Thursday, 17 November 2011

Not so invisible - when I was travelling.

In my last blogpost I talked about the invisibility of older women - and it certainly resonated, if the comments are anything to go by. It's something that creeps up on us - and there is nothing we can do to slow it down. And it does, as I think we agreed, have advantages.

But when I was travelling I realised that it is culturally determined - a phenomenon common in western countries, where young people are seen to be the drivers of all thinking and energy. It is very different in other parts of the world.

Which means I was unprepared for being an older, white woman, wandering Indian streets alone. The Indians had no idea what to make of me, and made no secret of gawping at me as I tried to weave a path through the mayhem.  It didn't help that I was clueless when faced with somewhere so different, and so chaotic.
I didn't help myself by beginning in the north. 

If I'd read my Lonely Planet a little more assiduously I'd have known that life is easier - for everyone, as well as women - in the south. I'd have taken to the backroads of Kerala, and practised being visible among people who were both welcoming and curious. 

When I was in Kumerakon, a village on the edge of Lake Vembanad in the backwaters of Kerala (in the south), I found myself joining a group of children having a dance lesson; I managed their excitement and my general clumsiness and was waved away after a wonderful half an hour by a teacher - who spoke not one word of English. (My one word - thank you. It's the only word I learned in every country I visited.) What a wonderful introduction to the country that could have been!

Instead, I travelled down from Nepal, and spent a night in Gorakhpur, in a grubby hotel opposite the station. I was unprepared - not only for the chaos, but also for the lack of women in the streets. There are significantly more Muslims in North India; and it is rare for women to emerge into the streets alone - unless they are in air-conditioned cars, or begging on corners. Most commerce - the street-traders, the tuk tuk drivers, the waiters - are men.

And so one white woman, meandering down the streets - trying to avoid cowpats, beggars, the insistent calls of tuk tuk drivers, traders urging me to buy scarves, phones, betel nuts, cricket bats - was more visible than the queen in a primary school. Everyone stared at me - and, initially, I was hugely uncomfortable. It was like finding your skirt is tucked in your knickers and there is nothing you can do to extract it. There was no corner to hide in, no unremarkable cafe where I could sit in the corner and make sense of everything around me; even sitting brought someone to my side with questions or 'proposals'. Thankfully, I had a guide at the time, a gentle Nepali who found the whole thing highly amusing (it took so little to make him laugh) who was able to steer me through the worst of it, and kept me safe on those few occasions when . . . yes, there were some not-so-safe incidents.

And you - tell me your tales of your skirt-in-the-knickers moments. (Please - tell me it's not just me!)


  1. Oh my goodness, what a time you had Jo. I see what you mean about starting in the South, but on the other hand, what a lovely surprise that would have been after leaving the North!

    I can't wait until I'm allowed to buy books again. I'm so looking forward to reading this :-)

  2. Joe - no, not brave. It would be so much worse to turn round at 80 and wish I'd gone.

    Sarah - you are so loyal - thanks for all your comments. If we can find a way for me to sign your copy, then we must - you've been a star!

  3. Interesting take on your "invisible woman" post indeed, Jo. I suppose I would have rushed into the nearest bazaar and purchased a long robe that covered my face. After all, (I would have reasoned) most women do have to go out even if only shopping? or did they send menfolk out instead?
    Anyway it is wonderful that you have done these things, and I think I must buy your book! (and also join your site - funny I thought I had decided to do that, but perhaps it was one of those moments when Blogger decided to wipe out the follow tab.

  4. Jenny - welcome. And thanks for the follow.

    Yes, I was well covered - though I didn't actually cover my face. I couldn't work out where women went when they went out - maybe just to each others' homes. Anyone who could afford it would have a cook (male) who would do the food-shopping. And the general merchandise would indicate that it was mostly men who bought anything else (no trinkets, plenty of tools!). Plus there are many men who have migrated to the cities in search of work, leaving the women running the farms. But I never did make complete sense of it - though my wonderful guide made sure I was safe (well, most of the time!).

    And when you look at footage of all the rioting in the Middle East - there are so few women there, too. A few get interviewed, but if you look at an overview of the streets - it's almost all men? Such a contrast to our big demonstrations (there were millions of us on the anti-Iraq war march.)