My first day in Kathmandu, Nepal, I got lost. I was staying at a guest house just outside of the main tourist area of Thamel and as I walked around my neighbourhood seeing only brown-skinned people and Asian and South Asian features (faces that looked like mine!), I felt even more alone. And then — I reached a main street, saw some white tourists — and instantly felt less apprehensive; I had found some of my people!
I know this must sound strange. After all, I’m brown-skinned, ethnically Indian. But the thing is, I grew up as a visible ethnic minority in Canada. And while my childhood and adolescence were spent in neighbourhoods with a lot of South Asians and West Indians (shout outs to Malton and Brampton!), I’ve always had a diverse circle of friends, AND Toronto is one of the most diverse cities in the world — I still grew up seeing a lot of white faces. Whether around me or on television and in advertisements, seeing a lot of white people has been my norm…and I took comfort in seeing these faces in an unfamiliar city.
I’m sure many travellers can identify with the peculiar and specific travel experience of being surrounded by people who look like you, but knowing that you aren’t one of them; while I looked the part of a local, I didn’t exactly fit their values or culture. Conversely, I knew that the white people I saw were tourists and travellers, like me, and this made me feel safe, less lost. I laughed to myself as I stood looking around that first day in Kathmandu…because I realized that though I may look at the white faces on the street and feel an affinity towards my fellow travellers, they wouldn’t immediately recognize me as one of their own.
In Nepal, I was in the ethnic majority. It was an interesting experience, because I haven’t travelled to too many places where I’ve looked like everyone else or been looked upon as a local. I was mistaken for a Nepali or an Indian neighbour more than a few times, with people speaking to me in both Nepali and Hindi; I wish I could have responded. People were often surprised that I spoke only English, expressing confusion when I explained that, no, I wasn’t from India, but yes, I was ethnically Indian. Most of the Nepali people I met had never even heard of Trinidad, so I often simplified my story — yes, my family was from India, but left many generations ago and never returned…we now lived in Canada.
Travelling through the Annapurna region of Nepal was a particularly emotional and reflective experience for me. I saw women working in the rice fields and young women at the market with their children, and I imagined myself in their place; with a change of clothes I could easily fit into the picture. I have been exposed to poverty, but it is the fact that it is only one generation that separates me from this life that really gave me pause. Both of my parents grew up with very little in Trinidad: no electricity or running water in their childhoods, struggling to make ends meet, raising animals and growing crops for family use and for sale. I grew up hearing my parents’ stories about their lives in a developing country, and about the struggles of my grandparents to build a better life. Two of my four grandparents were illiterate, and both unions were arranged marriages (my grandmothers on both sides were just 16 when they were married off). My family heritage is of indentured labour and poverty in the sugar cane plantations of Trinidad…before that, well, we’ve lost our familial connections and history in India. But we have come far in a few generations. Hard work and a few strokes of luck and I’m travelling the world, taking pictures of people working in rice paddies, instead of being there myself.
I want to add that I enjoyed some “brown privilege” in Nepal, in addition to my privileges as a Westerner able to afford this type of travel in the first place. I noticed that, more than other tourists I encountered, Nepali people sought to speak with me. I think that my Nepali/Indian appearance made me more approachable, and perhaps more likely to have something in common with them — after all, we looked so alike! On my Annapurna Base Camp trek, many porters and guides were curious about me, “the Indian girl trekking alone,” and were keen to speak with me at rest stops and lodges; I didn’t see the same interest or outreach to other trekkers. And funny enough, one trekker I met thought I was the guide, and my young female guide was the tourist!
In Pokhara, a young woman at a laundry shop invited me to sit and speak with her one afternoon — she hadn’t seen many ethnically Indian women travelling alone and wanted to get to know me, to know where I had been in the world, and where I would go next. I think she also dreamed of a life beyond her shop…she spoke longingly of travel.
As I look back on my time in Nepal, I cherish the experiences of genuine connection with the local people…my brown skin afforded me a unique experience and I am grateful for it: the opportunity to connect with local people on a deeper level, offering them some comfort in the familiarity of my face.
But I must add that was a surreal visual and emotional experience to walk the streets of Kathmandu looking like a local, but seeking the recognition and connection of fellow travellers who often passed me by without a second glance. Belonging and identity can be murky waters to navigate as a Western person of colour, and I realized that first day in Kathmandu that even in the East I would be confronted with these topics…there was nowhere I could travel in this world to escape them. Happily, I can’t say that I’ve faced any challenges backpacking as a brown lady (on this trip, at least), but I think it’s important to note that my skin colour has impacted my experience…I’m just glad that it’s made for a richer journey so far.