Who was I then? It’s hard for me to know, but saying that I was a wreck wouldn’t be too far off the mark. I had just come out of a fall spent in Argentina, which, while it was a valuable experience in and of itself, proved to be a little too much for me to handle. In the middle of my stay there, I decided I didn’t really need my medicine, so I stopped taking it. As a result, I collapsed. I withdrew into myself, scared, confused and hypomanic, eating so much that I gained twenty pounds. When I returned home, I was furious with myself. How could I have been so stupid? How could I have messed up so badly? I didn’t have any real answers, so I just stayed in bed, wallowing and waiting for spring. I became remarkably apathetic, not even caring about my own well being. Nothing really excited me, except for, eventually, the fact that I was going to India for three months. I suppose one could say that I was a little depressed, but then India came.
India has this funny way of prying yours eyes open, making you see all the good and the bad of the world we live in. It has a way of challenging you to grow, change, and ask questions. To put it bluntly, it forces you away from apathy. Everything you’ve ever believed in will be turned upside down and you’ll be compelled to reevaluate all of your values. India will overwhelm, confuse and amaze you, all at the same time. It isn’t a place you go to forget about your problems. It’s a place you to go face them.
I went to India with a group of nine other students and three experienced instructors through an organization called Where There be Dragons. We spent about three weeks in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, a city along the holy Ganges River, before attending a ten day Buddhist meditation retreat in Bodhgaya, where the Buddha achieved enlightenment. Next, we returned to Varanasi for about three and a half more weeks, continuing our independent studies, service projects, and Hindi classes before heading to Ladakh, a region in the State of Jammu and Kashmir. There, we stayed at an intentional community for a week, went on an incredible eleven day Himalayan trek, hung out in a town called Leh, and had transference (a period of four days where we reviewed and processed what we experienced and prepared for our return to the United States). It was truly a transformative journey; at least for me, and after all the struggle and turmoil of the last two years, it was exactly what I needed.
I could’ve easily chosen a different path. In fact, I almost did. I often think about what would have happened had I gone to college last year instead of deciding to go this fall instead. Where would I be? Who would I be? For a lot of people, going to college right out of high school is the right decision. For me, it wouldn’t have been. I needed this experience in India to gain perspective because, India, if nothing else, gives you that. There are so many meaningful experiences and so much learning that wouldn’t have happened to me had I not chosen to take a break from school and head to India.
I never would have seen the level of poverty there. I lead a very privileged life, one where it is easy to ignore the hardship surrounding me. I’ve never lived in poverty nor do I see it very often, but on rare occasions I do. I’ll never forget driving past slums in Mexico at nine years old, wondering what on earth I was looking at. That was the first time I realized that not everyone is as fortunate as I am. As a senior in high school, I did a short internship in an inner city school in my area, where the majority of children fall under the poverty line. I live in a largely middle class neighborhood in a relatively affluent suburb, yet ten minutes away children are not getting enough food to eat. This past fall, I spent a fair amount of time in the slums of Buenos Aires, Argentina, where many live in an unfinished building without electricity and running water. Still, India’s poverty was everywhere. There was no place to run and no place to hide. Three, maybe four year old children walked the streets, wearing rags for clothes, with dirt smeared on their malnourished faces, begging for money. Women carried wailing babies with desperate looks on their otherwise beautiful faces, holding out baby bottles, hoping that a friendly stranger would fill them up with milk or water. Disfigured people dragged themselves along the streets with nowhere to go, once again, begging. The slums, unbelievably crowded, looked like they were going to collapse at any second. Once, I was in an auto rickshaw and suddenly, all I saw was slum. It almost shocked me into shame, seeing all this and knowing that I am not as grateful as I could be for all that I have. I don’t know how to handle being so close to that kind of hardship because it overwhelms me. To make matters worse, I couldn’t do anything about it; I don’t have the power to singlehandedly fix India’s poverty. So, sadly, I tried to turn a blind eye (I am not proud of this), but in India, that is simply not possible. Poverty is constantly on the main stage. More often than not, it steals the show.
I never would have met Lakshmi, the adorable fourteen-year-old daughter of our program house cook. Each day that we were in Varanasi, she came in to help her mother with the cooking and cleaning. We built a friendship, talking and laughing when she had breaks. I’ll never forget how full of life she was, embracing everything and everyone around her. Her inner beauty radiated through her outer self and I fell in love with her openness and generosity of spirit. We would greet each other every day with a grandiose Namaste! To this day, she inspires me to be better than I am. I watched with wonder, as this young girl lived so completely in the moment. She was so clearly more grateful for what she had than I was, even though she had much less. Wide-eyed, she seemed to look at the world in amazement, with joy and big dreams. I am so lucky to have met her. She touched my heart in a way very few people have before.
I never would have gone on an eleven day trek in the Himalayas, something that changed my life so profoundly it’s hard for me to place a finger on how. So often in our modern society, we value the destination far more than the journey. What we fail to realize, however, is that there would be no destination without a journey. The journey is where you grow and change. It’s where you’re the most vulnerable for the longest period of time. I, too, used to value the destination more than the journey, but there’s nothing like walking for eleven days to change that. For the first time in my life, I was walking because I had to. If I didn’t walk, if I didn’t keep going, I was in trouble. We had to get to a water source to set up camp. I was so tired all the time, but I had to keep going. I forced myself to keep going. Along the way, I saw beautiful mountains covered in snow, my peers and instructors supporting and helping each other in times of need and incredible feats of love and kindness. We lived with little and were disconnected from the outside world. It took me nearly twenty years to fall in love with wild places, but I did in the Himalayas. I fell in love with them because they humble you. They teach you to respect the only home we have. When I reached the top of the pass, at 17,000 feet, I felt like I was on top of the world.
Those examples, of course, are only a few of the things that never would have happened to me had I not traveled to India. I discovered so much about myself there, realizing I’m not the girl I once was. One morning on the trek, I started crying in front of everybody because I was so tired of feeling like I couldn’t change. I needed people to understand that I felt stuck. When I was a child I was cripplingly anxious and some days, I am still that way, although it manifests itself in different forms. Thus, I sometimes feel like even as an adult, I will be cripplingly anxious. One of my instructors, Parker, said to me later that he wanted to see me change the wording of what I had said. He explained to me that my life didn’t have to be like I thought it would be; that just because I had been one way did not mean I always have to be that way. Wrapping my head around that idea was, and still is, very difficult for me. Anxiety is the single biggest struggle in my life and always has been. Often, it feels like all that I am. But Parker was right. I may always struggle with it because it’s embedded in my brain chemistry, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have wiggle room to change. With the help of another instructor, Jeff, I began to think of who I was when I was thirteen and who I am now, six years later. Although in many ways, I have remained the same, in some ways, I am so different. When I was thirteen, I couldn’t go to a weeklong sleep-away camp without sobbing every single day. Now, I can go to India for three months with people I don’t know and cry very little. I don’t have to be who I perceive myself to be or who others perceive me to be. I feel less stuck now, like if I keep challenging myself to grow, I may be able to become the person I want to be.
Everything is impermanent and happiness comes from within. That’s what I took away from our ten day Buddhist meditation retreat at the Root Institute. Intellectually, I understand everything is impermanent; my house, our planet, the book I’m reading, and myself. In my heart though, I don’t. It’s difficult for me to conceptualize that I am going to die because I am all that I know. We have no way of knowing what, if anything, lies beyond this life and that scares me. Yet the concept of impermanence is beginning to help me get through the bad moments and appreciate the good ones. As I’ve said before, anxiety is my single biggest struggle in life. It may not sound like a big deal to some, but it’s cast a dark shadow over much of my nearly twenty years on this planet. Now, whenever I feel anxious or upset about something, I remind myself that whatever it is that I am feeling or whatever is going on won’t last forever. It’s only temporary. On the contrary, when I feel good, I remind myself to revel in it. That’s only temporary too. For as long as I can remember, I’ve searched for happiness outwardly instead of inwardly. I constantly think, well when this happens or when I’ve accomplished this, I will be happy. Again and again, it fails me. Things or accomplishments do make me happy, for a time, but it always fades and I withdraw into my anguished mind once again. I’m, slowly but surely, learning that only when I make peace with the person I am, will I know what true happiness is.
Coming home from India, I had a connecting flight to Rochester from Newark. At the gate, I saw a family of four sitting in the seats, all of them glued to their phones. I hadn’t seen anything like that in three months and was utterly shocked. There they were, physically near each other, but mentally, in different worlds. I remember thinking, what if the plane goes down? They will have spend some of their last moments together engaging with screens instead of with each other. I had very little technology in India. To use the internet, I usually had to walk to an internet café and I had this little Indian phone I could make calls and send texts with, but that’s it. I also had an old iPod that spend most of the trip at the bottom of my bag without a charge. I noticed that my quality of life went up when I wasn’t constantly connected. I had more opportunities to make profound connections with other human beings, most of who also were not constantly connected either. So, upon my return home, I got rid of my smart phone, ordered an unlocked qwerty keyboard phone from amazon, bought and iPod touch, gave my iPad and my iPhone to my father, and bought a laptop for college. This leaves me with a phone for texting and calling only, an iPod to use for music and Internet when there is Wi-Fi, and a laptop for schoolwork and personal business. My hope is that this will allow me to foster deeper connections with people, as well as my surrounding. I want to learn to be more patient; I will no longer be able to check my email as I am walking home from Starbucks. I will have to wait until I get home. While our modern technology is convenient and somewhat, if not very, addicting, I do not feel that it greatly enriches my life. What greatly enriches my life, however, is engaging with my surroundings, whatever or whoever they may be.
Coming home has been hard. I don’t like imposed structure, but I need it to live a functional and semi-productive life. Dragons provided the kind of structure I need, and while at first I resisted it, in the end I realized how much it benefitted me. Due to my depressive tendencies, I am not usually a very active person when given a choice. I need school, or summer camp, or something like Dragons to motivate and inspire me. Luckily, I want to be both of those things, so I make decisions to find outside structure. My parents have never forced me to sign up for anything. This summer, I’m working at a summer camp and taking classes at a local art gallery, but for now, I have no structure. I feel kind of lost. I just returned from this incredible life-changing experience and now everything feels like its back to normal. I have the same issues as I did before I left and it’s been difficult to get along with my parents. Furthermore, I’m having difficulty with certain parts of our society and culture (reverse culture shock is real). While, on one hand, I feel very fortunate to have grown up in the United States, on another hand, I have become very frustrated because I feel like I don’t fit in well here. . I’m not organized, efficient, or practical. I don’t have a specific career path because I kind of want to craft my own. I grew up in a multi-cultural household. My mom is from the capital city of Argentina and my dad is from Southern California. As a result, I’ve sat through plenty of disagreements over conflicting cultural values.
My dad was brought up suburban, conservative and middle class parents. His values include hard work, efficiency, organization, determination and knowledge. My mom was brought up in a large, unpredictable city in an extremely volatile country by working class parents, although her father died when she was twelve. Her values include hard work, social justice (she survived a twelve year military dictatorship that left 30,000 dead or missing), friendship, family and acceptance of others. This has left me very confused. What do I value? India showed me a third set of values, and I am struggling to find a balance between all the different ones I have been exposed. Right now, I would say I value depth of character, emotional vulnerability, generosity of spirit, good intentions, friendship and ambition. Every time I come home from a long trip like the one I just took, I feel awkward in my own society. I am frustrated by the amount we use and waste and by how harshly we sometimes judge others for going off the beaten path. I think I’m an off the beaten path kind of person, however, there is nothing wrong with the grass that’s been already been stepped on. I just don’t think following the beaten path is who I am. In India, I was having all these unusual experiences and grappling to understand enormous life questions, and I loved it. I thought this is the life I want to live.
So who am I now? Good question. In many ways, I am the same. Every day, I fight the voice in my head that tells me nothing matters. I’m still disorganized and inefficient. Losing things is still one of my strengths and I’ve gone back to my introverted ways. Yet I am so fundamentally different too. I’ve fallen in love with traveling because the more I travel, the more I learn but the less I know for sure. My views and beliefs are constantly rattled and I realize, again and again, that truth, or being sure of something, are elusive things. Traveling, especially in places that are so radically different from your home, opens your heart. It helps you become a more compassionate and accepting person. When you meet people who are so different from you, but you get along with them anyways, you realize how little those differences matter. Human connection comes from the heart, not from the mind. You learn that you have no right to judge what you do not understand, and even when you do understand something, judgment never helps. Money doesn’t buy happiness and neither does success. Your way of life is not the only one and not necessarily the best one. There are other ways to have realizations like these ones, but for me, traveling is the best one.
For the first time in two years, I want to really live despite my significant limitations. I go through life thinking that it will never be “good enough”. But what does that even mean, to be “good enough”? I have to be good enough. My life has to be good enough. There is no other way because it is all that I have. I remember during the trek we got word of the catastrophic earthquake in Nepal from a German backpacker who just so happened to turn up at our campsite. Everyone was in the food tent, discussing it, but I went outside because I was so nervous. I am so lucky to be alive, I remember thinking. I am so thankful for this ridiculous, beautiful, challenging life that I have.
India and Dragons gave me a new lease on life. I felt so utterly loved by my group and am more accepting, patient and spiritual. During one of our last nights in India, we all participated in a beautiful ceremony. Each one of us wrote down something about ourselves we wanted to leave behind in India, read it out loud, and burned it, symbolizing the end. I said I wanted to leave behind self-hatred. My self esteem in notoriously low. As a child, I lived in this bubble of paralyzing anxiety, crippled by panic attacks and irrational fears. I ultimately felt like an outsider. Small tasks were monumental struggles and I was felt like so often, I was fighting for air. I hated myself. I hated that I couldn’t be like my friends. I just wanted to enjoy my life but that seemed like such an impossible goal. And I’ve hated myself for most of my life. Only for about a year and a half have I not struggled with self-hatred. It’s exhausting. I decided that day that I wanted to love myself instead. I wanted to take the love I felt from others in the group and grow that inside myself for myself. Now, I try to tell myself that I love who I am at least once a day. India helps with forgiveness, too. You see life in the harshest of lights and realize that it is too short and precious not to forgive. A life without forgiveness is a life full of bitterness and grudges. So, I’m working on it, little by little, because a life without grudges or bitterness and with love and inner peace, that’s what true freedom is.
Who was I then? I was a lost young woman. Who am I now? I’m still a lost young woman, but I’m so much closer to being found. Thank you to India for opening my eyes, to my parents for providing me with the opportunity, to my fellow students for loving me and to my remarkable instructors for creating a structure in which I was able to grow.
I am forever changed.