This summer, I had the incredible opportunity to visit India with National Geographic Student Expeditions.
Months earlier, I remember leafing through a catalogue in my kitchen for these expeditions, and flipping to a page with a photo of two American girls sitting on an elephant, donning traditional Indian clothing, henna, and giant smiles. Looking at the itinerary for this expedition, I saw that we would visit an area in the Himalayas called Ladakh, and at that point I knew I had to go. For so long I’ve had a calling to visit the Himalayas, and kept finding myself picking up books about Everest.
At the last minute I decided to sign up, and miraculously got my passport, visa, and items for the trip all in time. Before leaving for my trip on the Fourth of July, I felt so nervous and afraid to leave my comfort zone and the United States for the first time without anyone I knew. The flight was a grueling fourteen hours, but it was all worth it when we landed at Indira Gandhi Airport in New Delhi. Just the airport alone felt so foreign and exciting. The mere shock of being in a country 12 and a half hours later and 7,000 miles away from my home scared me, but I felt so much better the next day when our group got to know each other and when we saw parts of New Delhi.
During our rather short time in New Delhi, a hugely vast city with almost 30 million residents, we ate our first few meals of full-bodied Indian food, visited the beautiful and ancient Lodi gardens, and attempted to fit in better by buying more traditional and conservative clothing. Then we took a short but breathtaking plane flight through the Himalayas and into Leh, Ladakh.
Leh, Ladakh was definitely my favorite because both the landscape and the culture were so incredible. We stayed at a school for students of high school age called SECMOL, which helps them prepare for a challenging benchmark exam they must take in tenth grade. The school is also completely self sufficient with a garden, solar power, and an underground water pump. All of the students there knew a lot of English and were amazingly friendly. While at SECMOL, we explored villages and monasteries with the students, and learned about Tibetan Buddhism, their religion. Ladakh was so breathtaking to me, with towering jagged mountains, colorful prayer flags hung up around every corner, and huge monasteries perched atop mountains. This place was so different from the Bay Area, yet the people there made me feel like I now had a second home.
During our time in Ladakh, we also went on a three-day trek from village to village, staying in private homes each night. The trek itself was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done because we were at about 14,000 feet (highest altitude I’ve ever been) and I was taking my altitude medication wrong. But, it was so rewarding to reach the crest of a mountain we had climbed, and see a beautiful green village below. At each summit we would be greeted by prayer flags blowing in the whipping, cool Himalayan air, and a profound feeling of success. Every house we stayed at was so accommodating; the families making us hardy meals and serving creamy chai and sweet black tea constantly. I felt very sad leaving Ladakh, a place I felt so welcomed in, but I was also ready to see Rajasthan, west of New Delhi.
On the way to Rajasthan, we stopped at the Taj Mahal in Agra. We visited the Taj Mahal in the early morning, before many tourists had come, and it felt like such a dream. Even as I put my bare feet on the pale marble of the Taj Mahal and the red stone of the mosque next to it, I still didn’t feel as if I was standing right there Seeing the Taj Mahal in pictures gives no justice to how small and insignificant you feel standing in front of its majestic and glowing frame.
In Rajasthan, we visited the city of Jaipur, which I fully enjoyed. The city itself is much calmer and cleaner than New Delhi, but there are certainly more merchants trying to sell you all kinds of Indian souvenirs. While in Jaipur, we rode elephants up to the Amber Palace, a beautiful and maze-like fort atop a green hill and overlooking a lake. We also visited a Hindu temple for Puja, which is Friday prayer. There were thousands of Hindus there, the women singing songs and wearing bright saris and the men dropping to their knees in prayer. Being able to be a spectator for this spiritual and communal meeting was such an honor. We also rode elephants in a forested area outside of Jaipur. Elephants are such gentle and beautiful creatures, and one gave me a hug with its trunk when I gave it a banana!
We stayed in the Bharatpur Palace in Bharatpur, and spent an evening walking through the village nearby. We interacted with the people there either by speaking in English with those who could understand us, or by smiling and taking pictures with and of each other. It was incredible how much our group could understand the people of Bharatpur, even if we didn’t speak the same language.
We also visited Samode, another village in Rajasthan. While there, we learned about the crafts people take part in, including making bangles, ironworking, and painting. We also rode camels to and from our hotel, and it definitely solidified my belief that camels are just about the weirdest animal on the globe. We stayed at the Neemrana Palace in Neemrana as well, where we zip lined through the hills and forest above the palace and watched an Indian dance troupe balance fire and bicycle tires on their head and dance to traditional Indian music.
Back in New Delhi, we took a tour with Salaam Baalak Trust, an NGO who works to help shelter and rehabilitate street children of Delhi. The tour took us around some urban areas of Delhi on foot (during a monsoon, so it was pretty wet) with two former street children who told us about the life of being a street child in New Delhi. This part of the trip was definitely relevant to the Human Rights Abuses unit we had in Sophomore Humanities, and it also helped me to understand some of the underlying problems in India that most tourists wouldn’t be able to see.
As a final project, we created a book of our group’s projects, which included photography (many which focused on photographs of the many types of people we met and interacted with) and written articles, poetry, and recipes. On this trip, I also got to know other high school students from around the US, and share an amazing experience like no other with them. Leaving all of the people I’ve met and the country I got to know for three weeks was so emotional and challenging, but at the same time I longed for my life back home in California. This trip helped me to learn how different life can be across the globe, yet how there is universal feeling of humanity between people who lead very different lives. I also learned so much about the culture of India and its people, which is very contradictory to stereotypes Americans seem to have about them. Lastly, I learned that you can never see the world from the comfort of your home and your country, so it is vital to leave your comfort zone to learn about and see a new place, as well as meet new people. I suggest that everyone who hasn’t seen a vastly different place outside of the United States should definitely embark on a journey to wherever that place may be- and be prepared to come back with a whole new set of memories and ideas!