India / Writing

A Lifetime

This is my chance to tell you everything. It’s unrealistic of me to tell you about it from beginning to end. I can’t give you a honest one word answer to “How was India?” I’d tell you it was good, it was. I’d tell you it was hard, it was. I’d tell you I had no idea what I was getting myself into, I didn’t. I’d tell you how I have scars on my feet, how I had a quick malaria scare, the monsoon season, the heat, the funny rickshaw conversations, the students, the homemade Biryani, the tears I shed and the how I can still hear the distant calls to prayer in those late September afternoons. There’s so much. It was a bridge year, a fellowship, a lifetime.

I made a list of the things I’d learned. This dates back to late August:

  1. Clearing the canvas isn’t a once and for all.
  2. The hard moments want acceptance.
  3. How to rely on others.
  4. I am an affectionate person.
  5. India has thrived and will thrive, whether I’m here or not.
  6. Self love isn’t a solid. It’s a liquid state.
  7. The art of hanging in there.
  8. People can be delicate, people are delicate.
  9. The power of a crowd, celebration and willingness to put yourself out there.
  10. The big bad wolf is only scary if you dress him to be.
  11. There’s an inventory made for effort.
  12. You don’t have to fight things alone.
  13. Walk up the stairs and go inside that gym.
  14. You need the locals.

Alongside this list I created another. Feelings I Won’t Forget:

  1. The whiplash of Sunday and Monday.
  2. Waking up at ‘home.’
  3. Long afternoons.
  4. The loneliness of a rickshaw.

I don’t remember when I stopped adding things to these lists. If they were accurate they’d be much, much longer and a few things would be crossed out. My journal has a whole other bulk of it. Questions that I posed to myself, questions I was scared to find the answer to. Things that felt like late realizations. I wrote about my unconvincing new reality, I wrote about how I hoped to find peace. I remember writing these things too. I was on top of the roof of an ashram, I could hear the neighboring villages playing loud music and I could see scattered cattle. I was alone in every sense of the word. It felt dramatic and stupid, like everything in my life had lead up to that moment on the roof. As if everything in my life belonged to this experience that was just beginning and no matter the amount of support I had back home, it felt useless. I think it was just me unable to grasp anything when all I wanted was a sure thing. I cringe writing this because it sounds absolutely overdone and theatrical. I’m relieved my pen hit the paper because the only thing worse than going back to those moments—those days, would be forgetting the feelings. To forget them and ignore them and never think about them again would be like having a match but nothing to strike it to.

On a Thursday morning in January, the small conversation I picked up in Hindi was probably one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever experienced. There are beautiful things we see, beautiful things we learn and then there are beautiful things we experience. Understanding a language that bares no similarity from the ones you know is one of those experiences. Words knotted together made learning one of India’s languages a little bit about the grammar and more about the people around you, as they pronounced each ga, gha, ka, kha so fully as if the alphabet was about to burst at the seams. My ears almost began to covet the sound of stranger’s perfect Hindi. “I used to live in India” still sounds a little like I am talking about someone else’s life. I knew it would be different and the idea of a place so dense and colorful promised me something. I wanted to be uncomfortable and I wanted to be challenged to find my way. Arriving in India did not happen within one day. It took months. Arriving took lonely mornings, forced laughter and serious uprooting. Some days would look me in the eyes and laugh until the both of us cried. Other days would go above and beyond to see me through. I needed both. I needed those 8,000 miles. Distance is a heavy and sharp knife to hold. It will carve into the most private and sensitive of places but ultimately it will teach that you are where you are meant to be.

India. She was beaming with activity, she was confident and getting to know her was intimidating and difficult. Family, trust and celebration lie within her core but you come to know that only after she has tested your patience, only after you have discarded what it was you thought you knew. Surrender is the word for it. She demanded my full attention, always. To date, breaking through those first few months and the initial challenges was the hardest thing I have ever done. I know that if I could wish for something it would be an organized file of all the perspective and insights life and people have shared with me in India. I went a long way to not only see but live what couldn’t be left to the imagination. I found a country that would shatter a claustrophobic person. I found family. I found an appreciation for life and parts of me which needed improvement, parts of me that were waiting to find their place. From now onwards, until I find myself in India again, my honest answer will be “I love it, I love the people.” There was a serious disconnection between the two of us, a serious contrast. It was a stare off, always. The men on bikes look at me, I look at them. The families inside vans look at me, I look at them. That’s all it really was for what felt like the longest time. Kind of the same way a dog stares tensely at a cat, neither moves—just blank stares. I hated it. March found that impossible—although I never want to forget that feeling, I don’t feel that museum like glass between the people on the street and I anymore. I still have not an ounce of Indian blood in my veins, but the stares from the congested streets no longer reminded me that I was thousands of miles away from home. The first thought that comes to my mind isn’t the differences between us two. In between August and March, I came to meet people who opened their home to me, showed me their local secrets, ran after buses with me, ensured I had my full three meals (even if one of them was Maggi), sang for me, danced with me and selflessly gave so much even if it was the first and last time they were going to see me.Whatever line lied between an American girl and the people of India is blurred and if you were to ask my heart alone where the line was, my heart would tell you that it is non-existent. I love India because of it’s people and their spirit. However, I am still not the one to speak on her behalf for she extensive and full of detail. I’m simply lucky to of had met her and found reasons to love her and reasons to come back.

Travel. The dictionary’s definition is no longer enough. I don’t want to only see new places through their museums, their wonder of the world, their five-star hotels, how well they cater and the ‘safe side of town.’ A lot of things are unavoidable. Travel is never totally predictable and the best way to see a place is through it’s people, through it’s seasons, through it’s traditions, it’s belief’s and through it’s responsibilities. Find what makes it different—find what makes it work. I’m all for the best cuisine Paris has to offer, yet I’m also all for Mumbai’s sketchy sugar cane juice. Sometimes life will permit me 2 weeks, 1 month, 8 months, 4 years. It is how we travel, not necessarily where. This idea is clear to me now but I fear days where I’ll be so caught up in what is before that I’ll forget the lessons I’ve learned. The lessons I’ve lived. I made a note to myself a few days before I left. They were more like orders that told me not to forget the man who asked me, “When was the last time you took time to just be with yourself?” Not to forget the sense of urgency and respect others had for their jobs. Jobs that most people might think bare little importance. How no matter what you have on your plate, it’s best shared with others. Don’t forget how people refer to her as “My India.” Don’t forget the little girl who told you about the trustworthy country. Don’t forget how to let go. The patience. How to be poised and full of the moment and the people around you. The slowness to it all.  I don’t want to forget any of it, even though it already feels strangely distant. I don’t want to forget the girl who told me “I love to see how in love you are.”

I occasionally watch this video I made and I tear up half the time. I can’t believe it happened and that it’s over. The fellowship was all I had my eyes on and knowing now all that was mean’t to happen, to be seen and learned in the long and short 8 months makes me feel like this is a life that’s already so perfect, one I wouldn’t dare touch or change. It’s turned out better than the 8 year old who wanted to be a whale trainer at Sea World could of had imagined. In more ways than one what has been shared between India and I is an unfortunate privacy, as I try and give to you whole slices of what was given to me. It’s the most beautiful, hard and responsible thing I could of done at 19. Something that is a large part of the young woman I step into my 20’s with. She has new found respects and beliefs and values. They’re all so much a part of me that I wouldn’t want to see a world with out them. Sometimes people joked about me going off to “change the world” I find that twice as hilarious now. Certainly for those who will, they’ll find the world will change you before you change it. I’m more self-aware and although I have no real world solutions at this moment, I’ve gotten a good, hard and long look at what realities exist outside of a country other than my own. I’ve found better things to ponder.

It is all a little easier to talk about things here from the comfort of my desk, safe in San Francisco. Home no longer feels like home and when people told me that’d I’d see things differently when I came back—boy they weren’t kidding. I put a city on pause. That’s what I tell everyone when they ask me to describe it. What they don’t know is I turned around. I turned around and while I was busy surrounded by 25 pre-teens who call me didi or deciphering the new language around me, someone hit play. It is still the same song, I just missed a few beats. It’s crazy how much can change and stay the same in 8 months. My bedroom drawers were untouched. Clothes I left unfolded still unfolded. It’s bizarre how much we can accustom ourselves to. The things we never notice until we go places we’ve never been. My entire house was overwhelming. It felt cluttered and I felt more understood by a blank wall than the one decorated of memories pre-India. This homecoming is another experience and challenge of it’s own. For now, I continue to helplessly laugh when people ask:

“How was India?”

It was good.

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