Thursday, May 19, 2011

The End

Right now it's very early in the morning, and I can't sleep, so I thought I'd write this up. It's all just too weird. It's too much to wrap my head around. It's all over. I've invested more than a year and a half into making all of this happen, and it's done. Kaput. Terminated. Bas. While the finals days were stuffed with farewells and things like that, it can't help but feel like a whimper rather than a bang.

Going home - that is to say, being able to see my family and friends for the first time in far too long - is pretty much the most exciting thing that's happened to me since I went to India. But there was so much momentum heading to this moment two weeks ago. Where did it go? Suddenly I just feel weird. I'm actually kind of disappointed that I'm not happier. I think when I get to the airport and see my fantastic family waiting there for me, all of this strangeness will be forgotten. Still.

What's the deal? I guess I'm much sadder to leave than I thought I would. This surprises me. I've developed a lot affectionate memories with this place, but a lot of really difficult ones too. This was not an easy year. It got easier, but I had so many frustrating setbacks and difficulties. I had months and months of extreme self-doubt. I pulled out and got better at being a person living in India, but still, it was rough.

Maybe it's the investment. How can I spend so much time (which feels like so little time) working for something and then have it just end? It's just weird. Everything I've been doing and preparing for over the last 18 months is finished. The real question now is this - what did I achieve with all of this? I don't know. I have some ideas, but I can't really answer that question right now.

Every once in a while I would think about what I could write, in summation, about this year once it came to the end. I guess there's no way I could have written it until I actually got here. I never suspected I would feel this uncomfortable with something I've spent so much time looking forward to.

As it was when I left, it's not what is coming ahead, but what I'm leaving behind that gives me trouble. I was deeply excited and intrigued by coming to India when I left, but I was a train wreck. Saying goodbye to all of my friends and family was one of the most painful things I've ever done. It's the same thing right now.

I have a lot of hope. I remember when I finally said goodbye to my parents at the Minneapolis Airport, and I got on that plane, I suddenly felt really good. The anticipation of the future, the new opportunities overwhelmed me. And while admittedly, Northfield isn't exactly something new, the future beckons. It's not just this immediate, already assured-to-be-awesome summer (I have some big plans) - it's the happily looming idea of college. It's the idea of continuing to become an adult. To continue enjoying life with my old friends and to make new ones. To get to know my family even better. To eat beef. And finally, hopefully, to reconcile all of the complex thoughts and memories that have come out of this year. There's no doubt in my mind that I've accomplished something here, but I still have a very vague idea of what exactly it is. I guess, as they said back at orientation, this really is a three year process.

This has ended on a more indecisive note than I thought it would, and suddenly I'm worried about reverse culture shock. Maybe my memories have fooled me. Maybe the US isn't all that it's cracked up to be. It's the little things that get you - I remember when I went back to the US in October, the stairs in my house just didn't feel right. I HAVE made this place my home. The US won't feel like home right away. It's not immediately familiar anymore. That's worrying, but also kind of exciting - the excitement of rediscovery.

I don't really know what else to say. It's not very ceremonious or reflective or decisive, but this is the natural time to KO my blog. The exchange is over, and I gotta wrap my head around that. I'll be back here. That much I know. But it's time to go home.

I liked writing this blog. Travel writing is something I've really enjoyed, so maybe I'll look into doing that in the future, like Bill Bryson. To any future exchange students who might be reading this, I offer some advice - say yes to everything that comes your way (within reason, obviously), and enjoy it. It might feel like it's going really slowly, even at the halfway point, but it's not not.

So that's it. I want to offer sincere thanks to all of you for being there this year, even by just taking a look at this every once in a while. It was a tough year on a lot of different levels, some of which I'm only discovering right now. But it was, and is, reassuring to know that there are folks in my corner. To all Rotarians - I want to thank you for what you do, and for offering all of us this amazing experience. We couldn't get this anywhere else.

I can't wait to reconnect with all of you. I've missed home terribly, and once I snap out of this funk, I know I'm going to have a fantastic summer. And I anticipate that this Saturday, which, in a happy coincidence is also my birthday, will be pretty much the best day ever.

I also anticipate the day I come back to India, whenever it does come. It's kind of exciting to suddenly feel like you can be at home in two places. I love that I haven't even begun to discover the things that I've gotten out of this. I have so much excitement for so many aspects of the future. This truly was a worthwhile and excellent adventure.

Monday, May 2, 2011

The End is Nigh

There are 18 days left today, and at this late stage, I'm not ashamed to be counting down. I think the closer one is to home, from either direction, the more one thinks of it and misses it. As these last months have winded down, thoughts of my home, my family, my friends, and America in general have been pervading my mind. It wasn't like this as much in the middle, except perhaps around Christmas. And while generally speaking, I'm sad to finish my India journey, I'm far more excited than unhappy. It's just not very pleasant right now - you can learn to at least be mentally prepared for the heat here, but you never enjoy it. Days of 105+ degrees are no fun. I'm going to be the second-to-last student from my district to leave. Many of them are already gone. There's a sense of decisive momentum heading towards the end at this point, and I'm as swept up in it as anyone could be.

In this desire to blast through things and get them over with, I've lost all drive to finish recounting what I've done, and I don't think anybody much cares anyways. Additionally, things have gotten busier with Rotary farewells, making preparations for my departure, and my own goodbyes. Nonetheless, I set a task for myself, and even if I'm the only looking at what I wrote, I know that I will probably appreciate this when I look back in a few months, or a few years, or whenever. There are three things left - short stops on the tour, Holi (the best festival not named Diwali), and my recent visits to India's grandest cities, Mumbai and New Delhi. I'm starting this on May 2nd - the goal is to have it posted by Friday the 6th. I'll do the tour here, the rest of it next week, and then I'll probably put something together two or three days before I leave.

The Taj Mahal

So we went to the Taj Mahal, which is located in the city of Agra. The Taj Mahal, of course, needs no introduction - it is one of the most recognizable edifices in the world. The effect of the Taj Mahal, with all of the hype surrounding it, is pretty stunning. We got up at about 6 to see it, because the crowds get pretty nuts later in the day, and we had a long drive ahead of us. Even though we sort of beat the crowd, it was still very busy, and we had to stand in line to get through security, which was tight by the way. The line was totally worth it, because I found a fellow Minnesotan in India! This was the first time this has happened. I was stoked.

It does take your breath away - when you pass through the surrounding complex, you eventually come to a big, old gate that is pretty impressive in itself. And then you look through it, and there it is, almost like a picture in the distance. There's something about the color and type of stone that was used in the Taj Mahal that makes it seems kind of hazy and mystical. It's pretty fantastic.

Unfortunately for us, it was raining (which is unbelievable - it NEVER rains in India at this time of year), but that didn't really pose much of a problem. The Taj Mahal is gorgeous and breathtaking, and in person it absolutely lives up to it's hype. There aren't even very many annoying hawkers in the area. There are many reasons why everyone should come to India - the Taj Mahal is decidedly one of them.

We also went to Delhi, but I'll talk about Delhi later. Dharamshala is the general name for a collective of small villages located at the roots of the Himalayas. I don't mean to overstate things (although I going to do just that), but this was something like my favorite place ever. By far the most difficult things to deal with in a big city in India, for me personally, have been the noise, bustling activity, and the lack of surrounding natural beauty. Dharamshala is a magnificent antithesis to Surat (which I should mention that I do not loathe or anything, but it does present some difficulties for me). I mean, the Himalayas are RIGHT THERE. You see them for hours driving from the nearest train station to the town we were staying in.

Besides the striking, overwhelming visual of the world's most famous mountain chain in the background, the various small villages are small but cluttered, and generally clean. Although there are certainly pleasant hotels, cafes, homes and restaurants to be found in the area, it is not an especially developed zone. The roads aren't great, and you're always right next door to the mountains, and there are thick forests covering the area. We were not at all prepared for the climate. We should have been, probably, because once you get up to the mountains, it's obviously cold, and we knew where we were going on the trip. So we had to go into town and buy winter gear right away. There wasn't snow in the village, but it was still pretty cold, kind of MN November temperatures, though I don't have any statistics to back that conjecture up.

Our hotel was located in a village with nothing but a bunch of small houses. There was a larger town, McLeod Ganj, located about a half hour's walk through the woods away from the hotel. Besides it's hilarious Scottish/Indian name, McLeod Ganj is an awesome village with a bunch of fine restaurants, cafes, and markets. We actually had quite a need to peruse these markets, since we were all without proper winter wear. It is also a fascinating cross section of peoples. There are Indians in this part of the country, but not many. Cold is not appreciated by most people here, which I can understand, though I disagree. There is also a minority of curious ex-pats and a handful of tourists there. You meet the coolest people here. We met this guy from Cincinnati, a retired inner-city English teacher who had come here to live out his days. We also met a girl from New York state, about 24 or 25, who had left America after completing college to become a Tibetan pop star. I'm not even kidding. She showed us videos and a sizable Facebook fan club.

Tibet is the predominant influencing cultural factor in Dharamsala. I would say at least 70% of the population, if not more, is made up of displaced Tibetans. This is a whole new culture for me. I know next to nothing about Tibet, other than that they are fighting for independence from China and that the Dalai Lama is their political leader. He would live there if his government wasn't exiled. Guess where he lives now? McLeod Ganj. We went to his main temple, the Tsuglag Khang.

I don't really mean to get political here, but talking to some of these Tibetans, you hear horrible, incredible stories about the atrocities committed against their peoples by the Chinese government. There was a guy who walks around with hand in a sling - it was shot and he had to escape, crossing the mountains into Dharamshala without any surgery on the arm. It's dead now, he can't use it. There are people who have no idea where their sons and daughters are. The American/Tibetan pop star was once captured by the Chinese for taking part in a peaceful protest (fortunately, she had a contingency plan with the American embassy to keep her out of prison for too long). If there were ever people who don't deserve this kind of persecution, it's the Tibetans. They are the most friendly, peaceful people you could possibly meet. I am very behind the Free Tibet movement now.

Through the retired American teacher that we met, we found this young Tibetan man named Gyeltsin, who had, in a typical Dharamshala story, escaped to India over the Himalayas. He told us that they had to only move at night so the Chinese wouldn't see them. Imagine crossing the Himalayas, of all places, in these circumstances. Incredible story. Anyways, he took us up to a Tibetan school in a village further up the mountain and showed us a traditional Tibetan culture show, with music, singing and dancing.

The way we had found this guy was from asking the American if he knew anyone that could take us on a hike. Gyeltsin was the guy. So the next day, he took myself and six others on a hike. The plan was to go to the snow line, but once we got there, we decided to keep going. It gets to be basically a winter scene very quickly. This was not an easy hike - it took us almost an entire day to get up and down, and it was physically taxing. This was a Himalaya that we were climbing - perhaps an outer, baby Himalaya, but a Himalaya nonetheless. Beyond that I finally got my snow fix, this was pretty much the best thing ever. I've been craving this kind of raw, outdoorsy adventure the whole year, and while it was just a taste of the Himalayas, it was still enough for me. I know for a fact that sometime in my life I will come back and explore this part of the world more closely. It's like no place I've ever been.

At no other time this year was it more apparent to me how incredibly diverse the cultures, peoples, and climates are in India. Within the two-week stretch, I rode a camel into a vast desert and I hiked up one of the baby Himalayas in a blizzard. Best trip ever.