Saturday, October 8, 2011

Atlas Hands

I had a bit of a stressful arrival in Bangalore and it’s left me craving the comforts of home. Now that I’m ten weeks into my year of adventuring, I guess it’s about time I experience a little homesickness anyway. (Speaking of home, shout out to the world's most wonderful older sister, Bree, on her 26th birthday today).

October always makes me sentimental.

I’ve arrived in the apartment of Sheila, an 18 year-old student who goes to Christ Church in Bangalore. I met her family in Mysore through my research (her dad is a linguist who has done work on Indian names and who taught at the University of Minnesota for fifteen years). They generously showed me around Mysore and, upon learning I was heading to Bangalore, invited me to stay with Sheila. She’s still in Mysore studying for exams so I’m on my own in her apartment for a few days.

As I faced the dreaded challenge of packing my bags yet again (my fingers were actually sore for a few hours from my battle with the bulging zipper), I’m wondering about the next few weeks of unknowns. Unlike in Indonesia, where I had the same home base for two months, in India, I’m dividing my time between places. I am really excited to see more of this incredible place, but am also wondering about how it will feel to be constantly on the move.

I remember two weeks before my departure for this crazy year, I spent a sleepless night in Burlington scouring the internet for old blogs of previous Watson fellows. They all had beautiful pictures, and astounding experiences and phenomenal projects, but I could not find what I was looking for. Although people could advise me on what to pack or how to plan, what I desperately wanted to know was, “How did it feel? What is it actually like to know you’re traveling completely on your own for a year?

The day before I left Burlington, it was hot and humid. I had adopted my sister’s old room as my packing space and had been frantically dumping quick dry clothing and mosquito repellant and guide books on her bed. I procrastinated as long as possible and then realized I had to go about the challenge of actually getting it packed. I told my mother I did not need her help, shut the door, and then realized this was going to be an impossible task. There was no way I was going to get everything I laid out for my year into the bag. I tried to prioritize and take out items and tell myself I didn’t really need them, but everything I took out made me feel less and less prepared and more and more worried. My mom found me a few hours later sitting on the floor of my sister’s room surrounded by clothes and near tears.

With her usual practicality, my mom dumped everything I had attempted to pack out and reminded me I could only bring the essentials. But how could I possibly determine what the essentials would be? How could I possibly prepare for a year in seven countries? I think I yelled something along these lines at my mom at the time, because, as we all know, when one is stressed and worried and about to leave home for a year, the logical thing to do is to take it out on your mom.

Between tears and yelling, we halved everything I wanted to bring and tried to fit it in the bag. We then halved it again. And again. And again. It was a painstaking process, each item made me realize that I would never be as prepared as I wanted to be. “But Mom! What if I need this?!”

The final straw was when I held up a pair of shorts I had recently bought for the trip.

"Nell, you’re not going to need shorts. Most of the countries you’re going to you can’t be wearing shorts anyway.”

"But Mom, they’re shorts I bought for my year!” I snapped, “They’re waterproof!”

My mom frowned. “What? So you can sit in a puddle?”

I looked at her and looked at all the piles on the floor and my empty bags and we both started hysterically laughing. And then crying. My stuff was spread out all around the room, I was nowhere near prepared, and I had to accept that there just wasn’t going to be any room for my waterproof shorts.

And that is what it’s like. That is what answers my question, “How does it feel? What is it like to know you’re traveling completely on your own for a year?” It feels like there is no way I can possibly be prepared. It feels really really scary sometimes. It feels like I just have to keep going through one day at a time, trying to appreciate the small things and have the spirit of adventure and find humor about the unpleasant parts. And remember to be grateful, because even though there are parts that are mucky and stressful and scary, I wouldn’t give up this experience for anything.

But it’s October and tonight I am sick of summer. I realized I’ve been in areas where it’s been about 80 degrees since May. I know I’m missing the beautiful foliage and cool weather at home right now. Usually at this time I’d have fall break at Swarthmore and I’d take the 11 hour train ride up to Burlington, often with visiting friends, and we’d go apple picking and make pie and take my dog for walks and I’d delight in being able to wear sweaters again and watch the ridiculous and endearing Burlington pumpkin regatta. My mom told me recently she feels in her bones it’s the time of year that I’d usually be heading home. I feel it too.

So I’m going to let myself indulge and be just a wee bit autumnally melancholic. I’m going to keep falling asleep to this song because it seems to capture all of this in the most beautiful way:

I’ve got a plan.

I’ve got an Atlas in my hands.

(I have my dear Hanna Emilie Caldwell to thank for this song. Hanna and I have been friends since I moved to Burlington at age 12 and I think that any two girls who make it through middle school together and remain close friends are pretty much set for life).

(Side note: I told the waterproof shorts story to Sara, the other Watson fellow I met in Ubud, and she completely affirmed my irrationality. In fact, the day before SHE left home, a previous Watson fellow called her specifically to ask, "Have you had the packing meltdown yet?" Comfort in solidarity).


  1. hi nell--we are just a phone call away. never forget that. we were talking about you today, savithri and i, natarajan and mohan, remarking on how good it was to have you in our midst. let me assure you, hyderabad with ramesh and shanti will feel like home. love you. if music helps to mellow down the sharp pangs of homesickness, enjoy the music. don't get blue. our love to you.

  2. It is indeed reassuring to be reminded I have a home in India (especially one that responds a mere 30 minutes after I write a somewhat melancholy blog post). To be honest, I'm just surprised I haven't been more homesick earlier! My first day in Bangalore was somewhat of a comedy of errors--I'll fill you in when I see you, but everything is completely fine and Sheila arrives tomorrow.

  3. Thanks for the laugh, Nell, and I admit to a tear or two in reading this. Looking forward to your description (in some future, appropriate post), of our conversation about whether you should pack a dress to wear to a wedding :-). xox

  4. Hey Nellie- I threw an autumn party last night in PA and it was 80 degrees. A little weird for hot mulled cider etc. Glad we could catch up on Gchat- have you figured out the address yet- such daily challenges.
    love you lots!