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.