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Posts Tagged ‘belonging’

Tibetan Karaoke

China is a land of a billion people and by western standards, a place of questionable social policies and social control. Venturing through China’s expansive southwest province of Yunnan, we encountered China’s most culturally diverse area in terms of number of minority groups, or people of non-Han Chinese origin. Many of the minorities we met offered us their ethnic identity as to distinguish themselves from the Han Chinese, displaying an evident division. A couple young men even described how they had recently been beaten up by groups of Han Chinese men.

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You have to understand the context. We are exploring the plain of jars, and about two meters to the left of my feet is a brick painted red and white. Along the white side – where I am standing – it is safe: de-mined and cleared of unexploded ordinance (UXO). A few meters to the right of me is a huge bomb crater (10 by 10 meters, maybe?). All of it, mines, unexploded ordinance, and bomb craters are the doing of Americans and the Secret War. (more…)

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Our “Laos Village Trek” evaluation form had questions about whether, in my opinion, there was lots of trash in the villages, whether any villagers had asked me for money, whether there had been sufficient drinking water, and whether I had consumed any wildlife. But it was the implicit assumptions of the following question that really made me blush… (more…)

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This was written in mid-January, when I first arrived in Bangkok from Kolkata, before flying to Burma.

Preparing myself mentally for Bangkok, I thought: I am not ready for the hyper-modern critique that this place will demand. To go from India and Bangladesh to Bangkok is too big a leap, too many eons of wealth, technologies, too big of a shift of position vis a vis Western culture.

Now I am here, and I am overwhelmingly preoccupied with the food. New flavors lurk everywhere, and so far they enthrall me. Noodle and lemongrass soups with fish sauce, chillies and sugar, squid on a stick with spicy and tangy sauces, fruit with sugar and chillies on top, Thai coffee, condensed milk in a good way, seafood a delight. Here is an adventure of unfamiliarity. (more…)

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In Chittagong, we decided to do things a little differently and take a bit of a leap of faith. As we are leaving the Buddhist temple in the city, a young man approaches us and introduces himself as Sanjoy, a student who rents a small room in the temple complex as he pursues his studies in English Literature. His home is in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, a Buddhist and tribal area where we want to visit. He says he works as an occasional tour guide for the region.

Although we usually are hesitant to use guides, there is an immediate positive connection with Sanjoy; his sincerity is palpable when he says he felt close to us as we were sitting in the meditation hall. We have lunch and plan with him, he helps us get permits, and a few days later we are on our way to his stunning, hilly home town of Banderban. (more…)

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Sikkim is more impacted by a newfound tourism bug, but the land and the lives we see in it are pretty incredible. I love the breeze, the dozens of prayer flags, the hilltop gompas, and the paths that lead off and upwards into unknown hideaways.

Michele and I ended up in Yuksom by accident, a fortuitous shared jeep appeared, so we went wherever it was going. The village is the trailhead for the trek toward Kangchenjunga, so it gets a particular brand of tourists that leave a specific mark. Most notably, children here ask for candy, so I must believe that someone is giving it to them. (more…)

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What a change to enter the Himalayan foothills of North Bengal and Sikkim. In Darjeeling, what refreshment to see women carrying out their daily lives in public, moving and interacting freely. People seem very sincere and forthright here. Unlike elsewhere in India, there are no touts, nobody asking for our money. As a rule, people help us honestly even when blurring the truth could lead to their own profit.

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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


Fashion:
-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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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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