Nearly ten months after touching down at Indira Gandhi International Airport, I find myself racing down the runway once again. Less than an hour later, two bounces and a jolt of the breaks signify that I have reached my destination, Lucknow. Disembarking the plane at an airport not much bigger than the one in my hometown of Corning, I realize I am in for a completely new exchange experience despite remaining within the northern half of the subcontinent.
The start of my four-day exchange in Lucknow felt like a ceremony for a celebrated chief guest. Walking into Amity VKC, we were ushered into a side-room for high tea before entering an auditorium filled to its capacity with smiling and clapping children. Though a welcoming ceremony, this 30-minute program reminded me what I had already completed. Being surrounded by Indian culture was perhaps the only thing that was normal about the entrance. No longer did using a lit candlestick to ignite an oil-covered wick strike me as foreign. Greeting the crowd with folded hands and ‘namaste’ came more naturally than saying ‘hello’ and waving a hand. I even understood the young children singing, “Swagatam aapka”.
From July until before going to Lucknow, I have had four host families. Still, meeting a new host family is something that makes my heart pound and thoughts race. A mispronounced Vasudha was the first word that came out of my mouth. The fact that my host mom and sister still embraced me in their arms let me know that I had arrived home. The first day was spent bonding with host family. Before even sitting in the car, I realized that my host mom spoke only in Hindi and host dad spoke little English. I decided to embrace this and spoke as much Hindi as I could throughout the trip when I was with them. In this way, I was able to connect with my entire host family rather than just my host sister, Vasudha. In the four days I shared with my Lucknow family, I came to appreciate not only the culture of Lucknow but more so the pure generosity and openness of the people.
I participated in more activities in my 4 days at Amity International School, Viraj Khand than I did in the past 4 weeks in Delhi. It was obviously tiring, but it was immensely rewarding. By the end of the exchange, I performed an English prayer song, Indian Ghazal, and a traditional Kathak Dance. I sculpted a vase-like container, tried my hand at Warli painting, and ate amazing gol gappe and Lucknowi Chaat. In short, all my senses were thoroughly immersed in new experiences. As someone who prefers not to dance or sing, I found myself having more fun in these activities than I would have ever before coming to India. Once of the most significant learnings I have had in India is to ‘live a little’. Despite laughing through many of the sessions, I gained not only knowledge, but newfound appreciation for the skills of others. Though we had great doubt in ourselves initially, the six exchange students received deafening applause for our attempt to display what Lucknow had imbibed in us.
Accompanied by an extremely enthusiastic Class VIII history teacher, the exchange students and respective host siblings made their way across Lucknow to take in the sights of the city. It was on this day where I felt like a tourist but learned much about the history of the City of Nawabs. A visit to Bara Imambara and a walk through its labyrinth of passageways to the roof made me lost for words. The view from the top of the structure is awe inspiring and the thought that someone could have designed such a structure so long ago is shocking. After boarding the Amity bus again, we were off to the Residency, a collection of buildings still physically scarred by the bullets and cannons from the 1857 Sepoy Revolt. Visiting this location made my 10th class AP world history class come to life. As for the enthusiastic accompanying teacher, she made sure that I knew the full history behind what seemed to be each and every brick laid. So my history class did come to life in Lucknow. And perhaps the more notable conclusion, every single person I met on my Lucknow exchange, from the photographer to the principal of the school, was extremely helpful and genuinely interested in making sure that the exchange students would be able to take home a mind full of fond memories.
Tourism aside, my work with NGOs in Lucknow was perhaps what made my experience as memorable as it was. On my third day, after the school programs had wrapped up, I got on the Amity bus yet again and arrived at an animal shelter. Where some may first notice the muddy ground and smell of farm animals, I found myself right in my element as soon as the gates opened. Surrounded by cows, ducks, geese, goats, a horse, and several dogs, we were all reminded that even though this world has been dominated by humans, it is not meant to be overruled. Talking with the owner of the NGO, I learned that the animals that were found within it’s boarder walls were all rescued due to either being abandoned, having an injury that makes unsupported life impossible, or, in the case of one small black dog, walking into the shelter on their own. Having volunteered with Karma Animal Foundation in Gurgaon since January, animal welfare is something I am passionate about. Being able to form connections with people across the world who share the same passion will allow for a bigger impact.
Heading back to Amity, we enjoyed a quick refreshment before interacting with the Lucknow branch of National Association for the blind (NAB). Anyone can imagine the hardships that come along with being blind, but for me this experience revealed that sympathy alone will not work. I was supposed to complete one interview with a blind student. The students I met with were more engaging than many seeing children I have met. What we consider to be their weakness, is an important strength. I asked the question, “If you had the opportunity to see (again), would you take it?”. More than half said they wouldn’t. This surprised me. I can’t imagine living in a world where nothing is visible. Talking with one student, Mohammad, was very inspirational. This college student had lost his vision later in life than any of the others, at around 16 years of age. Still, answering the previous question, he said that you don’t just see the world through your eyes. You feel it with every sense, and with every emotion. Loosing his eyesight has just enhanced his emotional connection, his ‘heart connection” with his surroundings. From asking this question, I concluded that the blind community needs more than our sympathy. They need to be treated like “normal” people because they are. Sometimes, in fact, they are more amazing than the “normal” people I have encountered. Many of them were excellent with technology, pursuing degrees in Computer Science. One younger girl, blind since before one year of age, was what the association calls ‘the nightingale of NAB’. Another, blind since birth and now deaf, ‘listens’ by feeling the way words are written with her hand. All of these are examples of what the blind community can do when they are given equal opportunities. Every one of them studies in a normal school or college, and many are toppers in their respective classes. Taking this experience forward, I hope to promote awareness about the blind community and how to effectively provide aid.
My time in Lucknow, the city of Nawabs, is something I will not soon forget. The welcoming people, inspiring stories and vibrant culture made my 4 days spent there extremely fulfilling. Without a doubt, the community accomplished their goal of giving me numerous fond memories to take back with me, and has proven to me that time does not have to be a limitation.
As I watch the train to Udaipur pull into the platform at Hazrat Nizaamuddin Railway Station, I can’t help but think of two things. One: is diving head first through the window of an incoming train going to help that man get anywhere faster? And two: Once I exit the train, will the scorching heat of the desert state really char me to the bone? After a week in Rajasthan, the clear answer to both questions is ‘no’. Delving behind these questions though, sheds light on the importance this trip had towards my overall exchange.
As for the man jumping, or rather diving into the train car, this can be reflected on the genuine curiosity I hold for discovering the culture of India. Though I did not risk falling onto the tracks beneath a moving train, there were multiple times during the Rajasthan trip where I found myself delving head first into a new experience. Whether it be crossing the streets of Bada Bazaar in the darkness of the desert evening, walking through a fort older than my home country of the United States, or discussing the mango plantations with the camel caravan driver, there was always something to learn from the experience. Though I was a tourist, one of the most valuable points of the trip for me was interacting with the local people. One of my fondest memories, one I previously mentioned, was the desert safari. I was first to get in the camel-pulled cart, and therefore was closest to the driver. After seeing me take pictures, the driver asked me if I would like to sit farther forward. To this request I answered ‘haanji’ without even thinking. Putting my feet on the shaded wood of the cart’s shaft and peaking my out from behind the cart’s canopy, the driver asked me, “aapko hindi aati hai?”. While I am not fluent, this sparked a conversation – first about the camel whose name I learned was Moti (meaning pearl) and then talking about the mango trees growing on either side of the lane we passed through. Once we reached the sunset viewing point, the bhaiya handed me the reins to the camel and jumped out to take a picture. Though this was a small part of the trip – merely 3 hours out of the many days spent out – I can truly say it was very impactful. It proved how communication, even if it is imperfect because of language, does not have to be hindered by the same.
As for the ‘dreadful’ heat of Rajasthan, the desert state, I found that the climate was not nearly as miserable as I had been told it would be. Though the temperature was not blistering, the challenges I encountered along the trip were the points from which I learned the most. At our last stop, Jaipur, I used my language skills developed over the past 9 months to communicate with the shop keepers. The obvious reasoning behind this would be to strike a good deal, but it did much more for me. On the streets where vendors usually stick to foreigners like bees to a beehive, I was able to keep them away *mostly* by telling them “nahi chahiye”. Though a very minor situation, it was interesting to me because using English seems to attract the pestering storekeepers even more. Once I entered the store, I used my Hindi to talk with the vendors. I was with a friend in the markets, and even being able to translate to her what the shop keeper was asking her was a rewarding experience. It made the hours upon hours of Hindi class come to life. The most rewarding conversation I had occurred while purchasing a dupatta. The storekeeper knew limited English, so our dialogue played out in *beginner level* Hindi. When I explained to him that I was a student staying in Delhi, he told me that when foreigners speak in Hindi to him, he becomes very happy. These small interactions made my day while on the trip.
Though I learned a lot from the new experiences and the challenges, I also took time to relax and soak up as much of my surroundings as possible as I entered my last month abroad. Knowing that in just one month I will no longer be living the exchange student life terrifies me…but it also gives me motivation to live every day to its fullest. My senses were constantly filled to their capacities. These are some of the best feelings I have felt:
What can you do when school's out? My answer...a lot!!
At the end of February, I gave my exams for what would be my junior year of high school. Starting in March, I am only required to go to school a total of less than 10 more days. This is because I will not start class 12 in India and am similarly not allowed to repeat class 11th here either. This freedom has given me the opportunity to go many places and do many things.
Let’s start with the most boring of times – being in school. Well, it’s not all that bad. The time on the bus and the first 10 minutes of school before class starts, I am able to talk with my friends who I otherwise do not meet on a daily basis anymore. However, during the school day, I have no time table, no scheduled time. In other words, I am free to do anything – except sit with my class – for 8 out of 9 periods of the day (my second period being dedicated to Hindi). Since I have been requested to make a sculpture - something I am surprisingly good at – I spend most of that time in the sculpture room. The con to this being that maybe 3 other students my age come in during the day to participate in the class. In India, there is not big emphasis on the arts, especially in the higher-level classes. In Hindi class, I find it much easier to converse now that I have done many things outside of school. My Hindi is not very good, but it is still 30 minutes of the day that I can guarantee I will find something to laugh about in. Usually, it is over some error I have made in Hindi or the exaggerated hand gestures I use to convey my point.
Aside from school, an important part of my time now is volunteerism. In order to give back for my exchange, I have started volunteering with Karma Animal Foundation, an NGO in Gurgaon which cares for 60-70 dogs at any given time. In the past few months, I have accumulated 100 hours logged in service. Therefore, I chose to connect my Capstone Project to my volunteer work:
I have also volunteered with Amitasha, though I only had one class this month. During that class, a new session had started so I taught self-introductions in English to the class 2 and 3 students. It was a very fun experience and was one of the first times I had taught a lesson completely on my own.
In addition to school and volunteer work, I have made time to go to Delhi and experience as much as possible. I have been able to do this by going with McKenna, whose capstone project involves viewing old sights to learn about the architecture of Delhi. With this project, I have been to Red Fort (Lal Quila) and Old Fort (Purana Quila) and revisited Akshardham. It is refreshing to spend the day out, experiencing life in the city.
Sometimes the smallest moments create equally big memories. While making the gunjiya for Holi, I was reminded of a Ukrainian/Russian dish that we make very often at home and is a specialty of my church back home: Pierogies. So, the next day, I made the dough, my host mom made a delicious filling, and I formed the best pierogies I could manage. A few minutes in boiling water and a few more on a frying pan, and soon enough I had some of the most delicious pierogies I had ever tasted. Who could forget about smiley potatoes? They perfectly convey my thoughts on the dish.
Some days are more special than others. This is the case with celebrating Olivia’s birthday. I took the metro and met up with Colin, changing into Indian wear and going to Olivia’s house before she reached home from school. Despite my last minute gift and the last minute plans, I had a great time. I don’t remember the last time we had all three met up and just been able to talk together. Getting home a little late was a small price to pay for this experience.
With Muskaan preparing for boards, we haven’t spent the most time together with me out of the house for volunteering and everything, but the time we have spent together has been priceless. Coming back from Red Fort, Muskaan then offered to take me to Qutub Minar, which was an opportunity I could not pass up. The next day, we went. Luckily for me, I can go with someone who is not a foreigner since being foreign often means being overcharged for everything. We had a great time at Qutub Minar – having Muskaan was far better than the audio tour I would have taken otherwise. Even if we didn’t know the true history behind it, it was sometimes better – or at least funnier – to make up stories. On the way back home, we enjoyed iced tea, mine with actual ice, and watched a foreign couple pay 5 time the amount we did for an auto ride from the metro station to the monument.
March has been an exciting month for me, and I am heading full speed, whether I like it or not, into my last full month in India. I anticipate that April will go by the fastest of all as I will be traveling quite a bit – I leave for Rajasthan on the 31st of this month! I am excited to see what the rest of my experience will bring me, and I pray that it won’t go by too fast. Next stop: Jaipur.
When someone packs up their bags for a year abroad, holidays are usually a point to look forward to. This is no exception for me; celebrations in India are big, bright and beautiful. At the beginning of every March, Holi comes around. "The festival of colors" as it is commonly known, is nothing like any holiday or celebration I have experienced before:
This year for Holi, there were no big plans for a party as Muskaan prepares for boards. However, this was no excuse to let the holiday slip away. A day before, on Chhoti Holi, I hung the colorful decorations outside the house. My host mom, Muskaan and I all went to HUDA market just down the street to buy some colored powder and (huge) squirt guns. While we were at it, we got some freshly squeezed juice but forgot to buy a mold to make gujiya - a traditional sweet eaten during the holiday. Of course, gunjiya has to be made, so we got right to work upon returning home. The dough was made from maida, and the filling a sweet mixture. Since we forgot to buy a mold at the market, we bought one at the shop within our society. As it turned out, anyway, we did not require the mold. We cut circles in the dough, filled them with a spoon of filling, and pinched the edges closed. This type of sweet is prepared by frying it and then serving it. In addition to gujiya, my host mom also made a few samosas with the same dough, but a different, savory filling made from potatoes and peas. Everything came out very delicious.
The next day, it was Holi. We woke up very excited, but a little bit unsure of what to do because of the lack of plans for the morning. We changed into white shirts and went outside to fill the buckets with water, taking along our squirt guns. Along with squirt guns, we also had yellow snow-powder which absorbs water and becomes 'snow'; we used this to form 'snowballs'. Though the day started out quite slowly with no one to squirt water at, the rate of playing Holi quickly increased as the day went by. First we met our neighbor who threw water balloons are Muskaan and I from her balcony. Soon after, she joined us and we played with the water guns and some other young girls in the neighborhood. The first color of the day pelted my white-clothed back; it was a pink water from one of the neighborhood girl’s water squirters. I will add that I was quite impressed upon seeing those contraptions: water tanks carried on the back in the form of a backpack with a hose attachment to squirt the water. This was much more efficient, but no less fun, than having to run back and forth to the water bucket. Shortly afterwards, neighbors started showing up to celebrate. We placed all the chairs in the sun as many of us got soaking wet from water wars. Every time someone passed by us, stranger or known, they would walk, colored and all, towards us with their pots of colored powder and place, rub rather, it on the faces of everyone saying: “Happy Holi!”. Needless to say, by the end of the day, everyone had color shoved into every crevice imaginable and my shirt was no longer -and would never again be- the same pristine white it had started out. For lunch, everyone contributed a dish and I got to eat my favorite, Pao Bhaji. It was amazing to see everyone come out and celebrate the holiday, not many occasions can get everyone together in the United States in the same way. Our neighbors – who we know for their two dogs Cherry and Ginny – joined us for a few minutes. Ginny the pug even had a splash of festive purple added to her coat. From squirting guns, to throwing water balloons, to smearing color powder and dumping buckets of water on people’s heads, it was an experience I will not soon forget.
Holi was not just the festival of colors. To me, it represented many things I love about India. For one, togetherness. Even though we hadn’t planned much, all our neighbors got together and had a great time. Another is the colorfulness. Not only in the literal sense, but seeing everyone’s bright and optimistic attitude the entire day was very contagious. Interacting with people on this level makes everyone in the surrounding area feel amazing. Furthermore, it represented how much this year, the culture, and everything I have learned, will stay with me for a long time. Just as it took me a zillion times to scrub the colors off my skin, I will carry these memories with me for a lifetime.
P.S. to anyone in the US who would like to, let’s play Holi next year!
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!
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.