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

The Doronto Express to Digha

“The beautiful thing about boredom or irritation in an Indian city was that it could be relieved by catching a train.”

– Paul Theroux, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, page 229

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I left the house with wet money drying on the makeshift clothesline in my room and the fan going. The idiot that I am, I had left some money in one shirt pocket when it was washed – a start to what would be an auspicious trip. I jumped on the AC1 bus to Howrah and tried to stay out of the sun coming in through the windows. I figured I’d get enough sun in Digha, where my only plans were to photograph fishermen on the beach at sunrise the following morning. Other than that, I had no plans at all. It would be hot, but everywhere around Calcutta was hot at the end of April. Halfway through the journey, the bus conductor came by, snapping his wad of tickets to get passengers’ attention. I paid my bus fare of 35 rupees (about 50 cents) and stared zombie-like out the window and watched the city go by. It was another quiet Sunday morning, so we made good time to Howrah.

We made such good time, in fact, that I had some time to wander around the station for a bit before the train left. I hadn’t been there, really, since December, when I was on my way to Darjeeling and met my old friend, Dipak, the young guy who works for the RPF (Railway Protection Forces). But now the heat was unbearable, so it wasn’t as comfortable to walk around, and I certainly didn’t go in search of any earmuffs. Instead, I began wandering over toward the Howrah Ferry Ghat, when I spotted an old sadhu with a long, straggly beard, satchel, and orange head-wrap. I grabbed a cup of tea and pretended to understand the conversation going on as I looked from person to person chatting away under the sun-bleached tarp scraping my head as I stooped. I re-realized then that Calcutta is made up of people (lots of people). It’s not so much a city of tourist sites or monuments (though those are there), but rather a city of people. The people are the sights; therefore to really “get to know the city” one must spend time with the people – lots of time with lots of people.

I left, taking the underpass (here they call it a subway) to the Ferry Ghat, but it was closed, so I went into the old station to try and escape the heat. I found a huge crowd gathered around some policemen with rifles slung loosely over their shoulders. The increase in security forces is visible even in the streets, where camouflaged troops stand idly, stationed and ready for come-what-may as the elections for West Bengal draw nearer and nearer. I joined the crowd, got up on my tiptoes and peeked over the sea of black hair to see what all the hubbub was about.

“What happened?” I asked my male neighbor. He responded with silence and a puzzled look as his eyes flitted about.

Ki hoiche, dada?” I tried again.

“Shooting, shooting,” he repeated, as Bengalis so often do to ensure the conveyance of meaning.

“Shooting?!” I asked as I made a finger-pistol and cocked my thumb twice.

Heh…” he said gravely.

Shit. I was surprised to hear this; I’d never heard of a shooting here as long as I’d been here. I didn’t expect to be near any shootings until I got back to the states. I looked around and scanned the crowd. Uncles and aunties were standing around, mulling about, crossing their arms, shifting their weight. It certainly didn’t look like a shooting had just taken place. Had that happened, I would have imagined that there would have been a lot more uproar. I asked another neighbor.

“What happened, uncle?”

“Shooting,” he said.

“Shooting?”

“Yes. Waste of time, waste of resources, waste of man-power…” He counted these things off on the fingers of his right hand as he listed them. “I’m not interested in such things,” he scoffed. Turns out it was a television crew shooting for some show.

Bhalo lage nah!” I said happily and walked off. He smiled and others surrounding him did the same, commenting excitedly on the foreigner who knew exactly three words in Bengali.

When I first arrived at the station, I had texted Dipak to see if he was there. I wanted to chat with him and hear about his experience with the RPF. I didn’t hear back from him for about an hour from an unknown number.

“Oh Sorry big bro, I m on leave at home Yesterday only i came here” followed by “Itz Deepak here ur lil bro”.

I replied saying that I’d like to come again to visit him, which was true. He replied later saying, “Itz ok big bro it’ll be my pleasure”. After having walked from the old station to the new station, I realized that I wanted to come back to try and photograph the porters here, their heads wrapped, their thick hands holding curved pokey, metal grippers they’d use to grab large bags of produce and other goods. As a photographer, they caught my eye. The train was early so I jumped on board to enjoy the air conditioning before it left. I sat on the idle train while some young Bengalis chatted away in a smattering mix of English and Bengali. A man walked down the aisle carrying a large load of books stacked on top of one another to his chin, his arms extended downward to fit them all as they rested against his stomach and chest.

“Story book? Story book?” he called out as he made his rounds. One of the talkative Bengalis looked through them while the vendor stood there holding the books. I thought about asking them if they knew of any good places to photograph fishermen in the morning in Digha, but I didn’t bother. I supposed that if I couldn’t find fisherman in an old fishing village on the coast then I don deserve to photograph them. All three of the Bengalis got out their phones and started furiously punching away at them with their quick, lightning-fast thumbs, their other fingers wrapped around the backs of their phones like life-lines to a distant entertainment world. I stopped listening to them when the girl shrieked and shouted, “see my DP! See my DP!” DP, as I understand, stands for some secret acronym for profile picture. How? I don’t know. I also don’t care. I opened the book I was reading as the train began to slowly plod ahead.

“I always felt lucky on a train, as on this one. So many other travelers are hurrying to the airport, to be interrogated and frisked and their luggage searched for bombs. They would be better off on a national railway, probably the best way of getting a glimpse of how people actually live – the back gardens, the barns, the hovels, the side roads and slums, the telling facts of village life, the misery that airplanes fly over. Yes, the train takes more time, and many trains are dirty, but so what? Delay and dirt are the realities of the most rewarding travel.”

– Paul Theroux, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, page 87

I laughed at myself: a white guy on a train traveling in South Asia reading about a white guy on a train traveling in South Asia. This book that I’m reading has really inspired travel within me – part of the reason I decided on this last minute trip to Digha. I had tried to get tickets up to Bodh Gaya, Bihar, to visit the site where Buddha attained enlightenment, but train tickets were all booked. I wanted to go somewhere, anywhere; I didn’t really care, but I didn’t have a ton of time, so it had to be someplace close. I settled on Digha not particularly because I love the beach (though I do enjoy it), but because it was close, tickets were available, and because I like to photograph, not necessarily shoot, fishermen. A railway employee came by, serving salty, clear-ish corn soup and crunchy bread sticks. I looked down at my IRCTC (Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation) place mat that stared back at me with “Happy Journey”.

The first stop was Mecheda. Compared to Howrah, it was surrounded by low-lying greenery, trees, and what I imagined to be cleaner air. Waiting passengers sat motionless on the concrete bench slabs, lizard-like as they baked in the hot shade on the platform. Lunch was served, followed by a very complex looking passenger feedback form, asking about the cleanliness of the toilets. I left it blank.

At Tamluk, I waited for my food to bounce out of its little metal container – the ride was beginning to get bumpy. The veg dish (some kind of over-oily veg/paneer concoction) looked like it would erupt in my stomach minutes after eating it. Ice cream was then served in little plastic cups with even littler clear plastic spoons. Next was Deshapran, where the chatter of the adolescent Bengalis turned to something a bit more interesting and attention grabbing: the current and ongoing water shortages and droughts in Maharashtra. Just last night I was discussing this with my roommate, Akash, the same guy who politely scolds the aunties in the slum near our home when they waste water. I looked out at the yellowing fields, wondering when the monsoon season would hit West Bengal this year. A man came by with a tray with money on it and said, “Excuse me, sir,” handed me a packet of wet wipes, saying “tips?” Another guy came by spraying the seats with disinfectant, followed by another guy with a wad of bills in his hand.

“Sir, tips?”

We passed Kanthi, then Ramnagar. At Tikra, I looked down and saw brown cow paddies near the rail line, shaped into circular discs, drying in the sun. At Digha, I jumped out of the train, onto the platform and into the face-smacking heat.

Usually, when I arrive into a new place, especially via train, I get a bit nervous as I prepare myself for the touts, rickshaw wallahs, taxi drivers, and men that bombard those who exit train stations after their journeys. But this experience was little bit different, perhaps because of Digha’s small size. The touts were there, obviously, and they swarmed, creating a crowd, but once they figured out that I hadn’t completely decided where to go, they began to disperse and leave me alone. Perhaps ignorance or indecisiveness is a good the tout-repellent. One guy took me for an exorbitant price, and I checked into the dingy Dolphin Hotel in Old Digha. On the way, I asked him where I could photograph fishermen in the morning.

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“Sir, now there is no fishermens,” Mahendra, the driver, said. He was a young guy with a dripping wad of paan in his mouth, his teeth stained red from years using the stuff. He was sweating more than I was.

“No fishermens?” I repeated disappointingly.

“No sir. Now all fishermens is stop. Is like Goa, sir. Six month on, six month off. Just like that. Same-same.” I felt foolish in the realization that should have done my research before coming here.

When Prasant, the hotel manager, showed me room 303, I knew, upon immediate sight and smell, that some serious hotel room shenanigans had gone down in there before me. It stunk of smoke, there were stains on the sheets, the toilet seat was already up, and one of the fans in this non-AC room didn’t work, but I didn’t really care. It was cheap and it was near the beach. If photographing fishermens was out of the question, then perhaps a visit to the fish market was in order. There was nothing to do but stay out of the sun until it began to go down.

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I fell asleep and woke just before sunset, grabbed my camera, and found the beach. Compared to Calcutta, it seemed desolate, but there were plenty of people about. Street vendors were selling their wares: shells, bracelets, bags, souvenirs. I bought a shell. I began shooting (photographing) random people I’d see: fuchka wallahs, vendors, people sitting, people standing, pretty much anyone that caught my eye. People seemed happy enough to have their photo taken, which was a relief. After a photo they’d smile or give me an Indian head wobble or both. Things were obviously much slower than they were in Calcutta, and that’s party why I decided to come: to get away from the noise, the noise pollution, the ear-battering deaf-ification the Calcutta-dweller experiences every day. Here, there was a constant breeze, which helped with the heat; on the beach at night it wasn’t hot at all. I wandered and came upon a makeshift balloon shooting range.

“Shooting, sir?” the boy asked me, gesturing for me to approach a wobbly wooden structure with already-popping balloons that looked like the wind would blow it all over at any second.

I wanted to shoot him with my camera, but it was getting dark. Vendors with lights patrolled the beach as they shouted out the names of their wares, a lot of which, due to the way in which they yelled, I couldn’t understand. I sat and watched the night grow darker, the waves bigger. There’s something about staring off into the ocean’s horizon in the evening that can inspire reflection. This has been a whirlwind of a fellowship, and it isn’t over yet. I thought about how amazingly easy it was to just jump on a train and come here. My days, for now, are numbered here in India, which, when I think about it, is hard to imagine – even heartbreaking at times – but it’s true.

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I bought a bottle of Kingfisher, went back to my hotel room, drank it, made some phone calls, listened to music, then headed out for dinner. I went to this tiny place I’d walked by earlier on my way to the beach, where a happy-looking man was seated on a long wooden bench, picking at his toenails, watching me walk by.

“Sir, lobster, sir? Bhalo bhalo lobster hache,” he advertised. There’s very good lobster.

Hache?There is?

Ji sir.”

Tik acche, ach chi ami.OK, I’ll be back.

“OK sir, OK.”

 

Back I came, and this guy was thrilled to see me. He immediately pointed to the most expensive item on the menu: prawn malai curry. I got one, two chapatis, some dal and a cup of tea. He was so thrilled he said “Thank you, sir” before he even took away the menu. I went to pay my bill after washing my hands. At the counter was a little boy of mine years old in a bright green T-shirt standing with his father. They were also paying for their meal. The boy looked up at me with big eyes and blinked a nerdy blink through his thick black glasses. I raised my eyebrows up and down quickly in a friendly, fun-uncle type way. He smiled, fiddled with his fingers and looked away shyly. His father noticed and smiled at me.

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“Your son?” I asked. The father nodded and smiled some more.

“What’s your name?” I asked the boy. He told me in a fashion that made it clear that he had repeated this mechanically many times over in school.

“And how old are you?” I asked.

“I am nine years old,” he said roboticly. His father was glad to see him speaking English with a foreigner. He beamed with pride, smiling wider than before.

“And where do you stay?”

“I stay in Kolkata,” he said.

“Very good.”

I made small talk in Bengali with the father, keeping to the usual topics: job, salary, family, could I come to his son’s school to teach?, etc. Then the son blurted out, interrupting with the poor timing that children often have in adult conversation, asked, “Where is your country?”

“My country is America,” I said. He blinked twice this time. The father told me that his wife and daughter were also there, finishing their meal. I waved awkwardly to them while they ate, smiled, and bashfully turned away afterwards. I paid my bill, shook the father’s hand, went back to my hotel, set my alarm, read for a bit, then went to sleep.

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It was light out at 5am, so I gathered my things quickly and made for the beach. People were already walking along the beachside boulevard, enjoying the cool morning sea breeze. It was hazy, so the sunrise was not exactly jaw-droppingly gorgeous, but it was nice to be on the beach in the early morning. I walked along the beach, photographing as I went, making my way toward the Mohana fish market. Red crabs scurried away as I walked through their colonies, ducking into their holes in the ground. The people I spoke with last night were right: there wasn’t a fisherman in sight, so I thought I’d try my luck at the fish market. I reached my destination more quickly than I had anticipated, as it was easy to make good time along the wide, flat, barren beach. I reached a point – a little peninsula – where many people were standing, and I could see one little fishing boat and about four fishermen on the muddy banks of the jetty streaming in towards the shore. I walked through the tiny thatched settlement on the beach and down some muddy banks to get closer to one of the fishermen. He didn’t seem bothered by my presence. I kneeled in the grey-brown sticky mud, getting lots of it stuck to my shoes while I photographed him. He was all alone, barefoot, holding his fishing net, with mud up to his knees.

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The Mohana fish market was closed. Locals told me that it would open again in June. It wasn’t so much closed as it was simply abandoned, deserted, left to rot, it seemed, like a ghost town. It was almost spooky walking through this lifeless, boarded-up fishing village during off-season. I had a cup of tea with some guys, chatted with them for a bit, then made my way back to Digha. I saw exactly one lone fisherman working on his big blue net in the market, that was it.

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On the walk back, I stopped for tea along the seaside boulevard. There was one skinny, longhaired chai wallah who caught my eye. He was perched up in his little wooden shop, sitting cross-legged on a wooden platform, chatting with a friend. I sipped the tea under a blue tarp on a bench above the beach, watching the morning become hotter and hotter. I went to pay for my tea when the chai wallah had whipped out a vertical pipe/chillum of some kind.

Eta ki, dada?” I asked, pointing to the newly produced contraption. What’s that, big brother?

“Hookah, hookah,” he said. It didn’t look like any hookah I’d ever seen. He stuck it to his mouth, looked at me as I raised my camera, and began puffing away.

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I checked out at eleven, as per hotel regulations, and made my way down the lane toward the beach. I stopped for a bit to watch a rowdy group of men gamble their fortunes away playing a game they told me was called Chinese Beads. In the afternoon, after breakfast at the same place where I had dinner the night before, I sat under a blue tarp on the beach and let the day get hotter and hotter. I sat and read while the ocean breeze blew by. Kids and their parents were tempting fate by running in and out of the crashing waves before them. A fat man yelled repeatedly at his fat son who kept falling down. A betel-nut-tooth-stained man wiggled a small bottle of pink massage oil in front of my face asking “Sir, massage?” and for the sixth time in eighteen hours, two young, impressionable kids asked if they could take a selfie with me.

I walked along Sea Beach Road in the sweltering afternoon heat to the Digha Railway Station, accompanied alongside whistling walkers, strolling couples, and cyclists who sang and hummed to themselves. I was early, so I grabbed a plate of mach bhat and waited for the Doronto Express back to Howrah.

Shah Nagar Burning Ghat & Keoratala Crematorium, Kalighat

On the filthy banks of the still, black, soiled, unmoving Tollygunge Canal lay the Shah Nagar Burning Ghat – next to it, the Keoratala Crematorium. They’re just south of the famous Kali Temple, across the Chetla Bridge, which later becomes Rashbehari. The crematorium lays next to a funeral home, which lays next to a kind of Peace Park/garden. They all lay in a row, one next to the other, allowing for a kind of barhopping experience, only one that is steeped in death, burning bodies, wood funeral pyres, and incense-intense Hindu ceremonies, not booze, babes and bar stools. Rachel and I went there last weekend after visiting the renowned, but small, Kali Temple. The little lanes leading to it from Shayma Prasad Mukherjee Road were lined and littered with new, beaming flags hanging from houses, sponsoring and supporting the current ruling political party as elections are coming up for West Bengal. Every now and then, there was a red and white hammer and sickle flag, promoting the Community Party of India (Marxist) (CPIM), scattered amongst the rest. Street dogs were lazing in the shade, panting in the humid afternoon heat. Crows huddled and pecked violently at large, belly-up dead rats in the road, their intestines streaming out onto the pavement.

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From the west side of the Tollygunge Canal

We walked into the setting sunlight alongside wobbling, overweight Bengali aunties in bright saris swarmed with short Bengali children running around them like pudgy little brown satellites, getting in the way of other, more hurried pedestrians. We dodged these people, big and small, as we made our way toward the smaller-than-I-had-anticipated Kali Temple. I guess because it gets so much hype I had expected a huge temple towering above everything else nearby, but it was modest compared to what I had built it up to be in my mind via false expectations.

Rachel wanted to give puja and she suggested that I do the same so that Ma Kali would grant me the AIF Exposure Visit to Himachal Pradesh that I’m currently hoping and praying (apparently) for. We got handfuls of red flowers, and as we stepped over the outstretched hands of children hiding in the narrow doorways, reaching out as they tugged at our pant legs, we threw the flower pedals into the crowded room hosting the Kali goddess statue. Rachel told me about how some of her friends would not be interested in coming here to give puja as they would intellectualize the whole thing. I found myself doing a bit of the same, but I played along for the time we were there. I don’t always like going to Hindu temples, really, as they are often tourist traps – money pits where money is simply thrown into a room, only to disappear and never be seen again. But the AIF Exposure Visit I’ve been hoping for has since been granted, so Rachel suggested that I return to Kali temple to thank Ma Kali with more puja, flowers and cash money.

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We crossed the canal via three wooden boats that were tied together end-to-end. There were two kids sitting on the middle boat. One was slowly dragging on his Classic cigarette, squinting at me as he inhaled, puffing his cheeks out as he exhaled and blew smoke into the air. I kneeled down to photograph him and he took another drag, giving me a kind of “the-fuck-you-looking-at?” look. We walked through a slum in the direction of the burning ghat and crematorium down the canal. We passed a makeshift cricket match and a friendly Bengali aunty who sold me  small clay cup of tea for 4 rupees.

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Street cricket

In Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh and Puri, Odisha, the burning ghats were out in the open – just wood pyres and bodies and fire – not necessarily flaming, but seriously burning, melting, contorting, twisting, bubbling, smoking. The smoke would rise and would drift where it pleased according to the wind that day – a very natural kind of setting with smoke being lifted up into the atmosphere above. In Puri, it was even somewhat organized; little lanes would lead to various plots, and piles of wood would be scattered here and there, bodies burning all around. One could walk around through cloudy puffs of smoke to reach the other end of the grounds easily.

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Chai wallah aunty

The Shah Nagar Burning Ghat in Calcutta was different, however. I found it an odd attempt to be modern, environmentally friendly, and even stylish. The metal cage-like grills that provided separation between pyres was something I hadn’t seen before. Above the wood pyres that were in a kind of lifeless metal garage – not out in the open – was a huge vent or hood that would suck up the smoke and fumes from the burning bodies. It had an eerie resemblance to a kind of death factory, though bodies that entered it were already, obviously, dead. I’m sure it was the city’s attempt to rid the area of low-laying foul air, but in Calcutta, that’s almost impossible sometimes. They reminded me of the giant hood above the stove when I used to work at Casa d’Italia in Seattle (an Italian restaurant), sucking up fumes from that which was cooking below on the stovetop. It was my job to clean those hoods once a week as they were filthy by the end of the week. I wondered about the poor soul who would have to clean these ones. The smokestacks even tried to be stylish, too. All around Calcutta are these blue and white painted curbs, fences, guardrails, and lights at night. This hood-cum-chimney seemed to be trying to fit in with the same colorful design. I found the whole thing very odd – the mix of an ancient Hindu tradition being melded to fit the environmental and stylistic needs of a modern (modern?) metropolis.

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Kids outside the crematorium playing karam on the ground

We walked next door to the funeral home to see what was going on over there. Turns out, there were funerals going on over there. Rachel commented on how there were no women around, so she hung back and waited while I poked my nose around;  I saw some women inside after I went around to the back. The first glimpse of what seemed to be a funeral ceremony was up some steps, where, on the ground, surrounded by standing men, was a guy lying on the ground, cotton stuffed in his nose, wrapped in an orange wrap, surrounded by garlands of flowers, unmoving. The men above him were chatting with each other, chatting on their phones, taking pictures with their phones, lighting incense and sticking the incense in the corners of the stretcher-like platform the body was on. I stood and watched for a while, half-expecting someone to shoo me away, but no one did.

I wandered around to the back just to see what was going on over there, and it turned out that it was more of the same, but it was more intense as the numbers of bodies, alive and dead, were greater. Deceased men and women were lying, similar to the first man I had seen, on stretcher-like beds, wrapped in orange, but some of their features were still more life-like. For example, one old man still had his eyes open. I looked into them and waited for him to wake up, to blink, to get up, or start talking, but he didn’t. Another old woman had her mouth open, but nothing was coming out – no sound. They were frozen, it seemed, and nothing in this heat is frozen. One man was sat at the head of one of the female corpses, stroking her head firmly, repeatedly, perhaps trying to stroke her back to life, perhaps not. Her skin had a yellow tint to it, which led me to believe that she had been dead for some time. The man just sat there, wailing, rocking back and forth, stroking this woman’s head, forehead and cheeks over and over and over again. He was sobbing, and every now and then he would look up to have his picture taken by another guy standing at the foot of the woman’s resting place. It was heart wrenching.

I stood around for a while with my hands clasped behind my back, watching all of this go on. No one paid me any attention, and I was glad – I didn’t want any attention; I just wanted to watch and see what was going on. Everyone there didn’t seem bothered by my presence. Though some were taking pictures with their phones – family members, I assumed – I kept the lens cap on my camera. I just kind of stood around for a while among the crowd, amidst the relatively calm commotion, the sobering strangeness. One guy lit several sticks and began walking around a corpse while a holy man of sorts began chanting. The man with the flaming sticks then applied them to the corpse’s face, not starting a fire, but applying them nonetheless. Bits sparked, ember’d, then fell off onto the floor. It reminded me of when I was sitting on the rooftop of a building in Metiabruz, and I’d had a very long, stressful day. A friend offered me a cigarette and I took it, but he said he couldn’t light it for me.

“Why not?” I asked, not to be rude, but more so out of curiosity.

“I’m not allowed to light another face for a year.”

“What?”

He wasn’t allowed to “light another face” (bring a flame close to another face) for a year as he had recently lit his father’s face on fire during his father’s cremation ceremony. I didn’t want him to light my face – I just thought he’d light the cigarette for me. He said he wasn’t allowed to as per Hindu tradition. I lit the cigarette myself.

After a while – after I felt I had had my fill – I left the funeral home. I felt I was going to throw up, and I didn’t want to throw up there. I didn’t want to throw up anywhere – my head was racing, my heart pumping, my senses overwhelmed. It was a sobering experience, to say the least, but it was also fascinating from an outsider’s perspective. I may decide to return before I leave.

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Back to the desh: Chittagong Revisited

Bangladesh was bittersweet. I made a quick trip over there this weekend past to give a TALE presentation at AUW, basically sharing some of my professional and personal experience since the time when I last left AUW in June of 2014. I also played some guitar; however, despite Noor’s persistent requests, I did not dance. Sorry Noor – maybe next time.

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Bangladesh was a rush of emotions, memories, new and old sights, sounds, people, places, and feelings. It was great to be back, but it was also very weird – almost surreal. To think that I had spent so much time there once was a nice reminder that that place still exists, and not only in my memory. I have never really gone back to a place where I have taught before, so this in itself was a new experience for me, but I was glad that I chose Bangladesh to do it, as I now plan on revisiting this county many more times over throughout my lifetime – there are many unexplored nooks of the country that I have yet to see. A lot of things had changed: a flyover was being built to much criticism of the local community; traffic was worse, new shops and restaurants had popped up, the Radisson, the lack of all the little shops and homes that lined the lane near AUW, faculty lived in a new building; there were new students, our old teashop was gone, etc. But a lot of things had also not changed at all: the guy who works a Dhaba, some of the drivers at AUW, the placing of the hand on the chest after two men meeting as a sign of respect, Barcode, the smell of the dumpster near AUW; in some ways it was still the same old Chittagong.

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When I left Bangladesh in 2014 I was very sad, and so it was only natural and/or fair that I be equally happy, excited, elated, overjoyed, ecstatic, etc. as I made the journey across the Bay of Bengal from Calcutta to Chittagong: two cities that are similar in so many ways and yet at the same time seem worlds apart. Two years ago, I wrote a silly song called Ami Jabo, which literally translates to ‘I go’, and it was all about a day in the life of a teacher at AUW. That song ended with: Time to catch the van, But I do not want to go, AUW I swear I don’t wanna go. This time I changed the lyrics a little bit to suit the context: Time to catch the van, But I do not want to go, AUW you know it feels like home.

I flew into Shah Amanat International Airport, descended the plane, walked across the tarmac to the tiny airport, got called over to a vacant booth by an eager immigration officer, answered his questions, proceeded to the bank window where I had to get my visa on arrival, knocked on the bank door, woke the guy sleeping there, paid for my visa, went back to immigration, answered more questions, waited for luggage to arrive, then made my way out into the hot (though not as hot as Calcutta) Chittagong afternoon. I argued for a while with the CNG wallahs over the price to AUW, but none seemed interested in haggling with me as soon as I said I was going to AUW. They were, however, interested in my ability to say a few words in Bengali. A crowd formed. “The foreigner speaks Bangla,” I heard. Some young guys were standing around with backpacks, looking like they just returned home after a backpacking trip, which they did.

Apni kothai jaben?” they asked me.

Mohammad Ali Road jabo,” I replied.

Mohammad Ali Road jaben?”

Heh.”

Cholo.”

With a flick of his wrist, he gestured for me to get into the car near which he was standing. I threw my backpack into the trunk and squeezed into the backseat of their car with three other guys. We chatted for a bit, but then my leg began to fall asleep from the discomfort. But they gave me a free ride, so I was lucky. I reached AUW and walked right in as if I had left only yesterday. The new guards in new blue uniforms saluted me (I think they thought I was my more handsome British brother/double, Mr. John Stanlake). I saw some students sitting around, but I didn’t know them. That in itself was an odd sensation. Then I saw some familiar faces.

“Hello Sir! Welcome back! We are excited for your TALE today,” they said.

“Oh thank you, yes it’s nice to be back.”

I made my way to the security desk where I expected to sign an old, rotting book that would never be looked at again. Instead, the security guard behind the desk called a student over.

“Hello Sir, you’re here for the TALE?” she asked.

“That’s right. I thought I would go to Cinematella and have a bite to eat and relax a bit before the TALE.”

“Sure sir. Shall I show you the way?”

“No, thank you. I think I can find it.”

The TALE went well, I guess, though I was expecting a little more excitement and enthusiasm from the students. The last TALE I gave alongside Mr. Kevin Stull back in 2013 was awesome, and the crowd was very lively and responsive. This time it was smaller and more reserved, which was surprising, but everyone I spoke with afterward said they liked it and that it went well. I started out with “House of the Rising Sun” by The Animals, then “I’ll Follow You Into the Dark” by Death Cab for Cutie, “Salesman at the Day of the Parade” by Rogue Wave, “Birds” by Eels (Mr. John Stanlake sang the chorus), “Ami Jabo”, and “Don’t Be Shy” by Cat Stevens, as per request by my former Bhutanese student, Wangden. The whole thing was a nice kind of ‘welcome back’ to AUW and Chittagong.

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The next morning John and I went cycling. This was really the only activity that I explicitly wanted to do while in Chittagong, aside from visit with friends and students. John kept asking me, “what do you want to do while you’re here?” I’d just reply with “go for a cycle!” We left later than I would have liked, but we had a great time. We headed out toward the Karnaphuli Bridge, crossing it while we zigzagged around and between CNGs and rickshaws. Huge boats and tankers dotted the river below. After crossing the river and escaping from the toll man who tried to get us to pay a toll (cyclists don’t need to pay a toll), we headed left toward smaller roads that would lead us off the main, busy highway. We took even smaller roads after that, some of them brick and bumpy, leading us to little villages that I had never seen before. I had forgotten, almost, how photogenic Bangladesh was and is. It’s almost as if a good photo were around every corner.

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We fielded the usual questions while people, always men, stopped and stared. Women stared too, but from a distance. Where are you from? Where are you going? What are you doing here? What is your job? Are you married? Do you have children? What is your salary? etc. We humored our hosts as we sat for tea and had some biscuits for breakfast. My ass was getting sore from the riding. We stopped across from a multi-storied madrassa where children were beginning to congregate up against the metal bars keeping them in. They would grab the bars, letting their little fingers wind around the edges as they smiled and stared through the gaps. I grabbed my camera and walked over to say hello. They began cheering and yelling, “Hello! Hello! Hello!” waving while they did. I waited until they stood as still as they were going to stand that morning then snapped their photo.

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John and I paid for our tea (actually John paid for it – I forgot all my recently acquired Bangladeshi taka in his flat) and continued cycling on down the road. Some of the kids from the last stop were chasing us down the road, shouting, laughing, jumping, and screaming as we pedaled. We saw a pond off to our left, so we steered in that direction. A group was gathered by the bank; all were looking down into the goings on in the pond. Usually a pond doesn’t have a lot of goings on, aside from people bathing in it, and obviously that isn’t something to be watched. There was a group of men standing waist-deep in the brown water, all holding up a net with what seemed like a thousand fish in it. They seemed to be sorting the fish – they would take some fish and toss them into the pond, while others they would toss into another section of the net. I turned to one of the many men on the pond bank and pointed at the fish.

Mach,” I said. Fish.

He burst into laughter, elbowing his comrades beside him, holding his knees as he caught his breath, then tried to get me to say something else.

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We continued on, in no particular direction, not looking for anything in particular. Sure enough, we found more tea. This stall was in front of a large red mosque that I had heard about the night before. We ordered tea and sat down. People stopped and stared. We sipped our tea and made small talk by answering more questions. On the way home, as we crossed one of the final bridges for the day, I stopped to photograph the river below, while John was ambushed by a small group of curious young kids, eager to get a selfie with him. John smiled while he sat on his bike and the kids gathered around him, sticking their phone out in front of them. I was in front of them, so I got one of my first shots of a selfie being taken. It’s pretty priceless.

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The next day I got to have lunch with some of my old students, which was a real treat. We went to a restaurant I had never been to before, near GEC More, and enjoyed ourselves. I got to hear about all the interesting projects and internships that they are involved in. I’m so proud of them, I can hardly stand it. We walked back to AUW together, crossing through the old lane that I used to walk when I’d walk to school, but it had changed so much that I hardly recognized it. It was late in the afternoon so the sun was just beginning to go down. We were in the middle of conversation when I asked them to stop and stand facing the light. The light was so good. They stood and faced the camera, smiling and posing and putting their arms around one another. It was one of those pics that I didn’t need to check after taking it because I knew it would be good.

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I kept telling my students that the trip back to AUW was on the one hand very fun and very exciting as I had not been back in nearly two years, but at the same time it was odd, too, as I didn’t know many of the new students, teachers, shops, policies, etc. So it was bittersweet, to give it a name. Bitter in the sense that I sometimes wish I were still a part of it and had never left, but sweet in that it’s still AUW, with AUW students and faculty, and Chittagong is still Chittagong. Now that I’m back in Calcutta, I’ve realized how short the trip really was. It was too short, but I didn’t have much of an option, so I’m grateful that I got to go, even if just for a few days. If anything, those few days only helped me to fall in love all over again with that country I can call home, that place I love to roam, and where I’m hardly ever alone. It had been too long, since I’d sung a song, in Chittagong.

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