Month: February 2013

1001 Reasons Why I Love India

I have been to India for a dozen times, yes, literally a dozen times. When I first backpacked here 7 years ago, I knew I’d be coming back, but I didn’t know I’d come back so often.

I love this country.

My colleagues on both sides of the Atlantic can’t understand my passion for India, most of them had suffered from first-hand experience of Delhi Belly, to them, India stands for I Never Do It Again. We have a leader board of those who missed work for the very same reason in our on-site office, ironically the 2nd place is actually held by a Delhi boy, at least Delhi Belly doesn’t discriminate…

My friends back home can’t make sense of my obsession either, the most frequently asked question is – “What do you eat there?” India to them is a place where busses are overloaded, streets are dirty, curry is the only form of food available, people sing and dance all day… just like the scenes in Bollywood movies.

Then my husband says – “Sweetie, if you fancy some good briyani and samosas, we could just go to Durban…”

My parents frown over the media reports – protests, bomb blasts, and recently, rape cases…

Every time someone heard I was leaving for India, they gave me a sympathetic look, as if I got the short end of the stick; when I told them that I actually love India, they ask – why?

To be honest, I don’t actually know.

I was first drawn to India for its fascinating history, rich heritage, and colorful cultures. When my friend toyed with the idea of visiting India over a drink in Bangkok, I didn’t give her any time to change mind – three weeks later, we reconvened at Panjim airport in Goa, started our month long exploring.

While my friend entered the country from Chennai, I landed in Mumbai instead, and my first night in India was in a Salvation Army guest house (recommended by Lonely Planet), frankly, I was not impressed.

Gregory David Roberts wrote in Shantram that the first three things he noticed in Bombay (Mumbai) were – the smell, the heat, and the people. So did I. I’d add on one more – the noise. Trust me, it wasn’t a good first impression.  The noise was overwhelming, the smell was pungent, the heat was suffocating, and the people – Mumbai is home for over 20 million people, what would do you expect?

Then we partied on Goan beaches, strolled in Chennai’s French quarters, drifted on the backwaters in Kerala, stumbled in the caves in Ajanta, enjoyed high tea at Taj Palace overlooking the Gateway of India, admired the sublime beauty of Taj Mahar in Agra, amazed by snake charmers in the “Pink City” Jaipur, paid tribute at Gandhi’s tomb in Delhi, and trekked in Kashamir, we had seen so much, and there were still so much more to see… I was, and am still in awe of diversity of nature India has to offer.

I’d be lying if I tell you it was all smooth sailing, it’s not. A couple of times we were stranded on trains, and another couple of times we were crammed into busses, left frustrated and annoyed. Fellow passengers took great interest in our apparent foreign looks, it took us a while to get used to the staring. Eventually we figured out there was nothing hostile, it was sheer curiosity.

I remember kissed Zeni good bye at Delhi airport before we parted our ways, we reflected on our trip over a coffee, only found we both had mixed feelings about this holy land. So there, I said – I’ll be back.

Two years later an opportunity appeared and I grabbed it in no time, I was back for six weeks, and ever since, I’d come to India every year.  Learnt from my first visit, I was well prepared, for the heat, the noise, and the always crowded streets. I spent many early evenings strolling around, chatting to the locals, and I made friends. I’ve become more than an innocent tourist.

Despite the fear of “Delhi Belly”, my Chinese genomes prompted me to take on the local food. Anyone thought Indian cuisine equals curry would be surprised. The selection is wide – taste varies from the south to the north, flavor differs between the east and the west, I once thought “naan” means Indian bread, it is actually only one of over forty kinds. I ate with fingers, struggled at the beginning but after few rounds of practice – hey, food just tasted nicer!

I took this culinary experience a little bit further, during the last few trips, I opted to be a seasonal vegetarian. In the months of my stay, I had never being bored of eating veggies or missed meat. India offers the biggest selection of vegetarian food in the whole world. You wonder how it is even possible the boring ingredients like peas, potato, spinaches, and mushrooms can be cooked in so many different ways yet palatable.

I turned on TV, tuned into music channels, and indulged myself in the Bollywood glamour. On screen girls don big black silky long hair and perfect curves, guys sport six packs and eye-catching biceps… excuse me for the cliche – they are so hot, it’s almost illegal. The forever going on singing and dancing, the upbeat rhythms and sexy moves, and the glittering costumes, all these are just so mesmerizing that the world seems falls into oblivion.

I read the papers, went through page after page of Matrimony classifieds and felt relieved that I am already married. I collected clippings of oddball Indian wedding rituals, but that’s a story for another time.

I watched cricket, on TV, on the road side, in parks, and in stadiums… The passion for cricket in this country is unparalleled, anywhere there’s an open space, there would be cricket actions going on. Sachin is the most popular name for baby boys, after the living cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar. In India, there are not one, but at least two national channels broadcasting cricket 24/7 – I thought ODI was a brand when I first visited, now I know the difference between long leg, short leg, and square leg, and every other fielding position… You don’t pick up cricket knowledge here, it is in the air, you just breathe in.

On the uneventful days I attempted to familiarize myself with names of those mystical gods and goddess, and their duties respectively, after all it was the rich tapestry of numerous ancient mythologies and thousands of traditional rituals brought me to India in the first place. It’s riveting yet confusing, however the only story I can recite is the one that young Krishna showed his mother the universe and infinity in his mouth… but if you ever read Life of Pi or watched the movie, you’d probably know the story anyway…

I shopped, till I dropped! Avoiding malls and department stores, I bargained in local markets and shops in alleys. The return was more than pleasing. Impeccable craftsmanship and unique designs often made Indian accessories most sought after gifts among my friends. I have also developed an unwavering liking for Indian cotton over the years, if you see me wearing something simple, elegant, donned with ethnic elements, highly likely it’s one of my purchases from India.

Then I ventured a little further each time too, and each time I was rewarded with nice surprises. Took one hour flight from Delhi, I found myself soaked in the zen spirit of Tibetan Buddhism at the foot of spectacular Himalayas. Then about an hour pleasant express train ride to the north from Delhi, in the Punjabi capital Chandigarh, a rose garden houses more than 50,000 rose bushes over 1600 species. If travel by car for an hour from Delhi, I would be in the new town called Greater Noida, where  no car honking, no cow wandering, there may be occasional engine roaring afar from the F1 track,  adding on a bit of excitement to the otherwise quiet community life.

From the courtyard of Jama Masjid to the porch of Gurdwara Bangla Sahib, from the lawns in Basillca of Bom Jesus to the hilly McLeo Ganj Buddhist temple, I saw gods’ followers brush shoulders with each other before they entered different shrines. There is respect, respect the fact we are all different; there is tolerance, tolerance of dissimilarities, and there is peace.

It is always the people that make a journey unforgettable, the same for India. Again Gregory David Roberts got it right in Shantram, after the smell and the heat he wrote  –  “Then there were the people.  Assamese, Jats, and Punjabis; people from Rajasthan, Bengal, and Tamil Nadu; from Pushkar, Cochin, and Konarak; warrior caste, Brahmin, and untouchable; Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Parsee, Jain, Animist; fair skin and dark, green eyes and golden brown and black; every different face and form of that extravagant variety, that incomparable beauty, India.”

On these excursions, I met people from all walks of life, from all over India, they are always so readily to assist and so eager to help. It is in India that I experienced the most attentive services any hospitable establishment could offer.

I have been to India for a dozen times, yes, literally a dozen times, and it has never failed to amaze me. There are still so many places to visit, so many things to do. Neither has it stopped surprising me that how much its infrastructures changed and how well its traditions kept.

I have spent lots of time here working and touring. There were days things got so frustrating that I could only laugh, there were also days I felt so touched that my eyes were moist with tears of joy. Each time I leave, I’d be prepared for the next trip again.

If you are thinking of visiting India, I’d suggest you to be prepared, for the noise, the smell, the heat, and the overcrowded streets, the last but not the least, to be prepared to be back here again, and again.ImageImageImageImage


Chinese New Year – a fortnight of celebrations

My Malaysian friend posted on her facebook page why she loved Chinese New Year – “… it’s colourful, it’s loud…” when red is the dominate colour throughout the country, when the deafening firecrackers hiss into sky,  it’s not possible for any living soul not to know Chinese New Year is here.

If you are like me, awaken by chuffing fireworks in these early mornings, maybe you also want to know what all this is about?

New Year’s Eve:  Legend has it that there was an evil spirit called “XI” in ancient times, Xi was scared of loud sound, hence people played Imagedrums and set fireworks off to keep Xi away.  In Chinese, the new year eve is called “Chu Xi”, literally it means “get rid of Xi”.

Oh, remember to clean your house on this day, it is very important, why? You will soon find out…

Day 1: On this day, there is one thing you definitely should not touch – sweeper, else it would sweep away all the good luck and fortune, even bring in the star of bad luck. If due to certain circumstances you have to sweep floor, please do remember to sweep from outside to inside so as to keep the good fortune in your house. On this day, you are not supposed to throw away garbage either.

Day 2: Married daughters are expected to visit their maiden families on the second day of the new year, with husbands and children. One the way home, daughters should bring alongbiscuits and candies, for mothers to give away to neighbors – the sweet thoughts of the girl for her families and childhood friends.

Day 3: In rural China, this day is called “Chi Gou Ri”, it’s a day to worship ancestors. Mythology has it that Chi Gou was an ill-tempered god in charge of summer in the South, an encounterwith him usually was not pleasant at all, hence on the third day of the new year, it will be wise to stay at home with your family.

Also on this day, there is a series of DON’Ts – no floorsweeping, no fire making, no taking water from wells (by the way, the wells would have been sealed off since the new year’s eve anyway). Any family resides near a well will burn joss sticks in the morning, remove the red seal on the well, and lay vegetables around it, that’s why the third day of the new year isalso called “Kai Jing Ri” – a day of well re-opening. In some places, people collect dusts in dustpans, then leave the pan at the fork of a road, together with a broken sweeper – farewell to poverty.

Day 4: The day to welcome gods.  According to ancient mythology, all gods return to the world on the 4th day of the new year. However, as it is Fortune God’s birthday on the 5th day, to secure a good position in his good book, the welcome reception would start a day earlier, it is “receiving the fortune god”. Don’tbe surprised if you see sheep and carp on a sacrifice table – in Chinese language, “Yang” (sheep) also means good business, and “Yu” (fish) brings “abundance”.

Day 5: The chuffing fireworks continue from the night before, to celebrate birthday of Fortune God.

It is also a day to break poverties –  and lack of financial meansis not the only form of ill fate –  here’s the list of “big 5” to be broken on this day:

Poverty of intelligence

Poverty of knowledge

Poverty of inspiration

Poverty of finance

Poverty of friends

Firecrackers would be set off from inside the house to the outside – bye bye bad luck!

Ah – today, you finally can clean house again, thoroughly! And that garbage? Throw, throw, throw it away!!

On this day, you are supposed to get up early and work hard, the harder the better, although it may be slow, isn’t it the surest way to build up wealth?

Day 6: Day of Business Re-Opening. Be prepared for more firecrackers on the first day of going back to work!

Day 7: Legend goes goddess Nv Wa created human on the 7thday, no way fireworks will be missing on this occasion! By the way, just for your information, she created rooster, dog, pig, sheep, ox, and horse in the first 6 days.

Day 8: The day of Grain – if you are visiting friends and families in countryside, please don’t be offended if the host serves you half cooked food on this day – it’s a gentle reminder – not to waste food; it’s also a form of paying respect to hardworking farmers.

On this day, people will also worship stars by lighting up candles either at home or in temples. In the flickering candle lights, the elders would advise the youth no wrong doings even when alone, because the stars above are always watching…  say “Xing Xi”(good night stars) to your family after candles are out,  turn on the lights, and of course, set firecrackers off again!

Day 9: Another birthday celebration – the Jade Emperor, the boss of universe in Taoism mythology. What would you expect? Yes, more fireworks!

Temples will be busy again with devoted worshipers presenting sacrifices, burning incense, and praying for a peaceful year ahead.

Day 10: It is God of Stone’s birthday. No moving of anything made of stone on this day, i.e., a grinder, else it’ll bring a lean year to the growing crops.

Day 11: “Zi Xu Ri” – a day for father-in-laws to treat son-in-laws. After ten days of celebration, there must be plenty of food available in every household,  son-in-laws, come help!

Day 12: A day of choosing lanterns. Getting ready for the festive of lanterns, go find the one you like.  Works will begin in streets on this day to prepare for the lantern festive too.

Day 13: Lighting up lanterns. In countryside, married girls will invite mothers to meals, and in the evening, hays to be burnt and how embers glowed would disclose many puzzling questions, if you knew how to read…

Day 14: It is probably the least ceremonious day of the whole celebration, a day to chill and relax.

Day 15: The 15th day of the new year, Lantern Festival, full moon… this day marks the climax and also the end of the new year celebration. Streets are lit with bright, colourful lanterns, people go out with families and friends, appreciating the beautifully designed lanterns, visiting flower markets, and what’s more? Fireworks!

Like every other traditional Chinese festival, a specific food must be eaten on this day – Tang Yuan, or “Yuan Xiao”, depends on where you are, it could well be prepared in any sort of way of cooking, with any sort of stuffing – red bean, mashed dates, sugar, dried rose petals, with meat, without meat…, whether the Tang Yuans are steamed, deep fried, boiled, all means one thing – a harmonious year with a reunited family.

On that note, wish you all a prosperous year of golden snake!