Sunday, January 22, 2006

Here's the Report and Photos from India

From Sam, my son, on his trip to India. It's an odd experience to read this as his father - a mixture of admiration of his own special voice I've seen develop over the years, a pride in his compassion and openness in seeing exotic poverty, a trace of concern about his desire to dive back into such a foreign experience, and even a bit of sadness at seeing him grow so far beyond his cozy home in Kansas City. And anger, of course, at his false suggestion that we failed to expose him to Canada years ago!

if you're getting this, you've either expressed interest in hearing about india and seeing some of my photos, or i simply decided that you were one of the people who i needed to tell. in either event, i'm going to give you a brief(ish) little narrative before linking you to my gallery of some of my favorite shots (spoiler: skip to the end if you just want the gallery).

from january 4 to january 15, i went to india with the tisch university scholars program. having never left the country before (my parents insist on some nonsense about me visiting canada at some point in my life, but i don't believe them. in any case, this trip required me to get a passport for the first time, so take that as you will), going to india had been a scary, exciting thought ever since i found out about it in the middle of the summer.

nothing in my life to this point could ever have prepared me for india. i have always prided myself on being rational above all, on trying to understand situations to the best of my ability and trying to know as much as i could. i thought that if i simply read enough and tried hard enough, i could understand something - be it new york, or myself, or any of the shocking and often-awful news stories i wrap myself up in. in india, there was no possibility that i could ever understand anything. we were a group of 20 students and 4 chaperones, and i doubt any of us were adequately prepared for what we would find.

india has a 10 and a half hour time difference from new york. this means that the difference in time zones from new york to kansas city is eleven and a half hours - making it the furthest possible distance i could be from my hometown. chief among things i didn't and don't understand - jet lag. a truly evil being that has made the last week of my life sometimes sleepless, often braindead, and generally lost and confused.

this is how the trip began: after a long series of delays, we took a flight out of new york's JFK airport late on january 4th. this, of course, was the day of the USC-Texas rose bowl game, a contest which we saw the first half of in "samuel adams salutes new york" (notable for promoting "fish and chips" and delivering "fish sticks") and were disappointed to find that the sports bar inside the gate had shut down, so we found out the results of the game mere minutes before getting on the plane, in the form of a live play-by-play over the telephone which had some members of our group and a couple of indians returning home jumping up and down, screeching and hugging each other. hook 'em horns.

the flight was punctuated by random meals of, amusingly enough, indian airplane food, as notably awful and odd as its american counterpart. half-cooked b-grade meat entreés (i opted on the flight home for the vegetarian versions, which were little better) and desserts which tasted like half-remembered recipes of the wonderful indian desserts we had on the trip, cooked by a sleep-deprived chef in a half-stocked kitchen. while sugar syrup may be the cure-all of indian desserts, it turns out that it cannot save what was never there. (a picture of my first entrée - yum?)

our flight landed in london's heathrow airport, which made london the first international soil my feet have ever touched. it was gray. i took a picture of the gate we waited at - i was tired, and for some reason it seemed like the most beautiful thing in the world to me. judge as you will.

when we landed in india, we had to wait for about an hour for our bags to get off the plane. while we sat at the baggage carousel - many of us still half-asleep, giddy to be on the ground but unsure of exactly what we were in for, we noticed that the airport was full of mosquitos. those of the group who were on malaria medication were immediately much happier about their decisions - those of us who weren't immediately went to borrow pills from those who had extras.

when we walked out of the airport, we saw this. gorgeous to walk out into - it was warm, slightly moist, and very hazy, in a way that we first assumed was fog. unfortunately, it turned out to be smog - in some of my later pictures, you can see how out-of-sight the skyline was due to the massive amounts of pollution. india is undoubtedly the most polluted place i've ever been - in delhi, the only city we went to that had taken any steps towards curbing pollution, we were told that the air quality was still the equivalent of smoking two packs of cigarettes a day, and i don't doubt it for a second. while in the more rural places, i developed an awful case of allergies, and the smell of burning cow dung (cow dung is smashed flat, baked in the sun, and used as a heating source and fuel throughout india) was always hanging overhead.

our trip from that point gets a lot harder to describe.

within the first day in mumbai, we saw shocking levels of poverty and shocking amounts of beauty. i spent the entire day, from getting off the airplane to getting home from a club that night, barely sitting down. we were immediately introduced to the beggars and hawkers we would experience throughout the trip - people selling everything from giant balloons (one man: "you like bubbles? you like bubbles? strong!") to braided flowers, which were affixed to just about everything - taxis, rickshaws, cows, buildings, people. there were also a huge number of beggars, most of whom would simply approach us with a hand out and then raise it to their mouths, with wide eyes and a unplaceable _expression.

we saw what was at the time the worst slum i had ever seen - although it was quickly replaced the more i explored. the thing about the slums in india are that they are perhaps the most comfortable places we could go there. as tourists in a large group in the most touristy destinations, we were always an attraction. we were approached by salesmen and beggars everywhere, sometimes to the point of force - little girls tying jasmine-flower necklaces to our wrists, women nearly pushing their babies onto us - or we were a near-celebrity presence, sending lines of schoolchildren into choruses of "helloooooooo!" and asking for our autographs (i gave a couple in the museum we visited, in exchange for this picture.)

the slums, though, were places where we were much more unnoticed, or at least uncommented upon. people approached us to ask for pictures - we walked through a goat market in bandra, where one man blew a tin whistle at us until we took his picture (and yes, his friend behind him is wearing a shirt that says "coffee, chocolate, men - some things are just better rich"). but beyond that, we could go about just looking around, and people would approach us in a more friendly capacity or just go on with their lives.

in the same trip to bandra, we were walking along when we noticed a group of kids playing cricket in an alley. it was amazing - there are few things in the world cooler looking than a well-executed cricket pitch, and the high-flying acrobatics were a nice little breather for us after going through a crowded goat market. after sitting there for a while watching the game, one of the kids offered one of the us the bat. a couple of us took turns at bat, not really understanding what we were supposed to do (a quick conference between us led to the advice "protect the wicket"), but having an overall good time. eventually, the bat made its way to me, and i reluctantly accepted. i lined up in front of the wicket, and readied the bat as the pitch came. just as i was about to make my turn towards cricket greatness, though, the pitch took a surprising bounce and struck me square in the crotch. luckily (ha) we had people around to take pictures (immediately after the hit - notice my pained _expression, and the ball bouncing at a high velocity AWAY from my genitals, and a close-up of my combination of pain and amusement a few moments later).

despite any testicular trauma (although, in all reality i think barring "war injury" there are no wedding-night caveats better than "cricket incident"), it was moments like these which were the best on the trip. for so much of our time in india, we were faced with people whose reaction to our presence we were never really sure about. many people would buddy up to us for a while, talk to us about the places we were seeing and our homes, and then when we thought we were in the midst of an honest conversation ask for money or start a sales pitch. still more would smile at us on the street, look us in the eye and when we thought we were okay, they would approach us with a hand out for a few rupees.

we saw beautiful sights in india, but for a huge majority of the trip we were in a very strange point of interaction with everyone we encountered. our trust had been challenged again and again, and in our later destinations we were told straightforwardly by our tour guide that we wouldn't be safe outside of our hotels. if not for a couple of transcendent moments, like playing cricket in bandra, playing catch with kids at night on chowpatty beach, having a young man at banganga offer me a turn flying his kite, singing songs with a group of indian students on the ferry to elephanta island, or making faces with a young girl at the crawford market, the trip would have been the most isolating experience of my life.

instead, for all the great things we saw, india is for the most part still a complete mystery. we visited four cities - mumbai, jaipur, agra, and delhi, and saw wonderful things - the taj mahal, the red fort, beautiful urban life, and many things which i can't even describe, some beautiful and some sad.

we were never truly immersed in india, and that is what saddens me the most about the trip and most gives me the desire to go back. mark twain said india was "the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend, and the great grand mother of tradition. our most valuable and most instructive materials in the history of man are treasured up in india only" (quote stolen from anna carlsen, whose blog following her current semester abroad in india is required reading). at our best moments, we felt like we could understand a place like india, like our presence could mean something for the kids and students we encountered, like we could be a positive force and that we could really learn something about ourselves.

when i left for india, i thought the trip would be a lot of fun. in the end, it was anything but that - i had a good time, but it was one of the most confusing, often difficult experiences i've ever had. coming back to the US and getting back into normal life - watching "24" and "lost", going to class, checking email - has been stranger than i ever would have expected.

i'm grateful to india for challenging my perceptions and for challenging the way i live my life. i can't wait to go back at some point in the future and i hope that all of you also find ways to challenge yourselves so greatly. i'm thankful that i had this opportunity now, when i still can take off and leave "normal life" for a while without sacrificing my job or my future. instead, i think it's the most important thing i can do.

i realize this message is disjointed and hardly touches upon a lot of my experiences, but think of this as an opening of dialogue. feel free to ask questions, mock my naivete, ask what exactly is going on in some of the pictures, or offer me free airline tickets back to india.

here's the gallery
where i have 150 of my favorite photos up. i have about 500 more in addition (let me just say that i'm absolutely in love with my swank new camera), so feel free to come by and ask to see the rest if you're around.

thanks, and i hope you're doing well.



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