Traveling through Asia, there are sometimes moments like this:
We’re sitting in a restaurant in Kuala Lumpur. No, actually, it’s a not a restaurant, it’s a bistro, which means that the booths are high and wooden, the floors are tiled, the bar is elaborate with mirrored shelves lined with shiny bottles of Tanquaray, Citroen Vodka, seven different kinds single-malt scotch. Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and other well-known Malaysian jazz singers blast from the tower speakers at the far end of the room.
Two hours later, back at our hotel, we’ll discover a market street one block over, full of busy cafes and vendors hawking smoked squid and soya fish and cold cold beer. We’re in KL for only half a day, en-route to Bali, and this—the market, the atmosphere, the noise, the wonderful urban chaos—is exactly what we were looking for for dinner. But no. We’ve got a bartender anxious to make us cosmopolitans, and Lena Horn singing, “If you aaask me, I could write a book. About the way you move, the way you talk the waaaay you look.”
Oh well. I’m tempted to be angry. Or at least annoyed. We’d set out to find the “Little China” area of Kual Lumpur, but had only gotten as far as an indoor market with overpriced dragon kites and scorpions set in glow-in-the-dark key-chain plastic. For dinner, we’d wandered toward “Little India,” but never quite found it. So, hungry and tired and bordering on the sort of desperation you feel when you’re with three smallish kids who are hungry and tired, we’d settled on the bistro. Oh well.
“At least it has real Malaysian food,” Ellen says, as we sit there, trying to chat over the strains of All of Me.
Except that—well, I hate to say this, but there’s a reason you don’t find dozens of Malaysian restaurants in cities world wide. Imagine Thai food, with less spice, less lime, more sugar, more peanuts and more, I don’t know, sort of an overcooked potato taste, only with no actual potatoes in sight—and that’s your basic Malaysian dish.
Which makes it all the more a pity that we couldn’t find Little India. And didn’t know about the street market just behind our hotel. So we sit at our marble-topped table, sipping our Sprites, listening to Ella Fitzgerald crooning about how she don’t get around much anymore.
And sometimes there are moments like this:
After dinner, we make a bathroom run. Our bistro is, of course, attached to a large mall, so we straggle in, searching for the usual blue and red man and woman signs. We find them, and slide down a narrow hallway between a (undoubtedly very Malaysian) deli and an international grocery store. After attending to business, we stroll into the latter, searching for bottled water and maybe some fresh fruit for the next day’s flight.
We wander. We’ve been traveling 10 days at this point, been in three different hotels, had maybe 9 hours in the air. We’re tired, and bored, and a little depressed. Slogging past cans of squid and chili-pepper-flavored Pringles and beef-flavored potato chips, we blink dully. Then we turn a corner, and Will says, “Hey.”
We stop. He points. On the second shelf down stands a row of white Quaker Oats boxes, the little dude in the blue hat and coat with the fluffy ascot.
“Quaker chewy granola bars,” Will says. The listlessness has left his face. “I’ve been missing those all year.”
I look at Ellen. She nods. Traveling in Asia, we’ve learned to pack your own snacks, filling half a suitcase with granola bars and Go Aheads! an orange-flavored Garibaldi rip-off that the kids used to like—the operative term, of course, being “used to”: I know it sounds strange, but after probably a cumulative six-weeks on the road over the course of the year, gnawing their way through 27 packages of Go Aheads!, the kids appear to have gotten sick of them. Go figure.
I put a hand up, grab two boxes of Quaker chewy granola bars off the shelf. I start to reach for another, then stop, glancing at Ellen. She nods again. I get two more, and she grabs a fifth, and we make our way to the check-out counter, suddenly lighter of heart.
Or moments like this:
We’re at the smiley-face temple. I’m sorry I don’t know the actual name of it, but we’ve been to so many temples in Cambodia, and the language there is so unlike Chinese, filled with silent “h”s and “v”s that sound like “w”s and stuff like that that the minute our guide, Vulthy, (pronounced “Woody”—see what I mean?) tells us the name of the next place we’re about to see, my brain switches to “Good Ship Lollipop” mode and I just fall asleep on the sunny beach of peppermint bay.
Which is not to diminish any of these temples. On the contrary, they are spectacular—every one of them mysterious and historically interesting and architecturally atmospheric. Indeed, Cambodia as a whole is a delight. The people are gracious and kind (Jamie has his own entourage at our hotel), the food is a delightful mix of Thai and Vietnamese, massages are cheap and professional, and the country-side is beautiful: red-brown dirt soil and palm trees, huts on stilts and dogs barking in the warm evening light. And if all of that isn’t enough for you, at the end of the day, you can walk down any street in Siem Reap, pay a woman a dollar, climb up on a platform, and stick your feet into a large tank of water where hundreds of small silver fish with “massage” your feet by nibbling off the dry skin and salt.
You heard me.
Anyhow, we’re at the smiley-face temple, and it is glorious: a massive pile of stone and rumble, 37 out of an original 100 towers still standing, each of them with four smiling Buddhas, one carved into each side. We climb several sets of stairs, trace our way along a terrace, weave in and out of the various entryways and towers. It’s a fantasy world only real—like being in an Indiana Jones movie, or something starring Angelina Jolie with a long knife. I keep looking for the Disney signs.
It’s the perfect place for a nine-year-old boy with an imagination, which is great, since we have one of those. The only problem is, Will is not having a good time. For one thing, it’s hot, and poor Will hates the heat. For another thing, it’s late in the day, and this is the fifth or sixth temple we’ve visited, and Will’s feeling very sorry for himself. Then there’s the fact that I, wonderful father that I am, have been grumpy with him all day, telling him to pull it together, to stop worrying about the heat, to just enjoy being here and seeing these ruins.
But he can’t. Because he’s 9 and he’s been away from home for a year and now he’s away from his home away from home, and it’s hot, and the food here seems kind of weird, and we stayed up late last night watching some dumb dance show, and got up early this morning so we could ride some elephants that were bigger and scarier and—well—bumpier than any of us had expected.
So we’re wandering through this maze of buildings, and Will is trudging along, every angle of his body determined to convey to us his utter dissatisfaction with the heat and his parents and this stupid place, and one more stupid twelve-hundred-year-old temple. At one point, Vulthy suggests we pose for a family picture, and Will sighs so loudly and so deliberately that I want to strangle him:
“Get a grip!” I say. “We’re here for a whole 45 minutes—just relax and enjoy yourself.”
My voice has more edge than I intend—or maybe not. Maybe it has just the exact amount of anger I’m feeling right now, anger for the way he’s behaving, anger for the fact that I put him in this situation, anger that I can’t do anything to help him now, anger at my own anger.
Regardless, it’s a frustrating situation—late in the day, hot, with no food and everyone’s blood sugar plummeting into the depths.
We wander a bit more. I’m tinkering with the settings on my camera, playing with the black and white and the color modes, trying to get some really good photos. Eventually I look up and realize everyone has moved on without me. I pick up my pace, darting between stone pillars that are older than anything I’ve seen or touched before. I stumble up a flight of stairs, into a dark cloister. Boards have been laid out on the uneven floor, and I follow them first to the right, then to the left. At the end of a long corridor, I hear Lucy say, “Daddy!” and I take another quick right. Up ahead, I see a golden glow, and figures moving on the edge of the light. I stumble forward.
Within seconds, I’m in a small enclosure, open on all four sides, yes, but open only onto long, low corridors that stretch for twenty or thirty yards. The only light comes from a small wax lantern next to a Buddha figure and a sand-filled urn holding smoldering joss sticks. Two men with bare feet and worn trousers rest on their haunches beside the makeshift alter, offering unlit incense to passersby.
Except for Ellen and Vulthy, everyone has moved on, feeling their way down one of the corridors into daylight or something like it. I glance at Vulthy. He nods at me, gives not so much a smile as a warming look.
“This,” he says, “is the most holy place.” And he bends his head back, looking straight up.
It is then I realize that we must be in the center of the temple, at the very heart of it, under the tallest tower. As Vulthy nods to the two men and departs, Ellen and I linger, taking in the small, festive canopy over the Buddha, the silken yellow sash over his shoulder, the stone walls that look coal black in the flickering light from the lamp.
Standing there, I feel a deepening of the air, as though it’s grown darker, cooler, as though we’re on a silent lift that is sinking further into the temple, deeper into the earth. The air is musky with the smells of soil and joss and old water, all of it edged by the slightly acrid scent of the two men and my own sweaty shirt.
I glance at Ellen. She looks back, raising her eyebrows just a touch, showing the hint of a smile. My inner poet rises to the surface, and I say, in my usual profound way: “Wow.”
She nods. “I know.”
I look at the two men. One of them holds out the incense, gestures with it slightly. He’s imploring me to buy, but not aggressively so. Years ago, when I was finishing grad school and Ellen was beginning to wonder if being married to a high-strung, task-oriented, obsessive-compulsive Victorianist was really her idea of happiness, the two of us took a trip to France and found ourselves, late one night, in Sacre Couer, a wind storm raging outside, the interior of the domed cathedral lit by a thousand prayer candles. Figuring it couldn’t hurt, I lit one, and said a little prayer for our marriage, for Ellen, and for her thinning patience.
16 years later, she’s standing next to me her patience, if not stronger, at least boosted by a willingness to recognize that I’m not annoying all of the time. I reach for my wallet. The way I see it, if a French, Catholic god is willing to help a Lutheran boy from the upper mid-west, maybe a Buddhist god would as well. Pulling out a 5,000 riel note, I hand it to the man with the incense, holding out three fingers, one for each of our children—though I’m thinking particularly of Will.
The man takes it, lights three sticks, and hands them to me. I hold them upright between flattened palms, close my eyes, and bow silently, three times in the Chinese way. Then I open my eyes, breath in the incense, and nestle the three sticks in the sand-filled urn.
But it appears I gave the man too much money, because he’s handed Ellen three sticks as well. She, too, closes her eyes, bows silently three times, and places the sticks in the sand.
And then I feel a gentle tug on my hand. The second man has my palm between his fingers, and is pulling it toward him. I watch as he takes a piece of red yarn—I later realize it’s a thin, tightly-woven bracelet—and wraps it around my wrist. He attempts to knot it. But my arms are too big. He says something to the first man, who laughs quietly and selects another piece of yarn from a sheath of them. Again my man attempts to knot it around my wrist, but again it seems to short.
“Here,” I say, and show him, rolling it off the bones of my wrist to the narrow part just above, where the bracelet fits nicely.
The other man is tying one around Ellen’s wrist, now, and as they proceed with their work, they break into a murmuring prayer, warm and low and as gentle as—I don’t know—water over smooth river stones, a breeze beneath a shade tree, two puppies gnawing a bone? We stand there, Ellen and I, these two men on their haunches in the ancient dark, whispering to us, for us, to some ancient power, and feel immensely blessed.
And then it’s done. They release us, and we nod our thanks, and step away from the lantern and the shrine and into the coal black that surrounds everything.
We’re moving toward the doorway when I stop, remembering Vulthy in this same spot. I look up.
I don’t know how to explain what happens next. Maybe it’s just fatigue. It’s been a long day, after all, and a long week, and a long year with lots of stresses and lots of change. Or maybe it’s the kids—Will and his weariness, the stress of constantly worrying about three children under the age 10 in a country far far from home.
Or maybe it’s religion, a remote Buddhist god reaching down and tapping some part of my rib cage that hasn’t been prodded in a long time. I’m a Lutheran boy in a strange land, after all, and even when we’re home in Virginia it’s not like I make it to church but once or twice a quarter—and that’s a generous estimate.
Or maybe it’s just the age of it all, this twelve-hundred-year-old tower rising up above me, these stones set in place by men and women so long dead their dust may well be part of my own bones. Gone, for an instant, is the world of cell phones and digital cameras and intense-blue mode; gone are oil spills and computer viruses and the 200,000+ landmines still buried in Cambodian soils. What I see, when I look up, is a light, a small square of sky, two or three hundred yards distant, random silhouettes of stones jutting at odd angles, the occasional flash of wings accompanied by a fluttering. We’re a thousand years ago, in the heart of this temple, in the middle of a jungle filled of vines as thick as trees and trees as tall as sky-scrapers, a jungle stretching for a thousand miles beneath a sky that is wide and blue above a red-dirt earth.
And looking up, taking in all of this, feeling Ellen beside me, air catches in my lungs, my shoulders rise and fall—and out of my throat comes a single, tangible, sob.