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Cities and the money that runs them

The Budget, presented annually by governments is perhaps the most important policy document in a democracy. It outlines the priorities of governments and gives citizens an idea of where the government is spending their hard-earned tax money. It is therefore incumbent upon governments to make the document as understandable and accessible to citizens as possible.

This blog post is an effort to simplify and visualise the 2018-19 budget of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) at the most elementary level, and also to give a brief overview of the numbers involved therein. I will also delve into the process by which it is presented; it paints an interesting picture. The idea is to try and get more and more citizens involved in the governance and budgeting process of our cities, so that we can inch towards a more accountable and transparent democracy, one citizen at a time! Also, as you will deduce from the blog, city or local governance is severely ignored, which is dangerous for a democracy since it is governance at the city level that impacts our day-to-day lives. It is at this level, then, that citizenry should be most active.

Even though all details pertaining to the budget of the MCGM over the years have been made available on the MCGM website, the budget itself is extremely codified, complicated and unnecessarily cumbersome to go through and understand. It is broken down into ‘A’ (General budget), ‘B’ (improvement), ‘C’ (BEST), ‘E’ (Education), and ‘G’ (Water and Sewerage) budgets, which are then further broken down into ‘fund codes’.

Contrast this with the budget analysis by the Independent Budget Office of New York City, the explanation of each term is simple and easy to understand for everybody. Similarly, the New York City Council has also made it extremely easy for everyone to understand how their budget works.

In India, the national and state budgets are prepared and presented by their respective finance ministers, both of who fall in the deliberative (elected) wing of the government. At the city level in Mumbai and many other cities in India, the story is much different. The budget is prepared and presented by the Municipal Commissioner, a bureaucrat and an unelected member of the executive branch of government appointed by the Urban Development Ministry at the State level.  

The power of running the city, therefore, rests indirectly with an unelected official. There does not exist a structure wherein different agencies and stakeholders report to a single authority running the city that comprises of elected representatives. This undemocratic disease is prevalent not just in Mumbai, but in many cities across India due to a systemic defect.

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The 3 tiers of Indian Government. As we can see, there is no one actually responsible for running Mumbai city

Further, there needs to be a setting of some basic service-level benchmarks in terms of outcomes of the budget. A budget is nugatory if there is no outcome-based approach which encourages monitoring and tracking of expenditure. Interestingly the Indian Government has created an ‘Output Outcome Framework for Schemes’, wherein they adopt an outcome based approach for monitoring the expenditure on schemes in the budget.

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Its an endless cycle!

Just like the ‘power of the purse’ at the national level is with the Lok Sabha, the elected House, the preparation and presentation of the budget should be a responsibility of the elected (deliberative) body of the MCGM.

Before we dive into the numbers of the MCGM budget of 2018-19, let us understand some common terms used frequently in all budget documents. Understanding these will drastically simplify most budgets across the world.

Budget Estimates (BE) – an estimate of how much the government plans to spend/earn in the coming Financial Year (FY – 1st April to 31st March).

Revised Estimates (RE) – an indication of a more realistic spending figure that governments work up typically towards the end of the calendar year following the release of the BE. Governments revise BE numbers based on spending and other factors. Bear in mind that the Revised Estimates can be higher than the Budget Estimates.

Actuals – What the government actually ends up spending. This is why you would get Actuals figures of 2016-17 in the 2018-19 budget, since the FY of 2017-18 hasn’t been completed when the budget is presented.

Let us say I am preparing a budget to track and plan my own expenditure. After doing some analysis of my previous expenditure and some planning of the future, I set Rs. 1000 as my proposed expenditure over the next year. This number becomes my Budget Estimate. Now, towards the end of the year, I see that I have only spent Rs. 300. Seeing that it will not be realistic to spend the full Rs. 1000, I revise my initial estimate of Rs. 1000 to Rs. 700. Rs. 700 will be called my Revised Estimates. In April of the next year, I find that I actually spent Rs. 600. My ‘Actuals’ will then be Rs. 600.

Additionally, Estimates are typically broken down further into Capital Income and Expenditure & Revenue Income and Expenditure. These can be succinctly explained as; capital expenditure refers to expenditure on proposed projects, while revenue expenditure refers to everyday/regular expenses. For example, money spent/received on salaries and water taxes comes under revenue expenditure and revenue income respectively. On the other hand, money to be spent on building a sea link or a metro rail would be Capital expenditure, since we are investing capital in a long-term asset. Grants from State/Central Governments usually fall in the Capital Income category.

Still confused? Check out ‘Part II’ in this PRS explanation, which helped me understand the terms used in the budget.

The procedure that a budget document follows in the MCGM is; once the Budget Estimates (BE) are presented by the Commissioner in March, the elected bodies, namely the Standing Committee and the General Body just debate on it and make small modifications. The budget then goes into effect for the financial year from April.

The Numbers

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Revised Estimates are invariably lower than Budget Estimates, across years. The Revised Estimates were two-thirds of the Budget Estimates in 2016-17. This means that one-third (33%) of the Budget Estimates were slashed that year, without any explanation.

In case you’re wondering, the numbers on the Y-axis are indeed in crores. The Budget Estimates of MCGM for the year 2018-19 are Rs. 27,258 crores! It is the largest civic body in Asia. The MCGM’s budget of 2018-19 is almost double the 2018-19 budget of the entire state of Tripura.

One of the underlying themes of virtually every MCGM budget across departments is under-utilisation, which means that even though the civic body has money to spend, they are not being able to spend it. In my opinion, there can be two reasons for this poor usage of funds; either the MCGM does not have the administrative capacity or capability to spend such a large pool of money efficiently and effectively, or the initial budget is prepared haphazardly, without any scientific approach, and large numbers are presented by the administration to please the citizens and the elected representatives.

Department-wise budgetary allocation

Roads

Health

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The ‘G’ budget constitutes of Water & Sewerage Operations

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Unutilised money (comparing BE and Actuals) in 2014-15, 2015-16 and 2016-17 respectively:

Roads & Traffic: 13%, 39%, 73%

Health: 33%, 35%, 35%

G Budget: 48%, 33%, 15%.

Storm Water Drainage (SWD): 25%, 48%, 35%

Solid Waste Management (SWM): 33%, 29%, 27%

For SWD, Actuals were higher than RE for the year 2016-17. In the same year, Actuals were also higher than RE for ‘G’ Budget (Water and Sewerage Operations).

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‘Establishment Expenses’ comprise of salaries for MCGM employees. The MCGM plans to spend 57% of the total Revenue Expenditure in 2018-19 on salaries. Even though many object to this mammoth allocation, I feel that civic governance ultimately boils down to service-delivery, which can’t be provided without manpower. Catering to services for the 12.5 million people of Mumbai will require a proportionate allocation of resources. 

While the general public would assume that a lack of resources is what causes infrastructural and governance problems, it is actually the lack of efficient management of these resources that is to be blamed. The only cure for this is for citizens to be actively engaged – There is a need for accountability of the administration, and transparency and accessibility of the budgets for democracy to function at its best.

The voter turnout for the Indian General Elections and Maharashtra State Assembly elections in 2014 was 66% and 64% respectively. The voter turnout for the 2017 MCGM elections was 52%. This clearly shows that citizens are prioritising State and National elections over city elections. This order needs to be reversed. The maximum voter turnout should be in city, then state, then national elections. Citizenry must be most active at the city level.

 

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The Pilot episode

I recently started working for an NGO in which work revolves around the Right to Information (RTI) Act, which is a groundbreaking law made to increase transparency and enforce accountability in the governance process.

As a part of my job, I was tasked with conducting a two-hour workshop on the RTI Act to a group of women brought together by a local community centre working in ‘bastis’ (resource poor areas in unheard-of locations across Mumbai).

I was initially skeptical about how well I would be able to conduct the workshop, especially considering that I would have to do so in Hindi, a language in which I’m not as comfortable delivering speeches.

Travelling to these locations itself was an immensely enriching learning process. Having worked in the NGO for a good four months and travelled to various parts of Mumbai, I thought I knew the overall layout of the city and the areas that lay therein. But I was in for quite a surprise when I found that the addresses given to us were potentially 4 addresses in themselves, which made finding the destination quite a treasure hunt. Ironically just an hour away from location, one can find Antilla, the world’s most expensive house.

Travelling to these absolutely marginalized communities and seeing life at the ground level deters me from taking my life for granted and inspires me to work for the greater good. It transports me into an introspective and preachy mood, which is why I’m not the best colleague to be around on such field days; I either zone out completely or start preaching!

Sweaty, cranky and inexcusably late, I entered the room in which I was to muster an effort of informing underprivileged women. To my horror, I found the room packed to the brim with a sea of women seated on the floor. I was greeted with smiling faces, angry faces, and even extremely sleepy faces where the eyes were neither closed nor open (It was 3pm).

Ten minutes into my lecture I found myself letting loose and riling up the crowd, turning into a full-blown Union Leader. I was asking them questions like “Sarkaar kaun banata hai?!” (Who makes the government?), and “Sarkaar ko paise kaun deta hai?!” (Who gives the government money?), and getting responses like “hum banate hai!” (We make it) and “Hum dete hai!” (We give them money). I concluded with a hit, the rhetorical question. “Toh hame paiso ka hisaab maangna chahiye ki nahi?“ (So should we ask for a receipt of the expenditure or not?). The resounding answer was, “Haan!”(Yes!).

Reality soon pulled me back as my language barrier bumped up. I would frequently pause in between the workshop and whisper to my senior who was sitting within a stone’s throw on the floor, asking him what the translation for a word was. This happened too many times for me to count, and it garnered plenty of quiet giggles from the crowd.

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Me trying to think of the Hindi word for ‘citizen’

About halfway through my lecture I heard commotion to my right. I turned my head towards the commotion and asked the audience to bear with me for just a few more minutes. They all bent sideways and made way for my vision to see a child sleeping on the mother’s lap. And the mother casually says, “Sorry, bachche ko sula rahi thi”. (Sorry, I was putting my child to sleep).

Finally, towards the end of the workshop, a woman at the back interrupted me in the middle of a sentence and started expressing her displeasure towards government officials and their cooperation, mocking how they behave when a citizen comes knocking. This elicited quite some laughter from the room, encouraging the lady to continue her imitation act. I had lost the crowd by now and I looked to my senior to step in. This senior, named Eknath, got up and started talking about how we, the citizens allow the government to behave a certain way with us. He gave examples like, when we don’t get network on our phone, we complain and get after the telecom provider. Such a process is not followed when government is dysfunctional. We have trapped ourselves in a system where the system is not accountable and is apathetic of our needs. He then probed the crowd about what they would do if he gave each of them 1 crore rupees and didn’t ask where they would spend it. They would go to the closest mall and go crazy with their money, he guessed, to which the room was filled with laughter. This is how the government is working, he said. If we don’t ask the government, if we don’t keep a check on the government, they too, will go to the mall with our money.

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My face explains how blown away I was by Eknath’s oration

It was then that I realized that public speaking is the art of connecting with your audience with relevance. To appeal to the ‘why?’ of every issue. Why should they get involved? Why does it matter to them, and why should it? And of course, humour is the penultimate tool to getting your message across.

I also learnt that education is everything. Seeing those women’s excitement throughout, as well as after the workshop, proved that there is absolutely no substitute to education and knowledge. When you educate, you empower. Though intangible and long-term, it is the ultimate tool in solving all of society’s deep rooted problems. I had seen great orators in action before, but I had never witnessed such an engagement of a section of society at such a grass roots level. It was quite something.

After the workshop ended, many of them came up to me with huge smiles on their faces to thank me. It was this gesture that reaffirmed my faith in the fundamental goodness in humanity, inspired me to work in this sector and filled me with immense satisfaction at having accomplished something, no matter how insignificant.

 

 

 

A week in Ireland

After much deliberation, my family decided on Ireland as our holiday destination for the summer of 2017. Being the unemployed member with too much time on hand, I was given the responsibility of drafting an itinerary for the seven day visit. A responsibility which I gladly accepted. If you are as indecisive as me, however, planning a trip to a country as enticing and beautiful as Ireland can be a mammoth task. Despite its comparatively small size, Ireland is a treasure of majestic monuments, scenery, and warm and hospitable people. Thanks to this blog by the Earth Trekkers, I managed to succeed in my endeavour.

As is the case with most journeys, things seldom go exactly according to plan. But with a base of research, we were able to save time and accomplish more in a smaller time frame. It was also a good decision to travel in summer, as we had longer days which meant sunlight for an extended period of time.

A strong recommendation would be if you are eligible to drive, you should definitely rent a car. It opens up a lot of options and gives you the freedom to explore alluring Irish towns which you wouldn’t usually notice if you were reliant on public transport.

The following is an itinerary that we followed (and you can follow) while traveling through Ireland, with little trinkets of the wisdom thrown in. I have also added a couple of links that might help you out in your research.

Hopefully this will help you the way other blogs on the internet helped me!

Day 1


Buffer day

Find your accommodation and try to get as much jet lag out of the system as possible. Traveling to a different time zone leaves most disoriented, and it’s best to capitalise on some rest before starting things off the next days. We found a cosy, well-positioned apartment right opposite the Grand Canal Hotel in South Dublin where we spent the next two nights.

Day 2


Dublin

Dublin is a beautiful city sprinkled with pubs, medieval buildings, and large parks. A trend observed not just in Dublin, but throughout Ireland, was that old and new structures seemed to effortlessly co-exist in one picture frame. Based on what you like, you can choose to spend proportions of time in pubs, or seeing buildings or walking around the city.

 

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We walked to St. Stephens Green and started our Vikings Splash Tour (link), which is aboard a unique amphibian machine which runs on roads and water! The tour is conducted by the driver of the car/ferry, who is dressed as a Viking and is hilarious. Tickets have to be booked in advance, and I recommend it to everyone wanting an early experience of some good old Irish humour.

The second half of the day involved visits to St. Patricks Cathedral, Dublin Castle, City Hall, Temple Bar Area, and Grofton Street – which is an all pedestrian shopping street. The Old Storehouse is another dainty pub in which we had our first taste of Guinness Beer, the signature Irish brew.

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Dublin is littered with perpetually crowded pubs, and is a city that truly comes alive in the night.

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Day 3


Drive to Killarney

It was time to explore the Irish countryside! We rented our car from Europcar and set off on our 4 hour journey to Killarney – our next destination city, where we would be spending the next three nights.

Not far into the drive, we started getting glimpses of the beautiful Irish countryside. As I mentioned earlier, having a car gave us the invaluable advantage of being able to stop and refresh ourselves as per our convenience.

Our first stop was the adorable town of Kilkenny. This town is so delightful you would feel like hugging it. This was the first time we had seen an authentic tiny town in Ireland and we couldn’t get enough of it. After a brief visit to Kilkenny castle and a quick bite at Café 22, we headed towards Rock of Cashel. The Rock of Cashel overlooks a scenery like no other, and has some fascinating history behind it.

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With shops such as these, who wouldn’t be tempted to study!

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The Rock of Cashel

The two-hour drive from here to Killarney entails a meandering road through lush green forest with mysterious huts spotted among the landscape and towering mountains in the background. Our B&B in Killarney was Cill Ide B&B. Too restless on arrival from the journey, we decided to pay a short visit to Ross Castle.

Day 4


Ring of Kerry

A scenic drive around the peninsula, the Ring is peppered with viewpoints all around. Despite being a five hour drive, we ended up spending eight hours on the road as we stopped at too many viewpoints and even got lost on the way thanks to a confused Google Maps. Nevertheless, the Ring of Kerry boasts of stunning views and extremely narrow roads- so make sure the driver is experienced, especially in uphill terrain.

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One seemingly obvious yet surprisingly confusing piece of advice that we got from our hostess was to go around the Ring anti-clockwise, so that you would be on the right side of the scenery (the Irish drive on the left). Turns out this vital piece of information proved to be useful indeed. Nothing like some early morning advice from the locals!

Day 5


Dingle Peninsula

We were extremely lucky to have a bright and clear day. Each of these drives had their own charm, and it was bewildering to see that despite the Dingle Peninsula and the Ring of Kerry not being separated by much, the landscape was drastically different. While the Ring of Kerry has island-studded panoramas, the Dingle Peninsula is characterized by craggy cliffs and sandy beaches. Don’t miss out on three super attractions in the peninsula; Inch Beach, Conor Pass, and the Slea Head Drive. Another observation was that the landscape looked dramatically different depending on the clarity of the sky.

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Day 6


Doolin

Before leaving for Doolin, we received another useful piece of advice from our hostess. Instead of driving around the coast, we could go to the small town of Tarbert, where we would get a car ferry to Kilmur. This was vital as we saved atleast two hours of travel time, which we utilized by taking a stroll around Killarney National Park.

Our most memorable experience awaited us at Doolin- The Cliffs of Moher. A vast expanse of endless coastline with the waves of the North Atlantic ferociously slapping the cliffs, carving potholes in their wake. A coastline which you can walk along (The Moher walk) and be blown away by – in quite the literal sense as the unrelenting wind is capable of physically blowing you away. The walk along the Cliffs is a truly transcendent experience.

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Magic in Doolin City

For those looking for live Irish country music, check out O Connor’s pub in Doolin.

Follow this link for information regarding our B&B in Doolin.

Day 7


Pit stop at Galway

Our last day involved a drive from the east coast to the west coast of Ireland. It also involved upset faces, thanks to the nearing of the conclusion of this surreal adventure. We decided to make a pit stop in Galway on the way. Galway is a charming city characterized by narrow streets bustling with activity and artists of all talents performing for the visitors’ entertainment. It would seem as if the singers and musicians are within perfect proximity to each other since while walking, as soon as the music of one performer fades away, new music would start to play from another. It was as if the universe is being a DJ in the world’s most peaceful party.

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A tap dancer!

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Ireland is a stunning country with hospitable people, who, above all, have a great sense of humour and don’t take themselves too seriously. For fairytale/fantasy lovers and adventure junkies alike, it is a must-visit.

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Warsaw

“The destruction of Poland is of utmost importance. There can be no question of sparing Poland, and that is why we stand on our decision to attack Poland at the first opportunity.” – Adolf Hitler

The destruction that was caused by these words is well known, and Warsaw was the epicenter of the brutality. I wanted to realize, first hand, the toll that war takes on a country and its people. Being in Warsaw and seeing the progress that the Polish people have made considering their tumultuous history rekindled my faith in humanity. It showed me that peace and harmony are much stronger than fear and hatred.

Our trip was a strange mixture of mundane everyday sights, with frequent flashbacks into a violent, humbling past. We reached the capital in the wee hours of the morning, since we booked a midnight ‘Polska’ bus. The fabled Polska bus didn’t cease to amaze me throughout my stay in Poland. I strongly recommend it for inter-city travel in Poland. It is comfortable, reliable, economical, and even has free WiFi.

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The sun had just started coming up, warming up the crisp chilly morning to the perfect temperature. Public places were deserted, which provided the perfect setting to walk through the city’s alluring streets. Exploring the city like this was a special treat. We were also lucky enough to witness a change of guard duty at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which is a monument that commemorates forgotten soldiers that were martyred in wars that Poland fought. Four guards came marching from seemingly nowhere, a salutation followed and the old guards marched away, supposedly to get some sleep. We stood there in silence as the outgoing guards marched away, and there was a palpable sense of loss.

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Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
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Guards changing duty

Walking around Warsaw Old Town when the day was still in its infancy and cafés were either shut or just opening up, the roads completely vacant with statues aplenty, felt like a dream. One trend I noticed not just in Warsaw but almost all the city centers in Poland, was that each adjacent building is painted in a different colour, which added a magical dimension to the city. By this time, our stomachs had started growling and we found a café just opening up at the city center. We gorged ourselves on picturesque waffles and refreshing coffee.

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The Warsaw Old Town Center

Perhaps the only blimp on our otherwise perfect trip to Warsaw was our choice of accommodation. Thinking economically, we chose a hotel almost 8 kms away from the city center, thinking it would be easy to travel to and from the hotel. This turned out to be difficult as we had to plan our time and it took almost half an hour to reach the center. An effort to find something close to the hotel also backfired.

It was nearing sunset time and we were looking for a café in the vicinity. We found one on Google with a decent rating and the pictures seemed nice. So we set off on foot looking for this café, with Google Maps guiding us. What we found was more of a dump yard/backhouse which was filled with huge bald tattooed men in leather jackets with large beards and a shabby appearance. When they saw us, everyone stopped what they were doing and started staring at us, as if we were their next meal. We all pretended that we were lost, started looking into our phones and walked away in unison. So yeah, we explored the shady side of Warsaw as well. We spent our only night in Warsaw sitting at a café by the roadside in the city center, taking in the nightlife and wishing the night would never end.

Even though I generally have limited patience for museums, The Warsaw Uprising Museum was like no other. The city’s turbulent history was described in an informative and engaging way. The museum describes the resurgence of Warsaw after the pummeling it got in WWII. It was the target of unrestricted aerial bombardment by the Germans, and it is truly a miracle that the city has been able to recover so well. The Warsaw Uprising was an operation by the Polish Home army to liberate Warsaw from German occupation. It is said that nearly 84% of Warsaw was totaled and 200,000 people lost their lives. Walking through the museum and seeing the havoc that was wreaked and the conditions that people were put through gave me goosebumps.

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‘Kotwica’- The symbol of The Warsaw Uprising

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A reconstruction of Warsaw back in the day

By the end of the trip, I was silent and the general mood of our group was solemn. Places like this Museum and even Auschwitz leave me bewildered about how humans can commit such horrendous crimes and how important it is to be wary of extremism of any kind. Visits to such places render me speechless and leave me in a general state of despair. The realization that this isn’t just something that we read in history books, millions of innocent people were bombed mercilessly, hits me hard. The resilience and passion for freedom of the Home army gives me hope and makes me optimistic. It also makes me grateful for being born in such a peaceful time, where information is at hand and individuals of all ages have the power to make well informed distinctions between what is right and what is wrong. The visit made me think that ‘War-saw’ is an apt name for the city, because it has truly seen its share of wars.

 

Brazil – Part Two

This is a continuation of Part One. In case you haven’t read it, please do so by clicking here.

My birthday was only three days into my visit, and it was difficult to find something special to do, as I barely knew anyone. The day preceding my birthday, I told my professor guide that it was my birthday the next day. His face lit up and he enquired if I had any plans. He then invited me to his family farmhouse, saying they will be having a party there. Turns out it was his mother’s birthday as well. Elated, I accepted the offer and found myself spending my birthday in the company of his large family at his farmhouse. The highlight of the afternoon was when his family started singing “happy birthday” in Portuguese and stopped abruptly. As I stood there over the cake with a knife in my hand, grinning in the middle with everyone staring at me while an awkward silence enveloped us, I wondered if the song was over and I should proceed to cut the cake. One of the family members interrupted my thoughts and asked, “What is your name?” I laughed and replied “Rahul”. After a few practices of the pronunciation, the family resumed singing, this time with my name in between, and gave me a memory to cherish for a lifetime.

A healthy camaraderie was also developing fast with the residents of Xanadu and before I knew it, my face was painted in the Xanadu flag and I was chanting, ‘Hu! Hu! Xanadu!” on the streets as I marched to the football tournament venue, where Xanadu was to face off with a rival frat house. They too, were seemingly loving my company, not missing out on opportunities to poke fun at my Indian accent, or calling my ready-to-make packaged Indian food, ‘astronaut food’.

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Xanadu!
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Who would’ve thought, a statue of  Mahatma Gandhi in the smallest of towns in Brazil!

I realized that Brazilians like to be cut out from the world, and many of them are content with their way of life. I was asked by a man if we support Osama Bin Laden, and whether I was sad when he was killed. I chuckled at the thought that to them, all brown people must be the same. Maybe this was because they were so consumed by the political turmoil they have faced for decades in their own country, they didn’t pay heed to the outside world. Or maybe because Brazil is so beautiful, they just didn’t care.

Since travel within Brazil is relatively expensive, I spent most weekends traveling in and around the interiors of Guaratingueta, accompanying fellow Xanadu residents on road trips. However, a visit to Brazil wouldn’t be complete without a trip to Rio, and I pumped out some extra money for a trip to the land of the Redeemer.

Rio is everything they show in movies, and more. It’s almost like the entire city is on a psychedelic high. It is blessed with a calming feel and has an idiosyncratic vibe to it. The Statue of Christ the Redeemer could be seen from the bus as we pulled into the Rio bus stop, and a wave of excitement hit me as soon as I saw it.

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The view that the statue of Christ the Redeemer gets everyday!

It is also an extremely dangerous city, with high crime rates and a rich profusion of drug wars. The drug wars are so blatant, that the drug dealers aren’t even afraid of the police. This realization came to me when I was walking with my host, Thais, and a few other interns in an area in Rio. I had my hoodie on and as it became windier, I pulled the hood over my head and started pacing faster than my companions. Two minutes later, Thais comes running up to me and says, “Don’t walk like this, if the police see you with the hood on, they will arrest you for selling drugs”. I was so perplexed by this instruction that it became one of my most vivid memories from Rio.

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Thais, my lovely host in Rio
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A robbery attempt back home in Guaratingueta

As dangerous as it is, it is also filled with kind and generous people. I had decided to venture out into Rio all by my lonesome for a day. By the end of the day, I had somehow managed to get myself lost and needed to get to the right bus stop for a bus back home to my host’s house. Asking around in my broken Portuguese didn’t help either. Exasperated, I called up my host, who instructed me to hand the phone to a local shop owner. Luckily, this owner turned out to be an English speaking angel. He proceeded to reassure me and even offered to drop me to the bus stop. On the way to the bus stop, he asked what I do and where I’m from. On finding out that I’m a computer engineer from India, he frowned a little, then smiled and said, “All you Indian computer engineers go everywhere and take our jobs”. I giggled and wholeheartedly thanked him before parting ways.

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The iconic Maracana stadium of Rio de Janeiro

Even though I had heard of Brazil’s beauty and people, I didn’t know anyone who had actually traveled there, and South America had always been a beguiling mystery to me. The eight weeks I spent in Brazil was a learning process, a period where I discovered myself, and had an absolute blast while doing it. The people I met and experiences I had are unforgettable and will remain etched in my memory forever. It was a surreal eight weeks by any standards, and whoever gets a chance to go to Brazil and interact with the locals should do so without a moment’s hesitation.

Brazil – Part One

I got a chance to pursue an internship at Sao Paulo state university (UNESP) in a small town called Guaratingueta in the state of Sao Paulo in Brazil. I was eager to learn about the culture and history of this quaint and secluded country. I was also eager to see the extent to which my predispositions about Brazil would contradict with the real deal.

It was a trepid month preceding my expected departure due to visa issues. The procurement of the visa, however, brought another kind of anxiety. Questions like “How will the food be?” and “How will I survive 8 weeks in a country far away all alone?” regularly popped into my head. With all these questions, I started gathering information, sending emails, and began preparing. This preparedness replaced anxiety and stress with excitement and adrenaline. I stuffed an entire bag with packaged ready-to-make Indian food as I found that being a vegetarian in Brazil wasn’t going to be easy. Before I knew it, I was on a flight headed to Sao Paulo, traveling for such a long journey all alone for the first time in my life. You’d easily guess which song was stuck in my mind while traveling.

“Brazziiillllll la la la la la la la la”.

I learnt something vital about human psychology as soon as I arrived in Brazil. As I was loading my bags onto a bus I was to take to Guaratingueta from the airport, I had my first interaction with a Brazilian local. When he asked me a question in Portugese, I panicked and replied not in English, but in Marathi, my mother tongue! Confused, the bus attendant just pointed to the luggage rack and I nodded in approval, following which he helped me load my luggage. I was amused at my responding in Marathi, and I guess it was my fight response in an attempt to be able to stay on familiar territory. I wonder if this has happened to anyone else.

I was being hosted in a frat house close to the college campus. The entire city is littered with these frat houses surrounding the campus, each with a name, housing 10-12 people. The relationship between the people of a frat house is incredible. They lived together like a family, with people graduating and joining every year. The newest member would be given a unique nickname by seniors which would stick for the entirety of college life, and as a part of an ‘induction program’, he/she would be made to do household chores and, you get the rest. To give an example of a nickname, a good friend I made there was named ‘Cedula’ by his seniors. This nickname came from a day when he was made to beg for money on the street, and everytime someone gave him money, he would have to wave the note in the air, and ‘Cedula’ in Portugese means a money bill (or note). It was only in my last few days in Guaratingueta that I found out that his real name is Lucas. Every name had a story and it was fascinating to hear stories such as these.

Each frat house had built up a legacy over the years. There would be competitions hosted amongst frat house and trophies handed out. It was so unreal and different that to me, it felt like I was being narrated a movie script. I was housed in ‘Republica Xanadu’, which is one of the oldest frat houses in Guaratingueta. Xanadu had murals on almost every wall, a ‘wall of fame’ with polaroid pictures of all the previous residents, and a beautiful resident dog named Erika. My entering Xanadu was a real first taste of the Brazilian life.

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The Xanadu emblem with the it’s prized wins

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The official Xanadu flag
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Erika!
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The wall of fame!

A lot of parties were thrown in these frat houses, each with a theme. The most memorable was the Xanadu ‘diaper party’, in honor of a resident’s expected baby. Entry to this party was through diapers only. There was no entry fee, but you would only be allowed in if you bring a packet of diapers. It was an innovative way to raise funds for his upcoming baby. By the end of the party, there was a large pile of diapers in the hallway.

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First Diaper of the lot

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A bonfire party in Xanadu

Over the course of the next few weeks, I would get acquainted with the residents of Xanadu and learn the life of the locals. It was quite a life. I learnt rock climbing, body building, and some basic Portuguese from the friends I made in Xanadu. I realized very quickly that people open up to you much faster if you show them that you have put in some effort to learn their language. And of course, humour is the best ice breaker. I learnt some funny anecdotes to tell people in Portuguese and soon gained their trust and friendship. I also realized the power that the United States has on entertainment. I could strike a conversation with almost any college student about a US TV show or song. I started loving the Brazilian people for their warmth, culture and love of life.

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My climbing ‘gym’
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The rewards of my climb in the wild!
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Rappelling down after an exhausting climb

Even the Brazilian food and diet is fascinating. Their meals are dominated by meat. Most local restaurants I went to didn’t even have a vegetarian dish to serve. The typical plate has a central meat (usually beef) serving, surrounded by mashed potato and salad, which no one liked to eat. Seeing this opportunity, I would scavenge the mashed potato and salad from a plate or two and make it a meal. Because who doesn’t love a free meal!

Part Two of this series can be found here!

5 tips for bicycle touring

Plan well

My lack of preparation for my first long distance ride was appalling. Apart from my unfitness, I had defied my fellow riders’ instructions of carrying nuts and snack bars for energy. So gross was my lack of preparation that I didn’t have a single penny on me, and due to the lack of ATMs in my destination town I couldn’t withdraw either. Luckily my unpreparedness was balanced by the thoughtfulness of my friends and despite rightly showering me with ridicule and scorn, they had my back. Though this may seem trivial, planning and preparation is essential in ensuring that a trip is smooth and successful. It will save you from headaches and banter from fellow riders. I have been fortunate to accompany a veteran in cycling expeditions for almost all my cycling endeavors, and that has made me realize how important planning every last detail is. Every hiccup must be anticipated and thought of. This is crucial and can be the difference between a thoroughly enjoyable expedition and a disastrous one.

Physical fitness is key

The first long distance ride I indulged in had a painstakingly long climb which was filled with self-doubt and bewilderment at my own decision of embarking on such an arduous journey. I attribute a lot of this negativity to my lack of fitness. As my mentor correctly said, one simply cannot enjoy an expedition if one is constantly thinking about how tired he/she is. You cannot enjoy the delicacies of a region, or cherish the conversations with new and exciting people to their fullest if you are struggling with the journey itself. Make sure you are physically prepared in accordance with the difficulty of the tour.

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“Pick the bicycle up, it’ll be a great photo!”, exclaimed Agniv, my cycling buddy. “Just take the damn photo”, I replied, too exhausted to move a muscle.

Capture stories

Every time I go on trips I feel that it’s more important to enjoy the moment itself rather than vigorously try to capture it and forget to live in it. Although too much of the latter is also bad, a balance needs to be struck between the two. In this philosophy, I tend to regret not having at least some basic moments captured after returning from a trip. These can come in handy for documentation purposes as well as to just take a trip down memory lane as well.

It’s okay to give up sometimes

It was pitch dark by the time we had reached the final couple of kilometers of the climb to a nearby hill. This, coupled with the fact that it was a 45 degree incline made it extremely difficult to climb. To add to my woes, my calves and thighs were threatening to cramp up. But I couldn’t give up because I convinced myself the entire ride would be worthless if I don’t complete this final stretch. I cycled through the pain and caught up with my mentor. Just as I pulled up next to him, he unmounted his bicycle and started walking up. This startled me as I saw him as the man who had done unthinkable things like tour the Himalayas on his bicycle. Seeing him walk it up gave me some reassurance and made me realize that sometimes it’s okay to not finish. Soon, I too listened to my body and started walking with him. It turned out to be the decision of the day as it was freezing at the peak with strong headwinds, and if I hadn’t stopped it would’ve been a crampy night.

Fill up on water whenever you can

I have made the grave mistake of cycling long stretches without a sip of water to drink and it’s not the kind of position you’d want to put yourself in. Especially on tours where the temperatures are soaring, water becomes extremely precious. My mouth was left with an agonizing dryness and it made the task at hand ten times harder. On one of the rides, I was asked by a fellow rider as we passed a small shop whether I wanted to fill water. I glanced at my bottle, saw that it’s three quarters full, and confidently shook my head in denial. I understood why he gave me a disgruntled look then just half an hour later, when my water reserve had been depleted and I was parched.

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I was hallucinating a drinking water tap – since we had depleted our water reserve