Straight Up To Heaven
April 1, 2013
My tour mates and I woke at 5 a.m. in our hotel beds in Varanasi. India. We were a twenty-person international group of travelers under the age of thirty-five, on a jam-packed two-week tour of India and Nepal. At 5:30, we boarded bicycle rickshaws to the Ganges River for a morning boat ride. I felt so bad for my driver; he was a small man and looked like he was struggling so much, pulling two people’s weight along the potholed roads.
We arrived at the shore of the alarmingly dirty river: thick brown with all kinds of disgusting debris floating in it, definitely a hot bed for disease. I watched people bathe in that disgusting water. Men dunked their babies under the murky surface. I saw a man climb out of the river wearing only a small cloth over his lower half, sit up on a rock in a cross-legged meditative pose, close his eyes and begin some 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. Our tour guide, Hari, informed us that sometimes people just throw the bodies into the river if they cannot afford the cremation ceremony.
We took the boat to the shore, where we exited and Hari led us along the banks of the Ganges. Passing the crematorium, I watched a body being prepared for cremation. The body was elevated on a platform with men standing on either end; it reminded me of a skewered chicken. There was a giant pile of ashes on the ground below the body. The 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 normally wandered around naked or with just a thin loincloth, but now they were wearing robes out of respect for their proximity to the holy river. They smoked hashish and took other hallucinogenic substances totally sanctioned by the government, as they were 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 didn’t understand who decided that these were the ways to prove one’s devotion to God.
I felt both physically repulsed and morbidly seduced by the whole scene. I wanted to be shocked in a way that would force me to dissolve, 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.
I was sitting in the back of a parked bicycle rickshaw, waiting to leave the Ganges, when 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, then raised her hand to her mouth. I could see sores on her baby’s legs. Then she reached her hand toward me and pulled at my sleeve, reached her hand 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 and her child, but was incapable of not looking. I stared at them, unable to fully process that she was real, her baby was real, 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, cow shit, goats, pedestrians, flies, women sitting sideways on the backs of motorcycles- bright saris flapping and flying, honking horns.
At 5:00 o’clock the next morning, feeling exhausted, 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 of my desires were bubbling up inside of me as fast as the scrolling scenery: I want to publish a book, perform a solo show, find love. These wants felt like twisting knives in my heart, so intense. 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, after buying my plane ticket and booking the tour, 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?” Of course, no one had a minute. I empathized; I don’t usually like being attacked by people and their causes when I am rushing somewhere either. Still, after fifteen minutes of watching the guy get rejected, I called out to him, “Hey, I have a minute for the children, tell me about them.”
He sat down beside me on the curb, 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 just drop on a night out?”
I had emptied my bank account and 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. I want. I want. I want.
Staring out the window of the bus with trash, shit, and crumbling structures everywhere, I prayed for self-actualization. This was my ultimate craving. May I work toward my goals with peace and grace, and 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,” a voice from somewhere whispered, “The rocket will be at your door before sunrise to shoot you straight up to heaven.”
Amanda Miller is an actor, writer, yoga instructor and massage therapist. She recently published her memoir One Breath, Then Another about her quest for healing to avoid her father’s self destructive path (Lucid River Press. Available in print and for Kindle on Amazon). She has adapted the book into an interactive solo show about studying yoga on an ashram in India, which premiered at Dixon Place in New York City on March 9th, 2013. Excerpts from One Breath, Then Another have been featured in Underwired Magazine, Om Times, Love Your Rebellion, Runaway Parade and So Long: Short Memoirs of Loss and Remembrance, a memoir anthology. Her writing has also appeared in The Rumpus and UC Riverside’s Cratelit. She hosts and books the monthly literary/ music series Lyrics, Lit & Liquor at The Parkside Lounge. Amanda earned her BFA in Acting from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and her MFA in Creative Writing from The New School. For more information, visit her website www.onebreaththenanother.com.