It was a dark and smoky night at the Y’. Lights were out, blinds were closed, boys were asleep. We lay in bed, stirring after a saucy dinner. Suddenly: BAM (not a gunshot but a slam) Maggie and the rest of us jump up, confused by the rhythmic waves pounding at our ears. We get up, and open the door to the balcony. The sound heightens. We peek out onto our balcony, curious as to why these sounds were so loud and so close (especially at 10:30pm). Drummers. But just as we get into the rhythm, it stops.
We start to get back into our beds, exhausted after a long day of mainly sitting in cars and eating sauce. Silence, once again. Laying our heads on the pillows we start to drift off again, dreaming of another day filled with tuktuks and HALDIRAMS. jk.
The drumming begins again. The sound was even louder and stronger. Josie storms in wearing a neck pillow around her forehead, looking like a bag of haldirams (snack
). We leap onto the balcony. The band is energetically dancing in front of the Y as a massive school bus stops in front of the gate. People start flowing out, cheering, screaming, and dancing. By now, Catherine and Zahra have joined us and we are all attempting to dance to the rhythm of the sauce. With HALDIRAMS in our veins, sweat on our brows, and sauce on our legs, we threw it back into the night.
“So we beat on, backs ceaselessly boating into the past.” – The saucy Gatsby.
– Aisha, Lily, Josie, Maggie
We have arrived in Varanasi (also known as Benaras or Khasi)! After a short plane ride from Delhi, we drove into the city, getting a glimpse into what life looks like in Varanasi. Looking out the windows, the landscape was nearly opposite to what we saw in Delhi. Dirt roads, farms, and few buildings made up the sparse view. It was unlike anything I had seen before, and it felt like we were watching it pass us by as if we were watching a movie, and before I knew it, it was gone and we jumped into the bustling city of Varanasi. Varanasi is considered one of the holiest cities of India with the Ganga bordering its edge.
As I quickly learned in Varanasi, there are eight things you can see when driving down the road– cars, motorcycles, rickshaws, tuk tuks, pedestrians, cows, goats in sweaters, and many dogs. After dodging these various animals and vehicles, we arrived at the Where There be Dragons Program House, our new home for the next six days. At the Program House we were oriented to our surrounding neighborhood and introduced to our new families for the next few days. After we greeted our hosts for the week, we along with our partners (we were all in pairs, except Meika and Leo) ventured into the neighborhood and walked to our new home. All of our houses and family dynamics varied widely, so I will focus on my own experience with Zahra and our host family.
We met Mohon, a tall elderly man who has hosted Dragons students for many years and walked down a few streets and alleyways to find our new home in the heart of Assi Ghat, a neighborhood in Varanasi. He spoke very little English, so without the proper introductions, we misunderstood the family dynamic and who was who. Long story short, for the first night, we thought renters were a part of our host family, so we were given two dinners of nearly the same thing. But, after some observing, we realized that the host family rents one of their rooms and they were not a part of the family. In the family, we met the mother, her two kids, Ayushi and Bhowmik, and brother in-law. The family welcomed us with open arms and made sure that we never were hungry for chapattis or thirsty for chai.
On our first full day in Varanasi, we filled it with a walking tour given by Professor Rana Singh, a professor at Benaras Hindu University. As he said, if you can only go to one place in India, you should come here because Varanasi gives you the best taste of India. After the tour and a swadist (delicious in Hindi) lunch, we took our favorite kind of vehicle, a tuk tuk to a NGO, Guria, an after school program for kids where they can literally scream and shout and just have fun. We played musical chairs with them and even had a chance to do some meditation. Seeing the kids do meditation was most incredible because one moment the nearly 40 kids were screaming on the top of their lungs and the next they were sitting silently cross-legged with eyes closed for five minutes.
We had dinner with our families and quickly fell asleep, ready for another full day in the bustling city of Varanasi.
Should you ever find your stomach feeling uncomfortably rumbly after one too many dairy filled Haldiram curry bowls, the quickest way to hightail it back to the safety of your western-toilet containing hostel is to hail one of India’s famous three-wheeled vehicles of yellow death. Besides having to feed your child (parmesan-less) pasta, having your kid ride in a Tuk-Tuk, commonly referred to as an Auto Rickshaws, should be every parent’s worst nightmare. Comprised out of bright ‘cheddar-cheese’ colored nylon top, the Tuk-Tuk’s metal infrastructure offers little consolation to especially anxious riders. At first glance, the Tuk-Tuk’s back seat can comfortably hold up to 3 people, however, those who stop at 3 clearly lack in creativity as I have witness 7 full grown men casually stacked on top of each other as the driver whizzes about through the densely populated and lively alleyways of Old Delhi.
The key to maximizing the amount of persons able to fit in a Tuk-Tuk is to test the mettle of a few brave souls by sitting them down (whether by force or some other form of intimidation) in the front. Riding in the front of an Auto-Rickshaw, while offering the rider a non-obstructed view of the Indian streets, requires that the ‘shotgunner’ be fully prepared to platonically spoon the driver. The close quarters of the front seat, the two child sized seats cut in half meant for the riders placed on both sides of the driver’s chair, the natural rounded edge of the Tuk-Tuk, in tandem with the unexpected speed bumps and cow pies found scattered throughout Indian roads can spell disaster for any rider with an unusually bloated stomach.
In order to remedy this issue, I have come up with 3 key steps that all aspiring lactose-intolerant Tuk-Tuk riders should keep in mind:
- Use the arm closet to the driver to firmly grip the horizontal metal bar behind them. Form is key here; you know you have perfected it when your armpit and the driver’s shoulder becomes one unified entity of sweat and fear.
- Place the leg closest to the opening of the vehical onto of the metal pulley used to jump-start the engine. Be carful not to let your feet touch the handle as your shoes have no-doubly been “blessed” by one of India’s many street cows.
- Make sure that you stay looking like a snack by checking your hair out in the two rear-view mirrors, that oddly enough, are rendered almost useless as they are obstructed by the plastic top enclosing the back.
Pro Tip: Recall that one time when you decided to substitute your usual HSM lunch for an entire pint of Ben and Jerry’s Chunky Monkey. Remember the cross-legged, hunched over technique used to make it home on the Muni and attempt to emulate it as best as possible.
All jokes aside, Tuk-Tuks are exhilaratingly fun and they ensure that you get from point A to point B with enough time to stop at the local pharmacy for some much needed Lactaid.
– Leo H.
Today marks the end of our time in Varanasi – we have seen and done a great deal, and the students have been QUITE busy, hence the lull in full blog posts. We hope that you have been able to keep up with our Instagram account, seen on the right side of this page – it offers more of a play-by-play of our time here in India. There will be a wave of blog posts shortly – students have been writing, but it has been harder to find time to transcribe to the laptop! We will update more shortly.
Throughout our days in Delhi, I have been reminded of the impact of authentic human connection. On our first day, we talked with a women’s rights activist, Nandi Rao, and during dinner I asked her about the impact of the feminist movement in households. She told me that the home can be the hardest place to change, though some people come to her workshops and, through honest discussion, have a transformative experience.
Over these couple of weeks, I’m seeking experiential and transformative learning too. It can be hard to create meaningful connections when we only have days in one place, but I’m learning that I can make genuine interactions in one moment, and let it go in the next.
The next day, we found ourselves in a huge kitchen making roti with people we had never met. I sat next to a man in sunglasses who was rapidly rolling roti dough. (I was thoroughly impressed.) He taught me his technique and, with hand gestures, asked me where I was from. I wrote USA in flour and he smiled. Before we left, he asked for a picture and gave me a handful of fresh roti. I had been so worried about the language barrier and just accepted that it would make creating connections impossible, but in that kitchen for maybe twenty minutes, I was (kinda) talking and learning with a stranger.
A few nights ago, we took a rickshaw tour of Old Delhi. Ben and I hopped on a rickshaw belonging to a man in a bright red beanie. He was so excited to take us around and never stopped smiling. In traffic, he pointed at bright lights and vivid fabrics and turned around to see our reactions. It was so much fun just to share our excitement with him.
The very next day, we walked through the same streets on our way to a mosque. Some part of me wondered if I would see the same rickshaw driver again, but even if we did, he probably wouldn’t recognize us. But the universe is magical, so of course we saw him and we rushed into the street to shake hands. I’m not sure why this tiny thing impacted me so much, but I was so incredibly happy to see him again. I don’t even know his name (and I wish I had asked) but still, it felt like we knew him. I know I (probably) won’t see these people again, but sharing authentic excitement and experiences with them is just as valuable and I feel so lucky to have had these moments.
The Urban India trip for 2017-18 is about to begin! We depart tomorrow evening, so keep an eye on this page and on the Urban Instagram account (linked on the right side of this blog or @UrbanIndia2017) for photos and updates!
-Bethany and Dan
On Sunday night, our intrepid group will embark on the 2017-18 India trip. Those of you at home can check in here for photos and reflections as the trip unfolds. Posts below this one are from previous years’ trips; posts above are this group’s adventures. Bethany has linked the trip Instagram account to this page, as well. See it over there to the right? Be sure to check there for photos too!
Happy Travels, Blues!