These boots are gonna walk all over you…

Cory and Karli, two bulky men, held on to me as our ‘car’ hurtled through the Time Capsule; they said they were frightened. We had met on the tourist coach and at Universal Studios the three of us were left to ourselves -- a New Yorker, a Hungarian and an Indian. At the end of six hours together, where we laughed and argued through the miasma of accents, we forgot to exchange addresses. We were like momentary passing showers.

Would this be possible had I been travelling in company? Why do I take off alone when even for Kodak memories one has to depend on the kindness of strangers? When I have to cope with lost baggage and reservations gone haywire in alien cities? When I often have to stand rooted in one place till my legs get a mind of their own?

Can I dignify these nomadic vignettes as some grand discovery? We have seen a celluloid Sigourney Weaver having her tryst with gorillas in the mist and a Meryl Streep walk purposefully in and out of Africa, but the woman traveller does have a rough time. And it is not only about finding the loo.

So, what makes it such a nerve-wracking experience? Men. Honest. It could be the humble villager who, through his toothless grin, will be dying to judge you the moment your back is turned to check whether you walk like his elephant or are capable of carrying as much load as his donkey.

It could be the small-town dandy with his dark glasses striking a pose and trying to make inane conversation. “Madam, you like?” he enquires when you have barely stepped out of your vehicle. Convinced that he is one of the attractions, he will gently start with history: his.

It could be the tourist guide accosting you with, “I’ll show everything hole-heart, non-stop. Only you tell yes”. After you have said no, he will demand, “Where you coming from?” Somehow, you end up telling him, which is when you discover that his family tree stretches as far as your doorstep.

You could be aiming your camera at a man pouring water from a shallow pond, his lungi clinging to him, and find a voice whispering near you, “Ah, you liking naked man, no?”

You will encounter gawpers, mouths agape, not quite sure whether you are the highlight or the backdrop. And just when you are being explained the intricacies of a painting by a rare knowledgeable guide, a human chain will form around you. Suddenly, the voices go, “Tch, tch” about the fate of a dead Rajput king. Amidst this chorus from a Greek tragedy, you will smell the sweat of various regions and nationalities even as strange lingos cross paths.

It is the other tourists who can make travel such a strain. While I have stated that men can be a pain, I must confess that women do not make things any easier. On a ferry ride in Goa an elderly woman with ample breasts and pretty daring cleavage had the audacity to throw visual darts towards my innocent calves only because she assumed her husband would be doing the same.

It isn’t surprising that busloads of tourists descend on the beaches only to check out the women in swimsuits. They are serious about it, these dhoti-clad denizens from the hinterlands who have been told about the nangey log (naked people). At a particular scenic spot, there is a board that states, “Teasing the ladies will be punished.” Obviously, they do not imagine a sun-bathing woman could be a lady, so they start chucking nuts and through their lascivious laughter guffaw, “Sorry ji.”

Young couples, especially newly-married ones, are another problem. Instinctively, on spotting you, the woman will grab her hubby’s hand. You begin to feel like a vamp from some Hindi film. Except that she is the one teetering on her stilettos on a mud-track and tittering at your sensible sneakers. What I find funny is that her partner has to go along with this charade lest he be faced with a headache in the honeymoon suite.

Travelling through the warp and weft of the homeland is tough, but then traipsing through foreign lands is not hassle-free. Though I admit that what I avoid most there too are Indians. I really do not want to be judged for my postal address, the rings I wear or don’t wear, my clothes, my family.

Once, while waiting for a coach at the travel agency office in Frankfurt, an Indian couple inquired about the tour I was taking­ (a rather long day trip which few opted for) and immediately pounced, “You are going alone? Where is your Mister?”

Having told them that the only place for any ‘mister’ was with a ‘mistress’ (“Hai, he is somewhere else now?!”), they were in for another shock when Peter from the Agency, who had befriended me on an earlier occasion, greeted me rather warmly. “You know him also?” they asked.

Westerners are more blatant with a wink, a key symbolically pushed your way at the table or a straight question, “Are you free tonight?”

You can’t just say you are exhausted and need to get to bed. This will result in some smart reply and the blushing demure Asian might appear even more enticing.

Despite all the quickie pre-emptive ways to deal with potential hurdles -- from having air blown on your face with prayer, to wearing an ayatal kursi pendant (for protection), to being told by friends, “Just say you are a lesbian if you don’t want to be hit upon.” (Couldn’t I say I was frigid? “Oh, that will be a big challenge!”) -- it has been a voyage beyond mere travel.

At the end, you realise that you’ve run a long (and sometimes wrong) way, bibi.

(This was previously published in The Friday Times)


  1. A well-written piece! But clearly, the wholesale generalization of men is completely unwarranted. Remember, there are some good men out there too – for example, the rickshaw puller who takes you to places where no transportation is available, the tailor who stitches a dress on short notice, the bangle-seller who has just the right design, the meat chopper who has just the right kind of goat meat – all of them making an honest day’s living serving customers of whatever sex. There are men out there who actually clean their own dishes and make the first cup of tea for their bibis, men who take little children to school on their rickety bicycles, men who armed only with a jhola and some money, head for the vegetable market to grab the freshest vegetables, and so forth. Not all men go around wearing boots and trampling women – some only move around in Bata slippers all day! Every individual can be different and every individual can be unique – the gender is immaterial.

  2. If the gender were immaterial, then you wouldn't be making a case for men. This is one person's experiences and therefore POV about travelling (which happens to be ONE aspect of life)...and just in case you did not notice, women have been mentioned too.