Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Rebirth in Varanasi

I am writing this from a fly ridden, dusty café just above the Asi Ghat in the cool enclave of wooden shudder and ancient stone. I am barefoot at a table sipping yak milk coffee, my pants hanging to dry over the chair having just swam in the Ganges at Varanasi.
“The Children of Varanasi are the Children of my Dreams.”
Little muslim clover in white hat holding his father’s hand.
Tiny weed in the market balancing a tea tray on her head.
Three sweet lollipops in plaid skirt uniforms riding in the back of a horse drawn school cart.
Brown naked muskrat in the gypsy slum bottom cheeks powered in dust.
Leper mother in rags holding this pair of eyes staring back at her sucking milk from a bottle.
Precious pile of flowers in orange robe selling prayer candles on the canoe.
Scary set of eyes, nose, and grinning teeth coming out of the water like a baby alligator. Bite!
Barefoot lemon tart in a summer dress standing knee deep in trash while her father rummages with bare hands for treasures.
Little plastic bag floating in the wind, all smiles as she stands in the shuddered doorway pulling a monkey’s leash.
Sometimes I wish for a son of my own.
A boy would have come with me on this trip to India. Xi’an is maybe a year away,
And then she and I will scour this earth for adventure until Rebekah is old enough to join.
But a boy? To a father, a son?
People always ask me if I wanted a son, a little cup to pour all my secrets into.
Well, nevermind.
I live out my fantasies in the eyes of my daughters, and the boyish heart of my own.

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.

Prayer at Dawn on the River Ganges

Up at 4:30, simple breakfast of dry bread and honey pilfered from a market stall, a thimble of jam, small coffee drank from a water glass beneath a street light. I am headed down to the Varanasi Ghats to watch the people wash and pray.
Throw hiking boots over my shoulder, don’t care about the stink of cow dung stuck to my soles. I’m tougher than I look, fill my bottle from the tap, don’t look back that’s a trap, the Ghats of Varanasi are not place for a Red Sox cap, imagine that, as I head down in the blue dawn to the Ganges.
I carry a flashlight, when was the last time you traveled an ancient city with a torch, but I know things, secret things, all along through this plight, I was right. Follow the women in saris carrying pails, down the stairs, no one stares. There’s your boat, boy. See, the old man is laying a blanket for you to sit on the bow. Rest now. Let the morning come.
Old man is rowing, keeping us afloat, tourists pass with their cameras out. The Indians pray, they moan and sway, they undress without duress, no stress. I promise you that. I watch too. They watch me. We are on each other’s televisions for free. It is nice because this time the magic is you and me.
I don’t know anymore what I am seeing, I wish someone was here to tell me what is real. I wish I had a companion to show me the way, not this old man. He only leads me to the magic and then puts out his hands for me to pay. I don’t pay to pray. Never have. No start now. Not when all this magic is around for free.
The world is wide, I know that. I know I will never rest until I see all of it. And somehow I know you won’t either. I like that about us, that we are two peas in a pod that stretches around the globe. Maybe someday we’ll sit again together in a little peapod. When you’re ready. Until then, don’t forget what I say.
I say, the world is magic, oh yes. There are places like this that exist. And I stopped trying to rhyme because it sounds corny after time, but my lyrics, my words, I hope you heard. I hope they made you know. Know what? That the world is waiting for us. That there is beauty to be shared every day, even in the mundane.
So sing your own song. I will beg to you no more. I will weep at your feet no more. I will crawl to your temple as a pilgrim no more. And when you’re ready, I’ll be here. I promise to hold you near. Because I’ll still believe in the magic of you, even if you don’t.
Until then, please know, it was worth it to cross the world just to find out if magic was real, and it is.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

No One Particular At All

(Poem composed while riding atop trains through the wheatfields of India)
Batman, Spiderman, and young Johnnie Termain
Abel Lincoln, Sitting Bull who’ll fight no more again.
Paul Bunyan, Steve McQueen, and lovestruck Clark Kent
Pecos Bill, Calamity Jane, and Alexander Supertramp.
Fredrick Douglas, Geronimo, and Johnny Appleseed,
All of these were American Dreams, American Dreams for me.
Harriet Tubman, classic John Wayne, the Eleanor and Teddy Roosevelts
Daniel Boone and Davy Crocket skinning and trading pelts.
Johnny Cash, Johnny Qwest, and Betsy Ross too,
Han Solo, Malcom X, and Captain Kangaroo.
Marlon Brando, Willie Mays, and Anthony Susan, B.
All of these were American Dreams, American Dreams for me.
John Henry, Jimmy Dean, Casey at the Bat,
Evel Keneval, Wild Bill, and the missing cockpit where Amelia sat
Charles Lindburg, Nathan Hale, Benjamin Franklin’s kite
Arther Fonzerelli, Billy the Kid, Tom Sawyer painting fences white
Muhammad Ali, Cassius Clay, George Washington’s cherry tree
All of these where American Dreams, American Dreams for me.
Sacajawea following her nose, and Jack Kerouac stealing cars
Captain Kirk setting phasers to stun, and Orson Wells attackers from Mars
Sojourner Truth and Slugging Babe Ruth, and Huckleberry Finn
Little Orphan Annie, and Zoey and Franny and poet Walt Whitman
Bonnie and Clyde, Elivis and hips, and the fairy tales of Walt Disney
All of these where American Dreams, American Dreams for me.
I wanted to be everyone of these and no one particular at all
Swing from trees, hoard jelly beans, leave scribbled poems in the cracks of prayer walls.
Swim wishing wells, weep at ringing church bells, follow music down abandoned chamber halls
And I became that way because as they say, I’m from the only place still allows tales to dream tall
That a boy from a small farm could live a life of such charm, yet still be no one in particular at all.

Straight Outta Indiana Jones

(Poem composed while standing on the platform waiting for the midnight train to the holy city of Varanasi)
Rats scurry in and out of wheat bags nibbling my toes and the
White baying goats held around the neck by boys in tank tops go ba-AAAH as
Chickens in cages quibble still and the
Sikh men in headdresses stroke their beards as
Fat men in white suits chew big cigars while
Beggars without legs, without eyes, without faces rise from the cement
All pleading, all praying, all mumbling for salvation along the platform for the midnight train from Agra to Varanasi.
The men push the water cart calling out sums and the
Dogs run along the tracks lowered into jagged black rocks rank with oil and urine as
Dark skinned men descend also to cross the tracks shouldering burlap sacks of filth and the
Tourists pass, speaking their clean German, French, Spanish,
All panting, all sweating, all hoping the Ganges will wipe away their worries as they wait along the platform from the midnight train from Agra to Varanasi.
And the women in saris, brilliantly tailored in turquoise, lavender,
honeysuckle and mulberry lace
Silken silhouettes standing guard over the dark corners of the forbidden and what’s left here of existent grace.
They squat on wicker baskets filled with snow peas, they lay prostrate on plastic tarps chanting, they swat at flies with busy hands as well as stroll haughtily as peacocks along the platform as they wait for the midnight train from Agra to Varanasi.
And I am here too, marveling at this life like a scene created by
Steven Spielberg, straight out of Indiana Jones.
I can’t believe this is real. I can’t believe I am witnessing this with my own swollen eyes. I can’t believe I am this fortunate to stand on the platform waiting for the midnight train from Agra to Varanasi and know at any time there will be a ticket for you and for me to return.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Walking Away from the Taj

(Poem composed while strolling through Taj Mahal)
Bee hives hung from the red brick gates, and green canaries darted to and fro atop the white marble towers, in the garden he built for her, leaves fell from tall cypress, and I stood wondering.

On the walls of her mausoleum are precious stones of the globe. Lapis from Chile, Opal from Bengal, Turquoise from Afghanistan, Onyx from Africa, Chinese Jade, and Jasper from Rajasthan. He spared no expense for this beloved bride. He brought the best artisans and craftsman, they carved her tomb from the block of marble and laid her there, and now the world wonders.
They met when she was married, in the bazaar she offered him candy and demanded he play a jewels ransom. He agreed and saw the trace of a smile beneath her veil. He waited until her husband died, then she bore him fourteen children. All of them wondering, what is the love story of my own.
The towers slant three degrees so as to fall and not cause damage, the dome is built without spike or nail, the walking pool’s majestic line is cut to give full beauty if one just looks long enough on the surface of the water, past their own reflection, they might see it, and wonder, is this really love?
When one is in India, one wears it like a thick glued on shackle. There is no escape, but here, amid the plush gardens and bright stone, one sees, one knows, one is able to ponder the softer side of life. Is this how one walks away from love? Is this how someone honors it instead? Must one bury the dead in memory or keep the memory alive after it is lost? Does this allow us to live freely? What kind of woman asks a man to erect this for her? What kind of man loved a woman this much to comply? May we all live to unlock this mystery and ponder all its splendor in the gardens, pools, and mausoleums of our own hearts.

Indian Men Do Not See Me

(A poem composed along the road to Agra)
The men beside the taxi stand squat in clusters of ten to fifteen, like Brahma bulls chewing grass, Spitting in the dust.
But they do not see me.
The eight men languishing on the back of a tractor, the three muslim men in white robes pacing, The naked man covered in filth walking in the red hot sun past the children
Does dirt count as clothing? Thought not,
Because he does not see me.
The soldiers in tight uniforms, ten shouldering weapons, seven blowing whistles,
Five leaning on fence posts oiling their moustaches,
They do not see me.
The Sikh in white shirt sitting in the broken chair in the front yard of dirt barking orders,
The goat herder in white beard and musky turban carrying a stick,
The legless crying man crawling on his hands the color of garbage
Can skin really become ashes and rotting soot? If burned that long, than yes sir.
They do not see me.
The boys traveling in packs twelve to seventeen deep, their collars turned up,
Their hair neatly gelled, passing a McDonald’s fanta back and forth and drinking
From one straw.
They do not see me.
The malnourished farmer with cane beating a donkey and cart,
The armless man riding a bicycle pulling his son,
The leper in the wheat fields sitting in the shade under a tree,
How does one argue in this heat without hands or a tongue? No answer to know.
They do not see me.
The faceless boys with no shoes, the dazed ones sleeping in abandoned tires,
The alert ones leaping oil puddles outside the motorcycle shop made of cinder blocks and tarp,
The fatherless ones pushing kerosene tank cart holding up traffic,
The shouting one with stale guava holding a monkey that presses its nose to my window,
Will these boys ever sit in my class, hear the joy of Romeo's love, the sigh of Samson's lament? Not one, for they do not see me.
Traveling in India I have never seen so many aimless, shiftless, purposeless men. Indian men are everywhere. It takes ten Indian men to do the job of one. In the restaurant, one to take your order, one to bring your water, one to bring a napkin, one to bring the food, one to check if the service is acceptable, one to take your plate away, one to bring the bill, one to take your money, one to wish you well at the door. So many men, but none really see me.
In the market it is the same, two men to bring you to the tent, four to stand behind you while you brose, three to look in your wallet, two to show you the trinket, one to take the money, one to wrap it up, three to say goodbye, five to offer you a ride, seven to direct you to their shop, but, none of these men really see me.
And thank God,
Because if they really saw my face, if they could see my horror, my pity, my fear, thank god they don’t see me, because I am not looking at them either. Who could? You? No, we have convinced ourselves they are nothing more than a bad dream, a blury image on a road we pass along quickly, too afraid to stop and stay.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Everything is Jul-lai

Traveling in the clothes I slept in, haven’t showered in three days, nothing but ice cold glacier runoff dripping out of the tap anyway. If last night was hell, today was heaven. Hired a guide and drove south out of Leh down the Indo-China Friendship Highway that snakes along the Indus River out onto the Martian-esque landscape of Ladakh, this barren valley lying within the Himalayas to which Leh is the modern capital.
We drive past Tibetan refugee camps, Indian military outposts with serious dark skinned and mustached faced soldier carrying weapons, ruined villages still ravished from the Pakistan-India Boarder Wars, Spinning prayer wheels, careening mountain buses, and sleeping farms of stone cottages and filth covered cattle where the dirt brown fields yield only radishes and barely.
Nothing can describe my euphoria as we speed on down the covered road. Clean fresh air. Amazing sites. I am breathing. I mean, the beauty takes my breath away, but I am breathing and full of joy. I was right not to board a plane and return to the sea level air of Delhi after my asthma attack. I stuck it out and the gamble paid off. This day trip is exactly why I came to India. My guide is Tariq, a Buddhist and native Ladakhian. We chat very freely for the 100 km roundtrip drive. He is a 22 year retired veteran of the Indian army and fought the Pakistans in the late 80’s. Though 20 years my senior, we easily converse about our children, Indian religion, politics, and eco-tourism. He answers all my questions. Yes, Indian men mandatorily serve in the military. Tariq was stationed on the Nepalese border, and once climbed K2 in a joint Indo-American exercise. “You think adjusting to Leh’s altitude is difficult, wait until you are at 24,000 feet.” It is good to just talk to someone for long stretches of time. Just talk and drive, Tariq. Take me some place cool.
Our first stop in Hemis Monastery high atop a long winding, rocky road above a series of farms and dry creek bed of dripping glacier. The view is amazing. I’ve been to so many temples stretching all across Asia, but none more authentic that Hemis. A real working site, where Buddhist monks live and study and pray. It was an amazing insight. Tariq also pointed this out. “Look at the construction of the old buildings here. It is cement only in the modern restoration. Everything else is wood, dirt, stone. Everything from the earth.”
I run my hands along the wooden thatched roof and cold stone exterior. “Yes, everything is from the earth.”
On the ride back down to the next village we stop to give a monk a ride, then another woman. Every time Tariq chats away in Ladakh. “We say, ‘Jul-lai’. It means, hello, goodbye, thank you, you’re welcome. Like the stones and the earth of the temple, it is just jul-lai. Everything is jul-lai.”
“Everything is jul-lai,” I repeat, as we stop to give a woman in brilliant blue wrapped sari and big eyed, dark haired baby a ride.
Our second stop is the dazzling Thiksey Monastery high in the hills. Again, absolutely authentic with incredible landscape and views. We have a monk unlock one of the inner chambers to study a 7 meter tall Buddha and chat over tea on the floor. I feel very overwhelmed by this and just let the man talk. He is wrapped in scarlet clothes and yellow vest, with black head shaved and skin dark as sun-roasted tomatoes. He tells me about the circle of life. How we come, we live, we die, we are reborn. I know all that he says. I have known God in his different faces all my life, but it feels so good to let the man explain, to watch him struggle with his English, to let him feel as though his words to me are more important that if I relate to them or not.
An hour ago on the road, Tariq and I picked up a monk hitching to a smaller temple and he translated his question from the backseat.
“Yes, I am a teacher.” I said.
“Ah,” the monk sighed, “That tells me everything about you.”
“Really?” I said.
The monk laughed, “It means you are a man the world can trust. A man the world needs to teach us what to believe.”
Later chatting with this other monk, I thought about his generosity of opening the inner chamber for me. But then again, isn’t that what people do? We sit and talk. We make time. We are thoughtful when we pass knowledge from one to another. At least, we should.
One of the cool things about Thiksey are the Buddhist paintings full of philosophy, riddles, and proverbs. I scribble as furiously as I could in my notebook standing in the dark corners of this inner temple while Tariq and the monk talk. I take few pictures. Instead I want to capture them with my mind. I saw a painting of a man upside-down riding a horse; children looking at a demon dissolve into smoke; a scholar on a cloud writing on a scroll; a smiling goddess with wine bowl emerging from a lotus; a barefoot demon eating a village; a boy at his father’s feet smiling; a monkey deep in thought on the river banks; a teacher watching children laugh and play; a wolf beneath a tree dreaming.
I wander for a long time at Thiksey until Tariq finds me. “Time to go,” I say. Then bowing to the monk, I make him laugh. “Jul-lai. Jul-lai.”
He bows in return. “Jul-lai.”
Everything is Jul-lai.
Our third stop was Shey Palace, almost abandoned now and falling into ruin. Burned out doorways, caved in storage sheds. Still, this once seat of power for the first Ladakh king is a wonderful hike. I say hike, as it is straight up the mountainside. You can’t help but think of barbaric warlords in places like this. Enormous, brutal men, forged just like their temples out of stone and mud. At a vista point I stop and look out over the vast stretching farm lands all the way up to the towering Himalaya. What is life for a king here? King of stone and dirt? King of riddle and proverb? King of power and fleeting wealth? So transitory. Come. Go. Circle of life. I look out and see the road stretching forever. No end. The road makes you think about yourself. This is a blessing and a takeaway. Everything that makes you is what destroys you. Everything you believe in is what you hold too close to let go. Everything you love is what strangles you to death. Jul-lai. Look to the oneness. Jul-lai. Everything is Jul-lai.
We return in time for afternoon goatmilk coffee on the frozen wooden bench covered in rugs outside the hotel. The sun is setting and the ground is cold. Lately, I’ve been thinking a great deal about my life. How I move from such strange moments of joy and sadness, madness and clarity. How there are times I hate myself, but others when I feel I am closer to the actual meaning of life than I have ever been. I know that I am alive. I know there is a reason. I feel it. I know everything is connected, everything the same. I know this. Everything is Jul-lai. Everything, yes.