Saturday, August 29, 2009

Love Everywhere

To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never, to forget. -Arundhati Roy, Indian author

When I was younger, my father used to joke that my brother had bad karma. Every time my brother traveled somewhere, a natural disaster of legendary proportions struck the destination. Mini-tornadoes, earthquakes, forest fires, an outbreak of cholera, the works. My father continued teasing that we should notify emergency response teams based on my brother's itinerary even before he departs, or that we should avoid the places he has traveled for at least a two-month grace period. Over time, I realized that this kind of karma is genetic. My friend Liz has on more than one occasion pointed out to me that calamity follows in my wake. The beginning of my fellowship journey and my arrival in India have coincided with a change in my karma, whereby little things work out in my favor and not only am I not steeped in comical misfortune, but also my cynical self has been surrounded by stories of fortuitous love and unprecedented joy.

Exhibit I: The Kindness of Strangers and a Love Database for WanderLusters
Signing up for CouchSurfing would have been a way of tempting the fates for my old karma. The service matches up hosts, who provide free accommodation – a couch, a guest room, a spare bed – to travelers who, in turn, pay the hospitality forward by showing another traveler around their home town, hosting someone, or in some other way assisting travelers who cross their paths. There is no obligation to host if you sign up, nor do you have to reciprocate to your particular host; in fact, the entire system works on an assumption of trust that you will repay kindness by passing it forward to someone else somehow at some point in time. If this sounds like a sure way to get kidnapped/murdered in your sleep as a lone female traveler, you are thinking what I thought until about a week ago. Yet, on a tight fellowship budget and with all my newfound fluffy resolutions to fear less and experience more, I signed up for the service and identified a hostess in Delhi. And so the change of karma began.

Upon arriving at the South Delhi apartment of my hostess at a brutal 6 AM on a Sunday, I find out that she actually moved two weeks ago from Northern Europe into this apartment to live with a man who loves her hopelessly… and was her CouchSurfing host when she was passing through India less than a year ago. The fact that this was not the first story of CouchSurfing love-at-first-sight I had heard means that a) someone will inevitably write the CouchSurfing love novella, which will equally inevitably be the new Eat, Pray, Love (why oh why, world?) b) CouchSurfing is secretly a dating website for wanderlusters. My hostess’ fearlessness in putting a functional, seemingly happy life in her home on hold to follow her instinct and my host’s showering her with unbridled love has deactivated my standard gag reflex and is dissolving my cynicism one sweet remark at a time. I have learned more from their attitude to life than any guide book about Delhi could teach me; the importance of instinct, taking leaps of faith, being open to experiences, not masking emotion, allowing yourself time to make your own mistakes, taking things as they come are only some of the lessons. Coupled with these, and following from what my host has dubbed as the Indian mantra of “the guest is God”, is a humbling display of hospitality, from a non-stop supply of delicious Indian bread (love affair with carbohydrates intact!) to picking up train tickets at the hectic New Delhi Railroad Station. CouchSurfing, you have won me over – and my hosts have definitely done their part in reinstilling my faith in humanity.

Exhibit II: Those Greeks!
While in Agra, I met a hotel concierge who yelped upon finding out I am Greek. He promptly asked if I could translate a text message for him and I obliged, only to find out that Greek part of the text message said “agaph mou”, which means “my love.” He follows up with another—embarrassingly more explicit—text message and a few translations later, when I realized I was effectively enabling romance, he fills me in on the backstory of this long distance love affair. It turns out that the Explicit Texter is a young Greek primary school teacher who stayed at the hotel where the concierge works just a week before his and my paths crossed. She also left him a love letter written entirely in Greek, saying that it was his eyes that charmed her (yes, some vomit is indeed rising into my mouth too). He had tried to translate all these cryptic messages of love, but had failed because the Greek script is different than anything his computer could enter into Google. What are the odds of another Greek woman appearing in Agra who could help him understand?

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Stories of Women

Traveling around Northern India, my friend Tara and I stand out like flies in a glass of milk, as the Greek expression would have it. On numerous occasions we have turned around to see men snapping photos of us on their camera phones or approach us to ask if we can take a picture with them. Some may say that this is payback for my shamelessly and incessantly photographing everything I see, from gardeners and red domes to monkeys and market merchants. Given that Tara in her elegant stature – my pint-sized self sees eye-to-eye with the Indians where height is concerned – consistently towers over the men who stop to take her picture, the pointing at us becomes that much more apparent, as they point upward, like one would point out an airplane or something on top of a tree. This has by no means been a threat; pointing and giggling aside, these men have treated us with nothing but kindness and respect. Yet, it is quite obvious: We stand out.

One of the reasons we seem to stand out is that although there are a fair number of local women in the streets, we have encountered few tourists (because most people have the sense to come here when it is not hot enough to boil an egg on the sidewalk) and fewer among them are Western women. Virtually no women are traveling alone. Even the local women we have encountered are usually in public in the presence of a man or in groups. As such, we are met with some bewilderment when we set out on a day’s endeavors. This takes the form of curiosity, rather than seediness and any discomfort is not because of men’s lewdness, but of a sense of incongruence: it is as though it is unusual – and somewhat inappropriate – for us to be doing what we are doing and seeing what we are seeing, no matter how respectful and sensitive we try to be.

Any mild discomfort I have experienced pales in comparison to the experience of some local women. I have yet to find a way to make complete sense of some of what I have witnessed; once again, this is a case of my identifying as most poignant that which I cannot photograph or immediately put into words. Seeing a woman be beaten in the Nizamuddin, no more than fifty feet away from me, in a public place in broad daylight, while I felt unable to do anything about it and, like me, nobody else seemed to move is exacerbating my paralyzing sense of helplessness. I fully recognize that the spectrum of attitudes and behaviors towards women is wide. Indeed, in my time here, I have met women who expressed their cognizance of the academic and professional opportunities they have enjoyed, traveled in a non air-conditioned train compartment next to extraordinarily resilient mothers and their young children, and interacted with my own host in Delhi, who sets an example for respecting women and for whom no words seem to be sufficient for encapsulating his adoration for the woman with whom he is sharing his life. Yet, if one were to argue that an incident such as the one of physical violence towards a woman in Nizamuddin was isolated, then a look at the indicators will suggest otherwise.

According to a March 2009 article in The Hindu, reports of violence against women in India actually increased in 2009. An excerpt states that “women registered a lifetime experience ranging from 18 to 30% of physical violence and between a third and half of them spoke of forced sex including on the wedding night.” In addition to statistics relating to violence, indicators that measure what people are “capable of doing or being” in a particular society also paint a bleak picture for women. The Human Development Index (HDI) and Gender-Related Development Index (GDI) are components of the Human Development Report that measure “average achievements in a country”, with the latter capturing “inequalities in achievement between men and women.” The ratio of GDI to HDI values “measures the impact of gender inequalities on human development achievement.” In 2008, “out of the 157 countries with both HDI and GDI values, 137 countries have a better ratio than India's.” Reading the reports and seeing the manifestations of the indicators in person provokes an entirely different range of reactions; for now, I am trying to process, understand, become more culturally-sensitive and aware, while continuing to search for ways to navigate my own ‘observer’s guilt’ and transform it into action.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Taking in the Paradoxes - Observer's Guilt

I did not go to India in search of my soul, but just to be a foreign correspondent. But somehow from the beginning, I understood in India, as never before that virtue lies in rushing toward each day with its joys and adventures, and even its pain. […]
-A.M. Rosenthal, "India's Gift: The Discovery of Each Day"

My time in Delhi has been one of realizing juxtapositions and navigating paradoxes. I have seen the Delhi of women washing clothes in monsoon water and hanging them to dry on road signs. The Delhi of children picking up uncooked meat to eat from a butcher’s trashed leftovers, of slum living and glaring thinness to the point of visible bones, in humans and animals alike. This image of Delhi coexists with that of a site of development and opportunity. Workers are drilling the roads at all hours to complete the Metro expansion before the Commonwealth Games of 2010 and there is construction of work buildings, residences, malls, entertainment centers and other facilities everywhere – a stark contrast to the photographs of projects abandoned before completion due to the recession elsewhere in the world. My first introduction to Delhi was through the eyes of my generous hosts, a man who has lived in India for over 20 years and his girlfriend who moved here from Europe just two weeks ago. Driving around the city and in subsequent conversations, the man pointed out that you can feel different parts of Delhi as you move from North to South. There is the Delhi of “old money”, the area populated by the professionals on the rise (an Indian version of yuppies, by his description!), the haven of bureaucrats, administrative buildings and few residences, the corner of and craftsmen and artisans, the refugee center, and the oasis for 40-somethings and beyond who “want to live a good life”, in his words.

Understanding how a city can change faces so rapidly and distinctly, how development and opportunity can coexist with destitution and decay, has been challenging. I do not quite know how to reconcile being privy to the astounding beauty with witnessing the glaring need. And hence, a sense of helplessness has reigned supreme. Bearing witness has indeed sparked questions: How do you assess need? How do these people feel about their situation – do they perceive of inability to change, inevitability, lack of welfare and hope, or have they resigned themselves to their fates? In a city of nearly 15 million people, of whom at least 8% live below the poverty line (compared to nearly 27% in India on the whole), what is the best intervention to improve the living of each target group? And how do these approaches to development interact with the Indian conceptions of social problems and bureaucracy for resolving them?

Filled with questions, I find myself here as an observer; indeed, no better than a tourist. My initial plans were to work on female empowerment in partnership with a local NGO as my first fellowship placement, but my choice to go to Egypt has left me in India for too short a time and in too irrelevant a position to actually have any kind of influence—and given my already skeptical and complicated thoughts on how humanitarian workers can effect the most impact, it is questionable that more time or a job would have changed my feelings. All I can do is take it all in, process it, and retell the story, with the knowledge that once my first placement begins and I start working with UNIFEM in Egypt, some of the helplessness will dissipate, while other parts of it will magnify themselves in the face of yet more need. For now, I am troubled by the environments I do not feel comfortable photographing, by the stories I have not quite found a way to sort out in my own head or to retell.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Madam Made It Out

Current Location: Al Muharraq, Bahrain
Currently Reading: Travelers' Tales: India
The Autobiography of My Mother, Jamaica Kincaid
Currently Listening To: Happenstance, Rachel Yamagata

Life experience "haggle for a visa": check.

A distinctive trait of the beautiful bureaucracy of my homeland is that when Greece is on holiday - for at least a good fifteen days every summer- there is no arguing with the rest and relaxation of its public servants and foreign employees who are fortunate enough to live there. I was, therefore, informed that "Madam, our processing times are higher in August, there are only two officers in the consulate, Madam, sorry Madam, you will have to change your ticket." I was then instructed to draft a letter (on the back of a half-piece of paper detailing the day's Champion's League results no less) explaining why my situation is an emergency... and to provide a copy of my plane tickets, which nobody had requested I bring with me to the affair. Oh, and the Consulate is closing in twenty minutes, Madam, till Monday, Madam. Two taxi rides, a 10-minute stay at an internet cafe, and a save-the-day intervention from the Fellowship Director of Operations across the world, I was back at the Consulate, ticket proof in hand. Given that I am currently sitting in the transit lounge in Bahrain, 'Madam' successfully made it out of the country.

As a lone female traveler, I have certainly begun to notice that assertiveness, insistence, and finagling a bureaucracy alone are received differently outside the U.S. and European systems with which I had been better versed until now. When I walked into the waiting room of the Consulate, I realized I was the only woman unaccompanied by a brother, father, or husband and was uncomfortable when groups of men began to very obviously comment on my not-so-private conversation with the Consul about my visa situation. In working with women in the following year, their experiences and stories will undoubtedly dwarf my own minor mild discomfort, but it provided me with a window into a different cultural universe of which I am about to become a part.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Legal Right to Starving One's Wife

Today's New York Times provided another reminder of the position of women in conflict and post-conflict communities. The Afghan government’s review of proposed severe restrictions on the conduct of women in Shiite families in April not only did not result in the withdrawal of the legislation, but also led to President Hamid Karzai signing a law with severe repercussions for Shiite women’s legal rights, with particular reference to their protection from rape, custody of children, and right to... food. Per the article,
“Shiite men in Afghanistan now have the legal right to starve their wives if their sexual demands are not met and that Shiite women must obtain permission from their husbands to even leave their houses, “except in extreme circumstances.”

One of the reasons that devising responses to this kind of treatment of women has traditionally been challenging is that Western humanitarian workers, academics, and other professionals have often been typecast as culturally irrelevant in places like Afghanistan and other regions experiencing similar conflict. In Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach, Martha Nussbaum devotes a chapter to tracing and responding to critiques of humanitarian work aimed at improving the position of women in various communities. One of the positions to which she responds is the ‘argument from culture’, which posits that certain cultures contain “powerful norms of female modesty, deference, obedience and self-sacrifice that have defined women’s lives for centuries. We should not assume that those are bad norms, incapable of constructing good and flourishing lives for women.” Nussbaum counters:
“We should note that the objector [to female empowerment], once again, oversimplifies tradition, ignoring countertraditions of female defiance and strength, ignoring women’s protests against harmful traditions, and in general forgetting to ask women themselves what they think of these norms.”
The restrictions on the right to food and protection from rape and assault can hardly be considered acceptable by any kind of 'culture-specific norms', but they do serve as a reminder of the deep entrenchment of gender perceptions and roles and their intertwinement with religion and tradition. My own fellowship theme relates to a study of women as leaders, public speakers, and negotiators, with the hope of helping them equip themselves with the skills necessary to inspire a heightened degree of confidence in their own abilities. As I began to formulate my questions around this theme, friends and professionals with whom I met flagged a number of valid concerns: How do humanitarian groups working specifically with women ensure that they are culturally sensitive? How do workers employ female empowerment theory and applications without being dismissed as irrelevant, polarizingly feminist or too radical to be effective within each cultural context? And how can small-scale projects contribute towards a wider change within each organization and community?

Two motifs that have emerged in the investigation of these questions involve, first, focusing focus on conducting a thorough needs assessment on the ground and, second, dedicating a part of the response to identifying female role models and prototypes that resonate with each group of women. Two weeks before my placement with the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) begins in Egypt, I am humbled, nervous, sobered and yet full of energy to begin this work.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

How (Not) to Depart, Part 2

In the past 48 hours, I have met the following travel cliches:

  1. Was reliably seated between not just one disgruntled teeny flyer, but two four-year-old twins and their exhausted mother in the middle section of the airplane. This was, of course, the 7-hour flight. For the 45-minute flight, I had the entire row to myself. Cue commentary on luck, karma, and my having definitely eaten babies in another life.
  2. Attempted to apply my newly-acquired negotiation training to bargaining down my overweight luggage fees. Fail! Lufthansa will not be charmed, coaxed, touched or moved.
  3. Teared up approximately every hour on the hour for two days as I bid more people farewell for the year. For someone who allegedly used to cry biannually, I have more than filled my quota for 2009. Although it got a little Sound of Music "so long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, goodbye" by the end, it was certainly a testament to how dear these people are to me and how deeply they affect my life. In the words of Thoreau, "nothing makes the earth seems so spacious as to have friends at a distance; they make the latitudes and longitudes." Even so, hugging the Bank of America employee who witnessed me choking back a tear as I said goodbye to a friend was probably excessive.
  4. Did not stop packing or running errands for meals, sleep, picking up the phone, or resuming normal life activities. At the height of it, I dashed to CVS with a colleague to arm myself with... Smarties. The American kind, not the European M&M-type sweets. The American kind that give you a sugar rush and the shakes. Mmmhmm. Still blaming the colleague for not stopping the Smarties purchase, but then again, if I were her, I would probably sit back with some pop corn and enjoy the show as well.
  5. Spent my last night of sleep in the United States in... an elevator. My own building's, not that this makes it any more normal. That is what happens when you put off doing laundry until hours before your departure, dart 2.5 blocks and up 8 flights of stairs in heels with a colleague to find functional speakers for an event taking place 16 hours before departure, feed on Smarties, and consume 20 minutes attempting to squeeze your beloved baby panda into a carry-on. What happens, to be precise, is you end up deciding to 'treat yourself' to riding the elevator up, instead of taking the stairs from the laundry room, only for the elevator to get stuck, you to be stuck inside it, your cell phone to be stuck inside your apartment, and nobody to answer the emergency elevator button. Then you spend your last night in the U.S. asleep in a hanging box until someone pulls you out. And yet, you make it to the office the next morning and lie in the sun in Boston Commons consuming chocolate eclairs in a pile of the 2008-2009 Fellows and colleagues and all is right with the world again.

I am indeed across the ocean, stationed in Greece where I am waiting for all my visas to be cleared and to truly begin the work of my Fellowship. Until then, I am relishing the jet lag, sunshine, and familiar sights and sounds, taking escalators and stairs at all costs, and looking forward to the continuation of the journey.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

How (Not) To Depart

It is officially two days before I depart on my fellowship and I am excited, overwhelmed, nervous, and filled with anticipation at the same time. I intellectually understand that this is the time to spend with good friends whom I will not see for a while, or to peruse the travel aisles of stores, or to stock up on sleep and rest given the trajectory of the following year. Yet, somewhere between essentially having turned the conference room into a flea market as part of coordinating the Silent Auction fundraiser with my colleague (details here) and spending time with the Fellows who have just returned from their own journey, I found that there really is a better pre-departure recipe:

  1. Adopt a diet that consists of a double chocolate chip muffin for breakfast, no more than five bites of a token Caesar's salad for lunch--which you ordered so you can tell your cardiologist that you really are not sure how the arteries are clogged because you diligently ate your salads when you were a 20something--with a jumbo side of Crispy French Fries, followed by cheese crackers, a cheese plate, macaroni and cheese (see a pattern?), a Boston cream pie, creme brulee, and strawberry shortcake. Wash down with iced French vanilla coffee with 7 Splendas to ensure lasting jitterrs and a bottle of red wine to protect those poor arteries. Slip into mild state of self-loathing as you wake up the next morning to find out that you are experiencing a sugar crash whose consequences you can only avert by having a white chocolate and macadamia nut cookie for breakfast and, of course, another jumpo iced French Vanilla coffee. Arrive at work feeling like a ballerina in a fat suit to realize with glee that a) your friend also catalogued the Great Gorge Fest in his facebook status, b) you have become the person who devotes a paragraph's worth of words to a chronicle of her eating habits.
  2. Use the opportunity to clean out the closet you cannot pack for a year of living around the world as the time to reassess every sartorial decision of the past two years. Realize that you are leaving the country with two suitcases and a whole lot of bad taste baggage.
  3. Make one last round of "please do not forget me" phone calls at 1 AM as you have crashed into your bed with no sheets. Fall asleep on the phone, such that the person on the other end of the line is left to interpret "mmmdroolgarble" as "please still be my facebook friend until I return."
  4. Create a Miscellaneous Little Things packing pile. Make sure this is twice as big as any other pile. Trinkets include a head lamp, Swiss army knife, and anti-diarrheal medicine. And a stuffed panda that is not little at all but is just as important for well-being and survival.
  5. Switch forwarding addresses and put cell phone plans, internet plans, and other life plans on hold in the process. Hurt the Verizon representative's feelings by informing him that you will not miss your daily conversation about the spottiness of their internet service. Convince the postal service that your fifth change of address notice in a year is not necessarily indicative of a potential fugitive.

Somewhere between the strawberry shortcake semi-coma and the fifth form that asks to sign my name on the dotted line, I find myself excited, nervous, filled with ideas and inspiration. The Insight Collaborative Fellows who have just returned from their year abroad are in Boston this week and hearing stories about their work, the people they encountered on their travels, and places they visited makes me crave getting on the road. Their fearlessness, creativity, compassion, and investment in their projects have impressed me greatly and I can only hope the year ahead holds similar adventures for me as it did for them. In just two days, I can begin to find out. Until then, excuse me, while I drown myself in shortcake.