Who says there's no culture in Orlando? I had a naturally beautiful cultural experience at a place I am sure hundreds of people drive by everyday and hardly notice. The beauty of the natural landscape and temple in Casselberry is so simple it might be easy to miss.
Today's Pongal festival at the Hindu Society of Central Florida filled me with joy. What a lovely day for it too! The perfect temperature and bit of cloud cover made it a great Central Florida day to be outside.
People say Orlando is just theme parks and traffic. Not true! Well, you may need to open your heart and mind and become aware. Perhaps you've let some misguided notions keep you from getting to know some of your neighbors.
I must admit I didn't know where the temple was, or really much about Hindu at all. Indulge me to step back in time a bit.
Not quite two years ago I met a really nice Indian lady when she joined one of the places I was employed in Orlando. She invited me to attend temple with her, but having my own preconceived ideas at the time, I hesitated and allowed other distractions as my excuse not to go.
A job change took me to south Florida for a couple of months - and during my brief stint there, the annual Indian Diwali celebration took place. The company encouraged us to celebrate the harvest feast festival at work, encouraging Indian attire and folks to bring and share homemade food - buffet style - at lunch. (As I recall we all had plenty to continue nibbling the rest of the day too!) During the day I began to talk with my then coworkers about India, the Hindu religion, differences between Muslim and Hindu, Buddhism and Hindu, etc. I like to ask questions and am curious about other cultures and religion.
Oh, and the food! Wow! I really love Indian food. I haven't tried it all yet but, so far, I've not had anything I didn't like. Contrary to what you might think, not all Indian food is spicy hot nor must it contain curry. I know some people don't like curry or say they can't eat spicy food so if that's all you think Indian food is, think again.
Fast forward to today. I have recently began a new job where I work with several Indian folks and I am continuing to learn and open my mind. So, when I was invited to the Pongal festival I very quickly decided to attend. I'm so glad I did.
I saw mothers, fathers, and children. They smiled - a lot. They danced, they laughed, and greeted me with genuine happiness. I felt a little out of place at first - since I didn't see many other non-Indians there, I'm actually not brave enough to state just how few, but it didn't take long for my coworkers to find me! (smile) Nor did it take long for my friends to provide me with a drink made from sugar cane and ginger, as well as a fresh peeled stick of sugar cane to eat (do you know it's good for your teeth?), all at no cost to me I might add. (Update: I am making my own, honey, ginger, and lemon drink now.)
I enjoyed watching, smiling, and clapping along as many of them danced. Some Indian songs and one, apparently popular, world beat type of song, "Gangnam Style" which the kids loved! It was in English but one of my coworker friends told me, and I agreed, we couldn't understand the lyrics! I was even invited to join in the dancing! I was overwhelmed by their generosity of spirit and kindness so watching was more than enough for me - this time. (Update: when I watched the movie, "Outsourced" I now understand why I was so encouraged to join in the dancing so I definitely will next time.)
What I found pleasantly beautiful was how the families enjoyed the dancing together. When I say "together", I mean, at the same time to the same song not together as we think of in terms of a couples dance, etc. The children danced in the middle, the moms around them to form a circle. And a couple of times the men formed rows off to the side and also danced.
The various materials of the colorful outfits and the peaceful happy faces, for some mysterious reason filled me with emotion. I don't know about you but I cannot remember the last time I danced in the same space with my family. I shed silent happy tears while watching the mothers and fathers dance along with their children. Of course, the ladies gorgeous brightly colored sarees (traditional Indian attire) were beautiful, adding to the overall experience. But the smiles on so many faces were what delighted me the most.
Speaking of sarees and traditional Indian dress, they had a table and rack of garments for sale and some jewelry but no one was pushy. I enjoyed looking and thinking about what I may purchase next time.
A bit surprising to me - there was no talk of religion during my time at the festival today. No sermon, no meditation, yoga, or prayer alter, etc. No invitation or push to join. The most refreshing part for me? There was no judgment. There was no look from anyone to suggest I should not be there. I was welcomed as a friend to your home. In the past I've experienced quite the opposite unfortunately (I've forgiven them so I will not name the race or religion).
Someone even covered the cost of my lunch (which I had not anticipated) and as I suspected, the food was fabulous! I later learned that the breads I enjoyed were called, chapati and vada. Chapati is a type of Indian flatbread, and vada is a donut shaped bread that is a little tiny bit on the sweet side. People were readily sharing the breads and offering more. I could tell that bread was just as comforting to these folks as it is to my friends and family. (smile) The chick pea dish that I really loved (due to its wonderful mix of spices, flavor, and consistency) was chana masala. I will ask for this the next time I eat at an Indian restaurant for sure!
I ate until full and couldn't put another bite into my mouth. I left happy, fed, and content, and believing while sometimes we have to nudge ourselves to try something new, if we can muster our courage, it may just bless us in unexpected and profound ways.
So, thank you to all at the Hindu Society of Central Florida. I am grateful for the opportunity today to glimpse a bit of India and share with you. We are all connected.
To learn more about Hinduism, click here.