Saturday, February 21, 2009

Read at Your Own Risk!

DISCLAIMER: If you have any affinity for the Bush Dynasty, unquestioning adoration for Obama, or a firmly held belief that the “American Way of Life” is a God-given right, please do not read this post! I promise to have a fluffy post with anecdotes and photos by next week :-)

Barack Hussein Obama, the son of a Kenyan immigrant, is now the most powerful man in the world. I was certain it was impossible and I still find it difficult to believe even after reading “President Obama . . .” repeatedly in the papers. Luckily, I am constantly reminded of Obama's victory by strangers in India immediately after confessing that I am an American. “Oh Yes, Obama! He is a good man, I like him very much!” Overnight it became OK to be an American abroad! To many Indians, and to millions of others around the world, Obama represents the possibility of a new world order, a world where America does have a conscience and a moral responsibility to consider the well-being of hundreds of millions of impoverished people around the world. All of this optimism and enthusiasm is based on two facts; 1) Obama is not a member of the white and privileged establishment and 2) his last name isn't Bush or Clinton.

Unfortunately (I seldom express this sentiment to excited Indians) I am not expecting change, at least not any deep or lasting change, during Obama's presidency. Economic exploitation of the third world through economic imperialism and the unquestioned reign of transnational corporations will continue during the next four years. Obama may represent many positive things to many deserving people, but he is an ardent centrist (and he wouldn't have been elected otherwise) and the bulk of his policies reinforce the status quo. He may be an exciting breath of fresh air in the global political scene, but his image, charisma, and rhetoric can only go so far.
In some ways America under Obama is more dangerous than it was under Bush Junior. Of course this is blasphemous to my liberal friends, but the truly liberal have reason to be disheartened. The Bush regime was so utterly simple, so brazen in its actions, so arrogant in its behaviors, that the mechanisms behind global exploitation were clearly visible to even the most casual observer. An ex-president's simple-minded son (himself a former oil tycoon) gets elected through a technicality in the state his brother governs, hires a bunch of his Dad's old buddies (Oil tycoons and defense contractors) with the sole aim of making a more “favorable global business environment” for his CEO buddies. Of course this includes acquiring, through unapologetically dishonest means, the oil necessary to lubricate the wheels of production and consumption. Of course this is all old news, it will all be in history books soon enough, but the point is that Bush made it easy for opponents of the American led trans-national corporate empire to criticize the unjust system and to rally people in the fight for change. In many ways Obama is a godsend to the status quo; he appeases the masses with the appearance of change while business continues as usual. I don't think we will be illegally invading and occupying as many countries during the next four years, but I have little doubt that our tax dollars will continue to pour into the defense industry, that the richest one percent of Americans will continue owns more wealth than the bottom twenty percent, and that corporate campaign contributions will continue to guide public policy making.

I have no doubt that Obama is a good and honorable man, and he may even turn out to be one of the great presidents of the modern era, but good and honorable aren't enough. The world needs a revolutionary president who is not afraid to work outside the two-party political system in order to bring justice to the hundreds of millions who are on the losing end of global economic inequity. Sure, he is the American president and he was elected to further America's interests, but as September 11th proved, we don't live in an impenetrable bubble. Global peace is impossible without global equality, both economic and political. How can we expect the rest of the world to watch contentedly as we gluttonously consume vastly more than our share of the world's limited resources? Do we deserve to live a more comfortable life than the rest of the world? Do they deserve to live in poverty? Do we work harder, or are we born smarter? (I can tell you firsthand that the answer is a definitive NO to last question.) Or was it a fluke of history and geography that endowed the people of America and Europe with power and wealth - power that we use without hesitation to acquire more wealth, which we are very hesitant to share. A powerful minority can only hide behind the supposedly sacred concept of the sovereign nation-state for so long before the rest of the world realizes that the world's resources belong to everyone and that no one group has a right to live a life of luxury while others suffer in poverty. This is the exact reason why conservatives have been pushing the idea of a missile defense shield since Reagan - we would finally get our impenetrable bubble that would protect us from any retribution, righteous or otherwise, from those who seek a more equitable global balance of power.

Even a missile defense shield can't save us from the effects of environmental collapse. As you read this, weather patterns are shifting, glaciers are melting, and sea levels are rising. We're already running low on oil and soon much of the world will be short of the water it needs. The evidence is clear – our unsustainable lifestyle and careless public policy has altered the planet's delicate balance and we are unprepared for the inevitable effects.

Two more, albeit late, disclaimers:
1) I am no expert on Obama's policies
2) I benefit every day of my life from the plundering of the American empire, and will probably continue to do so for the rest of my life.

Despite the cynicism of this rant, I am genuinely excited by Obama's presidency. He is bound to improve public infrastructure, education, and the status of scientific research in the United States. I am also fascinated by his victory as a historic milestone. Less than five decades ago he wouldn't have been allowed to sit at the same table as white people in some states, but now he is sitting at the head of the table, and everyone is listening – a monumental step for a nation plagued by racial discord. Of course hundreds of years of wrongs can not be corrected by a single electoral gesture. A great deal of work has yet to be done, but at least we are moving forward. Obama's election is in many ways the culmination of the war over racial identity that has been fought in America since the civil rights movement. I hope that we really are in a new post-racial era of American politics because a united citizenry is needed to fight the next great battle for equality. The rally cry of this new battle is a logical extension of the civil right movement; all people, not just those born in America, deserve equality, both economic and political. This battle will not be won until economic and environmental exploitation of the third world are no longer considered valid means to accumulate wealth. I look forward to the day when it is just as easy and affordable for the average Indian to travel to America as it has been for me to travel to India.

. . . . . .

Although the tone of this posting is urgent - and even slightly angry - I assure you that the atmosphere at Sadhana Village is the polar opposite. Perhaps the only problem is that I have too much free time to observe the surrounding villages and write about my reactions, hence this post. I hope that the cardinal rule of conversation – don't discuss religion or politics because you'll either bore people or piss them off – doesn't apply to blogging. Even if it does apply, I hope I didn't piss anyone off, or worse, bore anyone with an exceptionally long and pictureless post. Just throwing my 2¢ in . . .

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Best of the East and West

Volunteering after months of touring is truly refreshing, kind of like taking a long, hot shower after an overnight bus ride. Of course there are no showers here, but Sadhana Village has everything else I could ask for and more. It is set in a dramatic valley 30 kilometers outside of Pune and is much more peaceful than the tourist-infested beaches of Goa or the traffic-clogged streets of Pune and Mumbai. My biggest concern before arrival was a language barrier, but that fear was washed away within minutes of my arrival by scores of questions from the curious residents, all of which were formed in perfect English! The multitude of international volunteers and educated staff have given the residents a firm grasp of the English language, which unfortunately means I probably won't learn much Hindi or Marathi.

Sadhana Village isn't a village in the usual way; it is a home for people with developmental disabilities that is structured like a community. The community was founded by Vasante Deshpande after his daughter had a debilitating accident that left her unable to care for herself. He was told by the doctors that a “rehabilitation home” was the best place for her. Mr. Deshpande was shocked by these so called homes, abuse, malnutrition, and neglect were widespread. He decided to travel abroad in search of a more humane organization, and was inspired by the Camphill Schools in North America. Sadhana Village was founded in 1993 with the aim of becoming a place where people of varying abilities could live happy, healthy and fulfilling lives. The basic premise is simple; people with disabilities have the same needs as everyone else – adequate food and shelter, opportunities to express themselves creatively, and to belong to a family and community. Sadhana Village meets these needs better than similar organizations in India because each resident's individual needs and desires are emphasized, but it is also more successful than similar organizations in the United States because familial and cultural relationships are very highly valued. In many ways it is the best of the Collectivist East and the Individualist West.

Sadhana Village consists of three main buildings, each of which is a home to ten “special friends” (their term, not mine). Each building has a kitchen, a living area, and two dining rooms. In order to cultivate a more family-like environment, meals are eaten in smaller groups of 5 residents and at least one volunteer or staff. Dividing the residents between three buildings and then into smaller family groups (albeit unisex families) gives the residents a more stable, private, and familiar environment in which to live. The staff and volunteers all live on site, which also adds to the stability of the community.

The daily schedule at Sadhana is also very stable and organized. Everyone is up by 7:30 for chai, followed immediately by a walk around the property. Breakfast is served at 9:00 before all the houses gather together for a morning community meeting and prayer at 10:00. Everyone then heads to the garden for morning work, which ends promptly at 12:00. After showers and some rest, lunch is served at 1:00. My favorite part of the day, nap time, goes from lunch until 3:00 when the afternoon cultural activity begins. Sweet snacks are served to everyone at 6:00, dinner at 8:00, and bed-time prayer/meditation at 9:00. I like the structure and predictability of the schedule, it helps everyone to be at ease and on time.

Despite the rosy picture I have painted of Sadhana Village, behind the scenes things are not running so effortlessly. An organization of this nature is expensive to operate and Sadhana receives exactly zero rupees from the Indian government. The parents of the residents pay a nominal sum each month, but the fees do not cover operating costs. International foundations and corporations only donate money for capital-raising projects, such as new buildings and land purchases, but rarely will give money for daily expenses. The international financial crisis has caused a decrease in international donations. There are only two alternatives, to raise the monthly fee for each family, which would result in some residents being forced out, or to create an income generating enterprise of some sort, which would force the residents to work for many hours of the day. It is interesting that this is the exact same problem that the Temi Community in Georgia faces, people are willing to give money for new projects and buildings, but no one wants to cover the mundane daily expenses which are necessary to keep them operating.

I hope that I will be able to help this group in a meaningful way, but I will undoubtedly learn more from them then they will from me. That seems to be the theme of my entire year; getting credit for volunteering, when in fact I am getting fed, housed, and educated for free. Not exactly a fair trade, but if they are happy with the arrangement, there will be no complaints from me.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

I'm NOT Goin' to Goa

I don't know how many times I said that exact phrase when talking about my Indian itinerary. Goa is infamous as the destination for world-weary hippies looking for a beautiful place to relax and European couples looking for a cheap place to drink and get a tan. Despite belonging to the same category, I generally don't like tourists. It is easy to get arrogant and righteous when observing groups of sunburned sixty-somethings who have over-indulged in the cheap booze, but i have no right to be indignant. I may think of myself as a traveler rather than a tourist, but it is all a matter of perspective. My perspective. To the people in Goa who rely on tourism for their livelihood, I am just as much a tourist as any drunken pensioner from Europe, just another person who has come for the cheap food and beautiful beaches.

Tourism may be considered a legitimate route to economic development, but it irreversibly, and in my mind adversely, affects the local culture. Instead of relying on the land or the sea for their income, most people in Goa must now rely on the fickle demands of foreign tourists. Communities full of people who can only make money by pleasing tourists. The rich folks fly in and immediately stash their money in locked hotel safes and hidden money belts. All tourists everywhere, especially myself, have a disproportionate fear, almost a phobia, of the dreaded “Rip Off”. Not too many people stop to think about who is really getting ripped off every day. The tourists pamper themselves in one of the world's most beautiful settings for ridiculously cheap. while the locals make a meager living serving them, too busy to be able to enjoy their ancestral setting. You decide who is getting the short end of the stick. (No points for guessing my answer.)

Tourism's effect on the locals is evident every time I walk to town. I am staying in a lesser-developed section of Goa, but the road to the nearest village is lined with stalls selling the usual array of souvenirs. The necklaces, postcards, t-shirts, and trinkets are the same in nearly every stall. There is little or no product differentiation because in order to be competitively priced they must buy from a large wholesaler, which has a limited selection of merchandise. Since everyone is essentially selling the same thing, the only way to stand out is to catch the attention of the passing tourists, to hook their interest in whatever way possible. The hooks range from the simple and ubiquitous, “Hello, my friend!”, to the more sophisticated (and usually accurate) comments on nationality, “Hello! America, yes?” (I occasionally get mistaken for a German or Australian, but without me saying a word they usually know I'm American. Is it my clothes, my hair, or my shoes, or something more subtle? I don't really know how they do it, but I know it involves practicing day after day.) If the comment elicits any reaction, especially a verbal response, it is successful and is immediately followed by a heartfelt plea to, “just look here, no buying”. The hook which catches me without fail is the compliment. Hearing a stranger say “nice beard my friend!”, or “you look like a real Indian!” instinctively makes me smile and at least say “thanks” in return, not because I'm overly polite, but because I'm a sucker for a compliment.

The most creative hook I have come across was even more clever than a compliment or educated guess on nationality. “Please come look at my shitty shop. Just another shitty shop full of shit for you to buy”. When I was certain I had heard him correctly, I had to turn to smile. “Yes my friend, do you want to see my shit? You have never seen such shit for such good prices!” This guy would be a marketing executive had he been born in the West. He realizes that it doesn't matter what you say, as long as people stop and listen. Being a connoisseur of hawkers' hooks, I had to buy some postcards from this supreme souvenir slinger.

Like it or not, the tourism industry is not going to disappear anytime soon. People will always choose to go where their hard-won Dollars, Pounds, or Euros will go the farthest; it's simple economics. The problem is that this process always results in a unequal balance of power. The tourists, by voting with their money, have control over the services, food, accommodation, and entertainment in the area. The local residents are not helpless victims, they are just at the losing end of an economic exchange. If the people of Goa became organized and decided to guarantee everyone working in the tourist industry a minimum wage and guaranteed time off, prices for tourist services would inevitably rise. For every Rupee increase in the cost of a Goa vacation, Goa would get less tourists and the locals are aware of this economic fact. It is just as easy for potential tourists to book a vacation to Mexico, Thailand, Bali, or Vietnam – exotic, warm, beautiful, and cheap. Poor people in Thailand are competing with poor people in Indians; there is always another “undiscovered gem” on the tourist map, so if you want to be attract tourists, you better be cheap.

Tourism in the developing world is a one way street. We can go to their home and pay for their servitude, but 99% of them will never be able to even dream of a luxurious vacation in the West. Of course not, neither can most of the Western tourists who come to Goa, that is why many people are here. This all became embarrassingly apparent on a bus ride in which I was talking to a friendly engineer going to visit his home village. He was very curious and asked about all the details of my trip; how long in each country, average costs for hotels, food, and transportation, and how much I had saved before leaving. He then asked me about equivalent traveling costs in the United States and Europe. Being an engineer, doing the math in his head was not a problem. When he was finished with his mental spreadsheet, he looked at me and said, “It is impossible for me to visit your country in this way. I am an engineer, but I will never be able to afford a trip for that length of time in such an expensive place.” He said it as a matter of fact, without a hint of resentment or anger. It is just the current global situation and we too often take it for granted.

This whole rant on tourism is a result of two and a half months of constantly and consciously taking advantage of this economic inequity. I need a holiday from being a tourist so I'm excited to start volunteering tomorrow - whether or not I'm able to really help their organization, at least I'll no longer feel like a neo-colonial voyeur. My next posting should be from Sadhana Village in Pune, hopefully on a much lighter note :-)

Monday, February 2, 2009

Bombay: Maximum City

It is natural to attempt to relate foreign locations to familiar places because an analogy can lead to a better understanding of a new place. While exploring Mumbai's backstreets, affluent suburbs, and tourist hot-spots I realized that there is no one city in America which contains the mult-faceted vibrancy that this “maximum city”, so no simple analogy is accurate. Mumbai is the financial capital of India, the fourth largest city in the world, the home of India's entertainment and fashion industry (Bollywood produces more films per year than Hollywood), the site of countless ancient and colonial landmarks, and is flanked by sun-drenched beaches and jungle. A fair analogy to the US could only be possible if Boston, Los Angeles, and New York were all stacked on top of each other somewhere in Florida.

Another way to describe Mumbai is to recognize what it is not; this city is no Kerala. As my previous post describes, Kerala is teeming with natural beauty and home-spun tradition. Like the citizens of Mumbai, Keralans are also struggling to survive in an India that is changing faster than anyone imagined possible, but Kerala is doing it on its own terms. The socialist government strongly encourages the retention of customs and traditions and promotes these traditions to attract tourists. Kerala is cultivating an image of traditional lifestyles and natural beauty, in some ways refusing economic gain which would destroy these two important aspects of their state. In contrast, Mumbai is racing towards the 21st century and not looking back. This is a city of extremes; the jet-set millionaires living in skyscrapers while 55 percent of the city lives in slums. Mumbai is home to India's wealthiest businessmen, but it is also home to Asia's largest slum. In some areas it is more common to see espresso and gelato shops than traditional chai stalls.

As with the rest of India, it is impossible to say whether or not I like Mumbai. I like the enterprising nature of the residents, with stalls selling every imaginable good and service at every corner. I don't like watching the ultra-wealthy ride in BMWs past children begging on the street. I like the unique flavor of Bollywood, with its singing/dancing/comedy/romance/action adventure plots. I don't like that Western style coffee shops are beginning to outnumber the chai stalls. Of course I do like that I can get a delicious double-shot latte anytime that I want. Mumbai just is, like it or not.
If you really want a glimpse at this crazy city, you must watch “Slumdog Millionaire”. Jess and I saw it at a swanky multi-plex here in Mumbai, which was incredible because we were within sight of many of the landmarks that are the setting for the film! I don't know how much publicity the movie is getting in the US, but it is obviously a big deal here in Mumbai, even though it is a foreign film. Slumdog really is an incredible movie, entertaining and heart-warming in its own right, but it does a particularly good job at portraying modern India with all its beauty, contradictions and harshness. My rating: three thumbs up and six stars.

The past week has been a little stressful here as Jess and I have spent our days running around trying to get her a Chinese Visa so that she can go back to work. As if the heavens were conspiring against her leaving India, Republic Day and Chinese New Year BOTH fell on the same week, meaning that the Chinese consulate was closed for the ENTIRE WEEK!! Thanks to some creative travel planning, she is now in Hong Kong getting a (hopefully) expedited visa so that she can get back to work next week.

After a week of running around the city with her I find myself alone in a an enormous city. Before I go to Pune to start work at Sadhana Village, I'm going to take a week in Goa to re-center and prepare for three and a half months away from Jess. A room with a balcony and long bike rides on the beach will hopefully prepare me for three months of volunteering and cultural immersion. I also bought a new “ultraportable” notebook computer here (for less than $200!), so I should be more accessible via email and Skype for the next few months. For those who are interested, my Skype name is lukintm, and for those, like me, who are new to Skype it is like an internet phone service, or a voice-chatting program, or a video-messaging service, depending on how you look at it. Either way, it goes a long way to make the world even smaller.

I just finished my espresso, so now it is time to dodge the BMWs and push through the begging children to find my bus . . .