Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Trip to India during Business School

I wrote this in January 2007 but thought it was worth sharing.  Reading over it now, the voice it’s written in is striking.  Like a constant chase after experiences.  I feel like a different person than the one who wrote this, makes me wonder how struck I’ll be in 2015 by the non-sense I write about now :)


40+ friends roll into India, stay in quality hotels in Bombay, Delhi, and Bangalore, party every night, meet with business leaders during the day, and spend remaining time learning about poverty. that's my one sentence overview of what went on over the last couple weeks. 

The experiences are too many to relay in a blog entry, but i thought i would highlight one 24 hour period in Bombay a couple days before the end of 2006. It illustrates the most contrasting series of experiences of my life.

Saturday evening, all of us congregate outside of the hotel to pile into our coach and head to north Bombay to meet a friend for dinner/partying that evening. The guy's name is Akshay Raheja, and he graduated from our school a year back. I knew the guy in passing, but didn't know details, so I asked a friend of mine as we were heading down there. My friend points to a billboard we happen to be crossing by at that very moment. It shows the hottest real estate development going on in town, and the name 'Raheja' is plastered all over it. Turns out this guy helps run a real estate empire.

We arrive at his house around 9pm…I use the term 'house' loosely. We're talking 5 stories, several elevators, so many servants that his servants need servants, and literally right on the beach. We walk in and are bussed up to the roof, which overlooks a view of the full moon, palm trees all over the place, and the serenity of the ocean waves rippling in. The light breeze on my face feels like a soothing touch, and I turn to see my friends sipping champagne and eating hor'deurves. It was a great scene.  about 100 people were there, top shelf food/bar, and butler's who seemed to be incentivized to get us drunk. In fact, my not drinking caused so much anxiety with the butlers that I had to hold a drink in my hand the whole night just to calm them down!

If this was the crux of the night, I'd have been pretty happy, but then it started getting crazy. A couple hours after our arrival, the personal fireworks show began…and lasted for an hour (this is NOT dec. 31st mind you!)… after this, 2 DJ's came out and had a competition … and then came the belly dancer lol … 

After getting home and 4 hours of sleep at best, I experienced the polar opposite of the material world…

In the morning, about 20 of us eschew the coach and buy a 2nd class train ticket. A 2nd class ticket basically means you're traveling with normal Indian folk, and that in itself was a shock for a lot of us. After the opulence of yesterday, we're now surrounded by individuals who are just trying to scrape by a living. One of the lasting images of the trip for me: watching my friend Young hanging off of the side of the train just like any other 2nd class ticket holder, enjoying the wind whipping by on a hot 90 degree day.

Mere minutes from the previous nights party, we find Dharavi, which is a 'suburb' of Bombay. Dharavi also happens to be the largest slum in Asia, with over 1 million residents (avg yearly income = 300 USD). The slum also has a thriving economy, with 85% of the people holding down jobs (that of course pay VERY little), and a total global export value of $700 million USD. Our tour guide, Krishna, takes us on a walking tour from the early afternoon into the evening.

Throughout the day, we are shown numerous enclaves, where multiple industries seem to be thriving. Plastics, pottery, local foods, oils, and paints were some of the industrial districts we saw. Each had its own flavor, and I noticed each seemed to have its own culture. Sometimes all you had to do was travel 50ft, and the language you'd be listening to was completely different. our tour-guide had mastered EIGHT languages for this job! (his story was an enigma in itself: a guy with a good tech job in Bangalore, comes to Bombay, sees this, and immediately quits to start an NGO to help fight the poverty. What an amazing guy)

It was a day of strong emotions. Intense squalor, unbelievable stench, landfills all over the place, pollution, unmitigated fires, and few education facilities. One specific stretch I remember walking through just focusing on putting one foot in front of the other to avoid stepping in trash. As I'm walking, suddenly I'm faced with the most horrible smell of my life. We're walking through a business that cures animals (basically de-skins them and preserves the skin in salt). This type of business in the modern world is FAR from the city and well-ventilated. Not the case here. As Krishna is telling us about this, I watch them throw the cured skin of one sheep after another onto a 1950's pickup. Each one landing with a THUD and kicking up the salt and stench that permeated the place.

And yet, as we walk by, dozens of children greet us. They scream 'Hi!', 'from what country?!', and look overjoyed just to shake our hands. I'm amazed that they speak English, and their psychological states seem untouched by the life that surrounds them. We saw one group of children playing cricket, the popular European sport, on a landfill. I was even offered a chance to bat!

Later in the afternoon, Krishna takes a left-hand turn off one of the paths we're following and basically disappears. As I get closer, I realize that he has walked into a crevice coming off the main road that basically was just a space between two shanty buildings. The crevice couldn't have been more than 6' high and 2' wide. As I'm bent down walking through this area, I'm amazed and shocked to see that there are PEOPLE that live in here. It is dark, it is small, and I can't help but think 'is this a place for humans or rats???'

As we come out of there, we come to an open area between two buildings. We saw a group of about 50 kids dancing around to techno music playing on old but massive speakers. They saw us, and I started dancing with them. We had a spontaneous rave on our hands! The sight was something I'll never forget. The 4pm sun was glistening through the blue, orange, and red saris that had been hung to dry all over the area, tinting the light as though it was a disco. There were my friends, dancing to 'gasolina' with dozens and dozens of children going crazy along with them. There must have been a hundred 'high-fives' before we moved on…

As we left Dharavi back to the train, my head was spinning. I was so thankful to have the experience of seeing how these people live, yet was heartbroken to know that they were seemingly stuck there. I asked my friend Nick what he thought of the slum. Nick is no newbie to witnessing poverty. He's led 3 tours in Iraq and saw the worst of the worst down there. He tells me, "I thought I'd seen it all, but I've NEVER seen anything like this. I can't believe it."

And I start to realize this is what I feel too. The last 24 hours had been so emotionally draining. I couldn't think, so I just sat there and meditated in my hotel room. We all see the contrasts of life on a day-to-day basis, but the party followed by the Dharavi experience had stunned me into silence…

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