For Norwich student, India was an eye-opening experience

Alanna shares her personal account of her fall 2012 semester abroad in India.

Vehicle horns blaring, the screeching of peacocks fighting with monkeys and the raging heat of India are a huge contrast to waking up to the blast of a cannon on a cold Vermont morning. Before going to India I had to get prepared: packing, medical care (Hepatitis A and B, Japanese encephalitis, tetanus and typhoid shots as well as a daily malaria pill) and making sure my visa and passport were in order were the physical preparations I had to make, but regardless of all this, I was not mentally prepared for my adventure.

For an American student, the transition from a small college in New England to a large college in India can be overwhelming. The smells, sights and sounds of India are foreign, and the desire to claim jetlag for an extra day can be tempting.

Alanna Robertson-Webb feeds a baby tiger at the Sirichae Tiger Zoo in Bangkok, Thailand. (Adisak Jirasakkasem Photo)

Alanna Robertson-Webb feeds a baby tiger at the Sirichae Tiger Zoo in Bangkok, Thailand. (Adisak Jirasakkasem Photo)

However, that’s not the way college works. I am a 22-year-old senior English major from Vt., and my first week in India at the University of Hyderabad was spent getting lost on a campus four times the size of Norwich, while trying to adjust to spicy Indian food and a national lack of toilet paper.

Any attempts on my part made to ask local students how to get somewhere often resulted in half-formed English sentences and being late to most of my classes for that first week. Taking a Hindi course while in India, though not required, was the smartest course decision I could have made.

I was in India from July to December of 2012, and by my fourth week in India I could ask for very basic things like ‘where is the bathroom?’ (‘jahāṁ bātharūma hai?’) which is pronounced ja-haa-um baa-thar-ooma hey, or tell a cab driver to take a left or right.

The Hindi course I was in was composed solely of American students, which surprised me since not all Indians speak Hindi. Our hostel (which is the same as a dorm, but with its own cafeteria) was composed of approximately 50 American students with a spattering of Asian students and a few from the far-flung reaches of Africa and England.

The mix of students I met and befriended was one of the highlights of my trip. Being exposed to students from around the world was a unique and enlightening experience that taught me a lot about the customs of other cultures, and it allowed me to expand my appreciation of non-American perspectives on everything ranging from cooking and romance to from politics and current events.

After speaking with some of the locals about news in America, I observed that my love for journalism never abated. Though I wasn’t running around chasing after stories and trying to interview people who couldn’t really communicate with me, I was still taking note of things that would make interesting stories.

For example a good story idea would be about how if anyone in America has a state they like to pick on for bad drivers then they clearly haven’t been to India. No speed limits on roads, no police to ticket you and no having to stop for pedestrians anywhere. It’s a driver’s nirvana and a pedestrian’s Hell.

That aside, even walking down a street in India gave me a whole new outlook and appreciation for my home country. For the poor people in Hyderabad, going to a dentist means going to a man sitting on a blanket on a dirty street and letting him pull out an abscessed tooth with unclean pliers.

However, not everything on the streets was as gruesome as the dentists. Open-air markets were found in every city, town and village in India that I went to, and the bright colors, delicious food smells and friendly vendors made for fun opportunities to collect unique gifts for my friends and family back home.

While interesting to explore, I sometimes needed a break from the hustle and bustle of the jam-packed streets, hectic markets and people-filled campus. Being a white female, I had been warned by every staff member at the university not to travel anywhere alone, even on campus, but there was a little place I had found where I could go and unwind after a long day: Peacock Lake.

It is a small, weed-filled lake on campus that’s unsafe to swim in because of bacteria in the water. This meant that students rarely ventured there, so I would sometimes go there around sunset and read for a bit or work on homework.

Occasionally, I would be treated to a small comedy show: if I was there about an hour before sunset I sometimes would get to watch a group of peacocks flap their wings at the monkeys who were trying to pull out their tail feathers to decorate their nests with. Until I saw a tiny monkey screaming at a peacock that’s twice its size with a six-inch beak I hadn’t seen comedy.

One of the eight tombs at Qutub Shahi Tombs in Hyderabad, India. The tombs house the first royal family of Hyderabad. (Alanna Robertson-Webb Photo)

One of the eight tombs at Qutub Shahi Tombs in Hyderabad, India. The tombs house the first royal family of Hyderabad. (Alanna Robertson-Webb Photo)

Sometimes, though, there were times on campus that weren’t enjoyable. My experience was that, for the professors on campus (as well as all of India in general it seemed), it was socially acceptable to be between 10 and 30 minutes late to any class or meeting.

While my professors being late to class regularly was a nuisance, it wasn’t the hardest thing I dealt with. In October the white students in our hostel were forbidden from leaving campus because in Cashmere, a few states north of Andra Pradesh (where the city of Hyderabad is located), there had been murders of white tourists due to political upset.

After being under the pressure of a death threat, I took a much-needed vacation. Over the semester I had traveled to both coasts of India, as well as venturing into the north and south, but what I felt I needed was a complete change of scenery, so on the day of my birthday I went to Thailand.

My friend Adisak Jiraskkasem (nicknamed Beam) and I have been friends since he was an exchange student at my high school, and eight years after we first met I was finally able to fulfill my promise to one day visit him.

The week I spent in Thailand with Beam was incredible. We traveled north to the province of Chiang Rai, rode elephants at the Mea Sa Elephant Camp, drank tea in the Queen of Thailand’s royal garden and went to a Build-A-Bear Workshop in Bangkok, where we made matching Hello Kitty stuffed animals.

Even with such memorable experiences, nothing I could ever write can truly describe them. If I were, however, to pick a favorite memory it would be when Beam and I took a trip to the Sriracha Tiger Zoo outside of Bangkok.

Tigers have always been my favorite animals, and when I learned that I could bottle-feed a baby tiger I was ecstatic. The moment I held that little fur-ball in my arms and fed it goat’s milk, I knew that I would never forget that moment, no matter how senile I ever became.

Studying abroad in a third-world isn’t for everyone. You have to be self-sufficient, commonsensical, tough and respectable of both others and yourself.

When a student goes abroad they represent everything professional in their lives: themselves, their family, their school and the school they’re attending. I highly recommend studying abroad, but are you up to the challenge?

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