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My parents spend their summers in Maine, and I have joined them for most of them since I was a small boy: renting cabins on lakes or along quiet coves; skipping rocks along the shorelines barefoot and exploring the woods; fishing and boating with the locals and children of other vacationers; devouring lobster and clam chowder and salt water taffy; and all the rest of what makes Maine Maine. Maine is part of who I am, and one day maybe it will be part of who Hanlon is too.
We have to check out of the rental by 11. The new rental is on the other side of Deer Island, and we can’t check in there until noon. We still have to pack the car, but I’m taking the last load of garbage to the dump. Hanlon wants to go with me, any excuse to be with his daddy.
I have been reading a book about the physics of the future, about how the world will change from 2030 to the end of the century. I realize Hanlon will see things, will really see things. On the way back from the dump I think about my grandparents and the world they knew. And I think about Hanlon and my father and the chasm between their generations. And then I think about how the book I’m reading talks about exponential growth, so I also think about Hanlon’s grandchildren and the even bigger changes that could occur within the next hundred years as compared to the last hundred. And all at once it both amazes me and overwhelms me with sadness. I wonder if Hanlon will talk to his grandchildren about my father, if he’ll even have anything to say. I wonder the same about me with Hanlon’s children and their children and grandchildren. Family is a funny and wonderful thing.
Hanlon’s English is not so good, but he’s making progress. And since he’s only four and a half I’m not worried that he’ll eventually speak the language as well as Mandarin. So I speak to him in Chinese. I tell him that I have an idea, a great idea I want to tell him. He is in the back harnessed to his car seat, so I look back and forth between the rear view mirror and winding, wooded road while I talk.
One day, I say, you will grow up and have a son, just like I have you. One day, you will be a father and have a little boy to play with just like we play together. Do you know that, I ask.
He seems to acknowledge this.
And then your son will grow up and get married and have a son too. And you will be a grandfather just like grandpa is to you.
And he then asks me, what about you and mommy? Will you both be dead?
Even though I hear the question, I want him to say it again. What did you say, I say?
And he then says, after mommy dies will you still be here?
And I know that this is one of those moments I will remember my whole life, and it fills me with awe and confusion. I want to get it right, whatever that means. So I tell Hanlon what I know about life and death, how all things grow and die: the trees, the flowers, animals, fish and people, all living things. I think of something my father has quoted from Samuel Beckett, or at least I think it’s Beckett, who said something to the effect of the following: all things are born and die in a second, the same second.
And Hanlon asks me why we have to die, and I hear his voice crack and I feel my throat tighten. Life is just like that, I say. We come from somewhere, from nothing, very quickly, and I snap my fingers, just like that. And we grow and live, and I slowly open my hand as if a flower blooming. And then nothing, and then we’re gone.
He is almost in tears, but he is not certain whether he should cry. I don’t want to die, he says.
I don’t want to die either, I tell him. We are now back at the house and I stop the car and turn back to him.
I don’t want you to die, he tells me, and vacillates between giggles and tears. I, too, struggle to hold it together.
Mommy and I aren’t going to die for a long time, I say. And you’re not going to die for a long time either. That’s why it’s so important to have fun while you are alive, I tell him. It’s really important we have a good time while we are here. Do you understand?
He nods hesitantly, but he is not happy with my answer. That’s just the way it is, I tell him. I’m not happy about it. No one wants to die, but that’s just the way it is. So, let’s go play together, okay?
And this time he nods more affirmatively. He quickly asks if we can open the Spiderman fishing rod I got him the other day. And I say, sure we can, but we’ve got to move first. Can you help me pack the car? And he is happy to help. He is already thinking about other things.
As I now recall it I’m not even sure that that’s how it really went at all. But I remember how sad and lost we felt together, just the two of us, a beautiful closeness that can only come from deep sadness.
Palolem Beach is a sleepy town in southern India. During the day I wander the shore barefoot or rent a motorcycle to explore the coast and nearby villages. At night I play cards with other backpackers, smoke hash and opium, and drink Coke with “feni,” which is a homemade coconut or cashew moonshine that is illegal outside of the State of Goa. I imagine hashish and opium are illegal even within Goa, though I haven’t asked. Sometimes I fish in the the Adriatic Sea. The night sky is majestic, and it’s made brighter still by trailing my fingers through the waters from off the side of the row boat and kicking up beads of phosphorescence. Without question the last week plus has been bliss, that is except for the slight issue with the bathroom.
I’ve been staying in the spare room at the home of Ganesh Patel and family. They charge two dollars a night. With a single bed and one pillow and linens and a semi-functional, albeit noisy, fan, it is actually more than I could expect. It even has a locking window and door. The bathroom, however, is an outhouse. Well, of sorts. The first time I used it, and the last, was a few days ago. I had somehow managed to conduct my business elsewhere until then and in the relative comfort of western amenities, i.e., toilet and not hole. But on this one occasion urgency took charge and out to the backyard I marched.
The facility is a stubby bamboo hut with a low hanging roof thatched in dried palm. A thin bamboo mat hangs by a string covering the doorway. The backyard also houses a gaggle of small, free roaming livestock, a clothes line and a well, all of which augment a pleasing sense of authenticity in my temporary digs.
There is no toilet paper, so I prepare a bucket of well water for cleaning myself. I lean the bamboo mat to one side and crouch as I cross the threshold, shaking away flies and peering into the dark while my eyes adjust to locate the anticipated hole in the ground. There is none. There are only two stacks of bricks spaced equidistantly along the thatched wall. Behind the bricks and along the ground there is a circular hole that has been cut out of the bamboo wall. The sunlight penetrates the opening and highlights the stack of bricks. I surmise that the design is intended to squat upon the bricks, do my business, clean up, and finally spill the remaining water on the refuse to wash it out the hole, which presumably fertilizes the garden.
I mount the wobbly bricks, my knees buckling as I squat down with shorts lowered and pulled all the way forward behind my ankles. It is strenuous to remain balanced, and the lack of ventilation and constant swatting at flies do not ease the effort. When I readjust my footing, stray palm leaves protrude down out of the roof and jab the back of my neck and head. I look down between my legs and the column of bricks, the sweat pouring off me and dousing my steaming pile, which is illuminated through the hole with a gentle wisp of light, the atmosphere reminiscent of a painting by one of the Dutch Masters.
My eyes have now adjusted to the darkness, and the rest of my body is contorted and near-still, having found as much comfort as can be expected while perched naked from the waist down and defecating in a thatched hut off a stack of bricks. The flies no longer bother me, it is futile to fight them. I hone in on the nearby sounds of children’s laughter, they must be Mr. Patel’s. I hear the squawking and honking of chickens and pigs, the defensive purring of cats, and the midday ocean breeze bristling through the dried palms.
A more audible snorting crescends to within earshot. The slurping and grunting continue, and I then nonchalantly peer down. Between the bricks and only inches from my legs there is a pig’s head protruding through the cutaway and into the inclosure. It is ravenously lapping up my feces. The sudden sight makes me tremble at the knees. It is hard to maintain poised while I wobble back into balance. The pig’s head pops out of the hole while I remain reeling. Then its head juts back in again, but only for a moment, and I watch from above its tongue furiously licking up the remnants before it finally exits for good.
It has since taken days to process this minor trauma. While I avoid the outhouse, I do take closer notice now of the pigs when I go out back to tend to the laundry. There are three of them trotting around, and I can’t help but wonder which of the little ones it was that forever blew my house down.
I’m on the first morning flight from Bogotá to Medellín. A friend has arranged a car to meet me at 5 am to take me to the airport. For the past week I have been repeatedly cautioned to arrange taxis in advance through a service and never hail one off the street. Kidnappings are common, as are robberies and murders.
It’s very early and I’m exhausted, but I am still very much on edge. The high altitude coupled with an “aguardiente” hangover further drain me. Stepping out of my friend’s apartment I see a black vehicle and driver parked nearby. I can’t remember the license plate I am supposed to look for or the name of the driver. Not good. The vehicle is also non-descript, and it’s not a new ride nor a particularly good one.
I rap on the frontside passenger window. The driver, who’s face is as innocuous as the car, leans over and aggressively unrolls the glass. “Aeropuerto?” I inquire, as if trying to ask, “Are you the car that is supposed to take me to the airport?” The driver hums in affirmation, so I pack the trunk and sit in the back.
He takes off with the typical haste of a cabbie the world over, his near-jalopy wobbling on the axles as he accelerates and banks around street corners and overtakes other motorists. He tears through traffic with the maximum precision of a race car driver. The radio crackles and blares salsa. My senses deadened and without a seat belt, I struggle to remain upright.
We finally sail onto the opening of a freeway, and with relief I peer up through the windshield to see the overhead sign printed “Aeropuerto,” with a ubiquitous airplane icon and an arrow directing traffic to the left lane. But the driver jumps into the right lane and we quickly veer off the highway and back into the city. I look longingly out the back window at the fast dissipating sign. A pang of terror engulfs me and I remain speechless.
We cruise through Bogotá’s dilapidated urban outskirts, a dramatically different neighborhood from where my friend lives. Many of the buildings are vacant and have boarded windows or are locked with aluminum doors and heavy chains. And every visible surface is covered in graffiti.
It inappropriately occurs that travel operators could run graffiti tours through here, that the breadth and sample of the styles would appeal to the right kind of tasteless tourist, like the ones who hire guides to show them the favelas in Rio or snap pictures off the tops of double-decker buses in Harlem. I’ve never seen so much graffiti anywhere in the world. While on one level it is impressive, I am worryingly aware that this fleeting observation serves as little more than an involuntary psychological reflex to suppress the encroaching fear of the fate I will soon face.
I do not attempt to communicate with the driver. The fact of the matter is I really couldn’t if I wanted to. My high school Spanish has been rendered to a few paltry words, and I can’t understand much of anything besides. I also know that anything I say would be futile, that there is no way of talking myself out of this situation, and that attempting to do so, in fact, could only worsen the inevitable.
I think about jumping out of the car, but I’m not wearing the right shoes to get me far enough. I think about making a phone call, but my US Blackberry doesn’t work in Colombia. I think about my wife and son. Though three continents away in northern China, just knowing they are out there brings me a modicum of solace. I think about other things too, but like the graffiti I again realize that none of this is really thinking at all.
While terrified for what will come, I am at the same time somewhat resolved to it. After all, this is not personal. They will take what little I have; a laptop, the nonworking phone, a few hundred dollars, my passport, and any other bits and bobs they can pawn off. And that will be the end of it, and likely of me. They will be disappointed, to be sure, but such is the temper of their lives. I might be able to get them some more money but it will take time. I am too tired to think anything through, I just don’t have the energy to care. I feel like I have entered into the final stage of terminal cancer and simply have no more fight left in me. I will take what comes.
After a half hour of weaving through the labyrinthine ghetto, we turn onto a road that runs parallel to a high chain-linked fence. The fence stretches straight off into the horizon ahead, and it is now that I notice on the other side of the barracade the tail wings of parked airplanes. It is the last thing I was expecting yet the only thing I should have been.
He soon drops me at the terminal. I pay him, collect my things, and say “Gracias” before watching him drive off. My feeling of relief does not cancel the fear I have concocted. I wonder if he had just taken a shortcut or gone the backroads to avoid any tolls. I have no idea and I will never know. I’m still barely awake and I have a lot of time to kill.