Monday, November 29, 2010

Village by Village

We just returned from our two-day journey way out into rural areas of the jungle en route to the University of Nagaland. As we drove from Kohima through the regions of Wokha, Zunheboto, and Mokochung, I started to understand, if maybe for the first time, that we really were moving from one tribe to the next, village by village. In the Ao tribe alone, for example, there are 75 villages. We knew we were entering a new village when we passed under the welcome sign on each decorative gate. As we left each village, we would pass through a second gate with beautifully, hand-painted messages such as “Thank You” and “Safe Journeys”. We knew which tribe we were in (scratch that--Mele explained to us) that we could tell which tribe we were in by the tribe-specific patterns and colors on the shawls that many of the people had wrapped around their shoulders.

There were also checkpoints, where men (young and old) sat with machine guns in arms reach of a rope pulley that would raise or lower a hinged wooden gate (similar to the ones at ticket booths on our highways). The gates were always up. We never stopped at the stop signs. Mele told us that the only reason they might stop us is to ask for a photograph. At night, the police guards were either reading by candlelight inside the booth or gathered around a campfire outside. Our Restricted Access Zone permit (copied 25 times and spread out over three bags within arms reach at any time), have thus far been used to take notes.

The most terrifying experience that we have had thus far—one that I will l put in the category of most terrifying experiences I have had in my life—was the drive from here (Kohima) to Lumami. Imagine the most “curvy” road that you have ever been on. Tighten the curves to fit quadruple the number of switchbacks in the same length of space that you are imagining. Add enough potholes to erase the idea that there is a flat plane at all. Make a few of the potholes so deep that they require switchbacks themselves. Add hundred feet cliffs that starting immediately at the edge of the road. Subtract guardrails. Make it a one-way path. Add cars coming the other direction at record speeds. Drive it at 65 kilometers per hour.

At the same time, imagine that EVERY person you see along the way is BEAUTIFUL. (Literally, EVERY SINGLE PERSON.) The kids gather around you when you step out of the car and they giggle when you wave and they wave back. The water in the river is the aqua-green color of the ocean in St. John. The woman at the tea shop loves Van Dam. Mele explains every aspect of Nagaland that we ask about. Bamboo plants and banana trees line the road and the view of the mountains from the car window extends forever.

When Brian and I walked into the lecture hall at the University, all of the students stood up and clapped. We both gave lectures on our work, followed by at least an hour of conversation with faculty and students. The questions were less about our research and more about our motivations for coming to Nagaland, what it was like for students in America, and what we would tell people about them when we returned. The conversations ended when one student (all the way in the back) stood up and said, “Please tell them that we are not headhunters; we are hunters of knowledge.”

When we returned to the bungalow last night, Theja and Angel had lemon tea, chicken soup, Asian noodles, and cans of cold, underground beer (Fosters) waiting. We sat around the fire in their kitchen and talked and laughed until after 10pm. When we got back to our room, a hot pillow-like thing was already warming the covers. New towels were folded. The flames from the fireplace gave an orange glow across wood floors.

Off for lunch now, followed by a trip to meet a local woodcarver's house, followed by dinner with locally renown artists and musicians tonight.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

We Made It to NAGALAND!!!!!!!!!!!!!

And it is BEAUTIFUL!!!

Our small plane landed in Dimapur yesterday afternoon (which seems like a month ago) and drove directly to a press conference, where Brian and I were interviewed by reporters from the three largest newspapers in Nagaland. From there, Mele (sp?), our overly- generous host and new friend drove us straight up a massive Himalayan mountain--tall enough that the climate changed drastically in only 2 1/2 hours--to Kohima village. We went straight to Dream Cafe to install the exhibition, Parables for a Compassionate Revolution. Mele then drove us to "The Heritage, Old DC Bungalow on Officers Hill", which turned out to be an INCREDIBLY charming lodge at the very top of the mountain with 360 degree panoramic views (though we didn't know this until this morning as it was pitch black at the time) of the surrounding mountains and village. Theja's wife, Angel, made a delicious meal to welcome us to Nagaland and we all sat on the porch to exchange our life stories.

At this altitude, it qets very hot during the day and very cold at night. Our bedroom was freezing when we first entered! Within no time at all, Danzing (sp?) brought a space heater, more blankets, and built a fire in the room before we settled in for a jet-lag induced deep sleep.

The The Commissioner and Secretary of Art & Culture for Nagaland attended the exhibition(that's a HUGE deal--he is the international liason for the Indian government) and gave a beautiful opening speech--one that I wish we had recorded! Regarding the exhibition, Brian said that he thought the installtion was my best so far. It didn't hurt that, due to the location of the building, you could see off of the cliff down Kohima Village and out to more mountains from every window.

After that, Mele drove us through Kohima to an elementary school, to the Nagaland Museum, and to the WWII cemetery. There, several groups of kids ranging from 4 years old to 12 years old asked if we could, one by one, take pictures with them. Upon leaving, they hugged us, waved, and blew kisses. After driving away, we got stuck in some traffic (minor compared to U.S. traffic) near the hedge that surrounded the cemetery. When we looked through the window, we suddenly saw a group of the kids hiding in the bushes. When we waved, they waved back enthusiastically, blew more kisses and continued to say "Bye! We love you!" They followed us behind the bushes until the traffic loosened up and we headed into town.

Now, Brian is taking a nap before we head back into the village to meet with a group of youth to talk about "art and social intervention", followed by a visit to the house of two, renowned local artists.

We have had many interesting conversations in the short time that we've been here. We've learned more about the pairs of men with machine guns on the streets. We've talked about the realities of whether or not our concerns regarding safety in Nagaland are founded. We've learned more about the 16 tribes that make up the region (our hosts are from the Angami tribe) and the hundreds of unique languages that are used through the villages (each tribe has several villages; each village often has its own language). We have learned how to say "How are you?" in the inter-tribal language but that's about it.

Tomorrow we're off for a 5 hour drive up further into the mountains to the University of Nagaland, where we will spend two days working with the students. Once there, will also have the opportunity to visit to a remote tribal (Ao?) region to see "what real village life is like".

Overall, we are VERY happy here and feel that it is a great privilege to be invited into a place where few Americans have been. It is a BEAUTIFUL region (a gross understatement) and our hosts have raised our definition of hospitality ten-fold. Brian took over 500 photographs today. We promise that we won't post all of them, but we thought that you might enjoy these!

More to come...

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Our First Three Hours in Kolkata

We woke up early this morning, had an Indian breakfast at the hotel (lots of delicious things we've never tasted and still don't know the names for), and then ventured out into the city. Here's what we found in only the first three hours:

After a late lunch, we set off again in a 20 minute cab ride across the city to find a great contemporary art gallery that was showing sculptures and paintings by Indian artists.
Now, back at the hotel again, the jet lag is setting in. It's only 7:30pm. We're trying our best to stay awake until 9pm. 90 minutes to go...89.5 minutes...89 minutes...

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Going Places

After a looooong but perfect journey, we made it to Kolkata! Our connections in JFK and Delhi worked perfectly and all of our baggage (miraculously) made it from Rochester to Kolkata without a hitch. The most beautiful moment thus far:

We were standing at the conveyor belt waiting for our luggage when a group of Muslim people, as part of the annual pilgrammage to Mecca, moved through our horseshoe-shaped crowd to the next conveyor belt to our right. More people continued to join them until the whole space turned white. Between the hazy atmosphere, our travel exhaustion, and the florescent lights, the contrast between our space and theirs was heightened; our space defined by endless colors of black and theirs by white, glowing light that appeared to radiate from within. A buzzer went off and someone from the primarily Muslim group realized that the bags from their flight were coming through on a different conveyor belt. Within seconds, those dressed in long, white, flowing clothing weaved through the stable darkness of our crowd and quickly reorganized on the other side, creating a new, radiating white space. It could have been performance art.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Sugar High, Energy Low

One of Brian's colleagues (thank you Professor Dev) said that the kids will LOVE pencils/sharpeners with brightly colored, American themes. One of my students (thank you Neha) said that her grandmother told her that everyone will LOVE small pieces of chocolate.

Brian had the self-discipline and foresight to start packing our bags in advance, at which time I realized that the world will keep spinning if I wear black shoes with a brown tee-shirt in Nagaland. My goal tonight is to remove 1/4 of the items beneath the chocolate and pencils, starting with the brown shoes.

After 4 1/2 hours of sleep last night and a very long day ahead, 20 hours in the air is sounding pretty good. Official flight plan: Rochester to JFK to Delhi to Kolkata to Dimapur. Personal flight plan: Sleep, sleep, listen to This American Life, sleep, sleep, watch a movie, sleep, read a book, sleep.

24 hours and counting!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Permits and Places


Our Protected Area Permit arrived today, fully outfitted with three "Government of Nagaland" stamps, a hand-written signature, a custom-written letter, and a big check mark. While I would love to post a photo of this beauty, I've decided to err on "there might be a law against that so don't push your luck".

The letter starts, "The following American Nationals (yep! that's us!) are allowed to enter Nagaland State and stay at Kohima and Dimapur for a period of 9(nine) days with effect from 25th Nov to 3rd Dec 2010." Here are three of the several rules that follow:

* They shall travel to the specified places by the shortest route and will not deviate from the route specified.

* They shall report to police at entry point.

* Permit holder should always be accompanied by the Tourist Liaison Officer appointed by the Tourism Department, GOVT. of Nagaland.

I'm not sure about this last one. I don't think that we have an Officer assigned to us. This leaves me wondering what the circumstances might be that would require this instruction to be followed. I guess we'll find out when the plane lands on Friday.

Theja is picking us up at the airport in Dimapur. From there, we will drive to his hometown of Kohima, where we will start to install the art exhibition and plan for the film festival. Theja sent us the photo posted above to give us a glimpse of where our journey will start.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Inside the Gate


Here is an on-line photograph from the Hornbill Festival, a week-long series of events that celebrates the cultural heritage of the 16 tribes of Nagaland. If all goes as planned, we'll be there for the opening ceremony!

For now, though, we're only prepared to the extent that we've made a list of the things that we need to do before we leave. I've eaten a decent portion of the chocolate that we were supposed to be bring to the kids we meet, so that one gets "un-crossed off". I stopped the mail starting on Tuesday, and I'm trying to get ahead with teaching so that everything is in place by the time we leave. All my efforts to "plan ahead", though, are really just getting me to the place where I should be on any other given day of the year.

We're still waiting to hear if our Restricted Access Zone permits have been approved. That would be unfortunate--to travel all the way from Rochester to Nagaland only to stand at the gate.

Reflecting upon what I now imagine to be the "world beyond the gate", I think of two moments in particular. The first is when I found "Phizo's Plebiscite Speech" on-line. It's a speech given by A.Z. Phizo, the President of the Naga National Council in 1951, shortly after the British left the region (1947). Some highlights:

"We have been living as a subject nation for the last 70 years. Our country was an Independent country before the British conquered us with superior force of arms...Without making any special arrangement for our country the British abandoned us and we found ourselves under the mercy of the Indian people....Our Naga people have demanded independence from the British on many previous occasions. Unfortunately, we never put it on record as our people are not accustomed to writing....We have gathered here together in order to try to convince India of our inherent right to be free and equal to any other nation as a distinct people. This time, and from now on, we shall put everything into writing. We shall see to it that our talks do not end in mere words. In the name of the NAGA NATIONAL COUNCIL, and on behalf of the people and citizens of NAGALAND, I wish to make our stand and our national position perfectly clear. We are a democratic people and, as such, we have been struggling for a Separate Sovereign State of Nagaland in a democratic way through constitutional means....On many occasions we have been accused by the press in India that we were a troublesome people and that our "movement" for Independence must be stopped...When we examine those rapacious assertions, accusations and misapprehensions, we find that the Indians do not know the Nagas...We want our Indian brothers and sisters to know that we are not their enemy. We want the world to know that there is civilization in Nagaland. Academically backward though we may be, it is up to us to show to the world that we are not a people which has lost its raison d'etre. We are alive."

The rest of the speech describes a society that sounds pretty great:
"There is no pauper in Nagaland. There is no social "out-cast" in our country. There are no professional beggars to this very day. There are no families who our houseless anywhere throughout Nagaland. There are no landless persons among us...."

And then, "If Nagaland is not disturbed, our country will remain an oasis of peace in the present form of purest democracy in this corner of the world."

The 10 requests:
1. We want to feel that we are absolutely and unconditionally free as a nation.

2. We want to develop our own culture.

3. We want to direct our own education through the establishment of our own Universities.

4. We want to keep our own land in the possession of our own people

5. We want to live our own lives [without interference].

6. We want to keep in our possession as a heritage something which is exclusively of Nagaland; something which is bound to vanish and be lost to the Nagalas if they were to live under an alien direction.

7. We want peace, real peace put into an abiding practice in the lives of men. We do not want to make our country a defense line.

8. We want to make our country a place of happiness, of security, and rest.

9. We believe that we shall become a better friend and that we can remain a better friend to India and the outside world if we are left to ourselves -- unmolested and unexploited.

10. We believe that it is not only for Nagaland but for India and other surrounding countries as well that there is a better chance of creating and retaining peace and good will with a SOVEREIGN NAGALAND being in existence.

"Above everything else, we want to be free as a distinct nation: and we shall be free."


Sunday, November 14, 2010

Permits and Projects

NINE more days and counting!

At this point, we are only waiting for our "Restricted Access Zone" permits. The permits, issued by the Indian government, will allow us to enter Nagaland for ten days. (The flip side of this, of course, is that without these permits, we will not be able to enter the region at all.) Fingers crossed, the permits will be ready early this week.

The explanation for the permits is as follows:
"Government-issued permits for restricted areas are in place for security reasons and to protect, from outside influence, the culture of native people living there. However, as it is easy to get an Inner Line Permit for Indian citizens, many Indians from other regions are moving to protected/restricted areas. It is unsure whether temporary visiting tourists would have more of a cultural impact to the native people than many Indians with significantly different cultural backgrounds from other areas of the country."

Perhaps the physical presence of people is not the only concern. This week, I read several on-line articles about the controversy surrounding Korean influence on Naga youth. This article, "Wave of Korean Culture Hits Nagaland" by Renchano Humtsoe (10/26/10), seemed to strike the first match:

Also, this week, Brian and I started to tape our first interviews for Government Warning, a short film that we are hoping to make about this whole experience. Thank you to Jen B., Allen T., my mom (Marilyn) and my dad (Roy) for volunteering to go first. I am continuously reminded of how great it is to work with such incredible colleagues and how lucky I am to have have been raised by parents who value of new experiences.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

About that Headhunting Thing

Only two weeks to go!!! It is very strange to think that we will be traveling for days without knowing what awaits us when the plane lands. At this point, I only have Internet images to guide my imagination. I've seen photographs of beautiful people, interesting food, mountainous landscapes, and heartbreakingly adorable kids. These are some of the on-line photos:

And then there are the headhunting images:

I have to admit that I was REALLY nervous about the trip when I first saw images like this one. The idea of headhunting was terrifying. But then, as I learned more, my perspective changed. I realized that I was comparing it to an ideal that did not exist--to a community that lives without violence. We are far from that ideal, both in Rochester and in the United States. During the most recent decades that headhunting was practiced (at least according to the basic websites that I have read), we dropped an atomic bomb. Headhunting is no longer practiced, and yet look at what the United States has done in Iraq and Afghanistan in the past 10 years alone. How do our actions compare?

Now, I am surprisingly comfortable with this image. In fact, I have no proof that it's even real. And, if it is, it's an important part of the history of Nagaland and one that we cannot judge until we look carefully at our own. For now, I just see the incredible headhunting necklaces and wonder, with fingers crossed, if they might have "tourist versions" at the market.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Where is Nagaland?

This is the first question that people ask when we tell them about our trip to Nagaland. Check out the area on the map that's in red (thanks Wikipedia). It's one of the most distant northeastern states in India, located in a region that shares borders with Myanmar, China, Nepal, and Bangladesh. In 16 days, Brian and I will be flying there from Rochester, NY, for a two-week adventure.

The next question that people often ask is "Why?". In addition to being thrilled to get the rare opportunity to experience a new culture, we were invited. Last May, the U.S. State Department, Bureau of Educational Affairs, sent a group of seven South Asian artists (musicians, painters, writers, etc.) to Rochester through the International Visitors Leadership Program. One of the items on their itinerary was to visit the Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence, housed at the University of Rochester. I presented my social intervention work and, as a result of doing so, I had the opportunity to meet all of the artists, including Theja Meru, an accomplished musician and creative social activist from Nagaland. I'm not exactly sure how the conversation went over the days and weeks that followed--I should look back on my emails to see--but it probably went something like this:

(Theja) "You should come to Nagaland."

(Heather) "I'd love to go to Nagaland!"

(Theja) "I spoke with the Vice Chancellor of Nagaland University and he is interested in inviting you to work with the students. Would you write up the five topics that you would be most interested in speaking about?"

(Heather) Silence.

I really wanted to travel to Nagaland in theory. When presented with the actual opportunity, however, I froze. Imagining Nagaland and actually going there were two different things. If I remember correctly, my hesitation had to do with (I'm laughing as I write this) headhunting, Naga warriors, eating grubs, the fact that the region is considered a "Restricted Access Zone" by the Indian government, that it shares a border with Myanmar and we had just watched "Burma VJ", that entry requires a special government permit, that travelers can only enter in groups of four (unless married), and that governments from English speaking countries around the globe basically said, "Don't Go". The Australian Government advised its citizens to "Reconsider Your Travels". The New Zealand Government rated the security level at "Extreme Risk" from a scale of no risk to extreme risk. The Canadian government stated that citizens should "Avoid all travel." The United States Travel Bureau warned travelers about terrorist activity and insurgent violence but clarified that U.S. citizens have not been specifically targeted in the Northeastern states. In addition to the threat of terrorist attacks in India, however, they listed warnings about theft, harassment, scams, earthquakes, diseases, monkey bites, traffic-related deaths, the volatile nature of religious demonstrations, life-threatening stampedes, swimming, and crocodile attacks. Perfect. What you must consider is that we also had the option of going to St. John with friends the same week to snorkel, swim, and sit on the beach with margaritas.

Theja sent us the link to the Hornbill Festival in late May, though, and it looked spectacular.

Months passed before I finally sent the five abstracts that Theja and the Vice Chancellor had requested. I found every way of avoiding the fact that I would have to ultimately make a decision. I have to admit that, when I finally sent the document to Theja, I even hoped it would take him as long to respond. Of course, this was not true. He responded promptly and set the entire trip into motion. August and September part of October passed and then, finally, Brian and I decided that the fear of NOT going and regretting it was worse than the fear of going and regretting it.

Now, with only 16 days to go, I am thrilled with the decision we made. We'll leave ROC on the Tuesday morning, 11/23, and fly through JFK to New Delhi and finally arrive in Kolkata late Wednesday night. Our fourth flight (the one that would get us into Nagaland) was canceled on Thursday, so we'll spend that day in Kolkata and take the next flight out to Dimapur on Friday. This will be the first time that Brian and I have traveled to Southeast Asia.

In addition to giving talks at the University and seeing the 16 tribes come together for food, dancing, art, and music at the regional Hornbill Festival, Brian and Theja will also be starting GLOCAL, the first Youth Film Festival in Nagland, where they will screen films made by teens from Nagaland and Rochester together. Brian will bring films there and then he'll bring films made by Naga youth back to be screened in Rochester. I will be having a solo exhibition, "Parables for a Compassionate Revolution" and I will have works in the first International Photography Festival. We are visiting museums, traveling through the country, meeting with local woodcarvers, and learning as much as possible about the past, present, and future of this place that so few people (including ourselves until just six months ago) know anything about.

We'll blog throughout the trip as time and technology permits.
You'll find (as soon as we get it up and running), Brian's blog here:

More soon.