Coming home is a tough, confusing process. When your home is Assi Ghat, a neighborhood in the crazy-beautiful city of Varanasi, this is especially true.
Somewhere in this onslaught of smoldering charcoal fires, jostling rickshaws, and Indian men spitting orange paan juice everywhere, there is a dusty room hidden behind a rusty door in an old, rambling alleyway. This is my home. Above it, paper kites make jerky war with each other in the reddening sky. Cows begin to wander to their nighttime haunts. Goats in sweaters mingle with men in sweater-vests, and the vendors start to cook up eggs, noodles, and other unidentifiable things.
I didn’t know this city was my home until I breathed its air again today. To get back to Varanasi from Bihar we spent five or six hours hunched together in too-small cars, crusading through the anarchy that is the Indian highway system. It is unclear how much of a system there really is. Anyway, after that drive I would have been grateful to get out anywhere. But I found myself especially, profoundly grateful to get out here.
It’s a feeling. I can’t explain it. But there is a life in these streets – they breathe, they move, they jar me back into my body. I fit in here, even though I know that most of these people don’t recognize me and can’t distinguish me from any of the other shellshocked tourists trying to avoid cow poop and beggars. I walk in my own rythm. Duck the rebar sticking out from a passing truck. Dodge the cow-motorocycle pileup. Merge into the planless, chaotic functionality of this city’s daily life. I’m not frightened, or alone, or overwhelmed. I’m just at home.
After ten days in Bodhgaya, the place where the Buddha attained enlightenment, I have gained some sort of perspective. I feel the resonance of Varanasi, City of Light, in the part of myself that has grown stronger and more certain by living here. Ten days from now, when I am driving up the cold December driveway of 9 Lake Avenue, Great Barrington, MA, I don’t know how I will feel. What will resonate in me then? How will I keep listening to the sounds of this place? How will I keep the part of myself that is at home here alive?
I find an answer scribbled on a page of my notebook:
In this world, the path chooses itself. And with every step I just get stronger.
Sky is alive tonight. Stars spread like sparks from the setting of the red sun. A wind rustles the rice. Earth holds its breath and gazes upward.
These lights like the lives that surround us. Separated by unexplained space yet fixed together in a sheet of navy ether. Moving together from one edge, to the next, to perpetual rebirths that only seem to end.
We people share the same air, the same space. Connected by our breaths we shine and fade together as our lives cross tangles of past moments.
In this web we sit by the light of the car battery humming and listen. We listen to a man wrinkled and smiling as he tells of revolutions, coronations, and hunger. Telling of times when a single handful of rice fed five or even six people, of forgiving and forgetting, of men who forced their fellows to work until they could work no more in the name of a vision of revolution, power, and wealth that served no one, and how his happiest moment was the one he was living now.
Outside the light of that car battery humming, the stars on my horizon shifted to add one more light to the sky.
I slowly make my way over the mounds of jagged rock and coral leading up to my homestay house. I’ve gotten used to the unevenness, ready to trip me at any moment, but after another packed day of swimming and exploring I have to be careful that my tired legs don’t betray me.
My ibu, bapak, and 13-year-old sister are perched on the deck of the house, chuckling quietly as they watch my struggle. I make it to the deck and plop down next to them with a relieved sigh. We say good evening and exchange smiles. The deck doesn’t quite fit all four of us, but it gets an unbeatable evening breeze. My ibu disappears and quickly returns with two steaming bowls. One is full of fluffy white rice and the other is piled with freshly grilled fish. She fills three plates of food, kindly making sure to offer one to me even though she knows I’ve already eaten at the program house.
We talk as they eat. My bapak always has questions for me about America. He wants to know what the weather is like: is it always hot like here, or does it get cold? I assure him that it can get very cold, but I struggle to describe it. There’s nothing here that’s really comparable to a New England winter.
He asks more questions about my life, my family, etc. Often I’m unsure of how to fully respond in Bahasa Indonesia, and we’ll end up smiling and laughing at our clear language barrier. My sister giggles as I mess up some word or phrasing and patiently corrects me, helping me figure out what to say. And sometimes, when we have absolutely no idea what each other is trying to communicate, my sister takes my hand and squeezes it, reassuring me that it’s alright.
Eventually the conversation starts to dissipate. We’ve covered all the topics for one night, and the laughter and confused smiles are more frequent than the actual words. Then, the silence settles and we sit, not saying anything, listening to the sounds of the night.
The neighbor’s TV bleats sounds of some popular Indonesian soap opera, and the sea gently laps beneath us. I lean back against the cracked and weathered wood of the deck and watch as thousands of stars speckle the night sky. We sit here for a while, wrapped up in the contentment of our quiet and the glowing beauty of the sky. Some stars fall in their lazy yet deliberate path, and as I sit there with the cool breeze, the ocean, and my Sampella family next to me, I wouldn’t wish on those shooting stars to be anywhere else.
10 Truths of Sin Leh Jwah (Village)
1. The people have lots of faith in your Myanmar language abilities. They trust that you understand them no matter how confused you look, so they continue to talk very quickly and without gestures to the point where the only thing you can do is just laugh, throw up your hands, and say “Na Ma lay boo” (I don’t understand).
2. It rains when you least expect it and is sunny when you wish it weren’t, but it doesn’t really matter because your feet will get muddy walking through the streets anyway.
3. There will always be children. Everywhere. The sweetest-looking, most-beautiful children. There to hold your hand, to carry your bag that happens to be larger than they are, to lead you to a monastery up a rocky hill at a too-fast pace, to stuff your pockets with crab apples that they will eat for a snack later, to fix your hair and adorn it with wildflowers, to laugh at you, to laugh with you, to play with your camera taking silly pictures, to just watch you in your natural habitat. Whatever you’re doing, there will be children.
4. You can always judge how many people are at your house and a little what they are like based on the shoes on the landing before the stairs to your house. Muddy black boots–your brother is home from work. Worn gray flip flops–your father is lounging by the TV. A few pairs of tiny pink and green sandals with flowers–your little nieces are crowded in the corner playing the hand game you taught them yesterday.
5. No matter how many times you say “Wa bee” (I’m full), your home-stay mother will put more rice onto your plate and will scoop a few more of those extra-saucy unidentifiable green vegetables on top. She will smile and laugh as you pat your stomach and continue saying “Wa bee.” Then she will heap a few more veggies on your already-heaping plate.
6. After an overly-fulfilling breakfast, your family will most likely disappear. You will return from getting your morning medications to find your house door closed and your house completely empty. You will be slightly confused, and then a child will appear, grab your hand, and lead you along.
7. Showers will be cold, yet refreshing. The first bucket-full of water dumped down your back will make you squeal and squirm, but putting on fresh longyi and a warm fleece on your clean body is well worth the cold rush.
8. Expect bwehs (festivals) almost every night. Lines of lanterns on a walk to a mountaintop pagoda. Oohs and Ahhs and pointing to the sky as you crowd the porch to see the fireworks. Dancing around a single light to the beat of drums and unknown instruments. This is the norm for Sin Leh. Always something to celebrate, something to dance for, to smile about.
9. Your mother will be, no doubt, an oxymoron. Like all women of Sin Leh, she will be both gentle and firm. She will be beautiful and delicate–when putting on her thanaka in the morning and when setting up the Buddha’s offering plates in the mornings, her pace will be slow, and her hands will softly do their work. But then, she’s a strong, muscular, even crude-seeming woman to the Western eye–when she smacks the cats out of her way while she’s cooking or when her grandchildren walk all along her body as she lays down or when she burps and burps and burps for the whole room to hear while we try to watch a TV show. No apologies. But its this “oxymoronic” state that makes her so incredible, and one thing is definitely for sure: you will love both sides of her in every moment.
10. When you say goodbye to your family, you will know–from the warm, completely enveloping hug from your amay (mother), from the giant bittersweet smile of your apay (father), from the last high-five of your nephew, from the tearful faces of your apwah (grandmother), and from the crowd of hands waving you off–you will know that you will miss your host-family. And at that point, you will stop thinking of them as your host-family but rather just as your Sin Leh family.
In San Antonio, Palopa, Guatemala, every November 1st is celebrated with earnest. Brightly colored kites dot the skyline, soaring high above (although sometimes colliding with) the powerlines. Atoll (a corn-based drink) is served, alongside fiembre (which contains every meat and vegtable one can imagine). Flowers are bought, candles are lit, prayers uttered, and tears shed. This celebration is known as Dia de los Muertos, which is observed by San Antonio as well as a majority of Central America. It is a day for rememberance of loved ones who have passed away, and is celebrated in a number of ways, but most prominently by visiting the loved one`s tombstone. I, for better or for worse, have been to the cemetery many times in my life. It has never truly gotten easier, less solemn, or without tears. However, upon seeing the ceremonies at San Antonio´s cemetery, I think I might have been going about it in the wrong way. There were plenty of solemn, tear-streaked faces among the graves, but they paled in comparison to the rest of the cemetery`s activity. First of all, graves in Guatemala are not at all like they are in the States. They`re vibrant- birghtly painted in neon pinks, greens, and blues, embellished with beautiful paintings of Virgen de Guadelupe or Jesus Cristo. When I arrived, graves were blanketed in sweet-smelling pine needles and flower petals, and almost every headstone had a bouquet of flowers lying across it. Music drifted through the air, not sad, solemn music, but music that made me smile and sway alongside it. Incense burned, intoxicating the wind with its rich scent, infiltrating every inch of the cemetery.In addition to this, families and friends were encircled around their loved ones. They weren´t staring at their toes sadly, or in silence. Instead, they sat down, right next to the grave, and offered their loved one words of admiration and kindness. They set their favorite meal at their tombstone, and perhaps poured out a taza of vino or chicha, to toast the occasion. Little kids sold cotton candy and flowers, wandering from grave to grave. Teenagers sat on top of the cemetery walls, talking and sipping Coca Cola our of plastic cups. As the sun began to dip low in the sky, casting shadows over the celebration, I was thoroughly confused. I had never seen anything like Dia de los Muertos. For me,(and presumably, most of the US) death has always meant sadness, mourning, pain. Never had I seen anyone smile in a cemetery. That was when I realized something. In the States, death is considered an end. It`s a one-note harsh separation for both the deceased and those who love them. Here in Gautemala, it`s believed that the deceased come back and visit, in the form of November`s massive ron rones (bees) that invade the streets of San Antonio, or the kite strings that are said to transmit messages up into the stratosphere, communicating with those you love. There is no definite endpoint for relationships, no cutoff for love. Dia de los Muertos is as much a celebration of life as it is a mourning of death. It`s a day centered around the culture of family, of love, of living. It`s beautiful, and although dotted with solemn moments, it is very much a happy occasion. As the sun slipped behind Volcan Toliman, I pondered this. Death is not singular, or unaccompanied, as it is always preceded by an illustrious life. Without life, death is infeasible. In everything, there is duality. You cannot have light without dark, happiness without sadness, life without death. Recognizing, maintaining only one of two entities is illogical. Recently, the one year anniversary of my grandmother´s death found me on a chilly Guatemalan morning. In the moment, I was overwhelme- overwhelmed by her absence, overwhelmed by the prospect that life is so fleeting. Suddenly, from where I was seated on the patio, I saw a few bright, lively kites dot the sunrise. I heard the buzzing of November`s famous ron rones, I saw the sun peek over the top of the distant mountain range. And I felt my grandmother with me, always.