Friday, April 3, 2015

iFeature | Solo Woman in Bihar

This post was originally penned for Zostel here

I started the New Year with what seemed like a rather bold step. Not only had I quit my 9 – 6 because my travel bug had mutated to develop tentacles of its own, but I was also deputed (not to be mistaken for deported) to spend a month in Bihar on my own. The purpose of my stint in a state that is on nobody’s travel priority list was a Fellowship I’d gotten through. That’s why I’d moved to Delhi. And that’s how Bihar happened.

Family and friends back home in Mumbai tried to reassure me in their own way. But to me it seemed to suggest one thing: As if moving to Delhi (from Mumbai) wasn’t (bad) enough, you’re now going to Bihar. And that too for a month!
Thankfully no one said that out aloud.

The streets of Patna

It could be Bihar’s geographic location in what’s come to be known as the ‘notorious north’ that puts it in this awkward bind and perhaps the demeanour of its people that one is intimidated by everything about it. But back on the streets, where I found myself 80% of the time navigating my way about the place, I realised that where Google Maps wasn’t helpful, it was the people who’d come to my rescue – in a way I was only about to experience.

Scenario #1:
Me: Excuse me. Could you please direct me to <insert name of a street/road/landmark>?
Local: Yeah. <insert string of directions>

Scenario #2:
Me: Excuse me. Could you please direct me to <insert name of a street/road/landmark>?
Local: <calls out to friend/acquaintance and poses my question to them>

Scenario #3:
Me: Excuse me. Could you please direct me to <insert name of a street/road/landmark>?
Local: I’m sorry but I don’t know where this is

The reason I chose to call out something seemingly trifling as asking and receiving directions is that it’s seldom as easy. Anyone who’s tried struggled to navigate their way through an unknown place knows what a nightmarish experience it can be if locals around you cannot help you. What set Bihar apart from the other places around India I’ve travelled to was that never before had anyone apologised for being unable to help me out!

Going where your feet take you

An autorickshaw with woofers! Cool quotient redefined

And I got watched out for a lot.
Traveling within Bihar meant hopping into buses – something most people had warned me against doing. I’ve had the bus conductor in more than one instance direct me to the seat right behind the driver, at the front of the bus as these are reserved for women.

People I was staying or meeting with while in Bihar (and who by no means were known to me otherwise) have offered to pick and/or drop me to the nearest auto-rickshaw stand or bus-stop (even though I’d protest back saying these were unnecessary).

For me personally it is these instances when people have done the little things – sometimes by simply being courteous or doing their ‘job’ or going out of their way – that are reasons enough to feel safe. That’s what I call ‘experiencing humanity’ (even as every morning’s headlines offer no comfort).

So there, for all the eyes that were rolled and gasps that were let out (mine included) Bihar belied them all. And if there’s anything besides my experience that’s been stuck in my head, it’s a Twain quote:
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.”

Getting Bollywood-esque in Madhubani

Duration and places been to:
In my five weeks, I’d been to places as far and wide as Madhubani in the north to Kishanganj in the east while hovering around Patna and sometimes Muzaffarpur and it was only towards the end that I did the Nalanda – Rajgir – Bodh Gaya circuit.

When in Bihar:
Eat:       Litti chokha and samosas from off the streets
             Satiate your cravings for all things sweet near Dakbunglow Road in Patna
See:      The Buddha Museum at Patna (It’s an island of the quiet. You’ll know what I mean when you   get there)
             Nalanda Archeological Ruins
             Venuvan and the Japanese Temple at Rajgir
             Sit around the Bodhi Tree at Bodh Gaya
Do:        Auto-rickshaws. It’s an experience that redraws all route-maps!

             Speak the ‘hum-waali’ Hindi (as a Twitter friend put it)

Litti chokha

The canvas of rust - Nalanda ruins

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