Michael Booker
2009-10 Outbound to India

Hometown: Fernandina Beach, Florida
School: Fernandina Beach HS
Sponsor: Amelia Island Sunrise Rotary Club, District 6970, Florida
Host: Nagpur Rotary Club, District 3030, India

Michael B's Bio

Hello! My name is Michael Cody Booker, and I’m a junior currently attending Fernandina Beach High School in Fernandina Beach, Florida U.S.A. I have lived in Florida for the past nine years after being born and spending the first six years of my life on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, home to the largest estuary in the United States. My Virginia family ties leave me with a strong sense of pride and hard-working philosophy from growing up along the Chesapeake Bay, where both of my paternal great-grandfathers earned their living working in the seafood industry. The water is a very important aspect of my life and fishing, clamming and crabbing are hobbies. My current town is small with a population of a little over ten thousand but rapidly growing and home of the Fighting Pirates! (our school mascot)

I have many extracurricular activities outside school. I am a PADI certified Master Scuba Diver. Which means I am the highest non-professional certified level being a Rescue Diver with seventy dives and a combined bottom-time of over forty-two hours! I also am a certified sailor with International Yacht Certifications for basic mate and VHF certifications. I also have completed a hunter safety course and enjoy hunting and being at one with nature with my dad and brother. Another hobby of mine is traveling. Traveling has brought me to realize how truly beautiful the gift of life is and how I would like to stretch my life to the limits.

My brother, who is one of my heroes, has diabetes and I’ve grown up seeing the unfairness in his disease. I have learned through him, and many of my other experiences, that I want to make a positive difference in the lives of others. After learning of India as my host country, I am excited to experience a new culture and different part of the world. I hope that from these opportunities, I will be able to make a lasting impact on the world of today and tomorrow.

As a foreign exchange student I will experience a new culture and language. To learn Hindi and the culture in India is an amazing opportunity that few will ever experience. With our unpredictable future, it seems we are destined for change. Our world is not virgin to change, life is a state of constant change, often chaotic, and men always end up playing catch up. Have we not learned through our mistakes and indifferences that we are one people? Will we no longer be ignorant of our contradictory actions? Destiny can call on men at all times in their life. All men have to do is just have the courage to reach out and grab it. My foreign exchange experience will enhance my ability to participate in the opportunities I encounter in life.

I would like to thank everyone in the process of my acceptance and my success so far, but especially my mom and dad. These individuals have shown me an honest way of life and enlightenment through furthering my knowledge. Now, I leave this unfinished biography, for it will not be finished soon and next year I will add another chapter of my experiences in India. May my name be written across the pages of history for fame, or be cursed for failure, but I will continue on with a clear conscience, because I have given my all.

Michael B's Journals

August 1 Journal

While staying the night in Mumbai I learned a very important lesson: while being a foreign exchange student you skip from A straight to Z. The culture and the language are parts B through Y and hopefully during the next couple months I’ll hit some other letters.

I had my first meal here! An omelet with bread and tea, taste buds that I've never known have started to hit the fan. I think my senses will explode because it seems everything is in exponential form compared to America. The driving so far has been an adventure in itself, we even go the wrong way on the road! While driving basically everything goes, however, just make sure to check for police.

India is where the older orthodox and the modern world collide to form a rich, diverse country. On the roads the diversity is even shown by the method of transportation. For example, you may see a camel walking next to a Mercedes Benz. My host brother and his friends talked me into riding a camel. I would have to say it was unique. If I had anything similar to compare it with, it's like riding a horse, except much higher up. Also, while being here I haven’t had to use an alarm clock. We have a natural one. It’s not a rooster but the vegetable man yelling "Bhajji lelo," (Take the Vegetables) usually around 8 a.m. This took some getting used to.

During my first weekend the Rotary Club of Nagpur South invited me to go on a trip to Chikaldhara. It was a Hill Station that was used by the British. We rode in a Volvo (a chartered bus with seats on the bottom and beds on top). It took seven hours! When we got there it was worth the journey, I couldn’t keep myself from sticking my head out of the window, it was beautiful. While doing so I managed to scare some Rotarians, they thought I would fall out, so I obliged to their advice and kept my head inside. The twisting up the mountains led us to see waterfalls, monkeys and of course more cows. It was very windy at the top and we went to see an electric generating windmill, it was massive with blades as big as semi-trucks.

The next morning we awoke at six and booted up to see all of the sights. The sun at that point was high enough and we were walking amongst the clouds; it was rather cold. There were random trails and I couldn’t help myself from straying from the road and listening to all the sounds of this mystical place. While walking along the roads we passed villagers herding buffalos and cows to find new fodder.

After the rest of the crew awoke we took the Volvo to a temple beneath a waterfall. There they carved a little doorway and straight inside was the idol of the Hindu God. We had to take off our shoes to walk inside, water was dripping from all of the cracks in the rock and everything was wet. We also visited a rural village and I got to see first hand the poverty of India. The elders in the village were complaining that they don't even have drinking water. I don’t think they’ve ever seen a white man before.

There is never a dull moment in India, there is always something going on. Nagpur, which is a rather big city, doesn’t have many of the chain stores that you think are everywhere back home. No McDonalds, Burger King, or Wendy’s; there is only one Domino’s. However, that doesn’t mean that I’ll be losing any weight. My host mother is an excellent cook and they feed me very well, I actually think I’m gaining weight. Before arriving I was worried about sickness from foods but I feel more healthy now then ever. Also, I no longer eat with any utensils, it’s all in the hands. Rice was rather difficult at first, however, I’m getting the hang of things. The other day I went to a restaurant and had a fork to eat some noodles, it was very awkward and I didn't like using it!

I’ve been very popular so far during my short stay here. Everyone stares at me! I’ve even managed to meet the Deputy Police Chief and a Minister to the Mahastrata State Government! I also went to see my first Bollywood movie Love Aaj Kal (Love Now-a-days). It was mostly in Hindi so I was luckily sitting next to my host brother and my good friend Salil who were my personal translators. I’ve been getting good at Hindi and my host family has steadily increased the usage of Hindi. Afterwards they translate the conversation for me. I’ve come to find that India is a new mystery unraveling before me. I can’t wait to find out what’s around the next corner of tomorrow!

September 11 Journal

Time has started to slow down. The initial rush of living in India has worn off and now I’ve developed a daily routine. I’ve steadily been taking tabla, dance, and traditional flute lessons. Hopefully soon I’ll start Arabic. Even though I’m used to living in India, I don’t believe the locals are used to it. Wherever I go I’m still stared at as the “foreigner.” It gets annoying at times but I’m sure when I get back to the US, I’ll be so used to it that it’ll be weird when people aren’t staring at me. Another thing that takes getting used to standing for a foreign national anthem. This is something new to me. They have it before movies at the movie theaters and in the morning before school. I’ve gotten pretty good at humming along.

This is a very festive season and nearly every other day is a holiday. They are mainly Hindu holidays. However, the Muslim month of Ramadan, or Ramzan in Urdo, is also going on . It is a month of fasting (no eating or drinking) from sunrise to sunset. As my host family is Muslim, I have been observing Roza along with them. This means waking up at around 4 a.m. for Sehri (breakfast) and then waiting until Iftar (the meal which we break fast) that always occurs at sunset which is around 6:30 p.m. Since the time of sunset is consistently changing, we follow a time table. We must first break the fast with a compulsory date. A date is a certain type of sweet fruit available all around the middle-east.

This wasn’t forced on me. I volunteered because I wanted to test myself. Many people are gracious that I am doing it while others think I’m insane. I want to challenge my will power for that is one of the things that determines our outcome in life. It also has been a good excuse to be lazy because I can’t exert myself. This has gotten me out of dance class a number of times.

Besides Ramadan there are many other holidays, almost too many to count. To start off the month we had friendship day. The name explains it all - we tie bracelets around each of our friends wrists and then hang out all day. Then came Rakhi. This is a very old Hindu holiday where the sister ties a Rakhi around her brother’s wrist for protection and in return the brother gives the sister a present. Nearly every other week there is some type of festival for one of the many Hindu gods. The 10 day festival for Lord Ganesh called Ganpati is one of the most popular. In Maharastra (the state I’m in) it is heavily celebrated. Every house has their own individual idol and also the community throws money together and to buy a huge one. When they bring the community idol to and from where it is placed they hire a drum music group and the everybody in the town is dancing in the streets. I was invited to go into the middle of the drums many times and every time I came out i was drenched in sweat. Many people are surprised to see a “foreigner” participating and a photographer took my picture for the newspaper. After the 10 days they submerge the idol into water and that caps off the festival.

Also to celebrate Lord Krishna they have the holiday of Janmashtami. This is when teenage boys form a huge pyramid to reach a pot suspended around 30 ft. in the air. If they are successful they break it with a rock which is followed by insane dancing. Kids die from falling from these man-made pyramids every year; however, the devotees won’t stop its practice. Another important holiday is the Pola festival celebrating the bullock. Only on this day do bullocks not have work and are decorated by their owners in elaborate colors. The bullock is the Indian workhorse on the farms and since many are without machines it is a very important animal. Since farms are mostly rural it is celebrated the strongest in the surrounding villages. One of my drivers left to go back to his village and was gone for over a week celebrating this one day holiday.

This is one example of how Indian time works. You never know when someone will show up because to some people being thirty minutes late is being on time. It takes getting used to for some people, but for me it’s the perfect place!

November 2 Journal

When the festival of Ganpati was ending to celebrate Lord Ganesh (The God of Wisdom) and we again danced in the streets. This time I could see people taking videos of me dancing and I became very popular with the people in the surrounding area. We had to dance in front of the Idol while taking it ceremoniously from its public place to a lake where it was to be submerged in water. After all of the decorating it ended up spending the rest of its existence in the murky lake water. While going we stopped at every intersection and danced for a good amount of time. This time it was rather difficult since I was fasting and it was a very hot day. I had to resist the urge of water when everyone else was drinking. I managed to keep my Roza and dance for hours under the strong sun, but when I arrived home I was exhausted and spent the remainder of the day under a fan.

I’ve managed to experience many new things as was expected. A typical example of lack of communication happened when we were invited to an English play. We thought it would be nice, however, only upon arrival did we find out that it was a children’s play: The Mystery of the Pantomime Cat. We had to sit through it for two hours and it was even worse since it was a musical. Later on it was very funny to recall the torture of the English accents and the outdated music. Also, after two months of reading the local newspaper I found out that it was owned by a BJP party leader and was very biased as well as anti-American. I did notice some offensive articles earlier so now everything started to make sense. Now I no longer read the newspaper except for a few interesting articles. One such article that caught my eye was one about the Chief Minister dying in the neighboring state of Andra Pradesh in a helicopter crash. He was so heavily followed and looked up to that 23 of his followers committed suicide. I was in disbelief. Never would you see such news back in the U.S. He did a lot of work for the poor in India and it’s a shame that such a good politician is gone amongst the numerous corrupted ones.

As the holy month of the Muslim religion was coming to a close many family members came to Nagpur to celebrate Id. Now Id may also be spelled as Idd or Eid, but I like to keep it simple. Id is the celebration to cap off the month of fasting by a feast. After fasting for 29 days, we went to the terrace looking for the moon. It is believed that if we see the moon then we no longer fast and Id is the following day. If not, we must fast for another day. Thankfully a little sliver of it was there and we went around congratulating everyone saying Chan Mobarak. The translation being, “Moon Celebrate,” which was very suitable for the occasion. As it was the Eve of Id my Uncle who is a doctor took me and his four year-old son to Mominpura Market. It was a late night occasion and we left to go at 11 p.m. When we made it there it was amazing. There were huge crowds and it was very difficult to go anywhere. The market was on a narrow strip of a street and my Uncle guessed that 20,000 people were there that particular night. We stayed until 2 a.m. and left with it still as crowded as when we arrived. It is impossible to tell what time it is while there, the market never sleeps during this part of the year. I did manage to buy some things. I got a new Kurta-pyjama (traditional dress) and a topi (the religious cap that Muslims wear) to wear at Namaz the following day. While at the market I managed to hear the surrounding people utter, “Ask him where he’s from!” or, “Foreigner” but my favorite one was “Australian!”

On the morning of Id I went with my Host Father and another Uncle to offer Namaz (prayer) at a different part of town. I was dressed in my new Kurta-pyjama and topi and it was impossible to differentiate between me and other Muslims. While they went to prayer I stood on top of some stairs overlooking the congregation and took a video. Their prayers have a certain formula unlike Christians and have been described to be like a low-level yoga. It gives the body a little workout. After greeting my host father’s friends and saying Id Mobarak, “Celebrate Id,” we started to leave for the graveyard where his father is buried. Women aren’t allowed in the graveyard and we were joined by the Muslim version of a priest for a prayer. I was invited along and I said a few words myself and then tossed flowers over his grave. Since I have been wearing Kurta-pyjama my family no longer calls me Michael, they call me Mishael. He was an Angel that brought water. I didn’t mind this for it was much better than being called Michael Jackson.

Later on that evening I left on a 16 hour train ride to the capital city New Delhi. I was going along with my host father and his associates for a case briefing. Instead of going along with them to meet the Secretary General, I went to see some of the tourist sites. The city was full of historic sites. I was lucky enough to see Qutb’s Minar, Huymayun’s Tomb, the India Gate, Parliament and the President’s house. After seeing all the sights I was exhausted. We went back to Gurgaon, known as the Singapore of India where there was McDonalds, KFC, Subway and Pizza Hut. I really missed American food and I never thought KFC would ever taste so good! Overall it was an amazing city and I left very impressed. The entire public transportation and many of the private cars ran of CNG, Compressed Natural Gas. This was very cool. After some questioning I found out that it was even cheaper and gas and cut down much of the city’s emissions to make it the greenest city in India! Coming from the Country that uses the most fossil fuels it was a wakeup call that we needed to change in our energy. No longer will we be the slaves to foreign markets and oil prices. We need to control our own destiny.

December 3 Journal

The month of October sped by very quickly. Tis the Season to be Jolly in India for fall is the holiday season. School was out for most of the month for holidays. So with most of the month free I spent maybe half of the month in other cities outside Nagpur. The month started off with Gandhi Jayanti. This is the birthday of Mahatama Gandhi and is very much like our labor day. Many people don’t work, but this is very ironic because Mahatama Gandhi was the juxtaposition of a lazy man. He shunned laziness. Furthermore, on this day they don’t allow the slaughter of any animals; so everyone doesn’t eat meat whether they are non-veg or veg, Hindu or Muslim.

The main holiday in October is the Hindu New Year called Diwali. This is a very big celebration for Hindus and usually all of the women of the household redecorate and rearrange the house, like spring cleaning. For Diwali my family invited me and two other exchange students along with them to Pachmari. Pachmari is a Hill Station, a Hill Station is a mountainous area where the British went to escape the Indian heat, in the neighboring state of Madhya Pradesh. It was supposed to take around six hours by car, however, with all the tea breaks and the blasting of Bollywood music by my eleven year-old host sister it felt like twelve hours. When we finally got there our luck changed and it was one of the funniest weekends of my life. A number of unforgettable events occurred on our trip varying being attacked by monkeys on a hotel balcony to para-sailing behind an open jeep on a grass airstrip. Luckily none of us were hurt! You always have to remind yourself, “Ye Bharat he!” (This is India) It can always be used as an excuse for something. You never know what will happen next or what opportunity will drop onto your lap.

Right after Pachmari we had a big Rotary event to attend in the neighboring town on Chandrapur. The event was RYLA or in long form Rotary Youth Leadership Awards. Chandrapur is a medium-size industrial town and as we were riding in on the bus we found out that it was very polluted. It’s not like we had a CO2 measuring device, but since it was getting more difficult to breathe and we could see the smog coming from a huge factory we put two and two together. Furthermore, on the first day they took us down into a Coal Mine. What fun! I have heard so many stories of coal mines collapsing in the U.S. India would be the last place where I wanted to visit a coal. After getting suited and booted with a hardhat and a headlamp I felt a little better, however, once we were about 300 meters down all the headlamp did was illuminate all the skull bone signs for not entering and the rickety wooden pillars for support. The rest of RYLA mainly consisted of leadership lectures that somehow always had a religious parallel to a Hindu Epic Story and performances from various groups that were there. There were also many Indian teenagers there who never have seen and spoken to a foreigner before so we were asked by Rotary to “Interact” with them. All of the Exchange Students performed either a song, dance or skit and then afterwards we all ended up dancing! It’s pretty easy to dance with Indians. Basically anything goes, so you just have to let yourself go and move like a crazy man. Ye Bharat he!

Finally, after arriving back in Nagpur I was contacted by my counselor to attend my first Rotary meeting. I’ve already been in India for more than three months, this gives you an example of Indian punctuality. It seems everyone here is on IST, Indian Standard Time. If they say 10 minutes it usually means 30 minutes, I call this the rule of twenty. Now once days are involved it gets a little complex, I haven’t quite figured out a rule yet. However, sometimes things just never get done. You just need to take things in stride and let some things go over you head. Many things won’t make sense to you because you're a foreigner in almost a different world. Hopefully by the end of this year I’ll be able to completely understand this complex culture and take a part of it back home with me.

March 19 Journal

The last few months have been jam-packed and I haven’t been able to keep up with my journal. In December we trained almost everyday for our District Conference which was in the neighboring town of Aurangabad. We learned multiple Bollywood dances, traditional dances, traditional flute and tabla. While we were there we also got to visit the famous Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain cave temples of Ajunta and Ellhora. There are many historical things in India, an Archaeologist’s dreamworld. Once we came back from Aurangabad it marked that we were half-way done with our exchange. Looking back throughout the exchange, time has flown by and continues to do so. We have already visited South India, gotten through the holidays without our family and welcomed in a New Year! So much has happened already! We didn’t have much time to relax until we left for another tour of India.

In early March we left for a joint-trip of North India. First, we were off to the Himalaya. Afterwards, we were to meet up with another tour guide to visit more Northern cities. If you noticed earlier I did not make Himalaya plural. It’s because I was corrected by the Head of Outward Bound’s Branch in India by calling it the Himalayas. It can’t be plural because then it wouldn’t make sense in the native languages. I forgot the exact translation of what it meant but I do remember it was something about snowy peaks, which makes sense.

The first night we got there we had a huge snow storm. It was the first snowfall of the year and snowed continuously for a day. We had huge snow fights and ended us sliding down most of the mountains on the way coming down from hikes. We were in the mountains for two weeks moving between Manali, Manikaran Sahib, and Dhramsala. It was so beautiful. Even though the hikes were exhausting I never got tired. The adrenaline kept getting pumped into my bloodstream. Wherever you looked was amazing. You could see for miles. It was a nice break from the smoggy cities in India. While we were in Dhramhala, where the Tibetan government in exile is located, we were lucky enough to see the Dalai Lama!!! We saw him leave in a caravan with some U.S. officials on his way to meet President Obama. We all had some vague pictures of him waving going by in his car. However, this made China angry and this was big in Indian news for a very long time.

After Dhrampshala our Outward Bound program ended so we ended went to Delhi to meet up with our next tour guide RK. He also was our tour guide on our earlier South tour. The next part of our trip was very hectic, we continued on to Amritsar (the Golden Temple), Rishikash and onto Haridwar (a holy river on the Ganges and which we bathed in during a holy month that only happens once every twelve years when the planets are in certain alignment). Then from there on we continued on to Rajasthan, to Jaipur, Jaisalmer (camping in the desert while on camels), and Jodhpur. After leaving Rajasthan we went to the famous Taj Mahal in Agra then onto Mathura where Krishna was born and the birthplace of Holi, the festival of colors. We planned our trip to be in Mathura for Holi. It was definitely an experience! We continued to Varanasi which is the oldest city in India and dates back to three thousand years ago. On the last leg of the trip we visited Bodhya Gayaji (where Buddha gained enlightenment) and then finally to Kolkata (the old capital of the British).

The trip was amazing and very tiring. When we were done we all went our separate ways back to our own towns and host families. We all needed some rest. You can only get so much sleep on India’s rickety trains. After traveling with our exchange group of nineteen people throughout North and South India we have become a close-knit group of exchange students. It’s amazing to think that I only a little bit more than two months in India.