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A Brief Account of My Time in India
By Gypsy Mack
I love to travel. It is what I’m best at. When I travel, I never stubbornly stick to previously made plans. I am open to new situations, I am eager and curious, and I always try to fully experience my surroundings. I observe the people who live in places that I am just an outsider to, and I take note of how they walk, talk, eat, and interact. I try to copy those people, and fully integrate myself into places so very different from my own home. I love to travel because I fall in love with every single place I go. Oftentimes, I take mental pictures of my surroundings, so that I can see those places forever. I try to capture sounds and smells and sensations in my memory, because I love it all so much that I never want to forget.
I went to India last December. I was gone for two months. I got back just three days before my fifteenth birthday. That was nearly eight months ago, but it feels so recent that sometimes I still accidentally say, “I just got back from India." Before that, about a year and a half ago, I went to the UK and Ireland with my best friend. And before that, I was seven, hiking the base of a volcano, surrounded by the sound of howler monkeys. I didn't know it then, but I had made the best and worst mistake of my life: traveling. It became an addiction, but I never, ever want to stop.
Almost one year ago, my mom and my six-year-old sister River and I went along with my ten-year-old sister Phoenix’s homeschool co-op for a field trip. The co-op, called the Bhakti School, is run by a family that my own family has known for years. We were going to the UVA Lawn for a guided meditation with Deepak Chopra. Since then, I have never seen so many fancy white people interested in yoga at one time!
Afterwards, my mom asked me if I wanted to go to India. It was completely spur of the moment. It felt so random, yet perfect. I said yes, but I was nervous. I hardly knew anything about India outside of the small bit of knowledge that I gleaned from geography in seventh grade, and I wasn’t even particularly interested in India. But I wanted to travel, and I was very curious.
I was going to go with the Bhakti School family, and be the au pair for the two boys, who were nine and eleven at the time. Back then, I had known the family for a while, but hadn’t really seen them regularly since I was a small kid and did homeschool co-ops. Now, it’s kind of funny to think that I didn’t really know them, because they’re kind of like my second family.
On December 11th, I was all packed and ready to go. I was wearing a red, black, and light brown patterned shalwar kameez with a red scarf (called a dupatta). I said goodbye to my mom and sisters, then my dad and I began the short drive to pick up the family to drive to the airport. We stopped off at one of my best friend's house on the way. She gave me her copy of Brave New World to borrow and read in India, a tin of cookies, and a Christmas present! It was a beautiful little teapot that her dad made, which I had admired on a sleepover once.
We picked up the family and loaded all of the luggage into our minivan. I was extremely excited, and could hardly wait. On the car ride, I drank in every bit of my surroundings. I wouldn't see good old 'Murica for nine weeks!
Then we got to the airport. When my dad drove off, it was even worse than when I said goodbye to my mom and sisters. I felt like I was the one being left behind, not the one leaving!
We ate sushi, and then I don't really remember much else until we boarded the plane. It was the longest flight EVER. The flight attendants fed everyone quite frequently. We were like cattle, squished together and getting fattened up. I did watch a very good German movie, though.
Finally, the plane began to descend into the United Arab Emirates.
When landing in Abu Dhabi, I watched the beautiful lights of the city at night, and the cars speeding along the wide, straight highway. We got out of the plane, onto the tarmac, and I took in a deep breath of Middle Eastern air. It was cool, and smelled like fumes from all the planes. I loved it, of course.
People often find airports to be stressful and not really the ‘fun’ part of traveling, but I love them. Especially the Abu Dhabi airport. It was architecturally beautiful, and it was the first time I had seen Muslim women in niqab, the full black ensemble that only reveals the eyes. At the time, I hardly knew anything about Islam, so the airport prayer rooms and the pre-flight travelling prayer from the Qur’an that played on the plane held a little bit of mystery for me.
In my pre-India, angry western feminist approach, I had thought of niqab to be oppressive. But in Abu Dhabi and India, I saw otherwise. I loved the graceful way that the black fabric flows, and how some women’s sleeves were completely covered in black sparkles. In the Abu Dhabi airport, there were many Muslim women who held an understated yet fully apparent appearance of wealth. I could tell by the sleek and shiny designer bags, the niqab that were well-made with smooth-looking fabric, and the impeccable nails and eyeliner. I was not used to this height of wealth and luxury. If the people in this luxurious and fancy airport were so finely dressed and wealthy, then what was the rest of the United Arab Emirates like? Just in that airport, my mind broadened a little bit.
And then India. Just that sentence “and then India" is loaded with so much meaning for me. India, where I first saw real slums, where I visited my first temple, the place that overflows with life, color, and spice. The stereotypes are sometimes true—I could smell spices in the air, but I could also smell burning trash.
We got off the plane, and got into a car for the long ride from Bangalore to Mysore. I remember stepping out of the airport, and smelling spices, car fumes, and food from the little restaurant nearby. Of course, because I'm me, I smiled. I felt like spinning around and proclaiming to the world "I LOVE INDIA," but I figured that might not be the best thing to do.
In the car, even though I was extremely tired, I refused to fall asleep for the longest time. I watched as the streets of Bangalore turned from black, to gray, to full of color as the sun rose. I saw five people on one scooter for the first time in my life. I saw narrow streets and buildings that looked like stacked boxes, I saw women sweeping their doorsteps.
We were stuck in traffic for over an hour, and I loved it. I felt like my whole mind and heart was smiling with my face. I was content to just watch the people walk past, and listen to honking horns and traffic.
I did eventually fall asleep, but was woken up, and saw hills. They were very different from the rolling green hills back home. Tese seemed slightly out of place.
Finally, we got to Mysore, and we ate idli with coconut chutney at the place down the road and around the corner from our apartment. It was amazing, the best thing I’d ever tasted. A lot of my memories of India revolve around food. Indian food is the best. I tried masala dosa, vadai, palak paneer, and lots of other things. I didn't much care for the one lassi I tried, though.
The family practiced yoga at a yoga school in Mysore. I did not, but I certainly learned a lot about it. I took Sanskrit lessons at the yoga school, which were a lot of fun. The teacher was so nice, and funny, and he’s still one of my favorite people I’ve ever met. I also got most of my homework right, because I was kind of a Sanskrit geek. I loved my Sanskrit Level II class, because I knew everyone and the teacher would joke around with us.
Throughout my time in India, it often hit me how glad I was that I had come with the family. They were so nice, and fun, respectful and knowledgeable of the culture around them, and they integrated themselves into the local community.
We bought much of our food from the guy who sold fruit and veggies across from the idli place, we bought our dry goods from the guy who sold that sort of stuff next to the idli place, and we got whatever else we needed from the department store, Loyal World. Goodness, how I love Loyal World. It’s just a department store, but it was so much fun. There were so many types of grains and spices and rice that I never even knew existed. All the labels were in English and Kannada (the language of Karnataka), and for an American, everything seemed relatively inexpensive (except peanut butter, it was about $5 or something like that). Around Christmastime, Loyal World sold “Santaclaws” things, faulty strings of lights, and cheaply made yet charming Christmas decorations. We got a little plastic tree and lights. The lights had a setting where they flashed around like a seizure rave, which was highly amusing.
In India, I had perhaps the best New Year’s Eve of my life. We went to Bylakuppe, a Tibetan Buddhist settlement in Karnataka, to hear the teachings of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. I even saw him walk by! What’s kind of funny is that physically seeing His Holiness is what got me interested in his teachings and Tibetan Buddhism.
Bylakuppe is a wonderful place. We visited the Golden Temple, a giant Buddhist temple with huge golden statues of buddhas. The statues are filled to the brim with sacred soil, scripts, and objects. Buddhist deities were colorfully painted onto the inside walls of the temple. The floor was smooth and cool, and the whole place felt as if it had a quiet serenity and power.
I hardly knew anything about Buddhism when we went, but I appreciated the beauty of the Golden Temple nonetheless. I didn’t know what Buddhism taught, yet I still felt reverence for the giant gold statues in the temple.
For His Holiness's teachings, we sat in a big, wide tent with rugs laid all over the dusty ground. Tibetans surrounded us, and I couldn’t understand a word anyone was saying.
Everyone in the tent, including us, had brought a bowl and a cup, because we were to be served food and drink. Buddhist monks, probably around my age and a little younger, would serve it. It was funny, because even though they were Buddhist monks, and probably spent much of their time studying scriptures, I could tell they were teenagers. They joked around with each other, and just acted like teens.
There was spicy sambar, served from big metal buckets, rice was served from what looked sort of like a milk crate, and milky tea was served from giant teapots. The teenage monks would run back and forth from the kitchen, saying “Sh, sh, sh,” – duty, duty, duty. We walked past the kitchen on our way to sit down. It was a massive pavilion, with many cooking fires. Gigantic pots were over the fires, cooking the rice and sambar.
I still say that it was the best meal I have ever eaten, and definitely the best tea I’ve ever drunk.
The after-lunch teachings started with Tibetan Buddhist throat chanting. It was amazing, and strange. The sound reverberated through my whole body and the whole tent.
To hear His Holiness’s teachings in English, we listened to a specific radio station. I had a very hard time concentrating, though, for I was interested in the Tibetan teenage girl, wearing a beautiful traditional Tibetan outfit, texting really quickly, and arguing with her brother. I was also interested in the little kid sleeping near us, and the old man holding his mala beads.
A few hours later, the teachings ended, and all of us bowed down as the His Holiness the Dalai Lama as he walked past, his attendants holding the traditional Tibetan Buddhist umbrellas over his head.
We walked out of the monastic complex, in a crushing crowd. There were people wearing white masks over their mouths, like the strictly vegetarian Jains wear so that they don’t breath in small insects. There were Buddhist monks and nuns, and a lot of Tibetans. It was the most crowded crowd I’d ever been in. I could feel people on all sides of me. Luckily for me, though, I’m taller than most everyone in India, so I could just look out over the crowd.
Then we got delicious watermelon with masala powder. I can still feel the hot dusty air on my skin and the taste of watermelon and masala on my tongue.
India is what sparked my interest in religion. Since India, I have read the Qur’an, the Bhagavad Gita, the Conference of the Birds, the Tao Te Ching, and many other translations of religious texts. I have this insatiable desire to understand other people, other views, and other places. I look to ancient religious texts to answer my questions, and oftentimes they do. I have found that the Qur’an, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Tao Te Ching all say the exact same thing, just in different words. Going to India changed how I think about the world. I saw cultures so radically different from my own, and my perspectives were changed, my horizons broadened.
There is so much to remember about India. I love everything about it, even the things that many people hate: stray dogs, the smell of burning trash, dirty feet, and the lack of personal space. I miss India with all my heart. I get to go back in fifteen months, and I’m just counting down the days. I can still hear the sound of temple bells in my mind, as if they are calling me back.
#Real #India #TaoTeChing #Travel #Culture #ReligiousJourney #LifeChanging #HighSchoolAdventures #SummerLiving
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