When our group of 15 students arrived at the Minneapolis airport three weeks ago, we barely knew each other. As the instructor, I was unsure how we would fare when faced with the culture shock and unpredictability of India. Now, returning, I can report that the trip was a success beyond my expectations. The students were fully open to the experience; their enthusiasm, curiosity, patience, and spirit were inspiring. They were as comfortable in the world-class ITC hotel and the US Embassy as in slums and rural villages. More than anything, the group came with the empathy to listen to the thoughts, concerns, hopes, and dreams of the people we met. This inspiration is something I bring home from the trip.
Govind Puri slum development workshop visit (Credit: micro Home Solutions)
Some memories of our trip would be common to many travelers: a visit to the Taj Mahal; the tastes of new foods; sights, smells and sounds from Delhi. Other experiences were unique: new Facebook connections with high school students from the Govind Puri slum; friendships with TERI University students formed over cups of chai and late night karaoke; connections to people who inspired us with their work, perseverance, and creativity. Still other memories cemented the "expect the unexpected" motto of India: the Finnish dream-sequence play involving angry sugar cubes, symbolizing urbanization and family instability; the 3am arrival back to Delhi after our train from Jhansi was canceled; grazing cows and open methane fires at the top of a large landfill; a government official presenting information that we knew from our own experiences was false.
The world is shrinking; few places in the globe are more than a day or two from anywhere else. Maybe some of us will return. If we do, we'll bring with us an understanding of why the problems facing Indian communities are so challenging. Energy, water, sanitation, housing, air pollution, transportation, climate change: these are "wicked" problems. If they were easy, they would have been solved. Technologies play a critical role in many solutions, but a technology by itself is not a solution. As a guest lecturer from Slum Dwellers International told us, "to be an engineer here, you also have to be an anthropologist". Social, political, and economic contexts matter. In many instances, we learned that our assumptions were wrong and that our preconceived ideas for solutions were in fact the opposite of what a community wanted.
Everywhere we looked, we saw stunning inequality; too often, technologies and solutions reflected or amplified those inequalities. The low-income communities at the center of the water, energy, waste and livelihoods challenges we've seen have the most to lose and most to gain. Their knowledge, their social capital and connections, their hopes and dreams, are at the core of the most transformational solutions we've observed over the past three weeks.
We ended as we began, with a group photo in the Minneapolis airport: 15 young adults, full of their own passions, dreams, idealism, and hope, who elected to spend 3 weeks experiencing India, and (hopefully) becoming one degree wiser about the world.
A generation ago, traveling to Europe or Asia took more than a week by ship. Today, the Minnesota airport is full of travelers moving between cultures, everyone coming or going. To live overseas for three weeks or three years is today more doable than ever. The experiences of this trip have changed all of us; who knows where those changes might lead.
We thank all of our hosts and friends, for making our experience what it was; the University of Minnesota for hosting the class; and TERI University for being excellent partners.
- Brian, Deepti, and Julian