Snapshots of India #2

This is part of a series of posts on the trip I took in India from February to April 2013. They are in no particular order, just moments that stand out from the greater backdrop. 

cows

The big bull is chasing a younger male, his horns and bulk the only barriers between his female and the ardour of the youth. He attempts to mount repeatedly, and is rebuffed by the larger hump-backed bull. The female is distracted. A small knot of people are pinning her calf to the ground. She lunges at them and is oblivious to the advances of the young male, and the roaring of the older one. Lifeguards and passers-by chase her off, armed with bright blue PVC pipes.

A young woman in an orange salwar kameez pours a Dettol dilution over the massive wound on the calf’s back right leg. A large wound, caused by some unknown collision with a tuktuk, is throbbing there, deep and red and painful. The men with PVC pipes chase the mama cow and even the bulls, and suddenly they turn in our direction.

Despite never having lived on a farm, I am not afraid of cows. I grew up with them. My high school is surrounded by cattle on all sides. I once tried to rescue a calf caught in razorwire in the middle of nowhere in Patagonia (It freed itself). But the look in the bull’s eyes makes my own pair widen as they charge toward us.

We beat a quick retreat up some shambled stairs, into the foyer of a shitty Chinese restaurant. They lumber past. A dog with spina bifida runs sidways through the scene.

When the wound is all clean and wrapped in a red sparkling scarf, they let the calf up. All the humans scatter. The Mama Cow inspects the makeshift bandage, sniffs it. By way of giving assent, she offers some milk at the bottom of the stairs leading to the main street of Palolem Beach. The bull stands guard behind her, lest the young one get any ideas.

Snapshots of India #1

It’s the middle of the night, and I have no idea where we are.

The sleeper bus from Mumbai to Goa was fairly terrifying from the moment we set foot inside it; it lacks both safety belts and emergency exits and smells like it’s never been cleaned. In few other countries can private “luxury buses” get away with blatant violations of common sense and traffic laws, but this is India. The four hours we spent meandering out of the city after dark were my first opportunity to get a look at India while not having to dodge traffic, beggars, and the occasional sadhu…at one point I turned to my boyfriend and whispered, “It’s Gotham city” when we went under a particularly dark and twisted black metal bridge.

But now we are somewhere in the dark, hours I lost track of later on the road. “Toilet! Toilet! Toilet!” yells the man I can only assume is the conductor of our bus, even though he looks like a lost teenager. Thank god. I’ve been dying for a pee.

Now, I’m no stranger to squat toilets. I lived in the toilet capital of the world, Suwon in South Korea, for a year. Despite having a mayor named Mr. Toilet, Turkish-style squatters without paper were pretty much the norm. I’ve used the inexplicably common squatters in France. I have pooped in the woods in the mountains. I even squatted outside a bus in South America once. Squatters are fine. I lace up my trusty boots and prepare to alight.

In India, women wear scarves to obscure their breasts. They are standard issue for travelers in country, wrapped around the neck and shoulders to flatten and mystify the boobs. I am wearing my favorite, a yellow pashmina I bought second hand for five dollars in my hometown. It’s light and cotton and comfy.

I enter the stall and sleepily undo my trousers. Ready to go, I lean forward slightly to gain better purchase on the slippery ground. Paper being expensive and difficult to come by in India, most people use the left hand and water method. They fill a small bucket with water and wash their butts post-poo. Unfortunately, this method splashes water everywhere and leaves the floor soaked. Not a problem if you have waterproof boots on.

Unless your scarf touches the floor. As mine does. Startled, I abort the squat and jerk backward, too quickly. The scarf makes a beautiful circular arch and LAUNCHES POOP WATER DIRECTLY INTO MY FACE.

“Fuck!” is an understatement.

How to Dress for Travel in India

Agra

Agra

Millions travel to India every year. Millions of women travel to the nation as well. For those of us who did not grow up within the cultures of India, and especially women like me who grew up with certain Western customs of dress, adapting to the way women dress in India can be confusing and difficult. So many jewels, so many markings, so much fabric!

While I was there for two months this year I spent a lot of time, a decent amount of money, and a load of my boyfriend’s patience on the attempt to dress appropriately as a conscious tourist. More than a few women I saw travelling in India were inappropriately dressed; modesty and women’s behaviour are governed by vastly different rules than in the US or Europe. Yet the ones I saw attempting a sari and bindi combination or dressed like their interpretation of a “gypsy” seemed hackneyed or culturally imperialistic.

The suggestions below are by no means unbreakable. It’s difficult to walk the line between cultural propriety and overselling one’s understanding of a culture not one’s own, but I hope that my outfits for India made valiant attempts. Panajim

Kurtas (koor-tahs) are a type of shirt favoured by most young women in India. The fabric is loose, generally of linen or cotton, and flows around the waist and hips. The idea is to obscure your butt and your female shape as much as possible. This one from Panaji is a bit short by Indian standards.

Batheri

India is ridiculously hot. But boobs, especially those of my size, are a liability. If you are female and planning to travel in India, pack a lot of scarves and be prepared to buy a few more on the way. Most of the time I wore mine over the shoulders as shown, which is how the women wore theirs. Other variations included straight down over the boobage, wrapped around my shoulders in shawl style, or over my head and shoulders like in the first photo of this post.

Scarves significantly reduce the staring, comments, and not-so-sneaky photos with which men  will inevitably bother you. Learning to wear one as part of a traditional ensemble was key to my ability to walk into the streets with less worry.

Taj fashion

Since you’ll be wearing a lot of scarves to obscure your female bits, you can coordinate with your bottoms and make an ensemble like the ones local women wear. Above is one of my improvised salwar kameez outfits, the preferred uniform for young women. Leggings or baggy pajama pants, preferably in cotton or some other light fabric, a longer kurta, and a matching scarf. The pants always match the scarf, and the shirt often seemed to clash as much as humanly possible with the others.

Jaipur

I spent most of the two months in India swimming in fabric. If you are female, I suggest you do the same. In many of the more touristed areas Western women could get away with wearing less than Indian women, but in areas off the beaten trail it is important to have layers of fabric between you and the world of India. Skintight anything is not appropriate, unless it’s leggings under a long shirt or dress.

Kochi

The photo above was taken in Fort Kochi, a city in South India. It is a tourist hub, and more forgiving when it comes to styles of clothing that would be taboo in cities three hours from there. Yet even there, I would not have felt comfortable in shorts. TMI ahead: I did not shave for two months while in India, and part of the reason was that bare legs are unacceptable. However beastly they got, I kept them safely covered in long skirts, baggy pants, and leggings.

Don’t expect to get tan in India if you are female.

Dutch Palace

Wearing bright colours is key to most Indian women’s style, and fun to incorporate into an otherwise stifling travel wardrobe. It’s telling, in a way. Women’s clothing is so restrictive and modest in India, but is as bright as gemstones and often covered in sequins. Embrace this. It’s the only fashion freedom you’re likely to have.

Mind you, it was 41 C outside

Mind you, it was 41 C outside

Be prepared for expectations to shift at a moment’s notice, and to vary widely by city and by state. India is not a homogeneous culture, contrary to popular belief. In some places, Indian style clothing may look idiotic on a non-Indian woman. In others, it may be expected that you cover every inch. Be flexible, and keep your scarves handy for sudden changes in propriety/comfort.

Let’s review:

#1 Kurtas are your best friend.
#2 Scarves. Scarves. Scarves.
#3 Matchy Matchy = Improvised Salwar Kameez
#4 Baggy is best.
#5 Cover your legs, butt, shoulders, chest, waist, and occasionally your head. 
#6 Be prepare to sweat your face off constantly. 
#7 Change your clothes as circumstances change. 
 

There is a whole set of issues that go with the way women are expected to dress in India. A whole set of terrible, horrible, no good, very bad issues. But that’s another post.

Writer’s Reluctance

I’ve been lazy lately about writing, mostly out of my apathy in India and mostly out of my excitement here in the UK. The last week was filled with amazing sights, great food and drink, and some walks that were so beautiful it was hard to imagine that such colors and light existed. I’m beginning to really like it here, and that gives me all more motivation to get here next fall for my master’s course in London.

I deliberately avoid my own blog these days, for the discomfort of seeing empty space where India stories out to be. I’m probably unknowingly making a dent in my own pageviews, avoiding my writer’s reluctance.

“What are you doing?!” Travel Writer Coleen says, over and over, since February 22. “You’ve been to one of the most sought-after places ever for travel, and you’re squandering it by not writing down every detail!” Travel Writer Coleen is overenthusiastic. And overly optimistic. I’m On Vacation Coleen is busy visiting cool things in England and alternating sites with pubs. Shit’s About To Get Serious Coleen is busy worrying about how to pay for a master’s degree. Consignment Only Coleen is also out, replaced by I Lost All My Sensible Clothing Coleen.

Need…inspiration….