Semester at Sea: India
Editor’s Note: Lauren Jones, a third-year student majoring in English and Economics, is on Semester at Sea this spring and has agreed to blog about her experience. Catch up with her previous entries here.
When my SAS friend invited me to stay with some family friends she knew in Delhi, I jumped on the chance: a home stay + 70-degree weather + a visit to the Taj?! So though our ship ported at the southern tip of India, I spent most of my time 1,200 miles north, at India’s vast, bustling capital city and cultural headquarters.
At the risk of sounding like a tour guide, and although India is so much more than a monument, I can’t talk about my time in Delhi without talking about the Taj Mahal. After a three-hour drive up the highway from Delhi to Agra, you see this solitary, glowing white building jutting out of an empty plain, and before you’ve paid your entrance fee, you already understand why this giant gravestone is a world wonder.
Even up close, its gorgeousness doesn’t seem real. The walls contain all these intricate carvings of flowers and Arabic calligraphy, along with thousands of semi-precious stones arranged in patterns, and then you start to realize that everything about the building was created in perfect symmetry, centered around the underground tombs of Shah Jahan and his wife, Taj Mahal. Inside the mausoleum, visitors are stealing pictures with their smart phones (and trying to avoid the guards), while pigeons are flying in the dome above, their batting wings echoing against the marble walls. Even on a weekday, thousands of visitors stream through the doors of the Taj, here to get their weddings photos made, family reunions pictures, or just to be there, because there’s just nothing in India, or in the world, like it.
The Taj is an Islamic building, and because I’m taking a class on Islam, I had fun taking tons of pictures of all the Arabic writing inscribed in its walls and also in the architecture of other major monuments in the Agra and New Delhi area. The calligraphy contains verses of the Quran about death and the afterlife, so even though Shah Jahan built the Taj to commemorate his wife, he meant for the building serve as a warning to all visitors, to turn to God and the straight path of Islam before you die.
Though only 10 percent of India is Muslim, it’s still the second-largest Muslim country in the world because of its population – 1.4 billion people at the last census. Ninety percent practice Hinduism, but India is also a home of Sikhism and Jainism, as well as a small percentage of Jew and Christians. And yes, the McDonalds in India do not sell beef burgers.
Even outside the mall, you can find cows, goats, pigs, and monkeys roaming around Delhi. The locals had fun watching me take pictures.
Through my host family, I was surprised to learn that most middle-to-upper class homes keep servants (usually drivers and housemaids), and that India is exceptionally more patriarchal than I’d expected. My friend Dawn and I noticed that people in the airports, train stations or even walking the streets were predominantly men, and especially after eight or nine in the evening, you wouldn’t find a woman walking the streets alone. As two unescorted women, Dawn and I collected plenty of stares ourselves.
India is a huge, diverse country, and I know that during my days in the north and south in our port city of Cochin, I only caught a glimpse of it. Still, I came in with hardly a conception of what India would be like (aside from a few colorful scenes in Slumdog Millionaire), and I feel like I’ve learned so much about all the current issues facing the country, from gender relations and religion to commerce and environmental problems, through the conversations I had with local people in India and the discussions among friends and classmates back on the ship afterward. We students come back with different experiences. We’re excited about everything the country has and also genuinely concerned about its problems – how are they dealing with their shortages of clean water? Or universities? Do women feel oppressed, or valued for the different work expectations placed on them?
We mold our experiences into a dialogue and into a collective story. But by the time we’ve finished debriefing, it’s already time to pack, plan and mentally prepare for the next port! So now I’m here in my floating dorm room, finishing up an English paper and scanning WikiTravel for info on South Africa. Whether in-country or onboard, it’s hard to find a dull moment on SAS.