Friday, September 9, 2016

A tale of sojourn: A letter from a dear friend

Dear friends,

To dream of travelling the world, on a not-so-empowering Indian passport, remained a dream for long. Starting 2012, as life took me to USA and Europe and got me to touch and be touched by South Africa, the long distance to Latin America was a distant dream.

I had the chance of meeting Salvadorans Jose and Tula when I was in Rochester, NY, in May 2016. That's when I knew it was a sign that I ought to be applying to the reporting fellowship by IWMF to El Salvador, and not to Colombia, as I had originally planned. Jose translated the conversation between Tula and I in Spanish and English, I found an editor willing to write me a reference letter because of the uncanny alignment of factors (I wanted to do a story on the under-reported Canadian gold mining in El Salvador, and Rana is my editor at a Canadian Left-wing e-zine who was more than willing to write the letter). The application was sent, I returned to India, and as I tried to shake off the jetlag in June, I was announced one of the six journalists selected to head to El Salvador in August. Happy dance in my head....

I remembered that the amazing Marion had spent time in El Salvador, and it was time for a Skype chat. She generously shared her contacts, friends list, her perspective and her dose of "It's not that dangerous as the international media screams" that was so assuring.

After a 30-hour travel (including a long layover) to Mexico City, I was soon soaking in the mist of the mountains in the outskirts of the city. That's where we journalists would congregate, that included 6 other journalists who would be headed to Colombia. Divine journalistic feminine juices overflowing.... a time for mirth, great food with avocado daily, engrossing conversations about how we'd prefer to dance before we die, sharing clothes with those whose bag hadn't arrived, discussing ways to keep marriages alive when our hearts and jobs lay in places where people were being killed, the perks of being visibly pregnant when reporting from outside the house of the world's most famous terrorist: it was a great time, only further accentuated by our shared acknowledgement of some degree of trauma or even PTSD touching us all. I was also able to fulfill my dream of wanting to tend to emergency medical situations, learning survival tactics in a conflict zone, how to stop catastrophic bleeding and tend to an exposed intestine in a blast... I confided in the trainer that I wish there were more "gory" images for us to learn from. We had a simulated kidnapping situation, which still has a deep impact on me.

We headed to San Salvador, and the long ride from the Monsenor Oscar Romero airport to our home base (=hotel) was very emotional: everything seemed like India! The canopy of banyan trees, the sunlight trickling through the thick bounty, the hills and their exposed barrenness in places the rocks had been carved out... so much like Assam! Before long, we hit the city and the colourful houses made me smile. I read signboards in Spanish, and I pinched myself: "I am in Latin America. I am in El Salvador. I am a foreign correspondent. I am here, living my dream." It was a deep realisation; it was heavy to realise that this dream came with much responsibility.

As someone emerging from depression and a definitive reckoning that journalism is what my purpose in life is -- at least for until I am in gut-wrenching prolonged discomfort and soul searching -- this trip was like a second chance to redeem myself. Hence the pressure felt greater, to do my best. So in the next 8 days of the official fellowship period, I exhausted myself. I was impatient when our local colleagues were not so forthcoming in arranging our interviews; I was disappointed that we were not going out dancing even though I was exhausted; I was extremely moved to see Romero painted on walls almost everywhere. I dealt with my confusion in the midst of the Indian-like summer by becoming a recluse during dinners, as I tried to make sense of my place there. All the other journalists were native of the US; the parts of the city that I was most intrigued by from the tinted windows of our cars were parts that they felt to be poor. I hated that I did not speak Spanish to truly connect with the old women who were making delicious pupusaon the street; I hated that my gracias could possibly be perceived as being dishonest. Because I felt so deeply connected to the place, I saw my family every night in my dreams. Not just blood relations, but long-lost friends from India and other places. The morning coffee minutes were spent in planning the day's interviews and navigating the flashes from my dreams. I struggled between performance and gratitude.

And yet, the view from the window and into my notebook provided respite. Perhaps it is the people who have lived through wars who are the most compassionate. I had seen the same in Sarajevo last year. People smiled more, and yet the bent backs of older people stopped me grooving to thereggaeton in my car seat. Young boys and girls were walking and waiting for the bus, and I kept on thinking of the stereotypes we hold so dearly because they seem so comfortable. Indeed, amid wars and gang violence and punishments for abortion, people still smile and laugh and discuss love and play football and wear lipstick and breastfeed babies and cherish pupusa. The trees of El Salvador, so much like the ones in India, reflected the real non-duality of the world. I went in that country, full of conflict. Yet each day, I found new angles of hope and resilience.

Perhaps cynicism is a privilege of the privileged.
Perhaps hope is the ambrosia of those oppressed.

A 26-year-old single mother, who had been raised by a single mother, is among the many women leading the fight against the mines. I felt a special kinship with her. She gave me a pair of blue earrings. I was so poor in my privilege that a hug is only what I could afford to give her.

A wonderful woman living in the wonderfully named region called Guacotecti had lost her activist son. She continues to be an activist, trying to find new ways to fight the shortage of groundwater, which had begun to disappear when mining exploration had begun. "I water my plants with the rain of my tears," she said, translated by my local colleague. What makes you so popular in your village, I asked her. She said, "Only the wife of the pastor listens to him as he only speaks of god. I follow god's path by representing my parched village in its fight for water."

So many dogs lay dead on the highways: again, a scene that is all too common. I introduced myself to everyone I met as being from India and yet feeling so emotional because everything in El Salvador felt just like in India. And in saying so repeatedly, I realised how the identity of being an Indian (whatever that might mean) is so intrinsic to me, in spite of being a jajabor because of feeling at once at home and homeless in different places.

"If you came to India, people would assume you to be from India because we look so similar," I would say, and have my local colleague translate. Language, indeed, was a mere tool. English, like Spanish, was the language of oppression, and yet, of privilege. The people of El Salvador have since long lost touch with their native Nahuat.

Donde es la esperanza - where is the hope: that was what I asked everywhere I went. And through their tales of oppression and resilience, people smiled and told me where esperanza was. And there is enough of it indeed, only if we care to and strive to notice it.

On Aug 25, the fellowship officially ended, and I stayed back for another 5 days, as it was already planned. I was physically, emotionally, intellectually exhausted and was tempted to return "home", to Bombay. But I am glad I realised that this was the adrenaline balloon compressing. I was indeed nervous about the next 5 days: in the last one year, I had realised that I wanted to travel only with a purpose, and that the purpose alone would be means enough for travel as a means to expand my vision. So I was nervous of feeling lost, of spending money on my exhaustion, of not finding ways to complete my reporting because I could not quite afford to pay the local colleagues to make contacts and translate, of having to make strenuous efforts to travel economically. I spoke to Papa and told him to just take note of my apprehension.

I think the dead loved ones hear better.

Within hours, I was on my way to Chalatenango, with Claudia, who spoke English. We would be staying the night in a village there. Visited the former home of a woman whose was burnt to death with 4 other kids by the army during the war; the house is now a memorial place. People with us were taking photographs; I could hardly take any. I don't know the old mother and I hugged for long minutes, and she held my palm, none of us saying a word as we didn't know each other's language.

We stayed the night in a house that could have been anywhere in rural India, except for thetortilla and frijole for dinner (but that too could be best translated into roti and rajma). I had a very strange dream that night as I slept in that house, amid the crowing of cocks and hens in that village: I dreamt that I was waking up on that bed, with Claudia also in that room, and I'm thinking to myself (in the dream): I am in Jharkhand (in India) and I don't speak the language. I don't remember the Jharkhandi words from last night. How shall I speak to them?

Then I woke up, and saw Claudia, and the confusion continued in my head of not knowing where I was and the language of the place. Suddenly she said groggily, "Buenos dias!" I then realised that this was Spanish and that I was not in Jharkhand but in El Salvador.

Never had I felt to be so far away and yet so close to that feeling of home.
I also realised how much I had loved to travel through rural India, and that was a part of my becoming and being.

It wasn't happenstance that I had the brief chance to meet one of the Jesuit priests Fr Tojeira; or navigating through the city and rural El Salvador comfortably (because I no more want to fight my body); a college student try her best to translate, amid rains, the narrative about a political movement in universities; or stealthily enjoy the terrace view of an anthropology museum; or walk at night in the streets of "dangerous" San Salvador ruminating over love and visas; or manage to please my hosts with yummy chicken curry 2 hours later than the promised dinner hour. The purpose in every moment was right there, in entirety.

The following days were in a blissful and shocking haze of the intent sent out being fulfilled: help came by in the most extraordinary ways, meeting women with whom I bonded over our conversations for politics needing to be an evolution of our spiritual aspirations, and soaking in the games of the youth in a fascinating event. Those teenagers playing drums and football, flirting with each other and talking about violence, were the hope of this country ravaged in the aftermath of a war and the broken efforts as rebuilding the country thereafter. The packed car with teenagers chattering non-stop from 4am until we reached the hills of Morasan at 8am reflected that hope. The packed pickup truck that we all stood holding the rails, as the vehicle went up and down the hill, giving us a magnificent view of WOWness around us, even as we yelled because of the roller-coaster ride, was that hope.

I was surprised how emotional I was about leaving El Salvador. It opened my heart to my own possibility as a journalist again; it opened my heart to the desperate need to look for hope, everywhere, always; it opened my heart in a way that at several moments, I felt empty and whole at the same moment. Nothing beats that feeling of gratitude.

I end my tale of sojourn here. Until the next flight or train ride or window seat.... write to me!

Gracias y amor,

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