Throughout my college career at the University of Illinois, I’ve been blessed to have so many life changing experiences; I wouldn’t change anything from the past four years. One of the biggest life-changers was becoming involved with a student organization called International Impact (ii). This amazing organization works with various nonprofits abroad in order to send our members away over winter and summer breaks. It was through ii that I was able to volunteer in the Dominican Republic my junior year and then again in India just recently. Sonam, the president of ii this year, also doubled as our group leader. This worked out seamlessly seeing as she has family in the Delhi area where we would be volunteering. I had the most amazing time and witnessed just about everything, making memories I hope to share.
After spending over 30 hours in an airplane coming hom from Australia just weeks prior to leaving, saying I was less than enthused for the 21 hour trip to India would be a huge understatement. Fortunately, I discovered the open bar status of international flights from my last endeavor so I was able to keep myself mildly entertained. Perhaps one of the most memorable moments of my trip would be the smell of the air after Sonam’s cousins (Nicky, Micky, and Dicky) picked us up from the airport. As we walked into the foggy haze that is Delhi at all times, the scent was completely indescribable. It was almost as if you could smell the pollution that hung over the city like a plague. The ride to the rest house in Gurgoan that we were staying at was also one of the more memorable, clarifying moments. I don’t think it really hit me that I was in India until we were zooming through traffic on the opposite side of the road with cars, rickshaws, trucks, and people on bikes in every which lane while Bollywood music played in the background. It was then that I began to pick up the traffic patterns and the phrase that would soon be the theme for our trip, “Only in I-N-D-I-A”
To say that the lines on the road didn’t qualify as a mild suggestion would be doing it no justice. There are absolutely zero rules to the road. If you want to drive your moped with your two year old sitting on the handlebars and your wife and newborn on the back into oncoming traffic, go for it! Wanna take your camel drawn carriage on the highway? Cool! The highways, which were supposed to be four lanes across, were at any given point 6-7 lanes deep as people honked their horns and drove every which way they pleased. It was definitely an invigorating experience and one that I miss on the boring roads in Champaign.
For the most part we relied on either Sonam’s family or auto-rickshaws for transportation, however the metro is very nice, convenient, and cheap (we’re talking pennies here!). The auto-rickshaws were an experience in themselves. Catching one is not the problem, it’s actually getting where you’re going that’s the issue. My volunteer group was fortunate since Rachit speaks Hindi, but the other group had some trouble. When driving or riding in traffic, be careful! Accidents do happen.
While we were driving down one of the roads, there were a few things that stuck out as being very different from the likes of the US and Australia, where I had recently returned from a semester abroad. I feel like Australia and India are extreme opposites, with America fitting in somewhere in the middle. It was a little weird being able to compare and contrast all the differences in culture.
For one, the trash and pollution. Australia was neat, some might even say borderline OCD. There was never any trash lying around, the rivers and beaches were pristine, and the ‘Go Green’ movement was everywhere. In India, I think I saw a public trash can maybe once;’ all other trash was on the ground. Literally, the streets and sidewalks were covered with it. The air was different as well. I went from the ocean scented air and blue clear skies of Australia to the polluted haze that permanently hung over Delhi to the point where you couldn’t even see the hand in front of your face some mornings. But overall, it was a different culture than I was used to and I ended up falling completely in love with the country.
Upon arrival we got to start working at SearchYears and met all the great kids we would be interacting with. SearchYears is a nonprofit that provides after school services for kids in the area where they get to practice and develop the arts. They also contribute to the community, putting on theater shows and helping to raise money so that one of their own could get the open heart surgery that he needed. The kids were so excited to have us there and welcomed us to partake in their salsa dancing classes (which I suck at), tai kwon do class (even worse), and would share their sugar cane as we sat singing songs and learning how to play a few of India’s unique instruments.
Apart from the school, we were able to go and explore what Delhi has to offer, such as the Delhi Haat, which is a gigantic marketplace with everything from scarves, tapestries, hookahs, bangles, and food. Everything was comparatively cheap and I even got to work on my bargaining skills! We also got to see a movie, Don II, which is the Indian equivalent of Mission Impossible. Even though it was in Hindi, it wasn’t too hard to keep up. Staying awake on the other hand was the major issue as it was four hours long and jet-lag was still lingering.
During a free weekend, we went to Jaipur in Rajisthan, where Rachit has family. Jaipur was a breathtaking city and a big change from Delhi. Jaipur didn’t have the grogginess and pollution, but it did offer a beautiful fort that was centuries old way up in the mountains. I highly recommend visiting it if you’re in the area. We had the opportunity to drive half-way up to one of the forts, then take an elephant the rest of the way. We also went to the Chowkidhini Festival where we ate a Rajisthani meal, got our palms read, rode a camel, and got to buy some more artwork. It was an amazing weekend spent doing traditional dances on stage and dodging stray cows and pigs in the middle of the road.
After visiting Jaipur we were able to venture over to Agra which was a few hours away to see the Taj Mahal. Everyone had always talked about how amazing the Taj was and how you couldn’t leave India without seeing it, so when they told us that we were in Agra, I thought they were joking. It was actually dirtier than Delhi and seemed a lot more worn down, which seemed like quite a bizarre place to house one of the Seven Wonders of the World. So if you ever go, I recommend making it a day trip, staying outside Agra and renting a car or taking a bus into the city. The Taj Mahal itself, however, was absolutely breathtaking. It was built by Shah Jahan and took twenty two years to build. He built it for his wife as a testament to his undying love after she died giving birth. It’s an extraordinary sight as it’s made completely of white marble. The ground has been dug out some twenty feet behind it so it appears to be the only thing on the horizon. Simply amazing.
During our final week we spent our free time going to mosques, temples, and local attractions. We meditated in Lodi Gardens, visited the Swaminarayan temple Akshardham (which in my book may have been more astounding than the Taj Mahal) and got trapped in an auto-rickshaw for two hours as a gigantic procession with a full fledge band and speakers in the middle of the road blocked traffic. We also got to go see a Broadway style Bollywood show. Between the colors and dancing, it was astounding, and after we enjoyed a food court with samples from every corner of India. Love, love, love.
It was so hard to leave as I’ve never been more at peace with life. This trip was a nice change of pace. The culture is so vivid and lively compared to the laid back atmosphere of Perth. Throughout all of the clamor of people, it was truly beautiful to see how the country works as one. I plan on going back to India one day, but after reading the life-changing book Shantaram (recommended by a friend in Perth) my next trip will be to Bombay to volunteer once again. But only time will tell. I had an incredible experience with the amazing people and my stomach didn’t even fall out! Thanks to 72 tablets and two bottles of Pepto.
Written by Jenna, visit her blog The Great Escape to read more of her adventures