I run the gauntlet in Delhi when I dive off of the main road into a web of alleys, remembering the route to my hostel by sight. Tiny rooms, no larger than a queen-sized bed, are cut into the walls, hosting a collection of shops that buzz at all hours – men having their beards shaved in a ramshackle barber shop, someone smashing away at metal on an anvil, children hawking soda bottles, pots of oil sizzling with who-knows-what, tiny budget hotels open up to the streets, someone sleeping on a cot. I always hesitate at the last moment which draws a call from someone, then dive around the final corner and charge into the miniature lobby.
You could call India itself a gauntlet, especially when you are foreign, and a woman, and a woman traveling alone. Walking anywhere draws attention from shopkeepers and rickshaw drivers, always “madam, madam”. I set off a cascade of calls as I walk down the street. The first Hindi words I knew were “ji nahi,” no thank you, and I use them often.
My clothes shape how I am treated. On the first day, I chose a salwar kameez after careful perusal of piles of them on the second floor of a tiny, creaky shop in Paharganj, my cheap, slightly seedy neighborhood in Delhi. When I wear traditional Indian clothing, I don’t quite fit into people’s categories – throwing them off gives me a bargaining advantage, and has seemed to earn respect. But when I (unthinkingly) washed all of my clothes in Shimla, the daily rain and coolness meant that they were still soaking wet when it was time for me to catch the bus to McLeodganj. Left with only my original clothes from the plane, I experienced completely different treatment. More offers and requests, less politeness, a clear assumption that I was brand new and had no idea what I was doing. Which is technically true, but I am much more savvy than they expect me to be. I felt like more of an outsider than ever, shunted aside.
In Paharganj, there was a smaller number of foreigners than up here in the mountains. Many Westerners have endured the bouncing buses and pitted roads to this small Tibetan mecca, creating a counter culture that seems to be laid upon the town rather than integrated. I will see how it goes, but I think that I am more judged here than I was in Delhi. I have finally freed myself from the cursed khaki capris, donning loose brown pants that mark me as a local foreigner. A part of the hippie culture, a little less likely to buy something, a little more likely to be going to yoga class.
Delhi is hot, with crowded streets, sellers hawking clothes, jewelry, fruit, anything, shouting after you wherever you go. Half-starved dogs flop beneath cars, twitching at flies. Tiny rooms stuffed with wares open onto the street, and sizzling pots turn out piles of fried mystery. Tiny rusted cars honk their way through bicycles and rickshaws, all careening around people and street carts with no logical sense. People squeeze through tiny spaces to escape being crushed. Trash gathers in heaps everywhere, there are no garbage cans. All painted surfaces are peeling, buildings patched together somewhere short of completion. There are few foreigners, and women are always a minority.
Everything in India seems broken. When I was in Agra with new friends, to see the Taj Mahal, I had to go to six ATMs to find one that was working. A bicycle rickshaw driver took me to one after the other through the rain, finding one where the electricity was off, another that was closed yet labeled as 24 hours. We covered six kilometers with stories about his family and Agra; at every stop I handed him my umbrella for him to use while I was inside, useless in the face of his already-soaked clothes. Six.
Gritty and dirty, the cities can drain your energy. I have learned to double the time I think I need to do anything. Trains come in late, this or that line might take forever, or you might need to go to four more places to find what you need.
Now, in Shimla, a town perched in the Himalayan mountains, 7000 feet above sea level, the frenetic pace has eased. Pine-covered mountains and cool, misty air indicate a space of peace. I now know what it is like to be inside a cloud that is raining on you, and see blue sky above it. This is still India: cars zip around corners, crowds mill around favorite shops, and men still dominate every space. But there is space to breathe.