Homeward Bound…almost

Hello Dear Readers!  After a busy few weeks, I am back!  I’ve got a slew of updates for you, but they’ll have to wait for another week or so when….Brian and I will be back in the wonderful US of A.  I plan to catch up on the backlog of posts (and kick the job search into high gear) lakeside at Brian’s house.  So in the meantime, here are two reasons why our return home comes not a moment too soon!

1. “Fed by Indians, Monkeys Overwhelm Delhi.” (NY Times)  Rise of the Planet of the Apes fo’ real.

2. Delhi is an oven.

Weather for New Delhi, Delhi, India

108°F | °C Wed Thu Fri Sat
Clear Clear Clear Clear
Haze
Wind: NW at 12 mph
Humidity: 8% 108° 79° 109° 81° 111° 86° 109° 82°

3. Brian’s hair is threatening to go to seed.

 

In Sikkim and Darjeeling, on top of the world (as far as we could tell)

After Kaziranga, we literally headed up to Sikkim, the state that boasts breathtaking views of the world’s third tallest mountain Kangchenjunga, and Darjeeling, the famed hill station and home to tea plantations framed by the distant Himalayas.  The views are the main attractions.

Unfortunately, we only got lucky enough to survive the harrowing jeep treks up the steepest and most potholed roads we’d ever seen to reach Sikkim and Darjeeling.  Our luck ran out when it came to the views.  The vistas were entirely clouded by fog the entire time we spent at high altitude; we didn’t see a single peak.  #adventurefail.  However!  It’s the journey, not the destination, and we made the most of our time at the top of the world.

In Sikkim, we trekked through mountain villages, perched on cliffs, where incredible flowers bloomed in pots and people were wonderfully kind.  We met a woman along the way who casually knitted as she climbed up (what felt to me like) at 45 degree slope.  We ate lunch at the home of a local family, and we ate leafy greens, which looked like cactus that had mated with spinach.  We watched a cultural dance recital, performed by local girls.  (Check out our roommate Reena’s post about the star of the show, the runner up in Sikkim Idol.  Yes, it’s what you think.)

Houses in the hills

knitting while walking straight up, seems reasonable

perfect climate for flowers, though not for mountains

shy mountain man

lunch!

We hired a jeep to take us to from Sikkim to Darjeeling.  The driver asked us whether we wanted to take the long route, which we had taken to get to Sikkim and was the most absurd road I had been on (up to that point), or the shortcut, which he said was “steep.”  We opted for short.  It’s a miracle we made it, particularly since a group of eight random guys decided to hitch a ride by climbing on the roof, making an already top-heavy vehicle top heavier for twenty miles.

don't worry about that jeep that ran off the road and could have tumbled off the precipice into the abyss!

they didn't really ask our permission to climb aboard...

...but they were friendly passengers.

In Darjeeling, we visited the Happy Valley Tea Plantation where we took a brief tour and then stopped by the shop, started by a few women who had previously worked picking tea for over forty years apiece.  We were treated to a demonstration of how to steep the tea (only 5 seconds!), a test of our ability to determine tea grades (we aced it), and cups of the most delicious “super fine tippy golden flowery orange picko one” (basically an acronym SFTGFOP1, which you have to say in a sing-song voice, for the highest grade) tea I have ever tasted.

SFTGFOP1!

we scored 100% on our tea grading test. good work team.

a very steep tea plantation and the town in the background

There is a community of Tibetan refugees living in Darjeeling, and we stopped by their center where craft is the primary source of income.  I was obviously in heaven, and Jen and Jeni bought a beautiful custom designed rug that is being woven just for them.

spinning wool yarn for the rugs

making a spinning wheel

Woman at the loom

 

After a slightly less intense jeep ride down the mountains and a misadventure involving a canceled flight, we finally boarded a plane back to Delhi.  Only from the air did we finally get that view we’d be waiting for: the entire Himalayan range, clear as day against the blue sky.

a photo of a photo of the view we could have seen from Darjeeling

The Great White Taj

From what we’d heard, visiting Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, is about as enjoyable as taking a pleasure cruise through the ninth circle of hell.  But as one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the “most beautiful building in the world,” and “a teardrop on the face of eternity,” the Taj at the very least engendered the “we’re in India, so we might as well go” reaction.  Brian and I saved the trip for when family visited, so when Jeni and Jen arrived, we mentally prepared to suffer through the experience just-to-say-we-went.  Now that we have been to Agra and seen the Taj for ourselves, here is some advice.  If you do find yourself in India and are debating over whether or not to bother with the trip to Agra…GO SEE THE TAJ.  It surpasses expectations.  It is truly breathtaking.

Arriving in the dreaded Agra in late afternoon, we each paid our 750 rupees for foreign tourist tickets (versus the 20 rupee Indian rate…not a slap in the face, rather a knock-out punch), hopped on an electric shuttle to the entrance five minutes away, waited in the security line, and finally strolled into the Taj compound.  I audibly gasped when I walked through the archway that gives a first glimpse of the marble Taj.

Elevated on its platform, the Taj is framed only by blue sky.  There are no distractions on the horizon, and the building seems to glow in warm afternoon light.  There were a fair number of tourists, but not so many to make the experience unpleasant (except when a crowd is jockeying for the best photo op and then you just have to laugh).  Though we spent barely three hours in Agra (before making a mad dash back to Delhi for a flight that was rescheduled for the following morning…travel in India requires flexibility and patience…), the Taj Mahal was worth the trip.

These Indian tourists opted to take pictures of us instead of the "world's most beautiful building." Why, thank you very much!

In the Taj, you can opt to wear a pair of shoe covers or go barefoot to protect the marble. We opted for barefoot. This guard took himself very seriously for a man wearing surgical booties over combat boots.

Holi Moly!

Lessons Learned During Holi, the spring Festival of Colors, celebrated by a conspicuous bunch of Fulbrighters in South India.

  1. Descending on an all-Indian Holi celebration in Kochi, Kerala, as a group of 10 Fulbrighters is just asking for an all-out Holi war.  (The little kids from Kochi won.)
  2. If you are a Westerner, you are a target.
  3. Keep your eyes squinted.  Sunglasses will not protect you.  Luckily, colorful powder does not cause blindness…usually.
  4. Girls are gentle.  Boys are not.
  5. If kids see you holding packets of powder, they will come and beg you to give them the bags.  It’s a bit like handing out Halloween candy, if trick-or-treaters’ modus operandi was to engage in a violent tug of war for said Halloween candy and then turn the candy against you by pelting it in your face.
  6. When kids run out of powder, they will substitute rocks.
  7. If you are worried you have broken out in a post-Holi rash, don’t worry.  Your skin has just been dyed by the pink powder.  It will go away in 72 hours.
  8. Brian loves Holi.
  9. Rickshaw drivers will not pick you up if you are a dripping rainbow monster.  (See Number 10.)
  10. Random guys with flatbed trucks are very kind and will give you a lift back to your hotel if Brian asks nicely.
  11. The owner of your hotel may request that you hose off outside before walking through his lobby in a spray of excess powder.  One of the staffers will bring you soap for your public shower.
  12. You and your Fulbright entourage will be a source of great amusement to the locals.

"Getcha Holi powder!" Wallah selling packets of Holi colors.

Brian and the Amazing Technicolor Beard.

Brian and the Amazing Technicolor Beard.

It's safer up on Dad's shoulders.

The results for Erica and me.

They may look cute, but don't be fooled.

Hitchin' a ride back to the hotel with Bryant.

Kids positively squealed with delight when they sprayed us with powder...and then they took off running for cover.

Wet t-shirt contest.

In yo' face!

*Thank you to Sony Jose for the use of his photos (those with black borders) from Kerala.

What’s a namdha?

I met Sunrise Arifa for the first time when I stopped to admire the handmade namdha rugs she had on display at the Dastkar Nature Bazaar.  Since our first meeting, we’ve stayed in touch, and I now admire Sunrise’s determination and resolve as much as the namdhas she sells.

Sunrise is a young entrepreneur from Srinagar, Kashmir, who is working to revive the craft of namdhas, laboriously hand-felted and intricately designed wool floor mats.  Sunrise is well qualified for the job.  She studied Craft Management & Entrepreneurial Leadership at the Craft Development Institute of Srinigar, and there developed the professional skills to succeed in starting her own business.  She now employs craftsmen who manufacture her designs, and she travels between Srinagar and other Indian cities to sell her rugs.

While her skills may enhance her success, it is her heritage that ensures her passion for the business.  Growing up in Kashmir, home to internationally popular crafts like fine paper mache and embroidered pashmina shawls, Sunrise saw many of these crafts diminish and dilute over time.  Markets inundated with machine-made “pashminas” masquerading as hand embroidered.  Exploitative middlemen buying paper mache from artisans at bare minimum prices and selling the products at an enormous mark-up.  Inexpensive synthetic rugs replacing namdhas among local consumers. Efforts, such as the Geographical Indicator certification of authenticity, are underway in Kashmir to protect these endangered crafts.  But in the meantime, entrepreneurs like Sunrise are taking matters into their own hands, starting businesses to bring Kashmiri crafts to a wider audience.Though being Kashmiri may have inspired Sunrise to start her own business, running a company in Kashmir, particularly as a female entrepreneur, comes with challenges.  Eight month waiting periods to obtain scoured wool from the government’s fleece processing unit.  An exorbitantly high and “unofficial” government fee to obtain the quality control certification required for an export license.  A community concerned that Sunrise will slowly lose her religious and cultural values as she becomes more successful.  A curfew that prevents her from leaving the house to go to her production unit.  The risk of being hit by a stray stone, pelted when skirmishes break out in town.

But Sunrise is determined.  “It’s dangerous, but I have to go to do my work,” she explains.  Her father supports her aspiration, but during her weeks on the road, traveling to sell namdhas, she tells the rest of her family that she is doing a school internship.  While friends say that running a business will change her, she disagrees.  “I love my tradition,” she professes.  And the 12-hour workdays she logs, the bodily risks she takes, and her commitment to reviving Kashmir’s craft traditions proves her deep dedication to her heritage and its crafts.

Want to own your very own Craftmark certified namdha?  I can send you a namdha directly from India. 

Check out The Red Thread’s Shop page or email me!

The Contrast Between Camels and Cars

While driving in Bhuj, Brian and I came upon three Rabari nomads leading their colorfully adorned camels and goats along the highway.  The jarring traffic noise was juxtaposed against the peaceful rhythm of their procession.  The slow, silent footsteps of the camels; the jangling of bells and harnesses; the occasional punctuating bleat of a baby goat.  The man and two women carried their possessions upon the backs of their camels; their belongings had been lovingly and creatively handmade.  The camels were outfitted with embroidered, appliqued blankets and tasseled reins.  The goats rode high atop trampoline-like saddles that, once removed from the camels’ backs, flipped over to become beds.

It was a beautiful and somewhat unsettling contrast, watching these traditionally dressed nomadic people tread slowly along the highway, bordered by car dealerships and even a wind turbine manufacturing plant.  On the surface, they appeared unfazed and unchanged by the modernity all around us.  We felt we had been given a brief glimpse into a past way of life that had snuck into the present.

We pulled over to the side of the road and spoke with the Rabaris, thanks to our translating tour guide.  We asked whether we might take a few photos.  They said their goodbyes, and we watched quietly as they processed away down the highway and flatbed trucks laden with machinery rattled by.

 

Through the Lens

So far, I have written of all that is good, fascinating, beautiful, amusing, and otherworldly in India. Elephants lumbering down the highway under the orange glow of streetlights; deserted beaches where Brian and I wandered up and down stretches of sand for hours undisturbed; warm, all-encompassing families who, for better or worse, want to smother you with hospitality; raucous festivals filled with color, music, and energy; delicious foods like freshly fried paranthas, flavorful fruits and vegetables, cardamom-infused sweets made with pure ghee (clarified butter), and a constant stream of sweet, milky, gingery chai; and of course intricate crafts linking artisans today with their ancestors from generations ago.

However, describing only the fun, easy, and beautiful parts of this adventure does not depict the whole truth of the India we are experiencing. Everyday absurdities make our lives feel more like a farcical comedy than reality. For example… the ceaseless honking of cars on streets where there is no other traffic to speak of; the misty haze of burning trash that began to hang in the air and permeate our bedroom when winter arrived; the packs of street dogs whose howling wakes us in the wee hours of most mornings yet are fed milk and biscuits by our sympathetic neighbors; the internet that taunts us by working for five minutes and then completely shutting down; the acrid odor provided by men using the roadsides as their urinals; the need to argue with every rickshaw driver over the cost of your ride; and the sinking feeling after most commercial interactions that you’ve succumbed to the “tourist tax” yet again.

While we’re usually able to laugh (after the fact) at these daily irritants, there are aspects of India that engender no mirth. Rather they are telltale signs of a harsh reality. A one-armed beggar imploring a crisply uniformed police officer not to fine him for begging; a little girl in pigtails doing acrobatics between traffic at a stoplight, as her younger brother beats a drum and her mother looks on impassively from the curb; a young man explaining that a woman from his religion would never marry a man from another because all men in this other religion treat women badly; two little children, one wearing only an oversized sweater, collecting discarded drinking straws off the ground to sell later for pennies; a family ostracizing a daughter who elopes with a man of another caste and skin tone; a young man being beaten bloody by a group for the mere transgression of a traffic accident; a tired mother holding her baby and begging, watching anxiously while my Indian friend, unconscious of the irony, tried to push the change from our dinner into our other friend’s hand.

As guests in India, we do our best to observe daily life with open minds and no judgment, acting as laymen cultural anthropologists.  Yet we cannot escape our own life experiences, and we must view the good, the bad, the ugly through a lens tinted by our biases.

Manjari Sharma’s Maa Laxmi