I can still see the Boyne City 4th of July fireworks reflection on Lake Charlevoix. I was surrounded by all my friends and family, experiencing one last night of a Northern Michigan summer. Hoping the fireworks would never end, I looked around the lake, taking in the different sights and memories of years past in the Dog Days of summer. Swimming, cooking out and the many s’mores roasting over a bonfire underneath a sky full of stars.
Damn right I was nervous. I didn’t want to leave my spot let alone travel 26 hours to a foreign land. As the grand finale rang out, a tear rushed down my face as I was about to say goodbye to what I loved most and take on a new adventure in a country and culture I had never experienced before.
I hugged my family goodbye and watched my mom cry as she let her baby go into the real world to take on the challenges of whatever life was about to throw at me. The entirety of both flights from Detroit and Frankfurt, I sat, looking at the tiny plane on the map as it grew further and further from my home in the mitten. As each mile grew closer and closer to Chennai, my stomach began to hurt and a million thoughts rushed through my head. Was I making a smart choice?
For the last 6 months all I had been talking about was how excited I was to be working for an architecture firm in India. I never processed the little things like what my diet was going to be like, where I would get water from, how will I process the culture shock or most importantly and the number one emotion I have struggled with so far; was I ready to be alone, away from my loved ones for six weeks? The second the plane touched down and the pilot said “Welcome to Chennai, India,” I fell into the deepest depression.
I have always been an adventurous person. Ask anyone who knows me and they’ll tell you I never shut up about wanting to travel the world and experiencing new cultures. They would also laugh if they heard I was homesick. Since I was little I spent time at sleep away camp, never complained about missing my family and could stay for three more weeks. In High School, I lived with a family in Germany for a summer, where I didn’t want to leave my “Neue Familie.” And the summer before college, I spent a month in New York, studying architecture, where I learned my passion for building and changing the world around me. So, why would I be so homesick when I was doing what I loved most?
Well, that first night explains it all. By the time my baggage got off the carousel, it had just turned 2 am in Chennai. Even though I slept for the majority of my flight, I was still 9.5 hours away in Michigan, alive more than ever. Leaving the airport, I was bombarded by men asking if I needed a taxi. I was told to use Uber, as many of the taxis take advantage of foreigners and charge them 10x what the normal fare would be. At such a late hour, there were non available and I was forced to take a taxi. My first experience with Indian traffic. One word–SCARY! The second he pulled out onto the street and I saw the other car coming straight at me as if I was about to get t-boned, I grabbed the side of the door and closed my eyes. But everything was okay. He didn’t stop or freak out like I did. When I opened them, I felt even more nauseous when I realized we were driving into oncoming traffic. I practically fainted, but weeped as we pulled into a gas station for a break. To my surprise, the driver turned to me and said I had to pay for the gas and it would cost 500 Rupees. I was afraid to challenge him as I didn’t know if he was about to abduct me or even worse (honestly it was going through my head), kill me. I gave him the money, we filled up and we were on our way to the small Airbnb.
In the end, the ride cost me a 1000 Rupees (Uber would have been 150 Rupees) and I was just glad to be at my apartment where I could rest up and cool down from the humid, hot air. Unfortunately, there was no AC in my room and the bed was a couch cushion on top of a plywood bed frame. So much comfort. All night I tossed and turned. I Woke up every 15 minutes, drenched in sweat and a dry mouth. It was hard to breathe in this environment and I was simply miserable.
In the morning, I was exhausted and blamed the night on jet lag. The family I was staying with was nice enough to give me breakfast, which consisted of a coconut curry sauce with vegetables over rice, the traditional cuisine of Tamil Nadu. It was good! I was excited that I was eating a meal and I could stomach it.
I wasn’t needed in the office until Monday the 10th, so I had 2 full days to rest up and explore the city. The family recommended I go to a local mall to start. An easy place to see the small differences between America and India. I ordered my Uber and waited. As it arrived, I made my way around the back ally to the front street and BOOM. The odor from the streets hit me like a brick. The smell of decaying food and waste lingered everywhere. I began to feel nauseous but quickly got into my AC car to drown out the smells. Ahh, fresh, cool air. That lasted for less than a minute when I was introduced to the real traffic of India.
OMG! It was all a blur. I remember the countless mopeds and rickshaws zooming past us on all sides, speeding up and suddenly breaking, just to inch a little closer. When I got out of the car and walked towards the mall, I thanked God for not letting me die in that terrifying situation.
At this point, my stomach was making noises and I began to feel queasy. I climbed the three flights of stairs, looking at all the shops, some western and some native to India. My goal was to hide my thoughts of being sick by looking at the different storefronts and watching the locals explore a modern marvel of the shopping mall. As I made my way to the fourth floor, the food court, I began to smell popcorn. Sadly, that usual tasty smell, backfired and triggered my gag reflexes. I held it back. Oh no. I needed a bathroom. I looked around with a pale face for the restroom, only to see a corridor that lead to the elevators. I wandered over, being hit with the different smells of food and spices. It was too late. By the time I turned to corner and saw the trash can, everything came up. All over my t-shirt, shoes and arm was the only meal I ate and the feeling of safety and happiness came up to.
Luckily no one saw and I was able to make my way to the H&M where I bought spare clothes and changed out of the “spilled my mango smoothie all over myself” attire and into some clean, new clothing. I didn’t wait to call my ride and before I knew it, I was back in that tiny room, laying down, trying to calm myself from being sick again.
It wasn’t even 24 hours and I had already hit rock bottom. I didn’t hesitate to call home and as soon as my mother picked up, I lost it. I was balling my eyes out, telling her what had happened and how I just wanted to be home. Like all mothers do, she comforted me and built me back up, encouraging me that things were bound to get better. Both my mother and my father agreed that it would be best for my emotional and physical health if I moved to a hotel for the time being, as it helped me adjust more easily into the culture and ensured that I was going to eat as I experimented with the new tastes of the region.
When I opened the door to the cool, clean hotel room, I began to cry. It felt like I was just rescued from hell and brought to heaven. I called my parents again, thanking them for allowing me to stay in the hotel until I found a new place to stay. They told me to enjoy my days before work and begged me to rest up and take my mind off the loneliness I was experiencing. It was perfect. Things were going to be okay.
Nope. Not at all. I woke up an hour into my sleep with a heart beating a mile a minute. I was having a panic attack and the only thing I could do was call home. I was so lonely and homesick that for the next day, I cried more times than I ate food and slept less than I had ever before. Every time I called friends or family, I teared up and expressed how I would drop my internship just to be home. Of course I got the same reaction from everyone. “That’s stupid Brandon. You haven’t even started working. Once you’re in the office, time will fly by and you’ll have people to talk to.” They were right. My fears were overtaking my excitements. I was so ready to give it all up, just so I could return to the norm and be comfortable.
Finally, Monday came and my first day of work in India was about to start. From the moment I walked through the door at the Urban Desgin Collective, I was greeted by friendly faces from both the interns and staff. Everyone was so nice, they even approached and invited me to lunch, to show me around the area and welcome me as a part of their team. My parents were right, work would make me happy and the work load is keeping me busy. I am so excited to work with my new friends and develop my knowledge in Architecture.
At first, I was miserable. I was lonely and sacred. I was introduced to the real world of India. Of course I didn’t like it. I’m used to hotel like amenities. Coming from America, we, more so I am spoiled with everyday luxuries that are considered privileges in India. The ability to drink water from a tap, or flush your toilet knowing it will be treated and clean water will be returned to environment is something that we as Americans never think about. We just go with the flow. The same goes for Indians. They go with the flow. They know there are problems where they live, but they make it work. They don’t complain and they work their asses off to make a living in hopes of upgrading their lives to the basic necessities we are all born into.
That’s why I am here. To help develop a country into a thriving sustainable and working nation that has access to the basics that we are spoiled with. Having experienced just one night in the typical Indian lifestyle was eye opening enough for me to work towards ideas that can change and secure a better future for the people all across this country. This is just the beginning of a challenge I am ready to take on and in the end, I hope that when I get back to Michigan, I will be crying from the memories I made here in the dog days of India.