Back in Agra, I was talking to an English traveler one night who said that, for him, the view of the Taj Mahal from the fort perfectly summed up India: crazy traffic - tuk tuks, cars, animals, pedestrians - on a litter-strewn street, a dirty river, and, in the distance, a magnificent monument that didn't quite seem like it belonged there. Based on the cities that I visited, this assessment is fairly accurate.
There are a great many things I noticed about India that, at worst, seemed inefficient or downright useless; at best, illogical. Like how when you book a first class train ticket, instead of automatically getting assigned a seat you have to look for your name on a sheet of paper taped to the side of the train car (which, incidentally, is always somewhere in the middle and not in the front; if you're boarding at a station other than the origin and have only a few minutes to get on there's a good chance you'll be running to find your car in the 20+ long train). Stops aren't announced either, so if you plan to get off before the final destination you'd better hope that the 3G gods are on your side and you can trace your location or else you could be in for an unplanned adventure. Many institutions are more of a bureaucratic headache than their French equivalents - just try buying a train ticket from abroad or getting a SIM card when you arrive. There are no cars allowed within several hundred meters of the Taj Mahal supposedly because of concerns for pollution, but when you consider that the overall air quality is probably worse than that of Los Angeles, I don't know who they're kidding. And, finally, the metro in Delhi has separate lines for men and women to buy tickets; if you're a girl traveling with a guy be prepared to wait.
I won't deny that I was a little scared heading to India on my own, but quickly found that the anxiety was unfounded. Yeah, I played it safe by not going out at night unless I was in a group, taking private transportation instead of public, and not really drinking, but in all honesty my biggest fear turned out to be running out of hand sanitizer an inopportune moments. Or toilet paper.
I've gotten mixed reactions for saying this but, as an American with no prior experience visiting developing countries, India was like a more exaggerated version of Morocco - i.e. more people, more poverty, more general filth. And I don't mean to rag on these two countries, which possess many redeeming qualities that have hopefully been illuminated in previous posts, but because of my sheltered, upper middle-class background I found them, at times, to be quite difficult. The culture shock was only exacerbated by the fact that I was there a lone, female traveler.
India and Morocco also felt similar in other ways. They are both patriarchal societies, for example, with strong religious proclivities and a tendency toward general social conservatism. The way I see it, because social interaction - to a certain degree - is discouraged between young men and women (something to do with pre-marital sex being a big taboo?), you end up with all these groups of idle men on the streets. (Girls, I guess, are engaged more with indoor activities). I'm sure unemployment doesn't help. So what I wrote earlier about the kite flying party in Jodhpur being like an awkward middle school dance really applies to pretty much everywhere I went in both countries.
At first I kept looking around, thinking, where the hell are all the girls? But then that would inevitably lead to making eye contact with a guy, who would consequently think that I was interested. So instead I stopped questioning the testosterone-heavy environment and got used to wearing my sunglasses all the time and perfecting ways of looking not-quite at people; instead either at their feet or just over their shoulder. Indian guys didn't catcall like Moroccans, but they certainly stared. A lot. And while I generally found strangers to be friendly enough if I needed directions, it didn't take much of a stretch of the imagination to see how someday the sexual tension might reach a breaking point and result in one of those awful, high-profile gang-rape incidents. Not that everyone is a rapist but, empirically speaking, guys in India do tend to travel in packs, so I can understand how a girl going out alone (or even with a partner, as two of the incidents I'm thinking of took place) and crossing paths with the wrong crowd would be quite vulnerable.
This American student's account of her study abroad in India bears mentioning, not only for its content but also for the fierce debate it has sparked in the comments. Certain things I find implausible, like the hotel incident, because every place I stayed was staffed almost exclusively by men, who I felt were more attentive to me and my wellbeing because I was a girl traveling alone. Other situations, like being followed, I could relate to, though not in as extreme a capacity as her. (It happened in Morocco, too; a guy comes up and introduces himself, then asks if it would bother me if he walked with - read: followed - me. When all else fails, tell him to fuck off. It's like a well-traveled friend once put it: why would a person who was completely secure in his identity, culture and environment want to talk to me, a complete stranger? The answer: you meet a lot of weirdos while on the road). Some of the reactions from readers are just as shocking, because they basically amount to the same as slut-shaming.
It's important to be aware of what's going on in the places that you're visiting, but I don't think that fear should ever hold you back. Bad things happen everywhere all the time, and the media typically makes things seem worse than they are. (I have friends who have been to Egypt in the last few months, for example, and they've all come back unscathed). I listened to David Sedaris recount a taxi ride in a foreign country when the driver asked him, in complete seriousness, how he managed to live in America and not get shot. If all you knew about the US was what you heard on the news (particularly in the last 12 months) then, yes, that would be a completely logical question.
Now, I've tried to capture some essence of what these places are like through the lens of my camera and my own observations, but I've also been collecting memorable things people have said to me in some of their most candid moments. I won't reveal which country (Morocco or India) the speaker was originally addressing, because I think that they apply equally to both. These quotes paint a fairly grim picture that the guidebooks only hint at when they mention bargaining, beggars and the like but, you know, food for thought. Everything seems a lot rosier when I post on Facebook, Instagram, etc., so for any readers out there planning their own first-time visits: brace yourself.
"A big part of living here is paying people off." - an expat
"It's lovely until you get to the parts with all the people." - a traveler I met on a train
"I hate my own people." - a local
"I need to get out of this country." - a local (child)
In an attempt to end this on a semi-positive note, I offer this as suggested further reading. It's a hilarious and potentially offensive account of an American guy's travels through India. I've never gone as far as he has in the acting department, but I have pretended not to understand English just so people will leave me alone. Every day is an adventure...