Athithi Devo Bhava (A Guest is God)

You might or might not know but Indian people consider a huge honor to have guests as it is said that God comes in their house in the form of guests (Athithi Devo Bhava).

Well, that is the way I have been welcome everywhere in India, with garlands of flowers sometimes in hotels, but mainly in Jaipur where I have friends, and the family which has become my own.

As I said, I have received flowers when arriving the first time at my teacher (and friend)’s house after not meeting for 5 years. That was a great surprise and so nice from her !

During my experience as a Volunteer in Jaipur, I made friends, some guys working for the Non-Governmental Organization, and one of them has become a closer friend. Everything started during a Hindu Festival called Raksha Bandhan. During this festival, girls tie a Rakhi (bracelet) to their brother(s) or a boy who they consider their brother and the brother, along with a gift to his sister, will offer her his longlife protection.

Example of a Rakhi

 

I had done a small celebration with the slum children, drawing Rakhis on a piece of paper that they had to cut them and tie around their wrists. And drawing them, I was thinking, if I was Hindu, who would I tie a Rakhi to? Well, probably that guy from the NGO I was under his protection anyway as per his position of staff member of the NGO…

One day we were talking about this festival and he asked if I had tied a Rakhi and who was the lucky person…so I told him I had not tied any, as I didn’t know if, as a non-hindu I could, but if I could, I would have tied the Rakhi on his wrist. He got emotional about it. From that day, we started to call each other “brother” (bhai, in Hindi) and “sister” (behen).

Visiting India now, 5 years later, in order to commemorate how our friendship had started, I have brought him 2 “Irish style” Rakhis one all green with a Shamrock, and one with the colours of the Irish flag that happen to be the same than the Indian ones (green white and orange).

Since then, we had been writing emails to each other several times a week for 5 years, asking all the questions we had about each other’s culture, everyday’s worries, and the good moments of each other’s life. He also helped with my Hindi online course, to clarify on the questions/doubts I had. I remember his dream was to learn how to swim, and one day I got an email saying he had had his first lesson. Knowing the background of the story, I was so entousiastic and happy for him! He was going every day before work, even though the swimming pool was not close to his workplace, or home, and it meant getting up earlier!

I had taught him a few words of french and spanish which he still remembers today! When he came to pick me up at my Indian Family’s house to bring me to his place, as he wanted me to meet his family and his daughter’s birthday was the perfect occasion, he came with his niece. She greeted me saying “Bonjour” (Hello, in french) – he had taught her how to say something in french for me ! So sweet ! Small things but very heartwarming.

Once at his family home, everyone was very welcoming , I was touched when his father told me “you’re most welcome” and happy to see his wife Dimple again, that I had met last time, who’s a lovely girl, and even she knows less english that he does, we manage to communicate and have a good laugh. Their daughter, Vanshika, is a little princess full of energy! To thank them for that lovely evening, I have taken a lot of pictures, each one of them with the birthday girl, have printed them as soon as I was back to Europe and posted them.

The next day was a sunday, and my friend Amit was off work and wanted to take me around Jaipur, he let me choose the place and we drove to Jal Mahal (Water Palace, in Hindi), the name speaks by itself: it is a palace in the middle of the water, with the mountains behind. A relaxing landscape a bit outside the crowded Pink City. We also went to Krishna temple just next to it, which is also beautiful with its green gardens. At night we went to the restaurant, in C-Scheme area, and I invited them to return their invitation for dinner the previous day.

At my family’s house my little Indian brother was constantly serving water, sweet drinks and biscuits when I arrived while I was chatting with my dear Papaji. It is amazing how time was flowing once we started talking! First of all I was taking time to realize he was in front of me again…I could see clouds around his face sometimes as if it was a dream…and I was going to wake up soon…but I never woke up! Every day Papaji was asking me to stay for dinner but sometimes I had other plans, but was dying to accept his invitation.

But when I did accept it, we had a great time together. One day he switched on his computer, and asked me about how a few things worked, as I was the one who had, 5 years ago created an email address for him and taught him how to send and receive emails, and also asked me to show him pictures of my daily life back in Europe.

One other day, my little brother (the most lovely and well educated boy in the whole world! Not lying!) asked me what I had learnt in Hindi and I told him what letters I had studied in the Devnagari alphabet, and that I had learnt how to write my name, so he ran to get his home copy book for me to write it. We then took a few examples in my book and he showed me how to “draw” them, and asked me to copy the word in front of him! A great moment all together!

The food cooked by my Indian mummy is lovely but because it was the food I used to have every day 5 years ago, it tastes even better! And just sitting at that table again was a great feeling!

Then going back to my accomodation was on my Papaji’s son’s (Sudeep) motorbike in the amazing city that Jaipur is, a sensation of freedom, you have no idea!

Another day the guesthouse family, Girija and Padmesh, and their son Khush, who had relatives visiting from Delhi, Meenaxi and Subodh, wanted to take me to the Sound & Light show at Amber Fort. They planned to go on a certain day but I had other plans so they have changed theirs so that I can go with them, so nice! It was a wonderful story (about how Jaipur was formed) and a gift for the eyes! We bought dinner in town on the way back and came to eat at home. Great night also ! They had some beers, and when I am in India I refuse to drink alcohol, as a girl traveling on her own should be careful at all time, but because we were at home and I was safe, I had one with them.

During the week I could also visit the new premises of the NGO, which basically are across the road from the old one, and my friend Amit introduced me to the whole team, one by one, they all seem to be very nice and said I was welcome back to Jaipur!

Unfortunately my holidays came to an end….and it was time to say goodbye (Alvida)…Oh Gosh…I don’t like that at all!

We went for a coffee with my friend to say goodbye, but the next day he called my Hindi/Indian cuisine teacher to ask if he could come and say goodbye to me again, this time with a present for me. The said present was earphones and a microphone – there is a reason behind that: he always wanted to talk on skype, but I had always lost mine somewhere so now no more excuses for me ! 🙂 I also got a present from my teacher, and two from my family, and one from the guesthouse’s family. They are all so lovely…How could I possibly wish to leave that place?

I hope reading this blog, you have felt like discovering that breathtaking country and its people: there is so much to learn, so much to see, so much to smell, so much to taste, so much to discover, so many people to meet…I wish I had a thousands lives to do all that!

All I have to say is:

 Jai Hind! (Long life to India)

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MasterChef in Jaipur

My Guru (teacher) was giving me the Hindi lessons first and then giving me Indian Cooking classes. Once ready, we were having the food we had cooked for lunch, and that allowed us to spend some more time together.

If you love Indian food in European restaurants, well … the food in India is even better and probably healthier! For someone who does not cook at all at home like me, this immersion in an Indian kitchen was a complete discovery!

To start with, have a look at the cupboards, and you’ll be amazed at the collection of different and colorful spices!

 

 

This is the basic element to the chemistry Indian cuisine is all about.

Again Subhadra had edited a book with the recipes and even though she could cook all those dishes her eyes closes (I am sure!), we were following the steps described on the recipe and if there was something missing or I wanted to takes additional notes, I could.

As soon as the first ingredient was thrown on the fire, the good smell started to flow in the room ! Dear Rajasthan you smell so good !

Day 1: we cooked a dish called Dum Aloo (Aloo meaning “potatoe”) which is originally from the region of Kashmire, in the northern part of the country, and where tourists are not allowed to go because of political tensions. A pity as it seems to be a wonderful place!

Then she gave me the secret of making Chapattis. It is a kind of Indian bread they use in the way as we, in occident, use a fork and a knife. The Indian people eat most of the time with their hands (something I absolutely love when I am there!) and wrap the food in it before putting it in their mouth. That was so much fun: she made a demonstration of how to do it and when it was my turn to make one, I could not make it a round, it was always square! The best I could do was an oval… She said the round would come with practice. Some very good people can do it only on the hand, round and flat, a proper chapatti!

And we also made a sweet desert with milk and safran.

 

 

 

Day 2: we worked hard to make a good Channa Masala and this one is a dish from Punjab also in the north of the country. If you are not too sure where it is, you have probably seen in magazines a picture of that lovely place with a Golden Temple surrounded by water…and that is Amritsar, located in Punjab. Punjab is also the place where the Sikh religion was born (men wearing turbans). But what I like most about Punjab is the Bhangra music, and the sound of the main instrument in it: the Dhol, which drives me absolutely crazy 🙂

 

Another type of bread we made was paratha. It is the bread I used to have every morning at my host family (now my own family!) when I was living in Jaipur, and I love it. As the paratha does not need to be round, it was easier for me to do those!

Day 3: The great discovery of that day was learning how to make cheese (Paneer)! We had to make it by cooking milk and adding vinegar, before starting to make the gravy that goes with it and the coriander chutney.

 

 

 

Day 4: There, my teacher adapted the course to my request: she knows I am mad about Gol Gappas which are crispy shells which you can stuff with all kind of vegetables and lemon juice (or lemon juice only). She explained that it is quite difficult to make the shells and usually Indian people buy them all ready at the market but we would try to make them ourselves. So here we go, making small rounds and throwing them in the boiling oil, hoping it would make a ball! A few came out correctly and you could hear cries of joy when one was nice!

 

We also made Samosas which are triangles filled in with vegetables, and an apple pudding: Kheer, which is ready very quickly (in case of unexpected guests, as they say!).

Day 5: We made Spinach (palak) with baby corn. I have realized in this session how keeping colors is important in Indian cuisine. A few things in the preparation were only aiming at keeping the green color of the spinach until it is served.

We also prepared some daal which is mash of lentils as I have explained in the Jodhpur post. There as many sorts of daals as varieties of lentils (yellow, brown, black…)

While the daal was cooking, we made another type of Indian bread: the naans.

Day 6: We have prepared some vegetable byriani (rice) and raita (made of milk and cucumber)

 

 

 

Day 7: we have not cooked but only made some chai (masala tea). Indian people do not prepare a teapot with Masala chai they always make tea for a cup or two, to have fresh spices, water and milk for every cup they drink! That is some work, but the result is wonderful. It is not only a cup of tea, but the taste of India making you feel so good inside!

Subhadra, cooking

Jaipur, the Pink city, once my home

Last bit on the road, with Ram Narayan, my driver. On the one side, I can’t wait to be in Jaipur because it has been 5 years since I left the city, tears in my eyes, in my heart and pains in the belly…and wonder how I will feel being back there again, and having missed the place so much and for so long, if I will recognize it or not, and on the other side, leaving lovely persons found on my path is not the best part of meeting new people…

Ram Narayan is from Jaipur and once we reach our destination, he will have 5 or 6 days off and will spend this time with his family at home. We stop one last time before arriving, having a chai (Masala tea) together. I told him the background of the story and he knows this is an important part of the trip for me. As soon as we arrive, he says: “Welcome to Jaipur!!!”. It comes from a local and it is all the more valuable!

I settle in the guesthouse where I will be staying for those 8 days (friend of a friend’s house) and well, I am now a few miles only from my Indian Family’s home, who I was living with five years ago. I have waited for that moment for so long…and now I am a little stressed about how it will go. I wouldn’t want to start crying or even having tears in my eyes! Self control is needed! But anyway I have to go now, they know I arrive today in Jaipur and they will expect me to come…and from the bottom of my heart, I want to see them NOW!

First thing, jumping in an auto rickshaw direction Apex Mall in the Lal Kothi area. It is only a 40 rupee-journey (yeah I wouldn’t know the distance in km…maybe 2!). Just saying my destination to the tuk-tuk driver, I felt I was telling him “I am going home!”. Sitting in there again is a wonderful sensation, rushing between the cars and motorbikes, feeling the vibrant city all around you, that you can actually touch!

Apex mall has not changed at all. I start walking the usual way to my family’s home but there are so many houses that have been built in 5 years that I get lost. I ask a local where number D31 is and he gives me the answer me in Hindi but believe it or not, I understood the directions! Yeepee! Happy days! 🙂

When I finally get there, at the end of the street, there is the blue shop (part of the house) where they work and the house where I lived. I am there again, after 5 years. I made it! Sudeep sees me outside and smiles at me, making a sign that I should go inside. Sushant, my little Indian brother, is waiting for me, and smiles at me. He seems to know who I am. He was only 5 years old and now he’s 10, it’s half his life, I would understand if he didn’t remember me…I ask him, he smiles and says he does remember me. My heart drops.

He goes in the back room, calls my Papaji (Papa = Dad, Ji  = a postposition showing respect, in Hindi), his grand father (Dadaji – in Hindi they differenciate the grand parents from the mother’s side: Nana & Nani and the ones from the father’s side: Dada & Dadi). When I see my Papaji appearing behind the curtains, I can’t prevent myself and call “Papajiiiiiiii!”. “Haan betiii” (yes, my daughter) is his reply, and he takes me in his arms, which makes me feel emotional, as physical contact between a man and a woman is not that common in India, in public I mean. That tells me how special this moment is.

News from him, I have had, all the time, every week since I left him, during those 5 years, but seeing him again, in front of me, with all the wisedom I see in this man, and his pure heart. The house has more light then before because they have painted the walls in light green, and removed the cyber cafe part they used to have. So definitely more space, very nice! I sit, and there, I am lost between the past and present. Am I in 2008 living here and working in the slums, or in 2013 visiting and on holidays?

He asked about my trip beginning in Mumbai until I arrived here: how was the weather, what did you see, was your stomach okay with the food, do you bear the heat, do you sleep well at night…the same, still worrying and taking so much care of me as usual!

I ask how life is around here, what’s new and he tells about his relatives (some of them I have met), stories from the NGO I was working for, and a few volunteers staying with them, some spanish guys saying they would be back home at around 11pm and not there until 2am, when my Papaji is waiting, sleeping in the living room to open the door as soon as volunteers are back, some mad Norwegian sick with fever, making a mess to train on his skateboard in front of the house, pretending if he does not practise, he will forget all about it *smile*, and putting Sushant on the damn thing, a mother and daughter who left after a few days only because the daughter was missing her boyfriend, etc…so many stories of volunteers, …my fellow volunteers…

But also nice stories, all Ireland-related, a coincidence, I am not sure 🙂 … such as Sara Mc Murry, an English woman married to an Irish man, living in Ireland who I was lucky enough to meet at the EIL network week-end in Cork last year (November 2012), a very nice woman indeed, who came back several times in a row to Jaipur volunteering and then learning Hindi, like me, or Emer Jackson a lovely Irish woman who was also staying with my Papaji, who I also met at the EIL network week end but the previous year, in November 2011. I had taken a picture with Emer, and one with Sara to send to my Papaji, he was so surprised that we had met miles away from his house, in Ireland! And he also told me about a nice fellow, Irish guy (of course !) called John if I remember well, who works in a jail in Dublin. I don’t know him but from what I heard, I already like him!

After a long chat, poor Sudeep, who had worked all day at the shop with his wife, took me home on his motorbike, through the noisy streets of the Pink City,  as they thought I was not safe enough taking a riskshaw back to the guesthouse. I insisted that I would be grand, but when your Indian Papaji says you should do something…you’d better do it, and discussion is over. So off we go, my hair flying all over my face, being part of the mess on the road, together with the locals, belonging for some time to the Indian chaos…I could not be happier!

Bikaner, the Camel city

The reason why there are not so many foreign tourists in Bikaner is because there is no airport. The plan though is to have one built soon. According to the locals most of the foreign visitors are from Spain or Italy.

Here, the Fort is owned by the Royal family but they live in another place. The Fort is just for tourists to see, and the money collected (entrance tickets) goes for the restoration of the Fort, consolidation of the building, and giving a new life to the wall paintings. The city is well known in India for its Botanic painting school and from this school, students come and help in restoring the Fort.

During the visit, we meet a group of French people and my guide tells me, a big smile on his face, that their guide is his student, listening carefully to what he was saying. The said student was turning his back and as soon as he was finished, he saw my guide and felt embarrassed, and joined his 2 hands as a sign of respect to his “Guru” (teacher, someone who teaches you something), who complimented him on the job. I told him when passing next to him: “Vous parlez très bien le Français!” (“You speak French very well!”…in French) and he smiled, pleased with the compliment. His Guru explained to me he had learnt French at the Alliance Française in Bikaner, and then went to study a few months in Switzerland. The boy was his nephew. My guide himself, gets to go to the Italian part of Switzerland (Tessin/Ticino) quite often and has some friends in Lugano (beautiful place by the way…!).

Then I could choose between 2 visits: Jain temples, or the Camel Research Institute, I chose option 2 where I have learnt so many things about the hundred of camel living here!

A camel lives for about 25 years, It is mature at the age of 3-4 years old for a female, and 5-6 years for a male.

The main 3 different breeds are:

– the Bikaner Camel: very tall, brown color, long eyelashes

– the Jaisalmer Camel: slightly smaller, light brown

– Gujarat Camel (Gujarat is a state of India): white and not a good breed

In one park we could see only females with their babies, under their belly trying to feed themselves.

The institute is like a small town, several buildings for each purpose, and around, some grass and flowers. Here scientists, researchers, doctors, … are working but also trainers, who know the Camels’ behavior very well, get them fit with physical exercises and train them for races.

One of the main subject studied at the moment is the skin diseases and dentition problems which are the main issues the Camels face in their lives.

And oh! I made a wonderful discovery: Camels, in winter, love the smell of Tobacco! Did you know that ? It is why the Camel cigarettes (the company I work for) uses the Camel logo. Well, that is what I was told. I am sure it would surprise many of my work colleagues. The fact has been proved but the reason is still to be found.

Now let’s talk about money…a camel usually costs about 5000 USD and a well trained camel, from the institute for example, is 10 000 USD!

In Bikaner, the camel is often used for handicrafts: you will find a lot of souvenirs in Camel bones (I was assured they do not kill the Camel for that, they “recycle” the bones when after a natural death), and Camel whool. For that the hair of the neck is used for a quality whool as it is the softer hair. You will also find scarves in Pashmina (which is the sort of sheep the whool is taken from), Baby Pashmina (even softer) and Antilope whool.

Anyway the nickname given to Bikaner is “Camel City” and now you know why !

As I said above, the botanic art is Bikaner’s signature and I was lucky enough to meet Raju Swami. The name may not ring a bell to you, it was my case but he painted one of the pieces exposed at Galleries Lafayette in Paris. One feels honored to be taken to his private studio. He also draw some cards for UNICEF, which he showed me.

He works with painting made of precious stones, and squirrel tail enabling him to draw things in details. I could see a tree he drew, and he counted more than 17 000 leaves on it. He was painting some everyday and counted on a daily basis the leaves he had added…That requires some patience…that I certainly don’t have…

He told me about Competitions he had won everywhere in the world and about his Awards. In the studio, there were some articles from magazines and newspapers about him on the walls, even one from a French newspaper.

In this studio, he has 9 students coming everyday and they also expose their paintings. People passing by can stop to see them and buy if they wish to. I have bought a lovely one representing a blue flower which he has kindly signed for me, in front of me! Thank you Raju!

His website, where you can see his Botanic art: http://rajuswamiart.com/Flowers/

Sam: Salim & Mister Rocket

Off to a small town at 42 kilometers from Jaisalmer called Sam, driving on the road leading to the Pakistani border. dscn2430.jpgIt is only 120 km away. I think I could step into another country, without any passport with me…one foot in India, the other in Pakistan…There is nothing to see in Sam really, I am going there to have a Camel ride in the Thar desert.

My camel is there waiting for me, its name is Mister Rocket and the camel driver is called Salim, he is 18 years old, has 4 brothers and 2 sisters, and spent his whole life in Sam. The atmosphere is so peaceful, the desert is extended miles and miles around me, there are a few trees that apparently do not need water from the sky to grow and live because their roots are very deep in the ground and  they take the water from the earth.

Salim and I started talking and he was telling me he never went to school because in Sam, there is no school and the closest school is in Jaisalmer but unfortunately, the city is too far for him. He has always worked taking the tourists on his camel. The little English he has, he has learnt from the tourists but he said he does not have a good level still. But his hope is that by the time he is 20 years old, he improves his English and speaks as if he had been to school. When he told me that, his eyes were filled with stars, and it went straight to my heart. An Indian child’s dream, realistic and heartbreaking. He seems well aware that knowing English in his country is one of the key to success and it would help him find another job, if he wanted to.

However he looks happy, in his environment, and the love he has for his camel is striking. The camel is 6 years old and he does not spend a single day without Mister Rocket. His best friend I suppose…the one who hears all about his thoughts, dreams and complains about life. Even though, I think Indian people have a fascinating way of being happy with whatever they have, and never complain about anything. In public at least, maybe they do at the temple to their own Gods…

But as a matter of fact, it is so nice to have such people around and us, Europeans, have a tendency to complain too often: the bus is coming late, there are too many people, no seat, too much work, not enough free time to enjoy life with family and friends… and so on. To me, Indian people are an example in that kind of way.

At the start of the ride, there were people trying to sell drinks and souvenirs, one came a few meters along with us. Once on the dunes to see the sunset, he was back and I could hear his American accent.

Salim later explained that that guy (Vicky) had been to an American school, and his disappointed tone meant “he, at least, got a chance to go to school, and even better, an American one” and it broke my heart. So I got rid of the boy and told him I was really not interested in drinks and he should try the group of French people over there.

I found all the plastic and glass bottles thrown everywhere in the sand very sad, a lack of respect from the tourists and I told him. He said the Indian tourists are responsible for it, not the foreigners. Don’t know whether to believe it or not.

Now that I could spend some time with Salim, I showed him the pictures I had taken of him and Mister Rocket during the first part of the ride. He was so happy to see himself on the camera! He had a look at all the pictures and asked if I enjoyed my previous visits. We enjoyed the sunset together, chatting in this lunar landscape.

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On the way back, he offered me to try a bit of running….it could be fun and I trusted him. So off we went! A camel always looks so calm that it is hard to think it can actually run!

Once the ride was over, I asked Jabbar, my guide, if he could take note of Salim’s address so I could print the pictures I had of him once back in Europe, and post them to him, that is something I wanted to do for him. This boy’s story had really touched me. I was thinking about him the whole way back to Jaisalmer, and at night before sleeping. That is the kind of people you meet and you may have spent only one hour or two with that person, you know you will never forget about them…

Jaisalmer, the Golden City

After zigzagging between cows, goats, camels and trucks driving on the wrong side of the road, coming straight towards you, making you doubt that you are living the last seconds of your life, and then crossing the line to go back on the left side at the last minute, … we arrived in Jaisalmer.

We found those pilgrims all along the road, walking, sometimes bare feet, under the Rajasthani heat, towards a Temple at 80 km from Jaisalmer, with heavy bags dscn2247on their heads, some are on motorbikes, on bikes, or on a camel backs… There you can see Faith is carrying them… The small restaurants on the side of the road provide them with free food, again because their purpose of their trip is religious.

My eyes are wide open and I am thirsty of all those landscapes, and the life happening behind the window! On the radio, I realize I know more songs here in India than back home in Europe, that’s so funny.

My hotel is at the entrance of the city when we step into Jaisalmer, a very nice one, where I have enjoyed a walk around the well preserved gardens, with green grass despite the heat and desert a few steps from here. I find at the entrance, a staff member with typical clothes and a turban, but he does not speak English, so I start asking a few questions in Hindi and explaining where I am from,and he was happy of me making the effort to speak his language, and accepted to pause for my picture.

Late in the afternoon, I went to see the sunset from the “Chatteries”, a place where there are cenotaphs with an amazing view on the whole city and the Fort on a small mountain. What a lovely place! I walked around again and again,  goats on my way, the light becoming red as the time passed, and the sun going down in the sky, changing the colors of the walls of the city in front of me. A feeling that you own the world!

Early morning the next day, I’ve been taken to the artificial lake where fishing is forbidden dscn2352as fish have been introduced here and people feed them as it is said to bring luck. In the old times, that place was the only way to the city, and every night the gates of Jaisalmer closed until the next day. That way, if boats arrived late at night, they could stay there, and the people could stay, cook their dinner and sleep before the sun rised and the doors opened again.

Visit of the Fort, some Jain Temples, and Havelis. Havelis are houses made of the local stone, and letting the air come inside – “hav” in the word “Havelis” comes from “Hawadscn2408which means “air” or “wind” in Hindi.

One Haveli was built by 2 brothers, and each brother had built a half of the house, in a quite similar way except for some details. There are 100 differences between the 2 parts (apparently someone had  counted them!).

Inside the Fort, there are many guesthouses, restaurants and shops, which should be ignored, because they are destroying the fort bit by bit… So guides and even the Lonely Planet encourage people not to buy anything, and wait to be outside the walls of the Fort to do so. That is sad to think the Fort might in a near future, fall down…but there is nothing we, as tourists, can do, except discouraging this practice, so I have contributed in the preservation of Jaisalmer Fort in my own little way…

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Back to India after 5 years. Arriving in Mumbai

Five years after my Volunteering experience in India, I finally packed to see everyone again! I have dreamt that moment every day since the day I had left them all!

Waking up with the incessant noise of the horns. We feel so alive here in the Indian chaos! I was waking up to discover all about the capital of Indian Film Industry.

Mumbai has been named after a Goddess called “Mumba” and “Ai” which in Marathi (the local language of the state of Maharastra, where Mumbai is located) means “Mother”.

So here we are, on the road again to see the Dhobi ghat, the biggest open air laundry, not of India, not of Asia, but of the entire of our wide world! The place is absolutely stunning, the hospitals, hotels, and family houses give their things to get cleaned here in that very place. It is an organized mess, one color on one side, jeans on the other, bed sheets further…

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Dhobi ghat

The next stop was a Jain Temple. Jain is a religion coming from Hinduism but with more specific beliefs, for example those people are also vegetarian but do not even eat fish or chicken, Hindus sometimes do, and also they do not eat vegetables growing in the earth. People were bringing food to the temple to offer to the various representations of their Gods. Coming down some stairs, I found a mirror where visitors were supposed to put some ochre on the forehead: it dispatches some good smell which releases all the tensions in the body and mind.

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Shipla, my guide

Before a wedding, whether it is Hindu or Muslim, people put some rose water on the guests before they enter in the house, the flavor is known for removing the tensions (eg: they could have had a fight just before coming…) so that they may come in the house with peace in their mind.

My lovely guide, Shilpa, explained to me that in India, we do not use words such as “Thank you” (“Dhanyavad”) or “Please” (“Kripyia”) because, how can a word transcript how grateful we really are? In India, we show our gratefulness through actions, taking care of the others, doing things for them.

We do not either say “good morning”, “good bye”…because everything is considered “GOOD” in India! What a nice thing to say!

Above the city, we could find some vegetation on Malabar Hill, in the Hanging Gardens. The park is actually called Pherozeshah Mehta Gardens but the nickname is Hanging Gardens and is just opposite Kamala Nehru Gardens which has a view on Chowpatti Beach and the buildings of the city.

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Chowpatti Beach

Now a mythic place. Gandhiji’s place in Mumbai. The Government has made a library where you can go and read the books, but no one is allowed to take books away (they’re too precious), except maybe Government members, on special request.

If you have a look at Gandhiji’s story, you might know he was issued from a very rich family and was part of the powerful people in India. He has become a lawyer and went to London for some time. One day, he was in the train and was thrown of that train. This incident changed his entire life. He realized that in England, he was no more than an immigrant like any other Indian, and was treated as such.

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That is the moment when he started his fight for Non-violence and Justice, wearing the simplest clothes, being humble. When he was writing to Hitler, we notice that he’s extremely worried about his ego, begging him to stop the massacre. A photo of Gandhi ji with Charlie Chaplin was also there.

A very well known place in Mumbai is the Gateway of India (not to mix up with the Gate of India in Delhi): the place has a special meaning to Indians, as, during the British colonization, Indians kicked them out BUT still with respect, they were sent through the monument (big door) and all with dignity. Then that “door” was closed and nobody could enter or go out. It still refers to the Independence of India (which the country celebrates every August 15th with great pride!).

Keeping going with the visits, we went through “Fashion street”, shops with blue plastic roofs, where all sorts of clothes are hanging. These clothes are those launched by the Bollywood industry as the “new fashion” for Bombayite people. Within 2 weeks maximum, they are available in those shops ready to be bought!

The main mean of transport in Mumbai is summed up by 3 train lines called “locals”. The ticket for one month is about 150 Rs (Rupees) (about 1.5 euro)  which is nothing. Those trains circulate with the doors opened, as the air in Mumbai is very hot and humid, and people would certainly not want air conditioning as it would increase the cost of their daily tickets.

Not only could I see all those things but also Krishna Temple, where I was told the story of those 108 women kidnapped by Krishna and who he had married (but did not touch any of them) – someone came one day asking him to free those women, and the answer of the God, always represented with a flute, was: “you are here to ask me to free them, but none of them actually asked me”, which meant to say that every single request we have, according to Hinduism, should be asked directly to the God so that it may come true.

The day was not over until we had seen the Taj Mahal hotel, facing the Gateway of India, Navy Nagar (Navy area), Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vatsu Sangrahaya museum where there were statues of various Gods, a photo exhibition about Nepal and Tibet, one about the Stone Age, and Thomas Church (where Mother Teresa had her seat), the University, where someone important was speaking that day, the Afghan Church, and Victoria Station (actually called Chhatrapati Shivaji station) where some of the scenes of “Slumdog Millionnaire” have been shot, for those who have seen the film. Not only for that, but it is a well known station in Mumbai for its architecture.

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Chhatrapati Chivaji station

Busy day, but I like it when I can look back and see that I have indeed seen so many things!

Culture Shock, a learning process in itself

India and Japan, to me are the 2 extremes in terms of Cultures. I was well aware there would be a transition before I adapt to my new environment. This transition is called “Culture Shock”. Fortunately my Irish sending Organization (EIL, Experiment in International Living) have a fabulous pre-departure book with exercises to make you think of the issues you might have once abroad, and even more important, how you might react to those situations, and some advice on dos & don’ts.

Culture shock can be described as a stress, anxiety due to a new environment. Of course, it is a very personal experience but most of the time common feelings of loneliness, homesickness, uneasiness, being overwhelmed, being irritable, arise. The picture of a fish out of the water is often used to refer to Culture Shock, which I think is quite appropriate.

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And how we react to it, is a learning process and adaptation to the new environment.

We generally say there are 3 main phases to Culture shock, and call it the “U curve” process:

  • Honeymoon: the excitement of a new experience…
  • Culture shock: the stress of unfamiliar situations, new codes of communication…
  • Cultural adjustment: benefit of the immersion in a new culture and growing from this experience…

One of the things that have affected me was the lack of sleep due to the humid and hot weather at night…I was finally falling asleep early morning when it was time for me to get up and teach in the slums… But just thinking that the day ahead, I would learn something new, a word, a tradition, a culture fact, or meet new people…helped a lot in the process and gave me the energy to keep going.

Every day I remembered why I was there, my initial passion for India, I had finally made it possible for me to realize my dream and had to make the most of every minute of this experience abroad!

I was also surrounded by wonderful people helping me and giving me the keys to their culture, always happy to share things with me and who made me understand how it worked, how Indian people thought…..which made the experience even more enjoyable. I will eternally be grateful to those people (you know who you are 😉 ). I have learnt so much during my stay in that country, and have come to see the world with their eyes too. There are things I don’t necessarily agree with, but that I can understand where it comes from and sometimes it can me much more complicated that it seems, from occidental eyes. Such an experience teaches you to see the World with different eyes.

Then of course, the return back home is another experience that can be quite difficult. It is called the “W-curve” process (the above described process + return back home…).

Things have happened back home which we have not fully experienced with relatives, changes have happened…and we need to readjust to those changes, and settle again in our environment. It can sometimes be a long process too!

When I came back from India, I started working (a week after landing home) for an oil company in Geneva, Switzerland, where there is a lot of money involved, big parties, 2 week days spent in Chamonix with a group of colleagues skiing, a Jacuzzi in the chalet…and I found it quite difficult to switch from the Indian slums…to that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cinema experience at Raj Mandir

Rajmandir front

Indian people need to dream. The film Industry helps them to dream. Common belief is that Indian cinema are only romantic films. False! There are, like in any other country: thrillers, horror, comedies, dramas and so on. But it is true that in a society that forced marriage and arranged marriage, Indians need to dream about falling in love and choosing the person they will live with forever.

For that reason, those who do not have that much money in India, will very often try to save for a cinema session from time to time…to escape a reality that can sometimes be hard.

The host organization was bringing this group that was in Jaipur only for the orientation session (then going to volunteer in some other parts of India) to the cinema to see a Hindi film, “Singh is King” (Singh, being a popular Indian name). Amit and Gaurav told me about it and asked if I wanted to go with them and I decided I would join.

The cinema is called Raj Mandir (Raj Temple, in Hindi) not far from M.I. Road, the main avenue in Jaipur. Very central.

The first thing that stroke me is that Men and Women do not queue in the same file. There were 2 different queues, and 2 different counters. Meaning that a married couple going to the cinema together cannot buy their tickets together. It is something that never came to my mind before seeing it with my eyes.

Once you have your ticket, then you can enter in the building, after showing it to the man at the door.

The inside of the cinema is like a palace and there is a lot of space near the front door for people to wait that the room opens, a few minutes before the film starts.

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When the staff opened the doors, everybody ran into the room to get the seats they wanted, and shortly after the film started.

You know the way it is in Europe, once the lights are switched off, people are supposed to be quiet to let the others listen to the film?

In India it is much more cheerful 🙂 Every time a very popular actor appears on the screen, people shout, or whistle. That is their moment, they want to relax and let the pressure outside the cinema, and express themselves!

As you may know Indian films have loads of music…and that is also why they last most of the time around 3 hours! The music in the movies is the music they have on radios, everyone knows the songs.

So they might even know the songs before the films and when the song comes up during the film, they will freely start singing with the actors, at loud! Well in fact the actors do not sing themselves, it is just playback.

I feel it makes it a great atmosphere, they share something with the rest of the audience in the room.

…and that is the feeling I had about India in general…it was mainly about sharing all the time.

Water saving and hygiene

My father was travelling quite a lot with his work since I was a child, and sometimes my mother and I used to go with him. I am not sure why but from that time, I had kept a soap from each hotel I had been to and put them in a box, that I had kept at home for years.

When I went for my Indian journey, I thought I would do nothing with them and they would be in better hands with the Slum people in India, so I brought them on the journey with me…

One morning, I brought the soaps and decided not to give my little students a usual class and took them to one of the few taps in the slums where I was teaching. I asked them to line up, and queue to wash their hands one after the other.

By instinct they left the tap open so I explained that switching it off between each person would be better, as Water is very precious (even more in India, and in Rajasthan!). Water is useful to make things grow in the fields and this is food for families. Also people need to drink a certain amount of water everyday to be in good health. Animals too.

This brought up the subject of drinkable water and they asked why some of the water they could drink and some not, and I explained as best as I could, with my non-scientific background…

By that time it was almost time for lunch, the food provided by the Indian Government would be there soon so I asked them to wash their hands again before lunch, because Hygiene is very important to keep healthy too. And this applies even more to Indian people who eat with their hands.

This was like a game to them, but I know some talked to their families about what they had learnt in school that day so hopefully it will remain in their minds.