Name: Kaitlyn Thatcher
Project: Study Abroad
For my STEP experience, I chose to study abroad on the International Affairs Scholars India trip during May session 2015. We spent two weeks exploring the diverse history and culture of New Delhi, Agra, and Varanasi.
This adventure was transformative for me in several ways, a couple of which were entirely unexpected. Admittedly, I originally had a few concerns about travelling to India. I was largely unfamiliar with this region of the world and had never travelled to another continent before. Before taking the prerequisite class, I knew very little about the culture or the everyday life of people in this part of the world, and I wasn’t sure how I would adapt to being in such a different environment. Being a molecular genetics major, this was a little out of my comfort zone and very different from my usual studies. After taking the prerequisite class (Everyday Life in South Asia), I learned that Delhi had a very rich history, and was very culturally diverse, but was also a very busy city with a large population. At first, it was a little overwhelming. Trying to navigate through the city on our own during our free time was quite an adventure. The traffic was incredible; the chaos of honking cars, motorcycles, buses, auto rickshaws, cows, and the occasional elephant all travelling the same street was a lot to take in. By the end of the trip though, I was mostly used to it. I actually kind of miss the feel of the hot Indian breeze on my face as we buzzed through traffic in the back of a tiny green and yellow auto rickshaw. Though it was a little scary at first to go out into such a big city with just a couple friends, we made a lot of great memories. We explored parks and gardens, local markets and restaurants, and even got henna. I had never had henna done before, but I loved it so much that I started learning how to do it when we returned to the U.S. I really didn’t think I was a very artistic person, but I found that I maybe have a bit of natural talent for henna. I’ve been painting friends and family ever since.
My henna done by an artist in New Delhi Henna I painted for a friend
In the back of an auto rickshaw
We saw so many incredible things in India. Some of my favorite sites were the Taj Mahal (which was so stunning I had goosebumps in 115° weather!), Gandhi’s Smriti, and the river Ghats of the holy Ganges. We saw the most holy place in the world for a Hindu to be cremated and attain Moksha, and watched a beautiful Brahman priest ceremony on the banks of the Ganges. There were thousands of people watching this ceremony, crowded along the Ghats and in boats watching from the water. Everyone was there for a once in a lifetime chance to see the priests give thanks to the holy Mother Ganges and to put her to sleep for the night. We saw museums and ancient temples and mosques, and even got to walk through the deer park where Buddha gave his first sermon. We saw remarkable monuments like Qutub Minar and the India Gate. I gained such an appreciation not only for the history of this country, but also for its art. Not only did I get to experience henna from an amazingly talented group of artists, but we also saw several fabric shops filled with gorgeous silk scarves and saris, and even got to watch a man weaving a traditional wedding sari by hand on a giant loom, a process that can take months. We met marble artists who were said to be direct descendants of the people who built the Taj Mahal, and got to watch them etch delicate designs by hand into a plate of marble, and fill each marking with a semi-precious stone. So many of the sites we saw were very elaborately decorated, inside and out, and a lot of it was done by hand; it was easy to get lost in the artwork by just staring up at the ceiling.
On the Ganges River Ghats
Another one of my favorite things about India is how open most people are about their religion. There were temples of all different religions everywhere, even small ones in the streets. We saw some incredible Hindu temple complexes, like Akshardham, as well as several beautiful mosques, such as Jama Masjid (“Old Mosque”). Our tour guide had told us that anyone who visits India will believe in God when they leave, even if they didn’t before they arrived. I thought that maybe this could be true, but that one would probably have to spend more than just a couple weeks in India to have that kind of transformation. I certainly wasn’t expecting to experience that kind of transformation on this trip, but to my surprise, I understood exactly what he was talking about as soon as I walked into Jama Masjid. Maybe it was the spectacular architecture, the high ceilings flecked with red and white, the chandeliers, and tall arches pointed towards the heavens, but I really did feel as if I were somehow in the presence of the divine. It was unexplainable, but it was almost as if you could feel centuries’ worth of prayers echoing silently off the walls around you. It was a little surreal, but it was a very spiritual experience that I will never forget.
Of all the incredible things I saw and experienced in India, perhaps my absolute favorite experiences were giving back to the community. We volunteered at a Sikh temple and at an after-school program for young children. At the Sikh temple, we worked in a kitchen making naan and other foods for anyone in need of a meal. The food was free to people of any religion. I got walk around the sitting area and hand out bread to people, and everyone was so kind and welcoming. Our guide at the temple told us, “We do not feed people here. On the contrary, it is the people who feed us, because they give us the opportunity to serve.”
In the end, I was so glad that I had decided to go on this trip, despite all the things I was afraid of. I was able to get over all my initial fears and to enjoy India for everything it had to offer. I was sincerely sad to leave after only two weeks, and I would definitely go back if I had the chance. This trip gave me a better appreciation for the rest of the world, its diverse cultures and people and what a great experience travelling can be. Even though it might be a little intimidating to explore a new place so far from home, it was very much worth it and I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to do this. I’m already looking forward to my next adventures abroad, wherever that may be!