We are blasting through our Northern Tour of India and at the same time that it is exhausting, different, and just generally overwhelming, I have also somehow found the time to reflect on the entire trip here. There are some constants on life in India that I’ve noticed and some things that are different depending on where you are, in the north or the south and if you are in a big city or not. The constants are cows and dogs, trash, chai and the presence of foreign powers and money. You can find those four things at varying degrees all over India. The differences are monkeys, pollution levels, and length of a honk.
With cows and dogs also come some other consequences, namely, entertainment and shit. Entertainment is in the form of watching the daily lives and antics of dogs and cows when you are extremely bored and on a long train/bus/car ride to wherever you are going. I have seen a couple of cows attempting to go into stores or simply standing in the middle of the street with cars and bikes all over honking loudly to try and get them to move. I have also seen dogs playing with each other or trotting with a purpose over somewhere or defending their territory from other invading dogs. There is also literal and metaphorical shit that comes along with these animals living in close proximity to humans. For one, you must remain vigilant on the streets of India otherwise you might end up stepping in some squishy shit (thankfully, I have yet to step in any, I am quite good at identifying, pointing out, and avoiding such things so far). As for the metaphorical shit, I have seen dogs; cows and humans alike all in very different stages of health, with each stage making me feel a different, almost indescribable way. Some animals are beaten up and bony, drinking and eating from polluted sources, just as some humans, but on the other hand, some are healthy and strong and doing well for themselves.
Seeing this disparity, I often find myself at a crossroads where at the same time that I know I want to help, I also know that, in the time that I have here, nothing I do will fix their situation long term. In the case of those who have more and are healthy, I want to be mad at them for not trying to help out the truly dirt poor, I want to blame them for all the bad things that are going on in their country, yet at the same time, I know that similar things with people in similar situations are happening just the same in my country and I cannot blame myself. Though I do know I have a responsibility to help those people, in any way that I can. I also know that I cannot force that same way of thinking, of having a responsibility towards other people not including your immediate family and friends, on others, especially not on people of an entirely different country. And I also know that perhaps I am mad at that person without knowing what they might be doing for their country. I sometimes find myself mad at a complete stranger that I have simply seen on the street or in my same hotel, which in itself is pretty ironic.
The next constant after the animals is trash. Trash litters the streets undoubtedly throughout India. In Delhi perhaps it is more controlled and so we see less trash lying around but it is definitely still there somewhere. The amounts and the concentration differ in every place along with the intensity of the smell but it is definitely ever present. Chai is also everywhere, to know more about chai and it’s history, you can refer to one of my older blog posts.
The presence and subsequent influence of foreign powers and their currency can also be seen throughout India. I have been asked and reassured that U.S. currency is just as acceptable as their own rupee. Some people on the trip with me have also been asked by people off the street for a U.S. dollar in exchange for rupees simply to keep for themselves, presumably. There is also a presence of Japanese, Chinese, British and U.S. brands all over India. You can find Mc Donalds and Pizza Hut in the Delhi airport, for example. British influence in India is pretty obvious because of India and Britain’s past colonial period. But the Japanese government has also apparently been quite active in the Indian government especially when it comes to historical buildings or monuments, I’ve seen plaques with indications of the Japanese government’s help in preserving the Ajanta caves (a world heritage site of India), for example. And in many if not all the restaurants that I’ve been in in India, there have also been an option of Chinese/Oriental food as options. I’ve had pretty stellar egg fried rice while in India, to my pleasant surprise. In Goa as well, there is a lot of Russian tourists and there are many signs that are written in Russian rather than in the local language, Hindi or English as you might expect.
Now for the differences that I’ve noticed and felt living in the north rather than living in the South. First, there are a lot more monkeys, specifically rhesus monkeys Macaca mulatta, present in the North. You see them climbing the trees, on the streets, on fences, everywhere with their troupe. The only exception being monkeys of different species, the bonnet macaque, Macaca radiata and Dussumier’s Malabar Langur, Semnopithecus hypoleucos, in the Western Ghats where there were a lot more trees that provided good habitat for the monkeys. Usually when you see one monkey, you find many others soon after, some with babies, which are incredibly cute because they are just tiny versions of their mother.
Next on the list is the difference in pollution levels between the North and the South. In the South, you would see a slight haze, especially in the early morning, but throughout the day, the sun would usually beat down enough that it also apparently beats down the pollution and dust. In the north, however, some days there seems to be a blanket covering the environment and you can see a thin layer of pollution and dust on the tops of leaves. When we went to see the Taj Mahal, it seemed as if a veil covered it slightly, so that we weren’t able to see the majestic building in all of its glory, from afar at least. If you got close enough you could see how massive and impressive it really is however it is still sad to know that pollution affects everyone, no matter how cool or expensive something is.
A final quirk of the north that I’ve found, that might be true of the north and south of the United States as well, is that although honking is as ubiquitous as chai in India, in the North, the length of the honk is longer than in the south, as if the person is particularly angry. In the South, the honk is more like a polite toot, to tell the other driver that he or she is behind them and to please not hit me. Whereas in the North, the honk often lingers, saying something like “you’re in my way move.”
As I reflect on my time in India, I can’t help but realize how many flights, security checks and airports I’ve been into in such a short period of time. Flights and security checks in India at least, mean having separate ladies and gentlemen lines, i.e. much discrimination and particularly for me, confusion. We have talked about it quite often among our group that the men often get 2 lines through security check whereas women get one line that is put off to the far side, out of the way. We also have to be frisked behind a curtain because God forbid someone should see a woman waving a magic wand around another woman’s body to check for metal. Because of this gender segregation, I am often faced with the slight inconvenience of having to tell the security woman that I am, in fact, a woman.
People here and back home, but more so here, often call me sir or other male derivatives, sometimes I just see their confused face and their slight stumble in sentences when they aren’t entirely sure what to identify me as. It gets worse when they somehow realize their mistake by either hearing someone else talk to me or about me or worse still if I watch them look down my body in their attempt to figure it out. In all honesty I don’t care very much what they think of me as but I do care how they treat me i.e. with more respect if they believe me to be a man and with relative or indifferent respect if they identify me as a woman. It’s very subtle, small, seemingly insignificant things that I notice once I am thought of as a man instead of a woman, often it happens when I am with a more feminine companion eating out. Sometimes I am given water first, I am the one who gets the bill, not my friend, my chair is taken out first, I am the one being addressed for the order, I am the one who is able to call the waiter over from across the room when the others try and fail to do the same. All very small things but together they say one thing: the one that even looks like a man is worthy of my attention and respect, no one else. It’s infuriating sometimes.
I currently identify as and have always been a woman yet so often I am mistaken as a man. When taken as a man, the effect is either null or a benefit to myself whereas when taken as a woman the effect is either null and sometimes a detriment. I’ll give examples to explain: I saw an older lady trying to open a curtain when back in Miami visiting my grandfather in the hospital I came over to help because I was taller and knew it to be the right thing to do. Thanking me, this lady said “what a nice young man” and proceeded to attend to her husband who was in the hospital bed next to my grandfather’s. It was a thank you but it was a thank you to the wrong gender and most likely it was not a coincidence that that act was credited to a man instead of a woman because men are supposed to be chivalrous by society’s standards. The credit to myself, being considered a man, was to be appreciated, noticed as kind, and praised because of it.
An example in India is when I was the only one able to get the attention of the waiter after a couple of failed attempts by my female friends. The credit to myself here was being able to be attended and listened to promptly. If all of us young women, out of our element in a foreign country and sitting at the table were to be recognized as who we were, all young women out of our element, the sever perhaps would have ignored us all and we would have to either wait for the waiter or get up and get them, depending on the waiter and the calibre of the restaurant.
When I am “found out” as a woman, oftentimes the reaction I get is a mix of horror, astonishment, and shame. When I get this reaction I often don’t know what to do with it so I shake it off and laugh or smile it away. The reasoning behind this reaction is interesting though. The person is ashamed, horrified and astonished that they gave me the wrong role to play in society. As if a woman could never pay a check, never open a curtain for someone, never walk outside with confidence in the same way that a man might.
Isn’t it stupid when I explain it like this? To be ashamed, astonished, horrified to misgender me. In an ideal world, it wouldn’t matter what gender you are because you treat each person with respect equally, but this is not an ideal world. Who knows if it ever can be, but what we can do is try our darnedest to get there. In a world full of bad things, there is always some sort of good, no matter how little or large. I think for me, even with the many bad things I’ve seen, heard, felt, smelt, in India, the experience as a whole and how it has made me develop and think as a person is something precious and unforgettable. The experiences and feelings I have had while here will be with me for the rest of my life and will hopefully help me become a better person in the long run.