On September 6, 2013 as an 18 year old, fresh out of high school, I embarked on the most rewarding journey of my life. Little did I know what I was getting myself into.
Everything was changing. Leaving high school, leaving home, watching all my friends leave for college. I was taking a unique path. I was starting my college life in four months, whereas everyone was starting now. Instead, I was going to travel to India for three months.
On that late summer afternoon, I walked into JFK carrying my single backpack on my back. I quickly kissed my mom and dad goodbye, and joined a circle of seven strangers. My eyes stung with tears I was aggressively holding back. My head was spinning and my stomach uneasy. It all hit me just then. I was going to be gone for three whole months in a country with a radically different culture, customs and living conditions. I didn’t know a soul. I had no clue when the next time I would be able to hear my mom’s voice and I didn’t know when I would be able to shower next. I was leaving my comfort zone on every level.
After two long plane rides, I had arrived in Delhi, India. It was 3 am and I was confused, exhausted and mainly petrified. “What the hell was I doing here? I’m not going to be able to survive these three months. I can’t do this. I need to go home.” The negative thoughts came rushing in, “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t.” On the outside I probably looked like a confused, doe eyed American girl, but on the inside I was having a nervous breakdown.
I’ll never forget that first car ride to the hostel we stayed in. I was looking out of my window, watching the cows and people all over the streets. India seemed chaotic. It seemed intense. It seemed petrifying. Did I mention I was petrified?
I spent the first two weeks of the program not saying a word. I was barely sleeping and barely eating. I did a lot of thinking those first few weeks. I thought about how much I would grow over the course of these three months. I would think about home, how much I already missed everything. This was unusual for me, since I was used to spending my summers away from home in the Berkshires at camp. Still, I was now painfully homesick. I felt so far. And I was. I was so far away from home!
This all seems so negative, but trust me, it was the most positive thing to happen to me. I needed to freak out and I needed to be scared. Why? Because this allowed me to push far out of my comfort zone. And this leap of faith allowed me to grow. And grow. And grow.
After a 10 day hike in the Himalayas, getting altitude sick and throwing up all over myself on a freezing night in a tiny tent, after exploring the city of Ladakh, taking an Indian-style overnight train to Varanasi (trust me, this is not glamorous), using a squatty potty ONLY (Google it if you don’t know what this is), dealing with no toilet paper, rewearing clothes day after day, meeting my host family with whom I would be living with for two months, starting Hindi classes, and exploring the city of Varanasi, I felt I was changing. Every day I made it a goal to leave my comfort zone on a new level. Whether it is wandering to a shop across the city by myself, striking up a conversation with a local, practicing my Hindi with my host grandfather, trying a spicy street food or spending an hour of my day meditating, I was doing new things. And I was benefiting immensely.
I began to feel at home, even if it was a very different “home” than I was used to back in the United States. Let me paint a picture- I slept every night on a wooden table with one sheet in my host family’s house. I dealt with insects, mice and rats on a daily basis. I would dodge cows in the streets, every day hoping and praying one wouldn’t trample me. The weather was steaming hot and I would wear thick layers of clothing, to not draw attention to my western fair skin. This was my life and I loved it. India was vibrant, colorful and magical. The music I heard filled my ears, the smiling faces and warm embraces filled my heart and the delicious samosas and gulab jamon filled my stomach.
After one month of living in India, I had already fallen in love. I was absolutely in love with my program. I loved my host family like they were my own family. My host mom became my best friend. I loved the locals I met; I loved the food, the environment, my projects and more. I had fallen deeply in love with India. By the mid course ceremony, on October 21st, I spent the whole night thinking back on my experience thus far and how far I had come. I had never been so happy. I had done an entire 180, from being just an American girl used to my American ways, to a girl who could leap far from what she knows and test her boundaries. I felt like I could overcome anything. It was the most incredible feeling a person could feel.
If I had to pinpoint what my favorite part of India was, it would be the people I met. There is nothing more beautiful in the world than the way you can connect on such a deep level with complete and utter strangers. I felt that deep connection with many people I met along the way. I would wander into a shop and sit down with the little storeowner. The people would always offer you chai to drink or food to eat. They would always genuinely want to get to know you. Even through broken English and broken Hindi, I learned so much about the locals I met along the way. I’ll never forget the family who lived down the street from me. This family lived in a tiny, one room shack. They did many of the local’s laundry. Anyone could drop off a bag of dirty clothes, and come back a day later and their clothing would be perfectly washed, dried and folded. This family, made up of grandparents, parents and many children, did laundry every day of their lives around the clock. Their living conditions were unimaginable. Their one room house was filled with other people’s clothing drying on lines, so they would sleep on the cement floors, or the ground outside. They barely got sleep, they were dirt poor, and they worked hard and long. But the amazing thing is, I have never met a group of people who were happier. Every time you walked by, this family would be smiling, laughing, singing or waving hello. I would come by almost every day to sit and talk. They would force chai down my throat and ask me questions about America. They became my very close friends, especially the teenage boy and girl. They learned English from the American tourists who would come and go. They told me about their older sister having her arranged marriage and moving across India with her husband’s family. They never got to see her, and there was nothing they could do about it. I was in awe every time I sat down and spoke with them. Their lives were so drastically different than anything I’ve ever seen, but they were so much happier than anyone I’ve ever known. How could this be?! How could someone who has so little be so warm and loving? This was what moved me so much about India. Most people I met truly seemed to be this way.
My three months in India were indescribable. I learned more about myself than I ever thought I could. I challenged myself and overcame any fear I ever had. Those first two weeks of fear and anxiety were a blessing in disguise. Without that fear I would never know the rewarding feeling I would get from overcoming it Stephanie Schneider is a She’s Fit to Lead intern and contributing writer. University of Miami ’17