31.07.2012 - 03.11.2013
On July 2012, 30th, at 2 a.m., I landed in Indira Gandhi International Airport. India being among the top destinations for Israelis, countless friends and acquaintances had warned and lectured me over and over again as to what to expect when I'd get there, and of course, it was just as they all said : no one could get ready for India. Especially not for THE STARE.
The first thing I did when i got off the plane (besides stalling my first encounter with Delhi through repeated visits to the sparkling bathroom and a thorough examination of every single ATM in the international terminal) was finding out how to leave the city and go to Rishikesh, which I'd been told would be a good soft landing spot. Luckily, I met a nice Israeli couple with the same plan, so there we were sitting in a first-class carriage on a train to Haridwar. [Of course, it wasn't as simple as that, we had wasted several hours being almost scammed, and therefore had no choice but to buy the most expensive tickets at the very last minute, but this is another story...). One bus and one rickshaw later, we finally reached our destination, found a guesthouse, refreshed ourselves and got ready to walk around town.
Carmit was blond and pale-skinned, and I myself have very curly hair. This combined with our western clothing, could lead to only one thing: Indians, lots of Indians, unabashedly staring at us. It was late July, very early in the season for that area, so there weren't many foreigners among the crowd. Rishikesh is located on the bank of the holy Gangaji, aka the Ganges, and as such is always filled with pilgrims and poor people hoping for a blessing, the great majority of which never saw a westerner in their life except maybe in ads and movies. [When I told my brother about this after my visit to Amritsar's Golden Temple, he had a hard time believing me, yet one must remember that only a tiny proportion of Indian's 1.2 billion inhabitants ever come into direct contact with foreign tourists, and most live in rural areas which no one bothers to visit. Stray just a little from the beaten path, hop in the "wrong" bus, and you may probably not see another foreigner for weeks].
At first it wasn't so bad, just a few looks, here and there, as we walked down the bazaar. But by the time we reached Laxman Jula, one of the pedestrian/motorbikes-only bridges connecting both banks, cameras in hand, ho-ing and ah-ing at the billowing sarees, the mooing cows and the mischievous monkeys, it was impossible to ignore. Suddenly - a traffic jam. In a few seconds, we found ourselves surrounded with phone cameras pointed at us, from behind, from ahead, from below and above, some stretching their necks to get a better view, others whispering and giggling behind their hands... L'arroseur arrosé, as the French saying goes: we came there to take their pictures, but here we were, clearly outnumbered by Indian paparazzi... After a few moments, some women overcame their shyness and handed us screaming babies, to take pictures of this memorable encounter. Carmit got the most attention, blond hair being really alien to Indians, so i had the occasion to step aside a little and take pictures of us being taken pictures of, until a group of teenagers also asked for group pictures [already on that first day, I insisted on no physical contact, since considering the Indian culture it would have reinforced misconceptions about western women]. Eventually the excitement receded, and we could reach the other side... Where even more people were waiting for us.
Reenactments of this scene happened about everywhere i went to in North India -except Tibetan areas, and very touristic towns like Manali. It usually wasn't as extreme as in Rishikesh, but anywhere i went, there almost always was at least one local staring at me, especially when I was alone. Like the time when I took a jeep from Kashmir to Ladakh, and an Indian guy sitting on the other side of the car kept his eyes on me for the whole 15 hours, as if he were afraid that if he turned around even one second, I'd grow wings and fly out the window or something. A wonder his neck didn't get stuck.
At first it's disturbing. You're terribly aware of it, yet can't do anything to avoid it. Then, over the time you get used to it, at least to some extent, and after a few weeks you barely notice it. Or at least it doesn't bother you that much, maybe also because you become more and more familiar with Indian culture. Indeed, in western culture, staring is usually rude and often bears aggressive - sometimes sexual - meaning. But this is not the case in India, whose concept of privacy (of what ??) is so different from ours. The Indian stare is usually not malevolent nor aggressive, it's just plain curiosity about creatures belonging to books and movies. I still remember this time in Jaipur, eating with my friend in a small dhaba, and the woman at the table next to us was staring hard at me, an apparent scowl on her face. After a minute, I couldn't bear it anymore so I looked straight at her, and gave her my best smile. There it was, a flash of white teeth, "sunny wrinkles" around the eyes, and a wide, sincere grin as big as Delhi spread on her face.
Of course, there were times when, especially as a solo woman traveler in Kashmir, Agra, Varanasi, the looks were not innocent at all and made me feel very uneasy, but I usually found a fay to deal with it, sometimes by directly confronting the man (which invariably led him to turn his gaze away) or when it was just too much, like in the old city of Srinagar, a deeply traditional Muslim area, by simply -and admittedly, angrily -walking away. [Despite being dressed very modestly, my face was still uncovered, so I was constantly catcalled and hailed and I felt undressed and aggressed by the burning eyes of basically every male around. Unless she's totally impervious to this, I'd suggest every woman considering to travel to Kashmir first - to go there, it's a wonderful place; second - to find partners or to wear a full cover (which doesn't come into account for me)].
In any case, if you're going to India, you will have no choice but learn to deal with The Stare, some way or the other. But if you have enough patience, dig out a real smile for those bold enough to ask to take a picture together, and you'll be invariably rewarded with so many faces smiling back, a nice souvenir to bring back home