Book review: Best Year of Your Life
Sandra Bornstein faces choices: Will she stay in her home in Colorado alone or find a new job on another continent? Her husband’s new job requires him to live part time in India. She must make a decision that might rattle the rest of us but even after many changes in circumstances she continues on and honors her commitments to the best of her abilities. I read this book about a Jewish American International Teacher in India all in one sitting at the Park Hotel Ashram in Pondicherry (the home of Pi Patel from Life of Pi in India) sitting next to my husband. As a Jewish American Teacher myself, I felt a special relationship to Bornstein’s life and her story. I thought, “Could this be me?” What if that happened on our trip? What if I decided to teach in India instead of travel on sabbatical?
From the beginning of the story, it is clear that this journey will be full of twists, turns, potholes and the greatest of fears-- surgery in an Indian hospital. Bornstein has clearly broken out of her routine, and this year abroad is definitely “the road less traveled” but I am sure it was a surprise that it included so many extra trips to the bathroom.
As Bornstein says, “One minute I felt that an Indian adventure was something to look forward to—a new challenge for the next stage of our lives. And in a blink, I’d change my mind and feel like our cat, Chloe, who likes to hide under the bed.” Many travelers, myself included, are racked with indecision about uprooting their entire life prior to setting out on an extended “adventure” to Asia. A simple pro and con list never fully takes into account if some of the “what if’s” do actually come true.
After Bornstein married at age eighteen, her relationship with her husband, Ira, has been of supreme importance for more than thirty years. “How could I consider being away from Ira for longer than necessary? We were an inseparable couple—teammates who together met each of life’s challenges.” No matter what choice she makes, she will be spending time without him: Should she stay in America or teach in India? “Could I survive India alone? What would I eat?
How would I find my way? Would I be safe?”
Unfortunately all too common while trying to make your own decision of what to do, many so-called friends are unsupportive during the process. Bornstein heard things like: “You’ll never survive.” “You’re setting yourselves up for failure.” “Have you lost your mind?” She did follow her instincts and became an international teacher.
There are many moments that cause Bornstein to wonder about her new life, from unwelcome visitors like monkeys and bugs in her apartment and classroom, to unfriendly and difficult colleagues at work as well as ongoing battles with where to live and maintaining her health.
India is one of many places in the world where it is a challenge to be female. It can feel that you the only woman in a restaurant or airport and often it is true. Bornstein attempts to learn more about the difficulties of being female in India by speaking with local women. One candidly tells her, “Being a woman is a disadvantage in most places. In India, it’s more of a burden…There’s a bias, even before birth. Many families abort female fetuses even though doctors are prohibited from revealing the sex of fetuses.” Stark truths about life in a foreign land make Bornstein more grateful about her homeland, America.
After years of traveling with her husband and family, Bornstein has many firsts: first international flight alone, first job interviews, first auto rickshaw ride. Each small survival is a victory for getting through the next new experience. But still Bornstein wonders, “Would all of the pieces of the puzzle fall into place so that Ira and I could find contentment living separate lives for weeks at a time or was this farfetched idea headed down a disastrous path?"
After a traumatic family incident, Bornstein must decide what to do next. A trusted mentor tells her, “Trust me, living without your husband won’t be easy, but regretting a missed opportunity is hard to swallow.” Once in India on her own, Bornstein attends orientation at her new school and along with the entire faculty is told repeatedly by the principal, Dr. Wilson, “This is going to be the best year of the rest of your life.” Certain stories make it hard to believe that this is actually the best year of Bornstein’s life.
Despite dealing with a swollen knee causing limited personal mobility, Bornstein attempts to work collaboratively with a team that seems uninterested in addressing educational issues of their 5th graders, especially those with limited English language skills. She seems the most inspired when realizing the impact she has on the children who need the most assistance. “I continued using frequent writing prompts to give my students more opportunities to write. I couldn’t resist the one focusing on Helen Keller’s words: Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.” Bornstein is living her own daring adventure!
Bornstein is warned many times that she should not complain about the condition of her living quarters or anything else. She was told, “Teachers mysteriously disappear…walls have ears. Don’t make waves.” It was suggested that she raise her grades to avoid issues with parents. Between her personal and physical challenges, Bornstein led me down the rabbit hole to Alice in Wonderland and I could not wait to see what would happen next!
Bornstein wondered, “Was there a reason that I ended up living in Bangalore for all these months without my husband? Or was it just a fluke?” She questioned a rabbi about the idea that “All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.” Searching for personal life answers was challenging but she still clearly related her agonies and victories. If you are considering a journey or a major life altering decision and wondering if you have the courage, Bornstein’s story may help you find it. Through all the traumas, dramas and poignant family moments, you will realize that we must all find and cherish the things that make us feel at home no matter where we are physically located.
Want to know more? Visit Sandy on her virtual book tour - we're one of the stops!
Lisa Niver Rajna, Wandering Educators Geography Awareness Editor, was recently on National Television as a science teacher on the show Career Day. She is a 2012 nominee for the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching, and a member of the Traveler’s Century Club for travelers who have been to over one hundred countries. She and George are spending a sabbatical year in Asia. Follow their travels at We Said Go Travel, on Twitter and on Facebook.
Lisa and George Rajna met online in 2007 and started traveling together internationally almost immediately. By 2008, they had quit their jobs,
rented their condo and left for a year on the road. After eleven
countries, twelve months, losing sixty pounds and getting engaged
underwater, they returned to Los Angeles. On July 1, 2012, the next year
long adventure began in Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar and now India.