April 27, 2017 § 4 Comments
I go to sleep in India, and in the morning I wake with my stomach roiling, the pain in my belly sharp and hot. I curl on my side, and sleep and sleep and sleep, the voices of my foreign roommates at the hostel in Varanasi close to my ear but far from my conscious. I sit up, nauseous, and curse the hostel for building its toilets three floors above on the hot roof beneath the relentless sun. I think, I’ve never been so violently ill in my entire life, and I wonder if I’ll be well enough to catch my overnight train that leaves in a few hours.
One bumpy Tuk Tuk ride later, my scarf whapping wildly against the metal roof, my backpack balanced on one knee, we are at the train station. We are late, with five minutes until our train departs, and I run after Emma, my legs weak and my chest heaving and my belly tight. In that moment, I’ll admit it: I hate India.
But then we are on the train, and I am lying down with my cheek against the hard leather bed and a crisp off-white sheet laid upon me. Eighteen hours passes fast when you’re exhausted, and the next thing I know, I awake in a pool of sun to the low call of “Chai! Chai!” from an Indian man carrying a metal thermos up and down the aisle. I order two fried potato somosas wrapped in newspaper and manage to keep one down. Then, we pull into Jaipur, Rajasthan.
Suddenly, in the glow of my restored health, India blooms.
In the cool of an early morning, Emma and I catch a Tuk Tuk to a coffee shop in old Jaipur, where a waiter in a fabulous white and green turban with a stiff fabric plume serves us black coffee and French toast and eggs. Full at last and content, we walk at will through the bazaar, and the smells are so good: incense and sweet curd and hot red curry and so so so many flowers, soft red petals stacked in thick layers and strings of yellow marigolds and bunches of purple and orange and pink blooms. Women crowd stalls filled with sparkly bangles, trying them on in layers of six and seven colorful plastic rings jangling up their arms. They ooo and ah and tell me, “look at these, they’d look good on you,” and so I give myself over to the colors of India.
I buy cheap bangles with purple and green and gold rhinestones and peacocks painted on the sides. I buy a long pink and green and silver sequined skirt. I try on a white sari that shimmers like real marble. Emma and I drink Coca Cola in cold glass bottles with an Indian vendor in the shade of his quiet rooftop shop, where we sort through painted carved elephants and bright chunky turbans and slippery silk blouses. The city is painted pink, and I’m falling in love.
On the Tuk Tuk drive back to our hostel, we stop at a red light and a boy, maybe seven or eight, wraps his arms around the metal frame, holding out one open palm and miming the taking and eating of food. His hair is sandy from white dust and his eyes are dark brown. Our Tuk Tuk driver shoos him away and the light turns green.
India is enormous, and another twelve hour overnight train ride west takes us deep into the Rajasthani desert town of Jaisalmer. We arrive at 5 in the morning, when the desert is still dark and quiet and breezy. Manu, the young man who runs the hostel, greets us at the front door and whisks us up three floors to the open air rooftop, where we watch the orange sun rise over the 12th century brown stone fort on the hill. We eat buttered toast and omelettes and drink milky brown chai.
Below us, men and women sleep on flat roofs. They are cocooned lumps in thick mattresses and ratty blankets. Manu sees me staring at them and says, “India is incredible. You can see anything in India.” We stay up there until it gets too hot — which isn’t long once the sun is up — and then we fall into our air conditioned room and sleep off the sleepless night.
We’ve come to Jaisalmer for a camel safari. Emma and I first heard about these safaris when we were in Nepal, and immediately knew we had to go on one.
In the late afternoon, we climb into the back of Manu’s rusty jeep and head further west, into the desert. The sun is a hazy circle of fire in the sky, the air hot and dry, the gravel road bumpy. Manu gives us both cold water bottles, and I press mine against my bare belly, the side of my neck, roll it between my hands. We zip past cacti the size of trees and start seeing the camels, standing about listlessly in the sun, staring at us smugly from the side of the road, plucking the leaves from desert oaks, sleeping with their long necks folded into the sand. I get a quick thrill when Manu tells us we are an hour’s drive from Pakistan. Once again, we are far from home.
Raju and Doola, our camels, are waiting for us at the camel point, a small sandstone village where camels with ropes around their front feet drink muddy water from a stone tank and chew cud with the mangy dogs running circles around their long legs. They are gangly, all knobby knees and fuzzy humps and skinny necks and floppy lips. When I climb onto Raju’s back, he lets out a primordial growl that reminds me of a dinosaur. These creatures are ugly and temperamental; they are also resilient and strong. They carry us in the triple digit heat out onto the sand dunes. The eight-year-old me who always thought camels were cute squeals with joy on the inside even though the ride is hot and uncomfortable, and soon my legs are sore.
The desert is pleasant once the sun sets. We drink chai from tin mugs off a platter on the dunes, watching the sun fall. In the distance, I hear the sound of Doola’s bell clanging as she chews her cud. Below us, a camel man and a camel boy cook curry and rice over a fire. Stray dogs lie on the sand, watching and waiting for a chance to steal our dinner.
Manu sits with Emma and me in silence as the desert grows dark and the first stars appear. There, shining bright is Jupiter. And there, so comforting because I can always see it at home, is Orion’s Belt. We sit on a coarse blanket by the fire in the dark and eat our meal as the fat black beetles scramble across the sand.
Manu and the camel man set up cots padded with thick mattresses up high on the dunes. We drink ice cold Kingfisher beers as he and the camel man serenade us with Rajasthani renditions of “Barbie Girl” and “Buffalo Soldier” and a sad song about an Indian woman who is getting married and must leave her family for good. We ask Manu questions about life in India, and he tells us there is no dating here, which is very hard. “When women don’t have power, men don’t have power,” he says. He tells us he will marry a foreign girl. He tells us he wants to travel, but Jaisalmer is as far as he’s ever been from his village of three hundred people near the Pakistani border. He wants to see the beaches of Goa, maybe, or the mountains of Nepal. Now that he’s no longer a camel man, but works for the hostel, he can save up money. He tells us all this in perfect English, which he began learning only two years ago.
That night, I count six shooting stars and send my wishes up to God. I see lightning flash along the horizon. I feel the cool breeze off the dunes and bury myself in my blanket. I fall asleep, and when I wake a few hours later, the Milky Way is a white river flowing above me. I feel so close to the sky, the dome above, it doesn’t seem real. When the sun rises, the birds chirp and an eagle soars right above us. Far out in the flat desert below the dunes, I see Raju and Doola sleeping with their heads up to the sky.
March 22, 2016 § 11 Comments
“And you’re by yourself?”
I look at the park ranger.
“Yes,” I say. “I’m by myself.”
This is the third time she’s asked in, oh, five minutes. I see her raise her eyebrows, shake her head.
“It’s going to be a cold night,” she says.
“I know,” I say.
She hands me a parking pass. Is it incredulity I see on her face? Or am I simply projecting my own self doubt? Do I really believe I can make it a night alone in the woods?
I foresee all the ways this night could go wrong. I’ve read my fair share of Stephen King: The convict watched as the girl unzipped her tent, all the while sharpening his blade against a rough stone. And I’ve read those news stories (actually, I’ve written a few): Police and community volunteers continue searching the woods for the girl who went missing last night. They discovered her campsite, but no remains…
How the hell am I going to make it through a night alone in the woods with thoughts like these?
But the parking pass is in my hand and the ranger has turned back to her computer. She doesn’t look so worried, so skeptical anymore. She just looks bored. So, I pocket the pass and head outside to the car.
The idea for a solo camping trip began last fall, when I went camping out west with one of my dearest friends. I love camping and, introvert that I am, I enjoy being alone. A solo camping trip sounded like a great combo. But I didn’t have anything planned until last week. That’s when I realized I needed to get out of the city, needed to breathe the crisp woody air, needed to watch the sun sparkle over cold water.
It was a need for beauty.
It was a need for solitude.
Over the last two years, I’ve looked at my life and seen a lot of metaphorical death. I moved to Dallas for the dream of a job that didn’t happen the way I hoped. I watched a relationship crumble from the inside, realizing too late how desperately I wanted it to work. I grieved over the lost community and natural beauty I left behind in Southern California.
One of my friends once told me that solitary retreats allow space for thoughts hidden deep within us to sprout, to bubble forth, to surprise and overwhelm us. I have found this to be true. I’ve set aside long weekends for silent retreats before, and have found myself weeping uncontrollably one minute and overwhelmed by a sense of peace the next. This is what I went looking for on my solo camping trip. Perhaps a lot to ask of a 24-hour excursion, but if you don’t ask, you’ll never receive — or something like that.
The park ranger gives me a site by the lake, a lovely spot to read and think and otherwise do absolutely nothing. It is a late Sunday afternoon, and I’m the only one in a campground of over a hundred sites.
That afternoon, I’m only scared once.
A hiker decides to use a nearby picnic table for his post-hike snack. It shocks me to look over after setting up my tent and find him sitting so close. There’s nothing Stephen-Kingy about him, though.
But then again, there usually isn’t until it’s dark…
After a dinner of cold sandwich halves, sweet blueberries, and an avocado eaten with a plastic spoon, I go for a walk. The sun has begun to set, and my side of the lake is already deep in shadow. But when I turn a corner my breath catches in my throat, my heart leaps into my mouth.
The light! It’s everywhere! Golden light. Dazzling, resplendent sunlight shattering thin green leaves, throwing golden warmth over everything; over tree bark, over scraggly brush, over pools of water, over my wan skin. The world is shot through with glory, and I’m standing in the middle of a sunbeam.
I cross a wooden bridge, the planks split open by the sun. As I walk, tiny birds rush out ahead of me, flying seemingly from nowhere. A squirrel hunts for nuts in the hardened mud below the bridge, his normally dull fur turned luminous by the falling light.
I could stay here forever, transfixed by nothing more than the flickering shadows dancing across a single slice of sunlit bark. I do stay here for a long time, watching, listening, hidden away in an illuminated wood.
But eventually, the sun sets. Eventually, I walk back to my side of the lake, where the woods are chilled and growing darker.
The park ranger is right: it’s a cold night. Luckily, I brought a trusty below-zero sleeping bag. It’s like a heater, keeping me toasty as the temperature drops.
And who would believe it: I fall asleep. I curl up with the sleeping bag snug around my head, I read for a little while, and then am fast asleep. Not once do I consider the imagined and real horrors outside my sheer shelter. I don’t wake until morning, when hundreds of birds outside my tent explode into song.
Here’s something I didn’t know: birds chirp loudest just before sunrise.
Which means, when I unzip my tent, I step outside to a frigid morning — a “cold-as-a-bullfrog morning”, as my grandmother might say — fog rolling in shivery sheets off the quiet water and the first lavender light smearing the sky.
This Texas beauty is subtle. It’s the kind of beauty that sneaks up on you, catching you by surprise.
It’s unzipping a tent in the morning to find a world awash in creamy blues.
It’s watching a flock of ducks stream noiselessly across glassy water.
It’s staring absently at a log only to realize it’s actually a knobby turtle.
This is the gift I receive in the morning. This is the gift of facing my fear.
And this is what I’m learning: I’m learning to peer closer, to realize the fecundity of life right before me, to live with eyes open wide. I’m learning to face the fear of sleeping alone in a wooded forest, fully expecting to wake up astonished, and ever more alive.
For any interested campers, I stayed at Tyler State Park, a lovely spot with pine trees and a small lake just an hour and a half from Dallas.