The highs and lows of a summer gone too fast

   There is a quote that I remember reading that goes, “no one realizes how beautiful it is to travel until he comes home and rests his head on his old, familiar pillow.” This is one of those phrases that we don’t quite know how to fully grasp until we have gone through the experience ourselves. It’s been 3 days since I have arrived back home in Toronto and the experiences from India still remain very much alive in my conversation with old friends, my thoughts about future directions, and simply the stack of masala chips I brought home. I’m definitely somewhat glad to be back in my old bed and visit Starbucks for my favourite green tea frappuccino whenever I feel a craving, but being comfortably home and sitting outside in the cool Canadian climate stands in so stark a contrast from my 3 months in India that I can’t help but think back to how incredible some of my experiences were. Driving on the paved highways, I think about the cow-infested “highways” in India with speed limits no more than 60 km/hr. While taking a hot shower at night, I am amazed at the water pressure and that the water was actually hot! I could sit outside on the balcony and not hear anything but a few excited conversations from a neighbour’s backyard for long stretches of time. These things make me feel blessed to live in a country with the amount of infrastructure that we do while nostalgic for the feeling of societal closeness and simplicity back in India. There are more than a few lessons and issues that I take with me back from India and most of them are byproducts of travelling.

   First of all, I both love and hate the people, depending on the circumstances under which you acquaint yourself with them. Here’s why. Most of the time, I would consider Indians to be some of the most hospitable and friendly people to foreigners. At the church I went to, I met some of the nicest families ever, who invited me over to their homes, fed me until I couldn’t breath, and inspired me with their wisdom and attitudes on life. The strangers I ask for help from on the streets would go out of their way to help me and are genuinely interested in who I am and my purpose in India. I never for a moment felt unwelcomed in the country. In general, I can’t think of any downsides of befriending at least one Indian family in your lifetime: they are friendly, courteous, and cook a mean curry. However, travelling around the big cities like Delhi, Jaipur, and Mysore also introduced me to the merciless and money-hungry businessmen, waiting to hook you with an outrageously priced deal that they cover up with false backstories. Call me cynical but when someone prices something 10 times more than its original worth and even lies about its quality, I can’t help but feel my blood boil. Like anywhere in the world, money has a sad way of corrupting souls. 

   Work-wise, I was incredibly pleased with the opportunity to work at Aravind Eye Hospital and was inspired every day by its mission, the people who work there, and the gratefulness of many of the patients. I loved the well-oiled engine that powered Aravind’s operations and its incredible efficiency. Given our time restrictions, I was so thrilled to be able to research, present, and begin to implement a new type of patient check-up called a Shared Medical Appointment. Under this design, patients see doctors in groups so that there was an added dimension of interaction, not only the traditional one between patient and doctor, but also between patient and patient. There were moments of frustration due to unresponsiveness of people and the slow pace of work but they were ultimately better teachers of patience and versatility than they were inducers of stress. As a result, I have grown drastically in my ability to adjust and also to understand and design the operations of a real functional hospital.    

   I’ve experienced all forms of transportation in India. I loved riding the rickshaw within the city and seeing the city like that. I also loved riding my own scooter and the freedom that it brought. The Indian railway was a whole different experience and I had the (un?)fortunate opportunity of taking 5 overnight trips on it. The lack of timeliness of trains mixed with the heat and rancid smells of urine made the train station one of my least favourite places to be. Yet being on the train was quite comfortable and I loved having my own bed and curling up for 15 hours at a time on the top bunk with my ipod headphones in my ears and a nice book. It was a raw Indian experience that I was thrilled to have a chance to experiment with first hand but one that I wouldn’t really miss. Coordinating an eclectic mix of trains, buses, cars, and rickshaws made my travels super dynamic and fun and also unpredictable and even frustrating. As well, I was infamous for sleeping for too long and having difficulty waking up or getting lost in a new environment. I feel as if I have become an expert on Indian travel and the many highs and lows associated with all of it!

   More than anything, my travels around India have allowed me to witness a type of cultural and geographic diversity that I never imagined possible from growing up in Canada. For example, who knew that driving a mere 2 hours from Coimbatore to Ooty can result in temperature decreases of more than 30 degrees? That up the mountain from a desert, there could a lush green hill stations covered entirely with tea plantations? That just a few hours from the rural and antiquated town of Thanjavur, there is the burgeoning metropolis that is Bangalore? It was just so amazing to me to go from a small town with unpaved roads infested with animals and garbage to a large posh mall decorated like a hotel and filled with Louis Vuitton, Jimmy Choo and some of the most elite brands in the world. How can you justify that kind of variability? It was like building a mansion in the middle of a slum. There was something very disturbing about the sheer magnitude of difference between the upper and lower classes. It was also quite fantastic to travel all over the South and parts of the North, so that I could witness the difference in language, food, and culture. After having idlies and dosas for 10 weeks in Madurai, I really liked trying chaats in Mumbai and all types of curry masalas. I had also gotten so accustomed to conservative clothing that covered my shoulders and basically all exposed skin besides my hands, feet, and face that I was instinctively shocked to see girls in shorts and dresses in Bangalore and Delhi.  There was a kind of local balance that I needed to adjust to in each of the cities that I visited. Perhaps the most interesting of all the cities I visited was Varanasi, a magical and holy city where cremations are performed day in and day out. Somehow, it is possible for people to drink, bathe, and perform rituals in the Ganga river, a body of water that is infested with corpses and their ashes. Even amidst the dirt and chaos, I found the city incredibly beautiful and attractive. 

The Ghat where the cremation ceremony was performed daily in the holy city of Varanasi.

The Ghat where the cremation ceremony was performed daily in the holy city of Varanasi.

Being in India this summer was a beautiful experience and one that has taught me an important lesson on perspective, allowed me to discover my adaptability in very uncomfortable situations, and encouraged me to become more passionate about health care. I feel humbled by this summer and feel more grateful than ever to be where I am. I also found validation for my work and the encouragement I have been looking for to help people through providing health care, not necessarily as a doctor but through other means within a hospital. This summer passed like a whirlwind and I tried so hard to get the most out of every moment. Now that I am back on my old, familiar pillow, I have a lot of time to think about the new perspectives that I learned. I’m thankful for such an unreal summer and one that I’ll look back to and draw upon for a long long time to come!  

2 thoughts on “The highs and lows of a summer gone too fast

  1. Welcome back Jane! What a beautiful post. I relate to all of your emotions: that’s exactly how I felt after leaving India.

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About jane21290

My name is Jane Chen. I was born in Hangzhou, China, and grew up in Toronto, Canada. I just graduated from Penn in May 2016 with majors in chemistry and business operations and a minor in religious studies. Check out my posts on my journey to the exotic country of India (Summer 2014)!