It’s hard for me to believe that it’s been ten years since I lived for a year in Japan as an Assistant Language Teacher on the JET Programme, and ten years ago on New Years Eve night, I was in India on a three-week sojourn with another female JET participant. I was twenty-eight, single, and had so many dreams. While traveling that year, many of them were coming true.
At twenty-eight, of course, I had been an adult legally for ten years, but true adulthood – someone who knows what they want out of life, who understands heartache and happiness, who understands the world on a higher level than one is capable in their youth – can arrive at different times for different people. I felt this happen for me over that whole year and mostly while traveling on that eye-opening trip through India.
It was rough travel through India. Maybe you have been there, or maybe you have seen on T.V. that the poorest of the poor live there, but I’m not sure as a middle-class, white American that I could have ever realized what some humans endure without seeing it up close. There seems to be no rhyme or reason for it. India is also one of the most beautiful countries I have ever been to, and it has a rich history. The people were kind, the food was incredible; the colors and landscapes were enchanting.
On December 30, 1999, we were trying to fly from Cochin, Kerala to New Delhi, and I will save you the long details of our many delays and diversions and tell you that we ended up in Mumbai (formerly Bombay) at five o’clock in the morning. We were exhausted and cranky. There was only one hotel advertised in the baggage area, so we called it. Until then, we had been staying mostly in places that cost under $5 a night. This hotel cost a minimum of $250 a night. It was the first and last time I’ve ever stayed in a 5 star hotel.
For our New Year’s celebration, we joined a party on the roof, poolside with many other guests, some from other parts of the world. We were the only Americans, and I had a blast. I’ll never forget the midnight hour as we watched fireworks explode all over the city, welcoming the New Millennium.
However, when I looked down over the side of this sky rise building, I saw acres of lean-tos and cardboard boxes where the homeless lived. I can’t muster the words to describe how that felt. Here I was on a trip of a lifetime, and those poor souls just needed a decent place to live. Nothing else can put you in your place like that. I will always remain humbled and grateful for my good, simple life.
As absurd as it may seem, that night I was also a lucky winner of a color T.V. set. I certainly couldn’t fit that into my backpack, so my traveling companion suggested I donate it. The hotel concierge showed me a list of charities, and I picked a girl’s orphanage. The next day, my friend and I found ourselves in a room full of beautiful young girls who swarmed us with big, fascinated eyes. I couldn’t think of what to say to them, so I asked them their names. One by one, I heard, “Jessica! Vanessa! Katherine!” Then I tried to remember their names, and the room filled with laughter as I got most of them wrong.
This is just one story from a trip filled with life-changing encounters. It was ten years ago, and though most of the days of my life since then seem to blur together, not a day goes by that I don’t think about India. In many ways, it is like the day I was married or the days my sons were born. In India, not only did I step into a new millennium, I stepped into another era of my life.
Shelli Bond Pabis is a columnist for the Barrow Journal. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.