Reflections of India: My Greatest Teacher by Katie Olson

Prior to landing in India, I had long been drawn to human life around the globe. I had dreamed of traveling to far off lands to observe and learn culture, and I had spent six years researching India and its culture. There was no amount of research that could’ve prepared me for the educational journey ahead.

Upon landing in India for my first time, there was a whirlwind of getting off the long flight, going through immigration, visa approval, hopping onto my ride and then… and then a piece forever shifted in my being. 

It felt like I was in a real life video game: dodging through four lanes of traffic with no lines to indicate who belongs where or what direction on the road to go — cows, people, chickens, rickshaws, dogs are crossing —  all the while observing the rawness of humanity in front of my blue eyes. I was dropped off at a gated community where I would spend my first week wandering around with sunglasses on to hide my roller coaster ride of emotions. Spending that first week noticing the way of life in this ancient country of 1.6 billion people, teaching myself not to smile at everyone I see, as it’s not customary in India like it is in Northern Minnesota, getting used to being stared at as a minority in a homogenous country, and at times wondering what the hell I went to India by myself for?

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There is always growth in discomfort. I was growing like a wildflower in June! As the long moments turned into longer days I wondered, “Would I ever feel at peace here?” And “Why did this country call my interest so loudly all of my life and then I get here and my heart is breaking.” 

It was breaking for the children mostly, the children I always read about and watched commercials on my big screen television at home in America; it was breaking because I saw poverty that no movie or book could ever depict and I wanted to help every one who asked; it was breaking because it was my first time witnessing slums and how many lives they hold; my heart was breaking because these people were content and grateful for life and another given day; my heart was breaking because everything I had ever known had been flipped around completely:  beginning with light switches and carrying on into my stomach. 

Then I knew, I knew that my body was going to be my leader through India because it sure couldn’t be my mind. 

Allowing my mind’s energy to sink into my body — this is the moment India became my greatest form of meditation in life. Simply going with the flow. I honed into my inner strength, my breath, the wisdom of being human, I tapped into a peaceful space inside of myself in the midst of an absolute cluster fuck and I promised myself to stick with it for the long haul, six months of studying India’s culture.

What brought me to India was a profound opportunity to complete my degree in Global and Multicultural Studies with an emphasis on Women and Gender. The college I signed up through in the U.S. informed me the “university” I would attend in Bangalore, India was a beautiful campus on many acres in the outskirts of the city, there would be people from all over the world studying with me there. I was thrilled! Then I showed up, the school was in a house and there was one other student than me. He was suicidal and hated me from the moment we met, and would only leave his room for class and to eat for the entire time we were there. After knowing I could not sit in an apartment alone for the semester, I envisioned making lifelong friends and volunteering at an orphanage.

A few days later I was at the Foreign Registration Office for my fourth 8 hour attempt to obtain my permit to live in India. I just so happened to sit kitty-corner from the first love of my life, Arash. I was in love with a man from Iran. Now my heart was singing, my heart was singing because I was in love; my heart was singing because Arash introduced me to the city I would be calling home; my heart was singing because he introduced me to the lifelong friends I was dreaming of; my heart was singing because I was settling into the discomfort; my heart was singing because I was being exposed to the realness of India through my friends. 

During the end of my first month of studies, I went to a Methodist church for my World Religions class and was introduced to a kind man named Steven. He was asking about my life and I informed him that I am from Minnesota, USA studying Indian culture and am interested in volunteering at an orphanage. He said, “my brother lives half the year in Bloomington, Minnesota and my sister runs a girls’ orphanage in Kothanur (a small town on the outskirts of Bangalore.) That evening, I contacted Steven’s sister Beulah and began visiting them the next day and haven’t stopped visiting them since. I am often asked, “Katie, what do these orphan girls need most? - Food, shoes, pencils, money? I reply, “LOVE. Love is what they need most.” 

The Refuge Foundation

My heart was opening because I saw the true strength of resiliency in being human by 2 -14 year old orphans; my heart was opening because I saw the impact of the ripple effect - sharing kindness and love, brings kindness and love in any of the 7,000 worldly languages; it was opening because it was my first experience living in a country with collective culture; my heart was opening because I saw a future with all of these 28 orphan girls as my little sisters for life not just the moments; my heart was opening because I knew why India had been calling me: to meet these people and learn from them.

Throughout the past six years, I have spent a year of my life in India. Spending days with my “Eastern family,” observing and participating in life as they know it, studying yoga and meditation, understanding the simplicity of life all the while teaching myself to remain calm regardless of what is occurring in the external world…even in India. 

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There has been a time that I booked my stay much longer than expected and there has been a time that I booked a flight out of India due to fear. However, I will always go back as India is my greatest, deepest and oldest teacher in life.

Erika Fryklepak