Chai and Chapatti

SampatPal-2-2Sampat Pal Ji

As we drink tea, Yasen tells Sampat Pal about the NGO that Afroja is working for in Khajuraho and the two women begin to talk about the horrors of child brides. Although I don’t understand Hindi, I know they are talking about their common goals and how they both wish to change the culture that accepts child brides. It is law that no woman can marry before she is 18; however, the authorities, especially in small, poor villages like Aterra, very commonly overlook it. Sampat was married at age 12 and she was forced to live with her new husband and his family as soon as she went through puberty. (I read about this in her book, we didn’t speak of it now.) Her husband is in the room and is clearly submissive…or has become submissive over time. I’m sure anyone would expect as much from a woman who beats strangers with bamboo sticks until they agree to behave.   I am happy that the women are connecting and have mutual respect and I wonder if maybe this is the true reason for my trip—to connect people. Perhaps.

When tea is finished, Chandra asks to use the toilet and I watch her walk to the back of the house. I am wondering what is back there? Is it a proper room with a hole in ground? Is it just the back of the yard? I don’t want to find out because it is blistering hot and must smell like death back there. I am still pleasantly surprised that not one person that I have come across has any body odor. This may sound silly but after living in Europe for 6 years, one does not take such pleasantries lightly. I remember how much I hated going into a post office in Belgium in the summer because the body odor smell was so thick you could taste it. I will always have that smell registered in my brain—some things you never forget. Honestly, not one person I’ve met in India has had any bad smell in spite of the fact they have no running water—shocking. Perhaps my senses have simply dulled over the years?

Chatting it up with Yasen and Afroja
Chatting it up with Yasen and Afroja

Back to my conundrum here…do I begin jotting notes and photographing this woman or do I leave with my tail between my legs and chalk it up as another lesson learned? As I am thinking, Sampat asks me if I would like to photograph her now. We are now sitting in a hallway to avoid the sunlight and I’m very close to her. The light is beautiful but my angle is challenging—still, I came her to photograph her so I better get started! I take a few shots and a woman walks in with a problem for Sampat. She is one of her Gulabi Gang members (wearing pink, no less) and is visiting on behalf of another woman who is troubled. This woman looks very serious but Sampat is in no rush to get to her, she is hosting guests and will continue to do so until we depart. This makes me feel bad for the woman who is waiting. I ask her if I can photograph her too and she says yes but when I finish and ask everyone to sign model releases (so I can use these photographs for submissions) I have another problem. How do you get a model release from a woman who cannot read or write…she can’t even sign her name! Shit. Fortunately, Sampat was willing to let her teenage son read the form (I had it translated into Hindi before I came) and he gave Mamma the “ok” to sign her name. She is a proud woman and is determined to sign her name herself. Most women in her village could not accomplish such an academic feat. The other women would not try because they were embarrassed that they could not sign their names…which is why most countries simply have people use their fingerprints to identify themselves…duh.

Gulabi Gang Member

When we finished taking a few photos, Sampat asks us to join her downstairs to see her computer so her son could show us her website and her office. She is very proud of her accomplishments and is happy to show off her trophies and certificates. We have now been here at least 2 hours and Chandra is hungry (I’m sure we all are hungry but she is young enough to say so). She unpacks some chapattis that grandmother made this morning (at 4am) and begins to snack on them. Everyone in India seems to travel with food! I love that. I wish I was as smart as them. Yasen hands me a chapatti to snack on and I graciously accept, even though I watched him picking dead skin off his feet for the past hour and not wash his hands before he handled the food (my sister would fricken die before she ate this chapatti). Sampat tells one of the children to bring us some drinks and one of the little girls walks in with a bottle of Mountain Dew. I’m thinking, “I hope it is cold and thank god it’s a soda so I can drink it without worrying about it being purified.”

We sit and smile in front of photo after photo of Sampat on the computer until we finally make our way out of the tiny office and back upstairs. We thank her for her time and explain that it is a 3-hour ride back to Khajuraho. I hand her a tiny, pink change purse filled with $100 in rupees and smile at her and she hugs me. It was not customary for her to hug me but I welcomed her gesture. I was very happy she hugged me and felt her warmth. She is so charismatic and strong but so gentle and loving too. She was much more approachable than I ever expected and gracious as ever. (I highly recommend reading the book “The Pink Sari Revolution” by Amana Fontanella-Khan if you want to learn more.)

Her tribe of children gathered around her to see us off as we loaded up in the hire-car and left for Khajuraho. It wasn’t the trip I imagined but more than I could have ever wanted. Now we are going to stop at some game reserve on the way home because Afroja said they have a beautiful restaurant with a view…I hope they have a clean toilet too, my stomach is starting to churn.

SampatPal-1-2Farewell Sampat Pal, thank you!

Sampat Pal: My Trek to Aterra

Today is the day I meet Sampat Pal. This is the reason for my trip and I expect that I will capture some amazing images. My hope is to launch my documentary and travel photography career from this visit. I want to use the images I capture today to apply for future grants that will fund my next trip.

Yasen is prompt as ever and shows up at the hotel with Afroj and Chandra (she asked to go with us and I’m happy she is coming too) and the driver. Apparently, the town of Aterra is 3 hours from Khajuraho so it will be a long day. It is miserably hot outside (again) so I’m really glad this rental car has air conditioning.

Our first stop is the gas station. The driver (never got his name) filled up and tells me he needs money. I am thinking, “What the hell? I already agreed to pay for the car/driver but now he’s using me to fill up an empty car?” What choice do I have? So, I hand over the equivalent of $75 and panic a bit because I still need cash to donate to Sampat Pal (I promised in an email I would donate $100 to her organization as a thank you for allowing me to interview her) and I still have to pay this guy $150 for his services at the end of the trip. That doesn’t leave me with much left over (in cash) for anything else. I also have $100 in cash (in rupees) from my husband’s Auntie that she gave me to donate to The Gulabi Gang and I don’t want to dip into that money. We will see how this goes.

As we drive Yasen is constantly saying, “Chandra, talk to Kristal in French,” or “Chandra, you talk to Kristal in English, practice, you do this.” He is very pushy and I am happy that Afroj is with us because she keeps nudging him telling him to stop asking. His intentions are good, he wants Chandra to practice her English and me to practice my French but you can’t force people to strike up conversation—especially when there is a 25 year age difference and have little to nothing in common. She is shy to talk and I feel sorry for her because he is constantly bugging her. I just smile and roll my eyes and she smiles back at me.

I decide that Yasen has ADHD (yes, I am now posing as a professional and can make such a diagnosis). He can’t sit still for more than 3 seconds, he is constantly taking things out of his pockets, looking at them, folding his papers back up and repeating this process (at least 20 times on the way). He wiggles in his seat like a little boy and talks incessantly. He does not annoy me; I’m only observing and assessing his obvious lack of ability to be still. He must be so bored all day long without a job right now. I can’t image what the hell he does with his time. His mother must be a saint.

Fast forward 3+ hours and many stops to ask for directions and we are finally in front of Sampat Pal’s home. I’m so anxious to meet her and so grateful to have met Yasen. Without his help, I would have NEVER found this tiny town. There are only dirt roads and no public transportation—no signs to speak of and certainly no one here speaks English enough to give me directions. I can’t imagine what I would have done had I not met him. We laugh about this in the car every time we need to stop and ask for directions, “Kristal, you NEVER find her alone,” Yasen laughs and says to me.

“I know, I know, you are right, Yasen, thank you so much for all of your help,” I tell him.

As we walk to the house (we think is the home of Sampat Pal), I smile because it is painted pink. Of course it is, I think to myself, it’s the headquarters for the Pink Sari’s! There is a young girl lying on a bench, melting in the heat, and Yasen asks her in Hindi where we can find Sampat Pal. The girl waves her hand in the direction of the pink house and stares at us, no words are necessary, we are here.

The door is open and women are milling about inside, small children are peeking around their mother’s legs and a chubby boy greets us as we walk up to the entrance. We soon learn that he is Sampat’s only son and appears to be her front man. He speaks some English and at the age of 15 years (I’m guessing) is the person who manages her website and her email correspondence. I was tickled because all along I assumed I was emailing her but it was this teenage boy the entire time writing things like, “Sister, I welcome you to Aterra and accept your invitation to meet.”

Yasen and Afroj while we wait (holding one of her books)
“Kristal, take photo with Chandra”
Sweet shot of Uncle and Niece

We are told that Sampat is out right now but she will return soon so we can wait for her. I can’t believe I never even considered that she might not even be here when I arrived. I originally told her that I would come on a Saturday and now it is Tuesday! I had once again been blessed with good fortune that she was even going to be home! I apologized to her son for being late and Yasen explained to him my entire story about the change of plans to stay in Mohaba and how lucky I was to meet him.

After only a few minutes, Sampat arrives and I immediately recognize her. I am a little starstruck because she looks exactly like her photos on the web and in the book I just finished. She is younger than me but has lived a thousand more lives—I can see this in her green eyes. She shakes my hands and smiles at me in a way I can only describe as sisterly. I felt as if I have known her all my life.

She tells Afroj that she is not feeling well, a stomach ache, but that she is happy to sit and talk with us and orders one of her daughters to bring us chai. I am excited to be drinking chai with her. Ever since I read the book, “Three Cups of Tea” I have newfound respect for the tradition of drinking tea with someone new and the gesture of such an event. To me, this says, “you are a guest to me and I welcome you.” I am honored to be drinking tea with Sampat Pal.

After we drink our chai, I’m starting to feel uncomfortable about being here to photograph her today and wish I had many more days to get to know her better, to establish trust and friendship. It seems too soon to take something as intimate as an image. I am only having my first cup of tea…seems like I should wait a bit longer but I only have today. I’m stifled by these thoughts and struggle internally with what to do. She is not feeling well and I wonder what her daughters think of this American whom they’ve only met moments ago coming in their home and only taking from her. It’s paralyzing.

Your Heart is Open Like Lotus Flower

This feels like the longest train ride of my life. After I asked Yasen not to talk about lady bits, he laughed and simply said, “ok, ok,” and that was that—the “p” word was never mentioned again.

“Please tell me about your sister and her NGO,” I asked.

“Sister work with children and women. She educate them, very good, you will meet her. She will bring car to train station in Khajuraho. You take photo at NGO, no worry. We take you to hotel, very nice hotel, you like hotel. Khajuraho very nice, very clean, it is good village, very famous temple in Khajuraho. Many tourists, many Americans coming to Khajuraho!” Yasen puffs up like a peacock when he speaks of his home. He has such fondness for this place, makes me wonder what it is like. I have no point of reference, the only cities I have seen are Delhi and Agra—both grossly over crowded, filthy places teeming with malnourished, poverty-stricken people. Honestly, I have never seen so many malnourished people in my life. The level of poverty in India is like no other place I’ve been. My husband was recently in Soweto, South Africa and showed me photos of the tin-roofed homes that were shockingly make-shift and clearly unsafe and unsanitary but now, those look like proper homes next to the stick, tent-like shelters I have witnessed in India. It feels heart wrenching and hopeless here. Another thing that I can’t understand is the trash everywhere. Don’t people realize this is where they live? This is what they chose to live around—trash heaps? Isn’t there a place to throw garbage?! Everyone seems to discard all trash in his or her own backyards. They open a package and toss the plastic on the ground, the goats come and eat it, they drink the milk from the goats who ate the garbage and wonder why they are malnourished?! They are drinking garbage! It is sad, gross, upsetting and disgusting all at once. They throw garbage in the same river they bathe in…why? They let their animals defecate in same river they bury their dead (after they burn them) and then wash in this water, how is this sensible? This vexes me.

Back to my travel buddy and our stimulating conversation…

I am hopeful that Yasen’s sister is nice and that I am truly able to meet her. Even though he grossed me out with his talk of Indian men and their sexual habits, I dismiss that and consider that perhaps I was meant to meet him. We have a few hours until our train arrives so I decide to put a protective layer between us–I lie down on the blue bench and cover my head with my scarf and mentally escape. I decide this was the most effective way to avoid conversation and pass time. It worked. He slept too.

Approximately an hour before we arrive in Khajuraho I awake and stretch to find Yasen doing the same. He gets up to use the facilities and I’m thinking that I better do the same, I’ve been holding it since the Taj Mahal and realize that was several hours ago. I can’t avoid toilets my entire time in India, right?

I just had to be the jackass tourist who photographed the train toilet because I honestly couldn’t figure out how they wipe without any paper. Locals must clean themselves by using the water and bucket in the bathroom. Hmmm…how does one do this while wearing pants? I guess you then have to drip dry? Do they wear underwear? Of course I always travel with wet wipes or Kleenex so this hose option is simply out of the question. I did find it amusing (and disgusting) that the pee (and my wet wipes) went directly onto the tracks—gross.


When I return from the toilet, Yasen tells me he can read my palm. He is an unusual man, this homeopath, sexpert…so I let him. What do I have to lose?

“Kristal, you have very good life. I see many children around you, not all yours (good because my husband and I only have 1 and have NO intentions of having any more). You will be successful and do many good things. I tell you more later. I see more but you must wait,” he teases.

“I am happy that you see good things, Yasen, thank you,” I tell him.

“You know that you sit in good seat on train?”

“Really, no?” I ask him.

“You know many times people ask you if you want to stay in seat or change because you sit in good luck number. Number 19 and 21, good luck numbers, Kristal. You know this?” Yasen askes me as he gives me a sideways smile and points to the numbers above our heads.

“Really? I had no idea, that is good to know, thank you,” I patronize him.   I think to myself that this is silly but at least it is good luck, right?

“Yes, very, very good luck these numbers. Many people stop to check if seat available so they sit here. You are good person, Kristal. You choose to stay in good luck seat without knowing this. You can go to better class, nicer seat but you stay here with me. I know this is because you are good person, Kristal,” he says.

I am flattered in a not-grossed-out way and it’s nice.

Then he says, “I am honest, Kristal. I tell you truth about my family. I have son and 2 daughters but I do not live with my wife any more. I respect the woman, Kristal. Very much, I respect. I love her but she live with my brother now. She live in my house and I live with my parents.”

I am making some assumptions that are none of my business so I focus on what interests me most, “Yasen, I thought Muslim men do not shake hands with women?” This is what I have been taught in the past and I assumed he was Muslim.

He laughs and tells me, “Not the same in India. Muslim men respect the woman. We have no rules like this in India. My wife Hindu.”

“Really, you married a Hindu woman? What did your family think of this?” I ask out of genuine curiosity.

“They no like at first but they see I love her, they ok, it is ok. My brother marry woman from Switzerland. He live with her in Switzerland,” he adds.

“Interesting. Do your children live with your wife?” I ask him because I’m just happy to be leading the conversation in a direction I feel comfortable.

“My son live with her sometimes and me. My daughter love me too much. They live with me and my parents,” he explains.

I just smile and think that maybe our gross conversation earlier was just a slip up, an ignorant statement that seemed worse than it was when translated. I decide now to let it go, pretend it didn’t happen and move on. This guy might be ok after all, he has daughters, he loved a Hindu woman and married her…he’s got heart.

“Kristal, I can’t believe I tell you these things. You have heart like lotus flower. Very open,” he tells me.

“Thank you, that is a very nice thing to say,” I smile inside thinking about my lotus flower tattoo on my foot…what an interesting comparison he just made.


Our train arrives and we exited together. A feeling of relief washes over me as a beautiful, 40-something year old woman approaches us smiling, my new sister, Afroj, shakes my hand and welcomes me to Khajuraho.

“So beautiful,” she smiles as she looks me over…I feel the same way.

Words That Make Me Squirm

So, I’m on the train with the new plan of stopping at Khajuraho, a town I’ve never hear of with a man I just met—why not? His name is Yasen, don’t remember his last name but he felt obliged to show me his official government identification–as if that meant anything to me. He is a physically small man, approximately 5’8” and probably weighs about 140lbs soaking wet. He is clean with a fresh shave, short, thinning hair and the rest seems stereotypical—dark hair, small, dark eyes and brown skin. He has a kind smile with stained teeth and although he is quite small, he does not look sickly or malnourished like many of the people I’ve seen. His maroon polo shirt and khaki pants are tidy and casual and I guess that he is from a middle cast but I don’t pretend to know squat about the cast system. I’m taking in all these details in case I need to describe him someday if all this goes awry…or if I just want to blog about it.

The conductor returned to our car approximately 30 minutes into the journey and plopped down with the massive book of passengers and seat assignments. I wonder how many trees they destroy each day creating these ridiculous manifests when one iPad per train would suffice.

Yasen explains to the conductor that I have decided to change my destination from Mohaba to Khajuraho and the conductor explains that I will have to pay him the difference in price since Khajuraho is one stop beyond Mohaba (I have to pay about $10 to make the change). Yasen translates the information and also tells me that his seat is in a non-air conditioned section of the train and that unless he pays the difference to move to this class he must leave now. He also tells me that I may choose to stay where I am or the conductor said I may move to a more private car (even nicer) since I have paid so much for my original ticket. I get it—Yasen is passive aggressive. He wants me to pay for him to be upgraded while I pay for my change fee (so we can continue to sit together) but he is unwilling to come right out and ask me. His body language speaks volumes as he shuffles around in his seat as if pretending to get up and leave (touching his bag and rifling through his papers as if to be packing things up without actually packing things up). His seat is in one of those horribly crowded cattle cars where I imagine people are strewn about with crying babies and sweaty kids trying desperately to get comfortable.

I take pity on him, after all, he has been kind to advise me and he seems polite enough but I vacillate because I am desperate to be left alone for a while, especially since he is a man and there are no other people in this car with us. Besides, his upgrade will cost me less than $5.00, which makes me sad that he must hesitate to pay this amount.

I chose to “buy” Yasen’s company and stay put, rather than sit in the “upper class” area. I saw no reason to move, this was an air-conditioned car and I had the whole bench to myself, plus my bags were already stowed and I was too tired to bother moving. Yasen was very pleased and assumed that I was not only generous but happy to have his company—honestly, I felt a bit uncomfortable but that’s what solo travel does to a girl…takes you out of your comfort zone.

Then it begins to get weird.

Yasen and I make small talk about what I am doing in India and why I am meeting with Sampat Pal (I tell him my documentary photographer story again and he seems to be amused by my obsession with the Gulabi Gang). He has clearly heard of them (and Sampat Pal) but I wonder how much he knows. Yasen’s English is quite understandable though not good. Of course it is better than my Hindi (which is pathetic as I only know how to say about 3 words) so I am grateful we can communicate at all. It was not possible for me to learn more before this trip since I was finishing my masters in fine arts, packing up my home for an overseas move and wrapping up my consulting job only days before making this trip—way too busy to learn Hindi!

Yasen was visibly giddy that I decided to come to Khajuraho and I soon learned he considered it his responsibility to host me now throughout my stay. He smiled a lot and rubbed his hands on his knees when he spoke. I remained small and tried to keep my ‘bubble’ protected the entire journey.

After about an hour of small talk and smiling, he begins to talk about how Indian men treat women. He has a very thick accent and I struggle to understand all of his words but sometimes pretending you don’t understand is easier than acknowledging what someone is really saying…

“Kristal, you know ‘ayurveda healing’?” Yasen asks (it took me a while to understand that he said ayruveda).

“Ayurveda, homeopathic healing? Yes! I know this, it is good.” I respond.

“Good. I know this,” then he goes on to explain how nature heals and how they have trees in Khajuraho that have good healing abilities if you rub the leaves together and I’m intrigued. He continues to say, “Indian people are not educated about sex and the men are finished in minutes. The women are not satisfied and it is also because they are too hot. They are too much hot, you understand?”

Wait, what? We went from homeopathy to sex? I just about choke and respond slowly, “um, yes, I think I understand.” Now please change the subject!

“The Indian man don’t eat the pussy,” Yasen says to me.

I am squirming inside now thinking, pretend you didn’t understand what he said and maybe he will never say this again. Just nod, smirk a bit and make your bubble tighter, Kristin…pretend he didn’t just say that.

“You understand, pussy?” he repeats.

I am screaming inside my head, holy shit, if he says pussy one more time I am going to throw up and then run! Why the fuck didn’t I take the upper class cabin? I would be sitting alone, happy and probably drinking a lovely cup of chai right now…fuck!

“I, um, are you talking about a woman’s part?” I ask, knowing he is NOT going to let this go now.

“Yes, pussy!” he smiles.

“I really do NOT want to talk about that.” I am so grossed out and wishing I had Sampat Pal sitting next to me with a bamboo stick to whack him with right now. Seriously, why me?

Yasen from Khajuraho

My train is set to arrive in Agra any time now so I begin to double check all of my departure information. As I am comparing my ticket information with the updated arrivals on the marquee a man walks up to me and says “Let me see your ticket.”

Unfortunately, my recent experience with Hussein has really put me off Indian men for the moment and has made me feel defensive so I reply, “No,” but with a polite smile.

But he insists, “I help, where are you going?”

I relent because I realize, he’s trying to be nice and help the tourist get on the correct train so I oblige and respond, “I am going to Mohaba and I see that my train is coming in a few minutes, shukria.” Now you can leave me be, I am thinking to myself.

“MOHABA? Why you go to Mohaba? Nothing in Mohaba!” He is clearly shocked and wondering why the hell a white woman would be traveling to such a remote town, deep inside one of the most corrupt states of India alone. However, I am confident. I have told myself that I am a documentary photographer on a mission to capture the images and stories of the women who make up the Gulabi Gang. I am a huge believer in affirmations and this whole “I am a documentary photographer” affirmation is my latest. You, strange man, have no idea what my plans are and wouldn’t understand. However, instead of saying all that I simply tell him, “Yes, Mohaba, then I go to Banda.”

Now his face screws up uncomfortably and he cocks his head a bit and says, “Banda? Nothing in Banda. You come to Khajuraho, this is my village, very nice, very clean.”

This is just what I need, another bossy man trying to push me around India. Sigh. He continues, “How you get to Banda? What in Banda?”

“I have a hotel in Mohaba and then I take a taxi to Banda tomorrow.” I tell him as our train comes into the station and we begin to walk towards the train cars.

“What your seat? Let me see your ticket.” He demands gently. So, I show him that I have no seat assignment yet in hopes that he can help me figure that out.

“I help, give me ticket.” He takes my ticket and starts walking on to the train so I follow close behind. I would be less than happy if I lost my ticket after all the trouble it took to acquire it.

He finds the conductor who reminds me of the “Papa” I met on my train from Delhi to Agra—this makes me realize that “Papa” was probably a train conductor at one point too. He is also large in stature, friendly and everyone buzzed around him like a swarm of young bees. The conductor and the man with my ticket begin to speak in Hindi and I have no idea what they are saying other than the man who is holding my ticket is clearly concerned that I am going to Mohaba and keeps mentioning Khajuraho to the conductor. Then, the conductor gets up and walks away, carrying his gigantic book of dot-matrix printed paper in one hand and a sweaty handkerchief in the other that he continually uses to wipe his brow and neck.

The man hands me back my ticket and tells me to sit down while we wait for the conductor to return. I am strangely calm and not the least bit annoyed. This man has good energy, he makes me feel relaxed but I am still a bit edgy after bossy, Hussein. However, I feel confident that I’m on the correct train and am sticking with my plan, for now.

He finally introduces himself as “Yasen” (pronounced Yaseen) and I tell him my name is Kristin as we shake hands.

Once again, Yasen expresses concern over me going to Mohaba. He thinks this is a mistake and continues to try to persuade me to come to his village.

“Mohaba no good. Not safe, why you go there? You arrive very late, in dark, no taxi in Mohaba. You come to Khajuraho, my village, very nice, very clean. I find you good hotel, Kristal. I work at good hotel in Khajuraho 10 years.” He says.

“Thank you, Yasen, I saw that Mohaba has a hotel and I am only going there for work. I am a photographer and I am meeting with Sampat Pal of the Gulabi Gang and she lives near Banda.”

He smiles, “Gulabi Gang?! You come to Khajuraho! I take you to see Gulabi Gang.” Then, he picks up his cell phone and calls someone to tell them what I just said. I’m wondering who this guy is and what he knows about the Gulabi Gang. I am happy that he knows of them and their “take no shit” attitude towards men—at least he knows that I respect them. The more he talks about how bad Mohaba is, the more I begin to doubt my plan. For the first time, I am worried about my safety and thinking that it might not be such a great idea after all. Our train arrives in Mohaba around 3AM, this is not a good time to be alone in a strange place that a local says is “not safe.”

Yasen hangs up his cell phone and tells me, “Kristal, my sister work for NGO in Khajuraho, you come to Khajuraho, she take you to see her NGO then we take you to meet Gulabi Gang.”

Screw it, “Ok, I come to Khajuraho!” I smile and he laughs and responds, “Good! I talk to man to change ticket, you wait.”

I guess, I’m going to a town called Khajuraho (never heard of it) with a strange man whom I just met in hopes of finding a hotel and eventually meeting with Sampat Pal. Why don’t I feel more nervous about all this?

I Have a 10% Chance of Finding My Backbone

“Madame, there is a 10% chance you will be able to get tickets for your train,” says the lovely, young woman at the hotel. “Um, does that mean it is possible or not possible?” I ask as if I’m replaying a scene from Dumb and Dumber. “Yes, there is a 10% possibility.”

So, this whole percentage thing became a trend during my India trip. It is hilariously maddening…70% chance you will not go anywhere on the train today, 10% chance that you will get a train ticket and 20% chance that you are screwed. But, they are always VERY polite and deliver your percentage with a smile.

My grand plan and reason for this entire trip was to travel to a tiny town near Banda (Uttar Pradesh—the poorest and most corrupt state in all of India), find Sampat Pal (leader of the famed Gulabi Gang), photograph her and her people (whomever I can get my lens on) and talk to them about their efforts to stand up for women’s rights and fight child marriage. In my ignorance, I assumed I would simply take a train to the town of Banda (largest town near her village), find a hotel (there was one listed on the internet “above the bank”) then ask around about her and hire a taxi to take me to her. The only smart thing I did was securing an interview with her via email. She welcomed me to meet with her so I figured the rest was just details…silly girl.

I should have realized my plan was faulty when the hotel concierge and Hussein (my taxi driver) had to see a map of U.P. to learn where Banda was located and if a train even went to this tiny town. I was sure I had a good plan and was determined to get out of Agra and away from Hussein today no matter where the train went. So, Hussein took me to the train station and insisted he had a friend in town that could buy me a ticket and NOT to talk to the ticket agent at the train station without him. He took me to the train station and dropped me off with strict instructions to wait for him to return in an hour or so. Yeah, whatever.

Sometimes, the best part of being a woman is connecting with other women. I waited in a terribly crowded line at the station with pushy men constantly shoving their noses to the front of the line with a sense of urgency akin to a child who had to pee. Chivalry died at the threshold of the station, trust me. I pushed my way forward and didn’t allow these wankers to butt in line in front of me; however an Indian woman, who was behind me line, saw these guys buzzing around the ticket window so she barked at the clerk who was serving them and from what I could tell, she said something about ‘these assholes jumping ahead of us in line when clearly this woman (me) is a tourist and has priority and I am an old woman who should also have priority!’ I gave her a knowing smile and she returned it and we were let to the front of the line. I wanted to hug her.

The ticket agent sold me a ticket to Banda but seemed confused why the hell I was going there. He also told me he was selling me a “sleeper class” ticket (I just said, “good class, please” because I had to be in air conditioning or I would die in an overcrowded car). The hitch was that this train did not leave until the following day so I have to go back to my hotel and check back in now. I was hoping to make a quick get-a-way before Hussein returned for me. No such luck.

I bolted out of the station and slipped through the myriad taxi stands and found the first rickshaw driver I could see. He agreed to take me to my hotel for 100 rupees (about $1.50) and just as I heaved my backpack into his rickshaw Hussein buzzes by on a motorcycle and spots me. Shit! I am sick of this guy already, I’m starting to feel bullied by this guy—I’ve overpaid him, he’s taken me to far too many shops owned by his friends and quite frankly, he’s on my nerves. But, I don’t want trouble so I chickened out and relented. He speaks with the rickshaw driver (I’m sure he told him that I was his customer and that I made a mistake by climbing in with him). Mother fuck, I don’t want to deal with this guy but I know that I’m leaving tomorrow and will NEVER have to see him again, right?! (Another reason NEVER to return to Agra.) So, Hussein picks up my pack, walks it over to his car and loads it up. He is not happy that I bought my own ticket and doubts I’ll ever make it to Banda tomorrow since I did my own transaction. Then, he says, “Crystal, I take you to better hotel, cheaper, you don’t need to stay at such a fancy place.” “I don’t know, Hussein, I am happy with the hotel I stayed at” I respond. “You remember what I say about lassi? You like lassi because you trust me. I take you to see elephants and you like lassi so you know I know what is good. This is good hotel, nice with pool.” Sigh…ok. We’ll see.

It’s not bad (it was clean) but it was not nearly as nice as the place I was staying and the food did not compare. Also, the internet was not free (as I hoped) so that was annoying. However, I figured it was a quick way to dump Hussein again…or so I thought.

“Crystal, I take you to Taj Mahal tomorrow, before your train leaves. You have all day to wait.” Hussein orders. “Ok, pick me up at 10:00.” I cower.

I am weak and pathetic and if my sister told me this story I would scream…and then find Hussein and punch him in the face. But, when you are a woman traveling alone, you make choices that you might not always make…you are perhaps a risk taker and a compromiser at the same time, right? I spent my entire day figuring out this train situation and now I am sweaty again and ready to eat and sleep. Tomorrow–the Taj and then the train to Banda. Adventure is out there!