"It was like a washing machine," described a woman named Samantha from a rooftop in New Delhi, "They were throwing paint from every which way. It got into my eyes so I was completely blinded; still they kept assaulting and touching my body."
Hailing from England, Samantha was traveling around India with her two male friends. They decided to go to Vrindawan, the hallowed birthplace of Krishna, for the celebration of Holi. What they experienced was chaos, pure madness, and quite the adventure.
"One guy threw sewage at us," commented Andrew, also from England, "He was literally scooping sludge from the side of the road and throwing it at everyone with a huge smile on his face."
"Then there was one kid who got me with cow manure," recalled Heath, "I guess they ran out of paint and got creative."
Their experience was extreme for India's Holi, also known as the festival of colors. Traditionally, Holi is celebrated throughout parts of South Asia, particularly North India and Nepal, during the Springtime. It derives from the Hindu legend of Holika. This holiday is typically celebrated with paint filled water balloons, water pistols, and mounds of dry paint powder thrown through the streets. The idea is to cover one another with as much paint as possible, and all in good fun. Unfortunately, some people take the antics too far, and as a foreigner, it is a good idea to show up prepared.
"I didn't feel bad about my experience," Samantha explained, "I knew what I was getting into. I was mentally prepared for a whole lot of gropings. I wasn't going to let this stop me from being a part of such an incredible festival." Samantha only lasted about fifteen minutes outside before Andrew and Heath led her back to the hotel.
"The men were definitely using us to get to her," Andrew explained, "They would rub paint on our faces to establish a kind of trust, then move on to getting all gropey with her. There were so many of them around us that there was nothing we could do but try to get her out of there." Andrew went on to describe how after taking Samantha to their room, he and Heath went back outside. Their experience was notably less intense without Samantha by their side. Yet, the streets were still quite chaotic with a paint warfare frenzy. I asked Samantha if she felt left out when the boys left to explore more of the festival.
"I guess, but not really," she said, "I took a long shower and marked Holi off my bucket list."
One has to admit, the concept behind Holi is pretty spectacular. Colorful paint fights and floating clouds of fluorescent awesomeness? Yes, please. The only problem lies in the fact that a lot of Indian men don't seem to know how to behave appropriately around women in public (see: Uttar Pradesh – Penis Utopia). Hitting the streets during Holi seemed like yet another Indian sausage fest, although it's to my understanding that many of the women celebrate privately.
"For most women living in various parts of India, excluding perhaps the southern States and Goa, stepping out of their houses during Holi and the days leading up to the festival is an excursion to be avoided" (Kaul: 2012).
This doesn't stop foreign women, and all of our ballsiness, from wanting to get in on the paint fighting experience. Women can certainly have fun in India for Holi, but it's important to show up mentally prepared.
I met Elisabeth from Germany at New Delhi's Exotic Rooftop Restaurant. Two days before the celebration, we decided to explore Old Delhi's paint market. It was jam packed and bustling with hundreds of Indians buying and selling paint supplies for Holi. We were admiring the bright colors of one particular vendor, who joyously poured bright pink paint over Elisabeth's hands, when she turned to me with an expression of shock.
"Someone just put their hand between my legs," she lamented. I became very angry, and wanted to get up in the perv's face. However, it was impossible to identify the culprit, as streams of Indians flowed past us in droves.
We decided to try and push our way out. We meshed our way into the outward migration. I suddenly became very protective over Elisabeth, who was tall, blonde, and very pretty. The men passing stared with eyes of perversion. I walked both next to and behind my new friend while keeping a watchful eye over her body. I wanted to see the next person who grabbed her so that I could step up and call out her groper. That is when I began to feel the hands upon my own ass. Yet, everywhere I turned, there were dozens of men either staring intently, or else displaying disjointed expressions.
Elisabeth and I retreated into a tea shop, where we enjoyed some chai and were treated kindly. The woman who served us dipped her thumb into a bag of bright pink paint dust. She rubbed it across our foreheads as she wished us a happy Holi. No sooner had we left the shop did I feel an arm grab me from behind, wrapping around my waist and grabbing my butt cheek. With all my strength, I jabbed my elbow backwards. It was a direct hit.
"Oooooh!" wailed the man as he keeled over forwards, clutching his abdomen in pain. He apologized profusely, saying sorry repeatedly, as Elisabeth commended my excellent aim. Meanwhile, the man's friend was pointing and laughing.
The way to deter gropers is to speak out and defend yourself. Public humiliation seems to be the only way to stop the ignorance and teach these men how to behave around women.
Holi seems like an especially ripe time for Indian men to target women, particularly the Western women who aren't in hiding. The day before Holi, I tried to go shopping. I was pummeled by a barrage of tiny paint filled water balloons, some thrown from the top of five story buildings. They were actually quite painful thanks to the gravity. I decided to hide from the paint bombs by running from vendor to vendor, who would call the police when their merchandise was compromised.
From one shop, I watched the balloons fall, and realized that they were only be thrown at Western women. This made me mad. It would have been fun if everyone was being targeted equally, but it was quite obvious that this was not the case. The men continued to stroll the street without incident.
In the days before Holi, I met a dozen or so backpackers from around the world at a foreigner hangout called the Exotic Rooftop Restaurant. These were travelers from Italy, France, Germany, England, Chile, and Equator. Equipped with an arsenal of water balloons, squirt guns, and dozens of paint bags, we decided to take on Holi together. We vowed to be vigilant and leave no (wo)man behind.
Our pack hit the streets and mingled with locals. All in all, it was a total blast! We blew clouds of color at one another and painted our bodies with incredible hues. The practice in Delhi is to wish "Happy Holi" to strangers, and rub paint across one another's faces. This is followed by a hug.
The hug: allow me to explain. It's common for Indian men to practice public displays of affection on a daily basis. They often walk holding hands and sometimes embrace. It's not like in Western culture, where this might be considered a sign of homosexuality. Perhaps the physical nature of mutual male relationships in India helps to explain why some of the men don't understand why it is inappropriate to casually touch women. Seeing that they're less apt to dealing with women (who aren't family members) in their day to day lives, the lines might seem blurred to the men of this country. It might be confusing to set the boundaries on women, when it is so common for men to touch one another.
"Happy Holi, no hugs!" I said time and again to each and every man who approached me. I set my boundaries right from the beginning. The majority of the men respected my wishes, and rubbed paint on my face without negative incident. After all, Holi's for fun, and not all Indian men are total perverts. However, there were a few bad apples who'd rub the paint across my jaw line, then "accidentally" brush their hands against my breasts. It was obnoxious. I called a lot of these men out. It was never long before one of the guys from our group was by my side.
One teenage boy couldn't seem to accept the fact that I wouldn't let him hug me. He hovered for what seemed like minutes, trying to get at me from all different angles. That's when my new Chilean friend, Pedro, showed up to shoo the boy away.
There was a lot of attention being directed at two Italian girls who had decided to do Holi in very short dresses. With no sleeves and lacy bras showing, the men couldn't seem to keep their hands off them. Every time the men went in for hugs, the girls would lean forward, extending their shoulders while pushing their hips backwards. This was their attempt to keep their bodies as far away from the men as possible.
As we strolled the streets of Delhi, we heard percussive music coming from an alleyway. We followed the sounds to discover a Holi dance party. The men of our group joined in the fun as plumes of colors erupted from the dance circle. The girls and I all watched from the sidelines. Yes, of course we wanted to jump in and dance. Yet, we knew exactly what would happen if we tried to participate.
Still, the Indian men urged us to dance insistently. It seemed difficult for them to accept "no" as an answer. I was walking alongside a small Ecuadorian girl named Tania when a big Indian man grabbed her by the arm. With an excited smile, he began forcibly dragging her into the dance circle.
"No!" I shouted as I wrapped one arm around her, pulling Tania towards me. I used my other arm to push the big man away. I can be really strong when defending others. Disappointed, the man ran back into the circle, while I apologized laughingly to my new friend Tania. In the rescue, I had accidentally grabbed her boob, making me another Holi groper!
When we'd had enough adventure and fun in the streets, our group retreated back to the Exotic Rooftop Restaurant. There, we started our own private party. It was fun to spill paint over each other's heads without being on constant alert from creepers. Yet admittedly, the challenge of "surviving Holi" is half the fun for foreign participants.
Gropings aside, Holi was a fantastic experience. I definitely recommend going to Holi at least once in your lifetime. Perhaps it was so great because of the interesting people I met, and the new friends I made on that New Delhi rooftop. It was wonderful how everyone looked out for one another. This is why I love the backpacking community. It's incredible to explore new cultures like in India, and to share once in a lifetime experiences like Holi, with fun loving and likeminded individuals from around the globe.
Tips for a happy Holi:
1) If you hit the streets, celebrate with a group (preferably a large group). There is security in numbers. If you are a solo traveler, try to find a backpacker hang out. If you're in New Delhi, I recommend the Exotic Rooftop Restaurant's communal gazebo.
2) Avoid street markets that are so crowded you can't tell who is grabbing you.
3) If someone gropes or assaults you, and you can identify the perpetrator, don't be shy. Make your voice heard by calling them out on their misbehavior. Shaming these men and public humiliation will make them think twice the next time they feel handsy.
4) Dress conservatively to avoid excessive attention. Think t-shirts or long sleeves paired with baggy pants.
5) Consider attending private parties and organized events, because the streets can seem a bit like paint anarchy.
6) To be extra safe, stick to touristy places like Jaipur. It's the locals who tend to get overly excited.
7) If you are a woman: mentally prepare yourself. Chances are, you're going to get groped. If you can overcome how annoying these gropings can be, you are opening yourself to an incredible adventure.
8) If you're a man: This is your chance to give back to womankind. While it's easy to be selfish and get involved in the festivities, keeping an eye on the ladies should be a priority. It's not that we need knights in shining armor; however, you have to consider that the ladies are extremely outnumbered.
Safe travels and happy Holi!
Written by Kat Vallera, author of "Around the World in 80 J's"
Photos by Kat Vallera & Pedro Maceratta
Kaul, Richa. "Festival of Assault." The Hoot. N.p., 29 Mar. 2012. Web. 1 Apr. 2014. .