Elephant Rides: Animal Abuse vs. Tourism

Elephant Rides: Animal Abuse vs. Tourism

Elephant rides top many bucket lists, and tourists from around the world seek them out. Like walking into a guide book, we ran into “domesticated” elephants several times now in Kerala, India, always completely by accident.  Well, by accident or unknowingly on our part.  But the two times when we saw elephants at or near hotels were certainly no accident.  I quote the word domesticated because I’m not convinced that such an animal can be domesticated.  And if it can, surely this cannot happen over the course of one lifetime–isn’t true domestication a multi-generation process, a form of contrived evolution? According to EleAid, India has some of the strictest laws in Asia governing domesticated elephants, but the laws aren’t enforced.  City life is completely unsuited to what elephants need, and some elephants used in tourism or in temples are known for being chained to one spot their whole life or completely over-worked. Elephant rides often force animals to carry too much weight and for too long, with insufficient time to rest. Being on display in public exposes elephants to human food and limits their ability to exercise. As a person who loves animals (and used to spend quite a bit of time in the sciences), I find myself pulled between two poles: I want to both be with animals and see them able to live their lives naturally.  As interesting as it was to spot a bear on a neighbor’s porch in Maine, for example, it was sad to realize that this animal had acquired a taste for human food and was bold enough to walk up to someone’s...
Make Your Own Luck

Make Your Own Luck

In photography, people often dismiss great shots by attributing them to luck or other outside factors. That person just happened to be there at the right time, they have nicer equipment, that shot is easier because the subject itself is so interesting, colorful or rare.  But as Andrea, one of my favorite photography professors, reminds me, photographers make their own luck. Yes, that may be a lucky shot, but you’re not seeing all the other shots that didn’t work out.  You don’t see how many hours they waited in that location for something good to happen in that frame, how much research they did to find the right location, or how much time they invested getting their subjects to trust them and feel comfortable.   You’re also not seeing how much time they spend practicing being creative and getting to know their own equipment, so when the time comes they can see something more interesting than what everyone else is seeing, and capture the image quickly. During my two summers in Cuba as a TA to Northeastern University’s photography program, the students with the best collection of images were the ones who created their own luck. They went back to the same locations over and over again, getting to know people and becoming an accepted presence in their midst as opposed to an intruder existing outside the action. They learned the necessary background information to find the potential for great shots, and learned when the variables could possibly line up.  Eventually, this hard work paid off with gorgeous, insightful, authentic views of their subjects in their own environs. Like a...
Street Harassment and Traveling Advice for Women

Street Harassment and Traveling Advice for Women

Everyone has a lot to say about women travelers, especially if they’re solo, especially if they go somewhere in the Global South.  And really, everyone has a lot to say about women.  Some of the advice is good, like researching backup plans ahead of time so you don’t get stuck staying somewhere that makes you uncomfortable.  It’s pretty obvious and rather good advice for everyone, but at least it’s not bad.  There’s also a lot fo bad advice out there, ranging from racist to victim-blaming, restrictive to non-sensical.  Some people just can’t seem to stop themselves from sharing this advice, even if I don’t ask.  Even if they’ve never been where I’m going.  All of the advice essentially boils down to one premise: as a woman, you are vulnerable and it is therefore your responsibility to alter your behavior in every way imaginable in order to prevent other people from harming you.  If you fail in this, you will be judged for your poor safety efforts and it will be used as an excuse to make blanket statements about what women travelers should or should not do.  Its for your own good, honey. Thankfully, there was very little street harassment directed my way on my trip to Kerala, India, contrary to the typical American view of the country.  Some of us were discussing possible reasons for this, with the most obvious being that we spent very little time on actual streets.  We were generally in our bus, and when we walked we tended to be on the grounds of a hotel or other attraction where the only people we see are staff. ...
The Party

The Party

After I had made all my arrangements to go to Kerala, I found out something fantastic: it has an active communist party (or two)!  Does communism find me or am I chasing communism?  Either way, I find it fascinating, especially to see how it works in a unicameral parliamentary democracy.  Kerala prides itself on being the first place where communism came into power via peaceful elections, a tidbit no one lost any time in telling me.  The Communist Party of India (Marxist), which leads the Left Democratic Front (which includes the currently-impotent Communist Marxist Party), is still very active, generally winning elections on alternating 5 year terms. The Kerala Land Reform Act (which originated in 1963 with several notable amendments),  gave land rights to tenants, ending the feudal system (except for cash crops) and giving thousands a home of their own for the first time.  The reform completely altered the state and set it on a trajectory for relatively little economic stratification.  Redistribution of wealth (and land in particular) is a hallmark of communism, often lamented by wealthy landowners, and beloved by hardworking farmers freed of their peasant status (unless they’re just random people who you forced to be farmers.  That doesn’t go over to well.)  People commonly referred to Kerala as a state made entirely of the middle class, and I think the land reforms were a key factor in this. Communism in Kerala hit a turning point in 1967 with the Naxalite uprising, and other ensuing violent acts.  Elements within the party wanted a more anarchic stance, and used violence to that end, which drastically changed public opinion.  The communists, who at the...
Ayurveda: Experiencing an Ancient South Indian Tradition

Ayurveda: Experiencing an Ancient South Indian Tradition

Ayurveda is a system of healthcare and healing that is known worldwide, and originates in Kerala, India.  It was what I heard most about before arriving.  Scholars think Ayurveda has been around since 5,000 BC, and the majority of practitioners worldwide train in Kerala.  Ayurveda doctors evaluate patients by using all of their senses, and consider a person holistically: mental and physical health as well as diet.  Recommendations for treatment often include dietary changes as well as physical treatments, and it’s common to treat things like weight gain, migraines, and general aches and pains as well as more serious ailments that Western medicine would say requires surgery. The grounds of an Ayurveda spa. Guests are expected to speak softly and respect the treatments that are taking place.  Ayurveda practitioners use a variety of herbs and spices in their healing, as well as other natural elements like milk, honey, and oil.  Some are mixed in a poultice and rubbed over the body while others are applied and wrapped on parts of the body.  Warm oils are a major component of Ayurveda, and it seems most procedures involve covering the person in oil at one point or another.  There is also quite a bit of massage in Ayurveda, and, of course, this is the component that carries over to the casual consumer like myself. Unlike western massage, the focus is on rhythmic rubbing, sometimes with two different masseurs at once.  Patients are always treated by someone of the same gender, and most procedures involve a high degree of nudity.  Genuine Ayurveda can also involve leeches and enemas, although I’m willing to bet few tourists get involved...
Munnar: Street Photography in India

Munnar: Street Photography in India

Munnar was like a breath of fresh, mountain air. High up in the Western Ghats, the cool mountain air of Munnar was a lovely relief after so many sticky days. Without a doubt, Munnar was one of the most beautiful and relaxing parts of our time in Kerala. The hill station of Munnar was nestled up amongst tea plantations that covered the mountain like a blanket. We were pleasantly surprised that the state-run hotel was quite nice, and a few of us got to eat french fries!  Most importantly, since we arrived before sunset, everyone had some free time to themselves.  This all came at the point in the trip where people usually need a break–from the hectic pace of travel, from the parade of foreign buffets, from the formula of a group trip, and from the inside of our (admittedly swag) bus. Munnar came at the perfect time. I went for a walk in the small, but bustling town with Gaia and Meruschka, eventually coming across about half of our group at one time or another.  I enjoyed moving at our own speed and in such small numbers.  It always relaxes me to be able to shoot photos without a group either waiting for me or constantly suspicious that I could possibly find a shot they didn’t.  The results aren’t exactly stellar, but shooting always helps to clear out the cobwebs, which is exactly what I needed after a long day on the bus. Like everywhere else in Kerala, multiple major religions were present at every turn in Munnar.  As we moved farther north, the increasing influence of Arabs...

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