Experiencing India through eyes both new and old

India has felt like a part of me since I first whiffed spices and sweat lingering in the midnight air outside the Bangalore airport in 2011. That summer I discovered my own style of adventure and definition of fulfilment. I worked tirelessly at Shanti Bhavan from 6am to midnight, wanting to conceal my naivety and conquer my inexperience. I had fun getting to know my students well enough to create appropriate lesson plans and laughed my way through horrible bhangra classes and soccer matches. 100% invested in my teaching during the week, I equally threw myself in to weekend travel. My fellow volunteers showed me the ropes of South-East Asia. I strengthened my stomach on street food, rode motor-bikes in ways that my now more developed prefrontal cortex would not approve of, and made friends in every city I visited. My students and the rest of India grabbed my heart.

I returned in 2013 to prove something to myself. I wanted to know that I could be a traveler, that I could get myself around the country on my own. I was determined to see past the hardships and mishaps. For every cat-caller that pissed me off, there was a friendly Indian man who reminded me it wasn’t the norm. Meeting kind strangers and playing on the beach with their children overshadowed feelings of loneliness. On that visit, I confirmed my suspicions: I had indeed fallen in love with India.

Living and working in India, specifically at Shanti Bhavan, became part of my long term plan. And on graduation day from UNC I found out my dream would come true. Last year India showed itself through the relationships I built more than anything else. I became so attached to the SB children that my weekends became stationary: remaining at to school help them articulate ambitions, skype with international peers and mentors, or simply advocate for movie night. Even though I technically had days off, I found my work too wholly fulfilling to leave it.

I first met these girls when they were in 7th and 8th grade, and now they're the leaders of the school!
I first met these girls when they were in 7th and 8th grade, and now they’re the leaders of the school!

And so, I discovered a new side to the country. Though administrative things might happen too last minute for an over-planning American, they always got done with precision. The aunties (dorm mothers) revealed to me their extant interest in learning English. Even after a long day of caring for the children, they would sit with each other at night to finish my homework. And of course the students – from their mature alacrity to understand the world around them to their formidable repertoire of henna designs – never ceased to amaze me.

As my love for India ossified, so did my fear of sharing it. Most people I know who have spent an extended period of time in India have a very love-hate relationship with the country. Of course, all the ones I befriend let the love part triumph. But, what if the people I care about end up not caring about this place? I had nothing to worry about; India shared its magic.

For the past two weeks I got to re-discover India through my partner’s eyes. We’ve been instructed since birth that sharing is caring, but we were never promised it would be easy. Sharing India with Brendan wasn’t easy, at first, but it was more rewarding than I could have predicted.

Brendan and I flew in from Malaysia to be joined by my friend Cameron for his last days in the country. We began on my old turf: Bangalore and Mysore. These two cities are the ones I have continued to return to for the past 4 years. Each have their own charm; but, most importantly to me, are so unvisited during the off season that we managed to go almost 3 days before spotting another non-Indian face.

In Bangalore we strolled through Cubbon Park while watching little old men on their morning walks and sweet couples tucked away on hidden benches. I smiled as Brendan haggled with his first auto rickshaw driver and laughed as he hummed his way through every good meal. I shared in his exuberance and became increasingly determined to give him every possible experience.
Next we boarded a typical run-down, open-air interstate bus. I navigated us to the empty front seats for increased leg room, but forgot just how menacing the metal bars behind the driver’s seat could look. “If we were to brake suddenly…” Brendan started before I smiled trying to assure us both the leg room was worth it. As the bus began to weave its way through traffic we agreed that driving in India felt like the race car video games I never played.

Cameron, Brendan and I posing with Syed at the essential oil stall
Cameron, Brendan and I posing with Syed at the essential oil stall

After reaching Mysore, the goal became good food and market shopping. Thankfully neither are hard to come by. Walking through my favorite outdoor market, our bodies were struck by the sensory overload that defines India. After making a few rounds, however, I became filled with agita on not being able to find my favorite essential oil seller. Just when I was about to accept defeat I heard a familiar voice calling out to me from an unfamiliar stall…Syed recognized me! We proceeded to spend far too long sipping chai and sniffing countless perfume scents. After several South-Indian banana leaf thalis that silenced our conversation and a chorus of humming to North-Indian meals, I knew it would be hard for either of us to return to reality. But luckily, we still had a week and a half before that happened!

Then came the most nerve racking part of all: it was time to meet the family. We left Cameron on his long journey back to Seattle and began our own trip into the remote country side of Tamil Nadu. When Uncle Babu picked us up in the familiar Shanti Bhavan jeep I was shocked to hear a fellow ex volunteer exclaim “I know your friend!” and hug Brendan before me. Leave it to the middle of no-where India to bring together old high school classmates.

Always staying busy...taking selfies with some of the little kids
Always staying busy…taking selfies with some of the little kids

When we arrived at Shanti Bhavan I was greeted by more hugs and handshakes than I can count. I was assured by two kids that Brendan would be in good hands with them as his tour guide before being whisked away from the car. Little time passed – just a few joke filled meals with the kids and one botched up leg from soccer – before Shanti Bhavan cast its spell on Brendan. He too sees Shanti Bhavan as the paragon of education models. By physically removing children from the cycle of poverty, they are given the tools and the confidence to dramatically alter the oppressive structures they live within. With a new passion to see the place thrive, Brendan kept himself busy helping create a teacher training session for the new volunteers to give before we left.

I kept myself busy (when I wasn’t working on administration projects or catching up with my students) by attempting to write a speech for graduation day. I was supposed to represent all of the volunteers as I spoke to both graduating classes (from high school and college) while addressing all of the guests present. I didn’t think I had the words. Eventually, Brendan got me to close my eyes and speak from my heart, and the message flowed. I wanted my students, and everyone listening, to know that they already possess the compassion and curiosity to be the agents of change I know they will become. I filled with pride as I watched them walk across the stage and held back tears as they piled in to vans and drove off to college.

Leaving Shanti Bhavan was heart wrenching as usual. But as has become customary with all my goodbyes, I yelled “see you soon” as I shook the last hands through the jeep window. And I mean it, I’ll be back before this blog can cover too many more life experiences.
From there Brendan and I headed on a new adventure to both of us: the backwaters of Kerala. Known throughout India as “God’s Own Country,” I couldn’t wait to feast my eyes on the luscious greenery and deep blue water. But first we had to get there. Having been slightly traumatized by nearly missing our stop and being pushed off a train (if you ask the right person for the story) the first time I was here, I did not accomplish a good night’s sleep.

The backwaters at sunset
The backwaters at sunset

After arriving though, nothing could matter. We were quickly ushered on to our own private houseboat with a captain and a cook. Accepting the slight discomfort I feel when being served by others and ignoring the restless I get from being generally stationary, it was the most relaxing two days I think I may have ever had. We people watched and stared in awe at the passing beauty. We went swimming and attempted to go fishing. We walked around rice paddies at sunset and chatted with our docked neighbors. And of course, we ate a lot of good food.

Eventually we had to abandon our serenity and return to the bustling India we knew. After half an hour of walking in circles around an unknown bus stand I finally smiled at a police officer to get help in finding our way to Cochin. That evening, as we sat on the steps of a closed shop shielding ourselves from the monsoon rains, Brendan noted how different our interactions here felt from ones with Malaysians. Most notably, we were in a culture where people are willing to address me first, rather than always default to Brendan the man.

I could get used to this
I could get used to this
I considered why this was. Could I really just be that much more gregarious in India? Did my now seemingly innate Indian head nod communicate more than gender? Or, was that – friendliness and acceptance that simply cannot exist in a society even more patriarchal than India – really the basic cultural difference that keeps India at the top of my list? Food for future thought.

Over the course of the two weeks I slowly became okay with not having to appear the expert. I stopped showing Brendan India and we began to discover it together. I was reminded that travel is not vacation, but that I’m not very good at strictly vacationing anyways. Most importantly, I created a sub-continent loving convert. Thank you India for once again treating my mind and belly well.

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