Friday, February 19, 2010

About 20,595 Miles Traveled

Feb 15 and 16, 2010
Colombo, Sri Lanka
Thunderstorms in Male, hot and humid in Colombo

I watched a small girl writhe in her chair while waiting for our plane from Colombo to Mumbai, clearly cranky from lack of sleep or lack of food. I knew the exact feeling of being so uncomfortable that I cannot even sit still. So I smiled at her. She stopped wriggling for a moment and smiled back.
Leaving the Maldives was much sadder than I thought it was going to be. I knew we were headed for India when men started to leer as soon as we got into the gate area. Just now, on the plane, I had a particular persistent staring fellow. I not only gave him the coldest glare I could muster, but when he didn’t look away I also made an angry face at him. Probably terrified, he finally looked away. The Maldives were paradise, and I keep wondering when I will get to scuba dive again.
Even though we all generally loved the Maldives, we had a very interesting experience when we visited the island’s school on the last day on the more secluded atoll. First we met with the kids in a large group, then broke out into smaller groups for biomes discussions. Initially, they were very shy. We spent about half an hour trying to wheedle questions or comments from them. Denny had arranged for a “field trip,” and as soon as we got out of the classroom and started walking down the street, the kids totally opened up to us.

Becky and I were with a group of six fifteen year old girls. They linked arms with us and started giggling about the guys in our group. They told us about living on the atoll, and what their school was like, and their Muslim traditions. We were walking along, chatting absent mindedly when Denny announced that we had arrived at our destination, and I looked up and was completely stunned.
In front of us was a gigantic garbage heap piled onto a beach. The most idyllic tropical island was visible in the distance past the stacks of plastic water bottles, wrappers, a few flip flops, and other assorted refuse. I didn’t know what to say or do for several minutes and just stared at the mess. The kids seemed disappointed that our field trip was to the garbage dump, and wrinkled their nose in disgust as we stood on the smelly pile. One girl told me that just after the Tsunami, everyone was very conscientious about separating out the plastics, but now everyone just threw everything into one heap.

A few more minutes passed, and it became closer to prayer time so the kids had to go back home. We walked through the streets arm in arm once more, and when we parted they asked for our email addresses and promised to friend us on facebook. “You won’t forget us, right?” We assured them we wouldn’t, and took pictures together. The teachers and Denny tried to make us part, but we kept dragging goodbyes on longer and longer.
Eventually, it got dark and we went back into the school to drink young coconut milk and watch the gigantic fruit bats swoop on the horizon. Safaa, our Maldivian host, told us these bats were endangered because people once perceived them as pests and the military was sent with shotguns to exterminate them. After the coconuts, we were promised a surprise and led on another walk: I was once again stunned. Safaa led us to a gigantic wooden garage with a huge, hundred-foot handmade boat inside. The builder stood quietly off to the side as we were told that this was being built as a traditional Maldivian vessel, without blueprints. We climbed up a ladder and walked around on the stupendous boat.

We could have spent much more time gaping in wonder, but we had to get back to our own boat. That night, I switched with Kanako, so I slept on the boat. It was way too hot in the cabin, so I slept on top of my sleeping bag under the stars. It was still warm, but there was a wonderful sea breeze. I curled up and slept soundly, and woke up to the most brilliant sunrise I’ve ever seen. Over the line of palm-tree dotted islands, the clouds were colored purple, orange, red, and yellow. I basked in the early morning sun. When the equatorial light got too intense, I gathered up my sleeping back and fell back asleep in a cabin.
We arrived in Male’ around noon, and the afternoon was a blur to me. I was still quite tired from our dives and all the activity, as well as disoriented from the bumpy boat ride. I napped until class, and then Denny took us to a buffet. I ate a huge plate full of fresh prawns, cuttlefish, red snapper, and crab. It was some of the most delicious seafood I’ve ever eaten – the Maldives are known for fishing. I also had a huge plate of papaya and some Maldivian desserts.

The next morning we ate breakfast, packed up, and had class. We talked about the cultural differences between us and the Muslim Maldivians, how we hadn’t dressed appropriately and were too loud. Somehow, we got onto the topic of oppression, and somebody mentioned the concept of misandry, claiming that men in the United States were highly oppressed. This person’s argument was that men had a strict gender role to which they had to conform, that men had to work hard to support the immense consumption which has become the American standard, and that they can’t stay home to be a soccer dad and enjoy their family.
In high school, this comment would have probably sent me into uncontrollable rage. But I took a deep breath and tried to ignore the tunnel vision that was clouding my common sense and sight. Of course, nobody was allowed to say anything contrary, and we moved on in our discussion. But this comment has bothered me all day; systems that contain an oppressed group necessarily contain an oppressing group. In a culture where women receive three-fourths the salary men in the same profession receive, where access to reproductive care is limited, where our bodies are treated as public commodities, where an entire population gets off on our degradation and humiliation, where we are raped and assaulted at an astonishing rate, and where we are judged constantly against an unrealistic feminine standard, there is a clear distinction between the oppressor and the oppressed.
I understand that everyone doesn’t get what they want: men are discriminated against in custody issues, feel slighted when they don’t have a choice in the outcome of an unplanned pregnancy, or feel like they are compared to an unreal masculinity standard. But these problems are minor in comparison to the sexism women face every single day. I hate that people in this group are allowed to spew such incendiary close-minded bullshit. This was not an academic discussion that enhanced our intellectual development; it was a moment where bigotry was allowed to masquerade as fact. Denny wisely chose to move on from this point and return to the main topic of the lecture.
I think this is partially why I am so wary about returning to India. One of the reasons why it was so difficult the first time around is that women are second class citizens in this country. Even in extremely conservative clothing, we are stared at like meat slabs at a butcher’s counter. More than once I’ve been grabbed or fondled while walking through a crowded street. In stores and restaurants, male employees will ignore me and talk to only the men. Women are rarely in public, either by themselves or in groups. And people assume, as in the case of the Wind Palace, that being trapped in a gilded cage is a desirable life.

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