old delhi, india: day one {the beauty + the unheimlich}

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A man at the mosque told me I was beautiful, but there was something about the way he said it that made me feel anything but, a sweet blonde tells me. In India, we’re reminded that we are women. We’re reminded of our skin, pale pieces of parchment, and about our limbs, which we unconsciously keep covering. A few of us talk about the airport in Dubai where men don’t see who you are, rather they see parts of you — a stack of limbs, a face that elicits desire. We speak softly as we weave through alleyways in Old Delhi about how that experience unnerved us — so much so that we paid for the privilege of sitting in a lounge, of closing our eyes to quiet. On the plane ride to Delhi I watched a man kiss his two wives and it made me shudder, but I turned away because this was not my country. This was not my way.

In all fairness, we don’t feel this sense of unheimlich in Old Delhi, but we do recognize that we are foreign. We see it in the clothes that we wear and even how we walk. Women here {the few that we saw in Old Delhi, which seemed mostly occupied by male proprietors and male shoppers} shop in pairs, and the small percentage of women who wear the full chador are lead around by their husbands — they are lead by the arm, not by the hand. Funny what a difference in perception of a few inches above the wrist bone makes.

At a mosque, two small boys with Samsung phones ask if they can take my picture. I acquiesce, although I’m curious. I ask why they’re so interested in a photo of a sweaty tourist? They laugh and tell me that it’s a thing to meet tourists; my photo is souvenier that they’ll share with their family and friends. I think that this isn’t too strange considering here I am photographing rickshaws and storefronts — places that are common to those who live here. But I digress.

After, seven of us {6 of whom are women} take to the winding streets and men gawk, and this puts me to thinking about the time when I was in the bathhouses in Taiwan, and a cadre of old women approached me and started touching my hair. I was startled until my friend explained that they’d never seen curly hair before. Where would they? How could they? These are people who would never leave Taiwan, never know a world where women have textured hair such as mine. For them my hair is beauty, a sight to see. I think about this as men in Old Delhi stare. I smile, but many don’t smile back. I ask a few of the women about this and they nod and say they feel the same way too. My very kind tour guide parrots back a version of what my friend in Taiwan told me all those years ago, but I don’t know. I don’t know. Everyone I meet is incredibly kind and helpful, but there’s this remove I can’t describe. I’m trying to unravel this even now, even as I type this from my hotel room watching fog and thunder sweep past my window.

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When I initially told people I was traveling to India, the first thing every single person said was: OH MY GOD. YOU’RE NOT TRAVELING ALONE, ARE YOU? DID YOU READ ABOUT ALL THE RAPES IN DELHI? As if I’m 5 rather than 38. As if I’m a woman who doesn’t read the paper or listen to the news. As if I lead a myopic life. After they’re somewhat assuaged by the fact that I’ll be in a tour group, I reminded them that how could one judge a country of 1.2 billion based on a slew of truly horrific acts, which have been brought to light simply for the ease in which we now have access to information. I may not agree with, or respect how, many cultures view women, but that won’t stop me from visiting places that give me a slight feeling of discomfort. I refuse to close my eyes even if there are things I sometimes don’t want to see.

There is real beauty in Delhi. Look at these pictures, really look at them. Notice the cacophony that is the thoroughfare. It’s nothing short of an overture watching everyone maneuver their battery-operated rickshaws {80K rupees}, old-school rickshaws, motorbikes, cars, carts — all the while passersby expertly weave through the crowds as if they’re thread. The food is exceptional: from grilled pineapples roasted in the spiciest herbs {hot!} to fried cheese, and cottage cheese fried and cooked with vegetables to the chicken biryani, which I’m about to eat when I finish this post, Indians take such care in the preparation and presentation of food that one can’t help but be in awe of it. I purchased chai from an old man in an alleyway who took time to prepare my brew, and I procured packages of mixed spices {It’s easier for the women now! They don’t have to worry about all the mixing of spices! The convenience!} for cooking at home. The food in Delhi is spicy, hot and utterly delicious.

CONTINUE TO BRING A WOMAN ALL OF THE NAAN.

We spent the rest of the day touring mosques, Gandhi’s burial site, the Imperial City, and oceans of architectural landmarks {separate post to come on all the jazz before I head to Agra tomorrow}, and I came back to my hotel and settled into bed.

I’m also strangely reminded of my privilege. The fact that my lovely hotel is in the middle of nowhere and is surrounded by armed guards and metal detectors doesn’t escape me. I’ve been thinking a lot about awareness and abundance lately — taking inventory of all the non-material greatness in my life, and realizing that material pursuits only serve to be a constant interruption of being present. The fact that I wasn’t staring at my iPhone for ten hours and instead really looked at people, really spoke to them, really was acutely aware of every movement made by myself and others around me, and I’m wondering how I can bottle some of this when I return home.

Although it took me a while to get here, I’m finally glad I’ve arrived. While there are parts of India that unsettle me, there are a great many beautiful things worth making the trek for.

NOTE: I’ll be taking a great deal of pictures while I’m in India. While I realize that posting all of them here will give your computer a coronary page, you can follow my visual exploits on Pinterest.

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india traveling girl