Jenn Smith Undertakes the Journey of a Lifetime | Connecting Point | Jan. 9, 2019


>>>AS A JOURNALIST, JENN SMITH
IS USED TO EXPLORING FOR HER WORK. LAST YEAR SHE WAS AWARDED THE
CHANCE TO EXPLORE A PART OF HER PERSONAL HISTORY. SMITH, WHO CALLS WESTERN
MASSACHUSETTS HOME, WAS BORN IN INDIA AND ADOPTED FROM AN
ORPHANAGE IN CALCUTTA. THE WINNER OF ATLAS OBSCURA’S
CONTEST, SMITH SET OUT ON A TEN-WEEK JOURNEY ACROSS HER
NATIVE INDIA EXPERIENCING THE COUNTRY THROUGH ITS FESTIVALS. WHERE DID SHE GET THE IDEA FOR
THAT ITENIARY.>>YOU THINK FESTIVALS ARE A
GREAT CHANCE TO SEE CULTURE AND TRADITION ON DISPLAY. AND IT’S ALSO REALLY A TIME
WHERE PEOPLE TEND TO PUT ASIDE THEIR PETTY DIFFERENCES, THEIR
BAD MOODS AND YOU JUST WANT TO KICK BACK AND RELAX AND, YOU
KNOW, CELEBRATE WHATEVER YOU’RE SETTING TO CELEBRATE. SO I JUST THOUGHT THAT WOULD
MAKE A GREAT OPPORTUNITY. AND IT’S SO MUCH WORK GOES INTO
SO MANY OF THE FESTIVALS. THEY HAVE A LOT OF THEM — EVEN
THOUGH THEY’RE QUITE PUBLIC DISPLAYS, THEY’RE ALSO SACRED,
THEY’RE CELEBRATING GODS AND GODDESSES. IT’S JUST A REAL OPPORTUNITY,
YOU CAN’T MISS THESE THINGS.>>YOU WERE BORN IN INDIA BUT
RAISED IN THE STATES BY YOUR MOM, SHERYL.>>YES.>>WHEN YOU WERE A CHILD, WHEN
DID YOU FIRST THINK I WANT TO TRAVEL TO CALCUTTA, I WANT TO
SEE THE ORPHANAGE I WAS ADOPTED FROM?>>I WAS LUCKY MY MOM WAS ALWAYS
OPEN AND HONEST WITH ME ABOUT WHERE I WAS FROM. I THINK KNOWING THAT, YOU’RE
ALSO CURIOUS AS A JOURNALIST YOU’RE EVER THE MORE CURIOUS, SO
IT WAS JUST A MATTER OF TIME AND MONEY. AND SO WE GET OLDER, LIFE GETS
BUSY BECAUSE PEOPLE SAY, WOW, YOU WAITED SO LONG. YEAH, LIFE HAPPENS. AND THEN I WAS REAL EXCITED TO
BE AFFORDED THIS OPPORTUNITY. I ALWAYS WANTED TO KNOW. IT’S JUST — YOU WONDER ABOUT
YOUR ROOTS. I HAD THE ADDRESS OF THE
ORPHANAGE. I WAS RAISED IN FOR MY FIRST FEW
WEEKS OF LIFE AND WAS ABLE TO LOOK IT UP. I BEGAN FORMULATING IDEAS. BUT TO SEE IT IN ITS
CONTEMPORARY EXISTENCE WAS SOMETHING I ALWAYS JUST WANTED
TO EXPERIENCE.>>YOU’RE 37 YEARS YOUNG NOW. DO YOU HAVE ANY MEMORIES OF THAT
TIME, THE FEW WEEKS THAT YOU MENTIONED IN THE ORPHANAGE?>>NO, I HAD A FEW LITTLE
INFORMATION. I JUST HAD BASICALLY AN ADDRESS. I WAS TECHNICALLY BORN IN A
NURSING HOME AND RAISED IN THE ORPHANAGE WHICH HAS SINCE BEEN
CLOSED. THE BUILDING STRUCTURE STILL
EXISTED THAT WAS A BIG PART OF MY
ITENIARY AS WELL>>YOU SPENT A LONG TIME
THINKING ABOUT THAT MOMENT.>>IT WAS SOMETHING PROCONTRAST
NAILTED. PROCRASTINATED. IT WASN’T UNTIL MY LAST DAY IN
CALCUTTA I THOUGHT I NEED TO DO THIS. THERE’S A LOT OF EMOTION THAT’S
ATTACHED TO IT. YOU KNOW, I ALSO HAD A GREAT
WARM WELCOME. I MET SO MANY WONDERFUL PEOPLE
WHILE I WAS IN CALCUTTA. I DECIDED TO — I GOT IN AN
UBER, BECAUSE THAT’S A THING THERE. TOOK THE CAB DOWN TO THAT
NEIGHBORHOOD AND I HAD A CHANCE TO, LIKE, WALK FROM THE MAIN
ROAD DOWN PART WAY THROUGH THE STREET BY MYSELF AND JUST — I
WANTED TO EXPERIENCE THE NEIGHBORHOOD AND TAKE IT IN.
AND SO I GOT THERE, THE BUILDING IS ACTUALLY NOW A SCHOOL FOR
NURSES. SO THERE’S A BIG IRON GATE IN
THE FRONT OF IT. BUT I’D SEEN A PHOTO OF THE
EXTERIOR BEFORE. SO I KNEW THERE WAS A PARTICULAR
ARCH AND COLOR. I KNEW I WAS IN THE RIGHT PLACE. ANYWAYS, THERE’S A BIG IRON
GATE. I KNOCKED ON THE GATE AND IT
FELT LIKE A WIZARD OF OZ MOMENT WHERE THE GUY OPENS THE LITTLE
WINDOW TO PEEK OUT AND I SORT OF WAVE. I DON’T SPEAK FLUENT BENGALI,
THE COMMON LANGUAGE THERE. ALSO, A LITTLE HI HINDI NOW. WE WERE ABLE TO COMMUNICATE. THIS USED TO BE AN ORPHANAGE, I
WAS BORN HERE, CAN I TAKE A PEEK. HE WAS GRACIOUS AND HE OPENED
THE GATE. I ASKED IF I COULD TAKE A FEW
PICTURES. HE LET ME EXPLORE THE COURTYARD
FOR A FEW MOMENTS. HE WAS KIND ENOUGH TO TAKE MY
PHOTO SO I DIDN’T HAVE TO TAKE A SELFIE THERE. BUT IT WAS SOMETHING I DID FEEL
CONNECTED TO. YOU HEAR THAT SO MANY CHILDREN
HAD THEIR FIRST DAYS THERE AS WELL. PEOPLE THAT I NOW KNOW.>>YOU CHOSE WHILE YOU WERE
TRAVELING TO STAY WITH HOME VISITS. WHY DID YOU PICK A HOME STAY AS
OPPOSED TO STAYING IN A HOTEL?>>GROWING UP IN A SMALL TOWN, I
THINK I’VE ALWAYS ENJOYED BEING ABLE TO HAVE THAT SORT OF HOMEY,
LIKE KNOW YOUR NEIGHBORS ENVIRONMENTS. INTERNATIONAL HOTELS, IT’S
REALLY EASY TO JUST GET USED TO AND EXPERIENCE WESTERN COMFORTS. I REALLY WANTED TO DIVE IN AND
BE IN NEIGHBORHOODS I HAD NEVER SEEN BEFORE, BUT REALLY WANTED
TO KNOW. AND THEN HOPEFULLY, YOU KNOW,
THE IDEA WAS IF I AM STAYING WITH A FAMILY, ESPECIALLY AS A
SOLO FEMALE TRAVELER, I WAS LOOKING FOR PLACES THAT WERE
FEMALE AND FAMILY RUN AND I FOUND NOTHING BUT WARM WELCOMES. I GOT TO EAT WITH FAMILIES, I
GOT ESCORTED AROUND DIFFERENT PLACES. I FELT REALLY LOOKED AFTER AND
TAKEN CARE OF. I HAD JUST GREAT RECOMMENDATIONS
WAS ALSO A REAL BENEFIT OF DOING HOME STAYS. I ALSO USED THE COUCH SURFING
APP, WHICH IS SOMETHING I ALSO NEVER DONE. I ENDED UP STAYING WITH A GREAT
FAMILY WHO I THOUGHT I WAS ONLY GOING TO STAY FOR DAY OR TWO,
BUT I ENDED UP STAYING FOR A WEEK AND I WENT BACK TO VISIT
THEM. THERE ARE SO MANY WARM WELCOMING
PEOPLE EAGER TO HOST TRAVELERS OUT THERE.>>YOU VISITED LOTS OF DIFFERENT
FESTIVALS. I KNOW THIS IS A DIFFICULT
QUESTION BUT IS THERE ANY ONE PIECE OF THE FESTIVALS THAT
SOUNDS OUT TO YOU WHERE YOU LEARNED SOMETHING YOU’RE GOING
TO KEEP WITH YOU FOR A LONG TIME?>>YEAH, YEAH. I MEAN, I THINK IF YOU LOOK AT
TRAVELER BLOGS AND THINGS, YOU’LL SEE THE BIGNESS AND THE
SPECTACLE OF THESE FESTIVALS. YOU KNOW, THAT IS THE ELEPHANT
GOD, AND THERE ARE THESE BIG PROFESSIONSPROCESSIONS WHERE THE
THE GODS INTO BODIES OF WATER, WHETHER IT’S THE OCEAN OR
SOMETHING LIKE THAT. OBVIOUSLY, THAT’S JUST A
STUNNING CELEBRATION. ANOTHER GODDESS, THEY CELEBRATE
THE GODDESS AND CREATE THESE ELABORATE POP UP — WHAT THEY
CALL PAN PANDALS THAT SOMETIMES CHANGE AND ALTER THE ENTIRE
STREETSCAPE. YOU COULD BE DRIVING DOWN THE
ROAD AND THE POOR TAXI DRIVERS WILL THROW THEIR HANDS UP IN THE
AIR BECAUSE THERE’S A GIANT PANPANDAL IN THE WAY. AT THE SAME TIME IT’S ABOUT
FAMILY AND HOME GATHERING. THERE’S A LOT OF PRAYERS THAT
ARE DONE, NOT ONLY ON THESE FESTIVAL DAYS WHICH ARE
CONSIDERED AUSPICIOUS, BUT JUST IN THE HOME. THIS REVERENCE, THIS DEVOTION
THAT PEOPLE HAVE, WHICH IS SOMETHING WE DON’T SEE AS
COMMONPLACE SO MUCH HERE IN THE WEST. AND THAT WAS SOMETHING THAT WAS
REALLY MEANINGFUL TO ME, JUST TO SEE HOW IT BROUGHT FAMILIES
TOGETHER. EVEN ON A SMALL SC SCALE WAS
SOMETHING THAT STUCK WITH ME. YOU KNOW, THERE ARE OTHER
EXPERIENCES, THINGS I THOUGHT WERE GOING TO BE AMAZING AND
THEN SOMETIMES JARRING, TOO. BECAUSE FESTIVALS ALSO ATTRACT
LARGE AMOUNTS OF PEOPLE. SO I HAD A MOMENT WHERE I WAS —
I HAD INTENTIONALLY SEPARATED MYSELF FROM FRIENDS DURING THE
FESTIVAL. THERE’S A TRADITION, AND IT’S
REALLY COOL. IF YOU — IT TRANSLATES TO TIGER
PLAY. SO YOU HAVE ALL THESE DANCE
TEAMS THAT IS PROMINENTLY MALE AND THEY ARE FULL BODY PAINTED
LIKE TIGERS. AND SO IT’S EVERYONE WANTS TO
SEE THEM. WHAT HAPPENED WAS THE DANCERS
WERE PROCEEDING, THERE’S A CROWD OF PEOPLE GOING ONE WAY AND THEN
A BUNCH OF PEOPLE RUSHING UP FROM BEHIND TO TRY TO TAKE
PHOTOS AND VIDEO. I DIDN’T REALIZE THEY WERE VERY
DRUNK, TOO. I GOT UP IN THE CRUSH AND WAS
SUDDENLY A LONE FEMALE SURROUNDED BY A LOT OF MEN. UNFORTUNATELY, MY BACKSIDE GOT
GROPED PRETTY INTENSELY, BUT, YOU KNOW, I WAS PRETTY FINE. I HAD TO KIND OF, LIKE, FIGHT MY
WAY OUT OF THE SITUATION. NOT LIKE A BRUTAL ALTERCATION,
BUT I HAD TO RAISE MY VOICE AND SAY STOP. YOU KNOW, THE CROWD PARTED AND I
WAS ABLE TO GET BACK TO WHERE MY FRIENDS WERE. BUT IT WAS SOMETHING THAT WAS,
YOU KNOW, THAT’S THE UNCOMFORTABLE PART OF THE
UNKNOWN. YOU HAVE TO PUT IT INTO THIS
PERSPECTIVE. LIKE, YOU KNOW, OH, WAS IT
HAPPENING BECAUSE YOU WENT AWAY OR, YOU KNOW, YOU’RE IN THIS
OTHER PLACE. AND, YOU KNOW, UNFORTUNATELY, I
THINK IT’S AN ASPECT OF THE SOCIETY WHERE THINGS HAPPEN. IT DOESN’T MAKE IT RIGHT. I THINK THAT WAS THE MOST
IMPORTANT THING TO ME, IS THAT I COULD STAND UP FOR MYSELF IN
THAT MOMENT. AND LATER DURING THE FESTIVAL,
THERE IS A LOT OF FLOATS THAT HAPPENED. AND THERE WAS A PARTICULAR FLOAT
THAT WENT BY THAT WAS AN ALL WOMEN’S FLOAT. THAT STOOD OUT TO ME IN THAT
MOMENT AFTER THAT EXPERIENCE. WHERE IT SORT OF CALLED OUT THE
WAY THAT WOMEN CAN BE TREATED THERE. IT QUESTIONED THE WAY WOMEN ARE
VALUED. AND SO THE CENTERPIECE OF THE
FLOAT WAS REALLY STUNNING TO ME. IT WAS A BALANCE, LIKE THE OLD
SCALES AND WEIGHT BALANCES. AND ONE WAS ACTUALY A LIVE
YOUNG WOMAN. SHE WAS PAINTED UP. SHE WAS SITTING ON ONE SIDE OF
THE SCALE. ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE SCALE
WAS AN OVERSIZED STACK OF RUPEES THAT WERE OUTWEIGHTING HER
WORTH. IT WAS A SLIGHT TILT TO IT. I DON’T KNOW IF I WAS THE ONLY
ONE THAT CLAPPED AND SAID YES, THANKS, LADIES FOR STANDING UP. THAT’S REALLY HARD TO DO. I THINK THERE’S PROBABLY A TIME
WHERE EVEN IN OUR SOCIETY, EVEN IF THAT FLOAT WAS IN THE PARADE
THAT I SAW ON MADISON AVENUE IN NEW YORK CITY THAT IT WOULD BE A
SORT OF S STUNNING REVELATION, THOSE ATROCITIES DO HAPPEN
AGAINST WOMEN ALL AROUND THE WORLD.

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