Kinky Kinda Love: A Female Traveller’s Tales From Khajuraho

Part of “The Trip That Changed the Way I Travel” series.

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The writer outside one of the many shrines she visited in Khajuraho, many years ago.

A D V E R T I S E M E N T

Khajuraho, 2011

A decade ago, I took an early morning flight from Delhi to Khajuraho. On arriving, I marvelled at an airport so small that you could walk from the flight to the arrival terminal without needing to take a bus or use a walkway.

This was my first ever trip on my own. At the age of 23, I’d travelled a fair bit with my parents, but never alone. My parents were reluctant to let me go by myself, but I had just started working with the Hindustan Times. I couldn’t hope to be taken seriously as a journalist, I told them, if I could never travel alone for a story. So we agreed on a set of rules: I gave them flight and hotel info, and promised to call once in two days, and they promised not to embarrass me by calling my boss in a panic if I got late.

Khajuraho was an odd choice for a girl on her first solo trip. It was firmly the territory of foreign travellers, so much so that nearly everybody there speaks a foreign language. The only Indians there were newly-married couples on an inexpensive honeymoon. A young Indian girl travelling there alone was such an alien concept that most people just assumed I was a foreigner. Rickshaw drivers and souvenir sellers addressed me in French.

Fahim Khan, the manager of the hotel where I was staying, took me firmly under his wing. The day I arrived he took me on a short orientation walk around the tiny town. When the café and shop owners he introduced me to realised I was Indian, they invited me in for tea, displaying warmth and a disarming curiosity. In my conversations with them I began to understand Khajuraho’s split personality – “small town” in many ways, yet with global languages and cuisine.

They made me feel welcome, but it was my first time out alone and I was tentative and muted in my responses. After a visit to the local Shiv temple, when Fahim dusted his shoes to shake off any ants before putting them back on, an acquaintance called out to him, “Saale, tu kyu dar raha hai, tere saath gori hai, usko kaatege.” I giggled discreetly into my sleeve, but refrained from reacting.

During a tour of Khajuraho’s famous temple, a young man approached me and asked if he could take my picture. He was with his wife and daughter, and I was the first “foreigner” they’d seen closely. I was too stunned to react. A little later, the guide who until then had done a great job of showing me how to interpret the sculptures at the temple, vaguely waved towards the erotic carvings and said to me: “No point showing you these; I’ll tell you about them when you come back with your husband.” At some point the assumptions about what is appropriate for a single Indian girl (not being in Khajuraho on her own for one, and erotic sculptures, no way!) began to rankle.

The final straw came when I’d rented a cycle and was riding around the town, making my way to Khajuraho village. I came across a cart selling some key chains I liked and asked the price. The vendor selling them, a young boy, said Rs100. His friends, who were hanging about in a group a little way back, yelled out: “Gori hai, 100 kyu bol raha hai, 500 bol.” That stung!
Coolly, I looked up them and said with a smile, “Kyu, meri shakal par chutiya likha hai kya?”

Within seconds they were swarming around me with apologies. We instantly became friends, and I took up their offer of a guided tour of the village. It was eventually one of the best experiences I had. I learnt that to this day farmers turn up bits of sculptures from the temples when their till their fields. These found pieces of history are incorporated in their homes, becoming part of the present.

The warmth of the shop owners, and my interactions with the children melted my reserve. Over the rest of my stay, I chatted with everyone I met. I split costs for a non-conservative guide who was willing to show us the erotic sculptures with two German girls. I accepted an invitation from a local Bundeli raja-rani to their palatial home, and befriended a village sarpanch, though that quickly went downhill when he got drunk. That trip helped me discover my knack for striking up conversations in the oddest places. Through these, over the years, I’ve found my best travel tips and formed great memories.

I also learnt valuable lessons that stay with me to this day. I established a protocol that reassured my family of my safety, so they confidently encouraged me to travel and write more. I discovered that it is the warmth of people that makes the memories that stick down the years. And I learnt to take chances, because the best discoveries happen unexpectedly. To this day, I manage to get free drinks on the stories from that first solo trip.

For other stories in “The Trip That Changed the Way I Travel”  series, click here. 

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  • Neha Dara is a travel writer and editor. She is happiest trotting off the beaten path, trekking in the Himalayas, scuba diving in Andaman & Nicobar, or exploring local markets in small towns. She tweets as @nehadara.

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