Tamar Gaffin-Cahn is an American citizen living and working for a literacy company in Pondicherry, India. She is a Traveler’s Mindset Ambassador, contributing to the “darker side of travel” series by sharing her real life experiences as they happen and what it means to be challenged and transformed by international travel.
I’m grateful to be sharing my experiences and challenges with you, and that you are willing to read about my experiences while living in India. First, I want to be clear that these are told from my personal perspective, the view of a white woman who was born and raised in the United States.
Pondicherry (also written Puducherry) is where I live now. It’s a place where the collision of Indian cultures with the former French colonial culture is obvious. In fact, the entire town is divided into two sections: the French Quarter (Ville Blanche or literally, ‘White Town’) and the Indian quarter (Ville Noire or ‘Black Town’). Many streets still retain their French names, and French style villas are a common sight in Puducherry.
You can rest assured that foreigners living in India who come from other perspectives and backgrounds have different stories to tell and contrasting experiences to share. Nevertheless, you’re about to learn about five struggles I’m currently facing in the “darker side of travel” and how I’m working through them as I live life here in southern India.
1. The Stares
I happen to be white. I also happen to wear clothing that’s distinct from the people around me. It’s obvious I come from another place, and maybe you’re not used to seeing a human look like I do. So it’s natural that you look at me.
But you don’t just look, you stare intently. I see and feel your extended glance and no matter the length, you show no change in your facial expression.
This isn’t what I’m used to. In the United States, if someone stares at me and I see them staring, the stare-er smiles, nods, or somehow acknowledges their having taken a good, long look at me.
The other day I was taking my scooter out of my garage, as usual, and noticed a neighbor looking down at me from his balcony. I made eye contact; he didn’t glance away. Then I smiled, he’s a neighbor, I didn’t want to be rude.
Eventually, he smiled back, but what was the staring for? Did he want contact with me, was it interesting to him, how I took my scooter out of the garage? Or was he staring just to stare (a concept I still don’t understand)?
In the United States, we’ve perfected the quick glance, just a blink from our peripheral vision. I’ve lived in India for nearly seven months in the same apartment building, taking the same route to work every day, and even now there is still one man who stares at me every time I walk by his house.
I should mention that most stares are either directed towards my whole body or my face. Occasionally, some men take very obvious, long glances at my chest, but for the most part when I look back at the person staring at me, he or she is looking at my face.
There are a few ways I’ve dealt with these moments walking down the street, riding my scooter, or doing anything I do while I’m out in public… ignoring it, wearing sunglasses, or shaking my head in a stern form of “no”. What’s frustrating is that none of these tactics is consistently effective at stopping what I feel is unwanted attention.
2. “Will you take a picture with me?”
A few times each month, I’m stopped while walking along the beach (a tourist destination) and asked to take a photo with Indians visiting from out of town. It feels almost like I’m a celebrity; they get that excited to see me.
Most of the time I want to be left alone and kindly decline, but if it’s to be in a family photo or with women, I accept. I realize I’ve been taking this personally, as if they want a photo with ME, not the foreign-looking woman I happen to be.
I have experienced all types of Indian tourist photographers, everything from aggressive guys secretly taking a photo of me after I’ve told them “no” many times…to giggly, innocent families excited and happy to see a western person.
A strange thought crossed my mind lately: the photo they want has nothing to do with whether they like me or not. It merely documents having seen a foreigner, something new and exciting, like I’m a bear in a zoo. Take a picture of the bear, watch it walk around, then leave. But I don’t want to be a bear, so I’m going to stop making that comparison.
3. No Late Night Travel “Allowed”
This one feels extra difficult, as it prevents me from spending time with friends. Many people I know here live in the part of the town where most of the other foreigners live, about 20 minutes outside of the city center.
I live in the city center because it’s closer to where I work. However, as a woman it’s not safe to be alone on the roads here past 11 pm. I’ve traveled by myself late at night before and am constantly watching to see if anyone is following me. For the record, no one ever has.
Without any knowledge of how risky it is, you might not feel unsafe. I’ve been told by locals and foreigners not to travel so late at night, but because I still haven’t felt unsafe yet, the issue isn’t fully a reality to me. That means I’m more likely to push limits to see how far I can go. I don’t want to be the overly-prudent one holding myself back just because I’m scared.
The only preventative solution to this particular challenge is not to put myself in the situation of being out at night, which means I simply have to stay over at a friend’s place if I want to spend time with others in the evening. It may be a small sacrifice compared to the comfort of my bed, but it’s something I have to do to build relationships with my new friends here.
4. Trusting People Around Me
There are certain disadvantages of being a foreigner or non-local in any place. You’ve probably also been warned about being taken advantage of, whether that’s through sky-high prices only for tourists, or having a driver tell you a particular restaurant is no good because he wants to send you to his friend’s place instead, for example.
Bargaining (also called haggling) is helpful in cases with money, as I’ve found my bearings and can bring the price down to something reasonable. Another thing that has been effective is simply being very direct with what I want and don’t want.
For example, I will tell my auto-rickshaw driver very firmly, “No, I do not want to go there, I want to go here” if I notice him taking me in a different direction than I asked him to. I’ve often walked away from or ignored people altogether.
I’m very firm in setting boundaries with people trying to get me to do something other than what I truly want to do. I’m not afraid to say “no.”
On the other hand, India has a bad reputation for women’s welfare (see #3) and coming from the US where people are hyper sensitive about safety, I’m constantly concerned about trusting men here, especially because men and women have different relationship dynamics and interactions than in America.
5. Constantly Being Guarded
During my first weekend here, I rented a bicycle and went exploring alone. I didn’t know exactly where I was going, but headed in the direction of a boating area I had heard about.
Once I left the main part of town, there were no more foreigners around me. Then I realized there were very few women on the road, too. It was the middle of a swelteringly hot day, and I felt completely out of place.
I biked for 45 minutes and decided I would bike until I didn’t see any more women on the road. The proportion of men to women out in public isn’t noticeable…until you notice it, and then it can feel scary.
This guardedness, this frequent necessity to defend myself with boundaries keeps me constantly aware of my surroundings, on edge.
Similar things happen at local bars, which are often full of groups of men and maybe two or three women. In situations like these, it’s even easier to be a target for negative and unwanted attention, and I make sure that I don’t drink so that I’m able to stand up for myself if needed.
But being guarded with daggers in my hands, ready to fight, is exhausting. It tires me out. I can’t enjoy myself freely; therefore, I’m not happy.
Why I’m Still Here, Despite All This
All the challenges are difficult, and I’m constantly struggling to overcome them. Will I ever?
Maybe, maybe not, but it’s part of living in a developing country or any place where you’re the “stranger”. It’s part of traveling alone. Ultimately, it’s part of life.
But this is why I am here. I wanted a challenge; I wanted to get out of my comfort zone and learn about myself.
I wanted to experience things no one else can give me and get stronger and more confident in myself. At the end of the day, I am the one that will make the change within myself.
The hard part is that constantly having my guard up all the time means I’m not being as open to meeting new people as I would be in the States.
This wall stops connections, connections I love to make, connections I live for. I love looking around a room and appreciating the diversity of native languages, of experiences, of having every continent on earth represented.
I’m lucky I have these experiences under my belt, and I’m definitely lucky nothing bad has happened to me, but that doesn’t mean I’m not scared. Moving my fear from something negative to a positive force that projects me forward in my personal development is also scary.
But I think it is worth it. And it will be worth it.
I’m working on patience with the world and with myself to take these out-of-my-comfort-zone times to wow-I-surprised-myself-and-had-an-incredible-time! moments.
Slowly but surely, my hard work is paying off and I hope to look back on this experience with a smile, laughing about how awkward I was and how much I’ve grown.
Knowing you’ve grown is a fantastic feeling. The struggles are 1000% worth it and no excuse like fear, lack of time, or money should stop you or me. Might as well make life more challenging and more adventurous!
As far as I know, we only have one life; I’m going to make opportunities for myself that I can grow into.