“I just wanted to check and make sure that you still have no idea what you’re doing.”
This has become the most common conversation I’ve been having with people over the last few weeks. Friends and family that are curious to know what I’m doing and what my plans are, where I’ve been and where I’m going.
The truth is- I have no idea. It’s been quite some time since I’ve sat down to write about my experiences traveling and volunteering. Various experiences throughout the second half of my stay in India, both good and bad, left me in a headspace where I didn’t feel as though I could write. Maybe you could call it writer’s block, but I just didn’t feel like I could adequately put into words how I was feeling. India was incredible, and I loved my time there. The school I volunteered at was amazing, and I would not change the things I learned or the experiences that I had for anything. But by the time I was finishing my six months, I was ready to leave.
Throughout my life, I have collected quotes. Quotes about love, about life; about everything. Maybe it’s because so often I feel like I don’t know how to put my feelings into words or just because I love other people’s perspectives and things that they’ve learned. Most likely it’s a little bit of both. I came across a quote a month or so ago from a book by Carew Papritz in which she says,
“I travel because I am uncomfortable being too comfortable.”
Something I have always felt but never really knew how to put into words. I guess to many people, this is a positive thing, and I guess it is. Of course, there are many, many reasons why I travel, but I honestly think that a major reason that I travel is because I don’t like being too comfortable. I love to challenge myself. I love traveling in challenging places. I want to be immersed in different cultures filled with polarizing people. I want new foods and new experiences and new places. For me, travel is about challenging myself, because when I’m challenging myself, I’m constantly learning and growing.
To anyone who went to school with me, I suppose that this won’t be a surprise. The number of different clubs I joined and various jobs I had very often bordered on insanity. I am certainly the first to admit that I’m a little crazy, but looking back I would not have changed any of it. Sometimes I would see my younger brother and wish that I had his talent to be an expert in his craft. His artistic soul always manifests itself in incredible things and he has always been the type of person to absorb himself fully into his passions- drawing, musical instruments, photography. “Jack of all trades, master of none,” always seems to most accurately describe how I feel, most times in a positive way, but sometimes in a negative way as well. On one hand I am so thankful that I am so uncomfortable with being too comfortable, but on the other hand I sometimes think to myself, “Em, you can’t even handle 6 months in the same city without getting itchy?”
Fast forward 2 months in Nepal and I have had the most incredible experience. My month spent volunteering here was more life-changing than I could have ever imagined it to be. I loved everything about it; from the building and construction work to living in tents day-in and day-out; it was a truly remarkable experience. I have never been around so many remarkable and inspiring people in my entire life. Not, only that, but I have never been in a country like Nepal. Don’t get me wrong, I love India, but I have never been in a country that feels quite so much like home. I was speaking with another volunteer who quite possibly described it best when she brought up the kind of travelers that you meet in Nepal. As travelers, there are so many places that you want to see in the world, there can often be very few places that you end up going to more than once. In Nepal, more than half the travelers that you meet here are travelers who have been back two, three, four times. Nepal draws you back. The people, the energy, the culture; it’s the kind of country that you go to and immediately know that you will be coming back.
After volunteering in the mountains, I attended the wedding of one of our Nepali staff members and then went to visit the masons. Masons are paid, Nepali workers who are trained and being trained to work in construction and masonry. They work hand with us and teach us everything from brick laying to scaffold building to plastering. They are an wonderful humans who I feel lucky enough to have come to know. Most of the masons on this project live in a region of West Nepal, called Bardia. I went there planning to visit for 4 or 5 days. I ended up staying almost two weeks. Two weeks spent working in the fields, showering in the river, dancing at weddings and building mud houses. Looking back, nothing we were doing was normal, but somehow that’s exactly how it felt: normal. There’s nothing I can say to thank my friends and their families for their warmth and hospitality, but I will hold those experiences close to me forever.
Now back in Nepal’s capital city of Kathmandu, I’ve been spending my time (okay, not really but) trying to plan what I’ll be doing over the next few weeks. In June, I’ll be heading back to travel North India, and hopefully maybe some work exchanges and volunteering in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Nevertheless, everything I’ve done over the last three weeks has been completely unplanned, so who really knows where I'll be? I don’t know where I’ll be tomorrow, next week or next month, but that’s exactly how I like it. I’m still trying to figure out if being uncomfortable with being comfortable is a good thing or a bad thing, but for now I suppose it’s a good thing. One thing is for sure, it might look like I know what I’m doing but, trust me, I have absolutely no idea. I’ll figure it out one way or another.
Until next time, here goes nothing.
If you would still like to learn about the organization I volunteered with and the disaster relief work they are doing around the world, you can read all about them on their website: https://www.allhandsandhearts.org/
Diwali; the Hindu festival of lights. It is arguably the most celebrated holiday of the year in India. With parties, parades and gift giving, it is the Hindu equivalent of Christmas. While celebrated differently much less in South India than North India, the national holiday Diwali still meant that I got a five-day extended weekend and allowed me to take me first trip in India! I set out on my first adventure to the neighboring of state Kerala.
Kerala, commonly referred to by their unofficial slogan, ‘God’s Own Country,’ is a beautiful region known for its rolling hills and calm serenity that clashes with the common chaotic view of India. While the natural beauty and wildlife of Kerala should not be overlooked, Kerala is certainly most famous for its backwaters. Known as the Venice of the East, the backwaters of Kerala make up a labyrinth of canals, rivers and inlets that stretch more than 200 km.
My first stop on my trip was the city of Kochi, or Cochin, by way of sleeper bus. I was lucky, and ended up knowing someone who knew someone who lives in Kochi. Although living in an apartment with her four children, this friend of a friend happily welcomed me to stay with them with only a few days’ notice. Not only did she insist on making me several traditional dishes while I was there, but she also took me around the entire city. Determined to make sure I had a good time, we set out to explore on the back of her motorcycle for the day. We spent the day walking on the beach, visiting the city’s church and synagogue (one of very few still functioning in India), walking through Kochi’s famous spice market and making sure I had all of the local street food. We were also able to see a performance of the traditional Keralean dance, Kathakali, whose costumes, makeup and storytelling were fascinating.
After a full day of exploring, I said goodbye the next afternoon and set off on the local bus to Alleppey, or Alappuzha. I arrived at my hostel and settled in. They were hosting
a small celebration for Diwali so I quickly dropped my bags and headed downstairs. I was handed a sparkler and a beer (one of my favorite combinations) and introduced myself to everybody.
The backwaters did not disappoint. Surrounded by green and luscious scenery, I, along with three guys from my hostel, floated peacefully through dozens of winding canals. Entire villages sit right on the water’s edge. We passed schools and hospitals and women standing waist-deep in the river washing their clothes. Our guide chatted happily with many of the villagers as we passed. Our trip concluded with a delicious meal, served traditionally on a banana leaf. When we got back, my new friends and I decided to walk to the lighthouse and watch the sunset on the beach.
While I made a lot of really great friends in Alleppey and I was sad to leave, there isn’t much else to do aside from the backwaters here in Alleppey. I set off to a new destination, deciding last minute to take another sleeper bus to the town of Kalpetta, which serves as an entry point to Wayanad Nature Reserve. I arrived at 6:00 a.m. with relatively no plans and no place to stay…this should be fun. I decided that the best option would be to rent a taxi guide for the day, I had been told that this was the best way to travel around the area because everything is so spread out. Of course, that was easier said than done. After several failed attempts at trying to find a good number to call for a taxi, I walked into a nearby hotel and asked reception. I have found that this is always a HUGE help when traveling. If you are ever lost, confused, overwhelmed or scared while traveling, finding a nice hotel can be a lifesaver. These hotels have staff that are accustomed to dealing with a lot of travelers and can normally give good advice. I made friends with the manager and he happily called me a taxi and set me up with a wonderful guide for the day. While the cost of doing this in America would give me a heart attack, it is relatively common and reasonably cheap to do in India. I was able to do this for 2,400 rupees, or about 36 USD.
We then took the two hour drive out to Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary, where I went on a backroad jeep tour at sunset. While this was beautiful and I’m glad that I went, I was the only foreigner and ended up having to pay an extra fee to take the safari by myself. I usually prefer solo traveling to traveling with others, but Wayanad is one of those places that would have been much easier (and much cheaper) if I was traveling with another person.
My entire trip had run so smoothly that something was bound to happen...after waiting 6 hours in a hotel restaurant drinking chai and waiting for my sleeper bus, miscommunication with the driver resulted in me missing the bus at 1:30 am. Thankful for my friendship I made earlier with the hotel manager, I was able to get a room for the night and book a bus back to Mysore the following day. In 24 hours, I had gone from a very, very cheap weekend to getting a little too close for comfort with my budget. After I was home and told my mom about my escapades, she gave me some great advice when she said, “Well, that’s why you travel on a budget so that when problems occur, and they always do, you have some money and a little bit of breathing room. Breathing and budgeting. That sounds like a mantra for India if I’ve ever heard one...
I’m living in India.
I still have to remind myself of that every day when I wake up. Who the hell let me do this?
But, in all seriousness, I am amazed at how wonderful my experience has been so far. I still cannot believe that I was presented with such an incredible opportunity. Although I live in my own apartment, the family that runs the school where I volunteer is incredibly supportive and have acted as my "unofficial host family" (and I’ll probably mention them a lot in my posts). They have been so warm and welcoming to me, and it is one of the main reasons that I feel so at home here in India. And I really do.
The school where I volunteer is incredible. The children they manage to help with the resources they have is as impressive as it is heartwarming. I fell in love with the kids instantly. As a country, India has begun to make huge strides to improve upon special education, but there is still a long way to go. Many families, especially poor families, do not have to money to send their children to a school that provides education for children with special needs. Because of this, many children with special needs go without any schooling at all. The school I am working with has specifically set out with the mission of providing education to children with special needs that would otherwise not be able to afford it.
I'll be volunteering at two school locations while I am here. The first is a school where the children are higher functioning. This means that a child may have a disability such as autism or down syndrome, but they are still able to feed themselves, communicate verbally, go to the bathroom, etc. In a few weeks’ time, I will also start working at another location. This is where we work with children who have more severe diagnoses. Many of these children cannot walk and/or talk. All of these children, of course, have very unique personalities and cases. It’s safe to say that I feel very much out of my league. Thinking of the idea that, eventually, they want to train me to take over my own caseload here is a daunting one at that. I repeat- who let me do this again?!
When I first got here, I didn’t know what I was going to be assigned to do. As a recent college graduate with a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and speech therapy (still in need of my master’s degree in speech therapy), I felt like it was going to be as if I just went to medical school and then someone let me start performing surgeries. But somehow, some way, it’s actually worked out.
Since arriving here, I contacted the person who connected me to this opportunity to thank her and tell her how wonderful it has been thus far. She has volunteered at the school here in Mysore numerous times over the last 10 years and she gave me some great advice. She told me, “I always find that I have more knowledge than I thought when I’m up to my eyeballs in kids- you pull out everything you’ve ever been taught.” I know that she is exactly right. I might not feel properly prepared but many of us don't. So many of the kids that we are working with have had little-to-no speech therapy. A lot of them had not even been properly assessed until coming to the school. Some of these kids have been in the school for years now and have shown immense improvement, while others have just started out. Some of this is just flying by the seat of our pants and figuring the rest out later. Which, I suppose is how every aspect of my life is going to be for the foreseeable future…wish me luck?
Here goes nothing…
I am currently in hour 21 of my 28 hour journey, flying from Kuwait City to Bangalore. I am the only white person on this plane.
I feel strangely comforted by that. I have always been drawn to doing things that were unexpected of me. I’ve always wanted to travel to the kinds of places where I could be completely immersed in a culture, a language, a people; I crave it. So, here I am. I'm sitting on a plane surrounded by people of all different ethnicities, nationalities, and religions. I have no notion of when I'm going to return home and I have even less of an idea of what my future holds. I understand that to most sane people, that might sound terrifying. Luckily for me, all of my sanity went out the window quite some time ago.
Fast forward four hours and I’m sitting in a taxi on my way to Mysore, India: my home for the next six months. My body has lost all comprehension of time, but my mind is wide awake. This three-hour car ride is my first look at India. We arrived just before sunrise, so the longer we drove, the more people began to start their day.
Monsoon season just ended, leaving trash scattered through the streets. The stray dogs looked cleaner than I thought they would. I noticed myself looking at the chipped paint and crumbled exterior of seemingly-dilapidated buildings, only to pass by their open doors and see lights on in fully-furnished homes. These worn facades mixed in with colorful temples of multiple faiths.
Men and women of all ages opened up their street carts and prepared for the day. Vendors selling fruits, vegetables and chai lined the streets. Locals on their way to work congregated around carts to grab breakfast and tea on their way to school. I did a double-take down a small residential street when I saw a cow grazing in the middle of the road. I would soon learn that cows in the middle of the road might just be the most normal thing to happen in India. And it all worked together somehow.
By the time I was eating idli, medu vada and samba (steamed rice cakes, savory “donuts” and spicy, lentil based stew) for breakfast in Mysore at 8:30 a.m., my body was quickly realizing that I had been catapulted into a time zone nine and a half hours ahead of Philly. Ouch. I’m overwhelmed, but in all of the best ways. I’m still figuring all of this out, but this is certainly going to be a crazy year and I can’t wait to share it with all of you.
For weeks now, I haven’t really known the answer to the question that everyone seems to want to know- “Are you ready?”
The truth is, I don’t think anyone is really ready to move to India. I’ve read books, I’ve watched movies, and I’m pretty sure I’ve read every single backpacker blog post that exists about India. But, from the moment I decided to go, I knew that no one is ever really ready for India; nor should they be. But, she is always ready for you.
So…here goes nothing.