Maspeth: a community in uproar over a homeless shelter exposes issues with New York City policies

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[Image credit: Gothamist.com]

Note: I this article wrote some months ago regarding the dicey situation surrounding a rising homeless population in the city of New York, beleaguered state and city housing policies, and a homeless shelter that raised the ire of a community in Queens. Although I didn’t get around to publishing it at the time, I thoroughly enjoyed reporting on this story, and so I thought I would share it on this blog. For a more recent update on what’s going on in with the shelter in Maspeth, click here.

December 13, 2016

By Tara Yarlagadda

It’s a dreary day; rain floods the sidewalks and slides down the neon signs along Queens Boulevard. Yet, the gloomy weather does nothing to dampen the spirited cries of middle-class residents in Maspeth, Queens.

A heated community board meeting is underway at Our Lady of Hope Catholic Academy in Middle Village – a residential neighborhood bordering Maspeth, Queens. The topic of debate: a proposed homeless shelter that nearly made the town of Maspeth lose its mind, and in the process, underscored a city-wide crisis with policy failures at all levels of government.

According to Lauren Gray, Senior Advisor for Communication for the New York City Department of Homeless Services (DHS), the DHS notified Council Member Elizabeth Crowley in May regarding plans to convert the newly constructed Holiday Inn Express Queens–Maspeth into a homeless shelter for adult families. Council Member Crowley is the elected representative on the New York City Council for Community Board 5, which includes Maspeth.

Despite vociferous complaints from Maspeth residents, Gray insists that there has been ample community engagement in the process: “The Department of Homeless Services also hosted two community forums, which were attended by Department of Social Services Commissioner Steven Banks to personally listen to community concerns and respond to questions.”

But those breadcrumbs were not enough to satisfy Maspeth. Residents protested in a nightly vigil at the Holiday Inn Express and even once outside of the home of Commissioner Banks, who heads the DHS. Protestors wielded posters with slogans like “Solutions not shelters” and images of Banks with the phrase: “Fire the liar.” For residents of Maspeth, this might as well be the controversy of the century.

The Juniper Park Civic Association in Middle Village criticizes Council Member Crowley for not being adequately supportive of the residents protesting the shelter. Manuel Caruana is a member of the Executive Board of the Juniper Park Civic Association. Of Crowley, Caruana says: She’s a liar. She should have been thrown out of office years ago. …This is her modus operandi. I’ve seen her do it over and over again. She’ll cut a deal and then she’ll make believe she’s fighting for you while her deal is cut.”

Still, Crowley’s Communications Director, Maggie Hayes, insists that Crowley has supported Maspeth’s opposition to the homeless shelter from the very beginning. Moreover, she states: “Elizabeth remains compassionate to the homeless…and is more concerned on creating a stable, productive environment to help them get back on their feet…”

Despite her tenuous support, Council Member Crowley, along with other elected officials, filed a lawsuit in August in the New York State Supreme Court, alleging that the proposed shelter violated New York City Administrative Code 21-124b. The code states that “no homeless shelter shall be established which does not provide…cooking facilities.” The Holiday Inn does not have cooking facilities.

The defendants, the city of New York and Commissioner Banks, quickly launched a counterattack, mounting a defense that only adult families will be placed in the Holiday Inn shelter, and cooking facilities are only required in shelters with families with children.

In addition to the lawsuit, concerns have erupted over the shelter potentially becoming what New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer referred to at the community board meeting as a “roach hotel.” The Comptroller’s office conducted a city audit in 2015 of homeless shelters for families with children, finding that conditions in many homeless shelters across the city were deplorable due to lax security and an utter lack of regulation on the part of the city.

Ironically, both homeless advocates and residents disapprove of the use of hotels for homeless shelters. Giselle Routhier is Policy Director for the Coalition for the Homeless, an advocacy organization and the court-appointed monitor of the single adult shelter system in New York. Routhier says that although the city has made use of hotels for shelters, hotels are “…definitely not the most optimal location,” stating that there are generally issues with providing services – such as mental health and employment assistance – in these facilities.

Caruano insists that his opposition to the shelter stems not from a hatred of homeless individuals, but rather, the moral quandary of housing families in a single hotel room, which he decries as “unconscionable.”

So, the ethics of housing individuals in hotels is indeed a dicey matter that raises broader policy questions for a city struggling to find sufficient space to shelter its homeless population. However, the actual conflict in Maspeth might be more primal: outsiders versus insiders.

While chatting about the people who might reside in the shelter, Caruana says something that belies his prior goodwill: “There’s no public transportation. There’s no way these people are going to go out and get jobs. There’s nothing to do but for them to wander through the streets of Maspeth causing problems. People don’t know who they are – this is a very tight-knit community. They see a stranger walking around the neighborhood, they’re going to get scared. Why are you scaring the community this way? There’s no need for that.”

In that sense, what’s going on in Maspeth is a time-old dilemma: residents that want to be left in peace, and outside forces that are determined to break their idyllic bubble for the greater good.

There are currently no homeless shelters in Community Board 5, where Maspeth is located, but the de Blasio administration is trying to change that, perhaps futilely so.

According to a press release by the New York City Department of Homeless Services (DHS) in September, the de Blasio administration has “implemented an unprecedented array of programs designed to prevent homelessness and move adults and children out of shelter,” thereby preventing 7,000 New Yorkers from becoming homeless.

Among these new policies is a borough-based approach, in which homeless individuals and families should be given temporary shelter in their home boroughs, so as to better foster community ties and ease the transition into permanent housing.

As a result, Mayor de Blasio has made pronounced efforts to establish more homeless shelters in Queens, including the proposed shelter in Maspeth. Many Queens locals take issue with this new policy. Karla Leone, a resident of Jackson Heights, speaks to the increase in shelters:

“We already have two shelters and going on a third [in Jackson Heights]. It’s terrible. They’re like one hotel that my dad used to work in. They fired my dad, they fired a whole bunch of workers, and they opened a homeless shelter…Not only does it devalue the houses, but it makes our neighborhood dangerous.”

In spite of the glowing statistics published by the DHS, the situation is pretty bleak. According to the Coalition for the Homeless, as of August 2016, there were more than 60,000 homeless individuals in the shelter system. This is up from 38,000 individuals in 2010 – a shocking increase in just six years.

The average length of stay for a family with children also increased over the past decade to 412 days in August. And it seems the city is largely unable to meet the growing demands on the shelter system. During the week of September 5, according to a document filed by the city in the lawsuit, the vacancy rate in the city shelter system was below zero.

Yet, why is there such a growing demand for homeless shelter services? According to Caruana, the current situation is a result of New York State’s right to shelter policies, which require New York to provide emergency shelter to homeless individuals.

Caruana alleges that this has caused thousands from across the country to flock to New York, overwhelming the city’s homeless shelters: He says: “New York taxpayers are carrying the burden for all the states in this country that are sending their homeless to us. Prior administrations gave them a bus ticket back to where they came from. [Mayor de Blasio] is welcoming them…I tell you what: my grandson could do a better job.”

It’s a common myth, and one that the Coalition for the Homeless roundly disputes. According to the Coalition, less than one-half of one percent of all families placed in the New York City shelter system is from out-of-town. Many of them are from neighboring Long Island or New Jersey.

Routhier offers a more nuanced explanation, rooted in city policies and state and federal disinvestment from affordable housing over the past decade. It starts with then-Mayor Bloomberg’s slashing of priority affordable housing for the homeless in 2005, and becomes more pronounced when the state cuts funding for the Advantage program – which provides subsidies for up to two years to assist people in renting housing – in 2011. Routhier adds: “…. there was essentially no way for families to move out of the shelter system. A huge spike in homelessness followed.”

There are some positives: Routhier lauds the de Blasio administration for reinstating priority access for homeless individuals to section 8 public housing, which provides assistance to low-income families to rent in the private housing market. She also praises the administration for introducing “city-initiated periods of rent subsidies that have thus far been absent” among previous administration’s homeless policies.

The city could allocate a larger portion of public housing for homeless individuals. Yet the blame doesn’t rest solely on the city’s shoulders, said Routhier: “Both the state and federal [government] also need to step up” in providing resources for homeless services and affordable housing. According to Routhier, two billion dollars allocated for affordable housing have been left unused in Governor Cuomo’s budget.

In this citywide housing crisis, advocates on both sides pressure the city for the need to transition people out of the shelter system and into permanent, more affordable housing. The culmination of these policies ties back to Maspeth.

Ultimately, the initial legal fight over the proposed shelter has seemingly ended in a stalemate with a press statement from Commissioner Banks in October: “The owner of the Maspeth Holiday Inn refused to allow the city to convert the hotel into a shelter. Instead, the hotel owner agreed to rent rooms to help keep homeless New Yorkers off the street, and the city has done so.”

But wrinkles continued to develop as reports emerge that the proposed homeless shelter is under attack by a second lawsuit – this time by the holding company that owns the land on which the Holiday Inn Express sits – which could hinder the city’s efforts to house homeless individuals there.

Still, without conversion into a formal homeless shelter, the social services that such a hotel could provide to the homeless individuals that it houses is undoubtedly limited. And so, no one wins – the administration, Maspeth, and especially not the homeless.

Real Talk Book Review: Why Wuthering Heights is one of the most messed up books I’ve read…ever. But it’s worse in this political climate.

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[Image credit: Wuthering-heights.co.uk]

Happy 200th death-i-versary, Jane Austen! I feel my high school erred in adequately prepping me to become a Jane-ite. I read not one, not two, but FIVE Shakespeare plays in the course of my high school education, yet not a single Austen or Brontë novel. Come to think of it, most of the other esteemed, literary books I read in K-12 (with a few exceptions, like the iconic Toni Morrison) were written by old and/or dead white men. Hopefully high school curriculum has diversified since then, though I wouldn’t hold my breath. Anyway, I came to love Austen in my early twenties, in addition to other fantastic writers of the 1800s such as Charlotte Brontë, the well-regarded author of Jane Eyre.

Having long been a Jane Eyre fan, I thought it only fair that I give the other famous Brontë sister, Emily, a chance and read her most famous (and only novel) to-date: Wuthering Heights.

Oh boy. I’m not sure I regret reading Wuthering Heights, but this might be one of the most messed-up books I’ve read of all time. Upon finishing the book, I actually sat silent in bed for several minutes, trying to process the gravity of all that I’d read.

Heathcliff, the leading male character and “love interest” of leading lady Catherine Earnshaw, AKA Cathy, is one of the most disturbing characters I’ve ever glimpsed on the page. And I’m a fan of the true crime genre and have read up on the likes of H.H Holmes (read Devil in the White City), so I know what I’m talking about. He is evil embodied in human form. Sure, he was abused severely as a child, and I know Brontë is trying to make a point about how our environment molds us into the terrifying adults we grow up to be, yada, yada, yada but that doesn’t make it any more enjoyable to read. Take a look at the quote below, when Heathcliff refers to his new wife, Isabella Linton, a woman he not only does not love, but hates with an intensity that shocks the senses.

“The first thing she saw me do, on coming out of the Grange, was to hang up her little dog; and when she pleaded for it, the first words I uttered were a wish that I had the hanging of every being belonging to her, except one: possibly she took that exception for herself. But no brutality disgusted her: I suppose she has an innate admiration of it, if only her precious person were secure from injury!…If she desired to go, she might: the nuisance of her presence outweighs the gratification to be derived from tormenting her!”

Now, Heathcliff hates Isabella primarily because she has the misfortune of being the wrong person. Her only crime is that she is not the only person he has ever cared about or desired in this world: his supposed soulmate and once-upon-a-time childhood friend, Catherine. Catherine similarly loves Heathcliff, for reasons I cannot fathom other than he is apparently her ‘soulmate.’ God. Now I get why all the Twilight kids used to love Wuthering Heights. Edward and Bella are the modern day version of Heathcliff and Catherine, though unfortunately, unlike their English predecessors, they do not meet an untimely death. Young adult literature would be so much better for it if they had.

Twilight cover image

[Image credit: IMDB.com]

Normally, my motto is that truth is stranger than fiction, but in the case of Wuthering Heights, I’m prepared to throw that slogan out the window. How Brontë, a sheltered clergyman’s daughter, came up with this shockingly abusive, demented character is beyond me. Moreover, she decided to pair him with Catherine, a wholly selfish young woman who had little regard for anyone’s feelings but her own. Despite loving Heathcliff, she says that marrying him would bring her status down in society, causing him to run away for three years before he returns to her — at which point, she is already married to her other childhood friend, Edward Linton (and also pregnant with his child). Most of the time she regards her husband as a nuisance, if an unfailingly kind one. Here is how she speaks to him after he rightfully criticizes his wife for receiving Heathcliff into their home:

“Have you been listening at the door, Edgar?” asked the mistress, in a tone particularly calculated to provoke her husband, implying both carelessness and contempt of his irritation.

Catherine was not merely someone who had no hope of inspiring Heathcliff to better himself, but also someone who would only impel him to give in to his most violent vices. It was a match made in hell. See how Heathcliff refers to his ‘beloved’ after he’s gotten into an altercation with her “lamb” of a husband:

“I wish you joy of the milk-blooded coward, Cathy!” said her friend. ‘I compliment you on your taste. And that is the slavering, shivering, thing you preferred to me! I would not strike him my fist, but I’d kick him with my foot, and experience considerable satisfaction. Is he weeping, or is he going to faint for fear?”

I digress. There are too many ‘Heathcliff is a sadistic asshole’ quotes for me to list them all for you.

Wuthering Heights_Heathcliff Cathy

[Image credit: IMDB.com]

But I have to give Bronte credit for creating incredibly unlikeable characters and sticking to her guns in following their miserable stories through to the end. As an aspiring novelist, I’m definitely taking notes. I mean, can you imagine the kind of shocked reception this book must have received in seventeenth-century England? I’m sure the editing world was shocked and scandalized by the “immoral” nature of the book and its inhabitants. I figure that Brontë imagined such a reaction, and so she actually initially published the book under a male pseudonym (though a lot of that was probably because discrimination against female authors was still very prevalent at the time — and still is to this day, in some literary circles).

And also, Bronte perfected the literary device of using weather and geography to mirror the turbulent human condition. Pretty sure they teach Brontë in all those fancy creative writing classes in college that I never took. Check out the great paragraph below:

“It was a very dark evening for summer: the clouds appeared inclined to thunder, and I said we had better all sit down; the approaching rain would be certain to bring him home without further trouble. However, Catherine would not be persuaded into tranquility. She kept wandering to and fro, from the gate to the door, in a state of agitation which permitted no repose; and at length took up a permanent situation on one side of the wall, near the road: where, heedless of my expostulations and the growling thunder, and the great drops that began to plash around her, she remained, calling at intervals, and then listening, and then crying outright.”

But more than the actual story, I find it interesting to read Wuthering Heights during this political climate. I know, eyeroll. “You can’t link everything to Trump!” I know you can’t, but I’m sure going to try.

Seriously though, it’s hard not to find parallels everywhere. We have a man that openly bragged about sexual assault who is now our president. Heathcliff, a violently abusive blowhard (and likely rapist), is considered in some circles to be merely a tormented, tragically romantic soul. Give me a break. There is a whole set of characters in Wuthering Heights, too many characters with the same first and last names, and a very confusing family tree that may or may bear some traces of incest (?). I’ll spare you all that, but just to know that pretty much every single one of these characters is mercilessly tormented by Heathcliff throughout the course of the book, including his own beloved’s daughter, who is also named Catherine. Heathcliff forces her to marry his son under a series of very spurious, and most likely, illegal conditions. Thankfully, Heathcliff ultimately passes into the netherworld to join his dear Cathy in death, leaving some semblance of peace for the souls who he tortured for so long on these dark and gloomy moors.

Beyond the fact that misogynistic men can rise to influential positions, whether those be in the White House or in the moors of rural England, violence against women is nothing new.  But it seems like every day, I see articles on my Facebook newsfeed about women being stalked, raped, bludgeoned and killed, often by their spouses or partners. The summer before I moved to New York, three female joggers were killed in the span of a few weeks while running near their homes. I read just an article today about a woman whose ex-boyfriend progressively stalked her before hiring a third party to dump toxic acid all over her body, leaving her permanently scarred. It’s enough to make a modern lady dump all dating apps in the garbage and live the life of a solitary hermit.

Normally, I don’t mind bleak literature. Hell, the darker, the better. I’m a Game of Thrones fan, after all. But when I’m reminded day in and day out of how being a woman in this world is a frightening thing, sometimes I just need a respite from that in my literature and television. True, Heathcliff torments men and women alike. But in Wuthering Heights, the women are held captive — in one case, literally — to particularly violent fates at the hands of this tormentor. With all this being said, I’d sooner place Wuthering Heights in the horror category than the romance aisle.

For that reason — and also, because to be honest I find Emily Bronte’s writing style exhausting and dull — I’m not sure if I’ll pick up Wuthering Heights anytime soon. But what the story reveals about the depravity of the human condition — that will stick me for a long time. The soulmate thing? Ehh, not so much.

Review: 3/5 stars

Real Talk Book Review: ‘Hunger’ made me think deeply about the world as Roxane Gay lives in it – and about my own fatphobia

Roxane Gay Hunger

(Image credit: Amazon.com)

“I do not know why I turned to food. Or I do. I was lonely and scared and food offered an immediate satisfaction. Food offered comfort when I needed to be comforted and did not know how to ask for what I needed from those who loved me. Food tasted good and made me feel better. Food was the one thing within my reach.”

There was a lot I couldn’t relate to in renowned author Roxane Gay’s new book, Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body. As it well should be.  I have never lived in Gay’s body — only she has. But the paragraph above hit the nail on the head for me, in a way that I didn’t expect.

I have been fat on and off for the better part of my life, and I still struggle with my weight to this day. As a child, I would gaze down at my thunder thighs with their running lines of cellulite, and imagine what it would be like if a meat cleaver could somehow bloodlessly slice my jiggling fat away. I would huff and puff as I struggled to finish the summary one mile run in gym class clocking in at eleven minutes or more when most classmates finished around eight minutes or fewer. I would be tormented endlessly for my weight, sometimes by other schoolkids, sometimes by friends, and oftentimes by my own relatives.  I loved food, and it loved me back. But it was (some days, still is) also my worst enemy.

Because as a 5’0 woman (or 4’11 + 3/4 inch, according to my last official measurement), I’m always a meal at Chilis away from descending into the danger zone on the BMI chart.  It just takes two days of stress eating, a few extra slices of pizza here and there before my waistband starts tightening, and the dreaded muffin top of fat bursts from the sides of my jeans. And my shoddy metabolism doesn’t exactly help. (Thanks, genetics!)

And please note, when I’m using the term ‘fat’ here, it’s not as a pejorative. I think of it as classification of one’s body type, and should be no more considered an insult than words like thin, skinny, tall, short, etc. Although I realize that that’s far from the case in the real world, though movements centered around fat positivity are trying to re-embrace the word.

And I only just now realized that the narratives of short fat people — women, more specifically — are rarely, if ever shown on TV. Now, part of this has to do with the fact that Hollywood is comprised of tall people, so the narratives of larger women like Melissa McCarthy and Amy Schumer tend to be those of tall people. Almost always white, cis women too, but Roxane tackles that issue of representation of fat people far better in Hunger than I could do in this short blog post.

Anyway, this book review is more than just a critical analysis of Hunger: it’s also a time for me to take stock of my own internalized fatphobia.

I think the latter half of the book’s title (A Memoir of [My] Body) is so key. My Body. Because Gay’s perspective truly is her own. She doesn’t represent all fat people — nor does she claim to do so. I’ve never been termed ‘morbidly obese’ by the medical community. I’ve never sat in a chair and worried that it would break under my weight. And although I’ve ridden on planes as a child with my now-deceased, obese grandmother, and witnessed the ridicule she bore when she required seat belt extensions, I’ve never borne the brunt of that gaze myself. All of these are the small, everyday humiliations that Gay endures and speaks to in Hunger.

And when I put aside my own reflections, I was able to see Gay’s perspective as one that was totally separate, heartbreaking and utterly unrelatable to my own. I was able to see how different someone’s relationship to food could be from my own. Although Gay and I both sought comfort in food, mine was borne primarily of a hearty appetite and perhaps, earlier on in my life, some low self-esteem issues. I had never thought about how a deep-seated trauma like that Gay endured — she was gang-raped by her boyfriend and his friends at the age of twelve and kept that secret close to her chest — could lead someone to seek solace in food. She associated being pretty with being thin, and thus, being susceptible to the unwanted advance of young men like those who sexually assaulted her. And so, she built a cage out of her body in order to keep the touch of men like those who raped her far, far away.

I ate and ate and ate in the hopes that if I made myself big, my body would be safe. I buried the girl I was because she ran into all kinds of trouble. I tried to erase every memory of her, but she is still there, somewhere. . . . I was trapped in my body, one that I barely recognized or understood, but at least I was safe.

She writes poignantly about the sexual assault in a way that makes your heart ache and want to hug teenage Gay. But really,  it’s the aftereffects of the rape and everything that followed which makes Hunger so powerful.

And part of its power was in forcing me to resist my own impulses as a (formerly) fat person to talk back when Gay narrates parts of her experience that are foreign to me. When she mentions doctors who dismiss her other valid health concerns and just tell her to lose weight. When she mentions strangers taking items out of her grocery cart. When she talks about how chairs with arm rests painfully constrict her form. When she rolls her eyes at women like me who are have only ever been twenty or thirty pounds overweight. When she mentions that staff at Housing Works — a local New York bookstore where I occasionally volunteer, in full disclosure, though I was not working there when Gay spoke — failed to take into account her physical needs for an event at which she was speaking, thereby forcing her to struggle to climb onto a stage and then hover above a chair that could not accommodate her body.

I learn to bite my tongue. I learn to listen. I learn to accept that the narratives of other fat people are different from my own. I understand my own internalized fatphobia and reluctance to embrace the fat-positive movement better.

But most importantly, I understand Roxane Gay’s story.  She has made her readership — which I presume is includes many thin women who have never known what it is like to be mocked for their body weight — understand what is like to be large in a society that deems her to be the Other. A thing to be ridiculed and mocked. She does this through sparse writing that sings. And that’s a powerful thing.

Book Review: 4/5 stars

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.

——

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!