Lost in the dim
streets of the
this wounded city in an
monologue as I follow
the signs to Tokyo Station and
descend into the
of the metro,
seeking life and anything bright
in this half-lit, humid midnight.
I find the train finally
to Shibuya, the Piccadilly
and Times Square of Japan,
and even there the lights
are dimmer and the neon
that does remain
is all the more garish by
I cross the street
near a sign that says
"Baby Dolls" in English
over a business that turns
out to be a pet
shop, of all things.
the Japanese, I sometimes feel I live
in reduced circumstances, forced to proceed with caution:
A poorly chosen
could so easily trigger the
sweeps away the containment
The next night at dinner, the sweltering room
suddenly rocks and
as the building sways and the
'Felt like a 4, maybe a 5,'
says one of my tablemates,
a friend from years ago
in the States.
'At least a five-and-a-half,'
says another, gesturing
at the still-moving shadows
on the wall. And I think
of other sweaty, dimly lit rooms,
bodies in slow, restrained motion, all
in a moment that falls
Then the swaying stops and we return
to our dinner. The shock, or aftershock,
isn't mentioned again,
though we do return, repeatedly, to the
and the tidal wave that
swept so much away.
En route to the monsoon
I go east to come west,
clouds gathering slowly
in the vicinity of my chest.
Next day in Shanghai, the sun's glare reflects
and the streets teem
with determined shoppers
wielding credit cards and iPhone cameras, clad
in T-shirts with English words and phrases.
beside a young woman on
the outdoor escalator whose
shirt, white on black,
reads, 'I am very, very happy.' I smile
and then notice, coming
down the other side,
exactly the same
in neon pink. So many
Yet the ATMs sometimes dispense
counterfeit 100 yuan notes and
elsewhere in the realm
police fire on
more than consumer goods,
while officials fret
about American credit
and the security of their investments, and
the government executes mayors for taking
bribes from real estate developers.
A drizzle greets me in Hong Kong,
a tablecloth of fog draped over the peaks
that turns into a rain shower.
I find my way to work after many twists and turns
through shopping malls and building lobbies and endless
turning halls of luxury retail.
At dinner I have a century egg and think
of Chinese mothers
urging their children,
'Eat! Eat your green, gooey treat.
On the street afterwards, a
near-naked girl grabs my arm,
pulls me toward a doorway marked by a 'Live Girls’
sign. 'No kidding,’ I think as I pull myself carefully
free, and cross the street.
On the flight to Bombay, I doze
under a sweaty airline blanket, and
dream that I am already there and the rains
have come in earnest as I sit with the presumably
semi-fictional Didier of Shantaram in the real but as-yet-unseen
Leopold's Café, drinking Kingfishers,
and he is telling me, confidentially,
exactly where to find what I’ve lost as I wake
with the screech and grip of wheels on runway.
Next day on the street outside the real Leopold's,
bullet holes preserved in the walls from the last terrorist attack,
I am trailed through the Colaba district
by a mother and children, 'Please sir, buy us milk, sir, buy us some rice,
I will show you the store.'
A man approaches, offering a drum,
another a large balloon (What would I do with that?)
A shoeshine guy offers
to shine my sneakers, then shares
the story of his arrival and struggle in Bombay.
And I buy
the milk and the rice and some
small cakes and in a second
the crowd of children swells
into the street
and I sense
the danger of the crazy traffic to the crowd
that I have created, and I
think, what do I do?
I flee, get into a taxi and head
to the Gateway of India, feeling
that I have failed a test.
My last night in Mumbai, the rains come, flooding
streets and drenching pavement dwellers and washing
the humid filth from the air. When it ends
after two hours, the air is cool and fresh
and I take a stroll at midnight
in the street outside my hotel and enter the slum
from which each morning I have watched
the residents emerge, perfectly coiffed. I buy
some trinkets at a tiny stand and talk briefly
with a boy who approaches, curious about a foreigner out for a walk.
A couple of days after that, in
the foothills of the Himalayas, monks' robes flutter
on a clothesline like scarlet prayer flags behind the
Dalai Lama's temple.
I trek to 11,000 feet along a
narrow rocky path through thick
stopping every 10 steps
testing each rock before placing my weight.
the surface is slick and I nearly fall,
themselves shift. I learn slowly, like some
newborn foal, or just another
clumsy city boy,
that in certain terrains the
can end with a slide
into the abyss.
At the peak there's a chai shop that sells drinks and cigarettes
of all things and I order a coffee and noodles for lunch.
While I eat,
perched on a rock in a silence that is both ex- and
the clouds in front of me slowly part to reveal
a glacier that takes up three-quarters of the sky, craggy and white and
beautiful. I snap a few shots,
before the cloud curtain closes
obscuring the mountain.
--Rob Urban: Tokyo, Shanghai, Mumbai, Delhi, Dharamshala