Wow. So much has happened in the past week, and between three days of travel and five days of adjusting to a different culture and time zone, I’ve had basically no time to process my experience in writing. It feels like I left Philadelphia a month ago. First of all, I couldn’t have been luckier in terms of the group of people that have decided to embark on this journey with me. There are eight of us undergrad students, one grad student, and one alum. Our teacher, Dr. Jhala who we call Bapa (which means father) is a prince, though since India declared its independence in 1947 the Jhala clan no longer holds political power. Nevertheless, the family is still held in extremely high regard, and maintains this palace compound where we stay called Ajitnivas.
Ajitnivas (Photography by Sam Romero)
Getting to India was quite an adventure in itself. Four of us decided to arrange our flights to have a fifteen-hour layover in London. The flight to London was about seven hours, and from London to New Delhi was another seven hours. From New Delhi we took a one-and-a-half hour flight to Ahmedabad, which is a three-hour drive from our destination, Dhrangadhra. Most of us are still adjusting to the time difference, a week later. It wasn’t until yesterday that I could sleep for more than an hour without waking up.
We certainly learned the importance of keeping track of our things while exhausted in London. We had a great day walking around the city, drinking ales at a pub, and taking a short boat tour to see famous landmarks. On the way back, Shaniece left her phone on the Underground (the subway). As the doors closed, a man held up the phone and waved to her. The people in the car all pointed to a button, which Shaniece tried in vain to press only to the effect of giving her a slight shock. In a moment of desperation, she rushed past the gate blocking the entrance from the station platform to the tunnel, which caused all the trains on the line to stop! It was a crazy situation, but fortunately the Underground employees and other people at the station were extremely kind to us. After giving her several lectures about how she could have died rushing past that gate, to our amazement, they were able to get her phone back. We chuckled imagining how SEPTA employees would have handled this situation. As we got off the train to the airport, I realized my wallet was not in my purse. As I frantically searched for it, a security guard walked by carrying Sam’s wallet. Apparently she had dropped it exiting the train. Soon, she realized she had my wallet in her bag, which I must have dropped earlier and she had been keeping safe. We were extremely relieved to know that somehow we had managed to hold on to all our most valuable and necessary possessions. Of course, when we got to New Delhi our checked luggage was nowhere to be found. Fortunately, it was merely delayed and we were able to get it back several days later. Lesson number one: travel is unpredictable and it is easy to get disoriented and lose things.
Dhrangadhra is very hot at this time of year, about 100 degrees Fahrenheit. It is dry, though, which makes it much easier to handle the heat. In addition, most people do not go out between the hours of 10:00 am and 5:00 pm, so it is perfectly acceptable to take naps. It is both wonderful and a bit unnerving to be living in a palace. While we are told the people who work here consider it a good opportunity, it is strange to have people essentially waiting on us. Because most of them do not speak English, it is difficult to communicate with them other than to say abhar, which means thank you in Gujarati. Nevertheless, most of them are very warm towards us, and we communicate through gesture, and more than anything, simply through smiling at each other. Shaniece brought nail polish, and yesterday she, Camilla, and some of the women have had some very nice exchanges painting nails and doing henna together.
Camilla (L) with Barati (R) (Photography by Sam Romero)
In addition, a woman named Jayshree speaks English and is almost always with us, helping us to navigate these places. Jayshree works as a social worker at an NGO with women and children. She is extremely warm and makes us all feel loved and safe. As Camilla remarked, she feels like a combination of a mother, a sister, and a wife. She makes her own clothes (which are all gorgeous and expertly tailored), and she teaches women to sew at the NGO. We all feel very lucky to have her with us.
Jayshree (L) dancing with Chrissy (R) (Photography by Liliana Jacobson-Peregrino)
Because most of our names may be hard for Indian people to remember, we were given Indian names. My name is Anande, which means “joyful one.” We like to wander the beautiful palace and its grounds at night, most of which is not in use and in varying degrees of ornateness and disrepair. We are not to flush toilet paper, and we are warned the water is not safe to drink or brush teeth with. Only certain areas of the palace have wifi, and most of us do not use data on our phones as we have discovered data is extremely expensive and quick to be used up. Apparently, however, this wifi is a recent development along with the air conditioning in the bedrooms.
So far, we have been busy visiting temples and sacred sites, buying clothes in the city, hearing music, going to weddings, etc. We are served four meals a day: breakfast, lunch, tea, and dinner. I was surprised how easy it was to adjust to eating Indian food every day; I love Indian food, but as an American I’m used to being able to enjoy a variety of cuisines day to day. But the food is delicious, and I always look forward to the next meal. It is also very fun to wear the clothes here. Though us women must cover our legs, shoulders, and chest, the fabric is light, loose, comfortable, and beautiful. It is amazing to walk down the streets of Dhrangadhra and see so many beautiful women adorned with lots of jewelry with long pretty hair. I don’t think I’ve seen an outfit I would consider “ugly.” Though dress codes for women can be restrictive, at least the options are flattering.
Women praying at Ranmal Temple in Dhrangadhra
Wedding in Jesada
Navigating the streets of Dhrangadhra is not like anything I’ve experienced before. First of all, there are no road rules. While sometimes this doesn’t seem to make a difference in terms of safety, other times certain drivers scare the crap out of us. In general, though, I’ve noticed people here don’t seem to get road rage. The lack of rules has an effect of making the people who drive on these roads much more aware of everything that is going on, rather than relying on rules and boundaries to ensure safety. People drive wherever they can, and there seem to be more motorcycles and rickshaws than cars. Bulls, dogs, goats, and boars roam freely, eating the colorful trash adorning the brown roads.
Because animals are considered to be manifestations of Hindu deities, they are respected here. They are left to roam free and are not generally kept as pets except for in situations where they are utilized for a purpose. I treat my cat like he’s my son, so it feels strange to me to see all these dogs walking around and people paying them no attention. My first night here I tried to call to one of the dogs, and he seemed extremely confused. It wasn’t until I called him multiple times that he even realized I was talking to him, and when he figured it out he seemed very confused that a human was trying to interact in that way with him.
Dog enjoying milk libations at stepwell in Kankavati
Because this experience is delightful and exhilarating, it can be hard to recognize feelings of culture shock. I expected culture shock to be a conscious experience, but it is actually a rather unconscious process. Out of nowhere, several of us have experienced feelings of depression and heightened emotion. I think, at least for me, part of this has to do with the poverty many people are living in as well as how much women are repressed. While it is clear many people live in tents outside the palace ground, it seems so normalized here that it sometimes takes a while to comprehend the extreme difference of our lives in this palace with their lives on the sides of roads. In Ahmedabad, women with babies would come up to the car, gesturing that they needed food. It also takes a while to realize how different it is to be a woman here. Since in America we often associate bright colors, beautifully draped clothes, bare midriffs, and piercings with empowered females, it is easy to forget how patriarchal this society is. When a woman is married here, she is not supposed to wear certain colors like blue, black, white, and grey as they are associated with widowhood. Women are also supposed to wear certain jewelry to indicate their marital status. It was difficult to watch a young girl marry in a neighboring village called Jesada, as it was clearly the worst day of her life; she looked absolutely devastated. She did not get to choose her partner, she was about to be separated from her family, and she now had to lose many freedoms she once had in order to serve her husband. In addition, an eleven-year-old girl was also to be married. Though she does not have to leave her family until she is older, it was shocking to witness something like this. Now I know, especially after feeling so happy most of the time and then occasionally terrible out of nowhere that these experiences can be wonderful, but they must be processed. As anthropologists we must keep our minds open, but at the same time, we must recognize when certain issues push our ethical buttons.