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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Travel to developing countries?

My last post explored impressions from a recent family trip to Guatemala. I talked about confronting my experience of travel at midlife, as well as external factors that contributed to a sense I probably won’t return to this beautiful country. Although I loved traveling there with my younger son and husband, I nevertheless felt discouraged about the enormity of the issues that Guatemala and Central America overall are facing. In general, I wonder how much more travel to developing countries I will do.

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Busy marketplace in Chichicastenango, Guatemala

My reaction to Guatemala’s economic problem

My most troubling issue with travel to places like Guatemala lies within myself. I find it tiring to be always saying “No, gracias” to the scores of people who approach tourists, trying to sell them something. These entrepreneurs are just doing what they can to try and feed their families, but their sheer number at times can overwhelm.  My heart went out to a woman who hadn’t made many, maybe not any, sales one day — sometimes I would buy, or simply give a vendor money. And yet there were too many salespeople for a single tourist to make much of an impact. As a result, I felt discouraged. Admittedly, mine was a “first world” reaction, but I didn’t like feeling depressed while on vacation.

Furthermore, conversations with locals about Guatemalan industries like rose-growing and candle-making, where once-thriving businesses had been shuttered due to competition from lower-wage countries, gave me little cause to hope for future growth in their economy. Guatemala has more than 15 million people, but most of them lack the technical skills needed to thrive in the modern economy. Like similar countries, corruption is pervasive, but infrastructure and investment are lacking. Micro-enterprise loans and grants can address poverty on an individual level, but system-wide, the standard of living remains low.

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Mayan woman selling flowers outside church in Chichicastenango, Guatemala

My travel time is finite

It is a strange feeling to be in a place, feel grateful and happy to be there, but also to recognize you probably won’t be back. I felt this way a few years ago when our family went to Machu Picchu. I didn’t have this perspective when I was younger, when I ventured alone to Michoacán, Mexico, or took a midnight ferry across the Adriatic to then-Yugoslavia. It didn’t cross my mind as a twenty-something to wonder whether I would go back to these places, or what they might be like in the future. But from where I stand now, time for traveling seems finite, and some places are lost to me forever.

But maybe I shouldn’t give up yet

There are still some developing regions of the world I’d love to visit. However, I’ll need to reconcile my desire to change people’s living standards with appreciation for life “in the here and now.” Just because my personal impact might be limited to people whom I encounter, just because I feel frustrated or despondent that their lives seem so “uncomfortable” compared to mine — this is not a reason to give up my appreciation for the beauty of life as it is right now.

This insight, in fact, might be what I’ve been lacking all along. Moreover, it’s a significant element in why it remains worthwhile to travel to places that aren’t so comfortable. Whether we are at home or abroad, ultimately all we have is the present. Maybe this is what I was supposed to see, and why I need to continue traveling to places like Guatemala.

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The sun rises over the jungle of Tikal, Guatemala

 

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Iconic Mayan temple in Tikal, Guatemala

Last vacation in Guatemala

We vacationed in Guatemala this year. It was my second trip to the country — our entire family had visited in 2005. While I enjoyed both trips a great deal, this time was likely my last visit to Guatemala. At least it was my last visit for the purpose of vacation — perhaps I’ll have an opportunity to do community service there, but I’ve realized I’m nearing an end to my long-held interest in travel to developing countries where they speak Spanish.

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With my husband at Lago de Atitlán, a volcano-rimmed lake

Why? In large part, my tastes have changed as I’ve grown older. It isn’t a question of safety: at no time did I feel unsafe in Guatemala. We took the usual precautions one would take anywhere in the world. But as much as I hate to admit it, I like being comfortable when I’m on vacation. While it’s perfectly possible to find nice hotels and restaurants in a developing country, the “comfortable tourist” cannot help but come face to face with the uncomfortable reality of life for that country’s people. I know it’s good to have a broader world view and not to remain ensconced in my cozy suburban life. At the same time, I’m not sure this type of experience, for me, makes for a “vacation” in the usual sense.

In this and the next post, I’ll explore my thoughts on our recent trip.

Developing country travel is harder at midlife

Traveling to Guatemala made me admit I’d grown older. Partly this acknowledgment had to do with expectations based on the easy life I have at home, and partly my body just doesn’t work as well as it used to. But I appreciate a firm bed, a nice shower, a good cup of coffee and clean bathrooms. I found most of these things during my trip, even the good cup of coffee — thanks to following the advice of my older son to take along an Aeropress and hand coffee grinder. Still, by most measures, it was far from luxury travel.

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With my CSA teacher in 2005 and then again in 2014

My younger son and I spent a wonderful week studying Spanish — each with our personal tutor at the Christian Spanish Academy in Antigua Guatemala. We loved Antigua. It’s an excellent tourist destination with numerous hotels and restaurants, and it’s small enough to negotiate on foot. However, I found wandering around there more difficult this time than nine years ago. Antigua is an old colonial town where all the streets are cobblestone, and the curbs are uneven. Cars might slow down as they approach an intersection, but no one has bothered to install stop signs — presumably because they would go unheeded. I turned my ankle and fell at a street corner when I wasn’t paying attention. Furthermore, many streets weren’t marked, so it was easy to become confused about where we were going.

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Antigua’s cobblestone streets

Don’t they want to attract well-off tourists?

Second, for a country such as Guatemala where tourism is one of its principal industries, it seems odd that they aren’t trying to encourage affluent travelers to visit by making sure they provide world-class accommodations and food.

The hotels where we stayed in Antigua and Guatemala City seemed more run-down than they had in 2005, and it struck me that management efforts to cut operations costs may have detracted from guests’ experience while not actually saving much money. For example, our room on the lower level of the Antigua hotel smelled dank, and they had fewer tropical flower arrangements and candles in the hallways this time around than had impressed me nine years ago. In Guatemala City, our business-class hotel still had not replaced a burnt-out light bulb two days after we requested it. Likewise, shops and market stalls seemed stuck in the previous century, with little evidence of innovation in their product offerings. And don’t even get me started on the restaurants! If you want more of my opinions, check out my Trip Advisor reviews.

Most travelers to Guatemala today are students studying Spanish, or they’re budget-conscious couples (and occasionally families) who aren’t staying in the nicer (meaning “more expensive”) hotels, or eating in fine restaurants. They also aren’t buying many souvenirs. I’m glad they’re there. But attracting more affluent travelers also would help Guatemala’s tourism industry overall. It’s an excellent destination with natural beauty, culture and friendly people. Yet broadening their base of travelers involves improving all aspects of the hospitality industry — not just upgrading an occasional hotel or restaurant. Given the country’s economic and political woes, it’s not an easy thing to accomplish.

The next post will continue my thoughts on this specific trip and vacationing in developing countries generally. In the meantime, enjoy some travel photos!

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Lunch with a view at Café Sky in Antigua

 

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Mayan men in the church courtyard, Santiago de Atitlán

 

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Girls in traditional Mayan attire

 

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Women preparing a float for church festival

 

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Mayan woman fastens blooms to festival float

 

Forcing myself to unplug in Yosemite

Despite magnificent weather, gorgeous scenery and the company of three of my four favorite people (our daughter wasn’t there), I still struggled over “unplugging” from the Internet in order to enjoy our family’s trip to Yosemite last weekend.

I knew from past trips that cellular coverage was spotty at best, and wifi would likely be available only in our motel’s common areas.  No problem – I had worked furiously on Internet-related projects before leaving town, so I figured things would be fine.

But I didn’t consider how pulling out my iPhone to check messages, get a weather report, or do a quick Google search has become a habit – something I do to fill a spare moment without even realizing it.  I knew from observing the 2011 National Day of Unplugging that I might have some “issues” – but this weekend brought me face to face with them, again.

When the front desk receptionist informed me that Yosemite Lodge now provides free wifi in the rooms, I thought, “How great — our national parks are joining the digital age.”  Then she added, “It’s been kind of touch and go lately.  What can I say?  I.T. is working on it.”

Sure enough, we got to our rooms and found that, while our sons were able to get random, weak wifi, my husband and I found ourselves sitting side by side, staring at blank browser screens and watching our “loading” wheels spin.  Also, our TV was tiny — you needed birding binoculars to check the Giants’ score unless you sat right next to it.  Which was kind of a problem, since there was only one chair in the room, and it was more of a desk chair, not a TV chair.  But what was I expecting, the Four Seasons?  That wasn’t the point, I reminded myself — we were here to enjoy Yosemite’s grandeur.

 

Mirror Lake 2012, by Micah Rosales

 

The next day was sunny and warm, not too hot.  Blue cloudless sky.  In other words, perfect.  We chose to hike up past Mirror Lake, a ideal route because, since a rock slide had closed off the trail higher up, few people bothered to go past the Mirror Lake destination. But at the same time as I was enjoying our journey, I knew the Prince of Smooth was playing Lord Valdemort in the French Open semi’s, and my iPhone wouldn’t even give me a score update, due to the lack of cellular data coverage.

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Tennis in the tropics

As much as I love being at the beach in Mexico, spending time with my older kids, I miss my husband and high school son, who had to stay behind for work and exams. Also, truth be told, I miss my DIRECTV French Open Mix Channel, where they give me six HD different channels to choose from during the first week of the tournament — sometimes they even show doubles matches, which ESPN almost never airs.  The Tennis Channel doesn’t even show doubles very often.

I’m having to make do with re-runs on ESPN-México in poor quality telecast. But it helps me work on my Spanish, and at least we’re at the tournament’s beginning. Yes I know, no one’s feeling sorry for me: my balcony looks out on the sea. There’s a lovely breeze blowing, and it’s air-conditioned inside if I prefer that. Who needs tennis right now?

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I did want to check out the courts here, though. Because rain was forecast for every day of our trip at the time I packed, I didn’t bother to bring my tennis gear. And in fact I had to wade through a flooded passageway to reach the rain-soaked courts our first day. They call the court surface “grass,” but it’s not exactly Wimbledon. It’s the same grass-carpet material my mother-in-law and countless other owners of Southern California ranch homes used to put down in their enclosed patios. However, the resort stretches the grass fabric and glues it down tight, so it works well.

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My husband and I played here years ago, and we enjoyed the so-called grass courts. We had to make sure to play before the sun rose too high, as the tropical heat makes it tough to run around in the afternoon. Maybe I’ll save the tennis for a different location — here, it’s time for a margarita.

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