This is the third post regarding my travels to West Bengal five years ago. I am pleased to be submerging myself in photographs, writings and videos I captured while I was there as well as revisiting and viewing new literature, movies and other media related to India. Ultimately, the country is so big, the regions vary greatly and the population is huge… my perception cannot be taken for truth. However, I do feel an obligation to share my experience as India has influenced my life so greatly.
My last posting about India related to the traffic and while I did my best to paint the picture of chaos it is something you cannot imagine until you are in the middle of it. Beyond the traffic there is the confusion of poverty and wealth, beauty and disgust, enlightening ideas and pure nonsense everywhere I turned, then heat – heat – heat over it all. I was over stimulated with new sights, sounds and smells, and disturbed by contrasting values and foreign systems.
My sanity – besides having seven new friends who related to my dismay – lay in the accommodations we stayed in throughout our trip. The Ramakrishna Mission near Gol Park was my oasis. It was my safety and quiet from the perplexity which existed outside those walls. The entrance on a side street took you into a courtyard where the walls became a barrier to the honking craziness. The energy of anxiety melted into a calm entering through the gate. The courtyard was filled with flowers and the occasional kitten with her momma. The evening chants and bells were a peaceful reminder to slow down and take the whole experience in. The pots planted on our first day contained sunflowers, the Kansas state flower, feeling like an welcoming home.
Our rooms were modest, two roommates sharing twin beds. Our bathrooms had real toilets and while our showers didn’t get hot water, wouldn’t have wanted a hot shower in the heat anyways. There were days I showered 3 times do to perspiration. Making friends with some Australian girls we learned not all of the rooms at the RKM had air-conditioning, I was beyond thankful we did.
We ate most of our meals in the dining room at the RKM, it was all traditional Indian food with some options at every meal. For breakfast, as one of my travel mates recently reminded me, we ate cereal flakes with warm milk and eggs cooked to order. Our stomachs quickly grew sick of the foreign meals so we attempted to consume as much yogurt as possible to try to calm this. The yogurt was served plain with the clear liquid, most of us added four and five spoonfuls of sugar in to make it edible to our pallets. At dinner our plates would arrive with three or four separate piles of food items with rice and naan on the side. The entire month I had no idea what I was consuming other than knowing it was the vegan option. Vegetables never looked familiar and even when my instructor put names to what I was eating, I never seemed to retain the words.
The very best food from the RKM kitchen was when they offered mangoes. The mangoes were the freshest, sweetest and most juicy mangoes I had ever tasted, even to this day. Now I am not sure if they were that good because they are the best mangoes in the world, or if it was simply because I was so in desperate need of something sweet, slightly familiar and not tainted with Indian spices.
At risk of being called a sheltered Midwestern/American girl… I needed quiet, inviting flowers and air-conditioned evenings with occasional mango slices in my yogurt to maintain my sanity during my month in India and the Ramakrishna Mission was just that kind of place.