Stranger in a Strange Land
Tales of a Year Abroad

Look at all the Pretties! (Picture Heavy!)

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Yesterday I went to a friend of a friend's house in Old Ahmedabad (my favorite part of the city when its not busy rioting) to get mehndi (the reddish-brown temporary tattoos applied to the hands and feet of women in India, parts of the Middle East, and Africa). 

Henna is a muddy paste made from the leaves of a henna plant (which, research tells me, is a member of the Loosestrife family--you know, that tall purple flower that grows in ditches at home). Some sources say that henna has been used for cosmetic and medicinal purposes for over 5,000 years. My favorite story I uncovered claimed that people used to create big puddles of henna to stick their feet and hands in it. Someone along the way discovered that henna actually acted as a cooling agent both during the application as well as long after. So people would get together, create a henna mud puddle and wallow in it. Pretty soon some inventive woman discovered that a small bit of henna, say a dot in the middle of her palm, served the same purpose. And then she added more and more dots until she had a pattern. And thus, the act of mehndi as a decoration was born. For a more complete, albeit brief, history, see here. For a more complete history, if the spirit moves you, poke around here. Traditionally (read: in the past) tools similar to what the Egyptians would have used to apply khol to their eyes were used to paint henna on hand--something long and thin and probably made out of bone or ivory. Today, people buy henna in these pre-packaged cone-shaped packages and it vaguely resembles dark swampy green frosting. Simply snip a tiny hole in tip of the cone, apply a minimal amount of pressure and away you go! 

I'm certain different designs represent different thoughts, sentiments, or beliefs, but I don't pretend to know what those are. Mostly, from what I can tell, "for fun" henna consists of paisley shapes, random swirls, and flower looking things. More importantly, its bonding time. I made two new friends during this whole process--Mini and Mahi--who both vied for first rights to invite Steve and I to their respective family homes and now have an open invitation to visit us whenever they'd like to "learn" English. Neither girl really needs to do, they just need practice in speaking.

These girls are a bit of an inspiration, actually, especially in light of recent events in Ahmedabad (which, admittedly, may have rattled me more than they rattled Ahmedabadites proper) and over all (anti) religious sentiments within Gujarat and India. Mini is Hindu, Mahi Muslim. These two groups do not... riots, some very violent and bloody, occurred because of hatred of one group towards the other. Recently, a comparatively small riot took place in Old City Ahmedabad, just across the bridge from where Steve and I live. A Hindu wedding procession marched past a Muslim mosque during prayer hour. The noise of the procession (which is deafening) offended the people praying. Riot ensued--one man was killed (he was dragged off his scooter and his throat slit), homes and businesses bombarded with shrapnel, and a number of people hurt. The police were able to shut down an operation that was going to use Moltov cocktails. It went on for about a week and then petered out.

Mini and Mahi, however, are two girls (they're about 22 and 19 respectively) who are as close as sisters. Mini doesn't need an invitation into Mahi's house, as evidenced by the way she let herself in.  She treats Mahi's little sister and brother as she would her own, good naturedly joking with the brother, braiding the sister's hair. As Mahi henna-ed my hands, the two sat and chatted about boys, school, and other such things girls giggle about. Mini fed Mahi noodles and water as she worked on my hands and arms. They're both optimists, and both dream of going traveling to the U.S.--which is why they want to learn English. Its clear they have an affection that isn't bound by religion or culture. 

I liked them instantly.  And by the end of the day, I felt as though they included me, at least a little, in their circle.

But now for the mehndi.

The whole process took over two hours.  At first, it looked like this:

Half-way done! Now all I had to do was wait 4-8 hours , take off the henna (which was no easy task) not wash my hands for the night (henna remains "active", sinking into and staining your skin until you wash off the plant oils), and viola!

Palms up...
Palms down...


I find this so interesting! How long did it last? Sarah Bower

It took about 2 to 2.5 hours to complete. It was a lot of sitting and manipulating my arms into uncomfortable positions. But well worth it!

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The land of dreams and romance, of fabulous wealth and fabulous poverty, of splendour and rags, of palaces and hovels, of famine and pestilence, of genii and giants and Alladin lamps, of tigers and elephants, the cobra and the jungle, the country of hundred nations and a hundred tongues, of a thousand religions and two million gods, cradle of the human race, birthplace of human speech, mother of history, grandmother of legend, great-grandmother of traditions, whose yesterday's bear date with the modering antiquities for the rest of nations-the one sole country under the sun that is endowed with an imperishable interest for alien prince and alien peasant, for lettered and ignorant, wise and fool, rich and poor, bond and free, the one land that all men desire to see, and having seen once, by even a glimpse, would not give that glimpse for the shows of all the rest of the world combined.
- Mark Twain

In India, I found a race of mortals living upon the Earth, but not adhering to it, inhabiting cities, but not being fixed to them, possessing everything, but possessed by nothing.
- Appolonius Tyanaeus

If there is one place on the face of earth where all the dreams of living men have found a home from the very earliest days when man began the dream of existence, it is India.
-Romain Rolland