Inside India: Looking Back

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Editor’s Note: Inside India is a series chronicling Sheena McFarland’s first visit to India, the country of her birth, after her adoption by an American family.

After a typical vacation, most people don’t return home a changed person?my trip was far from typical.

I have never really had an ethnic identity because I wasn’t truly acquainted with the culture of my birthplace. Now I feel like I have a sense of India I would never have gotten otherwise.

By the last week of the trip, all of the merchants would approach me in Hindi. I blended into the crowd, instead of sticking out, like I often feel like I do in Utah.

I gained the most insight through the service I participated in during my trip to India with the International Center’s Kotwara Project.

In Kotwara, a tiny village in Uttar Pradesh, our group helped build a school. Our work at the school was mostly symbolic?we were 100 times less efficient than the hired workers?but our time with the children had the most impact.

While the school is under construction, the students attend classes under huge mango trees. When I first walked over to the group of students I worked with, I thought they were first and second graders because of their size. It turned out they were fourth and fifth grade students, ranging in age from nine to 11.

About 30 students comprised both of the classes, and they had all learned a few English phrases. Their voices calling out “good morning,” “good afternoon” and “my house” will stay in my mind forever. The children in Kotwara taught me that one of the most universal qualities of humankind is the unconditional love of children. Everyday as we walked to school, schoolchildren mobbed us, all of them trying to hold on to our hands. At any given time, I had 10 kids hanging on to my hands, wrists and arms as we walked to the school or through the village.

Although there was a huge language barrier between the children’s five English phrases and my five Hindi phrases, we communicated through interaction. We played frisbee, football, soccer together. We sang songs for each other. We sat together in the children’s houses, drinking tea.

We spent seven days in Kotwara, and on the last day, I spent the entire morning in the village visiting houses. I have never had such a hard time saying goodbye to people I had known for so short a time.

After Kotwara, our group moved on to Varanasi, one of the holiest Hindu cities in the world. We spent four days there, and I have never been in such a unique environment. The most striking part of the Varanasi atmosphere was the mixture of life and death.

Many Hindus go to Varanasi to die and be cremated along the Ganges River. On our first night there, we took a sunset cruise along the Ganges and stopped at the burning ghats. The ghats are huge stairs that lead into the river. The burning ghats are covered in Sandalwood, the traditional wood used to cremate bodies. At the ghat I saw, six or seven pyres lit with bodies on top of them. We pulled alongside one of the pyres and watched as the mourners extinguished the fire with Ganges water. The solemnity of the ceremony was awesome. I felt intrusive being part of such a private rite, but I found that India rarely hides anything.

However, a few yards away from the burning ghats, people were bathing and laundering clothes. Death is simply a part of life in Varanasi, and people keep living everyday lives.

The city itself is absolutely dizzying. The old part, located along the river, is a maze of winding alleyways filled with dead ends and thousands of turns. Huge tangles of electric wires hang down from main lines, and pedestrians constantly dodge carts, bicycle rickshaws and motorcycles. Now I long for a harrowing autorickshaw ride and bartering for clothing.

But the part I miss the most about India is the people. I have never met a more hospitable and welcoming culture in my life. I will never forget the children of Kotwara, and now I feel like I can claim India as part of who I am.

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