Wednesday, February 23, 2011


            Our train back to New Delhi wouldn’t be leaving Jhansi train station until early evening, which gave us a long, relaxing, lazy morning at Blue Bull Campsite.  I’m not sure if I’m alone in this, but as a traveler, it only takes me a couple of days to feel like a local.  So much so, that I actually bristle when a shopkeeper suggests that I’m from out of town, or worse, out of the country.  Can’t they see that I’m one of them and not a mere tourist? Like a chameleon, I quickly adopt clothing styles and patterns of speech in an effort to blend in with the populace.  In India, I used the palms-together “Namaste” greeting, took to winding scarves around my neck, and tenor of my voice became softer and more deferential. Past mutations have included calling everyone “Love” in a cockney accent in London and chain smoking in Kiev. 
            Given the remarkable speed at which I adapt, it wasn’t surprising that I teared up at the thought of leaving Orchha like I was one of the sisters in “The Cherry Orchard” having to quit their childhood home. I had to refrain from throwing my arms around Vinod, the trusted family servant, when he challenged the children to one last game of Carrom. 
             By mid-afternoon, we were packed into the van to go visit the Jhansi fort before arriving at the train station. We said goodbye to the Snow Leopard staff and Vinod and the driver came with us. 
            The Jhansi fort was built in the early 1600s and has all of the antediluvian features like underground prison cells and gallows, that set young boys’ imaginations afire.  Monkeys skittered along the walls as Spencer and Murphy ran around pretending to hang traitors. The adults followed Vinod, carrying Zoe. We must mean a lot to Vinod, I thought, watching his easy charm with the kids.  He’ll be devastated when we leave.  Who knew when the next guests would arrive?  My chest tightened as I thought of the staff carrying on in the vacant campsite for months on end, Vinod miles away from his wife and son. 
            “It’s so much easier coming the fort this time,” Vinod told me, shifting Zoe from one hip to the other.
            “Oh, yes?”
            “Last time, I came with Brad Pitt and there were many photographers,” he smiled, remembering.
            “You brought Brad Pitt here?”
            “Yes.  He came to Snow Leopard for the river rafting.  Angelina was pregnant so she stayed at home.”
            Angelina, he called her “Angelina”?  Of course he would. What else would he call her?  Ms. Jolie Pitt?  And then I couldn’t help myself.  I have less than a passing interest in the Jolie/Pitts but one simply must ask, “Was he a nice man?”
            “Very nice,” he responded, adding an observation that I’m sure was shared in confidence.
            I stuck my hands in my pockets, savoring the confidence like I had been given special knowledge that even ‘Star’ magazine couldn’t access.  You only needed to know the right people, I thought.  Then I wondered who else Vinod had passed time with in Orchha.  Clearly, we weren’t the only people who had enjoyed his ministrations.   I had been imagining us as the stars in Viond’s movie about his life.  If Brad Pitt had preceded us, who knew what our billing would be like?  We might be left on the cutting room floor or, at best, be relegated to background extras referred to as Family #1 and Family #2. Fortunately, the practicality of having to make the train and get back to the van stopped me from confronting Vinod about what exactly our friendship meant to him. If the raft on the rapids was about to tip over, who would he save first?  Me or Brad Pitt?
            Trains almost never arrive on time in India.  In fact, you can receive texts as to exactly how late the train will be by accessing a phone number we never managed to access.  We had no choice but to arrive promptly at the Jhansi train station, even though experience had taught us that it could be a long wait. Standing on the platform, I thought of Kierkegaard’s Knight of Infinite Faith who believes what he believes completely, in spite of all earthly evidence to the contrary. It took this kind of faith for us to stand on that platform.  In fact, the whole scene felt Scandinavian – two pale families, shivering near the track.  Both resigned and resolute.
            It’s possible that Vinod was prepared to wait with us for hours but we assured him that we would be fine on our own. We all hugged him, and I tried not to linger.  I had gotten his address earlier and had already started a life-long correspondence with him in my head.
            As soon as the kids and moms secured a bench, Keir and Pat went to get further information on an arrival time. Next to us, a family gathered on a blanket stared at us openly.  Several groups stopped to take pictures of us.  People were particularly interested in snapping Zoe’s photo.  Used to this kind of attention, Zoe expertly dipped her head, discouraging more pictures.   Murphy, on the other hand, enjoyed it, giving his best “charming the grandparents” smile. 
            As soon as a train pulled into the station, crowds of people started running toward it, jumping on before it stopped completely. Passengers would toss bundles to people already on board.  Robyn told me that this happened because third class passengers did not have reserved seats.  Ticket-holders would rush the train in order to secure the best spots on the wooden benches in the cars. 
            Pat and Keir returned to tell us that they had heard that the train was running two hours late.  The kids flopped onto the pile of backpacks and Robyn and I pulled out our chocolate bars.  We looked around the station. I watched men hauling a huge hose up to a train and then easing it in through a window.  Several older, turbaned gentlemen walked by us in bare feet, carrying staffs.  Passengers leaned out of train to buy chai tea from vendors.  I spotted a few European backpackers. 
            “I can do this,” I said to Robyn.  “At home I barely have enough patience to stand in line at the bank without weeping.  But when I’m traveling, I can access some deep, still part of me. Like right now. I can handle it.”
            “I can do it too,” Robyn said as Zoe climbed into her lap.  “Something goes quiet in you.  And you just watch.”
            “And wait,” I added. 
            “Because the train will come, eventually.”
            “Right.  It will.  And we know that.”
            Of course, at home, I knew that the bank line would move and that I would eventually get to the teller.  But at home, I didn’t derive the same kind of peace from that knowledge.
            As it turned out, I would have to go to that quiet inner place and dredge up even more peace.  We would wait on the platform for five hours.
Jhansi Fort

Jhansi train station

Hour five.  Zoe sits on Keir's lap

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Last Night in Orchha

              I love a good campfire.  Especially when it’s otherwise freezing and wine is provided.  I love it even when it’s fueled by gasoline, as was the case at the Blue Bull campsite in Orchha.  In fact, I might have suggested that the staff immolate a few of the unoccupied tents to create a wall of heat to shield us from the bitter temperature we would encounter hiking to the bathrooms later to brush our teeth.
            Our last full day in Orchha had been a lazy one by our standards.  Pat had stayed with the kids on the campground while I joined Robyn and Keir for a bike ride that morning.  I had had some trepidation about keeping up with the guides and Robyn and Keir who are seasoned bike riders.  I ride a stationary bike, for exercise, two to three times a week but it would be hardly comparable unless the guides provided gossip magazines to peruse as I pedaled and allowed me to stop and sit down every time I broke a sweat.  I overcame my apprehension pretty quickly however, after considering that the river-rafting excursion had probably prepared them for my level of expertise at anything physical. 
            My determination to keep up on the ride had served me well. It focused my mind, and made it possible for me to swerve through the chaotic streets of Orchha without dwelling on the very real possibility of losing a limb or slamming into an oncoming motorcycle after skidding through a pile of cow dung. Half way through the ride, one of our guides turned to me and said in a genuinely surprised tone, “Good bike rider.” That was all I needed to push through to the end.
            Sitting around the campfire that night, I took pride in the soreness in my haunches. I was also proud of having negotiated the marketplace around Orchha’s temple earlier that evening.  The temple itself was gorgeous and I had felt calm in its confines, listening to the music of an evening ceremony in progress.  By now very used to temple hopping, the children had run around quietly, as if they owned the place. I had seen some batik stamps being sold outside, before we climbed the steps to the temple and I thought that they would make lovely small gifts for friends. Since many street vendors state different prices for Indians and tourists, I milled around in the temple while our guides ran down to the market to buy the stamps for me.  Later, we took a walk through the market which was challenging only because I’ve never been good at haggling and I always feel #1) foolish because I’m arguing over a couple of dollars here and #2) anxious because I know I’m probably still paying more than the object is worth and #3) doubtful that any object is worth how foolish and anxious I feel by the time I hand over my money. 
            Any residual tension from haggling and bike riding faded in front of the fire that night, as I enjoyed one of Keir’s many entertaining stories. I loved the campfire ritual so much that I already knew it would be one of the many things I’d miss upon returning home to my far more ordinary nighttime routine of watching MSNBC when the kids were asleep and hating myself because I would never be as smart as Rachel Maddow. 
            The kids were tucked into their tent and we had just unscrewed the bottle cap off of the wine when Vinod and a couple of guys brought out a blanket and laid it out in front of the fire opposite us.  Once it was arranged, Vinod stood rather formally on it and began to talk.  I was reminded that Vinod was the kind-faced gentleman who had given our welcoming speech just two days earlier.  How strange that I now felt I knew him since he had shared his own stories around the campfire and carried our children when they were tired (not to mention, watched me wash my son’s bare bottom in the sacred Betwa river). 
            “It is a tradition,” Vinod said, lit by the fire, “for the staff to sit with the guests on the last night and sing songs.” 
            Ten or twelve men materialized on the blanket and took a seat.  I recognized our rafting guides, the cook, and a couple of the men who took us bike riding.  All of them, in fact.  Some sat cross-legged, others shared a couple of available seats.  One sat on another’s lap.  Robyn had told me that Indian men were quite affectionate with each other and it was lovely to see such physical ease. I thought of how much physical distance American’s usually require.
            “I’m going to get the kids,” Pat said, and sprinted toward the tent. 
            The men on the blanket giggled and talked as Pat rounded up the boys and Robyn and Zoe.  When we all settled, the men sang a beautiful song that sounded like a folk song they all knew. It could also, I grant, have been a cricket team song or an advertisement for a phone plan. How was I to know?  It didn’t matter. It was clear that the men were enjoying themselves.  So much so that when the song seemed to peter out because a few of them couldn’t remember the rest of the words, they poked each other and pushed a few forward who could make it to the end.  Then they decided to sing another song and another.  Some of the songs started to sound more modern.  Perhaps they were Bollywood songs.  And sometimes only two or three of the men knew the song.  They all encouraged a tall man to sing the lead a couple of times.  And frequently, failing words gave way to laughter.  The guy in the hat seemed to be the joker who had them all falling over with his pithy asides.  I didn’t understand a word of it and could have watched them all night.
            Eventually, however, it seemed selfish not to share our own songs with them.  After a brief family discussion, we settled on “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer” because we all knew the words, it was Christmas Day, and Zoe was the most passionate in defense of her choice.  We sang with conviction and the gentlemen applauded kindly. I wanted to sing them something pretty, as they had us.  Really, if you don’t understand the words to “Rudolf” it sounds like a drinking song. Pat volunteered to sing a Sinatra standard, “I’ll Get Along Without You Very Well”.  It’s a lonely wail of a song that he sang out into the black night. The fire crackled and the men listened until the song waned, as it was meant to do.  Then Spencer offered to sing a Pokemon song. At home, I had found the boys’ obsession with Pokemon mildly annoying, so I didn’t think much of his choice until I heard his clear strong voice sing the words:

“On the road
Far from home
But you don't have to feel alone
Brave and strong
Together we will be
It's our destiny

We will be heroes
We can change the world if we try
I go where you go
Forever friends you and I
We will be heroes”

            Spencer paused and I couldn’t breathe. The Indian gentlemen looked at each other. Was it over? Pat shifted in his chair. Then Spence took a breath and tagged it, “Battle Dimension. Pokemon.”
Even Murphy knew that the moment had somehow been corrupted, “Dude, you did not just sing ‘Pokemon’.”
Spencer leaned back in his chair, “Why wouldn’t I?”
Everyone applauded.
The kids hanging out at the campsite

Brett on a bike in Orchha

Pat and the kids at the Orchha Temple

The Snow Leopard Staff with the children

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

White Water 3 -- The Conclusion

            Our descent was unremarkable and took five seconds. Keir lifted the boys down and they loped ahead, leading the party down to the boats.  The moment on the rock had been so perfect that I didn’t even feel anxious about negotiating the angry rapids around the bend. 
            Murphy stopped abruptly, turned, and said, “Dad…”
            His tone was plaintive. I wasn’t aware of what was happening but Pat leapt ahead, barking, “Yank ‘em down.  Yank the pants down.”  He made exaggerated pulling gestures in the air as he hurtled down the hill. Murphy had been suffering the unavoidable intestinal distress that attends almost every foreigner in India.
            I sprinted ahead, only to find Murphy staring up at both of us, his legs already wide apart.  The look of misery on his face was so complete, so unguarded, it could only be owned by a seven-year-old boy.
He looked up at us and whimpered apologetically, “I pooed.”
            “I know, Buddy.  I know,” Pat said, leaning down.
            Keir caught up with our Indian guides in tow, the sides of his mouth twitching. Keir loves a good story about events going horribly wrong, and I could see him already drafting this one. He turned to the men and said, evenly, “There has been an incident.”
            They nodded formally and stepped back a polite couple of paces as if they had just served our meal at a five star restaurant.  I squatted next to Pat, “Buddy, we’ve got to take your pants off.”
            Murphy squeezed his eyes shut, “No.”
            “Honey, you can’t keep them on,” I coaxed.
            He stood rigid, like he was growing roots into the soil. As if the very act of staying completely still with his eyes clamped tight would transport him somewhere else. I inferred all of this because I was familiar with the state. I have never been successful at astral projection, but it isn’t for lack of trying.
            “Honey,” I said, “you will feel better when we clean you off.”
            Without opening his eyes, he whispered, “I’m so embarrassed.”
            “Oh, my love,” I said, “things like this happen to everyone.  Even to grown-ups. No one thinks anything about it.”
I didn’t know what else to say.  Anything further would highlight the fact that there were ten people simply standing around waiting for him to make a move. I breathed in and stared into the distance.  Spencer was looking away respectfully, sympathy in the curve of his shoulders.  I felt stuck.  How could I move Murphy from this spot without making him feel worse? I could see Pat sifting through options in his head and I hoped that he had better ones than me. None of us even had a sweater to tie around his waist.
            Murphy’s despair made the back of my eyes hurt.  First the endless night of purging at the tiger park.  Now this? He was the littlest.  It wasn’t fair. He knew it wasn’t fair. Spence got to conquer a mountain and he got to shit his pants.  Where was the justice in that?
            Pat put his hand on Murphy’s shoulder. “We’re going to walk down to the river,” he said. “Then we’ll take off your pants and wash them. And we can clean you up too.”
            Murphy squeezed his eyes tighter, “NO!  I can’t move.”
            Spencer shifted his weight. My legs were beginning to feel the stress of squatting but I didn’t want to move. I thought that standing would indicate impatience. It seemed important to let him know that we understood how difficult this was.  The men behind me waited.  We all waited.
            “Buddy,” Pat said, softly, “I’m going to hold your hand and we’re going to walk down to the river.” Pat sounded sympathetic but firm. I, myself, had always responded well to this tone. It allowed me to abdicate all decision-making and leave it in the hands of someone who sounded more rational. More capable.  The fact that the tone might not match his actual problem-solving capabilities was irrelevant in the moment. Someone had to take charge.
            Murphy opened an eye, “OK.” He slipped his hand into Pat’s.  Pat stood up and they started their slow progress toward the river’s edge. Murphy would not bend his legs or alter his stance.  He moved as if he were walking on a tripod, leaning on one leg so he could swing the other stiff leg forward.  The rest of us inched along quietly, not wanting to affect the delicate balance of trust and will that the task demanded.
            When we got to the water, I slowly inched down his pants and underwear.  Pat and I kept murmuring, “You’re doing great, Buddy.  You really are.”  When we finally wormed his unbending legs out of the soiled clothes, I rinsed them in the river while Pat held Murphy’s hand and led him into the river, splashing water up to his waist to get him clean.  Murphy gritted his teeth, enduring the cold, not looking at any of the bystanders.  “You’re doing great, Buddy.  You really are.”
            I wadded up Murphy’s wet pants and stuck them in the boat.  Murphy, helmet and lifejacket still in place, was completely naked from the waist down.  Except for his shoes, which Pat slipped onto his feet when he emerged from the river. 
            “OK,” said Pat, “I think we’re ready.”
            Murphy turned to the assembled pokerfaced group and fixed his own face with an expression that looked almost regal – dignified and aloof. As if in response to an unvoiced command from the boy king, everyone jumped into the boat, took their positions, and grabbed an oar.  The two guides in the banana boat started rowing ahead of us. Pat led Murphy to the boat and lifted him in.  Wordlessly we all adjusted our positions.  Murphy picked up an oar and we pushed off.
            “Row,” said Vinod. 
            I could hear the rushing rapids ahead, but the fear did not return. I didn’t feel brave, exactly.  I simply felt spent. Empty of anything but ache for the boy.
            The guide in front of me started rowing faster.  We kept pace. I didn’t look back. We hit the rushing water and used the oars to steer between the rocks.  We bobbed and I could hear Spencer whoop.  It felt good to focus on the endeavor.  I felt strong and competent.  After a minute or so, there was calm.
            “Stop.”  Oars out of the water.  Keir, Pat, and Spencer smiled.  I looked back at Murphy, smiling too, his bare legs soaking wet and goosebumped.
            Vinod said, “Does Spencer want to go into the banana boat?”
            I looked at Spencer, reflexively anticipating resistance. “Sure,” he said, tentatively.
            “I want to go,” interjected Murphy. 
            The adults all eyed each other.  I had to stop myself from stating the obvious, “But you have no pants.”
            “Yes,” said Vinod. “Spencer, then Murphy.”
            Vinod maneuvered us closer to the banana boat with his oar. I looked at my boys. Yes, I thought. Spencer, then Murphy.  Climbing mountains and working through their own shame and all I can do is stand by.  Spencer, then Murphy.  My fear cannot protect them, so what use is it?
The banana boat pulled up beside us and one of the guides stepped onto our boat effortlessly.  We bobbled slightly. Instead of feeling anxious, I felt my body give in to the rocking of the boat.  Then Spencer stood stiffly. Conducted by two of the men, he made his way haltingly to the front of the raft and was lifted down to the smaller boat. 
            The many of pictures I took of Spencer in the banana boat substantiate my zeal to capture his awkward grace and determination.  When it became Murphy’s turn, however, I slid the camera into my pocket so he wouldn’t be self-conscious as he was lifted up -- sunlight bouncing off of his bare ass like a beacon to terrified adventurers everywhere. 
Spencer in the banana boat

Murphy negotiating zero difficulty rapids, his bare knee peeking out

Spencer asked me to take this picture of him "looking cool"


Tuesday, February 1, 2011

White Water 2

             The boat began to bobble. In the distance, I heard rushing water.
            “Row,” said, Vinod, with more urgency than he had before.
            Keir immediately stuck his oar in the water and started paddling with vigor. In front of me, the others were doing the same. I wanted to turn around to check the children.  But I was already a stroke behind and I didn’t want to tip the whole boat.
            Dear God. Here it was. White Water.  What the hell was I doing here?  I wasn’t trained.  None of us were, except maybe Keir. If one of us popped out of the boat and smashed our lifeless body against a boulder after being tossed around from jagged rock to jagged rock like a sea lion being flung by orcas before he was devoured, I would never forgive myself.  Why hadn’t I thought this through? I had been seeing myself as Meryl Streep in that river movie that I never saw because I knew it would scare the shit out of me.  But I knew what she’d be like in it anyway, because she’s always sensitive and oh-so-strong with flawless skin.  I wasn’t Meryl Steep, I was a D-list actor -- one of the first idiots to be hacked to death in a slasher movie because I’d gone into the basement without thinking anything through! Why hadn’t I thought this through? What was I doing in the fucking basement?
            We reached water that was swirling around rocks.  Somehow we rowed between them. Water sprayed into our faces.  We crashed up and down. Up and down.  How were we hanging on?  I didn’t know. I couldn’t feel my ass.  But I was still on the boat. The children must be too, unless no one wanted to scream bad news at me over the pounding surf.
              And, very soon – calm. 
            “Stop,” I heard Vinod say.  We all lifted our oars out of the water.
That was it?
            “Whoo hoo,” whooped Spencer behind me. “That was fun!  Let’s do some more!”
            “Yeah!” shouted Murphy.
            The boat drifted.  The two men in the banana boat up ahead smiled back at us.  I turned around to see the kids beaming, barely damp from the spray.  Pat and Keir smiled like they’d just finished a satisfying meal.
            I had clearly been in an entirely different movie. “You see,” said Vinod, “Difficulty, zero.”
            We bobbed and I tried to make out what had just happened.  I looked back at the water we had just navigated.  It would qualify as a very wide babbling brook.  How could I have so misjudged the experience? Had my inherent fear about anything more physically challenging than leaning over to pick up a dropped potato chip altered my perception that radically? 
            Apparently, it had. Which is how, I supposed, fear could convince an entire population it was so threatened that allowing any ol' guy to carry a semi-automatic glock was a reasonable response.
            “Row,” I heard Vinod say.  I dipped my oar into the rippling water and reached and pulled with the others until we touched shore.  Vinod told us that this was simply a stop on the way back to the campsite.  He wanted to show us the ruins of a seventeenth century hunting lodge.  A couple of guides helped us out of the boat and we followed Vinod up a hill. The path was overgrown and we had to push aside tall grasses and twigs as we progressed. At the top of the hill, we came upon the ruins. A couple of turrets flanked a small room.  There was a fire pit in front and to one side, we saw a shrine to the god Ram, newly painted red orange. Clearly the lodge was still occasionally used by campers or hunters. I was impressed again, by what seemed to be a Hindu blending of the quotidian with worship. 
            “Up here,” Vinod called down from what appeared to be a concrete or stone mound.  I looked up at him.  “You can see the river.”
            Murphy scrambled up to join him. I glanced at Spencer. Ever since he was a toddler, I’ve anticipated his fear of heights.  I’ve looked at play structures and thought, “He’s never going to make that.”  My heart has skipped a protective beat as I’ve struggled with how to soften his disappointment with himself for not being able to overcome his apprehension. This is where I found myself. Poised to comfort, as Spencer stepped onto the rock, timidly reaching out one hand to guide himself.  His ascent wasn’t graceful. It was clearly difficult.  But he continued, gingerly placing one foot then another. 
            “You can totally see the river, Spence,” Murphy crowed from the top, hanging onto Vinod’s hand.
            As I watched Spencer ascend, I felt Pat and Keir beside me. 
            “He’s doing it,” Pat said.
            “By himself,” I whispered, proud and only slightly wistful that he didn’t need me.
            As Spence reached the top of what was probably a mere twelve-foot high monolith, Vinod reached out a hand and pulled him up to the summit. Pat, Murphy, and I erupted into cheers and applause. Teetering, Spencer turned to look down at Pat and me with a goofy grin.  If our guides were confused by our familial enthusiasm for such a simple act, they didn’t betray it.  Perhaps they had children too.
            Pat and I scrambled up to meet the boys and Vinod.  We gazed over the Betwa river, aglow with triumph.  It was an invisible victory.  But the four of us savored it.  Spence had climbed a mountain and in a year when almost everything that could go wrong, had -- we had made it to India.   
-- Yes, there's more.  To be continued...
The Descent

Spencer and Murphy with Vinod