The God That Smiles
“We’re lost in the jungle, it’s too dark to see, and the only people anywhere, for miles around, are machete-wielding opium dealers. You led us here, and now you’re asking me to trust you?”
The woman had a point, though I’d never admit it. Earlier that day, we endured three hours on a minibus through the winding roads of Southeast Asia. Our endpoint: a mountain village— neither of us caught its name.
The woman and I first heard of the village at the bus station where we purchased the ticket from a toothless old man whose language we understood not a word. Among enchanting waterfalls, hot springs, mountains and canyons, the village was to be an earthly paradise— so I gathered from the picture that the toothless man had pointed to.
The road to the village zigzagged like a cardiogram through 762 curves. Ever courteous, the woman waited for about the 700th curve before she sang into her barf bag in the sweaty, heated bus.
In the village, which was really just a street crowded with people, we entered the motorbike rental. Neither the woman nor I had the mechanics to ride, but the village offered no alternative for transportation.
“It’s okay,” I promised her, “I’ve ridden one before.”
Thankful just to be outside the minibus, the woman broke into a smile. “I trust you.”
The rental shop employee walked me to a row of motorbikes parked on the side of the street. He gestured toward the farthest bike.
“This one?” I asked.
The man nodded. He turned for the shop.
“Wait.” I ran and tugged his shirt. “Can you show me the controls?”
He looked at me, confused by my English.
“I thought you said you’d ridden one before,” the woman said.
“I have. I just need a refresher.” I looked to the employee and gestured toward the bike.
Through body language, he taught me to start, go, and stop.
“Let me get my bearings for a bit,” I told the woman.
I started the bike, spurted forward, and stopped. Then I hit the gas, wobbling in an effort to avoid pedestrians, nearly crashing into several makeshift food stands on the roadside. The woman looked on, head in hand, seeing now what she had failed to see since exiting the minibus, that a startling number of tourists were limping, donning hefty bandages on various appendages.
A young European couple, mummified in medical tape, caught the woman staring at their outerwear. “They call it the Village Tattoo,” they told the woman.
The woman turned to me. “I’m not getting on that bike with you.”
“Mindfulness,” I told her.
“Stop saying that,” she said.
“I’m just saying— those monks had a point.”
“You told me you knew how to ride it.”
Her look said everything she wished to say.
“I’m just rusty,” I said.
Glowering, she hopped on the back. “You don’t see any monks out riding motorbikes.”
With the woman on the back, I was invincible. I hit the gas and nearly toppled over several bandaged tourists. Handing a map to the woman, I told her to guide us to the only fueling station in the village.
The woman dug her claws into my sides. She threatened me with every mortal curse that she could think of as I motored with the balance of a drunk atop a tightrope.
“I’m getting off,” she screamed over the motor.
“I need you. We’re on empty.”
“You have no idea what you’re doing. Ride slower. They use the left side of the road here.”
Riding slow, avoiding a tilt or collision, we found the fueling station after three misguided turns.
An attendant filled the tank. Producing a map, I pointed to a picture of the waterfall, hoping the attendant could provide me with directions. The attendant only shrugged across our language barrier.
“You’re looking for the Mae Na Toeng?” a voice behind me said.
The woman stood aside a dark old villager, his fingers dancing all across her map. A Buddha on the front of his bike, a glorious Yosemite Sam mustache flowing like midnight wisps from his lip to his collarbone, the old man pulled his bike alongside mine. The woman hopped behind me on the bike as Yosemite Sam traced our path on the map. When it became clear that neither the woman nor I could follow a word Sam said, he breathed deeply.
“This way,” he said. He kickstarted the bike.
Away from the crowded village streets, away from the stoplights, I gained control of the bike. I could feel the woman’s nervousness, her clammy handprints soaking through my T-shirt. Riding slowly, at first, to meet the woman’s demands, I sped to keep Yosemite Sam within sight, while the woman hollered at me with her thousand-pointed tongue to keep me driving on the left side of the road.
We hit 80 mph when Sam slowed ahead. His snaggletooth grin shined beneath his heavy mustache, perched before a sign for Mae Na Toeng.
“That way,” said Sam.
We thanked him profusely. He twisted his mustache and rode.
“That’s the glory of travel,” I said to the woman.
“Yosemite Sam could’ve led us anywhere. We’re told we should be skeptical of everyone we meet. Yet here we are. Look what happens when we’re open to trust.”
The woman rolled her eyes and kissed my cheek.
We rode the mountain pass. I conquered the bike. Skillfully, I navigated through stray dogs and roosters.
Children played outside their family huts. They stopped their play to ogle as we passed them on the motorbike. The woman flashed a smile at the playing native children, loosening her grip on my sides.
“Left side,” she whispered in my ear.
Flecks of sunlight painted pink the sprawling clouds above. The waterfall splashed in the distance. We rode through mountain roads into the clouded sky.
“I love the smell of burning leaves,” the woman said. She nestled her head in my back.
We passed a group of mountain men. I rode the bike slowly, embracing the world and the woman, lest the motor ruin the beauty of the moment. Cross-legged in the tall grass, the mountain men motioned toward us with fingers parted at their blowing mouths.
The woman waved to the mountain men, smiling.
I recalled a smell from more experimental days. “Don’t wave to them,” I whispered.
“I feel bad. They expect us to have cigarettes.”
“They’re not looking for cigarettes, woman. They have machetes, and they want to sell us opium.”
Farther up the road, we parked the bike. The sky began to darken. We hiked to the lookout. The mountains rolled beneath the endless sky, untouched. The waterfall sang its ancient aria. We allowed the music to consume us.
“The mountains are the god’s eye, surveying all the creatures in the kingdom,” I said.
The woman looked at me.
“I don’t remember where I heard that line.”
She brushed my face.
We kissed, she and I, the only creatures in the kingdom.
“It’s getting dark,” the woman said.
I sensed the god that smiles. Here, before the mountains and the waterfall, before the splendid colors spread like butter in the sunset-toasted sky, before the holiest, most beautiful woman in the sands of all eternity, alone before our private view of paradise, her eyes like glitter, sparkling with universal love, the god that smiles beamed upon us and within us.
I held the woman’s hand. We lay in the grass, and we bathed in the great god’s smile.
With the woman on the back, I revved the motorbike.
“It’s too dark. I can’t read the map,” said the woman.
“There’s only one road. It’ll take us to the village by sundown.”
As we rode, I focused on the silhouette of Buddha, carved into the mountainous view. I envisioned the state of my soul in the ever-changing universe, as the monk in the temple had taught me days before. Mindfulness, I whispered to myself.
Opium smoke filled my nostrils.
Mindfulness, I repeated in silence.
“Keep left,” said the woman.
A creature darted through the mountain darkness.
I squeezed the brake, swerving, nearly rolling down the mountain. The woman dug her nails in my sides. I heard her crying.
“I’m scared,” she said. “Just please get us home.”
I convinced myself I heard the poppy farmers sharpen their machetes. Breathing hard, I tried to see my future in the path of my soul, to be mindful of my status in the universe.
“Nothing looks familiar,” the woman said.
“It’s too dark to tell.”
“I can see the signs,” she said.
“They’re not in English.”
The mountains’ black silhouette blended with sky. The motorbike’s roar filled the valley, a constant scream barking from the open jaws of hell. No god smiled upon us.
“You took a wrong turn,” said the woman.
“There was only one possible road. Why won’t you trust me?”
“We’re lost in the jungle, it’s too dark to see, and the only people anywhere, for miles around, are machete-wielding opium dealers. It’s your fault that we’re here, and now you’re asking me to trust you?”
“Mindfulness,” I told her.
“Stop acting like a Buddhist. You pretend to understand it,” she said.
Beware the god that smiles— he becomes the god that laughs. The enlightened know that earthly life is suffering.
I throttled the gas, flying forward into darkness. The woman clasped my ribcage, screaming in my ear to please slow. I slowed around a turn and killed the motor.
The woman gripped my face. She turned my head toward a light in the distance. Parking near the lighted shop, I opened my map on the shopkeeper’s table. I pointed. The shopkeeper shrugged.
“English?” I asked.
Insects and animal calls came alive in the air as I exited.
“We have to get the bike back to the shop before it closes.”
“Screw the bike,” the woman said. “We won’t survive out here tonight.”
With the woman on the back, we continued down the road. Blackness deepened. The world around us melded in the night. Continuing, we came upon an intersection.
A choice opposed us— right or left.
A girl beneath the age of ten approached us on a motorbike. Desperate, I stopped her. I pointed to the map. The girl shrugged, unsure, unable to help. I continued asking questions that she couldn’t understand, yearning only to communicate, lonely in the jungle with the woman’s fading trust. The child revved her motorbike. Turning left, she sped away.
“Maybe we should follow her,” I said.
The woman pointed to the right. “There’s another house,” she said.
I pulled to a stop at the second lit house.
“Stay with the bike,” said the woman. She entered the house.
Through the doorway, I could see the woman talking to a man. Belly as big as the world itself, earlobes heavy with the secrets of the world, the large man appeared to be laughing. He did not appear to stop laughing. The woman now seemed to be laughing as well, as though they shared something I couldn’t quite grasp. I killed the engine, hoping to eavesdrop.
The woman walked toward me, still laughing.
“What’s so funny?” I asked.
She wiped her mouth and kissed my cheek.
“Did he know where to go?”
“Keep riding this road,” said the woman. “We’re ten minutes out.”
Following her guidance, riding speedily in darkness, we rode until we saw the glowing streetlights of the village.
The village, which was really no more than a street, brightly bustled with a swarming night bazaar. Food stands and vendors populated the streets, the village air crackling with cooking oil. Drunken tourists limped from stand to stand, drinking bottles of beer in the street, eating gyoza and fresh-picked fruit, having traded in their motorbikes for heavy bandages.
“The bike was due an hour and a half ago,” I said. “The shop might’ve closed down by now.”
The woman hopped off the bike. I navigated slowly through the peopled road, struggling to balance on the bike. Several times, I nearly tipped, avoiding moving toes. The woman laughed. She laid her arm around me as I rode.
“The rental shop is closed?” she asked.
“I’m really not sure.”
“Let’s keep the bike tonight.” The woman kissed me on the head, and she laughed.