Mumbai Tuesday, March 10 – Thursday, March 12 We landed in Mumbai, the city of Slumdog Millionaire, and immediately began our tour with a cab driver Noel knew. From the relative peacefulness of Kerala to the loud, smog-drenched city of Mumbai, we were in a bit of a culture shock. The air was chewable, like it had been in Delhi. No A/C in the cab so we got our lungs full in prep for our 48 hours here. Our first stop was a five-minute sighting of the word’s largest, open-air laundromat, Dhobi Ghat. Dhobis are the traditional Indian laundry men, and their occupation is passed down through the families living here. Hotels and hospitals use this outdoor facility for clothes and sheets with open-air concrete baths called ghats and flogging stones. The process is: soak in sudsy water… thrash on the stones… boil in starch… hang to dry…then iron/fold. After snapping a few shots we hopped back into the cab to reach Mohandas (later called Mahatma by others as it means “Great Soul” in sanskrit) Ghandi’s residence when he visited Mumbai. The Mani Bhavan Gandhi Sangrahalaya is a home converted into a museum. In this home where he stayed when visiting Mumbai, Gandhiji (1869-1948) learned to card wool and to spin here. This man of nonviolence and civil disobedience began his fight against injustice when he was thrown off a train in South African 1893. He was riding in the whites-only section. His search for equality for Indians took him back to his native land in 1915 where he often visited Bombay (Mumbai). In this house on the terrace he was arrested in the early morning of January 4, 1932. This museum, in addition to a chronological display of Gandhi’s life, houses a library, research institute auditorium and his room. Here, he used to live and work, and some of his artifacts are on display. In the picture gallery we view photos of Gandhi from early years to later and read letters he had sent to world figures. Here he is reaching his destination at the end of the famous Salt March in Spring of 1930. Britain held a monopoly on the production and sale of this critical seasoning, forbidding Indians from competing, and heavily taxing it. Thus, this famous march became the symbol of Gandhi’s mass civil disobedience or “satyagraha” against British tyranny. Over 60,000 Indians were arrested after participating in this 240-mile walk. And, here’s a photo of Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964). The latter represented the younger generation, and, although from completely different backgrounds, these two men shared a vision for India, one of independence from British rule. One of the most poignant displays was this quote mourning his wife who died in captivity. However, Gandhi wasn’t always the sparkling, pure hero that history has white-washed. This fighter for justice actually supported racial segregation. When protesting his treatment in South Africa he supposedly said ‘respectable Indians’ should not be made to use the same facilities as ‘raw Kaffirs’. Nice. At least the tactic of non-violent, civil disobedience was used by others who actually did fight again inequality, such as Martin Luther King. The next morning we arrived at a local train station to meet up with our Reality Tours guide who was going to take us into the largest slum in India, the second largest in Asia: Dharavi. I had initially said ‘no thanks’ to doing this. It felt voyeuristic. But Max said read the company’s web page and Trip Advisor ratings. So, I did and was impressed. The business model for Reality Tours is set up for local development. Eighty percent of the profits go back to the community via their sister-NGO Reality Gives. That NGO reinvests the money into education programs where tours are run, such as in Dharavi. The tour guides are respectful of the inhabitants and ensure their customers are as well (we weren’t allowed to take photography and only stopped at pre-arranged places of business). The success of this social impact model has spread with other tour operators interested in replicating Reality Tours’ practices. Over a million people live in this area located in the middle of India’s financial capital Mumbai. The slum is split into commercial and residential areas. Millions of dollars (over $650 million) is generated by businesses contracting with local laborers, the bulk from recycling plastics, sewing apparel, and leather works. Unfortunately, almost all profits go back to the owners who live elsewhere and don’t reinvest in the workers or their working conditions. As Max noted one of the saddest memories he has is walking by a room where three young teens were squatting on the damp and dirty cement floor sorting plastic so quickly he could barely see their hands. We entered the residential area, walking into a dark, narrow warren of alleyways barely three feet wide. Our feet were squishing on planks sitting atop gray mud with electrical cords drooping down from the sides of curtained doorways. Glancing inside you’d see an old woman and young baby in a dimly lit, one-room apartment. No natural light made it down inside the alleys so you couldn’t really see where you were going. Thankfully the guide kept close tabs on all of us. We’d still be there if we’d lost him. Once out we breathed a sigh, then continued past a garbage heap, just missing a rat scurrying from the side of the building towards the trash. Then we came upon a more spacious area of apartments that actually faced some trees and had open-air balconies. Our guide explained this is where Hindus lived. When asked why they had the better living area, he said they were the first to populate the slum, and as more and more moved to Dharavi, the newcomers, such as the Moslems, got the less desirable dwellings. We only have three photographs, which were allowed: two right before we entered, overlooking this huge area; another in a manager’s office selling handbags. We had a wonderful mixed group of fellow tourists: two young guys from New Brunswick of all places (Andrea, you would have enjoyed them and they, you!), an aunt and her niece from Chile, and a young German couple. We ended up at the little gift shop where we purchased a few items including a t’shirt with one of the most informative clothing labels I’ve seen. After the travel and tours we were ready for some R&R, and, boy, did we ever get it. The hotel Noel had booked for us was amazing. We didn’t want to leave our room. We were perched on the top floor, which overlooked this huge city. Here Max is speaking with Noel while enjoying a non-ice G&T :) I must admit we felt so privileged. To walk from the poverty-strewn streets into a posh hotel lobby, ride an elevator to our clean and air-condiionted room, turn on hot and cold running water, while considering what we wanted for dinner… well, it was an extreme comparison, and one with which we weren’t always comfortable. But, it didn’t keep us from enjoying as many amenities as we could! We did stop in at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel where in 2008 ten terrorists murdered 257 people and injured 700. A memorial at our hotel reminded us of this horrific event, an event that is occurring with more frequency throughout the world. It’s also the reason for the security measures seen around our hotel and many other tourist sites. While walking towards our hotel I spotted a sculpture that was a bit scary and odd. It reminded me of a good friend’s gift from her oral-surgeon daughter: a fridge magnet of an open brain… And, when I emailed this head to her she responded “No new magnets, but I will definitely ask for another. Last week she went to a training conference in Tampa on some new plates for broken jaws. They each got a human head, yes, only the head, to operate and practice on for the day. Other body parts were given to other conferences for training.” Not something I could handle! After four weeks our journey to India was over, and as we rode to the Mumbai airport (another impressively designed building), Max and I knew we wanted to return. I had expected to be intrigued by this country but not yearn to return. Yet, the unexpected happened, and we do want to return. I have a feeling in my soul we’ll do just that.
Kerala: Mitraniketan in Vellanad
Monday, March 2 – Tuesday, March 9
After flying into Trivandrum’s airport trom Jaipur we were met by a nice guy from Mitraniketan (Mi-tra-knee-kee-ton). He ushered us into the Ambassador vehicle, a car synonymous with India. Manufactured by the Indian company, Hindustan Motors, since 1958, this car was styled on the British Morris series and was called “the king of the Indian roads” but the company was shut down in 2014 due to bankruptcy. In spite of it being a hot and humid night, it was a pleasant ride especially as we neared our destination in the small village of Vellanad, an hour NE of the airport.
We were returning to the campus we had visited briefly at the beginning of our trip with Noel and Diana. Wanting to volunteer somewhere while in India, Noel arranged for the three of us to do so at the NGO, Mitraniketan. Diana would be helping them with a revised web site while Max and I would be working on development and marketing plans for a U.S. Friends of Mitraniketan organization soon to be started by Noel.
Not feeling too well from Jaipur and it being late, we opted out of dinner and and quickly dropped off to sleep at the visitors’ dorm.
The next morning we rose and headed to breakfast where we met another volunteer, Marcel, who was working as an intern for a college semester.
Hailing from a small town in New Mexico, this young man was teaching English to the youth attending the Vikas Bhavan High School (although called high school it actually begins at first grade and ends at tenth).
We visited his class one day and discovered just how difficult it is to teach a language to a classroom of energetic kids without knowing theirs.
Our friend Carol W. will soon be doing the same in Nepal only she does have a teaching background and has taken an ESL course to prep for it.
My hat and Max’s sunglasses soon became photo props…
We also witnessed the closeness. It was these times when we realized that these young children left everything familiar to them to attend this school.
With an average of 250 students, the majority of these young kids (at the tender age of five) begin as boarders from the tribal District of Wayanad, 600 km north, and graduate at age 15 (grade 10) where they then can join mainstream schools. Headmistress Sethu Viswanathan, the founder’s wife, leads a staff of 20 teachers and 5 craft instructors. We enjoyed her company at meals served in her home by one of her three daughters who was an artist and had taught batik (something I’d love to learn).
Since our volunteerism didn’t include any structured activities, Max and I were there to interview the leaders and participants for the purpose of obtaining as much knowledge as possible about this respected NGO. Our meeting with Reghu and Sabith would be later in the morning so we proceeded to wander around and poke our heads into various activities, including a stop at the Creche and nursery school. Here we were quickly and lovingly surrounded by an inquisitive and bright-eyed flock of tots. And, I so wished I had my polar bear puppet from the Y!
As the founder’s philosophy stated, these children are embraced by a community that teaches them the power of being self-sufficient and contributing to others’ well-being. This included such mundane tasks as doing one’s laundry (starting at age ten), and we saw many clothes line hung around the boys’ and girls’ hostels as proof.
They definitely enjoyed being part of the action.
When there in February our three-hour tour enabled us to meet briefly with the co-director Reghu, head of the People’s College, a school teaching practical skills, leadership development and personal empowerment to those individuals 18 years of age and older. We had been impressed by his dedication (and the work load) then, and, after discussing more with him and his associate, Sabith, we were in awe of not only the scope of their work but also their accomplishments.
Prior to visiting Mitraniketan I had mistakenly thought of this organization as a school for disadvantaged tribal kids. After being there I realized the multi-faceted programs this NGO offered and quickly expanded my perception. When asked what exactly is Mitraniketan, Reghu aptly described it as a rural community development center. Founded in 1956 by Vellanad native, Sri K. Viswanathan (1928-2014), this secular, non-profit organization thrives on a 60-acre campus comprised of over 400 members including teachers, students, farmers, and volunteers.
Viswanathan and now his successors follow principles and practices drawn from Mahatma Gandhi (humanity is the real educator), Rabindranath Tagore (the Upanishad philosophy of abolishing ignorance through a teacher sharing knowledge with a group of students, some say similar to Plato’s line of thinking but, please, you can read more to get a much better understanding than what I’ve tried to describe here), Gurukula System of Education (development of mind, body, and soul to create a healthy and mindful individual with community spirit), and the Danish Folk High School (a public school alternative to university elites, based on informal, open dialogue between teachers and students).
From these guiding lights Viswanathan stated “Progress of society through the total development of individuals is the avowed mission of Mitraniketan. This ‘Abode of Friends’ has evolved over the years with rural development at its core.” And, the best part is his experiment is working.
Having studied in the U.S., the U.K., Scandinavia and India, Viswanathan was influenced by Arthur Morgan (1878-1975), a social philosopher, civil engineer, educator, and public servant, who believed in a holistic approach to education–study, work, and community involvement. Mitraniketan (“abode of friends”) took root in Viswanathan’s home village on family land, and the campus evolved into not only a boarding high school and a community college but also an agricultural science center (Krishi Vigyan Kendra), where we met a class learning better ways to irrigate,
a rural technology center (RtC),
a women’s empowerment center, and a production training center.
During our stay we visited all of the areas with the exception of the women’s empowerment center, which occurs at select times during the year.
As I had mentioned earlier, the scope of Mitraniketan’s programs is a surprise, especially since both Max and I thought of it as a singular school. The campus spreads over a verdant and serene landscape, one populated with open-air classrooms and red brick buildings springing out of lush vegetation and rich earth.
And, everywhere we walked we were greeted politely with smiles and, from the kids learning English, ‘how are you? what is your name?’. We felt like honored guests, ones who had wandered into another world where children grew into thoughtful adults.
During our discussion with Reghu and Sabith we heard about some of the specific programs geared towards building self-sufficiency and empowerment. One was a women’s group where a savings fund created a micro-lending program and some of the agricultural research performed at the farming center taught better irrigation methods.
Our conversations with these two along with the brochure created by Sabith served as excellent background for both Max’s and my projects.
After a formal tour with a young woman who had showed us around in February, Max and I walked back to the Rural Technology Center. Here we were enthusiastically hosted by entrepreneurs who had fashioned several machines, such as one for digging the deep holes required for banana planting and another for more easily husking a coconut.
and jute weaving were other industries taught at these buildings along with water conservation.
I don’t know which impressed us more–the products or the creators. It was a fitting end to our wanderings.
After two days we decided to find a hotel in Trivandrum where we could use the Internet and a computer to start our plans. We landed at the Hyacinth where we were hosted by the nicest hotel staff we’ve ever encountered. At one point, after receiving complimentary cookies and fruit in our room, we thought they must think we’re writing a travel article (I was often at the business center working on a draft plan).
I’ve never stayed at a hotel where everyone, from the doormen to the cleaners to the waiters to the front desk, seemed genuinely welcoming.
Once again we felt spoiled causing Max to revert to a familiar pose as we wandered around the hotel’s premises.
Our time in Trivandrum coincided with one of the most famous festivals in Kerala, the Attukal Pongala. To quote a Trivandrum (or Thiruvananthapuram website)
“Attukal Pongala is celebrated late February/early March, every year, at Attukal Bhagavati Temple. It is a ten-day festival. On the 9th day, thousands of women devotees from many parts of the state gather in the vicinities of the temple to prepare pongala, a favourite offering to the goddess. Pongala (literally means to boil over) is a ritualistic offering of a sweet dish consisting of rice porridge, sweet brown molasses, coconut gratings, nuts and raisins. The uniqueness of the festival is that only women are allowed to do the offerings on that day.
Devotees offer pongala to appease the presiding deity of the temple – the Goddess – popularly known as Attukalamma. Right from the night before the Pongala day, thousands of women, regardless of religious faith, assemble at the temple premises and on either side of the roads leading to the shrine, to make the Pongala offering. Devotees from across the country and even from abroad participate in the ritual.”
We had arrived the day before the ninth day, so the next morning we strolled out the hotel to walk amidst the preparations and then the cooking for this goddess. We didn’t see any other foreigners and were, once again, thrilled to be embraced and welcomed by everyone celebrating this time-honored tradition.
The women of Kerala have set a Guinness Book of World Records as the single largest gathering of women for a religious activity; and, the smoke burning our eyes was proof it was an extremely large celebration.
Another day we visited the royal palace of the local rulers and the nearby landmark, the Shri Padmanabhaswamy Temple.
As non-hindus we couldn’t enter the temple but we had heard the story of a royal treasury found in 2011 worth $22 billion (yes, billion) dollars of gold jewelry, utensils, weapons and coins. We heard more about this mysterious treasure when we met a journalist, Renu Malhorta, editor-in-chief of the Afro Asian Business Chronicle, staying at our hotel. To say she was a live wire is understating her exuberance. Growing up in northern India and raising two children and leaving an abusive husband, Renu was irreverent, full of stories, and a walking, talking example of creating one’s own world in a male-dominated one. Her tales of putting the kibosh on male interviewees’ sexual advances were brazen and hilarious, and she definitely provided an insight into the workings of doing business in a testosterone-centric culture. She said she’d send us her article once it’s published, and I’m looking forward to reading it.
The Kuthiramalika Palace Museum or Puthenmalika Palace Museum is a lovely two-storeyed palace next to the above temple. Built by Maharaja Swathi Thirunal Balarama Varma, the King of Travancore, it features beautiful wood carvings as well as priceless artifacts collected by the family. No photographs were allowed inside but Max was able to shoot the famous horse-head carvings, giving the residence the nickname “the horse palace”.
Unfortunately, the building isn’t being maintained very well by the owners, the royal family; and, the tour guide made sure to point this out to her group of ten visitors, us included. We had also heard that there was a court battle occurring between the royals and the government over who owned the treasure found in the Temple.
It was still a bit ironic to see this sign,
and then see this:
Saturday we re-visited Kovalum Beach, which had resembled Maine’s honky-tonk beach in Old Orchard the night our group went with Noel. What a surprise, then, to find it relatively uncrowded and tranquil. Populated by a few swimmers and surfers, most, if not all, being sun-worshiping foreigners, we took turns frolicking in the surf and resting on the sand. The bus ride to and from was also easy and only 60 cents each for the A/C version and half that for the non-A/C bus.
Enjoying authentic Indian food was a bonus during our travels. Or course there was the odd mistake where I offered what I thought was a green bean to Max…
only to discover it was really a green chili.
Sunday was our day for visiting the most southern tip of India, Indira Point, named to commemorate Indira Ghandi (1917-84). Located in the city of Kanyakumari in the state of Tamil Nadu, this peninsula is the meeting point of three great water bodies: the Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean.
A short and wavy ferry ride takes you to a pilgrimage site, Vivekananda Rock Memorial built in 1970 in honor of Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) who swam, meditated and became enlightened on this rocky outcrop. He raised awareness of Hinduism as a world religion and Indian nationalism. He also helped introduce the pretzel-bending discipline of yoga to the western hemisphere.
His philosophy based on the philosophical part of the Veda, the ancient Indian scriptures, is quoted below:
“Each soul is potentially divine. The goal is to manifest this Divinity within by controlling nature, external and internal. Do this either by work, or worship, or mental discipline, or philosophy—by one, or more, or all of these—and be free.
This is the whole of religion. Doctrines, or dogmas, or rituals, or books, or temples, or forms, are but secondary details.”
Standing on another rock is Thiruvalluvar Statue, 133-foot stone monument of the Tamil poet, Tiuvalluvar, begun in 1979 but only recently completed in 2000. This poet born before 1 B.C. E. wrote down-to-earth couplets, 1330 of them, espousing virtue, wealth and love. He was practical and felt learning was useless unless passed onto others, that farmers were important to society, poverty was destructive and that virtue without some sort of wealth was difficult to sustain.
It was quite an experience to once again be the sole whiteys amidst the orange-bedecked Indians as we rode out to the Temple.
What was also interesting to note were the bunny trash cans. They looked good but I’m not sure how effective they were.
Our two-plus-hour ride back gave us another opportunity to glimpse the busy life of India, spotting the over-crowded buses, baby on scooters, agriculture and tree hauling, and even a car carrying a coffin.
We also spotted quite a few churches, and I knew we’d been in India for a bit when Max pointed out what he called a ‘Christian Temple’.
Back at the Hyacinth we fine-tuned our plan drafts for our meeting with Reghu and Sabith the next day, our last full day in Kerala.
Riding the local bus to Vellanad we passed the ubiquitous billboards advertising wedding jewelry, which explained the large number of gold and silver shops lining Trivandrum’s city street. Believe it or not, I didn’t purchase any of the precious metals.
Monday’s discussion at Mitraniketan was another wonderful day of learning even more about this successful NGO. We also heard about an upcoming visit of Saudi princesses who were interested in this organization’s community development programs. What they intended to do with this knowledge is unknown but it’s no surprise Reghu is sought out for speaking about this NGO’s success.
We walked back to the bus stop hoping that we’d be returning in the future to Mitraniketan for it’s a place that gets into one’s heart before you know it. Yet another reason to return to this beautiful and intriguing land.