Sunday, January 4, 2015

A Year Ago

This time last year I was saying goodbye to my boyfriend and trying to figure out what the heck I was feeling through the sadness, excitement, nervousness, curiosity, and overwhelming fact that I would be gone for almost 6 months. This time last year, I was a completely different person. I changed so much in 2014, and most of it was because of my India experience. Seeing as it is a new year and I've had 6 months at home to process my trip and internal changes, I found it appropriate to reflect on my India blog, starting with IVHQ, moving on to India in general, and ending with myself and where I am today.
     I tried very hard to be optimistic and show the great parts of my trip, knowing I had an audience of all kinds. I made an effort not to publicly display all of my frustrations or complaints.  But the truth is, I left India with a bad taste in my mouth and could not get out of there fast enough. That is the reason for my short Taj Mahal entry: I was over India, and didn't even want to spend the time writing about a great day trip to one of the wonders of the world.  Now don't get me wrong, I had some FANTASTIC moments with IVHQ, some of the health projects, and meeting the wonderful friends I still talk to today.  But as it is with most bad moments, those stuck with me more and put a black shadow over my trip that I can not completely get rid of.
     I feel my trip would have gone better had I actually been making a difference.  IVHQ looked so promising with its tales of volunteering in camps, mobile clinic projects, and ability to work in a wide variety of settings. Plus it was one of the cheapest mission groups I could find for the amount of time I wanted to stay.  The reality? The health project was about 35% shadowing, 15% actual volunteering, and 50% amusing yourself with all of the free time.  Most of the clinical time was spent shadowing doctors in various places, who generally would not translate or explain what they were doing and why.  In one placement, I spent 2 weeks sitting in the waiting room of a gynecologists office waiting for the doctor to decide to let me observe.  During those 2 weeks I got to see 3 or 4 Cesarean sections, and watch a DNC. While that was cool, that still means for 10 days I sat for 4 hours on an uncomfortable chair and watched people come into the waiting room.  When voicing this complaint to my host dad-the coordinator of the health program-he was unbothered and gave the excuse "She has to learn you are trustworthy and dependable, and see you are there ready to learn."  I'm sorry, but that is bullshit. First of all, I paid money to come volunteer, not learn. Secondly, if learning is what I got to do instead, then you need to let me learn! If you are going to run a program, you need to partner with doctors willing to interact and engage with those who are a part of said program. not make the participants sit in a waiting room hoping maybe someday they will be talked to.  In 6 months, the only true volunteering I actually did was the time I spent taking vitals in my favorite slum clinic, the 2.5 slum camp clinics we held in the community, and when I was teaching.  If you notice, I mentioned above that I had to sit for 4 hours on an uncomfortable chair. Only 4 hours. Because 4 hours was all of the time per day we spent at our placements. Even on the days we ran a slum camp, we would get started around 9 and be closed up by 1. Every day of every week we were home before 2 in time for lunch. Then it was free time the rest of the day. got old, fast.  Unless we wanted to go buy something from the market, there was not much we could do between 3 and 7 when we had to be home because it was dark.  To get into Delhi took at least and hour each way, leaving not much time to look around there except on weekends.  I spent A LOT of time reading, which in a way was good because it got me back into my arduous love affair with books, but I did not come to India to read.I came to help.  I had some absolutely wonderful weekend trips to various cities. But I did not come to vacation, I came to help.
     In my reflections on India, I will try not to be offensive or disrespectful to a culture; but I can only write about what I saw, felt, and thought based on my personal experiences. I wrote a blog entry a few months in about my thoughts regarding a few key topics: transportation, religion, treatment of women, and the LGBTQ community. It was very optimistic, with cries of "but things are improving!" following most of the criticism.  I was a little too nice, because the picture I have of India as a whole is not necessarily one full of sunshine and rainbows.  Indian life is full of corruption, from basic day-to-day activities, up to the government. My favorite example to use is that of a young man who paid money to get a motorcycle license made. He didn't take the test, didn't acquire it legally, and told everyone about it like it was not a big deal. Because there it's not. Maybe paying for a license isn't the worst crime in the grand scheme of things, but it shows the flippancy of how people think its okay to cheat their way out of legal processes.  People fake documents and pay their way out of situations....then complain of all the corruption. ?
      In regards to treatment of females, things are the rich areas. Sadly, though, the majority of India lives under the poverty level, and a large percent hold traditional ideas.  Yes the caste system was technically abolished; but families still know what last names belong to which caste, and that caste still makes a big difference in parental permission for marriage, even when the partner in the lower class is educated and successful.  Yes females go to school and can hold careers; but most will still end up housewives chained by duty and obligation, even with Masters degrees.  My host dad had a big stipulation for his wife: he wanted a woman who was not also a doctor, and who was highly educated.....because he wanted someone intelligent who would stay home with their children and be able to tutor them in the house after school.  My host mom, after earning her Masters degree, decided to become a housewife.  She could not go anywhere without her husband, and was stuck in the home.  We invited her many places with us, but even if her husband was home she was required to stay and watch the kids in case he wanted to go out.  I am not shaming a woman who wants to be a housewife; it is a noble and difficult job, and one a woman is allowed to choose.  But it was obvious she wanted something more, and obvious she was capable of so much more.  In being raised by a culture of duty and subservience, many women do not think they have a large enough voice to be independent.  Many also risk being shunned by their family for not being the model wife that culture expects.  At the orientation house, a few girls lived upstairs who were studying advanced degrees and choosing careers. They lived in that house because their families disowned them for wanting to pursue higher education and have that career.  It left the girls with little resources, and made them "unmarriageable to a decent family" because they shamefully went against their parents wishes.  Of course, there is also the big point regarding treatment of women: safety and rape.  India has the highest occurrence of  rape in the world, and a lot of that is due to women still being viewed as lesser, as property, or as a being to be dominated.  Rape isnt okay there, but it also isn't always met with the same reaction one sees in the US.  In my first month, within a few weeks of each other, I read about a white European woman being raped on a bus traveling to Dharamsala, and another who got lost and found herself in a bad part of town after dark where she got raped.  I didnt read about many cases of the raping of Indian women, probably (and sadly) because they were not notable people and its such a disgustingly regular event. The metro has a woman's carriage, and women's crisis hotline numbers are written on every autorickshaw, but women do not enjoy the ease of knowing they will probably be safe. Even if rape is not occurring, molestation does regularly.  I was walking through the bustling streets of Chandni Chowk one afternoon in Delhi, and found myself defenseless against the sliding hands of men around me. They would do it so casually, so even when I jerked in anger and tried to find the culprit to slap him and yell at him, it was impossible to identify the perpetrator. We ended up still being there at dusk that day, and suddenly looked around to notice NO women were in the area except the ones in our group. Women are not found out at night, and its for good reason.  I was never out after dark, unless with a group of males. Even then, it was usually for trips to the local market or restaurants at the mall in familiar Faridabad. Our orientation host Mom also informed us on the first day that women can't buy alcohol.  They legally can, but it reflects shamefully on their family if they are seen doing it, and men will sometimes follow a woman home who buys alcohol because he thinks he can take advantage of her there.  I eventually got to the point in India where I was at ease travelling alone during the day, and it was an exhilarating  experience of independence. But I never shook my uneasiness of being a female out at night.  
      In much the same way, LGBTQ treatment is the richer and more open-minded areas.  As told in my blog entry about culture observations, a transgender or cross-dressing male or female is treated as having a mental disorder.  And contrary to what I was told by the IVHQ staff member, it is NOT okay to be homosexual. In fact, it is illegal and one can face serious repercussions.  In communicating with people on a Facebook travel group, I read that people disagree with that law and will turn a blind eye. Again, though, I think that is just in the richer and open-minded areas.  From what I saw in the small towns, traditional ideas still pervade.  Attitudes towards homosexuality were something I could not find out much information on, since the people I knew who spoke English well enough did not want to discuss it (or would lie about it to make me feel better).
     This lying to make me feel better segues into my biggest complaint with some of the Indians I encountered: the way I was cheated and lied to.  I never knew who was being honest, or what the truth was in any situation.  My trip even started out with a lie: being told homosexuality was allowed.  In between, I experienced racism and sexism in trying to purchase things: I would be told I was getting a good deal, barter it down, then would later find out a typical Indian still pays way less.  When hailing a tuk-tuk, I would consistently be given a price of 300 rupees when I knew the trip didn't cost more than 10.  To many, my white skin screamed "I'm a rich American! Unfairly charge me more!" (as an aside on the different treatment but not a lie, it costs foreigners 500 rupees to see the Taj Mahal vs 50 rupees for an Indian. It was the same in Jaipur for the Amber Palace, and in Delhi for the Red Fort).  My trip ended with a series of lies and shady business: being moved from my house and fed different reasons why every time I called someone out on not telling me the truth. Maybe I was lied to because they wanted me to be happy and not have a negative experience. Or maybe I was lied to because it was just convenient to placate me with whatever idea seemed logical rather than the actual answer to a question or explanation of a situation. Whatever the reason, I was tired of being given the run-around, and sick of wondering who I could actually trust.
    Despite the spewing of my intense dissatisfaction, there is one thing I do have to admit: India is rich in experience and culture. I repeat again, lest you think I had a completely awful time: I had some FANTASTIC moments that I wrote about and included pictures for.  I also realize that generalizations do not mean every single Indian male is out for a piece of tail, that all Indians lie, all Indians hate homosexuals, or anything of that sort.  The trips and experiences were fun, but I gathered so much more internally from almost 6 months away that I wouldn't have gained at home.  The sense of independence gathered on my journey is irreplaceable, and I returned a completely different person mentally. It is said people go to India to find themselves....I didn't need an ashram or meditation, but I have to say I feel that I did find myself to some degree.  There's something indescribable about being the only white person in a smelly cramped train car, and being perfectly okay with it; or hopping on a full public autorickshaw at night and being able to tell the driver how to get you home as the other English-speaking passengers seem confused at why this little foreigner lives there; or just the simple act of getting yourself around town and enjoying the scenery because you have nothing to worry about. I felt free....very free, and I loved it. Something happened in Thailand that I haven't told many people about, in fear of judgement, but that I feel contributed greatly to my self-awareness and independence: I had sex with a stranger.  I am not the hook-up type. Despite many chances in the US, I could never bring myself to have sex with someone I barely knew or had not known but for a few hours.  To me, sex is not necessarily sacred, but it is something I have to have a connection with someone in order to go through with.  Maybe it was the setting of being out in another country, maybe it was my altered feeling of freedom and adventure, but whatever it was I was able to go through with it. And I do not feel bad, guilty, dirty, or regretful after the fact. However, it is something I do not think I will repeat. Even now, being back, I don't have someone I can regularly be with, but I do not feel the need to go find a stranger to alleviate desires nor do I feel I would be able to. A friend brought up that maybe its the social stigmas in the US keeping me from sleeping around. I don't think so, I think it is just how I am. I had my one experience to cross off the bucket list, and I am content with that because it was my decision and on my terms, in the same way whoever I decide to sleep with is my decision on my terms. I also believe, through that sexual experience and other non-sexual events leading to my openness as a person, that I am more open to all aspects of sexuality.  Sex is something beautiful between two people, and you can experience so much with the presence of trust.  I am no longer put-off by ideas or kinks that get labeled as "weird," and the idea of adding a third person in is intriguing. Does this make me some kind of a new sexual freak? No. Will I run out and find someone to do everything with right now? No. But my mind doesn't feel closed to anything, and it is an amazing feeling.

    It is now a new year, and everyone has gone through with their "new year, new me" posts and goals on social media. I feel 2015 is a new year with a new me, but it didn't start at the advent of January 1st, it started in June 2014 when I returned home.  My eating habits are completely different, my outlook on life is different, and my desire for adventure is stronger.   I tried to condense this entry some because there is just so much on so many topics that I could discuss. If you have any questions or want to hear about something further, feel free to send me a message and we can talk more.

     If you have not been away from home for a long time, I encourage you to do so. Pick a time limit that makes you uncomfortable...then extend it. You will feel alone, you will feel homesick, you will wish you hadn't done it.....until one day you will be happy you did. And when you get home, you will be amazed at how you developed.