Before hopping on your luxurious (lol) national airline in May, the extent of my knowledge of your complex and varied culture was from restaurants, a handful of friends, approximately 2 actual Bollywood movies, and Slumdog Millionaire. I can confidently say that after spending 10 weeks wandering through your chaotic streets, enduring your heat wave, and meeting your incredible citizens, I’m going to be extremely confused when I return to American culture. I’m already terrified when I see the occasional white person walking around. I don’t know what I’ll do when I cross a street without fearing death by motorcycle/tuk tuk/auto. I can’t remember what it’s like not to smile at every single person I make eye contact with. I am definitely unprepared for the weather to go under 80 degrees Fahrenheit at any given time. Why wear shorts in the summer when you can wear kurtas and leggings? Why wear shoes?
My favorite part about spending 10 weeks here has been the individuals I’ve met, especially at Aravind. A day never passed when someone (ahem, Hepsiba) didn’t say, “you look like you need a snack” before handing me biscuits, carrots, cookies, etc. I started with a project team and ended up with a personal team of Tamil teachers who beamed with pride every time I attempted to speak with one of their friends or colleagues in their ancient language. Nithya and Sakthipriya notified me whenever a temple elephant strolled down the road and took pictures/fixed my hair like older sisters when I wore my sari. Sister Lakshmi taught me the basics of Indian culture my first few weeks here; how to eat with your right hand, the proper tea/coffee customs, how to speak to patients that came to the hospital. The younger MLOP sisters of the free hospital constantly made me laugh, told me about their lives, and included me in their daily routines. Dr. VPR, an eccentric, brilliant ophthalmologist, generously offered multiple books about his favorite philosophers and yogis. Vivek, Busra and I had the privilege of working under Ms. Dhivya, a disciplined and intelligent leader of Aravind’s administrative staff. Most of all, I am thankful for meeting the legendary Hepsiba Jawahar. This woman has more sass than I knew was possible. She has put me in more hilarious situations than I have time to discuss and served as my fearless mentor the entire summer.
Unfortunately I have one issue with you, India; your food has left me with severe trust issues. I never anticipated eating lamb’s blood and intestines a few weeks into this trip (or at all for that matter). I also didn’t realize that EVERYTHING has the potential to make you sick. I would like to take this time to thank the creators of Pepto Bismol/similar medicines, as my life would be a miserable place without them. The best part about living in a world where you’re constantly looking for hygienic bathrooms is that there usually are none when you need them. As one could imagine, being extremely carnivorous in a place where most dishes are made from lentils/rice/vegetables left a lot to be desired. In your defense, the meat dishes that I did consume while here were amazing (shout out to Spice Garden), and I don’t remember any of them making me sick. Parathas, or as I call them, the Croissants of India, could comprise an entire food group in my diet. By the end of this trip I expanded my horizons to lentils and vegetables, but still tons of rice, yogurt, and bananas. You definitely win the prize for Best Coffee, Best Tea, and Best Butterscotch Ice Cream (sorry America). Next time I’m here I’ll give North Indian cuisine a try.
India, you are geographically like the California of South Asia. There are beaches, mountains, forests, deserty areas, etc. I’ve never seen anything like the Western Ghats in my life. Every time we hiked or drove through them I could not fathom that something so beautiful existed, untouched by humans in many parts. It was a huge contrast from the scorching beaches of Rameswaram, the lush forests of Kodaikanal, the charming city of Pondicherry, and the jungles of Thekkady. I didn’t anticipate strolling along a sandy beach, plundering up windmill covered mountains, and getting eaten alive by leeches within the course of a few weeks. Your wildlife is magnificent, but I still get most excited about the goats, cows, and stray dogs that we encounter multiple times everyday. I think the U.S. would be a much happier place if there were puppies at the end of every trip, like our trek at Yanaimalai. I’m so glad I had people like Busra and Vivek along for these trips-two of the best people that I know and love (to harass).
Before embarking on a long-term journey like this, people always say that it’ll be the “adventure of a lifetime.” To avoid stringing together a million clichés about ‘broadening my horizons’, I’ll put it simply. India changed me, and in a way, I think I changed a tiny part of India too. I would be happy if I left an impact on the people around me in the way that they affected me. This experience has taught me to laugh at myself in countless strange situations. I’ve made friends from all over the world, and I learned that despite cultural differences, everybody still loves to talk about their pets, kids and favorite foods. I’ve learned little snippets of a language that’s thousands of years old, yet still proudly spoken by the citizens of Tamil Nadu. I’ve been forced to break free from meticulously planning every single thing that I do. I’m inspired by the work that I was able to do here, and I will absolutely transfer what I’ve taken from this experience into my future pursuits. I’ve been pining over this internship since I stumbled upon it on the IIP website in the fall of 2014, and I could not be more grateful to have spent 10 weeks in this extraordinary country. Romba nandri to Penn, the International Internship Program, the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI)/Aparna, and the Aravind Eye Hospital. Poittu Varén, India. Until next time.
Olive Chinna Pappa
Vivek: Please let me pay you back sometime. Your ‘pay it forward’ philosophy won’t work if you never let anyone else pay you back. Thanks for introducing me to the far superior India Dominos pizza and for counseling me about my neurotic academic/career concerns. You’re very wise (also a genius), but most importantly a flowing stream of hilarious quotes. Busra and I both love you for being a good sport when we take modeling photos of you. You will always deserve “the throne.” Rest assured that we will show up at your door and sit on the floor until you invite us in because “it’s awkward.” I’m very sad we aren’t traveling home together; the flight definitely won’t be a 9.5/10 without you. I look forward to our retirement in Auroville.
Busra: Shra Shra Shra. What would I have done without your 24/7 presence in my life? Probably would have eaten way less ice cream, that’s what. I am grateful I got to join you on your Ramadan journey (“Azan sounded, time for dinner, let’s go, it’s prayer time!!”) I was/am in awe of your discipline; if I could survive for that many days without constant food/water it would be a miracle. I’m so glad that we developed such strong telepathy over the course of this trip; it makes communicating so much easier. It was great having a partner to antagonize Vivek with. You’re also brilliant and underestimate yourself almost as much as Vivs. I am very much looking forward to our Turkish breakfast that you’ve mentioned (and in typical Olivia fashion I’ll talk about it 100 times until it happens). We’ll keep the Jay-Shawn spirit alive during the school year with ice cream/French fry dates, gotta maintain the “Fat American” stereotype. Can’t wait to see the five trillion (beautiful, photogenic, well posed) pictures you’ll have from Turkey. Peace, love, and Meat&Eat.