Wednesday, September 25, 2013

In which we attempt to sneak across the Nepali border...

I came to India knowing that many legends of tourist travels are told through a certain lens, and I wanted to be wary of that. I respect the problem of having constant inappropriate contact and fear. But I also have not really encountered that problem here in India. I do have a male Indian guide who I am with a lot of the time, but not all of the time. From my perspective, I have been more harassed, grabbed and manhandled in the locker room at every ski resort I have worked in and at every Ice rink where Hockey players were in residence than I have driving across all of India. But hey, skiers and hockey players are my bretheren, so I guess I feel at home there. 

Granted, we have been robbed, I am out about $800, and Bodhi has contracted lice, but I haven't gotten sick yet, and I ‘m eating at the roadside all the time. (knock wood). 

We have visited seven of the eight holy sites on the Buddhist pilgramage, the last of which is the birthplace of the Buddha in Nepal. I am really, really excited about this one. 

We drove all the way to the Nepali boarder, got out to fill out the forms, and the Immigration man said, “You are leaving for your country from Nepal?” 

“No, we come back to India tomorrow.” I answered, itching to get across. Six days and over 3500km we have traveled. We are ready for some yak butter tea.

He looked at me. “You can not, this is a single entry visa.”

All the way through this trip I have been so grateful to finally see India, and so happy to be going back to Nepal. I have always wanted to return, I have always wanted to go back to the Thengboche monastery and shave my head and live there for a while. But I have kids, and it’s not really possible for me to live the life of a nun right now. 

As we got closer and closer to the border, something inside me was welling up, I felt a little bit like I was going home, something about me changed while I was in Nepal the first time, something significant. That was the beginning for me, the beginning of me learning that I could become whoever I was, and that I could take lifetimes to do it, and that I did not have to appologize for who I had been or who I wanted to be. I found permission, and freedom, and a lot of fear in Nepal on that first journey. 

I face different questions about myself and my journey this time around, and I was excited to cross the border and see who I was on that side. We stood there staring at the sign and listened to the Indian Immigration officer say no. 

I couldn’t help it, tears welled up, it had been a long a stressful journey, Bodhi had been talking about Sidhartha’s kingdom, the pleasure palaces, the town from which he first witnessed suffering, age, dying, sickness and birth, and we were excited to journey together to this country which is dearer to my heart than I knew.

I had asked Raju “How far is it to Kathmandu?” just thinking, just wondering... if I didn’t have to be back in Denver on September 30, I would stay in India for a month, and wander across to Nepal for a month or so, and then take Bodhi into Tibet for a while, and then head home when we were needed for work. We are here. And it is so fucking hard to get here. And it is so compelling to be here. 

So I am sitting in this tiny dusty office, and now I am just crying openly. Fuck it, there is nothing I can do about it. I wanted to see where he was born, I wanted to touch the place where he began to wonder, I wanted to share Nepal, the place where I woke up, with Bodhi, I wanted to ...

“Is there nothing that can be done?” I asked, thinking, well, in Indonesia when you have a visa problem, you pay the woman sitting at the cafe about 100 USD, and she goes to the immigration officer that she is sleeping with and gets your visa fixed. They put a new one in and stamp the old one and you are good to go. We are on a shoe string, especially after getting robbed, but I would have paid to go to Nepal. 

“Madame, are you weeping?” asked the officer, taking me into his office. 

I wasn’t sure what to make of this question, I had snot running out of my nose and I couldn’t stop the flood of tears. It had already been an emotional day. I fell asleep in a pit of loss that I think may be a permanent wound for me, one I will cary with me for a long long time, and try to learn from, and woke up holding the same feeling. I made what was a compassionate choice along the way, a difficult choice, and the depth of sorrow that choice brings with it feels unbearable. My task right now is acceptance. 

“Yes, I am, I’m sorry.” 

“Are you Buddhist?” he asked. 

“Yes” I answered. He stared at me. I don’t really know what people think of me here, I have blonde hair and a long haired son, no husband; and a huge tattoo of a pre-hindu balinese goddess on my arm. But I’m just me, and I follow the teachings of the Buddha the best I can not matter what I look like on the outside. 

“And are you on a pilgrimage?” he asked. 

I nodded. Bodhi sat in the chair and looked at me. “Don’t cry, mom, he will figure it out.” he said. 

The officer looked at him. The dust from the enormous line of trucks waiting to crawl across the border was thick and choking. Flies buzzed in the office, the one shitty fan oscillated ineffectively, having no effect other than to cause the flies to take off in annoyance and land again once the breeze had passed. 

We had driven about three hours on an elevated highway which was falling completely apart. More than once we had to back the car up and navigate our way around enormous pieces of broken concrete and sink holes. All this damage was caused by the flood we had avoided. The water stood in puddles still all around the bridge, trash ringing the edges. We crawled onward, people on bicycles, huge trucks, and ox carts all picking their way along. I was holding my breath just waiting for the bridge itself to come tumbling down. 

“Well, madame, I can close my eyes, and you can pass. An dthen when you come back across the border, you show your face to me, and it is a beautiful face, and I will again close my eyes and not see you pass. Many people pass this way, I have heard. Of course, I don’t know about it. But it is possible.”

My heart began to lighten we were oging to go, it was only a matter of price. How much could he possibly want? India is less expensive than Indonesia, maybe $100 USD total? 

“But it is very risky. I do not know what happens if they stop you on the Nepali side.”

I nodded my head, I was waiting for the part where he would just fix our Indian visa with a paper or a new stamp and we’d pay for it and get on our way. 

Raju came in. “Kate, a moment?” he asked. 

I went out. “We can do this if you like, but it is very risky. Risky for your son, risky for me. If they catch you in Nepal, you will be fined a huge amount of money, more than you have, and I will go to jail. Which is no problem for me, free place to sleep, the food is free, and my boss will come get me, but they will torture you for money.”

My heart sank. I can’t do this. Of course he is right. If it was just me, I would have gone in a heart beat. But was I really considering sneaking my 9 year old across the border? Yes. I was. But the answer was no.

Raju said, “Let me see if he can do something on paper.” 

We waited in the greasy seating area as a tour manager for a group of monks from Myanmar filled out the paperwork. I considered again shaving my head. And Bodhis. Maybe then we’d get through. What the fuck, Bodhi has lice anyway, might as well buzz it. 

Raju called me into the office. The Immigration man looked at me. “You are a single mother of poor economic condition and a Buddhist, right?” I nodded, hope alive again. 

“How much did you pay for your driver?”

Oh shit. He thinks I’m rich. We spent a lot on this tour. It cost about $1200 at the base price to gave the car and driver and reliable hotels. This is the last of our money. But after everything people had said to me about traveling in India, especially with Bodhi, I felt we had to do it. I sold my motorcycle to come on this trip. 

“Um, for the driver or the tour or what?” I asked, looking at Raju. He shook his head, that funny sideways shake that means “I disagree but go ahead and do what you are doing.”  He took over and started talking in rapid Hindi that I didn’t understand. 

Then he walked out.
The immigration man looked at me.

“Madame, are you in a position to give me one thousand US dollars?”

“What?” I asked. His eyes were still full of kind sadness, but he had taken in the gold ring I have on my finger, fine Balinese metalwork, and three big stones. They aren’t diamonds. But it is a pretty ring. He had looked at my blonde son and my driver and car, and decided I was full of shit.  “US Dollars? A thousand?” I asked, shocked.

“Yes.” he nodded with a smile.

I laughed. “No way, that’s more than I have in my bank account, I couldn’t give you that much if I wanted to. If you want say 100 US dollars, that is a different story, but a thousand? That is so much money. That is way more money than I have.”
He looked at me dead straight. “Then it will be risky for you to cross, but I will close my eyes.” He handed me back my passport. “Cease your weeping, madame, it is the will of God that you do not go to Nepal right now. You will come another time when it is right that you should take that journey. For now, find joy in your heart, and continue on your way in a new direction.”

I stuffed my passports back in my bag. A thousand fucking dollars. I was pissed. I felt robbed. I had paid the right amount. I had gone to Denpasar with Edi no less than four times to get the paperwork right. We had gone through an Indonesian bureaucracy to make it through an Indian Bureaucracy and we had won, I had thought. 

We left the office and crossed the sandy street, avoiding a bull, several goats, and a crush of people. We got back into our air conditioned suv. I pouted amongst the want at my own desire not being fulfilled. Outside, people were making samosa and wrapping them in newspaper for 5 rupees each, about 3 cents. 

“It is good that we didn’t go.” Said Raju, “This one, without a payment ahead of time, he would have let us cross, and then called someone on the other side to catch us, so he could get more money. We can not go across unless he makes a change by paper.”

I sighed and settled back into my seat. Of course he was right. “You need some tea, I think.” Raju said, with new purpose. 

“Yes. Tea.” We headed out, horn blaring, weaving our way through motorcycles and bicycles and water buffalo being led by kids. A handcart, a bicycle with hand pedals, full of apples bumped along in front of us. On the back, a couple of kids had hopped on to catch a ride. The driver had his shrunken legs tucked up and wrapped in cloth, on the top, he was strong and hearty. 

“Madame Kate, I am so sorry that you could not go to the Nepal today.” Raju said, as we pressed relentlessly on, the horn blasting, over the pothole filled road through traffic so thick we should be at a standstill not moving at 40km an hour. 

A few minutes later, we crouched under a tarp on the side of the road, brushing flies off of our chai. Bodhi elected to stay in the car. “I have an idea about how you can go.” said Raj, all smiles.

I looked up at him, “Yes?” I asked.

“We will dress you like an Indian woman. You can die your hair black, and put vermillion in your part, and pull the sari down over your face, and cast your eyes down. And DON”T SPEAK. And in this manner, you can pass the border, no problem!” he said, laughter filling his eyes. 

I smiled back. He was doing a good job cheering me up, and the Masala tea was very tasty. “We can sew Bodhi into a rice bag, but you have to carry him on your head, my neck isn’t strong enough.” I replied. 

At this, Raju broke out into the first genuine belly laugh I had heard from him, and we smiled at each other. Nepal would have to wait for another time. 

Friday, September 20, 2013

On the train to Patna from Bangalore, India...

We have been on this train in India for two days, it is rolling interminably onward, 2500 km from Bangalore to Patna, where our pilgrimage will begin. In the meantime, we were rushed from the airport to a small hotel, and then straight to the train station. As a result, I have no Indian SIM card, and no way to charge any of our electronics. I put my Telcomsel SIM back in my shitty Samsung phone and Edi miraculously got my telepathic message, recharging my phone with pulsa, and allowing me to text with him while we roll on. 

I find myself sneaking to the back of the train to hang out with the Chai wallahs and smoke the last of Edi’s Indonesian cigarettes, even though I don’t really smoke, just to pull the smell of Bali with me.

I am truly a tourist in India. What a shock that is. 

In Bali, I wanted to learn all I could about the people, the life, the language, the ritual, the passion. I have always wanted to integrate when I travel, I think that’s how you learn to honor the place you are visiting. But I’m having a hard time making the shift. RIght now, I am content to see India from the window of the train, making friends here and there, easing my transition. At night, I am reading about Bali, I can’t seem to pick up my books on India. I’m still curious about the crashing of the Chinese junk in Sanur in the early 1900s that changed the path of Balinese history. 

My passion is in Bali. Not just in Edi and his family, but in the life and culture of Bali. 

I wonder what will happen to the tiny island. It is being over run by tourists, but still they are in clustered areas. In Edi’s village, they didn’t have electricity until he was nine. I am still the only white face around when I go with him to his home. The change, WiFi, Smart Phones, Facebook, it is there, but it is still so new. The young generation is starting to get stuck on video games, and the painting and carving are dying as a result. But neighbors still sit in the Bale or on the steps and play dominoes and drink coffee and arak until it is late. 

I have one more day on this train, Bodhi is happy in his bunk, the Chai wallah passes every five minutes refilling him for 7 rupees a cup. At the last stop, we found Betty and Veronica and Archie comics, 150 rupees each, and he is devouring them, along with samosa and rice. Outside his window, a landscape of poverty and bounty rolls by, shanti towns and fields, cows and water buffalows wallowing alongside the tracks. Goats roam free eating their way through the trash by the tracks, and women in glorious colored sari squat on the platform waiting for the train. 

A garbage boy appeared a few minutes ago, crawling along the floor on his hands and knees, barefoot and shirtless. He was not allowed to stand up, he is of the untouchable caste. As he passed us, he knelt at Bodhis feet, and held out his hand. Bodhi gave him 2 rupees, as did the grandfather who is sharing our berth. The face of the garbage boy was beautiful, and three white shirted train officials walked by and over him, kicking his pile of garbage as they went, stepping on him. Because he is untouchable, he is also unseeable.  The boy pushed the garbage onward. The grandfather rolled over and went to sleep. Bodhi returned to his comics, his unfinished rice next to him. 

I wonder where this journey will take us, as I bring with me in my heart the love of a man so different from me, from everything I have known, but so completely and totally similar to me. Am I seeing India with different eyes already because of my time in Bali? 

I was worried that we would fall ill, that we would be in danger, but after six months total in Indonesia, I feel safe in my skin, protected by our offerings at the temple, wrapped in care of Edi and his family, and open to the road ahead. I have changed, after all. 

It is true that the men in India are handsy. I read more than one account of the graduate student who went slowly insane from warding off unwanted touch on her trip through this incredibly diverse and incredibly holy land. So far, people have been really nice to us, there is one Chai Wallah who smiles all the time and wants to give me chai every time he passes. He has a beautiful deep voice, a young face, a noble nose, eyes that are clear and sad and young, and the mustache of an Indian business man. 

He keeps 1 rupee out of every cup, but he is kind and light hearted and I don’t mind. 

Another was on the train for only about an hour, he kept trying to touch my face, I slapped his hand, he would shake his head in that particular Indian fashion, which I think means that is how it is, neither yes nor no, but “Oh, okay.”, and reach in again. Finally he left, or he isn’t in this car anymore. The last slap I gave him echoed, and the grandfather in our berth shoed him away. 

I have made friends on this train, where we are stuck for 24 hours, with this grandfather who is sharing our berth. It is night time, and he is singing quietly to his friends, a beautiful Hindu song of praise and sadness. They have been talking late into the night, and his voice is sweet and low and full of emotion.

He has three daughters and three sons, all of whom are well settled in marriage except his youngest son, who has been accepted into Business Services. He is seventy four years old, wears a sarong to sleep, and warns Bodhi against the cold of the air conditioner. 

The Bedroll Manager sleeps all day, and when I sneak into the adjoining cars to smoke a cigarette, he wags his finger at me, and says “No smoking”. Then he grins and holds out his hand. In this manner, I have gone through my last pack of Sampoerna Mild in 24 hours, sharing the sweet Indonesian blend with all the workers on the train one by one. Because of this, tonight I have an extra blanket. The smell of the Sampoerna reminds me of Bali, of Edi, and almost like incense, it makes me feel like I am carrying a piece of that magic island with me, even while I am gone. 

Now, the grandfather is holding court below me. “When I see the god, I will ask him, why the suffering? Why this test? The old man is a very impertinent fellow. He leaves and I say Come Back!” He is talking about the cycle of life, about Samsara, about not knowing if tomorrow might be the luckiest day of your life. 

He was a primary school principal, and his speaking English is very good, sometimes he breaks into English to make his point. His understanding English is not so good. He wanted to know all about me, why am I traveling alone? Bodhi and I agreed before we left that I would say to everyone that I am married, that Edi is my husband, as it is safer. I have a picture of us together, dark and light. 

I struggled to explain to him that I have a husband who is Balinese, and that I am on this trip on my own with the blessings of my husband. I showed him Edi’s photograph, and he exclaimed on the difference of our complexions. He is intrigued. 

I have also just discovered that I left my stash of Diazepam on the plane. In a country where you can get just about any drug you like with a casual suggestion, I’m not that worried, but it took a little doing to come by it in Indonesia. A little valium with a stiff neck on a 48 hour train ride goes a long, long way. I use pain killers judiciously, but over the last two years I have learned that if I’m going to sit still in cramped quarters for more than seven hours, one valium and 15 minutes of yoga on arrival will keep three weeks of pain away. 

We will get to Patna in the morning, where I will have internet, and I can call Tom and tell him we are safe, and I can call Edi, who spent a month’s wages refilling my Telkomsel pulsa so we could text occasionally. The fact that I can be on a train for 48 hours is difficult for him to wrap his mind around, since you can drive from one end of his island to the other on a fast bike in four hours or so. “How can you still be on the train? I don’t understand.” 

I have never been so well fed, I’ll tell you that. And endless parade of Chai, Coffee, samosa, chopped vegetable, and other delicious food goes marching down the aisle without interruption from 6 am to 2 am. Because there is nothing to do on the train but eat and visit with friends, the vendors do pretty well. 

Bodhi has finally settled down for the night, he has stopped climbing the berths like a monkey and is reading, again. I ordered dinner for us hours ago, but in the Indian fashion, it is late and I am not sure it is even coming. At this point, we don’t need it, stuffed as we are with samosa, but in a country full of hungry people, many of whom are packed into the last three cars on this very train, I hate to waste food. 

Day three on the train... so much for pulling in at 9am. But the Manager of the Bedroll has cleared an empty berth for me to plug my computer in, and while I now know exactly why Indian men have a reputation tending towards the pungent, smelling like one myself, I have not met a kinder soul yet on my journey. 

Our grandfather has invited us to “accompany me to my dwelling” on our arrival in Patna, and we have accepted. The words of my lovely friend Dylan Bernstien come to mind... friends from the road make the best friends. 

We will meet our guide when we roll into Patna (which was, when I woke up, 2 hours away, and now, from that last stop, it appears to be two hours away...), and introduce him to Grandfather, and make arrangements to go for luncheon. It is interesting to me that it is very very difficult for our friends to understand us. 

Grandfather explained to me that it is because my speech organs are formed differently than his, and that I can not speak English as it should be spoken, like someone with his speech organs, and so therefore I am difficult to understand. In my best Hindi accent, I repeated what he said, and his friends spent the rest of the morning teasing him and laughing. Apparently, I was actually easier to understand with a bad Hindi accent than in  my plain American English. 

It helps also if I use words like “conveyance” rather than “car”, and “Dwelling place” rather than house. I am listening closely to Grandfather so I can try to figure out what his vocabulary is. In Balinese, there are four forms of speech, from low to high, according to your caste. While we don’t have those separations in English rigidly, I suppose that is how grandfather talks, with very high, or polite words. He lacks the low vocabulary, and therefore doesn’t understand me when I speak plainly. 

This morning, Grandfather woke me as the sun came up, or just before, calling me daughter. He told me it is not good to sleep to long, it makes for a lazy mind, and my husband will not appreciate that in me. 

Our discussion fell to what it meant to be a learned man, and Grandfather emphasized that a learned man can understand God. We discussed the nature of God, and I leaned heavily on all I have learned from Edi, who was very close to a high priest in his village, about the Hindu view of God. I pressed Grandfather that one can be close to the nature of God without possessing letters from a university. He conceded, but only on the grounds that one must have a sharp mind and the desire to learn, and the humility to realize one can never know what one hopes to know as God is unknowable. 

At the last train station we passed, there were three large white cows on the platform, grazing on leftover lunch. They were placid and sweet looking, so close to the train that they looked like they were waiting to board, along with the businessmen and the students. I saw the garbage boys run from wherever it is that they hide on the train to the water station, drinking greedily from the fountain and filling coke bottles up with water before racing back to the train. The boy Bodhi gave some rupees to was there, waiting his turn to fill his water. He is unseeable, but I can not help but see him. 

The caste system is very much alive and well in India, as it is in Bali, but in Bali, you can break out of your caste, marry up, work up. There are government workers who are of the Sudra class, whereas before that would have been impossible. The grandfather and his friends in my compartment are high caste, my husband is Sudra. I asked grandfather if this elevates Edi or brings me low. He was reluctant to answer, but as the caste system does not apply to me in any way, I don’t mind. 

We are finally rolling through something familiar, outside the train are rice fields, miles and miles of them. I must be prejudice, they are not as beautiful, as evenly planted, as well irrigated, as the rice in Bali. They lack the small temples that dot the landscape of the sawah in Bali, and the foot paths between them are not as interesting or as inviting. Ha, I have developed Balinese pride in my six months on the island, my four months with my lovely man, and in the two minutes in which I was questioned about his caste, job, and education. Interesting how loyalty to a person can bring pride for all they represent as well. 

There is something almost shocking about the thought that for thousands of years, Edi’s family has been pure in its lineage, in its work as wood carvers and caretakers of Barong and Banjar. 

I wondered what his mother would think of me, after all, Edi is the first person in his family to speak English, the first person to have a girlfriend who is not Balinese. I am a novelty in his household, the women laugh at him and pinch me. The men admire my tattoos, the women tell me I am like a man. Edi laughs at this, this was his great pick up line to me, as I got off my motorbike one day in front of his cafe. “You have a body like a man.” 

Thank you? 

I had to stop writing because all the train workers I have been sharing cigarettes with clustered around me one by one and were watching me work over my shoulder. We ended up closing the computer after I showed them pictures of Edi, Gede, Tom, Ethan, Aspen and Bali. There was momentary confusion about the number of husbands, but as the Chai got passed around, Grandfather stuck his head into the compartment, admonished them all for being lazy and not working, for bothering me, and told them in plain English. One husband! First marriage, second marriage! Not so complicated, I should slap you! 

The workers laughed and scattered, and in their wake, a mouse crawled out of the hole in the wall, over the sticky chai covered floor, and ran under the berth. At least so far in India, the cockroaches are a manageable size. In Bali, they look like they could steal your motorcycle if they wanted to. Guess how long until we get to Patna? You got it, two hours...