Saturday, April 9, 2011

Holi Hai

Holi is one of the biggest holidays in India, probably equivalent to Thanksgiving. There’s a whole story with it, but it basically celebrates the victory of good over evil. To celebrate, people “play with colors” or basically cover each other in colored powder or water. As one of the shopkeepers told us on Holi’s eve, “There are no rules on Holi. You can even drive drunk and you won’t get a fine. The policemen are playing Holi too!” The penalty for drunk driving in India is only a fine? He wasn’t kidding thought about the no rules thing. According to my host mom, “Holi is an excuse for young people to touch each other.” She wasn’t kidding. In India, any kind of public physical contact between guys and girls is very, very rare. Husband and wife do not even touch each other. The younger generation pushes this sometimes by holding hands inside of the stores of the mall where less people will see them, but other than that, physical contact is just really rare. However that is just between the opposite sex. Physical contact with the same sex is incredibly common. When guys walk together and are good friends, they hold hands-- I mean fingers inter-laced locked grip. Even if they’re walking through traffic and a bike rides between them, they’ll hold hands over the cycle-er as they walk. Guys rub each other’s necks and pinch each other’s waists. Bro-mance here is just any old friendship. It’s pretty adorable. So yeah, that would neverrrr happen between a guy and a girl. Maybe in Mumbai or Bangalore or somewhere that’s overrun by business foreigners and western culture. 
Holi, however, is the one day a year that it’s okay for people to break that norm.
Holi’s eve was the first, and so far only, time I’ve been robbed. And by robbed, I mean petty theft. I bought a small water gun in the shape of a boy riding an elephant as we walked through the old city. A boy and his friends proceeded to follow us for about 15 minutes as we walked, keeping their a distance and occasionally asking for the water gun. I sound like a bitch in this situation, but after enough kids continuously bother you just because you’re white, you start to get aggravated when kids beg for something they don’t need. Just as my friend asked me to look at something and I leaned over to look, I slackened my grip on the water gun. The boy snatched it right out of my hand, sprinting off into the crowd. His friends started whooping, turning around to stick out their tongues and laugh at me as they run. I definitely considered running after him. Then I remembered that he stole a water gun.
Later, our student group went to the Elephant Festival, which is something Jaipur basically as a tourist attraction on the day before Holi. It a legitimate elephant fashion show. The owners dress up and paint their elephants and then have them catwalk down the elephant polo field (yes, elephant polo exists and is a very royal sport). At the end, judges award them first through third place, complete with trophies. Then this parade of cultural dancers, camels, horses, and what not come down the field catwalk and perform for all the white people with their huge ass camera lenses. It’s funny to see tourists fawn over this “authentic” display of culture in which hotel workers and mediocre musicians drunkenly perform. The festival flew in 60 elephants from Bangalore just for the event. That’s an 8 hour plan flight for each elephant. We couldn’t help but think of a fleet of flying elephants, dumbo drop style hanging from the bottom of a plane, landing in Jaipur just for their fashion show.
So while all of this is going on, I start feeling more and more nauseous. I couldn’t quite pin down if it was some virus that had been going around our group or if my malaria medicine was the culprit. Either way, the longer we sat, the more I looked for an escape route in case I start blow. Right in the middle of this slightly epileptic and arthritic tribal dance, I feel it starting. I leap up and rush down the stairs, pushing the large lenses out of my way as I go. A security guy points me to the closest bathroom and I duck inside, hand over mouth. When I get in, the one toilet is occupied and there’s a 5 person line. I look around my options: sink, chin-height window, floor, urinal. Urinal it was.
There are few lower moments than standing above a urinal, spitting and waiting to throw-up as a group of brightly powdered, heady tourists try to mask their disgust. Making the moment even more special, an Indian guy walks into the bathroom and upon seeing me asks in his British-twinged English, “You there’s a toilet, ya? You shouldn’t piss in a urinal.”
Yes, I thought that hiking up my skirt, lifting a leg and a taking a piss in a urinal in front of everyone in this crazy conservative country was a much better idea than waiting in line. I shot him the dirtiest look I could from my hunched over stance. “I’m sick,” I mumbled as my friend came in to do the whole hold your hair back and rub your back thing. Luckily, I was able to hold down whatever it was for the rest of the festival. I think I was so mortified by the thought of people watching me vomit into a urinal that I was able to post-pone any up-chuck.
Our staff rented us rooms in a guest house for the night since the next day there would be no rickshaws or taxis in the city, and if we wanted to play Holi together, we would have to be in the same area when we woke. I reserved my sickness episode for that night and had some fun times with the toilet while everyone ate their delivery American food.
The next morning we filled up our water guns (I bought a new, better one), grabbed our bags of powder and headed to the street. Across the street was a pretty small slum next to a half-finished building. There were kids outside playing with a hose and throwing what we thought was Holi colors at each other. So a few us climb the wall and jump over into their slum to play. It turned out to be construction debris that they were throwing and then washing off each, but we quickly turned it into playing Holi. I think their parents were stunned to see five white kids jumping a wall just to come throw colors around, but soon enough there whole group started to play with us. They turned on music and started doing some chest pumping and slow jumping dance as they screamed “Holi hai!” (It’s Holi). Everyone was throwing colors and the Indians had this dark red water that looked blood when you got it on you that they threw at us. There was this tiny, tiny old man in the group yelling and doing some Indian jig thing and when we colored him, the group of Indian got really excited and lifted him up, tossing him like he was a two year old. They started having him crowd surf through all of us and chanted “Gardas!” White people!
So we’re all dancing around, throwing colors, spraying water and laughing when one guy ducks into his home and emerges with a big white guinea pig in either hand and yells, “Happy Holi!!” He starts dancing around with his arms fully extended over his head and the guinea pigs bouncing around. The Indians don’t think this is odd at all and respond with “Happy Holi!!” I have yet to figure out if the guinea pigs had any significance; nevertheless he had us hold one for a bit and continued to dance around with them for the entire time.
Once we ran out of powder and crossed back to our hotel, we realized the touching thing was a not a joke even in our relatively calm setting. All the men who passed by us capitalized on their time. At one point, a small band rode by in a rickshaw and jumped out to play a Holi song upon seeing us. A super drunk old guy was accompanying them and he came over to dance with us to the song. He was kind of creepy and danced super close to our faces. It was funny until he got really close to you and then grabbed you by the shoulders and body slammed you. After about three people, we got skeeved out and left the band. They of course stopped playing and asked for money. They wouldn’t leave until we gave them something, but such is India.
We knew our staff had arranged for some kind of alcohol for us, but we were elated when we went back into the guest house to find a fully stocked bar of sorts waiting for us. I have yet to see a liquor shop in all of Jaipur, so it was definitely a wonderful surprise for all of us. Now we’ve all been in India for over two months now and have yet to drink more than one beer in a sitting (excluding those of us in Jaisalmeer). So our tolerance is down, it’s 10 am, already 95 degrees outside, and we’re 22 American college students in a guest house with lots of alcohol and pounds of colored powder. The most rational thing to do was get wasted and play with colors. Our staff shows up and drinks with us to play Holi. People from the street filter in and out, playing with us, dancing with us to Hindi hip-hop music. An hour or so in, the guest house put out salty, fried Indian snacks that we demolished. It was fantastic. At one point, we got kind of sick of the same Bollywood Hindi hits, so we plugged in an Ipod and settled on playing some Sleigh Bells. We’re all really excited to dance around to Crown on the Ground  and hear something from our culture. All the Indians, however, were not too thrilled about the noise. Being Indian, they don’t verbalize any disgust or discomfort. Instead, they very passively stop dancing, go sit and give us the stink eye that our Hindi teach taught us to use when someone is harassing you. Whooops. We had to finish two songs though. Then the computerized Hindi voices came back.
It was pretty crazy to watch our color progression. At first we had a couple of colors on our faces and clothes from the people across the street. Then, a little more from the people who passed us on the street. A crazy amount in our mouths, ears, hair and through our clothes as things started to pick up. Then, the water guns came out and we slowly all turned a shade of brown, black, or dark dark purple. By the end we were all dyed some sort of creepy color so that we slightly resembled zombies as we laid on the grass after our dance and drink filled day. The staff left and we all lazily went to our rooms to sleep. We dyed everything in the white guest rooms. We rickshawed home around 5 and saw small crowds of people doing the same thing: slowly walking home, slightly hung over and fully dyed. When I arrived at my homestay, my mom took one look at me, spun me around and said “You will go wash.” The water runoff from my hair was purplish black. My part was bright purple for three days. My hands were dyed pink for a week. My toenails still have pink on them.

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