Allan and I had just met four hours ago and he irritated me.
Not because he wasn’t pleasant. He was male.
I first noticed it when we walked back to his hotel. The old section of Udaipur has a main street that bursts with humans, rickshaws, cars and motorbikes constructed of various nuts, bolts or chromosomes. The street heaves, contracting endlessly to fit all these objects.
Offshoots from the main street become snaking one-way streets. It was down one of these streets when Allan was assaulted. With kindness.
A male shop worker slapped him affectionately on the back. Smiling broadly as he recounted how Allan bought them tea at a restaurant the other day.
Another hugged him almost tenderly, telling me that Allan spent an hour in his shop talking like old friends.
A few would idle in front of their stores, yelling a “hello” to him. The type of greeting bursting with camaraderie.
You would think the Maharaja himself was resurrected and here he was in the flesh.
What annoyed me was not Allan’s popularity, but his experiences.
How effortlessly he forged buddy connections in a short amount of time.
Most of my experiences were great, yet could not be rated as warm and fuzzy. Always the curious questions; sometimes a joke or two. When I was in a restaurant, usually one male acted as the spokesperson, while the rest hungrily gawked.
I mused about my latest one. A self-proclaimed neighbor who lived next to my guesthouse offered to drive me back one night. I had just arrived and was absolutely lost on how to get back, though had a vague idea. Vague ideas were not going to return me safely to a guesthouse at 10 p.m. I asked a few questions, felt somewhat comfortable and hopped on the back. Far away from the driver for good measure. He gushed how lucky he was to have a beautiful girl on the back of his bike, and feel free to sit closer to him. I had not resorted to what all the guides spew out about male-female interactions, but this time I did.
“No, I’m not sitting closer. I have a boyfriend.”
Eventually we pulled up to the guesthouse. I later realized he purposely took a long route to buy more time with the “beautiful” girl.
My walls were up significantly. And he knew it. I swung my leg over the Hero Honda to stand on solid ground. He tried to reassure me of his character. And look, the guesthouse is here.
I finally relaxed, laughed and thanked him. We shook hands, parting ways, agreeing on a gender relation truce.
Solo traveling is harsh enough, but throw that extra word in, solo ‘female’ traveling conjures a whole new meaning.
Puberty doesn’t prepare you on how to move in the world. The rules or mishaps. Or clue you into the experiences you might have, could miss out on.
My jealousy of Allan’s confidence to walk through India’s culture of men faded when I thought back to the precious moments I was privy to.
The women who invited me into their homes, trans-generations of them serving me strong, black tea, hugging me into their metaphorical bosoms.
I remembered the wise, older male figures who spoke to me on trains, a busy street or were guesthouse owners. They wanted to protect me, ensure I was happy and safe.
And I coaxed those moments with children. Little ones, who giggled with me, bounced around with energy or made me race them in some inventive tagging game.
In India, I might miss out on slamming back beers with the guys or revealing my caustic side. I’m okay with that.
Men and women may share a destination, but cull unique experiences from a place, the people. The beauty of diversity, even in what we were born with.
Is solo female travel scary? Insurmountable? No. Just different.