24,901 Miles A Second

By: Siddhi (written after a trip to Lhasa, Tibet in 2007) 

The globe spins, rotating effortlessly beneath the twirl of my fingertips. The blur of colors surge in a whirlpool motion, fascinating, but incoherent. 24, 901 miles flash before my eyes every few seconds.  I just saw the entire world twenty times in a single minute.

Our jeep rattled forward on the rugged, mountainous terrain of Lhasa– the sacred origin of Tibetan Buddhism. The landscape was a living still-life painting; the beauty I had only seen in museum art splattered on a canvas of reality. It was exactly how the travel books had described it – dreamy. My camera’s shutter snapped every few moments as I reveled in the sight.

That was until I saw the walking scarecrows. They were haggard, bent over rails of bone. They were emaciated, barefoot corpses with cloth satchels. They were children on their daily three-hour walk to school. Almost suddenly, the majestic beauty of the Himalayas was reduced to nothing but those languished faces. The yellow mustard fields, the snow-capped plateaus, the skies of white gold – everything felt hideously out of place. The earth our tires tread belonged to a class of peace-driven people who for generations worked to uphold their beliefs in karma and nonviolence. And these same people were now, in front of my own eyes, walking a deathly walk, only hoping that the Chinese soldiers that infested their land wouldn’t beat them to the ground.

I was numb. Somehow I managed to bring the camera to my eyes, and clicked.  This time, it wasn’t just a digital image I had saved onto a card, but a fresh wound in the flesh of my conscience, a permanent scar in my naivety.

One month after I returned home, mainstream news channels flashed with clips of violent Tibetan uprisings against Chinese soldiers. The families of those skeletal kids, who walked under blazing furnaces every day to be educated, were portrayed as the savages. They were greedy, selfish monsters that were unwilling to sacrifice personal freedoms for the “better good”.   I felt irascible desperation. I was there. I had seen through my viewfinder those same impoverished villages, living in raw fear.

The naked, poverty-stricken children selling flutes for food in the heart of Cambodia; the Chinese freedom of expression being squashed by the oppressive fist of communism; Thai citizens in constant limbo between life and death. Unlike most teenagers whose vista of the world is based on reported realities in the media, I have been fortunate enough to experience these global truths firsthand. From the moment the plane scrapes the runway, what I know about the world I live in is mutated, enlarged and ultimately diminished. The more I see, the more I realize I’ve seen nothing. Whether that’s a blessing or a curse, I don’t know, because my innocence is gone. I don’t believe things at face value anymore because I know there’s something beneath the surface.

I need to help tear down these walls. Countries have stories, people have stories; truth, that is subdued by bias and ignorance. These realities lurk beneath the filmy surfaces of the piles and piles of photographs I’ve taken over the years. Going back and looking at some of these pictures almost always unleashes that same feeling of discomfort and angst I felt when I saw that slanted view of Tibetan uprisings. With my camera, maybe I’ll be able to do a sliver of justice to the human condition. Before I can do anything though, I have to know.

The globe slows down, the mar of colors gradually forming a fluid image. But it’s still incoherent. I don’t see the familiar oceans, continents, islands- I see a vastly uncharted map, an enigma that I have yet to completely understand. Luckily, I’ve got a camera. And I’m only eighteen.

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