And so I pose again with as many members of their family or friend group that they can fit into the photo. Occasionally, to their delight, I ask for a picture on my phone too. Sometimes their English is excellent, and others times it does not extend much further than “Where from?” And “Name?” I smile to myself thinking they may show the picture: “And this is our friend Kathryn from Canada.”
I never mind. I am here as a tourist, seeing the sights and the culture. Many of the people who ask me for selfies are also tourists, from other parts of India, and we marvel together at the crashing surf, the tea plantation museum, the animals in the Reserve. I will take pictures of them (although I always ask before anything that resembles a portrait) and I am sure that my travelling companions and I are intentionally in the background of many of their photos.
We landed at Kochi on the coast of Kerala and stayed in Fort Kochi, at a small hotel that hosted mainly foreigners. When we walked and visited sights, there were often a few other Westerners around. I was only asked for one photo, and that was after I had asked a group of women if I could take their picture in their beautiful, colourful saris. I even replied to a friend, who asked, that India wasn’t like the Middle East, where I was constantly being asked for selfies.
Then we moved off the coast, to less-frequented locations. Perhaps it was because it is the off-season, too hot for many Westerners. Perhaps it was because we traveled for hours on mountain roads to get there. Perhaps it was because it was school holidays, and many Indian families were travelling. Whatever the reason, we were usually the only non-Indians in sight.
At our Indian-style hotel in Munnar, we once saw a young Caucasian man in the restaurant, obviously there to meet the family of his Indian girlfriend/fiancée. When I walked into the same restaurant at breakfast, alone, not only did jaws drop, but someone’s plate, as well. The stares were disconcerting. At the tea museum, an English couple passed as they were exiting the theatre and we were entering and she exclaimed, “Other white people! We haven’t seen any for three days!”
At Lake Periyar, out of the 600 people loading onto 5 sight-seeing boats, we were the only non-Indians. It was the same at the Kathakali traditional theatre performance, and out of the 200 attendees at the Kalarippayattu martial arts demonstration there were us and two Americans. Today, after my friends have returned to London, I am in the domestic terminal at Thiruvananthapuram Airport and I am the only person showing a passport as ID.
Children wave at us from buses, other boats and the shore, and are delighted if we wave back. Children are often used as the introduction, encouraged to approach us, and when we have engaged with smiles we get, “Hi. Selfie?”
Living on the West Coast of Canada, I am used to a multicultural society, with a diversity of skin tones and ethnic backgrounds. I think of what it must be like for those whose physical appearance marks them as different, not just when they travel, but in their daily life. I am used to being in the majority. And I am used to my age giving me a certain invisibility.
Now, however, I stand out. And I smile and agree to another selfie.