Rajasthan, Weddings, Measurements. India, 1982.

An ongoing and occasional series on a 3-month trip I took to India in 1982. I was 25, and traveled by train across the country alone, writing an article on the then-unknown Indian film industry and combating the anxieties of youth and solo travel. Often includes references to what I wore. You can find the previous posts here.

I left Udaipur and traveled up further into Rajasthan. Chittorgarh, Pushkar, Ajmer, Jaipur. I stayed at a government rest house, as advised, where, as it transpired, they tried to kick me out. I was invited, on a train, to the wedding of the rail line’s paymaster’s daughter. I declined. I was, at that point, intent on sticking to my plan. It was all I had in the midst of so much new and foreign.

But more than the signs quaintly telling me I was not welcome,

or those Technicolor temples I could enter, where newlyweds posed for the camera,

and mirrored mosaics lined the walls,

more even than camels pulling carts,

wedding parades with grooms on caparisoned donkeys,

or small children watching from arched and painted windows,

in this part of my trip I came to understand that by traveling alone in India I was inviting attention I neither wanted nor knew how to manage.

On the way to Ajmer, the train guard left me a note.

“Hello Dolly. Namaste. I want to meet you at Ajmer with you. You should meet me at platform. Then we go to picther or see the Ajmer city with us. I like you. Yours.”

I did not meet him.

I took a bus to Pushkar. Three men sat on the bench seat in front of me. One of them, a propos of of absolutely nothing, turned around and asked, “You enjoy the sex?” I started yelling at him, “Why do you ask me that? How come you think you can just ask me that? What is wrong with you?” At which point he and everyone around me began apologizing. “I can tell you have good nature, ” said the man next to me. “You say good.”

That night I thought, “I should have gone to the wedding of the train paymaster. I would have been an honored guest. I would have given his daughter a large wedding present. Dollars.” It would have been something neither the family nor I would ever forgotten. I only regret what I haven’t done.

And then I decided I wanted a salwar kameez. The Northern Indian costume of tunic and pants. I wanted to fit in, to be less visible. In Jaipur, you could get one made at the street bazaar. Tailors sat in booths hung with curtains. I do not remember how I chose, but I picked out a sky blue fabric covered with small, muted gold patterns, from a young Kashmiri. He pulled the curtains closed, and began to measure me. Yes. Measure me. It took me much longer than my usual level of competence could predict to realize that these measurements were not necessary. I do not know if I was lulled by the way he kept patting my cheek softly, or by all the colored bolts of cloth, but when he looked up at one point and said, “This is OK?”, I realized it wasn’t. I backed up. He nodded his head, no objection, no more measurements, no harm done. As though he was experimenting with a new species to find out what was possible, and having found out, was content to let it go.

At least he asked.

Of all the mistakes I made in India, or wrong decisions, or social gaffes, that one stayed heavy with regret and embarrassment. I felt terribly ashamed, too ashamed even to admit shame. So foolish. I read my journal now and see that I was not honest with myself afterward. I tried to brush it aside, to tell myself it was OK. But I felt it was my fault, I felt I should have known, I felt I had participated. He had a pretty mouth.

I look back on my trip through India and I can see that I thought I could protect myself by dressing appropriately, keeping my head down, and writing diligently in a notebook. I didn’t understand that by traveling alone, unmarried, in a culture where women married young and traveled in reserved train cars, I had put myself out on a cliff, lit by spotlights and announced by megaphone. My own personal “son et lumiere.”

I hold no grudge, almost 30 years later. No one ever harmed me. No one persisted, much, past the first signs they’d gotten it wrong. A voyage of self-discovery at 25, unmarried, alone. I was apt to discover men. But I was too overwhelmed by the journey to pay attention, to understand the culture, to keep my guard up. So they discovered me first. I was not ready. That’s no one’s fault, not mine, not theirs. I am only understanding this today. It’s been harder to forgive myself.

I no longer have the salwar kameez. I’d show it to you if I did.

Images: me

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  • Now I think we must have a donkey for He-Mouse.

  • As long as it is caparisoned.

  • I would have been terrified at that age traveling like you did. I give you so much credit. This is outside my protected "world" While I would love to travel, I could only do it with my family or friends.

  • I'd been wondering how you'd been treated as a single woman travelling alone.

    In my early 20's my (long since ex) husband and I travelled through Mexico and Central America as he did research for a dissertation. I dressed as modestly as I could for the climate (baggy cotton dresses), and even when I was with him, I was called "puta," dry-humped in the Mexico City subway and verbally harassed. It was not a fun experience.

  • You have a lot of courage to take on a trip like that alone. Just goes to show how some of the other countries perceive our attitudes towards sex that they would be so open asking about it. I think I would have kept my head down too!

  • These are fabulous pictures too.

  • Oh, brave girl. I have never been to India alone, but I know that feeling of uncertainty, of wanting to please or at least fit in, and then, realizing that, inexplicably, I had misunderstood. My "tailor" was an American businessman who wanted to "help" me in my first real job. Nothing really terrible happened, but for years, I thought, how could I have been so dumb? Thankfully, the sweet man I married told me I hadn't been dumb but trusting, and that's when I closed that chapter.

  • I loved this post Lisa. It is so perfect about traveling alone at that age. I was a bit younger (and safer) in Italy, but boy did I get myself into some crazy situations. I look back now and shake my head and think, people are really good at their core. Later when I went to India in my late 20s I could take better care of myself but was not prepared for that kind of attention from men. My favorite memory that you just reminded me of was seeing a teenage boy painted blue from head to toe sporting a tail (krishna of course)! Hope you're having a great Monday!


  • Your posts always make me think, and in this case remember, and I am really grateful for that. I too still cringe at some of the youthful indiscretions while traveling abroad (18th birthday sleeping on a barge which was a crash pad in Amsterdam, 1972). Thanks to those guardian spirits which made sure we are still here to remember and cringe. Those strange and incredible experiences help to make us who we are now. ~Madeline

  • I lived in Africa, Ivory Coast to be precise, for almost 3 years (I arrived when I was 29, and left at 31 and a half) and I can relate to your article. I was also single when I arrived and I was also alone-though working for a big organization gave me company at times and well, I met my husband there so I was not alone for long. However, being white, blue eyed, blonde, I couldn't blend in. And that notoriety brought plenty of unasked and unwanted attention and proposals. I realized pretty soon that it was borderline dangerous to walk alone on the streets, or so it felt at the time, and solved the problem buying a ring to wear on my ring finger and saying I was engaged, to please leave me alone. In time I changed it for a wedding band (so did a few colleagues who were unmarried and didn't want the attention). In time the word spread that "la blanche" (the white one, as I was known) was not available and they didn't bother me anymore. Except of course for the love declarations in the middle of the street, but well…that's another story.
    I hope you are having a great Monday!

  • I'd always wanted a salwar kameez.

    Being young and trusting during my travel alone (on assignment) to the south of the Philippines at the height of kidnappings of Chinese had, ironically, served me well. I was naive enough to trust the invincibility of youth. Lucky for me, I was unscathed.

  • You know how I eat these posts up. They are the most wonderful. Thank you.

  • Lisa, your posts haven't showed up in my reader; I was starting to worry. I'll have to keep checking.
    You were very young and brave and handled these situations well. Without your intelligence and your upbringing, it could've been much worse. Why are we always so hard on ourselves?
    These are amazing photos! I've so enjoyed these India posts.

  • Thank you all, and to Deja, Town and Country, Mary Jo, Anon, and Buckeroo for adding your similar experiences, and to Amanda and Maureen and Menopausal New Mom and Sher for the support.

  • Some things never change. I direct a study abroad program in Mexico and over the weekend had two young women return to the college residence early because they were unnerved by a hostel experience that included sharing a room with three young men. Just tonight, three young women texted from a bus coming back to the city from a nearby beach town that there was a "creepy" man bothering them on the bus and could I please meet them at the bus stop. Luckily, I was swimming at the time which forced them to think of other options. They finally called one of the young men on our program who, with another male student, met them at the bus stop. All's well that ends well, but your post and comments remind me of how young we all once were and how we all had to learn how to deal with unwanted male attention. The young women tonight were proud of how they handled the situation and were more focused on their success and less on the creepiness of the man on the bus was. Now if they can convey that positive spin to parents as the Skype, blog, email, twitter, Facebook and text about their experience, I may be spared concerned parental emails tomorrow. Sorry for the long comment but the timing was uncanny.

  • "Of all the mistakes I made… that one stayed heavy with regret and embarrassment." I love the way you convey this feeling, one that we've all had about past indiscretions.

    I thought I was invincible until I was carjacked in my late twenties. I managed to escape with only a cracked rib by pushing myself out of a moving car. Let there be no doubt that bad stuff can happen.

  • Why is that?! Why do WE feel embarrassment and regret? Why do WE feel as if it were something we might have done to encourage the advances. It irritates the shit out of me, yet it happens all of the time. I'm sure most of your readers have had some sort of unwanted, unsolicited sexual advances perpetrated on them. I know I have. Too many to list in my 40 mumble year span.

  • Jill, I am SO with you.

    Our world still acts as if WE are the instigators just by being there, and furthermore, expecting US to take responsibility for what happens.

    What really needs to not be stepped around anymore, youth or not-youth, is the fact that on most of our planet we are regarded no more highly than cattle. I am tired of being polite about this. Not being honest about it allows the same to go on and on and ON, and I say, screw "cultural relativity."

    For anyone who gets as angry as I do over stuff like this, a great blog to read is "I Blame The Patriarchy." This gal has a fabulous way with words and doesn't pull any punches. She would call the world's acceptance of this treatment we all experience as covered under "fair use of women." (BTW her name is Jill…)

    When…WHEN…will this stop?

  • What Jill said – she took the words right out of my mouth.

    Like Maureen, I was not getting your feed in Google reader; I had to resubscribe to your blog. Odd.

    I was disappointed when you said you longer had the salwar kameez; I wanted to see it.

  • You are one brave lady. BTW your extra "smiley" comment made me LMAO.

  • Incredible experiences, incredible life you have had. Thank you for sharing, even something so private and personal. You will have to get back to India to have another made, with a more traditional experience for fitting.

  • Amazing. I've always wanted to go to India. You have quite an interesting life. xoxo


  • I left you a gift on my blog! :)

  • Amazing story. Thanks for sharing it. I'm in agreement with Jill and Someone.


  • I don't disagree with Jill, Someone, and the gardeners cottage. I've just always found it more productive for me, myself, to focus on that which is my responsibility.

  • I lived in Chile for two years and then traveled back to the US by land. I, too, got uninvited, unwelcome attention. I did not blame myself. I hadn't been asked to a single high school dance. I knew I was not flirting or emitting "I want you" vibes. I knew my place in the hot hierarchy.

    I blamed Baywatch (the show that was popular abroad at the time) and almost every American movie that shows American women falling into bed with any man who asks. The message these shows send is that American women sleep around.

    We in this country know this is not necessarily the case. (And if we do, it's not going to be with the sweaty, toothless stranger on the bus to La Paz.) But to anyone who has lived abroad, compare what you know of the foreign culture to how US culture seems through the movies. I am not in any way excusing these men's behavior. Far from it. They ticked me off and I learned to be assertive, saying, "Leave me alone. Don't sit here. I don't want to talk to you," which I NEVER would have said to an American man because it seems so rude. Plus American men know The Code.

    But these men did not treat the local women this way. Just me. La gringa. Because they'd seen movies. They knew what American women were like.

  • Gold Digger, when I went to India, Bo Derek's "Tarzan" had just been released, to much fanfare. People would directly refer to the movie as they made their overtures.

  • Wow, you are an amazing writer. You were able to bring me back to that same age and to feel your feelings in a culture that I first experienced when I was already in my 40s. Bravo!

    Karen in Paris

  • Very, very interesting, the culture, your young travels and your fortitude.

  • Indian tailors grope Indian women too–so don't feel too bad! I was reminded of traveling in India as a young 'modern' Indian woman during the 80s (in jeans rather than saree or salwar suit), where men ogled and tried to make moves but mostly were intimidated when I rebuffed them. It helped that I was also super-aware and kept my guard up all the time but fast-forward a few years later as a young mother in late twenties, I got caught unawares at an all-American university conference. I was able to extricate myself from the situation but I blamed myself for losing that ability to prevent this kind of situation. To make matters worse all other colleagues of the "tailor" looked the other way when it was obvious he was hitting on me. These weren't toothless rikshaw drivers but people with PhDs and tenure…. I guess this is about being foreign or just being a young woman out of her elements!

  • Hoo boy, I am glad I didn't see your blog while my 18yr old was in India last year!

    Great stories!

    She is now safe & sound back in Washington state and attending college, but she has led a fairly protected life, albeit attending high school in the " inner city"- and has commented on while she enjoyed India more than the stop she made in the UK before coming home, she never did really get used to sticking out so much
    ( she is 5'8" with long blond hair & so gorgeous I can't believe we are related)

    India sounds fabulous though, I may go with my aunt this fall when she returns for a visit ( she was a missionary there for 40 years after college)

  • Ha! So fun to see you here Emerald. Thank you for coming.

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  1. […] my trip to India, I was invited to the wedding of a railway porter’s daughter, in Rajasthan. I said no. I had a schedule to keep, after all. Opportunity Declined Due To Phantom […]