It was a mix of foreigners and locals, and at least the locals seemed to know Shiva. He greeted the group as if he was friends with all of them. The other foreigners seemed a bit shy like us, but they gradually started patting colored powder onto our faces. Shiva thrust a bag of color into Jason’s hands so we could repay the favor, and soon we were exclaiming over the vibrant colors and happy atmosphere.
Jason and Justin jumped into the crowd, but I hung back to get a few photos. Well, the photos were mostly an excuse since dancing’s always a bit intimidating for me. Soon Shiva gestured for me to join in, Jason called out to me from the throng, and I reminded myself that I was there to celebrate Holi, dang it. I tucked my self-consciousness deep down, picked up my skirt, and started dancing.
The men cheered. It wasn’t long before they were taking turns dancing alongside and/or with me. A few of the braver ones would take my hands or pretend to grind while their friends cheered them on. One fellow plunked a turban on my head and snapped a few photos of me in his headgear. Another worked up the courage to stop dancing, hold out his arms and say, “Hug?” Laughing, I hugged him as the surrounding guys hooted and called out, “Lucky! Lucky fellow!” Next thing I knew, they were coming in for hugs from all directions.
We decided to move on not too long after I got an accidental mouthful of color powder. As I rinsed and spit out bright pink water over and over again, Shiva shook his head and counseled, “When playing colors, eyes closed, mouth closed.”
After looping around the city in his tuk-tuk, Shiva invited us to go back to his house to see how the locals celebrate. He had explained that families all celebrate at home and the public revelry is really just the guys who want to go out and get drunk. Indeed, we had yet to see any Indian women out in our adventure, so I was eager to see a family celebration.
Shiva is also a liaison for an international volunteer organization, so we swung by their dorms to pick up a teenager from Bogota who’s been under Shiva’s care for a few months; then headed back towards the hotel to Shiva’s neighborhood.
He parked near our haveli, next to the entrance to an alleyway. There were some other tuk-tuk drivers and tourists there, and after we all did the compulsory color-patting on each other, Shiva led the way between the buildings.
“This is where my family lives,” he said cheerfully.
“How many people?” we asked.
“About 1500,” he said.
We encountered more and more kids as we went further in, some of whom were brave enough to say, “Happy Holi!” and put a bit of color on the foreigners.
At one point, one of Shiva’s friends (cousins?) grabbed my wrist and announced, “Women this way,” pulling me into one of the homes. There I met a group of women who were in the midst of cooking lunch. They greeted us and we exchanged colors. The cousin pulled an older woman up from the floor of the house and insisted that we give her some color. We refused at first, she since was obviously telling him quite sternly that she did not want to get messy, but he told us to do it anyway. “It’s Holi!” he said. “It’s expected!”
I held out my bag of color and the woman dipped her hands in and patted my cheeks green. I dipped in a finger and brushed a dot onto each of her cheeks. She beamed at me, then gracefully turned to repeat the ritual with each of the ladies the cousin had pulled inside.
We rejoined the rest of the group and Shiva led us through the maze of dirt paths between cement and pink and white-washed walls to his house.
Shiva’s wife poked her head out of the kitchen when he called a greeting, then came out smiling shyly. Pros by now, we greeted her with pats of color. She used our color bags to put a bit of powder on Jason and Justin’s cheeks. She patted my cheeks as well, then grinned cheekily and shoved her hand down my shirt. “Happy Holi!” she shouted as she flapped her hand between my breasts, covering my stomach and chest with color. I exclaimed in surprise and had barely caught my breath when she grabbed another handful and lifted up my shirt from the bottom to clap even more powder on my stomach.
By this point, we were certainly colorful messes:
Shiva introduced us to his kids, who ran up to the kid from Bogota and quickly covered him in color.
They obviously knew him well, and when Shiva’s daughter came at him with a bowl of muddy-looking colored water, he stopped looking as shy and uncomfortable as we seemed to make him and joined in the fun, grabbed her as they both squealed and giggled:
Shiva fetched a blanket from inside and spread it on the ground for Jason and Justin to share, then found a small plastic stool for me to sit on. Shiva’s wife came out with a plate of food we passed around and sampled.
The yellow stuff on the right tasted sweet and coconut-y while the nut mix on the left had some kick to it. Shiva brought out a photo album to show us pictures of his kids, of his family, and of the various travelers he’s met. At every picture of a foreigner, he would tap the photo, tell us his/her name, and proudly announce what country they were from.
Someone turned on some music and soon the alley was packed with people.
I was chatting with two girls from Australia when a man showed up with a small metal bowl of spicy yellow rice. The man (Shiva’s brother, perhaps?) went to each of us in turn and insisted we try the dish “because it’s Holi!”
Jason got away with taking his sample with his fingers, but the fellow scooped up a big helping with his wee metal communal spoon and pushed it directly into my mouth before I could object.
As the party seemed to be winding down, we excused ourselves to head back to the haveli for a late lunch. We called out farewells, I was force-fed another spoonful of rice, Shiva walked us back out, and we made plans to meet him again later in the day for another excursion. We paid him, thanked him, hugged him, and walked to our hotel just down the path.
After the exuberance of the street celebrations, the hotel’s affair looked so much the quieter. We picked up some food from the buffet and took a seat in the large dining tent.
We were certainly not the only tourists covered in powder, but I think we may have had the most layers.
We took turns in the bathroom trying to scrub the color off our hands, but as I ate speckles of red and purple kept falling on my plate from my face. I ate around them the best I could; then figured that if I was going to die of color poisoning, the mouthful of pink from earlier is what would do me in. (That’s homemade cinnamon ice cream in a banana leaf cup Jason’s enjoying, btw.)
As forecasted, the celebrations were pretty much wrapped up by then, about 2:00 in the afternoon. We weren’t quite done yet, though. There were two elephants in the driveway of the hotel, and we were going for a Holi ride, dang it!
The attendants got all three of us up the ladder onto the elephant on the left, and once we were settled we took off for a loop around the driveway. The attendant took my phone at one point and shot about 600 photos of us on our 8 minute ride.
When the elephant returned to the tent, the attendant instructed Jason and Justin to step on the elephant’s head and hop down:
I scooted forward to do the same, but both attendants flapped their hands and insisted I wait. And so I sat on the elephant waiting.
And waiting and waiting. It was long enough for me to wonder if they were going to let me get down or if I was going to get a bonus ride. It was also long enough for both of the elephants to let loose phenomenal amounts of urine, which actually made me glad that I was a good nine feet or so above the splash zone.
Eventually, they brought a ladder to the elephant so I could climb down from my elephant as a lady should.
The hotel had put out giant barrels of water in the garden, so we stopped there on our way to our room to try to get the worst of the powder off. Justin wasted no time stripping off his shirt and soaking his head.
I meanwhile was a little less sucessful getting the color off:
We took turns in the shower, gingerly avoiding touching anything until we had sloughed off the worst of it all. Even with a lot of soap and scrubbing, my skin stayed pretty pink. Well, except for my belly which, thanks to Shiva’s wife, stayed pretty green. It took a couple of days for the pink stains on my face to fade, and my scalp stayed pink long after I got home.
I tossed out my skirt and garments but kept the t-shirt and bra, which I now fondly think of as my Holi bra, streaked with pink, purple, and brown as it is. Relatively clean, we headed back out to meet Shiva for some shopping, which is a good enough story to merit its own post.
And that was Holi! It was an absolute delight and one of my favorite things I’ve ever done while traveling. I am happy that we didn’t stick to the safety of the hotel, and I am really grateful that we met Shiva, since he made the day what it was for us. It’s fun to think that in Jaipur there’s a photo album that I’m sure now includes a picture of me, which Shiva will point out to his future guests and say, “This is Amanda. She is from America.”