VRINDAVAN — There’s an almost opiate tinge in the cool air that twists through winding streets of this ancient city. There’s a giddiness, a childish glee that’s rising as the colored dust begins to fly. It’s the eve of Holi, the annual celebration of love and the start of spring. Based on the tale of Krishna and Radha’s love, it’s one of the most recognizable Hindu festivals to a Western audience. Tourists from across the world flood into India’s streets to mix with locals during this festival of color.

We are no different. We join the streets – albeit generally unaware of what was fully going to happen – in order to get to our ashram where we are spending the night. Within minutes we are being swarmed with whooping, grinning figures, walking by and throwing chalky paint at us, asking for selfies, cheering loudly when we shout back the traditional cheers for the day: “Holi Holi!” and “Radhe Radhe!”

The excitement is intoxicating. The festival is the embodiment of sensory overload. There is too much to see and to feel and to smell when every direction is full of senses new and profound.

People start approaching closer, invading our personal space, reaching out to rub our faces with paint, or to place a yellow or red dot on our foreheads. It’s here that our group of 17 begins to become separated. We become splintered. Some start running towards the ashram. I duck into a side alley to wait for those behind me. Two students stand with me. One has her face hidden by the building’s edge; her eyes are streaming, thickly caked with red powder. We are no longer smiling.

We go on, and one class member is approached by men who shove powder in her face. As she reaches up to rub her tightly closed eyes, her body is vulnerable. She is groped.

The experience of harassment is one that many of us encountered in our days celebrating Holi in Vrindavan. Perhaps it was because of our obvious appearance as outsiders. Perhaps it was because we weren’t expecting advances, and our shrieks and surprise attracted more attention to us. Perhaps it was because we didn’t play Holi like the locals. Either way, though Holi was, in many ways, a standout moment – one unlike any other – in our trip, it was also an experience of discomfort for many members of our class.

Class members spoke of varying levels of preparedness for entering the situation. Ana said she wasn’t shocked by anything, but only because she had been told by family members what to expect. She said she was groped on three occasions on various parts of her body. Though unpleasant, she was touched by the aid given by locals.

“The thing is, people would notice when things were getting intense,” Ana said. “We got scared and they out come help.”

Pia was surprised and disappointed by what she saw and was subjected to, but understood that our experience as a class was not necessarily an accurate portrayal of a holiday. Nevertheless, she felt that she came into the situation without a full understanding of what was to be expected.

“I had thought about what it meant to throw color dust around everywhere,” Pia said. “But I hadn’t thought of how it could be an aggressive tool if you wanted it to.”

Though classmates reported both positive and negative reactions to the festival, it seemed nearly a consensus that we had not experienced Holi as it is meant to be celebrated.

“Our experience is not indicative of the Indian experience,” said Ana, explaining that as Westerners, we would always have come from an outside perspective and felt the holiday in an alternate incarnation.

As for myself, I was not groped the first day, but the second, where I experienced what my classmate had: a handful of powder almost gently, but firmly, pushed into my eyes and, as I struggled to see again, I was groped by several hands – who knows how many people.

Later, I joined a small group in a rickety horse cart to explore the depths of Vrindavan. Here, we were bombarded by teenage boys who chased us through the streets, laughing as they threw powder into the cart and occasionally reached in to grab the women’s breasts and buttocks – myself included. I pushed one man away and he grabbed my scarf and tugged it, choking me, trying to pull me off the cart.

Ellen was also on this cart, and she, too, was groped by these men. To her, this experience stood out because of her curious reaction to it.

“If that had happened in the US, those kids would have had very intimate knowledge of my left hook,” Ellen said. “But I truly did not care that these young boys were sexually assaulting me. Maybe it was because I was mobile and there was no chance for it to go further or for confrontation. Maybe I just had an awareness that I was an obvious target; this was essentially a game of pin the tail on the donkey, only gross.”

When we arrived back at the ashram, slightly shaken but still on a weird high from the action and sights, a tiny vehicle slowly drove by, music blaring. Ellen, Andrea and myself, seemingly out of nowhere, started to dance. Some locals joined in with us. More paint was thrown. Selfies and videos were taken. I remember laughing hysterically, all my anger at the boys chasing us in the cart floating away with the colored dust we were kicking up with our feet.

The truth is, for me, Holi was not just being groped. It was also the morning walks along the river to watch special holiday pujas. It was flowers being thrown wildly around the ashram, and the special, delicious-smelling spiced powder that the ashram bought for visitors to throw at each other. It was the tiny bites we grabbed from street-side vendors and gulped down on broken plastic chairs as we talked to other tourists and locals who walked by. It was the ineffable looseness when play is encouraged when you don’t know the other players, or even speak their language.

Ellen’s final words on the day summarize the experience perfectly for me – though perhaps not for everyone.

“Ultimately, my feelings about Holi are so much bigger than this incident, much bigger than feelings of discomfort,” Ellen said. “I remember feelings of love, overwhelmingly.”