In India we are rock stars. Maybe it’s because we look relatively young. Maybe it’s because we smile a lot. Maybe it’s because we’re American (people’s eyes light up especially bright when we tell them we’re from USA because there aren’t many Americans traveling here). Maybe it’s because we don’t brush people off or ignore them like we witness so many other foreigners doing. Definitely it’s because we have white skin. But mostly, I think it’s because everyone loves our sunglasses, despite the fact that they’re knock-offs we bought in Thailand for a few bucks. We get at least ten comments on them each day. People keep trying to trade or even offer to buy them from us. Finally, one guy explained to us that they make us look like Bollywood actors.
True, when we walk down the street people get dollar signs in their eyes and try every angle to get money out of us. Flattery is usually their first resort. But this is different. When we enter paid sights where the touts and vendors can’t follow, such as forts, museums and temples, the attention doesn’t stop. Indians flock to us like paparazzi stalking their favorite socialite.
We try to walk from one exhibit to the next, but inevitably we’re stopped at least once every minute. “Sir, madam…please one photo okay?” We smile cooperatively as parents force their children into our arms or onto our laps in order to get that priceless snap with their ‘foreign friends.’ Groups of twenty-something males mob us, each taking a turn to stand between Jessie and me (or often, just with Jessie). I’m not exaggerating when I say that we routinely stand for 5~10 minutes in one spot as giant groups of giggling bachelors jump in and out of photos with us.
On our trip to Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur we were getting so many requests for pictures that I began feeling claustrophobic, my heart began racing, and I had to go outside so I could breathe. Thirty seconds after I’d sat down on a bench with my head cradled miserably in my hands a guy came up to me and unwittingly asked for “one picture please.”
It feels strange getting this ridiculous amount of attention. Especially when you consider that we’re wearing dumpy, baggy, faded clothes and sweating like pigs. But it’s as if these things are invisible in the locals’ eyes. Whatever they see in us, it seems that we are infinitely more interesting and cherished by them than the spectacular sights they’ve come from miles around to see.
A few days ago we spent two hours of a long train ride talking with a train car full of young Army commandos. They were so excited we were in their coach that 12 men squeezed into a sitting area made for six in order that they could all stare at us and hear our conversation with those of them who could speak English.
Eventually their squad leader came over and told them they were the next stop, so they had to get ready to disembark. They stood up and dug around in their gear and all of a sudden, out of nowhere, the sitting area became stacked with AK-47s. They smiled widely as they showed us how the banana clips and safeties on the guns worked, posed for pictures for us and even insisted that we take pictures holding their weapons. All this on a public passenger train. Jessie and I kept shaking our heads and thinking, “Where else in the world could this happen?” Their squad leader was obviously NOT happy about this behavior, but still they were falling all over themselves to impress us. Us… two average people from middle class Midwest families with no claim to any sort of fame. And they couldn’t get enough of us.
We foreigners come to India desiring to capture images of the men and women in all their beautiful brightly colored clothes doing their daily routines, but Indians seem just as eager to get a great picture of tourists. For every foreigner trying to sneak a picture here, there are handfuls of Indians boldly stopping them to snap pictures with their mobile phones. It’s a fascinating reversal that highlights the fact that both tourist and local romanticize the idea of the other.
But honestly, no joking at all, I think the sunglasses are responsible for at least 75% of our popularity.
We’ve had the whole range of experiences in the past six weeks, from the wonderful to the horrifying. But one thing is for sure: India is good for the ego, as long as you can take the smothering that comes along with it.