My semester at sea: India

Martha Bawn/Courtesy
The Taj Mahal, Agra.

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It’s very difficult to explain how I felt about traveling in India. There was certainly a lot about my experience that was not so positive, and I’ve never felt so far outside my comfort zone. I saw many people in really horrible situations, many of whom had very little hope of ever getting out of them. However, there was an excitement and vibrancy everywhere I went that made India one of my favorite countries of my trip so far. Every emotion, both negative and positive, was intensified, and there was always something beautiful to see and some new challenge to face.

The highlight of my trip, and one of the highlights of all the traveling I have ever done, was my visit to the Taj Mahal. I was expecting it to be amazing, but I wasn’t expecting it to bring tears to my eyes and give me goosebumps, not just when I first saw it but every time I glanced at it. I have never seen anything with such a strong presence. It feels almost otherworldly. Unfortunately, I was only able to stay about an hour, but I could have just looked at it all day. I’ve never had such an intense physical reaction to a tourist attraction before. For the rest of that day, I was in a wonderful mood and found myself finally able to take in all the amazing things I have seen over the past couple of months.

I also visited several historic sites around Agra and Jaipur, riding elephants up to the beautiful Agra Fort that was built on top of a mountain to protect the king and his family. At the opposite end of the spectrum, I ate a vegetarian McSpicy Paneer from McDonald’s and tried to see a Bollywood movie. It ended up being just a very strange movie about Stockholm syndrome, but it was a great experience just the same. Another highlight was the ancient observatory in Jaipur, where I saw the largest sundial in the world, which is accurate to two seconds and is several centuries old. I learned all about the precise astrological measurements that still today determine important aspects of Indian people’s lives, including whom they can marry. India is the only place I’ve visited that feels like its ancient culture is still alive — just adjusted through the centuries. Maybe that’s one of the reasons being there was such a rich experience.

Amber Fort, Jaipur.

Amber Fort, Jaipur. 

Sundial at the Observatory in Jaipur.

Sundial at the observatory in Jaipur.

Along with the wonderful things about India, there were some not-so-great things too. These ranged from the mildly uncomfortable to the most disturbing things I have ever seen. The airlines and other transportation systems are extremely inefficient and unreliable, and we ended up spending two out of our six days completely devoted to traveling. Our tour guide also seemed pretty sleazy. He took us to shops that were clearly giving him a tip for doing so, even after we all made it perfectly clear that we were not interested and would rather spend our time elsewhere. As a Westerner, particularly a female, walking down the street means constantly being bombarded by stares, requests for pictures, endless souvenirs being shoved in your face and small children begging for money. Everyone seems to want something from you, and the social norms are definitely not what we are used to back home. On top of all of that, we were surrounded by terrible poverty. It’s certainly a lot to take in.

On my last day in India, I went on a service visit to an orphanage in Kochi. Although I had a great time interacting with the children there, it was probably one of the saddest things I’ve ever done. At first, it was uncomfortable because the little lecture that the founder of the home gave was a little too similar to the sales pitches we had gotten at those sleazy shops our tour guide had taken us to. Some of the children were paraded in front of us, and we were constantly being reminded to donate money, accompanied by hints that the place was not altogether legitimate. The worst part was learning about the children and the situations they had been in before coming to this home. Most of them had been victims of the beggar mafia, which is a group that kidnaps street children and forces them to beg for money and punishes them harshly if they do not get enough. The film “Slumdog Millionaire” actually portrays a fairly realistic picture of what happens to these small children. The boy who sat next to me at lunch was about 7 years old and had huge burn marks all over his arms. Even the way they acted made it clear they had never really had a chance to just have fun and be kids.

Children at the orphanage.

Children at the orphanage.

For me, India was all about the intense emotions. I cried tears of joy and tears of sadness in these six days, and I certainly learned a lot about the world. I also met some wonderful people, and I feel like my global perspective has been broadened significantly. This was definitely a turning point for me, and I can’t wait to get to Africa and do some more exploring.