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Two Different Worlds Yet Part of the Same
My Trip Manifesto
As a senior trip before my senior year of college, I decided to travel abroad but not the traditional route. I looked into study abroad programs through my college but I was a science major and at the time unfortunately they only offered liberal arts classes abroad and I did not need any of those so I was out of luck. I did a little research and decided to volunteer abroad instead of receive educational credits for my work. I picked two organizations that were not main stream charities or non profits to be able to fully customize my trips abroad. I was a little apprehensive because our global political climate is very unstable and everyone was worried whether they would see me again or not, but I pushed on and got everything packed and ready for adventure.
So with my plan ticket in hand and the hugs out of the way, I boarded my plane and began to live my dream and plan my trip in my mind. I had no set plan only that I was going to volunteer with these two organizations and travel when I could. I couldn't really plan too much because I didn't know exactly what i would be doing, but I knew that I would be involved in an AIDS program in Arusha, Tanzania and one in Delhi, India. Before I knew it, the plane landed and the adventure began.
I know this sounds stereotypical, but it was a big culture shock in both places. The noise and busyness of both airports is like any US airport, so I was in my comfort zone. I took my own impressions of these places and threw them out the door. I was a little naive about what to expect because like I think most people I expected to see something similar to the US as soon as I stepped out the door. This was not so but my experience with both countries before actually going there was only what they will show you on TV much like the US does which is glamorize the country. I cannot really blame them because if you tell the truth no one would want to go there.
When I stepped out of Delhi International Airport by mistake instead of waiting for my ride inside like my sponsor told me, I was bombarded by images, smells, and people. I still remember the calmness of the airport, while I dialed the 16 digit number to call my sponsor on a payphone with instruction in Hindi. My sponsor told me to stay inside the airport and not go to the parking lot. I of course did not heed his warning and ventured outside where I was bombarded and hit around like a ping pong ball while the many many many taxi drivers who did not speak English tried to grab my bags and get me to take a taxi. Once I got through the hordes of people and smells I hit a quite calm parking lot. I started to get nervous because I was the only woman unaccompanied by a man, so of course the men stared at me and we could not speak because we did not understand each other. Finally, I see a van driving by and a young man popped out the door and told me his name. I was relieved my ride came, but he could not stop because the battery was having problems so I had to jump in. As we were driving to the place I would spend the night, I saw something I never saw before. A child was running through the field half naked laughing while I assume his brother chased him, then he stopped and disappeared. His bathroom was the field in front of Delhi International. This is my first impression of India, but not my last.
My first impression of Arusha was actually quite peaceful. I landed in Arusha, Tanzania and was better prepared after spending a month in India. I got off the plan and walked to the airport where I was greeted by armed guards and a very long immigration line. When I got up to the booth to talk to the officer, I was greeted with a stern face and a lot of questions. After the interrogation, I got my bags and waited. As I looked for my ride amongst the men with signs, I was nervous and worried that I was forgotten. I felt honestly like the last kid picked at dodge ball. After 5 hours of worry and constantly checking to see if there was a sign with my name on it, a very handsome black young man who was a little older than me came up to me and asked what my name was. I at first was scared that something would happen, but there was a kindness about him. I found out that he was here to pick me up and take me to the village with one of his friends, He politely asked me about myself and why I was here and told me about what the agenda was. After a while, he quietly talked to his friend to let me sleep, but I couldn't. It was partially because of excitement that I was finally here and also because the airport was 2 hours away from the village and I did not know them well enough. The area was dark around the airport and mostly open fields. I was tired, but too excited. Finally, as I dosed off we reached our destination. Finally I was home...well my home for now.
How many different continents have you been to besides where you live?
Acclamation and Joy
It took me a while to get use to my new surroundings. There is a certain level of comfort with familiar surroundings that I knew once I found it in both places I would be fine. I think the fears of other people like my family and articles I read about going abroad is what made me apprehensive about completely emerging myself. I knew though if I didn't let go and jump in head first, then I would lose out.
India was not going as planned, but I would not accept defeat and in the end it turned out to be an awesome experience. I found out the next day from my coordinator in country that the program I signed up was not going to happen. I was crushed because I was set on the AIDS/ HIV programs since that is my passion. He explained to me that in his country it's not safe and we would be at our own risk dealing with HIV infected individuals. He told me his frustration with the situation and the program. I decided not to let that affect my trip and for the first time in a unfamiliar situation I asked him where can I help. I ended teaching at his foundation he started in the rural villages for kids who cannot afford to go to public school.
Even though I was disappointed about the program, I still really wanted to help so I taught. I arrived after about an hours drive to this little building with stall size rooms. The children at the school could not speak English, so a boy of about 16 decided he would translate for me. What do I teach? At first I was scared to teach because I assume everyone else was so accomplished and qualified to teach. However that was not the case, I couldn't blame them though since it was an incredible way to travel cheap. What I didn't appreciate in both places is that people complained about the conditions and tried to compare the US to India using the US standards. They were not trying to understand that this is not the US and things are not done the same. However instead of taking my host's offer to teach at first, I helped out the nurse who I became friends with, with giving medical exams and be kind of the local villages go to gal for medical advice. I learned a lot and saw the appreciation on their faces that someone took the time to help. I soon realized that I should impart some knowledge on these eager children so they can help their families. How do I do that? After careful thought, consideration and observation, I decided to teach them about sanitation instead of give them an irrelevant education about the US government and not even the right information as most the volunteers thought this was a joke.
After finding my place in India, my mission was clear in Tanzania. After my night spent in a halfway house, all the volunteers were assigned to a family and would move into the houses in two weeks. As I got use to the bustling little town of Arusha, it became a familiar place and my confidence was building. My program was set, so all that was left was to teach me a little about the local and diverse cultures of the town as well as the basics of the local language, Swahili. Then we moved into learning the different lessons in the HIV / AIDS program. Because I was well versed in this area, the in country coordinator and others would defer to me about questions the program never answered for them but the local people they visited wanted to know. Our translator gave us a tour of town and local attractions before we finally moved into our homes. Being thrown into the local culture, made the experience a true experience without the trappings of feeling like a tourist. I was on my own much like when I was in India. Daily life consisted pretty much of the same thing I did in the US, I got up early, ate breakfast, went to work, went home, hung out, went to sleep, then rinsed and repeated.
A New Day, A New Beginning
Everyday I was there I was building more confidence and realizing that my time here even though each place I was I was there for a month was too short. I knew I had to see as many things as I could because I may never be able to afford to come back. More importantly, the decision to devote my life to science was hanging in the balance not to mention I wanted to help as many people as possible to change their lives before I left.
While in India, my focus was to teach the kids as much as I could about their environment, the dangers that lurk in everyday life that could significantly impact their health, and how to prevent these dangers from permanently affecting their lives. The children I taught were anywhere from 8 to 16 years old, so I had to tailor my lessons so even the youngest could understand. There was a sense of community pulling the kids and myself together to help each other as well as an eagerness for the kids to learn. I felt at first I wasn't making a difference until the second day. I had kids running up to me saying how they are applying their lesson and correcting their parents on how to do things properly like boiling water and cleaning food before use. At that moment, my life felt worthwhile and exciting that these kids want the opportunity to learn like any other child. It inspired me to teach them more about the environment around them, explain to them how their behavior effects their world and how to alter it so some of it could be reversed. Even with the language barrier we all still tried our hardest to understand each other whether through hand signals, pictures or having other kids explain it to the small ones. Everyday was a blessing and a new adventure.
After my adventure in India, my experience in Tanzania even though it was better scheduled was still something no one can completely plan for. I met so many inspiring and passionate people. School age children through adults wanted to know more about this disease that wasn't part of the program, but I was happy to help them. After getting use to the volunteers, the students and adults would ask us questions of curiosity about other illness and what they need to do. It is in this quest for knowledge that broke down for me any stereotype about people dealing with, managing or living with HIV / AIDS infected individuals. In the end, I not only taught them a few things but without them knowing it the experience also taught me a lot about myself and my own prejudices about the virus. Everyday I spent there made me appreciate everything I had that really a lot of these people do not have the same access to.
Knowledge is truly power even if it comes from the most unlikeliness of places. When I left both places, I felt a certain emptiness like I was leaving my true life and calling behind, but I knew I needed to finish my degree and with a renewed passion continue to do something good everyday reminding myself of the people I helped. Since I made my own posters to help explain the information, at the end of my journey in Arusha my coordinator asked if she could keep them and use them since they had not been provided with anything but a manual. By far though the most touching moment was in India, when at the end of my trip no teachers other than myself and one other were at the school and it was my last day of teaching so the kids did their own this is your life show. As my lesson ended, everyone was emotional and my multiple translators who actually learned English in the process began to express to me their gratitude. I told them they were amazing and the material was college level work that even some college students don't carry the same passion as they did. The kids presented me with cards and pictures. I did not want to leave because their was a peacefulness and simplicity to life that I knew I would never find again. The moment though that beat all moments was when a 3 year old I had never seen before had drawn the virus structure for HIV / AIDS on her card. I knew I had made a difference in their lives and my own.
This was a trip I have never forgotten and have vowed I would return to both places when I can afford it. I realized every place I went was not so different from the US except the passion for knowledge and understanding fueled by a curiosity was so much stronger there. I have tried in moments of great despair to remember these moments of pure adulation because I truly made a difference. I found out a year after that the lessons I taught and the passions of the in country coordinators made my lessons permanent fixtures in their programs. I am so proud of these programs and the fact I got the opportunity to be a part of something bigger than myself.
Unfortunately, I cannot say that I became some Nobel prize winning microbiologist, but what I can tell you is that I live life day by day and am hopeful for the future. After working several jobs after I graduating trying to find my place, I realized that unless someone gives me a fair chance to live up to my full potential then I would never fulfill any of my goals. I want to help people regardless of what field I am in, but every place I worked they were more concerned about their bottom line than employee happiness. I can't blame them for that. I realized that instead of waiting for opportunities to help people I needed to create my own much like the people I met abroad. We are not all so different. We live and breathe the same air. In all societies the same challenges are faced. We all want the opportunity to learn and work. It is in understanding each other's differences that we can truly be a global community.