India was the chosen travel destination of about 80 Whartonites during winter break, all of whom came together for an epic, Bollywood-esque New Year’s party in Mumbai. Multiple groups spent up to two weeks exploring different aspects of the country. Some focused on learning about Indian business and commerce, while others devoted their time to immersing themselves in the country’s rich and varied history and culture. One thing is for sure: we all had different experiences, reflecting the incredible diversity of a country of unlimited possibilities.
Who knew that India had a desert? Often called “Royal Rajasthan”, this western-most state – which shares a border with Pakistan – offers a terrifically vivid and textured view into India’s tumultuous past, prior to its consolidation into the single country we know today. Rajasthan was home to multiple “kingdoms” – akin to Italian city-states – until power was consolidated by Akbar in the late 1500s. Left behind is a stunning collection of forts, palaces, and religious shrines that goes far beyond the world famous Taj Mahal. Our experience in Rajasthan was highlighted by one-night stay at a desert tent camp where we rode camels, were entertained by a fireside cultural dance, and enjoyed an unbeatable view of the night sky.
This teeming, densely-populated section of Mumbai transcends any simple description. Roughly 1 million people live on a 5-square kilometer stretch of land in the heart of city – an area less than twice the size of UPenn’s campus. Dharavi has a thriving commercial district that produces a wide range of goods and services, with an estimated annual GDP of $600 million. The largest industries are centered around recycling waste products collected from around Mumbai, especially plastics and aluminum. Other industries include pottery and leather goods. While poverty afflicts many residents, Dharavi is also home to many decidedly middle-class residents who choose to live there because of the low rents, central location with access to the expansive public transit system, and a clear feeling of community missing from some of the newer parts of Mumbai. Touring Dharavi was by most accounts one of the most interesting parts of our trip.
Indians’ curiosity with us
One of the most warming parts of our visit to the country was the frequent interest shown by locals about our presence and why we had chosen to visit their country. We were often asked by Indian parents to pose for photos with their children, and in one case Alex Thorn thrilled an entire class of pupils by joining their group photo at the Taj Mahal. I even managed to befriend the Jaipur men’s gymnastics team during our train ride from Jodphur to Jaipur, despite significant language barriers. It turned out the team’s coaches were also police officers – a fact which made me feel extra secure during our adventurous journey aboard an Indian Railways night time express train. Interestingly, India boasts the world’s largest railway network, and Wharton’s own Pragna Kolli (WG ‘15) served as an on-board train attendant at the ripe old age of 17!