It was clear that culturally I was a bit out of my own element. This was something that I had willingly chosen and in my best effort to adapt I did so respectfully and without much fuss. At the same time, I couldn't help but find humor in so many of the situations where myself and the other American girls found ourselves culturally torn. Everyday there was something new to laugh about!
To begin with, had I known what "appropriate dress" meant in southern India I could have spared myself half the time spent packing and all the energy I exerted lugging my suitcase through three different airports. Nearly all of my clothes, considered classy and respectful by Western standards, were labeled provocative and inappropriate by Kerala standards. A dear friend of mine told me that dress is a language and that what we wear expresses the type of attention we hope to attract. It seemed my wardrobe was sending invitations to men to make advances towards me. And so rather quickly and with a bit of hesitation at having to let go of what I felt was a small part of my identity, I tucked my clothes under the bed and went shopping!
It took some time for me to realize that even though it initially appeared that women were more or less wearing the same thing, I came to understand that this sea of vibrant colors was in fact unique. Despite having to wear one layer too many under a scorching tropical sun and sweating profusely for most of the day, I eventually came to appreciate and admire how elegantly and beautifully the women were dressed. I liked the fact that what lay beneath a woman's sari or kameez was left to the imagination and that each color and pattern was thoughtfully chosen to represent who they are.
Secondly, regardless of what your eating habits are, I refuse to believe that any amount of preparation can prepare you for the mounds of thick-grained rice that you are expected to devour at each meal. During the first week, myself and the other girls obediently and respectfully ate every last rice grain on our plates. Without exaggeration each person received a serving of rice fit for a family of four. Our stomachs were stretched to the max and by the time lunch came around the rice consumed in the morning hadn't made any attempt to move on. We were left wondering where would all the rice go? By the end of the month, the outcome of consuming this much rice would either leave us overweight, with diabetes or feeling incredibly backed up and sent off to travel home on a plane for nearly twenty four hours.
This was not to say that the food wasn't delicious. There were so many new flavors and textures to try and I did so happily. I especially enjoyed the abundance of fresh fruit! But even though this type of rice was considered a staple in Kerala, by the second week we had to make it known that although we enjoyed the rice, it needed to be done in smaller quantities, so as not to be wasteful (or require hospitalization). Ironically, one of the main concerns for travelers to India is avoiding getting sick and having diarrhea. Yet due to the diet in Kerala we were faced with just the opposite. Who knew we'd be desperate to go to the bathroom in India.
The third challenge was mastering the art of eating with my right hand only. I was surprised to find no utensils or napkins on the dinner table. It was just me, my plate and my cup of boiling hot water. At first, I thought it best to grab food with my fingertips and throw my head back as I simultaneously attempted to get the food in my mouth. This poor technique only left a mess on the floor and most of my food nestled in my scarf. Through observation, I learned that the trick is to pack the rice using curry and create a sort of rice ball. Then while leaning forward use the strength in your fingertips to scoop the food and toss it in your mouth. I was impressed to see Keralites maneuver their food with such ease, but at the same time as someone who habitually speaks with exaggerated hand movements, I never knew what to do with my curry hand. Needless to say, my utensils and I shared a loving embrace once I returned to the States.
Lastly, what I found to be the most challenging of all was my experience on an Indian bus. A true test of my patience! For a society that shies away from most public displays of affection, it seems that as soon as you step onto a bus all rules go out the window. Several times a day I found myself packed tightly between people, my body contorted into positions I didn't know were even possible on a vehicle where all you can do is sit or stand. People managed to create space even where there was none. If ever you thought a bus was full, think again! Indians have an impressive ability to utilize space, a result of living amongst so many people. The bus environment was a mad rush of people, everyone fighting for a spot. And without a steady breeze it would become unbearably hot and smelly. There were times I became desperate for air. It didn't even have to be clean air, something hard to come by in Indian cities, just circulating air.
Each morning the four of us would arrive at the bus stop, mentally prepared for what would be required of us to find a seat on the right bus to take us twenty minutes into the city. We stepped into the crowd, frantically asking numerous people if this bus was going to our stop and trying to interpret a head bob that could mean a number of things! I needed a quick response before the bus pulled away, and yet each time I became dumbfounded, not knowing whether the head bob meant yes or no. Utter confusion! And worse yet, all of my polite words were lost on people. There was simply too much commotion to even bother.
In the end, whether it was clothing, food or bus chaos, I managed to survive. All of these experiences were character building, teaching me new ways to adapt. I left India with beautiful clothes bought at great prices, a heavy but happy stomach and not a care in the world if someone preferred to sit on my lap on a San Francisco bus.