I woke up to a musty aroma that was so pungent and sharp, that it
roused me out of bed. I peered out my porthole that morning from the
ship and knew ” we had arrived in India.
I had overslept and missed my usual tradition of waking before dawn on
mornings that we pulled into port to watch the colors in the sky
change from a deep blue to the brilliant purple and red colors over
the bottomless blue seas. But on this morning, I had overslept and
immediately woke up to the exotic stench that is characteristic of
Looking out the glass separating me from the world of India, there
were women dressed in the typical Indian attire of bright saris,
sweeping the dust off the cold cement next to the ship in an almost
rhythmical manner. They swept to the beat of the striking twangs
bellowing out of the long tube instruments that looked like the
extended tongues of the male musicians playing to welcome the ship’s
It was our sixth port of call for the 650 other college students and I
aboard the University of Pittsburgh’s Semester at Sea ship, the MV
Explorer. Our Fall 2004 voyage of discovery had sailed from
Vancouver, Canada to Japan, China, Hong Kong, Vietnam and Thailand
before docking in India.
We had traveled halfway around the world so far and still had many
exciting and intriguing locales to look forward to: Tanzania, South
Africa, Brazil, Venezuela and then back home to the United States
where we docked in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
But today, we were in India. And that was thrilling enough.
The port of call that early morning in October was Chennai, previously
known as Madras, which rests on the Eastern coast of Southern India on
the Bay of Bengal.
The itinerary for my five-day Indian adventure was rigorous. I had
signed up for the most travel-intensive Semester at Sea organized trip
for India because I wanted to see as much as possible. The plan was
to travel for four days, most days starting before sunrise and ending
after midnight. I was ready for everything India had to offer me, but
looking back, I never could have imagined the array of vibrant, and
oftentimes emotionally-challenging, experiences that lie ahead on my
path through India.
When I stepped off the ship, my first day was spent on a service trip
to help build a library for Dalit school children. This was my first
direct encounter with the caste social system of India. The Dalit’s,
also known as untouchables, are outcasts below the structure of the
caste social system in which people are divided into separate groups
based on Hindu ideals.
Peering out the windows on the way to the project site, I remained in
the air-conditioned bubble of the bus and watched the shocking
landscape pass by. There were mountains of rubbish in the streets,
beggars sitting on every corner and an endless sea of deep brown eyes,
eyes that will never leave my mind.
The bus stopped in the middle of the street and we were ushered into
the whirlwind of a street parade. People were everywhere – smoke
billowed in the air from people smoking bidis, a popular hand-rolled
type of Indian cigarette. Men sat in windows and stood in storefronts
giving curious looks in our direction and warm smiles all along the
way. The women in this foreign scene held their babies and young
children, who grasped on to their beautifully glowing saris. All the
girls and women had nose rings that sparkled in the midday sun.
It was a perfect welcome to a country so far away and vastly different
from anywhere I had ever been ” a country that still sticks out in my
mind as one of the most memorable places in the world.
We spent the day in the thick air and sizzling heat laying brick and
mixing mortar to begin building walls for a library at the school.
Oftentimes, I would take breaks from the labor. The children and
neighborhood families fascinated me. I was drawn to play with the
children and communicate in the only way I knew how to with them “
with a smile.
I felt an overwhelming sense of satisfaction after my first day in
India. Whether it was the exoticism of the experience as a whole, the
smiling faces or the fact that I was in such a remarkable world ” I
knew I loved it and could not wait to see more.
The intensive traveling began at the early hour of 3:30 a.m. the next day.
In just four days, our group took five flights, two trains, more bus
rides than one can remember and even a few tuk-tuks (bicycle taxies) –
but it was well worth the frenzy.
As I took my seat on our first flight of the day, my seatmate and
fellow Semester at Sea student pointed out that I was in a photograph
in the National Hindu Times from when I was working on the service
project the day earlier. I was startled to see myself in print and it
made the experience that much more real.
The first and most intriguing destination on the planned trip was
Varanasi – the third holiest city for Hindus in Northern India that
rests on the banks of the River Ganges with a population over 900,000.
The life of Varanasi lies in the sacred water of the River Ganges.
As darkness faded to a lighter shade of dawn, I passed through a
procession of merchants on the way downhill to the holy water of the
Worshipers of the Hindu goddess Ganga purchase a myriad of items
including flowers, toothbrushes and candles on the way down the slope
to the “ghats” – the banks of the holy river with steps leading to the
water. Hindus believe the water will spiritually cleanse and purify
their souls, sending their spirits directly to Nirvana. Along the
same beliefs, sick people make pilgrimages to the river in hopes that
the water will cure whatever sickness or disease they may have.
We boarded small wooden boats to glide across the glassy surface of
the River Ganges. The sun shone like a bronze Rupee (India’s
currency) in the rusted orange sky. As we floated along the banks of
the river, men prayed while bathing, women washed their clothes and
children played in the holy water.
The most unforgettable aspect of the river was witnessing first-hand
the burning of bodies at the cremation ghat. As our boat neared, we
were restricted from taking any pictures of the bodies. The air was
stagnant and heavy with ash. Our guide told us that most of the bodies
were burned at night and that the human-size bags littered along the
banks of the shore were bodies left over from the burning ceremony the
I covered my mouth and nose with my shirt, desperately searching for a
breath of fresh air and trying to escape the ash from human bodies
that floated through air like a light mist of rain in the early
The proximity of death was startling.
My mind was engaged with thoughts of life, death and India. With
powerful images hovering over my gaping eyes, I wandered through the
maze of streets that lead from the water to the main boulevard.
Buildings encroached upon each other, making the alleyway a dark,
moist passageway marked by heaps of debris and meandering cows,
believed to be sacred by Hindus, that seemed to have the right of way
instead of people.
Varanasi left me with a range of emotions. It was by far the most
striking country I visited out of all the places I went to while
traveling with Semester at Sea.
Exhausted and sleep-deprived from copious traveling, I left India with
a taste for more. I wanted to experience more amazing cultures and be
pushed to my limits, as I had in India.
I often describe India as a place of sensory overload. Never had I
smelled such foul stenches and yet such spicy aromas in the air. Never
had I had observed such a disturbing yet beautiful facet of life and
death. Never had I felt such mysterious and overwhelming emotions by
watching bodies be burned, people worshiping a sacred river and the
tremendous amounts of poverty that scar this beautiful country. Never
had my mouth watered at such delicious flavors and burned with such
sizzling spices. Never had I experienced anything quite like India.
I have certainly caught the travel bug since traveling around the
world with Semester at Sea – and I can’t wait to see the rest of the