As a fair-skinned, light-haired woman, I knew what to expect. I’d read about the stares and the eve teasing I would be subject to and I was prepared for the worst. And then like so many things on this trip, I experienced something completely different from what I anticipated.
When you lose the ability to speak with people because you don’t speak the same language, you pay closer attention to body language. It’s like how a blind person’s sense of hearing becomes heightened as they listen more intently to the sounds and conversation around them.
I learned there’s so much you can detect and communicate just by looking into someone’s eyes. The whole range of human emotion if you think about it.
Confusion, surprise, sadness, anger, suspicion, tiredness, concentration. You can smile and flirt with your eyes. You can stare or threaten someone.
But when I looked into the eyes of the locals staring back at me it was almost always one thing: wide-eyed wonder. Plain and simple, an innocent and intense curiosity in someone completely different.
As a foreigner in a far away land, you are as different to them as they are to you. They way you look, dress, eat, speak and move. I had read that people would want to take photos with us and the first time it happened, we were quite amused. We thought, “What is so remarkable about us?” Beautiful women dressed in saris everywhere, and they want pictures of us? We wondered if it was some kind of scam.
When they didn’t ask, I caught people trying to sneak photos of us with their cell phones. You’d think we were celebrities!
One day when we were driving through a rural area on our group tour, we passed what looked like a country fair. Someone asked if we could stop the bus and ten of us jumped out. The fair included a handful of amusements… a giant inflatable slide, two elephants providing rides, balloons and concessions, and a huge tent filed with people, a stage and live music at the end of it.
We made our way to the tent first, garnering plenty of wide-eyed looks along the way. The tent was divided down the middle – women and children on the left; men on the right. We stopped at the edge and listened to the music a while. People seemed to draw closer around us. Two young girls stood a couple feet away staring directly at me. I smiled and gave a little wave to the girls, which made them giggle and look away shyly. Really, we might as well have been aliens that just landed from outer space. We made our way towards the elephants.
Within minutes people started to form a large circle around us. Lots of cell phones started to flash. An excited young woman pleaded with me to take a photo with her. I looked into her excited, desperate eyes and really wanted to say yes.
“Um...well…” I said.
“Oh please!!” she said.
The crowd got bigger and tighter around us. I knew if I said yes to her I’d be mobbed by dozens of others.
What was at first amusing was starting to get very uncomfortable and increasingly claustrophobic. We had become the main attraction.
It was time to leave. We made a beeline for the exit and laughed a lot later about the funny and surreal experience.