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April 18, 2013

Local Voices From Around the Globe: Experiencing India at every new turn

By Sam Aldridge
The Daily Star

---- — “Come, sit down. Hold this and, wait ... ah, there you go.” Obeying these commands, I found myself seated on the pavement, wearing a turban and attempting to make sounds out of a recorder-like instrument for the black cobras in the baskets not two feet away from me.

I was in Jaipur, Rajasthan, and lucky for me, the other owner of the snake had had a little more practice with the instrument, or else I probably would have scared the snake into the group of exchange students standing nearby with my less-than-charming notes. It was the first week of our tour through the north of India, but our eighth month of exchange in the country.

I have come to find that having memorable experiences in a vastly foreign country is directly related to how much you let go of anything that may hold you back, such as fears and desires, culturally related mindsets, and, at times, ideals of safety. Certainly, coming to this point is not smooth and fast — there are yet some things I cannot help but see from the perspective of a foreigner — but it is natural. After all, I know my reaction would have been quite different if, during my first week in India, I had seen a monkey jumping around inside a hotel, a camel pulling a cart on the street in front of my apartment building or a group of eight people “riding” in a rickshaw that comfortably seats three. As I say, the ability to accept and adapt goes a very long way toward taking enjoyment from inevitable circumstances.

I would elaborate more on what I am referring to, but to detail all the wild scenes of the trains, the do-or-die traffic, and the dark, labyrinthine alleys of the old sections in every city would be the work of more than one letter to the paper. Yet even then, true understanding could only reach he or she who actually stands, sits and walks through these places of never-ending intrigue.

Traveling through many of the must-see tourist locations, we often found ourselves in the company of our fellow countrymen and women, come for a week or two of vacation. It was incredible to observe the differences between they and me, and I wondered if I looked similar when I had been here only as long as they have. By now, I have long since left the shoes of a tourist, though occasionally we walk the same path. Despite my inability to physically fit in, I know that I could never feel like a foreigner in this country ever again. It is true that in many cities we traveled through, while purchasing the various entry tickets for museums and palaces, I paid the rate for resident Indians instead of the significantly higher rate for foreigners.

Knowledge of the national language, Hindi, is by far the easiest way to dive into the heart of the culture, not to mention a guarantee of getting reduced entry fees along the way. I no longer face many difficulties communicating with the non-English speaking population, which still happens to be a large percentage of people. Looking back, I see that my ability to learn the language was another component of “just doing it.” Forget the mistakes that led to laughter, and the sentences that created confusion, but know that the mistakes were necessary for success in the end.

My being here, and all that I have seen and done, is nothing more than the product of some time spent out of my comfort zone. Just think, one can never find the light switch without first groping about the walls in the dark. So, to those looking for the adventure of a lifetime, prepare to leave your fears and “No, thank you’s” behind, for a walk down that dirty lane may reveal a beautiful temple.

Sam Aldridge is a Rotary Exchange student from Milford. To read more from him, visit thebarodasagas.wordpress.com.