This afternoon's long train ride from Agra to Jhansi, which I hadn't expected to be very exciting, turned out to be a special opportunity for me to learn more about Indian culture. A couple hours into the trip, an adorable little girl sitting in the seat in front of me turned around and asked, "From where are you?"
"I'm from the United States," I responded, "And where are you from?"
Then her teenage sister sitting in the seat next to her also turned round and answered, "We are from Jhansi. Would you like to join us up here?"
After being treated like a celebrity at the Taj Mahal yesterday, with about ten different people asking to have their picture taken me (this happened to most everyone in our group), I was sort of accustomed to Indians' fascination with foreigners. Still, I felt kind of honored that they were interested in talking to me, and I was definitely interested in meeting some local people. I took a seat at the table with the two girls, their mother, aunt, and teenage cousin. We ended up talking the rest of the train ride, exchanging information about our cultures and ourselves.
First we talked about all the fun things - our favorite subjects in school, favorite actresses, preferred social networking sites, cute shoes, current hairstyles. I asked if they could teach me a few useful phrases in Hindi, but we didn't get past "Namaste" as the focus of the conversation somehow turned to religion.
The two older women were so eager to share with me stories of Hinduism, and it was obvious that spirituality is a key part of their everyday life. They passionately told stories from their holy books in Hindi while the daughters translated everything to English. They explained reincarnation, and why they consider it so important to treat all people and animals with kindness. Although there are some differences between their Hinduism and my Christianity, I felt a connection with these women when we discussed the beliefs we shared: the importance of faith, the many ways we see God in our lives, and of course the Golden Rule.
If we had more time, I'm sure these women could have taught me much more about their way of life. I had to turn down their invitation for me to stay with them in Jhansi for the next four days, but they made it very clear that I was welcome to visit anytime I come back to India. The openness of these women amazes and inspires me. The kindness they showed was several steps beyond "Minnesota Nice," making me feel like a welcome guest in their country. Before getting off the train we exchanged addresses, phone numbers, and hugs. I hope to see them again someday.