My first impressions of India were formed through the rear windows of an SUV. It took about an hour to get from the airport to what would be my temporary “home” for the week. About 30 hours earlier I left Grand Rapids, Michigan to arrive at my ultimate destination in Hyderabad, India. I had been anxiously awaiting this trip since joining Read Asia as its Interim Executive Director, less than two months earlier. And let’s just say that I was more than excited to see what India was really like.
You see, I’ve had an interest in Indian and other Asian cultures for quite some time, probably because they’re so different from my own. Over the years, I had watched several documentaries about life in India, a Bollywood movie or two (“Slum Dog Millionaire” and “The Best Marigold Hotel” come to mind) and, more recently, a comedic documentary called, “Meet the Patels,” which is a story about adult siblings (a brother and a sister) who work in the film industry in Los Angeles, and were born and raised in the U.S. by parents who were born and raised in India. But I digress….
To prepare for my new role as Interim Executive Director of Read Asia and for my first trip to India, I immersed myself, for weeks, in official government reports, statistics, and articles about: India’s immense population and culture (currently 1.3 billion people); the country’s diverse people groups and languages (over 1,400 languages and dialects); India’s geopolitical system and the laws that were designed to protect and educate females; the inherently discriminatory caste system (that was abolished in 1950 but is still “alive and well” today); and the frequently ignored atrocities that continue to harm millions of impoverished Indian women and girls, such as, child marriage, child labor, gender-selected abortion and infanticide, extreme violence, and illiteracy.
But, nothing could prepare me for the magnitude of humanity that was impossible to escape once I was outside the Hyderabad Airport. The sights, smells, and feelings that were evoked were intense and everywhere. I still can’t get the images of so many hungry-looking people crouching inside exposed mud huts, tents, and shacks along the roads, out of my mind. Nor can I forget thinking about the constant chaos in the streets: drivers continuously honking their horns while almost running into one another; one dilapidated building after another, women dressed in colorful saris while balancing huge bags of rice on top of their heads, and the stench that hit me when I first rolled my window down.
Until I was exposed to this very different way of life up close, and to the sad realization that it really was “common” for so many people to live today without running water, electricity, a toilet, floors, beds, clean clothes, and enough nutritious food to keep a family fed and healthy – I hadn’t given it much thought. Now I do.
It only took one hour on the ground to experience the “emotional rollercoaster” that India now is to me. And in that short amount of time, I completely understood why it was so important for me to actually be there. The 30 hours of sitting in cramped planes and walking through all those airports on the way to India, had already been worth it.