I snapped this view of the teeming Pink City last weekend atop one of those gorgeous terraces skirting the Hawa Mahal. Colloquially known as the “Palace of the Winds,” this 18th century edifice is one of Jaipur’s many architectural landmarks and a popular day-tripper destination. Since I arrived in India, I’ve been playing the dual role of sight-seer and local resident—trying to satiate my wanderlust with an occasional touristy fix while adapting to the humdrum of everyday Hindustani life. For me, the most satisfying experiences—the ones that mitigate my occasional homesickness and longings for the First World fixtures I had always taken for granted (right now, that’s any packaged and commercialized carbohydrate, preferably with an ingredients list that’s two inches long and includes “high fructose corn syrup”)—are my subtle intercultural conquests.
Bargaining down the price of a kurta from 325 to 250 rupees; dexterously devouring chappati and sabzi sans the salty, drippy, fingertip mess; running an errand without my usual entourage of wide-eyed and white-skinned Americans; or just being bored, lying in my room with my friends and host sister, gossiping, perspiring and our stomachs growling beneath the fluorescent glow of a book light because the power suddenly went out and dinner would be postponed another half hour –these and then some are small victories, but they make a big difference in my cultural-adjustment-period-transition-phase just existing here without hesitation, comfortably, normally, even. I’m beginning to move past the whole I-can-see-myself-living-for-a-semester-here to actually feeling at home.
I owe a lot of this to my host family, the Rajawats, who’ve housed almost a dozen MSID students over the years in addition to the foreign expats and Indian coeds who stay in the guest quarters on the upper level. Although my host parents’ hospitality often errs on the side of overkill, (almost everyday I reassure Jai Singh, or “Papa-ji,” that yes, I love my room, am very comfortable, and sleeping very well—all true, by the way, minus the fact that the constantly circling ceiling fans here have seriously chapped my lips) I can tell their care comes from genuine concern, rather than contractual obligation.
Papa-ji, for one, goes out of his way to update Lydia, my MSID housemate, and me on the minutiae of his gold fishes’ gestation and Krishna, “Mama-ji,” typical of her humble dedication and quiet stubbornness, cooks us parathas for breakfast and chappatis for lunch even while running a fever.
Then there’s Bulbul, my 14-year-old host sister, who chases off the local boys who harass Lydia and me, threatening them with slaps and blows in her rapid-fire Hindi. She bargains with street vendors so we don’t get cheated on our Ganesh statues, even if it’s just a matter of 50 rupees (about $1 USD) and paints henna designs on our hands. With Bulbul, everything—Bollywood stars, kurtas, hair clips, toenail polish—is “looking so nice.” When she coyly asks to use my computer so she can change her Facebook pro-pic to a different Aishwarya Rai photo and listen to Bollywood music, I always agree, especially since she’ll help me with my Hindi pronunciation later.
But it’s Lydia who’s held my hand throughout my pimply, little awkward phase. Lydia has been living and studying in India a month longer than I have and plans to stay for the entire academic year. Well-traveled, well-read and fluent in Spanish, German and by the end of the year, Hindi, she exudes cosmopolitan sophistication. Thanks to her movie star good looks a la Christina Hendricks, she’s been swatting away lingering stares, chai dates, and marriage proposals like flies ever since her red hair entered the subcontinent. Without her—I swear—I’d be curled up in a trash heap somewhere with gangrene and an intestinal tapeworm, or at least, a tad queasy—and I wouldn’t have a clothesline to hang my socks.
So here’s my approach to study abroad: soak up the sights, flavors and exoticism that Western travelers have been marveling about for centuries, but don’t get bogged down in all the sensory fluff. Real India—including the downright depressing and the wonderfully mundane —lies outside the palace gate.
And because I know all ya’ll haters love to hate, here’s some tourist porn for ya: feast your eyes on this slideshow of the Hawa Mahal…
So sorry about those obnoxious ads at the bottom of the slideshows. In other news, I’m working on a bucket list of must-sees and dos in India so I can make the most of my adventure here and (let’s be honest) generate some good blog material. If you have any suggestions, seasoned Indian wayfarers and Bombay dreamers, please post them in the comment section. I’ll whittle down my list and publish it here sometime this week.