24 February 2009

Near Violence.

We arrived at the Hospet public bus station just in time to hop on a local bus that was heading to Hubli, four hours away. From there we would catch an overnight train to Mysore, and we had booked a slightly higher class than usual, so I was feeling a bit excited and relieved that this sleeper would not have a) giant cockroaches, b) many small cockroaches c) 4 people sitting upright on a berth meant for one and then chatting all night or d) all of the above. Now just to get through this bus ride and we would be set.

The bus was about three quarters full when we got on, but I knew not to get my hopes up. At the last minute, just when you think you will have some breathing room, people (and on a night bus from Goa to Hampi, an entire marching band with instruments, including a tuba) pile in and fill up every square inch of space. That's why I was surprised when the conductor told us not to stow our bags under the bus – rather we should stack them on the very last bench seat and sit beside them. As I had predicted, the seats around us filled up quickly and the bus heaved to a start.

Almost instantly a man in full Muslim dress (long white top, baggy pants and small crocheted cap) gestured at the bags and motioned for us to move them. Now, these are not normal bags. They bulge out like pregnant women and are awkward, heavy and strangely shaped – but he still grunted and pointed. “I'm so sorry! They are too big. This is the only place they fit.” I said to the man in a polite and friendly totally Canadian tone, “See?” I pointed to the luggage rack, which was only deep and wide enough to accomodate shopping bags, and then back to our backpacks, showing with my hands the difference in height. With the bus packed we could not have shimmied them back out of the space they were jammed into even if we had tried. He looked irritated, but I apologized profusely a few more times, and though he didn't speak English, he wobbled his head to show that he understood.

The ride was bumpy as hell – Sean and I literally getting 2 feet of air on some speedbumps (which the driver of the ramshackle bus did not slow for) – with a cycle of people getting on and off the bus. As this was a short distance bus, I could tell many people were using it as work transportation, and this made the seating situation a bit more awkward. People couldn't immediately see that the bench was being occupied by our insensitive Western bags, and they would beeline for what they thought was the empty seat, only to arrive at the back and be disappointed. I felt like a bit of a dick – but there was nothing we could do.

It got dark around 7, and we were still about ninety minutes from Hubli. The bus emptied at a stop and refilled quickly, with a few men left standing in the aisle. It was far from packed, yet the 3 remaining seats beside us were full. An older man in a lungi (loincloth thing) marched right up to us and really leaned in. “Move.” He said, pointing at our bags. We repeated the spiel about space. He repeated, “Move.” It was now Sean's turn to be irritated.

“Where to, Sir? They don't fit anywhere!” This really set the man off.

“THIS IS 6. NOT 5. 6 PEOPLE SIT. YOU MOVE.” I then chimed in, with an exascerbated yet still polite tone.

“We cannot move them. Please speak to the conductor. He told us to keep them here. They do not fit...” As I was speaking, the man's face began to get red.

“MOVE BAGS.6 PEOPLE” Now Sean and I were mad, and people began to look on curiously. The conductor was at the front of the bus, making his way slowly as he collected fares. He was far enough away that he could not hear the exchange.

“We can't. Where would we put them? The conductor, talk to the conductor.” I said loudly, Sean echoing my statements with slightly different wording. To this man it may have seemed that 2 young denim clad foreigners were disrespecting him in front of his countrymen, and in India saving face is the number one priority in life. He must have only been able to understand part of what we were saying in our strange American accents, and he was PISSED off – probably more at what we represented than at the situation itself. He pushed his pointed finger into my face, and then thrust his hands ar our backpacks and screamed “MOVE BAGS!” Sean reacted quickly and swatted his gnarled hands away.

”NO!” I shouted, also protecting our bags from his grasp.

“YOU STOP TALKING NOW. YOU! STOP TALKING NOW!” He shouted directly into my face. I was incredulous.

“No. I will not. I don't have to. Talk to the conductor.” I said dismissively,

“YOU STOP NOW. YOU NO TALK! YOU! NO TALK!” He shouted again at me, and then looked at Sean, pointedly addressing only him. “MOVE BAGS. SHE NO TALK!” Everyone around us was looking. The young men beside us scootched as much as humanly possible and made room on their bench for the man, but he again thrust his finger in my face to silence me as I called for the conductor. Sean had had enough.

“You don't point at her!” I had to physically remove Sean's arm from the air in front of the man, and I just kept talking – mostly to prove a point. The man still yelled.

“YOU STOP TALKING! YOU NO TALK!” I laughed and shook my head.

“Sir, you have gone crazy. You are being very rude.” I waggled my finger near my ear in the international symbol for loony. This was perhaps the wrong thing to do, as he became incensed, fists balled and shaking with rage. It was very apparent that he wanted to hit me, and a macabre part of me was fascinated to see if he would. Still screaming at me to stop talking, he sat down directly beside me where the boys had made room. “See, sir,” I said sweetly, turning my head toward him “there is simply no room for our bags anywhere.”

The conductor was nearby now, and while a part of me was a bit gleeful at the calm way I had carried myself while this man had lost his shit, I wondered if I was somewhat in the wrong. This is a male dominated society, and I should be culturally respectful when traveling in their country. Women here DO NOT talk back in public (maybe jokingly, or in Mumbai – but not in rural Karnataka) and here I was mouthing off an elder and refusing to shut up when he asked me to. To be sensitive to Indian cultural mores should I have stopped talking?

I decided no almost instantly – this is not United Arab Emirates et al. I did not knowingly come to a country where sexual discrimination is legislated - this is the world's largest democracy – and so if misogyny rears its head at me I do not have to abide by it. That said, in practice India is still crazily patriarchal and in ways sanctions violence against women – many things demonstrate this collective violence. Acid attacks leave many disfigured or dead. Just 3 weeks ago at a bar in Mangalore (also in Karnataka) a group of girls on a staggette at a pub were attacked and beaten up in public for drinking and being out at night. In small towns, mobs have attacked women who dare to wear jeans rather than a salwar kameez or a sari. Wife beating is an acceptable practice in rural areas. There are still witch burnings in remote areas(!). And of course, honor killings, while not that common, are not all that uncommon either. And most of the time, the men and their families who commit all these crimes are mysteriously never charged.

BUT, and it's a big but - this is also a country that has had an elected female Prime Ministers, has equality laws on the books and worships a pantheon of Mother goddesses. Would this old crazy man have wanted former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to “stop talking” when she was on the world political stage, speaking on his behalf? Did he want fierce warrior goddess Kali to shove her lolling tongue back in her ash rimmed mouth and shut the fuck up?

Fuck him. I'm glad I talked back and didn't shrink into the corner like he wanted me to – I was probably the first female in his 60 plus years who had challenged him in public, a right guaranteed to all Indian women and one not often used..

The conductor finally arrived at our seats and proceeded to collect the fares from those around us. The old man gesticulated wildly at our bags while speaking in rapid Kannada, yet the conductor just wobbled his head from side to side in an indifferent manner and breezily responded. The old man protested weakly, but it was clear he had been dressed down, and this time by someone in uniform, a hugely shameful thing in India. He sat in silence for the next hour, still wedged in beside me and putting his elbows in my face as often as he could get away with, like a territorial dog. I contemplated using my limited Hindi to call him one.

As the bus edged toward Hubli I began to have eerie thoughts – would the old man have a son with a bottle of acid at the bus station, waiting to splash it in my face? I mentally practiced blocking techniques that might lessen the damage and leave me with less disfiguration....and I put my swiss army knife in an accessable place in my handbag.

Of course, nothing of the sort happened and to get to the train station we actually disembarked at the stop before the bus terminal, making our way awkwardly down the aisle with our huge bags. I caught a final glimpse of the old man as we reached the door, his mouth agape as he saw the actual size of the backpacks – clearly he hadn't been able to see their entire girth when they were crammed between the seats. I sincerely hope that the belligerent old fucker felt like the ass that he was and realized what a crazy scene he had caused.

I fell asleep on the top berth of our sleeper train with a confused heart – it was the first time that I had felt so much hostility from a stranger while traveling abroad. Hell, it was the first time that I had felt that much hostility from a stranger, period. Was I really wanted in this country? Should I be here? Was I corrupting the local way of life? No one on the bus had rushed to the insolent Westerner's defense – were they all thinking the same bile-filled thoughts as the man and silently cheering him on as he berated me?

We awoke in Mysore – the train magically only 20 minutes late. We quickly got a taxi to our hotel and set off the explore the city, a pleasant and clean Raj-era capital with colonial architecture, a huge, almost ridiculously picturesque market, and the friendliest people I have come accross in India. Rickshaws and shopkeepers charged us fair and consistent rates, and people tripped over themselves to shake our hands, politely ask our “good names” and make small talk. “Which country you from?”
“Canada.” (Which they always liked, because their language and ethnicity is called Kannada.)
“Ahhh, very good one. Big country. French and English!” And just when we thought they were about to try to lead us to their shop or sell us something they would again shake our hands, tell us to enjoy Mysore and go on their way. People thanked us for visiting their city instead of relentlessly staring and seeing us as giant walking slot machines spitting out 5 rupee coins. Any doubts I had about being in India as a tourist vanished.

I suppose one bad egg exists in every city – maybe even a dozen bad eggs. But to witness it here in India - in this place of magic and mystery where archaic gender roles are still enforced and women are severely punished for small social infractions – here it played with my head. For the rest of that day, and until the kindness of Mysore soothed my nerves, I felt like I should be unobtrusive and quiet – a good woman who wouldn't set off any local male tempers. I wished I was wearing a long, attention-detracting sari or abbaya so that I could blend in and not risk anyone yelling at me and pushing their barely contained violence into my face. It was a bad feeling, and one that hundreds of thousands of women deal with every day. So I wrote this and reminded myself of all the things I believe in.

I wish that every woman had this option.

08 February 2009


Sean and I are in Panaji, the capital of Goa. Its away from the beach - a tiny little seaside town and a delight to meander around – kind of like a tidy Mediterranean fishing village plunked down in messy, splashy Mother India. Goa is the perfect antidote to a) Sean's hectic work schedule in Mumbai that is thankfully over and b) the craziness of the rest of this country. I feel....calm. And relaxed. And like I don't really care what we do tomorrow or the next day, as long as we remain in this blessed state, Goa.

Blessed, I suppose, is an apt term. Goa is a small pocket of beaches, farm land and rolling hills on the West Coast of India (the Konkan coast) that was once the prized jewel in the crown of Imperial Portugal and still remains heavily influenced by its colonial past. So, less multi-armed Vishnus and a lot more thorn-crowned Jesuses and pious open chested Marys. I have always loved Catholic iconography (writes the girl whose next tattoo will be a sacred heart) and here it is definitely bizarre, almost Mexican in its gaudiness, but with a healthy dollop of desi masala thrown in. Marigold garlands drape crucifix altars in nearly every yard, and bindis are painted on the foreheads of devoutly Christian women. Hinduism, the faith 82% of Indians practice, is a far second to Catholicism in Goa, and in a country of 1.1 billion that makes it an interesting anomaly -it feels like a different country entirely.

Religion is not the only mark that the Southern Europeans were here – the architecture is completely Portuguese – whitewashed cathedrals, terra cotta tiled roofs, and sherbert coloured mansions lined up along cobble stone streets in the cities, sand roads near the beaches. Restaurants hawk luscious seafood xiacutis and vindaloos, dense Goan bread and even amazing Western food (I guess the Portuguese were better teachers than the British in the culinary arts – who would have guessed?) Alcohol is not only widely available (sometimes a problem in India – some entire towns are dry, and even the entire state of Gujarat) but dirt cheap – more than two thirds cheaper than anywhere else on the subcontinent.So Sean is happy.....and drunk.

Goans have a totally different mindframe than the rest of India – almost an “Island time” feel that must be due to the proximity to the beach. I mean, taxis still rip us off terribly if we let them, touts harass us and women still dreadlock their childrens hair to send them begging, but for some reason it seems less exasperating. That might, of course, be due to the proliferation of cheap beer.....

I had a fascination with the TV series “Lonely Planet” when I was a teenager (it has since changed names multiple times, to Globe Trekker and Pilot Guides, which is weird.) It was a very nineties show – world beat techno played over scenes of then-happening offbeat travel destinations – Ibiza, Vietnam, Kathmandu, Prague and....Goa. It was the first time that I had ever realized that out there, just out there - a plane ticket away, entire enclaves of blissed out hippies, freaks and rebels lived lives I hadn't even dreamed of. Lives where you could completely kiss society goodbye, dance all night long and be free to be the unique, crazy and creative person you were meant to be, with an exotic backdrop of palm trees, white sand and unimaginably cheap food and accommodation. I honed in on Goa and for years it was a pipe dream, and even though now I am ten years older and immeasurably wiser, I still had a secret douchey need to spend time in Goa.

And so we have just come from 5 nights in Anjuna, one of the dozen or so touristy beach communities, and so far it is the one I like best (we still have a few more to try out after Panaji.) In the morning, if I get up on time, I listen for the squeaky-toy sounding horns of the fish wallas – men with coolers full of fish strapped to their bikes – and watch Mary, the owner of our guesthouse, purchase the fish she'll need for the day and then toss one to her suddenly present yowling cat (who has a worse attitude than Kevin, if you can believe it.) Then we head for a HUGE amazing breakfast at Martha's, served in the garden of her heritage house, where I have pomegranite juice and eat a cheese, stewed tomato and avocado omelette. We slowly walk to the beach, lay around for 5 hours and then eat supper, drink drinks and head to bed. Nothing more. Nothing complicated. I was speaking to a friend, and she said that she met people who meant to stay here for a week and stayed for a month. I can see that happening really, really easily.

Most people here get around on scooters or motorbikes, and so on our first full day here, we rented one, despite neither of us having any experience whatsoever other than riding on the backs of them as someone else drives. I had to sit and wait at a restaurant while Sean zoomed off on the back of the owner's bike to a nearby garage. I assumed that they would give him a bit of a lesson and make sure that he was competent, and I sat and patiently waited, expecting Sean and the owner to return at the same time. 5 minutes went by, and the owner re-appeared, assuring me Sean was just behind him. Ten more minutes went by and worried, I went looking for him – only to see a tiny dot in the distance going half the speed of anyone else, veering out of the way of goats and cows. As he approached, I could see that he was shaken, but he motioned for me to get on. Whiteknuckling down the bumpy and narrow street, he explained that they just handed him the keys and he had moments to figure it out for himself. I didn't think too much of it and I just thought it must be really easy, until I tried to ride the bike later that day and it took me 20 minutes to even be able to ride around a parking lot. Despite Sean's superhumanly quick proficiency, we returned the bike the next day and decided that walking was better for our health anyways. Yesterday a local woman was walking down the road near us. She looked us up and down and said “No bike?” When I explained that we weren't good on them, she nodded. “Many tourists break. Better you walk.”

I can't explain why Goa is so enjoyable. It shouldn't be – the beach is mediocre and shitty hippies and even shittier hippies are everywhere, yet it is. We can't decide if it is because we're happy to not be in frenetic, dirty, mad INDIA India and we'd be disappointed if we had flown 11 hours to be here (like all of the European package vacationers) or if it is genuinely a magical place. The cows wandering up and down the beaches, the black volcanic rock outcroppings studding the coast, the friendly dogs digging in the sand, the brightly sari-ed women selling fruit and snacks, the FOOD – maybe it is magic.

Goa is far from the most hip place to be now – that era ended in 1974ish, with a brief resurgence during the rave culture of the nineties. The trance music sucks and the freaks are of a lesser quality than they were in the 70's. But please email us in 2 weeks to make sure we aren't still here.....