Happy Holi?

Kwaz and I had been looking forward to Holi since we started planning our India trip – we even moved our arrival back three weeks so the timing was right – so you can imagine our excitement when we put on our white shirts and colorful pants and set out to meet up with our friends from Delhi, who were staying at a different hostel nearby that had arranged for transportation to a celebration out near Amber Fort.

Which is why we were so disappointed when we never found the hostel. The wifi was down that morning, so we were going off of my memory from looking it up the day before. We knew we were in the right area so we started asking guesthouses and tuktuk drivers; either nobody knew this place (it was pretty new) or they pointed us in wrong and different directions. It was an hour before we gave up and took a helicopter ride back to our guest house. We knew they were celebrating there too, so we might as well make it to one Holi party.

This trip ended up being one of the highlights of the day. As we rode around tuktuks and motorcycles pulled up next to us yelling “Happy Holi!” and offering us colored powder. Our first color of the day, but nowhere near our last. We were even okay with being sprayed with blue water by the water-gun-wielding kids. Everything was exciting as the energy in the street grew around us. By the time we got back to the guesthouse we were ready to go, and happy to find the other guests on the roof all getting their colors on. Raman, the awesome manager, instantly fixed our too-clean problem by wiping large handfuls of green, yellow, and pink on our chins, and we joined in helping ourselves and everyone else get covered in color. Happy Holi!

We took to the streets, excited to see what this festival was all about, and headed for Raman’s suggestion of a party at the Tourist Information Center. The entire walk people stopped us to add to our rainbow, every time saying “Happy Holi!” as they put more powder on our faces. This is how people interact on Holi: by rubbing colored powder on first one side of the face, to the chin, and then the other, often followed by a hug and always by a “Happy Holi.” This is also unfortunately one of the reasons Holi has a bad reputation. I’ll get to that in a bit. For now though, we’re walking down the street and motorcycles and cars are pulling over to keep changing our colors.

Then we arrived at the Tourist Center. The beginning of the end of our Holi. Bus loads of Westerners in entirely clean all-white outfits were pouring into the party with their cameras ready. One even took pictures of me, the white girl who was already colorful. Policemen stood guard at the entrance, partly to protect the foreigners and partly to confiscate things like our whiskey, which he was convinced was wine. I’ve never seen such a horribly disapproving look; I thought I might get kicked out of India by this man. But he just kept on his disgusted face and threw it to the side, carefully watching us go inside. Once we made it inside we saw a big rectangular enclosure filled with sort of colorful foreigners, a few trying to dance to the live music that wasn’t nearly as upbeat as we were hoping for. This is the best party to go to? We all stopped and stared. It was where they sent the foreigners, the safe place to be, like we’d been quarantined away from the true Holi happening elsewhere in the city. At the time we were confused, even a little offended, and definitely not into this scene. Where was the excitement, the Bhangra dancing, the showers of powder, the locals?

We preferred the streets, so we left. It was getting later in the day, which means around 11 am, so our trip back to the hostel was a bit tougher than the way out. We started to see why Holi had gotten a bad rap. People were still enthusiastically powdering us but it felt more aggressive. If we stopped walking for more than two minutes we would be surrounded by men and their powder bags; we even got to the point of saying “uh oh” when a new car or bike pulled over and trying to move quickly so we were too far away by the time they could get out. Then the kids showed up with their water guns and pushy hugs and we actually broke out into a run to get away from them.

We needed a break. And some beers. We sought refuge on the roof of our guesthouse, where a cheerful group of teenagers (the restaurant employees) were dancing along to Bhangra music covering each other in green powder. Of course we joined in for a dance or two. We had planned to make it into the Pink City after we finished our beers but the prospect of going back out was too daunting, so we never did end up leaving the roof again.

The more I heard about Holi in both Jaipur and other places the more I realized two things: 1) we actually had a pretty positive day considering the¬†possibilities, and 2) Holi is not for foreigners. We heard stories of girls who had been backed up against a wall, aggressively caressed in places that should not be touched by strangers, and fearfully trapped in groups of men. We heard most foreigners were sent to places like the tourist party so they were protected from the dangers of the day, and if they ventured out to try to find the local celebration it most often did not go well. We heard about policemen hitting people with bamboo canes if they got anywhere near a foreigner. We heard about the dark side of Holi, the reason that Pramod and Raman had told us to not go far from the guesthouse, stay together, and don’t be out on the streets after 12.

We were disappointed. What we had assumed would be a happy festival of vibrant colors had a dark side. Now we know. And considering the stories we heard, we now look back on our Holi experience more positively. We came out of it unscathed, except for the lingering dye on my feet and hair. Pink is the new blonde.

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