By Olivia Hoynes from Greenville, North Carolina, Hosted in: Indore, Madhya Pradesh (Shishukunj)

“DeeDee DeeDee DeeDee”. This is the sweet sound I heard as I was quickly surrounded by small Indian children the first day of school. I spent the first bus ride beaming, sticking out like a sore thumb with big blue eyes and fair freckled skin. The streets were flooded with cows, camels, stray dogs, street vendors, bikes, and cars, and the immensity of colors and sounds was mesmerizing. Everything was new, different, and exciting, and I couldn’t wipe the big-toothed smile off my face. As my exchange continued, the bus ride to school became routine, and the school children stopped tugging me to their classrooms each break.


(Photo Above:  Learning Indian Musical Instrument)

No matter, Bharat never failed to surprise me and woo me. One morning, a kind pandit at a Hindu temple summoned me into the worship room full of offerings. He marked me head with a fragrant red paste and showered me with flowers, sweets, coconuts, and blessings. I stopped to say namaste as an elderly man on the street corner raised his hands above his head to give me blessings – smiling ear to ear. When my host sister and I climbed into a rickshaw, our driver passionately spoke to her in Hindi something that translates to, “I’m proud of you for showing her Indore. Make our country proud.” My family’s Marathi driver, who I call “CaaCaa” (meaning uncle), spoke to me in Hindi everyday and laughed as I sang songs and poems in Hindi. CaaCaa was overjoyed as I gifted him a single U.S. dollar that he vowed to show to all of his friends. At Nacraali Daali, a traditional dancer dressed in a beautiful blue saree conversed with me in Hindi and lit up when she found that I was in India to learn her native tongue. In the small village of Maheshwar, I stopped to watch as people dressed in orange passionately danced to a god, casting me warm smiles and continuing to beautifully twirl their hands above their heads. The school security guard laughed as he taught me the Hindi word for squirrel and other things I pointed at – proclaiming “yeh kya hai?”. As I looked out my window at a procession of men on a voyage to a temple, the men stopped what they were doing to wave, dance, and sing to me, offering me sweet smiles. This is the place where I was blessed by an elephant in the streets and invited over to the houses of school girls my age.

No matter where I went in Indore, people stared, pointed, and often yelled “foreigner” or “amriqui”. For the first time as a white American in the South, I was different. Everywhere I went, there were instances of people welcoming me, blessing me, and loving me. People were so proud of their country and excited to welcome people from other places. Their faces lit up when I spoke in broken Hindi. Many times, I was interacting with people who did not speak English, looked different from me, were of different religions, and lived on an opposite side of the globe, but I learned that we shared a common humanity communicated with a smile, “namaste”, dance, or song.

“Bharat hummari maata hai”. India has taught me the meaning of globalization and the importance of learning about other people through their languages, religions, and culture. I will never forget riding on the back of my sister’s scooter with three people and a birthday cake hoisted above our heads in the rain, nor will I forget the green chili eating contest I lost to an Indian friend within seconds. Similarly, I will never forget the emaciated dogs and school age children dressed in rags who tapped on our windows at stoplights.

Going into this exchange, I expected a homogenous India, where people only ate curry and naan and spoke in pure Hindi. Instead, I learned that India is a land of unity and diversity, where Muslims, Hindus, Jains, Punjabis, Zoroastrians, and other people of faith learn and pray together in school  – speaking Marathi, Gujarati, Hindi, English, Bengali, or the other official languages of India. When I had to solo the opening lines to “Chaiyya Chaiyya” in front of ten Indian teachers, I learned to laugh at myself, and when I forgot the word for fan on multiple occasions, I learned that it is okay to make mistakes. This exchange has changed the way I see India, the rest of the world, and myself, and for that, I am forever grateful.”