“How was India?” This has been the question of loving and curious friends, family members, classmates, and acquaintances in even the few days since I returned from India. That question is so broad to encompass all the precious things God has worked (and is working!) in and through me from this journey. So, I will graciously answer this ubiquitous question with some stories and snippets of a time happily spent.
On my arrival in India, the people I was with were surprised, saying that they’d never had any visitors adjust so flawlessly to the time change and strain of travel. Apparently my “flawless adjustment” didn’t extend to the return trip, as I am currently in possession of my first true (and rather severe) case of jet lag. As I sit very still with a bowl of (dry) Cornflakes, I’m trying to pretend that my ever-loving dad didn’t just attempt to offer me such a stomach-churning item as milk to put over top of them. But I digress.
How was India, you wish to know? It felt like going home. Until I am in other places and other cultures, I rarely feel just how pseudo-American my own culture (and that of my family) is. I have had to repeatedly admit to myself just how much not only my faith and my family but also the places I’ve lived have influenced the woman I’ve become and the values I hold dear. Just because I look (and sometimes sound) like a Midwest-American, Dutchy girl from Michigan, that is not the setting that makes me feel most myself. The sunshine, the smells, the languages, the people, the spicy food, the ministry, even the traffic – I was so wholly well. In changing my environment and reaching out to others, I regained my perspective and found again my quiet place with Jesus. It’s amazing how looking past yourself and breaking from rigid monotony (even of “good” tasks and endeavors) can refocus your eyes on the most important aspects of life. So allow me to give you a tiny glimpse of India through the eyes of a girl who fell instantly in love with the beautiful country in which the air truly does smell like spices….
From a Mother’s Wisdom
Apparently, no matter what culture or country they are part of, mothers provide some of the most reasonable advice. While staying in Hyderabad with a friend’s family who welcomed me with astonishing kindness and love, I was given my favorite piece of advice. This moment was made all the more splendid by the fact that I speak practically no Telugu and Mama speaks practically no English. As we rode in the car one afternoon, Mama admonished me to not spill my coconut water on my saree, as the stain wouldn’t come out of the fabric. This admonishment to be cautious was accompanied by miming of what I should, under no circumstances, do if I wanted to keep my saree in good repair. For this white girl wearing her first saree, it was a much-needed piece of motherly advice!
In the Tradition of India
Yes, you read correctly above – I really did wear a saree, and not just one I’d picked up and attempted to put on in tourist-like fashion. My friend’s mother chose sunshiny-yellow (how could she have possibly known it is one of my favorite colors?) fabric and had all the proper pieces of a true saree made for me. Mama and sisters laughed and flocked around as they all fussed and pinned, dressing me in the true tradition of India – not as an outsider but as a guest and one of the family. I’m not sure who enjoyed it more – me or Mama! Secretly I have always wanted to wear a saree, but I would never have had one made for myself. Utterly comfortable in my own skin and appropriately garbed as a daughter of India (complete with a full set of bangles!), I enjoyed the day exploring Hyderabad with the family. I never realize how much I stand out at times, but among only Indian people wherever I went, I (especially with my blond hair) was quite a novelty.
As Only the Holy Spirit Can Do
I was invited to share at the family’s church in Hyderabad, having met the pastor and zealous children’s and youth leaders the previous week during the awesome leadership-ministry training which I helped facilitate. (It was neat to build new connections there simply by knowing friends in the U.S.!) There was some discussion: perhaps I would guest-lead the children’s ministry that Sunday, or perhaps I could introduce the ministry model for the congregation and share a bit about myself. So what actually happened Sunday morning? When I arrived, I was handed a microphone and invited to preach the Gospel, minister to my brothers and sisters in Christ, and explain and implement a whole new ministry model of listening prayer and learning to hear God’s voice. As my dad would say, it was my first “full preach” – my first time acting as teacher-pastor for the whole church body. Oh, and it was beautiful! God had been preparing my heart with a message, and I was prepared to be flexible in whatever was asked of me and whatever God wanted to do.
I was blessed to have an effective translator to support my weak area (i.e. my current non-command of Telugu). Though he had as much prior notice about his task as I did mine, I was truly humbled by his willingness to take on such a daunting job for the first time. In that sun-warmed church, my heart was awed afresh as I watched the Holy Spirit do what only He can do, ministering directly to the hearts and needs of each of God’s children, be they grown or small. As we moved into a quiet listening time as a church, waiting to each hear what God was speaking to us, the Holy Spirit spoke in ways that these brothers and sisters could understand. Visions, descriptions of colors, and precious new prayers poured forth as we began to share and pray into the things God spoke through His Spirit. Though I began the morning tired and deeply saddened by the long-distance loss of my beloved great-grandmother the previous night, there was nothing more refreshing than to place myself in the community of brothers and sisters in that place. God is so faithful to meet us in each moment! (Feel free to ask for more specific stories, as I’d love to share!)
Good Morning, India!
Though the weather during my first week was certainly more cloudy, I enjoyed waking up to twittering birds, sunshiny warmth (rising beyond 80 degrees Fahrenheit on many afternoons), and the sounds of trade and traffic stirring for a new day. While in Hyderabad, I had the further pleasure of enjoying the sounds of family waking, as well as the 5:45 A.M. call to prayer from a nearby mosque – the quirky alarm suited my love of early mornings!
At the Heart of Family
I knew some of what to expect from extensive conversations in which my dear friend graciously answered dozens of odd questions ranging from how best to exchange currency to how I should address his various family members. Still, even armed with so much knowledge, one must be ready to go with the flow and learn through experience. Even knowing how much my friend loves his family, I was struck by how close-knit the family was. I met dozens of aunts, uncles, and cousins, being bolstered by the aid of brothers who acted as impromptu interpreters and the recipients of my many, many more questions. Much more so than American culture, family is at the heart of Indian culture – and the heart of family is in togetherness and care for one another. With the little cousins crawling on me and calling me “big sister” in Telugu (akka), I was reminded of just how precious a blessing family is – and how much there is to learn from other cultures.
At Meal Time
As I learned when I arrived, the Indian states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana (together as the single state of Andhra Pradesh until a couple years ago) are known for the spiciest food in all India. I almost started dancing with glee – bring on the flavors of India! Other than the fact that I couldn’t consume a satisfactory quantity of food to please the family I stayed with (love = lots of food), I enjoyed the new textures and spices. There are enough types of curry to boggle your mind, and I was blessed to enjoy delicious homemade meals in both areas where I stayed. Very little beef or pork is eaten in the area, if at all, based primarily on the general religious beliefs and customs. Chicken, vegetables, or lentils provide the base for many types of curries. Biryani and tamarind rice are two special types of rice dishes made for special occasions, and they have very specific spices that each cook prefers to use. And if the heat gets to be too much in your mouth, don’t worry – most meals are served with curd, a type of cool, thin yogurt-sour cream, that you can mix with your curry or eat at the end of the meal with rice to soothe your palate. If you get really delightful curds, like I tasted, there might even be freshly sliced bits of red onion and cilantro mixed in – yum! (And no, I do not really have any photographs of food. That is too millennial-hipster for me, and it is hard to photograph something when you already literally have a hand in it!)
Did You Know…
In the areas where I was, families eat together while simply sitting around comfortably, often without a table. (Where I was, the lack of table simply made more space for family to crowd close and enjoy the meal.) And, coming from a part of Hindu culture that has permeated India in general (whether Hindu or not), you eat particularly with your right hand – no utensils. I actually became fairly good at this in a short period of time, helped by the fact that rice is a main staple and provides an excellent tool for “sticking” the curries together. I used a spoon the day after I got back to the U.S., and it seemed a bit foreign at first!
Beep, beep! The horns on vehicles in India are not merely accessories. They are, in fact, vital and constantly-used tools to let other street traffic (whether wheeled or otherwise!) know where you are and where you want to go. After living in Nairobi, Kenya, for a couple years, I found the traffic of India comfortingly familiar in its hectic bustle – and not nearly so shocking as I was preparing myself for!
And Just Because Traveling Can Be Amusing…
Upon being escorted to the airport at the end of my trip, I was happy to have my friends wait with me until my flight was boarding. As we sat sipping on a variety of hot and cold drinks (definitely a cold one for the MI girl who felt like it was summer in the winter of India!), an elderly British man walked past, and I stared in bewilderment. Much to the amusement of my companions (who were looking at me oddly), I began to laugh, because, just as he looked like an anomaly to me, that was how I probably appeared to everyone else. I just hadn’t seen any white people in some time, and it was difficult not to stare! It’s amazing how unobtrusive I felt after only a handful of days, even walking the streets with my friends.
After two weeks in India – and hearing almost exclusively Telugu for the second week – I was traveling back to the U.S. (albeit somewhat reluctantly!). As I waited in the Paris airport, a flight attendant asked me a question about my checked luggage. I stood staring blankly at her, trying to translate in my mind what she could possibly mean – until I realized that she had spoken in accented but flawless English. It took several minutes for me to understand that I hadn’t recognized my own language being spoken!
Speaking of the Paris airport, I was made to remove all my bangles form my arms while going through security (not a quick task, I assure you!). As I somewhat grumpily removed them, I started to laugh at how different the Indian airports had been in regard to security measures – after all, what good reason would there be to remove all one’s jewelry?! Even though it seemed silly to me after the places I had just come from (and to others coming from other parts of India or Africa), with stern Parisian TSA officers staring me down, I decided it was best to follow directions.