The Real Country of Contrasts: Our Unforgettable Trip to India

My daughter Hannah and I went to a trip to India. We visited a small part of this large country, the most populous in the world.

This essay is long. I tried to split it into two parts, but it was losing its flow. My advice to you is to set aside some time to read it; don’t rush through it.

The Real Country of Contrasts: Our Unforgettable Trip to India

I must preface this essay. My seventeen-year-old daughter Hannah and I spent less than two weeks in India. We visited a small part of this large country, the most populous in the world. There are many Indias; we only saw a limited version of one. Therefore, I am well aware that my thoughts here may be incomplete (or even incorrect) and that the extent of my ignorance about India is vast.

The Real Country of Contrasts: Our Unforgettable Trip to India - map

Our trip began in New Delhi, where we were for slightly more than a day. We spent most of our time in Rajasthan, primarily in two cities: Jodhpur (“the Blue City”) and Udaipur, with its enchanting Lake Pichola). We spent a night in a tent in the Dhora Desert. We concluded our trip in Mumbai, where I gave a speech at the CFA Society of India’s annual conference.

Observe, Don’t Judge

As Hannah and I stepped off the plane in New Delhi, the three words “observing without judgment” were at the back of my mind. Our plane landed at 2 AM, and the first thing I noticed was that it was difficult to breathe. The day before, I had caught a small cold. My lungs were already inflamed, and the polluted air didn’t help. We checked the air quality index and it was well over 300, which is incredibly unhealthy. Denver’s air quality index at the time showed 20.

As we drove from the airport on empty streets, we encountered a few cows taking their nightly stroll along the road. Suddenly, we happened upon a cargo rickshaw (a three-wheeler) lying on its side by the road. Our driver stopped the car and we ran to the rickshaw to find the driver unharmed. Not only was he okay, he was soundly asleep. He must have fallen asleep and his vehicle hit the curb, causing it to flip. A few other cars pulled over, and we helped the driver get out. Then five men flipped the rickshaw and the driver was on his way to wherever he was going.

When we arrived at the hotel, the first thing that surprised me was that our car was examined by security guards as if we were entering a military facility. A guard motioned to the driver to open the hood of the car, and he carefully examined the engine compartment; then he looked through our trunk. Hannah and I were waved through a metal detector. The security guards who were doing this smiled at us, held their palms together in front of their faces, and slightly bowed, saying “Namaste” (a greeting to honor you). We encountered this custom everywhere we went, and it never got old. 

India is still reeling from the attacks by Pakistani terrorists in 2008, which resulted in the deaths of 168 people. Security checks, which we encountered in every touristy location, seemed very superficial, as we walked through metal detectors with our cell phones and the detectors were buzzing, but nobody seemed to care. Or perhaps my Hannah did not fit the profile of a Pakistani terrorist. Arguably, my scruffy beard and unsophisticated choice of clothing made me more closely resemble a garden-variety terrorist. The point still stands: It is hard to maintain the same level of alertness for decades.

Country of Contrasts 

When I moved to the US from the Soviet Union, my father told me that the US was a country of contrasts. He was right. In the USSR, the predominant majority was equally poor. Since all businesses were owned by the government, wealthy people were just stealing from the government better than others, or were in positions of power and thus had a second income from bribes. Overall, we were all equally poor – socialism is great at equalizing poverty but not so good at creating wealth.

But the real country of contrasts is modern India. 

The astonishing contrast between incredible opulence and large-scale poverty right next to each other was a shock to us in New Delhi. Our travel agent put us up in the Leela Hotel, which is probably the best hotel I have ever stayed in; it makes The Four Seasons look like the three seasons. However, when we left the gates of the hotel, we encountered poverty as we had never seen it before – streets full of trash, blocks upon blocks of slums (tiny houses made of plywood), and beggars.

Leo Tolstoy’s first words in Anna Karenina were, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I felt the opposite when we encountered poverty in every city we visited in India: Poverty in India is painted in one color, grey. The color of dirt, trash, broken roads, concrete sticking jaggedly out of buildings, and animal excrement that we had to step over on the streets. 

Grey is the color of the air in New Delhi; the city is enveloped in a fog of dust. We were told that there are two main reasons for the poor air quality: the large number of cars, with 32 million people occupying the city, and farmers burning their fields. It is also not uncommon to encounter a small campfire made of trash on the street by people simply trying to stay warm and slums are not powered by natural gas but by burning wood.

The beggars had the biggest impact on Hannah and me. We were at a streetlight when a woman in her twenties, carrying her ten-month-old baby, approached us begging for money. We had just finished breakfast, which had been served by four waiters (more on this a bit later), and this woman was begging because she said she could not feed her baby. Our reaction was not rational – Hannah and I had not caused her situation, but we were overwhelmed by a feeling of guilt. We encountered beggars knocking on the windows of our car at every major intersection in New Delhi.

These were the emotional experiences that engulfed Hannah and me in our first few hours visiting New Delhi. 

We arrived at our hotel at 4 AM. We slept for a few hours, had breakfast and embarked on our tour of the city, which started with a Sikh temple. To enter, we had to take off our shoes and even our socks (as we learned, a common requirement in entering any Sikh or Hindu temple). I don’t remember being impressed by the temple so much as by its kitchen, which feeds 50,000 people every single day, absolutely free. 

Our next stop was Akshardham, a Hindu temple that rivals in magnificence the Taj Mahal. I am basing this not on personal experience but on conversations with friends who visited both. The Taj Mahal is located in Agra, about four hours from New Delhi, and we decided not to visit, as we only had one day for New Delhi. 

Akshardham is a new temple; it opened its doors in 2005. For security reasons, they don’t allow any electronic devices on the grounds, not even cell phones. This is why I think it is a less-known monument than the Taj Mahal. I have to confess, I have been to temples around the world, from the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican to the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, and none of them had the same impact on me as Akshardham. The combination of its enormous size, attention to detailed craftsmanship, and beauty of the Indian arts displayed make it an architectural masterpiece. 

Though not being able to bring in cell phones is bad for Akshardham’s publicity, Hannah and I found that it actually enhanced our experience. We were more present, focusing on taking pictures with our eyes.

A Country and Culture Shaped by Religion

Starting our trip by visiting a Sikh temple and Akshardham was the right way to begin, as it introduced us to the role religion plays in India. Religion is deeply embedded in this country, much more so than in the West. This can be seen in their treatment of animals. Hindus believe in reincarnation, so a cow crossing the street or a pigeon alighting at your feet for a handout may be a relative of yours. Karma is a huge factor in every individual decision; good intent and decisions will impact the outcome of your rebirth. We saw this in the market in Jodhpur, where at the end of the day a store owner brought out seeds and water containers for the pigeons. 

All the cities we visited were full of stray dogs. These armies of strays were fed like family members by people who likely lived on a few dollars a day. Cows are sacred animals in India, and the consumption of beef is taboo. Even McDonald’s in India is mostly vegetarian, just like most of the country’s population. The only meat they serve is chicken. Cows wandering in the middle of the streets were as common as streetlights. We were told that these cows are privately owned. Their owners let them wander through the city during the day, and the cows find their way home in the evening. Cows happen to prefer busy streets because there are no flies, so this is where they spend their days. 

The Indian obsession with Karma permeates their daily behavior. At first, the cynic in me attributed the kindness we encountered to the high-quality customer service of the hotels we stayed in. But as our interactions extended to random people we encountered on our journey, I noticed this culture of giving everywhere, from a taxi driver taking us to the airport to a shopkeeper I asked for directions to our hotel early in the morning. 

At almost every restaurant we went to, we were served by three or four people at once. What would normally be a job for one person in the US or Europe was often performed by several. At the conference in Mumbai, it got to a comical level when I asked for tea. One person opened a tea bag, another poured water, another added honey, and the last one stirred it. The supply and abundance of low-skilled labor is so large, and the cost of labor so low (wages can be as low as $8 a day) that there is no need to strive for efficiency. 

What was amazing was that these people had very little skin in the game, yet they made us feel that they cared. Hannah joked that they had soul in the game. I think she is right; more precisely, they had soul in our game; they had a desire to help and to make the lives of random strangers slightly better.

This “how can I make your life a bit better” behavior was touching and disarming and had an even bigger impact on us than the magnificence of Akshardham.

India is a country with millions of gods (according to our tour guides), and they keep discovering new gods all the time. On our way from Jodhpur to Udaipur, we stopped by a temple where they worshiped a motorcycle. This is not a publicity gimmick; it is a real temple, and we had to take off our shoes to enter. 

In 1988, Om Banna, a local resident, lost control of his motorcycle and was tragically killed. His motorcycle plunged into a ditch, where the police retrieved it and locked it up in the precinct. However, the motorcycle mysteriously showed up the next morning at the site of the accident. The police took it back and locked it up again, but it still reappeared where its owner had died. This happened enough times that the motorcycle became a subject of worship. People stop by there every day to pray for a safe journey.

While we are on the topic of driving. I have been driving for almost 30 years, but I must admit I would not be able to drive in India. I am sure there is order in the chaos, but I could not find it. Drivers are magically able to create three or four lanes of traffic from a single lane, and they calmly navigate through it, albeit with a lot of honking. On these roads, you are not only competing for space with other cars but also with auto-rickshaws (three-wheeled taxis) buzzing everywhere, cows and dogs randomly crossing the street, a man pushing a fruit cart, and incoming traffic suddenly showing up on your side of the lane.

In the West, we use the horn sparingly – usually when the driver ahead of us is too preoccupied tweeting while at a stoplight. Using the horn has a negative connotation in the West. Not in India. They use it almost nonstop, telling other drivers “I am here.” Honking horns are a constant sound (almost like a serenade) you hear in New Delhi, Jaipur, and Udaipur. (There’s a bit less of it in Mumbai.)

Is India the Next China?

The investor in me was looking at India and thinking, “Is India the next China?” It is now the most populous country. Unlike China, whose demographics are poised at the edge of an unavoidable cliff, India has a young and growing population. It is a democracy that respects property rights and is friendly to the West. It should be on the receiving side of the West’s deglobalization from China. 

To my surprise, we encountered a residue of the caste system in Jodhpur. (I have a feeling it is still present in rural cities.) The four varnas (social classes) still exist: Brahmins (scholars, teachers), Kshatriyas (rulers, warriors), Vaishyas (farmers, merchants), and Shudras (merchants, servants). And then there are the Dalits, or “untouchables,” who fall outside the caste system. Each social class has its own traditions, cultural innuendos, dietary restrictions. While discrimination based on the caste system is illegal, people still often marry and socialize within their caste. Though it is illegal not to hire as a doctor someone born into the merchant caste, I have to wonder how much the influence of their parents and culture impact the personal development and social advancement of Indian children. And how much has the caste system impacted the development of the country?

Despite India having two dozen local languages and over a hundred dialects, a very large part of the population speaks English. At least, this is the official line. Our experience with English in India was very spotty. We found that in smaller towns, English was hit or miss (mostly miss). However, the CFA conference in Mumbai was conducted in English. I have a very large readership in India. My book Soul in the Game has been published in Marathi, the language spoken in Maharashtra (the state of which Mumbai is the capital). However, out of the 30 readers I met at my reader meetup in Mumbai, only one read in Marathi; everyone else preferred English.

I think this is where the multiple Indias mental model becomes useful. Yes, it is a country where it takes seven hours to travel 150 miles (our journey from Jodhpur to Udaipur), and if you are a Western driver like myself, you need a lot of help from the motorcycle god to make this trip in one piece. 

I remind myself that India is a developing country that is still building out its highway system. Unlike China, India is a democracy, a system that tends to be slow and inefficient, and is even more so in India’s case. I have a good friend in America who was born in India and recently came into an inheritance. He spent the last eleven months in India trying to claim what is legally his, which is not an unusual story. 

Autocracies are efficient, though generally very corrupt, which is why China can build highways and airports seemingly overnight. Government doesn’t have to worry about property rights. However, there is no shortcut to greatness. Chinese efficiency comes at the expense of the long-term robustness of its system. Democracies and free-market economies are usually slower, but they are less oppressive towards their citizens and usually more robust in the long run. I have written many essays on China; but to sum up, I do not trust the quality and robustness of high, straight-line, uninterrupted growth mandated by a central planning committee and fueled by mountains of debt.

China has a better education system than India. For example, it has a literacy rate of 92% compared to India’s 60%. But if I had to bet on either India or China over the next twenty years, I would cautiously place my bet on India.

India is the country where you’ll find modern shopping malls and supermarkets in Mumbai, while Jodhpur, the second largest city in Rajasthan and home to 1.3 million people, has only a few supermarkets. Most people still shop for groceries in bazaars, where they have been shopping for centuries, and the pharmacies resemble tobacco stores in the US.

Ironically, this is where the upside lies for India. In time, Jodhpur will come to more closely resemble Mumbai, and the quality of life of its people will improve, as will the value-added tasks they perform, which will make society and its citizens wealthier.

As I write this, I am struggling with a thought that was in the back of Hannah’s and my minds the whole trip: Would development make them happier? Hannah and I strived to observe India without judgment on this trip, constantly reminding each other to “observe, don’t judge.” 

Poverty = Unhappiness? 

When we walked the streets of Jodhpur, we saw objective poverty, but we did not see any fewer smiles on the people’s faces than we see on the streets of Denver. These people live on a few dollars a day, in dwellings the size of a one-car garage, and their life appears to us in one shade of grey. But are they any less happy than the average American, who lives the life of a potentate by comparison? I realized that the color grey that I assigned to poverty was the filter through which I saw their lives. 

Here is another way to look at it.

I grew up in Murmansk, a city located above the Arctic Circle, which has long, cold winters with little or no sunlight for months. I never viewed my childhood as particularly difficult or deprived, as I was born into it and didn’t know any better. If you sent an average Denverite (Denver has 300 days of sunshine) or one of my kids to Murmansk, at first they would feel as though they had been sent to a gulag. However, after a year or two, they would adapt and learn to appreciate the beauty of crisp snow on the ground, tobogganing down the local hillsides, and the joy of drinking hot chocolate when they got home and out of the cold. 

Writing this is making me a bit nostalgic for my childhood! 

Humans adapt. The adaptation process is much easier when you are born into an environment and don’t experience the alternatives. Yes, shopping in supermarkets is more efficient and probably cheaper than in Jodhpur’s bazaar. But some may find value in strolling through the busy bazaar, bumping into old friends, buying tomatoes from a merchant whose family you’ve known for decades. My kids would look at my forcing them to use $100 Android phones instead of iPhones as child abuse, while India seems to be “surviving” on cheap Android phones. There are many levels of poverty, I know. 

In Shantaram, Gregory David Roberts discusses two years he spent living in the slums of Mumbai. He adapted and found beauty and meaning in that experience. When we were coming home, Hannah told me she wanted to move back in with her nine-year-old sister, Mia Sarah. Hannah and Mia Sarah used to share a room. Then, when my son Jonah moved out to go to college, Hannah moved into his room. Hannah said that, although she appreciated having her own room, she missed the time she spent with Mia Sarah when they shared a room. Mia Sarah’s room is not quite a Mumbai slum, but I am very proud of Hannah’s decision. 

During this trip, in our conversations, Hannah and I kept coming back to the good old Stoic philosopher Epictetus: “Wealth consists not in having great possessions but in having few wants.”

Reading this from a “money guy” who runs an investment firm, whose daily job is to make money for others by finding undervalued things to buy, it may not be the message you’d expect to hear. And no, I’m not about to sell my house and move my family into my neighbor’s one-car garage. But there is definitely value in learning to want what you have. What we really need is not nearly as much as we think we want. This trip reminded me of this again and again. 

(FYI: I wrote an essay about the value of scarcity, which is included in the bonus chapters of Soul in the Game. Learn how to get this essay and other chapters here.)

Many friends asked if I would recommend this trip to them. I said absolutely, especially if they bring their kids. However, this is not your traditional sightseeing trip to Europe or a relaxing trip to Hawaii. Though the cheapness of the rupee allowed us to stay in five-star hotels and have a driver and a guide everywhere we went, I would not let Hannah venture outside the hotel alone. India is still a developing country with often nonexistent sidewalks and streets often full of stray dogs that may or may not be harmless

This trip widened the Western lens through which Hannah and I look at the world; it expanded our myopic circles. (I wrote about the myopic circles mental model here.) I am not just talking about poverty. To experience that I could have taken Hannah to many countries south of the border that are only a few hours away. India is not just another country; it is a vastly different world with an ancient culture and rich traditions, often stunning architecture, food to die for, potent smells (they take their spices seriously), and people who are the warmest and most welcoming we have ever encountered. This trip stirred many deep conversations that Hannah and I would not have had otherwise. We’ll remember this experience for the rest of our lives.

Here is my favorite picture from the trip: Sunrise in Dhora Desert.

Hannah Katsenelson - Sunrise in Dhora Desert - The Real Country of Contrasts Our Unforgettable Trip to India

As I was traveling, I took pictures and shared them with my Twitter followers. I collapsed all my tweets into one tweet for your convenience – you can read it here.

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12 thoughts on “The Real Country of Contrasts: Our Unforgettable Trip to India”

  1. My only comment relates to your anecdote relating to the number of people who served you a small meal or just the tea; my spouse and I had a similar experience in a South African fast food place that was very empty as the time. We were amazed at the number of staff that insisted on bringing our beverage/snack to our table and kept checking in on if we wanted anything thing else. We really couldn’t compare to any American fast food place that we had ever experienced, going back 30 yrs or so…

  2. India defies explanation. Most outsiders who try to “explain” it fail miserably, as do legions of insiders.

    I applaud you for trying, but unfortunately, there is little to nothing of value in your essay. That is just as well, since most such efforts inspire raucous, unenlightening debates of one kind or the other. At least your essay had avoided that (so far).

  3. As a first timer and westerner ( I just came back on January 15 ) I have to agree on how ignorant and so not ready I was for this experience. It does not matter how much reading you do. It can not be explained. In the end, You have to be there in order to understand. Maybe,the next time around, it will be less of an impact.

  4. Just returned from India-New Dehli, Agra, and Goa. From what I saw India is already a great (and growing) economic power. I saw the tallest apartment complexes I have ever seen in my life leaving Dehli on the 6 lane highway to Agra. January 26 and 29 are national holidays. Military parades in Dehli on both days and heavy military presence in Dehli during the ceremonies. I was a first time tourist and I wanted to do things that tourists do. I visited the Red Fort, Lotus temple, Dilli Haat, Lodi Gardens, India Gate, Qutub Minar, etc in Dehli and of course the Taj Mahal. Everywhere I went the people were friendly and happy to see tourist after 3 years of none or few. I learned a great deal about the Moguls and the rise and fall of their empire that I never knew. The pollution , drivers, highways where much better than I expected. Spend a few days in Dahka Bangladesh and you understand what my reference point is. In my humble opinion the greatest risk to progress in India is not the caste system , the great wealth gape or the external threats posed by China or Pakistan ( although those are great), it’s Hindu politicians calling for the extermination of the 10% Moslim population. This is from my viewpoint as a US citizen, 80 year old black male, retired physician, retired military. Thanks for your article.

  5. I liked your conclusion and some of your observations. A portion of the essay appears to be hackneyed stereotype, which one can read from typical writings about India, my motherland [for the record: I have now spent a greater fraction of my life in the USA and am a citizen here].

    That said, I think you missed a trick sheltering your daughter, maybe a bit too much, and not taking her out and about a bit more. Incidentally, my 17-year old daughter also visited India recently with my wife, her eighth trip to India (if I got my count right).

  6. These observations cover very well-trodden ground and are quite trite (not wrong, just superficial). The author should get out more often.

  7. I enjoyed this. As a child born of Indian parents who grew up in the US, my experience of India has echoes of yours, and vice versa. I first went at the age of 7, too young to process what I saw (and India in 1977 was much different than India today!). Over the years, I’ve grown to agree with much of your perspective here. Thanks for the thoughtful essay!

  8. I find your observations on India extremely stereotypical , prejudiced and viewing everything from an abrahamic vision .
    your observations on caste stereotypical and by somebody who does not care to understand human interaction is more complex than your subconscious notions about them .
    millions of gods according to a tour guide ( mostly very poor , uneducated and inarticulate as to how to present his civilization ) and your judgment is done.
    hindus are monist i.e they believe in a theory or doctrine that denies the existence of a distinction or duality in some sphere, such as that between matter and mind, or God and the world ( they see god in everything hence they respect it but realize its just one god in everything not their relative or multiplicity of gods )
    the doctrine that only one supreme being exists.

  9. I am not a CFA but a CIMA. Otherwise I would have attended your lecture.
    Your essay on India is very real and your exposure brilliant.
    in Hindi we say “Chalta Hai”. That means its going on.
    Jamshed F. Mehta., Mumbai.


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