What wading through 15 miles of floodwaters in Mumbai can teach us about resilience.

I have been fortunate during my career and personal life to have traveled to over 45 countries. I am particularly fond of traveling in Asia – the architecture, the food, the markets, the people – I love it. Most of my trips have been smooth sailing but, as you can imagine, when you have traveled millions of miles around the world, there are bound to be a few great stories to tell.

I have lost count of how many times I have traveled to India – easily over a dozen times. On one such trip to Mumbai in 2005, I had an experience that I will never forget. One that taught me a lot about resilience and teamwork. When I look back to that night, it is truly amazing to me what we overcame when suddenly faced with a life-threatening challenge.

It was 26 July 2005 and my small team and I were taking a scheduled day trip southeast of Mumbai to the town of Pune – about a three-hour drive. It was monsoon season and the rain had started early that morning. Despite the weather, we enjoyed the views of the lush green mountainsides as we worked our way along the Mumbai-Pune Expressway. The journey passed without a glitch and we soon reached our destination. We spent most of the rest of the day indoors, in business meetings, and touring a manufacturing facility. When we emerged from the building, ready for the journey home, it was still raining.

After a few hours driving, we were passing through Navi Mumbai, the eastern gateway to the city, when traffic came to a complete stop. For anyone that has been to Mumbai, this is of no surprise in a city that can take two hours to traverse by car on a normal day. We reviewed our day as we sat in traffic and pretty soon an hour had gone by, without moving.  The rain was coming down hard and with five guys in our humid minivan, things were starting to get a little odorous. After two hours not moving, we had all had enough of being in the minivan and besides, it was the end of the day and darkness was about an hour away, so we needed to know what was going on and we needed a plan to get back to our hotel, which was still about 15 miles away on the other side of Mumbai.

With the rain coming down hard, none of us wanted to volunteer to get out of the car to see what was going on. Anyone stepping outside was going to be immediately soaked and the prospect of getting back in the vehicle, soaking wet for several more hours did not appeal to any of us. So, in true democratic fashion, we all got out to look.

Our vehicle was on the upward ramp of a bridge and we could not see over the crest of the bridge to determine the situation. As we crested the bridge, soaking wet from head to toe in our business clothes, all we could see was water. The torrent of rain that had been falling all day had flooded the roads as far as we were able to see. The traffic was not going anywhere.

Back in the minivan, we had two choices: stay in the vehicle or walk to our hotel. There was no way we were going to passively stay in a humid minivan all night with four other soaking wet guys, so the vote to leave was unanimous. We put our cellphones and passports into plastic bags and left everything else with our driver. He was not going anywhere. He was duty-bound to stay with his vehicle. None of us were quite sure if we would see the driver, or our laptops and personal things, ever again.

We walked over the bridge and waded down into the waist-high brown water. Yes, that was at least as disgusting as it sounds. Our plan was to get away from the traffic logjam to an area about a mile away that was on higher ground, where we could get a taxi to our hotel. None of us relished the thought of walking through waist-high water for a mile, but we had no choice.

At our destination, things were much the same. There was brown water everywhere and no chance of getting a taxi that was able or willing to drive through it. We pushed on. At times, the water flowed quickly, with a strong current and we had to link arms to avoid being swept away. We saw thousands of locals, all trying to get home. At one point we saw a yellow school bus full of kids, stranded from their parents. At another point, we saw locals carrying motorcycles and livestock above the water, in an effort to save their precious few belongings.

If you have been to India, you will know that inspection covers in the street are very often missing. My guess is that they are stolen for their scrap metal value. This became my greatest concern – that one of us would blindly fall into an open inspection shaft and take a huge mouthful of the foul water. Or worse, break a leg. We made a conscious effort to walk directly behind the hundreds of locals making their way through the streets. We could not risk an accident.

The walking went on for hours. At one point, a frailer member of our team was beginning to struggle with the physical exertion of walking through waist-high water. We began searching for small guest houses and hotels along the way so that he could rest. There were no vacancies, anywhere. All the hotels were full of people escaping the flooding. Eventually, we left him in a hotel lobby, with no prospect of a room that night. He just could not physically continue. The rest of us pushed on to our hotel. I had been frantically calling them at the beginning of our journey to ensure they did not give away our rooms due to our late arrival. We were all concerned about having a place to stay, given what we were seeing at every hotel we passed. By this time, our phones were all ruined by the water and so we could only hope that our rooms were still open when we finally got back.

It was a long, wet, exhausting night. We eventually made it back to our hotel after walking for seven-and-a-half hours through waist-high, brown water. About 15 miles. Our shoes were full of mud. Our dress clothes completely ruined. The insides of my thighs were bloody and raw from being rubbed by the wet material of my dress pants, hour upon hour.

Thankfully, our hotel rooms were waiting for us and we all rushed for the shower to try to get rid of that awful smell. I smelled of the flood water for at least three days after.

We learned that about 40 inches of rain had fallen over the past 24 hours and that almost 1,100 people had died that evening, most of them stranded in their cars. Our hotel was at the Mumbai Airport, which was closed from flooding for several days after, with over 700 flights canceled. Our hotel’s kitchen was in the basement and had been flooded, so we spent the next few days, stranded at our hotel eating cold food, fruits and vegetables provided free by our hosts. Thank goodness for Indian beer, is all I can say.

Our fail colleague made it back late the next day, as did our driver and our belongings. You can be sure we gave him a huge tip! For the most part, we were all fine. Our frail colleague needed some time to recover and another colleague contracted a mild infection, but after a few days, we had all physically recovered.

26 July, as that day is commonly referred to in Mumbai, left schoolchildren stranded, businesses destroyed, and widespread contamination of the water system. For Mumbai, the economic impact was devastating. For us, we made it through. Exhausted, smelly, and soaked we made it through. Not once did any member of our team complain or give up. We acted as a unit – avoiding risks and situations in an unspoken but coordinated way; linking arms to make sure we kept every one of us safe from being swept away; providing encouragement and empathy to each other. 26 July is a night I will never forget. Nor will I forget how our small team of relative strangers banded together, showing incredible resilience in the face of enormous adversity.

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