After having spent six weeks in India – my first time in the subcontinent – it is difficult to answer the question “So… how was your trip to India?” in a succinct way. Or in a way that manages to capture the onslaught of experiences that is India.
My mom helped me clarify my feelings on my trip when she picked me up from the airport on Thursday. “I was going to ask you whether you’re happy to be back in the United States, but then I realized that perhaps you were sad to leave India. So which is it?” After taking a moment to ponder, I realized that it was very much both of these things. “Of course the United States has a lot of things India doesn’t have. But then, India has a lot of things the United States doesn’t have. And the set of things that each place has is pretty much opposite of the other’s.”
By this I meant that India is a place of dense, tight-knit families and communities, of frustrating and labyrinthine bureaucracy, of deep and permeating spirituality, and of omnipresent traditions and rituals – things which are largely unknown to us (at least in large degree) in the United States. To further attempt to answer that tricky “How was your trip to India?” question, I instead decided to make a list of my most memorable Indian experiences. So without further ado:
1. Floating down the Ganges river at sunrise.
We arranged for a local boatman to take us out at sunrise in Varanasi. We were warned that it would be too foggy to see the sun coming over the horizon, but the scene of the holy city shrouded in golden mist was truly magical. In contrast to the chaos that characterizes the city during the day, we observed how Varanasi’s riverbank at dawn was used as a quiet moment for bathing, rituals, and meditation.
2. Our engagement party on Amol’s family’s terrace.
Amol’s parents hosted a get-together for friends and family on the terrace of their building to celebrate our engagement under the Mumbai stars. I even gave a (very short) speech! I got to meet many of Amol’s friends and family members for the first time, and most importantly, got to get all dressed up in fancy Indian clothes for the occasion.
3. Singing kirtan in Vrindavan.
At the ashram where we were stayed for two weeks, there is a session every morning where anyone who wanted to join – including students at the ashram, people from the local Indian community, and the guru himself – would sing ancient Sanskrit praises that tell the story of Lord Krishna and his devotee Radha, who famously fell in love right there in Vrindavan. Chanting those words never failed to transport me to otherworldly places.
4. Spending time in the kitchen with Amol’s mom.
On one particular occasion, I wandered into the kitchen to find Amol’s mom toasting sesame seeds and shredded coconut, peeling peanuts, and chopping jaggery sugar. She then showed me how to mix everything in a thick paste. Once the dough comes together, we plopped down on the kitchen floor (the only free space in the tiny kitchen!) and worked to roll out little balls before the dough hardened. Amol was called in for reinforcements and the three of us laughed at my misshapen ladoo.
5. Flying kites from the rooftops in Gujarat.
Makar sankrant, or uttaryan, is a famous festival celebrated in the Indian state of Gujarat. Everyone climbs to their terrace to fly kites and cut others’ kites down from the sky, munch on spicy snacks while sipping sweet chai, and catch up with friends and family. We were hosted by Amol’s dear family friend, Komal, and her welcoming and cosmopolitan family, who made it a very memorable first Indian festival for me!
6. Exploring the local market in Mumbai.
I got to sample fresh coconut juice for the first time! Even at night, the market was a buzzing maze of fruit and vegetable vendors extolling their produce in rhythmic chants, stalls decorated with dangling flower garlands and carts packed with trinkets.
7. Biking through villages in the Indian countryside.
We took a midnight train to Khajuraho, a tiny town in the middle of India, to see the thousand-year-old temples that have been declared a UNESCO world heritage site. The whole area is dotted with ancient and intricately-carved temples, so we grabbed a pair of bicycles from the hostel and spent a day visiting as many as we could. This meant biking through tiny, bright little villages in the Indian countryside where people lived just as they had for hundreds of years. Along the way, we met many children who would run out from their colorful houses to the road to yell “Hello! Namaste!” as we cycled by.