tomorrow i leave for my next destination so i wanted to take advantage of my computer access while i can... i am not sure when i will be able to post next. my 7 days in Kolkata has been very nice. my Kolkata family helped me so much to get adjusted...this was a very good place to start the trip. after many trips out in the car, i can recognize the neighborhood (to get to meditation class, turn right after the big white temple...the candy stand is across from uncle's work, etc.), i am beginning to pick out certain words so that i can ask...i hear you say _ may times...what does this mean? and as i get to know people i am beginning to distinguish the difference between cultural mannerisms vs. personality differences, which i find can be difficult to separate when you first arrive somewhere so new.
this weekend i had a great (and unplanned) experience. my host mother said that she found out about a weaving village outside the city. someone from uncle's work lives near there and can take me if i want. my host mother (auntie) is beautiful, kind, and tough and these were her words to me, "it is important for you to see all ways of life while you are in India. it would be a good experience for you to stay with this family and you are like my daughter, i would never send you where you would be unsafe... they can not offer you the luxury that i can but you will be surrounded by warmth". and so i went.
i meet Sangita at uncles work. she is an employee in the office there. she is beautiful, with a bright smile and she immediately stands very close to me and looks me directly in the eye and says "you are like my sister, you tell me what you need, i will take care of you" (this is a sentiment that i begin to hear over and over from anyone that i am able spend a bit of time with... you are my sister, my daughter, my family.... auntie tells me that there is a hindu saying that whomever shows up at your door is god. and this is how people treat their guests.)
i take the train to Sangita's small town. it is a 2 hour ride (a commute which she makes everyday). she reserves a seat for me somehow before the train gets packed. i am excited to take a train ride...it is a good way to see a lot and i quickly realize that this is not the kind of thing i could have done on my own (without serious trial and error). first of all the train is all local people, there are not many signs in english. i make the observation (though not immediately) that there is one ticket line for men and one for women...and later...many (but not all) of the train cars are separated by gender, as well. i made this mistake coming through customs in delhi... i tried more than once to go through the men's line (i just automatically picked the shortest one) and i could not understand the frustrated (and unamused) guard. Sangita drags me around by the wrist in the insanely crowded train station. i feel like a child but i am glad that she doesn't let me go.
on the train we find out about each other....whatever we can, anyway...she has good but sporadic english and i am the equivalent of a toddler (if that) with hindi. i like these kinds of language situations (at least when you have a warm and willing participant on the other end)...it is scary, funny, serious, and easy to misinterpret but i like it all the same. quickly you are able to see what parts of language, mannerisms, and gestures are universal. it is fascinating. we are the same age. she has been married for about a year. she used to live in Kolkata with her mother and father but now lives 2 hours away with her husband's family, as is the custom. she is so excited that i am staying in her home and she says her family can not wait to see me.
on the ride there we pass a lot of shanty towns with little shops directly on the side of the tracks. even further out, people are everywhere. as we pass the towns many of them smell like something burning. and not the autumn burning leaves smell. i think they burn the trash to get rid of it (though i am not certain). its not good though....it smells like burning tires. the pollution is bad. one really bad thing about it here....a lot of trash everywhere...i guess there are just too many people and no where to put it all.
when we arrive it is dark (it gets dark around 6:30/7 pm here). we take a rickshaw from the station to her house. i leave my sandals at the door and greet her family. Sangita says, "this is your home now." an extended family....15 people (maybe more) in one humble house with a few rooms...pretty much one family per room. they are very excited. they pull out a chair for me, put one of the few fans directly on me and stare. they can not understand me (but i try to talk anyway) and i can not understand them (they try too) so mostly they just look at me. closely. Sangita does a good job translating what she can. i ask to see her wedding photos and she is happy to share (her husband practices photography and takes pictures of local weddings and events...he is at one such event tonight). after we finish, her sister-in-law brings me her album to look at. pictures are universal.
after some time visiting, i start to see the challenges that i will face the next few days. the house has a few rooms for sleeping, one main hall leading to an open space that is the kitchen (with a small television). everything is done in this spot. preparing the food. sitting on the ground to eat the food. everything happens on this floor, as a family. the bathroom is basic. and the water comes from a pump in the morning. the clean water is in many different buckets. standing water. the electricity stops for 2 hours at a time, though there is a generator.
Sangita's family realizes some of my caution....they know that i can not drink the water. but they don't realize how careful i need to be. the fruits and vegetables are all washed in this water. they start each meal by rinsing the plate and leaving some water on it. most things that are served very hot (tea, rice, etc.) i should be ok but there is a lot i am uncertain of. they ask me if i want mango. oh crap. i say yes and eat a small amount. they look at me like i am insane when i refuse the rest. i say it was very good but that i don't want anymore. this makes no sense to them...they think i am with-holding my true feelings somewhere in that statement.
they ask if i want some rice and i say ok. i sit on the floor and eat with my hands and they ALL WATCH ME EAT the entire time. no one else is eating. they sit in a circle and watch me. i try to take rice from the center of the plate (away from the water on the sides) but it is very hot. "no, not like that" she says, "spread it like this and take from the outside" and she shows me how. i keep thinking to myself "oh. my. god. my stomach is going to explode and i am going to get malaria (from mosquito bites) all in one night." but i look at these people and they are so kind to me, i just don't have the heart to say no. so i do the best i can and hope for the best. i can not clearly explain to them why i can not eat some of the food. but what translates clearly to me is the looks on their faces. how proud they are to serve me dinner. to share their way of life with me. and i know that their disappointment would translate equally as clearly to me. i just can't hurt them. so i tough it out. i eat but also do what i can to be careful. i don't finish and they ask why. i tell Sangita that i am full (and i actually am pretty full) and that i don't want my stomach to hurt (i rub my stomach as i say this). she laughs and says in her broken english "you not fat. haha. thats funny." she thinks that i am afraid of getting fat. it is late and i am too tired to try to explain.
the rest of the time with Sangita just gets better and better....and some how i do not get sick!!!! i go with her family to see her uncle's sari factory with power looms, to the weaving village, (which is amazing!), and to a huge temple in Mayapur (where i learn about their faith and almost get banned for my capri pants being too short [at 2" above my ankle] ), we share a meal with the krishnas on plate made of dried leaves and it rains for the first time since i have arrived, bringing such relief from the heat.
they get used to my eating habits though Sangita frequently says, "we are all very very worried for you." i assure her i am fine. her husband (the photographer) is very kind and gentle-natured and brings me british chocolate and tea biscuits because he just wants to see me eat more. i talk to her uncles about ikat, power looms, hand weaving, and double cloth and we are both excited to understand each other. they are impressed with what i know. i am excited to learn from them. we don't really have the words to make sense but we understand each other because it is a craft that we are both familiar with. everyone talks over each other and her uncle says something and laughs. i can't hear him so i ask him to repeat and he says "i forget your name for one minute so i just called out Harry Potter instead." this makes me laugh so hard. we are in the middle of no where, with no running water and this man knows about Harry Potter. he continues "i think maybe this is better name for you". "you like the name Harry Potter better than the name jackie?" i ask him. "yes" he says "better". luckily this does not stick.
Sangita's aunt tells me her teenage son sleeps till noon and it makes her crazy. her 10 or 11 year old niece gives me a piece of candy that is the asian equivalent of a warhead candy, laughing as i spit it out. some things are the same everywhere.
her family asks me many things. are you married? can you stay the whole week? when are you coming back? when you come back bring a husband with you. where are you parents? and they are shocked that my brother (and his family) and i don't live with my parents. i tell them that many people leave home at 18 and they just can't believe it. they ask me why the divorce rate is so high in america. i say i am not sure but i have many guesses as to why. they wonder if divorce would be less if we had extended families. i don't know but they may have a point. extended living teaches you to share. to listen. to respect each other. to act as a unit. these are all good things to bring to a marriage.
they can not believe that i live alone. it is good for me to talk to them about this. i enjoy being on my own and i enjoy cultivating self- sufficiency. but sometimes i am just stubborn. sometimes its hard and i need help and i am very tough on myself about that. it was very good for me to see this way of life. where no one is expected to do it all on their own. and it helps me to see that i also have this option. i am a part of an extended family made up of both blood relatives and friends. the structure may be different and we may not live under the same roof but they are there to share in life's joy and sadness. it is only a matter of speaking up (this is the challenge that we have made for ourselves in this independent culture). i am pretty adaptable to rustic conditions (though i knew it would still be humbling)...it also humbled me in ways that i did not anticipate. it humbled the stubborn, prideful, part of me. the part afraid to need something from someone. the part of me that is afraid let others see that i am not completely self-sufficient.
**** we are here to help each other*****we are here to live together****we are here to learn from each other*****
i am lucky to have many families. i am so excited to share my experiences of my new families with you. and i am excited that i have families at home who like to hear about it. i am very, very, lucky. and truly grateful.
this experience was frightening, beautiful, unexpected, exhausting, and wonderful.
this is exactly what i came here for.