Serenity Tedesco
2010-11 Outbound to India

Hometown: Largo, Florida
School: St. Petersburg Collegiate High School
Sponsor: Indian Rocks Beach Rotary Club, District 6950, Florida
Host: Jalgaon East Rotary Club, District 3030, India

Serenity's Bio

Hello Everyone! Namaste!

My name is Serenity Tedesco. Mera naam Serenity Tedesco hai. I attend St. Petersburg Collegiate High School and I am currently a senior. My father is Italian-American and my mother is South Korean. I grew up with two very different cultures and I cannot wait to experience another! I am originally from South Korea and lived there until I was nine. We moved to the United States in 2001 to take care of my paternal grandmother who was quite old and lived by herself. I had a difficult time adjusting to American culture at first, but I quickly flourished here. Music has been a passion of mine for quite some time. I play several instruments including the violin, cello, guitar, and bass guitar. I sing as well. I have been fortunate enough to perform with the Patel Conservatory Orchestra at Carnegie Hall in New York and go on a Europe tour with my current orchestra! I am a part of the Pinellas Youth Symphony, Serenade Strings, and Golden Strings Youth Orchestra. I use my musical talent to help others. Almost every Saturday, I teach violin voluntarily to underprivileged children at the High Point YMCA in Clearwater. To me, a life without music wouldn't be a life at all. I am not a student of dance, but I find myself dancing almost everyday. My favorite types of dance are hip-hop, salsa, and bachata. I am almost always the first person to begin dancing on social occasions.

I also recently became very interested in art and have been drawing and painting a lot. I suppose you can say that I like to express myself to the fullest. :) I love animals. I have been a vegetarian most all my life and was even a vegan (a person who eats no animal products whatsoever) for five years. It is a blessing that I am going to India where the culture values the lives of animals more so than most other countries on earth. I have several pets. I have two rescued chihuahua puppies named Taco and Bella, two rescued cockatiels named Melody and Petey, and two rescued cats named Sushi and Tashi. Even though I am an only child, I have a lot of company with my many furry and feathered siblings! I have a number of goals for myself in the future. My current major is communications / T.V. & Radio Broadcasting / journalism. I have always enjoyed working with people, listening to their stories, and discovering new information. However, I would like to go to medical school and become a doctor eventually. I could keep writing about myself endlessly. One page is not enough for you to really know me. I hope that as my journals are posted, it'll become easier to do so.

Thank you Rotary Youth Exchange for such a wonderful and rare opportunity to become a foreign exchange student! I cannot wait to travel to India with its rich history, work ethic, and diversity. I promise that I will not only be a great exchange student, but also be a fabulous Rotary representative and ambassador for our country.

With much love & excitement,

Serenity

sari

sari

brii 142

brii 142

Serenity's Journals

September 26

Namaste! Mei Hindustan pasand hai!

(Hello! I love India!)

It has officially been 9 weeks in India. There have been many ups and downs, but it has been a positive experience thus far. The first week was difficult, but I survived. I feel blessed and fortunate to be in such a culturally rich country. I've already met people that I know will be in my life forever. I have become a part of a joint family of Jain caste with 11 family members. I've been learning two languages- Marathi (Maharashtrian language) and Hindi.

I left for India on July 18th and arrived the next day. I was the first exchange student in Florida to leave. I was nervous and excited about my departure. It was a mixture of so many emotions...an emotion that I think an exchange student would only understand. But, in all honesty, the fact that I was leaving never hit me. I must have been in denial. I arrived in Mumbai after a 15 hour flight from New Jersey. My host mother, father, and two brothers picked me up from the airport. I spent the night in Mumbai visiting my maternal grandfather, grandmother, aunt, uncle, and two cousins. I've had a memorable experience with them since they were some of the first family members that I was introduced to. I ate my first Indian meal there with my hand, drank my first milk tea, and listened to the Indian perspective on America. My uncle told me many stories of ancient temples and Indian technology that has been in this country for 2 thousand years. It is all sooo interesting. He was also a ayurvedic doctor which is quite similar to Tibetan medicine where they can tell what the health problem is just by checking a pulse. My host maternal grandfather was a high circuit court judge. My host aunt was a fashion designer. Although I was there for only one night, I think I made a good impression on them and I learned a lot.

We used a taxi once again to get to the train. This time, my bags remained inside of the car, but the back window was completely blocked. The taxi driver had to stick his head out the window to check behind us. We went over the longest bridge in India! I saw a few pom trees while I was going over it, so it made me think of home. I wasn't home sick at all at this point though. As we got closer and closer to the train station, it seemed like people were starting to take over the roads. The driver had to honk a lot to get them out of our way. Once we got to the train station, we loaded all of our things onto a hauling cart and went down to the platform.

I saw many beggars and people of great poverty. It really broke my heart. Even on the platform, there was a man and a woman who were asking for money. I wanted to help, but everyone was just shooing them away or simply ignoring them. The man had a very distorted and injured hand. The woman didn't seem to have anything injured that was visible, but she had an expression of agony and sadness that was hard to ignore. I also noticed a man who was covered in flies that was trying to sleep on a little piece of concrete where the pillars were. He was so skinny...

Tea is a very popular drink here. I knew that it was because of the influence of the British from when they colonized here in India, but no one can really comprehend it until they actually experience it. There were many tea sellers on the platform who would shout chai and run their finger up and down their row of plastic cups to make noise. I had never seen that before. This would never be found in Florida. There were several that I saw on the platform and on the train to Jalgaon. They were EVERYWHERE.

The ride to Jalgaon was about seven hours, so it was no wonder that my host family decided to use a sleeper train rather than the crowded business one. Here, there were many bunks and chairs that could easily converted into bunks. I tried to stay awake throughout the ride, but I eventually ended up passing out. In no time, I had finally arrived. I was so excited!! We had to gather everything near the exit of the train because apparently, there was only a short amount of time to get off. So we rushed to get all of the bags out of the train. I was soon greeted by some more family members. I was given 5 roses from my maternal grandfather and a warm greeting by another uncle. I soon realized that we had to climb a lot of stairs up from the platform. Just when I was thinking how in the world we were going to carry all the suitcases upstairs, a man came to help us. I thought he was just going to pick up a suitcase or two, but I was wrong. He put a cloth on his head and put all four HUGE suitcases on his head and preceded to climb the stairs. This was totally normal for everyone around me, but I was in shock. That must be HORRIBLE for the joints and the back.

My initial reaction to Jalgaon was of wonder. I saw the market lights in the night and the busy bustling of many many people. The streets were full of people walking around, motorcycles, rickshaws, and bicycles. The house that I was supposed to live in during my stay was hug and was decorated in a pretty pink color with winding stairs. My house is fantastic. My room was pretty big as well with a bed that was twice my old one in the states. My grandmother welcomed me the traditional Indian way by blessing me and presenting me with a rose and a pearl necklace. She then applied cuncun (religious red pigment powder) on my forehead.

I started dance class! It's a classical Indian dance form called Kathak. It involves a lot of stomping because rhythm and beat is an essential part of it. I found it so interesting because all the dance classes that I had taken in the past was always drilling me to stay quiet on the floor. This was completely different from all of the training that I had before. It was almost liberating to make so much noise while dancing. It was kind of awkward a little bit because I was taking the class with host mother and a bunch of tiny little girls. I felt like a grandma compared to these little children...I wonder what my host mother felt like. I think she is really brave to take on dance without the fear of embarrassment. She told me that it had always been her dream to dance and it made me feel really good that I was going to be a part of her accomplishing that dream. Awesome. I'm sure that her and I will become excellent at dance as long as we continue to practice our “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8” stomping steps.

I've also taken part of many cultural activities such as friendship day and Raksha Bunden, where sisters all over India tie a bracelet on their brother's wrists in exchange for protection and gifts. It is an ancient Indian tradition that my family celebrates with great enthusiasm and togetherness. My host mother took me to a procession for a Guru that was passing by the town square. People were dancing in the streets, playing loud drums, singing, and throwing flowers into the air. The most recent festival was Gunpati that just ended on the 22nd. I also had a chance to celebrate Maha Lakshmi and wear my first sari in Nashik with a great exchange friend, Olivia, and her family. I attended many poojas (hindu religious ceremony). The men were playing loud drums and throwing pink powder pigments at one another. There are so many festivals here in India that school is out almost every other day. During my trip to Nashik, I got to experience my first Indian mall. It was no different from any mall in the states.

I visited the cotton and plastics factory that my family owns. My host brother, Vedant, showed me around and explained to me the process of cleaning, ginning, pressing, manufacturing, and sale of cotton. I was really excited to finally go to the place that I had seen so many pictures of. He showed me our farm named Rajuri which is about four km away from the factory. There were many cotton, sweet lime, and lemon plants. My brother stole my camera and took many pictures of the plants, the nearby river, and the cows. I had my fortune told by a family friend during my visit to the factory. He was a palm reader and psychic. I actually quite shocked by the accuracy of his reading. He was accurate about my house structure and near by landmarks like a hospital across the street, a post office, a calling center, flower shop, bridge, and two tall trees. He gave me advice about career, schooling, and life decisions. He also went into great detail about my future husband. He said that my husband will most likely be a engineer who would provide me with a very luxurious and smooth life. The palm reader also told me that my husband was going to be of a different decent and that he would be my mother's friend's son. Some of things he said wasn't exactly accurate. For example, he said that I had a birthmark on my right side back...not true. Even still, I was surprised by how many things he got accurate and it got me thinking about the legitimacy of palm reading. I think everything he had to say was a good guide to life and it gave me much comfort that I will be successful. I really hope he is right. It was an exhausting trip, but it was worth the sweating.

After much waiting, I finally got to go visit the Ajanta caves! We had planned to ride the bus. Two very funny things happened while waiting at the bus station. 1: I was spacing out and I almost got knocked over by a passing bus that was literally less than an inch away from me. The only reason why I avoided it was because Brii snatched me out of the way. I laughed so much that I think every single Indian was looking at me. Oh well. They look anyways. 2: I had to use the bathroom...unfortunately. I had never experienced a bathroom so disgusting as that one. Everyone warned me that it was gross...they weren't lying. I could smell the bathroom from almost 12 feet away! I held my breath and walked inside a swamp...I swear. There was water all over the floor. The bus on the way to the caves was fairly new and not as raggedy as the other ones. It was a fun ride full of taking pictures and flying around because the road was so bumpy. I ended up hurting myself while I was being thrown around on my foot. I didn't even realize that I hurt myself until I looked down and I saw blood. One of my Indian friends, Prakash, gave me a handkerchief to wrap around my injured foot.

We arrived at our destination before I knew it. It was supposed to be a two hour ride, but it didn't feel like it at all! We had to take another bus to the actual location of the caves Once we got there, we had south Indian food for breakfast and began climbing up the mountain to see the caves. I was so excited! We spend a lot time in the first cave taking pictures and soaking in the peaceful environment. The Ajanta Caves were carved from one stone in his mountain and was hidden for quite some time until a British explorer who was originally there to kill tigers found the first cave entrance. I couldn't believe all of the detail that went into each pillar, each image, and each statue. I can't even image the work and effort it took for people to make such a magnificent structure without the use of cranes or any other construction equipment.

I feel like I have become closer and closer to my host brothers. It was pretty awkward at first, but now we are able to joke around with one another, sit right next to each other, and have casual conversation without making it feel forced. I spent hours in my two older host brothers' bedroom having the time of our lives. They practiced magic tricks on me, asked many questions, and showed me several different types of Indian dances. I even showed them the “jerk”, “get silly”, and the heel-toe steps that were popular in the states. We watched the music video for waka waka by Shakira and learned a lot about each other. I feel less intimidated by them and I can honestly say that I am truly developing a love for everyone in this family. My host brothers told me something very important yesterday. Family is forever and family is always caring unconditionally. The love that I see between these people here is so different from what I am used to. It is unbelievable to me how these people are accepting me into the family as if I was actually born into it. Their kindness is inspiring.

Currently, the days in India are becoming more and more casual and normal. I feel very at home here, but I feel frustrated by the lack of things to do in my free time. Jalgaon is a very small town. It's a good thing that I've kept myself quite busy with Mendhi, Kathak dance, and folk dance classes. I hope to begin music, yoga, and language classes soon. School has been keeping me quite occupied as well.

I feel like I am slowly getting away from the honeymoon phase that Rotary orientations have taught us so well. I cannot be too sure though. It still hasn't really hit me that I will be living here for a year. It already feels as if I have been here for quite some time, but in reality, my two month mark has just passed.

I keep thinking, “why was I ever so afraid that I was going to India?” I realize everyday that I am here that there is nothing to fear when it comes to different cultures and people. In the end, no matter how different people may appear to be, we all have one thing in common. We are people. I feel so lucky to have this experience to have realized this. I would like to thank Rotary Youth Exchange, Rotary club of Indian Rocks Beach, and Rotary club of Jalgaon East for this great opportunity.

January 5

October Journal

There have been religious conflicts all throughout India from the beginning of this month. Hindu-Muslim relations have continued to be tense although things have improved over time. A controversy took place in Allahabad, a historically religious location for both Hindus and Muslims. The Ayodhya case was brought to the high courts of India to determine whether the Hindus or Muslims controlled the land. Religion is a daily part of almost every Indian's personal life unlike in the more secular United States. Any political case involving religion on a national scale has the potential to be extremely dangerous and violent. Many Indians were afraid that the outcome of the case would lead to train bombings and fighting in the streets. On the day that the court decision was to be announced, everyone in India was frozen in high anxiety. I wasn't allowed to leave home for any reason. All stores were closed. All schools and colleges were closed. People were discouraged from traveling. The government blocked texting on cellphones. At this time I was reminded that I was in a country far, far away from home. After sixty years of waiting, the verdict was finally published. In short, it stated that the disputed land would be divided into three parts. Two thirds to the Hindus and one third to the Muslims. For more information, you can check out this link: http://www.ndtv.com/article/india/ayodhya-verdict-allahabad-high-court-says-divide-land-in-3-ways-56063 

I lived in the city of Nashik once again with my exchange friend, Olivia, and her wonderful host family during this month. It has been very interesting for me because the Bele family is of a different caste. I had been staying with a Marwadi Jain family in Jalgaon, but this family was Marathi Brahmin. Marathi people have lived in the state of Maharashtra for generations and generations. Brahmins are the most religious Hindu caste. I experienced different types of religious ceremonies, customs, and lifestyle. There were many special rules that I had to follow while living in Nashik. I was required to bathe every morning before entering the kitchen or participating in religious ceremonies, brush my teeth before I was allowed to drink chai (tea) and eat breakfast, and keep my room clean and neat because they believed that God entered the home. I was able to attend the engagement ceremony of the Kathak dance teacher. It was a special experience in itself because it was an inter-caste marriage between Gujarati Brahmins and Maharashtrian Brahmins. I am thrilled to see how the different sub-cultures of India come together.

I had the great opportunity to climb the Anjaneri Mountain Range with Olivia and her arts class at HPT college. It is the birth place of Lord Hanuman (the monkey god) of the Hindus in Nashik. I was advised to wear simple Punjabi dress because bright colors attract and infuriate the many monkeys that live there. I have never climbed such a rough and harsh mountain before in my life. We climbed and climbed from early morning till late afternoon. The Indian classmates helped me all along the way by giving me their hand to hold and helping me up when I fell down...which was quite often. There was no actual pathway up the mountain. There was only a ledge and a side of the mountain to grasp for balance. However, the hard physical labor was well worth it. The view from such great height over the city was breathtaking and simply mind-blowing. At the very top of the mountain were fields of yellow flowers and a very old and auspicious temple in the honor of Lord Hanuman. It was so small that I even had to duck down to enter it. (I'm 5'1”) The strangest event occurred when I entered the temple with the other classmates. Two women came inside the entrance in a frenzied trance and started flailing about while shouting very fast Marathi. There was hair, sweat, and tears flying all about these two women. The other Indians stared in shock as much as I did. I almost wanted to laugh in disbelief...but of course I didn't. That would have been extremely disrespectful. How are you supposed to act in such a situation? There was no preparation for this in the Rotary Youth Exchange orientations. The classmates pushed me to leave the temple asap before the ladies continued on with their trance-like prayer around the idol. The problem was that there wasn't enough room to pass them without getting hit by their dramatic and powerful body movements. They were still at the entrance. I had to swiftly jump around them when one of the ladies began to bang her fists into the floor. I have never experienced anything like this before in my life. I realized once again that although India has problems with poverty and corruption, it is truly an amazing country with great potential because of these very devout, hard-working people.

Festival season continued on with Navaratri and Dandiya, a celebration lasting a few days full of dancing and great fun that originates from the state of Gujurat. I participated in the festivities on a few occasions. One major event was sponsored by a Rotary Club that was full of fun and dancing. The other was an event organized by dance groups in Nashik. I took a class in Jalgaon for one day before the actual holiday, so that I could participate with some skill. The dance involves choreography striking of two sticks together or clapping hands with one or more partners in the rhythm of Garba music while moving around in a circle. I really enjoy the festivals in India...they are like none other in the world. There is one last festival coming up that I am very excited about. It is called Diwali, Divali, or Deepavali depending on a person's preference. It the the largest holiday full of fireworks, dancing in the streets, colors, and parties. It also represents the new year for the Hindu people.

I was proposed to this month as well. Many Indians my age have secret boyfriends or girlfriends unknown to their parents because arranged marriages are still the norm in India. These relationships develop very quickly and a marriage proposal instead of initial dating is quite common. I met this particular Indian boy twice before he proposed to me over the phone. He dedicated the song “Beautiful” by Akon in my honor (Indians LOVE Akon. I have no idea why.) and told me that he wanted to claim me as his own from the moment that he met me. He also said this: “You're not beautiful like the Indian girls, but I like you.” and “You need to lose weight, but you're different.” and the most charmingly “You make me feel like a monkey. I want to climb trees all around you.” You may guess what my reply to his proposal was!

All in all, my exchange experience so far has been full of memorable events and growing experiences. I have been challenged to deal with many difficult situations. I have had to contend with rickshaw drivers who try to rip me off because I'm a foreigner, constant staring, creepy men, and myriad unpleasantries. Women in India are restricted in many ways as well. It has been frustrating and emotionally draining at times. Nevertheless, I feel that these months here have been worth every moment. I feel like I have become stronger, more street smart, and more confident in my decisions. So much has already happened to me here...I cannot wait to see what the future brings. I'm ready for anything, I think.

January 15

November-December Journal

Keeping a journal has been increasingly more and more difficult...especially this month of November. There simply has been no time for me to write down everything that has happened. In the beginning of the month, India celebrated Diwali, the festival of lights, which marks the new year. The sky was full of fireworks and explosive blasts all hours of the night and day. The houses were cleaned spotless because it is believed Bhagavan (God) would enter everyone's home. Students studying away from home would return and spend quality family time. Gifts were exchanged between the elders and the children. I personally received four traditional Indian dresses from my host family here. There was rangoli, color sand art, at the entrance of every home to welcome the Gods and other guests. Pooja (religious worship) was constant with the aid of Gurus. There were candles in every room and the main entrance. During this time, people purchased many personal items like clothing, shoes, and household items because it was the most auspicious time of the year. My family in Nashik bought many things including a brand new VW Vento for Aai (mother in Marathi). Picking up the car from the dealership was an experience in itself. There was a special Pooja specifically for the car, so that it would carry good luck and be protected from accidents. There were flowers, concon (religious pigment), and confetti all over the car by the time we left.

The festival of Diwali lasted for several days with a different tradition for each day. The most memorable day of Diwali occurred on the second to last day of the festival. Everyone in the family including extended members got up very very early to meet at Gori Aunty's home for a very special ceremony. We were allowed to take a bath because everyone was to take one there. All the men in the family wore just shorts, underwear, or lungi's (wrap around the hips) and sat one by one on the floor. All of the women and the young boys in the family would then rub and massage the bodies of the men with coconut oil and rose water. My initial thought when I first heard that I was rub down my host father, uncles, brothers, and grandfather's body with oil was.... ”Ahh! How terribly awkward!”, but it wasn't the case at all. It was a very natural and loving display of family love and to show appreciation for all of the hard work the men go through in their daily lives. Unfortunately for the men, there was a very funny tradition in my host family where the women and children would secretly attack whoever that was taking a bath after the oil rubbing with ice water, mud, pigmented water, spices, and toothpaste. At the end of the whole ceremony, I was completely covered with all of this stuff from head to toe because a mud throwing fight erupted. It was the most fun that I have ever had with my host family. It is a memory that I will cherish forever.

On the 15th of November, I traveled to Nagpur along with two other exchange students, Olivia and Brii in order to leave for the south tour of India. I traveled back to Jalgaon to pack up my things for the tour only a day after Diwali. Although there had been an orientation with all of the exchange students at the beginning of our Rotary exchange, I didn't get a chance to know them well, so I was very excited and nervous. Another Rotary District with new exchange students from Indore and Bopaul was to join us as well. The south tour lasted for twenty-five days with the aid of the travel guide, RK, with whom all of the exchange students became very close. We traveled to Hydrabad, Chennai, Mahabalipuram, Kanchipuram, Banglore, Hassan, Mysore, Ooty, Coimbatore, Munnar, Thakkadi, Allappy, Trivandrum, Kanyakumari, Kovalam, Cochin, the state of Goa, and Mumbai. Everyone met at a highway restaurant and had dinner together. We all introduced ourselves and tried to get to know each other better. It was a bit awkward at first, but people began to loosen up during the sleeper bus journey to Hydrabad which lasted about nineteen and a half hours. A group of us formed the “Brown Club” the very first night. It included exchange students Nisha, Olivia, Sebastian, Afreen, and me. We were able to get discount tickets because we were able to pass as Indians!

During our stay in Hyderabad, we toured the ancient Golkunda Fort and saw a light and sound show that was narrated by a legend Bollywood film, the actor Amitabh Bacchan. The next day, we all traveled to Chennai to visit the very famous Ramoji Film City where many Tallywood (south Indian film industry) movies are made. We saw many stunt shows, dance dramas, hip-hop dance performances, and a demonstration of how films were made. We walked around many gardens and facsimiles of the Taj Mahal and other historic architecture. It was an absolute blast.

The next city on our agenda was Mahabalipuram which happened to be one of the most relaxing places we visited on the south tour. We visited a few ancient shore temples and monuments, but mostly spent time enjoying the beach. It was a a very cute city with many small shops full of tourist items and restaurants. We attempted to build a fire one night (with reasonable success) with the help of our tour guide. We played games like red rover and danced a lot. There was a little bit of tension at the end of the night because some very drunk local people claimed that we burned pieces of the boat that they were building. It wasn't true. Everything got sorted out in the morning and we continued on to Kanchipuram where we visited a silk sari factory. It was very interesting to see how each sari was hand made with looms and how silk was extracted from butterflies. We all then returned to Chennai to catch the train to the city of Bangalore. After breakfast, RK took us to the Banargatta National Park where we went on a wildlife ride to see lions, tigers, boars, bears, monkeys, and deer and the Iskcon temple (Hare Krishna, hare Krishna!).

The night of the same day we went on to the city of Hassan where I got very sick and was unable to visit the very famous temple which holds the largest monolithic statue of Prince Bahubali, a Jain saint. I had the worst stomach pains and was unable to move. Many of the other exchange students began to fall ill during the south tour because of the constant traveling and eating “outside food” that not all of us could digest properly. I recovered very quickly, however, and continued to travel to Mysore known as “the city of palaces”. We toured the Tipus Summer Palace, Maharaja Palace and museum, another silk emporium, Chamunda Devi Temple, and the St. Philomenas Church. It was a very busy day to say the least.

The next day, we arrived in Ooty, a city that is up top of a mountain. It was quite cold and I regretted not packing a jacket. Our hotel had views that were beyond spectacular. It was located at a hill station that overlooked the entire city and the beautiful landscape all around. We stayed in Ooty for two nights. One of the nights we walked all around the city and built a massive bonfire with blasting Bollywood music. We danced a lot and cuddled together for warmth around the fire. Some of the exchange students and I talked all night long and ended up falling asleep all together. We were becoming very close to each other and we developed a very strong sense of family. After Ooty, we all traveled by bus to Coimbatore. We spent the day at Black Thunder Water and Amusement Park and ate lunch there. Some of us were concerned that we couldn't swim because we didn't have bathing suits, but this concern disappeared when we saw all of the Indian girls and ladies swimming and going on water rides in full Salvar/Punjabi dress. Only the men had on swim wear. Overall, it was a lot of fun, but many of the girls felt extremely uncomfortable and almost violated by the Indian boys that would follow us, stare at us non-stop, and try to get close to us while swimming. It was an exhausting day for all of us after so much traveling and physical activity.

The next day, we traveled seven hours by bus to the Chinner Wildlife Sanctuary. We saw many alligators, crocodiles, and other exotic species. I fell sick once again that day and missed jungle trek and elephant rides. We then departed to Munnar and arrived very late. We were back on the bus after morning breakfast on a scenic view of mountains, tea plantations, the Mattupattu Dam, and Eco Point. We also visited a tea museum and the Rajmala Sanctuary which is the topmost point in all of south India. The views were absolutely spectacular there. We were above the clouds and other mountain points.

The next city was Thakkadi. We took the “best scenic road” in the state of Kerala. We saw beautiful valleys, rivers, waterfalls, fields of tea, and mountains. The city of Thakkadi is very famous for its spices. We walked all around town and went to a performance of a traditional Kerala dance form called Kathakali. It was a style of dance that I have never seen before. Its most unique feature was its great emphasis on the facial muscles and display of emotion. It was a beautiful dance that was full of drama, intense drumming, and singing. The costumes were very ornate festooned with jewels, colored fabrics, intricate hats, and full face makeup. Later that night, most of the exchange students received the world famous full body Ayur Vedic massage for one hour. Our tour guide was not joking with us when he said “full body.” I had to take off all of my clothing including undergarments for this massage. I was then rubbed from head to toe with warm oil all over my body...ALL over my body. There wasn't a part of my body that wasn't completely drenched in oil from this massage. I couldn't help but laugh in surprise. It was uncomfortable at first, but as time passed, it became more and more relaxing. After so much non-stop activity, it felt great to relax. It was an out-of-the-ordinary massage for us foreigners, but it was quite lovely.

The next stop in the south tour was Allappy. It was one of my favorite stops. We lived on a house boat on the backwaters for the night! The houseboat was equipped with rooms, showers, toilets, furniture beds, and every accommodation we could possibly need. The chefs on board made traditional Kerala foods for us along with fresh fruits. It was so delicious! We spent the night playing loud music, dancing, talking, and lounging. It was sad to leave the boat in the morning because all of us wanted to stay there longer. We toured a museum & art gallery, Travancore Palace, and Sachindrum Temple on the way to our night hotel in Kanyakumari.

I got sick once again on the bus on our way to Kanyakumari. Our hotel looked over Cape Cormoral where the Indian Ocean, the Bay of Bengal, and the Arabian Sea joined together. It is the southernmost point of India. After lunch, we departed for the world famous beach in Kovalam. It was a fairly secluded beach that was full of foreigners. There were many people there who traveled to India to study yoga. Just like Mahabalipuram, the street by the beach was full of little tourist shops and restaurants. There were many foreigners who were wearing bikinis which came as quite a shock after living in very conservative India for five months. I had to catch myself from staring along with the few passing Indian men. My day was full of shopping and walking along the shore. The next day, we departed to Cochin. During our stay in Cochin, we saw local fishermen using ancient Chinese fishing nets, visited the St. Francis Church at Fort Cochi, and the Dutch Palace at Mattanjary. While touring the Palace at Mattanjary, we ran into another Rotary district that was on their south tour as well...it just so happened to the same district as Sierra Arnold, another RYEFL student! It was great to see someone from Florida! It was the perfect pick-me-up before traveling to GOA!!! The state in India that we all had been anticipating to visit. Goa is the vacation/party state of India where many foreigners visit. It the place that hosts many famous DJs such as DJ Tiesto to perform at their yearly techno music festivals. As soon as we arrived in Goa, we were on our way to the beaches. It didn't feel like we were in India anymore. The streets were full of foreigners...mostly Russians. There were so many Russians that the Indians were speaking Russian and there was Russian on signs along with Hindi. The first night, we went to the disco! It was the first time that all of us had ever went to a dance club in India. We danced all night long to a fusion of American and Bollywood music. I even got the opportunity to meet up with a friend from Nashik that just happened to be in Goa at the same time by chance. It was great fun and the perfect opportunity to let out all of the suppressed energy from the past few months of Indian exchange where girls aren't allowed to dance freely in a party environment.

On December 7th, we all sadly had to leave Goa. Our south tour was coming to an end with our last stop in Mumbai. We spent the day roaming the streets, shopping, eating, and visiting the Gateway to India. We had to give our sad goodbyes to everyone that joined the tour from other districts. The south tour was the break I needed. It was good to be able “to be myself” around other people rather than constantly worrying and guarding my behavior to please my Indian counterparts. It was the best of Indian exchange by far and I feel like I have made true lifelong friends.

Although south tour had ended, there still was no free time. All of the exchange students in District 3030 arrived in Nagpur on December 9th to prepare for the Rotary District Conference performances in front of 1500 Rotarians. We were to prepare several dance and musical numbers along with a demonstration of our knowledge of yoga by the 25th- Christmas. Rehearsals did not begin right away which made us anxious. The teachers took four days to plan and arrange instruments. I didn't have a host family for those four days, so I slept at a different exchange student's home each night. When the rehearsals began, they lasted all day long. The yoga rehearsal began at twelve in the afternoon and lasted for three hours. The dance rehearsal was right after yoga until six or seven. The music rehearsal came last and ended around eight at night.

Some exchange students did not have to rehearse the whole time because they did not have music or very difficult dances to learn. I, however, was involved in two of the most difficult dance styles, Kathak & Maharastrian, and was given the task of performing the Indian National Anthem on the violin by myself. Rehearsals occupied most of the time during my stay in Nagpur. When I did get free time, I would go out to eat pani puri, sev puri, and Indian Chinese, visit coffee shops, or go Christmas shopping for secret Santa between the exchange students. Brii and I worked very hard and finally got some of the Indore district exchange students to come for the conference as well!

The man that hosted during most of my stay in Nagpur became another father to me. Mr. Sontake treated me as if I was his own daughter and we became very close within a matter of days. We used to stay up till two in the morning talking about life and sharing ideas. One day, I became very ill again, suddenly and dramatically. I couldn't attend rehearsals. I began vomiting non-stop. I was very nauseous and couldn't even stand the smell of food. Papa Sontake and Olivia took very good care of me the whole day and brought me medicine and green tea. He even tucked me into bed just like my real father did when I was little. It's simply amazing just how many heart to heart connections are made during exchange.

Everyone began to feel very homesick as Christmas day got closer and closer. Indians generally don't celebrate Christmas because Christianity is not the most prominent religion of this country. Many of the exchange students and I got together and planned to attend a Christmas party and Midnight Mass at the Anglican Church on Christmas Eve. It was a very emotional night to say the least. We sang Christmas carols during the car ride to the party and church. We wore our best attire and ate Christmas treats that some of the exchange students' parents had sent from their home countries. Many of the girls began to cry during the mass. We shared many long hugs and became even closer than we already had been. We all spent the night in one room at Jagdish and Pooja Khatri's home who is the Rotary Youth Exchange District Head & Councilor. We stayed up all night eating junk food, crying, making human piles, throwing dolls and pillows at each other, and sharing our family traditions back home. We went home at seven in the morning to get ready and head to the district conference. It was finally the day to perform and show off our hard work. On the way, we shared our secret Santa gifts. It didn't look very much like Christmas, but the Christmas spirit was definitely visible. I cried on the bus when I received my gift. My secret Santa was Sebastian, the Colombian exchange student, who had become my closest friend during the south tour. He gave me a beautiful printed portrait of me that he took on the houseboat (Sebastian is a photographer.) with a letter written on the back along with candy and seven music CDs! Some of it was written it English, but most of it was written in Spanish because he felt more comfortable expressing himself in his first language. It was the best gift that I had ever received in my whole life.

It was hectic as soon as we arrived at the grounds for the conference. We had to finish our lunch quickly and immediately get ready for the performances. I was given the duty of putting makeup on all of the exchange students along with Olivia. We had to prepare for our wardrobe changes, get dressed, do our hair, and put on layers and layers of jewelry. I also had to tune the violin and practice just to make sure it was perfect. Before we knew it, it was time for us to perform. We had to rush into the car with instruments, costumes, makeup, and props for the stage. Everyone was stressed and full of adrenaline. I was first to perform Kathak with a few other exchange students. After I got off the stage, I realized that I left the violin where we had been preparing all day long. I quickly went into wardrobe change into the Maharastrian costume and cheered on the other exchange students. My violin was brought to me. Our performance was better and smoother than we imagined it would be. Our Maharastrian performance was such a hit that we not only received a standing ovation, but were also asked to do an encore! We even performed our yoga demonstration with great success, even though there were a few mistakes. It was finally time for me to play Jaana Gaana Manna, the Indian National Anthem. When I opened the violin case, I found my shoulder rest broken. This may not mean anything to those who don't play violin, but believe me...it's a big deal. I somehow managed to use the broken shoulder rest anyway and perform.

Everyday, I am thankful for my Rotary Club India Exchange. I am experiencing things that many people in America or even the world, have not had the opportunity to see. I can tell that these experiences are shaping me into a kinder, wiser, and more knowledgeable person. These positive changes in my life are preparing me for the life ahead. It takes a certain type of person to successfully complete an India exchange program. The person has to be open to new ideas that are completely different from Western thought. The person has to be curious and interested to go out and actively be a part of the culture. The person can't allow negative experiences to undermine their desire to learn. Being an exchange student in India is challenging...but I know that it is worth it in every way.