A TORTOISE AT THE MONKEY TEMPLE

It’s my first full day in India without rickshaws or trains or buses to catch. With both feet on solid ground, I step onto my patio at Mowgli Guest House and the tropical humidity makes me smile. I remember that feeling from other places and times: the plane door opening in Hawaii or Mexico or Jamaica, the rush of warmth instantly welcoming you home to someplace you’ve never been before. I cross the path through the rice paddy toward the rocky hills.

I feel it: my heart is being nudged open.

I’ve been hesitant, a bit cloistered, for the nearly two years since my accident, waiting until the environment was safe to reveal the vulnerable me that’s been forming inside the oyster shell. It’s not as if the après-head injury me is so dramatically different; but anytime we move into a new chapter of life (new career, life after divorce, middle age), we’ve changed, and we’re a bit vulnerable as we take those first steps forward.

This chapter ushers in the growing-older me, the me that’s beginning the final third of my life. The hinge on my shell is a bit rusty, and I know I’ve got to move at a pace I’ve been resenting for a few years, but now acknowledge as part of who I am as I age. Slower.

Fine. I won ’t be running off the edge of cliffs, hoping to sprout wings and fly anymore. In my youth, and in my middle years, that hare speed sometimes worked, and sometimes resulted in a crash landing.

My guide Raju picks me up and although he doesn’t speak much English, he’s brimming with enthusiasm and happiness. He and his wife just had a baby six days ago, and he’s a very proud father. I tell him I want to see monkeys—first we stop to buy bananas and then, boy, does he show me monkeys! They’re hanging out all over the rocks and walls of Hampi.  They’re outside a temple where a newly-married young couple asks for a photo with me.  Raju takes me to Lakshmi Temple, where I pet an unchained monkey who’s been trained by his heavily bearded, exotically dressed guru. (Later, I was told those animals are often drugged into submission, so I felt bad I’d supported this enterprise with a few rupees.)

Next it’s time for the Monkey Temple which is actually Lord Hanuman’s Temple, its name bastardized by us tourists because it’s crawling with monkeys. Also, because of a curse that caused Hanuman to be born as Vanar, which makes him part-human and part-monkey. There are famously 550 stairs to climb if you’re going to the top, to the temple honoring Hanuman and his mother Anjana.

I am clear with Raju, in pantomime: I’m out of shape; I have to go slow. I’ll climb partway up, share my bananas with a few monkeys, and be happy to call it a day. Raju merrily insists I’m going to climb all 550 steps.

“Come,” he demands, bounding up the first set of stairs. It’s one of the few words in his English vocabulary. “Come, come.”

Being young and a joyous new father, Raju of course keeps leaping ahead, taking 2 steps at a time and then–leaning against a rock wall, arms folded like Bugs Bunny–waiting for me to catch up. At one point, I start a breathless lecture. “Look, Raju. You are my guide. I am paying you. I’ll decide how far…” but he’s moving on and I’m talking to his back. At the next rest spot, Raju shakes his head, disappointed in my performance. He wants to know how old I am. I lie. I tell him I’m 70, hoping he’ll take pity on me.

Lots of people, mostly visitors from other parts of India, are hiking up the stone steps as well, and I am not the only slow one. “How old are you?” he starts asking every older pilgrim who’s descending from the top. In Hindi or in Kannada–the local language–they tell him, and he translates for me with finger counts. The oldest man we encounter is 69. Raju is suddenly very proud that he’s guiding the oldest pilgrim of the day.

“Seventy,” he announces, pointing at me. “And I am taking her to the top. All 550 steps!” I know I can’t make it beyond 300. These are no smoothly carved steps; they’re uneven, broken, varying heights. At this point we’re only halfway and my lungs are burning, my legs shaking.

Raju starts offering me his hand now and then to help me over the rough spots. I welcome his assistance. It’s sweet.  Just a little help now and then on this trip, I’m thinking, and I’m good to go. Pretty soon, I reach the 300 mark.  Can I actually make it farther?

Using international gestures, Raju wants to know the English word for the mother of his mother.  It always amazes me how people from different cultures get our points across if we really want to. I find it loads of fun, communicating.

“Grandma,” I tell him. “GRAM-ah.” I should have known better. He begins to use the word against me.

“Come!” turns into “Come, Grandma!”  “To the top!” becomes “To the top, Grandma!”

He makes me laugh. So do the many, many monkeys I meet on the way. My bananas are well-wrapped, stashed in my purse.  I plan to use them at the highest point I get to. I keep going.

“How old is your grandmother?” I manage to communicate at our next rest stop.

“She’s dead.” Even in Kannada, I get that.

“I’m sorry.”

“She died at 63.”

“So young.” I shake my head sadly.

“She’s buried up there,” says Raju, pointing to the top.

“NaNaGe,” I say. It’s the only Kannada phrase from Lonely Planet I know so far – “I don’t understand.”

“She is buried under the Temple of Lord Hanuman.” He points again. “Up. There.”

What? I still don’t understand. Is there a burial ground under the temple? Is that why Raju wants so badly to reach the top?

“She died climbing these steps.”

Beat.

Big grin.

“Ha. Ha. Very funny, Raju,” I say.

“Come, Grandma. 200 more steps.”

Well, I’ll wrap this up. I trudged, I laughed, I sat down beside a monkey to rest now and then. Although speed will never again be my strongest suit, I made it. All the way to the top. The millisecond I pulled out my bananas, a monkey came flying out of nowhere, stole them all, and sat on a nearby rock staring me down as he gorged himself. The temple was closed for repairs, so I didn’t get to visit the Goddess Mother Anjana. But it didn’t matter. It was my first full day in India, and I did something I thought I could no longer do: I surprised myself. I love surprises. In the end, I probably won the tortoise prize of the day. But guess what? It was one of my best days ever. Period.