04 Oct The Guide, by Laurie Hovell McMillin
Editor’s note: Lonely Planet recently published an extraordinary collection of original tales, The Lonely Planet Travel Anthology, celebrating both the rigors and the life-changing riches of travel. The story below, by Laurie Hovell McMillin, is excerpted from that collection.
On our third day in India, my 16-year-old son stops talking to me.
This I can understand. India can be an assault to the senses — can turn your world upside down. I’ve been there myself. At age 20, I landed in Pune, and gradually, steadily, over the next six months, I became unhinged. So it’s no surprise it’s hard on him.
Not only that, when you are 16, you crave independence: That is your stage in life — your American sanskara. And here he is, with his mom for Chrissake, whom he depends on for nearly everything. How to take a shower, where to put his feet, which hand to eat with. It’s really too much. He can’t even make himself understood in English to the English-speaking receptionist. They can’t get his accent, or his idiom. He ordered “a garlic naan and a Thums Up too” only to end up with two colas: “Thums Up two.”
On the other hand, when I lose my wallet on the first day, stupidly leaving it in a rickshaw, Liam stands on the street for half an hour in my vain hope that the driver will return while I go to the police station: Liam, six-foot-one, muscularly built, dressed all in white cotton, stands there like a rock in a stream of probing eyes.
Certainly it must drive him a little crazy that his mother, whom he thought he knew, seems at home in this place. I love my little conversations in Marathi with vendors, rickshaw drivers, and waiters; I adore returning to the hand gestures and head movements that convey so much here.
No doubt it galls too that he recalls having been comfortable in Pune before, when he was 8, his brother 6, and we traveled as a family. The boys had done famously back then; they had trod broken sidewalks without complaint, adapted to the strangeness of eating by hand and sleeping under mosquito nets. They had learned how to play cricket and invented the game “bottle soccer.” But there’s a difference between being 8 when you’re really most concerned about playing with your brother and being 16 when you’re differently attuned to the world.
The first two days in Pune are a rush of visits and errands — I want to see everything and everybody, buying Liam new cotton clothes on Laxmi Road, making arrangements for tea and dosas with old friends. By the third day, though, we need to get out of the polluted, traffic-clogged city, and decide to visit an ancient Buddhist monument in the countryside.
– – –
A number of Buddhist caves were built throughout this area, and date back two millennia. In these caves, called leni in Marathi, workers created resting places and worship halls for monks and meditators by carving into the live rock of the mountain. Steadily, steadily they worked, chipping the rock until they had created prayer halls with stone columns and stupas to circumambulate, symbols of the Buddha’s transcendence. Slowly, slowly they worked the rock, chiseling away to make tiny rooms for monks. Craftsmen constructed these rocky abodes not by building anything up, but rather by taking things away. So natural and beautiful did the carving seem, you could almost imagine that the carvers had discovered the columns within the stone — that they pulled rock out to reveal meditation rooms that were somehow already there, that they had happened upon rather than formed lotus flower decorations.
– – –
To get to the train station, the rickshaw jerks through a tangle of traffic and exhaust fumes. Outside the station itself, it’s madness — humans waiting, squatting, spitting, pissing, staring at us gape-mouthed. We make our way to the ticket booth; the clerk wants to know, as they all do, What country are you? How long you are staying? Making our way to the assigned platform, we are constantly stared at; people swirl around to have a look at us, white and tall. Wary after losing my wallet, I have hidden my money in a pouch under my clothes, and I touch it periodically to see if it’s still there. Finally the train comes and we push on with all the others.
We pass through Pune’s outskirts, whose ugly names seem to say it all: Pimpri, Chinchwad. Slums back all the way up to the tracks — homes made of nothing at all, a sheet of tin, an old signboard, dusty old blankets. A boy stands holding his pants — he will drop them to shit after our train goes by. The world: It’s all here for the viewing. I think of the Buddha when he was still a prince, and the forays he took out of the palace. Seeing the sick, the dying, the dead: It made him want to renounce the world.
On the train, peanut sellers, key chain vendors, and a stream of beggars work the crowd. A woman with her sari pulled tight over her head comes through, one empty hand to her mouth, the other held out: “Please, brother, sister. Give.” We try not to meet her eye; no one gives her anything. Two blind singers enter the car, singing in Hindi: “This life is nothing,” without you, I suppose, or maybe simply “this life is nothing.” Hearing this sad song, passengers who had remained unmoved before pull out their rupees.
Then a lady comes, strong jaw, brash eyes, her fingers wound with ten rupee notes like a blooming flower. She taps each man and asks for money. She’s a hijra, a kind of gender-bending figure of both good fortune and inauspiciousness. When she taps Liam, he shakes his head and looks away, but she won’t stop, so I say, in Hindi, “Stop that,” and she turns to me, shrieking, as if I am a talking monkey. “What is your name, monkey? Can I marry this boy?” She calls to her friends, sturdy in saris, their stubbly chins below mascara-ed eyes. They leer at us, and then they disappear at the next station. On comes a man with a two-sided drum and bells on his wrist. He sings beautifully and this time I am moved to pull out my money.
A mother and her son and daughter perch beside me. The girl greedily crunches the biscuits her mother gives her, standing in the aisle. Her younger brother calls out for water, then falls asleep, his head heavy on his mother’s arm. “That’s my son,” I tell the woman. He doesn’t look at us.
Finally we arrive in Kandala.
Once outside the station, I bargain with three entwined rickshaw drivers, who ask an exorbitant price. I walk away, then stupidly calculate their price into dollars, decide it’s not so much really, and turn back to accept it. One man pulls himself free from the others, and we get in.
The rickshaw winds through packed streets. This village has none of the sophistication of Pune — no women in jeans, no shiny electronics stores. The road is lined with shops selling cheap glittery clothes and bottles of strange colored water, and people and vehicles jostle for space. I stare out while Liam keeps his head hidden, tired of being noticed, perhaps also simply tired of seeing.
Leaving the village, we pass a row of makeshift tents manned by tribal women with bare-assed kids squatting nearby. I try to engage Liam, but he will not talk other than to ask for a page from my journal to write a few notes. “Is something wrong?” I ask. “Do you want to talk?” He shakes his head. It’s all so much — the language, the noise, the people, everything. India seems to force travelers like us to become philosophical: Why are we here? What is this for?
He is out of my reach.
– – –
We go as far as the rickshaw can go: the end of a dirt track. The driver points up, and we can see the dark caves in the side of the mountain.
Stone steps lead the way. “You want something to eat?” I ask Liam, but he shakes his head no. “Not water even?” He shakes his head. I offer him a box of mango juice, which he accepts in silence.
We have to lift our knees high to mount each stair. The sun beats on our bare heads. Halfway up, Liam points out a nearly dry waterfall dripping down the rocks. “I’d like to climb that.”
“Go ahead,” I say, grateful that he’s speaking to me.
“I don’t want to lose the path,” he says flatly. “Maybe on the way down.”
We stop to catch our breath and look out over the patchwork of fields, Bedse village with its haystacks. Near the top a white-clad figure peeks over the edge and calls out to Liam, “Where you are from?” Liam can’t catch his accent, so I reply: “USA. America.” The man has a metal nametag: “I work for Archaeological Society. It is duty to show.”
When I address the guide in Marathi, he readily switches over and leads us to the outer edge of the construction. “See the stupa here — human-sized.” The rough walls show the marks of the hammer and chisel that chipped the rest of the stone away to reveal the stone column. “See the inscription here, that names the donor.” Sensitive that Liam might be annoyed at not understanding the conversation, I translate the guide’s words into English for him. He doesn’t respond.
The guide happily points out a cistern — “10 feet deep,” he says. I ask him about the relative date of Bedse, and he says these caves are older than Karla. Liam had seen the Karla caves on his last trip, so I translate this bit of news. He nods, silent. I can’t tell if he cares or not.
Next the guide leads us to a small meditation room, about five feet cubed, where stone platforms line three walls. It is cool in the shade, in a place that has never seen sunlight. We each take a seat, the guide sitting cross-legged like an old monk, and the three of us take in the echoing acoustics. “Buddham saranam gaccami,” the guide pipes up, chanting in Pali, and before he can finish the line I join him in this age-old intoning:
Dhammam saranam gaccami.
Sangham saranam gaccami.
[I take refuge in the Buddha.
I take refuge in the Dharma.
I take refuge in the Sangha.]
We smile at each other. Liam just listens. Our voices fill the place, bounding off the walls, as if picking up the traces left by the monks who stayed here two millennia earlier.
– – –
We head towards the main hall. Pillars line the entrance, each one topped by a voluptuous couple. “See these,” the man says, pointing to them. “These were added later,” he says, and they do look very different from the austere architecture of an earlier age, which relied mostly on symbols like the lotus and the stupa. “Buddhism changed a lot as it developed,” I tell Liam.
We make our way slowly into the assembly hall, where 26 identical pillars cut of one rock line the sides. A fat stupa cut of the same rock stands at the innermost part of the hall; 20 feet high, it’s shaped like an overturned bowl atop a wide pillar. “In early Buddhism,” I tell him, “they didn’t represent the Buddha. This was it.” I reach a hand out to the stupa and then go around it. From the shadows behind the pillars, the guide chants “Om” and his slightest hum picks up notes and harmonies from the rocks, which seem to go on singing long after the singer has stopped. Liam goes off into the dark. The guide sings a Hindi film song and it overlaps on its own echoes. Worshippers from 2000 years before seem to be tucked in the shadows too; you can hear them, you can feel them.
We move on to the vihara, the rooms where the monks — perhaps 30 in all, the guide says — lived in single, double and triple rooms. Liam stretches out on a sleeping platform, but he is far too long to fit comfortably. I sit in a tiny room and try to imagine myself back in time. When we are ready, the guide leads us to the monks’ bathing place; in the stone floor a hole opens down to a 2000-year-old cistern, still full of water.
Now that we’ve seen it all, we are reluctant to go. I look out again at the fields below, and Liam leans against a wall, quiet, calm. The guide asks how old Liam is. “Sixteen,” I say, and the guide says to me in Marathi, “He’s very peaceful.”
“Yes. He is.” We both gaze over at him.
“He’s very good,” the man says. Liam leans against the wall, utterly contained, present. “Kiti shanta ahe,” the man says again. “How peaceful he is.”
The guide and I compare the number of children we have: two for me, four for him. He climbs up to a tree growing beside the wall and pulls down four fragrant flowers, handing them to me. “Champa,” I say. “I’ve always loved their scents.”
We finally say goodbye to the guide and start back down the stairs. “I don’t want to leave,” Liam says.
“I don’t either.”
But down we go.
“I’d love to sleep here overnight,” Liam says.
“Wouldn’t that be cool?” I agree. “I don’t think they’d let you.”
On the way back down we miss the waterfall that Liam had wanted to climb. Looking ahead, we can’t see the rickshaw, and Liam says, “He left us.”
“He won’t leave,” I say, hoping I’m right. “I haven’t paid him yet.”
Down we go, past stray cows and cacti. Down we go, past a rice field adorned with scarecrows, past a sleeping dog who hasn’t moved since we passed the first time. And finally at the bottom, we can see that the rickshaw is still there — “See?”
Our driver is talking to a little girl in the shade of a huge mango tree. I had planned to give him a champa flower, but he already has one of the blossoms in his hand; he has carefully turned its petals under to make a kind of jewel and put it between his fingers. “See my ring?” he asks, holding it out for me to admire.
We climb in the rickshaw, and he just lets it roll, without the engine. “It’s very peaceful here,” I say to him. We pass a farmer plowing with two oxen as he cranks the engine. Down we go, past road workers on their break for lunch, past old ladies and waving children. Our driver asks, “Have you seen the other caves? Bhaja? Karla?” “Yes,” I say, “and I really like Bedse. There’s almost nobody there, very quiet.” Two men on a bicycle go by, the one in the rear holding a 12-foot-long steel beam.
On the paved road, women are breaking rocks while their children squat around a plate of food. Near the main highway, brassy loudspeakers celebrating something assail us; trucks loom over us, horns blaring. I remember my money pouch again and clutch it toward me. Down through the clogged streets we go, back into the world of day laborers under heavy loads, sugarcane crushers, and tea drinkers. Near the station, the driver calls out to a woman who leans into the rickshaw to have a word. “Mummy,” he explains to us over his shoulder. “She’s buying vegetables,“ he says. He weaves us expertly through the crowd, dropping us where he left us, and doesn’t ask for a penny more than his original quote. “You are a good person,” I tell him, pressing the notes into his hand.
“Thank you, madam,” he says, and we head down to wait for the train.
– – –
On a bench, we eat our chips and nuts, self-conscious: We’re being stared at again. “I think we’re the only ones who use the garbage can here,” Liam says, tossing our wrappers. Empty plastic bottles roll on the platform. Plastic bags wrap around weeds.
At last, the train trudges up, and we push on with others. I pull out an old magazine, and we read about Stephen Colbert to escape the eyes for a while. When, after a time, I ask a man across from us, in Marathi, “What village is this?” he stares back at me while his friend laughs: Look, it is a talking monkey! Another man who has overheard my question kindly leans forward. “Kadki,” he says, naming the town. Getting back to Pune is slow, and we are hungry and want the refuge of our hotel room.
Night is falling as our station nears; Liam and I get up to push our way out. But just within Pune city limits, the train stops. We wait, poised. Nothing. Now that I’m standing, I see that I am the only woman on board. Faces all around gaze up and down at Liam’s tall frame, his head towering over everyone else by a good six inches. I know how it feels to be stared at so; indeed, it’s only Liam’s presence that deflects their eyes from me. And realizing that, I feel how closely Liam and I are related, how much we look alike, how much we are allied, how deeply connected, my mother’s love trying to throw a protective cloak around him. And it hits me then, what we’ve seen that day: This is the world, this is what the Buddha spoke of. The struggles of this life: hunger, dreams, sickness, age, lust, hate. It’s all right here.
And I think of Bedse, the stupas, ensconced in the mountain, silent.
Finally, the train lurches forward on to our station. There’s a crush at the door — yelling and commotion. I touch my money under my clothes, and as crowds line the platform, we make a plan for disembarking:
“You go first,” I say. “I’ll hold on to you.”
Laurie Hovell McMillin has traveled among Buddhist communities in South Asia since 1982; she has lived and studied with Ambedkar Buddhists and in Tibetan communities. Interested in both non-fiction and scholarly writing, she teaches writing at Oberlin College in Ohio. She is currently working on a book about encounters with Buddhists in contemporary South Asia. Her first book, English in Tibet, Tibet in English: Self-Presentation in Tibet and the Diaspora, explores British accounts of travel to Tibet during the colonial era as well as Tibetan self-presentations in English. Her book of memoir and history, Buried Indians: Digging up the Past in a Midwestern Town, focuses on Native American memory in her Wisconsin hometown. Her travel writing has appeared in Travel Writing and Ethics: Theory and Practice, and in the journal ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and the Environment. She also created and edits the online journal Away: Experiments in Travel and Telling, with the aim of including new forms and voices in writing about travel.
Reproduced with permission from The Lonely Planet Travel Anthology, published by Lonely Planet, © 2016 Lonely Planet
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