Asia (September - December) EXCERPTS FROM ART'S DAILY JOURNAL
BEIJING (Sept. 18-22)
(Sept. 18-19) United Red Carpet Club at SeaTac cool, calm and modern in the old-fashioned sense. Civilized. I imagined what it had been like to wait for the Pan Am Clipper. It’s nice to be treated well. • Business class on 747 to Beijing. This luxury was not wasted on me. Seat turns to bed. Backward-facing. Great wine. Fine menu. Watched Midnight in Paris (stale, blunt and nothing but clichés. Are there any Parisians in Paris who don’t lead tours or sell Cole Porter albums?), The Tree of Life (visually ravishing, otherwise a mess). Read Lost Horizon. Neeta and I talked to an older flight attendant on arrival (while the plane was touching down) – she'd been coming to Beijing for more than 20 years. She missed the old, less Westernized city. • Walked our luggage to hotel down alleys. Wonderful: a small but well-kept set of courtyards with paper lanterns and giggling young women who are very friendly and spotty in English. My kind of hotel: 300 years old, strange rooms. (Early next morning I lay on my back on the hard bed and stared at the shadows on the ceiling. Felt like I used to feel in Africa and other exotic places. What unfamiliar things lay ahead of me today, outside these doors – so far away from La Mirada!) Walked around alleys past shops (an old historic pawnshop; Love Cupcake; Café de Margaritas; parasol shop) dodging bikes and scooters. Ate dinner at the hotel restaurant. Great food. Sea slugs and goose liver were on the menu.
(Sept. 20) This morning walked into that lovely, light-filled traditional Chinese tearoom for breakfast and found that our hotel is full of Americans. Well, what did I expect? Now I know the milk and fresh fruit are safe, at least. • Liu handed us off to another guide, “Frank,” for a tour of the hutongs by bicycle rickshaw. Lovely old winding alleys and big lakes (called “seas”) ... We had lunch in a woman’s house, her tiny living room in a “quadrangle” (the Chinese house of many courtyards) subdivided by the government into a warren of little rental apartments. A frightening tangle of electrical conduits snaking across the rooftops: all plumbing and wiring is (let’s say) informal. All living quarters are makeshift. “Frank” is a just-graduated law student who is a tour guide by day, runs a bar with his sister by night and plans to start work with a law firm in October. He is caught in the tangle of contradictions in this new China: a Christian, a vague admirer of much recent Chinese history, a muddle. How does Mao reconcile with Hu Jin Tao? How does rising in a law firm (in intellectual property) jibe with a still socialist state? I don’t know. Every country is a contradiction. “Frank” is cheery and earnest but more circumspect than Americans of a similar young age. If his China makes sense to him it still doesn’t make sense to me.
(Sept. 21) With Liu by taxi to the Olympic Village. Huge, coldly impressive and queerly empty, as they all are. These spotless squares and scrubbed monuments are actually maintained by silent, usually uniformed armies of the night: teams of cleaners, of window washers, of unofficial police aides (who march in step through the squares like soldiers and look like thugs), of security-scanners … many of them doing nothing; there are always more of them than necessary or than you expect. They’re the little-person-intensive engines that keep the spotless impersonal gleaming machine going. China is still a country that relies in an old-fashioned way on numbers – on legions of people doing small jobs.
(Sept. 22) Taxi to Wangfujing, the great glitzy name-brand-rich pedestrian shopping street near Raffles Beijing Hotel. Ate at the cleanest, most social McDonalds ever. (There were ads, in Chinese, for what a good job it is to work at McDonalds. Imagine! As usual, twice as many people working as seems necessary.) Glanced into the “Muslim Restaurant” next door, serving Uighur food. Steam coming off all the tables, like some sort of spa. Mall itself was a pure white, spotless phantasmagoria of Versace and Rolex and Tommy Hilfiger and Starbucks, like the clean room Adrian Monk fell in love with. • Got a sim card from China Mobile, here at Wangfujing. People pay higher prices (up to 1280 yuan) just for more auspicious phone numbers. We paid a rock-bottom 480 yuan for the least auspicious number available.
GREAT WALL (Sept. 23-24)
(Sept. 23) Long trip on excellent new highways – not a pothole anywhere – past high-rises and then tree-lined canals through orchards to The Schoolhouse at Mutianyu, a wonderful American-ish art-school-restaurant-artsy-inn. Long conversation with Jim Spear, the co-owner, like a peeling onion: We learned he was a designer-architect after having been an executive for a hospital-management firm here in China, after having been an investment consultant, after having gone for a PhD in political science at Berkeley (where he met his wife, his Mandarin tutor), after having been in the military. I’m sure there are more layers. Nice guy; great life. ... Everyone who works here who isn’t a gregarious expat European escaping from a boring career is from the local villages. High morale is written across their faces. • We took Jim’s advice and the directions of a friendly young Mongolian woman (the restaurant’s maitre d’) and climbed up to the wall by a steep narrow valley past tiny chestnut orchards, where men with long poles beat the spiky chestnut pods out of the trees and the women with them collected the best chestnuts in bags. We had been warned the “peasants” might challenge us – show us your tickets for the Great Wall! – but instead they were warm and friendly, though the only word we had in common was “nihau.” • Our first sight of the Great Wall of China, close up, was perhaps thirty feet away at the crest of a saddle. Enormously moving, like coming upon the secret of life you’ve always heard about in the most ordinary of settings. Neeta wept. We were alone here, the whole hike up and our whole way bushwhacking along this wild, unrestored section of the wall. • Entered the wall through a doorway on the China side, up overgrown steps, then it was bushwhacking for perhaps a half-mile to the restored section. Lots of wildflowers. Views of mountains receding into the slight haze, like you only see in your imagination. This was a wild, crazy, amazing thing to build (and build very well) – snaking impossibly up and down the ridge, with guardhouses on the even more vertiginous ridge beyond it, for good measure. Not a taste of civilization but a good solid lump of it, in an area that’s wild forest even today. A sign of Chinese strength and of the treasure of civilization the emperors felt they were protecting. I’m in awe. And it’s very beautiful. • A few Mongolian men and women, under little umbrellas, selling coolers-ful of sodas and snacks. We bought a Snickers bar in lieu of lunch. • Two random observations: Beijing is very well supplied with public toilets, which look both clean and absolutely unusable by Europeans, since they are almost all squat-style. Also (as my observant wife pointed out to me) every Chinese wears western clothes. Nobody wears traditional Chinese clothes or some modern upgrade of them. It is Hong Kong in the making, rushing to embrace the West.
ALONG THE SILK ROAD (Sept. 24 - OCT. 2)
We flew out to the western reaches of the Silk Road in China, where Central Asian Muslims replaced ethnic Chinese, and - by car, train and luck - worked our way back East.
(Sept. 24) We were the only non-Asians on a packed flight to Urumqi (the city on this planet farthest from any ocean). Everybody hacked, spat and fought for bin space. The thin young man next to me offered to put my knapsack up, before hacking and spitting. • Urumqi itself is an ugly sprawl of concrete blocks and high rises, either with no style or horrible garish style. You see Chinese alternating with Arabic script everywhere. The sun is like a dull orange ball lost in the haze and/or pollution. • Our hotel, the Mirage, is a disaster of a strange sort. It’s like a 1940s New York grand hotel preserved in amber, down to the bellhops in pill-box hats. Chinese men bring prostitutes down the halls. We found a partial condom wrapper under our bed. We tried to see if there were better rooms in the other tower, but the desk told us we were in the renovated wing. (Pause for laughter.)
(Sept. 25) Woke up 7 a.m. – still dark outside because it’s really 5 a.m. Urumqi operates officially on Beijing time; unofficially everything opens late and closes late. There is an understood black market on time. (“Welcome to Casablanca, Mr. Laszlo.”) Of course a man was already hacking in the hall. • Mominjon later tells us Urumqi is flooded with Chinese tourists, who evidently come here to see “their” ethnic minorities (the Muslim Uighurs) the way the Japanese visit the Ainu. • To the excellent regional museum (of the history of the Silk Road). … I stood a long time by myself next to the mummy of a woman, from 1800 B.C. (who had died on the long crossing of the Taklamakan Desert, west of here). Here was her face, her body, her skin – I could almost touch this one particular life from long ago. I felt like I shared this one thing with her, this intimate moment.
(Sept. 26-27) Off to the Kazak pasturelands with Mominjon and Abdikim. The technology is interesting: it jumps forward and back in dizzying ways. The crumbling mud-brick strip houses with barely a flower pot in front of them all have satellite-TV dishes. Some of the beekeepers crouching together in front of their olive green canvas cabins have a few strips of solar panels for electricity. • Soon, though, road descends into a spectacular desert canyon and I think, “I am about to see Turfan, which I thought I’d never see,” and I am near tears. (I first learned about Turfan - a lush oasis of grape arbors in the middle of the Silk Road's bleakest desert - in a show at the Museum of Natural History in New York, where it seemed like the most faraway, romantic spot on Earth.) • Abdikim is an excellent driver, though a crazy one. Spends half his time in the oncoming lane passing motorbikes and tiny lorries. It’s adventure driving: You see the mother with the stroller at one o’clock, the donkey carts directly in front of us, the two women coming in from the left and wonder, “Who will survive?” but in the end everybody does. Neeta and I are the only ones even mildly panicked.
(Sept. 28-29) Into the soft sleeper to Dunhuang …. We have two Chinese men in our compartment (neither of whom speak any English), one of whom is exceptionally considerate (offering Neeta the slippers that are provided with each bed, showing her how everything works), the other standoffish (he spends all his time reading on a jump seat in the corridor, until he’s ready to go to sleep). Both are a little worried by my coughing. Neeta keeps telling me to cough into things to make them more comfortable: my pillow, my elbow, my hat. For her sake I go searching the cars to see if I can find a western toilet (no, although one door marked W.C. at the front of each sleeper car is tantalizingly locked). • Magao Caves: The great Buddha, 35 meters high, in his tight little cave (we stand near his toes and look up into the shadows at his hands and his impassive face) is like an idol from an Arabian Nights dream, overwhelming and strange…. I try to imagine this place in its context (of a thousand years ago): at the most important fork in the Silk Road, but outside of China – just outside, in the desert, where one can believe things that aren’t fashionable in China, and where one must get one’s spiritual ducks in order for the long journey ahead (to Baghdad or Venice).
(Sept. 30-Oct. 1) Arrived in Xi’an (back in historic China) around 10 a.m. A sea of people at the gate to the rail platforms. We saw our guide (Tching, "English name" Grace) then passed our way down the gauntlet into one of the biggest crowds I’ve ever seen. This is Oct. 1, China’s national day; lots of people are carrying red flags. We pass under a section of Xi’an’s city walls, and KFC is right in front of us and McDonald’s on the left. (We later see Haagen-Dasz and Starbucks, and Tching tells us with a laugh there’s also Papa Johns and Pizza Hut.) • We drove to the Muslim Quarter, which is to Xi’an what Chinatown is to New York.... Down a dense bazaar – all T-shirts and terra cotta soldiers and a few painted-porcelain Mao tchotchkes – to the Grand Mosque, a lovely oasis of interlaced courtyards, trees and cloisters.... This is the worst of our tourist experiences, the most packaged, the most content-free – it’s what I hate about “tourism” turning travel into an industry. (Imagine Alexis de Tocqueville being driven through the highlights of Democratic America and then being prodded to buy false teeth at the Fraunces Tavern gift bar.) It’s what all of travel is becoming in China. We have been lucky to have been exposed mostly to the mild virus rather than the live one. I used to think I only needed to break out to find an authentic, exotic China beneath, but the beautiful Grand Mosque made me realize otherwise: It’s open to tourists 7 days a week and is apparently a zoo on Fridays. It is never the quiet, forgotten cloister where Muslims wander unobstructed to find their peace with God. Not even the authentic have an authentic life.
(Oct. 2) Terra cotta warriors magnificent in terms of the artifacts, a zoo in terms of crowds. The statues themselves are magnificent works of art, all expressive and individual (at least from the neck up), all radiating a confident calm that reminded me of Egyptian pharaoh friezes. Neeta thought they looked like an army of zombies out of a horror movie; I thought they looked strangely humane, these ranks of 6,000 individuals. (Tching told us they’ve excavated additional pits with acrobats and other camp followers – everything the emperor would need for his sojourn in the next world.) Lots of thoughts, in the face of this. China the country of magnificent civil-engineering projects: the Great Wall, the Grand Canal, the Terra-Cotta Army and now, these highways and high-speed rail lines criss-crossing the country. They involve grand commitments of resources. (The first emperor devoted 700,000 workers to his mausoleum and army, when China altogether had only 20 million people.) This country of public parks and public projects is in many ways the public country I’ve always dreamed of (so how do you like it in practice, Art?) • A visit to the “terra cotta factory,” as a favor to Tching. We buy two terra cotta warriors. The black shoe polish or other paint equivalent begins to come off before we’ve even packed them away for shipping, in Hong Kong.
TIBET (Oct. 3-6)
(Oct. 3) The sky was completely cloudy, blue like candy above, and I sighed. Then with only 10 minutes until landing we broke through the clouds to see a wide muddy river of a dozen different streams interlaced with stands of trees turning gold for the season (the Brahmaputra, beginning its long slow descent to Kolkata and the sea), and brown mountains that were somehow both rugged and inviting. There was a snowline across the highest ones and a dusting of white above, and beyond, even higher and whiter ones. “This may be the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen,” Neeta said at some point this morning. We met our guide, Tashi, a Tibetan, and his Han Chinese driver, and started out, and it was clear in a moment that we were far from town – far from anywhere. The buildings were strange and strangely decorated; many people on the roadside still wore Tibetan clothes; and soon enough the land was as empty and unwritten and vast as any land I’ve ever seen or imagined – just barley fields and cattle (mere dots on the landscape) and those mountains and the clouds. Tibet is different. Tibet is still different. • Our guide Tashi is 30, effusive, instantly likeable – it’s hard to tell how much of this is Tibet and how much is the one man himself. On the drive to Lhasa he told us, “We do not talk politics in Tibet,” then quickly added, “We are not interested in politics but in Buddhism.” He told us not to take pictures of Chinese soldiers with guns “because they do not like it.” • Our hotel is grand enough, though shopworn and cheap around the edges. It is like a museum, and of the Murder-in-the-Egyptology-Wing variety, with glass cases everywhere, each with one single precious object. Our room is comfortable and odd, with S.O.S. buttons in each area (I suppose in case we collapse from altitude sickness – Tashi told us in the van that the tour company wanted to give us a gift and presented, not just bottled water, but two oxygen canisters – they’re very serious about this here). We did feel a little uneasy on our feet: Neeta asked me if there was an earthquake; I felt like the floor in the bathroom was moving: it added to the welcome feeling of strangeness. We slept for several hours. • Lunch at the “West Restaurant,” a pleasant seating area on the balcony above the lobby. … Three or four people with bits of English helped us with the menu, which to our surprise included apple pie. Everything had to be sent for, somewhere else in the hotel: one woman went on a pilgrimage for my can of Coke, another for some bread and butter. Finally they brought us our slice of apple pie – a blue-gray crustless wedge that I really suspected for a moment had come from an apple pie they had baked 20 years ago, when the hotel first opened.... Neeta didn’t want to touch it. I was cautious but game. It was actually pretty good.
(Oct. 4) We joined the crowds (mostly Tibetan or Chinese, many devout) to see the Potala Palace and (what can I say? How can I get it across?) it is one of the strangest, most overwhelming, most mysterious places I’ve ever been and – contrary to the Chinese, who call it a museum – it is very much a living organism for Tibetans. It is first of all elaborate in its iconography beyond the bounds of reason. Neeta remarked that the Catholic Church has nothing on Tibetan Buddhism, and she has the analogy about right: seeing the men (pressed among the crowd of tourists) holding their hands together to bow toward the garish statue of some centuries-old lama, women adding butter to the two-foot-wide butter lamps that burn 24 hours, monks chant, and other visitors stuff offering money everywhere (into overflowing donation boxes, piles on the floor, cracks in walls and trees, seams where windows rested on walls, and yet not a yuan of it stolen), the only comparable world I could think of was of old Irish and Italian spinster-women in Brooklyn swearing that St. Christopher or St. Margaret would perform a miracle for you if you only lit a candle down at St. Theresa’s. These aren’t religious beliefs, these are worlds, all-encompassing, that swallow up every need and set the path for every action. Tashi says younger Tibetans aren’t interested in tradition like they used to be; money has become a bigger part of daily life, has moved into real estate in the mind that was once reserved for something more esoteric or communal.... I have come at just the right time: where I can still walk among people who are living in a different world.... What I remember most beautifully are the rooms with deep shadows on one side of them, going up to the statue-faces of lamas or buddhas, high above you against the ceiling, and bright clear sunlight raining down onto prayer rugs on the other from a lattice-work, high up – bright light and deep shadow together everywhere. • Police and troops everywhere. We watch them march up and down the streets and squares in formation. Keep watch from the roofs (under café umbrellas). Carry rifles everywhere. Tibet was closed to foreign visitors in August because it was “celebrating” the 60th anniversary of its liberation.
(Oct. 5) I want to make sure I capture the strangeness of this place before we go, and I’m not sure I can. But it’s probably worth throwing a few more words at it, because I’ve never been to a place like this before and may never be again.... Traditional Tibetan Buddhists are not a hothouse colony, not a museum exhibit – they are living alongside and around me, paying little attention to what I do.... All their mental and imaginary space is taken up by their farm and family under the purest of pure blue skies, and the convoluted, complicated and still extremely personal and local story of God and man in the palaces and temples, as claustrophobic as an aunt’s Christmas hug.... There is no unused neuron waiting for Levis or democracy or Broadway or the challenge of entrepreneurship; all neurons are in use, thank you very much. There is no thirst for or fear of change; there is no change. There is (so many other virtues missing) the virtue of stability – the stable universe the Buddha saw. There is much to do, at a leisurely pace, when time presents itself: blessings and prostrations and circumambulations. For the smarter and more thoughtful, there is the monastery (which still seems too stuffy and sterile to a free-ranging Western mind).... What kind of a human being does this make you? When you live, immersed in a world like this, what does it make you think about the world?
(Oct. 6) Up one of the most gorgeous, winding (and Neeta would add, terrifying) roads I’ve ever seen, up through grasslands to Lake Yamdrok. When we cross the summit (around 14,800 feet) and see the lake, it’s ridiculously, absurdly beautiful, like you’ve never seen anything so gorgeous and you aren’t supposed to: a huge twisting lake the color of Paul Newman’s eyes. Grassland all around it in a color of gold I don’t think I’ve ever seen in nature before, like gold satin brushed against its nap, with perhaps a rich emerald green barely adding a tint. Blue pure sky. And in the distance, at the end of the lake, the 21,000-foot, permanently white, pyramid form of Neqinkang Peak. I thought, this is where James Hilton got his idea for the Valley of the Blue Moon. We stayed briefly. It was one of those things, like the Buddha’s brilliant simple insight, that you want to spend all your time with but you really don’t know what to do.
BY TRAIN TO SHANGHAI (Oct. 7-12)
(Oct. 7) A stunning, epic, exhausting train trip, like the one in Doctor Zhivago but with better seats and more entertaining company. • This train, T166, is not simply better than the two we’ve ridden before, it’s leagues better – it’s first-world. The halls are carpeted. The walls are a pleasing yellow. The western bathroom is actually pleasant (at least in its pristine state, as we leave the station). The dining car is airy and light, with white tablecloths and a bar and even (we are to discover) excellent rice and kung pao chicken for two at the reasonable price of 41 yuan (a bottle of red wine costs just $10, but we hesitate to try). The compartment has better seating, better beds, an electrical outlet, individual TVs (which alas don’t work), oxygen outlets (which don’t work either, from the Making Oxygen Machine Room in each sleeper car), individual reading lamps with two settings (which do work) – for the first time on one of these trains I sleep pretty well. • As any epic journey should, this one has a cast of characters. First, “Bridge” (his English name; Wang He ___ is his Chinese), a slightly burly, English-speaking guy from Shanghai who got to Tibet by riding his motorcycle there, alone, and who’s now taking the train back. ... He’s got a hole in his jeans from some accident along the way and a scratched-up white helmet in his bag, under his bed across from ours. Next, let’s call him Military, on the upper bunk. He’s taciturn and Chinese-speaking only. He often plants himself on the jump seat in the hallway and just looks at the scenery go by. At first, when he helped me hoist Neeta’s suitcase up on the storage ledge, we liked him; now Neeta doesn’t trust him and I’m not sure she’s wrong. He has an exaggerated interest in our camera and my iPad. Bridge tells us he’s been in the Army for 10 years in Tibet, and now he has a 70-day leave to go and visit his family. He will get off the train in the darkness at 2 a.m. and wait for a bus that will take him the hour more to his town. Next, Cheerful Aged Man (and his wife, C.A.W., and their friend, C.A.F.), in his 70s perhaps, in the next compartment. He’s always up first in the morning, looking out the window, enjoying the dawn. I caught him exercising his arms one morning, and exercised my own in reply, so he challenged me to run down the aisleway and, when I did, I challenged him to join me, and so we ran up and back the aisle together while CAW laughed – all without being able to say a word to each other. ... Finally, a cameo, Lost Cubano, a sad somewhat drugged-out giant of a guy whom we met in the dining car.... He had a sister in Florida and a brother in Tennessee, and all he wanted to know was if it was the right time to return to the United States, job-wise. Are there openings in the cruise industry in Seattle? he asked. • We came up to extremely broad pasturelands, with herds of yak and sheep and villages of yurts with their motorcycles and smoke pipes coming through the canvas roof (smoke trailing into the sky). Range after range of mountains either stood on the horizon or came in close to us, each more beautiful than you could imagine, though your imagination had already been expanded by the last one. Snow dusted the tops of some, as if the brief moment of the year had arrived when it was no longer cold; it encrusted others to magnificent depths. We wondered which were the Himalayas and which had their own names. I remember catching sight of a deep gorge between two such mountains and thinking, “In the United States, that would be Yosemite National Park,” but here it was just one gorge among many, in the small slice of Tibet that lies close to the railway line. Later the mountains fell back and the mildly undulating plateau seemed to go on forever, like the Russian steppes. Still later we came to an enormous lake whose green color varied with the changing clouds.... Neeta said, “There is absolutely no one here.” And it was all at an elevation higher than I’d ever been before, even on Mt. Whitney.
(Oct. 8) Day Two ... After Xining the scenery changed to what we’d be seeing the rest of the day: muddy yellow rivers and their narrow valleys. Small villages with terrace- and small-plot farming alternate with grubby midsize cities with cranes overheard. I joke to Neeta that in 20 years the world will see the greatest surplus of cranes in its history.
(Oct. 9) Woke (still on the train) to fog enshrouding the landscape, monochrome trees sticking through above the fields, and the sun a bright orange ball hanging over it all. Beautiful: My imaginary China. Slept well once again, even better than the night before. Where is the longest train ride you can take, anywhere in the world? • Shanghai is simply one of the most beautiful, sprawling, exciting modern cities I’ve ever seen. ... Neeta turned to me in the van on our way to the hotel, relief oozing from every pore, and said, “Aren’t you glad we’re here?” Even the old portions of the city we’ve seen look either well-kept or else adapted for the future. Soaring buildings everywhere when you look up; world-class brands and logos when you look down. Many of the billboards feature non-Chinese faces. • Checked into the Pei Mansion, which is like stepping back into F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Shanghai (if indeed he were ever here). A blank face to the street, with a simple narrow entrance. A lovely garden. And then a mansion of broad, high-ceilinged elegant rooms in 1930s décor, rooms that you feel commanded from within not to rush through. Our room is as close as I’ll ever feel to staying in one of W.R. Hearst’s villas at San Simeon: too luxurious and valuable to live in, yet ours. • Neeta is right: Anywhere you go in populated China, even on the streets of beautiful Shanghai, there is a faint odor of human feces. The shower water at the Pei Mansion – clean or not – smells dirty.
(Oct. 10) From here we began our long walk down the Bund. There’s still an air of exclusivity and foreign domination here, though not of gangsterism or danger or intrigue. Shanghai is, after all, still a wide-open city to any brand that wants to make money (though no longer to every refugee). It’s Casablanca with Peter Lorre replaced by Louis Vuitton and Victor Laszlo by Salvatore Ferragamo. The hotels have doormen who keep out the riff-raff and speak remarkably good English (the general level here is higher than elsewhere in China); the signs all have English translations (apparently by native speakers) often above the Chinese. I feel there’s something wrong in this: Shanghai ought to be as thoroughly Chinese as New York City is American – the Chinese ought to be able to expect that – but it makes the city alluring, perhaps seductive, in a romantic/exotic sort of way. ... The young doorman at the Waldorf Astoria wanted us to know this used to be the Shanghai Club (to which he would not have been admitted). At the Fairmont Peace Hotel – formerly Victor Sassoon’s Cathay – they both discouraged us from taking pictures and encouraged us to stay. The hotel was art deco, elegant, beautiful, with a jazz club that opens at seven every night. We came back at the end of our walk for a meal, at a very French-under-difficult-circumstances café, Victor’s, with one of the most excellent quiches lorraines and opera cakes I’ve ever had. One last place of note, the former East China Daily, with a frieze that seemed to trace the history of journalism back to women’s gossip. And lots of red flags on top of everything. They’re like the rare Mao posters in the gift bazaars: They symbolize something without content, graphics not gravity.
(Oct. 11) We meet our new guide in the lobby. She’s 25 and seems even younger, speaks English excellently and is very likeable. She goes by Cherry, an oblique reference to her Chinese given name, which means red autumn. I may have been wrong: This is a free-and-easy city, where English is spoken well, and you hear every sort of discussion you might hear in New York except politics, as if it were removed by aliens in the night (a la Dark City) and nobody realized it was gone. Cherry told us all about her dating life, her apartment, the ways of the city. She lives in a sixth-floor walkup in Pudong, “at the end of the No. 11 bus line” – No. 11 being her two legs (get it?). She meets men on the Internet. She isn’t dating now; her mother thinks she’s too fat. She likes her tour guide job because it’s helped her lose weight. (She is – like those obsessed with their weight in New York – not fat at all.) She says women in Shanghai today are looking for a “dreamy” Mr. Right with “the 5 C’s”: character, career, credit card, car … and a cook. If she isn’t married by 28, either she or her mother will probably put together a data sheet and post it in the public garden, where other middle-aged men and women go scouring for prospects for their kids…. Except for this last, it all sounded so normal and familiar it shook me for a moment and made me wonder if politics really plays any more than a superficial role in our own lives: It’s just another topic of conversation, important only because of familiarity.
(Oct. 12) The Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum is extremely moving – not only for the special piece of Jewish history it represents, both the haven it represented and the strange, new Jewish-Chinese life, but also for how it brings back Shanghai as a city of refugees. Very polished restoration, displays, movie: this museum is clearly a coddled symbol of Chinese/Israeli relations. Every Israeli PM has visited here, with every Chinese leader. To escape Europe by the skin of your teeth, and then to set up a new life among unprejudiced people in Shanghai, with the Viennese cafés and Yiddish theatre you’ve brought from home and the struggles against Japan and Chiang Kai-Shek you’ve acquired here. The neighborhood (little shops, hanging laundry) looks like the Lower East Side of yore. In the park down the street we saw an Israeli guide giving the whole righteous-gentiles tour to a group of visiting Jewish seniors.
LI RIVER COUNTRY (Oct. 12-16)
(Oct. 12) Short night flight. My illusions about Guilin are shattered pretty quickly when we land at a big airport. Outside there’s neon everywhere, starting with big brightly colored fake palm trees and continuing all the way down the six-lane parkway into Guilin itself. I dreamt I was coming to Goa in The Bourne Supremacy and instead we’ve come to Niagara Falls, Ont. Our hotel is like something out of Miami or Las Vegas in one of their (relatively) tasteful phases: a pool you can see from the lobby, and lots of restaurants and elevators. The bedside lamps look like they’re wearing frilly boas.
(Oct. 14) Louisa (whose Chinese name, by the way, is Du Shen Shen) calls us early: the “agent” has gotten the time of our boat to Yangshuo wrong; we have to leave immediately. (We are always on the verge of a minor disaster with Louisa: She hasn’t yet turned her full attention to being a tour guide.) • Long drive through what is still a larger Guilin than I suspected, to the “Li River Portsea for Tourists.” Boats a little better than Marlow’s and Charlie Allnut’s stacked up at dockside; we walk across a couple to get to our boat, which is one of the nicest, with stars and clouds molded on the ceiling and an open third-floor deck. The caravan sets out – perhaps 20 or 30 boats in a string. I had felt a tinge of regret driving through Guilin, each time I saw a pavilion on top of a karst peak and couldn’t stop. Now I realized the Li River would be more spectacular, mile by mile, than all of Guilin, with karst peaks going back row-by-row into the mist, and huge clumps of bamboo hanging over the riverside a hundred feet into the air, and water buffalo wading out into the shallow river within a few feet of the boat channel, and fishermen in their long pole boats casting their nets. It’s perhaps the closest thing to a wild, honest, ancient China I’ve felt so far. • The boats’ kitchens are on the back end, open to the air. You can watch the boats in front of us cook and scrub and get some idea whether you should eat lunch or give it a pass. (It’s actually quite good.) We’re seated at first with a young Japanese man – young at 41 – the tail end of a large group of Japanese on our boat. We can’t get a conversation going, and he turns out to be the worst Japan has to offer, a solitary drunk and a lech, who offers Louisa 1000 yuan to sleep with him (he tries to have his horrified guide translate for him) and later falls on his face on the deck, after trying to kiss a random European woman. • Yangshuo, which I’d hoped (against hope) would be Lamu all over again, is instead – and not disappointingly – the ultimate Lonely Planet town: tight narrow winding streets with little waterways and stone bridges, and if no Yogurt Inns, then plenty of German beer gardens and coffee houses that all suggest laid-back expats living on the upper floors. I later discover what I discovered in Corinth, Miss., that all such charming places are fragile hothouse flowers in the modern world; no place is really out of reach unless it’s unloved and forgotten; and if you walk long enough you will find the strip mall … or in this case, the McDonald’s, the 24-hour KFC, and the glitzy shopping street full of horns and crowded sidewalks. You can escape them only for brief moments and only if you squint. No matter: The town is lovely when you stay on the right side of it, and our hotel (to my mild surprise) is one of those wonderful meeting points of Neeta’s sensibility and my own. It’s non-descript on the outside, on a tight little street. Inside it’s full of warm little places to sit, overlooking Chinese roofs and a narrow waterway and the backs of old tenements. Our room is impossibly huge, with our own hallway to our own bathroom, but the blinds and shear curtains hardly hide anything, and when you’re on the toilet you’re perhaps five feet away from a Chinese neighbor’s balcony, in full view. But the bed’s very comfortable (and) the furniture is choice.
(Oct. 15) A wonderful if exhausting day. You are really a different animal in your 50s: You have a burst of morning energy and then it’s gone. You take a nap while the 20-somethings around you go on to the next thing, stay up till 2 a.m., say “I can’t keep doing this” and then keep doing it. • Our afternoon bike ride – one of the best things we’ve done in China, and the most painful. Our guide, “Water” (real name: Ah-so-we), comes dressed in spandex. Bad sign for us. We tell him we’re old and sick and want to go somewhere flat. He says no problem. We ride out through Yangshuo’s urban traffic, first of all, just launching out into crowded intersections and hoping for the best – I had always wondered if we’d survive that. Then on a paved road through beautiful karst countryside, with not a tourist facility in sight. Then onto the country lanes and cowpaths-between-the-rice-fields and narrow concrete village lanes of the Chinese countryside (nearly spilling into a few creeks along the way), past women in coolie hats leading their cows to patches of grass (the cows, with their big eyes, all look so docile; the little ones look just like the Mock Turtle), past old men playing cards, past women with poles slung over their shoulders, carrying two square boxes of earth or rice or something else. A hard life out here. I think of country parsons riding the lanes – the old thin common paths – in a Thomas Hardy novel, or French couples, with sweaters draped delicately over their shoulders, on a Sunday holiday. In the hours before the biking begins to hurt, it’s bucolic and ideal. … At last we come to a sleepy little cluster of stores and cafes around a picturesque 600-year-old stone bridge. Two separate married couples have come here to have their photos taken (I long to know what weddings were like here before the craze for western dress and ceremonies: We in the west really have created myths for the whole world). I buy a Coke for Ah-so-we and one for myself; I just want to sit as long as I possibly can. On the way back Neeta’s and my bodies gradually begin to give out.
HONG KONG (Oct. 16-19)
(Oct. 16) Neeta and I are debating, like Thomas Aquinas within himself, whether Hong Kong is or isn’t part of China – really, essentially. The moment we get on our Hong Kong Airlines flight the answer is clear. The flight attendants are all gay and completely professional; they speak perfect English to me and then perfect Japanese to the man behind me. The flight is quick, comfortable and efficient, including Sky Mall service, and in an hour we touch down. (Beautiful night sky and big ships in the passage. I only regret we aren’t landing at Kai Tak among the skyscrapers.) The airport is huge, clean, efficient, moving hordes of people without ever feeling inhumane. We pass through “international arrivals” along with Arabs, Americans, Australians and the precious few mainland Chinese permitted to slip through. • Our momentary guide, (call him) Bruce, is waiting for us at the end of the gauntlet. Nice guy, though I finally end up with a disturbing vibe from him. We’re in a lovely car on a modern highway driving into a graceful hi-rise city. It feels like the international city of your dreams – a world away from Shanghai even as Shanghai was a world away from the rest of China. Bruce lived in the U.S. and Canada for 15 years, first in L.A., then in New York and finally in Niagara Falls, Ont., but he came back to Hong Kong in 1995, just before the turnover. “There’s no place like home,” he said, innocuously enough. But there was a kind of racialist tinge to his patriotism that was unexpected and disconcerting. He has traveled by train to Beijing and loved what he saw. He says Hong Kong is freer under Beijing than under the British, and that Hong Kongers expect too much from democracy. (He thinks, though, that Beijing may liberalize further and permit an elected governor.) He talked about a Hong Kong-born ethnically Indian TV anchor who speaks such perfect Mandarin “if you didn’t look, you wouldn’t know she was foreign.” I guess I expected Hong Kongers to be jealous of their rights, internationalist in their outlook, a bit superior (perhaps) to the mainlanders. I didn’t expect them to be undergoing an ethnic revitalization movement (although I probably should have) or to parrot the Beijing line like everyone else.
(Oct. 17) Hong Kong is one of those rare cities whose streets are sui generis, like New Orleans or San Francisco or Venice: the highrises reaching up into the sky with laundry hanging from the windows, billboards hawking the tailor on the 6th floor and the jewelry on the 10th and the huge neon signs hanging precariously over the street like a candy-colored bulletin board of the air. I love it: It’s so busy, it’s impossible to see it all, there’s always something to discover. This is a city of interesting corners; you wander in a stray door and you discover a world. • We hop on the Star Ferry ($1.50 U.S. for 4 tokens: one of the world’s great bargains) – it’s famous, it turns out, not because it’s impressive but because it’s rickety. The little boat is tossing so violently at dockside I half wonder if it will go down even before we leave. We cross (over to Hong Kong island) as the sun is going down over the skyscrapers west of Central, leaving a broad trail of yellow light across the water. ... We (then) follow the maze of elevated walkways on the Hong Kong side to the beginning of the Central and Mid-Level Escalators, then up the hillside (20 feet above the pavement) all the way to Conduit Road. It’s one of the most interesting districts I’ve ever seen: all the weary 5 p.m.-ers and anglo tourists going up the escalators, in intimate contact with the 3rd floor art studios and women cooking dinner in their apartments (as well as the) chichi restaurants (The Orange Tree, The Phoenix, Rico’s) catering to the escalator trade, sailing over the narrow two-lane roads snaking up the mountainside between the expensive apartment buildings. Every now and then we passed (an) oddity, like the old formal gate to a mosque, now tucked between the end of one escalator segment and the beginning of the next. It was like going up the canals of Venice: an entirely different city than the roads would show you, on a grid and with an attitude all its own. It felt in a way like it has been there forever.
(Oct. 18) We have McDonald’s for lunch. The place is full of young teenagers on their school lunch break, wearing neckties and modest blue skirts. If there is anything the British have successfully left behind in this Chinese city (besides law, professionalism and English) it is the prep-school tradition. The city is full of little clumps of children in school uniforms, having conversations right out of a Lindsay Anderson movie.
NORTH VIETNAM (Oct. 19-22)
(Oct. 19) I had begun speculating whether all the countries were going to run together in my mind (I’m just groggy enough, as a permanent condition, that it seemed like a possibility) but Vietnam – and in particular Hanoi – have caught me by surprise. I knew even as we rode in (the long, long drive from the airport) that I was going to fall for them, hard and quick and in a way that would linger. First there was (our guide), who proved to be honest, even blunt, even self-examining in a way I hadn’t heard in more than a month. Plenty of Vietnamese fled after the war because they didn’t like communism. We used to think of them as cheaters, now we think of them as heroes … The government isn’t very popular right now. You can vote your presidents out of office, we can’t … The party nominates the president, but it must be approved by the legislature. Of course whoever the party nominates wins … To Neeta saying Ho Chi Minh was a great man, he shrugs and says, “Okay.” He sounds like a free man in a free country, describing how his country isn’t free. • After the guide, came the physical city: first the hazy orange disk hanging over the golden rice fields, then the tall thin flamboyant apartment blocks (in China they would have been plain as white rice) and the world’s longest mosaic running alongside the road … and then we were in Old Hanoi and I was smitten: impossibly tight narrow streets lined with old trees and four-storey buildings like decaying memories of French Indochine. Every possible square inch was covered with motorbikes, parked or moving, and everywhere tiny little bars and stores and hotels open to the street, with people pouring in and out of them. Lights, aromas, cacophony, variety – thin men pedaling rickshaws, gorgeous slender women riding sidesaddle on their boyfriends’ motorbikes, their dresses slit to the top of their thighs, birds in wooden cages hanging from the storefronts, singing. Bundles of electrical cables strung everywhere. Mold and chipped plaster. Laundry hanging. One lone man in the half-shadows above the fray, on his balcony watching it all; the orange pinpoint of his cigarette flicking on and off in the twilight.
(Oct. 20) Next to the Temple of Literature, once the city’s (and perhaps the world’s) first university, structured on Confucian lines…. The most impressive things here are the dozens of stone stele, mounted on the backs of stone turtles, that record the names of every PhD ever to graduate here – a record (going back to the 1400s at least, perhaps all the way to the city’s founding in 1010) of the entire intelligentsia of an entire civilization. This value placed on learning moves me. It’s Vietnam’s national day of women, and so the grounds are full of swarms and clusters of young women, dressed beautifully, laughing and taking pictures of one another. It feels giddy and light. The guide says many of them are soon-to-be university graduates, who come to the now-symbolic centre of all Vietnamese learning to honor their success. • (Our guide’s most) memorable saying, according to Neeta: “The weather in Vietnam is hostile to human survival.” • We rush over before it’s too late in the day to get a bicycle rickshaw ride through Old Hanoi. It’s surprisingly long given the effort involved, and I become surprisingly close to my driver, who bats me in the head whenever he wants me to take a picture of something important (he speaks exactly no English) and runs his fingers through my curls when we pass a salon, to suggest I could use a haircut. The driver is behind you, so you are sitting barely a foot off the ground in what feels like a shopping cart pushed through heavy traffic. Neeta says it’s terrifying (which is rational) but I feel perfectly relaxed – this may be my favorite thing in days. The motorcycles whiz toward and around us; the driver seems to give out just when a van is hurtling toward me.
(Oct. 21) The drive to Halong Bay is a long one on a good highway. Golden rice fields interspersed with small towns, equally flamboyant as Hanoi – not a house without some brightly colored Italianate balustrade or window frame. Among the interesting sights: Women setting small fires of chaff and powdered coal in the fields, the plumes of thick white smoke drifting across the land. • Halong Bay City is a junky town with many big nice hotels in it…. Crowds of backpacker tourists around the quays where the day-junks leave – an armada’s worth…. After a very professional welcome and a little wait, we’re ferried out into the harbor, among the ships, to our junk, the Dragon Pearl 2. ... We check into our (cabin), which is romantic and beautiful, and then go back up on deck for lunch, with tablecloths and cloth napkins on a cozy terrace, which is even more romantic and beautiful. The boat is moving now. We are in among the karst monoliths you could see from the harbor in town. These same mountains, at Yangshuo, were lovely but somehow rumpled and undignified – not quite majestic peaks but incompletely digested ones: You were torn between calling them weird and gorgeous. Here, erupting out of the wide flat rippling water, they are simply stunning, like ideas each mounted on (its) own pedestal, like separated objects of art. No use in throwing words at it: Neeta is right. This is simply one of the most beautiful places on Earth. It is my ideal of a vacation to sit back on this boat with a drink in my hand, in conversation with two new friends who will one day be old friends, while the landscape drifts past, like the grandest of ideas, lived within but not quite formulated into words.
SOUTH VIETNAM (Oct. 22-26)
(Oct. 22-23) At the airport we find our way through to the domestic waiting room, have an overpriced coffee in a cramped, uncomfortable bar area, discover to our chagrin that the smoking Italians from the boat are going to be on our plane. • A short sweet flight on a beautiful clear night, followed by the longest taxi down a runway and around an airport that I’ve ever experienced – at tiny Danang! Well, on the drive out we quickly discover Danang isn’t small at all but a big, booming, glitzy fusion of Las Vegas and Maui, with dazzling hotels, enormous restaurants the size of Caesar’s Palace, a casino … and then luxurious tasteful condos lining the beach. It’s a stunning departure from the developing world to the world of fungible international wealth. Danang is more of a wide-open city now than it was when it was home to the GI bars and brothels and fleshpots of the Vietnam War. What a country this is: It has laid itself open to capitalism with no shame and no hesitation, and it’s barely a blink from where women are bent over in the fields under conical hats in the hot sun. Don’t these two worlds, like volatile chemicals, explode when brought this close together? • We drag ourselves into the much quieter Hoi An around nine. Our hotel is restful and sprawling, with a restaurant that opens on the night air and the sound of launches crowded with Vietnamese even now chugging up the river. (The motors sound disturbingly like helicopter engines, bringing thoughts of the war.) • Hoi An is a UNESCO World Heritage site, no doubt for its charming waterfront, its alleys, its little tucked-away family temples, its evocatively crumbling French colonial architecture (are there any buildings in the world that look more beautiful, that travel through such a warm earthy palette, as they decay?) … We have guarded our ignorance, read nothing. And so we are free and every street is beautiful.
(Oct. 24) All the way out to the My Son ruins, our new guide, Neeta and I talk about the Vietnam War, the attitudes of Americans and Vietnamese, what can and can’t be said against the government, the virtues of conversation and travel to broaden one’s mind, which sorts of government are best, marriage, and health care. I’m always struck in these conversations how young smart people in the developing world talk like they’re discovering the multiplication tables, making observations that are hoary and familiar in the United States. Democracy and prosperity produce a lot of experience by age 20 that people from slower, more insular, more repressive countries don’t earn until much, much later in life. … All the while I try to get to the inside of the question I’ve been wondering about: how can the Vietnamese be so placid and forgiving about Americans and the war? I’m not sure I can answer, but I’m more and more certain the warmth and placidity are real. I wonder if Americans forgive as quickly – I think not. The Vietnamese seem to genuinely like Americans: their informality, their directness. Why are these two peoples attracted to each other in this way?
(Oct. 25) (Our new guide) is the first person to tell us explicitly that he regards the Americans as protectors, that they were on the right side and the Cong (as he calls them) on the wrong. His parents were among the many people of the south who stayed in Vietnam after the war, kept their heads down and waited. He says he never paid attention when they talked politics because at school he was getting the party line about Ho Chi Minh and the liberation and believing it. Finally – thanks to the Internet – he began to realize there was an entirely different history (his teachers used to finish their lessons, at the edge of orthodoxy, by saying, “If you want to learn more, look on the Internet”). We asked if the government tried to block the net at all, and he said they do but young people pay no attention – they just work around it. I never felt it so deeply in my bones before this trip what a great liberating force the Net has been, like a worldwide Library of Alexandria that can’t be closed or hidden or stifled. • Saigon – and everyone calls it that – looks like an exciting city. Everybody is out at night, because it’s too hot during the day. (Our flight arrived at 7 p.m. and it was still 80 degrees.) The parks are full of couples sitting on benches in the relative darkness and privacy. The rest is neon and noise, if not music. Our hotel is very chic, in an ‘80s sort of way, with a big white lobby and a Roy Liechtenstein-size faux-photo over the reception, of an elegant Viet woman being pushed on a bicycle rickshaw in old elegant Saigon.
(Oct. 26) An interesting day, in which we had three or four different stories of Vietnam pushed upon us, all of them irrelevant to the open, pushy, struggling, consumerist Saigon of today. It made me think of how history works and how irrelevant history may be. There is always a vibrant, busy, self-involved Present that may in fact have little to learn from the past. • We mistook the Ho Chi Minh City Museum for the Reunification Museum Neeta wanted to see because of the American warplanes and tank in the yard. Upstairs – with the French louvers open on the already hot day, in this old high-colonial building – was the exhibit on the wars against the French and Americans. The narrative was simple and direct: The brave Vietnamese fight for their liberation against various invaders and their puppets. And it wasn’t just propaganda: It must have required amazing stamina to wage a 45-year war against two western powers. I’m sure that in the minds of many Vietnamese this was the truth. • Later we walked to the American consulate, on the same site as the American embassy in 1975. This is where history began to overcome me, as it must have overcome Americans of my parents’ generation visiting the Arc de Triomphe or Normandy or Nuremberg in the 1950s or 1960s. We asked a local hire guarding the embassy where the building was that the helicopters flew off of in April 1975; he said it had been removed. He smiled a personal – a humane – sympathetic smile. Across a few streets is now a Sofitel and a Coffee Company; I thought of the anarchy across these streets in 1975, the impossibility of standing on the corner where we were standing; the need to run, to get behind that embassy wall. And it seemed so wrong that things could be like they are now when they were like that then. The world seemed wrong. That was a personal narrative of Saigon, a tribal narrative, of the good guys and the bad guys, of “us” being pushed out and in danger. I don’t know what it has to do with anymore, when we are all so nice to one another. • Neeta was convinced we had seen the wrong museum…. The Reunification Palace had been damaged by bombs in 1962 and rebuilt as a building of that moment by the United States and South Vietnam. The Hanoi government has preserved it in amber. I don’t know what message they expect the palace itself to convey to fellow Vietnamese (I kept thinking of Stalin’s mistake, showing The Grapes of Wrath to poor Russians); I can only say what it conveys to me. It was built at the crescendo of John Kennedy / end of colonialism / Dag Hammarskjold / Pope John XXIII optimism about the modern world that was coming, a world of little, stable, benevolent republics. It’s in full UN bureaucratic style (as I used to call it), a style for the world – open to the outside, stately and dignified without being opulent or garish, vaguely Vietnamese but more honestly the property of all humankind, now becoming one. Architecture can speak a very powerful language, and to the extent this was an honest statement, it spoke a message of the New Frontier, the Alliance for Progress … of Pan Am, of the Peace Corps, of this imagined kumbaya moment that was coming, if the Communist forces of darkness could be kept at bay. It was the narrative (I think) that our guides in the South had been telling me, and it almost made me cry. But 40 years down the road it seems ludicrous to think of US intervention as noble and brotherly, and Thieu as a hopeful figure – a sort of Oscar Arias of Asia. But this too was a true story once, in the imaginations of some Americans and Vietnamese. And what do any of these stories have to do with Saigon today, other than to cloud it and make it harder to see?
UP THE MEKONG RIVER (Oct. 27-29)
(Oct. 27) The scenery as we get close to the Delta has a lazy, familiar beachcomber feel to it, like Huntington Beach in the 1960s or Molokai a few years ago. I like it, dude. The highway is used by truckers, bringing fruit one way and packaged goods the other, and for miles all you can see are little palm-frond covered verandahs with plastic chairs and hammocks – rest stops where the truckers can have a beer and hang ten off the hammock strings. • We meet our local guide, Nguyen, a pretty and sweet girl from across the Mekong, and our excellent pilot and get in our boat to see the river. “This is a big boat?” Neeta asks. Thai shrugs. It’s bigger than the one we’ll be riding in tomorrow. Our first view of the floating market is astonishing: It’s like Venice in the 15th century. Buildings crowd the waterfront on either side of a great canal, and in the middle there are so many boats you could almost walk across. Boats stacked with potatoes and pumpkins and rich red lychee bolls. Boats with shirtless men working or lying asleep or walking next to them on the river bottom. At the end of the channel is a French church and steeple: The French always know how to make a dramatic effect. People ferry out to the boats to buy produce, and then ferry back to shore. • We get out at what seems a random stairway by the river. We’re going to walk to various factories. This is the part of the trip I thought would be commercial and pointless but it’s not. We walk into a little sweatshop where miserable-looking young women (resentful rather than defeated) make rice-paper circles for 10 hours a day, three frying tins per person. We walk into what looks like a repair garage by the river where salt is purified in big filthy vats. We go into a puffed rice factory, a rice-wine fermenter (one step in the fermentation involves soaking a dead snake in the alcohol), another rice-paper factory. Neeta is properly obsessed with how filthy everything is: no gloves, no hand-washing, chickens and dogs roaming the floors, everything open to the outside air. At the end all goods were wrapped in cellophane and looked exactly as we might see them in stores (gulp!). • It’s another hour by car to Can Tho, which is quite a big town. Thai drops us off at our hotel (it’s now 3-ish) and says he’ll meet us again at 7 for dinner. He calls us a few minutes before seven to say, “I forgot to tell you: You should wear shorts and flip-flops.” I ask why but the answer, no matter how I phrase it, is a series of words I can’t understand. Neeta says there are mosquitoes; she’s not going to wear shorts. I say we can sort it all out when we see him. And then we go downstairs and see that the streets of Can Tho are flooded. People are wading through the brown water warily; motorcycles are splashing through it. It happens every day this season of the year, Thai tells us, at high tides. Neeta’s natural reluctance comes to the fore (she has been talking all day about the nasty uses to which this river water is being put) but I don’t push her, and Thai does only gently, and then her sense of adventure peeks out tentatively. We go upstairs and change into shorts and flipflops and wade out into the lively nighttime streets of Can Tho, where street vendors are selling food, families are taking walks, lovers are cuddling in the park, all half-submerged. Our restaurant is in the main market building along the river’s edge. … When Thai walks us back to our hotel afterward the river has receded and the streets are almost entirely dry.
(Oct. 28) We boat back, hop in the car and drive to the highest hill in the area – 850 feet – where a German woman fell to her death four years ago in pursuit of a slightly more perfect picture. … The view from here is stunning: a third to two thirds of the land in any direction is inundated, and it’s impossible to distinguish the Mekong River. In some places one-lane roads with houses on either side look like thin floating islands. And this is normal. It boggles the mind to imagine the 50-year floods now going on in Cambodia and Thailand, ahead of us. A woman on the top of the hill tries to sell me a few sparrows from a tight, chattering little cage. Buddhists release them here (and fishes into the sea) on the first and fifteenth of every month, a gesture made less humane by the cruel way the animals are gotten, to be liberated: another example of how institutionalizing a lovely idea can make it a bad one.
(Oct. 29) The “border” (of Vietnam and Cambodia) are two little stations on the left side of the half-mile-wide Mekong. The Vietnamese station is modern and straightforward and completely forgettable; the Cambodian station is a charming little tree-filled square of yellow colonial-era buildings, with dogs and shrines and dogs eating the offerings in shrines. The police sit on the verandahs and at tables under the trees doing paperwork. What took ten minutes at the other place takes half an hour here. By the end we are taking pictures of the little black puppies. I love Cambodia. • The Mekong in Cambodia is completely different than I expected. I thought of a muddy, winding river nearly strangled by the jungle, and Phnom Penh an outpost straight out of a Joseph Conrad story. Instead it’s wide and flat with 180 degrees of sky, like a boat ride in southern Florida. It’s bright with puffy clouds (no miasma, no mist); I’m always thinking of the Everglades. We see Phnom Penh from half an hour away because of tall buildings on the horizon … and – besides the hotels and apartments – there are, in profusion, perhaps the most beautiful, clean-lined, elegant temples and palaces I have ever seen. It just reiterated the lesson that you can never know a place if you don’t see it with your own eyes – it will always be different than anything you expected.
CAMBODIA (Oct. 29 - Nov. 2)
(Oct. 29) At 3:30 a new guide, Sukon, meets us in the lobby to take us to the royal palace. He is so warm he is perhaps our favorite guide in only a few moments. • The royal palace is one of the most beautiful, tasteful, well-designed public spaces I have ever seen: designed by the French in high Cambodian style, with the building that once stood at the gate of the Suez Canal planted in the middle. The silver pagoda, full of Buddha statues from all over the world, is particularly lovely. • Most Cambodians are as frank as the Vietnamese were.... Nobody but the old has any affection for the king – he was an opportunist who made a deal with any devil who happened to be making a deal at the time: the Chinese, the Americans, the Khmer Rouge (Pol Pot – a nom de guerre that stands for Political Potential – had been a classmate of his in school). • We go next to the Foreign Correspondents Club for a drink, on the third floor of an old airy building on the waterfront and straight out of Rick’s Café in Casablanca, down to the ceiling fans and open walls overlooking the river and silent middle-aged men nursing drinks, as if trying to forget all the things they’ve lost. • We asked Sokun what was the best Khmer food. He described a particularly odorous fish taken from the river, cooked, and allowed to age several years before being eaten. From then on whenever we talked about a restaurant we asked him if we could order “old smelly fish” there. He laughed. He laughs more easily than perhaps anyone I’ve ever met, like a pure pool, utterly without malice.
(Oct. 30) The killing fields day – a very hard day to wrap all my thoughts around, and a hard day for Neeta and I, who have been fighting and making up all day, in part (I think) because of the stress of what we saw. • We drove first to S21, the high school that was used for torture and interrogation by the Khmer Rouge before they trucked people to the killing fields. It still looks like a high school, in the decaying open-air model known throughout the developing world – except for the 14 graves in the courtyard and the displays inside. Bucolic, peaceful, in a way that is both a relief – like air for a swimmer caught underwater – and somehow wrong. Sokun tells us the Khmer Rouge’s history as well as his own (though he and his parents survived from 1975 to 1979, 14 of his relatives were murdered – I asked him how he copes with this history and he gave the only answer possible: He has to. Life goes on. If he can’t laugh now he will never be able to laugh). • The first several classrooms had been turned into torture cells for certain VIPs – the liberators in 1979 had left the metal bedframe, the toilet box, the water pail of the prisoner as well as a large photograph of the person – the one, singular human being, beloved by Nature’s God – as they’d found him: skeletal, twisted, mistreated over long weeks and months as no human being should ever be mistreated, with electrical scars and missing fingernails, in rags: something so personal and individual and concrete (the rusting metal, the blood spots on the ceiling) you couldn’t distance yourself from it even an inch. One room was enough to make you vomit, and there were dozens of rooms. • At night, though I slept, I woke up three or four times, wondering if the Cambodians had transformed again overnight. Would we be able to get to the airport? Could we escape? Were those gunmen I heard in the hallway? I knew I would have no courage and no stamina, that I would only endure because I had no choice. Would any of the people we’d met – Sokun or Samnang – still be our friend? And then I would fall back asleep, for another few hours.
(Nov. 1) Our day at Angkor. Before I begin let me say that Pol Pot modelled himself on Jayavarman, the king who (if I’ve got my monuments right) built Angkor Wat. Jayavarman probably was as much the murderous tyrant as Pol Pot, and he wasn’t redeemed by the great temples he built, but he has apparently been redeemed by the passage of time. • We drive out to Angkor, which is very close to town. I had dreamt of a humid jungle full of monuments barely scraped free of it, like that Arab city on the coast above Mombasa; instead (as is appropriate) it’s all slightly more of a great city park than a jungle. We drive along the great moat beside Angkor Wat; we pass little villages that go in and out of being souvenir traps; now and again, we speed past big overgrown Hindu temples – bigger than My Son in Vietnam – and Hai waves them off, calling them names I’ve never heard of, and says, “We’ll stop for a picture on the way back if we have time.” When we do stop somewhere, we are soaked in warm sweat virtually the minute we step out of the van. I tell Dorian later that I know what gumbo soup must feel like. • On the way we were surrounded by little children trying to sell us things (books, postcards, DVDs, T-shirts) and they were really very canny. … The best was the 7- or 8-year-old who tried to sell Neeta a scarf. Girl: “Lady, do you want a scarf?” Neeta: “I don’t wear scarves.” Girl: “Lady, buy some scarves for your friends.” Neeta: “I don’t have any friends.” Girl: “Do you want to know why you don’t have any friends?”
(Nov. 2) We spend much of our time at Bantei Srey. This may be my favorite of all the temples. It doesn’t have the grand Buddha faces of the Bayon, the romantic tree-tangles of Ta Prohm, or the sheer impressive size of Angkor Wat. But it’s a jewel: in a lovely red and black sandstone, half tumbled down, covered with carvings on every surface and with its own unique feature: the guardians outside each shrine, from humans to kneeling monkeys to lions. … We linger over this temple, do a complete circuit of the moat (along the outer, outer wall), dawdle over lizards and wild parrots in the trees … and this is probably why we enjoy it so much. • On the drive back, we stop at the grand ruined temple complex we passed along the way, and I take many pictures of the ruined stone guardian-lions against the blue sky. The shrines, having been co-opted by modern worshippers, are less captivating. A man offers me two lighted sticks of incense to “say a prayer for good fortune” just moments before he asks me if I’d like to exchange money.
CHIANG MAI AND THE MALAY PENINSULA (Nov. 3-14)
We had originally planned to visit the historic temple cities of Thailand, but flooding made us change our plans.
(Nov. 3) The days are moving faster now than they did in China – that is an almost physical fact. Our first month on the road passed exquisitely slowly. Each day was full to the seams; our eyes were open; and we came back to the hotel at the end of things exhausted, overbrimming with images and thoughts and speculations about the Chinese. Now we have settled into a groove, but it isn’t (as I’d hoped) a groove of Travel. I am actually writing this page at Phuket, and I can tell you we visited Chiang Mai for a full day and change without having set one foot outside our hotel in the town. That restless fever that feels so wonderful and impatient the first day of a trip is gone. … And I can tell you with certainty that my speculation of several years ago was correct: Time moves according to your curiosity, your attentiveness to the world around you – like a snail in Beijing, like a night train now (and like a still photograph during the odd minutes of unexpected turbulence on our flights).• We have lunch at McDonald’s. Thailand isn’t like Vietnam or Cambodia. When you went to a restaurant or a hotel there (and this was also true of China) you felt the people were doing their best to follow an alien norm: hygiene, silverware, privacy. Here the western world has been swallowed and ingested: It’s like Costa Rica felt, a somewhat poorer version of the United States. • Mongol Global Tours chose the hotel here for us, the Chedi. It is probably the most beautiful hotel I have been in and certainly the most exquisitely, minutely, carefully designed. It has a Japanese / upscale Hawaii / French (yes, French: the French are good designers) ambience … which would be impossible to describe because there’s simply too much to describe. It is at times like they’re inside your head anticipating your wishes (and perhaps reading your bank passwords).
(Nov. 4) Breakfast at the Chedi is (ho, hum) exquisite, just like everything else. • The Elephant Nature Park … is really quite a menagerie. “Lek,” the Thai founder, has also rescued dogs, a herd of water buffalo and some cattle. There are also a few cats who, rescued or not, look very much at home climbing over the enormous piles of fruit in the elephant kitchen. The animals all have very specific relationships with one another. The dogs, for instance, love and admire the elephants, a love which is not reciprocated. • The elephants form intense personal relationships. One elephant that had to be chained in the infirmary for a year because of an infected foot had a friend who freely, every single day, stood there to keep her company and then, when they slept standing up in the evening, leaned against her sick friend so she could take weight off her bad foot.
(Nov. 5) Our flight to Phuket swings in low over mountains, bays and scattered lights, heading toward the airport, and it feels like we really are coming into a very special, faraway land. Unfortunately we are not. …The hour-long drive to Surin Beach is through a junky, overdeveloped town of 7-11s and undistinguished bars; there isn’t a hint of paradise, lost or found. Our hotel is (within its own boundaries) not a bad place. It has the same inside-outside / breezeway entrance as the Chedi in Chiang Mai (though it feels emotionally colder). It has the same seating areas where you can wait in comfort to be checked in (though not as intimately arranged). The welcome drinks are watermelon cocktails (not as refreshing as the sugar-water in Chiang Mai). I have a feeling that “This isn’t as good as the Chedi” is going to be a pretty common phrase on our lips for a long time to come, and may one day become an inside joke, and then perhaps an epitaph.
(Nov. 9) The most remarkable sight as we arrive in Kuala Lumpur is the people. Malaysia is a Muslim country, but it is also a big cosmopolitan nation with lots of Indians and Chinese. You see headscarves and burkas everywhere, mixing comfortably with women in very stylish clothes and twentysomethings in jeans and T-shirts. The signs for the Muslim prayer rooms like all the rest are in English and Malay (both in a Roman alphabet: Malay is like Turkish, leaning heavily on English for modern words) – everything’s very modern, clean, non-chalant. Everybody seems to do their own thing here with no pressure exerted and no social prejudice; there’s none of the overbearing feeling I’ve had in Egypt and elsewhere, that this is our way of doing things and there’s only a single “our” way. If I ever wanted to show someone an Islam they shouldn’t fear – an Islamic majority they shouldn’t fear – it would look like this. • The Shangri-la is a spectacular, bustling modern hotel all done in polished earth-tone marble, glass, gilt and what I think is my favorite, alabaster. Neeta says it’s overdone but not before she says it’s wonderful. The staff is sophisticated in a way I haven’t seen for many, many months. The women are dressed impeccably and carry themselves as if to the manner born. They tap their breast with their forefingers when they make a gesture of help, like the officers on the Starship Enterprise; Neeta suspects Rodenberry borrowed the idea from Malaysia. Of course this is also another in a long string of hotels where we can’t afford to buy a Coke or have a pair of jeans washed. We must enjoy the luxury on complimentary bottled water alone.
(Nov. 10) We go to the Bird Park around eleven. Huge and wonderful, on the one hand, with the chance to see close up some of the most beautiful animals on Earth (like the scarlet ibis), but on the other that feeling that hangs over all zoos nowadays, of a prison. The ostrich is neurotically chewing on the chain-link fence; the hornbill that’s outside a small cage with other hornbills is trying to crawl through a drainage pipe to get in. … The highlight is watching a peacock give a full-tailed mating dance for a peahen – twenty minutes’ worth, in several bursts of shimmering and pulsing – before she walks away uninterested. • We heard the call for prayer twice while we were in the Bird Park. It was beautiful but more like singing than I remember from Cairo: none of the simple “Alaaaaahu Akbar” echoed from muezzin to muezzin across the city. These Asian cities are full of public places and public sounds, that all can enjoy together. I like that.
(Nov. 11) This part of the world doesn’t feel like I imagined it at all. It is modern, spacious, easygoing, relatively wealthy: no tribes, no hill villages, no unconquered jungle, no exoticism. No echoes of the adventure stories of 19th-century Europeans. • The border station on the Malaysia side is efficient and modest – like crossing from Vancouver to Seattle. Then we cross the big water separating Singapore from the Malay Peninsula, and the Singapore entrance station is something else. The traffic is split off into more flyovers than the Port Authority Bus Terminal. We walk into an arrivals hall as massive as those old pictures of Ellis Island, with at least 30, maybe 40 individual lanes. At the end of each is a video screen listing all the items it’s forbidden to bring into Singapore (of course, including chewing gum) and all the others that are controlled. A little electric gate opens when it’s your turn to see the immigration officer and another little electric gate lets you out when he’s damn well ready to let you out. My suitcase is searched at the last stage of the process. All that’s missing is a colonoscopy. So far, Singapore lives up to its reputation. • Hong Kong was the ultimate urban jungle, but Singapore is way different: It is affluent and comfortable with its affluence, like Beverly Hills or (I would imagine) Greenwich or New Canaan. It has a sort of restraint that makes you think of old, secure money instead of sudden commercial fortunes…. Singapore has a real sense of itself as the Metropolis of Asia – its commercial and (perhaps) intellectual and cultural center, as opposed to the more parochial Chinese and Indian megacities.
AJANTA AND ELLORA CAVES (Nov. 14-16)
(Nov. 14) Everyone else calls it Bombay, so I should too. • After leaving the most beautiful, serene, spotless and seemingly less-than-one-hour-old airport in the world just five hours before, we rode the bus to the dingy immigration center at Bombay’s international terminal and everything was a crowd, a mob, a confusion. We had to show our landing cards to one officer, and then (twenty feet away) queue up to show them to another before heading down a long hallway that Neeta swore smelled of urine – all scuffed walls and worn old floor tiles, like a lost terminal at Kennedy on a bad day – and after getting our bags we stopped short beneath the Nothing to Declare sign, where some people were voluntarily putting their bags through a giant X-ray machine and others were simply walking right past them, through a gap. We walked past. People were friendly; people were pushy; some people helped us out of unearned kindness for a pair of strangers while others, in uniform, did nothing as absurdity flourished around them. We were entering one of the world’s great, booming metropolises, at its main gate, the way Daniel Moynihan described visitors arriving at Penn Station: like rats scuttling for the surface. … At first blush I am relieved. This is still a different country, where people surprise you differently and disappoint you differently. Singapore was a beautifully polished familiar object; India is an artifact dug up from the ground, bearing inscriptions I can’t yet decipher. I love this kind of place, whether it turns out in more ordinary ways to be wonderful or horrible. • The airport hotel Sanjay lined up for us, the Sahara Star, appears to be largely under construction and surrounded by sheets of corrugated tin. … The room is bizarre, a luxury room that’s both claustrophobic and strangely mod, with an ovoid hanging console of “mood lighting” choices next to the bed and another of those weird all-glass bathroom modules plopped down in the corner, this one with curvy walls and (what proves later to be a pattern of misguided luxury here in India) an automatic roller drape that (when you press a switch) blocks it off or opens it up for everyone in the room to see. Nothing works intuitively or dependably. … But when Ravinder, the eager and professional bellman opens the curtain to show us there’s a balcony, my whole impression changes: the hotel is actually a ring, and all the rooms face in on a huge covered terrarium-hive with a giant flat roof and a collection of bars, restaurants, discos, swimming pool and Mumbai’s largest marine aquarium below us. It’s enormously seductive to me in a jaw-dropping way.
(Nov. 15) We meet our guide, Inder Sethi, at the airport; he will become one of our favorites – a middle-aged, balding man who (out of habit) calls us “ma’am” and “sir” (or at times, collectively, “sir-ma’am”) – as much as we urge him to, he can’t break the habit; he’s been a guide for 42 years – and peppers his conversation with “you see.” He seems to have read about everything and to be able to talk about it intelligently, so we will spend much of our time with him discussing American politics and the Arab Spring, as well as the more pertinent Indian history and art. We will discover later that he also loves dogs (and is in fact such a gentle man that Neeta tells him accurately he’s close to a Jain) and old movies, so much so that he carries musical clips from his favorite director, Guru Dutt, on his cellphone. The clips are so close to the high style of 1940s Hollywood’s Eastern European émigrés that it makes me gasp. His only flaw (and it’s a gentle one) is that he’s a bit of a prude – and that he sees India through rose-colored glasses, in the same way our Beijing guide did with China: sincerely. He’s a gung-ho personality, as I once was. He’s married and has a couple of children. • We drive two hours out to Ajanta, the earlier, Buddhist caves, on one side of a beautiful horseshoe curve in a river. … The Buddhist paintings and sculptures here are the most sensuous I’ve ever seen: swaying hips, exposed breasts. The Indian influence. Another Indian influence is the multiplicity of images – why have one giant Buddha when you can have ten? Buddhism (in a sensual sense) became more austere as it traveled east into Asia. There are two kinds of rock-cut prayer halls here, one with a long high-ceilinged hall with a stupa at the end, the other, broader and squarer, leading to a back chamber with statues of Buddha. The stupa halls are far earlier and more mysteriously moving. They represent Buddhism when it still focused on a way of life and before it worshipped the man Gautama and invented the whole pantheon to go with him. I look at these halls as symbols of the Buddhism that moves me: austere, simple, godless, with no cults of personality and no deification.
(Nov. 16) My rough notes only: Drive to Ellora Caves. They were Buddhist; then Hindu, then Jain. At first they leave me cold: an impressive feat technically but unmoving. I tell Inder that Ajanta is Greece, Ellora is Rome. But I’m premature: Many of the sculptures are beautiful. My favorite temples are Kailash and what I’ll call the practice temple for Kailash, the one carved down from the top, but barely exposed on the sides: deep crevices leading down to the temple from the light above, which feels like Petra to me. • Back to the hotel after dark, and a sincere goodbye to Inder. He has made a good bargain with life for his talents and personality: an intellectual, yet also a simple job.
A BOMBAY WEDDING (Nov. 17-21)
The one fixed point on our trip to Asia was our cousin Jiten's multi-day wedding in Mumbai and Aamby Valley.
(Nov. 17) My rough notes only: We drive from the airport into Mumbai. Magic city, fascinating, just like I remember it, though with fewer absolute poor. Grand old overgrown mansions; magnificent apartment bldgs; banyan trees growing out of walls; crows and vultures swooping for carrion; shops and motor rickshaws. Every building has a name and a plaque: Petit Hall, Mohlal Mansion, Cosmopolis, Daisylea, La Kozy Mansion, etc. • We go first to the branch of the family in the building named Mont Blanc. The wife of one of Neeta’s cousins, who lives here, takes Neeta shopping – we all go: to various shops, including Benzer. She gets salwar camise because Usha says she needs fancier clothes for the wedding than the ones we’d had specially tailored in Thailand; I get two shirts. Neeta enjoys it like I’ve never seen her enjoy shopping. We are pampered. • Next to the Nilamber branch. Neeta and I discuss the ubiquitous servants, how odd it is to have them hovering around all the time, unspeaking and unspoken-to, like ghosts; what a strange life it is to have every need taken care of so you never even have to get up off the sofa. • Next to Diamond Plaza. Meet Sheudutt, the family patriarch. Much of Indian life is moving from family room to family room, hanging out quietly, waiting for something to start. Sometimes it eventually does, sometimes not. Dancing practice for one of the nights at the wedding.
(Nov. 18) Sanjay’s promised us a car and driver by 10, so we could sightsee Bombay, but 10 passes; Usha says we’re on “Indian time”; finally Shankar, the regular driver, comes and takes us to Mont Blanc. There we sit waiting for something to happen until word reaches us mendhi has already started at Diamond Plaza. So, no sightseeing. We spend the rest of the afternoon and early evening at the Plaza.
(Nov. 19) Out shoe-shopping with Nena at ten, near the Parsi retirement home. Neeta chooses flashy; she’s having a good time. Nena tells us a few interesting stories about Bombay’s cows. They’re taken out to feed on grass and handouts until one, at which time the cows all go home (a bad traffic moment). No one ever thought to expel the cows from the most urban place in India, no more than they would think to expel Catholics. • Jiten’s “bachelor party” – a cocktail party for the young, who drink alcohol or approve of it – across the street from our hotel starts at 11:30; we get there at 12. No one there but Tony: Indian time again. Do factories run on Indian time? • Sunville banquet hall for the Baat ceremony. At these ceremonies, everything happens at once with no pressure to participate. We didn’t realize ceremony had already taken place – most people were eating and chatting without paying any attention.
(Nov. 20) We leave for Aamby Valley I guess around nine. • Stopped at a false toll booth on our way up into the hills. Not only false, they try to charge us more than the (false) tolls they’ve painted on the (false) toll booth. Driver talks his way out of it. I say I thought of taking the toll thief’s picture; Neeta’s convinced we would have been dragged from the car and beaten. • Aamby Valley isn’t the modern, luxurious, glitzy resort I expected it to be. Built by Sahara hotels tycoon starting 20 years ago, forever short of cash so cheaply built. Spectacular, garish columned gate – with security screeners – followed by even more spectacular, garish statue of Durga driving a chariot…. Our cottage is spare and rundown and shabby. Can’t open the drapes because then, no privacy. Dirty dishes outside each room. The safe breaks with our valuables inside. We send out ironing, which fails to return, then comes in three stages. Neeta’s rightly livid. We complain to management, and finally no-service turns into too much service: Three managers in suits come to apologize, individually. • Lunch at treed garden, followed by high tea and then dinner on a jungle-like island, after the boat ride. Eating never stops or even pauses. Wet chairs. Huge buffet. Neeta and I dance; she’s happy.
(Nov. 21) Not much till lunch, and then afterwards we hear there’s a tour of the area. We wait sitting on the bus – no movement; so we bail and go to see the ceremony where Jiten is teased – nothing happening there either; back to the bus, where we finally leave. Disaster. Classic time-share sales-pitch waste of time. We go back to begin the procession to the wedding ceremony at Banaras Ghats. Takes forever to start. Jiten is nervous around horses; the horse for his part would rather be elsewhere too. Ghats very Cecil B. DeMille but also beautiful. Jiten looks stunning (I told him that he looked gorgeous and that I would marry him). • We congratulate bride, groom and families and head back to our cottage to get as much sleep as we can before our early-morning ride. The Indian family is infinitely expansive and welcoming.
HOLY CITIES (Nov. 22-29)
We flew east to visit Neeta's birthplace outside Jamshedpur, and then by train, car and plane turned back toward Delhi.
(Nov. 23) My rough notes only: To the Jamshedpur house, which (by a series of claustrophobic doors and narrow stairways) is above the family business, a Nokia/Samsung phone store. A place of love and squalor. The courtyard where Neeta used to play is now piled up with old car batteries. There is a shrine to her father Kish, who died a few years ago, in the kitchen. • Neeta isn’t sure she wants to go to her birthplace in Chandil at all, but Jon rounds up a car and we go. Very busy road through the wooded countryside, in very bad shape since the last rains. One tight, busy street with one major cross street in the center, where the Moonka Mansion is, her family’s ancestral home, a beautiful old haveli-style house gone to seed and (as Kish once told us) the largest and finest house in town, in its day. • We’re invited in and shown around with hardly a word – only partly because Ajay’s brother’s family doesn’t speak English. The triangular room directly across from the entrance – the centerpiece of the ground floor – was where Neeta was born (you can picture all the women of the house and a few of the men standing just outside in the atrium, waiting for the news: a truly communal birth): now a storeroom.
(Nov. 24) We have to rush to the Tatangar Jct. station without breakfast or even coffee. The train is late and (when it arrives) almost cinematically dingy…. My favorite entertainment was the wallahs, who went up and down the aisle with tins of this or buckets of that: the chai wallah, the glob jamun wallah, the cashew wallah and (my favorite) the tomato soup wallah (who, Neeta tells me, was carrying croutons). • Gaya Jct., where the train lets us off, is a real trip. The auto rickshaws are full of holy pilgrims; the streets are full of the worst poverty we’ve seen in India (people sleeping everywhere, and beggars with grotesquely disfigured bodies). You get the sense that this is a special place in both the best and worst senses…. There are monasteries and temples from every Buddhist country; institutes of meditation and healing; a Tibetan refugee market; and a lot of activity preparing for the Dalai Lama’s annual visit on Dec. 29, when 800,000 pilgrims are expected to come, spread in tents across the landscape. • We drove to the Mahabodhi temple next – the center of Buddhism, the UNESCO World Heritage site, and it knocked me over. It was nothing like I expected it to be – neither garish, nor arcane, nor intellectually embarrassing, nor merely an ancient ruin nor merely a church to something I don’t believe in. It was already past sunset. The temple was floodlit; I thought of Hollywood. It was maintained and landscaped like nothing in India is, not even the Taj: it felt modern and rich. Umesh pointed out Thai monks, Burmese monks, Chinese. I saw faces that came from Japan and Europe and America as well. They milled under the trees by the hundreds, and the trees in turn were filled with invisible birds, rioutously squawking. Everyone seemed warm, comfortable with each other, relaxed. I don’t know why I felt so attached to it, why I didn’t get the reflex I got in, say, Lhasa, that it was interesting in an anthropological way but too superstitious to learn anything from. … I don’t know what it will look like to me in daylight tomorrow. I feel sometimes my reveries are very fragile – they have to be nurtured and choreographed and kept from bad influences to blossom at all – this however feels solid: the world’s garden party of enlightenment.
(Nov. 26) Another sad breakfast, mostly of toast, and we’re on the road to Varanasi around nine. • The grand trunk highway between Calcutta and Delhi is one of northern India’s two great arteries (the other being the railroad, about 30 miles to the north, running parallel), and it’s fascinating. It’s two lanes on each side with a raised median in the center, and it behaves somewhat like an American freeway but at least halfway – stubbornly, loyally, persistently – like an Indian road. The pavement’s good, and traffic rushes along at 90 km/hr., but drivers still weave in and out of their lanes at will using horns as a navigation device. Trucks park in the outermost lane when they feel like it. Dogs, pigs, goats and monkeys wander into the traffic at will; cows sit placidly in the middle of lanes, blinking slowly at the buses veering away from them at the last second. I love it, and I grudgingly admire India’s refusal to reinvent itself the way China has. It is still something different. • We cross a great multi-trussed bridge over the Ganges and there, to our left, are the ghats and temples and the broad gray waters. A little impressive but also a little plain – but then we are plunged into the tight, clogged, chaotic mess of Varanasi itself and I’m fascinated.
(Nov. 27) We haven’t seen the Ganges yet. We get out of the car on a tight busy street in the old city and then hurl ourselves down a warren of alleyways stuffed with people and shops (old Jerusalem but filthier and with cows). These aren’t tourist shops: They are shops and hostels mostly for pilgrims, for Indians. We pass shrine after shrine, stuffed into a corner here or a passage there. Then we go through a door on the side (a minor gateway: I never would have picked it out) and we’re in a long descending tunnel that opens under the night sky at the top of a vertiginous stairway leading down to the Ganges. You can’t see the other side at night; it looks like a dark gray ocean. The water holds several small boats and tiny butter lamps – I’d like to describe it all but I don’t have the strength or the paper. It was overwhelming, beautiful, strange. If I wanted to find another world, I have found it: The tourists surround it, on boats and shore, with their intrusive long lenses but they don’t change it, don’t corrupt it: it continues for its own purposes and by its own lights. I love Varanasi!
(Nov. 28) Nobody else wants to go out at six a.m., so Pradeep and I head out alone. The streets of Varanasi are nearly but not quite empty. On the mazeway to the ghats, we pass Fagin’s Restaurant, “specializing” in half a dozen ethnic cuisines including Israeli. (What quirk in human communication explains Tom Uncle’s in Lhasa and Fagin’s here?) Down to the main ghat. We take a boat and more or less retrace our trip from last night, finishing a little farther upstream. The scene is transformed. Men and women are swimming and bathing in the river, pouring water into the river, performing Arti, and boatloads of Europeans are floating a few feet away snapping pictures. Colors are richer and more vivid, the air is that soft lovely gray before dawn the Impressionists sometimes captured. The sun comes up as an orange disc. All is peace; time (the day’s time, the time calling us to human responsibility) moves slowly though the sun rises awfully fast.
(Nov. 29) First full day at Khajuraho. We start for the western group of temples at nine. Our new guide, Anu, is an Indian nationalist, a type I’m growing weary of. Not satisfied with claiming for India one of the world’s greatest creative cultures, he goes on to claim for India (and Hinduism) the invention of the zero, the building of Angkor Wat, and the theory of biological evolution – three thousand years ago. He reminds me of that woman in Israel who told her grandson to visit the pyramids of Giza, “because that’s our heritage!” I suppose it takes a very stubborn love to keep a culture going 4,000 years (in India or in the Jewish diaspora). • Anu tells us the Chandela kings had both a political capital and Khajuraho, their religious capital (and thus he says invented the separation of church and state 800 years before Jefferson)…. When the original 85 temples were built, it was also covered with more than a hundred lakes, making it (like ancient Mexico City) a floating city, where priests traveled by causeways and boats. It must have been stunning. The temples are elaborately sculpted in horizontal bands of scenes, almost like Goya’s cartoons, expressive depictions of human and divine nature. A Hindu temple is meant to be “read” from bottom to top (thus, one circumambulates it in order to orient oneself and get into the mindset it’s attempting to create, before entering). The bottom tiers here are famously violent, passionate and erotic, full of lust, cruelty (even elephant cruelty) and fairly acrobatic positions. Above that the same basic emotions are not transcended but transformed (lust, first into physical love, then into spiritual love, finally into an enlightenment of sorts).
DELHI AND AMRITSAR (Nov. 30 - Dec. 4)
(Dec. 1) We drive through New Delhi (broad, groomed avenues, tossing you from traffic circle to traffic circle, with neat blue signs identifying each embassy or street: a miracle of garden-city order) past India Gate. The sky is so hazy the distance dissolves into dust. All the old Rudyard Kipling / regiment-is-in-danger adventure movies have dissolved for me: the British were no different than the Mughals or Alexander or the Romans who sacked Athens – conquerors all, in for the loot. Their monuments are bigger than the previous guys’ and less artistically distinguished. They defended nothing. They would be the bad guys in the history books if they weren’t our guys. • Off next to the site of Gandhi’s cremation, oddly sterile and unmoving. (I thought of Israeli leader Ben Gurion’s similar memorial at Sde Boker instead – which was lovely because it was there, next to the farm in the desert that he ultimately loved more than he did politics.)
(Dec. 2) Our first stop is India Gate, already isolated in a morning haze. It’s handsome but uninspiring. They’re preparing the area for a huge procession on Jan. 26 – very Soviet, with tanks and missiles. I suppose the U.S. is alone in feeling so sheepish about civilian displays of its military power – odd, given that we have so much of it. • Every place we go today is crowded with school groups on field trips, all in uniform; I joke that India has 80 percent of the world’s schoolchildren – a corner on the market. They love me. I say hello, then shake hands, and end up giving high fives to a string of about forty all in a line as I walk past. (Neeta hands me a wipe.) I am enjoying my moment of celebrity as a giant, pale, funny-looking person with the key to the magical beauties of American culture. I’m glad that, even at 51, I look so open and approachable. (Later today at Qutab Minar the ante goes up, and a teenaged girl approaches me by herself. I say hello, she says hello. She extends her hand and I take it. Then her girlfriends burst in around her, giggling and saying “oh my god I can’t believe you did it,” and lead her away.)
(Dec. 3) Our Sikh guide Gurinder suggested it was important we see the Golden Temple, the central shrine of Sikhism, at night, so when we got to the hotel we left the car and driver and took a tuk-tuk with him into the dark, lively, dense streets of the old town, so much like Old Varanasi. Everyone was converging on the Temple, and it’s set up to handle them: big, well-lit, well organized stations for taking off the shoes; shallow pools of water across the entryways for washing the feet; broad passages funneling into the compound; and inside, stations for providing free food, drinking water and hostel space to masses of people. This place is meant to be used by the community and is used. Inside it’s a whole insular world: glowing white marble surrounding the great pool, whose gentle ripples play in light on the sides of the buildings. The night sky. And then the golden temple itself, glistening, gleaming, separate, connected to this world only by a single thin causeway. The chanting over the loudspeakers is mesmerizing. A Jumbotron at one corner helpfully supplies the words. And people simply walk – easily, sociably – in the great circle around the compound, chatting, praying, taking pictures. This is a public place apart, separated from the ordinary, and people feel that. When we finally got in line and took the walk down the causeway to the golden temple, I looked up at the golden friezes above me and thought, This is how it always is, with all cults, all communities, all close-knit groups. When a Sikh comes here, he thinks, “I am coming to the special place. I will be better. I will be a good man. I am part of a good community.” Because the human mind is complex and demands more, there are symbols and fairy stories and history to specify in what way Sikhs are remarkable, what is the content of their beliefs, but really it is that simple: “This is my community. This is a special place. Looking at it I feel lucky and special and I will be a better man.” Inside the temple the two rooms (one above, one below) were a surprise: just two or three holy men surrounded by huge colored pillows, and then people sitting everywhere on the carpets, in the corners, wherever there was a free spot, just like they might sit in a hippie coffeehouse in New York or San Francisco, reading from little books. The distance between this and City Lights in San Francisco is a small one. I could see myself reading a Dover edition of Michel de Montaigne rather than the Sikh holy book, and gazing out onto the water and listening to the music to similar effect.
(Dec. 4) The compound of the Golden Temple is even busier today than last night. Gurinder takes us to the kitchens – just outside one of the main gates where volunteers cook, serve and clean up after free meals for 40,000 people per day. Gurinder told me that (a few times) he had both volunteered and eaten here. I suspect the fungibility of roles here (chef, dishwasher, diner) is limited but real. I keep thinking about how communities work in the human mind, with this very tight, very local community – the Sikhs – as a demonstration project. People need to feel part of a special, elect group – the blandest expression of which is perhaps “American exceptionalism” (so why can’t they feel part of “humanity” or “the living” – two very special, elect groups?). A special place, a physical gathering place or lightning rod – a Golden Temple, a Temple Mount, a Bastille – helps to summon the feelings of specialness and community (so why can’t anyplace be the dust particle that gathers the rainstorm – like the blossom in Buddha’s hand?). Under the right circumstances, the sense of community can bring forth great acts of generosity and fellow feeling, like the Sikh kitchens, the Jewish charities and so on. Anyway, on first glance, the Sikhs in Punjab seem to have a real, physical, touchable community – one that feels special and important. Would that we could all feel that way, with no walls to keep out any infidels, with no one who doesn’t belong. • As we walked back down the streets (past more havelis, past a young woman who was knocked down by a tuk-tuk and looked like she was about to pass out from the disorientation) we practically stumbled across the narrow passage into Jallianwala Bagh, site of the Dyer massacre in 1919, which everybody seems to regard as a major catalyst of Indian independence 28 years later. It probably was. It certainly showed the world the difference between the non-violent side and the violent one. It’s a peaceful garden now with a structure built up over the Martyrs’ Well and a strange rocket-ship-like monolith (supposed to represent a living flame) in the center. I dislike martyrs’ monuments (as opposed to the sites of tragedies – a different attitude); they seem to relish the death that shows them to be right and their opponents to be wrong; sometimes the dead get lost in the process. • P.S. I wasn’t as moved by Jallianwala Bagh as I expected to be. Don’t know why. And I think that fact is annoying me, like a riddle, or bothering me, like a flaw.
GREAT TOMBS AND TIGER PARKS (Dec. 5-9)
(Dec. 5) Normally there’s a lot to say about our guides and little about the drivers, but Aftab, who’ll be our driver from now till the end, has instantly become a hit with us. He speaks English well (just shy of very well) and is refreshingly egoless, modest, without anything to prove. He shares ideas and places with us as he thinks we’ll be interested; he speaks frankly without defensiveness about India – and without an exaggerated pride; mostly, though, he is jolly, one of the few truly jolly people I’ve ever met – always smiling, making us laugh less with wit (although he can be witty) than by his own high spirits … by laughing with us. He’s originally from Gaya, a Muslim, though he spoke at first so easily and sensitively about Hinduism that I thought he was Hindu. • Aftab helped remind us that the British left other things besides the street-scheme of New Delhi: tea time, fashionable clubs, golf and boarding schools, which practically line the highway to Agra for the first several miles. Indian culture is (contrary to the impression) like American culture, the upshot of a melting pot. Its identifiable glories are not those of the Indus Valley civilization, but of the Aryan and Mughal (and to a much lesser extent British) invaders who intermixed and made them the Indians of today. Sanskrit, the Taj Mahal, New Delhi, the railroads are all the product of immigrants.
(Dec. 6) To the Taj Mahal painfully early, for sunrise. You now have to park far away, take a free bus a little closer and finally walk to the grand first gate. It added to the sense of occasion: Among the Taj’s magnificences is the magnificently long and emotionally building way you have to approach it. This time I found it much more beautiful than I had the first time, I’m sure because I expected less. I let it roll over me. … I thought a lot about how people use public spaces – how the physical space itself is one thing and the use of it a second living quality of the place. I always felt a little offput that the Taj is really a tomb, that at the center of this recreation of the Koranic paradise, this garden of earthly delights (the gardens used to be full of musk melons and honey and other luxuriant fruits until the British redid them in 1880) isn’t a grand airy room for sitting out on a magnificent winter’s day, nor a library, nor an airy space for contemplation like the Lotus Temple, but a grave: a place given over to one dead person rather than the living world. That’s a physical flaw. Then, the way the Taj is largely used today, people are shepherded through by their guides from one photo point to another and told the hokum story of Shah Jahan’s great love for Mumtaz Mahal. Only the few and wise linger and sit and use the place a different way.
(Dec. 7) We drag ourselves up with difficulty (and without breakfast or even coffee) to meet our jeep at 7 a.m. Reception tells us the jeep for our game drive is ready, and we go down to meet our naturalist, our driver and – squeezed, knees up, onto the back bench in a hood, with a large telephoto lens wrapped in a pillowcase – Dave Lovett of not-far-from-Brighton, England, who has Michael Caine’s cockney accent and an easy sense of humor. He is (like so many people we’ve met these past three months) a nearly professional traveler, working as little as he can (he lives with his mum) and saving half his wages for travel. (He’s 27 years old and – since everyone he knows is divorced, except for one uncle – gun shy about wives, children or other attachments.) He spent five and a half weeks seeing all the great game parks of east and southern Africa, and now he’s here. … We share the first part of the road with noisy pilgrims on their way to an active Ganesh temple in the Ranthambhore castle on top of a large bluff. “This Ganesh has three eyes – a very important temple,” we’re told repeatedly with great gravity, though there seem to be few impediments in the way of making an even more important Ganesh temple with four, five or six eyes. At the monumental gate where the road splits, a few dozen gray langur monkeys hang with the crowd, and then we go into the park proper. We drive around the lakes and forests with seeming determination, but the guides know the odds of seeing a tiger are against us and so a great deal of this is just theatre. (At one point we stop dramatically to look at tiger tracks beside the car track, as if they’ve just been discovered. Dave leans over to tell us that he was told dramatically about those same prints yesterday.) … My only remaining desire at the end of the ride is to find out why we, the largest, fattiest unexploited food source in this deciduous forest, riding around in our open jeeps, aren’t on the tiger’s menu.
(Dec. 8) The standard way to search for a tiger is to listen for “alarm calls” – single sharp notes called out by the herd animal on watch to alert everyone that a predator is near. Just inside the inner gate we see a langur give out its alarm hoot, again and again. Then a herd of spotted deer gives out its alarm cry too: They’re all standing on the rocks above a creek staring at the forest, like iron filings oriented to a magnet. So we’re feeling very lucky. (Less scientifically, we saw two mongeese on the way into the park, which our driver tells us is a sign of luck.) But we wait and nothing happens, and for the rest of the morning we drive around aimlessly. • In quick succession we heard an alarm call from a monkey in the trees and saw a collection of samber and spotted deer looking very suspiciously at the grassland along the creek. Other jeeps came and went, but our driver was convinced – absolutely – that a tiger was nearby. We waited in vain and finally headed back down where we’d come from until we saw another samber in the creekbed giving urgent and repeated calls, looking upstream. By now a half-dozen vehicles were on this narrow lousy little stretch of road, and we adjusted laboriously up and down, a hundred feet here and a hundred feet there, until – eureka! – someone spotted a female tiger, seven or eight years old, lying in the grass along the creekbed. It lazed on its side while the samber deer barked at it until it became fed up with the ridiculous amount of noise we in the jeeps were making (if it had any cover, it was certainly blown) and it walked nonchalantly up the hill and crossed the road behind the last vehicle and vanished into the woods, shaking our dust off its sandals.
(Dec. 9) A big bus, at 8:30 a.m., came across a male tiger lying at ease in the middle of the entrance road. There is no justice in tiger watching.
LUXURIOUS RAJASTHAN (Dec. 9-14)
(Dec. 9) Ever since we entered Rajasthan camels have been the beast of burden, pulling carts of all sizes with their up-and-down stride as well as that strange finishing school elegance that keeps their head on a horizontal line, always as it is. We are also beginning to see gypsies – so called – in brilliant colored clothing and the simplest triangular tents at the side of the road.
(Dec. 10) Jaipur is much more the exotic romantic city than I gave it credit for. … Sawai Singh, the city’s founder, was evidently a bit of a visionary, not only in astronomy (he’s the one who built all of those observatories, from here to Varanasi) but in city planning. • First we stopped at the so-called Wind Palace, an ornate façade on one of the arcaded streets of shopping stalls. It existed only so that the royal women could come here (by way of secret tunnels from the City Palace) and watch the goings-on of ordinary life from behind screens, without being seen. (For the bird in a golden cage, the noisy bustling tenement life of, say, the Lower East Side is the pearl beyond price.) • Next we drove the 11 kilometers to Amber, the original seat of the maharajas, which you come upon after a narrow pass in the mountains and which dominates the landscape like in an Arabian Nights fairytale. … The palace is my favorite kind of place – it sprawls by a logic that isn’t immediately clear, is full of long hallways and doors off of other doors, and then (out of nowhere) painted ceilings or turreted vistas or courtyards with gardens: every passage was worth following because it might end in a surprise. There is a living example here of the escalating avarice Tolstoy wrote about in “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” but without the kicker. The royal family’s first palace, in Hindu style and now in ruins, lies down among the buildings of Amber village, in among houses and temples like an African fon’s palace. Once the family allied itself with the splendid Mughal emperors, that would no longer do, so it built a first great palace on the hill, walled for majesty and focused around a courtyard with a rather nice pavilion in the center. But “rather nice” was not enough (while “squalid” continued to be just fine for ordinary people) so the palace was added to in ever more splendid style – Turkish baths, modern latrines, gardens groomed to look like Persian rugs; Murano stained-glass windows, pavilions that improve upon the glass palace at Agra Fort – until the Mughals started sending inspectors to make sure it wasn’t too splendid for a mere vassal state. Then when Aurangzeb died and the Mughals went into decline, Sawai Jai Singh looked around him, said “This old dump!” and built the city of Jaipur – an imperial city for the maha-est raja in India. 250 years later the last great Jaipur king dies in a polo accident, Indira Gandhi cancels the privileges of the princely states, and the family goes into the hotel business – a fate (if the Astors are to be believed) almost as bad as Tolstoy’s pine box. • Our two last stops are the great Jaipur observatory and the City Palace. The observatory is wonderful…. To get across its spirit: The king built a sundial perhaps 20 feet high to measure the time within 20-second intervals, then, dissatisfied, built another, more than a hundred feet high, to measure it within 2-second intervals. The astronomer would have to race up a set of stairs to read the correct time. The whole place is designed in the same Borges-meets-Escher spirit.
(Dec. 11) We passed the fresh milk market several times, with big metal canisters like in Mom and Dad’s childhood. The cows here eat garbage. Aftab told us that milk buyers like to stick their hands into the canisters before deciding which to buy from. Yet they’ll pay more for this (tasty) milk than for pasteurized milk from the store. Yum!
(Dec. 12) I am charmed by Udaipur from the beginning. We start seeing the lakes (“no, that isn’t the one with the Lake Palace. No, not that one either”) so extensive they seem natural rather than manmade. The neighborhoods are full of big comfortable homes behind walls and gates (still, like everywhere in India, a little moldy and spare around the edges) and chichi-ish restaurants, implying a sensibility of art, comfort and sophistication. Up the hill to the brink of a handsome gate opening on a vast garden of parrots and African tulip trees (the Oberoi) and we turn right into the Chunda Palace hotel. … I liked it from the moment we stepped inside. It’s wildly overdone with elaborately painted walls and carved furniture, multicolored marble floors, chandeliers and oil paintings, and huge stretches of open space with cushions for lounging and sunlight streaming in the windows. That it was once a noble family’s haveli, transformed over 16 years, lovingly, into a hotel, and so has acquired some of its baroque splendor honestly, adds to its appeal for me. You either roll your eyes at it or love it the way you love Cary Grant’s hotel room or the Bond girl’s chambers at the Casino de Monte Carlo in the movies. Our hotel room, #307, is perhaps 50’ long by 25’ wide, plus a sitting alcove with a window seat and a large bathroom; there is seating for 11, besides the big four-poster bed, including an elaborately carved loveseat swing, and floorspace for another forty. The Russian revolutionists would have subdivided the place into housing for three families and then taken proles on tour to see it – the ceiling murals of horsemen and peacocks, the handwoven throwcarpets – as evidence of the decadence of the noble classes. As you can see, I love it, in an “I’ve Loved These Days” sort of way. • We hear the call to prayer echoing and reverberating across the city, in a way that makes the world seem welcoming rather than sectarian or exotic, just as hundreds of green parrots stream out of the trees toward their evening quarters on the lake.
(Dec. 13) On the drive to the City Palace, the road winds along the low wall of the public garden, past art shops and havelis – set back from the road, in their own gardens, with pillars and lions guarding the entrance – rescued from decrepitude as comfortable, small “palace” hotels. I love Udaipur. The City Palace is simply enormous, running along the waterfront for something like 1500 feet. The driveway curving up its face, the lampposts: It reminds me powerfully of something you’d find along the Cote d’Azur, some Monaco-like rich principality’s castle, always featured in Paris Match. (There’s a riding ground just below it, where policemen exercise the 67-year-old maharana’s horses.) Neeta detests giving money to the royals and on moral grounds she’s right, but (as with some of the temples) we both want to see what’s on the inside, there having been a long period in human history (until the mid-19th century perhaps) when all the great architecture, gardens, artwork and other products of human imagination belonged to one or the other, the crown or the church. … The Udaipur royals still live on a few beautiful terraces of the palace, behind a well-guarded gate, embraced on two sides by luxury hotels and the third by the museum, all of which they own. Their wealth is protected from confiscation in a charitable trust, the only visible product of which is a snooty “public” school, also on the grounds. The great thieves are the same the world over.
STARK AND DRAMATIC RAJASTHAN (Dec. 14-22)
(Dec. 17) Jaisalmer was only discovered for tourism after India’s nuclear program went public and the visiting press saw the potential of a romantic, turreted castle at the edge of the desert. Even after 30 years of development the place feels more like a backpacker’s destination than a package tourist’s; you see “recommended by Lonely Planet” on wooden signs throughout the narrow streets. …The castle itself – looming over the one entryway with complicated bastions and crenellations and stone balls (to drop on would-be attackers) – is everything you could hope for a castle to be. You have to pass through four gates up a twisting, narrow cobbled road to get to the main square, the last one passing under the maharawal’s former palace; of course now they’re all separated by turban and rug salesmen and “Italian” restaurants and “German” bakeries. You see white tourists everywhere, the men wearing week-old beards and khaki shorts, the women wearing thin colorful wraps they’ve bought in the bazaar. … Mahindra takes us up and down alleyways passing for streets, complicated enough to leave me pleasantly disoriented. Why do I love places like this? What is it I actually fantasize about? Certainly not about being a 12th-century laborer, living in a hovel; nor about being a Jain merchant in my splendid haveli, with the door locked to the poor; nor about being the maharawal, powerful and terrible. I fantasize about sunlight; and the sense of being up high; and the grid I haven’t yet figured out; and the strangeness – the colors, the smells, the desert, the music – that blows off everything that’s mundane, dull, familiar, meaningless, like sand off a stone wall, leaving only … what’s left, the hard essential thing I am always looking for, life pure, as potent as history. • Mahindra points out paintings of Ganesh on many house walls. They are actually wedding announcements. When a couple gets engaged they call the painter. Passers-by see the wall and tell their neighbors, and by the date of the wedding everyone seems to know and comes to take part: such is the way it works in this small, tight community (only 4,000 people within the walls). • Mahindra suggests we stay at the graveyard of the maharawals for sunset; we say no, please, somewhere else, so we drive to a crumbling turret with a wonderful view overlooking the city and the fort. It’s been turned into a very simple café: a wall with some cushioned platforms along it, and a cold Coke from inside (only 30 rupees, compared with 175 at our hotel) should you want one. We fall in love with a group of puppies and their rather noble-looking mother (she has my father’s nose), as well as with the children from the slum just below the wall, who only want to wave and have their picture taken and who mention “rupees” without commitment, only because someone else told them to. Neeta hits on the idea of giving them the fruit and soda that Aftab has been steadily accumulating in the van for us, and it redeems the day for her. She and especially Mahindra take a personal joy in giving it out. The sunsets here in Jaisalmer (all over Rajasthan, really) are among the most gorgeous and primal I’ve seen anywhere. No tutti-frutti rose sky, no spectacular clouds – just a line of subdued orange across the sky, the haze line, and the burnished brass silver-dollar coin – the great internally lit orange disc – moving quietly, relentlessly down onto the flat land, and then away, like it contained all the power in the universe, like it was Ra and Apollo before they were debased by stories or statues.
(Dec. 18) I broke my rule, though involuntarily, and dreamed last night about my life to come in Seattle – all sorts of possible frustrations … I think in retrospect that I was beginning to decompress: to let go of all the little stoicisms it takes to live three months on the road, in places where you can’t trust the water or speak the language. • Next we drove forty kilometers into the honest desert to meet our camel, passing a number of resorts (a few luxurious, aimed at westerners, the rest glorified tent villages for the mobs of Indians who come here in winter), a couple of truly doubtful “English Wine Shops” (meaning, I think, that they sold whiskey). We passed a number of good-looking large camel outfits without stopping: The riders, some as young as 10 or 12, leapt off and onto the saddles and trotted their animals around as if they had learned it before walking. Truly a different India out here. We stopped at last near two camels and a man with a cellphone. Megha was semi-literate in English. He came from one of the bigger villages in the area, with a school and a “hospital,” and spent the cool half of the year driving camels for tourists and the hot half sitting in his house doing nothing. He was the only one in his family with a job, although his father farmed … when it rained. (Not often, I can tell you.) Our camels were named King and Michael, and we tried to make friends with them, but camels are aloof. … We went first to a field of sand dunes, where we saw an eagle very close (maybe on its ground nest) and met a friendly dog who ran all the way over so he could lay in our shadow. We also met the first of several Coke-wallahs who walked (or claimed to) all the way out to us in the day’s heat to sell us a soda for 50 rupees. It was a scam and a racket, but it amazed me how everyone out here had to scramble to squeeze a few bucks from the tourist trade: There is nothing else out here, and if you miss your chance to drink at the well, however close it is to dry, you have nothing.
(Dec. 19) Munju was there to meet us at the airport in Mumbai, with a driver. Her husband wants to take us out for a drink, so we all load up in the car, with their 20-year-old son Udit driving, and head out into the night to the Four Seasons. Pritham advises Udit when to speed up, when to slow down, until Udit answers him with a string of rapid Hindi that ends with the word “Chill.” (Ah, victory to American culture, the world’s culture after all!) The Four Seasons is a very nice, posh, spotless hotel, and we zoom up to the 33rd floor to an open-air rooftop all done in black and glass, with plastic seats and a techno-hip-hop soundtrack (seismic on the bass) that seem to be designed for maximum discomfort. … I have two excellent whiskey sours and feel wonderfully relaxed, under the balmy-cool night sky. Munju and Pritham may be a little bored; Udit says he’s been to better bars in Manchester, where he goes to university.
(Dec. 21) Our arrival morning in New York, we ordered in from the diner – breakfast: a ridiculous amount of food, surmounted by a positively embarrassing mountain of hash-brown potatoes. (Tina filled a centerpiece bowl to overflowing with all the condiments that came in the bags. “What do they expect us to do with all this?” she asked.) … I’m noticing already that my country the United States is like one continuous, ubiquitous offer of food, in big quantities.
(Dec. 22) It’s a bumpy flight to Seattle, which I find comforting, like a gently rocking car ride. And when we finally get there the night is voluptuous, gorgeous – maybe the most gorgeous I’ve seen. It’s sunset. The sky on the south horizon, wrapped around the string of snow-capped volcanoes, is blood red laced with charcoal gray. The lights in the city are just coming on – points of warmth and comfort (dinners being cooked, drinks being had). We bank down over large stretches of open water, through cotton-streaks of low-lying clouds and, with a little bounce, we touch down. We have circumnavigated the globe in 96 days. Ferdinand Magellan, we are here! We have witnessed the wonders of Cathay and Hindustan and lived to tell. For a few precious days even our own world will continue to look strange to us – we will see it with an anthropologist’s eyes and a traveler’s sense of wonder – and then it will look ordinary to us again, sensible and dull, as if it weren’t absurd and held no surprises.