Yikes! Days have passed since I arrived in India and this is my first blog update. That means I'll inevitably forget tons of fun tidbits as I try to cram in all the craziness of the start of this adventure. Also, it's late at night and I might just run out of steam... let's see how far I can get.
First, a little background on this trip. Basically, I'm on a break between the end of medical school and the start of residency. Most everyone I know in my class has taken the opportunity to travel to some part of the world, so I thought I would follow suit. As luck would have it, my good friend from my class, Sagar, was scheduled to get married in Bangalore, India, during this time and the dates worked out perfectly for me to make the trek. A bunch of other close friends from school are here, too. Josh, Jeff, Brodie, and Vanessa are here for pretty much my whole trip, and Anjali and Kamini met up with us for the engagement/wedding (more on that later). So overall, it's a great crew for a great adventure!
Bangalore used to be known as the Garden City of India, but now it is more famous for its tech industry. It's considered the Silicon Valley of the region and is also home to a lot of call centers. Literacy levels are really high and the English language is prevelant.
Just by chance, Vanessa and I booked ourselves on the same flights from Toronto to Bangalore. The trip was pretty smooth and generally uneventful. We stumbled upon Mike and Matt, also from our class, in the departures lounge at YYZ, though, because the poor guys had been delayed over 12 hours trying to get to London. Luckily we didn't have anything like that on our trip! The big hiccup for me was the lack of internet access in Frankfurt during our stopover. Honestly, what major airports don't have internet access these days? I had a bunch of emails I needed to send and reply to which I didn't get to before I left (it was a WHIRLWIND week prior to departure, with writing my medicince licensing exam, a marathon weekend of Scouts Board meetings, conducting interviews for a hiring committee, and then signing lease papers and sending money for my new place in Calgary). I have an even longer stop over there on the way back. Wasted time frustrates me.
We arrived in Bangalore at 00:30. We were pretty sure that someone was going to meet us at the airport, but we didn't know exactly who or where or... much (this would be a recurring theme). But once we landed I texted Brodie and he said they were waiting for us, and sure enough, after exiting the airport we had Jeff, Josh, Brodie, and Sagar all there to welcome us with big hugs! What troopers - it was like 1:30am by the time we left and the trip back to the hotel took about 45 minutes. We had two cars: one was driven by a hired driver but Sagar drove the other one himself. If you could see the roads here you would know how impressive that is! At least traffic is way reduced at night time. The other car actually got lost, but we all made it to our hotel eventually. I had slept great on the plane from Frankfurt, but I had not trouble sleeping well in my hotel bed once I settled in, too. I think I have two years of sleep deprivation to correct (before I get started on the next five years of sleep deficit!).
The next morning (or, I suppose, later that same morning) we woke and had an excellent breakfast at the hotel. They have a huge breakfast buffet every morning which is included with our stay. It's a neat mix of Indian foods and sort of western breakfast foods, but everything has a bit of a twist. Overall, though, it's good and we really fill up to start our day. My one complaint is that the coffee certainly leaves something to be desired... ah well.
Our next challenge was to get Anjali from the airport. She was arriving at 12:30 in the afternoon on a domestic flight from Dehli where she has been staying with family for the last two weeks. That turned out to be a bit of a challenge. Sagar had arranged for another car to pick Vanessa and I up from the hotel to go to the airport to grab Anj and bring her back. The problem was, I felt the timeline was pretty tight because the airport is at LEAST 45 minutes away, more with traffic, and the car was supposed to get us at noon, get Anj, come back to the hotel, then we were supposed to go meet Kamini across town for lunch before massage appointments at 3pm. If you are confused, you are still not experiencing the level of chaos that was experienced that afternoon. Basically, Anj had arrived at the airport and still no car had shown up at the hotel to get me and Vanessa. We would discover this would soon be a reoccuring theme. The other issue was that without an Indian mobile (cell phone) we have a terrible time communicating with anyone. So when the car didn't come we had to get the hotel to call Sagar's mobile, which they were hesitant to do for us (only some of the hotel staff are helpful. We have now figured out which ones are the enablers and which ones are to be avoided) to figure out what to do. Much texting was going on through a web-based text service because Anjali had wifi at the Bangalore airport, but we were paying for wifi by the hour at our hotel. So we would text Anjali and attempt to call Sagar multiple times, and it was all very confusing. Eventually Anjali just worked up the courage to take a taxi by herself to the hotel. It worked out find. Oh, meanwhile we were doing the same web-based texting to Kamini, who was wondering what the heck was going on. Kamini's aunt and uncle live in Bangalore so she has been here many times. In fact, her parents were visiting right now, as well.
So, basically, Anjali arrived, ditched her stuff in Vanessa's room, and then we attempted to get to the restaurant where we were supposed to meet Kamini and the other boys (they had headed out on their own for some exploring earlier). We asked the hotel to call us a taxi, and when a car arrived we got it. As we were pulling away we tried to confirm the rate but the driver started quoting crazy prices. He wanted us to pay to hire him for 4 hours, but we only wanted a one-way trip. There was much frustration and fighting and Anjali arguing in broken Hindi (she lived in India from ages 3-5) which eventually culminated in us asking to be brought back to hotel. So, that was transportation fail number 2 for the day. It turns out that was a bit of a miscommunication and now we know the difference between a metered taxi and hiring a driver. The hotel clearly has a vested interest in hiring cars because they constantly push us to get them, even though we don't need or want that. Finally we got a metered cab (again, after craziness but I won't get in to it) and headed off. We texted the driver's mobile number to Kamini before we left the wifi zone of the hotel, and she had someone call him to give directions. It took convicing to get the driver to pick up the phone because he didn't understand what was going on, but eventually he did. Miraculously, we ended up in front of the restaurant, I and Monkey, for a very reasonable 200 rupees. Phew!
By this time, we were really late. It was almost 3:00 and the restaurant was closing at that time, plus we were supposed to be at the spa then. Luckily the boys had only just arrived, themselves, because their rickshaws had no idea where to go. It turns out that Kamini's whole extended family was there and that her uncle knows the owner, so they were lenient and stayed open a bit later for us. The food and service were fantastic! A cold beer was nice after the stress of the day, as well. As an added bonus, when we got up to leave we found out that Kamini's family had taken care of the bill for us - so kind! Even better, they had left us two cars and drivers to get where we needed to go. The boys went shopping while us girls went off to a little local salon that Kamini knows well.
I would never in a million years have known about that place myself because it really was just a business out of someone's house on a small side street, but the ladies there cared about their work and paid a lot of attention to detail for a very reasonable price. I had my first mani/pedi, which was... interesting. The manicure was nice, but I'm really not that into people getting that invested in my feet, I think. I may not get another opportunity to have a manicrue, however, because soon I'll be starting surgical training and you can't have nailpolish on when you scrub in to surgery. Flakes of laquer are not good things to get in a surgical field! I had been hoping for a massage, as well, but I didn't really have time in the end because the other girls were finished up their treatments and I didn't want to hold up the group.
From there we swung by an Indian clothing shop because I wanted to get an Indian outfit for the engagment party that night. Sagar's family had purchased all of us beautiful Indian clothing for the wedding, but I kind of wanted to wear something different for the engagement (Anjali had a bunch of outfits to choose from and Vanessa was borrowing something from Kamini, but I'm about twice the size of them so I was on my own). Kamini said the shop we were going to had really well priced stuff so it would be a quick win. Well, it turns out times had changed since the last time she was there! I went to try on a long shirt and pants which was * nice * but not a dream garmet of mine or anything, and took a look at the pricetag in the changeroom. It said 7000 rupees. I stood there for a while thinking that jet lag or something must be prohibiting my conversion skills. How could this cotton shirt cost 7000 rupees? I must be missing a decimal or something. I came out with the outfit on and asked Kamini how much 7000 rupees was. She was like, "I don't know... $150 or something. Why?" "Because that's how much this costs!!!" "WHAT??!?!" She exclaimined. "OK, well just take it off and let's get out of here! That's crazy!"
Anjali was shocked, too. She said we could by the same thing for $30 in Toronto. We're not talking silk sari or anything... this was just a cotton long shirt and pants with some embroidary embellisment. We are told that times have changed in the last few years. As Bangalore, and, presumably, India in general, has boomed the divide between upper-middle class and poor has increasingly widened. There has been an increased emphasis on material goods and prices have risen accordingly. Basic silk saris cost hundreds of dollars now.
I decided to wear a western dress from home to the engagment party.
Before heading to the hotel and the party, we swung by Kamini's aunt's house so that she and Vanessa could get dressed in their saris and we could have some tea. They looked gorgeous, but my goodness they were a production to put on! It starts with a small crop top (the blouse) and a long skirt which ties up (the petticoat). These are basically foundation garments. Then a single gigantic piece of cloth is tucked in to the top of the petticoat and wrapped around the wearer multiple times. Finally, it is brought up and around the shoulder, pleated, and pinned up. That probably sounds more simple than it actually is. Kamini's mom had to help and at times there were two people involved in the pleating and pinning. Apparantly they are very hot and heavy, as well.
Finally, we headed back to the hotel so Anjali and I could get dressed. Here, the clothing ordeals continued. I slipped in to my dress no problem, but Anjali had a wardrobe malfunction. She was wearing a long Indian dress/shirt (I should really know the names for these things) which had one of those small zippers running down the side which always gets caught. It continually got stuck and we could NOT get it to go down. The worst part was that it was sticking near the top, so basically one whole side of her outfit was gapping open. Poor Anj was determined to wear that dress, though, because it had long sleeves and here arms were COVERED in terrible mosquito bites from Dehli, some of which had actually blistered! So, we tried and tried to get that zipper down, unsure of what we were missing downstairs because events were already supposed to have started at this point. With Anjali's arm raised over her head, Vanessa, Kamini, and I all worked away, pulling at various parts of armpit fabric and zipper, trying to close the seam. It was actually rather hilarious. Eventually brute force prevailed and the zipper went down, but the upper part split open. Oh well. 80% was closed. Now, though, we needed a pin to secure that part to make sure no other part of the zipper seam pulled open. Kamini and Vanessa had safety pins on their saris, but they were serving important functions and they couldn't be given up. No one else had any pins of any kind. After a search my bag and hotel room, I managed to find one straight pin and a small "BEAVERS CANADA" pin with a safety pin style back. Anj was desperate at this point, so the BEAVERS CANADA pin was employed. If someone looked closely, they would have been rather confused with the latest accessories from Canada.
Finally, we were ready to head down to the engagement party and meet up with the boys. I guess I haven't said much about it yet, but this is an arranged marriage that Sagar is entering in to. He met his wife-to-be for the first time in December when he went home to India for a week. They were then going to get engaged through an elaborate ceremony this night and be married the next day. Short, so no time to back out, I guess!
It turns out we hadn't missed much. Apparently Indian wedding ceremonies are fairly fluid events where people kind of come and go throughout. This ceremony was in very full, hot room. There was a traditional band playing in the corner and Sagar and Deepa were on a beautiful stage with flowers all around. There were also big time bright lights with two video cameras and two still photographers - one set for each side of the family. The evening consisted of a lot of blessings and a LOT of photographers. Everyone was dressed beautifully in outfits shimmering with every colour of the rainbow. Sagar's family is extremely nice and made us always feel welcome and taken care of. His sister and her husband are especially great. They had recently done fellowships at McGill so they have a good handle of what our "norms" are and take care of us when we look confused. They are both doctors, as is Sagar's father. In fact, there are 17 doctors in their family! We know we have nothing to worry about while we are here. Many guests wanted to speak with us and find out what brought us all the way here from Canada, and they, in turn, explained parts of the ceremony to us.
After eating a delicious Indian buffet dinner we got a chance to give our blessings to the engaged couple. This involved us going barefoot up on the stage and waving a platter with lighted candles and fresh flowers around in a circle. Then we touched the rim of the candle holders with our finger and then touched the finger to the forehead of each Sagar and Deepa.
Eventually we snuck off to our rooms as things were winding down. The boys had attempted to acquire some booze earlier in the day for us. They did well on the beer ("Kingfisher" beef is ubiquitous here) but we had requested wine, and that was more difficult. When they told their driver they needed wine they were taken down an alley and dropped off in front of an enclosed cage with a small window. They asked for wine and a jug of "local" wine was produced. It was kind of sketchy, and fortified. They boys bought three jugs. Haha. So, that night we tried the wine. It was.... terrible. How were we going to drink 3 litres of this stuff! We tried mixing it with some soda water and that made it slightly more bareable. Eventually we discovered it was more tolerable if we stopped thinking of it as wine and more as just miscellanous alcohol. I still wasn't a huge fan, but tonight (2 nights later) the last jug was finished off. I never thought we would do it.
The next day was the wedding in the morning, followed by a reception in the evening. I hope I get to write about it all but time is marching on! I should get a chance for some more writing tomorrow morning because we will probably have a bunch of time waiting for a car to pick us up (we are going up north to Deepa's village for a continuation of the marraige ritual stuff). I should probably stop here for tonight because it's almost 2am and we have a big day tomorrow. I have TONS of pictures. I'll try to get those up tomorrow, too. Goodnight for now!
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