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My first night in Mumbai, I woke, startled, at dawn by the echoed sounds of prayer calls. My preconceptions associated those throaty songs with fears and unknowns of the Middle East. I was staying in Agripada, on the 10th floor of an apartment building in a Muslim district, away from the cushioned tourist center of South Mumbai. I got myself out of bed and looked out the window. Orange lights glowed through the thick, hot tropical fog, and the city was beginning to bustle even though the sun had barely broken the horizon. I’ll always remember that anticipatory fear—a feeling that will may be hard to replicate. I thought of snowy New Hampshire: I am a long, long way from home. I felt a little bit like I was looking out over a movie set, out over a fantastical, fictional world. 

My voyage to India from Argentina, via London, had reinforced the notion I was living within the bindings of a storybook. In the back of the British Airways 747, I looked out over the snowcapped mountains of Northern Afghanistan. It was the land of Al Qaida I’d seen only on CNN, the mountainous pass that Hosseini describes crossing in The Kite Runner. The landscape was stunning: snow capped ridges were dark in shadow besides pink triangles of lights on their peaks, lit by the setting sun. A few hours later, at midnight, the plane landed in Mumbai, then taxied along the gate of an airport wall. From my perch in the plane, I could see over the wall and into the Annawadi Slum, an underground world of poverty, police brutality, conflict, and tension that I had been introduced to a few weeks before when I started Katherine Boo’s book Behind the Beautiful Forevers. There it was. Right in front of my eyes. I could even look right inside some of the corrugated metal shacks and see the life going on, as it had for decades before, and as it will for the rest of my life. 

Before I had arrived, what was in books, on television or in movies was all I knew of India. Three months ago, India existed only in my mind and it was only a small, distilled idea. It was ‘the over there’  country with more than a billion people living in crowded un-environmentally friendly cities. In the past weeks, India has become real. I’ve unlocked a box. 

My conscience has swelled with the sights, smells, sounds, stories and feelings of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Islamic architecture, slums, the history of the East India Company and the British colonization, the history of the Mughal Empire, Indian traffic rules (or lack there of), new economies, labor pools, and unthinkable jobs and so much more. I’ve tapped into a country that’s as rich in culture, language and history as the entirety of Europe.  As Dr. Anurag Danda, the head of Climate Adaptation for the World Wildlife Fund, India put it to me: “People were amazed and excited when the EU happened, but hold on, we in India did that 50 years earlier. There are changes as big as national differences every 200 miles as you travel by ground across India.” 

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the vulnerability of Mumbai. Water knocks on three sides of the Manhattan-shaped island city. Every square foot of the city is used for something, and the majority of it is paved over and built up. Then 20 million people are packed in. Building projects—often without proper permits or on environmentally sensitive land—dot the cityscape, growing up, up, up to combat the demand for space and subsequent expensive rent. “Lots of development projects,” I said, nodding at the cranes and walls of glass above me while talking casually to a wise, english-speaking old man on the street. “Development suggests progress,” he replied, “Lots of building.” 

It’s not just large scale high-rise projects that make Bombay’s growth so obviously visible. Outside of the apartment I was staying in, shelters would grow daily on the sidewalks as migrants looking for opportunities in the city would drag traffic dividers from the roadways together to make three walls and cover the walls with a tarp to make a roof. Each day there would be a new conglomeration of people calling the sidewalk home. As you round the blocks, you can walk on a real-life timeline of these shelters. They change from barren walled shelters into homes, with two 5 foot floors, electricity, and re-wired cable television. 

Land in between rail lines is farmed, sidewalks become foundations for temporary homes, and the homeless find shelter within concrete breakwater structures along the coastline.  There’s an amazing resiliency to the urban poor in India. They make lives and homes for themselves in conditions that most in the Western world would give up on. 

There’s a remarkable and innovative use of the lack of space, but there’s more space than there once was. Bombay was originally seven islands. The British reclaimed the land and filled in the bays between the swamps. The lowest lying land (what was once sea) floods each year during the monsoon, sometimes with devastating consequences to the urban poor who live there. Asia’s largest slum, Dharavi, is one of those areas. 

Among the most pressing problems that Mumbai must address—navigating through the corruption of the city and national government—sea level rise doesn’t make the list, The Energy and Resource Institute’s (TERI) associate director, Dr. Anjali Parasnis told me. To her, sea level rise is a problem of plenty, left for rich countries like the Netherlands, United States or Singapore to deal with. If an earthquake or a tidal wave hits, what will Mumbai do, she said, there’s nothing we can do when disaster strikes. 

But I disagree with her point of view, respectfully of course. Sea level rise isn’t like those other disasters. It’s characterized by a slow onset. There are low-cost measures and initiatives that the city can undertake today to save money and protect human lives in the future. Climate adaptation doesn’t mean building a Dutch-style Maeslant Barrier. For example, there’s huge value to knowing what areas are susceptible to flooding and distributing that information to people who live in those areas. 

Mumbai seems to have this thrusting growth, an energy of its own. It gives off an essence that it is impossible to tame, plan, direct, or control. It’s a disheartening place in which to be environmentally conscious. Trash fills every nook and cranny; the river is an open sewer. It’s a dense and complicated system that’s described, by many I’ve met all over the country, as a jungle. 

I left the jungle and took a train down the east coast of India to Kochi, a port city in the South Indian state of Kerala.  Water tapers on the edge of the whole place; it has a Venetian aesthetic. Serendipitously, I stumbled into an artist residency there while desperately searching for a bathroom to tend to a stomach virus. Once relieved, I spoke to the young woman working there and I found myself a nice place to stay and paint for the next week. It was a good warmup for spending the next three weeks in Varanasi at Kriti Gallery. 

I vastly enjoyed spending March in Varanasi; it was great to have personal space, build a temporary nest, and make some artwork reflecting on the first two-thirds of my year.  Varanasi, although not a coastal city, has astonishing flood problems during the monsoon season. The river level rises 20 feet at its record height. You can see plastic debris and vegetation along the telephone wires overhead when walking along the riverfront. 

Varanasi is one of the holiest Hindu cities and the oldest continually inhabited city in the world. It’s a cultural marvel, unlike any other place I’ve ever known. I will never think that a place is crowded, loud, dirty, violent or hectic ever again. Herds of buffalo start traffic jams on the dusty streets, where symphonic waves of bikes, motorcycles, cycle-rickshaws, auto-rickshaws, and the occasional car mesh into one. It feels like everybody is dying in Varanasi. The public cremation fires constantly burn along the riverfront. Death isn’t hidden like it is in the rest of the world, and I felt that personally. While resident, a dear friend lost her father and my grandmother’s life ended after 104 well-lived years.

For the past two weeks, I’ve been in Kolkata.  A 76-year-old professor, Dr. Asish Ghosh, who is deemed India’s forefather of environmentalism, has taken an interest in my project and has invited me to do research out of a center he started called the Center for Environment and Development. I’ve explored the Sundarban mangrove forest, the largest of its kind in the world. The Sundarban plays a crucial role in protecting Kolkata—and Dhaka—against cyclones. It’s a buffer, a natural storm wall, that absorbs the power of hundred and fifty km/hr winds and 40 foot waves. 

In the afternoons, I go to the Maidan, the green space in the middle of the city, and play rugby with the Kolkata Jungle Crows. The Crows have started an incredibly admirable foundation to use rugby to give structure and motivation to impoverished kids. In an environment found nowhere else in the city, the very rich and the very poor interact as friends and teammates. The foundation, funded by donors in the U.K., runs camps and clinics every week in villages. It’s been a pleasure taking part in the program, if only briefly. I get the sense that it means a lot to the players to have a Westerner around who really believes that what they’re doing is important. Rugby is an incredible game. A foundation like the Jungle Crows wouldn’t work with many other sports. 

I feel like I’m doing exactly what I proposed I’d set out to do in Kolkata. It’s a good feeling. 

For all the marvel of the past three months in India, it has been an incredibly isolating place. It’s an amazing irony that in one of the most populated countries in the world, I feel most alone. I really enjoy meals alone to a book or writing down reflections and thoughts, but I’ve largely—with the exception of a few coffee or lunch meet-ups—spent the past three months without the comfort of a peer or a friend my age. I have met fantastic people and become good friends with such people two decades or older than me, but that’s different. 

It’s all part of the experience, though. I travel back to my guesthouse from Crows rugby with a big burly 33-year-old Fijian man who moved to Kolkata to work for an NGO with his wife. (Please appreciate the head-turning caused by the sight of a 23-year-old white man and a big, strong islander both clad in dusty rugby apparel as we go on the Kolkata metro during rush hour). We were chatting about my experience and my life before. You’ve had to make a lot of sacrifices for this year, he said. Yeah, but it’s worth it, I thought without hesitation.  

In India, the poverty and destitution have taken an emotional toll. Seeing kids sitting around a fire at night underneath a freeway.  A baby lying on a blanket on a sidewalk with no sign of parental care in sight. A featureless burned man sitting begging, shielded from the sun underneath an umbrella. A man with tumors covering every inch of his body following me home on his bicycle. These are things you can’t un-see, and at times I wish I had company to grab ahold of or to just debrief with. Before shifting gears and moving to Kolkata, I had a rejuvenating visit from my Dad, one of my top fans and friends. 

Last weekend, I had a bout of Delhi belly that I described in a blog post: “my body decided to rearrange interior decorations and put everything inside, outside in the most violent and abrupt means possible.” 

That was life changing. 

Due to the state department travel warning for Thailand, I’ve changed my itinerary, I’m avoiding Bangkok. Due to the geographical proximity of Dhaka, I inquired about a visa to Bangladesh and was offered a week to quickly visit the country that will produce millions of climate-related refugees. I’ve set up some contacts, and the visit should be a huge value-added addition to my quarter in India. After, I decided to replace Bangkok with Shanghai, the #1 most vulnerable city in the world based off all studies about population and infrastructure there. With only a month-long China visa, I’m going to purchase a round trip ticket through Singapore and maybe I can set up an arrangement in Ho Chi Minh, another delta city in a similar situation to Bangkok. 

So surprised that three reports have come and gone. 

I’m just as excited and thankful as I was on March 15th. I very much look forward to meeting you. Best, David. 

 

Hannah Bruce on Salta, Cafayate, Cachi.

This is the voice of Hannah Bruce; David’s interjections are in bold. 

This is only part 1 of our vacation. There is more to come. But here are all of the photos. Sorry about the Ken Burns effect. I know its super annoying. 

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bKpp-Zl0Zc0
I land at 730AM a little disoriented after flying overnight. Argentine customs was a breeze, since I remembered (was reminded over and over) to pay my reciprocity fee (a bribe to let gringos like me [You are exceptionally gringo. No one is like you] into the country). I grab my bag, clear customs and head out to find the car that’s meant to take me to meet David, whose just made it back from Ushyia [Ushuaia. Way to sound it out, though], the southernmost part of the continent. There was some worry he wouldn’t make it in time to meet me, so ever the planner, our father booked us a room for one night at the Intercontinental as a Christmas gift/contingency plan. [This information embarrasses me]  I walk into the arrivals area in a daze [A daze? This is how to best describe it—imagine Mike Tyson’s pet tiger, for the sake of the story we will call him Leonard. Leonard has been fed filet mignon and Häagen Dazs every day for meals. But one day, an animal rights group breaks in, dodges Mike’s punches, captures Leonard and releases him into the wilderness for the first time ever. Can you imagine how scared he must have been? The fear in Hannah’s eyes was about a 1/10 of that. I was standing right there with a big grin on my face, and she walked right past me, blinded by intimidation] when I hear my name shouted through the crowd. There is David to surprise me. I almost don’t recognize him. His hair is the longest I’ve ever seen it, and he’s got a thick beard. He seems older [#foreveryoung], more mature as a result of traveling on his own for the past 5 months. We drop bags at hotel and go to exchange dollars to pesos. Quite the experience, but I’ll tell you the story in person rather than put it out on the internet [you’re fine, you’ve left the country, I’m the one who will be kidnapped]. We return to the hotel with a large roll of money [I’d call it a stack]. I quickly learn that in Argentina cash will get you twice as far as charging a credit card. With our rolls of 50 peso bills [5 USD] locked in the hotel safe, we venture out. David’s Spanish is great, although he doesn’t think so. He’s able to engage people in conversation, ask for things he needs and is able to order from a café or restaurant. I was impressed. I have my first empanada of the trip, a food that will soon become a staple in my diet for the duration of the trip. [oink] We walk from hotel to San Telmo, one of Buenos Aires’ many neighborhoods. We browse antique markets and fruit stands. We pop into a few shops to find me a hat – the summer sun is strong and I desperately want to avoid sunburn. From San Telmo, we head to La Boca, a bohemian part of the city. Restaurants and bars line the cobbled streets where tango dancers trying to make tips put on shows for tourists. All of a sudden I am tired and we take bus back to hotel for a little siesta. I’ve always loved a good nap. We eat dinner at Francesco, a fancy Peruvian restaurant (ironic, I know) with David’s friends Luchu, Maria and Paddy. [Maria and Luchu dressed up like they were going to meet the first lady. Way to be an intimidating big sister Hannabee!] We trust Luchu [She manages the daily schedule of the Argentine minister of health, so she can order food for a couple of Bruces] to order for us and all eat family style. We feast on ceviche, salmon, grouper and steak fried rice. David chooses a wine from Salta, in the NW part of the country and where we are headed on the 25th. After dinner, we cram into Patty’s VW Golf [He gave us a sweet rundown of the city. As always, it’s awesome to ride around windows down on a warm summer night, packed with music, friends and family. It was good, really good]. and grab a drink at an underground bar, Atlantic Flower Shop (Floreria Atlantico). You walk into a flower shop, tell the woman behind the register that you’d like a drink and she points you to a large refrigerator door concealing a set of stairs down to the bar. Well worth the trip if you’re ever in Buenos Aires.
December 24th – David and I have a Christmas Eve breakfast feast at intercontinental #thanksdad [I had a buffet with five courses I think #bellyache]. We almost leave all of our pesos in the hotel safe. [But someone brilliant remembered before it was too late] Not a good start. [Could have been much worse] Christmas Eve is a quiet day in BA. [good rhyme Eminem] Xmas Eve is a day for people to be with the families and isn’t the large commercial ordeal that starts at Halloween, which I am grateful for. It’s 90 degrees out, so it’s hard to remember that it actually is Christmas. Museums and stores are closed, but David and I set out to walk around the Recoleta neighborhood [Hannah’s impressions of neighborhoods: In La Boca, “this is nice, I like it!” San Telmo, “Ohhh! This is my new favorite!!” Recoleta, “I think this is where I would live” and I said, “yes, of course you would, this is the nicest, wealthiest, safest neighborhood in Buenos Aires”] and the Cemetery. The Cemetery is [an] incredible [waste of space]– a small village of intricate and ornate mausoleums and graves.  I had to snag a look at Eva Perons grave. I’m such a tourist. Many of the tombs are very intricate complete with stone and marble cravings and detailed wrought iron gates. David’s favorite is one made of wood with a corrugated tin roof. It doesn’t fit in at all among the splendor, but it is clearly meaningful to the owner of the plot. [or could just be the landscaper’s shed] Sweaty [speak for yourself, please] and tired, David and I caved and sat on a shaded patio at a Starbucks [this is so embarrassing] to cool off. David was thrilled about the chance to indulge in an iced coffee after a month of travelling in Patagonia [trudat]. Feeling recovered, we continued to walk towards the Japanese Gardens, which were closed for the holiday. Tired of walking and disappointed the gardens weren’t open we hopped in a cab and headed to the Palermo barrio, the soho of Argentina. Cute boutiques, restaurants and cafés line tree-shaded streets. We find a place for lunch – gazpacho and split a salad. On the way home, we stop to pick up a pint of ice cream from Freddo, David’s [Argentina’s] favorite ice cream shop, and a popular chain in Buneos Aires. We drop the pint in the freezer of the apartment one of David’s friends has let us crash in while he’s home in the States. Thanks Misha! [Thanks buddy!] Since everything is closed, we decided to cook dinner at home. We rush over to the Disco, the local grocery store before it closed to get food to make our Christmas Eve feast. [I didn’t check the expiration date of any of the food I got. Rookie move.] We (David) spent the evening cooking, planning our adventures in Salta, looking at photos from David’s month in Patagonia (newly added to my bucket list of places to see) and enjoying some wine. David cooks chicken, grilled eggplant and large bell peppers with egg inside. David has brought back glacial melt water to drink, which of course I’m skeptical of #citykid. [she looked at it as if there was a cockroach giving birth inside] We open some stocking presents from our parents and watch Despicable Me 2. It’s bad [But the minions crushed it] so we give up half way.  I’m happy to be with David over Christmas. [heart warming] I would have hated for him to be alone over the holidays. And this wasn’t exactly a sacrifice on my part to be away from home. We both head to bed feeling quite ill. [My stomach was performing the opera] Food poisoning had to happen at some point.  Argentine eggs aren’t refrigerated at the store, but we ate them anyway. Or maybe it was the chicken… [Benjamin Bruce and I were chatting via Face Time when the food poisoning made itself known—a bonding moment for all!]
December 25th  – Off to Salta!  After little sleep we are up early to catch our flight. We down some coffee and a bite of granola, lock up the apartment and we are on our way backpacks in tow. Argentine airports are like bus stations. Security is lackadaisical at best.  You don’t need to remove liquids from your bags or your shoes. [What liquids were you carrying in your shoes, Bee?] No one checks your ID. The flight is delayed. Typical. We post up for a nap on the floor. The flight gets delayed again. We grab a bottle of wine from a Cafeteria by the gate and indulge in some snacks the ‘rents sent over from the States. Thanks for the beef jerky, mom. We play cards to pass the time. David is [so good he seems like] a cheater! [#cantlose] The gate attendant admits the airline he works for is crap. I appreciated the honesty, but not sure his airline would. [I started chatting with the agent responsible for our flight, and share my story about my 26-hour delay two days ago. He laughs about the lack of organization of Aerolineas, suggesting that a toddler could run the airline more effectively then assures me his dimwitted airline will get us to Salta at some point today].  It’s 1:30PM and our flight is finally ready to leave. It’s a two-hour flight and I sleep [‘sleep’ also known as ‘fear-filled body shutdown’] for most of it. The plane comes down for a landing with mountains on either side. It’s a beautiful view of the Andes, but of course all I can think about it the plane going down in the mountains and David and I will never be seen again. Irrational. We share a cab into Salta with two Canadians. Rule #1: always look for backpacks when traveling in a foreign country. It usually signals people on a budget, who are happy to help make life cheaper for you. We arrive in central Salta and find the hostel. David has booked a place he heard about from people he met in Patagonia. We are sharing a quad with two young French men. Co-ed hostel accommodations are new to me, but I try to take it all in stride. At $7/ night, [$6] who can complain? I came to Argentina to experience how David has been travelling, and while I would love to be in a nice hotel [#bratty], it would completely defeat the purpose of my trip. David and I drop our bags and walked to Plaza 9 de Julio. It’s Christmas Day so very little is open and no one is around. We grab a beer and some lunch on the square. We try a local beer, Salta Negra, that quickly becomes a favorite. [Riquísimo!] We also share a milonesa, a thin slice of steak that’s breaded with cheese and ham on top. Can’t go wrong. We continue to walk around and explore town. We visit a few of the local churches and then walk back to the hostel to read and nap. At 9 we venture out for dinner – Argentineans eat late. Salta has come back to life by now and stores, bars and restaurants are opening. We sit down for dinner at a spot clearly designed to entice tourists. Music is playing and a couple dances around the tables in traditional dress. David and I share empanadas humanitas and tamales. We stop for some soft serve on the way back to the hostel. I’m embarrassed to admit it was from McDonalds. [Never! They serve soft serve dulche de leche ice cream. I’d eat it for breakfast it’s so good.] 

December 26th  – We grab coffee con leche [fine spanglish] and medialunas, like croissants, but better, for breakfast and walk to the town square to pick up a rental car from Hertz. It’s manual. David has driven manual before, but is by no means a pro. We drive around a few city blocks while he gets the hang if it. I don’t think I took a breath for about 15 minutes. [Her tension made me tense, it was like she became Jean Grey from Xmen and controlled my thoughts and feelings]. After a couple stall outs and some wrong gearshifts, we hit the road. Our destination is Cafayate, a small town south of Salta. Words can’t do justice to the drive, so you’ll have to check out the pictures. We stop along the route for pictures. Most of the road is paved, but it’s slow going. Lots of sharp curves. We stop at la gargantua del diablo, and natural cave built into the rock. It looks just like you’re staring down someone’s [el Diablo is probably a little ticked off you refer to him as just ‘someone.’] throat. About 100ft high. Maybe more. It’s very hot. There is no refuge from the desert sun. [Except the air-conditioned car.] We arrive in Cafayate. The town is small, built around a central square. Some roads are paved. Others aren’t. Beautiful church on the plaza, which is dotted with cafés, bars and artesian markets. We find a hostel to stay at – not knowing where I’m sleeping at night is new to me, but I trust David. We find a hostel a block away from the plaza, leave our backpacks and head out to walk around town. It’s about 4 and the town is quiet. Siesta. Not much is open, so we decide to get back on the car and check out some of the surrounding vineyards. [We had hoped to rent bikes and cycle around to the vineyards, but all the bikes in the town had already been checked out, unfortunately]. This is Argentina’s wine country. [The beginning of it. Wine country stretches all the way down through the epicenter in Mendoza to then its southernmost region is around Bariloche. Cafayate is pretty far north, but it’s high altitude makes up for its latitude.] The desert climate is perfect for growing grapes and rainwater coming down from the Andes is enough to keep the vineyards hydrated without having to pump in water. 3 varietals are grown in the regions torrentes (white) Malbec and cabernet sauvignon. My first wine tasting. We learn to first check color then smell. Wine should smell different after you swirl it if it’s good. The vineyard is stunning. Sits on top of a hill overlooking Cafayate. [My favorite part was the cactus-lined driveway. The cactuses in this region got huge, up to 20 feet or more! Senior year, I had a cactus named Neil. Apparently he’s getting super big at home. This definitely made me miss him.] We get a tour and learn how to make wine. [You know how to make wine after that? This lady is spectacular!] It’s almost 5 and the vineyards are closing. We head back into town and walk around artisanal markets. Pick up two mini bottles of Malbec [One was called ‘Don David’] and go sit on the hostel’s roof to drink and read. Treat ourselves to a nice dinner on the square. Restaurant is called Turrantes [Amazing you remember this stuff] and came recommended by someone at the vineyard. We dine on empanadas, steak, and raviolis and indulge in a bottle of organically grown Malbec. We sit next to two Canadians at dinner – an elderly couple who are spending a month in Argentina. That’s the life. No obligations – can just pick up and travel. Back to hostel for a good nights sleep. Off to Cachi tomorrow

Drawing on the roof

After three straight weeks of intensive Spanish class, I feel completely confident chatting with girls casually with text messages. Every once in a while, I need to ask Paddydel what a word or phrase means, but still I can get by. When speaking it is much tougher for me to keep up a sustained conversation. I need to think a lot, which leaves long pauses and completely negates any interest I might have implanted after introducing myself. In small business interactions in stores, I’m completely fine. But, in an inter-personal context, I do best socially with pre-schoolers. But I’ve been taking the mighty Crush learning attitude to learning. Be unabashed and let yourself fly solo.

Tomorrow I’m heading to Iguazu. The trip is by bus, an 18 hour ride to the North eastern corner of Argentina, tucked in between Paraguay and Brazil. I’m going to see the Iguazu falls, which are supposed to be the honorable mention for the 7 wonders of the world. The falls are on the waiting list, so if anything happens to any of the other wonders, Iguazu will take their place. I’m incredibly pumped to see the waterfalls. I’m not as excited for the 18 hour bus ride, but it’ll be some good time set aside for writing, reading, and studying. Also, I’ve got pretty good company.

The weather is really starting to heat up down here. But 18 hours north, it’ll be really roasty. The forecast says 95 degrees in Iguazu. I’m paying 9 dollars a night for the hostel…which has a swimming pool.

I told my roommate that the only person that reads the blog is my mom, which is 98% true. Maru wanted to meet you, Mom. Meet Maria. She does my laundry sometimes and gets mad at me when I’m messy. She’s filling in for you terrifically!

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