The journey begins

Dear readers,

Two days ago, I apprehensively handed my flimsy plane ticket to a short, dark-haired woman who was yelling at me to come forward. I followed a long but disorganized sea of lines to board a very large aircraft, its size mirroring the weight of my decision. I was bound for India and there was no turning back.

I anxiously took my seat in row 24 and was happy to find that I was given an aisle seat, a position that would make the grueling 14 hour flight slightly more bearable. As I sat there waiting to depart, I sent a quick a farewell message to my family and friends, and I watched as the other passengers entered the plane, struggling to squeeze down the small aisle to my right, taking their seats. The flight attendants were busy reminding passengers in the emergency exit rows that they should be ready to fulfill their duties in the case of an emergency. Other AIF fellows were seated together, and I heard many of them discussing their diverse experiences overseas which had led them to India. Having felt very over-stimulated in New York during our two days of orientation, I was thankful to be alone in a row intended for three.  Aside from my suitcase, I carried only an immense enthusiasm and a wide open-heart. All could be lost, broken, or thrown away, at any time. It was me, my capabilities, and my heavy suitcase; a trinity of mystery. In that brief moment before take-off, I realized that only I had the power to control and drive what I would accomplish, what I would learn, and most importantly, who I would become. With a deep breath and a strong sense of integrity, I stepped out of my history and into my potential.

I was startled out of my personal thoughts by a tall, handsome flight attendant gently shaking my shoulder. He was saying, “Ma’am, how about you? Veg or non-veg?” My eyes were weary and my voice was hoarse. I pulled my blanket over my shoulders and managed to utter “non-veg.” The only time I had ever tried to be a vegetarian was in 2008 when I went to Hanoi. Like India, Vietnam is a country which caters to an all vegetarian diet. Unfortunately, my subsequent trip to Bangkok marked the end of my vegetarian effort.  After reintroducing meat into my diet, I was relieved. I later returned to the United States where I was greeted by my Italian-American grandmother with macaroni and meatballs and home-made chicken parmesan. For me, meat was a sign of comfort, a symbol of my Italian heritage, and a rich source of protein. I looked down at my “non-veg” meal. My stomach ached a bit and I was hesitant to eat. I took a moment to run my fork through the food sitting in my small plastic bowl that could easily be mistaken for a tub of hardened tinfoil. I decided to attack the freezing cold roll first before biting into my chicken and vegetable curry. I, now eagerly, scooped a bit of rice onto my spoon with a chunk of vegetables. My mouth was watering for more until finally there was nothing left but three dry pieces of chicken, which were all placed together on the left side of the tinfoil dish. It was almost as if they were made to satisfy us carnivores. For the majority of people on the flight, they were satisfied with the rice and vegetables. Why was it that the rest of us needed these three dry meatballs to be satisfied? I decided to leave it there, yet quickly covered it with the flimsy foil-like cover.

Ashamed for having wasted my food, I anxiously waited for it to be collected. My eyes quickly became heavy and my head was aching. The flight attendant came by once again to collect my tray. He smiled and asked if I would like some beer or wine. I saw the shiny green beer can glistening next to a dented carton of orange juice. I excitedly told him to toss me a can. As I opened the noisy but seemingly perfect can of Heineken, the elderly Indian couple to my left continued to stare as they slowly sipped on their tomato juice with melting ice cubes. I closed my eyes for a moment and began to remember all of the special people in my life I was leaving behind. With each sip, my heart began to sink and my sorrows suddenly refused to drown. I remembered saying goodbye to my friends where we drank to our hearts’ content and professed our unconditional love for one another. My sinking heart and swimming sorrows overwhelmed me, and in that very moment, I put the can down and contemplated how I would change my life this year. The teacher in me decided to reach for a pen and paper to record some possible long-term personal goals. The Indian couple, though finished with their juice, continued to watch me.  Their gaze shifted back and forth between me and the Heineken as if they were searching for my thoughts. I glanced at the blank piece of paper and began to write. I jotted down some of my project goals for the year until I realized that I still hadn’t thought about my personal hopes and dreams. Then, I suddenly knew exactly what to write. I would change three of my habits in an effort to become a healthier and happier person:

  1. become a vegetarian
  2. give up all alcohol for the 10-month duration of the fellowship
  3. No cigarettes

I felt liberated and pulled my blanket up to my ears and rested my head. For the first time, I was able to sleep peacefully on a long flight and did not wake up until we reached New Delhi. This was the start of a new chapter, a healthier and happier chapter of my life. Stay tuned…

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