A Travellerspoint blog

January 2013

Private investigations

Here’s another lesson I learned in India: privacy is a VERY relative concept. For instance, I still remember when, on the way to Ladakh, i had to stop to register as a tourist. So there I was sitting at a restaurant table (this was the registration office…) filling a form asking for the regular personal details, when all of a sudden i noticed this guy, blatantly reading over my shoulder. Even when I gave him an asking/angry look, he still didn’t get it, and i had to actually hide the paper. Not that I really cared if he knew what was my birthday, but I was trying (probably unsuccessfully) to make a point…Such behavior would have been unthinkable in a western country, but not in India (nor Nepal, or China..). And then there are the questions.

When you travel alone (especially if you’re a young woman below 1.60m) locals are much more inclined to strike up the conversation with you. “Where are you from?”, and maybe even “For how long are you travelling? Do you like India?”, but then, invariably: “Are you single ?” or the Nepali variant “Do you have a baby?”, and “How old are you?”. No, that didn’t came only from single men, but from basically everyone: young, old, men, women, teenagers… At first I was caught unprepared, so I just answered the plain truth, i.e. yes, no, 27 (now 28 respectively, and was rewarded by a saddened look in the eyes of my interlocutor. Oh well. In any case, after a while I decided to have some fun and started making up stories about husbands, kids and pets in faraway countries. But the point is that in these countries, even total strangers will enquire very directly about what we consider very personal details.

So I started thinking about it, and again, I found the answer right in front of me: in countries so crowded, so densely populated, there is literally no room for privacy, not informational nor physical. On my first day in India I saw a woman crouching on the side of the road, defecating under her saree, on my first day in Nepal I saw a toddler doing the same, just without the saree, on my first day in China I went to the toilets in a very modern bus station, and saw 5 or 6 women peeing, all with the door of their stall wide open and their heads sticking out… In Agra Red Fort, I heard a guide giving his version of the origin of the saree: when husband and wife wanted to have sexual intercourse, the garment could be easily lifted up or let down, in case someone suddenly entered the common room during the act. Huge families living in one single room, three or fours total strangers sharing a narrow berth in a sleeper bus, etc. Such forced promiscuity leaves no room for secrets, solitude or even silence.

So this is something to know when planning a trip to Asia (and probably many other places I still have to visit). You can choose to be offended, or deal with it with a smile. No need to feel uneasy or ill-at-ease, you can choose to answer the questions or not, to tell the truth or not, to wait for hundreds of Chinese women to leave the toilets empty just for your personal use. This only made me soooo grateful to have been born in a world where we simply take these things for granted, and while I travel, well, “A Rome, fais comme les Romains”.

Posted by clemhadd 08:23 Archived in India Tagged people culture india Comments (0)