Jan Plan in India
I saw a dead man carried through the streets once. He was raised on a grey wooden plank, borne by ten men in all white clothing. The dead man’s eyes were closed and I stood so close that I could see the deep wrinkles that cut across his face, smooth and still like carved wood. This was exactly what I was scared of. I felt my face go pale and my stomach drop away. I wasn’t squeamish, just afraid and completely uncomfortable in the setting I was so suddenly thrust into. This wasn’t the kind of thing I was used to seeing. But then again, I was in India, and I saw a lot of things I wasn’t used to seeing.
Maddy Scheer '15 and Lily Holland '15 pose with their new freinds at the Aarohi School
I was one of the twenty-one students lucky enough to spend this Jan Plan in Northern India with Professor Anindyo Roy to take a course entitled “Postcolonial Pastoral: Ecology, Travel, and Writing." In the months preceding the trip I was incredibly excited, but as my departure date got closer, I started to get nervous. I had no idea what to expect when I went to India. Everything about the country seemed so utterly foreign to me.
I tried looking online for answers. My search showed me solid color block maps, pictures of the snow-crested Himalayas, and green mountainsides scarred by unending stairs of terraced ridges. There were also pictures of people in the street, packed so closely together that the crowd must have had to move forward as one collective mass. As I sat at my sturdy desk at home, I couldn’t see myself in the lonely mountains or the crowded streets; I couldn’t find myself in my future.
I was worried I’d get sick from the food, or be very cold at night in the mountains with no heat. But, more than any specific fears, I was scared of what I didn’t know. I was scared to do something that was unlike anything I had ever done before.
But I didn’t let my fear get the best of me. On January 2 I packed my bags and set off for Delhi. When we stepped out of the Indira Ghandi International Airport at 4 a.m. , I walked with the heavy and stumbling steps of a tired traveler. I saw a man with a machine gun on a small, elevated platform. I turned away, only to see more guns in the arms of the men leaning against pillars and sleeping against the sides of the building, each weapon causing a tremor within my chest. I could feel the cold sweat of fear start to prickle at my palms and I quickened my step, eager to get out of firing range. It only took me ten minutes in India to realize how very far I was from my cozy dorm room in central Maine.
Students ride elehpants at dawn in search of a tiger at Jim Corbett National Park in Uttarakhand, India. Photo by Ari Porter '15
While sometimes it was hard to be out of my comfort zone, I loved how completely different everything was. But different definitely didn’t mean bad, either. Actually, in most cases, different was exciting and good.
The oozing orange peach lavender jam served at breakfast in the mountains, the sweet and high sound of the national anthem sung by children, and the cardamom rich, ginger spiced chai tea served to me by dozens of new and friendly people I had met. From a mountaintop I saw the shimmer of a sari in the sunlight and felt an elephant’s prickly hide. I watched the sun set over the Himalayas and burn the mountains pink.
More than the beautiful and exotic sights, I learned about the culture. Our class would sit and listen for hours about India. We all wanted to learn; greedily hoarding the knowledge liberally bestowed upon us by Professor Roy and the people we met in the village. We constantly peppered our elders with questions, and they gave us long and careful answers, no matter the time or place. We were taught things that were concrete, such as the political structure, or caste relations and the ritualistic shame beatings that dominated the justice system in the mountains. But, I also learned things that were more abstract, such as what it felt like to pray to the Hindu gods, with clear high bells ringing in my ears as sweet incense burned at my bare feet.
Knowledge was the gift that I was given, and with that, I couldn’t go an hour in India without experiencing joy. I was no longer scared of what I didn’t know. On the contrary, I wanted more of the unknown, wanted more new experiences to clutch in the palms of my hands and more stories to write in my time worn journal.
Now, I’m making more plans to travel. Next semester? You’ll find me in Prague, unless it’s a weekend, in which case I plan on traveling to Budapest, or Vienna or maybe even Berlin. I still feel a little pre-abroad jitters, but after India, I’m ready for the world.