I’ve been warned against mutating viruses, contaminated well water, heat stroke, and local buses. My cousins tell me stories of entire train cars sprayed with sleeping gas and passengers robbed of bags and money.

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My sister says the real problem is the men—lecherous and dangerous. And my mom wants me to carry something sharp—a whistle, or at least bags of the spiciest powder to throw in someone’s eyes.

I’ll be spending a complete year in India and the fears have been planted in my mind, and in my reaction time. But at the base of each cautionary tale is the idea that these aren’t just threats to me, they reflect some of the everyday issues facing India.

Before I left Florida, my mom kept asking me, “How did you get this idea?”

It was more out of despair, I think, since she was watching her youngest daughter abandon office jobs for a year-long fellowship with Indicorps, a non-partisan organization that links Indians across the world to grassroots development work in India.

But she knew my plan wasn’t impulsive. In the past few years I had applied for journalism jobs in Bangalore and Bombay, and inquired about joining the staff of a yoga ashram in Kerala.

Then last summer during Inspire, a six-week trip through slums and villages, it became clear that instead of continuing my “American” life in India, I wanted to understand this country with no boundaries.

Meeting Indicorps alum and staff came at a fateful time. It was clear that their approach to service was aligned with my own perception. I had never met such a fearless group —many 20-somethings who had deferred law school or government jobs to throw their stuff in a backpack and live in pretty much under any conditions for the chance to make a difference.

With no small amount of analysis and anxiety, I applied and was accepted in March.

Now the preparing, the planning, and the packing is over. I’ve made it to India, and in three days I will join the other 20 fellows for orientation before moving to my more permanent home in Chandigarh, Punjab.

In the past few days I’ve noticed that my thoughts have all been about me: my health, my clothes, my Internet access. The inspiration that led me here is on the backburner, and I’m thinking only of my own well-being.

It’s easy to forget that my stomach’s complete rejection of water is a testament to the sanitation and irrigation crisis that cities and villages face here.

Last year I took a boat ride on the methane-filled Yamuna river—a leading water source for Delhi. The fact that the gurgling, black sludge was the same thing that was diluted into shower pipes and sinks was legitimately petrifying.

While some farmers in Kutch, Gujurat, and other states have innovated advanced irrigation to grow papaya and rice, the solution is not just to find a way to get the water, but a way to sustain the flow long-term.

Farmers like Vasant Futane in Maharashtra utilize a water-free rice growing technique that could be a silver lining to the volatile rain clouds.

While I can’t get through an India column without mentioning my health, it’s the freaky stares on the road that unsettle me on a regular, relentless basis.

My friend Divya and I used to play a game from inside the car—stare at the perverted man with such a strong distaste that he absolutely has to take his eyes away. Unfortunately, that method seems less effective if I have to walk down a street to work by myself.

I wish a local loiterer could feel the frustration of being objectified to the point of fear. It’s not just a threat to my body or my safety—it’s a complete dismantling of independence. The fact that women in India, despite momentous gains in business, politics, and education, continue to be abused and raped to such a degree is unspeakable.

While this sexism blatantly exists in America and Italy and many other countries I’ve visited, I can’t shake the fact that the repression and consequent outbursts will hinder economic and social development like a slow, painful disease.

It’s especially ironic because Indian women, especially in the villages, exhibit a strength that could make soldiers quiver. They battle drunken, useless husbands, tuberculosis, rag-picking, and hard labor, and still manage to make dinner and rock their children.

I feel blessed that my work this year will have an emphasis on helping women, because I can only learn from their unwavering will to live.

I take about two pills a month at home—and only after stubborn denial.

In the past three weeks I’ve had three vaccines, two malaria pills and packed my bags with at least seven different types of strong medication.

Disease in India doesn’t just tap you on the shoulder so you visit the doctor. It knocks you on the floor, wrings you dry, and demands that you kill both healthy and unhealthy parts of your immune system.

As I hear anachronistic words like cholera and typhoid, I think of the health awareness social worker that I followed through an Ahmedabad slum.

He explained that while the government was providing access to tuberculosis medicine, thousands stopped taking their course of drugs out of fear of imagined side effects.

Sickness comes from bad water, bad air, bad jobs. But most of all, it comes from lack of education—simple knowledge that could prevent millions from suffering.

Even my annoying medicine-free habit knows that.

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here is no way I can address disease and pain and poverty without the firm declaration that India is an amazing country and I am breathing in relief that I am here to stay.

Indicorps orientation starts on Indian Independence Day—a day, as my cousin reminded me, that established freedom to hold a flag, freedom of religion, freedom to cast off your caste.

Freedom to pack your stuff in a backpack and try not to look too American.

While the television ads and politicians use this day to their advantage, the idea is still sinking in that there must also be freedom for a girl, living on forty rupees a day, to go to school and college.

That girl should be free to get a job, and not just next to a telephone, to pay her own bills, eat her own food, and raise her family with an equally competent husband.

Ankita Rao is a recent journalism graduate.

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