I have come up with many a crazy plan in my time but perhaps the craziest, and best, was the day I sat on my best friend’s dorm room floor and bought a plane ticket to India with my student loan money.
It was sometime around midnight and we were emotionally drunk on loathing for a narcissistic college professor we had been having trouble with all year. He made a sport of putting students in bad situations and seemed to enjoy watching us twist and turn in discomfort as we tried to navigate manufactured issues we weren’t prepared to deal with. He cared little for our feelings and made a mockery of any attempt to challenge him. In truth, he represented everything we couldn’t stand about the traditional college path and then some.
India as an Act of Rebellion
So, we sat on the floor, seething over everything this professor had done, everyday since he had walked into our university, and we bought tickets to India. It was the biggest act of rebellion we could muster. I have no idea what my friends felt as we pushed ‘buy’ but I felt an incredible rush of freedom and excitement knowing that I had just dropped $900 in borrowed money to actually go do something of worth.
Months later, we boarded a plane, none of us knowing what we were in for. I packed far too much and somehow had absolutely none of what I needed. My best friend’s boyfriend, bless his heart, ended up carrying my suitcase through much of India. My best friend took off with a fervor towards the subcontinent but had a hard time merging her image of India with the realities of life in an incredibly economically stratified society. The three of us were, quite literally, the picture perfect image of white people in India- wide eyed, very excited, idealistic, and pretty much clueless.
Discovering India & Saying Yes
Nevertheless, we marched on, headed for a friend’s wedding just outside of Kolkata. With some time on each end of the wedding, we did what every American does when they land in India- we ate and we shopped. I had read exactly none of the guidebook my travel companions had given me so I raced across India on trains, buses, and rickshaws without a care in the world. My friend still loves to tell me how annoying I was, in love with all things India and oblivious to any complaints that one of the most challenge countries on earth brought out in her.
I said ‘yes’ to everything, and refused to even pay lip service to any fear or nerves I had. I ate everything offered to me and smiled and played with the never ending line of children who tugged on my clothing, begging for rupees. I bought a sari for the wedding as instructed and learned how to count to 10 in Hindi. There was no part of me that wasn’t excited to be in India but every bit of excitement was still based on what I wasn’t doing- attending classes in a cold theatre with a man seemingly hell bent on making my life difficult.
Boredom Leads to Discovery
The one major request my travel companions had made while we were in India was to visit the Golden Temple. All I knew about India was the Taj Mahal so I shrugged my shoulders and agreed to take the journey to Amritsar. When we arrived, they convinced me to stay on the compound so that we could hear the call to prayer in the morning and simultaneously save some money. I agreed even though it would mean no hot shower in the morning. My least favorite thing about travel to this day is a lack of hot showers.
We settled in and the fever my friend had been quietly brewing for days suddenly turned into a full blown illness. Her boyfriend tried to comfort her for the rest of the day and night while I grew bored staring at the ceiling in a stuffy hostel room. By morning, I was determined to head out as soon as I woke up despite my friend’s delirious, feverish protests that I not go anywhere without a companion. Not knowing how sick she was feeling, and with all the confidence of someone who has no idea what she is doing, I rolled my eyes and headed out the door.
I followed the throngs of people and mimicked them when they removed their shoes and washed their feet. I walked along the marble floors and smiled as I caught glimpse of the pools of water surrounding the temple. I decided to follow the lead of everyone around me and head towards the temple so that I could walk through. I wasn’t here to watch from afar, after all.
I remember the morning air being especially refreshing in a way I’ve never been able to recapture in all my time in India. I walked the long path to the temple, smiling at everyone, wondering what deliciousness I might have for lunch that day. As soon as my feet hit the outer floor of main temple, a call to prayer went out and every single person dropped to their knees in prayer. Having not read the guidebook on this one, I stayed standing for a moment, a single person standing amongst a sea of prayer, taking it in in awe. As soon as I caught hold of myself, I dropped to my knees and mimicked everyone else, thinking some muddy thoughts about gratitude and privilege.
In Which my World View Explodes
I walked through the temple and I have a vague memory of chanting, a group of men furiously praying, shuffling through faster than I had anticipated, bright orange fabrics everywhere, and more gold than I can describe. But what I really remember is the roof. As I climbed the final set of stairs, I burst into the air, free of the people pushing in from all sides in that way that makes every traveler to India instantly grateful for every experience they have ever had with personal space. I found myself overlooking the entirety of the complex that houses the Golden Temple and all at once, I was hit with the enormity of the moment. I was in India. I was alone on a rooftop surrounded by people praying for the unity of mankind. I was over 7,000 miles away from home and I had made it happen on a whim. My chest tightened and my breath caught for a second before the tears started flowing.
I had done some limited travel before this trip to India but this was the moment that my wanderlust and my commitment to never, ever settling for less was solidified. My entire world view burst open instantaneously, though admittedly I still only had a partial picture of the enormity of this discovery.
On What is Truly Possible
When you’re a kid, everyone tells you you can be anything you want to be, that you have limitless potential. What they don’t tell you is that most people want you to be anything you want to be as long as you don’t break the mold or jump too high out of the box. Challenging the status quo too loudly is generally a guaranteed way to get people to tell you to “grow up” and “be practical”. That one lonely peek over a rooftop shattered my previous understanding of what was possible and I suddenly had an incredibly clear understanding that absolutely anything imaginable can be brought to life, even if it starts out as a fleeting whim. “Being anything I wanted to be” suddenly took on new meaning.
When I bought the ticket to India, I didn’t tell anyone that I had used student loan money to get there. Student loans are supposed to be for educational purposes. Looking back, that $900 I secretly spent on a ticket to India is the only $900 of my entire student loan debt I am absolutely, unequivocally sure went to furthering my education.
Jenni Mahnaz is a photographer and freelance writer who enjoys life best when she is on the move. Among many other countries and multiple continents, Jenni has traveled to India 4 times and has proudly survived two monsoon seasons. She holds a MS in Social Science and an advanced certificate in UN Studies and conducted the research for her Masters thesis with UNICEF in the rural villages and tandas surrounding Hyderabad. A believer in digging deep wherever she goes, Jenni supports travel as an essential component of a well-rounded education and recently started the “Worldschool Babies Group” in NYC as a means of getting families out and exploring the world as early as possible. You can find more about Jenni and her work at WitnessHumanity.com and JenniMahnazPhotography.com.
Jenni Mahnaz is the creator of our wonderful open-source India Resource.