I’ve returned this last Wednesday from 12 days in India and I thought I’d post a few musings on the trip here. (I’ve already posted up some of the work-related things over at my “day job” blog.)
Without a doubt this was one of the most impactful overseas trips I’ve ever had, and I’ve been to a fair number of places outside North America over my life: Okinawa, France, Saudi Arabia, Panama, the Philippines, St. Martin, England, Italy, Hungary, Austria, Poland, Bulgaria, and a likely a few others I’m forgetting.
I did zero preparation for the trip. None. Normally my wife and I are huge planners. We get all kinds of research done for big trips and have lots of things lined up. This time I figured I’d just go over and jump in the deep end and float wherever currents took me. Good choice.
First some of the bad things: India is a country where 300 million people live below poverty, and in India, unlike the US, poverty means poverty. People sleeping on blankets in the dirt with a torn tarp over their head poverty. 20 story five star hotels with tent cities next to them poverty. Hideous water giving you instantaneous dysentery and hepatitis poverty. It’s staggering if you’ve been in similar situations before, mind-numbingly shocking if you haven’t. The piles of trash across the entire country are sad—India is a land of amazing beauty and deep, deep spirituality. It was heartbreaking to see such a wonderful place being used as a dumping ground.
You get past that, or at least find yourself able to move beyond it, and wow, what India has to show you! Noise, color, smells, sounds, noise, people, food. The list goes on and on and on.
Food in India is a wonderful experience. India, like Italy, Spain, and Mexico, isn’t one style of cuisine. How could it be? Like those other nations India comes from a very diverse, fragmented history. The food in the south was greatly different from that of the north, and all of it was great. I was lucky to have friends to explain some of the differences to me. As you’ve likely noticed if you’ve followed this blog for long, I’m a pretty serious foodie, so when I run across stuff like this in the street I’m in love!
Or when my colleague takes me to a spot like this for dinner on the trip back from Agra:
This was a dinner from a central region of India which wasn’t typical of Bangalore, but my pal DJ thought I’d enjoy it. How right he was!
Here’s a milk drink we had at a diner-like place in Delhi.
My stomach was in fairly good shape the entire trip, but then I eat a lot of spicy food already so my stomach was somewhat preconditioned. It was pretty amusing how so many of my colleagues and fellow diners there would continually ask “Is this too spicy for you? Are you OK with this?” I suppose I’m a bit atypical in this area, though… (That said, the street food at the cart above did do me in a bit. I knew better, but didn’t care.)
The people are perhaps the happiest, most open, most hospitable I’ve ever come across in any of my travels. Bavarians previously held that spot, but my experiences in India blew even that away. Indians are gracious and full of laughter. I was honored to be invited into two different homes for meals, and they were some of the best times I had. (Being invited into someone’s home for food has a special significance for me, one I’m not able to explain well. Suffice it to say it means a lot.)
Indians are incredibly communal people. You might be taken aback at the depth conversations go between complete strangers. During our 16 hour day trip to Agra, my bachelor colleague got a grilling on his bachelorhood status, advice on why he should marry, and insight on a successful life—all from the middle-aged driver who we’d just met that morning at 6am. Get over the personal boundaries you might have and just enjoy the fact that Indians love people and want to know more about you.
They’re also extraordinarily happy. I had some great meals with various people through the developer and tester communities, and all were filled with laughter and jokes. And good food.
I was also amazed at the forward thinking mindset of the testing professionals I spoke with. India earned a reputation (partially justly) for cheap labor of poor quality. You need to lose that perception of them, right now. The people I spoke with at conferences, user groups, and customer sites were, for the vast majority, serious about taking their work to the next level. They’re looking at the long game, and they’re committed to making serious value-based transformations in how they do their work. I had some amazing conversations there that got me fired up and excited.
Traffic in India is non-stop. Traffic is simply an insane, chaotic, wonderful experience if you can let go of any notion of patience. It will take you two hours to travel 60Km in Delhi, and 1.5 hours to go 15Km in Bangalore. Getting frustrated and angry won’t solve a thing, so just sit back and enjoy the tuk tuk (powered three wheeler rickshaw) or cab ride. Don’t freak out that you’ve got a two inch space between your vehicle and the huge dump truck next to you. The driver’s thinking “I had an inch and a half to spare!”
Scooters are family transportation vehicles in India, and you’ll see amazing sights: pipes, furniture, groceries, and more folks than you would think could fit on a two wheeler. Personal favorite: Dad driving, mom on back, puppy in mom’s lap. Personal record: Dad driving, mom near back, four other kids scattered from handlebars to tail end. Yes, six on a two wheeler…
It seems insane to someone from the West, but it’s similar to what I’ve experienced in my previous trips to Panama, the Philippines, etc. You’d think there would be non-stop wrecks, mayhem, and fatalities, but I didn’t see a single accident while I was there. I saw a lot of scratched up, dinged up cars, but not one wreck. Indians understand the implicit system with the traffic, and they, as with so many other things in their nation, just figure out how to have huge numbers of people co-exist in small spaces. With cars. And scooters. And trucks. And pedestrians. And dogs. And tuk tuks.
Horns require a section of their own. Honking was non-stop in Bangalore, prevalent in my countryside drives, and moderate in Delhi. If you sit back and listen the honking has an entertaining language all of its own.
There’s the single, quick “toot” which is the equivalent of “Coming up on your right/left. Make way, please!” A bit longer “honk” might be used of the person the driver’s passing didn’t move out of the way quickly. Toots escalate through honks up through blaaats to the rarely used Angry Honk where the driver’s really frustrated. My first driver for my day trip to Mysore had a very light, happy honk. I didn’t like the driver for our Agra trip very much. He was Angry Honk right off the bat all day.
Where to start? India is full of so many strange, wonderful, overwhelming things. Yes, yes, the Taj Mahal is teh awesum, but you expect that. It’s the Taj Mahal.
What was more impactful to me were some of the more intimate, less visited temples. I was at a temple near Mysore that was built in 849 that really moved me. This palace below with a shrine to a holy man is a short hour from Agra, and I had one of the best times there.
There’s also the crazy IT market in Delhi that is straight out of some cross between a peyote-hammered steampunk and MC Escher.
All of this can just drive you crazy trying to take it all in. I stopped taking pictures very early in my trip, choosing to just absorb a lot and get a few pictures in here and there. I think that was a pretty smart choice.
I’m really thankful I got the chance to go to India. I’m already trying to line up a return trip or two. I can’t wait to get back and see new old friends and new old sights.