My head whipped around. I was posing for a picture in front of the Jama Masjid in New Delhi, one of the most famous Delhi landmarks. It was my first day in India, and I was jetlagged and tired, but not too tired to get excited about exploring this new culture. I looked to see who was calling to me before I realized that it wasn’t one person.
No, I was being called to by multiple groups of men, all observing me posing for my picture. I wasn’t use to this level of attention, and it only got worse. Strange men and women touched me while walking down the street. Men looked inside cars to see me. For a brief moment, I understood what celebrity felt like, and it wasn’t nice. Instead, it was vaguely threatening.
Going to India at 18 was my first time leaving the west. I had been around North America, traveled a bit in Europe, and even spent time in Central America. My obsession with travel was just beginning and although I didn’t know I’d soon be obsessed with all things foreign, I was itching to go somewhere far away and different. As someone who had grown up in Chicago, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Actually, that’s not entirely true. I had read E.M. Forrester’s classic “A Passage to India” and was therefore an expert. Naturally.
When I got off the plane in Delhi (after a hellish 17 hour flight direct from Chicago), I was greeted with a full-scale assault on the senses. The smells of fuel, mixed with pungent curries, the honking of horns and wizzing of motorbikes, the bright colors of saris all overwhelmed me. What also was particularly striking was the divide between rich and poor. In one part of Delhi, I saw mansions and fancy cars, while in another, I saw slums and tragic amounts of poverty.
What perhaps was most striking to me was the attention I received as a young woman. India has been in the news lately for violent crimes against women, and while the vast majority of people I interacted with while I was there were very friendly, I was on the receiving end of several uncomfortable stares as well as the occasional groping. I’m not saying this to scare anyone off, but women should be especially prepare to deal with harassment, even if they take precautions in covering themselves.
That being said, India was one of the most eye-opening and fantastic places I have visited. The historic forts, palaces, temples and mosques left indelible prints on my mind and the whirlwind of colors and food are incomparable, even in other Asian countries. India is a difficult place to travel, especially as a woman, but it is well worth the extra effort. The harassment I experienced didn’t negate the wonderful memories I have of the food, the sights and the culture of this dizzying destination.