Sierra Arnold
2010-11 Outbound to India

Hometown: Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida
School: Douglas Anderson School of the Arts
Sponsor: Ponte Vedra Sunset Rotary Club, District 6970, Florida
Host: Baroda Rotary Club, District 3060, India

Sierra's Bio

Namaste (or Hello in Hindi)! Hey, I’m Sierra Arnold, and I live in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. I’m a 14-year-old freshman at Douglas Anderson School of the Arts. I’m a theatre major and I love it. One of my many goals in life is to help people. I’ve had many experiences which allow me to do so, including building houses in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina and working with the Salvation Army in Washington D.C. to feed homeless people. I am currently undecided on where I would like to go to college, but I always feel I want to do something influential, which would allow me to help people.

All of my friends say that I’m an extremely outgoing person. I’m best known for being the one who fills the room if there’s silence, often with laughter. I guess you could say it’s my sunny outlook on life that makes me this way. I love to experience new things, go new places and meet new people, and it seems Rotary is a great opportunity to do so.

In my spare time I take drama and dance classes. I’m active in my church’s youth group. I used to play lacrosse and swim, but since DA is an arts school, we don’t have sports.

I want to be a foreign exchange student because of the amazing experience I know I will have. I am most excited about learning about the culture, diversity and history of India! Once I found out I was going to India, I was ecstatic! While others… a little bit concerned. Most people first think about the poverty in India, but I think about the richness of the culture and knowledge that lies there. Besides, if helping people is something I love to do, it seems like this is a perfect place to go! I can’t wait for this experience of a lifetime and the process that comes with it! Many thanks to everyone who made all of this possible.

Sierra's Journals

August 4

It's almost been a week since I departed for my year long adventure in India.

My first extremely frightening experience happened when I got off the plane in Delhi.

Everything was fine through the passport/visa check but it took a whole hour for my bag to come in! Then once I was through customs/immigration, I had to get to the Domestic terminal from the international terminal, and oh boy was that a mess. There weren’t any signs, so I was trying to ask people- and of course no one spoke English. Eventually someone managed to tell me I had to get a taxi to the domestic flights terminal, which was practically on the other side of Delhi! (or maybe it seemed like it to me because I was panicked the whole time!) So I hopped in a taxi and tried to explain to the driver that I need to get to the domestic flight terminal. Luckily, ‘domestic’ is similar in hindi- ‘domestica’. Then once we pulled up I realized that in my rush I hadn’t gotten any rupees yet! So I apologized as much as I could and wayyyyy over paid him in American money.

It was a little bit smoother sailing from then on. My boarding pass had already been printed in New York, since it was the same airline as my international flight. I had to get my suitcase security checked, and then re-check it onto my flight to Vadodara (which I figured out how to pronounce by the way!). There was a very nice guy who helped me do so, but then he wanted a tip so I had take more time to go exchange $10 into Rs. 400. And I know the guy at the foreign exchange counter took a lot of my rupees because the exchange rate is 48 rupees per dollar. So I gave the guy some rupees and then went through security. I also had a little bit of trouble there because apparently, you cant bring batteries on the flight?! And the guys didn’t know the English word ‘batteries’ so he had to take some out to show to me. I then showed him they went in my camera and he was nice enough to let me keep them.

I would have never made my flight through all of that mess if it wasn’t delayed an hour! So since it was delayed, I used a pay phone to call my host family and tell them. However, I couldn’t figure out how to pay for the pay phone! It basically just looks like a phone and is called AirTele and you dial your number and place your call and when your done a little receipt is printed out to tell you how much you owe, but not where to pay it! One last confusing thing at the airport was that in the domestic flights terminal, it has six ‘gates’, which are actually just doors that lead you to a bus that takes you to your plane. That wasn’t the tough part though, the tough part was that you don’t know which gate you are til the bus pulls up, and you have to wait for an announcement to tell you which gate is your bus. Or, you can watch the monitors, which is easier except they're extremely inaccurate!

So once I finally got on the bus, I could relax. And I also ended up talking to some nice men who knew my host father! (oh I forgot to mention, on my flight from New York to Delhi, there was a lady next to me from Canada who recognized my rotary blazer and told me she was a rye student to new Zealand about 20 years ago! ) Once I got to the Vadodara airport, it was very easy, seeing as it was a small airport. Another bus picked us up and took us directly from baggage claim which led straight to the parking lot, where my host parents were waiting. Our driver was with them and he kindly took my bags and put them in the car. Driving back from the airport was AMAZING! I’ve always complained about how Ponte Vedra really has no town, but Vadodara is a huge city! My host parents pointed out things on the way and we almost hit a few wild dogs and COWS! The cows were everywhere it was awesome! And they don’t look like regular American dairy cows. These cows have horns and aren’t fat at all! And they aren’t grazing in the grass, either. They're standing in the middle of the road. Also, I think we're in monsoon season because the sky is always cloudy and everything is wet! That doesn’t mean its not hot though! Every room in the house has at least two fans and an air conditioner plus lots of windows.

Oh! Driving in India, Lesson 101: EVERYONE HONKS! Its just a thing they do, to let people know they’re merging or turning or to let people know they're passing or who knows! Just to honk maybe! Also, they drive on the left side of the road, and sit on the right side of the car, just like the UK! When we got to the house, I was introduced to the family. They have two dogs, whos names I can pronounce but cant write! One is a fourteen year old male and has some kind of stomach cancer but is not in pain, for what we know. The other is a young female, oh they're both labs, she's a tan lab and he's a black lab. She’s in heat right now. Another thing that’s different between America and India is that when a female dog is in heat, they try to get her mated. I have no clue why, that’s just how it is. So then I have my host sister, Ayan, who went on exchange to France a few years back. She is currently in college in the city. Then there is another girl, who is my host brother, Rajiv’s fiancée. I am staying in Rajivs room because he is in Ireland working on a medical thing right now. Then there are three other medical students staying with us. One is from Sweden, and went to Michigan on exchange (not RYE) and another is from Calcutta. The last one I haven’t even met yet because he’s been asleep the whole time I've been here! They work the night shifts at the hospital so they sleep during the day.

We also have servants. I cant tell you their names because they only speak Gujarat. My host family however, speaks English all of the time except when speaking to the servants or people on the telephone. I know there are two women who cook, another who cleans, a driver, and maybe two boys how do housework and other things? Also one of the women has a son who is adorable! But I haven’t gotten to say hello or anything and Ive only seen him walking around.

Last night my host mom was very kind and had the cooks prepare what they thought was an American meal! We had macaroni and cheese- the most delicious you’ve ever tasted because its barely mac and cheese! Its basically pasta with a cream sauce and potatoes, carrots and peas. After dinner & chatting, they took me upstairs to use a phone that they have to call my parents! Its actually very cool because its an American number and linked to their internet. It’s a 732 number (New Jersey) and I think that is because one of my host moms aunts lives in new jersey. Then I went back downstairs to my room and went to sleep!

This morning I woke up around 7:30. I would definitely have slept longer but I think sleeping on the plane threw me off! So I walked around and couldn’t find anyone except the servants so I went outside in the courtyard for a little bit with the dogs. The plants are beautiful here, everything is a very luscious green shade! Then I decided to go back to bed. My host father knocked on my door around 10, so I woke back up. He told me that one of the servants had said I was awake, and that I didn’t see them because they were all in yoga which takes place from 7-8 every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, and I am welcome to join them. We had a quick breakfast which I managed to eat, breakfast in India isn’t spicy! However, there were many traditional India breakfast dishes that I kept trying I eventually got full without finishing any of it! Also, I found out that Chai literally means hot tea. So in America when people drink iced chai, they are extremely incorrect. I felt terrible, but I couldn’t finish it because it was so hot every time I tried to drink some I burnt my tongue! For about the next hour and a half my host mom and I sat in a sort of family area and talked, and then I went with Ayan to take the female dog to the vet to get her shots before they could mate her! She is really nice, and we talked a lot about her exchange in France. When we came back, she suggested I take a nap before lunch because she could tell I was starting to get tired. So I did! Then she woke me up and we went to her parents room (which is basically another family room were everyone sits and watches tv) and watched a really cool new show on FX called the Listener. Then we went down to lunch. I was so proud of myself, I actually managed with the Indian spices! The rice and chipati ( I doubt I spelled that right but its like a thinner form of naan) definitely helped dull down the spice a little bit. But again, I wanted to try everything so I took too much! Also, after each meal we have yogurt. They compared it to a Greek yogurt but it was really different, as im supposed to say. My host father told me that its home made. The Swedish boy was at lunch with us because they were back from the hospital, but the other two were sleeping. Actually, hes from Sweden, but is oriental.

After lunch, Ayan, the Swedish boy ( who’s name I cant spell) and I all went upstairs back to the tv room, as im now going to call it, to watch Death at a funeral, the British version, not the American. And it was hilarious! Also, while talking with my host mom, I found out a little bit about my school. I have to wear a uniform. Also, on my papers it said I was submitted to Arts, as opposed to science, which is taught mostly in gujarati, while arts is in English. Also, other exchange students who have gone to the mothers school have been in arts, so many of the teachers are familiar with how to deal with us! That’s actually not arts as in Douglas Anderson, but arts as in philosophy, psychology, and Hindi. I get to choose which classes I take though, and I definitely plan on taking Hindi as one of my subjects. School started in June, so I will go starting Monday!

Around nine o'clock we went to some friends house for dinner. It was a lot of fun. First we sat outside and talked and then we went inside for the meal. This meal was a bit more spicy. I'm going to take a shower then go to bed!

Wednesday Evening: 6:15 PM.

I had my first two days of school yesterday and today! School isn’t too bad here, and my favorite subjects so far are sociology and psychology, both taught by my favorite teacher. In those two classes, there are only 6 of us, which is better for me. Other classes I am taking are economics, English, gujarati, Sanskrit, and drawing. Everyone wants to talk to me at school and be my friend. However, I have always been more mature than my peers, even back home, and here, although I am in classes with kids that are older than me, they are even more immature because they have grown up more sheltered. My host sister Ayan warned me about this before school started. However, I feel the students in psychology and sociology are a little bit less immature than everyone else!

October 27

Wow! I can't even imagine how I'm going to be able to tell you about all the amazing things I’ve experienced in the past 3 months! Let's just say that I've seen more, done more and learned more than I could ever have dreamed of! And, not only have I learned about India and Indian culture, I've had a large dose of anatomy, biochemistry, psychology and medicine, no pun intended! What I mean is, when you’re living with three doctors (my host dad, host brother and host sister in law), a college student studying psychology (my host sister) and a friend from Calcutta who is studying biochemistry, the dinner conversation usually consists of some combination of those subjects. For example, someone joked with my host brother about his lack of biceps, my host dad started talking about the muscle development of the biceps, using a whole bunch of medical terms that I didn't understand!

I’ve been going to school since my third day in India, and I’ve made lots of good friends. In India after Standard (grade) 10, a student chooses arts, commerce or science, depending on the career path he or she intends to pursue. Most schools don’t offer arts, but my Rotary Club always puts their exchange students at my school, The Mother’s School, because it offers arts. Unlike science, arts classes are taught in English, which makes adjusting easier for us. We have some classes with the commerce students, including Economics, English, and Gujarati, while the arts students have Sanskrit, Psychology, Sociology and Drawing together. My favorite class in school is definitely Sanskrit. I have learned many interesting prayers and pujas. Through the English translations I can tell that when the Hindus pray to their god, or to him through one of the many deities, they pray for the same things as all of us: luck, happiness, prosperity, knowledge, etc. I'd like to share one with you:

Pronunciation: Svasti prajabhyah paripalayantam/ nyayyena margena mahim mahisah

Gobrahmanebhyassubhamastu nityam/ lokassamastassukhino bhavantu.

Translation: May there be happiness for all people. May the rulers righteously rule the earth. May there be welfare for cows and men of wisdom at all times. May all beings be happy.

Since I arrived here in India, many festivals have taken place. First was Parsi New Year. My host family is Hindu, but they have many friends who are Parsi. Parsi is a religion that formed out of Zoroastianism, in which people worship the elements such as fire. During Parsi New Year, it is tradition to give lots of sweets. The next festival that occurred was called Raksha Bandhan, which celebrates the bond between brothers and sisters. The sister ties a Rakhi (a friendship bracelet) to the brother’s wrist, and in return, he gives her a gift. August 15th was Indian Independence Day, which was also the day of my Inbound Orientation. As we drove to Ankleshwar, the town where the orientation took place, there were tons of people out in the streets waving the Indian Flag.

Ganesh Chaurathi, was a really fun festival. It was the celebration of the birth of Ganesh, a Hindu god. The story is that Ganesh had an evil uncle, who was told that his 8th nephew would take the throne from him. So, in order to prevent this from happening, he killed all of his sister’s children and had his sister locked away. However, on the night that Ganesh was born, the guards fell asleep, and the child was kidnapped and raised in a village until he was old enough to defeat his uncle. So for this festival, we make statues of Ganesh and worship them for a period of 9 days and then take them and throw them in the river. The statues are made of clay from the river bank, but now most people buy them. My family does it traditionally, though, so my host father made a large one, while my sister and I made small ones. We then worshipped them for five nights and took them to the river on the fifth night.

The most recent holiday was Navaratri, a nine night festival in which kids do a dance called Garba from 8pm until midnight. We wear special clothes called chania and choli, with a scarf called a dupata. There is a traditional way of doing garba, but most kids have their own version. It’s a huge social event and while we’re dancing, everyone ends up running into each other!

I am very fortunate that in this short time I've been able to take two amazing trips! The first trip was In September when I went with my school to Mahableswar, one of the hill stations established by the British to escape the Indian heat. We spent 27 hours on a bus to get there! (You have to understand the toilet situation in India and the lack of ‘western toilets’. Most toilets are ‘Indian Style,’ or what are sometimes called squats. The only thing worse than squats, is when there are no squats. By the way, if you do manage to find one of the few Western Style toilets in India, there is an even less chance of finding toilet paper with it. I guess its all part of the experience, huh?)

The views were beautiful and being so high up it was very cool, which was a nice break from the normal heat. We woke up at 6 am on our first day but it wasn’t worth getting up so early because none of the rooms had hot water until around 7. This was my first encounter with another Indian specialty- bucket baths. It’s actually a great way to save water and help the environment. You use the tap to full up your bucket with warm water and then use a cup to pour it over yourself. Usually, only one bucket is needed to get your body wet, and then scrub down with soap and rinse. However, since we were washing our hair, two buckets were required.

We visited several viewing points up in the mountains including Monkey Point and Tiger Spring. Monkey Point was especially fun and it did live up to its name! Grilled corn is an Indian specialty, especially when its cool or raining. There were a few stands at Monkey Point selling grilled corn, and once people finished eating their corn-on-the-cob, it’s traditional to throw the cobs to the monkeys! It was a lot of fun watching them, but wild monkeys can be extremely dangerous. Tiger Spring is a naturally flowing stream up in the mountains, which legend tells the wild tigers used to come and drink out of. The water was very pure and sweet, and we all tried some! We also visited Table Land, which is an area of flat-topped mountains. There I had my first camel ride, which was pretty spectacular! And, on the bus ride home, I saw my first two elephants! (They are very common in South India but not in my area.) We were driving along the main highway when we passed them, walking on the road like they were cars! Let me just say that seeing those elephants pretty much made my night!

My second trip was a weeklong vacation with my family in the Himalayas. We went to the state of Himachal Pradesh and visited Dharamsala, the main town; McLeodganj, where the Dalai Lama lives and teaches; and Naddi, a small village at the peak of the mountain. We took a 24-hour train ride then a 2-hour bus ride. Now, I don’t think I’ve mentioned Indian roads yet, so let me do so. A 2-hour car ride usually isn’t so bad. Except when you’re going up and the altitude is rising. And you’re sitting in the back of a truck. Indian roads have potholes covering every square millimeter (I’m on the metric system now, remember). This made the journey up the mountain a bit unpleasant.

There were many things to do and see in McLeodganj, including temples, coffee shops and shopping. A lot of tourists come to visit the Dalai Lama and learn about Tibetan culture and Buddhisim. We went to the main temple where the Dalai Lama teaches but he was on lunch break. The temple had Buddhist prayer wheels, which are turned while chanting takes place. My favorite restaurant of the trip was the Tibetan Kitchen, where we had authentic Tibetan food, including momo’s and noodles. During the afternoon rain, we took shelter at a coffee shop where we drank Tibetan tea which is not my favorite. The waiter described it as butter and salt with black tea, but it just tasted like butter and salt.

In Dharamsala we visited Norbulingka Institute, which specialized in preserving Tibetan culture such as painting, making dolls and bronze statues and carving wood. We luckily visited a monastery just in time to see Karmapa, the next Dalai Lama, blessing people! He gave us all holy red string. It was undoubtedly one of the coolest experiences of my life. Later we watched a ceremony with 30 red-robed monks chanting and playing cymbals, horns and drums. At the back of the room was a giant statue of Buddha, with beautiful paintings all around, telling the story of Buddha’s life, and how he was a great prince who renounced his wealth. There was also an empty throne, waiting for the Dalai Lama. Since this was not the temple where the Dalai Lama preaches, a photograph of him sat in his place.

Also on this trip, I learned the art of bargaining. Now, I never really needed to bargain for what I bought, because everything seems so cheap for me. For example, I wanted to buy a Buddhist singing bowl which is used during meditation, and the seller wanted to charge me Rs. 650. Well that’s only $13 for us, so I was absolutely fine with that! But, of course, I knew that they were asking too much, so I managed to get him to give me the singing bowl and a Buddhist prayer wheel for only Rs. 600! After that, the shop owner asked me not to come back, because I always ended up taking money from him. Can you say, mission accomplished?

According to my host parents, I have made great progress learning Gujarati, which makes me very proud!! One of my favorites is beso (sit) which I am definitely going to use on my dog back home! Beso, Sandy! Also, the first Gujarati word I learned was challo, which means let's go! Some helpful phrases are: ket la vagia (what time is it), taru nam su che (what is your name), ket la le so (how much is this), su che (what is it), su tayoo (what happened), and kem cho (how are you-formal). Keep in mind, what I've written is just the English pronunciation. There's a whole other alphabet I'm trying to learn! My host family often speaks a mixture of English, Gujarati and Hindi so I can figure out what they're saying. Another thing that helps is my interest in psychology and my acting training. Because even if I can't understand what people are saying, I can watch their body language and facial expressions and know how they feel about what they're talking about.

I’ve come to realize that nothing that I have done or seen has come as a shock to me. Maybe that is because of great preparation by RYE Florida, or by the mindset I was in when I arrived. Anytime I see something new, something that may have frightened me back in the US, I just think, this is India! And I also realized that the things I have come to accept as normal, e.g. seeing cows on my way to school, and the trash that lines the roads, are actually extremely abnormal where I’m from, I just don’t think twice when I see them because I’m used to it!

I have already learned some important things during my exchange. I wish I could share them with you; however, they are things that were important for me to learn about myself and the world, and each person must learn these things on their own. I hope that my experiences are interesting enough to get you interested in India and that you visit this wonderful country. I can already feel myself becoming wiser and more mature, and I really appreciate the opportunity I was given. For anyone reading this and considering applying for the rotary program, please do it. Even if you are afraid to leave your parents, or travel halfway across the world to a country you’ve never been to, to a place where you don’t understand a word that is being said, please, just do it. I’m not saying it will be easy. It hasn’t been for me, and I don’t know of any other exchange student who has found themselves in an environment in which they feel comfortable. But it will be an experience which will make you take a step back from the world and say, “How did I end up here?” Looking back, I could never imagine myself here, and yet, I absolutely love it.

December 30

Well, I have had an amazing few weeks! The first week of November was Diwali, the Hindu New Year. It is the biggest holiday of the year. We had off from school for three weeks! We celebrated Diwali by shooting off firecrackers, giving sweets and doing Rangoli (a design painted with sand outside the home).

I went with my host family to Rajasthan, the state north of Gujarat. It was an 8-hour drive to our resort town of Ajmer. Most places in Rajasthan don’t have many things to do so people stay at the resorts, go swimming, and relax. Ajmer, however, is home to one of the most holy Mosques in the world.

In mid-November, I switched to my second host family. My first host family was very wealthy, with a huge house and many cars. My new family lives in a two bedroom flat in an apartment building, with only one small car. I don’t mind the change, and frankly, this is a more typical Indian family. However, I wish I had a bit more privacy. Its okay, I’ve managed. It’s all about adjusting, right?!

My new family is from Kerala, a state in south India, and speaks Malayalam. Fortunately, they also speak English, although I am sad to have to rely on English after all the Gujarati I’ve learned. Even though I’ve only been with this family for a month, I feel like the relationship I had with my last family was a lot stronger. This is probably because they’ve hosted exchange students before, plus speak a mixture of Hindi, English and Gujarati on a regular basis, while this family speaks Malayalam at home. My host brother, Abhishek, has tried teaching me a few words of Malayalam.

Diwali vacation ended 21 November so we went back to school. This was a tough week for all exchange students since it was Thanksgiving and we were thinking about our families back home. But I was excited for our upcoming South India tour because I would finally get to hang out with the 13 other exchange students that are scattered across Gujarat, in 7 different cities.  (I am the only exchange student in Baroda.)

South India Tour – 1-17 December

My host parents took me to the Baroda train station where I met up with four other exchange students who live north of my town. The train ride to Mumbai was a lot of fun, especially because every hour we would have new additions to our group. The train ride to Cochin took forever; we departed Mumbai at 11:30 am and didn’t arrive in Cochin until 4 pm the next day. We enjoyed the train ride but were grimy and exhausted when we finally arrived at our hotel.

In Cochin we saw first church built on Keralan soil; it was established by the Portuguese. After that, we walked down to the water, and watched the fishermen use traditional Chinese Fishing Nets to catch fish to sell in the market. They even let us try! (Most of the exchange students loved this trip because there are many Christian and meat-eating Indians in the south and they could eat “Non-veg!”  Most of our Gujarati families don’t eat meat.)  We visited a palace where we ran into more exchange students! They were from RI District 3030, near Nagpur. And guess who I saw? Serenity! It was so good to see her, since I hadn’t seen her since our June orientation. I don’t think anyone paid much attention to the palace, we were so busy talking.  

Thekkady was my favorite city on the trip. The best activity was the elephant ride through a spice garden.   Our elephant was named Leschme, and she gave us a bath! We sat on her back while she stuck her trunk in a bucket of water and sprayed us over and over again! Later we hiked through a wildlife sanctuary. We had to wear these protective sock type things that went up to our knees so that the leeches wouldn’t get into our shoes. However, one leech managed to climb all the way up my leg and reach some bare skin where it latched on and sucked my blood! EEwww!

In Madurai we visited the famous and beautiful Meenakshi Temple. We were blessed by an elephant, which is believed to be the incarnate of Ganesh, the elephant headed god. Our next destination was Kanyakumari, the southernmost point of India.  We swam in the Indian Ocean and went to Land’s End Point, which is where the Bay of Bengal, Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea meet - very cool!

Our last stop was Goa where we spent a few days on the beach.  Goa is a popular tourist spot; lots of Indian tourists were taking pictures of the foreign tourists! We went parasailing, jet skiing and shopping. All too soon it was time to depart.  We boarded the train in Goa at 6 pm and arrived in Mumbai at 5 am. Then we had a train back to Gujarat.  Each hour more exchange students would leave until it was only the five of us left who were getting off in Baroda. It was sad to see everyone leave.  It was an amazing trip that I will never forget.

December 26

Christmas was a confusing time. At first, I was hardly homesick because it just didn’t feel like Christmas. There’s no break from school and the weather is still relatively warm. However, the calendar can never fool us. In the week before Christmas, phone calls and messages were being exchanged between the 14 exchange students, desperate to find a way to get together for Christmas. After numerous plans that fell through, we were forced to spend the holiday in smaller groups. I went back to my first host family’s house to spend the weekend. Since they have been hosting exchange students for the past thirty years, they have an artificial tree that they put up each year. Leo, who is from France and lives in a nearby village, joined us. We spent the afternoon setting up the tree, decorating the house, and baking. Some friends came over and we sat around the tree eating chocolate chip cookies and listening to Christmas carols. After dinner, we went to a movie.  It was a great day for me, because although it finally felt like Christmas, it was a new, exciting Christmas, and I was happy to experience it in a different way.

I woke up the next morning to my host sister, Ayan, who is 20, running into the room and screaming ‘Wake up! It’s Christmas!’  I fixed pancakes, then we opened presents, ate cookies and watched TV. Later that day, my host family had to go for a wedding (December/January is wedding season in India). That evening I showed Leo around Baroda. Today I returned back to my current host family’s house, and only now am I beginning to feel homesick. I keep thinking that the world has stopped while I’m on this adventure. It’s hard to believe that my family is 8,000 miles away, going about their own lives. One thing that shook me was seeing a photograph of my brother. He’s in the 7th grade and looks so grown up, since I haven’t seen him in 5 months. No doubt, if I was home, I would hardly notice the changes. I’m almost halfway through my exchange, and I keep looking to the future. I know there will be bad times ahead, but there will also be good. I just have to focus on those pluses instead of dreading the minuses.

March 15

Has it really been three months since I last wrote? I guess so. Its hard to believe because time has been moving so fast it feels like just yesterday I was writing to you about my South India tour and Christmas. And yet, at the same time, it feels like ages ago. Especially because now even my North tour has ended, and my exchange is coming to a close! Well not quite, but I do only have a few months left. Here’s an update on the present, then I’ll let you know what I’ve been up to in the past three months! I’ve just returned home from one of the greatest experiences of my life- our North India tour. In less than two weeks my family is coming and we’ll be spending some time traveling across India. School is coming to a close here, because its almost summer! All of my friends are studying hard for their exams, and soon they’ll be traveling with their parents. India gets so hot during the summer months (March, April and May) that many Indians leave India, or they spend all summer cooped up in their homes. The usual temperature is around 45 degrees Celsius or 115 degrees Fahrenheit. Quite a change from my friends who are freezing up in Europe!

Back to the past—When I last wrote, I had just had a very different Christmas celebration. New Years was the same way. We did not watch the ball drop in New York City on TV, instead, I went back to my first host family’s house and had a party with my host sisters and their friends! It was nice to be back there and hang out with my old friends, but we didn’t do anything special. Just dancing to Hindi music and eating delicious food. However, two days later I was back with the exchange students, who had quickly become my best friends. We all had to take the train down to Surat, which is a city of about 3 million people two hours south of Baroda, my town. We spent about 5 days there rehearsing for our annual Rotary district conference. All of the exchange students were required to perform, so we decided to do two group dances that were choreographed by a local dance studio. We did a relatively traditional dance to a song called Pee Loon from the movie Once Upon A Time In Mumbai and a mix of I Hate Luv Stories from the movie, I Hate Luv Stories and Zor Ka Jhatka from the retro Hindi movie, Action Replayy. Have I mentioned that almost all Hindi movies have songs and dances in them? For me, it makes movies much more interesting. However, they all end up being at least three hours long! We also had to sing Jana Gana Mana, the national anthem, in front of hundreds of Rotarians, while sweltering in the head because of our Rotary blazers. Still, despite exhausting daily rehearsals, we had a great time hanging out. And after many days of rehearsal, we all took the hour and a half drive up to the small town of Bharuch, where the district conference was being held. It was a three day event, featuring one of our performances each day, along with many other speakers and activities. We also had the interesting opportunities to meet the GSE teams from Germany, New Zealand, France and Korea.

When I returned back to Vadodara from Bharuch, an interesting change was in the midst. My current host family was taking their youngest son, Abhishek to Kerala for his first time to the temple, meaning I would have to switch host families, seeing as women were not allowed in the temple. That evening, I moved in with the Vakils’. My host parents are currently Tushar and Dipti, and my two host brothers are Aniket (13) and Yashu (10). One thing that’s really interesting about this family is that they lived in the US for 17 years before coming back to India. And, 14 out of those 17 years they spent in Miami! This had made them very western. As in, they sometimes eat grilled cheese sandwiches, and they watch the NBA whenever it comes on Indian TV. My host brothers are so loyal to American sports that they woke up at 4 am on the day of the Superbowl just to watch it! Of course, I woke up with them, and since we couldn’t watch it on TV or stream it online, we skyped with my family and they pointed the webcam at the TV. Pretty neat system, huh? It worked out surprisingly well, too. We live in a flat on the first floor of an apartment building, which I like better than any of my previous homes. My first was too large, and my second was too small. This is just right! It gives me a feeling of actually being a part of the family, and I get along so well with everyone here. After a few days of living here, we had a nice surprise. My host brothers’ cousin, Monica, who lives in Ft. Lauderdale was coming to stay with us for a few weeks. She was really nice, and it was great to hang out with her, but for a while I felt like I wasn’t in India. It was nice to return back to the regular culture and routine when she left. While Monica was visiting, my favorite festival happened. Let me clarify, my favorite festival so far! Uttarayan.

Uttarayan is the annual kite festival, which happens during January, when the winds are strongest. But even weeks before that, people begin to practice their kite flying. And on that one day, which this year happened to be January 15th, everyone gets together on the roofs’ of their homes and flies kites! Now this is no ordinary kite flying festival. Its much more of a kite competition. Each family buys 40 or so kites, and the goal is to cut other people’s kites. Let me explain. The string used to fly the kites is made out of Chinese glass, making it extremely dangerous. When two kites get close to each other, whichever person pulls hardest on their string cuts the other persons kite! The goal, of course, is to keep your kite in the air longest. Although the competition is tough, it’s a fun tradition and a great festival, which I really enjoyed. However, apparently Holi is the best, but I have yet to experience it! Nevertheless, I enjoyed spending all day up on my host father’s parent’s rooftop flying kites with my host family. During the weekend of Uttarayan, a few of my friends came to Baroda as well. Margaux, Leo and Oona all came and we spent a lot of time together just hanging out. The next few weeks were kind of slow for me. I spent a lot of time getting to know my family, working on Florida Virtual School and taking day trips to Bharuch and Surat to visit my friends. February 7th was an especially fun trip to Bharuch, because it was Mary’s birthday! Mary, who is from Chicago, is one of my best friends here, and on her birthday many of us went to hang out with her in Bharuch for the day. We had a party with some of her Indian friends and just enjoyed each other’s company.

I’m not sure if I’ve had the chance to express my love for the Indian railway. Maybe I’m just a small town girl who hasn’t had the opportunity to take the train that much in the US, but I find that taking the train here is so much fun! Who knows if it’s the idea of public transportation, which is a rarity in the US, or if it’s the feeling of independence I get when I buy my ticket, get on the train, and make it all the way to another city in a completely different language. Either way, I’ve come to love taking the train. Whether its just a one hour ride to another city, or if it’s a 36 hour ride all the way down to South India.

The final experience from the past few months that I would like to share with you is my North India tour. Man, what an amazing trip. I constantly compare it to the South India tour and try and determine which is better, but I think that it is an impossible feat. They’re just too different, and yet both were so amazing at the same time. We started out on the train on February 19th, stopping in Surat, Baroda and Ahmedabad to pick up all of the students. We directly went to Jodhpur, the second largest city in Rajasthan, also known as the blue city, due to the blue painted houses around the city fort. We did not stop in Jodhpur though, we drove west into the desert to a small city named Jaisalmer. In Jaisalmer, we visited the city fort, and two different Havelis, which are buildings with beautiful carvings. We also spent a lot of time visiting traditional Rajasthani shops. I think that the most common purchase among all the exchange students were Rajasthani turbans! The next afternoon, we took a short drive to the ‘Sam Sand Dunes’ in the Thar desert. These sand dunes are the beginning of the desert that extends into Pakistan. We took a camel ride from our tents in the desert to the dunes where we sat and watched the sunset. Not only did we get to ride the camels though, we also got to race them! I came in second! After the sunset concluded, we went back to the resort and watched some Indian dances at our resort.

The next morning, we returned to Jodhpur and toured around the blue city. There, we visited the fort and the city palace. And of course, we did more shopping! One thing that we realized about these Rajasthani cities is that they’re very alike, and after seeing a few forts and a few palaces, we got a bit tired of Rajasthan! After Jodhpur, we headed to Jaipur, the largest city and capital of Rajasthan, also known as the pink city. The Amer Fort in Jaipur was more interesting than the fort in Jodhpur, especially because they were offering elephant rides up from the city! We also visited the water palace, a science and astronomical museum, and a few palaces. After Jaipur, we headed to Agra, the home of the world famous Taj Mahal. The afternoon we arrived, we visited the Agra Fort, which was much larger than the other forts we had been too, but not any more interesting. The only exciting part was seeing a glimpse of the Taj from the outer gates. The next morning, we woke up extremely early to beat the lines to the Taj Mahal, and to see it at sunrise. Of course, with out luck, it was raining and the sun was no where to be seen. Nonetheless, the Taj Mahal is still as spectacular as it is in pictures, and yet no one could believe we were actually there. We had been waiting our entire exchanges’ for this moment and it had actually arrived. That afternoon, we proceeded to Delhi. By train, Agra is two hours from Delhi. By car, its anywhere from 5 to 10, depending on the traffic. By the time we reached our hotel, it was already time for dinner. We then took the subway to one of the only KFC’s in India, although Oona and I ( the two vegetarians ) ended up finding a delicious café where we actually found real lettuce, and real parmesan cheese. We were extremely happy. That night we did more shopping and then returned to the hotel and relaxed before turning in early because of our busy day of sightseeing the next day. In the morning, we quickly ate breakfast then boarded our bus to take us around Delhi.

We visited the India Gate, a famous war memorial honoring Indian soldiers who fell during WWI. Then we went to Qutab Minar, a monument built by the Mughals when they occupied India. Next, we stopped at the Red Fort, which unfortunately turned out to be just another fort- only with a longer wait in line. After the Red Fort, we visited the most exciting place of the day. The Baha’I House of Worship- The Lotus Temple. I’ll give you a bit of background on the Baha’I faith because I’m sure many of you don’t know what it is. In fact, I hadn’t even heard of it until I went to this temple! The Bahá'í Faith is the youngest of the world's independent religions. Its founder, Bahá'u'lláh (1817-1892), is regarded by Bahá'ís as the most recent in the line of Messengers of God that stretches back beyond recorded time and that includes Abraham, Moses, Buddha, Krishna, Zoroaster, Christ and Muhammad. The central theme of Bahá'u'lláh's message is that humanity is one single race and that the day has come for its unification in one global society. God, Bahá'u'lláh said, has set in motion historical forces that are breaking down traditional barriers of race, class, creed, and nation and that will, in time, give birth to a universal civilization. The principal challenge facing the peoples of the earth is to accept the fact of their oneness and to assist the processes of unification. I find this religion to be extremely interesting and going to the Baha’I House of Worship in Delhi was an amazing experience. There are 7 Baha’I Houses of Worship all over the world, at least one on each continent, and all are 9 sided, because the number 9 is sacred and represents unity. The one in New Delhi is shaped like a lotus because the lotus is an important religious symbol for many religions in India. It also has 9 pools of water surrounding the temple which acts as a cooling system in the hot Indian summer. The interior of the building is quite simple, just one large room that is open to prayer and meditation for anyone of any faith. After a memorable experience at the Lotus Temple we did some more shopping before heading over to the train station to catch our train to Dharamshala.

I’ve mentioned our terrible luck before, correct? Well we ended up missing our train, having to wait for two hours in the Delhi train station and then getting on our train at 10 pm, having to sit in the second class sleeper car because there were no ac sleeper seats available. There weren’t enough seats for everyone, so we had to double, triple and quadruple up. And the whole entire time, there were creepy guys watching us. Needless to say, I don’t think anyone got more than an hour or two of sleep that night, if any at all. I don’t think I’ve mentioned the card game, ‘President’ yet. It’s our favorite pass time. Anytime all of us are together, or even just a few of us, we always play president. It has become tradition, and we’ve started playing at least one round everywhere we go- Taj Mahal, Qutab Minar, the Thar Desert, and even at the top of the mountain! Its just one of the things that makes us ‘us’ and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to play president again without thinking of India. Oh, and the night we missed our train in Delhi? We sat on the dirty floor of the train station for two hours and played president with at least 30 Indians standing in a circle around us watching. So by the time we arrived at the Dharamshala train station at 6 am, everyone was exhausted, but extremely impressed with the beauty of the mountains that were spread before us. The entire two hour bus ride up to McLeod Ganj, in between naps, we were all staring out the windows at the snow covered peaks. The weather was a nice change, as well. We had gone from a hot and dry climate in the desert to a cool crisp breeze that blew off the mountains. We ended up staying in Naddi, the village on top of the mountain, where I had stayed back in October with my host family. Our time in Dharamshala was very relaxing. We were free to go as we pleased as long as we stayed in town, to go shopping or drink hot Tibetan butter tea in a coffee shop, or eat Tibetan momos, which are like Chinese dumplings. We did lots of shopping and lots of bargaining, and lots of hiking. We hiked so many times from Naddi to McLeodganj, that we managed to make it from 45 minutes to 30 minutes! The next day, we visited the Dalai Lama’s temple and spent more time walking around McLeod Ganj. We also met a lot of foreigners in Dharamshala. There was one man named ‘Coach’ who is from Cinncinatti but moved to Dharamshala and is now teaching English to a Tibetan refugee named Gyeltsen. We met Gyeltsen and learned that he had trekked across the Himalayas from Tibet into Nepal when he was just 17 years old. He went during October with only four other companions and it took them 25 days. Our goal for Dharamshala was to trek up the mountain and make it to the snow line, and Gyeltsen agreed to take us.

So the next day the seven of us, including me, who were feeling up to it met Gyeltsen in the village and then headed up the mountain. It was tough work, especially because we were all pretty out of shape, thanks to the lack of exercise we get here in India. Nonetheless, we made it up the mountain in about 4 hours. When we reached the snow, everyone was ecstatic, even me, who comes from a place where snow is quite rare. We didn’t stop there though, we continued up all the way to the summit! When we reached the half-way point, it started raining because we hadn’t yet reached a high enough altitude for it to snow. As we continued up though, the rain turned into snow and the snow turned into a giant blizzard! By the time we reached the top everyone was soaked and freezing, and luckily we found a little shack where some nice Indian men sold us Chai and Maggi- which is like Indian Ramen noodles. There was also a fire there, which warmed us up a bit, but not moving made us more cold than anything, so we decided to head back down after about an hour of sitting there, also because we needed to make it back down before it got dark. We also had seven or eight dogs from the village accompany us, which was a nice surprise. We took to naming them, there was Everest, Poser, Ears, Buster, Himalaya, Honcho, Ginger, Spots, and a few others. I think Poser was everyone’s favorite, because any time we took a short break, he would immediately take a seat and look out at the view, like he was posing for a picture. Coming down the mountain was shorter, it took about 3 ½ hours. By the time we got down, we all felt extremely accomplished. I mean, we had climbed one of the Himalayan mountains! How many people can say that? We found out later that the mountain we climbed was the Triund – Ilaqua, in the Dhauladhar range, one of the outer ranges of the Himalayas.

We got back to our hotel and were ready for a hot shower. Unfortunately, our hotel didn’t have hot water! That night we watched the Oscars in our hotel room, which was being repeated after a 3 am live broadcast, and we packed our bags for our departure in the morning. Everyone was extremely sad to leave Dharamshala the next day, and for our North tour to be over. It was the last time we were going to be all together again, because some of the students start leaving about a month later. Even so, we were still missing two girls whose parents were visiting at that time so they couldn’t come. This trip was still one of the most amazing of my life and I will treasure those memories forever. Its sad to know that we’re nearing the end, and also to know that the people I’ve met on this journey and the experiences I’ve had will stay with me forever, and yet I have to return to ‘reality’.