As the days began to wind down toward my trip to India for what we call “wedding shopping”, my upcoming wedding was actually the last thing on my mind. As bad as it sounds, all I was worried about before going was how I was going to survive for twenty days without a gym. I was so worried about not having a chance to go to a gym that I contacted my cousin who we stayed with, asking her if there were any gyms in India. I had not visited in over 5 years, and did not suspect much had changed since my last stay in my parents’ hometown. When my cousin mentioned that there were “several” gyms in a town that used to be a village, all of my worries suddenly transitioned into excitement. Again, not for wedding selections, but for my own gym addiction. When we arrived in India after a 30-hour journey, it did not take long for me to forget the fact that these gyms existed. Within one day, all of my energy was focused on understanding a world of poverty, starvation, and dedication.

I began taking notes of every single detail that presented itself. I hoped that one day I would eventually be able to tie in all of my thoughts regarding India and how the mentality pertains to the levels of success athletes and daily gym goers seek. I tried to write on the 16-hour flight from Doha to Houston, but all I could muster up was an outline.

This is my story.

The biggest takeaway that I brought back to the US was the true definition of dedication. Go to a country where starved newborn puppies lie dead in the middle of the road, their body facing one way and their head in another. Go to a country where seemingly anorexic cows are seen eating trash from the side of the road, hoping for anything to rid their hunger. If you thought Darwin’s theory of Survival of the Fittest was just that – a “theory” that you learned in high school biology – you would be proven wrong in a heartbeat. I can count three separate nights that I spent staying awake until 2 in the morning. It was not because I was bored, but rather that I was so caught up in such meaningful conversations with my aunt and cousin about the struggles of earning money in India. We talked for hours and hours about how difficult it is to earn a living. They told stories of people they knew who worked so hard and so often that it lead them to a state of depression. They informed me of students who graduated with an Engineering Degree only to be working twelve-hour days, seven days a week, as a local bank teller. Maybe I am a bit biased coming from a country where success is fueled by parents, where people are spoiled with the latest technology, and where even the smallest things are taken for granted. Maybe it is difficult for me to fathom life in India because I saw those farming families with toddlers and infants living in huts standing up with the help of 4 large sticks, while we have the convenience of brick houses, brick apartments and hell, even brick motels. Maybe it hit me so hard because we have ceilings protecting us when it rains, while those kids are stuck with cloth sheets covering their heads through rain. Maybe it motivated me so much because the entire three weeks I was there, I never once saw a look of defeat on a single face. Instead, I saw men’s eyes filled with fire; I saw the look of dedication and motivation to help their families live the best life possible.

Over the course of my stay, I became extremely close to our personal rickshaw driver, Iliyas. He was the type of guy that would help my grandpa, who is nearly blind, walk back into the house even though he was not getting paid for it. Iliyas had one job, and that was to transport us from point A to point B. Even so, I can’t recall a single day where that was all he did. If he wasn’t taking care of my grandpa, he was helping me choose the best spots for souvenirs, or he was taking the load of bags out of my mom’s hands and placing them in his rickshaw. However, there was one thing that Iliyas lacked – knowledge. When he found out what my occupation was in the US, he immediately rattled off ten questions about how his daughter could lose weight. “She works hard around the house, but she isn’t the skinniest. She’s even taking medicines to help her lose weight.”
“Medicines? Medicines for what?” What Iliyas told me next is still clear as day in my mind. People had told him his daughter needed to take “natural” medicine to help her lose weight. He was stunned when I told him the medicines wouldn’t help, and that she would need to start exercising to get healthier. It was as if he had never heard of exercise before, much less the benefits of it. Combine this with the lack of knowledge of exercise by the general person in India, and it wasn’t hard for me to see why the country is so behind on health and fitness. My grandma is scheduled for a total knee replacement next week, her friend needs a total knee replacement as well, and I worked for hours on my aunt’s knee during my trip even though multiple doctors have recommended a total knee replacement for her also. All three of them never tried any of the exercises I showed them, because in India, the immediate answer for every ache is medicine. After that? Well, if the medicine doesn’t work, then we have to have surgery. That is my biggest pet peeve, and it is the only reason I wish I had stayed longer – to have more time to fix their knees. Still, I came back to the US knowing that I made them believers not in the power of medicine, but in the power of exercise.

As we walked from shop to shop through the crowded streets, complete strangers greeted us with cups of water and coke asking us to take a seat while they showed us their clothing selections. My mother’s biggest and more difficult task during the trip was to choose a large selection of sarees for our relatives. Our routine went like this: walk into a store and explain to the men working what we wanted and what fit into our price range. The men would then proceed with unpacking one saree after another, throwing each one we did not like onto the ground to be folded up and repacked for the next customer that walked in. In case you don’t know what a crumpled up saree looks like, imagine unfolding a large bed sheet and throwing it on the floor. Now imagine thirty or forty of these bed sheets on the floor ready to be folded. I would make a bet with most of you that at some point, you would stop unpacking these sarees because of the hassle it would cause you to fold them back up. This is where we differ from the typical Indian mentality. These men were there to help us, and they were going to do everything in their power to make sure we left with a saree (or five) that we liked. It didn’t matter if that one saree selection came after fifty were thrown on the ground, because they were there to do their job. They are there to help customers find a saree that they like, not to worry about folding them back and repacking them. Maybe this stuck with me throughout my trip because we spent most of our time at clothing stores with identical experiences, but every time we left a shop I would look at my mom and one word would would always slip off of my tongue – patience. I could not believe how calm and collected all of these men stayed even after we had said no to 20 sarees in a row. This was the most ultimate portrayal of patience that I had ever seen, and I have since brought it back with me to America.

Throughout my trip, I went to the gym exactly one time. I completed a total of three workouts (two of them being at home) in twenty days. Looking back now, it doesn’t bother me at all that I didn’t get to train more. It’s not that I didn’t have any desire to go to the gym, but rather I was caught up in the lifestyle of the billion plus people that live in India. The only two things that occupied me during my stay are the same two things that occupy everybody I encountered. For residents of India, work and family are all that matters. Over the course of three weeks, my “job” consisted of preparing for my upcoming marriage, and my free time was spent with family.

I learned a great deal during my three-week span in India. I learned about the drive to provide for your family, no matter how much your income. I experienced first-hand the motivation for people wanting to gain knowledge, and trusting everything you say. And I appreciated the patience of every single person we encountered, wanting to do their best to impress a customer every single time. To some, those qualities I faced mean nothing when it comes to health and fitness. If you ask me, there is no other quality you could throw in that tops those.