On a Non-Rural Ancestry

IMG_5410

What I loved most about my grandpa was his appetite for reading. Although Grandpa predictably slathered all of his main meals in a hefty dose of Heinz ketchup, a Nassau County Library card was the only proper thing that could satiate his hunger. Just before we moved him to Hospice, I tried to tell him about a book a professor assigned me. In response, he shouted angrily, “I don’t care!” That is how I knew he was gone.

Interestingly, my grandpa left me with one book recommendation in his late life, Willa Cather’s My Antonia. For the past four years, the classic masterpiece about life on the Nebraska prairie hung in my head like an unfinished homework assignment or a blurry memory. I could not bring myself to go to pick it up, instead preferring more contemporary, presumptively more progressive titles such as Citizen or The Sixth Extinction.

IMG_5412

We built a wigwam with bamboo sticks, chopped ourselves

For 2017, I decided to challenge myself to read only books by women authors, so my grandpa’s suggestion felt all the more critical. When I was home last month, I went to trusty-as-ever Bookman’s and bought a copy for $3, giving in, owning up.

As I started to read the story of Jim Burden and his 1900s childhood, I felt something I never expected: a sense of commonality. There is a passage, near the beginning of the book, that stopped my heart:

“The earth was warm under me, and warm as I crumbled it through my fingers…I kept as still as I could. Nothing happened. I did not expect anything to happen. I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep.”

I am writing this blog post from Stony Point, New York at a summer multifaith farming institute. The last time I spent this much time in New York, I was with my grandpa at the end of his life. The July humidity is familiar.

Essentially, I am spending a month of my summer living in community with others who are part of Abrahamic faith traditions, getting my hands and feet dirty by foraying into farming and learning from spiritual teachers about the best path to resistance and resilience. The process of farming is giving me a magic power, the ability to relate to a tradition of working the land that I never claimed for myself.

On our first day at the farm, we harvested beets. Kneeling in the ground, I marveled at my hands. They were covered in splotches of dirt brown and purple-red. It was so easy to lift the vegetables from the ground, a small miracle of someone else’s careful sowing, watering and weeding. As a neophyte field worker, I must scrub underneath my fingernails carefully, adding a new step in my hand-washing process.

Since my start in farming, I realized a new meaning for metaphors. I grabbed a pitchfork and stuck it into heavy compost, finally understanding the literal meaning of to “unearth.”

Out on the field, I wonder where I can form similes to the generations of humanity participating in agriculture. The story of a rural life, of growing one’s own food, is deeply embedded in almost every culture, country and time.

IMG_5406

Minahil makes the perfect challah

To put in plainly, I have never before associated my Jewishness with farmers. In my childhood, I detested bugs and loved air conditioning. When I close my eyes and imagine my ancestors, I remember Grandpa telling me how his mother worked in a sweatshop on the Lower East Side, sewing a dress for Mamie Eisenhower. At Stony Point, I live with people who do explicitly link their Jewish heritage to the land. It makes me realize I could have been missing a connection that was there all along.

While reading My Antonia, I kept wondering how my grandpa was tied to Cather’s story. The life I knew that he had was never one on the open prairie; instead it was synagogue, PBS movies, the legacy of being a World War II veteran. What was my Grandpa’s recommendation trying to tell me? Why was this specific book the only one he repeatedly suggested?

My best guess is that he was, we are, I am able to draw happiness from the land, all of his stories dissolved into something bigger than ourselves.

IMG_5480

Dawn in Stony Point, NY

Posted in 2017 | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Beauty/Disorder

Back in Jakarta, our group attended a two-day flooding workshop, a joint effort between researchers at Northeastern and Tarumanagara University (UNTAR). At the workshop, the 35 of us spent the day in a conference room learning from a wide swath of experts trying to build a more resilient Jakarta, us picking up on bits and pieces of familiar terms.

Kemal Taruc, who did a Fulbright last semester at Northeastern, compared how Jakarta could learn better governance practices from watershed management along the Willamette in Oregon. Alldo Fellix Januardy, a human rights lawyer, gave a moving presentation about the plight of the kampung residents subject to illegal eviction. We also heard presentations about remote data sensing systems, flood mapping and land subsidence.

The workshop was valuable because it showed hidden connections among a varied set of things I care about.

IMG_4802

Parasailing outside Bogor

Over the course of the semester, I wrote my senior capstone paper on how the citizens of Dharavi, Mumbai, of Slumdog Millionaire fame, resisted redevelopment plans. When I drafted my one-sentence thesis for the paper, I struggled because I wanted to include some elements about climate change. In the interest of having a clearer, more feasible paper, my professor advised leaving climate change out.

On Day 2 of the workshop, I listened to a presentation by an architect named Yu Sing. He worked with the people in Kampung Kota to design a community that encouraged social interaction and added green and blue spaces. As much as my brain will linger on the innovative designs that he displayed, his words stick with me even more strongly.

1) “A flood is not a disaster, a flood is a natural condition.”

2) “I see beauty in the disorder.”

If, when I came to Indonesia, I could discern beauty in the disorder, does that mean that there is also ugliness in harmony?

Upon landing in the Denpasur Airport, the flight attendants and pilots all greeted me with a knowing, “Have fun!” I cannot recall hearing that phrase upon landing anywhere else.

IMG_4829

Juli finding Om in the airport’s meditation garden

Sometimes, when I look outside the window on the bus in Bali, I understand exactly what they mean. Everything here is so lush. The red rooftops, the purple-blue volcanoes in the distance, the gold decals on the statues, they all shine. This is an enchanted island. Here, the sea and the mountains are close together.

Initially, we stayed in a city called Ubud for five days. Along Monkey Forest Road, there were dozens of mostly empty restaurants, souvenir shops, bars and beauty salons. For the most part, everything was deliriously cheap. Nice dinner? $6. Bikini wax? Maybe $8. Many Balinese people sat on the stoops of the sidewalks and called at us, offering taxis or manicures. The most haunting aspect of all of this was just how much there was. You could walk for 20 minutes and see three, four, five shops with people getting pedicures after dinnertime. It was if the places never closed. By the time we left Ubud, I felt relieved, again.

A few mornings ago, we visited one of the most aesthetically pleasing Hindu temples I had ever seen. The Pura Besakih temple complex is split into three sections, in order to honor Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma, three pathways of stairs leading to what looks like pagodas on top of a big hill. As we walked towards the hill, many small girls approached us and asked us if we wanted to buy postcards.

After my time in India, I learned how to ignore these girls. The rules I set for myself included saying almost nothing and always avoiding eye contact. Last year, my roommate Lila spent a whole hour crying about child poverty in our hotel room. Her compassion was jarring to me then because I had learned how not to be soft.

This year, I bought four, breaking my silly rules and feeling nauseous about how little $2 or $5 means to me. Quickly after I handed the girl the rupiahs, I saw what must have been the ringmaster of the operation supervising our deal.

Buying or not buying does not make a more moral person. That day, though, it felt hard to think about how many tourists pass through the Pura Besakih temple complex and not see the children and adults who were there, too.

IMG_4855

Maggie and Rachel at the coffee plantation

On these four small postcards, I tried to relay my experiences to my friends back in the US. Nothing I could really say worked on the back of a 4X6. I always got cut off. In some, I only wrote about the girl who sold me the postcard, the chipped nail polish on her toenails. In others I focused on the beaches and the fun.

And now, in the format of this blog post, there is no real cutoff. There is no excuse I can give. I could write for quadruple the amount I did on a postcard. Still, I would not be able to make sense of things. All I know is that inside of this chaos, there are bird cages that adorn traditional homes, tourists everywhere, first borns named Wayan and a forest full of monkeys.

IMG_4952

The water is so warm you can wade in the ocean at night and look up at the stars

Posted in 2017 | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Smells Like Pink Sugar

IMG_4693

Giant Baby Statue in Singapore’s Garden’s by the Bay

The running (pun intended) joke of my first trip to India was one of our group member’s morning outdoor barefoot jogs. While some of us headed to the hotel gyms, this unnamed participant dazzled us with stories of sprints-sans-shoes. Westerners jogging in Asia has caused some controversy beyond my 2014 Dialogue. You can find an example of this in Mark Zuckerberg’s recent “smog jog” in Beijing. Aside from India’s comparable air pollution, the heat in the country in May is oppressive, the humidity even more so.

After considering a dash of my own in Singapore, I couldn’t help but think of bare

IMG_4627

One of the views on my run.

feet, Indian cities and naiveté. Although I was nostalgically hesitant, Elisa clued me into the running paths along the Marina Channel. My morning run, on my final day in the city, was sweltering and I sweat more than I thought humanly possible. However, the run was safe and easy. In the US, when I go for jogs, I sometimes worry about getting hit by an aggressive driver or passing through a tricky area.

However, Singapore was wide open, clean and absurdly safe. I felt a sort of supreme confidence about passing through the sidewalk. At night I knew I could walk freely through the streets without worry.

Let me provide a bit of context. In Singapore, there are cameras everywhere. Some refer to the place as an advanced surveillance state, with stringent rules that provide protection at the cost of freedom. The Pink Dot movement, which seeks to legalize homosexual sex, was subject to even more restrictions during our time there. Despite the many thought-provoking conversations I had, we were there for a week. We understood what we could and left the rest behind.

Our tour guide, who was notably hired by the government, explained Singapore’s

IMG_4639

A choose-your-own adventure game in the WWII History museum. If you decide to steal food from the Japanese government, you get stabbed in the thigh.

harsh penalties for rape. If a woman was drunk, he would not even dare to enter an elevator alone with her. This respect for strict laws was echoed in other spaces, like during a panel in which we heard from local Singaporeans like a pilot, entrepreneur and chef. All of the panelists we heard from agreed that gender discrimination did not exist in the small country of Singapore.

The city-state has a population of only 5.5 million people. I could not help but be struck by how empty and quiet the streets were. There is barely any traffic because the government makes it very expensive to own a car. During a drive back from a museum, our bus actually turned around in the middle of the highway. None of the cars that were stopped by our bus honked. They just waited patiently and came to a slow stop. Where else in the world does this happen?

Singapore invented the food court, called “hawker centers” there. It is a country where lunch felt like the most celebrated meal of the day, smack in the center of working time. I struggled to find distinctly Singaporean activities, cuisines or art – everything felt borrowed from somewhere else.

By my last day, however, something inside of me switched. If the smartest, most wealthy people dreamed up city it could have been Singapore. That day, I had my first-ever, delicious Malaysian meal. Afterwards, I stopped into an Arabic store where the perfume I tried smelled eerily like Pink Sugar, what I wore in middle school based on an answer Zac Efron gave in a Tiger Beat interview. From my short time, my read is that Singapore is a beautiful but ultimately empty city.

I flew out of the place with so many questions, while admiring an airport that was two years into the future. (The Singapore airport lets you rate every experience, from walking through its cactus gardens to the security line wait time. I waited for maybe 2 minutes in the security line. Now that’s what I call vision and planning.) What is the value in striving for perfection? Can you mix multiple cultures to create a new one? Should we really be criticizing a country that achieved great wealth and great success in just a generation?

IMG_4650

I laid in the grass here and watched the kites float by. Few feelings in life are better.

Riddhi, one of the members of our trip, urged the group to engage while criticizing and criticize while engaging. I think this is an apt mindset to have. Here in Jakarta, two of the group members stayed back in Singapore because of a passport snafu. They just made it back and rejoined the group.

In their absence, I continually asked myself if I was jealous of them for staying there. I remembered the unreal Gardens by the Bay with fondness, the mystical Marina Barrage. Then, I thought about rickshaws and street stalls with smoke coming out of the top. I thought about the Jakarta McDonald’s worker asking Mason if he bought his shoes at Zara. It felt something like relief.

Posted in 2017 | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Always Pack Extra Tums and Other Things I Know

IMG_4542

My first glimpse of Singapore.

For four summers, I have developed a sort-of ritual. I bake in the Arizona sun for a couple of weeks, scour my medicine cabinet for sunscreen or Tums, and pray for my visa to arrive on time. My post-spring semester routine is predictable. It invariably reminds me of my tolerance for high heat, how much surplus medicine I own, and how hard it is to leave some things behind. Still, its consistency is comforting.

Between the 11 hours from Boston to Dubai and 7 from Dubai to Singapore, I had a substantial amount of time crouched next to strangers to contemplate. I read Fun Home and cried at the ending, confirming the fact that airplanes increase my tear flow. I practiced my Arabic by listening to the Emirates safety instructions. Although, at one point in my life, I had the real-world superpower of being able to fall asleep in any location, today I am restless and thinking about change.

Over the next four weeks, I will be a student mentor on the Climate Change Science and Policy Dialogue (again) but the circumstances have shifted somewhat.

IMG_4561

Merlion Park’s architecture is jaw-dropping.

The cities: Most importantly, we will be in Singapore and Indonesia, two new stamps in my passport.

Trip focus: The focus of this year’s trip is urban and coastal resilience, which is a slightly more targeted topic than in past years.

SIRF students: This year, I am not the only person returning on our trip. We are a big group and include six students who are conducting independent research projects in the cities we are visiting. All of them, Mike, Elisa, Shahed, Laura, Rachel and Lauren, have been to India with Professor Ganguly in the past and were inspired to start their own inquiries this summer.

My path: In this moment in college, in time, in space, I am a little more unsure of what is next than I have been in other years. That’s okay. I hope to take this time to explore.

The presidency: Obama and Trump are very, very different. Enough said.

IMG_4575

Rachel, Elisa and Elise are as excited as I was about the Urban Redevelopment Authority.

I could predict the past two summers in India in certain ways. The itineraries were similar to each other. I had favorite foods and cities that I returned to. As an outsider looking in, I was able to learn more about a place and culture mostly new to me when I began college.

Ultimately, on my fourth and final experience on the Climate Change Science and Policy Dialogue, my theme is uncertainty. Throughout my work in understanding climate change from a policy perspective, the buzzword is almost always a part of the conversation. Climate models produce ranges of probability, not concrete answers. If you read any United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, you won’t find categorical statements. Instead, the words likely probable potential come up over and over again.

Skeptics who deny human-caused climate change manipulate complexity and use it as a justification to avoid action. The answers are not absolute and therein lies the challenge.

From time to time, I will be updating this blog with stories from the trip, something that I am trying to keep consistent from previous summers. I cannot wait for more chances to learn, write and discover, that’s for certain.

IMG_4554

My first Singaporean meal — Tom Yum Soup. Yum, indeed.

Posted in 2017, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Repetition

IMG_6982

Me at my favorite fort in India, the Red Fort

To get to the Lufthansa lost and found desk during a layover in the Frankfurt airport, you need to

  • have a true friend or two to help you withstand the scary emotional implications of a lost iPhone
  • go through customs and earn two German passport stamps
  • marvel at the Volkswagen taxis everywhere
  • ring three separate yet intercom-connected doorbells
  • speed walk on a moving walkway

In what has now congealed itself as a Bressler family tradition, I lost my phone in Germany. I do not know how, but somewhere between the fog of the airplane and security, it went missing. My first lost phone ever. What could have been a devastating experience turned into one that was a reminder of how profoundly lucky I am to be with people that look out for my well-being.

Before I left India, I wondered what I would come home with and what I would leave behind.

Concretely, my bags weigh more because of scarves and extra dirt and the two Tagore books that Ammu bought me. I left behind a pair of headphones, an empty bottle of conditioner, 12 Cliff Bars wrappers, the third photos of the Taj Mahal.

Goodbyes are weird. They never feel complete. You can say goodbye once, draw someone in for a hug and cry a little but there is always so much left unsaid. During our final bus ride as a group, Elisa and Matt read superlatives. Rose got “Most Likely to Use Professor Ganguly’s Dating Service.” Kate’s was “Most Likely to Write the Screenplay for Mother Theresa Superstar.” My favorite was Gavin’s because it was so simple. “Thirstiest.” He once drank a five-liter bottle of water in less than 24 hours.

IMG_6940

Stylin’ shoe covers

This is another way to say I am really going to miss these people. I am really going to miss India.

 

Currently, the book in my lap is “Poor Economics,” which is written by the founders of my future co-op, J-PAL. J-PAL’s work is, succinctly, about utilizing research-based solutions to end poverty. In the book, there are countless examples around places I have been to: Udaipur, Kolkata and Mumbai. Three times in India and I am beginning to understand things more. The cities are no longer just scribbles on a page but they are also people I met, places I journaled about.

Trying to summarize five weeks in India feels impossible in the way that it feels impossible to summarize just one day. On one of my last nights in Delhi, I stared at the traffic and looked out at hundreds of cars at a standstill. Repeat and repeat. The reiterations are everywhere: carts with dozens of mangos, hundreds of faces awe-stricken by their first sight of the Taj Mahal, dusty roads with enormous slabs of marble one after the other, hexagonal curves looping around and around in the windowpanes in Rajasthan’s palaces. It makes me feel so small. In another sense, I feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of things to see and care about: sanitation, climate change, poverty, inequality, healthcare, child beggars, Bollywood movies, Modi and disappearing red crabs.

On one of the winding drives in Shillong, Professor Ganguly yelled at me to look out the window when we passed by a particularly beautiful waterfall or a goat sneezing by the side of the road. “Are you awake? Are your eyes open?” Afterwards, everyone in my car laughed about this moment. I was the only person in the car who stayed awake the whole time.

IMG_7054

A glimpse of my first tiger in the wild

 

In this post-India phase, I want more than anything, to keep my eyes open, to take in both inspiring and painful sights and to never stop caring about what I see. I want to be able to shout “Yes I am awake. My eyes are open.” Full stop.

 

Posted in 2016 | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Long Hugs and New Friends

In India, I hear more. When you strip away the constant noise of needless newsfeeds and buzzing text notifications, you aren’t left with silence. Instead, there are the sounds of birds in the morning, of rickshaws honking meters away, plates clanking.

One of the most constant parts of the structure of this trip is the waiting. As members of this Dialogue, we take long winding bus rides and sit before meals and learn things about each other. Learning, more broadly speaking, takes place through many avenues: lectures, site visits, climate models and journal articles. However, I learn as much through these things as I do through my encounters with other people.

IMG_6906

My roommate Lila in the Delhi airport

IMG_6903

Climate change chocolate

A member of the Dialogue, Kasha, did her capstone on solar energy and informed me about the differences between commercial and residential solar panels. My roommate, Lila, is teaching me how to play the ukulele.

In another experience, after giving a panel at the University of Burdwan, I received some friend requests from people in audience, students studying economics like me. Over Facebook messenger, we chatted about the caste system and Donald Trump.

Sometimes, people just introduce themselves. In the airport bathroom in Guwahati, a girl with a headband and sweet smile asked me where I was from. “US.” I replied. “What state are you from?” She responded she was from Kolkata, West Bengal. In response, I mumbled something about Kati Rolls.

A few days later, after a five-hour drive into the mountain in a vegetarian restaurant

IMG_6842

Large country, small world

parking lot, I heard a knock on my car window. It was the same girl I had met in the airport!

This third time around, I feel so much more open to meeting new people. Now, I ask questions about what states and cities other people are from with the same aura of recognition that they give me.

It doesn’t hurt, either, that our TA, Udit, acts as a translator wherever we go.

Last night, Udit took me, Rose and Tavish to his aunt’s house for dinner in Delhi. Immediately, in the stairwell of the apartment, Udit’s mom and aunt each gave me a long hug, like I was a part of their family too. While reflecting on this moment, I can’t help but feel suspended. Grateful.

A few days ago, I felt inspired enough about a person I met here to write a poem, my first one in a couple years.

IMG_6770

But first: sunset in Shillong

 

Amit told me the

Bare bones of his life story

Between the traffic

 

Although my sister

Makes fun of my ten and two

I close my eyes and

 

Remember that it’s

Possible to drive through

The south of Mumbai

 

When the lessons take

Place at the age of thirteen.

Dusty rural roads.

 

He said: “I’ve always

Wanted to be an artist,

To paint a canvas

 

So ebullient it

Would make the Louvre explode:

Self-combustion from

 

Pure beauty. Amit

Likes beautiful things which

Makes sense: white walls, huge

 

Bowls of golden sweets,

Grassy parks just before the

Sun is about to

 

Set. That afternoon

I wore an unraveling shawl,

Wavy lines of black

 

Thread left a trail of

Reality. Of cheapness.

In my head, I change

 

Opulence for

Artistry, even when I

Love the things that break

 

Quickly. Between his

Forty seventh and forty

eighth patients of the

 

Day, Amit makes molds

Of broken teeth, sculpting more

Magnificently,

 

With more precision

Than Michelangelo could.

He folds his dreams of

 

Immortality

In a museum somewhere

Into smiles, and

 

An application

To American dentistry

School. Hoping. Waiting.

Posted in 2016 | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Gut Feelings

IMG_6710

There was something I couldn’t put my finger on about the hotel we stayed at on Mandarmani beach. Something felt off. Initially, I had a few vague reasons that explained my discomfort.

  1. Immediately, upon opening the gates of the hotel, there is a row of enormous eight-foot statues of bronze horses. They do not resemble any type of animal I saw on the way. To get to the hotel, we drove by villages with chickens, cows and goats. As we got closer there were lobster ponds. But chariots of horses stampeding by the beach? Not a thing, as far as I observed.*
  2. In the center of the property, there was a broken mini children’s roller coaster. Next to it was a foggy glass box with a slightly terrifying life-size sculpture of a clown inside.
  3. One of the people on this trip, Sofia, put it well. “This was probably the hippest place to be in 1992, but nothing has been changed or maintained since then.”

On Saturday, between the insane “morning” hours of 4:30-6:30, I got my answers.

My roommate Lila and I, along with about a dozen others, resolved to catch the sunrise at 4:30 am. We climbed over a padlocked gate and sat on the beach, staring and waiting. For a while, it seemed as if we came during a bad day – the sky potentially too cloudy to catch a glimpse of the rising sun. When we nearly gave up, we stood in the sand and felt the clay beneath our feet. Then, we saw it: a space of emptiness between the clouds. Very briefly, we saw the sun rise until it left a pink after image.

Beautiful.

By that time, Professor Ganguly and his friend Suman were also on the beach. They invited us to ride on these flatbed motorbike vehicles, which we used to travel a few kilometers down the coast to see the red crabs. At one point, as recently as 1990, the beach was completely red, covered with millions of crabs.

IMG_6708

Coconuts being sold on the beach.

Since the development of hotel properties on this coast, the crab population has become endangered. It took about 10 minutes of riding own the coast to see what is left of the red crabs. Like magic, if a person steps onto the sand near the crabs, they disappear into their holes. Poof. They can sense the vibrations. The villagers have been eating these red crabs for years, but the development of hotels on the coastline has significantly affected both the people and crabs who call the Mandarmani area in West Bengal home.

Lucky for me, I sat next to Suman on the ride there and back and he offered some more substantial explanations for my uneasy feeling about the hotel.

First of all, the hotel owner is currently in jail for money laundering. Moreover, the Hindu temple sitting on the coastline is something the original owner invented for tourists. Here’s the biggest kicker: in a few years, all of the properties near the coastline will be demolished because their existence violates environmental regulations.

Suman and I chatted about how bringing hotels to this coast has fundamentally changed the villagers’ way of life. In the past, they used to use agriculture for subsistence, but now, they’re mostly employed as hotel labor, farming less and less.

Watching the 6 am beach, we passed by villagers and tourists alike. Some roamed the shorelines taking pictures while others cast out rope nets for fishing.

When we returned, we witnessed a pack of cows on the beach. It was like I was in a peaceful dream, one that didn’t involve any scary clowns or extremely large horses. I saw a calf drink its mother’s milk. A larger cow licked a cracker right off the palm of my hand.

It was a morning I cannot forget. When I thought about the red crabs disappearing, both into their holes in the moment and also forever, I felt an unprecedented urge to tear up. Normally, I don’t always feel emotional about climate change. But there I was, standing not inside of a dream but in the real world and the effects of the anthropogenic era were right in front of me.

 

*Note of accuracy here, upon further research I learned that horses actually have significant symbolism in Hindu mythology and the first horse is said to have ascended out of the ocean. So not totally out of place.

 

Posted in 2016 | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment