I, like most people, tend to romanticize the personal past. I think the grass was greener during some previous stage that is over and done with and exists only in my unreliable memory. During my last weeks in India, however, I constantly thought to myself, “You are going to miss this.” This summer was one of the rare times during which I was aware of just how perfect a chapter of my life was while the chapter was unfolding. The grass was greenest in the Kumaon region of India during summer ’14, not anywhere else or anytime else. This is my form of a love letter to India—a list of the things I was most grateful for during my stay and the things I am already starting to miss now that I am back home.
My stupid phone – I, being the millennial that I am, am a slave to my iPhone. I literally do not want to know how many times a day I check my Instagram feed or my email. Over the past ten weeks, I fell in love with a prepaid Nokia. I swapped in my dozens of apps for a few crappy games and no more than twenty phone numbers. So instead of endlessly opening and sending Snapchats, I used my phone for one exclusive purpose: to make phone calls. For once, my cellphone actually made my life easier.
Chow mein, omelets, and lots of ketchup – These are not food items that typically excite me in the States. But after spending the first couple weeks of my internship eating lentils, potato, and roti day in and day out, I was ecstatic to discover that nearly every local shop sells chow mein and/or omelets, both of which are best smothered in ketchup. Back home, it will be disappointing when a plate of greasy noodles or two eggs slapped between a hamburger bun taste like the mediocre snack that they are. This summer, they seemed gourmet.
Walking 5-10 km per day – My personal philosophy regarding transportation in an urban setting is that if my destination is less than four miles away, I should walk. It is my way of exploring a city and of pretending to exercise. In the rural region where I stayed this summer, I often had no choice but to walk. Just like in the city, it taught me a great deal about the area. And because I was trekking through the foothills of the Himalayas, it actually was exercise. In a month when I am striding through the crowded streets of Philly with my headphones in my ears, I will miss being followed by the local dog and saying namaste to passing villagers during my walks through the jungles of Uttarakhand.
Kurtas and Tevas – Getting dressed in the morning is one of my least favorite activities. Who will I see today? What are the chances that it will actually rain? When was the last time I wore that shirt? All of these silly questions were irrelevant for the last two and a half months. I cycled through four kurtas and wore the same pair of trusty Tevas the entire time; the tan lines are unreal.
Speaking and not speaking Hindi – My Hindi remained embarrassingly bad for the entire duration of the time I spent in India, especially when compared to that of some my co-interns. But nothing beat the look a shopkeeper gave me when I could correctly order a chai without sugar (just about the only logical phrase I could string together). And there was also something kind of exciting about not always being sure about what was going on around me due to the language barrier. Sometimes I could rely on observation to infer some meaning, but other times I had to accept that I simply was not going to be able to understand the situation and go with the flow.
Sleeping like a rock – I am the sort of person who can take Advil PM on a redeye to another continent and not sleep a wink, the sort of anxious person who has spent my whole life envying those who can sleep at the drop of a hat. During my time at Chirag, I spent nights on beds of varying quality, too=small couches, grimy buses, and several floors. I don’t know if it was the excessive amounts of walking I did or a general lack of stress in my life, but every night I slept like a little babe. It was a foreign and fantastic sensation to feel well rested.
Chai – A very serious question that torments me on a daily basis (several times a day, at that) during the academic semester is whether I want to spend a small fortune for delectable coffee at HubBub or spend a buck for lukewarm but drinkable coffee at Wawa. I love and am addicted to coffee, good or bad, and the idea of letting it go while abroad was terrifying to me. I am still a coffee girl through and through, but I came to adore chai nearly as much. You never know what you are going to get, and that’s half the fun. Sometimes the tea is too sweet. Sometimes it is too watery. Sometimes it is made even more delicious with the addition of ginger or thyme. The chai from the nicest sit-down restaurant could be terrible, and the chai from a cart in the parking lot of a gas station could be transcendent. What really matters is that, in India, chai is a ritual to be enjoyed, either alone or in the company of others. It did not take long before I was looking forward to that first too-sweet chai of the day brought in by my host mother or that last chai of the day that was cooked over a wood stove at Mohan-da’s while my friends and I chatted and split a package of biscuits after work.
Getting where you need to go by any means necessary – Penn students like to set goals, make plans, and generally control every thing they possibly can. When we first arrived, all the Penn interns attempted to apply the same approach they use at a high-stress university to an NGO in rural India. Personally speaking, nothing better sums up how much I learned to let go of the need to control than my experiences travelling. On my first weekend trip, I needed to know what bus we were taking where, when it would leave, and when it would arrive. On my last weekend trip, I woke up at six in the morning during the monsoon, not sure whether or not the buses were running at all. They weren’t. My friend and I found another villager wandering through the mist, walked with him until we unexpectedly hitched a ride, hopped in and out of the car for a couple hours in order to clear out rocks that had fallen into the road during landslides until finally there were two uprooted trees that proved to be immovable obstacles, walked through the pouring rain for a few kilometers (taking a chai and biscuit break, of course), and finally managed to reach our destination after hopping on a bus headed in the right direction. It was an adventure, and we actually got to the village quicker than we would have if we had taken a bus from the beginning. One of the most valuable things I learned this summer regarding travel—and life in general, particularly for someone as neurotic as the typical Penn student—is that there is often a negative correlation between control and enjoyment. I need to start letting my trips and my life get a little more out of control and a lot more fun.
The people – I was a mess my last week in India. First I said bye to my host parents, Ram Singh and Kunti. I handed them a goofy gift and awkwardly tried to express just how thankful I was to have been welcomed into their home. They replied by saying they would never forget Caro, Eileen, and I. This is the sort of expression that is thrown around way too casually during goodbyes, but I could see in their eyes they meant it, and I fought back tears. After a huge group of interns returned to Delhi, we soon had to bid farewell to the other Penn girls, who were headed to Dharamshala. Even though I will see Aardra, Caro, and Eileen—all of whom I grew incredibly close to—again in the very near future, I could sense that the crew was beginning to break up and that things would never be the same. Next, after visiting the Taj Mahal with us, Saksham headed off to Rajasthan. A masters student from Delhi, Saksham may have loved food even more than I did, and for this and several other reasons I came to love him as a brother. In a busy market in Delhi, I said bye to Renu, an artist from Delhia and the sassiest girl I have ever known; she made me laugh just about every time she opened her mouth. After then there was Wendy. Wendy is an angel. She doubted whether or not she would survive this summer constantly, once collapsing into my bed at three in the morning because she was scared she was going to pass out from dehydration due to diarrhea and that no one would notice. But Wendy was a remarkable human being—hardworking, sensitive, and stronger than she knew. She survived, and I will never forget her standing in a doorway blowing me a kiss goodbye, both of us with tears in our eyes. The last goodbye was the hardest. Younus was a German intern who spent a year working in the Kuamon region, where every villager knew and loved him. He is charming as all hell, but, beyond that, he is a genuinely good human being. Younus was my best friend. On the way to the airport, we took turns saying, “Remember that time…” Unsure of if or when we would see each other again, we were attempting to relive for one last time the best shared moments of a whirlwind summer until finally we arrived at the airport. After each and every one of the aforementioned goodbyes, Younus had been the one to hug me and tell me it was okay. This time, though, I had to look him in the eye for the final, most tearful goodbye before heading into the terminal with nothing but my own thoughts. For me, one of the saddest feelings in the world is knowing you would be lifelong friends with someone if only the situation were different. This summer, Ram Singh, Kunti, Aardra, Caro, Eileen, Saksham, Renu, Wendy, and Younus came into my life. I’m sure some of them I will meet again, and some of them I will not. But in my heart I know they are the only ones who will ever understand what a challenging, bizarre, amazing summer I had because we were all in it together. As Peter Pan says in J.M. Barrie’s book, “Never say goodbye, because goodbye means going away and going away means forgetting.” Growing up is realizing that sometimes we have no choice but to say goodbye to those we love and that the best we can do is try not forget them. I don’t want to forget a thing about the best summer of my life and all the beautiful people who were a part of it.