India will always have a piece of my heart. It’s what started my wanderlust and helped me be who I am now. How can I sum up five months in a few short paragraphs? India was a puzzle. Its complex history and its diversity of people was something new to me. But in the end, India for me was an awakening.
Since I was young I was often obsessed with other countries. By the time I was in high school, my younger sister and classmates got me into Bollywood movies. These movies were a mixture of Mexican telenovela type drama with catchy songs and beautiful dances. I was quickly fascinated with the top movie stars and memorized hit songs. My obsession with Bollywood soon expanded to all things related to India and by the time I was a junior in college, I was determined to be an exchange student there.
With Bollywood songs to motivate me along the way, I jumped through hoops to secure scholarships and approval from my university to be an exchange student in Hyderabad. I assuaged my mothers fears by making a small brochure of where I was going with all relevant contact information included. With everything set, I arrived to India in late December 2009.
Reactions to New Surroundings
When I arrived at the airport, I walked out and saw two armed-to-the-teeth guards and a sea of people walking in every direction. The first thought to cross my mind was, “what did I get myself into?” I had never been outside of the US, so Hyderabad was a jump into the deep end of the pool.
I walked through the crowd looking for the person who was supposed to pick me up to take me to the university campus. I found him holding a sign that said “University of Hyderabad”, and introduced myself. The chaos outside of the airport was scary, but the walk to the car and the drive through the city calmed my nerves. The images of India being crowded with people and loud noises I had seen were true however, those images didn’t communicate that there was a pattern to the madness. Yes the roads were loud, but drivers honked so often only to signal information to others. People were everywhere, but there always seemed to be just enough space. India seemed like everything I expected, but it wasn’t until I was there, that I understood it better.
The university campus was rural, with many scenes along the way to my hostel. After a few weeks I learned where the best spots for street food were. Although I should have been more cautious, I ate nearly anything in front of me. US Indian restaurants typically offer dishes like butter chicken, tikka masala, and palak paneer. The food in India is much more diverse. Each region has its own kind of cuisine and I was very fortunate to live in the south where dosas and biryani were easily found. Also, vegetarianism is common in India so it felt great to see a menu filled with items I could eat.
What I was most excited for was experiencing Indian “culture.” I put quotation marks around the word culture because there are limits to what I could experience as a foreigner. For example, because I’m not Indian, family events like marriages, births and funerals in addition to family expectations and relationships, were things I could only view and not participate in. For example, I did attend a wedding of an acquaintance, but I only watched a ceremony and ate dinner. If it had been a wedding of a family member I would have had a more active role.
Even though I could only participate in a small range of culture, I thoroughly enjoyed what I did experience. I was ecstatic to hear Bollywood hits in every shop or rickshaw I entered. I recognized the actors and actresses on most advertisements and even bought items based on my favorites. My peers and I participated in holidays with much gusto and I was fortunate enough to celebrate New Years and Sankranti with the family of a good friend of mine. All of these experiences shaped my perspective on India and helped me understand what kind of visitor/traveler I am.
The exchange program I participated in was unstructured so it was up to each student to create the experience that they wanted. My classmates and I spent weekends visiting tourist sites during the day and bar hopping at night. We also organized short trips to a beach in Goa and the religious site in Hampi, and to some northern cities like Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, and Jaisalmer. At first I disliked how unstructured the program was because I felt like we were left on our own and with very little support or resources. Now looking back I realize that it was the best way to learn how to travel.
India From an American-Latina Perspective
Most Indians don’t have Latin America on their radar. In India, people know the larger countries like Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil. The smaller Latin American countries were unheard of. People often asked me where I was from and I would say I was from the US. But because people assumed that Americans were Caucasian, they wouldn’t believe me and asked why I was brown. I was even called “chocolaty brownie” once on a train. Most people told me that I was Indian even after I had denied it. Then I would explain to them that my parents were from El Salvador. No one had heard of El Salvador or Central America so it was difficult to explain where it was. When I used the term “Central America”, lots of people thought I was referring to the center part of the US. After three months, I gave up on trying to explain my Salvadoran heritage and told people that my parents were from Mexico.
Overall being a Latina with dark features was a benefit. It allowed me to somewhat blend in and not bring too much attention to myself. My Caucasian classmates failed at trying to blend in, but I managed it pretty well. I put some effort into creating an “Indian image.” I went to the city center to buy fabrics for several outfits and had salwar kameez and churidar suits tailor-made. Blending in gave me the opportunity to not stand out when I was by myself. Several classmates complained about getting stared at while they were in line at the post office or the local convenience shop. They were often asked for pictures whenever they visited tourist sights. I was able to go about my day without much notice because I was Latina and could “pass” for Indian.
A New Perspective
Since it was the first time I had been abroad, it was only natural that I went with a naïve and simplistic idea of what I was going to see. In only 5 months I learned a great deal about myself, my identity, my worldview, the US, people and much more. I wouldn’t say that I see things in a different way; it’s more like I am aware of myself and my surroundings in a way that I wasn’t before. The greatest shift in perspective was of where I wanted to be. I thought I was content and satisfied with living in Richmond, VA and my goal was to find a job there after graduating and starting my “adult life”. Since freshman year, I had decided that the life I had in Richmond was the best I could possibly have. Leaving Virginia made me reevaluate what I wanted from life.
After studying in India, I knew I wanted to continue traveling. I felt unsatisfied with staying in Virginia and I knew I was capable of more because I had pushed myself to get to India and tested my limits while I was there. I went to India because I was curious, but what I found there was more curiosity. It was an awakening because I thought I knew what I wanted but instead it made me question many long held ideas. I’m thankful for my time in India and one day I hope to go back and explore more because there is still so much to see.