Monday, February 18, 2013

My Adventures in India, Part One

In Sense and Sensibility, Colonel Brandon said about India that the air is full of spices. This is true, but it's also full of pollution and a bunch of things I don't even want to think about! But despite the general squalor and filth I really really enjoyed my trip to India. Sure it's crowed and noisy and dirty and it's downright dangerous to cross the street, but it's also amazing, colorful, exotic and mind blowing. I don't even know where to start telling the tale of my epic 10 day trip to this amazing sub continent.

I guess I will start at the beginning. It all began when we got invited to our friends Mark and Soma's wedding in Calcutta.

Mark and Soma at my last Halloween party
 Since I have always wanted to go to India, this was the perfect opportunity to not only go there but to see  the real India, the culture and how people there live their life, not just the tourist sights. So we got our visas and plane tickets and started our journey  on January 12th 2013 with a grueling 3 day trip by car and plane. We drove from Pittsburgh down to Atlanta to drop off our daughter with my parents,cause no way am I taking a 4 year old to India. That was a 12 hour trip to start. The next day we got on a plane bound for Frankfurt a not so lovely 10 hour trip in coach.

My ticket to India!
Then we had a 4 hour layover in Frankfurt. I used this opportunity to go out into the public part of the airport , have a German snack and send a package to my niece and nephew living just outside of Frankfurt.

A quick German snack, love European coke!
After that we flew on to Mumbai (Bombay), another fun filled 8 hour trip. We arrived in Mumbai in the middle of the night at 1 am. The first impression I got from India was that it must be stuck in the 70's, the airport was all red carpeting, fake potted plants and faux wood paneling, and for some reason ABBA was playing over the intercom. This outlook however improved once we got to the recently renovated domestic terminal where we had to wait for our flight to Calcutta.

Welcome to India!
 We had a 5 hour layover in Mumbai and there was nothing to do that early in the morning but watch Indian soaps on the big overhead TVs in the waiting area... Man if you think American soaps are over the top watch some Indian soaps they are nuts! We had another 2 hour flight to Calcutta making our total travel time 29 hours,  I was weary and I had cankles from the long flights.
My swollen ankles. This was just the beginning
We arrived at Calcutta's small domestic airport,

Calcutta airport
waited forever for our luggage and then found John ( another wedding guest, that we had never met before) who had been sent to pick us up. In India many people do not drive themselves, instead they hire cabs or drivers to drive them around. John had come to the airport with an SUV and driver to get us and Julia another recently arrived wedding guest.

Dashboard deities, in our drivers SUV
We all crammed into the SUV and here began the real adventure. Riding in a car in India! It was nuts, there seemed to be no actual traffic rules except for driving on the left side of he road, even though this rule was not always adhered to, and  honking Honking seems to be a rule, cause Indians do nothing but honk, at least in Calcutta....

No one ever does...
So we had an exciting 1 hour ride from the airport to the guest house, did i mention they don't really wear seat belts in India?

Light traffic
By the time we got to the main guest house that had been rented for the wedding it was around noon local time on Tuesday, we had left the states on Sunday afternoon. At the guest house we had our first encounter with Indian hospitality, after meeting the brides parents we where made to sit down to a massive breakfast.
Luchi and potatoes is a typical Indian breakfast, sooooo yummy!!!!

 It was awesome and I love Indian food, which is a good thing cause for the next week we where fed humongous quantities of Indian food 3 times a day!!!

The New Metro Guest house, where the girls slept
After stuffing our faces we where shown to our rooms. I need to do some explaining here, at Indian weddings the family of the bride usually puts up out of town guests for the duration of the wedding .There are purpose built guest houses/wedding halls one can rent for this all over India. But apparently January is wedding season in India so it's hard to get rooms that time of the year, this resulted in all of us having to share rooms dorm style, with the guys all housed in the main guest house where all of the meals where served and most of the ceremonies happened, and us girls sharing a large room at another guest house just around the corner
The girls dorm room
Now Indian guest houses aren't luxurious, they are very basic, 7 girls slept in one large room in single beds and we shared 2 bathrooms. Not ideal but it was kind of fun in a summer camp/ college dorm kind of way and us girls really lucked out cause the guys actually had to share one huge bed!!! Not that they cared cause all they did was drink anyway.

The guys communal bed!
After a quick shower and a change into our  "Indian clothes" we headed back to the main guest house, mind you I had been awake for something like 40 hours at this point but I was excited to be in India and didn't care.
We hung out with the guys for a while and then a bunch of us girls decided to go to the mall to buy more Indian clothes to blend in better, cause if you are a white chick in western clothes you will get stared at!
The department store we went to in the mall to buy Indian clothes, I was sad to not find actual pantaloons....
So we hit up the mall and it was , well a mall ,which seemed entirely out of place, suddenly it was all quiet and clean and air conditioned, I had only been in India for half a day at this point but it already felt weird to not hear constant honking and choke on the air!

Looks just like any other mall...
After shopping, we headed to the brides house to wrap some presents.

Outside of Soma's parents house, the brides house is always decorated before a wedding.

 In Indian weddings the grooms side presents the brides side with presents, prettily displayed on trays wrapped in cellophane, since the groom is American and only his parents, brother and cousin came for the wedding all of us coming in from outside of India where declared to be the grooms family and dispatched  to help with the wedding prep.

wrapping presents
 So we wrapped lots and lots of gifts in cellophane that first night in India.

Just some of those presents...
Soma's parents have a really cool roof top terrace with a great view of Calcutta. We watched the sunset from up there before heading back to the guest house for dinner and an impromptu party.

On the roof of Soma's parents house

You can see a shanty town across  the street from Soma's parents house

The view at dusk
Seems Indians are really good at those, cause pretty much every evening was filled with partying, if it was planned as part of the wedding festivities or not. Soma was just wearing a skirt and sweater so since she's the bride we took her to our dorm and prettied her up in our clothes and put some make up on her cause the bride has got to look pretty even if it's 3 days before her wedding right?!


Soma with her Aunt wearing the shirt I had just bought that day.
I went to bed that night at like 2 am having lost all track of time or how late or even what day it was back

Bryan double fisting his Liquor..
 I awoke at sunrise the next morning when I heard the Muslim call to prayer in the distance. It was kind of amazing to hear that, so otherworldly in the silence of the still sleeping city. While most Indians are Hindu there is a sizable Muslim population and if you listen closely you will hear the call to payer ring out 5 times a day. After that I had a hard time going back to sleep, so I got up bright and early, which is so not my usual style!

The street outside the main guest house.
 My second day in India was filled with a flurry of activity, first a big breakfast followed by more present wrapping.

Walking to Soma's parents house.

Then there was the first ceremony to attend, Vridhi Puja, the calling of the ancestors for their blessing of the marriage.

The Virdhi Puja

Soma with her Dad
 It was all in Sanskrit so I had no idea what was going on, but there was chanting and blowing of conch shells and at one point Soma had to sit on her aunts lap which was rather comical.

Sitting on her Aunt

Blowing the conch shell is an integral part of all Bengali ceremonies
It was all very interesting so different from anything I had ever experienced.

That night was the Mehndi ceremony.

We all sat on mattresses on the floor to get our henna done.
Which is when the brides hands and feet are adorned with elaborate henna tattoos.

Bridal Henna
It was really fun because all of us girls got henna done.

Yours truly
 There where 3 henna artists and we all got our turn having our hands painted.

My Henna

The girls show off theirs

Other Julia

More henna

Soma getting her feet painted
Soma had so much henna done she couldn't move till it dried, so people had to feed her and give her drinks, said drinks where laced with rum she got pretty tipsy by the end of the night!

Still not done....
Soma had to sit like this until the henna dried

Being fed rum and coke!
This was also the first time ever I wore a sari, everyone was very impressed that this white girl knows how to wrap and wear a sari, I got tons of compliments and I felt like a pretty pretty Indian princess!

My sari get up!
 After the Mehndi was done there was dancing, drinking and dinner. Turns out my usually reserved an quiet husband is a spiffy dancer, he tore up the dance floor to the beat of blaring Indian music !

It's physics geek dance off time!
Getting their moves on.

And the lovely couple dances.

I'm sure the fact that the guys where drinking non stop helped to loosen him up, seems Bryan was quite the hit with Soma's family!

Stuff started getting wild
Soma's  Dad....
With Marks Mom
And then stuff got really wild!!!!!

Dinner was at midnight that night and my rater inebriated spouse told me all about how he loved India and felt so fee because he could eat with his hands and and jay walk and go pee on the street if he wanted too, and no one cared about it or anything! From that point on everyone in our little group of western wedding gusts kept making fun of Bryan's Indian freedom.
It was another late night....

The view from he top of the New Metro guest house (girls dorm). There was a street market outside every morning.
One of the neighboring buildings, during the day people just hang out their laundry to dry from their balconies and windows.
Another street view from above.
The third day was the actual wedding day. In the afternoon we participated in  the the Gaye Holud ceremony, a Bengali tradition where  turmeric paste is applied to the bride and grooms skin to purify them for the nuptials.

Tumeric Paste

Marks Mom adorning him with tumeric.

His cousin Mary doing the same.

These where 2 separate ceremonies starting with the groom. As "family" of the groom we all got to smear mark with turmeric paste on the roof of the new metro guest house.

We all got our tun smearing mark with tumeric.
 If you are light skinned turmeric stains the skin a bright yellow so I had yellow hands for days, but that was nothing compared to the groom the poor guy was yellow from head to toe for several days

The poor guy was yellow for 2 days!
After dying the groom yellow we all went to the main guest house to present the gifts from the grooms family to the brides family. We also brought the leftover  tumeric paste to be used for the brides tumeric ceremony. We entered the guest house with pomp and circumstance heralded by the blowing of conch shells, in a  procession headed by Mark's cousin Mary carrying a insanely decorated fish, that was cooked as part of the wedding feast later on.

Slut fish! What else do you call a fish covered in glitter wearing make up with a nose ring? 
Mary about to present Soma's family with the fish

Many of the traditional offerings are sweets.

 Bengali sweets are famous throughout India.
Fish and sweets all laid out.
So pretty!
All those gift trays we wrapped .

The gifts where laid out in one of the rooms so the brides family could admire them.

After the presentation of the gifts it was Soma's turn to be painted with tumeric.  The ladies had the honor applying her tumeric as well. She escaped marks fate of being covered from head to toe on account of her beautician refusing to work on her if she appeared for her appointment all yellow.

Soma ready to get painted.
All of us ladies doing our part in covering Soma in Tumeric.

After that we all prettied ourselves up for the wedding and then did some pre partying before being driven to the wedding hall for the big event.

Shital helping Julia drape her sari.

I thought I kind of looked like the statue of liberty in my blue sari
Mark got to wear some pretty strange pants for the wedding

I love the ornate embroidery on my sari

And big it was! Wow now I heard that Indian weddings are a big affair, but this was pretty mind blowing and from what I understand it was a small understated wedding as the family is middle class and did not throw the sort of insanely lavish affair that wealthy families do.

The entrance to the wedding hall
Complete with color changing palm trees!

The grooms car arrives
It was pretty lavish from a western  point view however. For starters there was a canopy of lights in front of the hall where the cars stopped framed by blinking color changing palm trees, and to top it all off there was a band playing traditional Indian instruments sitting on a draped balcony above the entrance, I felt like I was going to a movie premier or something.

There where musicians over the entrance way

The groom arrives and is greeted by the brides family....
....and is then carried into the hall by her relatives.

The cloth draped entrance led into a tent, but at the time I was not aware that it was a tent ( it had walls).  The Tent had colored lights running up the ceiling and a lighted fountain in the middle of the room.

The ceiling of the wedding tent

Can you believe this is a tent? compete with a color changing fountain!

Those the braches on those fake trees changed color as well!

Along the walls there was a massive buffet with so much food I didn't know what to eat.

Part of the buffet
 I think my favorite of the night was the desert, Bengali's ( the people living in the state of West Bengal which Calcutta is the capital of ) are famous for their deserts and they are all super delicious. my favorite by far was the ice cream served at the wedding it came in little single serve clay pots and tasted of rose.

Ice cream pot
from the large reception area in the tent you entered the actual wedding hall there where 2 separate rooms set up in there. One for the bride and one for the groom.

Mark on his dais.

Mark with his family
Mark being blessed by Soma's Aunt

 In one room the groom was seated on a stage decorated with flowers where he welcomed guests and received their blessing in the other room was the bride,

Soma looking radiant!

The girls

Soma looking royal

Soma being blessed by her father

And by her new mother in law.
Seated on a golden throne resplendent in a dark red and gold silk sari and draped with a kings ransom in gold jewelry, doing much the same as the groom.

The wedding canopy

For the actual wedding ceremony the groom went into the brides room and they sat together draped in flower garlands with the priest under a flower draped canopy.

Mark and Soma during the wedding ceremony
 Many rituals where performed, I missed some of them but they included. The bridal couple feeding each other, being bound together with a string, chanting mantras with the priest, throwing rice into the fire, the groom putting sindoor on the brides head and walking around the fire together.

Mark putting sindoor on Soma's forehead
Mark and Soma being bound together

Mark with Soma's uncle ( the family patriarch ) chanting mantras


Walking around the fire.
Throwing rice into the fire

More chanting
The wedding ceremony lasted for several hours. People at Indian weddings are not expected to sit and watch the whole thing. they tend to come and go ,watch for a while, chat with other guests and grab a bite to eat. Many people left before the ceremony was even over. After the ceremony the  bride and groom sat side by side in gilt thrones and welcomed well wishers and received presents and blessings.

And finally after the ceremony.

At some point some of Soma's cousins stole the grooms shoes, which he then had to pay  to get back, apparently it's a custom to do this and the grooms friends are supposed to protect the grooms shoes, but all the grooms friends being American they where clueless, so the groom walked around his wedding barefoot.

The bride finally got to see the decorations
our group hanging out
The bride and groom finally got to sit down and have dinner, after just about everybody had left.

Having coffee to stay awake. Indian coffee is delicious!
The wedding lasted well past midnight, and I hear there was an after party at the guys guest house, but I was too exhausted and my ankles way to swollen to go party that night.

The day after the wedding we finally had some free time, so of course we went shopping! Not to the mall this time, but a huge, and I really really mean huge outdoor market. It's called New Market and is the biggest shopping place in Calcutta.

New Market

Linsey was quite the attraction at the market with her blond hair!

A typical street vendor.
 It was packed! Julia who's from Finland stated that probably the entire population of Finland may be less than the amount of people at this market, she may just be right.

yes it really is this crowded!

You really can find anything at this place!

A beautiful old colonial building

Oh but it's a bargain shoppers paradise, you can find everything here! Saree's,clothes, jewelry, shawls trinkets, food, spices, shoes, hand bags, toys, you name it. I went on a shopping spree without abandon and barely made a dent in my 20.000 ( about $370) rupees.

I'm rich Baby!!! This is what 20.000 Rupees looks like.
More street vendors
Haggling for bracelets, other Julia is a pro!
Turns out I'm pretty darn good at haggling too, many vendors tried to rip me off knowing I'm a tourist, but not me, oh no I will get the best price if it kills me!

So much stuff!!!!!

If you buy too much stuff to fit your suitcase you can always buy another one!!!

 I got more stuff than I could carry but I really wish I would have gotten more now. It's almost like everything I saw was just perfect for regency reenactment! At the market they also had some fast food places so we went and ate at KFC for a break from Indian food. But I ordered curry crunch chicken cause I can't get enough of that curry!


Curry crunch chicken is  delicious! We had to hurry back to the guest house after that because there was yet another ceremony to attend.
 This one was welcoming the bride to the grooms house. Since the groom and his family live in America the top floor of the guest house was declared to be the grooms house and all of us non Indians  again declared  to  be the grooms family.

 A bowl alta.

So we welcomed the bride to our "house". Traditionally the bride dips her feet in a bowl of alta ( red dye) before walking into her new husbands house, doing this she leaves red footsteps that are are supposed to show she is now part of the grooms household .

I was declared to be Marks "sister" and with his cousin led the bride to her new "home".

 Since this however was not his real home the bride walked on a sari laid out like a carpet leading to the room that was declared to be the grooms house.

The Bride and Groom in their "home"
Once in the "house" the bride and groom sat on the bed and we fed them sweets to welcome her to the family. Afterwards there was more drinking and partying, as usual...

The last day of the wedding festivities is called the Bou Baath, it's the grooms day, the day the grooms family throws a party.

grooms day part planning at the mall

The decorators at work in the main guest house for the bou baath.
The result

The entrance way to the guest house all decorated and with Kathleen waiting to greet the guests.

Since the groom is American his family decided to basically throw an American wedding for the last day.

Mary manning the cookie table/bar
 The grooms parents planned this almost entirely while in India, and since they only arrived a couple of days before us, they panned this American style wedding in a week or so, all of us where kind of drafted to help with the American wedding, helping with the planning and acting as ushers bar tenders and in my husbands case even the minister.

The unity candle

The bride being walked down the isle by her father.
Bride and groom with their wedding party
And Reverend Bryan
As an aside why they chose my husband to play the part of the minister is beyond me as he's actually an atheist, and I was sitting in the last row of the mock wedding ceremony laughing hysterically about him impersonating a man of the cloth!
The American wedding had all of the important trapping of a traditional wedding. there was a decorated rickshaw with a just married sign on it in standing in for a limo.

The wedding rickshaw
The rickshaw from the back
the bride and groom getting in their rickshaw, with bubbles.

Aren't they cute!

 Everyone blew bubbles when they left for their" limo" ride (we passed some out to the neighborhood kids which was a big hit). There also was a wedding cake, wedding favors, a bouquet toss and a champagne toast.

The wedding cake

feeding each other cake
 Apparently champagne is rare in India so everyone brought a bottle from the states.

All that champagne from America!

The girls in their finery

My totally awesome, ghetto sari, I paid 200 rupees for this on the street and it rocks!

Lovely ladies.
All where having a good time partying  till a random cop arrived who had to be bribed with whiskey and dinner so he wouldn't shut down the party because of noise. But that's India for you, corrupt cops and all! The cop did kind  of put a lull on the party however...

Another wild night!

We are party animals
 There was more drinking and dancing and partying after the cop left though.

Towards the end of the night
I had to put up my feet and put ice on my ankles because they where so swollen from travel/heat/walking/dancing...

 Late at night after I finally went to bed some friends, my hubby among them escorted the bridal couple to their marital bed, which was decorated with flowers, and then a bunch of them  apparently hung out in bed together, which is not I think what is supposed to happen....

The bridal bed

But I think this wedding wasn't exactly normal for an Indian wedding anyway...

On the last day in Calcutta we where invited to have lunch on the rooftop of Soma's parents house. We went up there expecting to find some tables set up and simple food. But what we found totally blew us away.

The rooftop pavilion.

Having lunch.

Soma's parents had a  pavilion erected on their rooftop. And a catered lunch served! It was incredible!

The shantytown lake seen from Soma's parents roof top

more views from the roof

They use bamboo for scaffolding and building materials everywhere in Calcutta

After lunch we finally got to do some sightseeing. First we went to a temple but it was closed ,so all we got was outside pictures.

The temple gates

The temple, too bad it was closed.

Then we headed to Victoria memorial, a huge white marble palace, that houses a museum dedicated to queen Victoria, and is surrounded by a large landscaped park.

Victoria Memorial
Bryan and I

Male bonding ( this is what happens after sleeping in the same bed for a week)
Fat, grumpy old Victoria Empress of India.

Victoria's son Edward VII

Victoria Memorial Hall

Lord Clive, initiator of British Rule in India

Victoria Memorial Hall side view

It was very beautiful and imposing. We did not go inside, but chose to just see the garden instead. The park is truly lovely and seemed like and oasis in the crowded dirty and dusty city. I felt like I could breathe for the first time in days.
Victoria Memorial gardens with a Anglican church in the distance

For some weird reason people kept coming up to us wanting their picture taken with our group, this was kind of funny since we had been walking around  the streets of Calcutta for days without anyone paying any attention to us, but now that we went to a tourist spot people where amazed to see us whiteys!

I started feeling kind of sick at the memorial, turns out it was my turn to have a bout with the dreaded Delhi Belly. Just about everyone else had come down with this gastric upset before me and I was beginning to think it had passed me by, but not so. I almost threw  up in the car on the way back to the guest house and spent a considerable time in the bathroom that evening. Thankfully one of Soma's cousins had procured these magical pills when the first one of us lame western girls fell ill. I took some of the magic beans and was well enough in time to go to dinner, even if i only managed to eat some bread and rice.

Our last night in Calcutta

John smoking a cigar on the rooftop.

The nighttime view.
 After dinner we all just hung out chatting and relaxing, some of the guys climbed even higher on the roof to smoke cigars. It was a nice close to a crazy trip. I went to bed kind of early that night. 
We had to leave for the airport the next day at noon at noon, Bryan to go back home, and me to catch my flight to Chennai to go see Aarti my old college dorm mate. Soma's dad even had some lunches packed for us to take to the airport, which was super nice and totally in line with the week long orgy of being fed like a hog! We said our good byes to everyone and headed to the airport.
I really enjoyed my stay in Calcutta, dirt, drama, Delhi belly and all. I feel like I really got a glimpse into how average people live in India. It was such an extraordinary experience, and I'm so thankful to Soma's family for letting us be part of the wedding celebrations, and being such wonderful hosts. I also made a whole bunch of new friends, living in such close quarters creates a strange kind of instant bond. I already miss my new India friends

Now I leave you with some fun pictures that didn't quite fit in with the narrative above but I just wanted to share them...

Evan Kathleen Julia and Megumi on the roof top

Bombay Sapphire before bed.
And to brush your teeth with in the morning, just like that Ke$ha song....

Rickety rickshaws

Open sewers!

Roadside tea in clay cups

Delicious sweets!
Children playing and dogs sleeping in the middle of  the road.
street markets

Lastly I need to give a big thanks to my fellow travelers for letting me use some of their pictures! While I took over 300 pictures I missed some moments that others had pictures of, so thanks Evan, Amy, Julia, Sunita, Shital, Ruma, John, Mark, Soma and Marks Parents for letting me steal your pictures!

This concludes part1 of my India trip Part 2 about my stay in Chennai will follow soon!