Monday, July 30, 2012

Lessons from Bogota

I've been here for about three days now, and already I've learned a few things from trying to squeeze in a ton of work within a very short period of time. This is different than India because there is time pressure, I speak the language, and I have a master, year long project going on here...

And so, here we go:

1) The American over-scheduling every 15 minute increment of our lives thing is possible to do without. Confession: this moment of acceptance took a LONG LONG time to reach. After weeks of me essentially ripping my hair out trying to get answers, emailing for days, stressing out about the wording of emails to important people (the usual Yale student thing)... I came here with open afternoons which I just spent the morning filling. And wow... this schedule is crazy.

2) Tranquila, Tranquila is actually a life style that I could maybe one day live with. Maybe. I decided we'll try to apply it this year: no more overscheduling, way more open time to let things I wouldnt be able to do otherwise happen. I'm going to push all of my friends to do more spurr of the moment things. It's going to be great.

3) I am bizarrely honest. I hadnt realized how straight forward about most things I am. yes I always knew I was a go getter, but I really just dont beat around the bush much.

4) I'm REALLY thinking on my feet now. What with the whole, oh I have a handful of MAYBE appointments that I'm trying to set up that actually just worked out. And now I'm cranking out and adapting questionnaires to fit the setting.

My thesis is going to be AWESOME. I'm having a great time here!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Wearer of Many Masks

I was sitting in a bar in the South End of Boston (it's one of the really trendy neighborhoods right now. Known for fashionable bars and nightlife, a growing gay community, and old world Boston charm) and laughing to myself while my friend went outside to take a phone call because I really am the wearer of many masks.

I realize those words come with heavy connotations, so let me first dispel those misperceptions in what I am saying here. I dont mean it to say I am a chameleon or that I dont have a real personality. As any of my friends or people who work with me can tell you, I am very definite and uncompromising in who I am. Sometimes to the point of conflict (but hey, how many activists do you know who ARENT confrontational and ready for an argument? Answer: none. We live to cause some trouble and shake it up).

I mean it in the sense that I like a lot of extremely and exceptionally different things. That's probably why the first word people often use to describe me is "quirky," and not as an insult or euphemism.

I was laughing and thinking about my masks because I was enjoying a lovely, mild summer evening in one of the WASPiest cities in the country, drinking something sweet called "tokyo rose" and essentially gossiping with a friend who has known me for my entire life. All while a week earlier I was walking through open sewage pipes in sandals in the monsoons in Dharavi and asking people I didnt know, who I had just met in my passages, to tell me about their lives and their businesses.

Whereas, now I was drawing attention to myself in the bright red pants I purchased when I came home because they remind me of one of my absolute best friends, I was doing everything I could to try and blend into the walls. I was covering myself from wrist to ankle in subtly colored Kurtas and leggings and everything that I could find to match the locals -- no jewelry (for me this is weird. I am a layering kind of girl...), plastic shoes, hair tied into a knot ont the back of my head... and still I couldnt do anything to blend in. And here, bright red pants, summer clothes, henna still all over my arms... and I went about unnoticed, as I had hoped.

Exploring has taught me to love many aspects of life.

From the questionnaires I am writing about now for Colombia, to the emails I'm sharing with friends I met along the way... it's been a really great ride.

Even now as I sit here thinking about Colombian history and what I want to ask people about, I am thinking through a creative project I want to do when I get back to create something to give a friend for his birthday.

And you realize, too, that what makes all of this possible -- what keeps me pushing through the more challenging moments of these experiences, fears of being different and going down the uncharted path (away from consulting or worse -- Ibanking-- which Yale seems to push HARD on us), and defining my own version of success, since I am well aware that I will never happily meet that cookie cutter, Yale definition of success (read: money, rank in a traditional, tried and true company, and my own version of a trophy...husband? even writing that makes me gag)-- are the people you met along the way. My parents who notice when I send them emails at 4:30 am and then tell me to GO TO SLEEP and STOP WORKING AND GO HAVE FUN, my best friends, one whose voice soothes all pain and will never judge me and the other who sits on the phone with me and walks me through new technology apps I should know, fights with me through my ideas and projects, and who doesnt put up with my crap, and all of the people who surprise you by caring more than you thought they would.

I am a wearer of many masks because people show me things, and tell me stories, and invite me into their spaces. And for this, I am grateful.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Bombay and Dharavi: a Brief History

I thought I'd put up chunks of some of my research here, for those of you who are curious.

First: A brief history of Bombay and Dharavi --

Bombay and Dharavi:
A different kind of development took place in Bombay during the 1850s that made way for workers to create spaces like Dharavi within the city. After the colonial period of the city’s growth as a major trade and port city, Bombay expanded from rapid industrial growth and migrant workers who came to the city seeking jobs from the booming textile mills. The “native city” in Bombay developed as workers moved in to live near the textile mills in areas like lower Parel. Chawls sprung up to house the male workers pouring into the city.  It was common to find as many as 12 men living in the same room and about 200 of them sharing the same bathroom.[1] During the American civil war between 1861-5, the cotton and textile industry in Bombay lost a major competitor and did particularly well. The promise of work, better wages, and a chance to escape the limiting caste system of the villages attracted more and more workers to the city. Workers were now earning enough to send home to their families in the villages, work for a few years, and then return to invest in their villages, therefore gaining a better position within their communities. 
           Economic expansion, however, was not limited to mills and formalized industries. Workers developed communities around their work sites because Bombay did not offer affordable housing options to meet the needs of the rapidly growing working class. Dharavi itself developed as a community of workers who were not incorporated into the mills and needed to seek employment elsewhere. These workers took up jobs that offered goods and services to the rest of the city though the work itself was considered undesirable but necessary, like recycling and leather tanning. Most of these workers found jobs in the informal economy, taking up work as daily wage earners. In their lifetimes, most of them will never have a legally protected contract with their employer, and end up with the title of “temporary worker,” which makes them susceptible to abuse, arbitrary termination, and poor working conditions. Communities like Dharavi and Jari Mari expanded over time and supplied the city with many necessary services and alternatives to the formal business sector, providing employment and housing to an enormous number of Bombay’s residents. Today these communities have strong internal markets and self run businesses that international companies are studying for their own production methods. 
Bombay and Dharavi have been interconnected for a long time: neither one can survive without the other. Out of the 21 million people living in the city, eight million people live in Bombay’s slums.[2] Dharavi covers 550 acres of land and has a diverse population of individuals who create their own communities within the space.[3] New migrants arrive in Dharavi all the time for specific training in their trade before they move into other areas of the city.[4] Most of these individuals are daily wage laborers who are members of the Dalit caste, but there is also a significant Muslim population in the area. This is still a space for migrant workers to leave their villages and join relatives or friends in the city and where their social networks help them find work and housing. Dharavi provides labor for many of the services consumed by the upper and middle classes of the city: workers from the slums provide drivers, maids, nannies, cooks, and cleaning services for families across the city. Since the closure of the mills, Dharavi has also become an increasingly important site for manufacture and production. Entrepreneurs and business owners running small shops within Dharavi operate under lower start up and overhead costs that formal manufacturing jobs because the work usually takes place within the same space that a family or group of workers may sleep, eat, and work. There are roughly 5000 informal businesses operating within Dharavi, turning over more than $600 million in economic activity per year.[5] Manufacturers here supply the garment industry with western style shirts for export, dancing shoes worn by famous celebrities, and the leather bags carried by India’s elite families.
Bombay creates some of the demand for work that Dharavi’s residents have developed ways to supply, but Dharavi has also created and supplied its own market. Dharavi is an informal city: there is not enough water for residents, and often ten or more families will have to share a water tap that will provide them with water for less than three hours a day.[6] The city does not provide this part of the city with a garbage collection system, which means locals residents have developed their own way to manage waste and recycle. Services like garbage collection, recycling and others were developed by local residents to meet the needs of their community. In addition to providing an important part of Bombay’s manufacturing sector with products, Dharavi exists as a self-sustaining local economy where products are developed through local innovation to meet the desires, preferences and prices demanded around them.[7] Residents from Dharavi run their businesses without the support of the government or formal finance structures. Banks will reject often applicants for credit cards or loans when they see that the applicant’s mailing address is in Dharavi or similar areas within the city.[8] Microfinance firms are moving into the area and offering their services, but many business still operate independently from formal loan systems. Residents are also challenged by the government when they try to reinvest in their homes and the space despite how much of their time and production happens here: Dharavi exists on a highly desirable piece of land within the city, making it a target in discussions surrounding redevelopment and relocation of the slum-dwellers.

[1] Ashish Chandra, Lecture, June 18, 2012.
[2] Jim Yardley, IHT, Dharavi: Self-created special economic zone for the poor,, Online.
[3] Hanna Ingber, The Shiva Rules: Lessons from Asia’s Largest Slum, The Global Post, May 17, 2011, Online.
[4] Yardley.
[5] Ingber.
[6] Yardley.
[7] Ingber.  
[8] Interview with Mathias Echanove, July 4, 2012.  

Welcome Home

Back to the 5 am wake ups! But that's all right, because it has already been a productive morning as a result.

The trip back from India took about 30 hours in total travel time. This may even be a little bit of an underestimate. It was a long trip full of my usual misadventures. 

It began with the taxi that switched drivers through the course of a 1.5 hour, twisting and winding drive through random parts of Bombay to the airport. We ran 3 red lights that were nearly fatal (this is post Bombay Diana speaking. Which means I got used to cars essentially scraping the door of the cab I was in, turning in front of us, nearly hitting bikers, cows, trucks coming the wrong way down the street... etc.) I joked about it once, but I am fairly certain that the only way I personally could survive driving my own car in India would be if I was completely out of my mind. Either because I had lost my mind or I was drugged out somehow and unable to fully understand everything going on around me. You have to leave everything at the door and survive by instinct. Everything happens in milliseconds on those roads. From the heels of your plastic rain flats melting to the bottom of the car, to the driver pulling over, jumping and and being replaced by some guy who walked out of a convenience store... yeah. None of these things would fly in the US. Cool life experience...?

I made it to the airport by blaring music in my ears and disorienting myself as much as possible (not something I am normally ok with doing) but it meant I was a lot calmer by the time I reached the airport than I usually was after stepping out of cabs in the city. 

The following hours were a mix of papers, filling out forms, being absolutely scalped in the exchange rate for my last rupees into dollars (there are signs everywhere before you enter Satan's Playground, also known as the desks in the airport where you go through the final immigrant exit proceedings for India, that declare: Rupees are a controlled currency, you cannot carry them past immigration. The men sitting at the exchange counters lit up and looked like their were about to jump into the air and click their heels when they saw me walking by reading their signs. YES YES COME HERE DUMB TOURIST YESSSSSS, was what their faces said to me.) I then sat in various airport public spaces trying to figure out what time my body THOUGHT it was versus what time it actually was...

and unimaginable kindness. All because my arms were marked with henna! 

First episode of this kindness took place when I went through the gender segregated security check at the Mumbai international airport. The woman who had to screen me after I somehow set off the metal detector (I honestly wasn't wearing anything but thin cotton and a watch) tried so hard not to smile at me. She was a really tough looking lady. And then her face cracked, as she point to my arms and said, "henna!" She grinned at me during the rest of the very brief check before she waved me off. Of course, I was still super excited about it, so I was babbling about how creative the student who painted my arms was, and where I went and all of this. 

Second episode was when I needed to buy a water bottle found out a few nasty little surprises:
1) the airport only accepted rupees
2) JUST KIDDING ABOUT RUPEES BEING SO STRICTLY CONTROLLED THEN! Awesome. I was burned in the exchange rate on the way back AND didnt have anything to give the guy that he would accept for the water bottle. stellar. 

As I was thinking about how I could get rid of my headache (which was from not drinking water all day... because I am brilliant like than sometimes...), one of those rare cases where a random stranger commits a random act of kindness happened.

The man standing behind me in line bought me one and tossed it to me. He had listened to me argue in vain and nearly try to bribe the guy behind the cash register with dollars for a water bottle, and then decided to help me out. I was speechless. He pointed to my arms and said that he liked them. In an airport of all places. I consider airports to be the spaces where rudeness is almost acceptable because everyone is confused and lost and tired. I dont really seem them as spaces for random acts of kindness but I was stunned and very happy!

Later on when I was searching for a very specific kind of candy that my father loves and requested that I find for him 7 weeks earlier when he heard that I was flying through Britain en route to Boston, a saleswoman stopped me and asked about my arms. She was curious about the color and the design and the meaning of the patterns. It was nice. She tried to give me chocolate and some other samples from all over the store but I still felt queazy from from flight and had to say no. All the same, she was extremely friendly, helpful and nearly went on the quest for this candy with me until I found what I wanted. 

And on the last flight from London to Boston, when I felt stir crazy for the first time in a LONG time, I was sitting next to a little girl who looked like me when I was 8 years old. Same hair color, skin tone, eye color. (This has been a trip with a weird number of dopplegängers running around) She and her grandmother (?) were Romanian, so they couldnt really talk to me, but they were really cute with each other so it made me smile. The little girl liked my henna, I kept seeing her staring at it, so eventually I reached out my arm and let her touch it. She traced some of the lines and grinned at me. I felt like I was sharing HOW AWESOME this experience was with everyone.

So many kudos to Mishel.

And now I'm back. Still wearing my brightly colored Indian clothes everyday, but now my henna covered arms and feet are visible to all. I'm loving it :)

Pounding Rain

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Homeward Bound!

Hey all,

I am writing to you for the last time from Bombay. I am leaving tomorrow evening, but I need to turn in my internet key this afternoon so I will be offline until my layover in London on Friday.

I am spending the day out in Thane with Mishel (a rockstar from our class) where one of the students she teaches in a community near her will do Henna for me! I'm having my left arm done from fingertips to elbow and then my left foot. We're having lunch, avoiding the rain and seeing more of the city from the outskirts than I have yet.

Then I'm coming back and finishing everything that I need to turn in before tomorrow. I am both very excited to go home and a little nostalgic to leave Bombay. Even today as I was dodging cars to cross the street on my way for my morning coffee and watching someone weld pipes together in the crowded, dark and bustling market stalls along the Colaba Causeway I felt a sort of sadness that comes with an ending.

I also realize it will take a lot of time for me to process everything that I saw and experienced here. I'm looking forward to a week or so at home to get everything together for Colombia, catch up with friends and read. I think it will help me get through the pile of things I am thinking about right now and understand this trip better. it's going to be fun to try and explain everything that was these past 6 weeks...

And here is where I say goodbye until I am back stateside. Be good! 

Sunday, July 15, 2012

An Immigrant Narrative.

Someone just asked me, "why do you refer to it as your country?" when I was talking about Mexico.

The implication being, I am from the US now and therefore I am American. American in whatever that internationalized idealized or ridiculed or exaggerated view ends up being. Based on my time here in India, it means being white. And a hyperly sexualized female figure. Which is something that I have HATED from the first day here on out. It means being privileged and sheltered, which yes compared to the rest of the world, Americans are undoubtedly so. I include myself in this stereotype, because I have been very lucky and I acknowledge and am grateful for that.

People look at me and see white. They see brunette in the US. They see güerra in the Mexico. They see blond in India. They see my skin tone as the ideal to the point that all major actresses are as pale as I am, every grocery store/street stand selling skin care products promising to bleach your skin/your arm pits/your pubic hair. Americans pour on the fake tan and nearly glow in the dark. Here I glow in the dark for different reasons.

I cant change what I look like. This is what I am and this is how I will always be. And I am happy with that.

But so much about citizenship is clearly tied to this nagging idea of identity politics. For people whose families have lived in the same city/country for several generations, the answer is simple. You can be a citizen of that country and never wonder.

I am an immigrant.

I have parents from different places, histories. blood ties back to different countries. Feelings that tug me and cause me to feel loyal for different reasons. I love Boston. I love living there and the streets have become etched into my mind and memory and I feel safe and comfortable and at home there. I love Mexico and all of the places I have been able to explore there, and see and feel and revisit and taste and be part of. I am proud of the US when we compete well in the olympics or surprise people by doing better at soccer in the World Cup a few years ago than everyone expected. But I turn off the rest of my life and watch Mexico's games in the world cup when I'm with other Mexicans -- something I dont do for American sports (apart from watching Michael Phelps in the last summer Olympics).

My top 25 on Itunes are a mix of Mexican pop music, weird alternative American music, and some other stuff thrown in there.

I speak Spanish and English at home. I eat spicy food without flinching or even noticing, and I wear more color than 95% of the people in my neighborhood.

I study and work in Mexico and the United States.

If my citizenship and my nationality is based on "where my blood is from" I am a stateless, floating human being. I dont have this as an option and I accepted this long ago. My Mexican friends tease me because I am not fully one of them anymore. My American friends tease me too. All with affection, yes, but there is truth in this. I am not one thing. I have written and spoken about it countless times. All that I can give you is a narrative as an immigrant. I cant give you a stamped sheet of paper with my extended family tree and provide you with anything conclusive.

So this leaves me with one option, when people as me "where are you from?" or "what are you" all I can say with certainty is, "Hi. I'm Diana."

Architecture and the art of being breathe-taking

There are moments in your days where something will cause you to stop. Be silent. Retreat into that thoughtful place in your mind that pushes everything else out and leaves you with a question.

Mine is usually simple: How?

For me, Ellora was one of these spaces. One of those spaces where life pulls off the blindfold and you stand there desperate to make sense of the flood of sounds, images, smells, emotions and things going on around you. There was an added element of fear for me in this occasion: when I had my first view of the temple in the man-made cave I was standing 3 ft away from a sheer cliff. (for those of you who dont know, I have an intense fear of heights. All drops 10 ft or higher cause something resembling a fight or flight response to kick in)

The site is unbelievable. Made only more so by the fact that all of it was carved from the top down. Out of a sheer rock cliff. While no one is certain as to why it was done this way, there are many stories and rumors that people are happy to share with you if you ask them.

The closest experiences I have to spiritual moments usually take place in buildings. I realize that doesnt sound very glamourous -- what I mean by that is that I love architecture and art and all places where human talent can be shown off and admired in an approachable way. I love sculpture and working in 3D forms because you can experience a piece from different angles and see it totally differently. How it manipulates shadows, how it interacts with you and the space, and most importantly, how you in your most instinctual self react to it.

Most importantly I love buildings where the talent of the architects and engineers that worked together to create masterpieces. Where so many talents and minds come together to design and build a space and a living sculpture that becomes more than just a piece of art to be seen. It loses that elitism attached to formal art galleries and art spaces because everyone is interacting with the piece in a space.

I think first of the church in Ulm, Germany, where I was an exchange student 6 years ago (it's interesting to me how much I have been thinking about that time while I've been here. In truth, it is more than I have ever thought about it before. I guess it's the same episode of feeling out of my element, then slowly learning to adapt, and finally finding a corner for myself). I remember walking into the huge doors of the church into the central cathedral space and being stunned. It was like I was enveloped in peace. I know that doesnt make much sense, but that was what I experienced. It was a sense of calm like the last sigh of tension left my shoulders. A pretty magical experience for a control freak like me :)

This space in Ellora has a different feeling attached to it. One of awe. and Mystery. And seeing how much more there is to the world than we can ever begin to comprehend. This space was built so long ago with tools less technically advanced that we have now. It was built on the backs of countless slaves on an empire so rich that they could create this sort of masterpiece. The details and use of the space is not comparable to anything I have ever seen before and my photos cant begin to do it justice.

For me, it was a moment of accepting that I will never completely understand the space, what it was meant for and everything that was pouring into creating it. I came to experience it in that short-tourist-feeling-attention based way, while so many others spent there lives here in these caves exploring their purposes and adding to the color and history of its years in use.

It helped as we walked through the darkness of its passage ways, dodging the bats and pot holes carved into the stone, I had time to think through a few questions I've had lately. Namely about my majors and my final theses in each of them. I needed that time.

I was only brought back out of my hiding place in my mind when we entered the central temples and stood without our shoes in complete darkness. The first room had pillars with ornate patterns carved into them. The most important space, however, was at the end of this great hall and it was decoration-less. There was just a stupa sitting in the middle of the room, drawing all of your attention to these basic shapes. Our guide referred to it as the "womb" of the temple, which was fitting. It was warm and dark anyway...

I think I'll probably have more to say about this later, once it sinks in, but I wanted to update this now before this next week goes crazy. I only have 3 more days here because I leave really early Thursday morning and arrive in Boston on the same day. Pretty wild, no?

So for now, I'm going to tie up a few more lose ends and pack before our closing dinner this evening.

But I'm sure I'll be back soon :)

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Ellora Caves, a series in Photos

At first, all you see are the cut outs of the unfinished caves

This is the scholars' space for the monks to study while they lived here in Ellora and practiced the Buddhist tradition. Once upon a time, these spaces were lit, painted, and filled with leathers, silks, cushions and books. The stone in the middle was where books were stored. 

The Entrance to the main Buddhist Temple


The dormitories for young monks (kinda like Saybrook? ...just kidding)

Stone figures inside of the Dormatories

Ellora's breath-taking temples. These were carved out of the stone from the top down. Look at the people in the image for an understanding of scale, though this still doesnt show how far down these temples go. 

A bad demon being spanked by Shiva (I'm pretty sure that was the story here) and a monk

Inside those temples...

Ellora's temple space from the ground level

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The namesake.

Hillary Clinton's Biggest Fan

... is apparently a 91 year old Mumbaiker restaurant owner who owns the famous Bombay eatery, Britannia and Co. (As you can see from the reviews, this place is amazing)

He told us so himself. When we arrived at our table to greet us, he asked the two Indian students where we were from and his eyes lit up when they said, America. He told us, after we ordered, that we needed to pass along a message of greetings and how much he adores her, in case we happen to see her when we returned to the US.

The restaurant is an open, cement room with crumbling sea foam green walls. There are images of the Queen of England on one wall and a life size cardboard cut out of Prince William and Kate Middleton attached to the raining of the loft overlooking the room. This, in addition to the laminated letter from the Queen and the newspaper clipping of the restaurant owner receiving a letter from the queen confirms any doubts you may have had that this restaurant owner is an anglophile.

There arent too many options, but EVERYTHING is delicious. The restaurant specializes in Iranian and Parsi food -- I had the Veg. Dhansak which was spicy and delicious. Everyone else had the chicken berry pulao (there is also a goat meat option for the braver folks), which is basically meat with saffron flavored rich, some magical flavor things, and dried pomegranates.... delicious.

We had a lovely time (I feel like this is the stereotypical quaint saying, which meant I HAD to say it in this occasion, what with British themes and all. Yeah ok, I'm a dork).

In other news... One more day of class this week before we head to the Ajunta and Ellora caves this weekend. A 7 hour train ride into the countryside.... but it's going to be COMPLETELY AND TOTALLY worth it. Seriously, look at the pictures I just linked to. I cant wait to add photos here for you to see.

And then I have 3 more days of class... and I'll be home next Thursday! Pretty wild. This last part has gone really quickly. Which means I've been working on a crazy combination of Colombia work and closing up my project on informal economies and Dharavi. I'm thinking about adding my findings to my blog somehow... but that might be weird. I'll keep you posted.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Life Wish.

I wish to always be a student of the world.

And by that extremely vague and idealistic statement, I mean I hope that I will always find/make time to walk down streets I've never been down before, people watch, and experience new cities wherever I may find myself in the future.

Now back to planning out my job for the year after graduation that will let me do that...

Life Advice From Ashish

This is Ashish. Our local guide/mentor/professor/generally present life force.

He also occasionally gives us life predictions.

My most recent one was this morning: he looked at the henna print on my hand, and warned me that my future spouse will not be faithful.

The basis of this claim?
Henna can be darker or lighter depending on how long you leave it on, but also depending on how well your skin absorbs the dye. I keep my hands soft and exfoliated based on my usual activities, and as a result my henna dye was a lighter shade than is *preferred*

which means... infidelity in my future. 

Interesting claims. And here, I just thought the pattern stamped on my hands was cool!

To the Women Street Vendors in Colaba

I purposely look for the women on the causeway (this is a long street in Colaba where street vendors gather to sell their wares everyday. You can find anything from the harem/"genie" pants, to wooden elephants, to henna, stamps, silver rings, metal glittery bangles, shoes, (occasionally pirated DVDs... though these are mostly in Fort, along with the roadside used Dildo stands [yep. So many reasons that is an uncomfortable and, naturally, dark alley to walk through when we walk back home from Fort])... etc.

I look for the women for several reasons. Let me get the #fairtradeshadegrownveganhipster reason out of the way first. One: Statistically, women working as street vendors in India are very likely to be the sole breadwinners for their households/families. A few of the women I've found and slowly befriended are supporting themselves and themselves alone, but as far as I can tell, a few of the others also seem to be supporting their kids. There is a lot of incentive for women to enter the informal economy because there are lower barriers to entry, women can earn the same wages as men when they are self-employed, and there is less (definitely still some... but less) gendered-based job discrimination.

I keep running into the old woman who sold me my jingling anklets. She smiles at me now and winks. It's good to see, because she is usually huddled into a corner looking a little frightened that people in the sea of legs around her might step on her or the blanket she uses to show her wares. She's tiny and wears a green sari with blue and yellow stripes, the top of it draped over her head. Her hands and feet are tiny, but she is a very effective saleswoman: She catches you looking, grins the most mischievous, charming... enchanting! smile, looks at what you pick up for a moment and then quickly picks something better, hooks it around your one ankle and then the other and perfects it. All before you notice what is going on... But here's the thing: She picks something that works for you better than you would have for yourself. Truly. And I pride myself on being a designer/very set in my fashion decisions. So this woman is clearly good at her job. She may also just know that I am not so secretly in ADORATION for her, and will seek her out to make sure she is there whenever I walk the street. For whatever reason, her face will always stay in my mind. And the music in my step (but actually). 

Two:  When you ask them for an opinion, these ladies give it to you straight. 
Which is how I run the show too, so I appreciate it. You say, ooh I like that (stamp/book/etc) and they'll say... yeah it's ok but here's a better one for the same price. Unlike the men who look at me, think HAHA GLORIOUS IT'S A DUMB WHITE CHICK and then try to sell me things at a 500% mark up (woo woo), they'll cheat me at a more reasonable level and then dont try to flirt with me when we bargain. They realize, believe it or not, I dont actually visit street stalls to flirt with/pick up men. Not really my scene. So I appreciate the interaction as business partners that I get from the women.

Three: There are less of them. They are competing with loud, aggressive, and actively seeking men who wink, call and touch you to try and get you to look on their wares. Women dont do that. As someone who wishes EVERYDAY that I could blend into the wall and walk down the street unnoticed, like I do in the US, this is golden. I see you and reward your patience. Mostly because it makes me so much more comfortable when I talk to you. It's a little overwhelming when you are uncomfortable because you are bargaining and you are trying not to be grossed out by someone making a pass at you. The number of times I've answered: No I dont know where I live/I dont want your number/erm... haha... um NO. is astounding. 

Four: They sometimes have better taste than I do. As seen by the henna print that the woman printed on my hand yesterday with wooden stamps. I started to pick my own, which she took out of my hands and replaced with her favorites. And friends, they are far better than what I was looking at.

As proof by the fact that my entire body is now covered with semi-permanent prints in gorgeous paisley henna designs. I look a little bit like an overzealous human paisley scarf, but I LOVE IT.

Because I can.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Twisting Blade of Guilt

We went out this evening. A big group of us. Local students, a few of my American friends...

We sat on a roof top far off the street, looking over the water and the gate of India, enjoying the breeze and laughing together over strange stories about our class and gin and tonics. We sat for hours sharing stories about India and me about Latin America and Mexico...

And then we piled into a cab to go to a night club where women appeared in designer shoes and diamond necklaces.

And a little girl in an oversized dress and wide eyes like my own when I was her age crept through the sea of long, exposed high heeled legs and trousers. Her hands cupped to her mouth. She looked overwhelmed and sad. Everyone ignored her except me. We made eye contact and she looked close to tears. I couldnt tear my eyes away until someone stepped on me and I turned away.

She pulled on the scarf I had draped over my shoulders (to make my outfit more conservative and cover me from wrists to ankles). Two quick tugs, and I looked down to her small hand, extended away from her face and towards me. Eyes wide and expecting. Something, anything, really.

I saw her amid the sea of Indian men and women in their finery, and she stood there between their legs. Looking for anyone who would acknowledge her and see her as a person rather than an invisible being.

My iron mask almost cracked. I almost gave in and gave her whatever I had on me. I felt it cracking. I stared back down at her and saw an almost exact copy of my face when I was her age. Wide eyed. Short, jaw length hair. Curiosity and fire and that treacherous feeling of hope when there isnt anything else to hold onto.

My friend grabbed my wrist and dragged me off, breaking the spell. But I left her there, in a sea of legs and wishes, alone.

My own twisting blade of guilt, from those moments where the mask I wear every day to feel nothing when I go out in the street and do what I need to do here, is creaking. Quietly but twisting.

It just kept twisting while we walked past the rows of sleeping bodies, some under blankets, some beside their loved ones, and others curled into fetal positions on the sidewalk, alone, leaning against a fence.

The street was finally quiet. There was peace in Colaba. No one stared at me, they just rested. Everyone was going home and it was all clearing out.. one foot step at a time.

How can all of this exist?

Hand Prints on the Causeway

Ada and I walked down the Causeway in Colaba today and found a woman selling wooden block stamps. She took my hand and started stamping it with a black ink, which she washed off 10 minutes later... leaving behind the print you see here.

This is red henna ink. I purchased the blocks she used here for $3 and the ink for another $1 so that I could recreate this again later.

As Ada put it, "fun girlie activities" Diana style! 

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Politics of Wireless Internet

Curious, you might think as you read the title of this entry. But let me tell you, this is a very real issue in this city.

Wireless internet is a secret, hoarded treasure in this city. Restaurants arbitrarily deny you use of it some days and not others. They change their internet passwords every day, they turn it on and off depending on the hour, and instead of telling you to leave they will switch off the wifi without saying anything.

We also had a lovely series of interactions with Tata, one of the wireless companies, which promised unlimited internet use on one of their services when we wanted to buy a different one which was ACTUALLY unlimited. Apparently, they can only adjust plans around certain billing dates for our internet keys. As a result, my internet randomly still works while the other keys dont... I get closer and closer to using up my internet access every day too...

The politics of wifi. I never thought I would be talking about this. People use wifi to attract customers and then when there are many of them, they get rid of it. Sites in my guidebook that promised wifi no longer offer it.

When I was preparing to come to Bombay, I assumed it wouldnt be a problem. My first week here was a nightmarish quest through the entire city looking for somewhere to connect. I ended up at a sticky computer in a tiny cubicle in the back of an internet cafe alerting my parents that I had arrived, was fine, and my phone here doesnt really work.

For a country praised for its advancements in tech... this is surprising. We're in the financial capital of the country, and we couldnt find spaces to connect to the rest of the world.

I refer to this as the politics of wifi, because it is tied in with the separation of so many things again. All of the students in my class are middle class Indian college students. Most of them go home and have wifi in their homes.

As a foreigner seeking wifi to finish research projects, never has my time on this machine been so prized and so carefully planned out. The divide between the work I need to get done through online sources and the work I am able to get done is growing every day. I am one of the lucky ones, in that my project and proposal are based mostly on my field work. My research is outside, physically experiencing the space and talking to people. If I didnt have that, I'm not sure what else I would do.

I think we've all realized how dependent we've become on internet access for information. I enjoy coming home in the evenings and scanning through the newspapers I read every day for things I want to learn more about or my topics of choice. Here the choice doesnt really exist.

I spent last summer advocating for internet based services and education in rural areas... but that wouldnt work here even in the city. When anyone outside of the middle class, who can go to a tata store and work out some negotiated and semi-functional deal with them, wants to use internet... where do they go? Where are they introduced to it?

It's made me want to learn more about access in schools, especially in Dharavi where I suspect there is limited infrastructure for these services. Then again, it always surprises me. 

Dharavi Fish Market in the Monsoon

My favorite parts:

1) When I feel awkward because I see the guy whose fish I was filming staring at me at the end and I say something quickly like, oh.. sorry

2) Shortly after this was filmed, one of the larger catfish jumped out of the bin and swam away as it made a bid for freedom through the Monsoon puddles 

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Women in Dharavi

I'm trying not to take pictures of people in Dharavi (I have some issues with the whole slum tourism thing and judging myself for my own interactions and romanticization of Dharavi), but I stole this photo from a friend on the trip and needed to share it because it is beautiful and exemplifies everything I have been trying to explain about the women of Dharavi.

So beautiful.

The Space Between What You Think I Do, And What I Think I Do.

Consider this:

Yale students love to keep themselves absurdly busy. You may ask, do you have time for lunch this week? And they'll say... oh... I'm busy then. You both pull out your iphone calendars, scroll through the days listing times and dates until maybe option 12 works for both of you. We dash between meetings, many of which we sit through with our legs and arms crossed, leaning back and watching while two people have a conversation about what to do next. You dont need to be there but you want to be there to know what is going on, because if you're not there, it's as though you have conceded power. We ditch our friends some times to have lunch with people we find boring but helpful or interesting for one reason or another. We carry on the acquaintance web and talk about friend X or Y and how they did something crazy last weekend, when we know well and good that they are not our friends.

What I mean by that, is that we enjoy and employ the smoke screen in many aspects of life. My students will define "friendship" as relationship between people who are kind to each other, talk on a semi-frequent basis and that you spend time with.

I like a lot of people, but acknowledge that they are not my friends. My friends are the people I'm not embarrassed to cry in front of, to admit to failing a problem set or writing a shitty essay last minute while I was finishing a project off campus and didnt have time to write something worth printing out. They are the ones I tell when I'm scared. They've seen me laugh like a lunatic. They've grabbed my hand when I've nearly stumbled off a sidewalk and into on coming traffic. They ask about my projects, my obsessions, Latin America... they speak the little spanish to me they know and send me articles about Mexico with comments that let me know that they've read them. They've told me when I was being a stubborn ass, when I'm being too hard on myself, and when I did something worth noticing. They let you sleep on their floor when you've had a really bad day and it's late and you fall asleep there. They kick your ass at pool and tell you that you'll beat them next time. They hug you when you need one, they slap you when you're in a crazy place in your mind. You love them, and it feels like a safety blanket that you can pull out anytime.

And yet, we all keep up with the smoke screen of friendships. The people we selectively ignore because we met them once in a dark room at an event and both remember each other but pretend we dont for the sake of not embarrassing ourselves. We play the TELL ME ABOUT YOUR LIFE game when you know the other person really isnt interested in what you are saying. We hug like we havent seen each other in years due to forced separation... when really it's been a few weeks because the other person forgot to text back.

Appearances. So sexy, arent they?

Consider this: Your job. Your Resume. Your Accomplishments. Like your friendships, how many of them are real?

I've spent more time this month wondering about this than I have with any previous period in my life. Wondering about what I do and how I spend my time versus what is actually produced in that time. The value add I offer to various things I am working on, my previous partners in work spaces, and what I want to give back to the world.

I realized this morning how much of what I say and communicate successfully depends on the listeners. When I tell you that I community organize, a specific idea of what I do pops into your mind. You base it others you know who do something related to this. You determine the weight of my words.

Often this has bothered me. Because I feel like people give me credit for things I dont deserve. Yes, I did start and run two conferences during my time at yale. My personal value system tells me these did not accomplish something within my system of weighing the things that I give back. I look back on these events as fun learning experiences, but also as semi-selfish uses of my time. My gain was surely greater than anything I gave to other people.

And therein lies the problem.

I realized that your interpretation of what I do is off, but so is my own interpretation of what I do. No one can accurately measure the value add of what I have given unless they were fully part of it. I cannot because I cannot separate myself from it and consider my work objectively. You cannot because without being part of it, you must rely on my account and the accounts of others working with me along with your own biases and knowledge of a topic.

Can we ever fully isolate that space of truth in describing who we are and what we have done with our lives? How do we measure the value of our work? And in seeking an answer, is this the best way to figure out what we should be doing with our lives?

Monday, July 2, 2012

Rain as an Equalizer?

I havent thought this through completely, but I wanted to get it down before I forget it/my internet stops working like everyone else's did.

The monsoons are back. (ask and ye shall receive...)

and with a vengeance.

Ada and I went to eat very close to our apartment, and then when we left 45 minutes later it was POURING. There is actually 1.5 ft of water outside of our building. So much for the leather flats I just ruined.

But as we were walking back and my massive black rain jacket appeared to protect me from the rain (somewhat), I was thinking about how the rain affects the city. We all stand under buildings, regardless of age, class, race, background etc. We all laugh about how CRAZY it is right now. We have the shift whatever plans we have and account for challenges along the way. Our clothes our soaked. And still there are smiles and laughter because it is FINALLY cooling down.

But then you turn and look at the people huddled in a store front, soaked and holding their belongings in their laps. Everything they own is being either ruined or soaked by the rain. A little girl in a soaked yellow dress watched wrappers floating through the streams falling from a pipe and into the sewage system. Her bare feet nearly invisible under the streams of brown water. Her mom was sitting huddled with her other children in the dark storefront, protecting them with her body.

I went home to my apartment and took off everything I was wearing that soaked through. It is all hanging in my clean, dry space.

I know that I have options. They are staring me in the face right now. But imagine spending an evening outside watching it flood and wondering how long you can sit in your space, shivering and wet before the waters reach you?

... I guess it's not an equalizer.

Women in Public Spaces

Apologies, I know I havent been as good at writing the last few days. We've had some adventures... Since you last heard from me in any serious matter (as in, before the brief episode that I described with the old woman and my anklets) I have visited the Chor Bazaar (the "Thieves Market." It received its name because once upon a time the royal family came to visit Bombay and Queen Victoria's violin was stolen from the ship. Eventually it was recovered in this market, where someone found someone else trying to sell it...), we walked around Bandra (one of the cooler districts) because we wanted to celebrate our friend Ada's birthday but... it was a dry day for the entire city since elections were going on. The irony. We went through the markets around Coloaba, I went through some of the alleyways near here that are rumored to have independent designers... and made some friends with women making their own designs for clothing and selling them right there (seriously cool work). And I kept working on my Dharavi project.

Something interesting: I rode in the women's compartment on the train when I went with Emilie to Dharavi tomorrow, spending the day intentionally getting lost and figuring our way out. The women's compartments are these genius spaces on the train for just women. There are less people, you dont get groped, and everyone relaxes. AND NO ONE STARES AT ME!!! Great success. I can finally blend into the wall. Only the little girls peer at me curiously. Which I can totally handle. 

I guess I never quite realized how much I love the anonymity of big cities until right now. When I can never, no matter how hard I try, blend into the walls. Even though I'm in the sun everyday here, I'm never going to catch up. So... I have to embrace feeling like a weirdo, glow in the dark pokemon kind of thing for now (thats how people look at me sometimes. It's made easier by the fact that I am wearing kurtas everyday now. But still...). We sat on the train and I took notes on what I was going to work through once we got to Dharavi, the vendors arrived. A woman dropped her crate of pomegrantes on the seat next to me, startling me from my furious scratching in my notebook and tried to sell me a pomegranate. I was tempted. They were beautiful and I would have to peel them... which meant I could eat it... but then the idea of the sticky red juice all over my kurta and my hands screamed BAD IDEA.

It's still not raining much... so I was going to be sweaty and sticky. Decided against that. 

Once we arrived at the train station we encountered our first group of little boys. Something to keep in mind: the area surrounding Dharavi is middle class and has pretty nice housing, super markets, tailors etc. Then over the train station and all over the place is the tight, twisting city space of Dharavi. So we ran into some of the boys from the middle class neighborhood, who saw us, grinned evilly and said, "Hello. Candy!" Just like that. Like, oh hey foreign girls give me candy now. 

We said "hallo" and kept walking. They kept yelling after me and then chucked a rock straight into the middle of my shoulder blades. I flinched but didnt turn around. I was not going to give them the attention that little boys around the world seem to demand. (I speak with experience: I have a charming and very outgoing little brother)

I knew they werent from Dharavi because we climbed the bridge to cross over and they dashed in front of me midway. Hands on hips. Staring up at me and I smirked back. "CANDY!" To which I replied, "Nahi" (this means no in Hindi). At that point, they let us walk past and we went straight into the wider streets of Dharavi. 

Within seconds we were surrounded by people coming in and out of the area. Some smiling, some looking at us cautiously, some grinning. We also ran into another, larger group of little boys. But they werent demanding. They smiled and laughed and asked us what our names were. I told them simply, "Diana" and a few of them chanted, "oh what a beautiful name. It is a beautiful name." 

They followed us for a while, more little boys joining in. Curiously staring at us from behind stands in the street, cars, motor bikes, and occasionally goats before they joined in. They asked us where we were from. "England?" they said, point up. (Not sure why up...) No, we told them. Emilie pointed to herself and said "France" and then to me and said "Mex-i-ko." They shrugged. Not many of them have heard of either of these countries, which was better. We dont tell people we are from America anymore because they get a strange look in their eyes. In Colaba you almost see the money signs pop up. 

I drew a mental map for myself during our wandering, but my understanding of landmarks is pretty limited. I mostly remember the color and shape of buildings, since I cant read anything on them... It was a sunday, so the streets were quitter than when we were there last. It was a much nicer experience, to be honest.

We stayed on the wide street and went right for a while before we turned into a dark alley. After a few minutes we noticed a peculiar and familiar smell. That's when we heard the noises. We were in the butchers district of Dharavi where they practice Halal. This means that the throat of the animal is slit in a particular way to allow the animal to bleed to death and purify the meat. There is a struggle while the animal knows that it is dying and usually it produces sounds that are... a bit disturbing. So, of course, Diana and Emilie, the two vegetarians of the group, walk by a chicken undergoing this kind of slaughter and we both simultaneously gasp and cover our mouths, eyes wide in horror as we see a chicken screaming while its white feathers soak up it's blood and it's wings flap wildly, flinging blood against the walls of the small space. 

Both looking a little pale, we left that area of Dharavi and quickened our pace until we found an open square filled with men and boys of all ages playing cricket. One man approached us and asked if we were lost/looking for something. We said no, and he was very gracious before he returned to his game of cricket.

SEE! THAT'S WHAT I'M TALKING ABOUT! He didnt look at me like I was a prostitute, he didnt ask me to buy anything from him, he just asked if we were lost because we were in some random square in the middle of some unknown area of Dharavi. This is why I prefer being here. They let us watch their game without a second glance, and then a new army of little boys appeared and began asking us questions until we crept down another dark alley and into another district.

A little further down from this apartment with murals, we found an open square with women working. HOORAH! This is what I was looking for! A few women were sitting in a square chatting and making brooms out of long, dried grasses and twine. We said, "Namaste" with huge smiles and they immediately smiled back and invited us to sit with them. We asked them about their work, what they were making, and they mimed answers in response. These were older, Hindi women with brightly colored Saris. Across the square we found a younger woman working at a printing press while her husband sat on the floor stacking pages. We asked her about her work and she also mimed and showed us how she was printing these pages. She smiled at us shyly and we thanked her before we kept walking. 

We continued this way through the darker alleys in the center of this district for a while. Finding young women perched into thresholds, windows, and stairways chatting with each other. The younger women looked at us warily until I smiled huge toothy grins at them and greeted them. Most of them would laugh or gasp with surprise, and say "Namaste!!" back excitedly before saying something rushed and excited to their friends. 

We walked by a school with children holding candy wrappers as they chewed on sweets. The older girls carried the smaller children, and when we pointed to the room and said "school" they nodded and stared at us wide eyed. 

We found another little girl (probably around 11 years old) working at a sewing machine in the doorway of her apartment repairing pants. When she saw us she grinned. We asked her about what she was doing, and she started pointing at things in the room and saying the words in English. "Pants." "Fish" (there was a fish tank next to her) "Machine" "Door" "Girl." It was awesome! We had fun playing with her too. 

After our first adventure with the butchers, neither of us were sure that we'd be able to handle the wander. But we slowly found our place among the women and it was far more comfortable than I imagined it could ever be. I was grateful to have Emilie with me because it is a very confusing space. There is a lot of darkness, rats the size of small kittens, and areas with a lot of sensory overload going on. Originally, I was going to be exploring and writing by myself for this project. Which in itself is super intimidating. Now I have a partner in crime and I relax a lot more. 

Our return back had us jumping into a very crowded train during rush hour. Luckily we found the women's compartment and someone behind me essentially picked me up and threw me into the crowd on the train. My inner control freak positively died, but at least I made it on the train in one piece.

I have a lot to think about now. I'll be going back and forth all week doing some interviews, observing and wandering through this crazy and wonderful place. But it has really put a few things into perspective for me. I'm sure I'll have more to say by the end of the week, but here's to my first trip nearly alone to Dharavi!

Sunday, July 1, 2012

You can now find me jingling down the causeway

I'm very excited -- I just bought my first jingling anklets on the street yesterday.

I was ripped off... but I guess this is relative. By my standards, I wasnt. I bought them from this old woman with the tales of her years etched into the wrinkles of her face. She grinned with mischief and her eyes sparkled. Seriously, this woman was enchanting.

I knew that I was going to buy them from her. And so I went with Emilie to the green sheet she laid out with a dozen different kinds of these jingling anklets. As soon as I started looking she seized my ankle and attached one and then the other anklet to my feet. And they jingled. And I was in love.

I asked her if I could buy just 1 and she wasnt having it. Not at all. She demanded 200 rupees (a little under $4) from me and I had already melted in her hands so I said sure. To me this was completely fair, buying both of these in the US would have scalped me. I'm sure I would have paid close to $30 or more for the two of them combined. So yeah. Not feeling so bad about this.

Plus, I'm a sucker for mischievous looking elderly women. Probably because I know I'm going to be like them when I'm old and allowed to cause all of the trouble I want...

Lunch Houses

One of our recent trips while we tried to blend in in a worker's lunch house, laid out beautifully by Emilie.