I arrived in India on the afternoon of 12 January 2018. My first hours in Delhi consisted mostly of watching the sunset from my taxi during my 2-hour (!) ride from the airport to my hostel in Laxmi Nagar. There, I met up with Marie Dabbadie, my first friend that I made during my Watson year in Sweden. We’d come to India to join 17 others for the second ever Girl Skate India tour. Girl Skate India is the brainchild of Atita Verghese, a Bangalore native who, after learning how to skate at 19 years old, decided to create an organization focused on promoting, featuring the participation of girls and women in skateboarding throughout India.
Waking up in New Delhi after one month in South Africa felt like such a blessing. That morning, I met Júlia, a 28-year-old Brazilian woman with whom I became friends just by looking into each other’s eyes from a distance. Instantly she felt like a soul-friend, someone who embodied perspectives and characteristics that I admire. She too was travelling alone throughout the world (for two years!) and, after watching me struggle with my big suitcase, taught me my first lesson in India: “you don’t need as much as you think you do to survive.”
In those first three days in Delhi, I:
- Watched sunset from the roof of a spice market in Old Delhi
- Ate street food and got “Delhi Belly”
- Sang and freestyle rapped at a jazz bar in South Delhi
- (“Viva a vida e deixa a vida viver! Não deixe o momento te passar! Quem não chora não mama. Canta!!!”)
- (But also avoid getting on a mic if you have nothing to say)
- Bought a flute and went back to making music
- Had a deep conversation with Júlia about wealth and how my lack of money does not speak to my richness in knowledge, culture, and experience. With her, I also learned more about the importance of ethnorelativism when adapting to new cultures. She proposed challenging my own perception of “normal” and recognizing everyone’s normal as different.
- Got frustrated because I was constantly asked: “are you married?” “why are you travelling alone?” “where is your husband?” Marriage came up a lot in conversations with Indians and especially with Indian men. I thought about my ex-boyfriend and realised he and I aren’t going to work as long as he depends on me financially and insists on rooting himself in my garden. I need to walk my own path and he needs to establish his. Otherwise, I will suffocate like so many women who have given up their bodies to provide a foundation for their man’s growth. Having just broken up with someone who made me feel a lot of pressure to decide on marriage/whether I want to commit to being with him long-term, I am tired of being asked when I will marry. I exist beyond use value, beyond my attachment to a man whose last name is expected to brand me like cattle. Here in India, like in many parts of the world, women don’t have much agency. Child marriage rates are high. The combination of religious conservatism and sexual depravity leads to the hypersexualization of foreign women who are seen as “easy” and “loose” like those featured in pornography. Anyway…
- Thought about my purpose in life as being: showing people alternatives are possible… encouraging people to pursue their dreams
- Decided not to apply for fellowships or opportunities outside of the USA after returning from my Watson year because I no longer want to plan my life one year, two years, five years in advance
After three eventful days and 10-hour train ride from Delhi to Khajuraho and a 1.5-hour drive through Madhya Pradesh, our squad of 16 finally arrived at Janwaar Castle. There, we spent five days living with host families, hosting skate sessions and workshops for girls, and sharing stories about our lives and passions over chai and bonfires. Janwaar was a beautiful experience, but it was also challenging because it was even more rural than Isithumba. India is a much more patriarchal society than South Africa, and in Janwaar I often felt sad and frustrated at how differently girls and women were treated and had to live. I remember seeing my host sister’s face everytime someone ordered her to cook something, make chai, fetch something – all for my comfort as a guest – and I felt guilty. One day I saw her crying after her father took away 20 rupees she had stashed away; her brothers surrounded her and taunted her for crying and not having any more money. I also remember my host dad coming home late at night drunk and high beating the house puppy right outside our door. There were many lovely moments as well, such as learning the words and sign language for food and colours and activities. I am travelling with a flute and a Mozambican instrument called a mbira; I showed my host dad and brothers and we spent a few hours one morning jamming. My most memorable day in Janwaar was when, right before heading towards the skate park, the women in my host family surrounded me and dressed me in a beautiful pink sari. I showed up to the skatepark in my sari and skateboard in tow and everyone stopped and stared before cheering. That day was the last day of girls workshops. Even though we came to Janwaar thinking there were at most three girls who skated, that day it felt like girls from the whole village, some as young as 2 and some as old as 16, came out to skate! I even got my first real skate portrait – me doing a rock-to-fakie in my pink sari. Epic!!!
After Janwaar, we spent two days on a tour/party bus from Janwaar to Bangalore, where we would spend two days at The Cave Skatepark, home to Holystoked Skateboarding Collective. This was an important place for me to visit because Holystoked is where Atita first learned how to skateboard. It is arguably the home for skateboarding in India and is a destination for skateboarders from all over India and the world.
After two short but fulfilling days in Bangalore, we travelled east to Mahabalipuram, where we would spend one week expanding a skatepark right on the beach. There, we met Kamali, an eight-year-old local skater from Mahabalipuram who is already a renowned skater and surfer. Participating in this build was such an amazing experience!!! Learning how to mix concrete, experiencing the long hours of hard manual labour alongside kids from Mahabalipuram and people from all over the world – Denmark, Israel, Germany, Mexico, Canada, France, India, Belgium, Switzerland – to be able to physically build the infrastructure to support my/our vision of a future in which children and especially girls can skate freely has been such a blessing.
On the last day of the build, 31 January, there was a lot of magic in the air – a lunar eclipse, blood moon, and supermoon. Though this was my original date of departure back to South Africa, I decided to extend my stay in India until the 12th of March. I felt chosen by India and knew there was so much more to learn and experience here. The fact that a lunar eclipse – my second ever – happened on this same night was a cosmic affirmation that this is the place, that this is exactly where I am meant to be.