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.

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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€ 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 cafés 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… 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 café. 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…!

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… 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… 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 café 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 café 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 cafés 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 café (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€, 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… 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…”. 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.

… 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?” … 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.

Noticing confusion: India? Again?

This is what I’m listening to while writing: https://youtu.be/dnxCxHLAqn8

I noticed that I’m confused. Wait? I’ll be in Delhi this Thursday? People had been asking whether I was planning on travelling (“now that you’re not doing anything, really”). I wasn’t.

Now it’s happening anyway.

I was preoccupied installing myself in Berlin, which has worked pretty well so far (“you know that you’re at home in a place when you have people to discuss with”). So I didn’t really notice that there was this mostly family-sponsored trip coming up, enabling me to see a good friend getting married and then join one half of my parents in Thailand. Now that I’m, on a gut-level, starting to realise that I’ll be far away in four days, I’m starting to wonder what the journey will be like. I’m all for tasting the adventure semi-prepared at most, but I also know that being completely aimless can turn into the kind of journey where you end up returning with a stale “what was the point?”. Which doesn’t mean that I want to plan, as such. It’s more like choosing which kind of mindset to adopt during the next month or so.

Option 1: Holiday?

I am very tempted to use the excuse to put all the projects that are ticking away at the back of my head on hold. Existential dread about the future, concerning my personal path as well as roughly the next hundred trillion years of humanity, if all goes well? Nah, I’m on holiday!

On the other hand, I’ve been finding it hard to adopt holiday-mindsets for the last year or so. First, there was no time for a holiday (finals), then, my whole life entered this in-between, where no clearly-cut “work-time” meant that every minute was a moment in which to figure out my life, or “get somewhere”, “get something done” (the vagueness of this “something”not exactly having been helpful either).

I’ve been getting better at this in Berlin, for example by picking up a not-directly-useful occupation like playing the violin again. I’m not all that stressed anymore about the fact that the violin (as played by me) does not make a relevant contribution to the world, nor getting me a job. Ah! I said the evil j-word! If anything, that’s a topic for a later post, since it doesn’t really fit in with this moment’s effort of not being stressed. So it seems like there are all the more good reasons for a holiday! (Counter-reasons, or more like counter-feelings, are that I don’t actually deserve one, that I’m not useful enough to be worth the investment, and that this money could actually have saved lives instead of sending me on a trip. But I might just have to shut out these thoughts for now, and pledge to be better in the future.)

Option 2: An adventure!

Adventures, or “going travelling”, are different from holidays. They are more focused on having experiences, and testing/developing yourself. Sleeping alone under a tin foil in some forest after crossing the whole country in a day’s hitchhike perhaps doesn’t make for a great holiday. But it’s amazing if you’ve always wanted to talk to a fox at night, or just learn how to shrug your shoulders at not knowing where to go, or sleep, next. I had thought that now might not be a great time to bring myself to the edge, because that feels like a place I’ve been occupying constantly for months anyway. But now, I’m starting to, very subtly, feel the thrill again (“I could be walking around the himalayas next week…”). Actually, exposing myself to directly adventurous situations could be a good idea. Swapping the diffuse threat and dread of trying to find a cosy little place in society for the very precise trouble of making sure you stay safe along the way sounds like an excellent plan.

Adventure-journeys can also contain a project, a question you’re trying to answer throughout the journey, a view you detail at the start and whose progress you track. These are nice for the narrative as well, and work to satisfy my need for meaning even while I’m having fun. Maybe I’ll come up with something in the next few days.

Now that I’ve presented this wonderful travel-holiday dichotomy, I’m of course going to tear it down again and announce that I should probably do a bit of both. Mwahaha. In any case, this post has served its purpose well: I’m starting to feel ready.

I hope you’ll accompany me on this journey!

(One way is to subscribe to get email updates, haha.)