Sunday, March 16, 2008

GCP-India Final Thoughts

My Views

The trip went very well.  Much better than what I expected.  There was a lot of learning for me and the group.  There were some minor hiccups, but those were really quite minor.  The enjoyment was much more.

The only little thing that bothered me about some of the group members the most was that they chose to read books instead of soaking their environment. Even the president did not pick up a book while there, so the other group members should also have tried to just be there. I am quite sure for most of these students, this will be the only trip they will take to India, they may go to Europe or South America, but India may not be on their list of places to go. So it would have been better if they had taken time to absorb their surroundings. Or maybe different people have different ways of absorbing their experience. I do know that they will never forget India and will may remember certain incidences many years from now.

The group did take back a few things with them forever: tea, glucose biscuits and mangoes. They will also not forget some of the poverty stricken areas of Mumbai. They will always remember, with a sigh, the traffic congestion.

There were so many things during the trip that were good:

  • the way all the members kept themselves busy during the long bus drives. 
  • how the members ate whatever they could and tried to enjoy all the foods possible. 
  • the unexpected learning that came from the road trips is not possible in any classroom or prep session. 
  • I was impressed by how well behaved the entire group was all the time. I did not have to worry too much about them. 

Bipin’s enthusiasm was so contagious. He was also very knowledgeable about so many things. I could not have done any part of this trip without him.  He was more of the "unknown" in the group as he had come to very few prep meetings and I also did not know him well. For me there was a lot of learning in this trip. There was a lot of affirmation too also for myself since there were so many things I had thought of and a almost all of them worked beautifully.  The rest were completed by Bipin.

Things I would differently for myself:

  • writing on a daily basis. My only excuse for not writing this time was that I was so tired and there was so much to do on a daily basis that I was just exhausted. 
  • assuming that everyone would enjoy the trip as much as I enjoyed planning it. 
  • not involving some of the adult members in the group in the planning process early on. 
  • reflections are an integral part of this kind of a trip, and I feel I could have done a better job, but again there was this whole time constraint. We tried to do some of those in the bus also, but a stationery place would have been much better. 

For planning….
Think about this arrangement - take one leader, give him/her a mix of faculty, staff and students of all level and put them together for seven days in a foreign country.  So much could go wrong!  Or in my case, so much could went well.  We all hit it off from day one.  The group was amazingly excited to go to India.  Being an Indian I was a little worried, because I would not be able to take it well if they criticized my country too much.  I was ready for the shock they would get from the crowd, garbage and poverty.
A lot of this kind of trip depends on having a good plan to begin with.

Be ready for anything despite the good plan.

  • Always have food/snacks and water just in case. 
  • A first aid kit is a must, especially for intestinal disorders and minor cuts. 
  • Make contacts ahead of time, but don't depend them.  Always have a backup plan. 

The one thing one cannot plan on what kind of group one will have. I was very lucky in having the best group members. They seemed bore proof, self entertaining, easy to talk to, flexible, punctual, adventurous and in general got along very well. If that had not been the case, I could  not have entertained them for all the road trips!

Saturday, March 15, 2008

GCP-India Day 7

Sugar factory, mango orchard, back to Mumbai and then to US

Breakfast was as good as the day before. We cleaned up the place as best as we could and packed up. We did not have much planned for today. We went along as whatever happened. Our first stop turned out be the sugar mill. Bipin was not with us, so I helped out in translation etc. I think by now the group was tired of touring all the industries that some of them were not even walking with us. I had toured a sugar mill before in Saharanpur, but it was still good to see another one. This was also a very big mill. What I had not realized is that the mill is closed for six months in a year for clean up and works six months for sugar production. So the mill workers have a seasonal job.

From there we went for lunch at the most wonderful place – Red Chilles. It had a mix of western/eastern food. Yet again we ordered all sorts of dishes from the menu and shared the food. Behind us was a TV with hindi movie songs playing. Great!

So before we left there were just a few minutes left for last minute shopping, which some of the girls did! They are good in finding stuff to shop.

We left Surat and headed to Mumbai. Another surprise that Bipin had for us, was a stop at a mango grove. It was a little bit off the main road. There were many fruit trees there, mango, “ramphal”, chiku and more. We had some nice coconut water and then walked around. While we were eating the ram phal, we had an impromptu seed spitting contest. I think I won it…

Next was the long drive to Mumbai. The only drawback here was there was no restroom break for 5-6 hours. We were going to Bipin’s sister’s house for our last dinner/snack before heading to the airport. My cousin had called me and was waiting for me there too. The drive back was a little tiring for me since I really had to go (you know where!!). We finally reached and I ran to the bathroom!! My cousin was there and it was great to see her! We caught up on news and gossip.

Bipin’s sister had quite a spread for us. The one item the group enjoyed a lot was mangoes! Wow – who would have thought?! Bipin had a small gift of sweet for all the members. A little something to take back to US. Soon it was time to go to the airport. My cousin came with us, that was really nice! We talked all the way to the airport. Then we said our goodbyes.

That was it. We checked in and then it was all back to routine. Of course I did not anticipate that the entertainment would not be working in the planes, so we all ended up talking, yet again!

Friday, March 14, 2008

GCP-India Day 6

Narmada Dam, Kabir Waad

We got ready by 8 am to go for a road trip to Narmada Dam. Breakfast was simple, yet good – poha and biscuits and hot tea. We then all loaded up in the bus. Today’s day turned out to be much better than expected. I was thinking it will just be driving from one location to another, but since we were going through rural India, there was so much more to see and learn than going through the bustle of Mumbai.

Initially we were just catching a nap or writing in journals, but eventually we all were alert, especially since our main highway was a one lane road, barely wide enough for one bus. The sights grew more interesting (as I have seen so many times in the north); there were all sorts of vehicles on the road, more famously the bullock cart loaded with sugarcane going to the sugar factory.

Bipin was very good in stopping periodically to explain and show things. He was a much better guide here than I was. I am not much of a rural Indian. I am very much a city girl. So we stopped near a sugar cane farm. The nice thing about India vs. USA, is that you can stop anywhere and take samples and talk to people much more easily. I requested to take some sugar cane samples, as our American group had never eaten raw sugar cane. So there I was peeling the sugar cane with my teeth and giving samples to everyone! It was fun to see how much everyone was enjoying it. (Of course my teeth hurt terribly later on!!)

We took a bathroom break just before reaching the dam. Luckily Bipin has a string of doctor friends in the region so we stopped at one’s office, otherwise it would have been a very hard trip. Bipin stocked up on some chhaaj; it was available in packets. It is such a traditional thing and I was happy to see that all the group members liked it, which is good because it really helps with the heat.

We reached the dam in good time. It was a beautiful area (and there were restrooms too!!). There was a small information room about the dam. The dam was huge! Narmada is one of the major and holy rivers of India. We walked around and then drove to another point of view. There was no one around, and it was really peaceful area. There were some beautiful flowers there, although the green was a different shade of green than what I am used to seeing in the north India.

Our lunch was just snacks today – all sorts of junk food. There was no place to eat together as a group, so we made it with biscuits, granola bars, peanuts and fruits in the bus. It was alright. Yet again, I was impressed with the group!!

Our next destination was Kabirwaad. This place had the biggest banyan tree of the world (larger than even Lahaina, Hawaii, USA). This was still quite a drive so yet, there we were again enjoying in the bus, singing songs, trying to solve unsolvable puzzles.

On the way we stopped to see “gur” making process. I had never seen it before either! Looking from an American point of view, it does not exactly follow the FDA practices! So the sugar cane juice is heated to a concentrated amount and then treated with some vegetable enzymes to clarify it a bit. The resulting syrup is heated more and more until it forms a yellow thick paste. We had some that hot gooey paste – oh !! It was so yum! We all “drank” some samples, which literally was drinking sugar! But who cares! I managed to bring some sample home in a bottle, which I enjoyed for a long long time.

After another hour or so of driving we reached the banks of Narmada. I had not realized where Kabirwaad was. We took a boat ride to the other side. So Kabirwaad is on an island in Narmada. This is the place where Kabir, the poet, came and planted the first banyan shoot, which has now grown into this giant canopy of tree where you cannot tell where the tree started. The boat ride brought us almost to the bank of the river but not to the edge. And this was even more surprising!! We had to wade through shallow water to reach the bank. (of course Bipin knew and he did not tell us about this little detail about a boat ride and wading through the water!). Part of the wading was on metal support but then it ended and then it was just water. The water was clean and fresh looking, so there were no worries of any type. Very interesting walk/wade for all of us!

We trekked a bit inside the island to reach the tree. It was like walking on the beach for a while, and there was also a camel on the way, which made the walk a little more exotic. The tree itself is an amazing sight to see. Words cannot tell how beautiful and peaceful the place is. We walked around taking pictures and enjoying the greenery. And yes, of course there were monkeys! There was also a small lodge where one could stay for a few days for self exploration. We trekked back to the boat, through the beach, through the water and back to the boat.

The drive back to Surat was a little uncomfortable for me, as my jeans was all still wet from wading through the water. On reaching Surat, Bipin had another surprise for us, we ate dinner at Pizza Hut. I had eaten at an Indian Pizza Hut before, so I knew it was going to be great.  What the group was really surprised about was that all the pizzas were vegetarian. We had a really good time at dinner. It is almost the end of the trip and yet we are all still talking!

When we got back the petticoats and blouses were home! So of course it was a dress up party for the girls. I helped with the tying of the sarees with all the girls. A little later, we had our reflection session; yet again a good reflection and discussion to end the day. We were not in any rush to get up the next morning as all we were doing was driving back to Mumbai to catch our flight.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

GCP-India Day 5

To Surat/Textile Mill, Diamond Industry, Local Food

Next morning was going to be a really early rise since we were departing for Surat. We were told that the earlier we leave the better it will be for us regarding the traffic. We all managed to come down at 5 am sharp. Again, I am so impressed with this group!! We had just enough time for a cup of tea and then we started our 5 hour bus drive. It was nice that we had the same driver the entire trip also.

We stopped for a restroom break once and then directly at textile factory in Surat. The owner happened to be Bipin’s good friend. His wife had made good lunch spread for us. So we ate and talked for a while and then started the tour.

There was too much cloth all around us. We were shown how the cloth came as white fabric, and was washed first and then sent to the factory for printing. The printing department was separate – they were the artists and creative people. Next was applying the design to form a template on a roller for printing. The roller would be taken to the factory for printing. All dyes were available and usually the printing was done in small scale to see what the fabric stores would want. They were shown samples and then decided which ones to make in large scale. The colors and designs were phenomenal. I would not have believed it if I had not seen with my own eyes how the samples were made. I still did not understand the dyeing process. Especially for more than one color.

The factory was really quite large and father and son were very good in managing the factory. The only thing that was hard for the group members to see was the unsafe conditions in the factory, but the thing is that this is how it is in India. No one complains unless there is some real unsafe condition.

We then went to Bipin’s friend’s vacant home in Surat. Bipin’s friends in US had a vacation home in Surat. It was a very nice big home; three stories – ground floor had the living room and kitchen and 2nd and 3rd floors had bedrooms. I settled the girls on the 2nd floor and boys the 3rd. We rested a bit and then went to our next adventure – the diamond factory!!

Surat is the textile and diamond capital of the world, so there was no way that we could not have visited these two industries. I was really lucky that Bipin was arranging everything, since he had really good friends and contacts everywhere. This trip would not have been possible financially or logistically if had not been for Bipin. So, thanks to Bipin’s contacts, we were able to visit this very unique place.

Amongst all the beggars, poverty and dirt there is this part of India which is rich, affluent and modern. The diamond industry was a place where diamonds were cut and polished. The owners bought the uncut diamonds and then did all the work and sold them to jewelers. We started out in a huge conference room which was spectacular with its huge glass top table. The owner, Vallabh Bhai, dealt with so many international businesses but did not speak English, and despite his wealth he was amazingly modest. We listened to his story while sipping on coconut water. Vallabh Bhai got started in the diamond business as a cutter, and then progressed slowly to own this huge diamond empire. He is one of the bigger diamond players in India.

The building itself was very tall – more than 12 floors out of which a 2-3 were office floors and the rest were all dedicated to diamond cutting. The architectural design of the building was also cut like a diamond from inside, it was beautiful to look up and down the center of it. So the building was designed like a hollow square tube with offices all the four sides and hollow from top to bottom. We started from the top floor with the owner’s office. Wow – so clean and so empty. I think that is the goal – to keep it free of clutter so there are less hiding places. There was huge walk-in safe in the office. Every room was meticulous and clean with a purpose. The first place was where the diamonds came in. It was amazing to see so many diamonds in just plastic boxes as if there were nothing but pieces of glass! They were counted and then went on to be labeled individually so that each diamond can be tracked. The next few floors were cutting, some manual and some laser. There were more than a thousand employees working – all men. There was a strict code of work and safety there. Never at any time did I feel like I was being followed or watched but I am quite sure that security was being maintained.

From cutting it was to the computers where they made sure that the cut was uniform and if it wasn’t then back it went! (they would also know who was responsible for making the mistakes! Each diamond’s path was noted). We came down floor after floor of just diamond work. It was amazing. We finished the tour at the bottom of the building where there were huge posters of Sushmita Sen, their ambassador for their own jewelry shop, Kiah. All in all – really amazing!! Personally for me I know that I would never get to see such a place again in my lifetime.

After all that we went shopping!! Bipin’s niece was kind enough to take us to one of clothing store where all the girls bought saris and boys again just hung around till we were done. I think this was also a great experience for the girls, just how the sales people show the saris and model them! Almost all the girls bought one sari. We took them next door so they could get blouses and petticoats stitched overnight.

Dinner was at a traditional Gujrati restaurant. Bipin was supposed to meet us there but he was running late so we just sat around.

It turns out there were little shows going on here and there, so we saw two – one puppet show and one magic show. Both were so uniquely Indian and I could not have asked for a more traditional Indian experience for my group. Food was another story. The style was very traditional too – we all sat down with plates in front of us and the server would come and serve one thing at a time. The food was great for me, but a bit spicy for the American palette. I had to run around trying to explain what everything was. All in all – not bad.

Time to have our nightly reflections. I had asked the graduate students to do reflections for three nights. We had been doing some talking in the bus also, but sitting in a house (not a hotel), was just very comfortable. Reflections that night were very productive. I was very happy that all of us were getting along well and actually loved each other’s company that we sat there longer than I had thought we would. It seems like we were always talking about something or the other.

Night was very good – I needed the rest. The ac was too strong for me so I had to shift to another room, but other than that – very nice!! Some of us chose to sleep on the floor. It was like camping!

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

GCP-India Day 4

Mumbai/Mc Donald’s, Inorbit Mall, Haji Ali, Siddhivinaayak and Millenium Mall

We got up in no hurry and today Bipin had a surprise for us. We went north to Borivali to a McDonald’s for breakfast. Another great experience!! My plan for today was shopping and visiting some religious places. I wanted the group to know that we have such religious diversity in India. The program got a bit turned around since McDonalds was way north than Haji Ali but closer to Inorbit Mall – the shopping place that I wanted to take the group. So we did a program turn around….

The breakfast was great at McDonalds.  Much tastier and different options than an American McDonalds.

Inorbit mall was fantastic!! I let everyone lose including myself! Since it was an enclosed area, we could set a meeting time and go off on our own. The boys decided to sit in a restaurant and have some Indian beer (again, the young American male).  The rest of us were definitely shopping. There were many many great stores with so much good stuff. This was my first mall experience in India, and what an experience. The quality of goods was excellent. Service was good too, except sometimes I felt like I was always being followed by the sales person like I was a thief. On the other hand, it was easier to get help because of the constant presence of this person!

The best part for me was the department store. I did all my shopping that one store. Granted it was a little more expensive, but I got everything on my list of things to get. Great store! Spencer!

We met at the designated time and then took a trip to Haji Ali and Siddhi Vinaayak temple. Both were an experience, for me good, but the group, maybe not so. If there was one thing I had to change, this would be it. Especially Haji Ali. It is not a mosque but still the Americans felt a little out of place there. I would have rather had visited a church, but I did not know any.

Then while looking for one temple, we walked more than three miles. Oh!! not a good idea! That was very exhausting. We never found the temple, but we were all supremely tired!

We stopped at Millenium Mall on the way back to relax and have dinner. I had the best aloo paratha!
Tomorrow we have to leave Mumbai by 5 am so we went home after dinner and went straight to bed.

We decided to do reflections during our drive to Surat.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

GCP-India Day 3

Mumbai University, Glucose Biscuit Factory, Shopping, Prithvi Theater

The next day was planned for Mumbai University tour. I had communicated with a chemistry professor there to arrange a tour. We had breakfast of poha and tea at the hotel and drove to the university. It is a huge campus and very green with good landscaping. We went to the library and waited for the professor to come. But he never came! We walked around a bit and then sat in the library. Bipin suggested that we ourselves go and find the professor, so he and I went. The professor was acting like a big shot and did not even bother to apologize, or say a proper hello or anything.

He called two of his graduate students to give us a campus tour. I was really infuriated at the professor. We were all academicians and he did not think of treating us like we were worth his time. And this too after I had been communicating with him for over two months!!
His graduate students on the other hand gave us a good campus tour. They took us to the music/theater department which is known for having great actors as instructors. They had good literature and good PR. We stopped at the registrar’s office, a lecture hall, chemistry instrument room (which was quite good except I don’t think all MU students really get to use those instruments, only the techs can). We walked all around and it was getting quite hot now!!

We then had lunch at the university canteen (my idea! I wanted them to see what kind of food canteens have and how university canteens work). Great experience! And yet again, we had a variety of dishes, all quite tasty, along with some traditional Indian drinks like Maaza mango and Limca.  Here the Chinese member ordered the Chinese dish on the menu :-) Of course, he did not realize that Indians have Indianized the Chinese dishes!

We said our goodbyes to the students. I think the group members and these two students bonded well. It was nice to see it!

On the way back we got a surprise, somehow Bipin had arranged for a tour at the Glucose Biscuit factory. Glucose biscuits are of course an Indian icon! And the factory tour was the cutest of all tours! They had nice welcoming plaques. We were the only group touring so we did not have to wait long. The factory was used to giving regular tours so it was really very visitor friendly. It was really interesting to see how the flour got turned into dough and then spread into biscuits, baked and then packaged. They are the cheapest, most filling little snacks. On the way out we were all given a hot "off the oven" packet of biscuits. I think Glucose biscuits just got 11 new fans and customers! (The whole tour took less than an hour).

When we got back to the hotel and were told that we had to vacate as they had overbooked. Well…no problem, Bipin made arrangements at another hotel nearby, Hotel Columbus. We had to compress even more now, all the girls, seven of us were divided in two rooms, and the boys got their room. We had the afternoon free for a while so I decided to go separately with one of the students to the shops, while all the other girls went for their own shopping. The boys stayed in. It was a nice way to spend the afternoon.

I was pleasantly surprised when the girls came back with bag full of clothes.  They managed to find the right shops and negotiate the right price.  And they got really good clothes also.  I don't think I will understand the young American male.  I don't know what they like to do. I have not seen guys talk like these guys on this trip.  (In a way it is kind of amusing).

For the evening I had planned for a live theater/play outing. The play, called “All About Women”, was in the Prithvi Theater and since it was in English.  I thought it would a great way for our group to see Indian drama style, since SU itself is big in theater and music programs. The theater was in Juhu so we left in the evening to first walk on Juhu beach. It was almost dark, so we could not see too much of the ocean but still it was a nice walk. The beach is quite nice. All the food stalls have been localized in one place so that the beaches can stay clean. There were still many hawkers selling stuff and it is really hard to get rid of them.

This was also the first time that the group got exposed to children begging. It was really hard for some of the group members to see the kids begging. I had instructed them very strongly not to give any money and again they did me a huge favor by listening to me, otherwise we would have a big sea of beggars. That is the sad part of Indian life. Especially since Juhu is also the richest part of Mumbai.

We had dinner at Radisson hotel. It was a buffet style dinner – little pricey but such tasty food. There were so many choices of all kinds of dishes, all vegetarian of course.

The theater was not far from the hotel. The play started at 9 pm. The play itself was a little out of norm from Indian standards. The language was crude and theme very western.  But it still touched all the aspects of women's life and dilemmas of all ages and all walks of life. The actors were all women showing five story lines of the different generations of women. Some parts of it were really out there as far as Indian culture is concerned but then again, we were sitting in Juhu in Mumbai. The play lasted two hours and then we drove back. We were exhausted!

Reflections can happen another day.....

Monday, March 10, 2008

GCP-India Day 2

Lonavala and Karla Caves

Next day was the plan the go to Lonavala’s for a trip to Vedanta Academy. I chose this so that the group could see that amongst all the materialism there is this spiritual side to India. I also know in my heart that a number of these things that I am showing the group will not have an immediate effect. But they will remember this ten years from now and say – oh yeah! We went to this great place outside Mumbai which was so quiet and away from the hustle bustle of Mumbai.

There are also some Buddhist caves in Lonavala. So the plan was to go to the academy first and then see the caves.

Again without knowing, this decision was great to get out of Mumbai the next day. Mumbai is so crowded that it was really hard to get around. So it was nice to get outside in the open space. We spent so much time in the bus!! Oh – and yes Bipin ended up getting us a bigger bus, definitely much better and more comfortable, with plenty of seats and had AC!! A must in Mumbai.

So kind of early in the morning, without breakfast, we left for Lonavala. We slept a bit on the way and the rest we looked out and talked! The landscape changed as we went further away from Mumbai. We were now in the Western Ghats, all mountains, and an occasional waterfall, if one could see it. It was a nice drive.

We stopped in the rest area for bathroom break and breakfast break. This rest area was great! It had a good rest area and a few shops and a great restaurant for breakfast. We sat in the AC room inside and yet again we experimented with all the food items. The restaurant had a great ambience. The tables were quite creative and we were in no hurry. It was yet another good meal time. Here the group tried some sandwiches and French fries.

In another 30 mins we reached Lonavala and managed to find the ashram. It was really out there in the middle of nowhere, so yes, it was very peaceful. We met with some students there. We first got a nice introduction to Swami Parthasarthy’s philosophy in a movie format. We all sat on the floor and just watched the DVD. (He has a nice philosophy on life – all about separating oneself from materialism and none of the religion).

We then got a tour of the facilities. The academy actually is a school where students live and learn for three years, then they go out and teach the Vedant philosophy, or live life according to the philosophy. The student’s residences were separated into mens and womens and then there was a whole guest house. The Swami also hosts guests who can live there for a while and attend classes or they come for short courses/workshops. It was a nice big campus, very self sufficient and beautifully maintained with greenery and its own vegetable garden.

After the tour we had lunch in their mess hall. It was buffet type of five simple preparations – all vegetarian. That was another thing the group was getting used to: vegetarian food. They were amazed that there could be so much vegetarian food possible! The lunch was very tasty. We had to wash our own dishes after the meal, of course.

After lunch we went for a small lecture presented by one of the student’s of the academy. It was about one hour long and not bad at all. He spoke excellent English and explained Vedant philosophy very well. Since he was a student, his knowledge was limited. We all got to ask questions and participate.

We did buy some books and donated some money to the academy.

Around 3 pm we left for Karla caves, which were about 3 miles from the academy. These caves were Buddhist caves made about 1 century BC. What we were not aware of is how many stairs we would have to climb again!! The president, Jim, and one student, gave up at this point. Just yesterday we had climbed to the Elephanta caves. For some of us also it was challenging, but we really wanted to see the caves. So we went up, one stair at a time! There is also a temple on the top so there were many puja shops on the way. We did not stop anywhere until we reached the top.

It was worth the climb. The caves were not all decorated. It seems that some of them may have been living quarters. The main cave was actually a hall which had two rows of high pillars and a stupa in the middle of the hall. At the entrance and inside the walls were carved beautifully with elephants and human figurines. The group really liked it all.
“The cave” was a big hall. All the pillars in it were decorated and the stupa in the back of the hall was huge. We took some good pictures and then went on to walk around the mountain. The view was very nice, one could see the whole earth as far as possible. It was all brown though, there was not too much greenery. But still it was a beautiful day and we were just enjoying taking pictures and exploring. Soon after we left and began the trek down. It was a nice 20 mins walk. We bought some water and snack from the store below and started the drive back. The scenery was still pretty but we were busy taking naps and resting.

We reached Mumbai by 7ish and it was night by then. We went to our rooms to refresh and left soon for dinner at Shiv Saagar for traditional Mumbai food – paav bhaajhi, which was great. Some of the group member were feeling nostalgic so they tried nachos. Well, obviously they were not going to be good! But I completely understand wanting to have something familiar after a few days of eating foreign food.

We had a reflection session in my room. I was always impressed by this group – they always listened to me and did things that were good for the group and not just themselves. They were flexible, tolerant and adventurous. The reflection session was good, even the president came. I should mention that I was impressed by his resilience and adjustment too. Although at times I felt he could not get past his own prejudices but I know he was doing his best to be open minded. He had admitted at some point in the trip that he had always been afraid of coming to India.

Off to bed!!

Sunday, March 9, 2008

GCP-India Day 1

Elephanta Caves

Reached Mumbai about 12 am. It was a tiring journey but it is always nice to touch Indian soil again.
We got to the hotel and our rooms – of course we were all sharing. Seeing Mumbai at that later hour was a good experience too. Mumbai never sleeps, so all members were amazed to see how many people were out and about. The hotel was very comfortable with AC and really large rooms. In the middle of Mumbai, that is a real luxury. 

I think everyone was tired so slept well, I on the other hand was worried about tomorrow’s plan. My idea was take a tourist trip of Mumbai to see all the key places. This plan was shattered when I saw the bus we were going to be in. It was a minivan where two people at the back would be sitting with their heads near the ceiling. And the president of the college, Jim, would have to share the front seat with Maheshji (Bipin’s brother in law and our guide/contact etc.) in Mumbai. So I had to change plans and go to Elephanta Caves the first day instead of the second day. Which really worked out great!!

The day started with going to a restaurant to have breakfast. In India, there is no concept of breakfast included in lodging, so one has to go out of the hotel elsewhere to have breakfast. Our breakfast hangout, Shiv Saagar, was not far from our hotel. It had a variety of items, all from north Indian, south Indian to Bambaia dishes. It was the group’s first meal together, and it took me by a pleasant surprise how we ate. We shared our food, we tasted each other’s selections. It was just like a big family!! And that is how it was until the day we left. Our meals were an event on their own – very enjoyable, relaxed, adventurous and memorable. Which was a relief to me! Food is always the hardest part of any travel. As a vegetarian who has traveled the world, I know this first hand. And Indian food is so different from American food – the true east and west contrast.

The trip to Elephanta Caves involves going to Gateway of India and taking a one hour ferry boat ride to the island where the caves are. It worked out perfectly. We got to two great  landmarks of Mumbai – the Gateway and Taj Hotel.  The ferry trip itself was a really relaxing trip. We were 12 of us and were still getting to know each other. So it was a great opportunity to sit together or take a nap or just enjoy the boat ride – whatever one needed. 
Elephanta caves were a bit of a walk inside the island. What I was not aware of was how many stairs we were going to have to climb to get to the caves. I was really impressed that all of us made it up! Going up the stairs were lined with gift shops. I had advised the group not to buy anything yet. Maybe that was a mistake – because sometimes you can find really unique things in such tourist places. But that was a minor mistake, even if it was. The caves themselves are more than 1000 years old. They are dedicated to Shiv-Parvati. During the Portuguese invasion they were used as target practice. There were many smaller caves which did not have many carvings. It took us more than 2 hours to see it all. We took a guided tour, and then we walked around on our own. The wildlife was ever present – the monkeys and the birds….

The climb down was much easier. We waited a bit for the ferry and then went back to Gateway of India. By this time it had gotten really hot. So the ferry ride was quite welcomed. I had read about the shopping behind the Taj hotel area, so we decided to take a walk there and I helped some of our group members negotiate/bargain a good price for some things that they wanted to buy. It was evening by this time we got done, so we decided to go for dinner. 

Dinner was at Shabri’s. It was the traditional muglai food (much better than restaurants in USA). Some of the students got to eat meat dishes (this was the only day we had anything non vegetarian). We then went to Natural’s for the best ice-cream!! What was really funny is more than half of the group ordered strawberry ice cream! So we had to have seconds with more variety of flavors – and the sharing began again….

 Night could not have come at a more appropriate time, we were all ready for bed!

Saturday, March 8, 2008


GCP is Global Citizenship Project sponsored by Shenandoah University. It is a university funded week long trip during spring break to anywhere in the world for a select group of undergraduates, graduates and faculty/staff members. All expenses are covered by the university so this really is the best experience for any person.  I was lucky enough to have been chosen as the faculty leader for this project in the year 2008.  I was selected because they needed a faculty leader for India. Why? Because they found a sponsor for India. This turned out to be all very opportune. 

This week long trip to India was memorable for many reasons. Most of all it was because I was showing my country to people, some of whom had never even sat on an airplane before! I wanted to make sure that they see all the good and maybe some of the bad of India. Each country has its own good and bad, and India has a lot of both. So I wanted to show that India is as progressive and rich as it can be poverty ridden and challenging.

 The other reason I wanted this trip to go well was because I was responsible for planning out the itinerary. Bipin (the board of trustee sponsor of the trip) was the most important link between me and the trip. We talked in detail about how we wanted the trip to go and what places to visit. I was very lucky because Bipin had really good connections in India. We were very well taken care of in Bombay and Surat. It was like a dream come true. Everything went exactly as planned, in some cases even better.

 So read ahead for the day by day adventures of this wonderful journey.
 Day 1: Reaching India, Mumbai, Elephanta Caves
 Day 2: Lonavala and Karla Caves
 Day 3: Mumbai/Mumbai University, Glucose Biscuit factory, Shopping and Prithvi Theater
 Day 4: Mumbai/Mc Donald’s, Inorbit Mall, Haji Ali, Siddhivinaayak and Millenium Mall
 Day 5: To Surat/Textile Mill, Diamond Industry, Local Food.
 Day 6: Road Trip/Narmada Dam, Kabir Waad
 Day 7: To Mumbai/Sugar factory, mango orchard, Mumbai and then to US

  And finally my views about this trip,