Aug 24, 2015

the working life

On a rain-curtained veranda in a worker-owned tea plantation I read the much-discussed NY Times report about working conditions at Amazon's corporate headquarters —14 hour work days, each employee is encouraged to anonymously inform on their colleagues, every measurable employee performance metric graded on a curve such that a certain percentage of the workforce must be fired each quarter, etc.

When the rains finally ceased I photographed the covered patio and then a plantation that rolled on much further than I could see even after climbing its highest hills.

So I'm vacationing now in the middle of a workplace, KDHP—a vast tea plantation that is structured a bit differently than Amazon. [Above is a view through a telephoto lens of workers picking tea leaves on the next hill over. For the next image, I've hiked over to that hill.]

The company’s 12,700-plus employees are shareholders and hold approximately 69 % of the company.

"When Tatas handed over the plantations to the workers, it was running at a loss of [1.25 million dollars] . Last year, KDHP clocked a net profit of  [6.5 million dollars]. Productivity has increased 58% in 2009-10."  - The Times of India, 13\10\2010

As of 2014 an independent survey found a 97% satisfaction rate among this KDHP workers.

CEOs like Amazon's Jeff Bezos believe that Big Data, the quantification and computerized evaluation of every aspect of production and consumption, will lead to limitless profits and fulfillment. I don't think any of my readers needed me to travel half way around the world to suggest that there might be better ways to motivate a workforce.

Nonetheless, it's raining as I post this, it was raining all afternoon of nearly everyday I've been here and I've got to do something with all the reading I'm doing.

Mostly, now I'm reading the great Hindu epic, The Ramayana and No God, but God about the beginnings of Islam.

If I've missed anything important about Donald Trump please feel free to mention it in the comments. Comments are appreciated. You click on "No Comments" below to make the comments window show up. It's not a very good design.

Aug 20, 2015


I left Portland Wednesday morning-- it was two hours before sunrise Friday morning when my cursing Bombay cab driver finally found Hotel Popular Palace and I began banging on the guest house's roll down metal door. Late Saturday morning I emerged from a migraine stupor to discover that I had a room with a view (1st pic below) and that it was Independence Day here in India (2nd pic). Sunday, I began an equally long train ride down along India's west coast to the state of Kerala.

Facing me across the aisle of the train's cramped sleeping compartment, a rough-hewn blind man held hands with his best friend. The rest of the sleeping berth swirled with that rich deep shade of orange that in India symbolizes renunciation because the four successful middle aged Bombay lawyers filling up those spots are on a pilgrimage vacation. They are fasting until they complete a monsoon-drenched barefoot trek through a Kerala forest to the shrine at Sabarimala. As it says in my guidebook, "The pilgrimage symbolizes the struggle of the individual soul… [and] The path of the spiritual is always long, arduous and hazardous." I suppose riding in this third class non air conditioned sleeping car for 36 hours may be another of their "austerities."

Sunday night, lying on my sleeping platform in the dark in that rattling and rain pelted train car, I quickly lost consciousness by imagining that I was being rocked to sleep in the arms of Mother India.

Now, it's early Thursday morning and I see, veiled in the mist like an Arabian maiden, the rolling green hills of a tea plantation. 

I've been busy with logistical chores in preparation for photographing the Onam festival. Now here I am in a guest house in Munnar, with my tablet connected to the internet for the first time since I left Portland. Or, to put it another way, it's been more than a week since I've heard anything about Donald Trump.

 Please feel free to leave comments below.

Aug 4, 2015

Return to India

I return to India as a photographer not, as last time, also a story teller. Expect luminous images underlined by a sentence or two. However, first, a few paragraphs distilled from the story-telling of the previous years:

This is India!“ is a phrase tourists hear after complaining that their hotel room has no hot water, sheets or toilet paper. After hearing these words for the first time, I hiked with friends to the temple of Hanuman, the monkey god. As we assumed only dumb tourists rented sticks ‘to fight off  the monkeys that guard the temple,’ we had to fend the beasts off with hastily gathered stones. Just as we broke through the last ring of angry primates and slipped inside the temple, a monkey ran screeching in after us. Fearful devotees dodged the scrambling monkey. The priest, with one commanding gesture, waved the monkey out. I felt like I was living out a scene from an imaginary film I’d have entitled, Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Monkey God.  I thought, “Wow, this is India!”

   Later, in a Hindu ashram I ate silently with Catholic nuns, natives of India who were here to gain insights that would help them train their sisters. When our vow of silence ended, I asked a nun if she found the Hare Krishna mantras in the Shiva temple a little disconcerting. She replied, “No, this is my home, this is India.”

   It was in that ashram that I felt closest to this India that had been so trying and yet so exciting. I realized then that prayer needn't be asking God for something, it could be just listening for something beyond our thoughts—waiting for what cannot be anticipated. I learned that it’s easier to escape for months from the customary conveniences of our time, than it is to slip for an instant from the comforts of the mind.

   I returned to India to attend Kumbh Mela, an ancient festival that occurs once every 12 years. It stars homeless ash-covered naked holy men. However, looking back from this alternate universe in a travel blog I was writing, America seemed no less exotic:

   February 10th (Mauni Amavasya Snan) will be the most auspicious bathing day at this Kumbh Mela—30 million Hindus are expected to begin gathering before dawn to bathe in a sacred river in the belief that it will wash away their karmic debt.

   November 29th (Black Friday) will be the most auspicious shopping day in America—250 million consumers, many lining up before sunrise, are expected to buy on that day in the belief that its reduced sale prices will lessen their financial debt.

   Of course, it isn ’t fair to compare the attendance at Kumbh Mela which happens in one place to Black Friday which takes place at stores in every city and at countless online stores. Nonetheless, the juxtaposition does make the point that the same vessel can be filled with different substances. Much of the mind space that is filled by religious rituals and the karmic relief people here believe that they bring, is filled in our hemisphere by shopping rituals and the temporary relief from anxiety that each new purchase brings.

   In the Mela photos that began this booklet, it might still be the classical age. As Michael Wood put it in The Story of India, it is as if on a visit to Greece one discovered that Athena was still worshipped in the Parthenon and Socrates still walked the streets in a toga.

   Beggars, sadhus, chai sellers—all of old India passes down the aisle. The chai still comes in an earthen cup (toss it out the window, it recycles itself). I’m gently rocked to sleep on a bunk bed as firm as a yoga mat—perhaps the only white man on a vintage train leaving an ancient festival. Oh, to live in a world where train travel is time travel. A ticket man shakes me awake and shouts:

     “Fare hike!”

     “You, you can’t raise the price after I’ve paid for my tickets.”

     “We are always doing it. This is India!