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Trip of a lifetime

A young man’s eye-opening journey to India, Nepal

Four friends who met in Dublin (L to R) Marcos, Gaurav, Rebekka, and Dustin. Contributed photo

Four friends who met in Dublin (L to R) Marcos, Gaurav, Rebekka, and Dustin. Contributed photo

One might not expect a small-town Minnesota boy to become a world traveler, but Dustin Bardon, who grew up in New Prague, is just that.

As an undergraduate at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Dustin spent six months studying at the Institute for European Studies in Vienna, Austria. It was a great experience. So when he chose to pursue a master’s degree, he decided to study in Europe. A program at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, turned out to be shorter and less expensive than the same program in the U.S., so it was not a difficult decision to make.

It turned out to be a life-changing decision. Not only was the program academically challenging, but Dustin met people with whom he has been able to maintain strong friendships over the space of many years, even though they are separated by thousands of miles, and live in different countries.

One of the many people Dustin met in Dublin was Gaurav, a computer science student who was a native of India. The two instantly became friends and have stayed close over the years. They spent time with a group of friends from all over the world who all managed to keep in touch over the years. So when Gaurav announced his marriage plans, it was important that Dustin and the others attend his wedding.

The closing ceremony was held at 4 a.m., the wedding couple, Sheela and Gaurav, are pictured at the last wedding ceremony of the night (morning). Contributed photo

The closing ceremony was held at 4 a.m., the wedding couple, Sheela and Gaurav, are pictured at the last wedding ceremony of the night (morning). Contributed photo

Gaurav had planned to wed his fianceé, Sheela, in a traditional Hindu wedding in his hometown of Meerut, India. Sheela and Gaurav had known each other and dated for years and now were finally making the marriage commitment. (Although there are still arranged marriages in India, Gaurav and Sheela’s was a love match, not arranged by the family).

The journey to India is a long one, and flights don’t come cheap. In the end, only three of the group of friends who had met in Ireland could get to India for Gaurav’s wedding in October 2015. Dustin arranged to take two weeks off as director of the Rockford Area Historical Society in Rockford, Minn. He was joined by Rebekka, who lived in Canada, and Marcos, from Spain. They all managed a day-long flight to India to be part of a wedding and an event that would change their lives.

After meeting them at the airport in New Delhi, Gaurav drove his friends to his hometown of Meerut, in northern India, where they would meet his family and prepare for the wedding. All the friends had shopping to do for the traditional Indian outfits they would wear to the wedding, but there was also a river rafting trip planned. So, after the shopping and socializing, the four friends journeyed farther north to Rishikesh, a city on the Ganges River in the foothills of the Himalayas.

Indian women gather in traditional colors. Contributed photo

Indian women gather in traditional colors. Contributed photo

The Ganges River is known worldwide as a sacred river, but most westerners are not aware that it is one of the world’s best rivers for whitewater rafting. The city of Rishikesh is also the site of numerous temples and Hindu meditation centers. In fact, the Hindu religion considers it to be one of their holiest places. (Fans of the Beatles may remember Rishikesh as the location of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram, where the Fab Four stayed in February 1968, composing songs which appear on The Beatles’ White Album.)

The friends enjoyed an exciting rafting trip as well as some sightseeing, and then continued on to Haridwar, where they attended a festival, or “Aarti.” In Haridwar, the friends attended a ceremony celebrating “the memory of lost loved ones.” They watched as baskets filled with flower petals and candles were set afloat on the river, as a “memorial to those who have gone before.” They then hiked two and a half miles up a winding path to the top of a mountain (an elevation of 9,500 feet) to visit a Hindu temple called Chandi Devi. An appropriate end to this part of the trip, the friends watched the sunset from the trail on the hike back down the mountain. The group soon rushed back to Meerut, where the wedding preparations were in high gear.

Indian weddings have a reputation for being lavish affairs, and Gaurav’s wedding was no exception. On the day of the wedding, the friends were involved in several small observances throughout the day. But the real festivities began in the evening, starting at about 6 p.m., when they dressed in traditional Indian attire and began the journey to the wedding site. According to Hindu custom, the bride’s family goes directly to the wedding location, where they await the groom and his family. The groom’s family then proceeds to the venue – dancing and celebrating on the way. According to Dustin, the dancing continued for the entire two-mile trip. Between 100 and 200 people in the groom’s party, all relatives or special guests of the family, participated in the ritual procession. The groom himself rode on a white horse for part of the trip and sat in a lavish carriage pulled by matching white horses for another part of the journey. The entire crowd finally reached the outdoor pavilion where the wedding was to be held, where they were greeted by the bride’s family.

Dustin described the wedding venue as “an outdoor area filled with lights and hung with silks, with numerous pavilions, a dance floor, and a rotating platform where the official ceremony was held.” The groom’s party was only a small part of the large crowd in attendance, which varied during the night from about 600 to about 1,300 guests. After arriving, the guests mingled and danced to traditional Indian music as well as American pop music until 11 p.m., when dinner was served. Throughout the evening, several smaller ceremonies took place, including the exchange of flowers and necklaces made of flowers. Finally, during the last marriage ceremony, the bride and groom shared one shawl between them, which represented how their lives would be linked together from that point on. The wedding festivities continued all night long, until the party finally ended after the final marriage ceremony at about 4 a.m.

The next day, the three friends traveled to Nepal, where they took in more sights. They toured Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, and were welcomed at the home of the bride’s family by extended family and friends of the bride.

Joined by the newlyweds after the final wedding festivities were over, the group then drove up to the resort town of Pokhara, in the Himalayas, which has often been called the “Switzerland” of Nepal. On a clear day, “you can see six of the world’s eight tallest mountains,” according to Dustin. The snowy peaks tower over lakes and hills, giving one of the most magnificent views on the planet. But this particular trip was disappointing, as low clouds obscured the mountains and the view. The friends hoped for a spectacular ending to the last of their adventures. But they also had a plane to catch to take them back to their homes in Europe and North America.

So, with the pall of disappointment and sadness of leave-taking hanging over them, the friends hurried to the airport, arriving just a few minutes before their plane was due to depart. But just before they boarded the plane, in what seemed to be a sign from above, the clouds suddenly lifted. The friends could see the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas clearly all around them. It was truly a fitting end to a memorable journey.

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