Tomorrow I depart for India to conduct working leadership sessions with an amazing global company. I have rarely seen such dedication to building cultural bridges as I have from them, and I am excited to work together.
As I pull out my Indian clothing from the closet and pack my suitcase I can’t help but reflect on my first trip to the subcontinent. It was 1997. I had dreamed of going to India since I was a child, and on October 27th of that year my plane touched down in Kolkata (then Calcutta). I was about to spend four months traveling the north part of the country. I had no plans or reservations at any hotel. I had a map, a little money in my pocket, and a small backpack.
I remember the cab ride from the Calcutta airport to the street where I thought I might find an inexpensive guest house. So many images flashed before my eyes: Men selling onion pakoras (fried snacks) on the street, baby cows, kids washing clothes in the Hooghly river, preparations for Durga Puja festival, crowds flowing through the streets. My eyes couldn’t take it in fast enough!
I spent a couple of days in the city, accidentally caused a riot in a train station (yes, it’s true), and then spent the next four months crossing the country through the peaceful streets of Bodhgaya, the ghats of Varanasi, the deserts of Pushkar, and the mountains of Sikkim. I never made plans in advance. I would take a bus or local train to the next city and look for volunteer work to help me learn about the culture. I worked in a library, several hospitals, and a marketing department. It was the adventure of a lifetime.
When I returned to the States I was happy to be back, but India never left my soul. I returned several times and traveled to other parts of Asia, working as a corporate trainer in between. Fourteen years ago I founded Highroad, and made India a major part of my mission to build bridges across cultures. I marvel that that over 20 years later I am still in love with this country. I have never tired of it. But I also can’t help but think about the contrast between the first trip and the one I will take tomorrow. When I was that young adventurer riding camels across the Thar desert and working at a clinic in Bihar, I never thought I would be here working with leaders, uniting teams, and hopping from office to office to see clients.
I wondered to myself yesterday, do I miss the adventure? The guest houses? Riding only rickshaws and buses?
In a way I do, I suppose. I will always treasure that part of my life. But this is a different kind of adventure. It is one where I don’t only fulfill my need for freedom and experiences, but one in which I serve others. This adventure brings me to India, my lifelong teacher, to give back and to learn from those around me, to create change in organizations and make connections that will last a lifetime. While I will likely be riding Uber instead of local buses, and my hotels will be a little shinier, I carry the spirit of India inside of me. That young traveler I was remains with me, shaping the stories that I will bring to my clients, and forging threads that span across time.
I cannot wait to be surprised by India once again. Because the country stole my heart away 21 years ago, and never gave it back.