From Delhi we took the train to Mathura, the closest station to our second destination, the holy town of Vrindavan. This stop was the one that our whole trip was planned around. After all, we wanted to make sure to be in Vrindavan during one of the most mesmerizing and colorful festivals in the whole world, Holi. However, it was here where we underwent the biggest culture shock and not necessarily in a good way. When we arrived Holi had been going on for over a week, but it was during our stay that the festival reached it's peak. The morning after our arrival we prepared for a walk into town to join in the celebration. We had read multiple article and advice pieces about celebrating Holi as a foreigner (what to wear, what not to wear, what to do, what not to do, etc) so we though we were ready. We followed each step...
- Wear all white to truly showcase the array of colors
- Make sure to protect cameras with waterproof cases/covers
- Wear sunglasses as the gulal (colored powder) can really sting/burn when in contact with eyes
- Wear long pants and long sleeved shirts to protect your skin from being "permanently" dyed pink/ Also for modesty reasons as a woman
- Wear a scarf to protect hair from the harsh colored powder and to prevent permanent pink hair (especially if blonde)
However, nothing really prepared us for how severe the street harassment would be towards me, not just as a foreigner, but as a woman. It started innocently enough. A joyous greeting, playful smearing of gulal on each other's faces, and a hug. Everyone was celebrating together. It was joyous occasion after all... a welcome to Spring. We felt welcomed and embraced by the locals. As the morning progressed and we made it deeper into the center of town things started to change. It might've been that a new crowd was now out, one that had spend the whole night before and early morning drinking from cups of bhang lassi, a milky cannabis-based concoction. It got rowdy really fast. The gentle smearing of dye turned into clumps of powder thrown at us from the back of motorcycles and the playful sprinkles of water turned into bucketfuls of smelly water. This is actually the reason why this post does not have many pictures. I stopped taking out my camera as soon as things took a turn. Even with it's plastic cover, I knew it wouldn't stand a chance against the buckets of water. Worse yet was the physical interactions... the hugs were not respectful anymore. They were so invasive and forceful, as if to feel my whole body against theirs. Sean right away sensed the change in our surroundings and guarded me by walking behind me as close as he could with his arms as shields to my sides. Even then, some young men (barely high school age) would try to get in between us and attempt to pinch my behind, graze my breast, or just plain grope. We had had ENOUGH.
Our original plan was to reach the main temple for the celebration but our experience so far and the size and rowdiness of the crowd deterred us from going any further. We quickly found our way back to the main road and started heading back to our hotel. We were so exhausted, our eyes stung from the powder (sunglasses weren't much help), the clumps of gulal were caked on our skin, and we reeked from the drain water we were doused with. When we finally reached our destination we came across a grandma, mother, and daughter trio from England... they all looked like they had been to hell and back. Wide-eyed and slowly walking back to their rooms in their dripping clothes, they were quite a sight.... but I guess so were we. Interestingly enough, I saw a couple men partaking in the celebrations in town, foreigners as well, but they were having the time of their lives. They were barely wet and you could still see some of their natural skin color... they were not 100% covered in pink dye.
We decided to stay put in our hotel for the rest of our stay, we knew it would only get rowdier out there as the night fell. Once in the safety of our room we reminisced about the day's events and came to the following conclusion. All the articles we read in preparation were written by men, and the few written by women were about celebrating Holi inside the safety of a hotel or resort. I honestly cannot imagine (or do not want to) what would have happened if Sean hadn't been with me.
Honestly, if you are traveling alone for the festival look into holi celebrations put together by the hotel/resorts in the area. Now, if you are like me and want to get the most authentic and local experience, then first and foremost make sure you have traveling companions with you, the more the merrier. Don't go out alone. I would also stay away from the main holi cities (Mathura and Vrindavan) during the peak dates. If in India during those specific dates check out the cities of Jaipur and Udaipur for their celebration. If I could go back and change anything I would've scheduled our trip so that we could've spent Holi in the beautiful city of Udaipur instead (hands down, one of my favorites cities EVER... more on that later). I really hope this provides the kind of information that would have helped me, and us, experience a better AND safer Holi.