Travel Stories

Isn’t it funny how time is subjective? It feels like I’ve been in India for far longer than two weeks, just like the time it took to start this blog post felt like months. Three-hour train rides go by in minutes. My perception of time is shaped by the endless new experiences bombarding my senses every day, from the sound of incessant honking to the delicious scent of frying samosas wafting down the street to the sight of the majestic mountains surrounding Bangalore. I’m embracing the fact that I have no routine. Perhaps the greatest part of this freedom is a green light to travel to my heart’s desire. I’ve created a mental list of all the breathtaking places I want to visit, including Kerala, Mumbai, and Darjeeling. We began by exploring Delhi and taking the obligatory trip to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. Last weekend, all of us Bangalore interns took an overnight bus to Pondicherry to gape at its French colonial architecture and relax by its rocky beaches. Most memorable about these travels, however, was the people we met.

On the train from Agra to Delhi, Kat and I accidently bought a general class ticket, which was very affordable, but meant that we wouldn’t have assigned seating (or even seats for that matter) and that the cabin wouldn’t have A/C. We decided to save ourselves the anxiety and asked a young man, who was entering the 3A/C class cabin, if we could upgrade our tickets when the conductor made his rounds. He smiled warmly and told us not to worry, that he was trying to do the same thing, and that the tickets could be negotiated, as long as we had a few hundred rupees. Thoroughly mystified, we followed him into the cabin and he started speaking to the conductor in fluent Hindi, complete with head nods and hand gestures. Our fare was being “negotiated”. Kat and I shared grin—we were seeing India at its finest. Once we settled down, we struck up a lively conversation and learned that the young man was returning from a job interview in Agra. He had studied hotel management in college, and had just gained employment at a Hilton Doubletree! He then went on to describe his dream of owning and operating a grand hotel in Bhutan, where he admired the government’s emphasis on the happiness of its people.

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Our 2A/C train cabin to Agra!

A day later, Kat and I found ourselves on a small plane to Bangalore. I plopped down next to an older woman with a pair of gold spectacles perched in front of sincere, brown eyes. She asked me kindly where I was from, whether or not I had visited India before, and how I was liking it. I gave her the usual answers, thinking our conversation would follow the typical route driven by a short burst of curiosity and then silence. To my surprise, she explained that she had visited the United States for an exchange program for several weeks and had homestays in many of the major cities. She had loved the experience, and enjoyed being a “citizen ambassador of India”. More intriguing was her day job. She’s the principal of a private K-12 school on the outskirts of Delhi, and was heading home to Bangalore to visit her family while on summer vacation. I asked her about the state of education in India, and we delved into a refreshingly deep and long conversation about what she considered to be some of the greatest problems facing the world’s largest democracy, and how she thought they could be solved. It was fascinating to hear her perspective, since I had only been indoctrinated with the Western worldview. Before I knew it, we had landed in Bangalore and she gave me her business card. “Keep in touch!” were her parting words.

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We spent our first weekend in Bangalore exploring the city with fellow Janalakshmi interns from Duke, Elizabeth and Sarah. This was in front of the glass palace at Lalbagh Gardens.

One of the delightful aspects of this beautiful city is the mountain ranges that surround it. Sarah, a fellow intern at Janalakshmi, Kat, and I decided to sign up for a trekking trip with the Bangalore Mountaineering Club. It was an incredible time, and I tried rappelling and cave exploring for the first time. The best part of the adventure wasn’t the thrills, but rather the wonderful people we spent time with. On the bus ride back, one of the trek coordinators struck up a lively conversation about his experiences in this young and tech-driven city. He was originally from Mumbai, but had moved south to seek a better education and a more comfortable climate. His years of schooling certainly paid off—after studying mechanical engineering and landing a stint at a corporation, he has settled down to become a professor and researcher at a local university. Leading treks was his side job and personal hobby. The highlight of our conversation was certainly when he enthusiastically shared his travel experiences. A few years ago, he had gone on a skydiving trip to Dubai, and showed us amazing photos of the city and the desert and attractions he visited. It reminded me of the joys of travel, and of how lucky I was to be sitting on a bumpy bus, sharing this happiness with a stranger I had befriended just a few hours ago.

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Trekking on Anthargange’s hills and exploring its labyrinth of rocky caves.

Interactions like these have happened countless more times. The Airbnb host from Pondicherry was considerate enough to take us around the town in his own car and Ekta from the Janalakshmi office eagerly led us shopping on Bangalore’s famed Commercial Street. Wherever I go, I’m greeted with kindness, courtesy, and polite curiosity. I began to take this for granted—it wasn’t until later, when I was recounting my experiences to my friends, that I realized how blind I was to the privileges I had as an American and a foreign traveler. It’s shockingly easy to flash my blue and silver passport at the airport and expect to be treated differently or to ask waiters to explain the various Indian snacks I was being served, all because I grew up in the United States. This is not the case in America. Quite the contrary, I’ve found that we tend to look down upon foreign tourists as bumbling outsiders who are visiting our great country for the first time. This characterization eliminates individuality and wipes out the opportunity for genuine cultural exchange. Once I became aware of how my interactions tended to be structured, I’ve worked hard to become a better listener and to be a more patient and humble person. I’m couldn’t be more thankful for this new perspective.

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About Tina Gao

I'm currently in the class of 2018, concentrating in Finance and Social Impact with minors in International Relations and Religious Studies. I'm delighted to be interning with Janalakshmi in Bangalore this summer!