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A woman sitting in a chair at Hawa Mahal (Palace of Wind) in Jaipur, India. Photo by Eliana Rothwell (2016 Fall Semester Photo Contest Finalist).

Exchange

Whenever one steps into a new place, exchange is inevitable. Usually the first thing exchanged is greeting, and then introduction. Introductions often include one’s name, one’s home, and, as a student, one’s academic and vocational interests. Then, if the setting is formal, gifts may be exchanged.

Over the course of a stay—in a country, in a city, in a home, in a group or community—exchanges become personal and often very challenging.

This past month in India has been the most radical displacement of my life. My country changed, the predominant culture changed, my current home has changed, and my core communities have changed. Because of this, I, and all the members of the Bridge Year India group, have been running a relentless gauntlet of exchange, and, throughout the process, have been continuously reflecting on other sorts of exchanges—market, government, ecology, culture.

India hit me like a hammer to the face. From the getgo, our group dove into deep exchanges about our deeply-held beliefs while our instructors peppered us with media—essays and videos mostly—that challenged (what seemed like) everything we’ve ever thought. Those initial exchanges were hard. Moreover, we were moving from place to place in Uttarakhand throughout the first month and having to articulate who we were to new people each and every day. The exchanges we were having forced me to be deeply introspective and really consider who I was and what the world around me really was.

While in the Himalayan village of Sarmoli, some high peaks of the Garhwal Region towered above us: Nanda Devi, Kamet, Makut Parbat, Abi Gamin, Mana. We were in the foothills, but still at an elevation of approximately 8,000 feet. An ecosystem of incredible biodiversity thrived all around us. Our discussions for this week tended to focus on the exchanges taking place in and with the ecosystem: mutual relationships between organisms, the exchanges of nutrients and minerals, geographical exchange, humans mining the ecosystem for resources and living in the ecosystem. During this week, exchange really took on new, concrete meanings for me. I began to see how people interact with the natural world with every breath (quite literally). We also began to discuss how certain aspects of human development practices, consumerism, and urbanization just take and take and take raw resources from the natural world, giving back refuse and waste. In our discussions, “economy” began to mean more than monetary value and the exchange of products.

While we were living in Sarmoli, we spent an afternoon exchanging culture with some of the village women at a small gathering. We had been living with the village families, and we were invited to introduce them, and they us, to everyone else. Then we were given food, and we ate puri and a chickpea dish off of banana leaves. After we ate, the women began singing and dancing and inviting us to join a circle call-and-response dance around a central drummer. We danced and sang (or hummed), and felt richer because of their gift of song. Our group then gave as we had been given, sharing a mashup of American pop songs and a dance to “Cotton-Eyed Joe.” Through it all, we and the villagers shared smiles and laughs, which was perhaps the greatest exchange.

All of our relationships are exchanges, each and every minute. Many exchanges are benign, like swapping greetings with a passerby on the street. Many, however, are inequitable and destructive, resulting in social injustice or ruined land. We’ve been learning about, and attempting to see and understand, both these simple human exchanges and the wide-ranging, complex, and often oppressive systemic exchanges in the world all around us. In India, it’s a common thing to see the super-rich and super-poor rubbing shoulders on the streets, and behind the socio-economic backdrop there are systems—consumer cultures, corporations, and deep wrongdoing—that deepen human suffering. It has been a hard thing to reflect on how my own consumer habits of taking, using, and throwing away may have contributed to unjust working conditions, unlivable wages, the destruction of land and natural resources, and the buildup of waste. Have all of my exchanges been equitable and beneficial to others? Have the majority of them been so? Probably not.

Exchange is a complicated thing. As I continue living in India, and now with a long-term homestay family, rooted in Banaras, I will have countless exchanges with the people all around me. I see the rickshaw drivers, and they see me. I see the storekeepers, and they see me. I see those who beg in the street, and they see me. I see the wealthy, and they see me, and I realize I have always lived as wealthy. How can I care for those around me? I must learn to love. I must be wise. I must be compassionate. Every step I take, every decision I make, and every word I say has consequences. I must learn to use these hands to bring joy into lives, to fight social injustice, and to restore ravaged earth.

To become better at doing this, we need to have a better understanding and mindfulness of our daily lives as systems of exchange, living and sharing our life with others. My actions have consequences outside myself, and yours do too. In crowded, bustling, ancient, colorful, beautiful, dirty, loud, choking, and inspiring Banaras, I will exchange many things with many people. May these exchanges be equitable. May yours be too.