My first week in India has, quite frankly, stunned me. I don’t think any books or stories or pictures can prepare you for the the amazement, discomfort, and the extreme culture shock. The smells, people, colors, and poverty have enchanted me and terrified me. Especially as someone who has struggled with anxiety, the emotions that have arisen and the sensory overload brought on by the unfamiliarity and the intensity of everything in this country have been difficult for me to process. However, if you talk to your program leaders and the others in your group as well as keep an open mind, you will get through it and you will enjoy this trip. I couldn’t be more grateful for the program leaders who have chaperoned the trip and have helped us through our experience so far. They are truly amazing people who genuinely care about the work they are doing, and they have made this whole process so much smoother.
Although I think that everyone will experience India in vastly different ways, I think the initial shock that I experienced could be lessened by keeping a few things in mind. To start off, you must be flexible. It sounds simple, but I found myself challenged with flexibility before I even arrived in Hyderabad. Due to complications with our flight, more than half of the girls in my group, including myself, ended up sitting in Mumbai for hours, and arriving to Hyderabad a day later than expected with most of us not having slept in 3 straight days. My body and mind were already exhausted before my time in India officially began, and it was really difficult for me to enjoy, or even stay awake during the first few days. I also think that although it is near impossible, it is so important to go into this program with an open mind, and minimal expectations. The training that I have received has differed dramatically from what I expected, in that I was ignorantly expecting to be able to load my values regarding menstruation, female empowerment, and sex education on the girls we would be working with. The Voice For Girls coordinator who has been training us has been amazing to work with, but she has also made it quite clear that we are working to make small improvements in the lives of these marginalised girls, not to overthrow the societal system that has landed them in their oppressed state like I was optimistically expecting. I have come to realise that although physical violence is never acceptable in my eyes, it is quite common here, and many of the girls that we will be working with have experienced far more than their fair share of hardships even at their young age. I’ve realised that all I can do is work to make this program valuable and empowering for the girls that we will be teaching, in the hopes that they will have the tools to take charge of their futures when they are ready. Although I, and all of the others in this program, would be thrilled to ignite a societal revolution, it’s simply not possible with the short time we have here and the deeply ingrained inequality and values in India that negatively impact girls. However, the power of education stands unrivaled, and the dramatic changes that I hope to see in India regarding poverty and the treatment of women can happen, with time, dedication, and education of the youth.
One moment that has thus far stood out to me was a simple moment that exposed the dramatic juxtaposition between extreme wealth and extreme poverty in India. It is one thing to know it exists, it’s quite another to experience it along with the complex emotions of guilt and sadness that come with. On our second day here, after climbing around a temple in the insane heat (side note: also expect to be more hot than you ever have been, and to live in a puddle of your own sweat for the time you’re here) and taking a boat out to see the Buddha statue that towers over Hyderabad, we ate lunch at an extremely fancy restaurant inside an expensive hotel. I was so excited about the air conditioning, the rarity of clean bathrooms, and the rows and rows of food that were available to try. I basked in the luxury that felt more normal to me than the other places in India that I had visited so far, and felt myself relax as I sunk into the familiarity of my privileged American standard of comfort. As soon as we said goodbye to the air conditioning and stepped outside the hotel, I saw several children urinating on trash across the street. I have never felt more guilty in my life. The notion that being born to loving parents with the financial means to support my needs and desires, including this trip to India, is a rarity in a world so filled with poverty and abuse made me feel physically sick. After feeling the relief of stepping into a place that reminded me of home, I realised that I have likely experienced more luxury in my life than the children I saw have, or ever will.
The moments in this program so far that I am most grateful for are the ones that have made me want to cry or count down the days until I can return home. After just a few short days, I can see my perspective on life changing drastically, and I’m so looking forward to seeing how it continues to change as my time in India continues. We haven’t even started the service portion of the program and I’ve already learned so much! So far, I truly believe that this is an invaluable experience, and that everyone who has an opportunity to come on this program should. I know already that I’ll never forget my time here, and the lessons learned during these few short weeks will shape how I live the rest of my life.