“Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing.”-Kahlil Gibran
Electromagnetic coils buzz. A needle digs into my skin and black ink squirts across my forearm like a Jackson Pollack painting. I want to look tough so I pretend like I don’t even notice what’s happening. Thankfully, Phuket is about the easiest place to get distracted on the planet. Across the street, big shiny silver letters spell out Patong Beach. I position my eyes through the swaying palm trees that divide the city from the sand.
A woman is getting strapped into a colorful rainbow parachute and there’s about fifty yards of rope that’s between her and the speedboat she’s tied to.
Just as the needle cuts into my arm for a second time, she starts running down the beach and then just as she’s about to hit the edge of the ocean she gets sucked up into Phuket’s pink sunset like a modern day Mary Poppins. The boat twists and twirls around the bay for a few minutes as a few bronzed Thai men sell coconuts on the beach beneath her.
The smell of spicy pad Thai from the restaurant next door fills the inside of the tattoo parlor and just as Ukrit pinches my skin again, I think back to why I’m even getting this tattoo in the first place.
Five years ago I got lost on a dirty and dusty road in Malaysia and I stopped outside a Hindu Temple while trying to regroup.
As I’ve said in previous chapters, I grew up in a tiny town in Pennsylvania. To the best of my knowledge there were no Hindu Temples anywhere near my home back then, so I had certainly never seen any until this moment. So when this massive five-tiered entrance tower abruptly rose seventy-five feet through the caramel air, it was kind of an eerie feeling.
The outside of the structure was decorated with hundreds of colorful figures. Some of them had eight arms like Dr. Octopus and they reminded me of comic book characters I saw on TV when I was a child. I was even scared of a few of them because they had heads of animals and the bodies of humans. I had never seen anything like this in all my life and I wondered what kind of person could believe in so many Gods that all looked so different from one another.
As I walked around the outside of the empty temple that day wondering what to do next, I thought of something Ralph Waldo Emerson was quoted as saying, “I like the silent church before the service begins, better than any preaching.” I decide that since the temple was empty, and because I was lost, that it was all a bit of a sign. If I was ever going to go inside a Hindu Temple and explore, then it seemed like there was no better time than now.
As I slipped off my shoes and entered the interior prayer hall, sounds from a percussion instrument danced on the rim of my ears. The temple was empty with the exception of the two men stepping slowly in adoration around its perimeter. One man held a serunai whose sounds resembled a high pitched English horn and the other man circled methodically while deliberately beating a calfskin drum.
The drone from the sounds created a rhythmic melody that instantly put me on edge; it was cult-like and intimidating.
I forced myself forward.
As I continued to take in the temple’s intricate design, my body pushed past its normal boundaries and I suddenly felt lighter. Once completely inside the prayer hall, a color palate made up entirely of blues and purples exploded to decorate its precisely laid out interior. Multiple shades of violet eased into lavender, which complimented the lilac that spread across the interior’s onion-shaped dome. Just a minute ago I was your average Joe schlepping through the streets like a lost tourist and now everything around me began to dissolve into the sanctuary’s purple particles, which seemed to only heighten my awareness.
It’s said that purple or violet assists those who seek the meaning of life and spiritual fulfillment – it expands their awareness, connecting them to a higher consciousness. For this reason it is associated with transformation of the soul and if someone exudes a purple aura this is said to be the highest vibration of the human spirit.
The closer I got to the belly of the temple, the louder and more intense the serunai played. It rose to near violent levels as though its shrieking was attempting to pierce my soul. I could feel my fears just beneath the surface of my skin like a word that dangles at the tip of the tongue, and I couldn’t help but question if I should even be in there. But instead of turning back, I decided to not judge the experience. I just let it rush through me.
As I stepped closer to the shrine, the large temple bell’s clapper rang out like a church bell evoking me to feel as though I had temporarily left the physical world. Before stepping onto the elevated cobalt floor, I hesitated due to my unfamiliarity with the local customs.
The belly of sanctum was polished so well that it looked like a sheet of glass and reflected the ceiling back towards itself creating funhouse-like illusions.
After a deep breath to steady myself, I gingerly stepped toward the head of the temple, each step pulling the shrine closer to me. Every time I planted my bare foot, chills broke over my body. The drumbeat built momentum and as I moved closer to the heart of the temple, my steps slowly turned into one of commitment.
I arrived at the foot of the shrine and was now face to face with something I knew nothing about. The man with the calfskin drum called out, “This is Mariamman.” The deity was about six feet tall and radiated a pink hue from her cheeks. She wore a maroon dress trimmed with light green that matched the base of the shrine. She emitted such a pleasant nature. The man continued, “One of her hands is displaying a mudra which wards off fear.” I looked towards one of her other hands, which held a trident, “that weapon is said to destroy the three worlds; the past, present and future. Once each world is destroyed and turned into a single plane of existence, that is bliss.”
I kept looking up at the goddess and I could feel this powerful internal force swirling at the base of my bones. The transformative energy continued to slither its way horizontally across my tail end. I closed my eyes and for the first time ever I experienced this silence, this perfect stillness.
I was freed of myself, immersed within oneness, buoyed by bliss. Everything, if only for the moment, was perfect.
The drumbeat slowed and was now providing the only sound. It matched the rhythm of my heart.
I had no idea how long I was standing there, but as I glided off the temple floor I could feel my whole body begin to tingle.
Before leaving the temple, I stopped at a giant bronze statue of Ganesh, which I felt as though had been watching over me the entire time while I was inside.
Ganesh immediately captured my imagination. He is the elephant-deity; he is the lord of success and destroyer of evil and obstacles. Ganesh’s head symbolizes the Atman or the soul, which is the ultimate supreme reality of human existence. Ganesh has eight arms and in his upper right hand he holds a goad or axe, which helps to rid the path of obstacles, and the noose in his left hand is to pull him to the highest goal.
The thing that I’ve really grown to love about Ganesh since that day though is not only does he remove the obstacles, but he also places them in his own path. This has always resonated with me so much because I’ve come to realize that all of my obstacles are a creation of my own thoughts, all of which I purposely put there and needed to overcome at the time to get myself to the next level of consciousness. The death-defying bus rides, the heartbreaking break-up, being stranded in Siberia and the editor from hell, just to name a few. I’ve put them all in my path. It makes perfect sense now, and not in a sick and twisted way, but because my consciousness desperately needed them so it could expand itself to a higher level.
So as Ukrit squirts disinfectant on my arm and wipes away the excess ink, I look down at the new tattoo that takes up my entire left forearm. It’s a tribute to that day and to what Ganesh and obstacles have come to mean to me.
I guess it’s fitting that I decided to get this tattoo today because just this morning I was dealt my biggest blow if I want to make it around the world overland. I woke up to an email from the German shipping company that said that the cargo ship that was supposed to take me from Singapore to Australia next month had been sold to another shipping company. The email went on to say that all future voyages of the MS Victory had been cancelled, effective immediately. This means that with the end of mainland Asia finally in my sights, I now have no way to continue traveling overland. The MS Victory was the only cargo ship sailing from South East Asia to Australia that allowed for passengers this time of year.
But instead of getting mad, I clicked the email closed and smiled because I’ve been down this road before. It’s just another obstacle that Ganesh and I will have to cut down and then pull ourselves past.