Safe in the Police State

Columbine. Virginia Tech. Aurora.

When are we going to learn?

Reading about the recent tragedy in Colorado last week, the story of a man gone mad and a defenseless crowd of theater-goers forced to play witness to their own horror film, was saddening, depressing. But it wasn’t surprising.

Gun violence, like capitalism in many respects, has become synonymous with America. It’s embarrassing, really, that we’re one of the last modern nations that somehow feels guns in the hands of Average Joe is still a good idea, that the words “gun control” to some people are words of blasphemy, an affront on all things American.

As an expat in China, gun violence isn’t a problem I have to worry about. It’s one of the limited, perhaps only, perks of living in the world’s largest police state. Freedoms here are few, but so are guns. And this is the country that invented gunpowder.

Under Chinese law, Average Zhou is strictly prohibited from owning firearms. Possession leads to a three-year prison sentence, while using a gun to commit a crime often yields a death sentence.

Modern gun laws in China date back to the 1960s, when the government passed sweeping legislation outlawing the manufacture and ownership of guns by private citizens. The act came after children playing with a rifle shot out a window in the Great Hall of the People, according to historians. That’s like kids walking up to the Capitol and playing target practice.

But peek behind the red curtains and you’ll see that gun control in China isn’t meant just for public protection – it also keeps the government safe too. These laws in China prevent exactly what the Constitution tries to defend: the people’s right to bear arms to guard against an authoritarian government abusing its powers to impose tyrannical rule. China’s great helmsman, Mao Zedong even famously said that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun”, a credo he and the Communists used to supplant the Nationalist Party in 1949 and establish the People’s Republic.

No one seems to complain. The Chinese I spoke to all said they feel safer knowing there aren’t guns on the streets, at least not in quantities comparable with the United States. More importantly, the Chinese have bigger problems — social and political – taking precedence over the desire to buy a gun.

“Chinese people have lost so many human rights in all aspects, and losing the right to own a gun is nothing compared to birth control (China maintains a one-child policy to control its population) and restrictions on relocation (social mobility is limited and people are not always able to move from rural to urban areas or even between cities). That’s not to mention restrictions on buying a car and purchasing a house in tier on cities,” one of my female Chinese friends, who wished to remain unnamed, said.

This friend will be studying in the United States in the fall. I followed up with the obvious question: Are you afraid of going to the United States after hearing about all the instances of gun violence, particularly the incident in Colorado?

“It is disturbing and I’m of course worried,” she said. “It’s not all about owning a gun. Guns make it easier to commit a massive crime, but it’s not the weapon that should be blamed.”

Should the United States take a page out of China’s textbook on gun control? No. We shouldn’t even be reading the same book.

Banning gun ownership won’t stop gun interest. It may even pique people’s fascination with the tabooed items, as is happening in China where the rich look to add rifles and handguns to their collection of expensive play toys. Hunting is also becoming popular on the itineraries of the country’s wealthy.

What the United States needs is limitation and regulation, not a complete ban. Do you have the right to buy a rifle to go hunting during deer season? Absolutely. Does that rifle have to be an AK-47 or other automatic weapon? Probably not.

At the very least, gun enthusiasts who point to the Constitution and cry “freedom” need a history lesson. When America’s defining document was signed in 1789, establishing the right to keep and bear arms, it took a lengthy process to fire and reload a single-shot musket. America’s forefathers could never have anticipated the firepower of assault rifles, or that one day one man could walk into a movie theater and cause as much death as a decent size formation of Revolutionary War era soldiers.

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Octopussy-ville

UDAIPUR
Part of the James Bond movie “Octopussy” was filmed in Udaipur, India, in 1983. Filmmakers must have been impressed with the city’s crowd jewel, the Taj Lake Palace, a true architectural gem that sits out on beautiful Lake Pichola. I wasn’t surprised: it really is a stunning sight, one that causes an initial reaction of “woah” followed by about 30 seconds of snapping photos.

Today, the inclusion of the palace in a Bond film is a point of pride for the locals. Almost every hostel, hotel, restaurant, bar and public venue shows the film on a nightly basis, usually around 7 or 7:30 p.m.

The palace is off limits to tourists, but at $880 to as high as $3,000 a night I wouldn’t want the camera-totting masses ruining a calm evening on the lake either. And so I photographed it from various shore locations and a few times on the lake by boat.

At night, the palace shined like a pearl on glassy waters, tempting those on shore. I was content with my tiny lake-side haveli and room with a view — although I did do a quick check of my financials to see if a night at the palace was possible (it wasn’t).

MORNING GLOW: I arrived by train in the wee hours of the morning. It couldn’t have been a better time: the morning light was perfect for taking photos of the lake shore


HAVELI HOME: The haveli I stayed in sat right next to the lake and provided a stunning view. The hollowed out interior was nice too


BACK AGAIN: Yet another Guy Fawkes sighting


CLOSE TO SHORE: A Jain temple next to Lake Pichola


SCRATCHING AN ITCH: A cow scratches his head on a motorbike


NIGHT DESCENDS: As the sun set, it cast a farewell glow over the lake


SAND MASK: Dressed like a bandit, this biker wore a rag around his face to keep out the dust blowing around Udaipur


THE PEARL GLOWS: Taj Lake Palace as seen [with envious eyes] from shore

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Jain is the Name

GWALIOR

There’s not much to do in Gwalior. Next to nothing actually. It’s one of those jumping points to bigger and better places in central India, for travelers en route to the Agra and the Taj Mahal or Khajuraho bound to see the erotic temples.

Like most other Indian cities, Gwalior has a fort overlooking the old city. The walls of the fort palace, Man Singh Palace, have little blue ducks waddling around its edges.

One striking feature of this backwater hub are the Jain statues carved into the rock face leading up to the fort. Various buddhas sitting in the lotus position or watching over the area greet visitors on their walk or drive to the fort entrance. Numbering in the hundreds, the smallest carvings are the size of a baseball — the largest are about 57 feet tall.




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Off the Beaten Path

ORCHHA

Whenever I take these extensive trips, I try to fit in a day or two of backwater travel. A short quest for those sleepy little towns that don’t make it onto many tourist’s itineraries. Smack dap in the middle of the Taj Mahal- Khajuraho route was Orchha, a town with little more than a small square and temples on either side of a parched river. It’s more a jumping point to bigger, better destinations but one I was glad I hadn’t passed by.

On the tops of houses and temples ambled a few families of monkeys, some descending into the streets to snag a snack before running back to their perches. Cows lurked about, performing their typical duties of eating refuse and blocking traffic. And life moved slow, or at least slower than it had in New Delhi and Varanasi.

Orchha’s Chaturbhuj temple, which reminded me of castles I’d seen on journeys across Europe, dominated the landscape on the town’s western side. From its top, I got a stunning view of the nearby farms, huts and Jehangir Mahal and Raj Mahal palaces across the river.

I also made a friend: Gorup, a young boy who showed my friend Brian and I around the plaza area and told us about the town before leading us to his mother’s souvenir stall (we fell right into that trap).

That evening we made our way across the river for a night-time performance. I had no idea what was going on, and no one nearby seemed to be able to explain the story to me, but we attracted the usual “stranger in a strange land” attention and questions, just two white guys sitting among a sea of Indians and enjoying the show.

Orchha reminded me a lot of my own hometown, Tamaqua. Not many people go out of their way to visit my neck of the woods in Pennsylvania’s Coal Region, but those passing through have had good things to say. Quaint, quiet, salt of the earth people and a slew of other compliments — that’s Tamaqua to the outsider, and that’s roughly how I felt about Orchha in India. Slow, simple, perfect Orchha.








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Baring it all in Khajuraho

KHAJURAHO

Sex sells. Sex sells very well. For the relatively sleepy and secluded Khajuraho deep in central India, sex drives the tourist industry, just not in the same way that sex lures many a morally vacant individual to places like Las Vegas. In Khajuraho, it’s the erotic statues and “sex temples” that draw in crowds who gawk at, blush over and take photos of the busty carvings of bodacious, scantily clad Indian babes and considerably ripped guys.

Built between 950 and 1050 A.D. by the Chandela’s, the ruling clan of much of central India, the temples are a manifestation of Indian architecture, showcasing some of the most intricate rock carvings and statues in the world. They’re also the most provocative. Today, only 22 of the original 85 spiral superstructures still remain.

But adjectives like “erotic” and “sex” only lead the lonely traveler down the wrong trail, creating expectations that what’s hidden away in Khajuraho is somehow on par with what’s hidden away in the back rooms of most video rental stores. Many, but not nearly a majority, feature men and women embroiled in passionate love-making, limbs wrapped around each other in a variety of intriguing and tantalizing positions. And yet the temples are not a celebration of pornography. They are a celebration of love and life.

The figures acting out explicit sex acts certainly draw the eyes’ attention, leaving little to the imagination, but don’t completely overshadow the rest of the cast of characters. Mothers with children, eternal lovers holding each other or sharing a kiss, and dancers preparing to perform, in addition to numerous gods and goddesses, also make special appearances. The detail is so fine that you’d almost expect some of the figures to leap from their posts and start dancing around passersby, or place an innocent kiss on the cheeks of wandering tourists.

One important detail that also seems hidden is why these places of worship were built. Who wanted them constructed? Who carved the statues? Why all the sex? Experts speculate that Chandela kings lived such extreme lives of luxury that they had the temples built for entertainment purposes. Others take a more religious, social approach, saying the temples were built to pique people’s interest in sex, have kids and settle down. Many think the Chandela’s viewed sex as an art form, something practiced by all but perfected by a few in an elite class of artisans.

Whatever the reason, today Khajuraho belongs to the tourists who come to see the temples, purchase small sandstone replicas of the statues and eat in fancy restaurants overlooking the holy grounds. Or maybe that’s what the wealthy Chandela’s had in mind when building these monoliths to love — to draw in foreign dignitaries and impress them with central Indian architecture and grandeur. Because sex sells, and it sells very well.

BLOGGERS NOTE! Some of the following photos are sexual in nature… enjoy!!!








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V for Varanasi

VARANASI

Varanasi! A most venerated of Vaticanesque holy places, located alongside the viscous river Ganges, this vestige of spirituality lures many a vagrant and pilgrim, not for vacationing but to vanquish one’s sins and wash away venial indiscretions of the past.

As veteran travelers my very good friend Brian and I were not, we almost fell victim to the villainous touts, our vulnerability made evident by large packs on our backs, but a virtuous few helped us, much to the vexation of the would-be scammers.

Eventually venturing out onto the river for evening vigil our boat driver rowed vigorously on our voyage. The vibe was chill, a nice escape from the vicissitudes of everyday life that left my spirit vivified. People bathed in the vermilion colored waters, washing their bodies and variegated clothes.

The river waters, unfortunately, were virulent, a volatile mix on the verge of toxicity, but that people vehemently proclaimed was essential to one’s vitality.

Our verbose tour guide spewed volumes of vague information, none we could verify, before vivaciously venting his frustrations at dating foreign women, done in vain as I admired the visage of the buildings on shore, my attention vacillating as I admired the vastness of the river. Then, vilifying hippie travelers for their venal lifestyles, verily he proclaimed that he was a “holy man”, committed to certain veritable values and a more valorous existence than those tie-dye wearing, pot-smoking, virtue-less visitors.

This visit was one I will not soon forget. Free of vice and violence, Varanasi had a veneer of simplicity that hid a more spiritual and complicated world. The variety of people and laid back atmosphere allowed me to live vicariously through the hippies and holy travelers, but I vowed to one day return for a less vacant experience.








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Beware of Ganges

VARANASI

The Ganges is one of the holiest rivers in the world, a sacred waterway where millions of Hindus, Jains, Buddhists and other religious minorities come to worship and liberate their souls. It’s also one of the world’s most polluted waterways. From industrial and human waste, to the cremated and uncremated remains of religious followers, dead animals and the Indian god Shiva knows what else, all make their way down the reaches of this mighty Indian river.

Back in the States, I was warned about bathing in the Ganges; even touching it was ill advised. Drinking its waters would require hospitalization or treatment to counter the fatal mix of bacteria and toxins lurking within the river.

And yet, I had to see it, to look at those viscous waters full of a virulent mess of things I’d only read about in magazines. I wanted to ride out onto its calm surface for a morning river ride up and down the river’s length next to the ancient pilgrimage city of Varanasi in central India.

The Ganges was a sight for sore eyes, and not entirely friendly on the nostrils either. Plastic bottles bobbed up and down in the water, with floating masses of trash sticking to the edges of Old Varanasi’s ghats, large flights of stairs leading from the city to the water’s edge. The faint smell of waste hung in the air, although I couldn’t distinguish it from industrial, human or animal.

As I stood in awe and disbelief at the river, a man walked down the dark stained steps of the ghats, removed his clothes down to his undergarments, and dove into the Ganges. The closest I’d get to the Ganges was the inch or two of wood of the boat’s bottom standing between me and the river.
As I floated past the ghats the number of people washing themselves in the river or dipping their heads or the heads of relatives beneath the brownish water in baptismal dunks, increased. Clearly they didn’t consult a travel doctor before making the trip. But these were sacred waters, their sacred waters, and bacteria and refuse be damned, they were going to cleanse themselves.

As part of some river tours the boatmen will dip a glass into the river and take a swig, much to the horror of weak-stomached tourists.

It was a shame to see the river in this condition, but it certainly wasn’t surprising. As India and other Asian countries undergo transformations from largely traditional to massively modern, the rapid introduction of certain technological advances, like plastic and industrial machines, have thrown these ancient cultures and their environments into the ring against the machines of modernity. The former, sadly to say, are losing.

Like the Industrial Revolution’s impact on cities like Pittsburgh and the waterways of western Pennsylvania, which left the Monongahela, Allegheny, and Ohio Rivers all but unusable, so too is India findings its sources of vitality and culture polluted.

Even so, people still flock to the river to perform sacred acts and holy duties. Each year, thousands of religious followers still make the pilgrimage to holy Varanasi. The spiritually lost reconnect with their inner souls and engage in personal self discovery through meditation along the many river ghats. Tourists are overcharged for boats rides up and down the river while photographing everything and everyone along the old city waterfront. And those tie-dye-wearing, counter cultural-embracing hippies – some faux, some clinging to the carefree lifestyle of dreadlocks and free love – arrive in droves to experience some form of self-induced nirvana while contemplating whether to jump into the river or seek out their next high.

But for all, the Ganges provides the chance to stand in reverence of a natural, holy wonder, to take a boat or sit on the ghats and enjoy a fleeting moment of inner peace.

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In the Shadow of the Taj Mahal

–AGRA

Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan must have really loved his third wife. If it’s not obvious from the jewels dangling from the woman’s body in almost every portrait, then maybe it’s the fact that he built the world’s finest and best known mausoleum for her: the Taj Mahal.

The wife, Mumtaz Mahal, died giving birth to the their 14th child. So maybe in addition to being a symbol of Shah Jahan’s love for and grief at the loss of his wife, it was a way of saying “good job” for all the hard work.

Assumptions aside, the Taj Mahal is a true gem in the world of architecture. Constructed of pure white marble and straddling the banks of the Yamuna River, it graces the otherwise under-developed, over-touristed landscape of the surrounding city Agra. Against cloudless blue skies, one’s imagination could easily picture the main onion-shaped dome and building, it’s lofty white façade and intricate inlaid carvings, floating off into the sky. It’s really no wonder that it’s a wonder of the world.

I’m sure when Shah Jahan set out to build this memorial for his beloved he didn’t have global notoriety – at least not in terms of the tourist hordes it would attract — in mind, but I was glad he and his army of artisans did such a fine job. Otherwise standing in line at 5:30 in the morning to be the first ones into the mausoleum complex would have been a tiring, lackluster experience. The final product –four minarets framing the immaculately white tomb and its surrounding gardens – didn’t fail to impress.

Entering the grounds from the east, the Taj Mahal was hidden behind large walls and a grand entrance gate. Walking up to the gate, the great white wonder came into view, a bit blurry due to the misty morning air that gradually cleared as I walked through. As one of the first batch of tourists, my first few photos were void of other camera totting, silly hat wearing visitors.

The main stretch leading up to the Taj Mahal was lined with an array of neatly trimmed shrubs and beautiful fountains that magnified its splendor. Each step brought the marble complex closer until I was finally directly in front of it. To enter the main tomb, I had to take off my shoes or wear odd booty coverings over my sneakers. I opted for the former. The marble floors felt cool and smooth on my feet, almost slippery as a thin layer of quickly evaporating morning dew gleamed on the white surface. It was kind of like walking on water.

I walked around the tomb to get away from the sun, rising quickly and heating up the ground, and admire the elaborate carvings and calligraphy. Small flowers pocked the stone, each carefully painted as columns of calligraphy rose to dome’s peak. Standing in the great mausoleum’s shadow, I felt tiny, yet inspired. One guy had this whole thing built for one woman. Wow.

Shah Jahan also rests in the tomb. He was eventually overthrown by his son, who wanted to stop his father’s squandering on grandiose tombs, and locked up in Agra’s Red Fort, just north of the Taj Mahal on the same river. From his cell, Shah Jahan could have still had a view of his precious monument and, in a way, a connection to his wife.

The Taj Mahal was the second wonder of the world I’ve seen. In 2009 I stood in similar awe and disbelief in the shadow of the Great Wall of China. The Great Wall’s “wonder” status comes from its impressive location (on the top of high ridges and not-so-gently rolling hills) and length (almost 4,000 miles across China’s northern half).

True, the Taj Mahal lacks the wall’s scale, but it was no less great. The Great Wall was built as a defensive structure that ultimately failed its purpose: keeping the Mongols out. The Taj Mahal was built out of loss, in memoriam, for love — and every smooth marble brick and detailed calligraphy carving was a testament to that purpose.



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New Delhi’s Old City

NEW DELHI

India’s capital has two faces: the modern, up-and-coming sexy side of malls, fancy buildings and new roads and the compact streets and cramped quarters of the old city. Temples dot the cityscape. My travel friend, Brian, and I had set aside two days to explore the city before heading off into the rest of India.

Since both of us live in Beijing, we get enough of the hyper-modern city scene we spent most of the time walking around the overcrowded, underdeveloped old city. Our first stop was Old Delhi’s Red Fort, the former residence of whatever Mughal emperor was in power. The red sandstone walls, a hallmark of Mughal architecture, basked under the warming afternoon sun as I too began to bake (India was a lot hotter than I’d imagined, but I was prepared: SPF 80 sunblock).

After the fort we took a rickshaw tour of the old city. Our guide would slow down and point to buildings along the way while attempting to pedal through a heavy traffic of other rickshaws, tuk tuks and cows. Packs of half-dead dogs chilled in whatever shade they could find, or sat wherever they felt.

In the old city our guide took us through a spice market, the zesty herbs irritating my nose in growing intensity as we walked several floors up.

Then it was off to the Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in India with a seating/kneeling/bowing capacity of 20,000. Before entering the holy site we had to remove our shoes.

A number of things stood out after the first day of real touristing.

First off, New Delhi wasn’t nearly as crowded as I’d been warned. There was no people mountain, people sea, the kind of hordes I’ve gotten used to after living in Beijing for three years. On the subway, I was crammed into each car like a pale sardine. There was room to breathe, to move my arms.

Indian society is still largely conservative. Even in the newer parts of the city, women still wear saris and other traditional garb. Adverts still used sex to spur consumer interest, but it wasn’t as in your face as it is in America, or even in Beijing where its starting to take off.

Cows wandered the streets, sometimes in large groups, freely and without being led around. This wasn’t surprising — we’ve all heard about Hinduism’s high reverence for the beasts. But I what I wasn’t expecting was the number of stray dogs roaming the streets. The strays were everywhere, literally everywhere. In alleys, in hotels, in train stations, in shady little street food restaurants, in the middle of the street, in the shade, in the sun, in temples and shrines, in parks, everywhere.

New Delhi was a perfect microcosm of the country and a great trial run to see if I’d be able to make it through the rest of the trip. After New Delhi, it was three weeks of trains, tuk tuks and cabs around the northern part of the country. Three weeks of adventure.

Tuk tuk filled streets

Stray dog tanning in front of the Red Fort

Interior chamber of Red Fort

Painted wall etchings inside the Red Fort

Rickshawing through the old city

Guiding and driving: my rickshaw man for the old city

Mmmmmmm. Masala.

Young worshippers at the Jama Masjid

The Jama Masjid

Group photo with the white guys, our first of the trip

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Namaste!

Growing up, one of my favorite Disney movies was “The Jungle Book”. I mean, what’s not to like about a boy raised deep in the jungles of India by a fun-loving group of animals that sing and dance? In recent years, I’ve taken to Bollywood films, movies produced in India’s entertainment capital Bombay. The films are known for their epic stories, deep character development and spontaneous dance sequences. In short, they’re fantastic.

But the films only teased my fascination with India in the same way that “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” or just about any kungfu film did with China. It made sense then that the next time the travel bug bit, my finger was clicking on the “Book Now” button for a roundtrip flight to India.

My itinerary, a three-week trip from March to April with my friend Brian Peach, included the heart of India before swinging out into the country’s western frontier near Pakistan. Of course I’d see the Taj Mahal, but I’d also visit the sacred Ganges River with stops at numerous temples and towns. Then I’d head into Rajasthan, the land of kings and a state known for its beautiful cities and diverse landscape.

Map source: wikipedia

From college courses and my general interest in Asia, I knew the basics about India’s ancient past and its many religions. I knew the food would be spicy, that the nation’s population of close to 1.2 billion could be unnerving, and that there wasn’t really going to be a menagerie of jungle bears and cats prancing about. But that last part was ok – at least there would be cows roaming freely in the streets and maybe a few monkeys here and there.

What I didn’t know was how deeply I’d fall for the country, its people and its culture.

India was incredible, a true attack on the senses that left me mind-boggled and amazed.

The narrow streets of the old cities teemed with an odd concoction of people and animals, colors and culture. Traffic, dominated by the tiny half-cab, half-rickshaw called a tuk-tuk, moved slowly, allowing me to take in the scenery before suddenly whirring off at faster-than-necessary speeds. Back alleys provided a peek into the past, with shops and storefronts selling roughly what I imagined they sold for the past hundred years or so. The air had the rich smell of spices: masala, cinnamon, an assortment of peppers and multi-colored other things.

Hindu women rushed about wearing bright colored traditional saris while carrying baskets on their heads. Well-mustachioed Sikh men had turbans atop their heads. Muslim women kept their faces covered. Despite the heat – average temperatures hovered in the 90s for most of my trip – everyone wore slacks or dresses. Shorts, particularly at holy sites, are considered inappropriate since they allow the knees to poke out. Unnecessary exposure of body parts is frowned upon.

Kids vied for my attention, shouting “One photo please”, always with the polite “please” on the end. After each photo, they’d rush to my side to look at my camera screen before screaming, shouting and running off. A few adults also wanted their photos taken.

Everyone I talked to greeted me with “namaste”, a customary Indian welcome.

Half-dead stray dogs found refuge in any shade they could as cows ambled about in search of food and an occasional scratch on the chin. Cows, considered sacred in the Hindu religion, can come and go as they please – or sit in the middle of the street blocking traffic, which happened on a number of occasions.

The food was an explosion of flavors I’d never tried before. The dishes –usually a curry, rice with vegetables and buttered pita bread called nan — were spicy as expected, which had worried me given my strict stomach, but sat better than most zesty Chinese dishes. There were a few inconveniences, but most bathrooms were easy to find or have someone point out directions to.

And this was just in New Delhi, my first stop. The rest of the country offered even more experiences.

One thing that remained unchanged across India was the people’s interest in me. Their questions followed almost the same pattern in each region: Where are you from?; What’s your name?; and then either “Do you like India?” or “Are you married?” It was comically similar to what most people asked me during my travels in China, sans questions about my salary.

Something about the way the Indians asked and talked, and badgered me about finding a wife sounded more genuine. It wasn’t feigned interest for the sake of being polite but actual curiosity, followed by amazement when I told them I was from New York City (it’s just easier to tell foreigners that than trying to explain where my hometown Tamaqua is).

Their response was always: “New York City, America are great places.” My response was the same too: “Yes, they are. But India is a great place too. And I really love it here. Now can you point me in the direction of a bathroom?”

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