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.