This morning we started our day with a session of breathing yoga. This is said to be the best, and most important type of yoga because it clears one’s system. Many of us found it refreshing.
Shortly thereafter we left for a local resort center where we met an elephant named Mone and her trainer. The experience was beautiful, emotional, and bitter sweet. Mone (Moon-ee) was a 13-14’ Asian elephant who was 60-70 years old. She was brought to us for us to ride, but after three of us took a short trip on her, we were introduced to the reality of her situation. Mone was kept in captivity and when she wasn’t being used for labor she was kept in chains. She was mostly used to move timber, and in reality, elephants aren’t meant to carry heavy loads on their backs. When we asked her owners if she was treated well they said no, which was very honest and true. In reality, how can one actually treat an animal well if the animal is to be tamed and trained. We were all blinded by the whimsical nature of the elephant ride that we somewhat disregarded the life of the creature being used for our entertainment. We quickly learned our lesson. The elephant rides continued while some of us abstained. During the rides some of us talked to the locals who were traveling with us who were curious about our thoughts. After telling them how we felt they expressed that elephant riding is normal and often the only way to travel effectively. This put things in perspective. Before we left we offered Mone an entire bag of bananas. She gladly excepted and searched around the area for more, sniffing them out amongst us. In a situation like this it’s hard to know what was right and what was wrong. At the end of the day, only Mone would be able to answer that.
After this we gathered at the resort where we ate an authentic Mishmi lunch with members of the Angelo Mendo Women’s Empowerment Society. These women were advocators of women and children’s rights in Arunachal. They focused on intervening in legal and societal disputes, community education, and more that we were able to learn in the short hour that we spent with them. We discussed issues of alcoholism, parenting, children’s rights, and societal norms. To advocate, they often created striking visuals or preformed street plays to get their point across. It was amazing to see such a powerful organization in a region where the male to female ratio is visibly imbalanced.
Thankfully for us, during our stay in Arunachal a local cultural festival was taking place. Local men and women gathered in the streets wearing traditional tribal clothing, and umbrellas. The rain did not slow them down. We watched as they marched, danced, chanted, and imitated battle scenes while carrying the traditional sacred plant. As they passed by they invited us to join, and some of us did. The meaning of the festival was to welcome, and many of us felt the invitation. In fact, this was only the second time that outsiders were invited to join the festival.
Our last visit of the day was a visit to the Deputy Commissioner’s office of the Lower Dibany Valley District, Shri Ravi Dhawan IAS. There we met him and his wife who was also a commissioner, and we had the chance to ask questions about things that affect the community on a large scale. We discussed community bonds, substance abuse, waste disposal, and more. One interesting thing that we gathered from this visit was how the officials acknowledge and respected community values. For example, they often ensured that individual tribes were represented equally. If ten community positions had to be filled, individuals from each tribe would be represented equally, rather than choosing the ten best among all of the tribes. In this situation it was a matter of cultural respect rather than ethics.
Reflections by Leah Abramoff:
Again we were exploring the northeastern landscape of India and the people who live there. Today we learned one of the harshest realities – it’s not always people who have health and challenges but sometimes the wildlife as well. In the case of Mone many faced the ethical dilemma of engaging in riding the elephant in sport as a way to know more closely how people within the area commute via transportation. The dilemma came from the understanding that it would be engaging in riding an animal for sport rather than a necessity to bring in supplies. Each person made their choice depending on their comfort level.
Learning about one’s culture doesn’t just include their social challenges like discussed with the women’s empowerment group but also of their celebrations like with the Adi/Lhoba tribe. The importance of this celebration was evident in the ongoing festivities despite the down-pouring of rain that day. As stated, the overlying meaning of the celebration was a ‘welcome,’ but more specifically they were welcoming their gods to bless their upcoming harvests. However, this welcoming was even more significant as we were the first Americans from the USA that were able to take part in observing this particular festival. This was especially important to me as I have always been a firm believer that to know someone’s challenges you must also know their strengths and celebrations are always a good indication of where their strengths lie. In this instance, the community bonds were very evident.