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An American Journey into India

July 2007
An American Journey into India

"It was a moment of reckoning, like the one when Dorothy in The Wizard of the Oz tells her little dog, Toto, ‘I have a feeling we are not in Kansas any more,'" says Whit Perry of LaGrange, Georgia, about his opening moments in India. Whit, the team leader of a Group Study Exchange (GSE) program conducted by the Rotary International, had just stepped out of the Mumbai airport, along with team members Jennifer Myers and Kavita Parekh of Atlanta, and Cherrod Pate and Justin Niederkorn of Americus, Georgia. The five of them were on a mission to "promote international understanding and goodwill through personal connection." The program promised the team a glimpse into the life, customs, and vocational practices of another country while offering an opportunity to share about their homeland.

Khabar decided to engage each of them to share their experiences in their own way, to learn about how India looks from the "outside in." One thing became quite clear. For all the hype about the world turning into a global village and about "India shining," the country nevertheless remains a quaint (if endearing) land for the Western visitor. Resonating Whit's comment about not being in Kansas anymore, here's what Jennifer shared about her first impressions, coming out of the airport: "After some confusion we finally found our hotel drivers and followed them to the cars where the five of us and our 10 pieces of gargantuan luggage were supposed to fit. This is when it occurred to me that we weren't anywhere close to any country that felt familiar." Elaborating further, she said, "Through the confusion of packing the cars, beggars started materializing as if out of thin air: women with malnourished babies on their hips, small children with desperate looks in their eyes—all grabbing our arms and asking for help. This is what we as Westerners never see or experience, and it is so difficult for us to comprehend."

This chasm of first impressions was no different from the other side as well. For rural India, the sight of foreigners, and Westerners more so, is equally uncommon. Talking about their stroll through a village in Andhra Pradesh, Kavita said, "We were like a circus show walking down the street. Kids ran behind their moms, men almost fell off their bikes, and women gawked at us as if we had three heads."

A hopeless chasm? A failed mission?

Hardly! Thankfully, the first impressions revealed only one of the many faces of a mind-bogglingly complex and multifaceted nation. Each of the five visitors enthusiastically reported this to be an eye-opening and highly enriching journey, where a cultural gap was bridged, tears of joy and beauty were shed, and lifelong friendships made.

A changing India: American perceptions

The moving experiences shared by the visiting GSE team were a far cry from the distant perceptions held by them going into the journey. Jennifer Myers was a bit apprehensive "just of the fact that the Muslim population in India is pretty significant and there is certainly some anti-American sentiment, and so naturally I had a slight concern? ‘What If?' But it quickly went away as soon as we got there. I didn't feel it at all, once we touched down."

Talking about her pre-visit image of the country, Jennifer said, "My idea of India was that it was an ancient culture, and that there is a lot of poverty. But also that there is a lot of development, intelligence, and excellent schooling, proven by so many Indian students who are very good academically and then they become very good professionally. I had this idea of a culture that is very disciplined, family oriented, and hard working."

"The perceptions of some of my friends and parents and grandparents," she added, "were a whole different thing. I got all sorts of advice: ‘make certain you get your vaccinations and your malaria pills,' and my favorite, ‘take lots of toilet paper with you.' Cautions were sounded off: ‘camels still roam the countryside,' and, ‘you may be attacked by terrorists.' I certainly did not share all of those concerns, and even got a good laugh."

Cherrod said she did not have much of a defined image of India while growing up, "because the sense of reality was so drastically different than my own childhood reality; so there was no space to compare the two entities." It is only in recent times she has come to see Indians as extremely brainy and at the forefront of all technological advances, and as having a sense of communal oneness.

Whit brings a special perspective to a changing India, thanks to his previous visit to the country as a carefree hitchhiker in the ‘60s. "India has exploded on the economic scene. That's the big change. When I was hitchhiking around the world, I saw a lot of India. I went from Pakistan to New Delhi, Agra, Calcutta and many other places. A lot of what I saw was still there, but there were a lot of other changes, mainly more economic prosperity."

Amusing Asides and Cultural Comedy

What is a Westerner's trip to India without a comment on the traffic? While such commentary is nothing new, it remains poignant, and gives us a renewed appreciation of how things have changed for Indian Americans driving on the interstates of America.

"What a fun adventure!" is how Jennifer describes driving (or rather, being driven) in India. "It feels like a roller coaster ride; only a roller coaster's course is fixed and safer. Drivers in India possess excellent hand-eye coordination. They move gracefully at all speeds and in all directions, and through hundreds of people, cars, trucks, cows, dogs, goats, and various other obstacles. They drive harmoniously through chaos as if divinely influenced. After several days, I noticed that most drivers keep Ganesh idols affixed to their dashboards. The elephant-headed Ganesh is one of the many Gods; he is believed to be the remover of all obstacles. After surviving the ‘Indian road' roller coaster, I think there is something to this statue! Now I have a small Ganesh hidden in my car; and a picture of Ganesh above my phone at work. I want all obstacles removed from driving and at the office."

Cherrod describes it as a "harmonious chaos of traffic, where honking is a sign of warning and not aggravation." Whit is a bit more descriptive: "Our drivers were like fighter-plane pilots, dodging in and out of an incredible variety of traffic—from oxcarts to groaning, overloaded trucks. I can only describe it as a symphony of chaos and cacophony, where honking is not an insult, but a courtesy. It seems impossible, but somehow it works, appearing at times to defy the laws of physics."

With oceans between the two countries, both physically and culturally, it would be a surprise if there were no communication gaps. Cherrod describes a humorous experience about miscues of non-verbal communication. She talked about her growing confusion when many of their Indian hosts, immediately after taking a picture on their digital camera, would frequently shake their head from right to left—like a bobble head. Interpreting this as a sign of disapproval, she was wondering why they were so frequently displeased with their photos, and why they were not asking for a retake if not happy with the photo they just took. When her curiosity got the better of her, she asked one of the GSE hosts, who explained that the bobble-head motion actually meant a ‘yes'!

And then there were other times when, despite their differing worlds, the visitors found common ground with the hosts in the most unlikely of ways. Talking about endearing friendships that were made, Jennifer describes the eerie similarities she shared with some of her hosts. Hearing a particular expression from one of the girls she was staying with, Jennifer was intrigued that it is the exact same expression she uses to describe the same thing; something that she hasn't heard anyone in the U.S. use! She talks about how they laughed about it while exclaiming to each other, "You say that?"

The guest is God

The philosophy of Atithi devo bhava ("The guest is God")—an ancient Sanskrit saying that is one of the foundations of Indian culture—was amply experienced by the team of Georgians. Talking about how one of his hosts gave up his bedroom suite for him, Whit said that such acts of sacrifice made "our famed ‘Southern Hospitality' pale by comparison."

"When we got off the plane, frazzled after a grueling two-day trip, we were delighted to be greeted by beautiful young girls in colorful saris, sprinkling flower petals and holy water, and placing floral garlands around our necks. I have never been treated like such a VIP before. It was overwhelming. And the scene was repeated everywhere we went," added Whit. Cherrod too asserted that the "philosophy of guest being treated as Gods streamlined everywhere we went." She was taken by the sheer attentiveness of her host families.

"If there was one prevailing aspect of India that captured me, it was the amazing hospitality. No matter where we went, who we visited, what time of day, we were always treated with respect and kindness that was genuine and simply humbling. On more than one occasion, we were brought to tears with such generosity," said Jennifer.���

Like it or not, it's Third World to onlookers

Both the global Indian diaspora as well as the urban elite of the country have an image of India that is dominated by its nuclear status as well as its rank as one of the top three modern day commercial hubs of the world (along with the U.S. and China). Urban India is defined by a highly charged consumerism marked by big brands, couture fashions, an incredible array of fine dining, and American franchises, as well as by high technology and a global outlook.

When asked to share their impressions of India in light of the above image, Jennifer replied, "Interestingly enough, it was completely opposite of the perception that you just outlined. We were primarily in rural areas of the southeastern side of India. My perspective was that it was still very ancient. The technology really amazed me but then the lack of infrastructure also amazed me. So you have a disparity between this latest and greatest technology with the cell phones, large screen TVs, and a myriad of channels—in striking contrast to the fact that public restrooms are non-existent, and so are bare necessities such as a functional infrastructure and a waste management system. We saw a number of villagers living in primitive conditions. Most of the people did not have electricity and running water."

Kavita, whose parents are first generation immigrants to the U.S., cannot get over the poverty, even after several visits. "It's just heart wrenching to see the poor street children everywhere." Citing people "stooping in the fields for pennies a day," Whit described the economic destitution as devastating. Even in the villages, "the poverty was grinding," he added.

People: The wealth of India

"People," goes the clich�, "are the true wealth of any nation." In the case of India this was resoundingly attested by each of the five visitors. "We, as Americans, consistently strive to find inner peace—that place of total and complete contentment. But in India, it is imbedded in the soul of the people," was the sage observation of Cherrod.

For Whit, "the most astounding thing was the readiness of everyone to smile! No one seemed stressed. To us, India was an assault on the senses; to them it was a way of life. They seemed at peace, surrounded by an incredible array of animal life, from the sacred cows to monkeys, all sharing space on Planet Earth in a peaceful truce."

Jennifer shared incidents that suggested she was unequivocally moved by the people of India. Talking about the time her digital camera was stolen, she said, "The Rotarians in that town were so horrified that they were beside themselves. They were more concerned about it than I was. The next day when we had left town and were already four hours away, I was dumbfounded to find that one of the Rotarians had gone through the trouble of buying a new digital camera and had sent a driver to chase us down and deliver it to me. I don't know anybody here who would do anything like that. I was deeply touched!"

Such inner richness of people, Jennifer observed, was across the board and extended to even the most poor. "The villagers, and especially the kids, had just such innocence about them. They were always so happy to see us. We were complete strangers and they would just light up, and it brought each of us at some point to tears. People living in extreme poverty, you would think, would be pretty miserable. They are not! They are actually happier than a lot of us here with affluence. These people gave so much of themselves to us. They would approach us with baked goods and fruits and invite us into their living space, which in many cases was comprised of a thatched roof and dirt floors. We would accept these items, hold hands, wish each other blessings of peace (namaste); and I swear their eyes captured light from a higher purpose; they were beautiful. Many Westerners would label their situation as "poverty," but these people were only impoverished from the lack of material goods. I saw a richness and spiritual awareness that no money can buy. I wanted to capture this and bring it back home with me."


Of a Foreign Land and First Experiences

A motorbike ride and a train ride were a couple of the "first-ever" experiences of JUSTIN NEIDERKORN, who talks about his heartfelt personal account of discovering India.

In a land of visual ecstasy, five travelers set out to learn about a culture far from their own. There was not only a large distance between the two lands, but also a large gap between beliefs and ways of life. It was our mission to bridge the gap.

There were five of us in the beginning, a team leader, Whit Perry, and four team members—Jennifer Myers, Cherrod Pate, Kavita Parekh, and me. Though our team leader succumbed to health problems early in the trip and had to return to the U.S., he started us out on a stable footing which enabled us to continue on our own, aided by our Indian friends, who treated us like family. We were blessed to be there and blessed to return safely.

From the first minute we stepped off the plane, people gathered around us, covering us with garlands and affection. We were greeted like royalty. Red bindi was applied to our foreheads and hands were shaken. The welcoming party of the city of Vizag prepared us for a common thread among all the Indians with whom we came in contact—a sense of overwhelming care. We were received by several members of the Group Study Exchange (GSE) program of Rotary Club as well as Sam Movva, the former local district governor of the region.

After such a long trip, we were happy to have been ushered off by Sam to a beach resort. Initially, I was a bit apprehensive about the food, and ate only cookies and sweets. The next morning, though, I had an omelet along with idly and sambar. It was one of my first tastes of Indian cuisine. A little ‘kick' of spice woke me up faster than a cup of coffee. The chai came out and that began my month-long craving for hot Indian tea. The team members decided to walk the beach to take in the scenery of early fishing boats and of people engaged in their daily tasks. It also gave us time to talk and learn about each other.

We went into Vizag later that day and I was immersed in city life, which can be summed up simply by the advice: Never get behind the wheel in India! From then on, all I heard were horns and the sounds of people clamoring to get somewhere.

In Kakinada, I had my first real test of Indian cuisine, a traditional Andhra meal. I learned that being a picky eater was not an option. Thankfully, soon my taste buds adapted, allowing me to eventually enjoy everything I ate. After the meal, we split up and went to various host homes. Whit and I stayed with Dr. Ravi Vadrevu, a former GSE member to the U.S. When I tell you that there are few men in this world who can truly make a difference in the way you live, know that he is one of them. His philosophies and views on life are worth staying up until 2:00 a.m. in order to take them in. Trust me, I did just that!

We next drove to our second host city, Vijayawada, where we were lucky to experience the festival of the harvest known as Pongal. Though I was unwell that day, my fellow team members were able to enjoy the dishes, colorful imagery, and community festivities. Women drew designs on the ground in front of their homes. Men played instruments, and even the animals came dressed for a party.

We visited The Hindu newspaper where Krishna Kiran, the General Manager, with his body-shaking laugh, treated us to food and the internet (God bless the internet!). After Vijayawada, we went back to Vizag by train. This was the first time I had ever ridden by train. It was pretty amazing to see the countryside as we flew past it. You could actually step out between the rail cars, on an open platform, and get some fresh air.

We reached Vizag and went to the homes of our host family. I stayed with Praveen. He, his wife and children, along with his father and sister-in-law were outstanding hosts. I was able to watch a turban being tied, which I hear is something passed down from generation to generation.

At the district conference they seemed to enjoy pretty much everything we had to say. We dressed in Indian attire during our second day of the conference. I felt they enjoyed not only dressing us up for the show, but also letting us become engrossed in their culture. We then left Vizag for the second time.

In Rajahmundry, we met our host, Bhaskar Ram, who was kind enough to give us his guest home. Jayanti, our newly appointed team leader, and I, each had our own room and bathroom. Like everyone else, Bhaskar also went above and beyond all our expectations. We went to a nursery and saw wonderful vegetation, including the lotus flower. As in other places, coconut water was handy, ready to be consumed through a straw.

After leaving Rajahmundry, heading back to Vizag, we just about lost our minds. We, the GSE visitors, became brother and sisters. On the train ride back we got ridiculous, making faces and bothering a certain person who was very tired?namely, me.

Back in Vizag, I was picked up by my new host, Roland Williams, and we ventured back to his spacious office where I had a room to myself. Another perk of living with Roland was the internet. Oh, yes, I updated my blog as much as I could. I went to the gym with Roland, and enjoyed a sauna and steam room for the first time. In Vizag, I rode on a motorcycle for the first time.

By now, we had pretty much memorized our presentations, having presented at several meetings. Jennifer spoke about Atlanta and Georgia. Cherrod spoke about Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and their connection. Kavita shared the path of an Indian who grew up in the United States. I, on the other hand, went with the physical beauty of India and Habitat for Humanity's mission around the world. Though memorized, we found that toward the end, our presentations were more heartfelt and meaningful, as India had found its way into our everyday conversations, lives, and souls.

The last meeting was a killer. Not only because it was the last time we would give our speeches, but also the last time we could let India know just how it had changed our lives. Jennifer started us off with an enormous amount of thanks. Kavita showed her pride in India and her heritage. Cherrod was unable to vocalize the many emotions welling up in her. I took the microphone in hopes that it might give her time to recuperate. As I talked about all the ‘firsts' that I had in India, I also choked up. When I "inducted" everyone into my family, I could not hold it any longer, and had to pass the microphone back to Cherrod. She was still breathless, but was able to give an extremely touching and heartfelt speech that pulled on the heartstrings of everyone present.

I had three "sisters" in my life for an entire month and felt closer to them than many of the people I have known for years. I feel very close to people on the opposite side of the world, even though I've only known them for a month or less. It is amazing just what we took away from the trip—things that we couldn't explain, things that have in some way touched a part of us that we didn't know we had.

Discovering India from the Fence

Not quite the native and not quite the foreigner, KAVITA PAREKH played part local and part guest while discovering India like she never had in her earlier visits.

The minute I stepped into the airport I thought, "My God, it's good to be back in India." I had no idea how much I had missed it until all the familiar sights and smells began to settle in. Yet, something was different about this visit already. I hadn't been here since the fall of 2004 when I was working as a consultant for one of the Big 4 consulting firms. Living in a five-star hotel, traveling by luxury AC sedan, and having all my meals prepared for me—for three months—was not a bad deal at all. But that is no way to get to know India.

The first time I've felt a sense of ownership and pride in the country of my origin was on this trip—perhaps because I am usually here with people much more ‘Indian' than myself, while this time I traveled with four other Americans. Every time they commented on the great service, or weather, I felt a rush of pride.

What I wasn't proud of was the ever-present poverty. It's heart wrenching; people deserve better.

The heart of India, and an inspiring man

January 7, 2007. A hawk just flew past my head. I'm sitting on a balcony that is connected to a large room I'm sharing with two of my teammates, Jennifer and Cherrod. The Bay of Bengal is literally a minute's walk. In fact, I can see it right now. The wind is perfect, making the palms sway beautifully. I think this is one of the cleanest beaches I have seen in India. In fact, the whole city of Vishakapatnam is beautifully clean. I am impressed by the lack of pollution here. This morning we went for a walk on the beach where we saw a huge leatherback turtle, and the corpse of a blowfish, and several pretty birds, including a green parrot and one a beautiful turquoise color. Sometimes I forget how beautiful this country really is when kept free of the pollution that unfortunately has taken over so much of it.

India has been amazing thus far. Everyone has been as, if not more, hospitable than I remember. The scenery and food too have been stunning. Everyone keeps saying "India exists in its villages," and having seen quite a few villages over the last few days, I am more in love with the country than ever.

January 8, 2007. Today was exceptionally moving. We started the morning off at an eye hospital run by an amazing man. He is originally from Andhra Pradesh, but had been living in Canada for some years as a scientist when his wife and two children (ages 3 and 6) were killed in the Air India hijacking of 1985. He was in complete shock and despair, and developed an extreme stress disorder which mottled his skin and made him lose his hair. This was before he decided to do something positive with his grief.

He left Canada and moved here to Kakinada where he opened a school for poor village children in his daughter's name. Once that was established he opened an eye hospital which performs free cataract surgeries on elderly villagers. The hospital drives to remote villages to bring patients in. This allows people who would have otherwise been blind to live out their final years with some dignity. We met rooms full of his patients and it was truly an inspiring experience.

To see so many people giving so much when I've done so little with my resources has been hard and somewhat embarrassing. I've decided to make a conscious effort to be more involved in this kind of work.

We've also been going from village to village, where everyone invites us into their homes and offers us whatever they have—no matter if it is all they have. Our hosts have been fabulous too. They go completely out of their way to make us feel at home. It's been wonderful. The only thing that I would change is how much we're being pampered. We're shuttled around in our AC cars with no hope of walking five feet on our own! Of course, this comes from good intentions. Still, I think my favorite thing has been the scenery—endless fields of bananas and rice paddies, lined by palm trees.

A glimpse into the face of world peace

January 9, 2007. Once again, I am amazed by how happy everyone is here. I've heard simpler living leads to happier people and I am becoming more convinced daily. This morning we had a wonderful breakfast, before our guide for the day (a sexologist, no less) took us to an 11th century temple which was quite amazing.

Next, we drove through some small villages. This is where we always encountered the biggest smiles. Although people will sometimes frown at you initially, I am constantly amazed by how quick they are to return a smile, often 10-fold!

We completed the day at a Rotary meeting, and were blown away by the graciousness and hospitality with which we were received. Upon arriving, we were greeted by a crowd of school children who were on vacation, but had come especially to meet us. We were given silk garlands.

Upon entering the building, Cherrod burst into tears when she saw that the children not only had come to school on a holiday, but had also made two rangolis for us along with a 20 feet banner with our pictures on it. I was truly touched when later we were given yet another gift, a beautiful garnet necklace. All the school children wanted our autographs and kept saying adorable things like "you're nice" or "I think you must be good at maths." I love everyone's disposition here!

One of my favorite things about this trip has been the stripping of racial barriers. The children are equally awed by every member of our multicultural team. They gawk at Jen's blonde hair, want to touch Cherrod's braids, and are amazed by Justin and Whit's height. They are also intrigued by my skin and features which look so much like their own.

I think this means we've achieved one of the missions of the program, which noted, "Once the people of the world know each other, conflict resolution through war will be impossible."

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