12,000 Miles in the Nick of Time: A Semi-Dysfunctional Family Circumnavigates the Globeby Mark Jacobson, Rae Jacobson
At the end of the previous millennium, noted journalist Mark Jacobson and his wife, Nancy, decided they couldn't take another moment of watching their three children get any stupider. They decided that Rae (sixteen), Rosalie (twelve), and Billy (nine) had become prisoners of the idiot culture, which seemed a terrible waste of perfectly fine DNA. There was only one recourse: to declare war. To get away, far away. To go around the world. 12,000 Miles in the Nick of Time is the story of this three-month trip, a trek through Thailand, Cambodia, Nepal, India, Jordan, Israel, France, and England. The itinerary was planned around places that have stood the test of time the Angkor Wat, Durbar Square in Kathmandu, the ancient Hindu city of Varanasi, Petra in Jordan, the Pyramids at Giza, the Holy City of Jerusalem. The concept: to contrast these immortal works of man with the crap on TV. But it is also a wider journey, stretching across generations, an expedition into the minds of five family members as they make their way through a succession of cramped cars, seventeen-hour train rides, seemingly endless walks through teeming metropolises and one more bowl of curry.
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12,000 Miles in the Nick of TimeA Semi-Dysfunctional Family Circumnavigates the Globe
By Mark Jacobson
Grove Atlantic, Inc.Copyright © 2003 Mark Jacobson
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBurning Is Learning
It is easy to get lost in the mucky dung-strewn back alleyways in Varanasi's Holy City, but finding the Burning Ghat is never a problem. You just follow the corpses.
Some dead bodies, wrapped round and round in snow-white gauze, sit upright like solitary commuters in the backseat of slowly pedaled bicycle rickshaws. Others, swathed in bright orange, lie on garland-decked pallets that are borne high by crowds of weeping relatives. They all will lead you to the river, the Holy River Ganges. Failing that, you can follow your nose, pick up the smell of incense or, if the wind is right, charring flesh.
So there we were, the world travelers, watching dead people on fire.
It was a rare chance to stand at a sacred crossroads of existence, I told the children. The Infinite Round of Being was playing out before us. A billion believing Hindus dreamed of coming to this very place, to die and be cremated. To have one's body burned here, the ashes tossed into the Holy River, was to assure a good burial, a release from the endless karmic cycle of birth and rebirth. Here, it was possible for souls to attain nirvana, which was the goal of all souls.
In deference to these vast, humbling forces, we should be quiet and respectful at the Burning Ghat, I said.
Not that the locals appeared to be observing such decorum. An argument had broken out near one of the three ten-foot-high pyres. A family was screaming at a fat middle-aged man in a deeply soiled dhoti. Pointing at a clipboard, the man screamed back.
It was a fight over money. After all, it takes more than three tons of wood, cut into one hundred-pound railroad tie-size pieces, to properly burn a body. Lumber is not cheap. With the deforestation crisis throughout the Gangetic Plain, it was getting more expensive all the time. The lumber has to be lorried in from the south, or floated down the river from Himalayan foothills in ominous, black-hulled boats. Aware of this ever-rising cost, Hindu pilgrims save for years for their funeral pyres. Apparently the particular pilgrim currently on the fire had not saved enough. Head and torso blackened but still intact, the fuel for his trip to heaven had run out.
If the cremation was to continue, the man with the clipboard, who identified himself as "the captain of the Burning Ghat," said he would require further payment. Otherwise, he told the deceased's weeping, railing relatives, he would have no choice but to remove the half-incinerated body and replace it with another, of which there was no shortage, corpses being stacked up in several places on the steps leading to the river. The dead man's sons and daughters were claiming extortion, screaming they had already paid the agreed amount.
So it was a negotiation, still another subcontinental bargaining session. Here, even the transmigration of souls did not have a fixed price. Ah, India. Just when you feel you've weathered today's onslaught of the bizarre, things ratchet up one more notch. What a country! They didn't have this back in Brooklyn.
Still, I could tell, the Burning Ghat was not making it as a family fun destination.
The kids were not digging it. It was only a few weeks ago that they'd visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, the one-time high school where Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge tortured and killed twenty thousand people. At the great temples of Angkor, they'd walked by the armless, legless beggars. In Thailand there was that bus at the bottom of the ravine, dried blood on the broken windows, little boys in rags prying off the tires with their bare hands. But now, a month and a half into our circumnavigation of the globe, the Burning Ghat was the last draw.
"This is horrible! Disgusting!" critiqued the then-sixteen-year-old, Rae.
"Bad," chimed in twelve-year-old Rosalie.
"Really bad," assented Billy, nine at the time.
The three of them were united on this point. They were all going to throw up if we didn't get out of there immediately.
The really dumb thing was: I wasn't positive about Tuol Sleng, but I really thought they were going to like the Burning Ghat.
Nattering like some ninny Chevy Chase, I'd told my wife: you'll see, the Burning Ghat is going to be a pick hit. Knock their unchanged socks right off. As it turned out, of all the places the children professed to hate in our three-month spin about the planet, the Burning Ghat, and India in general, was the most hated.
It wasn't just the heat and filth. Back in New York, Rae had no compunction about lying around on the cruddy sidewalks of the East Village with her skin-pierced, semi-no-account friends. Indeed, all three of our children were born while we lived in a fourth-floor walkup on St. Marks Place, the East Village's famously disreputable bohemian promenade. They had more than a passing acquaintance with the phantasmagoric, not to mention stench.
But this was different. True, in New York they might have subway leerers and backpack snatchers, but they didn't clutch at you all the time. In New York you didn't have to stay at places where whirring fans crashed from the ceiling like downed helicopters in the middle of the night. In New York you didn't have to eat mutter paneer every other meal and brush your teeth with orange soda lest giant parasites burrow into your bone marrow. In New York, they didn't bargain over whether or not to throw half-burned dead people into the river, not every day anyway. And if they did, you didn't have to watch it with your parents.
"I'm breathing through my mouth, Dad," hissed Rosalie, gagging on the thick black smoke from the funeral pyre. "I've been breathing through my mouth for days...."
On a global jaunt, the whine was equally global. They didn't simply want to go back to the Vishnu Guest House, the two-dollar "traveler's" hotel we'd spent an epic hour trying to find soon after our arrival from Kathmandu, dodging massive piles of cow dung up and down the rabbit warren maze of blind alleys in Varanasi's Old City. Certainly there was some fun to be had sitting on the Vishnu balcony above the Holy River watching surly French backpackers study their Lonely Planet guides while attempting to ignore incursions of monkeys that swept down from the hotel roof to steal banana pancakes from their greasy dinner plates. It was even more fun, especially from the point of view of Billy, the scampish World Wide Wrestling Federation fan, to shoot pebbles at those same monkeys with slingshots provided by the harried but ever-amused hotel staff.
Wham. Right in the red-colored butt, you see that shot? Fun. But the kind of fun that only went so far.
No, the children wanted greater distance from the Burning Ghat than simply returning to the humid rooms of the Vishnu Guest House and their squat toilets. A one-way ticket out of India, and Asia itself, would not even suffice. What was called for was a little teleportation. A zap back to that nice little spot on the couch in our current Brooklyn abode, a bowl of Cocoa Puffs on the table, the cordless phone at the ready and a third rerun of some particularly moving episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer on the box. That sounded like the proper degree of separation from the Burning Ghat.
We'd come all this way to escape the enveloping ersatz of the fetid American cultural experience, traveled long and hard to be at one with The Real. And we were going to partake of that real, goddammit. The world was a bigger place than what the anti-Christ popular culture said it was. The world was bigger even than some foul, smoky club on Houston Street where everyone dressed in black. Bigger than Michael Jordan and Behind the Music. If it took the Burning Ghat to prove it, well, tough.
It was for their own good.
In the context of the Great Round of Existence, the Burning Ghat connoted a specific familial symmetry. The Burning Ghat spoke of The Eternal Return.
It was here that my wife and I spent our honeymoon. There wasn't any choice. Niagara Falls was all booked up. Or at least that was my standard reply when asked why, twenty years before the current journey, we decided to drop out, mid-career so to speak, and travel around the world for a year with knapsacks on our backs, val-da-ree, val-da-rah.
Originally we had what Pan American Airways, then still struggling to present air travel as the 1939 World's Fair equivalent of a stately Cunard passage across the Atlantic, referred to as an "Eighty Days Around the World" ticket. It was the forerunner of the exotic multicountry deals they sell nowadays under modernist rubrics NY-LA-TKY-HK-BKK-DEL-BAH-ATH-LON-NY, with perhaps a MAD or JOH substituted for a DEL or BAH. Except nowadays they throw in a free web page so you can spam unsuspecting surfers with tedious accounts of your run-ins with Russian customs.
In the path of Jules Verne and David Niven, we took our eighty days and traveled west, making Bali by the seventieth day, which is less than halfway around and was not going to work out math-wise. We sold our tickets to some Germans and went overland, which is how the hippies used to do it, before the Ayatollah and sundry Taliban loosed fundamentalism and bad water upon all the good dope cities. Back then, an extra nine months on the road didn't seem excessive, especially with time off for a few bouts of dengue fever. Somewhere in the middle we pulled into Varanasi, and, following the bodies, found our way to the Burning Ghat where, suddenly, we found our future on the line.
Taking pictures of the Burning Ghat is forbidden. Everyone knows this. Liberal ethnographical pluralist/internationalists then as now, we respected that. At least that's what we tried to tell those boys, some preteen Fagin's army, who came out of nowhere to surround us, claiming unforgivable sacrilege.
"No pictures of the Burning Ghat," they bum-rushed, demanding that my wife hand over the unused camera sticking out of her bag.
We'd been warned about this, in the "scams and cons" section of one guidebook or another. The "offended" parties demand the film, then run off with the camera: a fairly standard shakedown, nothing to get pent-up about. But these kids got too close. Voices were raised, a crowd began to gather and a moment later, rocks were flying. A nice little entry for the honeymoon scrapbook: stoned to death, at the place of death.
But then, conveniently, a policeman appeared. He hit the kid who had thrown the first stone with his bobby's baton, opening a cut on the young hooligan's head. The kid shouted and the cop knocked him down and kicked him in the ribs. Shocked by such brutality, we, being respectful pluralist/internationalists, attempted to intercede on behalf of our erstwhile attacker. Heeding these pleas for mercy, the cop got in one more good shot to the gut, then stopped. The kid got up, spit at us through bloodied lips, and hobbled away.
"This man has helped you," said a man in the crowd, indicating the mustachioed cop, a strong and silent type in his nifty brown and red uniform. "Without this man you could have been seriously hurt, even killed. Those boys are evil. Maximum bandits. He has saved your future for you."
There was no mistaking the next bit of business. Baksheesh was a way of life upon the subcontinent, we well knew. But how much? How much was the future worth to two honeymooning Americans traveling God's great hippie highway?
"I would say fifty rupees," the onlooker suggested.
About six bucks in 1980. Then, it seemed like a deal.
So now we were back at the Burning Ghat, with The Future in tow, the three of them.
What more accurate accounting of the future could there be? What else has really happened in the twenty years between then and now?
For my part, there were a few books written, none immortal. Some movies written and rewritten. The range of experience was wide, often very rewarding, in a city-boy journalist sort of way: there were games of one-on-one with Dr. J., a joint with Bob Marley, two-mile descents beneath the ground with South African gold miners, midnight sails with caviar poachers in the Caspian Sea, a playful swat in the arm from John Gotti, a kiss on the cheek from the Dalai Lama.
But what, in the end, are these things worth? What is the DNA of experience? How do you package it, send it along? How many times can you tell those same moldy stories?
No, when I look at my particular life, all that I have accomplished and not accomplished, when I draw a bottom line beneath the debits and credits, the most tangible, irrefutable sum is: them.
The three of them.
"You are wise to have brought your children to the Burning Ghat," said Mr. Sen, who had appointed himself our guide, elbowing aside any number of other unsolicited dispensers of spiritual and logistical information. In Varanasi, we had steered clear of such individuals, making exceptions only for "Goldie people" i.e., those who claimed to be close friends of Goldie Hawn, of which Varanasi offered a surprisingly large contingent. Indeed, upon hearing that we were Americans, many people assumed that we "knew Goldie," who apparently is something of a collector of "Benares silks," the spectacular brocades for which the Holy City is famous. As "friends of Goldie," we were asked back to several houses to drink tea in rooms displaying large, autographed pictures of the former star of the seventies comedy show, Laugh-in.
The dark-eyed Mr. Sen was no Goldie person. With his wooly-haired coif and frumpy, frayed sport jacket he suggested a former student radical, an embassy-occupier perhaps, gradually gone to seed and blurred apocalyptic vision. He was determined to extend cultural enlightenment to the naive and hopelessly self-satisfied Americans in his midst.
"Burning is learning," Mr. Sen declared.
"Burning is learning. Cremation is education." This was Mr. Sen's most effectively rhymed tourist mantra. One didn't have to be a Hindu, or even an Indian, to come away from Varanasi a changed person, Mr. Sen made clear. "You can be a Christian, or any manner of pagan...."
Originally from a small village outside the industrial city of Kanpur one hundred miles east, where his health was "ruined by terrible pollution and the amorality of money," Mr. Sen came to Varanasi three years ago because, as "a follower of Lord Shiva ... there was nowhere else to go."
Varanasi has always been Shiva's city, Mr. Sen said, ever since the God decapitated Brahma and wandered through all of India with the bloody head stuck to his palm. In Varanasi, the skull finally came loose, rolling from Shiva's hand. The god decided he liked Varanasi and decided to make it his home. To this day he hasn't left, which is the reason the city is referred to as Avimutka, or "the unabandoned."
Indeed, without Lord Shiva, whom Mr.
Excerpted from 12,000 Miles in the Nick of Time by Mark Jacobson Copyright © 2003 by Mark Jacobson. Excerpted by permission.
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