My first week in India
Day 1 7/20 Mumbai
It has only been 20 hours since we got here and yet I feel like it has been over a week. Me and Vai arrived at 3:15 am and waited over an hour for our bags to find out that the bags were still in Boston (due to a flight delay and therefore a quick connection). Then we had to fill out paperwork and go through customs which took another hour, and we didn’t arrive to her Aunt’s place until about 6. We then slept until about 1 pm, and that is when our day started.
Atya (Father’s Sister) and Vai’s uncle and cousin, lived in a building two stories with many “houses” next to each other (think like a condo). Each house is actually just two rooms, the front room is the bedroom and the back room is the shower and kitchen. The bathroom is communal down the hall (which I somehow managed to avoid). Total, the house is probably the size of one and a half normal rooms in a US house (and more than just 3 people can live in one of these houses). Me and Vai stayed in a similar house down the hall. We slept on 1.5 inch thick mats on the ground, and the same thing but smaller was used as a pillow. These can be rolled up during the day which creates the versatile space. Even just being here for one day, I realized we have too much in the US. They have everything they need to live life, and it perfectly suffices. Though it is small, it has everything you need. And here we are in the US complaining that our living rooms, laundry rooms, bathrooms, garages, patios, and kitchens aren’t large enough. All that space that isn’t necessary and no one is occupying most times of the day, and yet it needs to be bigger. I’m very lucky to have been able to live in a real residential home of India, because it’s a rare thing to experience and grasp as an outsider.
I think the most unique thing about India I have seen so far is the vast difference in wealth, and yet the extremely close proximity of it. To give you a picture: I was in the car looking out the window to my right, and in the background (maybe 400 yds out) is a huge apartment building that looks nice, and is probably 20 stories or more. Then in the forground 20 yds away lining the street is slum looking residency– tarps for walls and roofs held down by weak string and bricks, slabs of tin from old building for some protection and separation, and lots of people and trash. This type of juxtoposition happens everywhere you look.
We visited the old Taj Hotel (one of the nicest hotels in India) where there is security at the entrance (and the buckets you put your stuff in to get x-rayed like at the airport are velvet lined), the staff treats you like you walk on water, there are stores in the lobby (of course only Dior, Loius Vitton, and the likes), and the hedges are trimmed perfectly. And then right outside is a child begging and across the road is a beach strewn with trash. It’s very different that there seems to be no spatial segregation of wealth.
Day 2-8 Varanasi
So now it’s been one week in India, and it has felt like a month. I’m not sure if it’s because I’ve been so busy, or because everything is as overwhelming here as people say. I don’t really know what to talk about in this post, whether it be the things I’ve actually done or general experiences of India (like the food/ traffic/culture etc). If I do everything I feel like this post will be exceptionally long and boring.
I guess I’ll start with what I’ve done. So I came to Varanasi to visit Tsukumo (one of the other fellows. I had such a great week with her and am so appreciative of her letting me stay with her). My first impression of Varanasi was walking out of the four-gate one-baggage-belt airport to be slammed with the heat and humidity to the point where my glasses completely fogged over and I couldn’t see a single thing. Then the dust was next. Riding through the city, I was immediatley regretting that I didn’t have a thin scarf with me to use as a filter. I swear thin layer had settled at the bottom of my lungs by the end of the trip. When I got out of the car the whole thing was covered in dust and you could distinctly see the outline of where I was sitting. Then getting out of the car I ripped my pants on the inner thigh (I mean they were only 2$) but kurtis go down to about your knee so I thought I would be fine for the day. So I met Tsukumo at her school and had perfect timing because she was just leaving with a UM alum to go to a performance at the local university (BHU). I dropped all my stuff off in the room and we were off, but getting into the car my pants ripped again (cheap seams and sweaty cotton). I thought once again it felt small and the kurti still covered it so I was fine. The performance was a singing and instrument ensemble that was absolutely beautiful to listen to. Then Naval-sir (the alum) took us to the University temple and got us street food. I was extremely skeptical to eat it cause everyone told me not to and this was my second day but I had no problems! We ate an extremely spicy samosa and this sticky bun thing which has been the only Indian dessert I have enjoyed so far.
One thing about India that is very unique is the amount of flies. You have no idea how annoying flies are until you come to India. They are EVERYWHERE. I am not joking you always have at least a few flies (inside) and a hundred (anywhere outside) within a three foot vicinity of you. Now think about eating a sticky bun with all of them wanting to be your best friend. Yeah I’m pretty sure everyone I met probably thought I had muscle spasms from trying to get flies off me (Cause after awhile you have no choice but to get used to it, and I am still a newb). Even when you aren’t holding food they land on you. On your feet, your clothes, your hands. I am definitely not used to it yet. And when you’re walking in the streets instead of clouds of dust coming from your steps its clouds of flies. Yep definitely not used to it.
Oh and if we forgot about the pants, turned out there ended up being a flap big enough to put my fist through in a place that definitely should have had full coverage. Hopefully the kurti covered it?
Friday we went to see the aarti, which is a ceremony they hold every morning and night the the ghats on the Ganges dedicated to Lord Shiva and the river. I actually didn’t like this very much because they have made it into more of a show for the tourists, and that just makes it seem fake to me. Though the ceremony was cool, knowing that took something away from it. In the aarti we saw, they start with prayer and then these three priests stand on platforms close to the river and with a bell in one hand and different objects in the other, they do very specific hand motions first facing the river, and then repeating in the other three directions. The first time through they held burning insence, then this pot of smoking coals, then a pyramid thing of lit candles, then this pot thing of fire, then a peacock feather, and then this thing that looked like an animal take mixed with a swiffer. I don’t know what each of them means unfortunately.
Tsukumo had singing lessons and although the singing teacher wasn’t there the day I came, the tabla player was. It is a type of drum set that makes the most interesting noise. He was very good at playing it, it’s two drums side by side, and each hand plays a different beat on the separate drum. One hand has more of a slapping/ flicking of the fingers rhythm, whereas the other mixes that with a sliding motion of the palm. Just listening to him freestyle for 30 minutes was really fun.
On Saturday we visited BHU again and talked with Naval-sir’s niece who is a top researcher and professor in Ayurvedic medicine there. It was very cool to hear about it first hand, and also see that they use techniques we have learned in Chem lab (lots of TLC plates). We also talked with an art professor there who was really funny and just a good friend. He gave me the number of his brother who is down in Kerala, and I guess in India it wouldn’t be weird to call up my friend’s mentor’s best friend’s brother? I don’t think I’ll end up calling him because I will have no idea what to say.
The next day we took a trip to Sarnath, which is where the Buddha gave his first sermon. It was very surreal to be in the place where my religion started. There were lots of temples and unfortunately once again it felt like things were tourist-ized. However the stupa where the first meeting happened with his 5 disciples was beautiful in its original way (sorry some pictures are on my camera and I can’t upload those until I get home). The museum there had many rock sculptures from as early as the 6th century (maybe earlier I can’t quite remember). I enjoyed seeing the temples that were more off the beaten path that allowed us to see the real culture.
Monday morning we went to the morning Aarti, there was a song performance, pranayama (breathing practices) and some mild yoga. We missed the actual ceremony even though we got there at 5:50 am.
Later we went to the palace of the maharaja which is the king of Varanasi. Although there is still a recognized king and royal family, it is out of tradition and they hold no real power. Now the palace is more of a museum, where you walk through all the buildings and halls and each one has a different theme, whether it was vehicles (silver palanquins and shoutout to the 1870s Cadillac made in Detroit that they had shipped over), firearms, clothing, trinkets, and things like that. They had this really cool clock that was maybe 8 feet tall and 5 feet wide that kept the date, time, day of the week, current lunar type, the current zodiac, sun position, sun set and rise time, and I think a few other things. We then saw the palace temple, and it was more like a prayer room but it was by the rear wall of the palace overlooking the ghanges. This was one of my favorite places because I really felt like I was seeing the true history and even though it was for tourists, it didn’t feel like they were putting on a show.
We also saw these spots where the stories of Ram are told. Basically it’s a live play that is 40 days long I believe. They act a scene every night and when there’s a backdrop change they change locations.
The next day we took a bunch of pictures in our saris. On Saturday we had gone shopping with Sunita, a teacher at the school. She took us to her dad’s friend’s shop and we got drowned in fabric. Saris can be like 15 feet long and he would pull them out and lay them out and his shop was just a small room and we were sitting on the floor and it was just a sea of fabrics. Finally we picked our fabrics, and we went to a local tailor to have the blouses made. Each one is fit to your body and It clasps in the front so it feels like a second skin. There is also a petticoat, just a cotton skirt, that goes underneath to tuck the sari into. Another teacher helped us tie the sari (we tried to do it ourselves and it was an absolute mess). I thought that Indian women just walked slow because that was the culture, but I’m pretty sure it’s because it is impossible to walk in a sari. The petticoat prevents you from taking a full stride and it catches your ankles. And Krishna help you if you are sweaty because it sticks to your legs and further restricts your walk. I had rug burns on my ankles from the 15 minute walk from the ghat. Oh, also the whole ensamble was less than 15$. Getting a blouse tailored for you from scratch cost about 5$. And a meal here is like 1.50$. Although granted I rarely paid for my meals because everyone else insisted they pay.
Overall I had a fantastic time in Varanasi and I can’t thank Tsukumo enough for letting me experience these things with her and allowing me to stay with her.