This is India

As I begin to write this post I have no words to describe my experiences of this past weekend. For the first time I feel like the English language has failed me. But perhaps, language in general fails to capture soul fulfilling emotions. It’s like standing on the top of a mountain or watching the sun set and wanting to snap a photo in order to hold on to the memory forever. But when you do, you’re only disappointed. The picture is not what you see. You see creases of color in the sky, as if the earth is laughing and you spotted it’s hidden dimples. Your photo shows the horizon just like any other. You see glistening crystals of snow as if the wilderness threw a party and threw diamonds as it’s confetti. The photo shows a steep white hill. You get the picture (no pun intended). Often I get annoyed with photographs because they cannot capture the beauty I experience and they take away my focus on the present moment. Words have become my tactic. But even now, even having lived every second to it’s fullest, feeling as if a month has passed in just a short two days, I can barely type out a sliver of our story.

A glimpse of India on Independence Day
A glimpse of India on Independence Day

My travel companion says in German I’d explain it as “geborgenheit” – knowing you are accepted and safe. In Malayalam (the language spoken in Kerala, the state we visited) you might express “കമ്ഫര്ട”. But in English I need a myriad of words to explain what it feels like to be (1) accepted in to a home, a community, a massive loving extended family with open arms (2) over fed and over chaied (my new verb for having been given glass after glass of tea) 18 hours a day (3) communicating with only smiles, laughter, and a few “namestes” and yet having complete confidence that everything was understood, and (4) to be loved by strangers and to love them wholly in return.

Me and Archana!
Me and Archana!

This past weekend I went home with Archana, a Shanti Bhavan volunteer from Kerala India for Independence Day. She returns to college in Bangladesh next week so Mattia, another volunteer, and I decided to tag along on her journey home. The journey itself began my slew of new experiences in India. Sure I’d ridden busses before, but never without a set plan and never with such confidence. We walked out of the gates of SB and instantly a wave of freedom and adventure washed over me. I love my job and I love the children, but walking off campus -wearing my Chaco’s strapped tight and carrying nothing but a small backpack – released unmistakeable endorphins that only travel can create. We waited on the side of the road for our 4:00 bus. By the time 4:30 rolled around only a school bus was in sight, so we decided to take that to the nearest town. (Please excuse me as I introduce a necessary hashtag to this blog. #ThisIsIndia #TiI)

Indian Government Bus
Indian Government Bus

The school bus got us to Bagalur, from Bagalur we got a bus to Hosur, and from Hosur to Bangalore. We reached by 8:00, had our scrumptious dinner of biscuits, mango juice, and banana and hopped on another bus to Mysore. After maybe a page of my novel I was out like a light. I am eternally grateful for having blessed with the ability to sleep. In Mysore we met Archana’s friend Shyam and dropped off another volunteer who’d been journeying with us, Victor. It seemed as if every Keralite who’d relocated to Bangalore was looking to journey with us as well. The busses were packed. Every time a bus arrived we rushed to the doors, Shyam asked the conductor if it was going to our town, and it pulled out again before I could process what happened. Finally, our bus showed it’s face. Apparently showing our pitifully confused white girl faces meant nothing in the language of Indian bus travel. We pushed and shoved and elbowed and pulled and kicked our way in to a space on the bus. (#TiI) And space, not a seat, we earned.

Mattia quickly fell asleep standing up, and having taken on the “in control mothering role” I had hated being on receiving end of when I was 18 in India, ushered her to sit down. After a short while I determined my stoic stance was unnecessary, and Archana and I joined her on the floor. Once again the three and a half hour uncomfortable journey was made more than manageable by my ability to sleep. My companions were not so fortunate. We were greeted in Wayanard, Archana’s home town, by her father and an auto rickshaw. Just a few kilometers away her brother, mother, and grandmother were waiting to welcome us in to their home. Amma and Ammama just beamed at us and Akash said a shy hello.

Independence Day
Independence Day

Morning came but three hours later. We were woken up with fresh coffee, rice noodles, beef and curry and were ready to start the day. It began, as every Independence Day should, with a parade. We saw the flag raising followed by police officers and children from various schools and the Indian Boy Scouts marching around an athletic ground. This marching is quite a spectacle. Arms are held stiff and straight, swung front and back rotating a full 180 degrees. A few patriotic songs were sung by uniformed school girls and promises were spoken by some mediocre politician. We were suspected to be terrorists, for why else would foreigners partake in such celebrations, and left the grounds just as the festivities began to break up.

Overlooking the view of the hairpins
Overlooking the view of the hairpins

Archana’s family had a full day of sight seeing in store for us. First stop? Chai. (#TiI) We needed a bit of an energy boost, which only the taste of Indian chai can provide: it’s practically a shot of caffeinated glucose with the aroma of cardamom. And we got a banana fry as well! We were ready for the day. Next was a drive to Kalpetta where we could overlook miles of Kerala. Nine hairpins (switchbacks) snaked their way down the mountain side. A few small waterfalls cascaded over the rocks, and I barely dared to imagine what they, and the roads, would look like during monsoon season.

We piled back in to the jeep and ventured on to a beautiful park. Even in India I got to play on swings – a sure fire way to put me in a good mood. We walked around the lake, went out in a paddle boat, are some homemade snacks, did a bit of window shopping, and basked in sun showers. This is when I realized that everyone can communicate through play. We swung, we splashed, we took photos, and although the language barrier was there, after only a few hours I truly felt like they were my Amma and Acha.

My first classic Kerala meal
My first classic Kerala meal

On the way to out next site we stopped at a small roadside hotel for a classic Kerala meal. Served on a banana leaf is a heaping pile of rice, covered in curry, surrounded by several small dishes – including fresh fish fry! – and papadam (a crispy fried bread). Also a Kerala specialty is water boiled with some spices that turns it pink, which means I can drink their normal water without risk of getting sick!! (#TiI) After stuffing our faces we were on our way again. It’s funny, often time I think of India as a much slower paced life, and in many ways it is, but the things I usually take time to do – like eat a big meal or drink scorching hot tea – feel like they’re over on split seconds.

IMG_1471
Sisterly selfie at the Dam

So we were on our way to the Dam. According to Archana this is such a large lake that not only was the dam itself manmade but the soil was all relocated and then sharks we’re added to the water. I didn’t test it out. On the walk up to the water we met her brother and his new wife. Only after another day in the family did I come to learn that many of her relatives are “brothers” and many neighbors “uncles.” (#TiI) We would see them again soon. Up by the water we took an evening family stroll, chatted and messed around like sisters, indulged in some ice cream, jumped on the swings among the trees, and became comfortable enough to make jokes with each other. It was the perfect end to a full day, only it wasn’t over yet.

On the ride back we stopped to be the surprise visit for members of Archana’s fathers family. Acha had moved his family out of his parents home when Archana was a few years old because his brother married and would inherit the family house. So that family house was the first on our list to visit. There we surprised his mother, brother’s wife, nieces, aunt, cousin (the list of women goes on). I do believe we were the first foreigners they’d ever seen. We were offered chai and biscuits and attempted to explain who we were. They jokingly scolded Archana for not having taught us Malayalam in the last month. I began to understand part of Indian culture that has so perplexed me: why is it so hard to marry outside ones community, and why many modern women like Archana still dream to one day settle back among their relatives.

Part of the extended family
Part of the extended family

To start with the latter, simply, the family system is beautiful. We visited house after house that lived with their nuclear family – had their own space like my American mind deems necessary – but within a 30 second to five minute walk to three other related nuclear families. When the foreigners arrived the house was nearly empty, when we left it was full of familial chatter. And that chatter is what helped me understand marriage customs. Even if you are not going to move in with your in laws, staying up with family gossip, learning a family recipe, or offering a traditional remedy all requires common language. Each state in India hosts a different language, but even within that the slang from one town to the next is quite unique. Certainly if I were to move to Texas or Iowa I’d have a new life style and accent to adjust to, but I could still communicate with everyone. Even just taking the bus from Tamil Nadu to Karnataka to Kerala – with a tour guide who understood enough of each language to get by – was a challenge.

Our last visit of the day was to the newest house in the family. The “brother” we’d met at the dam was Vinish, and this was his sister, Vinida’s, home. It was the nicest I’d ever seen: two stories, sparkling white tiles, a balcony, and an electric kettle in the kitchen! I played with their three year old son for a bit before sipping another glass of chai and munching on a few more biscuits. Each family repeated how mad they were at not giving fair warning that guests would be coming, otherwise they would have prepared something nicer. (#TiI) Mattia and I (and mostly our stomachs) were grateful for the limited food supply. By the time we reached home it had only been 12 hours (as long as the journey to get there the previous night!) but it felt like eternity. Within minutes I was fast asleep and only awoke when being called to dinner. For the life of us neither Mattia nor I can remember what we ate that night. I’m pretty sure a chapatti was involved, and I know it was delicious, but we were too tired to remember anything more.

Sipping our morning coffee overlooking the coconut plantation.
Sipping our morning coffee overlooking the coconut plantation.

After a graciously long nights sleep (I really was on vacation!) we began our day with fresh coffee and a perfect breakfast once again. I began to learn a little more about how life works up in the hill station of Wayanard. Archana’s family (this is now her mothers family. They built their own house on her mother’s family’s land after leaving her fathers family home) owns a plantation covered in coffee, coconut, banana, and rubber trees with a few neighboring rice patties. I felt blessed to finally be drinking something other than Nescafé! And breakfast, a puri (puffed rice bread) had been fried in their homemade coconut oil. Once a year they harvested enough coconuts to take to the mill and make enough to store oil for the whole year. Even the rice flour they ground themselves. It was no wonder everything tasted so good!

We set off on a trip to Calicut to see the beach. Along the way we were surprised by Victor and Shyam joining us on the bus! They’d come from Mysore to spend the day with us. A three hour bus ride later, partly down those treacherous hair pins, we could smell the sea. Shyam desperately wanted us to try Kerala’s special chicken biryani, but the fancy hotel we went to was all out, proving to me once and for all street food is always better. From there we tried to get an auto to the beach, but the streets were filled with some sort of agricultural parade. How do I know? There were women playing drums with vegetables strapped to their heads and a whole team wearing shirts titled “food security army.” It took all my might not to just join in!

Evening on the beach
Evening on the beach

Instead, we became part of the evening beach goers. We splashed in the water, chatted on the sand, and laughed until it was hard to breathe. Mattia managed to get so soaked that her pants – somehow torn in the crotch – entirely covered her feet that we had to create a new fashion of waist shirts…I don’t know why she won’t introduce it when she returns to Paris! Victor wrestled Shyam into the sea, compromising his Nokia phone for a little fun. Who knew the Arabian Sea was powerful enough to destroy a Nokia? Archana and I, tried, to no avail, to get her little brother Akash to dip even a toe in the ocean.

As the sun set we headed to find Acha. Archana’s dad works in this city and knows the place very well. We had some tasty cheap masala dosa (whose Kerala version includes beer root!) and a cup of chai for strength. Then we wandered a mall before heading home. I felt like I was in some kind of limbo land. American name brand stores next to restaurants selling idlis. An arcade filled with young Indian men at the bowling alley and children on the race cars (although I must say that every experience on any Indian road reminds me of video games. A part of me wanted to just go encourage those children to learn to drive an auto). Akash was so cute every time we went to get on the escalator. He paused, waited until the timing was just right, and then grabbed his dad as he jumped on to the second stair. At one point a young man, in a slight rush to catch up with his own family, kindly picked up the frozen Akash and placed him on the stair next to his dad. In this moment I pinpointed another aspect of Indian culture that just makes my heart melt. Although people are not very touchy-feely here – there are no long embrace even at hello and goodbye among friends and family – it’s acceptable to show affection for strangers. Archana would ruffle the hair of a cute child as they walked past us, Amma had grabbed my face when we first joined them, and mothers had no problem with me holding their babies’ hands.

One more bus ride nap back up to our hill station, and when we arrived were greeted by one more meal. (#TiI) A decent money making business is setting up street food for late night travelers. We had some puri, veg curry, omelette and coffee to top off the night. I love eating the hot puris just as they are pulled from the oil. We quickly, and coldly, washed the Arabian Sea from our skin and sunk in to another great night’s sleep.

Archana doing my makeup to look like a real Indian :)
Archana doing my makeup to look like a real Indian 🙂

Finally Sunday had arrived, I have no idea how it popped up on us so fast. We had meant to take an overnight bus back to Shanti Bhavan, but with the holiday weekend everything booked. So, we had to fit as much family visiting in as we could in the morning. After a breakfast of dosa and coconut curry we wandered maybe twenty yards next door to the house of Vinish and his wife, his twin brother Vijish and their parents. You guessed it, we had some chai and biscuits and broken conversation. We learned a little more about the recent wedding and got invited back to the family’s next one, likely for Vijish. After some more conversation and jokes their mother told me that I should not move back to America. When I asked her if she could find me a good Indian husband Vijish chimed in “I am ready!” The whole kitchen burst in to laughter. (#TiI)

My new Indian grandmother!
My new Indian grandmother!

On to the next house: the ancestral home. Here lived Archana’s mother’s father’s mother. My new Indian grandmother 🙂 For a woman in her 90s having birthed 7 children and cared for three generations, she looked great. We could only sit for a short while, because guests were waiting for us back at home, but those short minutes were filled with love. We couldn’t get out of there without recounting the aforementioned marriage story and having a snack. These ladies agreed that I should settle in India. (#TiI)

Too much good food!
Too much good food!

Back home we met a few more neighbors and the family of Archana’s classmate at her college in Bangladesh. Her mother made us a full Kerala meal as a parting gift to our taste buds and stomachs. I met a few kids in 8th and 9th standard who spoke remarkably good English, and who looked so much older than Shanti Bhavan kids. I had thought these kid were almost finished high school simply because of the context of our SB students, reminding me how vitally important nutrition is in the first four years of life. It also gave me a pang of excitement to return to Shanti Bhavan. As perfect as this weekend was, as much as I’d found a home, it was time to return to my home in Shanti Bhavan.

The journey back was a tedious one. The busses were less full but equally bumpy. I was pleasantly reminded of how necessary the kindness from strangers is. We were directed on to the right busses, offered seats, and other wise paid no attention to. I finally felt like a part of India. (#TiI) It was hard to say goodbye to the people who had so graciously welcomed us in to their family, but I know that this will be both a memory and an emotion that we will all hold dear to our hearts forever.

The fam
The fam
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