Zach Johnson


Hometown:Ponte Vedra, Florida
School: Ponte Vedra High School
Sponsor District : District 6970
Sponsor Club:Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida
Host District: District 3060
Host Club: The Rotary Club of Narmadanagri


My Bio

Namaste! My name is Zach Johnson and I'm going to the amazing country of India next year for my foreign exchange. What is there to know about me? I'm seventeen years old. I live with my mother, aunt, and dog in a town called Ponte Vedra, which is in Florida, although I'm originally from Jacksonville, which is a much larger city just north of my present location. At school, I'm in 12th grade and take all college-level AP classes, in addition to weightlifting. That's one interesting thing about me, I suppose: I like to improve both my mind and my body. As far as hobbies go, I'd like to say I'm well rounded - and completely disorganized! I'm a singer in the Sharkappellas, which is a singing club at my school that runs a style of music called accapella (voices are used in place of instruments), which takes up a lot of my time on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I also go to, and sometimes lead my church's youth group on Wednesday nights. I work Mondays and Saturdays, and go to church on Sunday. So yes, my weeks are rather busy. I'm going to a foreign country next year. Wow. I've never even left Florida for any extended time. This is definitely going to be an adventure. But that's ok. That's part of why I'm doing this exchange, is to be adventurous. If I had to say the main reason for my exchange, though, it would be this: I love people. I love the way they talk, the way the walk, the way they think and the way they feel. People are so valuable. And I have the opportunity to go to somewhere I've never been before, and meet, know, and love people there. It's gonna be incredible -I can't wait!

Yes, there are McDonalds in India.

Yes, there are McDonalds in India.

Some friends and I at college.

Some friends and I at college.

Beautiful Hindi advertisement, which when translated talks about bringing a smile to the face of every Indian.

Beautiful Hindi advertisement, which when translated talks about bringing a smile to the face of every Indian.

Gorgeous banyan tree in the premises of my college.

Gorgeous banyan tree in the premises of my college.

A usual Indian meal, complete with chash (buttermilk), roti (flatbread), and vegetables.

A usual Indian meal, complete with chash (buttermilk), roti (flatbread), and vegetables.

Kabardi, a very entertaining Indian game that's a cross between tackle football, tag, and Red Rover.

Kabardi, a very entertaining Indian game that's a cross between tackle football, tag, and Red Rover.

The Red Fort outside Jaisalmer.

The Red Fort outside Jaisalmer.

The Taj Mahal.

The Taj Mahal.

The southern (main) entrance to the Taj Mahel in Agra. These guys used inlaid precious stone to do caligraphy instead of paint.

The southern (main) entrance to the Taj Mahel in Agra. These guys used inlaid precious stone to do caligraphy instead of paint.

The Taj Mahel was nice enough to take a selfie with me.

The Taj Mahel was nice enough to take a selfie with me.

The edge of a fort in the mountains on a very cloudy day.

The edge of a fort in the mountains on a very cloudy day.

These are a thing. They're my friend's, not mine, but still... they are a thing.

These are a thing. They're my friend's, not mine, but still... they are a thing.

The yak did not, in the end, talk back.

The yak did not, in the end, talk back.

Part of the Himalayas that we took a few hours to climb to see.

Part of the Himalayas that we took a few hours to climb to see.

Journals: Zach - India

  • Zach, outbound to India

    Hey there everyone! It’s been about two months since I got back from India (and longer, I know, since I made a journal entry – sorry). The readjustment process is… difficult to describe.

    To be honest, for a while when I returned (and, in hindsight, at some points in my exchange) I was bitter about some things. The main thing that bothered me was that I had so many host families – about eight in total, and the final seven were all short stints at different houses during the second half of my year. I guess I had been getting pretty close to the Raja family and I wanted that relationship to continue to develop. So I was bitter about some things, and it definitely impacted my journals as well as my thoughts about India for a while.
    This past weekend, though, I went to the Rebound Orientation program in Florida, and my goodness did I need that. Spending time and sharing stories with other exchange kids, even though I was the only one to go to India, was necessary for me and incredibly cathartic. I really feel so much better about my exchange year, now.
    I mean, how blessed was I?! I got to experience and see some absolutely amazing things – dancing Navratri for hours on end, climbing mountains in the Himalayas, simply walking and talking and soaking in this incredible culture. It was, without question, one of the best years of my life.

    I feel as though I owe you, beloved reader, an apology. During my year I often took to my journal in some harder times to express what I was feeling – as is natural for any journal, I suppose. But you have access to what I wrote and I hope that your view of this beloved country of mine wasn’t skewed by my moods that could at times best be described as cloudy. I grew so much, and had such a great time in India… My heart actually aches thinking about it now.

    I don’t know what I could write here to accurately describe the feeling. I’ll try to make an example. Imagine you had just finished your favorite book of all time. There were some challenging parts of the experience, to be sure, but you just couldn’t get enough of it. You finally get to the last chapter, the last page, the last paragraph, sentence, and word. You want nothing more than to start it over again. Only, in this case, you can’t. You shut the back cover, and it remains forever closed, only to be remembered in thoughts and dreams. There’s such a longing, and yet such a contentment. It is, as I said, very difficult to describe.

    I can only reiterate that India marked me, shaped me, helped me discover my purpose. I cannot express enough gratitude to all that helped me get here – Rotary, who I saw work wonders for those who needed it most; my lovely Mother, who gave me support and guidance whenever I needed it; everyone who helped me pay for the trip and in so doing showed me such love that defies description; and above all, my Father in heaven who was with me every step of the way, who was at times my only and strongest Companion.

    See, look at that… At the beginning of that long sentence, I wrote ‘help me get HERE’… I guess I still haven’t fully realized that I’m back.

    There is a Hindi song I’ve been playing over and over again since I returned here, called “Tere Galiyaan”, which means “Your Streets” in Hindi. Some of the words are:

    “Yahin doobe din mere, yahin hote hain savere.
    Yahin maurna aur jeena. Yahin mundir aur Medina.
    Tere galiyaan, galiyaan tere galiyaan.
    Mujhko bhaave, galiyaan tere galiyaan.
    Tu mere neendon mein sota hai. Tu meri harshko mein rota hai.
    Sargoshi si hai khayaalon mein, Tu na ho, phir bhi tu hota hai.”

    The translation is as follows:

    “Only here do my days end, and only here do they begin.
    Here is my life and my death, here are all my pilgrimages.
    Your streets, your streets, They suit me well.
    You are there in my sleep, you are there in my tears,
    You whisper in my thoughts – Even when you’re not there, you’re there.”

    This pretty accurately describes the longing I feel for my new country. It’s the strangest thing. I never dream. But these days, if I do, it’s in Hindi. The memories are sharp and bold, almost pungent in my mind. I will never forget my wonderful time in my new country. God knows I miss it.

    I’ll give you a quick update on what I’m doing these days before I close this… for what I guess will be the last time. I am currently working about thirty hours a week, as well as trying to learn some Russian (I’ll expand on this later). I’m hanging out with my best friends and doing American things. I move to FSU in about three weeks. I’m technically still an Exploratory major, but I think I’m going to dual major between English and Russian/Eastern European Studies – I guess I just have a thing for learning languages and cultures that don’t use our alphabet - as well as doing Army ROTC. So I suppose my tentative plan right now is to do my time at school before spending five or ten years in the Army. Once I get out I’ll have the option of working abroad if I want, or teaching English here. That’s what I’m thinking now, I guess – we’ll see how things shake out.

    What cannot be disputed, though, is that my time on Exchange has made me a better, more effective person. I will always cherish my time in India, and I hope to return one fine day. I couldn’t have asked for a better country, better friends, or a better year.

    I guess this is it, then. God bless you guys, and thank you all, once again. Ao jo – goodbye.

  • Zach, outbound to India

    Hi there everyone! The date is 17 April and a fit of inspiration has come upon me, so I rushed home to convert it to journal format as soon as I could. The topic of this journal will be three qualities that I think are direct causes for Indian society.

    I would be amiss if I didn't mention, before I begin, that my mother came here for about two weeks. I showed her around Bharuch and the neighboring city of Baroda, and then we went to Delhi, Darjeeling, and Bombay. It was a fantastic trip, and a great time was had by all. Seeing my momma was great and it made me even more aware of how close I am to the end of my exchange.

    Anyhoo, back to the sophisticated, high-brow stuff. I was brainstorming causes that are irrevocably bound to Indian society, and three qualities remained at the forefront of my mind. These are: the population of the country, the almost unbelievably immense regard with which they hold the family unit, and the slow speed of change, which is what really cements it all together. They blend together to a certain degree - for example, one reason they're resistant to change is because of their large population, and one cause of their large population is the family values. I'll go one by one, explaining as well as give examples for each, before I try the impossible task of boiling down life in India to a paragraph or less.

    First things first, the population. There is, if you didn't know, quite a lot of people in this country - 1.2 billion is the stated number. I personally believe it's higher than this, however, as I imagine it's quite difficult for a government to get an accurate census over an entire subcontinent when the infrastructure is, in some places, terrible or even nonexistent. What this massive population does is render most forms of rules completely ineffective. For example, if you find a sign near a building that says "DO NOT PARK HERE", it's probably a safe bet that you'll find it surrounded by scooters and motorbikes. This is because there's no other place to park. The population also has a role in the traffic, which, as I've stated before, is without a doubt the most beautifully rendered version of chaos I've seen on earth. They drive like maniacs because there is, at any given time, tons of people (and animals, for that matter) on the road. This population also leads into a lot of the more serious problems that affect the country - too many students and not enough teachers, lots of crime and corruption that are very difficult to track down, and, unfortunately, far too little clean water to distribute among millions of families. It's not all bad, though. Everyone here has quite a lot of friends. There's a funny statistic, though. If you tell someone in India that they're so special, they're "one in a billion"... well, here, that means that there is someone exactly like you in every way.

    The second quality I want to talk about is the family unit. In the States, of course, we have the nuclear family, uncles/aunts/cousins/grandparents, and -if you're very lucky - a good set of in-laws. In India, there's a phenomenon called the joint family. This joint family is massive - I've seen some in excess of a hundred members - and in some cases some of the members don't even know each other. The way these huge units are created is through very close, deliberate tracking of each child, that child's spouse (and their family) as well as their children's spouses. My current host family has a joint family that keeps track of all the families that sprung from a great-great-grandfather who had five children. Think of that for a second. That's five spouses, and we'll go low and say they each had two kids. Then you have ten more spouses, each, we'll lowball again, with two kids apiece. We're already at fifty, and we haven't included in-laws or the youngest generation's spouses. So it's easy to see how joint families can realistically and easily grow into the massive affairs they are.

    However, more than just their size (which is, as I said, just a result of really great tracking and get-togethers), families in India have a degree of control over their members that would positively shock the normal American. And it's here, unfortunately, that many of the stereotypes about Indians prove true. You want to get an education? Great, try to be a doctor or engineer, anything less and we'll be dissapointed. You want to get married? Fantastic, we'll look in the newspaper (this actually happens and it makes me sick) and find you a good match, and the family a good "alliance". You earned some money from your job? Excellent, just put it in the family bank account and if you want to use it for something, your parents will decide. These situations aren't hyperbole, I've seen examples of each several times over here. And those three examples I've given above are really indicative of how much control the family unit has over an individual's (and, in consequence, the society's) life in India. If you doubt how comprehensive this dynamic is, ask yourself what you would have the ability to control in your life if your education, romantic future, and finances were dictated to you by someone else.

    Once again, though, it's not a complete negative. Indian families are closer and more loyal to each other than many I've seen in the US. And here's a thought that I won't pursue here (cause God knows I go off on enough tangents as it is): the percentage of marriages that end in divorce in the US is over fifty percent, whereas in India it's miniscule, less than twenty, I believe. In the States, we have no barriers on who we can marry, but we evidently end up making the wrong choice more often than not. Here, Indians don't have a choice but they stick it out much better than we do. So the question I would ask is, "What's the better type of marriage for an individual? For a society?" I'm pretty sure that most everyone in America wants to choose their own spouse, and I'm no different, so I'd say that I'd prefer the Western style for my individual marriage. But I am also a child of divorced parents, so I know how disruptive divorces can be to children. Is that enough for me to say that it's more beneficial for a society to have arranged marriages than love marriages? I don't know. What I do know is that this ability to learn to love someone you've never met is a trait that I greatly admire in Indians, and it's a big part in my final summation of their culture that you'll see below (we'll get there, I promise). Oh, I guess I pursued that thought that I said I wouldn't pursue. Sorry.

    Quickly, on to point number three before my wandering thoughts get the better of me again. This final point is the slow speed of change. We have to remember, when we talk about India, that this is one of the oldest cultures in the world. They have millenia of tradition to fall back on, and in a lot of cases this is really stinkin' cool, although at times it can be a detriment. Let me give you a few examples so I can show you what I mean. The sari is a traditional dress for Indian women that is comprised of a shirt that leaves the stomach bare, a long, thin, scarf-like thingy called a duppatti, and a dress that is made of one long cloth wrapped around the body. It's a very beautiful, very traditional get-up. So when you see someone driving a car, or a scooter, or doing some other equally modern action whilst wearing such traditional garb... that, right there, is to me one of the best representations of modern India. A traditional society in a modern world.

    Let me think of another example... okay, here we go. The other day, as I was continuing my endless, noble, and often ill-fated struggle to avoid boredom in Bharuch, I saw my host mom sweeping the floor (there's no carpets in India except the flying kind and Aladdin went out of business a while ago) I volunteered to help her with her task. She does all the cleaning by herself around the house and I wanted to be of assistance. She declined, saying that boys in India don't do that kind of thing. This is also a great representation of modern India - a task being more difficult than it would otherwise be if the society adopted some pretty widespread, mainstream reforms. This really slow pace is the cause of many of the unique facets of this society. We keep animals in the street? Well yeah, we've always done that. Our families are big? Yeah, that's just an Indian thing. We treat people differently due to gender and caste? Yes, because that's how it's always been. Living in India has taught me many lessons about the danger of manmade tradition. But it's also taught me how incredible it can be. Beautiful dresses, extravagant dances, social customs of respect and honor that make me reevaluate how I treat people. There is bad tradition and good tradition, and India has plenty of each.

    So, now the big one. If I had to define Indians by one trait, one special quality, it would be this: spiritual toughness. Let me explain what I mean. It can, at times, be a bad thing, as Indians have a saying: "Chalega", or, "what will be, will be". Their almost unnatural toughness can be such a dominant part of their mental makeup that they will refuse to change a bad condition and instead simply withstand it. For the most part, though, this trait is something incredible to behold. Indian men who are willing to withstand terrible work conditions to feed their families. Indian women who put up with second-class status in order to keep the peace. Indian families who are willing to sleep ten people in a room so that everyone has (at least a part of) a bed. A society that is willing to sacrifice its freedom of choice in marriage, its "right" to be offended , and generally speaking, it's happiness for that of another. You could also call it, I suppose, reckless humility, or unbounding patience. Whatever its name, it's an honor to experience and hopefully adopt and something that I hope more Americans take a look at.

    You know, we have all these rights in the States, and we're very polite, which is all well and good. What can sometimes happen, however, is that we'll get so used to those rights being protected, and people putting others before themselves, that if someone doesn't bend over backwards for us, we'll get offended. This is, in my opinion, one of the biggest blights on the personality of our people. I thought before I came here, and my time here has only reinforced it, that one can choose whether or not to be offended by someone else, or emotionally impacted by them in any way, really. There is no law, no instinct, no spiritual requirement or emotional quota that allows someone else to control your reaction - to anything. The only ability anyone or anything has to influence your attitude is the ability you give it. This is really what it boils down to: say somebody cuts in front of you in a line - did that simple physical action of him stepping a foot in front of you out of turn give him the mystical power to force you to be angry? No, of course not. Or if you break your phone screen - was there some part of your soul hidden in there like a Horcrux, so that if it shatters you've got to start worrying about everything for no reason? No. What logically follows is that if there is no power that can force us to have any sort of attitude, then we have no excuse for, frankly, acting like jerks to other people. That means no shouting at someone and then saying we had a long day, or being prejudiced against someone only to excuse it on an upbringing - as if the other person's day was shorter than yours or your upbringing artificially put words in your mouth. We have the priviledge, the responsibility, and the great opportunity that we can really be in control of our emotions, and, consequently, our happiness.

    So hey God bless you, everybody, take it easy, work hard. Remember what's important. Stay safe. I love you all and I'll be back before you - or I - know it.

  • Zach, outbound to India

    Hi there everyone! Kaise ho? I'm doing very well. The date is 4 April, and I'm currently on a train to Agra with my mom, so I have some time to tell you all what I've been doing recently. This journal will, I think, be of a more average variety than my last entry.
    So the main thing that's happened since my last entry is the North Tour. It was an excursion of eighteen days to, as you might expect, various locations around the northern region of my adopted country. It was my favorite tour of the three I've been on, due to the quantity and quality of our experiences, as well as the relative health with which I enjoyed them all, which was a first. I'll cover the highlights of the trip and then make some other comments.

    So the first highlight was, believe it or not, the transportation. We were on trains for close to two days, and in a bus (which had twelve seats for eighteen passengers) for the remainder of the journey. I've spoken briefly before about the great quality of character my fellow exchange students possess - and I'll touch again on it later - but I really cannot say enough good things about these guys.

    It takes a very unique kind of relationship, a very strong group, to be able to put up with cramped travel arrangements for any length of time, and yet we only grew closer through difficult circumstances. We, at various points throughout our journey, sat the majority of our group in one train compartment designed for six, utilized each others' laps as seats during bus rides that lasted literally all day, and packed all of our belongings on the roof of the bus at four in the morning using nothing more than discarded rope we had found on the side of the road.

    The kind of stories that we're now able to tell are phenomenal, and the shared experiences are of the kind that can define an exchange. I can tell you that, as a result of these transportation arrangements, not only are my friends and I much closer, but I'm a much better poker player (with my wallet a few rupees heavier), and interested in many more kinds of music than I had been before these rides.

    Another highlight I can relate to you is an account of my trip to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. But first some backstory on the Taj itself. The Taj Mahal, which means "Crown Palace" in Hindi, is in actuality a tomb, not a palace. A long time ago, one of the Maharajas ("Great Kings") of the Mughal era was at the bedside of his Maharani ("Great Queen", one of his wives). She was dying and, as a last request to her husband and liege, made him swear to fufill three oaths of her choosing. He complied. Her first demand was to take care of their children, giving the males good land holdings and assignments in the Kingdom. Simple enough. The second - never love another woman. This was quite a bold request, especially for a woman in such a society, even more so considering the fact that the Maharaja had multiple wives. This, too, her husband agreed to. And her final request was that he would make her the greatest monument the world had ever seen. As you can tell, this woman must have thought quite highly of herself. At any rate, the Maharaja honored his oaths, and the Taj remains today, despite the rise and fall of multiple empires.

    It's quite difficult to adequately describe the appearance of the Taj. Of course you could look at pictures, but that doesn't do it any sort of justice. It's sheer mass, it's polished stone, it's perfect symmetry are probably the highest form of beauty in architecture that I've seen in my life. I recommend going to see it, as it's unique and unmatched throughout the world. Some interesting things about the Taj - the four spires on the exterior actually lean out to a small degree. This was done (by incredible foresight on the part of the builders) to avoid a collapse of the central structure should an earthquake ever strike the compound. In such an event, the spires would simply fall outward, leaving the main building intact. Another interesting aspect of this wonder of the world is it's mosque. Mosques in India are oriented to the west, so as to allow worshippers to face Mecca. However, due to the exacting symmetry of the Taj, an identical copy of this mosque was placed on the eastern side. The only problem? There is no point on earth to have a mosque that faces away from Mecca. Muslims can't use it. So what they did was take this copied mosque and call it a guest house. No one has ever stayed there, of course, since no one wants to be guests at a tomb, but the builders' dream of perfect symmetry was achieved, and the Taj Mahal stands strong as one of the most unique and impactful cultural achievements of India, especially during the Mughal period.

    As much as the Taj impacts you, however, it was overshadowed in my mind by the Himalayan mountain range. The Himalayas were at the tail end of the trip, to finish it off in style, I guess. Coming from Florida, these things absolutely defy explanation. They are probably the most beautiful pieces of creation I've ever seen. With trees crammed between snow on top and villages on the bottom, there's a different kind of beauty everywhere you look. It's extremely difficult for me to adequately describe the feeling it inspired in me now, so instead I will quote something I wrote as I was riding through the twists and turns of the mountain range, marvelling at the sheer rock faces, wide forests, and waterfalls.

    The Himalayas rise like a crown from the brow of India, bejewelled with bright, snow-capped peaks and inlaid with flashing and cascading waterfalls. Few wonders of the natural world can compare to the beauty of these mountains, or effect the same breathless wonder as ensues when beholding the earth from her majestic heights.
    Aside from being possessed of stunning and glorious beauty, these mountains afforded me another great experience- my first time playing in snow! I had more fun than I had even hoped for, having snowball fights and nailing my friends in the face. Another discovery I have made - snow is, believe it or not, quite cold. I got a chance to see just how cold, as well as just how beautiful the mountains could be, when I and some friends decided to do some trekking.

    The group of exchange students was in a tourist area, a kind of snowy valley between all the peaks. There was lots of expensive stuff to do there, and so, with our customary aversion to spending, three of my fellow students and I went off on our own. One was a Brazillian boy named Sascha, and the other two were a French boy and girl named Hubert and Louise. We saw a hill (we judged it to be about nine stories high, given the fact that it was thrice the size of a three-story building) covered in snow and capped by a rock formation, and decided to reach the top. Our old, rented snow-suits and boots repeatedly failed us, oftentimes completely seperating from one another and allowing ice to take up residence next to our toes.

    I can pretty easily say I've never been colder in my life. The snow was probably about eight to ten meters deep, and we were sinking up to our thighs. We had to alternate between walking, crawling, and resting, choosing the best paths and taking turns leading - walking in someone else's footprints wasn't terrible, but God help you if it was your turn to make the initial carve through the ice. It took us about two hours and nearly all of the feeling in our extremities, but we made it to the top, and the view did not dissapoint. I have included pictures to give you some idea, though they can't capture either the beauty of the surrounding or our feeling of accomplishment at having completed so difficult a task. On the way down, of course, we found the steepest slopes we could and slid. What a fantastic time!

    But now, North tour is over. Indeed, all the tours are over. The number of planned days we have left to enjoy each other's company is down to less than a handful - for some, even less. I've already had to say goodbye to three of my new friends, and let me tell you that it isn't easy. In fact, it straight sucks.

    The youth exchange program is focused on learning about the world, picking up a language, all that stuff, but what really makes it a fantastic experience is the people you meet - specifically, the other students in your host country. The requisite intelligence, bravery, compassion, and questionable sanity common to us is what binds us together. You grow so close with this group, all the while knowing that your time together will be very temporary. This is especially true for me. The majority of the group is from Europe, which is far beyond the distance a 'casual flight to hang out with friends' extends. Then we have some from South and Central America, also not easy trips to do. Even the three other Americans here are concentrated in the Northeast. So I'm trying to confront the notion that I'll never see most, if not all of these friends of mine. And I definitely cannot overstate how important these friends are to your exchange. I've spoken before on how little there is to do in my city Bharuch. I honestly would have probably gotten seiously depressed if my two new best friends, Chloe and Caroline (both French) were not there this year. When they leave... well, let's just say I'm glad I won't be in India too long without them.

    Alright, alright, time to bring this to a close. Some more advice to whomever is still reading these things, and this applies to life in general as much as to exchange. Relationship is the only thing that matters. Everything else is window dressing. You could be all-powerful, all-knowing, and infinite, and still desire relationship - in fact, that's why people were created. We were made to be the object and the generator of love. Because Love crosses political and societal boundaries, language and class barriers, and it is the only thing (to roughly quote my new favorite movie "Interstellar") that can "cross space and time". Ok, here ends my requisite cheesy section.
    I would be remiss if I didn't mention the day. Happy Easter, folks. I'll see you soon. God bless you and take it easy.

  • Zach, outbound to India

    Hi there everyone! The date is 19 February 2015 and it's time for me to make another journal entry. This one will be a majorly different, as I'm going to talk chiefly about a current affair that is weighing heavily on my heart and mind at this hour. I ask that you read with an open mind and be ready to evaluate some things about yourself. I have wanted to say these words for a long time, but haven't felt quite sure how to put them. As you read these words, know that I have considered each one carefully and ask that you do the same.

    What I want to say, in introduction, is that safety is overrated, and that if you make it the first priority in your life you'll never accomplish anything. Let me explain. No one wakes up in the morning and says, "I can't wait to be safe today!" It just doesn't happen. For an outbound, for any human being, safety should be a factor, not a goal. So what does that mean in real life? It means that you don't evaluate the decision of going to India, as so many do, by the possibility of disease and the relative lack of living standards. It means that you don't stay in a bad situation simply because of your fear of the bad possibilities of change. It means you don't refuse to draw a line in the sand because you're afraid of its finality. Now, that doesn't mean throwing your brain away. But listen. If you wait to seize an opportunity until all risk is gone, you'll never seize an opportunity again. There's always the presence of fear when you're going into a dangerous or uncertain situation - everyone who denies this is either lying or stupid. In this instance, I turn to the wisdom of John Wayne: "Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway." When in doubt, turn to John Wayne.

    This brings me to my main point in my undefined list of points, world affairs. The issue that I specifically want to discuss is ISIL, which stands for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. The Levant, in this instance, is a broad and loosely defined group of territory that is generally accepted to include Syria, Egypt, the Arabian Peninsula, and Israel. They've obviously been directly responsible for the deaths of thousands of people, regardless of religion. By the way, the Atlantic made a really great article about it, I suggest you read it. So why am I bringing this up? Because I, thanks to this exchange, have a vastly different perspective than almost everyone reading this journal. I am currently in a country where the majority faith is not some flavor of Christianity or Atheism, but where instead I am in the minority as far as population is concerned. Indeed, as I've noted in past journals, every morning I'm greeted by the sounds of Muslim prayer, and in fact it's one of my favorite things to listen to. It's beautiful. Even though I'm not a Muslim or a Hindu, I can respect those religions, and much more importantly, I can love the people who belong to them.

    Here's the rub, though. There's now a force in the world, a force that controls more territory than the United Kingdom, that inherently cannot practice that same empathy. This force doesn't rest until its enemies are dead or subdued, and it defines 'enemies' as anyone who stands in the way of the execution of a medieval style of government. Completely take away the fact that they're Muslims, because most Muslims don't act this way, and because, frankly, it doesn't matter what religion they profess. If they were Christians I would be condemning them more strongly than I am now (as would the media, I'm sure). I could care less if they were Muslims or Christians or Athiests or worshipped the Flying Spaghetti Monster. It really doesn't make a lick of a difference.

    What does make a difference is what they're doing. Their territorial expansion, treatment of civillians, and apparent relish of showing it all off to the world is evil. Let me say that last word again. Evil. It's become something of a four-letter word in our society, as has its opposite. Everything in the West has become so relativized, to the point where we can't call a spade a spade - "it might look black, and it's definitely not a club, heart, or diamond, but we can't absolutely call it a spade." That sounds funny, but it's essentially where we've drifted to as a society. We refuse to call evil by its true name. The effect of this is that our resolve weakens to such a critical state that we - we who have the mightiest armed forces in the history of humanity - frequently leave conflicts bitter and unsure of what we gained or hoped to gain, with far more casualties on either side than is preferable. We did not have this problem during World War 2, and we won decisively - although it took a terrible cost.

    It was a cost that we were willing to pay, however, because we knew two things. We knew that we were protecting the world from a force that knew no notion of compromise to its horrible, stated ideal, an ideal which, if it reached fruition, would neccesarily result in the loss of life and freedom for millions of people. In short, we knew what would happen if nothing was done. The second thing we knew was that there was no one else who could stand in the gap. France was an occupied ruin, England was on the verge of collapse, and the whole of central and eastern Europe was already lost. Of course we entered the war due to the attack on Pearl Harbor, but we could easily have left Europe alone if we so desired. So, in full knowledge of the cost to ourselves, not knowing the end result, we entered into the war and the rest (as is, I suppose, all of this that I've been writing) is history.

    So what does this have to do with you and me, with my exchange, and with ISIL? A variety of things. To start with the simplest point, it relates with ISIL in that the historical similarities (as understanding the past is among the surest ways to predict the future) between Nazi Germany and ISIL are striking. Each are motivated to reclaim a lost empire (German-speaking peoples; ancient Caliphate territory), each are highly influenced by a radicalized religion (Nazi-infused Protestantism, Radical Islam), and each shows a blatant disregard for international reaction. The similarities don't stop there, though. What's important is that we look to history and learn from it so that we don't repeat it. Can we let ISIL, as we let Hitler, annex soverign territority with impunity, while implementing fear tactics and propoganda on a mass scale, and expect a different result? Of course not. And I'm not advocating for the traditional response of sending in the troops. But we cannot make the same mistake as we made with Hitler - that mistake of allowing the 'final demand' of a dictator, or of refusing to back up our condemnations with something a little more solid. I'm no tactician, and ultimately what I'm trying to say goes far deeper than our interaction with ISIL.

    What I'm trying to say is (and this ties in with you and me, as well as my exchange) that we, Western Civilization, need to take a step back and take inventory. Do we believe that good and evil exist? If the answer is yes, then we need to recognize where things stand in the world, whether we are on the side of good or evil, and where everyone else stands. If the answer is no... well, if the answer is no, on what authority is our or any code of laws based off? If there is no right or wrong, there cannot, by definition, be any rights. This is something that has been really hammered into me over the course of my exchange, that good and bad, right and wrong, do exist, and that they have nothing in common. When I see injustice on the streets and in the classrooms here, I know deep down that it is wrong. If you've read any of my earlier entries, you'll know some of the stuff I'm referring to.

    It isn't easy to have such a view of the world, I know. Absolutism is viewed nowadays as archaic at best, judgemental and xenophobic at worst. But take away the public perception. Remember that good and evil, if they exist, are and have to be polar opposites. There is no white in black, there is no black in white. Am I arguing for the existence of such a world? Yes, I am. While I would love to reside in the comfortable, responsible-free zone of the relativist, the world isn't "Fifty Shades of Gray". If, for example, you peeled open an orange and found it infested with maggots and reeking of corruption, save for a small clean spot the size of a dime, would you say the orange 'has good and bad aspects' and proceed to eat it entirely? I certainly hope not. Ask any metallurgist - if there is anything in gold that is not gold, it's not pure gold. In the words of an ancient Greek logician, A is either A or non-A.

    The time has come to draw a line in the sand, and to not be afraid of its finality. Take a stance and stick to it. Find your resolve and guard it jealously. Don't be afraid to learn and to grow, but never betray what you know to be true - what you know to be right. Otherwise, if you have one foot on each side of that line, or if you choose to not see the line, I can promise you that what is on the other side won't care. Evil won't take the time to thoughtfully consider your well-crafted and politcally correct opinions of careful neutrality, no matter how well-intentioned, because it's already come to this black and white viewpoint that the world hates. And guess what? Evil doesn't draw a distinction between the committed and the noncomitted. It subdues or destroys everything it can.

    So, before I close this journal entry out, and before I get myself into (any more) trouble, I'll leave you with this. When one asks people who they want to be, what they want to do, the answer is usually that they want to "be a good person", or "live a good life". If there's no good or no evil, their lives are by definition aimless. Ask yourself the same question. Do you want to be a good person? Regardless of the answer, you must choose for yourself how to define good. And, once you've done this, once we've all done this, we can start looking at the world and using the resources of good to destroy the works of evil.

    Thanks for reading this, everyone. And thank you Rotary for being so committed to your goal of raising thoughtful, passionate youths, that you've given me the platform to make a statement such as this and are brave enough to post it.


  • Zach, outbound to India

    Hey there, everyone! Let me begin by apologizing for the delay between journals. There's absolutely no excuse and I'm very sorry. I will say that it's not just laziness (although there is some of that, if we're being honest), a big reason for the delay was a simple inability to adequately describe my experiences. Anyway, I'm here now, and evidently so are you, so let's get down to business.

    Happy New Year! Sal Mubarak! The Indian new year was celebrated a few months ago but people still switch their calendars and everything, so I've gotta throw that in there. On the first day of the new year, I shifted host families, after spending five wonderfully impactful months at the Raja house. I am now living about a fifteen minute walk away in the house of Sailesh and Rajmi Shah, along with their daughter Pooja and some Uncle (in India the respected title for an elder in English is Uncle or Auntie) who speaks no English, and very little Hindi, and whose name I forgot. They're all great. They treat me as though I were a member of the family, and I'm blessed to be here. I love the house - it's cozy and nestled in the middle of a society (large neighborhood) where I can walk around and explore, while also being close enough to various points that I can walk most anywhere I need to go without trouble.

    That brings me to the subject of my daily schedule. I wake up at 6:30 every morning (except Sunday, it's the only day off), spend about an hour worshipping Jesus, then get ready. The water pressure in my bathroom leaves a little bit to be desired - I'm required to either fill and empty a bucket or sit under the faucet, as the showerhead doesn't really work. Of course, the water is always ice cold in the morning, but this is good as it forces me to wake up quicker. Once that's done, I throw on my school uniform, go grab some delicious breakfast from my host mom, brush my teeth, and I'm out the door.

    It's about a five minute walk to the place where I can take a rickshaw to my college. My college experience has gotten significantly better than the start of the year. I have more friends, the classes are getting better (I'm learning calculus and actually doing pretty good at it), and in my spare time I'm trying to learn physics from a pretty ancient library book. The progress is slow, though, and I might switch to a calculus book if I keep getting stymied. College is from 8:30 to 2:00, Monday through Saturday. I get home at around 2:15ish, where, after I change my clothes, my host mom has a lunch prepared for me. She's awesome, now - she tutors kids each day, is a fantastic wife at home, as well as having a degree in mathematics. After I eat, I relax or explore for about two and a half hours, then walk for half an hour to get to the Rotary club. I work out there for maybe an hour and then walk home. I shower, eat, study physics, and sleep by around 10:30.

    Looking back on that, I suppose that the extra-curriculars, physics and working out, may not make much sense to an outside perspective. One might ask, perfectly justifiably, why I'm not doing more Indian things. My response is this: your exchange is, in addition to an amazing opportunity to expand your knowledge, make memories, and adapt to a new culture, a chance for you to really take stock of your life, to see what changes you want to make, and to make those changes. It's not often that you get a year with relatively few responsibilities, as well as loads of free time. I believe that when you have such an opportunity to improve yourself, it would be irresponsible not to take it.

    In my case, I've been blessed with the opportunity to attend FSU next year (Go Noles!) and I have a variety of things I want to do there, including, amongst others, furthering my boxing (pretty much the only sport I'm good at), gaining a technical skill of some sort, and really applying myself in my education. To attain these goals, I've worked out this schedule, and thus far I'm really pleased with the results. I'm growing my body and my mind, as well as expanding my horizons during my exchange year.

    To all you future outbounds who might read this page, I want to give you a stern warning. There are some future outbounds, as well as some current outbounds, who think that your exchange is simply an opportunity to take a year off from school, hang out with some attractive foreigners, and maybe pick up a word or two in another language - in other words, a vacation. I want to be clear on this - if that's your plan, I seriously advise changing it or possibly canceling your exchange. This program costs too much money (whether you get it all paid for by your parents or have to work and ask for help as I did), there are too many good kids who just barely miss the cut, and, most importantly, this is too big an opportunity for you to waste in such a way.

    Honestly, if you're just looking for a vacation, go take one! Rotary didn't give us the awful -used in it's original sense- responsibility of being ambassadors for the United States so an immature kid can say he went overseas for a year. Samajh gaya?

    Now, with that preemptive little wrist-slap out of the way, let's move on. Aside from switching host families and attending college, there were a few other noteworthy events in the month of January. The first of these was something called a Rotary Friendship Exchange - Rotary, I love you, but you've gotta make a new name for that. It gives me visions of Barney giving a big hug to some poor foreign business leader with rainbows in the background. Anyhoo, for those of you who don't know, the RFE is a fantastic program that allows a small group of maybe twenty Rotarians to go to a foreign country for about a week or two, after which a return trip is usually made by an equal number of Rotarians from the country that formerly hosted the first batch. In this case, I got to meet, for the first time, some of our friends from the north - Canadians.

    Now, I had no idea what to expect, whether they would show up in Bharuch wearing ski jackets, hoisting hockey sticks, or whatever, but I am so glad I got the opportunity to meet and spend the day with them (we went to a dam and a school, which were cool, but just hanging out with these people was really sweet). Turns out, they weren't clad in any snow gear, they barely said "eh", and were generally excellent people. In fact, I told one of them, at the end of the day, that "Canadians are pretty much exactly like Americans, except without the ego." That got a lot of laughs. In all seriousness, however, I learned a lot about the country and it's people, which I really wanted to do seeing as how I've never really left Florida since this exchange.

    I spoke with one lady who organizes a national park up there. Their city is actually based in the park and has defined limits, and her job is to organize the zoning of the city to protect the environment while simultaneously growing businesses and residences. Not an easy task, but it was fascinating to just listen to her speak about her profession, as well as important issues facing Canada.

    I also met this fantastic young woman named Amy. She's in college, she's got a killer sense of humor, and she's absolutely brilliant, one of the smartest young people I've had the pleasure of associating with (I hope this doesn't come off bad, but there is almost nothing more refreshing than speaking with intelligent people). She's descended from one of the Native American tribes up there and is extremely passionate about their circumstances, and wants to dedicate her life to helping them however she can. I spoke with her for a good portion of the day, and I am confident when I say that the people she cares about are in good hands. The entire experience with the Canadians was phenomenal, and one I won't forget for a long, long time.

    Now, the main event of January, which happened shortly after the Canadians stopped by, was the second of our three tours, the Gujarat tour. It was eight days, all by bus, followed by a four-day stint in a beautiful city called Baroda for something called Vadfest (a cultural arts festival). I had been looking forward to this for a long time, as our program included seeing numerous temples, a salt desert, a national forest, as well as a mountain with a temple on the top. We also had the opportunity to go to a house wherein resided the only family in the world who still practices an ancient artform called rangon (essentially getting a paste from crushed minerals and painting silk with it). Of course the main highlight was getting to see all my exchange friends. I was all about it, very excited.

    Here's the status, though. I got food poisoning my first night. I don't know what did it, but I do know that it kept me sidelined for a good portion of the week. I was still able to enjoy the planned events - as well as a wonderous, unscheduled hangout session with some kids from a village, during which time we played cricket (I'm really bad), sang, danced, and just hung out. The main thing I want to talk about, though was the mountain.

    First off, coming from Florida, I'm not even very familiar with the concept of hills. So anytime I see a mountain I'm blown away. Creation is beautiful. This mountain had something like five thousand steps to get to the top, along with temples and shops scattered along the way. Now, before the tour, I was ready to attack this thing. I was thinking I would try to be the first one up to the top, that I would take no breaks, and pretty much treat it like a physical challenge. Obviously, getting food poisoning challenged that. I made it nearly a thousand steps, whereupon I bent over the side and puked. Multiple times. Four, I think. It wasn't pretty. Man, talk about a dose of humility. I went to a covered area and lay down for about thirty minutes. I was considering sleeping the four hours it would take for all my friends to make the round trip, but when I had nearly decided to call it, I thought, "If I try this, there's no guarantee I'll make it up to the top. It'll suck. I'll probably be alone for most of the trip. But if I don't do it, I'll never have another shot."

    It took me a while, I had to stop on numerous occasions, and I was frequently passed by old women and children, but you know what? Climbed that son of a gun. I stayed at the top for about ten minutes catching my breath, then I made the trip down. I didn't puke any more, thank God. When I returned to the base, all my friends (who had passed me when I was in my wretched state beforehand) congratulated me and we talked about the experience.

    Looking back on it now, that mountain was a fantastic symbol of the exchange experience. Everyone on exchange has a time when, to use a phrase from boxing, they get hit in the mouth. A gut check. Do you really want to stay here? Are you sure? This challenge that you thought you were ready for, that you've sought after, in my case, for a number of years, turns out to be a whole lot bigger than you thought. For all intents and purposes, you're on your own, in a strange environment, surrounded by people who make you feel like a child. But when you decide to keep pressing forward, you see things that are incredible. You see the unique beauty of the mountain that you're climbing, you see the strength and the personality of the people who live on that mountain. The climb is always hard, though. But the summit makes it all worthwhile. And then, after all that time, you return to the bottom, to go back into the familiar... but you can always feel the gravity of the mountain over your shoulder. It teaches you about the world, and about yourself. You take it with you.

    Sorry for the sentimentality.

    Quick shout-out to my brother Chris. He turns 20 on the 7th of February. Missing Christmas was hard, missing the Super Bowl even harder, but missing my brother's birthday will be harder than either. Chris is one of the smartest, most passionate, and most gifted people I know. I don't take pride in many things, but one of the exceptions is that I get to call such a marvelous guy - such a marvelous man - my brother. It's an honor to know him, and being apart from him this year has been rough. I love you, Chris, and God knows we'll share a cheeseburger and a big hug when I get back.

    February 9th is going to mark the completion of my sixth month in India. The time has flown by, and I know these last four months will go by even faster. With that in mind, I've gotta sleep. I've got a foreign country to encounter tomorrow.

  • Zach, outbound to India

    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, everyone!

    Thanks for reading this. As always, I'll try to make it entertaining, enlightening, and brutally honest. The holidays are here - although that's a misnomer as there are major Indian holidays almost every month - and the 9th of January will mark the halfway point of my exchange.

    It's such a strange feeling. I have wanted to go on exchange since I was a freshman. I worked for almost eight months, twenty hours a week in addition to my usual (and challenging) courseload to earn the money. I taught myself Hindi for over an hour every day for months to the point where I could read and write before I even left. I had help from a lot of people (and Rotary), but with some hard work I was able to get here despite a few setbacks. And after all this effort I'm forced to acknowledge that, at the halfway point of my exchange, I have barely scratched the surface of this country and what I set out to do during the course of this year. It's partially a result of my circumstances, and partially my own fault.

    Let me be clear, I love this country, my host family, my city, the whole shabang. But I suppose there's been an adjustment period going from the largest city in Florida to one of the smallest and most traditional cities in Gujarat. The thing is, there's just not that much to do here. There really isn't. I'm not the only one to think this way - my two newest best friends, two French girls living here as well, agree with my assessment. A lot of Indians do as well. There are no malls in Bharuch, are largest store is the Indian equivalent of a small WalMart. The closest park is on the other side of town. There are no sports clubs for my age group that I'm aware of. My daily schedule consists of going to the gym in the morning, going to college (on the days I go - my attendance record is less than perfect due to trips and other exchange duties), and then going to sit and talk with friends in the afternoon. Then I come home, eat, and sleep.

    I'm gonna try to rectify this situation, though. If my city is small, that means I can explore every inch of it. I'll go out each day and try to learn one new thing about my city, about my adopted country. I'll try to find a class wherein I can learn a distinctly Indian skill, to bring home to America. I will make the most of my circumstances, no matter what they are.

    I can say, however, that all that work with Hindi has been paying off. I have had many good teachers since coming here (repetition and mistakes chief among them), and it led to my receiving an opportunity to give a speech.

    In Hindi.

    In front of three thousand people - Rotarians, no less.

    Uh oh.

    I was acting as the Master of Ceremonies for a performance given by myself and my fellow outbounds at the Rotary District 3060 Conference. This performance involved several dances, a skit, and a couple songs - and I was talking to the audience in between every piece. Our dancing went really well, our songs alright (our skit was pretty bad). My speech was pretty good, I think. People clapped. They understood. Moreover, I understood what I was saying, which was quite a relief. If you've ever had to give a speech in an unfamiliar tongue, you'll empathize.

    On the first of January I will be switching host families. I don't know exactly where I'm going or with whom I'll stay. I do know this, however - I have the utmost respect and gratitude for the Raja family. They've fed me (no small task), given me a bed (also challenging given my size), and taken care of me for five months. They're a great group of people and I will look back on these past five months with fondness.

    Mixing with that recognition, however, is an assortment of feelings about switching host families. Will we get along? What language do they speak? Where, and in what condition do they live? What will our schedule be? And so on, and so forth... In some ways, it's quite similar to the feeling that accompanied my arrival to India - albeit to a far lesser degree.

    Since it's the holiday season, I've got a gift for you all. A small list of stories and reflections that, when taken together, could give you a somewhat better understanding of this place I've called my home for the past five months.

    - We'll start with a rickshaw story. As I've mentioned before, rickshaws are compact, three-wheeled vehicles smaller than your average double bed. They are driven by occasionally generous but usually foul-mouthed and treacherous men who try their best to connive foreigners out of a few extra rupees (I kid, it's all fun with these guys, even when they overcharge and you haggle them down). Anyway, there was this one time in Vapi (a larger city where some European exchangers stay, we practiced for the conference there) where some of us exchange students wanted to go to McDonald's. And, being at best frugal and at worst dirt cheap, we decided to load ten people into a rickshaw. Imagine that. Ten teenagers (one guy was even bigger than me) and a guitar loaded into a space the size of a double-bed. Now, I don't know how old this rickshaw was but I'm assuming it's pretty ancient. I'm also fairly certain rickshaws have all the horsepower of a tricycle with deflated tires. So, when we reach a small hill, the rickshaw just can't do it. One of my French friends and I quickly jumped out (on the highway), pushed this poor thing up the hill, and then ran to jump back in. We went merrily on our way, keeping as best we could to negative slopes, and made it to the McDonald's, whereupon we all half-climbed, half-fell out of the rickshaw, shook out our cramps, and paid the driver ten rupees a head. Comfortable? No. Safe? Absolutely not. But you know what? It makes for a fantastic story.

    - Now for a tale about the hospitality, as well as the rather unique social graces of Indians. First thing you should know is that Indians have absolutely no problem staring at people. Like, zero. Oh, you're tall/white/blonde? Well then you MUST be famous. I literally couldn't tell you the number of times people have just watched me from afar, asked to take pictures with me, or call out while driving (thankfully I've not caused any accidents that way). Anyway, one fine morning, early on in my exchange year, I was walking home from my friendly neighborhood Rotary club, when a young man approached me, shook my hand, and asked, with 100% excellent Indian grammar, "From which country you are from?" I was respectful, answered him, and continued walking. Much to my surprise, he followed me. Now, it's little less than a mile from the club to the place where I board a rickshaw, but this guy walked with me the entire way, asking all sorts of questions the entire time through. So I bid him farewell, boarded the rickshaw... and nearly jumped out of my skin when this guy slid in next to me. We went to my house, he was served some water by my Didi (paternal grandmother), and left - we didn't even know each other's names but he had followed me (in admittedly creepy fashion) for almost two miles into my home. Crazy stuff.

    - To give you an idea of the Indian education system, I'll present you with another story. This one also occurs during my stay in Vapi, with my French friend Romeo and his host family, which includes a young boy who I called Bhaiya. Romeo, Bhaiya, and myself had been discussing world history shortly before we went on a nighttime drive. This kid, fourteen years old, didn't know who Hitler or Napeoleon were. Yet, when I pointed out the moon and wondered aloud as to how far it was from us, he was able to give me the exact distance in kilometers. How strange is that? It's not just him, either. My host brother "studies" hours each night (memorizes answers word for word) to present to his teacher (who also requires word for word answers) but can't tell me where the Caribbean is on a map, nor does he have any appreciable use of logic. These two instances are very indicative of the Indian education system, one founded on rote repetition rather than critical thinking. My best Indian friend Taiba (the class president I mentioned in my last entry) is able to memorize a five-page long speech in about two days, but if you ask her to come up with one on the spot, she'll have some trouble with it, despite being immensely intelligent and a talented English speaker. It's just the way kids here are raised, which is almost directly opposite to our upbringing in America.

    Anyway, I should probably go. Thanks for reading this. I'll try to stay in touch. Stay safe, have fun, God bless you guys.

  • Zach, outbound to India

    Hey there everyone! Sorry for the long wait between journals, but I've got a lot to talk about.

    I've been here four months as of 7 December and they've been truly unique. I've had considerable highs and lows and I'll relate them here since this is, well, my journal. I'll do my best to make my thoughts clear yet thought-provoking, so that any interested readers (or future outbounds) can get a good picture of what it's like here. I'll begin with the negatives and then end on a high note.

    People I spoke to before I came always said that India was the most challenging exchange. I haven't been to any other countries, and I suppose I might be a bit biased, but I think this assumption is correct. The conception in the West is that India is, with the exception of Bombay (Mumbai), a dirty, backwards, and overall unpleasant place to live. I must admit that this, too, has some truth to it.

    There's trash that is literally stacked a meter high on the side of roads, which they dispose of by burning with open flame. There's dust and dirt on everything, which I guess is a part of living in a desert/plains area like Gujarat (my state). For the people who are wondering, yes I have used Indian toilets (literally a small platform with a hole in the center) - even while on board a train, which was extremely uncomfortable yet made me feel like a great exchange student! There are mosquitos of a propensity I have never known, even in Florida. There's cow dung (holy to the Hindus) on every street, beggars at every bazaar, and cracks in most pieces of glass.

    But these are just the superficial problems, beauty marks really (I love this place) of my adopted country. There are deep issues here which have come to, if not define, seriously impact my exchange, as well as my view of America and the world.

    I have discovered that there is a type of oppression that is unspoken, invisible, and hidden, but no less impactful. A kind of oppression that can span generations without slowing down. I am referring, of course, to the Indian caste system.

    Most people, and almost all Indians (save those, I think, who are most limited by it) will tell you that it doesn't exist, or that its effects are minimal. After all, caste-based discrimination was outlawed many years ago by the Indian government. But after four months here I can see it's influence everywhere. Some Indians only do business with those in their caste, or give higher prices to those outside it. Some only socialize with those in their immediate subcaste. The homeless are ignored because of their status as untouchables.

    The worst example of this, I think, exists in my college. My two best friends are Moslem girls (who are also best friends), one Shiite and one Sunni. They are incredibly intelligent, very studious , and routinely score the top marks in the class. One was even elected to what I guess is the equivalent of a class president. The only problem? They will get their degrees and then be arranged to be married off to strangers, condemned to the life of a housekeeper, completely unable to reap the benefits of the degree for which they work so hard. Their jobs will include cleaning and raising kids, instead of being innovators and leading businesses.

    Yet, for all that, I doubt I've ever seen a more beautiful country. I awake every morning to the sound of roosters, songbirds, and squirrels, of Moslem prayer, pooja, and bells. When I throw open the doors of my bunglow (large house) I'm greeted by sunlight shining in rays through the trees, squirrels scurrying along the ground, and sparrows taking flight high above. Its difficult to comprehend how there could be such lush jungle only meters away from complete dust, but such stark contrast characterizes Bharat (India) - a point I will expound upon later.

    Like an annoying sibling, or your first car (the one with really bad gas mileage), I can't help but overlook the flaws of my new home, and admit that India has my heart. Since my last journal entry, I went on a three-week tour of south India. The things I saw were like something out of an Indiana Jones movie. I went inside a 100 meter tall temple in Madurai that was built almost one thousand years ago. I saw rolling hills of tea trees in the mountains of Karela that looked like a cracked green painting. I toured a palace in in Mysore that could have outmatched any mansion in the USA.

    But the beauty of my adopted homeland is not constrained to its natural assets. There is, among the architecture and fashion here, a disparity of color and construct the likes of which I have never seen. Buildings are crafted in Mughal, Hindu, Portuguese, British, and modern style, and in colors ranging from dull nila (blue) to bright lal (red), with every shade making an appearance. The clothing is much the same, with saris, kuttis, and even modern clothing chosen to display the most color possible. This all makes for a breath taking sight when walking through the city, with long streets of ancient homes accompanied by masses of people, each house and person showcasing every color imaginable.

    This is reflective of a general mindset of Bharatiyan (Indians), that beauty is, in a way, quantitative rather than qualitative. A sari with less than around five colors and a similar number of designs is seen as a plain thing. This extends to ghana (music), where more beats, voices, fluctuations in sound (they have around seven sub-tones used to convey emotion in music) equates to beauty.

    This philosophy extends also to food. All Indian food, even sweets, have some degree of spiciness - even as spicy food has trace amounts of sweetness. Indians do not think a food is worthwhile if it doesn't have more than a few distinct flavors. Whatever the case, I will say that Indian food is fantastic, both in taste and composition. I have tasted more sweets than I knew existed and consumed whole chili peppers raw (emerging unscathed). I have taken rice with every meal, yet never have become satisfied, such is the quality of Indian cooking. I've eaten food so good that my mouth waters to think of it, even now. Some of my favorites... pao bhaji (a roll that's heated on a pan, dipped in a kind of bean sauce), vada pao (the same roll, except with a kind of veg pattie in the middle ), pani poori (a small hollow fried dough ball, which you hole with a thumb before placing food and spicy water inside, and then eat) rice with curry and veg served on a banana leaf ( and eaten with hands), and my favorite, SAMOSAAAA! (Basically potatoes, beans, chutney, and everything delicious and vegetarian, stuffed inside of a thick crust shell that's fried until crispy. On the street you can get two for the equivalent of twenty cents.)

    Asha-behen, the servant who cooks for my host family, is a cook whose only equal may be my mother at home in Jacksonville. She is not the only servant on my premises. Housekeepers, drivers, a watchman, and more are in the employ of my host family. They reside inside the wall of my premises, albeit in much, much worse status than that which I'm accustomed to. One weekend, I took dinner with the family one of the servants - Jasee, her husband Bhurut, his brother, and their children. I attended, expecting light fare with little occasion to the meal. Instead I found them refusing to eat until I was satisfied, filling my dishes whenever I set them down with food they had used all day to prepare... and this from a family who lives in a one-room house.

    I've never been honored so in my life. Who am I to receive this treatment? I'm not worthy of it. I've learned so much from the servants since I've been here - they've taught me a kind of humility I never knew, how to honor those above you, and how to make the most of any situation. If I can live to be half the man they are, I will count myself blessed.

    Every Indian family has servants, and my host family assures me it's normal... yet I can't help but sense an injustice here. Servants are condemned to a life of hard labor simply because their fathers and mothers were servants as well. I don't assign any blame to my host family - They are upstanding people who do more for the poor than most here. People close to me tell me that I need to accept it (otherwise, they say, I will become upset), but is accepting a bad condition not the same as assenting to it? I don't give money to the poor, but I give them time and love, in hopes that these gifts will provide a more lasting impact than money ever could.

    My language is coming along well. I could read and write Hindi before I arrived, and now my speaking is progressing to the point where I can hold complex conversations on politics, religion, and the like with my host grandmother, who speaks no English, and understand about fifty to seventy-five percent. I have a long way to go but screwing up is the best way to learn... and I've screwed up a lot in Hindi!

    I wrote before about the contrast between jungle and dust, and of the disparity between rich and poor (one that buries any notions I had of wealth inequality in America)... this is why: India is a country of polar extremes, which are often located abreast of one another. Fabulous wealth and crippling poverty. Jungle and lifelessness. Legal freedom and societal immobility. Even the seasons - monsoons for months followed by some of the hottest weather in the world. It's hard to rationalize, at times, how the owners of a mansion can live next to the homeless, or how a vibrant, fertile plot of land can exist next to what is essentially dead land. There is little to no middle ground.

    But I wouldn't have it any other way. I love this place, and I'm blessed to have this opportunity. Thanks for reading all this, I'll try to put another one up soon.

  • Zach, outbound to India

    You never know how glad you are for good breaks till your vehicle is a foot away from a donkey, a cow, a crowded rickshaw and a freight truck at once.

    Hey everybody! What's up? Let me tell you what's been going on over here in my densely populated corner of the world.

    As far as what I'm doing... with the exception of a few highlights (which I'll go over later) my days are usually like this:

    Wake up at 5 to go to the gym with friends. Come back at 7:30ish.

    Shower/eat/get into my UNIFORM (sadness) for school.

    Go outside, hop on the back of my family's scooter or motorcycle and have someone drive me to school (also more on driving and my family later).

    School goes from 8:30 to 1. Four hour long lectures and a half hour snack break. The class is sixty kids and a teacher in a room a little larger than a garage. We sit in very stiff wooden benches made for small Indians, not big Americans :D. We have two open doors, an open window, and a bunch of fans. If the power goes out, which happens often, it gets very hot very fast.

    I'm in the Bachelor for Business Administration program, and our classes are: English, Economics (nothing new here), Accounting (It was hard at first, but then when I actually figured out how to do it, it was easier), Math (Blend of statistics and quantitative theory), and computer applications. I have friends and stuff, no problems there... An observation that I have is that they teach their kids to replicate, not innovate. They say, "Remember this, it'll be on the exam." whereas in USA we say, "Learn how to do this, you'll need it." I hope you understand what I mean, it's a very big difference and it permeates throughout a lot of Indian society, not just the schools.

    I get an auto-rickshaw (basically a motorized tricycle that has room for three and sits anywhere from 5 to 10) to a railway station, cross over, and then take a rickshaw the rest of the way home. Once home I eat, rest like 1.5 hours, then hang out with my host family. I do Hindi classes at seven. Also since there was Navratri (a festival), I was going to a class with my fellow Bharuchi exchange students (two French girls and a Spanish girl) to learn Garba (traditional Navratri dance.) Come home, eat, sleep. That's my day.

    Now for my family. We are the Raja family of the Thakkar subcaste. I have a dad, mom, younger brother, and sister who just left to exchange to upstate New York. We are very nicely established here, especially compared to some of the poor, and have our own bunglow (big house) with a six acre premises, gate, and walls. My host dad's business is on the property (a stonecutting business that's been in his family for several generations) as well as the shacks of his workers. My dad is cool, my host brother is crazy (as could be expected from an eleven year old), but my host mom is very concerned for me.

    Now for some highlights.

    My second weekend here, I went to hang out with a Parsi(Zoroastrian) family. Zoroastrianism is an ancient Persian (hence the Parsi) religion that predates almost every other and involves the worship of fire. When the Muslims came to Persia, they kicked out the Zoroastrians and they settled in India. Now this family that I hung out with was EXTREMELY rich. Like, richer than anything I've ever seen. They had two houses, each of which was larger than any house I've ever seen before. The first was an old plantation house on the banks of the Narmada Nagri (river). It was four stories (each story about fifteen feet high), had at least forty rooms, as well as massive premises. Chloe, Caroline, and I (the two French) were completely blown away.... until we went to their second house, a few kilometers east, also on the river. It was an old Mughal fort, complete with walls with cannon slots, a well, and everything, that had been taken by the British and then given to this family's grandfather. It was more than 400 years old. I was standing there like... this place is older than my entire country. However, each time, there was crippling poverty right outside the gates of these rich people... I'll touch more on that later.

    A month or so ago was Ganeshpati (birth of Ganesh, an idol with elephant head), and my family's driver (Sanjay, a friend of mine), his friends, and myself, walked around in the pouring rain for an hour and a half watching these dances and listening to crazy drums and seeing these massive idols. It was a lot of fun and so incredibly different than anything in USA. In some ways they're smarter than us... Example. It's hot in Florida and in India. In Florida when it rains people stay inside. In India they go out because it's cooler. Makes a lot of sense.

    The weekend after that (as I was recovering from the cold I got from the rain! haha) was the Inbound Orientation. We went to Union Territory (not a state, it was south I think) near Vapi and stayed at a hotel for two days. All the exchange students were there. We have like five French, three Americans (with two more yet to come), a Mexican, some Brazilians, some Germans, a massive Dutch guy, and some others. We listened to a lot of lectures, hung out, and stayed up very late.

    One thing I realize is that, while obviously having some outward differences, all exchange students are fundamentally very similar. We are willing to put ourselves in extremely uncomfortable situations just for the fun of it. We're all (reasonably) intelligent, willing to learn, and open to change. This program attracts a remarkable quality of people.

    Anyway, It was awesome. We also learned about some trips we will be having... A three week trip to north India, three week trip to south India, and one week trip in Gujarat (my state). The first of these is in November. I'm so excited.

    And of course, the biggest thing thus far has been Navratri. It's a festival celebrating the victory of good over evil, so I got into it. Basically what it entails is going to a cleared space and dancing in a circle with lots of other people from about 9 pm to around 1 in the morning. Now, as anyone who has ever seen me dance knows, it's not one of my strong suits. I was taught a couple different steps (there are over sixty different steps total, conservatively) and put them to use. However, about 90% of the dancing my fellow exchange students and I did was learned at the ground itself, in the midst of at least three thousand people dancing with us in very cramped space.

    This is a very good analogy for the exchange experience, and India in particular. Go to a strange, exotic place, filled with more people that you can no more count than converse with, and attempt something that you are not very good at, whilst learning on the fly. It was, at various times, frustrating, saddening (especially my dance abilities), and even dangerous, but more than anything it was funny, exciting, and tons of fun.

    Navratri lasts nine days and each night I got (in addition to some more foot blisters) a little faster, a little more confident, a little better. By the end of the festival, we had played garba at five different locations, I had won a prize for dancing (first time for everything), been to the largest garba ground in the world, in Baroda, (we danced with over FORTY THOUSAND PEOPLE), and just generally had an excellent time. It has been the highlight of my exchange thus far.

    A few philosophical differences about India... Here people trust themselves rather than rules. An example of this is the driving. They don't have ANY rules. You can go on the sides of the road either direction, the sidewalks, as fast as you want, putting as many people on a scooter/car/bike/whatever as you want. Add in the animals on the street (and there are a LOT) and it's a party. In America people would be freaking out because there's no order, but here people are just like... "I don't wanna die, you don't wanna die. Let's not crash." You never know how glad you are for working breaks when your vehicle is a foot away from a donkey, a buffalo, an overloaded rickshaw, and a freight truck - at one time.

    Here the tradition is everything. People will avoid leaving a bad job/home, talking to strangers, helping the poor, marrying their sweetheart, etc. just because of what people will think of them. The kids are rather childish, with eighteen year olds acting at times like freshmen in high school, but that's not a bad thing. It's very very different. I love it, it's awesome... and very very different.

    I'm sorry it's taken me so long to update this. My internet connection is poor at best here, but I'll try to be more dependable in the future. 

    Ok that's enough for now. I'm attending a wedding tonight, food is gonna be ready shortly, and I'm off to continue my adventure. Love you guys. :)

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