Friday, December 19, 2014

One Year Later

Namscara everyone!

It's now been one year exactly since I returned from India, and I wanted to make a reflection post. This year has been filled with so many emotions, from sadness to joy, and it made sense to jot some of them down here.

First of all, I miss India and Visthar every single day. My friend Kelsey (an SJPD alum herself) gave me the language to talk about it awhile ago; it really is a kind of grief. It feels weird to talk about it like that, since it feels so small next to everyone else's losses, but I am mourning the end of that semester and my time with all those amazing people and all the little things, like Visthar's coconut chutney and hearing prayer calls from mosques and buying fruit from street vendors. Even if I go back (and I hope to God I can one day) it will not be the same, and that's something I'm struggling to accept. I will never get that experience back.

This is also why, if you see me often in person, India comes up constantly. One major way to heal is to bring up good memories and to talk through them, sharing the wonder of my travel. I know it can get wearying to have me reference it literally all the time, but sharing stories has been a good way for me to remember and share my emotions. Thank you all for putting up with that.

Another thing I've been thinking about is how I've used what I learned over the semester. It's been difficult for me, after seeing and talking about so many shocking things in our world and the suffering that American-style consumerist living causes, to cope with going back to essentially how I was before the trip. I haven't made any of the grand changes I promised myself I would when I was in India. Sure, I buy organic more often than maybe I did before, and I get most clothes thrifted (I did that before the trip too), but really what's changed? It's hard not to feel like a hypocrite, but I have to remember that what's required is systematic change, that it is actually impossible to consume 100% ethically under our current globalized capitalist system. The fact that I can even afford organic yogurt is a sign of class privilege; not everyone has access to even the small (more) ethical purchases I try to make.

I'm doing what I can, small as it is. I'm trying to have meaningful conversations with people about oppression and staying silent less often, and I spoke publicly about the Bhopal disaster earlier this year. It has indeed been amazing watching all of the other people I went to India with making their own WONDERFUL changes too, and it makes me feel hopeful that together we can fix something.

It's been a year, a tough one and a good one, and I want to thank you all for being here and sitting with me though the million emotions.

Peace and love,

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Finding Hope through Defiance

Bhopal, India. 1984. A massive gas leak (30 tons of toxic gases) occurred at a Union Carbide pesticides factory. It was late in the night, and the gas drifted through homes and streets. People ran to the hospital - and into the deadly wind. That night two to three thousand died. Since, many more have died from the gas's effects and from birth defects caused by both gas exposure and contaminated water - Union Carbide had hastily put toxic chemicals in an unlined pit, causing them to leak into groundwater.

In 2001, after denying responsibility for years (there was a small settlement with the government of India but for nowhere near enough money), Union Carbide was bought out by Dow Chemical. Dow also refuses to accept responsibility, clean up the chemicals in the groundwater, or pay the survivors.

This all sounds horribly depressing. And it is, but that's not the whole story. We found great amounts of hope and defiance in Bhopal. The people there are engaged in a brave struggle to both win re-compensation from Dow and prevent any other chemical disasters from happening anywhere in the world.

We arrived in Bhopal and got settled into the volunteer dorms at Sambhavna, a wonderful clinic providing free treatment to survivors and those later affected. Sambhavna has a policy for most volunteers that they stay at least a few weeks, which I think is neat. You don't really understand a place if you're only there for a day or two. It was all of us in a single room, but it felt comfortable and cozy and I was grateful to stay with such an amazing organization.

Then, we were given a tour by Sambhavna's founder, Satyu. He is incredibly smart and brave, having been jailed several times for his nonviolent activist work. His wife Rachna works with the international campaign and is equally as strong and awesome. At the clinic, they provide a combination of modern medicine and natural Ayurvedic healing, and take care to only use natural soaps and other products. We also toured Chingari, an organization founded by two incredible women to care for the children left with disabilities due to the poisoned water. They provide free treatment as well, and we were able to tour their facilities and see how much love they put into the care of the children.

Later in the week, we visited the Union Carbide factory site. It's abandoned now, the land owned by the government. It was incredibly haunting to see the site where so many deaths had been caused, the factory pipes rusting and surrounded by plants. Something rather beautiful about Nature healing the wounds that humans have caused, and reclaiming the land. The site was so peaceful, so quiet, so innocuous. It didn't seem like it could have caused so much pain.

The slogan used by the activists and people of Bhopal is "We all live in Bhopal." By this, they mean that chemical manufacturing happens everywhere, not just in India but in our backyards. And that there is still the possibility of more Bhopals, wherever dangerous chemicals are used and safety measures are cut to increase profit. They are doing wonderful work to put pressure on Dow and to raise consciousness about the danger of chemicals mixed with desire for profit. I strongly encourage all of you to support them, to watch the excellent documentary Bhopali, and to check out the website run by Bhopal activists:

We must get Dow to take responsibility, and we must prevent this from happening again.

Peace and love,

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Sunrise on the Ganga River

Hi everyone!

I'm picking up where I left off - with my travels to Varanasi. We left Delhi in the afternoon on Sunday (over a week ago now) and took an overnight train there. The train rides have honestly been one of my favorite parts of this trip - you get to have wonderful conversation with the five other people in your compartment, watch India race by as you stand in a train doorway, and be rocked asleep by the train's motion.

We arrived the next morning and walked the short fifteen minutes to the Catholic church where we were staying - the road was a dusty dirt one like most we would see in Varanasi. During the next few days, I stayed with the lovely Nicole and Laurel in a triple room, in a small dorm block behind the church. All of us attended class later that day with Father Emmanuel, a younger priest who sometimes wore a leather jacket and had incredible knowledge of Hinduism. He spoke with us about Hinduism's origins, doctrine, and practices, then did the same with Buddhism over the next few days. I deeply enjoy learning about religion, so this was great!

In the evening, we drove down to the area nearby the Ganga (the proper Indian name for the Ganges) to wander and then attend sunset prayers. The streets of Varanasi are more chaotic than many I've crossed, with peddle rickshaws and cars and bikes and people everywhere. Our group strolled around the ghats, which are wide staircases down to the river. At the bottom, people immerse in the river and pray. It was all lovely in the sunset. All of us as well as many, many other people sat down on a ghat landing to watch the prayers take place.

The word prayer doesn't quite do it justice. What we witnessed were a collection of rituals and songs dating back thousands of years, that have been performed on the river every night since their creation. The oldest Sanskrit songs were prayers of thanks not only to the Ganga River but to all rivers for their sustaining of life. Beautiful. Whatever critiques I may have of organized religion, however many times I question religious practices that perpetuate oppression, there is still something so awe-some in watching diverse people come together to celebrate something greater than themselves. It made me excited to experience candlelight Christmas services once I'm back.

The next morning we awoke early to see the sunrise from boats on the Ganga. All of us boarded a wooden boat and slowly drifted down the river, sailing past different ghats and temples. Some of the ghats we passed are used for cremating bodies - the Ganga is an especially holy place to do so - but most are simply used for prayers. I am fascinated by birth and death rituals (really, by all rituals) because there is something so deep, so connected to what it means to be human in them. The Ganga was utterly beautiful, and it felt AMAZING to be on a boat again, especially on a river with so many stories and so much meaning. After, we sat peacefully on ghat steps and drank chai masala (spiced tea - excellent) out of small clay cups.

Over the next few days we visited a multitude of gorgeous Hindu and Buddhist temples, learning and seeing and experiencing. We also tried some street food - generally safe if it's hot or peel-able - and it was delicious. And on a side note, I discovered that the acoustics in our room's bathroom were resonant and wonderful for solo singing performances. Sadly no one was around to hear my lovely (?) renditions of Christmas carols.

Our last day in Varanasi was Thanksgiving. I was able to briefly call my family on Roshen's cell phone, and it was amazing to get to speak to them <3 In the morning we wandered the streets of Varanasi and shopped, and then went back to the church for lunch - where we'd been prepared a Thanksgiving meal! Mashed potatoes, green beans, meat, chapati, and then cake and ice cream for dessert! It was beautiful. Thanksgiving dinner happened on our overnight train to Bhopal and was simple sandwiches and a banana, but Thanksgiving lunch was wonderful.

The train to Bhopal is where I leave off for now - that's all another long story!

Peace and love,

Friday, November 29, 2013


Hi everyone! Right now I'm in Bhopal, and a blog on that will be coming soon. But first, I thought I'd write about my time in Delhi and Varanasi. :)

In Delhi, we stayed at a YWCA hostel - the word hostel didn't do it justice though. Spacious double rooms with private baths! :) The first evening, we found an Irish pub ( in India??? yes and it was delicious) and wandered around some handicraft emporiums in the area. Delhi streets are even more chaotic than those in Bangalore, and I'm getting pretty good at crossing them though I did almost get run over by a rickshaw. It will make crossing 8th Street seem super easy once I'm back at Concordia! Next door to our hostel was a gorgeous Sikh temple, and I was serenaded the next morning by prayers coming from it.

The net day, we visited the American Center, which was an offshoot of the US Embassy in Delhi. It had nets covering the outside to prevent rocks being thrown at it in protest and we weren't allowed to take photos of the building. Just another sign of America's wild popularity on the international stage... We met with a media spokesman who is the brother of a Gustavus professor, who told us about the work they do there.

Afterwards, we took the Delhi metro (super crammed! I hadn't felt so crowded anywhere in India before) to the Gandhi Smriti, which is a museum and memorial at the site where Gandhi was shot. It was beautiful and serene, full of reverence and beauty. The museum was the lovely house he'd stayed in during the last 144 days of his life, and he'd been on his way to a prayer meeting on the grounds in back when he was killed. We viewed photos from his life as well as the few possessions he'd had when he died. His iconic glasses were among them.

That night, a small group of us walked to the India Gate, which is a memorial to war veterans modeled after the Arc de Triomphe. Lovely in the sunset. We ate a DELICIOUS dinner of chapati completed by mango ice cream. The next morning was Taj Mahal day!

Many of the girls and I woke up early to put on our saris, and then left at 5am for the train station. It was a two hour ride to Agra, where we wandered through old city streets and to a hotel that would be our base for the day. From the roof I got my first glimpse of the Taj, immaculate in the morning light. Seeing it up close was even better - it looked like something out of a fairytale. There were people taking pictures of us, but it was mainly out of curiosity at seeing Westerners in saris and not creepy attention. We all wandered into the mausoleum, where there was lovely inlaid marble - set with lapis lazuli and coral and turquoise and malachite. The saris were not all that difficult to walk in, though I had wrapped mine a bit tight around the legs.

After wandering for about two hours, we went back to the hotel. Everyone else decided to ditch the saris, and as I hadn't brought back up clothes I wore the skirt I'd used as a petticoat for the sari, the sari blouse, and a scarf borrowed from Laurel over that. Then, after lunch and more ice cream we headed to Agra Fort.

This was even more wonderful than the Taj to me. The Taj is a tomb, with history behind its construction but not much living history that happened there. It is beautiful but lacking in stories. And Agra Fort was used as a home by many of the Mughal dynasty of Muslim rulers, including Akbar and his grandson Shah Jahan, builder of the Taj. It's also where Shah Jahan was put under house arrest after his son Aurangzeb deposed him. So there are endless stories hidden in the red stones, endless lives lived there - not just of the royal family but of all their servants and soldiers and court. Not to mention that it also had SPLENDID architecture (arches, strategic floor slants and arrow slits for defense, beautiful domes as well) and inlaid marble and beautiful carvings. And since it was less crowded and we were also not in saris, we received less attention and were more free to move about. Utterly amazing.

Our train back to Delhi was delayed and so we didn't get back til 1:30am...I had been awake since 3:30am that morning.  It was rough. To put a positive spin on it, it was a good bonding experience of mutual exhaustion and camaraderie. Uffda.

The next day, after sleeping in, we went out to explore Delhi. Leah, Kyle, Mackenzie, Hannah, and I went to on an adventure to see the Baha'i Lotus Temple. Crowded metro, endless people, but we arrived. After walking through a slum with begging children, we made it to the temple. It was amazing, all white marble and an architectural wonder in the shape of a lotus. But it was a bit jarring after the stark poverty we'd just seen. We attended a Baha'i service, where there was singing and reading from several traditions. The acoustics were echoey and lovely - one singer harmonized with her echo. The Baha'i faith is beautiful, full of peace and acceptance. It felt good to be back in a sacred space.

We left that night for an overnight train to Varanasi, and thus begins another story!

Peace and love,

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Community Resistance

Hi everyone!

So about a week ago, I returned from a wonderful trip to Zabirabad (in Andhra Pradesh, a nearby state) where we stayed with the Deccan Development Society - an amazing NGO. The campus we stayed on was built of stone and bricks, circular in shape with a large open air courtyard in the middle, and it looked very reminiscent of Hogwarts. Our rooms even felt right out of Harry Potter: they housed six people, in three alcoves of two. We ate a lot of millet (a grain that takes much less water/resources to grow than rice) in keeping with the values of DDS - beautiful, but I do find millet rather chalky tasting.

DDS' primary mission is to promote sustainable and ethical agriculture, which they do by facilitating groups of women (called sanghas) that organize and change their villages. We met one group who had created their own seed bank, saving their own seeds from year to year and not purchasing them from companies like Monsanto. They then take the crops from these seeds and distribute them amongst themselves and to the poor of their village, ensuring food security for everyone.

Another group is reclaiming traditional knowledge in the form of medicine - using local plants and herbs as well as traditional methods to tend to people with small ailments. It's amazing to see the medicinal properties of these plants: the neem tree's leaves alone carry so many uses that it's astounding. And there is also a group we met with that is managing their own community radio station, broadcasting educational programs (on topics like traditional medicine, farming, and much more), stories, and traditional songs. Only the government of India is allowed to broadcast news via radio, but these women cover every other area.

I have deeply enjoyed meeting with communities like these women who are peacefully making changes and resisting various oppressions. They inspire me and give me hope for our world.

Each trip, we also go somewhere more 'touristy' to explore the area. This time, we went to Bidar Fort and a temple. Bidar Fort was, like Kangra Fort, beautiful. It had graceful arches, elaborate carved artwork, and a lovely mosque. I really enjoyed wandering around the main fort. We also hiked through some thistles to see the ramparts, which were sturdy and majestic. Then we headed to the temple - to get to it, you had to wade through chest-deep water. There were people all around us on religious pilgrimage, and when we reached the temple we were anointed with turmeric paste.

It was an amazing week, filled with deep conversations not only with the groups we visited but with the other SJPD members.

Peace and love,

Saturday, November 9, 2013


Hi everyone!
I didn't fall off the Himalayas (not really, though there was paragliding) and am alive. It's been forever since I've blogged. After being on the road traveling the Himalayas and then heading almost directly from there to Zahirabad for a field visit, I haven't had much time to blog, but everything's been amazing.

My Himalayan adventure began with a flight into Delhi with three others in our group: Kyle, Leah, and Amy. From there, we were to take a train to Pathankot and then a hired car to Dharamsala. However, it turned out that there are 5 or 6 rail stations in Delhi, and we had no idea  which one we had to get to! Fortunately our cab driver Harry was able to help us and after a stressful hour we made it just in time. As always, the overnight train was wonderful.

After that, we were picked up from the train station by Vinod, who was to become our driver/tour guide for the week. He was amazing, very kind and willing to show us around the area he's from. We reached our hotel, the Snowcrest Inn in the Naddi area of Dharamsala, and took a nap before wandering around the area and having a lovely dinner at our hotel. At this point, there was heavy fog covering the mountains so that we couldn't see them.

On Sunday I awoke at dawn and stepped onto the balcony to discover a gorgeous view of the mountains. Green hills and behind them gray stone mountains extending into the sky. Later, we visited the Dalai Lama's monastery in the nearby town of McLeodganj - it was much simpler than I'd expected, and there were monks in saffron and maroon robes all around. Outside there was a memorial to all the Tibetans who've died in the struggle with China - I've never confronted the pain of a displaced population as much as I did this trip, and it was very sad. We also traveled to two more monasteries, all decked out in bright reds, blues, yellows, and greens.

Our next stop was Kangra Fort, which was one of the favorite places I visited. It dates to before 1000 CE, is set on a hill in Kangra Valley, and is in semi-ruins - which added to the beauty. We walked under a series of three arched gates, and up into the main courtyard. From there we were able to explore ramparts and balconies, climbing all over. At the top, looking over the valley, it felt like a fairytale.

That evening we went into McLeodganj and shopped, largely buying handicrafts made by Tibetan people, although it was at times hard to tell what was authentic and what was a marketing ploy. We ate momos (delicious Tibetan dumplings) at a restaurant near the hotel.

Over the next three days, Amy and I took a meditation course with a wonderful man called Amit. We learned some new breathing techniques and on one of the days we did a walking meditation around the back of the Dalai Lama's monastery - there are hundreds of colorful prayer flags and Tibetan prayer wheels lining the pathway, and we stopped to meditate on a hill under prayer flag strands. In the most Indian way, we were chased out of it eventually by two grazing cows.

After the last day's session, we drove out to the ancient Masroor stone-cut temple, which was majestic and beautiful and filled with stone carvings. And we went to Tatwani hotsprings, housed in a small old temple, where I dipped my toes in. A small boy stripped off and went in, and I'll admit I was a bit envious.

We also drove to the landing site for paragliders, where we found a pilot who would take us up in a few days.

The day we were supposed to paraglide was cloudy, and there was snow near Triund peak where we could have hiked. However, the snow in the mountains looked AMAZING from our balcony. We went to a Tibetan museum and library to wait and see whether the weather would improve, and eventually we did. Driving down there we were still unsure whether it would stay nice, but it did.

The pilots took us up a hill-mountain in a pickup truck, and on the journey up I dealt with my rising fear by cracking dark jokes. The others noted that with my klutziness, it was likely I wouldn't glide off the hill. I'd trip and fall down it. Laughter helps greatest to dispel fear, I've found. At the top, we met our tandem pilots more officially, and were harnessed into our equipment. After two walking steps down the hill, pulling the pilot and the parachute along behind, the chute caught the wind and we were airborne.

What followed was the best half hour of my life. I was nervous because I hate the sensation of falling, but there was none of that. I soared, the parachute and pilot catching air currents the way hawks do. It was a very gentle and yet ehilarating ride, looking down over the lovely Kangra Valley and seeing the mountains behind. Near the end my pilot asked if I wanted to do any stunts, and I said yes. We banked left, then right, then turned in a slow circle. It was amazing. On landing, I almost came down too hard on my ankle but caught myself.

The next day was our hike to Triund. We had chosen to cut off 2km of the trek by being driven right to the trailhead, which was a decision I am immensely thankful for. The trail was steep, with boulders all over. There were a few dhabas (small snack shops) along the way, but we didn't stop for long because we knew we had to get back down before dark. Hiking the 7km up was one of the hardest things I have ever done, and I was sure my lungs and muscles were about to give out countless times. But, somehow, with the support of the amazing Leah, I made it.

The summit was GORGEOUS. The valley below, the mountain peaks right there with no hills blocking the view. Hawks soaring. It all felt right out of Lord of the Rings :) We all sat on boulders in the sunshine, feeling content and in awe. I ate a sleeve of chocolate cookies I had packed that morning, journaled, and enjoyed.

After two hours, we decided to head back down in order to be sure of arriving at the bottom by nightfall. The way down was just as stressful - although my lungs were no longer burning, I kept losing my footing. I fell twice on the path, but luckily some Indian mountain guides who were passing helped me down the toughest part, and for the rest I had our wonderful group. We were followed by a flock of goats and a few dogs - at one point two dogs took hold of a small goat and killed it (thankfully out of my sight, off the path). And, no matter how terrifying the steep downward climb was, we still had gorgeous views.

Several times during the hike we interacted with international hikers - Dharamsala is a tourist town, but the tourists tend to be backpackers and nature lovers, and there was a good sense of camaraderie.

The last morning, I awoke early to journal. We packed and then drove with Vinod (he was absolutely wonderful to us) back to Pathankot, where we reversed the journey to Bangalore.

My first time seeing the Himalaya mountains (heck, any mountains!), was a truly beautiful experience and one of the best weeks of my life.

Peace and love,

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Wonders of Wayanad

Hi friends!

I've just returned from the hilly countryside of Wayanad (in the southern Indian state of Kerala) and it was AMAZING. We took a 2.5 hour train ride and then a 4 hour very bumpy bus ride to get there, where we stayed with a wonderful NGO called RASTA - Rural Agency for Social and Technological Advancement - in cozy rooms of seven people each. The small RASTA campus was beautiful - stone moss-covered steps, hibiscus and other flowering plants, and so much greenery.

Wayanad is nestled among gorgeous hill-mountains - I shared some photos my friends took on my Facebook page. It was stunning. We spent the week meeting with Adivasi (indigenous) farmers and activists, as well as a women's self help (advocacy and empowerment) group. They were all so inspiring, especially the women's group- they worked together to save money for shared projects and there was such a strong sense of sisterhood. The Adivasi activists talked about their struggles to reclaim land and to fight stereotypes - objectives shared by many Native American groups in the United States. And the farmers discussed the increasing pressure to use harmful pesticides on their land, which is also a problem in  the US.

On one of our visits to an Adivasi town, we drove offroad up beautiful hills. On other visits we had deep conversation about feminism and education and oppression, which are the best sorts of conversations. I am so happy with the group I'm traveling with - they are truly amazing people! We also hiked to Eddakkal caves, which host beautiful moss-covered prehistoric stone carvings. And when I say hiked - I mean HIKED. First we walked up a very steep paved path for a long time, then climbed a neverending set of stairs to get to the caves. It was intense. But the views at the top were breathtaking.

We drove back Friday night, stopping at Mysore Palace, which had been the home of the rulers of Karnataka up until Indian independence. It was one of the most opulent places I’ve ever been, but it raised questions: was the full history present on the audio tour or just the sterilized and glorified version? Is it right that the palace was so full of splendor although, both when it was built and currently, people in the area are starving? Whose land was it built on? How was the labor to build it obtained? These are questions that we can ask about any historical site, in the US or abroad.

Then, on Saturday evening, our group got to attend a wedding! Before Wayanad I had bought a beautiful aqua and royal blue sari, and it was amazing to get to wear it - our group all got dressed up together and some of the women on the Visthar staff helped us drape the saris correctly and secure them. We didn't stay terribly long at the wedding itself, just long enough to have a wonderful dinner of rice and beef and parota (seriously the best bread ever) and to meet the bride and groom. The bride wore an elaborate sari and a veil of flowers - guests would walk up to the stage she and her family were on and present her gifts. Everyone was dressed dazzlingly, in beautiful saris and salwars.

These next 2 weeks I have class at Visthar, and then fall break to the Himalayas!

Peace and love, Malyn