Anna first visited India from the United States four years ago, as part of a 2 week cultural immersion during the NOLS Spring semester. She was only 19 at that time, and she stayed with a host family in the village of Majkhali as part of the cultural exchange.
Life in the village is very different to what Anna was used to. The family has no running water in their small house and the only available toilet is an outdoor ‘squatting’ toilet. All the water for the kitchen has to be carried from a nearby spring. The family cook over a fire stove and Anna would spend hours with her host family, learning how to cook whilst avoiding the smoke from the stove. Yes, they all chatted away for hours, even though nobody could speak English and Anna did not know Hindi, let alone the local language Pahadi.
Tara was the one person in the house who knew a few words of English. Tara is slightly older than Anna. She is the oldest daughter in the family. Tara became Anna’s teacher, showing her how everything worked in the village; how to light the stove, how to collect grass for the cows, how to milk the cows and clean the cowshed.
Every morning Anna and Tara would watch the sunrise on the mighty Nanda Devi peak from the stone courtyard outside the house. Nanda Devi is the third highest mountain in India, with a height of 7817 meters or 26,000 feet. There are also several other peaks, all above 20,000 feet, visible from Tara’s house. On some mornings when Tara was too busy getting her younger siblings ready to go to school, Anna and Tara would make an effort to watch the sunset together, watching the last rays of sun slip behind the highest mountains.
2 weeks passed quickly and it was time to say goodbye. In a short time, Anna and Tara had become close friends and they promises that they would meet again. Amidst tearful farewells and hugs, Anna said she would come back if ever Tara gets married.
Lo and behold, Tara got engaged 4 years later, and last month and invited Anna to the wedding. Anna travelled all the way to Majkhali together with her aunt Jennifer to stay for only 4 days to attend the wedding.
Everyone was very touched. Over last 10 years NOLS and several other programmes have brought students from the States to Majkhali village. The students and the homestay families always connect in a special way. The host families are proud to provide a safe and loving environment and be a gateway into an entirely different world; different culture, customs, societal structure, with different food, language and very different daily routines from home.
A lot of the students coming from the States start to reflect on all the privileges they have back home. The learning curve is steep and transformative for the villagers as well as the visitors. We gather everyday and reflect over tea what life is really about, and what the meaning of joy is. Being grateful for what life has to offer is a lesson that comes quickly, followed by a strong desire for dignity and equity for all of humanity, no matter where they live in the world.
The cross-cultural bonds of lifelong friendship Anna and Tara made in a relatively short time are truly exceptional. It’s an inspiring story where understanding and love goes beyond any barrier of language and tradition; its the celebration of the diversity.