Sunday, June 29, 2008

How Peter Matthiessen Saved My Life

I went to a charity auction a few weeks ago and while there, my wife bid on and won a signed copy of Peter Matthiessen’s book The Snow Leopard. Erica knew that I really liked Peter Matthiessen, but I don't know if she was aware of just why I liked him so much.  Here is the story of why:

“Hey, Patricia. Do you think the Taj Mahal has a bathroom?” I asked dubiously.

I was traveling with my friend Patricia through India on our way to Nepal. We had a month off from our teaching jobs in Hodeidah, Yemen Arab Republic, and we were celebrating Ramadan by getting out of Yemen and going to a place that had two big things going for it. The first was easy and legal access to alcohol. The second was the Himalayas.

We had landed in what was then called Bombay and got on a train and headed to Agra. Along the way I bought and consumed food and drinks from street vendors, which was maybe not such a smart thing to do. Hence my sudden, dire need of a bathroom at the Taj Mahal.

I will spare you the details. The end result was a rapid loss of fifteen pounds, severe dehydration, auditory hallucinations, and a terribly weakened state of being. A doctor in Agra prescribed Limodal, which stops ALL intestinal activity for a set period of time. I took the medicine and then took the 24-hour train and bus trip to Kathmandu. We found a guest house, the medicine wore off, and I re-descended into dysentery hell.

Kathmandu was supposed to be a quick stop on our way to a trek up in the mountains, but I was in no shape to leave our room, let alone the city. I told Patricia that she should at least enjoy the mountains, so she did. While she was hiking in the Himalayas, I was slowly recuperating from a severe bout of amoebic dysentery. I got a map and found my way to the United States Embassy, where the doctor agreed to see me because I was a Peace Corps Volunteer.
While waiting for the results of a few tests I was told to feel free to hang out in the Peace Corps Library on the grounds of the Embassy complex. So I did. Its collection of books was impressive in both number and variety. And it turns out those books would be more important to me than I could have predicted.
Being a volunteer at the time, I didn’t really get a salary. The money I had saved for the trip was budgeted pretty tightly and that budget hinged on me spending most of my time in Nepal OUT of the capital and instead up in the mountains where a person could eat for pennies a day and sleep in a tent for free. Kathmandu was not an expensive city, but I was living close to the bone and I certainly had not budgeted for three weeks in a guesthouse.

After one week it became clear to me that my money was not going to last unless I took drastic measures. I went to the Peace Corps Office in town and some volunteers told me I could use their small apartment while they were away, free of charge. I moved to a diet of yogurt and fruit supplemented by an occasional grilled cheese sandwich with garlic. And still the money just got tighter. I had one week and $3.00 left. It did not look good for me.

I decided to take a long walk, see parts of Kathmandu I had not yet seen, and think about my situation. As I walked I noticed something that had been bubbling just below the surface of my awareness: Kathmandu is full of used bookstores. Travelers come to Kathmandu with books, read them, and then realize they do not want the extra weight in their backpacks as they head out on a trek at 10,000+ feet. So they sell them to used bookstores. Then, when their treks are done, they come back to the capital and they need a book or two while waiting for their planes, so they go to the used bookstores.
Each store had some version of this sign in its window:

I let the idea percolate in my brain for one hungry day and then I acted. It is not something I am proud of—(or maybe it is. Why else would I be writing about it twenty years later?) The details are not pretty. I emptied a backpack, walked to the Peace Corps library, made sure I was alone, scanned the shelves for books with multiple copies, and then started loading the backpack. I only took books if there were three or more copies—and this somehow made it okay to me. I noticed when I got to the “M” section of the non-fiction books that there were more than a dozen copies of a book called The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen. I had never read the book, but I sure was happy so many other people had.

I quickly looked around, grabbed nine copies, stuffed them in my bag, and walked straight to a used bookstore, where I got enough money to feed myself for a few more days. I held on to one of those copies of Matthiessen’s book and I read it in a park in central Kathmandu with the snow-topped peaks of the Himalayas looming in the distance over the top of a beautiful Buddhist temple. The book was incredible.

So, maybe it is an exaggeration to say that Peter Matthiessen saved my life, but he did give me food for several days when I otherwise would have gone hungry. And he came to represent for me my own ability to survive in any situation. I don’t often tell the story of stealing books in order to feed myself, but I do think about that time once in a while when I am facing a tough situation. I gained a lot of confidence in my ability to adapt to changes, to stay calm, and to do what needs to be done.

I need to find a good place to display that signed copy of The Snow Leopard.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Garden Patch

Our roof is falling apart, our basement floods with some regularity in heavy rains, and the paint is
flaking off the walls outside, revealing bare wood beneath. Most of the flat surfaces inside the house collect stuff each time any of us walks in the door.
So, one of the first things I do each day is go outside and look at the front garden patch. We have no yard at all, just a little patch of dirt in front of the porch, a few big planters, and some flower boxes. But somehow that little patch of dirt gives me so much pleasure. Basil thrives, tomatoes grow by the dozen, flowers bloom. Many days a certain older woman from down the block comes and just stares at all the plants with an angelic smile on her face. I think maybe she is what makes things grow so well out there.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Status of Forces Agreement With Iraq

Some Details

I didn’t like the way the guy down the road was treating his wife and kids. On top of that, he was mean to his neighbors. In fact, he was a pretty huge jerk. I had it on good authority that he was planning to actually poison his neighbor’s well. Rumor had it he had already killed the neighbor’s dog with tainted meat and he was looking for even deadlier compounds.
I organized a block meeting and I told all the neighbors that we needed to do something about the guy right away. Some of them joined me, but others argued we should slow down, talk to the guy to ask his intentions, maybe hire a private eye to poke around. Their ideas all seemed like half-measures to me—like appeasement, if you will.
So I gathered some friends and we went in there and we took the guy out. We took over his yard and then his house and we chased him down and tied him up. Then we searched his house. We also dug up his yard, but he must have known we were coming, because he had gotten rid of the chemicals and poisons. We couldn’t find them anywhere.
Well, once we got there his wife and kids proved to be a pretty ungrateful bunch. Instead of thanking us for tying up their abusive dad, they yelled at us for breaking all their furniture and digging up their yard. In all the fighting that first day, the fridge, microwave, t.v., and ground-floor toilet all got broken. And then the contractors hired to fix them did a half-assed job, if I do say so myself. Some of that stuff still doesn’t work.
So now here it is five years later and the guy is dead and his wife and kids are even more pissed because we still won’t give them their house back. But if we do, what is to stop them from trying to poison the neighbors again?
We have been negotiating lately—trying to work out a deal where we can leave the house to his family, but still make sure we get what we want. Only the family is not being cooperative at all.
Really all we are asking for is pretty small. We simply want the right to permanently occupy a few small rooms, to detain any family member we feel the need to detain, to have immunity from prosecution for anything we or our subcontractors might do “wrong”, and we want to retain control over the airspace above the property, just because.
That doesn’t sound unreasonable, does it?

Some more details

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Armpit Fungus

I once had an orange fungus of some sort growing on my armpit hair. Gross, I know, but true nonetheless. I had spent a week hitching around Yemen, riding in the backs of Hilux pickup trucks across the flat coastal desert plain called the Tihama. Sometimes my truckmates were bipeds, sometimes quadripeds, sometimes an assorted mixture. They were always mammalian and always quite aromatic, as was I. The temperature in the Tihama broke 115 fairly regularly and I had only the one set clothes on my back for the entire week.
On day eight of my jaunt I woke up on the living room floor of a smalltime sheik in a market town called Bait al Faqui. To this day I am not sure exactly what made me take off my shirt and look at my underarm. But I did. And I promptly did a full-on Hollywood double-take. If I had been drinking milk I would have spit it all over the room. There, lining each shaft of my armpit hair, was a fuzzy orange growth that was simultaneously alarming and really cool.

The unbearably hot and humid weather in New Haven this week made me remember that trip and that fungus. I guess it’s true—every cloud does indeed have a silver lining.