KOKOMO, Ind. — Where in the world is J.R. Pico?
During the school year, he can be found teaching Spanish language and culture at Indiana University Kokomo. But when classes are not in session, the globe trotting teacher is more difficult to find — he’s more than likely exploring new places, camera in hand.
“Besides teaching and languages, traveling and taking pictures is my passion,” said Pico, senior lecturer in Spanish. “I would like everyone to travel and see the world. Whether it’s mission trips, through Scouts, a university, humanitarian trips, travel is life-changing.”
He’s visited more than 60 countries, and added to the count this summer, with his first trip to India.
“India is unique, you can’t compare it to anywhere else,” he said. “After visiting so many countries, I thought this would be just one more, but because of its size and population, its long history, its religions, and its architecture, it was not just another country on my list. India will be in my heart forever.”
The trip also was special because he traveled with Northwestern High School Spanish teacher Steve Wilson, as part of a Lilly Teacher Creativity Fellowship. The program offers up to 100 grants at $12,000 each to Indiana teachers for projects.
Wilson’s mission in India was to trace his own history — his family story begins in India, which they left as indentured laborers, with time in South America, the Caribbean, and Africa, before immigrating to the United States.
“Because we are both immigrants, and travelers, and language teachers, Steve wanted to share this experience with me, approaching it as scholars of immigration,” he said.
India is the seventh-largest country in the world in land area, with nearly 1.3 million square miles of land mass in Asia, populated by more than a billion people.
As a native of Cartagena, Colombia, Pico felt prepared for crowds, but found it to be overpowering. In Jaipur, a city of more than three million, there are only a few traffic lights, and the traffic includes people in cars, as well as on motorcycles and camels.
The poverty also was overwhelming, he said, and the aggressive sellers in the market took some getting used to as well.
During their month-long trip, Pico and Wilson spent time in Delhi, Jaipur, Agra, and Varanasi, along with Kolkata and Chennai, the port of embarkation where Wilson’s family would have left the country. He wasn’t able to find information specifically about his family, but some general information about what their experience would have been like.
“He found out that indentured laborer is a fancy way of saying they were enslaved,” Pico said, noting that the idea was they had to pay for their passage, food, and lodgings at their destination with labor, but with living expenses accumulating daily, it was nearly impossible for the laborers to earn their freedom.
Pico’s most profound moment was visiting the Mother House of the Missionaries of Charity, founded by Mother Teresa in Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta.
“I saw the room where she lived, and it was so humble,” he said. “She just had a bed, a wooden chair, and a desk. You would never know she was internationally known, and a Nobel Prize winner. As a humanitarian, it was special knowing she dedicated her life to helping orphans and needy children, and donated her Nobel Prize money to her cause.”
He also enjoyed visiting the Taj Mahal in person, and riding elephants. They also traveled to Sri Lanka, Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand, and Nepal. While flying back to India from Nepal, they saw Mount Everest from the plane window.
Pico plans to share his experiences with his IU Kokomo students, as part of his commitment to educating people about diversity.
“Tolerance is the main thing I want them to understand,” he said. “When I was in India, I had to adjust to their customs, and not expect them to adjust to mine. We have to accept one another, and co-exist together on this earth.”
Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana.