October 3, 2007

"Tracks To Romance"

Bangkok, Thailand
March 22, 1985

Dear Folks,

Another American traveler pointed out to me that my visa for Thailand was good only for two weeks, not the two months I had thought. Having learned this unexpected detail only the day before the visa was to expire, it was all I could do to catch the next express train out of the country.

Because of one of those bizarre quirks of foreign bureaucracy that I'll never quite learn to appreciate, one could not obtain a visa extension for Thailand in Thailand. Rather, one had to go to another country to obtain a new visa, at one of Thailand's foreign consulates.

On the 36-hour train ride to the quite unMalaysian-sounding town of Butterworth (a vestige of Malaysia's days as a British colony), I discovered, to my pride's relief, that a large part of the packed train was made up of other foreigners likewise hurrying off to Malaysia for Thai visas. Indeed, I learned that the same train was continually rushing dozens of new visa aspirants to the otherwise lonely fishing village of Butterworth. It was to the point anymore that any Westerner who stepped into the Bangkok train station was automatically directed to the ticket window for the southbound express.

Now maybe I was wrong, but I certainly couldn't help wondering if the Thai king's treasury didn't have a veritable genius when it came to figuring out how to make the railroads and foreign consulates pay for themselves. At $20 for each visa, it wasn't too difficult to understand how the consulate in Butterworth (actually in a nearby island city called Georgetown) could be housed in such a magnificent mansion.

Still, his majesty's treasurers were mere amateurs compared to others far more experienced, like the Italians, who could make you smile broadly no matter how many traveler's checks fell prey to your signature. So I decided to let the others do the huffing-1 would settle down and make a point of enjoying what otherwise seemed to be a very special sort of journey.

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October 1, 2007

"The Greatest Shopping Center"

Bangkok, Thailand
March 8, 1985

Dear Folks,

The thick Bangkok traffic rolled up to the red light. Engines roared impatiently. Drivers stared intently through swirling fumes like racers on some colossal drag strip.

Along the edges of the six lanes of asphalt jostled another jam of humanity. Dressed mostly in American-styled jeans and T-shirts, the mob pulsated to the comings and goings of overloaded buses and over-amplified American rock music. Though hardly a lip knew a word of English, many a chest displayed such messages as Pittsburgh Steelers, Laurel High School Wildcats," or--as one unknowing boy's did--such faddish cliches as Cute Girl.




Vrooooom! The race was on again!

Lurching and darting, the "racers" zipped along their tracks of concrete or asphalt to wherever it is that crowds are always scurrying. While some of those encased in the sleek Japanese steel and chrome bumbers of their cars might eventually somehow find a familiar garage or parking space, many of those on foot spun off into lush, multi-storied malls to be surprised by the latest punk designer fashions and bleeping, blooping computers. Yet others sped on tirelessly, peeling away from the pack only to replenish their stomachs with Big Macs, Kentucky Fried Chicken, A&W root beers, Dairy Queen banana splits, Shakey's pizzas, or, as one pit crew's sign simply put it, American Fast Food, Hot Hamburgers, Served With No Waiting.

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September 28, 2007

"None Is A Stranger"

Calcutta, India
February 23, 1985

Dear Folks,

The slow waters of the river cast back the sun's last light like some old dirty mirror. This was, I pondered sadly, perhaps the final time our meandering paths would ever cross. For behind me were the entire width of the Indian subcontinent and the 1,500 miles of the Grand Trunk Road.

I was done, or nearly so. Calcutta, the "Royal Route's" eastern-most anchor, was but a few hundred meters away at the end of the bridge on which I'd paused. It was so hard to believe I'd actually done it, actually made all those supposedly "deadly" and "diseased" miles between the Afghanistan border and Calcutta on foot and alone.

Gripping the bridge railing and standing tall, I looked back toward the land to which I'd just given so much of my time and emotions. A river breeze tousled my hair and tickled the stubble on my cheeks. I laughed aloud, causing a rainbow of parrots to stretch out over the river. How utterly absurd to think that all I have seen, learned and felt these past months could ever be put into ordinary words! There was nothing in any dictionary that could have described my time here.

I watched in awe as the sun settled onto the lance of a poor farmer's rake and burst into the heraldic rays of a magic wand. Was not all I'd seen the greatest magic possible? Surely every second was a miracle.

A rumble to my right caused me to turn. There, with its smokestack horns flaring and its dark labyrinth snarling, lay the "Black Hole" . . . Calcutta! With a never-ending poverty stirring restlessly inside its hulk, it looked to be the most evil of urban pain. But it didn't scare me in the least. If I am sure of anything, it is that fear is an unnecessary part of life. Oh, to be sure, there were dangers inside that beast, but I also knew from my journeys that they would quickly flee in the face of boldness.

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September 20, 2007

"The International Guest House"

Dhanbad, India
February 10, 1985

Dear Folks,

I shall never forget the roses: so large and so regal as to be from the pages of a tale, each flower a perfect sculpture of nature's poetry.

Nor shall the kindly image of Baba (the Elder) be easily dismissed from my mind. His mysterious figure had guided me to those roses . . . and to the very special gift of love they watched over.

Foolishly, I had wandered from the Grand Trunk Road to follow the banks of a small river channel that seemed to be paralleling the road. However, the river soon veered sharply to the south, and I had little choice but to plunge into a thick forest of bamboo shoots and banyan tentacles in the direction that I hoped the road still lay. Soon I was snarled in the vine and root cords of the leafy net draped about my stumbling figure, haunted by the approaching night and unseen wild cries. Worse, I was in the region of Uttar Pradesh, the home to India's most deadly cobras and many of the nation's man-eating tigers. Why just the day before I had read of a veteran British guide being killed in the bush of Uttar Pradesh by one of those tigers.

As dusk became thicker and every trail I stumbled along led me only to more fleeting shadows and confusing swamp, I began to wonder if the maze in which I was trapped might be my last vision of this world.

It was in a raffish jungle where my worried eyes first met the little citadel of silence and humility that others respectfully called Baba. At the time I was over 700 miles into India, and I should have been advancing toward my final destination of Calcutta--almost an equal number of miles to the east. Instead, I was hopelessly lost.

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September 19, 2007

"The Spirits of Mother Ganga"

Varanasi, India
January 27, 1985

Dear Folks,

Thunder boomed. Water drummed relentlessly against water.

Rushing bodies and weaving bicycles, their movement intensified by the pitch blackness and angry horns, surged against and past me. It was all I could do not to stop, turn my tired leached body around, and become another piece of human driftwood. How tempting to let myself be swept back down the Grand Trunk Road to the quiet little side pools of mud huts and banana trees where most of the mobs were undoubtedly heading.

Those rushing past me were anxious not so much to escape the cold winddriven rain, as they were the mire of painted flesh, bad-sweet odors, and ankle-deep mud in which they had spent much of the day. Over two million Indians--all Hindu and mostly very poor--had made the pilgrimage to the holy city of Allahabad in the past week to celebrate the festival of Mankar Sankranti. From all over the nation they had come, most with babies in both arms and pots and blankets on their heads.

"Mother Ganga," the Ganges River, had called their souls. It was the time of the new year to bathe body and spirit in her oily, muddy flow, to wash away sins and give the gods reason to smile once again.

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September 11, 2007

"Tears In Paradise"

Agra, India
January 7, 1985

Dear Folks,

My ears were struck by the shrill of a single cicada: brilliant, eerie, a sound as sharp as two finely-edged swords brushing in midair. Gingerly, I pushed a hand-stitched blanket of burlap from my eyes. A farmyard of silvery moonlight and statuesque oxen, still tethered to their clay feeding bin, floated into view. The largest of the bulls, Zebus, a veritable giant with a floppy hump as thick as a fat monkey, turned his long neck ever so slightly, and the small bell secured to it tinkled with a beautiful subtleness.

Beside me, on another blanket spread on the same straw-covered dirt floor, a black-skinned boy stirred uneasily in his sleep. He was of the lowest caste, a shudra, and I wondered if perhaps the ox's bell had stirred in his subconscious a fleeting image of all the udders to be drained by his hands in the morning.

The gentlest of breezes kissed my forehead. Mother Nature's sweet perfumes momentarily transfixed me. Images of the farm I had explored beneath a pink evening sky drifted into my mind: a bent and toothless ancient grandmother squatting barefoot on the cold, finely-swept dirt beside a broken clay pot, churning milk in the pot as she sings; a shy young mother plucking ripe guavas from branches bent to moist clay because of the sunny fruit's abundance, as her baby clings papoose-style to her rainbow-colored dress; lean beautiful children, playful and friendly, taking my hands and walking along, oftentimes stopping to burst into somersaults and laughter.

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September 10, 2007

"My Father's Death"

Choma, India
December 31, 1984

Dear Folks,

With 15,000 extra police manning the election polls in New Delhi on the December 24 elections, peace reigned in that crowded megalopolis over the Christmas season. Still, I cried.
In a phone call to home on Christmas night, I learned my father is no longer with us. After years of struggling, his heart finally surrendered last Thanksgiving, my mother told me softly.

Not wanting to talk, yet not wanting to be alone, I have walked these past six days in silence. More than anything, I have wanted to end what seems like a silly, stupid journey, and go home.

As my family has become little more than a long-ago memory, I find myself increasingly gripped by terrible bouts of homesickness. I reflect often how all through South Italy and the Muslims' paternalistic societies, I had watched the close, lifelong bonds between the sons and fathers with a deep envy. Now, my own father is no more. He will not be waiting at home for me. And there is nothing I can do.

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August 20, 2007

"Shadows from Another Time"

Delhi, India
December 26, 1984

Dear Folks,

Someone struck a match and an oil lamp's wick flickered to life. Monstrous shadows leaped and loomed with the unsteady flame. I hugged myself. Hideous alien shapes seemed to throng about me. The cold air was thick with dampness and musty smells that settled deep into the lungs.

I stared, as if mesmerized, through the diffused glow at the darkly stained mud brick walls and dirt floor. My mind momentarily hesitated to believe I was still in the twentieth century, let alone on the same planet. Several hump-backed, horned beasts tethered to iron rings set in the wall upon which the lamp glowed made me think all the more of the Middle Ages.

A tall, narrow figure wrapped in a ragged blanket pointed a long finger at me, then at five hempcord cots lined against a far wall of the stable. A dozen other similarly shaped and clothed figures clustered beside the cots, anxiously waiting for my shivering body to join their company. I sat down slowly on the middle cot. Their forms closed around me like the fingers of a giant hand.

"It is a great problem for us these days," murmured one.

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August 19, 2007

"Candy From The Gods"

Delhi, India
December 20, 1984

Dear Folks,

The temple stood in a slight patch of eucalyptus and mango trees, just on the edge of a small lake that reflected a blue sky and several white hump-backed sacred cows. It stood on its own and looked out over a broad spread of dormant rice paddies. Not a remarkable temple in any sense: squattish, peeling, made of cement blocks, and with a veranda wrapped around a thick, steeple-like center.

And yet, it was its utter simplicity that probably drew me away from the slow-motion bicycle riders, hopelessly lazy buffalos, and shade of the Grand Trunk Road in the first place. Places of worship, I've discovered, can be very much like cities and towns: In enormous cathedrals, like in cities, those one meets are often fidgety, rushing around with a great air of significance, their minds seemingly preoccupied more with tasks than people; In the simpler homes of God, as in little towns and villages, there is usually someone around only too willing to sit down to a cup of hot liquid and an earful of questions.

In the small courtyard around the temple, I timidly kept my distance and intently observed the strange new scene that greeted me. Several beautiful young village women, barefoot and in plain cotton pants and dresses, were taking turns pouring water over the small statue of a resting cow at the temple's entrance. During this they also bowed three or four times to the statue, then circled the temple itself, sprinkling water on its sides and on the floor of the veranda. All the while, a very frail old man sat nearby on the temple's steps, in the warmth of the morning sun's rays, deeply absorbed in a book.

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August 9, 2007

"Dragons Along The Royal Route"

Lahore, Pakistan
December 4, 1984

Dear Folks,

As long ago as the fourteenth century B.C. the road along which I'm walking from Peshawar, Pakistan, to Calcutta, India, was known as the Royal Route. It was for thousands of years the principal route over which many of the Indian subcontinent's dynasty-makers directed their armies, and perhaps even their worshipers. Millions of pilgrims trekked over its congested potholes to pray at the sites where the Buddha had dwelt during his many reincarnations.

Today the former imperial roadway is simply known as the G.T. (Grand Trunk) Road. Yet, while the royalty and mystics, together with nearly every one of their hundreds of forts and monasteries, have crumbled back into the earth, there remains, as vibrant as ever, the masses. Rudyard Kipling, in his story Kim, perhaps best summed up that throbbing, ever growing vestige when he described this west-to-east artery of energy as a "a river of moving life, such as does not exist in any part of the world."

Since continuing my journey eastward from Islammabad over two weeks ago, I have entered into a fertile plains region known to some as "the land of five rivers." Here I have found very true the words of the many who've told me that everything I see and experience will greatly multiply the deeper I progress toward Calcutta, the very womb itself. As the land grows more productive, so too shall mankind and all its trappings, good and bad.

It is in this same area, what is now east Pakistan, that the Chinese pilgrim Hsuan Tsang wrote in 630 A.D. of one of the rivers, "The Sin-tu (Indus) is extremely clear and rapid. Poisonous dragons and evil spirits dwell beneath this river in great numbers. Those who embark carrying rare gems or celebrated flowers find their boats suddenly overwhelmed by waves."

Hsuan Tsang spoke from experience. On his return journey the Indus claimed 50 of his manuscripts and all the seeds of exotic flowers he hoped to grow in China. The pilgrim, however, was spared: He crossed over on an elephant.

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