After All These Years
I grew up in a house with Hindu gods, with cherished saris kept deep in drawers, smells of exotic spices drifted from cupboards when they were opened. Our treasured saffron and turmeric came from foreign markets. Considering the fact that I am a Minnesota Jew, this was only slightly peculiar.
My home was kosher. But it may have been the only kosher household in the Twin Cities that, as far back as the fifties, was home to chutney, and papadams, and wok cooking. Brisket, kugel and chicken soup came out of that kitchen too.
My mother, I think, often cooked to remember her travels. My parents saw Israel when it was still desert and Japan before cars. They saw India before backpacks existed and you still dressed up to fly. But, they never took us.
For many years we were the chosen family to pick up international students arriving to attend the University of Minnesota. The students would fly in from India in late December, before winter quarter began. I would pick them up in the cold and dark Minnesota night. It was often below zero. The student would come off the plane with only a windbreaker, the warmest thing he had to wear.
The next day we would shop. I would help him pick out boots and a heavy jacket, hat and gloves. He would always be in both culture shock and weather shock. He hadn't known what to expect. They were really never prepared for the Minnesota cold.
It was on frigid mid-winter nights we would watch my parent's travel movies. These were not scratchy pictures of toddler birthdays or 4th of July parades. No. These were brilliant 16mm images taken floating down the Ganges. Naked men immersed themselves in holy water. Funeral pyres burnt on the steps leading down to the river. In markets, piles of spices and dye were sold and there were wandering sadhus with rods running though their cheeks. Outside our Minnesota door was four feet of snow, inside we wandered the gardens of the Taj Mahal and floated through the markets of Thailand.
The students had come from exotic places. They had come from places of flowing saffron-colored saris. Had she been a child whose eyes were exotically encased in black outline? I wondered what it was like to be so hot. So for my fiftieth birthday, I'm finally off to India. I know what to expect and don't, really. I've read books, talked with travelers, and traced maps but I really don't know. Like our foreign students who didn't understand the cold, do we ever know before we get there? I don't know the smell of cow dung on the sidewalk, of life being lived in front of you on the street, of dusk over the Arabian Sea. We're off for a month to India.
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