I wasn’t really prepared for India. I don’t think you ever could be. I was told to surrender all personal space, to get used to stares, harassment, and to be more careful than ever. I was told no matter how well you plan your time in India, it never goes according to plan (but I think that’s true where ever you may travel). So all I did was glaze over a Lonely Planet’s India highlights book and read up like crazy on tips for women travelling in India. I poured over what I should wear when I arrived, to be comfortable travelling and to avoid any mistaken impressions and unwanted attention when I arrived. As metropolitan and modern as Mumbai is, I knew it would be a juxtaposition of wealth and poverty, even more so than what I had seen in Bangkok. However, I’m not sure if anything I could’ve researched would have prepared me for the emotional toll I would go through my first few hours in India.
The flight was fine. We were relatively on time, my luggage didn’t get lost, and I even enjoyed a random window seat assignment. What I hadn’t been prepared for was being surrounded on all three sides with children under the age of 5. One of which was accompanied by a tone deaf Indian man who really REALLY enjoyed singing to his daughter VERY loudly. Quite possibly the worst five hour plane ride of my life. No headphones could drown him out or keep his daughter from continuously kicking my seat. Funny thing is that no one else on the plane seemed to care. This was probably my first display of how I should surrender personal space.
From this point on, I can only say that I must’ve made some personal patience growth somewhere along my journey as I made it through the night without raising my voice or punching anyone in the face. My host, Hema (a friend I made while in Turkey), told me the best way to make it into town was to take a prepaid taxi. These taxis are government owned and have fixed rates you pay before you walk out of the airport, and since I was travelling during rush hour, this was probably my best bet (550 Rs). Everything was swell and dandy until I went to meet my taxi. Who’s driver was not around and several men had to holler and yell for him. That should’ve been a sign to me that things wouldn’t go well, but I didn’t even bat an eye towards this and thought nothing of it. Punctuality isn’t exactly a strength in Asia from what I’ve seen so far.
While we pulled away from the airport, I was already enchanted by the women on the sidewalks in saris balancing large bags, buckets, bowls, whatever on their heads. The swirls of dust and the light of the sunset only made it that more magical. This was quickly brought to a halt by the stop and go traffic to what I thought was the ramp to the freeway. 30 minutes later I realized we had been in line for a gas station. The driver, didn’t speak english and it took me a while to figure out he was asking me whether or not I wanted to take the bridge (he called it the “ceiling”) with a toll to avoid traffic. Avoid traffic should be taken lightly. What should have taken 45 minutes without traffic turned into nearly a three hour dusty, jerky, car ride on roads where drivers were blind to lane markers. This driver stopped for cigarettes, tried to tell me he loved me, pulled over to take a piss on the side of the highway (I was actually really alarmed when he did this because I had no clue what was going on), and then of course, tried to get me to come to the front seat and tried to reach back and touch my legs. Which was firmly responded to without a punch to the face or even a yell, but a sharp reprimand and a smack on the hands. Believe me, I really, REALLY wanted to yell and punch him in the face, but I also know that this sort of behavior has just become practically accepted in Indian culture. He picked up some random young budding businessman off the street who need a ride a couple blocks. At this point I was just relieved to have someone else in the car who actually spoke english and seemed like a nice person. We also picked up some other men who gave us directions to where we were going. This whole time all I wanted to do was get the hell out of the car, but wasn’t about to step out into the middle of nowhere in the dark (It was after 6 or 7 p.m. by now).
Eventually I made it alive and in one piece to meet Hema’s friend Shirley, and I have never felt more relieved to step out of a car. When I recounted what happened Shirley told me that my situation was extremely rare and that the taxi drivers are usually much better/smarter than the one I had. This brought me some small comfort. I stayed at her place the first couple nights since Hema had family in town for the holidays. Shirley’s place was amazing. I felt like I was in a little penthouse. She lived on the 18th floor that overlooked a fishing harbor and your could see much of the Mumbai skyline. There was even a maid who came to make breakfast and clean. After telling Shirley a little of my life story, one of her friends came over to visit and we chatted some more until we received word there was breaking news to be watched on t.v.
Now for those of you who don’t know, there has been a recent event referred to as the Delhi Gang Rape. I had heard about this after seeing a topic rise up in a couchsurfing travel forum and seeing headlines of protests in India over what happened. Naturally I went to investigate what exactly happened, but the only information I could gather was a 23-year-old Indian woman was attacked while riding the bus home with a friend after seeing a movie together. She was “brutally raped” for over an hour as the bus drove on (who knows why). When I checked the date it had been weeks since this occurred and she was still listed in critical condition. That is a LONG time to be listed in critical condition. But other than that, that’s all I could find. On New Years Day I learned that she had died from her injuries.
The breaking news we found was that the friend that was with this woman, the only witness to this event, was giving a live interview. I was under the impression that it was two girls traveling alone, but it turns out it was a woman and her boyfriend. The boyfriend, being named, and showing his face for the first time since the incident was on t.v. Naturally we sat there with our mouths gaped open watching him unravel the series of events. It was all in Hindi, but there were some captions from viewers, or the network of what was being said in English. Shirley and her friend translated for me as the interview went on. I have never felt more broken, disgusted, and sorry in my whole life. I’ll warn you now that what I’m about to tell you is disturbing so skip to the next paragraph if you want to save yourself. This young man had taken his girlfriend (who he was to marry come this February) to the movies one night. They had tried hailing a taxi/rickshaw but no one would stop, so when a bus approached, they got on. Turns out it was not a city or government bus. It was 6 men acting as a bus service (which explains why the bus kept driving for over an hour). They took their payment and proceeded to beat the boyfriend until he was unconscious and began to rape the girl. My hands still shake even as I write these words and knowing what . The men continued to gang rape this girl in inhumane ways, removing some of her organs in the process. When all was done they threw her (and her parts) and her boyfriend off the bus. The boyfriend, barely able to stand (the men had broken one of his legs) tried to hail for help as his girlfriend layed on the side of the road dying, and dozens of cars passed but nobody stopped to help. Eventually three police cars showed up, but the officers continued to argue about who should take responsibility for this case, for the next HOUR. This blows my mind. A woman lays dying in the road and the officers are arguing over who takes over the case??! The next part of the story goes into how the boyfriend is appalled by the inhumane treatment and system he and his girlfriend had to go through afterwards. Even the hospital workers hardly blinked as the man was on the floor shivering without clothes asking for a blanket. He was so badly injured that he couldn’t move his arms and legs for 2 weeks in the hospital.
Of course all this is by the words of one man, and by the time the interview was over, the network was reporting the police filing a case against the network for getting involved in the case. So after hearing about this awful, terrible event, Shirley’s friend proceeded to warn me about travelling into the north of India. Telling me that north is less safe for women, but that anywhere in India I needed to be careful. She went on to say that her own country is filled with mentally sick and uneducated people. (I guess could be said about any country really. Is there a country out there with a perfect population?) I then started to second guess my intentions on being in India. I want more than anything to see the Himalayas but I’m not sure what I’m risking trying to get there. If an Indian woman traveling with another man isn’t safe in her own country, what makes me think that as a foreign woman without a man at my side makes me any safer? Even being in large public areas doesn’t help me as Shirley’s friend told me, no one wanted to stop and help this couple in Delhi because the people probably did not want to become witnesses to the event. Apparently the system is incredibly bureaucratic and inconvenient and no one wants to ever get involved in police cases. I found this so hard to comprehend. Why wouldn’t someone stop to help when someone obviously needs it? Is it that they are so used to seeing such scenes of violence or poverty that they’ve become desensitized to it? Whatever the case may be, it’s hard for me to understand. And if people are terrified to help in an extreme case like that, why on earth would they help some small foreign girl in a purse snatching or whatever the problem may be?
To keep it simple, I was flat out terrified. Any zone of comfort my parents had created for me in suburban Shoreline was thousands and thousands of miles away. Thoughts of retreat went flying through my head. Maybe I should just go back to Pai and wait until it’s time for me to head back to Italy. I wanted more than anything in that moment to be able to turn and just run back. I wanted comfort, I wanted safety, I wanted to be held in someone’s arms, I wanted to frolic in rice fields and vineyards, and feel the sun on my face without fear. I decided to sleep on it and see how things would unwrap in the next couple of days.
My first full day in Mumbai went better than I had expected. I wasn’t even the least bit harassed minus the harmless souvenir vendors. I wandered around looking for a coffee shop with wi-fi to let folks know I was ok (Shirley’s wi-fi was out). Turns out this was much harder to find than anticipated. Mumbai is indeed as they say, filthy. Feces of who knows what lay rotting over sewer drains, sidewalks, and flies swarm you ever so often. People sleeping on sidewalks next to cows, and rickety buses rush by you. I couldn’t help but shudder each time I saw a bus after the night before. Environment wise, the only saving grace is that in this cool season, the temperature was a comfortable 28 degrees Celcius (82 Fahrenheit . After wandering around hoping I’d run into The Gateway of India, which I knew wasn’t too far from me, I had never felt more relieved to see another tourist in my life. After about a km or so of walking around with locals, I finally saw a couple tourists and then was soon surrounded by them as they admired the souvenir stands. I breathed a small sigh of relief to feel slightly safer with a bunch of tourists (never thought I’d ever say that). Surely if something were to happen to me then, that they would intervene to help?
I ended up finding the Gateway of India and proceeded to give myself a walking tour (with no map or historical info) of the colonial architecture in the area. Snacking on some delicious street food along the way. I’m not sure how far I walked…a few km past the Flora Fountain. I eventually found a Starbucks with wi-fi and for the first time since leaving Seattle, made a purchase there.
The next morning I was abruptly woken before 8 a.m. by a small parade down below.
This proceeded for about 30-40 minutes. There wasn’t much sleeping to be done after that. I spent a quiet day walking through the Colaba street market, admiring the colors and action of everything. The smells weren’t so pleasant, but it was fascinating just the same.
I spent the rest of my day absorbing myself in a book I found in Shirley’s library exploring volunteer opportunities abroad. I’ve been thinking quite often about how I can spend my time abroad and which path my life will take when I return home. I often dream about starting my own non-profit and this book was just the thing to get the gears turning in my head and to start the brainstorming process. Those thoughts will at some point be put into words eventually, but that’s for another time.
Now that I’ve arrived at Hema’s beautiful amazing home and getting a taste of luxury living, I feel much more at ease. I know that I will continuously be tested as I move forward, and so all I can do is to just breathe and take everything one step at a time. Now to figure out where to go next…