Thursday, August 25, 2011

Kodaikanal and Raksha Bandan

Last week we had a four day weekend. Friday was a special Hindu puja (ritual) and Monday the 15th was Indian Independence Day. We decided to take a trip to my host family's farm house in a hill station called Kodaikanal. Since I've been here, people keep talking about hill stations, and no one was able to really explain what they were. I guess they thought it would be too obvious to just say a hill station is a town on top of a mountain, which is what it turns out to be! They are popular vacation spots because they are a nice escape from Southern Indian heat due to the altitude. This particular hill station is seven hours south of Chennai. I was in high spirits as we drove hour after hour through cities, towns, villages, and empty land. At the bottom of the mountain, we stopped in the town for lunch, and I ate off of a banana leaf, which is the traditional way of eating here, for the first time. On the way up, we stopped to eat fresh jackfruit, or jaggery. Jackfruits are huge and round, with rather spiky outsides. Each one is more than a foot long. You have to cut open the fruit, hollow out the sticky inside, and cut off the seeds which come out of the "shell". Each seed is encased by the part that you eat. There was a woman running a small stand cutting jackfruit and putting on a plate for us to eat. We stood there for a while eating jackfruit and enjoying the light rain.

When we got to the top, we started driving through one of the most adorable towns I've ever seen. Kodaikanal is a small but bustling town nestled in the sharp hills of the top of a mountain.  It is actually quite chilly there, even for a Vermonter like me. On the other hand, it may have just felt especially cold because I had been getting used to South India heat for about six weeks. After we came back down from the mountain, the heat felt twice as hot.

My host family's farm house is a cute cottage with a great view of the surrounding mountains. Sometimes it gets so misty there you can barely see. Next to the house is another small cottage. The family who lives there takes care of my host family's house, and the mother cooks for us.

Because it was raining a lot of the time, we only went out one day. Mostly we just relaxed and played. There was a small yard where we played with a frisbee I had brought from home, an idea suggested to me by who else but my dad, an avid frisbee player. The frisbee was a huge hit with the two sons of the couple who takes care of the house. I didn't ask them how old they were, but I think they were around seven and ten. The younger one especially loved playing monkey in the middle with the frisbee. He would come find me with the frisbee in hand and beg "Akka, game!". "Akka" means older sister in Tamil, but it is not just used for an actual sister. It is also a respectful way to call a girl or woman who is older than you but not old enough to be your Aunty. Little kids at school will call "Hi Akka!" or "Akka, what's your name?" or "Akka, will you be my friend?".

I hadn't seen green grass since coming here, so I shocked my host uncle by taking off my sandals and going barefoot, as the two young boys were doing. It was so nice to feel the fresh grass under my feet again. It was sweet to see how much their father enjoyed watching us all play together. He would just stand at the window watching us and smiling. In the end, I gave them the frisbee, since they liked it so much. I told them that when I came back we would play together again.

The Saturday that we spent in Kodaikanal was a holiday called Raksha Bandan. It celebrates the relationship between brothers and sisters, specifically the protective nature of that relationship. I did the ritual with each of my host brothers. I also did the ritual with my host uncle, Bubesh "Bubee", who we call "Anna" (brother) because he is in his twenties and he doesn't want us to call him uncle because it makes him feel old. We put a variety of things on a tray, including incense and a candle. I first waved the tray around their faces in a circle to bless them. Then I took rice mixed with water and a red powder and drew a line on their foreheads. In return, they sprinkled rice on my head. I then gave them each a piece of chocolate and tied a special bracelet called raki on his right hand. At the end, they each gave me a gift.

We came back from Kodaikanal very late Monday night. Since we were all pretty tired and my host brother Sanjay was sick, we decided to sleep in and take Tuesday off. I didn't go to school much that week...Monday was a holiday, we took Tuesday off, and Thursday I went to a wedding. More about that later!    

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