Archive for the ‘Mary in India’ Category

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Mary: Diwali

October 31, 2011

Happy Halloween! It feels so strange to be in a country that doesn’t celebrate one of my favorite holidays. I can’t even convey how much I miss seeing carved pumpkins, scarecrows, weird fake spiderwebs with little plastic creatures strewn about them and strangely dressed kids roaming the streets at night!  Although I did just get to celebrate the most important holiday of the year here in India, called Diwali. Hannah and I returned from out internship (more on that later) for a few days to spend the holidays with my host mom in Jaipur. Diwali is also known as the festival of lights and for good reason – the festival itself it seen as the triumph of good over evil and starting a new year with high hopes and good intentions. Everyone decorates their houses quite extensively with dozens of strands of colored and white lights and tiny little oil lamps are placed around the outside of the house, lining walkways, gardens and fences. Our neighbors on both sides have little kids in the family and they were setting off incredibly loud and crazy fireworks for hours on Divwali night; the whole city was in fact, Hannah and I camped out on the roof for a few hours, watching the never ending displays. Honestly, it would have put most American fourth of July shows to shame! (Except my dad’s annual show, of course.) My host-sister took Hannah and I on a driving tour of the city as well – all of the big malls compete with each other to see who can decorate their buildings the most elaborately. It was really crazy to see these huge, six or seven story shopping malls with hundreds and hundreds of lights strung about! There were tons of other families out looking at the sites as well, most of them dressed in the finest saris and shawls, taking family portraits in front of the displays! We also had a lovely family dinner with all sorts of special Diwali sweets and Hindu prayers during a special puja. It felt like experiencing an American Christmas in a strange, altered reality, viewed through the the colorful, brilliantly lit, shape-shifting lens of a kaleidoscope. All the traditional elements of a festive season were there – family coming together, good food, decorations – but they had taken on a distinctly Indian adaptation. It was a wonderful experience and one I will not easily forget! I’v included a few pictures from the celebrations below! I’ve also put in a few pictures (the ones of the temples and country landscapes) from my new internship site!  To better explain what I’m doing with my new internship, stay tuned.

100_1394 100_1409 IMG_0466 IMG_0467 IMG_0468 IMG_0475 IMG_0478 IMG_0503 IMG_0520 IMG_0521 IMG_0538 IMG_0549 IMG_0566 IMG_0578 

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Mary: Gitanjali

October 12, 2011

There once was an Indian man named Rabindranath Tagore who won the Nobel Prize for literature in the year 1913 for his collection of poetry known as “song offerings” or Gitanjali in Hindi. I just finished reading this wonderful work of art and wanted to share a few excerpts with you all. As W. B. Yeats once said about Tagore’s work, I too feel that “These verses will not lie in little well painted books upon ladies’ tables, who turn the pages with indolent hands that they may sigh over a life without meaning, which is yet all they can know of life, or be carried about by students at the university to be laid aside when the work of life begins, but as the generations pass, travelers will hum them on the highway and men rowing upon rivers. Lovers, while they await one another, shall find, in murmuring them, this love of God a magic gulf wherein their own more bitter passion may bathe and renew its youth.”

XVIII.

Clouds heap upon clouds and it darkens. Ah, love, why dost thou let me wait outside at the door all alone?

In the busy moments of the noontide work I am with the crowd, but on this dark lonely day it is only for thee that I hope.

If thou showest me not thy face, if thou leavest me wholly aside, I know not how I am to pass these long, rainy hours.

I keep gazing on the far-away gloom of the sky, and my heart wanders wailing with the restless wind.

XXXV.

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;

Where knowledge is free;

Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;

Where words come out from the depth of truth;

Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;

Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;

Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action—

Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

XLII.

Early in the day it was whispered that we should sail in a boat, only thou and I, and never a soul in the world would know of this our pilgrimage to no country and to no end.

In that shoreless ocean, at thy silently listening smile my songs would swell in melodies, free as waves, free from all bondage of words.

Is the time not come yet? Are there works still to do? Lo, the evening has come down upon the shore and in the fading light the seabirds come flying to their nests.

Who knows when the chains will be off, and the boat, like the last glimmer of sunset, vanish into the night?

LX.

On the seashore of endless worlds children meet. The infinite sky is motionless overhead and the restless water is boisterous. On the seashore of endless worlds the children meet with shouts and dances.

They build their houses with sand and they play with empty shells. With withered leaves they weave their boats and smilingly float them on the vast deep. Children have their play on the seashore of worlds.

They know not how to swim, they know not how to cast nets. Pearl fishers dive for pearls, merchants sail in their ships, while children gather pebbles and scatter them again. they seek not for hidden treasures, they know not how to cast nets.

The sea surges up with laughter and pale gleams the smile of the sea beach. Death-dealing waves sing meaningless ballads to the children, even like a mother while rocking her baby’s cradle. The sea plays with children, and pale gleams the smile of the sea beach.

On the seashore of endless worlds children meet. Tempest roams in the pathless sky, ships get wrecked in the trackless water, death is abroad and children play. On the seashore of endless worlds is the great meeting of children.

LXIX.

The same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day runs through the world and dances in rhythmic measures.

It is the same life that shoots in joy through the dust of the earth in numberless blades of grass and breaks into tumultuous waves of leaves and flowers.

It is the same life that is rocked in the ocean-cradle of birth and of death, in ebb and in flow.

I feel my limbs are made glorious by the touch of this world of life. And my pride is from the life-throb of ages dancing in my blood this moment.

LXXX.

I am like a remnant of a cloud of autumn uselessly roaming in the sky, O my sun ever-glorious! Thy touch has not yet melted my vapour, making me one with thy light, and thus I count months and years separated from thee.

If this be thy wish and if this be thy play, then take this fleeting emptiness of mine, paint it with colours, gild it with gold, float it on the wanton wind and spread it in varied wonders.

And again when it shall be thy wish to end this play at night, I shall melt and vanish away in the dark, or it may be in a smile of the white morning, in a coolness of purity transparent.

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Mary: a red fort, a white tomb, and a blonde girl

October 10, 2011

The second weekend following our return from Dharamsala, the group was itching for another adventure. We had all enjoyed a little respite in Jaipur with home cooked meals and chai three times a day, but a short break from school work and a change of scenery was definitely now in order. As we were all in the process of deciding which direction to head out in, I heard that my roommate from Richmond, Georgia, who also happens to be studying abroad in India this semester in a program in New Delhi, was planning to visit the Taj Mahal that weekend. Hoping against hope that I might get to meet up with her, I decided to accompany the group of 8 other students going to Agra. The rest of the students in the group were all newbie students – none of the other pre-session girls I was used to travelling with, so I was excited to get to know them all better!

We set out at 5 am on Saturday, taking a train to arrive in the city by around 11 that morning. It was the first time any of the new students had ridden on the train so I felt a bit like a mother duckling shepherding her chicks around as I took them to the right platform and helped us all find our seats. We arrived in Agra without any hassle and lassoed up a few auto rickshaws to take us to our hotel. Driving through the streets of Agra, I was pretty unimpressed. It was just as noisy and at least twice as dirty as Jaipur and seemed to be catering primarily to tourists, not surprisingly. But our hotel was very lovely, with a rooftop restaurant which offered my very first view of the most famous monument to love ever created – the Taj Mahal. One of India’s ancient Mogul rulers built the Taj as a memorial and tomb for his favorite wife and was later buried there himself. I must say that despite my poor first impression, the Taj made the trip to Agra completely worth it though at present I’ll save my description for a few lines down the page.

After lunch and a short rest, we headed off for an afternoon of site-seeing. Our first stop was the Red Fort, Agra’s second most popular attraction. Though not as impressive as the Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur in my opinion, the Red Fort is certainly a beautiful palace, with many stories of great historical interest milling about its corridors. The inner courtyard garden was my favorite part, both because it was utterly gorgeous and also because the little chipmunk-squirrels found all over India were so used to people there that they would come and eat right out of your hand! They were positively adorable creatures and left me quite smiley and giddy and seriously wishing I could bring one home. The Red Fort also offers a stunning view of the Taj from a distance, made doubly attractive by the wide river flowing alongside the two monuments.

We then left the fort and made our way towards the gleaming white beauty in the distance. After waiting in line for about 15 minutes and paying a rather exorbitant foreigners fee of 750 rupees compared to the Indian nationals fee of 20 rupees, we had finally reached the outer gate to the Taj. Despite having seen countless pictures and even catching distance glimpses from the top of my hotel and the Red Fort, nothing could have prepared me for the splendor of the striking white marble rising up before my eyes as I walked through that gate. You could palpably feel the collective admiration emanating from hundreds of people, both Indians and foreigners alike, gazing up in wonder. I felt very small and very young sitting in the shadow of its great and layered past. We spent about two hours wandering through the surrounding gardens and making a few trips inside to see the two tombs resting in the dark interior. We watched the sun set tranquilly from the top steps and only made our way out when it started to get dark. All in all, it was a truly brilliant experience and I am so glad I’ve been lucky enough to see one of the many great wonders of this world! We spent a relaxing evening at the hotel, sitting on the roof eating delicious Indian food, having a few beers and getting to know each other a little better.

The next morning we set out to explore some of the more well known bazaars around Agra, though the shopping was sub-par compared to Jaipur. We finally decided to get some lunch and I very enthusiastically suggested we head to the McDonalds in the center of town (anyone who knows me in the slightest may find this very strange and out of character but you will soon why). Walking into that small, unassuming McDonalds in Agra I made perhaps the biggest spectacle of myself I have yet to make in India. Imagine, please, two very enthusiastic, very noticeably American (one of whom is very blonde), very squealy girls rushing towards each other at full steam ahead, colliding in the middle of a very crowded restaurant and proceeding to jump up and down vigorously while hugging. Now add in happiness vibes multiplied by a million and you have the reunion of George and Marv (aka Georgia Sills and Mary Brickle). It was wonderful beyond words to see my lovely Richmond roommate Georgia! We sat and exchanged stories for about half an hour as her group finished eating and it made me so exquisitely happy to see a familiar face that I was walking on sunshine for the rest of the day. The train ride home that evening offered another chance to talk to people I was missing in my life as my family called and chatted for a good hour. Apparently at some point during the ride home that evening there was an earthquake which had an epicenter near Sikkim, which is considerably far north but apparently you could feel it all the way in Agra so I’m guessing the motion of the train kept me from noticing anything. When we finally made it back to Jaipur we were all exhausted and had to be up early the next morning to head out for a three day field trip with school so after Rama-Ji stuffed me full of food and sent me upstairs I very graciously climbed into my bed, noting with a smile how nice it felt to be able to call someplace in India home.

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Mary: Tales from Dharamsala

September 9, 2011

I’ve been trying to write about our epic Dharamsala escapade for the last few weeks but I just kept getting (surprise) side-tracked. For the most part though, things have been pretty quiet in Jaipur since we got back. I’ve mainly just been focusing on school, which we have from 9:30 to 4:30 every day, and reading in my free time. They’ve really amped up the Hindi lessons! We’ve finally transitioned away from the English transcription system we were using to read and learn new vocab words and now we just write everything in the script! I’m incredibly excited because it finally feels like I’m making significant progress with Hindi but it’s also a lot harder than I expected! It feels so strange to struggle through each individual word, slowly pronouncing the sound each letter makes. It really is like being in kindergarten and learning to read all over again. But still, it’s so thrilling to finally be able to read and write in such a strange and beautiful new language!

Anyways, I’m mainly writing this post to share the story of my journey in Dharamsala! I shall start off my swash-buckling account of the small hill station in the northernmost reaches of this vast and wondrous country with the simple and beautiful truth – we didn’t really do much of anything that week. Though I am sure a collective note of confusion may now be heard rising up from the befuddled peanut gallery, allow me to explain. Fact: the city of Jaipur is exhilarating and fills me each and every day with a sense of awe and admiration for the multitude of ways that humans have come to call this planet we live on home. Unfortunately, I believe that in that week leading up to our departure for the north, I had come to experience firsthand a little phenomenon, all too familiar amongst foreign travelers to India, known as “sensory overload”. I was getting a bit, shall we say, frazzled. I was more than ready for a little vacation to somewhere that wasn’t exceedingly hot and wasn’t plagued with the constant blare of traffic horns. Regrettably, the roughly 30 hour rickshaw-train-rickshaw-train-bus-ricksaw ride it took to get from Jaipur to Delhi to Pathankot to Dharamsala was, quite frankly, miserable. I don’t think I’ve ever had feelings of being dirty, sleepy, hungry, and grouchy combine in as great a magnitude as they did that first evening in Dharamsala. To top it all off, as we wandered the streets looking for a hotel, it was dark and pouring down rain. However, good news is that when things start off going that poorly, they can really only improve. We finally found a hotel, negotiated a reasonable rate for the six of us, had a hot meal (complete with carrot cake and chai) in the upstairs café, took pleasantly warm showers and crawled into very comfortable beds and immediately fell asleep.

The next morning, all troubles of the day before were negated and negligible upon our first look out the window. It was indescribably magical. I actually had the feeling of being in some other world where prayer flags wave invitingly from the forests, tiny little women beckon me forward to feel the yak wool shawls they have just finished knitting, monks with shaved heads draped in curtains of brightest saffron orange meander through the streets and the clouds normally drift down to say nameste and hang lazily about all morning. It was also on this first morning that I had one of my most memorable experiences in India to date.

Hannah and I had gotten separated from the rest of the group, lingering a bit longer at some little shop. We were walking down the street, looking for breakfast when a small boy with thin, ungainly limbs and a wide but crooked smile stepped out of the shadows of the early morning mist, eager to chat. “Hallo!” he called, “How do you like Dharamsala? You are travelers? Where are you from?” He reeled of a series of questions, determined to demonstrate his mastery of the English language, hoping to keep us engaged. We were used to this type of behavior from the local street children, the pestering attention this boy was giving us, and I had a very strong feeling he was about to seek our charity. But I could feel something different about this boy, something more genuine. Perhaps it was his persistent yet determinedly casual knack for keeping up a conversation, or the fact that he did not immediately hold out his hand and ask for money, like so many others, which caused me to pay him a bit more attention. As we meandered down the small street, poking our heads into shops selling everything from yak cheesecake to singing bowls, we continued in the boy’s company. A solid ten minutes went by without him asking for anything. It was only when Hannah and I eventually found and were about to enter a restaurant for breakfast that the boy spoke up, “Please madams I was curious, I will not ask for money, but if you would buy me some rice before going in?” Since my arrival in India it has been my personal decision to refuse to give money to beggars but occasionally if I have a piece of fruit or pack of crackers with me I will pass it on. As the boy stared up at me with silent pleading eyes, I found myself answering his question with one of my own, “Would you like to come to breakfast with us?” He looked hesitant; I could see him weighing in his mind the price of missing out on potential tourists against the luxury of a warm meal. Keen to hear more of this boy’s story, I offered the added promise of buying him a bag of rice afterwards if he came with us, which did the trick. We sat down at a table outside with an excellent view of the surrounding mountains and launched into conversation. I learned that his name was Suratch and that he had lived in Dharamsala all his life. He lived with his older brother and his wife, a younger sister, and his mother. He was 11 years old and had never been to school. He told me he learned English from talking to tourists, and he promptly rattled off phrases in French and “Israeli” (which I took to be Hebrew), saying those were the most common languages he heard besides English. When I asked why he wasn’t in school he looked a bit confused and said simply “I am needed at home”. When it came time to order our food, he explained that while he would rather have the chocolate pancakes, they would be gone like that (with a snap of the fingers) and so he would like to have the porridge with bananas because it would be a better meal. We continued to chat through the rest of breakfast about nothing in particular; it felt a bit like meeting a new kid I was babysitting for the first time. As we left the restaurant and I took Suratch to a nearby food stall to buy his promised bag of rice, we were laughing together at the monkeys and he promised that he was going to marry me next time I returned to Dharamsala. When at last we shook hands goodbye, he looked me in the eyes with an enormous smile and said earnestly “I thank you Mary, I thank you, you are so nice, I won’t forget!” Watching him walk away, I was filled with genuine sadness that I wouldn’t see him again. I honestly cannot tell you why that particular morning I decided to spend around 500 rupees to buy breakfast and a bag of rice for a street kid, when every other morning on my way to school I walk unblinkingly past dozens of women and children holding upturned palms in my direction. I can, however, guarantee that the memory of sharing a meal with the little boy who gave me a glimpse of unadulterated human goodness was well worth it. Read the rest of this entry ?

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Mary: Peaceful but passionate protests

August 25, 2011

I’ve been meaning to write a post about the anti-corruption movement currently on the rise here in India for a little over a week now.  A man named Anna Hazare, one of India’s most well known and respected social activists, began a hunger strike 10 days ago with demands that the government introduce an anti-corruption bill to the congress, currently convened for the “monsoon session”. Corruption is one of the biggest social and political problems facing India today, with bribes and favoritism found at every level of government, from getting a drivers license to the appointment of top government offices. Rama-Ji told Emily and I the story of how our servant Moti’s brother went to college and actually got his teaching degree and wanted to go teach in a rural village. He applied and was awarded appointment to the staff, an arduous process with multiple tests and complicated application procedures, but in the end the government told him had to pay the equivalent of nearly 10 years salary just to be able to take the position! It was completely outrageous. So in the end, Moti’s brother had to take a position as a servant in a house as well and is slowly trying to earn enough money to pay for more schooling so that he can become a teacher in a private institution instead of a government one. So in response to thousands upon thousands, a truly countless number, of examples such as this, Anna Hazare is trying to pass a bill which will facilitate the creation of an anti-corruption task force that is independent of the government and would be capable of punishing instances of corruption even at the highest levels. The entire nation is behind Hazare, with peaceful demonstrations and mass gatherings being held in every major city and roughly 25,000 people gathering at the park in New Delhi where Hazare is currently conducting his fast. The tension is growing more and more each day as Hazare’s health deteriorates and the government does not seem any closer to taking action.

The main sticking point of the bill is that no level of government is exempt from the scrutiny of the anti-corruption authority, including even the prime minister and highest judicial courts. In fact, there is already a bill introduced in congress that proposes the creation of an independent anti-corruption authority but leaves out these top positions from falling under its jurisdiction. The government is worried that including these positions will undermine the authority of the Indian government and put the country at risk. “Team Anna” (as most of the TV stations here are calling the Hazare supporters), feels that not to include these highest offices would be to ignore the corruption which takes place at the highest levels and essentially give them a free pass to continue. So they have taken to burning copies of the “weak” form of the bill in the streets and sticking strongly to their demands of the full fledged bill coming into play. So today, towards the end of day 10 of the scheduled 15 day fast, the country is at a crossroads. The headlines of every major news paper and news network here have been focusing on little else besides the protests in support of Hazare. It truly has become a nationwide fight against corruption that is affecting the lives of every single Indian citizen in a personal way. It’s the topic of conversation every night at our dinner table and there have even been people walking down my street shouting out slogans in support of Hazare, one of which Rama-Ji translated as “Victory to Mother India”. I’m not sure what level of media attention this movement is receiving in the states, but I wanted to let everyone know how important it has become here and I encourage everyone to follow the progress of the movement over the next few days. This could turn out to be a very decisive time in Indian history and quite honestly it’s really exciting to be here in the midst of it!

In other not so important news tomorrow is the last day of Hindi class! I’m can’t believe how quickly the end of my pre-session has snuck up on me. Not that I haven’t been learning copious amounts of foreign language but, to be blunt, I’m more than ready for regular classes to start and to not have to be doing 4 straight hours of Hindi a day. Classes are going to resume Sept. 1, but from tomorrow afternoon until then, we have a nice long break! So the 5 other girls who are staying for the semester and I are all going on a weeklong trip to the far reaches of northern India to a magical place nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas known as Dharamsala! It is the home of the Dalai Lama and exiled Tibetan government and also a fantastic place to go trekking. I’m really looking forward to some cooler weather (it looks like it’s going to be in the 70s while we’re there) and a good long hike up into the mountains.

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Mary: Jodhpur, the blue city

August 20, 2011

Today is the first time all week the rains have relented for more than a few hours straight, finally allowing the city to dry out a bit. Honestly, I don’t think I’ll ever use the word “monsoon” lightly again for fear of invoking even a hint of the rainfall we’ve gotten here this last week. When we all got back to Jaipur from our weekend trip, the streets were positively flooded, making for one of the most unpleasant rickshaw rides I’ve had yet back from the train station. Not to mention I seem to have picked up a most unpleasant head cold for these past few days, but luckily that seems to be clearing up with the weather.  In the meantime, I’ve been utterly slammed with school work, studying for our first Hindi exam, which was Thursday, hence why this post has taken me a while to get around to writing! But now that it’s the weekend I’ve finally found some free time and felt I really must share more of the wonderful adventures I’ve been having!

Last Saturday morning, I and six other MSID students headed off for the ancient city of Jodhpur, 331 kilometers away from Jaipur, more to the west and much closer to the vast deserts the state of Rajasthan is famous for. Our train was scheduled to depart around 11:30 in the morning and we made it with more than enough time to spare considering we didn’t roll out of the station until around 1. The train station itself was incredibly entertaining though, full of sights and sounds galore, so we really didn’t mind sitting around for some time.  Best of all were the train station guards, all wearing baggy orange jumpsuits with name tags across the front that said “Jaipur Railway Employee – Your Friend for Life”.  What a comforting slogan! When our train finally arrived, we made our way to our sleeper car. There were two sets of three tiers of blue leather bunks with the middle one folded into the wall so that we could all sit on the bottom one. The large, barred windows had no glass but did have a metal cover you could pull down in case it started raining. I was lucky enough to snag a window seat for the five hour journey, prime real estate for soaking up the images of life and beauty offered up by the extensive Indian countryside. We made our way through dozens of small town railway stations, sometimes hardly slowing down enough for the people jogging alongside the train to hop aboard, sometimes stopping for what at least half an hour. On one such occasion, a group of 3 or 4 daring teenage boys decided that hanging on to the bars of our window and begging to have a go on our ipods was perfectly acceptable, despite our rather sour expressions.  Overall though, the train ride was absolutely splendid! We passed several herds of sheep being tended by small men bent crookedly forward, structures ranging from magnificent temples to small little huts with grass roofs, and the largest salt mine in northern India. The giant piles of salt being bulldozed around were incredible and the vast fields of shallow water from which the salt is harvested were beautiful. We hit a spot of rough weather after a few hours but it did little to hinder our progress and I was actually quite keen to make use of the dramatic lighting in some of my pictures!

We finally arrived in Jodhpur late in the evening. We had arranged with the guest house where we were staying to send someone to pick us up from the train station but since we were so much later than our original arrival time, we ended up having to find our own transportation. Navigating the slew of rickshaws waiting outside the train station was utterly dreadful. All the drivers can spot tourists a mile away and will swarm you, trying to yell over all the other drivers that they know where you’re going (even if you haven’t told them yet) and offer very reasonable prices (even though you know they would offer a local the same distance at maybe a tenth of the cost). It’s very frustrating to say the least. We finally managed to find a driver who spoke decent English and legitimately seemed to know where our guest house was and after cramming all 7 of us into the back of a rickshaw, made our way deeper into the city streets. Jaipur is known for being the first pre-planned city in India, with streets carefully constructed on a grid, allowing (relatively) logical flows of traffic and distinctly straight edge streets. Driving through the streets of Jodhpur made the fact that it was not a planned city painfully obvious. We took increasingly sharper turns into narrow, crooked alleys as we worked away from the train station and into the heart of the city. I must have hit my head against the roof of the rickshaw no fewer than 7 times. We finally made it to our guest house just as the sun was setting though and it was suddenly all worth it. A beautiful courtyard garden greeted us with an inviting set of stairs leading up to the rooftop terrace. We left our bags sitting outside the front office and scampered up to see the view, just in time to watch the sun set for a few minutes. The rooftop world of Jodhpur stretched out all around us. You could see children flying kites all over the place, the sky was simply filled with them. The houses famously stained with Indigo dye which give Jodhpur its nickname as the Blue City were standing out brilliantly against the orange sunset. Mehrangarh Fort, the main attraction of Jodhpur and largest fort of its kind in India, towered over the city, high on a hill, probably just a quarter mile away from our guest house. It was truly a breathtaking moment.

We eventually pulled ourselves away from the roof and headed back downstairs to check in. It was a surprisingly long process, with the front desk having to make photocopies of all our passports and write down both our American and Indian addresses. We eventually finished up, had a wonderful dinner at another rooftop terrace restaurant, made our way back to the guest house, and immediately fell asleep. That morning we were all woken up around 5 am by the call to prayer from a mosque very close to our house. It turns out we were staying in the Muslim quarter of Jodhpur and since this is the month of Ramadan, the family who owns our guest house woke up to eat before sunrise. While we were less than thrilled at being woken up that early, it gave us the opportunity to get a nice early start to the day. Nonetheless, we didn’t quite manage to beat the heat. We were all sweating profusely as we climbed the millions of stairs on our way up the “mountain of birds” to see the fort at the top. Oh, how it was worth it though! The view from our rooftop terrace, spectacular though it was, simply paled in comparison to the view outside the fort! You could see for miles in all directions. I had the distinct feeling that I was standing inside some National Geographic travel documentary, which only increased tenfold once we entered the fort and started listening to the smashing old British chap who narrated our audio tour, explaining away the architectural wonders around us in such eloquent words that the queen herself couldn’t have sounded more dignified. We saw the giant palanquins (elephant saddles) once used by the kings of the palaces. We gazed in shock and dismay at the plaster handprints of all the women of the castle who had long ago been forced to commit sati, the ritualized burning of a widow on the funeral pyre of her husband so the pair may remain together in the afterlife, a practice now outlawed in India but still sometimes practiced in the villages. We spent hours and hours wandering around, beholding all the ancient wonders and I again couldn’t help but think how, as an American, I would normally consider something fifty years old “historical” and really have no concept of a civilization and culture as old as the very hill upon which it has been built.

By the late afternoon, we had found our way back into town, specifically the central bazaar. We frittered away the rest of the day in a whirlwind of tapestries, scarves, curry combinations, and countless cups of chai, offered by various shop owners as we sat and admired their carefully crafted goods, epitomizing the idea of Indian hospitality. We were very tired by the evening and since we had to wake up early to catch the 9 o’clock train home, we headed back to the guest house after dinner. Monday dawned bright and early with another 5 am call to prayer. We packed our bags and headed downstairs for a delicious breakfast of aloo parathas (kind of a flat potato pancake) with curd and chai. The 8 year old son of the owner of the hotel also kept picking flowers and bringing them over to us as we ate, it was unbelievably adorable and just really tickled me pink. We made it back to the train station without any difficulties. After another crazy train ride with tons of people all over the place and guys walking up and down the aisles with big baskets shouting for you to buy their food or chai and dealing with the dirt and dinginess by remembering it’s just all part of the experience, we finally made it back to Jaipur, which brings us back to the flooded streets we first encountered in the beginning of this post. 

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Mary: “curiouser and curiouser”

August 13, 2011

Of late I have found myself pondering what a very strange and curious concept time can become here in India. The watch on my wrist ardently claims to be on intimate terms with the precise time and date and yet I constantly question its faithfulness. How can it be that even when it tells me that class should have started five minutes ago, teachers and students alike are still casually sitting around the library, sipping chai? Or what of the fact that while my first day here seemed to stretch out long and lanky, invading at least three or four neighboring days time, this past week has seemed to gather its things all in a rush and exit promptly through Friday afternoon’s back door? Perhaps during the strange dimly lit hours of Tuesday and Wednesday, when the electricity was caught in a continuous cycle of fading and surging, time managed to steal away and get some work done ahead of schedule before slipping unnoticed back into its place just as the power returned. I must admit the time disease seems to be an eternal epidemic though, extending far beyond the house on Devi Path where I have recently taken up residence. How else could you possibly explain the rickshaw-wallah who weaves his cycle between horse-carts and cows while talking on his cell phone, or the procession of hundreds of elaborately decorated and barefoot people who, on a pilgrimage to the sacred places of India, stop traffic for hours on one of the largest highways in the city as they pass by the Ganesh temple in Jaipur? Indeed the phenomenon seems to stretch back as far as the beginning of recorded history when we consider how in the Hindi language a single word, kul, means both tomorrow and yesterday and parso can stand for either the day before yesterday or the day after tomorrow. The conference of ancient civilization with modern metropolis is a phenomenon rarely experience or truly understood in America and the thing I am finding most marvelously baffling about India.

Aside from the time travel sickness though, I’ve had quite a wonderful week! Allow me the pleasure of backtracking from Friday’s back door to the rainy early morning of Monday. I finally figured out (after a ludicrous but largely accurate reenactment for Rama-Ji at the breakfast table) that the unearthly EEEEAHHHH bird call which wakes me so early every morning is in fact a peacock. This actually makes me quite happy and I have nearly managed complete forgiveness for the creature. On Tuesday, most of the other students and I went to a little coffee shop called Mr. Beans, perhaps the most “westernized” place I’ve seen yet in Jaipur, to study Hindi. We had all been seriously craving coffee (especially Lauren, who’s from Seattle) and were thrilled to have a few hours to stumble over the pronunciation of our vocab words away from the scrutinizing looks of our professors. The return trip also allowed for my very first experience in the back of an auto-rickshaw! It was very much like being in a tiny roller coaster that smelled simultaneously of curry and cow patties, and yet it was not entirely unpleasant.

On Thursday, we took a small school field trip into the old city area of Jaipur. We had to stop at the Foreign Registration Office (F.R.O.) to pick up our passports and acquire the official temporary residence cards which are required for anyone staying in India longer than 6 months (technically this doesn’t include us but just to be on the safe side, MSID always has their students apply). When we got there we were all quite surprised to find that the building seemed to be on fire. Despite the nonchalant attitudes of the faculty standing in a circle outside, we were obviously very concerned. Luckily, before any of us tried to call the fire department (not that we would have any idea how to anyways) Rishi-Ji explained they were actually in the middle of a pooja, a religious ceremony in which a large cleansing fire is built, and it was taking place in the courtyard next to the building. The area of the old city where the F.R.O. had been built actually used to be a temple and so once a year, a priest was brought into the building to perform the pooja, to continue to honor the sacred land. We ended up having to wait for about half an hour, watching as the priest went around to each member of the faculty gathered outside and prayed over them, placing the bindi on their forehead. The fact that all of this was happening, unannounced, at an official government building seemed quite strange to me but Rishi-Ji just called it a “true taste of India” experience which made me smile.

After the F.R.O. office we went deeper into the old city, where the main market place, called Johari Bazaar, is found. We wound our into the side alleys and back through what seemed like several centuries, what with the tiny little cubbyhole shops and fruit stands which looked like they had been around since before the East India Company first made anchor off the western coast, again leaving my sense of time wildly out of whack, finally coming to the specific part of the market where bangles, known in Hindi as churis, are made. We were actually lucky enough to stumble across one shop where the artisan was deeply engrossed in his work. Indian bangles, usually made of wood, silver, gold, or other metals, have a specific wax, called lakh, placed around the inside rim of the bangle. This wax is especially revered in the Hindu faith and it is considered improper for a woman to allow a “naked” bangle to touch her skin, without the special inner layer of lakh added. It was really a beautiful process. The man sat cross-legged next to a tiny little portable stove with hot coals on top and a small flame in the middle. He slowly heated a stick of wax over the coals, pausing a couple of times a minute to flatten and elongate the stick with a heavy square of metal with a handle on top. When it reached roughly the desired length, he took a golden bangle and wrapped the lakh under the inner lip, cutting the wax at the appropriate length. Finally, he twisted the bangle on a large wooden rolling pin to press the wax in tight as it dried. It was mesmerizing to watch, the man knew his work so well he could probably have done it with his eyes closed. The adeptness with which he moved his nimble fingers left me staring incredulously.

Back at school that day, our professor told us how all bangle makers actually belong to a specific caste, known as the munivar and that each successive generation amongst a family of that caste will continue to be bangle makers. There are actually hundreds of occupational castes like this one, from utensil makers to house sweepers even to gymnast circus performers, which really surprised me and led me to realize I really have no idea how comprehensive the caste system is. Later that night, when Emily and I were recounting our field trip for Rama-Ji she told us that most people don’t refer to the bangle makers as the munivar though, simply as belonging to the working caste. I’m sure I’m hardly even beginning to comprehend the complexity of this strange social stratification system though, it just seems like the more I learn the less I know.  I’m also feeling the same way about Hindi. It’s honestly mind boggling how very little Hindi I know. It’s very unnerving to start a language completely from scratch, especially one as foreign to me as Hindi. Having taken French for nearly five years now and being used to language classes where I can at least vaguely understand what’s going on around me, it’s been quite difficult to go back to absolute square one. On the other hand, I am really surprised how much I have learned in just twelve days! I can sort of carry on a basic introductory conversation with someone and I now know how to bargain the price of something in Hindi. Also, I must say that I am absolutely in love with the Devanagari script. It looks so beautiful and ancient, like a cryptic message from some lost civilization.

This weekend is one of the largest festivals of the year, known as Rakhi. It is the festival of the relationship between brothers and sisters, a most wonderful reason to celebrate if I’ve ever heard one! Sisters buy these special red string bracelets with little beads on them to tie around the wrist of their brothers on Rakhi day and give them lots of sweet treats and sometimes small gifts. In return, the brothers give their sisters money. There are parades in the streets and feasts throughout the day. Rama-Ji has been shopping all day today and yesterday in preparation for her visit to her brother’s house tomorrow. She said the all the students at the university today were in joyful, festive moods and could hardly focus on their studies. Unfortunately, Emily and I will miss the parades and such because seven of us students are going on a weekend trip to the city of Jodhpur, roughly 500 kilometers to the southwestish. It’s more of a desert city than Jaipur and the second largest city in the state of Rajasthan, so it promises to certainly be an adventure. Plus, we are taking the train! A “true taste of India” experience I have been looking forward to for quite some time now!

Oh, and just in case anyone didn’t catch the reference in the title, it’s taken from the following line in Alice in Wonderland (which I reread this week just for the fun of it): “Curiouser and curiouser!” Cried Alice (she was so much surprised, that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English). I felt it captured quite neatly the feel of this post. 

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