3 Takeaways from 2 weeks in India

We recently returned from a trip to India, and for me, it was a significant learning experience. Some of my previously held assumptions about the country turned out to be inaccurate. Even more important, lessons I’ve been learning for years became real for me in a new way. So here are my India takeaways.

 

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Prior worries upended

I’d long wanted to visit India. But movies, documentaries and books I’d seen or read emphasized a country of desperate poverty. Friends and blog posts warned me about “Delhi Belly,” traffic, congestion, pollution, dirt and general mayhem in this country of 1.3 billion people. I started the trip with some worries, but soon cast them aside.

I realized that, as foreign tourists staying in fine hotels, we were shielded from India’s slums and many signs of poverty and oppression. We still witnessed roadside shanties, and people living under bridges or plastic tarps. We saw humans dwelling alongside their livestock and roadside brick factories where we feared there might be enslaved workers. At the same time, our impressions of Indian poverty weren’t that different from what we’d seen in places like Mexico, Guatemala or Peru. Jarring — but sadly, not unique.

And yes, traffic and congestion were terrible in the larger cities. However, air quality wasn’t as bad as we’d thought it would be. Our trip occurred at the end of the monsoon season, when the rain has “cleaned” the air. Maybe that’s why pollution didn’t affect us, but at no time did we experience trouble breathing such as one hears about when traveling in parts of China.

Last and most surprising, neither my husband nor I felt ill even one day in two weeks! We ramped up our intake of probiotics, and we consumed bottled water and filtered ice everywhere, even for brushing teeth. We took care in what we ate, although we tried many Indian dishes. Which, by the way, we found to be delicious!

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Incredible Indian hospitality

We enjoyed wonderful hospitality every day of our trip. We first met up with Indian friends who showed us around Bangalore and took us to some 12th century temples that UNESCO recently added to its list of heritage sites. They introduced us to southern Indian cuisine served on traditional banana leaves. We got to see how family life in India’s IT capital is similar and yet different from a place like Silicon Valley. Then we visited Kochi and the Kerala backwaters, touring via auto rickshaw and houseboat. Our trip continued on the opposite coast, in Chennai. Finally we journeyed north to the Golden Triangle of Agra, Jaipur and Delhi.

Our style of traveling in India was different from traveling in Europe, or even in Latin America. We made a point of staying in top-rated hotels, whose air-conditioned facilities offered relief from outdoor heat and humidity. We took advantage of hotel restaurants, drivers and concierge services to book tour guides, shopping excursions, etc. At the same time, most of our accommodations in India cost less than comparable establishments in the US – particularly in the larger cities. In Agra and Jaipur, we splurged on hotels in the famous Oberoi chain, both of which offered outstanding experiences. Their facilities and services added to their incredible surroundings, creating magical days and memories.

Now, on to my personal India takeaways.

(1) Happiness has more to do with your attitude than your circumstances

I have understood this truth intellectually, even preached it to my children on numerous occasions. But person after person in India, many of whom appeared to have every reason to feel impoverished, depressed or anxious, struck me as positive and even upbeat.

I know most of the people with whom we interacted worked in hotels or other industries where cheerful service to tourists constituted good business practice. But still, Indians’ overall good humor amazed me. One would have thought that, in fourteen days of dining out, flying low-cost Indian airlines, bargaining in shops and observing regular people in the streets and temples, we would have seen at least one person who was out of sorts. Not so. (Well, as long as you don’t count a handful of other tourists!)

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Stanford SEED: optimism and energy harnessed

A highlight of our trip was attending the launch of the Stanford SEED program in India. They have sites in East and West Africa, and now in Chennai. As part of the launch festivities, we met a number of entrepreneurs and founders of small to mid-size companies across India. Their energy and optimism overflowed, especially after interacting with Stanford Business School professors and each other. Without a doubt, these leaders will use their SEED training to scale their businesses, hire more people and thus alleviate poverty in their communities.

Another reason for Indian optimism is its economic potential. India is a young country, with an estimated 65% of its population below the age of 35. In 2016, the median age for India was 27.6, compared to 37.1 for China and 37.9 for the US. (source: CIA World Factbook) The entrepreneurs we met were positioning their companies to take advantage of India’s growing population and wealth. Everywhere we went, we noticed a youthful energy, vitality and positive attitude. Certainly the country has its share of problems, but young Indians seem optimistic about their country’s future.

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(2) Never underestimate the power of a kind word or gesture

This is another lesson I’ve heard my whole life, and to which I’ve repeatedly committed myself. (How many times did someone tell you as a child, “Just smile?”) But again, on the trip I took particular notice of this principle – maybe because I was often on the receiving end of someone else’s kindness. Related in part to the low cost of labor, Indian hotels give outstanding customer service. They have lots of staff whose main job is to make their guests feel comfortable.

And you know, it’s nice to have people treat you well. I felt special when hotel staff greeted me by name, pulled out my chair and placed my napkin in my lap in a restaurant, or responded to unusual requests as though nothing was too difficult for them.

A common gesture in India is the slight bow with hands pressed together at chest level – the namaste posture commonly practiced at the end of yoga classes in the US. Everyone in the hotels, even security guards, would press their hands together in this way when I passed by. People in the shops, streets, anywhere you might encounter someone, would make the gesture as a greeting, a sign of respect, an expression of thanks. It occurred to me, as I was often carrying my phone or camera and unable to do a reciprocal greeting, that to make a namaste gesture, you have to keep your hands free. Symbolically at least, you indicate that you are completely available to the other person, that you’re not multi-tasking, that they are the most important item on your agenda at that moment. This is powerful.

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Guest is god

In Hindi they have a saying, “Atithi Devo Bhava,” which means “Guest is god.” Multiple guides and drivers told us this, emphasizing how happy they were to accompany us, and that their first desire was to please us. In the US, I would have viewed such a remark with skepticism. But in India, it seemed to be more than just a saying. Perhaps I was naïve to believe people really cared, but their attention seemed genuine.

Maybe one reason I enjoyed the trip so much was that I felt so well cared for. Plus, when people were nice to me, I of course was inclined to be nice to them. Funny how that works. In general, I felt more patient and less frustrated than I often do at home. Although I won’t be trying to incorporate a namaste gesture into my everyday actions, I hope to keep the internal posture evident in my outward behavior.

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(3) So much good proceeds from loving people

The greatest privilege of this trip was getting to spend time with our friends, Bob and Dottie. We met them in Chennai for the Stanford SEED launch – a program they founded within the Stanford Graduate School of Business. We loved visiting places like the Taj Mahal with them, as well as the fun we had together riding elephants, having cocktails or chatting with hotel staff. But I especially appreciated Bob’s willingness to ask probing questions that moved our conversation to deeper levels, and Dottie’s phenomenal ability to connect with all kinds of people.

Partners in connecting

Dottie and Bob bring together individuals from different spheres, and they make sure guests feel welcome and have meaningful interactions. During nearly sixty years of marriage, they’ve extended hospitality to countless friends, friends of friends, and even strangers. One practice Dottie started years ago was to host Stanford international students when they first arrived in this country. At the time it was a great way to expose their children to different cultures. But taking things a step further, our friends have kept in touch with their students over decades, attending their weddings and visiting in their homes abroad.

They’ve been blessed to associate with all kinds of people — rich and poor, powerful and weak. And to a person, Dottie treats everyone the same. My guess is that she was born with the gift of caring about others, but it’s clear that she’s nurtured and honed her natural ability for connecting. She unfailingly notices people’s “good sides,” loves to hear their stories, and helps them recognize gifts they can contribute to their communities.

It may sound corny to describe a person like this, but you have to know my friend. Both Bob and Dottie are incredibly generous people. For Bob, a key aspect of philanthropy is the leverage potential: he operates from a vision of how an investment in human capital can multiply to great impact. Dottie, on the other hand, focuses on the possibility for making a noticeable difference in people’s lives.

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Results and stories both matter

They joked with the SEED entrepreneurs about how Bob wanted to see “results” as people grew their companies, while Dottie wanted “stories” about lives being changed. Both perspectives are valid, of course. But, as a person steeped in Silicon Valley mores, which prize results, I relished seeing Dottie’s enduring love for people and their individual journeys.

Wherever we went, we saw Indian women wearing colorful saris. Dottie would ask if she could take their photos. They always said yes, and then invariably one of them would start taking selfies with Dottie and our group. I thought this was amusing the first time it happened, but it became a regular occurrence.

My friend’s ability to connect with people didn’t stop with strangers in the street. Back at our hotel, she admired a bartender’s turban, part of his staff uniform. After she told him about her assortment of hats at home, and how she liked to throw “hat parties,” the bartender gave her the turban to add to her collection. Dottie’s laugh echoed across the lobby and down the hall.

I loved riding the coattails of Dottie’s good humor and personal warmth. As more of an introvert myself, I enjoyed her initiative and openness toward others. I also felt privileged to witness first-hand how maintaining an appreciation for folks around you can make a big a difference in other people’s demeanors. And usually in your own mood, too.

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Sounds simple, but doing it is hard

What I took away from my two weeks in India wasn’t the thrill of seeing one of the Seven Wonders of the World, or fascination with an economy called “the next China,” or even shock regarding the contrast of extreme wealth and extreme poverty. All those things made an impression, definitely. But my India takeaways concerned truths I’d heard all my life, but that I came to appreciate in a new way.

For me, this was a trip of a lifetime. Because I want to live differently now than I did before.

Happiness comes from within, not without. Kind words and deeds are more powerful than you might think. And genuinely loving other people results in all kinds of good things.

Sounds simple enough. But practicing this “attitude of gratitude” in everyday circumstances is actually complex and challenging. After my experience in India, though, I’m seeking the grace to live this way: to be happy regardless of my circumstances, to practice kind words and deeds, and to just love people.

Friends, I need your help – let’s do it together.

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