Around the time when celebrities (notably Madonna and Alanis Morissette) were finding enlightenment and sometimes even themselves in India—and singing about it, I had the chance to go there.
Through a Rotary Foundation program called Group Study Exchange (GSE), I spent six weeks in India as a photojournalist. The primary purpose of the GSE program was to give young professionals a vocational opportunity abroad during the early stages of their career.
My GSE training instructor said over and over again, “GSE will change your life.” As it was, I wanted my life to change, so I said “Giddyup.” And a truly life-changing experience it was.
The program allowed me to practice my profession in India while visiting many Rotary-sponsored humanitarian programs. The selection committee decided that it would be a good idea to send a man to keep an eye on the four women selected. Not surprisingly, he was the highest-maintenance one of all.
We stayed with a variety of different hosts and in many ways, got to see the “real” India through these families and the philanthropic matching-grant programs we visited. Slated in my memory are homes for the homeless, polio health centers, schools and the most heart-wrenching: the well-run orphanages with tons of children excited to have foreign guests visit them.
The sheer density of humanity in India is a shock to the senses. Witnessing it as it relates to poverty and particularly to children in need, takes it to a whole new level. I have always hoped to return to India to visit and return to the orphanages. In a sense, this is where I reconsidered having children – not having them myself, but adopting or supporting their growth and education on a larger level.
I loved my host families – all of them. The hospitality in India was unparalleled. The colors, fabrics, life and energy of one billion people add an element to everyday life that you don’t come across often. I was enthralled with the textiles, fashion, interior design elements and group culture, which was very different from what I was used to.
When I got sick from the antiquated anti-malarial medication I was prescribed in the U.S., I learned that my conflict-resolution style is avoidance and that I hated yoga. I disliked a certain member’s behavior on my GSE team. While I personally liked and got along well with him in the United States, he was the quintessential “ugly American” abroad and lacked the ability to follow the rules of engagement as “ambassadors” from the U.S. He was disrespectful to our hosts and it irritated the rest of us. Ironically, he was also the one who got us all signed up for the 6:30 a.m. class of The Art of Living every morning.
Cursing in downward dog, I learned that what I didn’t know about spirituality and acceptance was a lot.
At this point, I didn’t have a country number goal in mind — I was simply happy to travel as much as possible. Getting away, immersing myself, adapting to a new perspective and seeing things differently sealed my travel addiction. How else can you do that? There isn’t a prescription or even a street drug that can give you that experience.
I started journaling while in India and through this, I discovered that I really wanted a studio in Chicago. My favorite time in London was working in the studios in Back Hill, Farringdon. I loved creating in the studio and it was where I felt most in my element. It took a while and a leap off of a major cliff, but I did it.
I felt like an entirely different person when my time in India ended – a world apart from where I started. It was as if I had Stage 4 emphysema and my lungs were now clear.
It was an energetic up-leveling. I felt that anything was possible and that if I made the leap, the universe would conspire in my favor a la Goethe. How long in the Midwest would it take before that feeling died? I came back glowing. I had finally settled in and could really think about what my next moves would be.
To date, that was the biggest transformation I’ve felt from a trip. I love Indian culture, people and life. I loved the grit. It changed what I thought was possible and how I went about visualizing, meditating and journaling what I wanted – a practice that I continue to rely on heavily in work and life. I also had a huge connection to the orphaned children and dreamed of one day leaving everything behind and becoming headmaster at the one of orphanages we visited. I loved the children’s energy, their potential, and their unbiased outlook on the world.
In their eyes, I saw myself, and to some extent, the struggle of their fate as they would become single women in the world having to make their own way and support themselves in a culture that made it challenging. It felt like my purpose was to make that road easier for them in whatever way I could.
Ironically, as deeply as I was drawn to the orphanage and caring for children, the idea of marriage and having my own kids meant the end of life to me. The end of freedom. The end of travel. A life of misery, self-sacrifice and occasional trips to Chuck E. Cheese. To avoid this, I sought out the best love avoidants I could find in order to protect myself from the alternative fate.
India was eye-opening in many ways and really where I became one with the idea of becoming a full-time professional photographer. During my visit I focused on shooting humanitarian projects and a series on “Fashion in the Making,” which chronicled the process from cotton farming through textile weaving to garment design. The series was later featured at the Apple store in Chicago as a part of a live fashion show.