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July 2019

Damsel in De-stress

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Recently, I got to flex my rusty acting skills in a YouTube video about the differences in American and South Indian culture. I ran around Chennai, Tamil Nadu for a couple days, hopping on buses and into auto tuk tuks, laughing heartily with my new friends. My job was to basically be a naïve foreigner. A role I was born to play!

India is by far the most vibrant place I’ve ever been. At all times of day, the streets are filled with life. Women are selling flowers, herbed buttermilk and mangos. Men are smoking together in groups or racing past on motorbikes, sometimes in the wrong direction on the busy streets. Hurling past bicyclists, dogs and families, buses straddle lanes and barely notice street lights. Cows are everywhere, and they tend to mosey out in front of you while you are driving. Friends gather to play cricket or football, have a chai or take care of the business. 

Sometimes the traffic is really moooooving really slowly in Chennai.

Everywhere, India is simply buzzing with sounds, smells and sights. Loud speakers blast prayers from roadside temples, as whiffs of spicy sambar float by. Clouds of dirt get in your eyes as you drive past fresh fish for sale on the road. Beautiful sarees, wrapped masterfully to cover voluptuous bodies, create a rainbow of color from the ocean to the depth of the city. 

Close up of the feast for the eyes that is the Kapaleeshwarar Temple in Mylapore.

It can be a little overwhelming – especially over my last 72 hours.

On one of my first days in the country, a man named Nihal – his name means happiness – took me for filter coffee and a walk along one of the city’s slightly less trashed-strewn beaches. We were greatly enjoying each other’s company when he looked down, pointed and warned me to watch my step. 

“You must always be alert in India,” he told me. “You must always be present, or, well, you might step in shit.”

Of course, staying present is a constant practice, as the present is now. And now. And now. Even with my daily yoga classes, propensity for spiritual texts and meditation work, I often find myself lost in a memory or planning ahead. It’s really easy to step in shit, both literally and figuratively. It felt like that a few days ago, with the first of two quintessential Indian moments, which I shall refer to as “The Watchman Incident.”

TL;DR: The security guard at my apartment grabbed my breast.

This small, old man has a wild puff of gray hair and no more than four teeth, all tragically discolored and jutting out in a wide variety of directions. His job is to open the gate when I come and go from the apartment. He speaks no English. For the first few weeks, I enjoyed smiling with him. A clown and possibly a drunk, he would do a funny, little jig as he opened the gate. He cleaned my scooter and made sure I had always locked it.

Acting as my advocate, Tarun tells off the watchman who assaulted me.

In many ways, I loved that man. He made me feel just slightly safer in a country that isn’t exactly known for a good treatment of women. I gave him a mango once. I even made origami cranes for friends and made one for him. I always had a smile for him. 

But our relationship was not smooth. A couple weeks ago, I invited Nihal over for dinner one day, the watchman took great exception. He tried to stop my friend from coming upstairs, even as his backpack was filled with ingredients for our meal. When we ignored him, he banged on my front door and threatened to call the building owner. Here I was, a 41-year-old woman who travels solo internationally, and some old uncle was forbidding me an unchaperoned evening with a man I had met in public enough to trust. Interestingly, it didn’t matter that I told him it was fine. It really didn’t matter what I thought.

Then recently, I met another friend who had experience with Reiki and was interested in receiving an attunement. We worked out a trade, shook hands and made plans for the class at my apartment. As we were walking up the stairs to my door a few days ago, the watchman came running up, again trying to stop him. I asked my friend to explain that he was my student, and that it was fine. We ignored the guard’s protests, went upstairs and had a wonderful morning of healing energy work.

But my friend is a nervous type, and as we finished with the class he asked if I would accompany him while he waited for his Uber. He was scared of stray dogs, which roamed around my neighborhood with big, freedom-filled smiles and wagging tails. I knew they were harmless, but nonetheless I walked down the road with him to wait. On my way back to my apartment, I lingered in the road and picked a few fragrant flowers, thinking about how lovely my time in India has been. 

As I walked through the gate, the watchman approached me. Remember, he doesn’t speak English, but he prattles on as if I understand Tamil. He pointed up to my apartment, clearly displeased that I hosted yet another man. I assured him, in English, that it was fine, that I appreciated his concern but it is OK. Then, he looked at me, pointed to the apartment and then to himself. He seemed to suggest that he wanted to go up to my apartment. 

The bells were ringing, but not loud enough. He was such a clown!

I smiled, again reassuring him that I had everything under control and thanked him for his concern. I shook my head and reached out to give him one of the flowers I had picked as I started to head up to my apartment. I had never been so close to the guard before, and there was a moment when I was transfixed by his horrendous dentistry. That’s when he reached out and grabbed me. 

In fight or flight, I always pick flight – so I ran upstairs, locked my door and sat on my sofa for a moment, feeling his bony handprint on my breast. I remembered when my friend dropped her cell phone in the river. She shrugged and said, “Well, that happened.” I had the same sort of feeling.

At that moment (Jai Ganesha), my friend Tarun sent me a note about stopping by my place. My wifi was out at home, so he hadn’t been able to connect with me for a party the night prior. I told him what happened, and he was outraged. He came over immediately, and in the guard’s language we confronted him. The son-in-law of the building owner overheard us and came out. He apologized to me and promised to fire the watchman. Both Nihal and Tarun followed up that evening and the next day, but it’s been a few days. The guard is still there. Indian culture is different than American culture, after all … I participated in a whole video prepping me for this. 

Still, I felt like I had stepped in shit. I may have played a naïve foreigner in a video, but I have no interest in playing a damsel in distress. Fortunately, I had a phone with a SIM card filled with cheap data to connect me with people who cared about me. I went to yoga, slept in and ate a big piece of rosewater cake and drank basil tea with my friend, Shanna. I was a damsel in de-stress.

Maybe a bit too colonial for my style, but that was a mighty fine piece of rosewater cake with a cup of basil tea at the Flower Power Tea Room.

But I had more karma to burn. The friend from yoga class who helped me get my SIM card – it is difficult for a foreigner to get a phone number in India – had been texting me constantly since we had spent one day exploring the city together. He kept wanting to hang out, but I had been inundated with work. I’d see him at yoga class, and we were friendly. But I thought he had a strange energy, and the frequent “What are you doing now?” texts were getting old, fast. Yesterday, he evidently ran out of patience.

As I’m out running errands, I see messages from him about how he suddenly wants the SIM card back. It’s free, by the way, and residents can have as many as they want. I had paid the $3 for basically unlimited data for the month. I told him I needed it, and in fact, I had just recharged it for another month. I had no wifi at home, so I was using the card for work as well. I thanked him again for his help but told him I needed it. He demanded it back. He was clearly mentally unstable. 

I refused. But because we used his information to sign up for the SIM card, he was able to cancel it – and, abruptly, did. At 9:30 p.m., I had to walk in the dark out of my apartment, past the guard who had previously assaulted me, to go to the nearby restaurant to beg for a hotspot so I could yet again reach out to my friends for help. 

I was wading waist-deep in shit!

So many friends came to my rescue this week, including my video co-star, shown here “acting” like hanging out in the cell phone store was the last thing she wanted to do.

In the morning, as I waited for my friend Shruthi to pick me up and bring me to the cell phone store and get me a new SIM card, I am thinking about the lessons I can learn from these dirty dealings. First, I am wiser about offering kindness to someone who doesn’t have the capacity to understand it. That guard obviously judged me harshly as the typical Western whore he’s seen in porn and yet was also enamored with me – a winning combination, right? I see now how I can avoid that situation in the future, when the sexual assault could be a lot worse than a cheap titty grab.

Second, I am reevaluating what are considered gifts. In the Yoga Sutras, we are encouraged to follow a yama called aparighraha. This Sanskrit word translates to non-possessiveness and non-attachment to things. Owning only what I can carry, I thought I was doing pretty good here, but another element of this subtle teaching is the instruction to not accept gifts. Gifts create strings, as was clearly the case in the mind of that “friend” who obviously thought he was owed some of my time in exchange for help with my phone. 

Yet, I give and receive kindness all the time. I consider kindness a gift. When friends are late, even, I am never mad; I thank them for the gift of time. Gifts are a language of love. But as I’ve certainly learned over the last five years of full-time travel, we don’t always speak the same language.

Thus, all I can do is wash the shit from my shoe and continue on, integrating into the flow of the organized chaos that is India. While waiting for Shruthi, I finished my breakfast, which included a homemade, ghee-rich dosa made by the housekeeper for me. I spent three more dollars on a SIM card and smiled at all the times before and all the times later that I’ll manage to sidestep a pile of shit right in front of me.