The 2016 Leadership Collective trip to India is over. Just over an hour ago the students landed in Chicago with extra memories and literally extra baggage with purchases in India. Both need to be processed and shared with family and friends and internalized by the students themselves.
Since my last blog the group finished the Madurai part of their journey and headed to Kerala to spend some time in and around the Periyar Tiger Reserve in Thekkady.
An early morning start, a fairly uneventful bus ride mostly spent sleeping except for a stop for Chai and coconut water saw us reach Thekkady in time for lunch.
After a post lunch visit to a Spice Farm where we were introduced to the niceties of peeper. Cardamom, Cinnamon and Cloves with an Emu and turkeys thrown in, and one of our group – Juan – bravely 😁 ate a habanero we proceeded to the local theater for a performance of Kalaripayattu – Kalari for short- the martial art form from Kerala.
The show itself was an energetic mix of acrobatics and martial art and all the students had the opportunity to enter the arena and pose with the exponents.Then off we went to dinner at the place of 100 dosas -South Indian pancakes- where for the purist like me it was disconcerting to see Pizza Dosa on the menu along with at least 90 other irreverent versions of the classic Sada/Paper Masala/Mysore/Rava/Oothappam staple.
The next day saw us start early for a walk in the Periyar tiger reserve. Even though between the two groups we only saw monkeys, birds, Samba deer, one wild hog and a bison some distance away, the walk through the jungle was a special treat.
The afternoon created some sort of dilemma. Everyone in the group had zero tolerance for any form of abuse of animals. But our visit was to an Elephant Farm/Sanctuary where previously domesticated elephants were being treated much better but still had to perform or provide rides to essentially provide for their own welfare as well as livelihoods for their keepers. As Raven, one of our students, has pointed out in his own blog it was sad to see these magnificent beasts, which should be roaming free, to respond to human commands to allow our students to bathe and be bathed by them.
The group did have a follow-up discussion on this topic addressing issues of animal welfare and captivity and the need to preserve their habitats but was also made aware of the need to balance the rights of Farmers and others, mainly from marginalized communities who share the same land and whose livelihoods are impacted.
Thursday was travel day with a four hour drive from Thekkady to Kochi to take our Indigo Airlines flight via Mumbai to Ahmedabad. Checking in to the Ellisbridge Gymkhana we waited for the interactions to follow in and around that city.
Next day we began our interaction with students from the Mahatma Gandhi International School. We had a great engagement with the school and it’s students last year and were looking forward to working on the project for the current trip.
This year we had agreed with them that we would focus on the themes of non-violence and civic action espoused by Mahatma Gandhi who also inspired and influenced Dr. Martin Luther King’s own future actions. With the MGIS students acting as guides our students visited the Sabarmati Ashram where Gandhi lived and worked. At the attached museum they heard about Gandhi’s philosophy and some of the major events in his life leading up to India’s independence.
Following that visit the students returned to the school for a very interesting and inspiring Skype/audio talk and Q&A with Tushar Gandhi the great grandson of the Mahatma. He shared anecdotes of King’s visit to the Ashram and India and the profound impact Gandhi and his philosophy had on King’s future actions. In response to a question from a student about the anger she felt at the injustices committed against her community in the US, Tushar Gandhi stated that anger at an injustice was a prerequisite to action but could never drive the nature of that action. All in all a great interaction.
Both sets of students then were briefed on their project – a series of short comics on the lessons to be learned from Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Breaking into groups and after some instructions on making comics the students went into production mode. They had to come up with a storyline, decide on the appropriate images and number of them and then subdivide the work among themselves to come up with comic strips which would, in three days, be exhibited at the school and be printed into a coffee table book.
The students from our group and MGIS worked diligently to produce their comics on the theme of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. The launch of the book containing the comics was accompanied by performances by our students (singing a customised version of a Sam Smith song) and MGIS students.
The book – Connecting Frames – is a terrific compilation of comics and is a testament to the hard work of all the students – US and MGIS- and the great teachers and staff of MGIS who worked so diligently to publish a bound coffee table book in three days. Hats off to all of them.
In between producing the book our students also did another day of service. This time after a brief visit to the Sikh Gurudwara and learning some highlights about the Sikh Religion they spent the next few hours cleaning dishes, serving food etc at Langar (community kitchen) attached to the a Gurdwara. It was a real joy to watch our students enjoy this act of volunteerism and dive into it with gusto.
Another day was spent attending India’s Independence Day at a school in Sherisa Village. Students from the school had participated in April in 360Plus’s R2Urban program, giving rural kids in India an urban experience over a 4/5 day visit. During this visit the R2Urban kids met the Leadership Collective students thereby connecting the two programs. 360Plus also announced our support for providing Internet connectivity to the school. During the Sherisa village visit the students also visited a Jain temple,enjoyed a camel ride, had an interaction with leaders from the Village Panchayat (council) and lunch at a dairy farm belonging to Kantabehn, a woman entrepreneur and ex member of the Panchayat.
The Ahmedabad visit also included celebrating my birthday, a very interesting interaction on recent local history and a visit to a cultural center including a 10+ course traditional Gujarati vegetarian meal served on a plate made of dried leaves.
After 5 very full days the group departed for Delhi. The US Ambassador who had expressed great keenness to meet the group after his interaction with last year’s cohort, unfortunately was called away at the last moment for some meetings with the Indian Government. We were however very fortunate to visit the Embassy and have a very good interaction with two senior officials: George Sibley, Minister Counselor for Economic Affairs and John McCaslin, Minister Counselor for Commercial Affairs. The two shared many insights about working for the State Department and commended it to those of our students who like travel, living amongst and learning about different cultures etc.
Day 2 in Delhi was taken up by travel to Agra and back. The Taj Mahal has an enduring association with India and the visit to one of the world’s seven wonders was a special treat for the group.
Then all too soon it was the last day of the trip. An early morning walk by half the group navigating between the many troops of monkeys saw us spend a little time in Lutyen’s Delhi with the magnificent Rashtrapathi Bhavan (President’s Mansion) and the Houses of Parliament. This was followed by a short visit to Jama Masjid, the mosque in Old Delhi and then on to do some haggling for products at Delhi Hat. Many of the students showed a clear talent for bargaining with the shop keepers and came away with many gifts for family and friends.
After a final dinner and Peace Circle it was time to go. Every student acknowledged the unique nature of the experience they had just completed with some promising to return. India will still be here and will once again welcome them with open arms.