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

My Indian Wedding Saga. Part 1.

Attending an Indian wedding was one of my top goals for this year of cultural immersion, and only two months into the experience, I achieved this goal.  As it turns out, a traditional Hindu wedding in relatively rural India does not resemble Bollywood wedding scenes…at all.

A few weeks ago, Anita asked us residents of “The Laj” if we would like to go with her and her family to her cousin’s wedding.  Given my wedding goal, I instantly said yes without doing my due diligence.  None of my roommates were available (or willing) to go with me, so I was flying solo.

While I had agreed to go to the wedding, no questions asked, Sana did obtain some information for me from Anita.  We would spend a night in Gurgaon, a city on the outskirts of Delhi, at Anita’s house and the home of her brother and his family.  The next day we would go to the wedding and then return to Delhi the following day.  Most importantly, I would sleep in my own room.  Piece of cake.

The first step in the wedding adventure was being outfitted in a sari.  I forked over some rupees to Anita and left the sari selection to her.  (I was not allowed to partake in the shopping since the sari salesman would have charged me double what Anita paid.  The joy of being a Westerner in India.)  Anita decided on a robin’s egg blue sari with gold sequins.  However, saris are not 100% pret-a-porter.  In addition to several yards of sari fabric, the outfit requires matching churri  (bangles), a petticoat, and a tailored cropped blouse.  So Anita bundled me onto the local bus and we headed to Chirag Delhi market, where Anita bought me 24 glittery blue bangles and a drawstring-waist petticoat, and the local tailor measured me for my blouse while his various assistants giggled at me.  The concept of a white girl wearing a sari was hugely amusing to everyone.  At the time, I still found their amusement amusing.

The next day, Anita, her two little grandkids, and I left Lajpat Nagar and headed for her house Gurgaon.  After one auto-rickshaw, a bus, a cycle rickshaw, a fair amount of traffic, and two hours, we arrived in Anita’s neighborhood.  As I stared wide-eyed at the pigs, cows, and horses rooting around in the street, the local residents stared equally wide-eyed at me.  (Staring is far more socially acceptable here in India than it is in the States.)  We entered Anita’s home, which has a foyer flanked by four small rooms and a kitchen.  As far as I could tell, six adults and four children live in the house.  Anita’s brother Suresh and his wife welcomed me warmly, since in India, atithi devo bhava or “the guest is like a god.

While I sat in on their bed/couch in their bedroom/living room, drinking cup after cup of chai, an endless parade of neighbors arrived to welcome me to Gurgaon.  My Hindi comprehension unfortunately does not extend much past Namaste and pleasantries, so after greeting these neighbors they promptly turned to Anita and her family for an inquiry discussion that I became quite familiar with by the end of the wedding adventure.

Neighbor: “So who is she?  How do you know her?”

Anita: “I work for her.  She’s from America.”

Neighbor: “So she doesn’t speak Hindi?”

Anita: “No, she’s learning Hindi.  Devi, say something in Hindi.”

Devi (my Hindi name…sort of): “Aap kaise hain?”

Neighbor: “Good, thank you.  How much Hindi does she know?”

Anita: “Not much.  She thought that palak (eyelid) was the same as paalak (spinach).”

Cue group laughter.  Cue Devin forcing a smile.

(This conversation occurred between Anita and at least seventy-five people [on trains, on busses, with other wedding guests…] before the end of the experience.)

One of the neighbors who stopped by was the man across the street who Anita and her brother insisted was “cracked”, which I am still not sure if they meant seriously or not.  There is evidence in favor of him having indeed lost a few marbles though.  In the ensuing hours, the neighbor came back several times, carrying his adorable two-year-old granddaughter Simi.  Precious little Simi, wearing pigtails and kohl around her eyes, took one look at me and started screaming in terror.  Inexplicably, her grandfather insisted on shoving her into my lap – repeatedly.  Every time she screamed louder and clung for dear life to her grandfather’s neck.  Simi was one of three sweet little toddlers who over the course of the weekend I would petrify.  This began to wear my composure thin.

After eating a delicious home cooked meal of chicken, rice, and roti and finishing before anyone else was allowed to eat (remember — atithi devo bhava), we moved on to the next activity of the evening.  Suresh, his six-year-old son Sumit, and I clambered onto Suresh’s scooter and sped over bumpy half-dirt, half-paved roads to a Walmart-esque supermarket (the most “super” market I’ve seen yet in India) in search of a wedding suit for Sumit.  Though we did not find anything to Sumit’s liking, our outing gave me a glimpse of the dust, bustle, noise, and people that crowded the streets of Gurgaon.  And it gave the people of Gurgaon another opportunity to stare at me.

When we got back to Anita’s, the mehndi or henna artist, aka a fourteen-year-old kid with a tube of henna, had arrived.  At Indian celebrations, women have their hands intricately decorated with henna designs, and I was excited to partake in the tradition.  With Anita, her brother, his wife and son watching, the mehndi wallah decorated my hands and fingers with a swirling floral design within ten minutes.  I did my best not to fidget to avoid smudging the drying henna, as Anita and her sister-in-law had their henna done.  Suresh and Sumit commented on the designs and joined in this female primping session with a level of comfort and enthusiasm that most men in America would unlikely be able to match.

As the henna dried, we lay down on the cots, which are set up in the living room each evening for bed.  Contrary to Anita’s claim that I would have my own room, I realized that Anita, her sister-in-law, Sumit, and I were all going to be sleeping in the living room/bedroom together…with the light on….and the TV blaring in the next room….for hours.  When Suresh barged into the living room/bedroom at 1 AM and started a lively conversation with his wife and then at 6 AM another lively conversation broke out between Anita and her sister-in-law, I realized that personal space does not exist in this India and that this was going to be a long wedding adventure.  As it turned out, Day 1 was the tamest day by far.

This baby peed on me on Wedding Adventure Day 2.
Freshly washed laundry drying at Anita’s mom’s house.

Delhi Developing

The Delhi Metro is a physical symbol of India’s modernization.  Yet living in Delhi and regularly taking the Metro, for me, the intimate significance of this progress real and alive.

Today, just as I have done in New York, Boston, and Philly, I transferred subway lines, from Yellow to Violet, to get home today from NIFT, the university where I work.  As usual, I forced my way off the train like a running back, leaning hard into the crowd of shoving, boarding passengers.  Successfully through the defensive line, I headed for the nearest escalator, ignoring the “Keep Delhi Healthy – Take the Stairs!” sign.  Unperturbed by the normalcy of the moving staircase, I brushed past a middle-aged woman who was hesitating at the first step and boarded the escalator unconsciously.

As I ascended, I looked behind and noticed the woman, still at the bottom of the stairs.  She clutched her sari skirt in one hand and the escalator railing in the other, as she rocked forward and back, willing herself to step onto this evidently unfamiliar contraption.  Her husband and son waved her on from the top of the stair, more impatiently than encouragingly, as they looked toward the next train platform.  I don’t know whether she overcame her hesitation or turned away to find the nearest staircase, for I walked on from the escalator once I reached the top, not wanting to cause a pile-up.

Standing on the platform, waiting for my next train, I thought about the thousands of escalators I have taken in my lifetime: in malls, in airports, in museums, in stadiums.  I’ve never thought twice about this mode of transport.  Just a normal part of life.  Watching the woman struggle with a “normal part of life,” I wondered when she would step without reluctance onto escalators and feel that moving staircases truly were normal.

Ironically, as India modernizes, some “normalcies” of Indian life will disappear, for better or worse.  Many Fulbrighters who previously visited India five or so years ago say that Delhi is a changed city.  Pollution and litter are far less omnipresent, for example; a positive change by just about everyone’s estimation.  On the other hand, you don’t see as many cows roaming the city (a negative change in my opinion).  And many young women in Delhi have traded their daily wardrobes of colorful, sparkling saris and kurtas in favor of jeans and t-shirts.  When women in India no longer hesitate at the bottom of escalators, I wonder what cultural traits will have been gained and what will have been lost.

 

I want to do this… The Beauty of India: 50 Amazing Photos

Thomas Friedman opinion piece: India’s Innovation Stimulus