Guest Blogger Brittanie Sterner: The Surrounded Lady Traveler
This week, I have the pleasure of sharing with you a special guest blogger, a fantastically talented writer and good friend of mine, Ms. Brittanie Sterner.
In 2010, I traveled with Brittanie in India for a while, before setting off to Nepal while she remained in Varansi to volunteer with a charity (no easy feat, considering India is one of the most difficult countries for women travelers). I asked Brittanie to write up a piece about her experience traveling as a solo female there, because my experiences as an independent woman on the road are limited.
So enjoy. I’ll leave you to Brittanie now…
India doesn’t exactly boast a tourism campaign for lone female drifters. That was obvious at arrival on the Varanasi station platform, where a bevy of Indian men in soiled khakis and plastic sandals crept astoundingly fast into a perfect circle around me. It was at least six men deep and 360 degrees within minutes. They came in shoals, droves; the spaces between their teeth leaked the red juice of beetlenut which soared and spattered down in pockmarks at our feet.
At first I panicked, drawing up the memorable asshole in Egypt who’d masturbated as I passed him in a museum. That was neat. In Cairo, I always felt like I was burning with male gaze, that I needed to carry a hardback copy of The Feminine Mystique to forcibly beat down over heads out of sheer principle. I was angry a lot in Cairo. Here again in Northern India, I was instantly the map-reading vaginal zoo.
Many of the men took out their cell phones to photograph me. I half expected them to take out their penises. What could I do? I set down my obliviously large backpack, took out my camera, and photographed them back. I beamed with every shutter release. Their smiles wobbled for a moment, then looked to each other for support, then faded all together in confusion. They backed efficiently out of the circle until there no longer was one, in what I felt was really my first demonstration of peaceful activism. The most important rule of traveling alone in a country with a poor track record for gender equality: never be the one who is embarrassed. It was like I had suddenly removed their invisibility cloaks. It was as simple as staring back. Reversing the lens.
Then. Something happens when you stay long enough in a place alone; you start to live there. The rampant din–gawking men calling out to you in a mitta voice, ramshackle traffic, chai hawkers and constant parades of bodies to the Ganga river to be burned–all settles down. It’s not even bizarre how normal it sounds and feels, how it fades off into the background behind the shape your life actually takes on, in the people who take you in.
The five girls lived in a two-bedroom flat next door to mine. They were barely twenty, all nursing students sent from upper class families to learn how to draw blood in the horror shows of Indian hospitals. Their English was limited to twinkly eye blinks and one singsong phrase: “You love me, na?” My Hindi, at first, was limited to a single key response: “Mebe tumse piar karte ho.” “I love you very, very much.”
They dressed me in a black and gold sari, blackened my eyebrows and lined my lips. They made me a doll and it wasn’t bad. They took me shopping for suits, taking turns holding my hand. They asked me what my computer did, and I showed them. They found me on the balcony at night, and we blinked at each other and laughed. When we walked in the streets, they formed a kind of glittery, straight-faced barrier around me. They had publicly claimed me, and I was okay with that. They’d decided to protect me. Any kind of male gaze couldn’t possibly penetrate their force field. We were friends.
Arti found me burning eggplant one night over the little gas stove. The rice was a failure, too. She asked me what I ate–and I knew she’d been watching my feeble cooking attempts for days.
“Brittanie, oh no! This is not good, no!”
Because it was obvious I didn’t know what to do with chapate flour and ghee and aloo from the grocer, she grabbed my wrist like a mother and took me next door and sat me down. The nurses were getting ready to eat dinner. Dinner happened on the floor–our knees crouched, our feet laid idle by the tin plates. There was no silverware, and every conscious wrist flick and thumb shovel I made, trying to get the rice in my mouth, was wrong and cute. The room filled with silence as everyone ate and I poured curried rice down my chin and across my clothes like infant’s litter. It was like sitting in with concert cellists, unable to pluck a ukulele.
At first it was a cursory experience, one small episode in a cultural failure. Then it grew bigger, a wholehearted process with no escape. On top of it all, I was hungry. I’d eaten burnt eggplant and street samosa for several weeks. Arti scooped a chunk of rice mixed with daal. The yellow leaked down over her fingers as she force-fed it to me, that handful and then another. It was spicy and sweet at the same time, tasting full and hot. It was gentle and firm, the way she fed herself with her fingers and the way the other girls fed themselves, while watching Arti feed me. My embarrassment dissipated a little as I watched her become seriously committed to feeding me. I opened my mouth, accepted, chewed and swallowed, opened again. Her own plate cleaned now, she explained: “This is healthy food.” God. A rush of tenderness. Their expert, somber shoveling of food. My feeling like an inept bachelor. She wiped my face and blinked. It was the smallest and most vulnerable I’ve ever felt. All of our hands were stained with daal. I realized they were sitting in a circle around me on the floor.
In public, I often felt surrounded in India. But this time, and many times after that in the flat next door, I was so far away from home and yet felt like it was right there.