One thing I have learned in India is to just go with the flow. Yesterday Shoshana and I headed over to our host families house at 2pm with the understanding we were going to some reading/play thing at the Ram temple next door. When we arrived it was just our host mom. We chatted with her and told her about our early morning and chat pooja. After realizing we had woken up at 4:30 am she then commanded up, “Soye!” (sleep) Made us lie down and tucked us in. She lay down in the bed next to us. No complaints here, so we slept for an hour and a half. We were woken up by chai and snacks and then headed out to the temple.
When we first arrived we sat in the back and watched as people scurried around setting up microphones and hanging a few last marigold strands. The entire place was covered in flowers. We watched three men struggle to hang a small stuffed animal squeaky bird above the microphones. We were discussing what we thought this was. As soon as we had agreed that it was a reading of some sort, drums began to play. Loud drums. Three men stood at the door of the temple beating the drums. As soon as these drums started everyone stood up and there was a rush of people to where we were sitting, near the coconuts. I had noticed these coconuts when we walked in. There was about 40 clay pots with orange swastiks painted on the side. Then there were leaves sticking out of the pot and in the middle of the leaves sat a coconut. The pot was then draped with marigolds. I had noticed them, but didn’t pay much attention. Now women were rushing to get one. We stepped out of the way to observe. Just as we were sinking into the background someone spotted us. “Aye!” They commanded, come! (That is one thing I will miss being back in America, direct commands). Being the two token white people they clearly wanted us to have coconuts too. So we were each handed a pot and coconut. Having absolutely no idea what we were doing we held the pot and posed for the first of many pictures. The drums started again and everyone began exiting the temple. Unable to stop and grab our shoes we too walked out, barefoot. Again we were posed for a picture, this time we were all to raise the pots on our heads. At this moment I hear Shoshana from behind me say, “I just stepped in cow poop. Barefoot. It was warm. It is squishing between my toes.” At this exact moment we are ushered to the front of the photo and I am having an extremely hard time looking Indian. Indians usually do not smile in pictures and I am biting my tongue trying not to laugh. The procession then continues down through the lanes of Benares.
We end up at Tulsi got where we climb down the steep steps to the river front. Our pots are then filled with water and returned to us. Here is the challenge: Can you wear a sari, carry a pot full of holy water and a coconut while climbing up extremely steep steps?! yes I can! We then continue the procession through the streets, barefoot the whole time. When we got back to the temple we all put our pots with water and coconuts up on the alter and sat down for the reading to begin.
The culmination of this adventure was this morning when I was heading to Hindi class I was surrounded by kids. “Mam, Mam, you are in paper!” Sure enough, Shoshana and I have made the Benarsi news, again.
(P.s. After proof reading this I realize how poor my English has become-thought I would leave it just how it is)
I have had many people ask me if I regret coming to India for study abroad, including myself occasionally. I can now feel complete confidence in saying I do not.
September 19th: Today I woke up early. Took my time checking email/facebook and by 8:30 Tanya arrived to help me get dressed in my sari. About 8 folds and 4 pins later I was draped and ready to go. The gang: Alex, Kat, Sho, Darren, Jay, Tanya, Naval Krishna Sir, and I, were off on another adventure. Today we were headed to BHU for the celebration of Onam. Onam is celebrated in the south of India in the state of Kerala. Jay is a Keralite and he organized the trip, with the help of Naval Krishna sir who of course “knows someone.”
“Onam is an ancient festival which still survives in modern times. Kerala’s rice harvest festival and the festival of rain flowers, which fell on the Malayalam moth of Chingam, celebrated the Demon King Mahabali’s annual visit from Patala.”
The celebration began with a program with dancers, speakers, and various awards presented. My brain was elsewhere and heat made my eyes heavy. Just as I felt myself drifting off I was pulled back to reality by Jay’s voice, “lunch time!”
We were lead out to the courtyard which was partially covered by a tin roof. On one side was where the food has been prepared. Massive industrial sized pots filled with mysterious south Indian cuisine, a table covered with hundreds of bananas, and a fan at the back attempting to keep this outdoor kitchen cool. On the other side there were many long tables set up in an L. They ushered us to the corner and we sat. This meal had been getting some serious hype, but nothing could have prepared for how delicious this food was about to be.
First a man came around with a large roll of parchment and covered the tables with white paper. Then we were given a piece of waxy green paper for our plates. In Kerela this green paper would have been replaced by a banana leaf. Then starting from one end of the L the cooks lined up, each with their own dish to deliver. One by one they came around to each of us. First one brown pickle (like a relish), then the usual red one, a handful of banana chips (a few which were coated in molasses), and a huge pile of rice in the middle. Then came the dal along with a yogurt juice sauce on top. Potatoes and another dish were then scooped on to the side. Two poris (fried rotis) were tossed on top and one banana on the side. With the food in front of me, I took a deep breath and dove in.
With my left hand folded on my lap, I took my right hand and began to mix. When we first arrived here I was not a fan of eating with my hands. It made me feel as if I would put all the germs from my hand right into my stomach. Plus being sticky at the end, and not really having napkins also bothered me. I still use spoons and forks when they are available, but eating with my hands has become a norm. I quite enjoy it now. My food and I now connect on an even deeper level. To be able to feel the hot dal under my nails and rice rubbing between my knuckles has allowed me to fully appreciate the food in front of me. Not to mention that my hands add a little extra flavor too! So here I was with this mass of food in front of me, beginning to shovel it into my mouth, and I (like my father before me) have a “sweat attack.” For those of you lucky enough to not understand the meaning of “sweat attack” I will enlighten you. It is when, for no apparent reason you begin to perspire uncontrollably. I blame it on the mix of heat and spice, but really its just my genes. So to add to the already messy hand eating, I am now dripping with sweat. Not the most glamorous meal, but by far the most delicious. It was a full body experience!
After the meal we washed up and returned to Nirman for a quick rest before our evening adventure.
A four o’clock rain storm hit and we were convinced out activities for the night had been canceled. But sure enough, come 5:30, our ETD, the rain stopped and we crammed into the sumo. We bumped along for about an hour before reaching Ramnagar on the other side of the river. Apparently during this car ride a 6.8 earthquake hit Varanasi. No damage done and we didn’t feel anything! Upon arriving in Ramnagar we entered a fairly large crowd. The street was full of vendors and we walked up and down for an hour before finding a spot to stand and wait. Tonight was the beginning of the Ramlila festival. A month long festival of a play to tell the story of the god Ram. The play is put on by children and to be one of these actors is extremely auspicious. This night also happened to be the last night of another festival where people who work with machines (construction workers, artisans, drivers, etc.) take off two days of work to bless their machines. The last day of this festival concludes with loud, large groups of men running down the roads behind DJ trucks. They drink, dance, and party in the streets. Of course women are not allowed to be part of these festivities, it is not decent.
So we are standing in the street and the crowd slowly begins to grow. We eat peanuts and talk to Jay about being a white girl in India. Time passes and the first of three DJ trucks followed by its party-ers move through the crowd. We stood back and watched as people crazy danced, each carrying their statues which were to be thrown into the river. More time passed and the actors began to arrive. The crowd now, at least 10000, filled the entire street. Sandwiched between people, it became hard to see what was going on. Someone started yelling at us in Hindi to move. Just as we stepped back about 10 life size papermache horses were carried by us. I was so focused on photographing these horses that it took me a moment to realize what was coming down the road next.
On tip toes, I glanced down the road, took a double take, and then began to cry. There in the road coming towards us were three elephants. The crowd parting slightly to let them through, did not seem to be as overcome with joy as I was. As they grew closer I pulled out my camera and snapped one perfect picture before the guards yelled at me to put it away. Moments later they were an arms length in front of me and tears were pouring down my cheeks. Not only was there an elephant in front of me, but this elephant belonged to the Maharajah of Varanasi. The Maharajah sat on top, just like in the picture books. It was the most magical experience of my life and I cannot wait to spend the next three months in this country.
Kalamazoo college gave every junior departing on study abroad a diagram labeled the W curve. The W curve was supposed to map your emotions while on study abroad. High point at the beginning, then low, then high, then low again, and then again high. I have hit the low point…
About a week and a half ago I was more sick than I have ever been in my life. I will spare you the majority of the details, but it is key to know that I spent a 14 hour train ride crouched over a hole in the bottom of the train car that went to the tracks. In between my numerous trips to the bathroom, I would return to my cockroach and mice infested train car. I tried to cry but I was too in shock that this was actually happening to me. But this post is not about this. I survived the train ride and spent my three days in Calcutta in a hotel room recuperating. Once we made it back to Varanasi, I seemed to be on the mend. Then about 4 days ago I lost my appetite. Being the foodie/fat ass that I am I have never before not wanted to eat. I would sit down at the table and find myself poking at my food. I am not some one who has a lot of weight to spare, so I immediately began feeling like the malnourished children who ask me for money everyday. I let it continue for a few days hoping it would get better but decided this morning it was time to take action. So I went to the doctor… And this is the story.
I climbed on the back of Jay’s bike, my second time ever on a motorcycle. My passport and health insurance tucked safely in my bag. We bumped a minute or two down the road and stopped outside of a line of little market stalls, the closest one to us with a door and a doctor sign on it. We crossed the dusty street, slipped our shoes off and walked through the door. A room maybe 10ft square was divided into two by a fold out wall. Posters imitating western images you would find in a doctor’s office, hung on the water damaged walls. A fan turned slowly above us. Jay pointed me to the other side of the wall which was even smaller then the “waiting room.” I sat on a small metal stool and the doctor gestured with his hand for me to tell him what was wrong. I explained, in english, how I was feeling. He listened, did not ask any questions, and then began to write. He wrote out a prescription for five different medications and handed it to another fellow who left. When the man returned with drugs I was called back to the stool. He told me to go home and take all of them, five different drugs at once. I was never asked about my medical history, allergies, health insurance. When he asked my age he wrote down 18, when I tried to correct him he said, “its ok, it doesn’t matter.” I paid him 250 rupee, equivalent to 2 dollars USD and left. Shell shocked. Just another example of the extreme differences between here and home. Waiting to hear back from my mother and physician in America before taking any of these mystery meds (don’t worry auntie Sherrill!). When I brought up the fact that I took medication for narcolepsy, malaria, and birth control he seemed confused. Sleep disorders are not diagnosed here and the birth control didn’t seem to register. I am again faced with the reality of having to adjust to being uncomfortable. Sorry for the downer of a post, the next one will be full of colors and smiles! WOW, India!
So I am living at this little kids school where from 8-3 everyday there are tons of little Indian children running around in their all white uniforms. From the ages of 4 to 12. Their lunch time is at noon. One day I decide to finally get my butt in gear and clean the mold off of my backpack. I change into gross clothes, get the cleaning supplies, brushes, and head outside. I am just sitting down and scrubbing the first of many moldy patches when I hear from the behind me “what you doing mam?” I look at my watch. Shit. I have chosen the worse time to come outside, lunch time. With minutes I am surrounded by 25+ little kids, “mam! Mam whats that? Mam! MAM! MAM! Mam. Mam. Mam? Mam? Excuse me Mam?” They all have be taught to address us as Mam so they say it to be polite, but they are lacking in most other areas. Children are falling on my back pack, spilling over the cleaning spray, and they just keep coming. My next mistake was to show them that the cleaning solution was lemon flavored and held it up to one kids nose. “mam, let me see? mam me. Mam! MAM!” The little cap full of liquid is being yanked all over the place spilling splashing. And I am sitting their sweating more than I ever had because the sun has just come out for the first time. “Mam why would you do this outside?! It is so hot!” one girl asks. I am thinking the same thing. As they continue to ask to smell the solution I realize that I am enabling the sniffing of chemicals. And immediately get worried for their health. But then the little boy who currently has Mumps asks to smell it. Not going to worry about their health when their classmate is running around with mumps. So the bag cleaning is a big hit with the kids and I have attracted at least half of the school to watch me clean. Just as I am settling in to this new popularity one child screams. And then in very fast loud Hindi the children all begin screaming and flee from the backpack. What did I do? Did the chemicals set it? As I look around me hoping for some returning friends I make eye contact with the new lunch time entertainment. Monkeys. A whole monkey tribe has entered the trees above the court yard. You can tell because the leaves are doing that thing like they do in the planet of the apes preview where a ton fall while the apes run through the branches. I look up and see about 5 and then look across from me, and about 30 feet away from me is papa monkey is sitting on the play structure and he clearly has a mission. I then realize the kids are running for a reason, Monkeys are not cute cuddly things like they appear, they are mean and scary and I am right in front of one. I too then panic and go hide inside. The monkey proceeds to climb down the structure walk over to a lonely lunch tin that was not saved in the mad rush, picks up the tin, and heads back to the tree tops. The kids now have again exploded and are throwing various objects into the trees. I am able to return to my pack cleaning with a smaller audience this time. Oh India!
On August 13th we all went to Nila Mam’s (a woman who works at Nirman) home in order to observe their families celebration of Raksha Bandhan. This is a festival that celebrates the bond between a brother and sister. The main ceremony is the tying of a rakhi (a bracelet) on the brother’s arm. The sister ties one with a promise to always love and pray for her brother and symbolizes the brother’s lifelong promise to protect her.
Lanka is the market street near us which has everything you could need. Fabric, shampoo, samosas, shower buckets, bikes, shoes, floatation devices, phones, ladders, metal piping, bed rolls, and so much more. The only trick is walking there.
For the best description of the streets, I will pass the mic to my dear friend Sho…
There is a reason people are generally confused when you say “oh, I’m just going out for a walk.” Stretch my legs, clear my head. No. For us India newbies, walking in the cities requires constant concentration (at the very least). Due to poor municipal water infrastructure in Banares, the streets are often big muddy puddles. Sidewalks exist only on main roads-and if they are there, they often are crowded by parked bikes/motorcycles and vendors’ stalls.
As you navigate the streets, you must avoid: trash, poop, wandering cows, other walkers, people on bikes, hawkers, bicycle rickshaws, auto rickshaws, beggars, children, trucks, tractors, cars, motorcycles, dogs, the occasional pig or goat, buses, and construction vehicles. All of these creatures and vehicles move at their various speeds in various directions, weaving in and around each other without rigid lanes—but with a heavy hand on the horn.
While this is going on, you also must be aware that everyone is staring at you. Why? Because you’re white! Because you are wearing funny clothes (even if they’re Indian, they are actually not meant to be worn out of the house)! Because you are a woman! People sometimes do double-takes, and stare behind them while they move forward. Only the cows pay no attention. They just munch on grass or root through garbage. There is definitely a pattern to the traffic though, generally being that you stay to the left and move forward. Slower the vehicle, the closer to the side of the road you are. Beep when you pass anyone/thing.
It takes a while for people to get anywhere. So there are also elitist movements, especially in big cities like Delhi, to make cars the privileged vehicle (partly for “environmental concerns,” ironically) and restrict rickshaws, cows, and pedestrians. Which one hand sounds more efficient, but would put millions of people out of work, including rickshaw drivers and urban dairy owners.
So, if you want to go for a walk, I’ve found it’s good to have a destination in mind. Otherwise, your head will come back more jumbled than when you started out.
*Written by Sho, who is not sure why she wrote part of it in the second-person. And, since writing, has gotten better at processing the streets of Banares, and walks through them with confidence with Faith.
Thank you Shoshana for that beautiful insight to life on the street.
Take the above description and now do it in the dark.
We went out for dinner a few nights ago. Street lights are scattered, leaving large dark sections of our path. As we walked about a block in the blackness I heard Alex behind me say, “I think I like walking in the dark better, cause then I can’t see what I am stepping in.” Agreed, although I am a bit weary when I can hear people about five inches to my left, but not see them. The dark sections are occasionally lit by a fire. Someone cooking japati (pita like bread) or heating a pot of chai. We made it through the alleys to the banks of the Ganges. When we arrived at Assi Ghat, there was an evening ceremony to honor Mata Ganga (the goddess of the river). We got to dinner and had pizza and apple pie. I thought of home as I sipped my lassi and looked out over this holy river.
A week ago I wrote the following passage in my journal:
Its raining now and I have already learned to love and cherish the monsoons. Yes they bring more bugs, but it is worth the occasional bite. For with the rain you get green rice fields stretching as far as I can see out the train window. Although the streets fill with puddles, the breeze each storm brings is worth the mud.
I did not yet know the meaning of rain…
Today, August 11th, was a rain day at Nirman. Yes, like a snow day, but with too much rain. Our courtyard in our guest house has turned into a swimming pool/reflecting pond and we are thinking about getting koi to fill it. The drains in our bathroom have reversed in function and are now giving us our water back. The street in front of our school is about ankle deep, which supposedly is shallow for the city. The shop keeper told us that on his way to work he passed Benares Hindu University, about 3 blocks from here, and the water there is knee deep. Wrapped in a new dhupata (scarf) I braved the downpour…