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