Tuesday, November 14, 2006

I'll Fly Away

During my last 2 years in South Korea I had a large cell phone charm hanging from the document holder attached to the side of the computer in my office. It was produced by Millimeter/Milligram, a small, hip Korean shop selling items like cards, wallets, and t-shirts. I find large baubles hanging from my mobile phone irritating, but I liked this blue, rubber, gingerbread shaped man enough to buy him. Printed across his front are the words "I'll Fly Away."

sinking boat

He flew away in a box destined for my mother's garage, and I flew away too; but travel, like everything else in life, has its peaks, plateaus, and valleys. I flew from Srinagar to Jammu on November 16, and I'm now in Dharamshala, the place where the Dalai Lama set up shop after the Chinese invasion of Tibet. I left Srinagar not a moment too soon, but possibly a few days too late. In some way, I'm not exactly sure how yet, the place has changed me. The solemnity, a hush in spite of, or perhaps because of, the open acceptance of lurking violence, has stolen into me, and I find myself older now, in both the negative and the positive sense of the phenomenon.

eagle and tree

The effect of Srinagar on me has something to do with its particular and subtle beauty. Buildings and boats, initially painted in cheery colors, are muted by their exposure to weather, and the clothing of the people, especially the men, who make up the majority of figures to be seen in public, is also earthy and mellow, retaining the character of natural wool even when dyed. The lake reflects the palate of the city, and the outlines of things are somehow sharper in their images than in their actual existence. A variety of birds, from small black and white hummingbird-like dive bombers to brown eagles gliding down from the mountains, grace the skies and hunt the waters, and 5 times a day, beginning around 5:30 am, prayers roll out from the mosques of the lake and the city, staggered, one starting after another, until the air is ringing with rounds of indecipherable, but obviously dedicated, chanting. And it is as if the early morning fog on the lake had mingled with the prayers, slipped between the gaps in the walnut window frames, and crept in gentle tendrils into my ears, hanging veils of silence over my heart.

Dal Lake and mountains

The character of Srinagar is restrained; it sometimes yeilds a surface drabness. And so I find myself carrying a cloud with me, unable to break the spell, and thinking about the ways in which the most significant moments of life on the road, just as those of life in an office, are inevitably painted on a canvas of mundane facts. We returned from Pahalgam to find two things; oncoming winter is swaddling Srinagar in clouds and rain, and the electricity was out in the houseboat. I stayed there, transfixed by the lake, for 3 more nights, shivering in my borrowed feather jacket when I left my bed, 2 feet deep in blankets. No electricity meant no hot water, and so I went without that too, but finally, I followed Yasir (who left before me, sick from the distinctively wet cold on the boat) and left the lake, moving to the welcoming home/hotel of Yasir's extended family for my last few days.

Niyaz, Shabir, and Tariq

Suddenly, I had light, and a television, and people to bring me food, and visitors, and noise in the hallways, but this further immersion into the culture of the place (meeting family, being constantly surrounded by people speaking a foreign language, eating only Kashmiri food, never knowing when someone would be knocking on my door to check that I had everything I needed) drove me to recede further from outward circumstances. My stay in Srinagar had reached a point where the strangeness of place and culture weren't going to yield anymore; I had seen as much of the surface as I could, and the depths were going to keep their secrets.

moving, on a rainy day

So, experiencing an increase in anxiety and upping my cigarettes per day to the point that I was sleeping (and often not sleeping) with a pack next to my pillow, I turned away from the foreign and embraced the familiar. In the same way I indulge in McDonald's cheeseburgers, which I never eat in America but sometimes eat in a frenzy of desire while traveling, I turned on the t.v. and crawled under the covers. Building up to the release of the new 007 movie, Casino Royale in Asia, India's movie channel, Star TV has been running Bond flicks, chronologically, every night at 9 pm; a few weeks ago, back when the houseboat still had electricity, I saw bits of Goldfinger, made in 1964 starring Sean Connery, but it failed to capture my attention. By now, I believe I have seen nearly every Bond film featuring Roger Moore: The Man With the Golden Gun, 1974, The Spy Who Loved Me, 1977, Moonraker, 1979, For Your Eyes Only, 1981, and Octopussy, 1983, which I saw more than a month ago in Udaipur, where the movie was filmed; it is shown every night at restaurants all over town.

"Octopussy" palace, Udaipur

lake palaces at night, Udaipur

And you know, I really enjoyed these movies; the first one I watched just because it was on and it was in English, but by the second night I was involved, and when I found out that Moonraker would feature Bond in space I was amused to find myself excited. The movies are downright entertaining, and it was fascinating watching the fashions and political settings of my early childhood (I was 8 in 1983 and -1 in 1974) develop and change over the span of these movies, but I have to admit I also sat through some total crap. One was an American college kids on a European summer trip film. The best lines were, "Dude, you made out with your sister!" and "Let the European sex odyssey begin!" I really can't believe I watched that or a sappy, talking animal movie called, Racing Stripes (I think). It was about a zebra who wins the Kentucky Derby.

houseboat crow

And from there we progress further down the chain of concerns that comprise a life. Shortly after I arrived in Srinagar, I sent most of the clothes I have with me to be laundered. This meant that I had 6 pairs of clean underwear and 3 pairs of clean socks. Somehow, I never managed to do laundry again, and by my second week it was too cold to consider changing clothes anyways. I soon expanded my ideas of what I consider clean, and I changed my clothes for the first time in at least 10 days this morning, in Dharamshala. Last night, settling into my new room, I spent a few delightful hours indulging in an activity I've found comforting ever since I can remember, organizing. With my bag fully mastered and its contents placed around the room, I washed my underwear in the most gratifying hot shower I've ever had, and as I left the hotel this morning I dropped some things at the laundry. Strangely, in Srinagar I had a record run of great hair days, which has abruptly ended here. Also, I think I lost about 5 lbs as my anxiety increased and my ability to eat any more rice and mutton (no matter how delicious) decreased.

Srinagar bird

I know, "Yuck, details about underwear!" But it's the details that make things interesting, right? A thoughtful reader recently emailed me, raising questions about the distinction between me in reality and me creating myself as a character on this blog. She is right, there is are differences between the me who is living my life and the processed me who shows up on the screen; but then the stories I tell, and the way I tell them, turn right back around and change me. There are a lot of things I don't write about, and some things I can't write about. I often have the suspicion that the things I don't write about are as important, and maybe more so, than the things I do, and that the things I can't write are the truest things of all.

eagle, flying away

Another friend remarked to me, shortly before I left, "Wow, so you're going on vacation for one third of the year!" Just to set the record straight, I'm less "on vacation" than I've ever been; I'm performing a series of demented experiments on myself.


Anonymous the inventor said...

i don't know if you ever had to hear me gush about the tim o'brien novel "the things they carried"--here's a quote i really like (although his subject matter is a touch different)...lookout it's lengthy.

"I want you to feel what i felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.
Here is the happening-truth. I was once a soldier. There were many bodies, real bodies with real faces, but I was young then and I was afraid to look. And now, twenty years later, I'm left with faceless responsibility and faceless grief.
Here is the story-truth. He was a slim, dead, almost dainty young man of about twenty. He lay in the center of a red clay trail near the village of My Khe. His jaw was in his throat. His one eye was shut, the other eye was a star-shaped hole. I killed him.
What stories can do, I guess, is make things present.
I can look at things I never looked at. I can attach faces to grief and love and pity and God. I can be brave. I can make myself feel again.
'Daddy, tell the truth.' Kathleen can say, 'did you ever kill anybody?' And I can say, honestly, 'Of course not.' Or I can say, honestly, 'Yes.'"

8:22 PM GMT-5  
Blogger Desiree said...

Yes, this passage came up in conversation once, but you weren't able to quote it, only give the gist. Your gist was pretty good, but this is better. Thanks, Inventro

9:28 AM GMT-5  

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