When my nephew Ethan sent me a wedding announcement, I was so happy. Weddings are automatically a source of rejoicing. The couple picked late September for the celebration.
Then I read the wedding venue: Kerala, the long thin state at the bottom of India. He and his fiancée Meghana live in the Bay Area. Meghana was born in Hyderabad but is as American as any Bay Area Millennial. So I immediately started making plans. By a stroke of luck, my girl Kathe had scheduled to take off the entire month of September. She’s a doctor and had made those plans long in advance. She was going with a girlfriend of hers to bicycle the Camino de Santiago de Compostela the early part of September, so we made plans to spend the second half of the month first at the wedding and then traveling around Kerala a bit.
The wedding was a wonderful and happy event that lasted a couple of days. The bride’s family told us that Indian weddings are an opportunity for the two families to get to know each other and form a bond, and that is indeed what happened. A bunch of us from the United States, friends and family of both groom and bride, met the Indian family of the bride. We ate, drank, shared the ritual, dressed in Indian clothes, and danced at a resort overlooking the Indian Ocean. Exciting and fun. The food was just wonderful, the bride’s family so inviting and generous.
I had last been in India in the early 1980s and heard how much it had changed. There is now a thriving and fast growing middle class, something that was almost entirely absent in the 1980s. After the wedding Kathe and I spent several days in a couple of nearby towns. I was surprised to see that India had not changed as much as I had heard. Certainly the roads had many more cars and motorbikes, which were scarce thirty years before, and there were definitely middle-class homes, but it was the same India, the same poor infrastructure, the same shanty towns around the big cities, the same small shops surviving on little.
I’m sure that in the financial district of Bombay, which is reputed to be one of the most expensive real estate markets, things are different, but it didn’t seem to me that India had made great economic advances or that the lives of many Indians had really improved.
I remember my social studies teacher in junior high school remarking that India and China were similar countries about the same size, with the same population and same level of development. But one was communist and the other democratic, and that it would be interesting to see how those countries fare over the coming years. It seems that the communists are ahead. All indicators such as literacy, life expectancy, nutrition, medical care and infrastructure put China ahead or well ahead of India.
My second bicycle trip to India in 1985 happened after I had bicycled through Africa, and India seemed such a wealthy country by comparison. Most villages had electricity and running water. There was industry, roads, shops, active farmlands. But when compared to China or several other developing countries in Latin America, it is still a poor country.
In the early 1980s the population of India was about 650 million. It is now over 1.2 billion, or nearly double. China’s population in the 1980s was about a billion. It is now over 1.3 billion, which is a much smaller percentage increase. I wondered what India would have been like if the population had not doubled. Would more people be able to find jobs? Would the roads be less congested? Would health care be more available?
I am now back in Boston. The fall is so beautiful here, and there is an invigorating chill in the air. We have to wear coats and boots and turn on the heater in our cars. Except in the mountainous north of India, no one wears a coat there. The tuk tuks are open. People wear flip flops, or, I was surprised to see, still go barefoot. It’s as if there isn’t an environmental pressure to change. We in Boston must buy heavy clothes and live in insulated homes and pay for heat, creating a cycle of economy—I give money to the shoe store who gives money to the accountant who gives money to the roofer who gives money to the farmer, and so on. That cycle, simply because of the weather, is not as extensive in India.
Another aspect of India had not changed: the kindness of the people. People in Boston are kind as well, but in a different way. It was so nice to have people come up to Kathe and I and want to say hello or take a photo together. We were both thrilled to have been there.
In the 80’s I rode through India from ashram to ashram on my bicycle and it had quite the formative experience on my life. I wrote about my adventures there and all around the world in my book: The World Up Close. I invite you read the first 3 chapters for free about my travels or purchase a copy on Amazon. All sales from my books will benefit my non-profit organization The Curiosity Foundation, designed to spread peace and increase tolerance between Americans and non-western cultures by bicycle.