Thursday, January 27, 2011

White Water


Traveling allows me to access a part of my personality that otherwise lies dormant.  Normally, I’m a fearful, fretful person who has been known to shriek, “SOMEONE STOLE MY SON!” when I lose sight of Spencer in a grocery store or weep uncontrollably because Pat threw away the heel of bread I was saving to make into cinnamon toast after the children go to bed.  When I’m on the road, however, I am calmer and braver.  Which may not be saying much when you consider my baseline, but work with me here. It was this calmer, braver part of me that agreed to “gentle” white water rafting even though, at home, I would be afraid of falling onto a rock and losing an eye and/or puncturing a lung. And I certainly wouldn’t take the children.
            Our campground was established and managed by a company called, “Snow Leopard” which promised adventure tourism.  To my mind, that meant that we HAD to be adventurous or what the hell were we doing there instead of going to a day spa?  Besides, I have always hoped to raise children who are less fearful than I am. Already, Spencer is afraid of heights, like me. Also, even though I would probably qualify for any clinical trial concerning the treatment for unreasonable fears, I loved the image of myself as the hiker-rafter-cycler-diver-whatnot that the phrase, “adventure tourism” evoked.
            Robyn already embodies that image and could care less about maintaining it, so she decided to stay back at the camp and nap with Zoe.  That left five adventurers.  Our family, plus Keir. Rather than inspiring new fears in my children by laying bare my own, I was determined to model bravery and adventurousness. 
“OK, kids, let’s strap these babies on,” I said, when we reached the shore. The thousand-year-old ruins of Orchha loomed over us.  Vinod and about five Indian men from “Snow Leopard” readied a large inflatable raft and the accompanying banana boat. 
            “Babies?” asked Murphy.
            “Lifejackets,” I explained.  “We have to wear these babies in case we fall in the water. Which probably won’t happen because these men are trained experts.  But in the event that one of us falls overboard, we need to fasten these babies tight so that we’re nice and safe and don’t drown.”
            “Overboard?” said Spencer.
            “Unlikely,” I said.  I turned to Keir, “Keir, you’re a former Army Ranger, wouldn’t you say that falling overboard is ‘extremely unlikely’?”
            Keir shrugged, “It’s pretty gentle. What would you say, Vinod?  Difficulty, ‘one’?”
            Vinod smiled, “Difficulty, zero.”
            “See kids,” I said.  “Very gentle.  But just in case, let’s make sure our helmets are secure.”
            “I’ve already checked them,” said Pat.  “We’re good.”
            “Excellent,” I said and turned back to the kids, ”That way, if you fall out and slam against a rock, you won’t damage your brain.  These guys know what they’re doing.”
            “Let me adjust your helmet,” Pat said to me. Now that he mentioned it, the helmet did feel like it was resting on the back of my head at a jaunty angle, leaving my frontal lobes vulnerable. 
            As Pat fiddled with the straps, he whispered through a fake smile, “Chill on the ‘bad stuff that can happen to you’ talk. You’ll scare the kids.”
            “Right,” I said, locking eyes.  “Got it, Captain.”
            Vinod stepped into the raft, “Ok.  One at a time.”
            “One at a time, kids,” I repeated. “Otherwise we could tip the whole thing over.”
            I stepped into the boat, “Whoa, careful kids.  A bit wobbly at first.  And, Vinod?  This material that is the bottom of the boat, must be durable, yes?”
            “It’s very safe,” he smiled.
            “See kids. Super safe.  So don’t worry about a jagged rock piercing through it.”
            Pat grabbed my wrist with intent as he stepped into the boat.
            “Right. Right,” I said to him preemptively, “I’m done.”
            When we were all aboard, Vinod sat down us on the inflated sides. It took effort to maintain balance and I had to clench my ass muscles to stay upright as a couple of guys pushed us out onto the water.
            I glanced at Spencer behind me.  He looked focused but fairly relaxed.  Across from me, Murphy looked eager. Good, I thought.  They seemed completely unaware of dangers that would present themselves once we encountered white water. 
            Vinod handed out the oars and we got a quick tutorial on how to hold them.  “Be sure to hold onto the handle like so,” said Vinod.  “If you don’t, the oar can slip and hit you in the face.”
            I gripped the handle tightly and looked back and Murphy, “Hold the handle like Vinod says, honey.”
            Vinod nodded conspiratorially at the man at the…helm? Aft? Front of the boat?, “We saw a man lose his teeth. The oar slipped loose and smashed them out.”
            “Did you hear that, Murphy?” I said, checking his grip again.  “A man lost all his teeth.  Hold the handle, not the oar part.”
            “Like this,” said, Spencer with a surprising amount of confidence. Murphy looked at Spencer’s hand and adjusted his own.
            “Now,” said Vinod, “when I say ‘row’ we row together.  When I say ‘stop’, bring your oars out of the water.
            “Got it kids?” I shouted over my shoulder.
            “Yes, Mom,” they chirped back.
            “They’ve got it, Brett,” Pat said. “It’s not that complicated.”
            Within seconds, Vinod issued the first command. I concentrated on keeping the same rhythm at Keir ahead of me on my side.  He had gone white water rafting several times before. I figured that I should simply copy everything he did, exactly.
            Reach out with the oar and pull. Reach out and pull.  Out and pull.
            “Stop!” ordered Vinod. Keir lifted his oar out of the water. I lifted mine and glanced back.  Pat’s oar was out.  Both boys had followed suit.  Jeez. They really had the hang of this.  We drifted for a while and my ass muscles relaxed. I looked to shore and saw huge boulders and the shapes of more round-topped towers against the bright sky.  The water sparkled and lapped easily against the side of the boat. Here we are in India, I thought – adventuring.  The whole family together.  I bet that anyone seeing us would think we went on adventures like this all the time. We’re that relaxed.  I was tempted to trail my hand in the water but figured I needed to stay poised for the next command.  I looked at Pat, dreamily scanning the shoreline.  Could any picture of an adventuring family be more perfect?.....To Be Continued....
Suited up (Vinod in the foreground in the green shirt)

Adventurers Keir and Pat




Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Bounce


           The palace at Orchha was built in the seventeenth century a Madhukar Shah who was not only housing himself but his main wife, four others, four concubines, and his personal dancer.  She must have been some dancer, because he also built her an additional property within spitting distance of his bedroom window.
            Our guide told us that, once completed, Madhukar Shah stayed one night at the palace before continuing on a pressing journey. Apparently he died shortly afterwards making this, the guide said delivering a clearly practiced joke, “the most expensive overnight in the history of the world.”
            The guide moved on and we started following when I felt a small hand at my elbow.
            “Take a picture of me, Mom,” Spencer said.  “I want a picture of me at the most expensive hotel ever.” 
            I snapped the picture and Spencer ran off to join the others.  Earlier he had wanted his picture to be taken in front of the huge door to the palace fort.  We had been told that the large spikes that dotted the two story high door, would impale elephants that were routinely used to break through. Spencer was appalled, but fascinated, to hear that invaders found a way around this by blindfolding the elephants and ramming them into the doors anyway.  The image was gruesome, but what ten-year-old child doesn’t secretly cherish these dramatic stories in some fashion?  It’s so much cooler than the body scanner at the airport.
            As I watched Spencer skipping along with the guide, pointing out sights to Murphy, and even running ahead from time to time, I was surprised by the thought, “He has adjusted.  He’s discovered what is so fun about this and he’s embracing it.”  The reason why the thought surprised me was because I hadn’t allowed myself to think that he hadn’t been adjusting in the first place. But here was evidence.  Before and after a shift in him: he was bouncing again.  When Spencer bounces, all is right with the world. Unless you’re his soccer coach.
            Of course, there had been periodic bouncing throughout the journey thus far.  He had bounced at Mogli resorts.  He had bounced at every delivery of finger fries. But this was sustained bouncing, not simply a bounce back from experiences that had been emotionally and physically challenging.
            Something in me rested. I had come to India to visit my family and to see the country. But I had also come in search of meaning.  Life at home had stalled.  I had found myself daily victimized by my own fears.  I had assumed that this kind of trek would inspire Pat and the kids too.  But I could have been wrong about that.  So very wrong. Every bounce that Spencer took ahead of me was reassurance. 
            The boys had spent a leisurely morning at the campground with our host whose name, we soon found out, was Vinod.  He was a natural with children, showing them how to play an Indian game called Carrom and taking them down to the rocks on the shoreline. Robyn told me that Vinod had told her that he ran the campground for a good portion of the year while his wife and son lived down south.  She said that it was not uncommon for Indian men to leave their wives at home while they traveled far distances to obtain work.
            I looked ahead at Spencer circling Vinod who lifted Murphy to show him a view below. I wondered how Vinod managed long absences from his son.  Were they in touch by phone?  How often did they visit each other? I resisted the urge to imagine that being around my children might ease any sadness that might come from such a separation. Creating such a construct in my own mind assumed, first, that he was unhappy alone and, second, that my sons could assuage such a longing.
            I could, of course, have no idea of the thoughts that passed through Vinod’s head as he put Murphy back down on the palace floor. I could see by Spencer’s continuous bounce, however, that he had assumed an intimacy with Vinod.  And for that, I was deeply grateful. 
The view

Bad door for elephants

Warriors

Our two families in the center of the fort

Exploring

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Orchha


             It took a superhuman burst of absolute will to rouse ourselves from our berths at three-thirty in the morning.  As the train inched toward the Jhansi station, we stared at each other soullessly in the unforgiving light of the overheads.  Could any adventure, any delight, be worth the shock of shaking off our heavy blankets and stepping down into a dark, cold, crowded railway station? If so, we couldn’t imagine it. But at this point in treks such as these, the body moves separate from the soul’s desires.  This is the only way that anything ever gets accomplished.  I’m not comparing myself to those who’ve summated Everest, but we experienced that same kind of disconnect that allows one to push past reason.  Ah, what the hell. This was my Everest.  
            The cold struck us as soon as we clambered down to the platform.  Spencer and Murphy burrowed into my sides and we followed Keir by instinct.  Like blind rats in a maze.  When we reached the Arrivals gate, Keir located our man with a sign who lifted the bags off of the children’s backs and led us outside.  Where it was colder.  Much colder.  We followed him through the chaotic parking lot to a van and piled in.
            He could have been taking us anywhere as we huddled in the van. I do remember having faith, however.  Which means that I was sentient.  I somehow believed that everything would be all right. And then I dozed. We reached the campsite half an hour later.  The sky was black and we could see very little.  Our driver walked us over to some men who draped flowered necklaces around our necks.
            Where were our beds?  I wanted to love the necklaces and the sheer charm of insisting on going through this ceremony before the sun rose. But I couldn’t.  I resented the necklaces.  I resented the sweet-faced man who offered us Chai tea, which I grabbed eagerly, cupping the mug for warmth. 
            The man welcomed us and gave a short speech about what we would be doing the next couple of days.  He said that the staff was at our disposal.  I looked around at some of the staff and wished that they were in bed.  With us.  We needed heat.  I could feel Pat shivering beside me. I looked at him, his face impossible to read. The children stared at our host, as if he had sprung from the dirt fully-formed in front of them.  “Are there any questions?” he asked.
            I glanced at Pat who was staring at the ground, his flower necklace bouncing as he shook.
            “Would you like anything to eat?” asked the host.
            “No,” said Keir. “Our beds.  We just want to go to bed.”
            “Yes. Yes,” said the host, who gave us our tent numbers and shone a light at three tents at the end of a row.  We thanked him and trudged off with various men carrying our bags to respective tents.  Pat dipped into ours and I settled the boys into theirs.
            After I zipped their flap closed, I turned on a light and saw two cots, more petals on a short table, fresh water bottles, and a small basket of toiletries. 
“Don’t take off any clothing,” I said.  “Let’s get you into one bed together.  And pull the blankets up over your mouths.”
            “We get our own tent?” mumbled Spencer.
            “Cool,” said Murphy before he passed out.
            I turned out their light and scuttled into my tent as quickly as I could without letting the outside air get to me.  Pat was stomping around the tent.
            “I can’t get warm,” he complained to no one in particular. “I’m so cold.  It’s cold in this tent.  It’s cold in the bed. I’m never going to be warm again. It will be impossible to thaw. I’m so fucking cold.  This is unbelievable.”
            “The necklaces are pretty don’t you think,” I said, hoping to distract him.
            “The necklaces?  That took forever.  I was going into a hypothermic coma.”
            “OK, look.  Let’s get in bed.  How about I get into your bed with you?”
            “No. You’re ass is permanently frozen. It’s lethal.”
            “Pat, just get into bed.  You will thaw out eventually,” I said, burrowing under my own covers.
            “Why, why, why are we in a tent?”
            “Because it’s fun. Now go to sleep.”
            “Fun?” he said, pulling down his covers and climbing into his cot.  He pulled them over his head and turned away from me as if I was the problem. 

            Miraculously, we slept.  Long and hard.  I woke up in a tent illuminated the by sun outside, listening to the boys chattering next door. 
            “Come in and snuggle,” I demanded through our cloth walls.
            “Mom wants to snuggle,” I heard Spencer say, resignedly.
            “We’re coming,” yelled Murphy.
            Seconds later, I heard our tent unzip. Pat wasn’t moving and hadn’t shifted position since he had collapsed in the night.  The boys piled in.  I pulled open my covers, feeling a chilly blast before they snuggled in.  Covers back.  Ahh.
            Pat rolled over, pulled the covers from over his head, and opened his eyes.  “Hi guys,” he mumbled. “What’s it like out there?”
            “Great,” they chirped, falling out of my bed having assessed that that was enough snuggling.  
“We’re going out.  There’s a volleyball net,” said Spence.
They tumbled out and Pat and I lay on our cots, enjoying the warmth and listening to the boys and Zoe outside.  When we finally emerged from the tent, the campground was warm and sunny. The night before seemed like it had happened somewhere else or, perhaps, had never happened. Near the edge of a path leading down to the Betwa river, we saw a canopy covering chairs, tables, and a high table covered in a white table cloth and set with several serving trays. Indian gentleman carried out breakfast and our kindly host beckoned us over.
As we walked along a path to our al fresco breakfast, we stopped to read a sign printed in stones, “Touch the Sky.”
“Worth it?” I said to Pat, grabbing his hand.
“It always is,” he said.
And that was before we discovered that, aside from the staff, we were again the only people there.

The train

The tent

Pat and the boys on the Betwa River

Nightfall at the campground

Boys in necklaces

Our genial host teaches the kids how to play Carrom


           

           
           
           
           

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Good Day for Tigers

With sixty-five tigers in a small park like Bandavargh, the guidebooks said that we were almost guaranteed a tiger sighting.  Increasing our chances further, Keir had booked two safaris --one in the morning and one in the afternoon.  Although, as he burrowed under the thin blankets on the jeep at 5:30 am, he grumbled, “I’ve never seen a tiger this early. The last time I saw a tiger it was a comfortable ten in the morning.”
            The blankets were a poor defense against the ceaseless cold. We adults kept tucking and retucking them under our asses.  But there was always an unattended gap, poofing gasps of frigid air against a shin or an elbow.  The kids complained far less than the adults.  This was because they were convinced that they would see a tiger. In the wild. Up close.
            “And we have two chances to see one,” Spencer chirped while I slipped both of my hands under my ass like Pat was doing with his.  This unloosed a flap of the blanket, exposing my thinly panted leg to a chilly blast. 
            “Jesus Christ,” I said, grabbing the flap and securing it again.
            Murphy seemed almost Zen about the whole thing, practically snuggled under his brother.  Perhaps his harrowing night of vomiting had given him the quick life experience necessary to put tiger sightings in their proper perspective.  Sitting upright, even in a freezing open-air jeep, was better than hurling into a bathing bucket while your mother murmured useless phrases at you.
            By the time I had lost all feeling in my feet, a guide hopped into our jeep and we were on our way.  This was a good day for tigers he told us.  There had been sightings yesterday.  A mother and her cubs. The children oooohed. 
            “A cub,” Murphy said, eagerly.
My teeth wouldn’t stop chattering so I simply smiled and dipped my chin. Far from feeling miserable about the cold, I felt vaguely heroic. If this was what I would have to endure to see a real live tiger in the wild, with my family, so be it. 
            “When the sun comes out and you start to warm up, it’s the best feeling,” Robyn said. I was beginning to wonder if Robyn’s sunny disposition was a mild form of travel dementia.  It was clear to me that I would never “warm up” as she called it.  I was going to have to amputate below my knees.  But I would have seen a tiger. 
            Ten minutes into our bumpy ride, the guide stopped the driver.
            What?  A tiger so soon?
            He pointed into the forest.  We peered in the designated direction. 
            “Deer,” he said, and sure enough, I could make out a huge stag with majestic antlers bathed in a shaft of misty light. 
            “Let me see,” said Spencer, pulling up his binoculars and training them on the deer.  We all watched in silence.  Then the guide shifted his weight, glanced at us and we nodded – back to the tigers.
            We bounced along a path until the guide heard something and stopped the jeep abruptly.  He motioned to the driver to back up.  This was it – the tiger. It must be.  Jesus.  I wished my hands were working so I could retrieve my camera from my pocket.  The jeep stopped. 
            The guide whispered something into Robyn’s ear.
            “Alarm call,” she whispered to us.  “He heard a monkey warning the other animals that a tiger is coming.”
            The boys’ eyes lit up.  We sat motionless.  Listening. Watching. 
            A twig snapped.  Was that the tiger?  We looked back. 
            No.
Silence. 
Bird calls. The birds didn’t sound overly alarmed. 
            The guide stayed still. Listening. Looking.
            Nothing.
            Nothing.
            Except.  It was beautiful.  Sunlight pouring through patches in the forest ceiling.  The smell of damp leaves.  A specific kind of silence that isn’t silence at all.  Stillness.  Rough blankets.  Still, the cold.  Murphy had moved next to me to make room for the guide in the back.  I felt his warmth on my arm. 
            I could have stayed like that for an hour.  Breathing.
            The guide broke the silence.  He said something to the driver and the jeep started.
            “No tiger?” Robyn asked the guide.
            He shook his head. No tiger.  But it was a good day for tigers. Lots of time.
            I have always clung to a rather childish notion that if a person wants something badly enough--if that person stays focused and works hard – that something will be attained.  In some form.  Although, perhaps not the form initially envisioned.  This, for me, is the cosmic catch.  I will be rewarded with what I want, eventually, but I might not recognize it when it appears. 
            So I believed, bumping along, straining to see deep into the woods, that we would see a tiger. We had come far. We had endured the cold.  We had booked two safaris.  But, I also believed that the tiger might not look like I had imagined. He might be running so fast that I’d only glimpse his tail.  Any variation on a tiger sighting was possible, I reasoned. And I was eager to find out what our story would be.
            The jeep stopped.  The guide pointed.  Tiger?  No. This time, two huge painted storks staring at each other. I had never seen storks so massive.  Pat took a picture with his camera.  I was amazed that he could move his fingers enough to press the shutter.
            The jeep continued, then stopped again.
            The guide pointed to the ground.  Tiger tracks.
            Tiger tracks?!!!!
            They looked fresh.  I don’t know from animal tracks, but the ground was still muddy.  I could buy that these were very new.
            “This morning,” the guide confirmed.
            Wow.  I stared at the paw prints as big as salad plates.  We were so in the tiger zone.  Just think, if we had gotten here BEFORE 5:30, we might have seen this particular tiger simply strolling on the side of the road. 
            The jeep started up again.  We stopped several times to look at more deer, an owl as big as a five-year-old child, various birds and monkeys, and tiger scratchings on the side of a tree.  Scratchings that were so high up, I got a sense of how big these elusive tigers must be.  It occurred to me that if they were that big, it would be very difficult for all of them to remain hidden through BOTH of our safaris. 
            “Midpoint,” the guide announced.  We bumped through the forest until we came to a clearing where other safari jeeps were parked.  The driver and guide conferred with other parties while I stood in a patch of sunlight in the middle of the road.  My hands and feet proved very resistant to the heat of the sun.  The cold was in my bones. 
            Pat lopped over.  “Put your hands in the grate over the jeep’s engine,” he said.  It sounded dangerous but I was game.  I walked over to the jeep to find Robyn and the children sticking their hands into a gap below the hood to the jeep. 
            “The day’s warming up.  It’ll be good now,” Robyn said. 
            “Right,” I said, adopting Robyn’s optimistic, if slightly delusional tone. “Let’s get back in that jeep and look for tigers.”
            Robyn through me an uncharacteristically cautious look that said, “You might want to tone down the tiger talk because…we might not see one.”
            I threw a look back that said, “I never until this moment thought that we wouldn’t see a tiger.  Are you serious? “
            And her responding look said, “It’s always a possibility isn’t it?  That you might not get what you want?”
            At least that was my translation of our maternal non-verbal vernacular.  Even if my interpretation was off, however, this was the first time I considered the possibility that we might not see a tiger.
            And so I faced a choice.  Stay focused on seeing a tiger, clinging to my belief that all good things come to he who obsesses long and hard enough. Or concentrate on aspects of the safari that weren’t tiger centric.
            “Have you ever seen an owl that big?” I asked the boys. 
            “Never,” said Spencer, beaming.
            During the second half of our morning safari, my fingers regained feeling, we saw more birds, deer, and monkeys, and I really saw the forest.  “Isn’t it interesting,” I said to everyone in the jeep, “that the concentration it takes to look for a tiger, makes you see things in greater detail?” No one answered because they were too busy concentrating. Conjuring tigers.

            “We still have a whole ‘nother safari to find a tiger,” Spencer announced as we drove up to Mogli resort for lunch.  This from the boy who told his soccer coach upon losing their first game one-to-twelve, “Just think. If we had made twelve more goals, we would have won.”  As a mother, I have been moved by Spencer’s optimism, but I’ve also worried that it makes him more vulnerable to disappointment.
            “Yeah.  We have another safari,” said Murphy, probably echoing his brother’s sentiment.  Not wanting to shine a light on a possible tiger-free day, I didn’t ask if seeing a tiger was still important to him. 
            Was it still important to me?  I couldn’t say.  I was beginning to feel detached from the outcome of our safaris. This kind of detachment is a state I have come to value -- which in itself, implies attachment.  At this point, in my loop of figuring out whether I was attached or not, my clingy still-attached sub-self worried that any detachment I was experiencing was simple laziness.  Hold fast, it cried.  Don’t lose faith.  For faith will produce a tiger.
            As we were returning to our cabins, another guest appeared. I was slightly thrown. How had she heard about Mogli Resort?  And, more importantly, would she derail the arrangement we had made that morning to have dinner moved to seven?  This radical suggestion might still be sending shock waves through the staff.  One innocent question from the only other guest on the premises could seriously jeopardize our plan.  
            “Dinner’s at seven,” I preemptively said, before she had a moment to properly introduce herself. 
            “I was just about to ask,” she said.  “I’m going on an afternoon safari.  Were you out today?”
            “Yes,” I said.
            “Did you see any tigers?”
            Why was she making it all about the tigers, I thought irritably?
            “Nope,” said Murphy.  “But we’re going back this afternoon.”
            “We’ve got a whole other chance,” Spencer piped up.
            “Right,” the guest said.  “I’m doing a second safari tomorrow.”
            We chatted with her for a few minutes before heading off to our rooms.  When she was out of earshot, Keir whispered, “It’s going to totally suck if she’s sees a tiger and we don’t.  We’ll have to hear all about it at dinner. It’s not like she’s got anyone else to talk to.”
            Considering this, I felt all my detachment detach.  I am not a particularly competitive person, but fair was fair.  I had already spent a freezing night in an abandoned resort, robbed of sleep to care for my very sick child. She couldn’t just waltz in here and see a tiger without doing some serious time. It wasn’t the way the world should work. 

            Our four-hour long afternoon safari was shortened to three hours when our guide determined that it wasn’t such a good day for tigers after all.  We all felt better when we found out that no one else in the park had seen a tiger that day either. Including the other hotel guest. 
            “I knew she hadn’t seen one when she started going on about a big peacock she saw,” said Keir.  “No one talks about a peacock if they’ve seen a tiger.”
            Thus feeling magnanimous, we invited her to join us for pre-dinner drinks around our raging gasoline fueled fire that night.  The children gabbed merrily about all of the animals that we did see on the safari and the boys particularly loved the sign we saw when we left the park.  Nest to a cartoon of a tiger, the words read, “Do not be disappointed if you did not see me today. I definitely saw you.”
            Keir took a swig of beer, “I keep wondering if we should go on safari tomorrow before we leave. It would be another chance.”
            “Get up again at 5:30?” I said.
            “I’ll do it,” said Spencer.
            But by dinnertime, any enthusiasm for that plan faded in favor of sleeping in. 
            As I lay under extra covers that night, fully clothed, I marveled that the children hadn’t been more disappointed. The tiger had been a huge topic of conversation when we talked about the trip back home.  It was two days before Christmas.  We were cold, and some of us had already been sick.  There wouldn’t be any presents until we returned to New Delhi a couple of days after Christmas.  But far from being discouraged, the kids were relaxed and eager for more adventure. 
            When the guide decided to truncate our safari that afternoon, we followed a path to the exit that took us over a large hill. Robyn asked the driver to stop the jeep for a few minutes so that we could be in the forest without moving for awhile.  We all sat there, watching the fading light sparkle on the mist settling on the ravine below us.  We barely moved.  Even the children. I think that we were all simply feeling a part of it all.  We were together.  Suspended.  Breathing with the universe.
            And we were most definitely being watched.
5:30 AM

Afternoon Safari

As far as the eye can see


           
           
           


Monday, January 10, 2011

Up All Night

             I would have thought that nothing could wake me.  I had sunk into a blank, motionless sleep.  The kind that belies existence.  This was partly in defense against the extreme cold and partly due to the very specific kind of exhaustion that comes from traveling over dirt roads in a van with children.  Since I had started the road trip, I’d been falling asleep at nine o-clock and waking in the morning with no feeling of having passed the night – so deep were my somnambulant sojourns.  So how I could have awakened in response to Murphy simply shifting position on the mat next to my bed is a mystery. 

He rolls over. I wake -- sit up in bed, the cold smacking the exposed skin on my wrists. On my neck.  I look down at him.  His blanket has fallen off of his legs, still in sweatpants.  I reach down to pull it over him. He shifts again.
            On the twin bed across from me, Pat rolls over.  “What is it?” he mumbles.
            “It’s Murphy,” I say.  “Something’s wrong.”
            “What is it?”
            “He moved.”
            “So?”
            “Something is wrong.”
            “He just moved,” Pat says, rolling away again and pulling the blankets over his head.
            Maybe Pat is right.  I lie back down, pull the blankets back up past my chin, locate the hot water bottle with my feet, and breathe.
            The blackness of the room has its own temperature, which is colder than the indigenous cold of the room.  It’s fucking freezing.  Cold on top of Cold.  Why didn’t I bring a ski jacket and long johns?  Why?  Because it’s fucking India, that’s why!  Who thinks of India as being colder than outer space?  It’s like we’re in a cabin on fucking Pluto.  No, one of Pluto’s fucking moons.  I cross my arms over my chest under the blankets and slide them under my armpits. 
            Animals howl.  What time was it?
            Rustling. 
I look down at Murphy.  He’s sitting upright in bed.  I can feel him more than see him.  I hear covers being cast aside. Movement in black on black. Murphy staggers to the bathroom.  I fling my blankets off, lurch from my bed to the bathroom, and hit the wall, finding the switch.  Murphy is already at the toilet bowl. How did he find it?
            His back arches and he heaves.  Splash.  Echo against the cement walls. Silence.  I put my hand on his back, “Are you OK?”  Heave.  Splash. Gasp.  “It’s OK. It’ll be OK.”  Silence.  Gasp, gasp.  Swallow.  I touch his hair.  He leans back from the bowl.  “It’s OK.” Back to the bowl.  Heave.  Splash. Echo.  He’s only seven.  Why isn’t this me?  In the cold.  In a strange bathroom. I could do this. It should be me. My eyes sting. My throat is hard.
            Murph heaves. Splash. Echo. 
I sit on the edge of the tub.  Put my hand back on his hair.  He breathes hard.  “It’s OK. Are you OK?”
            “Yes,” he gasps.  Why isn’t he crying?  I would be crying. I would be calling out.
            Pat appears at the door, “Do you need help?  You want me to do this?”
            Yes, I think.  “No,” I say.  I have to do this, I think. I can’t leave him. I’d never sleep through it anyway.  And Pat could sleep through a nuclear attack. 
            “All right,” Pat mutters.  “I can do it.  Wake me up if you need to.”
            I hear him stumble back to bed and I turn to Murphy who is breathing heavily. Put my hand on his head again.
            “Do you think you’re done?” I ask.
            He nods. 
            “I can find a bag or something to take to bed.”
            He nods again.
            “OK,” I say, standing up. 
Murphy stands. Wobbly.  I take his hand. Walk him to his mat.  Kneel on the floor and tuck the blanket around him.  I can still feel the cold.  In the roots of my hair, on the cement against my toes. But I don’t care.  I kiss Muprh’s pillowy, wet cheek.  I rise and sit on the edge of my bed. He is already asleep.
            I could feel awful about this.  I want to feel awful about this – but that’s too passive. Too easy. I choose something else.  Practicality.  If he throws up in his sleep, in bed, it will be worse.  The violence of his heaving and the amount of bile that came up, tells me that this isn’t over.  There’s more.
            Either I’ve gotten used to the darkness or it’s gotten somewhat lighter.  God knows what time it is.  I turn to look at the outline of Pat’s body, swathed in several blankets.  I consider resenting him for sleeping but I can’t muster real feeling.
            Practicality.  A pan.  A bag.
            I get up, feet smacking the cold cement, and return to the bathroom.  Light on.  In the corner, I see two buckets.  A smaller one hanging inside the bigger one.  These are for bucket bathing.  Can I use the big one for Murph?  What if the hotel doesn’t wash it thoroughly?  It’s icky to use it for vomit and then return it to the bathroom.  That’s not…
            Fuck it. I’m using it. 
            I grab the big bucket, flip off the light, and feel my way back to my bed.  I kneel down and find a spot for the bucket next to Murphy’s head.  I touch his hair. “There’s a bucket right here,” I whisper.  I can’t tell if he hears me.
            I pull myself up to my own bed, burrow under the covers, and wait.  It’s impossible to sleep. I hear howling and rustling outside.  Something skitters under the window. I become aware of being surrounded by activity that is impervious to nighttime.  Maybe even taking advantage of my family’s surrender to insistent, inescapable sleep.  I feel predatory intent.
We’re on the edge of a tiger park for fuck’s sake. Of course it’s predatory.  Maybe there are no guests here because they’ve all been eaten.  We are the last meal to be had for days until the next unsuspecting guests roll up, jazzed by the charming write-up in Lonely Planet. 
            OK.  This is bullshit. I need to sleep.
            I look up.  I accept the black. Float, float, float in the black.
            Rustle.  It’s Murph.  I’m up.  He’s at the bucket.  I put my hand on his back.  He heaves. Gasps.  Heaves again. His back straining.
            “It’s OK, my love. You’ll be OK.” 
            He hangs over the bucket. Why is that all I keep saying?  “It’s OK.”  What does that have to do with anything?  Am I saying that it’s OK to vomit? Maybe.  Maybe that’s what I’m saying.  Or maybe I’m saying that it’s OK to feel awful.  It will get better. This happens to everyone.  Is that what I’m saying?
            Or maybe I’m telling it to myself.  It’ll be OK.  Your children will be healthy and healthy in spite of this moment – in spite of what it looks like now.
            Heave. Splash.  Gasp.
            There can’t be more left.  My God he barely consumed anything.
            Murph pulls away from the bucket, sinks back into his covers.
            “I’ll get some Kleenex,” I say. I tread the now familiar path to the bathroom.  I don’t put on the light.  It must be lighter now.  I pull the paper on the toilet roll. Tear it off.  Bring it back to Murph.  He’s sleeping.  Or seems to be.  I dab his mouth.  I look at his face.  He is perfect.  Eyelids relaxed.  Blonde hair shining.  Is that moonlight?
            How can he be simply go back to sleep?
            I crawl back onto my bed, sit upright and cross-legged, pull the covers up to my waist.  Maybe I should get my hat out of my backpack.  My head is cold.  I should get some sleep.  I’ll be dead for the safari at 5:30.  Should I wash the bucket and bring it back?  What’s the point?
            Look, it’s clear. Murph’s not going to be able to go on the safari. There’s no way he’ll make it. I’ll stay back with him. 
No.  No.  He won’t want to miss the tigers.  He has to go on safari. What if Spencer sees a tiger and not him? I couldn’t stand that.  The disappointment.  I can stand the vomiting.  I can stand his frustration, his anger, even his dismissal of me.  But I can’t take his disappointment.  I can’t separate myself from it.  It’s excruciating.  He has to go on safari.  When he sees a tiger it will all be worth it. 
            Solved.  We’re going. 
            I look down at him.  He hasn’t moved. 
            What am I?  Fucking crazy?  Drag him on safari so I don’t have to bear the pain of his disappointment? How fucking selfish is that?  Let the kid sleep.  Rub his back all day. 
            But the tigers.  He was so eager.  So excited.  He practically plotzed when he saw the stuffed toy one in the rotunda. 
            Damn it’s cold.
            Maybe I should lie down again.

            Murphy’s retching and my self-recrimination continued in concert until Pat’s borrowed cell phone beeped and a woman’s voice in a British accent announced, “It’s time to get up. The time is five o’clock. It’s time to get up.  The time is five o’clock.”  I reached down to touch Murphy. He was already awake. 
           
5:30 AM, Tiger Safari

           



Friday, January 7, 2011

Mogli Resort

Keir hired a car and a driver to get us from Kajaraho to Bandhavgarh National Tiger Park by nightfall.  In terms of kilometers we were less than three hours away, but the roads through rural India are uneven and often unpaved.  We would also be dealing with livestock, bicycles, motorcycles, and many trucks tricked out with decorations and signs that implored drivers to “PLEASE HONK!”  That meant that the trip could easily take up to seven hours.  Finding a van with enough seat belts for the children proved challenging and in the end, we resorted to using a seat belt that Keir had fashioned from a belt he had “borrowed” from an airline a couple of years ago.  It was small enough for Zoe, and could be slipped through a bigger seat belt when she sat on an adult’s lap. 
            Pat and I brought our books up front and made sure that the kids had playing cards and their books.  As we started on our bumpy morning drive the kids entertained each other with magic tricks, and I stared out the window hoping to become alert enough for a nice long read. 
            Pat and I never cracked our books.  The ride was simply too fascinating.  We drove through countryside and villages, hitting a few small towns.  We drove past motorcycles transporting up to three, even four, people a bike. Women in colorful saris carried long bunches of sticks for firewood on their heads.  Ordered stacks of bricks with geometric designs stamped into them, lay on the outskirts of most villages.  These turned out to be bricks of drying cow dung used for fuel and for building the walls of some sheds. People’s homes were so small that all life seemed to spill out onto the road – washing, cooking, bathing, and small groups of people talking on blankets or around a fire.  We drove past outside classrooms of children sitting cross-legged in front of a teacher who might or in some cases might not have a blackboard.  Girls in brightly colored school uniforms walked in groups along the side of the road.  Each little village had a few stores, each no bigger than a closet.  Many small homes were painted bright Shiva blue. Sometimes an older person lay on a wooden cot in front of a house.  It didn’t seem like the few homes in each village could contain all that life.  But Keir and Robyn said that the one or two room huts often could house up to eight people, even more.  Each village appeared to have a well that was often the only source of water.  And everywhere, everywhere, we saw cows, monkeys, goats, and dogs. 
            We stopped outside of one village when we couldn’t get by several trucks.  We all peeled out of the van to see a huge truck stuck in the dirt unable to move.  Several men worked on the problem with ropes and planks of wood while motorcycles and herds of goats continued their thoroughfare.  The kids enjoyed stretching their legs as we waited forty minutes for the villagers to pry the truck loose and budge it enough for other trucks and our van to narrowly gun past it before getting stuck as well. 
            We arrived at the Mogli Resort, just outside the Tiger Preserve, with a couple of hours of daylight left.  This was key on a number of levels, not the least of which was that once the sun set the temperature would drop to the high thirties.  With no heat in our rooms we would have to huddle around a fire or burrow into our beds in layers of clothes to fight the cold.
            Mogli resort's full staff was overseen by a plump man in a uniform.  There were about fifty cottages and rooms on the extensive grounds.  A huge pool of sparkling blue water sat in front of our two cottages.  White lounge chairs lined the pool and a spigot of water sprayed into the pool.  Spencer wished that he had brought his swimming trunks but I thought the water must be freezing.  This was confirmed when both boys yelped as soon as they stuck their bare feet in, yanking them back immediately and demanding a towels to dry off. 
            Two raised outside decks promised terrific stargazing.  All paths led from various cottages to a large rotunda. This served as a banquet hall.  There were several long dining tables covered in crisp white and red tablecloths.  At one end, a television played ESPN.  At the other, there was an extensive food serving area, complete with silver serving trays, stacks of drinking glasses and coffee cups. Uniformed men bustled back and forth with table linens and silverware.  A tiger motif infused all aspects of the d├ęcor:  Tiger paintings and photos, tiger wall hangings, and a huge stuffed toy tiger curled up next to the television.  The children were enchanted.
            And hungry.  Could we, we asked the round concierge/manager, order dinner soon?  It was about five and the children had barely eaten anything on the trip. 
            “Dinner is at eight,” he replied officiously.
            “Ah,” I said, to Keir, “I bet they can’t shift dinner because of the other guests.”
            Keir threw me a look and whispered through a clenched smile, “There are no other guests.”
            “What?”
            He nodded.  “I don’t see anyone and there was only our name written on the blackboard in the office.”
            “Is it low season?” I whispered back.
            “Nope,” he replied.
            The manager walked off in the direction of the office and the adults huddled to assess the situation.  We were a few miles from any town and none of us had food. The kids would never last until eight.  And why – if we were the only guests on the entire complex – couldn’t dinner be moved up a bit?  We looked around the huge rotunda, now noticing that of the ten or so long tables, only one had place settings.  Seven. At one end.  It looked and like an Indian version of “The Shining”.  Why was it going to take three hours to prepare food for our relatively small party?  We were outnumbered by workers, I estimated, three to one. 
            Robyn went off in pursuit of the manager again and the rest of us, passively, hungrily, explored the grounds.  Minutes later Robyn announced that she had managed to score some bananas and toast for the children who pounced on the rations eagerly.  Keir and I ordered a beer and a glass of wine, respectively.  The waiters looked confused and we weren’t sure if our drink order was understood or even possible to fill.  The whole staff seemed befuddled by our presence, and I wondered how long it had been since they had had guests.  Keir said that he had seen names in the guest book dated a week prior.  What happened here when there were no guests?  Maybe the rigid meal schedule was kept and now that guests were actually manifesting, everyone was thrown off their game.
            After a half hour a beer and a bottle of wine appeared.  Keir guessed that a hotel employee had driven into town to get them. We all took our glasses up to the stargazing deck and chatted until a fire was lit. The kids went off to pool and the cottages while the adults warmed themselves.  Every once in awhile the fire was stoked into bursts angry flames by a groundskeeper with gasoline. The fact that we were the only guests added to the feeling of being on another planet altogether.  Our two little families floating in space.  Darkness fell and with it the temperature bringing the kids closer to the fiery nexus of our universe. 
            By the time dinner was served two hours later we were starving and exhausted.  We dragged ourselves into the airy, freezing rotunda to gobble up enough food to last us the night.  We were given hot water bottles and told to meet at the rotunda tomorrow morning at five thirty for our jeep safari.  I couldn’t wait to wrap myself around my hot water bottle and load on the blankets. 
            I did not know that I would be up most of the night.
            Because Murphy would be heaving up his dinner well into the early morning.
Spencer at the pool

Poolside

Inside the cabin

Dinner in the Rotunda