I am sitting in a simple hotel in Jot, it has a king sized bed, a large bay window, a small tv, green and blue walls, a flowering bed spread, I have my coffee next to me, my laptop on my lap, Fashion TV on mute, my bags in the corner, and a blue sky meeting green mountains outside my window. The hotel sits at the very highest point of the road before it descends again 3000 meters into the ancient city of Chamba in Himachal Pradesh.
I cycled due north towards Himachal Pradesh from Punjab about a week ago. Punjab is a flat state bordering Pakistan, hot and shrubby, with once colourful concrete houses dulled to a pastel, it was busy and cows roamed free laying themselves in the middle of the road looking every bit the holy cows they are.
Punjab is the heart of the Sikh community, brightly coloured turbaned men dominated my eyes and highlighted the mix of faiths and the collage of people in the cities. The woman wear traditional Punjabi dress of large colourful voluminous pants tapered in at the ankle and a long structured knee length dress over the top. They jangle as they walk with tinkling anklets and pink Alita dyed soles of their feet.
I cycled through holy land in north Punjab on a Sunday along busy roads with everyone pilgrimaging to the Sikh temples on the weekend. Monkeys lined the road making me laugh – they would draw their children away as I cycled by, or tap their friends shoulder to get their attention. I saw one comforting a old or sick friend with a hand on its back as the sick one faced a rocky wall clearly not feeling good.
I like concentrating on the animals in India. They distract me from feeling like one myself. You can hold the gaze of an animal and I always feel a sense of comfort, they are something to look at and watch while you are being looked at and watched. A way to have your eyes busy, and to get lost in the beautiful movements. Like the cows, they move slowly, and calmly, they walk confidently with a models walk straight towards the traffic. If someone beeps they slowly turn their heads, giving you time to watch their muscles and skin move with it, and give the person the look of ‘who the fuck are you?’
While I am cycling in India I try to stay in my own world. All through Asia people have waved and smiled at us as we go by, groups of people laughing, and joy would spread through me, waving back only to be met with the next lot of enthusiastic wavers and children jumping and screaming at us in excitement. In India no one will wave, and if we wave at them they wont wave back. They stare blankly and it is unnerving. We were told time and time again that you either love or hate India, we both agree that is isn’t that simple. I love and hate India. I love the intensity but I hate the intensity, I love the people but I hate the people. I love the culture but I hate the culture. I am stalked and harassed but I am also loved and cared for.
I started to adopt a more masculine silhouette, so at first glance I would appear to be male, it was after a self pronounced ‘holy man’ asked me for ‘sex’. He spoke terrible english and was on a scooter driving next to me trying to ask the infuriating questions that the men ask, ‘alone?’, ‘where you sleeping?’, ‘husband?’, ‘alone?’, ‘single?’, ‘where are you going?’ ‘where are you staying?’.
He lost balance on his moped and swerved into me pushing me off the road. I had gotten a puncture and had to stop to fix it where he stood watching me, as I tried to crouch and bend in a way that wouldn’t invite him to look at my ass. I asked him to leave, after another round of ‘night-stay, where?’ and finally getting to the point he asked ‘sex?’ It was my first outright proposal and I stood up to my full height which was about half a foot taller then him and yelled “FUCK OFF!’ Striding towards him in with my full masculinity power. He left.
Since then I have had 3 equality delicate proposals for a quickie on the side of the road. I respond so violently and aggressive they retreat quickly. I am not afraid of them, why should I be? I am taller, and have the strength of 5 years worth of cycling in my legs. I am not weak, I am not vulnerable and I am mean, oh and I have a knife that looks like a medieval castration blade.
It is the most prominent experience I have each day, sexual harassment. It outweighs my experience of the days cycling. I am angered by it, but not threatened.
Unwanted and uncontrollable attention is infuriating. The topic of everyday sexism in the western world is important and justified and I am all for it, but what Indian women endure does put it into perspective. I haven’t felt this helpless towards harassment since I was a young girl. I was a lamb back then, and I am no lamb now so while I feel preyed upon I do not feel particularly in danger. It does make me slightly jumpy, every now and again. When I find someone standing outside my door in the dead of night my blood turns cold. Or when a man I didn’t hear is walking behind me I jump.
Not all of the slowing cars, and the stopped mopeds and staring men are because I am a woman, it is because I am cycling and thats weird enough. The men peering through my curtains however, or the ones calling me 3 or 4 times a day after finding my number at a hotel registration, or the ones knocking at my door at midnight, or the ones asking me for sex, or the ones asking why I am alone, or why I don’t have any children, or refuse me a room, or the ones staring at my ass are because I am a woman.
Back to Fashion TV and my sunlit room in Jot with green carpet and orange curtains and clay buildings, a pine forest and eagles outside my bay windows.
I went for a walk along the ridge where I could see both where I have cycled from and where I am cycling to – the snowy mountains stare at me saying ‘who the fuck are you’ like the holy cows.
I am not 100% confident that I can cycle these coming mountains but it doesn’t really matter, I am going to try, if nothing more than as a show of my femininity because being a woman doesn’t mean vulnerable and weak.