Red lions, piñatas, slanted air, thick plates of greywacke, bloodied pristine streets, home-cut hair, four-poster beds, salted flat-eyed fish & turbaned holy men gleaming with oil.
Because I’ve only seen them on nature shows or tail to tail in the circus, I tell Raj I want to see elephants up close, touch the gray skin, the speckles, the folds, feel the ground vibrate next to me. He says yes I will take you to the place where there are elephants. We drive in his little car, weave and honk along the two-lane potholed highways, pass three-wheel trucks grim with workers, motorbikes, auto rickshaws, flocks of sheep and pony carts. To the Ghat mountains that are really hills by our standards. But the refuge is closed for lunch and we have to take the safari, they call it, so in the meantime we drive to the temple that is very old and walk up a winding path to the yellow stone, guarded by red lions, and take our shoes off. And here I must tell you about my foot—the blister from the sandals I bought the week before because the ones I packed had to be buckled every time I took them off to go barefoot in the temples as a matter of respect. It started as a red spot where the strap rubbed, then broke the skin, began to weep and swell the foot, the ankle, and the ointment I bought didn’t help and the streets, cow dung, garbage, puddles of pee and who knows what leaked in under the bandage. So now it’s throbbing as I limp barefoot into the dark temple toward the turbaned holy man gleaming with oil. I stand on one foot while Raj chants with the priest, sips water from his hands, dots red to make a third eye and exchanges business cards. All I can think about is my foot and how I will never be able to buckle my sandal back on, how it looks like a ready-to-bust balloon or like the medical photos of elephantiasis that thrilled me as a kid. I think it will explode any minute through the volcanic blister like Vesuvius, hot and nearly steaming. And I was right about the buckle, leave it flopping all though the safari, which is really an old bus packed with school kids and gets stuck in the mud after fifteen minutes, and then there is the whole drive back home in the dark blinded by screaming headlights and we fall into silence until Raj pulls up to a storefront doctor in town who glances at my foot while counting rupees and talking to a boy flat out on a cot behind a half-drawn curtain. Somehow it is comforting, though, the joke about my new shoes, the scribbled note for drugs, and I can almost feel a slow deflation, picture the wrinkled skin and round pink scar like a third eye on the top of my foot. And speaking of wrinkled skin, there were elephants in the parking lot where the bus dropped us off—two lumbering gray hulks with a baby between them, passing through like phantoms in the dusk, chains around their thick ankles, dragging in the dust.
The Slant of Air
It was not until we left the docks and turned onto Christins Gate that we came to the point. Words held back for days, incubated in closed mouths, a shocking squalor of words broke into splinters and bloodied our tongues. Words drained from us in the half-light of midnight sun where air was slanted and strange, full of vanishing perspectives and cold rain. We were strangers in this land of tall blondes, long shadows, where Vikings slashed the nesting coast until every village smoldered, until blood drained on every rock and meadow. Here our words screamed like gulls behind fishing boats. We tried to hold hands, but words lined up on the dock between us like silver fish. Words lurched downhill before us over cobbled streets, lined up with the votive candles in the back of the Gothic church, smelled like ripe cheese. Words sprang up fully dressed each morning to be first in line at breakfast, and beat against the window at night. Maybe it was the endless rain, or I was tired of my purple raincoat, your green jacket, the way you complained about prices and walked two steps ahead of me all the time. Maybe we just needed to feel the cut of anger, the heat of battle, to watch blood drain red into the pristine streets.
I am in Panama, where the family walks the mountain
in sandals, children quiet by their mother’s side,
where the father carries a red and white piñata.
Where a lone man, drunk and wobbly, stops to talk to me,
spit flies on a wave of boozy breath. But there are
mandarins that grow next to my cabin
that I pick idly in passing, peel in three easy strips.
I am in Panama, where skinny dogs walk the roadside,
no tails wagging, no bounding to a young boy’s whistle,
no full-belly sleep in the shade. But there are pools
at the base of many waterfalls where children splash
and squeal, and bright mornings when the farmer
brings his bananas to market.
I am in Panama, where my landlady tells me her
cleaning lady is instructed to scrub the cabana until
she can see her reflection—her home-cut hair, ruddy skin,
deep Indian eyes—in the porcelain of the toilet, the shower tiles.
She works steady, like the children climb the mountain,
like the dogs walk the road, like I peel the mandarin orange.
In Kota Kinabalu
It is raining on the red hens, crates
of puppies, stacks of salted flat-eyed
fish. It spatters boiling pots of fat,
drowns scratchy boom-box music,
the slap of sandals on cement when
the old vendor hooks my elbow,
pulls me to a tarp mounded with spiny
rambutan and does her trick with a twist
of a bony wrist, parts the rind, reveals
the oval fruit, white like boiled egg
in a painted cup, passes it without
looking up, sure I will buy from her
now that I have seen the magic, now
that the roundness fills my mouth,
now that her yellow nails pick through
rupiah in my palm. I am alone in this
market, lost in this counting of coins,
the rambutan, rain that falls between us.
Crossing the Tongariro Canyon
The rope bridge sags to the other side, narrow and clacking. I step onto it gingerly, lightly, thinking maybe I can float across and never feel the recoil of slats under my feet or the rocking lift with every gawky step. Don’t look down. Don’t look down. Don’t look. Goal is the other side, the pine tree, the long grass, stone under my feet. Tightrope without a pole, without the circus music, without a gasping audience. Step, step, stepstep, drum roll, no applause.
Climbing to the Angelus Hut
Find the foothold, the handhold, the next step. Climb up a few more rocks, a few more rocks to the next orange marker. Gravity pulls down, backpack sways me sideways, my face inches from the surface, sun hot, jutting rock, hold on. Thighs quiver, legs lift and set, arms pull up to the next boulder. Look up for the next orange marker. Breath the only sound and the scrape of fractured granite, schist, thick plates of greywacke and argillite. Rocks still sharp and edgy as when they heaved from the Tasman Sea. Rocks that twist an ankle, gore an arm. Don’t look up. Don’t look up. Don’t look. Goal is the next orange marker, a level stretch, ridge above clouds.
Visiting the Home of Moses Agiura
She puts the bowl of corned beef and taro leaves on the floor in front of me next to a plate of fried bananas. Flies buzz. Thin black sow and piglets rummage in the yard for grubs. Air is still and hot. Sweat thick with sunblock coats my face. Air is still and hot. She watches me pick up the fork, hears my “just ate” protest. Watches me. Shredded meat, leaves, congeal in clear fat like an island floating in an oily lake. Remember warnings about intestinal distress, boiling water, parasites. Don’t look her in the eye. Take a bite, another.
This is a great time to visit the village
of Ubud, tucked among terraced rice fields
of Bali, now that you get eight rupiahs
to the dollar. White wading egrets
backdropped by dreaming rainforests
in tropical greens that ease like magic
into pale blue mountains set against a sky
rich with clouds. White birds. Blue mountains.
Clouds and sky. Outside Hotel Tjampuhan
is the jungle. Bright, large rooms with king
four-poster beds. Chirping serenade of frogs,
modern decor with Balinese touches, geckos
frozen high on beige walls. The natives
serve you, smiling and constant as the breeze
on the terrace over tropical gardens,
three pools, scent of frangipani, the Indian
Ocean. Ubud has many galleries. All the
galleries sell original paintings.
All the paintings are the same. White birds.
Blue mountains. Clouds and sky.
Private balcony, large closet, thick towels
and terry robes, hair dryer, VCR, tennis,
direct-dial phones. Outside the hotel are
blue mountains, clouds, sky and birds.
The woman washes clothes on Saturday just off the rocky shore
where there are three flat stones in the shallows, where she stands
in the water to her knees to cool her, where she kneads clothes
like dough, sprinkles soap, rubs sweaty collars, rubs out oil, the rusty
soil of Guatemala from her son’s soccer shorts, school uniforms.
She rinses, dips and swirls the clothes, sends waves of bubbles to shore.
She wrings each piece with a hard twist, muscles mother strong,
arms used to work, used to carrying children, used to lifting
baskets of corn. On the wood dock she makes a pyramid
of clothes, stacked like stones of Tikal, knows the angle of repose,
how high she can go before they tumble down. Her son loads
the wheelbarrow. Single file, they follow the footpath home.
Suzanne Frank is a poet, travel writer and photographer whose poetry was twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She has traveled, backpacked or hiked in the United States/Canada, New Zealand, South/Central America, Europe, Borneo, India and Egypt. She writes to remember. Suzanne was recently awarded writing residencies from Oregon State University and Taleamor Park. Her recent publication is a collaboration of photographs and poems called Double Vision. This collection was a finalist in Nowhere’s Spring 2019 Travel Writing Contest.
Lead image: Geio Tischler