Tuesday, March 9, 2010

My Hair was a Big Hit in India!

Initially, I was terrified about going to India, but comforted by the fact that I was traveling with 24 other people who had never been to India, either. From the moment we landed, I felt that I was in the right place. I mean, we were going non-stop with activities such as backwaters cruise, visiting tea plantations, elephant training camps, and kathakali performances. Whenever I had a moment of clarity (it came in waves over there), I said, "Oh, my God, I'm in Indiaaaaaaaa!!!!"

We stayed in Kerala which is in South India (right on the Arabian sea). Within Kerala, we stayed in the villages of Cochin, Munnar, and Cheruthuruthy. We also visited Thrissur, Trivandrum (in Kerala) and Chennai in the capital city state of Tamil Nadu on the weekend. Compared to the U.S., Kerala is very reserved. Country-men and women don't hold hands or kiss in public. The women don't expose skin. However, it's one of the more progressive states in India in the fact that it has one of the highest literacy rates in the country and almost EVERYONE receives an education. Poverty in Kerala is not like it is in Calcutta and Mumbai (where “Slumdog Millionare” was filmed). In those places, you see people DYING on the streets. Thank God we weren't exposed to that, though we did see the occasional person missing a limb. However, even these people were overall healthy and functional.

What struck me the most was the physical beauty of the land and general friendliness of the people. You know, Americas think of themselves as being so progressive, but I felt that the Indian people, while maybe not having experienced foreigners or traveled far outside of their towns, were open-minded and had an innate wisdom that some Westeners only dream of. As Harish Babhu (our guide throughout the trip and an overall sweet and brilliant guy) said, "There is a science to everything we do".

On January 1, 2010, almost everyone in our group (including yours truly) got sick; we think it was something we ate in Munnar, a beautiful mountain village at an altitude of 6,000 feet. Even Professor Orenstein, her husband and two kids fell ill. It was so awful we had to leave. However, as I told my roommate Holly, we should've viewed the illness as "purging the bad stuff from the past year in order to make room for the good stuff" (hey, I am a writer). A couple of us got sick a second time two weeks later. It was a bummer, but we got through it. You don't realize how tough you are until your stomach's upset on the side of a dirt road in rural India!

The kids were totally sweet--almost knocking us over to shake your hand, say hello, and wave. Some even blew kisses at us! Amazing, right? The men really seemed to be intrigued by foreign women, though we got a lot of attention from the women and kids, as well. However, even the three people in our group who were of Indian descent got a lot of attention, too (they were totally Westernized, so of course the native Indian people were wondering what the deal was). I can only compare the experience to being a celebrity; people constantly asking to take pictures of you, staring at you, asking you where you are from, wanting to talk, and shaking your hand. It was a bit overwhelming at times.

The long, brown extensions woven into cornrows on my head got a lot of attention, several people told me "Your hair is beautiful", but Labi, the woman who designed the Henna tattoos on our hands, expressed it best, " I love your hair; we have nothing like that in India". Look at Krystal bringing culture to India without even trying! I just didn't want to have to pick out my ‘fro every morning in the heat! As I told Tracita, "My hair was a hit in India!"

Kathakali, the dance-drama we trained in as the study abroad focus, is about 500 years old. What I liked about it is the fact that there are religious elements within the drama; the plays are generally about a story or Hindu myth featuring Gods. Before each performance, the performers pray (which is what we did, as well). Imagine dancing for four hours a day, five days a week in the Indian heat. We went through BOTTLES AND BOTTLES of water a day, sometimes we changed our clothes three times a day! And their style of dancing is not like it is in the West-it is intense and mind-numbing, but very fun! Teachers there don't pat you on the back every time you do something right. You could do a triple back flip, a split, walk on your hand, and when you finish, they'll just say, "Next".

My kathakali teacher, Thulasi Kumar, was quite a guy. He came off as completely cocky and arrogant at first (in fact everyone in my group couldn't stand him), but turned out to be a truly great guy. He had just graduated from Kerala Kalamandalam (the performing arts institution we were training at) several weeks earlier, and so this was his first time teaching. Poor guy, his first time teaching and he not only gets a class of women (everyone on the trip was split up into different groups placed under different teachers), but a class full of foreign women!
I had mentioned that I was craving some familiar food (especially pizza), so he borrowed his friend's motorcycle and drove and hour into Shornur to Abu's Bakery. Once there, he requested four cheese pizzas for our class (it was the bakery's first time attempting to make pizza and it was good). He paid for it (he wouldn't accept money from us) and I was eternally grateful. On the last day of class, we presented him with a Dhoti (a fabric that Indian men wear), and he gave all four of us miniature clay statues shaped into a mudra (a hand gesture that's a staple of Indian classical dance). He even waited outside the school the day we left for home in order to say good-bye. As our bus drove past the school on the way to the airport, there he was, waving to us. It doesn't get any better than that.

Mother India...it really had an impact on me. I hope to return there in the near future (as well as hit Ghana, England, Haiti, Peru and Costa Rica). In the meantime, I have settled back into life in New York, this time with a very different perspective on things. For that, I am eternally grateful to have experienced “God’s Own Country,” also known as Kerala, India.

Krystal S. Ballard was born and raised in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, where she still resides. She is in her last semester at Hunter College, where she'll be graduating with a BA in Theater, minor in English in May. She is looking to enter graduate school in 2011.

Kathakali/Elephant pictures courtesy of this Travelogue.


  1. Wow, your trip to India sounds amaaazing. I love the way you viewed your Jan 1 illness. That shows a person with a great outlook. Love it! :-)

  2. I agree with Miss J, I loved that first picture, you almost looked photoshopped in there. lol I loved your anecdotes, and the fact that you personalized the article by including names. I felt like I met those people, too. I'm rooting that an extended version of this article gets into the next issue of the MAG! Woop Woot! (I can't make up my mind which W sounds better)
    Great job Krys!

  3. Oh, thank, Trace! Thanks, Miss Journey!

    I am so glad you guys liked the article.

    Thank you so much for the opportunity to share and express my experience with your wonderful blog.

    Much love,