A Week in India: An Education…

by Darwin on December 16, 2011

I’m taking the final few moments here in India to jot some notes down on my impressions and learnings as an American who has only traveled to tourist destinations in Europe and some Carribean Islands as opposed to going to a developing country on business and taking some time to see the raw, unsanitized version of life in Mumbai for an everyday person.  I’m trying to balance being culturally sensitive to those of Indian descent who read this with my objective impressions, with some humor mixed in.  Would love to hear your thoughts:

Entreprenurial Zeal – There’s constant energy in the air here.  I guess like most cities, when there are a lot of people in confined to a small space, that makes for lots of transactions, which in turn, attracts entrepreneurial activity.  But I was struck by how many hundreds of different merchants of every service and good imaginable adorn every street and shop.  Haggling is huge here, and so is making money off rich foreigners (Europeans and Americans).  The reason I was here, and the reason my company was willing to spend probably $10,000 when all is said and done to get me here, is that India is viewed as an enormous growth market.  Not just because of the size of the population, but because of the opportunities.

Driving, You’ve Got to See it to Believe It – Driving in Mumbai (and most of the rest of the country as I understand it) is complete and utter chaos.  It’s controlled chaos somehow in that I didn’t witness a single car pulled off on the side of the road stemming from an accident (which I see daily in the US), but words cannot describe how completely insane the streets are.  Cars intermingled with oxen pulling carts, with rickshaws, bikes, people on horses, cows, you name it! – all buzzing around in all directions.  Lines on the roads don’t mean anything; on occasion, our driver actually went on the other side of a median and drove on the wrong side of the street.

Honking is the norm and not honking is the exception.  This is even more impressive in that virtually all the cars are manual, so they’re steering, shifting and honking constantly while dodging animals and people running across the street.

The Slums – A National Treasure?  There’s a bit of a dichotomy with the slums in India.  As opposed to being a sad chapter in the country’s many offerings, the slums (basically, if you saw Slumdog Millionaire, that’s where we drove through a few times) are practically celebrated and highlighted by the locals as something foreigners should go see.  When I was lining up a tour on my free day to go see the city with a tour guide, one of the offerings was “Slum Tour”.  After one of our meetings, we had some time to kill before dinner and our Indian colleague suggested we buzz through the slums while we had time.  The same with a driver I had on a different day.  In America, we’re not proud of slums, “Projects”, ghettos or whatever term we use to describe the place where the impoverished live.  Over here, I guess maybe it’s something they feel foreigners would be generally interested in, or perhaps they think it’s important that we see the full picture – the opulent hotels and multinationals sprouting up contrasted with the slums just a few miles away.  On one hand, it was a bit depressing driving through each time, and what was especially hard for me was to see the children.  I make the basic assumption that they have no shot.  It’s even tougher here than in America growing up poor.  While the castes and the curse of the “Untouchables” is no longer mainstream, it’s tough to imagine many of these kids being able to compete with the other millions of kids throughout the country in schools (usually private schools) as opposed to life mulling around in a slum without schooling.

3 Languages and More Articulate than your Average American – Our colleagues from our subsidiary we were visiting were more articulate than a typical American you’d find on the street.  Granted, in many schools here, they learn English.  Being a former British colony and with strong ties to the UK and America, it’s no surprise that Indians view speaking English as a benefit.  However, it is a THIRD language.  See, pretty much all Indians speak Hindi, the national language.  Next, they speak their state language, of which there are dozens.  Finally, they learn English.  Maybe it was just because the people in our company are highly educated and thus, speak multiple languages quite well… but I found the drivers, servers, tour guide and other people that are at least moderately educated and serving foreigners to be very easy to converse with and often times, with a very strong grasp of even the most obscure English terms and phrases.  Point?  With millions of these English-speaking kids graduating with technical degrees each year, it’s tough to imagine competition in the global economy won’t continue to be increasingly difficult for our children.

Security on Steroids – I guess following the terrorist attack at the Taj a few years back, as well as sporadic bombings, India has had its own “9/11 moment” and security is absolutely everywhere.  On one hand, I wonder how much of it is just for show or a deterrent versus out of true concern for safety.  I was initially struck by what it took to get into our hotel.  First, the car was stopped outside a set of gates and several guards ran out with mirrors inspecting the underside of the car for bombs.  Next, they popped the trunk and went through the luggage.  Then a barrier was lowered to enter the grounds.  Once we stepped out of the car, our bags went through the type of scanner the airports are using and we had to step through metal detectors.  It’s not just our hotel though; at our local office, the same drill.  Then, on each floor, there’s a guard who opens doors, watches the elevator and such.  I didn’t see many police vehicles on the streets at all though.  But around national monuments, tourist attractions and the financial district, there were usually dozens of police within site.  So, I guess in that sense, kind of like NYC near the financial district.  But in the US, even in the top hotels, I’ve never had a car searched for bombs.

Overall, I’m really glad I went and learned a ton about the culture, the people and what it’s like to not be born on third base like virtually all Americans are.  The trip was great for me both professionally and personally and someday, I’d love to come back to see the Taj Mahal.  Oh – and I didn’t get sick while I was here either.  I’d heard so much about the dangers of what you eat and drink and with some precautions and staying at a nice place, my risk was minimized.  A lot of people I talked to there know others who are going to school in America, sending money home or just moving back to India and living the life with that Western education. It’s really quite the opportunity now!

Have You Been to India?


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