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.