Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Travel [Minus] Leisure

Travel+Leisure magazine features exotic locales and luxurious accommodations for the global tourist. Natascha Yogachandra, who is the magazine’s ASME intern this summer, has been to some of these faraway lands — she lived in Southeast Asia for five years, graduating high school in Thailand before moving on to New York University to study journalism and anthropology. So to her, these places don’t elicit memories of vacations. They represent her way of life.

At seven years old, Yogachandra spent her free time absorbed in books. Meanwhile, her father traveled the world on business trips for the Kodak Company. He’d return to their home in Fairport, New York (a suburb of Rochester), returning with souvenirs in the form of photographs. Among them were images of children who couldn’t afford to attend school and didn’t have books.

A voracious reader, Yogachandra asked her dad if she could ship her old books to these kids. The family recruited their friends and eventually their community, from neighbors to local rotary clubs, shipping books to Africa and Asia. They eventually established “Project Book Angels” and the Hope Is Life Foundation.

Today, Yogachandra attributes her service to not only her early appreciation for literacy, but also her foundation in the Baha'i faith.

“In the Baha’i teachings, work is worship and service is prayer,” Yogachandra says. “My parents raised me with this belief that you have to help your neighbor.” This aspect of her worldview persisted a few years into the family’s work on Project Book Angels, when the Indian Ocean tsunami ravaged Southeast Asia in late 2004. Eleven-year-old Yogachandra was home watching CNN when she looked up from the television at her parents and asked if they could go there and help.

“They looked at each other and said, ‘Oh, well, why not?’” Yogachandra says. “They told me if I raised enough money, they’d pitch in for the plane tickets.”

Spreading the word through local TV and newspapers, she raised $20,000 in her community alone, and the family went to Sri Lanka to assist with relief efforts. A month later, however, they headed back to upstate New York.

“It was almost a bigger culture shock coming back from that because it was just so much poverty and so much loss and suffering,” Yogachandra says. “Back here it’s overwhelming with all the materialism. We just didn’t know where we fit in.”

So they moved back to India.

“I think I cried for three months straight,” Yogachandra says. Middle school would have been hard enough in America, but she had to deal with teachers who spoke English with thick accents as well as fellow students who taunted her and compared her to “slutty girls they saw on MTV,” based on her nationality alone, disregarding her bookworm tendencies and Sri Lankan heritage on her dad’s side.

With perfectionist tendencies when it came to academics and an introverted personality, school became unbearable, so Yogachandra was homeschooled for a while. Later, the family began to worry about her college prospects. They moved to Bangkok so she could attend an international school. Their new focus became rescuing girls from sex trafficking and placing them in schools.

Reading with young girls in Thailand.

Reflecting on her upbringing, Yogachandra explains that work at a travel magazine may seem to be the perfect fit for her on the surface, because she’s spent so much time abroad. But “the weird thing,” she says, “is that I think the travelling itself didn’t really help,” citing personal growth and recovery from shyness as her primary accomplishments. “It was the fact that I went, and I actually suffered a lot. I had to overcome a lot.”

She describes traveling as an eye-opening experience, whether you have money or not. While her family took cheap forms of transportation and lived in dangerous areas, Yogachandra says Travel+Leisure tends to feature the best hotels and nicest restaurants. Yet she adds that the magazine’s editors still have a passion for travel and an awareness of poverty.

“Everyone around me is so knowledgeable to the world around them,” she says. “Their eyes have been open to different cultures, lifestyles, people. It’s refreshing.”

Whereas she describes her hometown as a “white, suburban bubble,” her transition back to the U.S. for college has not been difficult now that she is in New York City. Yogachandra says she embraces the city’s economic, racial and religious diversity — she resides in the Lower East Side, “close to the projects,” staying there this summer instead of in NYU dorms with the other ASME interns. She says that living away from the other interns has required her to put forth more effort to get to know everyone, but she has spent time showing them her favorite parts of the diverse city.

“When you get on the Subway, it’s almost like you’re going to a different city, in a half an hour, for $2.50,” she says. “I love it, and I want to stay here for a long time.”

As for her career choice, journalism seemed a logical next step after a lifetime devoted to children’s education. Her goal is to spread the issues she’s passionate about through the written word.

“People don’t even know how to talk about sex in public situations, so how are people going to talk about sex trafficking?” she asks. Still, she can see herself composing long, narrative pieces on such issues. She recalls a teenage girl she met in Cambodia who had lived in a brothel and described feeling like she had a dark cloud hanging over her head every day, even after getting rescued.

These are the stories Yogachandra wants to tell. After she earns her degree next summer, she may take a gap year to travel in South America and perfect her Spanish (“and write along the way, of course”), but her roots working for a small team to make a change have drawn her to the burgeoning start-up culture within journalism today. (As an aside, she describes her ultimate dream as: “to be like Nicholas Kristof.”)

Yogachandra realizes that journalism is not solely altruistic; it’s a business. “Journalism is a club and you’ve gotta know the right people,” she says. She admits she is “very blessed” that her parents were willing to drop everything eight years ago so she could chase her dreams. She credits her lifelong strong work ethic with her admission into ASME and subsequent placement at Travel+Leisure.

Still, she can’t deny the irony of it all:

“I’ve never really ‘traveled leisurely,’” she says. 

By Lydia Belanger, Northwestern University, AARP The Magazine
Edited by Hannah Dreyfus, Yeshiva University, Parade Magazine

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