A travel mate
The dating app for gay men doubles up as a surprisingly good source for finding a travel guide in a new city
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It’s always entertaining watching my straight friends react to the Grindr interface, particularly when they are complaining about the excesses of its pan-sexual counterpart, Tinder. The latter offers at least some method in the madness of reaching out to complete strangers—you contend with a single profile at a time, and mutual interest must be established through a right-swipe before you communicate with the other person. Grindr is gloriously anarchic. You open the app to watch a cascade of tiny squares fill your screen, clustering around you in order of geographic proximity. On this near-facsimile of a restaurant menu, there is nothing to stop you from contacting whomsoever you please.
This also means that the complaints about Tinder-fatigue, which range from its video-game interface to the lack of quality conversations, are amplified for queer men. Not to mention that Grindr’s been around for a full three years longer globally. There has been many a time when I’ve attempted to create a Grindr-shaped hole in my phone’s memory storage, but always desisted when it comes to pulling the plug. As time-consuming and hollow as the experience might often be, there is still a window of wonder that this app holds.
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For me, it creaks open during my travels. I’ve barely opened my suitcase in a new hotel room when I’m turning on the app to change my standard profile line. I’m visiting for the week, I note, and Oh! city dweller, won’t you show me around?
This doesn’t always work. Wording a Grindr profile carefully involves making the assumption that people will actually read the text of said profile. This is optimistic at best, and is rewarded with opening messages asking about sexual preferences half the time. More creative, if still not useful, responses have included variations on “I can show you around my bedroom”. And then, there are the other moments:
“So I need to learn how to pronounce your name.”
“Not really, it’s fine, just call me F.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, it can’t be that difficult.”
“All right, it’s … Frrhhn-svaa”
“… Sure. Shall we just walk around then?”
I elect to walk. It is my second day in Ottawa. Grindr-as-TripAdvisor had led me to François, who offered a little walking tour of the downtown area. We make our way to the banks of the Rideau Canal, which I’m informed becomes the world’s largest ice-skating rink come Ottawa’s minus 30-degree winters. Further down and we’re in front of a giant glass building, flanked by an over 30ft-high spider composed of bronze, stainless steel and marble. “And that right there is Maman. There are eight of its kind in the world.”
This information comes from me, much to François’ indignation. I point to my Lonely Planet defensively. “Anyway, this isn’t really my city,” he says. “Montreal though….” Montreal he is wistful about. During his rapturous ode to the city, I begin to take in bits of him, the way his eyes are impossibly light, the little smirks of gold inflecting his hair. He complains about Stephen Harper, the then Canadian prime minister. I complain about Yann Martel, the Canadian Booker Prize winner. We walk to his favourite noodle bar, then to his favourite café, and then, with a chaste kiss laced with future promise, call it a night.
The following day I travel to Montreal with François’ voice in my head. I take in the stunning arches of Saint Patrick’s Basilica, but also note the sidewalk where he mentioned he had stolen a drunken kiss this past New Year’s Eve. I head to the local gaybourhood and find my way to his bar of choice and say hello to Peter as instructed. The city becomes an exciting new space that I’m discovering, simultaneously tinged with a borrowed nostalgia from a stranger.
Sometimes, seeing the city through another set of eyes can be a road to a very different kind of experience. In Istanbul, I find my wonder laced with terror. Minutes before the flight takes off, I ask for the Turkish Daily News, and regret my decision instantly. It is filled cover to cover with images and analysis of the attack at Istanbul’s Atatürk international airport. I begin to read with forced detachment about how the airport that I will be landing at in 6 hours was breached, how the arrival hall was where the violence centred.
My fitful sleep and the leaden knots in my stomach are no match for the casually dazzling beauty that is the Old Town of Istanbul—the roof of the Hagia Sophia with its mural of Mary placed next to the massive golden medallions of Islamic scripture, the gigantic circular lights of the Blue Mosque, the Basilica Cistern, a damp underground chamber of pillars which extend as far as the eye can see.
A few days into the trip, I meet someone at a café near the hotel. I ask him if he feels safe in the city. He replies that he doesn’t.
I’m struck by his casual honesty and for a minute I want to put aside my own fears and tell him how the statistics work, how the chances of him being in an “incident” are much lower than x and y, and how the prevalence of these incidents was possibly just as high in the pre-Internet world and this anxiety is just the information surplus we are at present afflicted with. Instead, I tell him that perhaps no place is truly safe. “This city in particular, but I get my degree, I leave. This is nice, but I will not live here,” he tells me.
Neither, it seems, will the other date I have the following evening. “I missed the bombing last month by 2 minutes,” he says. “We will soon all have stories like this.”
Again I want to take refuge in the statistical improbability. I look around us as the tram takes us through the Old Town, I gaze at the most heartbreakingly beautiful sights I have seen in months. I am also aware of the fact that I am in a closed chamber packed with dozens of people.
Whether it’s giving me a uniquely intimate perspective on a place or amplifying my own preconceived notions, Grindr has served as an excellent travel companion in its own right, a gift that keeps on giving. It has allowed me to discover a gloriously deserted Goan beach in one arduous quest, and made a long airport layover a lot less tedious. In the mela of the Jaipur Literature Festival, it allowed me to gravitate towards the bibliophilic queers. And sometimes, it has let me see old neighbourhoods closer home with new eyes.
I recently returned to Delhi from a trip and turned on the app, forgetting to change my “visitor” profile. This new out-of-town status attracted more messages than usual, with long-time gaybours apparently waking up to my existence for the first time. The message that caught my attention was from a complete stranger a bit further away. He welcomed me to the city, and asked if I had seen the Satpula dam ruins in Khirki Village. Would I be interested in exploring them at some point?
I hadn’t, and I was.
Danish Sheikh is a lawyer and writer based in Delhi. He co-authored Invisible Libraries, published by Yoda Press in 2016.