I’ve been a student at the University of Minnesota for five years but spent only three and a half of them on campus. For me, the defining experiences of my college career were spent studying abroad. I first studied in the Learning Abroad Center’s Florence, Italy, program for a semester in 2007 then later ventured to Malaysia through the International Reciprocal Scholarship Exchange Program (IRSEP) for a year in 2009. As this is my last column, I’d like to part by sharing two experiences I brought back with me.
In November 2009, while on my semester break at Universiti Sains Malaysia, I decided to travel to Kerala, a state on the southwest tip of India. Kerala’s tourism department dubbed the state Gods own country. The beauty of the area and the experiences I had perhaps made it the closest thing to it.I left on an early morning flight out of Kuala Lumpur the day after what was Thanksgiving in the U.S. I ate a Big Mac for Thanksgiving dinner at McDonald’s and slept in the airport. I got what sleep I could on the flight, which wasn’t much. I arrived in the capital of Kerala, Trivandrum, and was greeted by a swarm of rickshaw drivers after clearing immigration.
The morning sun was beating down as if it was noon. I was exhausted, I had no cash, and interestingly enough, the airport did not have an ATM. Everyone else on the flight had someone to meet and somewhere to go. All I had was a print out of a questionable email all in caps “confirming” my reservation at a hostel in a beach city eight miles south called Kovalam.
The rickshaw crowd swept me away. I negotiated a price for a ride to a bank and then on to Kovalam. They led me to a strange looking three-wheeled half-cart half-motorcycle vehicle: the rickshaw. I got in the back, clutching my backpack. The guy I negotiated with told me, “This is a really good driver!” Off we went. I had made some calculated risks traveling before, but weaving in and out of oncoming traffic with nothing to secure myself into the rickshaw besides bracing my legs against the back of the driver’s seat, I knew this was probably one of the crazier things I’d done.
I didn’t speak Malayalam, the language in Kerala, and the rickshaw driver didn’t speak English. I was in a country of more than 1 billion people and knew no one. The closest person I knew was in Malaysia across a sea 1,700 miles away. I could point to Trivandrum and Kovalam on a map, but if we drove any other direction I wouldn’t have known.
The drive was fast, chaotic and downright terrifying at times. In travel, as in life, you must at times put blind faith in people to get to where you want to go. Getting into that rickshaw with the driver who disregarded everything I knew about the “rules of the road” wouldn’t have been my first choice, but it was all I had.
I had no reason to trust anyone as a traveler in need of an ATM, but I did, and in half an hour I arrived in Kovalam in one piece. I thanked and paid the driver and cherished the ground under my feet as we went our separate ways. More often than not, putting blind trust in people has helped build my faith in humanity rather than diminish it.
I enjoyed a few days in Kovalam and made my way up the coast visiting the town of Varkala, the backwaters of Alleppey and the tea plantations of Munnar. Two and a half weeks later I arrived in the colonial city of Fort Kochi. The architecture reflected that the city had exchanged Portuguese, Dutch and British hands over the past 500 years.
At the time I was traveling with a Norwegian woman I met a few days earlier named Kaja. We hired a rickshaw for the day to show us the sights in Fort Kochi. We went to a few churches and a few shops that paid the driver a commission if we visited.
In a moment stranger than fiction, we stopped at what looked to be an abandoned warehouse. We walked into a large concrete courtyard where ginger was laying everywhere drying on the ground. I told Kaja she should take a picture of me in the fields of drying ginger so I could prove to my grandchildren one day just how cool I really was.
We wandered around and came upon a room adjacent to the courtyard. Three women were in the room sitting on the ground sorting small and large pieces of ginger into boxes. They asked who we were, what we were doing and then offered us chai tea.
As tea was prepared, one woman told me that they all had different religions. She said that she was Hindu, one was Muslim and the other Christian, and that in all the years that they had been friends and sorting ginger, their religious differences had never adversely affected their relationship.
Those three women sit in a small room working to make ends meet in a religious microcosm. Sorting ginger may be a simple job, but those three greatly exceed the rest of the world’s capacity for tolerance and love. Perhaps if we all sorted ginger the world would be a better place.
Those two experiences and their lessons will stay with me the rest of my life. The world is the greatest classroom: It’s out there to be explored. Everyone you meet has a story to tell that you will find extraordinary or surprisingly similar to your own. Also, never underestimate the power of smiling and saying “Hello.”
Strive to foster a curiosity about life and the world. Ask questions and work to define the world for yourself. Appreciate the beauty you notice everyday — it’s hard to miss.
Dare to dream and risk everything to follow them.
This is a post made by Ian J Byrne
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