Saturday, August 16, 2008

Beautiful Rocks

Monday night is a bit sleepless. In addition to being a little shaken by the extended power outage, I find myself rolling around in bed with pains in my stomach: the Delhi belly kind of pains. I blame that suspicious cup of tea from the roadside stand outside of Aut. I had that tea on Saturday. It’s now Tuesday. Three days. Exactly how long Susie’s friend took to get sick from her adventuresome lemonade.

Bulbul is stirring. She hears Phoebe and Yeti barking outside and she’d like to join them. She pokes her nose at the half closed doors that lead out to the porch. All the doors here are too swollen to shut all the way, hence the animals’ ability to enter and exit as they please. I help my new roommate on her way out, then lay back down, staring at the unlit bulb above my bed. Still no power.

I’m suddenly overtaken by the thought that I’m glad I came, not because being here is any big deal Shangri-la promised land revelation. It’s just rocks and water and sky. It’s just life. I haven’t been missing out on anything spectacular all along. Big deal if I haven’t seen Clockwork Orange. It’s just a movie. Big deal if I’m not a professional actress. I’m still me. And if I were a professional actress, I’d still be simply me. There is no revelation except the lack of a revelation. Life is just life. I think of this book on Buddhism that I read called Nothing Special. It talks about not seeking for some great, earth-shaking, bone rattling transformation; that real wisdom is recognizing the value of the ordinary; that life is nothing special. I’m still just beginning to understand this, but my understanding is beginning to be more than intellectual. I have felt this lesson with my body—or maybe it’s my see-through soul that is learning something here.

As I’m pondering the ordinary and trying to twist into a position that makes my stomach hurt less, the lights flash on. The power is back. I am thankful and somewhat surprised. I thought we were in for two days of darkness. Aside from being concerned about not having email, I was grieving the banquet lunches and dinners I might have to give up. But all is good, and Kirin’s already on his way with morning tea and biscuits that Phoebe is patiently waiting to share with me.

Jonaki joins me for tea on the porch. I tell her I’ve noticed from talking to our neighbors that the Mumbai accent sounds different than the Delhi accent. She agrees. She says Mumbai is different in a lot of ways. The trains and busses are ungodly crowded, but you don’t get harassed like you do in Delhi.

Phoebe follows us to breakfast and shares my paranta. She then decides she’ll go on our morning walk with us. We take the path to the right and she scrambles up the steep hill right between Jonaki and me. This time I know she’s seventeen. This time I’m keeping an eye on her and making sure we don’t go too quickly for her. She keeps up, but I do notice her panting quite a bit.

We walk past the barn nestled into the hill with the cows flicking their tails, and, shortly after, we approach the stream. Today, though, it is easily passable. The water isn’t flowing up over the log. It must have just been overflowing yesterday because of the rain. We cross, led by the aged but spry Phoebe.

On the other side of the stream, the trail widens into a sandy road wide enough for one vehicle. There is a jeep parked at the place where the road forks off. This is the road Kirin described when we asked him how they get supplies to the cottage. One leg of this trail goes up the mountain, back in the direction of Gushaini; the other leg leads toward a few scattered buildings and a big red and white utility tower of some sort. Phoebe takes the low road toward the buildings and I think we should follow her, though Jonaki thinks the high road leads toward the temple the woman from Mumbai was talking about. With a shaky stomach and a strange, cold sweat coming on, I tell her I’m not up for a two hour walk anyway. I’m glad when she doesn’t seem too disappointed.

We walk for a bit toward the buildings and the tower, then I see people in the distance and threatening clouds coming over the ridge. “I’m all about turning around before we get to the buildings,” I tell Jonaki, and she agrees. We don’t want to get caught in the rain again anyway. The last time that happened, it took forever for our clothes to dry.

We turn around and begin hiking back up the hill we’ve just walked down. My stomach rumbles. Phoebe is suddenly gone. We trace our steps a few hundred feet back and see her sniffing at the side of the trail. We whistle and clap and she perks up her ears then meanders in our direction.

On the way past the barn, two children are playing on a giant blue plastic tarp, leaping off the side of the trail and landing on the tarp. Their clothes are brown with dirt as they laugh and play what looks to me like a dangerous game. Somewhere between the barn and Raju’s brother’s house, we lose Phoebe. We wait for a bit, retrace our steps a bit, but she is nowhere to be found. We figure she knows her way around and walk back to the cottage on our own. As we approach the porch, we see her sitting in front of it, smiling, as if to say, “What took you so long?” She must have taken a short cut home from the barn.

The rain is beginning to fall. I go into the cottage, get sick, and tell Jonaki I’m going to lay down for a hopefully health-restoring nap. Just then, a man comes with a hose. He says he’s going to clean the bathroom. He’s done in a few short minutes and I go inside, take some Tums, and lay down. Jonaki showers.

A while later, I get up and take some notes in my journal. We sit on the porch and talk. I tell Jonaki that Scott is planning a trip for when I get back to the states. He emailed me about it the night before. We might go to Florida. Did she get to see much of Florida when she went there on her road trip while she was a student at the University of Illinois?

No, she tells me. She just went to the Disney parks. She didn’t have much time, plus she’d heard about how Florida is full of alligators, how they’re all over down there, how they’re really dangerous. I think of my fear of snow leopards and militants, and how it’s hard to gauge the safety of a place when you’re a foreigner. I know that in Florida if I stay away from a swamp, I’m not going to get eaten by an alligator, but to Jonaki, this warning about alligators was a blanket statement, a ubiquitous danger. Be careful of the alligators. And that’s how it is when you don’t know a place. You hear “bad roads” and see a disaster movie looming. You hear “alligators” and think “Jurassic Park.”

Kirin comes nodding for lunch. I tell Jonaki I don’t know if I should eat anything. She says I should try. Phoebe and Tommy join us in the kitchen. I scoop a little rice, a little dal and some spicy peas onto my plate and take a chapatti from the basket. But even the thought of this food is upsetting to my stomach. I feed the chapatti to Phoebe who gobbles it down with her little stubs of teeth. Tommy looks hungry too. I hate to waste the food on my plate. I hold out a spoonful of peas to him to see how he’ll handle it. He eats very gently and delicately from the spoon, careful not to drop a morsel. I do this a few more times until my peas are gone.

There’s some yogurt on the table. I eat some of that and it goes down okay. It’s begun to pour outside and the kittens gather at the kitchen door, under the shelter of the awning.

We duck through the rain back to the porch where I finally finish Saturday’s blog entry. There’s been so much to write about and it’s been tricky because I have to charge my laptop in the kitchen because none of the outlets in our cabin work. So I’ve been taking notes in my journal, but I don’t write complete thoughts. It takes a while to fill in the details once I have a keyboard at my fingertips.

While I’m typing away, Jonaki draws a perfect little picture of Phoebe all curled up and sleeping at her feet. “Raju’s Cottage, Phoebe, 17 years!” she captions it and I think how precious this time with this aged little dog has been. I think she can’t have that much time left. I think this is the only time I will ever get to roam these hills with my American, chapatti-loving friend, Phoebe.

Jonaki’s drawing is impressive. Jonaki is impressive, too. She went to graduate school for chemistry but is equally at home in the humanities, drawing, painting and writing. In the Indian educational system, you must make a choice in 10th grade whether you will study the sciences or the humanities. All the good students study the sciences, so Jonaki’s parents pressured her to follow suit, even though she wanted to take humanities classes. Because all the good students take science, all the good teachers teach science, and a humanities education is a substandard one. I am glad I didn’t have to choose at such a young age. This is one more way I wouldn’t have made a very good Indian girl.

Somehow it’s four o’clock and Kirin has arrived with our tea, covered in Friday, August 8th’s newspaper to keep it from getting wet in the rain. Jonaki almost sends him away and tells him to bring the tea later. “But it’s four o’clock,” Kirin tells her.

The couple from Mumbai trudges past, soaken wet and muddy. They walked to the gate of the park with Tommy. Part of the road was covered knee-deep in mud from a landslide. The warden told them it’s better to come in October if you want to trek.

We talk about bad college roommates, another experience we both share. Then the rain finally lets up and I walk down to the riverbank to take a few pictures. The kittens are playing with a basketful of nuts near the kitchen door, pawing them gingerly across the walkway. I stoop down to pet one, but Tommy interferes. He wants the attention.

Down at the river, I look at the rocks. This time, they are beautiful; delicate pinks and gentle grays. Suddenly, I can’t take enough pictures. I will be leaving this place forever very soon: this landing, this place of discovery, this Lotus Temple.

I return to the porch with a smooth pink rock in hand and find Jonaki walking back from the orchard. “That pine tree is so beautiful,” she says. “Every needle has a drop of water on it. When you stand underneath it, it’s like you’re surrounded by diamonds.”

“Show me,” I tell her, and follow her off. All four dogs follow. We stand under the tree and I see what she’s talking about. “You probably can’t take a picture of this either,” I say.

Bulbul chews grass and Phoebe sits, looking pensive.

Nevertheless, I get my camera and try. The result is a cheap imitation showing one 100th of the beauty of the thing.

I feel sad that I’ll shortly be leaving all this behind, then I think of our neighbors from Mumbai—the roads can close if there’s a mudslide. We could be here an extra two days, or we could leave tomorrow morning as planned. You can’t worry about what’s to come. You can only enjoy what is. This is what the woman meant about not controlling your life. This is how she could smile at the thought of a landslide. I’m on the verge of tears again, but these tears will be like the diamonds on the pine tree I’m standing underneath: as precious as the present moment. It is all that is. And what the next moment brings can be just as precious, if not more, so there is no use in clinging. Just live.

It’s growing dark, so I check my email and Kirin sets the table upstairs for us. Yeti sits at the top of stairs as he does every evening and intermittently barks at things he sees and hears in the valley with his fluffy head stuck through the railing. Kirin tries to shoo the kittens out of the dining room, but they are wily, and I don’t mind if they stay.

For dinner on Tuesday, Raju’s wife creates a Chinese meal. We begin with a vegetable herb soup like nothing I’ve ever tasted. There are two large trout from the river. I share mine with Bulbul. There is vegetable fried rice, noodles with carrots and green pepper and a delicious dish Jonaki tells me is called Manchurian gobi. It’s little balls of cabbage and dough in a delicate, light, sweet and sour sauce. She says everyone makes this in Delhi but nobody makes it well. This is made well. For dessert, there is gulab jamun, Indian fried dough in sweet syrup, and one of my favorite dishes.

I am so glad my stomach is better so I can enjoy this last, wonderful dinner. I am so glad my stomach is better because tomorrow I have a twelve hour bus ride ahead of me. This was a minor case of the Delhi belly, either that or my system is getting stronger and better able to fight it off.

After dinner, we walk past the couple from Mumbai’s room. They are sitting outside. “Have you dried out yet?” No. They are still soaked, as are their clothes and shoes which they have strewn about their porch.

I hope in vain that my new roommate will join me again, but Bulbul is busy. She has other things to do tonight. Besides, the power’s on and there’s nothing to worry about. Phoebe curls up under the table outside our room, and Jonaki and I retire to bed.

1 comment:

It's me mom said...

Odd book there, Nothing Special. I thought the Buddists revered life. Everything is special, every baby, person, animal, every living thing. You just have to look to see it's so.