It has been a month and a half since I left home. The range of feelings, conflictions, excitements and anxieties I’ve experienced in this short time has been overwhelming – particularly in my first couple weeks. It was shocking to finally arrive in India after a year of planning, predated by years of contemplating applying for the Adventure Learning Grant (ALG). Waking up on my first full day, knowing ten months of not knowing stretched ahead of me was difficult to wrap my head around.
In reflecting on the beginning of my trip, my biggest takeaway is that there was so much unexpected emotion. I found myself dealing with unanticipated manifestations of culture shock, mainly travelers’ fatigue that I hadn’t previously dealt with to such an extreme. I have traveled internationally before and felt very prepared to transition into my ALG. However, the new component I had underestimated was that this is my first time traveling solo and that fact has changed everything about my experience so far. In past international trips, I have had the luxury of traveling with a program that had already established connections with locals, predetermined a route and itinerary and provided a fallback when any challenges or questions arose. Alone, and not merely a tourist but a student with a field of inquiry to pursue, I found myself trapped a strange paradox in which I couldn’t find ways to fill my days that felt ‘meaningful’ or fit exactly within the parameters of my grant. I felt conflicted about acting the tourist and was uncertain about the best ways to go about networking.
Combined with this was my surprise at how difficult it was for me to find time to be alone particularly as a solo traveler. I had anticipated being lonely before departure, but in different ways than I have experienced since I arrived. In fact, I have scarcely found a moment to myself since I’ve arrived. I have been staying in shared dorms, spending time with other travelers or with hostel staff, befriended strangers saying hello, had numerous rickshaw drivers hounding me to go on tours, had banter with the employees at my regular restaurants or coffee shops or even met strangers on a whim who I ended up sharing meals with – I found myself constantly in contact with people and constantly socializing, much of which has been wonderful. The strangest part of all this, is that despite it all, I was still lonely and despite feeling lonely, all I craved was time to be alone! Spending that much time with new people has been exhausting because I constantly had to be ‘on’ and the fact that they didn’t really know me meant that it was more difficult for me to get the comfortability and companionship I was craving that a close friend or family member easily fulfills. The noise and bustle and constant activity all around me compounded with this and it took a couple weeks for that feeling of being overwhelmed and overstimulated to go away as I adjusted to the new pace and pattern of my surroundings.
My method of unplugging and finding time for myself became reading, I found a quiet corner in a restaurant, coffee shop or park and read for hours. This helped me to refocus my energy, take space to be alone, and allowed me to deeply engage with topics related to the purpose of my grant, to maintain control of my trajectory and dig into new pathways of inquiry. This also allowed me to balance socialization and self-care which has provided me with the stamina needed to create connections everywhere I’ve gone!
I have made more friends in the last month and a half than would have ever been possible had I not been traveling alone. Among these, many have shared their experiences in school and thoughts on the greater system holistically. I’ve heard very wise people discuss economics, the political system, corruption in the government, the pros and cons of public vs government schooling, etc. I have talked extensively about my goals during my grant period with lots of people who were shocked and curious when they heard I’d be in India for ten months. Through many of these casual conversations accidental networking has occurred that has opened up opportunities and brought me down different paths. A run in with a monk at a coffee shop led to his reveal that he worked in politics and education in Mumbai and could try to put me in touch with various Ministers of Education. Two weeks of chai with a hostel staff member turned good friend put me in touch with a professor in Bangalore who offered to arrange various school tours and connect me with her family members, several of whom have worked in the education sector for decades. A spur of the moment decision to attend a film festival provided me with a sliver of perspective into Indian politics and street culture then a flyer on the wall indicated an opportunity to attend a session with an author whose book dissected Indian education, with a history of involvement in alternative education. A chance conversation during a street food tour led to a connection with a woman running a Vietnamese alternative education program that runs tours around SE Asia for educators including India in December and a recommendation to attend an upcoming conference on economics, education and sustainability at the alternative Bhoomi College.
The myriad of ways networking has occurred has inspired me and demonstrated the opportunities that exist once you open yourself up to the possibilities. Happenstance meetings with friendly people have led to connections that would have been impossible to find otherwise. Letting go of control and actively choosing not to plan has given me the freedom to say yes, to make spur of the moment decisions and to organically meet people or connect with friends of friends.