Atop a skyscraper in Mumbai, Bridge Year India 10.0 enjoyed the panoramic views of the city skyline. This was to be the first of 14 fantastic days spent on our student-lead Winter Excursion, during which we visited Pune and Goa, after leaving Mumbai. The city came as a huge surprise to me. To a small-town boy it had a very New-York feel about it and, perhaps naively, I had not expected to find that in India. We had been kindly invited to the apartment through a friend of one of my fellow students, and it turned out to be a wonderful afternoon.
As our first stop in Mumbai, our host helped us to orientate to a new urban landscape, and served us so much delicious food that we couldn’t eat any more the rest of the day. She was heavily involved in the NGO scene in Mumbai, so it was great to be able to compare experiences that we have witnessed at our service sites with her. We joked about the opulence of the recent Ambani-Piramal wedding, and her English tea was a nice reminder of home. However, despite all the fun, I was never able to completely switch off from how removed we were from the streets below. A 5 minute walk from the road 20 flights below would bring you to the Dharavi Slum, one of the most densely populated areas in the world and a locality so famed for its poverty that I remembered studying it in Geography lessons many years ago. One of the largest slums in Asia, Dharavi is home to a huge number of people and an informal economy that some estimate turns over more than US $1 billion per anum.
Maharashtra and Goa continued to provide opportunities for us to witness the scale of India in every respect. We were granted a window into the lives of both ends of the socio-economic spectrum and we got to explore new climates, from the rocky desert of Rajasthan to the lush mangroves of Goa. In Candolem, a tourist hotspot, we found holidaymakers with interests altogether different from the travelers we observe often in Udaipur and during our stay at the Wild Otters Field Base we witnessed a unique approach to wildlife conservation. I find it scarcely believable that we have seen such diversity of cultures, climates and wildlife all in one country, and when I look at the map and are reminded that we have only seen a tiny part of India it makes me excited to see what else is out there.
Ideas of privilege and guilt are never far from our conversations as Dragons students, and my opinions of both have changed many times so far this year and continue to do so. A new backdrop for these ideas during the winter excursion meant new inspiration but, perhaps more importantly, in spending more time together as a group it became apparent how differently we each as students and instructors value and consider these ideas, and many others that we discuss frequently. These discrepancies only increase the value of the output of our travel, because when you disagree with an opinion held by someone who you respect dearly, it becomes clear that it is people’s backgrounds that shape their views and thought processes and not who we are. The necessity to try and understand people that is born from this realization is something I have very much learned from in India, and is the most interesting thing about Bridge Year.