It has been almost a year since I was in India as part of the University of Calgary Term Abroad Program for Fall 2001. When people ask me about my experiences, the first story I inevitably tell is riding the train to northern India. My roommate and I were on a 22-hour train ride to the city-state of Chandigarh, it was December 22, 2001 and the Indian government announced that morning all buses between India and Pakistan would be stopped as of January 1, 2002. About mid-afternoon I looked out the window and said, "Is that a train full of tanks?" My travelling companion replied, "Why yes Colleen, I believe it is." A few stops later soldiers completely filled our train.
There is something to be said for the experience of lying on a hard bunk at two in the morning, with your teeth chattering from the cold, covered in dirt and grime because the windows won't seal and only understanding the soldiers when they say things like, "India... Pakistan... Bin Laden... War."
Even though this is often the story I first tell, when I lie in my bed at night it is not the image I keep of India. I think of the people I became friends with and wonder how they are doing. I think of my history professor, whose favourite novel was The Jungle Book. I think of the good and the bad experiences I had and hope when speaking and writing of India, I manage to convey a fair portrayal of both. I think of sitting up on the roof of the hostel at night and marvelling at how different and fascinating everything seemed. I miss India, more then I ever thought I would.The idiosyncrasies
India is the most colourful, dirty place I have ever seen. We passed through some of the slums of Mumbai on our way to Pune, and it was a very powerful image; there was garbage everywhere and yet the women were dressed in saris of the most amazing colours. I didn't think it was possible for so many colours to be woven into fabric.
• It took approximately 42 hours to travel from Calgary, Canada to Pune, India.
• The light switches are backwards. You press them down to turn the lights on.
• There was an air pollution indicator on a street corner we would often pass. Maximum breathable level was 50; the lowest I ever saw it was 95. Usually it was about 152.
• When it got colder (15ï›¼C) the guards at our hostel would put on toques and mitts and light a fire.
• When the sun would start to set, men and little boys would emerge out of the slums and fly little homemade paper kites. It looked like hundreds of small birds floating in the air.
• Pop only cost about 12 rupees, which is less than 50 cents. The problem was that it came in neat old-fashioned glass bottles that had been re-used. There is something reasonably disturbing about popping the top of a pop bottle to find the rim covered in rust and dirt.
• Cars play music while backing up, such as "Fur Elise" and my personal favourite, "Lambada: The Forbidden Dance."
• Bryan Adams is huge there; his CD from two years ago is still on the bestseller list and you heard him played everywhere.
• You got used to passing herds of sacred cows in the street, as well as camels, horses and the occasional elephant.
• I lived in the small city of Pune, which only had 2.4 million people. The university campus sits on 499 acres of land used as the base for British government of the area.
• You are always wet in India, either from sweat or rain.'
The Rose Girls
One day after class I was running errands when it started to rain and I didn't have time to wait for it to stop. I was walking towards a grocery store, soaked through, when a little beggar girl spotted me. I was in no mood to deal with her so I immediately said "Nahi," which is Hindi for "no." Well, she thought this was hilarious and so did the other two who had joined her. They continued to pester me. I gave up; the situation was just so ridiculous that all I could do was laugh. They thought this was even funnier. They had some wilted roses they were trying to persuade me to buy and they tried to get me to smell the roses by bonking me on the nose with them, which only made us laugh harder.
This went on for two blocks, and what a sight it must have been. How the people stared and laughed as we walked by. Here was this silly girl walking in the rain without an umbrella, being chased by three little beggar girls that were jumping up and bonking her on the nose with roses while she desperately repeated nahi, nahi amidst lots of giggles. Eventually, I gave the girls some rupees and was showered with a number of roses. I cannot think of that day without laughing.
Shopping in India is an incredible experience. You enter a sari store and the shopkeepers sit you on a little stool or on a padded floor and pull bolts and bolts of every colour, pattern and material imaginable down around you. They then unfurl these bolts of cloth until there is a big pile spread in front of you. When you're done, the people helping you snap their fingers and other helpers come and fold everything up. In one store, they gave up on me and told me to just go to the walls full of saris and pick the ones I wanted. Silks, satins, brocades, embroidery, crystal beading--some of each helped fill the two suitcases of treasures I brought home.
At the end of the semester my roommate and I decided to visit a small city called Bundi. When we arrived late at night we saw a giant abandoned fort on top of a mountain all lit up like a postcard. It seemed to hover in the darkness surrounding it. The next day, after touring around the city and its fabulous marketplace, we decided to hike up to the fort. We arrived at the fort and all the massive wooden doors with the giant metal spikes in them were locked. The spikes were there to prevent elephants from being used as battering rams. We hunted around until we found a door that we could pry open, and once inside, we realized we had only gotten through the outer walls. So we did some more exploring and got into the main part of the fort. There were wells, archways, ramps and ancient faded murals. From this height you could see the whole city, which looked blue because of the way the houses were painted. By the time we left, it was dark and there was very little moon. We couldn't stay there all night so, in the dark, we slid back down the mountain, which was rather steep and composed of shale. We made it to the bottom just before some of the townspeople who had seen us go up called out a search party. Then we learned there was a main road up to the open main gates on the other side of the fort.
I hate bugs, and before I left, people told me I would get used to them. No! You never get used to bugs the size of your thumb that run fast and can't be killed.
I managed to avoid them through the use of large amounts of duct tape. However, the girls on the floor above me were not so lucky. One night one of them was sitting in bed and opened a binder that had been in a cupboard. Well, a cockroach ran out. I heard the screams and went upstairs to see what happened. By that time her roommate and the girls sharing the suite next door had all assembled, we flipped over her bed frame and there were cockroaches living in it. Two of the girls braver then the other squealing five of us, came up with an ingenious way to trap the monsters. One of them took a piece of duct tape and held it to the bed frame while the other used a pencil to poke the cockroach into the tape. Then they would run and drop the tape, with the cockroaches stuck to it, out the window.
Our campus hostel was for international women. I became friends with a girl from Guyana and we travelled together to a place called Hampi, once the head of the largest Hindu empire in India.
We stepped off the bus to a very cold, misty, mysterious morning and found a nice hostel. We ordered breakfast and were told it would be served on the roof of the house. We climbed the stairs, stepped onto the roof and felt as though we had entered a Flintstones episode.
The landscape was exactly like Bedrock, giant boulders and palm trees. I turned around, and rising out of the mist was a giant Hindu temple.
Later in the day we visited that temple and were lucky enough to witness several local weddings with the brides done up in all their splendor. Sometimes I can still smell the fresh jasmine I had tied in my hair that day. Hampi remains one of my favourite places in all of India.
Friday became the unofficial movie night in India. Bollywood is a multi-billion dollar industry and the films are great three-hour spectacles. Actors break into song in the middle of a conversation and elegantly dressed backup dancers emerge from nowhere. I loved the music and learned the words to as many songs as I could. The audience was half the fun at the movies. Laggan, my favourite, was released in June and there wasn't an empty seat in the theatre even in October. A large part of the movie centered on a cricket match and the audience watching the cricket match would cheer, and then the audience in the theatre would cheer as well. I looked around and people were literally sitting on the edge of their seats. It was so interesting to see how the movies reflected elements of Indian culture.
More photos will be available here soon. Keep checking back.