September 2 , 2012
Exactly a month ago, I arrived in Nagpur, India. I left the comfort of my home in St. Augustine, Florida, USA, 3 days prior, and had spent these last 3 days either on a plane or trying to entertain myself in the airport terminals during excruciatingly long layovers. It was hectic and overwhelming traveling internationally for the first time, and even more terrifying, the fact I was completely alone. I was either in a state of rushed panic trying to run across airports to get on my plane on time, or complete boredom during the 8 and 9 hour flights, changing positions, trying to get comfortable, and finally giving up and reading a book. My plane landed in Amsterdam at the same time my plane departing to Mumbai was boarding, I barely remember anything about the Amsterdam airport. Just the whooshing of European stores and international faces passing by as I ran to my gate, just moments before it closed. During my 6 hour layover in Mumbai, after be ing informed the airline had lost my luggage and I had to wait in line for an hour to fill out a form so they could return them to me at their earliest convenience, I was coerced into leaving the airport trying to find a payphone to call home and was not allowed back in because of the guards who spoke little English and knew nothing about my foreign confusion despite the look of desperation on my face and the blazer which proudly represented the flags of the USA and India. I was forced to find the domestic terminal on my own, so I put on a serious face and allowed my instincts to kick in. I found a woman I saw on my flight to Mumbai from Amsterdam and timidly asked her in broken Hindi if she spoke English. She of course did and after I explained the situation, she led me to a prepaid taxi kiosk and argued with the man in lightning-speed Marathi until she told me to hand him 150 rupees in exchange for a small ticket. It finally hit me. I was in for a terrifying ride in a prep aid taxi, by myself, through the dark streets of Mumbai. At one o’clock in the morning, I found myself remembering all the brilliant bribing methods I learned before leaving the states. I tempted the driver with a 500 rupee note if he got me there quickly and safely. By the grace of God I made it within minutes and was able to talk my way into the airport without a ticket because of my Rotary credentials. After walking into the domestic airport, I noticed no one was working the check in kiosks. I had to wait in the main room for four hours before I was allowed to check in with my electronic ticket and step into the terminal. I saw out of the corner of my eye the look of something quite familiar. Standing across from me next to a pillar inside the airport was tuft of blonde hair and a pale, pink hand holding a briefcase. My American-ness instantly kicked in and I walked up to the man with a huge smile of relief on my face. At this point, I had no idea where to go and I was still in shock from the images of the men sleeping in the street, the homes with caved in roofs, and the children begging for single rupees during my taxi ride through the night in Mumbai. The man was from the US on a mission trip to the south of India. I pestered him with questions and told him my story and how I just needed to contact my parents back home but my cell phone was dead and I couldn’t charge it without the adapter that was conveniently located in one of the suitcases the airline had lost in Amsterdam. He gladly handed me his cell phone and told me not to worry about the international charges and that I should really let my family know I was safe and sound. I was so grateful to him for allowing me to contact home, and for the fact he helped me through foreign security, and stayed with me in the terminal during that night in Mumbai until his plane took off, just 40 minutes before mine.
Now that this intense first impression of my new home had passed and settled, I realized I was in for one crazy year. It was now time for my flight to Nagpur, the city within India that I would be living in for the next 10 months. The flight from Mumbai to Nagpur was short but it was the part of my travel experience that I remember the best. I was the only person sitting in my row, so I moved to the window and watched the landscape of the country underneath me was we ascended and descended. Flying above Mumbai in the light of early morning, I could see the hundreds of small homes built practically right on top of each other, and the huge towers and buildings on the skyline that appeared to be businesses and hotels for the thousands of people that fly into and out of Mumbai every day. Then we rose above the clouds; it was the most beautiful, peaceful flight, jumping from cloud to cloud, enjoying the sweet, spiced chai and Indian breakfast provided by the airline. When coming down from what seemed to be the closest to Heaven on Earth I will ever see, I saw the landscape of Nagpur peeking through the white mist of cloud. Nagpur really is very green and very beautiful. There were acres of forests and plant life and waterways and little villages that were surrounded by their own little farms and temples. It was incredible to see a new way of life from this view, looking at a wide-screen view of these little towns and making out the figures of children playing outside their homes early in the morning. Then I saw the city. It was huge. Bigger than I imagined, and before I knew it the seatbelt sign turned on and we were landing at the Nagpur Airport. The airport was very small, but more than enough for the travel that goes in and out of the city. Of course I didn’t have my luggage, so as soon as I stepped off the airplane, I grabbed my carryon and took off for the main entrance. I instantly saw my family through the glass doors of the airport, an d I beamed with nervous excitement. When I walked outside, they were all smiling and holding signs… one, an oversized picture of me that said “Welcome to India Alyssa!” and another that spelled out “welcome” on 7 small, heart-shaped balloons. I was overwhelmed with the wonderful welcome and I was led to the car that would take me to my new home.
At first I was wondering “Why is the driver on the wrong side of the car?” “Why is the car on the wrong side of the road?” “Why is the speedometer in Kilometers and not MPH??” “WHY ARE THERE SO MANY COWS STANDING IN THE MIDDLE OF THE STREET?”
My host sisters giggled at me and the surprised expressions on my face when I saw something that fascinated me that, of course, they were completely used to. I pulled out my camera and snapped shots of everything: the cows, the temples, the traffic, the fact no one here pays attention to the lanes on the road…
After about a 10 minute drive we reached my new home. When I walked inside the gate I noticed there were flower petals on the floor and garlands of fragrant flowers hanging from the door, welcoming me to their home. They placed one garland around my neck and performed a traditional Indian ceremony, called Aarti, which is commonly done to invite new people into someone’s house. A small fire was lit on a metal plate that was waved in front of me in a circular motion. My host mother took a small pinch of bright red, vermillion powder from the plate and placed a small dot, known as a tikka, on my forehead. It was a beautiful ceremony, which I have seen performed many times in the month that I have been here. My first and second days were difficult. I remember the shock of the spicy food, the shock of the language barrier, the realization that I had not learned as much Hindi before my departure as I should have, the shock of cultural differences, and having to sleep that fi rst night in a new bed, in a new room, in a new house, in a new country, without the support of any of my friends or family back home. I had to create a new life for myself, and I did just that.
In the month that I have been here, I have seen more, learned more, tasted more, smelled more, heard more, and felt more than I ever have in my life. The only way I can explain life in India, courtesy to my fellow American exchange student friend, Rebecca, who coined the term, is complete sensory overload. It is tiring and exciting and overwhelming. There is too much to see, too much to hear, too much to feel, too much to taste... You are literally smacked in the face with the sight of bright colors, animals walking around (including monkeys, which are commonly spotted even in suburban areas), fast paced cars and bikes zooming past you in 10 different directions, sounds of instruments (the low beat of drums in the distance, the sounds of sitar and Hindustani singing classes), exotic birds chirping, and street vendors and people yelling “wow” at the sight of a foreigner, the tastes of foods that are either incredibly sweet or unbearably spicy, and constant feeling of anxious excitement that goes hand in hand with all the craziness that is India.
You would think this excitement would die down after getting used to it, but it is quite the contrary. Every day, more new and exciting things happen. I have not experienced one complete day of boredom here in India. I have joined 5 hobby classes, which are classes that children take outside of school, and every day (except Sundays) I am getting some sort of exercise, both mind and body. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays I take a Yoga class from 3 to 4, followed by a Sitar class from 5 to 6, and a Kathak class (traditional Indian dance class) from 6 to 7. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays I take a Hindi class with the same Yoga teacher from 3 to 4, and on Tuesdays and Thursdays only I have a Painting class from 5:30 to 7. I am a busy, busy girl. I attend school from 9 in the morning to 1:30 in the afternoon, and because I don’t understand the lessons in Hindi, I sit in the back and practice my Hindi in pre-school Hindi books made for children. During my first 2 weeks here, I taught myself how to read and write in Hindi and I am learning more and more every day. I understand most of what people say to me, and if I don’t understand, I can say “I didn’t understand you, speak slowly please, I do not speak Hindi” in Hindi. One problem with language learning is that most people in India speak English. They always try to speak English to me, but they are always very surprised and appreciative when I try my best to switch over to Hindi or at least add some words in if I know them. Most importantly though, I can read the script; this means I can ride my bicycle anywhere and be able to read the street signs. I know if I am in Bajaj Nagar (the area I currently live in) or a neighboring area because each square (intersection) has signs pointing in any direction telling you how to get to other squares and areas. The layout is actually quite simple, maybe in another month, I will know where everything is without having to ever ask directions.
When you don’t know how to get somewhere however, India has these helpful little tools called auto rickshaws. For less than 1 or 2 USD, you can get pretty much anywhere in the city. When my friends and I decide we need new kurtis or we’d like to go out for some coffee, we can easily flag down a rickshaw and haggle the price down to a reasonable amount and off we go. Easy as pie. With the Rotary rule of no driving, this is the most helpful and inexpensive way of exploring the city safely with other exchange students.
Of course I have become quite close with my exchange friends because we spend every day together, but I have also made many Indian friends during this month here. Some of my best friends here I have met at school as part of the Rotaract club and some friends being mutual friends of my host sister, who has very quickly become my best friend and the person I look up to here in India. She is beyond helpful with all language issues and cultural confusion and I love having her as a sister. Same goes with my host parents, I absolutely love how my host mom allows me to watch her cook meals and teaches me all the ingredients by name in Hindi and Marathi, and my host father always makes an effort to make me smile every day with his free-spirited jokes and beaming smiles every morning when I come downstairs for breakfast and chai.
I have yet to see any big religious celebrations, but soon, there is the 10 day long festival celebrating the Hindu deity, Ganesh, called Ganesh Chaturthi. I am so excited for this celebration that consists of 10 days of Pooja (or prayer) and a submersion of the Ganesh statues into the water on the last day. Diwali, the largest celebration in India, the celebration of lights, is also coming up in November, and I am incredibly excited to be a part of that.
There are too many celebrations to count, every day is treated a celebration here. People here view life in a new and positive outlook that I am not used to. Each and every moment is special and every person has their own light and their own niche in society. I appreciate being alive. I appreciate having my legs to walk on, and my eyes to see with, and my mind to see more with. I appreciate the people I have met, and even the people I haven’t met yet that will influence my life, and I’m sure there will be many. In the Yoga class I am taking, our teacher has been one of the people here that has opened my eyes to new and bigger things. By eyes, I don’t mean my superficial eyes, but the eyes within. He has taught us that to truly see, you have to close your superficial eyes. He has taught us lessons about bliss, about happiness and the misery that follows the strife for satisfaction, the benefits of Yoga and spirituality, and countless stories and lessons about the Gods, Goddesses, and Great Masters of India. One experience that I consider the most life altering since I have been in India was a few days ago when we were invited to watch our Yoga teacher give praise to his Music Master. We walked from our classroom to his Master’s home, where we watched as he thanked his Master for his knowledge in the most spiritual way known in India. I watched in complete awe as he lit the musky incense, chanted the prayers under his breath, and placed handfuls of flowers and powders of bright pink and red vermillion color onto his Master’s feet. He then offered him apples, Indian sweets, shoes, and some other gifts. The master accepted this praise and in return, with the power offered to him, placed a tikka onto my Yoga instructor’s forehead. To complete the ceremony, I watched my instructor take a garland of fragrant flowers and place it around the pictures of his Grand Master and Great Grand Master. Through all of this prais e, his Master remained humble, and even sang a song for us exchange students, which was a kind of beautiful music I feel blessed to have heard. After returning to the classroom that afternoon, we practiced meditation, and in the newfound peacefulness I achieved by watching such a complex and spiritual ceremony, I slipped into my deep subconscious. When my teacher told us to open our eyes and wake up, I continued to lay there paralyzed, unaware of my surroundings, in a world of my own. I didn’t come out of this state until my friend, loudly, chanted Aum into my ear. I was not asleep, and I awoke instantly, with an intense burst of energy. If I understood his explanation correctly, my teacher explained that I was able to be woken up because my sense of hearing was the last remaining connection to my physical body. When my friend yelled Aum into my ear, it instantly brought me back. The reason I felt such a burst of energy was because during meditation, you are receiving energy in vast amounts from the cosmic energy of the universe. When you sleep for 6 hours, you only retain 5% energy from the universe because the rest of the time you are sleeping, you are in dream state, and not completely detached from your physical body. With only 30 minutes of meditation, you gain 60% energy from the universe. I am still stunned about this concept, but I believe in it wholeheartedly. It was incredible. Absolutely mind blowing the intense burst of energy and my slow detachment from my physical body, I still can’t believe a novice like me achieved something like that, no matter how simple or short it may have been. I feel awakened. My teacher taught us you can only truly be awakened when you close your eyes. I now believe I understand what he meant by that.
Ok, ok… this journal has gone on long enough. It is a full 5 pages in Times New Roman 12 pt. font. So let’s cut to the chase.
Rotary Youth Exchange doesn’t just give you the opportunity to travel and experience different cultures and learn a new language. It gives you independence and the life skills necessary to know how to be self-sufficient. It gives you the opportunity, and the ability to find yourself. To explore yourself, and learn who you truly are. It has only been a month for me, and I am already feeling these waves of energy and positivity. I am so enlightened, I really don’t know how things could get better than this… but I know for a fact, it will.
December 4, 2012
I have now been in India for exactly 4 months and one day. I must say, this journey has been quite a roller coaster. Although I am still learning new things every day and enjoying life to the fullest, there have been many difficulties along the way that I never expected to encounter. Despite the big setbacks and the surprising mini-disasters, I have survived through it and remain optimistic every day.
India is one of those places where at the end of your exchange, you become someone very wise. If anything, I'm grateful for this experience because I will never take things for granted again. I wish some of the things I have seen here I could un-see. Some things have really scarred me and haunted me. But at the same time I am glad I’ve experienced it. I’m happy about the mental lashings because it only makes me more aware. It only makes me stronger. The small things that you encounter here every day make you think: “God, this is unreal. I have heard about this but I never knew it actually existed.” You just don’t KNOW until you physically see it in front of your face. You don't know what selflessness is until you see a poor woman giving the only money she has to her child for food. You don't know poverty until you've had an Indian child lay the head of her dead baby brother on your lap and ask for a single rupee, which couldn& #039;t even buy you a slice of bread. You don't know devotion until you see a yogee deny all possessions and live life as an impoverished man for the love of his God. And you don't know family until you've seen 10 family members living in a one bedroom house, with smiles that shine brighter than any rich man living in a palace. India is proof that there is a large amount of good and bad in the world. Nothing is solid. I’m more understanding of that now. Exchange in India is not what I expected, and be honest, not what I wanted out of exchange. I wanted to learn another language. I wanted to make lots of friends and go to a school where I would learn new and useful things every day. But Indian exchange it is not about the language, or the schools, or the people, or the temples, or the colors, or the exchange rate... It's about YOU. I'm different. I just hope I haven’t changed in a negative way. I'm just growing. I'm so cynical no w but also so open minded. I'm so judgmental and yet so accepting at the same time. I’ve learned so much, and yet I still can’t have a conversation in Hindi after 4 months of living here. I don’t know what or who I will be at the end of this exchange. As for now, I have found the pleasures of the little things that keep me going. Some days I hate it here and want to go home more than anything. Some days I look at my friends and think of all the wonderful times we’ve had and will have together, and decide that I have to stay.
India is just one of those places where there is no black or white. Everything is gray. Everything contradicts itself and nothing really makes sense in my American mind. Most days I just tell myself “It isn’t my country; they do things differently here, so just go with it.” But sometimes I have to tell myself that there’s a reason why things are different in America, and I begin to appreciate my country more than I ever have. This isn’t to say that life is bad here in India. There are plenty of useful things I have learned here and lessons that have made such positive impressions in my life. Like I said, it is all gray. India is a balance between misperception and clarity, rural and urban, wealth and poverty, corruption and honesty, and right and wrong. If there’s one thing I have learned from being here, it is how to be a better person. I have become someone I am proud of by correcting the wrong in me that I see as wrong in others and by o btaining the good aspects I have seen in the kind people I have met here. This exchange has really been an eye opener. I am not naïve about the world anymore. I know you can’t trust everyone and you can’t live life expecting everyone to be courteous and respectful. I also know that there is so much more to life than the normal day-to-day things we learn as teenagers in America. This is a vast and diverse world we’re living in, and unless you see it, you’ll never understand it fully.