Tag Archives: connections

The audacity of hope: Tanna (2015)

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Photo by sydneydawg2006 (Flickr)

The Romeo and Juliet comparison is obligatory, so let’s get that out of the way.

But no, really, Tanna is a lot like Romeo and Juliet. Except it’s set in tribal lands in Vanuatu, where residents have rejected money, Christianity, democracy, and t-shirts, instead choosing a traditional life. And this story really happened, only a few decades ago.

And instead of going all in with the tragedy, it ends with hope — the hope that if you look at the consequences of certain customs, and see how tragic they can be, you can find another way. The hope of charismatic and thoughtful leadership, with speeches backed by action. The hope that minds can change.

It’s so easy to be cynical about such sentiments. You hear them so often from politicians and they so rarely amount to anything tangible. But that’s truly how Tanna made me feel! I would never want to live the way the Yakel do, but I think we can all learn something from them, or at least be reminded of how we are capable of learning.

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You’re Very Not Welcome

Those who know me or follow me on Twitter have heard all about my bizarre and extended difficulty at leaving India. For those who don’t, or who want to get ‘reacquainted with the facts’ as Gandhiji would say, here’s a quick summary (feel free to skim over, this isn’t the important bit):

1) I was asked to leave India because my salary is too low. The Foreigners Regional Registration Office (FRRO) in Thiruvananthapuram told me that I had to get out before July 5, which was when my final visa extension would expire.

2) However, in two and a half years here I’ve never received an actual physical stamp of extension from Delhi, so Immigration rejected me at Mumbai airport and scolded me for not having an exit permit. (The FRRO had told me that I didn’t need anything to leave.)

3) I returned to Kerala to get the exit permit, which I was assured would be ready by Friday 8th July (yesterday); it wasn’t, of course. This meant rebooking my flight a second time. The FRRO insists to me the exit permit will be ready on Monday 11th; I’ll take a train to Mumbai on Tuesday 12th and fly on Wednesday 13th, hopefully to be in NZ Thursday 14th.

4) [I’ll leave this space blank for whatever goes wrong in the coming days. There will surely be something.]

(I acknowledge that it is ultimately my fault that I’m in this mess, because if I’d done more research back at step (1) I’d have known of the need for an exit permit. I’ve lost upwards of Rs 30,000 as a result, which was all the money I’d saved for my intended one-month holiday in New Zealand (most of which would go towards a tour of the country to visit family), so when I get back to NZ it will be for an indefinite period of time and I will be looking for work straight away.)

Okay. Those are the facts. What I want to talk about now are the implications I derive from this saga about where I am or am not welcome.

In India, a key philosophy is that ‘the guest is God’ – or, in other words, a visitor is a blessing and should be treated as such. Whenever I visit somebody’s home, all the family members present will be called to come and welcome me. I’ll be seated in the most comfortable chair in the living room and someone will bring tea and a selection of snacks (or, if it’s around lunch or dinner, a small meal). The TV will be switched on so that I have something to watch, if I so wish, and to make me feel at home (I don’t own a TV but okay, the gesture is sweet). Until the time I leave, the house’s entire focus will be on me. If a child sleeping in another room wakes up and starts crying, someone will quickly go and return with them, missing only a few seconds of doting on me, the guest.

This literal sequence of events has happened many times over during my three years in India. Apart from that, I am very fortunate in that I know many wonderful people in India (again, both in person and on Twitter) who have made me feel extremely welcome here. I’ve even felt at times like I belong – which is ideally how it should be. We’re all human, after all.

The past month or so, however, has been a constant struggle against a system which simply does not care, and certainly makes no effort to make me feel welcome. I’m by no means saying that I deserve special treatment – and my experience is not even close to the worst it can get for a foreigner, let alone a poor farmer in Bihar – but between traditional Indian hospitality, which I so keenly feel among regular people, and the impenetrable bureaucracy of the government and its processes, there’s an enormous disconnect.

When one government worker rebukes me loudly and openly for following the instructions of another government worker – which is what happened at the airport – I certainly don’t feel welcome, even as I was being told I couldn’t leave. When one government worker rebukes me for following his own instructions – which is what happened the moment I got back to the Trivandrum FRRO – I feel absolutely insane, like an insignificant insect who keeps knocking on the door of the system, thinking ‘this time they’ll listen’. The FRRO then went on to lie to me about what he would do to help me, just to get me out of his office; once my planned exit permit fell through yesterday, he finally adopted a remorseful and guilty tone, though of course he didn’t apologise.

I still take responsibility for not getting things done the right way at the start, but all this just made me think that there’s only one place where I am truly welcome, and that’s New Zealand. Why? Because I hold a New Zealand passport. Most of my family is there, and they do accept and support me wonderfully, but the passport is the key here. After all, there are kind and genuine people everywhere, and thus potential for feeling a sense of belonging wherever you go, but the only order of law that will serve my interests is that of New Zealand.

Naturally, every single one of my calls to the New Zealand Consulate in Mumbai was answered respectfully and with great care, including several times by the Consul General himself. Concurrently, I spent three days calling the Trivandrum FRRO while I was in Mumbai but he rejected the call or let it ring every single time; I had to travel 2000 kilometres over land just to speak with him. This now does not surprise me. He is part of a system which is neither set up to look after nor care for me, let alone make me feel welcome.

So, back to New Zealand I go, unsure of my next move. I had intended to come back to India at the end of July – I even booked a return ticket – but that is now impossible for a number of reasons both financial and temporal. New Zealand is my legal home and I can live there largely free of the hassles of bureaucracy, so it makes sense to be there while I get back on my feet.

The most distressing implication, for me, is that in today’s world one simply cannot expect to feel automatically welcome with one’s fellow men and women around the world. In fact, the opposite is true. In India, since the 26/11 Mumbai attacks and the David Headley scandal, the majority of people – especially government officers – are extremely suspicious of foreigners. By the sounds of things, it’s the same everywhere. Foreigners have plenty of trouble trying to enter or remain in the United States, in Europe, and in New Zealand. The fallacy that outsiders pose the greatest threat to a nation’s security has become rule of law.

I’ve made a number of deep and strong human connections in India, connections that I hope will last for a very long time, and I have in many ways felt at home here. Those connections, those people, are a home of sorts. (I’ve been thinking a lot about what ‘home’ is lately, especially since I was asked to leave India; am working on a long-form post about it.)

Those connections will have to wait, though, or at least remain strong across continents until I’m in a position to wade through the bureaucracy once again. I can’t help feeling that there must be some way that we could all move freely, as if each of us were a citizen of the world rather than a particular nation. But it would require everyone to behave with the collective good, the best interests of our species, at heart. That is hugely idealistic and unrealistic to begin with; now that the system is set up to engender suspicion of foreigners and promote the idea of ‘us versus them’, such a genuine global community is unforeseeable.

It’s a bitter pill to swallow, especially when I know that in a place like in India, the prevailing traditional ideology was to be welcoming. I suppose I’m lucky that I’ve been able to experience its influence with so many great people. More than anything, those people and experiences drive me to overcome the system, to jump through its hoops and fight it if necessary, just so I can spend an extra minute in their company.

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The Land of Open Expression

Over in the central Palace Hall, there seemed to be more of a calm that befitted such a princely and tradition-filled room. I remained there for the rest of the weekend as part of an extraordinarily varied audience. There were: distinguished local retirees with a passion for language; twentysomething Malayali men asking me for my mobile number within minutes of meeting; young tourists in summer dresses and sunglasses; local professionals, well groomed and dressed; adolescent children sitting unusually still; fellow resident foreigners of all backgrounds; and many of the authors themselves, catching another speaker’s session.

…read more at The NRI…

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“I have a natural affinity for spooky stuff. Always have”

Mother Of Cog (c) Illstation

Eion McNaught (aka Illstation) is the artist behind Ill Station, a deviantART site showcasing his sculpture, drawing, painting and animation. His work generally has a macabre-but-playful feel, but is sometimes more macabre, and sometimes completely playful.

While it’s a bit of a stretch to call Ill Station a blog, I feel it fits within the Wikipedia definition: a site ‘usually maintained by an individual with regular entries of commentary, descriptions of events, or other material such as graphics or video’.

I’ve known Eion for about 15 years and, growing up, I enjoyed accompanying my brothers to his flat, where various pieces of art would be displayed about the place. I remember thinking for the first time that he had actually created a lot of the stuff I was looking at, unlike most people (including myself) who consume rather than produce art. Recently, he’s been responsible for all the artwork behind my brother’s Cartoon Beats label, as well as this wonderful animation of Margaret Mahy’s A Lion In The Meadow read by my sister-in-law.

On those visits, I always had questions to ask but we inevitably talked about other things – he never really drew attention to his art, it was just what he did. I’m lucky, then, to be allowed this opportunity to get some insight into his creative process and general thoughts. (Click all images to enlarge.)

***

Why did you create Illstation/your deviantART artist page?

Illstation is my alter-ego. Ill Station is also the place I go to see amazing things and be inspired. The name came to me in a dream (so cliché, but true (groan)).

DeviantART is the first place I displayed Illstation work – basically because it was free and easier than creating a website (which I didn’t know how to do). It also seemed like a popular site, so I hoped my stuff would be seen.

Self Portrait (c) Illstation

What work of yours has been exhibited publicly in the past, and where?

I have yet to do an actual exhibition of Illstation work as such … However, my work has ended up on animated tv shows (for Disney, WB, MTV, TVNZ and others) and at the cinema. I have worked on advertisements for tv, the cinema, internet, in print (billboards, magazines, children’s books etc.), even in a Nintendo DS game (for Ubisoft).

Illstation’s paintings have been sold at the New Zealand Art Show in Wellington. Illstation’s work can be found online (as well as deviantART there is a Facebook page and stuff on YouTube), including a music video for the record label Cartoon Beats. Also there’s the album artwork for all of Cartoon Beats Record releases to date. That may or may not be everything …

What is your first memory of drawing, painting or sculpting?

I guess this story applies … When I was about three I remember my brothers and me painting our faces to look like Kiss. I wish I had a photo of that.

Describe something that is beautiful to you.

When I’m on a mountain and there’s fog below and the other mountains look like islands rising out of a sea of mist.

Cthulhu Sculpture (c) Illstation

A lot of your work has a disturbing or off-kilter feel about it. Is this the kind of atmosphere/tone that you are drawn to most?

Definitely. Illstation emerged as a result of limitations being put onto my creativity while working as a commercial artist and animator. The more people try and tell me what ‘I should be drawing and painting’, or try and tell me what ‘art buyers are going to be interested in’ (and they constantly do), the darker the work will become, perhaps … It’s not about being contrary or offensive. It’s about creative freedom and drawing what I love. I have a natural affinity for spooky stuff. Always have.

Do you have a standard creative process, or is it different with every piece?

Well, I always have my sketchbook with me. Most of my little art seeds are planted in there. A finished artwork may come about as the result of a tiny sketch in the corner of a page which I never planned to go anywhere with, or I may start doodling with a painting, sculpture or animation in mind. I have done whole short animations based around one little drawing/idea in my sketchbook. I really need to work at a piece too. They rarely come easily from my mind onto canvas or whatever. Oh, and I always work to music.

Sauce (c) Illstation

What sort of an effect has travel and living abroad had on your belief system(s)?

There is one answer which springs to mind, I guess (I’m hoping I haven’t misunderstood the meaning of belief system). I would describe myself as spiritual. I believe that I am open minded as well. I had previously entertained the idea that maybe Buddhism could be for me. I visited a beautiful Buddhist temple at the top of a hill overlooking a lake in Korea last year. My observations made me look into Buddhism a little further. However, I found I couldn’t identify with the Buddha at all. He experienced every indulgence and then great hardship on his journey to reach nirvana, and I know that I never will. I realised that I don’t actually feel the need to achieve a complete state of bliss either… I grew up in paradise.

Is there a piece of art or blog entry on your site that you are most proud of?

Hmmm. Since I can’t decide on one I’ll say no. There are a few I’m very proud of for different reasons.

Name two countries: one you’d like to visit, and one you’d like to visit again.

I would like to visit Russia (Actually, I would love to go to Europe – I have never been). I would like to visit Mexico again (I feel I didn’t give it a decent chance the last time and didn’t see enough).

For Marilyn in Red (c) Illstation

Do you believe in God?

I believe in God. I don’t believe every story I hear or read. And I cannot believe in businesses that profit from claiming to be a way of communicating with God. I believe that knowing God really comes down to an appreciation for the gift of life.

usually maintained by an individual with regular entries of commentary, descriptions of events, or other material such as graphics or video

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Subway In India: Just Like Home (Kind Of)

It starts as soon as I open the door: that bizarre, enigmatic sensation of being somewhere utterly contradictory. The Subway restaurant on the edge of Trivandrum’s Technopark campus is the only American chain restaurant for literally hundreds of miles around, and this makes it both the starkest example of Western influence on life in Kerala and the most jarring collision between that influence and the steadfast conservatism of this corner of India. The restaurant is right next to the building in which I work, so today I’ve decided to spend my lunch break there.

The music always hits me first. No Bollywood vocoders or Malayali whistles here: the dial is always tuned to an American radio station, generally near full volume. As I walk in, a track by one of my favourite groups, Arcade Fire, blasts out of the PA – a group I don’t think I’ve even heard in restaurants back in NZ, let alone in India. “I woke up with the power out! Not really something to shout about!” shrieks singer Win Butler as I walk to the vegetarian counter. Living as I do in rural Kerala, this line is peculiarly apt.

…read more at The NRI…

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‘I felt that my life was going down an unusual path, and I wanted to share it’

Having sindoor put on forehead during wedding

Sharell Cook is the author of Diary of a White Indian Housewife, a blog about her life as a white (Australian) woman married to an Indian man in Mumbai. Her subjects can spring from anywhere in the maelstrom of activity that surrounds her – visits with her new family, learning Indian recipes, the ongoing frustrations one inevitably feels as an outsider in India, and many moments of introspection at the path she has followed in life, to name just a few regular sources of inspiration.

Though a good number of her posts are illustrated with photographs, particularly the often amusing Snapshots of India, the biggest draw is her focused, straightforward storytelling. She seems to understand (or perhaps not even consider) the strength of the tales she has to tell and just gets out of the way, letting the various characters, locations and feelings in her life shine. Not surprisingly, she has a book in the works, with release slated for mid-to-late 2011.

If you glance at the comments on Sharell’s blog you will notice that she has legions of adoring fans – including myself – with whom she cheerily interacts. As such, she was willing to answer a few questions. All photos used with permission.

***

Why did you start blogging?

I started blogging for a number of reasons. One of them was because I felt that my life was going down an unusual path, and I wanted to share it with people so that they could benefit. I’d been trawling the blogs of people who were in a similar situation as me, but they didn’t always contain the information and detail I was looking for. So, I thought I’d write from the heart about my life and the kinds of things I would be interested in reading. Plus, I did have a notion in my head that I wanted to write a book some day. I thought having a blog would be a good platform with which to establish a presence and market myself to publishers. But still, I got a surprise when a publisher actually got in touch with me after reading my blog.

You mention a journal in your writing. Do you see ‘Diary of a White Indian Housewife’ as an extension of that journal?

I do, because primarily I write for myself, and my blog is where I record my experiences and thoughts. I’ve actually given up writing in my journal now. My blog is it!

Arabic mehendi

What is your first memory of writing creatively?

I think my first memory defines why I was always supposed to be a writer! It was in my first year of school. The teacher told the class to narrate (obviously we couldn’t write properly at that young age, so the teacher had to write down what we were saying for us) and illustrate a story about something of our choice. Apparently, I was the only child who actually came up with a proper story. The rest of them just described situations and things.

Describe something that is beautiful to you.

Oh, there are so many things — but they’re always the small things. Usually, something to do with nature.  A butterfly, a sunset or sunrise, the ocean, the smell of the mountains. An unexpected smile is always beautiful too.

With sunflowers in Mumbai

Are you equal parts white, Indian, and a housewife, or does one of these labels apply to you more than the others?

This is such an interesting question.  Funnily enough, being constantly surrounded by lovely brown skinned people, these days I often forget I’m white until someone treats me as such. I don’t feel like I’m a foreigner living in India anymore, and I find that I have trouble relating to many foreigners living in India. Often, I actually feel like I’m Indian, but sometimes I get reminded that I’ll “never be Indian” so I have a bit of an identity crisis. I do feel like I’m a housewife though, despite the fact that I work. I don’t keep staff (only a maid who comes every second day to wash the floors) and I’m always at home since I work from home.

You live in Mumbai, one of the world’s most populated and varied cities. What is the first piece of advice you would give to another outsider coming to live there?

Just let go of any expectations about how you think things should be, and be prepared to adjust.  You can live as grandly or as simply as you want in Mumbai, but you can never escape the day to day frustrations that come from living in India. In Mumbai, we have world class bars and shopping malls, but a severe traffic problem, water shortage, and lack of space.  The problems are different to the ones you might find elsewhere in India, but they’re still there. You just have to accept it for what it is. And don’t try and replicate the life you had elsewhere.

Homemade fish curry

The phrase ‘the real India’ is one that foreigners tend to use, usually to make a distinction between how they used to perceive India and how they perceive it, or something about it, after going and spending time there. Of all the experiences you’ve had in India, which one, by your estimation, felt most like that so-called ‘real India’?

I actually see the “real India” more as the “dual India”.  Everything about India is real, from a luxury hotel to a vendor selling vegetables from his wooden cart.  However, an experience that I had that felt most like the so called “real India” was having to deal with corrupt customs officials at the customs office, when trying to retrieve 2 boxes of personal items that I had sent over. I don’t want to focus on something obviously so negative, but I’ve chosen this example from the point that corruption is everywhere in India, at all levels, and it affects the rich as well as the poor. There’s no escaping from it.

Is there a post on your blog that you are most proud of?

Not really, but if I had to pick one, it would be the one about how India helped me find my purpose in life. I’m really interested in people’s transformational stories.

Name two countries: one you’d like to visit, and one you’d like to visit again.

A country I’d like to visit: Brazil.  A country I’d like to visit again: Spain.

Guests dancing at wedding

Do you believe in God?

I believe that God is a name for the universal energy and consciousness that is present everywhere. All religions have the same aim, that is bringing people closer to the one entity labeled as “God”.

***

This interview is part of Inside the Bloggers Studio, an ongoing project of short interviews with bloggers I read and admire.  (Apologies to James Lipton.)  To view the archive, click the category tag in the ‘By Category’ section at the top right of this page.

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“Writing helps me clarify my thoughts and beliefs, because I have to finally put them into words”

Rock on beach in Abel Tasman National Park

David Cain is the author of Raptitude.com, a blog about ‘getting better at being human’. His posts are a combination of truths he feels he has discovered about the nature of humanity, and/or the world, and experiments he undertakes – and their outcomes – in trying to improve his skillset for life.

He also wrote a travel diary about his experiences travelling in New Zealand which is here. The photos in the post were taken by David in NZ.

I discovered Raptitude.com at a particularly low point in my life and while I wouldn’t give David all the credit for turning it around, his well-composed, clear and unpretentious words provided me with plenty of inspiration. He himself has experienced darkness and appears to write from a deep yet continually developing understanding gained through those dark times, and is dedicating his greatest efforts to something as simple and meaningful as sharing what he knows.

David’s following grows daily into the high tens of thousands, but he was kind enough to answer a few questions.

***

Why did you start blogging, and why do you keep blogging?

I was a fan of Steve Pavlina’s blog for a long time, and one day I read a post in his archives about his favorite blogs. One of them was Problogger.net, which I hadn’t heard of at the time. I visited, read a few of the posts and a few of the comments, and realized there was a whole culture of blogging out there, with its own history and social structure. It wasn’t unlike the music scene; there were up-and-comers, has-beens, wannabes, hacks, big shots and legends. Everyone was doing their own thing, and talking about what others were doing. I wanted to be part of that. So I got started.

I keep blogging because I love doing it, and I feel like I have something to say that can help people create more ease in their lives. Another side-effect of writing is that it helps me clarify my thoughts and beliefs, because I have to finally put them into words. I am now too accustomed to this to stop.

Do you keep a personal journal/diary as well as your blog? If so, how much is one an extension of the other?

No I don’t keep a journal. I have tried, but every time I do I think, “Who’s going to read this? Not me.”

What is your first memory of writing creatively?

Every year we had to write short stories in grade school. It was one of the few parts of school I loved.

Tree and ocean at Napier

Describe something that is beautiful to you.

The surf at sunrise. I really need to move closer to the ocean.

What were the circumstances in which you first came to read Ralph Waldo Emerson?

Good question… I came across a quote of his, in the Crypto-Quote puzzle in the newspaper I think. I forgot about him but remember being amused that his middle name was “Waldo.” I pictured Waldo from “Where’s Waldo.” Later on I was reading a book by Jon Kabat-Zinn, who mentioned Henry David Thoreau. I read a bit of Thoreau and soon learned that Emerson had been his mentor. I finally looked up Emerson, found his essay, “Self-Reliance” online, and loved it.

How much of an effect has travelling had on your belief system(s)?

I think it has left me with fewer beliefs… fewer foregone conclusions about people. It’s left me more curious, more open, more forgiving and more grateful. It has also rearranged my priorities in life. I now feel it is very important for me to travel a lot, which means I can’t settle for a typical 9-5 lifestyle for long. I can’t be happy with two weeks’ vacation a year. Or even four or eight. I need to see the world in a big way, and I’m not waiting for another lifetime to do it in.

Sandstorm on Farewell Spit

You frequently discuss the effect of habit (and addiction) on today’s society. How large a role does habit-forming play in your life now?

Well I’m currently doing an experiment where I’m trying to install five little habits at once, and it’s going well so far. Habit change is hard and I’m not particularly good at it. I have never had terrible habits that I was desperate to change, which means I have never developed a lot of strong habit-changing skills. But I am always working on something, and when I look back I see I have made a lot of progress.

Habits and addictions are by far the greatest determinants of a person’s quality of life, so I will never stop working on them.

Is there a post on your blog that you are most proud of?

Not one above all others, but I’m particularly proud of Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed, Who You Really Are, and How to Be Right All the Time.

Name two countries: one you’d like to visit, and one you’d like to visit again.

I would like to visit France, and I’d like to visit Thailand again.

Sunset at Napier

Do you believe in God?

Tricky question. My answer is no, but that doesn’t mean I think God doesn’t exist. I just think the conventional concept of God — the God as characterized by churches — is way out to lunch, like not even close to meaningful, and I don’t think there’s any merit to it. The idea that God has emotions or desires, or resembles a person or a thinking mind in any way strikes me as completely asinine.

So when people ask me that question I say no. What the word God means to me is not something I can explain fully here, but let’s say it has something to do with a higher intelligence that human beings can have access to, yet are habitually oblivious to. Beliefs, more than anything, are what get in the way. So believing in God doesn’t make sense to me. Once it’s a belief — a mental image or a mental position — it’s not God.

Clearly there is some order behind the universe that we don’t yet fully understand. Even hard-minded empiricists must agree with that. God, to me, is that order, or is an aspect of that order. It seems to be intelligent. Einstein would agree.

***

This interview is part of Inside the Bloggers Studio, an ongoing project of short interviews with bloggers I read and admire.  (Apologies to James Lipton.)  To view the archive, click the category tag in the ‘By Category’ section at the top right of this page.

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