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Photo by Stew Motta, India Semester.

What we learned

After our homestay we had planned on spending a couple of quiet days at a beautiful little spot tucked away on a hillside that is part of a seemingly endless ripple of land that grows from the hot and arid plains of the Indian subcontinent until it reaches the breathtaking peaks of the Himalayas. When we arrived at Sonapani we were greeted by the lovely owner and his wife and, as is common here, offered a lovely cup of chai. It was during tea that the owner of Sonapani told us of the small forest fire that was spreading across the valley just below us and asked if we would be interested in helping create some fire lines and putting out the small fires that were spreading through the underbrush. After tea we walked down the hillside to where we could see small fires in the dry needles and leaves of the Himalayan pines. We were not carrying buckets of water but rather tree branches and crudely made rakes. With these simple tools we created a boundary for the fire and swatted down the smoldering remains of the fire that, if we wouldn’t have been there, would have continued to spread as the evening breeze picked up.

We arrived in Sonapani that afternoon expecting some quiet relaxation and a chance to reflect on homestays but instead found ourselves smeared with charcoal and smelling of pine smoke. India, maybe more than anywhere else on earth, refuses to be predictable but is always incredible. It is the perfect place to learn.

We, as humans, are constantly learning. Our brains are perfect devices for the acquisition of information, customs, rituals and repetition. We spend nearly every moment of our lives learning whether we realize it or not. Often, it is easy to quantify and categorize what we learn. We ask our children to spend the vast majority of their young lives in pursuit of little reports that tell them what and how well they learned what we told them was important to know. American schools are some of the best in the world at presenting, explaining and evaluating what ‘we’ have collectively decided is important.

However, When you don’t have a textbook or a classroom or a bell schedule or anywhere to sit and you don’t have to prep for a test because there isn’t going to be one, it can be hard to figure out what exactly was being learned. That said, a few mornings ago we sat in a circle in the foothills of the Himalayas and listened to the birds who had crowded onto our, unburnt, side of the pine forest call back and forth to each other—maybe taking stock of their new reality as well—and tried to put into words a few of the things that we had learned as well.

The following is a portion of what was said that morning:

We learned that people who have the least will always give you more than you can ask for.

We learned that there is more to traveling than just taking photos and seeing the things you were meant to see.

We learned that money does not buy happiness and that it is easier than we thought to communicate with people without using words.


We learned that you don’t have to take a picture or write it down to remember it and that you don’t have to tell someone something to make it true.

And that the people we are traveling with aren’t the same as the labels we put on them before.

We learned that we, as American women, take for granted the rights that we have.

We learned that there are more types of Indian food than rice and tikka masala and that the constant threat of killing our planet is real.


We learned that every kid will call you Didi and that dirt is unavoidable.

We learned how to use our hands and when you really, actually, need a shower.

We learned not to equate wealth with culture and the importance of family.

We learned to keep an open mind.

We learned the influence of western culture and that people love to be in photographs and that excessive goods don’t equate to superiority.

We learned that friendship has no limits and that society exists everywhere,

We learned that there is no solid definition of civilization.

We learned that we are a collection of small experiences and that money is relative.

We learned that you don’t always have to be in the know.

We learned that calculus won’t put out a forest fire but a stick will.We learned how much dirt clothing can carry and that hands are good for more than greetings.


We learned that smoke can make a nice perfume.