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Before arriving at the airport and beginning my journey to India, I had many thoughts and emotions rushing through my mind like water in a rapid.

“What will the food be like?”

“The Taj will be so cool.”

“Did I pack my belt? Oh wait, I am wearing it. Phew, close one.”

I was admittedly ambivalent, eager to see whether what stuck in my imagination would transfer to reality. I tried to think of all possible issues, and positive experiences, that I could encounter, understanding there was no way I could account for all. Little did I know, the biggest challenge would occur before I would even get there.

My travel group, consisting of myself and two other students, had  the same itinerary of flights to India: a flight from Raleigh to Boston on Thursday evening, then a 15-hour overnight flight from Boston to Dubai, and then a final connecting flight from Dubai to Ahmedabad, our final destination. We ate our final meal in our home state of North Carolina and mentally prepared ourselves for the first journey of our next two months.

Our flight was to leave at 7:09pm on June 6th, so boarding should happen around 6:39pm. And when 6:39pm rolled around, there was no call for boarding. After a brief period of confusion, the flight time had changed to 7:45pm. It was a marginal difference, but we did have a time constraint in Boston of about an hour and a half to make our connection to Dubai. 7:15pm came around and we began boarding. All of us passengers slowly trickled into our seats onto the plane. Once we had made it on the plane and the pre-flight inspection had commenced, all began to get comfortable and the attendants started to provide the safety guidelines. We started to back up, so I put on my headphones and closed my eyes.

Then, we abruptly stopped. I took off my headphones and looked around.

“I apologize to bear this news, but during our pre-flight inspection, we found that there was a hole in one of our tires,” the captain said. A few sighs were heard. “It should only take about 30 minutes to fix, but everyone must take themselves AND their belongings off the plane.” Then, a synchronized “Ugh” rang throughout the plane. We were all funneled off the plane, grumbling and annoyed.

We called the DukeEngage emergency number to inform them of this change and to get any additional guidance in case we had to rebook. In the ensuing hour and a half delay, that plan became reality. What felt like ages to pull bags from the flight was about two more hours, and slightly after midnight, the three of us said our goodbyes and went home, only to see each other in the morning at 7:00am. Although it was undeniably inconvenient, the delay had mentally prepared us for anything that could be thrown our way.

Luckily, the rest of the trip was seamless. The first meal we had in India was at a Subway in the Delhi airport, which greatly exceeded the standard set by Subways in the United States. We watched many movies on the flight (I caught up on the Justice League series…definitely inferior to Marvel but underrated), and conversed with fellow travelers about recommendations, insights, and opinions they may have about India. We learned a lot, such as the notion that Ahmedabad was considered a “small city,” yet it has a population of over seven million people and was a state capital prior to Gandhinagar. This was one of the first reminders to leave our preconceived perceptions at the door, and to experience India with an open mind and heart. There was no way around it: we would have to make adjustments.

Within the first day of arrival, I realized my water consumption was much higher than usual due to the intense heat. This adjustment required an open mind and a little bit of self control; it was not productive to complain, but it was productive to adapt. Because of that, I noticed that water was always on my mind.

“I hope I have enough water.”

“I am sweating up a storm!”

“Will monsoon rains hit today? I’ll bring my raincoat just in case.”

However, water has not been solely a literal theme of the program, but a metaphorical one. Saath Charitable Trust, the NGO we are working with, takes a multifaceted approach to urban and gender inequalities. Their many initiatives range from child and vocational education to housing advocacy to cultural preservation via assisting local weavers neglected by the modern marketplace. Saath is fluid, just like water, seeping into and conforming to almost anything they encounter. And through these means, Saath keeps people afloat.

Another branch of Saath is the Saath Savings & Credit Cooperative Society, Ltd., a microfinance initiative aiming to create financial independence and social mobility for disadvantaged populations. This branch was the main reason I was attracted to this DukeEngage program in the first place. During my first year at Duke, I read a book entitled A World of Three Zeroes, written by Nobel Peace Prize winning economist Muhammad Yunus. The book details the concept of microfinance and social entrepreneurship.  Traditional providers of loans, like banks, have strict credit history or high income requirements, which are unachievable for many. By allowing individuals to receive an opportunity that other lenders refuse to offer, underprivileged groups are able to establish permanent financial independence.

The branch’s success is a reminder that if done correctly and equitably, a rising tide can lift all boats. I yearn to immerse myself in a new culture, location, and learning experience…and, like a sponge, absorb as much as I can while I have this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.