Three days in the mountains: Sun, Blizzard, Sun

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I woke agitated on Saturday. I think I was just nervous. I didn’t know my hiking companions well, and it turned out that it would get the better of me later in the trip. We met at the Maxim Gorky metro station in Tashkent at 8am where we boarded a shared van with our huge backpacking bags, placing them on our laps all the way to Gazalkent. I tried to make conversation with one of my companions, another American, but the pink-hatted Uzbek woman between us made sure to express her disinterest in our conversation by plugging her ears and clicking her tongue. We didn’t talk long. In Gazalkent, we met Mahkmut, our driver who would drive us up the windy roads toward Chimgan. We rode the two-person chairlift higher up Mt. Kumbel where we were given sweeping views of the valley below and the mountains on the other side, the natural border with Kazakhstan.

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With the sun on our faces, we hiked up to the top of Mt. Kumbel where there is an old weather station, one that looks like a giant Soviet golf ball atop a mountain, ready to be teed off. There were a few men manning the station and they agreed to let us stay for the night, letting us help ourselves to their kitchen, TV, tiny sauna and extra warm single beds. We cooked soups, broke bread, shared greetings, sang songs and woke to complete white out in the morning. The inner-kid in me imagined that school would be cancelled, that it would be a day of snowballs fights and snow angels. Clouds had rolled in and there was probably a foot of fresh, feather-light snow on the ground. We had a hearty breakfast and headed down the mountain, seeing two-fifths of our party on their way. Then Viola, Andrey and I continued on our way through what would be the worst hiking conditions I’ve ever been in. It snowed all day; it was foggy, and we got lost several times, which made me rather nervous. There was no trail to follow as it was covered in thick snow and Andrey obviously didn’t know where he was going, which didn’t set my mind at ease.

Sometimes the greatest challenges, when hiking, I’ve found, are mental. They are within one’s self, all in the mind. While there was much to “worry” about, I told myself, I also understand that “worry” serves no utility. It’s theoretically useless. It doesn’t “do” anything but put one in a bad mood and make one irritable. Try as I might to overcome these mental challenges that hiking often offers, I don’t always succeed. It was cold, we couldn’t see anything, and we obviously had no idea where we were going. But Andrey had been in these mountains before, so I just had to trust him. I didn’t feel like I’d known my companions long enough to put in them the level of trust that was necessary for me to overcome the mental battles that I was waging within my head, but I also didn’t have much of a choice. Perhaps this was the conundrum that I was most frustrated with: I had no choice but to trust my way-finders in conditions that I was not comfortable with. It’s not like I could just turn around and go home.

We reached what Viola called “an apple garden,” our home for the evening. It was a windswept plain that had a few frozen trees in it. We found a lone tree and began to try building a fire with wet wood in windy, snowy conditions. We had trouble getting the fire lit, to say the least. The wood was frozen and the wind kept blowing out the matches that Andrey would light with this shaking hands. The panic in me made me want to run screaming down the mountain. After some teamwork using our bodies as windscreens, we got the fire lit after several candles and a technique that I had not seen before. Andrey would light the candle then shake the hot wax all over the fire bed, creating a kind of pit in which the fire could grow. The heat coming from the red flames felt life-saving. I pitched my tent after clearing a patch in the snow. I removed my wet clothes only to let them freeze overnight. I got in my sleeping bag at 5:30pm and didn’t get out until 7:30am the following morning.

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I woke to rustling and grunt-like speech from my groupmates. “John, there is a beautiful sunrise,” Viola said. She wasn’t kidding. The sun was touching the pink tops of the mountains on the other side of the valley. They sky was blue and there wasn’t a cloud in sight. I felt like we’d won the weather lottery. I grabbed my frozen camera, turned it on and was surprised when it actually worked in such cold conditions. My fingers felt frozen buy I kept clicking away, glad to see the blue skies above us. We made another fire and dried out our stiff, frozen clothes. We made hot coffee and a hearty stew, both of which helped make me feel like a human being again. I dusted the snow off my tent and packed it up. We headed down the mountain in shin-deep snow, making fresh tracks, ducking under snow-covered trees that would rain down snow upon us when we ruffled their branches. Later, we came across a stable and apple orchard where there was a guard on duty. Dogs barked and howled as we approached, alerting the cheerful attendant of our presence. There were about ten different little puppies there, all of which were pretty damn cute. The guard welcomed us and introduced us to all of the little dogs running around shivering. One didn’t have a name yet, so Andrey quickly suggested one: “John! Zis one name John!” And so it came to be.

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The guard explained to us how to get down the mountain, following the tracks that he had only recently made himself. We bade him farewell and followed his advice. It was a mental massage to be on some sort of trail, knowing that someone had been this way recently. We eventually found a road and called Mahkmut. He picked us up in his clunky Lada and drove us back to Gazalkent along the snow-strewn mountain roads. His car stalled several times, delaying our trip just a bit more, but I really didn’t mind. I was just glad I didn’t have to sleep in a frozen tent again. We got a shared van back to Tashkent where I had a therapeutic hot shower, one I had dreamed of only hours previously. I unpacked my wet bag, let the smell of campfire fill my apartment and wondered when the next hike would be.

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Cock-fighting in Yangiobad

“That’s a big cock,” Seth said.

“Sure is,” I replied.

“Have you ever seen one so big?”

I thought for a moment. “Nope.”

“How do you think it got so big?” he asked.

“No idea,” I said flatly, staring. Men were milling about, stroking their cocks. “Where are we?” I thought.

“Did you know they are distant descendants of velociraptors?” Seth asked.

“Really? I didn’t know that.” I blinked twice.

Men were crowded into a thick circle behind the Yangiobad Bazaar on the eastern outskirts of dust-blown Tashkent. Some had prize-fighting cocks in their arms, like beaked babies, and stroked them slowly.

“You ever seen a cock-fight?” I asked Seth.

“Nope. You?”

“Nope.”

The Yangiobad Bazaar, located past low-laying buildings, can be found past tree-lined traditional Uzbek neighborhoods known as mahallas. I told an Uzbek friend of mine where Seth and I were going.

“Why you want to go there?” she asked. “Who adviced you?” Another friend told us to watch our wallets. Wandering through the seemingly-endless supply of stuff, junk and (arguably) rubbish, we passed stalls selling old Soviet war medals, worn vacuum cleaner parts, rabbits, clothing of all sorts, and even a half-size violoncello that needed some serious repairs. We drifted through congested lanes clogged with merchants, buyers and stocky men pulling heavy carts as they yelled for people to get out of their way. It was the closest I’d felt to India since being in Uzbekistan.

We approached the encircled men around the ready-to-fight roosters, trying not to act too conspicuous, not knowing whether or not anyone would care if we were there. I folded up the collar of my jacket; Seth turned his maroon Gophers cap around. The cock-fighting pit was below a concrete slab, behind a row of darkly dressed and downward gazing men. Others stood in the sawdust-covered pit, creating a ring with their bodies in which the cocks being stroked would fight. It was easy to pick out the two men whose roosters would fight as their eyes shifted about uneasily. One man breathed in and out big breaths of anxiety as he stroked his shifty-eyed cock, clenching and releasing his jaw-muscles in the process. A little boy who couldn’t have been more than eight years old wandered among the crowd and gathered filthy bills of Uzbek so’m from standing onlookers.

I held up my camera up over the heads of the crowd, hoping that I wouldn’t get yelled at. No one paid any attention. The cocks were released and began pecking at one another, wrapping their long necks around each other, occasionally fluttering up into the air to try and claw each other with their feet. The feathers on their necks would ruffle as they stood off in the middle of the arena, encouraged by smoking men. They stood erectly as they danced around, occasionally stabbing the other with their sharp beaks, drawing blood. A woman passed the outskirts of the crowd selling fried food. The place stunk of urine and sweat and fine sawdust clouds floated up into the sun-streaked air as men swatted them away. I looked about the scene and asked myself if this was a place that I’d ever like to return to.

Was the fight entertaining? No, but I’m not someone who enjoys watching fights for pleasure. It just never appealed to me. But some of these men were in it to win it; clearly they had money involved as the place became tense soon after the fight began. A grungy referee of sorts regulated the match, making sure the cocks obeyed all the cock-fighting rules, whatever those are. Seth and I left after about ten minutes, at which point we’d decided that we’d seen enough. We left, passing tied up cocks with their heads wrapped in rags.

Morning plov

I was picked up at 6:15am by a lonely car idling on the side of road, waiting for me to enter. “Good morning, John,” my comrades said to me as I sat down, “are you ready for plov?” I didn’t really know how to reply as I hadn’t experienced plov yet, but I kept optimistic with a “yes.” I was, in fact, in the car, a sign that I was ready for what was then the unknown. We drove through the empty streets of Tashkent while Sting remixes serenaded us from the speakers behind my head. I kept looking from side to side as to try and keep track of our location, but the exercise was useless; in a few blocks I was lost – a not-uncommon experience in Tashkent.

“This area is like the Washington DC of Tashkent. We have many of our government buildings here,” my colleague shared. Indeed, immaculate looking buildings towered over the spotless streets upon which we traveled. Few pedestrians were out which made the buildings seems even larger and dominating than they already were. Green-clad policemen in stiff-brimmed hats patrolled abandoned streets, keeping an eye out for anything out of place. I kept the window up. We passed the Chorsu bazaar with its blue majestic dome penetrating the slowly brightening sky. We passed other plov ceremonies with smartly-dressed Uzbek men lined up outside restaurants waiting to enter. Clearly, we were not the only ones engaging in some plov this morning.

We reached our destination and joined the crowd of men gathered outside the restaurant entrance. Some were shaking hands, touching heads – corner-of-forehead to corner-of-forehead, twice – much like I’d witnessed in West Africa. Others were smoking and simply doing nothing at all. We entered and were ushered to a table in the back. The room was huge – like a ballroom – with a giant chandelier hanging from the ceiling in the center of the room. Soon it was full of men and men only. There must have been two hundred men in this place. It felt like a locker room but looked like a five-star restaurant. The tables were covered in all sorts of food imaginable: grapes, nuts, cut vegetables, tea, sweets, bread, apples, pickles. Around the tables were men seated, waiting for the ceremony to begin. Musicians in matching blue suits played traditional Uzbek music on ancient instruments while more men entered. The men on the bride’s side of the hall were already seated as we – on the groom’s side, apparently – entered.

I was told that the father of the bride arranges for the plov ceremony to occur, inviting guests from both sides of the upcoming wedding party. When the musicians stopped playing, the groom appeared alongside an imam of sorts; they sat in high-backed chairs in the center of the ceremony for all to view. The groom commenced with a speech in Uzbek, followed by a prayer by his companion. During the speech, my eyes drifted, as they often do, to higher sights. I saw three boys playing on a balcony above, fiddling with the railings and observing impatiently the male ceremony below them. Their little shoes intertwined with the metal bars at their feet while they wiggled and wrestled with one another. I thought about my own childhood and what ceremonies or celebrations I had observed as a child. Had I witnessed anything similar? I thought about how one day those kids may have a plov ceremony of their own, one perhaps not too dissimilar to this very one. Would it be very different? As far as I knew, I was the only foreigner in the room.

Then out came the plov. “Traditionally, youngsters serve plov and not waiters,” I was told. Kids began shuffling around the hall, distributing mounds of plov on white plates to soon be shared between two people. A plate was dropped between my colleague and I. “John, this is plov,” he said. “Please,” gesturing with his hand for me to dive in. I grabbed one of the two large spoons that had been delivered with the dish and began mimicking my colleague as to how he ate. After each bite, a bit of the dish was pushed inward with the back of the spoon to maintain the mound shape while oil drifted out to the rim of the plate. I could feel my lips getting greasier and greasier – a kind of cardiac chap-stick. To my right was a cup of hot tea with a hard sugar popsicle, of sorts, stuck into it. There is a certain kind of sugar here that is made into lollipop form, but it’s very jagged, like rock-candy, so it’s dissolved into tea rather than licked straight. I drank the sweet drink to wash down the heavy, oily, horse-meat-topped dish. It was a lot at 7am. “Don’t stop John,” my colleague told me. I didn’t.

I noticed that plates around me were beginning to empty, so I kept up the shoveling into my mouth and the pushing toward the center of the plate. As soon as my colleague and I finished, the plate was whisked away and our hands were raised in prayer to finish the meal. Cupped in front of our chests and below our faces, palms up, we gestured as to wash our faces after the meal. All the men at the table stood up together and began to walk out. On the way out I stopped to take a picture of the musicians who had again begun playing music. I raised my camera along with my eyebrows as to try and ask, non-verbally, if I could snap a photo. One musician nodded his head in approval. Following the photo, I raised my right hand over my heart as to thank them for their services. The musician nodded his head again and smiled. We walked outside where the sun was up and men were again standing around. I was in a bit of a daze from all the food, and I thought about different traditions and their ambiguity.

“That’s it,” my colleague said. “So what do you think?”

“Nice,” I said.

“How did you like plov?”

“Delicious.”

Big Snow Mountain & Gold Lake: Alpine Lakes Wilderness

“Cause if you want to step outside this body and this world,

You’re gonna have to go through a different kind of door,
And this train only runs in summertime”

– Jason Webley, Train Tracks, from the 2002 album Counterpoint

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Coming down from Big Snow Mountain Summit

We got a very late start on Friday evening as we set off down the old, blocked service road that would lead us to the feint trail markings up to Hardscrabble Lake – our destination for the evening. As fall is approaching, the sun is setting sooner, so during daylight hours we usually have to find a reasonable campsite before darkness dwindles down as we get closer to winter. Thus, we ended up climbing over a boulder field on the edge of Hardscrabble Lake around 9pm as we wandered in via the lights of our headlamps and the reflective moon above to what would be our campsite for the night: a sandy plot at the north end of Hardscrabble Lake, among some freshwater streams carrying crystal clear mountain water.

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Gold Lake

We woke in the morning to the sun shining brightly on Big Snow Mountain towering above us. We made our way toward the climb that would lead us up to a rocky gap that would be the dividing line between our two campsites. On the other side of the gap we would find huge slabs of open rock, ready for our wandering. Gold Lake was below us, also looking inviting. We dried out our tents from the condensation that had accumulated overnight, then we dropped our stuff and made our way to the top of Big Snow Mountain (6,680 feet/2,036 meters). It stood dominating over our previous campsite, and the lakes and peaks below.

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Approaching Gold Lake

We didn’t stay at the top for long. We made our way down and stopped at a very inviting-looking little lake that was absolutely frigid. We stripped down and jumped in and tried to dry and warm ourselves on the rocks, but the wind was a little too strong, so we put on shoes and headed back to where we’d left our tents to dry. After packing up, we headed down a streamy, meadowy type area down to what would be our campsite for the evening, right on the banks of Gold Lake. It was a fantastic campsite – perhaps one of the best I’ve ever been to.

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Gold Lake

We pitched our tents, Alex went swimming again, I put the beers in the lake to cool, and we watched the evening begin to pass us by. We’d heard reports of possible rain, so we commented to each other as we watched what were darker and darker clouds begin to slowly roll our way as the sun descended. It didn’t rain until after we had gotten into our tents, but that wasn’t long; Alex was in bed by 7:30pm and I by 8. We’d had a long day and had hiked a lot. In the morning I woke up early to a completely fogged-out Gold Lake. I couldn’t see the tops of the peaks in the foggy morning like I could last night in the clear evening. I grew discouraged as I went back to bed for another hour. The sky had cleared up a little bit later, but not completely. We cooked breakfast from our tents, packed up, then headed out.

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More Gold Lake

Sunday was much rougher going than Saturday. First of all, the weather was not as in our favor as it had been, though it still wasn’t bad. Plus we were now off-trail, careening down a pretty steep slope alongside a river which was cascading nearby. We only got cliffed-out a time or two, and each time wasn’t too bad. We made our way down the slopes by often belaying ourselves with tree branches as the terrain was so steep. In the valley below us we saw the remnants of an airplane crash. I had never seen such a sight before, and neither had Alex. Who knew how long that crushed plane had been there?

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We continued on, following the river for a while. And then it began to rain, but only a little bit. We dove off into the bushes and slopes to our left to cut off a little time. Like Alex said, “bushwhacking is bushwhacking”. He was right. We bushwhacked up wet, steep slopes to get us over to Little Myrtle lake, which is where we had lunch. After lunch we had to climb one more gnarly peak, one which involved some careful footing and some attention paying. Afterwards, we found the trail and walked it back to the car. It was an amazing adventure – one of the greatest I’ve had since last year up to Box Mountain Lakes. Dare I say, I’m looking forward to more off-trail fun. And we didn’t see a soul.

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Little Myrtle Lake

Non-stop in Assam: Guwahati to Jonai and back

“I married Isis on the 5th day of May, but I could not hold on to her very long. So I cut up my hair and I rode straight away, for the wild unknown known country where I could not go wrong”

– Bob Dylan, opening lines to “Isis”, from the 1976 album, Desire

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Gingia, Assam

On the plane, as we were cutting through the dotted clouds above northeastern India, I began to get what could be called ‘mountain-twitch’. I sometimes get it when I get close to mountains. My foot starts tapping even though there is no music; my fingers start bouncing on my knees; my nails get bitten, and I even begin disgustingly picking at my beard. I fiddle with the little straps on my watch and blink a lot while my eyes dart around, looking for the highest peak. I got this sensation – this twitch – bad in Himachal Pradesh, and I felt it coming on again as we descended into Assam. But it wasn’t the Assamese hills I was twitching over (indeed, I was to find that Assamese hills were few and far between); it was those of Arunachal Pradesh, an Indian state I would later unknowingly-at-the-time and accidentally sneak into without a foreigner’s permit. These were hills I hadn’t seen yet, but had only imagined in my imagination. The road to Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh didn’t sound any better than the road to Tabo, Himachal Pradesh, but I was determined for some masochistic reason to find out for myself as to its level of upkeep.

Several days ago, before I left Calcutta, my old roommate David said that I should be careful while in the northeast, that I should be weary of kidnappings, and that roads and general government services were not as vast and well maintained as they were in other parts of India. I listened to his advice, but had to see for myself as to its validity. I was to find his mentioning of kidnapping preposterous, as I met some of the most welcoming and hospitable people on the planet on this trip – some of whom warned  me about the possibility of landslides on the road to Tawang. They showed me pictures of hillsides completely wiped away, covered roads and buried cars. I’d heard that it had been raining a lot recently in the northeast.

Even before descending the plane, I looked out the window and thought, “Wow, look how green it is.” The ride from Guwahati to Tezpur the following morning was one of the greenest rides I’ve ever had. Rice fields as far as the eye could see, topped with tree-covered low-laying hills in the background, all weaved together with the black telephone lines that ran along the road. Kids splashed together in the brown waters while rain fell down upon them. Umbrella’d families of farmers would be dispersed among the fields, only their legs sticking out from under their colorful rain-proof coverings. Cows chewed on grass while acting as roadblocks and we passed a sign for a cheap whiskey that read “Pleasure Wine”.

My destination was Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh, but I should have done my research before coming, for the permit into the state turned out to be trickier than I had anticipated. I thought I had done my research, but I found out that I really hadn’t. I needed to get an Inner Line Permit again (I had one for Spiti Valley in Himachal Pradesh, but it had expired so I needed a new one) to visit Arunachal Pradesh. I thought I could get one in Tezpur, but I was told by a chap running a transport stall at the bus stand that I couldn’t. He said that the office in Tezpur only issued permits for Indian nationals. He said I could either go back to Guawahati (um, no.) or go on to Itanagar, which itself is in Arunachal Pradesh. I didn’t understand how I was supposed to get a permit to enter Arunachal Pradesh from a place that was already in Arunachal Pradesh, but that’s what he told me. He seemed to know what he was talking about. I wasn’t thrilled about the added trip, and it might make going to Tawang difficult, as I didn’t have a ton of time, but I tried to embrace the curve ball of a new situation and just enjoy the fact that I was in Assam. It rained all that afternoon, and when it stopped it began to get hot – one of the reasons why I wanted to go to Tawang in the first place was to escape the heat, never mind the spectacular views from the 4,100-meter Se La Pass. I was to carry a wool sweater, wool socks, and thermal underwear all through Assam with me, never using any of it once.

I walked around Tezpur in the rain until I was soaked – only then I bought an umbrella. I walked down the quiet Sunday streets, observing the rickshaw wallahs with their plastic coverings above them. Women in saris and sandals scuttled about while their umbrellas wiggled back and forth on their shoulders. Bor Pukhuri Lake was a rich jade green while raindrops fell on its surface, rippling the water just enough to ruffle the floating lilies. Nearby, the mighty Bhramaputra River was flowing quickly by, carrying green debris with it; the sky looked like it could have been Montana. I don’t know if I’ve even been in a greener place. Hawaii is green, as is Washington State, but this place is simply exploding with greeness. It’s everywhere: the hills, the trees, the plants, the leaves – everything.

By lunchtime I hadn’t decided where I’d go the next day: Itanagar or Jorhat, Assam. Itanagar sounded cool, I guess, and if I wanted a permit for Arunachal Pradesh then I’d have to go there anyway, but Jorhat sounded good, too. Plus, it would open up the possibility of visiting perhaps several other states: Nagaland, Manipur, and Meghalaya. At afternoon naptime, I was leaning towards Jorhat, simply because I didn’t want to deal with the formalities of Indian formalities and form-fillings. I’d miss the mountains, but the drive to Tezpur got me excited about continuing through the wet and soggy landscape of Assam. Plus, I’d always wanted to visit the northeast, so perhaps this was my chance to see more of it than just one town in the mountains. Tawang might have to wait.

After lunch I went and had tea across the street at a little tea stall run by a little old sari’d lady. I drank my tea and noticed a group of three rowdy tattooed boys sitting across from me. After tea they approached me and asked the usual questions. They asked me if I was free and I said “yeah” so we made for a nearby park and chatted. They told me they were in town for a training and we exchanged Facebook courtesies. They were friendly enough, but I also didn’t feel like having the usual conversation – I’d had many already and would have many more before my journey was through. After taking my leave I made my way around the lake we were sitting at, then found some beer, then the Ganesh Mandir Ghat on the north bank of the mighty Brahmaputra River. I was bombarded with “hello”s and “what’s your name?”s and “You’re coming from?”s by a group of little kids playing football in the street just before the mandir honouring the elephant-headed Hindu god of prosperity and good fortune. Their English was pretty good, so I spoke with them for a bit. Naturally, they asked about my family.

“Your brother?” they shrieked.

“No brother,” I replied.

“Your sister?” they howled.

“Yes, one sister.”

“Sister name?” they all said at different time, not simultaneously.

“Natalie,” I said.

“Natalie,” they all replied slowly, chorus-like, in unison, as if practiced. I reminded myself to tell my sister about it. She’s not exactly a fan of kids, but this was pretty damn cute.

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“Play football with us?” they pleaded.

“Sure,” I said, “I’m just coming”, which, in Indian English, means “I’ll be right back”, which, everyone knows, means nothing. I made my way to the Ghat where a skinny beadie-puffing boatman was shuffling passengers across the Brahmaputra, the mightiest ‘male’ river in India (apparently all other great rivers in India – the Ganges and the Indus – are all female), according to some fellow ghat-goers, for a fee of 50 rupees a head. People came up and dipped their hands in the brown water, washing their faces, their kids’ faces, their kids’ kids’ faces. One guy dumped a bag of what looked like ashes into the river. They drifted away slowly away from the sunset that changed from blue to purple to violet to pink, all in a matter of minutes, and then back again.

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I got back to my dingy guesthouse room and turned on some music. The first song to come on shuffle was Tim Franklin’s “My Endless Ocean”, the opening lines of which are quite simply “I’m not afraid anymore. I’m not afraid anymore. I’m not afraid anymore. I’m not afraid anymore. I’m not afraid anymore. I’m not afraid anymore. I’m not afraid anymore. I’m not afraid.” I sang along and hummed to myself the string arrangement I wrote years ago that I’ve now since half- forgotten. Great song.

I called my roommate, Akash, to check in and let him know where I was.

“Dude, where is your stupid ass?” he barked as he picked up the call.

“Hi honey. Miss me?”

“Shut up. Where are you?”

“Tezpur. Change of plans. Heading to Sivasagar.”

“What? What happened to Tawang?”

“Too much hassle. Can’t get the permit here in Tezpur like I thought.”

“You moron.”

Next on the playlist was “The Funeral” by Band of Horses. I turned up the volume, pushed my headphones further into my ears, turned out the lights, lay back on my bed, pulled back the curtain, looked at the night sky, began tapping my foot and felt a great sense of peace wash over me like a warm wave. Then it was Grant Valdez’s “Antithing”, which you’ve never heard of because we recorded it in his flat in Seattle years ago, then Sun Kil Moon’s great cover of Modest Mouse’s “Never-ending Math Equation”, which has one of my favorite lines in music: “I’m the same as I was when I was six years old.” There was more Tim Franklin (“13 Weeks”, which I love; “Desensitised”, which is all-time) and Band of Horses: “if I am lost it’s only for a little while”, from “Monsters”. Last was The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows”: “Turn off your mind and float downstream”.

“OK,” I said as I closed my eyes.

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My room was a plastic board’s separation away from the dining area of a dhaba-like restaurant, and next door was a travel agency called “John Travels”. I had to come all the way to Tezpur, Assam to see it written. Across the street was a tea stall, and next to that was the bus stand. I decided to catch the 6:30 AM bus to Sivasagar. I didn’t want to deal with another Indian bureaucratic nightmare in the form of a form, one covered in illegible signatures, stamps and seals. I’m glad I stopped in Tezpur, but I’m also glad I left in the morning.

It was pouring down rain in the morning as the bus pulled out of the bus station. Rolling through the now-closed-for-the-season-due-to-rain Kaziranga National Park we saw two one-horned rhinos out in the green fields. Apparently Kaziranga is the only place in the world where these great creatures can be found. A great silence cam over the bus as we passed them. I sat next to a Bhramin man who said he was going home to Sivasagar. He had been in Tezpur giving puja, he said. I noticed the tiny strand of hair coming out from the back of his head as we passed a Wine Shop tastefully named “Tipsy Tipsy”. Crossing another river there was a riverside funeral pyre with a burning body atop a stack of flaming wood. Tea Estate labourers were out in numbers plucking tea that would get shipped to the UK, Germany, Iran, and other less lush parts of India.

In the rice patties, kids were playing, men were working, hoisting hoes into the air and then back down again into the rich soil surrounding their muddy bare feet and ankles. Women walked down long dirt lanes between rice fields, holding the tips of their saris as they strolled. Cows grazed with their tails wagging. The bus honked noisily while nervously passing trucks with “Good Luck” written in big graffiti-like block letters on their sides. Brick kilns and their dark smoke stacks dotted the green fields around them, and bamboo built shacks with thatched roofs acted as connecting points for clotheslines with colourful kurtas, saris and children’s underwear hanging on them. I couldn’t decide which drive was more beautiful, this one or the one yesterday to Tezpur. The earth looked like a big green sponge. In Chakrapani, there was a Ford dealership, which I couldn’t believe. “Welcome to Jorhat, the knowledge city of Assam” a sign said. I didn’t have the knowledge to figure out what that meant, but maybe I’d get it in Jorhat. I’m glad I didn’t get off there. It smelled of burnt rubber and tar and it did not seem welcoming nor interesting, though I did buy some ice cream at the bus stand. It was getting hot. Outside Jorhat, we crossed a river where men were shovelling mud underwater. They were up to their waists in brown river water, shovelling thick, heavy, wet mud onto little mini floating barges. Several men stood around one barge while they piled shovelful after shovelful of mud onto it. It looked like gruelling work. Shovelling dirt is hard enough, but underwater? What torture.

A billboard of a gloved boxer punching himself on the head saluted us as we left. I later learned that a boxer from Mizoram had qualified for the 2016 Olympics in Room. These billboards were of him to wish him well. They were all over Assam, for some reason. A lot of outside Jorhat looked like it had been bombed. Rubble was everywhere, especially in front of shops and in people’s front yards. It looked like the place had either been attacked or was undergoing some kind of mass reconstruction. It reminded me of the shelling remnants I’d seen in Bouake, Côte d’Ivoire last year. I saw the first Baptist Church I’d seen since Kerala, and a fern growing out from the side of an old decaying building looked like it belonged in north Calcutta.

I rolled into Sivsagar and found the cheapest room I’ve ever found for 150 rupees. It was a dump, but it was a cheap dump. I had a headache so I took a nap. I walked to an Internet Cafe to write an “I’m alive” email to my folks. I got stuck there for a bit as the rain returned later in the afternoon. While stuck there, the owner of the interview cafe told me about Sivsagar and all the historic ruins in and around the city. He showed me an 86-slide PowerPoint presentation that had been created by the Archaeological Society of India, explaining all the different ancient ruins in the area from the former Ahom Kingdom. That evening I had a late dinner in a little hidden place where several people watched me eat with my right hand.

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Sivasagar, Assam

I got up early the next morning and walked around the centrally located Sivsagar Tank, as it’s called. It’s basically a huge reservoir in the middle of town with the famous Shivadol Temple at its banks. I did a lap around the tank, which was actually quite large. Walkers were out strolling in the humid, breeze-less air, while dogs chased little goats, nibbling at their legs and ankles. I stopped at the bus station to inquire about buses to Sorani, a smaller town further north, and it sounded like there were frequent buses making the two-hour journey. As for Nagaland, my plans were undecided. I wanted to go to Mon, or Mon Town, as many had referred to it here, but it was quite remote, and I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to make it back to Guwahati comfortably by the 17th or 18th. I figured I’d go to Sonari, then maybe Dibrugarh, and then maybe take the train back to Guwahati, if tickets were available. I chatted with some kids at the guesthouse in the evening, asking about distances to here and there. They told me that Mon wasn’t safe after dark.

The following morning, I rolled into Sonari around 11am after a swampy road travelled from Sivasagar. Upon reaching, I began walking in search of accommodations. I took five steps and was asked by a moustached man chewing paan on a bicycle, “coming from?”

“US,” I said.

“Welcome sir,” he said.

“Thank you, sir. Sir, any hotel?”

“Hotel Green View is there,” he said, pointing up the road. I began walking in that direction when, after another five steps, a kid on a moped stopped and greeted me.

“Hello sir!” he shouted.

“Hello,” I replied.

“Going to?”

“Hotel Green View,” I said.

“Hop on. I’ll drop you.”

I jumped on the back of this kid’s moped with my backpack on and we chatted as we swerved through the little traffic on the town’s main muddy road.

“Sir, you’re from?”

“US,” I said.

“Oh great. Welcome, sir.”

“Thanks, glad to be here.”

“Sir, what’s your name?”

“John, and yours?”

“Danny,” he said, pointing to the tattoo on the back of his neck, which, sure enough, read DANNY above a second tattoo of bull horns. He dropped me off and wished me a pleasant trip. It was a nice start to my time in Sonari.

I woke from a nap and went out in search of lunch. This was the first time India where I had a hard time finding the meal. Where were all the little restaurants? After all, it was lunchtime – didn’t people in this town eat? I walked north out of town, found nothing and turned around. I got stares from passersby as I strolled along. Whispers of ‘foreigner’ came from huddled groups clumped together under caving overhangs and store fronts. I began to get a bit irritated at the level of difficulty involved in finding a meal. In my frustration, I stopped at a tiny place that had some plastic chairs, tables, and coloured pitchers of water on them. I had three disgusting puris dipped in some cold potato dish that had probably been leftover since morning. Afterwards, I wasn’t full but I wasn’t hungry – I just wanted something else to wipe the whole lunch from my memory. I blamed the starchy sensation on the roof of my mouth on the shitty lunch.

I began wandering down the road in search of I-wasn’t-exactly-sure: something I wanted to photograph, I guess. I walked down the main road for a bit until I found a side road off to the right, one with ringing cycles riding gently down its middle, lined with green trees and quaint little houses on both sides. I walked for a while, trying not to stand out but failing miserably. Everyone I met was very friendly, even the guys who would pass on their cycles then turn their head around to glare and me once, twice, even three times, often closely creating an accident out of their newly found curiosity. One woman smiled and we began chatting in Bengali. She smiled a red, betel-nut-stained smile as I exchanged greetings with her and took her photograph.

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Sonari, Assam

Another man did the same. His daughter who was standing nearby didn’t have any arms and she ran away when I pulled out my camera. I continued on, getting deeper and deeper into wherever it was that I was going. One kid had a fishing net setup in the river so that it would catch tiny fish when they came down the river. I stopped and watched him for a bit. It was times like this that I enjoyed being the watcher instead of the watched. One tiny, very strong pygmy-like gentleman who was also watching said something behind me. I responded, and next thing I knew he was leading me to his mud home which had recently flooded. There was water everywhere, so I had to take off my shoes and socks and leave them on a muddy bank. I rolled up my pants and stepped into the murky, possibly-leech-infested waters and followed my newfound friend further and further away from where I started. All the mud homes in the area were surrounded by water; women stood in brown, caked doorways holding their babies as water dripped down from the roofs. His house was inaccessible by foot, so we boarded a kind of makeshift raft that I guess had been made for just this purpose. I thought about the head-hunters and cannibals I’d red about in Nagaland, the next state over, though head-hunting, as I’d read, had been abolished, technically, in 1963. He captained the raft with two young girls, perhaps his daughters, over to his home. Another young man stood there and welcomed us as we approached slowly on the raft.

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I didn’t really know what to expect, so I just kind of stood there and looked content, which I was. I took some pictures, made small talk as best as I could, then it became clear that I should be on my way. I think this guy just wanted to show me the flooding that had occurred. I certainly saw it. Water was everywhere. Who knew when it would recede? I wondered if the tea estate next door where they worked provided any assistance or relief. It began raining heavily, so I took my leave and found shelter under a nearby shop until the rain succeeded.

Walking home, another man on a motorcycle stopped near me and asked where I was from. I told him. We got to talking and he also invited me to his home. I hopped on the back of his bike and he whisked me off to his home nearby. I met his son, his wife, and a guitar was produced. We sang songs and chatted; his wife served tea. I wrote his son a letter, I sang the national anthem, answered questions about the US, and they gave me a traditional Assamese red and white gamucha – a traditional Assamese cloth that is often used like a towel or wrap. It was a very humbling evening. He dropped me off on his motorcycle afterwards. I couldn’t believe my luck. Just from walking around I was invited into two Assamese homes, one after the other.

I wondered: how many Assamese – or Indians, for that matter – wandering the streets of small US towns get invited off the street into American homes? How many are fed? How many are respected and treated with unbelievable kindness as they engage in conversation? I thought about Sureshbhai Patel, the 57 year-old Sikh grandfather who was visiting his grandson in Alabama. Patel, who was beaten to the ground by Madison police back in February of 2015 because he “looked suspicious”, ended up paralyzed in the hospital. Let me tell you something: you can be damn sure that I “looked suspicious” as the only white guy in town walking aimlessly around flooded tea estate worker’s homes with a DSLR slung over my shoulder.

In the morning, I made for Dibrugarh. The bus ride was a slow one through tiny villages, more rice fields, and minefields of stationary farm animals littering the road that created a mooing, barking, and baa-ing slalom course for the bored-looking bus driver. I got off in Dibrugarh and immediately made for Majaghat to wait for a boat somewhere. I didn’t really care where I went, I just wanted to ride a boat and be back to Dibrugarh in time for my train to Guwahati on the 17th. I had called my roommate from Sonari and he booked me on a train from Dibrugarh back to Guwahati on the 17th.

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Dibrugarh, Assam

I had a late breakfast at a riverside “hotel” (shack) and waited there for the boat. I wandered around the area for a bit, taking pictures of the riverside and labourers working there. A boat came, people got off, some rice wine was unloaded so the captain of the boat could drink some before getting back on board and steering us to Majabari, a small plot of land on the other side of the river about 3 hours away. I met a fellow who helped me make some travel plans: he agreed to give me a ride on his bike as far as Semin Chapori, on the other side of the river where he lived.

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The hills of Arunachal Pradesh above the Brahmaputra River

We rode Ling Road together on his bike from Majabari, through Somkong, to Semin Chapori, passing more rice fields, only these were set before the backdrop of the mountains of Arunachal Pradesh. The sun was setting, cows were grazing, children were cycling, women were strolling, and I had a huge smile on my face as we rode the 20-ish kilometres to our destination. Kalendro was his name, and he helped me find the only hotel in town, the Atithi Lodge, a dump of a place that robbed me of 250 rupees. That evening I went to get dinner, but found the whole town shut up at 8pm. Dinner was no longer being served at the place I wandered into. The restaurant staff told me to wait and it sounded like food would be delivered to my room later, but it would turn out that wouldn’t be necessary. A guy nearby who saw my predicament invited me to his home for dinner. Next thing I knew, I was on the back on his bike going down a dark dirt road leading to his home. His thirteen-year-old son greeted me in English, and his daughter was also quite proficient, too. She was a geography teacher at a nearby school. They served me tea and biscuits and we got to chatting and swapping family pictures. Dinner was served and it was a heaping pile of white rice, dal, a greasy pork dish and some shobji. After dinner they also gifted me two more traditional Assamese gamuchas, one of which was made there in their home. I was given a ride back to my hotel where I got a call from the English Language Fellowship program in the states. I was offered a teaching position at a university in Botswana, but I regretfully decided to turn it down. I quickly fell asleep in the humid, AC-less, windowless room.

I woke late the next morning. I was exhausted from all the travel, I guess. Perhaps it was catching up with me. I had breakfast on a plastic table across the road and was interrupted by yet another guy who wanted to know where I was from

“Which country?” he poked.

I told him. He smiled. I invited him to sit down. He sat. I invited him to have a cup of tea with me. He declined. He asked the usual questions before he gave me his business card. His English was pretty good. He worked for a pharmaceutical company. The corner of his business card read “The Care Continues…”, an odd tag line, I thought. The ellipses at the end seemed strange.

I caught a van to Jonai, then a rickshaw to the Arunachal Pradesh border where I was met with a lot of not-missed Indian officialdom and border-related formalities. True, I should have had my permit in hand before coming, but how difficult could issuing a one-night pass be? I was just going to spend one night in Pasighat and then head out. It’s not like I was moving there. Anyway, I waited around while these border guards scratched their heads and contemplated which of their superiors should be called. One of the guards smacked me on the shoulder while I was waiting. I looked up.

“Take it. Water,” he said, handing me a half-filled bottle of semi-cold water, a very nice gesture. But I didn’t get the permit, so I headed back in the direction from which I came. On the way, I met a guy named Amarjeet, a lawyer in Jonai. I told him about my border woes and he said that had a local person been with me, I would have got the permit. Oh well. I got a van to Silapatar and planned to take the ferry from Bogibeel Ghat back to Dibrugarh in the morning.

I reached Silapatar and checked into the Nepal Hotel. They required a photocopy of my passport, a reasonable request, one which was not adhered to by all the places I stayed at on this trip. I found a Xerox place, across the street from which was a wine shop. I bought a beer and took it back to my hotel room. It was hot, so I downed the beer, letting the cool piss-coloured liquid quench my thirst and cool my body and relax my mind. The power went out so the fan stopped spinning. I was told to visit the Likabali Mandir. A guy running a shop outside the hotel wrote the name of the temple on a piece of paper because I kept forgetting it. I had lunch near the train tracks, then walked to a nearby hotel where I was told I could use the restroom, was denied any access to any restroom, then walked back to the Railway tracks, made a phone call and found a bus toward the general direction of the mandir. Without knowing it, I had snuck into Arunachal Pradesh. Turns out this Likabali town is in AP. Who knew? I got off the bus, asked for the mandir, was pointed in a general direction, and began walking that way. I continued asking people where the mandir was and they continue pointing me along. I wound around through some gentle hills, the beginnings of the northeastern Indian Himalayas, and found the mandir along with a little viewpoint. It was hot, and I was exhausted, so I caught my breath, took a photo, and turned around.

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Likabali, Arunachal Pradesh

Back in Silapatar, I had dinner in a little place where I met a guy who was so happy to meet me he called his sons and had them come and meet me. I had nothing else to do, so I stuck around. I chatted with his sons for a while, exchanging vital Facebook information and phone numbers. They owned a small fruit stall down the road, and the dad instructed the smallest son to go and get some mangoes for me. I hadn’t had much fruit on the trip so far so I devoured two of them on the spot. He kept saying, “I like your character,” simply because I had sat and chatted with them for an hour or two. He said that most other foreigners he met would not give them the time of day. He said he was grateful to practise his English, as he had not practiced in years. His sons also seemed glad to practice their question-answering skills in English, too.

In the morning I took a jeep to the Bogibeel Ghat about 30 kilometers outside of town. A little plot nearby where the soon-to-be-completed Bogibeel Bridge would be, the Ferry Ghat was a slapped together hodgepodge of wobbly tea stalls, roaming groups of pigs and cows, passengers awaiting to set sail, and trash fossilised into the wet, puddle-speckled sand. I saw a pig shit in the river, and nearby a woman was washing a pot in the river. I thought about the cup of tea I had just drunk from her tea stall. I caught a ferry back across the river to Dibrugarh under the cloudy monsoon sky. On the boat, men chewed paan and spat the red juice into the river. Others threw useless empty paper teacups into the river as if it were a giant flowing trashcan. On the bow, for some reason, were plants, and not some heroic figure or mermaid or something. There were several pots of plants sitting on the bow, guiding the boat. One kid sat on the bow with me. He had one very long thumbnail that was painted a violet purple. I sat on the upper deck with the crew and sipped tea and held up my little black umbrella over my head as the sky misted down a light rain.

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Looking up at the Bogibeel Bridge

The boat was met on shore by whooping men in t-shirts, extremely eager to half-violently shuffle passengers into their Tata Sumos, as they were called. Elbows were grabbed, people were pushed, and the whole thing looked very stressful. I walked through it all, ignoring the “Sir! You’re going?!”s and called Pratik, a guy I had messaged last night on couchsurfing.com. He came down to the ghat, had a cup of tea with me, then we walked back to where he lived and worked: at the Hindustan Construction Company (HCC) site at the Bogibeel Bridge. He was a civil engineer from Assam. He told me about the bridge and how it was the longest of its kind in India, a double-decker, with the bottom for rail and the top for autos. He said the expected completion date was around Spring 2018. We walked into the HCC compound and men were walking around in hard hats.

“Yellow ones are for labourers and white ones are for officers,” he told me. He showed me his room and let me freshen up before lunch.

“People are going to be asking lot of questions about you,” he said. He was a cool guy. After lunch he had to get back to work, so he told me where I could get a bus to Dibrugarh Town. I was his first couchsurfer, he said. This was the first of two Couchsurfing cherries that I would pop today. The next one was with another cool guy who met me when I got off the bus. We jumped on his motorcycle and he took me all over Dibrugarh: tea estates, the Jaggarnath replica Temple, a forest, and his home where I had some tea, dinner, and an extremely needed shower.

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He even dropped me off at the train station that evening for my train to Guwahati. But I got on the wrong train. See, there are two identical trains to Delhi that leave Dibrugarh on Friday evenings, one after the other, one hour apart. I got to the station early and got on the wrong one. I realised this when it was too late: the train was leaving and I had already put my feet up and was reading comfortably. I got off at the next station, Tinsukia, and waited for the right train. I could hear my roommate now: “you moron.”

After finally boarding the right train I read for a while then tried to get some sleep, but I was met with what would be my midnight enemy for the next six hours: snoring Indians. I was so tired I slept anyway, ignoring them all night. In the morning we reached Guwahati around 6:30am. I read some more at the station then walked to the Urubali bus stand where I caught a bus to the airport to meet my friend John.

At the Guwahati airport, I sat down and waited for John to arrive. A man sat down next to me, leaned over slightly to his left, raised his right leg up a little bit, and farted. I looked up from my book, looked around, checked to see I anyone else heard it, confirmed that no one had, then went back to reading my book. John and I headed to the small town of Gingia to meet Asha, a former AUW student of his. We had a great time with her in her town with her family and friends – three days of good company, good tea, and good food.

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Assam was amazing. It exceeded all of my expectations, and then some. When I began the trip I joked with my friend Benita that it would be difficult for Assam to match the amazingness of the Spiti Valley of Himachal Pradesh, but Assam has its own unique awesomeness. I’ve rarely met so many friendly and welcoming people so regularly and frequently. I’d never been invited into so many homes and felt so safe, so at home. Leaving the northeast was a bit bittersweet, as there was still so much more to see. The northeastern states surrounding Assam are still on my list. The plane back to Calcutta took off in the evening; there was still enough light in the sky to make out the ridgeline of the mountains in Arunachal Pradesh. I took one last look at the green fields and wondered when I would see that much green again. Coming home, I brought with me a new beard, six different Assamese gamuchas, none of which I’d purchased, all of which were gifts from Assamese I’d met along the journey, a kilo of tea, a now-fading sunburn, and a lot of unforgettable memories. Assam, from the bottom of my heart: thank you.

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Return to Mallick Ghat

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Went back to my favorite flower market today with Aparna. She was in town for a few days visiting from Delhi, so we decided to spend her last morning in Calcutta at the famous flower market at the foot of the East end of the Howrah Bridge. It rained last night, which was wonderful, but it did make walking around Mallick Ghat a muddier experience than the last time Akash and I went. We hailed a cab, set off, then turned around after ten seconds because I had forgotten my memory card for my camera.

“It’s okay; I’ll just use my phone to take pictures,” I said, feeling foolish.

Aparna gave me a flat-face.

I turned the cab around.

I’m glad I did.

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We reached the market around 6:30am and set off into the hustle and bustle armed only with our cameras. We almost got trampled a few times by men carrying huge loads on their heads, barreling down the slippery, pedal-strewn aisle. A wedding could have taken place, there were so many flower pedals on the ground, stepped on by hundreds of walkers, hawkers, talkers, gawkers, mockers, etc. Aparna commented on how friendly people in Calcutta were, even the porters.

“People are so friendly here,” she said. “Even those guys – in Delhi, they would just run you over. They wouldn’t ask you to move or step aside”

“Really?”

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“Yeah, people seem much more laid back here,” she said. “People aren’t in a rush, they aren’t hurrying anywhere – they just seem, I don’t know, more chill.”

I took it as a compliment to city I have been proud to call home for the last nine months. We continued on into the market, side-stepping the recently formed mud on the ground. These porters with their huge loads and worn slippers would slip sometimes in the mud, but the flower explosion on the ground that I was expecting after a complete tumble never happened as they always kept themselves upright. It was interesting returning to the flower market, even though I was there several weeks ago, for I felt like I saw the place in a new light – through a new lens, so to speak. It wasn’t as new as it was to me then, so some of the sights weren’t as attention-grabbing. I’d seen some of them before, which, I think, may have been a blessing in disguise as it allowed me to decide to photograph new subjects, to try new angles, to show a different side of the market that I tried to show or capture last time.

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While the flower market, for me, will always be bustling and loud and noisy and crazy and fun and kinda dirty, today it was less of those things, as, like I said, today was a revisiting. Like hiking and traveling in general, I usually prefer to go to new places, but today I got to accompany the experience of Aparna’s seeing it for the first time, so I sometimes felt like a guide, even though I’d only been there once before. I felt bad as we kinda rushed though it, but it was pretty hot. Later that morning, over mouth-watering Eggs Benedict and Viennese Coffee at Flurys on Park Street, Aparna and I had a really interesting conversation around what we liked to photograph. She asked me what I liked to shoot and I said, “people”. She let me browse through some of the photos in her camera and see some of Jaipur. I saw that she did a better job of capturing light as a subject, of composing her photos of walls, murals, buildings, pillars, and things in general, to highlight patterns, lack of patterns, feelings, as it were, through her photography. I told her that I’ve never been able to do that, but I do like pointing my camera at people and letting the shutter fly, especially here, as Calcutta has some characters.

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On our walk through the market, I told her I liked getting low: close to the ground. This could be dangerous at times, as there was a lot of foot traffic. I only got shoved out of the way once – I was foolishly blocking the way of a porter with a heavy saffron/marigold load atop his noggin. But getting low offers a new perspective. Low is where the dirt is, where the rats scurry, where the trash lies, where the water runs, where the puddles form, where the feet stomp, where the dogs sleep, and where I liked to put my camera. The view up from below offers a unique perspective, almost like we’re lying on the ground, looking up – like the world from a cat’s eye. The mounds of flowers look like mountains from down there, with ever more giant, Gulliver-like, head-wrapped, lungi-ed men standing behind them.

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But the whole thing is a market, right? It’s not some photo shoot waiting to happen. So the main interest of the sellers is, obviously, the buyers, not the pesky tall foreigner with a camera getting in the way, not buying anything. But, this is Bengal, so, as a man, I’m often welcome to stand and watch any transaction, sale, conversation, or argument that I deem interesting enough to stop whatever it is that I’m doing and watch and listen, regardless of whether or not I understand what’s going on. If you do the back-and-forth, tennis-match-head technique to pretend to understand the conversations, it’s amazing what people will think you understand. Obviously, actually learning the local language is a far better technique, but sometimes, as photographers, we have to take what we can get. When lifted, the orange marigold bead-like flower strands looked like dreadlocks of gold, recently cut from a Hindu god’s head.

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But we kind of blazed through the market a little more quickly than I had anticipated. Last time Akash and I went there, it seemed like we were there for hours. We wound around to the riverside and looked across the Hoogly River to the very red Howrah Railway Station, accompanied by the unmissable Howrah Bridge. We walked across the bridge, made our way to the station, then found an AC bus home. On the way, we (at the last minute) decided to try our luck and see if Flurys would be open for breakfast at 8am on a Sunday morning. To our surprise and delight, it was.

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Audio-transcription at the Welfare Society for the Blind, Taratala

One of the great things about my job is that every now and then I get to go to the Welfare Society for the Blind (WSB) in Taratala. Every time I go I have a great time because the students are just so much fun to work with. They brighten my day and remind me that I don’t have as many problems as I often tell myself that I do. They can be lively, loud, humorous, playful, sarcastic pranksters, picking my pockets when I’m not paying attention, while at the same time they are welcoming, humble, genuine, generous individuals, always listening – something I really appreciate and respect. When I was originally asked to work on the audio-transcription project, I was very excited, as I had never worked with blind and visually impaired students before. It was a new frontier in the adventures of teaching, so I jumped at the opportunity. It wasn’t until I walked into training there on the first day that I realized, “crap. I have no idea what I’m doing.” Thus began the long process of researching teaching methodologies and activities that would work well in this context with this particular student population, with these specific needs, given the requirements and objectives listed in the audio-transcription project description.

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That was back in December. I went back a couple of weeks ago after a long time to assist in an assessment for the project, this time with Anudip Foundation students, not those of iMerit. The task was to listen to an audio clip of ten seconds and write it out. Sounds simple enough, but the clips were of sloppy American speakers not enunciating clearly, slurring their words, using slang, and generally speaking unclearly and too quickly. The task was very difficult for the students, as they are not completely used to the American accent, especially the southern one. They finished the assessment quickly enough, then we had lunch and chatted and joked around for a bit. I played them a recording of my butchering “House of the Rising Sun”, and they were kind enough to listen to it and say they liked it, though I don’t think they understood the lyrics completely. But they said they liked how the words were drawn out and slow rather than too fast – speech that is too fast is something they listen to all day, so they were grateful for the change of pace. A white book was produced, and it was full of little bumps.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“Sir, this is brail book,” one student replied.

“Oh-ho, very nice.”

“Sir, let me show you. It says…” and then the student began wiggling his right index finger along the bumps, much more quickly than I would have thought possible, and he began reading to me. It was a collection of short stories. He invited me to feel what he was reading; I felt the bumps and they felt funny under my unaccustomed finger.

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The students always get a kick out of my poor attempts to try to speak Bengali, too. They often prod me with words and phrases, just so they can either laugh at my accent or simply the words themselves – sometimes I can’t tell which.

“Sir, say oshi kito,” one student ordered me.

Oshi kito,” I said.

“Hahahaha!” they all laughed – the plump ones, their bellies jiggling. “Sir?!” I’m glad they got a kick out of my butchering their language, as I’ve had my fair share of laughs as they sometimes fumble through very difficult English listening exercises.

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But it never ceases to amaze me when I watch these students in action. Their moves and actions are swift when they punch the keys on the keyboard, nearly all of which they have completely memorized by touch. When they are completing an audio transcription task, for example, they will listen to a selected audio clip – either a BBC news report, a speech by President Obama, or perhaps a listening exercise by the British Council – and type out what they hear. This task, therefore, requires several skills: listening, comprehending, typing/keyboarding, and the ability to navigate special software called JAWS (Job Access With Speech), installed on the computers. They will open an audio file, listen to it, then simultaneously have a Microsoft Word Document open where they will type out what they hear, constantly switching between the two programs, headphones covering their ears all the while.

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Often students will blurt out something a little louder than needed (they are constantly wearing headphones and this JAWS software is constantly talking to them), say “Sir?!”, then repeat what they’ve heard – it often being something incomprehensible to me, but then I’ll have a listen to the audio itself and repeat to them slowly what I hear, assisting in their comprehending. Usually the speech is just too fast, they when it’s repeated more slowly, they understand it, but f there is some difficult or new vocabulary, then some explanation may be in order. Spelling is another important factor of the task, too, so when saying a word, I’ll often immediately spell it out so they can get a better idea of what it looks like. My spelling is definitely improving in light of this task, though that may not be apparent in this blog.

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Conversation practice is one of my favorite times, personally, as we get to sit around and chat. Usually it consists of me asking them questions, but they also have the opportunity to ask me questions, which they certainly do, about the states, my family, how I like Calcutta, food, holidays, etc. Some of them have never spoken to a native English speaker before, so some are shy at first. Additionally, most are used to an Indian English accent, which is completely understandable as their whole life has been spent here, so it’s me who has to change my speech, it’s me who has to be more conscience of my language, and it’s me who has to raise my awareness around what it is (exactly) that I’m saying.

It’s been a privilege to work with these students, as I’ve learned more from them that I’m sure they’ve learned from me. They are hard-working, diligent young men and women and I have nothing but respect for them. Their skills are improving, so I’m excited to see what they will accomplish in the future. I’ll miss them dearly when I leave.

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Photograph by Prashant Panjiar