Mapping fears: Indian women travel through Vietnam, Cambodia & Laos

I sometimes wonder why we travel. My mother laughs about what hard work it is; travel is serious and sacred for her, an endlessly exhausting and exhilarating task. This summer, I spent three weeks in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos with her. We had never been to this side of the world and we knew little about it, so we prepared ourselves for vastly unfamiliar and new places. Our media is full of information about Europe, the US, and more exotic travel locations, but it is almost silent about the vast terrain that lies east of us.

Yet these places were instantly familiar to us in strange ways: unlike the postcard-like experiences in more ‘developed’ countries, these ruined streets and brown people felt like a distorted reflection of where we came from. The bustling streets, the sordid post-colonial history, the natural beauty and urban chaos all seemed close to home. I could identify strands of Delhi in these new cities, sometimes catching an endearingly Goa-like vibe. The endless fields and mountains reminded me of beautiful Kerela. Strangers would ask us intimate questions, and a hundred scooters would honk at us simultaneously.

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This familiarity also meant that I was instantly attuned into my ‘India’ mode. “Is this safe?”, I asked myself every night as we walked to a pub, or by the riverside. My mother likes to live large and unapologetically, intent on squeezing the last drop of newness out of every city we visited; I have always been more fearful. We had no real idea how this travel would go — could we trust the train timings in Vietnam, or a private bus company in Cambodia? How on earth would we travel in strange Laos? We come from a place where we are forced to be suspicious all the time. In Siem Reap, our first stop in Cambodia, we were struck by the familiarly dingy streets that were, unexpectedly, full of young women on scooters. We saw this everywhere — we were exhilarated. Women drove scooters, motorcycles, huge cars in these countries. Quietly, we were thankful to them — they made space for our little brown bodies on the roads. We walked out in shorts, sundresses, crop tops.

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Women had less of a haunted look in public than we wore at home. Spaces felt instinctively safer, and we were hesitant with that feeling in this setting. Of course our South Asian neighbours felt familiar in a plethora of ways: all temples and monasteries had to be visited while wearing ‘modest clothing’, familiar-looking men would lounge on street corners with their shirts pulled up to the chest, their bellies commanding more than their fair share of space in the world. In Phnom Penh, a small drunk man followed me and asked me where I was from. “Hey lady”, he said to my naval. I was terrified, but strangely at peace: I had been expecting this the whole time. Part of me is still surprised it didn’t happen again.

My mother was ecstatic about the almost total lack of bad experiences we had in public spaces here. I was more suspicious. Was this because we were outsiders here, and we didn’t hear local stories of horror? If we were ignorant about the silent poison of India’s public spaces, would we be fearless at home too? I constantly wondered. Why am I terrified in India? Of course it is a wild and sometimes unforgiving country to navigate, but I know that I can do it, that there will be enough instances where strangers on the street will only be kind to me and I will sip chai in a corner of Paharganj without fear or shame. It is strange how rediscovering home, stripping it of narratives that haunt you, is sometimes harder than making space for yourself in a new country. We travel because we want to be fearless; we travel because we know we are fearful. We travel, and perhaps that makes us fearless.

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About the Author: 

Purvai Aranya is a 20 year old undergraduate at Ashoka University. She is studying English and Philosophy. When she isn’t writing or drawing on any available surface, you will find her worrying or talking to the moon. She wants to continue reading, exploring and learning as she grows older, She has recenty fallen in love with cities, and wants to fight fiercely to make space for herself in the world. She puts up poetry, pictures, and paraphernalia at http://purvaiaranya.blogspot.in/.

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