Wednesday, December 29, 2010

How We Roll in India

             The courtyard of Hotel Harmony in Khajuraho is a quiet respite from the bustling city outside its walls.  It’s modest, clean, and even has a lovely little rooftop café.  The people there are used to tourists who come to visit the thousand year old temples on the edge of town. These temples are known for their numerous sophisticated sculptures of daily life at the time – including erotic sculptures that look far less emblematic of daily life than of feats many of us only attempt a couple of times in our lifetime.  Often with limited success.
The touts on the street are practiced hucksters, surrounding tourists sometimes five at a time, chatting them up or attempting to sell them Karma Sutra playing cards or key chains.  The afternoon we arrived, Pat kept responding to the touts, “I know… all of the Karma Sutra.”  The collusive chuckle that followed only gave us a moment’s break before the huckster patter resumed. 
In the morning, we planned on taking a tuk-tuk to avoid the hassle.  A tuk-tuk costs about fifty cents for a short ride.  After breakfast, however, Spencer became nauseous.  Stomach troubles are routine for westerners in India so we decided that Spencer should stay in the hotel room with Pat watching cricket on the little television in our room, while I went with Murphy and Keir’s family to see the temples.  Then I could stay with Spencer in the afternoon while Pat saw the temples by himself.
I was concerned about Spencer being ill, but a part of me was relieved that I wouldn’t have to explain or deal with the erotic imagery with my ten-year-old boy. Avoidance is not the best parenting technique for dealing with awkward subjects, but it’s certainly a universal one. 
We bought tickets and slipped onto the well-maintained grounds with stretches of grass that the young ones could run on.  After deflecting the touts at the gates, the grounds were even more serene than they had seemed from the road. We saw several temples jutting toward the sky.  People walked the pathways from temple to temple quietly in groups. When we reached the first group of temples, we removed our shoes and walked up cool steps to various sanctums, honoring Shiva, who is often called the god of destruction.  Later, I heard him referred to as the god of transformation, which was easier for me to understand since Shiva does take numerous forms. 
Murphy and Zoe ran up and down the steps to several temples, exclaiming, “Here’s a bull” or “A snake!”  Keir, Robyn, and I took turns listening to the audio guide which gave information about several of the sculptures.  About the erotic ones, the male voice told us that enjoying physical pleasure was one of the tenants of Hinduism.  He also stressed that the sculptures were a celebration of procreation, which would have been very important to a race of people struggling to survive in eleventh century, India.
Again, I enjoyed the blurring between sacred, profane, and quotidian.  Children bounding up the steps, flopping on thousand-year-old religious artifacts.  I couldn’t imagine kids being allowed the same kind of license in a European cathedral from the same era.  Murphy didn’t pause at the erotic images that the male audio voice told us showed lovers, “enjoying many pleasures and showing a sense of humor.”  I wondered if this must be doubly true when one of the lovers was a horse, as was the case a few times.
After a few temples, we spread out on the lawn for a rest and Murphy pulled out his football and I watched him toss it around against the backdrop of the temples.
Keir’s cell phone rang.  It was Pat. He and Spencer were on their way.  Pat figured Spencer had recovered enough since he had been hopping from bed to bed in excitement over the cricket match on the television.  It took them minutes to walk the stretch from the hotel.  I was thrilled to see that Spencer was bouncy enough to pass the football.
Shortly, we headed off to another cluster of temples.  These temples not only had the silhouette of a lingam (symbolizing the penis), but upon closer viewing, that lingam was formed by many smaller lingams.  The children bounded up the steps of several temples, many different images of Shiva represented inside.  I lagged, taking in the gorgeous artistry and beautiful outlines of other temples in the distance.  My breathing was slow and my shoulders loose.  Who were the people who actually worshiped at these temples a thousand years ago? Were they like me with similar concerns for their children and their own health and happiness?  Surely they were. I felt deeply connected to them as my bare feet hit the depressions theirs had made from years and years of climbing those same steps to worship and to ask for strength and deliverance. 
The others had gone on to another temple. I followed stopping at the bottom of another set of steps, the children bounding down toward me.
“Is it cool?” I asked Spencer.
“Ahh.  The architecture is, but the rest isn’t that interesting,” Spencer replied.
“Huh?  Really?” I said.  He’d been enjoying the imagery in the other temples, especially animal incarnations of the gods.
“Yeah,” he said, not concealing his disdain. “It’s a temple totally dedicated to a penis.”
A heck of a lot more work than just buying a Ferrari, I thought as I ascended the steps.  The lingam is one of the representations of Shiva.  As I entered the inner chamber I saw the lingam shrine – thick round, really more like a wide candle.
When I descended the steps, Keir said, “A little lingam heavy.”           
“Yup,” I replied.  “Which begs the question, ‘Where are the yonis?’”
Keir and Robyn assured me that there were temples elsewhere in India that gave yonis some attention.  Which was reassuring, even surprising, given that yonis throughout medieval Europe at the same time were definitely being given short shrift. When we stopped to sit in the shade of a temple I caught Pat up on some of the audio tour we had taken earlier.  “Procreation?” Pat said.  “I saw quite a few scenes that had nothing to do with procreation.” 
That evening, we took in our third pizzeria in two days.  We sat on the rooftop, a string of lights illuminating our faces.  While we waited for the food the kids walked over to the edge to watch two dogs playing on an adjacent rooftop.  Below us the city bustled.  In the states the boys don’t get this many pizzas and finger-chips.  So when the waiter came up the stairs to deliver our food Spencer tore himself away from the dogs, skipped over and took his seat.  As his pizza appeared in front of him, Spencer crowed, “Margarita pizza, finger chips, and mango juice – that’s how we roll in India!”

Monday, December 27, 2010


Two tuk-tuks dropped us off where the streets got too narrow for anything but motorcycles and bikes.  The streets were actually walkways, accommodating a seemingly impossible amount of activity – motorcycles, vendors, children playing, cows, dogs, and small temples the size of a walk-in closet.  The smell of feces and smoke from distant funeral pyres was overwhelming. 
             Each parent grabbed a child’s hand and followed Keir who dodged the human, livestock, and motorcycle traffic skillfully.  He had been to Varanasi a couple of times before.  There were no discernable sides of the walkways for traffic and in a width that would often only accommodate three of us abreast, I was stunned that none of us got injured. 
            Varanasi is over three thousand years old and is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world.  This was easy for me to believe, as I hurried past homes no bigger than my kitchen, groups of six or so people chanting in tiny temples, and bulls with painted blue horns picking through the garbage that was everywhere. 
            From their former visits, Keir and Robyn had a general idea of where Hotel Alka was.  But honing in on it specifically required asking several people repeatedly until we finally stepped into a modest courtyard that seemed huge in comparison to the walkways.  We dropped our backpacks on a table and walked to a railing overlooking the Ganges. 
            Robyn says that there are parts of the Ganges that run clear, but in Varanasi the water is brown and polluted by funeral pyre ashes, charred cadavers, sewage, and livestock waste.  When we walked onto a balcony, we saw our first view of the ghats -- steep tall steps, where many Hindus come to bathe in the holy water and to cremate their loved ones.  We could spot several fires from the balcony.
            I had told the children rather matter-of-factly that there would be public cremations in Varanasi and they had listened somberly.  But at this moment, they were positively jubilant about the availability of finger chips (French fries) and mango juice on the patio.  One of the things I was to notice in the first couple of days of our trip was our children’s ability to bounce back from any inconvenience or momentary sadness.  I don’t think that this is exclusive to my kids and I wondered when they would lose that capacity and become more like me, hanging onto sorrows and grievances as if the length of time I mourned or stewed gave them legitimacy. It seemed a perfect thought to contemplate in light of the cremations we were seeing from a distance.  According to Robyn, the atmosphere around Hindu cremations is respectful but not soaked with grief and loss. 
            The hotel had one room ready but not the two that we had reserved.  Keir said that this was typical of budget traveling in India.  If we couldn’t scare up another room, they would find one in another hotel.
            “We never go without a room,” Robyn said cheerfully.
            I have been known to weep when the flight attendants tell me they’ve run out of snacks, so I was suitably impressed by Robyn’s breezy acceptance of being rommless for the afternoon. After loading up on some finger chips ourselves, we loaded everyone’s packs into our room for the time being.
            Hotel Alka is popular with backpackers and is about as budget as budget can be at twelve dollars a room.  The room was dark with cement walls, cement floors, two thin threadbare towels hanging on a hook, and no attempt at decoration of any kind.  The bathroom was the sort that did not invite lingering.  A faucet, which served as a shower, dripped over two plastic buckets on the floor.  There was no demarcation between the shower and the rest of the bathroom floor. Spencer looked around and announced, “Huh, just like Joshua Tree” – referring to a sketchy motel we had stayed in a couple of years ago.
            Obviously we hadn’t come to Varanasi to sit in a hotel room anyway, so we bolted the door with a padlock and took several stairways that led to the ghats.  These steep, high steps that lead down to the Ganges are teeming with people.  Some are vendors, but most have come to bathe or cremate their dead.  Bodies of the dead, covered in brightly colored cotton cloths are borne down to the shore on the men’s shoulders. Families sit in groups away from the actual cremations.  When we looked away from the Ganges we saw abandoned temples and palaces, decayed but retaining the silhouettes of a time when they must have been resplendent. Keir pointed out a couple of palaces as we walked.  Children seemed curious about us as we walked, asking us where we were from and our kids answered them. Boys played games and flew kites and many people strolled as we did from one end of the ghats to the other. 
            Spencer and Murphy were very taken with all of the livestock that roamed freely – dogs, goats, bulls, and water buffalo.  When we stopped to sit, two goats butted against the children who giggled and named them. Murphy and his younger cousin, Zoe, seemed largely oblivious to the cremations that happened one after the other, in fairly quick succession, perhaps three to four fires going at a time.  Spencer was more aware, I was sure. But I thought that I would let him choose how much he wanted to see or hear.  For the most part, he kept himself occupied with the goats.  Though at one point, I asked him what he found the most interesting about the scene.  He answered that he liked all of the animals everywhere but it made him sad that they seemed so skinny and hungry.  I told him that it was OK to feel sad.  With Spencer feeling a bit tender, the adults eyeballed each other and we decided to break for lunch. 
            In almost every spot that caters to tourists here, there are pizzerias, and we were to discover that this was the safest option for keeping the children happy.  Many of them are outside (this one looked over the ghats) with a few tables and restrooms that I couldn’t bring myself to use.  Robyn and I talked about the unique and surprising beauty of the cremations.  I couldn’t quite put into words, why I still find it so moving.  But I do know that it has something to do with the inclusive and public nature of them.  In the United States, I’ve found funerals so distancing, sterilized, mournful.  I imagine that this all swirls around very different cultural attitudes about death. I know that I will be thinking about this for a long time.  Varanasi has given these thoughts physical and visual context.
            After lunch, we made our way down the ghats to the Ganges.  We had to walk around a herd of water buffalo to find and negotiate a price for a boat ride.  We found one easily and loaded ourselves onto the worn, wooden rowboat. 
            From the water, we could take in the larger scene – tons of color, fires, bathers, men doing yoga, and animals.  The children sat on the bow of the boat and chatted.  We spotted monkeys on the roofs of the palaces.  Spencer had been quiet through the ride, but loved the monkeys.  Keir told us that the rheusus monkeys can be quite aggressive and are a nuisance on the embassy compound. A monkey got into a new teacher’s apartment and out of fear she locked him in her bedroom, and listened to him tear apart her matress while she called for help. Keir said that when the monkeys get too prolific, the school pays to bring in a male monkey who then pees all over the compound, marking the territory as his and discouraging more monkey visits.  Spencer burst into gut level guffaws at the notion of paying for a monkey to pee all over the place.  My heart lifted.
            At nightfall, we returned to the ghats for Aarti. In the dark, Hindus light candles and float them down the river.  A white-robed man chanted on a stage over a microphone, while hundreds of small flames illuminated the Ganges and the bustling crowd.  Spencer doesn’t like crowds and he stayed close to my side.  Keir bought three candles for the children to float down the river and Murphy and Zoe eagerly followed him to the water’s edge.  I stayed back with Spencer who didn’t want to move further into the throng.  I sat with my arm around him for a couple of minutes before I realized that he was crying.  My throat tightened – this had all been too much for him and it was all my fault for bringing him here.
            “What is it, Buddy?” I asked.  “Do you want me to take you back to the room?”
            “No,” he said.  “I really want to float my candle.”
            “I bet Keir still has yours.  Do you want to come with me to light it?”
            “Yes,” he said, looking up to me, his eyes glistening.
            With a firm grip on his hand, I pulled him through the crowd and we found Keir with the young ones setting their lit candles down in the water.  Keir had kept Spencer’s. He lit it and handed it to my son, who leaned over the river and set it down.

That night, we practically carried the children to a restaurant that looked like the inside of a home.  We sat cross-legged around a square table and ate almost silently, the two youngest dozing on our laps. 
            We returned to our rooms and laid sheets that we had brought in our packs, over three beds that were pushed together.  The children fell asleep instantly.  Pat wanted to revisit the ghats with Keir. I bolted the door from the inside and settled in with the children and dozed.
            When Pat returned an hour later, he told me that the activity on the ghats did not seem to slow at nighttime.  Keir and he had been standing on a ghat when a funeral party laid down a body at their feet.  They watched as the workers prepared for cremation.
            Pat crawled into bed next to me and we turned out the light.  Some hours later I awoke in pitch blackness, the slow breathing of my men surrounding me. I reached over Pat’s body and fumbled for a headlamp and a notebook, pulled the lamp around my forehead, switched it on, and began to write. 
Boys on the ghats

Boys with Uncle Keir and Zoe overlooking the ghats

Spencer laughing at the Monkey story

The ghats from the boat

Spencer at Aarti

Boys leaving Varansi

Monday, December 20, 2010

Night Train to Varanasi

Both of our families arrived at the New Delhi train station at nightfall.  We piled out of the van, grabbed our individual backpacks, and grouped on the sidewalk.  Through the dim, dusty light cast by a few car headlights and the glow of the train station, we could see hundreds of people, some walking as if in transit -- others sitting in groups, their heads draped, either waiting or possibly living there.  Those in transit carried their belongings in suitcases or, more often, in bundles slung over their backs or piled on their heads.  
My sons looked around, wide eyed  A wiry man in a turban offered his services as a porter and Keir quickly established a price.  We didn’t really need a porter to carry our bags, Keir explained, but to actually find the train. The porter piled a couple of our backpacks on top of his head and slung the others over both shoulders.  
Robyn said, “Each adult should hold the hand of one child and don’t let go.”
I took Spencer’s, Pat took Murphy’s, and Robyn took Zoe’s.  We started to follow the porter as he picked up the pace, weaving through the thickening crowd.  I kept my eye on Keir up ahead and glanced for Pat and Murphy behind me, and Robyn and Zoe behind them. We moved rapidly and I tightened my grip on Spencer’s hand.  
“There’s Keir,” Spencer would say every half-minute, his voice tight, as we struggled to keep up.  He would then glance over his shoulder and confirm, “I see Daddy.”  I kept my eyes on Keir and the fading porter with backpacks ahead of him.  I couldn’t imagine how we would find Keir again, if we got lost.  The chaos of train stations is familiar to me.  But I, here, couldn’t see any information booths and I couldn’t tell who was working at the station.  There were simply tons of people milling, squatting in groups, and some furiously hurrying like us.  It’s possible that there was more order than I could ascertain, but I couldn’t make it out in the dark.  Where were the lights?
With singular focus on staying together, I was unable to contemplate the scene on any deeper level.  After descending some stairs, we arrived on a platform.  The porter slung all of our backpacks in a heap and pointed to our train.  
Robyn and I spread out the backpacks so that the children could sit on them.  Only one beggar circled us, an old woman with an eye patch, her hand extended.  Even after several refusals, she persisted, coming close.  I could see the boys bodies pull away.  
Keir disappeared into the crowd to establish that this was, indeed our train and to find out where our berths were.   The train started to screech.  It sounded plaintive, wheezing, exhausted.  The boys jumped up from their backpacks and huddled around me, their hands covering their ears. As the sound increased, they buried their heads into my waist.  I put my arms around them tightly. They both began to whimper. I pulled them in close, nuzzled both of them, repeating, “It’s going to be all right.” Occasionally, they would peek out, only to return comfort of my body.
A small group of men pushed a gurney past us.  On it was an old man, covered in a thin sheet, his mouth hanging open.  Varanasi is a holy place to die.  
I could see Keir cutting is way through the crowd.  My heart lifted. Surely he had found our berths and once on the train, the children (and I) would be reassured. Over the deafening noise, he shouted that he had found his family’s reservations two cars ahead, but ours would be posted on a piece of paper outside the care in front of us.  I pulled the boys in tighter.  People with bundles and suitcases started piling on the train.  I saw a man tape a paper onto the car and Pat and Keir ran over to consult it.  Within seconds they hopped on the train. Through the windows I could see them talking with several passengers.  Keir had told us that our reservations might not be together and that we might have to negotiate with fellow passengers to get four bunks together.  Through the smeared window, I saw passengers in nod at Keir and stand, moving to other spots on the train.  Shortly after that, Keir and Pat jumped off the train and made their way through boarding passengers, over to us.
“They’ve overbooked,” Keir yelled.  “But we found three together.  We’ll have to wait for a conductor to work it out.”  
Pat and Keir grabbed the children’s backpacks, I picked up mine, and we followed them onto the train.  There were four plain brown linoleum berths, with sets of sheets, a pillow, and a blanket piled at one end of each.   They were not in a separate compartment.  We could see others boarding and even a man across the aisle, locking his suitcase to his bed with a chain.  On the berth across from the children and me, sat an older Indian gentleman with a sweet smile. 
“This gentleman has also been assigned to our berth,” said Pat.  “When the conductor comes, we’ll see if he can get a different berth.  Or maybe we’ll have to split up.”
The kids leaned into me.  I knew that they would be frightened if we were split up.  Even if it came to Pat or me sleeping in a berth somewhere else, leaving them with the other parent.  The gentleman smiled wider.  I nodded back and smiled, politely.  There was nothing to be done, apparently.  We could only wait for the conductor.  Who knew how long that would take and the children were exhausted.  
The lights in the car where glaring, people shuffled back and forth, several people lay down on their berths, pulling heavy maroon curtains across, shielding them from view.  The train wheezed out of the station and started chugging.  I looked that the old man.  Pat sat next to him across from me to wait.  Then it occurred to me that we had the three berths. At worst, Pat or I would have to move or we would have to double up.  Either way, the kids could take the two top berths now.  
We hoisted them up into the berths, completely clothed, and pulled sheets over them.  Robyn had suggested that the blankets might not be clean, so I shoved those to the children’s feet.  We didn’t talk much.  I simply told the kids to go to sleep.  We weren’t going anywhere and within seconds they were asleep. I honestly think that they both simply shut down.  They lay prone, unmoving, heavy, as Pat and I sat down opposite each other on the bottom bunks, the smiling gentleman setting a pack near the pillow on this shared berth with Pat.  
The train picked up speed.  We waited, not talking.  Fully-lit. Tired.  The gentleman reached over to his pack and pulled out a plastic jug.  He got up and shuffled between Pat and me.  I looked across the aisle to see the man with the chained suitcases, meditating on his berth.  I couldn’t imagine how he could still his mind with the glaring light on the clanging, lurching train, and people walking back and forth with great purpose, bundles in hand.  
After a few minutes, the man returned.  He shambled between us again and placed his jug into his pack and zipped it up.  Then he slung the pack onto his shoulder and motioned to us that he was moving.  He had found another spot.  I smiled at him, greatly relieved and bowed my head. He put his palms together and bowed.  
“Wasn’t that lovely?” I said to Pat.
Pat nodded and we both stood up to wrangle our sheets and push our packs under our berths.  Lights started to go out and we located ours as well as our maroon curtains, which, when pulled, enclosed the family in what could pass for a cabin.  Pat and I turned out the remaining light in our curtained off haven and lay down on our berths.  
The rocking of the train put me to sleep almost instantly.  I woke up what seemed like a few hours later.  The train was dark.  I couldn’t hear any talking.  I stood up to check the children who hadn’t moved at all.  I adjusted their sheets and lay back down.   It had grown quite cold. I was reluctant to use the blanket as I could see Pat had.  So I pulled out my backpack and located a fleece vest.  I arranged it over me and thought.  
         I found myself drained of worry.  We were safe. We were sleeping.  We were together.  The only thing that was imperfect was the cold and my need to go to a reportedly revolting bathroom.  I tried to avoid the tightening in my bladder but it would not be denied.  I had been dimly aware of Pat waking up earlier to relieve himself.  Surely, if he could do it, so could I.  I sat up in my berth, slid on my crocs and made my way out of the car into a brightly lit area with a dripping public faucet. Rust and dirt covered every surface.  I barely looked and pulled open a door to a toilet.  I didn’t allow myself to think about it. I blurred my eyes, hovered over the bowl and let go, my legs tight.  
         Truth be told, the bathroom was probably on a par with some of those in alternative clubs in the village back in the eighties and I’d seen a few porta potties that were worse.  I pulled up my pants, quickly opened the door, and scooted back to my berth.
         I fell asleep again and was finally awakened by the light streaming through grimy windows.  I lifted my head and looked out.  What I saw seemed other worldly, people in groups by the tracks squatting by small fires, emaciated cattle, pigs, and goats picking through garbage, dust everywhere, people with barely any clothes at all and many completely robed, sitting on the ground or walking with walking sticks.  There were stretches of uninhabited brown land and some cultivated green patches.  
        Pat rustled and lifted his head to look.  We both lay opposite each other as the train sped past scene after scene of communities that lived in filthy small shanties or simply on the brown land.  
       The boys stirred and both came down to our berths.  Sleep seemed to all but erase the tension of the night before.  They were relaxed and curious, looking out the window with us.  We rubbed their backs and didn’t say much.  It wasn’t a time to philosophize.  I didn’t want to interpret what they were seeing for them. After an hour and some breakfast bars, they returned to their own berths and enjoyed romanticizing their own little spaces.  They took out their camping headlamps and wrote in their spiral notebooks, chatting with each other happily across the divide.
Zoe and Murphy in the top bunk
Sink on the train

Friday, December 17, 2010


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?
Welcoming petals and boys


Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Morning in Hong Kong

            During the sixteen-hour flight to Hong Kong, I for slept three, watched movies for six, knitted a scarf, and read my Vanity Fair magazine.  I insisted on carrying on Jonathan Franzen’s new novel in hardback, but didn’t crack it (which could have been predicted given my lack of success, ever, in reading anything serious on a plane).  The boys also slept for about three hours, the rest of the time they played many of the 104 games offered on the individual television sets.  Pat managed to sleep quite a few hours, which is not surprising.  He sleeps so soundly, he’d miss the apocalypse if it came in the middle of the night.
            By the time we got to Hong Kong, we were coming down from a television buzz and completely ragged. But we were determined to see something of the city in our fifteen-hour layover.  My style in these situations is to ask the information desk lady for the easiest way to the biggest site in the shortest amount of time.  Then I simply write down what she says and follow her directions. If I get lost, I simply take the directions over to a kindly looking indigenous couple and ask them to set me straight. If they don’t understand English, I point to the directions and madly gesticulate and/or cry until they understand or get frustrated and guide me over to someone else who does. This is an infallible system that has gotten me through all of Europe and the Middle East.  This is not, however, a system that works for Pat. He does not trust the information lady’s information and must consult many maps.  He must jot down lists of possibilities and mull the transportation options until I’m senseless – let’s get on the goddamn bus already. 
By the time we walked out of the Hong Kong airport this morning, I was sure I didn’t love him anymore.
            When we finally hit the harbor, I had decided to stay with him for the sake of the children, and we actually started to enjoy ourselves by simply communicating with the boys and not each other. It was a drizzly day, but we all felt flush with the accomplishment of actually having made it half the way around the world.  I have to say the boys were total troupers, trying the local food (which admittedly one can get in Los Angeles, but they wouldn’t have eaten there because it was too spicy/weird/smelly).  At a restaurant we picked at random, they clacked the chopsticks around, tried everything, and even decided that some of it was good.  I’m not sure if this was genuine.  They may have simply been trying to save the marriage. Earlier, when we boarded the bus into town, Spencer had impugned, “Can you please stop arguing?”
            We then explored the walk along the harbor.  The opposite shore was lined with many skyscrapers and Pat and I had a fairly polite conversation about how much the city reminded us most of New York.  We hit a stretch of boardwalk that appeared to be the Chinese walk of fame, featuring stars in the sidewalk and several statues with Hollywood themes.  It occurred to me about our trip, lives, and marriage – wherever you go, you end up home.  I’m sure that I’m stealing the sentiment, but I can’t remember the source.  The central large bronze on the boardwalk, was of a towering Bruce Lee.  The children didn’t know who he was and Pat and I had a bonding moment while giving the children a brief overview of Lee.
            Pat had located a prominent park with his fifty maps and guided us there surprisingly easily.  We saw some unusually colored ducks and a passel (flock? Herd?) of flamingos.  Spencer spied a couple of downy brown birds that he had never seen before.  He keeps a bird journal from time to time.
In the same park, we also found the Hong Kong Orchid trees.  We surmised that this orchid might be the same one emblazoned on the flag of Hong Kong.  But because I let research languish, we may never know.
The main event, however, was a maze made out of shoulder-high bushes.  We broke up into two teams to see who could make it through the fastest.  Pat and Spencer won. But for obvious reasons (Pat’s height and Murphy’s lack of height), I think they had the stacked deck.  Pat was actually darling, darting in and out of the bushes. It’s possible that I might recover some of my former feeling for him.
            As I write this, all of my men are sacked out on benches back at the airport.  I awoke from my own nap minutes ago. We’re only a few hours into a trip that will get far more adventurous in the coming days.  But I am encouraged that Spencer and Murphy seem to be accepting the discomfort of traveling and embracing the adventure. 
            Perhaps they’ve been simply too weak to protest.   
Happy Family at Hong Kong harbor
Valiant Effort
Family in a maze

Monday, December 13, 2010

Off to India Today -- a cliffhanger

            A couple of evenings ago, Spencer asked me to proofread a story he was writing for class.  For a parent who is a writer, this is tantamount to a baseball player’s son asking him to have a catch.  I had to squeeze my eyes shut to stop the tears from trickling down my cheeks and stifle the urge to envelope him in a suffocating embrace while mewing, “Yes, my boy. I will be your inspiration.”
            Pulling it together, I reviewed his piece, which was nothing short of a fifth grade masterpiece. I did, however, have one quibble.  Why, I asked him, did he interrupt the conversation in a scene with a break filled with a line of asterisks, only to pick up at the next line of dialogue?
“It’s a cliffhanger, Mom,” he said, his voice dripping with the annoyance of having to state the obvious.
            “Ah, yes.  I see,” I said. I decided against pointing out that he had artificially created the cliffhanger. After all, maybe he’ll write for Hollywood and the skill will come in handy.
            Taking a cue from my son, here’s my cliffhanger:
We are leaving for India tonight at midnight.  So far, what has generated the most excitement about the trip for the children is the fifteen-hour flight to Hong Kong.  Normally, I ‘m not liberal with television and the computer, but on the flight they will each have their own television and gaming system.  Their excitement over uncontested screen time is that of drowning men seeing a distant shore.
            Backpacking and traveling on a shoestring holds surprises in any country, India being no exception.  Keir and Robyn have told us to bring clean sheets since some of the budget hotels might not have clean ones.  It is possible that in some places, we will be bathing out of buckets.  I have always found this kind of traveling exciting. It requires one to be present, adaptable, and I tend to find that I get a feel for a country and its people beyond what I see in the splashy pages of any tourist brochure.  But it will all be new for the children.  Will the boys who can barely contain their excitement about private televisions on the plane be as adaptable and appreciative as I hope?
            What are my finicky eaters going to eat?
            Will the experience of watching families cremate their loved ones on the Ghats of the Ganges be spiritually memorable for the boys – or will it generate years of freaky dreams they cannot shake?
            What are they going to eat?
            Will my broken toe continue to be an infuriating and painful impediment or will my travels through a multi-layered culture give it context in a “blessings of a skinned knee” kind of way?  Here’s hoping.
            Will Pat be able to let go of adding up how much this is all costing us?
            Friends who have been to India tell us that there’s no place like it on earth.  The food is spectacular, the colors are intense, the people generous, the architecture and the arts stunning, and the poverty overwhelming. With a booming national economy, I understand that there is also great wealth and technological advancement.  This is all second hand, of course.  Now we will get to see it for ourselves.
            Our bags are jammed full of presents for our family and Santa’s bounty is flying with us. In our usual disorganized manner, we have attempted to anticipate much of what we will need. We are bringing antibiotics even though Keir wrote us that they are “for sissies.” It is a moniker I can’t entirely refute. 
            Am I hoping for a spiritual reboot?  Of course. I’m sure that being amongst a people that are well known to focus on spiritual practice and philosophy cannot help but inspire me.  But I have always found travel, and simply jiggling oneself out of the everyday, brings a wealth of insights that are overlooked otherwise.  In this particular case, however – given the crappy year and the extent of our travels – the jiggle is more of a seismic shift. 
             Back to the cliffhanger.
            When I was growing up, my mother took me to generally protestant churches on military bases throughout Germany and England. My mother could not be described as a classic Christian, having pronounced very early that she wasn’t that interested in going to heaven if none of her friends would be there. She did, however, want us to have religious and spiritual grounding. She told me that she didn’t care what I ultimately believed, but she did think hope that I believed in something. “When you are hanging off of a cliff," she said, "I want you to believe in something that helps you hang on.”
            I have spent many years in pursuit of a God or a philosophy or a spiritual practice that will keep me hanging on.  This endeavor has met with moderate success. I am a seeker who has managed to hang on.
            Today, the day of my departure, I am thinking of my trip to India with the people that I love.  We have barely any money, few job prospects when we return, no savings, and no plans. As I hang off of that cliff, it occurs to me that instead of hanging on, I should let go.

Next stop: Hong Kong for a fifteen-hour layover. 
Hong Kong International Airport