Friday, March 26, 2010

Last Man on Earth

When you can’t breathe reliably, and you’re weepy from missing your children, and you’re on top of the world all alone without a person to share it with, what do you do? Well, you try to enjoy the little things. Yesterday I climbed to 12,000 feet overlooking the Zanskar Mountains across the Indus River to wander Tsemo Gompa’s abandoned Maitreya Temple, Leh Palace, advertised as a miniature Potella Palace, and the Sankar Gompa high up in the Himalayas. I danced Bollywood Style to Indian cellphone music with high schoolers in maroon uniforms. I ate thin bread slices cooked in a stone oven on the street and dined on steaming tomato soup and spicy veggie curry that would curl your toes.
The landscape here is amazing in its beauty and daunting in scope. It is impossible to accurately gauge how far distance is in this wide open barren country. It was described to me as the surface of the moon and now I see why. Huge desolate craters. Sweeping valleys of rock and dust. Vast stretches of no-man’s land. All in depressing shades of mud and dead earth. I am assured this is the late winter, but by spring the farms come alive with green. The trees bloom in berries and flowers, and the Indus river flows blue along sunny lush banks, but it is hard to imagine while looking down on this city. Rather, it only underscores my personal solitude, as if I have somehow crashed landed here on the deserted isle of the moon’s surface. I am a moon man, with nothing to forest or scavenge save only to wander from place to place alone.

But since I’ve got no one to curl up with and listen to their secrets, their feelings as we walk through this emotional place together. Instead I shall tell you mine. Yesterday I whittled a tree stick into an spear and tossed it into the barren nothingness of the hillside overlooking the snowy Himalayas. I haggled the price of Tibetan prayer beads in the bazaar and pet a three legged dog covered in grime. At the hotel, I ordered desert and it came and after just one spoon of the rich, coconut yellow pudding I asked the man, “What is this delicious taste? Is it a local delicacy?”
“Oh yes, sir.” he marveled. “We call it, ‘waniay cuss liard.”
“Repeat, please.”
“Oh yes, sir.” He took my pen and scribbled out: Vanilla Custard.
And since this tree was struck by lightning in the forest for no one around but me to hear, and I know it was real because I did hear it, I share it with you.
I brought one novel to read while traveling, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, about a father and son who wander the black ashen post-apocalyptic world in search of food and survival because, “They keep the fire inside.” It is the fourth book by McCarthy I have read and they are all so deep and touching to me. He writes about men on the edge of the world who do not falter in the face of terrible odds, who prove their love for woman or children in ways that seems almost impossible in real life. And this book is no different. At one point, starving in sickness and filth, the man weeps at the thought of having to kill himself after his son passes away from starvation in the night because the man, “will not allow the boy to walk into the darkness alone.” It is the culmination of all the poverty and disease and depth of despair I witnessed in Delhi and like the character in the book I just sit on my knees and weep. The book is full of these moments where the father shows the boy to enjoy simple things. They find a coca-cola or a tin of peaches, and just lick up the juice in ecstasy because they are the last two people on the planet and they are together. It's emotional. I feel I'm running on emotions too.
Last night in Leh they cut the village generators at midnight and I awoke from an incredibly intense dream of running toward this man I barely know who was hurting this woman I know very well, and in the darkness of the room, wrapped in all my clothes, two pairs of pants tucked into two pairs of socks, seven shirts, scarf, mittens, jacket, hat, I lay shivering in an asthma attack. Nothing to do but try to breathe. Just calm down and catch my breath. I use my cell phone to find my flashlight which leads me to light a candle I’d seen earlier in the drawer with a box of wooden matches. Pitch black in the room except for the candle.
I take out my inhaler and hold it for almost an hour just trying to breathe. One breath. Two breath. I am nervous of a lethal cocktail mix of albuterol and thin mountain air in the same way I’m reluctant taking my inhaler on airplanes, but I have no choice. I start to panic. Really panic. I am in this village so far away and there is no doctor, no emergency room, nothing. Will I be able to make it until morning and catch a flight back to Delhi? Will I need to see a doctor? All these thoughts alone in the darkness of that room.
I take an inhaler puff. Nothing. I try to lay down but that only hurts. I sit in the chair by the window but nothing helps. I wrap myself in quilts and walk outside, sit on the rooftop patio under the moon and count breaths for two hours. I can’t sleep. I can’t breathe on my own. It just won’t come. I’m afraid of cardiac arrest. There is nothing to do but pray. Nothing but prayer. I’ve made deals with God before, we all have. I whisper to him, if you save me this one time, if you just get me out of this jam, I promise to… I mean, I will really turn over a new…. God is no stranger to these human cries, the whimpers and pleadings of the last people on earth.
At four a.m. I stagger back inside my room dragging the quilts behind me. I can’t feel my fingers or toes it is so cold. I lay down in the bed and close my eyes. God is here. I believe that I am not alone. I awake at 7 a.m. with a terrible headache, but I am alive. I have made it and I am alive, but don’t ask me to tell you what God made me promise to do, I will take it to my grave.

1 comment:

  1. I wish you are all good in the rest of your traveling. take care!