Last post I promised a second story about being popular in India. Alas, this one isn’t quite as lol-worthy, and involves no stealth erotica photography. This instance I’m recounting as a reminder that timing doesn’t always work with us in life, and travel is sure as shit no exception to that rule.
As mentioned back in this post, I wiped out on my bike in Daltonganj. It wasn’t a terrible accident, just tiring, embarrassing and inconveniently timed. After I’d bandaged my shoulder and reclaimed my bruised pride back from the mildly bloodied dust I’d dropped it in, Pete and I rode into town to find some fruit to get our energy up for the ride ahead.
I was in a terrible mood. Beyond being sick and injured I was worried about how much longer I was going to be able to keep this up for. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I was even vaguely frightened of the possibility of actually shitting myself to death (not a terribly dignified death, that), or of losing consciousness on my bike and having a much more severe accident than a slow tumble into the dust (slightly more bad-ass but still not exactly desired outcome #1, if you know what I mean).
Which made it very difficult to muster up smiles for the crowd that was gathering around me as I sipped at my juice. Usually, as long as they’re being polite, I’ll go out of my way to be friendly with the locals; taking the time to shake hands or pose for pictures they enthusiastically snap on their camera phones. But today, with such heavy thoughts hanging over me, it became a challenge just not to walk away.
Fate of course chose this day to be the one instance in which an Indian girl approached me. In a country so heavily male-dominated, particularly out on the streets where I typically was, I’d been dying to meet and speak with some of the local women, and to ask their opinion on a countless number of topics. Alas, they rarely approached me, and I tend not to make a habit of inserting myself into conversations and situations uninvited. Usually.
Yet here she stood. Self-consciously, she fiddled with the ornamentation on her sweater as she spoke, encouraged by the elder man next to her with whom I gathered she had expressed a desire to meet with me. I have difficulty now recalling exactly what it was she said or asked. . .something about thinking it was great I was riding a bike. Something about her wanting to, but it not being allowed [for a woman to ride].
On a good day I’d have jumped on this. Would have asked her “Who says this? Show me them! You can do whatever you want, girl. Come on, I’ll show you how to ride mine!” But today, from under the blood, dust and misery that were weighing me down, I could manage only a tired smile and some half-assed encouragement that it was probably not illegal for her to ride, just not common.
Another man approached Pete and I as well, curiously asking us the difference, as we saw it, between Indians and Europeans. This was another first: Someone asking a cultural question of me, as opposed to simply inquiring how old I was, what I did back in Canada, or where my husband was (a personal favourite of mine). Unfortunately, I couldn’t think of even a half-assed answer to this question.
Jharkhand (the state in which Daltonganj lies) doesn’t see many foreigners. Newly carved from the Southern tip of Bihar just 12 years earlier, the state doesn’t have much to offer in the way of tourism. Lonely Planet’s India guide simply lumps it in with the rest of the Bihar chapter, giving the entire state a meager 2.5 pages of write-up. Coverage includes only the capital of Ranchi, the Jainist pilgrimage site ‘Parasnath Hill’ and Betla (the national park we had just left). Jharkhand’s very obscurity was part of what had pulled me there. Not for the sake of ‘ego travel’, but to meet people; people who had not already had their perception of foreigners (and how to interact with them) already shaped by the hoards of tourists that had preceded me.
The interactions I’m fortunate enough to share with the inhabitants of the places I travel, and the perspectives and wisdom I’m able to glean from them, are one of the biggest reasons I keep moving. Which was why it broke my heart to be so beaten, so incapable of interacting the way I wanted in a situation I’d been longing to have arise since the beginning of my trip. This wasn’t a manufactured curiosity of someone mentally weighing what was in my wallet and how much of it they could manage to claim for their own. This was the genuine curiosity of people who had genuine questions about the world beyond India, and were excited to have an opportunity to finally ask them. And I just wasn’t up to the task.
I tried. Something in the back of my mind screamed to, at the very least, continue smiling and be as polite as I could manage or I’d feel like dirt for it later. I still feel a little like dirt. Because I’m very conscious of the fact that we leave footprints where we tread; marks that remain in an environment long after we’ve left it. We affect the nature, culture and mindset of the places we visit, intentionally or no, and it’s the responsibility of every traveler to attempt to make that impact as honest and positive as possible.
That day, my impact wasn’t as positive as I’d have liked. I had the opportunity to affect the opinion of at least a small group of people towards Westerners, and couldn’t make the most of it. That saddens me.
But, in the end, all you can do is all you can do. I was beaten, physically and mentally. Because I am human, it took most of what I had just to keep smiling, and stay polite. But, also because I am human, I have unrealistic expectations of myself – like, for instance, that I should be above such weak mortal limitations as dehydration and fatigue. I should be able to, in all instances and at any given moment in time, phrase eloquently any opinions I hold in such a way that I spellbind those around me with the sheer dazzling brilliance of my charisma. Dysentery and wipe-outs be damned.
Alas, as I’m sure Pete can attest, this was not the case.
Hopefully the next traveler to pass through Daltonganj will be having a better day than I was.
*This post is about travels that took place in Jharkhand, India on April 06 of 2012.
*The full photo set from Jharkhand can be viewed over Flickr here, or on the Facebooks where you’ll find me as Krys C Wanders.