A lot has happened since the first night we arrived in India. It’s hard to describe every different experience I have endured in my short amount here. From being pulled in a wagon attached to a cow through the hilly green countryside of rural India, to the heavenly taste of my first real mango. Or attending my host sister’s 14th birthday party where it’s a birthday custom to smear cake on the birthday girl or boy, and the peacefulness and beauty of my host families temple where I was kissed by a scared cow, I’ve made so many remarkable memories. Through these experiences I’ve grown to appreciate and understand the values and meaning behind Indian culture and customs.
One such value being food. Here Indian people eat with their right hand and many don’t use utensils at all. I enjoy this practice as I’ve learnt that using your hands to eat makes the food all the more enjoyable because you can really touch and taste the flavors and textures of the food. I’ve noticed the huge smile my host mother gets when teaching, preparing and feeding me traditional Indian meals. To her food is an expression of art and love, so sharing it with others is a source of happiness. After watching her make Chai for me everyday, I decided to surprise her this morning with the first cup of Chai I have ever made. As she saw the warm cup approach her, tears started to form and she hugged and thanked me profusely. Apparently I had made it “more perfect than she has ever had,” and in that moment I understood why food is so important to her and her culture.
Recently I’ve been using the word “beautiful,” a lot because I can’t seem to describe the awe I have with my new surroundings. Everything in India is full of color, meaning and spirt. The buildings cars and infrastructure are coated with bright colors and decorations of posters, paintings and art. Names have meaning and history embeds itself within everything.
The people you meet here are so welcoming and curious. People stare and at my group and I, not in a rude way, but rather out of curiosity. When we traveled to the first school that allowed women to receive an education in India, the students there were amazed by our presence. We would be walking and groups of giggling girls would bravely come up to us all smiles and say quickly hello and then promptly scurry away. I approached a group of girls and conversed with them and they seemed so fascinated bursting with questions. When I explained to a girl I was from America her eyes widened and lit up as if I had given her a gift. One girl actually gave my friend a gift as well, it was a pretty flower.
Everything is so communalistic as the concept of sharing is expressed in food, objects, space and even with stories. You can approach someone on the street and ask them a question and they will converse with you not as a stranger but as a friend. As I continue to experience India my curiosity and mentality to learn more only strengthens.
Other than the time I have spent in school (पाठशाला) learning Hindi (हिंदी), my host family has been very generous with their time and has given me so many cool experiences already. My favorite so far was sari shopping this weekend. Saris are a traditional Indian dress that are worn more often by older women. I’ve spent so much time marvelling at the beautiful colors and patterns of the saris I’ve seen. And although I will only wear a sari a handful of times, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to buy one. Or as it turned out, two.
It has been one week since I moved in with my host family. They are joyous, funny, and wonderful people. I have received many warm welcomes from other tenants in the building, including the neighbor dog Cashew whom my sister, two of her friends, and I took for a walk today. Our building is colorful and boisterous; our front door is almost always open and after a certain time one can hear the inevitable cascades of shouts as children call on each other to play. After that, the society becomes a series of small cricket games and cheerful social gatherings. It is quite refreshing to see such community and hospitality.
On my first day here, I visited three temples. Our society (the group of buildings in which we live) has a small temple as well as local god. This was my introduction to Hindu temples. Later that evening, we went to ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) and the temple for Balaji which stood next to it. The Krishna temple was large and very crowded. It was vibrant and full of chanting, music, dancing, and incense. The Balaji temple was smaller and quieter, but just as beautiful and intricate. Afterward, we ate ladus, explored the shop which sold Krishna-themed items, and walked around the balcony of the larger temple. And took many, many pictures. I have since learned more about Hinduism; I have read a children’s book on Ganesha, and observed arti (prayer) at the shrine in our home. I am quickly absorbing as much information as I can and enjoying my new cultural experiences very much.
The food has been equally wonderful. I would list everything I have tried, but I can’t even pretend that I remember the names, and even if I could, there are too many dishes to list. I eat very well (and probably too much) at home, and even at school. Most meals consist of roti/choupati (bread), rice, dal (lentils), and some other variable elements (hopefully not buttermilk, which is the only thing I have tried thus far which I have not liked). My stomach is perpetually full of new, tasty spices and sauce. (Note: my sister consumes ketchup, otherwise known as “the sauce” religiously, and I find it quite amusing. She will put it in nearly anything.) I have coffee and biscuits every morning, as well as chai throughout the day. When I get back to America, I will likely need an IV drip of chai. I’ll also have to become reaccustomed to not eating all food with my hands, including dal-covered rice or roti with vegetables.
We have now also been in Hindi classes for a week at The New India School. Sometimes I am able to understand our teachers quite clearly, and sometimes I feel very lost. It is sometimes difficult outside of school too because Marathi is the native language of Pune, not Hindi, so complete immersion can be hard to achieve. It can be frustrating and exhausting occasionally, but I know that learning a new language is worth the effort. I’ve had a few chances to practice and am trying to incorporate more Hindi into my every day interactions as I start to learn more. My family holds “Hindi classes” for me at home, and we are taught a few hours a week by younger students, in addition to the regular classroom setting. We also do yoga at school and cultural activities in the afternoon, and community service on Friday. Today we toured an all girls’ school and tomorrow we are taking a day trip to Junnar to experience “Agro-Tourism” and explore some of Maharashtra’s countryside.
Living in Pune so far is very wonderful. I have adjusted to the traffic, the time difference, and the cornucopia of spice. I have obtained a collection of kurtis, bindis,
and have one of my palms covered in beautiful mehndi. I love my family very much, am enjoying school, and am looking forward to another five weeks. Namaste for now!
Today was our first day at school! All of our host siblings were giggling behind our backs about a “surprise” they had planned for the opening assembly, and all of the NSLIY students spent the ride to school contemplating what it may be. Some of us walk to school, and others are brought in school buses. I was picked up around 7:40 and we got to school at 8. New India School has standards (grades) 1st-10th, and the building is huge. We quickly went to the assembly, where all of 8th, 9th, and 10th standards were gathered. We watched the presentations and our host siblings introduced us as we stood there red faced and smiling. We sang them a song we learned recently in Hindi that says basically “we are westerners and we want to learn Hindi”. It got some laughs of course.
The rest of the day we spent eating and starting Hindi classes. The lunch at school was so much better than American lunches I’ve had. There was rice, dal, roti, sabji, and tea. Those are all staples of Indian food for the most part. The classes were challenging, at least for a beginner like me, but I’m so eager to continue learning Hindi. We then had our Monday cultural activity, yoga and dance class. We may or may not be preparing a performance for the last day of school. Shhh. 🙂
Starting school was the start of a new adventure, full of challenges, laughs, asanas, and friends. Our six weeks of intense language training starts now, and I’m so excited to see where it takes us.
We have only been in India for a few days and it is already proving to be a beautiful, colorful, and vivacious place. In between the chaos of motorcycles and cars and buses driving within inches of each other, one can see market stands, women in intricate and colorful karmeez, dogs weaving in and out of traffic. The tall beige buildings provide a sort of geometric skyline among the assortment of palm trees and greenery. The streets are filled with a blend of Marathi, Hindi, and English. Every horn contributes to a larger symphony of absolute madness that somehow works effectively in a very methodical way.
Despite its beauty and awe, I am very quickly learning by being here how blessed and privileged I am in America. On our first night here, we drove from Mumbai to Pune. Along the way there was a billboard: “Water is for life. Not for lifestyle. Say no to private swimming pools!” Where I am from, pools are a standard of luxury and recreation. Where I am from, one would be excited to have a pool, never having to worry about where the water came from or if there would be enough.
One of our teachers here in Pune spoke on the issue. She said that water scarcity is a very real problem for India. Though our host families here are fortunate enough to not have that issue in their homes, we were reminded that as a gesture to others in the country that are perhaps not so fortunate, we should be conscientious of our water use. They raise their children this way–to be respectful to Mother Earth and understand the complexities and hardships that sometimes accompany a glass of water or a plate of food.
At our introductory dinner last night, my host father also brought up India’s water situation. He described that because of recent climate change, monsoon season has been starting later than it should and causing water scarcity. (India has three seasons: rainy season, winter, and summer.) He mentioned that Pune and most of the rest of Maharashtra do not have as much of an issue as some other states in India because of the location. He, like every other person I have met here this far, displays gratitude toward his blessings. This is something I and other Americans could learn from.
In summary, my first few days in India have already been transformative. I wouldn’t describe it as culture shock so much as a relatively painful realization that I have been given so much, and others so little. This of course is not news to me, but being here is showing me ways to appreciate what I have, no matter the circumstances. In addition to being vibrant and intriguing, India’s people are demonstratively humble and generous. I have been experiencing nothing but love, humor, and humility since I have been here. It’s not fair to draw generalizations about a culture from just a few days’ experience, but I think it is safe to say that here, most people are loving and caring. Already I have been given more food than I could ever eat, more chai than I could ever drink (regrettably), and very warm and loving welcomes from the country of India.