Before I went to India, I was warned that it could potentially have a life-changing impact on me. And it did.
Days after I returned from Mount Abu, via Ahmadabad, Mumbai, Doha, Dar es Salaam and Johannesburg, I am still struggling to get to grips with what I had experienced and how it has changed my life, I think, forever.
I went to India to attend the Call of the Time Dialogue, an initiative of the Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University. It was held at Abudhan, the headquarters of the Brahma Kumaris, and a beautiful and peaceful campus called Gyan Sarovar high up in the mountains.
It was an amazing experience with people from about 26 countries, all grappling with how we can turn the world into a better place for all.
All of us who attended were asked to practise a vegetarian and non-alcoholic diet for a week or so before the dialogue, something I admit I only practised a few days before I left for India.
Since leaving India, I have stuck to the diet and intend to stick to it.
It is not based on anything spiritual, which was the nature of the dialogue, or suddenly being an animal lover. It has more to do with the fact that I saw so much poverty in India, yet people get by and even share what little they have.
I realised too that one does not have to kill animals to sustain humanity. The Indians, the world’s most populous nation, sustains almost all their people on simply vegetables.
I want to see how long I will be able to sustain myself on a vegetarian diet.
I was also moved by how the Indians, despite their poverty, display so much pride in what they do. I hardly saw anyone beg, apart from one or two street children, but the majority of Indians would rather try to sell you something than beg.
It’s difficult not to use stereotypes, but many of the Indians with whom I interacted seemed to be natural sellers or bargainers.
Most of the shopkeepers followed a routine. As you walk past their shop, they invite you in, ask you to sit down and offer you something to drink. Then, in case you’re in a shop where they sell linen or cotton, the shopkeeper would unroll and unveil one after the other piece of material, in an attempt to get you to buy something.
I’m a softie, so it was easy to convince me to buy. I felt guilty that this man had shown so much hospitality and determination that I ended up buying much more than I intended.
I also could not resist having him make me a suit, which he promised to deliver within 48 hours and did within 72.
One day, I was walking with two colleagues and we were stopped in an alleyway by a shopkeeper who I had met a few days before. He asked us to come into his shop because he had some “new things” to show us.
My colleague asked him for something specific, which he clearly did not have but he said he did. He asked us to wait and disappeared, leaving three strangers all alone in his shop. He came back a short while later with the required item, and more.
We realised afterwards that, while it was strange and trusting that he left us alone in his shop, we had met him outside in the alleyway and his shop had been standing open and empty at that point.
So much poverty, I thought, but poor people in India do not appear to be taking advantage of other people’s honesty. If this had been South Africa, I thought, the shopkeeper would never have been able to leave his shop open and alone. He would have had to lock it every time he wanted to go anywhere.
As I walked through one of the villages in Mount Abu, I realised that I never felt threatened by anyone, despite all the poverty. And yet, in South Africa, some of us blame the high levels of crime on poverty. There must be another reason for all the crime and violence in South Africa, I found myself thinking.
India is chaotic and disorderly at times, but somehow things seem to work. There are some places, however, where the chaos is overwhelming. One such place is Mumbai Airport.
From the minute we landed at Mumbai, I knew that we were in for a special, if not pleasant experience.
First, we had to wait inside the plane for about 15 minutes after we landed because there were no stairs and when they arrived, they were faulty. Once we got outside, there were only two small buses to take a planeload of passengers. Once the two buses had left, the rest of us had to wait another ten minutes for more.
Inside the airport, the chaos continued. As far as we could see, there were no clear signs indicating where you had to go.
A colleague and I were looking for international departures and were told it was upstairs, but we could not find a lift or stairs. We finally found a lift in a passage and when we got out on the top floor, there were two doors, one, guarded by a policeman, let to the outside. The other was marked “staff access only”. We asked the policemen where we could find international departures and he pointed us through the “staff access” door.
What greeted us on the other side was more chaos, with almost no seating for people before going through immigration. Only on the other side were there proper restaurants and sitting places.
I had arrived at Mumbai at about 10.30pm and had to wait for a connecting flight to Doha until 5am the following morning.
When we finally boarded our flight, on time, we had to wait about 50 minutes for a vehicle to push the plane out of the parking bay. As a result, I missed my connecting flight from Doha to Cape Town and had to reroute via Dar es Salaam and Johannesburg, arriving home about six hours later than planned. In the process, I lost my luggage but I am not going to complain about that.
I think the time I spent at the dialogue, where I learnt a lot about patience and thinking positive thoughts, helped me deal with the chaos at Mumbai Airport and the rerouting of my flight.
I believe that, if ordinary Indians can deal with their many problems without resorting to violence or anger, then why should I get angry about things over which I had no control in any case.
People who know me well know that I can sometimes have a short fuse, so if I stick to this lesson from India, it will have changed my life profoundly.
So, will I go back to India? The answer is definitely yes. There is so much more to see and, who knows, the next experience might be much more pleasant than this one.
(First published on the Mail and Guardian's Thoughtleader site in November 2009)