By Chelsea Lear-Ward, Guest Contributor
I’ve developed a love-hate relationship with the question, “So how was your trip to India?” It’s nearly impossible to sum up a two month breathtaking reality check in three minutes, when running into a familiar face on the sidewalk. I’ve assembled a routine of key bullets to mention in each conversation, but every once in a while I’m asked a question that pulls me out of my generic answers and makes me stop to re-live a specific moment that took my breath away, changing my outlook on global health, social justice, first world problems and how I approach my own personal life experiences.
India was never a country that came to mind when my travel bug kicked in. I was focused on going to Kenya, but about a month and a half before my scheduled flight departure, I called off my trip because of the heightening civil unrest within the country. I had been planning that trip for almost a year so I was a little devastated to call it quits, but after a much needed pep talk from Denise Boothby, my internship advisor, I was back on the horse searching for the next best thing.
I still can’t believe that I managed to pull together my travel plans for India in one month. Just ten days before my departure date I learned that my visa hadn’t been properly filed so I had to rush to New York City and have it processed in person. By the time I got to the city, I only had five business days to process my visa. I think I asked just about all my friends and family to send me their good vibes and thankfully it paid off. Only two days before I was scheduled to depart I finally held my visa in my hands..
I started blogging when I first arrived. I walked the streets with a small notepad in the side pocket of my backpack and with my camera in hand I began documenting each new experience. I had a weeklong culture immersion course where I learned basic Hindi terms and phrases, had a history briefing, and learned some of the cultural norms of India. It was here that I met my first volunteer friend named Jaron.
Jaron and I instantly hit it off becoming friends quickly. We were both happy to have someone to share our experiences with. We would catch ourselves looking at the other wide-eyed and laughing at the unexpected, but frequent, differences from the States, like the pack of wild pigs running down the side of the road, or a restaurant’s need to change from traditional Indian to a strange American mix of songs as we entered the room (Beatles, Stevie Wonder, Technotronic, Backstreet Boys- in that order).
My blogging suddenly stopped when I reached my first volunteer destination. I was Wi-Fi-less, but more importantly was also almost sued. Only three days after I had settled into the home of a man who for security reasons I will call “Papa.” Papa is the founder and president of an organization devoted to helping the HIV/AIDS population within the state of Rajasthan. He discovered that a group of his E-board members were embezzling money. When he confronted them about their wrong-doings, they held an illegal, ‘emergency board meeting,’ and dismissed him as president. They also stole his phone, scooter, and e-mail ID by hacking into his account and changing his passwords, man-handled him and attempted to kidnap the children within a care home led by the organization.
This was a painfully stressful period, It was terrifying and mentally exhausting. The obvious decision may have been to leave immediately but I couldn’t. I was taken into Papa’s family as his own daughter and during a time of crisis, I was comforted and provided comfort to the three daughters and leaving would have been like abandoning my own family.
I transitioned into a new organization where I was working in a care home with HIV positive children. Unfortunately, I forgot that I don’t really like children until a couple weeks into working there and was nearly pulling my hair out. My biggest struggle with the kids was the language barrier. I couldn’t understand them nor could they understand me and I refused to lay a hand on them which made it difficult to enforce rules.
Even though the kids sometimes drove me crazy, I still had a lot of fun with them. I helped with their homework, I taught them how to do the Macarena and Cupid Shuffle, and I became awfully fond of the term Didi, which means older sister. One of the biggest lessons I took home from India was learned by watching the people there. Even having next to nothing and struggling constantly, these people were still happy. These kids practically always had a smile on their face even though they are struggling to fight against a deadly virus and are without a family.
I decided to make one last move only two weeks before returning to the States to an organization named Disha. Here I worked directly within a project that sponsors children so they are able to go to private schools. The children are selected for the program based on poverty level, health conditions and other relevant factors. The stories of some of them were heartbreaking. One child had a father who had passed away from liver failure due to alcoholism and a mother who is HIV positive and unable to work. It really put things in perspective, especially considering that it only costs $228 a year to pay for a child’s tuition, fees, books, uniforms, and supplies.
Traveling to India was the best thing I could have done for myself, especially at the time. I was restless from classes blending together as a community health senior and I was ready for a drastic change in scenery from the beautiful, yet slightly boring, Farmington, Maine. I needed something new. I needed something different and I needed a wake up call. That’s exactly what I got. Even though I got a little homesick towards the end of my trip, I know it was best to conquer this adventure alone, leaving my friends, family and sweetheart behind. To travel alone, particularly as a woman, is one of the most empowering experiences you can do for yourself.
My travels taught me strength, confidence, patience and happiness in only two short months. I can honestly say that I’ve never felt so alive as I do now. My advice to my fellow students is to plan early, save lots and travel while you’re still in college. Don’t let money stand in the way of your dreams because you can’t put a price on an experience that will open your eyes to this crazy beautiful life you’re meant to live.