When around 200 youngsters converge at a single spot, one expects chaos. However, it makes for extremely colourful chaos when it involves people from all over the world. The last weekend, on July 19 and 20, Mumbai was witness to one such gathering of 200 international students and delegates from over 30 countries.
The Mumbai chapter of AIESEC, the world’s largest youth-run not-for-profit organisation, hosted "internationals" from countries as far away and as varied as Colombia, Serbia, and Kazakhstan for a cross-cultural 'Discover Mumbai weekender' followed by a 'Global Village'.
AIESEC is a global youth network that provides its members opportunities to develop leadership and entrepreneurial skills through internships in partner countries across the world. India is therefore home to a large number of such interns in all its major cities. Most of them are on two types of programmes: either a six-week or a one-year internship.
The purpose of the 'Discovery Mumbai' weekender was to introduce the internationals from across India to the sights, sounds and history of Mumbai, especially South Mumbai. Beginning at the Salvation Army lodge where the internationals were put up for the duration of their stay, the tour took the interns from the Gateway of India to all the iconic landmarks of the city, including Marine Drive, Nariman Point, Horniman Circle, Flora Fountain and Victoria Terminus Station. Throughout the tour, guides from 'Incredible India' provided snippets of Mumbai’s glorious and sometimes unknown history.
Needless to say, most of these interns are well-travelled, having been on similar cultural exchanges around the world, and extremely adaptable. Still, adjusting to the cultural diversity of India – especially in a metropolis like Mumbai – can be daunting.
Alan, an intern from Mexico who has been living and working in Mumbai for the past two months, found the stark contrast between the rich and the poor most unsettling. "The most unexpected thing about Mumbai is how there are so many rich people living right next to so many poor people," he says.
A clichéd, oft-heard description of Mumbai, you might think. Alan agrees. "I’d heard people say this about Mumbai before. But it is different when you see and experience it with your own eyes."
However, it is not all negativity and culture shock. "What is most endearing is that everyone on the street smiles at you. Everyone! It’s very welcoming," he says.
"Also, I love the food!" he enthuses, and promptly reels off a list of Indian dishes that he likes.
Adapting to a culture drastically different from one’s own more often than not involves some extremely unusual – and sometimes hilarious – experiences.
"I recently had a competition with a Tamil guy over who knows the maximum number of Hindi words," says Mikhailo, an intern from Serbia who has also been living and working in Mumbai for the past two months. "I almost, almost won."
As the tour ended at Nariman Point, and the delegates gathered in the alternating drizzle and sunshine, it was easy to see the camaraderie that had already developed within a few hours of their meeting. These people who had come together from all over the world were already bonding and their ties would only deepen.