8/19/11 – 8/31/11
I had visited India all my life, but never without my family. I wanted to look beyond my childhood visits (not to mention, the pollution and poverty), and see India through a different lens – I wanted to experience what it was like to work in India.
Arriving at the Leela, a grand 7-star hotel in Bangalore, already made the trip different. Even the rikshaw drivers knew to charge more if that was the hotel you directed them to.
The first weekend was spent getting to know Bangalore. We ventured out for meals, and indulged in everything from crispy South Indian dosas to spicy north Indian kabobs and curries (and of course, the KingFischer). We also visited the bustling shopping districts – wandering around Commercial Street to take in the bright color saris and tapestries while trying to watch our step and avoid breaking a leg on the broken footpaths. I also had a chance to see the posh side to Bangalore – the more well-to-do locals wouldn’t bother with Commercial Street. Rather, there were places like UB City Mall. I met Amit’s friend Deepak for lunch at UB City – so westernized that we could have been anywhere in the world. The Apple Store was the same, and they even had beef burgers on the menu!
The work week was a totally different experience. Chris, Tammy, Alex, Marco and I were working with Agastya Foundation, a NGO that aimed to spark curiousity in rural children and promote maths and science education.
We started the week off with a journey to Kuppam, AP to visit a rural village and Agastya’s main centre. Along the way, we experienced another side to India – getting a flat tire!
As our driver struggled to remove the tired, we were surrounded by a large crowd of construction workers observing the spectacle. The driver continued to sweat and work to get the tire off, and eventually was successful. The next challenge was that the spare was stuck. After enough sweat, he decided to go find a shop to buy a new tire. Fortunately, while he was away, one of the gentleman decided to help us, was successful in removing the tire and helped us repair it. I was certain he was looking for money, but he didn’t even take the tip we offered.
The drive from that point was fairly smooth. The Indian villages were filled with people, chimpanzees, coconut stands and full families on single mopeds.
Agastya’s campus was expansive and tranquil. We had a chance to tour the campus and really understand how the foundation was making a difference. We also spent an evening in the village, and interacted with the local children. We met children of all ages, who were filled with energy and enthusiasm, welcoming us and inviting us to stay longer. Many of them sang, acted and told jokes to us – just excited to show off their talents. Their proud parents, uneducated themselves, were happy to support their children.
You couldn’t help being touched – I started to question why I was working in the corporate world; trying to understand the meaning of evening, it was easy to become an ambassador of Agastya – who was making a difference, one child at a time. It was remarkable.
We then returned to Bangalore to continue our interviews and field research. We spent time in Agastya’s offices, interviewing staff, trustees and sponsors. In addition, we made some field visits to Akshaya Patra, a NGO that provided mid-day meals to schoolchildren, and the Institute of Engineers, an organization that works closely with Agastya.
Akshaya Patra added a different perspective on how NGOs are run – they ran the operation like a true business and were very successful in doing so. We spent time at their head offices and also in their Bangalore kitchen, where we had a chance to see the largest commercial kitchen operations, cooking rice and sambar everyday for children studying within 80 kilometers of the kitchen facilities!
We ended our assignment with a presentation to the Agastya management team – we had worked very hard and seen very little of Bangalore (outside of the NGO & the Leela), but it was rewarding. We were thrilled to present back our findings and make a difference and it was very well received.
Once done, we celebrated over champagne and the week came to an end.
As it was a bank holiday weekend, Abi, Ken, Atsuko, Annette, Gemma and I decided to add on a few days and get a chance to see a little more of India.
We hopped in a mini-bus and spent the weekend visiting Wayanad. We stayed at Tranquil Resort, a local homestay on a coffee and cardamom plantation. A perfect way to wind down the trip – we enjoyed home cooked meals (3 meals + tea time) while spending time hiking, swimming, getting massages and ending evenings in the bar.
We also made a quick stop in Mysore on the way back – to visit Chamundi hill and Mysore Palace.
The trip ended there and most of the group got ready to head home. I however, spent one last day fighting the intense traffic and experiencing the IT boom that Bangalore is famous for – I visited the Expedia call centre, which was nestled in between Yahoo and Target’s offices. It was like every American corporation had set up shop in this office park.
Overall, it was an amazing trip. Bangalore and its surrounding areas offer a vibrant cultural experience, temperate climate, tasty food and friendly people. The only down side is all the bars close at midnight!