On March 16,Aleah Taboclaons status message on Facebook read: 4 days to go (to India)! Any suggestions on what to do in Calcutta for 2-3 days? The post invited a volley of comments,some told the 34-year-old woman from Philippines of places to visit and some wished her luck,but many warned her to be careful,to cover her arms and legs,to not step out at night and not go out alone. A day earlier,a Swiss woman had been gang raped in Madhya Pradesh while on a cycling tour with her husband.
India had always been on Taboclaons bucket list,she had long admired the colours and the vibrancy of India,so when she and her cousin got air tickets for a steal,they didnt hesitate. But two days after the Madhya Pradesh gang rape,her cousin backed out.
Travelling solo wasnt new to Taboclaon. She was barely 11 when she started travelling on her own. Since then she had travelled to 18 countries in South Asia and done a 70-day backpacking tour in Europe alone. A seasoned couchsurfer and a budget traveller,she was not deterred. I mustve looked at a hundred profiles before I hit upon a woman couchsurfer (a Russian woman) willing to host me in Kolkata, Taboclaon says. Most of the mens profiles had red flags,rare reviews,no about me,I was wary of couchsurfing in India.
She received scores of emails from Indians,men soliciting dates,commenting on her pictures,professing love and some even asking her to sponsor their passage to the Philippines. She always replied politely: Couchsurfing is not a dating website,its for travellers. Thank you.
While couchsurfing,she also saw a solo woman travellers testimony of Indian male hosts. The woman wrote that her host in Jaisalmer got drunk,locked her in his room,forced himself on her and when she resisted,broke down and begged her to marry him.
But Taboclaon survived her first week in India. She waded through the bustle of Kolkata,even enjoyed the anonymity it gave her. I walk the streets of every city I visit,to know it better, she said. She visited Victoria Memorial and Park Street,went shopping at New Market,rode the Metro and tried the famous Kolkata street rolls. She bought a red-and-gold scarf to cover her chest and arms,just like friends and fellow travellers had told her. At Howrah station,on her way to Bodh Gaya,she encountered the chaos typical of Indian railway stations,and one that leaves foreigners gasping. I couldnt tell which coach was the second AC one and I didnt know who to ask. I got into the general compartment instead. Im of a small build so I know how to secure a seat. But here,I sat with five people beside me,five people in front,some at my feet and many on top on the luggage rack. Did I pay Rs 800 for this? I wondered. Minutes later,a railway official rescued her and escorted her to the air-conditioned,sparsely populated second AC coach. The contrast was overwhelming. The same train and such different ways to travel in them, she thought.
On March 25,she celebrated Holi at Bodh Gaya with children from a local NGO,run by a German friend who she met through couchsurfing. Among the many comments on her Facebook posts and blog were some telling her about Holi celebrations in India. Instantly hooked,she read up on the festival,looked at Technicolor Holi pictures and decided to take part in the festivities. Only one woman,Marieellen Ward,a weathered solo female traveller and popular blogger,had words of caution. Dont go out during Holi,stay in, she warned.
Then Taboclaon went to Varanasi.
On March 27,the day of Holi,she walked out of the guesthouse with two other female travellers. It was 9 am. The ghats were awash with shades of pinks,greens and blues. Men and children ran in the streets,strutting water guns,palms soiled with colours. In minutes,Taboclaon and her friends were doused with colours. Groups of men approached us,slapping colours on our cheeks. The sight of so many men was intimidating,there were hardly any women celebrating. But we didnt feel threatened, she said.
An hour later,Taboclaon left her friends to join another group two Canadian men from the same guesthouse and a local resident who showed them around. As they walked from Assi ghat to the main ghat,their paths repeatedly crossed with groups of men. Each time,Taboclaon would duck behind the tall,well-built Canadians,and turn in a side alley. Stop doing that. Dont let them bully you,walk with us, her friends chided her.
She couldnt avoid the next group. Six men advanced on them so fast she didnt get any time to take cover. Four of them surrounded her,cutting her off from her friends. Their hands clasped firmly onto her breasts. Two of them groped her violently,while the others rubbed colour on her cheeks. She tried to wrest herself free,but they held her fast. Her friends tried to push their way through,screaming Stop that,stop it. But they were easily held off. The local guy disappeared. She struggled,her fists clawing at them. The men laughed. She noticed a teenager among them. However,many minutes later,she had somehow managed to break free. She ran.
She sat down at the ghat,fighting tears. Shaking,she gathered her arms around her. As images from the last half hour flashed in her head,the feeling of helplessness returned. The thought that things couldve gone much worse didnt escape her. She wanted,desperately,to go back. Broken pieces of clay lay scattered at her feet,remnants of the Holi revelry. She stuffed them in her pockets. The next time Ill draw blood, she told herself.
The city of the dead had fascinated her. The sacred funeral pyres,the culture and history had made her eager to visit Varanasi. But the city only frightened her. For eight years,she had worked as a counsellor to sexually abused children and women in Manila. All the advice she had given them over the years failed her in Varanasi. Two days after that incident,I went to an internet café. There was only one more person at the café besides the owner. While I was browsing,the owner came to me,put his hands on my neck and began pressing my shoulders,offering me a massage. I fled. I just wanted to leave India. I had travelled to many places,and always alone but Id never felt unsafe. Till I came here, she said later.
Days after the Holi incident,she hear from a German friend,Monique,who was in Delhi during Holi. She had been groped too. She tried to cover her chest with her hands,but they had pulled her arms away. And it happened under the watchful eyes of policemen,who were a few metres away.
Taboclaon visited Agra,Jaipur and Delhi as she had planned. She was heckled in Agra by shop-owners looking for a sale. Jaipur was more welcoming. She befriended a shop owner whose stall sat across Hawa Mahal. She spent hours sitting on his window sill,watching the streets. She bought another colourful scarf from the bazaar. She came to Delhi,where she saw women ride the Metro,walk the streets,roam markets in shorts. She stayed with the family of one of her blog readers. I got a chance to see how an Indian family lives,their preoccupation with marriage and even their distribution of chores. At home,my mother doesnt lift her finger,we are the ones who run around. But here,its just the opposite, she says,laughing and adding: What got to me most in India was the sheer number of men. In all the other places I saw women,but they only sat on their porches outside their homes,in their streets. Men were everywhere,walking,smoking,eating,hanging out,
chewing paan. Not women. I just didnt see enough women.
She returned to Manila on April 9,to her two cats. She posted her Varanasi experience on her blog,Solitary Wanderer. She says she saw the best and the worst a solo traveller could face in India. But she plans to come back,for the cities she didnt see,for the aniseed-sugar-cube delight after every meal,for her friends and for the book she wants to write on India. And even for Varanasi.