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Watching dead people ablaze
and other tales of togetherness

(continued from home page) ... 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. But this was different. In New York you 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 brush your teeth with orange soda lest giant parasites burrow into your bone marrow. In New York, they didn't 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 thick black smoke from the funeral pyre. "I've been breathing through my mouth for days."

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.

Well, tough.

We'd come all this way to escape the enveloping ersatz of the fetid American 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. 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.

Leaving New York

Rae: I had been avoiding my family for a good two years now. I liked the vast amount of space and independence afforded to me by my beloved New York City subway system, and took full advantage of it. The city held intense possibility and I'd just recently been given total freedom to enjoy it. New York was my heartbeat; the lights, noise, and people made me feel at home, and now I was very far away from there, very far away indeed. I was off on an alien planet, the only other inhabitants of which were my family. But horrifying as that thought was, it also held comfort. Not only was the idea of letting someone else plan for me relaxing (even if that someone was my father) but, when it came down to it, I'd missed my parents. As much as I'd been hiding out, there are things only they know, inside jokes only they get. These people changed my diapers, for chrissakes.

I mean who else would return not twice, but three times to Mitchell Corn Palace, which is a castle-like building in South Dakota constructed entirely from multi-colored ears of corn? No one exactly enjoyed it the way we did. I have always just accepted that the trips I've taken with my family have been the best possible. But they were always by car, in America, filled with such things as hour-long games of "A, my name is Alice, and I'm bringing applesauce" and counting out-of-state license plates (still haven't seen an Alaska).

This was completely different. This wasn't comparing the food from roadside diners or mercilessly tormenting my father for his Elvis obsession (he once threatened to leave me by the highway in Montana if ever again I spoke ill of the King). This was more serious. We were going to places unknown, beyond the comforts of the American borders, and I felt as if I was in too deep, drowning in the ubiquity of them. In my journal I wrote, "Note to self--kill parents."

This Is Why Most Memoirs of Family Life Are by the Children

Mark: The kid perspective just has more leeway, more room for irony, responsibility-free complaint. Few parents feel they can talk as openly about their children as their children talk about them. Issues of accountability and complicity in failures undercut the parental memoirist. Probably this accounts for the meager number of titles in the parental memoir genre, and the large percentage of whitewash jobs among those. If psychoanalysts depended on parents talking about the shortcomings of their children, the couches would be even more empty than they are. If you're not bragging, sticking those Wesleyan stickers on the rear window of your car, there is not all that much to say comfortably. If you don't love them enough and they don't love you enough, is that something you really want to admit? A few years ago, Granta ran a group of pieces dealing with the writers' parents. The cover, done in stark typography like the old Time magazine "God Is Dead" issue, said only "THEY FUCK YOU UP." If the magazine had decided to do a follow-up of parental memoirs of children (which, of course, it didn't), the title would have been "YOU FUCK THEM UP."

Eating Arachnids in Cambodia

Mark: The kids were mopey, and it was time for Dad to step up, to change the mood, do something truly spectacular. At the Central Market, a brilliant bustle of capitalism beneath a vaulted Art Deco-styled roof, I had my chance. Here, along with every manner of entrails, multihued textiles, and stacks of DANGER! MINES! T-shirts (the ur-Khmer collectible), local merchants peddled deep-fried tarantulas, frizzy-legged critters, each inches across. We stood spellbound as locals picked through the arachnids, tossing them into brown paper bags with spreading grease stains at the bottom. Then a tall white man stooped beside the basket, picked out a tarantula, and bit into it, his teeth piercing the shiny black body with an audible snap.

"Eccch," the kids exclaimed in astonished disgust. Suddenly, all eyes were on me. Would I come through, like the time I jumped into the surf at Coney Island one frigid New Year's Day? Would I swallow the whole hairy body in a single gulp, and spit a leg, just for effect?

You know, I told them, tarantulas live twenty-five years. How could I eat something that lived twenty-five years? It would be like eating a cat.

The kids scoffed: big talker.

Debating Pyramid Power in a Cairo Pizza Hut

Mark: There was hardly anything we didn't like about Cairo. We liked the way the hundreds of iron oil lamps hung on chains from the great vaulted ceilings of the Hassan Mosque, we liked climbing the minaret of the Mosque of Ibn Tulun (built in 876) during prayer call, we liked the Cities of the Dead, where whole neighborhoods lived inside the cemeteries, hanging their clotheslines between the tombs. We liked the taste of the hot sesame seed rings outside the Khan al-Khalili, the great bazaar, where we sat among the sheesa smokers at Fishawi's, the coffee house which has been open twenty-four hours a day for the past two hundred years.

The next day, we went out to the pyramids in Giza, because it makes no sense to come to Cairo and not look at the Pyramids. We got there at dawn, hoping to beat the crowds and legendary armies of hucksters, which we did, except the haze and pea soup air pollution rendered the massive forty-six-century-old structures all but invisible. All that could be made out was the top of the Great Pyramid of Cheops floating in the mucky air like a ghostly eyeless triangle, as if ripped from a dollar bill or part of a Sun Ra video which would never be shown on MTV.

With the arrival of the souvenir sellers, none of whom got the joke when Billy tried to trade his Taj Mahal keychain for one of their mini-pyramids, we soon retreated to the Pizza Hut depressingly located directly across from the Sphinx. The place was packed with a busload of Rosicrucians from Virginia. They'd just gotten back from a private tour of the tombs. The Egyptian government granted the tour, one of the Rosicrucian ladies said, "because they respect our knowledge of pyramid power."

After they left, Rosalie said, "Ten thousand."

"Ten thousand what?" Rae inquired.

"Slaves. Slave labor. The Great Pyramid took thirteen years. It is six million tons heavy. That is a lot of pyramid power."

"Don't be such a killjoy."

"I wonder what you could do today if you had ten thousand slaves?"

"Probably make a movie."

"Yeah," Rosie said, warming to the idea. "Can you imagine how many extras they could have had in Titanic?"

"They could have had a much bigger boat."

"Two boats."

I didn't know what I'd done to raise such cynics.

Back in Brooklyn

Rae: My recollections are in bits and pieces but they come together to form a quilt of experience. Drinking hot tea with Bedouins in Jordan touches the corners of swimming in the blue, blue water at Ko Samet. The boxes of every-color, every-shape gummy candy that they sold everywhere in Jerusalem meets at the seam with pictures of the strange fruits my mother brought back to the hotel room in Cambodia. Everything is sewn together, and when I want to escape from my current life I wrap myself in it and let the dreams take hold.

Soon I will be moving out, and despite my recent purchase of a button that says, "I didn't like college anyway," I am hoping to return to school in the spring. Things are becoming marginally clearer.

As usual, my family has been an annoying yet infinite help. This book and that trip, my memories and the solidarity among us back then allowed me to find a way to let them back into my life. For that I am grateful. If it works, why not stick with it? And to think I almost stayed home that summer.


Photograph by Nancy Bray Cardozo

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