Trying Ayurveda

After my trip to the Telangana State Forest Academy, I was very excited to try an ayurvedic treatment for myself.  For three months I had heard nothing but praise about the therapies and curiosity had gotten the better of me.

While I could have gotten a massage virtually anywhere in Hyderabad, I held out until I visited a retreat in Kerala— a state in southern India that is known for being the birthplace of Ayurveda. Out of all the places I’ve visited in this country, Kerala is by far the most beautiful. Everything is full and green, even in the heat of India’s summer. Coming from Hyderabad, an extremely arid city, this greenery was a welcome relief. It was the perfect scenery to be spoiled by a massage.

Unlike massages I have had before, ayurvedic treatments require the masseuse to know a few things about my personal constitution. In Ayurveda, people have a unique balance of three “bio-elements” called doshas: vata (a product of air and ether), pitta (a product of fire and water), and kapha (a product of earth and water). These doshas affect what treatments they think would be useful as well as what products to use in the massage. To determine my constitution, I was asked whether or not I can stand hot weather, how strong my appetite is, and other similar questions. From these questions, the ayurvedic doctor determined that I was a Vata-Pitta constitution. Because of that my massages were done with sesame oil to combat the heat in my body.

To start my treatments, the masseuses said a small prayer over me. Though it is not an exclusively religious thing, Ayurveda is very closely linked to Hinduism—this surprised me. Back home, medicine and religion rarely see any cross-over but they go hand-in-hand in Ayurveda. After the prayer, I was given a foot bath and prepped for the massage table.

At the resort I got two treatments: a general body massage (which is essentially what it sounds like) and shirodhara. Shirodhara is a Sanskrit term that roughly translates to head (shiro) flow (dhara). During this treatment hot liquid, typically oil, is gently drizzled over the head in a rhythmic swing for an extended period of time. It is a therapy used to treat many ailments of the brain: migraines, insomnia, vertigo, paralysis, and anxiety. Ideally patients typically get several regular shirodhara treatments but, even though I only got the one, I completely recommend it.

I know that a lot of folk reading this will be pretty skeptical about whether Ayurveda is “real” or not. In the States, anything outside of modern western medicine is dubbed “alternative” and it is almost always seen as lesser-than. But just like modern western medicine, I learned in my Ayurveda class that Ayurveda has published research papers that support their traditional treatment. Also, Ayurveda doesn’t have as many problems with overdoses, addiction, etc. as western medicine. I’m not saying one is better than the other but, after learning and experiencing Ayurveda, I can say it is worth trying.

Class Outside

Over the past few weekends I’ve had the chance to experience India’s traditional medical practice, Ayurveda. As one of my gen-eds, I have already been taking a course through CIEE on Ayurveda. I am by no means pre-med, but I think there is value in having basic medical knowledge. And between the class field trips I have been taking for my class and going out to try a few treatments for myself (more on that next week), I certainly have learned a thing or two.

In brief, instead of focusing on curing diseases as they come, Ayurveda tries to prevent diseases before they can take root. Because of this, Ayurveda is more of a philosophy and lifestyle than medicine in the West. There is something prescriptible for almost every aspect of a person’s way-of-life. For instance, depending on your constitution and current life situation, ayurvedic doctors will suggest exactly what you should eat, what time you should wake up, and more.  More often than not, these suggestions are non-intrusive and rely on natural, easy-to-find remedies.

To see how natural remedies play such a big role in Ayurveda, I went to the Telangana State Forest Academy on a class field trip. I had been excited to visit the academy; it had been awhile since I last went on a real class field trip and the academy is essentially just acres of beautiful forest. It is a center that maintains a forest of hundreds of plants local to the area. While the TSFA isn’t specifically an ayurvedic forest, there is a complete overlap between the native plant life in Hyderabad and the plants used in ayurvedic medicine.

As we walked around the forest, I was so impressed by how much our guides knew. Again, there were hundreds of plants in the academy. Still, our guides could name every single one and, for many of the plants, they knew a little about their histories and medical uses. I know nothing about plants so seeing them list off all this specific botanical knowledge was incredible. But, more impressive than that, I was struck by how much more ayurvedic doctors need to know. Not only do they have to know the plants, they also have to know medicine preparation recipes, dosages, and how one plant might react to another. My class might not be able to teach me all of that, but I’m glad I got to see all that goes into the practice of Ayurveda.

  

  

Happy Holi!

I finally got to do it. I finally got to play Holi.

For those of you who don’t know, Holi is the Hindu festival of colors and it is an absolute party. Ever since I knew I was coming to India, it was the thing I was most excited about. And it’s pretty clear why.

First of all, you don’t “celebrate” Holi; you “play” Holi. I think that phrasing says a lot– it’s definitely not a sit-down, family dinner thing. To play Holi, people smear color all over each other, have water fights, and dance. Color runs everywhere. There were even a few points in the day when I couldn’t open my eyes because I was surround by a thick cloud of pink, or blue, or green, etc.

For the first half of the day, I went over to my director’s house to play Holi with the people in her family and neighbors. When I was invited, I thought that would mean *at most* thirty people but the total was more like a few hundred.  The venue was packed with people and there was even a full water tanker truck, a DJ, and reporters. I’ve been to some wild block parties but all that was something else.

By the time I left, I was drenched head to toe in the rainbow. Afterwards we did our best to clean ourselves up. I say “our best” because the dye in those powders really clings on to you. My neck stayed somewhat blue for two whole days and the outfit I wore will probably never recover (R.I.P.). Was I warned about that? Yes. Did I prepare enough for that? No. Still, the fun of being out in the thick of things was absolutely worth it.

Photo Credits to the Lovely Esme

Avoiding Appropriation

Coming to India I knew there was a certain Eat, Pray, Love aesthetic I wanted to avoid. You know, whether it’s Vanessa Hudgens with her bejeweled bhindi, or the ‘intellectual’ trying to “find themselves” with south eastern philosophies, or all the white girls on Pinterest showcasing their ‘modern’ takes on henna—cultural appropriation is tacky. More than that, it can be hurtful. Back home, one of my good friends, Falguni*, likened the appropriation of her Indian culture to “pillaging a village and then putting cheap knock offs of their sacred items on the shelf above your fireplace”. That, to me, served as a pretty clear message that I needed to stay in my lane.

When I got to India, however, I noticed that the line between appropriation and appreciation looks different than it does at home. This was specifically true of henna. In the States, the general rule of thumb is that it simply isn’t for white people. To show my respect and avoid “pillaging a village”, I never had it done. But here, a lot of Indian folk have gone out of their way to encourage me to try it by setting up henna lessons for me and taking me to henna artists.

This was honestly very confusing.

1) I didn’t want to be culturally appropriative and a white-girl-in-henna is one of the classic symbols of that in the States.

2) I didn’t want to be disrespectful and outright refuse to participate when someone offers a part of their culture to me.

It’s a question I think everyone (especially white students) should ask when they are abroad: what does it mean to participate and what does it mean to appropriate in your host culture?  There won’t be a concrete answer; everyone will have a different opinion on what is okay and what isn’t. But asking that question (and asking that question continuously) puts you in a mindset of learning instead of just consuming.

That said, because it was openly and enthusiastically offered to me, I did end up getting some henna and participating in the henna lessons. From these experiences, I learned that there is a difference between the traditional Indian and Arabic styles of henna; I learned which styles are typically used for different holidays and events; and I learned about the reported health benefits of henna. Still, because I know it does not belong to me, I won’t try to boast my new henna knowledge at home by doing it for others or even decorating my own body.

Now,  I don’t want to make it sound like I’ve somehow figured out how to easily navigate the line between appreciation and appropriation. It is messy and something that always needs to be questioned. Not just for this one-case instance of henna, but of so many things here, at home, and everywhere else I go.

 

 

 

*Name changed on request. S/O to her, this gal is the greatest.

 

 

 

 

No Cash

I’ve never cursed out an ATM before, but you travel abroad to try new things, right? For the past week, the ATM by my hostel has been marred with a hand-drawn “No Cash” sign. Back home this wouldn’t be an issue; I can’t even remember the last time I paid for something in cash in the States. But when you are living in a cash-based society like India, bills are very important.

You might think:

“Wait, isn’t it extremely frustrating to have inconsistent access to cash in a cash society?”

Yes. Yes, it is. Everybody, not just visitors like myself, struggles to get their hands on cash (especially small, usable bills). I once went to three different ATMs and was unable to find cash in any of them. And when there actually is cash, very long lines begin to form around the machines. It’s counter-intuitive—if your buying market depends on cash, cash should be readily available.

Now I know you’re supposed to “keep an open mind” and “not judge things too quickly” when you experience cultural differences. I tried to do that. I really did. But everything about the situation just seemed off to me. The paradox that is India’s relationship to cash was too confusing to be normal. So, I did a little digging, and it turns out that paradox isn’t a cultural thing at all—it’s a relatively new problem called demonetization.

In a very small nutshell, demonetization is basically when a government strips a currency unit of it’s legal tender (ie: money stops being money). Last year, India’s Prime Minister attempted this with some of their largest bills and there has been significant issues as a result (some info at the following links:  1 , 2 ); my personal struggles with the ATM being the absolute least of those problems.

Obviously, the whole situation is WAY more complex than I can explain. I’ve been in India for barely a month, I am not an economist, and my understanding of the local politics is relatively lacking. And yet, here I am, operating as a part of a delicate political situation that I don’t fully understand. I do my best to educate myself but, in the meantime, I have to accept the fact that there will be times when I am painfully ignorant of my surroundings here.

I think it’s important to remember that not everything you experience abroad is normal for your host country. When so much of day-to-day life is different from home, it’s easy to play things off as “just the way things are in [insert country here]”. But doing that reduces your host country to one thing and one thing only: different. Personally, I look forward to learning more about the nuances of Indian life; it is already reshaping the way I see both American and global politics.

Examples of INR (Indian Rupee) bills.

 

“At My Old School…”

I catch myself saying it all the time and it’s starting to get annoying. Sometimes I say it when the professor is ten minutes late for class. Sometimes it’s when I’m eating something new for breakfast. Sometimes it’s when I’m asked to hitch hike on campus. And sometimes I just say it:

 

“at my old school…”

 

Yes, just like Phoebe from The Magic School Bus, I can’t help but compare every little detail of living in Hyderabad to living on Hope’s campus.

At first I was a little self-conscious about my new catchphrase. I always thought Phoebe’s character was annoying; we get it, no two schools are alike. It seems counter-intuitive to travel somewhere new just to talk about the way things are back home. But now I completely understand the need to constantly reference “normal”.  Every time I compare here to home I feel like I have a sense of direction and that makes navigating this new culture so, so, so much easier.

Despite what you might think, Hyderabad and Holland are not completely opposite and discovering their similarities helps me understand Indian culture just as much as discovering their differences. For example, both Hope and UoH are dry campuses with fairly active student bodies that host a lot of events outside of the party scene. Some of my fellow international students are surprised by this, but for me it is just like home. In this aspect, the only real difference I’ve noticed is that Hyderabad has more off-campus opportunities than Holland, so people don’t always hold their activities on campus.

I need both bits of information—the similarities and the differences—to get a clear picture of the culture and how I can engage with it. How else would I learn about Indian culture? More importantly, how else could I break away from my All-American perspective? I decided to study abroad because I wanted to see how other people live and think. Without comparing and contrasting, I wouldn’t be able to do that. Maybe I constantly sound like a Magic School Bus rerun, but so what? I’m doing the exact thing I came here to do and I am loving it.

 

Let’s Go Fly a Kite

Being in India, it’s hard to remember that we are in the winter months; the average temperature here is 80 degrees Fahrenheit (26 degrees Celsius)! Even so, people all across India have been celebrating the passing of the winter solstice. Each state (or even each individual family) celebrates the end of winter differently so I can only speak to the way things are done in Hyderabad. Here, people generally observe the Hindu festival Sankranti by flying kites and eating sweet treats. There are some other more religious components as well but, as an outsider, I couldn’t catch the nuance and symbolism of the holiday. Still, I was able to fly some kites and have some amazing Laddu.

My friend and I got to the parade grounds in the afternoon when most people still had their kites in the air. It had been forever since I had seen a single kite in the air, let alone a couple dozen. Even without wind, people had kites flying two to three stories in the air. They made it look so graceful, so effortless, so serene. And then we tried.

It would be an understatement to say that we were terrible. We Americans had no kite flying experience whatsoever and it showed. At one point I was more wound up in kite string than the spindle. After about fifteen minutes of straight up struggle, a nice couple took pity on us and taught us the basics. Pro-tip: when there is no wind, you need to create your own gusts by constantly tugging at the kite—simply throwing it upwards does absolutely nothing…

                 

Anyway, after our kite tutorial, we started to have a good chat with our new mentors. After weeks of mostly being around other American exchange students, it felt good to be talking to people who were actually from the country.  We talked about cultural differences in dance, food, education, you name it. One thing led to another and, soon, our friends decided to escort us through the nearby sweets festival. There they acted as translators between us and the vendors, often scoring us some free samples in the process. At one point, they even helped us break away from a crowd of people wanting to take our picture (yes, that is a thing and I will write a whole blog post about it later). It was incredibly kind and generous.

My new pals!

We ended our time at the festival by watching paper lanterns being lifted into the night. Wherever one was launched, a large crowd would circle around just to watch the glowing fire be set into the sky. According to our new friends, these flaming paper orbs are an extreme fire hazard (that’s something they certainly don’t mention in Disney’s Tangled). But in that moment, I didn’t care. It was just so incredibly beautiful.

After the festival we all went to get dinner together and continued to spend the night swapping stories about each other’s cultures. From the fun activities, to the good food, to the great people, I couldn’t have asked for a better way to spend an evening abroad.  Sankranti 2018 was a night I will never, ever forget.

My biggest take-away from all of this is that I could have just spent the day failing at kite flying. I am not an extremely social person and I usually cling to the golden rule of “stranger danger”. But I didn’t do that at the festival. Instead, I met new people, asked questions, and learned SO much more than I ever could on my own.  This reminds me that it is not enough to ”just be yourself” when abroad; you have to be willing to grow.