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What Dreams May Come…in India

I have a confession. I’ve never actually had a very big “travel bucket list.” I’ve always traveled for motivations other than the romantic notion of wanderlust (work experience, falling for a man who fell for traveling, etc.). That being said, India has always held a bit of fascination for me. I think it probably all started back when I watched A Little Princess and was mesmerized by Sara’s stories of having grown up there while the country was under Imperial rule. The trance-like sitar music, the spices, majestic elephants, the mythical stories of many-armed gods and goddesses, jangling anklets, stacked bangles, and beautiful silk sarees all wrapped up in a soft, orange haze. The food and epic Bollywood dance scenes are pretty great, too, but it’s that haze-like quality which possessed me. It felt as if I would be walking into a dream like Clara in the Nutcracker or Alice into her Wonderland.

Lucky for Nate and I, India was only a quick flight and a $75 visa away from Sri Lanka. Luckier still, I had an expert insider to help us navigate my dreamscape. Aarti was one of the aforementioned Zips I’d met and briefly roomed with during my final year of undergrad in Akron. When Aarti is not busy being a rock star Industrial and Organizational Psychologist, she is traveling herself or helping to organize other travel excursions. She’s written about some of her own travel ruminations here and here. We told her we had seven days in India, and she took it from there, planning a three-city tour starting and ending in her city of Bangalore.

Aarti beating me in Snakes and Ladders just before we were kicked off for being too old.

The first full day, Aarti being a true friend, saw to it that we ate our way through the city. Sadly the day ended too quickly, and she got us to the train station to digest and catch an overnight to Hampi. With a promise to meet back up with Aarti in a few days, we settled into our predictably-short, yet surprisingly comfortable sleeper bunks and headed north.

Nate not fitting on a midnight train to Georgia…er, Hampi

When the train arrived and we got out early the next morning, we allowed ourselves to be carried along by the crowd toward what we assumed was the exit and the driver Aarti had arranged to pick us up. There was no shortage of men ready with tuk tuks, or autos as they were called in India, so I was fearing a remake of this scene from Outsourced. One particularly enterprising young man refused to leave our side and took guesses all along our walk through the station at where we might be staying. Nate and I stayed tight-lipped after he refused to believe we’d pre-arranged travel, and we both sighed with relief when we saw our names written on paper held up by our hostel driver. Our escort followed our eyes to the driver and laughed, slapping him heartily on the arm in a you-win-this-time manner.

After seeing how small the town of Hampi is, it was easy to understand why all of the auto drivers might be so friendly. The town is filled up almost entirely by one giant Hindu temple (and I do mean giant) with several dozen homes and restaurants all stacked up Dr. Seuss-style in it’s shadow. Cows, monkeys, and children all roamed the narrow streets freely causing our auto to weave skillfully around them as we careened down narrow alleyways. Our driver turned out to also be the person who checked us in, served our meals, and offered tours of the surrounding ancient sites. You see, the reason people go to Hampi is because it wears the honor and designation of being a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which it got from being the place-most-likely-to-be-the-set-of-an-Indiana-Jones-film.

The next day, our driver/concierge/server/tour guide took us by auto all over the vast ruins surrounding the city. For four hours, we drove from site to site, temple to temple. After paying a small entrance fee, we had free reign over ancient ruins that had once been the homes of royalty, bath houses for queens, marketplaces for gold, and royal elephant stables. We dared each other to enter the darkest corners of the temples, fearing unleashing boulders or evil spirits that might melt our faces. We mostly discovered smelly bat guano and that four hours was really the limit to how long we could look at ancient things. Lucky for me, I soon found entertainment in a new game called watch-Nate-squirm-while-local-tourists ask for selfies or try to sell him postcards. Being low season, we became quite the attraction, but Nate seemed to be the hottest commodity. I got my comeuppance, though, when I offered to take a photo for a large family that was posing in front of some elephant stables. Somehow I ended up on the other end of the camera with a toddler in my arms smiling for a family portrait. The kid and I exchanged confused looks while Nate looked on smugly.

In addition to really old buildings, Hampi is also known for giant boulders that seem to jut up from the ground all around the place. One hill towered over the town built entirely of these boulders. We scrambled up to see, you guessed it, a bird’s eye view of more ancient ruins. Actually there was a Hindu temple at the top as well. Nate and I wandered around, playing hide’n’don’t-be-found with the smattering of other camera-wielding tourists who had made the climb. We were about to head back down the hill when a young man in an orange sarong (see photo montage of Hampi, top right corner) introduced himself as the temple priest. He was eager to show us around, so we took off our shoes and followed him into the belly of the temple. The priest explained that he came up the hill very early every morning and left late every evening. He did sunrise yoga with tourists and blessed those seeking to pray to the god of the temple (Vishnu, I think, but my knowledge of pantheistic religions is rusty). He handed us small, bright red flowers and instructed us to say our prayers to them, explaining that he would then carry the flowers to the bare bulb-lit Vishnu behind him. I declined, not wanting to be so intimate with a god I’d just met, but the priest carried on with his demonstration. When the prayer was over, he dipped a finger in some red powder and put a dot in the middle of Nate’s forehead (he’s nicer than I am), explaining that this was the mark that someone had been to the temple that day (see photo montage, bottom middle). After a little more banter, the priest asked us to make a small donation or buy some water before we were able to reclaim our shoes and head back down the hill. So far, the many gods, elephants, and orange haze part of my dreams were true to life, but there was a little more capitalism than I would have liked.

As promised, that night we got on an overnight bus to head back south to Mysore (Mysuru) to meet up with Aarti. For six centuries (until 1956!), Mysore was the capital of a kingdom. There is still a palace where the royal family resided and cultural festivities are held. Nate and I toured the palace after a short period of confusion in which we realized we needed to pay the palace workers to keep our shoes before we would be allowed to go in. Barefoot, we walked around the many colored halls. The palace has a free audio tour, but we didn’t have wifi to download the app with the audio, so we improvised making up our own immensely fascinating historical facts. As per tradition, we didn’t leave until we posed for a photo – not with the exquisite palace architecture – but with a group of giggling girls in sarees who were happy to practice their English. That evening the palace was to be lit up at exactly 7pm and remain that way for 45 minutes. Aarti, Nate, and I toasted with fresh coconuts while we watched the illumination, happy to have cameras trained on something slightly brighter than our white skin.

We spent the remainder of our time in Mysore doing the hard work of finding the city’s best dosas (mmmmmm….),  warding off more examples of capitalism (an excellent opportunity to practice one’s RBF), and getting some street mehendi (Mysore photo montage, bottom right corner). It was the train ride out of the city was probably my favorite part of the whole adventure, though. Nate and I sat on one side of the aisle deeply involved in my GRE study book, and Aarti sat on the other side of the aisle opposite an elderly, well-dressed Indian man whom Aarti addressed as Uncle. Uncle, it turned out, had many questions about Aarti’s companions. He started by asking Aarti in Hindi about where we were going, if we were married, and how we were affording our world travel. Then he broke into perfect English to ask why were wasting our time and eyes on a GRE book when we could be looking out at the Indian countryside passing by. He was right, so I put the book away and engaged in the world around me. We bought some snacks from a man walking down the aisles and tried to share them with Uncle and the older couple sitting directly across from us. The couple didn’t speak English, but gestures and smiles served us well. They declined the offer but quickly shared up part of the guava that they’d just bought through the window from a person standing on the train platform. It was pretty good, and when I smiled in thanks, the husband ran off the train and chased down the fruit salesman to buy me my own. That melted my RBF right off. Through Aarti and Uncle, we were finally able to break the cultural barrier and make some real connections with people. By the end of the train ride, we even had an invitation from Uncle to stay in his house in New Delhi if we were ever in the neighborhood.

Back in Bangalore, Aarti and I spent our last evening sitting criss cross apple sauce (sitting “Indian style” now seems very offensive in this and all scenarios) on her bed surrounded by her saree collection. As she pulled out each one, she told me how she came to own it, under what circumstances she would wear it, and what inspired her fabric choices and styles. I asked rapid fire questions about the process of getting them tailor made, if they are passed down from generation to generation, and about the complicated process of actually getting them to stay on one’s body. We lapsed into some much needed girl talk. Nate is a wonderful travel companion, but there are somethings which are best saved for the company of a good girlfriend. Aarti was as good as a sister, and I savored every moment until our time was up and the dream began to fade to black.

India was a lot of things that my Little Princess mind thought it would be, complete with gorgeous sarees, endless ancient playgrounds, and kind people. It took me a while to see past the money-driven tourism culture, but with the help of an Uncle and a sister, I found my place in the orange-tinted dreamland.

August 26, 2018

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