july 29, 2006
a monsoon flashback:
i remember when i first moved to LA. i had this instant and artificial network of friends from signing up for this psycho-acting workshop. we'd wake up at 6 am every morning to "do" the business of acting. headshots, postcards, showcases, phone calls, whatever it took to get a job. jobs, of course, were few and far between, but the friendship was thick as thieves. so this group of insta-friends was shocked when i told them i'd never been to disneyland, nor did i ever have any intention of going. they thought there was something wrong with me; perhaps i was un-american, anti-social, or perhaps i had lost the child inside me. i told them "bullshit", i had just come from NYC, where i was the resident clown prince, so the playful child-trickster side of me was alive and well. i told them i just wasn't interested in being part of, or supporting, the disneyfication of the planet, i.e. helping michael eisner and uncle walt's corporate progeny make billion dollar profits off of the goofy branding of mickey mouse, donald duck, sleeping beauty, aladdin, snow white, the lion king, and the rest of the plethora of the white bread disney characters & disney products. (the only ones i like are the 7 dwarves anyway).
nor was i interested in standing in line for hours to take themed roller coaster rides, when i could go to the real deal. you know, why see robotic hippos and elephants in a big tub of water when you could go to the exotic rain forests of malaysia or south america? why go to the pirates of the caribbean theme ride when you could see the palm trees and white sands of martinique or granada, or see the old cobble stoned, portuguese east indian town of malacca, right across from the dark elephant and black coffee-ed island of sumatra. of course, it was a little pricier and took a little more courage and time; and perhaps you couldn't or wouldn't take the kids, but what the hell -- it was real: mosquitoes, foul smells, natural beauty, history, odd and delicious foods, brown faces, geckoes, long houses, sloths, leopards, komodo dragons, active volcanoes, floods, monsoons, random adventure, synchronicity, temporary disaster, and total coincidence, like meeting your future wife.
i didn't tell them the wife part because i hadn't met her yet, but i did allow them to bully me and twist my arm into going to disney land. they all had a great time trying to get me to have a great time. me, the eternal curmudgeon, them, the all-hollywood, all-california, american dreamers. and guess what? i had a good time. we had a lot of laughs - at me getting nauseous on space mountain, at me complaining and screaming about the 2 hour lines, at me antagonizing and clowning with the poor actors playing mickey and donald and goofy, at me... basically being me. i didn't like disneyland, nor change my mind about it, nor come away agreeing that it was the "happiest place on earth". it still gave me the creeps, and i still think people who plan their precious annual vacations to orlando or anaheim are really out of their minds. i can't think of a more artificial, sanitized way of having a good time. ( i used to think the same of las vegas: artificial, man made fluff, plus the onus of a city and a mob living off the compulsion & weakness for gambling; but i have to admit, vegas has come a long way since 1970 when i swore i'd never see it again).
anyway............. here i am in the green, green highlands of the western ghats of india, still in lovely, luscious kerala-lalala. i've come to munnar from cochin by a 5 hour local bus. no windows, just fresh air and the wet green countryside about 6 inches from my face; where there are no "bus stops", only a winding and twisting road up a mountainside, where if you want on, you merely flag down the bus with a smile, a wag of the head, and a wave of your hand, about thigh level.
munnar is certainly shangri-la, god's great little piece of heaven, sprawling with mile-high acres of green-groomed, man-made tea plantations. black tea. marsala spice tea. cardamom tea. the plantations are like an organic red earth and green tea tree checkerboard, covering hillsides for farther than the eye can see. every once in a while there's a dam, to control all this friggin’ rain, and behind the dam is the greenest lake you've ever seen. algae green. it goes on for forever, and if you lie there in the green grass and the silence, you think you've died and gone to heaven - with holy cows and holy cow dung everywhere. of course, yes, the monsoon is still here, but it only dumps 15 minutes of rain at a time this year; although exactly 1 year ago last july, munnar lost 9 citizens in a mudslide, as the monsoon swept right through the houses at the bottom of the hill. they had a hindu memorial service yesterday.
but today, i'm on the local bus from munnar to thekkady. it's straight down hill, about 2000 meters, as the climate changes radically from chilly damp mountain air (i actually slept mercifully with 2 blankets for 2 nights), to the wet jungle swamp again, complete with banana and coconut palms, teak trees, and spice plantations full of pepper, cardamom, vanilla, coffee, allspice, lemon grass, and more.
the only problem is the downhill part. i know you've been on this bus ride from hell yourselves. i'm sitting in the very front seat so i can keep an eye on my now 3 bags, which are locked to the metal bar just to the left of the driver (yeah, it's a drive-on-your-left country!). it's the "lady's" seat, but they put me there anyway, because as the only "gora" on the bus, i'm worse and more pathetic than all the sari-clad ladies combined. we leave town 15 minutes early! how can that be? what about the customers who come on time? no matter. the driver starts climbing out of munnar as fast as this old rickety bus can go. it's an uphill climb to get out of town and the road, i swear, is built for one lane of traffic only. no matter. the hell-bent bus driver (move over, ralph kramden) passes everything in site. cars, auto rickshaws. lorries (trucks). other buses, cows... he simply blows his horn and steps on the gas. it doesn't seem to matter whether he can see around the curve or not ; he just guns the pedal to the metal and overtakes everything on the road. i'm looking out the front window, as if i'm in the american driver 's seat, and simply put, i'm terrified.
there are 180 degree switchbacks, and wet slippery parts of the road, and completely devastated rock and dirt patches, and still this driver guns the bus up the hill. into a mist, because we're above the clouds. we pass luxury tea resorts like "cloud 9" and "heaven's gate", and i'm getting a distinct feeling that i'm not heading in an earthly direction. finally, we reach the summit, and then -- the real fun begins. the descent. like i said in the subject line, it's the e-ticket to thekkady. it's real, alright, not disneyfied..... just terrifying. not for the bus driver. he has no fear. sure, he does this everyday. but me? i'm just a one time rider. and holy shit-fuck-piss, he's hurtling this bus down the mountainside to thekkady, and i'm getting the best workout of my entire trip. both my arms are braced on the steel handrails, and i'm swaying back and forth, left to right, using my legs, my torso, my shoulders, my hands and arms, all my muscles, just to go with the flow of the bus.
and then locals start to hail the maniac driver, and soon the 40 person bus has 120 people on it, and with the extra weight and the magic of centrifugal force, this bus starts to feel like one of those cartoon buses or trucks that sways about a mile off the side of the mountain before it rubberbands itself back onto the road, and then does it over and over again for about 3 hours of non-stop switchbacking down this friggin’ mountain from munnar to thekkady. and i'm getting my uncle walt comeuppance, because every 5th turn or so, i just close my eyes as we head into the turn, wondering each time, if i'll ever open them again.
and as i do, i see some of my life flash before me. i see the blind fog drive into martha's vineyard at 2 a.m., where you just drove on blind faith because you couldn't see more than a foot in front of you; and i re-see the ice-laden drive over the continental divide through the rockies of colorado in mid december in my uncle herbie's brave gray datson; and i re-see my 2 motorcycle accidents as i wipe out making s-turns just a little too sharply on valentine's road and in old westbury near the old vanderbilt estate; and i see myself take a tumble off another motorbike high in the lake toba hills of central sumatra, where i have to depend on locals to pick me up off the dirt road and bring me to the local “bomo” to treat my legs with salves and leaves so they'll heal quickly and won't leave such bad scars....
and when i open my eyes again, i'm still alive, and we're still hurtling down the mountainside to thekkady. but now i'm thinking of my own impending death. like how and where will they find my body tangled in a bus load of crumpled steal and mangled bodies? and how will they identify me? will my wallet still be with me and will they think to open it where i have an emergency card giving my wife's name along with the name of one of you lucky friends out there? and will my insurance cover my repatriated remains being shipped back to happy and safe lala land? and what will my obituary say? and have i only gotten what i deserve, smart-ass that i am, traveling one too many times to the third world, thinking i'm mr. cool, mr. invincible, mr. hey-don't-you-got-any-respect for the dangers of this wild and wooly world of the far out and the far east and who the fuck do you think you are anyway, mr. cowboy-gora-gringo hotshot-sir?
and we're still hurtling down the mountain side, when a whole school full of beautiful brown-skinned pre-teens board the bus, making maybe a 140 people now, still with 1 open seat though, the one next to me. because apparently no one wants to sit next to the gora, because he's white and funny-looking, and maybe dangerous, or at least different and scary and we'd rather just stand and laugh self-consciously at him, thank you very much. but then some of the kids fall down on one of the maniac turns and start crying, and the sari-clad sitting women scoop them up on their laps and the kramden-maniac driver even makes three of the kids sit next to me. and then i realize that i'm the e-ticket for these kids. they've never been so close to a red-haired, big-nosed gora before. and one kid dares another to touch me or talk to me. and one takes the dare, and we smile and ask each other names, and i make clown faces at them all.
and i'm still thinking of death. smiling, eyes open now, thinking of my 89 year old father, who with congestive heart failure, is only taking another step closer to death each day, while he and his generation are all so miserably afraid of death and dying. and we and our generation are so afraid of letting them go, while equally afraid of our own deaths, while these placid, smiling, friendly, and fatalistic indian people see death and dying every day of their lives. and they are so even-keeled and calm and accepting of death, whether it's by murder or sickness or train bombs or tsunami, more calm and even keeled and accepting than we in the west will ever ever be...
and i'm hurtling down the mountainside, knowing i've already survived cancer, remembering first the fear, then the surrender to my own mortality, and the wonderful roller coaster ride of having 6 months of chemo therapy with emotions and feelings completely out of control. remembering seeing the fear on my friends' and family's faces, thinking i would pack it all in right then and there, way back in '89. remembering how i learned to appreciate all that i had in my life instead of obsessing on all that i didn’t have, all that i wanted, wanted, wanted. and remembering all that jazz.... i just instruct myself to simply let go.... to surrender again, and to simply --- enjoy the ride. it's out of my hands. out of my control. it's in mr. maniac kramden's strong capable hands. in someone else's hands. and i instruct myself to put my surrender where my mouth is. i'm the one who asked for the e-ticket. i'm the one who disses disneyland. i'm the narcissist cowboy taking you with me on the munnar to thekkady e-ride. so i just smile and laugh with the kids.... and before i know it, we've come down the mountainside and i'm the only gora getting off the bus in thekkady. and as soon as i do, there's another tout, willing and ready to take me to the next homestay. and to the elephant and tiger sanctuary the next day in periyar wildlife reserve. and to all the tempting kashmiri shops in thekkady where they know i'll be a soft touch and buy another silver necklace for my lovely wife. and so on and so on down the mountain of life.
it's already the last leg of my quick jaunt-over to ind-ja. the weather's hot and steamy again, and i'm heading off to peaceful and laid back alleppey, still in kerala-lalala, where i can just sit back and watch the river flow........
the thekkady kid
p.s: i know you've read more than enough, but i think i have a nice piece on my blog (underdeveloped at best), expanding on last's year's birthday, getting older, my father, and letting go. here's the link: