By Sarah Sousa
After a 14-hour flight broken up by a three-hour layover, followed by a long drive up a winding mountainside, 17 travelers finally arrived at Rajiv Lochan and Anu Radha Singh’s picturesque Kalimpong farm.
Thus began the three-week, bi-annual J-term trip to India led by English professor Lisa Eck, accompanied by her two children.
Rajiv and his wife Anu served as our Indian guides for the entirety of the trip. They quickly became like a father and mother to us all. There was always a warm hug and a pit stop on the way to or from any destination for chai tea, samosas or jalebi.
Kalimpong’s beautiful location in the Himalayas provided an awe-inspiring landscape for all of us as we settled into the Indian lifestyle. The first morning in Kalimpong as we recovered from jet-lag, we watched the sunrise. Friendships blossomed immediately between all of us. A day into the trip, I knew I was exactly where I needed to be with exactly the right people.
We interacted with the children who were training to be monks at the Sakya Monastery in Kalimpong who warmed all of our hearts. These children, though very poor, never ceased to smile, laugh and communicate to the best of their abilities.
Our final days in Kalimpong were spent at homestays with local village families. We ate authentic homemade food and the children showed us their animals and their favorite places. I was touched by the hospitality and how grateful each person is – morsel of food or a drop of water is never wasted.
The homestays and time spent with the villagers also warmed the heart of senior Colin Maceacheron.
“People were hospitable, kind, patient, light-hearted and free. Awkward silences, communication lapses and averting glances surely seeped in, adding to the overall human quality of the experience. It was moving, in other words, not only because of the joy, but also because of those brief moments of hesitation, insecurity, sadness and discomfort,” said Maceacheron.
The children we interacted with during the homestays in Kalimpong fascinated us all. They were mature for 12-or-13-year-olds. I watched the girls help their mothers cook every meal and all of the children made sure we were taken care of.
The village children organized themselves into a group called, “The Future Keepers.” Their goal is to gain skills about earning money and solving problems in their community. We were fortunate enough to help them with a clean-up project to remove trash and debris from an 800-step, winding staircase that lead to their school.
The kids showed maturity in their knowledge of problems within their community. They helped cook meals and to clean their homes. But looking at them and seeing that little twinkle in their eyes and a huge toothy grin, I was reminded of their innocence.
A group of village girls led took a few of female travelers by the hand to some of their favorite places. They told us to stay put and they would run down the road and giggle with 10 rupees in their hand. With huge smiles on their faces, they returned with super sweet, cavity-inducing candy that we all enjoyed as we walked hand-in-hand, laughing together back to their homes.
Sadly, our time in Kalimpong had to come to an end as we moved eastward to Darjeeling where we stayed at St. Paul’s School, which is Rajiv’s former boarding school.
As a group, we took gondola rides over a tea garden in Darjeeling. Women in the field in their tall boots labored over the plants. We watched from up above as the green tea leaves, lining the earth, passed beneath us.
We shopped in a pedestrian-only section of Darjeeling where we learned the ropes of negotiating prices. Beautiful handmade bags, ornate jewelry and vibrant artwork lined the streets and store fronts.
We were fortunate enough to meet and spend most of our time in Darjeeling with Prajwal Parajuly, the author of “The Gurkha’s Daughter.” He enthusiastically answered our questions about his book of short stories.
After a flight from Bagdogra to Delhi and a long bus ride, we arrived in Rishikesh, where we stayed at Camp Ecoterra. The staff members were hospitable. We met Ravi, our unofficial guide during our time in Rishikesh.
His spirit and love of life infected everyone on the trip. Whether he was teaching us a goofy game that incorporated song and dance at our nightly campfire or just telling us a story, he infiltrated our hearts and filled them with joy.
While white water rafting on the Ganges, a few of us voluntarily hopped off the raft into the river. I felt adrenaline course through my veins as I submerged myself into the cold river. The thrill and excitement of my physical presence in a sacred river overtook me until I was struck with the fear of an approaching rapid and immediately wanted to be heaved back into the raft by the shoulders of my life jacket.
People were everywhere. Families waited for trains while wrapped in blankets – standing, sitting or in any imaginable position. Cars beeped as they rounded corners. Families operated stores and restaurants with open façades. Children and elderly women smiled back at us from their front step with warmth after exchanging a respectful “namaste.”
During several points in the trip, the press of humanity became very evident to us as western travelers, primarily at the Gurudwara Bangla Sahib in Delhi. Families flocked the kitchen to receive a meal. As I watched people flood in the door, non-stop, practically on top of each other, India’s population of 1.3 billion became real to me.
Our final days were spent in Agra. We visited Agra Fort, which housed royalty of the Mughal Empire. The repetitive architecture and design was striking, and monkeys jumped from wall-to-wall.
On the last day spent in India, we woke up early and headed to the Taj Mahal. Though a major tourist attraction, one simply cannot go to India without seeing this wonder of the world.
The Taj Mahal can only be described as breathtaking. The design is intricate, delicate and repeated throughout the entire mausoleum. We found ourselves astounded by the sheer beauty of the marble mausoleum Shah Jahan constructed for his deceased wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died during child birth.
India allowed me to open myself up to the reality that our worlds are different, but there is still common ground. There is more out there than the Western world.
I was the “other,” and families wanted photographs with and of me. As a group, we discovered the humor and light-heartedness of it.
A herd of Westerners roaming the streets of India, avoiding getting hit by cars, stepping on stray dogs, walking into cows, getting mauled by monkeys and managing to stay with the group through narrow roads, dense with pedestrians, all while trying to take in the scenery, makes for free entertainment for the residents of India.
Human beings are curious by nature. I am curious about Indian culture as I am sure they are curious about me, a Western woman.
Eck said the goal of the trip “is to fall in love with India.”
Throughout our time in India, Eck encouraged to open our minds and experience multiple Indias. She urged us to avoid falling for stereotypes and to discover and interpret India for ourselves.
Junior Cameron Grieves wrote in his journal, “This is India – this is the roof of the world. These are the mountains of the birth of history, and here are the great rivers of the world that birthed nations, the Indus, the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, and further east the Mekong, the Yangtze, the Huang He, feeding the minds and bodies of billions.”