It is 4 a.m. The Taipei Airport transfer lounge. We have been here for approximately 6 hours, and will remain here for another six. I have never been so awake in my life.
I don’t mean that in a oh-the-beauty-of-the-world sense, either–I want sleep, desperately. I feel it inside my bones. My hands quiver. My eyes are heavy. My breathe rattles. I need to be unconscious. But there are several factors impeding this.
It is about 16 degrees Celsius: a joyous retreat for travellers making their way from the sweltering Taiwanese summer to far-away lands, but a frozen hellscape for anyone attempting to sleep in an airport. A movie is playing in the adjacent part of the lounge – something starring Mark Wahlberg, and maybe it is in Italian. I can’t be sure – the video is not playing, just the audio, a series of haunting, sourceless grunts and explosions issuing from the very ether. Someone has opened a fire door, and there has been a constant beeping for three hours.
Surrounding the area where this movie could be playing is approximately 70 angry-looking people. They have all arrived too late to sprawl out as we have in our part of the lounge, and thus must wedge in close to other angry strangers. They stare each into the distance somewhere far beyond, imagining the violent deaths of everyone around them. Most of these people catch a flight together around 2 a.m., and surprisingly no blood is shed.
The lounge is empty but for us; a British man with matching travel pillow, travel blanket, leg pillow, and stretching gear; and a large group of young Filipinos in sumptuous red sweaters.
These youths proceed to not shut the fuck up for the entire night. They scream and cackle to one another from across the room for eight blistering hours. I turn my music up to full volume, and it cannot block out their braying. They trudge back and forth before us in a parade of chaos.
Each has met a dozen cruel fates in my sleep deprived mind. Several involve chainsaws. I wonder, for a time, if they can feel my hate, if its power and vehemence will suddenly breach my mind and become a malevolent physical presence. For a time I content myself in ranking each in levels of obnoxiousness. The tattooed, slick-haired goon I come to think of as Gus is definitely the worst. Except when Petunia, who mewls out from under a blanket on an adjacent couch, resplendent and sickening, is the worst.
Our homestay turns out to essentially be in the jungle.
We find the main facility with little difficulty, and are informed that we will need to wander out into the trees and rice paddies for some time before finding our actual accommodation. There is bamboo lining the path, and palm trees are everywhere. One doleful cow watches as we pass.
At night, there is the sound of the wild: frogs and wild birds and monkeys. Once every night, we hear what we think must be wild boars. They are mating, and it does not sound consensual, but then, we know little of porcine love.
The girls in the room across from ours are European medical students on exchange to an Indonesian hospital program. They have been learning about tropical diseases, and could probably exhaustingly describe Dengue Fever. With them is a bottle of Polish vodka, and from their muddled explanation, we grow to believe it has been filtered through the rectum of an ox. Their English is superb, despite it being a second language for each, and they use the words “for example” in almost every single sentence.
Goa Gajah seems pretty boring at first. There is a cave in the shape of a giant head, and you enter the mouth to see some poorly attended linga. When you get to the main temple, you suddenly are confronted with sprawling vistas and fountains and waterfalls.
We explore the grounds, mostly satisfied with the travel value for the dollar fifty entry price. We pass by a worn sign pointing directly off into the trees. In lowercase letters, it sighs, “forest temple.” We decide to trudge on.
The path is long and indeed foresty, and the sweltering heat makes it hazy and otherworldly. Few others are on this path. We climb up and down, and find the temple buried in a wall eventually, amongst numbers of caves filled with stone carvings of ancient gods, claimed and reclaimed again as new peoples have moved in. At one point, we find a woman I decide to be a Balinese witch, who talks as much to herself as she does to us, a machete in her hand, her eyes trained far off. Once she tries to open a coconut for us, at another moment she seems to offer to take our picture for us. Still later, she seems almost certainly talking to ghosts we cannot see.
Somewhere along the path, a man asks us for a donation in order to enter the path to the water temple. Things were already pretty Hyrule around there, so we paid up.
Suddenly the jungle got deeper, the path became soaked, and we climbed down to the jagged rock faces above a rushing river. Bamboo and twine bridges spindled across one bank to the next, and we crossed in search of temple. We discovered that it had been buried by a high tide, which if anything was even cooler than if we had been able to see it.
Most of my undergraduate degree was in psychology or religion, and most of the latter was all about Hinduism. Going to one of the few bastions of Hinduism in South Asia, I began to feel pretty puffed-up. I would be the educated one. The informed one. The others would turn to me for cultural sensitivity, for insight, for explanation. I would get to be the one who taught other people about how smart I was, which is essentially my most treasured hobby.
It became clear to me after a while that I would not get to enjoy my highfalutin sense of superiority, as the Hinduism locally had transformed and had incorporated styles and legends I barely recognized. Gods and demons were in different colours, had different names in the local tongue, had new and mysterious rituals. I could point out the obvious—I can still spot a Ganesh at twenty paces, and produce a few myths of his birth. I could still give a decent plot summary of the epic Ramayana, and correctly name most of his brothers, the major monkey figures, and the transgressive, sometimes forgotten aspects of the Uttarakanda. (Ask me about it, please, I can go on and on.) But damned if I could get anything out of the beautiful statues and art that surrounded us.
The howling, ebullient faces adorning the royal tower at the cremation bewildered me. I tried to place them, tried to tie their symbols to those I might recognize. Another traveller tried to explain to me some reference to the colour scheme referencing Shiva, Vishnu, and Brahma, but I felt frustrated that I could not divine these connections by myself. My degree was pretty useless, certainly – but how could it fail me now, in the one time when it theoretically would have proven itself useful?
The tower was soon loaded full with royal dead guy, and we began what we thought to be a slow, funereal trudge through the centre of town. As it turned out, the army of local dudes assembled was so numerous because the strategy was to shoulder the massive structure, run for a 200 metre burst, and then switch out lugging people before going for another run. I became lost in a sea of people as we all followed the cremation tower through the streets, as thousands looked on from balconies, store fronts, rooftops and boughs. When we came to the cremation grounds, I scrambled a nearby fence (made somewhat less graceful by my mandatory sarong), and found a place in the crowd.
We waited for hours there, eating soup from a parking lot and fending off dozens of solicitors, as the body of the king was loaded into the frame of a giant bull and then set ablaze. As the day wore on and the customers thinned, the sellers became more numerous and desperate, and a befuddled British woman is suddenly swarmed by a dozen women wrapping her in sarongs. They appear to assault her via mummification. The giant bove burned for ages, before they turned on gas to make sure the body was fully burned away. The dragon nearby caught fire, too. Afterwards, we drank coffee that had been filtered through the butt of a jungle cat.
Sometimes you don’t need to understand everything that’s happening to know that it’s amazing.