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Next Great Travel Writer Contest Winner
We asked students all over North America to send us stories about a travel adventure that moved, excited, or changed them. Out of nearly 500 essays, National Geographic Traveler's editor-in-chief Keith Bellows selected the following entry by Suzanne Roberts as the grand prize winner. Roberts, a Ph.D. student at the University of Nevada, Reno, wins a trip on assignment to Mongolia with Bellows, courtesy of Travcoa, and an opportunity to write about the experience for the Traveler website.
Three Hours to Burn a Body
I have come to watch the bodies burn. I meet my guide, and he shoos away beggars and children selling shells that hold candles and marigolds—an offering for Mother Ganga. The murky river holds a thousand such lights, stars floating in dawn waters—real stars hidden by a tent of clouds. Every few minutes, the Untouchables travel barefoot down the stairs, carrying another gold-clad body on their shoulders. They chant, and the family follows their dead. I watch the Untouchables tend to the "eternal flame," watch the living in order to avoid the dead. My guide says, "This one almost finished," points to a pyre. I can almost make out a skull, a flame twisting from the ghost of an eye. "Three hours," he says, "to burn a body." My legs are hot from the flames. Ash rains onto my hair. "Good luck," he points to the ash, "Very good luck, indeed."
"Come," he says, and leads me into a cold concrete building where elderly wait to die. I meet a creased and toothless woman. She holds out her hand, and a wrinkled breast sags from her sari. She tucks it back in unapologetically. The guide explains, "She needs money for her pyre. Wood very expensive. Good karma for you." I offer her 500 rupees, a large sum by Indian standards. I want to protect my karma. The guide says, "Not enough. You must give more." I hand over 500 more and walk back to the shore where the boatman is waiting. From the river, I look toward the burning bodies. Children run above, along the rooftop of the concrete building where a woman waits to die. The fires below create hot wind that lifts their colorful kites and their laughter into flight.
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