THE NO-SHOCKS, NO-WORRIES TRUCK clunked in and out of another pothole. For the millionth time since hopping in the back of the truck at Mt. Everest Base Camp in Tibet, Jay bounced up and slammed back down into the truck bed. His bruised body seared under the blazing Indian day. He hardly winced anymore. The effort wasn’t worth it.
When Jay was crammed into the corner where the truck bed met the cab, the jarring and jostling affected him less. He tried sitting on his backpack again. Instead of merely pounding his arse, each bump nearly tossed him onto the cracked road.
Jay sat back down on the hot metal of the truck bed and patted his backpack. Faded, black, waterproofed by dust, nearly as wide as Jay, and as tall as his tenderized torso, the backpack dozed next to him like a dog beside its master. A round lump stretched the fabric at the top of the pack.
It had come back.
A triple shot of fear, awe, and revulsion washed through him. Jay had lost track of the number of times he’d dropped the thing off cliffs, flushed it down toilet holes, and lobbed it into rivers. Each time, he’d hardly zipped up his pack when the lump would appear again. Jay looked away. Instead of thinking about the… thing, Jay tried to think about Agamuskara. Guru Deep’s India Through the Third Eye called it “India’s holiest and unholiest city,” though the guidebook never explained why.
Jay couldn’t explain to himself why he felt so compelled to go there. It was said that people went to Varanasi to die holy, but they went to Agamuskara to live fully. Jay figured he really must want to live, even if his manner of getting to the city suggested otherwise.
After three days of the truck’s tires barely not going over the edges of cliffside roads in Tibet, nearly crashing to a halt from axle-bending potholes in Nepal, and using endless horn blasts to navigate the oncoming trucks and standstill cows of northern India’s river plains, Agamuskara couldn’t be much farther now. Before setting out this morning, the driver had told Jay they would not be going to the city center, but that was fine. He’d make his own way to the middle of town, even if he had to walk. With his skin clogged with grit and his throat caked in dust, all Jay wanted right now was a hot shower and a cold beer. India was India, though. He suspected he would get the opposite. But he would rest and clean up. Then he’d find his way through the city and figure out what he had to see, what drew him so.
The rattling truck moved so fast that the world passed in a blur, but Jay marveled at all he saw. Countless people wore brilliant colors and smiled from weathered, driven faces. They defied the washed-out landscape and the humid mat of the air. Every village had been here before time was time, it seemed. Each village also brought a glimpse of temples and shrines, elephant-headed gods, bulls, monkeys, multi-limbed deities rendered in brick, stone, concrete, and reverence.
Approaching Agamuskara, Jay now understood that India was four things: heat, humans, history, and gods. They shaped India not so much into a country or a culture but a world. India was all of the world, all of time in every passing moment, and every emotion, every depravity and transcendence, every hope realized and every futility suffered, of all the human race.
And, gods, was India heat. Humid, blazing, sopping heat. India felt as if wet blankets had been baked for an hour in a pot of water, then, steaming and boiling, wrapped around the country. Even Jay’s sweat glands felt sluggish. The humidity jellied the will. It softened the wood of the few meager trees. Even the concrete blocks of houses and shacks seemed to sag, drip, and simmer in the midday, clear-sky blaze of sunlight.
The truck turned onto a highway, renown throughout northeastern India for being maintained. The road reminded Jay of the interstate highways of his left-long-ago home, except that as far as the traffic was concerned, the four lanes were simultaneously one lane, three lanes, twenty lanes, and no lanes. Still, the truck’s consistent speed and motion brought a soothing breeze to Jay’s skin, and the smooth road took him from a blazing sear to a nearly gentle simmer.
For once, Jay’s tenderized rump stayed in one merciful, bounceless spot. After a few kilometers, he relaxed like a roast chicken resting after coming out of the oven.
The view from the highway wasn’t as interesting. The heat haze dulled the flatlands, and it seemed as if a wink and some rupees had made the scenery vanish. Jay almost pined for the cliffs that, just a couple days ago, had dropped off from the side of the truck. Every rock bouncing down into nothing had terrified him, but the trees, cows, and occasional village had been fascinating.
“Namaste la vista, baby,” Jay said, mimicking the formerly white t-shirt he was wearing. He lifted the shirt to gain access to the treasures below. Wrapped around his waist and tucked into the front of his tan, dusty cargo pants, the thin fabric of his money belt was already soaked through. But no matter. The treasures would be dry and safe. Jay took out a wad of plastic, then unrolled, unfolded, flipped, and eventually unwrapped his most prized possession: the small, dark-blue booklet of his US passport.
The formalese of government speak greeted him: “…requests all whom it may concern to permit the citizen/national named herein to pass without delay or hindrance and in case of need to give all lawful aid and protection…”
Jay wondered how much he still looked like the photo. The green-and-gold eyes were the same, as was the light-brown hair. But the skin of that face? Dust, heat, sun, cold, ice, rain, beer, hot breakfasts, cold breakfasts, no breakfasts had all leathered his face, hardened his eyes, softened his smile. But it was still Jay. Jay, once from Idaho, now of the world.
He flipped through the pages—past the backgrounds of cacti and mountains, past the important information that addressed everything from about your passport to loss of citizenship. Then he opened the last five years. Visas, stamps, signatures—most of them official and some, to put it mildly, questionable. Jay thought about the so-called visas that had been added not at an official immigration checkpoint, but by hands unsteadied after a bit of backroom blather, boozing, and baksheesh. He flipped through the countries: South Africa, Tanzania, Kenya, Gambia, Morocco, Ireland, England, Scotland, Belgium, France, Spain, Italy, Austria, Croatia, Germany, Sweden, Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, China, Tibet.
There should have been a visa for Nepal, but instead there was only a blank page. Before arriving at the border checkpoint between Tibet and Nepal, the men in the truck had hidden Jay under a blanket. Jay didn’t ask why. They’d hardly slowed down since.
And now—officially—Jay was in India.
Adventures taken, people met, sights seen—all condensed to stamps on pages. Jay re-wrapped his passport in the plastic and stuck it back in his money belt, behind the photo where the man and woman always smiled at him.
“I hope you’re still having a good time,” Jay said to the couple in the photo. For a moment, his anywhere voice lost all the twangs and lilts of his globetrotting, and he was just a regular guy from Idaho again. He started to take out the picture, but the truck’s grinding, slowing gears stopped him. The driver stopped blaring on the horn just long enough to slap the door twice. Jay rustled his money belt and clothes back into place.
End of one road, he thought. Now for another.
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