June 23, 2017 § 2 Comments
All traveling, be it an hour drive to a nearby state park or an overnight flight across the pond, requires taking risks, and traveling to a developing world country requires an especially long list of them. At the top: the risk that you may return home with a little bit of that country hidden away in your gut, in the form of a hungry parasite, perhaps, or an angry bacteria, or a mysterious and terrifying virus that conjures images of doctors wearing hazmat suits while tending to you in a sealed hospital bed.
Less than twenty-four hours after my flight home from South Asia, the symptoms began. Stomach cramping. Bloating. Grumbling. And — ahem, I know it’s gross — some of that pesky traveler’s diarrhea.
I didn’t think too much of it at first. After all, my stomach was adjusting to Western food after two months of rice, lentils, curry, and paneer. Plus, I’d been sick in India. This bout of unpleasantness was probably the lingering remnants of the illness I’d experienced on the banks of the Ganges, dirtiest and most holy of rivers. But a week later, I was still suffering, so I did what you’re supposed to do: I went to the doctor.
I was driving through the busy streets of Dallas when my doctor called. I’d been waiting for his call. I’d undergone a number of tests and was waiting for him to tell me the results. I wasn’t worried. After all, the symptoms were mild. When I’d met with him earlier that week, we’d amicably swapped stories about South Asia while he listened to my colon with his cold, silver stethoscope. The atmosphere was light. I wasn’t feeling great, but I wasn’t feeling terrible either. This upset stomach was just something to nip in the bud. I’d never been seriously ill before; I couldn’t be that sick now.
I pulled off the side of the road and answered my phone.
When my doctor told me the name of the mean bacteria swimming around my gut, it sounded like gibberish to me, like Greek, or Latin, which, of course, it was.
“It’s a serious thing,” he said seriously. I had never heard him sound so serious before. In the span of five minutes, he used the word death more than five times.
“Whatever you do, don’t take an antidiarrheal. It can lead to your death.”
“Whatever you do, don’t drink alcohol while on these antibiotics. It can lead to your death.”
“This bacteria is life threatening.”
“This bacteria is hard to kill.”
I was reminded of those TV commercials for the latest pharmaceutical drugs, where a mysterious man with a low, soothing voice speeds through a list of side effects while a beautiful woman and her equally beautiful golden retriever walk breezily along a sandy beach: side effects may include loss of sight, uncontrollable vomiting, temporary paralysis, oh, and DEATH.
I scribbled everything down on a yellow sticky pad. I asked him the few questions that came to my mind, knowing I would have a million more as soon as I hung up the phone. I hung up the phone and started to cry. I thought: surely I didn’t travel all the way to Mount Everest and back only to die in the suburbs of Dallas. How absurd. How horrifying. How totally unfair.
This is the way of the world: one moment, you’re healthy and carefree; the next, you’re not. Kurt Vonnegut comes to mind: so it goes. Joan Didion: life changes in the instant. The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying: all of life is a preparation for death.
“He said taking an anti-diahreal could lead to my death!” I later explained to my family and friends. “I have diarrhea! Don’t you think I’ve taken an antidiarrheal? Don’t you know I’ve already taken three antidiarrheals this week?!”
I talked about diarrhea a lot over the next month and a half. After a while, it seemed like a normal topic of conversation to me. Of course, every once in a while, a stranger would give me a sideways glance that said, “I don’t care if it could kill you. What makes you think you can talk to me about diarrhea?”
Earlier that week, I’d ordered E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India with the intention of learning more about the country I’d recently visited. But when I picked it up in the reserve section of the library and brought it home that day, I found I couldn’t look at it. I couldn’t even read the summary on the back of the jacket. Not that I held India responsible for the bacteria producing nasty toxins in my gut. In fact, I still loved India as much then as I did when I was jetting around the country on its fabulously exotic trains. I still planned to return someday. I knew who was responsible: the brutal nature of the natural world. I just didn’t want to be around anything that reminded me of what was happening on my insides.
I wanted to lie in bed all day and watch Woodie Allen films, which were the perfect mix of melancholy and humor. I wanted to take long walks around my neighborhood and soak up the sunshine. I wanted to observe every fat white magnolia blossom and run my hands through the faint mist of every front yard sprinkler. I didn’t want to look up my bacteria on webMD. I wanted to communicate the gravity of my situation to my family and friends, and at the same time, I wanted to remain lighthearted and optimistic. More than anything, I wanted the sharp cramps in my gut to go away. I ferociously, stubbornly wanted to be healthy again.
Now that I’m on the other side of sickness, in the tranquil forgetfulness of health, I wonder if I was being dramatic. It’s a question I can afford to ask now.
But when I woke in the morning to my stomach cramping, when, after the first round of antibiotics, my stomach was still cramping, when the fear that I would suffer from this bacteria chronically, for the rest of my life, ate away at my spirits as much as the toxins ate away at my gut, I didn’t feel dramatic. I felt reasonable when I asked for prayers for healing. I felt smart when I stepped down from various work commitments so I could focus on getting well. But now, in the glow of health, it seems odd that I ever thought I might not get better.
We forget ourselves so easily. I forget what it felt like to run up against that hard fact of life: that I am my body, and without my health, my body doesn’t exist and neither do I. It gives a whole new meaning to the concept of resurrection.
When I was sick, everything in my life became urgent. This is the silver lining to every illness: what matters to you becomes razor sharp.
Don’t get me wrong, all illness is bad, being sick is awful, death is not something we were ever meant for. That said: paradoxically, we receive something even in the worst of circumstances.
I don’t want to go to my grave without doing this! Or this! Or that!
I acted out of that urgency. I wrote an old friend to explain how I really felt, a feeling I’d been afraid to voice for years. I took a good hard look at my life right now and decided it would be good, no matter what. I sent spontaneous, thoughtful text messages to friends. I walked around my neighborhood and cried for how beautiful it looks in late spring. I took long hot showers. I bought myself a brand new yoga mat. I read what I wanted to read.
Some of this left me emotionally tired, but in the best way. I suppose it’s good that we don’t experience this kind of urgency all the time, that sometimes we’re complacent and forgetful about what matters.
The weight of constant awareness is exhausting.
Six weeks later, I got the call: I was bacteria free.
I knew it was coming. I had already felt the change in my body: no more cramps in the morning, no more — ahem — diarrhea at night, no more grumbling and bloating after I ate. When friends and family members and well-meaning acquaintances asked me how I was doing, I said, “I’ve never been better!” I always took my health for granted, I said, but health is the best thing we’ve got. You feel so alive after recovering from illness.
But the ghost of that angry bacteria remained with me. One afternoon, I felt a sharp pain in my side, and my mind flashed with fear: could it be back? Could some little microscopic bit have remained, multiplied, and colonized, heaven forbid? It hadn’t, thank God, and for at least that moment, I let go of the fear.
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.
April 21, 2017 § Leave a comment
India: I see, but I don’t always understand. And I see so much.
We walk the back alleys of the bazaars in Old Delhi, and it is stepping around doves and pigeons crammed in flat metal cages, children pumping brown water into a bucket from a rusted pump, women in bright patterned saris with gold rings in their noses who stare at our pale skin, men driving green and yellow Tuk Tuks pulling up and calling out, “Spice market? Red fort? Very cheap!” It is tattered colorful tarps strung over piles of trousers, T-shirts, and flip flops. It is heaps of corroded electrical parts and trash strewn about the ground. It is vendors selling sharp smelling oranges and cold fresh-squeezed lime juice and bunches of bananas on a wooden plank. It is the heat, relentless and full, and the sun ever shining. It is cows lumbering idly, eating scraps from metal bins. It is the smell of sweat and urine and exhaust, and then, suddenly, spicy curry.
A man dressed all in white beckons us into his crowded restaurant, and in a steamy booth crammed upstairs beneath a rickety fan, we tear apart chunks of freshly baked roti and dip it in hot curried vegetables. We lavish praises over this fabulous meal, which will cost us each less than fifty cents.
Loudspeakers on the minarets of the Jama Masjid Mosque, one of the largest in India, echo forth the call to prayer. I wrap my floral scarf around my head and follow the mass of people up the stone steps. Below me, Old Delhi is tin roofs glinting in the sun and dust and smog billowing upwards, horns honking and thousands of people clambering over each other in a mad rush to get where they have to go. We sit in the shade of the mosque and Indians approach us, asking, “Photo?” Or they don’t ask at all, and sidle up for a selfie. A little girl in a white and purple chiffon dress prances back and forth in front of us, smiling and laughing. In all my traveling, this time and the times before, I have never felt farther away from home.
We would be lost without Shabhu. Or at least, navigating Agra would be much more difficult.
When the train from Delhi pulls into Agra, we look for a Tuk Tuk to drive us to the Taj, and Shabhu, mustached and skinny, in a pressed yellow shirt and clean white pants, steps out of the crowd, beckoning for us to follow. “Welcome to my Indian helicopter,” he says, helping us into his green and yellow Tuk Tuk. It is spotless, inside and out. For 500 rupees each, Shabhu will take us around Agra for the day: the Taj Mahal, the Black Taj, the Agra Fort, a traditional Indian lunch. He shows us his guest book, where tourists from around the world have written recommendations. We look at each other, tired and hot, and put our trust in Shabhu.
He does not fail, and within half an hour, we are walking through the main gate of the Taj. We can see her marble base through the dark entry. She is more beautiful than I ever imagined she would be. All the hype: it’s true. She stands tall and magnificent in the sun, a marble testament to love. We walk around her, touch her cool side, look in wonder at the inlays, florid curls and wisps of vines and words carved in a language secret to us.
Next up, says Shabhu, the Black Taj. He explains meticulously what this Black Taj is, with one arm draped over the back of his Tuk Tuk, the other shooing away a child who comes up to ask, “Chocolate?” But in his thick Indian accent, we don’t understand what he says. We catch words here and there, phrases occasionally: “black marble shipped by boat from Italy”, “too expensive”, “money given to the poor.” We ask questions for clarification, but still don’t understand, and in the end, let him lead us down a quiet, dusty road toward a booth, where we shell out 200 rupees and enter a hot garden where orange blossoms drip from shimmering green trees and the sun bakes our skin.
We see the Taj Mahal again, this time from across the river and without the throngs of tourists and whistling guards. We see a pile of old red brick ruins. We see a cow with a large metal bell clanking around its neck gallop along the shore. We whisper earnestly to each other, “Where is the Black Taj?” We want to see it, this dark mirror of the mausoleum across the way.
As it turns out, the Black Taj does not exist. We look it up on our iPhones and find it is a legend made popular by the “fanciful writings”, according to Wikipedia, of an obscure British writer. In other words, we paid to see the supposed location of a mausoleum that was never built and may never have been planned.
We sit on a crumbling wall in the shade of the trees, and with the real Taj across the river, we laugh. For the rest of the trip we will be looking at each other and asking, “Remember when we saw the Black Taj?”
We return to Shabhu and he takes us to a lunch of mushroom masala and fried rice and lassis. Once again I think, I’d come to India over and over again just for the food.
I find a book on Hinduism in our hostel in Varanasi, and flip through the pages on the rooftop terrace, lounging on colorful cushions and plush pillows beneath a fan that stirs the hot air. It is 106 degrees, and I fall asleep reading, the heat filling me until I am a heavy weight that could lie there forever.
India is 80 percent Hindu, and Varanasi is the holy city on the banks of the holy river, the Ganges. Later, we wind our way through the narrow, bustling streets until we see the ghats, the steps leading down to the river, and the green water of the Ganges herself. We walk along the concrete embankments, and see the smoke from the cremation fires and the holy men in their matted dreads and saffron-colored sashes and the wooden boats with their orange and pink and yellow flags flapping gently in the wind.
Young children splash about in the water. Old men lather themselves with soap. Young men come alongside us asking, “Boat?” Women selling bright yellow marigold flowers and candles in silver trays to float in the river hold up their baskets for us to see. Water buffalo, huge and slick, lumber out of the river and barrel past. Looking absently this way and that, we see a dead body wrapped in cloth and swarming with flies in the trunk of a truck.
“Varanasi is life and death together,” an Indian man tells me as we look out over the river, and I feel like I’m witnessing something important, something vital that I don’t understand, that I am separate from, that is closed off to me.
Holy men with ash smeared on their bodies smiling and waving, a child with a lame foot leaning on a wooden staff disappearing down a narrow alleyway, an Indian man telling me, “Go to the burning ghats now to see the bodies. It is very lucky.” Crumbling red and mute brown stone temples, metal vats of square white paneer, the sweet smell of yogurt and so many flies I cannot breathe for fear of inhaling them. The surprising flick of a cow’s tail on my hand. A little boy diving gracefully into the water, splashing me as I leap back.
In the late morning, we walk along the ghats until we find a spot beside a few bobbing boats where a boy is swimming and washing his clothes. I take off my shoes and step ankle-deep into the cool water. The concrete is slick with moss, and I don’t think about what else. Upstream, another boy rides a water buffalo while men who’ve just taken a dip squat in the shade playing cards. As the water laps gently at my feet, I try not to think about the bodies dropped ceremoniously in the center of the river and the 80 bodies a day cremated on its shores. I don’t think about the ashes. I don’t think about how the Ganges is the second most polluted river in the world. I don’t think about my sins being washed away or good luck or pleasing Shiva.
I stare out at several new friends from my hostel who have gone in all the way, and I feel confused. At peace, yes, but aware that I’ve stumbled upon a place that is so different from me, a beautiful place that ignites my imagination and jolts me out of myself, but a place that feels far away even as I sit with my feet in the middle of it.
In the evening, we wind our way down the streets from our quiet, air-conditioned hostel to the ghats. The river is a hazy blue, and a soft breeze blows across the water. Every evening at 7, there is a ceremony called arati on the ghats, a ritual of worship to the river and the god Shiva, and a prayer for mankind as a whole. We reach one of the main ghats and find the water just off the shore crowded with wooden boats full of Hindu worshippers come to see the ritual. Some light candles and send them floating off into the dark. Many more crowd the steps leading up to a platform, where bells clang and men in brilliant orange sing, burn sticks of incense, wave huge gold cups shaped like serpents filled with fire, and toss petals of marigolds into the air.
One of the men in orange speaks in Hindi into the microphone at the dense crowd, and I ask an Indian fellow who accompanied us from the hostel what is being said. I expect something profound, something highly holy, but instead, it turns out the man is simply instructing the crowd to watch their belongings and to speak with the administration if they would like a ritual performed in honor of themselves or a family member or a loved one.
And suddenly, on the banks of the Ganges, seated beside an Indian man with the mark of Shiva on his forehead and several old women wearing saris and a gazillion sparkly bangles on their wrists, I break through a barrier to familiarity. This enchanting, colorful ritual may be unusual to me, but the aim is the same as any ritual I’d see at home: prosperity, health, and happiness for us all. As a man walks around jotting down requests for the ritual on a pad of paper, I’m reminded of prayer request cards at the backs of the pews in my church at home and the prayer teams available during communion. So much of the form of this religion is different than my own, but the desires in the hearts of these people are the same. For a moment, as clouds of sweet incense billow over my head and the bells clang and the music arches into the night sky over the water, I am moved on the inside, and my heart gives a little flutter.
On the way back, the river is quiet again, and we pass the fires on the burning ghat near our hostel. I hear children laughing and playing cricket in an alleyway. I see a mother and father and baby step out of a pharmacy and climb onto a motorcycle. I see a body wrapped in saffron cloth and a man in a matching tunic waving incense over it. I see two mad dogs going at it in the street. And I think, this religious city is a living metaphor for all of humanity, for the mystery of birth and growth and death, and everything therein.