Miss S, who is basically a pro at Indian culture and travel (even though she says differently), has been to India a number of times, as her dad was born and raised here. I, on the other hand, was raised in privileged, white suburbia and, even though I have traveled all over the world, I have mostly been to countries in which I resembled the racial majority and could travel carefree and somewhat oblivious because I was with my family or rugby team. Going to India, I knew I was in for a large culture shock. I was excited to discover how I would bear the shock and was ready to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
It took us about six months to plan for our yearlong journey, and everyday we were knocking 20-30 things off the “moving across the world for a year” checklist, (which we will eventually post about, because I can’t mention how many times a travel blog checklist has helped us in our planning process). Getting ready for six months will definitely build up excitement, as well as anxiety and nerves. One of the biggest anxiety-inducing feelings was anticipating how much I would stand out, as a white American, in India.
I was lucky to have friends who were seasoned travelers in India and blonde, like me, give me advice on the adversities and hardships of traveling to a place where I would be an obvious foreigner and racial minority. I knew that I would stand out and be stared at constantly, having blonde hair and blue eyes, but I wasn’t sure to what extent the staring would affect me and how I would navigate it. My friends had many tools, such as starring back or ignoring the attention, but their greatest piece of advice was to gauge each situation and react authentically and with self-awareness. For the most part, people have good intentions and are simply curious as to why I am in India, but it has definitely taken strength to move pass the uneasiness that comes with being a visual target every time I step outside. I have tried ignoring the stares, I have tried staring back, I have tried saying “hello” and “Namaste,” I have tried smiling and not smiling, I have tried humor, but I find the only way to avoid feelings of frustration and unease (because uneasiness portrays fear and prohibits integration with new cultures and people, and I want to be fully present here) is to succumb to the feeling of being an outsider. This acceptance, though big/tough for me personally, is small in the scheme of things because I know that many people go through this everyday in the place they call home.
Although much of the advice we got from friends and family built up our confidence, there was also a ton of “advice” that scared the shit out of us (think Fox News rhetoric). “So, you are going to India?”—and the next sentence was most likely going to reference either 1) Eat, Pray, Love or 2) Slumdog Millionaire, the only two references most Americans have of India and the two that portray the country’s (Fox News alert!) extremes. This kind of advice was out of concern and love, but we would inevitably leave these conversations asking ourselves if two gay women traveling alone, in a country where women, in many ways, don’t move freely and where being gay is a illegal, was a good idea. Some people thought we were naïve in deciding to take this trip under our circumstances (gay ladies!), and thought we were taking their concerns and the trip lightly. In reality, we were talking about the potential dangers of our travel almost every night. The fear induced by these conversations with our loved ones sometimes got the best of us and created tension and doubt. We took nothing lightly, we spoke vulnerably about our fears and concerns with each other often, and hearing others’ fears amplified our own incredibly. Each day we went back-and-forth between “Let’s do this, we got this, we are smart, independent women!” and “Can we do this, can we ever be prepared enough, will we be safe, should we just forget the whole thing and go back to work?”
A year is a long time to be gone from what one knows as familiar. Each day, each moment of our preparation, we experienced different emotions around our journey, and that was hard to cope with. We felt a ton of fear, but we also knew we couldn’t live in fear and we certainly couldn’t embark with fear as our primary emotion. Feeling through the fear, knowing it was real and accepting and expressing it was necessary to our preparation. But talking to people who were excited and happy for us brought us positivity and emotional resilience. And when people told us that we were brave for taking this journey to work with queer women, which was something we hadn’t thought about, it gave our journey the fuel it needed to move past fear. Finally, talking to people with real experiences in India and knowing and using the support systems available to us, allowed us to take the leap with confidence and excitement.
After all the preparation, all the advice and all the wavering emotions, it was finally time begin the journey. Up until this point I was doing well balancing my positive and negative emotions, but once I boarded the Air India plane, a rush of absolute terror overcame me. Walking on to the plane was the first time our move truly felt real. Before, it was all just a dream, something that was far down the road, something I didn’t really feel was going to happen, as the pessimist in me was sure something was going to keep us from boarding this plane. In addition to the reality slap of actually boarding a plane headed to India, it was the first time I felt the pressures of being stared at; I was the only white person on the flight. The plane was closing in on me with nowhere to hide. I thought of my family, our wonderful cohort of friends in Denver and the comfortable life I left behind for total uncertainty and chaos. I was gasping for air. Tears started rolling down my face. I walked down the aisle and called my sister. Sister K is my rock, and when she picked up my call she was solid as ever with a pre-flight pep talk: “You got this Miss K. You have your best friend and soul mate by your side. This will be a life changing experience. Get it girl.” We took 10 deeps breaths together and I reminded myself that this journey was what I wanted. I wanted the uncertainty, I wanted something different from the life I had been living, I wanted to break free and be reborn from the spiritual, social and psychological norms that had made me numb to myself.
The plane took off, I was feeling better, and I was happy to find some familiar films, Hairspray and The Sound of Music, to calm my nerves. About six hours in to the flight, I witnessed the sun rising over Iceland. I had never seen a glacier before; its magnificence was reassuring and reminded me that experiencing things beyond my understanding was why I wanted to travel. I was peaceful and ready to take-on the next year.