Annie is a junior art history major from Houston, Texas. She is spending the fall semester with the University of Iowa’s Semester in South India program. The program is located at the Dhvanyaloka Centre for Indian Studies in Mysore, a city of about one million people in the state of Karnataka.
Business as Usual
It seems that when you live in a place long enough, all of those little things that used to be spectacular cease to be spectacular, and become integrated parts of your daily life. Indian squat toilets, post offices, rickshaws, temples, shops -- it seems that, after two months of living here, everything that can become normal to me has. Here are two of my favorite "normal" things about India:
If you took Houston drivers, gave them bicycles and motor scooters, made them aware of pedestrians, and set them loose on streets with very few stop signs or traffic lights, you would have Indian traffic. So, being a Houston driver myself, I never had the initial "crazy driver" culture shock that most people experience on their first venture into Indian traffic. What surprised me more than the "no rules" attitude of the drivers is the sheer diversity of vehicles that occupy the road.
Private cars are rare. When you do see them, they tend to be old, compact, and jammed full of people (like a clown car at the circus). Taxis are also rare, but auto rickshaws, the bodies of which consist of tricycle-style wheels with a bench in the front for the driver, a bench in the back for three passengers, and a black and yellow soft top, are common. There are many people on bicycles, and even more people on motor scooters. There are city buses and flat bed trucks, and one even sees the occasional bullock cart lumbering down the road. (A bullock cart is two humped bulls yoked to a cart which is filled with some sort of commodity).
And, of course, there are pedestrians everywhere in the street. But what is really unique about Indian roads are the animals who take them over. There are lots of dogs and goats, but cows (and yaks and water buffalo) are by far the most common. Most of the time, the cows just loiter casually along the side of the road, nibbling grass and watching the world go by. However, every once in a while, one will get the urge to cross the street, and when it does, all of the crazy Indian traffic comes to a complete halt to let it pass.
Stamps without Glue
The first time I went to an Indian post office, I thought that I was ready for anything. I had mentally prepared myself for long lines and thick accents and an inability to make change -- all expected characteristics of running any sort of errands in India. My visit, however, was surprisingly quick and easy, as there was no line, and the post office staff was helpful -- even friendly.
Thinking I'd gotten off easy, I gladly took my stamps and letters outside to where the mailbox was. Noticing that the stamps weren't self adhesive like they are at home, I licked the back of one and stuck it to my letter. It fell off. Thinking I hadn't gotten it wet enough, I licked it and stuck it on again. And again it fell. After several tries, and several stamps, I realized that Indian stamps don't have any sort of adhesive on the back. I stood there for a minute, dumbfounded at this new revelation, trying to figure out what to do.
Then, next to the door of the post office, I spotted a man standing at a high, slanted table, sticking stamps onto envelopes. I thought that there wouldn't be any glue provided, and that the man must have brought his own, but after he left, I walked over to the table just to make sure. And there, mounted on the wall next to the table, was a small plastic cup with a ball point pen sticking out of it. I had seen the pen on my way into the post office, and thought that it was just for writing addresses. But my curiosity got the better of me, and as I pulled the pen out of the cup, a translucent substance that reminded me of a non-smelly rubber cement came running off of the end. I'd found my glue! So I glued my stamps to my letters and mailed them, the Indian way.
The hills are alive . . .
You should be very proud of me, because today I climbed all 1001 of the steps that lead to the top of Chamundi Hill. Chamundi Hill is one of the important religious sites in Mysore, and it features a very large statue of a bull, called Nandi, abut two thirds of the way up, and a temple dedicated to the goddess Chamundi at the summit. While many tourists take buses or cars up to the summit to visit the temple (as I did last week), my friends and I decided it be interesting to go back today and walk up the hill instead.
“Walking up the hill” is really a misnomer for what one does to get to the top of Chamundi. “Climbing the small mountain” might be more appropriate. There are 1001 steps to the top of Chamundi, which are either very steep and very small, or very flat and very large. Everyone, even the most fit people, stops every few hundred steps to take a break. Some people stop more often. It is believed by many that climbing the steps of Chamundi gives one a karmic boost, and the most devout Hindus climb barefoot, touching every step on the way up. The number 1001 is considered auspicious in Indian culture, thus the need for 1001 steps rather than merely 1000.
Almost there . . .
On the way up the “hill,” I went through a sort of psychological struggle. My thoughts turned from “Oh, cool, there are monkeys at the entrance to this thing,” to “I’m only at step three hundred and I’m panting like a dog in Houston’s summer,” to “Why did I ever agree to do this,” to “Wow, look at this great view of Mysore,” to “I can’t believe I made it.” By the time I got to the summit, I was sweating and panting, and my legs were shaking. Getting to the top of Chamundi is quite a task.
But getting to the top of Chamundi is also quite a pleasure. The steps are made of stone, and built into the landscape of hill, and wind their way up the side. This actually makes the hike quite pretty. All of the way up, you are surrounded by gorgeous, leafy trees. Every once in a while, the trees will part, and you can get a great aerial glimpse of Mysore. The path is dotted with shrines and worshipers; Indian tourists taking pictures; and real, live monkeys. Once at the top, you can get a tender coconut -- a green fruit which the vendor cuts open at the top so that you can drink the milk out of it. There are more great views of Mysore, and lots of stalls selling food and souvenirs, and (of course), the Sri Chamundeswari Temple. And nothing can beat the sense of accomplishment that you feel for having finally reached the top.
Going down the steps is much easier and quicker, except for the fact that their steepness sometimes causes you to believe that you’re about to go tumbling down them. You get this euphoric feeling for having accomplished something great. You have struggled, and you have sweated, and you have followed in the footsteps of the thousands of pilgrims who have come before you. You did it! But, most importantly, you have been close enough to a live monkey to take a really great picture of it -- something which you would never be able to accomplish by staying in the car.
Tourists come to Mysore mainly to visit the Maharaja’s Palace and the Sri Chamundeswari Temple (located at the top of Chamundi Hill). Classes will be in session until the end of October, and my schedule includes Culture and Civilization of India; Women and Gender in Indian Society; Science, Technology, and Sustainable Development; Intro to Hindi; and yoga, cooking, and sitar lessons. I will be traveling throughout the country from the end of October until the middle of November, when I will come back to Mysore and do an independent study project. After the program ends in December, I will do some more traveling, and will finally return to the US in January, just in time for SMU classes to start.
Before I left for India last month, I got a lot of funny looks from people. When someone found out that I was about to go to India, they would inevitably stare at me with a quizzical look on their face and ask: “India? Why would you want to go to India?” And the answer I gave them: “Because it smells different.”
The truth is, before I left for India, I had no idea why I wanted to go. I hoped to figure that out when I got there. I have been in India for one month now, and I think I might have found the answer. So far I have:
- Endured an international flight with no carry-on luggage
- Started wearing salwar kameez
- Traveled in a non-A/C 3 tier sleeper car on a 12-hour train
- Eaten a coconut straight from the tree
- Seen sheep and goats and cows and monkeys
- Visited temples and palaces and mosques
- Eaten street food
- Endured an overcrowded rush hour bus
- Been interviewed by Indian journalism students on the beach in Chennai
- Learned to play the sitar
And this is only a partial list. I learn something new every day.
So, after a month in Mysore, I have finally figured out the answer to everyone’s question: “I want to go to India because it’s an adventure."