Upon boarding a long flight, the world inhales. Earth holds its breath at the top, soaring over the space we call home and laughing at the concept of time. The plane smiles down on rotating earth for a breathless pause, and people just exist. It doesn’t matter where they come from and it doesn’t matter where they go after the plane lands. For those small hours, it is just a flying bubble of humanity bunched together 35,000 feet above familiarity, waltzing through the clouds until the warp is burst like a child popping a soap bubble with a splash of bath water and a high-pitched giggle. Either that, or you’re the one-woman-audience-gone-disembodied-ear to the plane’s resident chatter, in which case, time does exist, just perhaps on 0.5x speed.
Eventually, Earth exhaled. My flight touched ground, and everything was slowly different. Colors more vibrant, tastes more flavorful, traffic more bustling, heat more pounding, differences more stark.
On my cab drive into Varanasi, emotions swirled through my mind like a bewildering cacophony of white noise. Cars, rickshaws, bicycles, cows, motorcycles, and people weaved through one another like bees atop the decorative paint I used to call “driving lanes.”
Some barefoot children on the roadside played makeshift cricket and cackled with laughter in fits of unadulterated joy, others used their entire bodyweight to heave water from wells to buckets, and still others simply stared into space. Women balanced large baskets of goods atop their heads and babies on their hips, men pulled carts of handicrafts through the streets to market. In that moment, I realized that I will never be able to verbalize this experience to anyone. No words could fully encapsulate the complex, diverse lives I feel so blessed to be able to witness. The way that traffic teases the laws of physics, how informality flirts incessantly with logic, the way that poignant poverty so visibly and sickeningly besieges communities.
I feel so nauseatingly privileged. It is not fair. It’s not fair that, as a starry-eyed white woman, I get to show up on the other side of the world, experience this vibrant country and learn from so many kind-hearted individuals, many of whom don’t have the same access to come back to my country and do the same. It is unfair that I have never so much as had to walk home without a pair of shoes, while there are people here, on the same planet, at the same time, literally cutting off their feet just to beg more pitifully. The inequality is nauseating. Some way, somehow, I was born into a Suburban family with an air-conditioned home and a college-bound mentality. I could’ve been born anywhere to anyone. During my fellowship, I genuinely, desperately hope to use the immeasurable privilege of being here, being in college, being a white, 20-year old American woman, to give something of value to the amazing people here in some small way.
Though I feel it’s necessary to first acknowledge my privilege, it would also be a huge disservice to the captivatingly diverse and intricate cultures that make up India to NOT mention how incredible it is here. I am currently in Mumbai and will start my internship with the Foundation for Mother and Child Health in the morning, but I spent the last week exploring Varanasi and Dharamshala.
Varanasi was a nosedive into India; as the spiritual capital, Hindu pilgrims come to bathe in the Ganges and individuals bring passed family members to burn at ghats alongside the river. Religion was prominent in every aspect of Varanasi. I was really moved by the people’s genuine, enduring dedication to their faith, day in and day out.
Two overnight buses and a day in Delhi later, I arrived in Dharamsala, home to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile. Unfortunately, I missed the Dalai Lama’s birthday party because I was curled in the fetal position vomiting the contents of my digestive tract for 48 hours, but luckily I recovered in time to hike the Himalayas with a Tibetan monk, oral rehydration salts in tow. (Now, THERE’S a sentence I never thought I’d write!)
As I sit here in a little café, nestled in the corner of Mumbai that will become my home, I realize that I have gained such a rich set of experiences from just a week and a half in India. With many, many weeks ahead, and my first official day of work with FMCH tomorrow, I’m filled with so much excitement, nerves, readiness?!, fear, and passion for all that is to come with my internship and experience here in India.