By Lacey Hilliard
When my sister and her fiancé decided to get married in India, I was overjoyed although it seemed an abstract idea. How does one wrap their mind around something so foreign? Seldom had I considered this place called India that lay far across vast oceans. What would I experience? I could only ponder. The one thing I knew for certain; this was going to be a life-altering experience.
My sister, Amber, is well traveled having visited everywhere from South America, to Europe, and to the Middle-East. She fell in love with India while volunteering at an orphanage with the Missionaries of Charity- the mission begun by Mother Teresa and centered in Kolkata, West Bengal. As fate would have it, shortly after her Indian sojourn, she met and fell in love with a man from Dehra Dun, India who was living in New York at the time of their fated meeting. They decided the wedding was destined to take place in Kolkata and so began my Indian pilgrimage.
One doesnt simply go to India. Traveling to India is not a vacation, its a journey. With this in mind, my mother and I began our world traverse. Watching the sun rise and set within mere hours paved the way for the many unfamiliar sights our journey would present. We watched the monitors anxiously throughout our flight as the animated plane zigzagged over unfamiliar land and sea. After about twenty hours of anticipation, we finally landed in India.
As I stepped onto the tarmac, the humid tropics hit me like wave. The air was thick and smelled of smoldering fire. The mosquitoes arrived almost instantly. I struggled to focus my eyes on the not-so-subtle changes of environment. Far off, the silhouettes of palm trees could be slightly distinguished through the smoky haze. I ventured though Kolkata International Airport in a daze while accomplishing otherwise routine arrival rituals; collecting my luggage and dragging through customs. My ears whirred as rhythmic notes of Hindi were murmured all around and the faint sound of sarees swishing as the women sidled past created an exotic symphony.
Commotion reigned as soon as we opened the glass doors, exiting the airport. Hurried travelers, taxi traffic, horns blaring, and the faint smell of spices excited the scene. We were greeted by instant family and friends and loaded our belongings to embark on our jaunt to the Baptist Missionary Society, or BMS; our home for the major duration of our stay. As the cars moved swiftly through a labyrinth of dusty road, views of semi-modernized ancient ruins were barely illuminated by the sun peeking through the saturated haze. Early morning cattlemen moved their herds swiftly to market; the feral dogs were beginning their everlasting patrol for food and territory, and vendors clamored their carts up the cobbled sidewalks to the days desired location. I would come to know that everyone in India works. From the richest of the rich to the poorest of the poor, everyone has a job to do and they do it tirelessly from daybreak to nightfall.
As we entered the BMS gates, an oasis surrounded by the city was revealed to us. Marigold gardens, tropical trees, and freshly painted walkways led us to our accommodations. BMS is a guesthouse that caters to missionaries and travelers alike. It is located just a block away from Mother Teresas mission where the majority of missionaries volunteer in Kolkata. Though the accommodations were modest (single cots, scrap fabric blankets, limited hot water) BMS would prove to be a source of comfort in an often frenzied world.
The morning of arrival would be filled with joyful but hurried wedding preparations. The first time I felt truly immersed in Indian culture was while shopping for traditional sarees to wear to the many upcoming formal events. A saree shop can only be described as color on parade. Shelves upon shelves decorate the walls with every color of the rainbow. The shelves are surrounded by a stage which serves as the saree viewing area. Sofas are placed front and center to the stage and the men are eager to show you anything and everything you desire. As you point to a color they drape the six-yard-length of the fabric in one swift motion across the stage and the intricacies of the beadwork and pattern are finally exposed.
The first day and days to follow were occupied by saree shops and jewelry boutiques. To describe all I saw while traveling to and from each shop would be like explaining every star in the sky. The streets of Kolkata are alive. They have a pulse all their own. Being from New York, Im no stranger to the vibes of a large city. However, no other city Ive ever explored compared to Kolkata. In New York people rush past barely noticing each other. In Kolkata, each passerby has their own personality, story, and passion. The vibrancy of the people contrasted against the stain of the city speaks not only to the illustration of the city but to the spirit of the people themselves.
The wedding was a three day traditional Hindi celebration. The festivities included an engagement ceremony, the mehndi ceremony (a celebration of women and where the henna is applied), and the wedding ceremony. In India, extreme importance is placed upon marriage. Conservative values are reflected in the many ancient ceremonies associated with joining man and woman. The vows taken by husband and wife are seen as eternal and breaking any one would bring great shame upon the offender. The marriage ceremonies, performed in Sanskrit, (an ancient language that dates back to 400 BC) are long and intense. The marriage vows begin at sunset and end at dawn. Hinduism (the most dominant religion in India) is a religion filled with symbolism. Dawn is believed to be the most auspicious hour.
After the wedding, we spent several days touring around Kolkata. We visited the Indian Botanical Gardens where the 250 year old Great Banyan Tree stands proudly. Giant Water Lilies occupy the ornamental ponds scattered throughout the 273 acre garden. The lilies are occupied too — with snakes. Snakes arent the only wildlife that calls the garden home. Indian Palm Squirrels scurry up the mature trees and the occasional mongoose can be seen stalking around the more snake infested locations. We also visited many historical Hindu temples, the Howrah Bridge (said to be the busiest in the world), and the Howrah Bridge Flower Market.
Subsequent to our Kolkata tour, we took two days out of the city and visited the Sunderbans. We booked a tour to Mangrove Retreat, one of the many wildlife resorts lining this riverside territory. To get to the Sunderbans we were first picked up in Kolkata at BMS and taken on the most insane car ride of our lives (traffic laws in India seem to be mere suggestions, red lights mean honk and proceed) to reach the port town of Godkhali where we boarded a boat bound for the Sunderbans. The main reason tourists come to the Sunderbans is the tiger population. Sunderban National Park boasts the densest population of Bengal Tigers in the world. Only 5% of tourists are lucky enough to see these elusive animals and sadly we were in the 95%. We did, however, see Monitor Lizards, Saltwater Crocodiles, several varieties of birds, and many monkeys. In fact, one brave monkey tried to steal my camera case when I had my back turned. The Sunderban countryside is a vast, scarcely populated, riverside community. The most prevalent industry is fish and honey. Sunderban honey collectors risk tiger attacks upon entering the mangrove forest to harvest this delicacy. The fishermen suffer often fatal bites from the Ganges Shark while net fishing in the shallows. The Sunderbans, though inhospitable, are beautiful and teeming with wildlife. You wont see any power lines in the Sunderbans. All of the resorts are powered by eco-friendly solar energy.
We returned from the Sunderbans and readied ourselves for the long trip home. One of the last experiences I had in India would turn out to be the one that best describes the overall feel of India and its people. It happened at the Mother House, the original site of Mother Teresas mission and the site of her tomb. As I finished my tour, I sat outside in the courtyard waiting for my companions. As I sat, I noticed a woman who couldnt have weighed more than 60 pounds, receive a plate of food consisting of two bananas, toast, and tea from one of the nuns. I smiled at the starving woman, happy to see her receiving much needed nourishment. Instead of smiling back, she lifted her plate to offer me some of her food.
The corruption is apparent in Kolkata. Many will try to get whatever they can from you. But greater is the purity of soul in those much less fortunate than any American I know. Acceptance of differences is a common theme; Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists seem to live together in harmony. Kolkata is a beautiful disaster with joy at the root. I am so thankful to have experienced this journey. I learned so much from people with so little and I hope to carry their lessons and memories with me forever.