They suffered through stifling 48-degree heat, maniacal, speed-demon bus drivers, aggressive monkeys and even a head-butting incident with a stray cow.
A six-week trip to India may not be for the faint of heart, but for students Dayna Simon and Adrienne Silver, it was an experience of a lifetime.
“Going to India is something I’ve always wanted to do,” said Silver, 22, who recently graduated from the University of Western Ontario’s communications program. “I’ve always been really interested in the culture.”
Simon, 22, a University of Toronto graduate student and Hillel of Greater Toronto’s graduate representative, said that while it’s trendy for some to travel to India to “to find themselves” spiritually, she and her friend – both active members of the Toronto Jewish community – “just wanted to explore a different world.”
A different world is exactly what they got, and it didn’t take long for the girls to experience a culture shock.
“We flew Air India, so when we got on the plane, we were already in culture shock. We were the only white people on the flight,” Simon said.
“The first morning in India we woke up and went outside and it was probably 48 degrees plus humidity, and the men weren’t wearing pants, they were just wearing loincloths because it was so hot. You wake up and you just look outside… and there are cows walking in the streets.”
The shock, they suspected, went both ways.
Silver explained that when they travelled to the poorer areas of the country that were off the beaten path, “people would stare at us, and it was kind of a shock for them.”
“American culture hasn’t really infiltrated the south yet as it has in other areas,” Simon added. “When they saw two white girls not wearing saris, wearing shorts and T-shirts, we got a lot of funny looks, whereas in other places, people would stop and take pictures.”
Although Simon admitted that throughout the six-week adventure she never fully overcame her culture shock, Silver said she was far more at ease.
“I was pretty comfortable with the culture, and I felt like I connected with it a lot,” said Silver, who has ventured into the unknown before, on a volunteer trip to Thailand.
“I was trying to connect with the culture and the mentality and the customs. It’s about not looking at the culture from the outside in, it’s about engaging with the culture,” Silver said.
Simon and Silver made the most of their time in India, having visited one of the seven wonders of the world, the Taj Mahal, river rafted in Rishikesh, rode an elephant at the Periyar National Park, and taken a four-day trek on the peaks of Nanda Devi.
They documented their adventures on a blog called Two Girls One Trip (www.daynaandadrienne.blogspot.com), updating their family and friends about everything they saw and experienced.
One of their blog posts described their visit to an area in New Delhi called Pahar Ganj – or as Silver liked to call it, Little Israel.
“Pahar Ganj… has been established as the hot spot for Israeli backpackers in Delhi. It was hilarious to see how big of an influence Israeli tourists have had on the neighbourhood. Store signs all over the area were mainly written in English, Hindi and Hebrew. Some stores even offered their prices in shekels,” Silver wrote in her blog.
Silver said the area was so heavily populated by Israelis, that some of the locals learned to speak Hebrew to communicate with the Israeli visitors.
“The first time an Indian approached us in fluent Hebrew, Ade and I were shocked,” Simon said.
But this isn’t the only connection India has with Judaism, which Silver and Simon learned more about when they visited Cochin, in part to fill their “Jewish tourist quota.”
Cochin is home to a neighbourhood called Jew Town (yes, Jew Town), where travellers can find the Paradesi Synagogue, at the corner of Synagogue Lane and Jew Street.
The Paradesi shul, built in 1568 when Jewish spice traders set up businesses in the area, is one of eight synagogues in Cochin, but the only one still functioning. The synagogue, now a protected heritage site, still serves as a place of worship for the 13-member Jewish community.
Simon, who said they spent their first Shabbat with the Chabad centre in Cochin and prayed at the Paradesi shul, described the temple as “embellished,” with bright colours – gold, red and orange – intricate Indian chandeliers, and mosaic tiles that were imported from China in the 16th century.
“Once upon a time there was a thriving community of Jews here,” Simon said.
At it’s peak, the Jewish community in India, who claimed to be descendants of the Bene Israel tribe, reached about 20,000 in 1948.
Following Israel’s independence, most immigrated to the Jewish state. In 1964, the Israeli rabbinate recognized the Indian Jews as ethnically Jewish, and by the 1970s, all but a few families immigrated to Israel, where the Cochin Jewish community makes up about 8,000.
During their visit to the shul, Simon and Silver were invited by a Jewish family to join them for Shabbat dinner.
“It was really shocking that they don’t eat chicken soup and challah,” Simon said with a laugh.
“They adopted the Malayalam culture. They wear saris and they eat Indian food, yet they’re white and Jewish,” Silver said.
While they pray in Hebrew, they speak a language called Judeo-Malayalam, a dialect that mixes Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam and Hebrew.
Simon said that while their customs have been influenced by Indian culture, she was still able to relate to the Cochin Jews based on the many similarities.
For example, Indian Jews bless the chapatti, an Indian flatbread, rather than a braided challah, but it is still covered with a traditional challah cover during the Kiddush.
“What is interesting about this community is that it still has so much in common with our Jewish community,” Simon said.
“We still all celebrate Shabbat and we still say ‘shalom Aleichem,’ and we have that in common. They may not eat the same Shabbat dinner that I eat, maybe there’s no gefilte fish, but they are still eating Shabbat dinner.”
While both Silver and Simon insisted that their Indian adventure wasn’t motivated by any need to fill some kind of spiritual void, Silver said she “appreciated the spirituality there.
“We were trying to understand how in a country of more than one billion people how people manage to stay so kind and hospitable and friendly. There are impoverished places all over India, and how do they stay so positive all the time? It must be something to do with spirituality,” Silver said.
Although Silver and Simon said that their trip to India was an experience they’ll never forget, Simon warned, “you have to be adventurous and you have to want to step out of your comfort zone.”
“But I would suggest venturing out of the Jewish bubble,” Silver added.