March 04, 2005
The Problem With Girl Babies
Sushama comes from a modern, educated family in Mumbai (Bombay), India. She is the eldest of three girls with a father who allowed the girls to wear western clothes in the 1970s, a time when most women in India still wore only saris. She was married in an arranged marriage and soon after became pregnant with her first child. When the child was born, however, there was no celebration. Was the child sick? Was the child deformed? Was the child stillborn? No. The child was a girl.
Sushama's mother-in-law verbally abused her, blaming her for having a girl instead of the more desirable boy. She caused so much abuse that Sushama had a mental breakdown and could not leave the hospital for weeks. The little girl was sent to live with Sushama's parents - an arrangement that was maintained for most of the little girl's life.
Sushama's husband would not stand up to his mother, siding with her over his wife, and causing Sushama to despair. In a country where a woman without a husband is considered to be nothing, she too became torn between the love for her newborn and her duty to her husband. Lucky for her, she had grown up in a loving, supporting family - one where women were not looked down upon as second-class citizens. While Sushama tried to work things out with her husband, her child was well-taken care of by two people who adored her – her maternal grandparents.
Sushama’s tale is so common in India that it hardly causes a stir. I’d read about things like this in books, but always imagined they happened to uneducated women from rural areas. But, when she told me the story, I was shocked. So was she, actually. "If this can happen to me, an educated woman, what hope do the poor, uneducated women have?" she lamented.
In China, one of the teachers I worked with was pregnant with her first and (according to Chinese law) only child. When I asked her if she wanted a girl or a boy, she said: "Well, personally, I would rather have a boy." "WHY do you want a boy?" I asked. She said, "Well, the truth is, I don't care. But, my mother-in-law and father-in-law (whom she and her husband lived with at the time) both want a boy. I only want to have one baby. If I have a girl, I'm afraid they will make me have another child."
MAKE me have another child? I was confused. "Isn't it only possible to have one baby in China?" I asked. The teacher said that in most cases the answer was yes. But, if a family wanted to have a second child, they could pay the government 10,000 yuan, or about $1200 US dollars, to have another baby. By US standards, the sum does not seem dramatic or prohibitive. But, in China, 10,000 yuan is equivalent to the average Chinese persons’ yearly income. And yet, many Chinese with a girl child will pay this, going into huge debt, in the hopes that the second child will be male.
Both of these woman grew up in societies where boy children were valued over girl children – so much so that sex-selective abortions and female infanticide are common, usual tales. In rural areas of India, women with little or no education still know the Hindu word for amniocentesis despite the procedure being mostly illegal for sex determination. In China, orphanages are overflowing with abandoned girl babies – so many that every year China allows thousands of them to be adopted by families overseas, including America.
In September 2004, The Christian Science Monitor (www.csmonitor.com) ran a story (“China Faces Future As Land of Boys”) about China’s increasing disparity between girl children and boy children. According to the article, which refers to census figures from 2000, 117 boys are born for every 100 girls in China. The norm for most countries is 104 boys for every 100 girls. In America, the figures are 105 males for every 100 females.
In most countries this number eventually balances itself out – in the US, for example, the number ratio equals itself out by the age of 15 years. The larger difference in the ratio in countries like China and India, however, causes an imbalance of the sexes that is already resulting in some shocking practices, such as the kidnapping of rural Chinese women to serve as wives for men who aren’t able to procure one on their own. Social scientists estimated that there are 100 million “missing” girls between India and China today. In China, these scientists are predicting a future where as many as 15% of Chinese men won’t have wives.
China is not alone in the missing girls phenomenon. The same CSM article indicated that in Punjab, a northern state in India, 126 boys are born for every 100 girls. Even in areas where the ratio is closer, the bias in favor of boy children persists. When my roommate Leila was traveling in India recently, she met a beautiful young Indian woman on the beach in Goa. They got to talking and the woman told Leila she had 3 boys. When Leila said, “Oh, no girls?” the woman said, “Girls have no value in India.” She was stating what, in her mind, was an undisputed fact.
This is not to say that both countries are ignoring the problems – in fact, many efforts are underway to remedy the problems. In China, the government is testing out programs that provide supplementary income to families with girl children. In India, NGOs travel to villages providing free medical care and encouraging and educating women to take care of their children – both boys and girls.
But, changing the values and mores of a culture will take more than minor government intervention and grassroots NGO efforts, especially when the bias in favor of boys goes back hundreds – even thousands – of years. Dowry in India has been outlawed since 1961 and infanticide since 1870 – yet both practices are so prevalent and widespread that most uneducated people don’t even know the laws exist. To them, the difference between infanticide and abortion are purely financial.
China and India are the two easiest countries to focus upon when it comes to the preference for boy children over girl children. They are the two most populous countries in the world, accounting for 2/5 of the world’s population. But, bias for boy babies exists in other countries too. Even in America.
In 1974, in the very American city of Indianapolis, Indiana, where I was born, my Serbian-born grandmother, upon finding out that my mother’s first child was a girl said, “Too bad its not a boy.” Yet, I don’t blame my grandmother for wishing I was a boy – that was how she was taught. And, her opinion did nothing to affect how my mother or my father felt about me. Still, I’m sure she expressed a big sigh of relief the following year when my brother was born – the Vuynovich name was still secure.
In truth, I’m in good company. When Indira Gandhi, the first female prime minister of India, was born, the story goes that her own mother said, “Such a pity she is not a boy.” Her father, Jawarhal Nehru, the first president of an independent India, snapped at her and said, “How do you know this girl won’t grow up to become prime minister one day?” Indira was lucky – she was born into an educated, well-off family with a clearly progressive father. Most Indian women are no so lucky.
There are arguments that can be made for why, in some cases and some countries, having boy children is considered not only preferable but also vital to survival. I’m not here to argue that an impoverished Indian family, burdened with the imposed tradition of bridal dowry, isn’t at a financial disadvantage for having girl children over boy children. For them, the value proposition for having girls just doesn’t exist. An extra mouth to feed, a huge bridal dowry and the knowledge that the woman will ultimately leave home and become incorporated into her husbands family makes it tough to argue in favor of girls. On the other hand, it is well known that a boy child will stay with the family and in many cases, provide for his parents in their old age. Even from where I stand, I can see the logic in this picture.
But, what it difficult for me is that the preference for boy babies that still exists in places where situations like these don’t exist. Often, for the purely egotistical sake of “continuing the family name.”
You might think that middle and upper class families in India and China, those that live in more urban areas, might feel differently about boy children vs. girl children. In both countries, it has become more and more common for women to hold jobs and careers, as well as undertake the burden of caring for their parents in their old age. And, the argument of strong bodies to work the fields is also null and void.
A book by Elizabeth Bumiller, a writer for The New York Times, proves otherwise. In her book, “May You Be The Mother of One Hundred Sons,” she interviewed Indian women in rural and urban areas, from rich and poor families, from educated and uneducated backgrounds – all with very similar results. While the percentages were slightly different, the preference was usually the same. Boys over girls – almost every single time.
I remember one story particularly well. A Mumbai society woman was interviewed about her desire to have another child. She already had three girls. But, there she was in one of the ob/gyn offices, trying to find out if her next child was a boy or a girl. She explained that if the unborn baby turned out to be a girl, she would abort it. She said that she was tired of being whispered about at parties – “Oh, poor thing, she only has girls.”
Even though the book was written about 10 years ago, things in India have not really changed – something I witnessed first hand last year while I stayed with Sushama and her family in Mumbai.
I don't know what ever happened to Sushama's husband. Her story was interrupted by the arrival of her 20-year old daughter, Shweta, a beautiful happy woman who only frowned once when I talked to her – at the mention of her father. I know he is almost never mentioned, and that the family photo albums do not show a single picture. Though there are a few wedding photos of Sushama, they all seem oddly shaped. When you look closer you can see that someone has been cut or torn out of each of them.
One day I hope to have children of my own. And, though my first hope is that the child is born healthy and happy, I must admit to a slight prejudice of my own – in favor of a girl baby. While boy children born into almost any country in the world are celebrated and cherished, the sad fact of life is that the same is not true for girl children. Since the bias is mild at best in the land of my birth, I feel like it’s my duty.
May 11, 2004
Indian Masala (Part One)
Dear friends and family! The "Two Weddings" story is taking longer than planned, so this week please enjoy the following "Indian Masala" or Indian "spice" - a collection of little anecdotes about my travels in the subcontinent.
Vegetarianism and garbage disposal
There are probably more vegetarians in India than the rest of the world combined. People are vegetarian for religious reasons - cows are considered sacred to Hindus while pigs are considered dirty to Muslims. People are vegetarian for economic reasons - a vegetarian diet is cheaper than one which involves meat. And, people are vegetarian for cultural reasons - the ancient Indian Vedic texts promoted vegetarianism as a more enlightened lifestyle.
My reasons for following a vegetarian diet while in India are also numerous. There are economic reasons - vegetarianism is cheaper. There are culinary reasons - the vegetarian food is almost always deliciously prepared and so I don't miss meat at all. There are accessibility reasons - vegetarianism is the norm here, so it is much easier to find than in the US. And then there are the hygenic reasons.
I won't talk about meat handling procedures, the fliess and bugs that reside on cuts of fresh, uncovered meat in markets, or the meat juice soaked hands of food staff who move from one food to another without washing their hands, their knives, or their cutting boards. What I will tell you about is the unique garbage disposal method I noticed everywhere in the state of Rajasthan.
Instead of putting out garbage for a garbage man to collect and take to the local dump, most folks put their garbage out in little piles throughout the city. Left open, these bags quickly attract the roaming pigs, holy Hindu cows, goats, cats, dogs and rats, who root through it and eat (indiscriminately) anything that tastes good or goes down easy.
Not exactly free-range, grain fed beef, eh?
Early one morning in Udiapur, eating breakfast overlooking Lake Pichola, I sat daydreaming about the romantic Lake Palace Hotel, the $300+ per night former palace which sat picturesquely in the middle of the lake. I wondered what those people were eating for breakfast, where they came from and what they were thinking while sitting in their posh surroundings.
The loud "thwaping" sound of heavy wet cloth on stone woke me from my daydream. Between my lakeside cafe and the palace were dozens of local men, women and children. They were bathing, washing clothes and washing dishes in the half dried up lake. To them, the lake was not the idyllic setting for the historical palace, but a vein of daily life constantly threatened by low monsoons and irresponsible pollution.
I looked between the palace and the locals for a few minutes and wondered: did they look at me and my cafe lifestyle with the same wistful daydreaming that I looked upon those people staying at the palace?
A Palace in the Clouds
The Taj Mahal is a tomb, built by the former Mungal emperor Shah Jahan, as a monument for his beloved (late) wife. It is the most beautiful building I have ever seen, hands down. Pictures and postcards do not do it justice.
My first view of the Taj took my breath away. A palatial structure of white marble, it looks unreal, almost two dimensional from a distance, like the extravagant set of a Hollywood film set. Though the gardens and buildings around it are lovely, it looks as though its proper home should be somewhere in the sky above us, floating on a perfect cloud, far above the dirt and grime of the world below.
If God asked me to be the architect for a holy place, something that would be fit to grace the kingdom of heaven, I would say something had already been built and point down to the Taj Mahal.
Agra, once a great and glorious capital of India, home of the incredible Taj Mahal, and rich in history and culture, is now a place to be tolerated as opposed to be enjoyed. While the physical grounds of the Taj Mahal, the Agra Fort and the other buildings are lovely, Agra itself is a headache from start to finish.
Of all the cities I have visited in India, only this one (and perhaps Delhi on occasion) made me completely lose my patience and want to run screaming into the streets.
The touts, men whose sole job is to separate tourists from as much money as possible (and get their cut in the meantime), descent like vultures from the moment you step off the train platform in Agra station. A polite "no, thank you" does not work. A firm "NO, I am NOT interested" also does not work. You can be polite, rude, indifferent, funny, charming, sleazy - it doesn't matter. These men will stick to you like glue until they get what they want.
They will tell you places are closed, quote rickshaw prices double or triple what is standard, or even worse, quote you a decent fare, then once they have you in their rickshaw double, triple or quadruple the price, assuming you won't want to walk the half kilometer back to the rickshaw stand.
A German man I met while waiting in line for a return ticket lost his temper and started screaming before even leaving the parking lot of the train station. I fared better, but I also had 9 weeks of travel experience in India compared to his 3 days. Still, four hours later, I was hiding inside the Agra fort, my "plan" for the day scrapped because I just couldn't go out and face the touts.
Why are Agra (and to a lesser extent Delhi) such a nightmare for tourists? Mostly because, no matter what, tourists will go to these cities - and the touts know it. They will fly into the capital, they will pay the outrageous fees for entrance to the Taj Mahal (foreigners 750 rupees, locals 10 rupees), they will brave the streets of Agra because to so many of them, India IS the Taj Mahal. These touts know that no matter how much they harass the tourists, there will always be more tourists to take their place - so what do they care?
It is really a pity, and the people who lose big are the locals who are just curious about the international visitors descending on their city. At one point a seemingly nice young man tried to talk to me but I dismissed him with a wave of my hand, too tired and frustrated to deal with anyone else and desperate to be back in Delhi at my hotel. I felt horrible about it later, but after being tricked so many times, I saw personal isolationism to be my only choice.
Masala Chai and Other Spices
The first time I gave up coffee it was concurrent with an exercise program my roommate and I were beginning. Two days into it, my co-worker Renee called my roommate to beg her to allow me coffee again, for the sake of all involved. It was not a pretty picture.
While in India I have become a big fan of chai - Indian tea. Made strong, sweet, and with lots of milk, it has surpassed coffee to be my preferred morning (and afternoon and evening) beverage of choice. Served country wide, in train stations, on street corners, inside shops, hotels, restaurants and airports, the demi cups of chai cost anywhere from 2 to 12 rupees, but usually average 4 rupees per cup (8 cents US). For one rupee more, you can get masala chai, a spicy
alternative, which includes the addition of cardamom or ginger, depending on the season.
Chai is a national obsession, and appears to be the most commonly drank substance in the country. Shop keepers and tailors offer chai while-you-wait, it is the traditional welcome drink when you enter someone's home, and you are guaranteed the cry of "chai. chai garam (hot)" every 10 minutes on any long-distance train in the country.
For those interested in a taste of India, below is a recipe from the Bajpai family, whom I stayed with in Mumbai:
Boil two and one half (demi) cups water on stove top, adding 2 tsp of loose black tea, 4 tsp of sugar and 2 cardamom pods (seeds and all). Allow to boil fully, until the water is dark, about 5 minutes. In a separate pot, heat the milk until hot. Mix one half to three fourths tea with one half to one fourth milk, according to taste. Serves two. Enjoy!
May 04, 2004
Melanie and Mohammad's Birthday Bash
In India, my birthday is a national holiday. At least, this year it is. You see, I share my birthday with Mohammad. THE Mohammad. As in, "There is only one God, whose name is Allah and Mohammad is his prophet."
Mohammad’s birthday – as well as the anniversary of his death, is called Id-e-Milad, and this year it occurred on May 3, coinciding with my 30th birthday. Since it is not every year my birthday coincides with the most famous man in the Islamic religion (due to the differences between the western and Islamic calendars), I decided to go down to the local mosque and celebrate my birthday with the people celebrating his birthday. I felt I should pay my respects. While I was born a mere 30 years ago, Mohammed was born 1434 years ago, on the twelfth day of Rabi-ul-Awwal, the third month of the Muslin year, in Mecca. Interestingly enough, his death anniversary falls on the same day. I found this ironic as my cousin once said she thought anyone over 30 should be shot on sight!
Twelve percent of India’s population is Muslim, and India has a rich tradition of Muslim influence, having been ruled by Islamic leaders for over 600 years. There has historically been a great deal of tension between the Hindu and Muslim religions, ultimately resulting in Partition, when India was split into two pieces: the mostly Muslim country of Pakistan and the mostly Hindu state of India. This coincided with India’s independence from the British and was a bloody time in the country’s’ history.
The state of Radjastan, where I was now traveling, has an especially large Muslim population, and it’s tourist attractions of awesome fortresses and stunning palaces were the result of the Islamic kings and rulers. Radjastan is a top tourist destination of India, with 45% of visitors coming through at least one of its major cities. Udiapur, one of its most romantic cities, is a land of camels and elephants sharing streets with autorickshaws and cars, and of dry desert air and temperatures of 44 degrees C (about 110 degrees F). The local people bath and wash clothes in the waters of Lake Piccola, in the shadow of the famous (and US dollar priced) Lake Palace Hotel where Roger Moore first seduced Octopussy in the movie of the same name.
My rickshaw driver, Manu, head of the “Udiapur rickshaw Mafia/union” let me know about the holiday. A non-devout Muslim, equally fond of whiskey and women who were not his wife, he would not be attending the celebration.
Following a lazy afternoon at the rooftop swimming pool of a posh hotel nearby my own modest guesthouse, I prepared for the celebration. I put on my blue and gold embroidered salwar camis, a traditional Indian dress. Also called a Punjabi suit, a sari suit and a churidar, it is a long, cap-sleeved dress-like top, over loose, pajama-style pants, with a long matching scarf, it is the modern Indian woman’s uniform. These days you can see them as commonly as saris – especially on the younger women.
Before I entered the mosque, I took off my shoes and covered my head with my scarf, following the example of the women ahead of me. At this point I could see the nudges and pointing, the giggling and laughing, and the direct staring of the women at this Indian-dressed white women about to enter a mosque. Smiling brightly, I entered the enclosure. I’d long learned that in India, staring back when you were stared at, but with a big smile, is a ticket to a charming mirror response.
Inside the mosque’s outside walls were several smaller buildings, all white, and some with turnip-shaped domes. I made my way to the first one, hopping from one bare foot to the other as the heat of the white tile stones burned them. Inside, was a coffin, draped in green fabric and covered with pink flower petals – roses, I think. Men in white Punjabi suits and small white caps entered the room, first touching the floor of the doorway with their hand. Women and girls waited outside, many of them bowing before the doorway, touching their forehead to the cool marble surface. A woman just arriving handed her bag of pink petals to a man just leaving and he quickly returned, sprinkling handfuls of the petals over the already overflowing surface. It seemed women were not allowed inside.
By now a group of young children had surrounded me, smiling and staring. “One rupee?” they asked, echoing the words of countless children before them. I smiled and said no, mentally cursing all the well-intentioned westerners who had come before me, passing out money, chocolates and school pens, creating the impression that all westerners stockpiles these things. “What is your name?” one little girl asked – the other standard question. “My name is Melanie. What is YOUR name?” I asked. She told me, and one by one I played the game with each child. “How old are you?” I asked, when we had finished round one. “No,” she said – apparently English lessons in Udiapur did not extend past introductions.
Taking my hand, she led me around to another building, where identically dressed men hovered over smaller coffins, each also draped with fabric and covered with pink petals. Inside this same building, at another entrance, a man was bending over a square metal container with a grill over the top of it. Women were coming to the entrance, presenting him with pink flowers, that he either grilled or covered with the smoke, and then handed back. The women each left eating the flower they had been handed.
I later learned that in celebration of Mohammad’s birthday, learned men deliver sermons focusing on the life and noble deeds of the Prophet. And, in some parts of the country, a representation of buraq, the horse on which the Prophet is believed to have ascended to heaven, is anointed with sandal paste or scented powder, and the house and casket containing these is elaborately decorated. While I tried to find out more, I was hard pressed to find anyone who spoke more than a few limited words of English – an indication I had left the tourist part of town far behind.
My little friend, an entourage of other little ones in tow, took me to meet her mother, who gestured for me to sit down on the edge of a long step. “Four children” the little one said, pointing to her mother. “Three girl, one boy,” she finished. She clearly had more of a vocabulary than just “What is your name,” but every simple question I asked received the same answer of “no” – so I decided to just be silent, watching and listening. She introduced me to her mother’s friend, the mother of a baby boy – adorable, with large eyes made larger by what appeared to be the application of black eyeliner but was actually camphor, a common tradition for Indian babies, and said to be both attractive and healthy.
All around me was activity. Men with brooms moved the dust from the mosque floor tiles, literally sweeping them underneath the scattered rugs. Little raccoon-eyed babies sat on the steps and floor of the mosque, laughing, crying and screaming among the colorfully dressed women, chatting among themselves. Poor children in dusty clothes ran around next to richer children decked out with gold earrings, necklaces and bracelets. A line of men in white faced a wall (and Mecca), stood shoulder to shoulder, and then kneeled and prostrated themselves multiple times in unison.
I was offered and accepted snacks – a spicy fried samosa, a florescent yellow sweet drink and some kind of nut that I was meant to chew. I passed around my water bottle and watched in awe as each child, even the youngest, managed to drink from it without touching her lips to the bottle – a talent I have only recently acquired in India – but is common in every state I have visited.
As I sat on the step with the Indian Muslim women, adjusting my scarf to keep it over my head, I noticed that, with the exception of the children sitting next to me, in front of me, and practically on top of me, I was being pretty much left alone. No one was staring anymore – in fact, most of the men who passed didn’t even notice me – a sure sign I had blended in sufficiently.
Outside were even more people, gathered mostly in single sex groups and sitting on walls, on the ground or standing together. Men with arms around each other or holding hands, young women giggling in groups, teenage boys daring each other to say hello to me, and flower sellers and other vendors calling out their wares.
As I had not been allowed to take pictures inside the mosque, I now pulled out my camera and attempted to take a picture of the dome, though the entry gate. I was immediately surrounded by people, all curious to see what I was doing, and amazed by the LCD screen on my digital camera. Within seconds I was being asked to take pictures of people, children as well as adults, and nearly lost my balance several times in the pushing and shoving to see the result. Everyone was smiling and laughing and everyone wanted his or her picture taken. More than once I put the camera away and moved to a new area, as my presence with the camera was like the star performance at a traveling carnival – the center of attention.
At a table lined with plastic cups, I took some bright pink liquid, which tasted like sweetened rose water. The turbaned man behind the counter, stirring an enormous pot of the liquid, did a double take when he saw me and quickly had his assistance pour me a cup of a different liquid, which they call sherbet. It tasted like the pink drink, mixed with milk, and I happily accepted.
Walking around outside, I had become less diligent about my scarf, and it had slipped. Drinking my sherbet and taking in the carnival-like atmosphere, it took me a minute to realize my cover was totally blown. About this time a policeman, dressed in an olive uniform and standing with half a dozen of his peers, asked me where I was from. I hesitated only a second before saying “America.” He informed me that I was not safe at the festival. Looking around, I found that quite hard to believe, and I told him as much. He indicated that the area of town I was in was not safe (read: Muslim) and that I might be happier on the other side of the gate (read: Tourist Area). I told him I thought I was perfectly safe and that everyone had been very kind to me. In fact, would he mind taking a picture with me? He declined saying “ok, ok,” and relayed that if I wasn’t careful people might push up against me. I thanked him for his concern and walked a few feet away where I stood watching the scene from more of a distance.
Yes, it was true that many people were staring at me, but I did not sense anger in their faces, only curiosity. While Udiapur is a tourist-filled town, even just a kilometer or two outside the main streets was another world, and a white western woman was a curiosity – much like a women in full sari might be stared at walking around a suburban mall in a suburb of Indianapolis, Indiana.
The seed, however, had been planted. The police officer’s words had clouded my mind, and instead of noticing the smiling faces, I became increasingly aware of the few serious and sullen ones. Instead of noticing the old man holding the little girl dressed entirely in pink, I noticed the groups of police standing with arms folded and surveying the scene. Instead of noticing the contrast of the brightly colored women’s saris and the men’s white Punjabi suits, I noticed the contrast of my slightly paler face to their slightly darker ones. Saddened, I turned toward the infamous gate and slowly walked away.
Before I passed through the ancient stone archway, a runaway bull cow took off down the street, narrowly missing me in its quest for a doe-eyed female. He mounted her at full speed, taking out a motorbike, which nearly toppled a boy sitting nearby, before the cow made her escape. I honestly believe, with all my heart, that the bull in heat represented a far greater danger to me than the hundreds of men, women and children gathering to celebrate the birthday of their prophet.
Next week: Two Weddings
April 27, 2004
Ayurveda and The Three Doshas
"Everything," the petite Indian masseuse said, gesturing for me to remove my clothes. "Everything?" I asked again, sure I'd heard wrong. This was India, after all, a country where women swim fully clothed in their saris and shorts for women are unheard of except for the tourists. "Everything," she repeated, sweeping her hands from head to foot.
The next thing I knew, I was naked, sitting on the edge of a "massage table" and wondering why the woman was putting coconut oil onto the top of my head, in my ears, on the palms of my hands, inside my belly button and on the bottoms of my feet. I was about to get an Ayurvedic massage, and the set up was unlike any massage I'd previously had. Instead of a soft, padded massaged table, there was a hard, wooden, oil-soaked, coffin-shaped slab, with a two inch high rim around it and a two by four across the top 1/4 of it, where I assumed my head was meant to rest. Did I mention that there was no modesty sheet of any kind? How exactly was this suppose to be "relaxing?"
Within a few minutes I understood the hard wooden surface and lack of encumberments - the masseuse was using copious amounts of oil to massage my limbs, so much so that soon I was slithering around on the table like a kid on a "slip and slide." I calmed my modesty insecurities with the knowledge that Ayurvedic massage is part of the five thousand-year-old tradition of Ayuveda, the science of life, prevention and longevity, and quite possibly the world's oldest form of holistic medicine.
Ayurveda is not unknown to western audiences. In the past 10 years it has become somewhat of an "in" concept, especially to readers of women's magazines like Cosmo and Glamour, where the philosophy is boiled down into a breakdown of three body types and the best way to keep each one fit through diet and exercise. This is technically true, but doesn't go into nearly enough depth to make it really valuable for the individual reading the article. Still, it did introduce me to the concept several years ago, and in the back of my head I seemed to remember being classified a Vata - though I have to admit I kind of forgot what that meant.
In "Your Ayurvedic Constitution," my main guide for the details of Ayurveda, author Robert E. Svoboda describes the background of Ayurveda, focusing specifically on the three Doshas, or "faults." These three Doshas are "one of the three forces which binds the five elements - Air, Fire, Earth, Water and Ether - into living flesh" and are classified as Air (Vata), Fire (Pitta) and Water (Kapha). The three Doshas are three forces or energies in the body. You see, when the three Doshas are in complete balance, an individual is healthy. But, as Dosha means "things which can go out of whack" - and most individuals have an overabundance or one or another - it is believed that sickness in most people is caused from an imbalance of the Doshas. This manifests itself as too much air (Vata), too much fire (Pitta), too much water (Kapha), or some combination of the three.
Vata people's constitution is determined by dry, cold and irregular. They are frequently very tall or short, slender, with thin frames and cracking joints. However, due to their addictive qualities, they can also be extremely over or underweight as well. Other characteristics include that fact that Vata's don't usually sweat very much, they have dry, curly or frizzy hair, they have gray, violet or dark brown eyes (sometimes two different colors), they are anxious to eat but their eyes are bigger than their stomachs, they love warm climates, they are light sleepers, forgetting their dreams easily, and in general they remember and forget facts, arguments and compliments quit easily. Vata's are sensitive, high-strung and exceptionally changeable, resisting regularity in their lives. They have high energy, but can burn out quickly. The alternatingly crave companionship or demand solitude. They love to travel for fun, and make friends easily - though these friendships don't always last. They find it difficult to concentrate on any one subject and fail to complete projects.
Vata's are original thinkers. They recognize the need for self-development but are rarely consistent with any one program. They can often be fanatical, joining cults, but quickly switch allegiance to something else before tiring of it as well. Most Vata people are drawn to cats, but dogs are better companions as they add stability and routine to life. Vata people have rapid fluctuations in energy and often have trouble sleeping. They live erratic lives, with changeability being the one word that bests describes them. They need balance and relaxation, but shy away from it. Vata people like change, enjoy new experiences and tend to flit from one thing to another - getting the "new" fix. They tend toward jobs that require large bursts of energy for limit periods of time. They hate routine but need it, as it stabilizes them. They have acute hearing, and are quite sensitive to noise. They think in terms of words, even when they visualize or emote. They usually use words to tie their thinking together.
Vata people, in general, tend to be ok with sweets, dairy (unless they are allergic) and are the only Dosha where meat, in moderation, is recommended. White sugar is poison to them, and they are prone to addition. They do best on cooked veggies, as opposed to raw, and wine is the alcohol of choice, though only in moderation.
Pitta people's constitution is determined by hot, oily and unstable. Pitta people tend to be of medium height, build and weight, gaining and losing weight with ease. Pitta people are usually redheads, or have some red in their hair, sweat even in winter, have hazel, green or light blue eyes, they love to eat all the time and get cranky without food, they like colder climates, they fall asleep easily and remember their dreams, and they remember easily, it is hard for them to forget - elevating grudge holding to an art!
Pitta people are strong and forceful - to the point of domineering. They are practical, believe in fair play, and when in a good mood can exude exuberance. But, when angry, they can be cruel. They make friend easily and are acutely intelligent and tend to be impatient with anyone whose intelligence is not equally acute. They are dedicated to their own self-development, which can become ego-expansive. They stick to their ideas.
Pittas are ideal teachers, because it provides intellectual challenge but not perpetual comparisons. They need sufficient challenge to keep them occupied without the stress of competition. Pitta people are practical, taking Vata's ideas and applying them to real situations. Pittas are visually oriented and easily fantasize - they always see what they think about and use images to relate words and emotions together. Pitta people are impatient, require challenges, but sleep well at night. Intensity and competitiveness are two words which best describe them. Cats are Pitta's best friends, constantly challenging them.
Pitta people, in general, should avoid sour and salty foods, as well as meat. Veggies are good for them, and sweets are ok as well. Coffee should be avoided, but beer, in moderation, is acceptable. Barley is their "super grain."
Kapha's constitution is determined by cold, wet and stable. Kapha people tend to be heavy of bone structure, have shorter fingers and toes, and wider hips and shoulders. They are moderate of size with exercise, but can gain weight easily. Kapha people tend to have dark wavy hair that is prone to oiliness, always sweat, have blue or dark brown eyes, are stable eaters but tend to be emotional eaters as well. They like warm or cool climates, but not the extremes, sleep heavily for hours with peaceful dreams, but tend to feel untested when they awake and have trouble getting up. Though they have trouble remembering facts and figures, once they learn something they never forget it.
Kapha people are calm, quiet, steady and serious. They have patience, fortitude and humility. But, they can be greedy and possessive as well. They have stable personalities to the point of lethargy. They study each subject cautiously before committing themselves. Once committed, however, they are stubborn and will see things through, even to their own detriment. They make friends slowly, but these friendships are for life. They are less motivated for self-devilment than others, are not good fanatics, and their faith can be unshakable - as is their desire to maintain the status quo. They tend to be the most compassionate and maternal of the three Doshas.
Kapha people find large dogs beneficial because both owner and dog need vigorous exercise. Kapha people are great administrators - making businesses they associate with run like a well-greased machine. Competition is good for them, though they find it stressful. Morning is the Kapha time of day and is the hardest time of day for creative ideas. Kapha people are natural athletes but tend to be complacent. They need motivation and stimulation to get them going. Kapha people are more sensual, and feel or sense things - they often think with their emotions and feel the connection between words and forms.
Kapha people should avoid sweet and salty foods, as well as dairy and meat. Dried foods are good for them, as our veggies and spices (except salt). Tea and coffee are fine, and purely Kapha people are the only ones for whom hard alcohol is not poison.
While these are some of the most interesting of the facts about each Dosha, this is by now means an exhaustive list. Still, its interesting to see where you fit – did you find yourself in one or more of the Doshas?
Personally, I am a Vata. You might have guessed this already. :) This was reinforced in my reading of the book, but also in a free Ayurvedic consultation from the Ayurvedic doctor at the yoga ashram. After taking my pulse and asking me a few questions, he said I was Vata, and outlined some of the better choices I could make to limit Vata's affect: eating less dry foods, eating more cooked veggies, including more routine in my life (yeah, right!), etc. It was the reading of the book, however, that made me realize just how much more than my physical body was classified as "Vata." My eating habits, my likes, my dislikes, even the types of career choices I've made in the past, almost all were outlined as typical "Vata" characteristics. In truth, I also found characteristics of "Pitta" in myself - which is quite common and fits in accordance with the theory that few people are purely one Dosha or another, but some combination of two.
Much of the emphasis of Ayurveda comes from food and eating, because food is considered the prana, or life force, nourishing us from the inside. Eating is a sacred act and ingested substances are divided into food, which nourishes; medicine, which enhanced nutrition; and poison, which disrupts nutrition. What makes it more complicated is that one person's poison can be another person's nutrition - that is why you might be able to eat pasta and carbs to your hearts delight, but your best friend does better on veggies and fruits. Each person's constitution is different, even within each Dosha, so some level of experimentation is necessary to determine what the right food (and wrong "poison") are for you. Ayurveda believes that indigestion is the base of all physical disease and the condition from which all others arrive. Fasting is promoted as the ideal to get ride of Ama - the manifestation of physical and mental internal toxins.
Ayurveda is so much more than body types, personalities and food, however. The Ayurvedic massage I had done at the ashram is just one of a host of Ayurvedic treatments designed to treat the whole body, and not just the joint that aches or the face that breaks out. However, as this column is long enough for one week, I'll leave the additional research up to you - if Ayurveda is indeed something that interests you!
My favorite part of the Ayurvedic philosophy - and why I believe there is truth in its methods - is that it realizes that every person is different. That every person has a unique constitution, and that there is no "magic" universal remedy - except self-awareness. Ayurveda believes that every individual is a unique phenomenon, and a manifestation of cosmic consciousness.
Special thanks to Jennifer Olive for introducing me to Svoboda's book and to the Universe for seating us next to each other on the bus. Shanti Shanti Shanti OM.
Next week's Spots of Time: Melanie Turns 30 - Oh My! ;)
April 20, 2004
"Our minds are like a drunk monkey bitten by a scorpion,” the Swami said. “We try to concentrate but our mind is all over the place, jumping here, jumping there.”
I could relate. Two days into my attempts at meditation and 99% of the time my mind was focusing on everything BUT nothing. Not only was my mind a drunk monkey stung by a scorpion, it also had attention deficiency syndrome and ants in its pants! Sitting cross-legged with my back straight and my eyes closed, in the company of nearly 200 other yogis didn’t seem to bring me closer to enlightenment. It did, however, cause my legs to go numb and feel like giant tree trunks, my back to ache and begin to slouch, and my eyes to periodically open to make sure everything else was still meditating.
Meditation, constant observation and calming of the mind, was a big part of the ashram/yoga experience, and one of the Five Points of Yoga (#5 – Positive Thinking & Meditation (Vedanta & Dhyana)). Every morning after rising at 5:30 a.m., we would gather in the main hall for 20-30 minutes of silent meditation. Meditation is an evolution of concentration, which might make it sound easy. But, try to concentrate quietly on just one thing without allowing your mind to wander and you’ll quickly see that even sustaining concentration is a big accomplishment. Even after two weeks of (and I must admit, not the most dedicated of) practice, I could only manage to maintain concentration - the precursor to . A couple of times I began to see colors, especially green and purple (like I imagine the aurora borealis would be if recreated in my head) but that was most likely do to a lack of oxygen to my brain than any progress in terms of enlightenment!
After meditation, we would chant for about 45 minutes in Sanskrit, and then be off to our morning asanas class. The first points of yoga, #1 Proper Exercise (Asanas), as well as points #2 Proper Breathing (Pranayama) and #3 Proper Relaxation (Savasana), were all an integral part of our two daily classes. Each class, which was usually held under a woven coconut palm covered shelter with a (hard) cow dung floor (you get use to it), began with the class resting in Savasana, or corpse pose, flat on our backs with our arms a foot to either side, our legs 2 feet apart, totally relaxed. We would then breath deeply from our abdominals, expanding out abdomen as we inhaled, contracting it as we exhaled – similar to the breathing exercises taught to singers, and the way that babies naturally breathe.
Sadasiva, our daily lecturer, told us that stress is the experience of holding onto something, whereas relaxing is letting go. By relaxing, we “cut the wire to defuse the bomb – so that when the button gets pushed, there is no explosion.” By relaxing physically – and mentally – we are better able to deal with difficult situations that arise – without an explosion. While the asanas classes improved our bodies physically, it also helped us mentally - focusing on the postures was akin to meditation, and the deep breathing exercises we did helped to bring extra oxygen to our brains, relaxing them as we nourished them.
Point #4, Proper Diet (Vegetarian) was easy to manage at the ashram, even for those who had never experimented with the concept. We were served two meals per day, the big morning meal at 10 a.m. and a lighter meal at 6 p.m. Yoga believes that certain foods are tamasic, or promote lethargy, and as a result, meat, eggs, garlic and onions were banned, as was smoking and alcohol, for those staying at the ashram. Even without the benefit of garlic and onions, the food was excellent – far from bland, it was mild and pleasing, and while some complained about the dishes, most people enjoyed the food.
A usual brunch would include rice, sambar (a liquid curry), chutney, cooked vegetables, beet and carrot salad, herbal tea and a chapatti, dosa or uttapam (one of several types of Indian bread). The dinner menu was more varied than brunch, but was frequently either idilli (similar to a formed moist cake of cream of wheat), sambar and coconut chutney, or chapatti and sambar, or couscous and dahl (lentils) – my personal favorite. I assumed I would be hungry all the time, especially with 4 hours of yoga per day, but in actuality the meals were perfectly adequate. On those days when I needed a sugar fix, or when I wasn’t particularly thrilled with dinner, I would go to the Health Hut, where yogis could buy fruit salads, fruit juices and teas, and even packages of chocolate cream cookies!
I found I didn't miss the meat at all, and have maintained my vegetarian status even now, two weeks after I left the ashram. While I have allowed eggs, garlic and onions back into my life, I am going to see how life without meat treats me. Seeing meat-producing animals on the streets, on the beach and in people's yards, certainly makes it easier. When you have spent 10 minutes watching a group of playful piglets run and jump, you feel much less likely to have pork chops or a ham sandwich for dinner!
With regards to the other points of yoga taught at the ashram, I hope that I will be able to maintain them in my life as well. For the past week I've been on a beach in Goa, and I rise every morning at 6 a.m. for yoga, leading myself and a friend from the ashram in pranayama, sun salutations and the 12 basic postures, as well as final relaxation. Now, if I can just bring the habit of meditation back!
As cynical as I may have sounded about my own half-hearted attempts at meditation, I believe the ashram/yogic message that regular meditation can be helpful in every aspect of your life – clearing and quieting your mind, culling through the mental garbage, etc. We live in a world where we are constantly bombarded with messages, thoughts, ideas, worries, concerns, frustrations and other thoughts that clog our mind and don’t allow it time to relax. By meditation, even for 10 minute every day, we allow our mind the opportunity to relax, something it probably hasn’t fully done (during waking hours) for years.
The same goes for the other points. Yoga is not alone in promoting regular fitness and proper diet – medical science has proven that regular exercise and a healthy diet full of fruits and vegetables (even a non-vegetarian one), is foremost in maintaining a health body – both inside and out. And, in our crazy world of daily stresses, constant stimulation, the idea of taking time out to breathe deeply, or to relax fully, seem to be important points we might have missed in our desire to get ahead, running breathlessly between appointments, dates, school, work and social engagements, using every minute of our day to its fullest “potential.”
One of my favorite quotes of the ashram (besides the monkey one) came from a teacher during pranayama (proper breathing) exercises in an asanas class. “You can go without food for weeks, you can go without water for days but you can’t go without oxygen for more than a few minutes.”
So, sit up straight, close your eyes, and spend the next five minutes breathing deeply. Its a good place to start.
April 13, 2004
Take Me to Your Guru
Hello everyone! Spots of Time continues, again - sorry for the month long break! I'm still in India, working my way north again after having spent THREE weeks in the yoga ashram and a week or so laying around on a beach - enlightenment can be exhausting! :)
Hope you are all well! Love, Melanie
"Who is your guru?" the man in the Indian coffee shop asked me, after I told him I was in Trivandrum to study yoga at a nearby ashram. I had no idea how to answer. The term "guru" brought to my mind images of serious old men with long beards and flowing orange robes. I, on the other hand, was in southern India for a fun two-week yoga holiday in the land of its birth. The concept of gurus, mantras, and swamis were no where in my thoughts when I planned this part of my adventure.
While volunteering in Thailand, a Danish girl told me about her experiences in a yoga ashram in southern India and her tale stuck with me. Two weeks after my arrival in India I found myself at the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Dhanwantari Ashram in the town of Neyaar Dam, near the southern tip of India. I had reserved a spot in a two-week "Yoga Vacation" and expected lazy days filled with yoga classes, writing in my journal, contemplating life and India and generally relaxing and rejuvinating my travel-worn body. I was wrong.
My first few days at the ashram I learned that yoga, contrary to how it is marketed in the US, is not just exercise, but likened to a science or philosophy of life. It encompasses not just a strong body, but a strong mind, selflessness and a devotion to God - all prerequisites to self-realization and ultimate unity with God. Unlike a religion, yoga has no dogmas and no church and each person's spiritual path is individual - many roads leading to the one final destination of self-realization, enlightenment, etc.
The days at the ashram started early - really early. Every morning at 5:30 a.m. we awoke to the sound of a cow bell clanging and calling us to Satsang (or "association of wisdom") our group gathering that included meditation, chanting, lecture and annoucements. A quick cup of tea at 7:30 a.m. was followed by morning asanas (yoga postures) or what most westerners think of as yoga. Brunch, the largest meal of the day, was at 10 a.m., followed by a morning lecture on the science of yoga at 11 a.m. and Karma Yoga (action and selfless service) at 12:30 p.m. Tea was served again at 1:30 p.m., followed by an asanas coaching class at 2 p.m. and our 3:30 afternoon asanas class. At 6 p.m. the ashram met for a small dinner, and then had free time until evening Satsang at 8 p.m. where we did more meditation, chanting and usually had some kind of entertainment (a flute performance, traditional Indian dancing, a film on vegetarianism, a documentary about Swami Vishnu-Devananda, a Kathakali performance, etc.) Lights out was at 10:30 p.m. every night.
Initially, the ashram freaked me out. An independent individual who had spent much of the past year and a half traveling alone, my shock at the group living and community aspect of an ashram was significant. In my first day's journal entry I wrote the following:
"One radio voice, many stations. The Swami's description of there being only one true God but many different religions "broadcast" in unique ways - that's all I'll take from Day One of my two-week yoga "vacation." Lying here sweating under the mosquito net in a room I share with 30 women, I'm not sure I'll last two weeks - I'm not sure I want to. I've been bitten alive by mosquitos, feel like everyone knows everyone else already, been chanting god-knows-what the past hour only to have to get up tomorrow at 5:30 a.m. to start it all over again. There is no free time and I feel like I am surrounded by people every waking and sleeping minute!"
Just a few days later, however, I was enjoying myself. The turning point, for me, was meeting other people who shared my feelings of being a fish out of water. We all vented our frustrations and then just as quickly became accustomed to the schedule. We learned to appreciate the energy of the chanting sessions, we commiserated on our aching knees during meditation and basically decided to embrace the situation instead of rebelling against it. "Take what you can from the experience and don't worry so much about the rest," one of the women said.
The ashram was set up by Swami Vishnu-Devandanda, in honor of his guru, Swami Sivananda Saraswati, who sent him to the US in the late 60's with the message, "people are waiting." He set up ashrams in Canada, the US, and other spots around the world, teaching yoga and its concepts to a western audience, before returning to India and setting up ashrams in his home country.
Western people throw the term guru around indiscriminently, using it as a synonmym for teacher, when in reality it is far more. Guru, in Sanskrit, means "remover of darkness" and is considered to be "one who knows the true reality of God," or has attained self-realization. A "Swami" on the other hand is a teacher, but not necessarily a guru. (More on this later in a future column, "Interview with a Swami").
Three weeks after I arrived at the ashram I decided it was time to move on. I had stayed a week longer than I originally planned, mostly to improve my asanas but also to think about the messages that had been relayed regarding meditation, positive thinking, detachment and the yogi way of life. I'm not certain that yoga will become an integral part of my life - just like I'm not sure that being a (new) vegetarian will stick. I don't know if I ever will find a guru, or if I even need one. But, I can confidently say that I am better for the yoga ashram experience. That my eyes were opened to new concepts, that misconceptions were clarified, and that some ignorance was replaced with knowledge.
Will I ever attain self-realization or enlightenment? Maybe, maybe not. But, I'm not so fussed with the details. It's something that comes from within, and when I'm ready, I'm sure my "path" will be revealed to me.
If not in this life, then there is always the next one. :)
Next week's "Spots of Time" column: The Five Points and Four Paths of Yoga
March 16, 2004
Cold-Hearted American Bitch
Being culturally aware has turned me into a cold-hearted American bitch.
But, please, let me explain.
It all started in India. Or, did it? Maybe it started when I first began to travel, alone.
My friends know me as a usually easy-going, friendly, and sometimes flirty female. I’m not shy, tend to be chatty, and don’t mind having conversations with total strangers. This openness has helped me to meet people while on the road and around the world. It has started friendships, broken down barriers, and allowed me to pass freely through Customs more times than I can count. It is a part of my personality I especially like.
However, my personality changes while traveling, especially when talking to non-western men - those who come from cultures where a woman’s role is not as independent, equal or liberated as in the United States. This can be said about most of the Southeast Asian countries that I have visited (to an extent), but most especially about India.
In many parts of the world, a single woman traveling alone is seen as an oddity. I can’t even count the number of times I have been asked if I was married, if my husband knew I was traveling, or, when I explained that I was not married, if my father knew that I was traveling. In a lot of parts of the world, it is almost inconceivable that a man would allow his daughter/wife/sister/mother/etc to travel alone. India, aside from pockets of liberalism in the big cities, is like this.
Hollywood movies, the media, and girlie magazines add a new dimension to the western woman traveler. We are often seen as loose, wild, immoral creatures – or, at the very least, naughty girls. Girls that wouldn’t mind a hand on our thighs, a brush against our breast, or an invitation for some extracurricular activities (wink, wink, he smiled, if you know what I mean).
Of course, this behavior is not exclusive to non-western men. I’ve been felt up in Australian bars, pinched in American dance clubs, and once, while riding the cable car in San Francisco, had a dirty old man press his lower extremity into my backside, then pretended to not understand why I was upset. But, while reactionary tactics such as a well-placed slap, an angry glance or some harsh words can do wonders in familiar territory, preventative measures are much more effective in foreign lands.
We women are not totally innocent. The lack of conservative dress among many female travelers does not help our case. Women who wear short shorts, cleavage revealing tank tops, and body hugging clothing in countries where such clothing is considered at the least inappropriate and at the most an invitation, help to perpetuate the stereotype seen in movies and on television. Let’s not forget that "Baywatch" is one of the most internationally watched television shows on the planet. It is shown nightly in India – a country where women at the beach almost never enter the ocean, and if they do, only while fully clothed.
Before the roar of the liberated woman rears its head, I want to explain that while I personally don’t think that a woman’s dress is an invitation to anything, I am a big believer in respecting the culture of the land in which I am a visitor. If the women don’t show their legs, I will not show my legs. If the women wear a head covering, I will wear a head covering. This does not make me a less liberated woman – this makes me a culturally sensitive and aware one.
But, let’s get back to me being a bitch.
In order to protect myself while traveling, I have found that I transform myself into an aloof, reserved and no-nonsense woman. I don’t smile very much, I keep a distance in transactions with waiters, shop keepers and hotel staff, and I tend to ignore all men that call at me from the streets – be they shop keepers, taxi drivers, or pavement Romeo’s.
Recently, however, I have been called out on my behavior. First by my brother, while we were in the Philippines. And, second, by a male traveler in Goa. The traveler, a young Aussie, said that I exhibited stereotypical American behavior in my interactions with a waiter – acting like I was better than him and not giving him the respect he deserved. At first I was offended. Then I was hurt. Then I was horrified. My protective shell had morphed into something more. Instead of being aloof, I was being elitist. Instead of being reserved, I was being rude. Instead of being no-nonsense, I was being a bitch.
I was as guilty of the stereotyping of Indian men as some of them were in stereotyping American women. My information had come from my own ignorant perceptions, from other travelers, from guidebooks and from "friendly" advice. The young Indian man on the plane, who despite chatting amiably with me for a few hours encouraged me not to talk to strange Indian men who made overtures of friendship. The older man in Goa, who after seeing a young man offer me a "lift" on his motorbike, said I should never accept a "lift" – from anyone. The female traveler, who said that while on an Indian beach, a group of Indian men had asked if they could take a picture of her in her bikini. All these comments paired with some natural fear about a new place and a new culture created a "monster" in my head.
Today, I left the shelter of my hotel room (complete with over 60 channels of satellite television, at least 10 of which were in English, one showing Baywatch later that evening) and roamed the streets of Trivandrum, a city in the state of Kerala, in the southwestern part of India.
I wasn’t doing anything special – just running errands. About 4 p.m. I was hungry, and not wanting to spoil my dinner, I decided on a snack. Instead of buying some fruit or packaged snack food in one of the "safe" stores, I decided to do what the Indians did. I went to one of the tea/coffee stands and ordered a tea and a savory, donut-like snack. Then, like the Indian men at the stand, I ate standing up.
While this may not seem like a big deal, there were no women at the stand. Prior to the recent commentary by my fellow traveler, I think I would have avoided this place, concerned that I would be drawing undo attention to myself, or putting myself in a potentially compromising position.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. Sure, I could tell I was the topic of conversation for some of the men, but besides some second glances and a few staring eyes, no one approached me. And, standing on a busy street corner, pedestrian traffic on all sides, I was perfectly safe. When a street seat became available, I sat down. The older man sitting next to me struck up a conversation. Instead of answering abruptly and turning aside, I spoke kindly with him, answering his questions about where I was from and why I was in India. We chatted for a few minutes and then he left, wishing me well. He was totally harmless and benign – simply curious about a stranger in his hometown.
It’s been less than two weeks since I have been in India, and my culture shock is slowly subsiding. Will time here change me back into my old, open self, smiling freely, making eye contact and chatting with strange men? No, it won’t. While my interactions have been 99% positive, I am still a solo woman traveling the world – and I am not stupid. I still believe that prevention – keeping myself out of potentially compromising positions – is the key to a safe, happy trip.
So, I will continue to follow, as much as I can, the culture of the place in which I am visiting. I will watch the local women, to see how they behave – and follow suit. I will keep a polite distance and expect that others do so as well. I will stay in well-lit areas, avoid "lifts" from strange men, and cover up with my sarong while on the beach.
But, I will also keep awareness that not all invitations are lecherous ones. That not all conversations have an ulterior motive. That a moderate level of friendliness has its place. And, that elitism, even under the guise of aloofness and self-protection, does not.