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Sitander: A story about India.
We walked down the wide street. Dogs ripped into piles of garbage on either side of the road. Goats wearing children’s clothing meandered up and down the ditches. The dirt road was lined with stalls on both sides, with vendors offering everything from fruit to haircuts. Lots of people were getting haircuts.
It was a normal morning in India.
Our destination was the bank of the Ganges River, and passing under a temple archway we found ourselves at the top of a grand set of stairs that led down to the riverbank. What a piazza is to Italy, the riverbanks and markets are to India. Social centers. Boat builders, ferries, women giving each other pedicures, bathers, clothes washers, children, animals; the city convenes at the riverbank.
Breaking off from the group, I made my way back up the stairs and climbed another flight of stairs to the top of the temple. The scene was even more interesting from there. As the only white people within a wide radius, and being Americans to boot, our group of missionaries was being swarmed with the curious, young and old alike. Like some sort of telepathic grapevine, word of our presence was passed across the surrounding area, and people appeared out of nowhere to ask questions and take photographs with us. A crowd was forming.
My photograph needs at this vantage point satisfied, I climbed down from the temple roof to be stopped in my tracks by a snarling dog. A typical Indian mutt of no discernible base breed, he stood like a sentry in front of an apathetic cow, his teeth bared in a wolf-like manner. For a brief instant I wondered if I would be forced to violate Indian customs by kicking the dog in the head if he decided that this pale trespasser was worth attacking. But before harm came to either of us, a bearded man emerged from the shadows of a temple doorway and took the dog by the scruff of the neck. I thanked him for giving me an exit with an earnest“dhanyavād”, receiving only a cold glare in return.
I rejoined my friends on the stairs. And it was then that I met Sitander. I remember him as one of several extremely articulate, clear-eyed young students that I met during the trip. Wearing a British football hoodie and speaking better English than I do, he opened up the conversation with the polite yet inquisitive phrase that foreigners hear often in rural India.
“Excuse me, where are you from, sir?”
I turned to see him standing behind me with a group of his friends. He introduced himself as Sitander (“my name in English would be, I believe, Alexander,” he added, anxious to show his understanding of the language), and told me that he was a college student studying business at the city’s university.
We spoke only briefly, chatting about school and taking pictures with each other before my group had go back to the hotel and gather our gear for the next leg of the trip, but I remember him very well.
There is no particular reason, be it an odd occurrence or an extreme circumstance surrounding our conversation that would cause me to remember it so vividly. It is simply one of those funny things about traveling. When you are abroad, simple contact with friendly local people takes on a special significance. You realize that people are still people wherever you go. There may be differences of language, dress, and custom, but at the end of the day, we all have a mutual curiosity and a desire to establish relationships with people from another part of the world.
I have been blessed in the past year to have several occurrences like this one, from sharing lunch with an elderly Italian couple in Bologna to speaking with Sitander in India. And it has been interesting to learn that the simple encounters have been the ones best remembered a year later.