To say I landed in India with very few expectations would be an understatement. Besides expecting it to be hot and to get sick from the food (both accurate), I was ready to let the experience take me where it would. In fact, I was somewhat suspicious of the “traveling abroad will change your life” trope. I was also concerned about voluntourism, and I didn’t want to be or appear as a privileged American student coming to “save” another country. I didn’t expect to make much of an impact, and I had no idea how or if the experience would impact me.
Even with few expectations, I was surprised by how quickly and easily I settled into routine life. My co-interns and I kept saying that it hadn’t hit us yet that we were in India. I kept wondering if I was missing something. Even with all the significant changes to daily life, the people at Aravind were so welcoming that life seemed to move along normally. I was both relieved and slightly disappointed by how at home I felt within the first few weeks. It was strange thinking about the narrative of separation, exoticism, and “life changing magic” that inevitably reached home to friends and family, compared with reality. I know how I would have perceived similar updates, and how I clung to the stories of people who had done GIP before me. I had trouble conveying the simultaneously unsettling and comfortable reality that came from being separated from the life I had always known. Although it sounds cliché, by taking away the material similarities, I realized how little they actually mattered to me and how simple it was to be content in the similarities I could find.
However, in the final few weeks, I realized how I had been slowly but surely affected by my time abroad. By standing up for myself in the office and adapting to situations in which I was not entirely comfortable in daily life I have become more self-assured and outspoken of my own opinions. I also realized how much I had been craving independence, (moving to a country on the other side of the world definitively gave me that). Some of the most important lessons I took away came about by living with three other people I didn’t know and didn’t choose in a highly stressful situation. After meeting only twice before, we were suddenly spending all our time together. All of us process emotions and perceive the same experiences differently, so it was great getting to hear their perspectives and learn the ups and downs of navigating these relationships.
This is not to say that I was not continuously affected by my experiences throughout the trip. I was particularly touched by the near constant reminders of how much I do not know. Although I knew intellectually there is a lot I do not understand, experiencing this was a treasure. Walking into the temple at Rameswaram and watching my friends go through rituals I didn’t know existed. Feeling years of history seeping through the walls. Listening to my co-interns stories and experiences from perspectives I had never had to consider. Learning about traditions and politics from other international guests at Inspiration House. Sitting in Bryant park, watching kids play, and recognizing that most likely they would live their entire live entirely separate from mine. Feeling useless as an observer in an Aravind Eye Camp while the well-oiled and impressive machine of an organization I didn’t know existed 6th months ago did incredible work. Its poignant and freeing to live in those moments of ignorance and utter insignificance. This world exists before me, after me, and despite me, and I feel lucky to be an observer.
I think this feeling holds the appeal of travel for me. I love the weightlessness that comes when you’re awash in a world that is not your own. And in this world, I had to find the security I usually take from my environment within myself. I want to bring this personal security back to the United States, instead of letting familiar environments push me in one direction or another.
On the final drive to the airport, passing the winding streets of Madurai on one last hectic car ride, it struck me how much I had created a home for myself in this place of the unknown. Liz describes the feeling as “nesting.” I had become very attached to my co-workers at Aravind, and I hated saying goodbye. Even though I knew I would see Liz, Roshni, and Oliver soon enough, this unique part of our lives was over. Passing the piles of fruit on stands, the rickshaws, and the paunted Tamil advertisements for the last time made me tear up.
Leaving Madurai felt like leaving a little part of myself. And for me, that was the most joyful and heartbreaking part of travel.
The home of many pizza and movie nights, card games, Rick and Morty-ing, heart to hearts, and last minute planning sessions
Thank you to Devendra for the surprise birthday party!
The intersection we crossed to get to work
Fun in Rameswarem, and saying goodbye to Liz and Roshni