This Is India: Three Short Stories
As you may already know, I'm not in India anymore! On Tuesday morning, we started flying to Kathmandu, Nepal! Now I'm here in Thamel, and I realized that I have so many half blogs that I never posted. So, here are three of my favorite short stories from this past month in India. Enjoy!
Walking the Streets of India
As we walked out of the airport at 3:00 a.m., the attention we attracted was impossible to ignore. After flying from the U.S. to Qatar for 13.5 hours, a 2 hour layover, and then another 4 hour flight to India, we were exhausted; but the walk from baggage claim to the bus pickup was like one giant shot of espresso. If I hadn’t known any better, I would have thought that the hundreds of Indians waiting outside baggage claim were waiting for us. They were staring, whispering, and even taking videos of us walking past them on their phones. I guess I don’t blame them; 57 mostly white twenty-somethings walking out of the airport with huge hiking packs on their backs and daypacks on the front? That’s pretty weird. I didn’t care because I’m pretty sure that, as our team’s only redhead, I got some extra airtime on their video phones.
We walked all the way out to the bus pickup area where we found a large, purple and red bus waiting to take us to the house where we could finally sleep. The steering wheel had tassels and beads hanging off of it, and the windows had ripped, ratty curtains, but we were just happy to not be on a plane anymore. We piled some of our giant packs underneath the bus and then the rest in the back two rows of the bus. It was a 50 passenger vehicle, and there were 57 people with 10 seats taken up by backpacks. I stood in the aisle during the bumpy, swervy, 45 minute drive along with a few other people, while others sat in laps the whole way. In India, the white lines on the roads are just light suggestions. Typically, the roads are just swarming with cars, busses, mopeds and autos (tuk tuks) going wherever they want, swerving around pedestrians who don’t seem even slightly worried that they were inches away from a car that would have hit them if they had taken half a step forward.
Over the next three days, I would learn that that’s just the way India (literally) rolls. In fact, I would even stop flinching at all of the cars that would drive 6 inches away from my body. Autos would even purposely swerve right in front of me to see if they could make a white girl jump off the road, and I would just look straight ahead with bored eyes, pretending I barely noticed that their auto grazed my sleeve, and ignoring the fact that my life could end with the tiny wheel of a tuk tuk. The driving in India would have scared me off if it weren’t for the amazing food. It was worth braving the perilous roads to get to the street vendors. Every morning during our first few days in India, we would get dosa and chai, a meal and drink for 35 rupees altogether… which is about 50 cents. Dosa is an Indian breakfast food that is essentially a rice crepe with some kind of savory chutney inside. These had an onion, spinach and tomato chutney inside and a peanut sauce and spicy ginger sauce on the side. Chai is like a black tea with cream and spices. It comes in a tiny little cup, but since they were only 10 rupees apiece (like 15 cents), I would get 3 or 4 per day. They also came with an amazing little cookie for an extra 5 rupees. Needless to say, our Dosa Lady and our Chai Guy became our squads best friends.
The streets of India are full of life and color and grunge and trash. Walking around and interacting helped us learn how to haggle with auto drivers and street vendors, and by the time we had all bought kurtas (like a long tunic to wear over leggings or loose pants) many of the people around us would run up to us and ask for selfies (selfies are BIG in India… especially with random foreigners) or yell “HI! HI! HI! BYE! BYE! BYE!” at us from across the busy streets. Needless to say, walking the streets of India became one of my favorite things to do.
The Longest (Bus) Ride
At 10pm in India, on the side of a dark, grungy street stood 11 foreign girls next to a pile of 11 huge packs and 11 daypacks. We were tired, terrified, and frustrated. At this point, we had been waiting for our night bus to take us to Bangalore for 4 hours. My team, Team Rhemas, along with Team Joyful Fortitude, had a 10 hour bus ride overnight to get to our ministries. We all knew that “time is eternal” in India, so our bus could be several hours early, or several hours late, so we arrived at the bus station around 6:30pm. We had to take several Uber’s and several autos, and because of this, 4 of our teammates had gone missing, and were accidentally taken to a different bus stop. We were assured that they would be picked up immediately after us, but with India, you just never really know. Having teammates missing from our group was stressful, but possibly more stressful was the fact that we were waiting for hours in an area where many of the guys from the basecamp told us we should be “really careful” and “don’t take selfies with anyone here”. But even more stressful, for me, was the fact that at this point, I had been feeling extremely nauseous for about 12 hours, and I was about to get on a bus for 10 hours.
Finally, the bus rolled up, and we could all release the breath we had been holding for several hours. No one specifically told us this bus was going to Bangalore… but the guys at the bus station we ready to get rid of us, so we just did what they told us, jumped on, and hoped for the best. When we walked into the bus, we realized this bus ride was not going to be like what we had expected. Rather than seats, on either side of the bus, there were bunk beds. The left side was lined with double beds, and the right side was lined with single beds. I walked all the way into the back and got into a double bed that I would share with my teammate, Maggie. When everyone was on, we started moving towards the bus stop that would, hopefully, have the rest of our teammates there. The minute the bus started moving, my stomach lurched, and I thought “Oh no…”. My teammates did eventually get on the bus, but I barely noticed because I was focused on not vomiting all over the bed and my team leader. Around 10:30, we finally departed for Bangalore, and I was officially about to hurl. I grabbed Maggie’s sleeve, and choked out “pray for me.” She did pray for me, and immediately my nausea vanished. Neither of us quite believed it. A healing before we even arrived at ministry? We were both so pumped! We could both fall asleep and wake up in Bangalore feeling great.
Two hours later, I woke up, sat up, and vomited into my lap. I tapped on Maggie’s shoulder violently as I dispensed everything I had eaten that day into the travel blanket that the bus had so sweetly given to us. Confused and groggy, Maggie sat up slowly and stumbled around to find the plastic grocery bag we had used to keep our travel snacks in. When I was done vomiting, I shoved the destroyed blanket into the bag. I tried to somehow throw it out of the bus, but the windows didn’t open (so I thought, by the time we would reach Bangalore, I would find out that they do open, and I could have just thrown my vomit blanket out…) and the door to the drivers cabin was locked. I tied the bag up as tight as I possibly could and did what I thought was my only option… I put the bag under the bottom bunk, climbed into my top bunk and tried to fall asleep while hoping no one would smell my vomit bag.
That bus ride to Bangalore was the longest bus ride I could imagine. I didn’t fall asleep, and I was holding back vomit almost the whole time. Thankfully, the bus arrived in Bangalore early, and we jumped off the bus at 7:30. The bus stop was just the median of a highway… really. Our ministry contact was waiting for us with a van, and we were finally on our way to our new Indian home.
A Wedding, a Coconut, and a Whole Lot of Rice
When Maggie came back into the house with a smile on her face and a phone in her hand, I knew. We had been praying for this moment the whole month. “Wedding?” I asked. She nodded and smiled wider. When she went to tell the other girls as well, we all jumped up and down and screamed in excitement. We were going to an Indian wedding.
Our translator, Sheila, had become one of our favorite people in the entire world. She was the one who haggled with street vendors for us (I can thank her for the $1.50 bangles I have. Girl is ruthless!), showed us around Bangalore, and listened to us and gave us advice about Indian culture. She was our lifeline in so many different ways, and now we had even more reasons to love her. Sheila’s friends were getting married and she invited us to tag along. She explained that it would be a Hindu wedding, so we would be able to see all of the Indian traditions. That night, she brought by some saris for us to borrow. I picked out a royal blue and hot pink one, and we all went and picked out shirts to wear underneath. We were practically vibrating with anticipation for 3 days.
On Monday morning Sheila came by, as she told us she would, to help us wrap our saris. We noticed she wasn’t dressed herself, and she told us she was sick and wouldn’t be going to the wedding. We would be going to the wedding with her brother, who was our other ministry contact. We were bummed, but wanted to get the sari wrapping done as soon as possible so Sheila could go home and rest. An hour later, we were all “Full Indian” as she had told us to be. I was wearing pink bangles that matched the pink parts of my sari and my pink sari top. I wore dangling gold earrings, curled my hair, and even wore make up including bright pink lipstick. We were done up. We were also late. We all said “goodbye and get well” to Sheila, and piled into the white traveller van.
Walking into the wedding hall, there were enormous statues and beautiful, colorful flowers everywhere. Our contacts told us that these were very traditional Hindu wedding decorations, and all Hindu weddings look pretty much the same, but nothing compared to the stage that the bride and groom were sitting on inside the hall. They, along with a whole bunch of other people, were underneath a square gazebo looking thing, with beautiful flowers covering it and draping across it. The bride had her hair in one long braid, and tons of beads and jewels surrounding her face and eyes. She wore a white and red sari and she looked beautiful. The groom wore a white outfit with a gold turban. We sat down and watched in amazement as someone tied their hands together and walked them in a small circle. A woman came around with a plate full of rice and dried flowers, and we all grabbed a big handful. Once the bride and groom did… something important that I didn’t quite catch, we all chucked our handfuls of rice at them. I’m pretty sure 80% of my rice hit the back of a young boys head. After that, in the middle of the ceremony, our contacts wife told us to get up and we walked downstairs into a large cafeteria. Apparently, there’s a meal throughout the entire ceremony, and you can go get more and more food whenever you want. After all, Indian weddings last for days. We were currently in the third day, and by that night they would be officially married. Then, it would just be party after party after party for days.
We soon realized that Indian weddings don’t require your attention for the whole ceremony, in fact, most people were just sitting or standing around talking to their families and friends. There were even kids running around the entire hall as the ceremony continued. When we came back up from getting our first meal (that’s right, you get as many meals as you want), we were invited to go up on stage to “bless” the bride and groom. No one really filled us in on what that looked like, but as we were shoved up onto a stage into a line of people, we decided to just learn as we went. We saw some people take off their shoes as they approached the bride and groom, and some people didn’t. We asked our contacts wife if we should take off our shoes. She looked at us sadly and said “no, no ladies, you are not married yet.” This, we found, is the ultimate tragedy in India. So, with shoes on, we approached the bride and groom and saw that they were sitting across from each other with a coconut in their tied hands, and a bucket underneath. The coconut was wet with coins stacked on top of it. The man next to us, a sweet stranger, gave each of us a few coins wordlessly. Soon, we were in front of the new couple. The bride sweetly looked up at us, smiling understandingly. She said “just put the coins on the coconut, and then pour the milk over it three times.” So we did. Caitlin apparently really messed up by trying to put her coins with mine on the coconut, and a man said “no! Don’t do that!” Who knows? After a few hours of selfies with random Indian families, we were exhausted and hot from the heavy saris, so we headed home.
We learned a lot about Indian and Hindu culture from this wedding, we also learned that, no matter how hard we would try, we would never understand why we had to put coins on a coconut and pour milk over it three times. That will be one of the questions I ask Jesus one day…
With love from Thamel, Nepal