(Archived) Stephanie Springgay is an
artist from Canada whose work is featured in numerous private collections
including that of Dr. Henry Kissenger's. An avid traveler, Stephanie's
first long haul trip took her through 13 countries in Europe by
train. That experience left her restless and in August 1996, she
and her partner set off on a trip around the world. In September
of 1997, they arrived in India.
cooling off on a beach, visiting a temple or simply trying to make
your way from one place to another, it's not easy being a woman
traveller in India.
Many guide books on India would
argue that lying beachside in a bathing suit is a serious cultural
crime and, perhaps, dangerous as well. However, after endless hours
on dusty cramped buses, and having to spend countless amounts of
energy arguing prices with rickshaw wallas and market vendors, a
few days or even hours on a beach seemed necessary.
The beach we found was
virtually empty except for a few old men hanging around the
chai-walla. The white sand was littered with garbage but the
water dazzled in the sunlight, a welcome invitation from the
40 degree weather and our long bike ride. A few minutes later
the stillness was rudely disrupted by loud Hindi music and
busload of young Indian men had pulled up to the beach and
over fifty guys cruised down to the water's edge. No one ventured
into the water, or even appeared to have brought a suit and
towel. Instead, my friend Zehra, I, and our pale, fleshy,
female bodies were to be the afternoon's attraction. The men
hovered near us and in some cases almost tripped over our
legs. Imagine the interesting vantage point to be lying on
a beach towel staring up into the smiling faces of over fifty
Indian men! My rudimentary Gujarati and not so polite English
only seemed to provoke our audience further as the crowd grew
larger and pressed even closer. Suddenly, we heard the sound
of a camera click and my anger reached boiling point. I jumped
to my feet, my arms waving madly and chased the men a short
distance away. They continued to stare but at a safe distance.
Zehra and I returned to our books only to be interrupted again!
Now two more busloads of men had descended onto the beach
and the gathering crowd grew bigger and bigger. I couldn't
read, I was now wearing all of my clothes and the idea of
going for a swim was not a refreshing possibility. Giving
up we got back on our bicycles, the crowd following our departure.
Getting your period while
travelling can be annoying but in India it also takes on a
certain cultural significance. Menstruation is seen as unclean
and women are often barred from certain activities each month.
In some homes women are requested not to cook, they cannot
go to school, work or the temple. They cannot say their prayers
or come in contact with men for fear of tainting others. Outside
the main gate to the Jain temples of Palitana, a holy pilgrimage
site, a sign reads in fifteen different languages:
Pumped up with Anaprox,
my baggy Indian clothes feeling a bit tight, I could only
stand there and stare. I had left my hotel at 5 am to make
the climb of 4000 steps to reach these temples. Barefoot in
the dark I had pushed myself upwards before the heat of the
day. Now as the sun was just breaking over the mountain, I
was hardly going to turn around because I was considered unclean.
There was also a sign
posted regarding leather goods not allowed in Jain temples.
Zehra and I had made sure that we left all leather belts and
shoes back in the hotel, but I couldn't help noticing that
many Indians strolled into the temples wearing various assortments
of leather clothing. What I had to do standing 600 metres
on top of the world was decide how I could comfortably visit
the temples without offending. I chose to venture beyond the
sign and observe the beautiful architecture, the people and
click my photos. However, in respect, I also made the choice
not to sit in a temple nor join in a puja ceremony.
As a western woman this
is just one of many personal dilemmas I faced living and travelling
in India. For those of us who do not understand the complexities
of Indian religions, to ignore the signs and simply see the
event through the lens of a camera or another
journal entry is an easy solution. Yet, to have turned around
on the summit, that early morning, I would have felt defeated.
Modern India is still
steeped in tradition but many people today recognize that
the individual woman needs to make choices of her own. This
is no longer a culture that has one set rule; people move
around the rules and decide for themselves what is important
for their own beliefs and life.
popular guidebook recommends that in India women
should not engage in conversation with men, never make eye
contact or appear assertive. Unless you plan on walking around
with blinders on, missing out on conversing with the locals
and being so miserable you wish you were on a plane home,
forget this advice. I am a woman and while I can respect period
signs (sometimes), wear Indian clothing that hides every inch
of my body, and submit to the constant stream of questions
(What? No husband, no children?), I will not and cannot walk
around with my chin dragging on my chest. Making eye contact
with an Indian man and then inviting him to your hotel is
suggestive; making eye contact while asking for the train
schedule is not. What you have to do is just be cautious,
be yourself; feel what is natural to you and only by doing
so will you enjoy your time travelling.
women do not travel alone. They often don't even go to the
market alone, so a foreign female traveller is a curiosity.
Indians will stare and there is not much except for staying
at home that you can do about it. However, being touched or
submitting to serious verbal harassment is taboo and should
not be tolerated. If you are in a situation where you feel
you are being harassed make a loud public statement that you
do not like this action. This will certainly embarrass your
tormentor and others nearby will hopefully come to your rescue.
In line-ups, bodies are so tightly packed it is inevitable
that you will be touched. Therefore it's a good idea to use
the women only queues in train stations, post offices and
anywhere else you can find them. Yet, even that isn't always
the perfect solution...
I had been in line at
the train station for over an hour and it didn't appear to
be moving quickly. All of a sudden a fight broke out. People
were shouting, bags were crashing down on top of people's
heads and there was chaos as hundreds of angry bodies pushed
and shoved. Keeping my distance and maintaining my spot in
my line, I watched as police were brought in to disperse the
crowds and deal with the problem at hand. It seemed people
were angry with others jumping spots in the line -- a common
phenomena in India. The humor was that this vicious fight
had broken out in the ladies-only queue.
In my experience, travelling
solo in India is difficult at the best of times especially
for first time travellers to this part of the world. I suggest
that you learn as much as you can about the culture before
you leave home. Read our section called, Girl Talk India. Then incorporate this knowledge into your
behavior, listen to your intuition and act accordingly. Safe
journeys! P.S. Two women swimming on a deserted beach in India is a dangerous thing to do. Don't try it.
For more reader reports on India, click here