• Maureen Fetscher
  • 06 Sep, 2011

Wednesday, March 10, 2004 Travelogue:  Excerpts from past impressions and experiences in India (see the first travelogue segment we posted)

Hello, or Namaste as they say in Hindi!

Joni, Michelle, and I are nearing our forth and final month here in India, and I am embarrassed to say that this is only my SECOND group e-mail.  How did this happen?  I’m not sure exactly, except that this traveling lark is a bit time consuming, so much to do and see, and the whole of India to discover in only a few short months.  Still, it’s no excuse.  A few weeks ago, as we were trekking through the hot Rajasthani sand on our way to the Jaisalmer desert festival, I remarked to Michelle that this trip is like one big, long day.  There’s so much to tell, and yet how did it get to be three months from the time I last wrote?

So what’s new in India?

First and foremost, I am not the Maureen you previously knew. I am a tougher, more street-smart version.  I have discovered my bravery and might, and also my threshold of patience and frustration.  I can haggle an auto-rickshaw ride down from 200 to 20 rupees, ward off a roaming hand on a crowded bus with stern expertise, use a squat toilet like nobody’s business, and sniff out a scam before it even gets off the ground.  I have converted from coffee to chai tea, and have started wobbling my head side to side to nod in agreement, even to Joni and Michelle.  I speak in foreigner English now, which is English but slower and with different intonation and a permanent present tense verb to make it easier for Indians and travelers to understand.  Lastly, the kind of split second gut reactions I’ve had to certain situations here has definitely shed light on the fact that while I might be a pacifist in “spirit,” I’m one tough cookie in the flesh (ask me sometime about a certain nightclub experience in Bangalore……).

After two months in the south exploring temples, beaches, and big city life, we headed to the northern state of Rajasthan in February, just in time for a spectacular desert festival in the town of Jaisalmer.  We have been in Rajasthan ever since.  Camels are as common as cars here, men wear huge florescent colored turbans, and water is very, very scarce.  I’ve never been any place like it.

It is the season of weddings here in Rajasthan. Taking a stroll in any town at any time of day can invariably lead you to one.  In Jaisalmer, as Joni, Michelle, and I roamed through the tight cobblestone streets one languid afternoon – deftly dodging cows, their massive plops of poop, auto-rickshaws, packs of donkeys with bags of bricks on their backs, scooters with families of five on them, camels carrying carts of supplies, elephants (no joke), touts trying to get you to “come my shop,” and the occasional monkey – we came upon a wedding party exiting a temple.  As marriage proceedings span several days here in India, we were lucky to have caught this one at its culmination, a most auspicious moment.  The actual ceremony had just ended, and the guests were streaming out of the temple gate to the bang of a loud drum.  The bride and groom exited together, and all “seemed” well until suddenly the bride burst into a loud wail.  The groom, who stood next to her, remained silent and pensive until it became clear he couldn’t take it anymore and darted off, skirting his way around the party till he was at the front of the procession.  Instantly the family of the bride surrounded her and the one wail turned into a chorus of wails that emanated from their tight circle.  The Mother pressed her young daughter to her chest and looked up to the sky, her sobs reaching a feverish pitch.  Even the brother and father were crying, and each took turns hugging the bride tightly.

“What in god’s name is going on?” I thought to myself, on the verge of a wail myself, trying to record the whole thing on video while keeping myself composed.  The crying seemed almost ritualized, like it was part of the ceremony, yet there was no denying that the tears were real.

This was my first real taste of an Indian wedding.  As I later found out, at an upper-middle class Jain marriage I attended in Udaipur, the crying is as customary a part of the wedding proceedings as the hefty dowry of gifts the bride’s family bestows on the groom’s family.  In fact, the behavior of the bride from start to finish is pretty much entirely scripted.  Ask any Indian woman to pull out her wedding album or her “top-notch” quality wedding video, and you will notice that her eyes are permanently cast demurely to the ground.  She’s not supposed to smile or look happy, and also avoids directly speaking to or looking at the groom.  And who’d be smiling when they’re wearing a fifty pound sari and probably another fifty pounds in nose rings, hand rings, bangles, earrings and necklaces?

I can’t begin to explain all the different aspects of this culture that I’ve come to know and theorize on.  I try constantly to remain open and aware that I’m looking at it all from a westernized perspective.  It is still hard not to form judgments, though, especially on the role of women.  I spent the first two months hardly noticing them, and the second two months realizing why I hardly noticed them.  I conservative states like Rajasthan their place is in the home, and a large portion of them spend most of their time there. Staying at several home-stays recently has helped us get to know women in a way we’re not privy to as regular tourists out on the streets and in guesthouses.

On a fashion side-note, not only did we get the opportunity to further examine Indian marriage customs at the Udaipur wedding, more importantly WE GOT TO WEAR SARIS!  We had been waiting for this moment (especially Michelle) for a long time.  The urge to shed our frumpy western-style cargo pants and tee-shirts had been mounting for three months.  Surrounded daily by the sleek elegance of the sari and the salwar suit (matching pants, shirt and scarf),  you eventually start feeling like a big dork, especially when you see other tourists and what they look like.  We’d had enough, we were changing sides– we finally wanted to look like the locals.

Inspecting women’s fashion choices has recently become one of my favorite past-times, especially on the bus.  I can’t tell you how mesmerizing it is to watch a woman’s bangle-clad arm lift the end of her sari with long delicate henna-doused fingers and place it lightly over her head, like a half veil to block out the sun’s rays and the men’s wandering glances.  And the jewelry!  Gold, which I have never been that fond of, had suddenly become glamorous.  In India gold jewelry (even if it’s fake, which most of it is) symbolizes privilege.  Silver, on the other hand, is reserved for traditional, rural women.

In preparation for the big wedding day, Mrs. Doshi, our host from the homestay organization we belong to, took us sari shopping to ensure that we would be getting “Indian” prices for our wares, and after much deliberation and hundreds of sari viewings (you know how long this could take if you’ve ever seen the three of us girls in action), we picked out our fabrics and sent the undersuit to the tailors.  Next stop was the jewelry shop, where we picked out matching fake gold earring and necklace sets and Joni even bought a gold bindi (a little jeweled pendant that hangs down over her forehead.)  To top it all off we bought two salwar suits each, to wear at any one of the numerous wedding proceedings.

I won’t go into extreme detail on the wedding, as there were so many hours of it, but just visualize a large gardened area with over 2000 people and not a lick of alcohol.  Then further visualize the only three foreigners at the wedding, proudly displaying their saris, with no one to talk to except girls under the age of 10 who kept running up to us bashfully and handing us roses (we think they stole them from the catering table).

That’s all the stories for now.  This e-mail has turned out to be a novel.  I miss everyone a lot, especially lately.  And I will sheepishly admit that Joni, Michelle, and I spent over an hour and a half in the Jaipur McDonald’s two days ago, relishing in our McAloo Tikka burgers and air-con cleanliness.  The bathroom, I must say, with toilet paper AND soap, was bliss.  After eating we bought 6 ice cream cones for the six beggar kids sitting outside (including a one year old boy being looked after by his 4-5 year old sister). By the time we had finished passing out the cones, 6 more hungry kids had materialized.  It can get very hard to be here, and yet I am learning more than I ever imagined.  I can’t believe there are only three weeks left to our stay.

Take care, and please send me any gossip or news from home, because it really fills the gaps.

Love, Maureen

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