The air is so thick that I feel like I am wearing it as I climb the 272 steps leading to the Batu Caves, a Hindu Temple just outside of Malaysia’s expanding metropolis, Kuala Lumpur.
The temple, which is the largest Hindu Temple outside of India is said to be an impressive one. To my right, standing an impressive one hundred forty feet tall, is a gold statue of the Hindu God Murugan. Mischievous macaque monkeys scurry up and down the steep staircase, eyeing the purses and travel bags of unsuspecting tourists.
At the top of the stairs just outside the massive cave, a swami (monastic Hindu) awaits. He is barefoot, dressed in an ochre robe. Even with his perfect posture, he barely comes up to the center of my chest. He has a soft gaze and pleasant smile despite a boa constrictor that wraps itself around his neck. He walks in my direction as I avoid eye contact.
In a calm, heavily accented voice, he reminds me that if I want to free myself from my fears, I must face them. I point out that my journey to Malaysia had little to do with facing fears. He tersely disagrees, then removes the snake from his neck and holds it in my direction as though it were as benign as a pink bow tie.
Somewhere on the steps below, a woman screams as a duo of monkeys steal something from her purse. From what I could recall, meditation was a cornerstone of Hinduism, which is about being calm. Here I am at their largest Hindu monument outside of India and monkeys are committing petty theft and assault and a ripe smelling, sparsely dressed yogi is peer-pressuring me into wearing a deadly snake like a scarf. All this, not to mention the fact that even getting to the entrance of this “tranquil place” required me to walk up 272 stairs in 100% humidity.
“Face your fears,” the little guy says to me again. While facing my fears, in a broader sense doesn’t really feel like what I want to be doing on my vacation to Southeast Asia, the guy’s request isn’t really that big of a deal. He’s dedicated his whole life to religion and all he wants is for me to put a snake around my neck for a second.
I’m in a highly populated tourist spot (though on a Monday, it is less so). He’s obviously not trying to kill me. It should be fine.
Yet I don’t want the thing around my neck. I want to go into the massive cavernous system and look at the temples built to the various gods and then go back to Kuala Lumpur where an evening on the town awaits.
In fact, he has made this entire day- trip a bit of a laugh. I had hoped, in the caves, for a moment of austerity and insight. Now I am forced to push past this guy and his pet, both of whom I am certain will be eyeing me the entire time I explore the caves, judging me.
“Well…,” he will say to the snake, as I attempt to not notice him, “that weak individual lacks the courage to face his fears,” he will say to his snake. And the entire time I will have to pretend that he isn’t there, which will be challenging because he is half naked and will be chatting to a snake around his neck.
“Don’t be afraid,” he says to me, bringing me back to the present. This time I am annoyed.
“I’m not,” I retort looking around. Now I feel claustrophobic. The snake he holds out is inches from my face. It’s tongue flicking. Its eyes like round dots of black ink just off its triangle shaped head, taunt me. In fact, the eyes of the thousand kaleidoscopic deities lining all the temples in the caves just beyond where I stand seem to watching me. “I’m not afraid of a snake. You want to hear about fear? Last night I ate a jellyfish! How’s that Yogi?
I think about turning to leave. Just as escape begins to feel like my only option, something else occurs to me.
In hindsight, how I would feel about him and his snake and if they prevented me from enjoying one of the most extra ordinary wonders of Malaysia. Even from where I stood, I could see that what was beyond would be epic. To miss it would mean that I traveled 8,000 miles only to miss out on something because of a snake.
That would be ridiculous. More specifically, that would be regret. Regret is something that I fear. Realizing this, I start to laugh at myself. The yogi sees the break in my veneer and without asking, he puts the snake around my neck and a dot of red ash on my forehead. The snake slithers around my neck. Its dry scaly skin tickles me and as it does.
I ask my tour guide John to take a picture and then ask the ochre-robed yogi to be in the picture with me. He laughs and says he doesn’t want to.
“Why not?” I ask him. “Are you afraid?”
With his soft gaze, he looks at me, and with the kind of certainty that comes only with years and years of prayer, devotion, and affirmation of life and self. “I don’t want to,” he says. I believe him.
He removes the snake and I head into the infamous Batu Caves.