After months of resistance and public outcry, on December 4, 2016, the Obama administration announced it would halt construction on the Dakota Access pipeline, and the Army Corps of Engineers soon started conducting a study on the potentially harmful effects it could have on the environment. But the effort didn't last long. In January, President Trump gave instructions to cease the study, which meant construction could begin again. Then, in February, North Dakota governor Doug Burgum, citing safety concerns, issued an emergency evacuation order, giving protesters until the 22nd to leave their camps near Lake Oahe. Larry Towell, who has spent years documenting Native American issues in Canada and the US, made his third and perhaps final trip to the pipeline. There, at the Oceti Sakowin camp, he captured the remaining water protectors—the demonstrators, many of them tribal leaders and young people from around the country. The next day, police trucks and construction vehicles entered the camp, and some holdouts fled onto the frozen Cannonball River.
Before March 28 of this year, something exciting and potentially world-changing (in a good way) was playing out in Pennsylvania. Seven young plaintiffs, including 17-year-old Rekha Dhillon-Richardson, were suing their state, arguing that the government had failed to protect their constitutional rights by refusing to adequately and immediately combat climate change. Article I, Section 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution guarantees "the right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic, and esthetic values of the environment." This groundbreaking case, which requested strict reduction and regulation of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse-gas emissions in order to ensure a habitable planet for young people and future generations, made its way through the legal system until the Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently upheld a lower court's ruling in the state's favor.
Even though they lost, Dhillon-Richardson and her allies made important ethical and legal arguments on the public stage. As many of us adjust to a presidential administration that denies the reality of climate change and scoffs at basic science, I talked to Dhillon-Richardson about what we can learn from this case and its creative pursuit of state-based avenues for progressive action.
VICE: Why did you get involved in this case?
Rekha Dhillon-Richardson: Because I believe that it is absolutely crucial that youth are central players in developing local and national strategies to fight environmental degradation. The fundamental human rights and futures of children and youth are disproportionately threatened by climate destabilization, even though we have had little to do with the production of the problem.
What have you learned being part of this process?
It's taught me how to be a more effective advocate for the things that I believe in and to use whatever avenues necessary to seek change and bring about justice. I have also learned that the court process is extremely slow; it is hard to make quick and significant changes through the courts. Those of us deeply concerned about issues of environmental injustice would be wise to explore multiple strategies to challenge the government.
Pennsylvania's environmental constitutional rights are pretty impressive. What do you think about the fact that we have rights on the books that aren't implemented?
Although Pennsylvania has extensive environmental constitutional protections, it is shameful and shortsighted that they are not being put into practice. I am encouraged by our government's consideration of the right to clean air, water, and natural resources—these are rights that everyone should have. However, it is very disappointing that Pennsylvania is failing to do the work to actually ensure that these rights are upheld. This case made me realize that just because a law is created in theory does not mean that it is applied in reality.
Has the new administration changed how you think about the case and what needs to be done to protect the environment?
The people Trump has chosen for his Cabinet are dangerous and are now in a position of authority. With this new administration that threatens the environmental movement, it is imperative that we continue to take immediate and significant action—protests, public education, youth organizing, and challenges in the court are all part of this resistance.
Are there things young people see about the future that older people don't?
My generation is ready and willing to fight for our human rights and for the rights of our earth. There are amazing kids all around the world who are standing up to environmental degradation and who live with the consequences of the decisions around extractive industries that are made in places like the United States. The natural world that my generation and the future generations will inherit is going to be very different than the one that older people have enjoyed. I think young people have the ability to imagine a better world—to have a vision for the longer term.
Do you think previous generations have let people your age down?
I do think we have been let down. Children across the globe have trusted the adults to make the right decisions—to lead us forward into a cleaner and more just future for everyone. We have been harmed by decisions that were made without our authorization.
What are your plans for the future? Has being part of this case shaped what you want to do later on?
I plan to become an environmental scientist—I start college this fall—and continue my advocacy work for climate justice, with a focus on areas in the world that are disproportionately impacted. Being part of this case has confirmed that young people are needed more than ever. Consequently, I also plan to continue to create platforms for young people to become leaders alongside me.
This story appears in the April issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.
As far back as the 1890s, travelers passing through Florida paid a few cents to see an alligator kept in an outhouse. Back then, the state's unique ecology and warm weather proved enough to attract tourists in droves. Midcentury visitors pulled over at family-owned roadside attractions such as Floridaland (with its porpoise shows and Western-style shootouts), Frog City, the Aquarium, Gatorama, and Ocean World, to name just a few.
But beginning in the 1970s, many of those Florida-centric roadside temptations, with their kitschy, bold-colored signs and even more colorful characters, had disappeared. Disney's Magic Kingdom and its phantasmal offspring replaced the wonders of nature with roller coasters and air conditioning, and roadsides disappeared faster than a Mickey's Premium Ice Cream Bar in the middle of July.
"Disney really hurt the mom and pops that were off the interstate highways," said Dr. Gary Mormino, historian and author of Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams: A Social History of Modern Florida. "In the old days, people would dawdle—they would come down 441 or 301—they'd stop at the alligator farms. Now, you fly into Orlando and drive on the interstate."
But a handful of these roadsides survived, albeit in modern forms, and some tourists are seeking the nostalgia of retro entertainment or the "authentic" experiences of ecotourism. And even now, alligators can still draw a pretty big crowd.
On a weekend this past February, as snowstorms raged up north, I drove to south Florida's Everglades Holiday Park and stepped onto a worn-in airboat. As we meandered down man-made channels, the boat's captain gestured to the surrounding wildlife, describing monogamous birds with names like swamphens, and I started to doze off—it's peaceful out on the water in middle-of-nowhere Florida.
But then an alligator suddenly surfaced near the boat, and I jolted forward. A tourist next to me quickly positioned his iPhone close to Bubbette, the five-foot-long alligator who was now just a few feet away. Bubbette, it turns out, used to be called Bubba, the captain told us, until someone witnessed her being "very affectionate" with a ten-foot-long male gator. Cameras clicked furiously, filling rolls of film and memory cards with more shots of the gator. Then the engines revved, and we were off again, the boat's combined 750 horsepower vibrating our bones.
"Today we're looking at our smartphone or our iPad, and it's one-dimensional," said Clint Bridges, the 41-year-old, second-generation owner of Everglades Holiday Park. "But you can't experience something without the wind in your face."
This particular park, where guests pay $29.50 for an airboat ride and gator show, opened just as the mom-and-pop era faded. Bridges lived nearby as a kid, in a house his father built of spare parts from construction jobs, but the family mortgaged it in 1982 in order to take over the park's 29-acre lease. Bridges says he practically grew up on an airboat and learned to wrestle an alligator before he could even ride a bike. When he was old enough, he helped his "street smart" father's business find its current footing in ecotourism, which focuses on the state's natural elements.
Ecotourism harks back to an emphasis on nature, and it capitalizes on what Mormino calls tourism's current "terror revolution." "It's almost like we're ADD with tourism," said Mormino. "It's not enough to just go to the Everglades; you need something in another dimension."
This past year, more than 300,000 guests rode one of the Everglades Holiday Park's airboats. "For us, the ecotourism," Bridges said, "helps people come to love the Everglades, and then fewer bad things can happen to it."
A group of nine cadets from the Massachusetts Maritime Academy were visiting the park as well, choosing to spend one of three port days there. They told me they thought it'd be "pretty wild" to go out in the Everglades, and a trip farther south to Miami would have been "an expensive Uber ride." Dean Cross, another tourist I met on my trip, an Arizona retiree in his 70s, was on his first visit to Florida and had the Everglades on the top of his list. "Anytime you're going any place, you get on the computer," Cross said, "and anything on the computer about south Florida was about the Everglades."
On land, my fellow ecotourists and I sat on bleachers to watch some more old-school Florida tourism and perhaps, for some, the main attraction: alligator wrestling.
Sixteen gators were nestled around and on top of one another in a small pool. Paul Bedard, the owner of the Gator Boys Alligator Rescue (part of Everglades Holiday Park) and star of Animal Planet's Gator Boys, grabbed one by the tail and addressed the crowd.
Bedard is one of the few committed no-kill trappers in the state, finding homes for alligators and even featuring some of them in his routine at the park. "There are no headlocks and body slams," he told the crowd. "Alligator wrestling is the old Seminole Indian capture techniques mimicked in a pit with a few stunts."
In Florida, it's a felony to kill or injure an alligator unless authorized by the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. For 20 years, American alligators had been on the endangered species list, mainly because people hunted and sold them. However, the population stabilized in the late 80s, and today, the commission estimates there are 1.3 million alligators in the state (which, for context, has about 20 million people).
As we watched Bedard hold a gator's mouth open with his chin—the "Florida Smile"—across town Billy Walker, a muscular man with cropped black hair, wrestled his own alligator during the weekend's Seminole Tribal Fair and Pow Wow at the Hard Rock Live.
In the mid-19th century, the US had forced the Seminoles and Miccosukee into the Everglades, which were thought to be uninhabitable, where they formed reservations. They adapted to the land and hunted alligators to eat, and today, the reservations have become a tourist attraction in their own right. I left Everglades Holiday Park to meet Walker in the early evening, and he explained that alligator wrestling started with his "people—the Seminole-Miccosukee." Walker began wrestling alligators by accident in the 80s, when as a young boy he'd waded into the water to catch one for food. While walking home with the knocked-out gator slung over his shoulders, his sister dared him to show the visiting tourists some tricks, and they began "throwing money" at him.
Walker still catches alligators and uses them in traditional shows at the Big Cypress Reservation. He feels that gator wrestling is a way to preserve the traditions of the Seminole Tribe of Florida.
Lazy airboat rides and the history of the Everglades feel a world away from Orlando's fancy roller coasters and perfectly costumed performers, but they're separated by only a few hours' drive on the turnpike, and they're connected by water. A lot of people call the Everglades a swamp, but it's really a slow-moving river of grass. Its headwaters begin in southern Orlando, a region once known for cattle and citrus, now a top tourist destination. About 66 million people visited Orlando in 2015 alone. This past year, the state's most tagged place on Instagram was the Magic Kingdom, followed by South Beach, then Epcot.
"It's hard to fathom that 60 years ago Orlando was a modest crossroads city in central Florida," said Mormino, the historian. "Now, the region has tens of thousands of hotel rooms and fast-food franchises everywhere, because that's what tourists want."
The 110-acre Gatorland sits smack dab in all of this congestion.
In 1949, naturalist Owen Godwin opened the park, and its iconic gator-mouth sculpture remains a bastion of Florida's roadside attractions, but Gatorland has survived, in part, because of its proximity to Disney's theme parks.
To keep up with the ever-evolving attractions of its neighbors, like Disney World and Universal Studios, Gatorland built a massive and nationally ranked zip line that takes guests directly over its alligator pits.
"People aren't coming to Orlando to see Gatorland and happen to stop by Disney," said Tim Williams, the "dean" of gator wrestling at Gatorland. "Thank God we have Disney, Universal, and SeaWorld in our backyard. They've helped us and been great big brothers and sisters." (Outside of parks, the native alligators existence in the area hasn't been entirely harmonious, unfortunately. Nature bumped up against fantasy last year, when a wild alligator snatched a two-year-old boy from a shoreline of a Disney resort.) "It was a tragedy," said Williams.
Though Gatorland plays more to the theme-park crowd than the ecotourism one, it has developed shows to help educate its guests on the reality of these animals. It houses around 1,800 gators, looking like a scene ripped straight from an Indiana Jones flick. But not everyone's a fan. PETA once described Gatorland as a "notoriously cruel area alligator park."
To see so many alligators in captivity can be surreal. The day I visited Gatorland, an audience member asked her friend if the gators are animatronic. They aren't. After the show, I—and a bunch of kids—posed for a picture on a gator's back. Having felt its rough scales and slow breath, I can attest they are very, very real.
As guests milled about Gatorland's gift shop, a 39-year-old tourist named Shaun Grant stopped and peered into a small tank of baby alligators. He pressed his hand to the glass and smiled. He had flown to Florida for his birthday. "Can I pay to feed one of these?" he asked the cashier. "I came all the way from Wisconsin just to hold an alligator."
As Florida's landscape continues to change, so too does its relationship with independent tourism. For now, at least, you can still see the "mermaids" at Weeki Wachee Springs, go on a safari at Miami's Monkey Jungle, or dig for fossils at Gatorama. Many of the great roadsides may one day be memories, but against all odds, pieces of this world still exist.
Michael Northrup is an under-appreciated artist, and, in short, we think you should appreciate him. Born in 1948, Northrup has been putting out funny and colorful photos since the 1970s, near the end of the Vietnam War. Endlessly ironic in his work, Northrup says his family, who was "great at extracting humor out of tragedy," has always inspired him and given him "a way of seeing."
"For me, creating images," Northrup has said, "is all about my daily life, those meaningful pictures I'm able to extract from it, and the personal vision I bring to those visual narratives."
At 68, he's still doing what he's always been doing: trying to stay relevant. He shoots everything, now, on his smartphone. Plus, he remains refreshingly candid. He doesn't really care about where he lives. He thrives off boredom. He admits that he could run out of ideas at any moment. But, thankfully for us, he hasn't yet. —TARA WRAY
He had been speaking about it for years. She was sympathetic. It was part of his attraction in the end, part of his being older and more substantial than men her age. So shortly before the wedding it was agreed they would go on a retreat together. It would be a kind of pre-honeymoon, but also a reversal of what honeymoons are, since at the retreat they would neither sleep together nor even talk to each other. They would emerge refreshed and even "purified," he said, though she was not entirely sure what he meant by that. Shortly after which, there would be the wedding and the honeymoon in Brazil. It was an ideal arrangement.
Initially, Amanda had some difficulty explaining to her family that she would be out of touch for a week. No, she couldn't even text. Those were the rules of the place, she explained over the phone. You stepped outside life for a week to get a clearer view of things.
Her mother, who liked to touch base with her every day, thought it sounded like a prison.
"Alan wants to go, and I want to go with him," Amanda said, all the time smiling at her future husband across the table. And she closed the conversation.
"But I don't want you to go just because I want to go," he said. "If you don't really want to go yourself, you'll hate it." He had seen this any number of times, he told her, people who had been pressured to go to retreats by friends, then loathed it and bailed out on day two or three.
"It will be a prison, if you're only going for me."
"I only said that for Mum," Amanda laughed. "She'd never understand I really want to go for myself. Sitting still for a week. She'd think I'd gone mad."
"But she's happy to believe you've just been kidnapped by an older man?"
"Not happy, but that's what she thinks!"
They joked about her family and made love lavishly the day before traveling. Their relationship had been a fairy tale of easy happiness from the day he burst into her life and stole her heart. Or vice versa, as he would have described it. They simply hadn't spent a moment apart.
The monastery was actually a farmhouse on high ground some 20 miles north of Carlisle. They arrived by train and taxi from London. The sleeping quarters were in another house 100 yards away. In the afternoon, participants gathered here to be told the timetable and the regulations. Wake-up was at five. Men would sleep on the ground floor, women on the first. Breakfast was at seven and lunch at 12, after which there would be no more food for the rest of the day.
"At this evening's puja, very shortly, we will take the vow of silence," their organizer said, a handsome woman in her 50s. "It's called the Noble Silence. But not the Stupid Silence. If you're ill or there's some kind of emergency, then for heaven's sake, speak. And of course, if you feel you need help, you can always sign up for an interview with Madewela, who will be leading the retreat."
"Let's obey the rules to the letter," Amanda said afterward. There was just time for a last walk together before the first puja and the vow. They set out on narrow track across the hillside. "It'll be tough not talking, but I can't see the point of coming if we cheat."
Alan was pleased that he hadn't had to make this clear himself, but wondered again if she was only saying what she knew he wanted her to.
"How's your bedroom?" he asked.
They were five to a room with mattresses on the floor, she said. It would be fine.
At a bend in the road they had to pull hoods over their heads against the wind. They laughed and embraced and looked each other in the eyes.
"Hard to believe it's August."
"Hard to believe we'll be in Rio in a couple of weeks!"
Across the flattened grass and waving trees, the wind brought the sound of a gong.
The meditation hall was airily beautiful. A large black Buddha sat at the front above a white table with candles and incense. To either side were generous flower displays. Lilies mainly. Eight shaven-headed monks in orange robes sat cross-legged, facing one another. Farther back, the 20 or so participants arranged themselves in rows on mats and cushions, looking between the monks toward the Buddha whose right hand was raised in tranquil blessing. Overhead were skylights, to each side French windows. The breeze pressured the glass, and from behind closed eyes, sitting on his cushion, Alan could sense the light coming and going as clouds scudded across the sun. Amanda had taken a place in front and just to the right of him. He could see her slim back but not her face. Which was perfect. He would be able to judge, he thought, if she was OK, without being disturbed by eye contact.
Alan had been to retreats before, but by day three there was no doubt in his mind that this was the best. The atmosphere was wonderful. Having the monks present at all the meditation sessions helped enormously. Mainly in their 20s, the young men came to the hours of sitting with evident pleasure. Their joyous stillness seemed to perfume the room, so that even when experiencing fierce pains in his thighs and ankles, Alan was able to cling to their composure and sit through to the end. He felt proud of this, proud that he hadn't abandoned his cushion for the chairs at the back, as some of the meditators had. It was always interesting, he thought, that you could feel urgent pain and profound serenity at the same time; there were even occasions when the one seemed to depend on the other. In the long silence, morning and afternoon, he concentrated on letting all trace of verbal thought dissolve from his mind. After all, there was nothing he needed to think about. His career was on track. In his late 40s, life was sorted. After a troubled first marriage, happiness lay ahead.
And then there was this spiritual side to things. More and more as the years passed he had a powerful sense of… What? How could you put it? "This-ness" was the only word that came to mind as he pulled on his shoes on the porch after a wonderful session and emerged with the others into the bright blowy light of Cumberland. This-ness. Life is nothing more, nothing less, than this. This body, this breath, this windswept countryside. Why on earth does it take us so long to appreciate how simple it all is! But where was Amanda? She had already set off for lunch.
Amid the general tranquility, there were, it was true, a few irritations. Alan didn't much appreciate the chanting they did at the morning and evening pujas. It was fine when the monks chanted in Pali—that had a hypnotic solemnity about it—but less so when the meditators were supposed to join in, in English, reading from a sort of chorus book. Alan tried a couple of times, but the words were too embarrassing. One couldn't chant in modern English. There was something dreadfully devout, he thought, or creepily churchy, in the voice of the woman to his left who invariably dressed in full meditation regalia with Oriental smock and black linen trousers. He felt uncomfortable.
During the night, one of the younger men in the room snored loudly. Alan wouldn't curse the fellow, he had a supply of earplugs. Still, he lay awake, on his thin mattress on the floor, listening to the man snort and wheeze, wondering when sleep would come. There was also a problem in the morning with the bathroom. After he had his breakfast—a bowl of yogurt, fruit, and cereal—he really needed to go. But the man who cleaned the downstairs bathroom, for all participants were assigned a daily household chore, did it right after breakfast and took so miserably long that the gong would be sounding for the next session before he had finished. Alan had to dash in and be done in the space of a couple of minutes. It wasn't conducive to your equanimity.
Then there was the older woman who pushed to be first in the lunch queues, taking more food than was due, so that when, on three occasions, Alan had been last, there was very little left for him but the long wait till the following morning. In general, though, Alan was pleased that he was not heaping his own plate as some people were. He would have lost weight by the end of the week, he thought. It was not a bad idea when you were marrying someone 20 years your junior.
He was also pleased that Amanda seemed to be fitting in perfectly. Her experience of meditation prior to the retreat had been restricted to a few minutes at the end of yoga lessons. He had feared she would find the many hours sitting too painful, or too boring. Too intense perhaps. He had feared a crisis, anger, or tears. Instead she kept her place on the cushion, morning and afternoon, with no more than a little fidgeting from time to time. It was reassuring.
And she kept the Noble Silence. The second morning presented the couple with the first opportunity for breaking the rules. Alan was hurrying to the meditation hall after his bathroom visit. Amanda was walking more slowly ahead of him, and he could see the movement of her hips below the loose trousers. There were about 50 yards to go, slightly uphill, along the narrow country road with a hedgerow to the right and a low stone wall to the left.
He caught up to her. They were alone. All the others were already in the hall. They could easily have whispered a few words without disturbing anyone. How's it going. Love you so much. Can't wait for Rio. But though she turned her head a moment when she heard footsteps approaching, she immediately turned away as he arrived and kept her eyes averted. So they walked, side by side, for a few steps, very aware of each other's presence, but without exchanging so much as a glance. They slipped their shoes off in the porch and silently joined the others. Alan felt immensely proud of her. She had completely understood the spirit of the thing. What a woman he was marrying!
After another two or three occasions of this kind—at the sink washing teacups, or under the washing line hanging towels to dry—this pride became colored by a slight anxiety to know what was going through her mind. She was almost too self-contained.
On the fourth day, for example, he had occasion to watch her during the rather bizarre pre-lunch rigmarole that characterized this retreat, something he had never experienced anywhere else. The monks ate in the old front parlor of the farmhouse, beside the meditation hall. To the right as you entered from outside was a small raised dais where the two elder monks sat beside a white Buddha. Otherwise the space had no furniture at all. The other monks sat cross-legged on the floor by the wall opposite the door, each on a small square of orange cloth and surrounded by bowls, cups, cutlery, and other tableware, though of course there was no table. In order to move, or simply stay where they were without knocking things over, they had to be constantly alert, constantly wakeful and mindful, which of course was what Buddhism was all about, Alan thought.
Once all the monks were in their places and the retreaters likewise, sitting on the floor at the other end of the room, the monks chanted together in Pali, rehearsing versicles and responses, occasionally bowing from a kneeling position to the Buddha seated behind the dais. Every time they bowed—and whenever leaving or entering the presence of a Buddha the monks would bow three times, always from a kneeling position—they were obliged to hold on to a kind of extended lapel of their outer robe to prevent the material from falling forward over their shoulders. Again everything seemed arranged to demand maximum attention. After the chanting, they stood up and filed one by one, each carrying his large pewter bowl, into the kitchen behind the parlor, where they collected their food and drink from the buffet. Returning, they placed their food on the floor, knelt and bowed three times, then very carefully resumed a sitting position, until, at last, one of the elders struck a small gong and they were permitted to eat. Only then could the retreat participants go to get their food.
On this occasion—perhaps the fourth or fifth day—Alan had arrived a moment late and, not wanting to disturb, since the chanting had already begun, sat down immediately beside the door, his back to the wall. This way he found he could look at Amanda to his left as she sat between two other women, all three absorbed in watching the monks' extenuating ritual. Certainly she was very beautiful, Alan thought, though without her makeup, of course, here at the retreat, and in the baggiest and drabbest of clothes. Her long blond hair was alive with natural waves and curls, her jaw was strong and lips firm and full, her forehead high. All that was familiar. But there was something new too: an intentness about her flesh and an ease in her seated posture that he didn't remember seeing before. Suddenly, he had the distinct impression that despite their two years living together he did not really know her. Had they spoken together, of course, had they looked into each other's eyes and smiled, he would immediately have fallen back into knowing her. But in the silence and separation of the retreat she was a stranger, and when eventually they went for their food, Alan took his out to the bench at the front of the house, while she went round to the back of the house where people sat on the low wall by the vegetable garden.
After the long day's meditation, the evening lectures, Alan found, were rather disappointing. First there were 30 minutes of puja, then Madewela would talk for an hour or so. These were occasions when you hoped to learn more about the practice of meditation and Buddhism in general, not to mention the vexed question of how to maintain a routine of meditation in ordinary life. But Madewela—who despite his exotic name, assumed at ordination no doubt, very likely hailed from Manchester or thereabouts—didn't have much to offer. He was handsome and personable. He had the physique du rôle—a tall gaunt body, 40ish, strong cheekbones, and bright eyes. His robes sat elegantly on his torso as he swayed very slightly while he spoke. But rather than preparing an organized series of reflections, he would simply ask the meditators to leave written questions in a basket in the porch; then, sitting beside the table at the front, with the black Buddha blissfully equanimous behind, he pulled them out one by one and tried to answer them. Which might have been OK, Alan thought, if the questions had been halfway intelligent.
"Many psychologists are beginning to use mindfulness as a form of therapy. Does Buddhism have a contribution to make to psychology? Can meditation be considered a substitute for analysis?"
Alan had an idea that the person who had put this question in the bowl must be the same man who was so slow about cleaning the bathrooms in the morning. He was a smallish, vigorous fellow with tight curly hair and a pinched intellectuality stamped on his face. He didn't bow to the Buddha when he took his place in the meditation room and didn't join in the chanting. He was keeping himself apart, Alan thought. He was there for intellectual reasons, to observe, not to put himself on the line. Madewela's response to the question was so long and inconsequential as to be impossible to follow. Only in conclusion did he make the obvious remark that if you were going through a personal crisis and needed an analyst, then you needed an analyst and that was that. Alan couldn't have agreed more. He remembered that moment in his own life all too well. Amanda, he noticed, who had never needed an analyst and very likely never would, was following Madewela's words with great attention.
The monk fished another question.
"On my first retreat I definitely attained the first jhana and experienced vitakka and other ecstatic states. But now I can't seem to recover these experiences. What should I do?"
This was a show-off question, Alan thought, very likely penned by the young woman with the Oriental smock. It deserved short shrift. Instead, Madewela engaged in his own form of exhibitionism to reply, discussing at great length the various technical terms for different ecstatic states. Alan found it hard to keep still; when you were actually meditating, during the day's various sessions, intensely focused on your breathing and body, it wasn't too hard to relax and keep your position. You were in the zone. But when you were listening to a talk, disagreeing with a talk, your mind inevitably engaged, and as a consequence, your body needed to move and fidget. The monks, Alan noticed, but also one or two of the more experienced retreaters, kept their eyes closed through the talks, sitting serene and expressionless, as if there were nothing to listen to, and it was just another meditation hour. In a way, this was enviable; on the other hand, what was the point of there being a talk, if you didn't listen and feel involved?
Amanda, like himself, kept shifting position, gathering her legs to one side then the other as she attended to Madewela's words. When she pulled her legs to the right of her cushion, turning a little to the left, he could see her in half profile. She was deeply absorbed. For whatever the content, there was something charming and even beautiful about Madewela's manner. Something hypnotic. He hypnotizes himself, Alan thought, with his own quiet charm. In the event, the monk talked for so long that once again there was no time to consider the question Alan had penned. The evening closed with the usual chanting, and the scrap of paper remained, unanswered, in the basket.
But on the fifth day, when he had lost hope and even interest, Alan's question came out.
"Why should we go on sitting cross-legged if we are in pain?" Madewela read. There was a faint irony in his voice, perhaps. "What is at stake when we decide to do this? Or not to?"
"Well," the monk began with a wry smile, "many of you have moved from your cushions to chairs at some point during the week. So I presume you were in pain, or at least uncomfortable. Others of you have stayed cross-legged on your cushions, so I suppose you are quite at ease, or you are die-hards!"
Alan did not like the tone of this. He wondered if Amanda would realize that the question was his and a rather better question than the others that had been asked so far. A question that went to the heart of why they were here, of what the experience actually was.
After some mandatory initial waffle about distinguishing a serious physical problem from mere sitting pains, Madewela at last said something interesting. Or rather two things. "If you observe a pain quietly and carefully, without bringing any energy to it, you might find it is not so painful after all. You can handle it. And then you could ask yourself: Why do I always suppose I have to be perfectly comfortable? If we cannot accept some discomfort, how can we imagine we will ever learn stillness and equanimity? We will just keep moving around trying to be comfortable."
On the morning of the sixth day, Alan faced his greatest temptation to break the vow of silence. In fact, it was something of a miracle that this did not happen. Participants at the retreat were not allowed to read material they had brought from home. Novels or magazines. But they could take books from the monastery's small library. They were all books about Buddhism. Some were new editions of ancient texts, but for the most part, they were modern memoirs and fashionable manuals of mindfulness. People would choose a book from the library and take it into the conservatory, which, being a sheltered suntrap on the south side of the house, was the warmest place to be when you weren't meditating or tramping the paths to and fro across the hillside.
Alan had decided not to read at all on the retreat. He wanted his mind to be as free as possible from thoughts and wordy reflections. But he loved sitting in the conservatory. In particular, sleeping badly as he did, he liked to go there very early in the morning, even before the gong sounded at five, bringing a cup of tea with him from the kitchen and settling into a wicker chair to watch the summer dawn. It was a very beautiful moment of the day when he was absolutely alone and his mind and the world absolutely still, except perhaps for a hedgehog that sometimes appeared in the little rockery outside the windows. The creature moved quickly and stealthily, then settled for a while; moved then settled. What was it doing? Alan wondered. Feeding? On what? Insects? Its movements seemed at once dainty and solemn, full of the pathos of intense animal being. "May all creatures be happy," Alan muttered. "May all creatures be filled with joy and joy for the joy of others." The animal stopped still and gazed around with suspicion. "May all creature be free from all attachment. May all creatures be free."
The old Buddhist formula, which had always seemed rather vague and ingenuous to him, suddenly made complete sense in the summer dawn watching the stealthy hedgehog, and for a moment, Alan himself felt full of joy and empathy for the animal. But even before the words had died on his lips, somebody came into the room. Or rather someone who had already entered the room scraped a chair and sat down. He turned, and it was Amanda.
She must have seen him already, before shifting her seat, yet she immediately covered her face with a book. Since she was hardly an early riser at the best of times, Alan could only assume that she must have slept badly. At once he wanted to ask her what was up. He wanted to show her his concern. He wanted to share the hedgehog with her and talk about his joy. He wanted to discuss Madewela's reflections on pain, which were by far the most profound things they had heard this week, he thought. We mustn't expect to be entirely comfortable. Above all, looking to her across the conservatory in the pale early light, he wanted to say, Tomorrow is the last day, love. Tomorrow evening we will be in each other's arms. There would be the train to London, the wedding, the flight to Rio. Happiness.
But Amanda was quietly forbidding. It seemed she wanted to keep the Noble Silence to the end. She was reading a book called The Still Forest Pool. Her brow was wrinkled in concentration. For 15 minutes as the daylight strengthened and brought out the gold in her hair and the blue in her eyes, Alan sat and watched his wife-to-be across the conservatory and felt again that he did not really know her. Eventually, another retreater came in, sat between them, and sipped rather noisily from his mug of tea.
"Is it possible ever to be free from all attachment?"
Alan had written his name on the list of those seeking an interview with Madewela. He was one of 12 names—Amanda's was not among them—and his appointment came after lunch on the sixth day, in the little library. A card was hung from the doorknob outside—no entry, interview in progress—and as soon as they were seated, Alan told the berobed monk that he just did not see how it was possible to free oneself from all attachment. Speaking for the first time in a week, his voice was oddly hoarse and low. He had come to a number of retreats, he said, over the years, and much appreciated the silence and the focus, felt drawn toward some deeper kind of lifestyle. Certainly the experience had helped him through a painful divorce. But he doubted it would ever be possible to be free from all attachment. To be alive meant to be attached.
Madewela was cheerfully matter of fact, sitting back in a dilapidated armchair.
"The path is not easy," he said. "We are talking about years of dedication."
"But do you feel you've attained this state?" Alan asked. "For example?"
"We're not here to discuss my situation," Madewela replied gently, "and least of all what I imagine or presume I may or may not have achieved."
Suddenly Alan felt frustrated, even angry. Why had he come on this retreat? Why had it seemed so important that Amada come along with him?
"But do you believe that if you don't achieve that detachment, when you die your karma will return, reincarnated as something else? Someone else?"
Madewela noticed that the mood had changed. He sat up in his orange-brown robes and looked at Alan intently for some moments. "Yes," he eventually said. "Yes, I am sure it is so."
The vow of silence was lifted at the end of the morning session on the seventh day. But they still had to have lunch together. Everybody wanted to speak to one another. There was an intense outpouring of social energy. Nothing serious could be said between Alan and Amanda.
"All well?" he asked anxiously when she was beside him for a moment.
"Fine," she smiled. "And you?"
"Good, yes," he said. "Not too much pain?"
"Lots." Her smile took on a hint of wryness. "But it didn't matter somehow."
Then they went to lunch. There was a brief return to silence while the monks chanted and went through their bowing rigmaroles. After which they ate separately, talking to all the people who had been silently around them through the week, and whom they would never see again. Alan asked one of the monks for details about sending a donation to the monastery.
So it was only on the train when they had settled in their seats with their luggage above them in the racks that Amanda was able to open her heart. "I feel a bit disorientated, Al," she said.
He found this sudden vulnerability endearing. "Retreats can do that," he reassured her. "It'll pass in a day or two. No worries."
The two were sitting side by side with the back of another seat unpleasantly close to their knees. She was near the window and looked away to distant hills. When he took her hand, it stayed limp.
Eventually he asked: "What's up, love? Tell me."
"You haven't decided to withdraw from life and turn Buddhist?" he tried to laugh.
She shook her head, but then said: "Perhaps that's what you'd like to do, Al."
"Are you joking?"
The train raced through a cutting. At last she half turned to him. "I'm sorry, Al, but I think I should go to Mum's for a couple of days. I need to think things over."
"I beg your pardon!" He was incredulous. "We're getting married next week. A hundred and more guests at the reception. We have a flight to Brazil the day after. All booked and paid."
"So what would you be thinking over?"
She hesitated. "I observed you a lot at the retreat."
"You hardly looked at me at all," he objected.
She smiled now. She seemed more herself. "Don't take it badly, Al. I was sitting just in front of you. I could feel your presence. Every time I came into the meditation hall, you were already in your place, sitting eyes closed. Every time I left, you stayed on after the gong. Every time there was chanting, I heard how you joined in a moment, then stopped." She sighed. "I felt your disapproval."
"The English words were pretty pathetic, weren't they?"
"A bit, yes."
"They were awful."
"People were sincere, though."
Alan felt a growing sense of anxiety, "And?"
"In the lunch queue you huffed and puffed."
"People were taking so much to eat."
She smiled. "They were, yes."
"So there you are."
"And you huffed and puffed in the evening talks."
"You know what I'm like when people take so long to get to the point."
"You're you, Alan."
She turned to him and took his hand now. She turned it over in hers, apparently with curiosity, as if it were something quite new. Alan waited.
"It was very beautiful," she said softly, "sitting in the silence for all those hours."
"It was. That's why one goes to retreats."
"But the more beautiful it was, the more I felt there was a sort of space opening between us."
She sighed. The train leaned into bend, and a small station flung by. Alan tried to adjust. He mustn't just bulldozer her.
"I think I know what you're saying," he acknowledged. "I felt it a bit too sometimes. That you were far away. It must be some kind of natural reaction to being around someone and never speaking to them."
"I began to feel there was a sort of pool between us," she continued, "a broad calm lake, and we were on separate shores, with all this water between." Her voice had become rather dreamy. "Then about the fourth day, I realized I wasn't really noticing you so much. You'd got so small in the distance. It was a gradual thing. And when I did, it was… well, a disturbance."
"A disturbance?" he repeated blankly.
"I felt disturbed, yes."
"I'm sorry, Al, that's what it felt like." She sighed. "You remember the morning in the conservatory? Seeing you already there when I came in… it felt like a burden. I didn't want you to be there."
"And so?" His voice was hoarse.
"I don't know. I suppose I wondered if I really loved you."
That was too much. Beside himself, Alan jumped up from his seat and walked swiftly through the train. Everywhere people were laughing and texting, watching films on their laptops, helping children with puzzles and coloring books. It was the holiday season. The train swayed and rattled. Happiness seemed the norm. Only he was distraught. Only he was in misery. Passing from one carriage to the next, he saw the emergency stop lever and contemplated it for a while. Penalty for improper use, it warned. Eventually, he found the buffet car and brought back two cappuccinos. Perhaps it was just a bad dream.
And so it turned out. Amanda drank her coffee, phoned her mother and her sister, then began to talk about how irritating it had been sharing a room with the woman with the Oriental smock. "A complete narcissist. Always doing these extreme yoga positions in the middle of the floor in a tight body, so we'd all look at her." Very soon it was clear, the moment of emergency had passed. All the same, over the coming weeks and months, on his wedding night first of all, then on the beach in Rio, but also in the humdrum evening hours after they had cleared up the dishes and sat on the sofa to watch TV or to read, Alan thought often about Madewela's advice: "If you can contemplate a pain steadily, without bringing energy to it, you may find it's not so important after all." The problem, of course, was that the "if" was a big "if." Amanda had been sincere when she spoke of his being a burden to her; she had married him with a doubt in her heart. He had felt it. And every time his mind returned to that, pain got the upper hand. It would not be contemplated coolly. Or worse still, as soon as he did manage a moment's cool contemplation, he would begin to ask himself if she wasn't as much a burden to him as he was to her. They should have thrown off all attachments, perhaps, and followed a different path, different paths. But that thought brought so much pain that he had to get up at once and move about the room.
"Don't you want to watch?" she asked, surprised. It was their favorite series. "What's up?"
Alan hesitated. He was standing in the middle of his beautiful living room, completely lost. Automatically, he went for the fridge.
"Let's open a bottle of wine and get cozy," he said.
This story appears in the April issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.
Pushkin Street has been transformed into a holy bazaar, and it's crowded. Elbow to elbow, fur hat to fur hat, loudspeakers blaring out the chance to redeem your soul, stock up on groceries, or simply dance, dance, dance to the ecstatic music proclaiming God's—and Rebbe Nachman's—eternal greatness.
If you want any remote chance of getting to the counter at one of the makeshift falafel or shawarma stands knocked together for the benefit of the tens of thousands of pilgrims who've just arrived, you've got to bore through a morass of people waving shekels, dollars, and hryvnias like it's 99-cent-drink night at the local dive bar. It's a jungle out here, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, in Uman, Ukraine, the burial place of the 19th-century Hasidic mystic rabbi known as Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (in Hasidism, "rebbe" is an affectionate term for "rabbi" that also connotes a strong spiritual leadership). Nachman promised redemption for anyone who visited his grave, and for more than 200 years that grave has been the site of a fevered pilgrimage for Jews from around the world. In the past decade, the atmosphere has grown carnivalesque at times, as the followers of Nachman, traditionally Hasidim from religious upbringings, have swelled with former Deadheads, erstwhile Phish Phanatics, reformed criminals, and recovering (and sometimes not) alcoholics and drug addicts. The operative language is Hebrew, though you hear English, French, Yiddish, and Russian. The only ones speaking Ukrainian are the locals, who are allowed onto Pushkin Street if they can prove they live or work in the area, a measure meant, presumably, to ease crowding, but also to prevent violence between the native population and the tens of thousands of once-a-year religious tourists. As a result, Ukrainians are sparse, but they're not the only ones: The pilgrims are all men. Here and there I notice posters in Hebrew slapped onto telephone poles and synagogue walls: it is forbidden in places where there are large gatherings of men for women to be found!
I watch a bearded Hasidic man in a white undershirt and green heart-shaped novelty sunglasses jump up and down and spin a record—imagine a techno beat with a synthesized voice chanting, "Rebbe Nachman, Nachman from Uman. Rebbe Nachman, Nachman from Uman." Now imagine that keeps going for six minutes. All the while the man in sunglasses is shouting into a microphone, over the music: "Come on, redeem your souls! Come on, redeem your souls." Shortly after, I notice the collective head of the crowd turn to watch something coming down the street. It's a ram, preceded by two local peasant boys. They have come seeking to sell the beast to a hungry pilgrim. I follow them up the street, draping my jacket over my arm, since it's 70 and sunny, and we turn off to the right. The peasant boys, the ram, and I are following two young Israeli guys who claim to be interested. They lead the ram and his tenders into a courtyard. Say they'll be back in five minutes. And they're gone forever. I tell the Ukrainian boys the Israelis have deserted, that they've been led on a wild goose chase. The boys, with their buzz cuts and roughneck faces, seem to be in a daze.
Since the boys speak only Ukrainian, I somehow end up as the middleman, translating and doing their bidding. Various merrymaking Jews approach, demand a half-price discount (one of the boys has a sign in English that reads 80 dollars), and then turn away. We wait in the hot sun; the ram is heaving with thirst. At one point, an Israeli man leads the beast and his boys to a nearby porch of a house he's renting, to show it to a friend who might be interested. However, soon the Ukrainian landlord sniffs them out. He doesn't want fresh blood staining his porch; he runs them all back onto the main drag, cursing and threatening to kick their ass. "People will come who'll explain things to you. Painfully," he says. I leave the three of them—the peasant boys and their ram—to their own devices. As I walk away, there are only a few hours left until the start of the holiday. The elder boy is making a phone call. "Pick us up," he tells the voice on the other end. "We can't sell the animal." I have only just arrived in this city, and already I am exhausted.
The Jewish history of Ukraine over the past hundred years is not a happy one. Though exact numbers are difficult to come by, in part because the territory of Ukraine is an ever-shifting Promethean thing, there were by some estimates about 2.5 million Jews within the borders of present-day Ukraine before World War II. Today, depending who you ask, the Jewish population is between 60,000 and 360,000, a result of exiles, exoduses, and exterminations. During World War II and the Holocaust alone, between 900,000 and 1.6 million Ukrainian Jews were killed. And since the unrest beginning in 2014, a significant number have fled to Israel. Even so, there are by some estimates a few thousand year-round Jewish residents in Uman; and the country is home to one of the largest Jewish populations in the world. But relations between Jews and Christians are sometimes tense, with the former often viewing their neighbors as persecutors, the latter as interlopers.
In fact, the very first pilgrimage to Uman happened in part because of anti-Jewish violence. The city is the site of a Jewish mass grave that dates to 1768, when rogue Cossacks murdered thousands of Jewish men, women, and children, leaving their corpses for pigs and dogs. Rebbe Nachman, the great-grandson of the founder of Hasidism, was said to have passed the city and asked to be buried there. Nachman, a controversial mystic in his own time, gained renown—and quite a few detractors in the deeply conservative Hasidic world—for emphasizing the here and now, a personal relationship with God, and the celebratory, rather than punitive, aspects of Judaism. Before he died in 1810, he promised his acolytes that if they came to pray at his gravesite he would "pull [them] out from the depths of Gehinnom" (hell). It was a revolutionary declaration, and since then, his adherents have been making the trip to his grave to hold him to his word.
Nachman attracted a dedicated but small following for the first century after his death—his brand of Hasidism was still very much an outlier in a Jewish world that was rapidly secularizing or entrenching more deeply into God's commandments—and then the Soviets arrived on the scene. The visitors dwindled to a handful courageous enough to brave the Bolsheviks' atheistic wrath. Then, in 1990, amid anti-Soviet protests in Ukraine, some 2,000 pilgrims celebrated the Jewish New Year at Nachman's grave, the beginning of a resurgence that has grown larger over the past few decades.
For years, I had heard about Nachman, how he was a powerful magnet for the disenfranchised, the unclaimed, the irredeemable. To this day, he maintains that reputation. For many of the Jews who travel to this belly button of Eastern Europe, traditional Judaism, with its 613 Torah commandments and thousands of lesser laws—there's literally a bundle of rabbinic opinions on the proper order to cut one's toenails—has killed the spirit in favor of the letter. They seek fewer proscriptions, more dancing and song and mirth. And they want their souls saved. And since some of the followers are former acid-dropping festival rats, they also are known to have the best music. Curious to find out about this gathering of outcasts, I made the pilgrimage myself this past October.
With the help of a friend of a friend, I am renting a room in the house of a Ukrainian grandmother whom I never see without a traditional floral-print scarf over her hair. She lives with a rotating cast of plump granddaughters. The old woman, Zina, is delightful and speaks a melodious peasant Ukrainian. She makes, from scratch, fresh dumplings and borscht in the mornings and reads an old Bible at night. Zina doesn't really have an opinion on the Jews who come to Uman every year, except that she can't understand why they undertake such an expensive trip, coming from all over the world. "Our people would never spend so much money to visit a saint," she says. The money I pay her for four nights of lodging—about $115—is nearly double her monthly pension from the state. The room I'm sleeping in is amply yet modestly furnished. It's not until I notice the Christian Bible and the two bottles of ladies' perfume in the formidable dark-wood china cabinet that I realize I have displaced Grandmother: She's given up her bedroom for me and is sleeping with the granddaughters. Katya, who is around 20 years old, is working at a kosher cafeteria on Pushkin during the holiday, making about half a dollar an hour. She says it's good work.
Jewish holidays begin at sundown, and this one lasts two days, from Sunday's sunset to Tuesday's, so when I walk back into town after tactfully turning down a dish of Grandmother Zina's aspic, the New Year is already upon us. The loudspeakers have been hushed, and the hawkers have packed up their wares or closed their doors, since the use of electricity and the transaction of business are forbidden. There are several large synagogues on Pushkin, and men pray inside and on the street, in groups of a thousand and in small quorums. Mostly standing, some shout, jump, and bang on whatever is close at hand, and some whisper intimate thoughts to the Almighty. Others simply watch the crowd or schmooze with friends. The synagogue that holds Nachman's grave is right off Pushkin Street, on Belinsky Street. The crowd is denser here than anywhere else in Uman. I will attempt a dozen times over the course of the holiday to see the grave, to no avail. On that first night, I am taken with a scene in the synagogue's courtyard—as close as I can get, for the flood of people heading inside is impossible to wade through. On the synagogue roof, a dozen men and boys are dancing. In the moonlight, it looks like a scene from Fiddler on the Roof. Below, in the courtyard, all eyes are turned toward a man sitting on a wall, surrounded by devotees drinking in his every move. This, I soon find out, is Moroccan-born Israeli rabbi Shalom Sabag, a man who came from a secular past and is now considered one of the leaders of Breslov Hasidism. One Israeli newspaper described Sabag's gathering as the "Tony Soprano minyan [prayer group]." Surrounding him are acolytes, fans, Hasidim in black gabardines and moderately religious North Africans in jeans and T-shirts, boys with sidelocks and young men who, save the yarmulkes, could be mistaken for Phish fans, with their colorful garb, their scraggly beards, and their sun-bleached hair. Sabag sits there chanting soundlessly like a silent martyr, his head wrenching this way and that as if in a trance, eyes squeezed shut, beard mostly gray. I feel as though I'm in a bizarre French New Wave film, with the central character a study in sainthood.
Nearby, I chat up two Ukrainian cops. There is a heavy police presence here. In 2010, an Israeli was stabbed and killed, and though anti-Semitism in Ukraine is low by most standards, some worry that with the recent tumult and Russian invasion, it could be on the rise. Every year, Israel sends a few police officers to help keep the peace; recently, they went with a squad of 15, including a combat medic and a bomb-disposal expert. Mainly, I see them stationed at the cross on the hill overlooking the Jewish quarter. The cross was put up a few years ago and has been the source of much tension since its erection. Not long after its appearance, a group of Jews tried burning it down but failed. Since then, it's been under heavy guard.
I ask one Ukrainian officer, a good-looking young man with sandy hair and a slight Slavic nose, what his main task is. "Making sure there are no bombs," he says. "And no pork." Mostly, though, at least to my eye, the police's function seems much more pedestrian. While it is permitted to smoke on Rosh Hashanah, Jews are not allowed to create fire. That means that you can inhale to your lungs' despair, but you can't light up. A non-Jew must light it for you, or you can light it off somebody else's already-lit cigarette. The cops I see spend a lot of time flicking lighters; often, they cadge a cigarette in return. As I'm about to leave, the policeman I'd been talking with asks me if I've ever lived in Israel. Yes, I tell him. "Is it as dirty there as it is here?" he asks me. Everywhere you look in Uman, there's trash.
I sleep a sleep of nose-stuffed agony. The city is filthy. Dusty, swarming with Styrofoam coffee cups and cigarette butts, plastic bags and trampled napkins. The garbage receptacles are overflowing; there is literally dirty toilet water running through the streets. The city of Uman can accommodate 5,000 tourists. According to which figures you go by, there are between 30,000 and 60,000 tourists this year. And trouble has been brewing since even before people arrived in Uman: At the Kiev airport, some pilgrims managed to take over the PA system and blast Hasidic tunes; impromptu dancing broke out, with people chanting through bullhorns. It is because of incidents like these, and a general negative attitude I observed by many of the Hasidim toward the locals, that many Ukrainians resent the tourists, though they acknowledge they bring with them a boost for the economy.
But there's a price to pay for all these tourist dollars, shekels, hryvnia. In Uman, the sewers are backed up, the electric grid is overtaxed, and there are not enough garbage trucks to properly maintain order. When I meet with the vice mayor, Liudmyla Kyryliuk, she tells me that the Rabbi Nachman of Breslov Charitable Foundation contributes about $23,000 to things like street cleaning, garbage removal, additional water supply, and emergency services. It is apparent that this is woefully inadequate. Around Pushkin, people are bedding down in nooks and crannies, sleeping in tents they've set up in side streets, or crammed into rows of bunk beds in shacks and garages with no running water or electricity. This means, among the coffee cups and potato chip bags and plastic sacks full of vegetable trimmings and paper plates, there's a hell of a lot of soiled toilet paper, as many "accommodations" have no toilets. People shit where they can. And you'd be surprised where they can. Several people describe Rosh Hashanah in Uman to me as the Burning Man of the Jewish world. I think at Burning Man they must have better toilets—and better drugs. One guy I talk to asks me if I have any weed as soon as I turn off my recorder; later, I meet plenty of people who might have been his supplier, turning off into bushes or back alleys to smoke a joint, always careful, however, to only take a light from an already burning roach.
The next day, I wander down the main drag and soon find myself descending to the nearby lake, another popular spot for prayer and dance. Water, in Judaism as in so many other religions, is a purifying element, and many take a ritual bath at this spot. I meet two Americans who quickly invite me to their place for lunch. It's a ten-minute walk, and once we turn off the main lakeside road, I'm relieved to find that the crush of the crowd is noticeably less here. Take that sentiment with a grain of salt: When we arrive at our destination, there are 35 guys staying there. You can hear song and prayer wafting from the other houses on the street, and even from across the water, from Pushkin Street. But in the yard of the house owned by a Ukrainian woman named Lida, there are rabbit hutches, a chicken coop, and a few square yards of relative calm.
This is "Yoni's place"; Yoni is Yonatan Hirschhorn, an Israeli who is now a rabbi at the University of Maryland Hillel. He's a small guy, with light-blond hair and sidelocks that curl around his chin like a ram's horns. He wears a perpetual smile laced with preoccupation, for even as he comes out to welcome me he must also see to it that the massive amounts of food are being prepared on time, the toilet isn't stopped, the guests are being hosted, the drunk and toothless Ukrainian cutting dozens of peppers doesn't slice off his finger, and that the spirit of Uman is pervading his temporary home. A blue tarp stands in for a wall that was meant to enclose a dining room but wasn't built on time for this year's gathering. There's water an inch deep on the bathroom floor—from clogged drains or sloppy showers, I'm not sure—and the men sleep four or six to a room.
To the naked eye, you can see how things are built chockablock here. You look at shoddy new construction, and you worry that soon something terrible will happen: A roof, a wall, an entire foundation, will collapse, and the loss of lives, and of course the financial consequences, could be disastrous. But whose job is it to make sure building codes are followed? The tourists', the residents', city officials'? Many Ukrainians tell me that the new government is even more corrupt than the last one. Former president Viktor Yanukovych was a "bandit," they say, but at least he left something for the people. The new leadership takes everything. Presumably, that means that with a bribe to the right people, licenses can be obtained, shabby construction overlooked, and city ordinances ignored, with not much capital trickling down to ordinary citizens.
There are elements of Breslov that remind me of au courant meditation movements, New Age solo therapies that focus on mindfulness and quality interpersonal relationships. Yoni explains that, for members of the Breslov community, religion means that "instead of being motivated by fear, we are going to be motivated by faith and relationships." There is a willingness to forge relationships with segments of the population that might be considered "dangerous" by the rest of the Orthodox world—for instance, an apostate reporter and a Ukrainian photographer, or ex-criminals and former drug addicts—whom the pilgrims are ready to embrace. "Reb Nachman said, 'The whole wide world is a narrow bridge, and the most important thing is not to be afraid,'" Yoni tells me. These words of the rebbe are frequently set to music—mainly bass-heavy house and techno—and they seem to bounce back from the heavens and reflect off the water so that they land right in my ears wherever and whenever I am listening.
When I come back for dinner, I bring Alexander Chekmenev, the Ukrainian photographer I'm working with on the story. One guy from Atlanta named Chezi, who grew up in a secular family but is now very observant, wants me to convey thanks to the Ukrainians for allowing Jews to come here, to Uman, and for being so gracious. He wishes that more of the pilgrims were respectful toward the locals. He wants to explain the historical motivations behind the resentment some of the Jews display, how they see the police and the soldiers—and how they're afraid from channeling hundreds of years of oppression. He also points out that perhaps the children misbehave because there are no mothers here, as women aren't allowed. And there's no shortage of bad treatment: The day before, I'd seen three young religious boys walking along the road that bridges the water, making a friendly face at the Ukrainian policemen hanging out the side of their van. " Kelev tov, kelev tov," one of the boys said to them, a smile on his face. One Ukrainian waved back, smiling, not knowing that he'd just been called a "good dog." Alex, a local selling winter jackets in the marketplace without much luck, tells me later that the Jews aren't quite respectful of him. "They speak to me with definite condescension," he says. "Honestly, I understand why these people broke off from Christ."
Back at Yoni's place, I am introduced to another pilgrim, Yaakov Lehman, who is dressed almost angelically in white, with a coal-black beard, a young face, and an easy smile. He's a worldly man, with degrees from universities including the London School of Economics. He grew up, secular, in Tucson, then Santa Barbara, and characterizes himself as a "psychedelic Bolshevik" in his younger years, "into revolution, into altered consciousness." Now founder of a company called Wisdom Tribe, which aims to incorporate ancient wisdom into today's corporate culture, Lehman came to Orthodox Judaism—as Jacob, back then—in a serious way ten years or so ago, after he'd "danced with the Hari Krishas [ sic], breathed pranayama with the yogis, blissed out with the Sufis, and fired up incense with the Daoists." He was reluctant to talk with me on the record about his past, but he has written publicly of his eventual embrace of his ancestors' religion elsewhere. "In the end," Lehman writes in a Medium post, "it was a non-Jewish friend from high-school, who after fleeing from a hit placed on his life by the Mexican Mafia, set me on the path to exploring my roots. While seeking refuge at my house in Santa Barbara, [my friend] was walking through a field one day and encountered a rabbi planting trees in a field on the Jewish eco-holiday of Tu Bshvat." Lehman's relationship with the rabbi eventually induced him to move to Israel and study in a yeshiva. He's been living in the Holy Land ever since.
While a student at the University of California in Santa Barbara, Lehman founded a music festival called Chilla Vista, which continues to this day. "I've always been drawn to ecstatic expressions of humanity, in particular in a social setting, in gatherings of large amounts of people for causes," he says, noting the similarities between the music festival and the pilgrimage. His master's thesis at the University of Vienna was on the desecularization of the contemporary world. He is perhaps proof positive of his own thesis. And he's not the lone example: When I get home, I find yet more affirmation that religion is not quickly disappearing from the world: Grandmother Zina is seated at the kitchen table, reading the family Bible.
"Good night, Rossik," she says. "Are you hungry?"
On the final day of Rosh Hashanah, I meet Serhiy Alekseev, a city deputy. He's one of the only Ukrainians I encounter in the Pushkin area who's not working in a dining hall, policing the streets, or transporting supplies. He's a stocky, beefy guy; he looks like a carpenter or an electrician. Alekseev is aligned with the Svoboda Party, which has been widely criticized over the past few years for being xenophobic, nationalistic, and anti-Semitic—the World Jewish Congress even went so far as to call it a neo-Nazi party in 2013. Members of the party have challenged these claims. Alekseev tells me that people "elect a person, not a party," and that anyway, Svoboda is more or less "normal."
The deputy is piping mad about the state of the pilgrimage to Uman. He'd been in the news a few months prior for knocking down an illegally built store on Pushkin Street, and he has developed a reputation as being tough on the Hasidim who come to his city. In January 2016, the media reported—and video would seem to support the claim—that a Hasidic man pulled a knife on Alekseev after an argument about clearing a path for a snow plow got out of hand. He proposes to me a limit of 5,000 people at one time for Rosh Hashanah, who would be bused in, pray, and then be bused out, to allow for another group of pilgrims to get their prayer fix without overburdening the city's infrastructure. Alekseev takes me on a two-hour tour, pointing out the trash, the toilet paper, and what he claims to be building-code violations. He also comments on "the people walking in the piss, the shit" that flows to the lake. He mentions the fact that the pilgrims aren't screened for health risks at the airport; several times, he points to somebody nearby and wonders if the accused has tuberculosis. Never mind the fact that the TB-incidence rate in Ukraine is 91 per 100,000; in Israel and the US, where the majority of pilgrims are coming from, the rates are 4 and 3.2, respectively. But Alekseev has a point when he talks about the overloaded infrastructure, the bribery, and the corruption that allow local ordinances to be overlooked or ignored. As we pass by blocked drains, runnels of raw sewage, and tents along the lakeshore, I begin to sympathize with his fury, if not agree with all the targets of his anger. "It's business. It's not faith," he says of the pilgrimage. Yet as angry as he is with the Hasidim, it's his own government officials he's truly furious with. They're all bought and sold, he tells me, as we make our way from the Jewish quarter to the cross on the hill. A simple bribe to the right person in Kiev allows a builder to eschew all codes and norms. "We live in a feudal system."
The controversial cross was Valeriy Kislinski's idea, many years ago. Kislinski, whom Alekseev introduces as his assistant, is a skinny guy with a baseball cap cockeyed on his head and a few days' worth of gray stubble on his face. Kislinski is a stark contrast to his boss—he speaks slowly, unsurely, and while Alekseev is like a bull racing through the town, Kislinski is more a fly hovering at the flanks. The religious vision came to him in a dream—put a cross on the hill by the water—and a while later, he brought up the matter to a council of activists and NGOs. He says they liked the idea because "those foreigners [would] know where they are, that they are on our territory." Kislinski insists this was not his intention, and the erection of the cross was delayed for a couple years because of that disagreement. He says the whole notion that a cross can be "against somebody" is anathema to Christianity and adds that it was just the right site, perhaps even God's will. But when he and several others, including Alekseev, finally put up the cross in 2013, there was an uproar, with both city officials and Jewish leaders declaiming what they called a provocation.
Ukrainian and Israeli police are on guard here atop the hill, and the atmosphere is tense as Alekseev shakes hands with the Ukrainians, who know him by sight, then gets down on his knees and kisses the splayed figure of Jesus on the wooden cross. From our vantage point—and from Christ's—we're looking down on literally thousands and thousands of Jews gathering at the banks of the water. It's hard to see how the idea of this cross being put right in this place wouldn't be seen as an act of provocation. But maybe Kislinski, if unwittingly, is making another point. There's more in common here than the two sides are willing to admit. Jesus and Nachman—two eccentric rabbis, both dead in their 30s, both outcasts, both rejected by their coequals, both magnets for the disenfranchised, the weak, the spurned, the suffering. But I don't think that's what he was getting at.
Sundown, and the holiday is over. I am eager to leave this place, eager to leave the trash, the crowds, the songs, the reverie, the dust. Hungry for silence and tranquility that are not granted at the airport, on the plane, or at the baggage claim. Everywhere on my return journey, from Uman to Kiev to Istanbul to New York, there are returning pilgrims. As we're taxiing to the gate at JFK, a pilgrim wearing a medical mask dashes down the aisle. "Sir, you must remain seated," the exasperated stewardess tells him. He sits. Right there in the aisle, in front of the bathroom, as others clap and cheer his wily cleverness.
This is emblematic of what I've seen over the past few days. I expected to find raucous crowds, chaos, even rampant prostitution. The crowds were friendly, there wasn't necessarily chaos so much as disorder, and I didn't see any trends in prostitution that wouldn't be found in your home city or mine. What I did find, however, were individuals who were friendly and welcoming and warm toward me, a fellow, if fallen, Jew, and at the same time often quite nasty and disrespectful toward their Catholic and Orthodox Christian hosts. And I can't say that this feeling wasn't returned in kind. It's difficult to disentangle hundreds of years of bad blood between peoples, and perhaps it's asking too much of the pilgrims to return to a country their forefathers were exiled from—or worse—and behave as if history hadn't happened.
I wonder if we're at a breaking point, and a few months later, I am saddened and horrified, though not completely taken by surprise, to learn that a group of Ukrainians—who witnesses claim had shaved heads and shouted anti-Semitic epithets—have broken into Rebbe Nachman's gravesite and desecrated it with a pig's head. There is a swastika carved into its forehead, and several Israelis are reportedly hospitalized in the attack. Then, on New Year's Eve, the Jesus icon is torn from the infamous cross, reportedly in retaliation for the pig's head. I think back to Lehman and Yoni and Chezi, and the admirable way they conducted themselves while guests in a foreign land, and I wonder if they'll be back next year. And then I wonder if Kislinski is dreaming again.
In December, Lewis and I were admitted to the San Salvador workshop, in one of two rival barrios in Remedios, a small town on the north coast of Cuba in the Las Villas province. The workers met us with a mix of confusion and suspicion, an appropriate reaction, I thought, to a group of strangers showing up at a place of employment with only a bottle of rum and a basic grasp of the language. We stood awkwardly on the edge of a large yard, penned in by four open-fronted warehouses. Teams of 20-somethings surrounded us, hammering and painting what would become the hypnotic backdrop of an annual firework showdown of artillery-barrage proportions called the Parrandas.
Among the crowd, I noticed one man in particular, dressed in ripped denim shorts. He smoked a cigarette and was applauding the work of the others. He caught my eye and came over, brushing off my offer of a Camel ("They're for girls") and helping himself to the rum, before giving us some of his own from a water bottle he carried. He was called Ditto and had light skin with freckles and blue eyes. He was one of the many day laborers who had been working on the site for the past two months. He explained that these were the last days of paid work before the money allocated by the state dried up. As a result, the pace of work was frantic, knowing that deadlines would have to be met before the money ran out.
As the sun started to set, the teams dispersed. Roughly ten hung back. They gathered at the back of the warehouse, catching the last of the sun and finishing the painting. A baseball game played through a badly tuned radio in the background.
In Remedios, we spent most nights in the town's main square, drinking and watching as gaggles of teenage girls paraded, arms linked, and ignored catcalls. Around the edge of the square, faces hovered, illuminated by the light from phones.
When we weren't sitting in the square, we played dominos on the street corner. We gathered chairs and stools from various houses, stolen from the youngest family members and from beneath the feet of resting mothers. The board, a repurposed old door, came from one of two houses. Ditto owned a notoriously crooked one, which he only ever used as backup.
The inscription on the Cuban peso coin reads patria o muerte (motherland or death). I asked Ditto if he believed in it. He laughed. I asked who did believe in it, then, and he gestured as if he were stroking a beard (Cuban sign language for Castro). Sentiment toward the late leader varies by age group: For those old enough to remember the revolution—and subsequent turbulent relationship with the US—Castro was a demigod, untouchable. For those too young to remember this era, he represented an outdated economic system and the cause of Cuba's woes.
The week after the Parrandas floats were finished, Ditto and his cousin Pocholo didn't have any work, so we took a bus to the beach. The driver confiscated our bottle of rum, though, so we sat like schoolboys in the back, passing by dust-colored towns and untilled land. Billboards dotted the highway with jingoistic slogans; one read oppose the blockade, an injustice against Cuba. We passed a harbor where rusting hulls bobbed unmanned, mostly of the fishing-trawler type. There were no yachts or powerboats; the only seaworthy boat was a military-landing craft. We wondered how much time you'd get for stealing it. "Fifteen years," reckoned Pocholo. The beach itself jutted out from concrete banks, foundations of an unfinished hotel, its construction appearing to have been abandoned decades before. Beyond it choppy green water stretched out toward the American coast. —PETER LANE
This story appears in the April issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.
When Nicole* ran to the elevator of a glitzy high-rise stretching over Hong Kong Island with her back bleeding from nail scratches, she decided that, this time, she would never look back. She had survived slaps to the face, shrill screams in her ear that she was "disgusting" and "stupid," and months of insomnia. Normally, she prayed to God and thought, Help me, Lord, to make it through. But this was the worst day of her life.
Just minutes earlier, Nicole had been preparing lunch for the family she worked for, as she had done every day for a year. Her boss—a stay-at-home mother of two, who spent her days watching over her employee—accused Nicole of cooking with dirty water from the cutting board. Nicole said that the woman snapped, pushed her to the ground, dragged her by her arm to the door, and threw her beaten body out of the apartment.
Nicole, who emigrated from the Philippines—like some 165,000 other foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong—recalled that day in January, shaking with tears. "The officer checked my body, and I didn't know there was a wound on my back," Nicole said, sitting on a bench tucked into the quiet courtyard of St. John's Cathedral, steps away from Hong Kong's frenetic financial district. "This was an injustice—I did not deserve this," she said.
But Nicole's story of horrific abuse isn't unusual. In Hong Kong, where women pour in to take jobs helping families as domestic workers, Nicole's experience is just one of many. While most come for cash to support their families from abroad, many easily find themselves trapped in a cycle of violence and debt.
About half of Hong Kong's foreign domestic workforce is Filipina. Most others come from Indonesia—about 150,000—while a small percentage comes from across South and Southeast Asia. In total, there were 336,000 registered foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong as of July 2015. The Hong Kong government finds that one in three households with children employ a foreign domestic worker.
These women are not paid by the same wage standards as domestic workers who are native to Hong Kong, but are instead paid the minimum allowable wage once a month, currently set at about $550. Working hours are not regulated, but one day a week is allowed for rest—usually Sundays, when thousands of women sit atop cardboard in Hong Kong's public parks and walkways. Many evacuate by nightfall, though, to be home before the curfews set by their bosses.
But perhaps the most problematic issue for domestic workers coming to Hong Kong is that the law states they must live with their employers; their visas are dependent on it. A foreign domestic worker "should only provide full-time, live-in domestic services at his/her employer's residence and to serve the number of members of the employer's household," according to the Immigration Department's website. "Request for the FDH [foreign domestic helper] to live out will not be granted."
"The live-in arrangement is the root of many problems," said Elizabeth Tang, general secretary of the International Domestic Workers Federation. "Basically, there's no choice [for the domestic worker], and everything is invisible. It exposes domestic workers to possibilities of exploitation," she said, adding that the organization regularly hears of workdays lasting up to 16 hours.
Help for Domestic Workers (HELP) aided Nicole with her police complaint, but her former employer filed a countercomplaint that Nicole stole two designer wallets and a camera—without any evidence. "It's common for employers to have these kinds of allegations of theft, and it comes out of nowhere to avoid payments [to the domestic helper]," said Holly Carlos Allan, the executive director of HELP, who verified that Nicole has an open claim with the Hong Kong police. "Some of our clients have experienced being told by the police that it's a simple matter, and that if they confess they can go home."
For Grace Estrada, a Filipina domestic worker and the chairperson of the Progressive Labor Union of Domestic Workers (PLU), the live-in rule is downright dangerous. "It's slavery if you force the worker and the employer to sleep together in the same place," she said. "It's 24 hours on call." Estrada's union is a small, loose coalition of domestic workers who meet on Sundays in a tiny apartment in Kowloon's Austin neighborhood to discuss everyday issues, ranging from debt bondage to physical and psychological abuse.
Foreign domestic workers were not always required to live with their employers. According to Tang, when the SARS epidemic roiled Hong Kong in 2003, the government—faced with rising unemployment—created this stipulation to prevent foreign domestic workers from taking any potential part-time jobs away from natives. "Those from outside had to be live-in helpers, while those from Hong Kong could be part-time helpers—drawing a line to protect job opportunities for local women," Tang said.
Living in close quarters under a mostly unregulated system can spark a powder keg of abuse. "Physical assault cases are common, and so are cases of verbal assault," said Allan. "The live-in arrangement makes workers vulnerable to abuse and lack of privacy."
Estrada alleged that her first employers made her wake up every two hours at night to check on their child's water glass. She and two other PLU members reported hearing stories of traumatic abuse at the hands of employers: a woman forced to sleep on a dryer while her employer would turn it on at night, the heat and shaking keeping her awake; one whose employer stayed home and watched pornography in his boxers while she worked; and another who was forced to sleep on a windowsill. These women wished to remain anonymous, and any records of police reports are protected by the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinances.
"The employer has all the control," said Rowena Borja, the PLU secretary. Borja said that her former employer often kept her up until 3 AM and refused her legal holidays. "She was always shouting at me. I had a nervous breakdown." The PLU, together with the Alliance of Progressive Labor–Hong Kong, conducted its last major survey in 2012, and from interviews with more than 1,500 Filipino domestic workers, it found that they work 15.6 hours per day on average, usually starting at 6 AM and running until 11 PM.
"There's no proactive monitoring of what's stated in the worker's contract and what the migrant worker is experiencing—there's very little holding employers to account," said Jade Anderson, an anti-human-trafficking coordinator at the Justice Center Hong Kong.
A spokesperson for the Labor Department said by email that the "government and the community will not tolerate any abuse of FDHs, and will thoroughly investigate into all reported cases and promptly take out prosecution if there is sufficient evidence." The department also said that it has worked jointly with the consulate generals in Hong Kong to run public activities to "ensure FDHs are aware of their employment rights and channels for seeking assistance."
Still, for some foreign domestic workers, the answer is living out—illegally, against the provisions of their unique dependent visas—in what are colloquially called "boarding houses." These small but crowded apartments abound through the territory, with bunk beds rented on the cheap, usually by Filipino landlords. But living out raises another deeply challenging set of problems to grapple with.
Bing* shares a one-bathroom apartment with ten other Filipina domestic workers. "We have to work it out," she said. The women live two or three to a room. Her employers, an expat couple, give her about $190 a month to pay for one of the bunk beds there. But Bing said the couple often refuse to give her taxi fare back to the boarding house, which she can't afford on her salary, after forcing her to babysit past midnight. She said it's still better than her former employers, where she lived in—she claims they only gave her their leftover food to eat.
"I start my job at 5 AM. I had the option of living out, but I couldn't start this early," said Ida*, highlighting that having to commute, on top of domestic workers' long working hours, can be close to impossible. There's also the regular fear of the police and immigration: If a boarding house is raided, its occupants face deportation. Bing's landlord, she said, is a Filipina having an anxiety-fraught affair with a Chinese man who owns the property. Estrada said that this rental arrangement is not uncommon. "Filipino residents working in Hong Kong take the flat, divide it into rooms, and rent them."
Most organizations advocate for foreign domestic workers to have a choice whether they live in or out. The PLU has been campaigning for this option and has met repeatedly with the Hong Kong government, but "we've seen zero progress," said Estrada. The union said the government fights its argument on the grounds that if foreign domestic workers could live out, then they might only work part time—which could lead to them taking advantage of visas. "We've argued so many times—how can we do part time if we wake up at five in the morning and finish at 11?" said Estrada.
The PLU met with various representatives from the government's Labor Department last May and also the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions in February—and both used another similar argument holding up the live-in policy, Estrada said. Representatives told her that if migrant domestic workers are allowed to live out, they might roam around at night or work at bars and clubs.
"Any change to the 'live-in requirement' that FDHs must reside in employers' residences will go against the rationale for importing FDHs and the fundamental policy that local employees should enjoy priority in employment," a spokesperson for the Labor Department told me by email.
Last year, the Hong Kong government passed a new rule to protect foreign domestic workers from cleaning high windows; in January of this year, it announced a code of practice for employment agencies. But little else has been done at the top level to ensure the workers' basic human rights. "There's a lack of acknowledgement that what migrant workers do is work—that it's a valuable contribution to Hong Kong," said Anderson, drawing on the Justice Center's interviews with foreign domestic workers. "Many talked about a general lack of respect for them as people—they were told what to wear, when they could go to the bathroom, and criticized for everything."
In March 2016, Anderson co-authored a report that found that 17 percent of more than 1,000 foreign domestic workers experienced conditions tantamount to forced labor. According to the Justice Center's interviews, these women were working and living under duress. They were on call day and night, their wages were manipulated, and their identity documents were confiscated. Employers also purposely isolated them, in many cases, allegedly taking away their cellphones.
Why foreign domestic workers stay trapped within this system of abuse is nuanced. The Hong Kong government only allows them to stay in the city for two weeks if their contracts are terminated—often deterring women from reporting severe cases of abuse. Beyond that, many are caught in spiraling debts to the employment agencies that brokered their contracts and are meanwhile breadwinners for their husbands and children in their home countries.
"We'll head back to the Philippines alive and kicking, but without money and without husbands," said Borja, the PLU secretary, adding that with years of distance the men often lose interest and find lovers. "It's back to zero."
As she waits to see if the police will press charges against her or her employer, Nicole is staying in a bare-bones shelter funded by the Philippine consulate with little to do during her days and no source of income.
She's still sending money back home to Davao City, Philippines, even though she's indebted to her employment agency for upward of $1,000. But Nicole is too afraid of the shame in telling her friends and family she lost her job in what they still perceive to be a glamorous Hong Kong, a place bursting with moneymaking opportunities and social mobility.
"I sent money to buy milk and medicine—my child is sick now with a fever. I thought Hong Kong was the right place for the helper," she said, her face covered in tears. "I thought so."
* Names have been changed to protect the identities of the subjects.
This story appears in the April issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.
The photographer behind April's cover, Michael Northrup, graduated with a BFA in photography from Ohio University in 1971 and an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1980. Between his degrees, he lived primarily on the West Coast, where he studied with Jack Welpott and Judy Dater, and he spent time in Prescott, Arizona, learning from Frederick Sommer. He taught for ten years before moving to Baltimore, where he now shoots commercially.
VICE: What's the story behind our cover image?
Michael Northrup: This is a mirror in the house of my uncle Edgar and aunt Miriam. They had taste, and my mom and dad… not so much. When my aunt and uncle went on vacation, I had the run of their house. I grew up with this mirror, and there was always a mystique about it. I played on that [mystique] with the colors only happening within the mirror. Alice through the looking glass. I also know that you can't go wrong with beautiful floral wallpaper as a backdrop.
When did you start using colored lighting in your work? Was it a happy accident?
I used a view camera in the late 60s and relied on natural light for several years. I felt that format was slowing me down, and I was tired of being a slave to the light. I bought a medium-format camera and on-camera flash. I'd already had my interest in flash light keyed up from the work I saw in photo-history classes, which had included Weegee, Edgerton, Arbus, and other contemporaries who relied on flash out of love or necessity. So it just followed me through black and white, into color, and beyond. I was always trying to see what I could come up with.
Where do you get your day-to-day inspiration?
That comes from everyday life. Aside from the light painting work, my favorite images are mostly autobiographical in some way and heavily influenced by the snapshot aesthetic of the 60s. I work more from perception than conception. I know it when I see it. It's not unlike being a monkey on a typewriter.
What are you currently working on?
I have 40 years of images, and all I've shown is about 3 percent of them. I'd like to do about ten more books, but I'd settle on two or three. I'd still like to do a book on my ex-wife. She was a beautiful and wonderful muse and companion, and those images are at the heart of my sensibilities and during the most dynamic time of my life. I also have a series of portraits I'd like to get out. I'm always looking for a publisher.
1975: Michael Northrup starts experimenting with flash in black-and-white photography.
1980: He continues employing flash effects when he moves to more color work.
1980: Seeing the way this man's visor pours light onto his face, Northrup plays with flashes and color strobes, almost as if painting the man's face in blue.
1981: Northrup begins using colored flash.
1984: He applies multiple exposures of multiple colored flashes on to one negative in the camera.
Writing a Think Piece About Millennials Package
Includes a tape recorder and guaranteed reporting access to the four worst people at the festival, who will be getting around on hoverboard skateboards and talking about a new form of vaping where you freeze vape juice and put it in iced coffee.
"I'm Only 28, I'm Not Too Old for This" Package
For a discounted price, you can show up late, leave early, and watch each band from a hill that's very far away from the stage. This package technically includes access to every day of the festival, but it's understood that you'll feel overwhelmed on Friday and skip Saturday in order to mentally prepare for Sunday.
This includes total access to air-conditioned, culturally appropriative VIP tents where you can instagram endlessly. Doesn't include access to actual concerts. (Note: We know that the Kardashians are business moguls and that blanket criticism of them is often veiled sexism. We have a lot of respect for them, and that's why we're offering this package.) (Also note: This package is only available to people who have appeared on Kylie's Instagram.)
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When talking about your plans to attend, did you ever say the words, "I'm very into indie music"? Then you owe an extra $500, sorry.
We Got Married at a Weirdly Young Age Package
You and your young husband are very much in love. It's not like you're super religious; you just knew you wanted to be together for the rest of your lives. You're totally normal young people, and you like young people fun things just like other young people. See, you're at a music festival!!
Extra Wristbands Package
This general admission package includes extra wristbands that don't come with any perks but allow you to have a bunch of ratty old wristbands on your wrist for the summer.
Micro Festival Package
This ticket allows you to see one band, performing indoors at a traditional "theater" located at a separate location outside the festival. We'll even throw in a random band you've never heard of to "open."
"I Have Agency" Package
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Includes unlimited access to mud, in case you're mainly in it for the mud.
Father John Misty Package
Are you coming to this music festival because you are Father John Misty? This is the ticket package for you.
Extremely Pale Package
Includes a polite man who will follow you around all day and remind you to reapply sunscreen every two hours.
General admission plus selfie with a man who looks like (but isn't) Francis from Francis and the Lights.
VIP Selfie Package
Above plus selfie with the keyboardist from Whitney.
Super VIP Selfie Package
Above plus cameo appearance in the back of DJ Khaled's Snapchat story.
"I'm Pretty Sure I'm Gonna Go This Year" Package
Doesn't include access to the festival but allows you to constantly talk about how you're definitely gonna go this year because you LOVE Old Crow Medicine Show and it's playing (it's not).