With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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When we last left Sparrow, he had arrived in Italy after crossing Europe, and was seeking passage to Israel. First begun in high optimism, Sparrow’s journey soon developed into an escapade fraught with culinary, sexual, linguistic, and metaphysical woes. As his marriage to Jeanne faltered, and she proceeded straight to India on her own, Sparrow was left to contemplate his declining fortunes among the gargoyles of Notre Dame. Hampered by doubts over Jeanne’s fidelity, the authenticity of his guru, and his own spiritual destiny, Sparrow was determined to make his way alone.
Sparrow, who lives on New York’s Lower East Side and is a regular contributor to The Sun, belongs to Ananda Marga, a spiritual organization devoted to social service. Born Too Young is the record of Sparrow’s year-long pilgrimage to India and an audience with his guru, P.R. Sarkar, the founder of Ananda Marga.
In this, the final installment, Sparrow travels the Middle East sampling Israeli yeshivas, nude beaches, and an Istanbul strangely reminiscent of certain sections of the Bronx, struggling all the while to book passage to India and an appointment with his guru (or Baba, as he refers to him). In the end, Sparrow’s tale affirms what we are wont to forget: the grandest geographies are those of the soul.
— T.L. Toma
Julia, Sean, Sharon,
These Italians! They’re like your family — you love ’em and you hate ’em, you know what I mean? Like yesterday — there’s this crazy little hotel, Hotel Castello, about 150 feet from where I’ve been stuck hitching two days, in Marina de San Salvo. I went in: marble floors, no guests, just workmen listening to the B-52’s new song (it’s great). I sneaked into the toilet.
Coming out from the patio, I saw a cardboard box. Great, I think, I can get rid of this garbage. (I’ve been collecting peanut shells, and wax from the cheese.) I started to decant my stuff into this box (which had cigarette butts and soggy pretzels in it) and a guy I hadn’t seen before came up and said, “What’re you doing?” in Italian. I tried to explain (my Italiano’s a little weak): “Io faire auto-stop . . . mangere (gesture for ‘eat’) . . . papiere (gesture to my trash).” He said, “No,” and walked off.
“Christ, you can’t even throw out your garbage in this benighted backwater nation,” I mumbled, heading back to my station. Then I heard this whistle behind me — a kid with a plastic bag, coming out of the hotel. (Oh, they brought me a bag for my garbage — that’s nice.) Inside the bag were nine pieces of fruit!
He figured I wanted to eat his garbage.
Copenhagen is a dry, crisp town, with good roofs, rounded and red. I don’t get the Danes. At first I thought, innocence, then it started to make me nervous that nobody looks at anybody.
The art is large and depressing in the Royal Art Museum (you keep forgetting — they have a king). Though it’s perversely attractive to see the three most mediocre Picassos on earth, finally one must say it’s a city without Cézannes, which is to say a city that is not attended by angels.
It’s a place where you wonder what people eat. They have elegant supermarkets, but nothing seems to be in them but a few pieces of white cheese. People drink a surprising amount of wine, and the men are all in love with their wives.
It’s not hidden, like London, simply plain. Perhaps all this talk is like looking for an Amish woman’s jewelry.
If you picked Copenhagen up and put it in China, it would change, I fear, for the better.
Paris, of course, is a city of glass. For American con artists, it’s an education, and that can be said of few places. There I utterly forgot to look at the sky.
Paris lives because we want it to live. It is the angel that watches over Cézanne. And Paris, strangely, is not fickle, like America; it remembers its heroes forever.
Black men read Tolstoy in the Metro, old white men beg — it’s New York City turned upside down, and what falls out of its pockets are lipstick, spare change, and jazz.
It doesn’t last forever — it closes early (maybe 2), but the Seine doesn’t close, and the taxis stop for the passengers to vomit almost till dawn.
Paris at night is like an elephant walking in its sleep, covered with dimes.
For some reason I’m not afraid in this boat, possibly because a truck driver told me it had “already been to the bottom.” (Another ship plowed into it hauling trucks across the Channel.)
“The biggest danger on ships is fire,” he said, and told me how to escape. He described himself as a onetime “escapologist” during the war. He made exploding eyeglasses. (“They could be substituted for yours in an hour, while you sleep.”)
Milano is a city of wires, and when the bookstores close, all you can read is the names of the stores, and the works of Garibaldi, in your hotel room. It is a city under a bowed concrete roof, and dogmatic, with the familiar dogma of industry. Pears are cheap, minstrelsy dead, and Madonna important.
Ravenna, oh, if I had wings, I’d be over you! Your rain is like others’ sun. That boy playing harmonica on your street, who didn’t know Dante’s grave!
This is how I’ll always remember coming into Greece: the Paramount mountains rising out of the blue-black sea.
Just met this little Greek policeman who learned, somewhere, Opposite English: “I’m sorry, the banks are open.”
“But I heard there was a place open till 10.”
“Yes [pointing right], just go to the left.”
On the boat to Israel. The problem is where to sleep at night. The seats aren’t comfortable; on the floor people step on you, and on deck it’s cold and the door slams all night. I’m trying to accept that Jeanne and I are finished, and can’t.
I thought you’d like this card. [A cat walking into the green sea.] Since I’ve spoken to you, I’ve meditated at the tomb of Dante and the prison of Socrates — one forgets, discussing gurus with Peace Corps veterans of Togo, that there are so many. Almost all the works that survive are Scripture.
Last night I couldn’t sleep — thirst from that feta cheese. Sat up and looked at the waves. After an hour I realized it was the wake of the ship and felt cheated. Then I went to sleep and saw you. You had branches coming out of your head and were singing through a long tube. I followed, but we couldn’t speak — there was glass between us. You were happy and with a truck driver.
Landing in Haifa: half-moon and one sea gull. It’s more industrial than I thought: cranes and refineries. The flag, so clean and symmetrical. Will it last? I wonder, watching it ripple. It doesn’t look like a flag that’ll last.
“So this is your homeland,” said the Englishman who was watching the casino with me.
“Well, my ambiguous homeland. My mother converted to Reform Judaism, so I’m not really a Jew, according to the Orthodox. Also, I think it’s a fascist state.”
The first Jew with a yarmulke!
I don’t feel a thrill of nationalism here, like Dad does. He thinks, wow, a country full of Jews. I think, oh no, a country full of Israelis — another language I don’t understand.
The army kids with machine guns are more reckless than the French or Italian cops. The guns aren’t part of a uniform, but slung behind their backs like canteens. It’s scary, they’re to be used. (Though it’s nice to see two soldiers hugging.)
I don’t feel in danger here, but there are signs of the tension. Just now, biting into a big falafel, I tasted meat, spit it into my hand, and dumped it in a box of trash in front of an Arab store. A man came running out: “What did you put in there?”
Strange for it to end like this. I can’t bear to go to India and see you. I think of your flat, jowled face, crucified by your own boredom; of our sex, where my only pleasure was humiliating you. I’m sure you’re screwing someone, and you’re better off with him, whoever he is.
I like Israel and I’m not in a hurry to roast in India, over a grill, with you. A half-year with a woman, a half without — that’s the way, perhaps, to go to one’s guru. I’m interested in trying to respect the rules of pilgrimage.
I tried in my last postcard to silently say goodbye to you but I’m afraid I just sounded jealous.
“I’ll stay with you as long as the dharma wants.” Well, the dharma wants servants, not lust. Lust isn’t evil; it’s just a lie. Because we’re not bodies — if we were, sex would make us happy. Well, goodbye. I hate you in my belly but also I wish you — even there — peace.
Well, it’s time I spoke frankly. I’ve been writing two series of letters, and only sending you one. Now I’ll try to write both at once.
I traveled from Copenhagen to Milano with a Sardinian woman named Anna. She was small, with curled hair, and such a profuse personality it’s impossible to say if she was pretty or not. We slept in the same room three times: in a white car in Denmark, in a living room in Lübeck, and in a rail car. The second time we might’ve made love, had it not been my misgivings about herpes. I liked her cursing at the cars that passed, and that she’d read Nietzsche — though our intellectual life was limited by our common language (French). She loved to argue, and, at first, to brush against my elbow, and we shared bread and cold.
What I’m procrastinating saying is in four days, she and I degenerated into a failure so similar to ours that — perhaps the therapist was right; I need to be with me for a while.
But it gave me the accomplished feeling of having had an affair, to keep up with you.
I don’t think I love you, and I don’t think you love me. Mostly I feel regretful that I did wrong to you, and want to set it right.
Of course I’m angry, and I’d hoped you wouldn’t fall for someone, but I certainly felt it coming. You prepared me for it quite well, don’t worry.
Anyway, good luck with your new adventure. Write my parents. Please forgive me, but my mom read me your letter.
Yes, this is hard. I’m not going to reassure you you’re doing the right thing. I got you some presents — for the moment I’m not throwing them away.
I think of her giggling and showering with him, in love again. “I must pursue this to learn that desire leads to suffering,” she writes in her smug, self-pitying tone.
But wouldn’t I choose the same, if I could?
Jews are the only ones who can elevate the physical to the spiritual, and the whole world knows it. People go to the most remote parts of India, they meet a guru, he tells them, “You’re Jewish, go to Israel, learn Torah.”
I’ve made an extraordinary discovery. Bic pens in Jerusalem are sold only by Arabs. Every Jew sells this Israeli make, “Sharit” or something. All morning I’ve trooped down Jaffa Road without luck — because the Arab Bic I bought the other day started leaking.
But I’ll be at the Y’Shuv, this armed yeshiva camp on the West Bank where all the Torah scholars walk around with submachine guns, so I need a new pen (that’s a good joke: “Arab Bic”).
Chogyam Trungpa died in the last two months, the guy who drove me out said. (I’m in the shul, a prefab, off-white structure with three soldiers outside. This whole community is made of identical, single-story, solar energy-equipped structures, like a California suburb — and on the road, unreadable signs and women wrapped up like salamis.)
So Trungpa’s dead — poor guy, drank himself out. I went to his lectures at Naropa in 1976. He was solid like an ox, swilling sake and illuminating Buddhism. I had several short conversations with him, only one I remember.
“What do you think of Judaism?”
“The food’s good.”
“Could you be more specific?”
“I’d have to see a menu.”
He’d pee out in the street after the lectures, in front of everyone.
I never really knew him. I remember the sad woman who hung around our apartment; she had sex with him on the floor of a bathroom and believed he was going to marry her.
Sunday morning and the sprinklers are on. It’s ludicrous, the collation of spiny extrusions these guys consider their lawn. Suburbia is inherited, I think.
This place is dominated by kids. One is crying at any moment, and sometimes they set each other off, like dogs, and one imagines how it would be if they all cried at once — like a helicopter landing on your roof.
Women are supposed to be unattractive here, and they’re doing a good job: bald, fat, rags on their heads, publicly loudmouthed. The rabbi, who’s a kind of guru here, has a wife who could break glass; it seems to be a greater mitzvah to have a more trying mate.
A lot of the people here have dabbled in Eastern religion. Just as in Ananda Marga, where there’s a collective pride in doing spiritual practice while the religions do empty rituals, here there’s the inverse pride: “Anybody can get high; that’s easy. The beauty of serving God is doing things you don’t want to do.” Marriage — particularly with eight kids — is part of that. There’s gotta be a logical flaw in there somewhere, but a practice where none of it is enjoyable does have its allure. (People would point to me and say, “He gave up great ecstasies for this.” And I do have ecstasies. I haven’t told you because I don’t know how.)
I’m trying to decide if the yeshiva I’m staying at is a cult. They definitely think their rabbi is no ordinary man — you get the feeling if he levitated they wouldn’t be surprised — but they don’t have his picture on their walls. They have this settlement on the West Bank that’s in a strategically delicate position, and have a little more respect for the mitzvah of dying for God than I am comfortable with. A yeshiva, in theory, is a school, but no one ever leaves this one. Is the definition of a cult a college from which you never graduate? No, I guess an ashram is that, too. None of them has listened to a new rock-and-roll album for ten years. I give up. Being the last rationalist in the new age is sometimes a burden.
Ysraeli Salanti said, “A true rabbi, his congregation should want to throw him out. If a congregation doesn’t want to throw him out, he’s not a rabbi, and if they do throw him out, he’s not a man!” Tell that to your guru!
I n Eilat, there’s a nude beach; I’ve gone suddenly from the world of men to the world of women. The world of the Talmud is male: dressed in black, pale, full of secrets. The beach beauty’s virtues are all visible: her waist, large but tight buttocks, and mango breasts. The world of the Talmud is unnatural, and beauty is slightly evil. One is better with an ugly wife; your job is to refine the self. The world of women is more tolerant — you can read the Talmud at the beach, but not wear a bathing suit at Beyt Midrash. Talmudists believe all sorts of bullshit, like there’s a type of man who grows on a cord like a melon, but women have no beliefs; any evangelist, communist, even an opponent of tooth decay would be ignored at the beach of Eilat. Possibly a poet would be listened to.
I am grateful to be leaving the women’s nook; relieved to be free of its decadence — though it’s more decadent to believe only Jews have holiness than that it is beautiful to stare at water. I am more comfortable with the purposeful than the purposeless (though it is man’s paradox that his purposes lead to the purposeless).
I’m at the Wall; arrived with a bunch of preteen chanters in orange hats banging on cheap drums. An out-of-work brass band played onstage, now some interminable speech.
It’s the twentieth anniversary of Jerusalem’s reuniting. I wonder if the bank’s open.
You get so used to looking at tits in Eilat — you start to think it’s your right.
I’ve been here + horribly sick for two weeks, just began to recover three days ago, the same day I found out it’s hepatitis + the same day I sent you letters in various cities of India, begging you to take the first flight up because I need you desperately. Then I spoke to your mother (about an hour ago) who said you’re still in Israel + I can’t quite write you the same letter there. For one thing, I feel like I’m writing into the void. That’s not meant as a reproach, it’s just that none of your letters has reached me since March + I have no idea how many of mine have reached you. Actually, I’m wondering if you have an Israeli girlfriend. And fearing if I say please Sparrow rush up to Katmandu and take care of me, you’ll say, after all you’ve done to me? Who do you think you are?
Katmandu is awful; it’s full of tourists. Nepal is a tantalizing place just out of reach + I’m not well enough yet to get there. It’s been hard being sick + alone + having to always ask people for things + you have been the person I’ve wished were here to take care of me. A French girl, Christiana, has just moved in with me + my strength is beginning to return, along with my peace of mind, so technically I’m not worried. The doctor gave me syrups full of wonderful herbs + and my main problem is getting the right food without expending too much energy. I think I’ll be stuck here for the next few weeks.
Later. I’ve been out with Dawn to buy a little kerosene cooker that should solve my food problems. Don’t know what the hotel owners will feel, but I have a little balcony, so there shouldn’t be a problem. I’m really thrilled — I’ve been wanting my own stove for so long.
So I’m being taken care of. But it would still be nice to see you again soon. I’d like to see some of India with you, too. Please write soon + tell me your plans, your schedule, your frame of mind; tell me whether I still exist.
At night I dream about swimming pools. Once diving with you in a big cool clear swimming pool. Then I dream about Nepalese people standing in long lines on the mountainside + me just standing there with them, waiting. I really hope I can get out in the countryside. The country people I’ve seen are so beautiful. Maybe I’ll rent a room in Patan, the town across the river — no tourists.
Everyone I meet who’s been to Israel says it’s wonderful. How are you liking it?
Please write soon.
This letter from Jeanne has shaken me. I’d just accepted solitude with some grace, even begun to forgive her — as well as taken her pictures out of my wallet to send home — and now this lead-lined letter, into which no one can see. She doesn’t apologize, but simply begs — remembering, perhaps, my taste. Then realizing I won’t come soon (for her need is not a boyfriend but a nurse) she backpedals and offers to “travel” with me — not a particularly enticing offer, given our history.
“Write me quickly,” she says, so she knows whether to look for another savior. At the bottom of the letter there is more and more space between the lines, as she leaves out more and more.
So now I have to worry she’ll leave again. I don’t want to have an affair with her. But I determined I’d try again — without hope, hopefully. I like the sound of: “My girlfriend has hepatitis in Katmandu.”
I was talking to David the Deadhead the other day about whether or not my guru is God. I explained, “See, yoga believes everything is God — not a creation of God, but is God itself.” I spread my hands, indicating the rubble and little plants we were passing — rubble still left from the Six Day War! “All this is God! But there are different levels of awareness; this cat is more aware than this Volkswagen. And it works up to the pure consciousness that directs the universe. When a person is an embodiment of that awareness, he’s God. Or she.” David nodded. It made perfect sense to him. How I wished he could explain it to me!
The idea of a person being God seems quite dangerous. Suppose one is God, but stops being God for five minutes, and in that time instructs devotees to invest in the wrong stocks or start a thermonuclear war. The results could be disastrous. They could lose thousands of dollars! My advice to anyone who has the choice is not to become God, and if you do, don’t tell anyone.
Take Krishnamurti, for example. He may’ve been God, but did he go around saying, “I’m God”? Quite the opposite. He went around saying, “Don’t anybody say I’m God. I’m not!” Now to some, he seemed to deny it a little too much, a sign that he might be God. Baba doesn’t say he’s God, but he seems to imply it, which is in bad taste. But then lots of people say they’re God — particularly people from Oklahoma — and nobody takes them very seriously. People like Baba make it as God because other people spend a lot of time staring at them trying to figure out if they’re God; after enough time, they’re still sufficiently mysterious that people get sick of trying to figure it out and say, “All right, he’s God!” just to get it over with. But most people are not this mysterious. Look at your brother-in-law; he may seem mysterious for about fifteen minutes, but you figure out after a while that what motivates him is sex, a fear of terriers, and the desire to play golf. Crazy people may be mysterious — they can go days without eating, and walk on their hands — but after a time you notice they’re crazy, and a God-watcher who notices that his prey is crazy will generally desert him.
It’s such a world of icebergs and soldering irons we live in. Nobody seems to understand “where I’m holding,” as we say here in the yeshiva. “So you’re searching,” people keep telling me. I don’t want to answer, “No, I’m not searching.” It sounds conceited. But it struck me yesterday that people look at me like, poor guy, he hasn’t found anything to believe in yet — as if it were a search that comes to a preordained end, and that end is belief: the Torah, or the guru. Nobody thinks: it’s a labor like science, with no end.
I suppose you got the letter I wrote from Delhi. I’ve been traveling for two weeks with a camel driver, but it turned out he only wanted my money. When he found out I’ve been telling him the truth — that I’m not rich — he decided to go back to his camel. It’s not so much the rejection that hurts — I was already thinking we’d part soon, irked by his passivity — but the disillusionment is hard to take. It’s so appealing to see peasants as simple + pure. Now I feel like a fool.
Benares is the pits; maybe it’s my state of mind, but it’s such an ugly city. I’m taking the bus tomorrow to Katmandu. Hope to rent a room out in the countryside + write a lot. Maybe spend some time in Bodhnath, where there are a lot of Buddhists (Westerners study there).
I’ve not had a letter from you since early March. I feel completely out of touch with you. I will try to define myself frankly: I still feel we have unfinished business + I still have curiosity about how it would go with us. I also feel fear + foreboding about being together. But we’ve both changed, so I know it would be an interesting challenge.
My job right now is to follow my impulses through as many experiences as I can handle, to see what works + what doesn’t. I’m trying to figure out what kind of life I want to make. So far I’ve decided I don’t want to spend most of my life in cities — actually, I don’t want to spend any of my life in cities, but I’m not sure I can make a living in the country. Cities deaden something in me that I don’t want to live without. Also I’ve determined that ideally I should have about two hours a day of physical labor. I just spent ten days at a work camp in the hills of Bihar, digging holes for yams and papaya trees. Four hours a day of it was too much, but two would’ve been just right. And I loved drawing water from the well.
By now I’m low on money. I have to work soon + I don’t want to go back to New York. I’m thinking of going through Nepal + Tibet to China + flying from Hong Kong to Japan. I will see how far I can get without asking my parents for money. I’ll have to eventually, although I was hoping to avoid it.
If you don’t hate me by now, you could come up to Nepal. I wouldn’t come back to India to meet you unless you’d be willing to lend me some money. I’m getting curious about Calcutta + I’d also like to go back to the village in Bihar + live there for a while without the pressure of a work schedule.
I have no idea how you feel about me by now, or how these words will fall on your eyes. Such a serious letter.
I met the brother of the man who shot Gandhi. He spent twenty-six years in prison as a co-conspirator. I was impressed by his idealism, but shocked by how much he hates Islam. Gandhi still evokes strong passions here, both for + against. In America you don’t hear much about the people who hate him, about all the deaths they hold him responsible for.
I hope you’re well, hope you like Israel — I keep meeting people who rave about it. Please write to Poste Restante, Katmandu, Nepal.
I was getting comfortable with the thought of having broken up with you — I like being alone, and it’s an easier state for travel. When I got your letter I was depressed — “Now I have to worry about this again” — but also excited by the great hope my book would have a happy ending. (Of course I hate you — my current wish is you hadn’t told me about the camel driver — but I’m just beginning also to forgive you. So much of your crime is not accepting my arbitrary and insincere definition of you.)
We’re not going to spend our lives together. I like cities, and though I associate the countryside and marriage with the idyllic future, I find myself being a Manhattan type I’ve always despised — the kind that retreats to Maine to buck up for the return to 86th Street.
It’s easiest for me to consider us saying goodbye.
It doesn’t seem like I’m going to pay for you to come to India. I expect to be in Bombay by the first, possibly earlier, but maybe the boat goes to Madras, who the hell knows? (Can a boat go to Madras?) I’ll write when this has settled down a little (no information in Israel about Arab shipping).
I’m surprised travelers (who as a group I dislike) rave about here. It’s not “exotic.” It’s a strangely naive and unselfish place.
I t is people without beliefs who start all the beliefs. Did Buddha believe in anything? Even John DeLorean and Teddy Roosevelt didn’t. Belief is a comfort, like a beauty parlor. It’s something you should reward yourself with. But if you go every day, it’s selfish.
My problem is I spent four years in Gainesville, Florida, believing everything I came in contact with. At one time I believed astrology, healing with crystals, feminism, Ken Keyes, Edgar Cayce, I’m OK, You’re OK, millet, The Farm, No Nukes, and The Works of John Cage. When I returned to New York City in 1978, my beliefs began slipping away like silverware from a Ramada Inn. At this point I’m down to reason and jazz — the last beliefs.
And reason, why have faith in that? Mostly, I’m just embarrassed by all the junk I’ve believed, culminating in the letter I wrote my sister telling her to cure cancer patients with white light meditation.
Reason is like every belief in that it knocks out all the others — but its virtue is that it isn’t consoling.
I’m going to India to see Baba for the same reason I saw Miles Davis. I like to see the classics of the era before they pass away, or I do. I’ve been “following” Baba for twelve years, he was in jail for murder, his wife left him and said he was a fraud, all my friends think he’s God — it’s an Agatha Christie mystery I want to try my hand at. Also, I want to offer my life to God. You reach a point in your life — I’m thirty-three, the number of grooves on a record — and you want to justify things. You’ve worked fourteen years, you’ve been to college, you’ve danced at the Danceteria, Hurrah, The Mudd Club, CBGB’s, The Pyramid, The Ritz, The Cat Club, The Underground, The — what’s it called — Pavillion? No, Palladium. You’ve been to every one but The Surf Club and The Video one. I’m not saying, “You haven’t found fulfillment.” You have. You’ve written poems, books, essays, you’ve been published, you’ve been unpublished. You have a band that changes its name every time it plays. You have friends who’ll lend you their computers. You’ve done things for people, too. You fed the bums in Denver once. You taught meditation to paralyzed people at the Rusk Institute. You’ve marched against all the wars. You worked with the retarded for six years. Now, well, because you’ve lived so long, ’cause you were born too young, you just want to press your forehead to the ground and offer it all up.
O. Henry has this story, “A Man About Town.” This fellow’s a swank, hangs out at the Plaza Hotel, changes his clothes four times a day, goes to his club. One day his friends look up and he’s gone. Has he gotten some girl pregnant? they wonder, within the confines of Porter’s polite prose. He leaves their minds.
Two of this set are traveling in remote Switzerland. “You will be the first Americans to set foot in this monastery,” their guide tells them. On a stairway they glimpse — can it be? — their friend, the Man About Town. They get special permission from the abbot to meet with their friend for ten minutes. Embarrassed greetings; “Charles, you had everything!” The final question: “What made you leave?” And as the bells of the church chime, he lifts up his robe in wonder: “I’ve found it — the perfect garment!”
And I guess that’s why I’m here. I’ve found the perfect garment — not the beliefs, but the silence and bare room.
Mom and Dad,
I was thinking Cairo looks like a run-down version of New York, except that New York looks like a run-down version of New York. My Australian friend on the bus says that what you notice about the Third World is its smell, which is true, so far — but rather than smelling like camel shit, Cairo smells like must, particularly this room at the Lotus Hotel, with its grandmotherly desk and wardrobe.
“What did you have to eat last night?”
“Just a falafel.”
“How was it?”
“Tasty, but worrisome.”
“I know what you mean.”
The Israeli guide told us, “Don’t eat in holes in the wall; eat in civilized places,” and we all trooped over to the hole in the wall across the street. The falafel was less than a nickel.
I went into a department store and watched TV. A guy with pants too big was walking around trying to keep them from falling down — the same things are funny in North Africa.
Men walk arm in arm with men, women with women here — which is as it should be — but it’s weird to see a lady in full veil flirting.
What people forget, when they talk about the wicked Modern Age, is how much suffering to horses is alleviated by cars.
The Sphinx is so beautiful, even though Napoleon blew off her nose. She has all these ledges, and a Mona Lisa look, and she makes the pyramids make sense. Looking up at her, they have a purpose, while by themselves they look like postcards.
I sat against the wall behind the twenty-three stone pillars (“each weighing fifteen tons,” a tour guide said). I worried I was meditating in a room once full of idols. Was I being the ultimate amoralist? Suppose Dachau had a good vibration?
But I left feeling I’d met the Sphinx — a woman who is also a lion — and one of the artwork Wonders of the World (more than Mona). Funny to walk by her until the right angle clicks: “This is the cover of Collier’s Encyclopedia.”
Mosques make you realize churches never seem empty — because chairs are like half-people. Another virtue is they don’t ring bells at you — they sing. And there are faucets to wash your feet. Don’t worry, I haven’t converted. If I had to pray five times a day, I’d never be able to see another double feature.
Who would’ve guessed they smoke Camels in Egypt?
Ugly American women marry Egyptians; it solves everyone’s problems.
In Cairo, my first night, I went to six all-night travel agencies: “I’m looking for a boat to India.” “We don’t know” and “Try Mena Tours” were the two answers, in order of popularity. At Mena, they said, “Forget Alexandria, try Port Suez.” At Port Suez I got bitten by a dog, improved my ping-pong (here “pinga-ponga”), met Madgy, my actual Egyptian friend, who pointed to my pack and said, “I don’t like this.” He took me to Ali Yusef at Aswan Shipping, who said, “Try Port Said; nothing here.”
Came to Port Said, visited four shipping agencies. Three said, “Impossible! It is against the law to take on passengers. The companies will be fined ten times what they would make from you,” but one guy at Damanhour welcomed me immediately: “Where to, Madras or Calcutta? Nothing today. Come back tomorrow!”
I showed him my Indian visa. “This expires in two weeks,” I said. “How long does the boat take?”
“Two weeks. You better fix up your visa.”
Three days in Cairo, “fixing up” my visa. Finally, back at Damanhour, the manager said, “Go to the Indian Consulate and ask what they suggest. I will pray for you.”
Today at the Consulati Hindi, the consul said, “You will find a boat to the Far East, at Alexandria.” It turns out there’s no Soviet embassy here, so I can’t ask about my new fantasy. I heard there’s a boat from Alexandria to Russia, and a railroad to China-Tibet-Nepal-India.
I’m so glad I’m in this mosque listening to an incomprehensible lecture rather than seeing Staying Alive with John Travolta at the cinema downtown.
“America is a good country.”
“You think so?”
“Why? Why do you think so?”
Another kid adds, “Very high homes.”
I never thought I’d be happy to see a deodorant cake in a urinal (American Embassy).
I returned to sex in Cairo. My second day I jerked off in the bathroom, into a woman who was bent over, as if in prayer. And I felt big circles in my brain ’cause I hadn’t come in six weeks — felt my head wobble off my neck.
Then, the next night, a big blonde woman (German?) was especially fond of me at a hostel, and in her room, when she turned away from me, and allowed my hands on her full breasts. . . . Was it the shiver from her that made the cream come out of me?
And why do I always enter women from behind? Is it the face I fear? Or is it the desire to subjugate, like Rosanna Arquette’s husband in the film last night, who screamed, “Surrender, Dorothy!”? But there is in some ways more intimacy when the back is turned. One turns one’s back on someone one trusts.
(And when I’d go in Jeanne’s behind, and she’d clutch my hand, it was like holding hands in a storm.)
Perhaps it’s this very intimacy I’m lacking, the from-behind intimacy, with Ananda Marga. I always face its front, and it’s a little like saluting the flag.
The Alexandria Fine Arts Museum was a delight worth postponing. A lady hunchback followed me from room to room so I didn’t steal anything.
I’m beginning to suspect I have the only Bic pen in Turkey.
I have eleven days to make Baba. It looks unlikely, barring miracles.
“What about traveling to Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia?”
“We don’t recommend going to Syria right now. There are anarchists on the southern border of Turkey.”
Pause. “Yes, Kurds. Did you see today’s paper?”
She shows me the full-color picture on the cover: corpses with their intestines hanging out.
“Oh, before I tell you anything else, I want to tell you about Jeanne,” my mother said when I called.
“She’s in Poughkeepsie.”
“She has malaria. Remember we heard that she was sick, in India? Well, she wasn’t getting any better, so her parents paid for her to come home, and they found out it was malaria. Can you hear me? I’m shouting here.”
“And she wrote me a letter and also called me from the hospital. Do you want me to get the letter? It’s in the other room.”
“No, it’s very expensive.”
But she went anyway, and couldn’t find the letter.
They’re all going to Cape Cod for August.
Islam continues to impress me. It’s the most recent of the great religions (exempting, perhaps unfairly, Mormonism) and it seems more advanced: more monotheistic than Christianity, less busy than Judaism. It’s the way religion should be: you wash your feet, take off your shoes, bow a lot, stand on a rug with other men. It’s the most physical religion, the most athletic, and the best for daydreaming. My attraction to it comes from its present role as the world’s demon. Then there’s that first moment, entering the courtyard of the Mohammed Ali mosque in Cairo, seeing this conspicuous emptiness. Ah, a temple to emptiness. What a good joke!
Well well well. I was happy to hear you’re in the New York area, though I’d prefer you didn’t have malaria (is it contagious?) because I’d like to try again with you. But if you don’t want to (my mother said she had a letter from you, but couldn’t find it — so I’m not sure of your tone), I’m afraid I’ll be a hypocrite and ask to be your friend. I’m too curious about what you think now of the Group, or whether you’ll ever become really political, and your poems . . . I’d like a big Whole Story letter from you. As for me, I suppose I have changed since London (though it seems to me I never change). A lemon salesman’s seated himself next to me, in the Turkish Central Park. But I want a girlfriend. My worry is you want six boyfriends in the East Village — and I don’t want to be one of your six boyfriends. Maybe you could hurry and do it now, if health permits.
Away went the lemon salesman — I hope not from me picking my nose. Istanbul keeps reminding me of the Bronx — the ugly Pelham Parkway part. I hate places where people come up to you and say, “Istanbul good?” “No, it reminds me of Pelham Parkway,” I have not yet had the courage to say. I don’t like how the people look is the problem. That Policeman Mustache is one of the things I hate about America. And they put meat on pizza — that is difficult to forgive.
Here’s something I’ve been wondering about. Why is it that wherever I am in line is the spot people choose to walk through? Possibly because I’m a hippie, a special case.
I used to pride myself on being the person others walked through, on being a door, but now I want to close.
I couldn’t sleep last night, and they turned out the lights, so I walked to the end of the car, by the latrines, where the light was on, to read.
A fellow stood also in the light, a young guy, and he asked why I’m in India. I lamely said I studied yoga. Then he pointed proudly to his chest and said, “I am a Brahman.” (He showed me the string around his chest.) “I practice yoga.”
This fellow had an insolent bearing. “Look at my eyes,” he said. “You see the glow. This glow is from yoga!”
I had noticed his eyes, in fact, which didn’t seem to glow so much as gleam. (Later he asked me for a cigarette, then proudly said he smoked and drank and ate meat and “fucked.”)
“I say my mantra over and over,” he told me. I forgot to say he had one arm without a hand, and the other was missing two fingers. It was covered with jewelry, as if to compensate. “Your mantra goes round and round like a turbine.” And he rotated his handless arm around his handed arm. “And it gives you tremendous power.” He pointed between his eyes. “If you concentrate it here, you have the power to move the world!” (I must admit, he did talk like a villain in a Marvel comic.)
Now I blazed my eyes and brought them to within an inch of his: “I’ve been doing meditation for twelve years.”
He shrank back. “Then you must have psychic powers!”
This slowed me down. “I renounced my psychic powers! A yogi must renounce his psychic powers, mustn’t he?”
“No, a yogi uses his psychic powers for God! Only for the will of God!”
“Do you have psychic powers?”
“Yes, I do.”
“What are they?”
He looked slyly and humbly down. “I will not tell.”
The thing about the Third World is people are always kneeling and doing things you can’t quite figure out, like tying sticks together, or tearing clothes into pieces.
Here’s an example: a guy with a little mat out on the street, with three or four dead lizards and little bottles of some kind of dye.
And here’s a sheep tied to a fire hydrant.
On to the Critique of Pure Tourism. It struck me in Marmoris that a person exposed to tourism for any length of time would get a more negative view of human life than someone in a concentration camp. At Dachau one witnessed all kinds of kindness, unexpected, but on the island of Rhodes, no one sacrifices their tan for someone else’s.
Here places look not like Cleveland but like Kushidas. Calling a place a “Kushidas” seems to liberate a certain yearning in it.
I got to Tiljala, site of Ananda Marga headquarters, and a deep black fellow in a white T-shirt was getting in a motorized rickshaw: “I’m going to the jagrti — why don’t we share?” The jagrti (central office) is this gray cement dump through a gate. I was walked into the Nairobi office: “I’m just changing my clothes,” the black fellow said, “then I’m going to go back and see Baba.”
(Already? I haven’t finished Moby Dick!)
And soon I was there, watching him lumber out into his car. The line is: “If you’re not devoted, he’ll just look like a little old man,” but he definitely looks like a guru. He’s bald, or has a shaved head, thick eyeglasses and a kingly appearance. He seems to keep inside himself, and never to look at anyone. He looks a bit like God, particularly the way his head sits on his body almost like a hat — as if it’s perched there.
Baba looks like God, but it seemed odd to think God would notice me: “Hey there, Sparrow.”
But I did get a little kick, like alcohol gives, just after he left — a kind of knock on the head — maybe that’s his way of noticing us.
“I forgot to offer my life to the Lord!” I realized when his car had gone.
(He does look like an aged Jack Benny.)
When he came back, we were singing some of the songs he’d written. My eyes were closed, and I felt that riding sense you get in meditation, like a cowboy rocking over the prairie.
Baba’s not a physical entity, it seemed to me. You can see him better if you don’t look. This time I remembered and gave my life to the Lord, a bit abashed that I couldn’t think of better words than that.
You know how you have this mental sense of the space inside yourself — as if you live in a dark hollow made by your dimensional silhouette, only at the top of it? It seemed to me that the top came off, and there was a spiral stairway going up and up into light ascending. But I don’t think I saw anyone on it.
“Born Too Young: Diary of a Pilgrimage (Part One)” [Issue 181]
“Born Too Young: Diary of a Pilgrimage (Part Two)” [Issue 182]