You Can’t Trust the Yak Meat

In which The Elegant Bastard considers the potential impact on our best laid plans of men with guns and rotten yak meat.

Somewhere in Nepal: They are in a tiny nameless village, and at six thousand metres, these two young European men are somewhere near the roof of the world. They have trekked here without guides and it has taken them ten days. Their destination is a gap in the mountains, a break in the high rock walls. Once there, they will be able to see the sun rise over some of the taller Himalayan peaks, among them Annapurna, whose name can be translated as “Goddess of the Harvests” or “the mother who feeds.”

That goal is less than hour’s easy walk away. But now one man lies helpless in a dark windowless cabin, his body wracked with fever and periodic spasms. He feels like he has been vomiting forever. They think he is dying. They may be right. And for now we are going to do the only thing we can do. We are going to leave them there…

Somewhere in rural Quebec: It is April, it’s cold and I am pacing back and forth in the lobby of a small inn. I have been here two days. When I have not been evading the trillions of tiny black flies who seem determined to be my friends, I’ve been muttering to myself and writing feverishly in a tattered notebook. Other guests seem to be getting nervous.

It began when my thesis advisor, a patient lady – who seems to have far more gray hair now than when we first met – suggested I give up the idea of writing “something new about phallic symbolism in Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” But I had spent nearly a year analysing countless dreary references to ghostly trees, drooping poles, unloaded guns and things that go pop in the night. I was too far beyond the reach of reason to give up now. The truth was out there and I needed to find it.

The only problem was that so far, “it” had proved elusive and I no longer had the time required to develop a whole new project. Either I articulated a thesis – now – or I started looking for what my friends and family were loudly and repeatedly describing as “a real job.”

Caught between their increasing noise and my own growing panic, I had grabbed enough overtime hours at a local warehouse to finance a do-or-die weekend retreat. A friend had recommended this tiny hotel far away from all distractions, mentioning as he did so the superb quality of its roast duck. And so here I was, and while I was clearly the popular choice as new lord of the black flies, I was also still thesis free.

I decide that even this state of isolation is not enough. As if to reinforce this thought, a phone rings, pots clang, a radio blares and a vacuum roars into life. I approach the front desk and the by now apprehensive manager. I tell him I want to go out and get lost. He nods. He seems to want that too.

He points out that other than the road leading to the highway, there are no real paths here. Outside is simply forest. No matter what direction I choose, I would soon be lost. He smiles and nods encouragingly towards the door.

I gather up my papers, my pens, my books, my bag and my boots and head for my waiting wilderness. He calls me back to ask if I want the duck or the pheasant for dinner. It seems I must choose now. When I say I can’t decide, he shakes his head, as if once again made weary by the ways of urban intruders. But no matter. He tells me he will set the proper wheels in motion. He adds that he will ring a large bell in a few hours to help me find my way back. He then wishes me a pleasant afternoon.

Soon I am a good distance off in the forest, tramping purposefully towards nowhere in particular and content enough not to care. The temperature has fallen and my flies seem have abandoned me. I am alone with my thoughts. I walk on, thinking. Time fades and as it does, ideas begin to come together. Months of fragments start to construct a possible whole. I feel myself on the verge of an epiphany. It’s working out as expected. My plans are about to bear fruit. If brains can be pregnant, then mine is about to give birth to septuplets!

I cheer out loud, punch the air and spin around to start the trek back to the inn. Five metres away from me stands a bearded man with a rifle. I had not expected him.

For a split second, I feel fear. Then I remember where I am and why I am here and I feel I want to chuckle. And suddenly the thesis I’d been chasing for a year springs fully formed and beautiful into my mind. I laugh out loud. The man with the gun laughs with me. He’s very large. So is the gun.

Now he gestures. He points to the rifle, to two bloody bags at his feet and then to me. He nods his head, and then shakes it. I realize he does not speak English. As I do not speak gun, we have a problem. He repeats the entire pantomime again and makes some sounds that are not language. I get the feeling I am supposed to make a decision.

While I consider the possible consequences of making the wrong choice, the manager of the inn comes tromping up behind the fellow with the gun. They shake hands and they hug. The manager uses sign language to send the large man a message. The large man laughs, shoulders his rifle, strides over and shakes my hand.

The manager now explains to me that my new friend – who is both deaf and mute – is a skilled hunter. In one bag are ducks. The other contains pheasants. I am supposed to pick the bird I want for dinner and pay him for whichever I choose. The manager had rightly if belatedly assumed that I might not understand the situation and had come to see if I needed help. I nod. The three of us walk back towards the inn. I have my thesis, my duck and a new appreciation of irony and chance.

Somewhere in Nepal: Of the two young men in the mountains, I know one well enough not to be surprised that he is there. After all, he had nothing back in France except a new degree, the offer of a well-paying job, the chance of an apartment in Paris and a wine collection already assembled on his behalf. Who in that situation would not rush to Bhutan? I assume that the young man with him is also there by choice. The only way to be in Bhutan “by accident” is to be born there.

My young friend is actually on a mission of mercy. His goal is to provide people in Bhutan with access to dental care, something that is now in very short supply. But since he happened to be in the neighbourhood, why would he not decide to climb thousands of metres in order to see the sun rise on a mountain?

He and his friend had been given some advice prior to their trek. Take a guide with you. Understand that conditions at this altitude may do harm to both the mind and body. Remember that if anything does happen, there are no clinics, no doctors and no reliable communication. Not even helicopters will be able to provide help. The air is too thin. This is a place far beyond the reach of logic, compassion, forgiveness or regret.

But all this advice is put aside. They are young, smart and in outstanding physical condition, exactly the kind of people who need to make love to mountains. They have done their research, weighed all the possible outcomes and they set out on the climb.

They reach this place after a long day; they are exhausted and hungry. As much as they want to see Annapurna, they also want a hot meal. Unbelievably they discover a small restaurant with some huts attached that can be rented for an evening. They will go on to their mountain in the morning. For now they will stop. My friend will stuff himself with heavily sauced yak meat and the two of them will take a room for the night.

He does not consider the possibility that the yak meat might be rotten.

And when it becomes evident that it is, things move quickly beyond the point where voluntary vomiting might make a difference. He can not uneat the meat. And so for three days he fights the poison, relying on the only tools available – his immune system and his will power. His friend is powerless to provide anything other than fresh water.

On the fourth day – three would have been too derivative, no? – he is able to rise from his bed.  He can feel his strength returning. They are running short of time so they shoulder their packs and move on. Soon they reach their destination and the two of them are able to look out upon Annapurna and be fed by her.

That is where we will leave them. If I can figure out the technology, I will share with you a picture I was sent. I wonder if your reaction will be the same as mine. I can admire the view; it is spectacular. But I cannot understand it. Annapurna is not my mountain. It is theirs. In much the same way, my parents and friends could respect – but not fully understand – my thesis. It was not theirs.

And so, Dear Reader, it makes no sense for me to wish you luck on your Annapurnas or success with your thesis statements. Your dreams will likely take other forms. However, there are two things I can wish for you. If you must encounter rifles, may they be held by friendly folk who only wish to offer you a pheasant. And if you must eat yak meat, may it always be fresh.

And as for you my young friend, who, while still in your mid twenties, has already lightly given away the glitter that mesmerizes others in exchange for a beautiful piece of stone and some faraway smiles, may I say how much I admire what you have already accomplished. You, Anthony, are a most Elegant Bastard!

This piece is dedicated to my young friend, Anthony, who has now completed his trek and returned to work on the “Happy Teeth Project”, an initiative he designed. Information about “Happy Teeth” is available at http://happyteethproject.org/ and if what you find there encourages you to make a donation, you may contact him via that site.

Those wishing to explore other existential musings might enjoy “Dances with Buses”. It can be found here: http://wp.me/p3cq8l-7A

Bubble Time in the Big City

In which the Elegant Bastard finally understands his previously inexplicable love of bubble wrap.

At 6:15 in the morning, I am rarely at my best. If the sun remains in hiding, I am in the basement gym, swearing at my treadmill. If spring has started its brief Canadian appearance, I am puffing along city streets, swearing at the sun. The other constants include far too much sweat to be in any way photogenic, carelessly chosen track pants, a rude or worn out t-shirt and a pair of old Asics that deserve quick death in a sea of bleach. In short, the visuals are appalling and the sound effects are worse.

In my gym, all this remains unshared. The street, however, is a different jungle. Here there at least the possibility of prying eyes and muttered judgments. Yet those who cohabit with me in this city that I love accept my morning presence the same way I mark theirs – in silence. It is as if we are all ensconced in private bubbles, each of us rolling our own way forward to some determined destination. We do not touch or wave or mutter greetings. Our eyes might meet momentarily and our heads may nod – once – as if to at least admit a species affiliation.

Do not judge us urban folk too quickly. Crowd us into our morning coffee shops, be-suited and be-jewelled and beshowered , and we become almost verbose. “Waz ups” and “Howzits (going or hanging)” abound. The weather and the Maple Leafs will be unanimously praised or condemned. There will be banter with the barista. Then we return to the street and once again assume our bubbles.

Bubble time is precious in the urban landscape. Here amidst chaos and cacophony and using skills learned long ago, we actually achieve a private space. Within it we can doubt and debate and plan. We can sort out a nagging fear and turn it into a kind of hope. We can rehearse, re-write and rehearse again. Noise and smog are merely generic, nothing more than a backdrop. Some sort of seventh sense prevents collisions and the changing of a light or the impending bumper of a car is felt or smelled rather than seen. We are that good. And why would we ever question what is a most successful strategy? Who questions breathing?

Thus, on my first 6:15 a.m. in Comox, British Columbia, a village of 13,000 (that is legally a town) I donned the regular garb, assumed the normal bubble, and hit the streets (of which there seemed to be three.). That I was no longer in my version of Kansas became pretty apparent when I skidded through a patch of deer poop and more or less ran in to the responsible deer. We looked at each other, decided that peace was preferable to war – it had hooves, I had a loud iPhone – and went our separate ways. The next glimpse of truth came when I turned a corner and saw more mountains in one place than were frankly necessary. Still, they were a long way away and did not seem to be moving closer so I once again bowed into my running crouch and pumped my way along. Next came the smell of the sea. This is a peculiar odor, an acquired taste, a scent that says loudly, “I am bigger than you and fish do nasty things in me before they die.” If the sea happens to be the Mediterranean and there in front of you is a seafood restaurant with three Michelin stars, much can be forgiven. Here the sea was the Strait of Georgia and in front of me were three trees, two of them obese.

Still, bubble time is bubble time and grand issues needed solving. I set off down what looked like a lonely and less-travelled road, happily plodding and plotting, lost in my world of sweat and stratagems. So when the first “Good morning” whizzed by me on my left, I damn near did what the deer had done. I had just enough time to re-master the art of inhaling when another “Morning” exploded to my right. A minute later, three were fired down the hill that I was climbing. Soon they were everywhere. Greetings were being hurled like grenades while I dashed back and forth like some cartoon character in an animated minefield. My bubble lasted only moments before giving me its version of “Later, Dude” and disappearing.

I resumed my run, but only out of habit. Having none of the world’s problems or my own to solve anymore, I instead became a passive observer and I soon discerned a pattern. As people approached, their eyes would suddenly lock on me, as if involuntarily, and this seemed to be the trigger. Whether I immediately turned my eyes away, slouched, embraced a tree or attempted to impersonate something rabid did not matter in the least. We have contact! We have ignition. “Good morning!”

It is hard to describe how much I came to hate this and how it began to haunt me. I started to avoid curving roads and large bushes. If caught in an impossible to avoid impending encounter, I would mime elaborate “Forgot the something or other” gestures and reverse my direction. I had not solved a world crisis or created a new asparagus recipe in nearly a week, Still they kept coming; still they would launch their missiles. My anger grew.  Had I owned an air force, I would have called in bombing runs.

My morning run’s reward is the largest decaf Americano I can find. On my third day I had found a small cafe that performed this service admirably and so it was I came to be seated in the sun on a quiet Comox street corner. Suddenly, a large golden retriever appeared and started enthusiastically introducing itself to my crotch. Its owner, fortunately far more restrained, looked me in the eye and said – what else? – “Good morning.” While periodically diverting the dog’s attention with croissant crumbs – tossed farther and farther away – we managed a conversation that led inevitably to me explaining how uncomfortable I found the invasive greetings by one and all to all and sundry. My companion, a transplanted former Calgarian, shrugged, grimaced and said, “You get used to it.”

At that precise moment three elderly walkers strode by, delivering a rapid and perfectly synchronized “beautifuldayisn’tit” before disappearing. I cringed; I saw him shudder; I knew he had lied. We naturally ran together every day after that, each in his own bubble. The dog – sans bubble – ran with us, veering away periodically as it continued its search for the perfect crotch.

In our subsequent coffee-fueled musings, we would wonder aloud about the essential difference between bubble-folk and armies of “Good Morning”. I thought of the small towns I had known: Comox; Goose bay, Labrador; Trenton, Ontario and a few others. In each, a morning walk would take a traveller easily to the town’s limit. In some such places, the change from the presence to the absence of humankind is gradual; in others, it can be quite abrupt. Nor is the sight of a paved road leading off into what has suddenly become wilderness reassuring. In fact, it simply enhances the sense of isolation. Add to the scene a ragged range of peaks; green, grey and black walls of trees; a tide that withdraws unevenly beyond the horizon and then returns to the highway’s edge; the pervasive odours of rot and manure. The colour of the sky will not matter. Black, blue or grey, it is simply part of something not the least bit interested in our busyness. It moves in response to a design we cannot comprehend, or worse, it denies design entirely. It is either the embodiment or the absolute mockery of arrogance. It takes enormous strength to gaze a long time quietly at that. “Good morning!” in this context is an answer. It says, “I am here and so are We.”

Our great cities also have edges, but since most of us would not reach them in a day’s running, we are largely oblivious. Our lives here are reassuringly surrounded by our corner stores and our cathedrals, our stops and goes and cautions, our neon shouts, our places of endeavour and escape. I could, with effort, stare down even the busiest street to catch a fragmentary glimpse of the profound absence I sense elsewhere. I could even just sit here at my desk, eyes closed and ears stopped, and manage to walk out far. But that would make things more honest that I ever really want them to be. Ironies I create and play with can be wonderful; those I come across by accident tend to be less pleasant.

The “We” of the city reassures but it also crowds. It cries. It pushes, it pricks and it shoves. If we had to engage it at every encounter, we would never get anywhere. Our bubbles rescue us and bring us back to “I” for as long as we can manage and, hopefully, as long as we find necessary.

On my last day in Comox, the two of us ran past the edge of town to a point where the highway curved away and disappeared. As we turned to run back, we saw two more runners approaching. With minimal effort, I called out “Good Morning.” They answered in kind and followed the curve ahead. We chuckled our way back to the cafe.

The next day, in downtown Vancouver, I joined the flow of joggers along the waterfront and instantly got my bubble back.

 

 

 

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