Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Nomad on the block

After close to eight weeks of continuous activity in the College hullabaloo, a 9-day Spring Break was a much needed getaway. I took this as an opportunity to see places, both big and small, as a guest, couch-surfer, and wannabe young tourist-y investor-y man.

First stop, suburban Baltimore.
This was a good relaxing start to the travel week. My roommate, Dave, is an eagle scout - a big deal in the United States. Its positive to observe how an entire community comes out encouraging its members. From President Obama, to the Governor of Maryland, to the local county administrator, everyone sent in a note of encouragement congratulating Dave. (While in Chicago, I saw parents volunteering at schools, taking time out to coach the community-kids in activities from sports to speech.)
The best of both, communism and democratic living, have been adopted in this culture. Something practiced successfully in Scandinavian Europe. 
Also, it was rather satirical to see the Caplans' average american lives being influenced by India. Here is a family that has been in Baltimore for generations, and has nothing to do with anything outside the United States of America. But, today, the mother's work is to coordinate with her colleagues in Bangalore. Her Son rooms with a guy from Pune. And their favorite TV show is "Outsourced" - a comedy show depicting a story of the impact of outsourcing of work to India. 
I also had the opportunity to interact with my roommate's grandfather who was involved in the world war II building American fighter planes. He added that he worked for another decade or so at General Electric, building microwaves, refrigerators and appliances of the like. It felt as if he was an ambassador to the lines in history books that tell us how America transformed industry and manufacturing in the 1950s.

Second stop, New York City.
After experiencing that carrying a bag with a laptop while travelling is a menace to the shoulders and back, I decided for better, this time. All I had on me were clothes (duh?), a blazer, a pen, and a map. I was supposed to meet a friend at her UNICEF office around the UN Plaza on 42nd Street. But She sent me an email a couple of days before my departure saying that she wouldn't be able to keep the meeting. But that wasn't going to deter any of the motivation, mate. 
As I got off the bus, the close-to-zero temperatures (and rain) made me shiver rather violently for someone well-layered. So I walked down a block, and decided to fill the empty stomach with warm food and hot tea. I entered this Indian-looking cafe run by a seemingly Indian lady. Therefore, I assumed that the "Herbal Tea" on the menu would be the familiar hot Indian masala chai, or at least somewhere close. Turns out it was a Turkish Cafe, and no one had anything to do with India in there. The herbal tea wasn't Indian after all, but good nonetheless. It warmed me up, and the cold wasn't an issue henceforth.
For the next four hours, I kept walking on these streets, from Penn Station, Times Square, Grand Central Station, NY Public Library, to the UN Plaza which I anyway wanted to see. From the 42nd street down to the 14th - ah, let me be honest, I took the metro on that last leg.
Honestly, I was disappointed with the City. Having always grown up with Utopian dreams of a big and beautiful New York, all it seemed like was an advanced version of Mumbai. The emotion of the people at Penn Station was the same as that of the people at VT or Churchgate. Everyone seemed to be in the same hurry. The air, strangely, smelt the same. The people looked the same. Only, the buildings were taller, traffic better controlled, and the Indians more courteous. 
Alas, I did want to walk on Wall Street most badly, and was only 7 blocks away, but I had to catch a bus sooner than what I had booked in order to catch the metro in DC. That shuts down at 1 am, and in retrospect it was good to have taken the earlier bus. Else, I would have had to sleep at the Union Station, DC, which probably wouldn't have been the best thing to do. 

Third stop, Baltimore. The City this time. (Its interesting to note the highly distinguishable difference between American cities and their suburbs - unlike in India)
I was supposed to meet with two friends in the country side but I missed the 11:30 am train to my destination. The next one was at 5.30 pm. Instead of waiting at the station, or going back to college, I thought of checking Baltimore City out. So I took the train to Baltimore's Penn Station (hey, whats with the fascination with Penn and trains?) and my word, it is one the most under appreciated cities. Its inner harbor gives a Gulf like - Abu Dhabi, Muscat like - feeling. Walk in a block, and find yourself in the standard American downtown with tall buildings. Walk in a few more blocks and its amazing how you're confused if you were in Baltimore or Barcelona. The roads, the architecture of the buildings, and the entire feel had something European about it. Indeed, the beautiful Charm City is terribly undervalued. Perhaps because of the crime rates and large number of ghettos; nonetheless, it looks like an opportunity-pot worth keeping an eye on.

Fourth stop, Bel Air.
The logic to visit the country side was to observe the contrast between the largest and smallest. Something an Uncle of mine advised after reading my childly blog on my winter-travel: "Chicago, NY, etc are fine", he said, "see the farms, see the rural side, see the real America."
My hosts, Puerto Rican-Americans, were most homely and in fact prepared a special Indian dinner that night. Chole Bhature (Chickpeas), Rajmah (Beans), Chawaal (Rice) and Pappad (I have no idea what the English word for this is.) Added was their traditional Guacamole (like our Indian Chatni) and the meal was blissfully satisfying. The good times.
Even though this doesn't specifically relate to my being in the country side, I drove a sports car. A two-seater real deal sports car. And I'm still pumped about it. :)
As far as the contrast that I wanted to observe: the buildings weren't there, the crowds weren't there, and all those other distinct differences were obviously evident. These were what I - or anyone else - would expect. But there wasn't any subtle realization as such. However, intuitively, I'm sure I have taken something out of the whole journey.

Fifth stop, Edmonston.
Another small town, I went to volunteer at a farm here. The farm, named 'Eco-farms', is run by alumni of the University of Maryland. Here are these two social entrepreneurs, whom I fondly referred to as the solution in my Peace and Politics blog post, who are trying to develop models for economically viable organic farming. Christian, the co owner, believes that organic farming has commercial potential and deserves a much greater market share. According to him a large number of small community based farms - where the people volunteer - can do the job of increasing that market share. Christian has just started out and in all likelihood there is a long way before he successfully creates a sustainable duplicable model. But meeting him, seeing his effort and visibility of work, was an experience of good learning in itself.

Alas, Catonsville.
I got together with my fellow-countrymen, Indians, to celebrate our festival of colors Holi. Best described as spiritual and childish, we all had a good time. By the end of the celebration, we were all drenched in powdered color from head to ..... shoe. My hair had a nice mix of yellow, green and purple which I must admit looked rather cool. 

And that was Spring break. At heart, I'm not the full-fledged adventure person. But I do hope to cover ground in the coming future, learning more about life, culture, and people as I progress.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Peace and Politics: an unlikely synergy

As I think, "What does peace mean to me?", the words, “A peaceful world is one where everyone has equity in access to opportunity and where every child has equity in access to education, nutrition, and love” ring in my head. But, the ringing of these very clich├ęd words stops as soon as it begins. I feel the realistic and practical need to question if peace comes from this need for equality or education and nutrition.

Considering the margin for imperfection: disparities, crimes, wars and violence will always exist in society.

So, what really determines peace? 

A good starting point to question the dynamics of peace in society should definitely be politics; after all, our leaders and their policies determine the environment of our surroundings. 

Let’s begin by looking at the three forms of governances – Monarchism, Communism and the (Western Capitalist) Democracy – and see whether peace prevailed in either of the three.

It is a well-known fact that the Maurya, Gupta, and Chola kingdoms of ancient India were considered the “Golden periods” of our history. People not only prospered, but were happy, peaceful and content with their lifestyles under their Kings – a reason why India was the envy of the entrepreneurial European sailors. In monarchies such as these, people never had an equitable access to opportunity. The caste system then in prevalence, assigned the Shudras, or in today's terminology the lower-class, the jobs of the farmers, cleaners and service-men. The business-folk and the warriors were Vaishyas and Kshatriyas respectively. The Brahmins, or teachers, imparted knowledge to the people as well as advised the Kings on how to rule their kingdoms. No one ever tried to switch their "career-paths"; everyone stuck to their duties. And back then, according to our government sponsored history books, things were good. 
So why didn't this sort of a system work? The power wielded by the monarchs most often ended up being misused by the lethal combination of corruption, influence and greed. Repetitive trends made mankind brand the system of monarchism as “un-progressive”. At the center of this unbalanced equation, lays the answer to the most recent Arab world uprisings: in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, and Libya.

Then, there were/are the communists of Eastern Europe, Russia and China, who believe(d) that a system of governmental control and dominance yield both, prosperity and peace. In theory, there is no reason not to believe that such a system would create a happy society. For instance, the Native Indian American society was built on the community-based model of living. There was no sense of ownership, yet the people lived peacefully content lives.
However, in recent communist regimes things have changed for the worse. Governmental oppression led to the human-induced Ukraini Holodomor famine. It also led to revolutions in the Soviet Union and its' post-Cold War collapse. Meanwhile China’s forceful centralization of everything - from farmlands, education, media, business, to the economy - shows nothing but a hazy picture of happiness in that society.

Fast forward to the 21st century era – a small and globalized world dominated by democracy and capitalism. Today, people have the freedom of thought, speech, movement, and most importantly freedom to access every opportunity possible. 
However, today's vicious cycle of buy, throw and buy, is not only fostering the infamous greed is good principle, but is also hurting the middle and poor classes of people. Even though the absolute measure of poverty has improved (the percentage of people living under a $1/day, as per 1970 UN Metrics, has reduced), inflation-adjusted relative poverty has increased. Let’s not forget the damage tribal groups, and the repeated rape our environment and planet have undergone.

When one looks at a country that has excelled in providing all fair and democratic services to her citizens, the United States of America, the current speaker of her Congress, John Boehner, comes to mind. A janitor in his teens who lived the American Dream to become the top-boss of the World's most powerful democratic body. How more peaceful, according to those words that rang in my head, can a world get?
Not really much, right? 
But when we look at this piece from the average plane, we see that average Americans work all throughout the week on things that they dislike (according to a survey by Market Watch, 53% of Americans said “I hate my job”, even before the economic crises crippled the luxury of opportunities), and then, get drunk, drugged and wasted on Friday nights. As an indirect result of which, homicides, violent crimes, rape, assaults, robberies, have ensued into swollen American prisons. This somehow doesn't look more than an illusion of peace.

In all the three governing models, the end results are theorized to hover very closely around peace. The actual results are stark and diametric opposites of any such projections.

So how does one work around this? Do we lose hope in the harsh reality that a greedy race of men can just never create a peaceful environment?

There are no definitive solutions to this. Activities occur in our world in random, multifarious and incredulously large volumes. Integrating solutions and ideas into the invisible forces of activity would end up being a bigger problem than being the solution. 

Whom we need most today, for the most effective change, are social entrepreneurs; those entrepreneurs who are not driven by individualism. 'Cause while greed maybe good, its only so for the individual, not for the society in entirety. The greater the inequality, the greater the masses are disadvantaged. The greater the masses are disadvantaged, the greater the loss of peace. 

We need social entrepreneurs to change the current linear system of consumerism, which is nothing but out-of-control capitalism, of extract resources, produce, sell, and throw to a sustainable cycle that would repeat itself - Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. How we manage our resources is a critical factor that would influence the random order of activities that occur simultaneously in our world. This would ultimately influence peace.

We also need the more privileged people to adopt a socially responsible mindset. To help undo the damage done on our poor. Instead of having debt-laden governments' - except China's - try to organize education at the grass-roots level, which they anyway make a mess of, the educated urban folk should come out more often and help the lesser privileged sections of society as part of voluntary social service. With due credit, there are salutary examples of such existing groups of people: Teach for America, Times Group's Teach India, YUVA Unstoppable, The Joy of Giving Week, and so on. Such groups now need to expand, infect and reach out to as many members of society as possible.

Sounds simple, doesn't it? "Its all about converting the straight lines (that go to nowhere) into efficient cycles." But it requires heaps of effort and determination. With that, I leave you to the sound of your thoughts: are you doing your bit?