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Andrea Hoang in Varanasi, India.

ANDREA HOANG

Dispatch is a series of first-person stories from the road.

After three weeks in Varanasi, our senses are slowly getting acquainted to the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of the city: the communal bathing of the buffalo, the public prayer songs that start at dawn and continue late into the night, the smell of manure, the tooth-achingly sweet chai.

We are starting to get to know our neighbours: that one black-and-white cow, the monkey that broke our rooftop planter, the endless wave of hippies that come in and out of the first-floor café in our guest house.

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The rickshaw driver knows our rate and now haggles out of formality – putting up a weakened fight to our suggested price. The children who beg along the ghats remember our faces and what country we're from, and the dusty streets are starting to recognize the sounds of our footsteps.

I'm in India's holy city for a near-six-month stint, working at a local non-profit that encourages literacy development among women and children. But to truly belong, my fellow female Canadian travellers and I need to look the part. And to do that, we need new clothes – and an understanding of the unspoken politics that are, well, woven into the fabric of what we wear.

To avoid breathing in the dust and smog that coats the city, we need scarves to wrap around our heads and faces.

To avoid the leering eyes of men who line the streets with seemingly no purpose other than to stare down women, we need long pants and shirts with sleeves, no matter how oppressive the 40-degree heat is.

To help make conversation with women who are always, astonishingly, glamorously, dripping with gold and sequins, we need to accessorize with stacks of bangles that jingle and jangle from wrist to elbow.

We pick up careful cues from female locals, our colleagues and host family members. For women, saris are mostly reserved for special occasions and those who are married. Single, younger women should stick to the modest salwar kumis, a three-piece outfit that consists of a hip-length tunic, long pants and a matching scarf that's draped over the chest.

Ankle bracelets, toe rings and a black-and-gold beaded necklace ubiquitous in the region also often indicate marital status.

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Shorts, shoulders and cleavage on the other hand, will invite long, hard stares.

We set out on an outfit undertaking one scorching hot Sunday morning. Our host-sister weaves us through winding narrow mazes that articulate the beating heart of the city's core. We're on a mission to assimilation.

With her guidance, we slip into a doorway without a sign in a dark corner.

We find ourselves sitting on a once-white mat in a dimly-lit shop. The room is bare and concrete, save for a large steel locker. The shopkeeper, a stout, balding man with a Cheshire-cat smile opens up his tickle trunk. Inside is a rainbow of fabric.

Cotton, silk, baroque. In fiery oranges, reds, cooling blues and turquoises. Anything and everything the heart desires.

He shows us the superiority of his textiles by running cloth through a gold ring, yanked off his hairy knuckle, for the purpose of the elaborate demonstration. The smooth glide is meant to be proof of quality material.

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Gone are the clothing racks of the big-box, fast-fashion stores I shop at in my hometown, Toronto.

Instead, we are instructed to select fabric, and then make arrangements with a tailor who will take our measurements for a custom-sewn salwar kumis.

Our host-sister frowns when I select subdued greys and neutrals, colours I'm accustomed to in Canada.

She picks up neon pink, and bold teal for herself.

Where I want it tighter, she suggests it to be looser. Where I'm used to showing skin, she looks at me to keep it all in.

We return to the tailor, days later to pick up our looks. My host-sister was right. In my efforts to blend in by being bland, I stick out like a sore thumb.

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The women I meet in Varanasi shoulder the work of their families and communities. And the clothes on their backs weave a rich history and vibrancy that's unmistakable in this city. Every scalloped edge, silver snap, stitched pattern was picked with deliberate care. Every bangle, fringe and pendant has a story.

Maybe it's fitting, for now, that my clothes are a blank canvas.

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