Took me a week longer to get to this than I thought….and it didn’t help that I kept falling asleep at 9:30 every night…..
Last post I talked about the kaizen and later this week I’ll talk about entrepreneurship in the slum we visited, but today I’ll post a little about the cultural aspects of our visit . As we were in the plant all week working, our tourism was limited to the Sunday after we arrived and the Sat/Sun following the week of work (we flew out Sun night). Rather than give you the play-by-play, which would be boring, I thought I would pull out some of the more interesting highlights and cultural differences, in no particular order. To put it simply, though, India blew my mind.
I’ve posted all my pictures on Picasa- here’s the link if you’d like to look. I’ll also call out a few specific ones below.
Train Rides: On the suggestion of one of our group, we jumped on the train that went through Mumbai, and I’m glad we did- it was my favorite part of the that day. I took a pretty good video of it - the train has fully open doors so you can lean out, which I do while filming, and then give a quick pan around the compartment. (see India Train Ride Below)
The woman who is patting the man’s head about 15 seconds in is a hijra- a “third gender”. This could encompass a hermaphrodite, a eunuch, a transvestite, and any variation of a number of themes that deal with a middle ground between traditional male and female. While everyone we met told us that Hijra are considered good luck omens, and it is unlucky to refuse them small change, or berate them (and you might get cursed in return), they are very low caste, and are not allowed to work “normal” jobs and are kept removed from “normal” culture in their own living groups. A few outside reports indicate systemic violence against hijra, but I don’t have enough information to speak accurately to that.
Colors & Energy: I’ll get more into the energy aspect of this tomorrow when I talk about entrepreneurship, but the general energy and bright colors of the city really drove the pace of life. Everything was always moving and changing. Traffic is a great example- it is the most insane thing I’ve ever seen, yet there were no accidents. People make turns across lanes of incoming traffic- no signal, just plunging in and hoping other cars stop. And they all know to stop! It’s a delicate and dangerous dance, but exhilarating to be in!Streets and buildings are draped in colors of everyday life- laundry hanging off balconies, revamped American advertising pasted up and changed to reflect India.
Race: One of the more shocking moments was seeing a Benetton store and realizing that most of the models for India Benetton are white! I’ll let anthropologists discuss the ramifications of color identity in a post-colonial society- for now I’ll just say that there are a lot of TV ads (for products like Oil of Olay) focused on “turning skin fairer.” This attention to “fair” skin became very clear to the members of my group who were blond. While I myself was not subject to to the rapt attention of the masses, the “blonder” contingents of our procession were. The tall, blond male in our group was called “Brad Pitt” several times, and at the Gateway to India, people would come up to take pictures with him. Many people also tried to sneak in photos with the two girls in our group- they would stand next to them, then raise their camera phone and try to get a quick picture of them standing next to the girls. No one wanted a photo with me though. Our tour guide asked if I was an “americanized” Indian. I’m not. Nor am I Harman Baweja, no matter what one blind hotel concierge thought…..
Hospitality: While the hotel we stayed at was obviously very hospitable (nice job ITC Maratha- great buffet, gorgeous place, great service), everyone we encountered outside the hotel was welcoming as well.
While occasionally beggars and street vendors could really cling to you, and one of our party had to knock a few hands away from his wallet, for the most part we were made to feel very welcome. Everyone speaks a little English, and most people speak very good English, so you are able to get around. People ask where you’re from, and want to tell their experiences with other Americans (if any) and seem genuinely happy to see you visiting their country. I only felt unsafe once, in a somewhat “iffy” section of a large market section of town, and even then, I felt safer than I do sometimes in D.C. Everyone really wanted to engage in conversation they wanted to ask questions, they wanted to hear what we thought, they wanted to warn us not to eat the street food….everyone was extraordinarily welcoming.
Poverty: What was most striking about Mumbai- which kinda reminded us of L.A., given the crazy freeway and the spread-out nature of the city (and a few palm trees here and there)- was the close proximity of wealth and poverty. While I’m sure there are “nicer” sections of the city and “poorer” sections of the city, the two are integrated quite often. There’s an enormous amount of construction, and new buildings seem to spring up in the middle of desolation. Million-dollar rowhouses on the beach are next to shanty-towns slums; shopping centers have security guards checking everyone who enters….and I believe, stopping beggars from entering. The city is moving at such a pace that these two populations are thrown into contact again and again, until growth draws it’s breath once more and sends them hurtling apart till the next conflict zone.
It is the hardest thing in the world to look a child in the eyes and refuse to give money you know you can spare, but we were warned time and time again not to, as most of that money goes to “bosses” who run the beggars, and also leaves you vulnerable to another hundred beggars who suddenly appear as your money comes out. That reasoning doesn’t make it easier though…..
It was definitely a fantastic experience, and I don’t think I’ve really thought and worked through it all yet. So I apologize if these seem to be random and unconnected mumblings. I enjoyed my time in Mumbai- although I was ready to go home, I was also sad to leave. There is a passion and energy and drive there that I connected very strongly with- I’ll speak to that more in my next post, when I talk about the businesses in the slums we visited.