Archive for the Prose Category

Onward inland

Posted in Prose on May 19, 2019 by 1writegirl

Little River, CA

We spend two nights in a speck of a town just south of Mendocino, consisting of a small market, a restaurant/inn and a gas station with its residents residing mostly on the side roads off Highway 1. We are on the property of another Tent Space participant. Dave and Melanie are newlyweds who graciously allow us to set up our tent behind their house on a flat plot of ground adorned with giant Redwoods next to an old but refurbished Airstream. She tells us there is a mountain lion in the area, not to be surprised if we hear it crying out in the night. They both have an aging hippie feel to them, though only vaguely so. Dave has several motorcycles including one exactly like Mark’s.  Melanie was co-owner until recently of the only woman-owned butcher shop in San Francisco. Over dinner together we swap travel stories, Dave’s gesticulating hands coming to rest on his bride’s arm, back, any part of her within reach, fluttering homing pigeons touching down. She gazes adoringly at him when he speaks, and even when he doesn’t. Mendocino is much as I remember it from my visit with my father a few years ago: charming, quirky and quiet. 

Arcata, CA

We drive north and spend two nights at the house of James, whom Mark met last year. He’s out of town but because he already knows Mark, he has given us the code to a lockbox and told us to make ourselves at home. It’s lovely to sleep on a real mattress (albeit that of a pullout couch) again. We visit the Phillips House museum which today sits atop a small rise in the center of town but used to look out over the bay before the dykes were built, extending the shoreline by several miles. We stop at a brew house on the way back to our accommodation, where Mark has a local IPA and I choose a stout. 

Crescent City, CA

We find a splendid campsite in Florence Keller Park campground. There is hardly anyone here. The sites are large and private, separated by Redwoods and thick foliage. We buy a box of wood and make a fire, the first of our trip. While it never reaches roaring proportions, it does warm us and charm us, at least for a couple of hours. In the middle of the night it begins to rain, hard, and it continues well into the next day. Around midday, hungry and tired of sitting in the tent, we ride down the road to Denny’s in CC where we eat a late breakfast and check the forecast before returning to the campground and walking some of the surrounding trails in the late afternoon drizzle. It is so lush and fertile in these woods that it feels like a rain forest. 

Rain is predicted all along our intended coastal route for the next week. We are rethinking our plans. The tent is wet, not as water- tight as it used to be apparently, and the prospect of camping in the rain for days on end, without even a car to retreat into, is not appealing.

By the next morning, after a second wet night, we decide to head inland to an Airbnb room for two nights. It’s still raining when we leave so I put on the disposable rain poncho I brought with me. We have crossed the border into Oregon and are riding a very winding Hwy 199 when we pass a motorist on the other side of the road who has just crashed their truck into the rocks, the front passenger side all twisted and crumpled.

We turn the bike around and go back, by which point a Cal Trans truck has just pulled up. Two young workers are standing beside the open window of the wrecked vehicle and we ask if there is anything we can do. They ask us to ride back the way we came and flag down oncoming cars to slow down as they approach the accident. We do as they ask, Mark waving my bright red poncho at the oncoming traffic. Some drivers get it and immediately slow down, others look at him like he’s daft and continue flying past. A few stop and put their windows down. “An accident around the corner,” Mark tells them. Most smile and thank us. One man leans out of his window and yells “Do you need gas?” Mark recites his warning but the man stays put. I cup my hands around my mouth and repeat it somewhat more loudly. The man fires back, “Yeah, but do you need gas??” 

Roseburg, OR

Our hosts here are a lesbian couple, I guess to be in their late 50’s/early 60’s. They own one of the oldest houses in Roseburg, and rent out the two bedrooms upstairs as well as the old carriage house on the double sized lot. 

We walk around Roseburg in between bouts of rain. The community has a conservative, time warped air to it and I wonder what it’s like for our hosts. Are they accepted here for who they are? Are they harassed? They speak in positive terms when describing their neighbors, which I take as a good sign. 

The houses are mostly old, two-story Victorians or similar styles, full of character, with yards bursting with roses. They range from exquisitely maintained to derelict. Formerly a thriving logging town, Roseburg now gives a careworn, even depressed impression, and we see a lot of seemingly transient people, many quite young. Many shops are vacant, houses boarded up and abandoned. There is an abundance of liquor stores and bars, and more than once I see an old man stumbling out of one. Here, as everywhere in Oregon, we see signs advertising “Medicinal and Recreational Cannabis.” Several taverns we pass by have signs in the front window: no tweakers. 

Back in our room I read the headlines and learn about Alabama‘s passage of the strictest abortion laws in the country. I think what year is this? Who are these people? I see a presidential candidate being interviewed, the Congresswoman from Hawaii, and after the interview the reporter insinuates the same ridiculous concern that keeps being pressed upon the voting public: can s/he beat Trump, or is Joe Biden the only one who stands a chance? We have a plethora of educated, enthusiastic, well-qualified candidates of different genders, races, sexual orientation, religion etc, for the first time in history, at a time when it is more crucial than ever that we break away from the same old choices, and what do we do? We predict that only the rich old white Christian man stands a chance to beat the standing president, idiot though he may be.  Enough of the rich old white Christian men. They aren’t solving our nation’s or our world’s problems, in fact they are making them worse. For fuck’s sake, give someone else a chance before it’s too late.

I’m reading Grandma Gatewood’s Walk, the story of a 67 year old woman hiking the Appalachian Trail without even a sleeping bag in 1955, after her life of abuse at the hands of her husband through 40 odd years and 11 children. Strangers gawked at her, newspapers wrote about her, and everyone concurred she was taking such a risk, hiking that long dirt trail in the wilderness without company or equipment. Why would she do it anyway? they puzzled. We always think it’s the exploration of the unknown that’s dangerous, when so often it is the every day. What we know, and what we get used to. Parents tell their children “Don’t go to that strange place,” or “Don’t talk to strangers.” No one ever says to their child, “Oh honey, don’t drive to the local Y to work out then come home for dinner, it’s just too dangerous.” 

Like Grandma Gatewood, I find solace among the trees. Like her, I feel the need to walk.

When I wake up in the morning Mark is sitting on the couch perusing his tablet. There’s no kettle in the room so I suggest he use the coffee maker to make hot water for tea. After a few minutes, still in bed with my eyes closed, I’ve heard no noise. “Aren’t you going to make a cup?” I ask. “I did,” he says. “I think it’s getting hot.” It looks to me like it’s just sitting there. Turns out he put water in the carafe then set it on the burner and turned it on. “No, you have to pour the water into the machine,” I tell him. Seconds later tepid water spills down into the carafe. I get up and look at the machine. He has poured the water into the coffee grounds basket. I point to the reservoir and say, “The water goes in here.” “Oh, okay,” he says. I shake my head in wonder though I’m oddly impressed. The man has traveled to at least 75 countries and all seven continents but he has never seen a coffee maker before, or at least never used one. 

Highway 1, the beginning

Posted in Prose on May 9, 2019 by 1writegirl

Mark arrived from England about a week ago, in preparation for our two month road trip of the western United States on his old BMW motorcycle, heretofore sitting idle in my garage. Given a full service last summer, it is ready to go with just a bath and a fill-up. Before leaving town, I take a last walk with Jenn and wee Declan, keenly aware that when I return they will be in the process of beginning to move away from here. Our walking days, long easy chats, impromptu and spontaneous visits between our abodes – a mere 4 blocks away – will soon be over, probably forever. I hug her tight when we say goodbye but blink back my tears. I have conditioned myself these last years to think of everything as temporary. I remind myself of this when I’m tempted to cling to her, to say please don’t go. Who am I to say don’t go, when I am always going? (And how could I anyway, even if I weren’t?) Later on I stop by Neighbor Jim’s house to give him my keys, and confirm that he’ll be checking my mail and watering my houseplants once a week or so. He walks outside with me and when I hug him goodbye he says quietly, “You’re my best friend now, you know that?” I say I suppose I do, and I suppose he is mine too. He’s 86 years old.

We leave at midday and quickly find ourselves on Highway 1, with the intention to take it as far north as it will go, which happens to be Leggett, before picking up 101. We ride to San Simeon where we stretch our legs and have a snack. The last time I was here, there was an enormous bull elephant seal sunning himself on the beach just off the pier. Today the beach is empty save for birds and a gaggle of school children, presumably on a field trip of sorts. We stop again for fuel, then for coffee at Big Sur Lodge, and once or twice more besides just to stretch for about five minutes. Though they aren’t long, I find these brief intermissions necessary, otherwise my hips and knees are screaming bloody murder by the end of a day’s ride. As it is, I stumble stiffly off the bike when we arrive at our destination for the night in a forested enclave just southeast of Santa Cruz. 

Mark has found this place, a big house surrounded by redwoods, through a motorcycle forum, and our host Paul proves to be graciously hospitable, showing us to a guest room and bath and serving us cold beer followed by dinner when we come downstairs. He has prepared an aromatic Thai fish curry stew over rice with fish he caught in Mexico last fall (wahu fish?) and steamed artichoke. It’s lovely, not too spicy, and helps to warm me up after our windy ride up the coast. A recently retired fire fighter and wood worker in his free time, Paul is well traveled, both by motorcycle and by bicycle, and it soon becomes apparent he and Mark (also an avid cyclist), have been to many of the same countries. They have much to discuss. I’m happy to watch and listen, pitching in an observation or two now and then, but grateful to Mark again as I was in India for gifting me the guise of coupledom in the event that the conversation turns personal. If and when questions arise such as “Do you have children?”, I can allow him to answer “No,” and not feel compelled to explain my situation, or to lie and in so doing, dishonor Jackson’s memory, which is what it feels like to me. The evening passes pleasantly, and I can’t quite believe our luck: a delicious dinner, hot shower, warm bed for the night, interesting conversation, even breakfast in the morning.

The next day we ride through San Francisco and across the Golden Gate Bridge and I’m downright flabbergasted to discover that once we get out of the city, there is almost no traffic on Highway 1. Up to Stinson Beach and beyond, all the way to Point Reyes National Seashore, we pass only a handful of travelers (one a lone female cyclist), in either direction. We’d been dubious about our chances of finding a campsite without a reservation but had set our sights on Sonoma Coastal State Park, and we greet the empty road with hope. We pull up to the entrance gate at Bodega Dunes Campground with fingers crossed and are given our choice of almost 50 sites. The campground is only half full. We drive around all three loops, one with an ocean view at one or two places. The sites are all similar, each containing a picnic table, a fire ring, and a wooden food pantry (new to me, what a great idea). We select one that has few neighbors, grass and dirt as opposed to sand, and is heavily treed. We set up the tent and ride back down the road a few miles to a grocery store for pre-made salads and instant soup. By the time we’ve eaten and cleaned up, it’s approaching dusk so we crawl inside the tent. Mark puts his earphones in almost immediately and soon falls asleep, audiobook forgotten. I write for awhile then read, then put my tablet away. I lay there and listen to the quiet, all human noises extinct now, only a few seals barking in the near distance and a gentle breeze rustling the tent flaps. It’s the kind of quiet I yearn for most of the time and cherish when I’m in it. It is one of the sweetest sounds I know.

I’m tired and expect to fall asleep quickly, but several hours later I’m still awake. My mattress isn’t placed on the flat surface I thought it was and I feel like I’m sliding down an incline. I spend most of the night trying not to slide into Mark, who is sleeping soundly with his usual ease beside me – god I hate him for that – failing a time or two, my muscles tense in the effort toward rigidly holding my ground. I drift off toward dawn and wake up when Mark is trying to get out of the tent. He shakes my shoulder and says, “Can you move up please?” I have somehow contrived to wiggle or slip all the way down to the other end of the tent. 

An hour or so later the sun is up and Mark speaks to me again from outside the tent. “Ready for coffee?” I squeeze my eyes shut, trying to ignore him but he persists. “Okay,” I croak. I crawl out of the tent and stagger to the bathroom, aching and stiff. I feel every bit of my 54 years, 9 and a half months this morning. I drink my coffee and wonder, Did I miss my window? Don’t most people ride motorcycles and go camping in their twenties and thirties? Am I too old for this? I wonder if there are people in their 80s who sleep on the ground and ride motorcycles. What will I be doing at 80? Will I still be alive? Some days I have my doubts I’ll make it to sixty. The only thing I know for certain is that tomorrow is guaranteed for nobody. 

Hot and Spicy

Posted in Prose on February 18, 2019 by 1writegirl

In my convalescence, Goa has been my nurse. Like much of India this time of year, the days are hot and humid, one after another, with gentle breezes transforming occasionally into strong ones the only upset. No rain, no cold nights. Early morning and evening it’s pleasant, but during the middle of the day, even lying still on the bed under the ceiling fan, I am damp from head to toe with a thin layer of perspiration. Just rest. We’re in a small village in the south of Goa called Agonda Beach, in a corner room upstairs with a balcony in a large guesthouse about 30 yards back, one row of buildings removed, from the main street. It’s our third lodging, the first two street-side and too noisy from traffic and bar music. Ideally we’d be on the beach, the sound of the waves lulling us to sleep at night, but our budget won’t allow for that. Our landlady is called Maria, and she runs the guesthouse with her husband, recently incapacitated from back surgery, and the help of her grown children. 

For the most part we confine ourselves to Agonda Beach, especially in the beginning when I’m still recovering from my illness. As Mark promised, Goa is indeed “better” than the other parts of India we’ve visited: it is cleaner, less crowded, with a higher income base which translates to fewer uncared for people and animals. The horn honking is ever present but not constant, and though we might garner an occasional second glance as we ride the Hero Impulse in and out of town (Mark will hate me for saying this, but sitting straight as a board in his stiff brown waxed cotton jacket, white half helmet and goggles, he looks remarkably like Snoopy the WW1 Flying Ace atop his doghouse), nobody stares or crowds around us here. In Agonda itself, there are women in fluorescent orange vests who comb the beach every day collecting garbage. The shop keepers, hotel and restaurant staff do their part to keep the streets litter free. But you don’t have to walk far to see the ravines full of trash. It’s not the case that they don’t pollute the land with waste here, it’s that they pollute it in less abundance, and there are little pockets of exemption. Goa in general seems more environmentally aware, with warnings not to litter or pay a fine signposted here and there, restaurants that ban smoking and shun the use of straws in drinks, and recycling bins for plastic, cans and bottles placed in heavily trafficked areas. It is a welcome change, as is the reduction in the number of street dogs. Here in Agonda, perhaps half the dogs we see are wearing collars, and a fair number of all the male dogs, collared or not, have been neutered, thanks to several local animal welfare groups. While we’ve seen one or two females that appear to be nursing, we’ve seen no puppies. Some of the dogs are thin and hungrier than others, but none that I’ve seen are emaciated, with that look of desperation in their eyes. What’s most striking to me however, is what I perceive to be a sense of community where the dogs are concerned. They hang out alone or together, depending on personality, running up and down the beach, playing, sleeping, trotting along; a motley crew of mongrels and pedigree, collared and unadorned, untouched and neutered. I have seen none tied up, they are mostly free to come and go, and some of them seem to make a point of doing the rounds – going from shop to hotel to restaurant, greeting the staff, resting in the shade, accepting and offering affection. While they may bark or growl occasionally at each other, they seem to get along regardless of whether they have homes or not, resolving any differences without the violence we witnessed elsewhere. My conclusion: with enough to eat, in general, they are free of the constant need to assert dominance, and what hierarchy there may be is not a matter of life and death.

Goa is a Catholic state, a result of centuries of Portuguese rule. We see churches more than temples here, and most shops have a wall or shelf adorned with pictures of J.C., a crucifix and the like. Many are clearly hedging their bets with Hindu gods and mini shrines alongside the Christian. I go downstairs one morning to retrieve a container of milk for my coffee that Maria has graciously offered to keep in her fridge for me, to find her husband leaning heavily in the doorway. It’s the first time we’ve met since his return from the hospital. While Maria’s son hands me the small carton, his father points to a room on the ground floor that has a fridge and tells me that is for guest use. His son is silently shaking his head, as if to say no, it’s not, just ignore him. When I thank them and turn away, the older man suddenly descends upon me with outstretched arms, showering me at first with thanks, then “God bless you, may god bless you, thank you god bless you god bless you.” I back away, nodding and thanking him in return as he continues to bless me with increasing volume, on my way up the stairs. Moments later the son finds me and says, “You can continue to use our fridge, it’s fine. My father is not himself right now.” He twirls his index finger around the side of his head and whispers, “It’s the pain medication the doctors gave him.” From the many Christian paraphernalia decorating their living quarters, beginning in the entryway, I gather it isn’t his religious devotion that is uncharacteristic lately, but rather his vocal zeal.

My days run together, punctuated by food that I can eat (many restaurants here have a “continental” menu), a walk along the beach in the morning or late afternoon, hours of reading and catching up on Sam Harris podcasts, and a cold beer before dinner. Cows roam freely here, as elsewhere, and I’ve grown accustomed to weaving a path through their settlements in the sandy ridges along the beach. Creatures of habit, they wander onto and away from the beach at the same points at roughly the same times each day. I’m not sure exactly what they eat, though occasionally I see them munching on fruit and vegetable scraps (restaurant refuse I expect) scattered in the sand, and they will graze through the debris piles (mini dumps) as they do elsewhere. There are a few bold characters who stand at the entrances to restaurants, all of which have roofs but are not walled in, their feet planted firmly outside but their necks craning inside and looking around, as if hoping to catch the eye of someone eating a large salad they can’t possibly finish. The staff are immensely tolerant of them, as they are of the dogs, offering them scraps and only chasing them away, gently at that, when they start to annoy the patrons. Again I’m touched by the sense of connection between the inhabitants, human and animal, in this village.

We take a few excursions, day trips on the bike, to see architectural, historical and cultural features in the area. My favorite foray is to a farm and spice plantation about an hour east of here. To get there we ride through Netravali Wildlife Sanctuary, where we see two or three signs with pictures of the animals that live there, leopard amongst them. I scan the trees in vain. Tanshikar Spice Farm is owned by a family, the third generation whose grandparents planted the coconut trees 40 years ago that started it all. As the grandson, our guide, explained it, first they planted the sun loving trees, which, once mature, provided shade for the sun averse smaller trees and bushes. They use only organic and sustainable practices to produce their spices for sale and what they grow for their own consumption (coffee, cacao, bananas, papaya for example), employing insects and planting/harvesting rotations in lieu of pesticides. Our entry fee of 500 rupees gives us a guided tour (fascinating and serene) and lunch (okay, a bit hot for my palate, but what I can eat is delicious, and all the ingredients come from the farm.) I highly recommend a visit if you are in Goa.

Our time here is coming to a close, and though I am ready to bid India farewell, probably forever, I’m glad I came, and particularly glad we ended our trip, rather than began it, in Goa. The rest of India filled me with despair, and while she is too small, too much related to have offset that completely, Goa (south, anyway), has done her best to carve out a corner of hope in my mind’s eye of memory. Wherever possible she replaced harsh with soft, impossible with maybe. As hard as it is for me, probably for many people, to spend considerable time in physical places that I find so disheartening, choosing to do so is a pointed reminder of the part luck plays in all our lives, an acknowledgment of the other that exists within me and the me that exists within others, and an oath in the face of that metaphorical place in which I have found myself quite unwillingly. It is the laying of one rock in a long bridge.

Rough Landing

Posted in Prose on February 1, 2019 by 1writegirl

I’ve been sick since arriving in Goa. The kind of sick where I oscillate between visualizing myself hiking through jungle in Uganda “gorilla spotting” or strolling down twisty tree-lined country roads somewhere reportedly beautiful, clean and unfettered (Cyprus maybe?) –  sampling local food and wine and smelling fresh air – to wishing for death. At times like this, when forced to contemplate my mortality (which I do since Jackson died at ridiculously frequent intervals in any event), I take comfort in reminding myself that I, like every other human, animal, insect, plant – every living thing – am just an infinitesimally tiny speck of dust in an instant of time. We are none of us as individuals, nor even collectively as a species, important enough to live forever, nor important enough to be remembered forever after we’re gone. 

My general rule of thumb for seeking out medical care while traveling is to give my body three days and if conditions don’t improve, get checked out. Here, in a country laden with vector borne infectious diseases and having received more than my share of mosquito bites during our travels (Mark, damn him, has received ONE bite in three months), I’m reluctant to wait that long. I’ve had a raging fever and every part of me hurts, but especially my head and my lower back. Malaria? Dengue fever? Japanese Encephalitis? When I close my eyes I can see my brain swelling larger with every rotation of the whooshing fan over my head. At this rate it will soon be so big my head will explode. I’ve been nauseous on and off, coughing and having trouble breathing, and during my second night here, beset with nasal congestion and sneezing, which I’m more apt to blame on the A/C stirring up allergens in the room than this illness, as sudden and violent as those symptoms were. (Besides which, once we turned off the A/C, they lessened almost immediately.) 

On the morning of the third day I tell Mark I want to see a doctor. He told me yesterday there was one close by, and I resolved sometime in the middle of the sleepless night that if she weren’t available to see me, I’d ask Mark to take me to the closest private hospital instead. 

I stagger out of bed and in to the bathroom, then throw my dress over my leggings and T-shirt and strap on my sandals in preparation to walking the 200 meters or so to the doctor’s office, but feel so shaky I have to sit down. “Maybe we should take a taxi” Mark suggests. I nod, and almost immediately remark that I’m feeling lightheaded and seeing little yellow spots. “I think I might faint,” I say, and then do, but Mark has quickly stepped outside to ask the hotel staff if they will call the doctor and ask if she makes house calls. He returns to find me slumped back in the chair and begins shaking me. When I come to I see the stricken look on his face and wonder why he’s overreacting. Come to find out my eyes were open and he couldn’t find a pulse so he thought I had died. I’m just grateful, squirming around in my chair to ascertain my pants are still dry, that I used the toilet right before I fainted; the last time I fainted I must have had a full bladder because when I came to I had peed all over the place. 

Momentarily I feel nauseous, and again, as on the last occasion, I immediately begin throwing up (or “throwing out” as the doctor calls it.) Mark hovers over me, patting my back then rubbing it, which just makes it worse frankly, but I don’t even have the energy to smack him. Eventually the doctor shows up, a very nice and let’s get to the point kind of person, which I’m all in favor of. She sets about taking my vitals and asking me questions about my symptoms, giving me an injection of something to lower my fever and ease the pain, then leaves me with a diagnosis of “severe viral infection and gastritis,” an arsenal of medication (including antibiotics, with instructions to take them only if my chest congestion grows worse), and a receipt for my travel insurance. Her advice: call her if I’m not better by tomorrow, and if I’m worse, “Go straight to hospital!” The cost for everything is 3500 rupees, approximately $43. After she leaves, I lay back down on the bed and within half an hour or so, am sound asleep. I awaken 8 hours later, just in time to go back to sleep for the night.

A couple of days pass during which I haltingly teeter back from the brink of oblivion and begin to pass the many hours, during which I have no energy to go anywhere or do anything, by reading. I’ve yet to step outside our abode so can tell you nothing about Goa yet. I’ve got several library ebooks on my iPad, and Mark has rustled up a couple of print books from the shelves in our guesthouse. I’ve also got the occasional travel newsletter and informational email to peruse, one of which comes with the tag line, “This Woman is Giving Away her $1.7 million Dream Home for $25.” Preposterous, I think, and click on the link to find out more. Here’s the deal: A Canadian woman named Alla something or other wasn’t finding it as easy as she’d hoped to sell her large home in Alberta for her asking price, so she decided to hold a contest. Each entrant must write 350 words answering the question, “Why would moving to this lakefront dream home change your life?” and pay a $25 fee. At the end of the contest, after 68,000 people have submitted their essays and fees, one lucky person will be awarded the house, based on a ruling by an assembled panel of judges.

I think about entering, but initially two things prevent me from doing so. First is the sad fact that $25 is an extravagant sum of money for me to essentially throw away right now. I’m subsisting on roughly $10/day here in India, and I keep track of every penny. Second is the realization that I could not afford to pay what are surely vast sums of money in property taxes on a $1.7 million house. Who could, except someone who is already wealthy? And for them a $25 entry fee would be trivial. Which leads to the further realization that anyone who can afford to pay the property taxes on a $1.7 million house doesn’t really need a $1.7 million house for the paltry sum of $25, they can buy it outright. That’s when the pretense of this so-called contest leaves me not wanting to enter it, but protest it. First of all, it’s not a giveaway if you have to pay. A giveaway is just that: you give, not sell, the item in question. Second, whereas each entrant is “only” paying $25, and whereas one entrant will, for that sum, presumably be given the deed to the house, Alla what’s her face is still selling her property, and not for the sum of $25. She is selling it for the sum of $25 times 68,000, which comes to $1.7 million, the original asking price when she listed in on the market. In effect, 67,999 people are subsidizing the purchase of her home for one other person who will be listed as the buyer in the final transaction.

So hey, Alla! (who of course will never read this, but I feel better already for calling her out on her silly little game): Don’t call something a giveaway when you’re actually getting $1.7 million for it. When you turn the keys and deed over to someone else and you haven’t received a single cent for it, then you can rightfully call it a giveaway. In the meantime, you’re not fooling me, and I hope you’re not fooling anyone else who can little afford the $25 “entry fee,” never mind the property taxes.

P.S. I wouldn’t really smack Mark, no matter how much I want to.

Human Traffic

Posted in Essay, Prose, Publications on January 26, 2019 by 1writegirl

The journal Minerva Rising has published my essay Human Traffic, about my recent experience in Amsterdam. To purchase a print copy, please go here: https://minervarising.com/issue-15-roots-wings/. I will post the link to the electronic version when it becomes available.

This Ain’t no Shangri-La (Or Even an Ashram Made to Look Like It)

Posted in Prose on January 25, 2019 by 1writegirl

 

We’ve been back in India for three weeks, riding down the eastern side of the country from Darjeeling. Our plan was to ride for several days then spend 2-3 days somewhere nice, then repeat, with a goal to hanging out in Puducherry for several days, maybe a week before meandering west toward the hills and forests and ending up in Goa for our last month in the country. But so far the only place we’ve spent more than 2 nights was Puri, and not because it was a lovely beach town. We were simply exhausted and couldn’t go any further. 

Somewhere east of Hyderabad Mark looks at me and makes the sudden and irreversible suggestion that we scrap our original plan and make a beeline for Goa. “I think you’ve had enough,” he says. He can see it in my eyes, surrounded by puffy and dark skin from lack of sleep, feel it in my demeanor, listless and defeated, hear it in my irritated, and irritating, tone of voice. Because this nation is so chock full of people, the concept of personal space is unheard of, as is the notion of “peace and quiet.” Indian people expect to be surrounded by others at all times, and perhaps for this reason, the idea of consideration for the sensibilities of others doesn’t seem to exist. Loud music can be heard echoing up and down the halls of motels day and night, as can loud talking, laughing, even shouting as guests arrive and depart in the middle of the night. The sawing, hammering and groaning sounds of renovation and rearranging furniture know no schedule. And that’s what comes from inside the motel. Shoddily constructed, at least the ones we can afford to stay in, these places provide the thinnest of barriers from the street noises of honking cars, revving motorcycles, dogs barking and fighting, and loud music. I haven’t gotten more than two consecutive hours of sleep since crossing the border with Nepal. Nor have I been able to stomach the food. If it doesn’t burn a hole in my mouth it gives me diarrhea. Despite my repeated and I suppose overly optimistic attempts to “learn to like spicy food,” I am hopeless in this regard.

Today we are in Hosapet, planning a day trip to the small town of Hampi just down the road. Home to many ancient and mostly crumbling temples, it is one of the few attractions that appeals to me, primarily because the cost is reasonable at a few hundred rupees, and it’s known for being relatively uncrowded. Whether we’ll get there or not is anyone’s guess however, because as we were preparing to pull away from the curb in front of our hotel, a shopfront worker pointed to the bike’s rear tire, which happened to be flat. That Mark had missed that while loading the bike surprised us both. He has gone to find someplace to fix it, so depending on how long that takes, I could be alone here for hours, guarding our belongings in a pile on the sidewalk and thinking, even as a tuk-tuk driver is doing his best to persuade me that regardless of whether or not the bike is rideable today, we really want to avail ourselves of his services to, from and around Hampi for the “very, very good price of 1,000 rupees.” My lackluster responses to his entreaties to commit to a time and place to meet him do not deter him, and he sticks by my side, hoping he’ll have better luck convincing my “husband” I suppose. I am, after all, just a woman, so obviously not the decision maker or the keeper of funds.

While I came to India expecting surprises, novelty, and all things exotic, what I am left with after almost three months is a feeling of unshakable dread. Were one to come to India and go only to an ashram or yoga retreat, or to Goa for that matter, which Mark tells me is much like any tropical paradise anywhere, one would naturally have a very different impression of India. From the insular nature of the ashram, which one need never leave during one’s tenure there, one might come away with the idea that the Indian people are generally spiritually awakened, friendly, quiet, and caring toward one another and their fellow creatures. Likewise from the western-catering and tourist-dependent Goa, one might be able to wear rose colored glasses as you step on and off the plane. But an ashram and Goa, as nice as they may be, are not the real India. I’ve seen the real India, I’ve breathed it in, listened to it, tasted and smelled it, and nothing could have prepared me for how much I want to convince myself it’s really not so bad.

There is much of the world (the majority) I haven’t seen, but I’ve been a few places. I’ve witnessed poverty, people making do with next to nothing, and lifestyles vastly different from what I am used to. I’ve learned that to much of the world toilet paper is not only a luxury, it is an unwanted one, as is the toilet itself. A porcelain or even plain old hole in the concrete floor will do just fine thank you. Soap and water in the bathroom? Why would we do that? Dirt floors in restaurants, boards for mattresses in hotels and guesthouses, scraps of cloth passing for bath towels. No hot water. No WiFi, occasionally no electricity. No cutlery if you don’t ask, no napkins, frequently cups and dishes that appear to have been rinsed at best. Cities and towns with no public trash collection, thus abundant litter scattered around, and rubbish-fires in doorways, curbsides and fields. Empty syringes on sidewalks or what passes for sidewalks, rats scuttling between sewers and dumpsters, little songbirds captured and stuffed in cages by the dozen, their freedom sold to passers-by who can’t bear it, only to be recaptured again if they don’t fly away fast enough. Street dogs and occasional cats furtively eking out a wily existence for themselves wherever they can. I’ve observed panhandling, busking, and begging; I’ve been approached with drugs and offers of sex; I’ve witnessed child neglect and what I consider to be child abuse, from my first-world, “enlightened” perspective.

India is all this and more, all this times ten. In terms of land mass, it is about one third the size of the U.S. Squeezed into that space are one billion, 362 million, 292 thousand people and counting. By comparison, the U.S. population is 328 million, 73 thousand and a couple hundred. Population density in the U.S. is 93 people per square mile; in India it is 1192. By 2024, India is expected to be the world’s most populous country, surpassing China, a country three times its physical size.

So take the woes of a “developing” nation, by which I mean: widespread poverty; very poor or nonexistent hygiene in a majority of both the private and public domain; lack of clean water, organized garbage collection and sewage disposal; an absence of pollution and smog regulations; a small, nonexistent or corrupt tax base; and the lack of universal health care. To this mix add an exploding population and a religious government that does not promote birth control in any meaningful, practical way. Add a culture that is religiously and historically predisposed to valuing male life over female. Add the widespread belief in the concept of fate, so that if it’s “your time” that’s all there is to it (time to move on to the next life), no point in wearing seat belts, helmets or the like, no point looking over your shoulder before pulling into traffic, changing lanes or exiting highways. Add a growing segment of the population aware of and desirous of those things from developed countries – designer clothing, shoes, and fashion accessories, electronic gadgets, music and entertainment – now attainable and affordable in some form across class, caste and other categories. Add a belief that cows are holy, so holy that you mustn’t kill them but not so holy that you are obligated to provide for their well being in any way. Add the lack of a universal spoken and written language. 

What you get is this: fields of plastic as far as the eye can see in all but the most remote rural areas; roaming bands and lone emaciated and hollow-eyed cows, dogs, goats, pigs, horses, cats, sheep, camels, chickens and donkeys wading through this plastic and eating what will go down because it has some traces of food on it, or smells of food, and nobody is feeding them actual or enough species-appropriate food; thick acrid smoke from factories, plants and smokestacks blending with that from rubbish fires on streets in every city, town, village and agricultural plot, on every horizon, burning your eyes, filling your lungs, obscuring the views of the mountains; hotel rooms with blood, feces and hacked up mucus smeared across the walls, doors, handles and tables; traffic jams miles long because they are “working” on a bridge somewhere and there is no organized or supervised plan in place to re-route the thousands of common goods carrying trucks that travel these roads every single day; people winding down their windows as they drive down highways and side streets so they can dump their garbage out as they go; a twelve year old boy, wearing designer jeans, t-shirt and Nike shoes, not in school but instead prodding a herd of goats or water buffalo along the edge of a road with a stick, head down and eyes glued to the screen of his cell phone as he goes; a hugely pregnant woman with 3 or 4 ragged children clinging to her skirts holding out her hands at you when you walk by and not speaking, but grunting loud shrill monosyllabic “Uh! Uh!” noises, and following you; scowling stares boring into you everywhere you turn except the places of business where you might spend some money (restaurants, shops, hotels) and even sometimes in those (gas stations); an average life expectancy of less than 68 years; an infant mortality rates 3 times that of China; a nationwide literacy rate approximately 20 percentage points higher for boys than for girls; restaurants with the toilet for customers (and presumably the staff who prepare your food) containing no toilet paper, no soap, maybe cold water if you’re lucky, no towels or hand dryer; a rare smile or greeting from someone for its own sake, more commonly accompanied by the question “where you from?” and “selfie!”, the ubiquitous cell phone held up in the air snapping a photo of you, the traveling circus freak, standing next to them; a plethora of communicable, vector borne and water spread viruses and diseases; volumes of idle young men standing around doing absolutely nothing day in and day out, not because there aren’t jobs they could be doing (picking up garbage, dreaming up inventive ways to recycle or dispose of said garbage, collecting and euthanizing or neutering and vaccinating street dogs, for instance) if the government saw fit to employ them, but because they don’t; violence against women still condoned by plenty of people, if no longer the courts; old and disabled people begging in the streets because there are no safety nets for those who can’t provide for themselves and whose families have abandoned them; communities that still throw a dead man’s widow on his funeral pyre because she is nothing but a burden now.

I think about the things I like about India: the brightly colored buildings and clothing, making the concept of “color-coordinated” seem silly, staid and obsolete; the funny combinations of English words plastered across the trucks and buses covering the highways; the fact that tuk-tuks, motorcycles and bicycles don’t have to pay to use the toll roads; the absence of an obvious and institutionalized sex trade of its women and children to foreigners. Then I think about the other things (above), and I can’t help but despair in terms of the future. Not just for her, but for all of us. It doesn’t matter what the rest of the world does, because if India (and to a lesser degree, countries like her) keeps doing what she’s doing, the extent of her destruction will outdo the little bits of good that might come from the restrictions, regulations and alternative lifestyles that the rest of the world is leaning toward, and which we need en masse. We have had our post industrial revolution era of modernity, convenience and “the good life.” India wants her turn. Can we say to her, “Never mind all that, you need to skip it and go straight to measures of restraint and environmental protections, you need to bypass the consumerism, consumption and credit-based way of living we ourselves will need to reject, now that we’ve gotten wind of the bad news that awaits us all if we don’t?” So few of us do a decent job of role modeling the extreme sorts of adaptations we will all have to make if there is to be any chance of our own species, much less the majority of others, surviving the next few decades, that the thought of gaining worldwide cooperation and agreement feels virtually impossible to me. Especially from a country like India, whose only crime is being as short-sighted and me-driven as the rest of us have been for so very, very long. 

Eastward, Nepal bound

Posted in Prose on December 13, 2018 by 1writegirl

I conserve my energy during our week in Jaipur, reading, resting and walking the streets in the vicinity of our hotel. One day we walk to a rose colored palace with tiny little openings in wooden screens that cover its multitudinous windows, the now defunct home of princes and the many different women associated with them. The wooden screens were meant to give them a view out without letting others see them. In the process, the ventilation provided relief from the heat, and earned it the nickname “Palace of Breeze.”

Another day we ride the bike to the other side of the city to buy a cheap watch for me, then walk across the street to the Rajmandir Cinema, one of the most elegant, spacious and extravagantly decorated movie theaters I’ve ever seen. Here we purchase tickets for ~$2 each, then go inside and buy a piece of chocolate cake and 2 coffees (amounting to about $1 apiece) to share. These we consume in upholstered chairs at a small table in a quiet alcove, before proceeding into the grand theater to watch a Bollywood film entitled Bhaiaji Superhit, a ridiculous comedy/romance/musical/action adventure blend that I can’t imagine enjoying any more nor less had we been able to understand a word of it (it was entirely in Hindi, no subtitles). 

Like everywhere we’ve been so far in India, Jaipur is home to chaos, trash, and people and animals living with so very little. While there is periodic evidence of prosperity in the form of expensive cars and homes, the majority of the people still seem to live in poverty, and not just poverty – abject poverty. Begging is common, and we stand out like a sore thumb walking down the street in our western garb – me with my blond hair, even braided or tucked up into a hat – so that they see us coming from afar and the little children run up behind us, grab our hands, clothing, anything, say money money money money please money. It is assumed that we are rich if we can afford to come here from a faraway place, and indeed by their standards we are, never mind how tightly corseted I am into a daily budget of $10-15 dollars for food, housing and incidentals combined. 

The clothing, trinket and souvenir shops likewise have a staff member standing outside who navigates toward us as we approach, beckoning us with hands, words, and physical proximity to come inside, “buy nice things” and when we shake our heads and move on, to “just look, please.”  We see the same people whatever time of day we pass by or frequent the shops, restaurants, and hotels. They are noticeably industrious, working all hours, rarely if ever taking a formal break. 

As elsewhere we see many people in the streets who seem to be idly standing or sitting around, sometimes engaged in conversation with others, but more often doing nothing in particular, or so it seems. They remind me of the hoards of women we see in the small towns and alongside the highways, sitting in the hot sun with their wares, a basket of fruit, hay for the cows or goats, whatever, just sitting on their heels waiting. Waiting for what? Someone or something to come along and reward their patience. I am struck by their supreme patience.

We see a few other westerners, but since arriving in India a month ago, we’ve observed only one other westerner riding a motorcycle and one riding a bicycle. Sometimes Indian people approach us asking for a selfie. Mark is very good about agreeing to it while at the same time telling them I don’t like to have my picture taken. After an extended but fruitless attempt to persuade me, they typically give up and pose with Mark, who is far more photogenic than I am in any case. I’m puzzled by how exotic we are to them, given how many Westerners visit India annually and for how many years they’ve been doing so. How can we still be such a novelty? I tell Mark that I feel like I’m a freak in a traveling circus, given the way so many people stare at us, and while, at times, it is merely curiosity that motivates these long hard examinations, there is more to it at others. We receive glares as often as not, glowers and frowns and scowls that feel hostile, though it may simply be a matter of cultural difference in expressing interest that accounts for this, I confess I honestly don’t know. Perhaps the intensity of the interest is such that it manifests in expressions of concentration and deep, boring looks. Either way it can be intimidating.

On the way to Agra, a dead cow lies on its side in a ravine next to the road. A dog has ripped open its stomach and is wasting no time in gorging itself. I see men peeing everywhere, which is nothing new, and it no longer surprises me that the only concession to modesty they make is to face away from the direction where the most people are gathered. They will pee alone, in pairs, in groups and in rows; in alleys, main streets, fields, walls, dirt, sidewalk; in low light, darkness, and broad daylight; crowded streets or empty ones; in rags, jeans, uniform, traditional wear or three piece suit and tie. 

Along the road are vertical stands of long tall grasses and what look like palm fronds, stacked up and bundled with twine. In the fields they become grass huts/shelters with pointy grass roofs. Roadside are round disks of cow dung baked in the sun, hard and dried, piled high row after row. For sale, for heating.

We are in the state of Uttar Pradesh now, and whereas horses were not a common sight in Rajasthan, here I see them tied to trees, foraging with the cattle, and especially pulling carts. Camels are few and far between here.

In Agra we visit the Taj Mahal from a distance, and explore a park nearby that offers a welcome respite from the crowds, heat and pavement. 

Between Agra and Lucknow we drive the Expressway. It is the cleanest, most scenic stretch of highway we have encountered so far in India. With the pastoral fields on either side, populated sparsely with farmers planting and picking, trees, hills and low mountains in the distance, it could be almost any place on earth. It is also practically empty compared to the other roads we’ve ridden. We fly along upwards of 80kph, downright speeding by Indian standards, though still within the posted speed limit of 100kph, and impressive given our situation of 2-up, with luggage, on a little 150cc engine. I’m proud of our little Hero Impulse. Vast expanses of yellow flowers, rapeseed Mark thinks, are being cultivated, as well as tall grasses with thick stalks at the base which I suspect are sugar cane. Along the Expressway, we see these signs:

“Leave sooner, drive slower, live longer.”

“Better late than never.”

“Life does not have a reset button. Drive safe..”

We spend a couple of nights in Lucknow, another big, crowded, cluttered and littered city with no special or unusual features to distinguish it from anywhere else. We are anxious to leave, especially as we are now on our way to Nepal for a month. I am ready for a change. India is, I will admit, wearing me down. 

On our way to the border, these are my observations: 

  • Lots of goats here, more than any other livestock. Some tied up, and some wearing tee shirts or sweaters. One is wearing a burlap sack. The cute factor, while unintentional perhaps, is high.
  • Fewer road, shopfront, or other signs in English.
  • It feels even poorer here than in the other states.
  • Houses made of brick, sticks and in some cases just straw. Brings to mind The Three Little Pigs story. 
  • A man pulling a ten foot wooden ladder behind his motorcycle. A tricycle cart, the man pedaling working hard, carrying a huge metal cabinet at least twice the size of his cart.
  • A little girl is skipping across a field toward a collection of small primitive structures, obviously lacking in electricity and plumbing; most likely her home is one of them. She is waving her arms from side to side, high above her head, singing or laughing into the sunshine. For this moment anyway, she is happy, and I am reminded of some advice my grief counselor gave me before I left for India. She told me that I would see suffering unlike any I had ever witnessed, and I might want to concentrate not so much on the suffering itself, which I can do little if anything to alleviate, but on the ways in which the sufferers navigate the obstacles in their paths. This little girl is evidence not that poverty has a bright side, nor that it can necessarily be overcome, but that like any misery, trauma or painful circumstance which holds us tight and shapes our lives, it does not own us entirely, and in its relativity, through its normalcy and extremism, there are moments when the sun breaks through. Happiness is not a commodity, nor does it owe its existence to a wallet or a flag. 

Udaipur, Jaisalmer and Jaipur

Posted in Prose on December 1, 2018 by 1writegirl

We spend the next two weeks in the increasingly large cities of Udaipur, Jaisalmer and Jaipur. Udaipur, at least the old town (and the heart of the city), is walkable, though one’s definition of that word may undergo a dramatic transformation in India, where sidewalks in general are more likely to be occupied by wandering cows, shopfront owners displaying and hawking their wares, and sleeping dogs and people, than pedestrians, meaning you will walk primarily in and among the street traffic. There is a large ancient palace here which we admire at night, all lit up, from the rooftop of our guesthouse (in folding chairs while drinking a cold beer), and a large lake with a smaller, partially underwater palace at its center, though the nicest views of this, along a well maintained pathway, are confined to private property we are forbidden from entering. Nandini Guest House, named for our lovely hostess’s young daughter, is adequately clean and comfortable, costs less than $10/night, and offers laundry service at the rate of ~ 25 cents per item (washed, dried, ironed and folded). We find a great restaurant just down the road that has a “warm salad” of roasted vegetables in olive oil, which I scarf up. We’ve been warned against eating raw vegetables (usually a staple component of my diet) in India because of the problematic (tap) water they are rinsed in, and cooked vegetables are few and far between in the average Indian dish I’ve encountered, which is heavy on gravy and hot spices like chilies. The next morning we eat breakfast at a small, inexpensive cafe that serves eggs; another welcome treat. I order a cheese omelette. It’s tasty but alas, back at the hotel an hour later I experience my first case of food poisoning in India. Fortunately it lasts only a few hours.

On the way out of Udaipur, we drive by the Institute of Sexual Medicine. We pass buses, jeeps and vans with the entire roof packed with people, as well as a motorcycle 3-up, the guy in the middle carrying a sack of cement on his head. On the highway to Jaisalmer road signs read: “Use seatbelt, turn off mobile”; and “Speed thrills but kills, speed later, safety first”. Could we claim it was now “later” if we were stopped for speeding? We pause for breakfast at a roadside restaurant and a scooter drives by with 7-up, including a man with an infant in each arm (I kid you not), and a toddler squeezed in between two adults in the front.

Chunks of broken rocks and rubble litter the roadside. Houses made of stone begin to appear, rectangular shaped with a doorway and one window on each side, every house the same. They look half finished and unoccupied for the most part, though it may be the case that they are as finished as they will ever be: doorways without doors, window frames without panes, nobody home and nothing to come home to. Also cropping up are small wooden structures, often painted blue, with thatched roofs. (On the road to Jaipur they are more often painted white, or not at all.)

Approaching Jaisalmer is a military station (the Pakistan border is a mere 55 nautical miles away) where, carved into the stonework on both sides are the words “Cut hard, Cut deep.”

We pick a guest house in Jaisalmer based on location and appearance which turns out to have a room available for 500 rupees a night (about $6.) It’s up an unusually steep staircase, the downside. From the rooftop we can see the town fort which we walk to the next day, and again the next. It’s quite a maze of narrow cobblestone alleyways lined on both sides by tiny shops and restaurants. There I purchase my first and only souvenir of India, an old postcard that a local artist has used as a small canvas, a delicate painting of a peacock below the date stamp of 1941. 

We locate a small second hand bookstore within which is a coffee shop where we have toast with peanut butter and a great cup of coffee, and chat with a Canadian couple on their way to ride a camel. Upon hearing that we’re traveling through India on a motorcycle, the man pontificates on how much easier that would be than riding “back home” (where presumably all those pesky road rules and regulations just get in the way.) Mark and I both stare at him in dumbfounded silence for a moment, then look at each other. I roll my eyes, which he rightly interprets to mean, “Would you like to set him straight or shall I?” If I haven’t said it yet, let me say it now: Mark continues to amaze me with his adept handling of the bike under the far from ideal conditions we encounter daily. He navigates safely and quickly through ridiculously heavy traffic that consists of every type of vehicle save watercraft; walking, running, reclining and skipping people; and half the animals from the Bronx Zoo. If I don’t die in a traffic accident while in India, it will be thanks to Mark. If I do, it will be through no fault of his. 

About halfway to Jaipur is a city called Naguar, as far as we’re prepared to ride in one day. On the outskirts we find a roadside “hotel with rooms” that, while three times the price of our recent accommodation, beckons us with air conditioning and a clean room. We take it, though in hindsight we wish we hadn’t. The only restaurant in the area is attached to the hotel, and I order a dish under the “Chinese” section of the menu called “mix vegetables” that is so disgusting and bears so little resemblance to food it reminds me of the borax slime called “gak” we used to make with the children when I taught Head Start. The only vegetable it contains are a few kernels of corn. Mark orders something Indian that he’s never tried before, wanting to be adventurous, and is almost, but not quite as disappointed. Of the two, his seems the more edible, so we share it. I spend the entire night, from about an hour after we return to our room until 6 the next morning, going back and forth between the toilet, my bed, and a bucket. When Mark goes down to ask for toilet paper, as there was none in our room, he’s told it’s “not possible.” There is no internet, loud music blares from a building behind the hotel, there is only one towel for both of us, and trucks rumble past into the wee hours. As tired and weak as I am the next morning, I can’t wait to get out of there.

Driving into Jaipur, known as the “pink city” because of the hue to the stones in many of its monuments and structures, we see a motorcycle on which the passenger is balancing a 10 foot high pane of glass on his lap. Further on, another passenger has a full size steel door braced sideways between himself and the driver, and before we arrive at our motel, a motorcycle 2-up with a goat between them speeds past us in a roundabout. 

We stay at a charming and unusual hotel called Rawla Mrignayani Palace. Sharing ground with both a school and small apartments, it’s old and run-down, not close to any good cheap restaurants, and sorely lacking in the kinds of luxurious little touches that guests tend to appreciate, such as light bulbs in the fixtures, working outlets, and toilets that do more than trickle quietly when flushed (thankfully there is toilet paper.) Despite these shortcomings, the staff welcomes us ceremoniously at check-in with a shower of rose petals as we climb the stairs to our room, waving incense, smudging bindis onto our foreheads, and placing garlands of marigolds around our necks. Our room (and the others we glimpse) is more like a suite, with privacy curtains separating the huge bed from the sitting area, a refrigerator, a large wooden armoire and a long, deep bathtub. There are terraces on every level (five) with chairs (albeit made of metal and lacking in cushions), bird baths and flowering foliage, and a cat with two kittens in the staff quarters who periodically come out to entertain us. A lounge off the lobby contains comfortable wicker settees to recline on, and books and board games adorn an antique table. A game of Scrabble catches my eye and I think wistfully of Neighbor Jim. Mark doesn’t like board games, and now that I think about it, nor do more than a handful of people I am acquainted with these days. 

Outside a single dog greets us with a tentative tail wag, coming close enough to receive a hint of a caress from my outstretched hand before skittering shyly away. He curls up and sleeps in the doorway of the hotel at night; a family of pigs sleeps in the dirt, both day and night, just beyond the entrance to the property. We spend almost a week here, not because we love the city so much as because I need to rest, we have neither a schedule nor an agenda, and Mark is flexible as well as understanding. My nerves are on overload, I feel compelled to retreat, and with its gentle, understated and old fashioned grace, this place – shabby though it may be – is a refuge.

Mumbai to Udaipur, Days Two and Three

Posted in Prose on November 22, 2018 by 1writegirl

We get off to a good start in the morning but after a couple of hours we have gotten hopelessly lost around the city of Vadodara. Our mistake is getting off National Highway 48, thinking we will save time by avoiding Ahmedabad. (In general the highway is in excellent condition, in contrast to city streets with their crumbling and broken asphalt and concrete, frequent speed bumps, and lack of signage toward state and national roads.) By the time we have found the 48 again, it’s clear we aren’t going to make our reservation in Udaipur this evening. We pull over and call the guest house to let them know.

As we drive further north in Gujarat, the land becomes more agricultural. In spite of this, the roads are still packed with vehicles as well as people and animals. The cows are either very dumb or supremely confident of their sacred status, wandering as they do with, into and across lanes of traffic. Some even lie down on the road itself while others choose the sandy median strip with its flowering bougainvillea (wild plumes of magenta, white, yellow, coral, lavender and pale gold shooting out in all directions) on which to repose. In the hours and miles we spend on the road, we witness not a single injury to a bovine.

In spite of road signs informing drivers “Don’t Drive in Wrong Direction,” many vehicles come barreling down the inside lane (we even witness one hugging the right (fast) lane) as if they can’t be bothered to drive the half mile or so to the next u-turn opportunity to go in the right direction.

The people tend to walk along the edges of the highway, but here too I marvel at the risks they take, some crossing over the median strip or walking parallel to it into the oncoming cars and trucks. I see lots of women, wearing sarees and bare feet, carrying atop their heads: pots, baskets, sticks, huge bags (flour? lentils? rice?). We whiz past a bobbing haystack, then a small tree, beneath each one a tiny woman, her back straight as a board. I have not yet seen an Indian with poor posture. 

In the fields little fires burn and smoulder, and I wonder if this is a small scale form of slash and burn farming. Further on we pass banana plantations, then field after field of green and brown stalks dotted with white, cotton I think. Tractors begin appearing on the roads and the cattle have changed to the breeds with the large neck hump and big horns I’ve always associated with India (Brahman?). Goats and sheep begin to make an appearance also, in herds for the most part, and we see donkeys, several all white ones, including one that has faint pink stripes painted onto it. We also see what appears to be a wild pig, peacocks and peahens, camels (Dromedary, with one hump rather than Bactrian, with two), and one lone monkey sitting on a fence along the highway. 

In Himmitnagar we pass beautiful murals painted on the walls along both sides of the road, the pictures telling stories or conveying messages: “No tobacco world day” and “Save Tree”. A bus passes us with “Namaste and Well Come Aboard” written across the side. Every now and then a woman driving a scooter (rare) or motorcycle (rarer) will roar past us, her body leaning forward on the bike, hands tight on the grips. I have come to think of them, especially the ones dressed all in black with their robes flowing behind them and their head scarves covering all but their eyes, as ninjas. Entering a small town we pass a funeral procession carrying the coffin on their shoulders, singing, in the middle of the road. They are brightly but smartly dressed.

We stop every hour or so, usually just to stretch our legs and drink water. Every second or third stop is at one of the roadside “hotels” to have a cup of tea and something small to eat, and use the toilet. The servers (they are always men) hand us the menus then stand by the table waiting for us to decide what we want. I place my order, consistently and fervently pleading with the waiters to leave out the spice. “I promise you,” they tell me. “No spice? No problem!” But whatever I am served sets my mouth on fire. They hover over us, watching us eat, but they don’t bring the bill until we ask for it. Back at the bike, people coming and going crowd around us, sometimes greeting us or asking a question but more often just staring. They get in close, cross their arms, and lean in, looking intently at the motorcycle controls, at our gear, at our faces and bodies. There is no such thing as personal space here, and curiosity is a virtue.

In the state of Rajesthan we start seeing camels more frequently, pulling carts now rather than wandering freely, and black buffalo walking on the roads or working in the fields, their friends the little white cattle egrets riding on their backs or following close behind. We notice cows decorated with flowers, greenery and tassels, ribbons and tinsel tied to their horns and between their ears, tiara-like. They must be fairly docile to allow that, powerful creatures that they are.

The landscape too begins to change. A tall, skinny cactus-like plant grows in thick clumps, and the palm trees, so abundant before, are scarce now. The air is drier, the dirt is sandier, and there are fewer vehicles on the highway. This is what I feel the most, the space that has opened up with the dramatic decline in population. Suddenly I can see high hills in the distance with nothing between them and the road but miles of land covered with trees, rocks and nothingness. For several seconds at a time there is no vehicle on our tail, no truck to pass, no staring pedestrian to avoid hitting. It’s the first time since I arrived in India that I’ve gotten a sense of how vast this country truly is.

Mumbai to Udaipur, Day One

Posted in Prose on November 18, 2018 by 1writegirl

Mark is antsy to leave Mumbai, as am I. It’s ridiculously hot and sticky here, and the nights are all but sleepless for me between the heat, the noise, and the mosquitoes buzzing around my head till sunrise. I have killed so many, in flight and perched in waiting, that the walls of our room are streaked with blood. Outside our windows, closed, comes the incessant yelping, barking and shrieking of the street dogs, testimony of their hard lives and struggle to survive. It is not a happy lot here for a dog that I can see, most of whom are emaciated, mangy and wounded.

We leave Mumbai with a view to arrive in Udaipur in two days. We are riding a 150cc Hero Impulse that Mark purchased with the help of his friend Divy, a young fashion designer to whom he was introduced several years ago by Tiffany. Divy not only located the bike for sale and negotiated the necessary repairs with a local mechanic, but also made arrangements for the bike to be registered and insured in his name since foreigners aren’t allowed them in theirs. Divy is polite and friendly, with a powerful wanderlust much like Mark’s and mine. We met up with him the day after he returned from a three week trip to Japan. 

In Mumbai, the streets were buzzing constantly with cars, trucks, taxis, tuk-tuks, motorcycles, scooters, people pushing carts, bicycles, pedestrians, cows, and dogs. The cars, from what I gathered, are driven by India’s emerging middle class. The masses however (and never has that word felt more appropriate to me than it does here, in this city of ~ 20 million people) can’t afford cars, hence the abundance of aforementioned modes of transport. 

As we drive north on Highway 48 and leave the city behind, the only thing that changes are the presence of more trucks, and the improved quality of the tarmac. These are a few observations that I, from the entitled vantage point of the pillion, have the freedom to make:

  • Motorcycles and scooters, many 2, 3, 4, even 5 up, some carrying cargo in front of or behind the driver or between the driver and a passenger, lane-split constantly around cars and trucks that are too big to do so. For the most part, these bikes have engines less than 150 cc in size.
  • Though wearing a helmet is now compulsory in India, more than half of the drivers I see aren’t wearing one; the vast majority of pillions, even young children, aren’t wearing one. Infants in arms or laps are a common sight.
  • Many of the women wearing sarees (which is most of them), sit side saddle. A lot of them also wear sandals or flip-flops, as do the drivers.
  • At speeds of up to 50 kilometers per hour from time to time, Mark and I are moving faster than most of the other motorcycles and scooters on the highway. I wonder if this is because the rest are so heavily weighed down, the little engines can’t go any faster, or if the slower speed is compensation for the lack of helmets and any protective gear whatsoever.
  • Cows wander along the perimeters and as we approach cities and towns, they cross the highways and lay down on them.
  • Dogs do the same. We pass more than one fatality.
  • Small fires are burning on either side of the road, and by the acrid smell of burnt rubber and plastic, it must be trash.
  • Every body of water that is covered by a bridge has a sign announcing “Bridge over …” (River whatever)
  • The median strips grow wider and greener, with brightly colored pink bushes popping up. Azaleas?
  • Many of the trucks are brightly colored as well, with designs, symbols, and logos. Many sport decorations such as streamers, tinsel or pom-poms from the bumpers, and artificial flowers tied to the antennas. The fronts are painted with Goods Carriage, All India Permit and the like, while the backs have messages designed for the overtaking traffic: Horn Okay, Please Sound Horn, Blow Horn, or simply, Horn Please; Wait for Side; Please Use Dipper at Night; and India is Great.
  • A truck with Hare Krishna on its side drives by, evoking a childhood memory of young robed men with shaved heads in the 1970’s, chanting and spreading the word.
  • Everyone is beeping their horn almost constantly. It’s nerve wracking. Every now and then a truck will make a sound that reminds me more of a cell phone ring tone than a vehicle horn.
  • From out of nowhere I smell cloves. Later, fennel.
  • Alongside the highway at irregular intervals – some miles apart, others side by side for a mile or more – are restaurants that go by the name hotel. They have names like Hotel Relief, and Hotel Decent. If you want to find a place to sleep, you have to look for one that has the word Rooms. We stop at one to have a cup of tea. When I get back to the bike after using the toilet, a man with 2 little girls is talking to Mark. He introduces them to me as his daughters, and explains to us that this is the first time in their lives they have encountered foreigners. They are lovely little girls, maybe 5 and 7, in matching pink polka dotted dresses and short haircuts. They shake my hand and say their names. They are utterly charming.

We call it a day in the state of Gujarat, staying at Hotel Novus in Bharuch. There is no hot water in the shower, and the water from the tap is so salty we can’t drink it. When I ask for the complimentary bottle of mineral water that we were told came with the room, they charge us for it. The beds however are comfortable, and for the first time since I arrived in India, I get through the night without a single mosquito bite. Five stars.