Tag Archives: human rights

Betsi

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This post is a slight deviation from my travel stories, but I was deeply moved by a stranger that I met and felt compelled to record the encounter. 

I was out for a walk today when a young man called out to me. At first, I thought he was an Amazon delivery driver shouting a friendly hello, but as he started walking more quickly from a front porch to catch up to me, his gait suggested that he was a salesman. I stopped and turned to him and paused the audiobook that I was listening to.

“Hi! I’m just putting out some Trump campaign material. Who are you voting for?”

I was dressed in black knit pants and a black T-shirt emblazoned with “Let’s Begin With Justice!” in white painted over-sized letters. It is one of a few ‘statement’ shirts in my wardrobe. A pretty turquoise one begs people to “ vote as if your”…and lists various upsetting situations or conditions a person could be faced with such as if your land is on fire, your water is unsafe, your child is gay, your parents need health care. A royal blue one has images of the four female Supreme Court justices (Ginsburg, O’Connor, Kagan, and Sotomayor) and above them, large black letters declare “The Supremes”.

Every time I dress to go walking or bike riding, I wear one of these shirts and more than once, total strangers have commented on the Supremes shirt and asked where I got it.

“From my mom, who sent me two of them for Christmas!”

“Good on Mom!” they reply. The Vote shirt is just as popular. But today, Ruth Bader Ginsburg lies in state at the Supreme Court, so I chose the “Justice” one.

I looked straight into his eyes and said, “Biden.”

“Oh!” he said as he exaggerated a comical gesture, grasping at his chest as though his heart was wounded. He was good-natured and young, and I chose to engage him.

“What are the issues that are important to you?” I asked him. “What issues do you want to resolve in this election?” I was curious about what would inspire this young man with the friendly, smiling eyes, and deep olive-toned skin to campaign for Donald Trump? He had an accent and features that I could not place—hints of Latino and Asian. This was an opportunity to speak to someone personally–not through keyboard warfare or Twitter bots.

His shoulders rounded and he looked away from me. He looked up at the sky, then down at his feet his gaze resting on a few orange leaves that have just started to fall from the trees. He shrank.

“A job, a way to support myself and help my family,” he said humbly.

I wondered what he was hearing from Trump that resonates with him? What motivates him to walk around neighborhoods and to the front doors of homes to hang Trump campaign swag? Four years ago, many votes were won with the pledge to reopen steel mills and coal mines—unrealistic feats in industries forever shifted by technological advances. Even more votes were secured with the promise of a great border wall—to keep people who look like him out of the country. What is the missing link in this chain of reason?

“That’s important to me too. And so is health care,” I said. “Do you know that the Affordable Care Act will be in front of the Supreme Court a week after the election? And that it is the GOP and Trump who pushed it through the court system to get it to that level to try to get it struck down? And if it is struck down, 100 million Americans could lose access to health care?”

“What?” His eyes widened. “I don’t watch much TV…”

“Yes. This is a major issue. The ACA—Obama care is what you’ve heard it called the most, but Obama did not name this law or insurance after himself. The Republicans started calling it that to place a negative nickname on it to press people to hate it,” I started.

“But it came out while Obama was in,” he said. “He didn’t name it that?”

“No, he did not. He only started referring to it that way because everyone else did and it was recognizable. The law, as the Democrats wrote it, is called the Affordable Care Act, and what it did was make health care more affordable and accessible to people of lower-income who may not have otherwise been able to get it. It also stopped insurance companies from being able to refuse to cover preexisting conditions,” I continued.

He squinted as he looked at me and I took it as an invitation to explain more thoroughly.

“What that means is, let’s say you have an aunt who is forty years old and she just battled breast cancer. She had good health care, had treatment, and seems to be in the clear. But, for some reason, she either loses her job or gets hired somewhere else. If the ACA gets struck down, then the law about covering preexisting conditions goes away.”

I explained, “If that happens, in a year or two when your aunt finds another lump, her new insurer can look at her and say, “Well, you have had breast cancer before, so this is a preexisting condition and we are not covering any tests for this, no chemo, no radiation, no surgery, no treatment.” If this ACA gets struck down, her new insurer could deny her coverage if her cancer comes back. That was the norm before the ACA which includes this protection. The Republicans have fought it from the start, and they have taken it all the way to the Supreme Court. They promise a replacement because they know that this is a huge voter concern, but they clearly do not intend to live up to that. They refuse to explain how they will prevent people from losing this protection when they are the very ones taking a sledgehammer to it.”

“Wait. That could go away?” he asked, genuinely befuddled.

I tried to not let my frustration show. Oh, my God, how many of these voters are out there? How can anyone still be so unclear on these issues? On the other hand, I was glad that he asked that question—it showed that he was hearing the information with discernment.

“Yes, it very well could. If it weren’t for Trump and his party, it would not be in front of the Supreme Court now and at risk. Democrats fight for your health. I have good health care because I’m in a union and have a good contract— ten years ago I had a major back surgery that cost $250,000 and I only paid $150.00. That is why I vote the way I do. They aren’t always firm and successful, far from perfect, but they are much more dedicated to that platform than the GOP. I didn’t even want to be in a union, but now I can say it ended up being a really good thing.”

“You had a surgery that cost that much, and you only had to pay what?” he asked, stunned.

“It was $150.00 out of pocket for me because my union negotiates strong benefits. But Republicans are union-busters. It’s not that they want everyone sick, they don’t care if you’re sick or not, except if they are making money off the drugs you need. It’s just that they are more concerned with keeping large insurance companies richer and richer. Insurers don’t pay your bill because they care about you. They don’t want to pay your medical bills. They are in the business of trying to take more premiums and pay for fewer patients.”

“Democrats are not Communists or Socialists like conservatives want to overwhelmingly label us,” I said. “We just believe that everyone has a human right to better resources. The less fortunate should have opportunities that improve their quality of life.”

Friendly Eyes Guy looked around and with his chin tilted, looked up at me from a furrowed brow.
“I mean, I found this job on Indeed. I didn’t even know what I would be doing when I got here. They offered to pay for my airline ticket, put me up, pay me,” and he gestured to the nice car he was driving. “I needed a job. I didn’t even know what I’d be doing until I got here.”

“Where did you come out here from?” I asked him.

“Well, I’m from the Marshall Islands, but I came here from Las Vegas. Do you know about the Marshall Islands?”

“A little. I know that since World War 2, it’s been subjected to dangerous bombs and tests that have left horrific radiation. I can’t believe that anyone has been able to live on those islands since the war. The radiation—the danger in the air and water, the fish. How old are you? Are you registered to vote? Or can you vote?” I asked.

“I’m 25. I’ve never voted. My passport isn’t US,” he said. “I don’t remember much. I was really young. We left there on a ship to go to Hawaii and that’s where I grew up. Then we moved to Vegas. Hawaii is too expensive. Vegas is too hot.”

“What kind of ship did you travel on?” I wondered if they took a cruise and settled on Hawaii or had they been evacuated.

“I don’t remember, I think it was like a…some business ship. Everyone was sick at the islands. Everyone had cancer, cancer everywhere,” he said as he waved his hand over his chest and abdomen. We couldn’t find food, you know, nothing was safe. We had to wait for US ships to bring canned food,” he said.

My heart broke in that moment. Here was a guy who had to leave behind his beautiful native island—to live in one of the countries that made his island unlivable. Warmongers used it as a nuclear bomb testing ground, and now the only job he can find is one campaigning for the man who currently has the power— and the temperament— to gleefully wreak the same destruction anywhere on the planet.
I may only have this one chance to open this man’s eyes and what he learns, he will hopefully share with others.

“You need to understand,” I started, “that Trump and his party want to shrink or stop most foreign aid. They always say that under the guise of ‘we need to take care of our own before everyone else’, but the truth is, there is still a lot of homelessness and poverty and hunger here. He is a power and money grabber. His family can’t even run charities in New York state anymore because they got caught skimming money away from funds that were intended for wounded veterans and kids with cancer—they spent that money on luxuries and his campaign. Those fliers you have were paid for with money that may have been meant to go toward sick kids or wounded veterans!”

“Oh, man, I’ve seen homelessness! Man, what is homelessness here? I lived in a hut!” This sweet man, an immigrant, has a perspective that I, nor a single one of my acquaintances will ever have. There was no way to bridge that gap, but I wanted him to know that I recognized the disparity. I shared with him a scene that I witness every day at my job—not a Facebook post, not Twitter, and not through an Instagram filter, but a personal experience.

“Look, I’m a flight attendant. I’m on a leave right now but I am a flight attendant on private jets. I fly the wealthiest movers and shakers of the world. Have you ever seen a parent who can’t afford a bowl of berries or an orange or apple as a healthy snack for her kid? Well, I’m up in the sky serving sliced fruit from a silver platter. Someone paid $500.00 for that tray of fruit— and they are laughing at people like you and me, out here working. They laugh. They watch the news, they watch movies—they see the way most of the country live, but it doesn’t affect them!”

“Five hundred dollars for fruit!” he gasped.

“That’s only one example of the disconnect. They can afford any meal or doctor’s appointment. They can call up a flight to go from Vegas to Aspen just for lunch. Now, a lot of them are very philanthropic and do a lot of charity work—but they put people in office who install laws and regulations that allow them to keep getting richer and richer. The problem is that poor people often don’t get that same benefit. A lot of the measures that make rich people richer are directly responsible for keeping poor people poorer.”

“Poor, sick people can’t afford insurance, so they are limited to cheap medicines, so they get sicker instead of getting real help to heal. I know people who can barely afford to take a sick kid to the doctor, a car, gas, food—the $300 or so that got taken out of their paycheck for taxes would have covered some of that. I wish they could see what I see when a millionaire has a plane all to himself and pays a far lower percentage of taxes compared to the average worker.”

His eyes were wide, his mouth agape. I think the point of income disparity was getting through.

“Now, let’s talk about security. Trump has thumbed his nose at the norms. He has rebuffed oversight, such as security staff listening in while he talks to foreign leaders. He has ordered the translators to destroy notes taken when he’s speaking with foreign leaders. He’s got properties and business interests that give other countries—hostile ones like the Middle East—leverage over him because he wants to keep making money from those while he’s president. He has ignored all the previous standards set by previous presidents.”

“A hundred or so of his administration people— some high-ranking military officials and those in international security roles— have left and are coming out in public saying how dangerous he is. Professionals who have worked for Republicans their entire careers are saying that he is a menace, has no idea what he’s doing, but even worse, knows how destructive his acts are, but has no regard for the country, only his business and bottom line.”

“There are ways that other parts of government are supposed to be able to oversee or investigate these risks to keep our elected officials in line and keep them from being vulnerable to foreign influence. He is decimating all those measures. If it looks like he’s falling short of winning a court case, he fires the attorneys, prosecutors, or judges. It’s a slippery slope to autocracy.”

He was still rapt, and if it weren’t for this raging virus putting a stranglehold on warm social norms, I would have invited him to come have a beer on the porch where I could show him where to find sources to read.

“Your islands are what they are because of Hitler. We are at risk of Trump being able to wreak similar damage to many, many more areas. This is not the candidate to work for. Please watch Rachel Maddow. She’s overwhelming, but you’ll see how some of these issues are covered. She has scholars on, documents from courts— there are resources for you to look at, so you don’t just let someone tell you what to think. Anderson Cooper is great too. He’s on at 8:00 on CNN.”

“Who?”

Oh, Lord. He’s never heard of Rachel Maddow or Anderson Cooper. And he is putting out fliers for Trump.

“Watch AC and Rachel, CNN at 8:00, MSNBC at 9:00.” I’m sure he is drowning under my blue wave.
“Rachel Maddow and Anderson,” he repeats.

“Now, let’s talk about voter suppression. For example, Florida is in a fight to keep convicted felons from voting. The law says that after they’ve served their sentences, they are supposed to have their voting rights reinstated. They are out of prison and trying to rebuild their lives and should have a say in their society. But in Florida, the GOP is trying to keep people from voting if they owe any fines or court costs associated with that sentence that they had to serve.”

“In court, it was argued against as a poll tax, intended to prevent lower-income people from voting, because the GOP realizes that this is a demographic that leans to Democrats and they don’t want that population to be able to vote. Consider the kind of people this most affects—black men and lower-income. That is the overwhelming demographic incarcerated. They are the ones that could possibly be prevented from voting. Poll taxes are illegal, but the side that wants to keep lower-income people powerless get around this by holding these outstanding fines over their heads.”

“Now, former New York City mayor Bloomberg has raised funds to help those released felons pay off those fines so they can have their voting rights reinstated. It is just to clear their debt so that they can vote—they are not obligated to vote one way or the other, this just allows them to have a clean bill so that they can go to the polls and exercise their rights.”

“Republicans are mad that he did that and are trying to accuse him of illegal campaign financing, but it’s no different from paying off a bill so you can get more credit. Or a bar bill so you can start another tab. This is important because there may be some people out there who only owe less than $100, but that would keep them from voting if they can’t pay that fine. And there is enough to worry about when you’re fresh out of jail—housing and food—if you have no friends or family to help you. And the friends who may be able to help may be friends who you were involved with before you went to jail—or be part of the reason you ended up in jail. If that’s all you have, you may go back down the same road and end up back in jail.”

“Oh, man, I need to read up on things. I don’t know about any of this,” he said. I felt bad about overwhelming the guy, but how often do you get a chance to engage like this?

“I mean, I don’t get the whole Black Lives Matter,” he said.

“I don’t either, to a point. I don’t like how the message has been twisted. Marches and protests are fine, but the rioting is awful. The violence and looting just have to stop. It is ridiculous to destroy neighborhoods and businesses—it kills families and creates more hardship for anyone who lives there. They are only making things worse for themselves. But it’s a cycle we can’t seem to get out of. Are you familiar with To Kill a Mockingbird?” I asked him.

“Mockingbird? I… think,” he searched the sky for what to say. He obviously didn’t know the story and I didn’t want him to embarrass himself by pretending that he did, so I lunged right into it.

“To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the most beloved books in American literature, widely taught in schools. It was written decades ago but will forever be a relevant lesson. The story is set in a small southern town in the 1930’s. It’s about how the town reacts to a respected local white lawyer when he stands up to defend a black man who is falsely accused of raping a local white woman. Even when Atticus’ argument in court proves that the woman lied, the townspeople were so determined in their racism and bullishness, that they will not back down. They won’t acknowledge that the man is innocent. They want to kill the black man and they want revenge on Atticus. His kids are attacked. It’s a tragic story—this shirt I am wearing is from when I went to see the play in New York, but I’m sure that as neighbors see me in it, they assume it’s from Black Lives Matter.”

“To Kill a Mockingbird,” he repeated.

“These issues are still unchanged. The candidate you are helping to promote is no friend to people of color—not just blacks, but people like you. They are pursuing measures and legislation that will be detrimental to families like yours. They act like if more people have better rights, it decreases the rights of the rest of us. It just doesn’t have to be that way. I’m not saying Democrats are perfect or that there aren’t any crooked ones—there are bad players, even criminal—all across the board. But the platforms are rooted in trying to improve the lives of everyone, those who can’t fight for themselves, who don’t have access to information or resources that could help them, civil rights, human rights.”

“On the flip side, I’m not trying to say that all Republicans are bad. I know a lot who cry their eyes out at other people’s suffering. But the major weight on the issues for Republicans in power always leans more to the “I got mine. Pull yourself up by the bootstraps.” Well, not everyone has the strength or opportunity to make those efforts.”

“When someone can’t walk, you don’t leave them alone in a basement. They need help getting up the stairs. No, we can’t just be giving out all kinds of handouts. No, it’s not okay for some of us to be expected to work and fund a lazy person’s sloth without them expected to make some effort. I’ve worked my butt off, I’ve had twenty-hour duty days and I agree that it’s not fair to be expected to hand it all over to someone who can work but refuses to. But there has to be a balance of effort here, just some common sense.”

“Oh, man.” He put his hands on his hips and surveyed the neighborhood. Large two-story houses with richly manicured and landscaped lawns, three-car garages, and rose bushes exploding with pink and crimson blossoms surrounded us. Every occupant over the age of 10 likely had his own smartphone and a world of information within a few taps of his fingertips. The homeowners here are people who likely decided their votes long ago and no new flier or sound bite will influence a change of heart. I was relieved at that. At this point in 2020, after nearly four years of Trump and just days into the chaos and heartbreak of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, I can’t imagine that there are many who can be swayed to vote for a candidate just because of the freshness of a piece of campaign material presented on their front door.

“What about this COVID thing? I mean, I don’t understand about this whole virus,” he expressed.

“Well, nobody does yet. We just know that it is spread the same way as a cold or flu—touching something that is contaminated and then getting it into your body by rubbing your eyes or touching your nose or mouth. If it touches your mucous membrane, it is in your system. It can also spread by breath if you are too close.”

“Think of the jetway that you use to board a flight. I keep a scarf to cover my face when I’m in that walkway between the airport building and the aircraft. All the passengers are crammed close together, everyone coughing and sneezing, and as the line moves toward the boarding door, you’re walking right into what they just blew out. The reason COVID is such an issue is because it is a strain that we have never dealt with before and have no natural immunity to, and it is breaking all kinds of predicted patterns. At first it seemed the most vulnerable people were elderly, especially those who may already have weak heart or lungs like with lung cancer, congestive heart failure, or asthma.”

“But it has killed young, healthy people as well,” I continued. Some people who would seem vulnerable to it have tested positive for it and never had even a mild cold symptom. It’s extremely contagious, spread by people who don’t even know they have it—which is great that they don’t get sick. But the person they spread it to in casual contact may be affected to the other extreme.”

“It’s the unknown that makes it still so dangerous. Even those who recover are seeing lingering effects, some severe. It turned out to not just attack the lungs and breathing, but is vascular as well, causing clotting issues, strokes.”

“And again, about that ACA? If the Supreme Court strikes that down, everyone who has had COVID—whether just a positive test with no symptoms or recovered from being down with it—will be considered to have a preexisting condition. Suppose someone had it and was in the hospital and had the vascular issues which leads to some kidney issues, which damages them badly enough that they lose some function, but the patient recovers. Suppose he lost his job due to COVID. He gets a new job in a few months.”

“A year later, his kidney issues are worse, or he has a stroke. That new insurer can refuse to pay for his care if they say, “You had COVID before you were insured with us. Your kidney and vascular damage happened before you got this coverage. Those are preexisting conditions due to COVID. We’re not paying for your ambulance, your ER, your MRI that diagnosed the stroke, your stint procedure, your blood thinners, your rehabilitation, your physical therapy.”

“This is the kind of situation that could happen if this law gets struck down. It was argued through the courts before COVID, but the GOP has not been satisfied with the lower courts’ rulings, so they have succeeded in getting it to the Supreme Court. The timing could not be worse. Over the summer, in the depths of the pandemic, they scheduled to hear it a week after the election. The actual decision won’t come right away, but we have to vote for president and Congress with this up in the air.”
“By the way,” I said, “You’re okay out here walking around outside, but you need to have a mask on to go into a building. And try to keep about 6 feet between yourself and anyone, especially if not masked. Everyone around here is pretty good about taking these measures. It was really bad here on the east coast, especially New York. People are tense.”

“I know, no one wants to look at you, say hello…” he lamented, looking sad and lonely.

“Well, this isn’t the friendliest area even in the best of times, but really, everything is just really bad right now between the virus and politics. I know nurses who are working with this illness. You don’t want to risk it. Please, just look into these things. At least look into the issues and learn how each candidate stands on them. Learn about what can affect you. Health care affects us all and that is one of the greatest risks right now.”

“I will! I’ve got a lot to look at tonight,” he said. “What’s your name?”

I liked the kid, but I gave him an initial instead of my real name.

“I’m D.”

“Betsi,” he said, and he reached out to shake my hand. I hesitated but reached out to meet his. It’s been months since I’ve shaken hands with anyone and I knew that I shouldn’t, but I did. And then I wondered how fast I could get home to wash my hands and hoped that he had some sanitizer in his car. That was stupid and another possible teaching moment, but I didn’t take it. I had already spent the last 30 minutes telling the poor guy how he was on the wrong side of everything— I didn’t want to leave him feeling that I thought he was dirty or dangerous.

“Okay, Betsi, you be careful out there and have a good day,” I said.

“Thanks, D, and enjoy the rest of your walk!”

I put the buds back in my ears and pushed play on my audio book again, even though I wasn’t listening to it through the storm of thoughts screaming in my head. A few houses down the street, I met my husband as he rode his bike. We stopped and I told him about Betsi. He got out his phone and looked up Marshall Islands and found an article from the LA Times that was published last December. It explained the possible vulnerability of its citizens who have come to the United States. They are able to come to work and go to school without visas—as long as we have the military presence there. If we leave, they will lose their legal status to live in the States.

I got back to the house and went in to wash my hands and look up the article that my husband had pulled up. I copied down the link and went to the garage to get on my bike and hoped to catch Betsi before he left the neighborhood. The loop around our subdivision is a mile and a half. I rode all the way around it once, looking for his car on the side of the streets and down the cul-de-sacs. I looked to the front doors of all the houses in case he was walking around door to door, but he was gone.

There is another similar subdivision that I often walk and bicycle around that is separated from ours by a two-lane highway. If I were canvassing this area, that would be a reasonable place to go after exhausting my own loop, so I started in that direction. With the piece of paper that I wrote the link on wrapped on the handlebar under my grip, I thought, “This is stupid. It’s just a missed chance and I won’t find him. I probably upset him so badly that he’s crushed and decided to chuck the day.”

But then there was another thought. “I don’t believe all this awful can continue to happen. What does it say to those who have fought so hard and haven’t lived to see this ship get righted? What are John Lewis and John McCain thinking when they see what is happening right now— and how easily it can be changed if the right information gets power?” And then, as goofy and hokey as it sounds, I prayed, “RBG, lead me to this guy. I’m doing my part, I got back out here on a bike to find him when I could have stayed home, now just make it work. The energy of the universe says you’re going to do this.”

The other neighborhood is smaller than mine and I was about half-way around it when I glanced down a cul-de-sac as I passed it. There were several cars parked along one side, and a person on the sidewalk, texting as he walked. I rode on by. Was that him? What was he wearing? I don’t remember. He was wearing a ball cap, I remember that. Was that guy walking back there wearing one? I’ll go around the whole loop and come back around. No, he may get in his car and go. I should turn around now and go look again just to be sure it’s not him.

I slowed my ride and did a U-turn in the street. The person walking was wearing a white ball cap.              Then I recognized his pants—a gray and silver camouflage pattern.

“Betsi!” I yelled. He looked up at me, shocked to hear someone shouting his name. “Betsi, I was looking for you!”

“You were looking for me?” he said with a surprised smile.

I rolled up to him and handed him the piece of paper. “Here. I want you to read this article. I was telling my husband about you and he found this.” I told him a little about what it said. “I don’t know what Trump’s plan is for the islands, but he’s pulling troops from Germany and has talked about pulling troops from Korea. If he pulls everyone out of Marshall Islands, you and your family may not be able to stay here. You’ll lose legal status, according to the agreement we’re under now. This could affect you. This is directly about your family.”He looked at the paper and looked at me. “But that would be like, I don’t know,” he said, confused.

“It would be like deportation. It would be deportation,” I said. “Look, this guy is trying to get rid of everyone here who came from somewhere else. DACA—these kids and young people who have amnesty because of Obama—they were brought here by their undocumented parents. But they are now adults and in college, working—the only life they ever knew is here. But the GOP and Trump are trying to kill that agreement. Some of these kids don’t even speak the language of the country they could be sent back to. You need to get this! Again, I know you’ve got to do today what you’ve got to do. But learn about this and try to find a different job. And if you want to give me all those fliers, no one is going to tell on you…” I offered, jokingly—well, halfway jokingly. I envisioned burning them in a trash can. Not in my fireplace. I won’t have that energy sullying the air in my home.

“Oh, now, I…” he started with a sheepish smile.

“I know, Betsi, I know, just kidding. But I want you to look at that article and find more information.     These things could directly affect you. And another thing—don’t shake hands.”

Taken aback, he said, “Don’t shake hands? Why?”

“This virus. It is really dangerous. Very contagious. Everyone understands—it won’t appear rude if you can’t shake hands. Especially out here on the East coast. People here are taking the precautions seriously.”

“Can we fist bump?” he asked, putting forth his fist.

“Elbow bump is better,” I said and offered him my bent arm. “Okay, you be careful out here, okay?”

He bumped my elbow with his and laughed.

“I will. Thank you, Dee Dee.”

If I owned a business, I would have given him a job, any job—I don’t care what his background or skills are. I rode away with a heavy and anxious heart. He walked on as he held a stack of doorknob fliers bearing the smiling face of the man with his fate in his hands.

 

The Overstayer

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Previously published in the Pearl S. Buck Literary Journal

I remember his eyes, the rims raw and red with fatigue and stung by air that was thick with sand and acrid, burning pollution. Tired and yellow where they should have been white, they held a deep copper-tinged gold ring around the brown iris. The tears welled quickly and steadied themselves for a few seconds before spilling over his lower lid and spreading, losing their edges as they bled into the veil of sweat that covered his face. He was an empath, this chai wallah, and from his tiny tea stall tucked between rows of dilapidated shops of aluminum scrap walls and crumbling plaster, his gaze looked over and beyond my shoulder. Fear and panic, defeat and grief all stabbed at one another in his expression.

I turned away from the shade of the awning and to the blinding street scene. Mid-day in midsummer Jeddah was unrelenting in its assault on the senses. The sun, unfiltered by even a passing feather of a cloud, showered steadily over the Kingdom and sucked up particles of pollution and dust from unpaved roads. Hundreds of billions of grains of sand that were carried in by long gone windstorms salted every surface. This area of the city, the Pakistani quarter that was home to many cab drivers, construction workers, and shopkeepers, was an undefined explosion of visual and respiratory pests.

A young man stood in the street, stopped on the order of two policemen who were gleeful with authority and hubris. Humble and submissive, he held his head low and his deep Persian skin glistened with the sweat that dripped from the wavy layers of black hair resting on his forehead. His fearful eyes were fixed on the ground just beyond his toes. Bony shoulders and a lean ribcage rounded forward to hug himself or to have a shorter distance to collapse with the next predictable slap on the side of his head. The long-sleeved button-down shirt he wore untucked was soaked and stained with several days’ wear. Threadbare khakis hung from his frame. He was a splinter of a man swimming in clothes and exhaustion.

The officers were not much older than their prey and while they had been deprived the gift of impressive height, thick beards and smug smiles camouflaged their shortcomings. The dull tan uniforms they wore were typically military and emblematic of the color of the desert. The sleeve’s green patch bearing the Saudi government insignia of crossed swords and a palm tree was reminiscent of the red armband and tilted swastika of Hitler’s Nazi party. It was a license to abuse their authority.

I asked my Bangladeshi colleague, Sammy, “What’s happening? What are they doing to him?”

“They have demanded to see his papers. His visa and sponsor papers. All the foreign laborers can be stopped anytime and asked to show their papers. If they cannot, they can be arrested and deported.”

“What do you mean, deported?”

Sammy squinted and took a draw on his cigarette as he leaned on the tea stall counter. He nodded to direct my attention to our surroundings.

“You see all these men walking about, having lunch and tea, standing out here in the sun? In the evening there will be even more hanging out here in the shops and streets. They live maybe 8 or 9 guys to a small apartment and try to work different shifts so they can take turns sleeping. The apartments have no AC so they stay outside as late as they can, so they aren’t all crowded inside together.”

My naivete and lack of comprehension was clear to Sammy. I was a 26-year-old flight attendant from Nixa, Missouri, with only 2 years of aviation and a few weeks of Saudi culture and residency under her belt. He was in his mid-50’s, a Bangladeshi- born flight engineer and business owner who emigrated from Pakistan to the US with $18 when he was in his early 20’s. We were testing the fates ourselves that day, by just socializing openly in public, a man and woman unmarried and unrelated.

He could at least blend in with the locals. His thick salt and pepper hair, dark olive skin, and command of Hindi and Urdu—along with a boundless ability to bamboozle and charm—rendered him a precious asset in Saudi Arabia. I, however, foolishly challenged my host country’s edicts every time I left my villa with my long blond hair uncovered by a hijab and my dazzling, if scandalous, hot pink abaya. Soon after arriving in Saudi for the year, we found common ground in deep conversations about human rights and religion. Later, these often occurred while smoking Cuban cigars on playground equipment.

I stole a glance at the chai wallah, and he shrank. He wanted to remain in the shadows and if the police were to notice me, he would draw their scrutiny as well. I froze. If they were about to cast a broader net in their harassment of these desperate beings, I did not want to be the one who exacerbated the scene.

Then there was noise, metal clanging on metal, a jingling, and a car door slam. Back on the street, one of the cops was bringing the laborer’s arms behind his back and placing handcuffs on him.  The “papers” that he had produced had not been satisfactory and the other officer wadded them, before throwing them to the ground and spitting on them. Both tipped their heads up high and heaved laughter. They had a bounty and they had an audience and it gave them insidious joy. Their subject was trembling and as they led him toward the government vehicle, his feet were heavy with dread and his legs nearly failed him. His knees buckled and bent, and he stumbled but his tormentors kept laughing as they pulled on him.

Sammy continued, his Hindi-laced accent requiring my concentration. The nature of his language had a melodic rising and falling of intonation and I strained to register the matter of his words against the sing-song nuance of his voice.

“Most of the people you will meet here are from other countries– third world countries. Many Saudis do not work. They get a stipend from the government and, especially if their own family is well-to-do, they do little. All these men that you see here–and most of the people that you see when you’re out in town and away from the hotel—came here for work,” Sammy explained. “Generally, the cabbies, manual laborers, and shopkeepers are Indian, Paki, or Egyptian, some African. Many maids and nurses are Filipino, and a lot of the schoolteachers are Egyptian ladies.”

I found the whole concept baffling. The occupations that Sammy mentioned were not those unique to Saudi Arabia such as specialized oil industry jobs with Saudi Aramco or engineering with Lockheed Martin. Jobs he named were common sources of livelihood in any society. I could not square why so many people would come to endure these less than desirable conditions for opportunities that existed in their own home countries.

“But why, Sammy?” I asked. “Why go through all this? What is different about the jobs here that makes it worth it? How is this better?”

“There are more people trying to get fewer jobs at their homes. So, they may not be able to find work. A three-year contract here– although the conditions here are rough—it’s better than they could do at home.”

My chest burned at the inequity of it all. Thinking of the choices that some people in this world had to make and suddenly realizing my privileged ignorance at its proximity to me was crushing. I wanted to shed my whiteness, my Americanness, my need-for-nothingness.

I asked Sammy, “So how does this work for them? How does this work from here?”

He said, “When you go shopping at the Souq, you will see these guys lined up at the phone cable office to wire their money home. What they earn here and send to their families sets them up to live better when they return. They may be paying for a parent’s well-being or a sibling’s education and hopefully there is still some saved when they get back there.”

My attention returned to the street to the captured man in cuffs. The officers continued to taunt and humiliate him, seemingly, just to occupy time. I was furious at their efforts to reduce his character, but I knew that interfering would have produced unthinkable consequences for everyone present.

“What are they going to do to him?”

“His visa is probably expired. He stayed undetected until now and maybe his sponsor will not pay his way home, so he may still be working but for lower pay. The sponsors know these guys will not complain because then their expired visas will be found out. The overstay fault will fall on the migrant worker, not the Saudi business owner. He may be arrested and thrown in jail until either the employer pays a bribe to get him out or he will have to wait in jail until the government sends him home, soon if he’s lucky. It is not good conditions, living in a Saudi jail. Overcrowding, sickness, heat, food, sanitation. Some men just disappear. Their families back home never know what became of them, why the money stopped coming, why they never came home.”

The gravity of this man’s situation sunk in and I became dizzy with the awareness that I was amid modern-day slavery. The chai wallah was silent. Sammy had just described his identical circumstances and we all knew that he could be met with the same fate at any time. This scene played out repeatedly many times before I came to work in Saudi and would likely occur many times after I returned to the US and my privileged blonde, white-skinned life.

The noises and kerfuffle quieted. Other brown skinned, cardamom and sweat-soaked men joined Sammy, the chai wallah and me as we watched the conclusion of the scene.

The handcuffed man was thrown into the back of the jail wagon about the size of a mail truck. Its windowless interior was empty but for him and the wheel wells. There were no seats, no benches, no dividers in the suffocating metal box—nothing to brace himself against or use to support himself upright for the ride. The two back doors were slammed shut and the jubilant officers flashed brilliant white smiles to the spectators as they got into their seats and closed their doors, igniting the engine and revving it noisily in a final flaunt of supremacy.

Tears burned my eyes and bile rose in my gut as they sped away, weaving and dodging from one side of the street to the other and back as I envisioned the doomed and broken man tossing and crashing violently against the walls of his dark, steel box.

 

 

Ghosts of Rwanda

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A palatial white stucco wall bore the hotel’s name at the entrance from the city road. Brilliant large cobalt blue letters declared a welcome to the De Mille Colline in colors that one would expect to see at a resort in the Greek isles rather than this place—Kigali, Rwanda. The wall divided the entry drive and parking lot awkwardly. At first, I thought it was an inefficient design that inhibited the ability to turn around in the parking lot without going all the way through the property. Then I realized that it was a security effort that modified how vehicles approached the hotel after the 1994 genocide. This was “Hotel Rwanda”, where hundreds of terrified Tutsis huddled for protection under Paul Rusesabagina, the general manager who had warm relations with the United Nations delegates stationed in Kigali.

Rwandans move with a poised, unhurried elegance. The bellman broke into a slow brilliant smile as he walked in graceful strides to greet me. I wondered how he managed to perform this way every single day in mid Africa in his heavy, wine-colored polyester dinner coat and pants. If he was too warm or uncomfortable, he hid it well. I felt unkempt and odorous and fully in the grip of jet lag after the previous day of flying from the east coast to Lisbon and on to Africa.

As I entered the lobby, the marble floor shone and reflected sparkling prisms of light. Majestic columns were wrapped in complimenting colors. An elegant and welcoming reception area allowed warm cross breezes that carried the scent of fragrant potted flowers. The whole back wall of the room was plate glass that yielded a gorgeous view of the hotel grounds which were enclosed by another glowing white wall, covered with vibrant explosions of fuchsia pink bougainvillea.

The swimming pool shone like a giant square blue topaz set in the middle of a yard of meticulously manicured emerald grass. The beauty and tranquility were disarming. There was a palpable, stark contrast between this scene and the horrors it hosted nearly eighteen years prior. During the one hundred- day genocide in 1994, this pool provided water for drinking, cooking, and bathing for the people who found refuge at the De Mille Colline. It gave and sustained life until it was too choked, too soiled from lack of maintenance and decay began. Once the water level was low and the remaining became unsafe to use, the pool became a cistern for waste when the plumbing was shut off by the predators who were always waiting outside the walls.

I wondered, how many hours of cleaning and rinsing, disinfecting did it take to breathe new life into these beautiful grounds? The scope of the atrocities it witnessed was unfathomable. Could every molecule of water that was present at that time—even after nearly two decades– truly be gone? The Indian poet Rumi wrote that every raindrop becomes part of the sea–the raindrop still exists in its individuality but at the same time is indiscernible from the wave that it rolled into. Was it forensically possible for every trace of those horrible days to be erased as far down as the cellular level? I wasn’t concerned with cleanliness or sanitary conditions. I wanted to respect the ghosts that I felt there. I felt their eyes on me, pleas to see and feel them, to acknowledge what happened to them and to not let them be forgotten.

I checked in with the front desk, but the room was not yet available, so I left my luggage at the concierge desk and reunited with Muzay, the driver who had offered to take me to visit some of the nearby memorials. Already overwhelmed with the weight of grief, I wondered why I felt compelled to experience such places.

The day was warm but not stifling. Stunning views revealed themselves as we drove to the edge of town and entered the openness of Rwanda, the land of a thousand hills, rolling and lush, blanketed in various hues of emerald. Coffee and tea plantations grew into one another. I was overlooking the source of the product that brought my client, a prominent US business man to Rwanda to meet with President Kagame for talks on exports.

We arrived at the first memorial, a small church with a tall chain link fence surrounding it. Muzay stopped the car and parked. I felt awkward, leaving him to sit and wait for me but I could sense that he did not plan to accompany me inside. In the eighteen years since the world witnessed the mind-numbing horrors, he had hosted many Western gawkers. I wondered what he thought of me. What is the psychology that plays into the ability to chauffer guests to the very scenes of the mass murder of your own villagers and family members? Which idea is the strongest or in what order do they occur for someone who has endured so much? Acceptance? Forgiveness? Peace? Strength? Would I ever be as good and strong as these people?

A small, bored looking man at the door of the church stood to greet me. He was sizing me up, evaluating who I was and what business I had there. Of course, had every right to do so, and every second was more humbling as I told myself, “Let him feel his authority. They have to be so tired and it must feel so insulting that their tragedy is often treated as a spectator sport.” I knew that though President Kagame is credited with stopping that rampant streak of violence all those years ago and went on to promote the “reunification of all Rwandans”, the survivors are still forced to share their country with those who killed their families. Differentiation of Hutu and Tutsi was banned after the genocide—all citizens are collectively Rwandans. And all Rwandans know that on any given day, they may be looking into the eyes of an individual that they had once seen wielding a machete.

I smiled at him and patted my right hand to my heart, a gentle greeting that is recognized in many Asian and African cultures as a sign of respect. His face softened and he began to recite his soliloquy, starting by gesturing to a bent-up mess of heavy iron bars, a tangle of metal that was what was left of the gate that secured the entrance to the church. It had been blasted with grenades to gain access to the terrified prey. As the violence heightened and the danger spread from all villages, government radio told the people to go to churches, that they would be safe in the churches with their families, neighbors, and local leaders. The reality was that they became fish in a barrel.

Inside, the pews were simple benches, made of wood like that of a picnic table that has been out in the weather for many years. They were short and pieced together at thirty-degree angles to follow the hexagon shape of the room. Piled upon them were heaps of clothes and shoes that had burned edges, rips, some shredded, some slashed. All were covered in eighteen years of dust at this preserved scene. Thousands of items littered the church. Dresses, shirts, skirts, wraps, pants, headscarves, shoes.

At the front of the sanctuary stood a podium bearing small keepsakes that were protected under a sheet of plexiglass. My attention was drawn to something resting against the dark scarlet lining, a piece that was the color of a robin’s egg, a bright sky-blue. It was a singular splash of pretty in the grim scene, like a lone twinkle in an otherwise starless night sky. I stepped closer to the podium in the dimly lighted ruins.

The lovely spot of blue was a child’s coin purse that was no larger than a toddler’s fist. It was shaped like a triangle that had the top point shaved off and replaced with silver trim and a clasp. The once glossy vinyl coat had dulled but a ruffle embellishment of the same material had held its shape. It had a few scruffs and scratches, and pea sized silver bead adorned the side of the purse in the center of the ruffle, the finishing touch like a kiss that blessed it.

Breath left me. Grief-laden breath heaved out of my chest and rushed toward the little blue coin purse with a force as though it believed it could reach the little girl who clutched it as the exploding grenades tore through the church gate. As if it could swoosh backwards through the years, blow its force into the church, lift and carry her and all those terrified people into the clouds and away from the bombs, guns, and machetes.

My chest hurt. My throat choked. I felt the sky collapse and the walls were squeezing in on me. Everything in the world felt fractured. Everything crumbled and dropped apart in pieces and particles. Everything except the baked mud and blood that attached these pieces of clothing to one another, piles upon piles on the pews, as inseparable as the souls of those who wore them.

I thought of the news footage I had seen at the time of these events of the people who were filmed by journalists, begging the world for intercession, begging the US to save them. Disbelief and fury conjoined. What is the power—or the weakness– that it leads societies to do this? To allow this? To ignore this?

I walked out of the church and toward Muzay and the car. A banner was stretched between two high posts above the gates just outside the church. Every April the government hangs thousands of them throughout Rwandan towns for 100 days to commemorate the genocide. Against a purple background, weathered white script read, “Never Again”. It flapped in the breeze noisily as air passed through the many rips and holes.

 

Writing and Meditation Workshop at Kripalu

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Last weekend I returned to the lovely property of Kripalu in the Berkshires of Massachusetts for a couple of days of writing and meditation. It renewed the passion necessary to create a regular writing practice and I realized how unproductive I have been lately.

During the course of several classes, we were shown how to give ourselves permission again to identify ourselves as “writers”, but more importantly, commit to actually writing. If  you have an interest in writing but have never been to a workshop with others struggling with the same blocks, time constraints and excuses that we all make to not regularly enjoy this cathartic experience, I encourage  you to do so. What I took away from the weekend was a refreshing perspective of how easily writing comes to those meant to do it. A few minutes of guided meditation that leads your brain in one direction followed by a writing prompt that can either continue on that which came to you in stillness or surprise you by providing a spontaneous change in trajectory was an eye-opening exercise! Dani Shapiro was the author leading the workshop and she had a brilliant way of making you feel as though you were in the passenger seat riding along a country road, allowed to close your eyes and go wherever the driver chose– but then suddenly your eyes are opened, the vehicle makes a sharp turn and now YOU are the one in control of the steering and speed.

Dani led a meditation of about 10 minutes and then we were given the prompt, “It could have happened.” For 20 minutes we wrote and then broke into small groups to share what had come to us. There was no time for editing, no time for revision or polishing.  Writing in longhand, pen to paper, thinking and composing much more slowly than I write by typing, was yet another new lesson in how a new stimulus can tweak the brain into expressing its thoughts in a different style. The following is my result of that prompt.

It could have happened. I could have been left to swelter in the July Jeddah heat, the driver refusing to re-enter the cab as long as I remained inside. It could have been Saudi police who came upon us and pulled up behind the vehicle, who would have seen me, a 27 year -old white skinned, blonde American stewardess who defied social laws and dared to venture off the compound, out of the city, without the required male relative as an escort.

The Egyptian driver, only in the Kingdom for a minimally better opportunity to provide for his family, would have surely been arrested, beaten, and…? Simply for having accepted me as a passenger.

Had the police come upon us, this man’s family could have never heard from him again, the first inkling of something being amiss would be the money wire that failed to appear this week at the Bank of Cairo. Days, weeks, months this man would languish in jail; maybe not. Maybe he would have soon been deported back to Cairo with is visa revoked and his passport bearing an enormous “Exile” stamp, forever ending his contract of employment in the Kingdom, no longer to support his aging parents, put his children through school, start a business upon his return to Cairo.

The police would have arrested me as well. But…I had value. Even as a woman I would have been a valuable hostage, for as an American, my absence would not have gone unnoticed. I could be traded for ransom, negotiated as a political pawn. I could have been paraded on the news in clean, beautifully stitched abayas, veils with intricate lace borders. But off-camera? Off-camera, lewd eyes in front of distorted perspectives of religion, decency, and entitlements would make me part of a much more ominous narrative.

As I sat in the back seat of the taxi far on the outskirts of town, still far from the airport, I looked out the back window and watched the man walk away. It turned out that he actually didn’t speak English; he didn’t have the foggiest idea of how to get me to the compound to which he had agreed to provide me transport.

When it became apparent to him that I couldn’t give him pointed direction, he realized his risk of being with me and knew he had to immediately separate himself from my company.

I saw ancient abandoned minaret towers, desert grass, sand dunes, and camels. I had heard of the Filipino nurses and teachers who were lured to Saudi for work in privileged homes—and who were used up by the salacious Saudi men, their bodies dumped at the bases of these prayer towers. Did the offenders choose those locations with the intent to follow their crimes by climbing the stairs inside to pray for absolution?

Saudi police made routine sweeps around these structures to collect the remains.

Our twenty minutes was up. For over a decade I have been trying to think of a way to start writing about the year I spent as an expat in Saudi Arabia. All it took was a prompt from a single dramatic sentence of four words.

 

 

Understanding the Hindu Identity

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The term “Hindu” is rooted in the Sanskrit texts that refer to the Indus River, as Sindhu. Language barriers that came into play when invading parties presented in the Indian subcontinent lent an evolution to the words and specifically the Arabic language assigned the label al Hind to the “ people of the Indus River area”. The term further evolved into the name Hindustan for the area they deemed the concerned country. Some sources also claim that the British officers in the East India Company assumed that the native people were mispronouncing the name of their own local river by omitting the “H” therefore saying Indoo when what they really meant was Hindoo.

The concept of Hinduism is broadly defined using characteristics of geographical location, ceremonial rituals, spiritual beliefs, and overall cultural traditions. It was originally applied to those born into the region of the Indus River Valley and expanded to what became known as Hindustan which is present day India.  However, as foreign intruders and those seeking commercial relations began to document the culture for the rest of the world, an intricate network of traits were found to be woven together to create the dynamic that defines what is now known to be one of the oldest surviving cultures on the planet.

Scholars have long taught that the basic criteria for one to be defined as Hindu is that he is born into the culture and accepts the divinity of the ancient Sanskrit Vedas. Other concepts are an adherence to caste rule, the authority of the Brahmin priests, a practice of puja (worship and offerings to deities and other rituals), and belief in the Atman (the eternal self) and reincarnation although this is not a doctrine owned by Hindus alone. A later premise is that of ahimsa, or non-violence which led to the widespread practice of vegetarianism amongst Hindus.  However, it is entirely possible to meet Hindus who do not live in accordance with every one of these. As the traditions have been dated to 3000 B.C. it is inevitable to have evolved in some areas.

For example, although acceptance of the Vedas is one of the most basic tenets, the Vedic texts have proven to be of such expansive volume that even the most illumined holy men are accepted to not have thorough knowledge of them all and this must come as a welcome surprise to the overwhelmed new student.  Most every day Hindus share a respect for the Vedas even if they do not have a personal study or understanding of them.

Another aspect of Hinduism that is open to interpretation is the acceptance of Brahmin authority. This is the caste that was of the educators, priests, and other intellectuals who were looked to for guidance and decision making. Once respected as the only channels through which the sacred texts were passed, they were also the only ones able to perform rituals and sacrifices for the people. They alone were entrusted to pronounce the mantras and chants to the precision required to render the ceremony effective. Over time, their services became increasingly specialized that the cost of arranging these services and the procurement of the materials for sacrifices seems to have had an off putting effect on the faithful. Many Hindus don’t participate in this type of worship and instead ascribe to a more personal manner of worship such as darshan which is “seeing” and being seen by the images of the deities in temple and murti puja, adornments and offerings of flowers and sweets made to the altars of deities. This is known as bhakti, acts of devotion. Still others may not identify with a specific deity and instead follow the road of jnana, or knowledge-seeking, pursuing wisdom through meditation, study and renouncement.

Most of these practices could be performed by anyone. So, can someone not born in India adopt a Hindu lifestyle and literally “convert” into a Hindu? Most born Hindus would probably say no but not to be self righteous or exclusive, for Hindus by nature are very inviting and tolerant. It’s more a matter of semantics. While not possible within these definitions to actually convert into a Hindu, it can be said that a person could easily accept the philosophy and practices of the Hindu traditions. Thinking of it in this way may border on defining it as an ethnicity or race and some Hindus would accept that. Even if not born in the region or descended from those who were, one with respect to Hinduism can say, “I am Hindu,” but what he has done is embraced the Hindu philosophy.

For someone who wishes to claim Hinduism but was born outside of it, probably the strongest obstacle he will face is his initial identity which is based on caste.  But if you’re not born a Hindu, you have no way to identify yourself for you have no caste—it can’t just be chosen. Caste is the identity one is born into. Ironically, going farther back in antiquity we see that caste was more of a choice. People found their talents and strengths and often chose a walk of life or profession that they were suited for. It seems cultural regression to know that as time went on, it became less of a choice and quality of life eroded (at least for the lower castes) into a manner that one has no way of rising above what they were born into. Inter-caste marriage is at best discouraged, at worst punishable by death.

The caste system is divided into four primary classes or varnas, the first three of which are considered “twice born” for they adhere to traditions that allow them to undergo certain sacraments and enjoy a more privileged life. There are further divisions of the 4 castes, subcastes called jatis. The Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (warriors and kings), and Vaishyas (merchants and agriculture) are these. Shudras (manual laborers) are the fourth caste and are often mistakenly looped into the lowest jati of all the subcastes, the Dalits or “Untouchables”.

The Brahmins are the priests, teachers, and legal authorities. Those born into this caste would start hearing the sacred texts at early ages and for centuries they were passed down primarily through oral tradition. The most dedicated of the students were able to recite Vedic scripts not only as they were dictated to them but also backwards and sometimes even by omitting every other word. This is what led to the sacraments becoming so specific that it was believed that if one note was chanted off-key or one syllable of a mantra mispronounced during a ceremony, that flaw would render the entire ritual null.

The demand was created for priests of perfection and the costs of affording a Brahmin ceremony became out of reach for the typical Hindu. For a faith that holds end of life renunciation of material wealth in such high regard, it seems that expensive demands from priests for blessings and to restore karma is contradictory.

Nandan Upadhyay of Varanasi described a situation that required consulting with a Brahmin priest. When asked if he kept any pets in his home such as dogs or cats, he explained that one will rarely find a Hindu home with a cat as a pet for they believe that if a cat dies while in their care—regardless of the death having been caused by mistreatment, illness, or accident—an expensive offering of a golden image of a cat must be made to a Brahmin priest. It does not have to be large or even of solid gold; it could be an image etched onto a piece of wood or drawn on paper and then painted in gold leaf, but it did have to be of real gold.  He recalled a day of riding his bicycle through the narrow streets of Benares when a cat darted in front of him. He didn’t have time to brake and avoid it and the back tire hit the cat but as he looked back, he saw it get up and move on although visibly injured. Nandan said he dreaded having to tell his mother because of the expensive offering they would have to come up with if the cat died but if it did, they were to honor their obligations so they started preparations for the offering. He went back to the neighborhood and found the cat’s owner. In the end, the cat had recovered so the need for the offering never materialized and he actually still goes to visit it from time to time.

The Kshatriyas, or the warrior caste, are those destined to serve in the military, become police officers, politicians and local activists. In antiquity they are the leaders of the defense against invading armies. Their history is rich with stories of fierce battles as they fought tirelessly to fend off neighboring kingdoms trying to overtake their region and of devastating defeats as the Mughal rulers pressed on and occupied what was the wealthiest civilization on earth at the time.

The Vaishyas, or merchants, may not be as glorified as the Brahmins or Kshatriyas but they are the pillars of the community. These are the merchants, business owners, the agricultural professionals who run the farms that grow the grain and rice and tend the cattle. Society depends upon them for structure and survival. A culture may be chaotic without religious discipline and military but it could continue. But in a region like India, it is imperative that there be a portion of the population whose purpose is to see that food is farmed and marketed for this is what employs the most and propels the economy.

To a Westerner, the most intriguing aspect of the caste system is that of the lowest caste, the Shudras, for often their treatment is terribly inhumane. They are the laborers who perform the chores and hold not only the lowliest jobs in society, but the poorly paid and most dangerous, especially for the Dalits. They are barred from obtaining educations and in the most orthodox cases forbidden to even hear uttering of any of the sacred texts. It was considered so taboo for the divine words of the Vedas to fall on the ears of a Dalit that if it was suspected it had even occurred by accident or in passing, the usual punishment was to pour molten lead into his ears. A Dalit’s shadow was inauspicious and he could be beaten severely if his passed over an individual of a higher caste. His footprints were considered cursed and many would tuck whisked brooms or palm fronds into the backs of their belts to sweep their footprints from behind them as they walked. The Shudras were the ones with the duty of emptying the night soil from homes, digging latrines, cleaning, and serving. It’s considered inauspicious to touch a corpse but someone has to perform the duties of preparing them for cremation and burial. The Dalits retrieve the body from the home, anoint with oils, wrap in the shrouds, adorn with flowers and place on the pyre. When the cremation is complete, they sweep up the remains and, if in Varanasi, surrender them to the holy Ganges.

To the rest of the world the caste system seems terribly antiquated and a clear violation of human rights but most of India will still defend it and state its value in socio-economics. It’s a widespread misconception that it was officially outlawed a few decades ago although some updating has been attempted. Mahatma Gandhi worked feverishly to improve the conditions for the lower castes, even refusing to refer to them as outcastes, but instead as “Children of God”. The concept of “Untouchable” was abolished and any discriminatory treatment of anyone of that caste is actually illegal, but most will say that progress is slow to be made to truly see tangible changes in how they are treated in society.