At 10 p.m. we have missed our train to Varanasi. We drive to the next village to catch a train from there. We are advised by our guide to drink chai at the roadside stop so that we will be alert when we reach the train station. Many will push their way onto the train, we are warned, and possessing a ticket means very little. We drink chai in steamy gulps, scarves covering our faces to shield us from mosquito bites. We have been in Rishikesh for a few days, meditating in caves, eating foods which are new to our American tongues, brushing our teeth with bottled water. I feel somehow ill equipped for this world. Fragile.
When the train arrives we push our way through a crowd of eager faces, palms outstretched, placing pressure to the backs of the bodies in front of them. I lose my grip on my boyfriend’s hand. Onboard, we don’t bother to look for the corresponding seats that match our tickets. We find empty bunks and claim them. There are 20 of us traveling together. A group of Americans being led by an American woman and her Indian Guru. I worked three jobs at once to afford this adventure. I am 23. Friends from high school are on spring break from college in Cancun or somewhere doing shots of tequila off of each other’s sun-tanned bodies. My mother is sober. My brother is in high school. I received a camera for Christmas to document my journey. I am beginning to regret not going to college. I am the owner of two cats. I take cream in my coffee. Obama is president. I am deeply in love. These are things I know.
On the train I sleep in a top bunk with my boyfriend. He is irritated that I want to share his space. In truth, I am frightened to be on the crowded train and want to be near him more than I want to sleep. It will be 12 hours before we reach Varanasi. By
morning I have grown used to the hum of the wheels on the track and the sway of the cars, the curious strangers passing by.
I walk to the bathroom with toilet paper from my backpack in hand. Inside the tiny room, I hold the rails and hover above a hole in the car’s floor and watch a stream of urine hit the tracks below. Here, I have come to understand that a hole in the ground is just as good as a toilet. On the walk back, I glide between cars and find an open space between them and I stand here a while feeling the air on my face and brushing my teeth. I watch beautiful women in colorful saris in the field beyond as I spit toothpaste into the wind.
In the days that follow, I will watch cremation ceremonies on the bank of the Ganges. I will see families burning their dead. I will see sorrow, love, joy. I will see skull and fire and the remaining ash sent out into the water. In the morning I will see women washing their clothing here, their fruit, their cows, their babies. I will see the circle of life before me. I will hear music unlike any I have heard before. I will spend an afternoon inside a crumbling palace where I will dance ballet and watch adolescent boys kick a soccer ball. I will become ill. I will spend days vacillating between the bed and the toilet. I will become frightened. I will struggle to understand all that I have seen. For the first time in my adulthood I am confronted with death and in many ways, with life.
Days later when I am in a cab heading toward the airport, the Olympic torch will be making its way through Delhi and all traffic will stop. Drivers will get out of their cars and share food. I will trek along the freeway with all of my luggage to make it to the airport on time. I will be weak with hunger and the residue of being ill. My overpacked
bag will be heavy but somehow, I will feel strong. Powerful, even. Free.
“By age twenty nine you have completed the cycle of human experience. Saturn returns to the position it was at at the time of your birth, representing maturity and wisdom and this allows you to move into the next phase of life.” This is my best friend explaining her conversation with her astrologer as I sit on the other end of the line packing my bags for four months in Germany. I listen as I tuck a Mala I bought in Rishikesh into my suitcase along with a tiny painted elephant I found in Thailand and some beads I bought in Bali on an afternoon when a healer held my head in the jungle and whispered prayers into my body. All these years later, I still pack these items into my suitcase. My fatal flaw is that I still think I need these physical objects in order to make those experiences real. I think somehow that when I am in someplace new these objects will remind me if I lose track for a moment of who I am. My suitcases are always bursting because of this. Perhaps with time, faith will replace this need.
In me are moments which have woven themselves into the fabric of who I am, who I have the potential to be. Every train, every stranger, every meal, every street corner, every wrong turn—an opportunity to meet myself. I am shaped by accidentally taking a train to Rome instead of Venice, by an evening spent swimming with a group of Italians who speak not a word of English but share my enthusiasm for the ocean under a full moon, the monkey who watches me attempt to pee on my own calf to relieve the burn from a motorcycle’s exhaust pipe. (A remedy which does not work I find out, but one will try anything when their leg is burning while stuck on the side of a Himalayan mountain.) I am better for having had these opportunities to find out my depth of joy, my strength, my sense of humor—or perhaps I am simply more full.
I am a woman. I am a student. I am anxious when I fly. My girlfriend sleeps on the left side of the bed. My mother is nearly sixty years old. I missed my high school reunion. I like the same shoes I liked when I was twelve. I forget to take pictures in the moments I most want to remember. I take my coffee black. Donald Trump is president. I will not see all of this earth before I die. These are things I know.