The Ordinary and the Extraordinary

Now that we’ve spent (I can hardly believe it) over seven weeks in India, things that once seemed strange and challenging have become second nature.

We’ve settled into our workday routine in Yamuna Nagar, waking up early (for college students) and not minding the endless stares and constant stream of car honks as we walk down the street. We grab a quick breakfast of oily bread and potatoes along with a steaming cup of chai at the canteen around 10 a.m. (the instant the doors open we rush inside), and then we spend the day in our office, working on our laptops on  various projects and conducting lots of meetings with our co-workers.

Sometimes we wander into the trainers’ office and wind up having a spirited conversation about the most random topics, whether Bollywood actors, Hindu religious festivals, or the best way to pick a ripe pineapple.

Slow mornings usually speed up around noon.

And then at some point in the day someone suggests that we head to the canteen, and we gather as many people as we can from the office to go down for some food and a chai break.

If you haven’t notice – food plays a pretty prominent role in our daily schedule.

Once we push past the post-lunch sleepiness, we find ourselves knee-deep in projects and meetings, and before we know it – it’s 6 or 7 o’clock and another day here is winding down.

Every now and then I have to stop and remind myself that I’m in India. I guess you can get used to anything. Life here can feel so very ordinary, even though we’re thousands of miles from home, in a completely different culture.

So I realized that our walk to work here probably looks a little different than most of yours and decided to make a short video to show you. I tried to be subtle in my filming, so it ended up coming out a bit shaky:

And then of course there are the things that feel quite extraordinary, like finally seeing the Taj Mahal. Because the three other LEAP interns had already gone to Agra to see the Taj, I was lucky enough to join a standard bus tour, full of about 30 Indian tourists – and then me.

I was a bit nervous, but I shouldn’t have been. Clearly they stared at me at first, but I quickly befriended a family from Jaipur (a city southeast of Delhi). The husband spoke quite good English (he works for the government) and they had an adorable 8 year old son, as well as a 13 year old son who was trying very hard to act mature. (He also seemed to be the designated family photographer).

Seeing the Taj was of course exciting, both because it was packed with people trying to sell you things and because well, it’s the Taj. I’d been determined to get here in any way possible, because I figured if you go to India you should probably get a picture at the Taj. I’d met a great family, I’d gotten my photos: I was satisfied and ready to sleep the three hour bus ride back to Delhi.


But, as often happens in India, I should have expected the unexpected.

After a long, sweaty day, we got back on the bus from the Taj at around 4 p.m. The guide stood up and spoke for awhile in Hindi, so I turned the husband of the family I’d befriended and asked what was happening. He explained that we were now heading to our next stop.

Our next stop?

Turns out, the tour was also scheduled to make a stop in another city on the way back from Agra to Delhi, a place called Mathura, which is a holy Hindu city considered the birthplace of Lord Krishna.

We drove through winding busy streets that made Delhi look clean and calm. I walked with the family to a huge temple, where cameras were prohibited. With some chagrin I checked my camera and followed them inside. Barefoot, we wandered around the many different shrines. The temple was full of people but, as I’ve found other times I’ve been in Hindu temples, it felt surprisingly peaceful. Suddenly I was happy not to have my camera with me.

At each shrine the family paused and closed their eyes, concentrating for a slight moment. Even the little eight year old boy seemed determined to act solemnly (though he did flash me a grin once or twice).  Some people near us lay down on the ground to pray.

The husband of the family glanced at me and asked me if I was Christian. I told him that no, I’m Jewish. He nodded energetically and said with a wide smile, “Yes, yes, I know Jewish!”

Later we went to yet another temple – after following a guide down even darker and dirtier winding streets. This was a much smaller temple, its inside covered in stones donated from Hindus around the world. We sat on the floor in front of a shrine and listened to what I assume was some kind of sermon or prayer.

It was very late by the time we headed back to the bus. As we walked out of the second temple, the husband walked beside me. Smiling almost apologetically (perhaps he had notice my sense of feeling out of place), he explained that “This is my god.” Then he quickly added, “There is one god. You, me – many paths. But many paths to one god.”

It was a quiet, beautiful moment. Seemingly just an ordinary conversation. I think I was probably too tired at the moment to even appreciate it. But now that I look back, I realize that small moment was far more extraordinary than all of those photos I took at the Taj.

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About Leora

University of Pennsylvania (C'17) graduate. Former Nehru-Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in India. Education and youth development professional. Itinerant reader, writer, and movie junkie.