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Incredible India!

Sixty-three Harvard Business School students flew half way around the world to join the South Asian Business Association (SABA) trek beginning in Delhi, India and traveling through six different provinces and stopping in 10 villages/cities. The 13 jam-packed days from December 27, 2008 to January 10, 2009 will prove to be some of the most unforgettable of our lives.

After deciding to join the SABA trek back in September, I didn’t realize that I would have to decide again whether or not to join the trek in India for 2 weeks over winter break. I distinctly remember sitting at Logan airport waiting for my flight home for Thanksgiving, checking my blackberry to kill time, and seeing the email from the SABA trek organizers about following the ‘recent events’ in Mumbai very closely. It occurred to me that the TVs in the gate area were tuned to CNN, so I looked up and saw the Taj Palace hotel in Mumbai in flames.

In the weeks that followed, big decisions had to be made. We were offered the opportunity to drop out of the trek, with a partial refund (though no such love from the airlines) or to skip the Mumbai portion of the trip. Little did I know that the trek itself was in jeopardy of being cancelled completely. Fortunately the trek continued, though with a dramatically reduced number of participants – from 90 down to 63, even including many who joined late. We were led by Abhinav Sinha, Zuber Mohammed, Thomas Rajan, and Saurabh Agarwal in collaboration with SITA travel.

Staying on the trek is probably the best decision I’ve made all year. The 13 days we spent touring the magnificent country were unforgettable. Each trek participant was issued a cell phone and the security everywhere we went was very tight. It was also easier to get to know 60 people instead of 90 over the 2 weeks. The trek organizers even managed to set up mass texting, so we always knew when to meet and where, making every day run smoothly. We started our first day with a long drive in bright orange coaches out into the countryside of Uttar Pradesh province. Since 80% of this country’s 1.1 billion people live in a rural setting, had we not ventured out as we did, we would have missed a large part of India’s culture and way of life. We got a first-hand view of Indian traffic: unrivaled chaos in the streets with cars, rickshaws, cows, bicycles, pedestrians and others jockeying for position in the clear hierarchy of biggest on down. Giant orange coach, fortunately = biggest. We finally made it to our destination, Rajugela Village, to visit the school there where we were met by eager young children who had come to school on a Sunday, just for us.

The India School Fund (ISF) was founded by 5 HBS students who had been in our shoes in 2005 on the SABA trek, and were inspired by the great education needs in rural India. Their goal: “to ensure effective delivery of education to break the vicious cycle of poverty in rural India.” By July 2007, the school in Rajugela Village had opened its doors to 240 eager first, second, and third graders. Their key insight was around the strategic design and effective delivery of a meaningful curriculum. We witnessed the learning taking place as students sat in circles, working together on problem sets and helping each other when necessary. The participatory model reminded me a lot of what we experience here at HBS. Students progress to new ‘grade levels’ based on achievement, not age – an individualized ‘ladder of learning’. To date, the student attendance rates have been over 90% (compared to approximately 40% for all of rural India) with significant gains in student achievement in all modules of their curriculum. For more information about ISF or to donate, visit their website at www.indiaschoolfund.org. To volunteer: contact@indiaschoolfund.org.

Our second day started bright and early with a sunrise visit to the Taj Mahal in Agra. In pitch black darkness we rode horse-and-buggy style up to the gate (vehicles are not allowed close to the monument) and waited in the chilly early morning air with anticipation. As the sun rose, it revealed a thick mist of fog, so dense it obscured our view of anything more than about 10 feet in front of us. The majestic view of the Taj Mahal through the gate was nothing but whiteness! Eventually it started to clear off a little, but all our pictures look like a blue screen background with the faint outline of the Taj Mahal superimposed. Fortunately, it didn’t diminish the beauty and elegance of the magnificent structure, especially when we got a little closer. Our second night was celebrated with a spectacular welcome gala hosted at Samode Palace, starting with fireworks in our honor, a dance show, and of course, a splendid Indian buffet dinner.

Our next stop was Jaipur, where we saw the Amber Fort and the City Palace. Our third night was spent recreating the Indian wedding experience. Picture this: a group of about 70 people, few of whom are Indian, dressed up in saris and turbans, dancing in a parade on the side of a street as we walked to the entrance of the Hari Mahal Palace where we witnessed two trek volunteers getting married in the Indian tradition. Much dancing ensued.

Day four commenced with an early flight to Mumbai where we started with a city tour that included a few sites of the terrorist attacks. These sites were included in the tour not necessarily because of the attacks, but rather because the attacks targeted heritage sites: The Victoria train station, the Cama Hospital, Leopold Café, the Oberoi Hotel, the Chabad House, and the Taj Palace hotel are all beautiful, ornate, historic structures worthy of inclusion on any Mumbai city tour. We ate lunch at the Taj Palace hotel; it was eerie to stand outside a place featured so much on the news, and then experience its elegance and peacefulness, the last place one would expect violence and death. A memorial has been established in the lobby. The Taj Hotel lost approximately 40 of their staff in the attacks on November 26, 2008.

That night was New Year’s Eve, and the trek organizers went all out in reserving a private, glassed-in room at the chic see-and-be-seen nightclub, Privé, where we rung in 2009 in style. It was a fun and boisterous evening; the only disapointment was the failure of Britney Spears to appear, as rumor had it.

Our second day in Mumbai included a tour of Elephanta Caves, where monkeys WILL outsmart you and steal things, followed by an optional slum tour at Dharavi (think “Slumdog Millionaire”). Asia’s largest slum is teeming with activity as people are hard at work making products for export, earning an estimated US$650 million annually.

Our next stop was the province of Kerala (yes, from the BGIE case) where we had a business panel meeting with the Kerala Management Association, then boarded elaborate houseboats holding 4 – 6 people each to tour the backwaters and spend the night. Each houseboat had a crew of three who cooked and cleaned for us as we lounged on the deck enjoying the calm backwaters and light breeze. The following morning, the houseboats delivered us at the Radisson Resort and Spa, allegedly the nicest spa in all of India. Groups of us traveled to a local authentic ayurvedic massage house 20 minutes away to experience the traditional oil massage. Our visit to Kerala ended with a visit to Kambalangi village where we saw coconut trees employed for all kinds of uses, and then attended a traditional dance show complete with elaborate and colorful costumes and make-up.

Next up was the province of Goa, a very popular tourist beach destination with heavy Portuguese and English influences. The shopping was great and put our negotiation skills to the test at the stalls where plenty of trinkets and souvenirs were displayed. I learned more at those stalls than I did in any negotiation simulations last year! I’m pretty sure I was on the losing side each time, though. Oh well. I still got my Kingfisher t-shirts, CDs, and bangles at a relatively low price by US standards.

The trek concluded back in Delhi where we visited the Jama Masjid mosque, the Red Fort, the Raj Ghat where there is a memorial to Gandhi, the Lodhi Gardens, the Lotus Temple, and dinner at the amazing Bukhara restaurant – no silverware allowed. Our last night together was capped with a surprise celebration at a club called Tabula Rasa, which the organizers had reserved just for us and where a talented team of three, Assaf Harlap, Jeremy King (mba2010), and Antoine Munfa, presented an Incredible !ndia skydeck. We went home that night also with large custom-made bags full of Indian souvenirs from the trek organizers (as if they hadn’t done enough already!), including snake charmers, chess sets, a local painting, and more.

In closing, I’d like to leave you with a few key take-aways lifted from the ‘DOs and DON’Ts’ portion of the skydeck.

Upon returning home to HBS:

DO adjust your watch from Indian Standard Time. Unfortunately it’s not acceptable to show up 45 minutes late to class at HBS.

DON’T eat the Indian food in Harvard Square or believe the Spangler sign “International cuisine – India”.

DO keep taking your meds. Remember what happens in India stays in India. Except for diahhrea and malaria.

DON’T visit slums. In America’s slums, you won’t find an artisan making pottery, you’ll find a guy making crack.

February 17, 2009
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