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Student Spotlight: Serving In India

by Angelica Rigas | April 23rd, 2012

What can I say? India captured my heart. This experience changed the way I see the world, how I see myself and how I am starting to envision my future. This may be my first time inIndia, but I can tell you this for certain, it will not be my last.

Where can I begin? Well I guess the beginning is always the best place to start.

For as long as I can remember I’ve wanted to go toIndia. There was something about this faraway land that was calling me from across the ocean. I was fascinated by the deep, rich history that defined and continues to define this sub-continent. The ancient wisdom of the Vedic texts still alive in gurus, sages, monks and spiritual teachers; who continue to guide a nation of people just like their ancestors were for well over five thousand years. The food, with its mind blowing colours, flavours and aromas, proving the people are just as diverse as their food.

Before I left, people were telling me that you must takeIndiafor all that it is. You will either love it or hate it. There were people in my life who understood completely why I wanted to go and they knew I would fall in love, but there were others who were convinced I would hate it.

The SAGE Program was extremely thorough throughout the whole application process. My inbox as well as my mother’s inbox was primarily correspondence with the SAGE Program Coordinators at one point! Both my mother and I really appreciated the help of SAGE; otherwise I’m sure we would have found the whole process daunting. It was so much better that we had someone who had gone through this before and was guiding us through the entire preliminary checklist. The SAGE Program wanted to make sure that when I got to India everything would go smoothly.

When I first arrived in Chennai airport I couldn’t get the thought out of my mind that my luggage didn’t make it. I must have waited an hour for my luggage. Now that I think back to it, this was the only thought in my head, not that I was inIndia, but where my luggage was. I didn’t register the heat or the time or even the people around me. I had been travelling over 24 hours, and it wasn’t even over yet. Kodaikanal was still a ways away.

I was exhausted, I needed sleep and I needed to find the coordinator that was supposed to meet me at the airport. I exited the main building to find hundreds of people waiting outside. It must have been one or two in the morning, but by the number of people it could have been the middle of the afternoon. The next thing I noticed was the wall of rain in front of me. I had never seen so much rain in my entire life; of course I would be seeing more of this once the monsoon hit Kodaikanal, but in that moment I was stunned.

Finally the rest of the exchange students arrived and we went to a hotel to sleep for a few hours. Of course no one slept; we needed to be up in a few hours anyway to catch a plane toMaduraiwhere we would drive up the mountain to Kodaikanal.

The whole ride up the mountain I was absolutely terrified. I had never experienced Indian driving before, so that in combination with them driving on the opposite side of the road and the fact that I had now been awake for more than 30 hours, I thought we were going to drive off the road at every turn. Needless to say we arrived safely in one piece. Surprisingly I did not experience jet lag; which made adjusting even easier.

The next few days were spent exploring my new domain. Yes, it was extremely scary. I was thousands of kilometres away from my home, my family, my comfort zone. I was in a part of the world that was completely new and different from anything I could imagine. I felt like a baby, everything was new, the sights, the smells, the animals. Even though it was scary I was extremely excited. I was in India, the place that I had dreamed about for so many years. This was the beginning of the beginning.

School was easy for me as I chose subjects purely out of general interest. My priority wasn’t to get the best grades necessarily; I just wanted to come out of the experience having learned something. My classes included cooking, baking, introduction to Hindi, Hinduism and Buddhism religion, political science, environmental science, Social Experience and physical education. In my spare time I regularly sat in on some Christianity basics lessons. To be honest I was a little hesitant at first about it, but it was nothing like I expected, we were free to question everything; which made for very interesting group discussions. I also spent a lot of time exploring the campus, finding my own little spots where I could sit and read or draw. On rainy afternoons you could find me in the piano block trying to teach myself piano or at the library. For a while I read on average a book a day. I definitely re-ignited my love of reading while at KIS.

KIS gave me the opportunity to do a lot of things I never would have been able to do on my own. I was introduced to some amazing people who will hopefully be a part of my life for many years to come. I went on a camping trip in July to the school’s beautiful camping ground in Poondi where we got to go hiking, zip lining, play Frisbee, volleyball and even practice archery.

I had a wonderful opportunity to go to Bethania orphanage in Kannivadi with a few other students. We experienced a little of their daily life and had a lot of fun at the same time.  We learned to make palm leaf brooms and helped to level out the dirt road leading to the main buildings. We ate with the kids, did chores together but we also played cricket, went on a mini hike up a rock face, and they picked fresh guavas for us. This was the first time I had done any of these things. Now that I come to think of it I did a few things for the first time in August.  I wore my first sari on Independence Day, I went to a Hindu temple to be a part of the daily puja (offering), I saw giant grizzled squirrel and a greenhouse full of extremely rare plants.

The fun was just beginning, especially with September right around the corner; the most anticipated month of the semester.

On the long weekend, I went to Chennai to stay with a school friend and her family. I got to experience a different kind of family atmosphere while seeing different sides of Tamil Nadu’s capital city. We went swimming, ate some delicious and extra spicy curries, we even drove toPondicherryone day to do a shopping trip. In one week’s time I would be inPondicherryagain to kick off field trip week. I decided to go with the Green Team to an intentional community nearPondicherrycalled Auroville. I was blown away. I knew eco communities existed but I had never been to one so large and so functional before.

It was a bustling community; everyone was there because they wanted to be there. I feel this puts a sense of responsibility on all the members of the community to help make Auroville the best it can be. Everyone wants to work together to make something bigger that benefits everyone. Too often in modern society we are disconnected from our community and the people we live close to. Auroville aims to eliminate that feeling of disconnection, and brings all it’s members together. It made me think of my new Kodai community, as well as the one I had left behind inToronto. I feel I want to become a part of a movement or a way of living that contributes positively to the world we all share and live within. I returned back to Kodaikanal with a head full of ideals and once in a lifetime experiences.

The semester finished in late November, but this was not the end of my journey; in fact I was about to start another; the Winter Tour: 9 destinations in 24 days. Kodaikanal à Mysore à Goa à Rishikesh à Corbett National Park à Delhi à Agra à Jaipur à Hyderabad à Chennai.

How could I begin to sum up nearly an entire month of travels throughIndia, the task is honestly quite daunting; so here are the highlights.

Mysore:  The 1001 step Hindu pilgrimage up Chamundi hill

Goa: Beaches, beaches and beaches

Rishikesh: Rafting the riverGanga

CorbettNational Park: Wild elephants

Delhi: Market shopping (the greatest shopping I have ever encountered).

Agra: The Taj Mahal!

Jaipur: Elephant ride up to the Amber Palace

Hyderabad: The world famous Hyderabadi Biryani

Chennai: Spending time with my good friend

The impact of a trip like this never fully hits you until you’ve come back home–this is when you have time to reflect and think back to everything you did. I read one of my journal entries the other day and I had written “I have changed; I wonder how many people will notice it.” The fact remains; India has changed me deeply, more than I thought it would. My thoughts are globally minded. The more I travel and the more I talk to travellers, I have come to realize we are all very similar in this world. A lot of us have the same hopes, dreams, wants. People have asked me since I’ve been back what the people are like in India. I reply ‘they are people’, you could find them anywhere in the world, they just happen to be in India. The only thing that separates us as humans is the distance and our own self-imposed statuses.

The global society too often thinks in terms of me and you, us and them. There is always something there to isolate us from the rest of the world. I have learned to break down barriers between myself and the rest of humanity. We have a different kind of kinship, unique from other animals. We have the potential ability to connect with every individual on the planet; creating a global family, a global community.

If I could describe this trip in one word, it would be expansion.

For more details of my trip I encourage you to visit my blog, where I kept detailed accounts of my volunteering, daily life and my travels. www.motherganges.blogspot.com

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