ZOE BERTRAND/THE HOYA
ZOE BERTRAND/THE HOYA

I didn’t know what to expect when I chose to leave Georgetown for a semester abroad in India. I imagined grand adventures involving yoga gurus, elephants and exotic Indian feasts. Coincidentally, in all these fantasies, I happened to look like Julia Roberts. While I have had several adventures traveling around India — some even involving elephants and yoga gurus — the most impactful experiences are the minor events I have encountered each day. As my time in India draws to a close, it has been the sights, interactions and incidents that have delighted me, frustrated me and changed me the most.

Crossing the road — a seemingly simple task — is one of the most exhilarating and terrifying experiences I’ve had since coming to Pune, a metropolitan area in western India. The roads are very narrow with no lanes and, from what I’ve gathered, minimal traffic rules. They’re overrun with motorcycles, rickshaws, cars, buses and the occasional herd of cattle. I’ve even heard about an elephant that sometimes roams the streets of Pune, though I have never seen it myself. Pedestrians are rarely given the right of way, so crossing busy roads becomes unnervingly like “Frogger.” To make things more confusing, people drive on the left side of the road. The whole experience of crossing the road is excitingly different from anything I’ve known before, and it’s one of the things I’m proud to say I’ve mastered in my time here. There are still times though, like when I’m almost annihilated by a bus making a left turn, when I long for the safety of crosswalks.

Along with crossing the road, walking down Pune’s busy streets is one of the most interesting things I’ve done during my time in India. Boring as it might sound, there really is an incredible amount to look at every day, and the two-kilometer walk I make from my home to my school is like a microcosm of modern, urban India. Pune isn’t much of a tourist destination, and so the street vendors are not nearly as ubiquitous as they are in New Delhi or Agra — the home of the Taj Mahal. Still, during my walk, I pass several book sellers, a small child selling “Angry Birds” balloons and a whole row of fruit stands selling fragrant guavas and glistening red pomegranates. I pass people who are professional beggars, like the family living outside of the mosque I see daily. Sometimes they ask for money, but it seems like more often they are going about the business of daily life  only without the shelter of a roof over their heads.

Between my home and my school, there are several Hindu shrines, each hung with decorative strands of flowers. One of them often features intricate designs created out of colorful, powdered chalk called rangoli.

It is also not uncommon to pass heaping piles of trash in various states of burning or being burnt. This fairly disgusting practice speaks volumes of India’s problematic lack of a decent waste management system. The fascinating thing about Pune is not the contrast of rich cultural beauty with the presence of upsetting ugliness, but the way that the two come hand in hand. Wealth and poverty, holiness and dirtiness, happiness and sadness exist side by side, and inextricably from one another.

The daily interactions I have with people in Pune have been some of my absolute favorite parts of life in India. I have an internship working for a women’s empowerment group. Disregarding the interesting work I am doing for them, the best part of the internship is the hour or so I spend eating lunch with my supervisors and co-workers. The women are overwhelmingly generous when sharing their food with me and with one another. Whether there are five women sitting at our table or 15, a single orange will be split among everyone in the room. This turns a simple meal into a warm, almost familial experience. Though the women don’t speak English, someone will always go out of their way to translate key parts of the conversation for me, and the women always seem genuinely interested when I try to share my thoughts on the subject, though I know they can understand little to nothing of what I am saying. Simple gestures like these have made me feel less like an awkward American giant and more like a valued member of their community.

To be sure, I have also had negative experiences with people here. My white skin makes me an easy target for being cheated by vendors and rickshaw drivers. I have, once or twice, felt uncomfortable and even violated because of the interactions I’ve had with men on the street. Reconciling these dualities is something I have struggled with and will likely continue to struggle with even after I return to Washington, D.C.

My time in India has been one of the most worthwhile experiences of my life. I have learned to be patient — the slow Internet here will have that effect on you — but I have also become more assertive. I’ve realized just how privileged a life I lead, and I’ve started to consider how much my culture has shaped my beliefs and desires. I remain excited to go back to America, though. Personal growth aside, I’m still a nice Jewish girl at heart, and no nice Jewish girl should go so long without eating a decent bagel.

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