Sunday, January 26, 2014

Making Children's Dreams a Reality

"We are here. We are the citizens of this country; the responsibility lies on us."

If in all we experienced last week while in India, if we hadn't spent the last two days with the Dream School Foundation, we would have still had a very rounded understanding of the country, but I'm not sure if we would have had so much hope.

If you read my last post, which was written immediately before arriving in Bangalore, in the Southern State of Karnataka, you will better understand the conflict I was feeling. We were there to work, whereas most of our group's meetings were complete so they were ready to kick back and relax. In some ways, it was mentally soothing to me we would not have such luxury. I just did not believe we deserved it, though it was awfully hard for me to decline the safari trip some went on.

We arrived at DSF late. Our driver had the wrong address, so we ended up seeing the better part of Bangalore. Of the five regions we visited, it was by far the nicest we had seen yet. This tells you a lot about India though, because even here in this city of 4.3 million people, with one of the highest literacy rates in the country, there is a need for organizations like Dream School Foundation.

Describing DSF to friends over the past few months was often a challenge for me. Meeting them and witnessing their work firsthand completely changed this. This is an organization that fills the cracks in the lives of India's children like glue. In some cases, literally; their work includes infrastructure support for government schools like installing toilets and repairing roofs. They also provide libraries, science labs, transportation assistance & computer labs. This is all in addition to academic programming and mentoring that focuses on learning level enhancement, comprehension and engagement to help children discover their interests, obtain high school and post-secondary education. The goal is they will move into a career and break the cycle of poverty and desperation most grew up with. Integrated Education Model suits their work well and you couldn't imagine a more holistic program than this. 

One need not look at many stats to understand just why such an approach is needed.

  • Over 50% of students drop out between primary and high school
  • 37% of schools have a toilet for girls
  •  53.4% of children in 5th standard read at 3rd standard level
  • While the national literacy rate for males is 82%, it is only 65% for Indian females 
DSF volunteers and employees told us countless stories of young people succeeding in spite of their circumstance, and yet others who weren't so lucky. It broke our hearts, so we couldn't imagine the pain they must go through, personally knowing these kids. 

Sometimes I think the word 'inspiration' is overused. What does it mean to be inspired? Is it just a good feeling? A different outlook or personal commitment to change? Does it mean anything without action? I can't imagine my actions to come close to those of the DSF team, but they really are an inspiration to me. Their passion to make a difference was raw and visible in their expressions, voice and gestures. Most left successful corporate careers in order to be the change they believed India desperately needed. 

"If we don't do it, who will clean the mess here? It has to be grassroots level work."

There is no more real passion than this.

Our Ivey team with a group of students at JC Nagar Government School in Bangalore, a school supported by DSF.

A group of Ten Plus youth studying to enter engineering school outside the Dream School Foundation Learning & Development Center,

Cherise speaks to 7th standard girls at the government school.

Heather with some of the girls.

My Internal Struggle to Understand India

Author's note: This post was written 12 days ago, upon leaving Mumbai for Bangalore, my 3rd last day in India. I hesitated to post it, and now that I've come back to my writings, I believe it best expresses the internal tension Ifelt. It also frames the mindset with which I arrived in Bangalore to meet our client, the Dream School Foundation. - Jen

Nowhere in India can you escape the income disparity gap. Whereas we are accumstomed to poverty on a limited scale, it proliferates everything here. 

Walking down the nicest streets and the most posh areas, you will experience it. Where financial prosperity exists, so too do those who aim to live off it's fringes, thru whatever means may manifest themselves.

I cannot help feel ashamed and the second I question how those living here can simply ignore it, I call myself a hypocrite. I barter with the street vendors for mere dollars, which I can certainly afford. I provide a street vendor $5 for a handmade purse from her slum, then spend $2000 on diamonds for myself. 

Exploring the life of Gandhi through the exhibits in the Mohatma Gandhi House and the writings in his book, I feel so simple. My heart breaks and yet I am just another selfish human, giving a little here and taking a lot. How can we expect India to reform itself socially, so long as those of us with the most behave as we do? They must see us as so vain, materialistic and self-absorbed. They know we'll part with our money if they perservere so long because that's what we do. We consume and we buy. 

Some of my classmates were involved directly with the social brand, Being Human, and through this relationship they visited the SIMA School in Mumbai. The school sells the students artwork and uses the proceeds to run the school and fund further educational opportunities. Is there a more direct or positive means we can put our consumption to good use than this? I bought a purse from a street vendor. She was a beautiful, 8 year old girl who did not get the luxury to go to school like her brothers. In hindsight, I don't even know if her family will keep this money, or if she even has a family. I have faith, but how wayward this life is for children in India, I cannot be certain. 

It makes our work with the Dream School Foundation even more significant for me, but it's increasingly harder to ignore the sense of hopelessness in the pit of my stomach. The disparity is so vast, and the social issues so huge. How much work is still needed to put India on two feet.

A tea stall outside a slum in Delhi. Next door there is a gated, private school.

Kids fly kits on the rooftops of the slum in celebration of the kite festival in Mumbai.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The City of Dreams (That Never Sleeps - As Witnessed Firsthand)

So far, everything I heard about Mumbai (or Bombay) has been accurate. This is a city full of energy and life. After a relaxing morning, including a giant breakfast and lounging at the pool, we set out for a "shopping tour" yesterday afternoon.

Built primarily by the British as a key trading port, Mumbai still generates 1/3 of India's GDP and half of their trade moves through the port. Mumbai is certainly a vibrant city, attracting people from all over India and Asia with promises of opportunity, improved livelihood and future. It is also the home of Bollywood, the Indian film industry and some of the best shopping and nightlife in India. I was most eager to check out the textile markets, but the jewellery, spices, and handcrafts were equally impressive. You can literally find anything you are searching for and for the most part, the price is negotiable. By the end of the day, we had become very good at bartering with the vendors, even though it was often only over a dollar or two. 
Textile stall in the market across from Mahatma Market, Mumbai

Fruit & vegetable stalls in Mahatma Market, Mumbai

Our hotel is on Marine Drive, the waterfront parkway where a boardwalk runs the entire length of the coast and is full of people day and night, out enjoying the fresher, coastal air and the warm weather. The disparity still exists in Mumbai though. There are millions living in slums, which you see immediately next to the airport when you arrive. On our way to the airport this morning to fly to Pune, we saw many more, and perhaps the most puzzling thing our group keeps noticing is the satellite dishes often on the roofs. These aren't temporary living, but they are neighbourhoods of homes for as much as HALF of Mumbai's population! Our tour guide was quick to point out Mumbai has the biggest slum in Asia, and I suspect in part to Slumdog Millionaire, this has become another source of pride.

Slum outside downtown Mumbai.

Today, we arrived in Pune, a smaller city about 200km from Mumbai. It was a short flight, but with the road conditions here we opted to fly rather than drive. The travel agent hired a 'walla' for us to complete our flight check-in, including bag drop. Walla is a Hindi word for a person charged with looking after something. Dhabawallas deliver dhabas (lunch kits) to businessmen. Line wallas stand in line for you. Sounds like something we could use in Canada!

As for Pune, it's industrial, but the vibe seems good and the population pretty young. Although hot, the air is still pretty clean and there was a beautiful breeze blowing today. Exhausted from an early morning, I found it surprisingly easy to fall asleep to the sound of car horns outside my window. We've been kept away from them so far in the Oberoi, but they are right outside my window here and never stop. Tomorrow, I'm looking forward to visiting John Deere's offices here, before returning to Mumbai for our final night there. 
The view from our hotel during the day and at night, and the coastline at dawn from the Sea Bridge.

 A few more from around Mumbai:
Garlic & onions
Child street entertainer on a tight-rope.

Park next to the Supreme Court (building with tower like Big Ben) where hundred of people play cricket every day.

There are many cows in the Mumbai streets and women selling grass to feed the cows. In the Hindu religion, cows are holy.

A couple of cats in the market. First time we saw so many cats, most likely to keep away the rats, which we saw many dead outside.

Hot chilis, spices, nuts, dried fruits and more!

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Splendour and Squalor - The Taj Mahal, Agra and Humayan's Tomb

Standing next to the Taj Mahal. The smoke barely lifted all day.

It's all I can do to keep my eyes open tonight. I had plans to write this on the plane, but folded into a window seat with no space to move, I resorted to sleeping instead. We are now in Mumbai (or Bombay as it was formerly and still appears to be called), the biggest port city in India. It'll be a quick visit here, as I'm heading to Pune on Sunday with a group to visit some auto manufacturers and John Deere.

My roommate and I have been reflecting heavily on the past two days. The road to the "most beautiful of beautiful and magnificent of magnificent" Taj Mahal takes you thru the streets of Agra, a 'small' city of 2 million people. Among a gridlock of people, cows and traffic the absolute squalor is appalling. I am told by well-traveled friends we have not seen anything close to the worst, and yet we have seen far more than you'd ever witness in the worst parts of the worst cities in Canada.
This little boy was fascinated by our bus and waves nonstop. It looked like he was eating a handful of lentils.

We left the Taj Mahal yesterday afternoon and boarded an open-air bus bound for the Oberoi Agra for lunch. While waiting, we were approached by the standard souvenir peddlers, as well as a shoeless, disfigured woman begging for money with her baby. It was heartbreaking and horrifying. We wanted so bad to help, but what could we do? After the fact, we realized there were far fewer people approaching us than there might have been given the streets we'd driven through. With the number of guards and checkpoints leading up to the Taj, how were these few able to stay so close to the gates. There is a purpose for them being there.

Among such desperation, there remains fierce pride of all that is good in India and there remains hope. I've taken to waving and smiling at people from the bus. Despite thousands of tourists embarking on Agra daily, they seemed so interested in who was in our bus and we were equally interested in them. Not a single smile or wave was left unreturned, their faces beaming with joy. If they have joy and they have almost nothing, why aren't we the most happy people in the world? It's also impressive, in today's world, that so many different cultures live side by side in India, mostly without major conflict. India is a melting pot of nations, most of whom settled here thousands of years ago, and this dynamic heritage makes everything more colourful and energetic. 
The Red Fort of Agra was built by 4 generations of Indian rulers.

The Taj itself is simply breathtaking. White marble, flanked by two identical mosques, gardens and red sandstone walls. Nearby, the Red Fort goes on and on, a huge and striking monument of the days of kings. On Friday, we visited Humayan's Tomb, an equally stunning sight, constructed by Humayan's wife when he died. Such lavish splendour exists all over this country, much of it dating back several centuries. The stories are so remarkable, it's easy to mix them up with those of the various religions. 
Humayan's Tomb in New Delhi.

An entire village lived within the walls surrounding this tomb. 

This is what makes India so captivating; the stories from her past and the rags to riches dreams today are like a fairy tale, and one can never be sure where fact ends and fiction begins. Most of the tales are spun in this 'city of dreams' in Bombay, so there will be much to see in the next few days.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Unforgettable India

I probably took some 200 pictures and video yesterday alone (check out Twitter for a few - getting them from the iPhone to the iPad is going to take more time than I have with my 30 minutes of free Internet). 

Yet, there are images I couldn't and didn't need to capture to never forget. Just as everyone told me, the vibrance, spirit and colour in India is phenomenal. Delhi itself is a very 'green' city. There are trees and parks and vegetation throughout much of the city which we've seen thus far. The bright colours of the roadside stands, selling fruits and vegetables, flowers, snacks and drinks echo those of the beautiful textiles and are a stark contrast to the grey cement and red brick buildings and dust which coats everything. I suspect there has been no rain here in sometime. Even the trees are dusty, and I can't help but wonder how the city looks after a rain. I suspect it sparkles and the air is fresh, not laden with a thick fog which smells of smoke.

In the two days we've been here, we've encountered nothing but kind and gracious people. Even in Old Delhi yesterday, when we went for a rickshaw tour through the market, I never felt uncomfortable with my surroundings. Granted, I did have a former rugby player join me, so I suspect this offered me extra security. It is also amazing to see how amid all the chaos, there is flow and it 'just works'. The rule of the road seems to be 'honk and go' and it appears there isn't a need to waste paint on lane markings because they aren't ever followed. Even with video, I don't know if I can really portray how insane the traffic is when you're in it, but I realized today it's best not to pay attention to the driving but that which is past the road.

Often, you don't have to look much farther than the roadside. These are also the images I will never forget, and the ones I couldn't capture. When I imagined India, I expected there to be people everywhere, sort of in the busy, New York street, shoulder-to-shoulder way. What I realize now is that it's not the volume of people but where they are that startles foreigners, like myself. Imagine people walking amongst vehicles during rush hour, children sitting on the median waiting to entertain or peddle electronic chargers or roses the next time the traffic halts, or women sweeping pebbles from the road onto the shoulder. You cannot drive through Delhi and avoid getting a glimpse of poverty, but I don't think you have to stray too far off the beaten 'tourist' path to really see it. 

Today, we met with one of India's largest educational NGO's, and driving to their office (3 rooms in a residential apartment building with no signage) we gained a much better appreciation for the challenges facing India. There are those which we often think of but until you see infrastructure work being done literally by hand, like trenches for culverts being dug with a pick by ten men, you cannot appreciate what that means. Education will never be enough for the children in the street, unless you can also feed, shelter and protect them. This is a country where 1/4 of the population lives on less than 0.50 / day. A Pepsi here costs $1. Entrepreneurialism is a way of life here, because there is no other way for many. 

It's hard to describe the feeling when you reflect on our Canadian lifestyle in comparison. I think it's too early into our journey to interpret or form any basis, but just seeing Delhi has provided more context than I'd have imagined. I likely will not have the opportunity to meet smallholder farmers this trip, but my appreciation for the challenges they face are heightened. Tomorrow we will see farmland when we travel to Agra to visit the Taj Mahal, and Friday, I plan to venture out to see first hand what buying food in India entails. I'm certain there will be a wealth of learning in this experience and hopefully I will have an update when I arrive in Mumbai later that evening. For now, I leave you. 

Exploring Old Delhi via rickshaw. 

Monday, January 6, 2014

Namaste to "Incredible India"

To my right, the blood-orange red sky welcomes our fragmented group of Ivey Executive MBAs to India. We're descending and will soon set foot into a world entirely different than the one we left in Munich 7 short hours ago. 

The road to get here was a little long. Like Southern Ontario hasn't had enough winter weather, Mother Nature dumped another helping of snow down on us right when we were arriving to Pearson airport to depart. Two hours after our scheduled departure, we were still sitting on the tarmac waiting to be de-iced. By the time we made Frankfurt, we'd missed our connection by an hour and were re-routed thru Munich to Delhi. 

All in all, we are only going to lose about 6 hours. Hopefully after some sleep on the plane, we'll be at least bushy-tailed to check out Delhi with our tour group. The New Delhi city tour kicks off two weeks of experiencing the most incredible country in the world thru the lens of business, government, and non-profit stakeholders. From Delhi, we'll move onto Mumbai, then a side-trip to Pune where we'll visit John Deere, before we return back to Mumbai and then Bangalore, India's IT "hub". 

In Bangalore, a small group including myself, will be meeting with the Dream School Foundation at one of their learning centres where they work with underserved youth, to advance their literacy, numeracy and soft skills. Coming at the end of the trip, it will be rewarding to see the great work people are doing to try to lift India's majority population from poverty, something we will certainly see much of. 

I'll strive to post a few times while we're here, in addition to tweeting whenever we have wi-fi. Talk soon!