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India

IMG_0753The two women in the adjacent garden, draped with thick woolens, braids hanging down from both sides of the skull, hitched together with a string between their shoulder blades. They pause their spade, their hoe, or their small hand trowel and admire a mating pair of Hoopoe birds, audaciously mohawked with tangerine and flashing zebra stripes, as the birds drill their beaks into the sheaves of a wooden shed. The garden stops. The women stop. I stop, though I don’t know if I was moving at all. And aside from the birds the only things that seem to move are the clouds, scraping their bottoms against jagged Himalayan teeth. For a moment it looks as if we are all characters playing out a scene in one great, gaping jaw of rock and sand. It looks like the world is trying to eat the sky.

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At the airport there is a sign advising the steps one should take to avoid Acute Mountain Sickness. I know the steps: rest on day one and maybe on day two, as well; drink plenty of water; avoid strenuous activity; ascend to further altitudes with great caution and only after acclimatizing. I IMG_0767have landed in Leh, at 3500 meters, it’s a city that sits between dusty, ragged mountains which, in turn, sit in the lap of massive summits capped with snow. The air is short on oxygen. Should one feel dizzy, or get a headache, one should consider ceasing all activity. Should one become disoriented, confused, develop a dry cough which produces a foamy pink sputum, one should immediately seek medical attention. All of this can develop gradually or with unpredictable speed. Often the more insidious symptoms exhibit themselves at night when one’s breathing is less deep, so avoid sedatives, which is what one might naturally reach for because one also will likely experience disruptions in one’s sleep.

The first night I am sure that my breath stops every time I doze off. Also, I am dizzy. My hands get tingling cold and I’m certain that they are turning blue.

The following evening I develop a pain in my chest, behind my sternum. It could be indigestion from the chili sauce that I added to my Thentuk soup at lunch. It could also be a definite sign that my throat is closing, that my lungs and diaphragm are infuriated by the lack of oxygen in the atmosphere. Somehow I sleep. I wake the next morning and cough up pink. I am sure I am dying. The nice man at the Hayan Himalaya tour agency did advise me to see a doctor when I told him about this dull, clenching ache. He was probably right. I have got to find a hospital. I should have found one last night. Then I drowsily remember that I chewed several Pepto Bismol tablets the night before in a desperate attempt to alleviate the pain. Three Advil later in the day make the pain disappear. I have not died. Also, once I stop the altitude medicine Diamox, the dizziness and hand tingling subside.

By the third evening, I accept that I most likely will not die from AMS, but decide that I am not going to tempt fate. I avoid seeing far-flung beauties like the quaint Ladakhi villages of the isolated Nubra Valley or Pagong Tso—a lake surrounded by salt flats said to inspire near-tears in those who witness it by the light of a full moon, which it almost happens to be during my trip. They are too high. My bravery only functions at sea level. I do not want to die, alone, in a cold bed in the Himalaya.

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IMG_0526 (1)I am lonely. The room at my guest house is huge and empty except for a low table, a plastic lawn chair, and two twin mattresses pushed together for a bed. I only sleep on one side of the bed, having left my partner David behind in New York. After nearly four years, and despite thinking that I love solitude above all else, it seems that I’ve lost the ability to comfortably sleep alone. The power goes out every hour or so and this can last for minutes or hours. I buy a bootleg of Seven Years In Tibet because in the black silence I do not know what to do with myself without television or the internet or a light by which to read a book. I waste the charge on my laptop down every night, watching Brad Pitt abandon his life in Austria for a dream that turns nightmare that turns dream. At least this is what I think happens. I never make it through the film, but only see it in waking snippets, usually when the score swells and a momentous event has transpired. I know enough to know that Brad Pitt’s German accent bothers me, and that one should not lie about injuries, physical or otherwise, when high in the mountains. And that the Dalai Lama, as a child, liked music boxes, as children often do.

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No, I am not Buddhist.

            Then why are you visiting all of these monasteries?

            Because I chant.

            What do you say when you chant?

            Om mani padme hum. Nam myoho rengekyo.

            Those are Buddhist.

            I know.

I discover a small, modern temple at the top of a dun colored hill outside of town, adjacent a monumental stupa built by Japanese Buddhists. I am telling two British girls who have invited me to eat with them about the place when the inevitable line of questioning comes: are you Buddhist?IMG_0579 It’s hard for me to say what I am, where I stand, other than somewhere between a vehement atheist and an agnostic in search of a source and a meaning. I need more definite answers.

I hike back up the steep, switchback stairs the following day. I’m sure this hike is part of the process, as these temples always seem to be atop crags and rocky spires. I stare at the placid face of a gilded Maitreya Buddha. Om mani padme hum. Nam myoho renge kyo. I freely switch between the chants—Tibetan then Japanese and back—appreciating their similar syllabic cadence, however, I’m unsure if there are proscriptions against this sort of freewheeling. I switch between those Buddhist chants and Hail Marys because I know of no other way to approach holiness or the sacred. I chant until my jaw hurts, until my face aches. And when I stop, I notice the way my cheeks seem to vibrate, the way my head feels syrupy and light. I notice the comparative stillness in the rest of my body.

This must be what they mean by serenity.

And Indian family takes several photos of me, with flash, as I hold my eyes shut and clutch the string of wooden Mala beads.

Say the mantra.

Say it again.

___

I hang up the phone with David. I’ve been choking back tears. It has been hard to talk. I feel as though I’ve done something I shouldn’t when in truth I’ve done nothing wrong. The only thing I’ve done is decided to travel by myself, far from home. I’m regretting the choice. I hate that I can’t truthfully say that I am in awe every day, that I’m inspired every second. It is hard to be here, to be present, to take it all in—these huge mountains and churning turquoise Indus and the wide swaths of stars at night—the way everything feels so static and shaking at the same time.

IMG_0575I walk up the hill from the phone booth and see an advertisement for a company that drives its customers to Khardung La—the highest motorable road in the world—and then lets them ride mountain bikes down, back into town. It sounds awesome, and doesn’t require long stays at high altitudes. But I’m sure that this is something I should do with David. For a moment I forbid myself to have any fun. That moment lasts a few days. I restrict myself to the monasteries because I know he wouldn’t care if he missed that sort of thing.

I’ll come back and do the bikes some other time, though I know I’m not coming back at all.

___

I make traveler friends. The British girls, another man from the U.K. in town to teach, an Israeli, a couple Indians in Ladakh for trekking, a German guy, and a French man, as well, I think. We eat dinner together and sometimes lunch, too. At first I hate the conversations: where have you been, where are you going, what have you seen, what you should see, how much you’re paying IMG_0617for your guest house, how there are a million cheaper places, how there is always something better, more amazing, more peaceful, further away from the rest of the world. Everyone has their best, favorite places. Everyone has their knowledge of the world and its secrets.

But eventually, these friendships accelerate and pass the usual backpacker one-upmanship and note-comparing. Eventually the conversations turn towards families, towards the way they approve or do not of our collective wanderlusts, towards illicit international romances, towards how we feel as we celebrate a birthday so far from home and the people we love or think we love, how we latch on to one another so quickly in grungy little restaurants that serve killer Tibetan momos. We find out about another’s careers—their starting or failing or refusal to present themselves altogether. Inevitably, we are all flight risks, we have all come running from something and towards something else. This is what forces us together in these high mountain towns. This is what makes me stop feeling lonely.

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From the big balcony attached to my room, I look out on the Zanskar Range. I’m saying thank yous to the world, to the skinny poplar trees and the valleys and ravines and impromptu mountain blizzards. In these eight days the moon has grown steadily brighter, on its way to an engorged show for Buddha Jayanti, which I will be celebrating in Bodhgaya, where the Buddha attained enlightenment. But as the moonlight grows louder, the million and one stars in the sky seem to die. They disappear and fade until on this last night it is just a blaring round hole in the inky sky. The light makes the snowcaps glow, makes the shadows heavier and the rest of world a dark quiver.

Now that it is time to leave Ladakh, I would like to stay. The enormity of this chance hits me all at once—that this is something once in a lifetime; that I’ve spent eight days wound up in baseless worries and simple human longings. I wish I could have put myself to the side. I would like another shot at all of this, way up here, in this part of the world so very cut off from the rest.

My skin prickles in the cold breeze. I wonder which glaciers the wind has passed, exactly which version of cold is caressing my arms. This is something I would like to know. Did it come from Tibet? From that holiest peak, Mount Kailash.

Tell me that’s where it came from; that the wind I’m feeling means something more than wind.

Oh, love. Why is it always the hardest topic for writers to talk about, yet one we want to talk about the most? We still write about it, of course, in our many oblique ways—but, like religion or politics, part of us wants to just avoid it altogether. Something with the power to make us feel both so vulnerable and so high inevitably keeps us wary of expressing our emotions. But at the same time, it’s impossible to avoid: You can’t talk about being human for very long without talking about love.

These past few months in India, I’ve found the same is true of awe. No one wants to appear childlike and vulnerable to others, but everyone (everyone who seeks out new experiences, anyway) wants to feel that way—along with love, awe is the one of the emotions people seek most deeply. And for writers, whose job is to express the inexpressible, the hidden, these two aims can feel at odds.

Or maybe they’re not, and we’ve just become too cynical and guarded to bring them together. In Mathilde Walter Clark’s latest novel, Priapus, the hero’s father reveals to his family his feet—perfect specimens in the realm of feet—and exclaims simply, bluntly, “Look! Look what God can do!” This is ironic and funny—but why can’t perfect feet (or even just interesting feet!) expand our spiritual worlds? The beauty of awe is, they can! We usually describe it the other way around, but awe is provoked by us and our state of mind, not by an external source.

One afternoon at Sangam House I went to see the Odissi dancers rehearse. These people could control their every movement—even their facial expressions—with astounding precision and strength, inhabit the roles of classical mythological characters, and, holy shit, do it in time to live music. And the musicians—every tremble in their voices, every motion of their hands on the tabla exact. And later, they’d do it all in costumes and makeup and a cloud of jasmine, in front of an auditorium of people who actually knew whether they were doing it right.

*

To my surprise, in the middle of the rehearsal I suddenly felt compelled to get up and leave, totally overwhelmed and needing to escape. Not the way you get overstimulated after walking through Times Square and should leave before you harm others or yourself—but a strange sense of both being in the place too fully and not being there at all. It was as if while watching the performance and absorbing it I had actually gone inside it and forgotten who I was. For a few moments, the membrane to the soul was completely permeable and unfiltered… or that’s what it felt like, anyway. Which all sounds really beautiful (sun shining, unicorns singing, etc.), but was actually kind of unnerving. We all want to have experiences that make us forget ourselves, but at the same time we shy away, afraid of that forgetting. If we can forget ourselves so easily, what are we really made of?

One reason (and, I think, the reason) we seek out awe (and love) so fervently—and why these emotions make us feel so small and inarticulate and intoxicated—is that they fundamentally alter our sense of self. Discovering what God can do—or what humans can do, or just what is possible in the world—enables us to discover our own potential (and limits). We simultaneously see the world expanding and ourselves growing ever smaller in proportion. Logically you’d think this would create an ego crisis, since we all need the illusion of significance to feel purposeful—but somehow, it ultimately doesn’t. In fact, just the opposite—even though we fear forgetting ourselves, or dislike feeling small, we feel greater in the end for being humbled. The possibilities in the world, however remote or vicarious, are what keep a lot of us going on this little march toward death.

Being at Sangam House wasn’t the same kind of awe as standing in front of the Taj Mahal or inside the Sistine Chapel or seeing a person herd thousands of baby ducks from a canoe. But the foreignness of being in India, and the experience of creating community with a bunch of international writers, provided a sort of mental tabula rasa where awe could grow wild. Not knowing the basic details of life, like how to get hot water out of the shower or the proper way to eat your food, is disorienting. This disorientation makes you feel stupid (childlike?) at first, but in that space between forgetting about oatmeal and feeling comfortable with idli and poha, something transforms in the brain. The slate of the old is briefly wiped clean, yet there’s no way to absorb the new quite yet. Even before the mind processes the idea of Indian breakfast and starts measuring the self against it—before questions like “Do I like this?” and “Can I eat it?” slowly turn into “Who am I?” and “Am I a person who eats Indian breakfast?”—there is a clearing. And for me, that clearing made a path for the new images and ideas—the ones I was too jet-lagged to know I was processing—to flood into poems without my knowledge or will. Suddenly, my work was like a bunch of little kids spouting phrases their parents didn’t know they understood.

What I appreciated most about being awed at Sangam House—besides its effect on my writing—was how small the “source” of that awe could be. That it didn’t require the Taj Mahal for me to say, “Look what God can do!” The environment and disorientation allowed me to fully appreciate the intrigue of other people’s feet (sorry, co-residents)—not just what was interesting about their work, but what was interesting about their lives. One writer had taught herself 10 languages. Another could samba like a madman (a Brazilian, of course). People could play instruments, start political campaigns, act or draw, or even just think me in circles. And it was easy for this awe to continue once I started traveling around India—really, that woman can carry 20 pounds of fruit on her head? That man can make a statue of Ganesh by hand, with only a chisel? The funny part is, I see amazements of this caliber every day in New York—I just don’t register them as such. Here, I did.

In the end, of course, you never really forget oatmeal. The disorientation passes, you grow accustomed to the new surroundings, and all the wonders that seemed so strange or amazing get downgraded to “impressive” or maybe even “day-to-day.” Still, I like to think that the same way love sticks with us over time (in one form or another), some awe-inspired humility and impressions sink deep enough into our consciousness to make themselves a little nest, grow, and emerge again.

*Dancer image courtesy Bala from Seattle, USA, via Wikimedia Commons

NOTE: This is the third in a series of posts by Colie Hoffman about her experience while a writer-in-residence at Sangam House, India.

When I was in grad school, my friend Dave and I used to lift weights at the gym. The undergrad demographics at our university skewed largely male, so naturally, the weight room was populated almost exclusively by beefy, college-age boys. I was usually the only woman there, and Dave, a compact, physically efficient-looking sort of guy no taller than 5’7,” was the only man his size. Technically, we went together so we could help each other work out—but really, we went together for mutual protection. Alone, we’d get stared at. Together, neither of us had to be the only one getting stared at. Or, maybe it felt safer to get stared at together. Or, maybe we just noticed it less.

As a foreign woman in India, you get stared at almost constantly. (Though Indian women get stared at too.) Additional variables make it worse: having blond or red hair, being tall, wearing Western clothes, buying alcohol, and—my personal favorite—going running. The last time I went for a jog, two kids followed me down the path until they got to their house, where (I love this) they went inside and asked their mother to come out and look.

Sangam House and the dance village are stare-free—but the second I venture outside the gates, it’s unavoidable. So while this essay isn’t technically about either Sangam House OR writing, the experience of being stared at all the time is such an essential part of being in India that I couldn’t ignore it. And, as I prepare to leave Sangam House to travel around the country for the next six weeks, it’s going to take up even more space.

My main concerns are 1) What the hell? and 2) Why does this consume so much of my energy? Why do people do it here and not in the U.S.? Why does it feel so violating? And why does its message vary so much from one situation to another?

The Undressing Stare

This is by far the most common—and offensive—stare. Men look at you because you’re a woman, and because you’re there, and because they can. It helps if you’re white, because that adds to the novelty, but Indian women experience this all the time too. This staring, and all the inappropriate sexual behavior that can come along with it—“accidentally” brushing against you, adjusting the rearview mirror to look at your chest, lewd comments, and even just whipping it out—is why there are ladies’ sections on trains and buses. Well, theoretically there are.

The Novelty Stare

Some people—especially in rural areas where there aren’t many tourists—stare just because you are something different. With me they’re staring because I’m white (and a woman, and usually alone, which is unusual), but it’s possible they’d also stare if I were an Indian guy in a Western shirt and pants, or just anyone they’d never seen around. And when I say “stare,” I don’t mean the “stare and look away” spiel we do on the subway in New York—I mean people grasping you with their eyes until their vision is blocked by an interfering object. It’s like in the movies when the stranger comes into the small-town dive bar, the jukebox stops, and everyone gives him the narrowed eye.

It’s easy to forgive curious people for staring, the way it’s easy to forgive little kids for saying things in the grocery store line like “Why is that lady fat?” and “Mom, that guy has something on his face.” It’s still uncomfortable, but you can usually tell it’s harmless.

The Appreciation Stare

In a quest for photos of men staring (does it count as a quest if it’s easy?), my friend Mathilde (also a foreigner) and I walked the mile to the local chai shack. We got both the novelty stare (an old man at the shop) and a very efficient undressing stare (a bunch of laborers speeding by on a truck bed), but we also got a new one: the appreciation stare. A forty-something man rode by on his motorcycle, looked at us in a “you’re hot” way, and smiled. It was actually kind of nice—when you come to expect disrespectful behavior, you really appreciate it when people break the mold.

The Hostile Stare

This is the uncurious, judgmental stare women sometimes get from other women (and older men)—the one that says “why are you not following the rules.” Women (both Indian and foreign) get this for wearing clothing that more traditional women think is slutty: shorts, anything that bares the shoulders, or sometimes anything that at all shows the contours of a woman’s body (e.g., jeans). Men also give men this stare in a power struggle, just the way they would in the West.

The Mix

Lots of stares mix it up: hostility and curiosity, hostility and undressing, appreciation and curiosity, curiosity and undressing.

*

In the West, we see excessive staring as (at best) an invasion of our privacy or (at worst) a threat. According to this article in Wired, humans are programmed to stare for 3-5 seconds at anything new or unusual that doesn’t fit into the models our brains recognize. So, for example, when we see someone with a deformity, our lizard brain says “stare, determine threat and nature of object,” while our conscious mind says “don’t stare, it’s rude.” (For the sake of people with deformities, I hope we usually arrive at a non-obnoxious in-between.)

But this instinctive staring happens only once in a while, and for a very short span—and when no threat is determined, it’s over. This is not the staring of India. In India, men just gape unabashedly… forever.

At first my perspective was one of humility: Hey, maybe it’s not offensive here because people have different notions of privacy. But really, Indian women feel just as violated by it as foreigners do. Then I thought well, maybe it’s because people get married early—guys and girls can’t screw around in cars and behind the school when they’re 15, so this is what happens to all that built-up sexual curiosity. But that doesn’t make sense either: First, then women would be staring too, and second, just a couple generations ago in the U.S., people were getting married early and not allowed to screw around, and we did not have this situation.

A friend was recently telling me about being stared at and grabbed (crotch, breasts) by guys on the street when she was traveling in North India. In one incident, three boys rode by on a bicycle and one groped her. She ran after them, grabbed the offending boy by the arm, and lit into him: “What are you doing? What would you do if your mother or sister came home and told you someone did this to her?” Immediately he acted totally ashamed and was all “Sorry madam, so sorry madam.” When another man groped her on the street, she yelled at him and threw a bottleful of water on him, soaking his clothes. Everyone on the street knew exactly why. He acted ashamed, she said, but was he just publicly embarrassed or did he actually feel bad about his behavior?

So, if it’s not just natural, and men are ashamed of it when they get caught, I can’t help but draw the following conclusion: Men stare at and grope women simply because they can. Because no one will stop them. Plenty of women here face enough trouble and judgment just for being out of the house, and even more for being out of the house without a male escort. And deep down somewhere, men know their staring is an act of power: They wouldn’t dare stare at a man from their own town who was more powerful than they were.

But still: why aren’t they taught not to stare in the first place?

Polish people, pretending, wheatishness

When little kids play, they’re the best pretenders ever. But they’re notoriously unable to fake their emotions or hold back their real thoughts. In the Polish short film Anything Can Happen (Wszystko moze sie przytrafic), a father videotapes his young son riding his bike around a park where a lot of old people hang out. The boy stops and asks the old people whatever questions pop into his mind: “How old are you?” “Are you going to die soon?” And the people in the movie answer with such abandon! It’s as if they’re refreshed that someone finally said what was on his mind.

But at some point, society decides that a certain kind of pretending enables the world to function in a civilized way. We go to great (and sometimes ridiculous) lengths to restrain our impulses and to separate public from private. On a rush-hour train in New York, there might be so many people your face is smashed into some guy’s armpit, but your job is to pretend you are not looking at the armpit and definitely not looking at anyone’s face. You can stare, of course, but once that person catches you, the game is up. (Obviously I’m excluding mutual sexual attraction here.)

Or suppose you’re getting a massage: Intellectually, you know the context is therapeutic and the touch clinical. But to make the relationship work, both you and the therapist must actively pretend this clinicalness is the act’s entirety. That it is not, in fact, a stranger touching you while you’re naked and that there are no erotic implications on either side.

Imagine what might happen if we didn’t restrain these impulses and feelings—if everyone who wanted to sleep with his boss or his wife’s friend told them about it! Holy shit! At best, we face social consequences (embarrassment, divorce) for transgressing these rules. On a bigger scale, the law. Or job loss. Or, total descent into barbarism. And with good reason: It’s this grown-up pretending/restraint that lets us live with other humans with a base degree of safety and comfort.

It’s not like people in India have no sense of pretending—they definitely do. Hosts are ridiculously polite and generous to guests, as guests are expected be in return, regardless of everyone’s real feelings. If you check out the “matrimonials” section (akin to our “personals”) in any Indian newspaper, you’ll find them just as rife with euphemisms as ours—in American personals no one is fat, and here no one is darker than “wheatish.” And Indians have a mystifying inability to answer questions with “no” or “I don’t know,” so they just make up stories—a dance that can be totally entertaining when you learn to recognize it, but that really sucks when you need directions to the bus stop or, say, a real answer. I once spent half an hour in the post office with a friend who was trying to send postcards to Denmark, and rather than say “We don’t know the price and don’t know where to look it up,” the four (!) guys behind the desk insisted she bring in the cards so they could see their size. After trying to sell her some cards, of course.

How to get robbed anyway

In my previous post I talked about how much I was warned about things versus how much those things were worth being wary about. What’s paranoia, and what involves actual safety? What is it really worth my energy to avoid?

My first peace offering toward the staring was relaxation—the strategy I adopted regarding all alleged “scary things of India.” Just relax, let it happen, go with the flow. Logically, I thought, the amount of staring far surpasses the amount of unwanted physical contact. Most men stare (and if you’re a foreigner, a lot of women stare too), but how many of those people would dare touch you or even comment? Chances are higher if you’re alone and the men are in a group, or if you’re in a crowded place where it’s easy for someone to get away with something. But statistically, starers versus touchers (or masturbators, or anything else) is a laughably uneven comparison.

On the other hand, this situation is pretty different from getting malaria or stepping on a cobra. Sexual incidents (beyond staring) might be lower than the warnings advertise, but they’re not lower the way Japanese encephalitis is lower. And there’s no remedy or protection—you can’t go to the hospital because some guy showed you his penis, nor can you prevent him from doing it. But, certain precautions can help (or so they say). Thinking about it in this logical way makes me feel less anxious—but why doesn’t it make me feel better?

Here why: Because being stared at feels gross! It’s just gross to be groped, mentally undressed, commented upon, and generally feel your body become an item of public consumption—and it’s worse when no one considers the behavior inappropriate enough to combat, because you know it’s not just happening to you. (You also know that when the staring turns into concrete physical harassment, you’re out of luck unless you can do something about it yourself.) And I’m not even talking about the threat some Indian women face daily as a matter of survival, or all the ways this behavior contributes to a culture in which rape and sexual assault are trivialized and unreported—I’m just talking about feeling on guard every single minute. No, it’s not rape—but it definitely takes away from your freedom and from energy you could be spending on other things, like being alive. It’s basically like you’re guaranteed to be robbed and have to watch your stuff all the time, and then get robbed anyway.

Turn to the dead people page

Indians don’t squelch their curiosity the way we do in the West, which can be refreshing and lovely and creepy and also wildly invasive. In its first few pages, the Deccan Herald (a major daily paper) always runs a few juicy, horrifying death stories—a murder involving a multi-caste love triangle, a stampede at a religious site, drownings from a truck accident. But unlike U.S. papers, which would print sterile photos of the rescue crew at work or the accident site or yearbook photos of the dead, papers here print the photos that the dark, dirty, Law & Order-watching part of us secretly longs for—bodies in a pile near the temple, bodies being fished out of the river, bodies drooping lifelessly as a fireman carries them away.

Whatever the reason, in India people have a different sense of what’s public and what’s private. Personal space (the way we think of it) is a foreign concept here—buses and autorickshaws are packed beyond imagination, and the streets, even in small towns, are riddled with people, dogs, cars, motorbikes, cows, and pretty much everything else. Poor people often live in one-room houses where a whole family sleeps together. (How such families get made, I don’t know. And I’m not being an ass—I really don’t know how people get the privacy to have sex.)

A vision of hell

On the innocent side, this curiosity and lack of private space means total strangers don’t feel rude asking you questions like “Are you married?” “How much money do you make?” and “Do you have any children?”—and if you’re blond, just going ahead and touching your hair.

On the not-so-innocent side, a writer from Calcutta was telling me that some people there (slum-dwellers, mostly) have no private access to water, so they bathe using public taps or the Ganges. To do their business, they use public bathrooms (anyone seen Slumdog Millionaire?) or just the street. Without a bathroom, these people have no privacy, ever. If that sounds unimaginable, add to it the reality that women on the street are bathing with their saris on—and passing men, hoping to glimpse bare flesh, stare at their every move as they shift the cloth around bit by bit, washing each part of their bodies.

Along those lines: My friend was once the only woman on an eight-hour bus ride here. She’s foreign and was traveling alone, and the rest of the bus was packed with Indian men watching her every move. If she scratched her head or turned the page of a book, their eyes followed. Exasperated (and creeped out), she finally covered her head and face with a scarf to give herself the illusion of privacy. It took mere minutes for a man to pop up right in her face and ask, “Which country? Which country?” To top it off, there were no toilets along the way, so at every bathroom break all the men poured out of the bus and pissed along the side of the road. My friend, however, with no trees or bushes in sight, was not about to get out and drop her pants with 30 men watching her. She held it for eight hours, while she had a bladder infection. That… that is my vision of hell.

*

Besides the actual staring, the crazy part to me is that women here have somehow gotten used to it. They find it creepy and offensive too, but for the most part, they accept that it’s how things work—that it’s a part of daily life they can’t waste energy on. But there are people who are actively fighting against it. A friend of mine in Mumbai works with an anti-street harassment campaign called Blank Noise, which holds events where women descend in large groups on specific places in the city—spots where men usually hang around to just… stand there and stare at women. Essentially, the women take that space for themselves. The campaign also takes pictures of men in the act, advocates ways to respond, and offers general moral support.

Despite all this, there is a flip side: When men do something nice and don’t act creepy, you appreciate it infinitely more. And over time, you grow more intuitive about people’s intentions in general. A couple days ago, two women friends and I were walking on a rural road when a man driving a logging truck slowed down and offered to give us a ride to the nearest village. We weren’t going that far, but were so warmed by his honest intent, and his non-leering, that we wanted to take him up on it just to show how much we appreciated him.

So thanks, logger-truck guy. Here’s to you and all the classy Indian guys.

Before I left for India, my doctor tried to talk me into a a $1500 rabies vaccine by convincing me that packs of stray dogs would be pouncing on my every step and probably even attack me in my sleep. He practically insisted I buy a Hazmat suit to ward off mosquitoes. My mother, on the other hand, just said, “Gosh honey, that’s far.” My friend, who had actually visited India, warned me to watch out for motorbike guys who would feel me up on the street.

We all have our ways of dealing with the unknown, I guess. Apparently cartographers used to write “Here be dragons” on sections of uncharted territory, especially oceans, where they drew pictures of giant sea serpents. One ancient Roman map cautioned travelers about the presence of dog-headed beings. Another 15th-century map warns of men with horns.

I know my mom, doctor, and friend were all looking out for me—and they were right about some of that shit—but the real warning I wish I’d gotten is this: Don’t take any of the warnings too seriously. Sure, India’s far away, the number of stray dogs is vaguely alarming, and guys on motorbikes will (and have already) tried to cop a feel. Everyone knows that snakes are dangerous—but the real danger of constantly watching the ground for cobras is that you miss out on the beauty of the landscape around you.

Luckily, the Indian friends I’ve met here quickly relieved me of all my Western paranoia, largely by mocking me and all the protective gear I brought along. Wear bug spray, they said, but only at dawn and dusk. Check your bed for scorpions, but don’t stress about it. Accept that your feet will be dirty a lot of the time.

These exchanges were my first brush with what I’ve come to appreciate as one of the loveliest things about India: flow. The sense of going with things rather than against them, of finding their underlying movement and joining it rather than frantically trying to control every detail. People don’t really stand in line at shops here, they just sort of eventually maneuver their way past other people to the front. Traffic (magically?) works this way too—no one stays in a lane, cars just twist and turn and honk until the other people/cars/cows/dogs get out of the way. True, this strategy requires a lot of looking out for yourself, but it’s effective. As Westerners all we see is horrible chaos and inefficiency, but somehow, India—an ancient nation with an extremely diverse population of over a billion—works.

The other day my Danish friend Louise and I went to Bangalore to do some exploring. We could have taken a cab back to the village, but decided to try the bus, which was much cheaper and took about the same amount of time. Naturally, we were totally unprepared for the chaos—“the bus station” was a slew of 50 or so buses in no discernible line or arrangement that all left at the same time. The “system” is that passengers wade through the sea of vehicles, hope they find the one with the right number on it, and get on before it leaves (or, jump on as it drives away). After asking about 15 drivers where our bus was and getting about 15 noncommittal Indian head nods, we eventually packed ourselves in the right sardine tin.

Even riding on the bus, a relatively passive activity, is an exercise in flow and communal effort. People cram in until no one can move, and if you’re lucky enough to have a seat, you will bear the (literal) burden of whatever the people standing up don’t have room to carry. For about an hour of the ride I held some random lady’s laptop, while the old woman next to me held a baby—the baby of a total stranger. The tacit understanding seems to be hey, we’re all in this madness together, so let’s at least help each other out.

This afternoon my friend Mireille (who’s French, and a longtime expatriate) was describing her early experiences in India to me—how hard it was at first to feel clueless about all the cultural cues, especially with regard to relationships. “It would take a year of friendship with someone in France to have the kind of conversation you have with someone you just met in India—someone you will never see again,” she said. “It’s much more acknowledging of real life. We don’t know what will happen with our relationships, with our lives. So people just live now.” And when you do have that intense conversation with someone you just met, you don’t need to thank them for the fulfillment or follow up, for changing your day—it’s just “see you, have a nice life.” People move in and out of your life organically, and sometimes quickly.

As confusing and frustrating as I find it at times, I can already feel this sense of flow moving out of the “Observations About Exotic Other” file in my brain and beginning to permeate my consciousness. When a poem I’m writing isn’t working, my typical impulse is to keep trying to force it into existence until I hate writing and hate my life and why are we even here on this planet and OMG 404 SYSTEM ERROR. Lately, though, I’ve found myself just… letting it go. Moving on to something else, maybe having a coffee or a chat, and coming back to it later to see if it’s open for business. “Sitting down to work” has become “relaxing into thought.” Several poem-series I’d started/abandoned before I left have been getting more attention now that I can pull back and give them the slow, intuitive love they deserve. I also find myself more willing to let go of those poem-parts that got things started but now don’t fit anymore—you know, the ones you want to hang on to because hey, you owe them for bringing you a poem.

When I got here I asked about the Indian head nod (How do I do it? What does it mean?) and was told by both locals and foreigners it would only happen naturally, that it couldn’t be forced. Much to my surprise, the other day I did it to a waiter without even noticing. I don’t know that I could explain exactly what I meant—yes, no, maybe, sort of, I don’t know, or a multitude of other things—but he knew what I meant.

NOTE: This is the first of a series of posts by Colie Hoffman about her experience while a writer-in-residence at Sangam House, India.

It’s only been two weeks since I arrived in India, but already I feel totally at home here. The tiny village where I’m living—beautiful unto itself, with its stone paths and red mud houses—is surrounded by expansive grasslands, palm trees, and wooded dirt roads. I eat delicious, fresh vegetarian meals twice a day, someone takes care of the cooking and laundry, and I get to enjoy the company of six other writers. And while all this is magical, it’s really just a sideshow to the main attraction: For 10 straight weeks, I have all the free time in the world to write, write, write.

This paradise is Sangam House, a relatively new international writers’ residency program (in its third year) based in South India. The first two sessions took place near Pondicherry, on India’s southeast coast, but this year the location switched to a “dance village” called Nrityagram, about 20 (rough-riding!) miles outside Bangalore in the Indian state of Karnataka.

Nrityagram is very small—10 buildings plus a few in progress. We’re five miles from the nearest post office, bar, convenience store, etc. (basically, anywhere you could buy anything). The jogs I take along local roads are punctuated by stray dogs and passing herds of cows or goats. Nrityagram was created as the home of a small ensemble of classical Indian dancers, the handful of students who study with them, the administrative staff who run the place, and most recently, us—the writers at Sangam House. We’re here for only three months, but the dance community (which has been more than welcoming) lives here year-round.

During my stay I’m trying to complete the manuscript for my first book of poems. I had secretly wondered if all the time and freedom from my usual responsibilities would block me, but so far I’ve been reading, writing, and revising up a storm (knock on wood). There is the occasional off day, when the ideas don’t come or nothing I’ve done quite works—but by and large, my days here have been successful, productive, and inspiring.

About half the writers at Sangam House at any one time are from various states in India, and half are from abroad. When I arrived, my fellow residents were from Kolkata, Lucknow (both in northern India), and Copenhagen. Rajat writes in English and Bengali, Pratibha writes in Hindi, and Louise translates from English to Danish (I am the sad soul who speaks and writes only in English). Since then we have been joined by four other writers. Most people are working on fiction projects while here, but in India the identity chasm between fiction and poetry is not so stark—many writers do both and publish both.

So what’s a day like? my family keeps asking. There’s no exact schedule, but regular things (meals, people waking up and sharing coffee and the paper, people going for walks) happen at regular-ish times. Generally we make our own breakfasts, work, join the dancers for Indian lunch, work, and then have Indian food together in Sangam’s common space for dinner. After dinner we share booze and conversation, sometimes heading back to our rooms early to continue working, other times talking in small groups late into the night.

To give myself some structure, I try to divide time between reading—the work of other writers here (those who write in English), the books I brought with me, or essays or poems I find online—and writing. I always try first to start a new poem, but on the days that doesn’t work, I revise poems in progress or reengineer old ones that never got off the ground. While I’m accustomed to creating in multiple bursts rather than sustained periods, the longer I’m here, the more I’m able to work for long stretches at a time. As a result, my creative process—namely, how deeply I’m able to think about something and how much I’m able to linger in an idea and get to know it—is changing. I suspect I won’t know the real effects of this till much later, but it’s refreshing to feel things moving around in my head in unfamiliar ways.