January 3rd, 2018 my host family and I went to see one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Taj Mahal. I remember when I was 7 years old learning about the Taj Mahal and immediately falling in love with it and adding it to my bucket list. Of course there are things that everyone puts on their bucket list and is thinks "One day, I'll see this". Little did 7 year old me know that I would be seeing it up close and in person less than a decade later. Actually little did I know until March 2017 that I would see the Taj Mahal before I graduate High School. But here we are, January 2018, and I've seen it. I was so happy that I nearly cried. The Taj Mahal is indeed an incredible wonder.
I was in Agra from January 2nd-January 5th staying at my host moms mom, my wonderful nani's house. On the second day of our stay we ventured out to see two things. Agra Fort and the Taj Mahal. Because of fog we decided to go to Agra Fort first. Both the fort and the Taj Mahal are from the time period of Shah Jahan who was a Mughal Emperor in the 1600s. Both gorgeous structures are Indo-Islamic Architecture featuring Farsi script inlays and lattice covered windows.
From Agra fort you are able to see the Taj Mahal... On a clear day that is. I was not able to see it as our view stopped maybe 500 feet out due to fog.The Taj Mahal was built as a tomb for Shah Jahan's wife, Mumtaz Mahal, and could be seen from Agra Fort during Shah Jahan's imprisonment (house arrest).
After exploring Agra Fort all morning we drove over to the Taj Mahal and walked around for about 2 hours. Taking pictures, walking through the Mausoleum, admiring the beauty that is the Taj Mahal. I cannot begin to explain how happy I was. I was in shock I think at the sheer gorgeous-ness that I was standing in front of. It was a dream come true for me as a kid and also as an architect-in-training. I of course bought souvenirs and we ate lunch at a nearby restaurant.
As for a life update, it is past the 7 month mark, I have been here for 200+ days and have less than 100 days left here. I have been able to experience more personal freedom by going out to see a movie with another exchange friend (although we did end up going to 3 malls and 2 movie theaters by accident but that's a story for another time). I have also started volunteering at a dog shelter in Gurgaon with Anna!
The New Year is fast approaching (literally today) and I wanted to take sometime to reflect on 2017 as a whole. Both personally and looking at the world as a whole. I wanted to thank specific people who have changed me and my life forever, talk about some world events, and some personal feelings about the world, exchange and life in general.
Jaipur is a gorgeous city in the state of Rajasthan, India. Known for it's many forts and palaces Jaipur is an amazing place to go if you are into history, architecture and great food. My host family and I went to Jaipur for a family function that spanned small parts of 3 days. When we weren't at the function we spent it up in the hill forts over looking Jaipur, inside of palaces, and also a lot of it stuck in the car driving to navigate the traffic and making many, many U-turns. Luckily, the time spent in the car was great because it allowed me to people watch which is something that is actually quite interesting and also I got to essentially window shop every single day. I did however take a lot of power naps that resulted in things like me falling asleep in the middle of the street stuck in traffic and then waking up halfway into the mountains over looking Jal Mahal (the water palace), which is a sight I could wake up to every day.
The Forts and Palaces we visited over the span of 3 days were Am(b)er palace, Jaigarh Fort, Nahargarh Fort, and City Palace. We also got to see in quick passing Jal Mahal, Hava Mahal (The Windy Palace), and Jantar Mantar (the world's largest sundial).
Amer Palace we went at night to see the lights show, first ending up at the wrong place and then another wrong place that was actually inside Amer Palace, and then finally getting to the place you watch the lights show only to find out that the English show was already over. So I sat not really understanding much, confusing what little Hindi I do know (sher (lion) for sheher (city) and Akbar (Mughal Emperor) for akhbar (newspaper))and also staring at the constellations in the sky above and appreciating the music and lights.
The next day, we went to Nahargarh Fort which the Maharajas had built for the Queens of Jaipur in 1734. We then went to Jaigarh fort, home of the world's largest cannon on wheels (which fired only once in testing because it blew out the eardrums of the guy who fired it and he died instantly :) history is fun!). Built in 1726, Jaigarh Fort was the main defense system for Amer Palace. After we saw the forts we headed down into the city where we got lunch and had Lal Maas, Naan (of course) and a type of Chicken Curry. Then we were able to see Jal Mahal and then we headed back to the hotel before going to an after party.
The after party was for an event called Upanayana, a coming of age ceremony for Bhramins in which 13 year old boys are traditionally sent out into the woods to meditate and decide if they would like to become priest or stay at home. Typically the mom offers her son all the things a king would need and now a days he apparently almost always stays. It took place over the three days were in Jaipur as it was the main reason we had gone. Day one was the main part of the ceremony, followed by day two which we didn't attend during the day but went to the after party that we got to eat food and socialize. I had a really bad headache from being in a car all day long (and probably a little dehydration) so I didn't dance because of how loud the music was however it looked very exciting as most dancing here does.
The final day in Jaipur we went shopping for souvenirs and we bought a few things and then headed home. Over all Jaipur is a must visit when you come to India, it is a gorgeous place with beautiful interesting old streets I could probably wander for days!
That's all for now!
See you in the New Year!
It's official! I'm over 5 months into my exchange (over halfway officially now too), it's a crazy feeling that I will not come to terms with just quite yet. But, what better way to celebrate 5 months than a field trip to see Qutb (or Qutub) Minar with my friends and classmates!
The holiday season is upon us. That means back home, it is snowing, everything smells like warm delicious food, stores have Christmas decorations up, Christmas music is playing everywhere, warm pajamas, fuzzy blankets and hot cocoa, peppermint and cinnamon flavor and scented everything, seeing lots of family and so much more.
In India the winter season doesn't have many holidays but it's wedding season so there's a lot going on. But it also means I am hardcore missing all of my holiday traditions. Thanksgiving just happened and I'd first like to say I am so incredibly thankful for everything that has happened in the last year and also for everyone who has supported me though out this exchange and all the people I've met from it. I am also incredibly thankful for the free and open internet I have that allows me to blog about this whole experience... @ the fine people in congress : )
In order to share some of the holiday cheer here halfway across the world from the place I have spent 15 Thanksgivings, I cooked up a small spread of food and shared it with some of the people I am most thankful for here. I spent a day and a half cooking with my host dad and sister (who were soooo incredibly helpful) and four of my closest friends came and we feasted on stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, green bean casserole, cornbread with maple syrup, corn, apple pie, and Oreo bonbons and then also on a chicken that I ended up buying from the outside as I was too scared to cook one myself and accidentally poison someone. Everyone loved everything and and the favorite was... Well the favorite was everything but the one that came out on top was Oreo bonbons. Even when we brought them to school the next day people loovveed them. I'm so happy I got to share a little tradition with everyone and I'm glad they liked it and also I was able to prove to them that food can be tasty without spices and that Americans didn't eat bland food!!
A few weeks ago I came up with the idea to compile stories from all 12 of the YES Abroad countries and put them into a single blog post. Now that we have all been in our countries for at least a week, I decided to reach out to the other students and ask for their first impressions on their host countries and communities. Below are stories from other students across the globe.
Oh. My. Gosh! I wrote a post for Diwali and then never posted it! Here it is... 2 weeks late... better late than never?
Diwali (also known as Deepavali) is the festival of lights celebrated in India and neighboring countries every year between mid-October and mid-November. This year Diwali fell on October 19th. One of the most widely celebrated Hindu festivals, Diwali celebrates the victory of good over evil, hope over despair, or light over darkness.
Traditionally, in the days leading up to Diwali the house is cleaned and decorated and on Diwali night, people dress up in new clothes, light diyas (small candles) to place around the house, make Rangoli designs using colored sand, flowers, or paint, perform a puja (prayer) to Lakshmi ji (goddess of prosperity), light firecrackers, visit and exchange gifts with friends and family and eat lots of food. Diwali has been explained to me as "Indian Christmas" because of the huge influx in shopping that occurs and lights and exchanging gifts.
For me on Diwali, I helped paint a Rangoli design the day before and created one with sand the day of. I helped light and place diyas around the house (although Dipannita, my host sister did most of the placing because they were a lot hotter than I expected but I held the tray they were on), many friends and family came and exchanged gifts and we definitely ate a lot of food. My host brother, Siddanth came to visit from Chennai where he attends University. While fireworks were banned to buy and sell in Delhi NCR this year to prevent pollution in the days following, many (including my family) still lit a few although I was told it was about a tenth of what it usually is.
In order to see the lights me and my sister decided to go with a friend to the top of a nearby apartment building which had one of the most gorgeous views I have ever seen. After we went back home, we went out to eat at the Golden Dragon, one of the only restaurants open on Diwali. But surprisingly it wasn't as busy as you'd think despite the fact my host mom said in years past there were a lot more, it really wasn't busy. After that we drove around to see all the lights and headed home to go to bed.
Two days after DiwalI is a festival called Bhai Dooj, similar to Raksha Bandan, it celebrates the bond between brothers (bhai) and sisters (bhen). It emphasizes the life-long bond between brother and sister as opposed to asking for protection like Raksha Bandan. Sisters perform a puja for the well being of the brothers and in return the sisters are given gifts (in mine and my host sisters case it was delicious Cadbury chocolate boxes).
All in all Diwali was absolutely breathtaking and I actually cried because of how pretty it was to see all of the lights. Please enjoy a slideshow of all my Diwali pictures.
While it may say mid-stay it's not the halfway point quite yet and I think that's the only thing that's keeping me sane. I have more time left here than the amount of time I've been here... At least for another month... AHHHHHHHH!!!!
For the YES Abroad kids in Delhi our mid-stay orientation was in Jodhpur, a very colorful city in Rajasthan (also known as "the blue city").
We traveled from Delhi to Jodhpur over night on a train, it was about 12 hours of travel but it was soooo worth it! Well Colin and Olivia might say otherwise about the train ride because they got sick. We left Delhi Friday night and arrived in Jodhpur Saturday morning. Once we got there we were met by another AFS volunteer who took us to the school we'd be staying at for the weekend. It was a gorgeous campus! Rajmata Krishna Kumari Girls Public School is an all girls boarding school in Jodhpur that is owned and overseen by the royal family of Jodhpur, specifically Rajmata or 'King's Mother' who is the eldest lady in the royal household. The buildings themselves are 500+ years old and beautifully maintained. The school has been there for less than that.
All day Saturday was orientations (but this time around they were interesting! We think because we actually have experienced what they are talking about in all of the orientations), the orientations ranged from reflections to goal making and were absolutely helpful. That night we watched a Hindi film called English Vinglish which I actually slept through the first 25 minutes by accident but I loved the rest of it! It was about a woman who went to New York City to help plan her sister's daughters wedding and decided to learn English while she was there because she felt like her family and others were treating her like a lesser person for not knowing it. Sunday was also a day of orientations but Monday we got to sight see around Jodhpur.
First we went to the Royal Palace of Jodhpur or Umaid Bhawan Palace. It is one of two residential palaces in the world, the other being Buckingham Palace in London. It was built between 1929-1943 during a drought and famine in the area as a way to provide work for the farmers who couldn't farm due to the weather. The palace itself is made of only sandstone, the bricks were melted into place using ice and interlocking patterns. There is no mortar holding it up which I think is fascinating. We got a personal tour of the museum and the vintage car garage. At one point I made a comment about how I'd like to get a picture straight on of the palace and the guide took us to the restricted section and I got some gorgeous pictures so that was really cool! We got a quick snack and drink or Kulfi (Indian Ice Cream) and pop (I drank water of course) before heading to Mehrangarh fort across the city. The fort was started May 12th 1459 and is still being added to and renovated to this day. It is one of the largest forts in India and sits above the rest of Jodhpur with long winding roads or steep footpaths leading up to it. We had a personal tour all afternoon there and also ate lunch complimentary of the Maharani herself. Once out of the fort we decided to walk down and through Jodhpur instead of going by bus. We got to walk through the Old city where many buildings are painted blue to help keep the buildings cool in the hot desert heat. We stopped for a little bit of shopping before heading back to the school to pick up our stuff. Luckily before we left we got to hang out with the two exchange students at the school Elena (Italy) and Alice (Thailand, also pronounced like Alyse). They were a lot of fun to hang out with and we definitely have plans to visit each other in Rome, Bangkok and the US. Then we returned home on a bumpier train ride than before and once I got home on Tuesday I slept most of the day because I didn't sleep great the night before.
One hundred is a huge milestone. It is insane to think that 100 days ago I left my family, my friends, everything that I have ever known to go live in another country for 10 months. It is crazy to think that in three months I have learned so much but also I still have so much room to grow.
Before we left, they talked to us about mood curves, and hearing about them for about eight days straight (June 23-July 1) did make me really annoyed with them but it is honestly a very useful tool. There are ups and downs. Exchange life isn't all glitter and glamour and Instagram-worthy pictures (although it is a huge part of it as seen by almost all of this years YES kids Instagrams which are all fabulous and I will be linking them on the page of "Other YES Abroad kids and their blogs"). There are bad days, there are slow days and part of the experience is learning how to deal with those and push past them. There's always a rainbow after rain or however that saying goes right? It's especially hard to deal with bad days in another country when you're all alone because you feel like nobody gets your struggle but I have found so many great people to talk to when I just don't know what to do. I'm the only exchange student at my school so I have no one to relate to there on specific things, however the other kids in India I can relate to and talk to about school in general. Other exchange students in other countries are super helpful (and fun) to talk to because we discuss our thoughts on situations or problems (and good things too) and how they relate to our countries and it not only becomes a great way to solve problems but also learn about another culture at the same time!
In the last month, I had exams. Which were interesting to say the least. All of my exams except English were altered compared to the other kids (thank gosh too otherwise I would have died). I had Hindi and I got 95.5/100 on it which I was very proud of. In Indian Political Science, my paper was out of 50 marks but she doubled it so I ended up with a 81/100. The normal students paper was about 25 questions and each answer was 25-250 words long. Mine was one four-point question, twelve two-pointers, seven true or false and a couple of one word answers. I took the same English paper as they did and got 61.5/80 which was one of the highest scores in the class. I also had History and Fine Arts both modified from what the normal students had like political science to MCQs and one word answers.
Once exams were over a festival called Durga Puja started. It is mostly celebrated by Bengali families who are inviting the goddess Durga into their homes for three days. It is celebrated by new clothes, pujas (prayers), food, and large get togethers. I celebrated it with my family because they are Bengali. We stayed out until midnight almost every night and had a ton of fun. Then my host sister, Dipannita, fell sick with a fever on the last night so we missed it but we then got to celebrate Dusshera, which is the celebration of Ram's (Good) victory over Ravana (Evil).
Over all the last 100 days have been exciting and I am so excited to see what happens next.
That's all for now!
Over the last two months I have been living with a wonderful family who I will never forget and I am extremely grateful of them for hosting me for these two months. They have left a wonderful first impression of India on me and I will cherish them forever. We have had lots of fun together and also some tough times. I will be leaving them tomorrow for a new host family.
This post also sheds light onto the not so pretty side of exchange as my Instagram and the rest of my blog posts do but I think it is important to post something about this. It is not anyone's fault that I am switching. Achan, Amma, Ananya and Anvi are all wonderful people and I love them dearly and will continue to love them forever. They have gone to great lengths to make me feel comfortable and I cannot thank them enough for it.
The major reason I am switching is the mosquitoes. Since I got here I have lost count I have so gotten so many but it is no doubt well into a few hundred of them. I am getting bit inside the house, despite wearing mosquito spray, pants, sleeping under a mosquito net, camphor, screens on some of the windows, seals at the bottoms of the doors to the outside, bug zappers, neem leaves and eating raw garlic for a week I am still being eaten alive. I believe there is nothing else we an try and I have actually cried over it. Mosquito bites are no fun anywhere in the world especially not at the rate I'm dealing with them at and it's painful and stressful to deal with.
The other major reason is more of a positive thing, I would like to witness more cultures than just one during the year. India is such a diverse place that living with a single family one would never be able to experience it all. I am taking this as an opportunity to experience more of India and learn about more than one aspect of the culture here.
I am very lucky to leave my host family on a good note, there will be no "she said this" "she did that", "they said this", "they did that". I love them with all my heart and I am so very happy that I got to spend my first two months in India with them. I am also ready to meet my new host family and open my heart to them and all of their wonderfulness.
That's all for now!
Hi. I'm McKenna, 16, not just your usual small town girl with big dreams. If I put my mind to it, I can do anything I want. Enjoy my thoughts and stories!
Link to YES Abroad Website