The Obama Post

Preface: Ok, well here it is.  For those of you who don’t know why this may seem like a tail-between-the-legs, admitting I was wrong moment, the short story is that while many of my friends joined the election-spurred Obama craze, I chose not to participate.  The long story is linked here, where I wrote a pre-election op ed for NYU’s student newspaper on why I was refusing to vote, as a protest against a flawed voting system.  I do still think our voting system is flawed and I do still think that people have fallen into an ‘Obama will change things’ mindset instead of trying to change things themselves.  That said, now I can get on with it.

“Coming from?”  … I swear I get asked the question at least ten times a day.  At least half of those times, the conversation continues as follows:

“America,” I say with a smile.

“Obaaaaaamaaaaa!” they return with glee.

On the bus from Amma’s Ashram to Varkala, the cliff top beach town where I’m staying for a few days, a man turned to me and we shared this very exchange.  I swear he looked at me with more respect after I told him that I was an American.  He tapped the arm of the man next to him and said something in Malayalam.  The only word I could understand was ‘Obama.’  The other man looked at me with a smile and sang the name.  As the bus churned forward and I stared out at the passing palm trees and rice paddies, “I’m proud to be an American”  very nearly started to play through my head.

Although it does seem that India and the U.S. have had cordial relations for quite a while, and these relations are certainly strengthened by a common enemey in the militant insurgency in Pakistan (I say that from what I’ve gathered from the Indian newspapers I’ve been reading), I have to admit that Barak Obama has lifted the view of Americans in India. It does go beyond that, though.  I run into many European travelers here, and the sentiment is similiar. Hopefully Obama will change things, people say.  Hopefully now that Obama is in office things will get better.

That brings me back to my primary concern with Obamaphila; the tendancy to hope Obama will fix all of the escalating problems we’re facing, and to use that as an excuse not to think how ordinary people can change their communities for the better.  Obama has done this for us- he has made us look better on the world stage.  Perhaps he’s even sparked a new way of thinking and living that promotes civic engagement.  But unless everyone does what they can to push for the promise of  ‘change’ that got Obama elected, then this slowly growing confidence in the U.S. will quickly dissipate.  One man cannot change an entire nation.  But maybe one man can change an entire people, and through them mold a country that reflects that change we are all looking for.



There are about an even mix of foreigners (mostly Europeans, Americans, Australians) and Indians here, but it’s the amount of foreigners that amaze me. This ashram holds a Hindu temple. It follows the Hindu religion. And yet it is open to people who have no interest in Hinduism whatsoever. It seems as if many people come here for the meditation and spirituality, for the inner silence that we all can reach if we just sit and stop thinking about every little thing.

That’s what I’ve been doing here mostly. You can call it meditation, silence, introspection, relaxation. It’s as if I’ve found something that’s so missing in the goal-oriented West. When your life is always about achieving something or attaining something, how can you ever live in the moment?

There was one exercise in the Meditation Class I took here that really stuck with me. Everyone in the class got up and just walked. We were supposed to focus only on our footsteps, walking slowly at first and then slower and slower and slower. As I focused on how my foot felt when it touched the ground, and then how my calf muscle felt when it slowly pushed away, there was no room in my mind for worry.

I know this sounds incredibly cliché, but since I’ve come here I feel so much lighter. I’ve approached everything here with an open mind and that was the essential first step. I’m still not completely sure what meditation’s all about, but when I sit here on the beach and try to let all stray thoughts slip from my mind just as the waves recede back out to the sea, I kind of get it. I feel how I’m connected to all of the trees and grass and people around me, and it brings peace into the knot in my chest where anxiety usually sits. It’s difficult to explain, because I’m just beginning to think about it in this way. But I’ll keep meditating and I’ll keep trying. For anyone else who’s interested, I recommend the walking meditation. You never know what you can realize about yourself.

The Ashram

The posts have been sparce lately because I’ve been at Amma’s Ashram in Amritapuri on the Keralan coast.  Internet time here is limited to half an hour and I’ve been spending most of my time learning about meditation and observing the fascinating community that’s grown up around this woman.

There’s more community here than I ever felt at Auroville.  Whether this is because of the size of the ashram- thanks to ashramites being housed in high rises, you can walk from one side to the other in less than five minutes- or because of the common devotion to Amma that everyone here shares, I don’t know.  But I had a conversation with an ashramite who said that she’d lived in communities her whole life and now has been living here at this ashram for five years.  One of the major difference between ecovillages and ashrams is that there’s no consensus.  Amma has the last word on everything, period.  There’s no mediated discussion or talk of how the community will grow, but then most people only spend a few months here and then go home.  They don’t live here permanently, and their purpose for being here is inner spiritual growth, not socializing.  Although plenty of socializing does go on (something this woman complained about).

When I left Auroville, Priya left me with a nugget of wisdom: For a community to be successful, it needs to be united by work.  At this ashram, there’s a practice called ‘seva’ where everyone does two hours of volunteer work a day.  Seva varies from washing dishes to doing laundry to working in the recycling shop. Priya’s words seem to ring true here, where everyone is on the same level, working together and contributing to the ashram.

The environmental awareness within these walls is also pleasantly surprising.  The recycling is sophisticated- with food waste collected separately and everyone encouraged to use reusable bottles and bags.  Signs about conserving water and energy abound in the visitor dorms.  The ecology center shows environmental films twice a week.  Though this is a place for spiritual growth, awareness of our connection to nature seems to be a big part of it.

Well, I need to run!  I’ll be at the ashram for a while longer, and will try to post about some of the really interesting things I’m learning here.

Until next time.


A ferry in the backwaters

A ferry in the backwaters

I came here from Allepey, a typical south Indian town that reaches to the edges of the Keralan backwaters, a maze of canals with rice paddy gold and green grass borders. Houses line the waterways as they would on suburban streets, but instead of cars in driveways, there are small coffee colored canoes tied to hunchbacked coconut trees.

A palmthatch roof shaded the reed mat and ruby pillows that graced the center of a dirty wooden canoe, just a hand narrower than my arm span and long enough to hold two lounging tourists and a single rower who sat in the sun at the back.  His name was Pushparajan and he’d lived in the backwaters his entire life. Fishermen and ladies washing their clothes in the river yelled greetings to him in Malayalam as we floated past.

Lazing against my cushion while Pushparajan paddled, I wondered if this would be the closest I would ever come to feeling like royalty. Armadas of motorized luxury houseboats, complete with brass railings, man-sized windows, and lacquered sun decks, gurgled past us. There was certainly plenty of regality to be found on the backwaters. But there were moments when I could have sworn that I was on a street, the canal was so congested. Horns blared and the air conditioned four-bedroom houseboats pushed our little canoe into the green growth that hid along the sides of the canal

In this boat-swamped area, it looked like we were canoeing along the edge of a giant soap bubble.  Turning around I asked Pushparajan about the water.  He frowned and put his hand to his ear. I pointed down at the water and asked again.

“Motor oil,” he said, waving his hand  “but no problem.”

I tried to ask him again about it later, but the language barrier rose up like an iron fence that was inches too high to climb and I got the impression that he didn’t want to worry me.  So I let it go.

A head emerged from the water in front of us, and then a torso.  At first I thought the woman was bathing, as many of the people who live here do.

“Fishing for oysters,” Pushparajan said. And the woman opened up both palms to study her coal black catch of shellfish. Unsatisfied, she took a deep breath, grabbed onto the bamboo pole that jutted out of the water like a flagpost without its pennant, and dove back down again.

Then Pushparajan took me behind the main waterways to where his home was, where there were no road signs or huge houseboats or noisy ferries.  And no oil-slicked water.  Here the air stood still so that time moved with the pace of the imperceptible river current, and you could almost hear the cashew leaves falling onto the water. The people of the backwaters live with the river, as a shepherd lives with grassy hills or the Iroquios lived with their forests of Oak and Hemlock.  Because of this, even though these Keralans are removed from the chaos of the wider canals, they live among a different sort of danger.

A thin green layer of vegetation blanketed the canal. With no motorboats to sweep the growth to the sides, there were parts where I couldn’t see any water at all.  My rudimentary knowledge of ecosystem science warned me that this was not a good sign.  Pushparajan led me into the rice paddies behind his house, and told me about the “little bottle of poison” that they use to make sure that the rice grows.

“Not a problem,” he said.  And no matter how I asked him, he assured me that this was the case.

We went back to the canoe.  By this point I’d left my shaded cushion to move into the sun, where there was an extra paddle under the front seat.  It didn’t take long for lounging to get old. Paddling together, we went back to the main waterway, past rice paddies that were golden and ready for the cutting machines to harvest their grains, past the ostentatious houseboats and the people sitting out on their ostentatious houseboat verandas, through the rainbow oil water and back to Alleppey.

And now I’m at Periyar, the wildlife sanctuary without any wild animals, the home of the living plants and trees that are the source of so many things that we use every day; cocoa trees, vanilla vines, cinnamon trees. Today I had fresh, homemade chocolate, made from a cocoa tree that grows in the chocolate maker’s back yard. One more day here to see a tea plantation, and next is Ama’s ashram in Amritapuri, to continue the search for the answers of community living.

An airy memory

They say that smell is the strongest trigger of memories. Lately I’ve been having flashbacks of my trouble-making youth, when I went through that phase where you like to light things on fire and see how they change. Today on the bus to Allepey I remembered my Grandmother’s damp basement and me and my sister and two of my cousins striking matches and then burning the end of a ballpoint pen. Little black globules floated in the dim lit air like drugged-out fruit flies. My heart raced from the thought of our Grandma catching us. We knew what we were doing wasn’t allowed, but back then curiosity was the excuse that made allowances for everything. I smooshed the melted pen onto a piece of paper and smiled; it looked like a royal seal.

Sitting alone on the bus this morning I found myself holding my breath more often than usual. Every few minutes my lungs would feel the faint contraction that comes from inhaling dirty smoke. Most of the time it was just a pile of old leaves and garbage that was burning- it’s the dry season in Kerala and thinks are getting brittle. But every now and then I’d know that I was smelling burning plastic and my mind would go back to that brown house in the country, the last on the left on Green Grove Dr.

There are some things that I know I will never take for granted again. In the U.S. I can turn on a tap and know that I can drink the water without having to worry about getting hepatitis (I can get this water basically for free, unless of course it becomes privatized and corporations get to charge whatever they want so that they can make a profit from it).  In the U.S. there’s this idea that people have a right to clean air (unless, of course, you’re a poor black kid living in the South Bronx. Or a poor white kid living in Scranton next to Route 81). In the U.S. anyone can get a great education, so long as they study hard (and are already in the middle class so that they have the money to afford skyrocketing tuition).

Something I’m starting to realize is that there are things in this world that are universal.  Everywhere has its mischievous children and scolding grandmothers.  But when it comes to shaping the world that we live in and the way that we’re influenced by it- a.k.a. when it comes to pushing for environmental change- whether it regards health or aesthetics or infrastructure, there is a lot that the U.S. has already been done.  There isn’t trash on the side of our roads and our air isn’t clouded with the toxic fumes of burning plastic.  But that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing left to fight for.  It’s the things in the parentheses, the people in the parentheses, that we need to make sure don’t go unnoticed.  This is why activism is so necessary.  When there’s someone in the U.S. pointing out how clean our air is and how free our people are, someone else needs to be there to point out that actually the cleanliness of one’s air and the freedom that one has depends on the size of one’s wallet.

Two Truths

Chinese fishing net in Cochin, Kerala

Chinese fishing net in Cochin, Kerala



At first glance they look like trebuchets, slingshots the size of a house that were used before the days of gunpowder to launch boulders over medieval city walls. Hardly meant for war, the Chinese fishing nets stock the wooden stalls that hug Cochin’s concrete walkway along the Arabian Sea. Fishermen here have relied on the large wooden levers to bring in fish, and their source of livelihood, for hundreds of years.

When it’s time to raise the nets and bring in a catch, four men each grab onto a vertically hanging rope and wrench them down toward the ground, their arms moving as fast as a sprinter’s legs. Once the net is up, one of the men runs along the trebuchet, past the stony fringe where land meets sea, and dips a hand net into the bigger one. He keeps his arm steady against the eight or ten hand-sized dancing fish.
After reading so many news stories about the oceans’ fish population rapidly depleting, I had to ask one of the vendors if he noticed less fish coming in. Panjeer, whose display sported the small silver fish and the pink ones with eyes the size of peacoat buttons, told me that he caught the large fish out at sea, from a canoe-like fishing boat. Only the smaller fish came from the nets on the shore. I asked Panjeer whether or not he was catching less fish than usual, and he nodded as if he’d been asked the question many times before.
His explanation was not that commercial fishing vessels were gobbling up too many fish for them to repopulate themselves. He said that there were less fish after the Tsunami of 2005. It didn’t actually hit the western coast of India, he said, but Cochin was still affected. I was about to mention that I’d read over fishing was the reason that fish supplies are dropping, but instead I thanked him and moved along.
Maybe every story has many truths. Panjeer’s truth is that the Tsunami is to blame for the fish dying out. Another truth is that bad commercial fishing practices are wrecking an important source of food for millions of people. It could be that both are true. Or it could be that Panjeer is simply an uneducated fisherman who doesn’t know what he’s talking about. My instinct is to put more faith in the man who has been fishing for his entire life, who is using a technique that has been used for years. And after all, so long as Panjeer holds his truth to be a fact, then so it is. We have a tendency to find scapegoats for all of our problems–bad corporations are to blame for killing off our piscine food source. But what if it’s not that simple? To complicate things further, what if it is that simple and commercialized fishing is the real reason that Panjeer has less fish to sell?  When not only a tradition that spans generations, but also a truly sustainable way of fishing (the boats they use aren’t even motorized) is at stake, who is it up to to tell Panjeer that maybe his truth is the one that needs to be questioned? 

My moment as the warrior

Preface: I’m going to put my tendency toward hyperbole on hiatus until further notice. I’m going just going to write the following exactly as it happened.

There weren’t many tourists in Jog Falls. With it being one of the ‘must see’ places in my Rough Guide book, I was surprised to find that there were only two other foreigners checked into the local youth hostle. I arrived just as the sky was growing dark, and spent the night talking with the two men from Israel.

Amir and his friend came through the mountains to Jog Falls on a black Royal Ensfield Bullet with a pouncing tiger insignia on the side of it. The tiger was fitting for the old bike; it growled every time Amir started it, and sputtered sometimes when he switched the gears. His friend had to go back to Gokarna to meet people, but Amir stayed and we spent the day riding around on the Bullet.

We were driving along this random country road. Every so often a house and farm would break the line of palm trees on both sides of the pavement. Cows were grazing in a small clearing ahead of us, behind a fence with an opening to the road. This is nothing spectacular—there are cows everywhere in India. But as we passed these cows I saw a quick movement out of the corner of my eye. When I twisted my neck back to see what it was, there was a black bull the size of an SUV with its head to the ground and its hooves pounding after us.

“Amir, go faster!”

An image of the bull head-butting the back of the bike and then trampling the both of us flashed through my mind. The beast drew nearer.

“Amir!” I slapped his back. All of the muscles in my body tensed up. “The bull—it’s chasing us.”

“What?” He was still clueless.

“GO FASTER. Look in your mirror!”

“Shit.” The engine revved and we picked up speed, but the bull was still behind us. The bike gurgled and I was sure that fate would decide for this to be the time for the engine to go out.

But it didn’t. Later Amir said that he’d been going about 50k. However fast he went, it was enough to get us around a bend and out of sight of the beast. Then the road ended. We’d found the dam that had been build upstream of the falls, and there was a gate across the road. We’d lost the bull by this point, but it couldn’t have been far behind us. I watched the bend in the road, waiting for it to come running down. I was ready to hop the fence, but the bull never came.

Two guards came out of a small building near the gate and we chatted with them for a while. We weren’t allowed to go and see the dam because security had been heightened after the Mumbai attacks. But after we said goodbye, Amir took a dirt road to the side of the gate and we saw the dam anyway. When we passed the guards on the way back, they didn’t seem to care.

I wasn’t worried about getting yelled at by some guards. The only way out was the same way that we came in. Amir didn’t seem nervous at all, but maybe that was for my sake. As we drove back up the road to where the bull had to be waiting, an Indian woman waved us down and stopped us. Her face was creased with wrinkles, and she was only slightly taller than the young boy that was with her. She started speaking something in Malayam, and although I couldn’t understand a word of it, I knew what she was saying. I smiled, put my two index fingers up to my temples and pointed down the road. She and the boy nodded.

Her eyebrows were drawn together, deepening the worry lines on her forehead. She pressed her lips and handed me what I had thought was a walking stick. My smile disappeared. I saw that one end of the thick stick had been sharpened into a point. She was handing me a spear.

I swallowed and took it from her, thanking her. In that moment I realized how serious the situation was. She took the pointed end of the spear and put it up to her collar bone, showing me where to aim. Then she moved my hands so that I was holding the spear across my chest, my right hand above my left, ready. Our eyes met and she put her hand up to my cheek. She said one last thing in Malayam, I think she was telling me to be brave. I nodded and thanked her one last time.

“Ok, let’s go,” I said to Amir.

There was no room for fear in my mind when the bike started moving forward again. I was determined and ready. When the bull came at us, I would thrust the spear into its shoulder with all of my strength and I would not fall off of the bike.

There it was. As we passed the gathering of cows, I locked my eyes on the black bull and raised my right hand above my ear, so that the spear was ready to strike. The bull hesitated, and for a moment I thought that it wouldn’t follow us. But then it charged again. It wouldn’t catch us. This time the bull didn’t jump onto the road, but stayed on the other side of the fence. On that uneven terrain it could hardly keep up with us. Amir stopped and told me to drop the spear on the side of the road.

“Right,” I said, and threw it away from me.

I sighed. The moment had passed. For a while I knew what it must have felt like to be a warrior, having to defend myself if I wanted to live. Never would I have thought of spearing a cow. But as its horns were chasing me, no other option entered my mind.

For the moment a warrior, now again a traveler. I’m in Mangalore now, and tonight I’ll be braving a night train again to go South into Kerala, to Kochi. Until then.