After three amazing yet very intense weeks spent in Manipal delivering our health and wellbeing initiative, on Monday the 12th of September we left for Mumbai. Saying goodbye to our buddies and to all the people that collaborated with us and helped us settling in was not easy, however the excitement for what the final part of our trip would have brought us made everything slightly easier.
Despite being seriously sleep deprived, as we had to leave Manipal at five in the morning, during the journey from the airport to the hotel we did not manage to get much sleep because of the crazy honking. Going through the different areas of the city, our noses stuck to the car windows, I think many of us had to reconsider their definition of chaotic. With over 22 million people living in its urban area Mumbai is the 4th most populated city in the world and is home to a variety of ethnic and religious groups which make it extremely diverse. Goats, cows and stray cats and dogs wandered around the streets of the city, from the slums to the fanciest areas.
When we finally got to the Hotel in South Mumbai, we felt like we had been catapulted in a Wes Anderson’s movie. A tall man wearing a red turban kindly opened the main door for us and we were accompanied to our rooms by members of the staff in a white uniform buttoned up at the front.
In the afternoon we went to the Gateway of India. The taxis dropped us off only a few metres away from this majestic arch which was built to commemorate the landing of King George V and Queen Mary when they visited India in 1911. As soon as we went through the security checks to get a closer look at the Arabian Sea we were surrounded by people asking to take selfies with us. Feeling like a VIP is good fun but it got tiring after a while so we all went for a refreshing drink at the famous Leopold Café, a vibrant bistro where it was still possible to see the bullet signs after the 2008 attacks.
On Tuesday we headed to a park to meet the Universal School pupils and played some sports, including basketball tennis and football, with them before delivering a session at their school. The facilities at the peaceful park by the beach were professional and very well organised and apart from the main Physical Education teacher there were also specific coaches for every different game.
When we got to the school we were welcomed by the principle and the school staff with some Kumkuma powder and a small banquet, which was very appreciated after two hours spent playing sports under the sun. The teachers gave us a tour of the school and of its impressive facilities such as the music room and the chemistry lab. We then delivered the session to the pupils, who seemed all very excited. In the previous days we had been thinking of some changes for the workshop to meet the interest of the kids. For this reason instead of having nutrition lessons we asked them to brainstorm and think about different case scenarios and how to tackle the health and social problems concerning the sports culture in India proposed by us.
Both the staff of the school and the students were very satisfied at the end of the session and thanked us before saying goodbye.
In the afternoon we went for a visit to the museum, a part of the group went to the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya a display of works concerning the Indian history and culture whereas other people preferred the Jehangir Art Gallery. Among all the exhibitions one in particular caught our attention and despite the fact that the artist was still setting up they made an exception to the rule and very kindly allowed us to enter and have a look.
When we all met again we got some taxis to go to Marine Drive, a beautiful promenade overlooking the gulf. Getting the attention of the cabs drivers was not the easiest thing to do as most of them just raced passing by us and honking but, after a good 20 minutes, we eventually managed. We got absorbed by the traffic of the city, in this little cab zigzagging in between hundreds of vehicles, with its decorated ceiling and the radio playing some bhangra songs.
Wednesday has probably been the most intense day of the week. In the morning we said bye to the man with the red turban and headed to the Oscar foundation headquarters. “Oscar foundation is a non-profit organization that, through football instills the value of education and empowers underprivileged children and youth with life skills to take responsibility of their community development.” The founder of Oscar, Ashok Shankar Rathod, is a cheerful guy who guided us through the slum to show us the computer lab, the study space and the play room available for the kids of the area to go and enhance their academic and practical skills. We then went to the football pitch to play with the kids. The most interesting discovery was that each game had a specific purpose for children to learn something through sport. After saying goodbye to the friendly kids we had played with, we visited the headquarters of the organisation, where Ashok told us his inspiring story.
In the afternoon we met the two guides who gave us a tour of Dharavi slum, one of the largest in the world. Among narrow, dark streets trying to avoid cables hanging from the walls and leather shops and pottery businesses, we experienced the diversity of the area, in which there are also schools, police stations and banks. We even got lucky enough to assist to the preparation for the festival in honour of Lord Ganesha happening on the following day. A dancing crowd occupied the streets and people were singing, carrying Ganesha idols and playing the drums. Among this chaos it was impossible for most of us to get a taxi so we had to catch a train instead. Trains in India only stop at each station for 14 seconds only, which is the time passengers have to get off and on, with our mouths half opened for the surprise after this announcement we accepted the challenge and somehow managed to get all on the train in time.
On Thursday, the day of the Lord Ganesha celebrations, we were advised not to leave the hotel as the city would have been too crowded. We used the time to prepare for the presentation of the initiative we had to deliver on the following day at headquarters of the British Council and at the SNDT Women’s University.
We started the day with the visit at SNDT Women’s University where we met some of the students, a bunch of clever and hardworking ladies, as well as the principal of the school. They all seemed interested in our initiative and when we had an exchange of ideas after presenting and showing them the trailer for our documentary we found out that as part of their course of studies they have to engage in similar activities within the local communities. They then gave us a tour of the school and we had the occasion to see most of the facilities.
Back at the hotel everyone was a bit nervous for the meeting at the British Council, which supported us before our departure and throughout the whole trip, however we all knew that both the presentation and the trailer for the documentary were finished and ready to be shown to the public. When we got there we were welcomed with a banquet that put all of us at ease and allowed us to chat with some of the guests. We then had a quiz about the culture, history and lifestyle of India.
While some of us were delivering the presentation we could see people from the British Council and the guests being happy with the outcome of the project and interested in knowing more about it. This was later confirmed by the fact that we were asked loads of questions concerning our time in Manipal. The evening has been a great opportunity for everybody in our group to showcase what we had been working so hard on for the previous three weeks and to thank all the people that contributed to make it happen.
We split into smaller groups and visited the shopping street of the city where we tried to learn the art of bargaining. While we were walking through the street hands popping out from each corner were trying to stop us and get us to buy earrings, scarves, beautiful embroided carpets, candle holders, bags and list could go on forever. By the end of the morning even 80 rupees, the equivalent of a pound, seemed too high as a price.
We skipped lunch to save ourselves for the afternoon tea at the Taj Mahal Palace, a six star hotel just behind the Gateway of India, with a stunning view on the Arabian Sea. We were served masala tea and champagne by smiling waiters and we stuffed our bellies with a lot of the Indian delicatessen of the buffet and a cheerful man wearing a suit played the piano during the whole time.
Leaving this magical city in this magical country that made us feel so welcomed just after a few days was surely heartbreaking, however we all hope to be able to go back very soon and most importantly we hope that the RGU Go: India project will be continued by the next generations of students and will expand so that more people will be able to benefit from it as we all did.