"I hope my gap year will enable me to see my on culture in a new light." So I concluded my personal statement two years ago, little realising how much my time in India would change my outlook. Where in Britain would you ever end up singing heartily with your fellow train passengers, while banging time against the seats? Where does our English conviction that fried meat and cereal products are an acceptable breakfast, while curried chickpeas aren't, come from? Why don't we have traffic lights with 'RELAX' painted on the in big letters? How is it that the genius idea of eating with your fingers off leaves so that there's no washing up has never been adopted in Britain? Just a few of the questions that occurred to me during my six months here.
My first three months were spent in the southernmost town in India, Nagercoil, where coconut palms grew on every corner. I was doing a medical placement which gave me the opportunity to observe births, consultations and surgery in a local hospital.
It was hugely different from any hospital I'd ever been to. The first week, one of the white-sari'd nurses asked me to cut up empty pill packets so the cardboard could be used for writing on. It was the first lesson of many on how in India, you don't throw away anything that can possibly be used again.
The Holy Cross Mission Hospital was attached to a convent, and often the woman peering down the microscope at blood samples or dressing a wound would be a nun. Before every operation, everyone in the surgery would bow their heads as a prayer was intoned in Tamil for the success of the procedure. The walls were decorated with icons of Mary and Jesus, often wreathed, Hindu-style, in marigolds, just one example of how the two religions had influenced one another as they existed side-by-side. Watching women give birth was a true privilege, something I will never forget.
I also became involved in a local primary school during my time in Nagercoil. "Just come in and entertain the children whenever you can", I was told. That was how I ended up dancing around the dusty schoolyard singing 'Alice the Camel has ten humps', and pulling thirty children of all ages and abilities into the hokey-cokey. I hadn't played 'Head Shoulders Knees and Toes' since primary school, and had forgotten how much fun it could be!
One of the nicest aspects of living with a family was that I was invited along with them to all manner of celebrations. Clad in my red and gold sari (that takes ten minutes for me to tie but is well worth the effort!), I attended more weddings in those three months than I had in my whole life previously! There was also the visit of the Maharajah of Travancore whom I got to sprinkle with petals; giving out prizes at a school annual day; giving several talks to students at local colleges and many more events. It sometimes felt almost like being a celebrity.
Finally it was time to move on and see the wider India. Travelling long distance on the wonderfully antiquated rail system is a fantastic way to see the country. What struck me most was the diversity, from the misty mountains of Darjeeling to the tropical backwaters of Kerala; the modern frenetic streets of Delhi to dusty rural villages.
Every state has its own cuisine; landscape; often different language and dress, so India is really more like several countries than one. The highlight of my three months travelling was staying in a small Bengali village. There was no phone contact; no cars, electricity had only been recently introduced. My days were spent milking the cows, helping with the rice harvest, doing the laundry in cool green pools; and best of all swimming among the waterlilies to collect the lotus leaves we would eat our lunch off. Incredible.
I would love to go back to India, maybe even work there one day. Taking a gap year was one of the best decisions I ever made.