MARQUETTE, Mi. This May, Northern Michigan University Volleyball student-athlete Lizzy Stark, a sophomore from Minneapolis, Minnesota entering her second season with the team, visited the country of India for a service project. To view a photo album from Lizzy, click here. Below, Lizzy writes about her experiences:
This past May, eight students from NMU and I were given the amazing opportunity to travel to India through a program based in Asia called IDEX for the purpose of a service project as well as educating ourselves about Indian and Middle Eastern culture. We visited many different cities throughout our trip including New Delhi, Agra, Dharamshala, Palampur, Jaipur, and Udaipur.
Our first steps out of the airport in the most populated city in India - New Delhi, it felt as if all eyes were on us. Our pale skin and American clothing made it obvious we
were not from the area. It was an odd feeling that continued throughout the trip and was difficult to get used to.
We searched for Priya, our IDEX program leader, who was supposed to be meeting us there. We finally found her friendly face waving from a little ways away. She was carrying some mango juice boxes to share with us and it was without a doubt some of the best mango juice I have ever tasted. We soon discovered that mango juice in India is as common as soda/pop in the United States. We could find it almost anywhere water was sold.
Something that quickly became apparent to me was the scent, the smog, and the heat. The heat specifically was hard to ignore as Michigan was quite the opposite prior
to leaving. The average high temperature everyday was around 110°. This took a toll on us, especially for the females in our group who were expected to dress conservatively in respect of the culture as most women in India dress very modest. The common scent is distinct and very difficult to define. I would describe it as a huge, musty mix of so many lovely, but also some not-so-lovely smells. There was the smell of earthy incense, jasmine flowers, spices (specifically turmeric), chemical disinfectant bathroom cleansers, open sewer drains, vegetables, chai tea, and the most potent smell of them all - loose garbage everywhere you looked that was melting and burning in the sweltering hot India sun.
As our trip progressed, I began to understand why everyone stared so much. There was no one around that looked like us and it was obvious that we were there for a
purpose. Everywhere we went, people would take pictures of us and would ask us to take pictures with their families. At one point, a couple handed us their baby and started taking pictures of us holding their child. Once one person started asking for pictures, crowds started forming. It was a new and interesting experience, that's for sure.
From what I experienced, Indians are some of the best drivers yet some of the most unpredictable drivers I have ever seen. For starters, India has very minimal road
signs, rules of the road, and traffic lights. Everyone seems to just do their own thing and tries to not get hit. The roads are constantly wall-to-wall traffic. People are continuously honking, cows roaming and lying in the street, vendors weaving through cars trying to sell their products, and pedestrians trying to cross wherever possible. While many Americans think that rush hour in the United States is hectic, I think traffic is ten times more chaotic in the Indian cities we visited, especially New Delhi where the population is approximately 21 million people. Honking is basically the universal code for "hi, I am here too." The car horn is rarely used in an aggressive way, unlike in the United States. Lanes are rare but they are present on some speedways, however, they are often not used.
For our service project, we traveled to the small town of Palampur. It is located in the foothills of the Himalayan mountains in the northern state of India called Himachal
Pradesh. We stayed in a big accommodation house with our guide Priya and some of the most kind and welcoming people who worked for IDEX. We were welcomed with
smiles, a red twine bracelet, and a red bindi on our foreheads. The bracelet is used to wish one good luck in the Hindu religion and the bindi is an expression of welcome and honor.
That accommodation is where I took my first ever bucket shower. A bucket shower is where you collect your own water and bring it back to the bathroom where
there isn't an actual shower stall or shower head. Instead, you scoop the water out of the bucket with a smaller measuring cup which replaces the shower head effect. It was definitely something to get used to, but by the end of the week, almost everyone in our group preferred the bucket over the actual shower head we use in the United States.
Palampur, Himachal Pradesh --Elementary school kids helping us design their school yard walls
For one week, half of our group went to a daycare/preschool while the other half of us spent our mornings at an elementary school. I stayed at the daycare throughout
the week. Each day we helped teach kids the basics of English while they simultaneously taught us Hindi and Punjabi; a dialect spoken in Himachal Pradesh. At
the daycare, we also taught the kids basic hygiene practices such as how to brush their teeth and wash their hands. The daycare was a tiny, concrete, lopsided building with a few shelves, a miniature slide, an old rug, some toys that included a few scary two-headed dinosaurs, and the occasional gigantic spider crawling on the wall. For the second half of each day, we all went to the elementary school and fixed up their school yard. We sanded the walls and got to design and paint our own educational pictures on them. Some of the kids were understandably very shy and showed very little emotion, while others started calling us "didi" right off the bat which means "big sister" in Hindi.
The kids were some of the sweetest I have ever met and they are so full of life. You really felt like they loved your company and loved playing with you regardless of the fact that we were these big, tall, very unfamiliar faces, that spoke very few words they could actually understand. The people we met in Palampur were some of the kindest and welcoming people. As we were walking around the town one day, we saw a wedding reception. They invited all of us to the wedding. We, of course, felt like wedding crashers, but "the more the merrier" was how they saw it. Our IDEX leader told us that it is their honor to serve their guests, no matter if they are strangers. We got to meet the bride and groom and we got to be part of the wedding parade. We also got to dance and eat with the guests. They taught us traditional Indian dances and showed us the traditional way to eat at weddings - with your hands. They watched us fail miserably at both, nonetheless we were still grateful for their kindness to teach us.
Most of our meals were similar everyday with the exception of a few things. It was some of the best food I have tasted, much of it containing carbs. Breakfast was
usually porridge, crepes, thin omelets, tons of toast with jam, papaya and pineapple, chai, and corn flakes with hot milk which they say makes the cereal "ready faster".
Lunch and Dinner were similar with the addition of rice with various types of sauces, noodles, and naan bread.
We were so lucky to see and experience some of the most amazing places, monuments, and significant features of India. In the very busy and populated city of
New Delhi, we visited the Red Fort, which was built in 1546 and belonged to the Mughal dynasty. We visited the Gandhi memorial and the Gandhi museum. We went to
Gandhi's home and the place where so many people of India would come to worship with him. In Agra, we visited the indescribable Taj Mahal. It looks even more spectacular than it does in photographs. It left me speechless. It is something that I have always heard and read about, but seeing it in person was surreal. It is massive and has the most beautiful love story behind it. It is incredibly intricate, delicately designed, and entirely made of white marble. We also visited the Agra Fort which was built where it was so you can see the Taj Mahal in the distance.
We visited Jaipur, also known as the Pink City because of the amazing city palace which was painted pink. There, our group split up and got to stay with a host
family for two nights. Another girl from our group and I stayed together and got to help celebrate the granddaughter of our host families' 9th birthday. They were so inviting and the mother told us that we could call her "Auntie" right from the start. With the extended family, we talked about movies that we all liked. They specifically loved the Marvel movies and Game of Thrones and thought my last name "Stark" was pretty sweet.
Surrender, one of the IDEX leaders who lived right across the street from our host family, took us out at night to the street market. We got to try traditional street food
which included sugar cane juice that they squeeze straight from the stalk in front of you mixed with lime and mint. We also tried pani puri which is a small, deep fried, hollow ball filled with a mixture of flavored water, chutney, chili, chaat masala (spice powder mix), potato, onion or chickpeas.
Palampur, Himachal Pradesh --Brushing teeth with kids at daycare
On our last couple of days, we visited the city palace in Udaipur, which had stained glass art and windows everywhere you looked. The city palace was surrounded by large fruit trees that were covered by hundreds and hundreds of gigantic fruit bats. The palace also overlooks a beautiful lake and we left watching the most beautiful sunset over the lake.
We got to experience the wonders of riding an overnight train as we headed to Dharamshala. We were surrounded by people we didn't know and didn't share a common language with who unremorsefully stared at us. We figured it was something you truly had to embrace to the fullest. Dharamshala is a smaller more touristy town with tight, hilly streets which we thought would be used only for walking. We thought wrong - the streets are still used for driving normal sized vehicles. They speed by with approximately eight inches between them and pedestrians. You always had to walk straight and be aware and alert. In Dharamshala, we visited a monk temple which is where the Dalai Lama worships. Hundreds of Monks from all over the world come to the temple to worship every year. It was one of the most colorful and spiritual places I have been. We did a short hike up to a waterfall. The temperature of the water was comparable to Lake Superior if not colder, so naturally, we decided to swim.< /p>
The next day was our hike up to the Himalayan Mountain base camp. Base camp had an elevation of 8,625 feet. The entire way was up. There were very little flat and gradual inclines. We had perfect weather the entire way up until the end. We were about a quarter mile from the top when it started pouring rain. As we took our last steps onto base camp and the beautiful, massive, breathtaking Himalayan mountains came into view, it started to hail. This might sound unpleasant, however, if you ask me, it was quite magical. The base camp is a long semi-flat land in the foothills with tons of large boulders to climb on. The goats, dogs, and sheep that were roaming freely made it fun and interesting. The goats had quite the personalities, too. They made goat watching almost as fun as people watching. From base camp you could see the city lights of Dharamshala and the silhouettes of the distant foothills. We slept in tents and woke up to some warm chai tea, the amazing crisp morning mountain air, and a hint of the sunrise coming up behind the mountains. There is nothing quite like it. That morning we hiked from base camp to the snowline where we slid down some smaller hills covered in snow.
This trip consisted of so many different things that took awhile to get used to. The hardest thing to see was the homeless children, many of which were holding younger children in their arms, as well as the disabled elderly individuals that walked around the cities and train stations asking for food and money. The most heart wrenching part about it is that we were advised to ignore these individuals because many, especially the children, are controlled by human trafficking cartels. About 300,000 children in India are drugged, beaten, and forced to beg every day. While you believe you are helping the person in some way by giving to them, you are just helping to fund the very organization that put them in that position. When the guards that roam the train stations walk by, all the homeless children scatter. It was so difficult to sit there pretending we don't see them. Overall, this trip was for sure one I will always remember and revere. It taught me so much about Indian cu lture and how their lifestyles differ from my own. It gave me insight on how people from all around the world connect in so many different and unique ways. The people and children we encountered throughout the trip showed us what friendship truly means and what selflessness looks like. Upon returning to the U.S., I have a different outlook on developing countries. We always seem to hear about the bad and negative parts of these countries, however, we never hear about the beauty and what the people are like. The people seem to find their happiness in the smaller, and more meaningful things in life - something I think that many people in the United States could learn from. It made me realize how truly privileged many of us are to be living in the United States, and I feel so lucky to have more than I could ever need.
While I will never fully understand the lives of those living in developing countries, I believe that it has furthered my knowledge and connected me better to those that are
different from me, and I'm truly grateful for this opportunity.