existential risk

I continue to marvel at three very common assumptions that I find being made all the time, most recently by my friend Oskar when we were talking late into the evening last evening:

  1. Science has made life progressively better for us.  People in the past had things so much worse off.

  2. Whatever problems we face, science can and will find a way to solve them.

  3. It is all but inconceivable that humanity could become extinct.

First, no one has an agreed-upon way of measuring scientific progress.  I dearly love science, but my feelings about what it delivers for us are decidedly neutral.  Even the things that seem most innocently positive can end up having unexpected negative consequences.  Science is not ultimately a good or a bad thing; it's a tool with no inherent moral bias, opening some doors for us while closing others. Most importantly though, I consider myself something of an armchair historian, and I find things both to value and be repulsed by in most time periods.  I think I would be just as comfortable or uncomfortable living in any period -- and it wouldn't really have much to do with the period itself.  We are hardly living in the worst of times, but we're not living in the best, either -- whatever "best" might mean.  Witness the "primitive" hunter-gatherer societies that have more leisure time than "modern" industrialized peoples.  Witness the European settlers, captured by Native American tribes in various skirmishes, or the escaped slaves who joined some of these tribes, who desperately wished not to be returned to "modern" civilization.

The idea that science will fix it for us strikes me -- in the present context especially -- as what the ancient Greeks had in mind by hybris:  a kind of drive-anyone-else-crazy cheerful-to-the-point-of-manic optimism in the face of all but certain catastrophe.  The species is facing certain unique challenges at the moment: as in, challenges that it has never faced as an entire species before.  We really are in this one together; no human population is sufficiently isolated that it doesn't need to worry.  Climate change aside (and there are massive changes in the pipeline, including the disappearance at some point of the polar caps), there's the massive extinction of species that's been going on for some time now, the lost of diversity within species, the loss of forest cover, the substantive loss of terrestrial biomass, the unsustainable extraction of resources and production of toxic (in one way or another) waste, and so on.  All have the human signature on them.  Any one of these, on its own, one might hope (if still perhaps somewhat naively) to be solved through some quick fix from science.  But all of them together?  Our relationship with the environment, as a global civilization -- truly, the first global civilization Earth has ever seen -- is drastically unsustainable along various dimensions.

...Which brings me to the third and final point.  There comes a point in the lifespan of every individual and species, so far as I can see, when the individual or species must change/adapt/become-other-than-what-it-has been... or die.  Life is defined by change, by openness to change, death by lack of change.  (That perfectly captures death, for me:  a state in which one does not change.)  And this period, I think, represents one of those distinctive turning points for our species.  If we do not change voluntarily -- either because we refuse to, or because we are unable to -- then change will happen regardless.  It might be change that "merely" decimates our numbers -- or it might be change that wipes us out entirely.  We are far more vulnerable to changes in our environment than we seem inclined to allow, and -- ironically -- our very adaptability to change is one of the things that makes us most vulnerable.  We adapt to things that really are not in our long-term (or even medium-term) interests to adapt to.


Estimate 24km today, all but the first two km and a bit at the end above treeline with strong continuous wind; really took the energy out of me. Also gave me a bad headache and, of course, despite the dry conditions and air temperature, a touch of hypothermia.  At least it seems not as bad as I'd feared.  Forgot and made my tea inside the (fairly small) cabin (though it's bigger than my former home!) but the stove was only on for a minute and I airated the room well after. Will cook breakfast on the steps outside.

Slept last night at a shelter directly by the side of the road as I'd worked out, correctly, that I'd taken the wrong way out from town. Problem was that I'd ended up on the old Kungsleden because someone had neglected to take down the signs from town pointing to it.  So I found a path on the map leading where I wanted to go, leading off the old trail at the summit of Njallavaratje.  Turned out to be no path at all the 1 1/2km from the summit back to the treeline: just a line of snowmobile / cross-country posts across very boggy ground, with the exception of one one-hundred-meter stretch complete with blazes, path, and bog bridges -- then nothing again.

Funny:  all the people I'd stopped and spoken to, including locals, assured me that I was indeed on the Kungsleden.  But the almost complete lack of appropriate markings -- once I was actually on the footpath, I only saw one, very weathered and ancient-looking sign saying Kungsleden.  My map, supposedly updated December of last year, only showed the old route.  The wildlife reserve maps here and there showed the new route, but in excruciatingly low resolution, with no topographical info. Using my topographical map, I could only guess the approximate route I should have taken from town.  That I got a little lost is probably allowable.

God a very bad opinion today of ATVs, if it wasn't poor already. The Kungsleden hugged the boundary of the ATV exclusion zone: at least, that's how I interpret förbjudetområde för terrängforden. Their tracks were everywhere, crisscrossing my way.  They are amazingly environmentally destructive.  Everywhere there's wet bog -- which is pretty common around here! -- they leave behind a churned mass of mud.

Sun has now set but it's still, of course, broad daylight, and will stay so throughout the night.


So, to continue and expand upon that rant, a bit :-), I thought I might profile a few important figures and moments from my life.

I first got to know Greg when we were both students in a church membership class:  the equivalent, in our offshoot of the German Reformed Church, of confirmation classes.  Greg had an absolutely wonderful way of querying the pastor on nearly everything, but especially matters of theological detail.  Greg didn't take any answers for granted.  And I -- though I could never have framed it that way to myself at the time -- fell pretty quickly and helplessly in love.  I was 11.  Greg was 13.  Up to that point in my life, I'd done my best to be a dogmatic born-again Christian.  Greg woke me to the possibilities I was missing:  maybe one didn't need to belong to our church to be saved.  Maybe one didn't even need to be a Christian (or traditionally religious) at all.

Greg got me involved, too, in a game with the pastor (a friendly but very traditional sort) that carried on right through to the end of the dozen or however many sessions we had.  The pastor went strictly by his middle name, though he always signed correspondence with his first initial followed by his middle name.  So, naturally, Greg and I tried to guess what the initial ("A.") stood for.  Only many years later, as an adult, did I ask the pastor again and learn the answer (which, anymore, I forget, though I think I have it recorded somewhere :-p).

Greg loved to write.  I loved to write.  He showed me a story of his he'd written, though I can't remember anything about it any more.  We were both obsessive readers.  He had freckles back then (I think) and kind of curly hair and a laughing manner about him.  I couldn't wait till I was a little older and would be in the same class in Sunday School.  (Junior and senior high were both grouped together three grades at a time.)  Sadly for me, he stopped going to church (at least to our church) by the time I got there.

We were/are both queer.  I don't think he knew at the time; I certainly didn't.  I just knew the wonderful way he made me feel -- still makes me feel, when I meet him, as I do every now and again, every few years, on my way back through my home town.  I'll mention my feelings for him; he'll laugh scornfully and say "I was waiting for you to bring that up!"; and then he'll say again why it would never work (because I'd never want to move back, because I'd be bored -- all the things I actually wouldn't be; but then, in hindsight, I suppose that, even when we were children, I was perhaps more into him than he into me).

All this wouldn't bother me so much except that -- again, when I meet up with him -- he complains about his "dead-end" job (unless that's changed by now?) and sounds quite dissatisfied with his life.  He's lived with his parents most of his adult life, taking care of his mother through her extended illness.  (I'm guessing she's passed away now; for all I know, his father may have, too.)  He's never had a steady boyfriend, so far as I can tell, never mind lived with one (not that I've done that more than once).  He talks as though it's not even a possibility.  He seems lonely, those occasions when we meet; but that scornful laugh is very much like stepping into a cold shower:  nothing dampens enthusiasm quite so quickly!

I'm past due for getting back.  It would be really great to find out that he has found somebody.  In the meantime, I will always carry my love for him.


So... to spill a little and explain a bit of what I was going through this summer (and am going through still as I write).... Without exception, every single person I have been physically or romantically close to in my life, and quite a few friends besides, have either walked away refusing further contact or said things that I found spectacularly awful:  things that would have been comical under any other circumstances. The first man I ever went to bed with (yes, I've still never been to bed with a woman, late bloomer that way, I guess) joked about passing me along to his other gay friends for their sexual gratification. My first boyfriend accused me of using him as my sexual plaything. He also complained that I had terrible personal hygiene. My second boyfriend declared me dangerous (he didn't specify how) and said he wanted no further contact. Last I heard he was studying to be an Orthodox rabbi, having burned out on Burning Man. My third boyfriend ended our seven months of living together by telling me, as we were settling down for the night, that he couldn't help dwelling on all of the things he loathed about me. He's still the only person I've ever "lived with". Best thing I remember about him is how beautifully and peacefully we slept together.  My most recent boyfriend accused me publicly of rape.  Still haven't worked through that properly.  Didn't help that the police treated me like the "one who got away".

And then there's my friend A., mentioned earlier in these pages, whom I had an unexpected and unsought and truly fantastically wonderful encounter with the night before I left for three weeks in India. He wrote, just before I left India to return to Sweden, to say that he was "sorry" if he had "misled me", but he "didn't want to date" me "or anyone". He came over for dinner one evening, after I returned to Sweden and seemed to enjoy himself, but he has refused all contact since then -- other than a truly cryptic message on Facebook and one evening, a couple weeks ago, when he came by where I was working, hung around like he wanted to talk -- but of course I was working, I couldn't really. I dropped by his flat last evening, on my way home, just because I was tired of making assumptions about what he wanted, having only heard from him what he didn't want. It... wasn't very pleasant. :-(  I said I wanted to talk.  He made clear that he didn't.

Got another friend, who I've been openly but quietly interested in for years, and I know he says he's not into me at all that way, which is cool... or would be.  ...Except that the last time I saw him the ground seemed to have shifted, and he really was acting interested "that way".  He invited me back for a visit, told me to go ahead and book the tickets.  Then he informed me that "maybe" I shouldn't come because "maybe" he'd like to go to a party that weekend.  When pressed, he told me to cancel the reservations.

There are so many other stories like that, back over the years... I should write them down sometime. It's as if I have this remarkably wonderful effect on people, but it always -- and I do mean always -- turns awkward and ugly afterward. There was a friend in Lund, when I was living there, Middle Eastern guy (don't remember where he was from originally).... We interacted so well that people asked whether we had been together months or even years. He came over to my student room, made out, complained about being allergic to cats (I had one at the time) and disappeared to sleep in the kitchen. Beyond a vague SMS response about maybe meeting up for a drink again, I never saw or heard from him again.

And then my family... my father (dead now) and brother both accused me of pedophilia -- my brother, bizarrely, for being friends with a younger guy, a college student (well above the age of consent) named Brad, whom I wasn't even dating. We'd met at a trail shelter in the White Mountains when I was through-hiking the Appalachian Trail.  The truly sad thing about that situation was that Brad, as it turned out, was going out with me in his mind -- wrote to say that it was all going much too quickly, he wasn't gay anyway, and he disappeared from my life. Sucks to have someone dump you when you didn't even know you were going out.  I looked him up one time; he's working for the Boy Scouts at one of their regional headquarters.

I've had family members accuse family members of being "too tolerant" toward my sexuality.  I have relatives who have cut me from most contact and had their teenage sons (one now in his 20s) not just de-friend me but block me on Facebook -- as if I was going to contaminate them.  (I have been blocked a number of times on Facebook -- once in the middle of a conversation with a friend.  Still don't know what happened.)

I had an undergraduate roommate (and friend) my senior year who (apparently) accused me of rape (or attempted rape) to all our mutual friends. (I never got the details -- only a shocked look and a "I never *really* believed..." from people.  Got that after the most recent rape accusation, too.) My best friend from undergraduate days (whom I still hear from occasionally, actually) got to know me when I was away for a year on exchange, from, she said, all the extraordinary and awful stories people told about me. (I never got the details from her, either.  Looking back, I rather wish I had pushed her for details, if only to satisfy my morbid curiosity.)

My working life has not been a whole lot better.  I've had professional colleagues accuse me of complete lack of academic substance, despite my ability to get published in international, peer-refereed journals and get cited. I was laid off from my last "permanent" job not for the reason I was told at the time -- that they had no money -- but because I "wasn't doing" my "job" and "wasn't being a team player", despite never having had a negative performance review, never having been told of anything I needed to do better -- over four years. Yes, that was, apparently, the official reason that was recorded.  (The one performance review I had for that position, after my first year, was extremely positive.) Damn, I poured my heart out for those folks. I have been consistently underpaid, relative to my colleagues (that's been an ongoing problem), and have never had an easy time holding down a good-paying professional job, despite private comments about what a great job I do.

I feel like a lot of things have been piling up on me lately:  a couple of jobs I got turned down for in rather messy fashion, a pedagogy course it took me a month to get into because they weren't happy with my bachelor's degree credentials (WTF?! I have a doctorate!) only to get into after it had already started, some very messy unpleasant email exchanges with a student (don't even know why he's angry).  There's very, very little I feel good about in my life at the moment.

back in Delhi

The sound-and-light show was entertaining, if not especially informative, full of over-acted dramatizations and references that passed me by.  I sat with a couple, originally from Delhi, and their 100% American :-) grandchildren, who spoke not a word of Hindi -- hence the English version of the show.

Back at the hotel, I seemed to have no power still for my room.  I asked at the desk; the cook-cum-handyman came; turned out there was a power switch for the whole room, locate outside the room, by the door.

Set the alarm for five.  Six I'm checking out, receive the SMS from OLA with the cabbie's details.  No phone call from the cabbie though; that's strange.

Six thirty I get another text message saying that the cab might be ten minutes late.  Fifteen minutes later, still no cab, no call.  I have the hotel attendant call the cabbie on my mobile.  The cabbie cancels the trip.  So I end up getting a slightly more expensive auto-rickshaw instead.

I get to the station and join what passes for a queue at the ticket counter.  For no obvious reason (he didn't speak English maybe?) the man at the window directs me to the next window.  Finally I'm in the process of buying a new ticket -- can't use the old one of course! -- when a woman appears from nowhere behind me, pushes past, and insists on being served first because she's trying to get on the same train I'm trying to get on.  So I end up missing my train; it's pulling out as I'm coming onto Platform One.

I go to Enquiries to find out about the next train.  I reach the window only to have people keep pushing me aside.  One of them knocks over my suitcase (with the laptop in it!); making a grab for the suitcase, I fall over.  By this point I'm pretty seriously annoyed.  So finally when I get pushed aside again, I successfully push back, get the attention of the woman behind the glass, find out that the next train is at 8:35 and, yes, I can use the same ticket (with a surcharge if I don't want to ride unreserved).

Breakfast was two dosas and a coffee -- somewhat spoiled by the well-fed rat that ran past when I went to wash my hands after.  Discovered that the station has quite a collection of rats.

Conductor is waiting even as I look for where to board the train.  The unreserved cars look like cattle cars, truly standing room only, if that.  I buy a seat in sleeper class.  AC2 this is so not:  there are eight bunks per section, not six, and no curtains; plus, for most of the trip, we are far more than eight: maybe twice that.  I retreat to the upper bunk, half filled with luggage, for a little breathing space.  Someone gestures at me quite angrily; seems he wants me to take off my shoes.  The train makes lousy time the first half of the way -- moving fast enough (100 km/h), but with long stops at small stations -- then does much better, seemingly, the rest of the journey.  We left Agra at 9:05 -- 50 minutes late on the scheduled time -- and arrived just about 50 minutes late into Hazrat Nizamuddin Station, Delhi.

Taxi to the metro, which is a surprisingly new and more modern line than the yellow line I've ridden before -- also less crowded!  It's still early, so I catch the train to Rajiv Chowk, have an Americano at the Coffee to Go in the station -- man, the one thing I've been missing is good black coffee! -- then chill out for a while in Central Park with its general sunbathing crowd by day, popular gay cruising area (or so Abishek tells me) by night.  On a whim, I buy a Superman T-shirt in the bazaar across the street.  DC Ts in general and Superman Ts in particular are huge here, Marvel Ts nowhere to be found.


After a second helping of Americano :-) I headed down the escalator to the yellow line.  Started out standing, but a man gave up his seat for me because "these seats are reserved for senior citizens" (!).  I protested emphatically that I am not a senior citizen, but at the same time was tired and hot enough I gladly took the seat anyway.  Too, the man who nearly grabbed it from out of my clutches :-) before being restrained :-) was rather further from senior citizenship than I am -- as was the guy next to me, who received his BA in 2011.  After saying I'm from Sweden -- which I more or less am at this point! -- I get quizzed by him and his friend (the one who gave up the seat, I think) on all things Swedish:  the currency, form of government, etc.

Got to MG Road 6:30:  still early so, out of a morbid curiosity, I took a look through the adjacent shopping mall which, apart from one store name in Hindi, could almost have been lifted out of the US (or many other places around the world).

Frist auto-rickshaw driver wanted 150 rupees to Section 17A Market.  I laughed and walked away, despite his efforts to call me back.  The next one wanted 100.  I bargained him down to 60 only after I started to walk away.  He essentially spoke no English, so I was rather nervous whether he knew where he was taking me; but, unlike the last time I tried this, I got dropped right at the market.  (I was quite nervous because, after driving for five minutes, he stopped right back at MG Road Station saying something incomprehensible about 500 rupees:  was it how much he wanted me to pay now?!  I started to walk away in disgust till he called me back.  Turned out he just needed to make change for 500 rupees.)  Anyway, traffic was heavy, so I gave him 70 rupees.  Got myself a bottle of coconut water and walked back to Snigdho's place, where I waited 20 minutes till he got home.  He made a really fine, moderately spicy, very garlicky paneer for dinner while I repacked for the morning.

Agra Fort, day two

Today was my one and only day on this trip of playing pure tourist -- and what more obvious place to do it than Agra, which is even more of a tourist trap (arguably) than Rishikesh! I snapped close to a hundred photos, bought things I wasn't intending to buy (bookends, a carved marble (?) elephant), hit the two biggest sites, and am going back for a "sound and light" show at Agra Fort tonight.

Was sluggish before I went to bed last evening and sluggish getting up.  Had breakfast in the little restaurant area outside my room then ordered a taxi.  Had to walk the last half kilometre because of motor-vehicle restrictions around the Taj Mahal.

I remember nothing about this part of my father's trip other than one classic shot of the Taj Mahal.  I'm not sure how much time he spent here but I'm guessing not much.  Most people seem to do Agra on a quick in-and-out basis.

I hired a guide for, doubtless, way more than I should have paid, but I was pure tourist today, and he was pretty good.  Wonder how the (much cheaper) audio tour would have compared though.

The most striking thing about the Taj Mahal, besides the white marble and perfect symmetry, is the sheer scale.  It's a bit like Chartres Cathedral that way: even from a distance it dominates.

We were given shoe covers for entry into the mausoleum itself.  When I realized though that all the Indians were just taking off their shoes, that's what I did as well.  The marble felt... not cool, exactly, but nice.

The false tomb itself was somewhat anticlimactic:  a constant flow of people and, of course, no photography.  The actual tomb, below, is open only a few days per year.  The central chamber with the false tomb is surrounded by eight smaller chambers with a cool breeze from well-designed cross ventilation.

The surrounding mall has a good view down to the river and over the city.  An LED display gives precise details on the air pollution.  On the one hand, it's good that the motor traffic near the Taj Mahal is limited, and that no industry is allowed within something like 50 km.  On the other hand, there is a lot of pollution from all the cars in Agra, and that's doing neither Taj Mahal nor lungs any good.

I visited the small museum in the Western Water Palace:  excellent examples of calligraphy, several-hundred-year-old sketches of the Taj Mahal, again not very much for climate control.

My guide told me the well-worn tale of the matching "Black Mosque" "that was never finished".  From what I've read, there's no archaeological indications of any such foundations nor historical records even to confirm it was planned.

We exited via the South Gate rather than the West (where we entered): to let me visit an ATM and, it turned out, an emporium "run by the 17th generation of descendants of Shah Jahan".  Besides some fine-looing semi-precious stone inlay work, they had the usual selection of carved marble elephants, etc.  I said only that I would think about it and maybe return.  I went off to find a soda and, compliments of Jimmy at Hotel Raj, a spicy vegetable curry for lunch.  (I asked them to make it as fiery as possible. It was somewhere between mild and moderate. :-p)  I did go back to the emporium, where I bought a couple of granite bookends and a carved marble elephant to match the wooden elephant I got in Rishikesh in memory of Dad.

Then I went in search of the West Gate, which despite being close at hand proved surprisingly complicated to reach.  Taj Ganj (the area outside the South Gate) is, truly, a warren of alleys.  A small boy adopted himself as my guide and demanded 10 rupees on our reaching the West Gate, which I gladly paid.

I hired a cycle rickshaw back to Agra Fort Railway Station for, I thought, 50 rupees.  Once I'm on board though the driver says that 50 rupees is only for Agra Fort and that he needs 100 rupees to go "all the long way" to the (adjacent) railway station.  I offer 60 rupees; he says "pay what you like"; but, on arriving, he is again demanding 100 rupees.  Worse, I have only 57 rupees instead of the 60 I had offered -- and that he outright refused.  So I go make change, which turns out to be all hundreds, and so I end up giving him 100 rupees and leaving him half a kilometre short of the station.

I went back to the hotel, dropped off my purchases, brushed my teeth, and headed back out to Agra Fort.  Again, I hired a guide, one Sunil.  The fort is in much worse shape than the Taj Mahal, despite its similar historical importance, the result of repeated ransackings and the elimination, by the British, of roughly half the structures to make way for barracks.  What remains are parts of two palaces; in best condition is the tower where Shah Jahan's son imprisoned him for the last eight years of his life, after trapping him in the fort and cutting off the water supply from the river.  Most impressive was a bathtub used by Shah Jahan or one of the other sultans, looking like an insanely oversized soup bowl, with three steps on the outside, three on the inside.  There was a chamber with hollow walls once filled with water, to produce a kind of air-conditioning effect; two halls in the shape of palanquins (one original, the other a reconstruction), the sultan's sleeping chamber, the assembly grounds for nobility/VIPs and for commoners, a private women's mosque, and -- bizarrely -- a giant wooden set of doors raided by the British from some other part of India with no connection to the fort whatsoever.  The British made up some fanciful story about the doors "being returned to their rightful place" to justify their original military occupation.

The tour finished after the promised "45 minutes to one hour" (closer to 45 minutes actually, and I kept stopping the guide so I could take pictures).  Then the guide left and I walked the same circuit again, to refresh myself or what, exactly, all the things were that I had taken pictures of.  I got many, many requests to take children's pictures, and I got asked to pose with people many times as well.

On the way out, I stopped to look at the audio guide booth and toyed with the idea of going through one more time, with the audio guide.  I didn't, but the young man at the window offered to sell me a map of the fort for 30 rupees.  I thought I was getting a decent quality, tourist-trinket-type map, but what I got was a crumpled scrap of paper that came with the audio guide (obviously used), showing all the places to stop and listen.

Leaving the fort, I am, once again, set on by taxi drivers like flies.  A cycle rickshaw offers 50 rupees then raises it to 100 rupees when he hears I want to go to the railway station.  (What is it about the railway station?!)  I start to walk away; an auto-rickshaw driver offers to take me for 50 rupees; the cycle rickshaw driver calls me back and accepts the 50-rupee rate.  Then, on the way, he starts going on about how I really should pay him 100 rupees; and, when we arrive, he attempts to refuse the 50 rupees I hand him.  So I point out that we had an agreement, hand him back the 50 rupees, and walk away.

After an early (6:30 pm!) -- by Indian standards -- dinner at the hotel, I'm getting ready to go back to the fort for their evening "sound and light" show (the English version, an hour after the Hindi version, itself a half hour after sunset) when I get a text message from Indian Railways saying that my train for the morning, back to Delhi, "has been cancelled due to unavoidable circumstances.  Inconvenience caused to passengers is deeply regretted".

arrived Agra Fort

I like AC2 (2nd class AC), I decided.  You definitely see more of the ordinary people, and things are reasonably secure: my main concern.  Only problem I had was figuring out how to get food, once I figured out it was (of course) available for sale.  The Meals on Wheels folks would come through so quickly, calling out what they had... in Hindi.  It was also apparently possible to order lunch and dinner, though I didn't manage either.  Thankfully I had some -- albeit snack -- food with me.

The crowding -- six people to a section, with curtains to block you off from the narrow corridor -- really wasn't bad.  Space was well used.

Woke this morning to the train running seven minutes behind schedule:  not bad.  It increased gradually over the course of the day (I'd downloaded a schedule to my mobile phone) till it was two hours forty minutes late out of the last stop before Agra.  Then we magically made time up, because we were scheduled with three hours to go the remaining 122 km.  For a while I thought we'd just be an hour late.  But four kilometers out we sat and waited for 10-15 minutes, then crawled the rest of the way in.  So we arrived about an hour forty minutes late.

The exit from the station was not obvious -- you'd think it would be.  I ended up going down a very long very dark alley.  (I could have tried sneaking through a locked but mostly broken gate, which would have been much quicker, but it would have been awkward with my baggage.)  Agra Fort was beautifully lit up; I should have taken a picture, but I was waiting for a better view, and a better view never came.  Saw a hotel with a neon sign through cracks between the buildings; I made for that, as I had no enthusiasm to get a taxi ride anywhere despite having taken down a list of hotels, addresses, and phone numbers from the Swedish gentleman's LONELY PLANET.

Yes, Tropp: he lives in Stockholm, originally from a small town north of Hässleholm.  He came on at Allahabad and, like me, was planning a stopover in Agra before flying out from Delhi back to Sweden.  We spoke in Swedish for a while till I wasn't sure how to say something, then slipped inevitably into English.  He'd come on board with a ticket for 2nd class non-AC and took the opportunity to upgrade -- which I can appreciate.  It's not that the AC itself is all that important, but the AC cars are, I think, in generally much better shape.  Anyway, he'd lived and worked in southern India some time back, but he'd never really seen northern India, so the present ten-day trip meant to remedy that.  He wasn't actually meant to be in our section; he swapped bunks with a young woman I was happy to get rid of :-) as she talked, and giggled, incessantly.  She had a friend with her, so there were three of us sitting in a space normally meant for two -- but that giggling, oh man!

Kolkata train station

Back to writing in the notebook and transcribing later; the laptop is acting convincingly dead.  I used it as normal last evening and put it to sleep; when I woke up this morning, the eternally blinking white light was off, and nothing would rouse the machine.  I plugged it in to multiple outlets, tried removing the battery for ten seconds and replacing it -- that worked when my old laptop got into a similar state -- all to no avail.  The data on the solid-state hard drive should be fine -- thinking in particular of my mostly rewritten paper -- but accessing it, at least for the next few days, looks vanishingly unlikely.

Can't remember if I woke on my own or to my alarm.  Can't really remember waking up actually, though I was awake by five.  Taxi driver called while I was taking my bucket bath.  When he called back, I put the porter on the phone to explain where I was.  Still took him something like an extra 15 minutes to get there.

Bought my "up down" (return) ticket for the local:  that part was easy.  Then I spent a half hour working out what platform I needed, since I couldn't look it up on my laptop in Pastor Singha's email, and the platforms only indicated final destination.  I tried waiting in various queues only to have people continually push in front of me; Indians do not like waiting in queues.  Someone in the Enquiries queue finally took pity on me and told me where to go; but when I got to the platform, I was told emphatically that the train did not go to Ulubaria (or so I thought).  Went back and found my informant, who went back with me to the platform and confirmed that the train was indeed going to Ulubaria.  Yay.

The local train (10 rupees to Uluberia, 10 rupees back) was certainly basic but surprisingly comfortable; just nevermind the continuously open doors.  Several people conspired to let me know when Ulubaria was getting close.  The person across from me started reading my book, got about ten pages in.  When he handed it back, he pointed to the line on Page 9 about "love whom you will but marry your own kind" and said, "that's very true, don't you think?" to which I had honestly to reply that I wasn't sure quite what the author meant (and, having finished the book now, I'm still not).

Getting off in Ulubaria was like stepping back in time.  There were no auto-rickshaws at the station for starters, only a line of bicycle rickshaws.  So I had my first and, perhaps last, ride in one.  I could have walked about as fast.

Got to church about ten minutes late, but things seemed just to be starting up.  Solomon and Betty Biswas came in in wheelchairs; I think I drew my breath when I saw them.  Solomon looked relatively good, but Betty, wow.  Her left hand looked permanently crippled from arthritis; she shook when she moved, probably from Parkinson's; and her presence clearly seemed to come and go.

Much of the service, besides the usual scripture readings, prayers, offering, and sermon, consisted of singing and dancing from the children.  When the children all left, the age of the people who remained was striking: mostly my age and older, I'd say.  At one point, visitors were to stand up and introduce themselves; I managed to sit when I was supposed to stand and stand when I was supposed to sit, but I got a greeting in English, and I suppose I made it through okay.

I avoided taking photos in the service and only took one of the children's choir after I saw someone else doing so.  I planned to stay afterwards, both with the intention of talking to people and taking more photos, but I got whisked away in remarkable haste to see the pastor's wife.  I just had time to help Solomon with Betty's wheelchair when he had difficulty -- or rather start to, till someone stopped me and took over.  Afterward Solomon said to me a simple but very respectful "thank you".

The rest of my time at the mission was strange, to say the least.  People were clearly very uncomfortable with my being there, and for the life of me, I have no idea why.  There were a few polite questions about why I had come, but no apparent interest in the answers; no questions about Dad or his visit; and, in general, a palpable air of awkwardness.  The pastor's wife offered tea, biscuits, and bananas and disappeared offstage.  I met the intern, Morgan Scott, who chatted politely but rather distantly.  She's from Penbrook originally and attended Penbrook Church of God as a PK, apparently.  Her father is now head of the Allegheny Division and living in Latrobe, which she pronounced as LAYtrobe.  I apologized for mispronouncing it all my life, to which she replied that she wasn't sure herself!  (...Despite having lived there for ten months after finishing at Findlay with a joint degree in teaching English as a foreign language and comparative religion -- to which she hastened to add that meant studying different Christian traditions and not different religions.)  She asked of my plans for the afternoon; I spoke of my desire to spend some time walking around the grounds and wondered if someone might show me the school (it turns out that the school is closed tomorrow for holiday, so no point returning then) -- to which she replied that she was in no position to decide such things, which seemed an odd thing to say.  When I brought it up again, I think in response to her returning to the question, she said she would try to find someone, returned with one of the other two ministers, besides Pastor Singha, who live on the compound, and then disappeared for good, quite abruptly, no goodbye.

The pastor -- whose name I didn't quite catch -- gave me a brief walkaround if not exactly a tour.  His English seemed fine, but he didn't really engage in much conversation.  I asked about looking around the church but was told firmly that it was locked up now.  When the "tour" ended, I tried saying goodbye, thinking that I would spend a few more minutes strolling around, but that clearly was not in the cards.  He saw me to the gate, but I distinctly felt escorted, and it was clear that now was the time I was meant to go.

I have been a visitor in churches many times (plus twice in a synagogue, twice to Muslim prayers, and now to a Hindu temple).  This was the strangest reception I think I've ever had.  ...Which left me wondering if something I wrote in one of my emails had been taken the wrong way.  No other explanation comes to mind.  The lack of curiosity alone was odd.

Well, I wrote that I had expectations for the visit that were unlikely to be met, and that much was right.  For all of my very complex relationship with my father, I miss him, and I miss the months of going around with him to different churches, presenting his slide show of India and Bangladesh.  (Looking back, I can't think of any other time I remember him using a camera.)  I wanted to find some trace of my father in Ulubaria, and I think I did, in the faces of Solomon and Betty; but, damn, it would have been nice to have had the opportunity to talk about him and my memories of his visit.

I think that, in some important ways, I was (and am) too much like him for his comfort; I showed him a side of himself he was not eager to see, and in that way I disappointed him, even as he disappointed his own father.

What strange undercurrents I found very possibly had little to do with me and everything to do with things I know nothing about.  Still, it's hard to avoid thinking that somehow you've done something wrong.

Walking back to the station -- you can't take a direct rickshaw anyway, apparently -- I saw more windows into the past:  trucks with people hanging off the sides and top, such as my father so colourfully described, and which one no longer sees in the cities.  So this is what people mean when they talk about the widening gulf here between urban and rural areas -- even though Ulubaria is not truly rural.

I stopped for a simple lunch of rice, broth, and anonymous vegetables for 18 rupees; again, another world from Kolkata, such a short distance away.

I got on the wrong platform and missed a train I would have caught because I took the advice of two young men, also heading into Kolkata, who clearly were confused!  Got the next train on the right platform with literally a split second to spare -- and so, I saw, did they.  The car I rode was even more basic than the one I rode out -- more of a baggage car, really -- but I thought that, even if my visit to Ulubaria was a disappointment, here was an experience I'd remember and a story -- as the saying goes -- to tell my grandchildren:  watching the merchants repack their goods, watching a young man hang out the open car door, watching the animated expressions on people's faces.  Too many people in other places have forgotten how to be alive.

Back at the station, out of sorts, I charged my eternally draining mobile phone -- currently my only connection to the wider world -- and waited to see if I would clear the waiting list, which I did at 17:35.  Celebrated by hiring a taxi to take me to the Victoria Memorial Hall, which I'd been told was quite lovely at sunset; but first the driver took me to a luxury hotel, declaring it to be the Victoria Memorial; then he picked a spot, roughly half a kilometer away from the Victoria Memorial (according to my Google Maps app), and declared that to be the memorial hall.  By now it was quite dark, and the museum itself was long since closed, so rather than hiking the remaining distance I just chartered another cab back to the station, figuring that at least I'd gotten a tour of the city. :-)

Asked about getting a print out of my eTicket, since I can no longer access it on my laptop.  Apparently the seating confirmation SMS on my mobile is enough.  Got something more to drink as it's been insanely hot and humid today -- and now I see it's pouring.  My mobile is finally almost charged; now if it can just hold that charge until midnight, when I'm on the train and the ticket gets checked!

[TO SET A WATCHMAN (click to open)]
TO SET A WATCHMAN was ultimately disappointing.  It's a much less polished work than TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD; were I the editor, faced with such a manuscript, I'd ask for significant revisions.  Sometimes the writing is lovely, other times remarkably clichéd, clumsy, amateurish.  Both Scout and Atticus come across much less sympathetically; but at least I understood how much Scout is Harper Lee; and the evolution of Scout from this book to TKaM -- though TKaM is set more than a decade earlier -- doubtless reflects Harper Lee's own evolution, not least on the issue of desegregation.  I remember my father's own evolution on issues of "race" relations, and it gives me some considerable encouragement wehn looking at all the very real racial tensions the US continues to struggle with:  police brutality, unequal justice, the deliberate restriction of voting rights.  Jim Crow Lives.  But, at the same time, people and societies can, and do, change.

Heera Holiday Inn Kolkata: Not your usual Holiday Inn!

Woke up this morning to the train running (officially) two-plus hours behind schedule.  Apparently it had stopped and sat, somewhere, for an hour in the middle of the night; my compartment mate did not know why.  Even though the train driver drove the train like a bat out of hell for most of the day, we still managed to arrive Kolkata... *three* hours late.

Yes, it's dark.  Yes, I know no one in Kolkata.  No, I cannot stay at the station hotel (yatri niwas, the option recommended to me by the techie, Anirban) because my outbound ticket has not been confirmed as yet.  (It's up to Waiting List 2.)  Apparently you need both an inbound ticket and a confirmed outbound.  I try messaging Anirban, who gave me his number in case I ran into problems, but his mobile is switched off.  I try messaging other people -- Snig and Abishek -- end up pulling a hotel name pretty much out of a hat:  only requirements were that it not be too expensive, and that it be near the station.  (It's not.  The website lied. :-p)  Otherwise, it's decent enough:  AC that I won't use, minibar that I won't use, TV that I won't use, heavy blanket that I won't use, but most importantly, a clean bed, a working ceiling fan, and a clean toilet!

Actually the deciding factor for taking the hotel was a comment someone had posted on one of the websites.  Some guy had stayed here when he was sitting his school exams and really liked it.

We passed Uluberia an hour before arriving Kolkata.  (The few express trains that stop there are scheduled to take *30 minutes* to arrive from Kolkata.)  Pretty non-descript looking place viewed from the station.  My grand plan to stay in a guest house there fell through:  the only guest house in town, the Pujali, can only be booked weekdays; you can stay there on the weekends, apparently, but you have to book in advance.  Found this out when I had Anirban call them for me from the train.  (Good thing, too, since -- as I suspected -- the person at the other end spoke limited English; Anirban quickly switched to Bengali.)

Afterwards, Anirban asked me if I didn't understand Bengali.  Um, no.  Well, you understand Hindi at least?  Um, no, not that either.  That's why I had you make the call!

I love train rides, but the last few hours of the meant-to-be-29-hour-actually-turned-out-to-be-32-hour journey were getting rather tedious.  For starters, as I discovered on the train down from Delhi, they only provision for the meals they're expecting to need to provide.  If you're on the train a few extra hours, it's your tough luck food-wise.  They kinda tried to make up for this by serving lunch a couple hours late.  It didn't help. :-)  I couldn't check properly for Kolkata hotels because the mobile data signal was way too unstable.  I couldn't read for more than a few minutes at a time given the way the driver was driving.  (Heaven only knows how late we'd have been otherwise.)

Still, I made it over half way through Harper Lee.  I answered Blay's two emails of the day, relating to the switch from driving on the left to driving on the right in Sweden, the Czech Republic and other places, and how (still don't quite have the connection actually) this relates to the demise of the tram in many a European city.

The final part of the journey was an adventure in its own way.  The driver clearly did not know where he was going and had to keep stopping and asking for directions.  (When we finally arrived, he tried to demand 50 extra rupees.  Since I had prepaid for the ride -- and pointed this out to him -- I did not give him any.  The irony is that, if he hadn't asked, I'd have given him the tip for all his troubles.) The streets were, and are, filled with festive Eid celebrations.  Apparently there's a competing Hindu celebration, which would explain the occasional rather more Hindu-sounding music. :--)  The combined cacophony will do interesting things to my sleep tonight, and I need to be up early, as I've scheduled the taxi to the station for six.  (I've no idea how often the local trains go -- they're not listed on the Indian Railways website -- and apparently they take about 50 minutes to reach Uluberia.  The service begins 8:20.

The day's regrets?  The awesome scenery I couldn't appreciate from my top bunk, because the woman in the lower bunk was still sleeping or resting.  The  two bottles of water I accidentally left at the yatri niwas reception.  The dinner I did not have at the station because my mind was fixated on finding a hotel  (I am lousy as hell at multitasking), so I had to settle for two small chocolate cakes from a kiosk around the corner.

Postscript: Holiday Inns were my idea of the height of luxury when I was growing up.  We stayed in one once or twice as a family, and the standard was way above anything we stayed in normally.  (Think roadside mom-and-pop-type motel or string of cottages.)  The other time I stayed in a Holiday Inn was as an adult, arriving late evening on a bus into Utrecht, en route to the UK for my Junior Year Abroad at the University of Sussex.  That visit I remember only for the impressive buffet breakfast the next morning!

Duronto Express, en route to Kolkata

A melancholy mood at the start of my final week in India:  a trip my feelings about which have been dominated by the unexpected events the evening before I left, and the job news I received shortly after arriving.  I have never been so close to settling down in or to abruptly leaving my adoptive country of the past six-and-a-half years. To steal a line from one of my least-favourite American poets, “two paths diverged in a woods, and I….”  Meanwhile, at least one friend here has pointed out, I think, that if what I really want to do is teach and research philosophy, then it’s not unlikely I could find something here (among many other places).  Just a matter of broadening one’s horizons; time for some mind expansion.  My world has, in far too many ways, gotten way too small.

And, of course, I’m wondering what I will find in Ulubaria.  Hard not to have expectations I cannot possibly fulfill.  One of my three compartment mates, a techie from Kolkata, working in Bangalore (the other two are elderly women) strongly recommended that I try booking a hotel online, given just how small Ulubaria is.  (Snig, too, said it was very small.)

Kaush and I were both late to bed last night – Kaush, I think, because he was still stressed out by my (if quite unintentional) late evening arrival back.  Actually I got back around the time he was expecting me (we had been discussing my taking that bus tour the day before); the problem was really my lack of responsiveness when he tried checking in.  So he would like me to message him when I arrive Kolkata/Ulubaria, and that I should easily be able to do, since the power outlets on this train, again, work beautifully.  That won’t be the case on the local train I’ll probably take to Ulubaria, but my phone should, I pray!, hold out that long.

Kaush woke up right before six, so it was easiest just to get up as well.  I went for breakfast at the place I’d eaten yesterday morning.  I tried booking a taxi ahead for 8:30, but the system wouldn’t let me; “all of our advance booking slots are full.  Please wait until 15 minutes before your planned departure and try again”.  Kaush suggested trying from eight as it might take a while to get a taxi, given the rush hour; in the end, the system gave me the option of paying a “premium rate” of 1.8 times the base rate to “increase my chances” of obtaining a taxi, and I just went with that.  In terms of kroners, what’s an extra 40 SEK or so?

Kaush rode along as far as his office. Then we followed the Outer Ring Road around past (I think) the new airport and arrived at Yesvantpur Junction railway station at about a quarter past nine – just before the Duronto Express pulled in arriving from Kolkata.  People disembarked and then – at least in first class – we couldn’t embark until a quarter past ten.  So I walked the length of the platform, finding things to photograph; then remembered that I’d wanted to pull out more money, so I went and found an ATM.

It is, certainly, an adjustment having compartment mates – especially the two elderly women.  Needless to say I went to the toilet to change clothes.  One of them complained when I was going out into the corridor barefoot, so I’ve taken to putting on my shoes every time.  Odd that I was so reluctant to take off my shoes in the Hindu temple and so equally reluctant to put them on for moving about the train!  They (and the man as well) decided to take naps after lunch, so I had to retreat to my upper bunk.  And most frustratingly, perhaps ;’), they pulled the curtains, so that I have to go into the corridor if I want to watch the scenery going by.  But, well, I have a mental block about not wanting to offend women of my mother’s generation; and there is the whole “cultural sensitivity” thing, too.

Meals on this train do not come with tea or coffee, much to my annoyance!  I tried asking for coffee with lunch and was told that I could have it for “tea” at four thirty.  Then they brought a large thermos of hot water but only one small packet of instant coffee; so I had one small cup of coffee. :-) The food is… fine, good even, but not of the same impressive standard as I had on the Bangalore Rajdani Express.  I fear I was spoiled!

I spoke a while with the techie about car congestion in Delhi, the unfolding Greek tragedy, what he sees as well as the intransigence of Angela Merkel, the overall strains within the monetary union and EU, the rising tide of Islamaphobia in Europe, political corruption, income disparity in the US and India and worldwide, the size of the US military budget, climate change, Kyrgyzstan (from a list of all the countries that I’ve been to): its religious leanings (strongly Muslim and relatively ethnically homogeneous in the south, religiously laid back and much more ethnically diverse in the north, especially around Bishkek) and political instability, the dangers of dogmatism, the political climate in India (at which point one of the elderly women chimed in that “Modi is doing some very good things!”), the nature of American and Swedish compared to Indian trains.

Oh -- I started reading Harper Lee's GO SET A WATCHMAN, which I picked up on my walk yesterday.  It is... quite enjoyable, though not the polished work of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.  The very different outcome to the rape trial stands out, of course, along with the very different narrative structure (a series of flashbacks to Scout's early childhood).  As reviewers have pointed out, Atticus Finch becomes a rather more complicated figure.  For all of our quite different reading styles in our adult years -- his tastes in high school remain a large part of my tastes today -- this is one my brother John would have definitely picked up, read, enjoyed.