Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Keth Notes

It's only been a month since I started reporting in India, but that's enough to know that every 1000-word article comes with a second story -- a much longer adventure best chronicled in patience, sweat and possible tears.

Behind that quote from a local politician, for example, is hours of waiting, droves of leering men, cups of chai served in direct proportion to visible frustration, and several fights with auto rickshaw drivers that charge vastly different fares for the same exact distance.

There are children to be played with, traffic jams like you've never seen, and interviews that start and end with incredible home-cooked meals of fish and rice and spicy daal. There is traveling in 106 degrees and choking pollution. And women -- amazing, brilliant women with silent strength in their narrow shoulders, sturdy steps and ability to do anything in a sari.

Reporting is not easy anywhere, I assume, if you do it right, but this is a whole new world. Gone are my days of calling up a congressman's press office, of knowing exactly where to find reliable data and measuring time with a clock. I've replaced it, instead, with a struggle to balance constant adjustment and a stubborn fight to get what I need, against the odds.

Journalism to me has always been about discovery and new voices, but this might be the first time that I feel completely at mercy of the world around me. Luckily, the world tells much better stories than I  ever could, so all I have to do is show up.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Princesses In A Princely State

The Hyderabad of my childhood was full of palaces.

The first, an old bungalow where my mother grew up with her seven siblings.  I spent hot summer days there in frilly frocks, playing with small wooden toys and hiding from the dog, Cindy. My cousins and I would swing on a huge metal jula in a courtyard teeming with leafy plants and accessed through a beautiful wrought-iron gate.

I remember the stone grey floors that stayed cool in the summer, the stories that my mother told about her late father. Learning to drink milky sweet chai out of saucers so I wouldn't burn my tongue, and the sway of my grandmother's soft cotton saris when she did pooja in the morning.  I remember that next door there was a small buffalo farm with sounds and scents so strong that I knew exactly where I was when I woke up.

The second palace was my cousin's home, a sprawling estate perched on the top of a hill. There were white arches, black-and-white marble floors and a terrace where I spent hours asking Chitti, a beloved maid, thousands of questions and chasing lizards on the banisters.

This was a house meant for dreaming -- I could imagine the portraits of my cousin's ancestors coming to life, their swords and turbans and jewels in tow.  I convinced myself I was part of that royalty -- though my heart was fullest playing barefoot in the yard and following my cousin into the nearby construction sites for daily "adventures".

The palaces of my childhood are gone now. By the time I graduated from high school both had been demolished for personal and financial reasons -- land sold and replaced by apartments and modern houses where the marble and stone give way to glass and steel.

It's a lot like what has happened to the city, Shah Alam tells me when I visit his Golconda Cigarette Factory with the Chaiwallas. At 88, he is the patriarch of one of the city's oldest families, the ones who claim Hyderabadi as their identity before any state or faith. In Alam's Hyderabad, dinner tables are stocked with biryani and mirchi ka salaan and meant for at least thirty people.

Back in the day, he said, the princely states kept social order as it should be -- families were close and trustworthy, servants were loyal, and money was secondary to respect. Abolishing these states, and the power of the Nizam, monarch of Hyderabad, was the worst thing that could have happened.

His nostalgia is a little bit like the city my mom describes, one of shaded streets and rickshawvallas and more bungalows with open doors. Now, new money directs urban sprawl, and political tension has divided many people earning and living in the city. Huge malls line the streets and the cost of everything -- from a cup of Irani chai to a haircut -- has grown exponentially. My mom says she doesn't always recognize her hometown, or its people, and I've spent the last several visits vicariously bemoaning the change.

But in the past few weeks I have discovered beauty in this new Hyderabad, too. I follow my friend into the depths of Old City one day as he visits schools in mostly poor Muslim neighborhoods. I sit in a circle with thirty eighth-grade girls -- the first girls to be educated in their families -- and we learn about each other. One of them, clad in her uniform and black hijab speaks of the changes happening in her volatile neighborhood with such hope and clarity that I have to believe she and her sisters will take over -- the new princesses.

I spend hours with my cousins who have perfected the art of working to live instead of living to work -- enjoying each meal together, taking drives with their friends just to talk. I eat the best shawarma ever with Vivek, party at the most beautiful house I've ever seen, and enjoy two wonderful dinners at the National Police Academy with one of my mom's best friends, the first woman director in the institution's history.

When I think of those crumbled palaces my heart still hurts for what this city's people, and my family, have lost. But when I look into the face of that school girl in Charminar, I can think only of it's strength -- something like the stone statue of Buddha in the middle of the Tank Bund, so peaceful and timeless that it's core can't be shaken.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Dating the District

October. Arlington. We're full from dinner that he cooked, I'm a few glasses of red wine into my night. He walks me back to the metro and says, "I'm not going to end up on your blog or something am I?"


I've lived out of a backpack in India, trekked through central America, knocked on doors in the shadiest of DC neighborhoods,  driven through a snowstorm in Appalachia and made plenty of almost-disastrous decisions along the way. But an intentional foray into the dating world seemed far more nerve racking.

Even so I knew it had to be one of my experiments in 2013. Grad school was over, I owned more than one pair of cute shoes, and my evenings were free as long as I made deadline. Not to mention, my past romantic history had been a mix of bad timing, impulse decisions and lack of communication. I always had some sort of boy drama going on, but it rarely proved worthwhile.

Luckily, a bunch of my friends were in the same boat. Some of us were recovering from breakups, others from summer flings. Our particular demographic is prone to being detached, and the four of us were proof.

So we channeled every terrible romantic comedy and Time magazine dating feature and did what all girlfriends do -- we made it a game. Not the sort of data-driven, critique-filled Hunger Games stuff you might imagine, but just a bit of competitive spirit and constant banter. 

Finding guys in D.C. was easier than I thought. This city is full of the kind of people I like -- idealistic, big-picture thinkers that live at happy hours. I employed all the millenial dating tools I had never used to broaden the pool: mutual friends, set-ups, and a slew of (free) dating apps and sites that are all the rage.

When you sign up for dating apps a lot of weird things happen. First, you see a bunch of your guy friends and try very quickly to click through them, or send them awkward notes to clear the air. Then, you get tons and tons of weird messages like this:

If you happen to mention said app or site in public, you suddenly find that everyone you know is on them too. It doesn't matter if they're drop-dead gorgeous, high-powered professionals, and the most put-together people you know -- OKCupid is the great equalizer, and it has become acceptable to Tinder at parties.

Sifting through the messages -- skirting offensive grammar, clean shaven faces and people who lived in Herndon, Virginia -- I worked up the courage to respond to my first date in September. He seemed great: worked at an embassy, wasn't scared to leave NW DC and wanted to move abroad. That he was cute, tan and tall didn't hurt either.

We met at a generic Dupont bar on a beautiful Saturday afternoon, and I had dinner plans with friends afterward to ensure a clean getaway. My biggest fear walking in, though, was not rejection but just plain awkwardness. 

But during that first date -- three hours of seamless conversation, few uncomfortable pauses and the strongest gin and tonics in the city -- I learned something new about myself. I love talking to people, almost all people. I love listening to their ideas, childhood stories and wild, ridiculous dreams. I always know in the first couple of minutes whether I think a guy is cute, or if we have chemistry, but that has little impact on whether I want to continue a conversation. I realized it was almost like reporting, without the notebook.

A genuine interest in the people I met helped fuel the next, wait for it, 19 first dates. Not to mention the second and third dates that allowed me taste test libations at almost all U Street and Columbia Heights establishments, usually for free despite my protests. My normally packed schedule teetered on ridiculous, but I was meeting and seeing all of D.C: the tired med students, the policy wonks, the IT nerds, the ex-bro now-hipsters, the hippies who didn't mention they were in open relationships. And the hippies who did.

I also met a guy who became incredibly depressed during the government shutdown, a sweet guy that made my middle school insecurity look like nothing, and an abrasive consultant who almost choked when I asked to split the bill. 

And while I consider myself a fairly insightful and observant person, I realized my radar is totally off when it comes to dating. I was shocked by several of the guys who asked me out on a second date -- guys I felt no connection to at all. One of them was so damn cute that my 25-year-old self gave my 16-year-old self a high five when I saw his text light up my phone the next morning. 

My friends, meanwhile, had varying results of their own. One gave up after her first date -- things were too fresh from a past relationship. Another found that her town had drastically fewer options that those of us in big cities, though she was a great sport. And the third, like me, found the experience both liberating and empowering and tested waters that previously seemed ice cold.

But the experiment quickly became tiring and I was learning even more about my preferences. I liked new people, but I loved my friends more. I was far less emotional than I thought, and got annoyed when someone expected me to text them every day or meet more than once a week.  And while I'm a sucker for romantic gestures, saccharine words from the wrong person are positively jarring.

By mid October, I was done dating, at least in a competitive way.  I didn't "win" based on our collective terms, and I didn't find a guy, but I was considerably more open and fearless when it came to the men of D.C. As for the ones outside of District borders -- I'm going to need another year.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Coal Minds

You smell the coal mines before you see them.

The acrid odor hits and then, just around the bend, the long arms of machinery and piles of black coal replace the snow-laced mountainside in southern West Virginia.

Another twist in the road and it's all gone. Just stray dogs and rows of coal camp houses, some signs for towns built around half of a main street. And churches. Lots of churches out here.

But the power of coal doesn't stop there. It's in dusty boots on the front porch, murals on local school walls, old photos of fathers and grandfathers who mined until their lungs died out. On bumper stickers and television ads where the good guys are the ones who protect your families and the mines, and the bad guys -- like the president -- are the ones who don't.

And the shadow that a once-thriving industry has cast on these towns is just as palpable in the cold Appalachian air. It's not a darkness from lack of human spirit, abundant in the hills and hollers, but it's a darkness nonetheless. One that has broken families and their bank accounts and the only thing they knew would provide.

"Don't write anything bad about us," people keep telling me. The ones who can work are working hard, and they've heard the statistics about them in the news. Neighbors replaced by numbers, dirty laundry aired out in print -- even if it isn't in their hands.

I say I will write what I hear and see, and just the facts. But it's increasingly clear that my profession so easily ignores the signs of light -- the woman who drives hours a day from town to town to share the knowledge she has, a vibrant mayor, a Welch resident who keeps a warehouse of food ready for anyone who is hungry. They bear that burden of bad news.

At the end of the day I sit in a bar with coal miners, nurses, people I've met throughout the day. We sing to the Goo Goo Dolls, we laugh at bad jokes, we lament our collective failure at trivia. And I remember last week I felt we were worlds apart. And feel lucky that today we're not. 

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Lost and Found in Addis

I walk through the cool, dusty morning toward the blue domes of a nearby church, blurry from a night of insomnia. My camera is heavy in my bag, my skin prickles under my jacket from the chill.

The gate to the Bole Medhane Alem, an Ethiopian Orthodox church, is flanked by women selling incense, their heads covered in thin, white cloth. One speaks to me in Amharic until she realizes I can't understand. A man is kneeling beside me, head touched to the cement.

As I enter the gates, the stained glass windows and pillars come into full view. The church is fairly new, with smooth walls and marble floors. I step slowly, first to snap photos, and then because I realize I know nothing about this tradition or its rituals or how to respect the faithful.

Watching the women around me -- most dressed in long skirts and yards of white cotton wrapped around their shoulders and heads -- I pull out the silk scarf I use to protect my camera lens and cover my hair. I step up to the door of the church where people have discarded their shoes and several are kneeling at the entrance.

I've observed many houses of religion in different coutries, but never seen this kind of prayer. Women cross themselves, and then pray with their hands outstretched to the ceiling, almost as if wailing, but with little sound. They move their palms close and then apart, and bow repeatedly. The bare feet, the incense -- these remind me of temples in India. But the light filtering through blue glass, the gilded altar -- this reminds me of Rome.

I make my way around the biggest church in Addis and enter through the main door.

Sitting in a pew in the church, someone's walking cane at my feet, I am suddenly overwhelmed. There are sonorous chants and whispers and men and women bowing their heads to the ground in every corner, murmering toward the altar. But I also feel a deep sorrow, an ache like hunger in my stomach, a shortness of breath in my lungs. Tears crawling slowly from my eyes.

I sit for minutes that feel like hours, words forming in my mind and then quickly dissipating, meditating on the women before me whose faces seem to be etched with unanswered prayers. I wonder if this is the culmination of the last few non-stop days -- of asking so many questions, of soaking in so many familiar, yet completely foreign, sites. The unrestrained reflection of the hungry children that have always, and will always, circle in my mind in every country.

Eventually, a woman walks over to me and grabs my hand with a smile. "Sit here," she says, leading me to her pew and I realize I've been unraveling on the men's side. We meet eyes and laugh and I sit with her for a minute before turning around to leave.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Singlehandedly Destroying My Neighborhood, Or Something Like That

Warning: I’ve replaced data with footsteps and theories with my eyes. 

Columbia Heights is one of those neighborhoods -- you know, the kind that were once mostly black and Hispanic, mostly low-income, mostly part of city council meetings when people said words like "lack of access" and "development" and "up and coming". 
The streets were packed with markets and bodegas where English was a second language, and little girls avoided certain spots after school. When this neighborhood made headlines, it wasn't a good thing.

And then stuff happened. Like a huge shopping mall with a Target, and bars with craft beers and high end barbecue. We moved in: the young professionals who talk about community and don't use plastic bags and put sculptures in our tiny yards. So the building facades changed and rents got higher and people built free clinics and started to volunteer for the people who we weren't.

Naturally, these things are on my mind as my waking body memorizes the bus schedule, and I figure out how to get more air in my new little room. Because I'm so happy here, it's almost unnerving.

I smile when I walk down the street and see multiple generations of boys and men playing soccer, cursing and falling and laughing in Spanish. I stop by the hidden bakery on 11th Street and breathe in so deeply my stomach is almost full. I want to kiss the buzzed head of the kid I tutor on Tuesdays when I see him waiting outside the market with his mother. And I love the little girls with their shiny black hair and uniforms, and the family that sits out on their stoop and barbecues for hours and hours on a Sunday.

But there's this feeling of guilt sometimes. As if my being here means quite literally taking the space of someone who was there before me and can't be anymore -- a family forced out to Maryland because their home became too expensive. A mother who commutes more than an hour each morning instead of walking to work. This kind of exodus, I hear, can create islands of poverty and crime, driving a working class to isolation from the resources they need.

And then the questions:

What do I do? Is this just the kind of capitalism that doesn't come so naturally to me -- an inevitable shift? Do I stick to  my designated spot near U Street and Dupont? Or do I try my hardest to be a loving, giving, sharing person so that I earn the right to stay?  And is this also just a construction of my mind and its imposing limits?

My friend and I talk to Monty one day -- an ancient black man sitting shirtless on the steps of his row house with some sort of liquor in a brown paper bag. He's been here for decades and the neighborhood has changed in front of him, I imagine, from the same spot where he is currently perched.

I ask him questions that secretly reveal what is nagging me, and wait for an answer that I never get.

Monty doesn't care about gentrification, really, and he's not the least bitter about the white kids moving in. He points at the liquor store across the street and says things have gotten safer around here. He likes what's going on -- there are new things replacing old things, and the kids are getting home in one piece. Things look different, and Monty is on board. 

I see him again on a few occasions, the shiny skin on his chest juxtaposed with the aging gruff of his face. He and his wife sit outside all the time, taking sips of the humid summer air. And every time I see them, it's a reminder. A reminder that I don't get to tell someone else's story for them -- let alone the narrative of a neighborhood that existed long before me and will continue long after.

For now the battle I have is not the one of how this city should grow, but how I can grow alongside my neighbors. At the very least, I'll have to start by finding out who they are.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Eyes On My Body, Rage In My Head

Today there are celebrations across India -- the four rapists that brutally attacked a woman and her partner on a bus last year have been sentenced to death.

My friends are cheering. They post stuff and send me texts that justice is being served. But that euphoria seems more like tiger balm -- satisfying in a strange, tingly way, but only until it rubs off. Then you're just left with the ache.

There are some things that don't wash away. I resonate in part with this widely circulated essay from a an American student in India -- the constant feeling of eyes on your body is a silent, pervasive trauma. It's the kind of thing that turns your wonderment into dull, passive rage, your aimless saunter into a hurried walk.

It's not just an India problem. It's in my backyard and every country I've visited.

The worst moments for me were actually in Italy, where American study abroad kids can be like a drunken scar on the face of a beautiful city. But I wasn't drunk when I was followed for blocks down cobblestone streets, or when some guy pinned me against a wall in a club and stuck his hands down the waistline of my jeans.

I was told these weren't Italians. They were undocumented workers preying on American girls. But paperwork means nothing when you feel unwanted eyes and hands on your body.

In India, the frustration was paired with an experiment. I lived for a short while in the kind of community described in these context pieces about the Delhi rape. But it quickly became home, the stares become curiosity, and I had enough guardians in the families I knew that uneasiness became a thing of the past.

I became human there, in a slow and deliberate way. But only within that one square mile -- there were, of course, other times that shook me to the core.

This is not about  my story, though, it's a collective narrative. We don't get to write the plot through our single blogs and Facebook posts -- it's in the way boys are raised, and what girls see in the mirror. The way they sit together in school, and what it means to hold hands. The true meaning of consent.

Because until that happens, these stirring moments are not tipping points, they are just headlines. And I can safely say that's not justice.