Tuesday, June 17, 2008
Today was busy and the first day we've really had an opportunity to be involved in our projects and see the city of Mumbai. Just to give you a quick overview of what we did, we visited the first NGO site we're working with (Save the Children India), went to pray at both the Siddhi Vinayaka temple and the Haji Ali mosque, went out to dinner, and then came back to the guest house at the Godrej complex, where I'm writing this now.
I think it's testament to the kind of learning we're doing here that our first activity of the morning was a group discussion of religion at breakfast. We have Muslim, Hindi, Jewish and Christian kids on the trip, so that variety made for a lively discussion and I know that I at least learned a great deal about all of the religions. I continue to be surprised and excited about how much the American and Indian students have to offer each other, and moreover, how willing both parties are to share their cultures truthfully.
Our visit to Save the Children India, which was our next activity of the day, will always stand out in my memory as one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. Despite arriving almost a half hour earlier than expected, when we entered the school we were greeted by a long line of boys and girls dressed in green pants or dresses and green checked shirts. We all made our way down the line, and were given a red tika on our foreheads, as well as a rose. We then proceeded to an orientation with the director of the school, Dr. Anand (who, interestingly enough, has an extensive knowledge of Pink Floyd's greatest hits), and several of her leading administrators. STCI was begun over 25 years ago, and serves children from nearby slums with mental disabilities and hearing problems. The other piece of the organization to which we were introduced was Save Our Sisters, a branch of STCI which caters to female survivors of sex trafficking. We got to meet the girls who are currently in their rehabilitation program, and with the translating help of our awesome colleagues from the Udayachal school, we were able to talk with them, and afterwards many of us purchased candles, hand-decorated folders, and fabric flowers that the girls had made. We also ate lunch there in the school cafeteria and spent about a half hour getting acquainted with the younger students with whom we will be working over the next two days. We have split ourselves into four groups, and each group will work with the kids on four different activities during our time at STIC: art, theatre, dance, and computers. I'm working with Tessa, Saloni, and Aishwarya with the dance program, and we had a blast just getting the kids moving and having fun. I was surprised how outgoing our students became even in the short half hour we were with them. At the beginning, they were very shy and just looked at us, expecting something from us that we definitely weren't yet prepared to give. I also faced an additional difficulty in that I do not speak Hindi, and the STCI students do not speak English. They weren't the only ones having to overcome shyness, and initially I struggled to find ways to communicate with them without words. At our earlier orientation, Dr. Anand had told us that we would purposefully not have translators in the room, since she wanted us to "speak from the heart". As I helped lead the kids in stretches and movement games, I realized that a lot was being communicated between us, and no words had yet been spoken.
After that, we headed into Mumbai and visited the temple. It was in downtown Mumbai, and having arrived there we were fortunate enough to have VIP passes so we could bypass the long lines of hundreds of people waiting to pray which stretched down the street. We got into the temple and approached the idol of Ganesha, and the fervor of worship was overwhelming. There was a strong smell of incense, and the lights were bright and seemed even more so due to the vibrant colors of the room. And the people! There were so many packed into the room, and they were herded in and out quickly by attendants trying to ensure that everyone got a chance to view the idol. In exchange for our offerings of flowers and other things, we were given sweets made of nut pastes and cornmeal by the priests, which were delicious.
The mosque was beautiful. It stands at the end of a long walkway which stretches into the Arabian Sea and ends at the structure itself. Built in 1651, it is white and marble and definitely feels its age. The walkway was lined with beggars and street vendors and (to my great surprise) wild goats. The poverty was heartbreaking to me, and I'm a little nervous knowing that this is the first of many days that we will have to confront it. I was also surprised that there were vendors so close to a place of worship. I guess I had assumed that they would be prohibited from selling their stuff so close to the mosque, but that was definitely not the case. Seeing a fully operational mosque was neat, I think especially for us PA kids who spent an entire term learning about Islam in History 100 during freshman year. I also enjoyed it because Islam is a pretty hot-button topic in America right now, and I liked being able to experience it in a place where it is not really the exception to the religious rule, and therefore not surrounded by prejudice. We also took lots of embarrassing tourist photos.
The last thing we did today was eat a tasty dinner at a restaurant in town. I'm growing to love Indian food more and more, and today was no exception (tip: order both naan and roti. We were all exhausted by the time we got to the restaurant, and as the food arrived our collective relaxation and gratitude was palpable.
Now I'm exhausted, and will head off to bed. I'm hoping this is just the first of many eye-opening, fun, and fulfilling days we will have in Mumbai.