Our annual trips to India are many things. For those of us who come often, they’re a chance to reconnect with friends and places we love. For students leaving the US for the first time, they’re an expansive opening of the mind to new ideas and perspectives and connections. For CCS as a whole, they’re a refreshing of our collective understanding of what’s going on in one of the most dynamic corners of the world. For programs like our Honors Independent Project program, they’re the literal means through which our students can do exceptional things (we’ll share more soon about Peyton McDonald’s project and how it is what a “capstone” project usually just aims to be). And for our community, they represent some number of us rebelling against the prejudice, stagnation, and comfort-seeking that seems to be creeping more and more into society.
With all of that said in blunt terms, in a simpler sense, the most common truth of this trip is really just observation. We get to observe humanity. Yesterday, we drove from Pancheshwar to Marchula, a quiet junction town on the Ramganga River. At first, the landscape was very mountainous and similar to where we’d been staying – villages nestled or perched in the middle of terraces carved out of the mountainside, steep valleys, and scraggly peeks in front of a backdrop of 20,000+ ft. mountains. We began our drive at 5 AM, so there wasn’t much movement. Slowly, though, the setting began to change.
As we descended into the plains, the scene changed. The sights and sounds of construction replaced the natural vibes. People were suddenly moving here and there. Billboards multiplied. We crossed westward the patchwork of Indian agriculture, development, and urban life. We smelled sugar cane processing plants, irrigation canals, tandoor ovens, human waste, and diesel engines. Through it all, there was so much to take in. The contrasts of India are incredibly stark. Each corner can feel different from its neighbor. And yet, there are connections, ways of making the whole thing make some sense.
One of the constants is what’s perhaps best described as an ecosystem of human lives. No one life seems to exist separate from those around it. Families are at the core but communities – interconnected groups of people – are also. And it’s possible to feel quickly part of that ecosystem. For example, Siri led us down a wrong turn in the congested city of Haldwani. Before I could turn around, we were down an alleyway that was serving as an active fruit market. The narrow street was narrower even because there were carts on all sides selling lychee, mangos, bananas, apples, and bright melons. Hundreds of people were buying and selling. I felt with my Western mind a quick sense of dread – would we be stuck here? Would people get angry because we had so clearly driven where we weren’t supposed to?
The ecosystem of India and its people’s way of coexisting took over. We were absorbed into that narrow street. Our two vehicles became part of the patchwork. People worked together and with us to adjust the angles of carts, create space, move everything forward. It wasn’t fast but it wasn’t slow. It all happened at the speed that the ecosystem could accommodate. It was efficient and heartwarming. It didn’t matter that we were foreigners or that our fancy vehicles didn’t really fit. The culture of collaboration, understanding, and problem solving revealed its capacity and its strength despite all of the change that’s so clearly happening.
It’s easy to worry and to wonder what will happen moving forward on the subcontinent. The numbers are staggering – 1.3 billion people on a landmass 1/3 the size of the United States, for example. What if they all just decided to eat meat or desire air-conditioning in the ways that we do? Could the world sustain such an increase in the demand for resources? Probably not, I guess. But maybe that won’t matter in the ways I worry. Maybe the ecosystem will figure it out.
The beauty of these trips is in the deep conversations and the purposeful experiences we have. But the consistent threat is just what happens outside the window as we drive across a relatively small part of the states of Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh. More miles to come!