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Accuracy • Independence • Integrity

August 20, 2017   |   Ithaca, NY

Columns2014-2015

The simple joys of homestay living

I’m sitting at the small wooden desk in my bedroom at my homestay for the last night as I write this article. It has been exactly two months and three days that I’ve been rocking back and forth at this tiny table on a chair with uneven legs working on Hindi homework and writing letters home on beautiful stationary I bought from the market next door. Tomorrow, I’m leaving Jaipur — my home for the past two months and three days — and heading to the foothills of the Himalaya Mountains in Uttarakhand, India, to do a monthlong solo research project on the politics surrounding forest dwelling communities. My impending departure is fewer than 12 hours away, and it’s not my unbalanced wooden desk that makes me nostalgic, but the home in which the desk resides.

I distinctly remember the day I met my Indian host family for the first time. I had conjured up trivial thoughts about what to expect and worked on convincing myself it would not be awkward to move in with complete strangers in a foreign country. These thoughts were unavoidably paired with numerous worst-case-scenario musings. When I met the tall, thin, 62-year-old Indian man whom I would soon know as my Papa-ji and the joyously warm Indian woman I would soon call Mama-ji, the entirety of my worries were laid to rest. In Hindi, “ji” is added on to names and responses as a form of respect, hence Papa-ji and Mama-ji.

Admittedly, there were bits of discomfort in my new living situation at first — like having a lesson on how to use the toilet with Papa-ji — but these small bouts of awkwardness have been incredibly outweighed by moments of pure happiness and belly laughs.

Perhaps the fondest of memories I’ve shared with my host family happened under the simplest of conditions. I had just arrived home from school, and as I sat down at my beloved, tiny desk to get some work done, the house lost power — a relatively common occurrence. As my eyes slowly began to adjust to the pitch black, I heard Mama-ji rustling around in the kitchen. I felt my way along the water-stained walls to find her. We managed to find a single candle in a drawer hidden among the masala spices and lit it.

Mama-ji attempted to cook dinner via the dim candlelight, as its glow danced across the dim, stone countertop. I wandered to my room and found my headlamp. My Mama-ji’s reaction to my headlamp, something that I’ve never really thought twice about, was rooted in absolute amazement. She instructed me to strap it on her head, and the events that followed will surely be engrained in my heart for a while.

Headlamp shining, my host mother proceeded to prance around our living room in a way that can only be described as youthful joy. She lit the way to the front lawn and continued her prancing outside. Watching her wave her head back and forth to guide the beam of light made me laugh so much that my eyes became foggy with tears.

When the initial excitement lessened slightly, Mama-ji postponed cooking dinner a bit and used my headlamp to illuminate the kitchen and make delicious cardamom lassi, a yogurt-based drink very common throughout India. We sat in the living room, in the absolute dark, sipping on lassi and chatting about the nuances of the day.

I’ve been awestruck by seeing the Taj at sunrise and humbled by the full moon illuminating the Ganga River, but the simplicity and comfort I’ve felt with my Indian host family has been incredibly formative on my memories here. I’ve grown accustomed to Papa-ji standing out front in his white, cotton kurta as I catch the rickshaw to school every morning, and Mama-ji’s insistence on holding my hand when we cross the street together. As I sit at my desk for the last time tonight, I am grateful to know I now have families on two different continents.