The learning curve

Since arriving in India, I’ve been thrown on a steep learning curve. This food is called paratha, this food is called paneer. Don’t use your left hand to eat; don’t use your right hand to touch communal things. Only enter a room when invited. You get the idea. During our three days of orientation, my brain was filled with Hindi words and Indian customs that I was instructed to abide by while here. And while I’m still trying to follow those directions, the more comfortable I get, the more I’m realizing that many of those rules are dependent upon whom you’re with. Indian culture is complex and certainly not uniformly practiced. There is a lot to know, but I’ve been received with plenty of patience. And I’m learning that while many Indian modes are different, the underlying meanings of actions are usually the same. It’s a steep learning curve, but I’m climbing it.

The example that best illustrates this realization came two nights ago. I had just gotten back from a day of classroom orientation (instructions abound) and a tour of Sajjangarh (an abandoned hilltop palace where you can look out over all of Udaipur). I dropped my bags off in my room and changed into comfy clothes then went into the main house to say hello to my host family. My host father was sitting in the master bedroom watching TV. He looked up when I entered the house. “Hello, Katie,” he said (in reality, it sounds more like “kehti”). I greeted him, and remembered back to my orientation session about household manners- never go into your hosts’ bedrooms uninvited. I lingered outside the door as we chatted about our days. Golu joined in the conversation and sat next to his dad on the bed. I waited outside until Ajay invited me to come in and sit on the side of the bed. “Do you mind if we have dinner here tonight?” Ajay asked. “Our favorite TV show is on tonight and we usually like to watch it in here,” Golu added. So the four of us sat on Ajay and Deepti’s bed eating dinner and watching the Hindi version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” I went from thinking I wasn’t allowed to step foot in my hosts’ bedroom to eating dinner and watching TV on their bed with them. It sounds totally bizarre, but it didn’t feel that way at all. It’s just part of their weekly routine, and I’m so glad they’ve included me.


View of Udaipur from Sanjjangarh

The Sharmas’ house


Inside their house (the left entryway goes to the kitchen, the right one goes to the master bedroom)


Swinging bench inside the house


Deepti’s garden

Yesterday, I broke another cardinal rule of travelling in developing countries (actually probably anywhere, even Minnesota if my parents had anything to say about it): never, ever get on the back of a motorcycle with a local man. Well, yesterday I did just that, but the circumstances called for it. Mom and Dad, please forgive me.

I woke up early, ate breakfast (yogurt and bananas) and headed off to school. I had plenty of time and thought I knew my way (notice I used the word thought? You see where this is going). Everything was going well. I recognized the storefronts I was passing and made it to Fateh Pura circle, which I knew meant that I was close to school.

I kept walking straight for a while before realizing that I really didn’t know where I was. I knew I needed to turn right at some point, but couldn’t remember where. I picked up the phone and called Ajay. I struggled to effectively communicate where I was since all the signs were in Hindi, and it’s kind of hard to distinguish one busy road from another. Finally, Ajay told me to turn around, go back to Fateh Pura circle and wait for him to meet me there. I obliged.

After a few minutes at the circle, I began to wonder where he was. Their house is only a three-minute ride from the circle, and I figured he’d be here by now. My phone buzzed; Ajay was calling. “Kehti, I am here. Where are you?” I told him I was here too and asked him what signs he saw to get an idea of his location around the circle. Suddenly, he said, “I see you” and hung up the phone. I was happy he saw me, but I still hadn’t found him so I continued looking around trying to local his small white car (by the way, I’ve surmised that 75% of people in Udaipur who drive a car drive a small white one, so this task was especially difficult). I was scanning the crowd when I saw a man waving at me from a motorcycle. It was Ajay. I ran over to him.

“Hello! I’m so sorry. I expected to see you in your car.” “Don’t worry. Hop on.” Talk about pressure. I’d never been on a motorcycle before, have no idea how you get on one, and oh by the way, was figuring this all out while cars, rickshaws and people buzzed by. I swung my leg over and hoped for the best. Fortunately, it was just a two-minute ride on a relatively calm street before we got to school. I apologized and thanked him again and then headed inside to tell my friends about the adventure.

All of us gathered at the school before heading out to visit the Kumbalgarh Fort and Ranakpur Temple. We piled in taxis and drove for two hours until we reached Kumbalgarh. Kumbalgarh was built in the fifteenth century for the king, Rana Kumbha. It was only besieged once, and the fort is surrounded by the second longest wall in the world (36 km). We climbed up to the top of the fort and were able to look out over the Aravalli countryside. From the top, we could see many villages and temples. After exploring there, we drove to lunch at a nearby hotel and then proceeded on to Ranakpur.


View from the top of Kumbalgarh Fort


Kumbalgarh Fort

Ranakpur is a Jain temple that was built in 1439. The construction of the temple was based on the number 72 because that was the age of Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, when he achieved nirvana. The foundation of the temple is 72 square meters and is held up by 1440 (a multiple of 72) intricately carved pillars. Inside the temple, there are 72 shrines. After walking around for a while, a man in a yellow robe, who turned out to be the head priest of the temple, approached us and asked if we wanted a tour. He told us the history of the temple then sat down and chanted a prayer for us. It was pretty incredible.


Ranakpur Temple

Before heading back to Udaipur, we stopped at another hotel for tea. Tea’s big here in India (shocking), and most people have it three times a day. It’s never just black tea, though. Everyone puts milk and sugar in and sometimes some ginger. It’s what Americans call chai tea. After teatime, we loaded back in the cars and drove home.

We began dinner earlier than usual last night and I noticed that my host family was eating relatively quickly. Part way through the meal, Deepti walked into their bedroom to turn on the TV. Who Wants to Be a Millionaire was on again. We all ate the rest of our meal, put our plates away, and then sat in the bedroom watching for a repeat of the night before.

There are many things to learn in and about India. And while it can seem overwhelming at times, the longer I stay here, the more I am realizing that the rules I was given during orientation are not as strict as they seemed.

In my house, we would never eat dinner on my parents’ bed or on the floor for that matter. But that doesn’t matter. The Sharmas really love each other and love spending time together. It’s true for them here and true for my mom, dad and me at home. As I learn how to navigate Indian culture, I’m learning that what our cultures don’t share in common is not nearly as important as what we do. Maybe the learning curve isn’t so steep after all.


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