Yesterday I caught myself wincing from the sunlight when I had forgotten my sunglasses. It reminded me of the summer I opted not to wear sunglasses. This was an intentional thought I had in preparation for traveling to India. I wondered if it may be inappropriate for me to wear a luxury item in this part of the world where so many people went without basic needs being met. Prior to the trip I even wondered if going without some lenses might help me fit in better with the non-sunglasses wearing Indians. How quickly one can learn that a minority will stand out regardless of what they are wearing on their face, and a minority with light skin is regarded in a sort of freakish celebrity status in West Bengal. The irony of forgetting my sunglasses yesterday is that today marks the fifth year anniversary of arriving in Kolkata for my Indian summer.
Within two minutes of reading there was going to be a program studying in India I had determined I would apply to attend. Along with seven other students, I was chosen to study the social welfare systems in Kolkata, West Bengal. It wasn’t until after all was set in stone, I began learning about what I had signed up for. My stress was high as the days led up to the adventure. I believe part of my anxiety was knowing I was in for a life changing experience; I would witness things I had never imagined and be in more unfamiliar territory than ever before.
I was accurate with my worries. I had never felt further from home. Clothes, food, traffic, language, and everything seemed unrecognizable at first. After about a week and a half I was exhausted thinking I wasn’t even half way through the program yet. Our group of eight went through fun then turbulent then close again stages having to spend so much time together. Despite being diverse in age, background and interests, we were all an important contribution to the group as a whole. The sights, sounds, people and culture I witnessed during this month deeply impacted who I am and how I think about the world. I feel so fortunate to have been able to travel to India and get an up close look at the systems in place to help an impoverished population. One of the most important lessons I learned is that even people lacking resources have a lot to teach Americans about traditions, values and happiness.
In the next month I will be posting stories, photos and links to the agencies I visited while in India. It’s been five years of reflection which I am overdue in sharing. During that trip I felt a great desire to do something with the information I was gathering and become more of a resource to those individuals who had made such a great impression on my life.