I arrived in Delhi by plane, Dan via overnight bus, and we’d both leave by train bound for Kolkata that night. We planned to meet at Subway (the sandwich place, not another mode of transport) in a touristy area near the train station. Good ol’ India welcomed me back as only India can. Upon arrival I told the cab driver where I was going and he nodded his head in recognition. What I had quickly forgotten is that cab drivers ALWAYS say they know where they’re going. This one did not. We drove in circles, and then retraced our circles. I tried to navigate via the map on my phone, but of course that led us astray as well. I reiterated the location and my aging driver put his hands to his head and shook it, as if it were the first time I’d told him the destination and we were way off course.
Then I watched as the little blue dot on my phone moved in the opposite direction of the train station. My faith diminished further and I asked the driver to pull over so I could get out and find a new cab, but he wasn’t having it. Frustrated and hungry, I finally told him to take me to Connaught Place, a well-known area of shops and restaurants not far from where I needed to be. Signs all over Delhi point the way. He still had to stop and ask for directions. After nearly two hours of driving we arrived at Connaught Place. I pre-paid for the taxi at the airport, but of course he demanded more money. I responded by walking away and shaking my head NO WAY, JOSE. I then found an auto-rickshaw who knew exactly where I was going and I arrived at Subway less than 10 minutes later. Dan was waiting with two glorious sandwiches. I probably said hello before diving head-first into my turkey and cheese on wheat, but I really can’t be sure.
Hours later we took another auto-rickshaw to the train station where we’d wait for our 7:30pm train. Dan had been in India for a few weeks, but had yet to experience the Indian Railway, and I told him it was an absolute requirement. We settled into our upper berths on the 2AC (second class sleeper) Duronto train and ordered our dinner which was soon delivered on trays: curried paneer with rice and roti (no escaping curry on the train). Later we contorted ourselves to watch Slumdog Millionaire on Dan’s laptop- a fitting selection. As is typical of me, I fell asleep before the end.
The plan was to stay near downtown Kolkata for a few nights, take the train to Digha beach for two nights, then head back to stay in the Salt Lake area for the duration of the trip (Salt Lake is where I stayed while volunteering for Kiva). All went according to plan except we both got sick. Yes, I was sick once again. GRRR! I was starting to think I had an Australian allergy. We explored a little bit of Digha, which is south of Kolkata on the Bay of Bengal, but energy levels ran low so we didn’t venture far. It’s a weekend destination for Bengalis so we didn’t see any other obvious foreigners.
Back in the Salt Lake area of Kolkata we stayed near the BJS office and went in for a visit one day. It was great to see Mr. Das and the team again and I was greeted with huge smiles and hugs. The first thing I noticed was the newly-installed air conditioning units. I screamed, “Oh my god, you got a/c!” I was so happy about their comfort upgrade. In true Mr. Das fashion I was there about five minutes before he said there was an email he needed my help drafting. Of course I agreed and went into his office where he pushed his laptop towards me so I could type. Shortly thereafter Uttama, the Kiva Coordinator I helped train, came in and asked for our lunch order. “From Silver Chimney?” I asked. “Of course,” she responded. “Do you still have the menu bookmarked on your computer?” Sure enough I still did. Then I saw Ritu, my former co-worker and friend. We gave each other a giant hug. It felt like I was home.
The wedding, like many in India, took place over three days: Friday, Saturday and Sunday. I expected to join all three days of festivities, but upon arrival I learned that Ritu had to work on Saturday so we’d only be going Friday and Sunday. Since Dan and I were both vacillating between being sick and well, I thought it may not be the worst thing to have a break in the middle. Friday was supposed to be a long day with ceremonies in the morning and evening. I’m fascinated by traditions, and attending an Indian wedding was weighing heavily on my bucket list, so I was pretty excited. I even borrowed saris from Sagori, the bride and Ritu’s best friend. Then Friday morning I got a message from Ritu that she wasn’t feeling well so the morning plan was cancelled and we’d meet around 6pm for the evening events. I was bummed. Even though I wasn’t feeling 100% myself, I’d gone through a lot of schedule shifting and travel logistics to get there. Oh well, what can you do? Later in the day Ritu picked us up at our guesthouse and brought us back to her place to get ready. She dressed me in a black and gold sari, then we were off to the wedding.
Indian weddings are big, and Sagori’s was no exception. 500 guests were invited, although they were scattered a bit over the three days (or so I understand). We arrived at the flower-covered event hall and headed straight for the bride who was standing on a stage, receiving guests and gifts while posing for photos. She looked absolutely stunning in her traditional red wedding sari and gold jewelry. We hugged and took pictures before being displaced by other attendees. Outside there were food stations and I fell in love with the chicken shawarma, partly because it wasn’t curry. This was a dry wedding, so the drink options were coffee, water or some sweet and colorful mix of syrup and soda.
After some nibbling, the ceremony began. Unlike Western weddings where everyone is seated for the ceremony and the reception follows, this was more like choose-your-own-adventure. A handful of people gathered in the small-ish room, but many were milling about outside or in other areas. It started with the bride seated on a chair as men held her up (Jewish Hora style) and walked her around the groom seven times. This is called the Saat Paak and represents the couple being tightly wound around each other. Then the bride and groom exchanged flower garlands around the neck a few times, signifying that they accept one another.
Following the flower and chair rituals, the couple moved under the chadnatolla, a wedding altar and canopy. They placed their hands on top of one another as they were bound together. A man chanted for several minutes until the hands were released, tben the couple took a break for the fire to be lit. As I learned during the Durga Puja festival, wood fires in enclosed places make my eyes swell shut, so unfortunately I missed the last part of the ceremony where the groom puts sindur, a bright red powder, along the bride’s hairline in the middle of her forehead. This is the sign of a married woman and she will wear sindur every day throughout their marriage.
Upon completion of the rituals, we went upstairs to eat. I thought the snacks downstairs WERE the food, so I was surprised by the enormous buffet spread. The food was traditional Bengali with veg and non-veg curry options along with salads, rice, naan and dessert. It was quite impressive. After eating, we left, and that was the end of day one.
On Sunday the festivities didn’t start until evening so once again we went to Ritu’s house so I could get sari-d up. This day was devoid of rituals and was simply a reception- held at a different event venue. We were a bit early so we got to hang out with Sagori, the bride, in an air-conditioned room before the guests arrived. Once again she looked gorgeous, this time in a purple sari and gold jewelry.
After some chit-chatting and photos, we went up to yet another elaborate buffet, then said our goodbyes and hopped in a cab, closing the book on my bucket-list wedding. Was it what I expected? Not exactly. Was I glad I went? Yes. As I hugged Sagori goodbye she re-iterated how happy she was that I came. “I didn’t think it would be possible,” she said. “But I am so grateful you’re here. It means a lot to me. I’ll miss you.”
Dan had a 4am flight to Lebanon the next morning, and I headed to Kuala Lumpur later in the day. Thus the travel cycle continues as we ride in and out on the tides. Next I would wash ashore at my friend Jun’s apartment in a suburb of KL, just as I did for a brief time between Bali and Singapore. I know Jun from my teaching days in Japan, and he has spent the last five years living and working in Malaysia. I’d stay just over a week there before heading to Hong Kong, my final Asian destination. Where has the time gone??