I wasn’t supposed to be in India. When I left the U.S. a year ago, many people asked if I was going to India on my around the world tour. I said, “No, I don’t want to go to India, and I certainly don’t want to go solo. I think it would be too hard for me and I would be frustrated.” India seemed liked the big leagues of travel. I had heard stories; none of them were particularly good. In May of this year, when I came up with this crazy idea of going to India and volunteering, it must have taken me a week to actually click on the "purchase" button on CCS website. I was on the fence – afraid I would hate India and end up being miserable for five weeks. I asked myself every day – Should I do it – Am I crazy – What if I hate it?
I look back on those days and laugh now. Staying and living in a country for a month is a unique opportunity. It gives you the chance to become culturally integrated, to learn about day to day life. One of the most important things I learned is that for all the reasons I thought I would hate India, I ended up loving it. India is the land of contrasts. I had read about its contrasts in various books and articles. I thought I understood it, but I didn't – until now. They exist everywhere. It's a lot for our Western minds to take in and make sense of, which is why I think India gets a bad rap.
Colorful versus dirty
India is not afraid of color – it embraces it. Saris are bright purple, orange, yellow, pink, blue or green. Same with the dupatees, usually adorned with brilliant sequins. Wrists, arms, ankles, toes and noses are decorated with bangles and rings. Women don't wear black, grey or navy blue – ever. Even the men dress in brightly patterned shirts. I think that in a land of 1.2 billion people, everyone is trying to find a way to stick out. That’s where the color comes in.
There’s nothing more beautiful than seeing a group of women dressed in the colors of the rainbow, walking together. It makes the place feel alive. Riding side saddle on the back of a motor scooter, a woman's brilliant sari blowing in the wind, brings a smile across my face. I feel as though I've entered the inside of a rainbow – and everyone is searching for the pot of gold. Contrast that with the garbage everywhere, piled up high in the middle of a sidewalk, next to a restaurant, sometimes on fire, at times rotting. Dogs and cows nose through the piles trying to find food. Scratch that. People search through trash looking for food. When you come in from walking out in the market, you have a layer of dust on you. Your eyes sting from the pollution. Imagine that same group of lovely ladies in their rainbow of saris and bangles walking down the pollution filled street by a huge pile of burning garbage outside a five-star accommodation.
Rich versus poor
This is probably the largest and most confusing contrast in the country. There are 1.2 billion people in India. It has the second largest population of billionaires, yet 75% of the people are living on less than $2.00 a day. Add the concept of the caste system and the theory of karma to this, and you also have people who don’t think badly of the poor. In fact, it’s accepted. If you're poor, that means poverty is your lot in life. That’s how it’s meant to be. It doesn't mean one has done something wrong (at least in this life). It is what it is.
In the western world, we tend to look at down upon the poor as lazy – people who can’t get a job or hold on to a job. We generally think they should try harder, stay sober, work at being a functioning member of society. This makes it very hard for westerners to understand and see the poor and destitute on a continual basis. Every day I was driven to my placement. We went under a large underpass of the highway with a four-leaf clover ramp design that had well-kept grass. One day I noticed a group of people sitting in the green area as if it were a city park – not a clover ramp. They were eating. It struck me as odd. I looked closer the next time we passed and observed little poorly made cots under the overpass. As my eyes focused, I realized there were many cots and people living under the overpass – a community of sorts. I’m not sure why this struck me as strange; we have people living under bridges in the U.S., but it was different here, not one or two but many. Then I thought, that’s not a bad place to live – at least they have shade and a park like setting.
One of the strange things I saw as I drove around Delhi were huge government or private estates – built around a large five-star hotel. Right around the corner was a slum. There was no "bad part of town" – all intermixed. One theory is that all of the people living in the slums were doing odd jobs for the rich. Everyone had their specialty – the laundry guy, the trash guy, the cook, the driver, the ironing man and the gardener. These people couldn't afford a long commute; out of necessity, they lived nearby. Since the poor are accepted, not looked down upon, no one really cared that the two communities were intermixed.
India is an assault on your senses. As you walk through the markets, you are immersed in the smell of masala (mixture of spices) tickling your nose, evoking memories of Indian restaurants in New York. You dodge young boys bringing hot glasses of chai to shopkeepers – a milky, spicy tea mixture which tastes better than anything Starbucks could ever dream of making. The smell of flowers frequently wafts through the air especially near the temples. Men sit outside the temples making necklaces of aromatic orange flowers. You walk along inhaling it all – intoxicating.
Then, all of a sudden, it hits you – the odor of urine. Too many people, not enough toilets forces people to go anywhere and everywhere. Men pee everywhere. There is no modesty. Nowhere is off limits. I saw little boys urinating on an overpass into a river, and men (working men) peeing in public parks. Add that to the cows peeing in the street, the rancid garbage piled up as if it were little hay bails, and the black exhaust from the cars. You tell yourself to breathe through your mouth, you won’t smell the awfulness, but eventually, you suck it through the nose and it makes you weak in the knees.
Men versus women
I know there is a global inequity between men and women; women still make less, have less opportunity – even in the western world. However, India goes too far and it angers me. One night my roommates and I watched the movie, Pretty Woman on a DVD. We quickly learned that the government edits films before they are sold to the public – sex scenes and nudity are taken out. I can deal with that. India is a religious country. It saves the need to "rate" movies. We noticed, though, that a whole scene had been deleted – the one where Julia Roberts unzips her long, black boot and pulls out a variety of condoms – different flavors and colors. You remember the line “I’m a safety girl!” Later, there was a scene where Richard Gere lifts Julie Roberts up on the piano and proceeds to take off her robe. She is wearing only lacy panties and a bra; they are clearly going to have sex on the piano. To our surprise, this whole scene was left in tact. We stopped the movie and all got into a big discussion of horror at how they could remove the scenes about safe sex, and leave the scenes that had sex in them and scantily clad women. Our depressing conclusion – in India (and many parts of the world) women are just seen as sex objects. Men have sex with no consequences – no protection. No wonder there are 1.2 billion people in India!
The gender inequality doesn’t end with simple government film censoring. It’s everywhere. A woman was accused of killing her day-old baby girl because she didn’t want another girl. If you are living on $2.00 a day, you don’t want a girl, not in India. You have to marry them off, you generally need a dowry, and they are not a good source of income for the family. In most parts of the world, there are more women than men – not in India – for every 1,000 boys there are 793 girls. It is illegal to find out the sex of a baby during pregnancy because when people find out it’s a girl, there’s a higher likelihood that they will abort it.
Lest you think this is a land of male chauvinists, and sexually irresponsible men, that’s not necessarily the case. Successful women are very successful. The current President of India is a female. They have had female prime ministers in the past. Many women run corporations. Many go to university. Even at our volunteer organization, Cross Cultural Solutions, a female ran the office, a staff of men. She started the company years ago and was clearly the woman in charge. The whole thing was confusing to me. Should I be upset about how women were treated, or should I be happy that women were so successful?
I look at them versus them looking at me
People stare, openly. As I type this, five young Indian men surround me in the airport, watching me. They are behind me, on the side of me. I am used to this now. In fact, if I don’t get the attention, I feel like something is wrong! In Delhi Indians are accustomed to seeing tourists (white people); however, if you go out of Delhi to the countryside, you turn into an oddity. There is no social barrier space, they will come up and touch you, stare at you inches away and generally follow you around just to hear you talk, watch you facial expressions, see your body language. Many times I even caught my students doing this, they would repeat exactly what I would say under their breath not to be heard, but to just mimic. In contrast I could watch the locals all day too with the same utter disbelief that they watched me with. I watched their crazy driving, watched their patience, watched their amazing flexibility when it came to squatting, watched their head bobble and tried to decipher what it meant – yes, no, maybe? I watched them pull of wearing sequins like no other culture can. I watched them dance. They were always dancing any moment they could with big gestures, use of their whole body, and an endless energy. Sure, I had seen people from India before, I worked with many. However, when you go into their culture you see them in a different light – and that’s why I was so fascinated with looking at them.
World IT Leader vs. Dial up connections
It is a fact that India is now the call center of the world. They have partnerships with many large US company to outsource IT departments, help desk, and new development. In my past career I have worked with many of them. So here I am living in the world of IT, yet I can’t seem to get a good internet connection anywhere let alone a wireless signal. Somewhere in India, there are big building with thousands of programmers working away diligently with good connectivity, and cutting edge computers, yet I never saw them. In contrast, when I go into a local internet cafes I am jolted back to 1990, when Internet connections were dial-up, monitors were small, and the computers were painfully slow. If you ever wondered where all of the old computers went that were used in corporations and schools…my answer is they were shipped to India.
All of these things are the contrasts that you hear about and see quite often. After the first few weeks in India, nothing really surprises you any longer. An elephant in the street – no problem. Power outages 3 times a day, I don’t even flinch. The water shortage – no big deal you can simply take a bath in a bucket.
It’s the people that really reach inside you to touch your heart. I will remember their hospitality, their smiles, their cries, and their eyes boring a hole inside of me. When traveling to India simply embrace it – the good and the bad. There are many things that I learned in India and some things that I ‘un-learned’. But mostly, I learned that I love the countries that intimidate me most.
Read more of Sherry's travels at Corporate American Runaway.