I just returned from an amazing trip to India and Nepal. It will take me weeks, maybe even months, to fully digest what I learned, and the trip will inform my life, thinking, and writing for years to come, but even in these first few days a few things are bubbling up that I want to share. First and foremost is the importance of visiting with an open mind and recognizing that each of us is at once a teacher and a student, an ambassador and a guest. That wherever we go, whatever we do , whoever we meet, we have the opportunity to engage in a two-way exchange, but that we can only do so if we really look and listen. India and Nepal have changed much since the time of legend, even since the Beatles visited in the ’60’s, but they still have a great deal to offer the interested traveler and the open mind.
Family Dinners and Scheduled Events
When folk from the USA or Europe (that’s you and me!) go on international trips to exotic places we generally buy a guide book, pick out the places of interest, and schedule flights, hotels, cars, etc…the various amenities and facilities we need to be a tourist. Occasionally we visit a site of interest in the company of a local guide who will, if we are lucky, offer some interesting additional color. But how often are you able to visit an exotic place of interest where friends will host you, where individuals will take days to get to know you and take you around, introduce you to their friends? How often do you have private audiences with local business people (Chambers of Commerce, investment and industry organizations), with schools (students, teachers, and administrators) and hospitals? How often will you be invited into local family homes for dinner?
I am fortunate to have gotten to know the Atlantic Institute, a Southeastern US organization with sister organizations around the globe. The members of each local organizations are mostly business people and educators who also build and run schools and hospitals and are well connected and respected in their local communities. The Atlantic Institute coordinates trips with these local organizations and, as a result, the small traveling groups (10-15 people) have a much more personal and intimate experience of foreign travel than is generally available – more so even than when I spent several weeks with an old friend visiting China. This makes for a very rich and meaningful trip, and also opens the opportunity for a dialog with the local community.
Another perspective on international travel was recently given to me by my daughter, and it is one that I keep in mind every time I go overseas. She asks a question: When you go abroad, what do you think the people who see you feel? She points out that when you visit a “Third World Country” as a privileged white person you stick out as an obvious representative of the colonial culture that dominated this nation for hundreds of years – and in important ways still does. Is this a healthy relationship? Is this a positive thing to do? This is an important question, and it is one which the nature of the Atlantic Institution trips addresses by recognizing that we not just travelers who are learning, but are also ambassadors. In the many business, school, family and other encounters of the trip we have the opportunity – the obligation – to give a different perspective of Americans.
What’s the first thing you think when someone tells you they are going to India? What’s the first thing you say? For many it is, “Oh, you’re going to get sick”; “Don’t drink the water”; “It’s so dirty over there”. For most, if that’s not top of your list, it’s likely fairly high up! You would probably not focus your comments on order, pride and personal cleanliness, courtesy and politeness, or friendliness. While I did get a stomach upset a week into the trip, it was brief and didn’t affect our busy schedule, and my overriding experience was more of the second category of issues, and certainly not what I had anticipated.
Let’s look at the roads, by way of example. Driving, for was, at face value, absolutely chaotic. But in reality it was just radically different from anything I had previously experienced, so in seeing it as chaotic, I was jumping to a conclusion. It’s an easy one to jump to: what would you think if you saw five lanes of cars weaving in and out on a road marked with four lanes? Motorbikes and mopeds with women passengers riding side saddle holding babies and young children sitting in front of the driver? Cars cutting the wrong way up busy streets? You would likely think this is a wild west and completely without rule and order. You’d expect constant bumps and bruises, scrapes and scratches, and not infrequent collisions. You’d expect to find traffic regularly stopped by two stationary cars whose owners are arguing over who caused an accident. You’d surely expect to find angry drivers responding with horns and bad driving to having someone cut in front of them.
But after being in this traffic for a few days I started to develop a completely different perspective. This is not chaos, it just follows a different set of rules. It is a driving system that works and that works remarkably well (though the road infrastructure dramatically underserves the need!). You see, everyone understands the rules and plays within them. Bikes are constantly cutting in and out, and people make room for that. Cars are constantly pushing for incredibly narrow gaps, and everyone is okay with that. For all of the apparent chaos, in tens of hours of driving I not only saw no accidents, I saw no incident of road rage. None at all. Driving was consistent and coherent, and drivers were polite, respectful and far more patient and friendly than I generally experience in Atlanta!
Similarly, where I had expected people to be dirty, they were not. And remarkably so: in the rainy season the roads and sidewalks were often muddy, and when not muddy they were dusty, but somehow, where I and my fellow travelers ended up with dirty shoes and mud marks on our trousers, the locals working and walking on the streets looked smart and crisp, men in their western slacks and collared shirts and women in their saris. To emphasize the point, the rooftops were lined with laundry lines. These are people with very few clothes living in difficult environments taking great pride in their appearance, and in the appearance of their environments. There is a culture of personal dignity to an extent I had not imagined.
Multifaith and Multiculture
As Americans we talk proudly of country being the melting pot of the world, of how anyone and everyone is accepted and treated equally. And it’s all too easy, when we think of India, to focus on the caste system and talk about how backwards this country is. While I certainly am not in favor of the caste system (and neither is the Indian government, which outlawed it decades ago), I would suggest that we have a misperception of diversity and tolerance and that there is much we can learn from elsewhere – in particular from India and Nepal.
In Delhi we visited one remarkable Hindu temple (Akshardham) which was completed just ten years ago. It is dedicated to the teacher Swaminarayam, and the young ladies who led us on the tour told us that they believed this person to be an incarnation of the Supreme God (avatars are common in Hinduism). When I asked about those Hindus who believe, for example, that their historic teacher was an incarnation of Vishnu or Shiva, or who directly worship Vishnu, Shiva or other gods, they replied, “Well yes, they’re right too”. And in Nepal, where Hinduism and Buddhism have entwined in fascinating and extraordinary ways, it is clear that all paths to the divine are accepted. What is most interesting, though, is that they are accepted in a very different way to the cultural norm in the US: it is not that there we are all doing and believing the same thing but getting there in different ways. Rather a deeper allowance is made for the beliefs of others being equally valid to one’s own. People are comfortably making room for and even participating in the observances of others. And all of this is incredibly natural and every-day in nature. One family dinner was hosted by a three generation group including four families which seamlessly included Muslim, Hindu and Jain intermarried. I am aware as I write this that words cannot convey the impact of the experience of India and Nepal’s multifaith and multiculture any more than they can describe the experience of the food or of silent reflection at the place of Gandhi’s assassination, but they can point at the acceptance, respect, and space given to all others, and the co-mingling that goes beyond anything I’ve ever known before.
In India there are well over a billion people and 100 languages; in Nepal there are 30 million people and 100 languages. The guide books suggest as much ethnic diversity in Nepal as in the whole of India. But ubiquitously both cultures and peoples are infiltrated by Western clothes (especially for the men), by plastic water bottles, and by tourists. Common denominators of smart phones, of the US Dollar, and of the English language emerge. The Indian and Nepali cultures are changing rapidly as they are impacted by globalization. US and European dollars build concrete buildings for hotels and for business investment. Foreign corporations come in to tap into local labor pools. And souvenir shops spring up everywhere selling key chains, refrigerator magnets and t-shirts.
Globalization is occurring rapidly and there is an important level of convergence. But local culture has always, and I believe always will, pull in the other direction. I am reminded of a quote I once came across in which a Roman conversation derided the Latin spoken in Gaul as impoverished and “not real Latin”. If you live in a large city, a similar diversity of accents and colloquialism abounds for you within just a few miles of your home.
At one level cultural homogenization is occurring incredibly rapidly. But on the other aspects of local culture stand firm. As I look at Kathmandu, Agra, and the temples and townships of India and Nepal I think of street scenes from the movie Bladerunner, in which English-based dialects influenced by local language dominate a culture that is at once local and global. I see a future in which traveling to exotic places will be much easier, where the comforts of home will be available in hotels and airports that could be almost anywhere in the world, but where the conversation and street life retains a distinctly local edge. I imagine a future in which international travel has somewhat of the feel of visiting Chinatown or Little Italy in New York or San Francisco…or closer to home the Masjid Al Mu’minum or a Korean shopping mall in Gwinnett County or a rural Georgia town. But it will always be further afield, it will always offer something more, it will always stretch and grow a traveler in ways that a local trip with the comforts of home close at hand cannot.
I often feel that the time for my travel is over, that I should settle in where I am and just get on with my life. But every time I take a trip such as this, I realize how important it is to my own growth and expansion that I continue to experience radically new cultures and situations, that I visit personally with people who superficially are nothing like me, that I get completely outside the familiar and the safe. My suggestion is that this is equally true for every one of us. I encourage you to intentionally take an international trip with a view to spending time with local people, getting involved in the local culture, and doing much more than taking tourist day trips from your hotel. As Gandhi said, “For my material needs my village is my world, but for my spiritual needs the whole world is my village.”