Ann Arbor, Michigan, U.S.A. – When I was 12 years old, my family went to India for six weeks. My mom had an art residency there and we were all happy to escape Michigan’s bleak January. I was to go to school there so I would not fall behind.
We were going to spend four weeks in a house in Bangalore before going to Kerala for a vacation. I was very excited, and a little nervous, but I ignored my nerves.
Before we departed, I found a travel book on India at a charity sale. I studied it, carefully jotting down all possible attractions and happened upon one I was particularly interested in, a giant bull statue.
A few weeks later, during a drive back from a mountain in India, I was shocked to see that very bull. It was as if it had jumped from the pages in that dusty book to right in front of me.
Nothing in India seemed completely real. When I first arrived, dazed and extremely jet-lagged, I was convinced that the palm trees lining the road were fake.
I had seen palm trees before, but these – at least in the dark of the night – looked plastic to me.
It took a good night’s sleep and 30 minutes staring in awe from a rooftop to convince my brain that India truly did look like this. In the streets, bright colored flowers that I could only imagine to be in books and pictures appeared everywhere.
We opted for a house in Bangalore instead of a gated community in the appropriately named “Whitefield” (not joking, it is really called that). I am so grateful that we chose to do that. The trip might have been way different if we had stayed in a gated area that was similar to home.
Being able to have real experiences made a big difference.
At our house in Bangalore, there were two cats: Caramel and Jasbinder. Both very sweet cats who enjoyed the sun and naps, they hung out with me in my room. Caramel’s favorite spot was my desk where she would take long naps while I agonized over math homework.
The dining room was outdoors, between the kitchen and house which were two separate buildings.
Every night, we had dinner while overlooking palm trees in perfect weather. I was so disappointed to arrive home and have everything be cold and gray again.
In my closet at home, I have four beautiful kurtis, a sort of tunic. In India, they were my uniform when I was not in my school uniform, which was a blue or red polo with khakis.
I generally wore a kurti, leggings and sandals, an easy and breezy look that still allowed me to climb the tree outside of our house. The kurtis came from fabric stores that I loved to go to on the weekends. I could spend hours mesmerized by the beauty of the colors and patterns.
The food in India was a big deal to my entire family. At home, the cook, Kavita, made the best aloo gobi I have ever had. I am still on the hunt to find one that even closely resembles it.
The special thing was that she chopped up the vegetables extremely fine. She could make an entire meal from just a few vegetables by cutting them up really small. I missed out on most of Kavita’s meals because I was at school. I still feel envy that my parents got amazing lunches and breakfasts without me.
As we spent more time in India, we became more carefree about what we ate. Initially, my parents banned street food for me, but after a few weeks, we forgot about the rules.
My favorites were tea rusks bought from a giant pile and the best paper dosa, a very thin rice pancake, wrapped in an elegant cone.
I love dosas, and they quickly became my favorite. I loved the dosa shop near my house where they had every flavor under the sun. I loved anything cheesy and thin.
In Goya, there was more fish. We had fish curries, fried fish, fish stew and more. Before my forced diet of french fries and broth when I got sick, I ate more fish in a few days than I normally do in a month. I never got sick of it though. It was so fresh and flavorful.
One day, near the end of our stay in Bangalore, we went to Kavita’s apartment to meet her family and have lunch. I was struck by – and still think of – her family’s generosity. Even though they had so little, they still tried to provide for us. They insisted that we eat the beautiful and delicious lunch before they ate.
Near our house, there was a man who sold coconuts. We would get one every day, sometimes more, and stand there happily slurping away on the refreshing juice.
Once the coconut had been fully drained, we would give it back to him so he could shave all of the meat off for us to eat.
The Coconut Man had miraculously unscarred fingers even though by the speed of his machete, it would be totally normal if he had no fingers. It faintly scared me every day to watch him whip the machete with amazing speed and precision.
My American education showed in my Indian school. Although I was the same age as my classmates, I fell behind in math and French.
I wasn’t much in a productive mindset, though. It seemed very unfair to me that I was in this amazing place and yet I was forced to study algebra. I got through okay, but my brother thrived.
After we returned to Michigan, he was ahead of his class in reading comprehension due to his assignment of reading a book a night.
A week before school, my dad bought me a tiffin lunch box, or steel stacking box, at a nearby store. The purchase was an effort for me to feel just a tiny bit less out of place. It did anything but.
On the first day of school, I discovered that every other kid had the lunch box that I did at home: the cloth bag instead of the tall metal folding contraption.
But I took that metal tiffin box to school every day. It was filled with a range of little things. Most days, I got lemon rice (my favorite), pomegranate seeds and jelly halwa, which is a sweet, orange gummy candy.
At my school, I played soccer at lunch with the other kids in my grade. I was the only girl playing and this seemed to shock everyone, but I preferred to play soccer rather than sit and gossip with the other girls.
I fell down many times, got hit in the head with the ball a few times, but it was worth it. I loved playing even though I was not as good as anyone else. But every time I scored or made a good pass, I felt a rush of pride from showing everyone that I could play with the boys.
There was a juice stand near my house. Every day after school, my family walked to it.
I was determined to try a different juice every day and eventually try them all. My plan failed due to the large amount of options, but I did try a lot – I often had multiple at a time.
Slurping them down in the extreme heat, they revived me of any fatigue.
My favorites were a bright purple grape juice, a salty watermelon and something called faluda. The faluda at the stand, which looked like a child came up with it, was giant and pink. Crammed with an assortment of nuts, fruits and candy, it tasted like heaven.
My memories of India are divided into two categories in my mind, before flu and after flu.
First came the headaches, which at first I thought were because of a soccer injury. Then I started to feel sick.
I went to the hospital in a rickshaw. Bumping along the road, swerving at the last minute to avoid collisions with cattle, I was only minimally concerned for my safety. That could have been due to my lack of present-ness due to my fever, or my lessened fear of rickshaws after three weeks in India.
A week after the hospital visit, when I was feeling better due to rest and medication, my family left Bangalore and went to seaside Kerala for our no-school and restful part of the trip.
With flowers, creatures and amazing birds straight out of a picture book, Kerala was beautiful. I could not participate in any of it.
A day or two into the trip, I got sick again. After fainting in the shower – thank goodness for handrails! – I was confined to a life in bed. I finished watching the TV show “Jane the Virgin” while eating the little food I could stomach.
The staff of the hotel was very nice. They brought me french fries, vegetable broth and juices to mask the terrible taste of my electrolyte drink. I eventually was able to transport myself to a boat for a ride where I saw kingfishers and beautiful ducks.
When I was able to fly, the hotel staff gave me a lime to sniff for the nausea.
Back home in Michigan, the sky was gray. It rained and snowed for a week and everything felt dull and drab.
I missed the warmth of India and all of the friends that I made. But my memories stayed with me and shaped me into the person I am today. I’m so grateful for the experience.
Although I loved the flowers and food, the most important part of my time in India was that it showed me that there is another world outside of my small bubble.
Lucy Tobier is a Reporter with Youth Journalism International.