Monday, December 19, 2011

Incredible India

I’m sure you have seen the advertisements just as I have. They are on TV all the time, showing images of the grand Taj Mahal, trying to lure people over to “Incredible India”. Having visited India before, I often wondered why some marketing firm would choose to call India incredible. Perhaps I even thought that it was slightly misleading.

I didn’t intend to write a blog post about my recent India trip. After all, I was in India last year and have a blog post about that trip and my first impressions of the country. I went over for work again, so I just wasn’t expecting to feel compelled to write another blog. But as I pondered the marketing slogan used to describe a country in a way that I probably would not have, I couldn’t help but think about all of things about India that do, in fact, make it incredible.

I think it’s important to first look at the definition of the word “incredible” and its synonyms: so extraordinary as to seem impossible; unbelievable; inconceivable; astonishing.

So perhaps it’s quite an accurate description after all. There are many things in India that I would consider unbelievable. Like the fact that there is such disparity between classes. We would ride to the firm in the hotel’s 7 Series BMW, right past people living in slums and on the street. And it wasn’t just us. There are some seriously rich people in India. While so many countless others live right in front of them, with nothing.

There are many things that I would consider inconceivable. Like how so many of the people in Mumbai live in the conditions that they do, every single day. And in America, most of us can’t fathom living without wifi or our daily Starbucks fix. And I found the crazy way that everything in Mumbai operates astonishing. No lanes on the roads, auto rickshaws weaving in and out of traffic, families of four on a motorcycle, plump, healthy cows standing next to scrawny, dirty goats and chickens. And the list goes on.

And then there are the things that incredible can be used to describe, like the smell that lurked in the air every morning when we left the hotel and got stronger by the end of the day when we left the office. This smell literally made me gag when it first hit my nose. And I still don’t know what it was, other than what I simply call the Mumbai funk. And then there’s the traffic, which is like nothing that I’ve ever seen before. And when you are stuck in traffic, on the streets of Mumbai, in a 7 Series BMW, you get attention. Unwanted attention.

I recall a conversation with one of my co-workers as we were driving to the office one day. She was commenting that her heart breaks for the many stray dogs that are on the street. And believe me, there are a lot. More than I’ve ever seen in any other country. I love animals too, and I’ll admit that it’s shocking to see these dogs just lying down or wandering around hopelessly. But my first reaction, was that it made me feel a bit better that this is the only life that they have ever known. So to them, it’s not bad. It’s just their life. They don’t know that life can be better. They weren’t living in someone’s home and then dumped on the streets.

Then I started thinking about the people of India. Would I say the same thing about them? Should the fact that they’ve not known any different in their lives mean that they don’t deserve better? The answer is a resounding NO! Of course they deserve better! Of course they deserve access to food and shelter and safety and healthcare. And the things that are so basic in life. Of course, of course, of course!

One day driving back to the hotel after work, the traffic was worse than normal. We ended up being stopped right in front of a row of shops. My co-worker and I noticed a lot of men sitting down on the sidewalk in rows. It’s not uncommon for Indian men to be sitting or squatting on the sidewalk or street, but for them to be in such a linear, organized manner was a bit odd. Nothing is linear or organized in Mumbai! Then men started pointing at our car and waving their hands, motioning for us to come over or get out. Then our driver told us that this is the area of town where people come to get fed, and where passers by will give money for this reason. So the men sitting on the sidewalk, were “in line” to be the next one fed. The restaurant owners solicit the money, and then feed the men as money is donated.

So I was conflicted the entire time I was in India. The professional part of me wanted to be in a 7 Series BMW with the doors locked and the air conditioning on. To live in my little JW Marriott bubble and not face the reality of Mumbai. And the human part of me hurt for the people that we passed on the streets every day on the way to work. It hurt for a country with so many people that it doesn’t know what to do. With so many things that need fixing, that it doesn’t know where to start. And with so much disparity amongst the population, that it can seem like a completely different world just around the corner.

But there is hope for India. I don’t want to portray a completely doomsday scenario. India has a lot to offer the world. Think about all of the shared services centers and call centers in India that handle a continual barrage of phone and email traffic from around the world. There are a lot of educated people in India, and they are very hard working. And you know what else? They are extremely gracious and accommodating people. I can’t say a bad thing about a single Indian that I came across.

I made some other observations while I was there:

• Not only do they not eat beef, but they don’t even drink cow’s milk. Imagine my shock when I learned that I’d been using buffalo’s milk in my coffee all week!

• Only about 45% of men drink alcohol, and about 1% of women. And women are generally not allowed to serve alcohol. And because of this, a glass or two of wine is as expensive as an entire meal!

• Places are either air conditioned, or they’re not. Meaning, it’s either musty and muggy with no A/C, or it’s freezing cold when the A/C is on. It’s quite hard to find a happy medium! I struggled with that in my hotel room pretty much the entire first week.

• Everyone in India treated me with very personal service. At the hotel, I was Miss Lisa starting on morning two – everywhere from the hallways at the hotel to the restaurants and lounges and concierge. And at the office, the tea and coffee man knew exactly what I liked and when. I know they are trained to do this, but it still made me feel special.

So will I be rushing back to India on my own accord any time soon? No. Will I count it as one of my favorite travel destinations or experiences? No. But I will say this: it is a very impactful country. One way or another, that country will leave an impression on you. And maybe that’s enough to warrant the phrase “Incredible India”.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Anchors and Sails

Lately I’ve been fixated with the concept of an anchor. Perhaps “fixated” isn’t the most accurate term, but maybe something like a preoccupied, obsessed, or nagging feeling. And I know that makes it sound like a bad thing, but I don’t really think of it as a bad thing at all. In fact, I purchased an anchor pendant because of it. And here’s why…
The definition of an anchor (according to my friends at Merriam-Webster) includes “a reliable or principal support” and “something that serves to hold an object firmly.”

As I get older and experience new things in life, I am consistently reminded of what the anchors are in my life. When I travel, I sometimes forget those anchors and get caught up in wherever I am and whatever I’m doing. It’s easy to not be a very good communicator (although that works both ways) and to fall under the category of “out of sight, out of mind.” So maybe this preoccupied, obsessed, or nagging feeling is God’s way of reminding me that no matter where I am or what I’m doing, I am still anchored at home. And I need to remember that.

I contrast this with the concept of sails. Sails take you places. They are meant to propel you toward your destination. A sailboat cannot get anywhere without sails. But it also needs an anchor, right? To stay in the same place when it needs to or when it wants to?

I miss being home. I love to travel, but I miss having more time at home. I miss cooking in my kitchen, walking to check my mail, snuggling up with the fat cat on the couch to watch continual episodes of Iron Chef on the DVR, and having my life here. At home. And Houston IS home, despite what my obscene amount of Continental airline miles and Marriott points would try to prove otherwise. My sails are certainly worn and weathered!

In this time of almost homesickness, I am reminded of the anchors that I have at home. And that is why I wear an anchor pendant around my neck – the base being a cross and the complete iconic picture of the anchor being everything else in my life that keeps me grounded. You see, without God, and my family, and my friends, and the consistency and normalcy at home, I wouldn’t enjoy traveling so much. If I didn’t have a life here to come home to, going away wouldn’t be the same. That may sound strange, but the excitement of a trip is partly a result of the fact that you get to come home at some point, right?

I’m not ready to give up my sails. I want to keep going places and seeing things. I want to continue traveling to different parts of the world and sharing experiences with friends who are willing to come along for the ride. I want more stamps in my passport, and not for the sake of a stamp, but for the sake of experiencing different cultures and having an adventure.

A book that I recently started reading actually brought up this exact concept. That’s when I knew that it wasn’t just a cheesy revelation that I had, but a real and true obstacle in life that I needed to address. The statement that caught my attention most in the book was this: “Someone who had always wanted to soar with the eagles found himself with fresh appreciation for the steady plodding of the turtle. In a life-redirecting way I came to understand that I needed an anchor as well as a sail.” So soaring eagle to steady plodding turtle?

Was the fact that I happened to be thinking about anchors and sails at the same time I started reading this book a coincidence? Oh goodness, I think not. This is just how our God works. He is making this a conviction of mine. To remain anchored at home and with the people and familiarities that make me who I am, while still trying to be adventurous and free-spirited. To soar like an eagle, while being a slow, deliberately grounded turtle at the same time. To have roots and wings. And to understand that without a comfortable place to land or be anchored, flying away or putting up the sails just isn’t as appealing.

I think it’s okay to have an anchor and a sail. But I don’t want one without the other.