I've become desensitized to death. I saw a dead water buffalo in the forest in Nepal and my only thought was "Why hasn't something scavenged that yet?" Death is more out in the open in Asia than it is in America. Recently slaughtered animals are easy to find. Elaborate killing holidays like Lebaran Haji or funeral ceremonies like the ones in Tana Toraja are commonplace. I've visited too many mass graves where hundreds of thousands of people were brutally murdered like the killing fields in Cambodia or the massacre site in Nanking. I saw an old woman die in an alley in China and nobody tried to do anything about it. I saw the last green limb of a bush in a forest fire wither and shake as the water frantically looked for a way to prevent being boiled alive. You can both understand and come to terms with death. I think most people do, and each culture has a unique way of helping with that.
In India they believe in reincarnation. They also believe that the waters of the Ganges will wash away any sins. As such, it's customary to dump recently cremated (or in some cases unburnt) bodies into the river in Varanasi. Varanasi is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on earth. The winding stone alleyways are packed with pretty much anything that can be found in India. You see a street cow eating the flowers off an alter then someone panning for gold in the ashes of dead bodies. Quasimodo leers up and hisses "Smoke something?" with a cackle like Jafar when he's pretending to be an old man. Death is in the air. At least, the ashes from dead bodies are in the air, but they get lost with the usual air pollution in India. In Hinduism, cremation is the last of the 16 rites of passage a person goes through, along with being named, going to school and getting married. Two of the biggest celebrations centered anyones life in all the places I've been to are death and marriage.
Everyone is looking for love. I've noticed that even people who have to worry about what they're going to eat or where they're going to sleep, spend most of their time worrying about how attractive they are to the opposite sex. This is true even in the places in Asia where people don't find their own mates. In China, grandparents wander parks with pictures of their grandchildren and try to convince other grandparents to have their grandchildren date. In Kyrgyzstan bride-napping is still practiced. Here in India, arranged marriages are still very common. Nearly everywhere in Asia, parental approval is necessary before marrying. While lost in the tangle of local Indian trains I met lots of young Indian men with broken hearts who told me "I should have just waited for my parents to pick a girlfriend for me." They had found love on their own, been dumped and now are more than happy to let the conventional matchmaking system work its magic.
The urgency for sex is still there of course. I've had a lot of young Asian men lament to me about their sexual frustrations. In most places in Asia premarital sex is taboo if not forbidden. They feel comfortable talking to me about it because I'm an American. The world seems convinced that everyone is having sex with everyone all the time back in America. I can see how they get that idea from movies and TV shows, but I've done what I can to dispel that myth. I've also explained to many Asian teens that even for those who are more sexually active, promiscuity isn't as great as it seems.
I recently discovered a time and place where promiscuity didn't seem frowned upon and sex definitely wasn't taboo. It was the ancient culture of Khajuraho. In the relatively barren countryside in north-central India lie the remains of an 85-temple strong empire and the tourist infrastructure that surrounds it. Magnificently carved temples built from a variety of stones, are encrusted with statues depicting Hindu gods and a myriad of sexually explicit scenes. In all my travels I've never come across an ancient temple complex which was so exquisitely built as the one in Khajuraho. The detail with which the carvings were originally made, the extent to which they were preserved, and they way in which they were restored was staggering. There was so much going on and so much detail that it was hard to take it all in. One thing I definitely learned from reoccurring scenes was that if you're going to have sex while standing on your head, it's a good idea to have a couple people help you (preferably women with overly-spherical breasts).
Unlike death, I'm not sure that anyone really understands love. Sure, lots of people come to terms with it, but I don't know if it can truly be understood. Perhaps that's why it seems to occupy more of people's lives all around the world. Interestingly, the customs around love seem to be more uniform than those around death. As a traveler, the two subjects are always in the back of my mind, but perhaps for different reasons than they are in the minds of the people inside the countries I travel.
To see the more racy carvings, check out the photo gallery.Soundtrack: Somebody To Love