Lessons from India

I tilted my head up, shut my eyes for a quick second and sniffed in the rich summer air that had a hint of freshly cut grass in it. I opened my eyes again and caught a quick glance of Penn’s campus sprinkled with crowds of people on Locust Walk. I smiled and thought to myself, “it’s good to be home”.

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Landing in Philadelphia

My first two weeks back from India have been full of welcome hugs, gifts, nostalgia, jet lag-induced insomnia and plenty of home-cooked meals. I spend the days catching up with my family, avoiding unnecessarily long naps (to properly reset my internal clock) and reminiscing on my adventures in India. If I’m honest, I savor the “newly-returned student” time period I get in which nearly every interaction I have involves people cheerfully greeting me for the first time and asking a list of questions about my summer. It gives me the chance to relay the stories of the many times I traveled through India. Although I kept a journal (not too strictly) throughout my internship, I feel the more I talk about my experiences, the less likely they will be to fade into old and outdated memories. I have a strong desire to keep not only my memories fresh and vibrant in my mind, but also the lessons I learned and the new habits I picked up.

 

As I walked through Penn’s campus, I felt reinvigorated. Having had such a long break from campus and the environments I regularly am in as a student, I am excited to be back and start my senior year at Penn! I have spent quite some time thinking about how I will implement my new mannerisms, outlook and perspectives, which I picked up while in India, as I resume my routine lifestyle as a student and worker. It sounds awfully cliché to say you learn so much about yourself and about the world while you travel abroad, but I think that most students seem to have a similar experience because being outside of the United States, away from the hectic lifestyle that we all inevitably live, allows us the freedom to consider our opinions, ideas, perspectives and preconceptions. We finally get the time to think about things that usually take a backseat to our busy habitual life. Personally for me, being in India at a 10-hour time difference, I was completely disconnected from everyone at home (except for my parents who requested I call regularly). With a substantial amount of free time on my hands to fully immerse myself in my new surroundings and experiences, I was able to get some distance, and it was amazing.

 

How can your attitude or perspective change while you are abroad? Why is living a broad a life changing experience?

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Happy in Rameswaram

Sometimes it’s hard to put into words. If you read my blogpost “Being Colombian in India”, you get a glimpse into the kind of beautiful mental, emotional and physical struggles you face and the lessons you learn when you’re traveling. These are a product of living in an unfamiliar environment, with completely new faces, away from your comfort zone and at the mercy of your ability and willingness to adapt. As I’ve begun to (reluctantly) readjust back in the U.S., I keep thinking about how I adapted and how the changes I made or the challenges I faced affected me. Let me offer some examples:

 

1) Letting go and being flexible

If you read my first blog post, I began my internship with the hope of learning how to let go of the preconceived notions I had about India, the comforts I am accustomed to and the parts of my personality that lead me to be a control-freak. Looking back, it fills me with joy to think I achieved that. Whereas I am usually the leader in group settings, in India I sat back and willingly listened to and followed my co-interns (two of which were very adventurous and so they tended to suggest most of the unique ideas I would never think of or would stray away from). I allowed myself the opportunity to be pushed way out of my comfort zone not only with physical experiences we had (like hiking up some rock mountains on the outskirts of Madurai in the sun or riding bikes in the terrifyingly hectic traffic surrounding Kodaikanal lake), but also with conversations we had and sometimes with inevitable confrontations we had. I let myself learn from them and I let go of what I was used to and it wasn’t always easy, but it felt good. My favorite part of this was learning how to put together an entire weekend trip within only days and improvising whenever something popped up. It was so fun and made for some of the best memories.

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Trip to Munnar, Kerala planned in 2 days!

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Letting a puppy guide us in Pondicherry (trip planned the day of) 

2) Wasting less water and energy!

Throughout India (or at least most of the places I traveled to), there seemed to be a community-wide effort to conserve water and energy. We learned quickly to use less water, turn off lights whenever we left a room and avoid unnecessary usage of electricity. Back at home, I’ve caught myself turning off all the lights that come in my path, reprimanding my family for leaving the faucet on for too long, and being hyperaware of how long my showers are.

 

3) Producing less waste!

While in India, we occasionally had trouble finding trash cans (whenever we ordered pizza from Dominos, we had no idea what to do with the boxes because we wanted to recycle but there was only one communal trash bin in our hostel). Many things were packaged or brought to us in reusable containers and perhaps this was an effort to encourage people to produce less waste. Whatever the case may be, we learned to try and make less trash and hold onto things until we had the proper trash bin to throw it in. Now that I’m home, I catch myself opting for the hand dryer in public restrooms more often or using avoiding using any paper towels or napkins at all or purposely choosing my reusable water bottle when I travel.

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Me and my reusable pink water bottle on a trek! (A few hours after this picture, a monkey stole the bottle straight out of my hand. RIP pink water bottle) 

4) Being blissfully disconnected

Often times while in India, we had no access to wifi or access to very spotty, unreliable wifi. This meant that we got disconnected from the internet regularly which paused our work and our already limited communication with loved ones at home. It required a lot of patience, but it also offered the wonderful opportunity to be unusually detached from technology. It turned out to be great and I became accustomed to being away from the mainstream influential social media and away from my phone and laptop routinely. Settling back into a lifestyle that requires me to check my messages, emails and phone calls consistently (for my job and student organizations) has been difficult, but I’ve compromised by temporarily deactivating some of my social media accounts. In my mind, this offers me a decent balance between being attached to my devices when necessary and letting them go like I learned to do habitually in India.

 

5) Keeping the positive outlook and being happy and free

There’s something about being able to constantly travel and explore new places that just tends to make you happy. For me and my group, the weekends brought so much excitement and joy because we got to freely choose where in India we wanted to go next. Sometimes things weren’t easy. Sometimes when we traveled we found bugs in our hotel room or we ran out of cash and had to ask around for the nearest ATM or we had to fight with rickshaw drivers about overcharging us. One time, when we traveled to Pondicherry on an overnight bus, the villa manager promised to open the room for us at 4:30am when we arrived. Instead, she overslept and we had to sit around in the dark morning. We took advantage of the opportunity and walked to the beach to watch the sun rise over the water while we waited for her to arrive and it turned out to be one of the best things we did. I say this to show that through all the challenges we faced, we learned to laugh about the situation, turn it around and appreciate the moment and place we were in. I come back to the U.S. and Penn dedicated to keeping that positivity and happiness alive within me even when stress comes my way. I will continue appreciating every moment and although we don’t get as much flexibility and independence as in India, I’ll find comfort in the restrictions and hectic lifestyle.

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Watching the sunrise in Pondicherry

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Happy in Kerala even after our car got stuck in the rain and mud the night before (RIP white converse) 

Leaving behind a lifestyle like the one I attempted to put into words just now can be quite difficult. It’s nice to have a summer in which you only have one job to focus on and where one of your biggest concerns is choosing the next location for a perfect weekend trip. Believe me when I tell you I have taken full advantage of the “jet lag fatigue” excuse to subtly avoid too many social interactions and picking back up with the many responsibilities I left behind when I traveled to India. I am beyond excited to be home with the fresh grass, cool summer air, home-cooked meals and the youthful college campus, but a part of me will always refuse to let go of the things I learned in India.

I look out onto Locust Walk and I smile again. It’s a new beginning.

 

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About Lizette Grajales

I am a rising senior at the University of Pennsylvania, majoring in Biological Basis of Behavior and minoring in Chemistry. This summer, I will be interning at Aravind Eye Care Systems in Madurai.