50 Days

I’m sitting on the bus heading home from LVPEI, 45 minutes down and 15 more to go. It’s my second last month in India, and it’s starting to hit me. It’s starting to hit me really hard in the gut, like I just got the wind knocked out of me. I still have  fifty days ahead of me, of teaching and festivals and Project Trust and India, but I can’t quiet the thoughts in my head. I wonder if writing them down will help in someway, because I know my days are numbered, just over a month left and it’s over.
It’s just over.

I’m ready to say goodbye but I still find it hard to acknowledge that I actually have to leave. It’s not the room, it’s the hopes and dreams that pull at me. I’ve had a lot of time to think and, though I don't hold much sadness about leaving this little room, I am sad to leave the memories which played out here. When I think back on my year here, a hazy film of images strung together clumsily dance across the cinema of my mind. That first class with 74 students in it, the first time I realised what I'd let myself in for. The ONAs being adorable and hilarious. Dancing with Shazia and singing at the top of our lungs. Cobras behind the fire extinguisher and monkeys on the roof. When the warden got soaked by the broken shower and I'd never laughed so hard at anything. "Onion ma'am!" The days we spent in bed, too ill to move. Pizza and movie nights. Christmas eve. When Orla came to stay. The pyjama incident. "Sunday Sunday". The way the flowers outside bloom in all hues. Catching dragonflies and killing cockroaches. Learning to hand wash our clothes. The day with all the toast. When Alex gets really happy and makes up hilarious songs. Going green. All the times the maintenance men tried and failed at fixing things. These are only a handful of the many scenes - both good and bad - that have played out here. 

 I remember the day we arrived and I lay in our new bedroom on a bare mattress, staring at the blank walls with a bursting heart. That first day, without a host or any idea of what we were meant to be doing was so confusingly horrible and yet I remember I felt so happy, so confident that the future would work out somehow. We were both exhausted and worried but this was it. All those months we had spent fund-raising and longing for this. A project to call ours. We had such grand ideas back then of what this year would be, and somehow the reality has exceeded them all. When I think of the beginning I find it strange to think how differently this year would have turned out if I'd given in all those times I wanted nothing more than to leave this place and go home. That time I was throwing up on the backseat of an auto-rickshaw with the worst case of food poisoning ever and a random man was hitting me with a bunch of peacock feathers through the window (he was "blessing" me apparently) or when I arrived at work one morning and was told one of my students believed she was possessed by the devil and would I mind praying with her? There have been times in India when I have been at my absolute lowest and if someone had offered me a plane ticket home I would have taken it and ran faster than I'd like to admit to now. Yet thankfully, no-one offered and I didn't ask so I persevered and that was what made all the difference. I don't think I was fully aware of the enormous dedication that is involved in taking a year out back in September- I thought I had signed up and that was me, unaware it was an commitment that has to be re-taken every single day, and even though most days it was a breeze, on some days it was much harder than others. 

I doubt you really can understand the emotion until you’re in this position. I always knew this time would come, that I would eventually have to leave and move on. Everyone tells you to enjoy your time because you can’t get it back, and you do enjoy it. I've enjoyed every second of it, but eventually the timer still runs out and there is nothing you can do about it.  I'm just trying to wrap my mind around the idea of leaving this place. This project. This city I've grown to love. My Hyderabad home. Being Annie ma'am (the way that sounds still makes my heart soar after all these months.) Life in LVPEI- it’s all coming to a close. Soon, everything I’ve gotten used to will be flipped upside down.

In a matter of weeks I'll be in my bedroom and there will be silence. There won’t be anyone praying at five a.m, or two resident bathroom lizards waiting to be found in weird and wonderful places. I won't have an itchy mosquito net around my bed. I won't have to jump on and off buses that don't stop. I won’t have to risk my life and sanity to cross a road. I won't have to reserve a seat on the bus home three hours before the bus actually leaves. I won't have to wash my clothes in a bucket. I won't have to tell people off when they don't do their homework or wait for a class to be quiet. No more 11pm curfew. I won't have to eat rice and dhal twice a day, everyday. I won’t have to do anything I don’t necessarily want to any more, and it’s eating me alive. 

Because not getting to do everything I don’t like to do means I can’t do anything I love to do.

It means I can’t get in the car to LVPEI with Alex and see the ONAs. It means I can’t be in front of the class and teaching. Getting to see that absolutely wonderful moment when someone understands something you taught them. It means no more life and politics chats with Chaitanya. It means no more milkshakes from Makers of Milkshakes. Endless afternoons in the LVPEI library, working through projects knowing we can always stop and go for a Vinky's break. Extra cups of chai with breakfast. It means I won’t get the pre-jumping off a moving bus jitters that make me so nervous I want to puke in the best way possible. I won't get the pleasure of getting hand-written letters from thousands of miles away, or the wee somethings that occasionally accompanied them. The good luck texts won't be from clear across the world, but from down the road. It means saying goodbye to all our friends, all the people who've made this year such a wonderful one.

 Over the past year India has essentially become my identity, it has made me who I am, and it has shaped my life. I've grown so much simply as a result of being here.  It hasn’t happened yet, but I’m well aware one of the greatest losses I will ever suffer will be when that plane takes off from Hyderabad for London. So until that time comes I will take it all in. I will high-five my students a little harder when they finally master something they've been struggling with. I will look at Alex and let her know how much I appreciate her. I will look at the photos on my wall and from the visits and love my family that little bit more for enduring the really long flights and unbearable heat just to visit me. Or for simply sending all the pick-me-up parcels along the way. I will remember every celebration, every good thing that was done this year. I will take everything in; I will reflect on every moment that I get to spend in this city I love. I will take advantage of every opportunity, every high and low and I will embrace them whole-heartedly, until that plane takes off and we can't turn back. 

One night I have a really vivid dream. I dream I am in a room, Alex & I's room. There is a knock at the door and everyone from education is standing there, but there are two girls with them also. They are the new girls. The new volunteers I mean. So I take them around, pointing out all the little things we have learned this year, passing on all our tips and tricks. They don't really need us though, instead they are overflowing with excitement and settle in even quicker than we did. When I let them inside suddenly the room is empty of all our stuff, all the things we once added that made it ours. A blank canvas once more. Yet quickly  the walls are covered again, in their photos and posters and flags and things that make it theirs. The room is bathed in a soft warm haze, like a dream sequence in an old film. When it begins to play I see the impact the new girls will have, and it's so positive and beautiful I have to show Alex. But Alex is nowhere and suddenly I'm not in LVPEI anymore because it's their turn now. It was a hard dream to have and a hard dream to wake up from. It's hard because I always knew LVPEI was never mine to keep. Yet it always felt like it was.

In my mind I picture the transition as a relay race. Anna & Jos passed the baton onto Alex & I, and now we're running to pass it on to a new pair… except it feels like the baton is attached to our hands and the idea of passing it on doesn't seem as easy anymore. The funny thing about seeing the finish line in sight is that suddenly you don't want to cross it; it's as though your energy picks up again and you think you could keep running for just a little longer. The more settled we've become, the harder it is to ever imagine this experience belonging to someone else. Yet the nature of Project Trust means that it's only by passing on the baton that we can win the race. Two volunteers alone can't make a difference in a year. But what about four volunteers in two years? Ten volunteers in five years? That's what makes it so special. Each volunteer brings something different to a project and takes something different away. I think I'm just jealous of the new girls - remembering how excited I was for LVPEI and India this time last year - I'm so jealous because despite all the highs and lows this year has been home to I wouldn't change a single moment. I would do it all again if I could.

At the start of May (where has this year gone?) We had Sunday lunch with Chaitanya and his family. We spent the afternoon running around their home playing with his hilariously adorable kids, going into battles armed with toy guns and pretending we were crocodiles, probably the most fun I've had in ages. His son reminds me a lot of my brothers when we were little, and for a second I almost feel seven again.

Talking of my brothers, May brought with it two lovely weeks with my amazing brothers and honorary sisters and boy, did we pack those days to the brim. It was the best gift. The headspace granted, the freedom to soak up the gleaming sunlight, the blessed absence from my classroom, and the ability to sleep in past eight could not have been more wished for and more appreciated.

To begin: Old Delhi, breakfasts in bed and monkey spotting everyday. Old places revisited and new places discovered. We get around on cycle-rickshaws and trains. Back again to the Taj Mahal and possibly the best paneer butter masala yet. Watching the monkeys  as they climbed up above us. Off they went in search of something, somewhere, else. It made me wonder. Running through Delhi in the midst of a movie-esque rainstorm and getting absolutely soaked. It was such a movie-esh moment I couldn't help but laugh. Running through a storm with my favourite humans, what a metaphor for life that is.

 Then, as always, back to Hyderabad. Back to familiar roads, coated with the magic of discovering new places right on my doorstep. The realisation I might like dosa after all. Sugarcane juice. They fell in love with Hyderabad and I fell in love with it all over again. After a few days we flew to Kochi. To the world's first entirely solar-powered airport, with it's funny layout and questionable security. Kerela was amazing. The weather reminded me of home, it was so rainy and cold. (Who have I become? it was 25 degrees and I was freezing!) Driving for miles surrounded by endless fields of tea. Waterfalls and old monkeys spotted along the way. Candles flickering in bedrooms. New books to read and beach sunsets and days spent by the pool. Playing a game of PSYCH each night. One night we slept in a houseboat, a tiny little home on the water. Just us, me and my favourite people in the entire world. An easiness broken up only by little things. An argument here and a rainy day there.

We went to a national park one morning to trek. It was home to tigers and wild foxes and bears and monkeys. So many animals. The guide was suitably dramatic, with his first question to us being: "do your legs work? no injuries?" our nods of agreement were followed by, "So could you outrun an elephant?" That's when we began to wonder what on earth we'd gotten ourselves in for. He didn't beat around the bush about anything, "don't touch the trees - that snake could decompose your hand in minutes." he would say, casually, as we'd walk past. At first I thought he was just being overly dramatic, to make the trek more interesting, as he'd stop every time he heard a noise but it was beautiful all the same.  Just the seven of us, at 7am, trekking through the jungle. Everything was so quiet that you could hear all the bees buzzing around the plants, the only other noise being our footsteps. We're two hours in when suddenly we turn a corner and everything changes. I'm standing right behind him when I see a big blur of grey. "RUN! RUN!" He whisper yells at us and we do. It's only when we stop running that he explains that the elephant I just saw is a particularly angry one. Tom asks him if it's dangerous (looking for reassurance) and he says "yes! very dangerous! especially if alone! this angry elephant - all alone!" By this point Angie and me had resolved ourselves to the idea that at least if we died, dying by elephant would be a pretty good way to go. Thankfully though, he stayed clear and we made it to the end of our trek with no harm coming to us at all. 

We leave Kerela with a afternoon flight to Mumbai. It's the first day of June and when the flight attendant comes up and asks if it's my birthday I'm about to say "no?" when I see my siblings faces. They are grinning from ear to ear about their big surprise. Eleven days before I turn nineteen we celebrate at 35,000 feet in the air with enough cake for all six of us. Apparently they've been planning it for ages and I had absolutely no idea. Mumbai was as equally epic and as good a surprise. It's the most european-like city I've been too in India, with - you may not believe this - PAVEMENTS and ZEBRA CROSSINGS with GREEN MEN. The resulting ability to walk everywhere we needed to go, a funny sort of luxury I've really missed. The realisation that all the things I miss about home can be found in India if you only know where to look. Independent bookstores, nutella dosa and the best Indian food I think I've ever tasted - Mumbai had it all. Of course, Hyderabad still has my heart, but maybe Mumbai can live on in my dreams.

Life recently has been busy in the way it always seems to be when you don't actually have that much to do. When I got back to LVPEI Alex was still away and everything was quiet. How strange it felt to be coming "home" knowing it was for the last time. These are the days I used to dream of at the beginning when everything felt overwhelming and now that they're here I'm wishing for more time. I'm caught between two versions of myself. One that cannot wait to get home and one that can't  bear the thought of leaving what has become home. Leaving home for home. That sentence makes me realise how lucky I am to have had this year.

On election day I'm feeling hopeful and spontaneous, so I decide to channel it into my lesson. I ask the nurses what they would do if they had the chance to be Prime Minister and had the resources to make all of them happen.  They blow me away. I feel as though I've had a class of would-be politicians under my nose all this time, that's how insanely enthused they were about this idea. Completely unprompted, the answers spill out of them. They would have free healthcare, treatment and education. They would help the poor, help the homeless and introduce more support for young mothers giving birth. Fix the housing, pollution and water problems. Fix the electricity and build new roads for cycling on. I don't think I've ever seen them that passionate about something, it was just so insanely heartwarming. The first thing 20 young women would do with power would be making life better for everyone (" 'specially the poor people annie ma'am.") I make them all write their own manifestos and form parties. They make posters with their party logos and what they would do and as I write up mini voting slips I hear them going around comparing policies and campaigning. Two teams get the same amount of votes so we formed a coalition government, and they were so excited. It's funny how sometimes it's the lessons you think of, literally, hours before that they respond the best to.

 The weather in Hyderabad over the past few weeks has been such that I feel as if I am living in Scotland once more. Windy, changeable, the constant threat of the heavens opening. Our last monsoon. One night, from our bedroom window I watched the sky stretch its arms wide above me. Lightening struck suddenly, lighting up the sky and plunging the entire city into darkness simultaneously.  It caught my breath. It was magnificent and it was just there above me. Painted across everything so perfectly and so unassuming. There was no ticket officer charging me to gaze up at this giant masterpiece, no lines to wait in to see it, no crowds staring up in awe alongside me. Just me in my room with the window open, believing in the immensity of the universe. Not just believe in it but feel it, in my bones. The storm comes back every night for days and so most of the time the room is lit by candles because we lose power so often.

It may be a while before I come to terms with what India means to me. And with what the ending of this year means for the rest of my life. But I have a city, a job and a life I love, and for that I am grateful. Here's to my last 50 days in India and my last few days as an eighteen year old. I’m so excited for the future! 


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