Moving further away from homesickness and culture shock, I have surprisingly been reminded of home more often as I reach the three month mark. Our program AFS orientation is called midstay, but it actually happens about a third of the way in. I flew to Mumbai for a very busy weekend with the other five NSLI-Y girls.
I was excited mostly to see a new part of the country, although our first two days in the city were spent in our hotel. Reflecting on the past few months and setting goals for the future has prepared me to move past the initial months of the year. Besides discussing our specific experiences, we were given the chance learn about India outside of the city of Indore. Our session leaders, two understanding and kind AFS volunteers, emphasized the diversity of the country. I enjoyed hearing about the differences between my central Indian city and the Southern Indian hill station where one of our leaders lives. We discussed paratha (central/northern flat bread) versus dosa, a South Indian sort of savory crepe. I’m pretty sure I prefer paratha, but as our leader Karthi pointed out- I haven’t tried real South Indian dosa yet!
Both of our leaders were very open minded, and happy to answer any questions that came to mind. Even when it was not a planned part of the session, ongoing Q&A was one of the most helpful aspects of the orientation. Although we are always immersed in life here, we are usually not directly taught about most aspects of Indian culture . As they explained rituals practiced by our host families, and about Hinduism as a culture rather than religion, I began jotting things down.
On our day to explore the city of Mumbai, we started with experiencing one path of practicing Hinduism, the ISKCON temple. The International Society of Krishna Consciousness, an organization of Lord Krishna devotees, was started about fifty years ago in New York City. Today, with about 650 temples around the world (including one in Indore), their headquarters are in Mumbai. Hare Krishna, their mantra, was written along the ceiling so many of India’s languages that our guides couldn’t name most, although our AFS leader did point out Tamil. Especially in Mumbai, we encountered many people who primarily speak a language other than Hindi. Seeing the same sixteen word mantra spelled out in each of the different scripts helped me understand how different each of the many languages are. Inside the marble temple, Megan and I were given a blessing by the pandit (priest) as we stood in awe of the murals and idols. Next to the exit, we were given sizable pieces of prashad (holy offering) from what looked like a gigantic metal pie plate.
After riding through Mumbai’s traffic, under the road via pedestrian subway, and down a long boardwalk, we arrived at the roughly 600 year old Haji Ali Dargah and mosque. Surrounded by the ocean, it holds the tomb of Muslim saint Pir Haji Ali Shah Bukhara. Since visiting the ancient mosque in Mandu, I have been eager to visit a mosque in service. Once it was in front of me, I realized I had no idea of the appropriate customs. After covering our heads, we entered the separate side for women. We admired the dome ceiling above the tomb, which had colorful glass pieces and what I’ve now learned are names for Allah in Arabic. Outside, families were gathered around the mosque, enjoying the sun and preparing for worship. Experiencing a mosque was very special, especially one as stunning as the Haji Ali.
Next was really my opportunity to feel like a tourist- we headed to the Gateway to India and Taj Hotel. After three months of attempted to be as immersed in daily life as possible, I had fun joining the other tourists walking around the arch’s . I was also excited for my first view of the Indian Ocean, and the colorful fishing boats moored beyond the arch.
We were given the chance to stretch our legs and practice our Hindi by shopping. After taking advice from our AFS volunteer, sticking to no English definitely helped my otherwise weak bargaining skills. Besides the variety of what we could buy, I enjoyed the different languages. We heard a lot of Marathi for the first time, the official language of Mumbai’s state of Maharashtra. My best purchase, at only ten rupees each, was Mumbai’s famous street food, vada pav. It is a fried potato filling inside a small bun, and was especially delicious with a glass of sugarcane juice we watched being made.
We enjoyed more vada pav while visiting the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, one of India’s busiest railway stations. The beauty of the building made it hard to believe it was actually running, especially when I thought of Milwaukee’s grey, boxy Amtrak station.
Before heading to the airport, we made one last stop at Juhu Beach. The Indian Ocean does not much resemble the Great Lakes, but it made me think about how much I miss Lake Michigan! It felt great to put my feet in the sand, and I felt like I was experiencing a part of India very different from the central city of Indore. This beach was also special because I remembered this summer eating vada pav with my grandparents (<3) at a delicious Indian restaurant in Oakland- called Juhu Beach Club!
Our flight was delayed a few hours, but the five of us reflecting on our trip in the airport Starbucks. None of us are huge Starbucks fans in the US, but eating banana bread and discussing how similar this felt to weekend trip to New York with my friend Ruby, all in the familiar coffee shop setting, felt like we were back at home.
When we got back to Indore, the festival of Navratri was in full swing. Navratri entails nine nights celebrating good over evil and the female divinity, Durga Maa (although the exact festivities vary in different states). Garba, a folk dance originating in Gujarat, is “played” in honor of Durga Maa throughout the festival. It is performed in many temples around the city, all in a circle to represent the Hindu cyclical belief of time. I had fun going to Megan’s practice and catching glimpses of different dances while driving around the city at night.
Going to a huge garba performance in the center of the city, in a lot of ways reminded me of my home high school’s homecoming dance, which took place this weekend. Megan’s host mom generously wrapped my first sari. She made sure to give us all the complete look- kajol (under eyeliner), bindi, hair tikka, and bangles so tight we had to use lotion to get them on. Thanks to our local coordinator, we were special guests and got to watch the beautiful dancing from the front. The dancers compete for best costumes, so as they rotated around we had fun picking out our favorite hats and dresses. At the end, we even got to join in. The entire thing was on live TV, and although dancing in a huge amount of makeup and jewelry is something I’d usually never think about doing, it was another chance to push myself out of my comfort zone. I loved spinning around in the circle with the other girls, and trying to follow along with the dancers.
While King’s homecoming has a rush of people toward the doors at the end, everyone at the garba rushed toward the idol of Durga Maa. A huge pooja (prayer) was performed, and everyone sang and clapped together. We were all given the meaningful opportunity to hold the pooja thali (silver plate rotated during pooja).
Although I was worried about feeling homesick during homecoming weekend, I didn’t feel like I was missing out while participating in Indian festivities. Comparison with my Indian and American lives can be detrimental to my exchange. (I still get flavor updates from my local frozen custard place. When I was alerted about my family’s favorite flavor, Tiramisu, I attempted to order it here and was pretty disappointed by the eggless coffee-ish ice cream.) However, coming being able to relate activities here to what I would normally be doing at home, and even eating Starbucks banana bread, has certainly helped me settle in here. In the following weeks, I am looking forward to working toward my midstay orientation goals and getting ready for Diwali.