Brushes with faith, sin and the weird
I'm in my car, driving. The cell phone pressed against my ear, I'm listening to a funny story about Muslim speed dating in Houston. The next minute, my eyes take over. Just ahead, to my right, is the tallest cross I've ever seen, its metal body gleaming in the morning sun. A few dozen people are gathered at the base. Some are praying on their knees.
I return my attention to the highway, Interstate 40 headed east. On the third day of my drive from Los Angeles, I had just entered Texas. The desert landscapes of New Mexico had given way to ranching land, dotted here and there with trees. The exit sign says Groom. Thinking anything's possible, I wonder if the next town will be Bride.
After my trip is over and I have time to look things up, I will discover that the Groom cross is 19 stories tall, the second highest in the western hemisphere. The tallest--by eight feet--can be found in Effingham, Illinois.
I am travelling from Berkeley, California to Cincinnati, Ohio.
While I've been living in Dhaka, I had left my car with a friend. You can't leave a car parked on the road for long. The police will tow it away. She happily kept my car in her off-road parking space, even starting it up on occasion. But she was moving.
The new plan was to park it at a brother's driveway in Ohio. The simplest route would have been to drive east taking Interstate 80. But it was now March and snowstorms still stalked the continent. I chose a southern route. Though somewhat longer, it would allow me to see friends and family in Los Angeles, Oklahoma, and Texas.
It was a familiar road. I drove it just a year ago, in the other direction. Altogether there would be six days of driving, eight to nine hours each day. That I didn't mind -- I'm at ease on the open road.
Leaving Groom behind me, I nose into a rest stop. I stretch my legs and guzzle down some water. I call my brother in Oklahoma, letting him know I'll be arriving mid-afternoon.
The rest stop is clean. I'm thankful the states provide for travellers. Two days earlier when I had begun to doze at the wheel, a rest stop emerged at just the right moment. Closing my tired eyes for ten minutes, I was ready to go again.
The interstate highway system in the U.S. is a marvel of efficiency in moving people and goods. For the most part, the government keeps the roads in good shape, though in heavily travelled segments, bridges and supports are breaking down. The health of this network is threatened by budget priorities that ignore pressing needs at home in favour of a trillion-dollar war abroad.
The roadways are clean. Sometimes you come across prisoners in orange suits clearing debris, but increasingly the state is handing over portions of cleanup to private groups. "Adopt a highway," it's called. Near Concord, California I marvelled that one stretch of I-696 had been adopted by "Atheists and Freethinkers."
Private enterprise takes care of the three vital needs of road travel: Gas, Food, and Lodging. But there is another trinity that seems almost as crucial on America's roads. You could call it Faith, Sin, and the Weird.
There's plenty of displays of Faith. I had just passed a giant cross. I am about to overtake a truck with a rebuke on its back that God should not be called "the man upstairs." When I end my trip in Ohio, I will go past a giant Jesus with outstretched hands.
Sin however gives Faith tough competition. Yesterday I'd gassed up near a huge casino near Albuquerque. By the late 20th century, gambling had long left its isolated outposts such as Nevada. The Mississippi River is dotted with riverboats hosting casinos. When Native American communities realized they could use their limited autonomy to host casinos, gambling became a coast to coast business.
And where there's lonely travellers, sex for sale is bound to be ubiquitous. It's universal. The largest red-light district in Bangladesh is at Daulatdia Ghat, right next to the ferry crossing on the Padma. In the U.S., billboards with giant letters advertise Adult Superstores, purveyors of porn and sex toys. Now and then, you come across massage parlours -- the kind promising a happy ending. There's always old-fashioned pickups available at truck stops.
As for the Weird, I'm just about to see an example on my right. As I zip through Amarillo, I drive past a row of old Cadillacs with their noses buried in the ground, the cars on a slant. This one's meant to be Art, but there's other oddities that would be a stretch to consider in the same light. The boredom of a long flat highway between Kansas City and Denver is broken by sign after sign advertising a coming attraction: Prairie Dog Town. See the Live 5-legged cow! See the live rattlesnakes! Pet the baby pigs. In the confusion of all those signs, I hope no one gets mixed up and tries to pet the snakes instead of the pigs.
The Weird must have struck root along roadways when people realized that if they didn't have a natural tourist attraction in their locality, they could create one. I have just driven through states rich with attractions: the Grand Canyon and petrified forests in Arizona, a meteor crater in New Mexico. For the rest, there's concoction. In Louisiana a gas station entices people with the sign, "See the live tiger!" Perhaps when the tiger dies, they'll stuff it and bury it with its ass in the ground.
I understand Sin and the Weird. In most cases, they're related to that mighty engine called Commerce. Where you have highways carrying millions of people, enterprising people will always figure out how to con some dollars out of all those wallets. Faith is not immune from that imperative either.
Though I drove alongside the Pacific Ocean on the California coast and climbed snow-capped mountains in Arizona, the longest stretches of my trip have cut through desert.
The first time I visited the desert was in 1994. A friend living in Los Cruces in southern New Mexico invited me to visit. When she picked me up, she took me to a spot in the shadow of the Organ Mountains. We trudged through dirt, sand, and sagebrush to a patch of land. She hoped to build an adobe house there.
"So what do you think?" she asked.
We were in the glare of a burning hot afternoon, in terrain entirely new to me. I replied honestly. "I feel intimidated. Here in the shadow of those mountains and standing here like a speck in the middle of the vast desert, under that even vaster sky, I feel totally insignificant. I know that in the larger order of the cosmos I do not have any significance, but do I want the land around me to remind me of that? I'm missing greenery, and the sounds of nature. Near the ocean I also feel overwhelmed, but the ocean at least speaks to me. Here geography seems to be sitting in silent judgment of me and my life."
I've been to other deserts since, and I've opened my eyes and perked up my ears. It's no longer as intimidating. And I have changed my mind: it is not a bad idea for the universe to cut through our pride and remind us humans that we are dust in the cosmos.
It is in the open spaces of desert and mountain where I now most enjoy my road trips. Perhaps it is an antidote to the rest of my life. In crowded cities where I prefer to live, there's endless stimulation, but the thickness can sometimes be too much so. There's a part of me that periodically likes emptying my mind out. Just me on the road. With other people passing by, them in their own cages, me in mine. Around me, beyond the asphalt and gravel, just rock, sand, and scraggly vegetation. At the most, in the distance, trains passing by. And these days, a cell phone tower or two.
The colours too are different. The earth brown, reddish in places, shades of grey deepening into black. If there's life, it sports straw turning into a dull green, washed in dust. Too early in the spring I only catch small patches of yellow and purple wildflowers. Meanwhile there's the sky above, an expansive blue laced with a few wisps of white cloud.
"Don't you get bored," friends ask, "when you drive across these empty landscapes?"
I don't. If I crave another voice, I can reach for the cell phone. Most places I can connect. Then there's always the radio.
No matter where you are, you're bound to get two kinds of stations. Country music. And Christian broadcasters.
I check out Christian radio.
On one station, the voice, at first calm and composed, shifting over into heat, comments on the crisis in New York. The Governor had just resigned after it came out that he had been visiting a $1000-an-hour escort. When the Lieutenant-Governor took his place, he immediately confessed that he had extramarital affairs during a difficult time in his marriage. Where have we come to, the voice on the radio asks, when a public leader admits to infidelity and stays on in office? If he had any morality, he would resign. If the people had any morality, they would demand he resign.
When this leg of the road trip is complete, I settle in at my brother's living room in Norman, Oklahoma. As images from Bangladesh appear on NTV, I muse about parallels and universality.
Go out on the roadways of Bangladesh and what do you see? Catchwords adorn the backs, sides, and fronts of CNGs, trucks and buses, sometimes cars too, proclaiming Allah as all powerful. There are Koranic injunctions, orders to pray. In today's Bangladesh there seem to be more public displays of Faith than when we were the eastern wing of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Religion is more of a badge, sometimes verging on challenge.
I wonder about the impoverished sense of aesthetics among believers today. The Groom cross in Texas is described by one website as "an awesome sight." But it seems that its principal quality is not beauty but sheer size. There was a time when devotion did guide artists to create works of magnificence. Michelangelo. Raphael. Sometimes size can be part of beauty, but size alone?
If size is what they're after in Texas, numbers are what we go for in Bangladesh. Can we scrawl signs on more vehicles? Can we erect more mosques and madrasas? At one time Muslim devotees concerned themselves with the beauty of their calligraphy or grandeur of their architecture. I see little of that around Dhaka.
Beauty and taste aside, can we say we are more moral as a result of all these displays of religiosity? The owners who put religious slogans on their vehicles, do they show more respect for passengers, staff, or pedestrians? If they did, would we have as many horrendous road accidents? And in the U.S., despite the profusion of words invoking God, from the White House on down, can you say there's much evidence of morality when Iraq's been savaged to pieces and urban ghettoes are bogged down in despair?
With clamorous displays of religiosity devoid of taste or a sense of justice, it's not morality, not even devotion, but something else at work. On the surface it's pride. But could that simply mask deep-seated insecurity? Perhaps it is the fragility of existence in Bangladesh, or the uncertainties of an imperial power in decline in the U.S., that lead people to symbols.
There have been times when I have driven with companions. On this trip, I drive solo. But that's not strictly true. Crouched in my passenger seat is Celia. Sometimes she sits perched on the dashboard, but braking usually drops her back into the seat.
Before I set off on my move to California from Rhode Island eleven years ago, my workmates gifted me money for gas, a cooler with some snacks, rain proofing for my windshield. They also felt I needed a travelling companion. They handed me a stuffed chimpanzee.
Last year when a friend in California saw the chimpanzee again, she referred to her as 'he.' I corrected her, reminding her that many years earlier she had helped nickname her Celia. She said, "Oh, let me make sure no one's going to make that mistake again." Taking off her dangling earrings, she stuck them to Celia's ears.
Someone could say, isn't Celia too part of what you call the Weird on the road? There's no denying it. Travelling brings forth the offbeat. Though Celia is no talisman, she personifies love and friendship and their enduring place in my life.
(Mahmud Rahman's first book, a collection of short stories titled Killing the Water, is forthcoming from Penguin India)