Published on May 12th, 2014 | by Dan Walsh1
Tales of Wonder and Whoa: The Earrings
Justin Barton is the most well-travelled person I know. As an archaeologist he is a consummate consumer of cultures, both past and present, and a damn fine storyteller. He has entertained our close friends with countless travel stories and many bottles of wine. Of course, I thought this would be a great fit for T&D. I asked Justin to share a few of these “Tales of Wonder and Whoa,” and, of course, he obliged. So pop a bottle of pinot and prepare for India.
Tales of Wonder and Whoa: The Earrings
I have wanted to be an archaeologist since my early childhood, so it’s expected that I hold places with deep histories in reverence. One of those places is India, home of the ancient Indus Valley Civilization and so much more. Alexander the Great invaded India in his attempt to conquer the known world, it was the birthplace of Buddhism and Hinduism, and its exports made it a coveted gem to the British Empire. India’s history grants it a firm place in my imagination.
In October 2011, at the age of 30, I finally had the privilege to travel to the far-off, infamous, and humid subcontinent. It was a work trip, and excitement filled me. The beauty of its ancient temples fascinated and enchanted me. The entire experience was remarkable. Even now, I struggle to find the words. After returning home, everyone naturally and curiously asked what India was like. It seems to be somewhere most Americans know only as a strange, exotic land of clichés. To me, it was a land of juxtaposition. The ancient man-made beauty juxtaposed with the modern slums and garbage piles in the streets. The dense cities with their organized chaos of cars and tuk-tuks juxtaposed with serene natural beauty. The poverty on a scale unlike any I’ve ever seen juxtaposed with an immense generosity. A generosity that still moves me as I recount this story more than two years later.
But perhaps that last one isn’t a juxtaposition.
For a little over two weeks my colleagues and I trekked out daily to Rani ki Vav, an ancient stepwell. We were there to map its intricate beauty with the best surveying equipment technology has to offer. On average a few hundred tourists would pass through the historic park daily. Occasionally they would ask for a photo. Or often they would stand and observe with an inquisitive look as we worked with our sun-hats and strange machines. In 2011, October happened to include Diwali, the Hindu “festival of light”. For two days this long-dry stepwell flooded once again, but this time with thousands of locals.
Our Indian colleagues informed us it was custom to “rejuvenate” at Diwali. Everyone came to the site to celebrate in their newest attire. It was a sea of colours and sparkles as Indian woman glided over the grassy park-scape in their finest sarees. Groups of young girls would sit on the lawns in vibrant gaggles of giggles.
Everyone participated. Everyone came adorned in the best they had. I could distinguish between the custom-made, bead-laiden sarees and the more frugal options, but there were no feelings of classism in a country still in the shadow of a former caste system. For two days happy and curious locals inundated us as they celebrated.
At one point during Diwali, my colleague, Lyn, was handing out fliers that explained our work to the visitors. A young girl, maybe 15, came to take a flier. Lyn stopped and pointed at the girl’s dangling, sparkling earrings, and told the girl the earrings were beautiful. One of our Indian colleagues translated for the girl, who coyly tilted her head down, smiled and shyly said what I can only assume was “thank you”. Her mother, just a few feet away, stepped up, began to speak and gestured to the earrings and then to Lyn. Again, our colleague translated. The girl’s mother was offering Lyn the earrings – the earrings the girl was currently wearing. Earrings that were likely her newest and finest pair bought especially for the holiday.
Lyn, of course, turned down the offer with polite gratitude.
The entire interaction lasted only seconds, yet it remains one of my clearest memories from the entire trip.
I remember feeding the monkeys and how human their tiny little hands felt when they grabbed mine. I remember the noise of the endless honking in the busy streets of Ahmedabad. I remember driving past the endless rows of homeless families lining the sidewalks of Mumbai.
And I remember this girl and her mother, and their generosity to a foreigner.
During our trip we witnessed an astronomical economic chasm between our team and those who lived near our project site. Yet the woman would have handed her daughter’s brand new earrings to Lyn to be welcoming to the foreign guests without hesitation. It was the cliche “shirt off their back” scenario.
The details make this moment resonate with me.
And I think it will continue to resonate as one of the most moving moments of my many journeys.
I spent just over two weeks in India. I walked barefoot in an ancient Jain temple and so much more. But for all the beauty and history I was so eager to finally see, it was the simple gesture of these women that rushes to me when I remember India. It was the people, in all their unexpected kindness, that moved this archaeologist more than any of the ancient ruins.
When people ask if I’d go back to India, I say “yes” without hesitation. It can be a difficult country to travel, but there is so much explore. If you have the chance to visit, remember to pause, put the camera down, and experience the natural and historic beauty alongside the beauty of the people who call India “home”. It will enrich you in ways you never expected.
About the Author: Justin Barton is an archaeologist who has traveled the world to help preserve and manage humanity’s cultural heritage sites. You can follow Justin on Twitter, @JustinScans