We were dropped off by taxi in front of Keir and Robyn’s apartment building at two in the morning. A welcoming trail of orange and pink petals arranged in patterns led us to their door. We turned the key in their lock and we were in. We had arrived -- sleep deprived, rumpled, hungry, and in need of showers. My brother and his wife are teachers who get up early in the morning, so we had been told to make ourselves at home and we’d see them the next day. We fed the kids and whisked them off to bed. Then I sat in their living room and breathed.
Several times during the thirty-six hour trip here, Pat leaned over to whisper, “You did it, baby.” But what had I done? Dragged my family half the way around the world, while our lives in Los Angeles crumbled? The day before I left, Pat and I had to run numerous last minute errands on foot because the transmission on our car was all but toast, our bank account was tapped out, and job prospects for us both were scarce.
Despite my apprehension about our circumstances, I slept like the dead that night. If pharmacologists could create a thirty-six-hour-long-trip-half-way-across-the-globe-with-children experience in pill form I’d buy a case. Ever since they created the it-lowers-your-blood-pressure-just-like-red-wine-but-isn’t-red-wine pill, I assume that anything is possible. The only difference here would be that my sleeping pill would cut out the tough stuff, whereas the red-wine-pill only leaves you asking, “And the point is…?”
The following day was one of the most relaxing I’ve had in recent history probably because there was nothing I could do except recuperate. This is the beauty of traveling. It forces you to simply deal with what’s in front of you. And in this case what was in front of us was a stocked fridge and a strange house to ourselves that I didn’t have to clean. We lolled around, went to a charming café on the embassy compound, and caught up later with my brother’s family when they all got back from school.
The compound is gated around the school and teachers’ housing. The high stone walls give it character and the hills offer levels that satisfy my artist soul. As we walked through the school, images created with many colored petals decorated the stone path. Children of all ages and cultures trafficked between classes and teachers kibitzed on the grounds. The compound is separate from the city and we haven’t ventured out yet because there has been so much prep for our backpacking trip.
Both of our families stopped by a party last night and several teachers weighed in on what was before us. I was told that the begging at the train station tomorrow night could be pretty intense. I listened to a number of stories about Varanasi where the cremation rituals are beautiful, even celebratory, but occasional sightings of charred bodies floating down river can be hard for some Westerners to process. I’ve been looking forward to Varanasi because I’m a spiritual sampler, but I wondered how it would specifically hit our very Western children. Los Angeles is about as Western as you can get.
The boys slept that night in their cousin’s room and the adults retired to the balcony. Pat and I asked Robyn and Keir about how to handle beggars. Of course, we want our children to be sympathetic but we know that, practically, we can’t spend tons of time and money trying to cure all ills – unsuccessfully.
Keir and Robyn gave us their philosophy. They feel that giving money to beggars encourages their exploitation, often by people who handle them and take the most of their money. Instead, Keir and Robyn put aside money every month to donate to charities working with the poor. They also volunteer at a local orphanage with their daughter. They said that we could do this as well when we returned from our trip. I would love to do that, but I think it’s best to see how the kids manage the experience of traveling first.
This morning Pat prepared the children for the train station. He told them that we wouldn’t be giving money to the beggars, but that at the end of the trip we would give money to Keir and Robyn to donate. And we suggested that they donate from their Christmas money.
Spencer and Murphy listened to Pat soberly. It was hard to tell how much they were processing and we didn’t press. They don’t have much context for what they are about to see. After Pat finished talking about all this in an even tone, he asked if they had any questions or comments.
Spencer said, “I have a comment.”
Looking at his face I could tell that what he was about to say was difficult for him to express.
“What’s that, buddy?” Pat asked.
“Um,” he said, looking down, pulling at a loose thread on his sweatpants. “I just want to say that I’m not totally psyched.”
“That’s OK,” Pat said.
I felt heavy. My eyes hurt. Every parent wants life to be easy for their child and here I was actually choosing a path that was difficult. Pat put his hand on Spencer’s knee and said, “Thanks for saying that. I know that you’re nervous about it, but we will be together. And we can talk about everything.”
In that moment, I felt all of the traveling tension between Pat and myself dissolve. I knew that what was before us would be challenging for the children. But Iå also knew that it would give our Los Angeles boys context for the rest of their lives.
This morning I walked into Keir and Robyn’s closet searching for a full-length mirror. I was stunned by how few clothes they have. I’ve actually been proud of how light we’re traveling, so I’ve been thinking about carrying less. I’ve thought about divesting myself of things for a long time. I’m a person who delights in art and books so my home is full. We don’t spend much money but wherever the eye can rest there is a photo, book, or painting. I don’t know that I can let go of those things that are full of meaning for me. However, I could certainly do with less clothing and stuff that takes up room on a shelf. As I looked at Robyn and Keir’s closet, I wondered if living in cultures that have much less than ours alters their perception of how much is, well, “much”.
This afternoon as I was packing for our backpacking adventure, I felt sad and defenseless even though I am excited about our trip. I stopped folding clothes and sat on the edge of the bed, took off my glasses, and cried. I’m sure I was crying partly from physical and emotional exhaustion. But I was also crying for all those who don’t have enough of what they need. Because I do. I have more than enough. It’s not simply the books and the paintings. It’s my family and our health -- and a rich creative life that I can indulge in because the rest is in place. So even though we have a car that we have to get out of to push into reverse. Even though we’re going bankrupt. Even though we have no retirement, savings, or jobs. We have so much, much, much.
Which means that we could do with less of everything else. Doesn’t it?