The sunshine state: a week long sojourn along the coast and among the swamps of South Florida

Days 1-2: Fort Lauderdale

We touch down on the runway at Fort Lauderdale at the crack of dawn on Christmas Day, and spend upwards of half an hour waiting for the rental car guy to pick us up and take us to the offsite facility. One of the joys of traveling anywhere on Christmas, the only day in America when everything is well and truly closed, even McDonalds.

We emerge from the rental facility with the small silver car that will be our mobile home for the next seven days, and arrive at Lauderdale by the Sea – a series of vacation condos minutes from the seashore – with the whole day ahead of us, though it’s too early to check-in to our rooms. Hastily changing into our shorts in the bathroom of a Walgreens, we step into the sunshine and onto the beach, cool grains of sand slipping through our toes. Impressive beachfront condos line the shores, and a long boardwalk extends into the ocean. The water is cool, but not chilly, and with the sun beaming it’s nothing short of heavenly – okay, at 85 degrees, it’s a little warm. But having fled from 30 degree weather in NYC only to be met with the same in California, I’ll take this heat any day. It’s a public beach, but located so far from downtown Fort Lauderdale, it practically feels like we have the whole beach to ourselves.

Around eleven, the tourists start pouring in, and we break for lunch. Luckily, the restaurants in this area are geared for tourist season, and are mercifully open to feed hungry beachgoers, even on Christmas. After a few mimosas, we check-in to our room, freshen up, and decide to check out the more touristy parts of Fort Lauderdale with a trip to Las Olas Beach (“The Waves” in Spanish). Oh boy. We’ve definitely left the geriatric, retiree community behind. Here, youngins’ flock to cheesy beachside saloons and Hooters.

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After a day of beach fun, we decide to check out the Fort Lauderdale Riverwalk. Along the way, we spot Millionaire’s Row, a bed of grand homes along the waterfront. It was a haven for the well-heeled and wealthy back in the ‘70s, when becoming a millionaire was actually a notable accomplishment.

But it’s after getting lost while driving that we become aware of some of the massive wealth inequality in this Florida beach town. Just blocks away from the glitzy riverfront and million-dollar condos are hospitals and housing for very low-income communities and homeless individuals wandering the streets. While the weather here may be warm year-round, there doesn’t seem to be much in the way for economic or municipal support for those in need.

We descend upon the river for a pleasant evening boat ride – although it turns out to be far from that. Our boat operator, let’s just say, is neither of a fan of our California origins and an ardent Trump supporter. He proceeds to rail against Governor Jerry Brown and champion the soon-to-be-president. The man’s smug tone is enough to drive Mom and Dad into a tizzy, and before I know, we’ve launched in a full-on debate. Now, I may have my political inclinations, but I don’t think it’s a smart idea to get into a heated discussion with the guy manning your boat! Oh well…we survived.

The following day, we wake up bright and early to catch the sun peeking up over the blue horizon while we wait on the beach, wind gently whipping through our hair. It’s a lovely sight. Walking along the beach, we hunt for seashells in the frothy waves and tiptoe around colorful jellyfish that have washed ashore. Then, we head off to more glamorous shores. Our destination: Palm Beach. Trump territory. We decide to avoid Mar-a-Lago. But Palm Beach is pleasantly absent of any orange looking politicians. The waves ambush you from the left and right all at once. Mom and I take turns giggling as the waves rush in and out over our calves.

Day 3: Miami

Little did I know that I would be returning to Miami for the second time in a year. Don’t get me wrong, I love the great weather, impeccably clean beaches and friendly vibes, but it’s not the kind of city I want to go back to frequently. South Beach is still, well, South Beach. Hordes of inebriated twenty-somethings and spring breakers descend upon the main thoroughfare along the beach, giant margarita cups the size of my head in hand. Unsurprisingly, it only took a matter of minutes before my dear parents grumbled about the madness of young hooligans. Going to Miami with one’s parents is like venturing to Las Vegas before you’ve turned twenty-one – which, I have also done, funnily enough. It’s not something I would recommend. We managed to make a fun time of it though and reveled temporarily in the South Beach madness.

While walking along the beach, I saw a scruffy-looking, shirtless older man leading a group of avid runners down a long stretch of the beach. A friend of mine recently published a book called Running with Raven about a man named Raven who has run eight miles every day in Miami for the past few decades, amassing hundreds of followers or “Raven Runners” along the way. I thought: “Could it be him?” And as they passed by, I heard the words “Raven Runners.” It was! It was one of those moments that made me realize what a small world we live in. Anyway, I encourage all running, beach, Miami, and human interest story enthusiasts to check out Running with Raven. It’s a terrific summer read.

We cap off the night with some traditional Cuban fare and head to the hotel.

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Days 4-5: The Keys

For the third day in a row, we wake up early enough to see the sunrise. How on earth am I managing to do this while fueled by the three-hour time difference between California and Florida? I should still be in bed. Oh well. The ethereal pink, blue and yellow rays over the horizon make up for it. Central Beach is a little calmer than South Beach, to say the least, and less of a tourist trap, though no less charming. The cleanup crew and a few other odd beachgoers are the only ones with us to greet the rising sun.

After that, we spend a lazy few hours in the hotel room before checkout, stopping by a shopping mall en route to the Keys – a set of islands connected only by U.S Route 1 off the coast of Florida – for lunch. And funnily enough, as I discover while perusing in the roadside tourist shops, the Keys were once the site of a dramatically unsuccessful secession effort. They have their own flag and everything. I imagine the ongoing ballot effort for California to secede will be similarly fruitless – if it ever takes off the ground – but hey, in this political climate, who knows what will happen?

But unbeknownst to us, all the tourists in South Florida are heading down to the Keys today for the New Year’s Eve festivities. There are also two cruises taking off from Key West the following day, and what’s normally a three hour drive winds up taking six hours. Not good.

Stress levels are rising in the car and we stop by for some therapeutic treats at Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen in Key Largo, which reportedly has the world’s best key lime pie, according to Travel & Leisure. It doesn’t disappoint. Tangy and sweet all at once, coated with a crumbly but firm graham cracker crust, it’s definitely a dessert designed by the gods. But what might be even better than the pie is the lively décor of the place; license plates donated by guests from all over the country and the world coat the walls, and foreign currency from Venezuela to India dots the ceiling.

We make another pit stop in Key Largo at the John Pennekamp State Park for a glass-bottom tour. Dozens of different kinds of colorful fish and coral pass beneath our feet. The Keys, as it turns out, is one of the few places in the world where you can view coral beds like this. One of the others is the Great Barrier Reef, which sadly, is not faring too well.

Before we departed on our boat ride, our tour guide had only rule: don’t drop anything. Of course, I promptly break this rule. Leaning over the guardrail to catch a better view of a school of blue fish, I watch as my sunglasses drop to the glass with a dramatic clink, and I swear, everyone turns and looks straight at me. The tour guide guffaws over the microphone: “Those are a goner!” Good thing I bought them on discount.

In between the harried drive through the Keys – thanks Dad for being the designated driver throughout this trip! – we find some time to appreciate the sun setting over the famous Seven Mile Bridge, with deep royal blue seas flanking us on both sides. Simply majestic.

By the time we finally arrive in Key West and deal with the ridiculous parking situation and drunk tourists on the island, we’re all fed-up and cranky, and a few tears are shed. But we make up in time to head to Sloppy Joe’s, a bar that the famous writer Ernest Hemingway famously frequently during his many years on the island. Being a literary geek, I couldn’t pass this up. Apparently, Key West also has a “Papa” contest – “Papa” being Hemingway’s nickname – where people vie for the title of best Hemingway look-a-like, beard and all? Oh my. Alas, I don’t have a chance to sample a Hemingway dacquiri, as the rowdy crowds at Sloppy Joe’s are a little too much for my parents – and frankly, for me too.

So we depart on a walking tour down Duval Street, the main thoroughfare in Key West. One of our first sightings is the giant red high heel monument hanging from the top of the Bourbon Street Pub, and in which celebrity drag queen Sushi sits every New Years as the shoe slowly lowers at midnight (Key West’s version of the NYC ball drop). Helpful signs along the street indicate historic sites of rum-runner gangs during the Prohibition era, and places that were rebuilt after a devastating fire in the late 1800s.

At the end of the street is a large statue of a water marker with the words ‘Southernmost Point of USA, Cuba – 90 Miles.’ Next to that is another statue of a man who supposedly peddled his wares at this exact spot and greeted approximately 11 million visitors to the southern shores of Florida over the years, reportedly by blowing into a conch shell. Something tells me this is an urban legend, but it warms my heart. If only immigrants received such a hearty welcome today.

It’s a welcome respite when my head hits the pillow. Sleep comes quickly after a long, long day.

The next morning, I continue to bask in the literary nerdiness of Key West with a guided tour at the Ernest Hemingway House and Museum. A curious white cat perched atop the gate greets us. It’s one of 53 cats presently residing at the Hemingway House; the museum employs a full-time veterinarian to care for them. These cats are the descendants of one original six-toed matriarch, spawning generations of furballs with extraneous digits.

But while the cats may be fun to pet, the real fun comes from hearing tales of Hemingway’s eccentric genius in the home where he created 70% of his novels, including famous works like The Old Man and the Sea. That covers the genius part. As for the eccentricity…well. Throughout his life, Ernest Hemingway suffered from nine concussions – one which he incurred by accidentally pulling on a chandelier rather than a toilet chain – three divorces, four wives, numerous affairs rampant alcoholism and depression, electroshock therapy that left him bereft of his memories, and finally, a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. It’s the sobering story behind the creative madness that Hemingway espoused.

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Days 6-7: The Everglades

Alligators. So. Many. Alligators.

It’s a short drive from Homestead to the Eastern side of the Everglades National Park, where we’ll be spending the entire day. Upon entering the park, tourists typically head to the Ernest Coe Visitor Center – the park’s main entrance of it six visitor centers. A National Park nerd, this part of the trip is mainly for my benefit, but Mom and Dad cheerfully trudge along.

We start off the day with a 10:30 a.m. guided tour at the Anhinga Trail, named for the spectacular black-bodied bird that shows off by extending its wings for passerby. But first, an educational presentation by a feisty, middle-aged park ranger with a blonde ponytail. Gesturing towards a mostly bored-looking group of teenagers, couples and families with small toddlers, the park ranger illuminates the difference between crocodiles and alligators by holding up some scary-looking skulls with sharp teeth.

After that, we walk over a ½ mile loop of raised boardwalk over swampy marshes and lily pads, stopping to gawk whenever we catch an alligator peeking its head out of the water, or sunbathing on a patch of grass. On our way out of the park, we spot two alligators gamboling in the water, playing a watery game. Mom has a field day with that, and leaves with a beaming smile on her face.

Following a long drive down the coast, we end up at the Flamingo Visitor Center, where the temperature has suddenly plummeted and the wind sharply escalated, and we start shivering in our think jacket. We can only snag two tickets for the sunset boat cruise, so Mom and I sheepishly embark on the tour. Sorry, Dad!

While we don’t spot any playful dolphins, the view of the sun descending over the watery ocean horizon in vibrant hues of red, orange and purple truly takes your breath away. I couldn’t imagine someone I’d rather share this moment with than with my lovely Mom – and the dozens of other Asian tourists onboard. Oh, and how could I forget the giddy manatees – gentle gray giants that are often referred to as sea cows – palling around near the boat docks of the visitor center. While we only glimpse their backs heaving in and out of the waters, it’s evident they’re having a blast.

The second day: We hop into the multi-car tram and are greeted by a delightful elderly couple and tour guide duo, with the husband driving the tram and the wife narrating. Within minutes, I know it’s going to be a good ride when they refer to themselves as the “Bad Couple” with a reputation for leading tours that run notoriously over time. Their upbeat narration spans the history of Pangea to the evolution of the Everglades over time.

The park is a bird-lovers paradise. Pale ospreys, beautiful egrets, white ibis, great blue herons, black anhingas and pink spoonbills are just some of the birds that we encounter in the Everglades. Avian lovers, beware.

But of course, the real star of the show: the alligators. Apparently, late December, the start of the dry season, is the sweet spot to catch prime views of alligators. Although we saw a respectable four or five alligators yesterday, that’s nothing compared to what we witness today. Dozens – yes, dozens of alligators amble in the waters on the edges of the thin concrete road, mere feet from the tram. As bikers drive by, the female tour guide jollily refers to them as “Meals on Wheels.” Oh boy.

And yet, it seems that the Everglades have somehow managed to avoid any human fatalities due to alligators, which I find to be a small miracle in itself, given the number of foolish people that have perished by wandering into the hot springs of Yellowstone. Still, better put that selfie stick away and keep a respectable five foot distance between yourself and the alligator. Although they’re pretty unfazed by the humans passing by since they view us tall beasts as a threat, if you crouch down to their level, all bets are off.

After that, we decide on a spur of the moment to stop by the Micosukee Village, an Indian reservation located within the Everglades. They’re hosting an arts and crafts festival and we watch a dance performed by Micosukee youths. I’m a little wary of the alligator wrestling area – it seems almost like the animals have been injured and sedated for viewer entertainment, and I can’t get on board with that.

It’s a sobering history lesson when we come to Micosukee. I enjoyed the performance of traditional Micosukee dances and explanation of the tribe’s history in the small museum, and I’m glad that the festival provides a likely much-needed source of income to many native communities in the Everglades. Still, I’m a little conflicted: all the commercialization of culture in the form of free Micosukee T-shirts and peddling of wares seems a little exploitative. I only hope that people come away from these festivals with a more nuanced understanding and appreciation for the culture of indigenous peoples, instead of viewing them as bizarre customs of the “Other.”

Our last stop is the Oasis Valley Visitor Center, where we ask a woman about this rad-looking, old-school camera that appeared in one of the visitor center brochures. “Oh, that’s Clyde Butcher,” she says. “Drive down the road not ½ mile, and you’ll see his place. He’s the only one in this area that uses that kind of camera.” Following our instructions, we make our way to Clyde’s photo shop, only to find that it’s perched on a gorgeous cypress swamp. After a few selfies with the old camera, we bid adieu to the Everglades and to the warm, swampy gaze of the sunshine state.

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Forced from Home: A refugee story, as told by Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders)

“There’s an African proverb: ‘When two elephants fight, it is the grass that gets trampled,” says Luella Smith, a Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders) physician and staff member who serves as our tour guide today at the “Forced from Home: Stories of Displacement Around the Globe” exhibit in Manhattan. The exhibit’s goal: to simulate the refugee crisis and illuminate the struggles that migrants face as they’re caught in a violent crossfire between warring parties – the elephants.

Upon checking in to the exhibit, both my friend, Xin, and I are handed notecards bearing the name of a country and an individual’s status, such as Honduras – refugee, or Syria – IDP (internally displaced person). I am an IDP from South Sudan, the youngest country in the world, but also one that has been mercilessly wracked by a violent internal war since its newfound independence. Xin is a refugee from Honduras. For 45 minutes, we’ll imagine what it must be like – as best as one can while standing on a boardwalk along the Hudson River – to live in these refugees or IDPs’ shoes as if they were our own, migrating in dangerous, unimaginable conditions.

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Luella is a petite Filipino woman from Canada and sports a pink windbreaker and short, gray bob. Throughout the course of our tour, I realize that despite her non-threatening demeanor, Luella is perhaps one of the most badass people I’ve ever met in my life. Luella has been a physician since 1973, and has served in – and sometimes led – at least ten MSF field missions across the world, most recently in Libya.

She also set up a hospital in an old warehouse in Aleppo, Syria, a city which has lately been making headlines as more doctors flee the city due to deadly airstrikes, leaving more wounded and dead Syrian civilians in their wake. “My only lament was that the day I left [Syria], they opened the hospital,” says Luella. She wasn’t directly threatened by ISIS, but heard stories that when ISIS came into certain villages, MSF staff had to disperse.

Before we start the tour, Luella shares a little history about MSF. MSF is an international humanitarian aid relief organization that was founded in 1971 by French doctors to provide medical care to displaced peoples across the globe. They have a high regard for medical ethics, impartiality, independence, bearing witness, accountability and neutrality – their guiding principles, one could say.. MSF operates in 60-70 countries and maintains 35,000 staff around the world. 90% of the staff are locals, and Luella says, that local support is one of the reasons MSF is so good at what it does.

The term “refugee crisis” has been bandied about a lot, but what does that really mean? Luella illuminates this for us in some startling statistics: there are currently 63.5 million displaced people in the world (the same as the population of California and Texas).

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Luella, our tour guide, and my friend, Xin, while touring the exhibit.

Speaking of refugees, Luella says that many of them are “doctors, lawyers and nurses, same as any of us [here in the U.S], but many have been bombed.” And with that sobering note, she ushers us into a large, white, tented dome to start the tour. A video is projected in a panorama around us on the dome walls, and we fall silent as refugees begin speaking in camps in Tanzania and Burundi. Muddy forests and endless rows of tent camps, as far as the eye can see, appear. In one of the final moments of the video, an immigrant sitting with his family chillingly recaps: “[The] journey has been extremely difficult. It fills me with fear.”

As I exit the tent, a drop of water spills over through a crack into tent. It’s eerie – for a second, I feel as if I’m in the damp refugee camps that we saw in the video as rain threatens to spill overhead.

I see tall posters of refugee and IDP encampments from South Sudan, Burundi, Lebanon, Syria, Honduras and other countries. Behind the posters are placards of items that we may need along our migrant journey, ranging from entertainment to basic necessities. I head to the South Sudan poster. Luella tells us that we have fifteen seconds to grab the five earthly possessions we think we’ll need for our upcoming journey, however long or short it may be.

Without thinking, I grab placards bearing a bottle of pills, blankets, water, and a passport. Feeling sentimental, I also grab family photos. I feel rushed, thinking that I made an error. Should I have taken the clothes instead of the photos? What about money? Luella stresses that the exercise is supposed to highlight what our priorities would be if we were refugees – and they oftentimes differ from person to person. Xin’s selections were mostly similar, but she has the foresight to grab a cell phone.

We proceed to our first stop on the physical tour, which is a small, white raft. This fragile boat is meant for 8-10 people, but is often crammed with 80 refugees on the journeys across the Mediterranean. It’s equipped only with a water tank and small paddle. Luella asks: would you cross the ocean in this?

The sea journey could be as short as seven hours – going from Turkey to Greece – or many, many more if you are crossing the Mediterranean from North Africa. As we sit down in the raft, I could hardly imagine any place to store water on this boat, let alone any personal possessions. We’re told that the life jackets refugees receive on these rafts are often fake, so if the boat began to sink, you were out of luck. Starvation, dehydration and suffocation are all real dangers aboard these cramped dinghies. So far, there have been 30,000 deaths aboard boats like these in 2016, though MSF assisted 23,000 people to safety in 2015.

As we leave the dinghy, Luella tells us that we have to give up one of our chosen items. We’ll have to do this at each stage of the “journey.” Sentimentality quickly goes out the window – I give up the family photos. And then we’re on to the second stop, where I reluctantly relinquish the blankets, thinking how easily I get cold.

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At the second stop, we break down the differences between IDPs and refugees. Refugees are fleeing from one country to another. They don’t always have legal status when they enter another country. IDPs have left their homes but are displaced within their own countries, oftentimes under the regime of a government that is persecuting them, like the Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar. So both groups present different challenges. Organizations like the International Organization for Migration exist in theory to help migrants, but the reality is they oftentimes don’t have boots on the ground to make much difference.

And then we’re on our way to the third stop, where discuss basic necessities and hygiene requirements in camps. There’s a market table set up with items like grains, cell phones, toys and most crucial of all: water. Xin and I circle around a large water tank, known as a bladder. Someone has to fill up the bladder. Usually, the burden falls on women and children. Luella says from experience in Darfur that next to the bladders, there was always a long line up of “gerry cans and children.”

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A sample market table at the exhibit, with pulses, toys and water tins.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends 2 gallons of water per person per day. In refugee camps, sometimes an entire family has not much more than this much to bathe, drink, cook and clean. We each take turns lifting a 2 gallon jug – it seems wholly inadequate to serve a family of four. By contrast: the average person in U.S. uses 90 gallons per day.

We view a sample latrine with a squat toilet, or two raised pads for you to place feet on while you squat and take care of business. I’m familiar with this rustic amenity, having been to India, but it seems far more primitive in context of already resource-deprived refugee camps. We also see a bleak, round device resembling an oil barrel – an incinerator to burn waste. I can only imagine the overwhelming smell of human bodies and waste.

Luella points out that smell is the only thing sense that this tour cannot replicate. Well, maybe sound too. It’s one thing to imagine roaring waves or a child’s screams as you cross the Atlantic, but I imagine that the reality is totally different.

Here, I part with another item: a bottle of pills. Hopefully, at this stage in my journey, I can get my medicine elsewhere.

At the fourth stop, we visualize the challenges of medical treatment in refugee encampments. Luella asks what medical concerns refugees face in camps, and they’re no-brainers: water usage, poor hygiene and overcrowding.

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But a greater menace is cholera. MSF sets up a replica cholera treatment center to bring home the reality of disease for Americans who will likely never have the misfortune to experience it. The treatment center contains simple wooden beds with holes in middle for patients to defecate into buckets underneath. Orange gloves and smaller buckets for washing are affixed to each bed. Luella dealt with cholera as a doctor on an MSF mission in Haiti. She says, remarkably, that Haiti never had cholera outbreak before 2010 earthquake, but due to foreign aid workers and soldiers, the country became a hotspot for the disease.

The worst thing we learn about though is child malnutrition. MSF doctors screen for malnutrition by measuring a multi-colored paper band around a child’s upper arm. Red indicates the child is dying of starvation. Luella demonstrates what it would look like if a child measured in the red; the loop the band forms is shockingly small, like measuring a six-month infant’s arm. We in the U.S. think of malnutrition and imagine swollen bellies, but this is something different altogether. The treatment: a hearty dose of therapeutic milk and some unpleasant-sounding paste called “Plumpy Nut.’

Oh, and what do I give up at this station? Water. Hopefully, I have access to safe drinking water now…but as the simulation has shown, that’s far from assured.

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A makeshift tent showing what a rudimentary refugee shelter might look like.

We make our way to the fifth and last stop on the physical tour, where we view temporary shelters and homes for refugees. One tent stands out to me: it’s a beautiful thing, adorned with simple flowery sheets and Persian-style rugs. It’s supposedly built for 2-3 families – though I would say putting more than five people in the tent would be a stretch Luella leaves us with one keen observation from her experience: people tend to keep their tents spotless. They take great pride in these shelters, however small and ramshackle. “This is their home,” she says.

Luella also points to pictures of a makeshift refugee camp surrounded by mud and refuse in Grande-Synthe, France. In the end, Luella tells us frankly, but not unkindly, no one wants these refugees, and they’re stuck in the middle of their journey to England. They can’t go back or forward. (Note: the camp closed earlier this fall after French authorities razed it to the ground, leaving many migrants still in limbo.)

And what is the very last object that I give up? My passport. I hold onto that thing for dear life until the very end. Because I know that, even as a fictional refugee, that passport could make the difference in moving me forward to a safe place or sending me back to a place of no return.

Before we move on to the optional virtual reality tent, we stop to chat with Luella for a few minutes. She feels mixed emotions whenever she leaves a mission, because she has a home in Canada, but then has to leave behind the refugees – the people who have had a tremendous impact on her life. Her parting words about her work as an MSF volunteer: “We’re there to pick up the pieces. Or we try to.”

We warmly bid Luella farewell, and head into a large white tent where people sit dumbly on stools, with black goggles wrapped around their heads, some of then spinning around. A young male volunteer shows us how to use the headsets. We can rotate on the stool to view the video in 360 degrees. “Just don’t stand up,” he says. “Some people become nauseous.” Right-o.

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The headset for the virtual reality or ‘360’ degree video.

This is my first time using virtual reality, and it’s totally mind-boggling. A red cursor appears on the screen, and I have to tilt my head to move the cursor around the screen. I select the first video and see a woman in a refugee camp in Tanzania. Her name is Ange. Sitting around a cooking fire as children amble around her, Ange talks about her harrowing experience fleeing Burundi, which is approaching a state of civil war as the government violently suppresses protests against the election of President Pierre Nkurunziza to his third term to office.

I rotate on the stool and see other refugees in the background carrying water though the muddy dirt roads of the camp. I feel as if I’m standing right there alongside them, though it’s hard to focus on Ange’s words at times though because I’m so distracted spinning around.

I watch a second video featuring a woman in the Bekaa Valley refugee camp in Lebanon. She fled Syria with her family, and was supporting her children by working with MSF in the camp. Back in Syria, they always heard stories of refugees and wars happening in other countries on the news, and felt pity. “We never thought we’d be in a war.” Hearing her words…it hits home the concept of privilege, and how easily war strips away that entitled sense of security.

At the end of the video, clothes swing on a line in the wind. While this clip plays, a breeze blows into the tent where I’m sitting. For a long moment, I get the haunting impression of being in the Bekaa Valley, just one refugee or IDP among millions in a world, to which, I am utterly invisible.

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 With the worldwide refugee crisis at an all-time high – there are more displaced people now than there have been since World War II – and xenophobic rhetoric reaching alarming levels, there is no better time for individuals to educate themselves on the refugee crisis than now. To learn more about the exhibit, visit ForcedfromHome.com. P.S. – Holiday shopping tip: if you buy items on smile.amazon.com, and select ‘Doctors without Borders,’ a portion of your purchase will be donated to the organization.

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India Trip 2016 Days 24-30: Here Comes the Bride, All Dressed In a Sari

And we’re off to Indian wedding #2! Unlike the first wedding that I described in one of my earlier blog posts, this wedding will be a much longer – five days, to be precise – and more traditional Telugu affair. And since we’re close family members of the groom, Sandesh, we’ll be participating in all of the wedding activities.

We depart from the Vijayawada airport, which I have to say, looks like less like an airport and more like a snack shack. But at least it’s clean. I still have nightmares from the Indian airports that I remember from the ‘90s.

We land in Tirupati, and I’m surprised to find that the airport here is significantly larger and more modern than the one in Vijayawada. As we’re cruising through the streets of Tirupati, I spot a Papa Johns chain restaurant. I know that Pizza Hut and Dominos have been in much of India for a decade, but it’s a surprise that Papa Johns had come to India. Ahh, the spread of global consumerism. It’s funny to think that India was at one time allied with Russia in the communist bloc during the Cold War. Capitalism is clearly here to stay.

We make it to the hotel and I’m quickly summoned to an impromptu dance practice session for the wedding. Remember: I’ve allowed my cousins to badger me into signing up to participate in the sangeeth, or the song and dance portion that will precede the actual wedding. There’s some competition between the bride and groom’s family over which side can perform better dances. Seeing as how the bride’s (Hima’s) side of the family is supposed to be made up of professional dancers and they’ve had time to extensively practice, whereas our family is…not made up of professional dancers, to say the least, and are relying on a last-minute practice session to memorize numerous dance routines, I think it’s fair to say who’s going to win this competition. Still, for the sake of Sandesh, we put on a good effort.

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The stage where the dances are being performed is cast with a mix of purple and blue lights as the show gets underway. There’s an awkward, funny dance number with the older gentlemen on Hima’s side of the family, with the men decked out in suits and black shades. A group of Hima’s friends perform a lighthearted, girlish routine. Another performs a well-rehearsed solo dance routine of traditional Indian bharatnatyam. And then there are the older couples, who despite their missteps, set a cute stage for the evening. They might be my favorite part of the night. Finally, we get to OUR routines. We amble onto the stage and fumble into our positions on stage for the family group dance number “Om Shanti Om.” There are some technical difficulties as the DJ starts playing the wrong song. As much as we’re sucking this dance right now, it’s fun because everyone – from my younger cousins to my middle-aged uncle to myself – is on the dance floor. All generations are represented. Sandesh even breaks into center stage for the dance. We hop off and then just the girls and young ladies reconvene on the dance floor for our female-only numbers. Midway through I start doing the moves out of turn and forgetting what step follows the next one. I think we’re all in the same boat, but we somehow pull it together for a strong finish. We all whisper each other words of congratulations, while we’re all simultaneously thinking “Oh well…at least we tried, right?”

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We wake up at 6 am sharp the following morning, get ready, and head off to the temple. Once again, we benefit from having the benefit of VIP connections, and we’re allowed to bypass the line for the general public. This time, unlike at the Atari border, I don’t feel so bad about accepting this VIP connection. I visited this same temple as a kid, and I remember the normal lines being enormous.

We enter the main temple complex, and find that the crowd isn’t nearly as bad as I remember it being when I was a kid. The last time I came here, the crowd was pushing you in from all sides, slowly suffocating you into a slow death. I was so eager to escape from that crowd that I actually missed the statue of the actual deity – the main event – that we were standing in line to look at. Not this time. My uncle kindly saw to that, making sure that my short self could see the deity beyond the crowd. Even after we passed the deity and were walking away, the guards had to continuously usher the worshippers along, as they kept stopping to turn around, crane their necks and get one last look at the deity. I almost have to admire that sort of religious devotion that you would do anything to glance upon a statue of a god that you worship. On the other hand, I know that that’s the sort of religious fervor can also lead to zealotry and hate. I suppose it’s a fine line.

I wish goodbye to the cool mountain breeze as we descend down the mountainside back to the main city of Tirupati. There, we change into our elegant wedding attire; I wear something called a half sari, which isn’t quite as bothersome or big as a full sari. I’m a bit flabbergasted, as the last time I wore this outfit, I had just graduated high school, and I’m pretty sure it didn’t even fit me then. I don’t know how I manage to squeeze into the blouse that’s two sizes two small, but I do, complaining all the while to my dear old mom. She ignores my complaints and we proceed on to the next function: the bridegroom reception, hosted by the groom’s side of the family. Due to our mountaintop temple excursion, we’ve missed many of the actual activities, but we arrive in time for lunch and for my mother to greet every single person on-site. I greet my cousins and plop myself down in one of the many red lawn chairs, and I make small chat with a few relatives and my brother. I go up to get ice cream at the end of the meal, and am utterly dismayed to find that they don’t have vanilla, or at least mango. Mango ice cream is the least offensive, and usually the most tasty, of traditional Indian ice cream flavors. Pistachio, pineapple or butterscotch? Gah, I gag. We chat with the groom, Sandesh, who

We return to the hotel for nice sojourn before we return for the main wedding reception in the evening. However, we’re made about a half hour late for the reception because it takes my mother 1.5 hours to tie my sari. No kidding. We even had to call for backup in the form of one of my aunts to help put the damn thing together. The sari that my grandmother purchased for me is a beautiful piece of work, and I have to admire it. I’d just like to admire it on anyone besides me. The reception takes place in the same wedding hall as the sangeeth, and it’s basically just an excuse to eat free food and take copious amounts of posed, professional pictures with the bride and groom and selfies with the other party-goers. So in that respect, Indian receptions aren’t all that different from American wedding receptions. However, in Indian weddings, guests line up on sides of the stage – where the bride and groom stand – to take photos with the bridal party. Both the bride and groom look gorgeous in their traditional Indian wedding attire. The bride’s hair is plaited in a long, traditional Indian braid down her back and adorned with flowers. I admire Hima’s sari, and can sympathize with the hassle it must have been for her to stand while aunties puttered over her, readjusting her sari numerous times until it fit perfectly.

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And of course, throughout this process, there are the infinite number of aunties and uncles who ask me when I plan on getting married. I plaster a smile on my face, repeat the safe, well-memorized response “I’m focusing on my career right now” and wait to be excused so I can drown my sorrows in food and non-alcoholic beverages (no alcohol or meat is being served at the wedding activities in Tirupati, per the wishes of the bride’s side of the family). I’m summoned to take a group family photo with the happily married couple. My heels are killing me at this point, as does the annoying hem of my sari that drags on the floor, even with my heels. It’s a painstaking effort to either not trip over my sari the entire night or slip in my wobbly heels on the marble floor.

The reception ends, but the festivities aren’t over. The actual wedding is taking place at midnight. Yes, you read that correctly. Midnight. The astrology reading, horoscope, or whatever you call it, what they do before the bride and groom get engaged, not only determines whether they’ll be a suitable match but also the date and time they should get married. And so midnight it is. We head back to the hotel, and I change into a slightly less uncomfortable set of heels and another outfit. And then we’re back for the wedding. I wonder how the bride and groom must be holding up. They’ve been on their feet for hours, and now have to sit through hours of ritual upon ritual. I confess that at this point, I’m pretty sleepy and more than a bit disgruntled after the chaos of changing into and out of saris. I don’t pay as much attention to the nuances of the wedding as I should. The Hindu priest sits in the middle of the stage with the bride and trays of coconuts, yellow rice, flowers and other items for the religious ceremony. Volunteers pass out yellow rice to the audience attendees for us to bless the bride and groom later. The most significant part of the wedding ceremony that I remember is the parting of the veil – the moment when the bride and the groom glance eyes upon each other once the veil separating them is lowered.

We get up on the stage and are about to take another group photo with the married couple, but it seems we’ve arrived too early. There are some more rituals that the bride and groom must complete first. I can’t make out exactly what’s going on, but I hear chanting by the priests. Lots of chanting. I see a couple of raised eyebrows on the part of some of my family members. Apparently, this isn’t part of the usual Telugu wedding traditions that they know. It seems to have been requested on the part of the bride’s family, since adhering to many of the traditional Hindu rituals important for them. I’m none too pleased, but then again, it’s not my wedding. And I might appreciate watching these rituals better, since they’re an interesting aspect of Hindu culture. If only I weren’t so tired….

And that’s the last of the wedding activities…in Tirupati. Round 2: we move this shindig over to Hyderabad. There are another three functions, including a puja for the bride, a reception, and another puja for the newly married couple. Both of the pujas take place at the house of Sandesh’s family. The pujas are mostly without incident, and most of our time is spent chatting with other relatives and catching up. However, during one of the pujas, while my brother and I are sitting at a table in the backyward chatting, we hear a sickening crash somewhere behind us, and the party takes a slightly gruesome turn. I look down and see a crumpled body underneath a broken wall of cement. We quickly find out that a decorative cement wall that was bearing flowers had suddenly broken free of it support and collapsed on some of the partygoers. Everyone starts gathering in a crowd, then a few doctors, my brother included, come to assess the situation. The young man manages to come shakily to his foot. Someone brings a tray of ice to create a cold pack for a young woman, who was hit in the head with some stray pieces of the cement wall. We’re relieved to find out a few hours later that both of them are fine, but they were incredibly lucky. Heck, I was lucky that I was sitting a few feet away and not in that spot. Crossing streets. Monkeys. Stomach bugs. This was the list of things I had to be worried about in India. I suppose I’ll have to add falling walls to that list.

We also have a second wedding reception to go to, which is intended mainly for friends of the family who could not attend the reception in Tirupati. We drive nearly an hour through the streets of Hyderabad – yes, traffic really is that bad in this city – and we make it to the wedding hall. It’s a lovely grand, white complex, and the entrance to the hall is decked in a beautiful floral arrangement. The stage is also set in a backdrop of hundreds of pink, white and yellow flowers, and I have to blink before I realize that they’re all real. It’s a pretty setup, and a reception that many could only dream of. We take a seat and indulge in the savory appetizers, from mughlai chicken to chili paneer skewers. Alcohol is being served at this reception, so we grab a few drinks as well. The food is on point, and the drinks are nice, if a little watered down. There’s a buffet with platters upon platters of food. It’s all very good, but it’s so different from American weddings, where you usually have 150 guests at most, and each person is served an individual meal that they’ve selected in advance. Indian weddings prize quantity over quality – both in terms of number of guests and number of food options. I can’t help but think of all the food that gets wasted every day in Indian weddings. Not to mention the money. But then again, who am I to judge? Some people spend money on cars, on houses. In India, more often than not, that money gets spent on weddings. And then, with that, we’re finally, finally done with all the wedding activities. It’s been one hell of a wedding. We bid adieu to Sandesh and Hima, and head home.

Following the wedding activities, we have a fairly lazy day in Hyderabad, and then it’s off to the airport. My brother’s flight departs first, and we drop him off at the airport. It’s a bittersweet farewell, but I know we’ll see each other soon enough. Then it’s my turn. I fly out from Hyderabad to Abu Dhabi. When I land in Abu Dhabi, the clock on my phone still is set to India time, which is an hour ahead. Panicked that I’m about to miss my flight, I rush through the airport of Abu Dhabi like a madwoman, frantically descending escalators and rushing up stairs and through the new U.S customs and security checkpoint, which they installed as an experiment in Abu Dhabi to expedite customs processing for U.S-bound passengers. After being yelled at by an irritable woman at the security checkpoint and laughed at by agents at the gate, only to find that I’m a half hour early for boarding. Oops.

The flight from Abu Dhabi to LAX is nearly seventeen hours of intermittent, uncomfortable sleep with an awkward neck posture and avoiding looking at the rude passenger sitting next to me who doesn’t say a single word the entire flight. Having blown through all of my summer reading books, I have nothing to read, so I watch a few Hindi and American films. Man, Indian cinema sure is more risqué than when I was a kid! I feel that I’ve gained five pounds between the constant sitting and airplane meals. But the fun isn’t over. As we’re descending into LAX, not one, but TWO overhead compartments open up. I leap up to close the second one about a minute before we land, but I’m too short to close it shut while a piece of awkwardly lodged luggage is blocking the top. An elderly grandfather gets up to help me, and the stewardesses – not even bothering to help the situation – yell at us to sit down. The man extricates the suitcase from the overhead compartment and just sets it down in the middle of the aisle, overhead compartment still open. We can only hope that no more luggage falls out during the rocky descent. Somehow, we land with no more wayward falling suitcases or bruised heads. Then there’s the two hour wait in LAX, where I peruse the bookshelves of the airport shops, wishing I could buy every single one.

And then it’s only a short, uneventful ride home from LAX ‘till I’m strolling through the wide corridors of SFO Airport. As I’m waiting for the SuperShuttle to arrive and take me home, I make small chat with another passenger of the shared ride service. He’s an older man, African-American, whose home is the backcountry of Baton Rouge Louisiana, but he’s here on a short-term basis to work on the construction of the new Apple office building in the San Francisco Bay Area. He regales me with stories of the new Apple building, which is shaped like a donut and has everything an employee could ever want – restaurants, beauty parlors, you name it. You’d never have to go home – which is probably Apple’s aim. He tells me about the shock that he suffered after growing up and living in the countryside, and witnessing urban poverty and different cultural behavior in San Francisco compared to Baton Rouge. He attributes this difference in values and norms between urban and country living, and being raised right by his grandmother, who worked and lived on soil owned by white men and had the foresight to set aside all of her savings to purchase a large plot of land that her children and grandchildren could own and farm for generations to come. It’s a conversation that sticks with me for a few hours afterward, and makes me remember why I wanted to leap face-first into journalism. It’s to meet people – everyday people who you wouldn’t think have a compelling story to share, but they do. It’s to listen to and share stories like these.

As I’m riding in the SuperShuttle home, I take in the sun setting over the Coit Tower and the skyscrapers of San Francisco’s financial district. It’s a breathtaking sight.

It’s good to be home.

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Postscript: I started out this India blog with the intention of blogging about my trip every day – or almost every day – as a way to get back into the habit of writing before I go back to school. I start graduate school in NYU’s Literary Reportage (Journalism) program in two weeks. I’m thrilled to embark on this new journey, and I hope to share it with you too.

 

India 2016 Trip Days 20-23: We’re All One Big Happy Family

After we conclude our North India trip, it’s back to Hyderabad for the family. There, we’re joined by my brother, Jay, who flew into Hyderabad only a few hours before us. Although my brother annoys me to no end sometimes, he’s still one of the few people in the world who gets me, the only person with whom I can have two hour long heated debates about politics, despite oftentimes being on the other side of the fence. Plus, he gets where I’m coming from as an American of Indian descent, as I observe various Indian rituals and customs with a mixture of fascination and dread, he takes it in alongside me. I’m glad to have him here with me so we can exchange witty barbs and comments together.

There’s noting too grand to speak of our one day in Hyderabad, but we have some fun in between the tasks that must get done. My brother and I indulge in some politicking and shake our heads at the DNC email scandal (the one nice thing about being in India is that I get a reprieve from the non-stop horrors of the U.S. presidential election). I go to the tailor where I painstakingly try on my dresses for the upcoming wedding. I make my way to my cousin Pooja’s family home – Pooja is the sister of the groom in the upcoming wedding in Tirupati that we’ll be attending – and she and I head to the mall to pick up some shoes for the wedding. For those who don’t know, Indian malls they require you to go through airport-style screening (minus the removal of shoes and TSA body scanners) with a metal detector. These large, multiplex buildings can rival some of the larger malls in the U.S. We depart a half hour later with glittering heels in hand.

In the evening, we convene at my cousin’s place, where we practice some of the choreographed dance moves that we’ll be performing – me most begrudgingly, dancing not being my forte – during the upcoming wedding. But I learn about just enough to think that I won’t embarrass myself or the groom’s family – at least not much. After we freshen up, the guests arrive in flocks for a blow out party. Servers swing by bearing platters of hot appetizers like chili chicken, lamb kebab, tofu skewers and even Greek spanakopita served up Indian style. I down so many appetizers in the first few minutes that I hardly have any room for the main course and dessert. There are alcoholic drinks and ‘mocktails, ’ the virgin margarita of cocktails. It’s a lovely gathering and the recently constructed home is grander than perhaps any other house I’ve seen in India, with three floors and an elevator to boot. Beyond that, like any Indian party, this gathering serves as a fascinating insight into cultural norms of a society that is on one hand moving progressively forward but in many ways remaining ever stagnant.

My brother points out something that I’ve taken for granted: the de facto sex segregation that persists in most Indian functions, with women and children being relegated to one corner and men to another. It’s not like it’s an enforced division, and there are a few men and women wandering back and forth between these two spaces. But it’s still jarring. Going back to the drinks, it’s patently obvious that none of the women are drinking alcohol. Or if they are, they must be secretly stashing a hip flask somewhere and secretly spiking their drinks. I chat with another relative, and we talk about the need for Indian women in particular to guard their reputation, which can includes abstaining from openly drinking. so it’s with somewhat of a rebellious air that I pick up a cocktail drink from the bar, and the bartender tells me it contains alcohol, plainly expecting me to put the glass back down. But I don’t. The bartender gives me what I believe to be a judging look, but I brush it off. I find this need to keep up false appearances all the more appalling, particularly since I know from speaking to college friends that many a young twenty something, cosmopolitan Indian woman can go out and have a few drinks with a friend at a lounge or club, but they can’t have a sip in front of family. Certainly, we’re not immune to this habit in the U.S., but maybe because I’m a foreigner in this land, I’m seeing it afresh. But I put that aside, and for the most part, I enjoy meeting and chatting with relatives old and new throughout the night.

The next day is mostly filled with packing, preparations and travel as we depart once more for Vijayawada. I feel like I’ve been living out of a carry-on suitcase for the past month, and it’s almost true, as I swap clothes out of my larger check-in bag for my smaller bag. We finally hit the road, and reach Vijayawada just as dusk is settling in. We order in biryani from one of our childhood haunts, Eagle Bar, our go-to place for biryani in the summers that we spent in Vijayawada as kids. I think that the quality has diminished somewhat, but maybe I’m remembering the taste of the food with rose-tinted goggles. Jay chows down with relish though, and gives it a solid thumbs-up.

The next two days are a blur of visiting relatives upon relatives, as is the custom when you come to Vijayawada. We first visit my dad’s home and village in Kavuluru, where my brother and I spent the majority of our summers as a kid. On the way to the village, we stop by a fort in a nearby town called Kondepalli, which has a history of being exchanged and conquered by various rulers, both Hindu and Muslim, over the centuries. It certainly boasts an impressive history, and it took one ruler years to be able to conquer the fort, given its isolated location on a mountaintop perch. Sadly, the maintenance of the place has not kept pace with its impressive history. Walls are crumbling before our eyes, graffiti and trash are strewn everywhere, and the interior of the museum entrance to the fort is filled with broken wooden beams and scores of bats. Still, it’s fun to act like a kid and bounce around the fort, imagining who might have lived here and what sort of political and military meetings between important generals and officials might have taken place here.

I lose track of the names and faces of the countless people we meet . All relatives on our Dad’s extended side of the family. We stop by home after home, shaking elders’ hands, and being force fed so much food that we’re all likely to pass out from overconsumption. We pass by old childhood friends and their parents while walking through the village, and its’ surreal to see how much has changed – and how much hasn’t – in the village. Where there once were only dirt roads lining the village, there are now many cement paved roads. And there’s a new temple to boot, too, in the city. My dad generously donated a significant amount of money to the temple during its construction, so we visit the temple with fond feelings and participate in a puja conducted in our honor. While in Kavuluru, we also stop by our old family home, and it’s a blast down memory lane. The modest, three-room home with the attached kitchen seems even smaller than I remember it to be. I walk outside the house, remembering how I used to hop around on the scorching hot stones on the front yard, and how I first learned to ride a bike here.

 

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On our last day in the area, we visit relatives in the nearby town of Budavaram. One tata (grandpa) we visit on my mom’s side has Parkinson’s, and he’s so frail and fragile, he seems liable to collapse at any moment. I can only imagine what it must be like for every intake of breath, every step you take, to bring on a fresh stab of pain. After making the rounds and visiting a few other relatives in the area, we return to Vijayawada and rest.

Then it’s off to Tirupati for us! Vija ammama (who you’ll remember accompanied us on our North India trip) kindly hosts us lunch before we depart for the aiport. I’ll miss Vija ammama dearly. Her witticisms made our North India trip lively, and she was all things considered, the best roommate one could have.

Next up: Indian weddings, take two, from Tirupati!

India 2016 Trip Days 17-19: On Patriots and Prayers

Charmunda – Jawarla Muki – Kangra

It’s Day 17, and we’re nearing the end of our North India trip. We depart from the lush, mountaintop resort where we’re staying, and head out to a few more temples in Himachal Pradesh. Personally, I think I could go the rest of the trip without seeing any more temples and be just fine, but I begrudgingly accept the itinerary and trudge along. Charmunda, Jawarla Muki and Kangra: these three sites make up a trinity that forms three of the most holy sites in Himachal Pradesh, and these temples all serve as places of prayer to different avatars (forms) of Matha Di or Parvati.

Charmunda is part circus, part temple. On the side of the temple complex is an artificial river and fountain area, on which sit garish boats and brightly colored statues of different gods and goddesses. While I appreciate the attempt to turn what is an often a humdrum experience of visiting the temple –buying offerings, standing in line, presenting the offerings to the god, pray, rinse and repeat – I’m not sure that turning a temple complex into a mini religious fairground works that well either.
The statue representing Parvati in the temple is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Unlike most other temples, which contain perfectly carved sculptures representing deities with human bodies and appendages, Mata Di is a small mound like stone sculpture, painted with an auspicious orange tint and marked two rudimentary black eyes, almost as if a child painted them on. The legend behind this temple is that Parvati killed two demons that were threatening the world, and the combination of those demons’ names merged into Charmunda.

 

We head to Kangra next, which contains two main tourist attractions: a fort, and of course, a temple. I haven’t really seen any Indian forts since I went to Jaipur in 2012. While this is nowhere near as spectacular as the Rajput forts in Jaipur, ambling around the fort steps makes me feel like a kid again. According to the sign posted at the outset of the fort, ownership of this fort changed hands between so many rajas and invading conquerors that I lost count. It’d be a nice place to spend a few hours trolling around with friends taking fort selfies, but alas, we don’t have time, and it’s way too damn hot as it is to stand out here baking in the open sun. Onward to the temple in Kangra! The temple in Kangra, known as Mata Brajeshwari Devi is one of the Shakti peeth that I mentioned in an earlier blog post. The Shakti peeth derive their significance from Shakti (aka Parvati), who set herself on fire after her father insulted her husband, the almighty god Shiva. Devastated, Shiva went into a celestial rage, which could only be stopped by Vishnu slicing Parvati’s body into pieces. I couldn’t even make this stuff up if I wanted to – the stories are really this violently imaginative. The left breast of Parvati supposedly fell here, and it became one of the many Shakti peet temples.

 

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Image: The many shops selling prayer items near the temple at Kangra.

Last but certainly not least is Jawarla Muki. Of all the temples that we’ve visited so far, this might be my favorite, not because there’s anything special about the temple complex itself, but because of the almost otherworldly phenomenon that takes place here. Within the main temple is a flame that has seemingly burned for years without end. Skeptical, I ask Vijaya Grandma if someone doesn’t surreptitiously come at nightfall when all the temple visitors have gone to bed and add some type of powder to keep the flame alive. But she insists that that’s not the case. Apparently, researchers have studied the geological formations in the area to come up with a logical explanation for this occurrence, but to no avail. Whether divinely caused or naturally formed, it’s impressive to behold. A truly ‘eternal flame.’

Amritsar – Atari Border

We hit the road again and arrive to our hotel in our last city on this North India trip: Amritsar. Amritsar, known worldwide as a holy city for Sikhs in particular, has always been on my to-see list. I’ve always had a deep appreciation for the values of honor, strength, equality (lack of the Hindu caste system) and benevolence to the poor that Sikhism prides itself on.

We’re off to a sobering start to our day. Our first stop here is the Jalianwala Bagh, a site of tragic, needless and bloody massacre of countless Indian people during the early 20th century under British colonial rule. Indians were protesting a British-imposed law, which I believe violated free speech and press. They led General Dwyer, in an attempt to send a firm message to people who were involved in these protests to stop, gave the order to his men to fire upon innocent civilians peacefully attending an open lecture regarding the law taking place in the Jalinwala Bagh. The soldiers stormed the only entrance/exit to the Bagh, effectively trapping people inside the walls with no means of escape from the gunfire. Except by death. Many jumped into a well inside the Bagh, choosing to take their own lives rather than be slaughtered by the British. It’s a haunting reminder of what happens when we subjugate one people to another – dehumanization and cruelty is only a tragic and inevitable result. We silently pay our respects to those who lost their lives and move on to the Golden Temple.

I’ve been wanting to visit the Golden Temple ever since I first learned about it in college. It doesn’t disappoint. The temple is located within a dazzling, large white complex with towering minarets. True to its name, the top part of the temple and the minarets at the top are rimmed in gold. As part of the Sikh’s rigorous adherence to cleanliness, after stripping off our sandals and handing them to a Sikh man, we step into a small pool of water at the entrance before heading inside. Many Hindus would turn up their noses in disgust at touching someone else’s worn sandals, so it’s with surprise and pleasure that I see that this a routine procedure here. As part of the Sikh values of modesty, everyone, both men and women, are required to cover their head, usually with small bandanas in the case of the men, and dupattas for the women. But as I’m a novice in the art of headscarf wearing, my dupatta keeps slipping down off my head, and one man even scolds me for my immodesty.

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The Golden Temple is a most holy site for Sikhs all across the nation, and millions flock here every year to worship. The main temple here, which was constructed some centuries ago by one of the first Sikh gurus, contains the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib. The line to enter the temple and see the book is enormous, so we skip it and instead walk around the temple complex. It’s also the site where Operation Blue Star took place, in which forces commanded by Indira Gandhi raided the Golden Temple. Many believe that the operation was justified by the need to root out alleged Sikh terrorists who were hiding behind the walls of the temple. Others view it as unjustified raid on a sacred holy place. In the fallout from Operation Blue Star, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguard. Afterward, many Sikhs were slaughtered in riots in retaliation. It was a turbulent time in India to say the least. But on a day as a peaceful as this, it’s hard to imagine such violence taking place here.

However, our enjoyment of the temple is tempered by the scorching heat. It’s definitely hotter here than anywhere else we’ve visited in India, and I wonder how some of the elderly visitors haven’t yet collapsed of heat stroke. In the temple, a high-school boy starts following us around, asking us questions about where we’re from and whether we want to enter the temple. It’s clear that he’s trying to exact money from us in order to perhaps help us bypass the long line and enter the temple, but we’re not interested, despite his pleas that the money will help go toward his school fees. I wonder if we’re being cruel, but when I remember that scores of children outside the temple were hawking their wares under the same line. We unsuccessfully try to lose him as we make our way to the langar hall.

The langar is an important part of Sikh culture. In many Sikh temples – also known as gurdwaras – you’ll find what’s called a langar, or a communal hall where you can receive a delicious, hot meal free of charge. You sit on the floor in front of long vertical place mats, and Sikh volunteers come by with large vats of steaming rice, roti, curry and dal, placing it efficiently on each person’s plate. It’s a sort of communal dining experience that you’d be hard pressed to find in any other community. It’s also an example of the Sikh’s beneficence towards the poor. Anyone, regardless of religious, classe or caste, can come here to find a hot meal, served up volunteers free of charge. The clean-up process is efficient and orderly too, with volunteers quickly rolling up the place mats and a clear delineation for where to put our plates. As we exit, we spot the enormous pots in which the food is cooked in outside the langar.

We head back to the hotel for a quick respite before heading over in the afternoon to the Atari border – the border dividing India and Pakistan. Thanks to some friends’ connections, we’re able to secure passage for our car into the entrance to the border area, thereby bypassing the line stretching for blocks and blocks. If we didn’t have our friend’s connections, we’d have to stand for at least an hour in the burning sun, and when they finally open the gates to the border area, the queue would quickly bust open, with people running in a massive stampede to the public seating area and fighting over the best seats in the shade. While I do appreciate not having to engage in that spectacle, I can’t say I’m not deeply perturbed by the Indian VIP culture. It’s another example of the deep class divisions that pervade this society, and the ‘pay to play’ mentality. If you shell out any amount of money, people will roll out red carpets for you. Rod Blagoevich would approve.

We pass through security and take our seats in the VIP seating area, which is basically just closer to the gates of the border than the public seating area. I look over to the border and see two gates, one a reddish color on the Indian side, one a blackish gate opening onto the Pakistan side. The Pakistani side of the border has an arch that soldiers stand on with Jinnah’s (the founder of Pakistan) portrait. The Indian side is not so elegant, nor overstated, in its décor. We wait for a little over an hour, sweat a ton, fan ourselves, munch on butterscotch ice cream, and then the world’s biggest pissing contest commences. Soldiers flank both gates. Indian soldiers in tan military style outfits on one side, Pakistani soldiers in more ornamental black outfits on the other side. As attendees from the Pakistani side of the border start flooding the Pakistani side of the border, people on the Indian side start yelling greetings, waving, and in some cases, outright booing and jeering. Folks on the Pakistani border do the same. The Pakistani side is somewhat less packed than the Indian side, but there’s a still a sizeable crowd. The only difference there is that women and children/families are separated on side of the seating area from the bachelors and young men.

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Once everyone takes their seat, a boisterous Indian emcee emerges on our side, rousing the crowd and encouraging them to shout phrases like ‘Jai Hindustan!’ (long live India!) while corny Indian music plays in the background. Many in the crowd eagerly follow along, wearing “I ❤ India” hats, both to ward off the hot gaze of the sun and to display their beaming national pride in the most garish manner possible. Another emcee does the same on the Pakistani side. I can’t make out the exact words of the music on the other side, but it just seems like they’re chanting ‘Pa-ki-stan, Pa-ki-stan’ over, and over and over again. The repetition and overwhelming, ‘beat-you-over-the-head-patriotism’—from both sides – is an intriguing and embarrassing display of the trumped-up rivalry between India and Pakistan, made all the more apparent in the recent clashes between the two countries via the heightened tension in Kashmir.

While the music is playing, a crowd of individuals – largely either females or children – lines up on the Indian side of the border. One by one, they run down with an Indian flag in hand, and halfway to the gate, they wave the flag with both hands, in what is a not-so-subtle F*** yeah India moment. On the Pakistani side, due to cultural norms, I don’t think women – or any civilians, really – are allowed to participate in the flag waving. Instead, the Pakistani emcee waves the flag around. In between the music, soldiers on both sides perform some of the most outlandish and ridiculous looking moves at the gate, lifting their boots to knees in some type of military strut as they walk around the open pavilion in front of the gate, formally saluting the other soldiers and even opening the gates briefly to mock the Pakistani soldiers on the other side before quickly closing them shut. One Indian soldier even comes out with a fake, drawn-on mustache, for what purpose I cannot imagine, but it just highlights the sheer, comic and almost pathetic absurdity of the situation. I was hoping the soldiers on both sides might as least do the courtesy of saluting one another, but nope, no way in hell that’s going to happen. By the time the elaborate and boorish ‘dance’ between the two countries is over, the heat is gone, but my incredulity at the humiliating, if mildly entertaining, spectacle we’ve been witnessing, is at an all-time high.

For some context: imagine if something similar were staged at the U.S-Mexico border. Imagine how outrageous and ridiculous that would be. Still, it’s an illuminating insight into the way both countries perceive patriotism, one as a Muslim nation and the other as an (avowedly) secular nation, and the bitterness that still persists between the two. We head home and a particularly rickety auto-rickshaw experience through the main market in Amritsar in search of handmade scarves, dine at a local Punjabi restaurant and turn in for the night.

Day 19: And so the North India safar (trip) comes to an end. This last day, we take it easy, and make only stop on our way to the airport: a prominent Sikh museum and gardens in Amritsar dedicated to Maharaja Ranjit Singh. This Sikh ruler exemplified some of the best aspects of Sikhism: valor, strength, and benevolence He was ferocious when confronted by his enemies – chief among his military accomplishments is keeping the invading Afghan warriors at bay numerous times – and undeniably generous to the poor. There are small replicas of various important moments from the ruler’s life, as well as life-sized panorama depicting epic battles and scenes at court during Ranjit Singh’s time. By the time we exit the museum, I’m left with a greater appreciation for the important contributions that Sikh culture and rulers have made to this region. And it’s also pouring cats and dogs. We rush into the car to escape the rain, and head to the airport to head back to our second home in India – my grandparents’ home in Hyderabad.

India 2016 Trip Day 16: The Road to Dharamshala: A Scenic Drive You’ll Never Forget

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With the weather still as foggy as ever in Jammu, we embark the following morning on the seven hour journey to Dharmshala. Before we leave Jammu, our driver stops by a dry fruits and clothing shop, where, presumably, he’ll receive some type of small commission from the store if we end up purchasing a lot of stuff. And we do. We walk out with several Kashmiri silken sarees, silk shirts, some sweaters for dad, and a stole/scarf for me.

The journey may be long, but the road to Dharmshala does not disappoint. After some time, we pass from the state of Jammu into Punjab, where flat, green fields of lush crops await us. Punjab is known to be one of the areas of India with the most fertile agricultural land, and it’s a beauty to take in. The roads are also of superior quality compared to most places in India, perhaps due in part to relative economic progress of Punjab compared to much of the rest of the country. We stop at a roadside dhaba (hole-in the wall restaurant), and while the food is just alright, the lassi and homemade yogurt (known as dahi) is on point. Punjabi-made lassi is a frothy, sweet (or salty, if you choose) concoction that I cannot refuse.

Afterwards, we find ourselves quickly in the state of Himachal Pradesh, which was until a decade or so ago still part of the state of Punjab. Here, the landscape transforms from flat fields into a never-ending series of valleys, mountains and gorges, seemingly scattered from top to brim with dozens of varieties banana, eucalyptus, teak and other kinds of trees that I can’t even fathom. I thought the view in Jammu was breathtaking, but this is on another level. As we near closer to Dharamshala, I notice an almost alarming number of military cantonments and signs glorifying the strength of soldiers – presumably set up for the Dalai Llama’s protection from China. I get that the Dalai is one on of the top public enemies of the Chinese state, but still, the glorification of military culture and violence seems to contradict Buddhist teachings…

We wind up, and up, and UP the mountain until we finally make it to Dharamashala. Among the usual milieu of Indian tourists, I see plenty of Western tourists sporting massive backpacks and Buddhist devotees draped in red and gold robes here as well, some trekking up the mountain by foot instead of going by car. It’s madness in the immediate vicinity, among a chaos of cars, motorcycles, peoples and narrow alleyways, flanked on both side by merchants hawking their touristy souvenirs. There’s a small Hindu temple that we quickly visit, but the main attraction here is, of course, the Dalai Llama’s temple and home.

There’s a lovely open courtyard that looks onto a massive chair draped in gold, where the Dalai Llama presumably sits when he gives public appearances. The entire area is shrouded in fog and with remarkably few tourists in temple, peacefully conducive to meditative thought and prayer. As a human rights activist, being here takes on a double meaning for me when I consider all that the Dalai Llama has done to promote social justice and peace. We take some touristy photos at some Buddhist prayer wheels. On the wheels are enshrined sacred words of the Avolokesvitara, and if you turn the wheel once, it’s supposed to bring you merit and fortune equivalent to the words inscribed on the wheel.

We take off our shoes and enter the temple, wherein lies another more massive golden chair where again, the Dalai Llama likely sits during public prayer. On the sides of the temple are ancient Buddhist texts locked up in a shelf, as well as statues of the Buddhist avatar of compassion – a many-headed female looking deity – and of an Indian leader who helped to spread Buddhism. In the center of the temple lies the magnificent, golden Buddha statue, to which people offer their prayers, and next to which the Buddhist priests managing the temple place offerings of milk, oil and other food items. On the walls are also written various Buddhist teachings, such as the principle of dharma, which is somewhat of a complex subject, but boils down to the importance of doing ones duty and hard work and having merit in strong character, rather than conducting rituals and paying money. We pray and bask in the eminent aura of the temple. As we exit, I see a painting of Tibetan rulers on the wall of the temple and on the priest’s desk at the entrance area a small ‘Free Tibet’ sticker.

We walk across the courtyard to the Dalai Llama’s home, a yellowish compound with a green entrance overlooking the gate. It’s not open to the public now, and although we had little chance of seeing the Dalai Llama anyway, it seems we have no chance now. As the friendly Tibetan guards at the entrance tell us, the Dalai Llama went to bed at 5 pm today in preparation for an early departure to Ladakh tomorrow.

We purchase a few small tokens from some of the touristy shops, and while I briefly think the shopkeeper is ripping me off and that I should haggle, it’s quickly becoming darker, and we still have a twenty kilometer ride to our hotel on a narrow road. So I let it slide. Oh, how little did we know.

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Our travel agent did not book the hotel in Dharmshala itself, but twenty kilometers away, and our driver doesn’t know where the hotel is located. In between intermittent GPS; the dark night; narrow, unfamiliar roads; signs leading to the hotel with misleading arrows; and asking random strangers for directions for more than an hour, we finally make our way to a rather unpaved road with no lights. There, we manage the most unpleasant, bumpy ride of our life for ten minutes – thanks to our driver’s skillful maneuvering – and at last, get to the hotel. We’re all tired and grumpy by the time we get there, least of all when we find out that there’s no Wifi. While we eat dinner, it’s evident that many parts of the hotel are in moderate states of disrepair. While the architecture of the hotel is beautiful (the owners are both architects), the rooms are spacious and cozy, and the mountaintop location is gorgeous, the experience of getting there still leaves something to be desired.

In the morning we get off to a late start, but rise in a better mood, spirits buoyed by the mesmerizing views of the green mountaintops enmeshed in fog. We set off for Chamunda, Jawalamukhi and Kangra (more on that in the next blog post).

 

India 2016 Trip Days 14-15: In Jammu, Mind the Monkeys

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With our hustle-and-bustle Varanasi trip over, we make our way over to the next bump in our journey: the northern Indian state of Jammu, specifically the city of Katra. On both legs of the flight, I’m beset by a stomach bug, headaches and nausea, so I spend most of the day forcibly lugging myself and my baggage around airport terminals. Woe is me and my poor immune system. But on the Delhi to Jammu leg of our flight, I somehow score an entire row to myself, so I take full advantage and curl up sleeping like a baby.

We disembark from the plane in Jammu, where we meet up with our driver, Vijay, who will take us to Katra and accompany us on the remainder of our trip. On the way to Katra is highly majestic – and illuminating – car ride, filled in equal measure with army barracks and lush green, mountainous landscapes. I’m at once enthralled by the natural splendor of the area, and also unsettled by the numerous soldiers, gun shops and roadside replicas of tanks that we pass. I’m sure there are reasons for this heavy armory, such as being located close to the border with Pakistan, with whom India has tense relations and also due to the conflicted political situation in Kashmir. Yet it still seems like a uncomfortable bit of a glorification of militarization to me. And oh, how could I forget the monkeys! We spot a few gloriously cute monkey moms and their babes sitting by the side of the road. But they’re not only cute…more on that later.

We make only one stop at a temple (ironically, I’m thanking God that we’re not visiting any more temples today) on the way to Katra. When we get to the hotel, I fall into a blissful, much-needed ten or eleven hour sleep. And then we’re off to Vaishno Devi!

Vaishno Devi, located atop a mountain, is a temple that honors Mata Di, the goddess representing a combination of three other deities: Lakshmi, Paravati and Saraswati. Containing the strength and powers of these three goddesses, Mata Di killed an evil demon, whose name I cannot remember, but I think is Bhairov? Anyway, this place is a sacred pilgrimage site for many Indians who journey from all across the country to make it here. We fly over in stellar style, via helicopter, taking in the awe-inspiring aerial view of tree-lined mountains.

From there, it’s a brisk 45 minute walk, mostly downhill, to the temple. On the way, we soak in the breathtaking scenery, and also attempt to avoid the monkeys. While they’re cute from afar, in places like Vaishno Devi where the monkeys are accustomed to humans, you need to be wary at all times of a monkey snatching your bag or purse in search of sweet treats. Mom has a close call when a monkey frightens her, and she drops a simple paper bag of cloth offerings for the Mata Di. The monkey runs away, but not before ripping the bag open in search of food. Along the way, pilgrims walking to the temple shout ‘Jai Mata Di! Jai!’ a holy call to Mata Di. There’s a wonderful sense of community among those making this ‘yatra’ or pilgrimage to Vaishno Devi, which I’ve never really personally felt in a Hindu temple before. I find it to be refreshing.

The temple itself is a confusing mix of different locker areas where one can store personal belongings (only offerings to Mata Di are permitted inside the inner sanctum of the temple), bathing ghats, minor temples within the larger temple complex, and finally, a narrow tunnel that leads to a teeny-tiny cave where the statue of Mata Di is held. There, where we can make our five-second offerings before the next person in line has their turn. For me and most people, I think most of the experience of visiting Vaishno Devi comes from the journey of getting to and from the temple, rather than the temple itself.

We make our way back to the helipad area, but as we walk there, we grow worried by the increasing fog. By the time we make it there, the area is completely surrounded by fog, and they’ve shut down the helicopter operations for safety purposes. We wait and hope that they resume the rides, but after nearly two hours of waiting, we decide (after some shameful nudging on my part) to make the 3-4 hour trek down the mountain. It’s all downhill, the weather is refreshingly cool for this time of year, and the views are spectacular, so it wouldn’t be that bad. Except for the aforementioned monkey dodging. And did I not mention the horses? No, I guess not. For those unable or unwilling to climb up and/or down the mountain/purchase a helicopter ticket, you can also opt to ride either a horse, pony, or dholi. If you ride a dholi, that means you sit in a cart and are carried by four men up and/or down the mountain. From Western sensibilities, this might seem like a gross form of human labor. And while to some extent that’s true, these dholis also allow elderly and/or disabled individuals who would not otherwise be able to make this pilgrimage to get to the temple. Halfway down, we hire a dholi to carry Vijaya Grandma, as the walking is starting to wear on her feet..all of us are exhausted, really. Going down the constantly steep incline of the mountain is brutal and quickly wears you down.

Back to the horses: you can ride either a pony or horse, depending on your age and size. A horse trainer remains at the back of the horse, guiding it and up and down the steep mountain, and occasionally, whipping the horse if it runs too fast or too quickly. For the record: I do not condone horse whipping. I do, however, despise walking in front of a galloping horse. The horses turn what would otherwise be a fairly pleasant walk into a game of hopscotch, stepping from one side of the road to the other and looking back and forth in order to dodge horses coming from both sides. Not to mention that you also have to manage to look down as well in order to dodge the horse doo-doo.

As we reach the end of the hike, we also find a splendid blend of Hindu religiosity and capitalistic fervor. Here, countless shopkeepers hawk low-quality wares, including photos and model replicas of Mata Di, as well as ceremonial areas replete with cheesy fountains and photo booths, where you can combine your prayer with a family photo opportunity.

With that, we hire a small taxicab or auto-rickshaw (“auto” for short) and head back to the hotel for dinner, some shopping, and rest. What a day!

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