It was a particularly hot day in Gujarat. As the car came to a stop inside the school gate, I closed my eyes to savor the feeling of the jungli sun on my face one last time. That sunny, cloudless day marked my final trip to the field during my fellowship. After so many months, that final adjective was starting to appear in front of many nouns. So, despite the all-consuming heat, I was ready and excited to get the final day of events started.
One could say that my final field visit started in style. That is, I was showing up fashionably late to a school enrollment drive in a village outside of Sayla. Due to a complex issue of urban planning, sprawl, and growth, the traffic situation in the suburbs of Ahmedabad had put us way behind schedule. Thus, my arrival coincided with the penultimate item on the enrollment drive’s agenda. Shrugging off the things I couldn’t control, I cracked the seal between my air-conditioned bubble and the arid landscape outside.
I stepped out into the school yard and felt several scores of people avert their attention from the program to the casually-dressed white man already mopping his forehead with a handkerchief. The presentation halted and the crowd waited for this new arrival to be explained. With hundreds of eyes trained on me, I made my way toward the center of the scene, carefully placing each sandaled foot upon the loose sand—I have a propensity for tripping at the most inopportune moments, such as in front of large crowds.
Before my left foot could touch the bottom stair of the podium, eight smiling men approached me, hands outstretched to welcome me to the big day. They led me up the stairs, where a young girl hastily tapped my forehead with a kumkum-dipped middle finger. In a whirl of motion, two of the welcoming hands grabbed my elbows and led me to the “distinguished guests” area at the center of the dais. Smile on my face, I waved at all the little children at the front of the crowd as I took my undeserved seat of honor.
I had grown accustomed to such treatment over the last few months. That’s not to say that I still didn’t feel uncomfortable about the attention I received simply by my existing. But, at some point along the line of being offered the last cup of chai or being asked to take selfies with forty-something year-old men in their offices, I decided that my hesitation to participate was just getting in the way of everyone else’s enjoyment.
Over the months of my fellowship, I realized my reticence, my hesitation could be giving the wrong impression: that I was an unhappy guest. So, early in my fellowship, I decided to strive to be the best guest I could possibly be. For that’s what I truly was: a guest in these people’s country, villages, lives, and homes.
It was explained to me on multiple occasions that such special treatment is just expected of hosts to a guest. While I wanted to quibble over what level of treatment I personally deserved, all that was really needed was for me to be humble in the warm hospitality of my many hosts. I decided that if I was going to be honored for merely showing up, then I should put my best foot—no matter how prone to tripping it may be—forward and not let my inhibitions embitter what is, truly, a sweet cultural feature of the country and state in which I worked.
Over the months, I had developed a simple system to overcome my lingering discomfort with my extraordinary treatment. In summary, it was just to be gracious. Every time someone waved, I waved vigorously back. Every time someone wanted a picture, I obliged with a smile. Every time someone asked where I was from, I replied in Gujarati that I lived in Ahmedabad, which always drew a laugh and sparked a conversation. In short, I acted as any person should when treated better than they deserve. Thus, as I entered the enrollment drive that day, I knew that I was surrounded by a whole village who, for many reasons beyond my control, wanted to treat me as an esteemed guest. The least I could do was try to meet their hospitality with humble gratitude.
After I was seated behind the long table on the podium, a very quick introduction was made, a dance group of local girls performed an item number, and then everyone stood up. Before I knew what was happening, I was grabbed by the pinky finger and led toward a small hole in the ground on the outskirts of the government school. I looked at my coworker and gave him a look that translated into, “What is going on here?” He mouthed in response, “Tree plantation.” Sure enough, at that moment, from behind a border wall to the school, appeared two young boys carrying a small green and white bundle. The boys carefully lowered the young tree into the waiting hole. As the principal knelt down to start filling in the hole with the previously displaced soil, he looked up at me and said, “You, too.”
I immediately got down beside him and put my hand in the warm dirt. In my periphery, I could see men’s shoes shuffling to the front of the crowd. Experience had taught me that, when such movement happens, I was participating in a photo opportunity. Without a second’s hesitation, I grabbed two handfuls of dirt, balanced as best I could on my heels, struck a pose that I felt maximized how flattering one could look mid-squat, and smiled for the cameras.
My beginning-of-the-fellowship self would be shocked with my level of ease and lack of shame in leaning so heavily into the spectacle. My end-of-fellowship self was humbled by the warmth and welcome of the community who allowed me into their lives, even if just for an hour or two, and wanted to honor me with helping plant a tree which symbolized a commitment to growing the educational opportunities of their village. Thus, as the photogs ended their session, I dutifully started shoveling sand around the newly-planted tree. I couldn’t help but think that there was no better way for my final day in the field to begin than with a little sweat equity. Sometimes, being a good guest means getting your hands a little dirty.
Somewhere, in the center of Gujarat, there is a man who is scrolling through his photos and sees a smiling former guest to his village planting a tree. I hope he has as fond a memory of that day as I do.