Inevitably Joe’s determined curiosity widened to include the rest of the world. As his medical condition worsened, his parents curtailed family outings without saying a word or ever referring to the involuntary confined nature of the shorter vacations. “Any chance of a trip somewhere exotic, Dad?” he asked, once. He saw the anguished looks and exchanged, entrapped glance they shared over his head. Joey never asked again.
Joey’s queries toned down and became more secretive. On his way to the public library, he discovered a table covered with stacks of old postcards in a junk shop. Joey fanned out sanitized images of capitol cities and stared transfixed. He fingered the old thick cardboard and posited himself there, an alternate Joe someplace seen by him only in his imagination. He knew kismet had randomly assigned him the death card.
Perhaps a few freebies were in the mix as well.
Some magazines had coupons for glossy brochures of vacation getaways. He filled out coupons in his careful script and sent them off. He started writing away to travel agencies and to the embassies of foreign countries.
Descriptions began pouring in from around the globe and woke a deep hunger in him for all the things and places he’d never get to see. His reading matter shifted to books about exotic locales. Joey did weeks of research on the wide, wide world in the library’s travel and geography stacks. He read about Europe first, and next he planned to move on to Africa, and South America, and Asia, last stop the Antarctic!
Lou found an application sheet his brother had hidden. “A new opportunity for a new life …Whatever your origins, nationality or religion might be, whatever qualifications you may or may not have, whatever your social or professional status might be, whether you are married or single, the French Foreign Legion offers you a chance to start a new life…”
Lou went on reading, incredulous. Joey had filled out the forms right up to the paragraph indicating that selection for the Legion was carried out in person near Marseille, and that the applicant had to be physically fit to serve at all times in all places. Lou put the form back in the desk and never told his brother he’d seen it.
– from my short story “Hit and Run” in Broken In: A Novel in Stories. Available as paperback or eBook at amazon.com,amazon.de, and amazon in countries everywhere. Go to my posts Hit & Run 1, 2 & 3 for more on Joey, Lou and Margaret.
On the island of Lombok we’re literally at the end of the road. We look at a map and decide that where the one road going inland up in the mountains stops, we’ll stop too. We end up in a small village called Tetebatu.
We walk through Tetebatu along the one street and everywhere people stand or crouch. They sit in the open thatched huts built on stilts to keep people off the ground when it rains. It rains every afternoon, non-stop torrents for 3 hours, and the shelters are full then.
Clean water for homes is provided by fountains and wells. The locals wash themselves, their clothes, and their animals in them. But I see an ancient looking woman in a sarong carrying a flat woven basket full of rice. She kneels in front of her house and washes the kernels in the open stream that runs in a gully down the side of the street. Tropical medicine experts estimate that 80% of the Indonesian population have guts full of parasites, and it is evident to me why this should be so.
She looks up and gives me a smile so open, so beautiful, that I am temporarily blinded.
That afternoon a Danish couple accompanied by an Indonesian man and boy check in. The couple take the room next to us, while the Indonesians stay in the next bungalow. We exchange smiles and hellos, but nothing more. We’re at the end of the road on the other side of the world, and I savor the sense of isolation from the familiar and known.
The air is significantly cooler up here in the mountains. For the first time in our trip to Indonesia we both wear jeans. Uwe puts on a jacket and I pull out a sweater. That night the Indonesian in the next bungalow comes out on his porch. He has wrapped himself in the blanket from his bed against the chilly air.
“Good evening!” he says, and comes and stands by the little low gate that leads up to our bungalow.
Uwe and I sit under the porch lights reading and chewing on bags of nuts we’d bought at the coastal market a few days earlier. We pull up another chair and ask him to join us. His name is Udin. He lives on Gili Meno, a little island northwest of Lombok. He’s in Tetebatu as guide and translator for the Danish couple we’d exchanged nods with earlier.
The Danes are medical researchers investigating the local plant life. They are asking the native Sasaks which plants they use for healing and in what capacity. That afternoon we’d seen the three of them, Udin’s son trailing a few feet behind, walk around the grounds and stand by various shrubs and trees and bushes on the property. Since everything is unbelievably lush, and either flowering or bearing fruit, I had not thought twice about their activity. The fecundity of the landscape is a wonder. I keep stopping too, to crow over some gaudy flower or vivid tree.
“From here we will go to visit my mother,” Udin says. She lives in a village further south on Lombok. Although on a map the two locations are within spitting distance of one another, it’s too expensive for him to make the trip more often. He hasn’t seen her in over a year.
This is the first time in his life that he’s been in a hotel room. Udin feels very fortunate to have hooked up with the Danish couple. He switches from talk about himself and asks us about ourselves with the innate charm and politeness of the Indonesians. What are we doing here? Where are we from?
Udin looks alert when I say I’m a massage therapist.
“I have great pain here and here,” he says, and points to his calves and the small of his back. “I worked since I was 8 years old carrying sacks of rice weighing 60 kilos from the rice fields. Then I worked on a fishing boat. I was wet and cold all the time. Now that I am older I ache always in these places.”
He tells us about the hard life on Lombok. “Bali is rich. Here, you might earn 2,500 rupiahs for a day’s labor. But then the economy collapsed. A kilo of rice has gone up in price in the last 2 years from 500 rupiahs to 3,000.” He mentions again that his body aches from the hard labor he’s done all his life.
“Would you allow me to give you a massage?” I feel sure that this is what he wants to request, without being so forward as to actually ask.
Udin promptly says yes and moves over to stand in front of me. I am a little concerned. It is now night and I am about to do massage on someone standing on a porch in the middle of nowhere. Also, if Udin is from Lombok he must be Muslim. I recall the occasional male patients I can’t treat in the medical clinic back in Stuttgart.
“Is it permissible for me as a woman to touch you?” I ask.
“Of course, it is no problem,” he answers.
Compressions and cross fiber friction, I finally decide. I start to work. Udin’s muscles are ropy. He has no extraneous fatty tissue anywhere after a lifetime of hard work and rice. Udin grimaces once or twice, but remains standing. I work on him for perhaps 20 minutes and stop. We talk a while longer. Then Udin excuses himself and heads to bed.
The next morning Uwe and I have coffee on the outdoor patio of the hotel. The Danish couple and Udin come up for breakfast before leaving. To my surprise the Danish couple head straight over to our table and shake our hands.
“I hear you’re medical researchers,” I say, intensely curious about them.
“Yes, and we hear that Udin got a massage last night. He’s always working,” they answer, and begin to ask us questions. The acknowledgement from them is rewarding and sweet.
Udin sits with us for a few minutes. “How are you feeling?” I ask.
“I feel well. I am well for the first time in many years. I am without pain!”
I’m inexplicably moved, and glad I took the time the night before to help this man. Maybe, I think, maybe I earned us some good travel karma.
“A brave heart and a courteous tongue,” said he. “They shall carry thee far through the jungle, manling.” —The Jungle Book, Rudyard Kipling (1865 – 1936)
We’re in India for a few weeks and currently we’re riding in the back of an open jeep. We spent the better part of 5 hours each day on really bad roads to get here. Now we’re layered in the few long-sleeved clothes we brought along. How cold can it be if you’re not way up north trekking in the Himalyas?
How cold? Man, it’s effing freezing.
It’s shortly after 6 a.m. in the Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve and we’ve been up since 5. “Remind me,” I beg. “What are we doing here?” I wrap the blanket the tiger lodge lent us tighter around my body. (What I really want is a sub zero temperatures sleeping bag.) “Remind me,” I ask again. “Why are we doing this?”
“You wanted to come back to India,” Uwe prompts.
“Oh, yeah. Now I remember.” And it’s true: I was really excited to return. I fell in love with the subcontinent when we visited a decade ago. In Goa we walked miles of pristine beaches. In Karnataka we attended an astonishing Nandi Purnima, the full moon festival, and Hampi was a bare landscape filled with gigantic boulders and ancient temples.
In a country this exotic and large, surely we’d experience something new when we came back. What I did not expect was that I’d be freezing my ass off.
We’re doing a mix of culture and nature. India is one of the two most populated countries on the planet, and we thought it would be smart to schedule some time in quieter areas too. I’m glad we did. The north central region of Madya Pradesh is green and varied and home to some of the few remaining wild Bengal tiger populations.
So for two days at Bandhavgarh and a day at Kanha National Park*, we haul our sorry butts out of bed at the crack of dawn, pull on all our clothes and drape ourselves in borrowed blankets. 6 a.m.-1 p.m. for the early safari; 3-6 p.m. for the afternoon attempt. If we’re lucky, we’ll spot a big cat.
We’re not lucky. We’re cold.
Later we shed layers as the day warms up. The parks contain barking and spotted deer, gaurs, nilgai,
lemurs and langurs,
wild peacocks and other birdlife,
wild boar, and a landscape filled with watering holes and high grasses, forest and farmers’ villages. On the second day at Bandhavgarh our jeep carries a park ranger to inspect a water buffalo kill from the night before. It occurred just outside the official boundary of the preserve and the farmer will be reimbursed for the animal the tiger took down.
We aren’t allowed to leave the jeep – ever – and the ranger approaches the carcass very slowly.
Where there’s a fresh kill, the big cat can’t be far.
By the third day I’ve perfected what I name the mummy wrap. I have myself wrapped so tight that I literally can’t move, but this way the blanket doesn’t unwind in the cold wind.
And, suddenly, a tiger leaps from the forest, followed by his mate. He moves into the reeds and returns dragging a dead spotted deer by the neck.
We see them for less than a minute and those seconds are absolutely worth the days of waiting. My God, they’re magnificent! During the afternoon safari we get lucky again: 10 seconds of spotting a shyer, rarer leopard.
Uwe captures the group of spotted deer nervously fleeing the leopard. He’s in Photographer Heaven.
Naturally we’re already dreaming about an African safari (… and I’ll pack a wool jacket, just in case…).
NOTES: *Kanha National Park provided the inspiration for Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. All photographs can be enlarged by simply clicking on the image. Go to my earlier post Travel Karma to read about our first visit to India. More pictures from India and of Uwe’s photography may be viewed at viewpics.de.
With a nod to Vanity Fair, here are 7 facts about me.
State of mind: Blissful. I was presented with 2 awards!
Next move: Back to the drawing board. Oh, heck: I can’t draw. Back to the laptop key board.
Listening to: http://www.radioparadise.com Nancy over at Laughing Maus — who is also a member of my writers’ circle here – turned me on to this commercial free, listener supported indie station. They play an amazingly eclectic mix of music. Check it out (you’ll thank me later).
Trait I most admire in others: Grace under pressure.
Trait I find saddest: Fear of change. Unwillingness to admit a mistake. I know that’s two traits, but I can’t decide between them.
Weirdest personal trait: About two years ago, I began to wake throughout the night while dreaming. I can recall every dream in vivid detail.
Current physical condition: Tired. I was up all night dreaming.
He entered magazine contests and it didn’t matter what the prizes were. Mrs. Bocci was the first housewife in their neighborhood to own a brand new Maytag dishwasher. He won an extra dryer, which his parents passed on to their aunt and uncle for Christmas that year when his newest cousin was born.
He loved the surprise of each free gift. Sur-prizes, he called them. Joey sent away for samples of things just for the hell of it. He had the time; what else was he going to do with all those hours stuck sitting in his wheel chair? His family received the first volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica. A through Androphagi. He kept Mom in perfume and the rest of the family in soap and shampoo. Any time a new product came out, such as the first mint toothpaste, Joey ordered it. The Boccis were always the first ones on the block to try any of them.
His past time took on epic proportions. They didn’t just have free food samples to try. Joey ordered free animal feed samples too: packets of birdseed. Hamster food. Gold fish pellet food. Pouches of cat food and dog food, even horse feed. His parents finally told Joey to stop with the animal feed already; they couldn’t even have any pets because of the danger of allergies or infection from scratches. Joey’s dad donated it all to the local animal shelter.
Once or twice a week the mailman delivered a package containing free items with company logos. Joey would read about a new product being promoted and bing, the coupons were clipped and filled out and in the mail before anyone could stop him. The Bocci household received free tote bags, baseball caps, tee shirts and socks and other products. Actually his parents didn’t try to stop him from sending away for those items once they realized how much money his obsession was saving them on clothes.
He won a ride in the local weather helicopter – and because he couldn’t fly because of air pressure and collapsing sinus issues, Lou and Mr. Bocci went in his place. Now that was cool!
Here the tale ended abruptly, the silence Margaret’s cue to ask questions. It didn’t matter what she asked, really, as long as it gave Lou an idea of what she wanted to hear about next. “Was he persistent or just incredibly lucky?”
“Margaret,” Lou explained patiently, “no one was ever stupid enough to call Joey lucky. But yes, he had a run of luck where it seemed like the Universe was giving him a break to make up for the crap cards he’d been dealt just by being born. He really did have fun entering contests and winning stuff.”
“What’s the coolest thing he ever won?”
Lou frowned. “I just told you: the helicopter ride. At least to me and my Dad it was the coolest,” he amended, yielding to the apologetic look on his girlfriend’s face. “And he won fourth prize in a contest for a new Pontiac. My parents took the cash from that one and put into savings bonds. That money helped put me through college.”
“It was okay with Joe? He didn’t want the money for himself?”
“Well,” Lou said slowly, “by then his lucky streak was running out. Joey hid it from the rest of us. He’d started getting weaker again instead of stronger… He didn’t have a whole lot of time left. And I think he was trying to win money and prizes for us to make up for the gap that would be there after he was gone.”
Margaret sighed and hugged her boyfriend. “Jesus, Lou. How could your family stand it?”
Lou shrugged. “We didn’t get calloused or anything, but it wasn’t like any of us didn’t know the end was coming. We just kind of… went on as we had been. What else is there to say? Joey was the glue for a broken situation; it was broke from the minute he was born. He was the glue holding the entire family together in spite of everything.”
“I just think, I mean, I can’t imagine how you all dealt with it.”
“Margaret, I never cease to be amazed at what people just deal with when they have to. How did my family deal with stuff? We just, did. Until we couldn’t any longer. When Joey went in the hospital the last time we thought it was temporary, just more of the usual batteries of tests. When his doctors found the tumor I think everyone knew that this was going to be it.”
“At least you all had each other. Your family was so strong!”
He looked at her with a strange expression. “Babe, that’s the whole point of what I’ve been telling you. We weren’t strong. Joey was! We were people he was supporting through his illness. The only thing we had in common was the DNA connection. Joey was never related to anybody I could figure out, not really, unless it was some kind of genetically defective super hero who hasn’t been invented or born yet.”
– from my short story “Hit and Run” in Broken In: A Novel in Stories. Available online at amazon.com,amazon.de, and amazon in countries everywhere. Go to my posts Hit & Run 1 & 2 for more on Joey, Lou and Margaret.
Joey sat in the school library for hours. He hid there during recess and lunch periods, but the sounds of everyone out on the playground came through the open windows. Hearing the sound of other children shrieking was bad, and as Joey listened he tried to imagine it came from children somewhere far away. When he did see them the distance apparent between what they could do and what he could not was too terrible. He would perch at the dark wood of the windowsill, holding himself upright and steady with one hand as he watched. Children in groups skipped ropes, chased balls, played tag. The teacher with recess duty wore a light jacket and an expression of endless weary patience. He or she sometimes called out across the tarmac, “Hey! That’s enough of that, Loreen!”
Unseen and unimportant, from the high window Joey observed when the teacher rushed to the aid of a fallen child or broke up a playground fight. He hated it. Watching reminded him that no one would ever need to run to prevent him from doing something he shouldn’t; watching only reminded him that he couldn’t run.
Joey moved to a table where he could sit with his back to the windows. Determinedly Joey closed his ears to the cries of his peers playing outside the walls and forever beyond his ken.
Eventually Joey made his way through all of the school magazines. He began to take the bus to the public library. After school Joey sat among the adult publications where he felt less excluded. Around him sat members of his home city’s increasing homeless population, noisily turning pages and keeping a careful eye on their oversized bags of belongings. There were a few students, or grown ups coming in to claim the copies of recent novels they had put on hold, and every so often a class of younger children arrived for reading hour. Otherwise though, Joey could feel like he was simply another library user, ageless and without handicaps.
This was when he discovered adult magazines with their endless advertisements for write-in contests, coupons to win prizes, and teasers to learn more about great deals. Joey flipped pages hunting for things to win, things to present to his parents. Joey wanted, Lou said thoughtfully, to present them with distractions from the nonrefundable item they’d brought home from the hospital: their youngest son and his damaged body.
– from my short story “Hit and Run” in Broken In: A Novel in Stories. Available online at amazon.com,amazon.de, and amazon in countries everywhere. Go to my post Hit & Run 1 for more on Joey, Lou and Margaret.