Archive for December, 2009

On our long bus trip to Shillong, Meghalaya, I watched a group of four or five children comfortably squatting around the backside of a goat, curiously studying its butt. The goat had some sort of enormous growth hanging from its belly and it was profusely bleeding from its anus.

What does it mean to watch another’s suffering? What would it mean to look away? “I feel like I don’t have good defenses. I feel really exposed to all these raw impressions.” I wrote in an email to my Mom about this disturbing scene, only one of many, observed for a few moments out of the bus window. (more…)

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Sorry for the hiatus. I have added the photos from Varanasi to “River life and death,” and I promise much more to come about our adventures in the low Himalayas of Darjeeling, Sikkim and Kalimpong, where we spent 2 weeks.

I have also updated the map to show our route correctly. To get the complete picture, you will have to click “View larger map” at the bottom of that page and then scroll through the navigation pane on the left side of the Google page that opens.

Caleb and the Snow Lion

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We have had our most fruitful interactions on trains. It’s almost as if the camaraderie of sharing the industrial and impersonal quarters of a sleeper car creates enough of a common ground to shift the framework of interaction away from the sort of generic curiosity we meet on the street. I also think it has something to do with inhabiting a space that is mostly middle class, sealed off in a way from the general chaos (of India, and in this case, of the Unreserved cabins).

Looking down on a seat in unreserved.

On one trip, we were asked to define racism (from our Western perspective), before getting into a conversation about a news article in Australia alleging “reverse racism” of Indians against white Australians. On another trip, our new friends talked about work, making a living in the nonprofit sector, travel, music, photography. (more…)

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River life and death

Varanasi strikes me as a huge and complex habitat of twisting, unnamed alleyways and expansive, somewhat unsettling riverfront terraces filled with tiny characters carrying out their lives. The architecture of the riverbank of the Ganges is monumental, with stairs all along it leading down to the holy water, while others lead up to unknown temples and chambers embedded in the massive stone facade. In many places spires and ramparts tower over the promenade, liquids of dubious integrity oozing out of each layer of stone and spreading an incredible stench across the vast ghats.

Ancient structures looking out over the ghats.

The ghats emit an ancientness that permeates all the activities that take place along the river. The begging and blessing sadhus with dreads and bare chests, the bathers, the laundry washers who lay out their drying cloth in vast swaths that ripple across the steps. Even the small groups of men young and old that gather to smoke hash in the twilight, playing cards on outcroppings over the water. (more…)

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The photos in this post were taken on our last day in DC. Caleb and I wanted to spend our last day doing what we loved doing during almost three years of living in DC. We took a long walk of exploration. We steered into Northeast, behind the farmer’s market close to Gallaudet University, and there along the train tracks we committed home invasion: freshly washed clothes lying on a wall in the sun, a bag of groceries, a cooking station. I remember thinking: In what ways could this person’s life possibly be anything like mine? What do we share?

Traveling in India feels like a constant act of home invasion. Vulnerable aspects of peoples’ lives are laid bare. I am witness to intimacies that should be reserved for lovers and families, not strangers like myself. It feels both wrong and sacred. Discretion is an unaffordable luxury for most. Unlike the person whose home we observed by the traintracks in DC, there is not much I can do to protect the privacy of people in many places in India that we visit.

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We backpackers look like dirty clowns (pictures added for previous post!), with washed-out, faded multicolor jumpsuit-like outfits, excessive jewelry, pendants, and leather accessories. None of these items would be worn at home, but we keep buying. All of it looks hippie, but with a strange, vague Asian twist. Wearing a combination of clothing that is neither “Western” nor local sort of suggests that we’re free from it all, blissfully living in an imaginary world where we don’t have to care about what other people think. This is really fun, but even this is a great privilege.

Backpackers want to spend less money than other backpackers, but love to go shopping. We like competing over who has had the most unusual and authentic, locally immersed, experiences. We usually unsuccessfully strive for a non-commercial connection with locals and love telling stories of the unexpected and close calls. Backpackers don’t really like other backpackers in theory (perhaps of fear that conversing too much would make painfully apparent that our trip is not as unique or unusual as we wish it was?), but are drawn to each other in any concrete and practical situation: for advice, for company, for commiseration, for sharing the wonders and joys of travel.

But in all its limitations and silly fantasies, it is a beautiful expedition: it is seeking the good life (…so much easier to love all of humanity when you can’t understand what people are saying!), a quest for adventure, an attempted escape from getting stuck in routine, a search for unfamiliar and uncharted lands, maybe even like fulfilling a childhood fantasy of joining the circus.

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Kolkata as a city defied my expectations dramatically. As predicted, it was a vibrant Indian city; it was the most cosmopolitan place I’ve seen in India by far. Also, as I could have foreseen, it had a bit of the dark Kali energy lurking in places. Ultimately I was surprised that it lacked the pervasive and crushing poverty I expected from its reputation. It was much cleaner than Chennai in terms of sidewalk and street condition, and there were far fewer people living in the streets where we explored.

Street view in Kolkata.

Turn the page to the Buddhist village of Bodhgaya. Here, it is refreshing to be a part of an international presence that is not about the interests, demands, and money of white people. True, there are more beggars and as many touts here as anywhere we’ve been, but the real business of this town is to serve the monks who are pilgrims to the holy site of the Buddha’s enlightenment. (more…)

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What Backpackers Like

-Billowy pants and shirts in muted colors. This is in stark contrast to India’s preference for bright, vibrant color in all of their textiles. Are the muted, dusty colors a manifestation of the backpacker’s desire not to look rich?

– Frizzy, wild hair. In one sense, it’s just not the backpackers fault. It’s so dusty that anyone’s hair will billow up, dry up, and stiffen into a strawy mess. Dreads are popular of course, and that colored string wrapped around a single strand of hair with a bell at the end of it. Remember those? I think I had something like that in 5th grade.

– Little shawls, intended to cover up scandalous tank tops.

– Linen shoulder bags

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