Mountains Beyond Mountains

Snow-capped mountains at sunset. I can't even.

Snow-capped mountains at sunset. I can’t even.

There are plenty of pretty places in the world. Places that you visit and enjoy and then leave, as their draw is scarcely strong enough to justify forsaking the life that you’ve established elsewhere, likely somewhere less beautiful but nonetheless comforting in its familiarity. But then there are the places that take your breath away, the places that make you want to drop everything because nothing could possibly top this. The places that aren’t just about the scenery but the people, the people whose lives may be far from perfect but are unimaginably elegant in their simplicity. For me, the girl who up and decided to go live in an Indian desert for four months for the hell of it, the Himalayan village of Dharamshala was one of those places. Instead of dust and sand and heat and smog and car horns, Dharamshala gave me mountain streams fed by snow melt, Buddhist monasteries more beautiful than any church I’ve ever seen, and traffic jams that consisted of burros more often than rickshaws.

While it would be easy to let myself devolve into doing so, my intention is not to let this become a let’s-hate-on-Jaipur fest. Jaipur has taught me more than I can enumerate in one blog post, although not all of it so glamorous as the splendor of the Himalayas. In some strange way, Jaipur’s congested streets probably have more to teach me than the seeming perfection of the mountains. But the dirt and grime and noise of Jaipur are all that Dharamshala is not. In keeping with my recently discovered metaphorical description of India as both my own personal heaven and my own personal hell, Jaipur is by no means hell. But Dharamshala, I am quite convinced, is heaven.

A view of the organic garden at Jagori (the organization where I was staying), complete with the mountains in the background.

A view of the organic garden at Jagori (the organization where I was staying), complete with the mountains in the background.

Oh, that's just a 5,000 year old temple carved out of a single rock. Not a big deal.

Oh, that’s just a 5,000 year old temple carved out of a single rock. Not a big deal.

Unfortunately for you all, I have discovered that heaven is something that my sad little camera can hardly begin to capture. I tried for the first few days, snapping shot after shot of the snow-capped mountains and the beautiful flowers that grace their foothills. But trust me, what my camera lens could capture never did even marginal justice to the beauty that I was privileged enough to be calling home for a week. Thus, after a day or two of vain attempts, I gave up trying. What I have here is the best I got, and I assure you that it is not nearly good enough.

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Casual ancient temple photo.

Casual ancient temple photo.

Prayer wheels from one of several Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in Dharamshala.

Prayer wheels from one of several Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in Dharamshala.

Explaining India to someone who has not been lucky enough to see it for themselves has been a constant struggle since my plane touched down here over two months ago (oy, can’t believe it’s been that long/short of a time since I got here…). There is the constant balance to be maintained between romanticizing India and making it sound like hell on earth. In reality, it is neither. But at this moment, you’d have a hard time convincing me that it is not the former. Offer me the chance to study gender and sexuality education in the freakin’ Himalayan mountains and there’s not much I wouldn’t do for it. I swear, even a 14-hour train ride goes a hell of a lot faster when the destination happens to feature snow-covered peaks. Amen and hallelujah.

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Prayers flags. Absolutely surreal.

Prayers flags. Absolutely surreal.

Passion flower blossoming just outside my room at Jagori. It's a hard-knock life, I'm tellin' yah.

Passion flower blossoming just outside my room at Jagori. It’s a hard-knock life, I’m tellin’ yah.

The view of the mountains after an hour and a half of hiking into them.

The view of the mountains after an hour and a half of hiking into them.

Sweet peas! The icing on the cake in the most perfect place on earth.

Sweet peas! My favorite plant is the icing on the cake in the most perfect place on earth.

Holy Moly it’s Holi!

Holi phase 1: It starts out pretty tame...

Holi phase 1: Clothes still clean, hair is still blonde.

Holi, like all of India, is one of those things that is just too simultaneously wonderful and terrible to really describe adequately. On the one hand, you have a holiday that is centered around both recognizing an auspicious event in Hinduism (much like Christmas or Easter does for Christianity) and celebrating the colors and joy of springtime – even though “springtime” weather in Jaipur is a hot and dry 90+ degrees. Children and adults alike run through the streets to the homes of friends and family, covering themselves and the streets in a whole rainbow of hues in the process. Really, maybe the best way to describe the wonderful side of Holi is by saying that it is basically everything your mother told you not to do as a child: running around like a hooligan, attacking everyone you know with handfuls of colored powders, squirting each other with colored water, and generally behaving like a wild animal, screeching and flailing and laughing the entire way. All of the shops, businesses, and schools close for the day, and an entire nation attacks each other with paint. It’s a time to forgive each other the transgressions of the past year and start fresh. It’s a time to remember old friendships and begin new ones. It’s a time to accidentally stain your blonde hair purple in an over-exuberant color battle. True story.

Holy phase 2: Getting colorful, but facial features still discernible.

Holy phase 2: Getting colorful, but facial features still discernible.

But, true to Indian form, even Holi has a downside. Women – especially obviously foreign women like yours truly – can’t just roam from house to house anymore for fear of being followed (or worse) by gangs of young men who take the spirited atmosphere of Holi more than a little too far. Sometimes these gangs will mix the colors with acid or motor oil or sewer water and throw it upon their unsuspecting victims. This is a relatively new phenomenon in India, and because of this a lot of families are choosing not to participate in the festivities anymore for the sake of their own safety. While incidents like these are appalling, and it is easy to get caught up in the fear they are meant to incite, it is important to remember that there are always going to be people who try to harm. Always. I am not saying it isn’t important to be careful – India wouldn’t let me forget that lesson even if I tried – but what I am saying is that maybe fear isn’t a good enough reason not to go for it anyway. If it was, I never would have made it here to India in the first place. I’ve got the rest of my life to sit inside and worry about things. In the meantime, I’m gonna go get covered in paint.

Holy phase 3: Hair/teeth/eyebrows/parts of your body you thought were covered are no officially pink...and purple...and blue....

Holy phase 3: Hair/teeth/eyebrows/parts of your body you thought were covered are now officially pink…and purple…and blue….

Holy phase 4: The point of no return. You know have more in common with a smurf than a human being.

Holy phase 4: The point of no return. You now have more in common with a smurf than a human being.

Here's to the fantastic institute staff for keeping us silly Americans from accidentally killing ourselves during Holi/every time we go anywhere in India.

Here’s to the fantastic institute staff for keeping us silly Americans from accidentally killing ourselves during Holi/every time we go anywhere in India.

Desert Livin’

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Living in the desert is a very strange phenomenon on a whole slew of levels. Firstly, there is the simple fact that it is just downright weird that human beings, lacking all of the various desert adaptations of creatures like camels or cacti, decided it would be a really great idea to live in the place that is freakishly hot during the day, near freezing at night, almost entirely lacking in water, and covered in a thick layer of what it, for all intents and purposes, glorified dust. The even weirder thing is that it wasn’t just a few crazy humans who thought this sounded like a barrel of fun. It was millions – enough to make the particular desert I call home for the moment, India’s Thar Desert, the most heavily populated desert in the entire world.

If I sound a little bitter about the whole desert thing its probably just because I have a particularly bad blink reflex, which means that in a place filled with sand I spend a fair amount of time trying to fish tiny little particles out of my eye. That, coupled with my tragic tendency to fill my shoes with sand even when walking on a not sandy surface is a sure recipe for a little bit of desert loathing. But really, those little things aside the desert is also an exceptionally beautiful place. It goes against all apparent logic that miles and miles of scrubby little trees and sand could actually be appealing but trust me, it really is. There is something about the beauty of the desert landscape that is nearly as haunting and strange as the fact that there are so many creatures, including humans, who willingly decide to call such an extreme place home.

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P.S. All of ya’ll back home in Baltimore, when I get home I don’t even want to hear a word about how hot Maryland summers get. Compared to Jaipur, I’ll probably be bustin’ out the turtlenecks and hiking socks in August and still feeling a bit chilly. Don’t even.

Living in Limbo

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Last week I turned another year older, visited the organic farm of a world-renowned activist and physicist, contracted my first (and hopefully last!) full-blown Indian stomach infection, traipsed through the Himalayan foothills, sat on the banks of the sacred Ganges river in the same town the Beatles once visited, and spent more time on a sleeper train than it took me to fly here in the first place. Last week was both wondrous and horrible, life affirming and demoralizing, but if there is anything that I have learned thus far it is that those sorts of weeks, those sorts of moments, are the ones that we remember. The ones that are perfect are never as much fun, and the ones that are truly terrible we try to soon forget. India is, somehow, the perfect mix of both. There is heaven and there is hell, and somewhere in the chaotic and beautiful limbo in between, in the place that makes you miss home yet somehow never want to leave, there is India.

And if that sounds hyperbolic and overly dramatic, try having a stomach infection in a country where not only toilet paper, but toilets, are a luxury in many areas. No takers? Yep, I get to be as hyperbolic as I want from here on out.

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A small portion of the thousands of seed varieties that Navdanya, the farm founded by sustainable agriculture activist Dr. Vandana Shiva, distributes to local farmers via its seed bank. They save over 640 varieties of wheat alone, a mere portion of the 1,000′s of wheat varieties that India used to be home to.

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The view of the Himalayan foothills from the city of Dehradun. They are comparable to some of the tallest Appalachian Mountains that I have seen in the States…except they’re foothills. Dang.

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Since I wouldn’t be myself if I didn’t post a picture of a monkey here and there…even though this one refused to look at the camera for me. Additionally, the roads passing through the forests surrounding Rishikish (which resemble the deciduous forests of the eastern United States) are marked with signs encouraging drivers to beware of wild elephants. My kinda country.

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The Ganges (or Ganga, in Hindi) River near its source in the Himalayan Mountains. The proximity to the glacier-fed source accounts for the relative clarity/cleanliness of the Ganges at this point. Further down the river in Varanasi — which also happens to be the oldest city in the world, no big deal — this is not the case. Due to open sewers and the traditional use of funeral pyres to burn dead bodies and float them down the river, taking a sacred dip in the Ganges water at Varanasi could be deadly. Literally, people die every year from the after effects of the waters crazy high bacteria levels.

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The Ganges at sunset. Not perfect or anything. Nope, not at all.

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Who are those fierce looking white people on the 14-hour train ride back to Jaipur from Dehradun? Oh, those are just my friends. They’re harmless, really. Er, mostly.

Learning to Put Down the Goddamn Camera

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Nearly two weeks ago now I had the opportunity to spend some time in the city of Jodhpur, not too far from the Pakistani border in the Indian state of Rajasthan. Why it has taken me two weeks to put my thoughts on the experience to paper (or to keyboard, really) should become apparent as you read on. The reason behind the hefty degree of contemplation and emotional processing that went into this is simple. During my time in Jodhpur, I was staying here, at what was possibly the nicest hotel I have ever been to in my entire life:

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Meanwhile, the subject of my research and study, a community of Pakistani refugees, were living here:

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For them, there was no pool (Complete with waterfall. I am not kidding.) surrounded by gardens where they could relax after an emotionally taxing day of research. There was no indoor plumbing, much less one of those fancy showerheads that simulates an actual rain shower. There was no veranda outside their room, no rickshaw to take them into the old city at night to peruse the markets or view the clocktower. Now, granted, this standard of living far exceeds that which I typically experience in the U.S., and it is important to note that I was only in this hotel in the first place because it happens to be owned by the niece of Ramaji, one of the wonderful staff at the institute where I am studying. My real questions, though, are bigger than why I was in a fancy hotel.
What other than sheer dumb luck, allowed me to be born in a country where practicing a “rival” religion, in this case Hinduism, is never grounds for me to be excluded from the rights of citizenship? What made me so lucky as to be born with a skin tone that opens me up to privilege the world over, which so many darker-skinned women use harmful skin whitening creams to achieve? The answer is, quite frankly, nothing that I deserved. And thus, my friends, the haphazard solution that I have concocted to help me confront the enormous feeling of injustice and privilege that visiting the refugee settlement has roused within me is this: a letter. Here goes.
This letter is addressed to every American who has ever ventured into the developing world in order to “broaden their own horizons.” This letter is addressed to every American who has ever taken a photo with a nameless brown-skinned child and then made it their Facebook profile picture in some vain effort to proclaim to their friends back home how worldly a traveler they are. To every American who has ever visited a refugee camp, or a slum, or an impoverished village and spent most of the time walking around with a camera hanging from their neck, only to reference the experience later as “life-changing.” To every American who has ever sought out the perfect National Geographic-esque photo of a human being both darker and poorer than they are without taking the time to learn their name or even ask their permission first. To every American who has had the gall, after witnessing extreme destitution, to call the experience “fun.” To every American who has ever vacationed in a 5-star resort in a country where $1 per day is the average income without taking even a moment to learn what life is really like outside of the resort’s plush rooms and air-conditioned tour buses.
My intent with this letter is not to point my finger at every other American world traveler while implying that I am above such behaviors. I am writing this letter for exactly the opposite reason. I have been that person at the 5-star resort. I have carried around my camera when it wasn’t appropriate, and I have had fun while doing it. Rather, I am writing this letter because it took a single visit to a settlement of Pakistani refugees to reveal to me just how wrong my approach had been. Taking pictures of these people wouldn’t help them, only myself. Plastering a small child’s face, however adorable it may be, on my Facebook wall would be entirely self-serving. But taking a step back and realizing how much privilege there is in being able to visit for a few hours a place that these people, who have every reason to hate me but instead welcome me with open arms, have called home for years. I can leave on a nice comfortable bus, but they don’t even have electricity or water. I can’t fix these problems in one visit, and trying to call attention to them by taking photos or filling out a petition to a government I don’t fully understand won’t fix them either. But what I can do is put down the camera and really see these people – not through a lens, but with my soul. I can see and absorb and watch and learn and hope desperately that one day something I will do will make a difference to someone somewhere, even though realistically it probably won’t be them.
For those of you who might be interested in a more scathing yet eloquent enunciation of these same sentiments, I highly recommend checking out Ivan Illich’s essay “To Hell with Good Intentions.” He says it far better than a ranting and disgruntled white girl ever could. In fact, I will conclude this letter with his words:

“If you have any sense of responsibility at all, stay with your riots here at home. Work for the coming elections: You will know what you are doing, why you are doing it, and how to communicate with those to whom you speak. And you will know when you fail. If you insist on working with the poor, if this is your vocation, then at least work among the poor who can tell you to go to hell. It is incredibly unfair for you to impose yourselves on a village where you are so linguistically deaf and dumb that you don’t even understand what you are doing, or what people think of you. And it is profoundly damaging to yourselves when you define something that you want to do as “good,” a “sacrifice” and “help.”

I am here to suggest that you voluntarily renounce exercising the power which being an American gives you. I am here to entreat you to freely, consciously and humbly give up the legal right you have to impose your benevolence on [the developing world]. I am here to challenge you to recognize your inability, your powerlessness and your incapacity to do the “good” which you intended to do.

I am here to entreat you to use your money, your status and your education to travel… Come to look, come to climb our mountains, to enjoy our flowers. Come to study. But do not come to help.”

“There’s Something in the Air Here”

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India is not a place of taken-for-granted familiarity.

For the visitor, it is not a place where just because something worked out for you once means that it will ever work out that way again. It is not a place where “I’ll be there in 5 minutes” actually means 5 minutes, or where just because the food looks like something you ate before doesn’t mean that this time you won’t fall ill from it. It is a place where even the air smells differently than it does back home, and where it takes a moment of convincing to realize that the moon you are looking at from your rooftop is the same one that you loved ones look upon on the flip-side of the earth. For the Indian, it is not a place where you address even a very dear friend with the utmost of familiarity. In Hindi, there are three forms of the word “you:” ap, which is highly formal, tum, which is somewhat less formal, and tu, which is super informal. As per the social norm, even children are addressed as ap by their parents. Tum may be used for the very closest of friends, but never tu. Instead, this most informal of addresses is almost wholly saved for one specific relationship: that between a devotee and their god. While western religions, like Christianity, tend to address god in this very reverential, almost impersonal way, Hindus instead choose to honor this most sacred relationship with the most intimate, the most visceral of addresses: tu.

While this little linguistics lesson likely seems wholly unrelated to the photos I am about to share with you of my visit to yet another Indian fort (surprise!), for me it really isn’t so separate at all. The cliché that India is where Westerners go when they wish to get in touch with their spirituality is, I am realizing, a cliché for a very clear reason. As a wise friend of mine said as we drove through the desert on our most recent excursion to Bikaner and Jodhpur, it is like there is something in the air here. Something that allows you to somehow magically transform an otherwise monotonous 8-hour bus ride into the deepest of soul-searching moments, finding yourself endlessly mesmerized by the desert, the villages, and the people flashing by your window. Perhaps a conception of god that is so removed from us, so holier-than-thou in its manifestation suits the American psyche. In the Westernized, “developed” world maybe there is little appeal in a god that is more intimate than your dearest friend, a god so familiar we address them as tu. But here, where certainty and familiarity can be so scarce, there is some inherent sense to be found in embracing a god that is right there with you in the hustle and bustle of daily life.

…Anddddd with that freakishly lofty thought, I hope you enjoy my few snapshots of the city of Bikaner!

New friends, courtesy of a visit to a girl's college in Bikaner.

New friends, courtesy of a visit to a girl’s college in Bikaner.

Just when you think you've got a handle on Mughal architecture, you stumble upon something like this.

Just when you think you’ve got a handle on Mughal architecture, you stumble upon something like this.

There definitely isn't any detailed ceramic work or woodwork at the fort. Nope, definitely not.

There definitely isn’t any detailed ceramic work or woodwork at the fort. Nope, definitely not.

One of the fort's many throne rooms meant for the Maharaja himself.

One of the fort’s many throne rooms meant for the Maharaja himself.

Because blue and white pottery isn't pretty enough, let's just frame an entire window with it. Sounds good.

Because blue and white pottery isn’t pretty enough, let’s just frame an entire window with it. Sounds good.

The ubiquitous column picture. It had to happen, it will probably happen again.

The ubiquitous column picture. It had to happen, it will probably happen again.

 

My Elephant Loves Obama

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So chronologically this post is a little bit out of whack, since I actually visited the Amber Fort in Jaipur before visiting the Taj Mahal/Red Fort in Agra. But, as fate would have it, it turns out that the Amber Fort was actually inspired by the design of the Red Fort. So, at least historically speaking, my inability to blog in a logical manner actually makes sense this time.

That aside, visiting the Amber Fort could not have been a more dramatic way to spend my first full weekend in the Pink City. Situated atop the crest of a mountain and surrounded by what for all intents and purposes is a miniature Great Wall of China, the Amber Fort is postcard-perfect, the type of place that makes you feel like you have somehow seen India even if it is the first place you have visited. How does a simple fort accomplish all of that, you may ask? Well, it doesn’t have as much to do with the architecture (though that is stunning) as it does with what you can learn about your own role as a western visitor by going to such a quintessential tourist destination, even one rooted so deeply within the history of the city itself.

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The moment you step out of your rickshaw and into the entrance of the fort, you are immediately assaulted by literally dozens of hawkers attempting to sell you any manner of trinket (even something as mundane as batteries is fair game when it comes to hawkers) for 10 times what it is worth. In my experience, whether one becomes the unfortunate victim of a hawker’s water torture-esque sales approach has less to do with being a tourist generally and much more to do with being a western tourist specifically. And the constant attempts to weasel more money out of the super white blonde girl does not end with the hawkers, just in case you were wondering. The fellow who directed my elephant up the steep hill to the fort was in on the game, too, but I was willing to forgive him considering the fact that it was thanks to him that I got to ride a freaking ELEPHANT up to the top of a Mughal fort. I totally didn’t freak out the whole time or anything. After all, it’s important when you stand out here as much as I do to keep calm, cool, and collected at all times (aka never).

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The view of Amber Fort from atop an elephant. You know, the usual.

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The driver (?) of this elephant, upon learning that we were Americans, informed us that his elephant loves Obama. Who knew I’d ever have so much in common with an elephant?

I think perhaps what stood out most about my first adventure to a destination where even the majority of the Indians there are tourists was the fact that, for me, it was really no different than my typical day here. Even walking through my neighborhood each morning on the way to the institute is an exercise in careful avoidance of the myriad people trying to get the attention of the obvious westerner. The only real difference in this case was location. Sometimes it’s the Amber Fort, or the Taj Mahal. Other times it’s in the grocery store or on my way home. Either way, I am learning quite abruptly what it feels like to look inescapably different in a place where nothing is familiar, in a place where when you talk sometimes no one understands. It is amazing to me that I had to go 8,000 miles away to realize what it must be like to be an immigrant, or even just a visitor, to my own country. Really, how crazy is it that I can study human social interactions for years without learning so much about what it is like to be the marked “other” than I have in the past three weeks.

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The view from the ground-level entrance to the fort. Definitely not breathtaking or anything.

But that’s enough philosophizing for now. In other news, I have been in India for three weeks now. Three weeks. It feels like it’s been both a lifetime and the blink of an eye. Still not sure whose life I’m living, but it’s definitely not mine. Oh, and fun fact: today I somehow ended up getting included in a scene for an upcoming Bollywood movie. I thought I was joking about the whole being a celebrity thing before, but I guess not. Cool.

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The entrance to the palace portion of the fort, where the ruler and his wives would have resided during the fort’s heyday. The hallways of the palace were made intentionally confusing both to discombobulate potential intruders and to prevent the wives from knowing who the raj was visiting on that particular night. What sneaky little polygamists!

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The mirrored ceiling of one room of the palace, so designed so that a single candle could illuminate the entire room during the evenings. No big deal.