Kyle Olson

Major: International and Area Studies

Hometown: Stafford, Virginia

Study Abroad Program: UNC Summer in India

I came to India with a leg up on some of my fellow study abroad students. Not that I was any more prepared for the oppressive heat or impressive crowding or expressive religious displays than they were, but I can say that nursing a years-long crush on the world’s most populous democracy was not without its benefits. I tried to hit the history and mystery-soaked ground running.

Upon touching down in Delhi on a beautifully smoggy and stifling night I ate up the sights and sounds. My year of Hindi language class was not in vain, as I was able to quickly identify the four languages on the airport signs- Punjabi, Hindi, Urdu and (okay, this one is easy) English. Choosing Hindi as my primary foreign language at UNC was not an orthodox choice, but it was paid off thousands of miles away, as I was able to speak rudimentarily with the many, many people we came into contact with in India, where our obvious foreigner status made us objects of considerable interest almost everywhere we went. And though English is an increasingly popular, accessible and lucrative language in this former crown jewel of the British Empire, having a basic knowledge of the local tongue opens up amazing opportunities to speak- and listen to- the people for whom knowledge of English is deep-held hope for their progeny.

I think that I needed that modicum of familiarity, as very little else of what I knew about the subcontinent prepared me for reality. Books and papers and maps and classes cannot prepare one to walk streets eight feet wide as hundreds of people are squeezing past going about their daily chores (actually nightly, shopping in 100+° weather is hardly fun). They can also little ready one for the amazing juxtaposition of centuries-old monumental architecture abutting ramshackle slums thrown together by wood, concrete, and, in not a few cases, plastic bags and canvas.

Our trip through India was practically the definition of a whirlwind tour with classes thrown in for good measure. Our days were generally predictable, starting with a closely approximated American-style breakfast (fruit, eggs and toast), next was class, first language (Hindi-Urdu 203), then contemporary Indian culture class, lunch (rice, yogurt, daal) and then an afternoon of excursions, either official (to many of the cultural landmarks in the area) or unofficial (to the other cultural landmarks, or, in some cases, to great shopping!).

This predictable schedule was modified by travel- and lots of it. After two weeks in the capital of Delhi we boarded the bus to Agra, site of the justifiably world-renowned Taj Mahal, India’s semi-official architectural heart. Agra is also the location of another very interesting site, the Agra Fort, a lasting monument to the Mogul Empire’s martial power. Add in the million plus residents squeezed on the Yamuna River’s banks and you have an unforgettable and representative piece of North India. The next stops were the university town of Aligarh, Muradabad, one of the centers of India’s brass-exporting industry, Nainital, a world-class mountain vacation area (or “Hill Station,” in British parlance), Haridwar, where the Ganga River flows from the mountains and finally back to Delhi.

Along the way we encountered everything from dubious healers (known as Yogis) to burnt-out hippies to terrorism apologists to three dollar t-shirts in street markets to dark and cool movie theaters to the infamous Delhi Belly and a whole mess of other experiences that can hardly be classified and only experienced.

To say that a six week trip to India was life-changing to me would probably be an understatement, but I cannot overstate the value of the Phillips Ambassador Program in making it possible. I cannot wait to go back.