Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Movements and creating crisis

Successful movements tend to create an existential crisis for the wealthy and powerful. Martin Luther King Jr. challenged the Christianity of people who supported segregations. Gandhi used non-violence to make explicit the violence of colonialism that had, until then, been implicit. By forcing the state to respond, Gandhi made revealed the chasm between the justification for colonialism, a civilizing mission, and the reality of colonialism, economic exploitation.

Both these movements did not start out with neat and tidy demands. The Civil Rights Bill was the culmination of a process not the start. And after the passage of the Civil Rights Bill, Martin Luther King did not declare victory but started formulating a grander vision for a movement that would explicitly challenge state power. Even in India the demand for decolonization was not a legislative package to be debated in Parliament but a demand to destroy the colonial regime.

Those people clamoring for the #occupywallstreet protesters to come up with a list of demands are missing the point. The mere presence of the protesters on Wall Street highlights the vast inequities in a system that privileges the few at the expense of the many. By exposing the emperor, the protesters are just asking the privileged and wealthy to explain themselves. There are only two responses to such a challenge: (1) You’re right, the system sucks and I’m going to join you. (2) Justify your position on some very shaky moral grounds i.e. I deserve my money and you deserve to be poor.

Hence, just by occupying Wall Street the protesters have created an existential crisis for the wealthy. Seen in this light, the response by the elites starts to make sense. By attacking the seriousness of the protesters, whether it’s demanding a list of demands or labeling protesters as entailed, snotty and/or dumb, the wealthy and privileged are avoiding the reality that there is very little moral space between the first and second response i.e. they are trying to change the subject.

By taking seriously the position that they need create a list of policy proposals, the protesters would let the wealthy and privileged off the hook and avoid answering the only question that matter. How did you become so wealthy? Luckily the protesters have not taken the bait.

However, one question remains. What’s your response to #occupywallstreet? I ‘m will down there tomorrow with a contingent from SEIU 1199 UHE and UnitedNY. Come see what all the fuss is about.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Reflections – Karachi, Pakistan

My final days in Nepal were spent in Chtiwan National Park, a former game reserve for the King of Nepal that was turned into a protected national park. I went to Chitwan looking for a bit of adventure and hoping to spot a rhino or two. Though I did not see any rhinos, I did find a little adventure in an unexpected way.

Sauraha, the village outside the national park, certainly felt like the jungle. The muggy weather ensured I had to shower and change twice a day. I spent the first evening exploring the local Tharu village with a guide. Unfortunately, the tour was not very informative because the guide did not know very much about the villagers. I did learn that the Tharu were quasi-nomadic tribes that roamed the malaria infested Terai foothills in Nepal and India. After the eradication of malaria in the 60s, Nepalis from the north immigrated to cultivate the very fertile land, forcing the Tharu to give up their roaming ways. They mainly practice Hinduism, but I was unable to get any sense of how their specific practices differed from mainstream Hinduism except the god of fertility, Lakshmi, was central in the Tharu religious life.

The next day was dedicated to exploring the National Park on elephant back and jeep. Both safaris were relatively boring when compared to the safari in South Africa. We come across dears and a number of wild boars, which were hardly the tigers and rhinos I had hoped to see. The most exotic encounters in the park were with the numerous insects that crawled up and down my body. To be fair Chitwan had a number of factors going against a successful safari. The first factor was the weather. Visiting in the middle of the monsoon meant that the engorged rivers running through Chitwan prevented anyone from going too deep into the national park. The second factor was the flora of the region. The thickets of lush green Sal trees that cover over 70% of the region, made spotting even the largest deers a difficult task.

An hour before nightfall we realized that our search for large game would be futile and we agreed to head home. Thirty five minutes later something unexpected happened: our jeep broke down. With no cell phone reception and night quickly approaching we had no options but to leave the jeep behind and walk. The night was pregnant with anxiety and excitement. And for the first time I felt the promise of adventure was fulfilled. As we walked along the muddy road, in total silence and pitch black darkness, breaks in the forest canopy revealed glimpses of a shimmering star filled sky.

After an hour hike we reached an an army checkpoint and were able to contact help. At the army checkpoint, outside the canopy but still without electricity, the night sky revealed the brilliance and vastness of the cosmos. Granted reader this may sound like the trite ramblings of a man who has rarely strayed too far from a city, but staring at the thousands of stars, made visible by of the lack of humanity, I could only think of the insignificance of man compared to the infinite nature of space. Although our manipulation of nature has hidden the night sky from us, the stars continue to exit and will shine brightly in the night sky long after our chapter on this planet has come to an end. It was the first time on this trip that I felt in awe of my surroundings. An hour later we were hurtling down dirt roads on our way back to the hotel.

The next morning I got on a bus back to Kathmandu with a girl from the safari. Halfway to Kathmandu our bus broke down. We hailed down a local bus and jumped on with some other tourists. On my last night Kathmandu, I downed some Manhattans, did some shopping and met two brother from Holland with whom I chatted late into the night. I flew back to Karachi the next day.

I have decided to end my travels with Nepal and spend more time with my family. Travel is a daunting task and requires more energy than I can currently expend. I plan to do one final blog post summing up my thoughts on this trip. Stay tuned.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Return of Blogging – On a Bus to Royal Chitwan National Park

After four weeks with my family, the last of which was spent in Nepal, I finally have some time to blog. Traveling with your family is an ordeal in and of its self and deserves its own blog post. I am sure everyone will understand why I am choosing not to go down that road. In all fairness my family behaved remarkably well and for the most part it has been an enjoyable week. However, I am not here to talk about the dynamics in my family and we should move onto Kathmandu and Nepal.

From inside an airplane Nepal appeared to be bucolic paradise evoking in me romantic notions of an agrarian society. Kathmandu airport, straight out of “Casablanca”, only heightened my perception of a country insulated from the march of “progress”. Therefore I was not prepared for what can only be described as the unique madness of Kathmandu. After having lived in Karachi and New York and having visited Cairo recently, I can say Kathmandu is the most chaotic city I have ever seen.

Though not a bucolic paradise, Kathmandu with its combination of Newari style architecture and narrow streets manges to evoke a different version of the Third World in the popular imagination: the bustling urban center. Think of the Khan-el-Khalil reimagined as an entire city. There did not appear to be any sections of the city where one could escape the narrow streets and the tussle between pedestrians and motorized vehicles.

Walking down the narrow streets of Kathmandu it is easy to see the marginal status of Nepal in the world. Entirely dependent on the ports of India for the import of basic goods, Nepal is steps removed form the center of world power. That may explain why the global brands and chains that have invaded other major urban centers in the Third World are conspicuously absent. In time that will probably change but for now the billboards on the streets of Kathmandu are mainly advertising local goods.

Looking at the billboards I also noticed a great deal racial variety in the models, which is also reflected in the population at large. As an important stop on the trade routes from India to China. Nepal has been influenced for centuries by both East Asia and South Asia. The mannerisms of the people tend to be Indian (not surprising considering the influence India has on the country) but the physical features evoke a kind of East and South Asian hodge podge. Of course this do not reveals any racial diversity in Nepal but rather the problems with racial categories in the West. This is not to say that Nepalis do not divide along ethnic, but their lines probably do not confirm to our racial categories. However, as my brother said, if the British ever ruled here they would have issued identity cards to everyone and categorized them into either Indian and Chinese communities. Racial categories that would then inform Nepalis today. In Nepal one can clearly see the capriciousness of Western racial models.

There are many more facets of Nepal that intrigue me but I do not have sufficient information and insight to blog about them. We have been stuck in traffic for the past two hours and I want to take a nap. I will end this blog with a few nuggets of information.

In the Kathmandu valley there are school kids, in all kinds of uniforms, all the time, everywhere

The food has been exceptional.

The music regardless of genre, including live music, has been consistently great.

There is a bunch of outdoorsy stuff such as white water rafting, mountain biking, trekking, etc. that I did not get to do. If you are up for that in the near future holla at me.
Alright I am going to take a nap and hopefully wake up in the jungle.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Goodbye Africa – Flying to Addis Ababa on Ethiopian Airlines

Happy Fourth of July America! While y'all are BBQing and prepping for the fireworks in a few hours. I am on plane heading to Addis Ababa and praying that I catch my connection to Dubai. It would not be an overstatement to say that I will never ever ever ever fly Ethiopian Airlines again. Not only did I have to wait in line for two hours just to get my boarding pass, I nearly missed my flight because no one was willing to authenticate my credit card which meant I could get on the flight. I kept getting passed back and forth between various people. It was only when I lost my temper that someone actually helped me. I hate to say it but third world countries need to get out of the airline business and privatize their national carriers and introduce competition (Note on 7/6/2010: This is an understatement!).

Obviously, the reason I am on this flight is because I just spent two awesome weeks in South Africa with Abbie, Joe, and Chrysanthi. The side of effect of all the fun has been that I have not had a chance to blog at all. Hence, I will try to summarize all some of my thoughts about South Africa into this blog post.

Cape Town is hands down the cultural capital of South Africa and is set in one of the most picturesque locales I have ever seen. Buttressed by Table Mountain on one side and the Atlantic on the other, the birds eye view of Cape Town is breathtaking. That being said, the best thing I did in Cape Town was visit the National Gallery. Their collection ranges from traditional South African artisan work through to the development of modern South African art.

It is an impressive collection. While I was able to discern some of the influences on South African modern art, much of it remained opaque to me. Walking through the halls trying to make sense of the varied styles and ideas on display, I realized how unaware I was of South African history. Shaped by the experience of Colonialism, Apartheid and traditional African culture, modern art in South Africa is worlds away from any of my experiences. It occurred to me that outside of some vague ideas about African wildlife and crushing poverty and hunger, Africa the continent has been disappeared from the consciousness of the West. By contrast, the art on display in Berlin seemed very accessible because the history of modern Europe is the history of the world. Hence, I was cognizant of the frame through which German art saw the world. This was not the situation for South African art and the visit to the National Gallery has left me with more questions than answers. However, it has also inspired me to delve deeper into the history of South Africa and its relationship to the West. And when I return to the continent after my Masters, I will be better prepared.

I will be in Karachi soon and blogging will probably come to a halt. I am still not sure where to go next. Any Ideas?

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Thoughts on Durban

Durban is pretty small. In our five days, Abbie and I were able to see most of the city. Like the rest of South Africa, Durban is a segregated city and most of our interaction with black folks was through the service economy. Granted we spent a majority of our time near the beach front where the only people to be seen were sun-kissed white folks enjoying the surf. I think we all agreed at times when Durban felt more like Australia than Africa. If it wasn't for the safari and the vervet monkeys trying to steal our food we might as well have been in Australia.

Once you leave the beach front, however, Durban transforms into a landscape reminiscent of cities in America. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your perspective, the World Cup organizers provided walking trails of the city, marked by different colored footballs, that mostly avoided the unseemly neighborhoods of Durban. But these paths could not hide the stark difference in the complexion of the people living in the city and those along the beach front and Umhlanga, the suburb where we were staying.

It was only when we got off the beaten path and decided to stroll in the Indian section of Durban that there was signs that we were visiting a developing country. Walking along Dr. Yusuf Dadoo street reminded me once again of Karachi. This time, however, it was more than just the sight vendors hawking their wares, but also the sounds of local Indians speaking in an amalgamation of Hindi and English. But even this excursion off the FIFA Fan Map of Durban belied the poverty that probably comes from having a 43% unemployment rate.

It is only on this drive to Drakensberg that we are getting a glimpse of the poverty that exists in South Africa. The sides of the highway are pocked with settlements comprising of mud-brick houses covered with either thatch roofs or corrugated steel. I am not sure who lives in these homes. These could be the homes of agriculture workers or just black settlements outside the cities. This is probably as close as we are going to come to the unmediated lives of black South Africans. Such are the “perils” of tourism.

Now that I have got the depressing stuff out of the way, I can concentrate on the football. In Durban we went to see South Korea vs. Nigeria. What a match! So far every team I am rooting for besides the USA has found a way to lose or draw when they should have won (Note on 7/4/10: this has been a trend that I am unable to shake). For a more detailed description you need to read Abbie's blog post about the match at the Virginia Quarterly Review blog. Unfortunately Abbie has stolen all my blogging ideas about the match and has incorporated them into her post. So there is not much for me to write.

We are all looking forward to the US vs Ghana tonight, which we will be hopefully watch somewhere in Jo'burg. I feel guilty rooting against the last African team in the Cup but the US's cannot be faulted for that. North Korea has to share some the blame because the laid such an egg against Portugal and eliminated all hope for the best African team. Well, we are about to go on a hike in Drakensburg so I have to go. Tomorrow we are off to Cape Town and I will blog when I can.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Ma'salama Cairo – On the road to Durban

On my way to the airport, I knew that I had short changed Cairo. The four nights I had spent in this congested metropolis were woefully inadequate. As soon as I got my bearings in Cairo, I had to get up and leave. The city is teeming with history, of which I only scratched the surface.

If you only visit the tourist sites in Egypt, you will get a distorted sense of the country. The touts, the scams, the haggling are mainly just part of the tourist experience. What you won't realize is that in Egypt there exists a vibrant intellectual community that spearheads the robust opposition to the regime. In the many bookstores you will find texts dealing with sociology, history, and politics of Egypt. Though Cairo and Karachi look very similar visually, the intellectual curiosity of many middle class Egyptian Arabs is a fundamental difference that sets the two cities apart. I would love to come back to Cairo one day to learn more about the lives of everyday Egyptians. (It goes without saying that without Betsy's help, I would have experienced Cairo only through tourists sites.)

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Scuba Report: By Popular Demand - Cairo

Breathing under water for the first time is a revelation for most people. The same was true for me. I learned that I am really really really scared of drowning. That combined with the fact that I am not strong swimmer turned me into the world's biggest wuss the first two days I went diving. Luckily my instructor had more faith in my abilities than I did. He kept pushing me and pushing me every time I wanted to call it day. I think a lesser man would have given up on me.

Everything came together on my last day and I finally got the hang of it. On my last dive breathing underwater seems as normal as breathing above water. All the little discomforts I had been focusing on melted away and I started paying attention to the amazing sea life surrounding me. The coral reefs of the Red Sea are an incredible sight. As the cliché goes, it is a strange and wonderful world under the sea. The highlights of my dive included hovering next to an octopus and seeing a manta ray and barracuda. If you want to know more about the experience go diving yourself. After all the hemming and hawing, I am really glad I did.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

On Tourism: Luxor - Senmut Bed and Breakfast

Luxor is a maddening city. I am counting the hours until I escape tomorrow morning. Part of me wishes I had never left the peace and quiet of Dahab but I know that I would have regretted skipping the ruins located here.

Unlike Dahab, my expectations for Luxor were much higher. The initial drive from the airport to the Senmut Bed and Breakfast, located in the largely agricultural West Bank only raised my expectations. Luxor, seen from the comfort of my taxi, comprised of lush agricultural land on either side of the Nile buttressed by rugged mountains. The scene was breathtakingly beautiful. The city appeared to be worlds away from the hustle and bustle of Cairo or the kitsch of Dahab. It is not hard to see why Luxor became the cultural center of ancient Egypt. Initially, I thought the people of Luxor probably measured their days based on the needs of land. Spending a few hours in Luxor, however, quickly disabused me of such romantic notions.

Thomas Cook brought mass tourism to Egypt when his first tour group arrived in 1869. Nearly 150 years later, the tourism industry has left indelible impact on the people of Luxor. At this point the only other industry, outside of agriculture, is catering to tourists. As a result, every foreigner is seen as an opportunity to make money. Walking down the Corniche an-Nil one is met with a barrage of offers; everyone a great deal. There is not a moment of peace anywhere near the many attractions Luxor has to offer. Every transaction is also fraught the peril. If you have not signed a contract in blood before hand the price is likely to be astronomical. Even if there is an agreement that is no guarantee that the person will not try squeeze a few more pounds out of you based on some flimsy pretense. And frankly, it has left me exhausted.

All in all I spent the same amount of money in my two nights in Luxor as I would have if I had been on a package tour. I do wonder if taking a package tour would have made more sense. On one hand it would have cost the same without any of the hassles. On the other hand very little of the income from package tours trickles down to the residents of Luxor. The bulk of the income from package tours probably ends up as profit for the operators, with a small portion going towards the salaries of those lucky enough to have such jobs. Leaving most of the population out of the income stream and giving them no choice but to eek out an existence by competing aggressively for the remaining tourist dollars. Not only does this not improve the lives of the residents of Luxor, it also forces independent travelers to bear the brunt of their aspirations. It is a classic example of the deleterious effects of mass tourism, and something I had yet to encounter in Egypt. That being said, after my experiencing, I would not blame anyone for choosing the comforts of a cruise ship and guided tours when visiting Luxor.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A Broken Watch - SSH Airport

I am glad that I waited until my time in Dahab was over before writing this blog post. My first impressions of Dahab were not very good. The town seemed cheesy, geared towards beach bums and overrun with Bedouin kitsch. I was terrified of being bored to death. I quickly signed up for scuba lessons to occupy my mornings and began planning treks into the desert during the evenings. However, It did not take long for the town's magic to start working. By the second night I decided to cancel all my trips into the desert except the one that was already paid for.

I would highly recommend staying at The Penguin Hotel if you are ever in Dahab. The wonderful staff at the Penguin Hotel made me feel like I was family. They were extremely patient when I asked them to teach me a few phrases in Arabic. They would also pull me aside to show me You Tube videos of famous Egyptian singers and soccer players. Many of them are now my friends on Facebook.

I also met many wonderful people hotel restaurant. There was Joe and Louisa, who had been traveling from England over land for the last four months and were planning to get to New Zealand after another year of traveling. There was Paul and Peter, my breakfast mates. We all had dives planned in the morning and we were usually the only people up at 8am for breakfast. Paul is a chef from York and Peter is a nurse from Southern France who is currently working in the West Bank. There were the girls who had been studying in France; Kristy, Kelsy and Sherry. There was Rob from Holland, who had planned to come for four nights and ended up staying for ten. And many others with whom I struck up conversations just because we happened to be sitting next to each other, going on the same camel ride, or just watching the match at a bar.

On my last night in Dahab I was sitting in the hotel restaurant when I noticed the cheap watch I had purchased at Hudson News in Terminal 4 had stopped working. The time on the dial read 7:51pm. It was an apt metaphor for my time in Dahab. Time had slowed down to a grinding halt during my six nights in the lazy beach town. In the mornings I would go diving at 8am and return to the Penguin Hotel around 4pm. For the rest of the afternoon I would laze around the hotel restaurant, drink instant coffee (the cheapest drink on the menu), chat with whoever was sitting next to me, and try to follow the football match between lulls in the conversation. Some nights I was able to muster the energy to go into town for dinner.

Sitting at the hotel restaurant the days blurred into each other. When asked about how many nights I had been in Dahab, I struggled to answer. I like to think that maybe my watch realized the futility of its existence and simply decided to call it a day. Or maybe the watch knew that I desperately wanted to stop time so I could spend a few more hours in Dahab. And if I was to ever to write a novel it would start with a broken watch that stopped the flow of time.