If I had no sense of smell I might have enjoyed the cow dung on my hands—cooling and wet in India’s summer heat. Instead I channeled spoiled suburban girl as we cleared the mud floors of the stable. I took shallow breaths to keep from retching, and wondered if the ash we used instead of soap would be enough.
Your hands are washable, I told myself. This had become a mantra in the slums of Ahmadabad, the rural village in Gujarat, a tribal school in Madhya Pradesh, and the organic farm in Maharashtra. I repeated it when I used the train squat toilet, cleaned paint off my hands with kerosene, and picked up trash.
It was three weeks into InSPIRE (India Summer Program Inspiring Reflective Exploration), a five-week immersion and social work program in north India.
All that I knew about InSPIRE came from a couple of phone interviews, the website, and the packing list. But the program, designed for South Asian students to discover their relationship with India, connect with NGOs, and travel with like-minded people, went much further.
InSPIRE was created by a group of young South Asians to provide a different kind of education—an education that required discussion, experience and getting your feet more than a little dirty. This was not a mission trip or a vacation. InSPIRE masterfully challenges its participants enough to redefine their idea of comfort, and happiness. The experienced coordinators provided support, but not a safety net as we visited different organizations and remote villages.
Our group of 18 had become accustomed to the heat as it topped off at 115° F in Gujarat. I no longer needed more than two sets of kurtas, salwars, and underwear. Eating khichdi (rice and lentils)three times a day had become a privilege.
When night came with its aggressive mosquitoes, hard ground, and barking dogs, it was easy to remember that we were guests in the homes of families with just enough well water for a bucket shower, drinking and washing dishes.
But like manure under my fingernails, there were things about my parents’ homeland that were harder to digest than the bhel puri on the side of the road.
It was Day 10 and I frantically searched the crowds in Ahmadabad’s train station for our team. My shoulders ached from my hiking backpack and my stomach twisted and cramped.
I had spent our one free day in Gujarat separated from our group and was intensely sick from contaminated water. The family friend I was visiting called my mom, telling her that I was in no state to leave the house. But the ten days in slums and villages had already taught me more than months of school, and I couldn’t quit this soon.
Dizzy from exhaustion and sweating through even the thinnest cotton, I paced the platform, wishing I were in my bed at home, surrounded by air conditioning and ginger ale.
Then I spotted one of our coordinators, Amit, smiling at me as he weaved through a the crowds in a bright blue shirt. My friend Vibha followed close behind. I shed tears of relief.
This was the first moment during InSPIRE that I realized the strength of the family we had formed. Just ten days ago we had played introduction games in the Environmental Sanitation Institute—exchanging names and schools and majors and asking who spoke Hindi.
Now on the train to Indore, my fear evaporated as I lay my head on Aparna’s shoulder and asked for Ankur to tell me stories and distract me from the pain as he sliced mangoes with a pocketknife.
I was always the scaredy-cat growing up, feigning fever to get out of math class and petrified of elevators, the dark, and big dogs. But at this moment, with my comfort zone ten hours and thousands of miles away, and my last meal more than three days ago, I was more aware of my resilience than ever.
InSPIRE incorporates an activism portion in its program every year. But this was not the revolution of textbooks and television. We learned about the Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save the Narmada Movement) by living with the Adivasi (tribal) children at a school called Adharshila, breaking bread with farmers and visiting a village that had been partially destroyed by the Sardar Sarovar Dam.
The dam was supposed to be a symbol of India’s development, but inefficient engineering and planning resulted in only five percent of the expected energy production. Thousands of villagers were left without homes because of the flooding that it caused.
We disembarked by a steep hill and climbed up to the farm at the top. The farmer, in a neon green shirt and white cotton wrapped around his head, welcomed us proudly to his home saying, “Zindabad,” the greeting that means “Live Long and Prosper.”
Everything on his land was created by generations of his family and by hand. The rope that stretched across the wooden cots was twisted together by his father, as was the most basic wooden plough that maintained the rows of crops.
“Now this is wealth,” our coordinator Ankur said as we surveyed the vegetation, the chickens, cows, and goats.
But it wouldn’t be there for long, the family told us. They expected to lose their home to the dam within a few years and the land the government gave in compensation was mostly dry and useless for planting.
On the jeep ride back to Indore I was trying to put the pieces together. The kids at the tribal school Adharshila were learning subjects their parents never did, but when I asked them, they wanted to continue to be farmers. The parents were willing to send their children away so they could participate in the protest rallies, and put their lives on the line for the land they cultivated for years.
It was hard not the feel zindabad coursing through my own veins.
On one of the last days of InSPIRE, we sat in a circle at 9,000 feet in Himachal Pradesh, in the foothills of the Himalayas. A wayward cow grazed nearby.
Clouds moved through us as we shared our favorite moments, our turning points, and the love that bound us together. I could feel contentment in every part of me.
When I first got off of the airplane in India five weeks earlier, I had expectations of serving and educating the needy. Five weeks later, I felt that I may have planted trees, cooked a few meals and imparted some English words, but the people we met had helped and taught me much more.
My InSPIRE team and I sat together, the images and sensations vibrating inside of us, and vowed to take everything with us back home. We would take shorter showers, plant vegetables, and practice yoga in the morning. This was not my first or last time in India, but it was an India I had never tasted so fully, breathed in so deeply, in a way that remains with me whenever I need to be reminded.
Ankita Rao is a journalism senior at the University of Florida.
This article first appeared in the November 2009 issue of the magazine.