(All of the good photos are taken by Shannon Herlihy)
10 days into my India travels, I’m sitting in an Alice in Wonderland themed cafe called Morgan’s Place in Dharamkot; a small hippie town near Dharamshala with a gorgeous view of the Kangra Valley and the snow capped Dhauladhar mountains. Monkeys teeter on the skimpiest of branches, and just when I’m sure they’re going to fall they gracefully swoop to another. Yellow-billed Blue Magpie’s soar across the mountain ranges displaying their freakishly long tails that flutter and flap behind them like blue splattered wedding gown trails. I’m watching all of this through a large window, huddled on a cushion on the floor with a steaming cup of chai and a whole pizza on the table in front of me. (Not very Indian of me but I finally got my appetite back after an episode of Delhi belly). The power keeps going on and off and so does the space heater, which is a shame because it’s cold up here in the mountains and I’m having all of my jackets washed by a local Indian woman who offered to do it for only 50 rupees. The ceiling here is a painted universe with splattered white stars and multicolored planets. The signs that led me to the cafe were cute wooden boards painted with sentences like “follow this sign if you’re mad” and “go on til the end: then stop,” which is also an accurate example of Indian directions I’ve come to find the hard way. It’s actually quite appropriate that I’m sitting in an Alice in Wonderland themed cafe because a relevant sequel could be called Gressa in India. Although I do wish I could shrink a little more to better cram myself into the shrunken streets and also as to not tower over most of the locals.
Dharamshala is an entirely different planet from Rajasthan, which is where I’ve been traveling for the past week with my good friend Shannon. Rajasthan is hot, bustling, and exhausting. It is a region rich with royalty and romantic history. In Jodhpur we spent a day at the Mehrangarh Fort, one of the largest forts in India, with unashamedly touristy big black headphones listening to a cheaper version of a tour guide and dodging families wanting selfies (a selfie with each member of the family and then one all together). At first I felt tickled but after the 30th request I started to understand how it feels like to be a famous person always running from the paparazzi. (Side note, Nick Jonas and his Fiance Priyanka Chopra were apparently there a week after we were and I’m sure they had a hell of a time). In the short and rare moments I had to myself in the fort I would stand in the six hundred year old rooms imagining the royal men and women lounging in their brightly colored flowing clothing; chatting, arguing, laughing, feasting, loving, and fighting. Rudyard Kipling, poet and author of The Jungle Book, upon visiting the fort poetically described it as “(a) Palace that might have been built by Titans and colored by the morning sun.” Needless to say, there is magic built into the bricks and the stones that make up the fort as well as the small blue city that surrounds its walls.
On our last day in Jodhpur we ventured out into the market. I was sucked over to the first woman who started shouting at me about her dupatta’s (traditional Indian shawls), and like the amatuer I am I bought 3 before I knew what was happening for a price I didn’t even try to bargain for. Afterwards, we walked around with dupatta’s wrapped around our heads, shoulders and mouths, mostly to keep the dust out and attempt to lessen the stares, but also because, well, they’re pretty. While Shannon and I were walking around the market we started noticing stares from locals, and a few even blatantly laughed in our direction, so we wandered over to a lassi stand to avoid the spotlight and to sip mango lassi’s. We started talking with an Indian man working at the market who has never been to a day of school in his life but seemed to have attained the wisdom of the whole universe. He said that he learned his impressive English from the tourists among a handful of other languages. While it was pressing on our minds, we decided to ask him what he thought about us, as westerners, wearing traditional clothing. His response was similar to the responses that we would get from more locals in the days that followed; and that response was generally that as long as we were in India, wearing traditional clothing was appropriate for not only showing interest in and respect for the culture, but also for lessening the stares from men and for accommodating to the weather (wearing the dupattas to cover our mouths to avoid dust and shield our head and shoulders from the hot, Rajasthani sun). However, wearing traditional clothing back in the states could be seen as potentially problematic, and, depending on what is worn and in what context, does teeter the line between cultural appreciation and appropriation. For myself, as a privileged westerner who’s heritage is responsible for colonialism, cultural appropriation lies heavily in my heart and mind and is something I’ve been keenly aware of and have been doing my best to avoid. It has so far become clear to me that the difference between cultural appreciation and appropriation is between being consensually given a cultural gift from a local, and non-consensually taking something from a culture because we think it looks pretty, we like it, and because we’ve been socialized to believe we have the right to take whatever we want (free country amirite boys?). Moving forward, I believe that this next section of my blog describes a good example of cultural appreciation; however, I am more than open to feedback if anyone thinks otherwise.
On the morning of our first full day in Jaisalmer, (we’d arrived late the previous night) we met a woman on our way to find an ATM who invited us into her home for lunch. I am embarrassed to say that at first I was suspicious and wary of her intentions, but something about her found us strolling over to where she’d said her house was after our ATM run. This woman, who’s name I’m probably not spelling correctly but sounds like “Banasi” ushered us into her small brick and clay two room home, cooled by a small overhead fan and warmed by the charming smiles of her four children. Upon our arrival all of the residents got to work on making sure our visit was five stars. Her oldest daughter made us papad’s with hot curry stuffed peppers and her younger daughters got to work on decorating out forearms and palms with henna. Her son and his friend sat in a corner watching television, requesting from time to time to have their picture taken as they posed in various cool poses. Although financially this family seemed to be hurting by western standards, they showered us in gifts, entertainment, laughter, and, for me at least and I think I can say this for Shannon as well, restoration of faith in humanity. Among gifts varying from small handmade cloth animals and marionette dolls they sold at the market, my favorite was a ring that I complimented on one of the daughters’ hands and before I knew what was happening was being lovingly escorted onto my finger. In return I gave her a ring of my own and I found myself wanting nothing more than to give them everything I had with me that day and more. Shannon gifted them with some of her ointments and creams that she’d made, which was received with humble surprise and appreciation especially from one of the boys who had a small rash on his chest. Although we could have stayed there all day, we said our goodbyes in the early afternoon as we had booked a camel safari at 3pm. Banasi insisted on walking us most of the way to our hostel, switching from smiling up at us sweetly to turning around and clucking at her children who were mischievously trailing behind us, not wanting to see us leave. Before she left us she looked back between both of us, placed a hand over her chest and touched the other to our shoulders and repeated, “My sister my heart, my sister my heart.”
That evening we rode camels into the desert and drank large Kingfisher beers from a mysterious beer man: a villager who rode his motorcycle through the desert to our camp like a godsend carrying the large box of goods on the back of his bike. We sat on a sand dune watching the sunset and the almost full moon rise, sharing travel stories between our small group of adventurers; all wild spirits bursting from Ireland, Israel, Germany, and South Africa. We were the only Americans, which has not been an uncommon theme, (so far I believe we’ve met one other fellow American traveler). That night I drifted to sleep on a cot beneath the dazzling desert stars, waking up only once to watch in disorienting dream state as a Bengal fox tried to sneak into our camp and a guide shot up to promptly chase him away.
The next day after a quick Indian breakfast cooked for us over the fire by our guides, we rode our camel’s back through the desert and returned to our hostel to prepare ourselves for a 14 hour train ride to Jaipur.
Jaipur was nice but we only had a day and a half there, which we spent mostly between our Zostel and the rooftop restaurant of a hotel that allowed for a wide view of Rajasthan’s capital. The next morning we flew into Delhi, and in the chaotic Delhi airport barely made our flight to Dharamshala thanks to Indian directions and a language barrier. Flying into Dharamshala is how I’d like to imagine it might be like soaring into heaven; with a birds eye view of the Himalayan mountain range and a physically felt change of energy from bustling and stressful to peaceful and serene; home to His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, countless beautiful and bizarre species of Himalayan wildlife, and now, for this next month, me :). More to come on what life is like at a zero-waste, all women’s Buddhist nunnery in the most beautiful place I’ve ever been in my life (sorry Blue Ridge Mountains, love you).
Yours truly, (unless you don’t deserve me),