Elephants and the Stark Reality

May 14, 2014

Hi everyone! Today we spent another amazing, yet exhausting day in Mumbai. After a quick breakfast we got our first opportunity to walk the streets of Mumbai on our way to see the Gateway of India. Having spent years living in Chicago, I thought I had seen all of the chaos city life has to offer. Wrong! As early as 8:30 a.m. the streets were packed with vendors selling everything imaginable! From lavish jewelry to fruit stands, all of our senses were engulfed by the vivid colors of women’s Sari’s, new smells of spice, and the sound of horns honking as cabs, trucks, motorcycles, and rickshaws whizzed by.

After what seemed like mere seconds of walking down the street we were met by the Gateway of India. No words can describe how amazing this structure is in person! In particular, one of the things I noticed here was how many locals were hanging out and socializing around the gate. Having always assumed this to be a tourist attraction, this really gave me a sense of how much pride the natives have for their country and its historical landmarks.

After seeing the Gateway of India the group boarded a ferry headed to Elephant Island. Before you get too excited, I thought I should mention that there are no elephants on Elephant Island (weird huh!?) As we sat atop the top deck, the ferry took us on an hour-long trip across the water where we got to view the Taj Hotel, Gate of India, and massive oil ships from afar. Even though the ride was pretty rocky, everyone survived without getting too seasick. Luckily for Julia and I, I had a whole bottle of Pepto-Bismol that we gladly opened up and indulged in for safe measures.

After an hour on the ferry getting a much needed break from the heat, we arrived at Elephant Island. After exiting the ferry, the group got the opportunity to walk through a chaotic marketplace on our way up 120 stairs to the temples that make Elephant Island so popular. In the marketplace there where vendors with beautiful wooden and marble statues, jewelry, handbags, clothes with native prints, and artwork. In fact, these vendors were so persistent that one followed Dr. Dalla until she agreed to buy an eccentric elephant statue that she had been eying!

Needless to say, by the time we got to the top of the stairs we were drenched in sweat and exhausted! However, this wasn’t going to stop us from exploring the temples of Elephant Island! At the top of Elephant Island sits a mammoth, hand chiseled temple that took 200 years to construct (700-900 A.D.). Luckily, we were blessed with an amazing tour guide who took us throughout each area of the temple and explained what each carved out image of a god was depicting. Again, it was evident by the way the tour guide spoke about each carving, how much pride he had for his country and religion. Personally, my favorite statue carving inside the temple was of Ganesh – the Hindi god if money, lucky, and welcome.

Although the temple was amazing, the highlight of my day was getting to see all of the wildlife on Elephant Island. If there is one thing you should know about me it is that I am a huge animal lover! Therefore, expect to hear a lot about the wildlife when it is my turn to blog. This being said, Elephant Island was inhabited by dozens of monkeys. In fact, as we were taking pictures of them in their natural habitat we witnessed one of the monkeys steal a juice box from a man having lunch on the island. He then proceeded to run up a tree where the man could not reach him and drink the juice. Of course we all thought it was adorable and hilarious. The man however, did not seem pleased and was left to enjoy his meal without a beverage.

After taking the ferry ride back and eating at a local Indian restaurant down the street (Yum!) it was time to start the second half of our day at Prerana. For those of you who do not know, Prerena is an NGO (Non Governmental Organization) that was started in India in 1987 in an effort to provide education and overnight stay services to children whose mothers are involved in the sex trade. Prerana was created upon the realization that these children were witnessing life in the brothels from a young and vulnerable age and were not receiving proper education. In particular, we spent the majority of our evening at Prerana’s Faukland Road facility. Faukland Road is home to over 5,000 women in the sex trade and unfortunately, over 95 percent of these women have been forced into the trade from within and outside the country. To avoid witnessing the sights and sounds of the sex trade from a young age, many children of these women spend their nights playing games, learning, and socializing at Prerana’s facility.

We spent hours at the Faukland Road facility where we were all able to ask the founder Priti and members of her staff questions about Prerana and its mission to prevent children of sex trade workers from entering the sex trade themselves. All I have to say is this woman is an inspiration to us all. I left the facility speechless and in awe of her courage and determination. Listening to her speak about Prerana, I can only hope that I am able to do just as much good in my career as a marriage and family therapist. Finally, as we were leaving Faukland Road we got to watch a group of kids at Prerana for summer camp play a game outside with buckets and balls. The goal of the game was to put 10 balls into a bucket. The team with the most amount of buckets filled won! Although simple, the joy that this game brought to the dozens of children playing brought tears to my eyes.

After leaving Prerana, freshening up, and eating dinner, we set out for our final activity of the night. The faculty surprised us by allowing us to take cabs into the red light districts here in Mumbai called Faukland Road and Kamatipura (don’t worry parent’s we stayed in the car). As we whizzed in and out of traffic (See Paul’s video of cab driving in Mumbai for insight into this insanity), the cab drivers drove down streets where women in the sex trade were lined up and ready to take clients. Surprisingly, this was all going on in the midst of community activities such as barbecues, children playing, and marketplace shopping. At one point our cab stopped on the side of the street to get directions. At this point, I saw a woman in the sex trade standing on the side of the road and as we sat there she looked directly into my eyes. Immediately my eyes began to tear up in hopes of a better life for her and in hope that she was happy. This was particularly difficult for me to witness considering she appeared to be about my age. This was an eye opening opportunity that none of us will ever forget. This experience helped us understand the context in which human trafficking and the sex trade industry occurs in Mumbai; and made it very real for all of us. Once we returned from this cab ride we were able to discuss our experience with the faculty, which helped us process the emotional experiences we all had.

Fun fact of the day: Eric hit his head twice because he was not paying attention. First, he hit his head on a pole with a metal box attached while looking at fish in the sea. Apparently this is a popular spot to hit your head since Rich hit his head in the exact same place! It is moments like this when I am glad to be short. Again, while walking the streets of Mumbai Eric hilariously hit his head on a clothes rack and practically knocked it over. Poor guy! I wonder how many more times he will hit his head on low hanging objects by the time this trip  is over.

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Alex Lekas

 

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