This is a collection of stories written for a class called "Travel and Service Revisited."
The Confines of My Mind
By Hayden Higgins
Dr. Maggie McCarthy
Dr. Shireen Campbell
9 December 2011
i. 8/14/2011: Seattle (Packing)
It was a bright, clear day, the kind that elicits especial celebration and zest in the calls of the local songbirds. I walked out into the front yard carrying my backpack and a big bag of snacks. Our belongings were strewn along the sidewalk haphazardly: a duffel bag here, a keyboard amplifier there, a jacket sitting on the top of the car, boxes piled on top of one another. I walked around to the front of the Camry and set the snacks down in the passenger seat.
Lexi came out the front door and called to me. “Did you get the cooler? I can’t find it.” Her brow was furrowed and she shielded her eyes against the sun high above me. I walked back towards the house to grab more bags and answer her.
“No,” I said. “But maybe it’s in the kitchen? I think your mom said she was going to try to put some more stuff in it.” Lexi ran to the kitchen.
That’s what moms do—they send you on your way, but only if they’re completely sure they’ve stuffed all your pockets with enough stuff to ensure you’ll survive a blizzard, even if it’s the middle of summer. I hoisted another bag on my shoulder—this one was heavy. I couldn’t imagine what was inside.
When I had moved everything from the house to the sidewalk, Lexi came back outside, with the cooler this time. “She gave us some smoked salmon to take, which is awesome. But she was also trying to give us all this other stuff and I just had to tell her we could buy it on the road. The cooler’s only so big,” Lexi said.
“So is this car. I’m looking forward to seeing how we fit everything in here. We’ve got a ton of stuff. I’m glad I didn’t bring that extra bag,” I said, walking around the car, trying to imagine where each piece of luggage could go. A mental game of Tetris. We were driving across the country, from Washington to North Carolina, and we needed to carry everything necessary not only for the drive but for the next three months we would spend at Davidson College. There was always a fine line between being prepared and being overburdened. I could tell the car was already beginning to sag, and we hadn’t even loaded half the gear in yet.
Twenty minutes later, we were satisfied that everything was in. The cooler sat between us on the front console, and my backpack was between my knees in the passenger seat. Every nook was stuffed and every pocket filled. There was just enough room in the back seat so that the driver could see over the boxes and bags heaped on top of one another. We got out for one last breath of evergreen Pacific air. The moment felt heavy to me. I had never driven this distance, never seen the states and mountains and plains to come. Lewis and Clark, in reverse. The moment felt ripe for a ritual or a blessing. How could I consecrate the next six days—who is the patron saint of cross-country road trips? Hermes?
Lexi’s mom called out from the porch. We couldn’t hear her; the windows were up. Lexi rolled down her window.
“Call me when you get to Bozeman, okay? And did you check the air in your tires?”
Lexi responded quickly. “Yes, of course. We’ll call when we get there!”
I peered through the window. “Thank you so much for having me!” I meant it. Lexi rolled up the window. We looked at each other: I don’t know what she saw, but in my mind there was a great collage of all my pasts and futures come to bear on that minute.
She grabbed the key and started the car.
All the times I was here in my mind it was by myself, and I was grown. I had a job—that’s probably why I was in London at all, for my job. Of course it was an important job if it meant going to London, but then there was no question about that. In that future I had an Important Job, the very idea of which, in the best Platonist vision, mattered quite a bit more to me than its realization.
My sister poked me. “What’s that building over there, Bubba?”
I didn’t know. It looked old. I knew we were near the Westminster district just by looking at the map, but I didn’t think I had ever seen that building before. We had just landed three hours ago in England. It was the first time my sister, my brother or I had been to another country. My mom had been to the Bahamas. My dad had been to London for business once, and to Switzerland to ski, and to the Bahamas with my mom. That was it for the family. I had wanted to go to Ghana for the summer, but then my dad told me if I studied in the UK, the family would go on a vacation. So I decided to study for the summer at the University of Cambridge, and not Africa.
I felt I had to do it, for my brother and for my sister especially: I wanted her world to be big. I wanted it to be bigger than my parents’ world, especially my dad’s. When I asked him about going to Ghana, he had asked me whether they wore bones in their noses there. That wasn’t okay.
“I don’t know, Ginny. Let’s look on the map,” I said.
I pulled out the big tourist map we’d bought at the car rental place. Its cartoonish colors clashed with what I saw outside: lots of grays and browns, subdued faces walking to and fro in a very professional manner. No one in London seemed impressed with London or with themselves. It wasn’t like New York, with its self-importance—each Manhattanite more well-dressed than the last, each Brooklyn restaurant more sophisticated than the other. Nor was it like San Francisco, which seemed to exist in every moment but the present, at once stumbling over its own history and rocketing towards an imaginary future.
My mom was driving. The whole arrangement was surreally familiar. We were all together in the car again, the way we might have been years ago, before I went off to college, when the most important thing on any given day was whatever ballet recital or baseball game there was for the whole family to go to. We were in the car, but the driver’s seat was on the wrong side. It was the same, but different, thousands of miles away and with everything flipped. My sister was yappy, and my brother grumpy: that was normal, at least. I was observational, watching everything I could from my window on the left side of the car. I hung on to every passer-by, waiting to see if they might break the fourth wall and admit to me that yes, this world was fictional.
London, too, felt oddly known, and though we had just met, I knew it would hold no secrets from me. In that way it was more like a friend than a lover. The city’s character I had rehearsed a thousand times. I had walked its streets in every century since William the Conqueror. I had never been there except for every spring, summer, winter, and fall since I had learned to read, walking with Engels, Dickens, and Blake. I knew they were projections, belonging to everyone but myself, but I wasn’t hungry to make London my own yet: now I was an observer.
“You needed to go right there, Diane,” my dad grumbled. He had been doing that a lot. We didn’t get the kind of rental car he wanted. I don’t think anyone else really minded; we got a Volvo station wagon out of it, which was plenty big.
“Okay, well, you know what? Everything is backward here. It’s kind of confusing, so I would appreciate it if you just let me try to learn for a second.” My mom’s usual way of arguing with my dad is to try to say things in a tone that makes her sound more reasonable than he does, which isn’t too difficult most of the time. It made sense to me, anyways. My dad held his tongue.
“Hayden, do you want to see the Tower of London today? I want to. It has lots of diamonds,” my sister stated. She clearly knew that I had done most of the planning and was basically in charge of our itinerary for London, and this was her way of lobbying me. “Maybe we can steal some and get rich.”
“Maybe you can steal some and get thrown in jail, Gentry,” my brother retorted, clearly thinking this would teach her a lesson. I wasn’t sure what kind.
Just then we were passing through a side street, still in the heart of the city, an Indian restaurant to our left. The cabs were everywhere in imperial black. My mom was navigating in a small space, and the mirror on the left of the car gave a crunch. We stopped short. My dad made a groaning noise, his brows furrowing as he hissed. My mom rolled down the window. We had scraped against a cab. The cabbie was walking to the car and seemed surprised we had stopped at all. He gave a smile and waved us on. The pressure left the car. We were in England, and it seemed England wanted us to have a good time.
“The Tower, Hayden, honey. When are we going to go see it?” my mom asked.
“I wrote down Tuesday. But let’s just get to the apartment and go over the plan, and we can decide if we want to change it then.”
We were driving past a church, and I looked out at the cornerstone. 1382. It hadn’t held up very well on one end; there were black streaks, like those in a fireplace, all over the old stone. Then the blackened parts ended, and the color changed; there were no streaks there. Maybe there had been a fire, but how would that account for the new wall that had been put up? We moved forward in traffic, and an old English man, sitting on a bench by the church, caught my eye. He was gray like the sky, the Thames, and the gravestones in the churchyard cemetery behind him. It hit me then, thinking of my own grandfather, that the streaks weren’t from a fire. They were from a bomb. For a second I could see the sky lighting up, crossed with contrails from sixty years ago. Not even London had always been so safe.
iii. 8/14/2011: Idaho (Ambitions)
Idaho was prettier than I thought it would be. I guess I hadn’t thought very hard about what Idaho would be like, though. Coeur d’Alene was beautiful, in particular. The mountains were all around, so that we were swallowed by evergreens rising on either side. We were looking for somewhere to eat dinner, and pulled off at an exit with high hopes. When we pulled into the town, though, it didn’t look like there would be any good restaurants. In fact, it didn’t look like there was much of anything at all.
The mountains swelled behind a town square ringed with boarded up offices, a lone pizza place, and a bar, which was the only place that seemed to be occupied. The pizza place was closed. It was dusk: the sun was setting with a last exhalation of warmth, scattering its rays through the firs that rose on the mountain ridge. I kicked an empty can and got back in the car.
“There’s nothing here. Is there another town anytime soon?” I asked. My stomach growled. Lexi searched the map and found one in a couple miles. We rejoined the highway caravan.
“I just wonder what people around there do, like for a job,” Lexi said, gripping the wheel. I put another CD in. “There weren’t any factories. If there’s any economy it’s self-contained.”
I said I guessed that was right. There might have been factories somewhere that we couldn’t see, but if there were any, they weren’t bringing any wealth to that corner of the woods.
“What do you want to do, anyways? My friends always ask me about your future and I never know what to say,” Lexi asked. She looked at me and extended her hand from the wheel. “It’s okay if you don’t know. But it’s also okay to talk about it, if you have any ideas.”
I have never really known what I wanted to do. Some kids have specific dreams—I’ll be a veterinarian! Marine biologist! Detective! I, somehow, always assumed in my childhood I would be all of these in time, and more.
“I know I want to be on my feet,” I said, starting in an easy place. “I can’t just be at a desk. But I also can’t just be a technician.”
“You would never be just a technician,” Lexi said. “Your head is in the clouds too often. You’re always thinking about something. Isn’t there a way you can share that?”
I chuckled. I girded my answer with sarcasm. “I think so, if I want to wander around Berkeley handing out pamphlets for the rest of my life.” I had grown to caution myself against this option, but I had to admit, if only privately, it was the one I really wanted. “Of course I’d love to. But Lexi, that’s why I went abroad. I’m convinced that living in my own head isn’t going to be the best for me. Or for the world, if you believe in that.”
It was true. I had chosen places where I would be forced to confront issues on the ground, concretely realized, rather than abstractly imagined. I naturally deal with problems by intellectualizing them. I had decided travel was necessary for me, though, because I was convinced understanding poverty and difference shouldn’t just be intellectual experiences: they should be sensory endeavors. Humanities had been my favorite course at Davidson because it was the study of ideas, but I had chosen anthropology for a major, because cultural anthropology forces its adherents, through participant-observation, to ground their conclusions strongly in observation. This year of travel had been my way of urging myself to go out into the real world, even if that wasn’t where I was most comfortable. I wanted to break out of the confines of my mind.
“I don’t know. You always seem so sure about what you want to do. How?” I asked her. I thought I knew the answer, but I wanted to see what she would say.
“I just think about what makes me happy,” she said. “Here’s the place.” She parked and turned the car off.
It was a cowboy diner, a restaurant right off the highway but in the middle of nowhere. Men in boots headed towards the casino in the back. The laws must be different here. A waitress saw us to a table. The menu was boring, but that was okay for me. I would eat. “Traveling always makes you so much more aware of your body,” I said. “You have to adjust your plans to make sure there’s a way for everything to go in and out properly. Abroad especially—in Bolivia you have to make sure you bring water with you everywhere you go. I learned that the hard way.”
Lexi agreed. “I still don’t know what you want to do. We graduate in a year!” she exclaimed. It was a statement rich in anticipation, fear, and excitement.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m not convinced I’ll ever be sure. But maybe that’s better.”
She ordered a chicken sandwich and I had a burger. We split some soup.
iv. Call from Mom
I packed light for the day: sunglasses, water, iPod, and a book for the van. Everything fit in my blue shoulder bag, which was a detachable part of the hiking backpack I brought everything in. Everything for four months in India, on my back; I liked to think that was, somehow, the way it was meant to be done. I had an idea of travel as the way one proves oneself. In some way, I wanted to go somewhere so different because I wanted to prove to myself I could be self-reliant, absent of the familial and cultural framework I had always worked in.
Packing, I had learned, was an art. I had always been forgetful, from the years when I would leave my lunch at home to the time freshman year when I showed up at a class not knowing it was the day of my final exam. People tell me today that I get it from my mother. But I have developed a system of checks, ways of outsmarting myself—I set alarms, write things down three times. When I packed for India, I did not forget anything. I learned to compartmentalize. Anything I might need in an emergency needed to go on top. Separate things in Ziploc bags, and squeeze the air out before you seal the bags. Don’t bring anything that will be too easy to steal. Don’t bring anything I can’t afford to lose, except maybe my self, since that was kind of the point.
I was moving from city to sacred city, and I didn’t get in touch with my parents often. My friends had to urge me to call home because I never did. I couldn’t say why, exactly, except that I was afraid my parents wouldn’t understand anything, no matter how hard I tried explaining, about this experience.
I locked the door of the hotel room behind me and put the key in my breast pocket and zipped it shut. No chance of losing it. The marble floors glowed orange in the morning light, somehow taking the smoggy sky outside and washing it of all its grey dust. Having just woken up I wasn’t itching to talk to anyone yet, but David was on the steps waiting for me.
“Come on, man, we’re waiting for you,” he implored. I was surprised. I was only two minutes late. There was no way I was going to be the last one to the van. It was basically nine o’clock. I could probably find a clock that would say it was eight-fifty-eight. I only needed a single dissenting voice and I would be free.
“No way. Really?”
David’s face widened into an open-mouthed grin. “Nope. Evan just woke up. We’re good.”
We walked downstairs and Dr. Spurgeon was in the lobby waiting. He was a minister, and an expert in Indian religions, and with his slight belly and big ears always reminded me of an elephant: slightly silly, but wise. The van puttered outside. Indians never turned their vehicles off; they were always idling. Maybe they just always needed to be ready to escape. Sometimes things did feel rather predatory.
Dr. Spurgeon read my mind. He began, “Today, you will see the child beggars. And the mothers.” Indians always use definite articles where I wouldn’t. “Around the temple, they will be following you, pestering you. It is difficult, but you should not give them money.” Each of the mothers carried a baby in the crook of one arm, while gesturing to the baby’s mouth and cupping the other out to receive alms. They would say something that sounded like “Amma?” A lot like anna—big brother, in Hindi. That’s what I felt like so often here: a big brother. The girls in the group couldn’t go out by themselves in most instances, because of the prevailing cultural attitudes, so I would go with them, shooing away men who would otherwise follow them or harass them. Their blonde hair or short pants, unfortunately, brought out the worst in some people.
I trusted Spurgeon’s moral compass. He was considerate and thoughtful, and the best lecturer we’d had. “The women with the babies, you see they all beg in the same way? It is because they are all trained by the same man. There are gangsters who send them. The women, they beg and give the money to the gangsters. If they don’t get enough money for the gangsters, I don’t know. But you see, the babies are not theirs. They are hired. Real mothers drop their babies off. They rent them out to these people, and then they go on to their own job.” He paused. “It is like prostitution. It only continues because people give them money. If we did not give them money, the gangsters would leave them alone.” I had always known the whole thing was a racket, but I would never have thought it possible that the babies didn’t actually belong to the mothers. Capitalism really had come to India.
Dr. Mahony’s eager face appeared in the door: though I couldn’t hear him, it was clear we were supposed to head for the van. Evan had just come down the stairs and was adjusting his hair, though it didn’t need to look any different than it always did for the Indian girls to think he looked like an action hero. I, on the other hand, was to them the nerdy wizard: Harry Potter, Harry Potter, they would call to me, and it usually didn’t sound like a compliment, at least to me. I picked up my things, making sure I had everything: sunglasses, water, iPod, book.
I was still fumbling through these when I dove from the cool air-conditioning into the humidity outside, suddenly swimming through the air more than anything else. Dr. Mahony, still standing at the door, called out to me.
“Hayden? There’s a phone for you. You better go get it.”
The hot air swelled around me and I did not hear another thing until I heard my mother’s voice.
The blood in my veins turned to ice. If there was a telephone for me it was either my parents or the Department of State. By my first calculation neither could be the bearer of good news. The instinct in my mind was that someone had died, I don’t know why. Somehow I ended up with the phone in my hand; I don’t remember going from the side of the van to the side of the counter in the lobby. When I heard my mom’s voice, my heart began to beat again.
“Hey,” she said in a confusingly cheery voice.
“What is it, Mom?” I asked carefully.
“Just wanted to hear what you’ve been up to.”
I instantly lapsed into a combination of exasperation and thankfulness. I told her I had to go, the van was leaving, I’ll call you back some time soon. I stole a glance at the car, from which Dr. Mahony looked on inquisitively. I didn’t quite understand what I was saying; the words must have come from that reptilian part of the brain that can do things without alerting the homunculus-in-charge.
Before I realized it, I was climbing into the car, fumbling over everyone to reach the one seat that was still open. I reassured everyone things were fine and turned inward as the van swung onto the bumpy road. We passed shops, of which there were only five kinds, or so it seemed: motorcycle repair, sari stores, cell phone stands, general stores with soap and soda, and fruit vendors. On the sidewalk, two brothers walked, kicking a ball between them.
I wasn’t sure whether something had disappeared somewhere along my journey or if it had never been there at all. In some terrible corner of my mind, a tyrant of logic reigns over his small kingdom, where he reminds me that the people who surround me, the family I am born into, is not anything so much as arbitrary. I usually have trouble believing that things that are arbitrary are meaningful. Maybe that was why I hadn’t called anyone from home yet. It was October, almost two months since I left America.
v. 5/14/2011: Montana (Smiths)
It had been a long time since either of us had said anything. We were in Montana now, and it remained as blank to me as it had been before I entered into it for the first time. I was driving now. Lexi was curled up in the passenger seat, her head against the window. She might have been asleep.
I knew there were mountains about us, but it was so dark that they remained ghosts stalking us in the night. Streetlights cast eerie circles of light onto the road, each soft spot of yellow careful not to overlap with the next. I sped through, the lights flickering as I passed from one illumination to the next. I didn’t necessarily feel safer in the light, though. I passed an eighteen-wheeler and yawned. It was two in the morning. The time change wouldn’t do us any good—going east we would lose an hour of sleep every time we crossed, from Pacific to Mountain to Central to Eastern.
We had just passed Butte. I was pretty sure we were fine on gas to get to Bozeman, where we had a cheap hotel room waiting for us. I hoped we were, because there wasn’t anything between Butte and Bozeman, so far as I could tell. I could see for about twenty feet on either side of the highway. Montana was very brown. After that, darkness on both sides. If the mountains rose on either side of us I couldn’t see it.
The late hour was getting to me. I decided to change the music. Something familiar would keep me awake for the next forty-five minutes. I put on a mix I had made before I left.
A couple songs later, the Smiths came on. At his most operatic, Morrissey sang, “Driving in your car/I never want to go home/Because I haven’t got one/Anymore.”
“Hey, who is this? This is that British band… I heard them on the radio at home but I didn’t know who they were,” she said sleepily. We’d tried earlier to figure out who she had been thinking of. After trying Joy Division, New Order, Depeche Mode, and the Cure, I’d given up. But of course this was it… Morrissey could really sing. Lexi was a sucker for that, being a vocalist herself.
“The Smiths,” I replied. I laughed. “I should have known this was who you were looking for.”
“You’re veering,” she retorted. “You’re too far to the right.” Was I? I could never tell. I was pretty sure I was fine. I corrected the car’s path. In the background Morrissey crooned a sinister tune: “If a double-decker bus/Crashes into us/To die by your side/Is such a heavenly way to die.”
A green sign appeared in the distance. Forty miles to Bozeman.
Don’t walk barefoot on the beaches in Goa, one host mother told us.
Or else you’ll step on a heroin needle.
Tall bikinied blondes hung about Goa in confusingly high numbers. They usually slyly tailed after large, silent Russian men, the men drinking at the bars while the women lounged in the sun. In my head I would ask myself, is she a prostitute? Is she rich? Is she a rich prostitute? Some of them presumably stayed around here, the Vegas of India, and let the bacchanalian exploits of traveling Russian drug dealers bring the money their way. Goa was full of Westerners, most of them looking for an escape, from the earnest hippies that first gave the town its drug-friendly reputation, to the club-goers who now partied through the night to perpetuate that reputation. I was wary of the place.
The main street was only about a hundred and fifty feet from the water at Baga Beach. In the sunny morning the heat had not yet driven the masses into the water. They were going about their chores, trying to get them done before it got to be too much. The street was crowded with fruit vendors, liquor stores, and restaurants, and Indians and Westerners alike zipped around the trucks in nimble scooters.
Negotiations I didn’t partake in resulted in three scooters and three helmets. We were six. I was going to ride with Evan, on the back, Indian-style. I had seen four people on a scooter, I thought. Two would be fine. Evan insisted that he had ridden a motorcycle before and that it was intuitive. Coleen owned a scooter, so she and her companion would be okay. Jack and Kaitlin were on the other one, a red one; the other two were black. Davidson colors. As we climbed aboard, Evan asked me if I wanted the helmet.
I said no, because that is what one does in this instance. If I had been the driver, I would have insisted the passenger wear the helmet—I would rather my mistake hurt me than the person who had trusted me.
Evan put the helmet on and I tried to figure out where I was supposed to put my hands. I sat behind Evan. I didn’t really want to hug him the way Indian women held on to the driver during the family commute (sometimes with a child sitting on the father’s lap). My grip found purchase on the silver bar behind me. Evan turned the keys. I realized I was terrified, and took a deep breath.
The scooter wiggled to life, straightening out as we started going a little bit faster, then wobbling haphazardly when Evan tried to take a turn. We were on the main road, choked with cars and people. Every time we thought about turning, another scooter would come zooming past us in the other direction, or an old man pulling a cart of vegetables would go by, bare to the waist, blocking our way. A woman led three cows past our turn, and we were forced onward to keep from stopping traffic. We were caught in the push and pull of their daily life.
Finally there was enough room for us to shoot through a gap, and we turned left off the straight main road. Evan opened the throttle a little bit, and we were free.
I started to reassure myself—at this speed I’ll only break an arm. Then we hit the open road and he hit the gas. With every heart beat we were going faster and faster. Jack and Kaitlin passed us on the left, and Evan gave out a whoop. I started to give in to the weird sensation of flying, hurtling through the untended fields that lay only a hundred yards from the pulsing clubs. My last three months had been nothing other than doing things for the first time. I hadn’t yet had an experience that was ultimately scary.
I began to anticipate the way the scooter would move, helping Evan turn by shifting my weight. We approached a bridge and I looked at the sun rising over the jagged leaves of palm trees. My gaze turned back towards the blacktop and I spotted a small bump between the bridge and the rest of the road.
“Evan, slow down,” I shouted over the whipping wind, “there’s a bump.” He slowed down, and I felt proud of our teamwork, that I was contributing to our abilities. At that moment Jack and Kaitlin, who had fallen back, roared past us again, hurtling towards the next turn. There was something strange about the way they went into the turn, like a bounce that doesn’t quite follow the expected arc. The next moment the bike was sliding, Kaitlin’s golden-red hair flying out from under her helmet. Jack’s arms grasped at the sun as the bike went out from under them.
vii. 5/15/2011: Yellowstone (Natural Beauty)
“It’s because we slept in. I’m just not sure we have time to see the north end of the park,” Lexi said. We were sitting on a log in a turn-off near the entrance to Yellowstone National Park. Our mostly-finished lunches sat on a rock in front of us: turkey and cheese sandwiches, with mayonnaise liberally spread (on both sides—one of Lexi’s quirks). So far we hadn’t seen anything National Park-worthy. In fact, I was disappointed to learn that Yellowstone was mostly a place that people drove through. Everything was so far apart that there wasn’t any other way to see the park. I was accustomed to Yosemite, where the wonders crowd one another.
“Well, we slept in for a good reason. That traffic in Spokane just killed us. The drive was the longest one we’ll have to do,” I replied, picking up the scraps of her sandwich. “Can I finish this?” I queried. I was still pretty hungry.
“Yeah, of course.” She clutched her camera. “This is beautiful… the fields, the stream, the woods. I didn’t get to see anything like this when I drove across the country the first time.” We moved closer and sat for a minute. I hadn’t seen anything like this for a while either. Bolivia’s beauty was starker, and in India it was hard to ever get this far from people. I kissed her on the forehead. “Let’s get going so we can see the geysers,” she said, smiling.
We got back in the car and wound our way through the subalpine forests. We stopped and did our tours of the famous spots. Grand Prismatic Spring—who came up with that name? Tourists hovered on the edge, daring one another to touch the water. We skipped Old Faithful—too long in between eruptions to wait—but we chuckled at the story of a chemistry teacher in the early 1900s in California who had promised his city board that he could recreate Old Faithful at an anemic and irregular local geyser. They lent him the money for dynamite; he promptly blew up the geyser and it never erupted, even weakly, ever again. We decided we could manage one last stop before we headed on our way to Jackson, Wyoming, where a friend’s family would take us in for the night.
“I know you love lakes, Lex… let’s turn off at Yellowstone Lake. Even if it’s just a view, it’ll be nice,” I said. Five minutes later we were standing by the edge of the lake, vast and deep blue. I laughed at its expanse. Go West, young man. I was doing the opposite, but still seeing the sights.
“Did you see anything like this in Bolivia?” Lexi asked, looking up at me and smiling. I shook my head.
“I never made it to Lake Titicaca. If you can believe it, it must have been twenty times as big as this.” I paused and looked out, trying to imagine something quite so large.
“You know this whole thing is just a caldera? From a volcanic eruption. And it could blow up again any minute,” she said. Always a scientist. If it was going to blow up, at least the last thing I saw would be this beautiful lake. Thinking of this massive explosion in such a serene place, I asked a hypothetical question: would you rather live until you’re 75 and die in your sleep, or until you’re 50, and die in the apocalypse?
“Seventy-five. Are you kidding? I don’t want any part of that,” Lexi said, looking at me like I was crazy. I didn’t think I was.
“Aren’t you curious at all? It would be exciting. You might find out whether there is a God,” I mused, still gazing out over the lake, its waves lapping at my feet.
“This is my God,” Lexi said, motioning towards the expanse. “This is all I need, you know? I don’t want anything more.” It was a serene response. Could I ever say that honestly, that I did not need anything more—until perhaps I have seen all the world. I thought back on the lessons on Buddhism I’d learned at the Dalai Lama’s temple in Dharamsala, half a world away. Be content, the monk had told us. How was it that my urge for motion, for difference, had led me to a holy man who would have me sit still?
The whole thing reminded me of Faust’s deal: find me a moment I would continue in forever, and I’ll be damned. What was it I would always be looking for that couldn’t be found right here?
I turned towards the land and we started walking back towards the car. By the side of the lake there were little bubbling places, the open sores of the earth. They were mostly ugly, grey and cracked. In one of them, a flower bloomed. I snuck a quick picture and kept walking.
viii. BCN Dream
The train car rocked me gently to sleep, and if any roaches crawled on me, I didn’t know it. I didn’t fit in the cramped Indian sleeper compartment; like most things in India, it wasn’t built for someone over six feet. I slept diagonally, and my sandaled feet hung off the edge of my top-level bunk. Everything I had with me I was wearing: I had my wallet and my iPod in my pocket, and I stuffed the cheap Indian copy of Marquez I was reading under my pillow in case anyone wanted to steal that, too. Beneath me Jack and Tyler were playing cards and talking about our upcoming trip to Goa, but my mind was elsewhere, and I had already played hours of cards on that trip.
As Madurai passed by, I dreamt. My dreams were faraway. They were somehow halfway between home’s comfort and India’s freedom. I was in an empty city of the Mediterranean, its population having emigrated or died in the Inquisition. I walked down a cobblestone sidewalk and mounted a motorcycle. In my dream I could ride a motorcycle, or maybe it was a Vespa, since it was clearly Europe in my dream. I wore a black scarf in my dream, which I would never do in real life. There was still no one in the city, and so I could ride as fast as I wanted. The stillness was freedom and, freed, I sought movement. I sped past hotels absent of valets and cars for the valets to park and car-owners to pay the valets.
If I had stopped—and I never stopped—I would have realized this world was fake, more like a video-game racetrack than any place I might be eager to visit: though the sky glowed yellow-orange there was no sun to be found in the sky. I whipped up hills, living for that fleeting moment at the top of the hill when the bike stops ascending and, for a second, seems to hang in the air without regard for any rule of physical action. The moment between exhalation and inhalation. The moment there is no word for, except in Germany, where they call it atemwende—breath-turn.
I always stayed on the roads, and I never stopped, until I circled around to where I had begun. I leaning with faith, gently turned leftwards, and gave in to gravity, heading downhill in an endless spiral, and then I was there, and so was she. I stopped and she climbed on. She whispered in my ear and we took off again in our private seaside polis.
ix. 5/16/2011: Denver (Neutral)
The approach to Denver was a disappointment. In my mind’s eye it was the “Mile High City,” nestled amongst snow-topped Rockies. That’s how it had marketed itself, anyways. From our vantage there city did not look quite so impressive. There were some skyscrapers, but they did not stand directly against the mountains, which rose sleepily to the west. The skyline was less dramatic than I had expected.
We were hoping to make it to our destination on the outskirts of the city by 7 pm. That’s when Lexi had told the family we were staying with we would arrive. I was quietly skeptical, but after having a slow going getting out of Wyoming, we were making good time on the interstate. I didn’t know the family. They were friends of Lexi’s dad. If I had tried to drive across the country by myself, I wasn’t sure who I might have stayed with. I guess I had a roommate in Chicago, but my family wasn’t good for connections except in North Carolina. Lexi’s dad, however, seemed to have friends scattered all around—San Francisco, Denver, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Boston, and so on.
We were maybe five miles away from the city center when the car seemed to quit. Our transportation was an old ’97 Camry, bought used in North Carolina during Lexi’s sophomore year. It didn’t have a ton of miles on it, but it had its share of issues, and it had just finished driving from Davidson to Seattle a couple of weeks before.
I’m not sure what happened, still. Lexi was getting something out of the cooler, and I was reaching to press a button on the radio. We were in the left lane of a two-lane highway, heading towards town. As we approached an overpass, the car gave a start. It snarled at us and we began to slow down. My mind raced.
I hit the gas. Nothing.
“It’s making a weird noise. What is that?” Lexi asked, panicked.
We were under the bridge now. We had been going fast enough before, but we were losing speed fast. I checked the brake. It still worked. And the power steering was still good—it was just the gas that was gone. If the engine had shut off, we were going to have to pull off. I checked to both sides of me. A red truck whizzed by on my right. I was only going forty-five. There was someone coming up behind me. I needed to pull off. I hit the gas again to figure out what the noise was.
Duh. I was in neutral. I grabbed the stick and pulled it back into gear. The car gripped the road and sprang back to life. I had been halfway out of the lane, but I swung back in.
“What—how did the car go into neutral? That was crazy,” Lexi said breathlessly. She was looking puzzlingly at the shifter. “Did you hit it?” she asked.
“No, I didn’t hit it,” I said. I realized I had been holding my breath the whole time. I looked around the car. “The cooler! I think the cooler slid and hit it,” I exclaimed. “That was really scary. I can’t believe it just went into neutral that easily. Don’t you have to press that button to make it shift?”
Lexi looked at me. She was wearing a blue dress with flowers on it. “Let’s just not let it happen again.”
Lexi looked at me. She was wearing a blue dress with flowers on it. “Let’s just not let it happen again.”
x. From Toro Toro
I rubbed my bleary eyes once more and stood in line to get onto the bus. I thought about what it meant to leave this place. Heading back to Cochabamba meant the program really was coming to an end, after six weeks of studying and volunteering.
Toro Toro was the last go-round for all that. Twelve of us or so had all gone in on a three-day getaway to this resort town, one of Bolivia’s only national parks. Our faithful guide, Mario, had taken us down caves and canyons and told us all about the different ways that dinosaur prints had become preserved in the park’s rocks. When we got back to Cochabamba, people would start flying home. It had taken a month, but I had friends now. There were only four guys on the trip, and that was nice because we had all become close. It was also probably part of the problem. I waited for David to pick a seat near the middle of the bus and headed for the back, looking for an empty seat without a partner, so that I could stretch my long legs and take a nap without interruption.
I watched everyone file in. Every morning in elementary school I would take a bus like this one. I always sat with my brother, Ford, and Michelle and Kimberly. This bus didn’t seem much bigger or well-equipped than that one, even though we’d be driving on precarious mountain roads and wouldn’t see anything paved for several hours. Aman had his sunglasses on, and his hat pulled down low over his eyes; he was pretty hung over. Nicole snuggled up to him, completely dispensing with all pretense. Nicole had a boyfriend, back home, but I guess that wasn’t the whole story. Daisy and Sheri took up the seat in front of me. If there was any conversation, it was hushed.
Emilie walked on to the bus with Yara, and my stomach tightened. I leaned over to fuss with something in my bag, anything. I ignored them as they passed me, Yara choosing a spot in the very back and Emilie taking the seat behind mine. Amy finally boarded. She was the last to get on. I was anxious to have someone other than Emilie to talk to, so I called out to her.
“Hey, Amy, there’s a seat open here!” I gestured to the bench across from mine. She thanked me and shoved her bags under the seat. Our bus driver stood up and counted. We were all here.
The bus started to lurch forward. Buses never did anything but lurch, it seemed, in Bolivia, like the giant dinosaurs whose bones we’d come to see in Toro Toro. The village was a small paradise. It was the first place I had been able to kick back and say to myself, “I am in South America”—it fit my idea of the place, whatever that was worth. Long boulevards and adobe houses and chickens in the street and a sun with more lassitude than harshness. The people had received offers to build big hotels to support the burgeoning tourism industry, but had rejected every such proposition. They wanted Toro Toro to remain quiet and quaint, with four main streets branching off from the main plaza and little else. I looked down at the old men crouched in front of the general store, with their dusty fedoras shielding the Bolivian sun. Were they right to keep development from this place? Might not the hotels bring a better future for their sons and daughters? A hotel would be so much more comfy for us visitors than the rooms we were put up in, with the cold-water outdoor showers. Now, though, I was driving away, and they would stay. I knew too well the changes that a hotel might bring: pollution, wage slavery, abandonment of customs. They were right to be wary.
I pretended to stretch to see what was going on behind me. Emilie had her head down, reading perhaps, and Yara had her eyes closed and a sweater bundled up as a pillow against the window. I turned to talk to Amy. “Hey, Amy,” I said in a low voice. “What was your favorite part?”
“Probably the drinking,” she chuckled. I was disappointed. I hadn’t meant that part.
“What about the dinosaurs? Were the prints bigger or smaller than you thought they would be?” I queried.
“I guess I never really thought about how big dinosaurs would be.” She never wondered how big dinosaurs were? I could hardly think of a question more salient to a sense of wonder. I would have to forgive the failure on the part of her imagination. The bus was leaving the village and was starting to pass the canyon we had hiked into two days before. Perhaps a thousand feet deep, the canyon was one of the most wonderful geological marvels I’d ever seen, with waterfalls and caves. The rising sun was catching the canyon at a marvelous angle, with the trees on its edge throwing their shadows hundreds of feet across the gaping middle onto the opposite wall.
“Amy, check this out—see the way the sun is coming over the edge of the canyon? Isn’t that cool?”
I never got the memo that earnestness wasn’t cool anymore. She replied laconically, without even a sideways look out the window. “That hike was so long and it got dark so fast, I was so ready to get back.” Had Amy really paid no attention to the fact that here, far from any urban center, we had been able to see more stars than I had dreamed were in the sky? But her comment was what I had come to expect from most of the group. There had been one person who had hung back with me, on the outskirts of town, to appreciate in silence the stars we’d never seen before. I had searched for the Southern Cross but did not know what it looked like. “There,” Emilie had said, though it was hard to pick out what she was pointing to because there were so many.
“That’s just four random stars,” I said.
“What do you think the Southern Cross is?” she replied.
Things had been great then; we had broken through to one another and told stories, talked for hours on the bus rides around the country, wondered about our privilege and our futures. And now she was sitting behind me, both silent. This is stupid, I thought. Why am I avoiding her? It wasn’t like we didn’t still have all the things in common that led us to friendship in the first place. I turned around and peeked my head over the seat.
“Hey, Emilie. What was that band you were telling me about on the way up here? The one you said was like Bright Eyes, but more political?” It seemed a safe topic. She perked up. She looked smaller than ever, somehow younger; her hair was short like a boy’s and she was wearing a high school basketball shirt.
“Oh, come here, I’ll show you. They’re called Defiance, Ohio. Hang on.” She scooted over, so I waited until the bus wasn’t bouncing quite so much to move myself back a row. I sat down carefully. I was nervous but hopeful. Maybe things would be normal. She handed me her iPod with a song queued up. Now we were in the desert, with the hills around Toro Toro disappearing beyond the horizon, replaced by expansive flatness. Everything was brown, red, and gray. If it looked like anywhere I’d been before, it would be Nevada, but it also didn’t seem like it could be that much different from Mars.
The song was all acoustic guitars and live drums. An accordion gave a mournful counter-melody, and the desert passed by in one direction as it had before: a place for passage only. No man’s land. There was no sign of anyone, and even the road and vegetation seemed only rumors, covered in the same mahogany dust that was everywhere. I looked over at Emilie, who had the other earbud and was gazing upwards into the clear cerulean sky. My mind flitted to the plane flight that would come in five days, taking me home to another world: but which was mine? What did I carry with me from here, and what did I carry with me now? My posture relaxed as I slipped into thoughtfulness, a sort of daytime reverie.
We hit an especially bad bump and my head whipped forward, and I only caught myself from falling out of the seat by grabbing the seat in front of me. I turned to Emilie with a laughing face. She chuckled and her lips turned quickly to a smile, her brown eyes upturned towards mine. My stomach flipped and memory replayed itself: she repositioned herself towards me and before I knew it her hand was feeling for mine. Inside my intestines felt like a vacuum sucking all the oxygen from the top of my body, and my heart sank. Her small fingers grasped around mine, and her eyes turned from joy to pleading. She read the look on my face before I said anything, and she never said anything back herself.
I remember saying I was going to take a nap; I remember slumping down in the bench in front of her, my head against the window and my knees up, contorting myself to somehow fit into the seat that was never big enough for me in the first place. I felt a little bit angry that she would put this between us, but mostly I felt so far away from that place. You know I won’t, I thought. Why do you insist on trying? I might have felt horrid for being the naysayer, except that is not what I was doing. I was affirming. I say it often and I say it again: it is not always a morbid sign to think on suicide. On the contrary, what does life mean if it is not a constant affirmation of a desire to live, an active overcoming?
It was an absurd way of intellectualizing a very basic problem: Emilie liked me, and I did not want any part of it. I was trying to turn her advances—uncomfortably rejected however forward they might be—into a positive. Some Christians think that God put sin in the world because if there wasn’t sin, no one could be good, because the only way to be good is to reject sin. Milton might have been one of them, I couldn’t remember. But all of this just made me miss Lexi all the more, everything about her.
The condor is the symbol of Bolivia. Natives, I had heard, were terrified of offending the bird by chancing on its eggs on a high peak and disturbing the growth of the little condors. Seeing a condor in Bolivia is like seeing a bald eagle in America: a sacred and national moment. But when one flew overhead, its wingspan giant, its markings unmistakable, I did not say anything, I did not share my thoughts. The condor swept in wide circles a thousand feet above. I listened to Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna,” and my mind murmured along with his rasped voice: “Louise, she’s all right, she’s just near/She’s delicate and seems like the mirror/But she just makes it all too concise and too clear/That Johanna’s not here.” The condor disappeared into the center of the sun.
xi. Kansas (Middles)
“I used to be obsessed with the middle,” I said out loud. “But now that we’re here, I have to say that the middle is my least favorite part of America. Kansas sucks.”
Lexi laughed. “I’m not gonna disagree with you on that. I am so glad my dad got out of Oklahoma. At least we have some great pop songs to keep us from dying of boredom.” We had just finished belting out a series of silly songs from our middle-school years. “I still say Avril Lavigne makes great pop music. But what do you mean about the middle?”
I thought back, trying to decipher the feelings I still retained from my childhood. “It’s hard to tell why,” I started. “I just really liked the idea of the middle. I have a weird memory of trying to draw a line right through the middle of a piece of paper, and then a line down the middle of the new sections, and so on.” I paused. “And then I got to high school photography class and they told me about the rule of thirds, so I guess that’s when thinking about the middle as the best ended.”
“Well this is definitely the middle,” Lexi said. “The middle of nowhere.”
She was right, of course. We hadn’t seen anything but corn for hours. “It’s also the middle of the country. The middle of our trip. What do you think so far?” I asked.
“I mean, it’s really nice to see you again, and I liked Jackson a lot,” she said. “But I’m pretty done with all this driving.” I asked her whether she wanted to switch yet, and she told me maybe after lunch.
I watched the cornfields go by, and as the cornfields went by, old tropes played in my head. This part of America had always symbolized escape, freedom—I thought of westward expansion, and after that the image of kids on a road trip, in a convertible with the top down, not a care in the world. In that pipe dream, there is only the open road, which leads to who-knows-where: it is all at the fingertips of the driver. But here and now, the corn stalks were higher than I expected, forming a corridor that pointed us squarely towards Davidson, towards the education we needed before we were considered complete. We weren’t free; we had a schedule. Kingfisher, Oklahoma, before nightfall.
The cable car operator wore a modest navy uniform with brass buttons which clinked when he brushed against the wall of the tram. Xavier, read his name tag, and under that Aeri de Montserrat. His job required the skills of an elevator operator—open the door for the passengers, press a button or two—but was more consecrated than that only, because this was an aerial cable car, and so was blessed with flight, which is an act of God.
Xavier closed the door and locked the latch. I fidgeted, trying to figure out the best way to situate myself for the passage. I tried to think whether I had ever been in a vehicle like this. The closest thing I could think of was a ski lift. The tram was big—it probably fit twenty people, and it was half-full. People were silent as Xavier—pronounced “Chavier,” I learned when he introduced himself—told us that it would take five minutes to get to Montserrat. He said not to worry if the tram swayed just a little bit: that is normal. Do not jump, or something like that. My Spanish was out of practice.
I recognized the Americans right away, even though they weren’t speaking. There were four of them on the other side of the tram, to the front. Spaniards seemed to all dress in black, which made me stand out even more than normal. I had for the week only the clothes I brought back from India, so I wasn’t really ready for the weather. I did have a brightly-colored beanie though, from a man in a store that was about four feet by four feet in Dharamsala, at the foothills of the Himalayas. These European mountains were not so brash in their intrusions towards the sky as the Himalayas, doing little more than wafting into the azure where those young champions had rocketed upwards, daring God to pull them down like Babel.
The tram gave a start. I gripped the rail more tightly and the hand that held mine. The tram moved forward out of its terrestrial housing, and like a spaceship was suddenly free from the ground. Like the pup that goes limp when a mother picks it up by the scruff of its neck, the tram listed softly with the wind. It felt more organic and uncertain than a train, the tension that held the tram to its cable like a meat hook in each of our backs. We started to be pulled towards the mountain in the near distance. The tram would carry us across the valley and then up the mountain, letting us off near the monastery of the Black Virgin. From there we could hike the mountainside or rub the foot of the Virgin’s statue for fertility. We would probably hike.
No one in the tram spoke, or if they did I did not hear them. I inched towards the window on the right side, near the door. As the tram slowly rose I watched the ground anxiously, wondering at what point a fall would mean certain death for all of us. I held my breath and calculated: at this height, some broken bones. Sixty feet: some will die, but I am young and hardy, so I think I have a good chance of surviving even this fall. One hundred feet up, once we were above the rocks, we would all be dead if we fell. I exhaled because the matter was decided.
When I thought about it abstractly, I realized I was in a quantum state. I was Schrödinger’s cat, dead and not dead. My future state hadn’t been observed, but it might have already been decided. Suspended from the cable, I could not know until I observed my terminus what condition I would end in. The cable was subject to a million random processes I could not even begin to fathom, and any of these might at any moment conspire to send the tram downwards. From one moment to the next, I could not say whether the sky would continue to support our pilgrimage.
The last time I was this high up I was on the roof of a hotel in Madurai, watching the masses below pulse and circulate, the city itself heaving with breath. My view was shocking: the social organism revealed, in all its dehumanizing pessimism. I coughed in the fumes of the cars below and saw as I had been soaked in humidity, and today I was cold from being underdressed, but in both times I was arrested by the height of my perspective.
We were halfway to the mountain, which rose to dominate my vision. I looked down at Lexi for the first time. She gave a meek smile and pointed towards the top of the mountain. “Let’s go there,” she said in a hushed voice, as if it were our secret mission. Her cheeks were rosy from the cold, but in a lively way. The truth was that I was terrified of finding out whether she really wanted to get back together, and I had a feeling I would find out soon.
I thought about a month ago, when the Czech man claiming to be an engineer had our plane take-off stopped because he heard something wrong with the engine. Once we had been delayed for an hour, his friend woke up. “I’m sorry,” he told the stewardess, “he’s more qualified at this point to be called crazy than to be called an engineer. I do not think there is anything the matter. If you give him a whisky, he will quiet down.”
Now the mountain was meeting us head-on, its cliffs diving beneath our feet and its crags reaching out to nearly scrape the tram’s flanks, always failing. In my mind I did not know whether I was more qualified to be called a friend or a lover. Either way I knew I was crazy. Thinking back on how it happened made my head spin. The tram. The train from the city center. The bus from the airport. The plane from Paris, and before that Mumbai. The plans hatched over e-mail, at first dismissed as too distant and affected but which quickly took on the inevitability of collision with reality, as now the mountain engulfed the tram in its folds. We would reach the mountain; we would ascend the mountain; and when there was no more progress to be made, there would be nothing else to talk about, and I would find out whether I was dead or alive. I looked down at her again and saw her eyes: the black of the deep and the kaleidoscope of a nebula in the sky. The mountain reached around the tram and swallowed us all whole. I squeezed her hand back.
xiii. 5/17/2011: OK (Don’t Think)
The endless straight road and the amber sun lined up perfectly. It would have made a great postcard, if I had been in the kind of place one looks forward to sending postcards from. But I was in Oklahoma, and honestly, the sun was kind of getting in my eyes and making it hard to drive.
Lexi could tell I was struggling. “Here, take these,” she said, handing me my sunglasses that had been sitting in the console in between us. I waited until I had finished changing lanes and put the sunglasses on. The road was straight and it would be straight for days. I-40 stretches from Barstow, California in the west to Wilmington, North Carolina in the east, with nary a diversion to the north or the south.
We passed yet another farm with an anti-abortion sign out front. In this part of the country it just seemed like another way of decorating one’s yard. Honey, don’t you think our new fence would look great if we added a big “Honk for Life” banner out front? Lexi had asked earlier whether she oughtn’t cover up the peeling Obama sticker on the back of her blue ’97 Camry. She said in a light tone, but I don’t think she was joking.
Staying with her aunt the night before had felt at least as alien as any ancient Incan ruin I had seen in Bolivia or any Hindu rite I’d witnessed in India. Her aunt’s “friend,” Frenchie, had insulted multiple ethnic groups within five minutes, people who wrote poetry were “weird,” and Lexi’s aunt capped it off when an ad for Alaska came on the television.
“Wouldn’t you love to go there, Aunt Deronda?” Lexi asked.
“Hon, I’m just fine watching it on the television. This way I don’t have to leave my house, and I don’t have to think,” Deronda replied stubbornly. We left the house a couple minutes later
The last part stuck with me. I don’t have to leave my house, and I don’t have to think.
xiv. Fatehpur Sikri
There were hordes of tourists, and this kid had picked me to follow. “Sir, sir!” he implored. “You like this? Fine hand-carved statue, real stone, see!” And he would rap it with his knuckles. It might have been stone, and it might have been hand-carved, but that didn’t make me want it. If you visit any tourist site in India, you will quickly encounter this species: the child vendor.
Here, at the Fatehpur Sikri, they came in droves. A wave of my hand had driven most of them away. Silence had discouraged the last couple. This one, though, was sticking by my side as I walked through the ruins back towards the van. We were supposed to meet there to leave at three o’clock. It was two-fifty now.
I wound my way through a crowd of Australians, hoping my shadow would find a new mark. He didn’t. I looked back for one final look at the lost city. Fatehpur Sikri was built by a Mughal emperor in the 16th century, then abandoned as his influence waned. The palace complex, abandoned though had been for hundreds of years, was still spectacular. I had seen a platform six feet above the ground, with the platform about twelve feet by sixteen feet. It was for a bed, our tour guide told us, so that the prince could entertain his harem with utmost luxury. Mughal architecture, with its blossoming towers and intricate inlaid decorations, was one of the things I would miss on returning to America.
“A statue, sir, or a necklace? You can pick, or I’ll give you a deal for both, yes?” The kid was still here.
“Look, man, I’m not going to buy anything,” I said. I felt bad, but what was I going to do with that junk? I didn’t have room for it in my bags, anyway. To assuage my guilt, I tried talking to him. “Do you like working here? At least it’s pretty, right?” I asked.
His attitude changed completely. He stopped looking up at me, for one, and stopped holding out his hands. “I don’t know. It is pretty though.” I considered that he might not have known anything else.
“Do you go to school at all?” I asked.
“Of course! Every single day for six hours,” he said with a wide grin on his face. Bollocks, of course—today was a Wednesday. Here he was, still trying to please me. I tried something he might be able to relate to.
“Who’s that on your shirt? Khan? He’s an actor, right?”
The kid puffed out his tiny chest. He must have only been nine or twelve. His shirt bore the resemblance of a striking, light-skinned Indian man, with a jutting chin. “Khan! He is my hero.” The child paused. “And Nicolas Cage also.”
I laughed. Nic Cage? “What! What Nicolas Cage movie have you seen?” I asked. We were still walking towards the van. I could see it now. I waved to Dr. Mahony.
“Gone in Sixty Seconds is my favorite American movie!” the kid replied enthusiastically. I had so many objections to that, but what would they ever mean to him? I wasn’t about to tell him Nicolas Cage was a terrible actor, and that everyone in America made fun of him for it. “Do you watch WWE wrestling?” he asked, curious.
I laughed again. “No way, man! Nobody in America still watches that.” The kid wrinkled his brow and frowned at me.
“I don’t believe you.” I told him he’d just have to come visit and find out.
“Good luck with school,” I called out to my new friend, as I boarded the van.
“Are you sure you don’t want a statue?” he asked. I hesitated.
“No. I don’t. Thank you though,” I said. He nodded, smiled, and walked away.
The others filed in one by one to take their places in the van. A crowd of children formed around the van, and my friends called to them playfully in different languages. The kids knew Spanish, French, German. All from trying to sell their wares to tourists. I sank in my chair. I doubted they knew any of the foreign words that weren’t directly related to their daily reality. Bargaining for life. What transaction had I just been party to?
xv. 5/17/2011: Arkansas (Kids)
“I think the last time I ate at McDonalds was in Bangalore,” I said as we strode into the fast-food restaurant in a small town in Arkansas. “Don’t you have a friend that is working there now, or something?”
Lexi nodded. We started checking off the various friends and peers who were making their way over to the subcontinent. “Any new thoughts on where you want to be next year?” she asked.
“Making enough money that I don’t have to eat at McDonalds, how about?” Another joke, another way of brushing off the real question. I ordered and waited by the bar. Lexi finished paying for her meal and came to wait with me.
I thought about it. “I want to go back to India,” I said. “I’m not so excited to go back to Bolivia, even though I might have to for my thesis research. I just liked India better. Maybe it was the people I was with. It’s hard to separate the experience from the circumstance.”
“Well, that’s something,” she said. She sucked on her soda and put it down. Turning towards me, she felt closer than ever. I was glad I could talk about things like this with her. “You know what?” she started. “I think I’m going to apply for the Watson. I just don’t know when I’ll get another chance to do something like that.”
We were interrupted by the server, who called out that our meals were ready. I grabbed the bag and started walking to the car. A couple of local kids were sitting in a pickup truck in a dirt side road in front of us. They were munching on fries and laughing. Another one of them came around a corner on a motorized scooter. He tried to do a cool skid-stop right in front of the truck, but fell over. He got up and tried to pretend he hadn’t fallen, but it was a poor act. His friends in the truck started laughing at him. I couldn’t help myself—I laughed out loud, too. The kids in the truck looked confused for a second, and then doubled over even more laughing at their friend. This random guy saw you fall, and now he’s laughing at you! they must have been thinking. It was all pretty harmless, and fun.
I climbed into the car and shut the door, their cackles silenced. I could still see them, joshing one another about the incident. What luck that I had been here this. What luck they had to be able to be sitting here, joking around. Even in one of the poorer parts of America, being a kid meant fun and games. These guys were in their teens—in India or Bolivia, there was no question they’d be working right now, unless they were members of the upper classes. Even the family I had stayed with in Bolivia—the Ortuñas—their daughter had worked, making jewelry to sell through the mother’s small business. And they had been squarely upper-middle class. That wasn’t to say that I hadn’t seen the same smiles on these American kids elsewhere, in the Indian slum-side cricket games, for example. But I wasn’t sure the American kids could relish their moments of freedom and joy in quite the same way. I knew I wouldn’t be able to, anymore—not after what I knew with experience now. But I was glad of that. The moments of happiness had more meaning when one knew what the alternative was like.
I looked up from my writing, put the pen down, and craned my neck to try to secure a glimpse of the outside world. There was nothing yet, only clouds—nothing, if clouds are nothing, and not where dreams and angels live.
I put my chin to the ceiling in a fierce yawn, expanding my lungs as much as possible in the tiny seat. My knees, always in the way, jutted into the seat in front of me, and I awkwardly rearranged myself somewhat diagonally, with one knee pulled towards my chest. I didn’t mind, being used to it, and even if I had, it wouldn’t have mattered; airline seats simply weren’t made for people so tall as I. I wondered what made people recline their seats. Do Republicans recline more often?
There was light outside. The sun had risen, and our aircraft, the counterweight across space, connected by fibrous rays, began to correspondingly descend. I imagine that we gleamed in the morning light. Light hadn’t illuminated anything, though; with the parting of the heavens, light gave rise not to existence but to blankness. I looked over the laps of others into the window again, and raised my eyebrows at the sight of snow. White, white, grey, black, white.
In my life the snows come once, maybe twice a year. Though they are a surprise each time, before they were never so strange. I looked onto the blankness with new eyes, tropical eyes that had been drenched with sweat and the mess of the market day train into Chennai. Wherever I looked the early morning stillness reigned. It made me look forward to Christmas, really, but I hadn’t thought of Christ or home in three months. The long exhalation of flight followed the inhalation of everything toxic, literally and figuratively: the fumes that scratched my throat from Delhi to Amritsar, the poverty that shakes one’s assumptions about life, fairness, cosmology to the core.
India had pulsed. Paris was still.
It was hard to believe this was where Rimbaud and revolutionaries had lit themselves on fire. When I came here last, there were gypsies tricking my bumbling father as my mother tried to recall French from three decades ago. When I came here last, the Cote D’Ivoireans raced through the streets celebrating a football win thousands of miles south in Johannesburg, their flags left behind as they chased one another chanting, frightening my sister who didn’t know why the men were banging on the subway doors as we pulled away. I doubt she had seen a drunk before. When I came here last, Paris was epicurean and decadent, Courbet’s drinking and trash pushed carelessly along in the summer breeze.
Underneath me there was no Paris. How could I be sure I was in the right place at all? It might be Nice. It might be Brussels, one might even hide a Moscow under this winter coat. Nothing below; nothing above. Breaking out of the rolling, billowing snow there were trees whose bare branches stretched toward me religiously, but not in ecstasy. Now it, or I, had been wiped clean.
We landed perfectly, and I pulled my blue hiking pack out of the overhead compartments. I carried little with me, and half of what I did have was not for me. I stood in line with my eyes in my pockets. An unfamiliar feeling crept up my spine, for as crushed as I was between passengers, my feet were beginning to feel cold.
I had only the sandals I had worn through shit and sludge. I looked ahead and the door was open; passengers were headed down a stairway, and piling into a bus. I glanced back at the high-tech monitor on the back of the chair: -6 Celsius. I walked down slowly but relished the cold, letting it crunch beneath my feet, defying it, wanting everyone to know that in my sandals and cotton shirt, I was not cold. I hopped into the bus and clutched a pole, but my wariness wasn’t necessary. The bus moved silently. Had the Europeans gone ahead and dispensed of motors already—too dirty, too worldly, maybe too alive?
After twenty-five minutes on the bus, I was beginning to thaw and starting to worry that my terminal did not exist at all. I was looking for C15. The bus was slow on the ice, to be safe, certainly. The few Indians on my plane had left by now, and I was with only the people whose skin matched the weather outside. For the first time in a long time I wasn’t stared at, but I was more nervous here than I had been in any of my late-night wanderings through Mumbai or Dharamsala. It had been a gamble to try to get to Barcelona, the kind whose odds look better the longer you look at them, and whose buy-in is always rising. I had never been certain I would get there at all, maybe because the idea had come first cloaked in dreams. I wasn’t much more certain now. It was no less cold in the bus than it was outside. No one made eye contact or spoke.
When I finally got inside the terminal I was still quite confused. I was confident, but alone, and most of my confidence came from an idea of aloneness as strength. But this sentiment was no strength in a new airport. Transparent persons passed silently at this hour, moving in their respective vectors with solipsistic dedication.
As in India English translations appeared on signs, so I was eventually pretty certain I had found the correct gate. But the monitor above the gate read Rome, not Barcelona. I pulled the crinkled ticket out of my pocket to check one more time, and out of the corner of my eye I saw my unease paralleled on the face of a man beside me. I turned to face him. He was a bicyclist who looked like he had just stepped out of a race. He wore sweatpants over spandex, with an orange team shirt on top, and carried his orange road bike beside him. He looked Spanish. I thought maybe he was going to Spain. I tried Spanish.
“¿Tienes un viaje a Barcelona también?”
He looked at me, his eyebrows raised in expectation of something more. I squared myself to him.
“¿Tienes un viaje a Barcelona también?”
He tapped his ear and I eagerly assented. I stupidly nodded my head. Yes, yes, you are deaf, I see, we both can see, though one of us can’t hear! I pulled out my ticket and pointed at the destination: Barcelona. He nodded, to my relief, as stupidly as I had. We were equally befuddled. He excitedly called over a woman who was just as absurdly dressed and deaf as he. She was relieved to know they were not the only ones befuddled. How unique that the first time I tried to use my Spanish, I had been talking to a deaf man. They had the same problem as I did, but we were no closer to solving it: our tickets definitely said C15, and this was definitely C15, and these were definitely a bunch of Italians, and the board definitely said Rome. There had to be a crack in this universe.
In a moment it split wide open. The green “Roma” turned red.
The Italians went nuts. By the looks of it there had been no greater betrayal in their history since Cassius Longinus decided Caesar must die. They were on their chairs. They were shouting. The attendants at the Air France desk looked panicked. I caught that there was too much snow in Rome. I had never thought of snow in Rome. I glanced at my biking companions, jealous of their get-away vehicles in case the Italians decided to take their anger out on us. What ancient rivalries and alliances were being invoked? Did Italians and French dislike one another? They had to. A magisterially dressed Air France officer walked confidently into the fray and asked for a translator. One man stepped forward and shushed the rest. The Air France officer stepped onto the desk, to be even taller than the Italians on their chairs.
His first barrage seemed only to anger his audience. This was a confrontation. The Italians did not wait for him to end, and it became a cannonade as they returned fire.
The red “Roma” turned to a green “Barcelona.”
I gave my deaf friends a nod and walked into the tunnel, content to leave World War III behind.
xvii. 5/19/2011: Memphis (Pushed Together)
I watched the Mississippi in my rearview mirror as long as I could. I had never seen it before. In fact, I’d never been more than one state away from a coast. Though I’d been up and down both coasts, the farthest inland I had ever made it was Reno, Nevada. Water, then, was a welcome sight, after the dry expanse we’d just crossed. The Mississippi I knew from Twain was no longer just imaginary.
We were looking for dinner in Memphis before we headed to our hotel on the outskirts of town. Lexi had an idea of where to go after searching the web on her smartphone. It had been a long day of driving, and we were both hungry. The McDonalds we picked up on the way hadn’t been very satisfying, in terms of quality or quantity.
“Head left up here, and that should take us to the right neighborhood,” Lexi said, looking up from her phone. She had been engrossed in its web capabilities for the last half-hour or so, leaving me to my own thoughts. At least her searching had turned up a destination for us, a restaurant known for their salmon.
The road trip was almost over—only one more day after this, a long haul to Davidson. Once we were over the top of the Appalachians, it would be downhill, literally and metaphorically. We would be in known territory again.
The land wasn’t the only thing that was unfamiliar, I thought as I turned into a quaint neighborhood in the Memphis uptown. We were a bit strange to one another. It had been two months since we’d seen one another last, two months when she had been working in Davidson then touring across the country playing music. Two months when I had been in Bolivia, speaking a foreign language thousands of miles from home.
Plus, we’d never spent this much time so unfailingly close to one another. Sure, we had traveled together before, but on school weekends, for two or three days at a time. This road trip stuck us within five feet of one another ninety-five per cent of the day—the only privacy we ever had was in the bathroom. Not an optimal situation.
“Can you find a parking spot already?” Lexi asked. She was from the city—I hated driving in cramped spaces like this. “That one right there!”
She was talking about a parallel parking spot on the other side of the road. In California you don’t have to learn to parallel park to get a driver’s license, and in my suburban youth I’d never needed the ability, anyway.
“I don’t really know how to parallel park,” I said sheepishly, hoping we could find an easier spot somewhere ahead.
“There’s not going to be anything else, Hayden, especially not at this time on a Friday. Everyone is trying to go to dinner right now. It’s not that hard to parallel park, just go do it,” Lexi answered. I took the car up to a side street and turned it around, heading back towards the empty spot. I followed Lexi’s instructions but I couldn’t get the car to fit right. I was terrified of scratching the white Mercedes in front of us. My brain itched for an escape as I started to get frustrated. Flustered, I said we could switch so that she could park the car. She said I needed to learn. This felt like a pretty high pressure way to learn. Cars were starting to pile up behind me. Every time I started to back in, I could feel the car inching towards the Mercedes’ bumper. I did not have enough money to be scratching that.
“I’m sorry, okay? I just don’t know how to do this? Can’t we find another spot?” I pled.
“Hayden, come on, it’s just a parking job, can’t you just do this? Don’t worry about the cars behind you.” Lexi was trying to calm me, but I could tell she was agitated.
Line up with the car in front of the spot… turn the wheel sharply right… back up… it was excruciatingly slow, but on my fourth try we were somewhat in the spot. I sighed and turned the car off. My heart jumped into my mouth when it started to lurch forward. I hit the brake quickly. I had turned the car off with the car still in drive.
“Hayden, why are you so stupid sometimes? Are you serious?” Lexi asked. I fixed my error as she got out of the car quickly and started walking. I ran to catch up.
“Sorry,” I said, my hands in my pockets. The restaurant was a block away. It was supposed to be amazing. Monsoon. It was a weird name for an American restaurant. I had seen a monsoon. It’s not fun to be rained on for a month at a time. I meant the “sorry.” I knew I was absent-minded. The characterizations I’d heard before started to come back: “the dumbest smart person I know,” “you just don’t have any common sense.” It didn’t seem fair. If I could make my way through unknown metropolises of India, travel from San Francisco to Bolivia on my own, wasn’t that proof enough of competency in the common sense department?
She said what I was thinking. “It’s just been a weird week, you know? Not bad, but weird. It’s kind of crazy to throw two people in a car and expect them to get along for a week straight,” she said.
I sighed. “I am with you. Travel does that… it throws people together.” I thought about the cramped buses we traversed India in, forming friendships through silly games and shared difficulties. Sometimes, when we hit a particularly bad bump, we literally were thrown together. “I guess it makes us confront one another. There’s no hiding or rest when you travel with someone,” I said.
“I’d still rather travel with you than anyone else. I’d have lost my mind doing this with anyone else, or by myself. I guess it makes us confront ourselves, too, right? Because when we are in new places, we have new experiences, and we learn about new parts of ourselves,” she mused. I made sure to open the restaurant door for her. “Come on. Let’s get some salmon,” she said.
xviii. To the Hospital
“Hayden, está bien? Nos vamos a la sala de emergencia, OK hijo?”
I had never wanted a car ride to go faster. I wished for a siren to move the cars aside like Moses parting the Red Sea. The life outside the van windows seemed far too unhurried. Where was the chaos? My world was spinning—why wasn’t anyone else’s? I hadn’t really had anything since Sunday—three days without any food. Today, Wednesday, I hadn’t been able drink, even, without my stomach throwing a fit. That was the last straw for Lucy. My host mother had done everything she knew how to do and everything that had ever worked for the fifty other weak-stomached Westerners who had stayed in her house over the past five years.
First she made me eat soup, only with white things in it—chicken, noodles, broth, potatoes. Una sopa blanca. Then she went to the local farmacia, and brought back a big gray pill, para cálmate. On Wednesday I went to the doctor’s and got a shot in my backside and two pills. This will stop it, they said. I understood that much of my halting exchange with the nurses. It hadn’t worked. And so now I was in the back of a van without any clue where I was going. It was dark out—maybe eight o’clock—when I told Lucy I needed to go back to the doctor.
I had no idea how emergency rooms worked in Bolivia. I knew they weren’t going to take me to a curandero who would sprinkle dried llama fetus on me. I knew Bolivia was known for having good medical schools, in fact. But I had no idea whether my little traveler’s insurance card that had been issued to me by the Rutgers University study abroad program I was with would make any sense to anyone at the emergency room. The card was in English, after all, and hardly any Bolivians spoke English. If they didn’t take the insurance, what was I going to do? I had more than a hundred dollars in my pocket, and about a hundred more in bolivianos. I hoped it wouldn’t cost any more than that. There was no way it could cost any more than that, right?
Lights streaked by as cars circled the endless roundabouts, but the grays and browns that dominated Cochabamba were as drab as ever. Men in old, worn suits ate at a silpancho restaurant by the side of the road—is that what made me sick? Maybe the beef in my meal was undercooked, or reheated from yesterday. A child playing soccer in the park gulped down water from a plastic packet—is that what made me sick? Was my water packet filled with unfiltered water, despite the claims to the contrary printed on the outside? I didn’t know. I will never know, perhaps like the thousands of poor people who die from diseases they don’t have names for every year.
I just knew I’d spent the last four days in the twenty feet between my bed and my bathroom.
We slowed and pulled to the right. “Un momento, Hayden. Sólo un momento,” Lucy told me soothingly. She opened the door to go inquire inside. I hoped it would only be a moment. I wasn’t sure how much longer I could wait. I marveled at how clean this building looked; the sidewalks were empty of trash, there were no dogs running about, and all the lights on the HOSPITAL sign were functioning. It was too good to be true: she returned a minute later, smoothing her skirt and saying something quickly in Spanish to her brother. “Nos vamos a la otra, a tráves del centro de la ciudad. Solo cinco minutos. ¿Puedes esperar, hijo?” She knew that I would probably need a bathroom soon. I weakly nodded. It wasn’t like I had any choice. Still, as we pulled out, I noted every passing opportunity, in case a wave of sickness came over me as it had every twenty or thirty minutes for the last four days. There, a restaurant, a hotel, a bar that might have a bathroom if it came to that.
My host uncle turned around and started talking to me. It was hard to understand him. It was loud; Bolivian drivers honk a lot, and I had my window down because I was feeling lightheaded and thought the air (however polluted it was) might keep me awake. I tried to concentrate on what he was saying, but struggled to keep up with the barrage of vocabulary words, strange verb tenses, local vernacular. My eyes slipped in and out of focus, and his words slid over me like the cars that flew past us in every direction. Eight years of Spanish made no difference. I felt ashamed that my illness had become a family matter, that Lucy’s brother was towing me around Cochabamba at night when I knew he had two young daughters at home with no one watching them. Thinking back on it, I hadn’t yet called my mother, even.
xix. 8/20/2011: Asheville (Family History)
A motorcycle whizzed by. But for this passing dervish the road was quiet and the drivers observed a certain silence, a tacitly agreed-upon set of speeds, distances, and directions. The road was beginning to start winding its secret way through the Appalachians. These mountains were charged with history. They did not cut dramatically against the skyline, but their rolling and endless curves might lull you to sleep. A timeless place. We were back in familiar territory: two hours and we would be in Asheville, eating dinner in the city. Maybe we would pass my family farm on the way there.
“Had your parents ever been to North Carolina before you decided to go to Davidson?” I asked.
Lexi didn’t respond immediately. She never responds until she is done doing something, and right now she was changing the music. After a slight pause a gentle guitar played a tentative and bucolic melody. The rolling hills and willow trees of Carolina wait for me, the singer whispered. She looked up from the iPod and smiled. “For our destination,” she said. “I’m pretty sure dad had been here for work, but don’t think my mom had.” Another pause. “Where are your parents from again, exactly? I know they’re from North Carolina but I don’t know where.”
I might have said the same thing. I could say the names of the towns, but I couldn’t know the associated experience. I spoke. “My dad’s from Greenville. It’s just a little town in Eastern North Carolina. It’s where ECU is, and there’s a Marine base there, I think. And my mom went to high school in Asheville, but she grew up in Houston, too.”
Even if I knew the names of the towns they lived in, that didn’t mean I could really connect with the realities of their lived childhoods. My dad talked about his childhood using the basic syntax and diction of nostalgia: when I was a growing up, I played Little League… and stayed summers at my grandparents’ beach house… and worked at the golf course. Things were better then. Simpler. I’m not sure my mother would agree. She didn’t talk, really, except obliquely, about her childhood. She moved a lot. I had a grandfather she had always kept me from meeting. He’s just mean.
It had me thinking about the past, about the mountains we’d come to soon and their untold stories. I had a great-grandfather there who asked me if I wanted to shoot his sick donkey when I was eight. His brother was part of a snake-handling church, where he picked up rattlesnakes under the protection of the Lord. At Davidson I fit nicely into a lot of people’s idea of the Left Coast (no one here has heard my parents’ accents), but tucked in the back of my mind I knew all along about the relative whose leg was taken by a Union cannonball.
There has been a strain of me alive in America for a long time: Colonel William Hayden, born 1605 in St. Albans, Hertsfordshire, England. Died September 27th 1669 in Kenilworth, Middlesex County, Connecticut. Pequot War Hero. If you look it up, he played an instrumental role in wiping out the Pequot and Narragansett tribes from New England. What could be more American?
xx. Chennai Commuter Train
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“What do you reckon, Jack? Should we go all-in?” I jested. As we settled into our seats I motioned towards the financial advertisement placed amongst the many others on the walls of the Chennai commuter train. The ad took its hopeless place between ads guaranteeing English literacy in a month (given the grammar used in the ad, this seemed a dubious claim) and promises of new cures for dhat, a culture-bound syndrome that plagues Indian men who believe they are losing semen in their urine. Each grasped at its own futile end.
Jack slid in next to me on the hard plastic bench. There was just enough room for the two of us. Tyler stood closer to the door—he had been the last one on, and he anxiously gripped his bag of amulets and spices destined to be gifts for friends and relatives who had made the “list.” We all had a list—the people who were close enough to us, or who had done enough for us before, that we planned on getting them a present. A silk scarf from Dharamsala, maybe, or tea from Darjeeling, or one of a thousand carven gods. There were about ten people on my list. Something for each of my family members—that’s four—then my friends from home: Amanda, Elena, Nina, Bhavik, and Carson would each get something small. Lexi made ten. It was hard to know what to get her, since there wasn’t a word for where we were at in our relationship. (Or lack of one? Semantics will kill you in the end.)
Jack peered over me at the ad on the wall.
“Yeah man, I think I have like, two hundred rupees. I’d be twenty rupees richer in a month. Too bad we won’t be here that long,” Jack replied. He chuckled. “It’s crazy to think that twenty years ago this place was basically socialist. They’re going absolutely ape shit for the market. It’s weird to say, but people here love capitalism even more than Americans do. Remember that guy with that ridiculous shirt we saw today? What did it say… I love three things: Cars, Money, and Pussy. I don’t think he was kidding. There was no irony in that shirt.”
It was true. Indian capitalism was definitely unbridled, earnest, and it was impossible not to be equivocal about its prospects. There was no doubt that life was getting better for the students we rubbed shoulders with at Madras Christian College: they would have jobs in businesses, corporations, whatever. But no light shines without a shadow. How many people would be hoodwinked by this stupid ad? I thought about the children we knew were enslaved in firecracker factories, “because their small fingers are nimble enough to work with the explosives.” I thought about the omnipresent sludge and smog. India was in the middle, and in these times there was enough of the good and enough of the bad for me to say that I had no idea where it was headed. Maybe that’s why I was drawn to it in the first place: when I was justifying my decision, I told everyone, “India has everything. Whatever it is you want to study, you can do it in India—you can see it happening, on the ground, right in front of you.” I hadn’t ever said what it was I wanted to study.
It was true India had everything. I only had to look around the crowded train car. We had first-class tickets, but that merely meant there were benches—on a market day like today, it was still crowded to the point that you could sometimes see people hanging on to the outside of the train, and people hanging on to those people. There were no doors, just a gaping opening in the middle of the car. In front of me there were two businessmen dressed in shabby suits. In the aisle was a woman wearing a bright blue sari, the gold shimmering against her dark Dravidian skin. She was large, her bag of potatoes sitting against her similarly-sized stomach. Her hair was drawn tightly back into a braid—perhaps too tightly, for she wore a frown like a bull’s. She was one of many women returning from the market tonight, but since it was late the car was not too crowded. A snoozing grandmother sat by the door, her sleep well-earned after a long day. Across from her an old man, naked to the waist and wrapped only in a traditional dhoti, stared vacantly ahead.
A young tough played music out loud from his cell phone. It was obnoxious, frankly. Indians were wildly polite when you had a name—if I were introduced to this person by a mutual friend, I’m sure he would have instantly fawned over me—and exactly the opposite when you didn’t. Sociologists have worried about the anonymity of the city. India’s urban were mostly new immigrants from the countryside, where more than three-quarters of the populace still resides. Had they adjusted yet to living with regard for the commonwealth of people they would never know? The tragedy of the commons was everywhere, and you could smell it, especially when we passed over a river. Trash was everywhere because no one considered common property—like the road or the river—to be worthy of their individual concern.
Despite the crowded car the air was cool. It was late, probably half-past ten. Jack and I were talking about the time we fit seven people into an autorickshaw. It had been another night like tonight, late and returning from the city center, where we could alternately escape from our small, tight-knit group of eleven or go in together and fire its bonds with quests and hijinks. “Like real Indians, right? Now we just need to figure out a way to fit seven of us onto a motorcycle and they’ll probably just go ahead and give us dual citizenship,” Jack laughed. The sight of a whole family astride a single bike—one child on the handlebars, another on the father’s lap, the mother clutching onto the husband’s waist with one hand and holding her baby with the other—would stick with me for a long time. Dangerous, sure. But who was to judge them for that? If it meant the children could all get to school, the mother to the market, the father to work—wouldn’t the family be safer with an education, with food, with money? There was no telling.
I looked up at Tyler. He looked contemplative, especially with the beard he had grown. He was leaner, too—nothing like the clean, silly, chubby boy I had met freshman year. I saw him move out of the aisle and wave some people on.
A woman dressed in a sari was headed down the aisle, gesticulating madly and calling out rhythmically in a language I didn’t understand. As the crowd parted down the middle I saw her face, and after a moment of puzzlement I realized it was a transvestite, a hijra. Hijra is a Hindi word referring to a third gender present in much of South Asia. Anatomically male individuals become hijra by running away and joining a hijra community. The hijra occupies an ambivalent place in Indian culture: they are important participants in certain rituals, and Lord Shiva is a noted patron. But they also work as prostitutes for survival, and in Chennai especially most are drug users destined for early ends. The hijra approaching us was imploring people for money, I could tell. He looked high, with bloodshot eyes. Instinctually I calculated how much money I had on me. It wasn’t much—forty rupees, plus a little change. I pulled out the change and got ready to hand it over.
I am not entirely sure what happened next. Our eyes met, and my hand stayed in my pocket. Why should I hand over money so they can go sniff some glue? Another hijra appeared behind the first. The first leaned towards me and said something unintelligible. I held my hand up in the universal “sorry, I can’t” gesture—and then the first hijra had slapped me on the top of my head, hissing something I didn’t need to be able to parse into words to comprehend. The second grabbed the first around the shoulders and they redirected themselves down the corridor. I turned to Jack and shook my head. “Whoa,” I said sarcastically, “you think he likes me?”
The businessman in front of me turned around. “I would not worry,” he said. “You should not give them money, they are only going to get drugs. There are good programs in place for them if they want food.” The light from passing streetlights glimmered on his bald pate. His teeth though, were dull and yellow. “It is a problem, the drugs. Only recently has it become really bad. Are you from America?”
Jack and I assented. “We’re students from America, yes. We’re staying in Tambaram, at Madras Christian College. Studying Indian religions,” Jack said. He always used a certain voice when speaking to unknown Indians that, to me, straddled a fine line between respectful and patronizing. Our train was slowing to a stop, one I hadn’t seen; the station was built like all the others, a long concrete platform with fluorescent lamps casting light on beggars sleeping on cold benches and men pissing onto empty tracks. But I had not seen this one before.
The man looked surprised. “Tambaram? You cannot take this train to Tambaram.”
“What do you mean? Is this not the right line?” asked Jack.
“Not at all!” the man replied. His joviality turned to seriousness. He stood up, gazing past the men and women filing out through the aisle. “That one, the next one over, that’s your train.” Jack and I looked at one another. Could we trust him? There was no reason for him to trick us, but he certainly might be wrong. One way to find out.
“Tyler,” Jack called out, “we gotta get on that train!” Tyler looked confused at first, but since he was by the door he easily made it out quickly, and was to the other train in a second.
“Run!” the man called out. I made my way to the door, stepping over the giant bags of vegetables and suitcases that lay in the aisle. The train across from us was starting to gently move. I jumped out of the door and started jogging towards the other side of the platform. Tyler was in. The train was moving now, and a whistle rang out in the distance. I was running. Jack was running, too; he jumped in gently. I jumped into the opening.
My arm screamed. The inside of the car spun as I staggered, grasping at something to hold on to. Every time I had almost broken a bone flashed before my eyes: six years old and I fell out of a tree. Eleven years old and I crashed my bike. Fifteen years old and I landed sideways on my ankle playing basketball. But I was still whole. Twenty years and not a bone broken. I was certain now that had come to an end. The screaming went silent. My arm felt like it was no longer there, like it had been obliterated. The opposite of a phantom limb: an arm one can’t feel that is still there.
I stood up straight. The car was almost empty. Jack and Tyler were already sitting at the back, but Jack had stood up when he saw what happened. I held onto my left arm with my right, walking straight even though my world was tilting. It still hurt painfully, but when I felt it there were no breaks. I sat down next to the others and bit the inside of my cheek.
“How did you do that, man? Are you okay?” Tyler asked.
I looked down at my arm for the first time since I had come on. It looked perfect, untouched, God’s creation: innocent of pain. “I jumped, and I guess I was short because it feels like the whole train ran into my arm.” I felt out on my arm where the bruise would form. There was nothing yet. “I’ll be fine. I’ll have a crazy bruise, but nothing more than that.”
Tyler walked to the middle of the car and hung out the door. His hair was long and he looked like a shaggy dog enjoying a ride with the window down. I slid over towards the window to enjoy the breeze too. The sun had set but it was not dark. A million yellow globes hung over Chennai now, maybe each a sun, maybe each with its own Earth and existence.
Jack was studying Tamil words in his notebook. Each of us had atomized, separating off to process the day in our ways. I thought back on all the people in the car before. For millennia in India, your occupation was defined at birth: the Brahmins are the priests; the Kshatriyas are the warriors; the Vaishyas the merchants; and the Shudras the laborers. When would I know what I was to do with my life? I was jealous of Arul, the man who posted the advertisement on the first train. His only concern was money, just like the students at Madras Christian College. I remembered talking to one of them who was majoring in social work. I had heard his department was popular. “Yes,” he replied, “it is. Lots of people are in it for starting their own NGOs, because you can set your own salary and be paid very well if you’re an executive.”
We passed a river and I wrinkled my nose.
xxi. 8/20/2011: Davidson
Highway exit. Two roundabouts. Twenty-five miles an hour. Returning to Davidson is always a little bit surreal. It didn’t ever qualify as a relief, and even less so now, since it was nine at night, we were tired, and we still had to unpack our loads of things. The beds we might have looked forward to in a hotel were, in our dorm rooms waiting, unmade and naked of blankets.
Neither of us really chose Davidson. Money made the decision for us, or it felt that way at times. How ironic that Davidson’s biggest tyranny came from its generosity: in giving us money, our choice was taken away. We said goodbye to our favorite schools up north and ended up here, in this narrow corridor of a street, on a collision course with a last year at Davidson.
Our little escapes from Davidson—excursions to see concerts in Chapel Hill, or hike in the Appalachians—gave way over the past year to grand expansions of our worlds. Lexi had never been outside of the country except Canada; I didn’t even have that. She’d made it to Barcelona for a semester, though, and I to India. When I was in Barcelona she told me I looked older than when she saw me last.
“Well, I lost ten pounds,” I answered. “So if by old you meant gaunt, then, yeah, I guess I do.”
In two days it was back to school, back to feeling like there was a track that would catapult us out in a straight line to land squarely in the real world. For a week we’d had a taste of something more self-determined—or had we? For all our hopes, whenever we got to a new city we were too worn out to do much exploring or sight-seeing, and whimsical detours were out of the question if we were going to make the next city by nightfall.
The travel we’d made that mattered, I decided, was within ourselves. Hopping from one uncertainty to another, thrusting ourselves into new situations with new people in new places, was the only way to ever arrive at any certainty. And I was certain I had learned something in all these excursions. The next step was figuring out what.