Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The Caves

Back in Dharamshala I met a dark, round, friendly, Sri Lankan-American who has a name too foreign to catch in my mind. He was in his mid-twenties, overflowing with energy and California slang. We had one conversation at an internet café, and one at a table over lunch the next day. As we sat on a terrace, waiting for food, drinking lemon-ginger tea, and warming our skins in a sun that never could completely vanquish the cold stored up from the previous night, he mentioned his plan to visit the caves of Ajanta and Ellora; it was much more a conversation about the going than the stopping, so I got no details about the caves, but we had enough in common that I guessed a place that interested him would also hold something for me. I never saw him again after that lunch. We didn’t even exchange addresses, knowing instinctively that we would never write, but taking character as a cue, I added the caves to my list of possibilities, their being roughly along my intended trail, that trail seeking warmth, and hence southward.

When I hear the word cave, I think of a place black and damp, completely without access to light and full of echoes, something like the cave of Plato’s prisoners, chained to a wall, naming shades and shadows as seriously as if they were solid objects, taking echoes to be speech. I gave a cursory glance to the Ajanta and Ellora caves on the internet; I read there were some carvings and paintings, and I think I imagined them the way I imagine the caves at Lascaux, cold, inaccessible places with impressively ancient pigments adhering miraculously to rough walls, suggesting but never fully revealing another man, from another time.

I went from Dharamshala to Delhi to Mumbai, and from Mumbai, I caught a train to Aurangabad, which is a very small city inland from Mumbai and a good base camp for exploring the caves. On the train, I sat across from a young Indian named Samson and an aging lecturer on botany at a local college. (Samson, once in the navy, is now a competitive bodybuilder. I know, it's too good to be true. I'm really not making it up.) Near the end of the journey, the botanist pointed to a white man several benches away, near a window. I hadn’t even noticed him before, but the professor asked me if he was my husband. When I answered with a laugh in the negative, the botanist then inquired whether the man was my brother.

When the train reached Aurangabad the other white person in the car and I exited, and as we left the platform, I approached him and told him we’d been taken for siblings. We laughed, we bantered, we left the station together, and like any good brother and sister, we joined forces in fighting off the inevitable post-transportation tout attack. Eventually, we checked into the same shabbilly comfortable hotel, and later that night, we had dinner together. We found that we both wanted to visit the Ellora caves, and so the next morning we hired a rickshaw together and set of on the bumpy one-hour journey.

The caves of Ellora are indeed dark, cool, and made entirely of rock, but that is where their meeting with my vague expectations ends. Rather than a series of holes separated from light and air by a long tunnel, they are a series of 34 magnificent temples and monasteries, their entrances, interiors, and fine carvings wrested from a vertical face of rock over a period of 700 years. The first 12 structures are Buddhist, dating from 400-700 A.D., the next 17 are Hindu, dating from 600-700 A.D, roughly, and the last 5 are Jain temples, dating from 800-1100 A.D.

Between the parking lot and the site entrance there are countless hawkers selling jewelry, geodes, antique coins, guide services, and guidebooks. I bought the slimmest volume and sat down for a pre-sightseeing Nescafe with Glen (my husband from the train). The book contained a map from which I gathered the construction timetable and layout of the site; the first caves in temporal terms were the last caves in physical relation to the entrance of the complex, so we walked past all the Hindu caves before entering the first of the Buddhist. Except for the entrance, open and admitting light, the first of the Buddhist excavations is cave-like indeed, small and unadorned, with eight cells, presumably quarters for monks, ranged about its sides. The next is deep, and wide, supported by row upon row of solid pillars, centering on an enormous Buddha seated on a lion throne, somehow reminiscent of a Pharaoh, and decorated all around its square walls by Bodhisattvas and lotuses.

The caves are all mixed up in my mind by now, leaving one dimly lit, collected impression. I could pull widths and heights from that slender guidebook, which I still have, but that book bores me, so why should I bore myself by boring you with what bores me. There is no use in trying to reconstruct the caves here through locations and dimensions, so I'll try to use impressions in the place of numbers.

lotus on the ceiling

It may have been the second, or the fourth cave. Anyhow, it was one of many with columns leading to a giant Buddha radiating both peace and power from a recessed throne; but this one was slightly different. The sitting place of the central Buddha in this particular cave (as with many of them) is a room all its own. As I exited this central recess I turned right, intending to take the wide, square route to the exit, but I saw a patch of darker darkness, so far back in shadow as to be easily missed. I took a long step up a stone stair, worn smooth and warped in the center by centuries of feet. Stepping over a similarly worn threshold I found myself in a spot of nearly complete darkness, or rather, highly filtered light, light tasting as diluted as a cup of tea brewed from a bag already used 5 times. The room is rectangular, and it must have been about 7 feet high, 12 feet long, and 7 feet wide. I stood appreciating the way the perpendicular rectangle of light from the doorway, already so weakened by its journey from the far away front of the temple, cast a moonlight rectangle on the floor. That light stopped completely at its outline, not a drop seeping into the surrounding darkness. After a while, it occurred to me to try sound. I uttered a syllable, “Ah,” and listened to its reverberations spend several seconds crawling about the chamber. Then, wanting to experiment more with the phenomenon, I sang two verses, and one line from another verse, of My Favorite Things.

Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens

Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens

Brown paper packages tied up with strings

These are a few of my favorite things

When the dog bites

When the bee stings

When I'm feeling sad

I simply remember my favorite things

And then I don't feel so bad

Silver white winters that melt into springs

These are a few of my favorite things

For some reason completely hidden to me, these are the musical lines that offer themselves whenever I am in need of a song to sing, and on my first attempt I sung them all the way through, at the usual rhythm. As I sung one line, the previous one remained in the room, and by the middle of my song, a ringing of overlapping tones formed a kind of mattress, almost smothering my voice. I wanted to hear the reverberations distinctly, so during my next attempt I took long pauses between each word, letting the cave's reaction to the previous word end before beginning the next. The chamber did not exactly echo my words, or even my tones, rather it rolled them over its hard, glossy surface and returned them transformed, into what I can’t say.

The words of my song were inappropriate to the cavern’s acoustics. Possibly, any word in a language I understand, anything that could lead to meaning, finitude, comprehensibility, separation of one thing from another, would have been strange there, deep in the belly of the world. In the end, I paced through the lines sound by sound, letting each syllable issue, transform, and exhaust its energy before producing another, till their only meaning was their existence. The symbolism of the caves, the meanings intended by their makers, will never be a part of my experience; but the rock itself remains, and I knew for a few moments being without thought or intent, just action and reaction according to nature, giving and taking sounds.

By the time I emerged from the chamber Glen had gone on to another cave, which is probably for the better as he might have found the sounds issuing from within a little strange. Some time later, walking from one cave to the next, he mentioned that this must have been where the crucial scene of A Passage to India (an English woman is raped by an Indian boy, according to him) was set. It was a passing comment, but I sometimes approach reading in the same way I approach travel: I wait for something interesting and somehow relevant to put itself in my path. So, a few weeks later, when I ran across the book here in Goa, I bought it and began to read, expecting some further insight into the caves of Ellora. I noticed almost immediately, by the description of the landscape, that the place couldn’t be the same, and upon further research, I found that the location, Chandrapore and the Marabar hills, are fictional places representing another region of India.

Nonetheless, it was a good lead. There’s no way I could read anything but a novel here on a beach in Goa. E.M. Forster is a carefull weaver of character and nature, and although the caves of his imagination are really caves, not pillared halls but holes in hills, they have given me a point of reference. The impetus of the novel does indeed take place in the caves of Marabar (although not at all in the way Glen thought), and the particular echo of the caves have effects on certain characters which resonate throughout the novel. An old woman, Mrs. Moore, hears the echo, and not too long afterward, she dies. The narrator says of its affect on her:

“the echo began in some indescribable way to undermine her hold on life. Coming at a moment when she chanced to be fatigued, it had managed to murmur: ‘Pathos, piety, courage- they exist, but are identical, and so is filth. Everything exists, nothing has value.’ If one had spoken vileness in that place, or quoted lofty poetry, the comment would have been the same- ‘ou-boum’. If one had spoken with the tongues of angels and pleaded for all the unhappiness and misunderstanding in the world, past, present, and to come, for all the misery men must undergo whatever their opinion and position, and however much they dodge or bluff- it would amount to the same, the serpent would descend and return to the ceiling.”

Nature (and by nature I mean anything that isn't me), in life and in fiction, offers us concrete objects to illustrate, or externalize our interior lives. My own internal life being, well, let's call it involving, there's only so much sightseeing I can do in a day. It takes an effort to connect to an object in a way that is more than superficial or acquisitive, and so, by the end of the Buddhist caves and the middle of the Hindu caves, I had done all I could for a time. Glen had also had enough, so we headed back to Aurangabad, and I resolved to come back to Ellora in a few days to give the remaining structures their due. We had dinner again that night, and then we had drinks and talked for a few hours in the hotel courtyard.

Glen is in his early 40’s and single. He’s reasonably fit and attractive. He has spent the last 10 years doing import/export inspections contracting (no, I don’t really know what that is either) in North Africa and the Middle East. He spent 2 years in Iraq and left at the start of the war. He’s from New Zealand. He owns a nice little home in Auckland, where he plans to return and settle after 6 months of travel. The strange thing about our meeting, and probably the only reason I remember his name, is that he never asked mine, and I never asked his. Early on in our acquaintance, I thought to ask, but some imp put it in my mind to wait; I was curious to see just how long it would take him to wonder about this detail. So, dinner, breakfast, a day of sightseeing, more dinner, drinking, and the question never came. After dinner and before drinking, he showed me pictures of his India travels on his laptop. This is how I came to know his name, from his computer screen. Maybe that isn’t even it.

Stranger still, I’m not at all bothered that he never asked (although I am a bit amazed), that we never exchanged addresses, and that we will never meet again. It’s strange how you just know with people, the size of the role they're going to play in your story. Most people I meet I pass the time, ask questions particular to my interests, exhaust that vein, and then let the respective currents of our lives carry us away; not in a resentful way, just with the understanding that we have given all that we have for each other. In this case, I got an interesting perspective on pre-war Iraq, Muslim culture, and an idea of where to go in Goa. In fact, I saw pictures of the beach I’m now inhabiting on Glen’s laptop.

I spent the day after I visited Ellora in Aurangabad, catching up on The Great State. The day after that, I took a bus to visit Ajanta. Famous for its well-preserved, pre-Christian paintings, it is the older of the two cave complexes in the area. On a break in the ride there, Csaba, a good-looking, gregarious, 29 year old Hungarian, approached me for a light, and we made a pair for the rest of the day. Although I didn’t realize it then, I was coming down with bronchitis. The Ajanta caves were crowded, ringing with the voices of inattentive tour groups and their guides, and the beating of the sun during the intervals between caves was more than I could take, so I didn’t get much from the place.

The Ajanta temples, like those of Ellora, are treated as archeological sites rather than holy places. Shoes are removed, but for purposes of preservation rather than veneration, and this set me to wondering about the expiration date on holiness: when and why does an object cease to be a focus of adoration and become a source of curiosity? It must depend on the place, or the object, but in the case of Ajanta and Ellora, the religions they embody are still living, the gods they glorify still worshiped. A god may not die, but a temple loses its holiness when it loses its suppliants; a place of worship is only a room, more or less interesting, when no human songs ring forth. The Ajanta and Ellora complexes were abandoned long ago with a shift in civilization and rediscovered by wandering British, giving rise to archeological curiosity.

The next day I went back to Ellora, this time with Csaba in one of the charmingly curved, white, Ambassadors cabs common in India. We spent most of our time in the 16th cave, the Kailasanatha temple, a large, free standing structure carved from a single rock. The monolith is modeled on Mount Kailash of Tibet, where several rivers of Asia originate; it is the mythical abode of Lord Shiva. Kailasanatha is the principle attraction of Ellora; it is the only temple with an admission fee, 5$ for foreigners and less than 1$ for Indians, and as such it was crowded with Indian tourists and large groups of Indian schoolchildren. Still, Csaba and I spent several pleasant hours admiring the elaborate carvings, discussing the human desire for symmetry, and finding cool, quiet, stone-benched nooks in which to escape the sun.

It took 100 years to quarry the 200,000 tons of rock and fashion Kailasanatha. In those days, this must have meant at least 5 generations of able bodied men chipping away in the sun, loading rocks into baskets on backs of mules. The architect would have made his calculations and drawn up the plan knowing all the while that the glory of his project was reserved for a future he wouldn't see, at least not in his present form. What are the Twin Towers, or the Bilbao Guggenheim in comparison to Kailasanatha? Could modern technology create such an elaborate structure, saturated with the toil and care of human hands? Would any modern individual or institution commit itself to a project that would not show profit for 100 years?

fragments of an elephant

Csaba and I had hired the car until 6pm, and we left Ellora around 2pm, wilting from the sun. We wanted a cool and quiet place for lunch and figured that would cost money. So, we asked the driver to take us to the most expensive hotel in town, again called the Taj. There, at a shaded white table overlooking an expansive, sprinkler-greened lawn (rare and soothing indeed in India), we continued to mine the central vein of our conversations, materialism vs. idealism, or determinism vs. free will, or “how it is determines how it will be vs. how it is is not how it could be.”

note the spectre of death

Not that we sat for hours discussing things in these terms, but we did talk quite a bit, or rather he talked quite a bit and I responded, and it became clear to me that we stand as opposites. For example, when we talked about the recurrence of symmetry in human works at Kailasanatha he held that humans imitate symmetry in nature; I held that very few things in nature are symmetrical and those that appear so are not upon close observation, so humans are trying to give body to an idea with the works of their hands. In life, this boiled down to opposing principles of action; he feels that human appetites should be gratified because appetite is the prime characteristic of human life and desire, while I feel that appetite only perpetuates more appetite, so we should discipline ourselves in order to escape being ruled by our lower aspects.

On an even more mundane level, our differences were reflected in our attitudes to Wikipedia. Both he and I frequently reference Wikipedia and agree that it's a brilliant and significant development. I feel compelled to credit Wikipedia as an invaluable resource in my writings here; I cannot carry an encyclopedia on my travels, but I often need to check my facts and supplement locally gathered details. For me, it is a source of information, but information is not an end in itself. The idea is to make something out of the information. For Csaba, seeing material life as an end, information is enough. When he emails his friends, he simply tells them where he went and includes a Wikipedia link to the place.

In either case, materialism or idealism, indulging appetites or denying them causes one to be aware of what they are, and so results in people with developed tastes. For a few days we shared our mutual regard for quality, beauty, thought and conversation; for me, it’s more important that a person has thoughts and can discuss them than the conclusions of the thoughts themselves. Or at least that holds to a certain point, to the point where their basis becomes clear and further conversation can only be a repetition on the theme. Then, you have to remain respectful but separate, because two people who are in fundamental dischord can only take each other so far. This is a strange obstacle that I often encounter, and is also the idea that lets me bid final goodbyes to so many people without desire or regret; I find I can only speak about the things that I hold most true, most important, to people who already know them.

Csaba and I left Aurangabad together on a night train, and we spent the following day in Mumbai, waiting for the night train south to Goa. When we reached Goa, we parted amicably and exchanged addresses. The very most I can say with absolute certainty, we are what we are. He sits now on another beach, indulging his appetites I’m sure; and I sit here, in Palolem, considering mine.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Can't Buy Me Love

I left Dharamshala on a 12 hour overnight bus to Delhi. I splurged on a sleeping berth, hoping to arrive relatively fresh. Unfortunately, the hairpin curves winding down and out of the mountains, coupled with constant joggling on the cratered roads, had me up all night, willing myself not to vomit. I made it all the way to my hotel in Paharganj, where I finally let go, and I spent the rest of the day in bed. It could have been mild food poisoning (although I didn't eat anything unusual) because I didn't feel quite well for a few days. I seem to have a miserable time during each of my visits to the multi-species feces experiment that is the capital city, and this was no exception. So, wanting to make the fastest exit possible, I booked a plane ticket to Bombay.

night street, Delhi

I didn't expect to like Bombay (also known as Mumbai) either, but I was pleasantly suprised. Located on the southwestern coast of India, it is an island city, and as far as I'm concerned, water always helps. Plentifull banyan trees complement British colonial buildings, and I even found a well kept park right in the center of everything. Feeling ragged and soiled, and suffering from very dry hair, I decided to try my luck with a haircut, which is always a big gamble in Asia.

Behind India Gate, a basalt arch standing at the southern Mubai waterfront, is the best hotel in town. The Taj, besides having an oppulent lobby, has 600 rooms and a shopping gallery housing diamond dealers, a Fendi store, and several other luxury brands. I figured this might be a good place to find a salon, and it was. I stepped off the hot, crowded, beggar riddled streets into the cool lobby and was suddenly treated with respect, even gentleness. The approach and manner of the concierge, when I enquired about the salon, was in shocking contrast to the behaviour of desk minders at the cheap hotels where I habitually stay. So I spent four times the amount I was spending for a nights accomodation on a some pampering. While I was having my haircut, I noticed another beautician doing something mysterious with a string to a woman's face. I asked my hairdresser about it, and it turns out this process is called "threading," a hair removal technique. My own eyebrows out of control, I decided to try it. It's a wonderful technique, much less painfull, and more precise, than waxing.

pigeons, Mumbai

Fully Fendified, I left the salon feeling bouncy and beautiful, refreshed by the civilized air of the place as much as the haircut. But when I stepped out of the air-con shopping arcade and crossed the street, intending to watch the boats for a while, I was abruptly confronted with the reality of India- a constant stream of beggars, unwanted advances from men with nothing better to do, and relentless hawking.

My train for Aurangabad, an 8 hour journey, departed at 6am the next morning, and I'd booked a seat in the lowest class of car. On my previous journey I had travelled middle class, which meant padded seats large enough so that the person in the next seat doesn't touch you, a meal, and air conditioning. It turns out that the poor people have the better deal. In the second class car the windows open, so you get a breeze. The seats are hard and packed close, but in all it feels less like being transported in a sealed can. Men walk up and down the aisles selling various foods, fruits, and chai. The only problem with the poor car is all the poor people- on the floor, in the aisles, standing next to the open door, nursing crying babies, and just looking generally downtrodden as the train rattles along. Aside from the crowding, staring, and very hard seats, it was a good journey, and across from me sat two very nice men, one a botanist and one a body-builder, who protected me along the way. When beggars came to me, they shooed them away. When people tried to take my seat, they shooed them a way too.

At the begining of the journey, a gang of transvestite beggars boarded the train. Yes, I said transvestite beggars- young Indian men dressed in saris, wearing lipstick, carrying purses, and harassing people (who seemed alarmed and embarrased by them) for money. I saw one of these menacing ladies approach a young Indian woman and poke her on the head with a 10 rupee note. I doubt I will ever know what to make of this.

The train often stopped for 10, 20, or even 30 minutes at a station without any kind of announcement: the train stops and goes when it pleases. A few hours in, I risked getting off for a cigarette. No sooner had I lit up than someone from the train (I think he worked on the train, but nobody had any kind of uniform) said, "Madame, no smoke." I said, "Well, where can I smoke? I've been smelling smoke on the train all the time." This was true, I had been. The attendant, or whatever he was, pointed me to the toilet. The toilet is the smoking section on an Indian train. One more thing; the toilets empty directly onto the tracks.

If there's anything at all India has forced me to appreciate, it's money. I've always been one to hold it in low esteem, but in terms of comfort, cleanliness, and aesthetics, there's nothing like it.

I've been lonely more often than not since I came to India. Reading (as always) has been both a great solace and a great escape. I was finishing up H.H. Dalia Lama's autobiography on the train, and my eyes filled with water when an old friend of mine walked unexpectedly into the story. His Holines relates:

"I was fortunate enough to receive a visit from Father Thomas Merton, the American Trappist monk. He came to Dharamshala in November 1968, just a few weeks before his tragic death in Thailand. We met on three consecutive days, for two hours at a time. Merton was a well-built man of medium height, with even less hair than me, though that was not because his head was shaved as mine is. He had big boots and wore a thick leather belt round the middle of his heavy white cassock. But more striking than his outward appearance, which was memorable in itself, was the inner life that he manifested. I could see he was a truly humble and deeply spiritual man. This was the first time that I had been struck by such a feeling of spirituality in anyone who professed Christianity. Since then, I have come across others with similar qualities, but it was Merton who introduced me to the real meaning of the word 'Christian'."

I read Merton's autobiography about 10 years ago. The Seven Storey Mountain was one of the things that got me started thinking about joining a convent. I hadn't thought about Merton for a long time, but I was glad to meet him again, and I still remember who I lent that book to. Matt, I hope you're finished with it; it's been 5 years now! I'm not a big autobiography reader. Between Merton and the Dalia Lama, the only one I read was As I Am, by Patricia Neel, the wife of Roald Dahl, and I don't really recomend it. Still, it's wonderful to see the lives of people I've never met weaving into my own.

I raised some doubts about the conversion of Westerners to Buddhism in an earlier post, and the Dalai Lama eventually addressed them too. He says of his own ministry:

"I have felt no reservations, no hesitation in speaking about Buddhism to a Chinese audience. This I put down to the fact that traditionally many Chinese are Buddhists. By contrast, whenever lecturing on the subject to Westerners whose culture and background are essentially Judaeo-Christian, I always feel a slight reluctance. This is because I believe that, in general, it is much better for individuals to remain within their own traditions rather than change to one whose culture is basically foreign to them and not part of their daily experience. After all, I have always felt that the aims of all religions are essentially the same: namely to make us better, less selfish and ultimately happier human beings. That is the key, the point to the religious life. It is therefore better, in my opinion, for people to retain their traditional values, including their religion."

Tonight, I say a fond goodbye to His Holines the Dalai Lama. His book will shortly be abandoned in this internet cafe, as I'm finished and there's no use carrying extra weight. It has felt incongruous reading of a man from the chill northern mountains here in the hot, tropical south; it's as if my journey were following me. But I hope to meet him again somewhere, unexpectedly, someday. I say goodbye to Aurangabad, too. This town has been my jumping off point for the Ellora and Ajanta caves. I spent 4 nights here, but more about that later. Now, it's off to the train.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

A Place To Remember

The buildings of Dharamshala sprawl haphazardly around and up the sides of a roughly east-west running valley. They are a combination of brick, concrete and plaster, which means it is often colder inside than outside. McLeodganj, the main tourist area, is at a higher altitude than Dharamshala proper. By my third day there, I knew I'd be staying at least a week, so I found some lodging where I could spread out. My first room was small and sunless, adequate, but something like a cell. I upgraded from 2$ a night to 5$; for the 3$ increase I got three times the space, a large, low table, two chairs, a balcony which gets a triangle of sun from 9:30 to 11 am, a slightly better view in a quieter section of the valley and, although I didn't even notice it until after I had unpacked, a television. This meant I could rejoin Bond. I was surprised to find that I hadn’t missed a single beat. It turned out that the films were being shown Monday through Thursday, and I had spent Friday through Sunday without a t.v.

The first night in my new room I watched Octopussy, again. This gave me a chance to catch more of the silly innuendo than I had when I watched it the first time, on a restaurant rooftop in Udaipur. An example, aside from the title itself, is James' comment as he hands a snake-charming flute to his Indian under-spy Vijay, who almost forgets it in the back of a vehicle, "You may need this to play with your asp." Only Roger Moore, with his guileless delivery, could say this with out sounding like a total ass. Imagine if someone really said that to you! I know I'd roll my eyes, and then laugh in spite of myself, but I’d expect the person who had said it to be laughing too; James drops lines like while this saving the world, and he doesn’t get a bit distracted. It was lucky for me that I found something to do in bed, because my second room wasn’t any warmer than my first, and the temperature dropped daily. I never came across a place in town that had indoor heating, and so I took refuge, fully dressed, under three heavy blankets, every night at 8:55.

"I'm SO tired of being cold!"

The last of the Roger Moore films, the 14th in the whole series, was the first Bond film to feature pop-culture elements familiar from my own lifetime. A View To A Kill oozes 80's with an intensity that only the 80's can ooze; the opening credit sequence is decorated with undulating women wearing neon, burning, melting and ski-dancing to Duran Duran. Grace Jones and a young (but just as creepy) Christopher Walken play the villains, and feathered hair decorates Bond's beautiful women. The changing fashions of Bond films contribute a lot to their overall visual fabulousness; but the developments with the most impact, both in the real world and on the films, are technological. A View To A Kill featured animal doping, microchips, a desktop computer, and a plot to blow up Silicon Valley. Microchip technology allowed Q to deliver my favorite hysterically bad line for the movie; it went something like, "We'll use this micro-comparator to compare the microchips."

naughty monkey

Watching a Bond movie that invoked personal associations was new and timely. Maybe I was homesick (although that may require having a home), but I did a lot of remembering in my early days in McLeodganj. The place is familiar enough (with its excellent coffee, western food, cosmopolitan mix of people, and general college towny atmosphere) that, undistracted by relentless strangeness and able to establish habitual activities in the present world, I had the excess mental calories to make forays into the past. Not having met with a certain type of conversation along the road, I was missing a few people in particular. I was also missing (as usual), Sir Good, and having only one pair of shoes with me, my wardrobe. This got me thinking about my life in Seoul.

I found these doodles from Seoul way back in the begining of my notebook.

I get up, and Sir follows. Although I lived in Seoul for over 4 years, I never bought a proper bed. I always thought I'd be leaving within a year, and it seemed like such a big commitment. Instead, a pile of folded blankets on the floor served as a matress. A female friend once suggested to me that the reason I didn't have a boyfriend was because I didn't have a real bed.

Sir anticipates my departure. I had a 3 bedroom apartment on the top floor of an old house. Although Sir spent a lot of time alone there, he had plenty of room to frolic.

Sir watches me drive off to work. I never bought a bed, but about a year before I left I bought a couch. 3 years is a long time to go without anywhere to sit but the floor. I also had a lovely view of Seoul from my window.

I notice a German in the elevator. Samsung Art & Design Institute is housed in an office building. BMW Korea is on the top floor, so I occasionally saw visiting Germans. They invariably stood out, big blonde giants in the elevator.

I teach a class. I often found myself worrying that something had happened to Sir in my absence. You can guess from this picture how engaging I found teaching English as a second language.

The Dalai Lama, humble as usual, devoted some space in his autobiography to his pets. After relating each of their ends, he remarks that he decided against having more, noting that his tutor once said "Pets are in the end only an extra source of anxiety for their owners." The Dalai Lama concludes, "Besides, from the Buddhist point of view, it is not enough to be thinking and caring about only one or two animals when all sentient beings are in need of your thoughts and prayers." His tutor's observation plays out in my own doodles, and the Dalai Lama's conclusion is true enough, but damnit, I still miss Sir to pieces, and I wouldn't have it any other way. In fact, loving a specific dog has increased my appreciation of all the animals that I meet.

my temporary dog

In India, there are countless dogs, in full relaxation wherever they please. The pity is, they are so dirty, foraging in the shit-spattered streets the way they do, that it is inadvisable to touch them, even though some of them are clearly friendly and in need of affection. In Dharamshala I gave in and began to pet the cleaner looking dogs that approached me. One of them became a special friend. He lay in the sun, at my feet, every morning as I had my breakfast, and I elected him my temporary dog. So far I have no dread diseases, but now I miss him too. The Dalai Lama was eventually overcome by his own tenderness and took in another cat.

relaxation, anytime, anywhere (no, she's not dead)


For those readers out there who love him, my mother tells me Sir Good (who has recently earned wittily appropriate title "Sir(cles)" is getting on very well in Virginia, and judging by her detailed descriptions of his behaviour, he's charmed his way into the heart of yet another household.

Of course, my life in Seoul was much more complicated and busy than my doodles suggest, but as I look back, it is taking on a sort of flatness; events and places now have verbal labels, rather than complex realities. For instance, I remember that I had a nice view, but I have to think harder, past (or behind) those words, to remember that I often took a smog reading from my window before leaving; my house was placed high enough that I could see the fumes that I would soon be driving through pooling in the bowl of the city.

the building housing the ex-political prisoners union makes room for a tree

There are advantages to this loss of detail; life is often incomprehensible while I'm in the midst of it. It's only at a distance that my experiences become lessons. Across the valley from the balcony of my room in McLeodganj, there is a set of hills, and behind it, a mountain. On an overcast day, I chanced to look across the distance, and I saw a fog creeping over the mountain, and then rolling down into the valley, slowly obscuring everything: the phenomenon was much like the process I had been noticing in my own mind. The next day, seeing the mountain bright as a diamond, the details of its crags and crevaces made clear by a covering of snow, I realized it had not been fog after all.

Next in the Bond series is The Living Daylights, made in 1987, and the first of only two (luckily) films featuring Timothy Dalton as 007. Dalton is too slick and self-regarding to play Bond, the British agent who, almost unwittingly, saves the world over and over again. Nearly 20 years ago, Bond was in Afghanistan, where he was aided by the Mujahideen (back in the days when they were called freedom fighters) in taking over a Soviet air base. On November 21 of this year, my fifth day in Dharamshala, my little brother returned from an army base near Baghdad on a jumbo jet and alit in Tennessee, after a year of service.

home at last

When he was deployed, not long after his first son (and my first nephew) Ethan Jon, was born, I listened to the news more often than usual. For a while, I was alarmed every time the phone rang, but as the months passed, I made an effort not to think about it at all. When his return was announced, I found myself disturbingly distanced from the situation. I have been away for a long time and I find myself distant from my entire family, so in an effort to re-forge some connection for myself I started thinking about my early childhood and my younger brothers in particular.

my handsome brother and his beautiful wife

I was six years old when Ian and Wade (still known in family parlance as "the boys") were born. Digging around in my head, I have been disturbed to find that images and details are long gone, that what I have left is more myth than memory. When they were infants, if the boys were in another room and one was crying, I knew, by the sound of his voice, which one it was. And, although Wade and Ian are identical twins, it has never been difficult for me to tell them apart by the way that their difference of character shows on their faces and in their bearings. This is the basis of the idea that I hold about them, that they have been two parts of the same whole from the dawn of creation. They are opposed and interdependent at the same time, like darkness and light, cold and heat; you need one of them to measure the other. This being so, they seem to be bound to each other in the very bottom of their natures. When they fight, which is often, they fight like no accidental enemies. Watching them parry over the years, seeing the common root of all their arguments and irritations, it appears they are playing out some ancient and elemental drama. Perhaps they see in each other what they are afraid they might find in themselves, recognition being the beginning of reaction.

Although I could no longer find the everyday facts of our lives together, I found their fruits. Growing up with them has been an education all its own. Now, I have the good fortune of watching them find their own distinct ways to manhood. Hopefully, one day we will be old together, each a storehouse of memory for the other. Wade, welcome home! Boys, your big sister is proud of you.

Rochelle, Wade, Ethan

I spent as much time on my balcony in McLeodganj as I could tolerate. At night, before tuning in for the 9 o'clock movie, I put on all my layers and looked at the playful arrangement of the lights climbing up the end of the valley; if Paul Klee had designed a tiara of gold, diamonds, auquamarines, and bottle glass for Daisy Buchanan to wear to a midsummer party by Gatsby's pool, this is how it would have looked. In the end, I lingered a few days too long; at some point, I started to feel angry at the relentless chill, and so I caught a bus to Delhi, where I spent a few days planning foreward, and now I'm well south, and well warm.

Tibetan prayer wheels

I keep forgetting to mention that I changed my departure to the states from December 23 to January 31. So, now I find myself in mid-trip, stuck fast in the gift of the ever present present, between a long past past and a far away future.