Posts tagged “travel”

"Place Lag" and the magic of flight

Kottke posted a link to a vox.com article by Mark Vanhoenacker, a 747 pilot and author of Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot. This chunk of the article quoted by Kottke perfectly articulates a feeling about flight I’ve never been able to adequately put into words:

I came up with the term “place lag” to refer to the way that airliners can essentially teleport us into a moment in a far-off city; getting us there much faster, perhaps, than our own deep sense of place can travel. I could be in a park in London one afternoon, running, or drinking a coffee and chatting to the dog-walkers. Later I’ll go to an airport, meet my colleagues, walk into a cockpit, and take off for Cape Town. I’ll fly over the Pyrenees and Palma and see the lights of Algiers come on at sunset, then sail over the Sahara and the Sahel. I’ll cross the equator, and dawn will come to me as I parallel the Skeleton Coast of Namibia, and finally I’ll see Table Mountain in the distance as I descend to the Mother City.

Then, less than an hour after the long-stilled wheels of the 747 were spun back to life by the sun-beaten surface of an African runway, I’ll be on a bus heading into Cape Town, sitting in rush hour traffic, on an ordinary morning in which, glancing down through the windshield of a nearby car, I’ll see a hand lift a cup of coffee or reach forward to tune the radio. And I’ll think: All this would still be going on if I hadn’t flown here. And that’s equally true of London, and of all the other cities I passed in the long night, that I saw only the lights of. For everyone, and every place, it’s the present.

Pictures of Lake Tahoe during the drought

August 2014:

Late May 2015:

We’re lucky enough to live near Lake Tahoe and all the surrounding glory — and fortunate enough to make it up there every now and then. Our most recent jaunt was a nice one with a great hike, good food, and all around fun times.

It was clear while roaming around town that the Lake Tahoe was very, very low. Docks had ladders and secondary structures to allow access to vessels. The walkable area extended much further than before. This was all amplified when we stood at the edge of the lake — now a few dozen meters further out than in August of 2014 — at one of our favorite public access points.

A week with the Sony DSC-RX1

I took off to Basel a couple weeks ago for a large environmental health conference. Before leaving, I rented a Sony DSC-RX1 from borrowlenses.com and picked it up at RayKo in San Francisco. Switching from my normal photography kit — a 5D Mark II, a 17-40 f/4 L, and a 50mm L — to this wee little gadget felt like an impossible stretch. I’ve shot almost exclusively on Canon gear since I borrowed my family’s old Canon T90 in the late 80s. I was a little scared of something new (we fear change) and concerned about how long it would take me to figure out the Sony.

The RX1 turned out to be a delight — the camera produced pictures on par with the Mark II and the fixed focal length forced me to stop and think before shooting. A good exercise for any photographer. Somewhat organized thoughts and notes on the camera follow.

At first glance, the RX1 is underwhelming — it resembles a standard point + shoot. It looks pedestrian. All that goes away, though, once in hand. It’s weighty and substantial, dense and solid. The glass — a spectacular Zeiss 35mm prime f/2.0 — has a satisfying, clicky (and wholly electronic) ring for selecting an aperture. The RX1 borrows styling cues from old school rangefinders (Leicas, the Contax G series). It’s got a full-frame 24 megapixel sensor and shoots 14-bit raw images. The screen is bright — really, really bright — and displays images vividly and accurately in broad daylight (no small feat). The overlays on the screen are nice and completely controllable; you can quickly turn on and off a batrillion status indicators. A nice touch: the ability to enable an on-screen level, helping compose the shot and avoiding rotating/cropping during post-processing. The RX1 - with this combination of fancy and traditional - is an odd gadget, full of ultra-modern, high-end technology, but formed wholly by older platonic ideals of what a camera should be.

The wonderful lens, the beautiful controls, and the insane, huge, magnificent sensor all come with some caveats. The RX-1 has no optical or electronic viewfinder. I spent the better part of my time with the camera lifting it to my face, looking for something to look through — and then remembering that my viewfinder was the screen on the back (now complete with cheek imprints). For me, that was the single most difficult thing to become accustomed to. The cost to play is high — 2800 USD. The fixed lens confused colleagues who handled the camera; once they played with it for a few minutes they wondered about other lens options. Their reaction — that at its cost, a fixed lens seemed inappropriate — wasn’t surprising.

The image quality is astounding. The RX1 performs much like other full-frame cameras — it does a great job up to ISO 3200, and fine beyond that. I shot regularly across the gamut — from 100 to 3200 — and am pleased with all of the results. The focus times weren’t nearly as fast as the Mark II, but weren’t slow enough to be a real concern, except when it was between dim and dark where I was shooting. While the focusing often failed under those conditions, the image quality held up. Battery life wasn’t great — the camera made it through most days of shooting with little power left. This was okay in Basel, where most of my days were spent in a conference center and away from camera-worthy moments. If I had been outdoors more and working less, I’m confident I would have exhausted the batteries regularly. On the upside, the camera can be charged with any portable USB battery; the downside, of course, is the added bulk. Were I to rent the RX1 again, I’d get one or two extra batteries (and an external viewfinder).

Downsides… The menus run deep and require some serious thought to decipher. They’re better than on many cameras, but that’s not saying much. Another nice touch: most of the physical buttons on the camera can be reassigned to custom functions. This helped me get comfortable with the camera much more quickly, putting commonly used controls in easy reach.

I could go on and on about this camera. But others have done that, and far more eloquently and capably than I. This, in my opinion, is the camera to beat. It redefines what a small and light camera can be, and does so without compromising image quality. It’s not perfect, but if I could afford one, it would be my go to daily camera.

"Warp drive. Like on 'Star Trek.'"

Harold G. White, a physicist and advanced propulsion engineer at NASA, beckoned toward a table full of equipment there on a recent afternoon: a laser, a camera, some small mirrors, a ring made of ceramic capacitors and a few other objects.

He and other NASA engineers have been designing and redesigning these instruments, with the goal of using them to slightly warp the trajectory of a photon, changing the distance it travels in a certain area, and then observing the change with a device called an interferometer. So sensitive is their measuring equipment that it was picking up myriad earthly vibrations, including people walking nearby. So they recently moved into this lab, which floats atop a system of underground pneumatic piers, freeing it from seismic disturbances.

The team is trying to determine whether faster-than-light travel — warp drive — might someday be possible.

Warp drive. Like on “Star Trek.”

This is a fun one. They’ve also got a nice statement from Neil deGrasse Tyson:

“Routine travel among the stars is impossible without new discoveries regarding the fabric of space and time, or capability to manipulate it for our needs,” he said, adding, “By my read, the idea of a functioning warp drive remains far-fetched, but the real take-away is that people are thinking about it — reminding us all that the urge to explore continues to run deep in our species.”

Backpacking to Sword Lake

Ben, Katy, Oliver, Jessica, Beth and I set out to the Sierras on Thursday morning for a couple of nights of camping, swimming, hiking, and bumming around Sword Lake, located in the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness. The trip came together at the last minute... and turned out spectacularly.

Beth and I made it out of the East Bay relatively easily, with no real incidents on the road and only minor traffic as we passed through Oakdale. The drive was pleasant enough. We stopped at the Summit Ranger Station near Pinecrest, CA, where we rendezvoused with the Lovehardgolds and got a camping permit. We were warned by the Ranger Station staff to expect some crowds at the lake, given its popularity and the long weekend.

After lunch a mile or so up from Pinecrest, we turned off of 108 and onto a dusty, slow county road and made our way to the trailhead. We arrived to a nearly empty parking lot -- only one other car was there. A good sign. We packed up and hit the trail. The walk to the lake was nice -- a few scenic vistas, fields full of wildflowers, and shady, interspersed groves of large trees. Ben and I scoped out campsites on both sides of the lake; Ben spotted a good one, slightly above the lake but with some shade. We set up our two-day home there. We saw a few other folks, but basically had the lake and surrounding environs to ourself. A pretty spectacular find.

From a small hill east of our campsite, the Dardanelles and Spicer Meadow Reservoir were visible. Mornings and evenings atop that hill were especially magical, with the entire landscape bathed in warm, pinkish orange hues. Our last morning at the site, I stumbled up there and had lovely views of the surroundings and an encounter with a deer unfazed by my presence.

In tow was amazing little Oliver, who (as usual) was a delight. The boy loves the outdoors and was (1) an avid swimmer in the hands of his parents and aunt; (2) a rampant mover of dirt, using any utensil available; (3) a burgeoning climber; and (4) a rockstar. He was a smiley, giggly, and sometimes weepy joy.

On the way out, the crowds streamed in. When we got back to the parking lot, it was brimming with vehicles. We were lucky to have missed the masses! A fun trip with lovely, lovely people.

Photos from the trip are at Flickr.

Google Street View of Hashima, the abandoned island base featured in Skyfall

Hashima, commonly known as battleship island, served as a model for a set piece in Skyfall, the recent James Bond movie. Remember the creepy ruins where Javier Bardem’s character is introduced? That was based on Hashima. Google recently mapped the real island, using their trekker backpack camera.

PRI’s The World recorded and wrote a short piece on Hashima after the release of Skyfall.

The island is known as Hashima, or alternatively as Gunkanjima (“Battleship”) Island, and it sits about nine miles off the Japanese coast in the East China Sea.

In the late 1880s, coal was found on the sea floor beneath the island. In the early days, Japan’s Mitsubishi company, which was mining the coal, would ferry miners to and from the work site from Nagasaki.

Then, the company decided it would be easier to just build houses for the workers, and their families, on Hashima itself.

Giant, multi-storey concrete apartment blocks went up. Schools, bath houses, temples, restaurants, markets, even a graveyard, were built, all on a space the size of a football field.

“Once they reached 5,000 people or more out there, it was recognized as the most densely populated place on earth…ever,” says Thomas Nordanstad, a Swedish filmmaker.

Bald Head Island's Generator Society

From Our State magazine, a well-written piece about idyllic Bald Head Island. Sounds pretty nice:

Toward the ends of many afternoons, they all came together, usually gathering on East Beach, for what they took to calling TPP, or Total Population Parties. The kids’ job was to collect a mess of driftwood to make a fire. The women brought hush puppies and coleslaw. The men cooked the fish they caught that day or boiled a big pot of shrimp or made chowder from fresh clams. They ate and told stories and jokes. They played guitar and sang songs. They even shared some coveted “diamonds” for drinks.

The sun set.

Night fell.

Out came the ghost crabs skittering on the sand and the bright white stars in the sky.

At the Dunlaps’ by the beach, where they almost never ran their generator for light, the adults lit the lanterns, probably a dozen or so latched to the walls, 6 or 7 feet off the floor. They played Monopoly or dominoes or checkers or chess. The kids ran up and down the beach, around on the dunes, just enough light from the moon. They clambered up a ladder to the wide, flat deck on the roof of the house. From there, they could see the hulking cargo ships, with their blinking lights, coming in off the Atlantic and approaching the mouth of the river. They went back down in the house and grabbed all the cushions, dragged them back up to the deck, and finally closed their eyes.

Seems like the island’s got some advocates worried about climate change, too.

Bald Head Island Conservancy has developed a comprehensive public outreach campaign to help educate community members about the potential impacts of climate change to the island and individual choices that can help improve the socioecological system’s resilience. Staff work with community members to identify tangible solutions to future problems. The Conservancy has attained funding to build a research and educational facility and is developing a knowledge sharing network, the Coastal Barrier Island Network, with other barrier islands to facilitate the transfer of knowledge and lessons learned as communities begin to adapt to climate change.

Read more here.

Stray thoughts from Kathmandu

It’s a little odd being back in Kathmandu. Much feels the same — congestion, pollution, tourists. Silent places pepper the roads, close to and worlds from busy intersections. Beautiful old crumbling Rana palaces, inhabited by the packs of wild dogs that still control the city. It feels as though it would be easy to fall into old work and life patterns - a welcome thought.

Familiar haunts have been reoriented, reorganized, redistributed, relocated. Some roads have gone from crudely paved to stone tiled. The palace — on lock down during past lives here — is open, a museum to an abolished monarchy, its end initiated in violent bloodshed.

A spot we visited often, for tourists of all ilk, once lived down a little alley. It still lives in the same place, but the alley has transformed. It has widened, opening up into a brick megaplex full of shops catering to tourists. It is like many of the paths here that converge on large central squares and are often adorned with stuppas, small shrines, and clotheslines.

On the streets, traffic appears much the same — though far fewer UN vehicles plow through intersections and around corners. Perhaps the UN mission here has been downsized. Perhaps my sample size of two days is far too small.

Fat, almond-shaped rain spewed from the sky yesterday for four and a half hours. “Pre-monsoon,” the hotel staff said. Memory must have erased the Kathmandu monsoon from my neurons — I have no recollection of rain like that. The streets filled with inches of water. Shops closed their front gates in an attempt to keep the rain out. Fellow KGH residents - with plans for meals out and about dashed - congregated in the small, overpriced, hotel restaurant.

Near Bishal Bazaar, Tip Top Tailors still serves the ultimate, mouth-scorching samosa. Amidst hundreds of similarly named tailors, on a bustling and wide road, two small signs point down a corridor to the legendary snack vendor. The largest clue that you’re in the right place is a steady stream of people entering and existing a narrow alley (which, like others, opens into a wide courtyard, this one with rich smells swirling about). Wandering there yesterday, old muscle memories guided me right to the spot. Another nice bit of delight.

Despite the gradual expansion of the city through the entire valley, KTM is still a small place. It’s unsurprising, then, that I ran into an old friend today. Now married to a Nepali, he runs an environmental consulting firm in Kathmandu, and is pulling off feats with rainwater harvesting, biosands, and soon cookstoves. He’s transformed — still American, but Nepali, too.

Into the fire — off to Delhi in four short hours. Temperature don’t seem to drop below 90-95, even in the early morning.

Reflections from Pokhara

Mornings have a consistency here, and ordered patterns take hold easily. As the sun rises, young and old alike dot the trail around Fewa Lake. Meditators face the green grey tal, their backs warmed by the sun. Water gently swishes against yellow, blue, and red dinghies. Boys and girls practice karate on a soccer field, jabbing at invisible foes in the distant, lush jungle hillsides. Hotels and cafes stir, staff setting tables with a practiced stillness. Others, meanwhile, splash water on sandy patio tiles, sloughing off the dregs of the past day’s monsoon. A man with an old hiking poll limps assuredly down the path. Every morning we pass each other; today, we knowingly make eye contact, confident in a shared, unspoken secret - that these moments, between the bustle of the daily and the quiet of the night, are precious.

On occasion, in the far distance, the craggy Himalaya emerge through thick clouds. Their summits melt into the heavens, with snow packed peaks camouflaged by puffy atmospheres. Their unmovable enormity seems impossible, their suddenness shocking. Nearly as quickly, they go back into hiding. Their indescribability evokes Ansel Adams: “When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.” More precious moments, as the mind is briefly hushed by the scale of the scene.

Between 3 and 4 pm many days, the temperatures cool quickly, the skies darken, and winds pick up. Faint thunder gets closer and closer and closer until the deluge begins. Sometimes the rains last an hour, other times they last longer. The water cleans the air, thick humidity displacing the civilized smells of burnt plastic and exhaust and industry.

When we leave the office, the rains have usually paused. Our taxis perform regular miracles, weaving through wide lanes populated by all manner of beasts - bicycles, water buffalo, chickens, scooters and motorcycles, men and women and children, and sometimes boys on camels or ponies.

We eat as the sun sets. It rises again, and the cycle begins anew, an anything but boring repetition.

The Drive Back from Bear Valley

Last weekend, the Lovehardsteins, ChAriel, Beth and I went to Bear Valley for a weekend of skiing, hot tubs, and some fantastic team cooking led by Ben. I x-country skied, but that’s a story for… never. On the drive back, we encountered a lot of outstanding randomness, including the following:

1) a large number of cows, walking in a straight line, down a path, despite huge swaths of trodable land surrounding them;

2) a boy on a dirt bike, racing parallel to us, in a field;

3) some very, very large birds;

4) a murmuration.

Today, kottke.org coincidentally featured a cool video about murmuration (posted below).

Flying over tulip fields

Normann Szkop, a French photographer, took some amazing photographs of Tulips in the Netherlands. See them all at this Flickr page.

Flying over the Tulips Fields in Anna Paulowna a municipality and a town in the Netherlands, in the province of North Holland. The tulip has come to be a loved symbol of the Netherlands. Many tourists visit the country just to see the bright coloured flower and the astonishing view over the bulb fields. The season begins in March with crocuses, followed by the daffodil and the yellow narcissi. In April the hyacinths and tulips blosssom to some time in mid May, depending on the weather. Later, in August it is time for the gladioli. Even when spring is over, the Netherlands is still a garden, visitors can enjoy flowers in the Netherlands all year round. In the 20th century, the bulb flower business continued to boom, resulting in the establishment of auction and trading houses, large-scale cultivators and cooperatives. Today, The Netherlands exports bulbflowers in large quantities to over a hundred countries worldwide.

Q: What do a broken fuel injector, a helicopter evacuation, a plague of diarrhea, a minor tornado, and Rohtang Pass all have in common?

A: The 2012 Himalayan Health Exchange Kargiakh expedition.

More on all that later, though. We made it through the whole trip relatively intact. The trip was long and productive.

Around 600 people came through the public health and medical camps, with complaints ranging from simple osteoarthritis to worms to primary syphilis (yup!). We were able to sample indoor air quality in six villages across the Zanskar valley - a minor miracle. Remarkably, the levels of pollution during this time of year seem to be a bit lower than expected, though we won’t be able to say anything definitive until we do some more thorough data analysis.

The team arrived post-trek in Manali late on August 24th after a harrowing drive down Rohtang pass. The sky was thick with cotton-gauze fog, sharply contrasted by sticky, dense brown mud smothering the road. Our bus met them both, sliding around corners, sometimes narrowly avoiding steep drops, all the while pummeling through pea soup. The driver performed admirably, exhibiting nerves of steel save occasional bouts of hyperactive profanity. The passengers did alright, as well, though they were clearly many frayed, over-stimulated synapses at the end of the bus ride. Manali is a kitschy oasis of hot showers, beer, and wandering Druids. Our motley crew fits in well and is re-finding their footing among the modern.

We head to Delhi by bus in a few minutes, another long sojourn before we all disperse to our separate homes around the world. It’s been a great trip - and one I look forward to describing more in the coming days.

Boonville & Anderson Valley (part I)

At the recommendation of the Lovehardsteins and the NYT, we went to Boonville last weekend with Beth's mom in tow. She escaped snowfall and bitter cold back East, and we were all fortunate to have incredible weather for our jaunt into wine country.

We left late in the morning on the seventh, had a delicious brunch at Tomate Cafe, our favorite Berkeley breakfast/spot. The ladies stuck with a traditional American breakfast {eggs, bacon, etc}; I tried a 'Cuban' breakfast with rice, plantains, beans, kale, and grilled shrimp. It was delicious.

We made quick time to Anderson Valley, as traffic was light early in the day. It was pretty foggy and a tad gloomy on the way in, but majestic nonetheless. We turned onto winding Hwy 128 that would lead us to Anderson Valley, working our way through the hills and wine country as the fog folded around, between, and through the trees. Around 1p, as we arrived in Boonville, the fog burned off completely. We checked into our studio at the Boonville Hotel, an amazing little inn and restaurant in Boonville. I can't gush enough about the hotel and staff -- it was a beautiful place, with well-designed, spacious rooms that fit the place of life in the valley.

We ate lunch at the Boonville General Store and then set off to Point Area and the coast, by way of the meandering, winding, and aptly titled 'Mountain View Rd.'

Blorgh!

Hell's bells, its been like ten trillion days since i've written. Since then, much has come to light, many things have gone down, blah blah.

Monitoring

The work has been extremely, insanely challenging. The rains subsided earlier this week; the heat rolled back in, the sun beaming down irately in a vain attempt to sunburn the 16 million melanin-enhanced residents of Mumbai.

It's been hot. Haydes fire and brimstone hot. Anyway, given the fortuitous change in weather, we decided to sample like mad. Since Tuesday, we've sampled 11 homes and run all the blanks - somewhere around 48 or 49 samples total. Remarkably, there have been no real mechanical problems - one pump went nuts, one family disconnected the monitor, but nothing too insane. A typical day of sampling kicks off around 7:30 or 8:00, when I hump 50 pounds of equipment over to the bus stand and wait for Magic Bus 85, which whisks me away to Sion Hospital. After a short walk to the slum, the work begins in earnest. We identify two homes, get consent, and set up the monitors for a four hour run in the morning.

Potters are on a schedule that lends itself to monitoring - they prepare pots in the morning, let them sit in the sun during the day, and kick off the firing process around 3. We monitor both inside and outside homes in the mornings from 9:30-1:30, before the kilns begin. Then, i swap out monitors and we monitor inside and outside again, while the kilns are running.

Two days ago, I encountered hands down the worst air quality i've ever witnessed. You could see/feel the pollution three blocks away; in the slum itself it was nearly impossible to get around due to the smoke. Imagine taking hot peppers, sprinkling them with acid, mashing them up, and then pouring them on your eyes; forget about breathing; plan on showering asap - the fires burn hot and dirty. The last home i visited was a disaster - when i stepped inside, i almost doubled over from the smoke; they had shut the doors and windows in attempt to keep the smoke out, but instead were preventing any air circulation. Smoke crept in through cracked windows, gaps in the doors, poor roofs. The indoor air was like pudding. Bad, burning, caustic, smoke pudding. The two matriarchs were just kickin' it in the kitchen; one little fellow who's been tagging along/helping out took one step inside the place and had the good sense to get the hell out of there. The air inside was a thousand times worse than the air outside, surprisingly. To make things more trying, the temperature inside was easily fifteen to twelve million degrees higher than outside. I'm doing no justice to the situation - it is awful. Its a miracle the children can breathe at all; many have a perpetual hacking cough and runny nose. Today, two of the older chaps involved in the co-op talked openly about a number of folks in the community with cancer.

How did Dharavi come to be?

As a result of becoming more familiar [or numb, take your pick] to my surroundings, i've been getting curious. How did Dharavi, sandwiched between moderately high income parts of town, arise? And, perhaps more significantly, what allows it to keep sitting there? My first, instinctual answer to the latter question revolves around simple economics – the place churns out goods sold throughout Mumbai and India. It is economically self-sustaining; like in other places throughout India, the division of labor is phenomenal. Everyone has a job and pays some fee for people to do nominal things for them. A tremendous number of the goods produced cheaply in Dharavi – including textiles, leather, pottery, the like – are exported to other regions of India for sale. The economic impetus for keeping the people there is present – especially when, by vacant land tenant law, the government does not have to officially recognize or support squatters with infrastructure. There's an open window for folks to be booted from the land at any point.

History tells an interesting story of Dharavi. Originally, as far back as 1909, it was one of the great koliwadas of Mumbai – a great fishing village, flanked on one side by a bustling creek that fed into the Arabian sea. British reclamation efforts dammed up the creek, redirecting it prior to simply eliminating it - spelling the end of the thriving fishing community. The area fell into extreme poverty and slowly grew into the modern day slum of Dharavi.

That's it - that's all i've been able to glean from reading and research. There are some folks in the slum - two elderly couples in particular - who have been there for 40 or 50 years. I plan on picking their brains once the monitoring is finished.

Bedtime. more to relate later on: women's group meetings; kids, cricket, and caram boards; politics; video scheme; supplies for the school.

Yesterdays

rewind -----> all aboard the shrimp train

i was slow catching my train, so i quickly scurried into a very small compartment - reserved, much to my surprise, for fish vendors carting their wares about the peninsula. (fantastic! perhaps I can acquire food for the evening.) the car smelled like one would imagine- pungent and brackish; raw shrimpy goodness. positive i was on my way to hurl city, i flung myself out of the train at the next stop [okay, flung is too strong... hopped daintily out of the "shrimp car"] and jumped into the next open car.

big, big mistake.

the only analogy i can think of is the floor at philips when we saw NIN... a number of sweaty folks, except this time crammed into a thin, barely lit tin can. all pushing. to make things more fun, the people waiting at the next stop fight and throw arms and generally take a running dive into the train. picture: flickering lights; a gaggle of limbs, flailing about; a small american-indian, grappling for air complete with pained look upon face; hundreds of people, rushing the car, as though the one true answer to the mystery of life, sex, wealth, happiness, and samosa resides in the cubic centimeter of space between resident indians 1 through 4 and non-resident alien me. i'm not claustrophobic, but at one point i was crammed between one dude's armpit and another's fella's back and pinned to the wall and seriously thought i was going to flip out, yo. i had to close my eyes and just sort of wish myself outta existence for a little while. Two sweaty armpits and their associated staaaank whisked me violently back into reality.

The shrimpies were a far more tempting fate.

fast forward -----> Tanneries, Textiles, & Domestic Violence

Yesterday scared me. Anil, Rajan, & I went to the slum to collect B footage and interview some children, women, and a few other folks for YUVA's documentary. The interviews were smashing; one elderly gentleman in particular, who has been making pottery for over 25+ years, remarked intelligently on the strong need for change in the community and the excellence of the gas-powered kiln. He spoke about his breathing and heart trouble, and how they seemed to be worse with the smoke; he spoke on his children, who have found other work; and he spoke on the way the gas kilns fired pots, how some of them broke but no more than when firing with the traditional kilns. He recognized the resistance in the community to change, but felt it necessary, inevitable. It was refreshing to hear an elder statesman speak positively of change, to be in favor of change. Similarly, the B-roll footage of the kids and the women's group went well. The kids adore "shooting" [as the filming is called] and stuck around until we had to chase them off.

The early chunk of the day was similar to others - fun yet not central to my work. The later part of the day involved shooting in other regions of Dharavi for the introduction to the video - this portion was insane. The areas with tanneries and other small to medium-sized enterprises were unlike the potters' colony; they were cramped, without the wide lanes to accomodate bhatti; sewage and trash were rife; naked children, beggars, flea-laden dogs. small pathways careening through makeshift housing alongside informal, open sewage ditches. overwhelming and intense.

i started looking for something less... caustic. a group of children with a litter of kittens. three men, pushing a wheel chair-bound companion through muddy, muddy alleyways, all of them laughing hysterically as they slide around. a beaming mother, looking down on her elder daughter of 5 or 6 holding her newborn brother, who is cooing and gurgling loudly. i felt and still feel remarkably out of place. i have no right to be there, invading, internalizing.

the industries themselves make the sweatshops of NBC and Baraka look tame. Groups of between five and ten workers of ages ranging from 7-80 are crammed in a reasonably large, unventilated room with one wide opening. they're all working; the eldest gent, 100000 years old, hums out a familiar hindi tune along with the radio whispering in the background; its hot, but sweating here is a way of life. Perhaps most striking are the products they are working on - one shop worked on plastic containers found around blankets and comforters; another worked on fabric, pressing it and printing it; and the tanneries worked hides. the tanneries were an environmental disaster. chromium was everywhere, green and blue, frothing, mixed with god knows what else. hide was everywhere. the place smelled of death, fixatives, and mold. across a major road, leather wholesalers abound. no regulation binds action here, and concern for the environment comes second to scraping by.

india doesn't allow visitors to focus on just the attractions or remain in fun, comfortable places. for better or worse, the beautiful stuff plays footsy with the devestating stuff on every street corner, at every tourist attraction, around every corner. difficult.

step forward -----> Thunder Lightening Strike!

"Very heavy rains expected in Mumbai in the next 48 hours. Thank you and have a safe monsoon."

The rains have begun. For those of you who've lived in Louisiana, think storm season times ten. The streets in Dharavi flooded in minutes, and the rains didn't let up for over an hour. They began anew two hours later, twice as intense.

Slums + Development

K-wada is a small chunk of Dharavi, Asia's largest slum that hosts 1 million people of varying religious and ethnic backgrounds. Dharavi sprawls in all directions - upwards for two or three stories, and out and out and out. K-wada's an interesting part of Dharavi. It's the region's largest pottery colony, home to some 1200 families. Around 600 of those families earn meager wages as amazing artisanal potters. The pots are stunning, but more amazing is watching the community at work - some work the clay, preparing it for the potters; other prepare the kilns; other still glaze the pots. The final products vary - some serve a strictly utilitarian purpose; some decorative; the majority find a niche between utility and decoration. The functioning, organized, delineated process of the operation is striking, contrasting sharply with larger Indian inefficiency.

Development is a tricky concept to grasp at home. It is even more convoluted in India, a country in the throes of modernization, industrialization, commercialization - all the "-tion" buzzwords affiliated with development. We went to the slum on Saturday to hold a drawing competition with around 30 of the children and to give the cooperative members their pictures, which I had taken the day before. The cooperative members were sincerely grateful and enjoyed the 7 or 8 basic portraits I had taken, which came out well. The lighting was awful, so some improvisation was required, but they were adequate. Anyway, at one point around 40 kids burst into a tiny office, surrounding a small desktop computer so they could see digital photos from a trip they had taken to the park. Technology be damned and all that, but the kids' reaction to the computer, to the images, was priceless - the excitement, energy, and enthusiasm was palpable and contagious. There's this side of modernizing - the amazing trickle of technology to societies who otherwise don't have access to it. The people in k-wada aren't marginalized by large MNCs, by the national government, or by any of the usual suspects - instead, repression comes from history; from an archaic, outdated caste system that, while buckling under pressure, manages to maintain a firm, vice-like grip on Indian society. Mobility outside of your designated lot in life isn't a reality, it's a pipe-dream. It seems impossible. Yet watching those kids - a few in particular - one gets the impression that things will change, that they have to change, that they are changing. The kids speak broken English, while their parents speak none. The kids read and write, few of their elder's do. Many of the teenagers volunteer at the school as tutors, mentors, as little leaders - of their own volition, sometimes to the chagrin of their parents. They kids seem to yearn for something else. The parents, like parents everywhere, boast and show-off scores from their chillun that ARE as good as students from more prosperous areas. The ability is there - it always is, always, in every single person - but will the society let it flourish? And then, the flipside of all this, the loss of cultural customs to developmental homogenization. To the desire to escape the current lifestyle. Lays potato chips next to homebrew masala-laden hot mix. Plastic containers in place of hand-made earthenware. High capacity housing in place of sprawling slums. I'm in no place to judge that escapist desire. But, for the first time, I'm not sure where I stand with regards to development. There is life here that doesn't exist elsewhere, energy and vitality and an approach to living that world is rapidly losing... but the need to ramp up production, the desire to create more product for as little money as possible, the pressure of modernization has lead to tremendous difficulty in continuing to actively pursue pottery in a sustainable fashion. The current kilns simply are not sustainable - from an environmental perspective, an economic perspective, and a political perspective. The sheer volume and thickness of smoke created EVERYDAY when the kilns are run is extraordinary. Sometime last week, I watched one elderly gent get caught between two kilns that were firing pottery and take a hacking deep breath - and then cough up blood and pass out. All hell broke loose, as children tried to move this fellow five times their size. Everyone mobilized to help him, and after a few minutes he regained consciousness. Then, the kids return to running around the kilns, playing cricket, chasing each other - blissfully ignorant of the poop they're breathing in. Elders look on, relatively unconcerned. This is how its been, and how it will be. This is their lot in life. Long live tradition, but foofaa that.

Traveling and Arrival, Recounted

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alas, non.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And in this one?

More camping gear, some electronics.

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

What is all of this?

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

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

350.

Duties for this equipment are $400

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

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

Give me 50 USD.

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

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

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

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

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

all rights reserved
snarglr is written & maintained by ajay pillarisetti



click here to turn on all posts