06 August, 2003

I have found the heart of the world. This statement is at least as much true is it is untrue.

I am in Ladakh, in the northwest corner of India. There is so much to say about it already and I have seen nothing. It is the high Tibetan desert. I am already thinking of ways that I could spend a year or a winter here. I have wanted to spend a winter in the desert. I thought this meant Utah. Perhaps I was mistaken.

(For those who thought I was homesick due to the patriotism of my last email, you were mistaken. Though, it is always the writer’s fault. Come now, when have I even worn a flag or praised our American policies? Eastern culuture has so much more color than our own. I live in the militia capital, the free state. I would have fought on the Native American’s side. The email was meant to remind myself of what we do have, the blessings and benefits of our extravagance, for better for worse, to keep from forgetting that, culturally, there is something to come home to. This is quite the opposite of craving the “American Way.” Oops, I don’t know why I felt the need to defend myself here.
I am not proud to be an American, though I am incredibly fortunate to be an American, so I am thankful.)

Ladakh is thought of as “little Tibet.” To the east it borders Tibet, and it has Pakistan to its west. It is in the region of India called Jammu and Kashmir. This is the rooftop of the world. The Tibetan Plateau is the highest in the world stretch of land in the world. It runs into Ladakh where the two highest motorible mountain passes in the world are, both over 5000 meters; I think 17000 ft.and over 18000 ft. Two days ago I rode a bus 3000 ft. over the top of Mt. Rainer. And that was only the second highest pass.

To the north in the Kashmir region is, in my mind, one of the most majestic mountain range of all - the Karakoram. Remote, inaccessible, but with mountains like dreams, mountains that the gods would look on with awe and trepidation: Ama Dablam, Trango Tower, Shipton Spires (Am I mistaken here? Where is Shipton Shire?), K2. The Trango Towers and the Rupal Face of Ama Dablam are the quintessence of what a mountain should be. They look like great mineral teeth knowing through earth, daggers uncovered by time.

But that is not Ladakh, close. It is this same region. It is a month’s trek just to get to the base camp of K2 from the nearest access. This is a remote rugged place. From Delhi it is a three and a half day bus ride to Leh, the capital of Ladakh. It was the toughest ride I have ever done. The passes were stratospheric, the dust, the sun, the heat. I don’t know how bad it really was because I was ill, very ill. This is a story about illness.

* * * * * * * * *
"To the Dark Tower Came"
- Browning

I left Kathmandu after my classes finished. It was a warm and sad farewell. They gave me such blessings. I was so overwhelmed by the ceremonial nature of the Tibetan goodbyes - far better and less awkward than our own. This is a digression. I left on Saturday. I bused sixteen hours of beautiful rice patties south through moist air into India, India for the first time. Sunday I caught an eighteen hour train to Delhi. I could opend the car door and sit, swing, and hand outside the train, watching all the world wiz by and change. Going over great rivers was such a thrill. At night, I huddled my bags together as I slept. I arrived on Monday morning. I arrived with all of my possessions and hadn't been drugged, not that I could remember. This is supposedly an accomplishment on Indian night trains - not getting drugged or robbed. I got a hotel that morning and slept for four hours. All this while I ate and slept only sparsely. Eating while busing and such is difficult. You just do it. Dahl Vat.

But it got me - but not yet, or maybe just a little. So I wake up in Delhi in the afternoon and walk around. The most amazing traffic in the world! (Maybe...) I learn the bus to Manali is in the evening - only night buses go to Manali. I didn’t want to spend the whole next day in Delhi so I ran to the bank, an hour in traffic, back to the hotel, and then to the bus. I will not go into my difficulties with the bus people. Straight answers never come in this part of the world. So that evening a couple of hours later than expected, from a different spot than expected I did finally depart for Manali.

This turned out to be a painful leg. I ate something, I don’t know what or where, but my stomach turned to glass shards and granite. It would have been, and was, a great drive. The conductor was a madman. He took that bus into ever corner like Davie Allison. I didn’t know you drive a bus like that. Stomach pains on a night bus trip is no good.I make it through. By the morning I was feeling better.

Its Tuesday; I’m in Manali, touted as the “hippie hangout.” I don’t see any hippies, but I see why they would like it. It is relaxed and cool, beautiful. I let a guy fetch me right off the bus; I was tired. His place turned out to be great, by far the nicest place I’ve stayed in Asia. It was high above town, great air, spacious clean room, room service. I thought I could sit and read and write for the next two weeks without ever going to Ladakh.

[I should note that it was fun to see all the woods lined with thick patches of marijuana. All along the roads, on and on. They like hashish]

Yes, sit and relax, what a good idea. I felt great. It is recommended to spend two days in Manali when going to Leh because of the vast altitude gain. Oh... but I had a plan. I had only about two weeks to play. I wanted to go for a short trek. Or, as I would realize the next day, I really, really wanted to climb a mountain. There is no monsoon, no rain. It is fine climbing season. In Ladakh there are nothing but high climbable mountains, all in the six thousand meter range. I’ve never climbed a mountain near that. (I’ve never been to the Himalaya!) Of course, I didn’t bring any gear. I do some incredible foolish things sometime. I am slow to make plans. So Tuesday I spend in Manali.

I get my boots waxed finally. I eat a sweet and sour chicken - way too expensive. But the soft ice cream on the way home was the best. That night I had the most intense visions. I felt new and rejuvenated from the trans-Indian journey. But would I stay in Manali? No, of course not. I'm impatient sometimes.

The bus for Leh would leave at seven the next morning, Wednesday. I awoke at five. I was ready to be there. I don’t like sitting around when I have somewhere to be. I love sitting around, but only in its right time. So the bus left by ten and it’s a two day drive into Ladakh.

I had some great guys with me on this trip. We were all joyful and friendly to meet each other. I sat next to a thirty year old raft guide that had been married since he was fifteen. Behind me was Sankar, with a group of friends from Calcutta. Sankar was thirty-five, unmarried and still living at home with his father. He said he didn’t want to marry yet, but would be married within the year. His father and brother were arranging it. He said he finally gave in to the family pressure.

The bus ride went straight up. How we could not be above six thousand meters I couldn’t fathom, but we were only starting. Slowly the lush valley fell away to dry rock, sand, and dust. The landscape went green to tan-brown limestone, loess and gravels, still and stone quiet.

Great trucks would wiz by. Road workers would sit under boulders playing cards. There were sheppards up here, but what did the sheep eat? Farmers grow potatoes up here. Was this Ladakh?

It was majestic. The peaks were mighty, dripping glaciers in torrents down into the great rivers. This wasn’t Ladakh. But I was already thinking this might be the greatest bus journey of my life. Truly epic.

Ladakh has the reputation for changing people. I have been reading a book “A Journey in Ladakh,” a pretty well written book by a writer who had his spiritual awakening here. The account he gives of the people and the fading culture is eloquent and moving. This is the last, or one of the last pure vestiges of Tibetan Buddhist culture left. And it is fading, has faded since ’81 when the book was written.

The first day was short but geographically stunning. So dry, high, desolate, empty - like the nature of Buddhism itself stripped down and bare. We stayed in a high village for the night before the first “great’ pass the next day. Before the sun set, I thought it would be a waste of an opportunity if I didn’t jaunt up the mountain behind me a get a view of the sunset, and the valley, and the patties, gompas, and villages beyond.

There was a trail up to a Gompa that I took. I was surprised at how fast my breath was taken away. I was at about 6500 ft. I hadn’t been that high in a long time. Also I had been sedentary for the last two monthes. I done only a little yoga everyday. What could I really expect? A lot... I always expect a lot. The view was incredible, though. The breeze picked up and the sun dropped in the gap between two crests and melted into the shadowed glacier falling from the saddle.

I found Sorbeer, my seatmate, in the little restaurant beneath our room. (We split a room. $.75 each. The nastiest room I’ve seen. Well, maybe.) I ordered a plate of what he was having. I deferred on a bottle of the local vodka, but he poured me half a glass anyway, the bastard. So I drank the vodka. I don’t like vodka, but for that it was not bad. It tasted like schnops. We talked late about climbing and boating. He could get so happy about the water. We found the same love in the world. I took my mattress to the roof and fell asleep watching the big dipper spin around the north star. We had to be up at three o’clock in the morning, Thursday, for the last leg, the long leg.

I slept lightly, people and things were always stirring about me. I saw no shooting stars, only what I could guess was a most giant bat. I could see him clearly flying over and over. There was no moon, no light.

I don’t think our wakeup call ever came. I was awake anyway. I haven’t had an alarm for the last few months and I have gotten used to waking up. But I felt awful. I thought it must be the vodka. I hate vodka. I haven’t drank in so long I must be real sensitive, and at this altitude, and only taking one day in Manali. I thought this might be a rough morning.

The bus pulled away at about four. The road was so rough, pot holes and sharp fast turns. I couldn’t have slept if I wasn’t feeling sick. I hummed and tried to put myself in a sort of trance. It worked on and off. But the sun came up and burnt down on my head. The dust came in and crusted my nose, lips, and throat. My legs became mysteriously sore, and my knees ached immutably. And, of course, my head throbbed like a heart.

Time slowly, slowly passed and it slowly dawned that this wasn’t a vodka induced problem. I must have altitude sickness, I thought. This seemed logical. In fact, I had never been this high in my life. We were over sixteen thousand feet. And I felt like a veritable hell-storm was raging in my body. So I must be altitude sick. There was nothing to be done. I wasn't climbing; I couldn't turn around. So I hummed my gibberish mantras, closed my eyes, covered my head and thought of nothing. I sang ever song I knew, all three, repeatedly.

We were continually stopping at check points and I, only me, would have to get out to show my passport. I was the only foreigner on the bus. I have a pension for local buses. I was getting so weak. Getting up and walking was a real strain. If we stopped for a break, even with my now agonizing knees and quads, I would stay on the bus in my comatose meditation.

This was a rough day. Sixteen hours. We had a flat tire, though it would have been amazing if we hadn’t. We entered Ladakh at last, but I really didn’t notice. In moments of clarity I would gaze up in awe at the rough-edged, chipped-raw mountains. I’d never seen any like them. I would have liked to have thought about climbing them. But I really hadn’t the imagination. At eight we came into Leh. There were trees and green things. Leh is in the Indus Valley at an elevation of about 12000 ft. This scared me a little. I was at the bottom. Altitude sickness can turn into a much more dangerous, indeed deadly condition called cerebral edema. In this condition, the first and essential step is to go to a low, oxygen-rich elevation. There was no such elevation here. Could this really happen from a bus ride? I thought there needed to be some physical exertion involved. I'm a climber, its embarrasing to get altitude problems on a bus.

I walked off the bus, grabbed my pack, I saw a hotel across the road, and I walked to it and weakly asked how much a room was. I chuckled at my question - why ask? I would pay a thousand rupees for a hay pile in the lobby. I wrote my name and some visa numbers, struggled up the stairs and into a cockroach infested room.

This is where it gets interesting and somewhat more hazy. I layed there for some eighteen hours in a state of meditative delirium. I didn’t sweat; I didn’t eat. I sipped water. I couldn’t sleep. I could feel my own fever. I couldn't feel time passing. I could struggle to sit up, but only for half a moment. If I bent down I would get dizzy.

[Look, I am sorry to scare anyone. But this was serious illness. I can’t leave out the details. They make it all much more interesting. And I don't really know how bad it really was. No one speaks good english. If I tell you my good stories I must also share the bad.]

As Friday afternoon was passing I started to accept that I wasn’t getting better, in fact, worse. Altitude sickness usually abates or lessens within a couple of days. Or this is what I thought I knew. I certainly had never heard of anything like this.

I was weakening, mentally weakening. I was becoming restless and nervous. I actually thought that I could possibly die. I thought about the irony of dying in a motel room in Ladakh. I also thought about waking up after being in a coma for two weeks in a hospital room in Delhi, to family and friends and cheering, “hey, welcome to India!”

Only then, with the thought of death, did reason finally overcome my sense of rigor and self-mortification. “If I can now conceive death as a feasible possibility, then it is certainly time to go to the hospital.” I am sure you are probably a bit relieved at that, thinking, “it’s about bloody time.” So I’m a little slow. I said that already. Sorry. So I summoned what strength I could and hobbled, one step at a time, down to the reception.

I whispered to them that it was time to go the doctor and if they could please tell me how to tell the cab where to go. They said they would go get the manager. It figured! They can’t even give directions to the hospital. They can’t think themselves to the toilet. I was in quite an ornery mode. I was sick. Going to the hospital - it’s like being defeated. . .

Oh...but fate would turn my way. The hotel owner was a Kashmiri man. There are lots of Kashmiris here. He said he would help me get a cab. I said I was grateful. He found me a cab and said that everything was in order and to only pay the man 40 rupees. I said thanks. Then he said that in about thirty minutes he would come down to the emergency room himself and make sure everything was fine. Wow. I was shocked, as shocked as a delusional man can be, which isn’t much. More, I was relieved. I needed that. I needed a break.

I was alone. I was in one of the most remote region in southern Asia. And I was sick as hell. What kind of hospital could I find? Do they know English? Good God! As we got to the hospital it occurred to me that I didn’t know where I was living. I had left the hotel without any card, I didn’t know the name or anything. Brilliant as ever. But I had got my break maybe. The Kashmiri was coming.

This to me is the amazing part. Why? I don’t know, but it seems to mean something that I am not quite sure of yet. When I walked into the hospital a woman came out. I tried to speak. I couldn’t really. I fumbled and mumbled, “please, help,” and then I broke out in tears, bawling. Where did that come from? I was feeling a little better with the wind and all from the cab, and the hope of some pain killers. I didn't just cry. I was really sobbing.

She told me to sit on a bench and wait. This I thought was mildly amusing, and then I started bawling again. I hadn’t cried like that since Bootsie died, and before that, I don’t remember when. I laughed about it. I have a good theory as to why I cried like that, but I guess you can likely figure it out.

I sat there forever. A nurse came and asked for my name and three rupees, six cents. An Israeli came in with a girl with two broken toes, cursed at everyone, and then carried her out again. He said he was a medic and was disgusted. After fifteen minutes a nice, calm, young doctor called me as he unlocked some seemingly unused room. The Israeli had told me, no the girl told me the name of the medication for altitude sickness, so I asked the doctor for some.

The doctor did some of the standard things and asked me about my stomach. I told him that I had had a stomach problem before, the pain had gone but I still had a bit of diarrhea. I don’t really know how much of this he really understood. I was only paying a little attention anyhow.

Then he told me that I didn’t have altitude sickness at all. My blood-oxygen level was normal. I had a severe viral infection caused by the stomach problems. I think he said this. I really can’t remember for sure. He said my pulse was atrocious and that I was dehydrated as hell. Now I was shocked. I didn’t know whether I believed him but he was going to give me medicine and that was better than what I had.

Of course, I couldn’t read the prescription, he didn’t tell me dosages or any thing. The nurse gave me a few pain killers which were all I really wanted anyway. I was so so so happy. All this for six cents.

So where was my Kashmiri hotel manager. I didn’t know. I didn’t know how to go home and didn’t have the energy to try. I laid down on a bench outside.

After a bit, a nurse came out with a packet of hydrating salts and told me to put it in my water bottle. I looked up and there was Ashod, my Kashmiri friend. It looked like he had walked right out of the sun. I wanted to hug him, no, but I sort of felt that way. We went to his van, and I explained how I didn’t even know the name of the hotel. He took me to a pharmacy where everything got sorted out.

I took only a morsel of food that night, but the painkillers eased me into the best sleep I’d had, minus the roaches. I woke up Saturday morning feeling so much better. I chugged water all day. I started to sweat again. I could sit up. I went down to the restaurant and ate. I would have eaten more but the food was terrible. I took a cold shower.

I was no longer in that delusion. I could look back at the whole week as one long arduous physical grueling debacle. I am not sure if I have ever suffered like that. I certainly don’t remember an illness like that. I hate earaches, but pain when you are lying at home in your own bed, with a mother who brings you ginger ale with crushed ice is not of the same magnitude as running a mortal temperature on a bed with no sheets, in a room with roaches and no fan, and in a country where they don’t necessarily need to know your language. Not to mention six cent emergency room visits.

This was real illness. I now know what it means to be sick. This is good. What a wild experience. Today is Sunday. I feel great. My stomach still twitches about, but I am eating regularly.

I need to heal and recover so I can still salvage a trip into these hills. Today I took my first walk into town. I have so much to say about my feelings that they will have to wait. This is a powerful place.

This is a moving place, a place of collision, movement, and erosion. But it has a quiet that is unusual, deeper than sound. I had a surreal day. I looked at Kashmiri silk rugs with a Muslim. We talked politics and religion over chai for an hour and a half. I heard one lone monk doing solitary pujas in a empty, unfurnished temple. Today was one of those days when these things happen. I finally bought the new Harry Potter, in Leh. I found a coin wih the date of 1616, East India Company written on it, one-half ana. Maybe most exciting is that I moved rooms. The new room just happens to have an electricity stablizer - which means I can write as much as I like. Email here is six times as expensive as anywhere in Nepal.

Also these things happen after a great storm passes. Leh gets something like 8 cm. of rain a year. It rained last night and today. It was cool and damp all day. But that wasn’t the storm I was talking about.

Wendy I miss you. It looks like I will survive and come home soon. If you weren't there, perhaps I would just stay. The East is glorious...

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