Study Abroad: India

One particularly miserable and gray day I walked through the Marillac cafeteria, coffee in hand, ready to go home after a day of school. As I was walking I noticed a table set up to advertise study abroad programs with leaflets strewn across it.

As I approached it, one brightly colored orange paper caught my eye and I read about the India program that was being offered during winter intercession. I tucked the leaflet in my bag and started walking towards my car, with the wheels in my head turning wildly. Yes, I could really do it, I thought. At first it seemed almost crazy but the more I thought about it the more I realized that this was the perfect opportunity to shock my listless self back into reality.

I gingerly went ahead with the preparations, getting recommendation letters and filling out the applications, all the while not quite believing that I would actually go. Thankfully, the months that followed were just turbulent enough to give me that extra push towards going. I badly needed to get away.

New Year’s Day, the day of my departure for India, came before I knew it. I packed that morning and hurriedly rushed to the airport, kind of in a daze. Once I got there I walked around alone with my heavy book bag and my i-pod, feeling like James Bond on an adventure. I started getting excited.

I was not ready to see India in the light of day the next morning when I woke up. I was not prepared for what I saw. What I saw was a world that I could not have imagined in my wildest dreams. The conditions that people were living in were unlike anything I had ever seen or read about. It was literally sensory overload. I saw thousands of people, all over, for miles and miles literally living in the dirt. Picture what New Orleans would look like after about four Hurricane Katrinas, 10 years down the line, having had no help. I was shocked to my core.

I was also angry for these people. The majority of the world probably had no clue about these conditions. I had had no clue. It was utter chaos.

People were all over the place, since the majority of the poor are unemployed. India has four times the population of the U.S. but it is one-fourth the size. There is no working sanitation system in India. Billions of peoples’ trash is disposed of by burning. The ensuing smoke that the fires produce hovers as a dense layer of fog along the sky line, visible and pungent, making it impossible to see the horizon.

My heart turned as I saw babies playing in the dirt, whole towns made up of rickety shacks made of sheet metal, shanty towns that spanned expanses of miles.

There is a somber expression on the faces of most of these people that is easily recognizable. It is hopelessness. This town on the outskirts of New Delhi does have some large buildings, modern looking buildings, which I am told house corporations. Outside of these buildings people sleep in the dirt, with no shelter from the harsh cold temperatures.

It occurred to me that we were seeing the beginning stages of a nation that is struggling to get back on its feet (India gained independence from Britain roughly 50 years ago). And it also occurred to me, our worlds, India and mine, had crashed and collided. I walked around fascinated and saw India had the same fascination with me. It was as if we were two worlds on opposite sides of a looking glass.

I recognize for the first time the universality of concepts like love, family, friends, hope, recognition and heartbreak. I sat in that bus, far away from my home and my friends and the life I knew, and I felt more connected to the world than I ever felt. I saw myself, a small speck, one soul, amidst billions in the world, so far from where I’d come from, presented with the tangible reality that suffering, like life, is universal.

America is so private, even poverty is dressed in deceptive clothing so that it is not jarring to the eye. We are so desensitized that it is easy to forget there is anyone else who matters outside of your own small self contained world.

Here life exists, in all its splendor and devastation on a public stage, next to shopping malls, aside major highways, impossible to ignore. Here the rat race as we so charmingly refer to it in New York, is a literal rat race, mice, children, parents, cars, bicycles, everything and everyone is competing and at the same time coexisting in chaos.

Throughout this trip through India I was also constantly bombarded with the paradoxical nature of the country. There is so much beauty. In the beaches of Goa, in the miles of quiet fields of yellow flowers against the backdrops of the greenest grass you have ever seen.

On the ride to Jaipur we would stare out our bus windows for hours looking out at expanses of grass and fields, where you wouldn’t see a soul. But I have never come across the kind of hospitality and kindness that I have seen in India.

You look at children who are running around brightly colored pink sari, unaffected by the world, carrying a water basin on her head. It was like a dream. I saw small groups of children running through fields, flying kites, completely untouched by the fast moving pace and imperatives of the rest of the world.

Anyone who has been to India will tell you there is beauty in the people, in their eyes, in their brightly colored clothing and in their loving and friendly treatment of you.

I cannot help but feel that if the Zoloft taking depressed people of America were to come to India they would be cured of their woes. India makes you-well-forces you, to re-examine what you consider a crisis. I think it also shows you the strength of the human spirit to fight and persevere. It also shows you the frailty of life.

One of the most poignant moments for me was when we visited the Radico Welfare School for children who have been taken out of the slums.

In India, a slum means your parents are probably sick and/or infected with HIV, you are starving to death, you live in the dirt and you have absolutely no possibility of progressing. It is not uncommon in the slums for a woman to lay rotting because nobody knows her name. That is the future a child faces.

We visited these beautiful children in a place that educates them, gives them clean food and water and teaches them lessons about how beautiful they are. While we were there, the children sang us songs about how life is too short not to love each other, and how life is too short not to spread love to one another.

We also visited a Sikh temple. Sikhism is an Indian religion, which can usually be recognized by the turbans worn by men who practice it. The temple was so beautiful it was incredible. The chanting and hymns were so beautiful and so enchanting, but the energy was even more so.

We left the temple and traveled outside where we were met by a large fountain with silverish marble surrounding it, lit brilliantly by the sun. I stood on the edge of that fountain, that people dip themselves in for blessing, and put my foot in. At that moment I felt such a rush of peace come over me. I looked down after stepping into the water and saw three of the biggest, most fantastic looking fish swimming right next to my feet. It was surreal.

I also feel privileged to have gone to India at this moment in time, because it is also a very pivotal moment in the country’s. We are witnessing the infant stages of a nation rushing to get back to speed with the rest of the world, having already involuntarily given it a head start. It is almost like watching an awkward prepubescent teenager, struggling between the temptations of new experiences and trying (like we all try) to emerge from that turbulent stage of life, unscathed, and not so far from where he/she started.

Through my side of this looking glass, I see a world of people thriving and struggling to become part of the global community.

I believe that once India really gets the chance to show the world its wealth of heart, abundance of spirituality and its many treasures, the world will be as I am, bewitched, entranced, and forever changed, and most of all ashamed, for discounting a race of people, just because they did not have the voice to declare their presence.

INDIA: I am all ears.