STUDY ABROAD: Taking India for What it Is

My time abroad in India has been full of contradictions—days of bliss, days of yearning and days that just do not make sense. But there are a few things that, after a year abroad, can still change the course of my day: rickshaw drivers who actually use the meter, cute puppies on the street, real chocolate cake and a cup of coffee that actually tastes like coffee.My day starts when I wake up in my homestay, waiting to hear the bathroom door unlock. My homestay brothers and I are in a constant battle for shower time in the morning. They are ages 14 and 11 and completely scared of me. After breakfast I walk into the busy streets of Malviya Nagar, dodging stray dogs, carts of fruits and vegetables and motorcycles with crazy drivers. I then look for a rickshaw, a small taxi the size of a Smart Car, to take me my program center. Some days the commute is difficult, and I have to argue for a good price; when the morning is going right, the driver uses the meter fairly, and I fly through traffic, using the strong morning breeze as my Indian hairdryer. Half of my time is spent in a real school environment, with three hours of Hindi language class and two-hour lectures on a topic that fits within our theme of "Arts and Culture." Leading specialists in their field come to talk to us about topics such as the history behind Indian textiles, Bollywood music, Modern Art of India, Buddhist sculpture and many other cultural and artistic topics. But, this is only half my time. To really learn about India we venture outside the classroom. To appreciate Mughal architecture, we sit inside an old Fort, imaging the previous grandeur and power of the Islamic kingdoms as we listen to a lecture from our academic director. As we learn about Karmic rituals in Buddhism (the stuff you thought was "new-age") we stand inside a 10th-century temple with our mouths parted in awe, taking in sculptures of scantily-clad women in outrageous positions that we never imagined as "religious." And, when we learn about tiger preservation, we cram into Jeeps and scan the jungle until we find a beautiful tiger, three feet away, walking to the nearest water hole. To really live in India, we travel and study alone for the last month of the program. Instead of getting credit for sitting in a classroom, I will be navigating the archives of Delhi to research about the history and practices of Buddhism. I will then take this knowledge with me as I travel to an elevation of 11,000 feet, to Ladakh, an area on the border of the Indian state of Kashmir. It is here that I will complete my research by trekking through the melting winter snow and living in a village with the oldest preserved Gompa, Alchi. To experience India, you have to take it for what it is. Yes, there are the latest luxury shopping centers and signs of growing wealth. Yes, there are dirty crowded streets and signs of extreme poverty. And yes, there are people. Millions and millions of women dressed in vibrant colored saris, children dressed in a mix of all the latest brands and traditional Muslim men in turbans. But within this eclectic mixture of people, sights, sounds and smells, there is history and tradition. Even on a five-minute drive, I can pass temples and ruins built 1,000 years ago and imagine the beginnings of this vibrant culture—an experience impossible to replicate by looking at art slides in a dark classroom.