Sunday, April 27, 2008

Ye Olde Revolving Door

I'm cheating on this one. It's last week's column for my hometown newspaper, the Lititz Record. It's such a pain in the ass to get computer time that this will have to do. There's not much more I would have added anyway. And away we go:

Title: If you plan to be arrested, come to scenic and exotic India

Parole Board chairman: They've got a name for people like you H.I. That name is called "recidivism."
Parole Board member: Repeat offender!
Parole Board chairman: Not a pretty name, is it H.I.?
H.I.: No, sir. That's one bonehead name, but that ain't me any more.
Parole Board chairman: You're not just telling us what we want to hear?
H.I.: No, sir, no way.
Parole Board member: 'Cause we just want to hear the truth.
H.I.: Well, then I guess I am telling you what you want to hear.
Parole Board chairman: Boy, didn't we just tell you not to do that?
H.I.: Yes, sir.
Parole Board chairman: Okay, then.
-Nicholas Cage in Raising Arizona

I had my second experience in Indian jail and my first all nighter. For awhile it looked like I might be getting 14 days so I planned to phone in a short column to the Record requesting beer and Martins pretzels but luckily it didn't come to that. Currently, I sit in freedom in another dusty field next to another highway and train tracks. A pile of dried cow dung burns next to me to ward off the mosquitoes. It’s late and everybody’s asleep after a hot day of marching so I am finally free to kill the mosquitoes that the monks consider to be precious and sentient beings. As for myself, I am delighted to clap my hands together to find a smear of blood stolen from some poor human or buffalo.

As for the buffalo, I found out why these giant black beasts always seem to stare at our group with a skeptical eye, something I noticed and wondered about before this story explained it all. The uncle of the buffalo is the Tibetan yak but the yak didn’t always live in Tibet. They used to live in India together until they ran out of salt. The yak went to get some from Tibet but soon returned. He complained to his nephew about the bitter cold that kept him from the salt that he wanted to get for both of them. The buffalo offered his hair for the journey. The yak gladly took the hair but then never returned from Tibet. That’s why the naked black buffalo always watches Tibetans distrustfully because he knows that their yaks have already stolen his hair.

But enough folks tales, I’ll tell enough tall tales in rest of the column concerning my bravery, valor and sheer animal magnetism. Hopefully, you have been paying attention to the Olympic torch as it makes its way around the world. I’d be curious about your opinions (especially the negatives ones) regarding the Tibetan protests around the torch and the attempts to put it out or break it. Feel free to email me at which can also be found at my blog, A Blond Scientist in India (

In New Delhi, many were dismayed at the Indian government’s response, you might even say kowtowing, to the Chinese torch. They simply shut down the city around the torch’s path with 15,000 policemen. Since the torch ended near the Parliament, all the government bureaucrats simply left after lunch because they were not allowed to exit their doors or open their windows from 1PM to 6PM. As far as I can gather, only 50 Chinese schoolchildren, a small group of media and a few busloads of Chinese officials and their guests got to see the Olympic torch in India.

In their favor, they did allow the Tibetans to stage an alternate protest torch run in a different part of the city which somehow ended up having six different torches. It sounded like quite a fun experience with traditional yak dances, great food and all of the media that couldn’t see the real torch. The descriptions in the paper about it made me miss the Ephrata Fair. However, I couldn’t see any of the festivities because I went to the one place in the city where they didn’t want anyone who even looked Tibetan.

I started the day in a cheap hotel room with a Scottish lesbian, a Belgian photographer and an Australian wanderer. If it sounds like the setup for a bad comedy, please don’t laugh. That bad comedy is my life. Eventually, Maryala from Poland joined us along with Jim, a cool older guy from Montana who used his life savings to come here for the Dalai Lama’s teachings and decided to stay for the march. We spent the morning letting Leanne the Scot paint our chests with slogans like Stop Killing and Stop Torture complete with blood like splatters of red paint applied liberally. In the coup de grace, she turned my tattoo of the little hero attacking the Jabberwocky (see Lewis Carrol’s “Jabberwocky” poem from Through the Looking Glass, the sequel to Alice in Wonderland) into a brave little man with a sword shouting Free Tibet at the monster of China in red with gold stars (see Mom, you said my tattoo was stupid, look how useful for a life of activism). After we donned our shirts and put Tibetan flags in our pockets, we looked like just one more random bunch of stupid white kids wandering India.

We set off for the torch’s final destination of India Gate. I got a call from a couple I know who interviews me every week for their radio show out of LA called the Tibet Connection. They told me quickly join them at the media entrance to India Gate because the press has just been standing around here waiting to get in. They said, “You stage a protest here and they’ll film it.”
So that’s just how it played out. We got there in the nick of time and they tipped off a cute female journalist from CNN/IBN7 that we might be a good story (I swear, the most beautiful women in this country are either journalists or living by the railroad tracks, I have to break into this business, journalism, I mean, not homelessness, I’ve had enough of that in the last two years thank you very much). She did a short interview and then gave us the go-ahead nod. We all took off our shirts, except for Leanne and Marayla, and started shouting Free Tibet while waving our Tibetan flags.

Unfortunately, nobody seemed to care for twenty seconds but now I realize that’s just part of India. The cops meandered over to us and gently led us away and then the press really started filming us and taking pictures. Apparently, we got looped a lot on the television here. Random people in the Tibetan settlement the next day came up and thanked us (no free stuff or discounts though).

By the time we reached the waiting police bus, we had a big crowd outside our window. Luckily, Leanne, the professionally trained actress leapt into passionate speech mode and gave a great sound bite for the media out of the bus window. It had gotten a little heated outside with the police because they kept trying to make us put away our flags. Once the bus pulled away from the little circus, everybody lightened up and the cops even let us smoke on the short ride to same jail we had been protesting outside for the last week. Only one cop didn’t seem amused by the whole situation and certainly didn’t think it funny when I mock made a break for it when we got out of the bus. Well, it amused me and who else am I looking to please here?

They led us into a courtyard surrounded by high walkways with a badminton court in the center. We only had a few Tibetans there ahead of us but we quickly learned to look forward to the entrance of more. Each new arrival brought out a chorus of slogan yelling, a few minutes of singing and once they even broke out in the national anthem. As I interviewed and talked to the other detainees, almost all of them were college age kids who I found to be wholly committed to a nonviolent path of resistance. Only one young guy, Tenzin Tashi, entered angry after receiving a punch in the face from a cop and from his recounting of the incident, it sounded like he deserved it. All of his peers quietly counseled him to calm down and be more peaceful.

Some of these young people got taken into “protective custody” (to protect ourselves and the torch according to the head screw) while actively jumping barriers or skirting police lines. Some, like ourselves, protested with signs and chants in areas legal for walking but apparently not legal for protesting on that day. Some incidents simply made me angry. The police sent plainclothes policemen (you can pick them out by their shoes) into the Tibetan settlement that morning and took dozens of young people into custody before they even left their neighborhood. A pair of engaged teachers wearing “Torch 4 Tibet” t-shirts and carrying an Indian flag had the cops offer them a ride to the Tibetan protest and took them to jail instead. Unfortunately, in the States, illegal tactics like these to muzzle protest occur with more frequency and a harsher response.

We had been told we would be released after 6PM when the torch run finished but then they told us that we had to stay and see a judge the next day for sentencing. By the end of the day, 58 protestors had been detained. The guards had been friendly all day and even went out to buy us cigarettes, milk and chocolate with money we gave them. However, all that changed after they counted us again after our late dinner. They only had 47 people in the jail. In all the loose confusion of the day with people wandering around the courtyard, playing badminton and getting chai from the prison canteen, 11 people had escaped including one girl who had the gall to come back the next day and visit us. The head cop went from smiling old uncle to “I’m going to shoot you and take away your bathroom rights.” I happened to be on the phone with my dad at the time so we could giggle together at this new revelation.

Then we all took a bus ride over to a hospital at 11PM for a waste of time medical checkup. The bus ride turned out to be a highlight because we spent the entire time chanting and waving flags out the window through the almost deserted streets of Delhi. They simply took thumbprints but in a sign of the new crackdown, we each had a guard locking arms with us the entire time.

We finally got back to home sweet home and they put all 41 men into a 150 square foot cell. Of course, in true Indian fashion, we all had to file out after ten minutes of head counting because every count resulted in a different number. The cell had itchy blankets and a squat toilet in the corner. It doesn’t sound so good (and we could have slept in the big open air courtyard if it wasn’t for the escapees) but the police would take us to the bathroom whenever we requested and some of the march leaders came bringing snacks and cigarettes. In addition, most of these guys grew up in India so they know how to sleep piled on top of each other like puppy dogs. I've been training myself to do the same. The only sleep skill I haven't conquered is napping with flies landing on me constantly. I lay there trying to sleep while shooing the flies away from my face and fantasize about various ways I could kill them if I had superpowers.

We spent the next morning sitting around making chess boards, eating our breakfast of bananas and white bread and playing card games with homemade cards. Luckily, I beat that damn Belgian in chess which only happens about 30% of the time. I also developed a crush on the woman from his embassy who kept yelling that we deserved better treatment in a cute french accent. I decided to ask her out (but never did) while getting annoyed with the American official who arrived late and remained quite unhelpful.

At 3PM, they loaded us all into the back of a truck to take us to the judge. They led in the foreigners first and the judge just looked up, asked where we came from and said that we can go. He said “don't protest like this again” and we said "OK." The American consular officer said the same thing when we emerged and we said "fat chance." Our fellow Tibetan inmates received sentences of 14 days but almost all got released within three days.

Thus ended my second Indian jail experience. Most likely, we’ll be stopped for a final time once we get close to the border as has happened to every other march to Tibet. That’ll give me an Indian prison hat trick. Luckily, the Three Strike rule doesn’t apply here because they never even bother to take my real name. I’m a revolving door offender. But hey, why not when the worst you get is a day of smoking cigarettes and playing chess?

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