I had long wanted to be on this plane, a plane taking me back to India, a country I had fallen in love with as a senior college student studying abroad. I had made a vow back then to myself and to the country that had taught me about love and beauty, poverty and squalor, and the wealth of the spirit within, that I would return to repay the favor and give something back. As we neared landing, the bird’s-eye view of the million morning fires of Delhi sent my heart back 8 years, to the moment when I first set foot in India. I remembered a squalid morass, the acrid smell of heavy air full of rancid odors, the sight of everything painted with the brilliant colors of red and yellow, the startling sight of crowds of humanity merging into one, and poverty unlike anything I had seen before. People everywhere. The image of entire families living, cooking, eating, and sleeping in the streets or in dismal squatter camps had never left me. Now, as the plane made its descent into Delhi International Airport, I saw those same families huddled around their morning fires, warming their hands and preparing their daily batch of chai tea. It occurred to me that their situation probably had not changed much over the years, although mine had.
During my first encounter with India, I was a wide-eyed student on an academic journey of discovery, studying religion and politics and traveling the subcontinent from the Himalayan foothills to Cape Comorin, ready to be cheated and amazed at every turn. I was 21 years old, about to graduate, and ready to experience the world. I had soaked in all the sights and sounds and people, and ultimately realized how much I was receiving. It was so much more than I could ever give back. This time I came as a medical volunteer backed up with a general medicine residency training and the desire to make a difference. I wanted to serve in a place that would require my full attention, and not be distracted by bombardment from outside distractions and influences. I wanted to focus, and focus diligently on healing the sick. I was eager to put my new skills to use in the country that had moved and inspired me years earlier.
Deciding to leave my country for a year was not as easy as I might make it out to be. For one thing, it meant not seeing my immediate family for many months, if not for the entire year. The last time I had spent any length of time in a foreign country, Haiti, there had been a coup; the entire country, including communications, had shut down. My mother didn’t hear from me for several weeks — we were holding out in the countryside without safe passage back to the capital, and she thought I had perished with the other demonstrators. At one point after my return, she admitted that she envisioned my career would take me into the interior of Africa, never to be seen again. I assured her that several decades back, communication tools like e-mail did not exist, but now the entire world was getting wired in and we would likely be able to talk at least once per week. Leaving the airport terminal and getting on the plane was the hardest part; once you are airborne, the thrill of the adventure takes over. As we were taking off I threw a ceremonial goodbye kiss to my home and gazed at the clouds.
In some ways, I was not alone. I had several friends who had been accepted into the same health and human rights fellowship and were uprooting themselves as well to go live in other exotic locales. One close colleague had secured a fellowship with a nongovernmental organization, Physicians for Human Rights, to do health and human rights work in Cambodian prisons. Another was going to spend a year investigating the psychiatric needs of the poor in Egypt. My closest friend, also in the health and human rights fellowship, was working on lining up a position on the Thai-Burmese border, delivering medical care to a refugee population that had been fighting for human rights for decades against the Burmese military junta. We all promised to keep in touch. It was about to become a unique year of discovery and service for each of us in our own way. As the plane touched down in India, I felt a jolt of satisfaction. I had kept my promise to return.
Two days and worlds away from my home, the permeating odor of Delhi assaulted me outside the airport – an amalgam of sweat, grass, dirt, excrement, garbage, and the sweet smell of the tropics, all rolled into one. I took refuge in the taxi that would take me north to my new home. For the next year I would be safe in a small Tibetan refugee community in the foothills of the Himalayas. But first, I had to survive the drive from Delhi.
The trip took more than 10 hours on two-lane roads. Every few minutes, a truck sped towards my taxi in the wrong lane, its horn blaring, tassels waving, blue- and red-faced gods or gurus staring down from their portraits above the cab. One came so razor-close the TATA logo on its grill seemed the size of my fist. My driver finished overtaking his smaller vehicle prey and swerved out of our lane at the last possible second. I saw 10 accidents during the first 5 hours. Overturned trucks were everywhere, their contents scattered across the road and the fields beyond. There were propane canisters lying in heaps by the road, and metal poles sticking out of the ground. I saw large piles of rice and wheat and barley, metal industrial doodads of all shapes and sizes, and boxes of clothing in various states of destruction. It looked like a bazaar rather than a highway.
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