Everyone’s life reaches a point where the important memories, people, and places of their pasts are little more than ghosts, wispy semblances of their former fullness. In few places has this truth reverberated through me more than it did in the abandoned apartment above a dilapidated strip club in Okayama Prefecture, Japan.
Cycling through backwoods Malaysia, buying fresh seafood at a chaotic Hokkien fish market, sitting on the floor eating Indian food with my hands, elbow-to-elbow with hundreds of traditionally dressed Indians, watching a bizarre devil-purging fire-walking ceremony, drinking Toddy and rice wine over a traditional Chinese steamboat dinner, singing songs with people from eight different countries as thunder crashed overhead, Cassie making me blush and encouraging others to make me drink too much by announcing it was my birthday. All these things ran through my mind as I finally drifted off to sleep at the end of the day that marked the end of my 27th year on this planet. I tried to write about it all, but it was too much. I stirred a bit and wrote in my journal:
An irritating, itchy, painful bump on my cheek momentarily draws my attention away from the offensively hot breeze blowing across my perch on a bamboo floor in Mae Sariang, Thailand. A day earlier, a bee spiraled to its demise and my discomfort, leaving a stinger in my face as a souvenir. We are on the road in Mae Hong Son province in northwestern Thailand. Several days before, a man with a thick German accent taught us how to ride scooters and off we went.
Cassie has my Kindle in one hand, grumbling at Scrabble words that refuse to cooperate. In the other hand is a large Gurkha beer, only 150 Nepalese rupees. We take turns grabbing it, and we’re like a sitcom version of a young couple pretending to be an old couple. Our two layers of blankets cover us, protecting us from the Nepali night. Banana trees serve as a foreground for looming snowbound Himalayan peaks. It’s warmer in subtropical Pokhara than it was in Kathmandu, but January insists on making its presence known.
The flimsy aluminum heater glowed red, a taunting hint of warmth in a cold, cold place. “Don’t catch your scarf on fire!” shouted Cassie. Suzi leaped backward from a candle but indignantly insisted she was being very careful and that she was in no danger whatsoever of igniting herself. History apparently was on Cassie’s side, as they told giggling stories about the numerous times Suzi has, in fact, ignited herself.
I have a confession: I’m completely overwhelmed right now. I’m overwhelmed by writing this. I’m overwhelmed trying to capture and write about the multitude of rich experiences as fast as they slip through my fingers like the hot desert sands in Jaisalmer. I’m overwhelmed by the stark realities I see every day.
The adorable puppy with its leg crippled, probably mutilated by a rickshaw that purposely swerved to hit it or by some kid taking out his frustration and lack of control over the chaotic, crumbling, filthy world around him. Maybe he’s passing on some of the violence that passes from father to son on a very regular basis. But this is India, and love is everywhere. Maybe it got hit by a train and someone is taking care of it, giving it cardamom milk every day, and our thought process jumps to the bad because we see so much of it.
I’m overwhelmed by love, and everything positive and negative it entails. I’m overwhelmed by the beauty of having a partner who values the same things I value, who looks at me with nothing but admiration in her gorgeous blue eyes. I’m overwhelmed by the responsibility of caring for that love while I’m overwhelmed by everything else going on around me. I’m overwhelmed by trying to catch buses, jump onto moving trains, and trying to be compassionate when she’s overwhelmed by everything herself.
India is overwhelming. I’m overwhelmed by the beautiful world one of the best friends I could ever hope for opened up to me. I wouldn’t have come here or done this trip at all if Bharath hadn’t continually prodded me to come, inviting me to see where he came from and why he is the way he is. I’m overwhelmed by the array of gasp-inducing experiences he helped us to realize.
We’ve seen fog-shrouded temples teeming with monkeys rising out of the jungle, we’ve slept in the desert under a glittering canvas of stars with previously unimaginable depth, accompanied by nothing but fire and beautiful Rajasthani singing. We’ve laughed until tears streamed down our faces and our bellies hurt (if they didn’t already from something foul or delicious). We met the Dalai Lama. We learned about this place inside and out from the best guide we could ever hope to have.
We’ve gone from being irritated, flustered, and downright pissed off at a neverending stream of touts to melting under the beauty of the Taj Mahal. We went sari shopping in a back market in Bangalore we never would have discovered without him and his beautiful family.
The food is overwhelming. God, it’s SO delicious.
I can’t imagine not having access to this food when I go home. Sometimes the spice is overwhelming. My mouth is flooded with overwhelming deliciousness and with hot chilis I probably didn’t even know existed before I came here, and the flood of flavor turns into a flood of tears and sweat as I realize just how goddamned spicy what I just ate was.
Cassie and I listened to the entire audiobook of Life of Pi, which is partially set in India. In one scene, after moving to Canada, the protagonist talks about being ridiculed by the waiter at an Indian restaurant in Toronto for eating with his hands. “God, fresh off the boat are you? Still eating with your hands?” And he talks about how heartwrenching that was for him, because a huge part of the food experience is “tasting” the food with your hands before putting it in your mouth.
And it’s so true – you feel much more connected to what you’re eating and putting in your body, for better or for worse, but usually better. You can tell if something is spicy by the way it makes any tiny cuts on your fingers sting. You can tell how hot it is and if it’s going to burn your mouth. The texture you feel with the tips of your fingers is so fine-grained it could never be matched by your tongue.
The people are overwhelming. Cassie gets stared at with such searing intensity that it feels like those doing the staring could rip her clothes off and rape her without ever moving a muscle. And I get this overwhelming sense of protectiveness – I feel violent urges towards them. Some of them would do well to get socked in their bugged out, disgusting eyes. Others pretend to be sending text messages but take photos with their cameras.
Some of them don’t even keep it to eye contact. Men stick out their knuckles to get a feel of her hips. One guy asked for a photo, and since we feel better that at least they’re asking, we said yes. He posed for the photo and groped her breast in plain sight of me. We got him into a lot of trouble for it, but that’s beside the point. The level of attention is incessant and overwhelming.
I get overwhelmed by the living nostalgia this trip gives me. I know I’m going to look back on this as one of the best times of my life, and as carefree and wonderful it is, it’s a huge responsibility – live in the moment, be everything, do everything, don’t look back, and for God’s sake, don’t get overwhelmed and hide from it!
But then there’s the overwhelming guilt – why do I get to do this and so many people don’t? It’s clear that some people can but don’t, but every single day we’re stared in the face by gaunt beggars, aggressive transvestites, and needy children. We’re doing this trip ridiculously cheap – I’m spending less than I spend in the States, but the stark realities we see every day remind me of the power of money. This cheap trip would still mean an education, or a year of food, or a shelter to live in for any one of the people we see. But the trip is what’s making me aware of that, and I can’t have it both ways. Overwhelming.
So, I’m going to surrender to the feeling. In writing this, I’m changing the voice of what I’ve written so far. I’m admitting I can’t capture everything. I have a lot I still want to tell in the form of narrative, but too much has simply happened to keep it up in real time. So I’ll write that later. On the side. On my own. What I write for you guys will be the raw, moment-by-moment wonder of the trip as it hits me. Like this. Enjoy the ride, I know I am.
A political row had erupted over the Mulliperiyar Dam, a 100+ year old dam controlling the water supply for much of Kerala and neighboring Tamil Nadu. The Kerala government was convinced that the dam was in dangerous condition, at risk of collapsing at any moment and threatening the lives of 3.5 million people.
The next day brought more rain from the tropical storm, and Cassie and I took turns feeling ill while Bharath played doctor. By evening, we were all feeling well enough to go to the other performance at the cultural center: Katakhali. We walked down to meet our driver and decided to walk into town instead of driving, both to get some exercise and to avoid more automotive adventures.
Men with chainsaws again cleared the tree from the road, and a few smaller cars began to sneak by, their passengers holding the power line up while the driver navigated underneath. Someone held it up long enough for us to squeeze through, and we were on our way again. A few miles down the road, traffic slowed yet again, though not to a standstill. Everyone crept by a truck before speeding up again, and the reason became clear in an instant.
A wave of debilitating nausea swept over me and I started sweating as we finished up at the tiger reserve and headed back to the hotel. Bharath had seen advertisements for a kalaripayattu demonstration, a traditional Keralan martial arts performance and was excited to see it. I felt pretty miserable by this point and had already decided I’d stay in for the night. I undressed and flopped onto the bed. Guilt about not living the trip to its full potential and being lame started gnawing at me and I got back up and got fully dressed.