We ended up in Vapi, India on Friday, 2/2. Vapi is not one of those famous places in the travel guides or even on anyone’s radar as a must see in India. But it should be. Yes, it’s just like thousands of other nondescript cities in India but we’ve discovered something special here. First let me tell you how we got here, both figuratively and literally.
Last August we were visiting with some neighbors, who are originally from India. They mentioned that some monks, or swamis from India, would be coming to their home in a few weeks. I found this odd, swamis in Webster, N.H.? A few weeks later we got a call to come to their home, the swamis had arrived. We had a nice visit with 3 charming swamis who cooked dinner for us and told us about their mission – a network of schools in India. Our Indian friends had visited the school many times and raved about the experience. The swami’s invited us, we exchanged phone numbers and emails. If we were ever in India, near Vapi, please come and visit.
Fast forward to now. We had a plan to be in Bombay on 2/15 and we still had a few weeks of free time in between. I was getting tired and bored of southern India. I emailed the swami. His assistant got right back to me. After a few quick phone calls we were on out way to Vapi not knowing what to expect, where we were staying, or what we would be doing. We flew into Bombay from Kochi, Kerala, took an Uber to the train station, and a train to Vapi. As far as I can tell we were the only foreigners on the train and also in Vapi.
We arrived at the school and were greeted by the friendly swami we had met in N.H., Kapil Swamiji, and welcomed into our guest room. We were blown away as our accommodations here are the nicest of our entire trip so far. Way nicer. Like 5 star nicer. We got a brief tour of the grounds including the residential high school for almost 70 girls on the campus. This part of the school is free for the girls as they are from extremely poor families and is supported by donations. There are 3 or 4 more schools on this campus run by the swamis. Some English medium, some Gujarati medium, and a pharmacy college. Later that evening we attended aarti, a twice daily ritual or ceremony, with most of 70 girls in attendance. The girls sang traditional songs and it was a very moving experience for me.
After breakfast the next morning we ushered into a hall where 1000+ students were in an assembly. We were seated right up front facing the stage where the grade 5 students put on a talent show. Then we were invited on the stage to address the student body. Staring out at the huge crowd before me I shared with them that I’ve travelled to India 4 times and visited a lot of places and seen a lot of things, but this was surely the highlight of all those trips. I meant it. We were here less than 24 hours and it’s really amazing. Seeing thousands of children in a learning environment, eating meals together, studying, performing, being polite, sincere, talented, smart, no cell phones, and happy to boot!
We ate our meals with the swamis and they shared with us that our timing was good because there was a wedding tomorrow. Not just any wedding mind you. But a wedding where 55 couples, who were too poor to otherwise get married, were to have a wedding ceremony here on campus. Of course there would be guests too. Thousands of them. Early the next morning, after aarti, we walked the campus in the cool morning air with Kapil Swamiji. He showed us the food preparation for the huge wedding taking place that day. All the food and all the personnel cooking were donations of time and money. Imagine cooking for thousands people.
I had to prepare for the wedding and it was pointed out that I didn’t have the proper attire. I wasn’t sure what the paper attire was but I had a feeling I was about to find out.
A couple hundred of us on campus were shuttled by bus (although Laurie and I got to ride in the special wedding jeep) to a temple downtown (downtown?). The large group assembled near a mobile DJ – wedding vehicle. The music blasting out of this thing was louder than a Mission of Burma concert. We were required to dance, and dance, and dance. The crowd grew larger and larger. Finally after an hour or so the procession began to proceed, but at a snail’s pace. The crowd had grown to about 1000 and was stopping traffic at various intersections. At some point during the next hour we made our way back to campus, for the wedding.
The guests, the brides and grooms, and the staff began to fill up the tent area. There were stages, and fire pits, and more huge speakers. People spoke at length. We had front row seats, again, for the actual ceremony. The wedding couples were decked out in traditional attire, were provided a full first class wedding, and received a substantial amount of practical, household items to get them started. They could never have imagined this in their wildest dreams and I could not imagine witnessing it. It was a very moving, heartwarming and inspiring experience. More people spoke at length, the fires burned and there was smoke everywhere. Laurie and I heard our names mentioned multiple times during the ceremony in the hours of Gujarati and Sanskrit speeches. I guess they were pointing out that we travelled 7000 miles for this wedding 🙂
It was like no other wedding that you could imagine. Everyone was really happy and it was a 100% vegetarian meal and an alcohol free event. I’ve never seen so many smiling faces at one time. The amazing detail is that this is all free for the 55 couples who could never afford to get married in true Indian fashion. All supported by donations of time, food, service and money. It’s the 11 year they done this here in Vapi. People came from all over – Los Angeles, London, and even us, 7000 miles from Webster, N.H. It’sa a day to remember.
Now it wouldn’t be a wedding without entertainment. So next we were entertained by some of the school children who had obviously been practicing really hard. Group after group took the stage and performed all kinds of traditional Indian dances and routines. It was really good.
After the entertainment portion of the wedding came the food. They save the food part until last. As a long 7 hours of wedding ceremonies came to a close, I kept reflecting back on the fact that we had been in Vapi less than 48 hours. I let it sink in. At this point I thought Vapi does belong in that travel guide. The experience here is like no other I’ve had in India or anywhere else. And remember it’s been less than 48 hours here in Vapi. So if you happen to cross paths with a swami in the U.S. and he offers you his phone number and email, take it. You will not be disappointed. Or you could take the easy way out and contact me and I’ll set you up for the experience of a lifetime, all here in Vapi.