Despite the frequent warnings that India operates in a constant state of controlled chaos, I was not prepared for my first few days in India—and I’m not sure if anyone can ever be.
For the last several days I have been exploring Northern India with fellow CASI intern Piotr. Our journey began in Bombay, where the differences between India and the West could be felt as soon as I stepped out the airport terminal. Upon exiting past armed airport security, my senses were immediately assaulted by sweltering heat, an array of new smells, and sounds from a sea of chauffeurs, families, and taxi drivers. From there forward, I have not ceased to be amazed by this country in its people, food, culture, history, belief, and landscape.
In Bombay, Piotr and I spent our first full day wandering the streets, enjoying the bustling markets, exotic temples and quiet(er) beaches. We learned to plan our days around meals and clothing changes, for the heat and humidity left us drenched in sweat after just a couple hours of walking. We visited the obligatory tourist sites, such as the Shree Mahalakshmi Temple and Haji Ali Dargah, walked by some of the houses of famous Bollywood stars on Juhu beach, and were blown away by the immense outdoor laundry operation at Dhobi Ghat, however my most memorable moments came from simply wandering.
“Indian Time” is undoubtedly different from home, but is far from uniform. The speed and intensity of each area seem to vary in both time and location, making rigid planning pleasantly impossible. By instead spending our precious time in the city following crowds and excitement, we found ourselves privy to alleyway cricket matches and Victoria Terminus during rush hour, leaving us with a more organic perspective. (Because describing each of these places in detail would take many more pages, I’ll let some of my photographs speak for themselves)
Although our time in Delhi was short, its composition served as a sharp contrast to Varanasi. While Delhi is an expansive capital full of consulates and remnants of colonialism, Varanasi is a city of narrow cobblestone passageways, religious holiness, and touts. There is no other word I can think of to describe the place other than raw. By this I mean that no matter which way you turn in old city, you will be confronted with visceral sights, whether that be the austere holy men that come to the ghats to happily die, clusters of mangey cows and dogs grazing on trash, or most famously, public cremation on the burning ghat. That is not to mention the unimaginable poverty in each city that is constantly present and quite jarring.
The potency of every experience in Varanasi, and really in India overall, has created a sort of emotional rollercoaster for me each day. Every morning I have awoken enthusiastically at the crack of dawn (quite unusual for me) to make use of the cooler weather, before subsequently bouncing through feelings of amazement of my surroundings, lethargy and stickiness from the heat, overwhelm from constant stimuli, to calm within the chaos, to hunger, uncomfortable digestive unrest, and finally, exhaustion.
Although each city has its own unique qualities, they all share a vibrancy and mystery that has sparked in me a deep excitement for my internship in Madurai.
Now that you’ve read this far, I think a proper introduction is in order. My name is Oliver Priebe, though many of my friends call me Ollie. I am a rising sophomore in the Vagelos Life Science and Management dual degree program and will be working as an intern at the Aravind Eye Hospital in Madurai this summer. Although I have no definitive plans for my future, I am broadly interested in helping others—especially those typically underserved—with technology. I’m also always in the constant pursuit of becoming a better human. This always comes off as overly idealistic, but I approach the challenge by trying to frequently update my worldview by always asking questions, pursuing novel experiences (like going to India for three months) and seeking people with different perspectives. Some of these musings are actualized on campus in my involvement as a molecular biology research assistant in the Goulian lab, as an undergraduate venture fellow in the McNulty Leadership Ventures program, and by taking advantage of the inspiring speakers that Penn has on campus as much as my schedule will allow. In terms of formal academics, I’m currently seeking a bachelors in biophysics from the college with a Wharton concentration in statistics, for the requirements for these programs best overlap with my current interests. For pleasure, I enjoy playing soccer, listening to podcasts, keeping up with the new season of Westworld (which may be tricky given Indian broadband) and finding a quiet place to curl up with a good book.
Looking forward to documenting my experiences here over the weeks to come.
Note: Although I had all but completed this post 3 days ago in Varanasi, a mix of spotty internet connection and poor health has kept me from publishing until now. Also, since I already rambled on for too long in this post I think I’ll save my initial Aravind expectations and project details for my next post.