Near kidnapping ends local youth's exchange experience
Christin Casa De Calvo didn't have the kind of experience that organizers describe when promoting international youth exchange programs.
She was supposed to return from India next spring feeling that the world is a friendly place, ready for a lifetime of international understanding.
Instead, she arrived home Sept. 8, shaken by anti-American hostility directed her way and an attempt to kidnap her.
"Being a foreigner (in India), you get singled out for a lot of things," Casa De Calvo said.
The 16-year-old Hudson High School junior applied for the Rotary International Youth Exchange program last January after hearing an announcement about it at school.
India wasn't one of the counties she listed when asked where she wanted to go at the end of a lengthy application process. Her parents, Tim and Billie Jo, had reservations about the assignment from the start.
But after learning more about the city of Nagpur, where she was to stay, and receiving assurances that she would be safe, Casa De Calvo decided she was up for the challenge.
She left Hudson July 7, taking an eight-and-a-half-hour flight from Minneapolis to Amsterdam, followed by another flight of more than eight hours from Amsterdam to Bombay, India.
Her host sister, an employee of the L'Oreal cosmetics company, met Casa De Calvo at Bombay and gave her an early-morning tour of the city of more than 16 million people before putting her on a plane for the final two-hour flight to Nagpur in central India.
Exiting the international airport at Bombay gave Casa De Calvo a taste of what was in store for her. As she left a secure walkway to meet her host sister, beggars pulled at her clothing and bags asking for money.
The crush of humanity and traffic that greeted her outside the airport was greater than she had ever seen.
"It's very different from our culture here. I don't even know where to start. It was unbelievable," she said during a visit last week to the Star-Observer office.
Bombay, she said, is "a gorgeous city if you're in the right parts. It's very full of life. It's almost like New York. It never sleeps."
Casa De Calvo's host family was very welcoming, she said, and did their best to make her comfortable. Being members of the upper class, their home had all the conveniences of an American home - as well as four servants to do the cooking and household chores.
But the population at large in Nagpur, a city of about 2.2 million people, wasn't as hospitable as her host family.
"From the very beginning, harassment was a problem for me," Casa De Calvo said. "I had things thrown at me. I had people pulling me, hitting me, yelling things at me. ... A lot of people had a lot of hostility toward Americans because of the military thing going on with the war on terror."
She said those with ill will included some of the students at the secondary school (called a college in India) that she attended.
"I got called a killer because of 9/11," she said. "It gradually escalated to being more violent, more physical."
When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, causing it to flood, a newspaper published an editorial saying America had gotten what it deserved, according to Casa De Calvo.
"That's what I got. You deserve this. You deserve that. You shouldn't have this," she said. Some people expressed hatred for President Bush and said the United States was responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Her host family and the majority of the population of Nagpur are Hindu, Casa De Calvo said, but there are also Muslims, Buddhists and a few Christians in the city.
On Aug. 31, Casa De Calvo had walked about 20 feet outside the gate to her school to make a call on her cell phone when a white car stopped in front of her and two men jumped out.
She said that before she realized what was happening, the men grabbed her by the arms and started pulling her toward the nearby car.
She fought to free herself and yelled "help me" in Hindi, but no one on the busy street intervened, she said. The school's security guard was in a nearby hut.
Casa De Calvo said she fought more ferociously as they dragged her closer to an open car door, kicking the men and yelling as loud as she could.
The tactic worked. Her would-be kidnappers apparently became afraid of attracting the attention of the police and jumped in the car. Casa De Calvo remembers the driver speeding off before the two men that had grabbed her were all the way inside the vehicle.
With the help of her host family, Casa De Calvo reported the incident to the local police station, and the next day, talked to the school principal about it.
She said the police response was to place another guard outside the school and tell her to return to school the following day.
"It's like they wanted me for bait almost," she said. "They said you need to go back to school tomorrow in case they come back."
Instead, she told her host family she couldn't deal with the threats to her safety anymore and asked to return to the United States.
Her host family and the local Rotary club tried to talk her out of leaving. She said an Indian Rotarian told her she was going through the "settling-in period" and would be running away from her fears if she left.
"I said, if this is the settling-in period, I don't know what the next seven months is going to be like."
Following the intervention of her parents, and after dealing with considerable red tape, she returned to Hudson Sept. 8.
"Getting them to allow me to leave was difficult," Casa De Calvo said. "They (Indian Rotarians) were worried about the reputation of their Rotary being damaged."
She said she told them she didn't have any hostile feelings. "Stuff happens. You can't expect everything to be perfect."
Glad she did it
Despite the near kidnapping and antagonism she experienced in India, Casa De Calvo is glad to have gone there.
"It was a life-changing experience," she said. "I got a lot out of my two months there."
She came back with a deeper appreciation for her family and her country.
She had taken for granted the ability to hop inside a car for a trip to a local store. The traffic is horrible in India, she said, made worse by drivers who don't obey any type of signals.
She appreciates being able to go for a walk around her neighborhood. In India, her 16-year-old host brother had to accompany her everywhere to protect her from aggressive beggars.
There's a greater emphasis on family life in India than there is here, which has caused her to think about how much time she spends with her own family.
In India, families do things (like attend movies, plays and celebrations) together, she said. Here, she's often busy with school activities or doing things with friends.
"You know, it's like, maybe I should stay home more often. Or maybe I should do more stuff with my family."
She's the second-oldest of four children in the Casa De Calvo family. Brandon, 19, is a University of Minnesota student. Timothy, 15, is a sophomore at Hudson High. She also has a 4-year-old sister, Brooklynn.
Casa De Calvo's one regret about leaving India is the disappointment it caused her host family.
They were very accepting of Americans and very understanding of her, she said.
The father is a business owner and the mother is an interior designer and artist. Their son is currently in Roseville, Minn., on a Rotary International Youth Exchange experience.
Casa De Calvo also enjoyed meeting other exchange students and doing volunteer work at a school and orphanages sponsored by Rotary International. One of her visits was to an orphanage started by Mother Theresa.
Randy Hanson can be reached at email@example.com