Passion Points: Giving Back
You might recognize Pallavi Shah from the Namesake. She had a small role in the film, which was based on the novel by her good friend Jhumpa Lahiri, as Gogol’s aunt (look for her in the naming ceremony scene). Appearing on screen may be new to Shah but the India native and current NYC resident has always had a flair for drama, at least when it comes to running her travel company, Our Personal Guest (OPG). OPG puts together very elaborate trips for very high-end travelers. Shah’s itineraries, which are detailed down to the minute (and tend to fill an entire binder) involve, as does any good show, a careful sequencing of events and an almost impeccable sense of timing. When her clients arrive at a village in Bhutan, for instance, she makes sure that the monks’ sand mandela, an exquisitely designed Buddhist meditation device that takes days to construct, is almost completed That way, after observing the application of a few finishing details, they can then witness its more shocking deconstruction—a customary practice that demonstrates the Buddhist theme of impermanence.
Some other fixtures on an OPG itinerary include: behind-the-scenes tours at cultural institutions; meetings with prominent local figures and, occasionally, the opportunity to give back. In all of these, the sense of drama remains. Again, in Bhutan, Shah, who sponsors a monk’s studies there, was not interested in having her clients simply visit his temple and make donations. Instead, for $1,500/person (all of which went to the temple) she arranged to have them participate in two Buddhist rituals: an empowerment ceremony in which one is blessed by a teacher monk, and a butter lamp ceremony, which supposedly helps the soul find its path in spite of darkness and involves the lighting of thousands of lamps (she had them raise the usual number), all filled with butter or vegetable oil. Participation in these activities is optional (Our Personal Guest itineraries are always customized) but most of Shah’s clients decide to sign up. “My [philanthropic] events are not purely voluntouristic”, she says, “rather, they are more like cultural experiences—instances of connecting directly with the culture at hand—where everyone benefits in the end.”
Shah’s most recent philanthropic project—helping with the restoration of the Patan Darbar Square near Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley—has a personal as well as a cultural connection: her husband, a member of Nepal’s royal family, passed away last year. The square, a World Heritage Site and the location of the Royal Palace as well as several intricately carved temples and courtyards, is sometimes referred to as the San Marco of the East. But overdue repairs and increased development in the area has placed it on UNESCO’S endangered list. Shah has adopted one particular gate within the Royal Palace—a gate featured in the 1994 Bernardo Bertolucci film, Little Buddha. Those taking a half-day tour of the palace (which OPG runs in conjunction with the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust), however, will help raise money for a variety of restorative efforts. As expected, the tour, which, like OPG’s other philanthropic events, can be arranged as a one-off as well, is several notches above the ordinary as the guide, an established architect, takes you to areas typically closed to the general public. When asked how she got her start, Shah, clearly accustomed to such queries, credits the years she spent as a special events coordinator for Air India, particularly the years during Festival of India, a huge marketing campaign designed to increase Westerners’ knowledge of and interest in India. During that time, she directed hundreds of events with established institutions, like the MET, the NYC Costume Institute (the theme of their gala one year was India) and Bergdorf Goodman. The knack for directing and presentation carried over. “My trip are like stage productions”, says Shah. “In a country such as India, the basic ingredients are all there but, occasionally, the locals need some help with the lighting, with understanding the impact of visuals. When my clients go, they have to gasp.” Nepal half-day architectural tour at $2,000 ($2,500 if not part of a larger OPG itinerary).
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