Cultural Exchange in India? Achha!

By Julia Freya,

Copenhagen → Mumbai → Varanasi → Agra → Delhi → Copenhagen

Coming to India

When I was packing my bags and getting ready to go to Mumbai in September with my boyfriend, Minik, I was full of expectations for the 3rd CEA conference. When RUC hosted the conference last year, I was a student volunteer and had so many great experiences – academic as well as personal. From the moment we welcomed the participants at RUC last year, the conference team was filled with joy and excitement. The conference came together really well and I think I speak for all of us when I say that we are extremely proud of having contributed to this! This year, I was excited to once again be a part of the global collaboration and to (re)unite with the other students.

Having recently done my BA in Cultural Encounters on students at Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) and how they position themselves in a neoliberal society, I was very excited to finally go to TISS. I was even lucky enough to meet some of the interviewees from my bachelor project. My idea of the campus was totally off and I instantly fell in love with the monkeys and what a Dane would call ‘tropical plants’ all around. A very different setting from RUC which mainly consists of grey/beige concrete buildings that are not at all pleasing to the eye.

samiksha
With Samiksha (from last year) in front of TISS

Experiences from last year heightened my expectations. When coming to TISS, I was amazed at how well the conference was put together. Even though the schedule was tight, there was always room for a few air breaks during the day and when the monsoon flooded our tea time, the schedule didn’t fall apart because of a 10-minute delay. All my heartfelt appreciation goes to the organizing committee who did a wonderful job at welcoming us, planning everything, and carefully introducing every speaker.

moonsoon
cultural exchange night in the monsoon
Making Memories

I could surely highlight some of the many inspiring presentations or keynotes as being the best part of the 2017 CEA conference but for me, the best part was, without a doubt, the cultural exchange. No matter how interesting the previously mentioned presentations were, the cultural exchange after the programme ended was where I learned the most. Talking casually to students from all over the world and hearing about their everyday life, their societies, their worries, hopes and dreams, taught me so much more than any speech at the conference. Sometimes there were misunderstandings, sometimes we had to explain taken-for-granted knowledge to people our own age. Most of the times, there were a huge exchange of knowledge and laughs when we finally sorted out a misunderstanding. We all know that Danish culture is different from, for example, Indian culture. But just how different, I learned when spending time with the other students who had a completely different set of tools to handle life.

Last year, most of the students formed great friendships that have been maintained via social media for 15 months. When we said goodbye last year, it was harder than I expected. In a very short period of time, I had gotten some amazing friends that I felt like I’d known forever. Realizing this, sending them off to Colombia, USA, India, China and what not, made the goodbye even harder. The reunion at the registration desk and during the first day proved that friendships can survive online for a long, long time. Apart from the old friends, the welcoming by all of the TISS students was overwhelming. One night, when the monsoon made it impossible for some of us to get back to our off-campus apartment, several students offered us to crash in their rooms, lent me slippers and a sweatshirt, and even gave me a fresh toothbrush. The way all of this happened left me with a lot of gratitude and the feeling that once again, like last year, great friendships were made in no time. Friendships that, no matter if you borrowed someone’s slippers, crashed another girl’s room, or shared an umbrella with four other students (of whom all were getting soaked because everyone wanted to protect their notebooks more than themselves), leave you with memories to look back on many, many years from now. What a nice way to meet someone when you’re running together laughing in the rain and first introduce yourselves a few hours later. A few hours after the first memories have already been made.

Global Collaboration

What amazed me the most about the conference (last year as well as this year) was the way the professors, directors and other faculty listened to, and respected, the students. Whether in casual conversation, talk about exam projects or the student workshop presentations, it seemed like we, the students, have been given the possibility to co-shape our education and be equals with our educators. CEA has given us a voice and I sincerely hope that we can produce something meaningful together. The way the discussions evolved during the student workshop leaves me with no concerns in relation to our future collaboration across the planet.

Compared to last year, this year’s student workshop was more concrete and seemed more focused on producing actual results. This year it didn’t seem like an indifferent feature made to keep the students occupied while the professors discussed the real issues.

 

Ever since I became a part of the CEA, there has been talk about building a strong student network across the member universities. But hey, we have that already! We just need to make it stronger. We need to build a CEA network with student representatives at every university – a bit like we aim to do with the editorial team of this magazine. I feel so blessed to be a part of the ever-growing student group that spans all the way from Colombia to China and I can’t wait to see where the future takes us, CEA, our education, and our collaboration.

So Long, Mumbai!

After the conference, Minik and I had about two more weeks in India. Until the last minute, we didn’t know what our travel plans were. We only knew that we had to fly home from Delhi and therefore, we had to find a way to get there from Mumbai. One of our dear friends from the conference last year, Spurthi from TISS, had taken leave from work and decided to travel around with us and her friend, Michael, from Scotland. We jumped on a train from Mumbai the day after the conference ended and just before the train departed, to our surprise, a new dear friend from TISS rushed in a cab from campus to the train station to send us off on our adventure. He waved goodbye as the train was leaving with four young adventurers, all equally excited to go to Varanasi.

bye
Goodbye-selfie 🙂

Coming from one of the least religious countries in the world, it was an overwhelming experience to be in one of the holiest cities in India. To see the ceremonies from the Ganga, the 6am yoga sessions, and the chanting to welcome the sunrise was beautiful in a way I cannot describe. The spirituality hit every bone in your body and you couldn’t help being affected by the religious and very conservative everyday life in this city. I had always dreamt of going to India and my heart skipped a beat the first morning I saw the Ganga. None of us had ever been in Varanasi before so we were all tourists, seeing the city for the first time. The hotel was horrible but the company was the best. It was like traveling with family. When the last day in Varanasi came, we had to say goodbye to Spurthi, who had to go back home to Hyderabad and couldn’t come with us to Agra which was the last stop before our final destination – Delhi. The goodbye was hard, like the goodbyes we had in Mumbai; but this time, it seemed even harder. We had spent so much time together in the past two weeks and before that, I had missed her ever since the summer of 2016. I know I speak for both Minik and myself when I say that she made our trip perfect and was the best imaginable travel companion in India. A deep heartfelt thank you, dear Spurthi!

Four Became Three

We moved on from Varanasi by bus. 10 hours. In a so-called ‘Sleeper bus’. Where the driver listened to loud music. Extremely loud music. All the way. Where the incredibly loud horn was honking constantly. All the way. Even though there were no cars on the road.

When we arrived in Agra at 7am, we were ready to go see the Taj Mahal. Our Scottish friend had made a promise to himself that he wouldn’t see the Taj, so we found a café and left him there with our luggage. A lifelong dream came true when we finally saw the Taj Mahal. I’m usually not big on sightseeing but this was amazing. It was a perfect way to end an already overwhelming adventure with so many experiences that will hold a special place in my heart forever, so many experiences that have truly widened my cultural horizon.

When we were done seeing the Taj Mahal, we picked up Michael and our luggage and jumped on a cab to Delhi. 5 hours for a fair price and a driver that wasn’t too good at English. The silence in the cab was great and the three of us got a few good naps on the way. What surprised me by the drive was that we, for an additional 400, could choose to ride on a private highway. There were almost no other cars there, except just 5 or 6. The driver told us that the public highway was completely jammed and it would take us at least two hours extra. I felt kind of guilty in a way I have never felt before. I’m not a wealthy woman so it was completely foreign to me to be able to pay my way out of a traffic jam and just use the private highway – to pay your way out of a packed highway and constant honking. In a weird way, I felt privileged and almost ashamed when thinking about it.

Anyway, we arrived in Delhi after a few hours and could finally settle in at our rented apartment. We could finally do laundry and wash away the smell of monsoon that had stuck with us ever since the third day in Mumbai. We had our first hot shower and finally had time to do some shopping and not think about what time it was. After all, we needed only to relax and pass the time before our flight back to Copenhagen a few days later.

Delhi Surprise

In Delhi, we reunited with some of the Colombian students who had traveled West after the conference, whereas we had traveled East. We flew out from Delhi on the same day and we managed to meet up with them for dinner and a chat one night before returning to our home countries. It was so fun to tell them about our trip and to hear about theirs. Everyone seemed equally excited about the way everything panned out. It was a great way to end the trip; to meet up with friends and say farewell.

drawing
Childhood drawing by a Danish girl dreaming of seeing the Taj

Our trip ended in Delhi airport where we waved goodbye to Michael as he was boarding his plane. 20 minutes later, we were sitting in ours waiting for take-off.

Even though India was amazing, both in terms of the conference and the rest of the trip, it was great to finally come back to Copenhagen. I have always taken for granted how smooth and silent Danish traffic is. People hardly ever honk the horn here.

Thank you, Spurthi.

Thank you, Shreya, Digambar, Siddesh, Rahul, Daniel & the rest of Team Colombia, Michael, Samiksha, Gayathri, Majdouline, Vishakha, Thea, and everyone else.

Thank you, CEA, for giving us so many wonderful experiences, friendships, and challenges. Critical thinking will keep flourishing, as well as the friendships we’re all so blessed to have.

 

About the Author

freya
Julia Freya Madsen

Julia Freya Madsen, 24, is a former student at Roskilde University (RUC). She finished her BA in Communication and Cultural Encounters in June ’17 – a project with TISS students as the field of research.
She is now running the event team at a volunteer non-profit Café in Copenhagen while working on the side.

Julia Freya was a student volunteer at the 2nd CEA Conference which was being held at RUC. Ever since that conference ended, she had been hoping to go to India for the next. She joined us at TISS in September and has written an article about her experiences in India.

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