I feel like I have to address the election, as it was quite a surreal experience hearing the news from so far away.
The election results started coming in as we were having breakfast. We all sat around the table in our guest house in Varanasi messaging friends and family. We had an event scheduled right after breakfast—a retired professor was going to walk us around our little section of Varanasi and talk about all the religious sights and the Ganges. We all left with phones in hand and mounting anxiety. We walked around in a daze; we tried to be respectful of the professor, but I don’t think anyone heard a word he said. I watched holy men with long hair and beards and painted faces paying their respects in various places of worship, stepped around cows in narrow alleys, and spotted a pile of little puppies sleeping near a temple. I looked around at the faces of the girls. Everyone was on the verge of tears. This wasn’t how we thought the world worked. Our—perhaps naive and untested—hopes and beliefs were being shaken in ways we weren’t prepared for.
Yet, out of all of this bad came a little good. We all found that our little family was strong enough to support each other. Classes were canceled for the rest of the day and we all got apple pie and ice cream for lunch at a little restaurant that appears unremarkable but somehow serves the best pie, pizza and pasta ever. Some of us turned off our phones, not wanting to have to process the initial shock all over again when our family and friends woke up back home. I sat out on the balcony looking out over the smoggy view of the river with two of the other girls. Our future seemed so much more immediate than ever before. We talked about becoming teachers, working for the Peace Corps, and how we needed to have done something about climate change a long time ago. How there are consequences of this election we cannot begin to understand.
I’m sure I will have to process the events all over again when I am in the U.S. again. Yet, it is a topic of conversation even all the way across the world. I was walking out of a temple in Bodh Gaya the other day, and a man, who I assumed was from the area, asked us where we were from and what we were doing in India. He asked how things were in the U.S. now that Trump was there “even though everyone wanted Clinton.” We said things were not good; he replied, “Yes, very bad.” We didn’t say much else, but the general sentiment was clear even across the language barrier.
Anyway, life goes on. We had a wonderful day in Bodh Gaya. It was the first place we had been that wasn’t a bustling city, and I loved being able to walk around more easily. There were lots of baby chicks and baby goats. The goats all got sweaters because they get cold, which doesn’t seem fair to the dogs and cows who don’t get any clothing. I was very proud of myself for waking up at 5:45 a.m. to walk to meditate. Three other girls and I walked to the Root Institute, which is a ashram-like place/dharma center. I was surprised to find myself in a situation that felt very much like home—sitting in a room full of white people who have come to discover themselves through the wisdom of the Buddha. I am still trying to find where I fit into this stereotype. I guess I should be grateful that people of all backgrounds and ethnicities are united under one religion, but it did seem a little funny to come all the way to India to meditate with people who looked just like me. We walked back through the crisp morning, passing children in little uniforms on their way to school and monks with wool hats riding their bikes to the temple.
After a breakfast we all went to the Mahabodhi temple. I like Buddhist temples much more than the Hindu sites we have been to. Everything feels very calm, and there are beautiful flowers everywhere left as offerings. There were many people on pilgrimages from Tibet and Nepal. On our way back from the temple we helped one of the girls in our group conduct some interviews for her thesis. I talked to a shopkeeper selling jewelry about how the tourist industry has affected her business. She is from Ladakh and comes only for the winter months to sell jewelry near the temple. The prices for housing, food and transportation have gone up exponentially since she started coming six years ago, because the temple is now declared a world heritage site.
We went back to the Root Institute for a tour. A woman from Russia who volunteers at the institute gave us a tour of the health clinic where free care is provided for the local people. Women are educated on how to take care of their babies, teenagers are taught about hygiene and reproductive health, and doctors are sent into the villages to help in any way they can. We then got a tour of the school where children ages 5-13 receive a well rounded education. We didn’t get to meet any of the children, though, as their school day was already over.
We then took an overnight train back to Delhi. It was quite an experience sleeping in a little bunk high up near the ceiling as we traveled across India all night. I am enjoying the last couple weeks with these girls who I have come to mean so much to me, as we have been through a lot together. The people I’ve met through this experience mean the most to me—the people that have been randomly brought into my life from near and far.