My body on holidays

I have been back from my holiday for a day and a half now. Andrew Leigh’s book (Disconnected) had come into the library for me and there is a conference on Social Inclusion next month that is still accepting abstracts, so I have plenty to do. However, I have managed to take this day and a half to simply work my way through emails and scratch the surface of my Google Alert lists.

My trip was not some life changing adventure of self discovery (I was not even away for four weeks), but it did make me a lot more aware of my body. Not only was my foreigner status immediately marked to all by my physical presence, but I was clearly a female. Where we started in India, in Cochin, they had separate ques for ferries and trains along with the front part of the bus for ladies only. When I was flying home from Dhaka in Bangladesh ‘ladies travelling alone’ were invited to board first, along with people requiring assistance and families travelling with small children.

Gender is not really something I spend much time thinking about at home, although I have studied in a field dominated by female students and one summer I worked full time for a company in which I was the only female. However it was rather a big deal on my trip. In Bangladesh it was not that unusual in the cities or towns to only be able to spot one or two other females at an intersection, and it certainly happened that there were times when were were stopped on buses and I was unable to find a single female amongst the people outside. While there were plenty of school girls in India pedalling on bikes, I did not see a single female cyclist in Bangladesh except for a very common billboard with a lady riding a bike in a red and green outfit. When I was by myself for a few days in Bangladesh my solitary status provoked quite a bit of discussion, but even when I had rejoined two other females we would be questioned as to whether there was really ‘only’ three of us. I had the sense that the questioning had to do with the lack of a male person, rather than the lack of other people more generally.

Still, not everybody works on the same assumptions and I am just as likely to make assumptions based on people’s bodies as anyone else. The person running the place I was staying in Khulna told me that two Australians had arrived and showed me where they had signed in. These Australians were people I had been planning to meet up with as they were my sister and another person we had been travelling with. I said that one of them was my sister and the man asked if she was the big or small one. I assumed he meant age wise, and said I was the big one. He meant which of the two girls was my sister and used height top distinguish them, with my sister being a head and shoulders taller than the other girl she had arrived with (who to me looked rather unrelated to me as she is ethnically Chinese and my sister and I could only look more white if we bleached our brown hair).

My presence was a source of interest to some people, with people wanting to take photos with their mobile phone of me and with me. While this provided an interesting opportunity to meet some families, I said no to those males that I felt were being sleazy (although many of them did not ask and just took photos anyway). I was just using my iPhone and mostly snapped things because I wanted to make some notes about them later rather for their aesthetic value and so did not get so many snapshots of others. One of the people I travelled with actually knows something about taking photos and brought along a rather serious camera. I am not sure if it says something about a particular guard’s sense of humour, desire to be noticed by foreigners or just enthusiasm to be a part of photos, but this particular person was taking a photo of the outside of the museum when she was stopped by the guard. She immediately apologised and put her camera away when he motioned for her to photograph him and posed for her.

Bodies are captured in holiday snapshots, with a still image being available for preservation (and in the age of digital photograph- immediate viewing). However, my actual body was changed in small, and luckily temporary, ways. I got bruises from buses and an unexpected tap location in the bathroom, not being on my bike my body changed shape every so slightly, I got very dirty and collected more freckles. There were plenty of bodily skills that I did not manage (or even attempt) to master such as mushing your food together with your hand before eating it, snotting straight into the drain rather than using a tissue and making that particular throat clearing noise. There were others that I made some progress with such as a single head tilt in Bangladesh to indicate ‘okay’ or holding your hand up in front of oncoming traffic as you cross the road. The one skill that I hope to keep hold of is not making eye contact with every single person on the street as I walk, as I am sure this is something that I freak people out with.

I am sure so much detail with so little analysis does not really belong on this blog, but it is nice to capture some of what I experienced because sitting on my chair in front of my computer, I almost feel like I never left home.

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