India Unexpected

Leonie Tollefson - India


April 20, 2019

India has been full of surprises this year, especially since I tried to have no expectations going into it. I have now been back in my home, Madison, WI, for a few days and I’ve been reflecting on what things shocked me most about India. I wrote this little list up before I left India, but now I’ll share it with you people!

No single use plastic
I have barely touched a plastic bag in the last 8 months. Plastic is illegal in Maharashtra, where I’ve been living, and they don’t even use them for trash bags (okay people do illegally sell them on the street). The amount of plastic I’ve seen in the last 3 days at home exceeds what I’ve used the last 8 months, and it is honestly mind-blowing.

Beautiful sunrise & sunsets
I have seen the most beautiful sunrises and sunsets my mind has ever seen over the last 8 months of my life. I don’t know what is so special about India, but the sun has a way of making the sky the most spectacular hues of pink and purple, every single day.

Amazing beaches
From trips to Pondicherry, Kerala, and Goa, I’ve had the chance to see some of the amazing coastal life in India, and I love it. I never would’ve thought of India as a paradise destination, but those beaches are truly sensational. Clean, quiet, and beautiful, I was shocked at how relaxing beach life in India can be.

Fancy parties
When I arrived in Pune, I joined the local expat club to connect with other foreigners in the city, and have been invited to some pretty fancy events because of it. From Diwali parties to restaurant openings, they all seem to blow me away. I feel underdressed next to all the Indian women in fancy cocktail dresses! The last event even had a famous celebrity at it! I never would’ve expected to find this crowd in India.

Cheap French Pastries
Most food in India is ridiculously cheap, even foreign food is cheaper than it would be abroad. That’s way I’ve tasted my way through every German and French bakery in Pune.

Being able to read Hindi (somewhat)
I’ve now been taking weekly Hindi classes for 7 months now, and my speaking skills are very subpar. But the fact that I can read the letters which used to just appear as squiggly lines to me is an accomplishment!

Loving spicy food
When I came to India, I could barely eat anything spicy. My host family had to tone down their spice level a lot, but now, 7 months later, and I’m happily chowing down on the same spicy foods as them and loving it. I can’t imagine going back to my old bland diet after this.

Long car rides
At home, if a car ride is over 30 minutes, I consider it a long car ride. Here I am continually taking over an hour to get to where I want to go, due to the high volumes of traffic in this city. I’ve gotten quite used to it, and have a bunch of set activities I do every car ride (mostly Duolingo).

The most thoughtful students alive
I have some of the sweetest students. Throughout the year I was always greeted by hugs and smiles, and the occasional note saying things like ‘Didi your hair is nice’, and ‘Didi if you have any problem please call me here is my mother’s number’. It’s so sweet and I’ll never forget them.

The heat, the cold, the weather
Pune surprised me. I did not bring a jacket into this country because I had no idea winter here was a real thing. However, in December and January, I was shivering in my bed covered in 3 blankets. But it only lasted for a few weeks and now we are back at 103 degrees F every day, and it’s not even summer yet.

Eating with my hands
All of my experience eating Indian food at home didn’t prepare me for how to eat with my hands. My host family taught me how to eat rice and clean your entire plate (food waste is very serious here, big no no) and I honestly love eating with my hands. I feel so much more connected with my food, and it even tastes better.

Becoming comfortable with the squat toilet
Most Indian toilets are squat toilets, which is a little hole in the ground. Thank goodness my house here has a bunch of western toilets, but every time I go out I have to challenge myself to use the squatty potty. At my school here, the bathrooms are quite dirty, and I mostly avoid using them. However, 7 months later I feel like I’ve mastered my fear.

Being asked if I’m Indian
I’ve always known my appearance is quite ambiguous, people are always wondering where I’m from. However I had no idea I could pass as Indian until I came here. I’m frequently asked if I’m from here, and am always told I look Indian when I’m not. Apparently the curly hair and nose ring on the left side are a trademark of Maharashtra women.

Amazing friends
When I first signed up to come to India with Global Citizen Year, I was a little nervous about making new friends this year. However everyone in the Pune cohort, all 12 of us, have slowly become some of my best friends. They know everything about me, and have become another family and support system. I love them all so much and know that I will surely see them again.

Even some Indian friends! (with my host dad’s employees!)
I struggled in the first few months here to fully integrate myself into my community and make some local Indian friends. I met a few lovely people through the expat club who I met up with a few times, but it wasn’t until a few weeks ago I became friends with some of my host dads employees. He owns a computer programming company, and I joined them on a company retreat a few weeks ago and became great friends with some of his employees. They are some of the sweetest gals out there, and I’ll miss them tons! Though I have promised to come back and visit them, and hopefully attend some of their Indian weddings!

Finding a mentor in my Hindi teacher
When I first met Pratiksha, the woman who would be our Hindi teacher for the next 7 months, I never would’ve thought our relationship would be how it is now. Pratiksha has become one of my best friends and mentors in India. If I need any advice or a person to talk to, I always know I can come to her. She is also an amazing teacher, though I can’t say my Hindi skills quite reflect that. Pratiksha is always taking us out for food and bollywood movies, and this year wouldn’t have been what it was without her.

Getting my eyebrows done every two weeks for less than 50 cents
Eyebrow threading in the US costs $15 every time. I have gotten it done here every two weeks for 30 rupees each time, about 50 cents. A haircut at a nice salon is about 400 rupees, or about $6. Massages are 1000 rupees ($14). I can say I have truly looked and felt my best this year.

Rescuing a cat once
There are animals everywhere in India, cats, dogs, cows, goats, pigs, all roaming the streets day and night. One particular cat, a kitten actually, caught my attention when he was laying in the middle of the road, seemingly unable to walk. We snatched him and had crazy plans of taking him him, until we realized it would be impossible. We found out he could walk (the trickster) but he still had a few issues with him so we brought him to ResQ, a local shelter in Pune, and prayed they would take him. They did! He got treated by them and then adopted by a great family, no more time on the streets, yay!

Street dogs are really cute
Speaking of street animals, the dogs here are unexpectedly really cute. I don’t know why I thought they wouldn’t be, but every single one I see I’m tempted to pet and take home with me.

Getting jaundice
In January, I got jaundice and was sick for several weeks. I had to miss school for week and a half, and I felt terrible. Thankfully, after a million doctor visits, we got to the bottom of it and I was okay. It was definitely unexpected, but thank goodness heath care is so much cheaper here! This was also around the time I got very homesick, but eventually that went away too.

Being fed cake on multiple occasions
For birthdays here, the tradition is to buy a birthday cake, have the birthday person cut it, and then everyone grabs a slice and feeds it to the birthday person. When we have birthdays at school, the kids insist on hand feeding me as well, despite it not being my birthday. This means I have been fed cake on multiple occasions, something I never expected to have happen in India.

Also being bit on the eyelid by a mosquito on multiple occasions
Mosquitos suck, but at least I’m not in a malaria zone.

Having the best host family ever
I love my host family. Dhananjay and Mansi Hulge (plus Dorji and Benji, our doggos) have shown me so much love this year. They are always caring for me when I’m sick, make me the best food, teach me about Indian culture and traditions, and even took me on an amazing trip to Kerala. I know I’ll be back to visit them, and I’ve been slowly trying to convince them to visit me in the Netherlands! I never imagined I’d be placed in a house where I feel so comfortable being myself. One of my favorite things about my host family is eating ice cream together nearly every night. We used to be a die-hard Swiggy family (a food ordering app), but my host dad is doing no pre-packaged foods this year, so our ice cream consumption has died down a little bit, but we still enjoy several times a week.

Deep conversations with my host uncle
In addition to my great host parents, my host uncle Amod frequently comes to Pune and we have fantastic conversations, where he asks me things like ‘How has your world view changed since you came to India?’

Discovering the best cafe in the city (it’s Iranian!)
Just a few weeks I ventured out to Kondwa to visit my dear friend Alyssa and she took me to the best cafe in the city. It’s called Cafe India and is run by a man from Iran who trained as a pilot in Australia, and its his dream to move to America but unfortunately the visa process sucks. He makes his own masala chai spice, and it is the best thing I ever tasted. He also makes Iranian soda, using a syrup his mother made that has honey, mint, ginger, and lemon in it, and it is the tastiest, most refreshing drink ever. And let’s not forget about bun maska, which is a hunk of bread covered by even more butter and probably the best thing I’ve ever tasted. The man who owns the cafe also collects foreign money for fun, and I gave him some Colombian pesos I had sitting around still. He really wants to start a shop in the states, but needs help figuring out logistics and finding a tea leaf supplier, and asked me if I knew any contacts. I don’t, but if anyone else does!

Traveling to every corner of the country! (kerala, pondicherry, goa, rishikesh, hyderabad, shillong, delhi!)
Together with GCY, my host family, and my own independent travels, I feel like I’ve seen nearly every corner of India. Though there is still so, so much more to see, I’m so grateful that I’ve gotten to see so many different ways of life.

All in all, India had a lot more unexpected surprises than I anticipated. My gap year has been full of new experiences and people, as well as the handful of struggles. I have made a life for myself here in Pune, and now after nearly 8 months, it is going to be really difficult to uproot and leave this country in a few days. This week has been full of lasts for me, and is truly so sad. At least I know I will be back someday!
Now that I’m home, back in my old familiar environment, I can honestly say India was life changing for me. That is so cliche, but I know I’ll always hold on to the lessons and relationships I learned in my 8 months abroad. Adjusting back has been difficult, and it feels like it will take the same time and effort that it took to adjust to India in the first place! I still have a few more blogs about India to post in the near future, so the experience isn’t over yet.

With love,
Leonie

For more pictures and the full blog post, as well as other India blogs, visit my personal blog www.livingcuriously.blog <www.livingcuriously.blog/>.

Leonie Tollefson