THE BLOG

Impressions of India: Mumbai to Ahmedabad

02/10/2015 10:11 am ET | Updated Apr 12, 2015

Wednesday January 7, 2015

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Our morning was a little more relaxing today, since we were getting picked up at 10:30 to go to the airport. This was wonderful and allowed me some time to work on my notes and edit photos. This country is one giant photo op, and there are amazing images to be found at every turn, so there has been precious little time to sit quietly and enjoy the process of sorting.

The ride to the airport on the other hand was as crazy as every other experience we've had driving in the chaotic traffic scene here. It's amazing anyone survives even crossing the street! As fascinating and complex as Mumbai is, the combination of the bad air quality, and the horrendous traffic congestion has left me yearning to see more of the countryside and smaller villages, which I'm anticipating we will experience in the next few weeks.

We flew one hour north and disembarked in another big city, Ahmedabad, with the anticipation of being with Poonam Kathuria, who we sponsored to come to America last year. Let me digress for a moment to restate who "we" are and the purpose of our trip to India.

In 2012, I was invited to join a group of twelve women called "The Giving Circle," and our purpose would be to sponsor a woman "from the global south" to come to America and participate in The Empowerment Institute. This group concept is part of a larger entity called "Imagine... A Global Initiative for The Empowerment of Women," which was created in 2010 by Gail Straub and David Gershon. In a nutshell, here is how they describe their work:

IMAGINE is a global initiative for the empowerment of women. It enables women in challenging life circumstances in developing world countries to envision and create new possibilities for their life, family and community through participation in Empowerment Institute's flagship transformational training program, the Empowerment Workshop. IMAGINE's focus is on women because they have been identified as the key leverage point to further development in countries of the global south. IMAGINE is currently being implemented through Empowerment Institute partner organizations in Afghanistan, Kenya, India, Jordan, Nigeria, South Africa, and Sudan. IMAGINE's long-term goal is to change the game around development.

I accepted the invitation, looking forward to the opportunity of making a difference in the world. At our first meeting, we were introduced to Poonam Kathuria, who founded "Society for Women's Action and Training Initiative" (SWATI), an organization committed to the achievement of rights for women and the marginalized in the state of Gujarat, India.

Here is a brief description of the work of her organization:

SWATI's vision is an equitable and violence-free world for all, irrespective of their gender, religion, caste, ethnicity, sexual orientation and physical ability. SWATI has organized women into large-scale, block-level collectives of over 4,000 autonomous members. These collectives work on the developmental issues of women and community and are also completely led and managed by women. Ending Violence against Women (VaW) is the primary agenda of SWATI. Their work is based on the premise that VaW has vast dimensions and to succeed in combating it, primary efforts need to be achieved at the level of the community; and societal institutions such as the family, religion, the media, education and state (police, judiciary, policy makers, etc).

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Throughout the year, we had the opportunity to speak with Poonam via Skype and then meet her in person when she did her first empowerment weekend in New York City. She's a delightful, intelligent, strong and committed woman. We started floating the idea of a trip to India to visit her and see the work she's doing almost immediately, and in the end, only five of us could come on this grand adventure: Patricia (the leader of our group), Alice, Ellen, myself, Sylvia and her husband Leonard (who has been our muse and my photography buddy so far). Photo credit: Sylvia Leonard Wolfe.

We arrived at our hotel The House of MG mid-afternoon: a beautifully restored 1924 home of former textile magnate, Abhay Mandalgas. It's located directly across the street from a historic mosque, and every morning at sunrise and evening at sunset they broadcast the Muslim Call to Prayer on loudspeakers. Hearing this for the first time helped me realize -- I'm in the East! Tomorrow we will venture close to the Pakistan border, a three hour drive to the north, when we visit a hospital in Radhanpur that is one of SWATI's initiatives: a pilot program making public health systems responsive to the issue of Violence against Women (VaW).

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Our one tourist destination this afternoon was the Ghandi Ashram. Mahatma Ghandi was born here, in the state of Gujarat, and the people are very proud to hold his memory front and center. They have created a beautiful museum on the grounds of the home where he lived from 1918 to 1930, which pays tribute to his life and the important issues he championed. He was one of the great leaders of our time, and it was truly an honor to visit this sacred place.

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Driving around Ahmedabad was as crazy, or perhaps even more crazy (if this is at all possible), than Mumbai. The International Kite Festival was happening in a few days (sorry to have missed it) and many of the motorcycles had wire contraptions on the front to protect the driver from accidentally coming into contact with a kite string! Another phenomenon we hadn't seen until today was multiple riders on one motorcycle: I saw a family of four on a small vehicle! Also interesting is that the sari-clad women all ride side-saddle with their colorful garments blowing behind them. The city is full of roundabouts, and no one pays the least bit of attention to red lights unless there is a police officer present, so it's really every man for himself here. There's no room for timid driving! This is one of the reasons I would not recommend renting a car and driving in India: get a driver!

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We saw our first cows walking in the street and Poonam explained that some neighborhoods used to be rural villages that have now become absorbed by the ever-expanding city. People who were farmers and owned livestock sometimes can no longer feed them, so they just let them go onto the streets and people feed them until the municipality comes and picks them up.

The evening was uneventful, as we all were tired and just wanted to go back to the hotel and get some sleep! Tomorrow will be the day we meet these amazing women from rural villages and we want to be rested!

Stay tuned and thank you for your support.