Photos taken at Mount Saint Hilaire, Quebec, not the journey I write about below, but the images are appropriate!

Bewitched, bedazzled, amidst trees that reflect gold, russet, yellow, red, orange, brown. Hues without count. Colours that have transformed the countryside into a wonderland. I am on a train, moving through bog, marsh, stream, lake, pond. Cliff, meadow, rock. Branches have fallen into the water, branches rise out of the water. Grass, and moss covered rock – green-black. Tracts of bare, exposed earth – black-brown. The leaves are thick on the ground and cover the ledges of roofs.

Water reflects sky, at times dissolving it, at times giving it clarity.

There is still some green to be found in this landscape, the green of late late summer; and grey, black and silver tree bark. Without these reference points, would my spirit not become one with the scenery? It would be easy to loose oneself in this surfeit of colour. A welcome erasure.

Behold the leaves in the act of falling, drifting! They seem so delicate and fragile, yet each seems complete in itself. Unique. Having served their purpose, they fall gently to their rest. To be pinned to a branch one moment and down on the ground a few heartbeats later. What a change of perspective that must be! I am sure, somehow, that they don’t mind going, down onto the ground, moist from last night’s rain.

Some nearly naked trees with a few, dry, curled-up leaves still attached to the branches. As the breeze blows through, they dance. How entrancing, this nature’s version of the dance of the seven veils. The words “I love you” form on my lips and phantom hands extend to caresses the fine-veined leaves.

Soon these leaves too will drift down and clothe the earth.

Stretches of field, with a dwelling – near or far. A faint blue line of mountains against the horizon.

Suddenly a blaze of gold, followed by a dazzle of orange. Low hills covered in forests of colour. Oh fall, you have dressed the trees and the forest so splendidly!

A vast inland sea lapping at our feet – Lake Champlain.

A bird high up in the clear blue sky. Egrets sitting on stones that are poking out of the water. Graceful and watchful.

Meditation and water, colour and ecstasy.

I could never tire of this landscape. This is my most enchanted train journey. Montreal to New York and back, on the Adirondack – eating and breathing fall for 12 straight hours. I had thought it would be too long, but a trip through paradise, getting drunk on the season’s inimitable beauty, is outside the bounds of clockwork time. I understand that expression – getting drunk on beauty – as never before, today.

The light is mellow, warm and liquid. It fills me with delight. I rejoice. I rejoice! I ignore the smoke stacks, the appearance at times of buildings, vestiges of civilization – so-called. I can ignore civilization from here. Fall fills me so entirely that I cannot attend to anything else. Perhaps this is how a Bhakti poet or a Sufi saint feels when they talk about union with God, with the Universe.

Such inexpressible beauty! Ah there I go again. Another cliché that I can now fathom entirely. (And yes, all the while I am writing!) We humans are given to expression, are we not?

This is nature playing Holi. I had such a desire, a longing, to see these colours, to be drenched in them. And I have been granted that wish.

I am replete.

Thank you Life. Thank you premeditation. Thank you immensely.

Written on 24 October, 2011.

Check out my article about a sculpture exhibition:

Did you go to a cottage this summer? Hiking? Camping? Did you try to escape the heat, if you live in India? Perhaps you just enjoyed urban nature? Maybe you live in the country? Use that keyboard (!) to write a few words about your particular experience in the comment box below. Or send me photos.

What better time to recall summer getaways as Fall deepens outside the window. The leaves seemed to turn yellow overnight, last week, and that beautiful, muted, slanting light, that evokes all manner of nuanced feeling, and a certain tremulousness, permeated everything.

Among the pleasures of immigration to Canada from the tropics, are the all-too-short weekends I get to spend in Canadian Cottage Country.

This year I had the chance to revisit my friend Gillian, on Black Rock, a lovely, little island in the Peterborough area in Ontario. In the vast stretches that typify Canada, owning an island is less spectacular than it would be in other parts of the world, say for example in space-strapped Japan, though no less fortunate.

There were the usual delights of canoeing, dipping in the lake, leisurely meals enjoyed in tranquil, green, watery surroundings, and rambles around the island with Gill’s wonderful children – Ursula and Allias. We also witnessed spectacular meteor showers. Lying back in the open, under blankets, the four us watched in awe as shooting stars bloomed all over the star-spangled, night sky. The kids screamed in glee!

Later I read on the net: “The Perseids take place each August as the Earth passes through the debris of the comet Swift-Tuttle. The dust particles light up as they pass through the Earth’s atmosphere, burning up along the way.”

It was love at first sight for me. Way back in September 2001, I wrote this “ode” to Black Rock:

in the palm
of Stoney Lake

Encased in lush,
swirling waters
– a dazzling
turquoise tumescence

Ripening every summer
A fruit, we
have learnt to partake

Leaving you, in the wake
of a lazy weekend
abundant nectar
dribbling down our chins
made dour by city living


with the promise
of another summer’s seduction

Amid the pines
– an autumn-tipped seed
under the Junipers

Here are some photos of Black Rock from that time.

This year I also visited Petroglyphs Provincial Park. The main attraction here is a massive rock, covered with drawings reminiscent of cave paintings. It is thrilling to see the petroglyphs of turtles, snakes, birds, humans and symbolic shapes. Probably carved by Algonquian-speaking people, the drawings are thought to range in age from 600 to 1100 years. Known as The Teaching Rocks (Kinomagewapong), the site is sacred to First Nation’s people. It is a place where they journeyed to conduct ceremonies, pray, meditate and fast, over millennia. The Park is collaboratively managed with the Curve Lake First Nations People who live nearby. There’s a nice museum on-site called “The Learning Place,” which explains Native traditions.

Highly recommended.

Thanks Gillian for making it all possible.

Lac Village, Mai Chau district, North West Vietnam
Tuesday, May 10, 2010

We are in a tranquil, green, watery, pastoral paradise in North West Vietnam. The Mai Chau district is home to the White Thai, one of Vietnam’s 54 minority groups, though the population here now is more ethnically mixed than it used to be.

I am sitting on a platform under the floor of a high, wooden, stilt house. Traditionally the poles on which these homes rested were wooden; now they tend to be concrete. The house has many windows that let in a much desired breeze, and a balcony on one side. The floor is covered in plastic mats and we sleep on narrow mattress, under spacious mosquito nets. There’s nothing else in the room but for too much of our city stuff.

The platform, which looks out on small, fish-breeding ponds, has bamboo tables and chairs. Cattle used to be kept here in the past, but they now build sheds for them. Beyond this are rice fields, and then mountains. There’s a profusion of plants and trees; the breeze brushing against leaves is a constant, soothing shimmer, at times punctuated by low voices, a dog barking, or a cock crowing.

In Hanoi we were besieged by motorcycle horns and all kinds of grating city noises. The Ancient Quarter, which housed our hotel, was an atmospheric warren of shops selling everything imaginable under the sun. The tiny shops took up the house fronts of incredibly long and narrow buildings – a traditional architectural style. Business and life spilled onto pavements, which also provided parking for the inevitable mo-bikes. Everywhere, small eateries spread out their tentacles, particularly at dawn and dusk.

The goods sold were cheap local or made in China, with the usual coke and cosmetics made by regional offices of multinationals. The more touristic parts of the Quarter sold t-shirts, crafts, jewellery, clothing, paintings and supposedly safe water in plastic bottles. The Quarter’s life breath is the bustle and hustle of commerce.

Now, as I look upon emerald fields stretching to the base of hills, close enough for a giant to reach out and touch, I feel a burden fall off. The same feeling had engulfed me when I got to the beachfront in Cape Town, to a narrow strip of sand, rock, the ebb and flow of waves and the sea stretching to the horizon.
This morning there were women in conical, Vietnamese hats working the fields. A narrow concrete road cuts through them, allowing passage for a loaded up bicycle or motorcycle, and a very occasional mini-van.

There are no cars.

Stilt houses line the small streets, and sell lovely, ethnic goods; pieces of elegantly patterned cloth made on looms, and purses and other small items made with these fabrics.

There is minimal electric gadgetry.

With daily power cuts, the homes run generators frugally. This rather cramps our city lifestyle and computer dependency. (By the way, we are here for a work retreat!)

The students find an internet cafe that was not there last year.

(Two cute little French-speaking girls, children of a Vietnamese colleague and her French hubby, and a Hanoi-based caterer who’s organizing our meals, come by and invite me to a balloon blowing fest. Even though I demur, they sportingly serve me French food fashioned from twigs, seeds and leaves.)

This quintessential, agrarian, tropical landscape happens to be among my favourites and I am drinking it in with all my senses, and especially my spirit.

The simple rurality (this is English, you can make words up on the spot!) strikes me with the force of a wooden gong hitting a heavy, brass bell (a common feature in Vietnamese pagodas). What a contrast to our whirlwind tour, our attempt to comprehend urbanity and its ills (mostly), with glimmerings of hope – those valiant efforts to bring equity and environmental sustainability to bulging, crackling, electrifying, terrifying, thrilling cities.

Why do we pour into them? Why do we keep growing them?

City slickers like you could tick off myriad reasons right away, but the main is that life in the cities is an improvement for migrants who come from the towns and villages, even if the middle-class may only see the gaps in their existence, what’s not there instead of what is.

Cities are enterprise, and Hanoi is a prime example of people’s ability to make, or grow or buy something and then sell it for a small mark-up, eking out a living for themselves and their families in the city, while living in sub standard housing if they can afford rent, or building shacks, and sending money back home to degraded and impoverished “rural idylls”.

Vietnam’s rural to urban migrants are increasingly young and female and a quarter of the economy, excluding agriculture, is informal. Policy makers however are slow to acknowledge migration and informality, certainly in Vietnam, even as some interesting efforts to work with this flow, not against it, are emerging worldwide.

And yet, and yet, villages like Lac, which continue to grow food and drum and dance in the evenings, and not just for visitors, while making money from cultural tourism, may suggest another way – of skimming off from the urban traveller and city economy, while continuing a way of life, with adaptations and accommodations, which is more satisfying, at least for this generation and may be for some of the next?

The old man who spoke to us about village customs was happy to be a farmer, and proud of the fact that the village had filled government crop quotas to feed the soldiers, during the wars, despite its poverty. He liked cultural tourism as it kept people better fed. His main concern was for some of the young in Mai Chau who had fallen prey to drugs. The road brought new desperations along with prosperity.

During our journey, we encountered examples of the country in the city – community and roof top gardens, farmers markets and local food systems – existing thanks to a push from state, market or NGO forces, and a drive to create green zones and expand green space. We also saw community-based recycling programs and conservation projects.

There were examples from elsewhere about how former rivers have been reclaimed from under urban concrete and allowed to flow freely (otherwise they would add to annual flooding anyhow), giving nature a chance in thrive in the city. River rejuvenation brings a whole range of flora and fauna to life; the effects of such changes tend to ripple out; they are rarely linear.

In the Brazilian eco-city of Curitiba, former quarries and wastelands have been converted into a range of parks with educational, cultural, historic or recreational functions. This city can pride itself on providing more than the UN recommended per capita green space while most cities are woefully short of the target.

I am not even talking about some kind of a comprehensive, green plan; that would be paradise and we are unlikely to get there anytime soon, if ever, but merely creating an environment that supports local efforts to promote local health, in all kinds of ways.

Instead of allowing developers to go on a wild, spending spree on farmland at the edge of cities to create grandiose housing complexes and gated communities, which even the wealthy can barely afford and seem to mainly benefit speculators, which is clearly happening in Hanoi, if governments worked to protect and include the country in the city, we would be able to feed ourselves – rich and poor – better and longer.

Once City of the Soaring or Rising Dragon now City in the Bend of the
River. I took loads of pix over roughly 3 weeks under a uniform grey

Journey from the Ancient Quarter to a Hanoi Noodle village, from the
tourist-infested but nevertheless sublime Halong Bay to a cockfight
glimpsed in a park, to the impressive Temple of Literature, dedicated
to Confucius, which began its life as an elite university in 1076.


Everyone agrees that Cape Town has one of the most beautiful natural settings in the world, with the iconic Table Mountain as backdrop, flanked by two other mountains – Devils Peak and Lions Head. Driving around the city you see spectacular views of mist shrouded peaks, vast blue skies, azure waters, sandy beaches and a city lying, seemingly peaceably, around its natural harbour. As if this were not enough, the area is bestowed with one of the world’s richest floral kingdoms, containing more than a 1000 species of plants, many unique to the region.

Fringed by comely vineyards, with bird sanctuaries and safari parks nearby, with a world class botanical garden, the city is built to human scale, with few skyscrapers, a patchwork of relatively uncluttered streets and many pleasing, colonial style buildings. Nice looking, modern structures are also not foreign here.

Cape Town’s rich cultural landscape showcases puppetry, film and jazz festivals; a carnival and outdoor music; art galleries and museums, cafes and restaurants featuring sophisticated, affordable cuisine, convivial bars and fun dance clubs.

This is a sporty city. It recently ran an international cycling race and the World Cup is a coming soon. (A state-of-the art, 68,000 capacity stadium with a pricey tag was built for the event.) There are adventure sports that land, sea and sky can offer.

Creativity is in the air; as well as impressive scholarship and intelligent political analysis and debate; while media freedom and social change work are on display.

People are frank and friendly. The weather is mostly balmy, and the howling, South Easterly wind that sweeps through dramatically every so often only serves to brush the place with further romance.

An urban paradise? Sadly no.

Apartheid’s legacy is alive and well here, separating the city into distinct black, coloureds and white neighbourhoods. We, IHP profs, lived initially in a nice B&B in the white, upper-middle class area of Oranjezicht. (NB – most Afrikaans words are unpronounceable). Here, you are greeted by high walls, barking dogs and “armed response” signs. (No one walks save foreigners and non-white domestic workers.)

South Africa is a “middle-income” country, yet 38% of the people are classified as poor (2005 statistics). That figure for 1995 was 25 per cent. The recent financial crisis has made things worse. Twenty two per cent live in informal housing, 58% of which is in slums; 41.8 per cent live in “backyard dwellings,” which are typically shacks built behind regular houses. The government has delivered on low cost housing; and electricity, water and sewage connections, but has fallen way short of the need.

Twenty nine per cent of Cape Townians are unemployed. The city needs skilled workers for its dominant and expanding service sector, but the majority of the black population has access only to sub standard government schools. A lot of blacks also boycotted education, as a political statement, under apartheid. As much as a generation and a half is said to be affected by this.

Here’s a revealing statistic: Only 50% of the coloured and black students will finish high school; of these 20% will go to university; of these 40% will finish that degree; of these only 10% will get a technical degree.

It’s clear who has the financial clout. The political power rests with the blacks, making for increasing socio-political tensions. Corruption is rife.

Some of the results of all of the above: high crime rates, including for rape and domestic violence, and a perception that the city is very unsafe, news reports of people rioting for more service delivery, confrontation tactics and overt expression of bias between and among all the above mentioned racial groups; oppositional feelings towards Africans from other countries who come to take advantage of the economy. (Neo-liberal, the economy reflects all the typical features of a Global City.) The categories white, black, coloured and Indian, established by the apartheid state, linger on.

All this inevitably affects the ‘hapless’ visitor, particularly one who is here to teach and learn about urban issues. While her intellectual life is enviably rich, she finds her emotions ping-ponging as she is ferried from a disturbing film about apartheid to a feel-good NGO project in a township; when a lecture on biodiversity is followed by one on white supremacy; when the enjoyment of brightly painted houses in the Cape Malay neighbourhood of Bo Kaap is marred by the realization that she has lost her wallet.

From Oranjezicht to Langa, the second oldest township in the country, is also a sea change. It is a 20-minute drive from downtown – stark, dusty, flat and park less (though there are a few tall trees here and there). Small houses, and smaller shops selling the basics, dominate. Table Mountain still looms majestic in a distance. Here and there is a crèche or bakery, school or bar. The B&B where we land is managed by Neo (a former primary school teacher) and her mother, simply called Ma Neo (a former nurse).

I find that I have moved into the bosom of a joint family, with people from three generations coming and going all day long. I am happy and at home doing yoga with Neo, visiting the lively local shebeen (bar), cooking and sharing spices. I play with the children and chat with the teens. I commiserate with Ma Neo re her asthma, hear about her informal but important work with AIDS patients and attend a rousing, Baptist service at a nearby church on Sunday morning.

Strong, resonant singing and rhythmic clapping merges with tears, heads are bowed in private prayer, eyes closed in intense concentration. Recurring Hallelujahs, Thank you Jesus’, and Amen’s punctuate the discourse; passionate sermonising from pastors and members of the congregation (it’s not clear who’s who), inflates the space, while a collage of projected texts and photos unroll on a screen.

The church is a large, concrete structure with a solid-looking tin roof. The parking lot outside is full.

I ponder how the minimal of expressiveness on part of the students in class contrasts with the deeply held and moving faith so freely expressed in this church.

We have run into adverse group dynamics in Cape Town and are trying to get past them. It’s tough, but part of the teaching game that I am trying to learn.

I also visit Boulder Beach – a colony of utterly adorable jackass penguins. The trip is organized by one of the student’s and we are happy together as we ooh and aah over the singular creatures, going on to enjoy the earthly delights of the Cape of Good Hope.

I have many good wishes and hope, hope for a peaceful and productive future – for this intense, exciting, contradictory, beautiful and beastly country. And for the vibrant civil society organizations and the citizens who are trying hard to make a difference. And ditto for the final leg of our program in Vietnam.

The Brazilian Landless Workers’ Movement or the MST – Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra

View pictures

Enroute from Sao Paulo to Curitiba, 15-17 February 2010

Fields replete with tall corn stalks nodding in the gentle breeze, goats looking rather sulky in a small pen, while the pigs seemed more content in their larger shed. Fruit trees planted amid food crops, demonstrating the eco-friendly practice of agro forestry. An untidy herbal plants garden that provides the basis for the small-scale production of soaps and home remedies.

At first glance, an agro villa of the MST, the largest and arguably the most successful land rights movement in the world – looks like any medium-sized farming operation in any tropical country. But this estate belonged once to a wealthy, Brazilian landowner, was occupied by MST members after careful planning some 8 years ago, was taken over in stages, settled and cultivated, and now feeds the residents and brings in an income.

“According to the Brazilian Census Bureau, 1% of the landowners control 45% of the nation’s land and close to 37% hold only 1%,” writes academic Miguel Carter. Rooted in the colonial era and worsened by subsequent policies or lack thereof (no land reform for example), these figures point to one of the most unequal land distribution patterns in the world.

The MST strategically uses a clause in the Brazilian Constitution, which says that land must be socially productive, as a quasi-legal basis for its occupations, and its thriving land rights activism. They research and take over (for the most part) estates that are not in good standing. Interestingly, once they settle and start cultivating the land, a process that usually takes many years, and can include being set upon by militia, and resulting violence and bloodshed, the government actually buys the land from the owner and gives it to the MST on a 90-year, renewable lease. It also provides some agricultural subsidies.

The process is long, arduous, complex and very political, in every sense of the term, as a MST documentary film demonstrates. The people who join the movement are typically landless labourers or former peasants who are forced to migrate and populate the spreading favelas in cities like Sao Paulo. (The Roofless Movement is a parallel squatters movement in the cities, but is not as well organized, unified and successful as MST.)

The fact that the government buys these estates and leases them to the MST, shows, in my opinion, the collective clout of civil society and social movements in Brazil, the amazing organizing, bargaining, communication and movement building strategies of the MST, and the essentially democratic nature of the Brazilian state. Don’t you feel that in many other countries this just would not happen? The landowners would mow the settlers down using a kind of private army (while the state looked the other way) or the state itself may take the initiative to imprison them, or more shrewdly, just tie everything up in endless legal suits.

It’s true that this state is denying them comprehensive and legitimate land reform. (A wealthy landowners lobby and other factors sees to that.) But it is allowing a sort of grudging land redistribution to take place through the back door. Consider that 350,000 families have been settled on 1300 settlements and the government has bought some seven million hectares of land on their behalf. (MST has been around for around 25 years.)

Fascinating stuff which makes me applaud the movement, Brazilian civil society and Brazilian democracy. By the way, Brazilian agricultural as a whole is industrialized and modern. Sao Paulo is a competitive, global city (with decrepit parts). Brazil embraced scientific research in all fields decades ago and has for its motto – Order and Progress. It is also one of the emerging economies under the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) rubric.

Middle-class Brazilians and mainstream media are very critical of the MST accusing it of being too radical, corrupt, anti-state, and god knows what else. Since it is made up of humans, it must certainly be very imperfect and far from ideal!

Our 2-day visit to the agro villas in the peaceful, green countryside brought up a host of issues and debates among the students around absolute vs. relative rights to private property, the correct way to address historic wrongs and inequity issues, ideas about civil disobedience, socialism/communism vs. capitalism, cooperative vs. competitive values, and many others.

Each MST settlement organizes itself along different lines. Some are cooperative farms, others not. Some members of the agro villas we visited spoke of social transformation and living by alternative values, including ecological ones. They are likely representative of the MST and this is perhaps what disturbs citizens of neo-liberal and even liberal persuasions?

I adored the politics, ideals and activism of the MST and openly supported them, causing some students to look at me strangely! (That is not the only reason why I receive those looks either!) Since I live to be oppositional, this did not bother me. In fact I loved it! It provided a glimpse of what radical academics must face on a daily basis. Professors must be “rational,” non-committal, dignified and reasonable at all times, don’t you think?!

The MST visit, one of the highpoints of our Brazilian exploration, was certainly very inspirational for me, despite the minimal living conditions that it entailed for a couple of days.

Here are my pix from this vivacious megacity:
(Click on link to view)

I startle out of plane-sleep as we are flying over THE AMAZON, so indicated on the monitors. It is 4 am on the 30th of January.

Travel, though it pleases me, does not make my blood sing anymore. Nevertheless I feel the leap of excitement. Just as we have built a myth around the Amazon, we have raised the idea of travel to great heights, on the ladder of our collective yearnings for … transformation?

Both the Amazon and travel can be astonishing, but what about their underbelly?

The reality of travel is also discomforting, jarring, even gut wrenching. Tropical rain buckets down on you while the sun tries to suck in all your strength. Vegetarian food is unheard of, the tea is weak, spices taboo and sickly sweet cakes are standard breakfast fare.

At the hotel you make for your bed at the earliest opportunity. As you lie down, music from god knows where rushes in to welcome you. You close the open window and put on the AC. (The need for survival trumps environmental ethics.) You wake up after too few hours of sleep with a sore throat, the dozen things that must be done tick-tocking in your tired brain. After all you are in this exotic, foreign land for work, where things that were easy to accomplish in the familiarity of the office environment loom Herculean.

All this is not so hard. These circumstances are “normal” and can be dealt with. The difficult thing is the pressure the traveller feels to maintain and ideally embroider that well-entrenched, collective fantasy of travel and work travel (same thing is it not?!)
Travel as adventure, revelation, pleasure, fun, escape. It is something truly extraordinary and quite distinct from doing laundry in the sink.

Wave upon wave of travel writer, informal or official, has stoked that fire. (There have been a few dissenters.)

So what should I tell you now?

Should I talk about divine coconut water and delicious coconut flesh? Of coconut ice-cream and coconut desserts? The charm of the caipirinha – Brazil’s signature cocktail abroad which tastes pretty darn good at home as well? The creativity of Brazilian design? The colour of its weekend craft fairs where you can buy an amazing array of high-quality goods? The vigour of Brazilian democracy? Describe the amazing helpfulness of the people? The soulfulness of its street carnivals and the totally over the top quality of its garish official parades? Tell you that there are amazingly tall, beautiful, healthy trees amidst the endless skyscrapers? Remind you of the heady aroma of earth blasted by rain?

That the people I meet are mostly light skinned?

That I skipped my survival Portuguese classes but am getting around OK by acting, drawing, pointing, making up words, seeking out English speakers?

That Brazil is a country where I felt at home soon after arrival and that feeling has stayed with me?

That I may be making it all up and if I didn’t, you would make it up for me?

The City as a classroom

Coming to New York I moved backwards in time, dropping the white blanket of Canadian Winter for the russet-brown wrap of late Fall, grass still on ground, dark yellow leaves clinging, here and there to trees, an absence of conifers; the barometer above 0.

My 8th floor window at International House looks out on a small park; the majestic profile of Riverside church; the colossal dome of General Grant’s mausoleum – a silent sentinel – looking down on a stream of cars on Riverside Drive, and the river; the river that opens up the possibility of life and connects it to the infinite sky. Not my idea of Manhattan of the wall-to-wall high rise buildings, and a certain, peculiarly urban ugliness. (Yah, yah, there are many stunning buildings.)

The view makes up somewhat for the pocket handkerchief sized room. Rooms are kept deliberately tiny to tease students out of them, into orchestrated social and cultural activities, I am informed. Sigh!

The program, Cities in the 21st Century, is a whirlwind of activities, both studious and social, comprising of many planning meetings (a necessary evil), tedious “house-keeping” and inspiring guest lectures and site visits; a perfect storm of faces, places, ideas, images, concepts, theories, activism and actualisations. It is an intense experience, both exciting and draining.

The students, all 33 of them, are a wonderful surprise, each with a distinct personality that emerges slowly, in some cases. They are intelligent, thoughtful, articulate, nice, friendly, enthusiastic and energetic. And most importantly, though they seem pragmatic overall, have not yet had all idealism drained out of them! Nevertheless, I go to my first ever undergraduate “session” teaching Urban Politics and Development feeling hyper and apprehensive, but it comes off OK.

On the NY subway (a student describes it as the World’s Fair), which seems to take forever to get to Brooklyn, one encounter all manner of eccentrics and buskers and panhandlers who range in their claims from war vets to fundraisers for the homeless! I dish out a few coins noticing that most of my fellow passengers do not. The American flag is painted on the subway cars. “Because we are at war,” a student explains. I don’t get it and add this one to my list of incomprehensions.

We are exposed to a range of civil society and municipal actors, including briefly the UN. What comes through for me is the knowledge, conviction and dedication of the people who work here (Americans tell it like it is more than Canadians – which is just great!) and the understanding that it is very challenging to run a functional mega city.

I am also delighted to have free courses in urban planning and urban anthropology. (The disciplines my two colleagues teach.) What’s more, I don’t have any homework. Who said the world was fair?

My last images are of two Latin American men systematically sifting through garbage bags, piled high around I-House, in this city of immigrants. And anxiously admiring row upon row of beautifully lit up trees en route to the airport – how much would these contribute to climate change?!

On the plane to Sao Paulo I read all about the iconic J.D. Salinger in the New York Times. He has just passed away. I too fell under the spell of “Catcher in the rye” as a young woman. Did you?

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