21 February 2014 § 2 Comments
The other day, I learned to ride a motorcycle from a beautiful woman on LSD.
Another lazy tropical night approached, its inevitable roar beginning. The sun fell through flimsy clouds like a meteor anxious to rest, and the frogs and crickets called in mates for supper. The deteriorated one-and-a-half lane road gave way to buses, rickshaws, motorbikes and the occasional BMW of wealthy Indian families on holiday. There were no rules on these asphalt paths, only unspoken recommendations to drive generally on the left side, and avoid hitting what may stand in the way: cows, water buffalo, stray children. Especially the cows.
“Wait, you don’t know anything about bikes?” Sasha asked.
“Let’s just start from the beginning.”
A Spanish teacher of mine once said she hated to teach intermediate students – they think they know it all because they can order food at a fancy restaurant! I didn’t want to tarnish the lesson because I thought I knew where the clutch and throttle lived.
“Okay,” she began, “This is the clutch!” She squeezed the lever.
“Right. Clutch,” I said.
“But the clutch on the left side.”
Laughter burst from her.
Aaron, Sasha’s boyfriend, left us to study motorcyclically while he ran to the top of the Monkey Temple for sunset. Apparently Hanuman was born up there, on Kishkinda Mountain, a pilgrimage site atop thousands of boulders inexplicably, irrationally stacked, collapsed, erect, broken, beautiful. Reflections of India herself.
Sasha, a 22-year-old German traveler, learned from her father at seven. He owns bikes from every decade since the thirties, including the little 60cc on which his daughter learned to ride. Besides that, I knew that she’d ridden a motorbike through North India for six months, and had been on this trip for one year and a half.
Despite her altered state, Sasha’s CV seemed legit. The basics: Throttle. Kick start. Clutch. Gears. Brake. I delegated tasks per limb. Brake, kickstart? No, clutch, kick, throttle. Throttle, Kick! She laughed and stumbled through the explanation. At one point, a local man from the coconut and soda stand came over.
“Something wrong? What happen?”
First lesson: humility.
“Nothing,” I said. “First time.”
I practiced accelerating in first gear half a dozen times down the driveway before she let me on the road. Ten feet forward, walk it back, start again. Where does the key go? Neutral, Throttle, Kick start.
Sasha ran behind me, long white legs and cleavage a silver screen on the Indian sunset landscape: in tourist hubs like Hampi, local men stared more subtly, but still. I might have looked myself, had I not just discovered a new variety of freedom.
I pulled over, and grinned. Got off the bike and jumped up and down, arms in the air. I was a kid who’d just uncovered a great secret, accomplished a far-off dream. Like, OMG happiness squared.
Sasha arrived, breathless. “That was great – you did it!”
Female Approval! The child Sean ran in gleeful circles cheering, hands waving, oblivious to traffic; I smiled.
We stopped again for sunset. The fiery meteor shamed street lamps with purest lavalight, fell farther between a giant V of harmless blue-grey clouds, and settled somewhere else, in a faraway West I didn’t know, but could.
Aaron returned from the monkey temple; Sasha bid me take it out one last time.
The wind was intoxicating. Jungle bugs smashed into my face. No doors, no seatbelt, no cabin walls. No windshield. No anything. Just a little engine, two wheels, me, and the road.
Suddenly it made sense. Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels; the cultish love for motorcycles; special hand signals bikers made to one another below the handlebars; bikers-only bars in the American West; the leather, long hair, and fuck-the-system attitude.
Puzzle pieces I’d been missing pinged on the radar. The point was to let go. To think outside the box was one thing, but to live outside it was entirely another. To travel. To write. To eat. To sense.
Some moments cause great rifts, shifts, shuffles. Gulfs are created, oceans form. Eventually, it takes great effort to reach the other side, which just a minute ago seemed close, and listening. Sometimes those moments take away that which we thought immovable. How to cope with loss?
The great boulder hills of Hampi appear to me as fistfuls of stone, crushed by a giant and poured from his hand, a great hourglass. The piles of broken rocks built castles of delicately balanced stones, its fissures and cracks not weaknesses but passageways: opportunities for thorny plants to thrive; challenges to climbers, clamberers, scramblers, adventurers of every sort.
Mountains become what we like them to be – sleeping giants, birthplaces of gods, home – yet remain mountains, infinite stillness that morphs and grows and breaks and builds over millennia, and all at once. Likewise, people are simultaneously themselves and the perceptions, ideals, expectations, dreams and loves of others. And, sometimes, we are mountains.
The ocean drained from this place long ago, its massive highway currents (remember Finding Nemo? Imagine if he had a motorcycle!) caused the great piles, most likely: I imagine the psychedelic, alien colors of coral reefs decorating the tropical desert landscape – fish darting between stones, the worn curves in rock that only water over dozens of thousands of years can achieve. I wonder when will the sea return. In an afternoon, a violent tsunami (not rare in this part of the world), or slowly, like a rising tide?
I am free of myself, and lost again. Quiet, but not silent. The little Honda between my legs purrs, a 150cc feline, leans with me, goes where I will it, the risk in our symbiosis ever a reason to straighten my posture, and keep my eyes on the road.
8 February 2014 § 2 Comments
Days pass in Udaipur, like beggars indifferent to rejection. The desert winter sun shimmers on Lake Pichola. This morning there is a record three clouds in the sky. Across the street, a blind man stands upon a speed bump, white cane in hand. Dark skin and cataracts. A sign hangs from his neck, half-Hindi, half-Hinglish, painted blue on white, an old traffic sign:
My Eyes Opration.
Please Help Me.
He holds a receipt book in his left hand, a record of those who do not ignore him. It is open to the second page. He’s got a five o’ clock shadow from last Saturday, and wears leather trainers, dirt-ridden and worn like the hands of the motorcycle mechanic who works next to Daiji footbridge.
Does this man know the yellow glow of the gold chain fitted to his neck? Does he remember the eyes of the young artist who walks by silently, a Western woman on his arm, who as a child brought the blind man food from his mother?
Can the man with the sign around his neck hear my steady eyes upon his, or the traces of my guilt for staring into a face of India which cannot, for once, stare back? In my ears, these are raucous, electric hums; my heartbeat amplified like the temple bells ringing in a nearby alley. We both turn our heads toward the clangor.
A group of boys line up at the metal railing outside Café Edelwiess; one, then three, then seven, holding metal bowls like topless kettles. Inside the bowls, sculpted men sit upon beasts, like Shiva Linga, covered in black oil and petals of marigold.
Kana, pani, one ragged boy says, over and over again. Food, water. He can’t be nine years old. He points to his mouth, then to the chocolate on my plate.
“Chapatis, sir, chapatis,” says an older boy, 12 or so, in clothes as dirty, and barefoot. They stand one meter away from our table, behind a chain hung like a velvet rope in a cinema queue line. There are no chapatis on screen; only Westerners and chocolate. My table is on the front line: other Westerners talk and eat behind me, deeper in the cave of the wall-less cafe.
I cannot use the Hindi phrase for sending away touts – nahi chaiye, I do not want. These children offer me nothing, want only my food. “Hello, sir, chapatis.” A hoarse, intimate whisper from the old beggar within the barefoot pre-teen: “Please.”
I’ve seen him squatting near a street fire of burning plastic at night to keep warm. Huddled in circles: community, empathy, and friendship. Things I cannot, and do not, offer him. So I ignore him, all of them and their pleas for kana; hello, please, sir, chapatis. Sir, please. Hello?
My book-wise glare renders me into another deaf Westerner, and they leave. I cannot, will not, eat in front of them, nor can justify teasing them with two sandwiches on my table, heaping with eggs and bacon. I pretend the sandwiches are not there. I write instead, holding the tears back because maybe they’ll think I’ll break, and then they’ll have full stomachs for the day, and return tomorrow – with hope.
I am an awful, selfish voyeur. Another white invader whose economic contributions profit hotels that shun locals as a cultural norm. A hotelier in Bikaner said, any unmarried Indian couple cannot, by Indian law, stay the night in a tourist hotel.
If, by chance, a foreigner befriends a local, the latter is typically not allowed in the foreigner’s hotel. The receptionists and owners of Dream Heaven in Udaipur, in the case of a British woman who invited a local restauranteur to have dinner with her, said the local was “a good Indian man, and is welcome here!” For others, they fear rape, or robbery, or some other sin for which we do not have a word.
After twenty minutes, the boy beggars give up on me, and walk away, determined as when they arrived. Hope is dangerous.
Or is it?
Who am I, exactly, that I would deny a child food, at the word of a rich man who said it would do them no good? How can one who has not known true hunger say such a thing? My friend, American activist Kokayi Nosakhere would be appalled, ashamed, dash our friendship to the dogs. His mission is to end child hunger, and in the past, I have said, with words and action, that I support him.
Do I support him now?
Who am I, again, to deny a request for a photo from a group of Indian men in a park, or from a family on holiday, or a few rupees to a woman in the park? Is it because I wish for a connection based less on currency, or prefer the barter economy of buskers or street artists, a penny for a song? And if these children have not even had the opportunity to learn an instrument, or how to use their voice but to beg to survive the day, or a mother’s callused hand?
What fucking right have I to project expectation or want upon a culture that asks so little of me? How audacious it seems to think, I want this experience to have such and such an impact on me; I need to see this or that; to feel the frustration, which leads me to write this. I harbor hatred for the roles we’re born into, the caste system to whom everyone here – not just locals – is subject to, inserted into a predetermined slot of economic import. I want to wriggle out, run away, and I want these children to know… what? That the grass is greener? That the law of attraction applies here, now?
What can I offer them? Freedom? Opportunity? The strength to climb an impossible ladder?
Oh, that I could offer them anything!
Already I deny the boys that which means virtually nothing to me, and could afford easily to buy each one of them a sandwich of protein and fresh-baked bread. I could likely pay for the eye opration [sic] of the blind man out-of-pocket. Not long ago, I wondered what gulf exists that would keep the “open-hearted” traveler in me from connecting with, interacting with, or relating to the people of my host country?
That gulf is wider than the Pacific Ocean. At the moment, for me, it is an uncrossable, unbearable feat. Airplanes and cargo ships could not bring me closer to the little boy three feet away, who has returned to the far side of the railing, outside this foreigner-owned café. He saw something in me, and came back for it. I fear for us both.
In the western, time-zoned, modernized first world, we live a day behind India’s each passing hour, where the beggars of the future ask help from travelers visiting from the past. How do we reply?
5 February 2014 § Leave a comment
Last Friday saw our bitter leave of the desert city in which I died for the third time in twelve days. Apparently I wasn’t letting my body recover long enough before we booked it out of Pokhara, Lumbini, Varanasi, Agra. Fast, blurry, irresponsible travel. Looking for center on the outside, instead of within. The hotelier in Bikaner, who shall remain anonymous but that he runs the most popular ho(s)tels in town, promised one price as a kind gesture, and, come pay time, charged us twice his word plus an extra night.
The scene was unpleasant: Heather, moon-furious. Me, a half-delerious skeleton between their opposing words, as if I had some final say in the matter, as if the credit card had not already gone through.
Bikaner is somewhat off the tourist path, a northern Rajasthani sibling to the popular camel safari town of Jaisalmer, the famous blue-hued Jodhpur, and laid-back Pushkar. That was the point: take the ten steps required to avoid the crowds, and be granted a break from touts and their targets.
A handful of American movies and Indian TV recovered me to a skinny, post-zombie-like state, ravenous and sore from too many days in bed, listening to hotelier and beloved client argue over a handshake deal made a week before. My head shook involuntarily with anger. I wanted to thank him for his help with mailing a package home, and slap him across the face for after accepting lunch on our dime that afternoon. I felt both helpless and violent, and expressed with words my dreary fury.
Minutes before our bus was due to arrive, Heather brought me to a tailor. I stood outside as she laughed with the women inside. She’d arranged for a copy to be made of my favorite pants – a fraction the price, comfortable as the original. My anger from the hotel swept into a tearful gratitude. That, after a week of caring for me, tolerating my bad attitude, delirium, total refusal to eat, and explosive bodily fluids, she would bestow upon me the gift of a custom wardrobe!
Seconds later, three local boys on a motorcycle rode by. Over the 150cc motor, one spewed, Oh, I want to fuck you…
Oh, India. Let me count the ways.
I roared at them. Furious, annoyed, helpless. The driver turned around. Anger begets anger. I stood my ground, and they passed us, glaring, and yelling Hindi.
So much face of the animal kingdom is bluff.
The truth is, if they stopped to engage, I’m not sure what might have happened. I may have my head on a stake. Maybe not.
These kinds of moments seem to happen every few months: someone challenges me, threatens Heather, or myself. Mindless, misplaced anger. Usually, I laugh it off, put it down to a repressed childhood or some such context I’ll never have. Other times, something within me clicks, and an obnoxiously masculine, alpha force wants the challenger to know he’s out of line. Often enough in the past, I’ve been the one to cross it, exploring neighborhoods where I didn’t belong, and paid for ignoring the signs. I pay more attention now, and with it comes fear-borne aggression.
It scares me. I sense violence in my throat, limbs and gut. My heart palpitates, rushes blood to my hands, head, feet. If the bald man who jumped out of the claw of Abraxas at Burning Man had taken another step, the nerves in his face pulsing, probably due to the ketamine or cocaine… if these immature teenagers stopped the motorbike and approached us…
The space is unknown to me. I am neither a fighter nor a pacifist – I believe violence can and does accomplish certain goals, even if they’re not particularly useful ones. I possess neither art nor discipline with which to fight – only my body, and the rage stored in its depths.
I would be neither willing nor proud to engage anyone outside of defense of self or loved ones. Even then, I doubt my capacity to justify my violence. Bodies store pain, and I’ve got enough of my own to ever want to create it in another.
Breathe. Calm nerves. Channel chaos into creativity, let it go, release, c’est la vie, this is India: everything is possible; nothing is available. Counting to ten doesn’t work for me, but writing does.
India, for me, has not been so much a holiday than a welcome gauntlet. It tests everything I think I know, and wobbles its head when I ask a clarifying question. I love it as much as I hate it, and, as often as locals ask how much I feel for their country, India seems content either way.