To most travelers Hadad, Gujarat is a quick pit stop on the Ambaji Highway – nothing more. A line of tilted shops to supply water, a fried snack, a restroom, then back on the bus to somewhere more noteworthy. Hadad (a name I can still barely pronounce – a hidden r and slight roll of the tongue is required) is a small collection of homes inhabited by around 625 families with a total population of 3,000. First arriving in Hadad nine months ago, the last thing I expected was to connect my experience in this dot of land with a lesson I was taught 8,000 miles away as a sophomore in high school.
Most of my friends cannot relate to the daily life I experience in Ahmedabad, a major metropolis of nearly eight million. I Facetime them constantly, giving a glimpse of the streets of India as I take my daily rickshaw ride, monkeys clamoring on my apartment roof, and curious faces that poke over my shoulder unannounced. As we speak, my friends do not necessarily realize that our conversations about the changes in their lives, their recent night out or last meal help me escape. Through the magic of modern technology, while I walk the streets of Ahmedabad, I am transported to the avenues of Washington, D.C., laughing about college days, life with Chipotle and of course politics. This connection, formed through Facetime, enables me to leave India and revert to my former – and soon to be future – life in the United States. Inevitably the conversation will shift to what is happening in my current life, shocking me back to my present reality and the scenes around me. I can’t help but notice my constant avoidance of discussing what I am doing in India. I realize, as I provide vague answers to their questions, of how embarrassed I am over the clear need to live vicariously through my friends and escape.
Ironically, my escapism is not motivated by the depravity in my living conditions in Ahmedabad. I belong to a nice gym, have relatively reliable internet, am cooled at night by A/C, shop at an international supermarket, eat at McDonalds and KFC, and fly in and out of an airport 15 minutes away. The idea that I am somehow “roughing it” or “so far away” as I often say, in many ways is simply untrue. The question that I inevitably must face becomes “why can’t I just live in Ahmedabad without the constant need to escape?”
My experiences in Hadad have in part helped me answer this question, if not find a remedy for this “issue.” Nine months ago, during my week long stay in the village, I sat in an empty room with a mat on a plank for a bed after a day of visiting classrooms and taking notes. I wanted nothing more than to call my best friend Sami and hear about her life in New York. I was hungry and alone and wanted to chat with someone about nothing. At the core, I longed to be transported home, but the lack of internet and cell reception denied me my daily trip to the U.S. Alone on what had to be the most uncomfortable bed I had ever experienced, I realized that the following week in Hadad would just be me, myself and I; I was going to have to get over it.
Now, as the Fellowship comes to a close and the months have disappeared, I realize that my time in Hadad was actually transforming. Each day in Hadad, waking up, no snapchats to open or emails to respond to, I was free to leave my phone tucked deep in my duffel bag and go out and work. I sat with coworkers and connected with them, without excusing myself to talk to friends in the U.S. I was present. Hadad forced me, or perhaps enabled me, to truly leave my home in the U.S. and even the relative comforts of my life in Ahmedabad and experience India.
Ten years ago, as a high school sophomore, I read Walden by Henry David Thoreau. Mr. Campbell passionately recited Thoreau, exclaiming: “I went to the woods to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Hadad afforded me an opportunity to be more present and invested in my work. It allowed me to forge relationships I might have otherwise have abandoned for a call with Will in Boston. Each day in Hadad I woke up to a blank phone screen, a reminder that I was locked in the moment. Hadad barred my escape, it gave me an opportunity to embrace India more fully and in turn taught me to live just a little bit more deliberately.
Now, sitting in Hadad on my final days in India, I smile as I stare at an old Honda Hero motorcycle parked outside. Recollecting one of my aspirations for my fellowship in India — learning to ride a two wheeler. Maybe now, without home in my front pocket, I might finally figure out how to get it out of first gear.