Contributor : Dr. Vandita Dubey
“Are you going to Ashram?”
asked the taxi driver at Bangalore Airport as he put my backpack into the trunk of his car. I looked at him, trying to figure out why he thought so, and shook my head. I then showed him my friend’s address and explained that I was headed for her house. As we settled for a long drive in the taxi, he turned around and asked me,
“What country are you from?”
Now, I am neither blond haired nor blue eyed, but I have noticed that whenever I travel with my backpack I am mistaken for a foreigner. This is regardless of where I am – the Delhi Metro station, Bangalore airport or on a train from Delhi to Kathgodam. Traveling around with a backpack in Indian or un-Indian clothes has had strangers attempting to talk to me in English, asking me which country I was from. This never happens to me when I travel through the same places, or elsewhere, carrying a suitcase or a bag. So. what is it about carrying a backpack that makes me un-Indian?
I realize that with a backpack folks cannot put me in a box. I know I don’t look like a student, definitely not college-age (however much I may wish I did). I proudly walk around with my untinted grey hair, announcing my middle age to all who may care. So, I clearly look my age. Perhaps I don’t act my age? The fact that I carry my well stuffed back-pack around defies the Indian rules of age, gender and class. Women of my age and social status are expected to have coolies or other men folk carrying their luggage. But then I have also lugged my own bags and seen other women do so at railway stations without being labelled foreigner. Of course, this is as long as the luggage in question is a suitcase or a bag. So, what seems to cause all this confusion is the innocuous backpack itself.
I have to admit that my backpack is an attention grabbing red with some grey. I bought the backpack more than 10 years ago from a specialty outdoor store. It is designed keeping the female form in mind. And, I have spent many a sweaty days, hiking with it in the mountains. However, now our hikes involve mules and it seem masochistic to lug uphill weight that I do not have to. So, my backpack has become my travel luggage of choice, especially when I travel alone. I prefer to carry my own bags. It makes me feel independent and in control. Perhaps that is what a backpack signifies – independence and control. Is that what is disconcerting then? An Indian woman, middle aged, independent and in control of her life?
Or. Is it that most women who travel with backpacks are foreigners? Hence, any woman who carries a backpack is a foreigner. But then any woman who wears Indian clothes is not necessarily assumed to be an Indian, especially if she has blue eyes and blond hair. Why then, with my brown eyes and black (ok, black and grey) hair am I mistaken for a foreigner?
Do tell me what you think. I’d love to hear your backpack stories or unusual travel tales.
About Dr. Vandita Dubey : A US licensed psychologist, Dr. Dubey works with her clients over phone and skype, and also hosts therapy retreats in the Himalayas. A published author, she also co-hosts the Himalayan Writing Retreat. You can learn more about her at www.vanditadubey.com, and about the retreats at www.himalayanwritingretreat.com.