As you know I’ve been fortunate to travel quite a lot over the years as my many of stories and essays can attest, but my adventures in India are unique. Why you ask?
They say once you’ve been to India you do one of two things, you either embrace or you resist it. The more you resist the tougher it becomes emotionally…
If you surrender and embrace India for what it is, then it has a way of getting under your skin. I fell in love with the people, beauty and simplicity.
The big day came for my departure and with a fair amount of trepidation and excitement I boarded my overnight flight to Frankfurt, before changing planes south onto Bengaluru (Bangalore) in southern India.
John (my boss at the time) and I arrived into a crowded and muggy terminal, chock full of westerners, ex-pats and those returning from or arriving for holidays and family visits.
Even at 1:00 AM the arrivals hall had a frenetic, yet orderly rhythm to it as there were many international flights all landing around the same time.
Once through customs, which included a number of checkpoints, questions and enquiring eyes from the large number of security forces we kept a sharp look out for our driver (Mannish) who would be waiting for us.
Upon exiting we scanned the large crowd of drivers and people waiting in the arrivals area… this was going to be tougher than we thought.
We were fortunate as Mannish was going to be our driver for the entire time we would be in India. He worked for one of the many car rental companies – highly recommended!
Pre-planning for your arrival is definitely the way to go, especially into a busy and crowded airport and country you’ve never visited.
I’m not sure if it was a combination of my exhaustion or the humidity or the scenes that greeted me as we drove into the city from the airport, even at this incredibly late hour my senses were being bombarded a strange assortment of images, smells and sounds.
We grabbed a few hours sleep at our hotel before showering, grabbing a quick breakfast and heading down to the taxi rank where we asked for Mannish and his car number.
As quick as a flash our car appeared in the driveway with a beaming Mannish perched behind the wheel.
Wow, that was fast! Only later in the week did we realize that he slept in the car for the entire time we were in Bengaluru, always on call – 24 x 7, just in case we needed his services.
I remember thinking how spotless the car was day or night; Mannish always crisply dressed which was, to be honest a bit of a contrast to the world outside the car…
How on earth did he manage to look so impeccable I thought?
The hardest thing to get used to were the young children begging at the windows of the car as we stopped in traffic. Every square meter was populated, including the edge of road where rows of shanty huts sat between the footpath and the road.
The poverty was crushing…
The conundrum for me was the contrast between the “haves” and the “have nots”. Here was poverty like you’ve never seen before on one hand and on the other such a strong and positive outlook on the future of India.
I also realized early on in my first visit that the only way to survive India was to surrender myself to India…
Although I’m not a big fan of spicy food I now have a new appreciation of real Indian food and some of the differences between dishes from the north versus the south of the country.
Definitely opening myself up and allowing myself time and mental space to find an appreciation of the sights, sounds, smells, and textures that were constantly evolving around me was an interesting situation to be in.
Accepting all of its contrasts, extremes and indeed this very richness brought my experience to life on a whole new level – hard to explain, but I was able to “breath”, strange as it sounds.
A highlight of our visit was our team dinner.
Prior to our visit John has spoken to the local team lead and said that we wanted to take the “team” (John had meant Leadership team) to dinner during our visit.
We were assured that everything would be arranged.
As it got closer there seemed to be a fair amount of excitement and buzz in the air regarding the team dinner. The buzz wasn’t only confined to the leadership team… strangely everyone on the large team seemed to be excited about the dinner – now that’s odd I thought myself.
At 5:00 pm we headed downstairs to the lobby and Mannish who was going to take us over to the restaurant.
After an excruciatingly long delay stuck in traffic, even with running a couple of red lights and driving up a one-way street the wrong way we finally arrived, only to find the entire team – yes, all 140 people already at the restaurant.
As we entered, the team all clapped and cheered…this was when I noticed John turn slightly pale. He genuinely thought that we were taking the eight people out for dinner, not the entire team!
Apparently, the entire restaurant had been booked, all three floors including rooftop, a live rock band (these guys were amazing and could play any cover, taking request all night long.
I could see look of concern come over John’s face as he began doing the math in his head. Let me see… 140 people for a three-course meal, drinks, live band.
He leaned in and quietly asked how much money I had on me. I said I had about $100 US dollars, plus about 5000 Indian Rupee, plus my credit card if need be.
After an awesome meal, great music, endless drinks it was beginning to wind down at around 10:30 pm and the moment of truth was about to come – time for the bill if you please…
After all was said and done, we ended up splitting it on our credit cards but the whole lot came out to about $350 US dollars for the entire night.
The next morning everyone was still on a high with stories from the night before, it clearly had been a huge success.
As I walked the bays it was awash with peals of laughter, lots of post mortem discussion and clearly there was a good vibe about how much fun we’d all had the night before.
Now that was a team-building event!
I wanted to get a sense of the real India and so over the course of the week I made it a point of speaking to Mannish so I could learn a little more about his life.
I must admit I was shocked to learn that he like the other drivers employed by the rental car companies, each driver only got one chance per month (roughly speaking) to drive someone from the West.
It didn’t matter if his clients were only in town for one day or two weeks this was this driver’s singular opportunity to make some extra money over and above the meager salary ($40 per month) for his general driving services.
He also explained that he lived in a village about 50 miles outside Bengaluru and that each weekend if he wasn’t working, he would walk or hitchhike home to see his wife and two sons, sometimes taking him most of the day to get home before turning around and making his way back to the city and the next driving job.
They lived a subsistence life in the village; with almost the entire amount he earned going to pay rent with the remainder on food. The tips he made from his clients allowed him to buy non-essentials (school uniforms, books, and medicine (one of his sons has severe asthma).
At the end of the week John and I pooled our remaining Rupee and gave it to Mannish as a tip, which was the equivalent of $160 US dollars in local currency.
As we handed him the wad of notes, his eyes misted up as he gripped our hands strongly and shook them until I thought I was going to lose feeling in my fingers.
Some people might be sceptical and dismiss this as a token act or that it just made us feel good, but I would contend that making a difference to someone’s life irrespective cannot be measured in the size of the act, but the act itself.
I guess I’d like to think that this small token of our appreciation and esteem for Mannish made a difference and perhaps provided a little breathing space for him and his family, even for just a little while.
Whenever I think of India, I think warmly of all my friends there and how they touched my heart with their kindness and generosity!
Until next week