Mumbai Express X: Semester in India Wrap Up

Dear Everyone,

I hope you are enjoying the holidays. I’ve been busy for the past two months but in a week I go home. I’m really glad I came to India and am sad to be leaving.

My last note is a long one but my travel updates are done until July, when I’ll be in Japan for a month. With any luck, I may go to Southeast Asia next August but we will see how long the loans last.

Wishing you all the happiest of holidays,

Almost four months gone in the blink of an eye. Summarizing what it’s been like to live in India is difficult. It’s not like when you travel for two weeks and every day is an adventure offering a thousand flashbacks. Life settles down into a routine in which everything is the same and seemingly, hardly worth noticing. School has kept me so busy that I have hardly even scratched the surface of Mumbai.

Yesterday, I saw my first shoeshine boy since I arrived. At the train station there are men but never boys shining shoes. My classmates laughed at me that I was so happy to see a shoeshine boy, understanding only vaguely of my affection. All the kid had, was a brush and a little piece of wood for me to rest my shoe. No rag, no polish. I let him shine my shoes and gave him a few rupees even though he did a horrendous job. Then he followed me a block asking for money. It seems that the set up was barely more than an excuse for begging, or maybe he was just trying to get some money from the foreigner. I turn down way too many beggars, probably ten a day, feeling conflicted about giving money and about not giving money, about reinforcing the stereotypes that gringos—although they aren’t called that here—have money and about turning down so many people, most of whom must be really desperate for a meal or two.

During my stay in Mumbai, I have seen my Penn friend Shivani four times. She is trying to make it as writer and currently is directing and producing plays. Each of the three theatrical productions was marvelous, asking intellectually challenging questions about relationships, humanity’s idiosyncrasies and the crazy world in which we live. My favorite production was entitled Help Desk, in which God is a telephone operator who grants people all their absurd and terrible wishes, like the death of despised in-laws or a teenager’s desire to have a gun so he can go on a rampage. At the end of the play, the pregnant guy—yeah, that’s intentional irony—asks for a peaceful world for his daughter to grow up in and ends up getting clubbed to death by the other moronic characters. Being in India and seeing Iraq on TV 24-7, I certainly can relate to Shivani’s acerbic commentary. India has its share of intellectual artistic firepower.

Attending each of Shivani’s plays has also allowed me some insight into life among the upper crust of Mumbai society. At one place where one of her plays was put on, the Athena Night Club, there is a $20 cover charge on Friday and Saturday nights and the place was so exquisitely refined and upscale that it would put any club in Philly to shame. At another place, an Italian restaurant named Olive where we had red wine and Cuban cigars, I had a good meal. It was $30 all included. For me, I’d rarely spend that kind of money even in the States at a restaurant, but for a meal at a restaurant of the quality of Olive, it would easily cost $150 a pop. So I’ve been privileged to see how the good life is lived in Mumbai.

I have not written much on my trip to South India but the trip was spectacular. Recurring nightmares I’ve had during the past month about my computer going kaput and me losing hours worth of schoolwork on my computer prevent me from remember all the details about my trip but I shall try for some of the highlights.

Ben and I left on a Saturday morning for South India. We flew from Mumbai to Trivandrum on the South West Coast. Immediately walking out of the airport, the touts started in on “good price” rickshaw rides that of course cost 4 times what the locals pay. We avoided getting charged too much and managed to make it to the town bus station for a 3-hour ride to the southern tip of the country, Kanyikumari. The air in South India is completely different from Bombay, we could breathe and green palm trees and grass abounded on the muddy roadsides.

The bus station was an experience, even for a well-traveled person like me who doesn’t mind roughing it. By now, however, bone-rattling butt bruises lose their novelty after about an hour. Here, the bus station is an open-air market with about fifty large red buses in their slots. In India, many people speak English, but I believe I understood Portuguese better in Brazil than the heavily accented language we heard in South India. Finally after a lot of motioning, we settle for a bus to some town we’d never heard off somewhat more than half way to our destination.

I thought Ecuadorian buses were bad. Here, the buses are mostly government run twenty-year old red buses, with none of the subtle refinements in style found on your local Greyhound. No glass in the side windows, a very thin aisle with a 3-person bench on one side and a two person bench on the other. If it rains, you pull down the metal slats in the window so that the bus becomes a heat trap. I’m awfully glad it didn’t rain during our travels. As one bus was about to pull away, Ben and I hopped on. Like always, in this country that mints people like the US mints pennies, within a minute, every seat is filled with 1 and a half the people meant to sit there. The aisle is packed too. An hour into the ride, after some people get on and off, Ben and I are told that we are seated in the womens’ section of the bus. But since there are no other seats and since there aren’t any women who need our seats, we stayed where we were. The 3-hour journey half way to our destination cost 27 rupees each or about 50 cents.

Kanyikumari is not a place that I would ever recommend that you visit. It’s basically an old India fishing village that has gained popularity over the years as a pilgrimage site famous for its Buddhist, Muslim and Hindi shrines situated at the southern most tip of India and the confluence of three large bodies of water: the Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean. Ben and I joined the masses of Indian tourists and a handful of westerners in the town. Thus far in my stay in India, garbage collection has not been one of the strong points of the subcontinent. It wasn’t in Kanyikumari either. The waters and beaches around the town were in serious need of a good community-cleaning day. We spend our most expensive night during the trip at a halfway decent hotel that charged 600 rupees or $13 for the 2 of us. Finding a good restaurant was just about impossible and we certainly didn’t. One of the reasons people go to Kanyikumari is too see the different colors of the three bodies of water coming together. For the record, it all looked kind of grayish blue to me.

The main reason people go to Kanyikumari, however, is to watch the sun rise. Therefore, Ben and I set our alarm for 5 in the morning. We woke up in the dark. Immediately upon exiting our hotel, we joined about 10,000 other people hurriedly walking to the beach. On the shoreline facing east, the day gradually brightened and it became clear that the horizon was cloudy. Still, Ben and I waited. We waited some more. We couldn’t even see the sun after half an hour, although the view was mystical as the dawn colors of pink, orange and yellow touched the cloud tops. An island with a giant Hindu statue sat half a mile offshore in shadows. An hour and fifteen minutes after sunrise people were still arriving at the beach, I couldn’t believe that people considered this a great sunrise and wondered why they continued to arrive but we stuck around. Suddenly, the sun burst through the clouds, in that bright orange color that is so strong it is impossible to look at directly. It was quite beautiful.

Other highlights of our week and a half sojourn included a riding an angry elephant, riding a ferry for an 8-hour cruise through the backwater swamplands of Kerala, seeing some magnificent Maharaja Palaces near Bangalore and attending a friend’s Indian wedding. The absolute highlight of our trip, however, was Vakala Beach in Kerala. Ben and I thought the place was paradise and we stayed for three days, not wanting to leave. It is the one place in India that for tourist purposes I would actually return to see again and if you are here in the next 2 to 3 years, before the town becomes too commercialized, you must visit. The tiny town is located on a cliff overlooking a beach that’s about 2 miles long with golden sand and palm trees. You can get a hostel for $2 bucks a person, eat at the bamboo restaurant huts on the sand and watch the local fisherman row out to sea in their palm tree canoes each morning. In three days, we saw three indescribably beautiful sunsets over the Arabia Sea. Each evening, we had fresh tandoori (barbecued) seafood that was out of this world.

I wanted to travel to the Taj Mahal in Delhi before coming home but it’s not going to happen. We end meetings with only four days until I pull out. I definitely shall have to return. I want to go to Rajasthan, in the north where camels room the desert and palaces abound. I want to go to Nepal and see the Himalayas. Apparently, you can see Mt. Everest on infrequent days when the clouds clear. Mumbai is certainly not India.

On one of our corporate visits, we learned about marketing in rural India where over 70% of the population lives on subsistence agriculture. Generally, the people are distrustful of outsiders and often worship hundreds of local deities. Men vastly outnumber women because families don’t want to have to provide dowries for girls when they get married so they practice selective infanticide. It used to be in India that if a women’s husband died, she was burned in his funeral pyre. Now, she is merely expected to live in mourning for the rest of her life, even if she is a teenager when the husband dies. Personally, I think Sarees are among the most oppressive forms of dress ever invented. Needless to say, life for women can be really tough.

I’ve not only learned about India culture but also about how it is modernizing. Today, barely over half of all Indians have access to television—and less own a television, although ownership is skyrocketing. Ads must be made with the fact in mind that many people will only see them Black and White. The country’s road system is primitive at best. It’s not uncommon to take 8 or 10 hours to what would be the equivalent distance from Philadelphia to New York. Literacy rates are fairly abysmal too, with about 65 percent of Indian men and less than half of women being able to read. Over 17 major languages are spoken throughout the country but less than 3% of individuals speak English. I could go on about trucks that travel cross country without radial tires, meaning they have treads that peel off easily and so much else that would appear so beyond antiquated to us. One of the problems with rural India is that agriculture can’t compete internationally with US prices since we provide $160,000 subsidies to each of our farmers. The subsidies distort economic advantages and increase poverty in India.

This rural scene is contrasted by the IIM’s and IIT’s, institutes of Management or Technology located throughout the country that offer a heavily subsidized education equal to that found anywhere in the world. Most of the graduates flee to the US as soon as they can. Something like 20% of entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley and 10% of the engineers at NASA are from India. Just about all of the students at Welingkar where I attend have family or friends in the US. The wealthy may compose less than half a percent of the population but they number about 25 million in total, enough for many a multinational to consider the market a worthwhile target.

Even though India is a democracy, so entrenched is corruption that political progress is considered the most romantic of notions. Most people get along fine but there is a large undercurrent of religious Hindi and Islamic fundamentalist ideology that divides the country and inhibits rational conversation let alone progress. Like we are finding out in Iraq, often times people really do see the world differently and gun aren’t going to change those convictions although in calmer times, it is possible to hope that words and economic incentives might.

Of all the things that I have learned in India, what is most apparent is that both India and the world are changing incredibly fast. Foreign investment is flowing into the country in record amounts. A recent Goldman Sachs report estimated that by the year 2050, China is going to have the world’s largest economy. The US will be second and India will be 3rd. That would be quite an amazing and interesting world certainly, with many more people than today having a higher standard of living, even if we’ll still have more than our share of environmental and other challenges.

I really can’t say that I’ve been impressed with the academics here. One of our guest lecturers, however, stated that what most employers really want isn’t someone who knows their finance backwards and forwards but someone who can carry on a conversation about art or culture or know what bottle of wine to order at a nice restaurant in Spain on the banks of the Mediterranean to finish off a business deal. With an intentional effort to look on the upside, I simply going to say I’ve got enough stories to keep the chatter going and I’m going to start reading up on my wine.


~ by Admin on December 15, 2003.

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