Saturday, April 25, 2009

What day is it again?

Every morning after I wake up, I look out the window, brush my teeth and question if I have really woken up or if I am having a surreal dream set in Middle Earth or some other fantastical fictional world. Yangshuo is incredibly, uniquely, and naturally stunning (I know I may have overused this word by now on this blog, but just check out these pictures!). The crazy rock formations, apparently known as “karsts” are everywhere, covered in lush vegetation and casting imposing asymmetrical shadows over the winding rivers and geometrically shaped rice paddies that fill the rest of the landscape.

ZhuoYoe English College is a generous and hospitable host, maybe too much so since the volunteer rooms have been completely full since I have arrived. The school was kind enough to put me up in the home of a staff member with an elderly Chinese couple for the first few days. I'm glad I had the experience of living with a Chinese family, but the language barrier was insurmountable and it is nice to now be living with the rest of the volunteers. Most living/working experiences are made either enjoyable or miserable by other people, and living in Yangshuo is no exception - thankfully I am surrounded by some seriously cool, interesting, and nice people from all over the world. I've hardly had a chance to rest, much less blog, email or contact anyone, since arriving because there is always a group going biking, climbing, swimming or hiking. It is a nice feeling to be perpetually busy while simultaneously having almost no responsibility. Luckily most of these activities that fill my days are cheap, or in the case of swimming and hiking, free. This is exactly what I wanted after a month of living in a crowded and dirty city doing a computer-based project; I finally have unlimited access to fresh air and outdoor activities.

The actual “work” that I do in order to earn my free food and room is actually one of the most interesting parts of my day. The role of volunteers is to engage the Chinese students in “Social Class” - which is just conversation practice - for two hours a day, four days a week. In a town with so many travelers (Yangshuo attracts a lot of backpackers) it is really nice to have the opportunity to converse with Chinese people, especially since the students at the school come from different generations, regions, and ethnic groups. Each table of two volunteers and four or five students is given a general topic and discussion questions, all of which are promptly ignored in favor or more interesting conversations about pop culture, dating, and personal histories. Conversation tends to flow more naturally thanks to the Chinese students' eagerness to practice English and learn about Western culture.

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It's been a few days since I wrote the paragraphs above, and the pace hasn't let up yet. Today I am sequestering myself inside my room to give my body a break from the non-stop activity during the day and the nightly trips to the local watering hole. Yesterday I took a long but fun day-trip to the Li Jiang rice terraces about 100 km from Yangshuo with three awesome traveling companions. Two of our group – Natasia and True – stayed the night on the terraces while Bartosh and I made a feeble attempt at hitchhiking back, and then decided to take the easy route and hopped on buses. Although most of the day was spent on tiny Chinese buses, we were rewarded with some amazing scenery which is the result of thousands of years of back-breaking labor. Check out these pictures and my other Yangshuo photos to get an idea of what I've been trying to put into words.

I have two weeks left here, so I'm going to try to rock-climb a few more times and maybe pick up some broken Chinese. Then, after our second epic (three and a half month) separation, Jess and I will reunite in Kunming – this time for good. After that, who knows. We will eventually make it to Beijing and then head West to Xinjiang and Kyrgyzstan, but for now it is one day at a time.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Hong Kong - Who Knew?

Hong Kong was never on my list of "must see" places and it only ended up on my itinerary out of convenience; it was the cheapest entry point to China from India. Maybe it was because I just left one of the dirtiest and most inconvenient cities in the world (Delhi), but Hong Kong felt like a surreal paradise - a seamless blend of natural beauty, cutting-edge technology, and international sophistication. The streets are pedestrian-friendly and spotless, the buildings are super-sleek and modern, the traffic is calm and well-controlled, and there is green space everywhere! There are literally sky-scrapers and high rise apartments that are surrounded by forests! There is nothing resembling the homogenized, endless sprawl that characterizes most US cities, the development in Hong Kong has apparently been tightly controlled, thus there are trees and undeveloped land within reach of everywhere. On my second morning I my host's apartment looking for a place for a jog, and within TWO MINUTES I was on a path surrounded by the forest! I didn't see another person the entire time, but I did see animals scurrying around, birds singing in the trees, and high-rise buildings only a few hundred feet away - a really cool mix of urban lifestyle with natural surroundings.
As much as I admire Hong Kong for being possibly the most beautiful and liveable city I've seen, it is almost entirely based on commerce. Apparently shopping is the chief recreational activity of the population, or at least the tourists. Electronics, designer clothes, gourmet foods - all stuff that I don't care to look at and can't afford to buy. Since shopping wasn't an option, I ran through Hong Kong's tourist attractions in one full day of walking/tram-riding/subway-hopping. The city isn't terribly expensive, but since I'm used to Indian prices I couldn't bear to pay for anything other than cheap snacks from 7-11. I was also anxious to keep moving since mainland China was only a 30 tram ride to the north, so yesterday I headed to the Chinese "border". It isn't really a border since Hong Kong is a part of China, but since it has a significant degree of autonomy, it is treated as a separate territory. I had to get my passport stamped, show my Chinese visa (which isn't needed to get to Hong Kong) and go through customs. I was shocked by how smooth it all went (much, much easier than getting into Canada!) and before I knew it I was in the Motherland.
The rest was easy - I just found someone who spoke some English and took me to the ticket booth for Yangshuo buses, and viola - I arrived here in Yangshuo at the mind-numbing hour of 5:00 a.m. Blah, needless to say I'm tired, so I'm taking it easy today. I met up with my supervisor at the English College, and I can already tell this will be a VERY laid-back volunteer experience. One unexpected twist is that I'm staying with a Chinese family rather than in a volunteer dorm - at least for the time being. So far it's really nice - my first meal in china was a home-cooked pork and potato hotpot with rice. It will take a while to get over Indian food, but I'm sure I won't stave while I'm here. Tomorrow is a group bike trip to a local village - fresh air and green scenery! The perfect antidote to a month in a clausterphobia/asthma inducing Bhopal!

Friday, April 10, 2009

"I Liked It"

I’m trying to savor my last few days in India; returning smiles and giving my best “Nemaste” to the dozens of strangers who greet me each day, indulging in the amazing flavors concocted by the food stalls that line every street, and attempting to capture in pictures the unique blend of modernity and tradition found on every corner. I’ve been in India for almost five months, but in some ways I’m not ready to go – there are still large regions of the country that I have yet to visit and countless foods and activities that I have yet to try. Of course that just gives me an excuse to return. The polluted and frenzied streets of Bhopal will not be missed, but overall I would be very happy to spend another five months in India, especially if I could travel north to the Himalayas. Next time . . .

Of all the destinations on my itinerary, I think India caused my family and friends the most anxiety, and it’s no mystery why. India doesn’t get into the news unless 1) they are on the brink of nuclear war with Pakistan 2) there was a major natural disaster 3) a famine or disease kills thousands. Positive information about India rarely makes it into the headlines, but despite its many problems and ever-present poverty, India is a wonderful, and safe, place to travel.

The perfect example of India's relative safety is my nightly outing to the vegetable market here in Bhopal. For the past few weeks it has been stupid-hot (40 degrees C = 104 degrees F), so during the day I try to stay in the shade, preferably with a fan nearby. I don’t venture out into the streets until after dark, around 7 or 8, when the unforgiving sun has disappeared and the air has cooled to a tolerable temperature. To get to the fruit and vegetable market, I walk through the surrounding “bustees” (a.k.a. slum, but that term seems like a really insulting way to refer to people’s homes and neighborhoods). I walk alone, obviously a rich foreigner, through some of the most economically depressed areas of the city. I feel very safe because I have been reassured by many locals that there is no threat of random or violent crime in the area and because the streets ARE safe. This lack of crime isn’t due to any police presence actually I’ve never seen a single policeman in the neighborhood (which puts me more at ease because the police are notoriously corrupt). The area is safe because the streets are not controlled by criminals, but by the community as a whole. They don’t have a formal neighborhood watch program like in American suburbs, but that is exactly what they do to the same effect. If someone was to attempt to mug or attack me, people wouldn’t shut themselves in their homes and call the police, they would take matters into their own hands. Of course would-be criminals know this, which is why they don’t even try. While I’m walking around at night, I see old ladies and children walking alone – a sure sign that things are safe. I can’t imagine walking alone in most economically depressed inner-city neighborhoods in the US. Even driving through some of these neighborhoods at night is a dangerous proposition because the streets are controlled not by families or the community leaders, but by youth who are predisposed to crime. I don’t mean to sound prejudiced against American inner-city youth, but rather to make the point that inner-city poverty does not necessarily equate crime.

The most poignant aspect of this distinction between inner-cities in the US and “slums” in India is that the poor Indians who ensure my safety on the streets are suffering due to an American company which poisoned them and then refused to provide compensation, not the mention the suffering caused by the incessant economic exploitation that I’ve already railed on in numerous posts. They have every right to be angry at a rich white guy walking down their streets, but I have not once encountered even a hint of rudeness or confrontation. Also, unbelievably, in five months here I have only been noticeably overcharged ONCE – and this is out of countless daily transactions all over the country. Of course more people tried to get some extra out of me, but a little bargaining always brought the price down to a fair level. The rest of the world, especially the ‘developed’ world of the West, can learn a great deal from India about hospitality, honesty, and forgiveness.

Another reason why I love India can be summed up in one word – diversity. Few other countries have the diversity of landscapes found in India; vast deserts in Rajasthan, dense jungles in Tamil Nadu, majestic mountains in the North, the unique backwaters of Kerala, and impeccable beaches in Goa. The US may have a comparable amount of geographic diversity, but it is no match for India’s cultural, linguistic, and religious diversity. It is only through the history of colonization by the British that India exists as one country – within India are hundreds of regional cultures with their distinct religion, language, and traditions. There are literally hundreds of different languages spoken here and only English, and to some extent Hindi, operate as a national language. India is better thought of as a continent, such as Europe, with diverse languages and distinct cultures, except Europeans probably have more in common with one another than Indians do, especially in regard to religion. In fact, all major world religions have a major presence in India – Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Christianity, and Islam – and three out of those five began here. For someone who spent the first 20+ years of his life in a mono-cultural, racially homogenous, Christian dominated region of US, India is simultaneously fascinating and overwhelming.
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I have already been asked, and expect to get asked more in the future, the obvious question, “what do you think of India – did you like it?” My answers up to this point been evasive because I thought it was presumptuous to give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down on an entire continent – there are things about India I like and things I don’t like. Now, as reflect on how incredible it is that a country containing a billion diverse and mostly impoverished people continues to function as a democracy, I feel confident giving a much more simple answer: “I liked it”.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The First (and probably last) Meeting of Lukin's Book Club

One of the best things about traveling is that I have a lot of time to read. While the wireless internet here at the clinic is a distraction, I am still managing to get into some interesting books. While I've always been an avid reader, my professors and teachers have always dictated in what text my nose was to be buried, at least for 10 months of the year. Now, for the first time in my life, I have complete literary freedom. This new-found freedom is refreshing, but it can be overwhelming when I am confronted by thousands of books, all for only two or three dollars, but only a small backpack in which to put them. I’ve been told not to judge a book by its cover, but I’ve never been informed of a better way to discover new and interesting authors and titles in a heap (literally, there are piles upon piles of used books on the street) of books.

I've been putting together this list for the last few months to share some books that really deserve to be read, so here it is:

Top Ten Books I’ve Stumbled Across While Traveling

1. The Sane Society; Eric Fromm

Is it possible that this book was written almost fifty years ago? Fromme describes the current ills of our society with such timely precision that it is as if he is from the future rather than the past; his prose is a warning to us all about the consequences of the world's current socio-economic system. He is a psychologist by training, but his insights are primarily sociological in nature. In a sense he is looking at modern society as a disturbed psychiatric patient; not surprisingly the similarities are striking and the prognosis is grim. He is not a radical or a revolutionary, just an extremely intelligent and insightful observer of human nature at the individual and social levels. I have no idea why he is not recognized as one of his century's greatest social thinkers.

2. Train to Pakistan; Kushwant Singh

This is the first book I read after arriving in India – a short and simple parable by one of India's most famous writers. Kushwant Singh, a Sikh who is from the Punjab region of India and Pakistan, is a the author of dozens of books, both fiction and non-fiction, a former member of parliament, and an out-spoken critic of sectarian violence – a much needed renaissance man in India. Train to Pakistan tells the story of a small town torn apart during the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan. The book's power lies in its simplicity; it conveys a great deal about India's past and future almost effortlessly. If would liken it to India's “Of Mice and Men”. A quick, easy, and poignant read for those interested in one of the world’s greatest post-colonial tragedies.

3. Omnivore's Dilemma; Michael Pollan

Should be required reading for everyone who eats, purchases, or produces food. So, yeah, pretty much everyone. Pollan uses his skills as a journalist to look in-depth at the industrial food chain which monopolizes food production and distribution in the United States. Why did it take so long for a book like this to be written? After reading “Omnivore's Dilemma” you will never think about food the same way again; why should you? Why is it that we purchase food the same way we buy socks and laundry detergent – as cheaply as possible from big-box stores owned by massive corporations that have absolutely no vested interest in our health or the preservation of the environment? It is time we all take the food we eat more seriously for the sake of our health, the environment, and the economy.

4. An Ordinary Person's Guide to Empire; Arundhati Roy

She took the words right out of my mouth! Actually that is an exaggeration because I'm not gifted enough with language to have a mouth full of such expressive words and clever phrases. As the author of one of the best novels I've ever read (See #5: The God of Small Things) and this accessible, piercing critique of the American led trans-national economic empire, Arundhati Roy is officially my new hero. I don't know if she strives to be the next Noam Chomsky, but this collection of essays and speeches puts her at the forefront of a growing group of writers with the intellectual courage and historical perspective necessary to challenge corporate power's domination over human rights and national sovereignty. If you aren't angry after reading this book, you should either; A) read it again, B) travel to an impoverished part of the world to better understand the book’s perspective, or C) go back to your cubicle and work for the man.

5. The God of Small Things; Arundhati Roy

Storytelling at its best; enjoyable, thought-provoking, heartbreaking, and original. God of Small Things makes me want to go back to school and study literature because if there are more books out there like this, I want to read them. Of course it helps that I had just visited Kerala, which is the setting of the story and the author's state, but it is accessible to those who have no previous knowledge of the region. I think this might have been an Oprah book club pick, which is why I avoided it previously.

6. No Logo; Naomi Klein

Advertisements, logos, and brands permeate nearly every aspect of life in the developed world. According to Klein, we no longer purchase products, we buy brands. This idea is not revolutionary in itself, but Klein dives much deeper into this fundamental shift in consumerism and corporate behavior. This well-researched and comprehensive book succeeds in explaining how sweat-shop labor in the third world, sports stars who earn millions in endorsements, retail jobs that pay less than a living wage, and the decline of small businesses are all the result of the same process - branding. Branding has one overarching theme; the consolidation of economic power in the hands of a few very powerful corporations which are pathologically driven by the profit motive.

7. Karma Cola; Gita Mehta

This anthology of short stories contains some of the most colorful and creative writing I've ever come across, thanks in part to the liberal use of Indish, a unique blend of English and Indian languages. The theme of the book is the sometimes tragic, sometimes comical meeting of Eastern religious traditions with Western spiritual seekers. A fun and light book on a really fascinating inter-cultural phenomenon.

8. Outliers; Malcom Gladwell

Gladwell used his entertaining writing and clear, creative thinking to produce two other bestselling books, Blink and Tipping Point. This latest effort, Outliers, is about what makes a person or a place a statistical anomaly. He does an excellent job of weaving together disparate subjects with his thesis that most outliers are products of cultural and historical factors rather than individual geniuses or freaks of nature.

Here are a few examples that struck a chord with me. (Warning – if you want to read the book, skip this paragraph!) All professional hockey players are talented, but most of them also are born in the beginning of a year, making them more competitive against their slightly younger peers and therefore receive more practice time and praise. The astounding murder rate in certain areas of the American South was not due to a group of homicidal maniacs, but most likely the result of the cultural significance of honor in the Scottish region from which the population migrated. Finally, there is no doubt that Bill Gates is intelligent, but he is the richest an in the world because he attended a high school that had one of the first mainframe computers in the country – and had nearly 24/7 access to it! All of these examples prove that the people we perceive as god-like due to their success are actually just at the right place at the right time; products of historical forces that make their existing talents and skills extremely successful.

9. Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World; Haruki Murakami

If you want to read some creative contemporary fiction, here it is. Originally written in Japanese, this is a very difficult book to describe, so I won't try, but if you like an innovative plot and entertaining writing, check out this book. Next on my reading list is another Murakami – Kafka on the Shore.

10; Shantaram; Gregory Roberts

An international blockbuster that every white person in India seems to be reading. As much as I hate reading what is on the display racks at airports and touristy shops, I finally broke down and read this one. Just the story about how the book was written is enough to hook any tentative reader; the author escapes from a high-security Australian prison, flees to India where he becomes both a slum doctor and mafia kingpin, only to be thrown back into prison where he writes “Shantaram”. Although parts of this story are verifiable, most people agree that the details in the book are more fiction than fact. Either way, it is a hell of a read. Roberts' writing is strong, the plot is intricately woven, and the characters are fascinating. My only complaint is that certain parts read more like an action adventure screenplay than a novel, but I can't deny that it is a hard book to put down.

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I have some reservations about linking these titles to because it is such a powerful retailing giant, but it provides so many ways to investigate a book and its author that I like using it to discover new books on specific topics and themes. Once you use Amazon's sophisticated tools to point you to interesting books, you can always simply write down the title and buy it elsewhere. See, I did learn something from No Logo an An Ordinary Person's Guide to Empire!

More about Bhopal, maybe even some pictures of the big lakes and mosques, sometime next week.