My hair, my face, and my pants were soaking wet with rain. With every second, the rain’s descent from the sky accelerated. But I stayed frozen in place for half an hour – even as the water soaked through my coat and heavily settled into my t-shirt.
I kept standing there because I could not stop looking at the way the mountains hid behind the thick clouds beneath me. I could not stop admiring the distant drizzle that cast a ghostly mist across the landscape. I could not stop staring at the way the cars drove precariously along the edge of the twisting mountain roads.
I was with the other AIF Clinton Fellows at APV School in the Himalayas. It had required a combination of a five-hour train ride and then a seven-hour car ride to get here from Delhi.
We spent three days at APV School. It was hard not to pause for at least half an hour every evening to watch as nighttime slowly overtook the mountains. The once green, adventurous expanse would transform into being dark and mysterious. The blurry black borders of the mountain peaks would bleed into the edges of the sky. Lights would come on, revealing various clusters of population across the landscape. Then lights would go off, as power disconnected for an hour or so at a time.
APV School pursues holistic education, rooted in meditation and the arts. There, we bonded at the start of our journey – playing with adorable kindergartners, hiking up to viewpoints at sunset, visiting a temple where the air was thin, meditating at the morning assembly, listening to the children break into song and play instruments.
I had a feeling I had arrived where I wanted to be.
But I wasn’t sure where I was yet.
I couldn’t make a generalization. I couldn’t explain.
The air was cool there in the Himalayas; urban life seemed distant and alien. But when we got back to the Indian capital, my shirts were again soaked with sweat at the end of every day. The narrow, dusty streets of Old Delhi were crowded with bicycle rickshaws, hard-working laborers, persevering shop owners, wandering animals, piles of garbage, and loose electrical wiring. Google Maps was the only reason I found my way out after hours of wandering around aimlessly.
The school we visited drew inspiration from Buddhism. But in Delhi, I visited a Sikh temple for the first time in my life. There, I took off my shoes and – walking inside – I pressed my feet down on the beautiful soft carpet while music filled my ears. In the same couple days, I explored the grounds of a massive mosque. I appreciated the beautiful Arabic script that was carved into various Mughal tombs sprinkled around the city. And then I spent a whole afternoon at my first Hindu temple complex.
On the plane from Istanbul to Delhi, I had been reading an article in The Economist showing a picture of Prime Minister Narendra Modi giving a speech in the Red Fort. For some reason, this inspired me to go there within a couple days of arrival. Walking through the grounds, I thought back on the history – a massive fort built by Muslim emperors, later occupied by heavily-armed Christians from a distant island, and today a traditional spot for the (currently Hindu, but formerly Sikh) Prime Minister of an independent India to address the country every year.
I wanted to find patterns in this diversity, but for the moment I appreciated it simply for its variations. Because I knew it didn’t matter how many books I had read before I arrived. It didn’t matter what I had learned in class at Michigan State or Georgetown. I knew deep down that I still didn’t understand.
So I accepted the variations in a country of 1.25 billion people, but I did not try to interpret them. I did not draw any conclusions. I did not truly try to explain India to myself or to others. Because I knew this was a time for listening, not speaking.
On the 18-hour train from mostly Hindi-speaking Delhi to my placement in mostly Bengali-speaking Calcutta, I drifted in and out of sleep. The car tipped left-and-right like a boat in the water.
I was unsettled and nervous. I didn’t know where I was. I didn’t know where I was going. But I knew this was where I needed to be, and I knew I was going to learn.