In India, on the backs of trucks on on the sides of buildings were murals that proudly proclaimed “My India is great!”

Alternatively, in Egypt, painted above shops, scrawled in elevators and plastered on bumper stickers you’ll find Azkar Allah, remember God.

If we take graffiti to mirror national priorities and interests – and why not it’s probably more accurate than polling – it seems clear where Egypt’s heart lies.

But a return to religion, doesn’t necessarily mean fundamentalism, just like Indian patriotism doesn’t necessarily equate to jingoism. There are dangers to be sure, but let’s try to avoid the Fox News logic of religious Muslim = dangerous Muslim.

Nobody thought WWJD bracelets were a bad idea.


Apologies, this will read like the standard Thomas Friedman column:

“Globalization!!!…America losing its standing in the world…China and India rising!!!”

Formulaic, but probably true.

After traveling the long 44 miles between Amman and Jerusalem yesterday, I’ve been catching up with cousins, aunts and uncles I haven’t seen since I was much shorter. Life in the Middle East generally, and the West Bank in particular, is closely tied up with politics. Even so, people here are still abuzz about Bollywood films and China’s economic development.

Evidence: Yesterday, I had a conversation with my 60+ aunt about her love for Bollywood films. She knew every megastar and even every starlet, from Shahrukh down to Imran.

It’s not just her, either. Bollywood is very popular here. There are several satellite channels that exclusively broadcast Hindi films subtitled in Arabic all day every day.

Today, we shifted from Mumbai to Beijing as we watched the opening ceremony of the Olmypics. Throughout it, all of my relatives were abuzz about China’s economic development and perceived increasing wealth.

The panoramic shots of Beinjing’s newly-minted Olympic infrastructure only served to confirm their perception that China is already, more or less, a developed country. And as we watched every country from Monaco to Guinea-Bissau proudly soldier their national flag, they wondered which country would take the medal count: China or the United States. No one was sure.

Don’t worry, though, they watch Hannah Montana too. America still has something going for it.

STEEL ka naya funda. Translation: No Glitter Solid Steel.

It was one of the first signs I saw in Kolkata and – undoubtedly – it will be one of the last. The ad, which graces the backs of all of Kolkata’s maroon minibuses features a buff Indian gripping a steel bar with fires ablazing in the background. The bottom says: India’s #1 Thermex TMT bar.

For the longest time, we all thought it was an ad for an energy bar. We couldn’t fathom it being anything else. After a few weeks, though, we realized there was less subtlety to it than we thought. It’s actually an ad for steel bars. Steel.

And it’s everywhere.  After being in this city for two months I know why. Because unlike the US, where most things have been built, where things more or less function as advertised, Kolkata still has a long way to build itself up. There’s work to be done.

But that’s not a negative statement. Everywhere I’ve gone here, I’ve seen a certain tenacity, a certain vibrancy that I’ve never seen before in my life. Not in the US, not in the Middle East, not in Thailand. Kolkata is the most full of life, the most Darwinian environment I’ve ever seen.

The whole city reminds me of Carl Sandburg’s poem “Chicago,” which thanks to the standardized curriculum of Indiana public schools, I actually read. Kolkata may not be a city of broad shoulders, but it certainly is a place of breaking, building and rebuilding.  Construtction is everywhere, and the whole city has very organic rhythm, from the daily traffic jams to the nightly Tata truck runs that bring in the next day’s food and fuel.

Everywhere there is life and everywhere there is struggle. Everyone is trying to carve out their little niche in the urban jungle.

But slowly slowly slowly things are changing: foundations laid, scaffoldings erected and roads paved. The scaffolding on construction projects in Kolkata may be made of bamboo and the bricks transported by bicycle ricksaws, but make no mistake – the buildings frames are made of solid steel. No glitter added.  

Tomorrow I say goodbye to Kolkata. I’ll probably be able to breathe easier but I won’t have as much of a sense of purpose.

I recently discovered that my boss is not, in fact, a doctor. He’s a homeopath.

This makes several things that have happened make sense.

In particular, it sheds light on one of the dumbest things I’ve done in India: swimming in one of Kolkata’s numerous retention ponds during my first week here. Whether I did so willingly, however, is a matter of debate.

It was my first week in Kolkata, and my boss had invited me and two of my friends in his Sunday evening ritual, a 5 o’clock swim. We were so excited about the possibility of escaping Kolkata’s heat we didn’t take note of the fact that he described his favorite spot as a “natural pool.” Or perhaps because we thought he was a doctor we trusted him.

Whatever the case, we were all shocked when we showed up at a retention pond surrounded by houses on one side a soccer field on the other. On the edge of the field a troop of cows was muching on the grass. Several people along the edges were doing their laundry.

J said that because she was a girl she couldn’t go in. She’d attract to much attention, which was undoubtedly true. 

As I was about to get in, she advised me not to put my head below the water. She also told me a story about the dangers of elephantitis.

Side note: All readers, regardless of gender, in pressure situations never ever talk about elephantitis. It’s usually not funny. And even when it is, which it probably was in the case, it’s just down right cruel.

So, fearing elephantitis as well as ear infections, I slowly waded into the lukewarm water, taking care to keep my head above water. I mentally ticked off the different parasites and weird skin maladies I could pick up through this tryst with stupidity.

The doctor, who could detect my uneasiness: “You don’t like swimming?”

Me, gritted teeth: “No, I love swimming. Love it.”

To prove my love for swimming I did a couple strokes, hoping to placate him. All it did, however, was attract the attention of a group of preteen boys who quickly challenged me to a race. Jeered on by a veritable crowd of onlookers I had to accept.

So, in what must have been a seriously comedic scence, I attempted to freestyle while keeping my head completely above water.

The ten-year-old smoked me.

After that, I invented some excuse to get out and being furiously scrubbing, which I continued to do until we left even after I was dry.  

Upon getting home my host mother asked where I’d gone swimming. Immediately she stood up and started yelling at me:

“My sons once went swimming there and both got sick. Get in the shower now and don’t come out for half and hour!”

Thankfully, though, I think I dodged the bullet.

Yesterday, the streets were filled with saffron.

My host father told me not to go out yesterday because the traffic from Rath Yatra would make it impossible to get around. I should’ve listened. I didn’t have any trouble going, but I certainly did coming back, though not because of the festival.

Rath Yatra is a major Hindu festival which commemorates Krishna’s visit to his mother-in-law’s house. The festival takes place over two days one week apart, with a day for coming and a day for going. On each day, the streets are filled with long processions of floats. Troops of young men and women sing hare krishna hare krishna as others dance. Behind them, saffron-robed Brahmins sit atop floats drawn manually by hundreds of the faithful. The general mood is upbeat, as the Brahmins toss flowers into the crowd and spray them with rosewater.

Most interestingly, there were a few caucasians in the procession. These middle-aged men and women joined up with the Hare Krishnas in their western heyday in the 70s and stuck with it. Ironically, they were almost as excited to see us as we were to see them.

I stayed in the city for a dinner that lasted until about ten, after which I planned to catch a bus back to Garia.

It turns out that is impossible.

Though Kolkata is a bustling metropolis of 15 million, its public transport doesn’t run round the clock, or as I discovered yesterday, not even past 10. To make matters worse, most cabbies are unwilling to drive to the southern suburbs at night because they know they can’t pick up new passengers for the return trip into the city. I had to improvise.

I decide to take a cab to Gariahat – a transit hub in the south-central portion of the city – and take an autorickshaw home. My cab driver – who most definitely didn’t understand my broken fusion of Bangla and English – dropped me in the northern part of Gariahat nowhere near where I needed to catch an auto south.

No big deal, I think. I know this area fairly well. I’ll just walk south, until I can catch a shared taxi or an auto.


As I continue walking south, I realize that the lights keep getting a little dimmer and that the density of people sleeping on the sidewalk is a little higher than usual. As I cross the railroad tracks under Gariahat’s flyover I realize I am in the middle of one of Kolkata’s largest bustees, or slums.

My normal reaction in pressure situations is to try to power through, so I keep walking hoping to make it to the other side of the slum to the part of Gariahat I know. This was the wrong choice. Before I know it, I’m in a narrow alleyway right next to an improvised temple, sandwiched between huts covered in advertisments and garbage bags. A group of curious onlookers begins to gather. It’s at this point I decide I need to get the hell out and start backtracking.

I walk across the flyover and keep walking, maybe for a mile or mile and half. Near the shared taxi stand, there are dozens of people struggling to get into a couple of cabs. Deciding I’m not up for a scrum I keep walking. I tell myself I know the neighborhood.

I keep going and the streets keep getting darker. All the Golpark-Garia autos, one of which I desperately need to get on, are full. I get to a corner where a group of people are waiting. I see an empty auto approach, but before I can grab a seat if fills up. One of the passengers, realizing that I’m a bewildered In-gree-jee makes room.

From there on out, things went smoothly, and within 20 minutes I was back in my neighborhood. I always know when I’ve reached Garia because it’s where the sidewalks end and stray dogs roam. Last night, I was more than happy to deal with them.

In case of a car accident in India, many of the travel guide books advise you to flee the scene.

In rural areas, it’s possible your car may be burned. While such extreme action is unlikely in cities, car accidents are treated seriously across India.

I learned this lesson as we were riding uptown in a cab on Raja S.C. Mullick Road, Garia’s main thoroughfare and one of the few ways to head north into the city. As we passed through an intersection in Jadavpur, I noticed things were a little crazier than normal. Traffic was standstill but it wasn’t because of gridlock.

In the center of the intersection, a squat middle-aged man was beating the hell out of a still-seated cab driver. The middle-aged man, whose vehicle had been damaged, was throttling the cabbie’s throat with one hand as he systematically beat him with the other. Remarkably, though, the cabbie didn’t fight back. He sat there and took the beating, probably realizing that escalating the situation would only land him in jail. It was an impressive demonstration of restraint.

This was only the second display of public violence I’ve seen in India.  A week before the cab driver incident, we had been visiting Digha, West Bengal’s version of a seaside resort. During the monsoon season, relatively few tourists – Indian or otherwise – visit Digha, so our presence drew the usual amount of attention.

As two of my friends were swimming in the Bay of Bengal, two young men – probably about our age or a little older – continued to walk toward them with arms outstretched. Repeatedly, they told my friends, “Don’t worry, we won’t hurt you. Don’t worry we won’t hurt you.” Of course, greeting someone by telling them you won’t hurt them is a surefire way to freak them out. 

So what ensued was a slow speed, water borne chase where the two guys followed my friends through the water assuring them they wouldn’t hurt them. At this point, my friends headed toward shore. The guys were in hot pursuit until they ran into a group of local fisherman who were bringing in their day’s catch. One of the fisherman – a short, elderly man wearing a purple turban – who had seen the guys following my friends began to yell at them. Then, suddenly, he grabbed the bigger one’s throat, slapped him several times and then yelled at him again. Then, without a second thought, he moved on to discipline his companion in a similar fashion. Neither of the young boys struck their elder, or even really said anything in response; they just tried to walk away.

In my time here, I’ve been amazed by how much restraint people here have in tense situations. While things are often chaotic, I’ve seen very few people lose their cool. And when things have become violent, one party has always backed down.

“May we take a picture with you?”

The question is innocuous enough, but the phenomenon is intriguing.

At almost all of the tourist sites we’ve visited in India we’ve been asked to pose for a shot with the family. Obligingly, we smile and stand. This has happened everywhere: in Kolkata, UP, Delhi, Agra, etc.

At first, I thought it was because we were foreigners, but then I began to notice which foreigners we’re being chosen for the family photo album. And after six weeks in India I can say with a fair degree of confidence – only the white ones.

There are plenty of East Asian tourists in India – of every age and level of attractiveness, but I have never seen a single one asked to pose for a photo as we, and other white tourists, continually are.

There’s something bizarre going on here. I don’t pretend to understand how fair skin relates to caste, class and sect in India, but I have seen how much it is prized here. How many of the media outlets comment on the fairness of this Bollywood actress or actor. There is even a brand of skin lightening cream, “Fair and Lovely,” that promises to lighten your skin by two shades in only two weeks. The advertisements show a woman removing darker layers of skin as if they were a mask to reveal her truer, fairer self.

I don’t know why fairness is so prized here; i do know, however, that I have never been so conscious of my skin color, and never thought of myself as so white.