The Hand Of India

At the height of the Cold War, amidst growing tensions between the US and Russia, Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi traveled to Washington D.C to deliver a pragmatic speech on the subjects of communication, understanding and friendship.

35 years later, with increasing polarization around the globe, her simple yet elegant message has never felt so relevant.

However, it is in India, where Indira Gandhi's message still rings most true; somehow managing to make sense of a beguiling and beautifully chaotic society, with a rich reputation of inspiring swathes of Western visitors.

Shot during a two month backpacking trip, with minimal camera equipment, this is the filmmaker’s (Simon Mulvaney) attempt to communicate the beauty of Indira's home country, along with the resonating themes she touched upon all those years ago.

INDIA: Piplantri - Where 1 Life Creates 111 Lives

How a village leader changed the perception of women in India, one tree at a time

Girls connecting with the trees in Piplantri. Photo provided by Piplantri Village.

Girls connecting with the trees in Piplantri. Photo provided by Piplantri Village.

Every time a baby girl is born in Piplantri, India, the village gathers together to plant 111 trees in her honor. The custom began a couple of years ago, when former village leader, Shyam Sundar Paliwal was forced to ponder the fleetingness of life after his daughter tragically passed away at a young age.

Piplantri and other villages in the area were facing two crises that greatly affected the quality and value of life. One issue was social: a high rate of female infanticide. Traditionally, female births were considered a burden on the family. The parents of a girl are expected to provide a dowry to her husband’s family, which can be a big financial undertaking. Additionally, daughters were married off well before the age of 18, before they could obtain an education. 

Piplantri and its surrounding villages faced environmental hardships as well. The villages in the Rajasthan area are suffering from deforestation with the increase of marble mining. 

Paliwal decided to confront these issues with a plan that can be broken down into three words: “Daughter, Water, Trees.” 

To counter the pessimism around the birth of a baby girl—and improve the lives of the daughter and her family—the village raises money for a “trust” every time a girl is born. The family is to contribute one third of the fund, which is set aside until the girl turns 20. This alleviates the problem of the financial burden of a dowry. 

In order for the family to receive the money, they must sign an affidavit agreeing not to marry their daughter until she is of the legal age of 18 and has received a proper education. 

To solve the deforestation problem, the village gets together to plant 111 trees in the girl’s honor. As a part of the contract, the family agrees to take care of those 111 trees. Hopefully the trees will help the spread of water along the land. 

And the scheme gets even better. The fruit trees being planted were beginning to attract a lot of termites. In order to prevent infestation, the villagers planted many aloe plants to protect the trees. The villagers can harvest and sell the aloe—which has incredible healing benefits—and make a profit, to even further improve their quality of life. 

Although Paliwal is no longer the leader of the village, the tradition continues. Now, teachers report that there are just as many girls enrolled in school as boys. And, the village is lush and green with the hundreds of trees planted. 

Other villages are following suit. The nearby village of Tasol is trying out Piplantri’s eco-feminist village model.

ELIANA DOFT loves to write, travel, and volunteer. She is especially excited by opportunities to combine these three passions through writing about social action travel experiences. She is an avid reader, a licensed scuba diver, and a self-proclaimed cold brew connoisseur. 

China is Putting Muslims in Concentration Camps Because of an “Ideological Illness”

People of Xinjiang. Peter Chou Kee Liu. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

People of Xinjiang. Peter Chou Kee Liu. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

According to a UN report, China has declared Islam an “ideological illness”. One UN spokesperson claims there are approximately over a million Muslims currently in these camps. The UN report states “the evidence indicated that most of the detentions were taking place outside the criminal justice system, and targeted specifically Uyghur and other Muslim minorities, such as Kazakh”. But why is this happening? In the words of the Official Chinese Communist Party, “Members of the public who have been chosen for re-education have been infected by an ideological illness. They have been infected with religious extremism and violent terrorist ideology, and therefore they must seek treatment from a hospital as an inpatient”. The region of Xinjiang, in recent years, has faced attacks from extremist groups and because of this, have targeted the entire Uighur community in Xinjiang to prevent them from being further “infected by religious extremism and a violent terrorism disease.”

The region of Xinjiang is a highly populated by the “Turkic-speaking Muslim Uighur minority, who make up about eight million of its 19 million people”, according to a BBC article profiling the region. With the population being highly Muslim, the Chinese government has profiled that area in a subtle racist attempt to force the people of the area to renounce Islam and their practices. In a statement from the Communist Party, they state that “in order to provide treatment to people who are infected with ideological illnesses and to ensure the effectiveness of the treatment, the Autonomous Regional Party Committee decided to set up re-education camps in all regions, organizing special staff to teach state and provincial laws, regulations, the party’s ethnic and religious policies, and various other guidelines”. Furthermore, they say, “At the end of re-education, the infected members of the public return to a healthy ideological state of mind, which guarantees them the ability to live a beautiful happy life with their families”. It is disturbing to read words such as “disease” and “those infected” when it is in regards to innocent Uiguhr individuals. Using such diction creates a harmful and discriminatory connotation that the Uighur community is “sick” and “infectious”, a dangerously false narrative.

Although the camps have the intention of “[fighting] separatism and Islamic extremism”, they stem from a fear of an uprising in the Xinjiang area and has become a prejudice and gross abuse of human rights. Many of the people who were able to leave the concentration camps now are facing psychological ramifications and a complete lack of faith in the country that they are living. The camps are supposedly supposed to help threats and protect the people, yet they are harming them instead.

 In many interviews from those who were in the concentration camp, they have mentioned that the “re-education” forces them to renounce Islam, renounce the Holy Quran, admit that the Uighur culture is backward in comparison to the Communist Party, and if the detainees refuse to cooperate, they are punished harshly. Some punishments include them not being fed, solitary confinement, or physical beatings. Recently, it has come out that there has been a death in one of the camps. A Uighur writer Nurmuhammad Tohti, died at the age of 70 because "he had been denied treatment for diabetes and heart disease, and was only released once his medical condition meant he had become incapacitated", according to his granddaughter, Zorigul. But even with the criticism and the death, the Chinese government still does not believe what they are doing is wrong. 

China Daily, a popular media outlet, claimed that “Western critics of China's policies on human rights and religious freedom in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region seem to be divorced from the realities of the situation.” They stand in defense of their practices rather than understand how harmful they are and how they are creating a dogmatic perspective.

It is concerning to see how fear has created a ripple of harmful decisions and gross infringements on human rights. There is no reason for an entire community to reap the consequences of extremists actions when they are the innocents.

OLIVIA HAMMOND is an undergraduate at Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts. She studies Creative Writing, with minors in Sociology/Anthropology and Marketing. She has travelled to seven different countries, most recently studying abroad this past summer in the Netherlands. She has a passion for words, traveling, and learning in any form. 


Shanghai Forever

'Urbanologist' and media artist JT Singh has captured the vibrance and massive scale of Shanghai’s skyline, streets, and infrastructure through a series of experimental projects viewed by millions (This is Shanghai, Walk in Shanghai, etc); hence, contributing greatly to the city's growing global status. With this new film, he turns to the Shanghai of its residents, the lives that revolve not around the city’s 4000 skyscrapers, but around the simpler ways of living, the local charm, and the familiar corner.

In India, Using Plastic Waste as Tuition at a New School

A school combines accessible education with environmental responsibility through a creative program.

Photo of plastic waste by  John Cameron  on  Unsplash .

Photo of plastic waste by John Cameron on Unsplash.

In 2016, Parmita Sarma and Mazin Mukhtar founded Akshar School in Assam, a state in northeast India. Initially, the school struggled to enroll many of the children living in the area. Most families could not afford private school tuition, and relied on the $2.50 per day wage their children could make working in the nearby stone quarries.

In the winter months, many families in Assam burned plastic waste to keep warm, unaware of the health and environmental hazard this created. The fumes would often linger in Akshar’s classrooms, and ended up giving Parmita and Mazin the idea that would transform the school.

Instead of tuition, Akshar began requiring students to bring 25 plastic waste items to school every week. “We wanted to start a free school for all, but stumbled upon this idea after we realised a larger social and ecological problem brewing in this area,” Parmita told Better India.

Through the use of plastic waste as tuition, students who would not have been able to attend the school were able to learn, and the surrounding environment benefitted. Under the new tuition system, the school blossomed, and now enrolls 100 students ages 4 to 15. Before the tuition program was implemented, Akshar had only 20 students.

To compensate for the wages that children could be making working in the mines, Akshar established a tutoring program, where older students can help younger ones with their work in exchange for currency tokens that can be used to purchase snacks, toys, shoes, and clothing. The students can even exchange the tokens for real money to purchase items online. But financial compensation isn’t the only rationalization for the tutoring program. Through teaching, older students are able to develop useful life skills, practicing communication, leadership, and compassion.

Tuition isn’t the only unusual aspect of the school. Parmita told Better India that the goal of the school is to break with traditional curriculum. Students take class in open areas, and grades are divided by level rather than age.

“We realised that education had to be socially, economically and environmentally relevant for these children,” Mazin told Better India. That would mean not only providing an accessible education, but one that would enable children to find jobs after graduation. To this end Akshar offers career focused classes alongside traditional ones, enabling students to gain skills in cosmetology, solar paneling, carpentry, gardening, organic farming, electronics, and more. The school is also willing to adapt to create the best education for its students. Mazin told Better India that when the school noticed a spike in landscaping in Assam, they began to draft plans for a sustainable landscaping course.

Mazin and Parmita’s success with Akshar has inspired them to create more schools that follow the same philosophy. They hope to implement the Akshar model in 5 government schools over the next year, and 100 government schools in the next 5 years.

Emma is an undergraduate student studying English and marketing at Emerson College in Boston. While not writing she explores the nearest museums, reads poetry, and takes classes at her local dance studio. She is passionate about sustainable travel and can't wait to see where life will take her. 

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SRI LANKA: Island of Dharma

Located at a maritime crossroad, the island of Sri Lanka has been influenced over thousands of years by cultures throughout Asia, largely including its neighbor, India. Home to spectacular riverscapes, numerous Hindu temples, and an array of wildlife, the island is truly something to behold. Here, videographer Piotr Wancerz, captures the people who reside in Sri Lanka going about their daily lives; from schoolchildren to fieldworkers. Explore the island's peaceful beaches, unique cuisine, ancient temples and busy city streets like you've never seen them before in this video.

Honor in its Most Dishonorable Form

Khalida Brohi sitting at a table, smiling. Joi Ito. CC 2.0

Khalida Brohi sitting at a table, smiling. Joi Ito. CC 2.0

“Even if I have nothing, I should have honor”. But what does “honor” mean for Khalida Brohi, now thirty-one years of age and continuously fighting to redefine the word. Brohi is a Pakistan native and women’s activist currently fighting to end honor killings in her small village just outside Balochistan, Pakistan. She is well-known for her numerous campaigns, the most notable being WAKE UP, Youth and Gender Development Program, and Sughar. She has been featured in multiple newsletter articles such as Newsweek 25 Under 25, Forbes 30 Under 30, and Forbes 30 Under 30: Asia for her accomplishments and hard work. Brohi started her activism at just nine years old when she discovered her cousin had been murdered in an “honor killing”, a decision made from the family that is in no way honorable.  

In her captivating memoir titled I Should Have Honor, Brohi tells us her thrilling story of her fight to end the practice of “honor killings” in her tribal village. Her memoir details her story, from the beginning to now, showing the birth of her many organizations and what sparked her passion for dismantling this horrible practice.

But what are honor killings? Honor killings are in no way honorable – they are power grab and a way to mend someone’s pride. Many cultures in Northern Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia conduct these lawful murders which affect around 93% of women in these areas. They are brutal, unjustified, and tear families apart – all for the cause of “honor”. Honor killings happen when someone rebels against what their family deems appropriate. Thousands of individuals are losing their lives every year because they just wanted to live the life that they preferred over their families judgments.

When Brohi was only 14-years-old, she found out her cousin, Khadija, was murdered by her father. The reason? Khadija did not marry the man her father choose for her, rather eloping with the man that she loved instead. Brohi, upon learning this news states, “people often become poets when they fall in love, but I became a poet when hate entered my heart” (Brohi 71). Brohi knew then, at only 14-years, that no one should go through what he cousin did.

Using the strength she found within herself that day, Brohi transformed her anger into poetry, writing and eventually performing for her father’s nonprofit organization titled Participatory Development Initiatives. Brohi’s father made her master of ceremonies, and she wowed every crowd with her passion and her words. This exposure allowed her to be discovered by a local organization called WE CAN End Violence Against Women. After being contacted by them, she collaborated and brought the organization to her local village. Brohi knew that the woman in the village would be hesitant to come to any meetings, so being clever, she framed the meetings in another light. Once all the attendees that were coming arrived, Brohi eased in conversation about “honor killings” and how to go about stopping them. The crowd got silent once she mentioned her real agenda, but soon enough, people being telling their stories and sharing their thoughts and feelings on the matter.

From that tense first meeting, Brohi used the WE CAN organization to kick start her organization, Youth, and Gender Development Program (YGDP) which focused on “educat[ing], empower[ing], and strengthen[ing] youth against cultural restrictions, enabling them to speak up about customs like honor killings” (Brohi 87). Her new organization also gave the women in her village a platform and space were they could air their grievances and address what they believed needed to be addressed. In Brohi’s words: “Until [then], they’d simply had no resources to bring them up to par” (Brohi 89).

Though her personal organization gained more traction, she also unfortunately gained unwanted attention. The work Brohi was doing threatened the power structure and patriarchy around her. Not only was Brohi, herself, being threatened, but her family as well. It was not easy for Brohi to go through the decision that she did because since she was gaining momentum and a following, she was also gaining a following of people who do not like her. They did not like her speaking out on what she believed in. Their threats did not stop Brohi, though.

Brohi, with the momentum WE CAN and YGDP was getting, traveled to Australia and America to speak at multiple conferences and events, some including Clinton Global Initiative, Women in the World, and MIT Media Lab. At those events, she railed the crowd and gave more publicity to what was happening in her tribal village back home.

In 2009, she founded the Sugar Foundation, “a non-profit dedicated to providing tribal and rural women in Pakistan with opportunities to evaluate their abilities and nurture their leadership skills in an environment of growth and development” (quote taken from her “about me” page on "her" blog, From there, she has also founded The Chai Spot in Arizona with her husband, David Barron. The Chai Spot, is a forum where Americans cannot only help fund her cause, but also learn the lively and enriching culture and lifestyle that Brohi, herself, grew up in. Advertisements on her blog show that she is set to open a new Chai Spot in New York City soon.

Brohi, through her activism and sympathy, created organizations and gave a platform to people who believed they could not even acknowledge their experiences. She shows the power and agency women have and how they can use it to their own advantage. She is an inspiration for all of us. If you would like to support her, visit and click the Donate tab to fund her important and impactful nonprofit. Let Brohi continue to define and redefine what “honor” truly is.

OLIVIA HAMMOND is an undergraduate at Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts. She studies Creative Writing, with minors in Sociology/Anthropology and Marketing. She has travelled to seven different countries, most recently studying abroad this past summer in the Netherlands. She has a passion for words, traveling, and learning in any form.

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Memories of Myanmar

Myanmar (formerly Burma) is a Southeast Asian nation of more than 100 ethnic groups, bordering India, Bangladesh, China, Laos and Thailand. The videographers spent two weeks traveling in Myanmar and fell in love with the country. There are many cultural practices still alive due to the fact that the country was closed off to most of the world for some time.

Shadows of Bangkok

The city of Bangkok is the capital of Thailand and is known for its busy streets and ornate shrines. The videographer, Jiajie Yu, described his intentions for making this film as “wanting to portray Bangkok in a cinematographic way, create a hypnotic, immersive and suggestive experience of the city through its faces, alleys, sound and music.”

Black-Winged Mynah Birds are Critically Endangered, Despite Thousands in Captivity

A black-winged mynah bird on a branch in Kerala, India. Ambady Sasi. CC0.

A black-winged mynah bird on a branch in Kerala, India. Ambady Sasi. CC0.

Indonesia’s illegal pet trade is an old evil, with animals from tortoises to wild birds caught in its trap. For beauty, prestige, or simply the siren call of money, Indonesian wildlife has undergone massive unasked-for change, particularly because of its bountiful resources and impressive biodiversity.

Three similar species—black-winged mynahs, grey-humped mynahs, and grey-backed mynahs—are all coveted for their brilliant plumage as well for as their vocalizations, to the point that they are explicitly captured out of the wild for songbird competitions in Indonesia. According to National Geographic, around 40,000 live in captivity, while an estimated 500 remain in the wild.

Collectively, these three species are known as black-winged mynahs, and were once thought to be one species. Members of the starling family, these birds’ plumage is distinct, with their tails and parts of their wings being glossy black, while the rest of their bodies are white. They are able to make a range of vocalizations, from trills to chirps, which is one of their most prized attributes for people. In 2010, the status of the black-winged mynah was changed from “endangered” to “critically endangered”. It is estimated that their population shrank 80 percent in the last 10 to 15 years.

Indonesia overall is an epicenter for the illegal wildlife trade, and according to data from WWF-Indonesia, the country accounts that around 85 percent of the animals traded were from illegal hunting. The loss of key animals in the biosphere disrupts the food chain that the ecosystem has built up over millions of years. In turn, this damages human food sustainability, particularly for the foods we obtain from flora and fauna. For example, declining tiger populations causes the wild boar population to rise, which causes issues for farmers in the same areas. WWF-Indonesia is currently raising awareness of the world’s wildlife, as well as how the trade ultimately destroys what we all need to survive.

Indonesia has a long history of keeping birds as pets, even to the point of mentioning the prestige of owning birds in sayings. However, this has led to what some are calling the “Asian Songbird Crisis”. Capturing birds in the wild is cheaper than breeding them. On the other hand, breeding birds in captivity is at least legal. Though breeders are supposed to release 10 percent of the birds they breed back into the wild, this is rarely done, or if it is, it’s entirely possible that the birds could be released in the wrong areas. The crisis has become so rampant that prices have dropped low enough (to an estimated $73) for black-winged mynahs to become a common pet for the middle classes, according to National Geographic.

In April 2018, a revision was submitted to the Indonesian government for an overhaul of the country’s 28-year-old conservation law. Though the draft made some steps to curb the illegal wildlife trade, it also opened many loopholes, to the point where critics saw it as a regression, according to Mongabay. Though Indonesia added 919 birds to their protected species list this past August, revising it for the first time since 1999, nothing seems to have changed about their conservation laws.

Indonesia’s illegal wildlife and pet trade still has an uncertain future, with nothing more uncertain than the eventual fate of the species driven further to extinction, including the three that make up the collective black-winged mynah birds.

NOEMI ARELLANO-SUMMER is a journalist and writer living in Boston, MA. She is a voracious reader and has a fondness for history and art. She is currently at work on her first novel and wants to eventually take a trip across Europe.

In Bhutan, a History of Matriarchy and the Question of True Equality

Much like the diverse landscape of Bhutan, women’s representation and access in the country features impressive peaks as well as low-lying valleys.

Paro Taktsang, a Himalayan Buddhist sacred site and temple complex, located in the upper Paro valley. Arian Zwegers. CC BY 2.0

Paro Taktsang, a Himalayan Buddhist sacred site and temple complex, located in the upper Paro valley. Arian Zwegers. CC BY 2.0

The tiny Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan is known for its ornate fortresses, or dzongs; the breathtaking Paro Taktsang, or Tiger’s Nest, temple complex, which clings to a steep cliffside; and its matriarchal traditions—but while Bhutan has much to be proud of in terms of gender parity, it still has a long way to go in creating true equality and professional mobility for its women.

Traditional society in Bhutan, which lies in the Eastern Himalayas between China and India, is matriarchal, and Bhutanese women do not have to contend with any institutionalized forms of discrimination. Participation in decision-making in the local and national spheres is accessible to all genders, with female involvement reaching as high as 70 percent at the grassroots level. Women account for nearly half of land owners, a figure that increases to 60 percent in rural regions. Summing up her own experience as a Bhutanese woman before moving to the Netherlands, journalist Karma Pem Wangdi writes, “My life has been created and shaped by the fact that our society has generally allowed us women the same freedoms and equality of opportunity as men.”

Nevertheless, entrenched inequalities lurk beneath the surface. Lily Wangchuk, the first and only woman president of a Bhutanese political party, referred in 2013 to “huge gender gaps” in societal attitudes, which have inspired her to continue pursuing her political ambitions. Wangchuk, whose Druk Chirwang Tshogpa party was eliminated in the first round of elections that year after garnering only 6 percent of the vote, told the Indian business news publication Mint: “During my campaign, my male opponents said, ‘[How] can a woman assume such an enormous responsibility?’ If I quit now I will be proving them right.”

Writing the previous year, Wangdi pointed specifically to gaps in economic and governmental participation, with far fewer women than men in the civil service workforce, and women making up just 8.5 percent of the National Assembly and 24 percent of the National Council. On the personal level, female reproductive rights lag in certain aspects: while women in the public and private sectors receive three months’ maternity leave with 100 percent of wages, abortion is illegal except in certain specific cases, leading many women to cross into India and seek abortions in unsafe conditions.

Thimphu Dzong, which has been the seat of the Bhutanese government since 1952. Robert GLOD. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Thimphu Dzong, which has been the seat of the Bhutanese government since 1952. Robert GLOD. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Attitudes toward abortion may be traced to the tenets of the Buddhist religion, which has otherwise played a key role in many facets of gender parity, given that its tradition and values view men and women as equal. In terms of participation in the public sphere, two factors are broadly to blame, the first being a historical lack of education for women. In the 1950s and ’60s, when Bhutan began to prioritize national development and education, more boys than girls were sent to India for formal learning—a disparity that stemmed not from gender discrimination but rather from fears about girls’ safety during the long journey to school.

Also of concern is the burden on women as caretakers and unpaid workers in the home, which may hinder or entirely preclude professional development. In the case of divorce, Bhutanese law grants custody of children under nine years old to the mother, a statute that may further ingrain the stereotype of women as primary caregivers. A 2001 study found that, in rural areas, women were responsible for cooking, washing clothes, and preserving food for over 80 percent of households; urban regions presented an even starker figure, with more than 90 percent of households leaving cooking, cleaning, washing, and food purchasing to women. These time-consuming tasks undeniably present a barrier to engaging in activities outside the home: A 2012 study revealed that nearly 62 percent of women felt their household responsibilities prevented them from taking a more active role in public life.

Bhutan’s Punakha Valley. Andrea Williams. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Bhutan’s Punakha Valley. Andrea Williams. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Fortunately, Bhutan has recently made strides toward closing gender gaps in various arenas, and thus envisioning an end to the self-perpetuating cycle in which women—missing role models in positions of power—lack the structural support needed to pursue such positions themselves. In 2016, more girls were attending school than boys, with 98 percent vs. 97 percent enrolled at the primary level, respectively. Bhutan’s first woman Dzongda (District Governor) was elected to office in 2012, and its first woman minister in 2013, ushering in a wave of successful woman candidates in 2016: that year witnessed a 68 percent increase in female representation compared to the previous election in 2011.
With evolving attitudes toward gender representation, however, come increased pressures brought on by a globalized and digital media: in 2013, Siok Sian Pek-Dorji, executive director at the Bhutan Centre for Media and Democracy, told Mint that the changing media landscape has created “a pressure to conform that is eroding the natural confidence of Bhutanese women.” Just last month, in March 2019, Bhutan gained an advocate for media representations of women in the form of Namgay Zam, who was appointed as the executive director of the Journalists Association of Bhutan. Speaking with the International Federation of Journalists, she addressed the lack of managerial role models for women, and pointed to the fact that a preponderance of male media magnates leads to the perpetuation of gender stereotypes.

Zam, looking toward a future in which Bhutanese women take their rightful place at the helm of Bhutan’s civil society as well as its media sector—thus fully realizing the matriarchal ideals on which the country was built—commented: “I think top-level management need to rethink gender representation at the workplace. Women also need to believe in themselves more. Hopefully, things will change for the better sooner than later.”

TALYA PHELPS hails from the wilds of upstate New York, but dreams of exploring the globe. As former editor-in-chief at the student newspaper of her alma mater, Vassar College, and the daughter of a journalist, she hopes to follow her passion for writing and editing for many years to come. Contact her if you're looking for a spirited debate on the merits of the em dash vs. the hyphen.


INDIA: The Landscapes and Cultures of the Chadar Trek

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Home to the legendary, yet treacherous, Chadar Trek, the Zanskar region of Ladakh has earned the reputation of a trekker’s delight.

Stirring images of the Phugtal Monastery, and the river, both in full spate and frozen, of the lush valleys and the Zanskari people have enticed me from the time I was at school and this year, I finally managed to do the trek for myself.

The trek usually begins at Lingshed and culminates in Phugtal, but I undertook it the other way around. In fact, I was able to reduce two days travel time to two hours by chartering a helicopter to my starting off point. It all began at Padum from where we headed to Phugtal and then across the Zanskar through Pishu, Hannmur, ending finally at Lingshed.

The experience was phenomenal. From traversing the most treacherous paths and crossing deep gorges and valleys to witnessing rivers of the most unreal blue and sleeping under the milky way, the entire trek was really something else; the delight of a hot shower at the end of those ten days made it sweeter still. It wasn’t all milk and honey though. Ascending nearly 16,000 feet at some passes and walking at least 20 kilometres a day, the trek tested my wits and guts, making me question why I embarked on this adventure in the first place.

In retrospect though, I can say without a shred of doubt that it was well worth it. Not only did I witness first-hand the glories of a phenomenal terrain, but I also met some wonderful people and experienced inspirational no-waste lifestyles. More than anything else, I learned what I myself am capable of enduring both physically and mentally; that when push comes to shove the human body and mind can surprise us in more ways than one.

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HAJRA AHMAD studied photography in Ooty, a small hill town in South India. She became inspired by the darkroom and now specializes in travel and wildlife photography as well as often shooting hotels and interiors. Her photography has enabled her to travel to many new places and her work continues to evolve with each shoot.


#MeToo Movement Reaches South Korea, Shaking the Foundations of a Society in Flux

In a deeply patriarchal culture, feminist activists face constant setbacks and scrutiny.

Park Geun-hye meeting with former President Barack Obama in 2014. Republic of Korea/Jeon Han. CC BY-SA 2.0

Park Geun-hye meeting with former President Barack Obama in 2014. Republic of Korea/Jeon Han. CC BY-SA 2.0

In 2017, TIME Magazine named “The Silence Breakers” as its Person of the Year, marking the influence of the #MeToo movement and commending the women who have shattered decades of complacency regarding sexual harassment. Yet despite the movement’s place at the forefront of the American cultural zeitgeist, the effects of #MeToo are far from confined to the United States. On the other side of the globe, in South Korea, generations of women—long oppressed by the sexism that has proliferated in Korean society—are now uniting to push back against gender discrimination and question the influence of the patriarchy.

A glance at the numbers reveals the gender bias deeply embedded in Korean culture. On average, women earn 37 percent less than their male colleagues, creating the most severe gap among the 35 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Countrywide, women account for only 11 percent of managerial positions and 2.1 percent of corporate boards, in comparison to the OECD averages of 31 percent and 19 percent, respectively. In its glass ceiling index, The Economist ranks South Korea as the worst developed nation for working women.

The problem is a self-perpetuating one, as female role models in positions of power are few. In 2013, Park Geun-hye became Korea’s first female president—but far from sharing in her victory, women’s rights organizations strongly opposed her candidacy, recalling her father’s 18-year dictatorship. Only two of Park’s 19 ministers were women, and the aspects of her platform that did promote women’s rights and access were not much more progressive than those of the male presidential hopefuls she defeated. More important, Park lost all credibility when she became embroiled in an extortion scandal in 2016. In April 2018, she was found guilty of 16 out of 18 charges relating to abuse of power and coercion and sentenced to 24 years in jail.

February of that year witnessed an incident that encapsulated Korea’s suspicious attitude towards women’s liberation: Singer Son Naeun of the all-female group Apink was attacked for posting a photo on Instagram of her holding a phone case with the words “Girls can do anything.” In a culture that responds to even such minor displays of feminism with scorn and shame, sexual abuse toward women often goes unnoticed, and survivors who try to make their claims public are met with mockery.

However, despite these hostile attitudes, #MeToo principles in South Korea are finally gaining traction, and Korean women’s accounts of sexual abuse are beginning to garner at least a modicum of respect in the public eye. In January 2018, attorney Seo Ji-hyun—who had experienced years of sexual harassment at the hands of Ahn Tae-geun, the former chief of the Seoul prosecutors’ office—came forward with her allegations on the nightly news, precipitating Ahn’s two-year prison sentence for abuse of power. (He claimed not to remember the incident.) The next month, Choi Young-mi published a poem effectively accusing 85-year-old poet Ko Un of molestation, coerced sex, and harassment. The piece, titled “Monster,” has since gone viral.

The ensuing wave of sexual abuse allegations reached into the hundreds, with presidential hopeful Ahn Hee-jung and award-winning movie director Kim Ki-duk among the accused. Throughout 2018, both traditional and social media networks grew increasingly saturated with talk of societal change, and issues of gender discrimination entered public discourse. Online profiles owned by male and female Koreans alike sported the English-language hashtags #MeToo and #WithYou.

In March 2018, the burgeoning movement reached a watershed moment: a marathon protest in downtown Seoul, during which nearly 200 women publicly shared their stories of sexual harassment for 2018 consecutive minutes. In May, 15,000 people turned out to Daehangno in central Seoul to attend a rally for government accountability on sex crimes; a follow-up in July brought around 60,000, and continuing protests have earned a nickname that translates as “Uncomfortable Courage.”

Gwanghwamun Gate, at the edge of the plaza where almost 200 women shared their experiences with sexual assault as part of a massive protest. Dickson Phua. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Gwanghwamun Gate, at the edge of the plaza where almost 200 women shared their experiences with sexual assault as part of a massive protest. Dickson Phua. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Younger generations have been at the forefront of the movement, and some have pushed for change specifically within the culture of schools. Using the hashtag #SchoolMeToo, students at more than 65 Korean schools have come forward with allegations of verbal and physical sexual abuse by teachers. Their stories led to several criminal investigations, and in February of this year, a former middle school teacher was sentenced to a year and a half in prison on charges of repeated assault. In response to the multiple allegations, hundreds of female students turned out for a march in downtown Seoul, which culminated in a gathering outside the presidential palace to protest inadequate responses to abuse.

The Blue House, Seoul’s presidential residence, where students gathered to protest the lack of response to sexual abuse. Julio Martínez. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Blue House, Seoul’s presidential residence, where students gathered to protest the lack of response to sexual abuse. Julio Martínez. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

On the legislative side, there are signs of incremental change. As of September 2018, maintenance staff in Seoul are now required to check public restrooms daily for hidden cameras, which are often used to secretly record footage of women that is later sold to porn websites. The administration of President Moon Jae-in, who was elected following Park’s impeachment, has announced extensions to the statute of limitations in sexual abuse cases, and a process for anonymous reporting of sexual assault crimes.

Despite progress, activists continue to face persecution. For instance, in the city of Gwangju, where 11 teachers and the principal at one school were criminally charged with sexual abuse, a newspaper editorial questioned the value of the movement and accused students of undermining teachers’ authority. Progressive politicians, such as Shin Ji-ye, a 28-year-old Green Party leader who ran for mayor on a feminist platform last June and finished impressively in fourth, may usher in more substantial shifts. For now, isolated policy decisions and grassroots uprisings are chipping away at the inequities entrenched in Korean ways of life—and #MeToo, from one side of the world to another, continues to stake a claim against centuries of injustice.

TALYA PHELPS hails from the wilds of upstate New York, but dreams of exploring the globe. As former editor-in-chief at the student newspaper of her alma mater, Vassar College, and the daughter of a journalist, she hopes to follow her passion for writing and editing for many years to come. Contact her if you're looking for a spirited debate on the merits of the em dash vs. the hyphen.


The Eerie History and Uncertain Future of Japan’s Rabbit Island

Ōkunoshima and its imperiled bunny population remind us that wildlife and tourism don’t always mix.

A cluster of bunnies on Rabbit Island. Cindy Pepper. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

A cluster of bunnies on Rabbit Island. Cindy Pepper. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

From its many “cat islands,” which boast more feline than human residents, to Jigokudani Monkey Park, where visitors can observe macaques bathing in the naturally occurring hot springs, Japan seems to overflow with fantastical wildlife enclaves. Perhaps the most adorable of all is Ōkunoshima, or “Rabbit Island”—but the cotton-tailed denizens for which this island is known belie its sinister past and ambiguous future.

While Ōkunoshima, located in the Hiroshima Prefecture, is a popular tourist destination for those looking to get their kawaii fix, it was once hidden from maps due to its clandestine status as a World War II military location. Production of chemical weapons in the island’s poison gas factory began in 1929, and apart from factory workers and army higher-ups, few citizens were aware of its existence.

Ōkunoshima was chosen for its location: discreet enough for goings-on there to remain under the radar, and far enough from densely populated cities like Tokyo to prevent mass casualties in case of an accident. The factory there eventually produced more than 6,000 tons of gas—primarily mustard gas and the irritant lewisite—before its closure at the end of the war. Chemicals wereould be shipped to Kitakyushu in the Fukuoka Prefecture to be weaponized, eventually resulting in more than 80,000 casualties (including and more than 6,000 deaths) among Chinese soldiers and civilians.

Despite the fact that Japan was a signatory to the 1929 Geneva Convention banning the use of chemical weapons, none of the country’s citizens were prosecuted for employing poison gas. After Japan’s defeat in the war, most of the Ōkunoshima factory was destroyed, but laboratory buildings, the shell of a power plant, an army barracks, and a few other edifices remain. In 1988, local governmental entities and citizens opened the Poison Gas Museum to pay tribute to this dark and little-known facet of Japanese history. Displays include the ineffective protective gear worn by workers at the factory, which left them vulnerable to exposure and subsequent illness, as well as equipment used to manufacture the gases.

So where did the bunnies enter the equation? We know that a colony of rabbits was brought to the factory during its operational years to test the effects of poisons, but beyond that, theories diverge. Some suggest that the original crop of rabbits was destroyed along with the factory, while others claim that workers set the bunnies free after the war. Another theory asserts that schoolchildren brought eight rabbits to the island in 1971, where they bred until they reached their current population of approximately 1,000.

Tadanoumi Port viewed from the ferry to Ōkunoshima. Brian Shamblen. CC 2.0

Tadanoumi Port viewed from the ferry to Ōkunoshima. Brian Shamblen. CC 2.0

Today, Ōkunoshima is easily accessible via a 15-minute ferry, and embodies peace, rest, and relaxation for tourists and locals alike. Visitors can easily explore it on foot (the island is less than 2.5 miles in circumference), collect souvenirs, dine, play tennis, swim in the ocean, and bathe in the hot spring—apart from communing with the wildlife, of course. Rabbit Island’s website describes it as a place to seek good fortune for your own family’s fertility, and advertises whipped ice cream and “original rabbit items” for sale, as well as octopus kelp rolls, a local delicacy known to pair well with sake.

Yet even the island’s thriving tourist industry and booming bunny population has a more sinister flip side. The wild rabbits depend on visitors for their food and water, but tourists often come bearing snacks that are harmful to the creatures’ delicate digestive systems—such as cabbage or vegetable peelings, which can cause fatal bloating. And while visitors are keen to share photos of their new fluffy friends online, social media has played a key role in destabilizing the rabbit population: Viral videos and articles have led to a vast influx of tourists in the past decade, and the resultant avalanche of snacks and treats has contributed to a breeding boom that the island’s ecosystem is unable to handle. These factors have combined to lower the bunnies’ life expectancy to only two years, compared to the three-to-five-year lifespan of the average wild rabbit.

The plight of the Ōkunoshima rabbits is just one example of the widespread harm social media has inflicted on wildlife populations across the globe: For instance, viral YouTube videos of slow lorises, wide-eyed nocturnal primates native to Southeast Asia, have led to people taking home lorises from the wild to keep as their own. Unfortunately, captivity is unhealthy for the animals, and they often end up relegated to props in tourist photos—or worse, sold into the illegal pet trade, and possibly slaughtered for use in cuisine or medicinals.

A curious bunny on Ōkunoshima seems to have mistaken the camera for a snack. Brian Shamblen. CC 2.0

A curious bunny on Ōkunoshima seems to have mistaken the camera for a snack. Brian Shamblen. CC 2.0

Ultimately, bunny lovers need not be deterred from visiting Ōkunoshima, but following the rules is essential in order to treat the creatures kindly and foster their health and wellness. The Rabbit Island website lays out guidelines for responsible rabbit enthusiasts—including “refill water pans” and “check under your car,” as curious bunnies might hide underneath to escape the hot sun—and travelers can use their visit as an opportunity to educate friends and family about the unique perils posed to wildlife in the digital age. Approaching this mystical island mindfully is a small yet important step in helping the myriad diverse populations of the animal kingdom survive and thrive for many years to come.

TALYA PHELPS hails from the wilds of upstate New York, but dreams of exploring the globe. As former editor-in-chief at the student newspaper of her alma mater, Vassar College, and the daughter of a journalist, she hopes to follow her passion for writing and editing for many years to come. Contact her if you're looking for a spirited debate on the merits of the em dash vs. the hyphen.


Cultivating Japan’s Rare White Strawberry

In Japan, there's a specialty fruit craze sweeping the nation, from square watermelons to grapes the size of Ping-Pong balls. Still, the crown jewel of the luxury fruit basket is the white strawberry, bred to be a whole lot bigger and a whole lot sweeter than its classic red counterpart. We took a tour of Yasuhito Teshima's farm in Karatsu, Japan, to find out why so many people are spending a pretty penny for a taste of these famous white berries.

Taiwan Face-To-Face

Taiwan, a state in East Asia, neighbors the People’s Republic of China, Japan, and the Philippines. The videographer, Tiemo Weidemann, comments on his filming saying “I travelled through Taiwan for 4 months, and with this video I'd like to show this beautiful country through my eyes. I experienced the busy lives in the big cities, got overwhelmed by the other-worldly peace of the nature, lost myself feeling at home in the countryside and found value in the numerous traditions the Taiwanese people hold in such high regard.”