In mythical Vrindavan, a village tucked in an arc of India's Yamuna River, young Krishna was in a rueful state. He asked his mother, "Why is Radha's skin so fair while mine is dusky?" Appealing to her son's playfulness, the mother replied, "Why don't you coat your lover's face in color? Then you will be the same."
In not-so-mythical Vrindavan, Ron and I descended the dusty hotel steps, pale as the Taj, donning the spotless white kurtas that the clothier had been reluctant to sell us the night before. He had known the kurtas' fate. It was Holi, the festival of colors. No thread was safe.
Before India, I had never felt the sensation of being an alien. A traveler, sure, even a foreigner. But I'd never encountered a place so dizzying, so staunchly itself, that I lost all sense of belonging. The line between appropriate and appropriation is often unmarked, and here I was, a gora in the home of Krishna, on one of their holiest days. Was I welcome?
Ron and I armed ourselves with baggies of powder ("Which color?" the cross-legged merchant asked. "All of them," we replied.) and wound along narrow backstreets, past resting cows adorned with marigolds. Steadily, the world around us transformed into a vivid melee. Our kurtas were eager canvasses.
The mania of the throng ahead illuminated the way to Banke Bihari Temple. We followed as it bottlenecked and rushed up the steps. An old woman, one of the brave few in the crowd, scolded me in Hindi just outside the doorway, gesturing: Lose the sandals, gora.
Inside, ecstatic chants – Krishna Krishna! Hare Hare! – echoed everywhere. Powders burst from the rafters onto the crowd. All eyes were on the priest who blasted fuschia water from a platform. I reached through the collar of my kurta, unzipped my travel pouch, and held up my phone. A man shook his head: Not in here, gora.
By the time I jostled my way to the far door, Ron was nowhere to be found. Barefoot and lost, I found respite by a shuttered storefront. From nowhere, two small hands smeared my face with something wet. I wiped my eyes and opened them to the toothy grin of a young boy. My hands were moss green. The boy took them, cupped them, filled them with green paste, and held his face up to me: Come on, gora!
I ran my palms across his face, painting it green. He took out a phone and held it up to show our work. "Green! Same!" he shouted.
Like Radha and Krishna, bound by playful color.
He tapped the screen and took the selfie, and finally I felt it. Green. Same. Alien no more.
Discover similar stories intransformation
Traveling his ancestral home in search of connection, Shaun Busuttil finds himself stuck between two cultures – Maltese and Australian.
In this photo story, Emily Polar shows how a Sikh temple feeds 100,000 people every day, 24 hours a day.
Join Nomad Caroline as she travels to Varanasi in search of the soul-stirring spirituality and culture that’s the heartbeat of the country.