Written January 15, 2023
On January 3rd, we passed our halfway point through Bridge Year, and we have been doing lots of reflecting on all the progress we have made and all the lessons we have learned thus far. To celebrate our halfway point, each group member has chosen a specific lesson they have learned, question they have been thinking about, or observation they have made to elaborate on below.
Embracing Non-Verbal Communication (By Maya Kenny)
When I arrived in India almost 5 months ago, I was suddenly unable to express myself verbally. We were living in Kalimpong where Nepali is commonly spoken, a language I was embarrassingly oblivious to before my arrival. I was in shambles. How would I get to know my homestay family? How would they get to know me? How would I tell them thank you? How could I live with a family and not be able to talk to them??
I vividly remember the first excruciatingly awkward night in Kalimpong, sitting at the kitchen table with Ama (mom in Nepali), Baba (dad in Nepali), and Persiska (their fourteen-year-old daughter). In my panic, I kept blurting out random Hindi words and incorrect phrases that I thought might catalyze some sort of instantaneous bonding with my family. “App kya karna?” Confused looks. That was too complicated for me in Hindi. “Kanna pasand!” Still nothing and wrong again. I changed tactics. “Oh, by the way, my family says thank you for having me. I have two bahin (sisters), one tora and one older.” I just kept going. “Do either of you have bhai (brothers) or bahin?” After an hour of trying to extract meaning from my jumble of words, Baba (father) was so visibly confused that he finally wiped his brow and turned to his wife with an incredulous look that seemed to say, “What is going on??”
I was desperate to communicate with them, and I thought the only way to do that was through words. Not only was that assumption incorrect, but it was also stressing everyone out. I had unintentionally put an unrealistic expectation on us to somehow be able to verbally communicate. Despite knowing a few words and phrases in the other’s language, at the end of the day, we couldn’t communicate through words.
However, as the days passed with my homestay family, I got more comfortable sitting with the initial discomfort and awkwardness of our language barrier. “Awkward” silences were no longer awkward, and we could smile and laugh through miscommunications and the slight ridiculousness of our charades-like communication. In so many ways, no longer trying to speak was a relief. Without constantly having to think about what to say next, my mind was clear to really listen to and observe my surroundings carefully. What I observed was truly fascinating.
I realized that many actions held significant meaning. Food, for example, seemed to express care and love. When I first arrived, I was confused by the way Ama would pile more food onto Baba’s, Persiska’s, and my plates before we had even finished eating what we started with. Later, I realized that this was her expressing care for us and our health. Baba similarly expressed his affection and care for Persiska (and possibly me) through action, but slightly differently than Ama. Each evening when he came home from work, Baba would bring a small gift (candy, chocolates, pens, etc.) for Persiska and me. He would present the gifts to each of us with his right hand while touching his left hand to his right elbow, the traditional method of formal gifting.
One of the times I felt most connected to Ama was when we were sitting alone one morning at the kitchen table when she suddenly grabbed a hairbrush, pointed at herself, made a brushing motion, and then pointed at my damp hair from my bath that morning. She was offering to do my hair. I sat in the chair she pulled out for me, and we giggled as we realized I was still too tall even sitting and Ama standing. I moved to a stool. Ama started combing my hair. I felt her fingers move nimbly and confidently through my hair, gently pulling and tugging to make a braided crown. We sat in peaceful silence as she continued, and I thought of my own mom and how she used to similarly braid my hair. Even though it was a small gesture, I felt the familiar love of a mother when Ama and I shared this moment.
Despite many benefits of verbal communication, I have found that small gestures and actions like the previous examples have been able to foster more authentic and genuine connections than words ever could. Actions speak louder than words. I’ve heard that phrase countless times, but I haven’t actually considered its meaning in a long time. I used to think the phrase meant that someone should follow up on their words with actions. If someone said they were going to do something, they should. If someone said they respected someone, their actions should reflect that respect. While I think there’s value in those interpretations, all of them always had words preceding action. But what if actions alone can communicate what words never could? Hospitality and even love for a stranger seem to be communicated through scalding hot chai, home-cooked meals, and scoldings for sitting on cold floors. A sense of belonging and community through the effortless flow and rhythm of strangers improvising Indian classical music together in a community cafe. It wasn’t until my experience in India that I considered this.
Growing up in America, I think I became conditioned to crave verbal direction and affirmation. Yes, you’re doing that right. No, you’re doing that wrong. Please. Thank you. You’re welcome. While words are certainly very useful to communicate many things, I think I’ve both overused and depended too highly upon language to the point where some things I say and hear have become a bit hollow and meaningless.
As I navigate the rest of my time in India (and beyond), I’m going to try to balance my verbal and nonverbal communication with the world. I will allow myself to sit with silence so that I may notice subtle messages from those around me. I will seek out spaces and activities where I can physically feel creativity and community. I will try to express my most genuine values and beliefs through the ways I choose to act and treat others. I’m excited about this challenge, and I have India to thank for opening my eyes to these alternative ways of communication and connection.
The Beauty of Udaipur (By Isabella Valentine)
The other day, I was biking along a main road in Udaipur. It was away from the beautiful tourist area, and I’d never particularly looked forward to this bike ride.
But as I biked along, there were people along the side of the road selling things—jackets, papitas, pants, kelas (bananas), pottery, gobi (cauliflower). Cars, scooties, and my bicycle maneuvered around each other, working together to get us all where we needed to be, and every so often, I’d spot a glorious cow. The fruit on carts was organized into orderly rows, and I knew that if I stopped at a given cart, the fruit seller would choose to sell me the ripest looking fruits. The dirt on the side of the road was a light brown color, but something about it was pretty. And between stretches of dirt was store after store, each store selling something different, with its own customers, and its own culture.
At one point, I took a deep breath, feeling the cold air go through my nose, but feeling the warm sun on my skin, and I thought to myself, This is my home.
I live in Udaipur where things aren’t always beautiful at first glance, but when you really take time to think about them, they are. There is always someone to smile at, always someone to smile back at you, a beautiful chaos on the roads…
There is so much beauty in Udaipur and the world, especially when you let your eyes see it.
Cycling (By Ned Erickson)
One of my biggest shocks since coming on Bridge Year has been how routine it all can feel. A few months ago as we were first seeing India and taking in all its sounds, sights, and smells, I would not have thought that being here could be at all routine, but it can. As humans, our minds look for patterns and find familiarity in the world around us and we automatically fall into routines. And that's a good thing to a certain extent; going through such a dynamic experience, it's important to have a routine to keep yourself sane, but I have been trying not to get trapped in that routine. Having just reached the halfway point through these wild (but not always so wild) 8 ½ months, I have been reflecting a lot, and I have thought about how the first month or two of living in Udaipur was all about building routines and finding ways to protect ourselves from all the change. But now that we have become more comfortable and confident with life in India and Udaipur, it's become important to not get trapped by those routines and remember to experience things fully.
There is nothing all that profound in that observation, but it's funny how that works. How as we grow and develop, those things that we once depended on can begin to hinder us, and during a Bridge Year where things are changing so quickly, that shift is easy to miss. So as we are passing our half way point and entering a new year, my new-year's-halfway-point-resolution is to be actively aware of my experiences and not let them pass me by. One of the times I’ve been trying to develop that mindfulness is during my daily cycle commutes, so here are a few of the lessons I have learned and the observations I have made biking:
Cycling in India is fun! You never know what you will see on the road, and you are forced to be 100% present. (If not, you may get kissed by a car or bumped by a scootie.) Even while biking along the same route I take to and from the program house or work every day, there is always something new to see or something old to see in a new way. Whether it be observing which fruits the roadside vendors are selling daily (unlike the U.S., the fruit here adheres to seasons); or seeing the friendly neighborhood cows; or (safely) dodging cars, scooties, tractors, and whatever other vehicles are on the roads; or even turning the corner and seeing an elephant walking down the street–biking forces me to see the world around me and notice things, ranging from the smallest details to the most elephantically ginormous. It’s during my bike rides that I have those wonderful moments of, “WOW, I'm in India!!!”
During my rides, I also pass lots of the same people every day. Most of them, I will never talk to or learn their names, but when our paths cross for those few seconds each day, I feel a connection to them. It's a good reminder that there is a world beyond me. Anytime, but especially during Bridge Year, it's too easy to get caught up in my own life and experiences, but when dealing with the people I am close to, as well as those who I will never meet, it's good to remember that they live their own distinct lives and experience things in ways I will never know. Having those experiences of “sonder” (shoutout to Sydney for introducing us to that word) makes me a better, more caring person and groupmate, and it also reminds me just how exciting the world and the people in it are.
Finally, Indian roads remind me to trust people. Here traffic laws are treated as suggestions, and lanes may as well be for decoration. But with a little confidence and lots of bell ringing and hand signals, it all works out fine, because drivers here work together to get where they need to go. For example, during a traffic jam, rather than advancing an extra two feet forward, large cars often keep a space open for motorcycles and bikes to squeeze through and hopefully beat the traffic. Or if there is an obstacle in the street, a driver may get out of their car and take on the role of directing traffic. Or if your bike breaks down (and they do break down often), people are sure to stop and try to help you fix it. As much as people may honk here, driving really is a collaborative effort and it’s an example of the communal spirit that applies to so many parts of daily life here.
My Personal Experience Making Way for Culture Shock (By Roxana Martinez)
Love and belonging is an important part of living anywhere and thriving. As a deep-rooted Mexican-American, living in Southern California left little room for me to ever feel out of place; the majority of people I interacted with had some sort of Latinx background or also spent a majority of their time around people who held similar values to Mexican culture. There are a variety of similarities between Indian and Mexican ways of life and values, which I had learned from friends I had met through high school and summer programs, I made the bold assumption that although moving my entire life to the country would be a culture shock, it would likely not be as big as others. I was very mistaken.
In most spaces we walk into, we open conversation by introducing ourselves and saying where we are from. Ethnic diversity is prevalent here primarily through Nepali, Tibetan and Bangladeshi immigrant communities, along with additional foreign visitors who come to vacation, work, or establish residency. While I knew that the assumption that I look Indian would come up, I had never really anticipated having to justify my identity. It felt as if people didn't believe I was American, and if they did, they thought I was a 1st or 2nd generation Indian-American. No explanation is enough Even if I told people I was from Mexico, sometimes the confusion became greater, and a part of me felt less true to myself (given I had only ever visited Mexico, and never lived there longer than a week). This confusion goes beyond worksites or community leaders–it has become a part of my day-to-day life with shopkeepers, merchants, friends, homestay guests, and at cafe's; whereas explaining myself in Hindi has a funky accent, my English sounds very American. The first couple of times people commented on it or asked further questions I laughed it off, but as this persists, occasionally it feels a lot like justifying my skin tone, my upbringings, and my roots. I've even had to explain my health, and why I'm unable to process foods or drink specific liquids the way others can. It's become a whirlwind of feeling like I blend perfectly, but don't quite belong, alongside realizing the true melting pot of cultures and ethnic diversity in the U.S. that many people aren't aware of. I never built an expectation to belong here, but I had definitely not anticipated my introduction of myself to also be followed by a "no, but really where are you from?"
On the other hand, in many other spaces, acting like I have lived here my entire life has made me feel more like this community is a second home. While I don't speak my native language (Spanish) when interacting with people, the bright colors in the attire, the countless amounts of street vendors and shop stalls, having guests over all of the time, and something as simple as eating a Roti (which resembles a Tortilla) remind me of all the things I loved to do when I'd go to Mexico on an occasional weekend or in the summer with my family. Having gigantic parties, religion being the basis of national holidays, even the superstitions felt very familiar to me and thus may be why I've become much less homesick than one would anticipate for someone who's living halfway across the world.
While being mistaken for an Indian teenager can at many times take a toll on my emotional well-being, I'd like to acknowledge that it 100% is a privilege to get to learn more through experience the way Indian women are treated from day to day in a variety of spaces, and this is a perspective I might not be gaining if I was a visible foreigner. On the other hand, I do not discount the fact that it is an overwhelming position to be in when you're accustomed to your environment and are limited in ways to express yourself properly in an unknown language. All I hope for in the next few months of Bridge Year are grace for myself and acknowledgement that I'm still learning to adjust to a space that I set out to learn from. I may never adjust, and I think I'm okay with that, because it's an independent growth project for the next five months.
How Can I Be Unconditionally Compassionate? (By Jessica Poon)
During our time at a Buddhist monastery in the Himalayas, that was a question that I couldn’t seem to let go of. The idea of “compassion” permeated every aspect of our days there – from the monks we spoke with, to the meditations we practiced; possessing unconditional compassion seemed like a secret power that allowed people to magically cure their minds of suffering. But figuring out how to actually possess this power was an even bigger mystery.
At the time, we were only a few weeks into the program, and life abroad still felt like a dream that I would eventually wake up from. I had so many questions and was constantly in a state of confusion, but before the dust had time to settle, we were being whisked away into the mountains to discuss the philosophies of emptiness, clarity, impermanence, and compassion.
We attended lessons with monks who told us to clear our minds and detach ourselves from causes of suffering such as superficiality, materialism, physical pain, and ego. We witnessed a prayer ceremony known as a Puja in which a symphony of over 40 monks dedicated prayers to all of Earth’s sentient beings, once again demonstrating the true unconditional compassion that these monks extend to everyone and everything that exists in this world.
But how? How can someone be unconditionally compassionate? And what does that even mean for me? All these concepts seemed so distant from the life I lived, so impossible to incorporate into my soon-to-be daily life in Udaipur.
It’s been almost 4 months since we visited the monastery, and surprisingly, some of the lessons I learnt there have actually become a lifeline for me here.
Staying in India as a Hong Kong citizen has raised a lot of questions within me regarding my personal identity and how interconnected it is with the ever-changing geopolitics that take place on the global stage. Living amidst the recent relations and border tensions between China and India, I’ve come to realize that although these complex bilateral relations are a matter of governments and larger political forces at play, these conflicting social and political dynamics manifest in much smaller ways—dramatically affecting the daily lives of individual people.
The first time I fully faced this reality was when I found out that Hong Kong was recently added to the list of foreign nationals that would not be granted entry into Sikkim without special permission from the government. Sikkim is a state in the Northeast that borders Tibet, Nepal, and Bhutan, and it is also home to the Buddhist Monastery we visited. As we prepared to enter state borders, I realized that entering into a politically sensitive area like Sikkim would not have been possible for me without my Canadian passport. Grappling with that reality pained me in knowing that due to greater geopolitics, most people from my home would never be granted the opportunity to see such a beautiful place like Sikkim and learn about the plight of Tibetans living in India (which is something that most Chinese citizens have limited exposure to). And what was even more saddening to me was the realization that for similar geopolitical reasons, many Tibetan refugees living here might never have the opportunity to return to the place they once called home.
Life in Udaipur also brought upon a whole new slew of complex dynamics. Being called a covid causer or a cheenee (Chinese person) that ate bats and dogs was exhausting, and I struggled to understand how such far-fetched assumptions could turn into the facts that were being imposed onto me. But when I picked up a newspaper here for the first time or learnt enough Hindi to try to decipher the local news coverage on China, I finally understood why.
I was witnessing in real time how increasingly polarized political landscapes in countries across the world have begun to foster echo chambers that perpetuate and enable one-sided thinking. Especially in a world driven by algorithmic biases and media sensationalization, it seems like we are constantly being told what to think rather than asked what we think. And by prompting us to blindly comply with majority opinion and uncritically accept the status quo, it manifests into a form of ignorance that limits empathy, change, and compassion.
Once I recognized this phenomenon, I found myself beginning to extend compassion and forgiveness towards those that had once hurt me. Why should I fault others for only believing what they’ve been taught to believe? Looking back at the classical teachings of the Buddhist tradition, compassion is defined as a heart that trembles in the face of suffering. A multi-layered response to pain, sorrow, and anguish that involves kindness, empathy, generosity, and acceptance. And above all, I’ve learnt through my time here that compassion is the capacity to open your mind to the reality behind suffering and aspire to its healing.
Every time someone refused to believe that I am also Canadian, I found myself practicing compassion by accepting that although the way I look doesn’t fit the expectation that they had been taught to believe, I can take advantage of this as an opportunity to share the story behind my upbringing.
Every time I was accused of causing the “Chinese Virus,” I practiced compassion by acknowledging the misinformation that existed here, and shared stories of the anti-Asian hate crimes that had spread across the U.S. as a result of wrongfully holding one country and its people responsible for a global pandemic.
Every time someone mistook me as being from Northeast India, I practiced compassion by allowing this interaction to prompt myself to connect and learn from those in the Northeast, reading and hearing about the stigmas and challenges that they have to face even within their own home country.
Every time someone mentioned how my eyes were smaller, I practiced compassion towards myself. And when someone told me that Mandarin wasn’t a language worth learning because everyone hates China, I practiced compassion by taking pen to paper to show them the beauty of this pictorial language and the stories that exist behind each Chinese character. I also shared how valuable it has been for me to learn Hindi, a language that has granted me the privilege to connect with so many incredible people – people that aren’t defined by the stereotypes associated with the country they come from.
Although current geopolitical barriers have sadly created a divide between these two beautiful countries that share such a rich culture and history, I am grateful that my experience here has potentially opened a door for greater degrees of open-mindedness and cross-cultural understanding. For the remaining months, I hope to further question my own uninterrogated assumptions and fully immerse myself in a diversity of opinions and experiences throughout my time here. I want to take full advantage of this valuable opportunity to combine my knowledge and experience of China with what I witness here in India, trying to develop a perspective that accounts for all stories and experiences.
The Dalai Lama once said, “I believe we are all the same; we are all human beings. There may be differences in cultural background or way of life, there may be differences in faith, differences in color, but we are all human beings consisting of the same human body and human mind.” Over the past 4 months, I’ve learnt that instead of feeling fear, disappointment, or resentment towards certain circumstances, I can embrace this opportunity to harness the monks’ unconditional compassion towards others and allow it to serve as the basis for how I approach the conversations and experiences I have here. My time in India has taught me that suffering is only made more approachable in a landscape of compassion. And just by keeping an open mind, compassion can slowly become the underlying path to healing and liberation – a secret power that maybe isn’t so mysterious after all.
Kupamanduka’s Allegory (By Michalis Tsangarides)
“God Is Dead. God Remains Dead. And We Have Killed Him.” Nietzsche proclaimed nearly 150 years ago, in 1882. Maybe so, in the Christian European sphere but not in the cradle of mysticism and religion, in India. Pew Research Center’s 2021 publication, on religion in India, shows that virtually all Indians believe in some kind of God or Gods, 97% of them: this includes my deeply religious homestay family, community friends, coworkers and everybody else I come across.
Gods in India are literally omnipresent; religious symbols, temples, statues and religious ceremonies are everywhere. On August 25th, when we first landed in Delhi while being driven from the airport to our hotel, I was amazed by the plethora of religious symbols placed on every car’s dashboard. I thought, “It is logical because only with the help and protection of a God can one navigate these chaotic roads!” In the state of Rajasthan the presence of religion, especially of Hinduism which is the dominant religion (88.49%), is encountered in all facets of life: people greet you with “Ram Ram,” invoking Hindu God Ram’s blessing; temples are encountered at every neighborhood block; people make daily offerings of divine coconuts and cow dung during religious ceremonies (pujas); holy cows roam the streets; priests communicate with Gods to inquire about the future and secure well-being and success, etc.
However, some Indian religiosity is, regrettably, deeply anti-scientific. For example, women on menstruation are still considered by many to be dirty and impure. One of my fellow students while on her menstruation was asked by her homestay family to only drink water from a specially designated water tank so she would not ‘contaminate’ the pure water used by the rest of the family for drinking and for religious purposes/ceremonies (pujas).
Each Bridge Year student works with a different non-governmental community organization that aims to address a wide array of social and environmental concerns. Seva Mandir, where I am presently working, works with more than 500,000 people in 1,300 rural villages in the districts of Udaipur and Rajsamand of southern Rajasthan on resources management, infrastructure development, education, health, social change, etc. Working with Seva Mandir has enabled me to observe at the grassroots level these centuries-old customs but also surprisingly, and more importantly, the strong resistance to change by the communities adhering to such customs.
This strong resistance of human change is exemplified by the Sanskrit allegory of the water-well frog. Kupamanduka. Kupamanduka lives its entire life, alone, within a water well without coming in contact or interacting with any other life form; hence, Kupamanduka knows nothing else apart from his experiences in the water well, naturally resulting in him making sense of the world through the limited content of his mind experienced alone in his water well: for Kupamanduka the water well, but more specifically the content in his mind, is the entire world.
Kupamanduka’s microcosm paradigm helps to understand society and ourselves. All living creatures including people come to life without any information about who we are and what the infinite world/cosmos we are born into is like. The way we see the world–the way we think, the way we feel, and the way we act towards our own self and the world around us–is the result of our experiences, of the information in our heads.
This is the difficulty people have when they are introduced to ideas and practices contradicting their whole life’s experiences especially when these experiences have been indoctrinated from birth, and also shared, experienced, and absorbed by their parents, relatives and peer group: it is very difficult to uproot from a person’s soul, a person’s consciousness, what they have been experiencing for a lifetime because people’s reality is more rooted inside them than outside them. This is one of the key insights I have gained from my experience in India: to truly understand/appreciate the depths and wisdom of the allegorical story of Kupamanduka. Bridge Year has prompted me to realize more deeply that the essence is not only what one knows, where one is, and who one is but also, and more importantly, what one does not know, where one is not, and who one is not, or who one can become. This is a realization that has strengthened my commitment to being exposed, challenged, and enriched by a multidimensional spectrum of ideas embracing contradicting reality and infinitely developing myself for personal but above all, for collective good.
Sometimes No Plan is the Best Plan (By Abby Connolly)
For as long as I can remember, I’ve planned out almost every waking moment of my time. My Type A personality has been both one of my greatest strengths and weaknesses -- the motivator for my productivity and the inhibitor of my appreciation for spontaneity. However, my time in India has pushed me to learn an invaluable lesson: sometimes, no plan is the best plan.
As I washed my clothes early one Sunday morning, I pondered what I should do with the day. Udaipur was out there waiting for me, extending two contrasting possibilities. On one hand, I could enjoy a serene day by Fateh Sagar (the local lake), biking its circumference, enjoying the fresh air, and sitting among the wildlife as it travels through the area. On the other hand, I could explore the multitudes of chaos Udaipur has to offer, navigating the bustling streets near the Old City, trying an eclectic assortment of street foods, and collecting experiences that make for the most obscure anecdotes. This Sunday, I craved the latter.
Kate (another Bridge Year student) biked to my homestay, where we harbored our bikes and hopped in an auto to take us to Delhi Gate. It was our first time in this part of Udaipur, and it felt as though we entered an entirely new city – the sights, sounds, and smells were different. We scrapped our feeble attempt at a food tour, deciding instead to pave a new path, trying novel things along the way and allowing ourselves to get a little lost.
This mindset proved successful as we happened upon JMB Sweets, where we indulged in some Rajasthani treats. Outside the sweet shop, we spotted some freshly made aloo tikki, a fried potato dish topped with a delicious blend of curd, chutneys, and most importantly, tamarind sauce. We ventured through the narrow streets of the Old City, finding the elusive Chip Alley, a street filled with fried treats, such as samosas (stuffed pastry), pakoras (fritter), namkeen (brine), banana chips, etc. After happily securing a bag of banana chips, we made our way to a sweet shop near Ghanta Ghar, where we procured the best gulab jamun (a sweet dessert ball) I’ve ever had – warm, decedent, sweet, juicy – everything that makes for the perfect treat.
Eventually, we made our way to the rooftop of Jheel’s Cafe, which, arguably, has the best view of the city. Kate and I had separate things to do, so we temporarily parted ways there. While I sat at Jheel’s, I met two travelers from the Netherlands, and we chatted for a while about our plans in India. Then, I explored more of the city, stopping at leather shops, tailors, and artist’s stalls, where I met some fascinating shopkeepers. I went into a family-owned music store and tested several ukuleles before deciding on the one for me. With my new ukulele on my back, I continued my adventure, finding a local bookshop, refueling at a chai stall, and making my way back to Kate. When we reunited, we exchanged rich, action-packed stories of our journeys.
Finally, we decided to do something relaxing for the remainder of the day, so we took an auto to Fateh Sagar. We walked home along the lake as the sun set gently over the Aravali Hills, and the water began to shine brighter in the moonlight. It was the perfect ending to the perfect day.
Not often do I do this – enthusiastically embrace a day without a concrete plan. However, this was one of the best days I’ve had throughout my Bridge Year journey. I learned it’s okay to let go, get lost, and experience the world just as it is. I can’t wait to see how these next four months will progress as I continue to say yes to life outside my comfort zone.
Getting Lost Is the Best Way to Learn (By Kate Willey)
I’ve started playing a fun game where I don’t use directions when I go around Udaipur. It has resulted in some long journeys home, but also allowed me to see parts of the city that I wouldn’t have otherwise.
After an afternoon of reading at a tranquil park overlooking Lake Pichola and the Old City, I had to make the journey from the southern part of the city to the northern rural area where I live. It’s a 12km bike ride on winding roads. I started strong, navigating myself through the bustling Bapu Bazaar, using the miscellaneous landmarks I’ve begun to recognize: the green tehla serving chai, the roundabout with the figurines in the middle, or Pinoz’s pizza.
However, eventually I ended up at a roundabout in which I couldn’t decide between two exits. I let the current of Indian traffic guide me, and 15 minutes later I found myself at the Rajasthan farming college. For context, that college is absolutely in the opposite direction of anywhere I need to be.
I stopped on the side of the road, refueled with a coconut, and asked a woman where Chetak Circle was, from which I can confidently navigate. As my Hindi gets better, I can rely on talking to people to figure out where I am. However, I often only understand the first bit of what they’re saying and have to stop several more times to ask someone else. I’m on and off my bike a lot but at least I’ve mastered saying “Chetak circle kahan hai?” (where is Chetak circle?). As I ride, I note in my head the interesting street food stalls or restaurants that I want to try. I have a running list of them with location descriptions that may be indiscernible to others because they’re all described in relation to my random landmarks. Example: the chhole bhature (chickpea curry with flatbread) cart on the road back from Bapu Bazar just past the fancy sari shop and the fork in the road.
Eventually, I reach the circle and can test out my hindi by speed-reading the signs pointing out the direction of each circle. The journey should have taken ~40 minutes, but I made it home after an hour and fifteen minutes.
Making mistakes allows me to know what is down a road that I might not normally go down. When I take the wrong turn, I am able to remember the right way to go the next time I find myself there. This method of travel is less efficient, but one that makes travel feel more intentional. It’s an activity in and of itself. I can slow down and enjoy the present, rather than blindly rushing from place to place.