Hot and sticky from wandering in burning sunlight, I carried my towel and small zippered bag to the ladies’ common bathroom. I had seen showers somewhere; hoping for a bit more privacy, I climbed the stairs to the second floor. The common shower area was already occupied by two older ladies who were washing their clothes and themselves. Stripped bare except for large, simple, boxer-like underwear, they glanced up when I hung my things on a couple of the hooks.
A quick check revealed that the underwear I had grabbed in the dark the night before was not my most modest.
I slowly undressed, accepting the looks from the two women, knowing my white skin and different body would be of interest. When I stepped towards the spouts, one of the women waved at my chest.
No bras allowed. My plan to discreetly slip by and splash around a bit failed. Slowly, awkwardly, I turned back and hung it on the hook.
Washing my hair in the cool water, I felt grateful I had learned how to do it properly from my Tibetan friends. The women and I communicated with laughter and waving hands. They posed questions through expressions and pointing, and I apologized for my mistakes – a typical interaction. My deodorant proved unusual, and my prayer beads demanded attention.
Still under their eyes, I dressed carefully and braided my hair. We had spoken no words, but understood each other.
Far from being a quaint story turned towards condescension, this simple experience is one of my most meaningful from Amritsar. These women were comfortable with their bodies and their cavalier demeanor was infectious. When they could have isolated me, they treated me as one of them. Our bodies follow the same template, and although my strangeness did set me apart, it did not prevent my inclusion.