Miraculously made it to India despite all my flights getting cancelled the day of. Instead of transferring in Brussels, I was put on a plane to Abu Dhabi (which I have since learned is the richest city in the world and also the vacation destination in Sex and the City 2) on an airline called Etihad, where all the flight attendants wore box caps and head scarves.
“I’m so sorry,” the woman sitting behind me on the plane said as she tried to restrain her toddler, who had been poking and prodding me with papers for the past half hour while I watched a documentary on Taylor Swift. “It’s because you’re the only white person on the plane.” Fair enough.
Another woman on the plane explained to me that she had been to India nine times to visit a man who “heals the sick and the blind, just like Jesus Christ.” (He also predicted her sister’s divorce). She showed me a picture of him, and he did not look how I would have expected someone compared to Jesus to look. He looked like Jack Black with an afro.
I was picked up by Rajeev, my program guide, when I finally landed in India. He laughed at me when I tried to put on my seatbelt, which was broken. “You don’t need seatbelts here,” he said. I then proceeded to have the scariest driving experience of my LIFE. Apparently here there were no road rules, or lanes, or qualms about young children on motorcycles.
I tried to keep up my end of the upbeat conversation I was having with Rajeev about school and family as we drove past homeless children sleeping on raised cots on the side of the road and packs of diseased, stray dogs circling around them. It was quite shocking.
Suddenly we came to a stop in the middle of the slums, and Rajeev announced that we had arrived at our hotel. He said I would be sharing my hotel room with a German girl who had arrived a couple hours before (it was 3am, by the way). When I walked into the very small room, I quickly figured out that sharing a room also meant sharing a bed. There was a door that I thought, for a moment, might lead to a second bed. But turned out it just led to a shower stall with a toilet and sink inside.
In the morning I met the other girls in the group, who also happened to all be from Germany, though none of them came together. All of the conversations since then have been strictly in German, so I have mostly been talking to Rajeev or daydreaming as they all giggle and bond.
It’s extremely alienating most of the time, but the loneliness has also led me to do things I might not have otherwise done, like befriend a group of English-speaking Indian children who brought me mangos and excitedly asked to trade me rupees for my American dollars and coins.
After two days, another girl joined our group late. And she is from… Chesterfield, Missouri. Like me. Pretty crazy.
On Wednesday, the group set out for our two-day trekking adventure. In total we walked/climbed about 14 miles through the Rajmachi jungle and mountains. It was extremely hot and strenuous, but in the end the views made it worth it, and also made me wonder why I waste so much time indoors.
We also each went repelling down a 50-foot fortress wall that was on top of a 800-meter mountain. “Are you sure this is safe?” we asked the guide as he beat a stake into the ground and tied a rope around it. “What if the rope snaps?” (One of his ropes HAD snapped, in a previous demonstration). But he ignored our concerns, thrust equipment at us, and started repeatedly shouting, “Come on! Start wearing harness!” until we complied.
So one at a time he guided each of us off the fortress wall, yelling “Lean back!” and “Don’t bend !” as we trembled with fear. But we all did it, and I have the leg bruises to prove it.
We stopped at a few different villages during our trek, which were located, out of nowhere, right in the middle of the jungle. We spent the night at one of the villages, and lived as the people there did- no shoes, no electricity, no A/C, no toilet, nothing to wash with except water that is unsafe to drink, our dinner (which we ate on the floor, with our fingers) served to us by a village woman on her hard, stone floor-same as the floor we slept on. It was amazing to realize, really realize, how simply so many people live.
The next day we had a long trek back through the mountains. When we were almost back to our bus, the first monsoon of the season hit-hard. We ran for shelter under someone’s home along with the cows, chickens, and local children.
A shower never felt as good as it did that night.