I’ve always wanted to go to India even though most people are turned off by the overpopulation, the dirt, the poverty scattered throughout and the possibility of getting Delhi belly. But, I wanted my Wes Anderson directed, three brothers on a soul-finding journey type of experience. And roti. Lots of it.
Then one serendipitous day, I was catching up with a really good Indian friend of mine over GChat while I was living in Madrid and he in New York. He had already gotten married in a very small ceremony a year or so before but, his and his wife’s families were planning a full-blown wedding in India.
Sidd: “Hey, why don’t you come to our wedding in India?”
Me: “Wait, if I can really plan this and go, I can really go??”
Sidd: “Yea, of course!”
We had this conversation a month and a half before the wedding and I had enough time to go get my tourist visa at a visa center not too far from the Indian Embassy. Equipped with my basic Spanish, I managed to apply and get my visa about two weeks later. It was a little nerve-racking leaving my U.S. passport at an Indian visa center in Madrid but, EUR 110 in fees and vacation approval later, I was on my way to INDIAAA!!
After a long journey from Madrid to London, London to New Delhi, a 7 hour layover, then New Delhi to Jodhpur, I came out of the airport not knowing which relative of Sidd’s or his wife Nilu’s was supposed to come pick me up. So, I stood there awkwardly for a bit then decided to just take a cab. That’s when I finally felt like I was in India. Well, first, it was all the obnoxious cab drivers outside of the airport who were competing against each other and haggling me to take their cab. Then, it was the passing scenery as I stared out the car window – the variety of colors against the rundown storefronts and crowds of people, as well as the swarms of tuk-tuks honking at each other. When I finally arrived at the hotel & wedding venue, it was really great seeing familiar faces, my awesome friends Sudi (Sidd’s brother), Sidd and Nilu.
Now, I knew Indian weddings were large affairs but, I really had no idea just how large. There are so many rituals involved prior to the actual ceremony and then the actual ceremony itself is so long that I probably could finish reading War & Peace and still catch the end of it. Above was one of those rituals for the bride that occurred before the ceremony. I loved watching the large families interact with each other in their native language, laughing together and feeling so happy that everyone was able to fly from their respective cities/countries to be together in this one spot at this one time. This is why Thanksgiving became my favorite holiday of all time. It’s the one for sure time when all of us come together at my parents’ house and actually spend quality time together, not just for a few hours but involving an overnight stay. It’s hard enough getting the 7 of us together when we all live in the tri-state area. Imagine this wedding when 50+ people came together for the rituals alone. This number multiplied tenfold for the wedding ceremony.
I went to my room to take a shower but, upon entering the bathroom, I ended up standing there for awhile scratching my head. On one side, there was a tub with a shower head and a very questionable shower curtain. On the opposite side, there was a faucet sticking out of the wall, maybe at hips height, over the open floor. Underneath the faucet was a small stool, a large bucket with a smaller bucket inside of it and, a drain. Being a Westerner, I opted for the shower but, when I turned on the water, a stream came out so daintily, I thought the water was coming out of a hamster cage water spout rather than a shower head. I vigorously tried to lather up and ended the shower with a soapy film still on my body. Later on, I asked Sidd what the buckets were for and why the faucet was over an open floor. He laughed and gave me a look that foreigners typically give to Americans (actually, I’m the foreigner here…). “You’re supposed to fill the large bucket with water, and use the smaller bucket to pour that water over your body as you sit on the stool.” Although the thought of placing my cheeks on a stool on which many others have laid upon, the thought of another waterless shower forced me to try the bucket/stool method. The ghosts of butt cheeks past be damned, it was the greatest decision I ever made in my life. For that day.
During my stay, both families treated me like one of their own and made sure I was well fed and well entertained. I spent most of my time with Nilu’s 3 sisters Neha, Nami and Rashmi while Sidd and Nilu were busy prepping. They explained the rituals to me and were my teachers and translators. I wanted to learn some words in Hindi so at the end of each night, the sisters gave me a challenge to memorize the names of 3 dishes in Hindi. I had plenty of dishes to choose from given that breakfast, lunch and dinner were all buffet style. I still failed miserably. There was even a point where I forgot all of their names. Bah.
So, the girls taught me some words and, before telling me what it meant, they told me to text it to Sidd on a cell phone that he got for me in case of emergencies. Now, the first words in a native language that most people like to teach are none other than some curses and/or “I love you.” Those are the first words I taught my non-Korean friends back in the 6th grade. That and certain foods. They can now go to a Korean restaurant and successfully say “Bitch, two orders of Korean BBQ ribs”…and probably get a nice loogie added into the marinade. So, I texted “Kutte kamine. I ate katori chat.” That was basically my entire Hindi vocabulary by the end. A curse word and a food I ate. What does it mean? I’m not telling you, you greedy dog, but I will tell you that I ate small crispy fried dough bowls filled with chutneys, chickpeas and other assorted goodness which brought chips and dip to a whole new level.
Each day at the hotel, breakfast, lunch and dinner were always provided. I love Indian food so much that the glutton in me just had to try everything available. Little did I know that food in Rajasthan, especially catered food at weddings, tends to be extra greasy and fatty. And guess what? It was buffet style. Scoop, scoop, scoop…hm, I need a second plate to sample the rest of the buffet table. On top of that, every relative of Sidd and Nilu wanted to make sure that I ate well and, being a courteous Asian, I couldn’t get myself to say no. Eventually, Sidd noticed. “Christine, you know that you’re not obligated to say yes, right? You don’t have to eat all this food.” “Okay,” I said timidly. By the time I started saying no, I couldn’t zip my jeans without lying horizontal on the bed.
I also couldn’t resist the constant supply of chai tea. It was very well-sweetened and I just couldn’t get enough of the stuff. This reminded me of my freshman year in college when I became obsessed with Starbucks’ caramel macchiato and drank it several times a week. Yes, I’ll take a 300 calorie grande chipmunk cheek and jiggling tricep, please. The name’s Christine. How much is it? Oh, $5 of my hard-earned cash that I got after assistant teaching on weekends at an SAT prep school? Take it all. Those were the days when I drank a cup of coffee with 6 spoonfuls of sugar and cream, each. I drink it black now.
Being the light packer that I am, I brought a very tiny suitcase filled with only the essentials and only with very American clothes – jeans and tees. But, Nilu and Sudi’s wife Priyanka had already gone out and bought me or let me borrow several outfits – 2 salwars and 1 sari – to wear during various occasions. I was treated like royalty throughout the week. Before the wedding, Neha, Nami and Rashmi invited me into their room, opened up a very large suitcase with shoes and another one filled with jewelry and makeup and began to style me up. Nilu’s mother wrapped me up in the sari with such grace and ease and, without hesitation, the sisters let me wear their earrings, matching bangles and heels. I became one of the sisters in just a matter of 2 days.
Earlier in the day, Neha was teaching Sidd her choreography for his entrance into the ceremony. I can’t help but laugh at the video clip of his stiff dancing and watching all the girls on the side cracking up. The rest of us also planned a little dance for when we made our entrances also. Think Pam and Jim’s wedding on The Office. I was actually a little nervous about it.
Enter: Sidd on a horse for the baraat. We finally came to the point where we were to perform our dance entrance and in the chaos of the wedding, it never came to fruition. People were scattered about and we were unsure of the timing. Sidd, on the other hand, performed his stiff dance in full and was concentrating so much on remembering each move that, at the end of it, he almost forgot to turn around to welcome his bride. Hahaha.
It was beautiful being up on the stage with them alongside their families. This was the varmala ceremony during which they exchanged garlands. What makes this wedding so much more special is that these two really fought to be together as they were not from the same religious sect and the families did not approve for a long time. But, when you really want something or really want to be with someone, you persist. That is real love. That is real passion. And, with that, the families eventually came around and the celebration turned out to be that much more amazing.
Then came the mandap ceremony, the main event of the wedding. It is also when time warped the feeling of 15 hours into 1-2 hours. The only other time(s) this feeling occurred in my life was when my mom forced me to practice an hour of piano/flute per day or do my after-school homework on top of my regular school homework. But, after the lengthiness, Sidd and Nilu were pronounced husband and wife…one more time 🙂
The next day brought the next wedding…for Sidd’s sister. I was invited by default, although by then, I felt like part of the family. The mehndi (henna) ceremony was probably my favorite part of the wedding festivities. While traditional Rajasthani musicians and dancers were performing on the side, every woman was getting an elaborate design painted on their hands and forearms in henna. It dried quickly but you were supposed to keep the dried henna in place for a few hours before peeling it off. The longer it stayed on, the darker the color would become. Dabbing lemons on the dried henna also helps to darken the color. After resisting the slight itchiness, I finally peeled it off hours later with a satisfaction equivalent to the picking off of a hundred scabs or, dried Elmer’s glue from your fingertips. Glorious.
I left my phone at the mehndi ceremony and completely forgot about it until later in the day. When I finally remembered, one of Nilu’s sisters called the phone for me and one of the aunties picked up. She had my phone and agreed to return it on one condition – that I give her and another auntie a hug and a kiss on the cheek. I held up my end of the bargain even though I knew they were joking but, for some reason, they found it to be hilarious and couldn’t stop laughing. At least I was entertaining? …though I don’t know why. After the mehndi pah tee came the haldi pah tee, during which family members rubbed turmeric on the bride’s face, hands and feet to bring good luck.
Nilu’s sisters and me
Just when I thought the wedding rituals were completed, there were more, all involving a psychedelic color explosion. In the above, the bride had to hold onto the person’s feet until she was given a gift. I kept myself busy checking out every woman in attendance and studied the patterns on their saris. I wish I could wear one everyday.
After the two weddings, Sidd’s cousins and I went sightseeing in Jodhpur. So, you know how once you’ve seen one European cathedral, you’ve seen pretty much all? Or, once you’ve seen one Buddhist temple, you’ve seen all? Well, once you’ve seen one Indian palace/fortress, guess what? Yes, chicken butt.
There wasn’t much to see at the museum portion of the Jodhpur Palace but, yay, I saw an elephant with a pink pedi.
When I watched The Dark Knight Rises months later, I immediately recognized the view when Bruce finally escaped the prison pit. Holy Blue City, Batman! (Above from Mehrangarh Fort).
Nearby the fort is Jaswant Thada, a mausoleum housing several past Jodhpur rulers. Even after death, these people have more extravagant housing than I do. The details in the architecture of the above mausoleum and all the palaces/forts are so intricate, it makes me wonder how the design was even achieved in execution, especially back then when you didn’t have machines creating your designs.
We went to see a polo match after the morning sightseeing and sat two rows behind the king of Jodhpur. Say what? Yep. I wasn’t lying when I said I was treated like royalty. All I was missing was a palanquin and a giant leaf fanning servant.
Later on, we went shopping at the Sardar Market for bangles, Indian flats called jootis (joo-ddee’s) and other random accessories. People told me that I should buy the things I instinctually liked. There were so many little shops in the market and everyone was bargaining as if it guaranteed a spot in heaven for them so, there wasn’t really much time to think and go back. I had my eye on a pair of flats but, since I couldn’t bargain it down to the price I wanted, I left to think about it. As expected, we didn’t have time to go back and I couldn’t find a pair of flats I equally liked in the two weeks following. I regretted it at the time but, thinking about it now, about three years later, it obviously doesn’t matter anymore. It’s like Cher in Clueless when the skateboarder Travis apologized for ruining her designer shoes. “Oh, those? They’re so last season!” This market did give me my first taste of bargaining though. I felt bad in the beginning because I know that selling these accessories was their livelihood but, they were overpricing cheaply made goods so much and became so aggressive that I quickly became a master bargainer. “What, 300 rupees ($5) for those flats? No thanks!” Yea, pathetic. For me, that is. When I joined a tour group a few days later and bargained with the other ladies in my group, we all talked about how we were bargaining already cheap prices. In the end, it was hard letting go of the pride.
The next day was my favorite day in probably the entire three week trip. It was one of the most memorable because for the first time in a long time, Sidd’s family was together in one place and was able to take a day trip to visit all of their ancestral temples. And, I was there to witness their impressionable faith. This was probably one of the beginning moments when I questioned the claims of my own faith. How could these awesome-hearted people end up in “hell” just because they didn’t believe in the same miracle that I believed in? There are murderers out there who repented and started believing in Jesus. Who is to say that these people get to go to “heaven” but, people in other religions who have shown me more kindness than even my own Christian friends don’t? Again, I’m not completely denouncing Christianity but, while I still believe Jesus was a great miracle worker, I no longer believe that he is the only path to God. In my eyes, everyone is a part of God and everyone has a path.
Priyanka, Nilu and I bought offering to make to the gods at the very first temple, Osiyaji Temple. I awkwardly followed along as I had no idea what to do.
At each temple, an offering was made and a prayer said. I also prayed alongside them for their happiness and safety, as well as for my own family and friends. Regardless of which god or God was being prayed to, I knew that the universe as a whole was listening.
Cows, being sacred animals, walked around as part of the pedestrian crowd. I walk through Times Square like it’s no big deal while tourists stop every few seconds in awe of the lights. Here, the locals walked next to the cows as if they were just ordinary human beings and I stood there in awe…and fear. This wasn’t your average pigeon or rat.
After the first temple, we switched from a mini bus to cars. When all the luggage was loaded off the bus, you could see a pile of large dark-colored suitcases and, in the middle of the pile was a very tiny light blue-colored one. That one was mine. Everyone laughed.
We literally drove all day from temple to temple which, by now, you should know is something I greatly enjoy. Long car rides are my meditative friend. To squeeze in 3 temples into the agenda (they were quite some distance from each other), the driver sped so much that, at one point, we were speeding bumper-to-bumper behind a truck with a sign on the back that read “Keep distance.” Mind you, there was only one lane going in one direction with the adjacent lane going in the opposite direction. The driver, impatient, then swerved into the adjacent lane where a car was speeding towards us and swerved back JUST in time into the correct lane, right in front of the truck we were stuck behind just moments before. After the honking died down, we all calmed down from the shock and started laughing. What just happened? But, when we eventually came across a camel crossing, there was nothing the driver could do but wait. Nature trumps all.
The second temple, the Ramdevra Temple, prohibited any photo-taking. So, you get a photo of camels instead. Mike, Mike, Mike, Mike, Mike!!
The third and last temple was the main and most important temple and, on the way, we stopped in a small town to refuel the car. Sidd and Sudi told their dad that all of us needed a bathroom break and promised to be back quickly. It was evening by then and, if we didn’t rush, the temple would close and we’d miss the highlight of the spiritual road trip. So, Sudi, Priyanka, Sidd, Nilu and I rushed off to a fast food restaurant down the block. I, being completely oblivious, thought this was purely a bathroom break. At the restaurant, everyone did their business and I went last. But, when I came back out, I ran into the others on the line, ordering food. Suddenly, I found myself sitting at a table with plates of basmati/biryani, roti and paneer and everyone stuffing their faces. In the rush to visit these temples, we didn’t have time to stop for dinner and everyone was starving.
Then, out of nowhere, Sidd and Sudi’s dad appeared behind us with a look of sheer anger on his face. We were taking too long and he came to look for us. I have no idea how he even found us in the midst of all the fast food places. Sudi and Priyanka quickly stood up and tried to appease him but, with rantings like “How could you stop to eat dinner when the rest of us are hungry?!? Do you think we’re skipping dinner for fun?? We have to reach this important temple before it closes!!!” there really was no excuse. He continued shouting angrily but, Sidd, determined not to let this all be in vain, crouched down over the table and shoveled food into his mouth, never even coming back up for air. I gave him a look of “What the hell are you doing? Your dad is angry!” But, he shot me a look back that said “What? I’m hungry! We can’t let this go to waste!”
As we filed out of the restaurant, I timidly asked Nilu, “Can I take this roti with me?” “Of course, just take it!” as we rushed behind. Once we got back to the car, we sped off in a mad dash and, thanks be to God, reached the last temple as it was closing. If we had missed this, we wouldn’t have heard the end of Sudi/Sidd’s dad. He was all smiles at the end.
At the temple, Sidd’s family huddled together to make their offerings and say their prayers. I stood on the side and took photos of them in this rare moment. Sidd looked up and I saw that he was reading a sign in Hindi. He then made eye contact with me and shook his head left to right in small, quick movements and I suddenly realized that photos were not allowed in this temple. I silently shut off the camera and thankfully was not caught. Shortly after, Sidd and Sudi went inside a room and came back out minutes later wearing sarongs that showcased their bare sexy legs. I wanted so badly to take a photo but, now knowing that it was forbidden, I just stood there and laughed to myself.
When the dust finally settled, we all looked at each other and broke out into an ab-wrenching laughter and recapped the past couple of hours. Did we, as grown adults, get yelled at like children? Yes. Did Sidd really shove a whole plate of rice into his face while everyone else was trying to appease his dad? Yes. In the midst of all the yelling, did I still ask to take the roti…roti that I gobbled on our run back to the car and didn’t share with the others? Yep. Stomach trumps brain. And, I wonder how I gained about 10 lbs on this trip…