Friday, February 10, 2012

Stealing Leopards

“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.