And Here We Are Now: Looking Back on the Media’s Coverage of the 2016 Election with Michael Calderone

Editor’s note: With less than ten days to go until the inauguration of President Donald Trump, I thought that I would share an interview that I did with Michael Calderone, Senior Media Reporter for The Huffington Post, looking back on the media’s – oftentimes deeply conflicted – role in the 2016 election. You can read some of Calderone’s articles here, or find him on Twitter @mlcalderone

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The Smith restaurant, where I met with Michael Calderone, Senior Media Reporter for The Huffington Post. Photo courtesy of thesmithrestaurant.com

I’m huffing and puffing as I rush over to The Smith, a restaurant in the East Village. I’ve just committed one of the rookie mistakes of a journalist, which is arriving five minutes late to a pre-scheduled meeting – a meeting in which you only have an hour to spare because the interviewee has to jet to another rendezvous. I attempt to fix my tousled hair, hoping I don’t look like a train wreck, before spotting Michael Calderone casually waving at me through the glass doors opening into the restaurant.

Calderone is the Senior Media Reporter for The Huffington Post, and before that, he worked at the New York Observer, Politico, and Yahoo News. “Media reporting” is a broad term that covers everything from the robber barons of media like Jeff Bezos to the press’ coverage of trending topics, namely, politics. He’s also been honored with the National Press Club’s Arthur Rowse Award for Press Criticism for writing about the media’s treatment of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

We had met a few weeks beforehand at a conference hosted by the New York Press Club, where he participated in a panel on the media’s coverage of the 2016 election. He was just a friendly reporter and NYU adjunct professor and I, a confused NYU graduate student eager to make contacts in the media world. Then, the election – otherwise known as the Apocalypse of 2016 – happened, and the media world threw itself into a frenzy. And here we are now.

Like many other journalists, I was reeling after the election, and in need of answers. How did the media get it so completely, arrogantly, wrong? New York Times column “The Upshot” reported at 10:20 p.m. on election night that Hillary Clinton had an 85% chance of winning. The Huffington Post practically laughed in Nate Silver’s face, even though his calculations were rather conservative, predicting that Trump had a 35% chance of winning. For all of its incessant, 24-7 election coverage, the media had failed to anticipate the very real possibility of Donald Trump becoming president, had failed to cover him with this in mind, and had failed to take him seriously. I was hoping Calderone might have some thoughts on what went wrong and the future of journalism after this divisive election.

Calderone sports a relaxed look, a boyish grin, and a pair of dark, round librarian style glasses. He’s cheerful, despite my tardiness. He dons a grey sports jacket and a button-down shirt with no tie – a traditional look for many male journalists in the city.

For all his coverage of the intersection of media and politics, Calderone started off on a different beat: real estate. He was an intern at the New York Observer – before it came under the ownership of Donald Trump’s famous son-in-law, Jared Kushner. At the time, the Observer was known for its in-depth forthright coverage of politics, real estate and New York society at-large. Calderone describes it as: “Really covering the power elites of Manhattan in a weekly chronicle. The late Peter Kaplan, who used to be an editor there, used to describe it [as] almost a nineteenth century novel, where you’re covering these powerful figures.”

There aren’t many media reporters now, and there were even fewer in the mid-2000s when Calderone began writing about the industry for New York Observer’s storied “Off the Record” column. Calderone was the first media reporter at Politico, Yahoo News and The Huffington Post. He says as we receive our meals: “One of the upsides of being the first media reporter was that you can’t really screw it up.”

We dive right into the election madness with Calderone’s forays at the Observer. Despite president-elect Trump’s deep chagrin towards the press now, at the time, Calderone wryly notes, Trump was more than cozy with the media: “He was – in my view – the most accessible famous person in New York City. He called me back numerous times at the New York Observer – I don’t think he had any idea who I was.” For Calderone, Trump is an “interesting figure” that “simultaneously attacks the media and also craves the adulation and the coverage that comes along with being a media and entertainment star.”

But was it more than ego – was it also creative genius? Did Donald Trump manipulate the media through his self-adulation, thereby scoring himself some sweet coverage during the election? Calderone characterizes it as more of a “symbiotic relationship” between Trump and the media, but says that Trump took advantage of the media’s desire for titillating stories, calling in to stations three or four times a day from Trump Tower.

In turn, the media would generate a dozen roundtable discussions about the latest outlandish thing that he’d said. Calderone puts it bluntly: “…[Trump] recognized early on that he could dominate the media conversation from his apartment.”

The news media used to be reluctant to allow presidential candidates to conduct interviews from their home – until Donald Trump came along. Calderone is careful to note that these same news outlets also extended the courtesy to Hillary Clinton, but she was never interested in having such a direct line of communication with the media. He continues: “And so he got significantly more attention than anyone on the Republican field, and that helped elevate him throughout the primaries.”

So that’s strike one against the media: its excessive coverage of Donald Trump. Okay, but with a confused look on my face, I ask, don’t we already knew all of this? Isn’t there more to it? Oh, there is. Calderone is more than happy to give me his take between forkfuls of an egg-white omelet.

“If you want to put him on air a lot, that’s fine, but you need to treat him like a presidential candidate.”

Over clashing forks and knives, we talk about how the media for far too long enabled Donald Trump’s dog-and-pony show – all the while treating his candidacy like some big joke. It wasn’t until later, when it became clear that Donald Trump was a frontrunner in the Republican primary, that reporters realized the error of their ways. They started producing more serious coverage, doing exposés in The New York Times about what building a wall along the U.S-Mexico border might entail, and fact-checked him more than possibly any other presidential candidate to-date.

And yet, the media persisted in the idea that there was no way that this man could possibly ascend to the highest office in the land, given his track record of crass, misogynistic, and racist statements that sounded abhorrent to many Americans. A lack of imagination – or childish blindness, perhaps – in part, doomed the press.

But does part of the blindness stem from the much-maligned “liberal” bubbles that the media and Trump supporters have pointed out again and again? It was supposedly from their newsrooms in New York and DC that members of the mainstream media mocked, and thus, fundamentally failed to understand the Rust Belt Trump supporter. Wiping his mouth with a napkin, Calderone shakes his head, firmly concluding that it would be wrong to say that the media didn’t try to cover the Trump voter, given that news outlets sent countless staffers to report on his rallies and supporters.

But he does concede that there is a risk in “sending a reporter out to Appalachia for three days, and them coming back with some report that looks as if they’re a stranger in a strange land, sort of they’re visiting a foreign country, and what are these weird customs? And that could be a problem with not having reporters based in some of these areas, or not having the experience of growing up there …”

Part of the problem, Calderone says as he lowers his fork, stems from the shuttering of local newspapers across the country, leaving large swathes of the country without solid reporters from those areas. Back in the good old days, newbie reporters would write for a local newspaper as a way to work their way up the ladder. But now, journalists come straight out of J-school and go work for The New York Times, thus furthering the divide between mainstream media in the major cities and the rest of the country.

The last, and perhaps most important issue, that Calderone brings up as we scrape off the last bits of egg from our plates is the “normalizing” of Trump’s views “as if they’re acceptable policies” – such as the proposed Muslim ban – in the pursuit of journalistic principles like neutrality and fairness. For Calderone, that was a huge failure in reporting – something that outlets like The Huffington Post repudiated, unlike many legacy news organizations. He says animatedly: “…there’s this idea that…by saying that [it] isn’t an acceptable position, somehow you’re being partisan. My view is – that’s not partisan. We always said that – The Huffington Post always said that. ”

But too often, not enough legacy news organizations did the same, according to Calderone. The reality was that this election was like no other before it. The news media just didn’t grasp how they couldn’t cover Trump’s campaign as politics as usual. And here we are now, with the general public’s trust in the media shattered.

As Trump appoints Steve Bannon, formerly the head of Breitbart News – a haven for the growing alt-right movement – as his chief advisor; ditches the protective press pool that normally accompanies president-elects to grab a steak dinner with his family; and berates journalists in official meetings for doing their jobs, what does the future of press freedom look like? Pretty bleak, according to Calderone. In addition to having questionable actors like Bannon “whispering in the president’s ear” there are significant First Amendment concerns for journalists:

“…what’s being taken for granted by journalists is not law – it’s precedent. It requires a White House that is committed to First Amendment principles to believe that the press has a reason to be in the White House…and if Donald Trump has shown throughout the campaign, he hasn’t respected that role at all.”

His parting words do nothing to soothe my fretful mind: “I think journalists have a lot to fear over the next four years.”

As we get the bill and reach for our credit cards, I realize that there’s something that bothers me. For all his scorn for the media coverage writ-large, Calderone tiptoes around any direct criticism of The Huffington Post. I want to push back on this – weren’t they also guilty of many of the media’s failings?

After all, The Huffington Post announced in 2015 that it would no longer display articles covering Donald Trump in the political section, but rather, in its entertainment coverage. Their reasoning? “Trump’s campaign is a sideshow. We won’t take the bait. If you are interested in what The Donald has to say, you’ll find it next to our stories on the Kardashians and The Bachelorette.”

Ouch. I wonder if the editors at The Huffington Post are regretting that statement now.

But alas, Calderone has to head to another meeting at The Huffington Post’s office. Drat. Saved by the bell.

Looking back on the conversation afterwards, I wonder if The Huffington Post will modify its editor’s note at the bottom of its Trump articles, given that Trump is no longer a buffoonish nominee that could be dismissed, but the person who would soon be in charge of running the most powerful country in the world?

For context: early in 2016, The Huffington Post began adding a not-so-subtle anti-Trump disclaimer at the bottom of all of its coverage of the then Republican nominee. It was a bold move by The Huffington Post, one that surely did not improve its blacklisted status in the eyes of Trump and his supporters. The postscript read:

Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liarrampant xenophoberacistmisogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.

As I was writing this article, I looked up Calderone’s latest piece on Trump. Sure enough: the editor’s note had completely vanished. And here we are now.

“Hillbilly Elegy:” A Book Review. Does J.D. Vance succeed in explaining the Rust Belt to the rest of America?

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Photo credit: Goodreads.com

Rating: 3/5 stars

Like many folks in the past few weeks, I stumbled upon J.D. Vance’s nonfiction book and memoir Hillbilly Elegy on a list of ‘best books to understand the 2016 election’ written likely by The New York Times or another similarly eminent publication. In reading it, I hoped to glean an unfiltered, insightful perspective of someone who is from and still holds a deep emotional attachment to his home in Appalachia.

By that metric, the book succeeded — with a few disappointing caveats. Vance gives a honest personal account of everything from witnessing his mother’s drug abuse to the screaming fights of his neighbors to the enduring love of his Mamaw (grandma) that gave him a pathway to great success as a Yale Law student. (Mamaw is awesome and by far the best character in the book, by the way. I would have read this book just to hear her swear like a sailor; gruffly, yet lovingly push Vance to become educated and achieve something more than a hillbilly life; and threaten those who dared hurt her family.)  The book offers both a deeply unflattering and at times, heartwarming look at the people that he calls his friends and family as an insight more broadly into the culture of white working-class Appalachia.

The writing isn’t earth-shattering by any means, but then again, I didn’t open it up expecting literary flash, but rather, interesting substance. As a minor critique: the book can get a little repetitive at times in its storytelling. But I think I was more disappointed in the content, in part because I was hoping for something more than memoir. Had the book combined his powerful story with compelling academic analysis, it might have been more well-rounded and meaningful than a simple narrative account.

The book wasn’t written with the intent to explain the ‘working class Trump voter’ to the liberal masses — even though it’s since been interpreted by much of the mainstream media to be just that — but Vance did seek to shed light on the culture of Appalachia, of how people who live in the Rust Belt behave and why, even if their behavior seems to run counter to their best interests. I would say he succeeded somewhat in making us more aware of and empathetic towards working class Appalachia. However, the end result is often a one-note picture of people who often act in horrible ways to those around them, entrapped by the harshness of their circumstances and being unwilling to rise above them. Still, it’s hard to dismiss, because it is Vance’s own lived narrative.

True, Vance does offer some answers to questions like ‘how do we help ameliorate the situation in Appalachia?’ with some no-nonsense talk against condescending paternalism — which white-collar America is all-too prone to offer up in discussions of blue collar workers — and failed, if well-intentioned, government policies to help the poor. And yet, he offers no tangible solutions as alternatives to the government policies that he bitterly derides.

For example: I almost laughed at his chiding of politicians who set forth legislation to curb payday lending — predatory loans offered at exorbitantly high-interest rates to primarily low-income folks that often leaves them trapped in spiraling debt. He justifies his support of a horrible practice like this by citing how payday loans helped him get over a short-term economic windfall without any long-term debt. This is a case where anecdotal evidence slips dangerously into a generalization that I would strongly wager is not true for many working class individuals — something which Vance tends to do throughout the book.

The biggest critique though: At the end of the book, you’re often left with the feeling of despair; this is just the way it is in this part of the country, and absent the love and support of key familial figures that Vance was lucky to have in his life, most young working class people in Appalachia have little chance of making it out of there. And that’s a tough, maybe overly simplistic pill to swallow for most readers — especially for a policy wonk like me fresh out of Washington, DC — even though it’s the primary takeaway from the book.

A Barnes & Noble closes down this holiday season and shatters Bronx residents’ hearts

Seasonal holiday wares are in full display at the Baychester Barnes & Noble in the Bronx. Red and white tins of spiced black tea, peppermint bark, and mugs bearing the grinning faces of Snoopy and the Grinch adorn the entrance to the bookstore’s café. Kids fresh out of school for the day chase their siblings around the carpeted children’s section and beg their parents for new books.

And yet, the Baychester Barnes & Noble is slated to close its doors at the end of this year. It is currently the only bookstore located in Bronx – a borough of nearly 1.5 million people in New York City. According to Metro US, the last independent bookstore in Bronx, Books in the Hood, shut its doors in 2011. The next closest Barnes & Noble is in Yonkers, north of New York City.

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The Baychester Barnes and Noble in the Bronx. Photo credit: Barnesandnoble.com

The shuttering of Barnes & Noble in Bronx is only the latest in a series of closures over the past ten years, though they have become fewer in recent years. According to Fortune.com, Barnes & Noble store numbers dropped from 793 in 2007 to 648 in 2016.

Although Barnes & Noble has pledged to open up a new bookstore in the Bronx sometime in the next two to three years, the community will still be for a time bereft of a key place of learning and tranquility, especially for its youth.

 

It’s an interesting dilemma in New York, where residents usually mourn the closing of independent stores due to gentrification – not a chain retailer like Barnes & Noble. But, I understand the feeling.

 

Growing up in the suburbs of northern California, I loved going to my local Barnes & Noble. I would curl up between two aisles and devour one book after another, reluctantly retreating from my cocoon after three hours to find my mother at the appointed time and depart. A chai frappucino and a set of good books at Barnes & Noble was all I needed.

 

When the Barnes & Noble near my hometown closed down a few years ago, I experienced a keen sense of sorrow, knowing that when I went back home, the site of many good childhood and teenage memories would be gone. I chatted with my mother, begrudging Amazon for decimating bookstores nationwide while I simultaneously bought a Kindle.

 

So I brave the long sojourn from Manhattan to the Bronx, taking the subway and then another bus that drops me off at the side of a lonely highway next to the Bay Plaza shopping center – a strip mall with a Stop & Shop and Bob’s Discount Furniture, among other stores. There isn’t a single mom-and-pop store in sight.

 

And there it is. Flanked by a Kmart and a Forever 21, stands the Barnes & Noble. It appears like any other any Barnes and Noble, with a red brick façade and posters in the window advertising discounts for children’s books like If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. Bestsellers like The Girl on the Train and Ina Garter’s new cookbook are prominently on display.

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A popular children’s book on display at Barnes & Noble. Photo credit: Amazon.com

 

Strolling in, I ask an employee if she has any thoughts on the closing of the store. She remarks with a curt “We’re not allowed to talk about that.” So I ask for her manager.

 

While I wait, I approach a woman and her young son at the front of the store, and start chatting with them. Her name is Heather Arminio, and she’s aghast to hear that the store will be closing its doors. “We’ve been coming for years. I brought [my son] since he was a little kid, we would come to story time on Saturdays, and he would always come to pick out books. I’m a little upset because I don’t like to order books online from Amazon. I like to physically come to the store and look at the books.”

 

While I’m talking to Heather, the store manager, John, a short man in a polished red collar shirt, interrupts me. He’s all smiles, but I know this is no laughing matter. He never says outright that I can’t interview anyone, but the threat is implicit, as a security guard walks back and forth across the storefront. He fumbles at the counter for a bit before handing me the contact information of B&N’s corporate headquarters.

 

We shake hands and part. I walk over to the Starbucks cafe in the corner of the store, still wondering how I nearly got kicked out of the nicest place at in the world – apart from Disney World, of course. I guess there’s a downside to Barnes & Noble’s corporate charm. The chai frappucino is as sugary as always, but it leaves a sour taste in my mouth.

 

After finishing my drink, I head out the store, and set up camp outside the front door. Luckily, I don’t need to wait long. Jane Willis, a twenty-something pre-K teacher, reminisces about the times that she and her friends spent here as teenagers, and thinks with sadness about the children who won’t get to do the same.

 

“Now where are they going to go to enjoy the books, to enjoy that family time with their parents?”

 

Jane sighs. “It puts everybody at a disadvantage. A whole community of people, people like me. Where can we get books? I shouldn’t have to go to a different borough to get books from a bookstore.”

 

If she had to choose between traveling to Manhattan or purchasing books from Amazon, Jane says she would choose Amazon. Score 1 for Amazon. 0 for Barnes & Noble.

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Many have credited the decline of corporate bookstores such as Barnes & Noble with the ease of purchasing books online on Amazon and the rise of e-readers like Kindle. RIP Border’s, another chain bookstore and former B&N rival that bit the dust a few years ago. Photo credit: Amazon.com

 

Shortly afterward, I spot a middle-aged woman carrying a petition and a pen, her eyes resolute, as if set on a mission. Her name is Marie Placide. Marie comes to the bookstore frequently to attend writer’s workshops and do research for her book on Haiti. Her daughter was a valedictorian at Truman High School in Bronx, and the Barnes & Noble was often a place of academic refuge for her, a place where she could walk to after school and study in peace. Marie says dishearteningly:

 

“We don’t have many spaces where parents can come with their kids that are quiet and intellectual spaces.”

 

Except for the Barnes & Noble. The local library may offer some respite, Maries says, but it closes early, and lacks books that students need, such as high-quality SAT prep-books.

 

And so Marie stands with her clipboard outside the bookstore, valiantly attempting to save the Barnes & Noble from imminent foreclosure. While I’m chatting with Marie, a line of people has formed that want to sign the petition. One of them is Jose Garcia, who is here with his daughter, Melanie Garcia, a student at Hunter College. Joe says:

 

“We get coffee here. I don’t even live here. We come here just to have coffee, a hot chocolate, and just to sit down and relax.”

 

For Jose and Melanie, like so many others, this bookstore is a comforting place of nostalgia where they would come to attend midnight openings of Harry Potter. Jose mournfully continues:

 

“The store that’s coming in here – the Bronx can’t relate to that store. We have no need – that’s store’s not going to fill a void. “

 

The store that Jose is referring to is a Saks Off-5th, which is replacing the Barnes & Nobles and has already signed a lease with the landlord. Indeed, in a mall filled with Forever 21s and the like, adding yet another retail clothing store – a place that would certainly lack the sense of community that has flourished over the years at Barnes & Noble – seems like a bitter pill to swallow.

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The logo for Saks Off Fifth, the retail discount store that will be replacing the Barnes & Noble in Bronx.

 

As I walk away, I’m left with a sense of despair this holiday season

But, per recent developments, it seems that all is not in vain. Noelle Santos, a local Bronx resident, is planning to open up her own independent bookstore, The Lit. Bar, early next year. The unique name for the proposed bookstore stems from two things that will flow together in the proposed bookstore: literature and wine.

So while it wouldn’t be the same as the current Barnes and Noble, Bronx residents may have already found another bookstore to love and cherish come Christmastime next year.

 

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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India 2016 Trip Days 12-14: Among the Holiest of Indian Cities

Hello! It’s been a few days since I last wrote on here. Suffice to say, the past few days since we started our north India trip have been a whirlwind of adventures, temples, mosquitoes, stomach bugs and more. As a somewhat spry twenty-something, even I find our schedule of going to bed at 11 p.m. and waking up at 5 a.m. each day to be exhausting. Kudos to my parents and Vijaya Grandma (whom I’m traveling with) for bearing with it all!

I’ll back up and give a Sparknotes version summarizing the best hits of what we saw over the past three days in the cities of Allahabad and Varanasi (both of which are located in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh). NOTE: as it’s difficult to upload photos to WordPress with the wi-fi quality here, I’m linking to the album on Facebook where I’ll be posting photos shortly of our trip:https://www.facebook.com/tara.yarlagadda/media_set?set=a.10157108443600285.1073741856.513095284&type=3

 

Allahabad (also known in ancient times as Prayog)

We flew from Hyderabad to Allahabad, a city not known for much beyond a) The home of gloried Indian leader and former prime minister Jawarhalal Nehru and b) The mingling of India’s three sacred rivers, the Yamuna, Ganges and Saraswati. After being picked up at the aiport by our friendly and chatty driver Rakesh, we set off to Allahabad. We stop at a roadside eatery or ‘dhaba’ where the mosquitoes drive me batty, but the food is decent, in spite of the shady appearance of the place. We arrive to Allahabad and visit one or two of the many temples that we will visit on this trip, and head to the hotel.

At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be too much to distinguish the streets of Allahabad, but upon a closer look, I do notice that the streets are far dirtier than most other Indian cities that I’ve been too, and the streets are narrower and more crowded. This might seem like an unimportant observation, but many of India’s cities have actually become far cleaner over the past few years, and the quality of roads is starting to improve too. Maybe it’s just my imagination, but the poverty seems more stark here too, with more beggars around the tourist sites and ramshackle homes and villages that seem to be stuck in the past, which resemble my dad’s village, Kavuluru, in Andhra Pradesh circa 15-20 years ago.

I’m summoned awake at the crack of dawn to get ready for the bath that we’re about to take (fully clothed for the women, for modesty purposes) in the holy sangam, the place where the three holy rivers meet and where each year, countless individuals come to bath and perform sacred rites. I’ll admit, although I’m game for a lot, the prospect of conducting Hindu rituals (which I find to be tedious on land itself) in a muddy riverbed didn’t seem that appealing. But I was curious to observe such an auspicious ritual in this sacred place, even if it meant being an active participant in it.

We arrive to the riverbank, and hire a boatsman and his crew to take us further out into the river, but where the water is still shallow enough to stand, and there, we jump out of the boat and into the river. In the boat next us to, a priest sits, conducting the puja, or religious ritual. I brace myself as I dunk my head in the river three times, per the priest’s instructions, but the water is pretty refreshing on this summer day. And remarkably clean, despite being the color of dry mud. For the next hour or so, we do several things which involve repeating after the priest many, many words in Sanskrit, placing a paper boat with flowers and a lit candle to float away in the sangam, and performing special rites for my grandmother, who passed away six years ago. After all this is said and done, they place us in a separate boat with a flimsy orange tent covering, where we change out of our wet clothes into spare dry ones.

All in all, it was a uniquely interesting cultural religious experience. I’m glad I did it, but I don’t know if I would voluntarily choose to do it again.

Next up: Jawarharlal Nehru’s family home/mini mansion in Allahabad. Jawarharlal Nehru was India’s first prime minister post-British colonialism, and is remembered mostly fondly by Indian citizens as the nation’s first leader in the post-colonial world. We visit the home where he grew up, and where he also raised his daughter, Indira Gandhi (who would also later become prime minister). We also stop by the planetarium on the premises, where’s there’s a stars and planets show taking place on the ceiling of a small theater. As my Hindi is sorely lacking after four years of little practice, I can only understand at best about 50% of what they’re saying. I use this as a convenient excuse to fall asleep in an air-conditioned room with comfy chairs and momentarily escape the blistering Indian summer heat.

Varanasi (also known as Benares, and in ancient times as Kashi)

By the time we conclude our sightseeing in Allahabad and make the three-hour journey to Varanasi, it’s quite late. Still, we manage to fit in a few more temples before the day’s end, despite my protests otherwise. One of the temples showcases a puja that I’ve never seen before, complete with drum beating and a hanging altar to Shiva.

This temple is located in Benares Hindu University, one of, if not the foremost university in India (kind of like the Cal of India). It’s also the only explicitly Hindu university in India too (hence the temple on campus), as most universities in India are secular. I have to say, I’m pretty impressed by the campus. With the large temple and spectacularly grand library, I think you’d be pretty lucky to study in a place like this. Varanasi is known as one of India’s oldest cities, as well as one of its most revered for its rich religious history and cultural significance. More on that in just a second.

The following day is jam-packed with nonstop adventures and chaos, starting with a visit to one of the ghats the Ganges riverbed. The ghats are places located along holy rivers in India, particularly the Ganges, where people conduct religious rituals and at certain ghats, cremate and scatter the ashes of the dead. We have to walk quite a bit to get to the ghat, and it’s total madness along the way, with motorcycles whizzing by left and right, and worshippers festooned in orange – an important color for Hinduism, especially as this time of year is an especially sacred time for Hindus. I only notice a few foreigners here and there. I think the heat at this time of year is still too oppressive for many non-Indian tourists to flock here; I’m sweating buckets already. Unlike the millions of others who come to Varanasi every year to bathe in the river, since we’ve already performed this watery ritual in Allahabad, we skip the bathing for now and instead sprinkle some water on our head and place a ceremonial paper boat in the water.

Afterwards, we meet up with our guide for part of the day. We follow him into a series of seemingly never-ending narrow, muddy alleyways flanked on both sides by small tin roof homes and shops filled with sarees and religious offerings for the temples that we’re about to visit. Our guide connects us with a middleman priest of sorts, who can get us into VIP pujas and temples faster than we would be able to do on our own, and we make our way to the most prominent temple in Varanasi, Kashi Vishalakshmi. This temple is one of the shakti peetalu, where one of the eighteen pieces of the goddess Paravati fell to the earth when she was split by Vishnu. Once we arrive there, we’re treated to a VIP puja where a priest performs holy rites for our family, and then we make our way to the statue of the goddess

Then we head to no less than two or three other smaller temples in the same section of the city.

By this time, it’s already well into the afternoon, so we head over to Saranath, an area on the outskirts of Varanasi, which is essentially the birthplace of Buddhism. For many Buddhists, this is a sacred place, and for non-Buddhists, it’s an interesting place to learn about the ancient history of religion. We stop by a Buddhist museum, where we learn about the principles of Buddhism, see a pretty cool replica of an Ashoka lion statue, and several centuries, if not thousands of years old, Buddhist statues. Many of them have chipped noses, or faces and limbs entirely broken off, as outsiders and invaders to India desecrated the statues in an attempt to destroy the religion. It’s a little sad to see these dancing or praying deities without faces. Afterwards, we see an ancient Buddhist stupa, and also a more recently constructed Buddhist temple and garden, complete with a giant Buddha statue, lotus flowers and fountains.

And it wouldn’t be a trip to Varanasi without purchasing one of the famous ‘Benares sarees.’ I personally have no interest in the sarees, but it’s always fun to watch the expert haggler Vija Grandma bargain for prices, engaging in fun banter with the shopkeeper, while Mom indecisively picks at various sarees for an hour or so until we finally walk out of the store with several beautiful pure silk sarees in hand.

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Last, but not least, we return to the Ganges for the ‘Ganga harti’ or rites performed by five priests on a rooftop near the banks of the Ganges, dedicated in prayer to the goddess Ganga. Thanks to the help of our guide from earlier in the day, we manage to score VIP seats right where the harti is being performed, and receive our own special puja. Some part of me feels a little unsettled that we can pay a little more to receive VIP treatment, but I guess money rings true worldwide. We settle in, and around 7 p.m. the harti begins. However, this ritual is like nothing I’ve ever seen before, and despite the heat, we’re all awestruck by what’s taking place. I can’t do the ceremony justice with words. Five priests decked in orange stand on top of individual altars, and perform a series of actions that mimic an elaborately coordinated dance including twisting of handheld fans, blowing into shells, loudly chanting prayers, playing into flutelike instruments. We even get to participate a little bit when we light candles onto a multi-tier platform. Each priest carries one of these candle-lit platforms to the altar and waves them in a beautiful sweeping arc into the night sky. All of this is in dedication to Ganga.

Finally, the prayers conclude, and when we’re all sheer exhausted, we make our way to our last stop for the night: the Manikanta ghat, or burning ghat. This is the ghat where bodies are burned and cremated, which I mentioned earlier. The bodies are shrouded in layers of clothing and lifted to ghats by several men on wooden planks, where they’re placed on the burning ashes and cremated, while family members watch. It’s a little chilling but awe-inspiring to watch this most sacred end-of-life ritual take place.