Monday, June 23, 2008

Raghu's Rama Naumi

Last month I had the unique opportunity to go with my friend, Raghu, to his village to celebrate Ramu Naumi, a festival celebrating the birthday of Lord Rama, the incarnation of Lord Vishnu. According to Hindu legend, Rama, the legendary King of Ayodhya, is considered to be the seventh incarnation of Lord Vishnu while his wife, Sita, was believed to be the incarnation of the Goddess Lakshmi. This celebration, usually held in the spring, not only honors Rama's birthday, but also the marriage of Rama and Sita by re-enacting their wedding vows and celebrating with food, music, and song.

I met Raghu earlier this winter at one of the Bangalore Expat Club mixers that many of us expats attend at the Taj Residency on Friday nights, and he's been a great friend--taking me to visit Indian temples, historical landmarks, and other local sites--teaching me more about his culture and his world. When I first moved here I was hoping to make some Indian friends so I could see the many facets of Indian life, and I got exactly what I wished for! Don't you love it when that happens? (Which, honestly, happens all the time whether you realize it or not--just be careful what you wish for :o)

When we arrived at the festival, I was quite the attraction. Being the only Caucasian person amongst a crowd of over 600 people was quite overwhelming at first, but after about 15 minutes I couldn't remember the difference. Granted, I couldn't speak their language, but there's nothing that a smile, head nod, or handshake doesn't say--communication is easy when it's from the heart. Soon I was surrounded by all sorts of people, mostly children, who all wanted to meet me... or just touch my skin to see if I was, indeed, "real". Imagine seeing a live version of something you may have only seen in a magazine or on TV--or, for many of these children, never seen before. Their eyes were wide with wonder--and it was amazing.

I had my camera (of course), and they all learned to love having their picture taken--in fact, many of the photos in my "Children of India" gallery came from that day. I had the most wonderful time. We ate, listened to music, watched people dance, and walked all over the village meeting people and enjoying the festival. I got to meet all of his best friends--guys who he had grown up with since he was a toddler--and we hung out in the graveyard for part of the afternoon (this is what men do when they want to have their "alone time"--it's very cool). Then I got to meet Raghu's family, who all live together in a small simple home of three tiny rooms. Amazing. They fed me and made me feel so welcome--a guest, indeed. I'd never felt so blessed :o)

After Raghu dropped me off and I returned to my apartment at the end of the day I couldn't quite describe the feelings I had... just being absorbed in the culture of the people, food, music, colors, sights, sounds, and smells of incense and curry, was overwhelming. My heart swelled with peace and acceptance--India felt to so good to me. It was all good... yes, it was very good, indeed.

Thank you, Raghu--or should I say, "Shukriya" (thank you in Hindi). You have given me the opportunity to see your life, your home, your family and friends, but most of all you've given me a priceless gift--the gift of your friendship.


Thursday, June 12, 2008

Rome If I Want To

A couple of years ago I made a decision. Since I've always enjoyed the benefits of traveling (relaxation, refreshment, perspective, introspection...), I decided that every month I would devote at least one weekend to traveling somewhere new. Now, my definition of "traveling" didn't mean it needed to extravagant... or expensive... or even far from home--I just needed to get out of my element for a couple of days and open myself up to new sights, sounds, smells, (foods!), and experiences. Many of my weekends were spent staying with a friend on the other side of town, traveling up to northern Minnesota, or hopping on a plane to Chicago, San Diego, even Hawaii :o) But I made the commitment to travel... to book out a minimum of one weekend a month. After all--if it's not the calendar, it's not gonna happen!!

So when I moved to India last November I wanted to keep my word--however, now I have a bigger playground :o) It's easier to get to other countries while being based in India, so I've been off to Dubai, London, Sri Lanka, Europe... you can see by my blog entries. When I was planning my "monthly trip" for June, I wanted to travel somewhere I've never been but always wanted to take pictures of... instantly I thought of Rome. What amazing history, art, food :o), culture... all waiting for me to explore it. So I did.

I love to travel with others, but I also love to travel alone. This was going to be a trip for me. I decided to take Friday and Monday off and extend my weekend to 4 days: fly out from Bangalore to Paris Thursday night; to Rome on Friday morning; stay at a bed & breakfast on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights; and then spend the entire day traveling back to India on Monday. A "whirlwind tour" of sorts. The trip was amazing! I probably walked over 20 miles a day, toured the Vatican, Sistine Chapel, Coliseum, Circus Maximus, ate pasta, gelato, croissants and espresso (mmmmmm). Amazing. One of my favorite moments was standing in the main chapel of the Sistine Chapel with about 300 other people staring at the walls and the (famous) ceiling admiring Michelangelo's work... it was breathtaking. And to think of the hundreds of times I've heard reference to that one single space, to stand there and just be "present" was incredibly powerful--I could feel the energies of hundreds of years gathering is such a sacred and revered place. Intense; powerful; memorable.

I walked around the whole city just taking in the sights and sounds. Lots of tourists from all over the world, many of us taking pictures for each other to be sure we didn't miss the opportunity to capture the moment. The streets were alive with vendors, musicians, artists, and food everywhere you looked. There was such a mixture of new and old, modern and classical, traditional and contemporary... every time I turned a corner another piece of history revealed itself. Fountains, statues, gardens, cobblestone, columns, history...

I also got some good writing done (another reason I love traveling...) and had some interesting insights as I observed people and events--mostly when I was eating--so I w
ill share a couple of them with you:

Michael's Italian Food Insights

  • Re: Restaurant service: After they drop your food at your table they don't return to check and see if everything's okay. Why not? Because they'd never need to! Every meal in Italy is spectacular :o)
  • Re: Ice Cream/Gelato: Always have just a little bit... every day. It's good for the soul... and it happens to taste out of this world!!
  • Re: Napkins: Why need them? Just don't eat with your hands (very contradictory to India, mind you)
  • Re: Seasonings at your table (i.e., ketchup, mustard, black pepper, etc): Besides perhaps a shaker of salt (which, as you may know, can naturally enhance flavor), if you need to add any additional seasonings to your food it's not good food to begin with!
  • Re: The eating experience: Food brings people together, and there's nothing better than gathering people together to celebrate, relax, and enjoy one another. Eating together strengthens those bonds!
  • Re: Strolls at night: It's important to take a stroll at the end of the evening, reflect on the day, and get some good fresh air. It also helps with digestion after an excellent meal, and it's also a great time to have that last taste of gelato before bedtime :o)
Grazie molto, Rome. I will return again!