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Day 2 – First Day in Mumbai

May 15, 2010
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E: Driving or crossing the street in India is like jumping off the Empire State Building without a parachute. The heart palpitations commence just thinking about it. Luckily, we were in good hands thanks to the help of our guides George and Sandia.  

R: We visited the Saathi group this morning, a non-profit group who has been very successful helping and rehabilitating homeless street youth, 16-24 yrs. old, who were abandoned by their families or forced to run away for various reasons. Their story could fill volume itself, but the visit to their ‘office’ was very unique. Until now, we had had the luxury of air conditioning while inside and only felt the oppressive heat while scurrying to and from the bus. At this visit, we entered a very modest school yard and entered a classroom setup as a small office. We removed our shoes and sat on a cloth mat on the floor. With more than four fans revving at max capacity, we sat listening to the story of the founding of the Saathi group and incredible works and obstacles they face everyday just existing as a non-profit in India. The effects of the air conditioning quickly wore off and sweat began to form everywhere.

E: I sweat in places I’ve never even seen. Good thing I packed mostly black clothing so it’s my secret and no one else has to know. Shhh … don’t tell.

R: We split up into small groups to visit some other facilities. Evelyn went with the Youth Initiative group and I attended the Bag-making group. I was about to enter stimulus overload. Looking like I just stepped out of the shower I climbed in the middle seat of a tiny Fiat cab for a 10-minute heart pounding ride over the bag-making facility. The ride was 30 seconds of pure exhilaration as we darted and danced around the packed street, interspersed with seemly endless minutes stuck still. Breathing in our sauna box was like putting your face over a whistling kettle as you sit behind an oil burning car’s exhaust pipe.

E: Indians must be exceptionally good at contorting their bodies – I suppose that explains the karma sutra. Squeezing into the cab was like fitting 10 clowns into a Smart Car at the circus. Good thing I restrained myself from having that second potato cake for breakfast! That cab ride was complete immersion into the Mumbai culture. Even though I sweat off my entire body weight times two, it was quite the cultural experience to stand in the Red light district of India.  

R: The bag-making ‘facility’ may be a bit of an overstatement. It consisted of a 12×12 room with single fluorescent light bulb, shelf lined walls filled with newspapers, cardboard and string and a mat in the center of the room with two boys cutting newspaper with scissors and stitching. We learned about how the process of making the various bags and how well they master their craft. I was immediately struck with their enthusiasm, care and attention to detail the exhibited in making their products, transforming seeming waste into stylish, durable bags.

E: The Youth Initiative was a very humbling experience. I’ve volunteered with the Boys & Girls Club in the U.S. where they have air hockey tables, foozeball, computers with unlimited access to YouTube and My Space, a gym with two basketball courts, etc. At the Youth Initiative, the boys were just happy to be sleeping on the floor in a covered building. We met one of them. He was so shy and innocent, yet he seemed like your typical happy 16-year-old.  

R: We later visited the Kotak, a private equity bank that serves India. They gave us insight into the details of the Indian financial industry. Without boring you with details, the Indian financial system is much more regulated that most westerners realize. Multiple oversight organizations oversee all aspects of the system keeping it a well oiled machine. Even in the financial crisis, the Indian economy barely felt a hiccup thanks to tight monetary and fiscal policy. However, as they pointed out their conservative bureaucratic government is also a deterrent to their growth as well. The Indian infrastructure, virtually all sectors, lags way behind most other developed countries mostly due to the slowness of the government. Never the less, India is poised to grow at more their GDP 8% per year for several more years.

E: While the visit was interesting, I had a hard time staying awake during this session. Losing a whole day of sleep has you dozing off at the most peculiar moments. One guy fell asleep as Richard was talking to him.  Then, he fell asleep while trying to pay a bill at a restaurant.

I did learn that Indians have an abundance of wealth as well as extreme poverty. It’s common to have a beautifully built structure with modern amenities next to a slum that houses thousands of people.

R: After a quick fluff on the eye, we headed off for a group dinner at Khyber, a short, but entertaining walk away.

E: Dinner at Khyber was quite the palate pleaser. Excuse me while a volcano of flavor erupts in my mouth – sweet coconut milk combined with spicy curries, marinated vegetables, and delicious naan (similar to a pita bread). The ambience topped off the treat. With a cavernous feel, decadent white marble stairs led us up to a booth for 10. We were treated like kings and queens with a wait staff of 20. In India, it is rare to have just one waiter. I suppose in a city of 16 million, you need to create all the jobs you can get.  

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