Bat guano. Bat shit. Shit. Is it wrong to like the smell of shit? Errrr, wellllll…not actually like it, but more like a tolerance for it? A nostalgic, sweet scent of … memories. I don’t know. I’m not talking dumps and piles of it. I’m talking the wafting, scent-laden breeze infused with the sweet smell of bat guano…bat crap. Ok, ok, for the purposes of this piece I’ll use guano instead of shit, and put my potty mouth to rest. Have you ever smelled it? I know you’re thinking it’s taboo to like such a smell? Hell, bat’s are responsible for carrying numerous fatal diseases, mainly rabies, and the mere exposure to this guano causes other deadly diseases. But, used as a fertilizer, they say bat guano makes flowers smell as sweet as can be. So how can this be bad? And, have you ever seen one of these furry little mammals up close? Cutest little buggers, ever!
Today’s run took me across a footbridge in my neighborhood that spans a bayou (that’s Texas speak for a drainage ditch), and although I’ve never seen a bat emerge in drunken-flight mode, there’s a bat colony underneath. The smell gives it away. And today, as I cross this bridge, two miles into my run, just days after the horrendous Houston Memorial day floods, the damp weather gives new wings to the pungent odor.
It pings back memories of my hard-core running days, running in the wee hours of morning, well before normalcy awoke. With the sleepy skyline of Houston in the background, we’d run down Allen parkway for a 10 mile total out-and-back run. The tempo pace complemented the silence, bonding these friendships to this day. As we’d cross the Waugh Street bridge, the acrid smell of the guano smacking us in the face, usually emitting a joking gag, smart aleck comment, or cough from someone, resulting in chuckles among the group. Sometimes that was the only sound resembling conversation that took place.
We were out there for training, tough training. Those were extreme mornings. Waking at 4:30 am, running the roads by 5am. Both were extreme. The regimen and the stench.
Now this was very large bat colony. It was excessive and that was the putrid smell of shit. It was unbearable. Anything in excess can be bad. Bat shit. Running. Rain. My running was an escape, an extreme way to escape the daily doldrums of life; six days a week, sometimes twice a day. Yeah, it kept me fit, it kept me sane, but now, as I reflect, it was too much. The impending angst of a workout, the post stress and strain of those workouts; the waif look commented on by my peers, probably adding on the appearance of seven years to my age. My running obsession finally took it’s toll on everything dear to me. It became a detriment, something I dreaded; perhaps masterfully planned on a subconscious level, I’m not sure. I was injury plagued and exhausted. And, one day, I just stopped. Just like Forrest.
Even healthy habits can become harmful. Just like the shit under the bridge in those days, when piled on, becoming a menace, a wrecking ball to everyday life.
I zone back into to my run and relish the breeze, the ease of my almost shuffle-like pace, and the beauty of nature’s scent. Nowadays, I mostly run alone, in my neighborhood, for pure enjoyment, and of course, the daily escape it offers my mind. Permission to wonder, permission to explore. This mindfulness promotes balance now, in moderation. The exact prescription for providing me the clear head and energy to run my business, raise my children, and deal with life’s exhilarating roller coaster of a ride.
I’m sitting in a noisy cauldron, a steamy brew of excitement and chaos. The muddled, once vivid colors rival an artist’s well-used palette. I am amongst the locals watching one of the most highly regarded cricket tournaments in the world, the T20 World Cup Cricket Championship. It’s just now, four days after my arrival on this beautiful emerald isle they call Sri Lanka that I slow down enough to ask myself, “How did I get here?”
A serious bout of wanderlust had kicked in, as it did every few months, gnawing at me, egging me on, propelling me into a myriad of daydreams and preventing focus on all things serious. This obsessive yearning to see the world had me asking myself, Why? Why can’t I be content with a ‘normal’ life, staying put, acting out the soccer mom role? This Peter Pan-like, can’t-sit-still immaturity has got to stop. I have children, dammit. I have a business, dammit. Why can’t I just be content with the mundane? Why do I have these errant desires? Am I chasing after the life I wish I’d had? A means of escape?
I’m jostled from my thoughts back to the cricket match, literally. Our seats are on a crudely painted concrete bench, landing us in a sea of locals, elbow to elbow, thigh to thigh. Having paid 208 rupees for the tickets, about two dollars, we are in the cheap seats. More aptly put, these were the tawdry rip-offs of cheap seats.
This hob-nobbing with the locals is the experience I seek. We’re watching the semi-final match between Sri Lanka and Pakistan. I’ve donned my Sri Lankan jersey. I look the part, I feel the part, except for my ruddied, white face in a sea of brown. The energy encompasses me, addictive in it’s wake. I jump up and down, undulating, being led by the crowd, cheering, clapping, dancing. The whiff of acrid body odor in the hot, stagnant air envelopes me. Whoa. Phew. Hmmm, I should market it, I think to myself, ‘Perfume Odeur de Body’.
A man slithers his way in next to me, squeezing ever so slyly as if I don’t notice. I accept my fate, rubbing sweaty elbows as if we were lifelong friends. I watch a bead of sweat trickle down his temple, knowing it’s course. It lands on my arm. I don’t flinch. This sheen of the skin is the primer that blends all colors while serving as a valid indicator of the soup-like humidity.
Growing up in the U.S. with an English father who watched the sport, I recall cricket as a game played by men donned in proper white who, for no apparent reason, attempt to murder the batsman by throwing a ball at them with unleashed fury. This was sport? The man hurling the ball was called the bowler. Which makes me wonder, why the term ‘bowl’? Where are the 3 holes in the ball and where are the pins? Fortunately, in my preparations for this trip, Luis patiently conducted crash courses in cricket using You Tube when he was able to steer my attention away from my latest distractions. He knew that basic understanding of this sport would add to my enjoyment, and he was right. I learned that it is a quite strategic sport indeed.
I reach in to my bag for a treat and think back to my arrival in Sri Lanka. My memories entertain me and lead me away from the match. The past four days have been a whirlwind of tastes, smells and culture. Landscapes of endless seas of varied foliage, so lush and green layer my senses in such a way that make me crave more.
My fatigue from the twenty hour journey dissipated upon arrival at the Bandaranaike International airport in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka. The dust infiltrates every possession I carry while we wander around in the airport in search of the car rental agency. More than just a hub for travelers, this airport is littered with retail merchants of the oddest utilitarian necessities. Talk about one-stop shopping. I could have picked up an iron, clothes dryers, and I would suspect, if needed, a waffle iron. At the rental booth, we find out that a ‘chop’ is needed on Luis’ international driver’s license, or, a stamp, as we would call it. Without it, he could not drive in the country, and the stamp was issued by their version of the department of motor vehicles, which, conveniently, wasn’t open. Our option, we are told, is to hire a driver, through the travel agency which acts as the middleman for the rental company. The entire ten day trip is quoted to us, eighty dollars we are told. “Deal.” We’ll take the driver, who, we are told, will arrive in fifteen minutes. I am warned by Luis that we should find a seat and succumb to our fate as passive bystanders with no control of the situation, accepting that in this country fifteen minutes means at least one hour. We sit, swaddled in the extreme heat and humidity.
Our driver’s name is Rohan. Our new friend is a natural host and will be our constant companion for ten days. Taking on my role as listener and observer, I assume my position in the back seat, already humored by our good-natured host, who insists on calling me Madame, and who’s broken English allows him simple expressions as, “Come!, Come!” and “You see?”. A small, wiry man, he has a sunny disposition, but I notice his eyes. Are they red, beady-like and glassy from the harsh heat and dust, do they belie this outward happy-go-lucky persona? Stop, already. I wish my mistrust would go away.
We soon find ourselves heading inland on the road that leads away from the polluted mayhem of the Colombo Airport to the city of Kandy, a short drive northeast. I am taken aback by the melee of bustling trucks, buses, pedestrians, bicycles and three wheelers. After a few minutes of driving it all seems choreographed, everyone in sync with their one track mindset of getting somewhere; trucks, buses and cars, in a mad dash; pedestrians and bicyclists in a saunter. Somehow, six lanes of traffic fit into two, even with the occasional dog lazing in the road. Rohan is a maestro at maneuvering the narrow streets, blithely laying on the horn, each sequence having a different meaning. And, when combined with ‘that look’ he gives passersby, the accentuated turning of his head, those beady eyes drawn narrower, piercing through the indifferent looks of women and children who happened to meander too close. They were nuisances hindering his all-out acceleration through his own chaotic symphony. He made no effort to avoid them. They are unmoved by the near grazing swipe of our side mirror. I learn that this hair-raising driving is not the only reason to stay awake and alert. The scenery through the sleepy villages provides me with equal thrills. The verdant quilted, textured hillside landscapes are never ending. The famous tea plantations are like green velvet strewn across every mountain in sight. These dreamy landscapes combined with the country’s love affair with tea and it’s history, is fascinating.
Rohan talks, a lot. Subjects are as varied as the foliage. I learn about the harvesting of coconuts on rope ladders hanging high from the canopies followed by a pit stop to get the perfect yellow coconut for a drink and snack. He expounds on the politics of the country, the nepotism, the corruption. Luis listens, cautiously and consistently giving brief responses so as not to goad him on. Hundreds of Buddha statues dot the landscape, some encased in glass, and others, behemoth carvings, cleverly placed and open, all meant to be revered.
I learn that Rohan is a Buddist. He tells me of the five main principles of Buddhism: do not harm or kill any living thing, do not steal, be with only one woman, do not lie, and do not drink alcohol. He stares at my legs, but I decide this was to gage whether or not my skirt was long enough and I was dressed respectfully to go in to temples of worship. I’ve dressed minimally since my arrival due to the extreme heat. Rohan notices the tattoos that cover my back, sometimes I forget that they’re there. He tosses me my sweater as I hop out of the car to see another beautiful temple.
One evening, I plan on imbibing on a local alcohol from coconut extract called Arrack. Always one to try the local fare and drink, and, thinking I had my drinking under control, I looked forward to an evening relaxing by the sea with drink in hand. Rohan takes me to a nearby shoddy, dusty liquor store, sets me up with a couple of bottles and purchases one for himself, which he claims is for his friend that he will be seeing that evening. We secretly plan our fun.
As we wish, Rohan remains reliable and present. Coming and going, his days were spent catering to us. I know all is well with him when, just after we plop in to our seats from our latest foray, he greets us. “Buuuuuuuuurp, Ahhhhhh,” Rohan belches…a lot.
My iron-clad stomach is put to the test on a daily basis. I overlook the open food servers and the occasional grazing fly. Sweets galore, salty, spicy snacks, offer explosions of flavor I seek during my stay. My mouth starts to water and I’m brought back to the match, wanting to savor the flavor of a candy-like gel called musket, it’s oily mass carefully wrapped in plastic that I pull from my bag. It melts in my mouth. I watch Luis. Study him. He is oblivious to all around him, absorbed in his own world of intense emotion pertaining to the match.
“Fuck Youuuuuuuuuu”, he shouts, at the top of his lungs, directed towards the other team.
He whistles and dances for his team. I point out to him the three young boys standing near me with their father, who had just finished praying, the azan outside the stadium still audible over the roaring crowd.
“Luis, please, your language. Knock it off.” I say. I feel my phone vibrate in my pocket.
“Oh no”, I think to myself.
I sneak a peek and recognize the name of a client. I calculate in my head and realize that it’s the start of the same business day in the US. The same one that I just spent goofing off here in Sri Lanka. I hit ‘Ignore’. I wish the vibrating would stop.
“Not now, not ever!” I speak aloud, knowing that no one heard me.
But, I know the call will happen again. How easy it would be to ignore and make it all go away. So easy to destroy something that took years to build. Despite my urges, I manage to make a mental note to call my client back once out of the stadium, but for now, I’ll enjoy this lively country, it’s personality and the wonders of it’s beauty.
I step out into the moist, humid air. It’s been raining for days, one of those typical Spring Houston monsoon-like weeks. My breath catches for a split second as the oxygen is stifled and within minutes the moisture pools on my cool skin creating a shimmery, silky sheen. There’s a bite to the air, a chill, wanting to be heard but suppressed by the heavy moisture-laden air. I plod along, a much needed run to unwind and think. I’m in the process of giving up something dear to me. Nothing tangible, but something I know I must let go of. I need to reflect, to mourn, to be free of this hindering burden.
I curse myself and my procrastinating ways as the rain starts to fall. Just light enough to convince me to continue, a cajoling challenge toying with my logic. My body needs this rain, the complement to the chill, joining forces to smother and quash the lingering humidity. The elements steps up their game. The drizzle continues, turning to a brazen rain, challenging and taunting me.
As expected, the weather and its fun and games takes a backseat in my mind. My effort to escape works. I’m alone, lost in my world, lost in my thoughts, the real purpose of my run coming to fruition. I lose track of time and once cognizant, I struggle to come back. My labored breathing tells me I’ve been maintaining a pace foreign to my body, five miles in. My lungs, for the first time, thirst for what has been falling on my face, drenching my hair and soaking my clothes. Right there in front of me, on me, yet untouchable, my body and thirst unable to be quenched. And through it all, not once do I think of the purity and the sheer necessity of this liquid bliss I’ve taken for granted. Now, I miss it. I need it. This rain, a subtle reminder of the constants in our lives. Some keep us grounded, focused and balanced while others, well, we have to let go of and mourn. And when we finally do let go, we may feel a bit off-kilter, rudderless on a directionless course. My path no longer straight, skewed with these temoporary rambling ups and downs; this veering is unsettling. My question today is, can I maneuver through this unbalance, this wavering of direction?
Whether a personality trait, well-established pattern of behavior or a deep-rooted ideology; life’s journey requires us to give up in order to move on. It can be painful. They all lend comfort and security through familiarity and predictability. But this loss is a good thing.
A change and an uprooting of a part of my everyday is now missing. This change is like breath. It’s not part of the process, it is the process. It catches at times but continues steadfast. And today, this rain is a reminder that sometimes letting go allows the unknown to take to you to fresh and unforeseen areas in yourself. They say that with every ending there is a new beginning and that’s exactly what this constant self-examination is about.
The world discriminates. It’s inevitable. It’s going to happen.
You can be the richest of rich, with beauty so natural it’s clear God spent a few extra minutes preparing it.
You can smile. Be outgoing. Loving. Charismatic. And still feel empty. It can still find you.
It’s something you can’t understand unless you’ve felt the pain yourself.
It’s easy to judge and say snap out of it. To call someone weak. Lazy. Ungrateful. Blind. Selfish.
Selfish for giving up. Selfish for losing the battle. Selfish for what they’re leaving behind.
Selfish for ending their own life.
But in my heart I know suicide is none of that. Suicide is not selfish.
My best friend was the opposite of selfish. And always will be. Ning is the definition of pure, untainted beauty. She was international. She was the definition of unconditional love. She didn’t have a type and loved everyone…
Today my run along the humbling river starts from a place dark and deep. The seeming boundless edges of grief, teetering over and once again, seeping into the beginning of my day. I need to dam it up. Or let it rush out. I’m not sure. The numbness leads me out along the trail, wooded in solitude, with it’s secrets whispering to me, yet, I’m not responding and registering. My body goes through the motions, while my mind wanders aimlessly, mostly in the dark haze of sadness.
I enter the park that leads to the shores of Lake Houston and as I approach the man-made watering hole where ducks, geese and other occasional transient water fowl gather, I notice it’s emptiness. In it’s place are at least two dozen buzzards. These guys have a presence about them, daunting and ominous. There are a few lumbering on the edges of the trash bins, and as I run within ten feet of them and pass, I grin looking right at one, not quite sure how they view my presence. A funny scenario plays out in my head, reminiscent of the grackle attack while running a few years ago. I think, hmmmm am I their next meal? They only eat dead things, right? I scan the area and I don’t see any one thing that they’re hovering around or planning to devour. I nod as I pass, I respect them, why they’re here and their means of survival. Eerie, yet comforting knowing this is how mother-nature intended.
I decide to run to the shore and along the skinny boardwalk shared by fisherman and their gear, risking a wayward hook from an oblivious cast. I don’t care, the headwinds get stronger, and I’m drawn in, thankful for the reprieve from the stale air. Fortunately, for me, the vibrations along the wooden walkway alert the fisherman to my approach and they share their space and awareness with me. I’m coming alive. The soft pitter patter of the water reaching the shore soothes me. It’s hypnotic and calming, lifting me out of this cloud of grief.
I zone in and listen closer. My senses bombarded with the beauty of this day, the beauty of this life. The memory of Ning. I cry as I leave the park. A sob with such intensity, so deep and powerful, and I let it rush forth. The dam has broken and I allow it’s healing powers, enmeshed with my running, to take over. I still can’t believe she’s gone. A life so young and vibrant. A life so like my daughter’s. As I breathe easier, settling back into my rhythm, the overwhelming sweet scent of Carolina Jessamine infiltrates my senses. Such a beautiful aroma, carrying me along the trail, never lessening in it’s intensity. I know this is Ning. And I know that life is sweet and full of joy from the unexpected. For the two miles back home, I was accompanied by an angel just passing through.