Wednesday, June 27, 2012


I'm feeling very grateful for many things today. It's pretty nice, actually. You realizing how lucky you are and savoring in it. As one of my best friends would put it, "Diana, I can see your cat smile right now."

And yes. I am smiling like a cat. I feel so indulgent today. We were sitting in a room discussing state formation, violence condoned by the state, and comparing historical cases. Me with (mostly) Mexico but also some Brazil, Argentina, and Colombia thrown in there. Others with India, and a little France thrown in for contrast too. It was the pleasure of discussing abstract theories. Things brilliant people have come up with over the years. And knowing that right now, at this point in my life I have the luxury of knowing that I can screw up and I'm just here to learn. It's delicious and worthy of a cat smile.

I guess in some ways this is also what pisses me off about academia. I dont want to sit in a room and chat all the time (a good deal of time, yes. I'm a HUGE nerd.). I WANT TO BE OUT THERE AND LEARN WITH MY HANDS!

But it comes with that responsibility of future promises. I know that I can do this now, but I always keep in my mind the next end that it needs to serve. My option to be here comes at a cost to others. If being here has taught me nothing else, I am aware of this. And I will make sure that I am aware of it always.

I enjoyed sitting in an internet cafe reading everything I could find on Dharavi in an hour. And I have that option. I cant help but fear the degree to which I am romanticizing this place. After all, if given the option I know I would not give up the comforts of my home in the States to live there. I am giving up my time I could be sitting in air conditioning in my very clean room in the hostel I live in to sit in public spaces and try to blend into the walls as much as possible when people act like you glow in the dark (I'm seriously considering going running everyday before I go, letting the dirt stick to me, and covering any other exposed inch of skin with clothing to appear less... white and therefore foreign) because I feel better there. I am really looking forward to wandering around there all day on Sunday. SUNDAY. COME SOONER!

But I'm getting the hang of Bombay. And even in that statement I know how wrong I am. I just mean, I feel more comfortable and able to locate things and not jump roughly 45 feet into the air whenever a car skims my ass.

But today when I was walking home, we ran into one of the guys who works at the internet cafe that I have been frequenting while the internet situation was in question. And he smiled and said hello and stopped me on the street. Maybe we are building our own space within the community. It's hard not to like that. He smiles at us with kindness, rather than the usually creepy man thing that happens or else the GIVE ME GIVE ME GIVE ME face we get most of the time in Colaba.

And that, is comfortable. 

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Confessions of a Fair Trade Shade Grown Vegan Hipster.


I'm not actually vegan. I'm not a plant so I cant actually be shade grown. And I'm not a product so I cant be fair trade. But this phrase was coined by a friend to describe my weird, personal brand of granola crunching hippie activist.

I used the sephia photo setting to give the illusion of me being a hipster, though in truth I'm really not that either. Apart from the glasses... which I still love despite their hipster-ness.

India has had a few already clear effects on me. I've learned to haggle much more effectively, complete with are you kidding me?? expressions when cab drivers try to rip me off... by adding an extra 20 cents to a 30 cent going rate on my morning commute (Ok so I hate myself for that, but just accepting that they are charging me more than a local means I am not getting into the full experience, right? Or at least I got in trouble with local students when I told them that I usually gave in. So I'm making them proud.).

I think I have been accidentally vegan for a few days... just because Indian food is very easily to be accidentally vegan with for a few days. I didnt really even notice until today when I realized it had been a few days without dairy products. Interesting. Not as bad as we all thought. It has been SUPER easy to be vegetarian and happy here (much easier than at home in a Mexican household with beautifully prepared traditional things that I die trying to avoid). It's weird though. My brand of vegetarianism is also linked to my politics... which dont really apply here... so there is this limbo: I could eat meat. My reasons for not eating meat dont exist in the same way here (long story short, I have a problem with the way that the mass meat industry handles it's undocumented laborers, aka it treats them as slaves and doesnt pay them on COUNTLESS occasions, and its exporting services, which are horrifying and I can send you a documentary if you want to see what I'm talking about [I KNOW I KNOW #hipster #GRANOLAGRANOLAGRANOLA I just cant in good conscious buy into that]). There are numerous other things I could do for both of these situations and SHOULD cut out of my life, I know that, but this was an easy first step.

So the political limbo is there, but I'm having a grand old time not eating meat here. Because EVERYTHING (except Dhal which I hate... it's watered down and crushed lentils. It pretty much looks like... well I wont say it. You know) tastes delicious.

It's been pretty interesting -- these last few days. We've been reading a lot about the terrorist attacks in this city, as I mentioned before, and in some ways its impossible to imagine them taking place at the sites ACTUALLY down the block from where I am sitting right now. But there are photos on flickr to prove it. I guess you ultimately realize that no matter what happens, people find a way to survive and live because they have to. Because we're wired this way. Because giving up means letting them win.

How does this apply to real life? In a lot of ways actually. I keep sitting here and thinking about Mexico. It's actually one of those moments where you hear your heart crunch a little bit. Yes, I love my imagined community (credit, Benedict Anderson. I never stop quoting your theories, it's really nerdy and weird. Hipster??) but how much do I really understand about the violence, from within my beautifully crafted guilded cage?

I think media in all countries causes us to fear the lower classes. What I mean by that, is since media blew up the discussion surrounding crime and people flock to news articles about CRAZY things (like the woman in new haven who tried to steal a wig near campus, ran, and then bit off the arm of the guy chasing her down the street... definitely not the first thing I think of when it comes to New Haven, but for some people this WILL BE the first thing they think of). We have these images in our minds of the extremes. We fear crowded, dark and less controlled spaces because we are told to.

And then I walk into Dharavi which is a knot of a community, and there is peace. Everything looks a little run down, some things are held together with string and magic, but it works. And it's not super hyperly dangerous like we assume slums are.

So... it comes back to my theory. People will do what it takes to survive and create a sense of normalcy for themselves. If this means dodging cows on the highway while you are driving, then so be it.

End of Confession.

Diana vs. Technology (a losing battle)

Some stats on daily tech:

my local cell phone works about 25% of the time. That means anyone who calls me has a 1 in 4 chance of actually reaching me at any given time. Anyone who texts me has more like a 1 in 8 chance of actually reaching me. Disclaimer: This is a brand new cell phone. And when I explained how I purchased it etc. to a local student, I was informed that I got a "good deal. They didnt rip [me] off at all."

This has resulted in very awkward conversations where another student thought I was ignoring her and basically telling her to go away (not the case). A friend needing to facebook message me and make sure that I was alive. Another friend emailing me to ask why I hadnt responded about our plans... and me making all of my phone calls through skype. Which means a weird number appears on the other person's cell phone and often they wont pick up.

The only calls that come through every day around the same time, are my Hindi advertisements. See, my cell phone number was sold in a package from Vodafone (my service) to a marketing team who then gets to spam call and text me whenever they want to to try and fail at selling me bollywood tickets/face bleach (yup, it's a thing. Getting there), a vacation... whatever. Usually I dont know because its in Hindi but sometimes there is random English thrown in to let me know what the deal is.

My supposedly unlimited go anywhere internet service... well I apparently "used up" my downloading amount for the month... and I'm just sending emails/blogging. So... that's kinda weird. I'm not even video skyping for fear of my internet collapsing and taking me with it... so unlimited secretly means 2 GB. In case you were wondering (I just checked my internet stats, thats how I figure that out)

Most of the taxis here are from the 1950s. I kid you not, one of my shoes (the AWESOME plastic flats women wear during the monsoon) melted a little bit from the floor of the car heating up to roughly the temperature of the inside of a volcano today when I was taking a taxi back from my breakfast meeting with the head organizer for INK India (it's like TED and stemmed off of TEDIndia). But it's ok... they are still easily the most comfortable shoes I have ever owned.

Another bizarre technology/something generally uncomfortable:

There is a product here called... I kid you not... vaginal whitening cream.

Yes. Let that sink in for a moment.

So. Where to begin with this product.

First of all, if you really want to bleach your pubic hair thats your choice. I just dont want to know. The ad for this product was one of the weirder and more uncomfortable things I have ever seen. Complete with sexual innuendo, weird racial under tones, and commentary about gender that made everyone laugh uncomfortably.

Scene: really really albino looking woman (meaning, she looks like she glows in the dark like I do) sits at the breakfast table with her lover who ignores her and reads the paper. She looks depressed. Then a weird cartoon of a tan woman's crotch with a dark cloud over it appears, this product is dumped on the cloud, then there is a weird waxing like motion and everything stops looking brown and the whole lower body image is white and "pure" and supposedly bleached. The skin tone is also completely white  now. Image goes back to the couple where the woman doesnt look depressed and is still super white, her lover is chasing her around the room because she took his car keys and DROPS THEM INTO THE FRONT OF HER SHORTS before he picks her up and carries her out of the shot.

(good news, just found the ad on youtube: Here)

I'll let you make what you will of this ad. I'm sure we all have a lot to process there.

So. in essence, I've learned a few things.

1) I have broken my addiction to my cell phone. I hereby promise I will never text/email at the table again. My phone will always be hidden in my bag and I will ignore it until we are done having a conversation.
2) Internet is precious. Very precious. It's weird when it's not there and I want to google something random like the life span of giant sea turtles... and yes this happened today.
3) I dont think I have processed the ad enough to react to it. I still sit here with a look of... wait... how was that not a joke?? on my face. Soo... fail.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Reckoning With History

Running full steam ahead into my final project for the trip! I was typing out details during breakfast this morning. We found a cafe with wifi and a super hipster atmosphere. So hipster, in fact, that the inside had modern furniture, worn iron walls meant to look like an old warehouse, and a fixed gear bicycle tied to the railing of the loft that we sat in and sipped black coffee. Ever day I edge closer to fair trade shade grown vegan hipster (but not really).

I decided to research and write about women entrepreneurs in Dharavi. The industries they tend to work in, how they started working in this particular field, how many people they support through their work etc. Think of it as a series of ethnographies about the informal economy in India, through a case study of Asia's most famous "slum." It's incredibly awesome how much this research contributes and takes from the other work I'm doing on the side right now.

Side note: a relevant TED talk!

And really, it kinda feeds into some of my ideas for fellowships for next year. Yes, I have returned a little bit to this possibility. I think I stumbled on a really great idea while I was here, and I'm trying to flush it out amid Colombia reading, Bombay explorations, and my class. Which is still super awesome, in case you were wondering.

This week we have started our discussions around violence. My professor and I have a really funny relationship. Whenever he talks about the slums, I bring up gangs. Which have a very different sort of relationship to the city than anything I have ever seen before. I find it utterly confusing... especially since I felt safest of all in Dharavi. In fact, I'm so excited to be working there because it was the only place outside in the city that I felt calm, collected and not flustered by honking cars and people essentially running into you or men loudly blowing kisses (gross. This needs to stop.). I digress. Our relationship is funny because he knows I'm going to bring up violence, and he even indulges me now by including comparisons to Latin America.

Today we discussed partition and the 1984, 1992, and 2002 riots. We talked about the history of religious tension between Muslims and Hindus in India, the first census and numerous other factors that made this tension all the more palpable. He lived in Bombay during the 1992 riots and showed us images of the violence from his 20s. He talked about working with the refugees and victims after the violence -- and gave an example from one of the camps where a member of the mob that ran through killing muslims using a textbook provided by a political group here (with the best methods to kill and rape without getting caught... yes it's as horrifying as it sounds) ended up working as a volunteer in some of the centers.

Talk about coming to terms with the past. Going through the waves of following the community blindly, then reckoning with your actions, and finally seeking redemption. Can one ever repay a community that it has taken so much from to begin with? Honestly, dont you surrender your membership to the larger community when you trespass on this level?

And then... you get to Dharavi... where, as far as I can tell, there isnt the same religious tension you might be able to feel in other areas. I'm really curious about its history during the riots, since all I have heard about is the harmony of these groups living together and providing each other space for religious centers in a city that really doesnt have any space to spare.

I'm working out the details for a translator and access to the city this evening, but maybe in my digging I'll be able to learn more and figure out how this magical place that is Dharavi can exist as it does. It's funny. As soon as we were leaving, my professor stopped me and said, you need to work in Dharavi for your final project.

He was right. I think it's in my blood now. It's constantly on my mind as this mystery I want to start unraveling.

The last thing I'll mention is the interesting gender dynamic that has changed the way most of the girls in my class are doing work. Our projects include mine and a look at "Beauty" based on skin tone and gender in advertisements for beauty products, and a few others. Many of us are talking about writing on gender. Probably because yesterday was the first episode in my life where I really wished that I was not female. I wished it more than anything so that I could feel safe going out in the dark to buy myself dinner. I knew that I could not. That barrier, that KNOWLEDGE that my GENDER prevented me from feeling safe in the city.. it was a lot to handle. Especially for a female college student who grew up with empowering parents and access to anything that I wanted to do. Here I was needing to fill a basic need that I could not fill.

I think we are all looking for positive examples of female empowerment in the city. Really looking, digging, seeking... ANYTHING. Because walking down that street everyday to people looking at me like I am a sandwich and really feeling scared to walk around alone as a result is not something I want my daughters to deal with. I am sure part of it is the foreign experience and my own tainted perspective, so I want to teach myself to see the positive.

And Damn it, that's what I'll do.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

In Memorium: Professor Pessar

(I am writing this because she deserves a lot more than this... a blog post on my summer records isnt going to do her justice. But for some unknown reason Yale hasnt announced her passing, despite the reporters from the Yale Daily News writing to me and others it also hasnt printed anything... and here we find ourselves.)

My advisor from the Ethnicity, Race and Migration department at Yale passed last month.

In all of our lives, there were those moments that we look back on because we figured out an important next step in our lives. One of mine came freshman year when I was going to run my first event on Mexico's Drug Wars and I needed funding. I was running this as a solo-project. For various reasons, it was awkward to go through MEChA -- the immigrant activist group that I still work with now, so I ran the project entirely on my own. For me, this event was personal. We were talking about crime, statistics, economics, history... all of these things. But what was fresh in my mind were the victims I knew who had been killed by drug violence that past March. This, and all of the hours I spent those spring evenings trying to come to terms with what had happened, was for them.

Which meant, the support of my professor and, as I did not know as the time, his wife. Professor Pessar reached out to me and helped me fund my first speaker for the series of events I've been putting together to expand the conversation on drug reform, the drug wars, mexico and civil violence on campus. She was always in my corner, rooting me on and reminding me why we do the work that we do. Why we study immigrant populations. And why we cannot end the conversation inside of our classrooms.

She encouraged me to be an activist and keep fighting.

Some of the best afternoons when I was most sure in my research and my time at Yale came from sitting in her office with her and asking her for advice on moving forward. She alternated between being a Mom ("No, Diana... you probably are right and dont want to take 5 classes in addition to everything else... especially not something you dont like because you FEEL like you should take it) and being my professor, who pushed me and encouraged me to keep writing.

I got up for those early morning bureaucratic discussions about whether or not my second major should be allowed to stand on its own, for her and for others who made the ERM experience everything that it was for me. For creating a space for me and other Latinos at Yale to study our history in the United States and abroad. To have a space to explore topics of our own choosing and really dive deeply into them.

Her struggle with cancer lasted many years, but she never let that stop her from working with students and keeping in touch with our work. She will be sorely missed. I didnt just lose my advisor this spring -- I lost someone who guided me through my first years of college, down this crazy unconventional path that has made me the researcher that I am today.

RIP Professor Pessar. You will be sorely missed. 

Friday, June 22, 2012

Sipping Chai in Dharavi

If you find yourself lost, you have only just begun your journey.

That's what it felt like when I looked at the sea of people crossing the bridge over the train tracks and pouring into Dharavi, famously known as "Asia's Largest Slum" and, supposedly, captured in the movie Slumdog Millionaire. 

Dont look down, they might say to you, as you dodge children and waves of people moving in every direction over the bridge. You hit the ground on the other side. Look up! See the woman leaning in the doorway of the second floor apartment, sewing and adjusting her sari? Children in uniforms scatter around you, running, pushing each other, and throwing a rock back and forth. The older ones are clinging together, staring at you wide eyed and giggling. "Hello," they'll say. And then they'll burst into laughter with pleasure when you respond.

Now the road forks and you have to decide where to go. To you it looks the same on both sides. Here no one stares at you because they want something. You feel safer walking around in the very crowded, busy and tangled streets there than you have anywhere else here. People dont look at you like they wanted something (this is the first time this has been true for the entire trip). They just look at you as though you are a new face in a very tight knit community, and when you smile they smile back. 

An invisible rope of shared foreign-ness keeps you tied to the other students you came with. You follow them through tiny, dark spaces, stepping over exposed pipes, drying clothes that have fallen from the wind, the lost cricket ball of children playing just ahead of you in an open square, and the occasional potato chip wrapper. 

We sat on the third floor of a loft with a small chat store on the ground floor. A man arrived selling Chai towards the end of our discussion about the community and the city (I, of course, was asking about local gangs, crime and violence... none of which played a huge role in this neighborhood). People live SUPER close together, but it isnt scary and claustrophobic which is what I was worried about. This community is one of the examples of this city where 60% of the population lives on just 5% of the land. And this is the 3rd largest city in the world. (Does this help with you picture of volume?)

It is really dirty: there is trash everywhere because the city doesnt provide sanitation options, and there is just 1 public toilet for every 1,440 people so people shit in areas where they can find space/some semblance of privacy. But there are little tienditas everywhere, there are potters, and tanneries and all of these highly skilled craftsmen who have been practicing the same trade for generations and supplying the entire city and export market with really incredible goods.

The children also came up to me and shook my hand, introducing themselves in English and asking me for my name with huge smiles. I felt much more welcomed here than I had anywhere else. And there werent cars etc mowing you down.

The Chai was a nice touch. It was boiling hot outside, the sun was out in full force for most of our trip but it made the city so much nicer to see and be part of then the sheets of rain from a monsoon would have been. The tea was sweet and dark...sort of like the conversations we were having in that room before we headed out to explore the city with a man who knew his way through all of the twists, turns, stores, homes and people we found across the city.

And really, it was like a city all its own. 

So if you find yourself lost in Dharavi, you have only begun your journey. 

Dharavi: A First Trip in Photos

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Sitting on the floor eating cornflakes.

But these are honey flavored, so maybe that makes this less boring?

I've been realizing how confusing language is more and more today than I have in a while. Not in a language barrier way. Somehow we have managed to make it many places, bargain and eat in a non-Delhi-belly inducing way without speaking much Hindi or Marathi or anything else. More in a general, successfully communicating my ideas way.

Actually, it kinds feels like I'm back in my sophomore year when I was an exchange student in Germany. I know what I am saying. I can see the pathways my mind has illuminated for me. The steps of logic from one to the next. But my language skills fall just short of the understanding of the person I am talking to.

It's weird. I chose to come to India because I have so little context for all of this. I read about Indian history for a semester and thought, AWESOME IT SOUNDS LIKE MEXICO LET'S GO. Oh naive... so naive... I find myself more frequently sitting and listening quietly. There are all of these themes and mysteries that I just cannot wrap my head around.

Like how we walk through super crowded areas with huge disparities and I feel safer than I expected to. I mean, apart from the car/autorickshaw/motorcycle/bus/truck/train/cow/goat/person/water container that I need to be vigilant for while I am walking anywhere. But it's not the same as Mexico or Latin America, where I look behind me every few steps to make sure the same person hasnt been following me, come up with alternative routes to wherever I go everyday and changing my times of departure to stay safe. People still stare at me, but it doesnt feel threatening in the same way.

Maybe it has something to do with how closely together everyone has to be all the time. There is an understanding that there just isnt space within the city not to interact in some way. And with that there is some peace? I am just speculating.

It's weird. Clearly I'm settling in because while I was in a Taxi heading down a 2 way street without any clear divisions in it, such that several buses, cars and trucks were heading straight for us at various points, and a COW was suddenly walking straight towards us without any clear intention to get out of the middle of the street, I was unfazed. Actually I was laughing to myself because I was thinking about this gif and how real it is.

I'm a bus

But then when I'm trying to explain a social structure or idea from my point of few... there is a lot of blank staring and clear communication failure. It's like the lenses of my point of view tainted windows here are foggy beyond recognition. I think I actually just dont get things... which is cool and weird and uncomfortable... and probably like that point in Germany just before the language barrier broke and I started to understand what the hell was going on.

We are visiting Dharavi tomorrow and spending a good chunk of the day exploring the site and hopefully not getting horribly horribly lost.

Should be interesting. more then.


This isnt related to India, so you might want to stop reading here.

This is a full fledged vent. Prepare yourself.

I am tired of Shamps. (This phrase was brilliantly coined by Tiffany) I am tired of people who suddenly are nice to you when they realize that you have something they want. Or people who decide you are worth their time when they see what you have done and what you want to do without really talking to you.

I try my absolute best to measure the individual on an equalizing level. I dont care who you are/who your family is/where you come from etc. All I care about is the level of respect you demonstrate when we talk, because I will only measure you based on your actions and your interaction with me. Do you value what I have to say enough to listen? Do you think through your opinions and understand where your own doubts are? Are you willing to question and rethink your plans because you can?

What I cannot stand is that so many people are rewarded at Yale for theft of the ideas of others. They are rewarded for being the loudest voice in the room, parading around as if well crafted plans that other people spent their lives designing, were their own. Creating sheets and resumes of their accomplishments, smiling the largest, and preventing everyone else from seeing how little substance they have behind them in order to get ahead.

And when they look back, where do they stand.

Awards that suggest ghosts of success.

Audiences that dont listen or understand what is being said, what was accomplished, and what could be because their reason for being in that room is to be seen. And stand as those cardboard cut outs with whitened teeth that tells us, I am successful. I am everything you want to be.

And you are not. I promise you that. When you look in the mirror you look straight through yourself because there is nothing of substance in front of you.

Yes, you can smile well enough to dazzle everyone in the distance.

But your smile cracks when I ask you: What have you accomplished and how did you do it? On whose back were you standing to be the face of this project?

Never mind that if you were left in the situation alone, you would be powerless to fix anything. Or find your way out of it.

Who has seen you vulnerable and made you stronger, when you dont even allow yourself to see the cracks?

As a generation we are failing if we pretend that all is well and can continue as it was. We are a sham without giving ourselves the time GIVEN to us and INVESTED in us to have this time to understand what we are, on a fundamental level. You were given a gift: the time to see and explore and question and make friends that break you apart, build you up, and support you when you are brittle, stretched, hungry, tired, cold, lost and confused.

And even in this. You have failed.

You know who you are.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

And Someday You May be Asked To Be An Extra in A Bollywood Film

Which is exactly what happened today.

I was walking home from St. Xavier's College when a man with a very good English accent appeared out of no where and apologized for disturbing me. He explained that he was working for a bollywood production filming outside of Victoria Terminus this week and they needed more white people (basically. He said something far more agreeable than, we need white people, but I cant remember exactly how he phrased it) to be extras in the film. I probably looked at him with a skeptical look that said something along the lines of, dude I SO DONT TRUST YOU, because he then explained that they would give me breakfast, the hours, how I could get there, could I bring some of my other white friends... etc. Then he gave me his phone number and promised to leave a card for me with information for everything in the place that he was guessing I am staying (I didnt tell him where I was staying, but he assumed I was walking home and was actually right...). If a card appears tomorrow or the next day, looks like I might end up in the background of a movie! Cool! The conversation actually went on for about 15 minutes, which is when another student appeared and I barked, DO.NOT.LEAVE. at him (I was getting a little worried that this was an elaborate plot to steal my cell phone or something, because I am naturally paranoid like that. Clearly a good Northeasterner no, huh.)

I spent the afternoon reading about India's growth slow down. They blame Greece (kind of like everyone else at this point...), but they also look at the political elite and their decisions, including the hand offs between families for seats of power, as another part of the slowdown. It's kinda crazy to sit there are read about the economic issues this country is facing because all you hear in the US is INDIA! CHINA! BRAZIL! RUSSIA! CRAZY NOT STOP GROWTH ALL THE TIME COMING TO CRUSH YOU TAKE YOUR JOBS INDUSTRY MONEY AND THEN SOME SO WATCH THEM GO!

And then I was sitting here in a cafe and thinking about the way that the city deals with its soaring real estate prices and the informal settlements everywhere including around the airport. The falling growth rates. The magazine article in India Today complaining about a growth rate that had fallen under 6%. How my cup of coffee cost me slightly less than it would have in the US but was still WAY WAY overpriced by Indian standards.

And here folks is another episode of MIND GAME LIMBO!

I'm going through a crisis of measurement, I've come to realize. It's like that moment when you are shopping from street vendors, and you pat yourself on the back for a bargaining job well done (after cutting the price down to a third of the initial offer), but the cheshire cat smile of the street vendor once you've completed your purchase let's you know that you still suck at this. Or at least, I still suck at this. And over paid for something... that is still unimaginably cheap compared to US prices with the price I got for it.

Media. You inform me of so many things that are not accurate or entirely true.

Well, another day, another street I managed to cross without being hit by a car :)

Monday, June 18, 2012

Struggling with Modernity

We missed the rain today, but it's all right. We had an entertaining series of misadventures to make up for it.

Our guide figure in Bombay explained his reasoning for everything he does -- from the time that he lived in Dharavi (Asia's largest slum, which happens to be on the edge of the Island that Bombay is built on) to his choice of dress (as you have seen in previous photos, specifically those from our visits to the caves) to what he eats every day. It is all political. And Awesomely radical. I loved it. He tries to live as the change that he wants to see not only in India, but in the world. 

And he told us many stories about the city, and talked about this theory that has really stuck with me all day. Modernity. At what cost? We look to it like it is a beacon of hope, but with each shift we make towards the future, what are the costs? Yes, each step in "progress" solves a few problems, but next ones emerge. Who pays for our choices and our comforts?

I was thinking about this while we walked to the Crawford market today. As usual, there were people sleeping on the side walk next to the street. All within a hair of the cars flying down the streets (we also learned at lunch today that the legal age to drive in 18 here, but it's fairly easy to get a license without ever taking a class... so people learn on the go... it explains a lot). But that is life here, and that is how they continue living.

I was also thinking about it while I was enjoying the benefits of an exchange rate that favors US dollars and much lower living costs of living in India compared to Boston or New York. I was thrilled that my lunch cost me $2.50 and was delicious. So cheap! We all said. And then we walked outside of the college gates and saw the woman who was crippled by polio and now sits on a little wooden board with wheels moving around by the street with her arm outstretched. Or the children. Or the man with a very clearly broken foot who hobbled over, standing 4 feet away from me while I waited for a friend to come back with her umbrella and watched me through dead eyes. At what cost could I afford these options? I could just as easily walk home or take a cab (for the equivalent of 50 cents) and I had choices. I know I will never have to sleep on the sidewalk while cars rush by me and people step over me en route to their next meeting. 

But, do we ever completely let it sink in? I've learned through the years that our minds protect us. They prevent us from fully feeling the effects of things we cannot comprehend. And for me, this was a moment of that struggle. Seeing something and not understanding because I cant process information as it stands in front of me. The UK built an empire while it sucked the resources out of this country. In the same way Spain sucked resources out of Mexico. It built mills and wealth and museums and palaces and a dominant culture of "acceptable" cultural practices that shifted so many peoples. And here I was standing on a sidewalk in a world struggling to make sense of who it was, who it is, and what it has lost along the way. 

We walked into Crawford Market which is housed in a massive colonial building. It is wholesale everything. Nuts, shampoo, pants, etc. EVERYTHING. And all of it has English labels. For me, dirt cheap, for so many people everywhere, not an option.

What is the cost of our choices? Our ability to make choices? What are we still taking away... without realizing it?

Can we ever fully comprehend it?

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Cities Through The Eyes of Another

The Monsoons are pouring down on us over here, folks. I think people were amused by me today. I was walking around in completely soaked through and trashed canvas slip on shoes that made squish squish noises when I carefully avoided puddles and avoided slipping down the street and a huge black rain jacket that was my Dad's but I took because I like it better than the women's ones that really dont keep you very dry at all. This giant black plastic bag basically ate me. I looked like an oversized version of one of the ravens that sit outside of my bathroom window and periodically startle us when they start calling. Oh, and also it's raaaaattthhherrr humid. So my glasses tend to fog up whenever I walk outside. It's a good look all around.

We woke up late (truly enjoying this Sunday experience) and went to a series of film screenings in the Mumbai Museum of Modern Art. One of the film makers was there to answer our questions after the screenings, which was super cool. She talked about her experience as a film maker and how she picked her subjects -- ultimately deciding to include herself as one of the people she asked about their experience with film and cinema in the city. My favorite part of her response was about one of her subjects. There was a woman who was very clearly (despite my language barrier) charming and mischievous and wonderful. She just glowed with life and good humor. You wanted to be around her. And the director said that she picked this woman, despite her limited exposure to film, because she was so charismatic. It was clearly a good choice -- it made the film overall more engrossing.

It was fun to see the city in several different neighborhoods, through the eyes of different people who live here. There was the man washing old film to be recycled into collared shirts rather than the bangles they used to make with it. There were the men from distant villages living and working in the city as migrants -- finding work some days and not others, subjected to changes that come from strikes, and creating spaces of refuge within the city. There were stories and families and the reality of what life looks like outside of the glamourous spotlight of major film studios. What's not to like?

We all left feeling thoughtful and wandered through the rest of the exhibition before I left with two other students to find the only open bookstore in the area. We have official things to do tomorrow and I needed a notebook!

We dipped and ducked under plastic tarps meant to keep the rain off the vendor's roadside stands. Every few minutes one of them would tip and dump buckets of water onto the unfortunate soul standing under the tarp. The city was a lot darker without the sun. Men crowded into the corners of stores, avoiding the alleyways with streams of brown water and garbage flowing out of them. Sometimes all that you would see were the figures of children huddled together watching the rain from beneath their blankets. The same ones many of them will sleep on this evening on the same side walks.

In my determined march to the bookstore for a notebook, I found the same child that I ran into a few days ago. He cannot speak and instead mimes at you. I think he remembered me, despite the large ridiculous bird figure I'd become with the changing weather. I am determined to find him before I leave (perhaps on my last day?) and finally give him the rice he asks me for every time I see him.

The treck back was interesting. We fell into silence and just managed to get through the growing puddles and dodge the few cars that we saw on the streets to make it home before we were completely soaked through. It helps that I spent so much time making myself rain appropriate for this trip, no? (This was from yesterday, so I wasnt wearing the rainboots, but you get the idea. This group of women wearing beautiful saris and trying to cross the street with us yesterday kept smiling at me and pointing at my boots. It was fun!)

For now, the rain is welcome. There were still children playing in soccer tournaments this morning. I woke up to the persistant whistles of time-outs etc. ...Makes you feel a little lazy, not gonna lie.

It was also a day full of smiles. I have to admit, there are a number of things that I missed about home. Since being back and connected to the internet/able to communicate, it has been much better. This is really a very different world from anything I've ever experienced before (which was kinda the point of me coming here...) and I know I felt really lucky to have the friends/family I do have to keep me sane through some of these episodes. So thank you :) I love you all.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Monsoon Rain Video

A little more on where we are living...

From the views of another traveler:
YMCA Colaba, as told by Emilie

The rains have started, as you will see from the video I am trying to upload. And we are going out for our first night in the city... What does one wear to survive a monsoon, go out, and still be covered up conservatively enough to attract less attention but not get hit by a car in the dark?

Yes. We would all like to know.

A Story Best Told in Pictures: A Trip to the Kanheri Caves

Friday, June 15, 2012

Promises of Rain

The rains are starting. Yesterday when we climbed back down from the Kanheri Caves in the national park in the center of Bombay we felt a few cooling droplets hit our faces. It was a great contrast -- we sat on black stone on top of the largest of the hills and cooked -- the stones absorbed so much heat! But the rain on our faces made the experience worth it. For the first day this week, we were sitting outside and we were drenched in sweat, threatening to collapse.

We navigated our way back down the old, worn stairs of the mountaintops where monks built caves and buddhist figures stare out at you from the darkness. I was wearing a pair of very treacherous, flowing black gaucho pants and sandals which wasnt ideal for the climb down the steeper parts. Still, this wasnt as frightening as the morning experience we had when we tried to cross the equivalent of a 3 lane highway exit ramp and were almost mowed down by a bus coming very fast, running 5 lanes of traffic and going in the opposite direction... directly into oncoming traffic.... (we were saved by my paranoia and a loud series of unsavory language also from me... clearly keeping it classy here). Driving to the park was also an adventure... we distracted ourselves from the fact that we actually put our lives in the driver's hands as we sped between cars, trucks, buses, autorickshaws, motorcycles, bicyclists, etc. on the high way.

It has cooled down quite a bit since the clouds came. Sun still makes a regular appearance, but this is better. Or, at least, I like it better. I know this is a be-careful-what-you-wish-for-moment, if nothing else than because my morning walk brought me through piles of sludge and dark mysteries on the side walk that I had to very carefully avoid or else wipe out in. (I managed to avoid slipping... but it was pretty disgusting and I dread the day that I fall in the sludge, regardless of what it is)

It was nice to walk alone this morning. I can imagine my Dad freaking out while he reads that (dont worry, Dad, I was fine). I found a place that sells coffee (it was getting weird... cutting my habit down from 2-3 cups a day to nothing felt a little off. I think I've reached my mother's level of coffee love: I look forward to my first cup of it every day) and really smiled like a cat when I saw that I could choose the location that my coffee was grown. Yes. I had coffee from Bolivian cooperatives. Does this make me a fair-trade-shade-grown-vegan-hipster/fresa as Francisco calls me? Yes. Yes it does. Was it worth it? Yes. Yes it was. And no, for the record, I am still not a vegan (despite a 3 day experiment when I first got home just to make Zak and Cole and all of the other vegan friends I now seem to have happy that I had at least tried...)

So the rains are starting. Our professor made an interesting opening statement about them a few days ago. He said, this is the perfect time to be in Mumbai because you'll see the city as it struggles to survive.  .... that's going to be interesting. I'm a little worried about what that actually means. I guess we'll see what happens.

But it had me thinking this morning about the value of rain and the sort of cleaning out (or not...) that it does of the city. I am LOVING the nearly 10 degree drop in temperature, making walking outside not an instant sweat bath. It is cleaning in that way. I'm scared of what it will do to the traffic since people dont really seem to look where they are driving anyway, and now they wont be able to see us super well through the sheets of rain... (I am even more worried about the first night we actually manage to go out in the city. I am half way through Super Freakonomics, and was just made paranoid to the fact that more people die walking home drunk than from drunk driving. Not that I plan on walking home drunk, but this is a serious concern for being out in this city at night and walking around. Looks like its time for me to find a way to draw even more attention to myself... neon yellow jumpsuits, anyone??)

But the rain has an equalizing element to it, that I think will be interesting to think about alongside all of the inequalities that I am having such a hard time mentally processing and dealing with. I honestly feel like I shut off my emotions and leave them at the door the moment I leave my key at the desk downstairs in the building I'm living in. I see the beautiful but completely decrepit colonial mansion across the street that I have dubbed the "Jumanji house,"the women in colorful saris who perch on the curb across the street next to the smashed front windshield that has lived on the sidewalk for who knows how long, and the grocery store with a restaurant of sorts that alternates between smelling very appealing and very very terrible depending on the hour and it just sinks in how sheltered I am within even the living space I have here. Dont get me wrong, I am BEYOND grateful to have running water, a shower, and a very clean place to live. But I am well aware how weird this is too.

Really, let's be honest here. It's the little kids. And I think they know I am internally a sucker for little kids. They stare up at me and I feel like I have to stare at them from behind a steel mask to keep myself from reacting or offering them anything. I dont even let myself speak -- it's that moment of being a foreigner and knowing that you cant escape being foreign and being unsure that its worth speaking and revealing where you are from anyway. Kudos to the kid this morning, he tried me in English, Hindi AND GERMAN. I almost cracked... I know it will only get worse if I hand them anything... at least until the end of my trip. Then maybe I can be nice and try not to promptly burst into tears when I realize how little I as one person in this space right here and right now can do for them.

So the promises I see with the rain:
Maybe it will be easier to deal with everything mentally -  the constant sensory overload, dodging cars at all hours of the day, ignoring the people who stare without stopping, the kids, the smells the EVERYTHING this city really is a Maximum city in every way.

I am grateful to have found my quiet coffee place this morning. I suspect I will take refuge from the rain there frequently when I want to remember the smells of home. There really is nothing like Latin American coffee to bring you back.




the fight isnt over, but we made an important step in the sensical and right direction.

Read and Watch more here!

And that friends, is why I will be knocking on all of your doors and registering you to vote and then turning you out to vote. YES.

I can go to sleep happily now!

We Made Some Friends

We’ve Made Some Friends!   June 14, 2012

The two men who work at the front desk of our building recognize us now. They always hand me the right key number without me asking, and they smile and odd as though we are old friends. Perfect. There is an old blind, Muslim man who walks down the alley of one of the nearby shopping streets chanting, Allah, between steps and holding his hand out for money to those who pass by. There are children who play in the public square near the Gate of India while their older siblings help wash the clothes that are hung along the fences, trees and gardens nearby while they dry in the hot sun. This same square will turn into a market place later in the day, full of men selling sponges, toys, huge balloons, and food.

We walked past the gate of India this morning to jump on a launch headed towards the Elephantine caves on an island about an hour off the mainland. The ride was uneventful on the way over apart from the rolling swells that we worried would make one of the group members sick. On the island we met the goats, monkey and cows that inhabit the island between the market stands offering everything from sequin bowler hats to grilled corn. One of the students with us learned quickly that this sign was serious:

The grandfather of all of the monkeys came up to her and prepared itself to assault her if she didn’t hand over the corn. In the background these little guys were harassing other tourists, and eventually had a drive by theft of Simon’s water bottle. 

We hiked up into the hills where the ancient Hindus carved incredible sculptures into the caves that they built themselves in the rock face. Even after all of these centuries, many of the sculptures are still incredibly detailed and truly breathe-taking. 

We wandered around this finished cave and few unfinished caves on the island, admiring the incredible detail and workmanship of the caves. It definitely had the feeling of a spiritual place… you felt the presence of so many years of history there. It was really great to see!

I am very distracted right now by some chanting outside my window. The voices sound very young, but there is a very loud and unified chant going on right now. I’m curious…

In the meantime, we had another full day of the-white-tourists-in-Bombay experience. While we sat on the jetty to the island, people stared and stared. Apparently it was at me for a good deal of the time, but I’m used to that now. I am “blonde” by many different countries standards (which is why people shout Guerra Guerra! At me when I’m in Mexico, and why a little kid or two here has reached out and tried to touch my hair while I was sitting somewhere in public). It stands out even more here when I’m wandering around between people with black hair. Various men were taking pictures and videos of me and another student while we sat on the boat and ignored them. This wasn’t the first time, and by now I had learned to ignore it.

The sun is still beating down hot each of these days. We keep hearing promises of the rain and how the rain will bring cooler weather but much more dirt… it will be interesting to finally see what happens. And pleasant to be out of this heat! One of the other students on this trip mentioned a really interesting idea while we hid in an air-conditioned restaurant today:

She said she was looking forward to watching the Euphoria of the city as it moved from the intense heat of these days into the cool rains. Rain brings a new kind of life to a city.

This was an interesting idea to me. Rain does bring life, doesn’t it? And when it is as intense as a few months of monsoon, where the rain comes down in sheets all day long, it’s hard not feel its presence in some longer term way. I mean, you have to come to terms with this very intense weather condition, and for those who are optimists, this could be a very good way to look at the months of rain.

When I talked to my parents this morning and voiced some of my concerns/frustrations, my Dad gave me this piece of advice:

This is a world unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. The only way to manage it is to watch, listen and learn from everything happening around me. There was no reason to try and “conquer” anything because this city would chew me up and spit me out before I realized what was happening. My best bet was to consider this an adventure without goals and just crazy stories to collect along the way.

And as such, we will continue on our merry way in Bombay. Perhaps the best course of action in these longer-term plan-altering decisions is to let go and see where it goes. There is a feeling of sporadic-ness underneath everything here that was making me feel crazy. There didn’t seem to be rhyme or reason to anything – from timing, to driving, to purchasing tech equipment, etc. and maybe there is, maybe there isn’t. But there is a desire to survive in everyone here – from the poorest beggar on the street to the entrepreneur starting out with a stall in the informal economy of the market places here. They are all making it just fine and figuring out how they will keep going as they go. Time for me to take a page of their book and relax…

Apart from the Colombia work that still needs my attention! Tomorrow we have another expedition to some ancient caves nearby, and I am sure that more lovely pictures will find their way into my blog. I am also officially buying a router tomorrow morning, so these entries will no longer be sadly hidden in a word doc on my computer! Perfect! 

The Continued 5 am Wake Up

The Continued 5 am Wake Up    June 14, 2012

It’s interesting – I never thought I would repeatedly get up at 5 am for a second round in my life. (The first time was when I was little and more of an insomniac… then it was everyday but I loved it) But here I’ve been falling asleep at 9:30 pm at the latest. So I’m back and up at 5 am today, for the third day in a row.

I was also feeling so SO frustrated this morning because we are in a country that is growing really quickly and supposedly has the best technology in the world… and yet my cell phone doesn’t get messages until 3 days later and then floods me with them, there honestly isn’t anywhere that I can hook up to wifi and send off the work I’ve been doing (I’m a workaholic, this is a SERIOUS frustration), and even then when I want to buy a router I need to bring my passport, the equivalent of an Indian sponsor with her passport, and a passport sized photo of myself…. What?!

I frequently complain about Mexico’s inefficiencies… but this is a whole new level of WHAT IS GOING ON HERE?! I’m in downtown Mumbai, supposedly in one of the most developed neighborhoods… and there seems to be very little infrastructure for tech stuff. I hope it’s just that I am blind and missing obvious things right in front of me. Really I do. The fact that this is day four and entry 6 on a word doc isn’t making this any better either.


On the plus side, it really has given me a better appreciate for everything that exists in Latin America. We really do have it far better than I was able to comprehend before I arrived here.

I’m also fending off what I really hope isn’t something wrong with my stomach from yesterday. I cant tell if its in my head or not – its that sort of discomfort where if you think about it, it just feels worse… it will be corn flakes for me today! And hopefully some fruit… I need to figure that situation out better soon. The food has been so heavy all the time that I need to work out an alternative to 2 really heavy meals a day and then corn flakes in my room.

We have a trip planned for a few hours from now to see some old caves in either of two places (depending on the weather and how choppy the ocean is). Hopefully sometime around then we’ll go back to the router store and pick up something to use here! (I’m prepared to beg and scrape at this point. If nothing else, I am super embarrassed about how long it has taken me to reply to scheduling emails for Colombia)

I think the next episode of today will be less angst ridden, I apologize for all of this. I am also supposed to keep a journal to turn in at the end of this process, so I am throwing this out there as part of my fully realistic experience. 

The Summer I Learned to Eat Bananas!

The Summer I Learned to Eat Bananas. -- June 13

I miss fruit a little bit. Ok a lot. I love living in the US now – I can walk down the street by myself and avoid catcalls, I can travel between cities (also by myself!) without worrying about being mugged or kidnapped, I can drink tap water and eat fruit without thinking about it, etc.

And here, everything looks beautiful and tasty and smells great… but I know in the back of my mind that I’ve been out of the game too long to eat street food and survive right now. Even with its tempting and promising smells – fried mystery potato things, curries, all of these delicious sliced fruit and MANGOS everywhere! Too soon… I will fight temptation for now.

So for the time being, my options have included Bananas and that is about it. Many of my friends will remember me as that girl who actually cringes when bananas are hidden in things. I just hated them. A few bad memories from working a summer camp skit, and mostly the texture. I know that makes me sound like a total diva… maybe I am about bananas. I accept that.

But so far its been hard to eat fruit… we found a grocery store near our housing last night and today when we took the other students back we were able to buy some bananas! It’s a welcome treat after eating only things that I am certain were cooked – it’s too early for me to tempt fate and risk food poisoning or worse.

After breakfast we wandered out into the city and went further away from our neighborhood (Colaba). This time we walked all the way to the Marine drive we’ve read so much about and walked along the ocean next to the Art Deco strip of the city. It was oppressively hot – I have the really awkward sunburn lines on my back where I missed with sunscreen to prove it. In one direction a man caught up with me and asked me, “Are you an actress?” I laughed and said no…. when we came back to the same space on our way back to meet our professor, he caught up with me and asked me for my “good name” while trying to pass me a photo of himself. He told me that he was a director filming on the spot and then I kept walking because this was weird and it was hot and I wasn’t sure if this was a scam or not.

The shoreline has these really interesting rock sculptures everywhere. I have a photo of it, check it out:

And this is Marine Drive (along with a grinning Tia):

By this point you don’t even realize you are sweating. It’s just all the time. I never really thought that would be something that I would come to terms with, but you really only notice how bad it is when you aren’t outside anymore. Or when your glasses get kinda gross (sorry for the too-much-information-moment here).

It’s really interesting. Mumbai is at once very cosmopolitan, and also very traditional. Or at least, for me it feels “traditional” in that vague ambiguous meaning of the word, where “traditional” refers to things that don’t seem to be western… you are all welcome to have problems with this use of the word and my terminology later, it’s just a theory I have about westerners when they travel. (Most recently, when I was packing to go the Mexico, my mother and I had the conversation about what to wear. She told me, most people in the area you are going to are very “traditional” – it’s better for you to wear pants and cover up. Whereas maybe the assumption was that in less “traditional,” read Western, places it is fine for me to bear my shoulders and calves, here it feels really awkward.)

So I’m running with this idea and use of “traditional.” Bear with me. It is over 100 degrees outside and yet there are tons of women wearing skinny jeans. JEANS. This is still far more westerner than many other parts of the country, I am told, but it is oppressively hot and people are covering up by wearing normal length jeans. It was also been virtually impossible to find wifi. Even this morning as I retreated to the coffee place that let me download 20 precious emails before it stopped working did not have wifi today… There are internet cafes down the street, but I was under the vague impression that there would be wifi somewhere nearby our housing – whether in some cafes, a hotel, something! After all, Mumbai is the finance center of India… and therefore there are many people visiting from my neck of the woods. It was just make making assumptions, but even in many of the places I worked in for the past few summers in rural Mexico were moving towards wifi… weird, huh? It’s cool to be isolated from the world – I would actually super love it if I wasn’t trying to turn in thesis research and reply to interview scheduling emails… the tech is also pretty interesting. My American phone wasn’t working for the past two days, but I didn’t realize that until it connected to a different network, freaked out and brought in the 15 texts I’ve received in the last two days while it ignored them… sorry everyone! I have an Indian number now, just in case you want to skype call me: (whatever the India code is) 916-760-3576.

Getting the phone was also a bit of a production. Ada and I wandered through the streets yesterday when it was still just the two of us. We came upon a stand that sold SIM cards, which of course didn’t work in my old phone because it is an American phone and the manufacturers prevented it from ever leaving the US and functioning without American coverage… classic American marketing in SO many ways (I say this as I fiddle with my converter to charge my laptop). The guy from the stand had to copy Ada’s passport to sell us both SIM cards (everything seems to require a passport here…) and then include passport-sized photos of here in some paperwork. He then offered to sell me a phone, which I decided was fine since it cost me about $14 for a new phone and a little more for a lot of phone credit. He called someone and his brother appeared out of no where. I paid the stand guy for the phone, SIM card and service, and then we followed the brother through the winding streets and insane traffic to his store where he gave me the tiny candy bar phone that I am using now.

We wandered off down the street, got lost, and then found our way once we made it to the shore – outside the Taj Hotel and the Gate of India. It was easy to get back from there because I’d done the walk so many times at this point.

Taj Hotel

Gate of India

Getting in a taxi while you are more aware of your surroundings is also pretty awful. It costs about 24 rupees (a little under 50 cents) to get from our class space to our housing, but in that time you come within a hair of cars every few seconds. And trucks and buses and roving pedestrians. Today our professor gave me truly valid advice: he said, when crossing the street walk confidently. If you are confused then the driver will be confused. We all have a similar goal here, which is not to die or kill anyone. It made sense, but I had that moment of Wow… this is a totally different mind frame that I’ve ever had before. It shows that even when there doesn’t seem to be any sort of rhyme and reason to something, there is a natural order that develops from somewhere or another.

Not sure I could handle this logic everywhere, but it is definitely a system here. Today was much easier to deal with, because you need to shut off your brain and just function without over thinking it. Really, it’s time for your survival instincts to take the wheel. This is also something I’m not terribly good at, since I like logic, and plans, and predictability… it’s just not an option here.

Interesting, no? The promise of rain coming soon keeps being repeated, though the sky is completely clear and the sun is very intense. It will be about 7 degrees or more cooler, which will be great. I still bought a pair of very cheap but gorgeous dark green cotton “genie pants” (as I always called them). They are wonderfully comfortable but still cover everything they need to cover, which makes them perfect for this experience. All of the girls I am with purchased a pair to spare us in this intense heat. On the plus side, we were told by a girl from Madras who joined us today that this humidity protects us from the sun strokes common in her city, and sweating this much, supposedly, has a healing/anti-aging property to it. I’ll keep a list of its benefits to keep myself from going insane.