Welcome to the new series where we will hear from Nina Palattella about her experience as a Christian in her senior year of High School. Nina will write a blog post about once a month over the course of the school year. This is her fifth installment. Click here to see the others.
Hello there and welcome to my fifth blog post! I hope that you all are staying warm and safe. I have now entered into the second semester of my senior year of high school, which is both exciting (that’s so little time!) and excruciating (just get me out of here!) With all of the news coverage about the cold temperatures and heavy snowfall in places, it seems hard to believe that, at about this time last year, I was experiencing drastically different weather as well as a radically different way of life—I was in the midst of a trip to the state of Kerala, India, with my family and eight other parishioners from The Cathedral of St. Paul. That trip was a life-changing experience like no other and the subject of this blog post.
I enjoy traveling, but before this trip I had never visited another continent, let alone a country as seemingly other-worldly as India. I was wary due to the preventative medicines my family had to take for foreign ailments such as dengue fever and malaria, and I was also unsettled by the knowledge that I would have to be alert about things that all my life I had taken for granted—such as not drinking the water and not eating the fruit. The journey to our destination consisted of three flights totaling approximately 20 hours with layovers in three different countries, and, combined with the time difference of plus ten-and-a-half hours, it took almost two days for us to actually get to India. Our trip officially started when we were picked up at the Cochin International Airport, a busy place even at three-thirty in the morning, and taken to a “refreshment center,” which, despite its designation, defied all western expectations of refreshment. It was a small house adjacent to the travel agency office, occupied by a family and possibly other travelers. Though my brother and I were exhausted—I would be awake for forty hours straight—our mother instructed us to keep our shoes on when we laid down on the bed, so sleep was impossible. At one point during our short but hazy stay, a woman walked around and appeared to be counting all of us; we learned that she was determining the number of guests for whom she needed to make food.
Despite the frightening introduction, I quickly became enamored with India and all its eccentricities. I took pictures of practically everything I encountered, from a goat that I saw standing in the middle of the street to a tree made of Communist flags, crowned on top with a golden hammer and sickle. I consider myself a fairly adventurous eater and tried many new cuisines, including idli, a Southern Indian dish of rice patties that I ate every day for breakfast and still long for every now and then; however, I was equally delighted to encounter the familiar macaroni and cheese on the menu of a restaurant recommended to our group by our driver, a citizen of the region, who served not just as transportation but also as a saving grace in more than one instance. We visited the Eravikulam National Park and encountered the Nilgiri tahr, an endangered species of sheep whose population is limited to certain areas of the southwestern Ghat Mountains. The dean of my church and his wife, who had visited India and this park before, said that they had seen only a few of these animals from a distance on their previous trip, but they walked among us freely. I rode an elephant and hiked to a tea plantation, one of many near our resort in the beautiful mountain city of Munnar. I learned that, in an unfamiliar place, even the mundane activities become exciting; traveling through the city was a stressful and seemingly perilous act, and without the benefit of our driver I guarantee that I would not be here to write this post.
Without a doubt, the most spiritually enriching part of our journey was our visit to the St. Paul’s CSI Church of South India; as I have mentioned in previous posts, with the help of the Cathedral of St. Paul in Erie, our sister church in India was able to revitalize their church building, and on this trip we delivered to them a donation to help them build a Sunday school, which is serious business in India. Our group was greeted by a procession of musical instruments, bright colors, decorative umbrellas and a village full of parishioners, all of whom wanted to greet us and thank us for our generosity. The church building was filled with people for the service, which was spoken almost entirely in Malayalum, the predominant language of the state of Kerala. The time of our visit was also that of a local festival; after the service, we had the pleasure of staying for an additional celebration, during which I had the opportunity to drink directly from a coconut. Although I may not have been able to communicate at length with many of the people I met, their faith, gratitude and excitement were plainly evident, and I was overjoyed to be present in their company. This is true of people whom I encountered throughout our stay: my brother readily became friends with boys whom he met through a shared love of soccer, and strangers whom we encountered at different places we visited wanted to ask us our names, where we were from, and possibly even invite us to take photos with them. It was their welcoming attitude that made a foreign place seem not so much different than any other place I could call home.