In the news, ending 28 November 2008

A few stories especially of interest in the past week:

Is Kashmir key to Afghan peace? – Christian Science Monitor
Raises the question as to whether solving the Indo-Pakistan dispute will help resolve the situation in Afghanistan. Significantly more attention will be paid to this region in the coming months.

Police issue slew of citations at party with alcohol near UO campus – Register-Guard
Extended coverage of what happened at the Campbell Club.

Paani- Coca Cola and Water tables in Rajasthan – Shekhar Kapur
Kapur argues that groundwater exploitation in Rajasthan is not a failure of the multi-national corporations, but rather government policy.

via Publish2

Glimpses of a subcontinent

Two months after the fact, I’ve started processing images from my journey around the Indian subcontinent.

Festivities

No particular rhyme or reason to what I’m putting up at the moment, just whatever catches my eye.

Debate

I think, when I’ve worked through the body of a few thousand images, I’ll compose more of a narrative to weave the story together. Until then, enjoy the visual tour.

Curiosity

Shooting in the mirror: India

Shooting in the mirror

I left for India young, naive, and partially unprepared for the extraordinary series of events I was about to experience.  My bag wasn’t packed until late the night before I left, and it didn’t hit me that I was spending three months photographing in a completely foreign country until two weeks in to the journey.  By not thinking too much about it, and being entirely focused on what I was trying achieve, I think it was better this way.

Nike has the motto, “Just do it.”  Cliche, yes, but it is one which wholly encompasses every lesson I learned while traveling to capture a story on the cultural, social, and religious constraints to clean water access in India.  Always do what you’re most in fear of.  Feel uncomfortable shooting in the crowds of Magh Mela, the largest annual Hindu gathering on the banks of the Ganges? Just do it.  Uneasy about experiencing poverty in the worst slums of south East Asia?  Just do it.  Worried about the security situation in Kashmir, the disputed territory between India and Pakistan?  Just do it.  The first situation I wimped out on, a hundred thousand people in one stretch of river sounds like a lot of bodies, but it’s been at the back of my mind ever since.

Of course, any advice I make should be taken with a grain of salt.  Pushing boundaries just isn’t for some people.  For all the others, though, keep doing it.

Being a networking madman also has its advantages in putting together a story.  If you see an opportunity to shoot something you hadn’t thought of before, take it.  Don’t hesitate.  It’s difficult to do in an alien environment, especially when you would like everything to be normal, planned out, and calm, but certainly worth the effort.  Furthermore, tying journalism with development also will score you a number of connections, particularly in India.  The people behind the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are generally more than happy to talk to you about the issues they are combating.  The government, not so much.

With all of that being said, there are a number of things I’ll be making happen next time. 

For one, rethinking my adoption of technology.  Oddly enough, the trip journey was partially intended to give me a 90 day hiatus from being digitally connected at all hours of the day.   I made a decision to leave my MP3 player at home, which lasted until two weeks from the end when I broke down and bought a Chinese knockoff, as well as to take time off Twitter, a micro-blogging service.

Next time, I’m twittering the whole trip.

Not only is it a cool way to report interesting things you come across hour by hour, but also a cheap way to keep in contact with friends and family.  The price of telecommunications is dropping quickly; to send an SMS cost Rs. 3.75 (around 10 cents) and receiving messages is free.  These astounding developments allowed me to even publish my experiences as I was in the middle of the Thar Desert, an arid expanse of land on the Pakistani border.

My goal was to go light and cheap.  Pack my backpack with only the things I really need, and then just take half of that.  Next time probably won’t be so light or cheap.  Even though I had to sell two pairs of skis and my kayak to afford this one, I would sell even more to bring a few more items:

An audio recorder.  India is rich with sound.  For the same reasons I brought earplugs, I need a device to archive the myriad of noise happening at all hours of the day.  Every train station has a unique announcement tone unforgetable to any traveler who has spent a lengthy period of time in one, whether waiting for an afternoon city commuter or spending the night curled up on a freezing platform.  Bus rides also offer the cacaphony, let it be a screech of tires as the vehicle races along a narrow, cliffside road or the horn which a driver can commonly lean upon for minutes at a time.  It never ends.  For this story, however, the sound of water is the most valuable component I missed.  Each region has its own footprint, the tap empties in the pot to a different rhythm, the bucket clangs against the dug well to its special beat, and the conversations surrounding these activities are in their own local language.  Sure, photography is rich as a visual medium, but audio definitely helps to complete the circle.

I could also have taken better interviews with a recorder by taping them instead of frantically trying to take notes.

A GPS.  Also known as a global positioning system, such a device has the ability to track where you’ve been and when you were there.  Of course, I can always do this manually by dropping images on the map, as I do with many of my Flickr photos, but automating the process would be a huge timesaver, as well as lowering the barrier to entry.  Geo is the next big thing, and geo-aware news even more so.  Tagging my images geographically would not only provide an interesting way to keep track of them, but also allow any story I create to be geographically interactive.

More memory.  Duh.  Sixteen gigabytes is enough to shoot for just few days tops.  Stretch that over a month, and the photographer is struck with an inability to make images.  I’d like to call it photographer’s block.  When you have to edit on the fly, or at least while driving between locations, it makes you think twice about whether you’d like to shoot 20 or 60 frames on a particular scene.  Furthermore, processing as you go doesn’t give much perspective on the set.  Often when I’m in the States, I’ll go back to my images at a later point only to find I like best a photo I was close to deleting earlier.  Considering I only kept a tenth of what I shot between February and March, I can only hope I didn’t kill too many Pulitzer winners.  This problem of a memory shortage can easily be remedied in these ways: bringing more cards, bringing a laptop, or a combination of both.  Unfortunately, these two solutions require funding.  Students are often short of funding.  My solution: sell more of the junk you don’t really need.  Some call it minimalism; I like to call it keeping to my roots.

Quite possibly the strongest, most poignant lesson I learned was that, to last three months in a country, I need a constructive project to do.  Building upon that, it is also wise to approach a country with multiple story ideas in hand.  With the way my planning worked out, I was done shooting what I had outlined for the water story by the second week of April, leaving me with nearly three weeks free.  I can’t stand the “tourist thing” for more than a few days.  As a result, I came up with a cockeyed notion to photograph people under occupation in Kashmir and Ladakh, with the intent of comparing and contrasting the two regions.  In Kashmir, there are reportedly 1.2 lakh (million) security forces for between 10 and 12 million people.  On nearly every street corner, there are bunkers with intimidating soldiers, intimidating machine guns, and intimidating barbed wire.  Needless to say, it has an effect on the local population.

Research beforehand might’ve helped me refine the second story enough to realise Ladakh is still covered in snowed at the time I wanted to hitchhike there by truck. For all of the regions I missed though because of access, Ladakh, the Kinnaur Valley, Pakistan, Tibet, and Bhutan, there’s always next year, right?

Onward and forward.

Chai man

These past few weeks have been ones of reflection. Having photographed the regions I initially outlined for my project, I’ve been bumming around, trying to find another story to pick up, reading Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” series, and thinking.

Moving some too. After Rajasthan, I continued north to Amritsar, holing up for two days with a fever, visiting the Golden Temple, and then, finally, trucking on to Jammu. I recuperated further and then took an amazing Jeep ride to Srinigar, the capital of Kashmir.

There I tried to launch another story comparing Kashmir and Ladakh, and how occupation in the 21st century by the Indian security forces affects the people’s daily lives. Snow in the pass killed the idea so, after a week based in a houseboat, I journeyed on to McLeod Ganj, location of the Tibetan government-in-exile.

Many stories, of course, and many experiences to share. One, from a few days back, had me drop everything to write it in my journal.

***

On the bank of the sacred Dal Lake, there is an chai and omlette stand. Well… not quite on the bank but on a road leading off the main and so close I can justify calling it the banks. I drop down to the basin after hiking some kilometers from McLeod Ganj. Having had no lunch, I spot the modest carton of eggs casually on the small sill and amble over.

“Omlette?,” I ask.
“Yes,” he says, pointing to the eggs and a loaf of cheap white bread.
“Two piece egg, two piece toast. How much?”
“10 rupees.”

Wow, a steal I think, and readily agree to the deal.

As he cooks, I become lost in my thoughts, hastily scribbling down ideas which came to me during my walk. One page filled, I move on to the next. I am in lala land often, daydreaming about this and that, and what I might do in the near future. Impervious to the outside world, and distracted by a vivid desire to create concepts. Many people are, I believe, but I won’t personally draw judgement as to whether it is good or bad. It just is.

Yesterday, I met a man named Klaus at my “Tibetan cooking course.” An astrologer from Denmark, he seemed quite normal with his feet on the ground. For me, he became a person of interest, someone who occupied a number of brain cycles, because he had just finished a ten day mediation course. Conducted in complete silence. No talking, no conversation, just listening to your thoughts for hours on end. If you ask me, it sounds like a gnarly way to discover yourself. I would go insane after day two. And yet, shortly after our exchange about his experience, he pulls out a cell phone to see if he has any messages from family back home. The same addiction I left the States with. I think we only try to escape it, and can never succeed.

The omlette is ready. The chai man brings it out to me, I’m sitting on a simple wood bench, the type which would break if your weight is too much, and I’m struck by how generous of a portion it is. On a simple white plastic plate, the kind from my childhood, the omlette takes up so much space that the two small, square pieces of toast have to be piled on top. I cut the egg into two pieces, divy up my toast, and dig in. The meal is delish.

Watching me from his quilted stoop inside the telephone-sized stall, he asks, “Israeli?”

I’ve been getting more and more of this recently. It might be my stubble of a beard, but I can’t be sure.

“No, United States,” I reply.
The chai man looks at me confused, obviously not understanding.
“Amerika,” I add, emphasizing the “k” which seems to me the trick at the beginning of anyconversation.

“Oh, America.”

A couple of moment later, he asks another question. “Chai?”

It’s been my goal for the last few weeks to cut back to one cup a day. If I drink too much, I only sleep five or six hours each night and wake up at four AM. With my mind racing about where I’m going to go, what I’m going to photograph, and which emails I’m going to send, it’s nearly impossible to get back to sleep. Plus, it’s bad news for whomever has to be the recipient of those emails.

But heck, I’ve fallen in love with this guy’s stand so I think why not. “Yes, one cup,” I say, and see him move his pan off one single burner to make way for the pot.

The man’s business is the quintessential Indian chai/omlette/samosa shack. I can’t put it any better than that, as the beauty of the moment struck me like a lorry. It’s painted bright yellow, similar to an STD point, and the side is emblazoned with “Lay’s Potato Chips.” There is a sill in the front at chest height with forty or so eggs, that loaf of bread with flies buzzing around it, several samosas in a pan, and a small bottle of red-ish, ketchup-y sauce for whatever you’d like to put it on. Sure, the stands come in many shapes and sizes on the sub-continent, with different types of foods, drinks, plates, and cups, but at this moment I notice it in its entirety. To me, the stand is a profound statement of my travels. This is India, and this man sells omlettes and chai for a living.

As he’s heating the chai, I suddenly want to capture the process. I whip my camera out of the bag, spilling another set of notes in the process. As I peer through the viewfinder, though, I see I’ve been inspired at the end of his work. He pours the drink through a strainer to my cup. The chai is ready.

Near the end of my caffeine and sugar elixir, I talk with a man from Delhi. We cover the basics, and then I rattle off the whole list of places I’ve seen this trip. The businessman appears disinterested this development of the conversation, but the chai man speaks up. “Chamba?”

I repeat the question back at him, not understanding its nature.

Then I do realise and ask, “Chamba Valley?”
“Yes,” he replies.
“No, not his trip. From Jammu to McLeod Ganj.”
“Oh…”

I finally understand why he asked. “Are you from Chamba Valley?”

Whatever connection we made when I first arrived at his humble stand is magnified, enhanced. He gives me a “yes” with a broad smile and proceeds to show me a picture, worn and weathered, of him on the bank of Dal Lake. He is standing in front of a sign, and looks quite proud in a blue and red vest.

“Dal Lake,” he points, indicating something in the picture. I obviously don’t understand why he’s mentioning this. Again he says, “Dal Lake. In Hindi.”

I look closer and can see he’s pointing at script on the sign. Ah, that makes sense. It says “Dal Lake” in Hindi.

Putting the photograph down, he rolls up his sleeve to show me something else: a tattoo on his forearm. I glance at the body art and the side of his stand he points to as well. Both say “Krishan Chana.”

Ah, his name. That make sense too. “I’m Daniel,” I forward while holding out my hand.

He has one last tattoo to show me, the holy Om on the back of his hand. I don’t recognize it at first, but then I do. I pull out my Om, the one Kip brought back two years ago, from under my shirt and show it to him. “Shiva,” he says, pointing at my neck.

“Yup.”

And that’s the magic. That’s who he is, or a part, and that’s who I am. Or a part. Our conversation is limited because of language, but we’re both eager to learn about one another. India, although rapidly “modernizing,” is still about people. It affects me, irrovorcably I hope, every day I’m in this country.

Having finished my chai, I pay the six rupees and wander on.

Chai man