Two weeks of eating gyros and this view.
Two weeks of eating gyros and this view.
India is the #1 place I was urged not to go when telling people my travel destinations before leaving on this trip. Even though Cambodia is notoriously dangerous. Even though Egypt is literally in an all out war. Even though Somalians are kidnapping westerners in Kenya and ransoming or murdering them. Even though South Africa’s public transportation and streets are notoriously still segregated and extremely dangerous. It was always India, every time, that warranted the most intense and negative responses.
“Why would you want to go there?!”
“That’s so dangerous!”
“Aren’t you afraid you’re going to be raped!?”
“I would NEVER go there. I have no desire to see anything in India so badly I’d risk my life.”
And I appreciate the concern, because it’s a real problem here. It was reported, while we were in Thailand, that a woman is raped every twenty minutes in Delhi. That’s crazy. I mean, that is a staggering and horrifying statistic. Rape of foreign women, and western women in particular, has all but quadrupled in the last few months here in India. Violent attacks on westerners are becoming more and more common. And at the end of the day it’s a third world country so the harassment factor, the groping factor, and the condescending men would, we knew, be in abundance. But to tell you the truth, it hasn’t been all that bad. Surprisingly so, I suppose.
Upon our arrival in Delhi my father had insisted we check ourselves into a hotel on his dime. So we found a deal on hotels.com and checked ourselves into a plush hotel room in a hotel equipped with metal detectors and baggage scanners much like an airport, security guards posted at the elevators, and an extremely cautious staff. After a glorious and free breakfast buffet, which has become the #1 reason I love nice hotels, we headed to concierge to inquire about seeing the Red Fort, the temples, and other landmarks in Delhi. Just a bit of innocent sightseeing.
The look on the concierge’s face was grave when we told him we couldn’t afford to hire a car for 8,000 rupees a day (about $130), we didn’t have a guide, or an armed guard, or a driver. “I implore you, please do not go out on your own. Do not get into any cabs, do not get into any rickshaws, and do not walk on the streets. It is far too dangerous.”
Uh…what? What can we do then?
Turns out, borrow their DVD of Troy and promise to return it in 24 hours, then go watch it in our room and drink tea until it was time to catch our train to Agra the next day.
Again- we were IMPLORED that as women traveling alone we not take the cheapest option. You need to be in the safest car, they told us. You are pretty girls, young girls, Western girls, American girls. You have no men with you. You are not on a tour. The danger is great for you.
Not one to put my safety at risk or be reckless, because there’s a huge difference between recklessness and adventurousness, we paid the extra bit of money for the nicer train car, and took the earliest one, since we were told that was the safest and had the most tourists.
Well, there were three other tourists in our car. The rest were locals, and despite a few longheld stares, mostly looks of curiousity, we made it to our destination of Agra. This happened almost everywhere we went. The vehement warnings, the promise that this was the safest or best, and the sheer and resounding fact that 99% of the time it wasn’t. It was just as dangerous, or dodgy, or dirty, or what have you as anything else.
Let me be clear, though. India is a very poor country. Overwhelmingly poor. Crazy poor. Unbelievably poor. People are just pooping on the sides of the train tracks, children are running around naked, people are living in slums that go on for miles, there are dead bodies floating in rivers and severed limbs in the street, and everyone wants your money. But I mean, can you blame them? The important difference to note is that while people will do pretty much anything to get at the rupees in your pocket, they never seem to want to take your life, or your dignity. They really just want your money.
When people in India see that Kate and I are traveling alone, just two women, without any men, without any guide, they immediately begin telling us what NOT to do. Don’t talk to this person, don’t believe this scam, don’t get into this car, don’t go out between these hours, etc. etc. etc. The warnings are endless and constant, but at the end of the day, most are scare tactics used so that you will use their person, believe their scam, get into their car or tuk tuk, eat at their restaurant, etc.
And being a Westerner, things can get pretty mental pretty quickly. People take your picture because you are white. Indian people at the monuments ask for pictures with you because you are white. If you oblige them, a line starts to form and the queue goes on and on with people who just want a photo with you. At the monuments I oblige because I think it’s hilarious and when the hell is a perfect stranger going to want my photo again, especially when I’ve got pit stains and no make up on, but on the streets, it’s always a firm no. The best part of the picture taking is that a lot of the time they want to shake your hand, like you’re the President of the United States, in the picture, and make it into a professional looking portrait. I love it, but as soon as we left the monuments, I would always put my scarf around my head and hold my bag close to my body. There’s a CIA saying that “paranoia is the perfect level of awareness”, and I when it comes down to it I’d just rather be safe than polite when out on the streets. But I did the same thing in Cambodia, in Thailand, and in Vietnam. In poor countries your property is always more at risk, it’s just a reality of traveling. I can safely say, though, in none of those countries did I ever feel truly in danger, like my life was threatened, ever.
And on top of that, traveling is amazing! It is glorious, freeing, and everyone should be so lucky as to get the chance to visit anywhere, but especially India. I truly mean that. And so it upset me, on the day we left Mumbai, to see the news headlines were of yet another gang rape in the very city we were staying in, just hours prior. And then, a Facebook post of a girl from the University of Chicago who had studied abroad in India and come home with PTSD due to constant harassment and multiple rape attempts. I was so, so very upset to read about her experience because mine had truly been so different. Kate and I discussed the story, the rape, these women, our fellow women, and much else in India and came to a few conclusions. First of all, men in India are men at their worst. It’s that simple. The culture of arranged marriages has made it so that men do not need to impress women. They spit, fart, burp, leer, pee anywhere and everywhere, make rude comments, and talk way, way too close to your face for anyone to be comfortable. They grope you when given the chance, so the important thing is to not let them.
I know that sounds insensitive. I know the general consensus when I say this will be, “Hey Erin, nobody ASKS to be groped. No one TRIES to be groped by strangers.” And I know that. Believe me, as someone who was groped in India, I know that. But every single time I got groped was the moment I let go of myself. The moment I felt comfortable next to a strange man was the moment he would grab my breast, or my butt, or brush too closely and smell my hair like a creepy, misogynist weirdo. As soon as you let your guard down, you get groped. That’s just the facts. That’s India. And that’s really really sad, but it’s true. Secondly, India is beautiful but it is cruel. Everything is brown, but there are these beautiful moments of vivid color. Men are dogs there, to be sure, but I also met some of the loveliest men during all of my travels in India. Thirdly, in third world countries, it seems like everyone has an agenda, and that really sucks, and they usually do, but if you can get past that there is so much incredible beauty you will never see anywhere else.
I loved my time in India. Did I love every minute? Of course not. But through the rough times Kate and I kept laughing, and kept making memories, as lame as that sounds, and it brought us through it. Some of my favorite memories are from India. Some of my best stories too. This journey would have felt incomplete without India. I miss India already- it’s food, culture, religion, and the people. And as a woman, I urge other women to travel to India. I urge you travel with a friend, and keep your wits about you, and make smart choices. But don’t be scared. Don’t fear a random act of violence that could and does happen all over the world. Go to India, and take pictures with babies on their parents’ camera phones, and eat 100 pieces of garlic naan and then question why you aren’t losing weight like everyone said you would, and visit the Taj Mahal and marvel at its marble, and explain to women on the train why you aren’t interested in an arranged marriage to shock, awe, and disapproval, and walk miles in the rain and across the Ganges to your hostel during the Durga festival in Rishikesh and have the time of your damn life.
Being a woman in India means bindis and henna and chai and saris and bangles. It’s beautiful if you make it beautiful, just like anything and everything else. India is poverty and misogyny and stray dogs and cows and camels. It’s a severed leg in the street and trash all over the roads and wondering if the shit you just stepped in was animal or human. It’s pimped out tuk tuks and longheld stares and being groped by an old man in a haveli. But it’s also the most beautiful temples you’ve ever seen and smiling children and amazing old forts and chai sixteen times a day. It’s colorful saris and bhang shops and camel safaris and spicy curries. It’s naan and chapati and roti. It’s the desert, the Himalayas and the beach. It’s lotus flowers and Hanuman and Ganesha and yoga. It’s one of the best and most memorable places I’ve ever been and I love it with all my heart. There are things about it I would change. But there are things I would not change for the world.
Guys, I love elephants.
Like, I really, really love them a lot. And let me just tell you they don’t feel the same. They wanted me OFF of their backs immediately if not sooner. Luckily they’re easily swayed to your favor with a bunch of sugar cane or a bushel of bananas. The way to an elephant’s heart is the same way as to a man’s: through their stomachs. So with a hand full of kip I tried to buy an elephant’s love for an afternoon. But it would take more than a few bananas to make these elephants love a human.
When we first got to the Elephant Camp outside Luang Prabang, down a dusty road, around a mountainside, and across a muddy bridge, we were taught elephant commands, introduced to a bevy of wrinkly, grey beauties, and told that the elephant’s favorite part of the day was bath time because they love cooling off in the water.
I can’t speak for the elephant’s but I think they just hate everyone at the Elephant Camp in general. Southeast Asian people don’t treat their animals well, domestic and non, and the elephants, it seems, were no exception. It was less awkward than Tiger Temple, but that’s another story entirely. (See how I foreshadow like that? Damn I’m good.)
The elephants are large. I know this. You know this. They’re gigantic. They could sit on us and murder us, but they choose not to because they are docile, gentle giants. And so they let us, tiny predators, jump on their backs, strap literal benches to them, ride on their heads, prod them with poles. I don’t like it. It makes me uncomfortable. But the mahouts (Laotian elephant trainers) have absolutely no problem yelling, kicking, pinching, poking, and, in the case of the river, literally jumping on top of them to get them to perform for the white tourists who come to see them in hordes.
So, we rode them, fed them, laughed and took photos and then it came time for bathing. I had to put on that gorgeous navy blue men’s shirt because my bathing suit was too sexy (I know it wasn’t meant as a compliment, but I took it as one), and we headed down to the river to wash our elephants. We walked down a steep hill into the river and the elephants, every single one, immediately took giant dumps in the water. Turds the size of a baby, just floating past your legs, brushing up against your thighs. Lovely.
And then I became the most uncomfortable I was all day: my mahout asked me if I wanted to get wet. I mean, I’m in the water aren’t I? I’m in my bathing suit? “Yeah,” I said, “Sure. Go for it.” And then he literally started jumping on top of my elephant, jumping up and down, slamming his feet down into her little adorable wrinkles yelling, “SHOWAAAAAAHHHH! SHOWAAAHHHH!” And shower me she did. After some light coaxing (this is blatant sarcasm), she splashed me again and again, I’m assuming to avoid more jumping.
“Whoa!” I said, alarmed. “Don’t hurt her! It’s okay. I don’t need a shower,” I said to the mahout. “It’s okay,” he assured me, “she likes it”. Forgive me, but I don’t know anyone or anything that loves being jumped up and down on being screamed at to perform for some asshole white girl with a Facebook album agenda. I felt really bad. Really, really bad. Because these elephants really are so cute. So gentle. So nice. They don’t deserve that.
The photo looks so happy, right? Just a girl and her elephant having the time of their damn lives in the beautiful Laotian countryside. In reality, though I’m smiling, because you could throw hot wax on me and I’d still be all smiles with an adorable elephant showering me in a river, I’m actually very emotionally uncomfortable because I can tell the elephant is physically uncomfortable, as well as probably emotionally ravaged by its circumstances.
So, I decided I was against elephant camps. Why don’t they just free them? Let them run free in the wild where they belong!? Why these horrendous camps?!
And the answer is devastating. The elephants have nowhere else to go. Elephants are with killed when found in the wild, their tusks used for carved ivory, their bodies stuffed and sold to collectors, or they are enslaved and brought to work in the jungles hauling lumber. Elephant camps, as shitty as they are, are the best lives these animals can hope for. How much does that suck?
It’s incredibly sad to me that elephants are kept alive and healthy purely for tourism. If we stopped visiting elephant camps, if we boycotted them or shut them down, the elephants would be killed, or released into the wild to die at the hands of native people or hunters, or be recaptured and brought to haul lumber through the countryside. I really hate that.
And so, I like to think my elephant splash fight wasn’t all bad. At least my elephant got to cool off and take a dump in the river. At least she got all the bananas I could afford. At least she’s relatively safe.
I’d like to urge anyone who visits an elephant camp in the future to make sure it’s as humane as possible. Go somewhere the elephants only work a few hours a day, where they alternate elephants, where the elephants seem unafraid of humans. If the elephants are being forced to work all day, in the heat of the sun, over and over again for the amusement of tourists, don’t be that tourist. Just leave. Go somewhere else. You’ll be glad you did when your elephant splash fight is genuine and organic. You shouldn’t need a mahout jumping and screaming on your back to make your elephant want to play with you. They should feel safe and loved, not scared and abused.
Splash on. But splash responsibly.
A crazy thing happened to me in Luang Prabang, Laos. And I’m not talking about watching my sister fall off a scooter on a country road and get the most road rash one human should ever have to endure at one time. And I’m not talking about getting into a splash fight with an elephant. And I’m not talking about staying in what can only be described as a frickin’ palace of a hotel. Because those are all photos to come. Do you see how I get you excited? It’s called foreshadowing, and I’m great at it.
What I’m talking about, is, in fact, when I became Kardashian for a few fleeting moments on a hilltop in Luang Prabang, just trying to enjoy a sunset with an unsuspecting kitten. Here’s how it went down:
There’s a hill in Luang Prabang. A big one. With a temple on it. It’s called Phu Si hill (pronounced poo-see, teehee) and people go up and watch the sunset on it every night. I know what you’re thinking, wow, that sounds so peaceful and untouched! A beautiful place to watch the sunset- I bet there’s monks and baby tigers, and a tiny tea shop where you can sip a lovely hot green tea and hug your family and just generally enjoy the unspoiled beauty that is the country of Laos.
You’d be wrong.
After heaving and wheezing your way up the hill- watching Bryan Gattis traipse up past you, reminding you that he’s run marathons and biked across the nation for Kenyan charities while you sat at home and lethargically complained to your friend on iChat that you accidentally deleted Real Housewives of New Jersey off of your DVR while trying to wipe peanut butter off of your remote control-you make it to the top.
And there you are, surrounded by a hundred other backpackers and travelers, with their tripods and their Instagram videos, and their ironic polaroid cameras (where are you keeping the polaroids in your backpack?! TELL ME). And you realize, as you pull out your iPhone camera, that the Venezuelan backpacker in the Punjabi pants is judging you as you snap photos of the setting sun, deciding later you will use Pic Fx to make it look even more peaceful.
And so, you walk away, and spot a kitten. A kitten who would never judge you based on camera choice, who isn’t wearing punjabi pants, who just wants to be cuddled. And so you go over and pet it. And it purrs, so, even though you’re allergic, you pick it up.
Another backpacker tells you not to. You laugh. Why would I NOT pick up this adorable kitten? Idiot.
And then they’re on you.
First it’s one Chinese man, asking you to smile and pose with the kitten. You think it’s weird, but you do it.
Then, it’s his friend, the one with the tripod- he wants one too. You oblige.
Then, in the blink of an eye, it’s flashbulbs in your face, and someone throws another kitten at you. “Kiss the kitten!” “Hug the kitten!” “Smile here!” “Over here, smile at me!” “Put the kitten on your shoulder!” “Put both kittens on your shoulders!” “Give us a lookback!” “How do you feel about the rumors the baby isn’t really Kanye West’s!?”
And you’re just like “WHAAAAAAAAT”- frozen in time, watching your sister and Bryan laugh at you as you struggle to free the kittens and yourself from the grip of these Asian paparazzi.
“Okay, I’m going to put the kitten down now,” you say, and you push your way through and stand next to your sister. Then, they start taking pictures of the two of you looking at the sunset.
And you realize, Chinese people just want pictures of everything. They document everything and everyone, from the most beautiful sunset, to the tiniest flower, to the most confused white girl holding a kitten they can possibly find.
You’re just one of thousands of photos they’ll upload to their computers.
And as you make your way down the hill, exasperated, you realize, this must be what it’s like to e a Kardashian. And later, as you buy coin purses and headbands and 1,000 stick of incense for $4 you wonder why no one wants your picture now. And you realize, this must be what it’s like to be Mickey Rourke.
Oh hey, guys, it’s me, the worst travel blogger ever.
Listen, I have a really valid excuse for not updating you on all my shenanigans. I really do. Ready for it:
I’m having a great life.
And when you’re having a great life, i.e. meeting new people, rejoining old friends in new places, cruising through a monsoon on Ha Long Bay, spending $178 on watered down drinks at a famous hotel in Singapore, trying to figure out how to sneak into the Petronas Towers, getting ripped off time and time again by Cambodian children, you just don’t have time to upkeep a travel blog.
Or maybe you do have time. All other working travel blogs would point to the fact that you do, in fact, have time. But listen, I just don’t.
Traveling is exhausting.
Between waking up early to catch planes, trains, automobiles, and the occasional boat, walking around cities all day, squatting on toilets all night (talkin’ to you Ko Phangan) and debating whether or not to buy 1,000 sticks of incense for four dollars (I did), it’s just been difficult to pull out the ol’ keyboard and clack away about all my adventures and hijinx. And there have been many adventures, and much hijinx.
Now I’m in India, getting cultural on some curries and chais, being swindled in train stations, and just all around being told my safety as at risk by every Indian government employee I talk to. It’s a party, and we’ve got a month more of it. India is as enchanting as I imagined it would be, and I’m so excited to be here.
But for now, I’m off to see the Taj, the Assi Gahts, and get my palm read by an Indian mystic just to see what’s in my future!
PS I made a pact to myself that just for fun I wasn’t going to shave my legs for the entirety of India. I have a feeling my leg hair is going to be deliciously, luxuriously long. Pics to follow?