India fully welcomed me back this past weekend. As much as I love these kids and this place, I also have not renounced my change-craving, travel-oriented ways. I accompanied a group of five volunteers to Mysore. And by accompanied I mean that while it is somewhat in my job description to play mother hen on their excursions, I also enjoy playing tour guide. The adventure began on Friday when we were told that the car we had booked was no longer available to take us. My initial thought was “welcome to India” but I knew that wasn’t exactly the best way to present the situation to the others. My second thought was “alright, I’ll look up some busses.” But, once again, chaperoning 5 young white Americans on their first Indian bus ride wasn’t at the top of my smart decision list. After a day full of phone calls and promises that it would all work out, it finally did! We found a wonderful man, Kumar, who was willing to give up his weekend last minute to drive us the five hours to Mysore.
We arrived in Mysore at 1am and got a nice little night tour of the area as Kumar tried to find our hostel. I was so excited to see just how great our location was…about a five minute walk to Mysore Palace and even less to the big covered market! Finally we were greeted in our hostel by a very grumpy, tired man who was offended that we hadn’t brought our original visas. After a fair amount of apologizing and talking extra nicely, he decided not to fine us. The next morning we decided to wander for our breakfast spot. Within seconds we saw the name of a restaurant I’d marked in my trust travel book. Turns out it was the same rooftop garden that I ate at three years ago!! We had a beautiful view of the city as it woke up. Over coffee and eggs and toast Tyler, Sophy, Brooke and I tried to articulate the best way to describe India too others. Neither “think about everything you know about America, and reverse it” nor “the Wild West with more infrastructure and better spices” quite settled with me. It took the next 8 hours, and remembering what makes India so unique, but I finally came up with an analogy that makes me happy.
We began our day walking to Mysore palace. A herd of 6 white people naturally draws attention. Not necessarily unwanted attention, but attention none the less. Within a few minutes we met Amar, a very gregarious young man who was determined to take us to the market. But not the main market, no, this was a special one that was only open on Saturdays. This is where we could see incense being rolled and many other crafts that employed his family members. Once I asked if he would be making commission off of us visiting the market he laughed, didn’t give a straight answer, but calmed down a little in his efforts. We finally shook him when he gave us directions to walk to the main gate to the palace.
The palace was extraordinary. The palace was constructed inside an old fort in the 14th century, however, it had been demolished and reconstructed multiple times. This one was finished being built in 1912. Before we even entered the palace we stood for several minutes watching monkeys play. That there was worth the extra 160 rupees we had to pay as a foreigner. Inside the palace we were not allowed to take pictures but the tile work, intricate statues, high pillars and ceilings, and view of the grounds could not have been captured anyways.
Leaving the palace we spotted people riding elephants. We couldn’t contain our giddiness. Riding an elephant was probably the most touristy thing I have ever done, but Indian tourists were doing it too and to be honest, I just couldn’t bring myself to care. I just love elephants so much!! It was a short loop we rode, but our guide stopped the elephant at one point so we could climb down and hug his head and get a picture. But was it worth it?
I knew we’d be expected to tip for that, what I forgot was just how demanding Indian men can be about their tips. Before we even got back to the beginning of the loop our elephant guide was demanding 200 rupees – each – for the photos. We finally gave him 200 rupees total, much to his dismay. Then when we got down from the elephant we were expected to tip the photographer too. Clearly the two were in cahoots, but convinced us their tips weren’t shared. Thank you India.
On the street corner we somehow happened to run in to Amar again! Apparently, since we finished touring the palace it was time for the market. Instead, I told him, it was time for lunch. He walked with us to the sweet shop he suggested and gave me directions to a good lunch spot and finally decided getting us to his mother’s shop was a lost cause.
After some tasty Mysore Pak (a sweet made of sugar, and just a bit of wheat and cornmeal) and a big lunch served on a banana leaf, we were ready for our own market adventure. The Devaraj market is a covered (in tarps) market with stalls selling everything from fruits and flowers to oils and incense to knives and bangles. Markets are my thing. I was in heaven. Within just a few steps we had made a new friend, Arun, who desperately wanted to sell me anklets and show me the finest silks in Mysore. We quickly got sidetracked, however, by an oils and incense stand. Thus began a long, hysterical conversation with Syed.
Syed was the fourth generation of men running this shop, and we also got to meet his grandfather while we were there. He began by showing us how incense sticks were rolled: a combination of sand and rubber powder mixed with rubber rolled on to a bamboo stick and then dipped in the scent. It took us a long time to get through all of this because we kept getting distracted by the oils and conversation. Syed showed us that all the essential oils that were made in India are the perfumes that are sold for hundreds of dollars in Europe and US. There, however, they are diluted with alcohol. Here, they are the real thing. I don’t know my perfumes well enough, but my fellow travel companions assured me that one scent absolutely was Hugo Boss, another was Channel, and the list goes on. Eventually Syed brought us cups of chai and we settled in to casual conversation and laughter about how Syed could speak so many languages (he showed up Harry with his French ability) and how he wanted an American girlfriend. Eventually we all bought our essential oils and were on our way.
But there again was Arun! Ready and willing to take us to the silk shop. By afternoon I get tired of telling no to everyone so we left the market to shop for some silks. It ended up being a large shop with more than silk and we idled our time drinking more chai and shopping for kurtas.
By this time it was nearly evening and had started to rain, but we had some more market goals. On our last round of the market, as stalls started to close and the crowds died down, we came across a flower stand. There we saw a pile of closed lotus flowers. The seller opened it up petal by petal for us until we saw the whole, beautiful flower. Suddenly Syed was at our side again explaining that lotus flowers grow in dirty water, in sewage even, but when they bloom smell like fresh water: sweet, crisp and refreshing. As the national flower of India I suddenly realized how it’s more than a symbol of purity or enlightenment, it is the symbol of India.
For every moment of frustration there is an equal, if not greater, moment of pure joy. We certainly felt that with every event of the weekend. For every guy who tries to scam you there are a million more who truly just want to be your friend. For every time you turn your eyes away from someone who is begging, you find another way to help someone in need. At first glance, with every piece of news we hear, and the assumptions people make, we think of India as a dirty poverty ridden place. And certainly, it is. But it is so much more than that. It is a country filled with compassion that turns in to action, people who are eager to share their love, and beauty beyond compare. No matter how much pain and misery we see every day, there is that much more love and hope which shows the beauty of this place. There is no better way to describe the beauty of humanity that erupts despite so much pain and corruption. I feel like a lotus flower is blooming every day.
The rest of the weekend continued to be eventful with a nighttime light show at the palace and dinner with new European friends we met during the day. We stayed up laughing and swapping stories until the restaurant closed at the late hour of 11:30. The next day before returning to Shanti Bhavan we saw a beautiful church and went to the top of Chamundi Hill. From there you could see the whole of Mysore. It felt very different than looking down from the hills of Darjeeling, this was overlooking another India – an India that I will always be getting to know. No matter how eventful, fun, and jam packed my weekends are, it’s always a breath of fresh air, the sweet smell of a lotus flower, to return to SB.