People often ask me, “Why India?” It’s true, I keep returning. As I wrote in my application for this fellowship, I find India alluring. There is something intimate and almost romantic about the idea of India for me (my father sometimes calls this my blind idealism). Women walking down the street in brightly colored saris, the smell of sun-colored spices displayed in large bags across the marketplace, the man selling you fresh vegetables across the street from your home, the looping Hindi and Gujarati script marking every sign across the city.
But then you arrive. You try on a sari and realize that you’re never going to spend an hour each morning attempting to wrap and fold six yards of fabric around your body. You try to cook only to have your neighbor or coworker decline your Indian food with a “nice try.” People tell you that you’re getting fat, too skinny or my personal favorite of late from a friend, looking “dull.” You walk across the street to buy veggies, but come back to realize that you stepped in cow poop, left as a gift from the cows that constantly roam the streets.
I think I can speak for most individuals on this fellowship when I say your days here can vary substantially. However, for incoming applicants, those who are thinking about working in India, those already on the fellowship and anyone in India who needs some advice on how to cope with the bad days, here are some of the things that keep me sane.
- As Aziz Ansari would say, “TREAT YO’ SELF.” Having a terrible day? Depending on where you live (rural, urban) and the amenities available, take yourself to a spa. Go get a Thai massage (yes, this is available in Mumbai). Go find real coffee (get ready to drink nescafe, incoming applicants), or bring a French press and a bag of your favorite roast for the days where you just can’t cope.
- Figure out who your support system is and reach out to them. For a large part of this fellowship I lived alone in a small town in Gujarat, where I was often the only foreigner around, and technology was my best friend. When I had a bad day I would call or Skype with another fellow, or a family member or friend back at home. Many times, other people would be experiencing the same or similar issues, and it made me feel less alone.
- I’m a big supporter of eating what you want in India. You are going to get sick, it’s inevitable. Don’t be an idiot and drink the water with hair and dirt floating in it from the stand on the side of the road, that’s not what I’m talking about. But try the street food, go to restaurants, eat at people’s homes, buy your own veggies and cook at home. Eat raw food! Eat the peels! Wash your veggies well and make salads. You’re going to get sick regardless, so you should eat what makes you feel happy and healthy.
- On a similar note, bring your favorite food, especially if you can’t buy it here. For example, I brought ten jars of my favorite type of Almond Butter in my suitcase. I kid you not, ten jars. One per month. Having a small taste of home is so comforting! (In case you’re wondering, my favorite brand of Almond Butter is a locally sourced, all natural Almond Butter called “Wild Friends,” a company started by an acquaintance in Oregon. Also, in case you haven’t figured it out by now, I love good food.)
- Exercising is essential. It took me a bit to figure out the best way to do this in a small town in India. Seeing a foreigner walk down a main street is shocking to many Indians, so imagine running (plus, you will clog your lungs after inhaling the insane amounts of dust and pollution). Alternatively, gyms tend to be very expensive and unaffordable on a stipend. At present, I do yoga in my room (there are a ton of great videos online) and go running in the park by my house. I found that before 8 am, it is socially acceptable to run outside in Bhavnagar. After 8 am, if you’re running down the street, people will stare at you like you’re nuts. And in 100 degree heat, you are.
- Change your location. If you’re in a rural or semi-rural placement and are feeling antsy, go to a big city. If you’re somewhere urban, go to a rural area. For me, Ahmedabad, which is a four hour bus ride away, has been a sanctuary. Last weekend I had a ginger beer (non-alcoholic; dry state) and vegan African Cassava with cashew cheese, accompanied by a good friend and a great conversation.
- Find your safe space. For me, my bedroom has become a safe space, the only space in a crowded country that is just mine. I know that other fellows have found similar spaces; whether it be their bedroom, a rock climbing gym, a hidden yoga studio, a particular café…find your safe space and go from time to time, because in a country of noise, you need somewhere that your mind will go quiet.
All of these suggestions have a common theme running through them. They are all “American” activities. Of course I am generalizing here, but typically, in Bhavnagar, the Indian community doesn’t run in the morning, they walk. They don’t crave Mexican food. They don’t have an almond butter stash in their closet. The most important suggestion I have is to integrate yourself into the community in which you live. This is important for fellows like me, who live alone, and fellows who live in big cities with a large expat community. This is why you are here. Yes, you are here to build the capacity of an NGO. However, you aren’t going to be an effective contributor without learning about the culture you are in and the people around you. Go to your coworker’s homes for dinner. Fight your urge to sleep and go to an early morning yoga class. Take lessons-I’m learning tabla (Indian drumming), and brushing up on my Hindi at the moment. When your vegetable vendor knows that you want two bundles of spinach at lunch, when the six little boys in your group tabla class cheer as you finish your first song, when you can pop into your neighbor’s home for a cup of tea-this is when you know that you have adopted a small part of India. The list above consists of ways to escape from India. But in reality, surrendering to India itself is what keeps me sane.