Wow…. India has been by far my favorite cultural port so far.
My original idea of India was that it was going to be really hot, smell, extremely crowded, and dirty. However, it was some of these things but completely different as well.
My first day in India was spent on an FDP for my Global Marketing class. We went to a fisherman village. I didn’t really have high hopes for this trip because mainly every FDP I’ve been on up until this point has been disappointing. We arrived to a town and proceeded to board canoes with chairs that looked like they were decorated for a wedding. We rode these to the other side of the backwaters and explored another village where we were greeted with fresh coconuts to drink. After arriving, we were taken into the village where we were shown the process of making rope from coconuts. Basically they take the hair from the coconut shells, soak it in water for 3-4 months and then take the hair out, pound it with rocks, drain the water from it and then proceed to take it to another part of the village where they will string it together. After stringing the hair together, it is placed in a wheel where they weave 3 pieces together, and then ultimately string those with other pieces and make a giant rope. The entire process is very time consuming and requires many of the villagers to make it. We then also saw how they weave baskets, and run their fishing operation.
In the river, women set pots on the bottom, leave them sit for a while and go back later in the day and retrieve them to have them be filled with shrimp and usually one to two fish. If they would like to catch more fish, they use their hands.
However, inside the village there were fish farms as well. We were able to see the fishing process with the use of nets as well as the crabbing process. They farm mud crabs there, which are mainly exported to Singapore as well as other Asian countries. After we stopped at the village, we were taken to a place for lunch where we ate traditional Indian food and were entertained with traditional dance. After the village, we rode auto rickshaws to the busses. This was an experience, racing down the horrible roads of India, passing every car possible, going up on sidewalks and almost hitting pedestrians just to get to the busses first. It was so much fun yet highly dangerous. We then went into another village where we were invited into one of the fisherman’s homes. We apparently saw one of the nicer homes. We walked into the living room where there were two plastic chairs and a religious mantle that displayed their Roman Catholic beliefs. Viewing this house was the first time that I have really appreciated things for what they actually were instead of viewing them from an outsiders point of view. When we look at countries that are much poorer then we are and have lower living standards than we posses, we feel sympathy. Yet there is such a sense of community and love in these villages that materialistic things mean nothing to them. Plus this is all that they know, so they are content with their living situations. When we toured the house and saw that there was only one bed for five people, to be honest, it was a bit of a shock. However, the kids were sitting there playing with bouncy balls and were enjoying themselves and paid no attention to the fact that not everyone can rest comfortably at the same time. In the US we might have lavish items but many of us do not know all of our neighbors or have been there to help them when they needed something. We lack this sense of community that poorer countries have as well as the familial values.
On my second day in India I flew to New Delhi. My thought was this is going to be the real India, the one that I have been preparing myself for months now. Even before we left the ship, cardboard was taped to the carpet to protect it from all the dirt and filth that India is known for. I was a bit worried. However, when we arrived, we walked out of the airport, the weather was a perfect 80 degrees, there was no smell, and there were not as many people as I expected. While driving around Delhi, we learned that the city is the second most polluted city in the world next to Mexico City. However, they are also one of the greenest cities in the world. Apparently at the start of the new century, the government passed laws in Delhi making it illegal to cut down trees with out permission and mass public transportation is legally required to run on biofuel in an effort to start working on the pollution problem. Delhi is a beautiful city, everything is so colorful and the people are very friendly.
First, we took a city tour, went to the India monument, which was built in memory of all of the soldiers that lost their lives in war.
On the third day, we took a train to Agra. The train station was an experience. The smell was awful because people tend to go to the bathroom on the train tracks. We even had people go right in front of the large group of us. There were rats everywhere and even cows. According to Hindu belief, certain Gods take on the guise of animals, one being the cow and the rat and many others. During the train ride, we had the chance to see the poverty conditions in India and they are severe. People go to the bathroom anywhere and everywhere. Apparently there are certain areas for men and other areas for women outside. However, because women cannot show their bodies, they are only permitted to go to the bathroom outside during the nighttime. Yet houses do not possess indoor plumbing. People’s houses are falling apart, some live in huts, shacks, or even buildings with three walls and a thatch like roof. Also, trash is everywhere away from the main city. There are dogs running loose all over the place, everything is malnourished including the cows and camels and all these animals seem to be sick and some have serious mange. The pollution also, increases as we travel further away from Delhi. As the sun rises, you can see the pollution like a fog as it is like a paste on the horizon into the sky.
Arriving in Agra is a rude awakening. We get off the train and are walking to the buses. It seems like every person with a physical deformity in India was waiting by the busses to beg for money. Also, children were coming up to us in flocks begging for money and food. Many of us gave them our left over food from the train as well as our water bottles that were given to us. These children needed it much more than we did. It was extremely hard to see this and then go and eat lunch at a five star hotel. It seemed like we were being sheltered from the real India and being put into the tourist India. We were told that many people would never make it through their entire stay if they were to see the real India because of the poverty, malnutrition, and physical deformities of the residents. You see how helpless these people are in Northern India and want to help them but you can’t. It’s definitely a wake up call again how lucky we are to have everything that we do at home. I did not see much of this in Southern India because Kerala, where the ship was docked, is one of the wealthier areas and posses a 98% literacy rate.
After viewing some monuments and lavish tombs we finally get to the part of the tour that I have been waiting my entire life to see, the Taj Mahal. Pictures do not do this structure justice. It is beautiful and the story behind it even more so. The Taj Mahal was built by Shah Jahan, the emperor of India in 1631, in recognition of his 3rd and favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal who died giving birth to their 14th child. You cannot look at this structure in nothing more but awe. Some say it is the most symmetrical building on earth. However due to the increasing threats of acidic rain, the Taj has been turning yellow. Because of this, the government has made certain environmental restrictions within a 4000-mile radius surrounding the Taj to help with this problem. You also cannot drive up to the structure; you must walk or take an electric bus to get there. Another impeding threat to the Taj Mahal is the Yamuna River to the north of the structure is drying up and causing the wood to rot that holds up the structure. Some believe that the Taj Mahal will begin to collapse in the next five years or so. During our time at the Taj, we also witnessed the call to prayer two times. It plays over loud speakers and calls believers of the Hindu religion to stop what they are doing and pray. The call to Prayer consists of repetitive mantras, usually telling one to be healthy, live a full life and to best evil.
Later on in the evening, we catch a flight to Varanasi, better known as the holy city for Hinduism, Buddhism as well as Jainism. It is the oldest city in the world proven at 5000 years old but believed to have been around for many years before. Jerusalem on the other hand the holy city for Christianity, Judaism and Islam has been proven to exist for over 3000 years. Varanasi is completely different from anything that I have seen in my life. The city is so crowded. To paint you a picture, it’s like New York City on New Years Eve only in tiny streets the size of alleys. These streets need to fit the thousands of people who walk all over the place, cows, dogs, and cars that constantly are beeping and trying to go through all of the people. Auto rickshaws, rickshaws, bikes and motorcycles attempt to weave their way through traffic as well. There are so many people walking through these streets that once you go so far, vehicles and even bicycles are prohibited. Everything is dirty and there are cows at every turn. We are definitely in the holy city now. There are people in groups heading to the ceremony at the Ganga (Ganges River). We are getting closer now to the river, you can hear all the people praying. You also hear music in the distance and bells being rang. We see a platform that is lit up with men who will demonstrate the prayer. Everyone is singing a lot and you have a spiritual feeling over come you even if you are not a believer. These people come here every night to worship the gods that they believe in. People from all over come here many times a year whenever they can. People from all over India pilgrimage to get to the river and walk for weeks just to take part in this evening ceremony and then wake up early to bathe in the Ganga. Witnessing this ceremony was something special. There are no words that I can think of to describe what we saw and how it made us feel.
At sunrise, we board boats that are going to take us up the Ganga to witness the morning rituals that people take part in. Some come to meditate, for when the sun rises, it is the best time to make your mind and spirit become one. Others come to bathe in the Ganges and wash away their sins and pray to the gods. Hinduism is such a powerful religion that most believers fuse their religion with every task that they take part in and make the nightly ceremony and the sunrise walk down the Ghats (stairways that’s lead to the river) and into the Ganga to take part in the morning prayer and bathing, a part of their daily routine. Experiencing this was amazing and very special that these complete strangers welcome us with open arms to take part in and witness an act that is so sacred to them. As we continue down the river, we are told that we cannot take any more pictures because we have arrived at the cremation site. Up on the hill, there is a platform that houses the eternal flame. Varanasi is the only place in the world where cremations can be done 24/7 and on the same day as the person passes away. There is a whole ritual done before a body can be buried. They must be submerged in the river so many times and must be blessed so many times and then they are cremated on a platform next to the river. The ashes are then scattered into the Ganges. This ritual must be done so the reincarnation process ceases and the person can reach nirvana. If families are not wealthy, many times they will wrap their deceased loved one in a burlap sack and put them in the river. Hindu’s also believe that if a cow dies, they should be put into the Ganges and then the people should drink the water from around the deceased cow. Because the cow is sacred as well as the water in the river, they believe that nothing will happen to them.