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A relaxing, impossible day

what a day. i got the call saying we were working today around 8:00 in the morning; i was up, but was hoping for a lazy, lazy day. alas, non. i got dressed, crammed some cereal down my throat, and split. the bus pulled up two seconds after i got to the stop; it took around 50 minutes to get to the train station. 12 rupees later, i was on the panvel express to khargar, where the YUVA office is located. I got there around 11:30 or so. The traffic this morning wasn't bad; as usual, the trains get super crowded at kurla, where two lines intersect and where the dash to get on the train embodies insanity. it is truly beyond description.

we hung around the office for around two hours, taking care of minor business; i looked over old YUVA annual reports. the reports are well put together; the organization does a lot in a ton of sectors. they are an amazing group of people.

around 1:30, we left the office - I presumed we were heading to k-wada... but I was way off base. We went to visit four of Rajen's activist friends, all of whom are living in a small apartment in Navi Mumbai, working on homeless rights - specifically migrant workers rights. The fellow in charge is bold, inspired, and inspiring. he advocates that the government of mumbai and maharashtra should provide some sort of transient home for the over 250,000 migrant workers officially thought to be homeless in mumbai. the number's most likely a lowball estimate. he's assembled a team of folks who have a variety of backgrounds - education, hunger advocacy, economic theory, social work. they bring a bunch of diverse backgrounds to the table - and have managed to get coverage on major indian news networks. they've caught the ears of politicians and large advocacy groups. change, though, is slow.

we sat around for hours and had a wonderful lunch, enhanced by really engaging conversation about development, about the way development has occurred in india, and about what motivates them in the context of an seemingly endless struggle. for abhishak, the public face of the group, it was simple - he said he was unable to close his eyes to the situation around him, and couldn't understand how others could ignore the obvious plight of so many in india. again, its hard to describe, but it is literally impossible to escape the crushing poverty here - even in the richest parts of bombay, you're never more than a few minutes from oppressive destitution.

development's damn tricky. we talked about the ways india is rapidly modernizing and developing. we discussed why development has been so different in the newly developing countries vs the 'older' developed countries. i always come back to simple arguments - the west forces a mode of development on third world countries that possess significantly different social, political, and religious institutions. develoment plans inherently undermine, undercut, and devalue those institutions in an effort to rapidly industrialize. the individual loses autonomy, loses self in the face of homogenization to improve efficiency, to make the country look developed. the process took hundreds of years to evolve in the west - and it evolved as the society created it, as the society grew into it. in LDCs, the society's not creating anything, change is seemingly being forced from the outside - a panacea embraced by self-aggrandizing politicians and economists. but there's no stopping development, the march of progress, or SAPs where the seeds have already been sown - the trick will be finding ways to maintain or retool successful indigenous institutions with the capabilities to find a footing in a rapidly globalized, developed world. it would be amazing if large business in india - be it state run or private industries, like TATA - could step up to the plate and make significant changes or commitments [be it to the environment, workers' rights, or health] that fostered societal change. amazing, but unlikely. imagine if a large state run energy company took a strong stand for alternative fuels in a country of 1+ billion. or if india's largest auto manufacturer committed to producing electric or hydrogen ice vehicles. it would be a monumental slap in the face to the rest of the world, and would warrant the attention both over-populated nations so crave.

ranting, raving. meeting those four was a true treat. they are so inspiring, work so hard, and manage to keep their wits about them and remain hopeful. i pray i'm lucky enough to continue to meet people like them, wherever i may end up.

after that, rajen and I hopped on a motorbike and took off into the hills of navi mumbai. riding beeyach on the bike with 40 lbs of gear strapped to your back... made me cherish life a bit. slightly scary stuff. navi mumbai is already far less crowded than mumbai; heading into the hills was bizarre. population density vanished. trash vanished. it was beautiful - rolling hills all around; a couple of streams flowing swiftly, meandering through the small mountains; kids playing in the water; some wildlife. we hung around for an hour or so, and then returned to the hustle bustle madness. i hopped on the train back to worli, by way of vadala. it was packed.

at some point, a blind beggar came through the car. he sang as he walked up and down the aisles, using his cane to keep a simple beat. his voice and song were beautiful, a lilting dirge that made it seem as though all he had lost in vision was made up 100 fold in voice. and, for once, i wasn't the only one to notice - much of the car fell silent as he sang. some respect, at least, for another one of india's surprising miracles.

the day ended like so many others... i took the wrong bus home. :)

Traveling and Arrival, Recounted

these are ancient posts. only edits are to correct my potty-mouthed tendencies

Around 10 days ago, I threw comfort to the wind and left for Mumbai. Those last few days, I surprisingly found myself unprepared for departure. I was aware of how wonderful my friends were before leaving, but now I'm keenly, acutely aware of it. All the time. I miss you all more than I can describe.

I've never been to Mumbai, never imagined Mumbai, never conceptualized all that Mumbai is/could be/may be. On paper, I knew some facts - 16 million people, a city built by "reclaiming land from the sea", Bollywood, bhangra, clubs. Beaches.

16 million people - an unimaginable number, as though one person for every grain of sand on the beach. Then, in the larger context, 16 million is nothing... 16,000,000 out of over 1,000,000,000 in India. A glass of water against the oceans. 1+ billion people. Unfathomable.

Flights are flights, and I'll leave out most of the details of the prodigiously long flight from Atlanta to Mumbai via Amsterdam. Suffice to say, the flights were packed [though my concept of packed people moving has since changed]. I had brief conversations with a fellow from Cameroon, which was interesting; and even more interesting, I found myself sitting next to a fellow who works for the same company as Meg's dad. Small world.

The flight arrived on time, miraculously. The terminal at the international airport in Mumbai smelled ancient, like my old high school - lingering odors of mold, flopsweat, dust, saltwater. It felt creaky, rickety. I rushed myself through the airport to baggage claim, attempting to reassure myself that collecting my baggage and making it through customs would be a cinch.

Alas, non.

But, before I get ahead of myself, let me describe Indian baggage claim. The carousel snakes around a large, rectangular room, curving and swirling about senselessly, as though to maximize inefficiency. Indians coming home from abroad tend to return with copious excess baggage, often beyond the designated limit of 2 pieces per person - for example, the family of four that was standing to my right had 8 checked bags, probably each in excess of the weight limit, and 8 carry-on pieces. Never mind the fact that one family member is probably 4 and another is still in swaddling clothes. Seriously, no big deal.

I digress. The horn sounds, and the baggage starts coming through the very small entry point. Not single file, not piece by piece, but instead bags stacked haphazardly atop bags - a house of cards, a pyramid shaped flea market of oddly colored, oddly named suitcases, boxes, duffle bags, strollers, televisions, rice cookers, air quality monitors - you name, veeee have it. Every fifth piece gets caught in the entry door. Ever other piece has some strap that gets caught in the conveyor belt, resulting in literally dozens of large pieces of luggage crashing to the floor. This being India... the luggage just sits there, as though eventually - at some point - it will gain sentience, realize its mistake, and hop back onto the belt. Or, more likely, someone else will come by and take care of it. Small children sit on the fallen luggage, play amongst it, and then try to move it. Occasionally, they succeed. More often, they become trapped by it, and start screaming. Loudly.

My bags were two of the last ones off the plane, but they arrived intact, a blessing. Blessing be cursed; customs was a nightmare. After reclaiming bags in India, one is presented with two options - the "Green Channel" and the "Red Channel" for customs. The green channel facilitates rapid movement for residents and non-residents who have nothing of consequence they are importing; the red channel is for folks who need to make some sort of declaration. I hustled over to the queue for the green channel, but was instantly spotted. A large customs official - dressed from head to toe in spotless, pressed, pristine white - heralded me with great fanfare to the red channel, where not one, not two, but three magical customs officials awaited me. At this point, my pulse quickened to a breakneck pace, my pores began springing sweat like a geyser, and my brain turned into a smoldering lump of coal.

My bags contain around 10,000 USD worth of equipment, three-quarters of which belongs to Harvard and the remainder of which belongs to Emory. Every piece is essential to the study. And so the conversation begins...

Hello, bya, bags ma kya ha?(Hello, brother - what's in the bags?)

Well, in this one, camping gear. I'm going to Ladakh in August. Clothing, personal medicine - normal travel stuff.

And in this one?

More camping gear, some electronics.

Electronics? Quickly, bring them here (points to X-ray machine, bags go on x-ray machine. Man makes rapid clicking sound with mouth, Indian for, nonononono.)

What is all of this?

Long, drawn out explanation. Volunteer in slums, air quality monitoring, student, equipment all goes back to US.

... ... ... ... ... ... How much USD do you have?

350.

Duties for this equipment are $400

(oh, of course they are, since I only have 350. Foofaa, to be honest, I don't really have 350. I bought coffee and a sandwich at the airport. What if he takes all my money? Then what? Bribery! Must... bribe...customs fellow. What if he's honest? Jackass, slap yourself later, he's not honest. Figure out a way to bribe him. 100 bucks is like 4600 rupees. One month's pay. Foofaaing piece of poo assholes. Foofaa Foofaa Foofaa Foofaa.)

I don't have 400, and all of the equipment is coming back with me - it is NOT staying in India.

Give me 50 USD.

Wha...Excuse me? (I mean, yeah, I had contemplated 100, but the reality is so much more severe and... poop.)

He now calls two guys with big guns, who usher me to a back room. They speak to each other in Tamil or Maruthi, which I cannot understand; we go over to a wall with a one-way viewing mirror. Extending from the wall is around 2 feet of table, like a bar; they make me exchange the money literally under the table. I find this final flourish both inexorably cruel and hideously, ridiculously amusing. Finally, after between two and three hours, I'm outside of the airport, passport and equipment in hand. It's a bit after 1 am.

Harpreet & Niladri (Batman & Robin, The Justice League, Fantastic Two, Turner & Hooch, JD & Turk) come to my rescue. I get a prepaid cab, we stop at a restaurant, and we head into Mumbai. Despite it being 1 am, its still extremely hot out - the sort of heat that sticks to you like flypaper. 1000% humidity. Supersaturated air. You exhale here, it rains somewhere.

Finally, we're at the apartment; its beautiful. Running water, two beds, plenty of space. Constant electricity. A foofaaing television! Pots pans silverware cleaning supplies. Unbelievable. I owe these two chaps my life.

Sleep that night consisted of lying awake, wide-eyed, wishing for a beer and friends.