Wharton Winter Break in India

Wharton India GIP group 2013-14

After wrapping up my first semester courses and visiting my parents in Florida for the Christmas holiday, I boarded an Emirates Airbus A380 en route to Mumbai for the 2-week Wharton Global Immersion Program (GIP) in India. The GIP trips combine an on-the-ground education in the economic, cultural and geopolitical particulars of an emerging region of the world with quite a bit of vacationing and relationship building with a cohort of about 30 Wharton students. GIP trips are currently taken to India and The Middle East during the winter and China and South America during the spring. Each individual program is worth 0.5 credit units towards graduation and also involves a series of courses prior to departure.

I was drawn to the GIP program as my first major trip at Wharton largely due to the fact that I am a huge history geek and am more keen to explore the site of an ancient palace and learn about its significance in the world than to visit a beach. This preferential leaning may also be influenced by the fact that after growing up in Florida and living in California I have seen enough beaches for a lifetime, but I digress. At the risk of sounding cliche,  I could not have chosen a more fun, interesting and diverse group of travel companions and cadre of native Indian coordinators and guides to share this experience with. And while I could quite literally go on for hours about this experience, I will cover just a few of its most interesting highlights here.

Mumbai (formerly Bombay)

The world’s most expensive home in Mumbai

One of the things that impresses me most about India is its thrust to regain control over its own destiny since the expulsion of the British 2-3 generations ago. One symbolic expression of that reclamation has been the changing of the names of several of its cities from their English-given monikers to names that are better aligned with the indigenous culture, religions and languages. The change of the name of India’s largest city from Bombay to Mumbai is perhaps the best known of these.

My introduction to Mumbai did not go so well, to be honest. A tight layover window in Dubai caused my luggage to be placed on the flight behind me, which resulted in my having to wait for five hours in the Mumbai airport for them to arrive. This, of course, was complicated by the fact that I was forced to wait outside (there were no seats in the airport) and was harassed on a few occasions by a gun-toting security guard when I tried to re-enter to check on the status of my luggage. My bags did eventually arrive, however. And just as they were being brought out to me, three of my classmates (Monica Rodriguez, Dean Drizin, and Matt Dennett–all WG15) who had just landed showed up as well. We hailed a cab and our magic carpet ride began.

We rode in that cab for what felt like days through a vast city with more than twice the population of New York City before reaching our hotel. Having lived in Los Angeles for a number of years, I thought I knew traffic. I thought that I had done my fair share of horn-honking as well. My thoughts were pure delusion. The organized chaos that one encounters on the roads of India is something that words alone cannot express. It must be experienced. In time, however, I and the rest of my cohort would become accustomed to the constant jerking, near-crashes, horn-honking and stop-and-go that typifies the road traveler’s experience in India.

Colossal monuments in the Temple of Shiva, Elephanta Caves, Mumbai

One observation that I found interesting  about this amazing country during that first of many cab rides was seeing the peaceful coexistence of the old and new worlds, such as a cow crossing a street two blocks from a 50-floor skyscraper. In no part of India that I visited was this contrast more glaring than in Mumbai. While I was impressed in one manner with Mumbai’s scale, sprawl and pockets of extreme wealth, I was taken aback by the widespread poverty that I witnessed as well. I was then equally moved by a stark contrast that I noticed between the poor in India vs. that which I am accustomed to seeing in the US.

Even though I felt surrounded by poverty at some times in India, I never really felt unsafe. Now, I don’t want to romanticize the place. India has many problems that still need to be solved. Still, I felt about 100x more safe while touring, say, the Dharavi slum community than I do walking too far west of 40th street in Philly. The poor people who I encountered seemed only to want to eat. I never sensed any malice or intention to do harm…even from those who went so far as to literally reach their hands into our cab while asking for sustenance.

If anyone in the poor neighborhood where I grew up in central Florida reaches their hand into your car, someone will probably end up in the hospital; though it won’t be us if I am accompanying you. In India, by contrast, I witnessed a gentleness and humanity among people from all walks of life that I found refreshing. The highlight of our stay in Mumbai was meeting up with approximately 50-70 other Whartonites who were also in India on treks, shadow treks and visiting family to bring in the year 2014 Wharton style. We shared an unforgettable night of celebration and camaraderie before each individual caravan continued its scheduled journey through various parts of India.

Personal Highlights from Mumbai:

The Elephanta Caves/Lord Shiva Temple – We took a ferry through the Arabian sea to a small island off the coast of Mumbai where we toured an ancient Hindi temple built into a cave on the side of a mountain in honor of the Hindu god Shiva. The site featured colossal statues and depictions of gods throughout.

The Ghandi Museum – We had the opportunity to visit the former home and office of one of the most important people in both Indian and world history.

The World’s Most Expensive Home (pictured above) – A $1 billion, 27-story mansion in the sky built by a set of brothers–one of whom is apparently a Wharton graduate.

Pratham Education Foundation (company visit) – The largest NGO working to ensure quality education for underprivileged children in India. It has sparked a pan-Indian movement that has impacted millions of children across 19 of the 28 states in the country.

The Dharavi Slums – One of the largest slums in the world and undoubtedly the most productive. A safe, peaceful community that supports over 8,000 businesses and churns out a GDP of nearly $670 million US from a sprawling collection of shanties and makeshift mini-factories.

Bangaluru (formerly Bangalore)

Infosys World Headquarters, Bangaluru

I first heard about this southern Indian city while reading Timothy Ferris’ The 4 Hour Work Week, a national bestseller from a few years back about outsourcing. In fact, I believe that I’ve hired a graphic or designer or two from this city in some of my past web projects.

Dubbed as the Silicon Valley of India, I found Bangaluru to be less grand but more livable than Mumbai. Formerly a sleepy little town, Bangaluru has exploded into a metropolis of just shy of 10 million residents as the result of a tech boom started by companies such as Infosys (shown above–whose founders are from the region), just as the meteoric growth of the Silicon Valley in California was sparked by the advent of companies such as HP.

I noticed what at least appeared to be a more even distribution of wealth in Bangaluru than I had in our previous tour city. As opposed to the skyscrapers vs. slums dialectic that I saw all over Mumbai, many of the neighborhoods that we saw in this city vaguely reminded me of upper middle class areas in Southern California such as Westwood or some sections of Santa Monica if I were to make that assessment base on the size and style of the homes. I even noticed a proliferation of Spanish-styled roof tops that are quite common on the west coast of the US.

Sadly, I spent much of my stay while in Bangaluru in bed with a flu that either attacked or completely took down about half of us on the trip at one time or another. Then, just as I was recovering from that illness, I suffered a mild case of the infamous “Delhi belly” that I had been warned about. While the latter wasn’t very severe, I suspect that I got it while enjoying the cuisine of a local restaurant that was off the beaten path of the places that had been “approved” for us to eat at.

While India definitely has some sanitation issues that need to be worked out, I also attribute sicknesses like that to simply being around new germs that your body isn’t used to. For instance, a Wharton student (and GIP guide) who was born and raised in India shared with me that she was sick for a full month when she first moved to the US due to all of the new germs that she encountered here. There is a misconception that travelling sickness is part and parcel due to some inherent “nastiness” in developing nations. While I can acknowledge that there are glaring public health issues in many of these places, such illnesses can befall anyone who becomes immersed in a new biological environment–even those visiting the states for the very first time.

Though I did not get to visit every company in Bangaluru, I enjoyed the visits to both Ujjivan and Genpact. Ujjivan was founded by a Wharton alum (Samit Ghosh, WG ’74) who leveraged his 30 year career in banking with Citi to start a mirco-financing company that offers business loans to the urban poor in India. His wife serves as the CFO. Ujjivan serves a customer base of over 1 million across 20 Indian states and brings in gross revenues of $39 million per annum.

I enjoyed Genpact because their business solutions dovetail into my personal (and professional) interests in customer data and attribution. The company started out as a division of GE capital and has since grown into an NYSE traded, $2.2B company with 62,000 employees that provide strategic data-based insights to top executives at major corporations all over the world.


Riding a rick shaw in Old Delhi with WG’15 classmate Mike Stewart

By the time we flew from  Bangaluru to Delhi, I was well again and ready to participate more fully with the group. This occurred just in time as I was in for one of the most culturally enriching parts of the GIP, unbeknownst to me at the time.

We started out with a visit to the Qutab Minar, a 73 meter high “tower of victory” built by Qutab ud-din Aibak after his defeat of India’s last Hindu kingdom. The tower’s construction began in 1200 AD under the rule of Aibak and was completed by his succesor in 1368 AD. Construction was later began on a new Minar planned to be twice the height and diameter of the original, but it was never completed. The base of the newer structure still stands on the site.

Another great experience in Delhi was our entire group’s ride through the streets of Old Delhi in a caravan of about 15 or so rick shaws (pictured above). While much of urban India has evolved beyond tight, super-crowded streets lined with merchants and crowded with pedestrians, livestock and human-powered carts, it was nice to see that this glimpse of the past has been preserved in pockets for newcomers to experience and appreciate.

The Akshardham Baha’i Temple in New Delhi

The most awesome experience  in Delhi, however, was our visit to the Akshardham Baha’i temple (pictured elft). Unfortunately, we were not allowed to bring cameras inside the actual Temple. I must say, however, that Akshardham is the single most magnificent structure that I have ever seen in person. I honestly don’t think that even photos can really show just how meticulously detailed and awe-inspiring of a place it is.

Other interesting experiences in Delhi included seeing a live Bollywood show, attending an event for Wharton alumni in Delhi dressed in traditional Indian clothing and then getting lost in a rick shaw at about 1am leaving an after party from that event with two classmates.


Group photo at The Taj Mahal

The city of Agra was our last official stop point on the GIP trip. We rode our bus 5 hours south for a 1 day excursion to see the city and the Taj Mahal. As impressive as it was, I must say that while I expected for it to be the high point in this trip, it was not. And that’s not a negative against the Taj but a huge positive to the immense cultural richness that I was able to experience in this country in just less than two weeks’ time.

One thing that I found very disappointing about Agra, however, was how little the local population’s lives seemed to be improved by the hoards of money that pour into that city from tourists who’ve come to see the monument. While economic disparity could be seen in much of the country, I found it to be more blatant in Agra than anywhere else. At the same time, I was encouraged that the rapid growth of India’s middle class would hopefully reach places like Agra to provide for better lives for that city of some 1.3 million residents.


Riding at elephant to the Amer Fort in Jaipur

Jaipur ended up being an unexpected treat for me. A classmate and I both had a late flight out of Delhi that Friday. After speaking with Naveen, our local guide who organizes India trips for Wharton, we were able to uncover that for about the cost of a textbook at Wharton, we could get a driver to take us from Agra to Jaipur while the rest of the group traveled back to Delhi, stay overnight in Jaipur and then go visit the Amer fort in that city the next day. So after eating lunch with the group following our Taj Mahal viewing, we were off to Jaipur for our fifth and final city adventure in India.

During the 5 hour car rides between Agra and Jaipur and then Jaipur and the Delhi Int’l Airport, we really got a chance to see the country side of India in a manner that we normally would not have on a tourist visit such as this. It was in the “sticks” of India where you could really see how the development of the country was beginning to permeate even the most obscure segments of society.

We saw massive freeways being built in areas where mud and straw huts existed. We sat through traffic jams in rapidly growing townships that were caused by an elephant that was trying to cross the road.  We saw bustling open markets smashed between dense brick slums brimming with inhabitants as people from rural areas migrate into medium and large cities in search of jobs and opportunity.

The ride up to the Amer fort.

In Jaipur itself, we visited the Amer castle and fort, the only Hindi (as opposed to Muslim) fort that we visited while in the country. The tour started with an elephant ride up the side of a mountain range that is considered to be one of the oldest in the world.

Apparently, the precious jewels found within that mountain have made India the world’s #1 producer of non-diamond precious stones. Perched in one of those mountains in the Amer fort, where we met with a guide who gave us a tour and history of Amer.

All in all, the Wharton India GIP was a transformative journey that gave all of its participants a greater breadth and depth of understanding about this emerging region. It was also the perfect vacation prior to starting the spring semester and an educational opportunity that none will soon forget. One simply cannot attain learning such as this from the classroom alone. I highly recommend the GIP program to anyone who is interested in a similar experience as the once that I have shared here.