Thursday, January 10, 2008


Dark and stormy night. The flash and crash pulls me out of my sleep, that irresistible, before-you-hit-the-mattress jet-lag sleep. I go up to the kitchen and hesitate before filling a glass of water from the sink. This is the first tap water I've drank in five months. Check the time: still not yet midnight. Still Epiphany.

The little things feel the strangest. Driving in the right lane---driving in lanes at all. Ordering food and having it arrive in a matter of minutes. Washing my clothes in a machine makes me giggle and grin; it feels like such wonderful indulgence. I shower completely for the first time in weeks and stand there under the spray, waiting for the hot water to run out and shaking with silent laughter when it doesn't. I curl up in my heated waterbed, so immediately warm. I'm shocked at the number of mirrors in our house.

But oh, the sky. In India I saw skies like I'd never imagined, skies so close that you could grab them, could be swept up by them, step off into them and never fall. But that was months ago, during the monsoon and before the rice harvest. The dry months made the sky a plain thing that no longer carried my gaze beyond the hills. In Kathmandu the smog had hid away the mountains. In Agra I had hid myself, in a hotel room with no windows, away from the hungry eyes of those who see my height, my clothes, my skin and assume I have money that should be theirs, by scheme or theft or charity.

I had never expected to come back to this, this monstrous god of Midwestern winter, stretching off to the horizon---the horizon!---and pulsating with the hot colors of the sunset. Somewhere over the ice crumbled arctic, during that long long flight, somewhere we must have found a rip, a wormhole, flipped around, tumbled off the world and landed in my home, a place of monstrous skies.

And now the sky is crashing, cracking, booming, flashing, the Thunderer of my ancestors welcoming me home, and I start to wonder what now I can write. What can I say, what poignant conclusion can I give? How do I "end it," "cap it," "round it off"? I've been telling people, at the party and before, that this week I'd finish this haphazard narrative that you are reading, but what can I say?

I'd always intended to write this post about Epiphany, the Christian holy day celebrating the three Magi's journey to see baby Jesus. Epiphany was the day after I got back, my mom had realized, so it seemed only natural to simply save our Christmas celebrations for then. Our plans grew, as did our guest list, and soon it began to feel obvious that Epiphany was the last thing I'd have to do, the end of my journey.

And now it is over. A fun day of seeing old friends and meeting new people, but nothing feels different. I'd chatted and talked a bit about my trip, some "did you know"s and "actually"s, but it all seemed so short, all over too quick. I still haven't had the conversation, that one long discussion where I finally articulate it all, the great lessons that I learned, the magic that I saw and didn't see, my wisdom from the East.

So what did I find out? I suppose the biggest shock and, in a way, disappointment, was discovering that India doesn't have any answers for us. There is no Shangri-la there, whatever the tourism posters might tell you. Folks there might be more superstitious than westerners, but few are really more spiritual. If you go to India to "find yourself," you will probably be disappointed---there is nothing like that there that you don't bring with you. Despite the color and texture and the intensity that can grip life in the East, there is no magic to be found, at least not in the obvious places.

"Epiphany" means "appearance" or "revelation," and the truth is that is what I went looking for. For the last five months, even up to today, I've been waiting for that life changing, mind blowing something to happen to me, and you didn't. I wandered twisty back alleys, hoping to stumble upon a cult. I stared intently into the incense swirls at pujas, Tibetan chants, and witch doctor performances, waiting to see a ghost or god. I screamed alone at the alien landscape of the Himalayas, desperate for a sign. Now they are all done, checked off my list, all those things that I knew wouldn't work but felt compelled to try. In a very important way it is a relief: now I have no more excuses.

Still, I cannot say that I came back empty handed. I've already discussed the hard truth learned from my aamaa and my bhaai: that for some people life is simply and intolerably unfair. You hear this rejected so indignantly, but the sad fact is that arranged marriage is horrible for women, life in the village is not only serene and earthy but stagnant and painful, people in the third world are just as mean and greedy and violent and perverse as people in the first. These are the truths that now drive my wish to change the world, that shape my understanding of how things could and should be.

And then there is the magic, the real magic hidden under the dead crust of gods and legends and charlatans. Stare off at mountains wherever you are, think hard and long and often enough, and eventually you will find something, become something. I've heard people say that "India changes you," but where you go doesn't matter nearly as much as the going away. You go away, disappear for a while, break your habits and the expectations of others---you can come back a little different, as whatever you want, as a man or a magician or something else entirely.

I want to thank all of you who have read my reflections over the last several months. I hope that you have enjoyed reading them as much as I have enjoyed sharing them. Obviously my style and method for this blog has changed a lot while writing it, and thus I am hesitant to declare it cohesive or complete, at least in the way I had originally hoped it would be. There is a lot missing, a lot I never wrote about, out of laziness or lack of time or some exaggerated sense of secrecy. Still, this is where it stops. I may come back, correct typos, polish it some, but this will be my last post. For better or worse, this journey is over.

It is good to be home, back to my friends and my family and the simple things that maybe I never appreciated until I had to go without them. I've spent the week resting, sitting around, enjoying food and warmth and bandwidth. But I'm not done. I have plans and plots and clever schemes. Among these is a new blog project which should begin in a week or so. Given how much this one evolved since its inception, I am hesitant to suggest details, but keep an eye out for the beginning and continuing prolific progress of Jump Buddha Gun. As always feel free to pass on the link to this or my coming project to anyone you think might enjoy them.

A happy New Year and a blessed Epiphany to you all.


Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Kathmandu Tomorrows

This is the world today: I sit in a Tibetan cafe on a little street a few twists and turns off Kathmandu's main tourist area of Thamel. Out on the road two men play a serious game of chess, taunting each other in English, while Christmas hymns and late 90s pop floods the street from a shop selling bootleg movies and CDs. I sip at my momo soup and read a 1930s manual of efficient study techniques on the small but pleasant screen of my iPod. Most stationary stores in Kalimpong had a variety of Indian and American business and self-help books, but here hotel libraries are paperbacked alcoves full of used travel guides and German translations of John Grisham novels. I poke into little bookshops and browse their haphazard shelves more out of habit than anything else. It is always interesting to see what books end up in these tiny shops, but why bother buying when a lifetime's reading of classics and creative commons awaits, free and weightless, wherever there is a trickle of bandwidth.

On the loosely crowded streets I dodge invitations to examine exquisite shawls and jewelry, for rickshaws and taxi rides, and for discreet purchases of marijuana. At a tall and beautiful stupa, a short tout in a North Face fleece urges me to inspect a shop full of detailed thanka paintings. He doesn't even bother to take the headphones out of his ears, and instead plays the dial from one cricket game to another. A colorfully and, I assume, traditionally dressed and painted old man strokes his beard and demands that I take his picture for twenty rupees. I resist the compulsion to punch him. These sorts of guys run a slightly more aggressive version of the Hollywood Darth Vader/gorilla suit gimick, except instead of appealing to people's love of movies they play off tourists' desire to experience exotic cultures. Nothing wrong with wanting to make a buck, but they belittle the sacred aesthetics of their own culture in a way that sets my jaw to grind.

I meet a woman in the internet cafe across from my hotel, and together we grumble about how slow my email is sending/her pictures are uploading. "E Daai! Ekdham bistaari bhayo," I say. "Hajur, ajaa chitto hunchha ki hudaina?" she says. I think we are both a little surprised that the other speaks Nepali, and after a minute of chat I find out that fifteen years ago she was on the same program that I just finished. When she finishes updating her daughter's kindergarten class's blog, she takes me across the street and through a short, stooping hallway to a blooming little courtyard. She points out her house, introduces me to her Nepali husband, and invites me to come by sometime for tea.

In Thamel and Jhochhe (Freak Street to us Lonely Planet clutching masses), westerners abound. In restaurants their eyes glaze over, and they huddle together, mumbling in German or Dutch or Russian or something. A few sit alone, nose buried in their Rough Guide and scribbling in little orange waterproof notebooks that I read on the internet last month were becoming hipper than the ubiquitous black Moleskine. At internet cafes they come in and demand calls to Europe or Australia, wandering out dejected when it doesn't work. On the streets they avoid each other's gaze as they tentatively prod at silk and spice shops. After a while the white people blur together, all in dreadlocks and knitted hippie jackets, trekking fleeces and backpack covers. I shiver at the thought of participating in their cliched sameness and long for a three-piece suit.

I follow a rack of rugged looking leather bags inside, and the shopkeeper, Ravi, is delighted to find that I speak Nepali. More even than in Kalimpong, everyone, including those reasonably fluent in English, seems really happy---even grateful---that I know more of their language than the crude spattering of phrasebook memorization. I introduce myself with my Nepali name and Ravi's grin widens. He tells me about how he makes the bags and wallets out of tough yak hide, and I am tempted to buy a roughly stitched wallet. In the end I turn it down; it didn't fit my credit cards.

I don't bother with curio shops anymore. All those pretty things of stone, brass, and beads---I know half a dozen places to buy the same things in Manhattan. With one on every street corner, they quickly cease to be curious. In Bhaktapur "student guides" lead us to a Thanka painting school. "Just to look." "To practice their English." Handicrafts is a major industry. I halfheartedly applaud the efforts of shops selling purses and rugs that are organic/fair trade/produced by women's self-help groups, but I don't buy. A deck of playing cards made from homemade paper: that's a bit more interesting. My most prized souvenir is a tiny flashlight that projects Osama bin Laden's face.

Next to me right now a ten-year-old-ish Nepali kid is looking for something on the Grand Theft Auto: Vice City website and playing an in-browser Flash version of the bouncy dirtbike racing game I was addicted to eight years ago.

Something is changing in the way culture works. The old ways of life developed out of necessity, were preserved by lack of options. You sang traditional songs, wore traditional clothes, ate traditional food because that was all there was. Most people couldn't go to other places, didn't participate much outside their family group. Life in the developed world is often full of options, mobility, choice of how to spend your life. More and more of what people do, how they make their living, what they eat, how they dress, what music and art they make or enjoy---all these things that constitute what we usually think of as an individual's "culture" are chosen by personal preference. Those people who dress up like zombies and shamble down Broadway every couple months: that's culture, but there is nothing "traditional" about it, not like what people expect to find here in Nepal.

Tourism is a particularly peculiar manifestation of these changes. It is strange to think that so many people and places are devoting so much of themselves to the amusement of foreigners. I've heard of trekkers who come down after ten days in the mountains and demand to see "traditional dances,"and the locals, often times, are happy to oblige. "If foreigners want to see our dances, our dances must be important," they say. In a way that is inspiring, but what does it mean for the culture that it is being preserved more to satisfy Western curiousity and guilt, or to help people hold on to collective identities that are quickly and quite reasonably becoming obsolete? In India this is compounded by the financial incentives offered to scheduled tribes and groups who can prove that they are "backwards" enough to need them; there is serious competition to be more "tribal" than the next village. But the view of "culture" that we have today is a completely new idea and has very little to do with the changes taking place in the way people live.

We worry so much about lost traditions, dying languages, vanishing tribes, and without a doubt these are aspects of the human experience that deserve to be remembered, that can enrich us with their wisdom and unique perspectives. Is it really fair, however, to expect people to live statically, to conform to practices and preferences that likely wouldn't exist if people had been able to choose otherwise? We worry so much about our civilization becoming a monoculture, and surely no one wants to see all places and people homogenized. But look around, click some links---there is already more out there than any one lifetime could hold. While we might all have access to the same things, will it really be a monoculture if we all choose our own unique paths of immersion, our own voice of ideas and desires? What is becoming is not a chorus but a conversation.

Kathmandu is one of these inbetween places. People sit on ancient, royal steps, listening to mp3 players and sending cellphone txts. Here we are all turning to the incorporeal, immersing ourselves in idea spaces while we trod foot-worn streets and caress rain-smoothed doors. It is a place boiling over with all times: the rough stone monuments to old and weary gods, the markets that service present daily needs, the posters and billboards that tantalize us with tomorrows. But it isn't perfect, and tourism isn't helping. Contrary to popular belief, tourism doesn't destroy traditions (the growth of self-determination does that), but rather preserves them in a shallow, cartoon way. We come to these places wanting to see exotic culture, and they give it to us. They give it to us in a form that we can see in a single afternoon, that we can take him in pictures. They turn it into something they can sell.

The air in Kathmandu these days is harsh and grainy, its aromas now colored more by car exaust than by the incense that burns in flower strewn shrines. The white-snowed mountains that ring Kathmandu are obsured into a hazy gray by the air pollution that sits in the valley like a noxious puddle of a cloud. A good third of the city's inhabitants wear bandanas or cheap face masks. I've been here less than a week, and already my throat is raw, my eyes prone to watering. But, as has been said, "we cannot separate the air that chokes from the air on which wings beat." For each thing that fills my mouth with bile and guilt, I see two things that fascinate and inspire, that gush and glow with vindicated imagination. If this is the world today, I think, imagine what it will be tomorrow.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Day 1, Day 10

The streets are empty. It’s late, maybe midnight. The moon’s light is only half full, but still the hill is drenched in it, painting everything a phantom grey as if the city were covered with a layer of fresh snow or volcanic ash. The glossalalia babbling that had seeped into the office from the Pentacostal church next door has long since died away, and it’s quiet. Once a taxi drives by, its headlights playing shadow webs upon the building walls—a spinning safety-glass jigsaw of power lines and balcony rails. A few minutes later we pass a couple figures going the opposite direction, little more than silhouettes. I could swear they are carrying spears.

“Where are all the dogs, man?” Pema asks. It is my first day in Gangtok, and National Press Day. I got in too late to make the Press Day event, but when Pema got back that afternoon he sat me down and put me to work on tomorrow’s edition, editing, proofreading, rewriting. Native-equivalent fluency in English is hard to come by, and most reports and press releases that come my way are written in a peculiar sort of broken English. So I sit and work through them, rearranging sentences for flow and clarity, cutting out superfluous details, and doing my best to turn them into something resembling news stories. An hour into it Subash hands me a phone and tells me to take down the details on a new hydel project from their correspondent in Mangan. After fifteen minutes of “Ke re? Pheri bhannus na. Can you repeat that?” I think I have everything, and write the story. When I get back from dinner, Pema is on the phone with people in Mangan, getting the real facts—the sacred rock is actually a cave, the man who said he’s sell his land didn’t, that sort of thing. When the stories are done, Subash prints out the pages for me to proofread, and I go to town on a columnists’ feature on Indian fung shui, trying to get all the occurrences of cardinal directions into a single format. I’m halfway through when Subash takes the page from my hand. At this point those sorts of details aren’t worth caring about. We print out the finals, half-sheet transparencies, and head out onto empty streets.

When we get to the printer’s, we turn off the road and pass through a red metal gate with a tiny door in it. It’s late, maybe midnight. Subash tugs at my sleeve as I duck through the gate. “This is the entrance to hell,” he says, and grins in the moonlight.


"Sir, you need a ticket, and the photo exhibition is closed today." The guard doesn't even bother to get out of his chair.

"Don't worry, it's okay. I'm a journalist." I wave my invitation slip under his nose as I stroll by. He doesn't stop me.

I get up to the entrance and make towards the stairs. Again they say it is closed, but when they find out I'm from NOW! their whole attitude changes. "Come this way, sir," says a lackey, and he leads me up the stairs.

I'm a little late. There had been some sort of traffic obstruction on the way up, and it was pretty touch and go for a while. But that's alright. NOW! is the most popular newspaper in Gangtok, so I can afford to be fashionably late. I haven't really missed anything. The officials are all sitting around, nibbling on biscuits and sipping tea and coffee. I spot some other reporters, milling around with an assortment of notebooks and cameras, and we exchange what I hope are knowing glances.

I snap some photos of the bigwigs, and suddenly everyone with a camera is heading inside the exhibition room, ducking the red ribbon strung across the entrance. I follow.

"Excuse me, are you with the press?" Dr. Anna has an accusing lilt to her voice. Then she recognizes me. We had met before, on the official program visit to the Tibetology Institute. "Oh, you're Andrew, aren't you?"

"That's right," I say. "I'm with NOW!"

"Brilliant," she replies, and ducks back out to help with the elaborate process of ushering the ambassador from Bhutan into position.

Thirty seconds later the Ambassador pulls the loose, delicate bow on the ribbon and the place gets that shiny, inaugurated smell. Everyone either claps or snaps pictures, depending on what they have in their hand. I do the picture thing.

Dr. Anna starts taking the Bhutanese Ambassador, in his traditional Bhutanese dress, from one display of photos to the next. After a few minutes of shooting I notice that the screen on my camera isn't showing anything. I take a picture and it just goes white. I sidle until I'm next to one of the other photographers with the same kind of camera, and explain my problem. He take the camera and fiddles with it, then hands it back and assures me that the problem is just with the screen, that the camera really is taking pictures. I hope he's right.

I loiter, oscillating indecisively between my camera and my little notebook. Occasionally I'll drift close enough to catch a snippet of a conversation or an interview by one of the other reporters, and I'll write something down. When the Ambassador comes out to talk with the press and says ambassadorial things, I write them down.

After a while I decide to loiter a little closer to the snack table and get some coffee. It doesn't help. I've been battling a cold for a couple days now, and at the moment I'm too busy trying to keep my snot in my nose to really "get the story," as it were. Not that there is much story to get. Everything here is pretty standard, and Pema already knows most everything about the exhibition and the Tibetology Institute. I'm mostly here for the pictures. At least I hope.

I try striking up a convo with someone important looking, but they have pretty pressing business over there a moment later. I chat a bit with Tenzing Tashi, one of the major organizers and researchers on the photo project. She says that she used to work for NOW! as a marketing director, and she asks me call her “Tina.”

“Did you get everything you need?” she asks. I sniffle up my cold and assure her that I have. My cell phone rings, and I pull it out. “Maybe you have to go,” she says, and heads towards the exhibit room. I answer the phone, expecting Pema, but it is just B.B from the program house at Mountain Hut. I don’t have to go at all, but after that last exchange sticking around seems awkward. By now everyone seems to have left, so I leave too, my notebook full of disconnected facts and scribbled quotes. My first real assignment as a reporter, and I can't help but feel pretty out of my depth.

In the end, though, it turns out I wasn’t out of my depth at all. It doesn’t matter that I didn’t get every detail on the exhibit; most of what I need is waiting for me in a press release back at the office. After all the press releases I had edited, one would think I would have expected this, but I didn’t. Between the press release, my memory and notes, and a few details confirmed by Pema, the story comes together, and we put it on the front page with my by-line (my by-line!) and my picture of the ribbon splitting.

The next morning I get a text message on my cell phone: “That was a very nice piece on our exhbtn. Tks. Tina.”

Tuesday, November 13, 2007


Manu was always beautiful. When she was little, she played among the flowers on the hills around her house, chased chickens and danced with goats, and sung carols with her friends during the fall festival of lights. Her family then was very poor---her parents were unskilled laborers on a sericulture plantation, spending their days collecting the glistening threads of silk from the trees where the tiny precious caterpillars inched and crawled. Despite their lack of money, however, the family managed to scrape by and send all of their eight children to school. Except Manu.

As the eldest daughter, Manu had to stay home and take care of her younger siblings while her parents went to work in the plantation groves. She cooked and cleaned, cut grass to feed the cows and goats, collected eggs to eat and milk to sell at market, and, when they were old enough, saw her little brothers and sisters off to school every day. It wasn't that Manu didn't want to go to school---she did---and she was as bright and sharp as any of her siblings. But the work had to be done, and though she wished that she too could go, could learn to read and write, she stayed and did the work, sacrificing her future for the sake of her siblings.

When Manu was eighteen a woman came. The woman had a son---an educated man who taught at a school in Kalimpong, several hours away. "My son is not yet married," the woman told Manu's father. "Give me your daughter." Manu's father knew that money was tight and the dowry this man's family would pay would do much to help put his children through school. So, things being what they were, and the groom being educated and respectable, Manu's father said yes.

Manu is eighteen years old and has plenty of experience doing housework, but she doesn't feel good about this. She knew that arranged marriage has been common practice in India for centuries, but she'd never thought it would happen to her, and not like this. Her new husband is half-deaf and nearly twice her age. She had only glimpsed his mother, the head of their new household, and she had looked ill tempered and mean---a fat old woman with teeth missing, and when she laughed it was a harsh, cackling thing. Her new husband had a good job, and the dowry was generous, but she doesn't know him, she never loved him.

Now fast forward to the wedding night, or not long after, and try to imagine Manu---brilliant, beautiful Manu---waiting in her tiny room for her new husband, a man she neither knows nor loves, to come up from watching TV and fuck her for the first time.

Oh how the stomach turns at this thought. Oh how one's bile must rise. For Manu never wanted this. She didn't want to stay home, to grow up illiterate and uneducated. She didn't want to get married. But she had done these things because she had to, because her family and culture had told her to. And now she had do to something else, something else that her family and culture tells her she must do. But how can she? How can this, of all things, be expected of her?

A year later she has her first child, a beautiful baby boy that her husband names Ujjual. A couple years later she has a daughter, Uma. They are smart and kind kids, and she cares for them more than anything else in the world.

Every day when I come home from class or the bazaar, Manu smiles at me. She is thirty-seven now, and a few wrinkles are starting to show around her lips and eyes, but she is still beautiful. Every day when I sit down after washing my hands, she brings me a plate of daal bhaat and smiles. When I sit and drink my tea she asks me about my day, and when I ask her to tell me about hers, she smiles. "Maile kaam garnuparyo," she always says. I had to work.

You see, though she loves her children as much as any mother could, and even loves the American students who come to live in her home for months at a time, she still doesn't love her husband or his ill tempered mother. And she isn't happy. Every day, from four or five in the morning till after dinner, Manu works. She cooks roti and daal bhaat, mixes nutritious slop for the cows, cleans, tends the fields, and makes the long walk an hour down the hill to the jungle to chop firewood and cut grass for the cattle and goats. When Ganess goes to his real home on holidays, she gets up even earlier to milk the cows and take the milk and cream into town to sell. Manu works harder than anyone I have ever seen.

Her husband is charismatic and successful, always chatting with relatives and neighbors, telling stories, and showing off his English, but he doesn't care about Manu. He does little work around the house or fields, preferring to stay up late watching cricket and American movies on television, and does even less to make her life easier. When she calls him for dinner, he often doesn't come for an hour or so, or runs in and takes a plate back to the TV room, or asks to be prepared something different. And when this happens, Manu has to sit and wait, for in Nepali culture the cook has to wait until everyone is served and almost finished before starting to eat.

I asked her, once, if she would like to learn to read, but she just smiled sadly and shugged. "Kaam garnuparchha," she repeats. You see, it isn't that she doesn't want to learn, but when would she have time? How could she possibly find time or energy amongst her exhausting daily chores to do anything to extricate her from her often frustrating and intractable lifestyle? She is too busy shoveling out water to fix the leak.

And despite all this, she still smiles, still laughs and jokes with me, still dances and plays with the goats when they are let out for exercise, still sings while she works.

Ansel tells me that my distaste of arranged marriage is just a western cultural assumption, that love marriages aren't any more or less likely to be happy or successful than arranged marriages. Given how commonplace divorce is America, not to mention broken homes and domestic violence, in some ways I am sure he is right. But I just can't get past the sex. In the West we may sleep with more people than Indians or Nepalis, but in general we only sleep with people that we know, people that, at least at that moment, we choose. So when I try to imagine what it must have been like for Manu---brilliant, beautiful Manu---to wait in that room for her new husband, my stomach turns and something feels distinctly not right.

My Australian friend working in Bangladesh has similar feelings. In Bangladesh, she tells me, American movies are generally considered sinful depravity, but since it is already all sinful depravity there really isn't any difference between watching a Hollywood flick and watching pornography. Thus, for many Bangladeshis, their only perception of American women comes from porn, and this combines with the Eastern arranged marriage value of having sex with strangers to give many men there the belief that western women will sleep with anyone. Obviously my friend has had some frustrating experiences.

It is getting late here, and I have to go. I don't want to get home to late, to make Manu worry. And I want to go home, because I know that she will be there to smile at me. But what I am supposed to do? I think about her situation, about the fact that she is trapped into a life that she didn't choose, and my gut fills with a cool rage. It isn't fair, I think. It shouldn't be this way. Of all the things in India that I expected to see, all the poverty and lack, I didn't really understand that the most intolerable things are the most subtle, the ones that you can't see in National Geographic pictures or the nightly news. But what could I do? Just like with Ganess, even if I could give her money or whisk her away to America, there would still be millions of women just like her, whose situations are just as intractable.

So I'm just going to go home, and thank her for all her work, for the food she cooks and the time she gives me to listen to my day. And for her smile.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Strange White Folk

"England batta? Ko?" I asked, confused. It was the day after getting back from Labdong, a tiny rural village in Sikkim, and I had just returned from a trip to the bazaar. My hajuraamaa (grandmother in my host family), who is pushing eighty and has one tooth, had babbled something about people from England. I managed to get a few more details past her slur—they had phoned before, had been here that morning, and apparently they were going to come back—before she gave me a cup of tea and a pancake and wandered off.

I sipped my sugary drink confused. White people? Here, in my home? We occasionally see other westerners in the Internet café or on the streets around Kalimpong, but with a few exceptions it has been our habit to avoid contact with them. This is has been my experience everywhere I have been in Asia. No one wants to feel like a tourist, and other white people wearing similar clothes and taking the same pictures with the same kinds of cameras all serve to kill the sense that one is an adventurer, an explorer in the Mysterious Orient. Deep down, every travelling westerner wants to be Marco Polo, even me. So for the most part we all keep our distance, not wanting to break the spell.

But over time, as I have gotten used to things here and no longer feel so out of place, I have developed the same sort of staring curiosity towards white people that many Nepalis exhibit, albeit to a lesser degree. What are they doing here? Where are they from? What kinds of lives have brought them to the same place as me, here on the other side of the world? And, now, why the hell were they coming to my house, the very last place in the world that I expected to have to deal with other white folk?

They showed up again right as I was finishing, a whole pack of them. Heavy set mother in a hideous blue suit-dress, embarrassed fifteen-year-old son and shameless twelve-year-old daughter who poked at the dogs and chickens. They also had a middle aged Nepali man with them, who upon seeing me and the last of my tea called out "An err are oo um?" It took me a second to realize that he had actually spoken in English, but broken by a thick Welsh accent. Another second later and I had pieced back together the slightly accusatory question: "And where are you from?"

"America," I said. "New York."

"Ow are oo lick init ear?" How are you liking it here?

"It's great." I cast around the yard, hoping to spot some help, but there was no one. So I stood there, feeling more awkward than I have since my first days here when I didn’t speak any Nepali, and listened to the man explain that he and his family were from Wales, and that they are here in Kalimpong visiting family—which apparently included my hajuraamaa, his aunt. My hajuraamaa came out of the house and asked me to go get some chairs from inside. When I responded in Nepali, the father of the clan said "Oh look, he speaks Nepalese!" and leered at me as if I were a laboratory specimen. I got the chairs. We sat.

"How are you liking the food here?" I was doing better at understanding his accent now.

"It's great." Great.

"I ran the New York Marathon, you know. When I was in the army. And the Hong Kong Marathon. That was when I was in the army."

"That's great," I replied, grinning weakly. He chatted for a moment in Nepali with my hajuraamaa while his wife and kids looked at photo albums. It was a weird feeling, being one of the only ones to understand both sides of the conversation here---though their accents meant that I managed to pick up about equal amounts of Nepali and English. When his daughter showed him a page from Julianne's album, the student who stayed with my family last semester, he broke into a sudden and horrible rendition of "Country Road." The embarassed son gave me an embarassed look.

"It's important, inn'it, seeing how the other side lives?" The wife was talking to me. "Makes us realize how loocky we are. We have refrigerators and washing machines, and they have so little." I fought back a cringe. I had thought such thoughts before myself, but coming from her, talking about "the other side," they sounded wrong, dirty.

"Still a bit early in the day, inn'it?" She was talking to me again.

"Er, no. Is it? For what?" It was midafternoon.

"For brandy, of course!" the father said, and dashed into the house to find brandy.

At that moment my bhaai (younger brother) Ganess arrived home from school, and I quickly walked over to his room above the cowshead. I poked my head in, and Ganess nodded towards the house with a questioning look.

"AnauTho seto manche," I said by way of explanation. Strange white people. We stood there for a few seconds, not really wanting to go deal with them.

"Ghass katna man laagyo?" my bhaai said, his face brightening. Feel like cutting grass?

"Laaagyo," I agreed with a grin. At that moment cutting forty kilos of plant matter to feed the cows and goats seemed much more normal and much easier to face than chitchat with my host family's long lost Welsh relatives. We grabbed a pair of sickles and the large doko (basket) and headed out before we could get roped into further conversation.

Ganess isn't actually a member of my host family. He is sort of adopted. There is a practice in India and Nepal where children of poor families—and Ganess's family is very poor—will be sent to work for a somewhat wealthier family who can afford to feed them, house them and send them to school. How these servant kids get treated varies greatly, but from what I can tell Ganess has it fairly good with my family. My aamaa (host mother) and two siblings mostly treat him like a member of the family, albeit one that has to do more than his share of work in the house and fields. Of course, Ganess still loves his real family, and is always bouncing with anticipation when he gets to go visit them on holidays.

As we squatted amongst the weeds, grabbing handfuls of cellulose and cutting the stems with the battered sickles, Ganess t0ld me that he might be leaving the Karki's residence in a couple months, when the school year ends. He sounded excited at the prospect of living with his real family again, but it is a mixed blessing. Ganess is twelve, and around this age school starts getting expensive. If he goes home, the chances are good that this will be where his education stops. He has five siblings, and his family just can't afford to send him to school past his current grade or even feed and house him if he isn't spending most of his time helping keep the family afloat. I told him that he should continue going to school, that education is the most important thing, and he agreed. He likes school and wants to keep going as long as he can, but unfortunately it isn't really his choice.

On the way home, carrying the basket packed full of grass and leaves on my back, I got to thinking about the Welsh people, and what the heavy woman in the hideous blue suit-dress said. She was right, of course: it is important to understand how other people live. But not so that we learn to appreciate our washing machines and refrigerators. Don't get me wrong I think those things are great, and every day I see how much easier my family's life would be with them. Still, the way she said it felt slimy, intolerably judgemental. If there is one thing I have learned from living here, it is that there is no "other side." Us-and-them paradigms are never very accurate. For all the differences in culture and lifestyle, people everywhere are all pretty much the same, all just people.

But there is a reason to come here and see how the people live, a better one than coming back feeling warm and fuzzy and grateful for our wealth and our appliances. And that's because it sucks: it sucks that Ganess's life is not his own, that he is so limited by conditions he did nothing to create. I don't want to be preachy, but it is hard to know that I have so many opportunities and resources at my disposal and still feel helpless to do anything to help Ganess. If I started an NGO, got a job in development, what are the chances that my efforts would reach Ganess in any meaningful way? And if I could just give him money, found a way to put him through school or take him to America, there would still be millions of great kids just like him who would be left behind.

The white folk left not long after we got back, and my aamaa set down to cook a second meal for her, Ganess, and myself. It was late by the time we got to eating, and as the three of us chewed our food under the dim light bulb, we got to talking about gifts. To meet the Welsh relatives my aamaa had worn a dress that Julianne, the previous student, had given her. She loves the things that the other students have given her—clothes and jewellery, pretty things—but prefers to keep them safe and clean and rarely wears them. I asked what our visitors had given today. Money, she said, and smiled sadly.

Ganess grinned at me as he got up to wash off his plate. "AnauTho seto manche!" he cheered.

My aamaa grinned too. You're Ganess's favorite student brother, she told me fondly. None of the others talked with him much.

I felt a brief surge of pride as they both beamed at me, but I still couldn’t help but feel a bit sad and helpless. Ganess's situation still sucked. Even if I had been nice to him, went to cut grass and chat with him, it didn't change anything. Ganess's future was just as uncertain, and his situation just as intolerable. But it was something, I suppose, to have been a friend or a brother and not just another strange white folk.

I sucked it up and gave him a brotherly smile. "Ekdham raamro," I said. That's great.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Magicians of Labdong

The shaman tossed another pinch of wet herbs onto the rock plate of hot coals, and for a second I think I see green sparks in the smoke. My new host mother has been feeling sick since before I got here, so today they brought in a dhaami, or witch doctor, to perform a work of aruvidic medicine. The dhaami, who happens to be another student's host father, came in, chatted for a while, drank a cup of masala tea, and started the ceremony. He chants methodically over a woven bamboo tray of little clay figurines, some of which are probably human, others quite positively alien. With a steady rhythm he waves a few grains of uncooked rice over the tray and in front of my host mother and then throws them over his shoulder. After a while one of my daajus (older host brothers) starts lighting short lengths of string on fire and draping them over the clay figures, where they fizzle or flare or burn steadily down the backs of things that look like slugs or vague cthulhus. About the time the dhaami starts to chant "Om," I find myself having one of those "Holy shit! I'm in India!" moments.

Labdong is a tiny town in rural North Sikkim. There is one road that snakes down the hill, and four shops which sell mostly the same things: candy, foodstuffs, lightbulbs. No one really comes to Labdong (except us, twice a year). Ideas don't really make it here, either. There are two TVs (one of which doesn't get channels), no phone service, no internet. The nearest bazaar is about four hours away. There is a school, but even today most children don't go past the fifth grade. Even then things are weird; some ten year olds in first grade, some twelve year olds in sixth. Labdong has produced two college graduates in its history. Plenty of people in the town don't go to school at all. Testing is coming up, so everywhere we hear the little kids reciting rote memorized English phrases in robotic, singsong voices. "Ay pee pee el ee. Aypal."

The town is inhabited almost entirely by members of the Gurung tribe who migrated to Sikkim from Nepal. Gurungs have there own langauage, but the people here don't know it. For decades the people of Labdong practiced the Hinduism of the closest neighbors, but sometime in the mid-80s the idea came to convert to Buddhism, the traditional religion of the Gurung tribe. Most people in Labdong claim this was because the ritual purity rules of Hinduism are too difficult to follow in the rural basti. The real reason, of course, was politics. The people of Labdong want to reap the financial benefits of becoming a scheduled tribe. For years there has been competition among various groups to see who can be the most "tribal," the most "backwards." For some reason Buddhism is seen as "more tribal" than Hinduism, so the people of Labdong decided to return to their cultural roots. This meant that they had to figure out how to be Buddhist. They put up Buddha posters, built a gumpa, and started praying to Buddha Bhagwan instead of the traditional Hindu gods. This isn't that uncommon; plenty of Hindus pray to Buddha as just another deity, and Jesus, and Sai Baba. If there is one thing I have learned here, it is that Hinduism has historically never been a cohesive religion in the same sense that Christianity, Islam, or Buddhism has. For that matter, India was never a single nation in the Westfallian sense until the British left. "Civilization" is a better term than "country" or "religion." For most of its history Hinduism was merely a vast collection of vaguly related practices, traditions, beliefs, and philosophies. In recent times the drive to create a national Indian identity has turned it into a sort of superstructure into which other religions can fit without much change to the basic local practices. The people of Labdong worship Buddha, but ask them about what he taught, about the eight-fold path or enlightenment or anything like that, and probably they will just look at you.

There have been a few real changes, though. They dropped the purity rules, mostly, but they still don't eat cow meat. While they say that as Buddhists they aren't supposed to drink, use tobacco or smoke marijuana, that is all most of the villagers seem to do. Though it took a while, Labdog has started to produce its first generation of lamas---little kids running around in the red and orange robes. Nevertheless, people still trust the traditional shamanism of the region as much or more than they trust Buddhism or western medicine. When the first round of jaadoo dubai (magic medicine) didn't make my host mother feel better, they called in a second shaman, who performed a much simpler ritual of chanting, herbs, and rice tossing (minus the clay figurines). When I started to come down with a cold, my host family told me that I should take some dhaami medicine, and waved a bottle of sketchy brown liquid under my nose. I told them I had already taken medicine, and hid in my room until my sniffles cleared up.

My first night in Labdong a bunch of kids came up to me and asked if I knew karate. I said I did, and their second question was if I could do a backflip and clap someone's ears with my heels as I soared over their heads. The fighting in old Hindi and new Nepali films is all assisted with crappy wirework and all grossly unrealistic, but it is the pretty much only martial arts that these kids have been exposed to. My fifteen year old host brother is creepy. A few days into my stay he watched me intently as I brushed my teeth, and as I am just finishing up he reaches out and strokes my head. "Sundar kesh," he said ("beautiful hair") and then asked if he could carry my toothpaste for me. My sisters run around playing with a tiny flashlight that shines a dim image of Osama Bin Laden's face on surfaces about a foot away. This place is fucking weird.

When my host mother isn't feeling better a few days later, the second dhaami (who turns out to be my maternal host uncle) comes back to give it another go. I'm sitting in my room when my host father comes in and asks if I would like to see the shaman jump. Giggling, he bounces up and down on the balls of his feet, holding his hand in front of him as if shaking dice. This particular shamanistic practice is apparently hiliarious to most people, even those who believe in it. I come down a few minutes later, and the drums are already going. The jumping doctor is holding a traditional handled drum and banging on it with a curved stick, his eyes closed, mouth forming words and sounds somewhere between a chant and a moan. Nearby one of my uncles slaps a brass plate with a stick, producing a jarring gong-like noise. His eyes are glazed and his head is tilted at a weird angle, but this isn't due to the ceremony. Labdong is full of genetic abnormalities: extra fingers, cleft lips, distorted hands and faces, mental retardation. Most men don't go more than a days walk to find wives, if that, and over the decades a serious inbreeding problem has built up. My daaju asks a couple times if you can marry cousins in America. His keen interest in the topic is worrying. Still, he says it doesn't happen here (if you do your families will throw you out) and is quick to claim that Muslims do it.

After what must have been at least an our of chanting, the jumping doctor starts to bounce up and down where he is sitting in strange convulsive motions, his body swaying from side to side. This, I realize, is the true trance state, the real deal when it comes to old indigenous magic with authenticity that modern day occultists lust after. Meanwhile a dozen or so relatives have crowded into the kitchen and are taking this opporunity to get really fanastically drunk. I see one person pour a glass of warm Hit Beer, but mostly the air is thick with the smell of raksi, a sort of Nepali moonshine. A pair of aunts smoking homemade cigarettes squak at me to go get my camera. I return with a pocket full of high-speed film and am immediately pulled around the room to have take pictures of relatives or have my picture taken (not that they know how to work an SLR). When they find out that the camera isn't digital and doesn't show the pictures after they are shot, the aunts, shouting to make themselves heard over the jumping doctor's moaning and drum playing, tell me to send everyone here ten copies of these photos from America. On the other side of the room an uncle sits next to the dhaami, heckling or shouting encouragement as necessary.

I wander out and find another dozen people watching a Nepali martial arts film on the family's makeshift DVD set up. When I return, the witch doctor is just starting to stand up. Eyes still closed he just sways and convulses for a second while he gets his balance, and then starts to jump---little hops, with feet turning one way and then the other as he continues to play the drum. I snap some pictures. My family gives a little cheer and goes back to their drunken chatter. After a couple minutes someone realizes that this is where my host mother is supposed to get involved, and she comes and sits in front of the oblivious dhaami while a relative slowly lifts a weird potted plant and feather apparatus and waves it over her head. When this is done, she returns to her seat on the bed, nursing a mug of raksi with palpable disinterest.

The dhaami eventually sits down again, still in a trance. Then, unexpectedly, his eyes open. He is still convulsing, but his eyes are wide and unseeing. He starts shouting shouting things out in Nepali. I can only make out a few words, but for the first time the audience starts paying attention. My host father stands in front of him and shouts questions. The heckling uncle heckles even louder. This is the nearest thing I've ever seen to channelling or possession. I sort of gathered that the jumping doctor was channeling the ghost that was causing my host mother's illness, and was now telling the family how to banish it. Eventually the shouting fades, his eyes close again, and he goes back to drumming. After a while, though, this too fades. The drumming stops, the shaking slows, and a few moments later the jumping doctor opens his eyes, wipes his face with a cloth, and starts cracking jokes.

I go to bed. By now it is nearly eleven---practically the middle of the night by bedtimes here. I'm just drifting off when the drumming starts up again. They aren't finished, apparently, but I am too tired to go watch. Sometime around 2 AM someone goes around the house ringing a loud, heavy bell. An hour later the witch doctor comes in and crawls into the room's other bed, and, half-awake, I have another one of those "I'm in India!" moments.

Friday, October 5, 2007


So many buildings go unfinished. They build up as they get the money, and in a good year will be able to afford a whole story. But if business has gone badly they may get a floor, support pillars, maybe a staircase. How strange they look. How visually addicting. These half completed structures draw my eye in ways that temples and monasteries fail to do, just standing there outlined against the misty gray curves of far off hills--stairs going to nowhere, thickets of rusty rebar thrusting out of concrete and into the open sky.

And then there are the people. All those people in all colors and styles of dress and manner. Monks with cell phones, grizzled old cullies in 50 Cent t-shirts, priests in their male kortas and pajama pants, women in modern variations of traditional garb, beggars with shrunken stubs of limbs or street children with small deformities of the face, Tibetan wanderers strung with heavy wooden beads and thick leather caps, children dressed like westerners, foreigners dressed like natives, teenagers dressed like teenagers. All walking contradictions, odes to the strangeness of the modern world.

Trying to do photography here is at once so easy and so hard. My photo professor once told me that in many cases all a good photo needs is interesting people in interesting places doing interesting things. And here I find that plenty. The whole landscape leaps with color and texture, and all the people speak of stories. But if every person holds visual fascination and every place is strange and beautiful, what then do I shoot?

The weeks have passed punctuated by bursts of frantic photography. Most days my camera sits at home, but on trips or holidays or weekends I'll sling it over my shoulder, stuff my pockets full of film, and venture out to, as great photographers have said, see what things looks like in pictures. This was mostly how I worked in the states, but here, without a darkroom or the money to develop every roll, it is mixed with an extreme delay of gratification. I won't see most of my hundred and twenty rolls until I get back to the states and begin the long process of developing and printing. Months, no doubt, months of reliving those manic days of pictures.

The change in setting and in process has been forcing upon me much reevaluation. Having shot as many rolls by now as I did all of last semester, I am trying to force myself to go beyond the images that we see everywhere hear which, while unique and unknown to foreigners, are simply scenes of normal life to most natives and, increasingly, to myself. I want to take pictures that Nepalis will find equally compelling, that will be as good in India as they are in the states. It is hard, though. I think I feel myself improving, but I can't see it. I haven't seen the pictures that I've shot; I have to imagine them and evaluate my technique blind and in the moment. Everyone else brought digital cameras, and can send their shots to friends. I would post my pictures here if I could, but film does not afford me that luxury.

I think it will be worth it, though. To come back and see it again--to travel twice to this strange place of decay and creation, if only visually--is a privilege that few receive. At the moment my pictures are as unfinished as the buildings. One day they, in a couple months, they may be built up higher still, but until then they remain just bones, outlined against my mind.