Going out in a blaze

There’s the scratch and sizzle of a striking match. Then the blue-orange blaze that ignites the shrouded body, which is wreathed in marigolds. Then … foof! … all is rising flame and billowing smoke. The corpse begins to burn. It will do so for hours, until all that remains is a heap of ash and bone.  

I witnessed such sacred funeral pyres on the Ganges in India and on the Bagmati River in Nepal some years ago. I didn’t stumble upon them; I sought them out as quasi-spiritual pilgrimages. My slightly morbid, slightly practical fascination with death led me there. Beholding the ritualized smoke and fire, I felt privileged and humbled.

What I didn’t feel was awed. Death is deeply quotidian to this non-believer. There is nothing mystical, magical or celestial about it. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, with no heaven, hell or afterlife to follow. Pardon the party-poopery.

Seeing these holy spectacles, my thoughts toggled between where the spirit goes (er, nowhere) and the fact that I was simply watching large bonfires almost beautiful in their pageantry. Any psychic weight was emotional — these were real, beloved humans — and philosophical — what does it mean? — and not, at last, spiritual. 

I’m brought to these memories by a spread in today’s Times about the only public open-air funeral pyre in the U.S., located in the small, dusty town of Crestone, Colorado. The story follows an 81-year-old resident from the last stages of his illness to his outdoor cremation:

“He knew his body would be wrapped into a simple shroud, carried on a wooden stretcher into an enclosure, and placed on a platform a few feet from the ground,” the story goes. “His sons and his wife would light the fire and watch his body burn for several hours. The next day, they would collect the ashes.”

While pyres are rare, cremation in the States is hot stuff. In a statistical shift, more than half of Americans are cremated after death, and you can be sure that’s how I’m getting out of here. Embalming is for chumps, religious beliefs be damned, and casket funerals are so much ceremonial claptrap — wasteful, ghoulish, quixotic. (You can read about far more creative and eco-friendly ways to be put to rest here and here.)

The Hindus have it down. Across Asia they practice communal, public pyres that almost anyone can chance upon and witness. They are solemn. Tears are shed. But for some reason they are not private family affairs, but rather regal roasts for all to see. Crestone, Colorado, is on to something.

Yet as much as I respect it, that’s not for me. Let me say — family, listen — I do not want to be burned on a communal funeral pyre for public consumption. A high-tech, high-temperature crematorium is just fine, and afterward, as I’ve said, do what you will with my ashes. I suggest salt and pepper shakers. 

What I saw in India and Nepal was real and powerful, despite my spiritual doubts that border on irreverent. I’m of two minds, the sacred and the profane, but a bit closer to one than the other. Guess.

Funeral pyre, Nepal

The welcome problem of where to go next

Wanderlust is a malady, chronic and unquenchable. It’s a greedy thing. It wants, desires. It pulses with passion. A lust to wander — exactly as advertised. Lust isn’t a neutral word. It implies the untamable, the uncontainable. It’s hot to the touch.

I’m forever locked in wanderlust’s fevered clutches, craning my neck in search of the next journey somewhere far away. I need to move. I demand experience. I devour culture. I like airplanes.

This year found me bounding near — D.C., Philadelphia, Boston — and swanning far — London, Montreal, St. Petersburg, Russia. Last year was Spain, for the second time; the year before, Paris, for the fifth time. If all that hadn’t broke the bank, I’d now be giddily racking my brain and scanning maps to locate my next adventure.

Let’s do it anyway. Where next?

Obvious contenders are places I haven’t been, from Central and South America to Kenya and Iceland; from Indonesia and Ireland to Singapore and Stockholm.

But I’m picky. I won’t name names, but some places just don’t seem culturally rich enough, or they’re too mojito-on-the-beach boring, or they’re totally repellent in an I-don’t-want-to-be-beheaded way. Too hot. Too cold. Too aesthetically barren. Let’s not forget places with unconscionable alcohol bans.

Though I enjoyed insanely sweaty jaunts in Thailand, India, Egypt and Vietnam (the latter was best), I mostly spurn hot, tropical climes. I don’t do palm trees. Sand: the great deal-breaker. No matter where I go, early spring and early fall are my optimal travel times.

IMG_1889.jpg
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

I go for cities, jostling, clamorous metropolises, be it Shanghai or Barcelona, Berlin or Mumbai, Tokyo or Hong Kong, Istanbul or Marrakesh. That to me is where the action is, not enveloped in frothing seawater on a Boogie Board or panting across sinuous mountain hiking trails.

Before choosing Russia for my recent fall trip, I looked hard at South Africa, but decided it was both too expensive and too outdoorsy. There is fairly cosmopolitan Cape Town, known mostly for its seaside “scenery” — cliffs and water and the like. Victoria Falls and overpriced safaris could not seal the deal. I’m not mad about seeing hyenas in their natural habitat, when all is said and done. (Why do tourist safaris seem so canned, so kind of phony?)

Some time ago I came close to buying tickets to Argentina — zesty Buenos Aires! Wine! Steaks! — and Brazil, until I peered closer at the year-round temperatures and the Brazilian proclivity for volleyball and Speedos. Only Rio’s storied favela piqued my interest in the end, so I swiftly looked elsewhere for the next journey.

I picked Istanbul for its European patina and Ottoman exoticism, and, once there, was instantly won over by its luminous culture, wonderful people, Old World beauty, dazzling mosques and cobblestone-y charms. A weekend trip to the fairy-tale cave village of Cappadocia topped a perfect two-week vacation. I have since returned to Istanbul, and will surely go back.

P1030589_1.jpg
Blue Mosque, Istanbul

But not now. I’m looking for the new, the untouched, the virgin vacation. Japan oddly beckons, but I’ve been there twice, though I’d like to dedicate more time to Kyoto; I think I rushed it. Swaths of Northern Europe — Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Denmark — fail to excite. I’ve come close to trying Hungary, mostly for the Gothic visions of Budapest, but there doesn’t seem to be enough cultural ballast to sustain a full trip. Prague is near Hungary, but I’ve done that and wasn’t bowled over. A bit too touristy, a bit too lightweight.

I’ve been to Poland, Mexico, China, Austria, Nepal, Cambodia, Beirut and Israel. But I’ve never been to Australia, and I don’t yen to go, for many of the reasons noted above. (“Sun and fun” as an ideal does not compute.) Toronto looks … meh. Indonesia seems too balmy, if unspeakably gorgeous.

IMG_2159.jpg
Angkor Wat, Cambodia

This is a crazily superficial, obscenely first-world conundrum to be stuck in. I’ll pry myself loose when the time comes, when I’m ready for the next big trip (Chicago? Taiwan? South Korea?). Meanwhile, I gaze at my suitcase with longing, hoping to fill it soon, even if I have nowhere to go. Wrote Stephen Sondheim: “Stop worrying where you’re going … If you can know where you’re going/You’ve gone.”