A Passport to India: Rachel Sabella reflects back on her Rotary Youth Exchange experience

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Micah Bigeagle from Minnesota and Rachel Sabella at the Taj Mahal. (Submitted Photo)

O’FALLON – Sixteen year old Rachel Sabella has experienced more in the past ten months than most kids her age have in a lifetime. Rachel just returned on May 28 from nearly a year living in India as part of the Rotary Club’s Youth Exchange Program.

Rachel has wanted to take part in the Youth Exchange Program for a while and decided to take the plunge after hearing other students who have taken part in the program talk about their experiences.

“My mom has been in Rotary for as long as I can remember. Since I was little I accompanied her to meetings every now and then. Her club has always been a second family to me. I’ve always been interested in doing an exchange but it was really last summer, when I attended RYLA [Rotary Youth Leadership Awards] where I heard students speaking. They’re exchange student alumni who have been back to a few years. They were speaking about their experiences and that’s where I said ‘Why not. I want to do it’,” Rachel explained.

Rachel feels fortunate to have been able to go to India, as she could have ended up in 30 different countries.

“We get a wish list of 45 countries. Because of age and language restrictions I had to cross off 15, but that still left 30 that I had to number from one to 30. My number one was actually Australia and India was number two. Australia fell through, but number two is considered to be pretty good,” she said.

Rachel left for her trip on August 1, 2015, at around 1 a.m., bound for Chicago and then to Delhi. After spending nearly 19 hours in the air, she found herself in an entirely different world.

“When I landed in Delhi, it was immediate culture shock. I thought ‘I’m in India. What’s going on?‘ The dress is very different. Also the language. On all of their signs was the Hindi script, but also English. The people were extremes. Some of them were very friendly and some were not friendly at all,” Rachel said.

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A neighbor boy gives Rachel a drink during a break of a pick-up cricket game. (Submitted Photo)

Rachel didn’t stay long in Delhi before traveling to Indore where she met the Vadnere family, who would serve as her host family during the trip.

“They have two daughters and two dogs. We also lived with my host dad’s mother, which is tradition. Their daughter that is my age is currently living in Michigan as an exchange student. Their youngest daughter was in sixth grade and is a swimmer,” Rachel said. “My host parents were actually quite busy a lot of the time, so I spent a lot of time with aunts and uncles. The culture is that typically the husband has the job while the wife acts as a housewife. My host mother lectured at the local college and she wants to open up her own personal treatment center. My host dad is a self-proclaimed chemist, which is similar to a pharmacist. His grandfather started the family business and he runs it.”

Rachel said it took her some time to adjust to living in India and that she didn’t begin to really embrace the experience until she was nearly half finished. She said her host family helped by making her feel at home.

“It took me some time. I felt quite homesick for a while, but that’s part of the experience I guess. They did welcome me very openly. Much of their extended family live in the area and came over to visit all of the time. Part of the culture is that family always comes over and visits. There’s not really a ‘Hey, I’m coming over’ its more like ‘Maybe they’re coming over, lets set out some plates.’ You never really knew who was dropping by,” Rachel said.

Just because Rachel was on the other side of the world, she still had to attend school and continue her education.

“During the day I went to school and in the afternoons I joined other classes. I took a cooking class and a henna class. I also joined a Hindi class that met every afternoon. Once I joined that class my skills seemed to pick up very rapidly and I was comfortable speaking, understanding, and listening,” she explained. “Other than the classes, I did a lot of traveling.”

Rachel did do a lot of traveling, taking a three week tour of southern India and a month long tour of northern India.

“The north is huge and we spent a lot of time on trains and in buses. The north is absolutely beautiful. I remember my host dad told me that if I thought I enjoyed the south tour, when I go on the north tour I will truly be able to enjoy their country’s various cultures and everything about their country,” Rachel said.

During her travels, Rachel had some experiences she said will stay with her forever.

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Riding camels in Jaisalmer (Submitted Photo)

“In the city of Jaisalner we rode camels through the desert into the sunset. We camped in the desert for the night and then at 6 a.m., we rode the camels back out of the desert to the city. It was really amazing. Then a few days later we were camping at a site called the Ganges. It was very pure and seemed untouched. We went whitewater rafting there and it was ridiculously cold,” said Rachel.

One area Rachel did have to get accustomed to was the cuisine.

“It’s advised that foreigners don’t eat the street food there, but it tastes so good. So of course, every chance I got I was out there eating the street food and I got sick quite often,” she said. “They don’t like American food at all. There is KFC and McDonalds, but they’re entirely Indian food. At McDonalds they have a dish called the McAloo tikki burger, which is a spicy potato burger.”

Rachel explained that most food in India is spicy. She went on to say that with most meals you receive a type of tortilla, called roti, which acts as your folk and you use the tortilla to pick up food items. She said there’s also a vegetable or two, along with some rice.

“Milk is from a water buffalo since you don’t use cows for anything there. Milk is delivered daily and families go through a lot of milk every day,” said Rachel.

During her trip, Rachel said she never really feared for her safety.

“I did generally feel safe. The fact that I have white skin is very rare for them to see. So when people would look at me, they really did look at me. It made me a little uncomfortable at times, but I knew it was just because they didn’t see people like me often,” she said. “I did generally feel safe, but you have to follow cultural standards to feel safe. You have to wear long pants and a scarf.”

Rachel kept her parents, Kim and Jim Sabella, up to date on her trip.

“We talked a lot. I called them once every two weeks or so. I think they liked that because they were able to keep up on things. They were able to hear how I was changing and I could give them more updates than I could have after I come back home. I could tell them the little details at the time that I may not remember now,” Rachel said.

Despite having spent what would have been a year of school in a foreign country, Rachel said the administration at O’Fallon Township High School have been very good about working with her.

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Rachel’s host dad, Viral Vadnere, and Rachel at a garba celebration during Navaratri. (Submitted Photo)

“We did manage to arrange where lots of my classes over there did count back here. A lot of my classes, like cooking and my henna classes, counted as language and cultural studies classes. OTHS has been very accommodating,” she said.

When asked if she would take part in the Rotary Youth Exchange again, Rachel enthusiastically said she would without question.

“I most definitely would do this again. Six months ago, I wouldn’t have said I’d go back to India, but around January I started to get acclimated,” said Rachel. “I think I’ve definitely become more independent. More sure in my words and actions and things that I do. I’ve found things that are more important to me. I wanted my exchange to open my eyes to the world and it really did help me with that.”

When Rachel arrived home, she was greeted by a large group of friends, some of whom came with McDonald’s, chocolate milk, and donuts from Wood Bakery. Rachel said there was one thing that really struck her when she arrived back in St. Louis.

“Walking to the airport to the car, I took a deep breath and said the air just feels so clean. It is very polluted there,” Rachel said.

When asked if there was anything she wanted to add to the interview, Rachel took the opportunity to thank India and its people.

“Thank you India. India has done a lot for me and I really appreciate how the country took me in and showed me so many things,” she said.