7 Not-so-Pleasant Surprises During My Trip to India

7 Not-so-Pleasant Surprises During My Trip to India

I just got back yesterday from a week-long trip spent in southern India with Hallel, my 19-year-old daughter, who has been in India since Rosh Hashana. It was one of the most incredible experiences of my life! In large part because of some not so pleasant surprises which turned into extremely wonderful ones!

1. On the flight from Delhi to Cochin I was not so pleasantly surprised when this was served as the kosher meal!

There wasn’t any certified-kosher food where we were traveling, but I discovered something wonderful–that it is possible to live off of tropical fruit–papayas, tender coconuts, bunches of bananas the size of your thumb dipped in peanut butter. Filling, nutritious, and delicious (especially when one is in a city with no kosher food, and very hungry!)

2. Before I got to India, I had reserved a room at a homestay walking distance from the 500-year-old Paradesi Synagogue. But I felt distinctly uncomfortable when I arrived at the homestay and discovered that our hosts were devout Muslims. Very soon, though, I found out something wonderful: how fabulously and easily Jews and Muslims can get along when politics is subtracted from the equation, as is possible in India. By the end of our stay, Hallel and I felt like our hostess, Afnas, and the entire Begum family (4 generations living under one roof!) had become our family in India.

Afnas and her 2 sons

Not only were they incredibly warm, welcoming, and helpful, but because most of their guests come from Israel, Afnas knows all about keeping kosher and Shabbat. Something else wonderfully surprising about the Begum family is that the family’s porch provides one of the only ways for visitors like us to view the locked historic Jewish cemetery next door.

The view from the Begum’s back porch

3. I was surprised, and not pleasantly, to find out that there was no Chabad House in or anywhere near Cochin. Would we have to resort papayas with peanut butter on Shabbat? But, b”H, we heard about the wonderful and dedicated Rabbi and Rebbetzin of the Paradesi Synagogue, Yonatan and Elisheva Goldschmidt. Fellow Nachlaot expats, like me and Hallel, so we felt especially at home with them and their kids.

4. I was shocked to discover that in India most parents don’t use strollers! Parents carry their babies and toddlers in their arms, wherever they go. At the airport, there is even a special line at passport control for parents “With babies in arms.” I imagine this is not easy! I don’t think I would have enjoyed schlepping around my babies (or toddlers!) in my arms one bit. But it was wonderfully cute, to see all these babies, dressed up festival-style, even on weekdays, in their always-exquisitely-dressed mothers’ arms, like this woman I met and her adorable little girl.

5. I was not so pleasantly surprised when Hallel and I got on an intercity bus, and there were no seats left, so we had to stand. But then a seat opened up, and I sat next to this lovely woman, a nurse named Vedika.

Vedika told me that she has a daughter in kindergarten, and explained that girls receive free school books and uniforms in India. Everywhere I went, I saw signs posted by the government reading “Value the Girl Child and Empower Her with Education!” Until recent times, the infanticide of girls still existed in certain parts of India. And I found it extremely inspirational to see how India invests so much effort and has made so much progress in many areas (hygiene, the environment, empowerment of women as well as the dalit/untouchable caste). Just one example that blew me away, in 2014 half of India’s citizens didn’t have access to toilets. And now, five years later, as a result of the government’s Clean India campaign, nearly 100% do. When I heard about this, I thought about teshuva. How if, in India, hundreds of millions of people can change in so many ways, maybe I can too!

6. I was a little skeptical when this elderly woman, named Rinbo, was presented as the masseuse who would be giving me an ayurvedic oil massage.

But in the end, it was a phenomenal massage, unlike any I’ve ever had and involving a great deal of oil. Which reminded me how, in Judaism, oil once played a central role, in anointing priests, prophets, ritual vessels, and kings.  And it was cool for me to be able to see a culture in which oil, still today, plays an important role.

7. When Hallel and I went on a backwater boat tour, I was horrified to hear that during the disastrous 2018 flood, entire villages had been left underwater, and many houses still are. During our tour, our guide, Tsadi (whose own house is still partially submerged), pointed out this home of a single mom of three.

Imagining this mother and her school-age children living in a home with a foot of water on the ground, I couldn’t hold back my tears. I left a small donation for this struggling mother and promised myself that the next time I’m feeling stressed out, overwhelmed, flooded, and I’m feeling sorry for myself, I will try to remember this mother, so I won’t.

16 comments

  1. Thanks for letting us share in your trip and your willingness to “go with the flow” and find it enjoyable.

  2. This was such a fun and interesting piece, and the pict were such a great addition.

  3. I like the way you find meaning and inspiration in the seemingly mundane details of your fascinating trip!
    And it seems like the weather there is nice and warm?

    • actually it was too hot, but in the mountains in Munnar was pleasantly warm, and cool in the evenings, perfect

  4. i love it especially that i live reading books by indian authors depicting those kind of persons and life in india! thanks for sharing this inspiration. dont you think there is a lot of common with jewish valors and they could descend from lost tribes?

  5. What a GREAT story jenny!
    I loved the part about not having strollers. I follow Katy Bowman who talks about moving our bodies more 1. despite the comforts of western societies and 2. without having to get a gym membership. One of the things she did with her husband when her kids were in the baby/toddler stage was not buying a stroller. Instead, they “shared the weight”:) and she explains how it benefits the child, too, who develops a much sturdier body.
    It’s not for everyone (I personally stuck with my double stroller until it became totally absured) but after hearing so much about it I’ve come to belive that it’s a logical way to shlep the kids along, when it’s possible and the parents are up to it.
    Thanks again Jenny.

  6. Jenny, I think you would LOVE this Hebrew book by Talia Shneider,
    הודו מחזירה מתנות!
    It’s about her series of trips to India, where she became very close with a woman from one of the villages.
    She became a balat tshuva, and in the books there’s a lot of “comparisons” between Jewish sources and being Jewish and living a simple life in India .

  7. What a wonderful sharing of a place that I’ve honestly had misconceptions about, ignorantly, until a few years ago when another Jewish mom from nyc visited and she too shared her first hand stories. We have much in common and India is so far away in some important ways. Mostly i take away a people infused with love for others and warmth and true enjoyment of blessings. Thank you. Shabbat shalom!

  8. Did you ever think about what people did before the invention of strollers? I often see people in Israel with kids as old as 4 or 5 riding in strollers, and I wonder why that is. I mean, some kids are probably special needs, but others just seem to not feel like walking. It’s hard to say without knowing the whole story. I just know that this is the only country I’ve ever seen this. I’ve also never seen 6 or 7 year olds going around with a paci in their mouth, and this seems pretty common, too. Not among Anglos, but definitely with Israelis.

  9. David S. Dweck

    Your experience and photos were very touching especially the house with one foot of water. Thank G-D for the basics in America.Thank you for sharing.

  10. Wonderful post!!!

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