Time continues to fly by at a million miles an hour here...what else is new? Well, it has actually been one week since my mom and stepdad, Volker, visited me here in India!
*Note to anyone travelling: stay longer than 5 days, the time really goes by very quickly*
*Second note: sorry about the briefness of this post and the less amount I have been posting. As I said, time really flies.*
Leading up to the day I would meet my mom after some 7.5 months away was an exciting, but admittedly, very nervewrecking time. Not in that I didn't want to meet her, but more because I have never experienced a reunion with someone so close after so long. How would it be to meet my natural parents after living and adjusting to a new home? Would we still get along? What about meeting the host family?
All these feelings melted away when I saw my mom and ran to hug her outside of the 'international arrival' gates. Riding back to their hotel, we talked about normal things - it was as if time had not passed. I am glad to have been able to talk to them before the end of my program when I am sure I will experience a bit of reverse culture shock.
My parents came to my host family the next day for breakfast (what actually turned into brunch) and as they bit into the paranthas, I couldn't help but laugh a little when the reaction was "this is a bit spicy!". They loved all the food they tried, which is something I am very happy about. But more important than the food, was the family. My host mom made all the delicious food of course, but seeing my parents being able to talk so openly and naturally with my host parents was amazing. It truly was a cultural experience because at one time, there were people from 4 different countries sitting for breakfast with my mom being from Ukraine and Volker from Germany.
Going out and about in Delhi with my natural parents was an interesting experience. On the one hand, I had never felt so much like a foreigner. Going to all the markets and touristy locations with family definitely screams out 'tourists'. Though I was able to communicate with the auto drivers, by the end of the day it became annoying to here the vendors yelling 'madam! only 100!". On the other hand, I reconsidered that being a foreign tourist is not such a bad thing. It was an experience within itself. I realize what it must be like for people to travel to another country and try to adapt. Not only is everything different to you, but everything about you is different to the people you meet. Learning this, i hope, has made me a more adaptable and tolerant person to the changes life has to offer. Meeting new people, especially from different countries, will be something I look forward to in the future. This experience, though, did help me to appreciate the things I had already gotten used to in my 8 months in India. My stepdad, for example, kept pointing out all the clothing. Everything worn here is so colorful - much different than the business attire they are used to seeing in the US. It is always the small things that catch the attention most because those are the things I never realized I have adapted to. For instance, the way people eat with roti here is by using it to pick up the subji, but obviously my parents did not know that. Looking back, even I was shocked to discover that it is not some sort of side dish. It's not that I gained appreciation specifically for eating roti, but more generally about the small things that define what it is to live in India.
Meeting my reasserted the fact, and really brought out to me that I only have 2 months left in this amazing country. My parents visit has proven to me that I really cannot wait to share my experiences with everyone upon my return. With the last exam finishing today, I hope to make the next 9 weeks here, the most productive they can be - not in the sense that I will do the most work, but in the sense that I will thoroughly embrace living here, with my second family, in my home away from home.
1)India is Warm – As a country closer to the equator, the temperatures are obviously warmer – ‘peak winters’ is no more than a chilly Autumn day. As living here has shown me, however, India is warm not only physically, but metaphorically. Without fail, everyone I have met here is genuinely interested in my experience and well-being whether it be my (host) family or the auto driver calling me to check whether I am on my way.
2)India is Colorful –Whether it be the decorated trucks with their musical horns or the tricolor flags waving in the breeze while their carried by vendors in the streets, I am always surrounded by color - through its many religions, cultures, and languages as well.
3)India is Chaotic – Entering my host community (city rather) was quite a daunting experience for me – there were so many people everywhere. But now, I am not sure I could live without the chaos. Here, I hope it’s clear that chaos is not a negative term. With the constant honking, crowded streets and buildings, I find a certain comfort in being amongst it all.
4)India is Rich – Despite the glaring wealth gap that is found in India, everyone and everything here is very rich. I have talked with people from many walks of life here, and everyone of them has had a meaningful contribution to my exchange. From speaking with the Amitasha girls who come from a poorer background to a retired Indian Ambassador, each has enriched my experience.
5)India is Developing – As a whole, India is technically considered to be developing. What this means to me as an exchange student, is the opportunity to see a country which has not only an ancient history and meaningful culture, but also is quickly incorporating outside cultures and the change here is very exciting. Though it is sometimes confusing to my eyes to see very modern buildings and old dirt roads coexist, it represents the exciting transformation of India and gives me the best opportunity to become a global citizen.
6)India is Incredible - How many of you have heard the expression ‘Incredible India’? Well, it’s true. I see or try something new almost every single day. In the literal sense, it is hard to believe that the same place that has a modern metro and road system also has donkeys and cows wandering about. Surprises are everywhere here, and the experience is unparalleled.
7)India is Home - The more time I spend away from my ‘home’ country, the more I feel at home in my ‘host’ country. For the above-mentioned reasons and more that cannot be expressed in words, I have fallen in love with India, with all its unique features, the people it houses and the experiences and opportunities it has given me.
Seven months ago to the day, I boarded an airplane whose three wheels leaving the ground of the United States represented my last physical connection to my home country for nearly a year. As all the landmark dates passed by me – 100 days in country, 200 days, and even the halfway point – I am coming to realize what India really means to me. With only three months left in this amazingly diverse country, I am sure India will continue to surprise me. But, with surprise comes extraordinary experiences I cannot wait to have.
Despite being frightened by Muskaan's comment that winter break didn't actually start until the 28th, I was relieved to find out that winter break here is longer than it is in New York - it starts on the 27th of December and goes until the 8th of January.
My winter break started off pretty typical with the sleeping in and not so typically with the sunbathing in the eternally-warm Indian sun. Pretty soon though, I learned my family would be going to Chandigarh! The original plan (many plans diverted from this along the way) was to visit family from 29 December until 2nd January who stay in Zirakpur right outside of Chandigarh. Somewhere between the making of that plan and actually leaving, an add-on trip was made to go to Shoghi - a hill station north of where I stay in Gurgaon. On the afternoon of 29th December, we quickly packed our bags and left for Chandigarh about 5 hours away. The prospective of having to wear my winter jacket was very exciting for me - believe it or not it's possible to miss having the coldness of Upstate New York. Second time was the charm in fitting our suitcases into the car and I soon settled into my napping position. The drive itself was nice, I mean the part I didn't sleep through. I was able to see the farms typical of Haryana and experience the crazy driving that has become an everyday thing for me now. We made it all the way to Chandigarh without any problems and had a some delicious fish followed by a tasty homemade meal. To me, the entire net of family members is very very confusing, it seems like I am meeting a new relative every 3 days. To be clear, this is also something that I really enjoy - I have a comparatively small set of relatives in the United States.
Even though I slept a lot in the car, I soon found my way to bed here after a chatting session with Vipul Mama (one of those many relatives I mentioned) and Muskaan. The next morning I woke up and tasted the famously amazing paranthas I had been hearing about the previous evening. I had the aaloo and pyaaz (potato and onion) one which tasted amazing. Full on delicious food, I took my nausea relief medication and prepared for our journey into the mountains. It did not take long before we drove onto the roads cut into the mountainside. I was awestruck by the way the mountains looked. I mean, of course we have mountains in New York, but there was just something about these ones that captured my attention. It was like I had been stuck into a place I had only seen in my world history textbook, with the mountainsides terraced and houses built to defy gravity. I pretty much stared out the window for the entire journey up the mountains. Only three minor things happened. First, a stray pellet or something hit the windshield of the car and caused a small dent (which later became a sizable crack). Second, we called to confirm our reservation only to find that we had only one night for certain booked at the resort. Despite this news, we continued our trek upwards. Like any car, ours soon required to be refueled. Similarly, I was feeling a bit thirsty - leading to mishap number three. I opened my water bottle like I usually would but I guess due to the lessening air pressure outside the bottle, it was like a volcano of water came spewing out the straw. Being in shock, I did not do the obvious solution and drink it straight away but rather let it spill out over my knee (at least it didn't get on the car much :) ). Many curves, maggi points, and colorful houses later, we reached a slice of paradise. We parked the car and I stepped out into the coldest temperature I will feel for my entire 10.5 months in India. It was no New York, but I was so happy finally experiencing it again. We had to walk from the parking lot to the restaurant area (which was very nice might I add) and then from there to our cabin. I went to the cabin first with my host mom and was amazed by the view off the deck and even more surprised to find the room heated inside - it was the first heated location I had encountered here. After touring it, we went back and ate at the restaurant and the food was very nice (I mean what else could I have expected?).
I will not detail every single thing I did at the resort or we will be here all day, but I will share some highlights:
The same day we arrived, Muskaan, my host dad and I walked on the path right outside our cabin. The views were astounding, in some places it really felt like I was standing on top of the world. We took the opportunity to get some photos which I will share here:
Also at our resort was a ropes course type of set-up. Even though there was no one to help with the harnesses and such, we wasted no time in climbing up the cargo net and walking across Burma bridge (the one for big kids and not little ones because I later was told by the trained staff not to use that one - oops).
Following that, I had an intense game of badminton with my host dad - often hitting the birdie off into the woods somewhere. We concluded the day's physical activities and went to the cabin to rest before dinner. There, we got a paper advertising the schedule for the next day, New Year's Eve which we planned on doing but later changed plans. We were drawn down to the restaurant by the sound of live music and sat eating snacky things for a couple hours before actually ordering food. I very much enjoyed the bonfire which was set up as it was actually cold enough for it to feel nice. By the end of the night, Mus gained enough courage to sing live music! Even though I don't understand Hindi songs, I was very impressed. I was not so impressed however, with my choice in dinner as I ordered lasagna which was a mistake I must say. Anyways, my brain quickly grew tired and I had to leave to go to the cabin and sleep. The next morning, I took a bath (I actually did, Mus) and then we went down to the breakfast cafe. We had a delicious but maybe too stuffing breakfast. This is where plans changed like I said they would earlier. We received what we then perceived as bad news, that we could not stay at the resort another night and we would be going back to Chandigarh that same day. In a sulky mood, Muskaan sat on the swing silently. BUt the mood reversed once we went out to the ridge and sat in the - you guessed it - eternally-warm Indian sun. My host mom told me it was supposed to snow that day but I can't imagine it would stick anywhere with that blazing sun. Sooner than we thought, we had to stand up and leave seeing that mountainside perspective for the final time.
We made it back to Chandigarh soon enough. But, my breakfast definitely had times where I thought it would end up outside my body again. This is me trying to hold it together enough for a photo in front of an orange juice stand, which could be found all along the journey and is famous in Himachal Pradesh (I think):
We did so many things once we got back to Chandigarh, which is why I am glad our trip in Shoghi was cut short ( I mean not glad but not mad). We went to Elante - one of Asia's largest malls and had a great time at the arcade where there were actual rides and we won a decent amount of tickets. It was my first time actually in Chandigarh (we were actually staying in Zirakpur) and it definitely lives up to its title of being the city beautiful.
It was soon time to go into prepping mode as it was New Year's Eve. We set up chairs on the terrace upstairs and put wood in place for a bonfire. All the food was already prepared, we just brought the snacks upstairs. Though it was a small party, I wouldn't trade the experience for anything. We were all happy together and that is what really made the transition to the New Year very special.
The next day was all about showing me what lies within Chandigarh. In the morning we went to the local grocery store and I got my favorite thing - ice cream! We went to Decathalon (like Dick's Sporting Goods) and had a surprising amount of fun test riding their scooters and playing random games. Later, we visited Sukhna Lake - a large man-made lake which was quite impressive. We even stopped to do a rendition of the cup song on the rock wall by the lake. The bird migration path didn't really have many birds, but the lake itself had many birds which were fun to watch as they went fishing. Fishing in mind, we even saw a couple men attempting to fish and one actually made a successful catch.
After visiting the lake, we went out for lunch with everyone at a restaurant with very delicious food (it's always delicious in India). We attempted to visit the rock garden which is very famous but we ended up having to be satisfied walking around the food court area as a sneak peak because the line was incredibly long - a common trait for all the attractions I have visited. From what I did see, the place was quite incredible. After that, we drove by a haunted house on the way to the sector-17 market, one of Asia's largest open markets. We saw some cool stores and vendors - and many people selling fire baked sweet potato. Instead of opting for that, we again got my favorite - Ice Cream! (and Mus got fries which we all shared).
To end that very long day, we made our way back home in Zirakpur and had dinner. The next day, I had another amazing parantha which was the perfect way to end my stay. We packed up and headed out.
But to home we did not directly go...instead we went and met up with my host mom's college friend from LA and her family - including Trisha who is 16 years old but a senior in high school (one step ahead of me yet one year younger - amazed). We talked for a while and discovered we have some common interests - pursuing medicine being one of them. Then, the 4 'kids' visited the 10 and under section of the playground and played fire and ice (freeze tag basically). On the way back, we were surrounded by a pack of dogs which was only concerning to Mus who could make do without street dogs. Of course, we made it back without problems, just in time to leave for the mall(s).
At the malls, we visited the luxury stores first and us Americans made the Indians try a pretzel from Auntie Anne's for the first time. There were mixed feelings about them but that won't stop me from loving them. Then we visited the more affordable mall and wandered around a bit before going to dinner where we had pizza and pasta and practiced handwriting with ketchup and mustard on a white porcelain canvas.
As planned, Trisha came and spent the night with Muskaan and I. We talked a lot - mostly about all the dissections we had completed in anatomy class. It was a very tiring day for the both of us. In fact, I was talking beside her and then came to realize she had already fallen asleep.
The next day, not as planned, Trisha had to leave to go to Mathura to visit family. We would meet again, though, before leaving for LA. It was a great experience to meet someone from the US and see how truly the US is a melting pot of cultures. We both are American, yet we have completely different backgrounds from different parts of the world.
Sad to say, but grateful to have experienced, I have come to the end of my winter vacation here in India. The time I spent in Gurgaon and away from Gurgaon was very fulfilling and if I've managed to convey just 1% of the happiness I experienced, I will consider this a success.
I am also a week late in saying this, but better late than never: Happy New Years everyone! I hope to make the next (and final) four months I have here in India as enriching as the past 6.5 have been. I am very thankful for everyone who has made my experience unforgettable thus far and and looking forward to what's coming in 2018!
As a Christian and an American, I have celebrated Christmas every year for the past 17 years. I felt so accustomed to everything I thought that Christmas could be: the music playing at all the stores from the ending of Thanksgiving through the beginning of the New Year, the Christmas trees being strapped to car roofs and beautifully adorned with ornaments old and new, the smell of cookies baking, the hoping for a white Christmas, and of course spending time with those closest to me. This year being in India, everything was altogether different but yet the same. Let me explain. Though the music did not ring out from every speaker, I think my host family managed to play enough on Christmas day itself to make up for that. And, though the Christmas trees were not cut and drawn away from the Christmas tree farms (I mean, it's not really possible here in Gurgaon), an unimaginable amount of ornaments and decorations were acquired and placed over the artificial tree. To be frank, it was the most real artificial tree I had ever seen. I even received Christmas cards from the US, which added a little bit of American tradition to the celebration. We did not bake cookies, but we did bring out the grill and chef Paintal (my host dad) came and amazed everyone with an array of delicious foods. As for wishing for a White Christmas, I cannot say I didn't - but I do love the fact that it was warm enough to have an outdoor party. The best part of Christmas this year was without a doubt being surrounded by so many smiling faces. In the morning, my host family exchanged gifts - some of which I had crudely wrapped the previous evening. Everyone, myself included, was very happy with their gifts. Wrapping paper put away, we began preparing for the party -taking tables and chairs outside and lighting up the charcoal on the grill. Slowly but surely, people began to arrive. Family and friends from near and (comparatively) far came to our house. There was no 'kids table', but those of us 18 and under shared a great time playing every game I did not even realize existed (many games are the same but have different names in India). I think most of them were variations on 'tag' where I somehow became 'it' for what seemed to be forever. Afterwards, we had two delicious cakes - one was even an ice cream cake which I not only love but also have never had the opportunity to eat on Christmas. To me, it was amazing for me to see how people could come together for such an occasion without even holding the Christian belief behind the holiday. This proved something very important to me: Christmas, and I guess any other holiday, may not be all about the story behind it; it is about spending time with the people you love, sharing laughs and exchanging smiles. I can literally be more than seven thousand miles from home, surrounded by people I met within the past 3-4 months, and still feel more at home than ever. Shortly after eating the cakes, it was the dreaded time of saying goodbye. I warmed up my hands over the warm and toasty grill and then got back to work putting the chairs away. I mostly lazed away the rest of the day. The very unfortunate truth of the matter was that the next day was a Tuesday, a school day, and a UT (quiz) day for me - in economics.
Nonetheless, I can say that every time I glanced at the Santa hat capping the tree, lights aglow in our living room, I felt the Christmas magic working its way through the atmosphere. I felt no lack of Christmas spirits this year, in fact it will be a memory I cherish for years to come. Though I am late in writing this post:
It has been nearly a month since I last posted anything on my blog, but what a month it has been. I have been going to school, taking various Unit Tests, chillin’ on the weekends and – believe it or not – I turned 17 just last week. Over the past week of being 17, I have been able to reflect, and I have realized two things. One, I am nearing the 6 months mark of my exchange and that thought terrifies me and, two, winters do exist in India. I never thought I would feel cold here, and I generally do not, but getting out of my cozy morning cocoon gets harder and harder every day.
I am sure everyone is keen to hear about my birthday celebration here in India. In one word, it was spectacular. The stress built up in the week leading up to my birthday from the fact that I would not be with Katherine this year, but the stress did not reach explosion level. Instead, I had the most amazing birthday. On the 10th of December I went to bed at 11pm knowing I would be woken up at 12am (Muskaan is not the best of surprise keepers) – and when I did wake up (a very very difficult task for me; once I am asleep, good luck getting me up before morning), I was surrounded by the sound of “Happy Birthday” and a glowing candle atop a (very delicious) chocolate cake. I think having cake at midnight has to become my new birthday tradition. I then received my very first gifts from Mus, a very very sweet letter and (shimmy shimmy) dress shirt which would prove to come in handy later the same day. I finished the rest of the cake slice at breakfast and then made my way to school. Nothing too amazing happened there, the teachers still taught, and students still learned, but it was amazing to have the class sing happy birthday and to receive wishes from everyone I talked to. Coming home, I knew we would have a birthday party, but I had no idea that the entire back garden area of the house would be decorated magnificently with pink and black balloons and a central kitty balloon – said to represent me. Unfortunately, Colin and Olivia were disallowed to come to my party due to lack of formal invitation (who knew my school principal had to email their school principal over such a thing), but that did not stop us from having a great time. I received another AMAZING gift from Muskaan aka one of the most creative gift makers on Earth. By that time, McKenna reached my house and that is when the real fun began – we were able to start eating the delicious feast my mom prepared. There were soooo many foods, all of my favorites Indian dishes. We spent some time talking and then came Jahnavi, my friend from school. We decided to invite neighbors over since I have gotten to know them over the past couple of months and we had plenty of space left. Perhaps the physical highlight of my day was being presented with my birthday cake. It was a picture-perfect cake, the type you see in movies but never receive in real life. It matched the pink and black theme, was topped with many stars and the number ‘17’. I think it was only at that point in the day where I realized I was 17. It still feels strange for me to say I’m that old. According to the Indian way, I was fed a ton of cake – which was as delicious as it looked with pineapple (my fav fruit) as the filling. What happened after the cake is what reminded me that often times, it is the simple things in life that bring the most joy. We all enjoyed playing small games upstairs – the types people play as small children. They never fail to put smiles on everyone’s faces and they certainly did not fail to make the end of my day amazing. Opening gifts at the closure of the day gave me not only physically amazing gifts but was made more amazing by all the fond memories I had of the day, which I will carry with me forever. My 17th birthday is a day I will never forget, it was a day of celebration and truly was a milestone of my exchange and life in general.
*pictures coming soon
Back to the important thing, I AM 17! Reaching my birthday here in India is one of the biggest milestones as it also means I am halfway done with my exchange (a bittersweet thought). However, this does make for an excellent point of reflection. One of the most important things I have realized is that exchange is never easy. I may feel more at home here day by day, but I still wake up everyday to face a new set of challenges. It is part of living in another country – and for me, a fact of life. The past five and a half months have had their ups and downs (mostly ups J) but because I persevered, I have grown as a person. I make mistakes – in fact, I make them almost every day. But, nine times out of ten I find myself laughing at whatever silly thing I have done or said. I have learned that not everything in life must be perfect, not everything has to be so serious. It is not human nature to attain perfection on the first try. It is human nature to make mistakes. The most important thing is to learn from the mistake since “a mistake is not a failure until you refuse to correct it”.
Let me narrate one example of growth through something I do on a regular basis: Amitasha. Arriving to teach my first class and all throughout the first class, I kept thinking to myself “what have I done?” “I live in a country where I can’t even communicate my ideas with children without an interpreter”. Don’t get me wrong, I loved teaching even then, but I have learned that I will never get anywhere with Amitasha if I don’t push myself to do more, to interact more. Every week, I get better at sharing what I know – and my hard work does pay off. The way my girls look up at me with shining eyes and constant smiles on their faces, giving me high fives and exclaiming “hello Anna didi!” as I enter the room is an indescribably amazing feeling. They remind me that my exchange is not only meant to impact me and my own views, but also designed to leave a positive impact on the community I stay and live in. During my most recent class, I started out the class by myself. Unlike in the beginning of my exchange, I did not feel strange, I did not feel like the odd one out anymore. Instead, I felt happy. We share a mutual learning experience. My Christmas tree was surrounded by the drawings of every student. We labeled gifts, chimneys and santas until there was no room left on the board. I have realized that if I put myself out there and interact, they will more than gladly return the favor. Amitasha has been one of the most fulfilling experiences I have ever had, and it every time I leave the classroom on Friday afternoon, I can’t help but wish the rest of the week would pass by in an instant so I could be back again.
Above all, I am proud of my accomplishments. Aside from completing tasks or activities I never thought I would (yoga, dancing, etc.), I have changed for the better. Though I never considered myself a close-minded person, I have learned to have an even more open mind; I am finally learning to see through those cultural lenses I learned about at the pre-departure orientation. My perspective on life has also changed. Anyone who has interacted with me would tell you that I am an introvert. One benefit of this is that I am an excellent observer. Through the various cultural interactions I have encountered, I have learned to use this skill to pick up on the smaller aspects of culture that may not be obvious right off the bat. I have a greater appreciation for the small things in life, the language and the culture, the everyday activities.
The past 5.5 months here in India did not come without their challenges. I do not dread the onset of another challenge. Rather, I hope to use what I have learned to make the most of it. The outlook is bright, and I cannot wait to see what the next 5.5 months brings with it.
This year, my Thanksgiving went a little differently than usual. Whereas Thanksgiving is a national holiday in the United States, it is not celebrated in India. This was the first major American holiday I got a chance to share with my host family.
The first step to celebrating Thanksgiving is to make sure you don't have other plans to interfere with preparation of the Thanksgiving meal. Since, like I just mentioned, Thanksgiving is not celebrated in India that often, this meant I had to take a day off from school (yay!).
In the morning, I woke up at a reasonable time with no 5 km race to run, and everyone in the family hugged and wished each other a Happy Thanksgiving. The rest of the morning proceeded pretty normally, with a few messages exchanged between my school coordinator and I about the definition of Thanksgiving as a 'festival'. I also prepared a Thanksgiving lesson plan and Powerpoint for my Amitasha class though I won't be able to use it until next Friday. I took a shower and then headed with my host mom Le Marche to pick up all the ingredients we would need for the day. We were able to get everything, only forgetting to buy the Brussels Sprouts (which is pretty good since I usually forget what I need as soon as I leave the house). We came home and the rest of the day - from 12pm-7pm was spent as a mixture of cooking and relaxing in the house with a couple of miscellaneous trips to the market. We faced surprisingly little difficulty in preparing the Thanksgiving Dinner (which, by the way, consisted of hash brown potatoes, green bean casserole, stuffing, chicken and pies) considering my lack of cooking experience. Some of the dishes, like the chicken, had a little Indian masala added in to make it extra special. Let me tell you, that chicken tasted better than any Thanksgiving turkey I've had in the past! In the evening, two of my host massi's (aunts) came over for the meal. They very kindly and unexpectedly gifted me some chocolates and we also exchanged wishes of 'happy thanksgiving'. Soon enough, my dad arrived home and we put all the food onto the table. Everyone filled their plates, but before eating I said a prayer and everyone held hands and went around saying what we were thankful for. After that, everyone chowed down on one of the most delicious Thanksgiving meals I have had. All of our hard work had paid off in the end. One of the highlights of the meal was the dessert during which we took out our homemade pumpkin pie and not-so-homemade apple pie. The pumpkin pie was absolutely amazing! All the credit goes to my host mom who made this pie without really following a recipe - she is actually an amazing chef. One thing I did learn from watching her cook was that following the recipe to a 'T' isn't really the most important thing about preparing food. I think every dish we served had some sort of improvisation by my host mom, and they all turned out amazing. By the end of the meal, I was feeling as stuffed as a Thanksgiving turkey and was ready to go to bed. I had a very very memorable Thanksgiving spent with the people I love most.
Remember how I told you I had to take a day off from school to make all this work? Well, my school coordinator didn't let me get off the hook that easily. I had to prepare a speech to give about Thanksgiving and to give thanks to everyone who has helped me during my exchange. This request was fair enough since speeches are one thing I feel comfortable enough doing; plus, it was a great opportunity to share American culture with my host school. Besides being a little bit lengthy, everyone liked my speech and told me I spoke well. Giving thanks did not end there for me since I followed my host mom's request to bring in some pumpkin and apple pie to give to principal ma'am and a couple other VIPs in my exchange. The pies were a huge success at school. Many people did not come to school the day after Thanksgiving because GTSE (Global Talent Search Examination) was taking place in the school and bunking school is the way to get out of taking it. But, as my class teacher told the exam invigilator, "she is not registered for the test but is here for one year and is taking part in every single activity we have to offer". The exam was not so bad, it was an English test. If you ask me, some of the questions were too hard for someone (me) who speaks English as their mother tongue. Getting to the point, I was able to share some leftover stuffing with my classmates who all agreed that it was very nice.
This Thanksgiving is one I will never forget. It has been the very best thanks to the efforts of my host family. It was our first Thanksgiving together as a family, and definitely not the last. I am incredibly thankful to everyone around the world who has been supporting me throughout this exchange and to everyone who is making this possible. An especially big thank you goes to my host family for making this day so special and memorable for me.
A very happy Thanksgiving from me to everyone around the globe!
Before I came to India, I had little idea of what the three letters - MUN - stood for. Five months later, halfway through my exchange, I have participated in two Model United Nations, one even being an internationally acclaimed event. The recognition is never the part that matters though, and I can say that, without a doubt, AIMUN (Amity International Model United Nations) 2017 played a large role in helping me see not only myself, but the role of exchange through different lenses.
For the actual MUN sessions, I must admit I was slightly unprepared as my countries were swapped - from Ethiopia and Estonia - just two days before the conference commenced. Nonetheless, the agenda for my committee was 'the elimination of racism and racial discrimination' as well as 'racial discrimination within the US judicial system'. I found this to be quite an interesting topic as solving it would be within the same realm of the goal of my exchange - to bring peace through understanding.
Though I walked away with a Special Recognition Award from the General Assembly, most of my time at AIMUN was spent interacting with exchange students from 10 different countries! It was the perfect way to embrace the immense benefits of International Education during IEW. Some of us exchange students were meeting each other for the first time since we had landed 4.5 months earlier, so it was enriching to be able to share stories of success and overcoming our challenges. To me, the most amazing thing was to hear how different our exchanges have been despite residing in the same country. On the same token, we also shared many laughs due to some common sticky points in adjustment.
Furthermore, this MUN was a chance for me to step out of my comfort zone - something I have learned is key to making the most out of an exchange, or really any situation in life. On the Monday before the conference, I was called into school to start preparing a dance for the cultural gala that would happen on Friday of the same week, following the second day of the MUN. Aside from a few ballet lessons as a little girl, I had never put on a dance performance, let alone a solo performance in front of an audience. To be honest, I was seriously doubting my ability to prepare the dance well. Before I knew it, I was putting on my Indian clothes, picking up my dandiyas and heading out onto stage. Considering my dancing ability (or lack thereof) I put on a performance everyone enjoyed. Sharing what I had learned so far in India was a way for me to give back to those who have helped me grow as a person and a way for me to reflect. The happiness I brought to those around me made me feel amazing even if my dance was not so. I gained an immensely valuable life experience.
MUN, Model United Nations, three words that have come to mean so much more to me than just a platform of debate. It helped me to embrace what it means to be a cultural exchange student and reminded me of my role as a cultural ambassador here in India. As I head into the next half of my exchange, I will keep what I have learned in mind in order to make the most of my exchange both for myself and those I interact with.
International Education Week (IEW), is the one week out of my exchange year where I got to take a step back and realize the true importance of international education. IEW is an amazing opportunity for exchange students and students across the world to celebrate and share the countless benefits international education and cultural exchange. This annual celebration of cultural sharing is a joint initiative by the US Department of State and the US Department of Education. It acts as a way to promote programs such as YES Abroad which prepares American students for an increasingly diverse and global environment and programs such as the YES (inbound) program which aims to attract future leaders from abroad to study, learn and exchange experiences with people they meet.
In 2017, IEW is celebrated from November 13-17. As a YES Abroad exchange student, I had a very enjoyable week not only sharing my own culture, but also gaining new experiences through connecting with others. My week started slowly with the weekend being extended into Monday as school was canceled due to high levels of smog. However, I have come to realize that there is no such thing as an uneventful day in the life of an exchange student and Monday was no exception. As soon as I started thinking about preparing for the AIMUN conference occurring later in the week, I got a call from my school coordinator telling me that I needed to come into school to prepare a performance for a cultural performance on Wednesday. Once I reached the school, I met with Shivani ma'am, my dance teacher and she started to teach me a dance performance. Even though she made sure to use the easiest dance poses she knew, I still felt extremely nervous as I am definitely not the most graceful dancer (that is putting it lightly). Being IEW, it was an excellent opportunity for me to learn something about the Indian culture even if it may not be the most easy thing to do. For me this was another time to reflect, I realized that intercultural learning is only as challenging as you make it. In other words, it is extremely easy to come together and share ideas and traditions if both sides have an open mind and a willing attitude.
On the second day of IEW, it was my turn to share American culture. From what I have witnessed and experienced from participating in different activities such as Amitasha is that children are more often than not the most receptive to new cultures; they truly embrace whatever you teach them. That being said, with the help of my host family, I organized an evening session to teach the neighborhood kids how to play a couple American games: "duck-duck-goose" and "capture the flag". It is amazing to me to see how everyone, regardless of culture or background, can bond in an instant and forget all differences in such as short period of time. By the end, I started to realize that most of the kids are better than me at these games! To add to that, I now know that I have a group of people who would be up for an intense round of capture the flag at any point of time.
One of the challenges I was having with IEW was the fact that I also had an MUN conference for the last half of it, from the 16-18 of November. I soon realized that it was not really so much a challenge as much as it was an opportunity. During the MUN conference, I spent little time actually participating in the sessions. For more than half of the time, I was hanging out with other exchange students who were equally confused with the proceedings of an MUN session. There were delegates from 10 different countries at the MUN, some who I had met before at the arrival orientation and some completely new to me. Countries included India, the United States, the Netherlands, Germany, Slovakia, Japan, Canada, Thailand and a couple others. It was amazing to be able to speak with people from so many different backgrounds. We all have one thing in common which is being an exchange student, yet we share so much more than that. We all share a passion for learning about the world around us which is what made this IEW have such a tremendous impact on me.
On Friday, the last official day of IEW, the MUN conference sessions were proceeded by a cultural gala. If you're wondering what happened to the dance performance I mentioned earlier, this is the time it came into play. During the gala, I enjoyed seeing the performances of every delegation from abroad. It was so nice to see so many cultures come together in one location. I watched regional performances such as a South Indian Dance and international performances in the form of various instrumental compositions, cultural dances and traditional songs in many languages. I contributed by sharing not only the American style of dance - through non other than the Cha Cha Slide, but also sharing what I have learned in the past 5 months abroad through the Indian dance I mentioned earlier. Though I may not have given a flawless performance, I was proud of myself for stepping out of my comfort zone and it felt amazing to be congratulated by so many people.
The combination of this performance and all the other events I took part in proved to me that International Education is not confined to a classroom or even a country, it is a worldwide celebration that occurs on every level and platform whether it be a planned performance or a simple talk with those of a different background. Everyone has something to share. After participating in IEW, I am definitely more conscious about the opportunities I am given as an exchange student and have been reminded what my exchange year is really all about: promoting intercultural learning and peace through making connections with people I may otherwise have never met.
International Education week passed by more quickly than I ever imagined possible, but through it I have come to realize that international education does not need its own time to be celebrated. It is something that happens through the everyday interactions of life and quite often occurs without thinking. As the midway mark of my exchange approaches, I cannot think of a better way to have prepared myself to make the most of the rest of my time here. IEW may have just ended, but there is no limit to where it will take me.
This past weekend, the last weekend of October, I went to Jodhpur with the other YES Abroad India students. It was largely filled with orientation sessions as it is nearing the midpoint of our stay in India. It was a time of reflection and goal setting, but also a weekend of my exchange that I will not soon forget. I saw amazing sights and shared many memories with my fellow exchange students -Colin, Olivia, Alexander and Mckenna.
As someone wise once said, its’s not just about the destination, but also about the journey. To get to Jodhpur, we took an overnight ride on a train. On 27 October, I came home from school to find my bag already packed (courtesy of Muskaan). We all ate lunch together and then I put my shoes on and was pretty much ready to go. I said goodbye to my host mom first since she was not well, so she stayed home while I went with Muskaan and my host dad to be dropped at McKenna’s house. When we got to McKenna’s house, we rang the doorbell but to no avail. We had to call McKenna’s host mom. A little comedy was added to the day when McKenna’s host mom answered the phone as if my host dad was the pizza delivery guy (they were also waiting for a pizza to arrive). Nevertheless, we were let inside, and I met McKenna’s host mom, grandma, sister and their two dogs. My host dad soon had to leave to go to the office and with him went Muskaan. We exchanged a hug and said our goodbyes.
I was quickly consumed with the attention of a hyper German Shepherd and sweet old black Labrador. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what my favorite animal is. Anyways, the pizza soon came but we saved it for the train ride. Instead, we had garlic bread and chocolate lava pies with ice cream. I don’t know why Pizza Hut in the US doesn’t have the latter because they are delicious. McKenna, her sister Dipannita and I chatted for a while and then it was time for us to go. We loaded our bags into the car and went with McKenna’s host mom to the airport where her host dad works as an ATC. From there, we switched cars and headed to the Old Delhi Station. It was a good thing we left so early because we got lost along the way. The positive aspect of that was finding a street vendor who sold amazing masala chai.
We finally found the station, and decided to walk around Chandni Chowk market for a while since we still were a bit early. I didn’t buy anything, but just walking around such a bustling market was quite the experience.
At around 8:15, we met up with Roshan (an AFS Staff Member) and waited for everyone else to show up. Colin and Olivia came first followed by Alex who got caught up in traffic. We entered the train station and walked straight to McDonald’s to satisfy Alexander’s undying hunger (he will NEVER say no to food haha). I got an iced tea and we all ate the pizza McKenna ordered earlier.
The train was supposed to leave at 9:15, but it was closer to 10pm when we finally started rolling down the tracks. All of us talked for at least an hour and a half before going to bed because it was the first time we had all been together since the AFS party in August. We talked about anything and everything and Colin demonstrated his skill in a completely made up language. He sounds fluent in that language which was hilarious to me.
I slept on the top bunk and slept well considering I did not notice that my pillow fell into the aisle at some point during the night. By the time I woke up, we were nearing Jodhpur. Colin and Olivia unfortunately did not have such an amazing experience since they both got sick overnight.
We were met up by an AFS volunteer from Jodhpur and took a small bus back to where our orientation would be, at the Rajmata Krishna Kumari Girl’s Public School. This school is a boarding school owned by the royal family of Jodhpur, so the campus was stunning. We were greeted in the traditional Indian manner with a marigold garland and tika. We were shown to our rooms and allowed to relax before the first orientation session started between 11:30 and noon. We all took showers and then had an abundant amount of food and chai brought to our room for breakfast.
We met with the principal of the school and (of course) got a group photo with the flags in front of the principal’s office. She was very nice and welcoming and hoped we would all have a great time in Jodhpur.
Soon after, we were given a tour of the grounds and saw everything the school had to offer: the sports facilities, the junior wing and even the boarding houses. It seemed like no students were there but that was just because all the senior students were writing exams.
The first day’s sessions came and went like any other orientation. We had to draw our mood curves (which we already knew we would have to) and talked about the Cultural Iceberg (another AFS staple). It was nice to reflect on what we had experienced as exchange students because there’s no one that can relate more to the types of experiences we have.
For lunch and dinner, we ate in the mess. We were expecting to eat just like any other students there would, but when we walked upstairs to our table, we were surprised to see a table draped with a white table cloth and nice dishes set up for everyone. From that point on, we came to expect to be treated like guests. What was the most surprising was that the food was not spicy at all. It was catered to a stereotypical American palate which can tolerate no spice. It seemed like every dish was a variation of some sort of Indian dish except in place of the spicy sauce, tomato sauce was given. Even the green chilies they served were not spicy – just ask McKenna who generally almost dies when she encounters spice.
The first evening’s activity was watching a movie. We watched English Vinglish which is a hindi/English movie (we watched with subtitles). It is a very nice movie but of course, as with anything that’s a part of the orientation we couldn’t just watch the movie for entertainment. In fact, they had to pause the movie when someone (*cough cough McKenna*) fell asleep just 20 minutes into it. It was then that they revealed that the entire next day of sessions would revolve around this single movie. Even I sat up and started critically assessing the movie.
We all went to bed on time (or even early) that night because it had been a long day. We had gone straight from the train ride into a day of sessions.
The next day was a day of orientation sessions for us. It was kind of annoying to be staying in Jodhpur but not being able to experience everything it had to offer. I kid you not, the Umaid Bhawan Palace was visible from the terrace outside the orientation classroom. Nevertheless, it was still a fruitful orientation. We discussed intercultural conflict styles, generalizations and stereotypes, high and low context communication, our experiences in the past 4 months and what we hope to accomplish in the coming 6. After filling out a reflection about the orientation and doing a 5-minute private counselling session, we were all done with the mid-stay orientation. It feels so unreal to me that I have been in India for nearly half of my exchange year. The longer I am here, the more I want to continue to be here for as long as possible.
The second night’s activity was going shopping at the National Handloom Corporation. It was just a 5-10-minute walk from the school, so we all went together. I bought quite a few small things for friends and family. There, I also bought kulfi and ice cream (which are very similar to each other, but I couldn’t help myself). While trying to order kulfi for my friend and I (she was too nervous to ask for something in Hindi), I noticed for the first time that some random people were taking pictures of us. It was amusing to me because I don’t really feel that different than those around me, but it confirmed that I definitely do stick out. The second night was much more interesting even once we returned to the school. McKenna still had a chocolate cake that her host dad bought, so we (Olivia, McKenna and I) brought it down to the park and sat on a bench each having a small piece. Before I knew what was going on, we were surrounded by 25+ kids from the boarding school. We had so much fun together and almost forgot to save a piece of the cake for Alex. We got interviewed by the girls and amongst the chaos, McKenna was renamed Macaroni. Soon enough, they broke into song and dance. Before they had to leave due to curfew, we all got pictures together.
The same night, all five of us exchange students stayed up talking and giving each other shoulder massages until 2am. Again, we talked about anything and everything. All in all, it was a great time though I won’t go into depth since this post is long enough.
The next and final day we were in Jodhpur was the one day we could leave the campus and go sightseeing. We woke up and followed the usual routine of eating breakfast and drinking chai. We went and spoke with the principal ma’am who listened to all of us recount what we learned during the orientation sessions. We then got another picture beneath the flags and wished one of the students a happy birthday when she came to pass around the candy.
We met with a volunteer who had hosted a student through AFS in the past. She is from Jodhpur so she acted as our guide for the day.
The first place we went was the Umaid Bhawan Palace. It was only about a 5-minute drive from the school, so we didn’t even have time to fill out the survey about our stay at the school. Going up the driveway to the palace was amazing because in the rear window, we could see the fort in the distance. At the palace, we walked inside and were greeted by a guide wearing traditional Rajasthani clothes. He was very helpful in explaining everything about the royal family and the palace. For example, I learned that the Umaid Bhawan Palace is the only palace you can visit other than Buckingham Palace in which the Royal Family still resides.
After touring the inside of the palace, we headed out to the garage where countless vintage cars were kept in pristine condition. McKenna, using the philosophy of ‘it never hurts to ask’, got permission for us to go in the non-tourist zone to take pictures of the palace and of us as a group. In the direct sunlight, it was still quite hot despite it being end-of-October, so we went to buy chilled water at the entrance only to find that they had already set up a corner for us with chilled water, cold drinks and kulfi on demand. It was all complimentary because we were staying at the boarding school which is owned by the royal family. It was an unexpected but very pleasant surprise.
After refreshing ourselves, we boarded the bus to go to the Mehrangarh Fort. Along the way, we stopped to drop off one of the AFS volunteers because he had a plane to catch and then we stopped another time, so the bus driver could pick up something. But the second time, we didn’t really stop moving because the bus was put in neutral and not park, so it immediately started rolling backwards when the driver left the front seat. When he saw his bus moving, he tried to turn back but the poor guy slipped on gravel and fell over. Luckily, the AFS volunteer on the bus was smart enough to pull the emergency brake.
Finally rolling forwards, we made it up the hill and to Mehrangarh. The fort is massive and unlike anything I had seen before. It’s crazy to think that this one building is older than the entire United States!
We got a tour guide for the fort who was very monotonous (including the built in humor) but he still was able to give a lot of information. The famous view of the ‘blue city’ of Jodhpur was incredible. No picture of mine really does it justice. The fort seemed to go on forever. It took 2 hours just to walk through it. My favorite part was the courtyards which had a view of the city but also were surrounded by walls which had windows which the women traditionally looked down from since the coronation ceremony is traditionally viewed by males only. I was able to see the spot where the current king was crowned at the young age of 4 years old. From the fort, I bought a spice for my host mom since I know how much she enjoys spices. Plus, I had not tasted any really spicy food which is what Rajasthani food is famous for. The meal at the fort was also complimentary courtesy of the royal family.
After exiting the fort, we walked down to the ‘blue city’ to do some more shopping. Along the way, we saw a camel and Colin and I were asked to take photos with some Indian men. For me, it was the first time being asked to take a photo with a stranger, but I had been told that it does happen (since I obviously don’t share the Indian complexion). Walking down the roads of the old city was an amazing experience. The roads were very narrow and didn’t make much sense to me, but being surrounded by all the old blue buildings amazed me. It made me stop and think about how small I am in this endless maze of a world; it was a moment of realization.
Nonetheless, we made it to the clocktower and the marketplace. We were able to find an ATM that worked for McKenna and then we made it to the shopping destination. I didn’t buy much because it was just another branch of the National Handloom Corporation. After everyone got what they wanted, we walked back to the bus. Walking back to the bus was another extremely tough moment for me. The entire way back, I was being tapped and pleaded for money by the poor women and children on the streets. As someone who is fortunate enough to have more than I could ever need, experiencing this makes me feel extremely sad. The children in those positions may never be able to get out of it. It’s one problem that I, and probably most other people, hope will be solved soon.
When we reached back to the school, we had just under 2 hours until we had to leave for the railway station. For almost the entire 2 hours, we talked with the exchange students hosted at the school – Elena from Italy and Alice from Thailand. It was not nearly enough time to talk about all we wanted to. Before we knew it, we were leaving Jodhpur. It was a bittersweet time for everyone. It marked an accomplishment (the midpoint of our stay) and we were all happy to go back to our host families (4ish days away is much too long). On the other hand, we were leaving Elena and Alice whom we won’t see again until May and it marks the almost halfway point. At least for me, I feel the time is going by too fast.
The train ride back was much less eventful. We were all tired and fell asleep within an hour of boarding the train – though admittedly this train did not roll as smoothly as the last one. We were supposed to reach Old Delhi Station by 6am, but that of course became close to 8am. When we got off the train, Alex’s host parents were right there to meet him, so we wished him well since he had just moved in with that family less than 1 week prior.
The rest of us exited the station but then figured out that all of our host families/drivers were on the other side of the railway station. After waiting for 5 minutes (not sure for what reason), we reentered the station and started walking to the other side of the station.
While walking down the overpass, I was slightly surprised and very happy when I saw Muskaan coming to greet me. We interlocked our hands; we were reunited after a long weekend and I honestly couldn’t be happier. McKenna also came with us since she lives in Gurgaon as well.
I (surprisingly) did not fall asleep in the car on the way back. I felt happy to be back at home. I couldn’t help but smile while thinking about how fortunate I am. I am exactly where I want to be, and I try to savor every moment. If anything, this weekend I learned to be proud of my accomplishments thus far and hope to continue creating memories just like the ones I have made.
Once I get in a conversation with someone about my time in India, I am usually asked "where have you been in India". Up until now, I had only been able to say that I stayed within New Delhi and Gurgaon. This past weekend, I went to Agra which is famous for the Taj Mahal.
On Thursday, while driving to visit family in Ghaziabad (in Uttar Pradesh), we somehow got on the topic of where I had been and whether or not I had been to Agra before. Rather than ending where the conversation had ended in the past when I said I hadn't been, my host parents started formulating a plan to go see it this weekend or the following weekend. The only concern was getting permission for me to go from AFS since they need to know when I leave the Delhi region. Since Agra is a very popular tourist destination and AFS already plans on taking us at the end of the program, we didn't foresee any issues getting the permission. As expected, getting the permission was painless; it was obtained in a 2 minute phone call from my host mom to Vyom. The next step was getting a hotel room which we managed to do despite the whole trip being last-minute. The rest of the day went by very quickly with all the Diwali celebrations going on. By the end of it, I was pretty much falling asleep during the final rounds of the card games which lasted until 12:30 am. Muskaan and I decided to pack for Agra the same night so that we would be ready to go in the morning. As I have already told Muskaan, she is the most organized packer I have witnessed. I am used to seeing Katherine stuff all of her belongings into her duffel bag in no particular order every time we switch from my mom's house to my dad's or vice versa, but Mus had a written plan of what she would wear and when in order to match our schedule. Despite the high level of organization, it was 1:30 am by the time I finally sunk into the mattress and fell asleep. We had decided to wake up the next morning at 6:30am so we would have time to shower but it was closer to 7 by the time we actually got out of bed. We had leftover Instapizza for breakfast and were ready to get going. I saw Cherry (the neighbor's French Bulldog) that morning and couldn't resist stopping to pet her for a little before actually getting in the car.
It took about 4 hours to get from Gurgaon to Agra by way of the Yamuna Expressway. I must say that road trips are much more enjoyable/relaxing when you aren't travelling with a younger brother and sister, I actually managed to sleep for a good chunk of the trip. The time I spent awake was just as nice. The expressway was pretty much just a straight road so the inner NASCAR driver came out of my host dad a few times along the way when we couldn't see any CCTV cameras in distance. When we stopped for a break 2 hours into the trip, we had brunch and visited the gift shop. I did not buy anything because the prices clearly reflected the fact that the target consumer was a tourist who had no idea of the true value of the items. Some of the jewelry was 3 or 4 times the cost you would pay at a market like Janpath. Even though I am also a foreigner, I still couldn't help but look at the others. There was one guy who Muskaan dubbed as 'Maggi Hair' because his curly blond hair looked like a plate of masala noodles. Agra marks the other end of the Yamuna Expressway, and we arrived at around 1pm. The hotel was only about 3km from the Taj Mahal and was really nice. After all the formalities of checking in as a foreigner (passport and visa check), we made our way to the rooms on the third floor. We could see the 1st floor outdoor pool with the Taj in the background from the window in the hallway. It was such a great view and was the first time I laid my eyes on the iconic masterpiece. The pool, but not the Taj, were visible from the hotel rooms. My host mom and dad shared one room and Muskaan and I shared the other a couple doors down the hall. We settled in and waited for a plan to be made for the day. As I ate the complimentary chocolate chip cookie, Muskaan sat on the other side of the desk reading from the guest services book. I think all hotels have these books but does anyone ever really read them? Long story short, we found the kids menu items very entertaining but got even more amused by their 'Careline' service. Careline was everywhere. Have any queries? Call Careline. Before you open the door of your hotel room, what should you do? Call Careline. I am not joking when I say the first step in their fire escape plan posted on the door is...you guessed it... Call Careline. Since then, it has become one of our inside jokes and whenever it's mentioned, neither of us can help but laugh.
Soon enough a second ring of our doorbell was heard and (without calling Careline) I opened the door to my host parents. The plan for the day was to relax for a while, go swimming and then go for dinner followed by a light and sound show at Agra Fort. Originally we were going to see the Taj that day, but we decided it would be better to go early the next morning to beat the crowd and the heat. Mus and I spent some time watching sports on the TV while laying in (a very comfortable) bed. After some time, I changed into my swim suit (which is called a swim costume here) and Muskaan and I went to the pool. While I swam, she studied Indian history. The inner lifeguard in me cringed when I saw a younger boy try to get in the pool with the rescue ring but luckily someone came out and directed them to the shallow end where the water was literally only 6 inches deep. I swam laps for a while and soon realized how out of shape I am. After I found where the towels were kept, I went with Muskaan back to our room for a shower and then we headed over to my host parents' room where my host dad, Mus and I all played Trivia Crack while laying in the bed. Trivia Crack became very addictive for us - whenever the notification came saying that it was our turn to play, we would immediately sit up and play the game. I didn't contribute much to answering the questions because the questions in Entertainment, History, and Geography categories were all related mostly to Indian facts. Muskaan proved to be very knowledgeable in the areas of Entertainment and History and is also pretty good at guessing the answer when no one is confident in any response.
Soon enough, it was time to head out for lunch. On the way to the restaurant we stopped at Panchi Petha to get some petha (pumpkin) sweets. This particular shop makes the best ones, so we got quite a few. After stopping there, we drove to an area that was filled with huge red signs adverising "Mama Chicken Mama Franky House" which was quite hysterical. We did not eat there, instead we went to a sit-down restaurant very close by. We had butter naan (highly recommend you try this) and chicken which was really nice and very filling.
We got back to the hotel at around 6, so we had just under an hour before we had to leave for the light and sound show. We thought the show started at 7:45, so we wanted time to get tickets and seats. We continued our game of Trivia Crack and then left for Agra Fort at 6:50ish. Since it only took about 10 minutes to drive there, we thought we would be pretty early for the show. There was a pretty sizable crowd at the front entrance and were happy we came early because we soon realized the show's timing had been moved up by 30 minutes to 7:15. Even at night, the fort was quite the sight. It is made from red sandstone and is massive. To enter the fort, you go cross a (empty) moat and two huge gates. We passed through a stretch of the fort which would have held the market twice a week for the women that lived there and were not generally allowed to leave at their leisure. The light and sound show took place in one of the yards of the fort and told the story of Agra through the time of the Mughal Dynasty. The history behind the fort and of Agra in general is quite impressive but I won't go too much into detail since it is something you can easily Google. The show took about an hour to finish and was well put-together.
After the show, we went out to eat again. Driving to the restaurant, we passed through a busy area that was also showered with lights. It was very crowded and I joked that if I had to drive in those conditions, my car would have a million scratches by the time I made it through. In the car, Muskaan gave me a lesson on how to pronounce Taj Mahal because Americans have learned it the wrong way haha. If I don't think about what I am saying, I still tend to mess it up. Despite the crowdedness, we made it to the restaurant. This time, I ordered one of my favorite veg Indian dishes: Pav Bhaji. On the way to the restaurant, we passed by Keventers, a famous milkshake place of Delhi. I had not gone there before, so we decided to go after dinner. From the street, it looked as though Keventers had closed. Just to be sure, we walked up to the store front and found that they were closing because the supply had run out. After some talking, we managed to get three milkshakes in the only flavor left: chocolate hazelnut. My host dad drank his right away while Muskaan and I waited until we got back to the hotel, 10 minutes from then. The milkshake was very delicious. It tasted very similar to Reese's candy (which is sadly not available in India).
After playing Trivia Crack, it was time for bed and we set our alarm for 5:30am the next morning so we could get to the Taj Mahal early. As always, we hit the snooze button until 6am when my host dad rung the doorbell to our room. We slid out of bed and got ready to go to the Taj within about 30 minutes. My host mom stayed behind to sleep since she has seen the Taj before, so it was just me, my host dad and Muskaan who went. The Taj Mahal was only about 10 minutes drive from the hotel. It seemed so surreal to input "Taj Mahal" into the GPS system and get a result so close to where we were. Mr. Paintal parked the car and we made our way to buy entry tickets. The tickets are quite cheap for Indian tourists, but Rs 1000 for every foreigner. We picked up our shoe covers and my complimentary water since I was a 'high value ticket holder'. As soon as we stepped outside, we were surrounded by bhaiyas who offered us Rickshaw rides down to the entrance of the Taj Mahal. We finally gave into one of their offers and ended up taking a ride in a horse drawn cart to the entrance. It was the closest I have been to riding a horse since I came to India. Riding there was a neat experience, and not something I expected to do that day.
We still had to walk a little ways to get to the actual entrance of the Taj, but along the way we passed quite a few shops and cafes, most of which were not open that early in the morning. All three of us had to go in separate lines to enter the Taj. The line for 'high value' (aka foreign) females was the longest of all 4 lines. Muskaan's was the shortest and my host dad's wasn't too long either. In the line, there were people from all over the world. The people in front of me were from Italy and Germany and the people behind me were from Malaysia. It is amazing to see how a wonder of the world can attract people from everywhere to one location. If only there was that sort of unification of cultures outside tourism. I finally made it through the line and into the area outside the Taj Mahal. Here, there was another gate to pass through but not before a bunch of pictures were taken by my host dad and sister. A lot of pictures were taken that day, but in the long run, I would want as many pictures as possible. As the saying goes, "a picture is worth a thousand words". The most amazing thing to see is the first time you the Taj becomes visible through the outline of the gate. Even that early in the morning, there was a crowd of people shuffling through the opening, but that did not make the view any less spectacular. Right past the gate is the best overall view of the Taj Mahal because you can see everything: the garden with it's fountains and the Taj. In the morning sun, the view was breathtaking. We slowly made our way down towards the Taj. We made it to the photography region (I call it that since this is where the hired photographers make the tourists pose). It was a little hilarious to watch the types of poses people were placed in. Some sat with their legs up on the bench, some with their arms spread wide open. But I am not really an exception to this crowd. As you'll see in the photos, I got the very touristy picture of me 'holding' the Taj Mahal. After that stop, we continued towards the Taj. We didn't hire a tour guide, but we still got some information just from overhearing the others talk to the tourists. I was lucky enough to have my host family take me, and they told me everything I needed to know. Once you get to the actual building of the Taj, you have to put on shoe covers so that you do as little damage as possible. We joined a mob of people headed up the stairs and I had to interlock arms with Muskaan so that I would not get lost in the commotion. Muskaan translated what the guard said: "Why are you in such a hurry, the Taj isn't going anywhere" (or something to that effect). It didn't take long before I could literally put my hand on the Taj Mahal. Seriously, it is crazy to think that only one year ago, I was looking at a picture of the Taj for my AP World History class, and now I was there in real life. No photography is allowed inside the Taj, but it is just as spectacular inside as it is on the outside. The carvings surrounding the tomb of Mumtaz Mahal were incredibly intricate and the flower decorations were beautifully done. Looking at the craftsmanship that goes into such a piece of art makes it clear why it took 21 years to complete. When we came out the back of the Taj, I was able to see the Yamuna River. The minarets around the building gleamed in the morning sun. We made our way to the front and laughed at a tourist who was doing stretches before finally assuming the 'namaste' pose for a photo. We walked back through the garden section of the Taj after taking off our foot covers. It was surprisingly green for being visited by so many people on a daily basis. I saw many different plants including the 'Beep Tree' to which I heard the people behind me start laughing while comparing the tree to a car's horn. I took a final look at the Taj before exiting the gate and captured a mental image I hope I will never forget.
On the way out, Muskaan and I got a picture peeping from the columns of the entrance gate structure (unfortunately I don't have that picture to share). By the time we left, there were a lot more people entering the Taj itself, but the line to enter through the first gate was virtually non-existent. The stores were also open by this point in the day, so we stopped and I got a miniature snow-globe and a marble turtle (to add to my mom's collection). My host dad also got a marble mortar and pestle for my host mom. We walked back to the parking lot and my host dad jogged to go get the car. We rushed a little bit when we realized there was only 1 more hour for the breakfast at the hotel to be open. My host dad woke up my host mom by calling her to tell her we were on the way and we met up with her at the hotel restaurant. She asked me all about my experience and whether or not my host dad and Muskaan were good tour guides (they were). We had a very filling breakfast and then went to relax until 12pm when it was time to check out from the hotel and go home.
Muskaan and I decided to go to the pool and dip our feet in the water. When it became too warm outside to continue, we decided to explore other parts of the hotel. First, we went past the spa and to the kids room. There, I practiced my driving skills on one of the kid's scooter things and shot some hoops using an inflatable soccer ball. It was quite fun actually, and I bet the security guards got a kick out of seeing the footage from that room too. After that we moved onto the fitness center where I did some running on the treadmill barefoot since I was wearing sandals. Muskaan was right next to me - we both reached the level 9 speed and then she spent the rest of the time 'cooling down' at a snail's pace. Before we knew it, my host mom called me and told me to meet her in the lobby because we had to check out.
We left around 12 and I was thankful to be out of the car at 4pm to go get lunch because the last stretch of roads we took made me feel nauseous. We went to Soul and Spice for lunch and the food there was amazing. Muskaan ordered her favorite egg biryani. I had bengali fish with rice which was really tasty. The food there was so nice, that we called out the chef to personally tell him how well it was prepared.
We got home soon after that and Muskaan tried to scare me by saying we forgot my sandals in Agra, but it didn't really cause me any concern. As it turns out, it was just a joke.
I had the most amazing time going to Agra with my family. I learned so much and really enjoyed visiting another part of India.
This weekend I am going on an AFS trip to Jodhpur! It really is a time of travel for me. I should be making a post about that shortly after I come back.
I had this post ready earlier but I am posting it today as a special way of saying HAPPY 18th BIRTHDAY MUSKAAN! I know you look forward to reading my posts, and this one took an especially long waiting period considering how long I 'worked on it'. I hope this one was worth the wait!
Hi! My name is Anna McKane. I am 16 years old and have had a pretty ordinary life up to this point. I believe this experience will change me for the better and I will try everything I can while I am abroad.