Learning by Route

Kumaradara River, Puttur, Karnataka

Ten years ago, I went to India with the man I loved throughout my twenties. We rode trains up and down and across the country and when one of us jumped off the train to buy a snack, we did our best to be back onboard before it pulled away. We didn’t have cellphones or laptops or any kind of contingency plan–all we had was email. 

We carried small bags–daybags from the original packs we sent home in the first few weeks. I was proud of how little we carried, of how little we were able to live with. I smirked at travelers struggling with huge packs while we, unencumbered by the weight of our possessions, jumped onto moving buses and rode off into the sunset. I was so arrogant about my fewpossessions, failing to acknowledge everything I had stored on another continent. 

With me I had two cameras, one film, one digital and a hard-drive to store my photos on, a notebook (along the way, I sent twelve full notebooks home by post), a sleeping bag; a shawl that doubled as a blanket, two or three shirts, a extra skirt and undies; a toothbrush, toothpaste and a comb. Once we reached the mountains, I bought a pair of jeans and a sweater and tied a pair of sneakers to my bag. I carried at least one novel in my bag. I read Haruki Murakami’s Kafka On the Shoreabout four times as we traveled and I still have the duct-taped copy that broke in half somewhere in Thailand. Matt carried a copy of Teach Yourself Hindithat we studied every day. One of my notebooks was reserved for this especially and filled with long lines of Devanagari script. 

We carried one other very important thing and this traveled with me: our map of India. As we traced the edges of the subcontinent, I highlighted our course. I still have the map and though the yellow highlighted line has faded I can trace its contour still. A decade has not stolen the route or the names of the places we visited from my memory: ShravanabelagolaandKanyakumariAhmedabad, Junagadhor Himachal Pradesh.For some reason the names stuck–I guess I was paying attention. 

“Everyone lived by thinking about flight. They thought of swimming across the Danube until the water becomes another country. Of running after the corn until the soil becomes another country. You could see it in their eyes; soon they will spend every penny they have on detailed maps.”

The Land of Green Plums by Herta Muller.

A decade ago this March we spent a week with our friend Yash and his family in Puttur, a small village/town in Karnataka. One day Yash took us to a cave and once we were inside and he turned off the flashlight. The blackness terrified me and I started to panic, worried the bats living there would fly at me, getting stuck in my hair and my clothes. I wanted to run for the entrance but it was so black I couldn’t move. I lost the sensation of the ground below and air above. I could sense the ground all around me but I could not feel the layer of rock beneath my feet. All was air and dark space. The only thing I can compare that blackness to was diving twelve meters below the water at night in Dunedin harbor. When every diver had concealed their light, we sat on the ocean floor breathing in the darkness and losing our minds (you can read about it in somewhat more depth here). Below the water I was reminded of the cave in South India and of how afraid I’d been and how much less had been at stake while breathing air freely on the surface. We were not that far in–we hadn’t twisted ourselves around any holes or gyres or into caverns or crevasses. Soon my eyes adjusted to the faint light spilling in at the entrance and Yash turned the flashlight back on.

The cave in Puttur.
Yash and his son.

It’s been a decade of trying to live by heart, bookended by experiences of the void–the black one, not the deep sea blue one–not sought through mediation but arising out of the physical world (although that distinction may be irrelevant). However we come to it, it is the true firmament of our human lives: that which holds us, that which binds us, that which will inevitably release us and bear us again. Who knows who we will meet out there or run into or where we will go next. Whether our journeys will be over land or water, in dreams or in the pages of a book. Pack light my friend, but bring your broken, full and mending heart with you. Bring a pencil to trace the route and don’t worry too much about how we’ll get there.

It is by no means easy–living by heart–but to do so means to prepare for great joys and wonders, for unspeakable, ineffable accomplishments, for understanding and love deeper than language, deeper than anatomy, deeper than words or dreams. It means to be prepared to go where no one has exactly gone before and where it may be difficult to follow–for the possibility that we may have to go alone and that we may never come back (but when and if we do, we will have much to share). We are not born into a life of promises and guarantees, as much as we try to write the story that way. Our greatest loves are written in air, written in water coursing over stone in the caverns of our heart, lighting the dark inside connecting us to the matter between the stars where absolutely anything can happen and will. We will have to leave everything behind and we will have to start again. We will have to walk away and walk towards and pace in circles until we find the place, as our eyes adjust, where the light is starting to pour in. 

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