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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?

Thoughts?

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Moneycone December 16, 2011 at 11:59 am

Do spend time understanding the gold market in India Darwin. India is the largest consumer of gold, yet the government hardly has any. Most of the demand is from the people!

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Darwin December 18, 2011 at 11:41 am

I’ve been watching the world implode while gold prices continue to decline. Makes me wonder if we just had a bubble leading up to mid-2011. As far as demand for gold in India, the common theme I heard constantly from my colleagues there, drivers, my tour guide and in the local papers? – INFLATION. It’s killing them. Everyone is feeling it with food inflation at like 5% stated (probably much higher “real inflation” just like Americans feel more than the govt stated 2-3% each year). So, with inflation eating away their spending power, I think many would be hardpressed to continue to buy so much gold each year compared to prior years.

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Financial Samurai December 16, 2011 at 12:52 pm

Awesome color! I’ve been twice. I learned never to gorge myself again and get out of shape due to the amount of poverty I saw.

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Darwin December 18, 2011 at 11:44 am

I definitely had mixed feelings about the contrast between the poverty and opulence all mixed together. At one restaurant we ate at, my Indian colleague from the states asked to take home the leftovers and the restaurant didn’t allow it (Grand Hyatt in Mumbai – incredible and insanely lavish hotel). She insisted and said we paid for it, it was our food to take (and it was an absurd amount of food, we had no idea they’d bring that much to the table). They relented and she gave the food to our driver on the way home. It was like he hit the jackpot. She always feels compelled to help people in the country due to her fortune and their misfortune.

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retirebyforty December 16, 2011 at 3:51 pm

Enjoy your time in exotic India! I want to visit someday, but it’s a bit down on my list. I think the entrepreneurial zeal is much more evident in emerging market economy. In the US, so many of us are working in an office and the entrepreneurs are not in full view like other countries.

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Darwin December 18, 2011 at 11:44 am

I’d go back to see the Taj Mahal and some other cities that have a lot to offer. Not sure I’d go back to Mumbai unless for business now that I saw some of the other sites already.

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101 Centavos December 17, 2011 at 8:45 am

Glad you got to go. It’s an incredible country. Long history, great food, and good people. The poverty on display sure helps with global perspective.

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Darwin December 18, 2011 at 11:46 am

I felt like I already knew a lot about the rest of the world from reading and television/movies (the factual type programming), but this just solidified/reinforced what I thought even further. I’d like to take my kids to a country like that when they’re old enough to “get it” – maybe teenagers. And perhaps they won’t complain so much about not having the latest gadget or designer clothes (and they’ll work that much harder in school!).

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Matt December 17, 2011 at 10:44 am

Sounds like a great trip, and while I’ve never been, I hear from many people India is an extrodinary place to visit.

Since I believe you were there on business, and that means outsourcing, I’d like to present to you a “Made in America” special that ABC is doing. One of the things that I think we need to do a better job of is producing rather than just consuming. Our economy would be alot better of, and more people would be working. So, while your post is about India, I encourage you to take a look at hte below link and see what one person is doing in the middle on Montana to make sure his products are “Made in the USA” and they don’t cost that much more. I have not seen the follow-ups to this, but it is worth the watch nonetheless.

http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/business/2011/10/how-to-build-a-made-in-america-home/

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Darwin December 18, 2011 at 11:48 am

Sounds interesting; I’ll take a look! I always tent to think high complexity products and processes can remain in America while those that are easy to duplicate or don’t require a great deal of skill always can and will be outsourced. But factors like spoilage, shipping costs, quality, and other factors often make America a better choice, even if overseas is an option.

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Paula @ Afford Anything December 18, 2011 at 3:41 pm

I feel like going to India is a bit like going to business school: you see people’s motivations in full force. Haggling, scamming, navigating through a society with weak and corrupt rule of law … it puts me on my guard and made me fend for myself in a much stronger way than I ever had to in America.

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SB @ One Cent At A Time December 18, 2011 at 5:50 pm

Darwin, glad you visited and experienced Indian culture. Everything pales in front of thousands of years of history. People on horse going through Mumbai roads is a bit exaggeration but, more or less rest of the things are normal.

Speaking about competition, people in other countries just don’t know what competition means. Securing a seat in a technical degree college is like beating thousands of others.

Wish the govt. would have done their duty since gaining independence.. we would have become a first world country by now.

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Invest It Wisely December 19, 2011 at 8:35 am

I’ve travelled to Ethiopia and over there you barely have the contrast because it is mostly just poor. It makes me appreciative of all that we have. If only their govts. were less corrupt; they still subscribe to the failed methodology that wealth redistribution (with the govt. getting a large cut, of course) and central planning leads to prosperity, even though half of the country doesn’t even have electricity.

As far as outsourcing goes, I have worked with Indians before, and no offense to them because they were nice people, but the code was garbage. I don’t think they’ve ever heard of clean code practices or maintainability. To be fair we’ve produced a lot of garbage in-house, too, but at least in-house you can also find decent devs. Project management and coordination is also a real challenge in terms of getting them to do what you want.

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Linda December 19, 2011 at 11:30 am

I linked over here from 101 Centavos, and since I just finished my round of calls this morning with my team in India the subject is very relevant to me. I visited India for business in 2006 and would love to go back. I had previously traveled in developing countries where one had to be extra cautious about food and drink, so I didn’t sick, either. (It was nice to have an electric kettle in my hotel room; instead of making tea with it, though, I boiled the water I used to brush my teeth.)

Yes, the entrepreneurial spirit and energy are amazing there, as is the poverty. It was hard to ignore the woman carrying a thin baby who was frantically knocking on the windows of our car asking for money, and amazing to see the settlements of blue tarped shelters right next to the gated housing developments of the rich. But that’s what developing nations are like.

The people I work with regularly are hard working, creative, and resourceful. Without them we wouldn’t be able to meet the tight deadlines on which we operate. Quality of work can be an issue, but frequent communication helps that a lot. After all, it is a different culture in more ways than just food and language. There is a different mind set to relate to, as well. Indians get to know U.S. culture pretty easily since our media is available world wide. Getting to know Indian culture takes a bit more work for us in the U.S., but is definitely worth it.

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Melissa@LillePunkin December 20, 2011 at 9:35 pm

I would like to go to India one day, so it is interesting to hear your observations. What I found most interesting was all of the security to get into the hotel. Can you imagine if every American hotel did that? Now that you have been, would you like to go back to India as a tourist?

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Yogendra Rawat December 20, 2011 at 10:53 pm

Hi Melissa,

If you are so worried about the little discomforts you will have to go through while travelling in India, then you would not be able to visit India ever. In fact you will have to accept the culture, political climate, and many more legal and social codes of a country you want to visit. If you go to Saudi Arabia you would be forced to wear a Burkha . So it’s a bargain that you will have to make if you are really keen on visiting India, and discover her unique culture and rich history, like Taj Mahal of Agra or Small Taj Mahal of Aurangabad that many people really do not know about. And how would it be to visit the grave of the last great Mughal emperor Alamgir Auranzeb, who was a devout Muslim and preferred to keep his tomb simple.

Just a thought

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