When we arrived, we were exhausted. It was about 4am once we got out of the airport and into our big private tour bus (which served as our main source of transportation). There were not many people walking about at night so it was pretty quiet. But I think my initial shock was seeing how much trash was on the side of the roads and on some roof tops. There were also several stray dogs looking through the trash. But the worst part was seeing how many homeless people there were. I saw children and families living in make-shift tents as I rode past them in this nice, sheltered bus. I felt hopeless and privileged.
We arrived at Zorba the Buddha, a nonprofit organization in New Delhi where they house many groups from all over the world (learn more about it here: http://zorbathebuddha.org/).We were greeted by the security guards and the friendly management team. It was dark so we couldn’t see much of our surroundings except the light that shone from our room. But in the morning when the sun was rising? Breathtaking. There were 12 of us (10 girls and 1 guy), and we all got to stay in one big room together. There were just enough mats for all of us, as well as our own private co-ed bathroom with 3 shower stalls and 2 bathroom stalls. There were 3 meals served per day with 2 tea breaks (talk about paradise!!) and let me tell you, the food was bomb. I’m a somewhat picky eater that eats a mostly vegetarian diet, so living in the states is hard since we live in such a meat intensive culture. But in India? They barely eat any meat. I’ve never had so many vegetarian options to choose from, and ones that actually taste good. Every time I hear I bell, I dream about the food they served us. It was that good.
The first few days we were there, we went out to sight see and do some experiential learning with media. While we were out, we definitely stood out. The male gaze that we received (as women) was different than what you’d experience in the states. It was a mixture of a predatory + awe-struck exotisized gaze. While it made me uncomfortable, I understood that they do not really see people that look like me all the time. We went to several places where people asked to take their photo with us, especially to the one guy that was on our trip. It was especially hilarious when they would squeeze their way into where I group was standing and pose for a picture with us. A lot of times they were polite and asked for our permission. At first, I didn’t understand. But when we visited the small village with the non-profit, Navjyoti, we walked with villagers and they were very intrigued by us. I found out later that they had told our instructors that they were the first White people they’ve seen in their entire lives. I wondered if it was the same for all these people who were gazing at us and taking pictures of us. After that, it didn’t bother me. After all, I am entering into their country and the least I could do is allow for them to document their experience.
The architecture, the art, the music, is all so different from our own. We visited several temples where we saw ancient works of art that were carefully crafted to meet the needs of the people living there. For example, at one of the palaces we went to, the architecture was built to ensure that the emperor would not over-heat in the hot weather (since this was before air conditoning existed). Not only is the architecture constructed with meaning and purpose, it is also visually attractive. We were also able to attend a concert while at Zorba the Buddha and it was such an amazing experience. It was not rehearsed, yet it worked together so perfectly. They even encouraged people from the audience to pick up an instrument and join in. They were dancing and clearly having fun, it was infectious!
I’d like to talk a little bit more about how my identity affected my experience as well. As a White/Asian female who physically passes for a White female, I was treated differently in many ways. When we went shopping, I was given higher prices and even had my money stolen from me by one vendor. When we stayed in hotels and went to restaurants, we were treated with a lot of respect. When we visited tourist spots, we were given priority (for ex. at the Taj Mahal, we didn’t have to wait in line because we were foreigners, but the native people did). There was also this towering limousine bus that we rode with air conditioning, comfortable seats, and a locking door. You had no choice but to look down at people, which was one of the more uncomfortable portions of my trip. I couldn’t look at the people at eye level, and something about that just didn’t sit well with me. There was already such a disconnect between us, that this just made it worse. Seeing the multitudes of poverty was not an easy thing to see, especially sitting in this nice bus where I am reminded that I have way more than they will ever have. And it sucks. It really does. I wish there was something I could do. But I wondered what it must’ve felt like for them to see us gazing down at them: if they felt humiliated or annoyed… Towards the end of the trip, I realized that if I made eye contact with someone, I would smile and give a friendly wave and they would do the same. I wanted them to know that we were not there to exploit them or view them as zoo animals, and that we are no better than they are because of the position that we were put in.
On our final day, we got to experience Holi. This is a cultural celebration celebrated once a year. I believe it was originally just a hindu celebration, but I think now it is interpreted as a day that forgets about our differences and brings us together to celebrate life and color and to just have fun (you’ve probably seen the pictures of people covered in powdered colors). Water balloons may often times be used to make the colors stick better. We happened to be traveling at the time while this was happening so a lot of us were looking forward to this day. It seemed like good, harmless fun! That changed when we went to Ambedkar University (AUD) and sat in on a class that taught about gender and human rights with its relation to space (easily my favorite day during the entire trip–see photo above). If you are familiar with the school of IAS, they praise the “problem posing” style of education as opposed to the “banking style” of learning, where students learn from each other rather than just from the teacher. At the beginning of my education here, this was completely new to me. What I didn’t expect was that the class we sat in on had the same exact style of learning. We had the chance to collaborate with all of these students in small groups and come together as a large collective class, and I learned so much from these students. Not only were they kind and welcoming, but they were also accepting of the different ideas we brought to the table. We talked about our cultural differences and gender role expectations and we used a lot of the same IAS vocabulary that I was familiar with as well. And then Holi came up in the discussion and several women came forward to share their frustration for the holiday because of the violence they had experienced throughout the years. Apparently, men and younger boys would stand from roof tops and chuck water balloons down at women who are walking in the streets. Women reported having whiplash and bruises from these balloons. Sometimes the balloons were filled with fluids other than water. They even said they would often times have to lock themselves in their own homes and not leave for the day. Or if they were in school, they would lock the doors. I’ll never forget this, one student said, “This day is an excuse to abuse women. The balloon is an extension of violence similarly to how a fork is an extension of your hand.” Had we not learned this from the students, I would’ve continued to believe in what I knew about Holi.
We had a free day to go and do whatever we wanted in Delhi, so a few of us decided to walk to the nearby shopping area. And since it was the day before Holi, we were being targed by water balloons everywhere. They were being thrown from practically every rooftop. It was honestly pretty frightening and disturbing that boys would find joy out of hurting innocent women. Would we had been equally targeted if we were men? I knew I would never understand what it truly felt like to be a woman living in India, but I got a small taste of what it would be like. On the actual day of Holi, the streets that were once bustling with cars and people was a ghost town, with the exception of a few men here and there. Not a single woman.
When we arrived back at Zorba the Buddha, we celebrated Holi there. It was safe, and they used only organic powders (which is extremely important, otherwise it will stain your skin for days). Our day here was one of the best days we had on our trip. It felt like the Holi that I knew about before arriving in India: all of our differences were forgotten and we just let loose and celebrated life. Each of us had a white kurta picked out by our awesome tour guide that had beautiful colors that blended together beautifully. And that’s really what this day should be about right? We saw people ranging from 20-70 celebrating with us, dancing and being merry. Absolutely unforgettable in the best way. I will always be thankful that I was able to experience Holi in that setting where I didn’t have to fear for my safety and could just have fun. But I know that many others cannot afford this luxury.
These are the parts of traveling that you may experience abroad. Your culture, your identity, your values, will all become so clear to you. It will change you, but in a good way. You’ll grow in ways that you didn’t think you could grow. What I also did not realize was that I gained professional experience that has made me stand out on my resume. Team work, communication, interpersonal skills, cultural sensitivity…the list goes on. I made so many connections, professionally and personally. To this day, some of my closest friends were the ones that were on this trip with me. There’s something about going abroad together that creates a special bond with people. Not only that but the people I met in this country were always inviting and hands-down some of the kindest people I have ever met. I even got to see hands on how a non-profit can better the lives of hundreds of marginalized women and children, something that I would like to pursue in the future. Even though some of my experiences were uncomfortable, I don’t regret one moment of the entire trip. I truly believe that God led me here to have these experiences for a reason. I will never be the same after this trip, and I am so thankful that I had this opportunity and that I got to share it with you all.
It’s hard to sum up my entire trip in just one post, so if you have any questions feel free to comment below and ask! I left out a lot of the fluffy details and just shared the most impactful parts of my trip that I thought would be valuable to share with you all.
I discuss all of this and more in an online magazine (which also includes several pictures of my experience during my time there) so please check it out if you are interested! http://joom.ag/Ygxp
Thank you SO much for reading! And please, go study abroad. You won’t regret it.
Disclaimer: I own all these photos, please do not steal them unless you give me credit. Thank you.