Female? Alone? So what?

October 12, 2010

Traveling alone in Europe, I’ve decided, is very easy. There are two parts to this. One, travelling is easy, because things are generally very well labelled, most things run on time, and crowds are generally not comparable to those in India (with a few notable exceptions). If you ask for help in obvious places and circumstances, you’ll likely find English-speaking people designated to help. If you are in unlikely places, people will try to help, but language can be a problem. Generally people are polite, but I did come across a few unnecessarily gruff people too, though it could be partly attributable to language problems.

One of the things that makes travel easy is the ‘lessness’ of people pressure. It’s quite normal for people to stand back and allow someone else to go while getting on or off a train, or even in some other queue, but it doesn’t stop at that.

Here’s an example. I spent a small part of Sunday evening on the Spanish Steps, Piazza Spagna. From the top of the steps, I could see a sea of humanity stretching all the way down the road. A couple of brave cars tried to thread their way through the throngs. There was no honking. After a while, I made my way to the metro to go home. The spillover from above ground had reached underground, and by the time I reached the platform there was no way to go forward. I was stuck there, at the mouth of the platform. For the first time in Italy, I was in a crowd (which I hate with an intensity tending towards phobia).

Then the train came. It was jammed, just like a bus at peak hours anywhere in India. A few people got off. Some squeezed in. The rest stood back, the doors closed and the train left. It was cool; nobody bothered, nobody pushed. There would be another train in a couple of minutes. This sense of security, this certainty that there will be enough to go around, if you just wait a few minutes, you will get your turn, this is not there in India. For how many generations or centuries have we known that if you don’t push, you will not get. There isn’t enough to go around. Now that behaviour is part of our unconscious. We do it even when there is enough, because you just never know.

The other part of travelling alone that’s easy is the ‘alone’ part. I have travelled alone in India. Tamil Nadu, Goa, Madhya Pradesh, Himachal, Ladakh, Uttaranchal. Everywhere, people look at you with curiosity. Some people are just frankly puzzled, but others assume you’re loose. You can still go ahead and do what you want, but you have to do it with a defiant, you-can-look-all-you-want-I’m-going-to-do-just-what-I-please attitude. It gets tiring after a while.Here, nobody could care less. As a woman travelling alone, you don’t even merit a second glance. Men don’t automatically make lewd advances, nor do they shy away. If you figure as anything at all, it is merely as a practicality: so does that mean this seat is vacant? Can you be slotted in along with that group there? Ok.

The only unwelcome attention I’ve had so far was from a Bengali who said he’d recognized me as a fellow Bengali and followed me from a few shops away. He wanted to know where the rest of my group was and warned me against strolling around on my own! I wasn’t sure whether he was trying to lech around me, or whether he was genuinely delighted in a pathetic sort of way to have found a fellow Bengali in this distant land. Either way, I shook him off without feeling even slightly threatened.

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