About Me

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I'm just a stressed-out-perfectionist-not-so-average-cupcake-making-graduate-student-from-Kansas trying to find my place in this world.
Current Adventure: Interning for the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in Washington, D.C.

Saturday, October 30, 2010


I could smell India before I could see it. I could taste India before I could see it. I could hear India before I could see it. And when I finally saw India, I wasn’t so sure I wanted to get off.

It must have been about 5:30AM, right before Mackenzie and I were getting up to watch the sunrise as we pulled into port that I woke up with the strangest taste in my mouth. It tasted like incense, spices I couldn’t recognize, and fire. It smelled dirty. It tasted dirty. My eyes burned from the dusty cloud that surrounded the MV Explorer as we pulled in. I was incredibly uncomfortable, nervous, anxious, every emotion imaginable washed over me. While originally I had said that I was most excited for India because India seemed so intriguing to me, over the past few weeks I had been getting nervous about it. So nervous that I was close to tears the entire week from Mauritius to India. Frankly, I was tired of seeing all the poverty, tired of being the tourist, and just plain tired. I haven’t seen anything familiar for almost 10 weeks now, and it is just exhausting to have to constantly be adapting to new places, new cultures, and new environments. When we pulled in Chennai Port Harbor on October 22nd, I would have gladly kept going to Singapore if I had had the option. India smelled, tasted, sounded, and looked scary and foreign. Really scary.

Looking back on the past week in India, I’m still not really sure whether my fears were justified. I saw things that I did not want to see—things that no one should have to see, let alone the people who are actually experiencing these gross atrocities. But in the midst of all of the poverty, the hurting, the hopelessness that seemed to have imbedded itself deep within the eyes of the street children of India, there was beauty—at least physical beauty. The first day I thought that in India, poverty exists without any form of dignity. I was comparing it to Ghana where even though the people had basically nothing, they still walked tall and proud and did not beg for handouts. That was much more rural. In India, the streets are lined with dying beggars, mutilated children, and starving animals. But when you talk with the people and just see how they carry themselves, you realize that it is not their fault and life, for them, still goes on, no matter how difficult it gets. The women wear the most amazing rainbow array of saris. The people still smile and wave, which alleviated a bit of my fear.

My first day in India, I spent working in a Dalit Village. The Dalit caste of people in India is more commonly referred to as “The Untouchables.” These people are the lowest of the low. They have nothing and are given nothing. Although the caste system was abolished in 1947, it still permeates every bit of everyday life in India. It is still nearly impossible to marry outside of your caste or rise above your designated station in life.

Twenty Semester at Sea students boarded the bus after a harrowing experience with Indian security. The Indian security guards check your passport and Indian visa at least 4 times between the ship and the port gate. They also carry huge guns, and every time you pass them, you are required to show documentation of every electronic product you have on the ship. It was ridiculous. But we made it to the bus. I was sitting in the first seat, and as we drove along the road towards the Dalit village, which took about an hour and a half, tears were just pouring down my face. I think it was just a lot of nerves from the week prior when I was stressing out over India combined with the sheer destitution of a lot of the Indian people. The people just lying on the dirty sidewalks waiting to die is what really struck me. When we got to the village, everyone was waiting for us. Since I was first off the bus, I bent down to pick up a child. It was a huge deal, apparently. We were all herded a long the road in a parade of women wearing brightly colored saris, children clamoring to be near us, and men banging on every instrument they could fine. I kept being pulled to the front of the line. When we got to the site where we were going to be painting and planting flowers, there was a huge makeshift tent set up with cloth thrown over trees. The leader of the village pulled me to the front so that I was facing everyone. There was a huge ceremony where they blessed us and gave us garlands of sweetly smelling flowers. The village chief presented me with a ceremonial scarf/robe that I wore for the rest of the ceremony (and got to keep), and then he talked about the caste system and how it really dominates Indian life. He asked me to explain why I didn’t mind touching the children, and I got to talk about how God loves everyone and that no one is better than anyone else. Then, the village chief leaned over to me and said, “You’ve touched one child, now you’ve got to touch them all.” So, we were paraded through town, and everyone brought their children and their elderly out to see us. We spent all afternoon speed painting, getting to know the beautiful people of this village, and holding children.

The most moving experience though for me was when an elderly woman pulled me down a dark alley into a cramped, dark, one-room home and all she kept saying was, “baby, baby, baby.” When we I got into the room and my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I could see a small baby, lying on a dirty towel in the center of the room. She had eyebrows drawn across her tiny face, wearing a lime green dress and nothing else. There was a 10-year old girl in the room who translated for us from Tamil to English. They said that the baby was newly born, although I’m not sure how old she was—possibly a week or two. The baby’s mother couldn’t have been older than I am, but both she and the grandmother insisted that they name the baby Emma after me. They lit some candles and started chanting in Tamil. Then, I was whisked out of the room and onto the bright streets again. The instant transition from dark to light gave me a headache and the dots blurring my vision left me wondering what exactly just happened. As we were leaving on the bus, the grandmother held the baby up and called out my name, waving.

My picture did appear in a few local Tamil-Nadu (the province where Chennai is located) newspapers and magazines. In one I was putting the first stroke of paint on the building during the sort of groundbreaking ceremony and in the other I was having the scarf/robe put around me by the man in charge of the organization that brought us to the Dalit village to paint.

The next morning, I left very early on a flight from Chennai to Delhi. We had a sort of boxed meal on the plane, and as soon as we arrived, the first thing I noticed was the lack of smothering and oppressive heat. Fortunately, the week prior there had been a huge snowstorm in the Himalayas, which pushed a cold front down to Delhi. It was only about 70 degrees the entire time we were up north. We did a city tour where we went to Hunayan’s Tomb (the inspiration for the Taj Mahal) and Raj Ghat, which is Ghandi’s memorial. I loved Ghandi’s memorial; it was just a simple black slab of marble with an eternal flame. As a sign of respect, we all took off our shoes before walking around it. A park surrounded Raj Ghat where children played and families picnicked. It seemed like the perfect tribute to a man like Mahatma Ghandi.

We stayed in the most exquisite hotel I’ve ever been in: Le Meridian. I understand that they are all over the world, but apparently this one has one awards for how beautifully decorated it is. I was on the fifteenth floor with a roommate from Rockford, Illinois, Amanda. Dinner at Le Meridian was disappointing though; they served us American cuisine and the main dish was beef. I didn’t realize until afterwards how incredibly disrespectful we must have seemed to the primarily vegetarian north that basically worship cows.

All of us had to meet at the bus to make our way to the New Delhi train station for a 5AM speed train to Agra. Walking through the throngs of people sleeping outside of the train station was difficult. These people weren’t begging, they were just sleeping. I felt like I was intruding on their home, and really I was. Entire families laid with a single blanket over them. Children stared at us with bleary eyes. It was heartbreaking. Ever at five in the morning, the train station was crowded with commuters and tourists alike trying to make their way to Agra.

The train was an interesting experience. We were in first class seats, but even so, cockroaches scuttled out of my seat as I sat down. The air conditioning didn’t really work, but that was okay, because it really wasn’t hot at all. I slept for a lot of the ride, but what we did pass through was just underdeveloped towns and farmlands.

Agra was an interesting experience. As soon as we arrived, we were whisked out of the train station, which was even more crowded and dirty than the one in New Delhi to the buses. If I hadn’t already had my heart broken for India, this would have done it. As soon we exited the train station, beggars mutilated in the most horrific of ways swarmed us. I would write more about what I saw, but it just makes me cry to think about it, and really, I don’t think that I can convey nor could someone who hasn’t seen it, understand it. It really is just that incomprehensible.

We spent the day touring a few places like Agra Fort and Fatepur Sikri, both forts of different rulers of India. Then, after lunch, it was time to visit the fabled Taj Mahal. Of course, there were hawkers everywhere outside of the gates, making it almost impossible to move towards the security checkpoint we need to go through. At one point we were riding in a tiny bus, and when we were stopped for just a second, the door opened, a small child jumped in, and then we were off. He made his way through us trying to sell us a couple postcards. On one hand, it was endearing the way he approached us, but on the other, it was horribly disturbing to think how many times the child had jumped in and out of moving vehicles to sell these old postcards to tourists just so that his family can have a little bit extra money.

The Taj Mahal is just as beautiful as everyone says it is. I actually did gasp when I saw it at first. I just stood there feeling completely overwhelmed by the magnificence of the monument and of the love the Shah Jahan had for his wife when he built this tomb for her. I really did cry, but not because of the Taj Mahal, more because I was standing there looking at it alone. Sometimes it is so exhilarating to be experiencing all of this, but other times, it is sad to think that I’m experiencing it y myself and not with the people that I really love. I was able to go up there and touch the Taj Mahal and I got a lot of really great photographs. But for the most part, I just saw and looked at it and watched the marble change colors as the sun went down.

The train back to Delhi was uneventful, and I fell asleep as soon as I got back to the hotel. The next morning, I flew with the group to Varanasi, the holiest city for Hindus in the entire world and especially in all of India. It’s also supposed to be the oldest city in the entire world. Varanasi was the most surreal experiences I’ve ever had. The airport was tiny for the amount of pilgrims who supposedly come through the city every year. I think that the little hanger where the skydiving plane took off from in South Africa was nicer. Driving through the streets of Varanasi was incredibly stimulating, and the drive to our hotel, which was significantly less luxurious than the last, did not last long enough. Our van had a musical horn, which sounded kind of like an ice cream truck, announcing the arrival of American tourists instead of popsicles.

That night we got into the neatest form of transportation there is: the bicycle rickshaw. We had two people per small seat that was attached to a bicycle. The man driving my rickshaw darted into oncoming traffic, crossed right in front of big buses, and never once used his breaks. It was like a carnival ride that lasted for more than 30 minutes. The rickshaw drivers left us at the banks of the River Ganges, the holiest river to Hindus. There we sat with the tens of thousands of others who come every night to watch the ceremony of the river. The men performing the ceremony stood on pillars, chanted, and waved incense sticks. I watched from a rickety old boat, anchored just a few feet from the short. I bought a small floating candle from a beggar girl that she lit for me and then I set into the water. You are supposed to make a wish as you let the candle go.

The next morning, however, was the real reason why the people go to Varanasi. At dawn, we were all in little boats rowing down the river. Right as the sun rose, thousands of Hindus flooded into the river to bathe in the holy waters. It was fascinating to watch the process of prayer and bathing that they performed every morning. The intense and overwhelming part of the morning was the cremating of the dead. In India, people want their bodies to be cremated in Varanasi and then have their ashes put into the river. The smell of burning bodies, the site of bodies shrouded in a bright orange cloth, and the sight of mourning families out in boats placing their deceased’s ashes in the water. To see and smell and experience this in front of me and then turn behind and see the people bathing in the same water behind me was shocking. I can’t really explain all of the emotions that went through me as I took all of this in, but it brought tears to my eyes and I’m still wondering if I’ll get the smell of Varanasi out of the back of my nose.

After a couple hours on the water, we transferred to our vans to go to Sarnath, the place where Buddha gave his first sermon. We didn’t spend much time there, but it was interesting and relaxing to spend some time away from the reality that is India. It was interesting to me that in all of these places like Raj Ghat and Sarnath, there was such beauty and serenity, yet right outside, there was such chaos and hurting and poverty. It boggles my mind to think about the disparity between the two.

The flight back to Chennai via Delhi was uneventful, and we didn’t make it back to the ship until past two in the morning. Mackenzie and I were up by 6:30 on the last day, ready to make the most of our last day in India. Unfortunately, most shops didn’t open until at least 11, so we really should have stayed in bed for a little while longer. The autorickshaw driver took us to fancy stores when we told him we just wanted to go to the market, because he would get money every time he brought tourists to them. Eventually, we made it clear to him that he had to stop doing that to us, and he took us to a very reasonably priced sari shop where I got a beautiful red chiffon sari to wear to the Ambassador’s Ball in December. Chennai was ridiculously hot and stifling, and so, by 8AM we were drained, but we kept going. The driver took us to a temple (again by “accident”) and we humored him by going in. It was actually extremely interesting because there was a wedding ceremony going on in the courtyard, which we got to observe from afar and then the temple also ran a soup kitchen. It was annoying that as we left, they, of course, harassed us for money. We gave the soup kitchen as much as we could, but not nearly enough to satisfy the hawkers harassing us.

We did make it back to the port, and I was so happy to see the ship. I ran on board, showered, and called my parents with the minutes Mackenzie had left over on her phone (I have the best roommate). It was emotional to call my family (for the first time in a couple months) right after India. After all I saw and heard and smelled and experienced, I just wanted to go home. But now we’re off to Singapore, where cleanliness and strict laws awaits me. I’m still processing everything that happened in India; hopefully by the time I get home, I will be able to articulate more how I felt and what I saw. But really, as my Global Studies professor said, “There are two kinds of people: those who have been to India and those who haven’t.” I’m not so sure how I feel about being in the new group, because now I can’t go back to who I was before I got to India. It isn’t possible. The chaotic mess than is India will change you more than anything else will--hopefully it changed me for the better.

P.S. I cut off my hair. I figured that I’m going to be so different when I get home, so I might as well cut my hair, and what better time than after India? I really love it though—it’s very stylish and sophisticated.


  1. Emma,
    What is with this P.S.?? I am reading through your blog and trying to imagine all your emotions and experiences and then ... "I cut off my hair"! Did you do this in India? or on board the Explorer? Do we have a photo? and will I get an answer if I ask "Why"?
    Do not leave us hanging...
    Love Mom

  2. I just decided that it was finally time for a change. There really isn't a reason why except that I wanted to and finally just went for it. :-)

  3. EMMAAAA!!!!! You're killing me! Stop doing amazing stuff! You're making my normal life look, well....normal. lol. You gotta at least let me catch up!