Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Sun Up on the Ganges: Those We Meet Along the Road

Met Pepper in Delhi. She and her sister Ann were backpackers from Queensland. Hard traveling as two women alone, saw her grimacing in the café with an unwanted Indian’s hand draped around her shoulder squirming. I walked up to her, “Hello, sorry I’m late.” I took the man’s hand away and sat down between them. Could have left her alone, but I thought of my daughters traveling by themselves. It was the father in me. After the man left, we chatted over chai and they left in a rickshaw bent for Goa’s sun and surf. Farewell, Pepper. Farewell.
Met Tariq in Leh and he drove me into Ladakh, drove me again to the airport and I bought him tea before parting. He was the only real conversation I had in three days and we stood on the frozen sunlight and talked about snow in the mountains. You can tell a lot from how someone remarks about the weather. Then I left into the clouds. Farewell, Tariq. Farewell.
Met Bernard and Gretchen at the Taj Mahal. Two German tourists posing without someone to take their picture so I chatted them up. They met in an office. He was her superior and they hid their relationship for two years until an email gave them away and both were fired. Best thing that ever happened, they said, as they eloped instead. As I snapped the shudder of their camera, I thought, good for you too. Farewell, Bernard and Gretchen. Farewell.
Met Alan on the train to Varanasi. A Brit, he stood smoking a cigarette inside my sleeper compartment. Alan was here with mates traveling for a month through India to Bangkok and Vietnam. Back in England he is a deep sea diver and engineer repairing underwater cables and pipes for a Swedish company that builds these enormous drilling rig cities spending weeks at a time at 200 feet below sea level.
Alan said it’s a brain-trip (he used a more colorful word) putting on the gear and entering the pressurized chambers, knowing once that door is locked it will be a month again before he sees the sky. He said a life underwater isn’t for everyone. The loneliness. But you have to learn to put your life in the hands of other good men, and that belief makes it worth risking his life.
Alan and I talked most of the night as the train rumbled through the darkness. Only in the morning did I hear his dream. “Before I leave this country, I’m going to ride on the top of an Indian train.”
My eyes lit up, “Me too.”
“What?”
“Right now. Next stop, let’s go.”
And just like that we piled our bags and cameras under the bunks and climbed out onto the top of the train as it began to roll through the Indian wheatfields just laughing and screaming our heads off until the next station stop. “That’s the dream of my life, man!” Alan yelled into the wind as I howled back in total joy.
Once back inside, he said, “Family is blood. Loves come and go. But mates are for life, thank you Brian.”
We split on the platform at Varanasi. Farewell Alan. Farewell.
Met Patrice in Varanasi after I came out of the water. A hippie Spaniard sitting on the shore smoking beside her dusty sandals. “You come to India alone, yes?” she asked.
I tell her my story.
“So you have found true love?”
Her accent makes me laugh. They were bringing a body out to be burned on a bamboo ladder and a crowd was starting to gather. “Do you believe in true love?” I asked. She lit another cigarette. “Love is the dream of a baby for its ma-ma.”
I nodded.
As she spoke the dead body wrapped in flowers was laid on the wooden pyre, soon engulfed in flames. “I know what I believe,” I told her.
“And what is that?”
And afterward, she agreed and said, “I would like that to be true, yes.”
Farwell, Patrice. Farewell.
Met DaDa in Varanasi as my guide. He drove me in his old white Italian Peugeot taxi to the temples in Sarnath and around the city telling me everything. We toured hospitals and colleges, gypsy slums and wild bazaars. He took me inside his tiny little apartment just off Hanuman Ghat and we drank tea with his children. He told me his entire life story, showed me how he prayed to his Hindu gods, including Jesus, who he believed is the same as Buddhism, Islam and Judaism. I disagreed. My Jesus and Dada’s Jesus were two different people. But all the while we were both laughing, so friendly. After tea I told him I needed to see the city in a better way and tomorrow could we ride his motor scooter. He agreed. And we spent the entire day on that thing puttering around the busy streets and outside neighborhoods. It was by far my best experience in India. I had no idea that I would meet someone like that or have that experience with him. We separated at the hotel and I tipped him handsomely. Farewell, DaDa. Farewell.
“I think love is the only force in the universe to believe in. I think it was there before the universe was created and its force is what set the whole thing in motion. I think you meet many people in your life. They pass like bodies floating on water, but love, no. Love is the beginning of the universe, is it not?” This is what I told Patrice, that we meet many people in life. But only a few ever really matter. The rest, we let go. But those we hold dear, without those our lives would have meant nothing, and despite everything, she knew I was right.

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