Posts Tagged ‘Holidays’

North Tour: Gangtok: Not your ordinary Holi-day

April 25, 2011

Tuesday, 22 March

NEW JALPAIGUDI TO HOWRAH: I’ve celebrated a lot of holidays and festivals since coming to India. You rarely have to wait a week, or even a few days, for the next one to come around. Having spent eight months in India, I have a pretty large sample size from which to choose my favorite Indian holiday.

So when I say Holi has been my favorite holiday in India, that’s saying something.

Choose the clothes you’ll wear during Holi wisely. Because there’s virtually no chance they’ll come back looking like they were before going out. In fact, if they do, double-check the country you’re in. It’s probably not India.

Why bother? Because Holi is little more than an excuse to go color other people in public.

By “color”, I mean “throw powder onto,” “spray died water onto” or “smear color onto the faces of those around you.” The dye, while not permanent, doesn’t wash out easily, and after spending two hours outside, we were left looking like various combinations of zombies, the boogeyman, and the Hulk.

As we played in the Gangtok streets, our white T-shirts stopped resembling white T-shirts. So much red, yellow, green, purple and blue was splattered on our clothes, none of their original colors remained. The 13 of us had a mutual agreement to turn each other’s clothes into epic souvenirs. Each blank spot was sought out and filled in. Each patch of uncolored skin and hair was dyed. If any one color seemed too predominant, others were sprinkled in where needed.

Thanks to several water bottles and a new kind of powder, pink became the predominant color on our shirts. Because water intensifies the Holi colors, everyone was soon saturated in hot pink. After an hour in the Gangtok streets, I was unable to distinguish our nationalities from those of the Indians nearby. Our skin colors, hair colors and exuberance in celebration left us looking so similar to the surrounding locals that even a scintillating eye couldn’t tell us apart. Franzi, a natural blonde, didn’t have a single blonde hair left when we returned to the hotel.

I took no pictures or videos on the day, and most of us had decided the risk of our cameras getting ruined was too high. So I have nothing but my pen to describe the scene of Holi in Gangtok. Of small children squealing in delight and showering us in Holi water. Of men friendshipping us by hugging us and rubbing powder on our faces. Of a permanent layer of pink dust coating the main road when we walked the city hours later, all participants having gone home for lunch, an afternoon nap, and a compulsory hot shower.

I originally wished I’d been in Nagpur for Holi, so as to celebrate with my host family. But I take no issue with having spent it in the Himalayas with my friends. It could hardly have been any better than it was.

Holi is about having fun.

And as we danced in public together at the end of our outing, we couldn’t stop smiling.



Holiday update: New Years, Makar Sankranti & Republic Day

January 27, 2011

31 Dec – 1 Jan: New Years

After a Christmas that left hardly a moment to catch our breaths, my celebration of New Years was comparatively tame. With Prajyot, Saket, their parents, and my host parents, I went to another outdoor club to celebrate the end of 2010. We sat with some friends of my host dad and their families, including a 13-year-old boy named Akhilesh.

On our tickets were lists of 15 random numbers between 0 and 99, written in three rows. In the third to last hour of 2010, the 200 or so people in attendance played bingo while the emcees called out number after number. As my card filled up, I gathered from their Hinglish that there would be cash prizes for those with a completed row, and soon I needed only a “50” to win. Akhilesh, too, was waiting for a specific number. Two or three people had already won prizes, but numbers were still being called, which was a good sign.

Then I heard it. The number of Test centuries Sachin Tendulkar had recorded: 50.

(Tendulkar, an Indian cricket legend, has since recorded his 51st Test century. I’ll have much more to say about cricket in February.)

Egged on by several people at the table, I went up to the stage and handed over my card. What followed was probably the most embarrassing conversation of my life:

Emcee: “What’s your name?”

Me: “Mera naam Chris hai.” (My name is Chris.)

“Aap kya karte hain?” (What are you doing?)

[Pause] “I don’t understand, but my New Years resolution is to learn more Hindi!”

“Ok, we’ll stick to English. Chris…can you tell me what you’re doing here?”

“I’m a student. On Rotary Youth Exchange.”

“No, I mean why did you come up here?”

I pointed at my card and the completed row of numbers.

“Ah, I’m sorry Chris, but we’re done with the prizes for completed lines. You’ll need to fill out the rest of the card if you want to come up here again.”

I went back to the table disappointed but not distraught. After all, it was New Years Eve! How could I be sad? As fireworks went off around midnight, I stood on the stage which had become a dance floor, and shook hands with Saket-dada, Prajyot and Akhilesh.

I would have sung Auld Lang Syne, but I couldn’t remember the words.

14-15 Jan: Makar Sankranti

It didn’t have the pomp of Independence Day, the lights of Diwali, the exploding idols of Dussehra or the personal touch of Maha Laxshmi at our house.

But if only for the view of the sky one afternoon, Makar Sankranti was the most beautiful holiday I’ve been a part of in India.

Makar Sankranti, a festival of kites, celebrates the beginning of the sun’s northward passage in the sky. Although the winter solstice is about three weeks earlier, Sankranti always occurs on the same day each year. And what a day it is.

I made my way to the top of a six-story apartment building two Saturdays ago with Vedant and Akhilesh, among others. Awaiting us there were about two-dozen kites and probably enough string to circumnavigate the city of Nagpur. Soon enough, several of those kites were in the air, although most were eventually lost to the January sky.

But while the kites were still attached, they provided quite a show. A gibbous moon shone high in the Western sky, and several of the kites we flew appeared a fraction the size of Earth’s largest satellite. Once, our kite topped every other in our area, the taut string our only proof of its existence as it flew out of sight. Looking around the city, about 80 percent of the rooftops were occupied, with at least one kite flying from each.

The sky was so crowded, I had to remind myself several times what I was looking at: Not birds. Not planes.


26 Jan: Republic Day

Wednesday was Republic Day in India, the 61st anniversary of the Indian constitution being signed into law. Like Independence Day, Republic Day is also a federal holiday, and flags and patriotism were again visible throughout Nagpur. In Delhi – the capital city of India – a parade was held that morning, and I watched some of the celebrations on TV.

But for the most part, the day was uneventful. I didn’t even hear that many firecrackers.


Christmas in India: Part eight

January 22, 2011

With Boxing Day just an hour away, I had one last thing to do before my Christmas would be complete.

But that last thing was the most important of them all.

Minutes after arriving home, I called my mom just as I’d promised. I was disappointed to hear the familiar greeting and beep of the answering machine, but far from dismayed. She was likely en route to my grandma’s place, picking her up for the traditional Christmas family dinner at my aunt’s house. I’d be calling my aunt’s house that afternoon, so I could talk to her then. I left a one-minute message anyway.

I’d coordinated things with my aunt via email beforehand. If everything went according to plan, Christmas dinner would follow the usual schedule, and everyone’s plates would be cleared by two in the afternoon. I planned to call as the gifts were being opened, just as everyone was settling into their post-meal routine. That way, I’d be able to talk to everyone at the dinner table without hanging up the phone.

But I still faced a two and a half hour gap between my last phone call and my next one. So I spent that time talking to some other people I cared about. I had a good conversation with my host parents before they went to bed, and I wished some of my friends Merry Christmas through Facebook Chat. But mostly I was just waiting for the clock to strike 1:30 local time. Thanks to the 11.5-hour time difference, sleep once again fell low on my priority list.

Nearly two hours after midnight, I punched in the thirteen digits that would create a direct link between Nagpur, Maharashtra, India, and Champaign, Illinois, USA.

My aunt told me beforehand to prepare to be homesick, and I know why she said that. I missed my family. I missed my younger cousins Claire, Henry and John, and I missed their parents, my older cousins Dawn, Cyrus, Chris and Lisa. I missed my Aunt Julie, who always does such a good job hosting Christmas dinner each year, and I missed my Uncle Larry, who always cooks up a scrumptious meal. I missed my grandma, with whom I hadn’t yet talked from India, and I missed my mom, with whom I’d talked several times from India, but was still anxious to speak with all the same.

Was I homesick? No. But before calling, the gap between my family and me was larger than it had ever been.

I picked up the phone, and it was as if I was entering another world.

My aunt’s “Hello” was the first thing I heard. In the background I could hear wrapping paper being torn and exhilarated voices shouting out. Familiar voices. Voices I hadn’t heard in months…

As the phone made its way around my aunt’s house, I exchanged Christmas greetings with almost everybody there. Everyone had something nice to say, and almost everyone had questions about my life in India. People seemed particularly interested in the balmy weather here, and given the climate they described to me there, I can understand why.

Champaign is the kind of city that gets more than its fair share of winter weather. Several deposits of snow fall each winter without fail, sometimes of the knee-deep variety. In spite of this, I hadn’t experienced a white Christmas in Champaign in years – either the snow would melt in time for the holiday or it would wait until January to fall. So as person after person recounted the scene out the window – six inches of fresh powdery snow covering everything in sight – I wasn’t shocked, but I understood the significance of the moment. It was certainly nothing like Nagpur.

All of us were getting used to temperatures in the 20s. I just happened to be the only one using Celsius.

For over 90 minutes, I painted a picture of Indian life to the eight people I talked with. Our conversations bounced from topic to topic, from how I was enjoying cricket to how I was living without meat. Time slows down when you’re enjoying yourself, and when my uncle asked me what time it was in India, I looked down at my watch and told him: 3:30 a.m.

What is it about absence, they say, that makes the heart grow stronger? Of the eight people I talked to, I hadn’t heard the voices of seven in five months, and I hadn’t seen any of them since leaving for India.

It’s precisely because of that absence that the phone call I made that night was life-changing.

I’d always taken my family for granted. That’s not a rude statement, or an offensive one. It’s just a fact. Christmas dinner with my family was always a given, as predictable as the fireworks that shoot off each New Years at midnight. They were always with me in the same area code, or at least usually within driving distance. I grew up incredibly fortunate to live so close to the people I love, and I grew content with them being there, whether I needed them or not.

Now I was in India for Christmas, and I could no longer take my family for granted. Sure, they were all still there at the table, quite solid in their seats. But for the first time in nearly two decades, I wasn’t. There’s just something about being halfway around the world that makes Christmas different. Quirks and petty disagreements don’t matter when you’re 8,000 miles away.

It’s still my family, no matter what.

And that’s all that matters.


Christmas in India: Part seven

January 20, 2011

I have no idea what parades in India are supposed to be like, but I have a feeling they’re nothing like the one we were a part of Christmas night.

We’d just finished dinner, having eaten whilst someone else was putting on a mega-performance, this also a dance in front of hundreds of people. It was nice to watch casually, the pressure of performing having been transferred from our shoulders to theirs. We ambled away towards the bus after dessert, ready to ride back to Modern School and call it a night.

That’s when we were interrupted by the parade.

Actually its resemblance to a parade was minimal, but I can’t think of any other pithy word to describe the scene. A single flatbed truck was being led by a car with a power generator, its escort required so several large amps could blare Jingle Bells into the night on a continuous loop. A couple dozen Indians were standing on the back, dancing and handing out sweets quite generously to passerby. The truck itself was covered in Christmas-colored streamers, and decorated so that it no longer resembled something you’d find on a highway.

We got on board.

I hadn’t planned to see a parade this Christmas, let alone to be in one. But little about this Christmas had gone according to plan. Why plan when the enjoyable things always come on short notice? Despite the challenges of staying balanced on a moving vehicle (albeit a very slow one), we joined the spontaneous dance party, huddled together to keep each other from falling off. My mouth full of candy, my ears full of music, and my limbs doing everything possible to stay afloat the float, India had once again successfully overwhelmed my senses.

Music has been inseparable from and invaluable to our memories from this holiday. The songs from our performance set the tune for our Christmas Eve practice. The songs on Jakob’s laptop set the tune for our party at his house. Christmas carols set the tune for our ride to CP Club, and Christmas karaoke set the tune once we were there. Slow, nostalgic organ music set the tune for Midnight Mass, and fast, familiar music set the tune en route to Surabardi. Whenever, wherever, music was always with us to set the mood.

And now our mood was being set by an ear-assaulting, heart-pumping rendition of Jingle Bells. On a parade float. In India.

That ten-minute ride wasn’t the last we’d take that night, as the bus that would take us back to Modern School still awaited us. But it’s the one I’ll remember the most.


Christmas in India: Part six

January 18, 2011

I wish I could tell you our performance was a rousing success.

I wish I could tell you all the dance steps I’d forgotten came back to me as I performed. I wish I could tell you our yoga demonstration went off without a glitch. I wish I could tell you our musical performance was so mesmerizing the audience gave us a standing ovation.

Unfortunately, none of those wishes came true.

But we did get a curtain call.

Had you been backstage during our performance, unable to see the action on the other side of the curtain, you might have expected something catastrophic to happen during our performance. Maybe an overhead light would give way, and topple down onto the stage. Perhaps a pack of monkeys would be released, and chase us into the crowd. Minutes before our performance, we were clearly paying the price for our procrastination.

For all I knew, maybe a monkey had looted my bag – the red sash vital to my first costume was nowhere to be found. The Bengali dance was the second item on our program, and some changes to our costumes would have to be made if we were to perform as planned. I ran around desperately, searching for the sash backstage, but I didn’t run into any good luck.

The reason for my wardrobe malfunction had to do with my misunderstanding of the order of events. I’d wrongly assumed my other dance would be performed first, so I removed the dhoti-kurta I’d been wearing over the Maharashtran dance costume. When I realized the order was reversed, I put it back on. Somewhere in that costume shuffle, the sash was lost, and our group had no choice but to improvise.

I walked onstage about ten minutes before the performance to put our instruments in place. I couldn’t help but notice that with ten minutes until showtime, the gazebo was far from full, with over two-thirds of the 1500 seats still empty. So as I made my way onstage the second time – my hands on my hips and my feet in step with the music – it was with mild surprise that I found the room filled to capacity.

It’s a shame we didn’t give those people a better performance.

Unlike the inaugural kathak dance, which by all accounts went smoothly, our Bengali dance left significant room for improvement. Perhaps the audience didn’t notice our many errors, but we certainly did. In one particularly embarrassing stretch, my mind went blank for several seconds, and I could do little more than tap my feet in tune to the music. Often I found myself a half-second behind, perceptive to but not assured of the steps I was to take.

It wasn’t quite a debacle, but even the polite applause we received seemed too gracious. It was obvious that we’d learned the dance in three days.

Although I assume the ensuing Eastern dance in which five girls performed went well, I wouldn’t know. My mindset had been switched to the coming Maharashtran dance, my mediocre showing in the Bengali dance already forgotten. So it came as a surprise when I learned our musical performance was next on the program, not the final of our four dances. I removed my triangular dance hat and made my way on stage again, reassured that at least my second performance would be better than my first.

I have nothing memorable to report of our brief concert. The first few seconds of the tabla part were marked by volume trouble, but the sound was soon turned up accordingly. A tuned ear would have noticed split second differences in our coordination, and perhaps the crowd would rather have seen us play longer, but I can offer no complaints. The audience was our pacemaker, clapping along as we played tabla, and they were appreciative of our performance.

And the Maharashtran folk dance went even better. So much better, in fact, that the audience called for an encore. This required me to rush my props across the backstage as the girls began their bit and yell “Jordan!Jordan!Jordan!Jordan!Jordan!Jordan!” at the person closest to the entrance on stage left. My double-backstage-sprint was for naught, however, as the music faded out and the encore ended before I had the chance to come on stage once more.

But my sprints were just beginning, and so was our yoga demonstration. Once I ran to discard my costume, which I wouldn’t need for yoga, once I ran to stage right in the erroneous belief that was where I’d be entering, and once I ran back to stage left, realizing my mistake about two seconds too late.

It was a hectic start to a performance that left a lot to be desired.

We entered the stage without the plates that were to hold the petals, although that hardly mattered when we could just hold the flowers in our palms. After our initial “om”, a silence prevailed that had little to do with meditation. For about a minute, the accompanying music had nothing to accompany, and we could do little but softly chant “om” two or three times more. Until someone backstage found a microphone for Brii, she could say nothing, and even then, it took several seconds to get the volume turned on.

I can’t comment on the rest of the demonstration, because I had my eyes closed until my part at the end. It seemed to go well, though.

And then it was over. That was it. The end. Bas.

We couldn’t really celebrate until we were back in the cottage, our costumes un-costumed, our bangles-unbangled, the mess awaiting us inside un-made. But we’d made it through our performance unscarred and unfazed. All the mistakes we’d made were now in the past. At last, we had nothing to worry about except how to enjoy the evening ahead.

Back at the cottage, I decided to look through my backpack again.

You’ll never guess what red piece of fabric I found inside.