(a woman jogs in her full salwar suit at the Panjim Gymkhana in Panjim, Goa, India)

"You are from?" the Indian guy at the chai stand queries Dave, a question he's fielded for the umpteenth time.
"USA," replies Dave.
"Obama!" Dave repeats.
"What you do in the US?"
"I'm a sign maker -- I work on computers. My wife is a teacher."
"Yes, I'm a teacher," I edge in.
"How many days in India?" . . .

(ladies eat breakfast at a street-side cafe in Da Nang, Vietnam)

The conversation continues -- again, I have to eek out my voice in the exchange. Most of the time, only my husband is addressed. Occasionally, this focus on him is a pleasure-- I'm tired, travel-weary, sick of answering the same questions over and over . . . But more often than not, I'm fed up with being second fiddle and I force my way into the conversation, asking about this man's family and wife and what does she do? What's her name? Where is she?

That's the big question I found on my mind after being in India for four months, where are the ladies at? I realized that our company was almost always male --

No women drivers, waiters, shop-keepers (5 men sold me a bra out of a box, making recommendations all the while), chai vendors, tut tut drivers, cab drivers, train workers, porters, cooks, dobi wallas (clothes washing men), doctors, budget-hotel staff, bus drivers, etc . . . Yes, women appear in markets, travel agencies, upscale hotels, teachers . . . But being budget-travelers, our interactions with women were very limited in India. As shown in the beginning dialogue, my husband, was almost always addressed before I was -- and even then, I had to work my way into most conversations -- literally straining to contribute my voice.

(a young woman serves banh my--Vietnamese sandwiches-- at a new year's celebration in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam)

From what I observed, the interaction and relations between sexes was also a completely different dynamic than my Western way of thinking-- keeping each sex very separated and women keeping much more to themselves, rarely could I strike up a chat on the bus or in the market with and Indian lady-- what are we thinking about each other? I would ponder this while on the bus . . . and try to bridge the gap by offering a cookie or candy from my purse. Mostly, what I got back was a side to side nod and "no" and a small smile.

The rules at the public pool in Panjim, Goa highlighted some cultural differences in regards to sex -- men required to wear speedos, women a sporty one piece -- which was interpreted as 1920's style- unitard bathing suit. While at the beach, Indian ladies just wear their clothes (saris, salwaar suit, T-shirt and jeans --whatever they had on) in the water. Or if a woman exercised at the track, she might appear in a full sari or salwaar suit -- my tank top and shorts a stark contrast in flesh exposure. Even then, running a few times per week at the track, i think I saw a lady there twice.

"Love marriage or arranged marriage?" Many giggles and interest over my "love marriage" response. In India, love is grown into, a decision made by families, not two young people who have lived together for 3 1/2 years and decided to commit to each other, as Dave and I have . . A strange idea to me, that my life could be promised to me by my parents --especially considering our marriage is so young and fresh. I struggle with this idea, yet am careful to remind myself there are many other countries where women's choice in clothing, husband and lifestyle are MUCH more restricted than in India.

The Subcontinent -- a land of ladies exuding sensuality, color and the scent of jasmine perfuming the air from the flowers in their hair . . . tied up in a bun or braid of deliciously long hair -- how i want to see it down, blowing in the hot wind as they breeze by on the back of their man's scooter.

(a banana seller in Old Goa, Goa, India--photo by Stephanie Kilpatrick, my sister-in-law)

Being in a new country, Vietnam, pronounces the contrasts of India that much more -- to see women in skin tight short-shorts, low-cut tank tops, thigh-highs, sky-high heels, hair down in an array of styles-- most apparent, skin!!! is a revelation. . . . Laughter, commingling of the sexes over beers, dating -- points to the fact that Indian culture, when out of the major cities, excludes pre-marital dating almost entirely. For the most part, men are at bars. If there are men and women inter-mixing, it's within the family context, intergenerational with grand parents and children at a restaurant. Much rarer to see young couples together, even rarer to see physical affection outside of Mumbai, Delhi or Bangalore... I longed to see an old couple cuddling a bit or a young couple's flirtation. Perhaps my concept of Women's Liberation applies differently here? Does dating make a woman's life complete? Is wearing spaghetti straps a sin? What about the section of middle that the saried-ladies reveal? I so wish I had the opportunity to interact with more Indian women.

(young woman stops by the market on her moped in Ho Chi Minh City)

My father's words echo in my mind -- "it's not weird, it's different." But I find the differences in Vietnam to be more friendly -- where women swiftly package our strawberry shortcake, rent us a bicycle, chat with their girlfriend over a bowl of pho, giggle with boyfriends at a neighborhood bar, sell me a sim card out of her purse on the street, sell us our plane ticket, seat us at a fancy hotel for lunch, usher me into a museum, drive mopeds, wear high heels and shorts, sell waffles and books and knick knacks on the street, smile and wave to me at the markets, tailor our clothes, browse the bookstores; the women here are out in full force . . . I'm happy to chat with our host's neighbor, who invited me to talk on her bench outside her home and tell me all about her favorite places in Vietnam and her job and family - -- this is an event that happened on day 3 here! A casual conversation and interaction that was so powerful and beautiful to me -- and never occurred in the 4 months of living in India.

At the core of the story is a woman's independence -- the ability or the will of a woman to take her girlfriends out and have a good time, do things away from the men in their family just for the sheer fun of it. This is a site I love to see, breathe in and feel with all my heart.

(the author in traditional Indian house dress, Goa, India)


  1. This was a fantastic departure from the food emphasis. You should post on a travel site. Very thoughtful. And the Indian house dress sure beats those in the U.S. Elegant. CR

  2. This is a fascinating post! It makes me think, though, that there might be something to be said for their way of arranged marriages. As mortified as I would have been to have my parents arrange my marriage, I think there's something very powerful about the notion that we can learn to love someone. That love in marriage is something that grows over time, not just from sexual attraction, but from the foundation of sharing a life together and taking care of each other. And that, you're both expected to make it work no matter what.

    Whether you have a "love marriage" or an "arranged marriage", I think there's something we could learn from that perspective.

    Thanks so much for sharing this!

  3. Great post Lee! I'm totally experiencing similar feelings here in Amman. I find myself looking at the ground much of my time in public hoping I won't be perceived in the wrong way or face questions I don't want to answer.

  4. the overriding struggle in any trip to to "live as the natives live" whether that be in china, italy, or borneo, but it is also arresting to be reminded of how different cultures live, from hiding their women to exalting in (and sometimes using) their womens' sexuality. i personally think it's not so hard to travel, language barriers, time constraints, strange food, unusual practices aside.... but it IS hard sometimes to come to terms with how women are treated or valued. i loved this piece.