t show any undue interest, though, and we sat in silence for a few hours, until we started talking about marriages. The three of us turned out to have travelled for a wedding, the two of them to their first Rajasthani one and I to my first one at all (although that had already been in Delhi). Anyway, we got along well and spent the afternoon together even after getting off the bus. We were joined by one more of their friends who turned out to like formal logic and had started reading “G√∂del, Escher, Bach”, as well as watching lectures from Erlangen University (in Germany) online‚Ķ we ceremoniously pledged to hold each other accountable for finishing the book.

What an improvement to sitting in the dust for hours by myself! More facebook friends: check. Plus, obviously, more nice people to visit in Delhi.

When the time came to reach the airport, one of them explained me how to get to the airport by metro, reassuring me that it would be no problem at all. Well, it got late, I got incredibly stressed, and so he took the metro with me all the way to the airport to make sure I’d be alright (I was filled with righteousness: “If you hadn’t reassured me, I’d left an hour earlier!”).

When saying goodbye, I gave him a stormy adrenaline-filled (and therefore probably tight?) hug, which left him visibly perplexed.

Woops, forgot Indian protocol – non-related, non-married men and women usually greet each other by waving/signing “namaste”, or shaking hands, or giving a very chaste hug selon occasion.

[Side note: not even married couples kiss each other in public; not that I’d wanted to try that].

I didn’t consider my potential faux-pas for long, but slid away. On my golden wedding sandals that provided no grip whatsoever on the shining floor; straight to check in, where I was greeted with a grin, considering my generous margin of 13 minutes before check-in closure and my inability of taking corners without looking like an overpacked surfing apprentice.

I grinned back; relief! Relief! The best euphoria. Then, waiting at the passport controls, I started a conversation with someone I suspected might also go to Bangkok. The kind of East Asian face turned out not to be Thai at all, but from eastern Nepal. What a joy! Under normal circumstances, I already get excited when I meet Nepalis, but now, I must have looked like a very happy chicken or something, and completed all the relevant introduction (I worked as a journalist on Durbar Marg! – Really!? I’ve studied journalism in Kathmandu!!) in record speed. We lost each other at security checks, but then I saw him speed past me (he was also late) and lose a jumper. I saved it – film-worthy scene of me running after him, still in sandals – and we’d become friends by the time we’d reached our respective gates.

I felt like just jumping on his plane to Kathmandu; build on the foundations of my Nepali life that still feels strangely real (I still have dreams in which I am back, exhilarated, greeting everyone… and then wake up). For a moment, it was there; I had a cool job, like working for the UN or something, or opened the first real German bakery of Thamel among all the fake ones Рand then I rushed on, go, go Thailand.

A conversation I had a few hours before, remotely.

Me: ” The disturbing thing is that I find myself wanting very different kinds of lives depending on what feels good in the moment”

Friend: ” when ‘living in the present’ goes too far ;P “

Will I also want to stay in Thailand? What would happen if I gave myself actual travel time, you know, the kind without return ticket; where you just follow whatever leads you get? Would I get lost? Build a life abroad? Return home? (Also: where’s that?)

I try to be patient with myself. I’ve left the clear path labelled “studies”, and then had some ideas I was pursuing while in Brussels and Berlin. Leaving even that fragile skeleton of a life plan plan behind puts it all up for questioning again.

Why not live on an island and write stories? I could literally do anything. There is some consistency in my wishes, but it’s hard to pin it down. One constant: wanting an environment in which to grow, in a healthy – not stressed – way. Writing and stories have also been a big part of my life for a long time, so much so that it feels like a sacrilege that I haven’t substantially invested in my passion since my two first attempts at writing novels age 8 and 12.

What keeps changing: the wish to “break free” (strong now, as you can tell) versus the one to advance, to get to a position from which to be of the most use to the maximum amount of sentient beings. I am terrified of ending up as a novelist, even a successful one, because I could have, I don’t know, saved a few hundred thousand people’s lives, or made it infinitely less likely that humankind extinguishes itself within the next hundred years instead.

I don’t see an easy answer, and yes, I am taking into account that I could do several things at once. But what to do, like, right now?

Is it even worth applying to jobs that I don’t find totally inspiring?

Thus are my thoughts in the air towards Bangkok, and while they are disorienting, I float above them, so to speak. I am glad that being abroad has this unexpected but understandable effect, and that I’m able to look at life from a different angle. Even just remembering what my core passions are (woops, did I really forget?) is great and will help in the overall decision-making.

For now, let me float, explore, write. Maybe that’s as much as I need. And hopefully, I’ll make some more friends along the way.

Family Holiday (vacances en famille)

I find it easy to adapt to unfamiliar conditions, but it takes others to make me duly appreciate and marvel at my surroundings. A little French flavoured family holiday is exactly what is needed. We’ve rented a minibus, including a Sikh driver who sometimes swaps the turban against a Nike cap and drives the nine of us through Rajasthan. This feels appropriate – all the same people who first took me to India when I was 15 are here. And their habit of cultivating joy is healing. We spend the long hours on the road making up a game of bingo, for which we have to spot things like a monkey on a cow (or the other way round) or a woman in a red saree crossing the motorway. Which we have now observed multiple times, unlike a motorbike on which all three passengers are wearing a helmet.

We are also preparing a game of “two right, one wrong”, which we’ll play with friends at home. Is it true that we’ve danced on the back of a truck? Or that we’ve been in a temple dedicated to mice, in which hundreds of rodents walk over the pilgrims’ feet? That Clem has moulded a brick with her own hands, which was then burnt in camel dung?

In the meantime, I am discovering roadside photography, right from the bus’s front seat. Which leaves me with hundreds of poor quality photos of the same setup. But this occupation helps to stay focused on camels, cows, painted trucks, and smouldering looks their owners probably copied from Bollywood.

Or cotton fields in which camel carts are loaded, puppies in the dust, little round huts that could appear in a Star Wars scene, a naked toddler being washed, and finally a sandy scene with no people; a sight in itself.

I wrote this on the way from Bikaner to Jaisalmer, where we slept under the stars of the desert. ‚õ§

Solution: I cheated; two of the above were wrong. We haven’t (yet) danced on a truck, although that’s definitely on our to-do; and the professional brick-moulder wasn’t satisfied with Clem’s work and redid it.

How to: Indian wedding [in 9 simple steps]

05h15

We have just broken into our flat in Delhi, dismounting the gate and leaving a hole in the fresh mortar.

Twelve hours earlier. Clem (my French nearly-sister) and I are standing on the dirty road, made up like Disney queens, waiting for everyone else to come back from the temple. Two hours later. Elephants have welcomed us to the venue from which we’ll dance over to the actual wedding place. They’re fake, but still impressive. Only that their feet stand on concrete containers. If we’re out of place now, that’s just because everyone else is much better at being princesses than us. We get credit for trying and start our race of getting more selfies than the bride and groom.

One hour later. We dance around the groom, who, on a throne, arrives on the party lawn readied by the bride’s relatives and friends.

Some stuff happens on the scene (but no one really looks). Then the bride arrives, in an estimated 17kg dress and jewellery (and make-up, but I don’t know whether that counted in the estimate the groom gave me beforehand).

There is some staging of a love story (it’s an arranged marriage), including a film they shot beforehand (rose petals and wine on a lake included) and a question round (she knows his favourite food, he is not sure about her address), then they are allowed to retire to a sofa, where they have to take photos with nearly all of the guests. I think we lose on that count.

In the meantime, we have time to sample everything from several tens of metres of Indian dishes over Chinese and Italian food up to ratatouille – which is funny, because I’m with a bunch of French people.

There is also dance, some on stage, some by ourselves. It’s hard to tell whether the Indians around us are genuinely complimenting us on our (very‚Ķ energetic) moves, or whether they are making fun of us. We don’t care and take some more selfies while being filmed.

00h30

The music has stopped. Really!? No more dancing. Lots of people leave, only the 20-30 from the inner family circle stay. We’re privileged enough to belong, in part because we really are close to the groom, but also because we’ve come from far and get to see everything.

03h27

I briefly open my eyes, scan the room we now all sit in. Nothing has changed – the room covered in Hindi writing (prayers?), the groom, then the couple on a small stage, chanting, rituals, chanting. Waiters walk around with a toffee-flavoured hot drink they call coffee, which I drink until I feel sick; the night is cold.

03h46

Brief agitation. The groom has bought back his shoes, which the bride’s side has stolen. Apparently a tradition from some Bollywood movie.

04h23

We’re sitting in the mini bus that will bring us back from the area with all the massive party venues, back to the flat which the groom’s family has rented for us close to their home. Indian hospitality goes so far as to provide housing, food and taxis for the nine of us while we are staying, to then give us gifts to thank us for having attended the wedding. Wait, what?

On our short walk to the flat, the streets are shockingly empty.

05h20

…we’ve found the key on the inside of the gate. If you want an actual explanation of how Indian weddings work, better look here or elsewhere. I probably didn’t get half of it. PS: this all sounds quite detached, which is partly due to my (poor) go at being comical, and partly because it was such an incredible experience as to become a surreal one. You might get what I mean when you only know dream marriages from films (or dreams?). And if the couple seemed a little distant at times, I think that is understandable seen how much effort a wedding in India means for the couple. It’s pretty hard to basically not sleep for days and sit through endless hours of rituals to then still look like you’re having the time of your lives. Luckily, their honeymoon is coming soon!

Oppression, inside

Let me tell you a story about internal demons.

The Rishikesh-Delhi bus stopped for a roadside break, with burgers and ice-cream instead of the makeshift food shack I expected to see. Bad for my slightly hurt feelings of nostalgia, good for the belief that things are able to change at all.

I walked around and felt like reactivating my body, came across a stable-looking wall and railing (okay. It was stable: I had tested it, which I now do compulsively whenever I see a railing). In a similar situation in Europe, I would have climbed and balanced, or at least stretched in a corner, feeling awkward but deliberate in overcoming the conformity.

Here, I suddenly felt like an ambassador of all that is “Western”, my blond hair shining in the dark, unlike everyone else’s. The predominant voices in my head went along the lines: “Who does she think she is? Coming to this country, permanently invaded by ones of her kin, and then behaving in this way?”. Below the foreigner-directed appropriateness head-police, however, also ran a current of gendered apprehension. In this example, it would also have been a strange thing for a man to climb around stuff, but the reasons that came to mind were ones that were particularly hostile to women – following their impulses, being physical, and looking a bit reckless perhaps (I say “look”, because I am a very non-reckless, reck-full, person, so to speak, even when I do things that look scary).

Here in India, it’s easier to see how outside expectations (or my inside views of what I think the outside is expecting) are restraining me. The expectations are slightly different, and I’m neither adapting nor rebelling effortlessly. Everything I do is a conscious choice, weighing up between being foreign here, wanting to not be disrespectful, and rebelling against conforming to a standard that just feels plain wrong. It’s hard not to impose my idea of morality impulsively on people who’ve led different lives to mine. I try to remind myself that moral views are in large part formed by our circumstances, but then, suffering is the same wherever you are.

And then, also in India, people of different genders agree that something is going wrong, that we’re nowhere near reaching gender equality, and that something has to happen. Be it women, men, hijras, or others.

The unnerving thing about this is that this whole gendered circus is part of my internal life now. Just like when you know exactly what your parents would say in a given situation. I think of it a bit like Boal’s “Theatre of the Oppressed“, in which you let other actors play out the voices in your head; externalising them to be able to free yourself.

I’d love to get rid of the patriarchy-robot in my brain constantly informing me what a “good girl” should do.

Especially when that includes things that are fine for equally “good boys” to do, like staying out late, or having sex with people you’re not married to, or, *gasp*, don’t even know. It’s just the different nature of these demands that make them stand out so starkly over here. I notice them when I’m being assumed as someone who wants to sleep with everyone, because, hey, I’m white and all, or getting disapproving looks and comments from receptionists for returning late, or endless comments on my looks (again, a receptionist: “You look more beautiful now”, after I’d had a shower and changed into nicer clothes, and that famous time three years ago in Mumbai, when a complete stranger informed me that I’d be sexier if I’d lose five or ten kilos)…. and everything. Like when he gets a bachelor’s party and she is not allowed to leave the house the week before the marriage. Maybe. It’s harder to judge what other people are supposed to do and what they actually do. There are specific and restrictive rules for both women and men here, which are flaunted by both sides along lines I have no understanding of.

Anyway, I notice the “Indian” voices because they are still unfamiliar. But the same stands back home, more subtly.

Sometimes, I think that it’s fine, you know, being women and men, having culturally constructed genders – “as long as they don’t oppress anyone”. But in moments like this one, it’s hard to see how they could exist without oppression. In any case, they don’t, not now. In moments like this, I feel like tearing it all down, all that is “masculine” and “feminine”, and while we’re at it, could we also get rid of that caste-thing and racial oppression? (Are humans made to oppress each other, I wonder?)

Question to you: what do your internal voices say?

PS: There’s lots of things in this post I’m not at all sure of – my own views on what a given cultural phenomenon means, or even is, change regularly, and it’s obviously even harder with the piecemeal outside informations I have about cultures other than the one I’ve grown up in. I decided to publish it anyway for the introspection into my own behaviour, for whatever that’s worth. That’s why it’s even more important to hear what you have to say – would love to read your comments below.

The joys of backpacker hostels and other differences between foreign and Indian tourists

I’m really regretting that I spent the last two nights in a hotel. It was affordable, sure enough (just over 10‚ā¨ per night), but I’d done what an Indian person would have done. Okay, I don’t think an Indian girl would’ve hired a tuk tuk driver at 4.50am to drive into town and help find a hotel. Anyway, I know that the idea of hostels, i.e. renting out a bed in a dormitory, is not a common thought for Indian travellers. I’d gathered this beforehand, but got confirmation for this belief from my Delhi cohort. Which made me, stupidly, not even look. I mean, I wouldn’t have looked by myself before sunrise anyway. And booking the bus ticket in advance drained my planning-zeal, so I didn’t reserve accommodation in advance. But I wish I’d stay some more, getting in sync with whoever has been following in the footsteps of the Beatles since they had their famous retreat here back in whenever-it-was (now on the menu: visit to the “Beatles Ashram”).

Savouring this atmosphere that is similar all over the world, but like a safe haven wherever you go. People to talk to instead of staff who don’t understand English (although I was extremely proud the other day, stating my enquiry about hot water for my hotel shower as “garam pani?” – “hot water?”).

Okay, there’s also shallow always-same conversations with people who are maybe a bit too similar to you, but at least someone to follow so you don’t have to walk alone in the night. No constant suspicious faces about traveling alone, or doing whatever I want to do. I didn’t think it could have such an influence, but entering this little tourist bubble has made me feel safe immediately. Like Thamel, “my” district in Kathmandu, where I didn’t worry about wandering by myself anymore. Like when the receptionist at my current hostel in Rishikesh tells you that there’ll be live music in an hour instead of giving you odd looks that you’re going out at all.

There’s another difference between the Indian and foreign travelers I’ve met in Rishikesh (including lots of Americans on yoga teacher trainings and an overwhelming crowd of Israelis, which, oddly enough, I ended up mingling with yesterday as only one among two non-Israelis). It’s the speed. Rishikesh might not be as peaceful as it used to be, but the people I’ve met are pretty chilled out. Some of the favourite pastimes include writing or reading in caf√©s or walking up the hills, and of course yoga sessions everywhere.

When my Indian conference-friend helped me plan for this trip, he reacted in what felt like exaggerated shock to my idea of “just hanging around Rishikesh for three days” – “But you’ve seen all of it in half a day! What else do you want to do? Are you into river rafting?”. Indeed, this place, due to its hilly nature, is great for adventure sports‚Ķ which seem, as a matter of fact, only be exercised by Indian people. As he explained, the idea of a trip to Rishikesh to them is summarised in riding up, renting motor bikes, roaming around, doing half a day of adventure sports, driving back, all in no more than two days. Which sounds crazy to me, given that it takes about 6 hours to even get here from Delhi.

I guess I’m not really getting the idea of doing stressful things even in your spare time, but then, the difference between “stressful” and “thrilling” is just a difference in taste.

Today, I tasted what un-planning means, one more of these things both precious and lost to me. I shouldered my bag, left the hotel with the TV I don’t need, and started following my gut feeling. It took me sampling Nepalese snacks (oh, I missed momos!), buying loose trousers and putting them on immediately (aha! Says the one who ranted about tourist-wear only yesterday), splashing in the holy river, and spending the afternoon in a most beautiful caf√©. It was surrounded only by a small parapet, which I stood on to see the sunset. The evening chants started rising, filling the valley – and before I knew what was happening, I’d left the terrace, jumping from boulder to boulder, first sketchy, then more fluidly. When the chant was reaching a drum-underpinned frenzy, I sat on one of the rocks, watching as about ten monkeys climbed the metal wires of the big bridge spanning the valley, as if to pay tribute to the end of the day.

And now, I’m in said hostel, which I’d spotted on an idle walk. It was full, but I’m all set for sleeping in the common area, which is something they actually allow here, against a small fee. It’s nearly boring, knowing that a place for tonight is organised, but I will see what else happens when I find that live music place and perhaps the Israeli crowd again.

Nothing else is needed. Life here is easy. I pray it will stay that way.

Skylights on the Ganga

I’m back in Rishikesh, where I was last seven years ago. Back then, I was bustling with hardly contained enthusiasm, gasping at the hippies and the holy Ganga, rummaging through colourful Nepalese garments. Now, I am embarrassed by Americans dressing up like priests, and wear my black jeans and shirt because that feels like what a “normal” person would do, Indian or not.

The moments that have brought me most contentment lately were those that, for me, signal a good time almost anywhere. Reading the new novel by Arundhati Roy, for example, wonderfully set in the streets of Old Delhi and perhaps within a part of Indian mentality. Visiting the co-working space which a friend’s friend’s friend – she had temporarily joined the delegation of people supposed to occupy me in Delhi – is helping to set up.

Most importantly, finding the minuscule fraction of New Delhi’s mega-population that shares my interests. Everything was good once I jumped around an old fort and a park with Abhishek, the one parkour coach I’d found online. The simple act of doing something strange fuelled by a mentality we both follow made it easy to belong. I was no longer the European surrounded by countless Indians, but we were two traceurs within the ever curious crowd, as stunned and intrigued in Delhi as elsewhere. I am dying to get a chance to go to the climbing hall they set up inside an old temple‚Ķ!

Other joys, also still before boarding the bus to Rishikesh: trying to understand, properly this time. Any of the insights gathered in previous travels feel incomplete, uncomfortably muddled and shallow. If I’ve lost the insouciance that previously enabled me to embrace other people’s worldviews without so much as a blink (which is a skill in itself!), I have gained something else. While, on my trips before University, I was good at listening, I don’t think that I’ve always asked the right kind of questions.

Being able to ask the right questions is also a matter of recognising the right moment… I have way too often asked questions in the wrong instants, where they ensued in awkwardness instead of opening doors.

I spent the second half of yesterday (after the parkour morning) with someone I’d met at a conference in 2013. It took until right before the end that we started talking about touchy issues such as family and relationships, and I still tried to tread carefully when asked “how’s that different in Europe?”. I know that young urban Indians are getting more relaxed about sex and relationships, and I found it great that issues of gender equality are being adressed more visibly now. At the same time, my own horizons have broadened quite a bit in liberal student environments, and I don’t think he was ready to hear about pansexuality or polyamory, or other things that now sound very commonplace to me but which, in that environment, felt rather‚Ķ out of place. Instead, I found out that he’d only ever had one girlfriend, which her family married to someone else while he was abroad, because they were from a different cast. So, yes, the kids can have relationships before they marry, but things get trickier once it comes to marriage. A woman about my age told me: “my family encourages me to get a love marriage, because arranged marriage is such a gamble. But I don’t want to find someone‚Ķ I’d rather not be married at all, but that is something my family will not accept”.

And so, when wandering Rishikesh, I wasn’t sure why I should even be here, and brooded in a little solitary circle in a caf√© near the river. Some time later, I joined its owner on the roof, watching the Ganges and the monkeys in the late light, finding it hard to follow while he spoke. But he noticed my mood and the thing I understood was when he said: “You don’t have to be unhappy”. Which didn’t seem to help in that moment. Yet, by now the caf√© has filled with people and guitars and the smell of food…and maybe it does make sense to be here.

Post Pre-wedding Post

The morning after

My most immediate impression right now is the slight spice-induced queasiness that stems from the pre-wedding function I attended yesterday night. Not that any of the food was bad – on the contrary, it was amazing to taste some old favourites like pani puri, phav baji, and aloo tikki, as well as some unknown snacks (none of us felt the need to help ourselves in actual food after several rounds of snacks).

But well, for now it’s porridge and tea for me, in one of these touristy rooftop caf√©s in Paharganj (the main Delhi backpacker location), overlooking typical Indian bustle from a safe distance.

A few hours later

I’m again sitting in a caf√© (this time a very artsy – and empty – venue in central Delhi), but nothing much has changed. I am sipping masala chai instead of ginger lemon tea, and am considerably more exhausted than before. My plans have been changing at a dizzying pace (or is that still the queasiness? Or the fact I haven’t had lunch?), and I’ve resorted to not knowing anymore, and waiting for some local friend-person to help me. That is because local non-friend people have been dragging me around different offices from where I was supposed to get train or bus tickets (after someone told me I had to book my train ticket from the tourist office). It seems established that there’s no train available today, nor a bus. Oh, yes: the plan was as simple as getting out of Delhi until my French (ex-host) family arrives and the actual wedding is happening. But there seem to be train strikes or whatever. Who knows. When one guy in one office told me that the only option of getting to the hills would be to take a taxi, which costs more than 100‚ā¨, I decided that I should reconvene.

Since my friend who is getting married is understandably busy, I spent most of the function yesterday in his friendship group, listening to mostly Hindi conversation over blasting music, while the ring ceremony was held somewhere in the background, attracting interest only from a few people.

As far as my Hinglish (see below) goes, I’m up to speed now – my English has already taken a slightly different accent plus the occasional Hindi word, which probably sounds more odd than authentic, and hopefully not mocking. It also seems more representative of young men’s than women’s speech, although I haven’t had a great sample to check that. It seems wise to hold back on expressions like “bro”, “man”, and, for many additional reasons “cunt” in any case‚Ķ even though they’re very tempting to add emphasis!

Anyway, so I called one of the people from yesterday, who’d already helped get me a taxi back to the hotel and had told me to ask in case of trouble. I told him about my issue of getting out of town and he said: “Let’s meet after I finish work, and we’ll sort something out!”. As strange as I find their bewilderment about someone (especially, but not only women) travelling alone, sometimes I really do appreciate that protectiveness.

Evening – how it all resolves

Even though I kind of threw the plans arriving a week before the other foreigners (as in, my French host family), the delegation of friends that was set aside to cater for us has swiftly accommodated for me. Right now, I’m sitting in someone’s “spare flat”, and a few people were trying to figure out what they could get me to do to pass my time. Maybe I wasn’t helping that much when I was like “Oh, I like parkour! There surely is even a parkour gym somewhere in Delhi‚Ķ”. Well, they’ll help with the gym bit – at least something to avoid potato-mode. And shopping also seems to be universal – and to be honest, having a local person with you can actually save quite a lot of money on that.

In the meantime, I am trying to find out how to quickly find lots of interesting people, and try to understand more of what the world looks like from around here.

Appendix: Hinglish

Just a few things I remember noticing today

  • “Also” in place of “too”, e.g. “You should try this one also”
  • “Thrice” instead of “three times”, e.g. “We had to queue thrice to get the tickets!”… but seriously, that makes sense – do any non-Indian soeakers use that, too? (Or, also)
  • “Even” in unexpected locations, but I don’t have a good example.

‚Ķ plus lots more stuff (check for yourself, ha). One more thing: some time ago, someone asked me: “but do you know a single Indian who speaks English properly?” ‚Ķ which I found a strange way to put it. As in, there’s loads of English native speakers around here (Yesterday, I met this cute maybe 8 year-old, who already spoke English better than I did age 14), who all speak perfectly fine according to the variety they’ve grown up in. It just happens not to be American or British standard (which, by the way, lots of native Americans or Brits also fail to acquire).

Although, if you are a speaker of Indian English or have some other expertise, please do say if you disagree!

As always, do sign up for email alerts, so you never miss any of these incredibly important posts. Much love from India ‚̧

Orange Delhi night

I thought arriving would be more of a relief. Instead, it’s the middle of the night, and I’m wide awake and alone in a shabby dorm (which is either overpriced, or the exchange rate has changed dramatically since 2014, or the rest of the place really is that great to make up for it).

But! I am in India, once more, and unexpected memories and forgotten knowledge populate my mind. Like when I spontaneously want to say “sorry, I don’t have money” or “just a second” and catch myself in surprise because the words are suddenly there in Hindi.

Chatting to my taxi driver, back into the openness and confidence I used to feel. It is good to remember that there is a place where singing out loud is not all that strange, and a bit bewildering to receive all the tourist-reserved attention again. Most of all, however, this time I was less overwhelmed just by the country, and able to notice smaller things. The orange-patterned floor in the airport, the dusty sweet-ish smell that is very hard to describe, but immediately familiar. The orange-coloured night, in which the smog diffuses the light emanating from the lamp posts, the red street lights everyone ignores, magnificent temples in the most ordinary corners, oh, Delhi.

So, yes, I am full of wonder to be passing through this part of the world again, which for me feels like passing through a certain phase of my life again. Well, for now.

And I think I have decided on the theme I want to adopt for the coming days or weeks. It happened on the plane, when it suddenly clicked that I would land and be back, truly. I felt this joy, like vibrating with goodwill for all sentient beings, only better. Because there was this certainty that, at the core, there was nothing to worry about, as if anxiety wasn’t even possible, as if everything was just …good. It’s like having lost your compass and not noticing until you get it back. Which made it utterly obvious that the theme of, well, now will be to follow whatever this sense of direction indicates, just do what feels like the right thing to do, in the safety of a few weeks in which no decision will really matter anyway, and maybe learn to take some of this home. But because I’m starting to overthink stuff again, this is the right time to sleep, to then meet the wonder of the new day with a waking eye.