Julgar, Provar, Experimentar: Trying for Justice in the Amazon

 

Julgamento: trial; from Latin judicare; “jus”: law or right and “dicere”: to say or speak

Marlon Pidde, age 65, was tried in May of this year for a crime he committed thirty years ago. He was convicted and sentenced to one hundred and thirty years without probation. But he will never spend one night behind bars.

Really, he just was tried.

Try: “to examine judiciously, to discover by evaluation, or to test;” mid-14c., “to sit in judgment of,” or “to attempt to do,” from Anglo-French trier (13c.)

Alex (a fellow Fulbrighter) and I were conducting research on the land conflicts in southern Pará, a rural region located in Brazil’s Amazon and often seen as “the last frontier.” The place where people are still shot up cowboy style over land disputes, where mineral extraction and exports make few rich and devastate many, the place where Marlon Pidde, an owner of a huge fazenda (farm) was able to get off scot free after ordering the death of five men who had been given plots of land by the government that bordered his large estate.

What was once an area abundant with cashew trees and natural resources has been turned into a desolate grassland, controlled by a few wealthy cattle ranchers and their private guards who police the land. Travel in this region is made difficult by the maze of rivers that connect cities to one another and the rocky “estradas” (highways) that make travel by bus just bearable, at best.

From our location in Belém, Para’s capital and largest city, we had to travel six hundred and eighty-five kilometers and seventeen hours by bus to reach Marabá, the largest city in southern Pará, and the “capital,” of sorts, of the region’s land conflicts. The geography of the region changed noticeably throughout the journey, as forested areas near and around Belem were traded for grassland, weathered by the sun and browned by the lack of rain during the region’s dry season.

Once in Marabá, we met with volunteers at the Catholic Church’s Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), an organization founded in 1975 to defend the rights of farmers and workers in the region against the large cattle ranchers (and, by extension, government officials who were inevitably tied to these wealthy landlords). Led mostly by volunteers, CPT is the only organization to document and record the cases connected to land violence in the region (death toll, persons involved, information on the trial, etc.).

According to the CPT, there have been over one thousand murders in the Amazonian region in the past decade (not to mention the many that go undocumented every year). In a recent study conducted in 2012, Global Witness, a London-based research organization, deemed Brazil the most dangerous (and deadliest) place for environmental activists and communities fighting to protect natural resources: four hundred and forty-eight deaths were reported in an eleven year period between 2002 and 2013. Unsurprisingly, in the past twelve years, only ten trials have resulted in successful prosecutions.

These numbers are staggering and speak to the breadth of the violence in this region, but they do not reveal what happens after these people are killed and why there seems to be no end to the violence in sight. The days, months, and years victims of families spend waiting for their cases to be taken to trial, waiting for a wealthy landlord to be convicted, waiting for justice in a lawless region where impunity is the only certainty.

***

Although he fought for his trial to remain in Marabá, Pidde was sent to Belém on May 9, 2014 to be tried by, what was thought to be, a more impartial jury.  (Pidde currently resides in São Paulo and does not give interviews, but his lawyer, Osvaldo Serrão, agreed to meet with us.) 

Osvaldo is a rich man in Belem.  He drives an expensive car and owns a motel chain.  The “pay by the hour” kind, popular here, especially since most children live with their parents until their thirties.  We met Osvaldo there to interview him.  He ushered us in, ordering his empregada to make juice for the three of us, and led us to the back room to converse.  

“Desculpe pelo atraso” (Sorry for the delay), Osvaldo said. (He was over two hours late for our scheduled interview). “Eu tenho uma ressaca terrível” (I have a terrible hangover), Osvaldo said, chuckling.

His hair slicked back and smelling of some too-strong cologne, Osvaldo was wearing an expensive-looking watch, and several gold chains hung around his neck. A curious hand sculpture sat atop his otherwise barren desk. I think Osvaldo must have seen me eying the sculpture because he soon said: “Um momento,” and opened the desk drawer with a tiny key he had drawn from his pocket.

Eu adoro ouro” (I love gold), Osvaldo stated, pulling out no fewer than five golden chains, one to adorn each of the five fingers of the hand sculpture.

Alex and I eyed each other, not knowing whether this was common small talk among Brazilian lawyers (maybe I should have fabricated a love for Brazilian men with bicep implants?) or if we were permitted to laugh at this outrageous gesture. Unsure, we kept silent while Alex reached for her recording device to begin the interview.

“In the trial that we witnessed, you claimed that there was not enough evidence for the prosecution to convict Pidde. The prosecution responded that if you always have to have hard evidence to convict “mandantes” (people who author a crime but order someone else to carry it out, such as Pidde) then no one will ever be convicted. How do you respond to this?” questioned Alex.

“Look,” Osvaldo said. “It took the state eight days to investigate the crime scene. Eight days. They only had enough evidence to prove the identity of three people—to match three names with the five corpses found. Police are being payed a lot of money. A lot of money. But there’s also a lot of corruption.”

Glean: to gather grain that is left after the main crop has been harvested

He paused and took a sip of his acerola juice, a tart fruit native to the Amazon region. (Osvaldo had sugared it up with five packets of sweetener.)

“There are simply not enough judges or prosecutors in Brazil for this system to work as it should. Currently, there is one judge for every three municipalities. Do you know what that means in this region? A one hundred kilometer trip, three different boat rides up a river to reach the nearest court.”

“It is the fault of the state,” he continued. “In the case of Marlon Pidde, it was the prosecution that had to ask Pidde for the names of the victims. That’s right. The prosecution asked the defendant for the names of the people he (Pidde) had ordered to be killed. They didn’t even know.”

We nodded along, puckering our lips at our own tart juices. It wasn’t often that I got the chance to drink a juice without heaps of refined sugar, and I enjoyed experiencing the fruit in its natural state.

***

There is a famous cookie in Belem called the Monteiro Lopes. It is a chocolate dipped sugar cookie, half of the cookie a chocolate glaze and the other half covered in crystallized sugar. I tried this cookie months ago when one of my students brought it to an English potluck but I only learned of the cookie’s legend a few days ago when another one of my students, working on an English writing assignment to translate traditional Paraense recipes into English, told it to me. (I doubt the accuracy of this story, but as the goal was to produce a translation in English and not necessarily to tell something true about the world, the story serves its purpose). It goes something like this:

Monteiro Lopes” is a tribute to the family that created the recipe for this cookie. Between 1850 and 1890 in Belem, there existed two bakeries: one to the East of Ver-o-Peso and one to the west of this market.  Manuel Monteiro, a mulatto, owned one of the bakeries and Antonio Lopes, of Portuguese descent, owned the other.  They were rivals and each bakery produced different cookies; Monteiro’s produced chocolate-covered biscuits while Lopes’s produced sugar cookies.  When their parents died, Monteiro and Lopes’s children married and joined their bakeries and began producing cookies that blended the two flavors and colors, giving birth to the “Monteiro Lopes.” 

It had been almost a month since I had arrived in Belem before I ordered “mestiço,” arguably one of the most “Paraense” (describes people from Para, the state in which Belem is the capital) flavors on the menu at Cairu, our local icecream shop. I did not just try this flavor, slipping it in in between a taste of passion fruit or mango. I walked up to the counter and said:

“Eu vou querer o mestiço,” without hesitation. Without trying eight to ten flavors first and then settling on chocolate.

When my icecream arrived, I bit directly into the mixture of açaí and tapioca. The tapioca ice cream seemed to overpower the earthier açaí. I wanted them to blend perfectly, but the creamy tapioca took precedence, overriding the subtler tastes of açaí.

I waited. I remembered a story my friend Dylan told me from his experience at a local university. A question that made him uncomfortable, that made him feel his own tapioca-colored skin:

My friend said that we all look like Indians here in Belem. Is that true?” the student persisted.

The earthy flavor of acai with a hint of olive oil lingered in my mouth longer, sending me back to childhood memories of tree-climbing with cousins, vegetable picking with granddaddy, and sharing something homegrown for dinner.

It was the taste of after harvest. Of the fruit gleaned from the ground, already fallen from the tree.

The demographic at UFPA (Universidade Federal do Para) is several skin tones lighter than the general public in Belem. Although the university operates on a system of quotas and reserves spaces for students of African or Brazilian Indian descent, the spots remain unclaimed. In order to enter the university, students must past the Vestibular, a difficult examination somewhat comparable to the SATs in the United States. While the university is free, students of well-to-do (mostly white) families are enrolled in private high schools and almost all of them take expensive “Vestibular courses” to prepare for the rigorous exam.

Meanwhile, the open spots sit there, waiting to be claimed.

With fancy equipment to harvest crops, we don’t glean in the same way as did the women depicted in Jean-François Millet’s painting “The Gleaners.” The three women bent over in the field, gathering the remainder of the wheat harvest before the sun goes down.

the gleaners

Agnes Varda’s film The Gleaners and I examines the way in which our modern society gleans—artists glean materials that have been recycled to create new artwork, and we glean our own lives with cell phones and video cameras that allow us to preserve a piece of ourselves. But rarely do we glean out of necessity anymore.

We aren’t accustomed to picking up the leftovers after the harvest. We let what is left of the crop go to waste– to rot unjustly.

O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?

** *

It was the murder of Dorothy Stang (2005), an American nun who had been living and working in Brazil for more than fifty years, that brought attention to crimes over land conflict. Protesting against the destruction of the Amazonian rainforest and supporting poor farmers to defend their land against wealthy cattle ranchers, Dorothy was murdered for her activism. Four trials and eight years later, Vitalmiro Bastos de Moura, the man who ordered the murder of Stang, was finally sentenced to thirty years in prison in September 2013. A result of the international attention gained by the trial, the number of cases being brought to trial after years of waiting has surged in the past decade but few will result in imprisonment.

A system of delayed justice. We come to the field too late.

We glean the facts from a crime committed thirty years in the past. Relatives of the victims are old and their memories are fading. We glean them anyway. But we cannot use the material we have recovered.

***

June 15, 2014 at Coisas de Negro dancing Carimbo

You will never learn to dance. Dancing comes from the soul,” an old man yells repeatedly, waving his cane at me from the corner of the room

Tentar: To try

Music is the instrument we use. Our bodies we cultivate. Music is the instrument we use to harvest our bodies we cultivate. We cultivate during the spring time to dance in the summer. But I was born in the winter when there was no springtime music. I matured in the springtime to the music of the winter. And, in the summertime, my body mature, I could no longer listen to the music of the springtime.

Oh, let me be gleaned from the barren fields. Taken in by the new crops of the spring. (I promise I won’t spoil!)

I try to dance. My arms do not move at the same rhythm as my feet, my feet hopelessly behind my arms or my arms flailing wildly to catch up with my feet. And my mid-section? It stays stiff and rigid unless my dance partner, some kind sixteen year old boy, knows exactly how to guide my torso to move with the music. To undulate to zouke, to roll with bachata, and to bounce with forro.

The music is wired first through my brain where I deconstruct, analyze, and fret:

Brain, send signals to my feet!

“You must ‘sentir a musica’ (feel the music),” Aderson, my dance instructor, tells me. “You are really flexible, but you just don’t use it.”

That familiar territory of yoga—of looking into myself and forgetting my outer, physical existence—is impossible in a dance class in front of a wall of mirrors. Do I look at myself or my instructor? My feet or their reflection? What about when there are three “me’s,” myself, my reflection, and my second reflection, split by the crack in the mirror? Then, where do I look?

I wait for my partner to lead me, always slightly behind tempo because I am waiting to see what he will do next or sometimes I jump ahead of tempo because my brain thinks, “Oh, I know what this sequence will be. We’ve done it before.” Except my partner creates something different, and my brain tells me I cannot follow this new sequence because I do not know. I do not know.

There is no waiting in dance. Your body must follow the rhythm, creating designs in space to the beat of the music. No time to think of what was or what will be, just of what is.

“I’m not going to teach you steps or sequences,” Aderson tells me. If I just taught you “passos” then you would have to learn how to dance them with each new dance partner. “What I’m trying to teach you is how to listen,” Aderson says, placing his hand on my back. “This is our connection.  Here are your ears.”

***

The seasons. They, too, are in my head. Belem doesn’t have seasons. Or if it does, they vary by degree, not kind. Spring does not prepare you for summer which provides for you to settle into fall to live comfortably in the winter. No, there are just two seasons in Belem: the wet season, where it can rain all day and the dry season, where it rains every day but just not all day. One just blends into the next, no period of waiting in between.

One day, some three months after June 15, 2014, my feet get the signal. I feel the energy pass from my dance partner to me, a subtle touch that speaks to my feet and sends them across the dance floor. We make designs with our bodies for ourselves to feel, the world to see.

And not one thought:

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

dance

the unknown face

It smelled of sandalwood.  Curls of smoke rose above the stacks of wood.  “Let’s go,” Chad urged me, moving away from the smoke that was now enveloping us.  I stayed rooted in my spot, watching as six Indian men torched the wooden case on the banks of the Ganga.  Only the feet were still visible inside the massive wooden crate.

Death is visible here.  A permanent reminder of our impermanence.  The smoke from burning bodies mingles with the heavenly smell of cooking chapatis at a nearby street cart.  A group of rafters setting sail right next to the funereal pyre catch my attention.  I watch them launch into the river from the steps where we sit.

I feel closer to the source here in Rishikesh.  Perhaps it is the spiritual music that echoes in this windy valley between two mountain peaks.  Or my own meditation practice at a nearby ashram.  Or, maybe it’s the monks dressed in orange bathing in the Ganga who bring me closer.  They sit on the river bank reciting mantras, counting each chant with a string of mala beads.

“It’s funny,” Chad told me, “how the freest people here wear orange and in the states it’s the exact opposite.”

Prison.  I hadn’t even thought about it.

It must be strange for him.  To see a  bunch of men dressed in orange wandering the streets here, I thought.  Despite the stories he told me about his former life and time spent behind bars, it was still impossible to imagine my travel companion as a felon with multiple convictions.

Chad and I had traveled to Rishikesh with our philosophy professor, Benu, from our yoga training course.  Benu had left us now, but we still talked about our conversations with him, reviewing the videos I had taken where he describes his life in the upper Himalayas, living in caves.  His six-month vow of silence.  Twenty years on a spiritual quest, and now he wants to get married.

Benu wears a white dhoti and white t-shirt, tucked inside.  His long black hair and beard certainly make him look like a spiritual guru or cave-dwelling monk.  He’s working on a new website called reachingnowhere.com.  A bit of cynicism, perhaps.  Mostly reality.

Yoga for Benu is meditation and chanting and has absolutely nothing to do with the physical practice we know as yoga in the west.    “Asana means posture,” Benu would tell us.  “Any movement we make or position in which we sit or stand is an asana.”

Through meditation, we engage in more of the eight limbs of ashtanga yoga that Patanjali describes in the ancient Yoga Sutras than we would through asana practice alone.  Meditation is both asana practice (albeit one asana–sitting), pranayama (a practice in breath control and expansion of prana, the vital energy in our bodies), and pratyahara, or withdrawal of our senses from the outside world.  It allows us to transcend our physical bodies and connect our consciousness with universal consciousness.  Something that knows no change or death.

Impermanence.  We tend to think of this word as describing a going away of something, a disappearing of something that once was.  But, what if we think, instead, of impermanence as illumination?  As a coming into the world just as much as a going out?  The way a burning log disappears as the flame from a fire simultaneously gets brighter, more radiant.

I watched as the crowd surrounding the burning wooden crate containing the dead body began to disperse.  The smoke continued to rise.  We got up to leave, but my mind was still on the fire.  And faces.

We had just gotten back from a five day trek in the Himalayas, and I was thinking about one face in particular.  We had hiked through villages carved into the sides of the mountains–villages only traversable via foot or donkey.  No cars could drive there.  The people from Pana knew the people from Jhinjhi–twenty to thirty kilometers across the valley and over the hilltop.  The drums that beat sounded marriage.  Sheep herders called to each other from peak to peak.  Voice is still important there–that emanation whose very existence is indebted to its going out of existence.

But visual recognition is something we all desire.  I could hear them speaking, but I could not see his face in the shadows.  I was sitting on a stone by the fire after a twenty kilometer trek.  Rohit, our friend and guide through these remote areas, sat next to me.  Mahender was squatting opposite me, talking to a man whose face I could not make out.

“They just found out that they’re related,” Rohit told me.  “From villages several days’ journey away from each other.”

I wanted to see his face to put an image with the voice–the unfamiliar tongue–that spoke.  Suddenly, a log rolled from the pile, causing a flame to illuminate the unknown man’s face.  It was lined–the sharp creases across the cheekbones added to the strength of his jaw.  If I hadn’t already learned the ages of the porters, I would have guessed him to be in his seventies.  Knowing this, I put him at fifty.  But he was probably forty-five.

It was nearly impossible to tell age here.  The men and women looked old, much older than they were.  And the children?  Well, they were small and slight and appeared much younger than our hormone-fed children in the west.

My mind wandered to our drive back from the mountains.  To that split second where I could have felt involved in the death of someone else.

Our driver had screeched to a stop, narrowly missing the eighty-five year old woman blindly walking in the middle of the road barefoot with two canes.  We got out and offered her a ride.  She refused us.  As we drove away, I watched as the car behind us veered to the left to avoid hitting the woman.

“You really think she was trying to kill herself?” I repeated to Chad later, wanting to hear a different answer.  “Why else would she be walking in the middle of the road, late at night, with no shoes or socks on, twelve kilometers from the nearest village?”  Chad muttered.

He was probably right.  Even Rohit nodded along.

Impermanence.  Conditioned.  Constructed by our own reality.  One of the three tenants of existence in Buddhism.  Yet, there is some part of us that is unfabricated, unconditioned.  That knows no change or death.

That pain is as impermanent

as shadows on the hills,

And that nirvana’s blessedness

will cure all mortal ills?  (John Stoddard)

I knew we must come down from the mountains.  Down from the villages that seemed unchanged by the modern world.  Down from the mountaintops where merging with that universal thing seemed within reach.

Down to where the elderly woman was charging down the mountain road to her own death.

For

No man is an island entire of itself;

every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;

if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less,

as well as if a promontory were,

as  well as any manner of thy friends or of thine  own were;

any man’s death diminishes me,  because I am involved in mankind.

And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;

it tolls for thee (John Donne).

Mysore Beginnings

Coconuts are on my mind.  Not the small, brown kind you can find in Kroger next to the imported pineapple and green bananas.  But the huge, green coconuts that are young enough to contain mostly water but still have a white, fleshy center that slips out of your hand when you take your first bite.

First, you have to drink all of the coconut water before you can eat the white meat.  Sometimes, there might be more water and a softer center, and other times, there might be less water and a firmer center.  The second kind is my favorite.  But you can’t pick and choose your coconuts.  You get the next one off the truck after the coconut man hacks it with a huge machete.

image

I sip mine slowly after practice, feeling the water rehydrate my body and refresh those parts of me that seem always to be sore these days.  Tracy slurps hers down, already eating the meat while I am still floating in a coconut sea.  Her practice is like that too–fast, hurried, as if she wants it to be over.  She’s usually already in virabhadrasana, hands shooting toward the ceiling while I’m breathing slowly in adho mukha svanasana.

There are no Indians in my class.  They practice in the afternoon when teachers offer separate classes for locals; sometimes these classes are even in a different shala.  At the big shala where Saraswathi and Sharath teach (descendents of Sri K. Patthabi Jois), westerners and Indians are not even allowed in the same class.  They say it is because the Indian men “cannot control” themselves when they practice yoga in a room with women wearing form fitting clothes.

But yoga is also different here.  Women practice in their saris and men in their dhotis.  The rigor and discipline that westerners seek is not really desired by locals.

On my way to the shala in the morning, I walk past a slum where fifty or more families are living in tents and small shacks until the government housing promised to them has been built.  I am among the people, cows, scooters, rickshaws, buses, and cars moving through the streets in the early morning.  The pace is slow but the movements are swift.  A scooter honks and pulls out in front of me.  A rickshaw slides between a bus and a car to turn at the next corner.  And a man pushing a cart wails “papaya, papaya” in a slow, mournful tone.

Maybe his voice sounds sad to me because he speaks in an unfamiliar language.  Maybe he is sad because his cart is heavy with fruit and no one is buying.

Perhaps, my western ears hear sadness when there is none.

But ears can adjust.  Mine have learned to ignore the retching at the house next door during morning asana practice.  They say that people stick their toothbrushes down their throats until they gag–the hacking just part of a morning routine.

When I step outside of practice and see the elderly man kneeling over his stoop coughing, I hear sickness.  The air is always dusty with a lingering smell of carbon.

Everywhere things are burning.  The chai burns my tongue and the metal cup, my hands.  I sweat as I drink it, knowing the milk is hot enough–safe enough–to drink.  The deserted lots burn rubbish.  Female integrity burns there too.  Women shouldn’t go out at night.  Burns at the touch of groping hands that find them there alone.

I met a man married to his girlfriend’s sister.  Her parents wouldn’t let him marry the daughter he loved.  They said, “She is too valuable.  You can have the ugly daughter.”

There are more police officers in Mysore, keeping watch during the nighttime hours to protect the women who protect so much during the day.  At a town meeting a few weeks ago, a group of women, led by Anu, a woman from Northern India with closely cropped hair and impeccable English, demanded more protection against assault.  Several more police officers have been dispatched to keep watch in Gokulam during the night and the early morning hours when yogis are walking to the shalas for practice.  A few of them just walk up and down 2nd Main outside Anu’s house, proving their presence.

Anu’s tone was bitter when she told me this last part.  Like a masala with too much turmeric and coriander.  I was at her house, learning how to make chenna masala and to dry roast herbs.

image

No, the police officers are for the western women who come here to practice yoga. The women who are groped by men who see them with exposed shoulders and bare legs.

 I saw the young boys watching porn in cyber cafes.  Learning pale skin there.   

Not all women bare their skin.  But all women bear the burden of being watched.  Eyes linger on my pale hands and feet.  Penetrate the scarf that covers my neck.  And glide up my backside.  I am not to make eye contact, I have read.  How do I see this world with downcast lids?  Dusk comes, and I retreat inside.  Inside to the spinning fan and blue room that bathes me in an artificial sky.

I want to go outside.  Outside, where the dogs are barking, the scooters honking, and life is happening.  I wait for Nico to pick me up by my front gate.

The stoop vibrates from an underground life.  Traditional Indian music blasts from below ground.  I hear the pattering of feet on cement floor.  One week I have lived here, and I have never seen anyone enter or leave the basement.  For three days, I have waited on the stoop at different times during the evening for Nico to come.  It is the fourth day and still no one emerges from below.

Here is what I imagine:  I imagine girls removing their scarves and long saris, dancing to music that enlivens me.  I imagine an older Indian woman–a rebel of sorts–teaching these girls to set themselves free for a few hours from a culture that dictates their movements and decisions.  She counts “one, two, three” in Kannada, and the girls twirl and shake their hips to the beat.  One day, the oldest girl of about twenty is not at practice.  “Where is Anu?” Rashmi inquires.  “She’s getting married today,” one of the younger girls whispers.

I live above a dance studio called “The Next Step,” and this is what I imagine.

***

I swore I would never–could never–drive in India.  How could I?  They drive on the left hand side of the road so my “left, right, left,” forever ingrained in my memory from driving school days would certainly kill me.  And traffic laws seem not to exist here where there are no lanes and you are just as likely to come across a cow wandering through the streets as another human being.

Despite these fears, I decided to rent a scooter.  No, not the razors that many of us had as kids, using our own leg power to propel us down the street.  But the big, motorized kind with a real engine that sounds only a smidge quieter than a motorcycle when you rev it.

On my scooter I am safe.  I glide through the streets at night with ease.  Staying on the left hand side of the road, I follow the stream of traffic and honk my horn at every intersection, declaring my presence.

The second day with the scooter, I ventured to Tina’s Cafe after my evening yoga class.  Ordering a custard and a ginger-lemon- honey tea, I sat at a table and watched.  I watched those who watch me on the streets.  I watched people eat, talk, and laugh.  But mostly I watched a young couple sitting at a table diagonal from me.

She wore straight legged jeans and a black blouse, cropped low enough so that her collar bone was exposed.  Her hair was back, but it wasn’t bound in a tight braid like most of the women wear here.  Her low ponytail swung slightly when she turned her head as she spoke with the boy across from her.  They would exchange subtle signs of affection every now and then.  A sideways glance and bite of the lip.  A small laugh.

A book lay between them.  At one point, she picked it up, turned to a page and gestured to the boy to read where her finger pointed.  He bent in closer, eyes scanning the page.  After a few moments, he looked up, and they began to converse with one another.

They looked to be in their early twenties and not from the Mysore area.  Perhaps they go to school in Mumbai, I thought, the cultural capital of India where language arts are studied.

I had been watching them so intently that my tea was cold when I bent over to sip it.  The fresh sprig of mint bitter against the cool honey that slid down my throat.

 I watched them as they got up to leave.  Slipping the large, black helmet over her head, the girl straddled the scooter as the boy clambered on behind her.  He grabbed her waist and she steered them silently into the night.

***

I was kneeling by the side of the road, taking photos of chickens when they came.  I felt tugging on my tunic, small hands reaching toward my camera lens and voices shouting, “photo, photo, photo!”

Suddenly, a group of eight or more children had gathered around me, demanding their photo to be taken.  I was walking through the slum on the way back from practice and had decided to stop to photograph the animals grazing on the side of the road.

I snapped a few photos with children jumping, making silly faces, and pulling at my camera strap, making it impossible to frame the photos.  Faces squeezing into the frame that no single child stood out more than another.

image

 A small girl in the group kept repeating, “me single! me single! me single!”

She wanted a photo by herself.

I bent down and focused the camera while she stood completely still, hands firmly by her side and chin jutting forward.  One little boy kept reaching up my tunic and pulling on my clothes so that the image is a little blurry after all.

image

A woman holding a baby lingered in the background near her family’s home.  When she heard the children calling me “Anna,” she called to me too.  She wanted a photo with her baby.  She made me promise I would bring her the photo tomorrow.

Gazing toward the camera with her baby on her hip, she stood there.  Her mother leaned up against the wall, disappearing out of the frame.

image