Runaway Parade

Straight Up To Heaven


August 1, 2012

At 5:30am, my tour group stepped outside our hotel in Varanasi, India, and boarded bicycle rickshaws to the Ganges River for a boat ride at sunrise. I felt so bad for my driver; he was a small Indian man who looked like he was struggling with pulling the weight of two people along the potholed roads. We quickly arrived at the shore of the brown river thick with floating debris.

We climbed onto our boat and as our guide, Hari, paddled us away from the shore, I ogled people bathing in the disease-ridden water. Men dunked their babies under the murky surface. A man climbed out of the river wearing only a small cloth over his lower half, sat up on a rock in a cross-legged meditative pose, closed his eyes and began intensive breathing exercises. I stared at his protruding ribs and watched him pump his abdomen in and out with every fast breath. The faith was fierce and palpable and made me shiver. We drifted past a floating partially decomposed cow carcass. Then we passed a floating human corpse and I almost vomited. Hari informed us that sometimes people just throw the bodies into the river if they cannot afford the cremation ceremony. Hindus believed that if they died in Varanasi, they would shoot straight up to heaven.

After forty-five minutes we arrived at the banks farther down and exited, climbing up stone stairs to a stone walkway. We saw a body being prepared for cremation. The body was tied to an elevated platform like a skewered chicken. There was a giant pile of ashes on the ground below. Wind blew ashes into our hair. Mud-caked rabid dogs circled our feet, their coats torn leaving patches of dried blood. I prayed I wouldn’t be bitten.

We passed two men sitting on the steps wearing holy saffron gowns. One of them had dreadlocked hair and his skin was covered in what appeared to be a white powder. “That’s not powder,” Hari said, “That’s ashes of dead bodies. These men are called sadhus.”  

He went on to explain that sadhus were wandering ascetics, people who had renounced everything in search of enlightenment. They smoked hashish and took other hallucinogenic substances sanctioned by the government, being that it was for spiritual purposes. Sadhus would even go so far as to drink their own urine and eat pieces of dead bodies to prove their austerity.

I felt both physically repulsed and morbidly seduced by the whole scene. The affect was deep and primal. I wanted things to keep shocking me until I dissolved into the experience, forgetting myself, my confusions, my cravings, my life. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath of burnt flesh, opened my eyes and smiled at my tour mates as we walked along. I wondered what was going on behind their polite grins.

A struggling actor/writer from Brooklyn, I had traveled alone to India on a desperate search for internal stability. India had fascinated me for years, since I had seriously begun practicing yoga in an effort to calm my frantic mind. In my twenty-six years, I had struggled with eating disorders, depression, nervous breakdowns and paralyzing grief following the death of my father in high school. Panicked about the future after earning a Master’s in Creative Writing, I was determined to get a grip. I impulsively booked a tour of India and Nepal with a group of people under the age of thirty-five from all over the world, with an intuitive feeling that this trip would give me the perspective and strength I needed to move forward in my life.

Sitting in the back of a parked bicycle rickshaw, as I was waiting to leave the Ganges a woman approached me. With her dirty face and sari, holding a dirty sleeping baby naked from the waist down, she looked me in the eye, extended her cupped palm toward me for money, and then raised her hand to her mouth. I could see sores on her baby’s legs. She reached her hand toward me and pulled at my sleeve, reached back up to her mouth, pointed to the baby and lifted up his shirt to show me his skeletal frame. Crying and muttering unintelligibly, she grabbed my sleeve again, yanking this time, hand back up to her mouth, desperate. It was thirty seconds extending into eternity and I sat paralyzed.

I tried not to look at her or her child, but was incapable of turning away. I stared at them, unable to fully process that she was real, that her baby was real, that India was real. This all existed in the same time continuum as New York City, as the United States.

I held my breath, tensed every muscle. She continued yanking on my sleeve, crying, muttering. The baby’s head hung off his neck unsupported. Just when I felt like my heart might really explode, shooting all my fleshy bits out across the city of Varanasi, the rickshaw pulled away and I left her standing there. She disappeared behind the torrent of buses, rickshaws, cars, dust clouds, cows, animal shit, goats, pedestrians, flies, women sitting sideways on the backs of motorcycles—bright saris flapping and flying.

Early the next morning, I boarded a bus with the word “Tourist” splayed across the top of the windshield. The ride from Varanasi, India to Lumbini, Nepal (the birthplace of Buddha), would take twelve hours. We passed heaps of muddy garbage, goats and cows, handmade huts, laundry hanging out to dry, dirty men in rags with sores on their legs, defecating beside cows defecating. As the bus bumped down the potholed road, the girls behind me whined, "I'm going to be sick," and then the girls behind them, "Turn off the air conditioning!"   So the air went off; suddenly it was stuffy and smelled like rotten bananas and human feces.

Meanwhile, all my desires were crawling through me alongside the crawling scenery: I want to publish a book, perform a solo show, find love. These wants felt like twisting knives in my heart. Why was it so painful to want these things? And why were these desires attacking me then and there?

I looked out the window at two small children walking nearby, an older brother holding his younger sister’s hand, both of them laughing. She was wearing her hair in pigtails, like I used to at her age. But she was not wearing shoes and her clothes were tattered and torn. Her smile beamed. I dug my nails into my forearms. I am lucky, I reminded myself. But my desires didn't care; I felt them wrapping their fingers around my neck.

I leaned my head against the window and thought about how I’d signed up to sponsor a child in India. Two weeks before my departure, I had gotten off work and didn’t feel like going home yet, so I sat on a curb in Union Square to meditate on the flurry of frantic pedestrians. There was a man standing in front of me in a blue Children’s International T-shirt. He was doing the normal guerilla street marketing, "Do you have a minute for the children?"  After fifteen minutes of watching that guy get rejected, I called out to him, “Hey, I have a minute for the children, tell me about them.”  I knew I had done myself in.

He sat down beside me and pulled out his binder, flipping through pictures of skinny smiling children from impoverished countries.

“For twenty-two dollars a month, this child can receive health care and go to school. Come on,” he said, “how much money do you drop on a night out?”

I had emptied my bank account, cashed all the bonds I’d saved from relatives since childhood and accepted a generous financial contribution from my mother, spending thousands of dollars to travel to a place where people were struggling to meet their basic needs. I was quitting my job and uncertain about my financial future, but come on, just twenty-two dollars a month. Later that week, I received my welcome packet with a photo of Bikash Kayal, age nine. He speaks Bengali and enjoys studying languages, playing with friends, and drawing.

With my head still against the window, I squeezed my eyes shut and repeated, I am lucky as my cravings continued to slither relentlessly inside my skin: head to neck to shoulders, torso, hips, knees, toes, like a snake sliding up and down, down and up, hissing.

Staring out the window of the bus with trash and crumbling structures everywhere, I prayed for self-actualization. May I work toward my goals with peace and grace, may the pain from these desires cease. Buddha said suffering is caused by craving and he preached the middle way: become master over your cravings and you will reach nirvana.

I shut my eyes. My head bumped as the bus bumped. “Get some sleep,” some voice from somewhere whispered, “The rocket will be at your door before sunrise to shoot you straight up to heaven.”  

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