I am a sophomore on exchange to the Vivek High School in Chandigarh, India. I arrived in Chandigarh on March 17, so I’ve been on exchange for a several weeks and already seen a lot of India! Chandigarh is a city about a half-hour plane ride from Delhi that is very modern. It was built in the fifties and is a beautiful city with lots of greenery! It is a union territory, as well as being the capital of two states in India – Haryana and Punjab. Chandigarh is known as being the cleanest city in India.
My first week, I stayed with a girl named Anahita who has just come to Athenian on exchange. I stayed with Anahita, her parents, and her grandpa, all of whom were very nice and welcoming! Anahita introduced me to some of her friends, who were also very sweet and fun. Over my first week, we went around to see Chandigarh. The city is flat and feels very spacious with lots of parks. The roads and sidewalks are much wider than they are in the U.S. This is a good thing, because there are so many different types of traffic on the road–from cars and trucks and motorcycles to rickshaws, bikes, wagons, and horses! Because of the many different vehicles, driving in India is very different from driving in the U.S. Laws are more like guidelines. People don’t pay too much attention to lane markers, even driving on the other side of the road sometimes. Like in England, cars (usually) drive on the left. Finally, everyone is honking all the time. Even at night I could hear constant honking from the road. However, honking is not considered rude. Instead, it is necessary to honk or else people may not know you are there.
Soon after I arrived, we went to one of the markets and I got henna on my hands, which is called Mehndi here. The people who do it are amazing artists and the Mehndi was very pretty! We also visited the rock gardens in Chandigarh, which are extremely well known. The gardens have rock structures and waterfalls and plants. They also have lots of little statues and interesting designs on the walls made from trash. One wall had patterns made of old plugs in it. In the entrance to the gardens there were hundreds of small figures made of things such as broken bangles. After walking around the gardens, I went on a camel ride with my friend Roshni. We climbed up a ladder to get on the camel’s back, and the man in charge walked us around for a few minutes. It was fun, but a little scary because we were so high up and when the camel started running I felt certain that I was going to fall off. It was very bumpy, like trotting on a huge horse.
Anahita’s parents took me to see classical Indian music and dance performances in the evenings. We went three nights in a row to an art center where they hold lots of festivals and performances. Each night, there was live music first, and afterwards, different styles of traditional Indian dance from states in India. My favorite performance was the Odissi dance from Orissa is Eastern India. The dancers wore beautiful, brightly colored costumes, and imitated poses of gods and goddesses in the temples of Orissa.
Something I’ve found interesting is that people eat silver here! I’ve had it in two places. Once it was just a little bit topping a custard-like dessert. The other places I’ve seen it are in wedding invitations. Although I have yet to attend an Indian wedding, I’ve heard a lot about them! There are certain times of the year when people marry for auspicious reasons. So far no weddings have happened, but my host family was invited to a few weddings. When you invite someone to a wedding, you go to their house with the invitation and bring some sort of sweets or snacks with you. What has so far appeared to be the most common sweet to bring is a box of thin little diamond shaped cookies that are very soft and sweet with a thin layer of silver on top. They’re delicious, and since my hosts have told me that I’m supposed to gain weight on exchange, I’ve probably eaten several boxes by now.
A week after I arrived in Chandigarh, I went on an adventure camp with the class going from eighth to ninth grade. (The school year in India ends sometime in early March and the next year begins in early April). A girl who is doing a gap year as an assistant teacher at Vivek from Markham College in Peru also came on the trip and I became good friends with her. We went to a hill station called Chail in Himachal Pradesh, and spent two nights at a camp there. Chail is in the mountains; there are mostly tiny villages and only a few towns, and the hills are very beautiful. While we were driving, I saw lots of monkeys sitting along the side of the road and there are cows everywhere, including in the towns and villages. I even saw a camel, a yak, and a peacock flying across the road. We reached the camp after driving for four hours and the instructors showed us the tents where we would be staying. To someone used to making a tiny tent on the ground out of stakes and tarps, the tents at the camp seemed very luxurious, with beds, lights, and bathrooms with running water. In the afternoon, we went on a hike through the forests, which was cut short when a huge storm hit. We had to run back, our shoes so heavy with mud we could barely lift them. We spent the rest of the afternoon stuck inside because of the rain, and had to move to cottages when some of the tents flooded and collapsed. The next two days we did activities such as rappelling, artificial rock climbing, and a zip line. In the evenings we had bonfires and a DJ who played Punjabi music, so I learned a little of the traditional Punjabi dance: Bhangra for boys and Gidha for girls. Although I do not usually enjoy camping, I really enjoyed the trip and made a lot of friends!
When I returned from Chail, I went to stay with my next host, Aakriti. It was Holi, so her cousins from Delhi were visiting and I got to be really close with them. When I first came to stay with her, she was referring to one of her cousins as her brother and I was very confused, as I only remembered her telling me that she had one sister when we’d talked over email. However, I’ve since learned that in India, cousins are called brothers and sisters.
Holi is the festival of colors and water, and celebrating the holiday is referred to as “playing Holi.” For Holi, we went to a park with lots of packets of colored powders, water guns, water balloons, and buckets. Everyone wore old clothes and we spent hours throwing water balloons, dumping buckets of colored water on each other, and smearing the colored powders on everyone’s faces. The colors were meant to wash off easily, but we accidentally used permanent powders so my face was slightly red and yellow for several days. It was one of the most fun things I’ve ever done and I definitely plan to play Holi again!
A few days after Holi, I was able to go to Delhi and spend two days there with my host and her cousins. We took the train early in the morning and arrived before noon. That afternoon, my host, her cousin, and I visited a place called the Kingdom of Dreams just outside of Delhi. The Kingdom of Dreams has a huge indoor hall with sections representing each state in India. It was insanely packed so that we could barely move through the crowds at times. At the Kingdom of Dreams, we also saw a sort of Bollywood musical performance with lots of singing and dancing. It was in Hindi and I tried using a headset that translated the lines to English; however, the plot was not very important so I left the headset and enjoyed the music and dance instead. Our second day, we visited several historical sites. First was the Qutab Minar, a huge tower built by a Muslim ruler over a thousand years ago, then the India Gate, and finally, Humayun’s Tomb, which has similar architecture to the Taj Mahal. Although we didn’t have nearly enough time to see everything, Delhi was full of history and very interesting, as well as being a lot of fun!
Because Indian culture is so rich, I’ve learned a lot about cultural customs in my past few weeks on exchange. There is a saying in India that “the guest is God,” which many people have told me about, and they clearly feel that it is very important to treat guests this way. Everywhere I have gone, people have insisted that I eat something, as feeding guests is the main act of hospitality. In fact, I have not once felt hungry while I’ve been in India. I pointed this out to my host’s uncle, who told me that the word ‘hungry’ is usually only used in the context of the poor in India, because people eat all the time. Not huge amounts, but everyone is always snacking. This is partly because most middle to upper class homes in India have help around the house – housekeepers, cooks, and drivers. In the U.S., it is very uncommon to have people keeping house for you. In India, it is both a cultural norm and a huge industry, so that those who are well-off can enable others to earn a living. It has taken some time to adjust to the fact that I don’t have to get my own glass of water. It feels a little weird, but it’s all part of my exchange experience!
I’ve also picked up a bit of Hindi and hope to learn more when school starts. Hindi and English are both spoken in Chandigarh, along with Punjabi, which is the language for the state of Punjab. In India, Hindi is spoken everywhere, as is English, but each area has it’s own language(s) as well, so there are many national languages. Since Hindi is the most widely spoken language, I’ve tried to learn a little of that. I can say my name – “mera nam Mirella he” – and ask someone their name – “apca nam quiya he?”. I’ve also learned a little about how the language ties into the culture. In India, respecting one’s elders is very important. “Ji” can be added after someone’s name to show respect, and people will call a girl a few years older than themselves Didi, meaning older sister, and a boy a few years older Bhuya – older brother. My host calls me Mirellu and I sometimes call her Aaku, because in Hindi, you add “u” to someone’s name to make it a pet name.
After spending a few days in Delhi, Aakriti and I returned to Chandigarh, where we’ve had some time before school starts. Over the past several days I’ve met some of Aakriti’s friends and seen more of Chandigarh. School is finally starting and I’m really looking forward to meeting people and seeing what school is like in India!