I woke up at 7:30 a.m. and got ready to head out for my 10 a.m. dance rehearsal with the other exchange students. I was two hours south of my city, in the larger city of Surat. Though I was wearing my usual combination of jeans and a kurta (a traditional collarless long-sleeve top that extends to the knees), the 80-degree heat found me with beads of sweat dotting my forehead by the afternoon.
How was this day different from any other? Well, I seem to remember having heard some people offering unusual greetings to one another, and there were these very strange looking Santa masks being sold on the side of the thoroughfare leading into the city. Wait ... that’s it! It was Christmas Day!
I won’t detail how unlike an upstate New York Christmas it was for me in India. It was so different that I often found myself stopping and really letting the notion wash over me, “Yes, Sam, today is Christmas.” I would try to think about what I usually did on this day in years past, but the memories were scattered into the shadows by the horns and the heat.
Oddly enough, I was still able to experience a little ice and snow. In one of the behemoth malls of Surat, there is “The Snow Park.” There, on the fourth floor, a room is chilled to -5 degrees Celsius (about 23 degrees Fahrenheit) filled with “snow” (more like crushed ice bits), and decorated with ice sculptures, plastic igloos and snowmen. Looking out the window, while putting on a coat and boots before entering, I could see a group of young men playing cricket on a faraway field of grass, made yellow by the sun.
Inside, Bollywood music was playing and a manufactured wind was howling through, freezing my ears as quickly as it reminded me of home. It was incredibly fun, especially when the simulated blizzard struck, complete with strobe lights and sound effects. When I stepped out, though, I was happy to enter back into the natural warmth I had temporarily avoided.
Later the same day, in another large mall, there was a “fish bar.” A fish bar is a place where you sit in a chair, dangling your feet in a tank of small fish that voraciously go about cleaning them. A piranha pedicure, I thought. As I submerged my feet, I remember likening the sensation to the tingling experienced when blood flow returns to an appendage after a long time. The fish are said to have a very hygienic effect on the feet, but after 20 minutes of sitting there, the only difference I was aware of was how much whiter my feet had become.
More than a year ago, when I put my name down for India, I was not expecting to do much in the way of Christmas celebrations. I was certainly not expecting to play in the snow and have my feet picked clean by fish either, but I suppose I did have an inkling that it would be one I would never repeat or forget.
My exchange year has been filled with moments like these, when I find myself doing something entirely differently than I would have done at home during a normal year. I try not to look at these events as a loss of familiar tradition, but as a new experience filled with learning and acceptance.
I did not feel homesick on Christmas, nor have I felt homesick at any time in the past five months. I love the things I do here, the things I learn here, and the things that would be impossible to do or learn anywhere else. That is what this year is all about for me, and that is why I signed up for it. After all, this is my one year to do everything in a different way for the first time in my life.
Sam Aldridge is a Rotary Exchange student from Milford. To read more from him, visit thebarodasagas.wordpress.com.