My wife, Faith, and I love to travel, and I love surprises, so we’ve come up with a clever way to combine the two. Almost every year, Faith tells me to block out some days on my calendar for a trip. As the departure date nears, she provides me with a list of items to pack. But I don’t know where we’re going until we arrive at the airport. At the end of 2018, we took one of these surprise trips.
In addition to Faith’s countless abilities, she has an incredible knack for remembering little pieces of conversation. Once, I mentioned to her how much I wanted to visit the Taj Mahal. That must’ve stuck with her, because once we arrived at the gate, I realized we were headed to New Delhi, India. I was already excited for the trip — Faith never fails to pick an awesome destination — but that excitement grew to insane proportions once I realized where we’d be landing.
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As lovers of Indian food, we were excited to explore the authentic Indian cuisine and see how it compares to what we have back home. We were definitely able to answer that question — turns out, Indian food is far more diverse than what’s offered in most American cities but, having said that, what we have is pretty close to what locals eat. The food tour ended up being only a minor aspect of our trip. The real joy was getting to explore the country and meet its wonderful people.
Income inequality is a problem everywhere in the world, but it’s especially glaring on the Indian subcontinent. I’ve never been to a place where diamond-crusted opulence and hardscrabble poverty exist so close to one another. There were times when we were on the road looking at gleaming glass-paneled skyscrapers in the distance, while next to us, a family of five squeezed onto a tiny motorbike. It’s a strange experience, especially when you’re used to the social safety net we provide our citizens in the U.S.
For the vast majority of our trip, we stayed at a hotel in New Delhi that was a relic from colonial times. It was very much an authentic experience. We showered with buckets and interacted with the local residents, who worked seven days a week just to stay at the hotel. One day, we toured the market with a Muslim tour guide. The next tour we took was guided by a Hindu man. The one after that, we were guided by a Sikh. No matter the religion or background of the person we were interacting with, we were treated with warmth and openness.
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You can imagine the shock we felt when we returned to New Delhi after visiting the Taj Mahal in Agra. It was the last day of our trip, and we stayed in the Taj Palace hotel. We went from washing ourselves with tepid water and buckets to having our every need waited on by multiple hotel employees. Part of me enjoyed the increased level of comfort, but another part of me was ashamed. “Surely, a country that can create such an extravagant hotel can do a better job of providing food and shelter for its people,” I thought to myself as I sought to make sense of the all-or-nothing experience of so many Indian citizens.
That the people of India manage to be hopeful in spite of so much systematic oppression is something that will stay with me for a long time. As somebody who helps regular folks battle massive institutions like insurance companies, I know firsthand how hard it can be to battle a system that doesn’t care for you. The trip will forever remind me that the human spirit is not loyal to any country, race, religion, or economic status. It will also inspire me to keep standing up for the little guy.