Heading West: Deirdre and her cowboy

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We meet Deirdre Stoelze Graves in Casper on a day when the clouds have given way to sun for a few moments and the wind is blowing like it always does in Wyoming. Deirdre came out here many years ago to get away from it all on the East coast. She got a job as a cop reporter for the Casper paper — even gave us the crime tour of the city — and ended up staying two decades.

Along the way she married a cowboy. I have only spoken to Dale twice — on the phone, when I called Deirdre to talk Dart Society business. That’s how I first met her, in 2008, when I won a Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma fellowship and spent a week in Chicago. I liked her instantly. She is such a free spirit. Crazy. Fun. Generous. Kind. And the heartbeat of the Dart Society.

Still, I am a bit unsure about staying with her. I have heard so much about her husband and the ranch but it all feels so alien to me, the city girl who revels in the bleakest urban jungle. Deirdre navigates us up Interstate 25 to Kaycee. A town had once thrived here but flooding destroyed much of it a few years back. Now, mostly, it is a collection of trailers and a few downtown buildings that survived, two bars and a general store that sells spaghetti for almost $3 a box.

From Kaycee, we drive anther 20 lonely miles inward. Rolling hills and fields of cattle and sheep give way to the sight of the Big Horn Mountains. This is Broke Back Mountain territory, where Jack Twist couldn’t quit Ennis del Mar in, perhaps, an exaggerated story of love between ranch hands. It snowed in the morning, Dierdre tells me. The mountains are white. We drive further in, past red sandstone cliffs that remind me of Arizona, before we arrive at the doublewide trailer that Deirdre and Dale and their little boy Elliot call home. It’s expensive to build a house out here, Dale says. It’s much easier to plop down a trailer.

It has rained and snowed and is now raining again and the fields, normally dry at this time of year, are like vats of peanut butter mud. My boots sink in and my mind in taken back instantly to Iraq, where trekking through mud on U.S. military bases had become a daily thing.

We get inside Deirdre’s cozy abode and fill our bellies with salami sandwiches and homemade pumpkin pie. It is so quiet here. No distractions, save nature’s fury and the barking of Clyde, the family dog who is ordered to chase the neighbor’s beef cows away from Deirdre and Dale’s property. They’ll eat every last blade of grass, Dale says.

Dale is tall, lanky. He’s not wearing cowboy boots or a cowboy hat. He’s gentle and tolerant of Deirdre’s friends who have interrupted the solace of his Sunday. But he’s unmistakably a cowboy. The sun has deepened the lines of his face. They run like the rivers that cut the canyons out here.

Dale drives us to one of those canyons. We stand on the very edge — no tourist barriers here — and I strain to see the water many feet below. Deirdre and Dale were married here, they tell me. Suddenly, heaven seems closer and it doesn’t matter that the rain has started up again. I am well covered in Dale’s oil skin ranch coat and Deirdre’s cowboy boots.

I’d seen all this only in movies before.

Deirdre says she feels too isolated out here these days. She craves interaction with people who can relate to her. Most folks around here see her as a hippie chick, the only Obama supporter around for many miles. But Dale grew up here and besides a vacation to Italy, he’s hardly left Wyoming. And never will. Ranching is in his blood. He wouldn’t know how to make a living any other way.

My dear friend has to reconcile her love with her lifestyle. She talks about it as we cram into the back of Dale’s pickup and slush back to the house. Inside, Elliot prances about the counters and furniture. If he could, he’s climb the walls. He has Deirdre’s energy.

She breaks out the white linens for dinner. We sip tempranillo and watch the sun go down. We watch The Red Wall, as the sandstone is known, glow in the light. And listen to the silence outside. It is a life I could not have imagined before.

Seeing through the colour lens

Driving through picturesque Cape Town and its environs in the Western Cape, I was truly awed. If you have ever driven down the Pacific Coast Highway, especially from San Francisco to Carmel, you will have good idea of how incredibly beautiful the scenery is here.

Rugged mountains heaving upward to the sky from humble beginnings where Atlantic waves crash violently on jagged shores. Pablo Neruda’s ocean green clashing with azure skies and the lime green of Fynbos, Afrikaans for Fine Bush, the native vegetation of succulents and shrubs.

Snaking highways take you through paradise at Chapman’s Peak, Hout Bay, Camp’s Bay — idyllic fishing towns where fish and chips shops serve up freshly caught Hake. And vineyards that offer tastings of the best Pinotage, Merlot and Chardonnay.

The houses dot the hillsides, graceful and full of splendour. You think: Yes, I could live here. Spend every day in this lush, luxe setting.

But you need a non-white person with you to tell you the real story of the Western Cape.

Even now, 16 years after South Africa established democracy and passed the strongest constitution in the world, perhaps, that bars any sort of discrimination, the vestiges of apartheid are not lost on a person of color.

Yes, you can go to South Africa and go on safaris and see its National Geographic beauty, but you cannot ever forget what was here. And if you look closely, behind the hills, far away from the tourist signs, you will still see apartheid.

At Hout Bay, you can see the flats built for coloreds when you get high up on the hill. There it is. In all its ugliness.

Or what about Ocean View?

“Look there,” said my guide Gillian Schroeder, a coloured woman who grew up in the Cape Flats (pictured with me at Chapman’s Peak). “How ironic. There’s no view.”

Just rows and rows of horrific housing built inland to house coloreds evicted from Simon’s Town, a place where tourists now venture to look at African penguins and shop for antiques.

And what about the blacks? You can’t even see their townships from the main roads and highways. They are tucked away like the poor in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas.

Only here, I cannot forget that they were forced from their homes and put in segregated communities when apartheid was enforced in 1948. The Group Areas Act mandated separate communities and non-whites were plucked from the homes and throw into horrid shanties without any surrounding trees, without electricity, without anything save gray dust and misery.

My drive to the Cape of Good Hope (pictured above) was marred by conversation with Gillian of the past and present. Even though everyone is equal now in South Africa, there still is apartheid. Blacks still live in the townships. They still do the manual labor. the most menial tasks. Coloreds live in the flats. The richest neighborhoods, the nicest places are still all white.

In the United States, laws were changed but racism has taken many years to subside. It still manifests itself now, more than 40 years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

In South Africa, it was different. There was brutal white rule and then a black majority democracy. But centuries of oppression don’t just go away, especially when the ruling class is still here. In my native India, the colonizers left. Here, they stayed.

How do you live side by side after all that hatred, all those tears, all that cruelty. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission can help, but it cannot erase the emotions swirling in millions of hearts.

I have to say that it is truly amazing to me how blacks, coloureds, Indians and whites live side by side now. Those who were oppressed have amazingly forgiven.

But as my friend, Stephen Moagi of Capetown said, it is hard to forget.

His name tag at work reads: Stephens. Like a last name. None of his white employers have bothered to correct it. Small, but telling, I thought.

Eunice, a black waitress at Bertha’s restaurant on the ocean in Simon’s Town (pictured, top, left), gives her name as Thabiso. That’s her name in Xhosa. That’s what she prefers. Except no one ever bothered to ask.

You don’t have to look hard to notice. Just take your eyes off the guide books and tours. And you will know the real South Africa.

A long journey

In the world’s largest democracy, men are still very much in control.

Even though we’ve had a woman as prime minister (Indira Gandhi) and the current president is also a woman (Pratibha Patil), women still lag way behind men in many ways. India has only 21 women in the 233-member Rajya Sabha or upper house of parliament. In the Lok Sabha or lower house, women represent 11 percent of the seats. That ranks India 99th in the world in female parliamentary representation – behind neighbors Pakistan and Bangladesh.

On Monday, which was International Women’s Day, the United Nations blamed a gender gap for the disappearance of 43 million women in India. Lost because of lack of health care, decent nutrition and proper education (only 55 percent of women are literate in India.

Gender bias leads to the killing of infant daughters. Brides are still burned to death in hopes of securing another dowry.

Those are obvious ways discrimination rears its ugly head. I can remember acts that were more subtle, yet insidious none the same.

The women in my mother’s generation cooked all the meals in the house but rarely sat with the men at the table. The men, of course, were served first; the women waited on them and then cleaned their mess.

Women on their periods could not enter a place of worship. I did not understand why when I was a teenager and wanted to join in on the puja festivities at my grandparents’ house. Now I am sure a man insisted on that rule.

My great aunt, who lived to a very ripe old age, was married and widowed when she was still in her teens. She lived a life of austerity, wrapped in white muslin, eating strict vegetarian food by herself on the floor of the kitchen. Somehow, she had been dishonored because her husband died on her. If she had been born a few years earlier, she might have had to plunge into her husband’s funeral pyre to save herself.

My own mother’s marriage was arranged. She left her own family to live with strangers. She gave up her own ambitions, her dreams in life to do what was expected of her. She was not a stalwart feminist. Nor was she one to complain about the way women were treated in Indian society. But I know, from all our quiet conversations, that she endured. And she told me many years ago that she would never wish the same for me.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recognized the uphill climb for women in India.

“Our women faced discrimination at home, there is domestic violence, they face discrimination in equal access to education and health care,” he said this week. “There are all these things. All these things have to end if India is to realise its full potential.”

A bill was introduced 15 years ago reserving one-third of parliamentary seats for women. The male-dominated Rajya Sabha finally passed the bill on Tuesday. It next goes to the Lok Sabha for approval.

There’s a long journey still ahead but the bill is a crucial first step to giving Indian women the voice they so richly deserve.

My mother died nine years ago. But I know she would have been proud of her homeland on this day.

About men and atom bombs

Two people of note died this week without fanfare or blazing headlines.

The first was Mary Daly, a rip-roaring feminist who touched my life deeply when I was a student at Florida State University in the early 1980s. She came to speak there but would not take the podium unless the men in the room left. It caused an uproar, of course, because her trip had been funded with public money.

But I admired her courage for standing up for her beliefs. “You learn courage by couraging,” she said.

She said she was not interested in men. Rather, she wanted to study the capacities of women, repressed for centuries under male-dominated societies.

I didn’t agree with all of Mary Daly’s theories, but she inspired me to think outside the box.

Daly stuck to her principles all her life. At Boston University, the feminist theologian ended a stormy tenure by retiring rather than allowing men to sit in her classrooms.

Mary Daly was 81.

On the other side of the world, a man of a different sort of courage died of stomach cancer in a hospital in Nagasaki, Japan.

Tsutomu Yamaguchi was the only person officially recognized as having survived both the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II.

Yamaguchi was on a business trip to Hiroshima when he saw and felt the great white flash. Badly burned, he returned home to Nagasaki, where three days later, he witnessed horror again.

He, like may atom bomb survivors, suffered from health problems all his life. Still he lived to the ripe old age of 93 and in later years, he became a voice for the abolition of nuclear weapons.

Some said Yamaguchi was the luckiest man on Earth to have survived two nuclear bombs. Others wondered if he was the unluckiest to have lived — and to have remembered.

My Christmas gift

This is the season when we feel compelled to give. We give our time at homeless shelters, buy bags of food for the hungry and write checks out to charities that help people in far-flung places. Sometimes, it’s difficult to choose an agency. Many of us are cynical about how effectively the money will be spent. Or we question whether it will do any good at all.

I do not pretend to know the answers to solving global poverty, but I will share with you a story about one family whose life is about to change radically.

Ibrahim Gulam lives in a part of central Kolkata that is usually not seen by visitors to the city. I would guess that many of my friends and relatives have never even been to this part of town. The main road still bears its British name — Colin Road.

the streets are overflowing with workshops and warehouses. Gulam lives in an area where plaster molding is manufactured. Some of the men and women look like aliens, their dark faces perpetually smeared with white dust.

Crime and drug addiction is rampant in this part of town. So, too, are broken hearts. Broken dreams.

You have to snake through tiny lanes bursting with humanity to get to the room that Ibrahim shares with his parents and three siblings. He and his brother sleep atop the hard bed, his mother and sisters share the floor and his father, an asthmatic who has not been able to hold down a full time job because of his respiratory ailments, lies under the bed.

In the summer, the heat and humidity are so intense that the whitewash on the walls peels off. Little adorns the dark, cramped room save scripture from the Quran. Ibrahim’s mother cooks on a coal-burning stove on the floor outside, where shoes heap up and the cement is incessantly wet from household use.

The family shares a latrine with countless other people. Often, bathing is done is public at the local tubewell.

The smells here are like nothing found in America — a mixture of life and waste and human misery.

Westerners dubbed this “the city of joy.” I heard a businessman on my flight back telling the flight attendant that he had taken his young son for a tour of Kolkata slums. He leaned back in his $4,000 business class seat and talked of how “fascinating” the lives of the poor were.

He should talk to Ibrahim.

To say that his life has been a struggle is an understatement.

I met him when he was in grade school. He was one of several children my brother and I sponsored. We paid for their schooling so that they would have a chance in life.

No one in Ibrahim’s neighborhood has finished high school. His father, Gulam Siddiq, studied in a Bengali medium school but dropped out in the second grade, later learning how to be an electrician. His mother, Rabyia Sultana, stopped in the fifth grade in her native Bihar.

I wanted Ibrahim and his siblings not to live the life of his parents. I wanted to do everything in power to preserve his joie de vivre.

I watched him grow, visited him when I went home every year. He did well in Navjjyoti, a school for poor children that my friend Vijay helped establish. He was admitted to the reputable Assembly of God Church school. So was his brother Zahid and sisters Anjum and Zahida.

Ibrahim is now 24 and will soon earn a degree from Seacom Engineering College. I visited him in early December and his latest report card showed him excelling in almost every subject.

His brother and sister followed in his footsteps and are also in college. His youngest sister will enroll in college next year. She wants to study microbiology.

Ibrahim’s mother beamed with pride as she talked about her children. She knows that one day soon, the family will leave that dismal room. On Ibrahim’s salary, they will be able to afford a flat in a nicer part of the city, put better food in their bellies.

Ibrahim had the fortitude to win against all odds — to study in dim light, distracted by the hub-bub of the slum. He persisted when I had half expected him to give up. Yet, year after year, he delighted me with his report cards. A few years ago, he came to visit me with his grades in hand. That’s when he told me: “I want to be an engineer. I want life to be different.”

In India, a nation of 1.1 billion people, sometimes, not even an education is a ticket out of poverty. But without it, a young man or woman stands no chance of success. There, vocations do not pay as well as they do in America. Labour is cheap and the life of an electrician like Ibrahim’s father is far from comfort.

I sponsor other children in Kolkata as well. I talk to their parents, who want to pull them out of classrooms and put them to work instead. Many of them are not supportive of their children and even punish them for wanting to sit down with their books. But it’s not easy persuading a poor person to give up another source of income.

Not all my kids have been as successful as Ibrahim. Ranjeet Shaw is struggling to pass his high school board exams, though he told me when I saw him a few weeks ago that he was not giving up. He has seen hope and he is not going to let it go without a fight.

I don’t have children of my own, but my Kolkata kids have filled that void in my life. And then some.

Goddess of strength

Thousands of deities are on their way to the banks of the Ganges in West Bengal today. The immersions have to be finished by Wednesday in the capital, Kolkata.

Ma Durga, the goddess of strength, returns to Ma Ganga, the holiest of rivers.

In the next few hours, murtis or images made from clay, wood, paper mache, bamboo, straw, shell and sand will begin dissolving in murky river waters.

Durga Puja, the biggest Hindu festival in my home state, is culminating this week.

When I was young, Durga Puja was the highlight of my year. Like an American kid looking forward to Christmas.

The five-day festival usually falls in September or October, depending on the position of the stars. We were off from school for several weeks. The streets were filled with fun and food. We wore new outfits for each day of the puja and went from pandal to pandal (temporary structures that housed the images) to see which one was the biggest, the baddest.

Hindu mythology tells the tale of Durga this way: Only a woman could kill the demon named Mahishasur. So the gods got together and each gave a virtue and skill to create the ultimate warrior, the goddess of strength. They gave Durga 10 arms so she could carry weapons in each to slay the Earth’s evil.

And so she did.

As I grew older and Kolkata became more congested, Durga Puja became somewhat of an inconvenience. The crowds, the road closings, the heat, the rain, the mud and muck of the dwindling monsoons. Last year, I almost missed my flight back to Atlanta because it took so long to weave through city streets to get to the airport.

The 15 million people of Kolkata all seem to be out together during Durga Puja. The constant banging of the dhol (drums) and blaring Bollywood music deafens my ears. At the end of every street, on every corner and in the neighborhood parks and schools, clubs fight for best in show. Who will win the prize for the most attractive Durga display? Some images are realistic. Others abstract. Some simple, others so ornate they would make Marie Antoinette gasp.

And when the five days of worship are over, throngs of people parade down the streets behind a lorry carrying their neighborhood Durga to the Ganges, so she can return to the heavens.

Whether you get into the Hindu puja spirit or not, there is something awesome about seeing millions of people fall at the feet of a woman to worship her strength, especially in a country like India, where women still have a long way to go to gain equal standing with men.

Last year, I was walking home from the bank and I stood and watched workers put the finishing touches on their Durga display. The beautiful and mighty woman, steely in body and soul (and loaded with weapons to boot!).

I stared into the eyes of the image. And felt her strength recharge me.

Check out this Web site for more information on the ceremony, rituals and story behind Durga: