As I watched BBC News in my hotel room before checking out on Saturday, October 25th (after a long 2-week stay in India), I saw a beautiful commercial for a website called "Incredible India". The advertisement featured a lovely Indian woman dressed in traditional clothing and scarfs in a deep red color, with her long, shiny, dark hair blowing in the wind and images of India embedded into the background. The scenery included: a dessert, a busy city view, colorfully-dressed women, a garden of hue-filled foliage, a historic castle with a backdrop of terra cotta mountains, and the white-marble designed Taj Mahal. It simply was lovely, and in a very brief moment, amazingly summed up my first trip and experiences in India.
India is a country of stark contrasts. For those who have never been, India is rooted in tremendous history that still lives on today - forts that stand from year 1100 and earlier and a culture dependent heavily on traditions and a moral code of the past. In stark contrast, India is riding a wave of tremendous economic expansion and development, as exemplified by the new mall structures and high rise office complexes being constructed throughout all of India, sometimes even in remote villages. Its people exude an air of excitement about this "new world" at the same time as having a true commitment to their deeply spiritual and family-centric belief system.
The culture shock I faced initially was beyond anything I could have imagined. The standard of living for tens of millions of Indians is what we, in the US, would deem as sub human, with homes built of recycled cloth and tarps and sticks and tin. Many sleep on sidewalks, cushioned only by a towel and no blanket for the cool evening temperatures of low 70's versus 90+ during the day. The outside air reeks with dust and smog - diesel fumes penetrate all of the four cities I visited in north (Delhi), central (Jaipur) and south India (Hyderabad and Bangalore). My eyes burned constantly for the first full week, and I never once let the sink or shower water enter my mouth - even brushing my teeth with sealed bottle water. Simple "necessities", such as toilet facilities, do not exist in many urban and even rural societies. And the vehicles on the antiquated road system include by foot, bicycle, rickshaw, three-wheeled taxi, mini truck, large construction vehicles, very old buses, economy-sized cars, mopeds, taxis and cows - all literally converging from 15 lanes to 3. Speaking of traffic, it's nothing like you have ever experienced...even in the height of New York City rush hour!
HOWEVER, in stark contrast, the Indian people and culture are among the most beautiful I have ever had the pleasure to experience in a significant way. Despite the relatively difficult way of life for most Indians, the rich included, they accept their existence and go from day to day just the way it is. The caste system still is predominant in this culture - although its significance is deteriorating thanks to the advancement of job opportunities country wide. People find many, many reasons to be positive. As a general rule - and I have experienced not one exception - they are courteous, respectful, and take much pride in their work and efforts. Most of the men wear ironed long-sleeved shirts and trousers - even amongst the most poor - and the women largely wear all styles of traditional Indian dresses in bright colors and with beautiful jewelry and simple hair styles. The professional workers (as in my new company, Genpact) are the most hard working I have ever met, beyond enthusiastic, highly committed, focused heavily on education, very reserved, and extremely curious. The majority are of the Hindu religion (their "Indian Christmas" was celebrated last week, by the way, called Diwali), although there also are Christians, Muslims (more so in parts of south India where I visited), Sieks, and many others. I think that Hindi, their language, has 16 or so different dialects! (I stayed in a hotel in Hyderabad for 3 days wherein every morning at 5am, I was awoken by morning prayers on the loud speaker of a mosque 1/4 mile away!!! With a 5x/day regimen, now I feel majorly guilty about my lack of "prayer schedule"!)
I took so many photos and video clips that could serve as "armchair travel". India and China are among the most fast-growing economies of the world, with the Middle East not far behind it - so I am just grateful and fortunate to have experienced the depth of this country as I had. (Oh, and I also was invited to the homes of two relative strangers - one who is a distant work colleague and another who is the hotel fitness manager whose wife invited me for a home-cooked meal (I declined both) - and I borrowed $200 from another person I didn't even know (but who works for my company) because I had run out of Indian currency and wanted to spend the day sightseeing and shopping...he insisted. Also, my driver, who earns $90/month, bought me a bouquet of roses on my day of departure.) We would consider it unusual hospitality - they consider it a way of life.
I think that most of us tend to get silo'd in our own little universes - focusing heavily on work and advancement and less so on the values and individuals who truly make our lives worthwhile. I am not sure exactly how "life changing" this trip was, but it certainly has been fascinating on many different dimensions, especially in helping me see the value of India as a service location.
We should count our blessings. I guess that's the most meaningful lesson of this trip, my first experience in India.