Archive for November, 2009


Kolkata has been amazing! This is a place I would really enjoy living for a while. The contrasts are dizzying. Caleb and I went to a very, very fancy restaurant and paid over $10 for a meal for the two of us (a first!). It felt like a very special date. It was wonderful. The day before, we also had a delicious mutton gravy and rice lunch for $1. When we exited this dirty open air place, the entire street was full of Muslim men of all ages spread out with their rugs, answering the call for prayer. The worshipers had basically stopped traffic, overflowing by the hundreds from the small neighborhood mosque. It was very impressive.

In talking about how much we are enjoying traveling, Caleb remarked yesterday: “It’s like you’re in a place where everything is interesting and you are rich.” It’s often hard to comprehend how fortunate we are!

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Children and puppies everywhere growing up, human and animal waste decomposing, people eating and starving, hurting and feeling pleasure, so many comings and goings, an unfathomably large amount of breathing. And here is the lowly self, tasked with the almost laughable burden of communicating, drawing connections, creating meaning, and building a life where these things have value (because otherwise, what’s the point?).

View from a riverbank in Kolkata.

In India the insides are laid bare in a way I have never experienced before. If I look, I can see where everything is coming from. If I dare to follow, I can learn to where it all goes. Raw materials are constantly in the process of being manipulated, cut, sculpted in the light of day on the sidewalks. The chaff of society is constantly and visibly cast off, swept up, burned in fragrant piles or carried away in hand-pulled dollies, daring me to follow. (more…)

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After our three-day vacation in Puri, it is hard to reactivate the engaged mind of a traveler. Even in Bhubaneswar, our next destination, I feel myself settled into dangerous rhythms and habits of mind. Having established internally that India is the new background for my life, I am no longer content to just watch it all go by. Suddenly, disturbingly, I have trouble coming up with “something to do.” Eat? Shop? Play cards? Visit the internet? Read? I go through these options like a checklist when in doubt.

Watching laundry dry.

How did this happen? I have somewhat forgotten how to watch and see with freshness of mind. One most noteworthy casualty: my eye for photos. I am not looking for shots, I am not seeing beyond the background. My senses are numbed. Subconsciously, I have adjusted to the smells of India; I now only identify smell sensations as negative or positive and pass over the actual content of the experience. (more…)

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Beach bums

After almost three weeks of travel, we might have fallen into a rut. There were some patterns emerging. In Puri, a backpacker beach town, for example, this was basically what our day was like:

– wake up around 8 am
– have a really long leisurely breakfast, reading the newspaper and playing cards
– walk on the beach (but you can’t swim – no bikinis in sight)
– return to our little room for a while and read
– stroll along the backpacker road and view a few Kashmiri trinket shops
– have some lunch, also very relaxed
– go to the internet cafe for up to 4 hours
– go back to the room, hang around a bit
– go to dinner in one of the relaxed garden restaurants playing Bob Marley and catering exclusively to back packers (delicious fresh fish)
– go to bed around 10 or 11
During our three day stay in Puri, we didn’t venture a mere 500 meters from the white backpacker area.

Hmm. Sounds like a great and relaxing vacation, but what are we doing here? Why are we traveling? We both felt a little ambivalent and regretful of our own behavior. This place had basically been created for people like me: it placed no demands on me and catered to my every, particular Western need (cornflakes, toilet paper, faded baggy clothing…. Caleb has been fantasizing about creating another blog: “What backpackers like”).

I try to cut us some slack, by arguing that we have been traveling at a very fast pace and that traveling is exhausting. (So, now my great privilege is exhausting me??) I’ve started thinking about what a sustainable traveling life looks like. Is there a way to engage with our surroundings in a way that is sustainable for me, so that I don’t burn out, but continue to feel energized?

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Less talk and more mustache

what a beard!




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From Koraput, hilltop seat of our brief visit to stardom, we descend to Balugaon, a fishing village that is on our map (definitely not in our book) because it is a stop on the express train to the state capital.

Lake Chilika in early morning.

On arrival, the town is a strange place for us. We get off the train at 6:30 am to find that the tea served at the roadside stalls, our lifeline and default activity when in need of regrouping, tastes funny. It is hard to express the sense of betrayal when this discovery comes to light, but eliminating the main outlet for caffeine and comfort has a distinct effect on morale. The main road seems to be on a major trucking route; noisy and dangerous traffic constantly terrorizes our humble passage on foot. (more…)

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I just finished Taslima Nasrin‘s novel Lajja (Shame). I wanted to read it before entering Bangladesh, since it is banned in Bangladesh, but maybe I should bring it and gift it to someone. I’m not sure how risky that would be. The book sold 50,000 copies before it was banned and really touched a nerve.

Following the publication of Lajja, Nasrin suffered a number of physical and other attacks. In October 1993, an Islamic fundamentalist group called the Council of Islamic Soldiers offered a bounty for her death. […] In August 1994 she was brought up on “charges of making inflammatory statements,” and faced death threats from Islamic fundamentalists. A hundred thousand demonstrators called her “an apostate appointed by imperial forces to vilify Islam”; a “militant faction threatened to loose thousands of poisonous snakes in the capital unless she was executed.

She’s been on the run ever since and renewed fatwas on her head have been issued.

I didn’t particularly enjoy the novel. I didn’t like the writing style. I thought it went overboard in being anti-religious and I thought it was trying to do too much and the characters were poorly developed. I didn’t even think the novel was particularly feminist, shocking, or outrageous. More research will be necessary. I’m clearly missing something. As late as 2007, “Kolkata witnessed a violent protest against Nasrin by neo-Jihadis. A protest organized by the militant islamist “All India Minority Forum” caused chaos in the city and forced the army’s deployment to restore order.”

Had protesters read Taslima’s writings? What was it that so enraged them?  I can’t imagine what it would take for there to be comparable riots in a major U.S. city. What would have to be written — feminist, religious, or otherwise — that would arouse and anger people to such a degree? What outlawed and silenced truths would have to be written for hate to erupt in such a way? Alternatively, depending on your perspective, what offensive lie or misrepresentation would evoke such a response?

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From my journal two weeks ago:

I find it amazing that even though I have only just set out on this journey, I have already left a place behind. I want to carry Chennai with me; I will haul the authentic feelings, perceptions, impulses, consciousness of that place as I recognize my tendency of reaching for abstractions and generalizations to make this experience more packageable, more portable, and more impartable. I have to decolonize the part of my brain that sees it all as a mess, restrain and admonish the lobe that identifies problems and dreams up solutions.

I am not sure how to do this yet beyond acknowledging these motivations as things I carry, for better or for worse, that I pack and unpack when I leave and return to the haven of my room and reflections; they are things that take up room in my luggage like anything else, and like anything else they take up space that could otherwise be filled with other essential tools and toys of a travelling mind or body.

After sleeping in nine different towns and two trains in the 13 nights since that entry, I am used to the refrain from rickshaw drivers as they see us carrying packs near the train or bus station: “Coming or going, coming or going?” And I am still haunted by the problem of fishing authenticity out of constant migration. What am I trying to accomplish as I live for a short time in these places?

In Pondicherry, I buy Indian rubber monsoon sandals and a longi, but it would be laughable for me to harbour illusions that I can fit in. Am I trying to elevate myself above the status of interloper? Is it possible to overcome my reductive mind and cultivate a type of temporary belonging that does not hinge on pretending, but rather on me acting as my imperfect self? This probably is not possible, since my thoughts and actions inherently exist firmly in the greater narratives of labels such as white, Western, tourist, etc. (more…)

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Of Tribes and Tribulations

Deepak, whom we met on the train, led us to the temple in the village of Koraput, his home town that is deemed too minor to be listed in our comprehensive 1000+ page India travel guide book. We were only transferring in this village, killing time before our overnight train to Balugaon left in the evening. Across the street from the temple, there was a crowd gathered for some sort of festival with a performance going on. I asked if it was okay to watch, so Deepak organized some plastic chairs for us, then he left, promising to see us off at the train station in the evening.

Koraput dancers

We were distracting. Now, instead of watching the stage, the audience was watching us. Minutes later, distinguished middle aged men stepped down from the official reception area and asked us to come up to where the important people sit, an elevated viewing area. They greeted us as if we were special honored guests and asked us where we were from and why we had come to the Koraput District Tribal Dance Competition. They were so thrilled that we had come, that it was difficult to explain that it was all just a coincidence, that we just happened to walk by. From their glowing faces and their emphatic grateful gestures, it seemed that we were what they had been waiting for. A miracle had taken place; we had arrived in Koraput. (more…)

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A taste of first reactions

This is from my diary on the second night in India:

The smells, the motorcycles, the honking, nobody walking on sidewalks, human and dog shit on sidewalks and in gutters, storefronts with a different activity in each one. Heat, but not crushing. So many signs and advertisements. So many stares, hellos, what-is-your-names, how-are-you-doings. Rickshaw drivers’ where-are-you-goings. Answer is always no, wave a hand for emphasis.

Smiles. People grin. Why? We are funny and out of place. We make a mess when we eat, even though we concentrate hard the whole time. We do things wrong; we do things anyway. No choice.

Each day we start with masala dosa: we dip crispy, savory pieces in green, white and orange pools. More sambar. Tea follows (not called chai in the South), and aha: THAT is how it is supposed to taste.

At every glance something new is fired into my retinas, like atoms blasted at a sheet of gold leaf. No doubt most pass straight through and out the other side, but some bounce around in there. This is the process of establishing a new background, the new normal, if you will.

Our hostel’s neighborhood is Triplicane, and the main street feels like home even after only 3 walks. When we venture further afield, we cross a river, the Buckingham Canal I later learn. It is the most filthy place I have ever seen; more trash, with water as stagnant as any prejudiced image preexisting in my head.

Even as I become somewhat accustomed to the sightsoundsmells of Chennai, it is incredible to think that this landscape is the background for so many peoples’ lives. The landmarks I have identified for this city no doubt differ completely from the way a local person would map his or her habitat, but their meanings, as first impressions, will always be there for me in this corner of the world.

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