Written by Liberty Shockley, (University of Cincinnati) Student Correspondent UW in India, Summer 2017
Arriving to a new place is always filled with apprehension. Most people think internally, “Will I make friends?” and worry about what it will be like. Flying into Varanasi, known as Kashi “The City of Light,” or simply Banaras, I was worried about this exactly with the new UW in India group. We have become great friends, but during our first gathering, ice breakers and name exchanges commenced, adding to the worry instead of quelling it. What makes these feelings go away was glimpses into the lives of these new friends.
Getting to know India began the same way. The plane ride here was not a fun one, I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to my friends in Nepal, and the people on the flight weren’t very polite. Then, I had small issues at immigration, leaving me feeling discouraged. As soon I stepped out into Varanasi, my feelings changed. I was breathing new air, listening to a new language, and aware of a different way of life. They drive on the left side of the road, sometimes, and pack cars as full as they can get since there are so many people. There are mosques, stupas, gumbas, shrines, and oh so many flowers. This was a powerful place.
There is some commute time between group events, and I talk with a person or two that are next to me, and soon get a feel for their personality. One Tuesday morning, I realized that the NBA finals were still happening in America, and I threw that message in our group chat. A few of us gathered in one of the classrooms to watch the Golden State Warriors defeat the Cleveland Cavaliers, bantering and drinking chai before class. During these times are when cohesion happens, and we become a family, rather than a bunch of students.
As we move together in India, we are getting to know the culture as well. I’d like to think about it as making friends with the area. I think of each of the states I’ve lived in as if they are old friends whom with I share fond memories. I’ve learned that most of the people you see in the morning and evening on the Ghats are not locals, they’re actually tourists. Harini ji put it simply by saying Varanasi is like “Hindu Disneyland” which made all that I knew about the religious importance of the area connect with what I was actually seeing. The ghats in this city are where people come to cremate their loved ones, mourn, and worship. The Dashashwamedh ghat looks like a New Year’s Eve Celebration every single evening for Ganga aarti. People gather here at sunset by foot, by rickshaw, and by boat, and are led by priests blowing conch shells, chanting mantras, and young men wielding fire in worship and celebration.
As we collect more and more of these experiences our perception develops, bringing us awareness to our new home. We begin to delve into what could solve problems like unhealthy home life, public defecation, and the caste system by discussing politics, education, and culture. A push for young people in politics could close the gap between extreme wealth and extreme poverty. A push for education could solve the pollution in the Ganges, if the next generation understood what they were really doing. A push for diversity in schools with standardized curriculum could help the next generation ignore differences in caste and level the playing field.
When we return to America, we will try to tell our friends what it is like here, the traffic, the heat, and the culture, but no matter how much we try, they will still only get glimpses into this experience.