Agra was a nice diversion, but what we were really in India for was Rajah's wedding. We got a taxi to the airport to head to Bangalore, where Rajah is from. I don't think many of my expectations of the flight experience were met. It was very early in the morning when we got there, so there wasn't a lot open. Our choice was pretty much KFC. Phil reported that the chicken was similar but different to what you get in the US. I was excited because they had some sort of veggie sticks and rice for breakfast. Yay for real food in the morning! Breakfast exceeded my expectations. Security on the other hand, didn't. Apparently, bottles of water (over 3 oz) are completely ok (or at least they didn't care this time), but having extra batteries isn't. I had to dump a 16 pack of AAs and some rechargeables because I wasn't aware of that. Oops. Also, the flight was a little below expectations. We flew Spice Jet. There was no leg room. My knees were up against the seats the whole time. Oh well, we just won't fly them next time.
Bangalore, however, was not below expectations. Most importantly, the weather was not smoke. It was actually pretty nice. At the airport, some guy helped us make a free (plus tip) call to Rajah's brother, who gave us the bus number. We took a fabulous bus ride through the city. The city itself reminds me of Miami a lot, and not just because of the weather. It also had a lot of Miami-style architecture as well as plenty of palm trees all over. There were a ton of street vendors selling everything from coconuts to sugar cane juice. We passed some neat murals including one with dinosaurs. We also passed by the wedding hall. As we passed it, I saw the large, brightly-colored sign out front that had Rajah and Deepa's names on it. Then, we passed the bus stop we were supposed to get off at. And we kept going. We stopped at the next one, though. Thank goodness for cell phones. We definitely had to take advantage of the technology in order to meet up with Rajah's friend who was coming to get us. While we waited, we people-watched. I was excited to see that the women were pretty much all wearing either saris of these long shirts with baggy pants. I saw as many women in American-style clothing as I did in burkas. The men on the other hand, were mostly in 70s-style pants or jeans and wore either t-shirts or guayaberas. The streets were completely littered with trash, but nobody seemed to notice or care. They did notice us, however. We were definitely the only white people around, and I guess we looked pretty clueless. Mostly, people just stared at us, but one guy did come over and offer to help us out. Eventually, Rajah's friend came by on his bike to help us get to the wedding hall. At first, he struggled to get a taxi (all tuk tuks) because the hall was so close that most of them didn't think it was worth picking us up. Eventually, we just decided that we were willing to pay double because we really needed to get to the hall. Just at that moment, he found somebody who was willing to do it for a reasonable price. The wedding hall was still in the process of being decorated, but it was already absolutely gorgeous. In addition to the neat murals on the walls, there were already tons of strands of fresh flowers all over the place. There were three floors that were being used. The second floor is where the bedrooms were. We dropped off our bags there. The ground floor was the one that contained the room where the ceremonies would actually take place. We headed to the basement, which is where the food was. The first thing I noticed is that there were very long, thin tables. The purpose became clear as we sat down. The way the food there works is you sit down at the next empty table. As soon as the row is filled, they walk up the aisle and feed everybody. Then, people start at the next table over, etc, until the last is filled and being fed. By that time, the first table has been emptied, cleaned, and is ready to start the cycle all over again. Because the table is the width of only one place setting, the servers can just plop the food right on your plate. Scratch that, I mean banana leaf. Yes, we ate directly off of banana leaves. Rajah taught us how to sprinkle water on the leaf, wipe it to clean it, and then let the water drip underneath to keep it in place. At that point, the servers came and plopped all sorts of deliciousness down. Oh, did I mention there was no silverware? The method of eating is to mix it all together with your hand (right hand only) and then shovel it into your mouth. (Hint: if your new year's resolution is to lose weight- try eating only with your opposite hand. It will make sure you can only take tiny bites- no mouthfulls, and will ensure that it takes you plenty of time to eat so that your brain send the signal that you're full before the food is gone from your plate.) However, the method did mean that I got to savor every bite for much longer, which was good because the food was delicious. In addition to all of the things I couldn't identify by name, they served rice; medhu vada (like a spicy doughnut); raita; a sweet concotion of milk, sugar, and broken wheat; and a few curried items. The servers kept asking Rajah if they could give us more, which was cute for a while, but as I filled up, just got a bit excessive. After we ate and cleaned up (there's a wash station for washing hands after the meal as well, since you need it then too), I tried to peek into the kitchen to see how they were making things. When the head chef noticed, that led to a full-fledged kitchen tour. He walked us around and let us see all of the prep work, the men cooking in large vats, and the guy carving all of the food art for later. He was very proud of his kitchen-as he should be. At the end, he even gave me his card. I kind of felt like a celebrity, being given special treatment and a personal tour. However, we were exhausted from getting up early and from all of the excitement. We went back to the second floor, where our stuff was in the groom's room. Each of us plopped down on one of the beds and passed out.
We awoke later, when it was time to get ready for the engagement ceremony. One of Rajah's cousins is a cardiac surgeon, and she put henna on our hands. You definitely need steady hands to apply this. Basically, she had an icing tube full of the henna and was squeezing it out in consistent quantities to complete the design. I got some sort of northern Indian peacock design. Every time I thought she was done, she pulled my hand to apply more. In the end, I had my whole palm, part of the back of my hand, and a bit of my wrist covered in the spicy-smelling paste. Now, I just had to let it dry. But oops! It was also time to get dressed. Not that I wouldn't have needed help putting on a sari anyway, but with one hand I couldn't use, I was extra useless. I felt about 5 years old as the women dressed me (and throughout the night redressed me about 3 times). They kept commenting on how tall I was, as that was mainly the reason that the sari kept falling. *For those who have never put on a sari- the mechanics are basically that a sheet gets wrapped around and then tucked into a waistband. In general, the women have several (maybe 6+) inches of cloth that ends up tucked into the waistband, and the rest hangs out as a skirt down to the floor. As I am about 6 inches taller than a lot of the women, they were struggling to get any tucked into the waistband (which was several inches further from the floor than normal) and still have the sari reach down to my feet (which are also several inches further from my waist than normal).
Once dressed, we headed down to the engagement ceremony. The room was gorgeous, and it was also filled with people. There was none of the standard American "Come in. Sit down. Shut up and watch," going on, though. People kept filtering in from the streets, sitting down in the audience area (or just standing), chatting, talking on their cell phones, or just generally socializing noisily. After a while, they would head down to the food area and eat. Then, they would filter back up and hang out some more. Most of them missed most of the ceremony, but so did Deepa, the bride. She kept coming out to the ceremony, receiving new clothes, and then returning to the bride's chambers to put them on. (Lather, rinse, repeat.) Meanwhile, the ceremony was carrying on without her. The parents were doing something or other with plates of fruit. The priests were doing something with plates of flower petals. And who knows who else was doing who knows what else. I think the only people who knew what was going on were the priests. It seemed like they were telling everybody where to stand, what to say, and what to do. There was even one who was clearly controlling the band. He kept signaling to the band to start playing, but then a few seconds later, signaled to the band to stop again. Meanwhile, the other priests just kept on rolling with the ceremony. The ceremony was being filmed, and the live feed was being displayed on two large monitors at the edge of the stage so that all of the people who were chatting in the audience could see. Pretty much the only people who had a close-up view of what was going on was the family on the stage. Luckily, Phil and I were counted as family or special guests, or something that got us up on the stage. It also got us periodic reports of what was going on from some of the people who knew. I wasn't really sure when the denouement was, but at some point, they switched to a new event.
I took advantage of this transition to run upstairs and scrape the dried henna off. It had been on long enough to leave the correct brightness of color. With the paste off, my hands looked gorgeous. It also gave me an opportunity to sit in the audience area and not just stand on the stage. While in the audience area, I spoke with one of Rajah's cousins. We had a very interesting conversation about the history of the caste system, the transformation from division of labor into a class system, the modern irrelevance of it all, and why she can share these opinions with me, but couldn't declare them in public. I learned a lot and got quite an interesting dose of perspective.
Meanwhile, the reception was carrying on. The "reception" was literally that- Rajah and Deepa stood up on the stage, while all of the people who had been filtering in and out lined up to be received. Rajah and Deepa also received blessings and gifts. They did this for 3 hours straight. After each of the guests was received, they all went down to enjoy the food some more. After ALL of the guests were received and the flow of new guests had stopped, Rajah and Deepa finally got some food. (I think. I was long asleep by then.)
The food was great, again. I may have needed some help figuring out what we were supposed to get when, and I may have struggled to eat it again, but that didn't stop me from loving it. They served a spicy tomato soup with croutons, different breads with various curried foods, and ice cream with a delicious carrot topping called halwa. In general, the food was a spicy sludge or spice-coated vegetables. My palate is not sophisticated enough to be able to pick out all of the different spices, but each dish certainly contained its own delicious farrago of flavors. As we ate, we talked with various family members, some of which were easier to understand than others. I also noticed that there were a few people who seemed to be following us around the room, but not really talking to us. Eventually though, one of the little boys came up to me and asked if we could take a picture together. I said of course, and we did. Five minutes later, he was back, asking about a picture with his little brother who was too shy to ask for himself. Again, I was happy to oblige.
At some point, we were completely full, had spoken to everybody who seemed to want to speak with us, and were getting to the point where we had seen what there was to see. Rajah and Deepa still hadn't made it down for food yet, so we asked what we should do and where we should go. We were instructed to head to Rajah's room and wait. As soon as I got up there, I changed out of the sari into my super-comfy pjs, took the jasmine flowers out of my hair, and got ready to wait. I fell asleep waiting.