"Travel is a fantastic self-development tool because it extricates you from the values of your culture and shows you that another society can live with entirely different values and still function and not hate themselves." - Mark Manson, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck
After some 18 hours on and off planes, I was finally close to landing my third and final connecting flight. I’d flown alone before to Saudi Arabia and back to Egypt, but these couldn’t even come close to this. This was my first adventure in a completely foreign land where I knew practically five or so semi-trusted, never-met-before AIESEC friends with whom I was to volunteer in an after-school English teaching program. Mind you, I’d never taught English to kids before, nor had I ever imagined that my parents would allow me to venture anywhere alone – let alone India!
So here I was in July of 2017 on my first ever 5-week trip to Jodhpur, Rajasthan, and beyond to live as a stable, independent adult – with only $500 on hand and some feta cheese for emotional support. Anything less than excitement verging on anxiety would be blasphemy! To be clear, part of the reason I applied to be a global volunteer with AIESEC was selfish. I traveled with the intention of expediting my own growth. You see, I felt the urge to travel alone before turning 21, because, as I wrote in my journal at the time, “I want to connect with myself away from the hum-drum of daily life.” But what I was really trying to run away from is an introverted me who had no definition in her dictionary for ‘fun', could seldom understand people’s behavior, never considered doing something crazy (e.g., joining a Hindu street festival), and rarely, if ever, openly shared her vulnerabilities. I desperately needed a crash course in self-development. That's where India came in: here's a great cultural merger where I could do all of the above and blow up my comfort zone. True enough, week after week, India was the place where I gradually developed a newfound tolerance for things that were previously uncomfortable to me.
WEEK ONE: ADJUSTING TO EVERYTHING, INCLUDING FROGS
I knew a huge part of the deal was acclimating to my new, never-quiet home, where personal privacy was a joke. Being the youngest child among two other married siblings meant I rarely worried about sharing space. Now, I had to share an apartment with six volunteers, visiting AIESEC Jodhpur members, and, to top it all off, crawling creatures — and they were many. I was lucky to share a room with only one as opposed to three other girls, but the trade-off was that my room had around four tiny frogs — as well as various other crawling and flying insects — locked in an unused (of course!) restroom.
I also expected I had to make do with anything circumstances threw at me or withheld from me. For instance, I had to accept the fact that washing machines are a luxury and that I could use the one and only washing tub, wash my clothes the old fashioned way 2-3 times a week, and hang them to dry in the scorching heat.
Still somewhat of a quiet introvert, I wasn’t outgoing and friendly around my friends-to-be with whom I shared space and food. There were three Egyptians – Mohammad, Aya, and Sara – and two Romanian girls, Andrada (Ada) and Gabriela. Later, Tereza from the Czech Republic joined our squad. I kept to myself at first, until after some hesitation I struck up a conversation with Ada and discovered that we have a lot in common. I was enthralled to know that she’d visited nearly all European countries and, as an experienced scout, was accustomed to #grub_life. I became interested in the other volunteers’ life stories and eventually dropped my misanthrope’s cloak to befriend them all.
I wasn’t a completely transformed person in a week, but I surely adapted to ‘givens’ I would have otherwise run away from if I were in Egypt.
WEEK TWO: EXPERIMENTING WITH CHANGEAfter the completion of my first week’s fieldwork observations, I came to realize that there were so many similarities between Egypt and India. Aside from street signs and gibberish pedestrian talk, the scenes — stray dogs, bikes, motorcycles, tuk-tuks, and minicars — weren’t remarkably unfamiliar to an Egyptian. So, just like Cairo’s busy and loud streets and chaotic traffic, Jodhpur’s street soundscape and scenes were not wholly exotic — except, perhaps, for the occasional cow (and the overabundance of tuk-tuks).
As I mapped Egypt onto India in my mind, the superficial closeness of the two countries made traveling to different nearby cities an interesting possibility and a major life lesson in planning. Ada and I set out to book bus and train tickets, reserve hostel dorm rooms, and plan an impossibly long list of places to visit in 48 hours. Over the course of four weekends, we were on the (rocky) roads of Rajasthan, checking in and out of (sometimes queer) hostels, visiting picturesque spots, and facing risky, unexpected situations. In 10 scattered days, we roamed four cities: Jaipur, Udaipur, Pushkar, and Jaisalmer. During weekdays, we stole some hours before and after school to enjoy Jodhpur, our beloved Blue home for five days out of seven.Despite the Egyptianness of India, it was still a foreign place and I didn’t speak the language. It helped that we were almost always a group, moving as one solid body, but even then there were instances when we nearly freaked out. Were we almost ripped off more than once? Yes, definitely. On our way to Ajmer, the bus dropped us off in the middle of a highway road at 3 AM, pitch-black sky and all but a shabby tea shop with barely enough lighting for the guy to see the pot. There were no foreigners around; all the Indians who straddled from the bus evaporated in a few minutes and we were left on our own with a group of eager tuk-tuk drivers, ready to scavenge our money. Some of us were on the verge of tears, but we thankfully managed to reach our destination in one piece for an expensive rate. Did we make mistakes while planning our travel arrangements? Yes. I made the terrible mistake of misreading the departure time of our bus to Agra. I cried my eyes out for being so sloppy and missing our chance to see Taj Mahal. The squad was kind enough not to bash my head in, though.
Looking back, every single trip was incredibly unique, unforgettable, and, most of all, fun. Please note that my introverted self had fun with people – don’t underestimate how difficult that is.
WEEK THREE: PEOPLE EVERYWHEREThree weeks in, it dawned on me that I didn’t feel homesick; perhaps I came to identify with my six fellow international volunteers as family. That feeling was mutual; we wrote a cheesy song about our family-like experience. Perhaps I came to like being someone that kids looked up to in class and, to feed my vanity, honoured on Teacher's Day for doing a job I had only three weeks of experience at! Or, perhaps I loved it when they greeted me with “Ma’am, Dalia ma’am” as though I was a privileged Briton or North American rather than a poor tourist from the Global South. Beyond those two close circles, I somehow enjoyed meeting and talking to tourists on our travels. Between hostels, the school, and the apartment, I was constantly interacting with people who had a wildly different ‘culture’, or a whole system of meanings that I hadn’t accessed until then. Recognizing then and there that I’d been blind and deaf for most of my 20 years because I’d only seen just one mode of living from a single blemished perspective, the recognition hit me hard. I’d read about the theory of constructivism but I hadn’t yet seen it in reality. But my exposure to strangers’ habits and norms shattered any deep-seated ‘conventional wisdom’ I was socialized to accept as (ab)normal. Take, for instance, something as trivial as belching. Belching is socially acceptable in India. Unabashedly, people belch. Out loud. No, "excuse me." I couldn’t for once trace a shadow of shame or social awkwardness on their faces. A trivial example, but it made me see and break the bubble I used to live in.
WEEK FOUR: I DON'T WANT TO LEAVEI thought the epitome of a travel experience is becoming an independent adult. Well, it turns out that’s the mandatory and relatively easy part. In my experience, interdependence is far harder but more rewarding than independence. Unless you’re a hardcore individualist and could never believe in communitarian values, you will agree that there’s something to learn from paying a visit to the supermarket and sticking to our collective budget to buy commonly liked food. After all, it wasn’t my money alone that I could spend unwisely. In my mind, managing our weekly budget was like managing the national budget to buy public goods: we could not exclude anyone from consuming food items that we purchased collectively. Each of us had to sometimes give up a food item that no one else likes. You may also agree that there’s something beautiful about designing a daily house cleaning schedule and putting a messy kitchen to order while someone is mopping the room’s floor and someone else is sanitizing the restrooms.
Speaking of restrooms... “El Gesh 2al Etsarraf.” Like most Arabs, my Fresh Buzz was indeed my travel buddy, but I was forced to brace myself and ‘do it’ in the unholiest of places, like the desert and the shabby train toilet ‘hole.’ What was I to do? Shit happens. Pun intended.
WEEK FIVE: SHIT, I'M LEAVINGThe last few days in Jodhpur felt otherworldly. At the airport, I cried for a while, scrolling through my phone’s gallery. I still feel nostalgic when I see all the memories captured in photos and videos we took. I hated the fact that I couldn’t freeze time to ever relive my adventures in India, or ever see all the people I befriended. I know I want to go back again, but if and when I do, it will never be the same. For one, I wasn’t the same. India shook the heck out of me.
Weeks after I came back, I reflected on my trip and noted in my journal: “I think I discovered that in order to explore myself I have to use the eyes of others. They confirmed and challenged what I think about myself.” In retrospect, if it weren’t for my first travel experience as a 20-year-old, I wouldn’t have been as prepared for the other travels that followed.