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:
Namaste! Mera naam Anna hai! Hi! my name is Anna. Please enjoy reading about my experience as a high school junior in India and ask any questions you may have!