When the risk comes true

June 23, 2017 § 2 Comments

All traveling, be it an hour drive to a nearby state park or an overnight flight across the pond, requires taking risks, and traveling to a developing world country requires an especially long list of them. At the top: the risk that you may return home with a little bit of that country hidden away in your gut, in the form of a hungry parasite, perhaps, or an angry bacteria, or a mysterious and terrifying virus that conjures images of doctors wearing hazmat suits while tending to you in a sealed hospital bed.

Less than twenty-four hours after my flight home from South Asia, the symptoms began. Stomach cramping. Bloating. Grumbling. And — ahem, I know it’s gross — some of that pesky traveler’s diarrhea.

I didn’t think too much of it at first. After all, my stomach was adjusting to Western food after two months of rice, lentils, curry, and paneer. Plus, I’d been sick in India. This bout of unpleasantness was probably the lingering remnants of the illness I’d experienced on the banks of the Ganges, dirtiest and most holy of rivers. But a week later, I was still suffering, so I did what you’re supposed to do: I went to the doctor.

I was driving through the busy streets of Dallas when my doctor called. I’d been waiting for his call. I’d undergone a number of tests and was waiting for him to tell me the results. I wasn’t worried. After all, the symptoms were mild. When I’d met with him earlier that week, we’d amicably swapped stories about South Asia while he listened to my colon with his cold, silver stethoscope. The atmosphere was light. I wasn’t feeling great, but I wasn’t feeling terrible either. This upset stomach was just something to nip in the bud. I’d never been seriously ill before; I couldn’t be that sick now.

I pulled off the side of the road and answered my phone.

When my doctor told me the name of the mean bacteria swimming around my gut, it sounded like gibberish to me, like Greek, or Latin, which, of course, it was.

“It’s a serious thing,” he said seriously. I had never heard him sound so serious before. In the span of five minutes, he used the word death more than five times.

“Whatever you do, don’t take an antidiarrheal. It can lead to your death.”

“Whatever you do, don’t drink alcohol while on these antibiotics. It can lead to your death.”

“This bacteria is life threatening.”

“This bacteria is hard to kill.”

I was reminded of those TV commercials for the latest pharmaceutical drugs, where a mysterious man with a low, soothing voice speeds through a list of side effects while a beautiful woman and her equally beautiful golden retriever walk breezily along a sandy beach: side effects may include loss of sight, uncontrollable vomiting, temporary paralysis, oh, and DEATH.

I scribbled everything down on a yellow sticky pad. I asked him the few questions that came to my mind, knowing I would have a million more as soon as I hung up the phone. I hung up the phone and started to cry. I thought: surely I didn’t travel all the way to Mount Everest and back only to die in the suburbs of Dallas. How absurd. How horrifying. How totally unfair.

This is the way of the world: one moment, you’re healthy and carefree; the next, you’re not. Kurt Vonnegut comes to mind: so it goes. Joan Didion: life changes in the instant. The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying: all of life is a preparation for death.

“He said taking an anti-diahreal could lead to my death!” I later explained to my family and friends. “I have diarrhea! Don’t you think I’ve taken an antidiarrheal? Don’t you know I’ve already taken three antidiarrheals this week?!”

I talked about diarrhea a lot over the next month and a half. After a while, it seemed like a normal topic of conversation to me. Of course, every once in a while, a stranger would give me a sideways glance that said, “I don’t care if it could kill you. What makes you think you can talk to me about diarrhea?”

*

Earlier that week, I’d ordered E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India with the intention of learning more about the country I’d recently visited. But when I picked it up in the reserve section of the library and brought it home that day, I found I couldn’t look at it. I couldn’t even read the summary on the back of the jacket. Not that I held India responsible for the bacteria producing nasty toxins in my gut. In fact, I still loved India as much then as I did when I was jetting around the country on its fabulously exotic trains. I still planned to return someday. I knew who was responsible: the brutal nature of the natural world. I just didn’t want to be around anything that reminded me of what was happening on my insides.

I wanted to lie in bed all day and watch Woodie Allen films, which were the perfect mix of melancholy and humor. I wanted to take long walks around my neighborhood and soak up the sunshine. I wanted to observe every fat white magnolia blossom and run my hands through the faint mist of every front yard sprinkler. I didn’t want to look up my bacteria on webMD. I wanted to communicate the gravity of my situation to my family and friends, and at the same time, I wanted to remain lighthearted and optimistic. More than anything, I wanted the sharp cramps in my gut to go away. I ferociously, stubbornly wanted to be healthy again.

*

Now that I’m on the other side of sickness, in the tranquil forgetfulness of health, I wonder if I was being dramatic. It’s a question I can afford to ask now.

But when I woke in the morning to my stomach cramping, when, after the first round of antibiotics, my stomach was still cramping, when the fear that I would suffer from this bacteria chronically, for the rest of my life, ate away at my spirits as much as the toxins ate away at my gut, I didn’t feel dramatic. I felt reasonable when I asked for prayers for healing. I felt smart when I stepped down from various work commitments so I could focus on getting well. But now, in the glow of health, it seems odd that I ever thought I might not get better.

We forget ourselves so easily. I forget what it felt like to run up against that hard fact of life: that I am my body, and without my health, my body doesn’t exist and neither do I. It gives a whole new meaning to the concept of resurrection.

*

When I was sick, everything in my life became urgent. This is the silver lining to every illness: what matters to you becomes razor sharp.

Don’t get me wrong, all illness is bad, being sick is awful, death is not something we were ever meant for. That said: paradoxically, we receive something even in the worst of circumstances.

I don’t want to go to my grave without doing this! Or this! Or that!

I acted out of that urgency. I wrote an old friend to explain how I really felt, a feeling I’d been afraid to voice for years. I took a good hard look at my life right now and decided it would be good, no matter what. I sent spontaneous, thoughtful text messages to friends. I walked around my neighborhood and cried for how beautiful it looks in late spring. I took long hot showers. I bought myself a brand new yoga mat. I read what I wanted to read.

Some of this left me emotionally tired, but in the best way. I suppose it’s good that we don’t experience this kind of urgency all the time, that sometimes we’re complacent and forgetful about what matters.

The weight of constant awareness is exhausting.

*

Six weeks later, I got the call: I was bacteria free.

I knew it was coming. I had already felt the change in my body: no more cramps in the morning, no more — ahem — diarrhea at night, no more grumbling and bloating after I ate. When friends and family members and well-meaning acquaintances asked me how I was doing, I said, “I’ve never been better!” I always took my health for granted, I said, but health is the best thing we’ve got. You feel so alive after recovering from illness.

But the ghost of that angry bacteria remained with me. One afternoon, I felt a sharp pain in my side, and my mind flashed with fear: could it be back? Could some little microscopic bit have remained, multiplied, and colonized, heaven forbid? It hadn’t, thank God, and for at least that moment, I let go of the fear.

Western Tandoori

April 13, 2017 § 3 Comments

When I was a little girl, about eight or nine years old, my parents bought me the computer game Where In the World Is Carmen Sandiego? The game, seemingly rudimentary now, but enthralling to a child in the 90s, was educational, meant to teach rapt children like myself basic geography through the virtual hunt across the virtual globe for the notorious, glamorous criminal in the sweeping red hat.

Oddly, nine times out of ten, Carmen seemed to wind up in Kathmandu, a glitch in the game, perhaps, or maybe an intentional set up by the designers to teach young Western gamers the locations of seemingly exotic, distant countries like Nepal. Certainly Kathmandu seemed excessively foreign to me. Even the name, “Kathmandu”, sounded rather like “Timbuktu”, and I conflated the two far off cities in my mind, my only context for either the cliche phrase I’d heard on occasion, “That’s as far as Timbuktu!” Like many others (adults and children alike), I didn’t realize Timbuktu was a real place, and so Kathmandu was equally mysterious and inaccessible to me.

Apparently, interactive educational computer games are an ineffective method for teaching geography, because I remained ignorant of the location of Kathmandu, as well as the location of Nepal itself, until I was an adult. Neither the city nor the country crossed my mind much again. That is, until a friend from college invited me to join her in Nepal for six weeks, flying, of course, into Kathmandu.

My mind flickered back to the vague memories from my childhood of Carmen in her striking red coat, glossy wavy hair, and bright smirking lips, standing on the dirt streets of that remote city, and my wistful imagination began to stir. Was there anywhere more remote than Kathmandu? Anywhere more different than where I was then, living in the middle class suburbs of Dallas? I booked my flight in less than a week; a few months later, I was on my way to Kathmandu.

*

In the beginning, Kathmandu felt as exotic as I’d imagined it would.

My friend and I stayed for the first few nights at The Hotel Ganesh Himal, a quiet spot with a pleasant garden just a few minutes walk from the tourist district, Thamel. That first night, we went out into the cacophony of motorcycles, small white taxis, faded maroon and gold rickshaws, and torrents of masked pedestrians, in search of a cheap spot for dinner. We found one on the roof above the shops (and the dust and the smog), and ate our first meal of curried vegetables and plain white rice, raving about it beneath the soft flutter of prayer flags and the brilliant white stars.

In our excitement to see the city (and partake of its delectable foods), however, we’d failed to pay much attention to where we were going. When we left that rooftop restaurant, our bellies satiated and our hearts full of the satisfaction that comes from a good conversation with a good friend, we found ourselves utterly, horrifyingly lost. My friend, who’d been traveling across Southeast Asia for the last two months, had a bolder willingness to weave across the narrow streets, dodging motorcycles and taxis and rickshaws that have no ability to discern the difference between hitting a bump in the road and running over a pedestrian’s foot, so she took the lead. I was happy to let her.

But no amount of courage and experience was a match for the labyrinth of dusty alleyways and tangled power lines and neon lights that make up the confused streets of Thamel. We walked and walked and walked, down this street, then that, then back down the same street as before because we’d walked in a circle. Vendors rolled shut their metal doors, closing their friendly shops from us. Tourists in flowing elephant print pants and stiff hemp shirts faded into the intricate maze of rooms in the crumbling stone buildings above. Block by block, the lights of the city shut off, leaving us in complete darkness.

When a taxi rumbled past, its headlights shone like an eerie kaleidoscope through the thick dust onto the rickety wheels of a rickshaw cycling away. Nepali men hung about the street corners, smoking and muttering to one another in the dark. I felt disoriented, afraid. I felt like I was in a film noire, and possibly the pretty but silly girl in the opening scene of suspense who doesn’t make it past five minutes.

We flagged a taxi, but the driver didn’t know The Hotel Ganesh Himal. We stopped a skinny rickshaw driver who pointed in the direction we’d come from and said the hotel was that way. We found a faded brown sign that actually said Hotel Ganesh Himal, but the arrow underneath it could have been pointing down three different side streets, and we didn’t find our hotel on any.

In a final state of fear, me thinking we’d have to curl up on the dirty doorstep of a shop with the mangy stray dogs for company, we stopped a last rickshaw driver on his way home. Yes, he knew the hotel. Yes, he would take us, for 200 rupees. I would have given him a thousand just to get us off the street, but my friend’s cool head prevailed. It’s so close, she said. How about 100?

It was close; less than two minutes later, he dropped us off in front of the small blue statue of the Hindu god Ganesh, a pudgy elephant with a decorous crown, and we tumbled inside the safe, softly lit lobby. I laughed because it was better than crying. Where are we, I asked my friend?

We were pretty much exactly on the other side of the world.

*

In my mind, the other side of the world ought to be unusual, uncomfortable, perhaps a bit bizarre, and at first, Kathmandu lived up to those expectations.

My friend and I walked around Thamel, where young Nepali men called out from the front of their stores, which overflowed onto the dusty streets with gold singing bowls, turquoise teapots from Tibet, plastic wrapped packets of prayer flags, and lots and lots of hippie pants. “Hello, sister!” “How are you?” “Where are you from?” Catch the eye of one of these vendors and next you would hear, “You like? More colors inside.” Or, “Welcome, madam,” along with a gesture into the musty shop. Or perhaps a simple, courteous, “yes, please,” as if buying that 100 percent yak wool scarf would be a favor, not a transaction.

Meanwhile, the chants of Tibetan Buddhists streamed through speakers at a nearby music shop, incense stuck between crumbling bricks burnt steadily and sweetly, triangular tinfoil streamers strung across the streets rattled and sparkled in the hot sun, and tangled power lines spilled like masses of writhing black snakes off wooden poles into our faces. It didn’t take long before we came upon yak butter candles burning beside women selling bright yellow marigold flowers on plastic tarps and white Buddhist stupas painted with the sleepy blue eyes of the Buddha himself. Thamel was ancient wooden lattices and tin vats of steaming slippery momos and barefoot children crying, “Namaste! Chocolate?”

In other words, it was living up to its exotic reputation.

And perhaps Kathmandu would have retained this exotic veneer if we hadn’t then moved into the Alobar1000 Hostel on the other side of Thamel.

This hostel, one of the most popular in the city, was a four story maze of dorm rooms with hard bunk beds, balconies laden with crumbling terra cotta pots, and a breezy open rooftop where young Western travelers laid about on lumpy cushions smoking, drinking Everest beers, and eating fried momos. Most of these travelers were in their twenties, and almost all were on monthlong trips across Asia. Most had a number of fabulously intricate tattoos, quite a few purchased right there in Thamel. Most wore flowing hippie pants, long beaded skirts, or floral scarfs they’d also bought in Thamel. Almost all were either coming from or heading to one of the treks in the Himalayas, attending a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat, or volunteering at an orphanage, organic farm, or village struck by the 2015 earthquake.

Staying at Alobar1000 popped Kathmandu’s bubble of exoticism in my mind. All of a sudden, Kathmandu, and Thamel especially, was easy to navigate with these experienced Western travelers by my side, and traveling the world wasn’t a wild, spontaneous, slightly dangerous adventure; it was natural, expected. Unlike well-to-do Americans, who go straight from high school to college to the workforce, these trendy Europeans and Aussies and Indians took gap years or monthslong vacations or simply hit the road vagabonding it until their spare cash ran out. I would be in Nepal for six weeks. When I told this to a young Westerner over plastic baskets of naan and spicy curry served in greasy metal bowls, he said, “that’s nothing.” I worried that a small scrape on my ankle might lead to tetanus; these travelers spent a few thousand rupees on sacred geometry tattoos in gritty Nepali tattoo parlors. For them, Kathmandu wasn’t the craziest place to go; crazier still was Dehli during Holi Festival or the Thai Islands any time of the year or Istanbul despite the terrorism

And through their eyes Kathmandu began to look familiar. Western style restaurants, like OR2K, where you could order Mediterranean food served by hipster Nepalis underneath trendy neon lights, were recommended as the best spots to eat. Spending the evening drinking rum and coke at a hazy bar where an 80s soft rock band played was an evening well spent. Drinking to-go Americanos bought from the clean and bright Himalayan Java might have felt like drinking a taste of the real Nepal — except the shop was secretly owned by Starbucks.

Seeing Kathmandu through the eyes of these free spirited millennials, the remarkable suddenly became commonplace, and Kathmandu felt little different than a Westerner’s playground.

*

Oddly, I began to feel as if I connected more with the Nepalis I met on the streets of Kathmandu than the Westerners in this hip hostel.

I was wary of what appeared to be their somewhat empty approach to travel: the sense that each city, each country, each trip was another check mark off a list of cool places to go, an adventurous story to collect, perhaps, but nothing more.

Don’t get me wrong, the urge to travel took root in me as well, and soon I too was dreaming of visiting ever far off lands — Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Bali. In fact, I wondered if my dislike for this approach to travel was because it was awfully close to my own. Traveling is addictive, and my list of places to visit began to grow. But this list also felt frivolous, and a little sad. Missing was a sense of commitment to other people, to a physical place, to a mission unique to one’s own.

The Nepali people, on the other hand, though culturally quite different from myself and my compatriots, made more sense to me. While I didn’t know (and likely never will) what it’s like to sell bananas and pomegranates and apples from a large basket on the back of a bicycle, I understood the motive and intention of the Nepali vendors who called out to me, “Fresh fruit. Bananas. Apples. Fruit juice.” The vendors may have slyly snookered me into buying twice as many bananas as I wanted, but I understood and respected their goal: this was business plain and fair, and the result was money in the pocket and another hard day’s work done. I found myself having more respect for these hard-working Nepalis than myself or any of the beautiful, free and easy Westerners I met on the road.

*

And yet, just when I thought I was connecting with the Nepali people, I walked past a child on the street, a little girl maybe three or four, dirty and begging on a tattered purple blanket; I saw whole families washing their hair from a hose sticking out of the ground; I saw an elderly woman, her back as crooked as a hanger’s hook, ringing a bell beside a shrine to Ganesh. And I remembered: this culture, and by extension, these people, are foreign to me. As my friend aptly put it, we don’t want to be tourists when we travel, we want to be connected to the Nepali people, to live like they live, but at the end of the day, we will always be Westerners, we will always be tourists. We might as well embrace it.

So embrace it I did. I bought two pairs of hippie pants, one blue with white elephants, another pin-striped. I swapped trekking stories with a traveler from Germany over black tea and yogurt while sitting cross legged on the hostel floor. I frequented the hostel’s popular watering hole: Western Tandoori, where Nepalis churn out dirt cheap roti and Chana masala so spicy it will make your nose run. I opened myself up to the gentle vulnerability of the roommates in my 12 bed hostel dorm, and found myself warmed inside and out by their compassion toward others and their zeal for life.

And late at night, though the hostel played Justin Timberlake and Eminem like a proper Western radio, I could also hear the mad dogs barking and smell the sweet incense burning on the street, and I remembered that I was here in a city so far away from my familiar world that the notorious criminal Carmen always went to hide.

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