Last year came and went in a blur of plane rides. I truly am the luckiest girl in the world because I got both my white Christmas with family and the opportunity to come back to India – back to the all of the smiles that remind me why I wake up every morning.
The first month of the new year is already gone and my head is swimming with dreams and plans and the guilt of unmet resolutions. My midnight promises were: play more soccer and stop feeling guilty about the things I am not doing. Not writing a blog post a week? Rest. Not mastering the art of running a school at the age of 23? Eat more chocolate and then rest. Not actually fulfilling my only measurable resolution of kicking around a ball for an hour every week? Let it go. When the weight of 300 children is on your shoulders, you forget to take care of your own needs sometimes.
Like every evening on December 31st, I reflect on what the past 364 days had brought and fantasize on what the coming year will bring. And, as always, it is like nothing I could have expected. You never know what life will bring until it comes. This is what 2015 looks like so far:
- A blog remake underway (by the lovely Monica)
- Job applications (the hunt is the worst but the opportunities are endless)
- Bachelor Tuesdays and Zumba Wednesdays (see: volunteers who support my guilty pleasures and the most wonderful girls who love to dance and giggle in the grass)
- Long distance love notes to the piece of my heart that is in China (see: Justin)
- A stack of books I might finish by the time I leave India (currently: The Lowland)
- Dreams of future traveling in India (Ladakh….because I want to see mountains again, Gandalf)
- Dreams of future traveling outside of India. Apparently per my visa rules I have to leave the country at some point in April so I don’t get arrested. (see: Nepalese tourist visas on arrival)
My job has shown me true peace (whenever there isn’t complete chaos). Shanti Bhavan is a haven amongst the traffic and the noise and I don’t just mean in India. I arrived in Minneapolis at 4 in the afternoon on December 19th, ready for my first American meal in months. Our hotel was across the street from the Mall of America – the largest shopping mall in the United States. Shock. That is how I would describe how Justin and I felt. Shock that two bowls of pasta could cost so much. Shock that there existed so many things to buy, to consume. Life was aggressive again and, though I almost cried when I bit into my mac and cheese and hugged my family for the first time in months, the blood orange sunsets, long conversations, and deep laughs were pulling me back. It is a simpler way of living here, one where I receive daily doses of perspective and humility along with my rice and dal.
So this place here is the best place in India. In many ways, it is the best place in the world. Still, I find myself thinking as I stare out my office window during 2pm lulls: I can’t wait to travel. But – the voice inside my head agues – aren’t I ‘traveling’ right now? Wasn’t that the whole idea behind this adventure? Work abroad and see the world?
As I navigate narrow crowded streets, language barriers, and indigestion it certainly feels like I am traveling. The six planes rides (and nine hours of delays) it took to get me home and back certainly felt like traveling. When I watch The Bachelor late at night with friends while eating chocolate and make my sleep-in-until-8am Sunday morning coffee, it feels like I am home. My weekend in a hotel bed and brunch date with a plate of waffles felt a lot like vacation. When I get up with the sun and run around until I am ragged, it feels like work. When 300 kids tell me they love me and when I walk home under the brightest stars I have ever seen, it feels like a dream.
“So, how was it?” people asked. “How did you like it?”
When I couldn’t regale people with stories about cultural boundaries I navigated or mountains I climbed, I felt inadequate. Like I wasn’t ‘traveling’ the right way. The truth is, I don’t really know what to say about my experience (hence the absence of blog posts for quite a long time).
I have learned and seen so much in my time in India (more than I am capable of processing….the answers will come over the years), but I think the biggest realization is that life is just…life. You adjust and you adapt to your new normal. Sure, I gushed about the children, reminisced over pictures, and laughed about the one time someone did something funny. But the best and most meaningful stories I had weren’t mine – they were the kids’.
I’ve come across all kinds of advice columns, essays, lists, stories, etc. about what travel should and should not be (you know, the 17 things you learn while living abroad, the 8 things you should do while you travel, 26.2 things you must see in India, or the 11 places you should visit with your girlfriends in your 20s). People talk about the difference between ‘traveling’ and ‘vacationing’; about the superiority of ‘venturing off the beaten path’ over ‘following the guide books’; about traveling to ‘escape’ the ‘mundane’ world we live in filled with routine. They say to travel is to come back with stories that begin with, “When I was in…”. To travel, in one sense, is to experience life in a way that others haven’t. Or perhaps more appropriately, to finally experience life in ways that the majority of others live every day.
Again it might have been the American tendency in travel. One goes, not so much to see but to tell afterward.
A dear friend of mine told me about her Fulbright experience and how turned off she was by the snootiness of some ‘well-traveled’ folks. This foreign city is so much better than that foreign city, they would say. Wearing the number of countries they have visited and oceans they’ve swam in as badges of sophisticated honor, claiming they have traveled the ‘right’ way.
I hate these restrictions. I have seen so little of India, but have been forever changed by a part so few will know. So what does that mean then about what I should learn, what I should bring, what I should do? Maybe I will find the meaning of life, the answers to all the great questions in my remaining months. Maybe I will return with nothing but some bruises and stories and new perspectives. And, the reality is that I am not just ‘traveling’. I am working.
Why go half way around the world to teach? It is something I have asked myself. There are teaching opportunities at home. So many students need help at home. Then there are the terrifying questions: What good are you actually doing?
Am I ‘voluntouring’? Technically not, because I get paid. But even for the volunteers who receive love and popcorn instead of money, they are no tourists. They work long hours monitoring, teaching, prepping, grading, sweating, reading, loving. They never stop and they pour their hearts into this place. Maybe some of them come with misguided intentions. Perhaps a lot of people only go abroad to take pictures of exotic places and tell stories for years about how they helped the world. And, yes, there are stories of high school students going abroad to build wells and schools during their spring breaks, unaware that their work is not needed and their funds will never reach the ones they intend to help. Maybe there is something fundamentally strange and/or problematic (dare I say imperial?) about traveling abroad to volunteer. But stopping voluntourism doesn’t seem to be the answer. Maybe there is another way, one that can foster both cultural sensitivity and curiosity about the world. Be mindful of the organizations you participate in, be mindful of where your money goes. But don’t shy away because it is difficult.
I don’t know the answers to any of these questions, but I have learned three things from when I started ‘traveling’ last August. First, journeys are what you make of them and you shouldn’t judge people based on how they choose to navigate theirs.
When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would this itch. When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age. In middle age I was assured greater age would calm my fever and now that I am fifty-eight perhaps senility will do the job. Nothing has worked. Four hoarse blasts of a ships’s whistle still raise the hair on my neck and set my feet to tapping. The sound of a jet, an engine warming up, even the clopping of shod hooves on pavement brings on the ancient shudder, the dry mouth and vacant eye, the hot palms and the churn of stomach high up under the rib cage. In other words, I don’t improve; in further words, once a bum always a bum. I fear the disease is incurable. I set this matter down not to instruct others but to inform myself.
When the virus of restlessness begins to take possession of a wayward man, and the road away from Here seems broad and straight and sweet, the victim must first find in himself a good and sufficient reason for going. This to the practical bum is not difficult. He has a built-in garden of reasons to chose from. Next he must plan his trip in time and space, choose a direction and a destination. And last he must implement the journey. How to go, what to take, how long to stay. This part of the process is invariable and immortal. I set it down only so that newcomers to bumdom, like teen-agers in new-hatched sin, will not think they invented it.
Once a journey is designed, equipped, and put in process, a new factor enters and takes over. A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us. Tour masters, schedules, reservations, brass-bound and inevitable, dash themselves to wreckage on the personality of the trip. Only when this is recognized can the blown-in-the glass bum relax and go along with it. Only then do the frustrations fall away. In this a journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.
Second, if you choose to travel with people, make sure they will be the right traveling companions. Make sure they will help you make the best out of difficult situations, push you to reflect on what you see and experience, be open to talking about your poop (or lack thereof), and pick lice out of your hair after you realize that your adopted cat might not be so clean after all (see: difficult situations). Thank you, Justin, for loving me even when things get gross and never failing to make the best out of the murkiest situations. I could not have asked for a better traveling companion and – best of all – I know that with you adventure is never far away. Driving an hour to a new town, trying a café in a new neighborhood, flying half way around the world…you see the value in all new experiences. And you give me a shoulder to sleep on when we find ourselves without a place to stay.
The third thing is that nothing beats coming home. I know now without a doubt that the U.S. is home. It is where my family is, where my heart feels most at peace, where I know I will always return to. But India is home too. These tiny hands and brilliant smiles have left permanent imprints on my heart and I know I will always find my way back here. Perhaps ‘traveling’ means finding home….remembering the places you’ve left behind and finding pieces of your soul in places you never thought they would be. That, I think, is the true value of traveling.
*Quotes from John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley