Category Archives: Travel

Thoughts on Srinivas Kuchibhotla; and A Love Letter To India

So there’s this guy who yelled “get out of my country” in Kansas, before firing on two Indians, killing one of them, Srinivas Kuchibhotla, an engineer from Hyderabad. The Washington Post reported that the father of the other Indian, the injured one, “pointed to the election of President Trump, who has routinely described a threat posed to Americans from people outside the country’s borders, and pleaded with parents in India ‘not to send their children to the United States.’” Maybe that’s the correct call for right now, I dunno. Parents of India will have to decide for themselves.

What I can tell you, though, is that I think parents in the United States should think about sending their children to India. In 2005–2006, I spent six months traveling around India and it was one of the most pivotal experiences of my life. By now I’ve been to probably a couple dozen countries, and so every now and again someone will ask me “What was the best or most interesting place you’ve traveled?” The answer is always India.

India is politically interesting: it has a wide range of cultures and religions, but is a functional democracy. If Ladakhis and Tamils can figure out how to participate in a government together, it seems like people from California and Kansas should be able to as well. India’s people are super-welcoming, and very similar to the United States in a lot of ways (we’re both former British colonies after all), but very different in a lot of others. The diversity of cultures you can see, all on the same railway system, is much greater than in Europe, and the castles are larger and more exotic. The food is amazing, extra amazingness if you’re a vegetarian. Walking down a given street in Mumbai, Jodhpur, or Kolkata is more entertaining than any television show: there are so many people, colors, activities, and animals (Mumbai and Kolkata: elephants and brahma bulls; Jodhpur: camels).

Man on the street, Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, India.

Recently this famous Mark Twain quote has been drifting through my head frequently: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” It’s perhaps a bit saccharine . . . but as a kid from a little corner of Indiana who had his mind blown by India, I can also tell you it is true.

I so wish more Americans would get out of their country for perspective. That might come across as elitist (“not everybody has the luxury to head off to the other side of the world for six months”), but it’s not that much harder to afford than a semester of college; the hard part is finding the time. The big expense is the plane ticket and after that, a lot of countries, including India, are pretty affordable. United States dollars go a long way elsewhere. I hadn’t really thought about it in these terms until now, but I hope for my daughter to go visit India with almost the same degree that I aspire for her to go to college.

My first response to hate of the shooter in Kansas is condemnation, like with any hate crime. I have realized recently that when it’s an Indian, though, the reaction is more visceral for me, a strong, immediate gut reaction of rage and sadness. This is also the case when I read stories of Sikhs receiving hate or prejudice on account of their turbans. I don’t really have any close friends who are Sikh, but I can tell you that of all the places of worship I’ve been to, Sikh temples are the best. Because of the practice of langar, they’re always like “Come in! Have something to eat!”, and in the temple at Amritsar, which ought to be one of the wonders of the world, I also stayed in free accommodations they have for visitors. So whenever I see in the news that a Sikh that got beaten up by crazy bigots (recent example in Richmond, California, a few miles from me), a little voice in my head says “He’s one of the *free food people*, fools! Leave him the fuck alone!” The quickest way to a man’s heart is through his stomach; maybe it is a quick route to the end of prejudice as well.

The Golden Temple, Amritsar, India.

I feel guilty that I didn’t have this same immediate emotional reaction to, for example, Travon Martin or Eric Garner being killed. I mean, I know intellectually that those killings are deeply wrong, but the flavors of anger and sadness they brought were cooler and more subdued. Or saying “I feel guilty” is perhaps not the right phrase; you can’t create an emotion you don’t have. Perhaps what I feel is more like a recognition that reaction isn’t the way it should be, and that my wrong emotional reaction is just a reflection of the wrongness of the social structure of the United States. It is the bizarre nature of racism in America, that 150 years after the end of slavery, I’ve managed to live forty years in America and have more personal contacts with Indians (1.25% of the US population) that Black people (13.2% of the population). That’s certainly not a conscious choice on my part; it’s the history of redlining, the end of affirmative action, the economic oppression that makes the racial divide also a class divide. At least my experience in India makes me cognizant of the difference, and how I ought to feel.

I want to close out by counterbalancing crazy Kansas man’s hate with my own love here: I love India, I love its people, and I hope our people keep making the trek back and forth (including me, ten years is too long). Last year I came across the question “What Places Are Worth All The Hype?” on Quora, and astonishingly no one had yet written about India. So I wrote one. Thus far it’s gotten 4200 upvotes, which makes it clearly the most popular thing I’ve ever written on the Internet. If you want more convincing that you, or your children, should go to India, take a look: it has lots more pictures and reasons to go.

On the Immigration Order

I took this picture in Damascus, Syria, in the summer of 2001:

Bicycle with American Flag, Damascus, Syria, 2001.
Bicycle with American Flag, Damascus, Syria, 2001.

On the day after the President of the United States issued an executive order to ban Syrian immigrants indefinitely, this image has been hovering in my mind.

In 2001, while traveling in their country, Syrians treated me with a mixture of surprise (“You are American, you could travel anywhere, why do you choose here?”) and what I can only describe as Hollywood glamour. It was respect for the wealth, style, and openness that America represented internationally. There is this half-joke among American backpackers that they should put a Canadian flag on their pack so that no one gives them a hard time about U.S. Foreign policy. But in 2001, at the end of the Clinton years, the overall feeling I got traveling through the Middle East was a sort of grudging respect, and more than that, envy. The American dream was alive and well, worldwide.

In the sixteen years since then, we invaded a neighboring country and destabilized the region, bombed their country, and now have shut them out of our country entirely.

I wonder where this bicycle owner is today. He could be one of the many Syrians holding a visa that, even after arriving in the US, is being sent back.[1] Maybe he got lucky and is one of the 1.4 million refugees that were welcomed by Germany in the last two years (if the US accepted refugees at the same rate, that’d be over five million refugees).[2] Maybe he got unlucky and is one of the 400,000 civilians killed in the Syrian civil war.[3] Most likely he is still in Damascus, trying to make do with less and just stay alive.

Wherever he is, it seems very likely he is no longer flying an American flag on his bicycle.

Personally, I’m always aware that I arrived here from immigrants. I don’t have writings to say exactly what motivated Thomas Morris and Anne McGovern to separately leave Ireland around 1910. It was after the big potato famines; but Ireland was still a mess at the time, governed and oppressed by Britain and economically stagnant, so it’s fairly easy to infer some reasons. I don’t know how actively America welcomed them, but it certainly let them in. They they met each other in New Jersey, got married, prospered. My father was born in 1928. Here I am.

Immigration is complex. Certainly not every person who wants to live in the United States can live here. Even as I admire the fact that Germany has admitted over 1% of its population in refugees in the last two years (!), I worry that assimilation will be difficult or result in political blowback; it’s like watching someone you admire trying to scale a mountain that has never been climbed before. However it goes, I admire them for trying.

On the other extreme is this executive order. First, it is very abrupt, and in that abruptness is cruelty. There are people who have been given the greatest hope — a visa to the United States — and told to turn around and go back to somewhere else.

Second, it is immoral for a country in the position of power that the United States has — largest GDP, largest military, whatever ranking you might want to choose — to choose to turn its back on what is probably the largest humanitarian crisis going on in the world. Perhaps admitting three million refugees is too much; certainly the 12,587 Syrians that were admitted in 2016 seems low; setting a target at or near zero is reprehensible.

Third, the religious element is troublesome: written to prioritize Christians, the executive order, continuing to frame the world order in terms of a “Clash of Civilization” between Islam and Christianity. This is a prophecy that will only be fulfilled if we believe it. Christianity is supposed to be the religion and the morality of taking care of the weak and oppressed:

“When the alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” Leviticus 19:33–34 and 24:22.

Sure, there are those paint the United States in broad strokes as the great evil, but it is a tiny minority of Islam, the crazies. We have crazies too. The answer to is not to paint in broad strokes as well and deem Islam a great evil, or to use national boundaries or religions as an indicator of a person’s worth. The answer is tolerance, acceptance, and taking care of humans that need taking care of. It is of recognizing gray area and subtlety and taking each person evaluating them as an individual. That is how you make the United States the kind of country where everyone worldwide wants its flag on their bike.

[1] NBC Philadephia, Two Syrian Families Detained at Philadelphia International Airport, Then Put on Return Flight Home, Family Member Says

[2] The Guardian, Germany expects up to 300,000 refugees in 2016, official says

[3] Wikipedia, Casualities of the Syrian Civil War

If you want to put more eyeballs on this essay, consider giving it a green heart. More my pictures of Syria 2001 here.

Bay Trail Bike Birding

After reading The Thing With Feathers and then Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle, I started being more interested in birds. Then I bought a Sibley Guide, and it got a little more serious.

I’ve always enjoyed the Bay Trail, on several occasions riding SF to Berkeley or the reverse. This weekend I rode from approximately Fruitvale BART to Hayward BART, going through MLK regional shoreline, Oyster Bay Regional Shoreline, and Hayward Regional Shoreline, and I brought my camera. When I’d ridden the trail before I’d often stopped to read the informational signs about birds, and I was surprised that I was able to photograph pretty much all the common birds I’d read about, plus several more. And a bat ray.

 

Bicycle Cue Sheet Holder

I’ve moved to Oakland from Berkeley, and so biking to things goes over longer distances and often I find that I need to bring a cue sheet. That meant I needed a way to hold a cue sheet. I already have a section of my handlebar taped over with electrical tape where I attach my front light, and so I just put a velcro cable tie through a binder clip and then around the taped area. The tape helps hold it in place and prevents scratching.

 

[picture of cue sheet]
Cue sheet made from electrical tape, binder clip, and velcro cable tie.

Bike Camping: SF to Point Reyes Sky Camp

Last weekend I was the event host for a trip from San Francisco to Point Reyes with the NorCal Bicycle Touring and Camping Meetup.  We ended up getting six people together for the trip, all from San Francisco and Berkeley, except one coming in from Sacramento.  I had picked up a camping permit for Sky Camp at Recreation.gov about two months earlier. It is still the rainy season in San Francisco in March, so we felt lucky to have a weekend of sunny weather predicted.

On Highway 1, about ten miles south of Stinston Beach.
On Highway 1, about ten miles south of Stinston Beach.

I planned the route, which was to go out on Highway 1 and back via Sir Francis Drake (Google Maps or Map My Ride; during the trip, we used the Marin County Bike Coalition’s map, which was up-to-date and accurate, $12 including shipping).  The wind is usually from the north along the coast, so ideally we would have gone out Sir Francis Drake and back on Highway 1, but the ferry schedule didn’t really have a good Saturday morning option, so I had to go with the reverse route.

We had a bit of a dodgy start.   Continue reading Bike Camping: SF to Point Reyes Sky Camp

American Southwest Pictures

New pictures of the American Southwest roadtrip — Berkeley, California to Pagosa Springs, Colorado, are now up on xenotropic.net.  This was the first time in years that I’ve taken out my SLR, and it was a fun time and place to take pictures.  The full moon helped to create some eerie effects, particularly at the Grand Canyon.  Suzanne made me a tripod carrier for Christmas, which was great to make it easier to bring the tripod along everywhere.  I got several pictures including constellations — Big Dipper and Pleiades.  We also got started on winter camping, including camping in the snow at the Grand Canyon.

Picture of Camping at the Grand Canyon

A Biased And Incomplete Guide To The Bay Area

A friend from college, now living in the UK, recently wrote me to ask where to look when considering a move to the San Francisco Bay Area, with these criteria:

  1. Good schools in the area (and I know this makes homes much more expensive!), but we won’t rule out private school if we need to
  2. No more than an hour from the airport
  3. In an area where we can walk to things like shops, restaurants, parks, etc.

My reply got a little out of control in terms of length, so I’m re-posting here in case it can be useful to anyone else.

* * *

One could really write a medium-sized guidebook based on this, but I’ll give you the best overview I can and you can let me know if you need more information.  I just got married and so have no children, so my sense of public schools is not super-well developed; what I’m giving you here is a general sense that you should confirm with more detailed research.

North Bay 

North bay is Marin, Sonoma, and Napa Counties.  They are, in general, wealthier.  I don’t know anything about their public school systems but I think can safely infer that most of them are going to be pretty good, given the average household income — although double check that on bigger cities like San Rafael (pronounced “San Rafell”).  Continue reading A Biased And Incomplete Guide To The Bay Area

SF to Berkeley Bike Ride.

One of my favorite rides — looking forward to doing this again when my broken wrist is healed. There’s a lot of great parks that line the Bay, and it is fun to see the whole SF Bay area in a day. I often stay closer to the East Bay shore, going through Oyster Bay and Hayward Regional Shorelines. I also tend to think it works better in reverse, since either way you are going into the wind in the afternoon and the winds seem to be lighter on the East Bay side. I recommend bringing a lot of water and food (you’re in the Bay Area, but there are 10-20 mile stretches where there are no drinking fountains or convenience stores) and either a good map or a GPS-enabled phone (perhaps both).


View Berkeley – San Francisco bike ride in a larger map

What is there to see between Dublin and Cork (but not *in* Dublin or Cork)?

I asked this on Quora, and no one answered, so I went ahead and answered my own question after having ridden between the two towns. There’s:

  1. the ruin of Kells Priory  (“one of the largest and most impressive medieval monuments in Ireland”);
  2. the Rock of Cashel if you take the northerly route, or some nice seaside towns (Dungarvan, Youghal) if you go by the coast;
  3. The Irish Steam Preservation Society museum with lots of old steam-powered cars and tractors and such.

What to do when flying with bikes.

Bicycle Touring Pro has a good page with major airline policies laid out. It is from 2008, so perhaps a bit out of date, but a good starting point.

This summer (2012) my wife and I flew with our bicycles from San Francisco to Dublin, rode around Europe for the summer, and flew back from Copenhagen to SF. We used British Airways, and they were complete rock stars about it. Free, no hassles. My bike has Ritchey Breakaway couplers in it, similar to (but better than, IMHO) S&S couplers. But I just left it together because it was more of a hassle to have to deal with the Ritchey case at our destination and the additional disassembly/reassembly. Continue reading What to do when flying with bikes.