India

By abbieredmon

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I didn't know if I'd be able to go to India until two days before my flight was scheduled to take off.

I'd applied for my tourist visa a month in advance, and when I realized it was taking longer than they said it would to hear back, I checked in. They told me my application had been flagged because I'd marked that I was a writer/editor by profession. Apparently, anyone with a profession that could be related to journalism has to fill out extra forms, pay more money, and wait longer to [hopefully] receive their visa.

I was in panic mode for about a week while everything was being sorted.

I got so close with the staff at the visa processing office that I had one of their personal cell phone numbers. I couldn't stop adding up all of the money that would be wasted if I wasn't able to take my flights. I'd even started to make a back-up plan that included a re-routed flight to Thailand, since U.S. citizens don't need a visa to travel there for less than 30 days.

Then, two days before my flight, I heard back: My visa had arrived. I was free to go. I don't know that I've ever felt so relieved in my life.

And now, here I am in Goa, seeing views like this from the back of a motorbike. I am thankful.

More soon.

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We are in the middle of our week in Goa, and it is glorious.

Temperatures are high (mid-90s Fahrenheit), but the water is nice, and the lassis are plentiful. My travel partner is doing some work on his laptop in the shade of the beach-front restaurant where we are staying -- Camilson's Beach Resort -- but fortunately, he's still able to keep his toes in the sand. Meanwhile, I've been busy getting a sunburn.

Beaches in Goa are funny because cows roam them. They are content to keep to themselves, though, so as long as you don't mind if one occasionally lays down near you to sunbathe, it's not a problem.

We've rented a motorbike for the week, and yesterday we drove south, to Agonda Beach, which is a bit more secluded than Colva and very picturesque.

I'll be sad to leave our tropical paradise, but I'm also eager to see more of this wonderful country.

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They say you haven't really experienced India until you've traveled somewhere by train, and after our experience on the train from Margao to Kannur, I think I agree!

Fortified with hot chai from a roaming station vendor, we boarded our train an hour after it was scheduled to depart. Figuring out which seats were ours in sleeper class was an adventure on its own, but with the help of some kind strangers, who then became our travel companions for the next eight hours, we eventually got settled (though I was never entirely sure if we were in the right spots).

I sat across from a young girl and her father, who were traveling from the north of India to join the rest of their family in Cochin. The girl was shy at first, but she eventually opened up when she realized she could speak English with me, and I showed her the towns we were passing through on my map and taught her how to play tic-tac-toe.

After 4 or 5 hours on the train, we started to get a little hungry. Peering out the windows at the station in Mangalore, we realized independent vendors were populating the train platform, selling take-away to hungry passengers out of cardboard boxes. As hunger overcame me, I ventured off the train armed with 200 rupees, looking to make one of those to-go containers mine.

The train had been in the station in Mangalore for about six minutes already, and once I disembarked, I walked along the platform, passing vendor after vendor standing next to his empty cardboard box, counting his money. As the realization that I might not get anything to eat after all washed over me, I started moving quicker, dashing from cardboard box to cardboard box, but each was empty.

On the way back to my train car, I saw a vendor who had clearly either just replenished his stock, or just arrived on the platform. He was surrounded by a very tightly packed crowd of Indian men waving money and shouting. I quickly realized that the process of buying a to-go meal from one of these vendors was a frenetic and occasionally vicious endeavor.

I got close enough to see the vendor bent down on one knee at the center of the mob, slipping rupee notes into his shirt pocket with one hand and lifting to-go containers out of his cardboard box with the other, only to have them snatched away in seconds. I was pretty sure bidding wars were being waged.

I peered over shoulders and through bent arms, but I saw I was too late, too hesitating, and probably too foreign to be successful. The box was almost empty.

Sigh.

We survived the rest of the train ride on a package of gingersnaps and a plate of medu vada (like doughnuts, only not sweet) we procured from a vendor who wandered through our train car.

Lesson learned: Be aggressive, or bring your own food!

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Our train dropped us off in the coastal city of Kannur, in the northern part of Kerala. This city is the beating heart of the Northern Malabar theyyam rituals. About every other day, you can find a Hindu temple in or around Kannur holding a theyyam.

The idea behind theyyam is that a dancer (who is trained from an early age) adorns himself with body paint, brightly colored clothes, and an elaborate headdress and performs a dance and some offerings to invite a Hindu god to enter his body. Once the god has occupied the dancer's body, the dancer -- now believed to be the god incarnate -- then gives audience to the people in attendance, who present him with questions or problems they have for which they seek the god's advice, help, or blessing.

Though the ritual -- which has a history going back several thousand years and is practiced in several branches of Hinduism -- involves colorful costumes and dancing, it is a form of worship, not a performance, so it's important for foreigners to fully respect the event.

We took a rickshaw and arrived early to the temple, Charappuram Sree Muthappan temple, which is on the side of the road on the outskirts of Kannur, surrounded by a low concrete wall, and covered with a sloped corrugated metal roof. A small, square temple, which couldn't have been more than 3-by-3 inside, stood in the center of the space. Many candles were burning both inside the temple and outside it. Two alters sat in front of it.

We took seats in the back, but after a few minutes, we were ushered to two chairs at the front by the man who we later found out was hosting the theyyam. He seemed very keen on helping us understand what was going on.

He told us he paid 800 rupees to the temple for the honor of hosting the theyyam that day, called Muthappan, which meant he was the first man to receive the blessings at each point during the ritual when they were offered. He was hosting the theyyam because his wife, also present, had a blood clot in her brain, and he wanted to appeal to the gods on her behalf. The god invoked that day was Shiva, "the Destroyer," who accepts offerings of certain kinds of tea leaves, fish, and alcohol, among other things.

The ritual began with drums, and the drums were the one constant throughout the entire ritual. Three bare-chested men wearing white dhotis and some face paint set the rhythm, and the drumming didn't stop until the dance was over.

There were two dancers. One wore a colorful dhoti with some markings in paint on his face and chest, and he seemed to "serve" the other dancer, who wore bright red and yellow body paint from head to toe, including his face, lots of bells on his ankles, colorful bangles on his arms and around his neck, and an elaborate headdress. Everything was red, yellow, or gold, and all of the men, including the musicians, were barefoot.

Both men danced, but the man in the headdress was the one who received the god, Shiva. He moved around the two alters in a series of circles and figure eights, dancing with a bow and arrow. With each purposeful step, the bells on his ankles jingled and added to the music the drummers were producing. He paused occasionally to present offerings and bless the men in attendance.

The host, who had just received the final blessing, a banana leaf with a smear of turmeric powder on it, turned around to share it with us. We followed his lead, dipping one finger in the paste and dragging it solemnly across our own foreheads.

When the dancing, the blessings, and the offerings were complete, the dancer in the headdress, now believed to be embodied by the god Shiva, sat down. Everyone in attendance -- a few men, but lots of women and some children -- lined up to speak with him, tell him their problems, and receive advice from the god.

Before we left, even though we aren't Hindu, we received the blessing kuri: a bag of coconut shavings and dried chickpeas. When we got back to our home stay, we gave the bag to our host, who took it to the kitchen so it could be incorporated into our dinner tonight.

India is country of color, sound, and flavor, and spirituality is everywhere. No matter your personal religion, it's hard not to get caught up in the passion Indians have for their own rich culture, customs, and rituals. I'm not a person who prays, but I have been thinking about the host and his wife, and I hope the theyyam we witnessed together has granted them some peace.

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Thinking we had learned our lesson from the train ride a few days back, we tried to come better prepared for the four-hour bus ride we took up into the mountains of Wayanad yesterday.

We bought take-away chicken biriyani at the terminal and confidently boarded the bus clutching the plastic bag, sure we wouldn’t go hungry this time. The bus had bars on the otherwise open windows and kept taking on passengers like a sinking boat takes on water.

We sat at the very back, on the bench seat, and eventually, so many people had squeezed themselves down onto the bench that Zach was sitting with his shoulders sideways — the only way he could fit — and I was plastered up against the window, feeling the bruising on my right arm spread and deepen every time we bumped over a pothole or took a hard left turn.

We jostled and bounced along like this for about two hours, up into the mountains of Wayanad around hairpin turns, and eventually, we got hungry. We both eyed the plastic bag that was now jammed between my leg and my backpack at my feet.

As we pulled it out into our laps, we realized one important detail we’d forgotten: a fork. Neither of us would entertain the idea of eating with our hands after two hours spent steadying ourselves in the bus, grabbing at anything that was nailed down, and even occasionally our fellow passengers.

We had nothing to eat this biriyani with. Absolutely nothing.

After I shot down Zach’s idea of using his credit card as a shovel (gross!), I remembered I still had the half-full package of gingersnaps he’d offered me on the train a few days before. Feeling confident that I had solved our problem, we each grasped a nice, flat (clean) gingersnap in our hand and bent down to the biriyani.

Mere seconds passed before we realized we had another problem: The bumps and jives of the bus were so frequent and so unpredictable it was virtually impossible to get the gingersnap into the packed-down rice and up successfully to our mouths without sending rice flying everywhere — except into our growling stomachs, of course.

It would’ve been funny… if we weren’t so hungry.

After a few attempts that left rice in my lap, on the floor of the bus, and probably even on our neighboring travelers, we looked at each other, laughed not a little maniacally, and gave up.

Win some, lose some, right? And anyway, the views once we were up into the Western Ghats were worth it!

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I came to India with the intention of being as open to experiences as possible. My travel partner and I have a very rough itinerary of regions we want to visit (which changes often), but otherwise, I kind of wanted to let India wash over me, and see what came out at the other end.

But the one thing I really wanted to do while here was see a wild elephant.

Elephants have sort of been "my" animal since I was a child. My parents gave me a singing stuffed elephant when I was a baby, and that's what started it. Growing up, I had several stuffed elephants, figurines, and socks and shirts with elephants on them — people would give me these things. As I got older and read more about the gentle giants, I learned how smart and loyal they are, and how their problem-solving skills are highly developed. Their emotions are also very human — they play jokes on each other, miss each other, and mourn their dead.

I knew there was a large Asian Elephant population in southern India, so we made a point to spend a few days here, near Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary, in the Western Ghats in Kerala.

We didn't see any elephants inside the sanctuary itself, but on an evening ride out to Thirunelli Temple (a 3,000-year-old temple), we saw SIX wild elephants along the road, and one was a baby!

First we saw two males along the road, each by himself. Their tusks were intense, and I couldn't believe how close to the road they were grazing! We got a really good look at both of them until the lights from the Jeep sent them back deeper into the forest (I felt bad about that).

Then, a bit farther down the road, we saw three females grazing together with a calf. The females were sort of shielding the baby with their bodies, but we got a little look at all of them, and it was amazing! Definitely a highlight of the trip for me!

Since it was nighttime, the photos we took aren't very good, but I wanted to share one anyway.

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I hadn't made it more than thirty yards down the street from the entrance to our homestay in Southern Wayanad, Aranyakam, before I was joined by several local children who'd been playing in the yard of a nearby house. As they ran out to intercept me, one of them said "Hello" to me in English, and when I said hello back, they all dissolved into giggles as they ran ahead of me in the street. I asked them what they were doing, and in response, I got another wave of giggles. One of the smaller boys held up a dragonfly, which he had captured and was holding by its wings, for me to see. The air was thick with dragonflies, fluttering lazily in the heat. Another boy had picked a purple flower from the side of the road and held it out for me, too, until he received what seemed to be too much teasing from his friends, and he ran off to the front of the group, shouting in Malayalam.

I motioned to my camera and said, "photo?" They happily complied, jostling each other into a line across the middle of the road.

After I'd taken it, they all rushed up to me and I showed them the image on my LCD screen, which produced even more giggling, pointing, and apparent teasing among them.

We continued down the road, me wandering slowly and the boys running and skipping ahead of me, and as we walked, we lost some of them, one by one, until it was just the oldest boy and one younger one left following me.

The two walked close behind me on my right. The younger one dashed energetically ahead and ran back, jumping up to pull leaves off of trees and saying things to his older friend in Malayalam that made them both smile. The older one matched my pace, and each time I looked back, I found him looking at me and smiling bashfully. As the mountains came in and out of view between the trees and curves of the road, I pointed to the tallest one asked the older boy, "Mount Chambra?" He shook his head and said, "Chambra no," and pointed in another direction: "Chambra."

"Ah," I said.

"Are you brothers?" I asked him, motioning to the younger boy ahead of us.

"No, brother no," he said.

"Just friends?" I asked.

"Friends," he confirmed.

As we passed the houses, more children would run to the street — but not farther — to watch us go by. They waved, and sometimes said hello shyly. Then they would go back to their games and their projects, constructing things out of dirt or playing tag in the front yard.

We passed a Malay rose apple tree, which has the most unique bright red blooms, and when the younger boy noticed my interest in them, he ran up and picked one, which he presented to me proudly. I stuck the stem in a buttonhole of my shirt.

Eventually we reached a curve in the road that had the most wonderful view of the surrounding tea and coffee plantations, covering the rolling hills all the way into the distance.

I stopped to take some photos, and when I turned around, more children from a house across the street had joined us. I looked over to see someone’s mother, and maybe a sister, watching our little procession from their yard. I thought for a moment they might not appreciate the distraction of my presence, but they smiled at me, and I smiled back, attempting the affable Indian head wobble.

The younger boy and the older boy followed me all the way back to Aranyakam, and as we reached the entrance, a third boy had wandered up, about the age of the younger one, and I could hear the three of them behind me, practicing a sentence in English.

After some more quiet murmuring, the boy who'd given me the flower proudly proclaimed: "When you will come back?"

"Later this afternoon," I told them.

"Afternoon," they said.

"Yes," I said. "Later."

After some more whispering between the three of them, the older one said, "You come back this afternoon."

"Yes," I said. "I will see you later." And I smiled.

The two younger boys ran off giggling, and the older one followed behind them more slowly, and he looked back to smile at me before they all turned the corner.

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One of my biggest reservations about traveling to India was the food. I’m not a fan of spicy dishes, so I thought all of the curries and dahls that awaited me on the subcontinent would surely mock me with their pungent aromas and sinus-clearing spices. But as it turns out, there were just as many mild options as hot ones, and the food was actually quite delicious.

Dinners in Kerala usually start with a huge amount of Keralan rice piled high in the center of the plate. Grains of Keralan rice are not as long as Jasmine rice, but they’re much fatter and seem a bit starchier. Accompanying the rice are smaller piles of okra, eggplant, potato, and chickpea concoctions. Keralan cuisine uses a lot of mustard seeds, pepper, and cardamom, so these veggie dishes are always just as colorful as they were flavorful.

The meat dish is often presented on a separate plate — on one night we were served four pieces of grilled barracuda, smothered in flavors spicy enough to keep me an arm’s length from it. To help sop up the deliciousness on our plates are breads like chapati or papadum, and sometimes both.

Dessert is always something to look forward to — fruit occasionally, but more often something like a sweet cream and coconut mixture wrapped up in a rice flour “pancake” of sorts, served warm inside a folded-over banana leaf.

Last night, in Fort Cochin, an old Portuguese port town in southern Kerala, we strolled along Beach Drive at the north end of the peninsula and surveyed the fishermen’s catches from the day. If you want, you can buy a fish (or shrimp or lobster) that looks good to you, and the fisherman will send it over to a local restaurant for them to cook for your dinner! I’m not sure it gets any fresher or more personalized than that!

Generally, the meals we've eaten have been prepared with fresh ingredients usually grown or raised (or caught!) no more than a kilometer or two from where we ate the meal. In southern Wayanad, the home stay where we slept and ate all of our meals had a vegetable garden, fruit trees of all kinds, fresh cow's milk, duck eggs, and even a cinnamon tree! It's an amazing culture of food — one I wish we could emulate easier in the United States.

For now, I've just been enjoying the bounty!

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On the eve of our departure, I wanted to write a little something about the rickshaw — the three-wheeled Indian taxi that you steer like a motorbike.

We took rickshaws all the time, and preferred them over regular taxi cars because they were always cheaper. However, for any rides longer than 40-45 minutes, or if the road is particularly rough or dusty, you might want a car.

Rickshaws are open-air, which helps you feel connected with what's going on in the street as you drive through. In a car with the windows rolled up, it can be easy to look at India as if it were an exhibit in a museum, and you are one step removed from it. But in a rickshaw, you are there with everyone in the street. You can smell the street food, the exhaust, and the cows inevitably blocking the road.

Rickshaw drivers act more like motorbikes than they do cars; they dart in between other vehicles and pedestrians, careen around corners, and speed you to your destination as if you are late for a flight with the characteristic putt-putt of the engine blaring along behind you.

I also like the personality rickshaw drivers insert into the car-for-hire trade. Regular taxi car drivers may have a single Virgin Mary on their dashboard, or a rosary hanging from the rearview mirror, but rickshaw drivers don't mess with that. They decorate their rickshaws like Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade floats. Tassles, colorful banners across the top of the windshield praising Krishna, bells, window paint, huge peel-and-stick representations of Jesus on the cross — some are quite extravagant.

And I like that about rickshaw drivers. They know they're going to be in this vehicle for the better part of the day, and it's their livelihood. They assert themselves through it.

Some drivers are chatty; some are all business. Some drive alongside you as you walk on the side of the road and goad you into giving them a fare.

For me, the rickshaw has been a big part of the India experience, and I like it!

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"Shantaram" by Gregory David Roberts was my read for the travels home from India, and what a great way to round out my India experience. This epic novel is based on true events from Roberts' life; he's an Australian who escaped from prison and fled to Bombay, where most of the story of "Shantaram" takes place.

Roberts beautifully articulates so many of my own thoughts about this incredibly diverse country and its people. Most specifically, I really identified with Roberts' contemplations on crowding and the "me-first" mentality you see in public spaces like train stations, buses, and in queues in India.

Roberts writes:

"At first, on that first journey out of the city into India, I found such sudden politeness infuriating after the violent scramble to board the train. It seemed hypocritical for them to show such deferential concern over a nudge with a foot when, minutes before, they'd all but pushed one another out of the windows.

"Now, long years and many journeys after that first ride on a crowded rural train, I know that the scrambled fighting and courteous deference were both expressions of the one philosophy: the doctrine of necessity. The amount of force and violence necessary to board the train, for example, was no less and no more than the amount of politeness and consideration necessary to ensure that the cramped journey was as pleasant as possible afterwards. What is necessary! That was the unspoken but implied and unavoidable question everywhere in India. When I understood that, a great many of the characteristically perplexing aspects of public life became comprehensible: from the acceptance of sprawling slums by city authorities, to the freedom that cows had to roam at random in the midst of traffic; from the toleration of beggars on the streets, to the concatenate complexity of the bureaucracies; and from the gorgeous, unashamed escapism of Bollywood movies, to the accommodation of hundreds of thousands of refugees from Tibet, Iran, Afghanistan, Africa, and Bangladesh, in a country that was already too crowded with sorrows and needs of its own.

"The real hypocrisy, I came to realise, was in the eyes and minds and criticisms of those who came from lands of plenty, where no-one had to fight for a seat on a train. Even on that first train ride, I knew in my heart that Didier had been right when he'd compared India and its billion souls to France. I had an intuition, echoing his thought, that if there were a billion Frenchmen or Australians or Americans living in such a small space, the fighting to board the train would be much more, and the courtesy afterwards much less."

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I think these paragraphs are such a brilliant meditation not just on India, but on travel and cultural differences everywhere. We talk about "culture shock," and what we usually mean is that it feels weird when we have to confront the fact that litter is everywhere in India, or adjust to the different understanding Indians have of personal space, or adapt to the strangeness of eating with your hands, or the inconvenience of using a "bathroom" that's really just a hole in the ground. (Or, while we're at it, why a restaurant in a train station will have a huge menu detailing 60+ dishes, only to inform you after you try to order lunch that the only thing available until 5 p.m. is chicken biriyani.)

But Roberts is talking about something else. He's talking about the Indian way of life and, in this case, how it informs Indians' behavior and expectations in public spaces. But he is also taking about humanity.

It is easy to become frustrated when we don't understand why people do the things they do, when people act seemingly illogically or unexpectedly. But the truth is, we all survive by doing "what is necessary." This is why people fight ferociously for a take-away container of rice and lentils on a train platform in Mangalore. This is why rickshaw drivers in Cochin hassle us to a point of anger — we are their livelihood. Our fare might have paid for dinner for the driver and his family that night. It also explains why strangers on a long-distance train shared their already-minimal space with us — two clueless Americans with no understanding of the intricacies of sleeper class seating — for eight hours without once giving us a harsh glance or an elbow to the ribs.

When you start to understand that, you start to understand India.

I would like to think I am returning from India a better person — hopefully I've grown more patient, or more sympathetic. In reality, I am probably minimally changed, but the experiences I've had in this country were so charged with truth that I am inspired to seek more of them, all over the world.

Thank you, India.

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