Thanks to Rotary International, neighborhood residents Lee Paez and Rev. Margaret Patterson recently had their dream of traveling to India answered.

Paez developed a curiosity about the country through students she taught as a professor of English as a second language at Richland Community College. She wondered about the difficulties faced by living in another culture.

Close by at St. Matthews Episcopal Cathedral on Ross Avenue, Patterson thought about one of the few religions she had yet to experience firsthand – Hinduism. She wanted to visit India to study the country’s religious practices, but she couldn’t afford the luxury of overseas travel – especially while working on her doctorate of ministry at SMU.

Enter Rotary International.

Patterson and Paez recently experienced a six-week, 16-city tour of India, compliments of the Rotary International Cultural Exchange Program. They were selected for the program through an application process.

“The Cultural Exchange Program is completely funded by the Rotary Foundation and hosting Rotarians,” says Hugh McAfee, vice chairman for the organization.

“While the foundation pays for airfare, the residents of the host country provide food and housing.”

The exchange program is designed to increase understanding by building bridges across cultures, McAfee says.

“I was able to stay with 15 families, all of whom shared their cultural traits, philosophy and customs very freely, very openly,” Paez says.

Patterson says the tour’s timing enabled them to participate in the Tongal Festival, India’s major annual celebration, where all the villages harvest crops and gather to celebrate their varied deities.

“All of the families I stayed with invited me to pray with them and included me in all their spiritual ceremonies,” Patterson says.

Both women say India is a highly cooperative, communal, circular-thinking culture. It is a country where in many regions, English is the first language, and in Hindu-speaking regions, there are more than 50 dialects.

Patterson and Paez say India is filled with green fields of rice patties, banana and mango trees. There are villages of red-thatched huts scattered throughout the hills. Women dress in bright-colored sarees, and children play in the streets with lambs and piglets.

“It was a remarkable experience for me,” Patterson says.

For more information about this annual Rotary program, call the Rotary at 742-5451.