Perhaps it’s the time of day that lend the ruins hidden deep in this jungle a sense of transcendence. It might be the stillness of the jungle or the distant humming of insects. It’s so quiet, I can practically hear the vegetation growing around me. I lay my hands on a towering gentle giant. These sentient beings are everywhere, breaking over stone and crushing a lost world in their roots. My heart is seeking a different rhythm as it gallops, races and finally slows to find pace with the ancient heartbeat of this lush living forest of banyans. These trees are speaking to me in whispers. I can hear their sighs in the wind through their leaves. A chill grips me just as sunlight breaks through the high jungle canopy to kiss the stone ruins. What is this place?
As the jungle stirs itself awake, the buzzing of the insect world erupts. The cicadas are calling loudly to each other. Armies of ants swarm as branches begin to sway and creep in the early dawn light. I feel the jungle pulling me into its past and I quietly break away from my travel companions. The desire to be alone is overwhelming. I wander aimlessly peering into dark doorways and running my fingers over ancient exotic carvings.
I stop to watch a dog that appears in a windowsill. He sits for awhile and then disappears as quickly as he arrives. I’m bitten by a sudden urge to follow it and scramble madly over a set of crumbling steps into the black recesses of cold stone. I take no heed of the wooden barricades warning visitors to keep out. I fumble for my flashlight and switch it on with relief. Its narrow beam of light illuminates a small patch of stone up ahead and I walk towards it, emerging through an overgrown doorway into an sun-dappled courtyard. Giant trees encircle the walls of the courtyard. Thick roots dangle over gaping open eyes that were once doorways. I am suddenly reminded of the Ents, the tree people of Tolkien lore. Part of me believes these trees will stand up and slowly shed their binding roots and start talking at any moment.
I throw my pack down in the shade of an old banyan tree and whip my journal out. I begin sketching the prop and aerial roots. My eyes trace the trunk flowing upwards to a great height. Branches become roots which become more branches. At the base of the tree prop roots run and furrow out creating fissures in the stone. I scan the length of these roots as they run ragged over a temple, all but obliterating the ornate carvings on the walls. That’s when I see him.
He is standing in the shadow of a doorway, his young face partially hidden behind a giant hanging tree root. When he knows he’s been seen he steps into the daylight, like a ghost visiting from the past. He smiles and raises his hand peacefully. He knows he has frightened me.
He takes another step forward, arm extended, palm outstretched, fingers beckoning. With the other, he places a hand briefly over his mouth. He points to his ears and shakes his head. I realize he is deaf-mute and wonder if he lives here in the jungle. He is young, maybe thirteen. His clothes are well-worn, but he is clean and neatly dressed. I like his smile.
I decide to follow the young man and step in place behind him. He walks quietly. I pay close attention when he lifts a finger to point out interesting carvings and hidden faces. I breathe excitedly, knowing full well I might have glided by these treasures in my ignorance. I can’t help but laugh as he ducks through a doorway and pulls me through to look at a tree that looks like two legs and a skinny behind.
We continue on our way moving easily down an ancient path and then just as suddenly we’re off it, picking delicately through broken stone to squat carefully in front of a tree limb. The roots are maniacal in their growth, growing haphazardly up, down, over, around and through stone. I lean in for a closer look and there she is. Her face slowly emerges from a stone edifice half-hidden behind some roots. They part like a lover’s embrace, releasing her into my line of vision. She is beautiful. Serene. An all-knowing smile. Ah the mystery. Every other face and figure has been removed, raided or eroded with time. The only thing preserving this ancient carving are the roots protecting her. How long has she been here?
I am suddenly acutely aware of the time. I don’t know how long I’ve been wandering through this lost city, but it’s time to go. I gesture to the boy to go back. We’ve been gone for over an hour. He moves with the assurance of one born to this place and within minutes, we are back at the main entrance. I slip my hand in my pocket and pull out a wad of cash. I take his hand without looking at it and press the bills deep into his palm. He smiles in delight as I nod in thanks. He takes a step back and disappears around a banyan tree, fading back into this place of spirit and matter and I’m left alone again to enjoy the quiet stillness of this magical place, this world between worlds.