Before arriving in India, I set out to record all my thoughts, feelings and experiences in a journal to be kept for when I’m hounded by questions from friends and family back home. I’m happy to report I’ve failed miserably in my attempts, as there’s no way I can hope to put to paper or computer every thought, feeling or experience prompted by my time in India. From the village to my home stay, every day makes for a series of new memories: trekking along in a rickshaw Indiana Jones style, consuming a spicy, carb-loaded Indian meal or bonding beyond language barriers with rural villagers. I’ve had few dull moments in the past six weeks, and I don’t expect to have many more during my final two.
I’d travelled to developing nations before, but never on my own and certainly not for eight weeks. To say I over-prepared for my trip would be an understatement. Mosquito repellant, sunscreen, bottles of pills, travel documents and Clorox wipes weighed down my suitcase far more than clothing. I’ll gloss over the details of my thirty-six hours of international travel, but I’ll say that it involved two hours of sleep and a fair amount of exercise navigating the labyrinthine Delhi airport. Nearly two days after I set off from San Francisco, I landed in Jodhpur to be greeted by an eager and relieved Madhu Vaishnav, my guide, mentor and supervisor for the coming weeks. Her presence and English fluency were welcome stress relievers and would be a constant source of support and comfort for the duration of my stay.
To ease the transition between twenty-one years of living in the United States and eight weeks of living in India, Madhu put me up in a quaint hotel in downtown Jodhpur. Dinner with Madhu the night after my arrival allowed me to learn about her background, as well as the history of IPHD. Following a night of much needed sleep, I went to the IPHD office, located in Madhu’s house, where I met members of her immediate and extended family—a common occurrence in Indian homes—and enjoyed my first of many cups of Chai tea. After an informative day of cultural workshops, I was finally driven to my host family’s house, located in a cozy alleyway called Gali Bees (Street 20).
On the plane ride over, I had memorized the names of my five host family members, but in my nervous and slightly overwhelmed state, I forgot all names when it came time to issue my first “Namaste”. Madhu stuck around to enjoy some Chai (our third of the day) with my new family, but after about twenty minutes she left me in the Hindi-speaking household. Admittedly, the first nights in my home stay brought an unavoidable sense of awkwardness, as I tried to communicate with a combination of short English words, broken Hindi and wild gestures. Although my Hindi has since improved, most interactions are still like this, but I now see my attempts at communication as a constant, yet effective, game of charades. Relations with my host family continue to strengthen with each passing day, and that this has been possible is a clear sign that bridges of communication are held up by more than language.
To say that the language barrier did not affect my work in the village would be untrue, yet I was still able to work effectively and express myself sufficiently as a part of my project, Bhikamkor Entrepreneurial Development (BED). BED aims to provide two village women, Mamisah and Papu San, the skills and funds necessary to own and operate their own businesses. The former will open a jewelry store and the latter will open a fabric shop. Two to three times a week, I’ve been providing lessons in economic development, basic math, accounting, pricing, customer service and marketing for the two women at the Saheli Center, the IPHD Bhikamkor headquarters. Madhu acts as my translator, a difficult task and one for which she deserves recognition, especially since she continues translating for other interns throughout the day. Though Madhu’s services are invaluable, I’ve found that tone and volume of voice, enthusiastic body language and the dropping of a Hindi word here and there can overcome the language barrier and in turn convey the importance of what I’m saying.
As I learned during their interviews, neither BED participant is a stranger to adversity. Mamisah was widowed at a young age, and for cultural reasons, lost respect in the village and was fated to a life of mourning her husband. Despite this hardship, she birthed and raised two successful sons and eventually regained a dignified position in Bhikamkor. Papu San has also led an arduous life, rearing several children and working a number of labor-intensive jobs. Impressively, she taught herself how to read and learned the accounting skills necessary to manage her household expenses, an uncommon skill among rural Indian housewives. Mamisah and Papu San have never been to school, and this makes teaching them at times difficult and frustrating; nevertheless, they frequently surprise me with their innate cleverness and business savvy. Their persistence in the face of family struggles and stark gender roles is a constant source of inspiration, and I’m certain it will lead to their future success. By opening businesses, Mamisah and Papu San hope to attain financial independence and serve as role models for future generations of village women. This attitude aligns with the goals set out by BED and IPHD and is a good indication of where Bhikamkor is headed.
The work I do in the village is as challenging as it is rewarding, although my daily interactions with the Indian culture prompt similar feelings. Living with an Indian family makes for a unique experience, in that I get to enjoy a diverse range of local food, practice my slowly improving Hindi, savor the laughter over an all too familiar power outage, have “conversations” about my day with my adorable, five-year-old host sister, and try to discuss Indian politics using buzz words like “Modi” “BJP” and “good”. I’ve especially enjoyed befriending the other tenants of Gali Bees, with whom I play board games, Indian hot potato and a slightly modified, more violent version of tag. To my pleasant surprise, Gali Bees has become a second home. Even though I can’t say much to my host family, I look forward to the friendly “Namastes” that greet me each day. My family’s friendliness and hospitality have made for a far less intimidating visit, and that they’re so interested in my culture and language is very endearing. But the biggest standout feature I’ve noticed as a result of my homestay is the strong sense of community that holds Indian society together. Friends and family always come first. As I like to describe it: An Indian would rather enjoy another cup of Chai with a friend than arrive at work thirty minutes earlier. I’ll happily attest to my acceptance into this wonderful community.
It’s naïve to think I’d be able to blog about everything that’s made my trip so unforgettable, as an intern and a traveler. In the past six weeks, I’ve felt homesick, overjoyed, terrified, excited, shaken, awestruck and frustrated, yet it’s this influx of emotions and the experiences attached to them that makes me not want to leave the country. Each intern has different things to say about India, and I encourage readers—especially prospective interns—to look into as many perspectives as possible. But after many conversations with locals and foreigners, I can say with certainty that living in Jodhpur and working in Bhikamkor with all their latent imperfections has made for an unrivaled experience that I’ll be looking back upon for years to come.