entering the land of the gods

a study abroad journey

Archive for the month “May, 2013”

Northbound: Darjeeling to Sikkim

For the last leg of my final journey in India, Ayush and I traveled north for 4 days. The northeast is a magical place. As we traveled from Siliguri to Darjeeling, up winding mountain roads, the air became cool and crisp. The humidity disappeared and air pollution was nonexistent. I have never breathed such fresh air! My body was in pure bliss as my pores were opened- who knew this weather existed after 4 months in the heat of Hyderabad!?

Our 4 days of travel were relaxing and peaceful. We did a lot of walking through the hilly streets and simply taking in the gorgeous landscape. A thick fog hangs over the mountains most of the time, giving the area a mystical feeling.

IMG_3295

IMG_3298

 

High Tea at the Windamere Heritage Hotel:

IMG_3338

IMG_3360

Visting Happy Valley Tea Estate! The oldest, smallest, and most famous tea estate in India! We received a very informative tour of the facilities.

IMG_3408

IMG_3383

IMG_3385

IMG_3392

IMG_3393

And here is the Happy Golden Cafe- a tiny place next to the estate owned by a woman who worked in the plantation for years and now give mini lessons. She showed us the different grades of tea and brewed us a beautiful cup of Darjeeling.

IMG_3407

IMG_3414

IMG_3417

IMG_3422

Earl liked Darjeeling a lot 🙂

IMG_3432

I was only able to catch 1 sunrise! The fog that hangs over the mountains quickly hides the radiant rays.

IMG_3451

The only way to travel between the hill stations is by shared jeep or bus. Shared jeeps work like shared autos, travelers pack into the jeep together for a bumpy ride through the hills! Ayush and I were making our way up to Sikkim!

The further north you get, the more Buddhists and Christian population! I was happy to find this “I Love Jesus” sticker on our jeep 🙂

IMG_3461

Momos!! These ones happen to be beef- but you can also get pork, chicken, or veg.

IMG_3469

Rainy sunset in Gangtok (the capital of Sikkim)

IMG_3516

With a large Buddhist community, Tibetan prayer flags hang from every tree and pole in this area! The colorful flags are used to bless the surrounding countryside as well as promote peace, compassion, strength, and wisdom. A string of flags contain five flags:  blue, white, red, green, and yellow. The five colors represent the elements: Blue symbolizes the sky and space, white symbolizes the air and wind, red symbolizes fire, green symbolizes water, and yellow symbolizes earth. New strings of flags are hung next to the old and faded strings of flags for another symbolic purpose. Just as life moves on and is replaced by new life, Tibetans renew their hopes for the world by continually mounting new flags alongside the old.

IMG_3523

IMG_3526

IMG_3528

Monasteries in Rumtek, Sikkim:

IMG_3545

IMG_3549

IMG_3555

IMG_3573

IMG_3579

IMG_3580

This trip was a perfect way to end my stay in India- with peace, relaxation, and cool air! However, there is much more to explore in the northeast. Numerous other hill stations are tucked into the trees, there are mountains and waterfalls to discover, and villages to visit. I definitely would like an extended trip devoted to this area of India!

Bodh gaya: Bowl of Compassion

When I was planning my final journey to the north, Bodh Gaya was not on my list. I planned to travel straight from Varanasi to Kolkata. Bodh Gaya is where Buddha received his Enlightenment and is therefore a religious pilgrimage site. The small city is full of Buddhist temples with gorgeous architecture and bright colors.

However, I had another purpose for stopping in Bodh Gaya. Through various connections I was introduced to Bowl of Compassion. After learning about their mission I knew that I needed to make a stop! http://www.bowlofcompassion.org/en/home.html

Bowl of Compassion is a non-profit organization that provides schooling and lunch to the impoverished community in the area. The school was started just a few years ago by a German traveller and and Indian local. The school now has 100 children grades 1-5 as well as a waiting list of children. However, the school is at its max right now. The children come to school around 8am where they brush their teeth and comb their hair. After meditation time, they split into classrooms where they are taught basic subjects like math, Hindi, and English. Then before they leave for the day, they are served a hearty lunch.

IMG_3166

IMG_3158

 

IMG_3144

Before arriving, I didn’t know what kind of work I would be doing or how I would take part. When I did arrive, I met Murari, the founder who grew up in Bodh Gaya. He is a jolly man with a warm smile and outgoing personality. When I asked what he needed done, he responded with the question- what do you like to do? Well, I said I loved to cook and….he stopped be before I could go further. “You cook?” He asked. “Do you know how to cook Indian food?” I explained that I had cooked with my Hindi professor and knew basic Indian cooking.  Well, God brought me to Bowl of Compassion. It turns out that the cook was gone for 2 days so Murari needed help in the kitchen!

So for the next 2 days I helped prepare lunch for the children. I worked with the cook’s assistant. I appreciated her expertise as I have not cooked in such large vessels before! The most rewarding aspect was serving the food to the children. The first day I was there was a Monday. I was appalled by how much food these kids could eat. We served them up huge plates of rice with a vegetable curry on top. It was enough food to last me two meals and yet some kids came back for seconds. Then I realized that some of these children probably didn’t have much to eat over the weekend and that this was their main meal of the day. It is such a blessing for them to be able to be a part of this school to feed their minds and stomachs.

IMG_3164

 

IMG_3154

IMG_3148

I was also able to visit the secondary school down the road that is run by Murari’s brother, Vivek. This places houses the next grades, 6-12. Vivek asked me if I would come in and speak to the 7th class about myself and where I come from. Well in India, no one knows where South Dakota is. So I was able to describe the great land of South Dakota as well as who I am! The students were able to understand most of my English with a bit of translation. I really tried to use simple words to explain. Eventually I asked if the students had questions. There were some very interesting responses: Is America beautiful? What has Obama done for the U.S? What do you think about marriage?

Bodh Gaya is located in the state of Bihar. Bihar is a very traditional and conservative state. I found that their perceptions of America were very stereotypical and limited. They see our country as paradise. I tried to explain that American has different types of regions just like India and that we too have poverty and violence. On the topic of marriage, Bihar is known for ‘child marriage.’ Years ago, children were wed at the young age of 10! Even today it is common for marriage to occur at age 14 or 15. When a girl asked me what I felt about marriage I responded that I hoped to get married someday and that I will chose my husband because I love him. “Love marriage?” She questioned. When I nodded, she looked around to her fellow girls with wonder and giggled. Arranged marriage is the standard in this area and I wondered if some of these girls were already married or arrangements were in place. Being in the classroom opened my eyes to the perceptions of the students. I wish I had more time to interact with them!

There are many NGOs in Bodh Gaya and it has become a bit of a problem. Some NGO’s that claim to be nonprofit are deceptive and use the donations for other uses. But I can attest that Bowl of Compassion is a truly compassionate organization with the right intentions.

Right now they are trying to raise money to put in a new floor for the children to sit on at lunch time.

IMG_3155

IMG_3160

Similarly, they would like to convert on old building into a creative space in which the children can create art and learn music! If you feel so called, I encourage you to give a donation to Bowl of Compassion. Literally all the funding, from educational resources to food costs, are funded by donations. Every dollar counts 🙂

Anyone can make donations at this link: http://www.bowlofcompassion.org/en/donations.html

And if you ever find yourself in northern India, take some time to stop in Bodh Gaya. You will receive and incredible experience at Bowl of Compassion and have time to see the temples as well 🙂

IMG_3208

 

with Murari and his wife

IMG_3177The Mahabodhi Temple

 

 

Oh, and I got to meet and spend extensive time with Dr. Upendra Prasad, a member of the Bihar Legislative Council! Sweet! IMG_3212

Varanasi

Varanasi was the first stop of my “final journey” in India. It just so happened that my friend, Connor was also going to be in Varanasi for a day. It was so good to see him after saying goodbyes to so many friends in Hyderabad. The two of us stayed with a host family near Tulsi Ghat, making it easy to walk all over the ghats and Old City.

IMG_3100

On our first day, Connor and I were so excited to get out into the city that we headed to the ghats at 2pm. This was a terrible idea considering that it was the hottest part of the day, but it ended up being the most content time to be on the ghats. In the afternoon heat, no one else was walking along the ghats. Groups of men sat in the shade playing cards, others took naps on the steps of the ghats, and cows lounged in the water. It was so utterly peaceful. Making our way into the Old City, we were grateful for the shady alleyways. And there is nothing like cooling off with a thick lassi, served in a clay cup!

IMG_3055

IMG_3050

The next morning, Connor and I woke up at 5am to experience a sunrise on the ghats. The way that the sun reflects off of the holy water is truly magical. While there is a strong community feel as locals bathe and wash clothes, there is also an air of tourism. I was annoyed at having to barter with a boat man to receive a fair price and then being called “Madame” as we walked the rest of the way down the ghats. Tourism takes the magic out of places sometimes.

IMG_3062

IMG_3061

IMG_3059

IMG_3064

IMG_3065

IMG_3070

IMG_3071

I found the true magic of Varanasi in the winding alleys of the Old City. After Connor left, I had two more days to explore the city. In this time I had a lot of time to observe and write. Let me tell you, it felt beautiful to be able to put pen on paper! Here are some excerpts from my journaling:

May 4 – 2:21pm “My goal today was to talk it slow and take it all in. As I began walking the ghats at 6am, I was surprised at how hot it was at this hour. Once I made it to the busier sections of the ghats I made my way up to the street level, appreciating the shady streets. For the most part, I could go mostly unnoticed at this hour in the morning. Well, I shouldn’t say unnoticed, but rather, respectfully noticed. Despite guesthouses and stalls selling western items, the area is quite local. Every corner has its own chaiwallah brewing spicy liquid in a kettle set over hot coals. I desperate wanted to sit down for tea but every stall was either packed with people or only contained male customers. Therefore, I moved along. Wandering was a good options. It allowed me to observe daily morning habits of the people living here. I found myself tucking my camera deep into my bag, trying to blend in with the people and respect their life.”

At one point, I found myself in a small alley lined with vendors selling puja items: colored powders, milk in paper cups, sweets stacked in high pyramids, bins of flowers. I was squeezed betweens masses of devotees making their way to a nearby temple. The great thing about the Old City area is that you can come across a temple at any moment. Some are small shrines, tucked into a wall, and easily ignored if you are not paying attention. But I was clearly coming upon a larger temple. I suddenly saw the entrance and stopped in my tracks. While it would have been great to observe, the area was much too crowded to stand around. I eventually made it out onto the main street. The smell of sweet, hot oil immediately overcame my senses. Men sat with huge vats of oil, frying puri and jalebi! I was happy to see that there was plenty of seating with both men and women enjoying the food. I sat down to order my breakfast- chai and jalebi. The juicy sugar melted in my mouth and churned my stomach at the early hour but I was content.

IMG_3109

Making my way back through the streets, there was more activity in the alleys. Many chaiwallahs were now also frying jalebi of their own. Larger stalls steamed idly, fried vadas, and simmered large pots of sambar.”

May 4 – 5:32pm “Blender + fresh mangos = pure bliss!!!”

IMG_3090IMG_3111

May 5 – 10:50am “Out and about in the Old City once again! Today I skipped the ghats to avoid the sun. Walking the streets, I enjoy the familiarity I have acquired from my exploring- here are the sleeping puppies, there is the milk woman on the corner…

There is a bit more traffic this morning, it being Sunday- market day. I made my way to the market area and after roaming around, found myself in an indecisive mood. Again, I was craving a spot to simply sit and observe without sticking out. I resisted the urge to buy every samosa in the area and found a small cafe to order chai. Continuing my walk down alleys, I marveled at the small surprises around every corner! Though I have traveled don some of the paths multiple times, with each passing hour something changes. The corner stall selling vada and idly are packed with hungry customers, but and hour later lonely vada sit a bowl with sambar spilled over the sides of the pot. The chaiwallahs scrub the tea leaves off the bottom, preparing to start a new batch. The milk lady on the corner is sold out and now sleeps on a stone bench. The sleeping puppies…are still sleeping. Though I craved for some human interaction and conversation, I avoided all the touristy “german bakeries,” now hopping with customers.

My breakfast became progressive as I continued to explore: vada and sambar at a corner stall, jalebi wrapped in newspaper, fresh orange juice.

If I ever lost my bearings, it was easy to head towards the ghats to regain my bearings. On one such occasion, I cam to a ‘T’ in the road and turned left to toward the river. Up ahead, I saw a large crowd and a man getting a hair cut. It seemed like a long line of people wanting a hair cut. As I passed by the crowd, I realized what was happening. Preparation was being made for a funeral burning. I literally walked right next to the dead body, wrapped in orange and gold fabric. I realized I was t the small burning ghat. While I would have loved to stay and observe the ceremony, this is not a place to go unnoticed. For more information on Hindu cremation, read here.”

May 5 – 4:30pm “On the train to Gaya, I am drenched in sweat and I couldn’t be happier! As the train pulls away from Varanasi, a wave of happiness is wiping over me. Seriously, I could cry right now, and I have no idea why! As we pass over the Ganges River, the women sitting next to me bow and give their blessing to the sacred body of water. The twinkle of metal is heard as passengers throw coins out the window. I wonder how many millions of rupees are down there? Observing snapshots of the countryside:

  • men carrying hay bales on their heads
  • rows of sunflowers
  • a woman standing in the middle of a field, her pink saree blowing in the wind
  • three men laying idly in the grass
  • a flock of goats tended by a shepard
  • a village of mud huts, colorful kurtas hanging on the line
  • a game of cricket in the hay fields

I also had my best temple experiences in Varanasi! A friend, Manisha brought me to three different Hindu temples. With her there to explain who the gods were and why they were important, made the experience worthwhile. Without an explanation or background, temples are merely beautiful structures. Thanks to Manisha for offering such a cultural learning experience for me!

IMG_3092

 

 

 

 

Home

Hey all! Yes, I am safe and home on U.S. soil in the fine land of South Dakota! I have spent the last 48 hours hugging and conversing with my family. You can only imagine the joy and relief in their eyes as I was reunited with them at the airport.

Yesterday was pretty tough for me. I woke up to a gray sky and made the mistake of unpacking my luggage so that everything from my trip is laying across my room. Then I realized that there was no where for me to put anything.

Opening my closet, winter clothes occupied the hangers and a pile of sweatshirts lay on the floor beside a box of mittens. I opened a gift bag to find Christmas gifts I had forgotten about in my rush to pack after the holidays in December. Similarly, all of my college bins were stacked up in our guest bedroom, still packed with clothes.

The task of unpacking and reorganizing seemed utterly daunting. All I could do is sit, stare out the window, and wonder how life can change so quickly!

I finally jumped into the shower, hoping that the warm water would give me some motivation for the rest of the day. I felt much better until I got to my closet once more. What do I wear?? For 5 months I have been satisfied with a simply wardrobe. I never had to question the weather- today is hot, tomorrow will be hot, etc 🙂 But now I have a full wardrobe once more, full of clothing that seems foreign to me now: fleece sweaters, skinny jeans, high heel shoes. The choices were overwhelming to me! I finally grabbed one of my light cotton shirts from Indian along with a pair of jeans.

Feeling tears coming on, I decided I need to get out of the house for a while. Spending an afternoon out with my family was just what I needed. I was able to return to my dirty bedroom and set my mind to the task of reorganizing my life! 🙂

Needless to say, today I am feeling much better. Surprisingly, I am not dealing with a lot of jet lag. I get pretty tired in the afternoon, but if I push through, I can count on a good nights sleep. I have been surprised at how comfortable my bed is! Sleeping on hard mattresses all semester, I forgot how heavenly a soft spring mattress feels like. I literally feel like I am sleeping on clouds!

Since I have settled in a bit, I am finally sitting down to blog and post some more pictures from my last trip- sorry to keep you waiting. Look forward to new posts throughout the week! As always, feel free to post questions or contact me with questions about my experience! Like many of you, I am not ready for this blog to be over yet either, so I shall try to extend it as long as I can 🙂

 

Sealed in a Bottle

I am home! Well, home here in Hyderabad I mean. After two amazing weeks of traveling from Varanasi to Sikkim, I find myself once again, in the hot air and busy sounds of Hyderabad.

I must admit, before departing for the North, I was ready to fly back to the U.S. But after making this journey…I wish I had a magic genie who would grant me more time! Each stop along my journey was marked by new connections and trusting relationships. I met more people than I ever expected, people who I hope to keep in touch with and meet again someday. There were multiple times that I thought to myself- Why didn’t I plan more time for this trip? Why can’t I stay longer with these people?

Yes, the sights were amazing, the food was delicious, the aura of these places was breathtaking- but the people (insert sigh). I am without words. This quote sums it up:

” You can walk missions of miles in a single life without ever touching the surface of the places, nor learn anything from the people seen. The sense of travel lies in stopping to listen, everyone has a story to tell.” -Anonymous

Yesterday, as I left Ayush in Siliguri, the final reality check hit me. My final trip came to a close. My final moments in India were dwindling. And I was saying goodbye to one of the greatest friends I have made here in India. This was virtually the last goodbye to make, and it hit me like a ton of bricks. The cab pulled away and tears began streaming down my face, the first of many to come I’m sure.

IMG_3535

I gazed out the window, remembering how fascinating the bustling, dirty streets had been in my first days here, and how they have become so normal to me now. How I wish I could seal the senses of this place in a bottle! In one bottle I would capture all of the sounds: the bustle of the streets, the Muslim call to prayer, the voice of a peacock, the ringing of a bell from the nearby temple. In another bottle: the smell of garlic infused in the air, smokey incense, the sweet taste of mango, and pure mountain air. I would even capture the unwanted senses. After all, my experience here would simply not be the same if I was not constantly covered in sweat and smelling putrid air rising up from the streets. I want all this and more sealed tightly in bottles to place on my shelves, available at any moment to be uncorked and experienced. But even then, all of the precious contents would be eventually expelled. Instead, I trust that my heart, mind, and soul will be it’s own bottle, preserving these sensory memories forever!

One of the hardest questions I have received here has also been the hardest one to answer- “So when are you coming back to India?” I always give a smile and reply, “Soon, I pray.”

My adventure here is ending, but a seed has been planted to ignite a journey that will bring me back to this magical place that I have come to think of as home. With the right watering, sunlight, and nurturing I will be back in India before I know it.

But though my journey is ending, my blogging is not through yet! Once I land safely in the U.S, I promise I will post pictures and elaborate on my 2-week journey to north India. Until then, peace!

Thoughts before beginning the Final Adventure!

 

As I pack up my bags and do my final preparations to travel north, I have found myself skimming through my blog entries. I am in awe of how much I have seen and learned about this placed called in India…and have discovered a lot about myself  as well.

 

In my “About Me” section (which I wrote before coming here), I described how I chose India and what I hoped to experience. While I have found some of these aspects to follow through, my semester has developed quite differently than expected. For example, I hoped to do much more rigorous study into the religions around me through coursework and visiting temples. But upon arriving at the University I discovered that courses in religious studies were not available. Similarly, visiting temples and mosques were a hassle to visit and often times didn’t teach me much about the respective religion at all. Instead, I have gotten to know about the different religions of India through the people that I have met! Since this country is so immersed in religion, it was never hard to start up a conversation. I stayed with Aslam in Jaipur, learning about the Muslim religion, the Samras were eager to explain the history of Sikhism, and every Hindu I chatted with had a different story to tell. I have found that many young people who grew up in a Hindu home don’t necessarily practice their faith anymore and don’t feel obligated to living out that part of their heritage. Funny how that theme resides in modern day Christianity as well. That being said, I met some amazing Christians who invited me to worship. However, many of my best friends at my hostel consider themselves atheist or agnostic. So while I did not learn about religion in the way I expected, I have shared some amazing conversations that have helped me understand how people live their lives and how that affects their values.

 

On another note, I did much more travel than I expected to. Not knowing how much time I would have off from school, I set my expectations low as to how many places I could visit in India. But, wow! I made two weekend trips- Bangalore & Hampi, an excursion through Udaipur, Jaipur, and Agra, and now I am heading up to northeast India for 2 weeks of travel.

Tomorrow I will fly to Varanasi and spend about 4 days in “the spiritual capital of India.” Then I will head east to Bodhgaya. For Buddhists, Bodhgaya is the most sacred pilgrimage site because it is said to be the place where Buddha himself was enlightened. While I hope to visit the site, my main purpose is to stay at “Bowl of Compassion.” This is a non-profit soup kitchen that takes volunteers who may be traveling through. After a day or so there, I will move along to Kolkata, where I will meet up with my friend, Ayush. I am looking forward to some amazing street food 🙂 We will stay with his extending family there and then travel up to Siliguri for his cousins wedding! The wedding will be in the traditional Vedic-style. It will be overwhelming but so amazing! From there, Ayush and I will be exploring the area of Darjeeling and hopefully make it up to Sikkim! We are looking forward to the cool climate, mountain views, and delicious tea.

Then I will fly back to Hyderabad for a day before returning to the U.S on May 19th! Wow, folks, it has been a journey, yet there is so much to explore in this country. Going back my “About Me” section, I make the statement, “I should study in a country that I may never visit again.”  This statement could not be more false. The statement is not “if” I come back to India…it is “when” I come back to India. The more time I spent here, the more I add to my bucket list of things to see and places to visit! But for now, I will focus on my final trip!

While it is sad to leave my home at Tagore, I am so thrilled to end my stay in India with an adventure! This week I have missed home a lot, and will be ready to return home to my family. It has been the perfect amount of time here. My suitcase is packed and ready for International travel and my duffle bag is almost set as well!

Again, as a precursor, I will be out of internet for two weeks as I travel so I shall leave the beautiful scenery to your imagination until then. I am excited to get back to a written journal while I travel but will make sure some details when I return. Until then, thank you all for your support of my experiences! May it encourage you to explore the world on your own.

Peace,

Maria

Post Navigation