26 November 2014

Leaving and returning

First, this post has taken a while to write for reasons I trust will be obvious if you read it. Apologies for the delay. Second, no need to worry—I'm O.K.; this is how I was, not how I am. Finally, this post confirms the truth of the observation that writing is never finished, only abandoned.
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I leave Leh for the last time in the middle of October on the start of a journey that will last several days, cross two time zones, and leave me lost, cast adrift in a sea of confusion. A taxi takes me away from Leh, and as it turns a corner, there, straight ahead, rise the dawn mountains. Fresh snow coats the peaks and dusts their lower slopes, and early light colours the high snowfields with pale orange and pink; the summit of Stok Kangri hides behind thick white cloud but lower on the mountainsides wraiths of cloud linger around dark valleys and shine bright as they wander the dawn-facing slopes. The sun has not yet risen; all the light comes from below the eastern horizon and the land glows as if lit by its own immanence. I sit, silenced by one of the most spectacular landscapes I’ve ever seen, as the taxi carries me away from Leh towards the airport. How can I leave this place? Any possibility of a return lies too far in the future, and I can’t bear that thought.



Now, as I scribble these lines in a café in Palmerston North, I can picture that sublime landscape; I can see it vividly in my mind, and I know I have to go back. So much feels unfinished; so many things I intended to do I've left undone. When I got out of hospital I brought my flights forward; I chose to leave India early because I didn't want to risk another run-in with bad food or poisonous water so soon after a serious gut infection. I wanted to return to a place where I could recover easily, and although India captivated me, it can wear a body down. I  needed time to focus what little energy I had on rebuilding my strength and regaining lost weight so I'd have at least a little in reserve if I had a relapse or suffered some other illness. I tell myself this, but now I'd gladly have run that risk for the sake of an extra three weeks in India. I can't believe I willingly chose to leave early.

...

But, as I recover in Green Park, I don't have the benefit of hindsight, and I bring the flights forward as far as I can afford. I leave Leh early in the morning and fly to Delhi and later in the day catch up with a friend, too briefly and for the last time. When the time finally comes, though, at least this last journey in India must be the most appropriate of all: sitting in the back seat of an ancient Ambassador that keeps stalling at the worst possible moments in the mad traffic of late night Delhi. But the driver, with his short-cropped, orange tinted hair and confident smile, has the car's temperamental engine under control and I relax, trusting his competence.

He delivers me safely to the terminal. I smile and thank him, then turn and enter the limbo of the airport.

...

One of the things I've learned to expect about travelling in India is not to expect anything. Expecting a bus to leave on time, for example, is laughable; expecting it to leave late might be more reasonable but still not guaranteed. But the most unreliable expectations, I've learned, are expectations about emotions, and I don't know how I'll feel as I leave India.

So I've prepared myself for  almost anything: loss, relief, grief, any emotion at all — or so I think. What I've haven't expected and haven't prepared for is this emptiness, this near-complete lack of emotion. When the Airbus 330 rises into the Delhi night at almost 3 a.m., I feel numb. Perhaps I'm emotionally as well as physically exhausted, or maybe the enormity of leaving has overwhelmed my ability to deal with that knowledge. Maybe both. Maybe this is one of the stages of grief — the stage of disbelief and denial. I look out the window at the orange and yellow lights of Delhi as they shrink into the past, and I think of all the things happening down there, all the people I've met, all those lives carrying on; I think of everything that's happened over these last months, and for an instant the shock of leaving hits me hard, like a blow.

Then the numbness returns and mostly I feel empty, with just those glimpses of all I’m leaving behind — India’s chaotic energy and immediacy and rawness; its sophistication and subtlety, too; its otherness; its ability to delight and appal, sometimes simultaneously, as when I saw from the train to Bharatpur a family apparently living on the railway siding — despite their apparent lack of almost everything we’d consider essential, they sat talking and laughing, able to find at least a few moments of joy in the simple act of being together as a family. So much else, too — the abundance and diversity of birds, so many of which seem so comfortable and at home right in the thick of the human mêlée and noise and filth; the irresistibly cute palm squirrels; the gentleness and kindness that, while by no means universal, was common enough to be distinctly noticeable; above all, my friends, most of whom just a few months ago I’d never even known existed; all these things and more.   These moments, when I truly comprehend, hit me like a punch to the heart.

The A330 flies on, out of the night, through dawn and into late morning, until eventually a long, thin, brown streak appears low down in the sky —the filth of Shanghai’s smog. We fly low over the city and the harbour, where ship after ship lies anchored in water the colour of weak coffee. On land among the buildings that go on forever, a massive chimney spews steam into the sky. I try to appreciate the thought that I’ve almost completed the first leg of the long journey, but the prospect of waiting over nine hours for the next flight puts paid to that. I still can't grasp the true significance of having left India, still feel emotionally drained, still lack the physical and mental energy to do anything except endure the hours.

...

At Gate 213 I try not to think about the time. Finally, accepting I can’t go nine hours or more without eating and drinking, I check that the small food counter accepts credit cards and order a cheese and egg sandwich and a Tiger beer. This should all be safe, I think, still anxious about my gut, but I’m dismayed to find the cheese and egg sandwich includes a lot of unpeeled cucumber slices and the beer comes with ice cubes. I discard the cucumber and drink the beer anyway, rationalising the risk by reminding myself this is, after all, an international airport and poisoning passengers would have bad repercussions — not just for the passengers. 

While I finish the beer, I chat with a cheerful Australian, originally from Melbourne but now living in London, and with a big, affable maths teacher from the US. The Aussie and his girlfriend leave to board their flight; the maths teacher heads off a little later. A young guy with a physique like a power lifter comes and sits at the counter and orders a sandwich. He’s from Lithuania, has been in China on business (something to do with telecommunications), and about eight years ago spent three days in Wellington. That too, had been on business, so he hadn’t had much chance to look around; nevertheless, he liked the city.
   ‘Very good lamb steaks,’ he says. Clearly, they made a good impression.

The menu lists Tie Guan Yin, a tea I’ve enjoyed back in New Zealand. Curious to know how to pronounce the name, I ask the woman behind the counter. She doesn’t have it right now, she says; it’s off the menu. I try again, but she still doesn’t understand that I just want to hear her pronounce the name. Eventually an elegant woman, 40-ish I guess, intervenes and helps me try out the pronunciation. ‘TEE-uh gwun-een’ is probably close enough to be understood. She smiles and nods when I finally get it right, then rushes off to board her flight.

Afterwards, a passable coffee revives me a little, and that, with the beer and the direct engagement with other human beings, helps me feel more human. But I’ve been travelling for well over a day now, and even when I managed some sleep on the flight from Delhi, that’s been in the same set of clothes. Thank heavens for merino, but I’m still beginning to wonder whether someone with a mask and a long stick will appear and usher me outside to be hosed down. I do the only thing I can and freshen up as best I can with wet paper towels — hardly the shower I long for, but at least I feel cleaner.

...

The hours creep past. I wander down to the next boarding gate, where just a few people linger, and find a relatively inconspicuous corner where I can lie down on the seats with my bag as a pillow. Someone else with the same idea snoozes quietly on the seats backing up against my row. After a couple of short sleeps of uncertain quality I return to Gate 213 to find most of the passengers gone, so I stretch out again on a row of out-of-the-way seats and sleep for almost an hour. 

Finally, the call to board arrives, and immediately the usual enormous queue forms. I have no interest in standing in a queue, particularly when it means I’d end up sitting even longer in a seat on the plane, so I sit and wait until the line reduces to just a handful of people. Even so, I then have to stand in a packed shuttle bus until several late-comers arrive. 

As usual, the Airbus leaves late. Unusually, the delay isn’t just ten or twenty minutes or even half an hour — it’s an hour and a half. The first passengers to board will have taken their seats a good half an hour before that, so they’ll have been sitting for two hours before we even leave the ground. I’m glad I waited to board, particularly because my seat turns out to be in the first row, crammed up against the bulkhead with even less leg room than usual. The flight’s scheduled to take ten hours and 40 minutes but given the delay in departing, I’m hoping they’ll try to make up time. They do, but only half an hour, so instead of arriving at Sydney at 10 a.m., we arrive an hour late. That’s an hour less I’ll have with my sister, who’s come to meet me.

Back at her place I finally get my longed-for shower, a sourdough baguette filled with avocado and smoked trout, and company that eases the sense of separation from India. Afterwards, we sit on the verandah, looking out at a park that reminds me too much of the Deer Park in South Delhi, where I used to walk each morning as part of my recovery. Magpies instead of crows, rainbow lorikeets instead of rose-ringed parakeets, but similar trees shading a similar slightly dry and dusty ground — I half expect to see a few dogs cooling off in shallow holes they've dug, but the only dogs here trot along on leashes. The differences only emphasise the similarities.  Time flies past too fast, though, and soon we're back in the taxi, returning to the airport. I should have stayed overnight, but when I brought the flights forward I never thought about that.

...

The Air New Zealand A320 is only the second plane in this entire journey to leave on time. I sit next to a big kiwi guy who's recently trekked to Annapurna Base Camp. We talk until the plane takes off, joking sometimes about the usual things like getting crook, the Kathmandu madhouse, Nepalese buses, and other things that hindsight makes bearable, then he retreats into a movie and I scribble notes. Everywhere I see and hear reminders of New Zealand — the hostess's accent, the scenery on the safety video, the black upholstery, and so on — and I wonder whether I'm returning too fast, whether I'm already beginning to lose some of the feel of what India was like (already, I note, I say 'was'; already I think of India as being in my past). I realise I'm clinging to my memories and think perhaps I should try to resist this ache to hold on to what was. 

But what precisely is wrong with that? As I've said before, I don't know much about buddhism, but a common theme of that philosophy seems to be the overriding importance of the present. The past and the future are illusions, it says; all we have is the present, this moment right now. I used to think this was wonderful and profound, but now I'm less sure. What exactly is this 'present', and in what sense can it be all we have when, after all, nothing is more transitory? Try to think of the present — try it now — and what happens? It's gone; it's passed; now has become the past. The past seems far more substantial, even if our recollections so often deceive us, and the future, even if we can't know it, seems no less illusory than this present; in fact, I find it easier to think of some time in the future than to pin down the present.

I suppose the injunction to live in the present might be intended simply to ease the ache of loss and lessen the worry of what might or might not be. If so, it seems at least useful, but to me the main benefit is clear: when you ponder the past or fret about the future, you're missing what's happening now. To lose yourself in the present can be achieved (seldom deliberately, though) and can be a kind of ecstasy; Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called it 'Flow'; others call it 'being in the zone'; and one of the essential differences between this state and the conscious act of paying attention to where you are is that when you lose yourself that's precisely what you do — you're no longer aware of yourself. Maybe that's what Eliot meant when he said, 'Love is most nearly itself/When here and now cease to matter'. I, however, am lost in a different sense, for different reasons. I know where my body is located but I don't know where I am.

...

At Wellington, not long before midnight, my brother waits to collect me. As he drives me home I look out at the night harbour, sodium light rippling on dark water, the quiet, clean city; and as I stand outside his house while he parks the car, I hear a ruru calling — the first New Zealand bird I've heard since early July. The first bird I see in the morning is a riroriro, going about its tiny life completely unaware of me, of India, of anything at all beyond its own small territory and the compulsions of its instincts. Everywhere I go, birds comfort me.

...

A couple of weeks after returning, I visit friends for dinner. They’ve travelled overseas while I was on my journey, so talking with them lets us compare impressions, lessons, ideas. All evening the conversation centres on travelling and I’m struck by the way we don’t bore each other with this talk. I’m conscious of how travellers’ tales can be not merely uninteresting for one’s friends but can be actively off-putting. A friend whose travels make mine look like a stroll to the gate pointed this out; you visit friends after a significant journey, she said, and they’re not interested in hearing about it.

At first I wasn’t sure whether to agree or not, but this was her experience and her travels have been exceptional. Maybe mine have been more ordinary, or maybe I’ve been blessed with more tolerant friends, but this lack of interest hasn’t been as noticeable for me. Also, I’ve long been aware of the risk of annoying my friends with too much talk about my own travelling and have tried to suppress the urge to talk constantly about it. However, my friends naturally want to hear something about my journey; the difficulty, I find, isn’t avoiding the topic, it’s being aware of when I’ve talked too long and letting the subject drop.

The problem is that these kinds of conversations need some common ground, some shared experience, preferably recent, if they’re not to falter. Talking about marvellous experiences to someone who’s just spent the last four months slogging away at work risks leaving them feeling as if they have nothing to contribute, and can even make them envious. Fortunately for me, my friends not only have a great capacity for putting up with hearing me talk, but have also travelled extensively themselves — some in India — so they do share similar experiences.

My friend also pointed out something else about returning from travels: that your friends expect you to be the same person you were when you left. This is understandable. What's harder is to recognise the changes in yourself, and after three and a half months of travel, mostly in India, I wonder how I’ve changed. Maybe I need to ask my friends, although most haven’t yet seen enough of me to be able to comment accurately.

My guess is that I’m now much less certain of many things; I think I understand much less than I thought when I started the journey. Often I realise I don’t know what to think, and when someone asks me something, particularly about India, I’m unable to answer satisfactorily — I simply don’t know whether I believe my reply. I’m still trying to pin down my intuitions and feelings. Will I ever be able to manage that? I doubt it, but I did realise recently that a lot of people now seem to think I have some kind of intimate knowledge of India, or at least that I’m able to speak with some authority on what life’s like there. In truth, I don’t have that authority or expertise. I can relate what I saw; I can reflect on my short time in India; but those few months and my highly selective, narrow view count for very little. How long would I need to live in India before I began to acquire some authority? I don’t know, but I suspect it would be years, not mere months.
...

The days pass. Mostly I feel disconnected, not quite emotionless but missing the intensity of feeling I'd thought was an inescapable part of who I am. A pipiwharauroa calls from the trees at the front of the terrace and the sound lifts my spirits, but even that call, which every spring delights me by turning my thoughts towards warmth and longer days, doesn't induce the intensity of feeling I experienced so often in India, and I begin to wonder whether one of India's primary gifts is the way it encourages — and sometimes forces — you to feel things, deeply and intensely. For me, the answer must be yes; emotions so often felt so close to the surface even long before I fell ill, and those feelings, usually wonderful and often evoked by even apparently insignificant encounters with people, animals, and places, seemed to arise from more than mere novelty. Here, though, back in Aotearoa, I feel terribly unmoved by things that should move me. I am numb, unable to respond.

But time, the saying goes, heals all wounds. While I don't consider myself wounded, I do trust time will heal whatever afflicts me.

So I wait for it to pass. I go for walks in the sun and wind and try to distract my thoughts by prowling for pictures, but I’ve lost the ability to see. My photographs stare back at me from the monitor, dull and dead and flawed beyond salvation.

I drive into town to be among other people; I write in cafés, spending too much on coffee, and read in the library, and buy more groceries than I need. None of the waitresses and checkout staff and others who knew me by sight notices I’ve been gone. Everything carries on the way it used to, but no one knows I’ve changed. No one says haven’t seen you in a while. I have not been missed.

I distract myself with work, and I realise my contract starts exactly one month after I left India. This seems significant, but I know it isn’t — it’s just a date. But everything has some kind of significance if I look for it  — everything, that is, except me. I feel as if I no longer matter. I feel forgotten.

This confirms what I've finally realised — that the hardest aspect of returning has been the feeling of being forgotten. Someone returns from a place they loved and they say how much they miss it. I miss India, although it nearly killed me and despite the horrors and the pain of what I couldn't help but see, but I know I can return some day and that knowledge lets me come to terms with missing India.

No, missing India isn't what's hardest — what I struggle with most is the thought I'm not being missed by India.

So I wait for it to pass. Days turn to weeks; a month goes by. The starlings in the paddock carry on with their restless rapid foraging and I wonder how they manage to focus on just one thing, which is the raising of their young who squeal for food whenever I walk past. One day the nest stays silent but the spring wind still roars in the old poplars.

I wait for it to pass, trusting my resilience, and knowing time heals even the unwounded.
...



Notes: 
1. 'Talking about marvellous experiences...': In a stroke of synchronicity, I'd only been back a few days when I came across a recent paper that confirmed exactly this point. See: Cooney, G., Gilbert, D. T., & Wilson, T. D. (2014). The unforeseen costs of extraordinary experience. Psychological Science. doi:10.1177/0956797614551372 [Paywalled; abstract here]
2. 'Love is most nearly itself...': T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets: East Coker.
3. '...the thought I'm not being missed by India...': Apparently, being forgotten is worse than being ostracised. See: King, L. A., & Geise, A. C. (2011). Being forgotten: Implications for the experience of meaning in life. Journal of Social Psychology, 151(6), 696–709.

Photos: 
1. Main bazaar, Pahar Ganj, New Delhi. 
2. The Indus valley from above Leh.
3. Palm squirrel at the Hauz Khas complex in South Delhi.
4. These young guys at the Golden Temple in Amritsar saw me photographing and asked if I might photograph them. I obliged, they thanked me and immediately walked off. 
5. In the old town, Leh.
6. Magpie, Rumbak valley, Ladakh.
7. Evening street, Dharamsala.
8. Dusk in the Pohangina valley, Aotearoa. The view from the back of my place, looking towards the southern Ruahine Range.


Photos and original text © 2014 Pete McGregor

11 October 2014

Ill on the road: Mr Peter the patient patient (Part 2)

Sometimes, when a desperately desired goal draws near, the effort required to reach it increases exponentially. That's how I feel after the taxi drops me outside the hospital and I shuffle into reception, the last of my physical and mental energy draining out of me into the Delhi heat. No one's attending the desk. I try a nearby counter but they have little English and just direct me back to the vacant reception desk. I can do without this. But a young man appears; I must go to the Emergency Department in the next building, he says, pointing. I creep out the door and across to Emergency, lean on the desk and say I need to see a doctor.

A few questions, then I'm taken to a gurney where a gentle, smiling orderly helps me lie down. A doctor and nurse arrive quickly; I'm questioned, prodded, and assessed; tests are arranged. A nurse inserts a cannula into a vein in the back of my right hand. Most of the rest of the day consists of visits from various doctors, all of whom ask similar questions to which I try my best to give consistent, accurate answers; of being connected to drips; of having blood samples taken; of being prodded -- one doctor palpates my abdomen with such vigour I wonder if he's trying to take a biopsy with his bare hands. I keep my yelp moderately dignified.

The smiling orderly comes with hospital pajamas and helps me change, then eases me back down onto the gurney. He puts his hand on my shoulder in solidarity and says something in Hindi; I have no idea what he's saying but understand him perfectly, and his kindness threatens to undo me. I hold it together and thank him.

On a gurney opposite me lies an ancient, yellowed woman, her eyes closed and sunken into the dark hollows of their sockets, her breathing shallow and strained. She looks to be barely alive, and compared to whatever affects her, my own illness seems trivial. On the gurney next to her, a man groans and, somewhere down the corridor, someone screams. A monitor bleeps regularly and monotonously -- the kind of sound that could be used to torture a prisoner. When a nurse checks to see I'm still O.K, I ask to sit up; she adjusts the bed and at my request places my bag next to me. I retrieve my pen and notebook and write a little. I don't like labels -- I prefer to say 'I write' rather than 'I'm a writer' -- but these roughly scribbled notes fulfil a commitment I made years ago to write every day, and in maintaining this perfect record even under these circumstances I consider I'm justified in calling myself a writer. Of course, what I see as dedication, others might see as obsession -- harmless enough, but ridiculous. Maybe they're right.

The gentle orderly comes and wheels me to the ultrasound unit. This involves a short trip between buildings, into the pleasant heat of the evening -- I've been continuously cold in triage, even after my kind orderly has tucked a blanket around me -- and I look up at the darkening sky with its tinge of orange. Crows fly overhead, black silhouettes, free to fly where they will. The sight fills me with joy and longing and hope; I'll get through this, I'll once again share the world with crows and kites and rose-ringed parakeets and the ubiquitous pigeons; I'll see babblers and palm squirrels again in the Deer Park, and maybe barbets or even the grey hornbill in the Lodi Gardens. Then the door swings shut behind us and we carry on to Ultrasound.

I'm given a thorough going-over. The doctor spends a long time going back and forth over the painful area, then calls someone else to confer. Part of the lower bowel has thickened, she says, most likely because of inflammation. This means a CT scan will be ordered, and the preparation for this is one of the most unpleasant experiences I've endured for many years.

A nurse wearing a mask appears at my bedside, clutching two one-litre bottles of pale pink, frothy fluid.
   'You must drink two litres in two hours,' she says, waving the bottles at me. She repeats her instructions, holding up two fingers for emphasis: 'Two litres in two hours.'
She puts the bottles on my tray. I look at the soapy froth and just know this won't be pleasant. I don't know the half of it.

It tastes like disinfectant mixed with dish-washing liquid, and for all I know, that's what it might be. I time my gulps, sometimes managing three in quick succession, sometimes just two. I want this over and done with, so I force the vile fluid down, finishing the first bottle ahead of schedule. The pace slows for the second bottle, though, because it's so nauseating each gulp makes me feel like vomiting. Surely there must be a better way? Once again, sheer will-power keeps me carrying on, but I wonder about people who simply can't manage this awful requirement -- how much is really necessary for a good CT scan? With about a third of the second bottle to go, I gulp another mouthful and somehow suppress the gag reflex so I can swallow the foul fluid. Involuntarily I shudder and grimace, and look up to see an orderly watching me as she waits by a wheelchair. She smiles, and I grimace and shudder again, deliberately this time, and say, 'It's horrible!' and she shakes with laughter -- not unkind, but understanding, and I feel a little better. I finish it all well within the two hours and the nurse with the mask comes and gives me the thumbs up; beneath her mask, she's smiling, as if proud of me.

After that, I couldn't care less what they do to me, which is just as well, considering the indignities I'm put through for the scan itself. This is when I start thinking about dignity and wondering why what would have horrified me before my illness now seems trivial. All I want is to know the scan's successful, and the more thoroughly they prepare me, the better.

The operator tells me the machine will ask me to hold my breath and I must do as it says. What he doesn't tell me is that if the machine does indeed issue the instruction, it must be in Hindi, because all I hear from time to time is something incomprehensible. Fortunately, it doesn't matter, and when I finally collect the report over a week later, I'm astonished at the clarity and resolution of the images.

Back on my gurney in triage, I'm visited by a doctor who breaks the good news to me.
   'It looks like appendicitis,' he says, 'so we'll start getting you ready for a laparoscopic appendectomy.'
   'That's great news,' I reply, aware of the irony of joy at having my appendix whipped out.
The doctor smiles and agrees this would be a simple and straightforward solution, but he points out they still want to do further testing to be sure they've correctly diagnosed the problem. This is when I'm so grateful I'm in one of India's best hospitals. Who knows what would have happened if I'd been diagnosed and treated in some place less thorough, with rudimentary facilities? I'd probably have lost my appendix and continued to deteriorate. The outcome doesn't bear thinking about. Here, though, in the hospital that can list as patients some of India's most important people, the doctors take no chances.

However, while appendicitis still seems likely, the preparations for surgery continue, and I'm taken for an echocardiogram. Usually, I imagine, this would be comfortable enough, but I've lost so much weight I'm nothing more than skin over skeleton, and at times the pressure of whatever it is he's rolling over my ribs feels like being massaged with a knuckle-duster. I keep quiet and put up with it. Something seems to worry him, though, and he calls someone else in; they keep pointing to blue and red flashes on the monitor. I learn later that I have a small amount of fluid around the heart, almost certainly related to the infection; fortunately, this isn't serious and I'm cleared for surgery.

That surgery doesn't go ahead, however. Late in the afternoon an administrator arrives, saying I'm to be admitted but I must pay 20,000 rupees deposit. I tell him my insurance company will pay; he asks for the name but isn't interested in contact details or policy number. I still have to pay myself, he says. Fortunately, my credit card works and I spend my first night in a room with three other patients, up to a dozen visitors, and no privacy whatsoever. In the morning I'm visited by a doctor who updates me on the test results -- my total leucocyte count (TLC; the concentration of white blood cells, which fight infections), is about double the normal figure, he says. The gastroenterologist also arrives, and this is when I learn of the change of plan. After a closer review of the CT scan, he says, they've decided the inflammation of the appendix is secondary, and the likely problem is an infection around the junction of the small and large intestine. They want to do a colonoscopy.

This, he says, means they'll give me a laxative in the evening, and when I'm 'crystal clear' (his phrase), they'll do the colonoscopy in the morning. Fine, I think, do whatever's necessary. If I have to make 7 or 8 trips to the toilet in the night, I'll manage that.

What I don't realise is that the laxative isn't a simple dose of something I can swallow in one go -- it's another two one-litre bottles of some other fluid within two hours. This vile stuff is even worse than that for the CT scan; it tastes like salty, lemon-scented floor polish. Don't ask me how I know what floor polish tastes like; I just know that with every mouthful my brain shrieks, 'Floor polish! Floor polish!' I try replacing the thought with 'Peach schnapps!' which I've never tried but had heard was revolting, but it doesn't work. The weird association with floor polish is too strong.

I force down the first bottle but fall behind schedule. Given I've eaten almost nothing for about four days, surely I don't need to swallow the lot? By the fourth trip to the toilet, I can guarantee I contain nothing solid whatsoever, but, doing my best, I keep attempting to swallow what tastes like distilled evil. Halfway through the second bottle, however, I realise another mouthful will turn it from a laxative to an emetic. I stop drinking it. The report I see later lists the quality of the preparation as 'Good'.

Once again, what I'd have thought of as mortifyingly undignified leaves me completely unmoved. It's all necessary, all irrelevant as far as my dignity's concerned. The sedative helps, too, and I remember almost nothing of the procedure, which I later find slightly disappointing because I'm interested to know what they're finding. Perhaps if I hadn't been sedated, though, I might have felt differently.

All this time, I've been on various drips, mostly broad spectrum antibiotics and saline with dextrose. My TLC returns to normal. My gentle orderly has been replaced with one who marches around like a bantam rooster, erect and bossy -- 'Change!' he says, handing me clean pajamas -- but he's efficient and well-meaning. Most of the staff call me 'Mr Peter', and I don't correct them -- I like the sound of it. The cannula comes partly loose; I point this out to a nurse, who adds extra tape that doesn't work and eventually the cannula comes out completely. She puts a new one into a vein in my left arm. That's one advantage of being so emaciated -- all the veins beneath the skin are clearly visible. The call button doesn't work, so to call a nurse if I need a drip disconnected, I have to get out of bed and push the button on the wall. I then have to repeat the procedure to remind them to reconnect the drip. The phone by my bed has been blocked, and when my friend Sally visits she arranges to have it unblocked so she and my brother and perhaps others can call me. A technician comes, checks the phone and indicates it's now fixed. It isn't, and still no one can get through. All these I can deal with, however, and I use these inconveniences to practise being patient.

On the second day, as I lie patiently waiting for whatever will be done to me next, an elegant middle-aged woman enters the room and introduces herself.
   'I'm from the New Zealand High Commission,' she says, and is on my case after receiving a phone call from my brother in New Zealand. Ramita asks how she might help, so I point out the problems the hospital's having getting in touch with the insurance company. After repeated attempts, I'd finally managed to get someone to record my policy number and the contact phone number, but the problem seems to lie with identifying the local, Indian insurance provider that should act on behalf of the New Zealand company. Besides, an administrator tells me, she's rung the New Zealand number several times and has yet to receive a response from my case manager. Needless to say, this has added stress I don't need. Ramita promises to phone the insurance company and get the problems sorted out, and I discover later she's as good as her word: with her intervention, communication between the insurance company and the hospital is finally established, just in time for me to be discharged.

I give her Sally's number, too. This proves to be crucial at the end of my stay when the hospital won't allow me to phone Sally directly; instead, I phone Ramita and ask her to relay the message that I'm ready to be picked up. Again, she's as good as her word.

On the third day, the supervising surgeon visits. He explains the diagnosis and prognosis, says encouraging things and seems generally satisfied with my progress. I can be discharged today or tomorrow, he says; it's up to me. Today, please. He smiles, shakes my hand, and, like most of the doctors, puts a reassuring hand on my shoulder. This small gesture always moves me, and I wonder whether I'd have been so affected by it had I not been in such dire circumstances. I do know that when Ramita walked in and identified herself as being from the New Zealand High Commission, I struggled very hard to retain my composure. Sally was still returning from a visit to the UK, so apart from my friends at the Smyle, I'd seen no one I knew. The sight of Ramita, and Sally later that day, reassured me in ways words simply can't describe.

All I'd had to sustain me was the knowledge I was in good hands, and the thought of my family and friends. Very few knew I was seriously ill, although some of my closest friends had some inchoate intuition something was wrong. Perhaps this can be explained logically -- for example,  by the slightly longer than usual spacings between blog posts -- but I'm not completely convinced. I thought constantly of those great friends and how, if they knew my condition, they would be providing every kind of support and aroha they could, and maybe that constant thought, in extremis, might have a way of making itself known.

Late in the afternoon I change back into my filthy clothes in readiness to be discharged. Sally's on her way to carry my bag and facilitate the administrative details. But the supervisor at the nurse station on my ward won't let me leave; wait in your room, she instructs me. Restless, I end up sitting in the corridor outside my room with several people who've been regular visitors to the other patients. I attempt to strike up a conversation with one man, but his English is almost as bad as my Hindi. He persists, though, and we manage to communicate a little about ourselves. Raj is a farmer from Haryana; his father-in-law, the man in the bed beside mine, has just had bypass surgery. Raj has no children yet, and has been married just six months. Eventually he holds up his phone and asks 'Photo?' We sit together and smile at the camera, and once more I'm moved by the fact that this man whom I've known for little more than a few minutes has felt interested enough to want a record of our fleeting interaction. When I finally leave, I shake his hand and try as best I can to indicate I wish him and his father-in-law all the best.

What will become of the photograph?
What will become of us?

The evening darkens. Outside, three stories up, a kite swoops past, close and beautiful in its command of the dusk. Birds of various types cross the sky: pigeons, crows, parakeets. I watch and can almost feel what it's like to soar through that warm, darkening air, watching the pitiful chaos of human life anchored so inescapably to the ground. Finally, night turns the plate glass window to a black mirror, and I turn away and look down the corridor. My life seems to comprise patient waiting.

Sally arrives and the nurse arranges a security man to escort us to the Billing counter. With her usual astonishing efficiency, Sally's already phoned the hospital's International Relations Manager to sort out the protocols, and she now leads me to the International Payments desk. Here we hit a snag; the man says we have to go back upstairs and wait. Sally knows this is not correct and asks to speak to the IRM. Some checking, and the man says the approval from my insurance company for payment has just arrived a minute ago. I go back upstairs while Sally lights a fire under the bureacracy.

Upstairs, the nurse now insists I must go back downstairs to Billing, so the security guard and the bantam rooster orderly take me down to Billing. The man from International Payments stands there; he looks in horror at me then starts gesticulating wildly at the orderly, asking him why I've been brought down here. I'm taken back upstairs to wait.

Finally, Sally arrives, having managed to convey to the IRM that my treatment during discharge is far from satisfactory. The IRM sets things in motion, even arranging a taxi to replace the one Sally had ordered but which had long gone because of the delays. We go downstairs again and I'm refunded most of my admission fee. While waiting, Sally explains the fiasco to one of the nurses, who has a good sense of humour and laughs with us.

Then we have to go back upstairs to collect the reports. The nurse and security guard accompany us, and at the nurse station the supervisor looks at me as if wondering why I'm back here.
   'You have not paid your bill?' she says.
I drop my head on the counter and start laughing; everyone else laughs, too. The reports haven't been collated, and we lose more time while the supervisor photocopies, files, arranges, and finally hands me my file. She shows me the prescription for my medication and gives a hopelessly inadequate description of how I'm to take my pills. I don't care; I'll get the information from the pharmacist or a reputable online site.

Sally picks up my bag and we go downstairs for the last time, out in the hot Delhi night, and into the air-conditioned taxi. The fiasco has ended.

Sally has arranged a discounted rate at a wonderful guest house in Green Park, and while I settle in there, she collects my medicines from a pharmacy and picks up a takeaway pasta for me -- no spices, as my doctor has instructed. What would I have done without her help? Somehow I'd have muddled through; eventually -- probably the next day -- I'd finally have escaped; I'd have ended up somewhere marginally liveable, relying on food that might or might not repoison me. I almost certainly wouldn't have ended up in Delhi's best hospital, getting the best treatment possible; and I'd have been under the immense stress of trying to negotiate Delhi's transport system while barely able to walk and mostly unable to think. To have someone attending to all those things and more, so all I have to do is sit back and appreciate how lucky I am is, again, beyond words.

Similarly, I think of all the obvious help I've received from other people: Ramita from the NZ High Commission in particular; my brother, who contacted her and activated my insurance policy; the staff at the Smyle, who arranged a taxi to the hospital and made sure I paid only the true fare; the Bardia people who organised my transport to Nepalgunj and flights to Delhi; my aunt, who took such great care of me in the UK when I came down with that other illness that may or may not have been related; others whom, to my shame, I might have overlooked. But the appreciation and gratitude that finally squeezed that small tear from my eye as I lay in the emergency department extends further, including all those who simply showed some compassion for someone having a tough time, like the man at Nepalgunj airport and the orderly who didn't need to grip my shoulder in a gesture of reassurance but did so nevertheless. It includes, too, and in a peculiar way I don't fully understand, particularly those who were unaware of my troubles but would have gone to endless lengths to support me if they had known, simply because they're my greatest friends.

The world is full of violence, suspicion, intolerance, hatred, and innumerable other evils, and we hear about those every day. But the world is also full of kindness, acceptance, joy, concern for others, and the recognition that we all share similar needs, and those things are mostly ignored by the media or trivialised by being turned into sentimental feel-good stories. Nonetheless, these characteristics of human nature comprise the essence of what's good about us; we all have the capacity to feel these things and most of us do. The last weeks have taken a huge toll on me, but the lessons have been priceless. Maybe I did, after all, find what I was not looking for.



Notes: 
1. Here's Part 1.
2. Recovery's going well. I'm still tired, weak, and thin (some would say emaciated, and they'd probably be right), but I'm improving steadily. I leave India in the wee hours of 17 October and touch down in New Zealand shortly before midnight on the 18th. It's been quite a journey.

Photos:
1. Butterflies at Dachigam National Park, near Srinagar. Sometimes things that look fragile are more resilient than they seem.
2. A very pale, perhaps leucistic, palm squirrel in Delhi's beautiful and fascinating Lodi Gardens.
3. Babbler in the Lodi Gardens. Love these crazy birds.
4. Himalayan bulbul at Manali. Another beautiful bird that evokes strong, good memories.
5. Indian grey hornbill in the Lodi Gardens. Judging from the very small casque (the protuberance on top of the bill), this is probably a young bird.
6. Mosquito at Manali, in healthier times. A medical cannula's one thing; this kind of intrusion into a vein's quite another, particularly where malaria's endemic. My illness in the UK would probably have been a suspected case of malaria, but I had good grounds for believing it wasn't. I was right.
7 & 8. Proof of two things: I'm recovering, and I have plenty of time on my hands. The last photograph's from the second day after being discharged; the penultimate one's from this morning. 


Photos and original text © 2014 Pete McGregor

08 October 2014

Ill on the road: The limits of control (Part 1)

When, lying on my back on a gurney in triage at the Max hospital in Saket, New Delhi, I felt something very unbloke-ish slip from the corner of my right eye and trickle down my cheek, the cause wasn't sorrow or regret or that odious emotion, self-pity, but immense gratitude. Gratitude for two things in particular: my family and friends, whose aroha sustains me; and the kindness, compassion, and assistance of people who at least initially were complete strangers. That thought continued to sustain me, and often choke me up, over the next several days while I underwent exhaustive testing leading to an eventual diagnosis of and treatment for a nasty case of amoebic colitis.

Who knows where I picked up Entamoeba histolytica? I'd been persistently unwell since late August, but the parasite might have been biding its time for much longer; conversely, the other, mostly mild, illnesses might have been unrelated. Travelling in India during the hottest, most humid time of year puts great stress on the body, and a stressed body resists infections less effectively than a more resilient one. I'd had a mild cold during late August and that, too, can't have helped. Later, in the UK, something suddenly flattened me: fit and well one day, I ended up shaking, feverish, and asleep the next. My luck held, though, and my aunt looked after me superbly despite being clearly frustrated by my refusal to abandon my onward travel plans. That illness, however, was almost certainly unrelated and probably viral, and I recovered well and in time to travel onwards to Kazakhstan (briefly) and then to Kathmandu.

That's the dilemma of dealing with illness while travelling: do you tough it out and carry on with the plans, trusting the illness will pass (as most do), or disrupt the travel, stay put, seek treatment, and waste precious time? In my case, I suspect an early diagnosis would probably have been inaccurate because the symptoms were mostly nebulous, and the treatment would have been similarly ineffective.

...

The acute phase begins after the first day of a trek into the Annapurna Sanctuary. After the earlier illnesses, and considering I've lost a frightening amount of weight, I've been apprehensive about my ability to handle the walking, but the fear proves unfounded. I pace myself well, my legs and lungs handle the sometimes steep ups and downs easily, and I find my spirits lifted by the environment through which we walk. This, I think, will be what I need.

What I don't need, though, is the evening's vile meal: bitter, indeterminate vegetables fried with stodgy, greasy noodles. I wake in the night with a stomach ache, a headache, and feeling unwell, and by morning I realise continuing further towards the Sanctuary is out of the question. If my condition worsens, I'll be in serious trouble, two or more days' walk from the nearest road. I pull the plug. We walk out via the river trail and catch a bus which, for the first hour, creeps along a jeep track at about walking pace. I don't mind; shattered and unwell, I simply sit back in my seat and gaze out the window. Somehow I still manage to find joy in the sight of small, golden-brown dragonflies thronging over brilliant green paddy fields; at the diverse and abundant butterflies flitting and bobbling everywhere; at waterfalls plummeting from the mountainside into wild little streams that surge across the track; and at shacks of all descriptions -- fowl houses, storage sheds, simple shelters, and homes, sometimes with little to distinguish one from the other. The journey back to Pokhara takes about four hours.

Medical treatment in Pokhara is unreliable -- misdiagnoses of pathology samples are reputedly common -- so I take it easy for a few days. At times I find myself literally running with sweat but have no way to tell whether this is the result of fever or simply the heat and humidity -- power, and therefore a cooling fan, is unavailable much of the day in Pokhara because of Nepal's load shedding programme. Well-spaced doses of paracetamol + codeine, interspersed with ibuprofen, keep the headache, and perhaps the fever if that's what it is, under partial control while I try to decide what to do. Eventually I book a seat on a bus to Bardia National Park in the far west of Nepal, thinking I'll stop there for a couple of days then cross back into India and head for Delhi to seek treatment if I'm still unwell.

A well-regarded travel agency sells me a ticket on a bus and says it will take about eight and half hours to get to Ambassa, the transfer point for Bardia.

It takes thirteen hours.

Thirteen hours of hard travelling.
Thirteen hours of having the two different passengers in the seat next to me squeezing up against me, using my shoulder as a rest for their greasy-haired heads.
Thirteen hours of loud, monotonous, mostly similar-sounding Nepalese pop music that relies heavily on excessive use of violins and male-female duets.
Thirteen hours of humidity and sweating.
Thirteen hours of trying to find a position not uncomfortable enough to prevent sleep.
Thirteen hours of trying not to think about the time.
Thirteen hours of resignation and patience when the bus stops yet again.

At a stop in the dead of night, I get off to stretch my legs and stumble towards the rear of the bus. A woman dangles her baby through the window into the cool of the night, and it looks at me, astonished by this thin, pale apparition. I smile and wave. No response. I try again, and from the dark in the back of the bus I hear the mother laughing; she picks up the baby's hand and waves it back. She laughs and says something to her child and we wave at each other, and eventually a wide smile transforms the baby's face.

It transforms my heart, too.

At Ambassa I transfer to a jeep, which bumps slowly along a track and crosses a river bed. An enormous and beautiful owl sits on a rock in the shallows; it turns its head to regard us then lifts into the air and flies into the night. Despite the noise of the diesel engine, the owl's soft, silent flight is almost palpable.

Further along, we see two wild boar by the side of the road, and my excitement mounts -- already we're seeing wild animals. What else might be next?

Nothing. Dogs, a few people, buffalo, cattle. At the lodge, I'm so tired I go straight to my room and sleep for three hours, which in retrospect is nothing like enough to recover enough energy for a guided walk in the afternoon, a walk which turns into a nightmare.

Just an hour into the walk I realise this is a mistake. I must turn back, I tell the guide, but he insists that just a short way further on is the best place in the park to see tigers. Persuaded, I agree to continue, and a few minutes later I'm rewarded -- not with a tiger sighting, but with a close view of three giant hornbills. The guide gasps, and clasps my shoulder.
  'You are a lucky man,' he says, explaining that to see a giant hornbill is far rarer than seeing a tiger -- he hasn't seen a hornbill for six or seven months.
Later, the lodge manager confirms this. I try to feel lucky, but by now I'm having difficulty concentrating on anything other than staying upright and mobile.

The best place in the park for seeing tigers is occupied by people working with elephants. Much shouting and noise; no tigers. We walk downriver to a quieter spot and wait for tigers to come and drink and bathe. They don't. I feel a pinprick on my ankle, reach down and instinctively pick off the agent -- a leech, which hadn't yet fastened itself to my leg. When the elephants leave, we return to the lookout tower, which sways alarmingly. I step backwards and just manage to skip sideways to avoid falling down the unprotected stairwell. Things aren't going well.

We do see an adolescent rhinoceros come to the river to drink, but it's a long way off and dull in the hazy afternoon light. Nothing else noteworthy appears.

How I manage to walk back to the lodge remains a mystery -- sheer force of will, probably; a determination to keep putting one foot in front of the other. The guide slows to explain how the tower we're passing is called the Deer Tower; others are called the Tiger Tower, the Elephant Tower, the Rhinoceros Tower, and so on. I think to myself, 'I don't give a rat's arse what you call them, just keep walking,' but of course I politely say, 'O.K.,' unable to expend the energy to think of something more intelligent.

At the hattisar, the elephant stables, I now know I'll make it, and I allow myself the luxury of stopping and leaning on my bamboo staff to rest. The half blind rhino eats his evening meal at the fence of his enclosure, so close I could reach through and touch the monstrous beast, but because I know he's already killed someone, I don't.

I spend the next day trying to recover, and failing. The tiny amount I manage to eat runs straight through me and I know I'm weakening rapidly. By evening I know I'm in serious trouble, with no Internet access, at least three hours from the nearest airport, and with only enough cash to buy bus tickets but not flights -- and I wouldn't survive the necessary bus journeys.

I talk to the lodge manager and arrange a jeep trip to the closest airport, at Nepalgunj. He has a travel agent friend who will try to arrange a flight to Kathmandu, he says; be ready to leave at 7 a.m. I pack almost everything, manage to survive the night, and shortly after 5 a.m. comes a knock on the door. The lodge manager's ready to go, and within minutes, so am I.

The jeep crawls towards Nepalgunj at 40 km/h, even on the black top, but eventually we arrive at the airport. The travel agent has not only booked a flight to Kathmandu, but an onward flight to Delhi;the catch is that I have to endure a gut-battering ride on the back of his motor bike over a rough road through clouds of dust and filth into the city to find an ATM that will accept one of my cards. The first accepts neither, but fortunately the second allows me to draw out just enough to pay for the flights. Then it's back on the motorbike for another gut pounding and filth drenching.

We get back to the airport as the plane takes off.

The young travel agent works wonders, though, and gets me on the next flight, less than an hour later. At the gate, a young man who looks distinctly Tibetan chats with me. He and his companions have just completed a trek in Lower Dolpo, to Phoksumdo Lake. The route Schaller and Matthiessen took on their journey to Shey! I feel a twinge of envy but know I could never have managed such a journey with this illness so the envy's minor -- instead, the overriding feeling's one of delight at talking to this kind and interesting man who's just been where I'd have loved to go. He asks about me and I explain my situation; he expresses concern and reassures me we'll get to Kathmandu in plenty of time to catch the flight to Delhi. Kindness like this brings a lump to my throat and at times I struggle to retain my composure. Emotions are very close to the surface, but I manage to avoid embarrassing myself; more importantly, I avoid embarrassing him and others nearby who would no doubt feel hugely uncomfortable at the sight of a haggard, filthy foreigner wiping tears from his grimy face in the middle of the airport. 'Get a grip, mate,' I tell myself, 'harden up,' and that blunt, down-to-earth, antipodean stoicism saves me on more than one occasion.

Later, in the hospital, I think hard about all the apparent indignities I've been put through, which have turned out to be nothing like as undignified as I would have expected. On the other hand, bursting into tears in public would have been as undignified as anything I could imagine. I find myself wondering about dignity, and while convalescing, I discuss this via email with  my aunt, and in person with the friend who's provided such wonderful, tangible support here in Delhi -- recommending the hospital, collecting and storing my luggage, arranging transport and this marvellous place to recover, extracting me from the clutches of the hospital's administration system after I'm supposed to have been discharged (more about that later), running errands for me, and much more. Dignity -- the concept seems hard to pin down, perhaps because I'm unsure what questions to ask, but my initial feeling, and one I still think comes close to capturing its essence, is that it's the gracious acceptance of what's necessary. That certainly describes what I feel was my reasonably dignified response to some of the diagnostic procedures I was subjected to -- but how does it explain why I'd have felt such a loss of dignity, such mortification, if I had, after all, broken down in the airport? Necessity and acceptance would have had nothing to do with that situation, if it had happened.

Perhaps dignity depends on understanding one's limits and capabilities. In an early email my aunt suggested it might depend on self-knowledge and 'the ability to be true to yourself in changing, sometimes diminishing circumstances'. Often this manifests as the appearance of reticence, or a distancing of oneself from the situation; sometimes it can cross the line into the kind of aloofness that can appear haughty, which may or may not be deliberate. Usually, I imagine, it's simply that one doesn't know any more appropriate way to react other than to do nothing, and this kind of unresponsiveness can be seen either as dignified or haughty.

But, perhaps a well developed understanding of oneself is not always necessary in order to act with dignity. For a start, how well do any of us really know ourselves? Someone who agonises much less over these things might have only a vague idea of their capabilities and limits yet still have an entirely healthy sense of self-worth that allows them to act in a dignified manner. Put simply, 'I might not know much about myself, but I know I'm just as worthwhile a person as anyone else.'

My friend suggests a distinction: one kind of dignity relies on a justified (and not inflated) appreciation of one's own worth; another relies on knowledge of appropriate behaviour in particular circumstances, especially in cultures that differ substantially from one's own. For all I know, if I'd broken down at the airport, I might immediately have been surrounded by people wanting to comfort me, by people who saw no loss of dignity in what I'd have perceived as mortifying weakness but who instead welcomed the opportunity to support a fellow human being.

At Delhi I'm so weak I can hardly carry my bags, and although my main pack weighs a mere 9 kg I resort to a trolley to wheel it to the Metro. Crossing from New Delhi Metro station to Pahar Ganj requires battling the crowds fighting to get through the security check, and without shame I jump the queue and elbow my way through. I take the quieter, back way to the Smyle, where the recognition and obvious delight on the faces of the staff lifts my spirits after this punishing, twelve-hour journey. They have no room for me, but the manager arranges one -- quiet, dark, clean, with a fan and a/c, and reasonably priced -- at a hotel just around the corner, and gets one of the staff to carry my bag there. Here might not be home, but I'm close to friends, and treatment is no more than a night's sleep away. For the first time in days, I begin to feel safe.



Notes: 
1. Part 2, about my time in the hospital, is on its way, but I can't promise how long you'll have to wait.
2. '...whose aroha sustains me..': The concept of aroha's a little tricky to pin down, but it's better than the word 'love', which is almost useless unless qualified.
3. '...The route Schaller and Matthiessen took ...': Described in Matthiessen's remarkable book, The Snow Leopard.

Photos: 
1. The guest house where the acute stage first manifested.
2. Annapurna South the following morning.
3. Pokhara night life.
4. The yearling rhinoceros at Bardia National Park.
5. This lizard in the garden at the Bardia Jungle Cottage had just gulped down a small ant.
6. The first day after being discharged from hospital. Nothing left in the tank. (Actually happier than I look; just worn out.)

Photos and original text © 2014 Pete McGregor

18 September 2014

Notes from an English train

At Paddington I buy a one-way rail ticket for Great Malvern for a sum that would have allowed me to stay in in an air-conditioned room in Pahar Ganj for more than three days, and board after a not-excessive wait. At a stop further along the line a young guy takes a seat next to me. His lower right leg glows with a luminous-red cast and he manoeuvres his crutches awkardly as he sits. I ask if he's done his achilles in. He shakes his head and looks slightly sheepish.
 'Wrecked my ankle at a party,' he says, admitting the injury's self-inflicted. 'Guess I'll be a bit more careful how much I drink in future.'
Inevitably, he asks if I've been travelling and the conversation turns to India.
  'I'd love to go there,' he says, and sounds as if he means it.
I encourage him, suggesting he try to make it a long trip -- months rather than weeks. We chat all the way to the next stop, where he leaves the train. We wish each other good luck, and I'm sorry to see him go.

England -- so many names that could only be found here without sounding out of place. At Kingham station, for example, a sign says 'Change here for buses to Chipping Norton', and at Moreton-in-Marsh another sign lists Chipping Campden, Stow-on-the-Wold, Bourton-on-the-Water, and, incongruously, Broadway.

The English countryside slides past, almost stereotypical in its elegance -- rolling hills with copses, hedgerows, neat fields -- and I wonder why I don't feel more elated at seeing these things I'm so familiar with from my boyhood, when many of the books I read and TV programmes I watched about wildlife and nature were focused on Britain; when most of the spectacular books and programmes about New Zealand wildlife and nature, or even the more interesting and difficult-to-film subjects from other parts of the world, had yet to be produced. Even while still a boy I could identify most of the British animals and birds, and their charm and that of the landscape they inhabit still delights me.

But, as I look out this window, something seems to be missing. The feeling's inchoate, intangible; I can't put my finger on it. I think perhaps the landscape's too neat, too ordered, but when I pay attention to that I see I'm wrong -- some of what I'm seeing does seem wilder and less kempt than I'd expected. I like this; I like the knowledge that even in what must be one of the world's tidier landscapes, pockets of wildness thrive.

Perhaps I've simply become too used to the energy of India. The urge to compare, which so often interferes with appreciation of where you are, proves irresistible. Where are all the people?

A roe deer (or is a muntjac?) feeds in a field; further on I see another. A group of rabbits occupies a corner of a rough paddock. They look greyer and leaner than the rabbits of New Zealand. Those books about British wildlife weren't just abstract knowledge for me; many of the most common birds of the New Zealand countryside are descendants of those brought there by homesick British migrants. Around my own house in the Pohangina valley the most common birds include yellowhammers, chaffinches, house sparrows of course, blackbirds, and song thrushes, and from time to time I see many more, like goldfinches, redpolls, and greenfinches. Perhaps the familiarity of much of what I'm seeing from this smooth, fast train makes me feel as if my journey has already begun to end?

But the magpies and crows remind me of India, and even though they're not quite the same, they still look like old friends. What suddenly shocks me, though, is seeing a small herd of cattle and realising these are BEEF cattle. Am I really that accustomed to India? Maybe I now know some parts of India better than I know the England of my boyhood perceptions? I've certainly spent far longer there than here.

A hare sits, grey and upright and alone among crows in a stubble field. Hares have been part of my life forever; I can even remember as a very small boy asking my uncle how to tell a hare from a rabbit. Not many memories pre-date that one. The sight of a hare always thrills me; it does so now, too.

Finally, Great Malvern. My aunt sits, waiting at the station. Neither of us can believe I'm here.


Ten days at Great Malvern. I can't write about those days, other than to say two months of sometimes hard travelling caught up with me and I couldn't have been in a better place, nor better looked after. The timing was uncanny.


Shortly after five in the morning we sit on the hard bench at the end of the platform and don't talk about goodbyes. The inadequacy of partings: how do you say what can't be said? The train finally pulls into the station and I begin to leave England.

At Worcester Shrub Hill a young guy boards my carraige. He wears a suit, the jacket open, and the anxious look of someone going to a job interview. The inspector takes his job seriously: another young guy, casually dressed, gets a ticking-off for not having bought a ticket before boarding, and another passenger gets questioned about whether that's his bag in the overhead rack on the opposite side of the aisle.

When the dawn lightens enough so the tinted windows no longer reflect my disconcertingly tired and drawn face, I begin to scribble notes more frequently. Someone once said writing's easy, you just jot down ideas as they occur to you; he then added that it's the occurring that's the hard part. Maybe so, but movement and the sense of journeying help, and trains are one of the best forms of travel for facilitating that occurring of ideas. Besides, not all writing has to be about ideas; simple description has many virtues, and this morning I have plenty to scribble about in the little cahier.

The silhouette of a long-tailed bird sitting on a power line -- instantly I think 'drongo' even though I know it's ridiculous (it's a magpie). Perhaps even now, part of me still hasn't left India. I think it never will.

A fox sits on its haunches and watches the train pass; later, another trots through earthworks on the embankment with such an air of self-assurance that I admire (and probably envy) it just for that (as well, of course, for the sheer beauty of the animal and the elegance of its lope). Had it known of my admiration, the fox would have laughed, of course.

Deer in misty paddocks; lone trees in precisely the right place in empty fields -- the geometry of a thoughtful history of cultivation. The bone-white and grey moon, upside down and just beginning to wane; high, tiny vapour trails following the bright speck of planes I long to be on. I think of the two senses of 'flight' -- one literal, as in the flight of birds; the other figurative, as in flight from something or somewhere -- and wonder which best applies to me.

Wood pigeons -- surely they must be more intelligent than they look?

As the train fills, everyone I see seems to enter their own world -- newspapers; laptops and tablets; phones; kindles; i-pods, earbuds and headphones. Some, plugged in, have their eyes closed. No one writes anything by hand. A disconcertingly large number of people wear suits, and anything not a suit looks freshly purchased for a large sum. I probably look like a hobo. Perhaps this is partly why I feel more crowded here than crammed among the millions in Delhi, although even there on the Metro many people manage to stay tidier than me. Whatever the reason, I think perhaps I am the odd one out -- no, I AM the odd one out. Yet, in Delhi I stand out almost everywhere except among the tourist spots, to which I seldom go. I don't understand why I feel this way; I just feel I don't belong here, despite its attractions, and I wonder whether I'd ever grow accustomed to this environment. When I've thought of how I might achieve that state of feeling at home wherever I am, I've never thought it might be this hard here in the land from which my ancestors left (although admittedly this is neither Scotland nor Ireland).

The sound of one keyboard tapping. No koan here, but perhaps enlightenment might arise from contemplating the sound. What is he writing? A report? A presentation to a corporate meeting? The horror! The horror! I have left that world and cannot return, even if I wished to, which I do not. Whatever lies in store for me will be elsewhere.

Again, though, I question my perceptions -- always a useful thing to do. Not everyone has disappeared into their own world; I can hear the murmur of a quiet conversation further back in the carriage, and a few people, like  the anxious young guy, seem slightly uncomfortable, as if they too find being here uncomfortable and haven't fully accepted they want to be part of this world. Others seem more resigned than accepting -- 'hanging on in quiet desperation'. What can they do, though?

At Paddington a helpful ticket-checker gives me clear, precise instructions about where to catch the Underground to Liverpool Street, and thanks to his help I'm on way in just a couple of minutes, standing with the strap-hangers, most of whom look tired or dour or both. Liverpool Street arrives; I make my way to the train and find I'm in time to catch an earlier one. Another journey; more gazing out the window, watching England slip away. On a bank of a slow river, a man sits with his fishing road set up and his basket and a little table beside him, and I'm struck by the apparent wonderful pointlessness of his inactivity. Fishing's been described as many things -- 'the art of prolonged anticipation'; 'a jerk on one end of a line, waiting for a jerk on the other', and so on -- but one way of thinking about certain types of fishing is that they share much in common with meditation. This man certainly appears meditative, but even if his thoughts have wandered all over the place, I have no doubt he'll return home refreshed, even if fishless.

The train arrives at the dreadful, giant warehouse that's Stansted airport, where my last impressions of England are about as far removed from the gentle, beautiful countryside around Great Malvern as Delhi is. In the previous post I pointed out how people and places are inextricable, but I know now that if I return to England, the only draw will be a few close friends. Perhaps in the attempt to feel at home wherever I am, I have learned only that I have not yet succeeded, and the affinity I once felt for this place has begun to fade. Aspects like my friends, the birds and other animals, and the distinctive beauty of the English countryside still delight me, but maybe the result of my striving has been to drift further away from a home I once thought I might have had.



Notes: 
1. '...the more interesting and difficult-to-film subjects from other parts of the world...' Not including seals. I never want to see another documentary about the breeding habits of any kind of seal. Ever.
2. 'The bone-white and grey moon, upside down...' Look closely if you visit the hemisphere opposite the one in which you usually live.
3. 'The horror! The horror!' Kurtz's last words in Heart of Darkness.
4. '...hanging on in quiet desperation..' ...is the English way, according to Pink Floyd.
5. '...a jerk on one end...' The main title of the late Robert Hughes' wonderful book. Recommended reading.


Photos: 
1. Quintessential English garden at Great Malvern. Home to many birds and other animals, including badgers.
2. Dragonfly in the same garden. At Slimbridge the day after I arrived, I watched a hobby hunting dragonflies.
3. Wood pigeon at Slimbridge.
4. English robin at Great Malvern. Not a great photograph, but they weren't cooperative. Still, I trust this captures something of the character of these little birds.


Photos and original text © 2014 Pete McGregor

01 September 2014

He who has never left -- Leh

'So I find words I never thought to speak
In streets I never thought I should revisit
When I left my body on a distant shore.'
-- T.S. Eliot; Four Quartets: Little Gidding

A friend in New Zealand  and another in the US say they're looking forward to reading a post about Leh. Maybe others are, too -- but what do I say? How do I convey what it means to me? When something's important to us, we want to do justice to it and we try harder to find the right words, but too often that striving defeats itself; the words falter, the flow dries up, we fall back on silence and the shrug of resignation -- we don't know how to express the significance, we say, and open our hands in the gesture of helplessness.

There -- my excuses have been made. All I can do is try, knowing (to quote Eliot again) that ' every attempt /
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure'. I have to try, too. If you'd prefer I remained silent, don't read on.
___________________________________________________________________

At the start of a new month I sit in the little icecream shop in Leh with a small bowl of apricot icecream decorated with shards of waffle cone. Minimalist decor: clean, bright, pine tables, each with a coloured tin tea pot and a Tintin book; simple heavy stools with blue denim seats; the small range of icecream neatly displayed behind glass. All the ingredients have been carefully chosen from local produce, and the obvious attention to cleanliness and presentation encourages me (my trust proves warranted, too). A friend introduced me to this place yesterday after we'd had tea at the nearby restaurant; I'd had Kashmiri tea with ground almond and saffron and today did exactly the same -- Kashmiri tea followed by apricot icecream. I'm so imaginative. I'm also able to recognise a good thing.

The Old Town, in contrast, represents almost everything this new, modern, icecream shop doesn't. Those small, low doors with their patina of great age and countless stories; the massive trunks of trees around which the town seem to have been built, the bark worn down and polished by the brush of generation after generation of hands; the stone walls that, in some cases against all apparent reason, have survived without collapsing; the way some buildings cross low over these narrow alleys to form tunnels where I have not just to stoop but to bend well over -- those tunnels with their quirky hand-written signs telling people not to urine in here O.K.

More, much more. For example, the ancient tandoor bakeries with their magnificent, mouth-watering smells, where, for 30 generations or more, customers have queued in the early mornings. The tranquility and cool relief of the Old Town despite its proximity to the chaos and heat of the new city -- turn a corner and you step from the 21st century into a world where evidence of anything later than the mediaeval requires careful looking. Or, that strange, fetish-like object hanging from the outside wall of a dusty, whitewashed house -- an assemblage of twigs and cord so old it looks one gust away from crumbling to dust. What makes it so eerie and slightly unnerving is the old, weathered skull lashed to the centre of the fetish -- the grey skull of a dog, I think, judging from the pronounced saggital crest and zygomatic arch. At Rumbak I saw a similar object and asked Stanzin what it represented; he hesitated, then said he thought it might be intended to provide protection against evil. The beliefs that hung these objects on these walls might have preceded any formal religion, and I wonder whether they might have given rise to the chillies-and-lemon charms hanging from many doorways elsewhere in India, but this is pure speculation on my part. Whatever the belief that put this one here in the Old Town, two things seem irrefutable: the need to believe in something beyond the evidence of the senses proves irresistible for most humans, and even for those with no such belief, the sight of a fetish like this can be unsettling. Mystery appeals to most of us.

I walk through the Old Town, losing my way, finding it again, avoiding the meaner-looking dogs, looking down fondly at the-dog-who's-eaten-too-many-biscuits. He slowly opens an eye and looks at me in hope. Disappointed, he closes his eye and resumes his sleep.


Even the new town has a charm that rises above the more difficult characteristics it shares with so many other Indian towns. When I walk along the Main Bazaar I must make a conscious effort not to stop and inspect the countless shawls and scarves in so many colours, patterns, materials, and quality; if I do, I'll never get where I think I want to go. It's not just shawls, either -- here you can find a huge range of jewelry, heavily dominated by turquoise (which I happen to like); shops selling traditional clothing including the distinctive headgear that looks a little like a top hat with up-turned ear flaps, and others selling Goretex and down clothing and all manner of modern hiking and climbing gear for the trekkers and Stok Kangri hopefuls (this obvious awareness of the importance of the mountains as a source of recreation -- and admittedly, money -- strikes a chord with me, despite my reservations about the view that sees mountains as little more than a way of satisfying human needs and desires). Even the souvenir and trinket sellers add colour and life. Sure, during the middle of the day the place is chaotic, but it's chaotic in a more humane way than places like Main Bazaar in Pahar Ganj, Delhi, which so often seems not just frantic but desperate.

I step carefully along the footpath then onto the road, which is undergoing major renovation, to avoid the simplest of all kinds of markets: a line of women in traditional dress sitting on the footpath with vegetables and fruit spread out on blankets in front of them. Someone with a cynical disposition might suggest this is more to capture the tourists than for anyone wanting to buy vegetables -- the cameras click constantly -- but this appears to be not the case because the photographers neither buy the produce nor offer any compensation (most, it seems, don't even ask if they can photograph).

An old man, so leathery and wrinkled he looks as if he's spent all his life shrivelling under the fierce Ladakh sun (and probably has) sits at the end of the row, at the intersection. He seems to be permanently smiling. On his blanket, spread out like the produce of the women, lies a collection of crystals. I have no language with which to ask his story and must pass by each day, still wondering.

Further down the road I step into a shop with an interesting range of books in the window. The range inside is even more diverse -- reprints of the books of Jim Corbett on paper seemingly produced before he even wrote them; a range of New Age and pop psychology books that wouldn't be out of place in an Auckland bookshop; an even more extensive range of high quality coffee table books of excellent photographs from Ladakh; maps; postcards; school textbooks and stationery; and, of most interest to me right now, natural history field guides for Ladakh, including Grimmett et al.'s Birds of the Indian Subcontinent. I'd never intended buying the book because of its weight and bulk but, frustrated by the shortcomings of the app (and annoyed by its outrageous price), I'm sorely tempted. Eventually the advantages of the book win the day. A good bookshop can redeem most towns, but already I know Leh doesn't need redeeming. The longer I spend here, the stronger its hold on me.



In the evening of my first day in Leh, a new friend shows me some of the places she knows so well, eventually guiding me through the Old Town and up past the palace, along the steep, gritty track. At the monastery she asks if I'd like to go inside. I hesitate, then decline. No, I say, I'm uneasy about gawping at places important to other people's beliefs when I can't share those beliefs. She nods; she feels the same, she says. Instead we stand at the edge by the low wall, looking out into the evening, over Leh, across to Spituk, to the Ladakh Range, the 6000+ metre pyramid of Stok Kangri, and Hemis National Park. Somewhere deep in those mountains snow leopards prowl, hunt, live their lives. My chances of seeing one, particularly at this time of year, are almost nil. 'Almost', though -- not impossible, and in the process of looking, who knows what other wonders I might see? Also, in my travels I've been unreasonably lucky with wildlife sightings; now, perhaps, I need the lesson of not seeing the snow leopard, if for no other reason than the reminder that wishing too hard for something guarantees disappointment. This is not a rational argument, but it is a true one.

For now, it's enough to stand here high above Leh as the sun goes down behind that last, long ridge. I want to be nowhere else.

She points out the Sunni mosque from which that heart-breakingly beautiful azan rings out each evening -- the call to prayer that haunts me and comes close to bringing me to tears I don't understand -- and the Shia mosque not too far distant; there, she says, right behind the main bazaar, is the Buddhist centre; and down there near the edge of the Old Town is the tree considered sacred by Sikhs. The Christian presence is strong here too. In a world in which intolerance, particularly by religious factions, seems so prevalent, Leh seems like hope.



In the early morning before the sun begins to burn, while the shade under the trees and against the high stone walls still provides shelter, I stride out down the path to Changspa Road. An old woman makes her way slowly up the path and I greet her.
'Julley,' I say.
'Ju-LEY!' she replies, smiling, enthusiastic, stressing the last syllable so it sounds more heartfelt.
This, I think, is one of the reasons I find it so easy to like Leh. This kind of response has been typical, unlike many other areas of India where the frown and stare seems so common (although usually easily disarmed with a nod and a smile); to be greeted warmly even by many of the women here in Leh is almost startling -- elsewhere in the parts of India I've visited I found this highly unusual; there, the usual reaction is the careful avoidance of eye contact.



I scribble a note in the little cahier: 'More often than not,' I write, 'it's people who hold me in a place rather than the place itself.' Now I'm less certain, not because I doubt the power of great friendships but because people and places are inextricable; each colours the other, and eventually we have only the memories, where people and place cannot be separated. I can't think of Huaraz and the Cordillera Blanca, for example, without thinking of the people with whom I shared my too-short time there, and I can't think of those friends without thinking of Huaraz -- seeing the huge full moon rise behind some of the most spectacular mountains I've ever seen while Marin and Charlotte and I waited for our meals to arrive and I skimmed Nicholas Shakespeare's biography of Bruce Chatwin -- and that brings back memories of the charming middle-aged Italian woman who, in broken English on the coast of Ghana, likened me to Chatwin purely on the basis that I was always writing (having now read Shakespeare's biography in full, I'm not sure I'm entirely flattered, but I appreciated her intention). All these connections among people and places. This is what enriches a life, and here in Leh the connections, even those seemingly insignificant or momentary, like this old woman's greeting or sharing the laughter of the two women in the icecream shop, keep coming.

The snow mountains to the north-east of Stok Kangri gleam in the evening sun. Men and women come and go, but the mountains remain. The most we can hope for is that maybe, just maybe, the mountains will remember us when we've long turned to the dust that will bury our ruins.



Something looks out of place on the folded macpac merino top sitting neatly on top of the corner cupboard. There, on the fine black material, clings a tiny, pale, patterned gecko about the length of my little finger. I encourage it onto my hand. It feels soft but definite. I nudge it onto the wall but it immediately drops off and hides beneath the merino top. Clearly, this small sophisticated lizard has fine taste in habitats. I'm happy to leave it there and like the idea of its company.



Early one morning I pack the camera, binoculars, and a small bottle of water and step out onto the cool, dusty road. Sleepy dogs and two policemen at the lake eye me as I stride by: past the water carriers filling their oil drums before sealing them closed with tightly stretched plastic and wheeling them off to the poorer parts of town on their rickety, ragged-tyred, three-wheeled carts; past three small and dusty donkeys feeding from a rubbish pile; around the corner and into the Old Town. At the palace I begin the steady climb up the still-cool track and past the small cairns of rocks and stones that remind me of secular chortens -- the kind that seem to spring up wherever someone adds a second cairn, and so a tradition begins -- until, almost at the point where the track forks, I look up and see a chukar.

A second bird appears. Carefully I retrieve the binoculars and admire the pair -- their beige, rock-and-dust-coloured bodies and black markings with vivid red bills and legs, their typical game bird shape. They make their way along the ridge in clear view, drop out of sight on the far side, reappear, and pose against the backdrop of the mountains and blue morning sky with prayer flags fluttering overhead. When they again drop out of sight I follow with the telephoto lens mounted, but they've gone now and I catch no further sight of them, as if they've become the rocks they resemble so closely, as if saying this is enough, a photograph another time perhaps.

As I sit at the knoll, still thinking of the delight of seeing the chukar and of being here before anyone else, a small falcon comes speeding across the mountainside. When close, it spreads its tail and begins to circle, gaining height, moving closer, until finally it flies right overhead. A kestrel. Through the binoculars I can see the patterns, the colours, the details, and the intensity of this small, beautiful predator. The sun shines through its wings and tail and they glow as if illuminated by the energy of the bird itself.

Through cool shade and burning sunlight I make my way back down the track towards the Old Town, from where the smell of bread baking in tandoor ovens hundreds of years old drifts up the mountainside. The dust of Ladakh lies on my shoes, the memory of birds lingers in my heart.



The minibus that will take me away from this place will leave at one in the morning; I must report at half past midnight. Jameel and Saira insist I eat with them on this last evening, and they stay up until midnight until I have to step out the door for the last time. They hug me, and Saira gives me a long, lithe poplar stick to fend off the night dogs. Leaving this place, leaving Leh, is like leaving home, but harder -- the thought of home always contains the idea that maybe, one day at last, we will return. Now, though, I step out feeling close to undone by my time here and still not fully understanding why. I cannot leave Leh but do not know how to come back.

All these emotions. I walk on into the night with the promise of more journeying ahead. My life has been enriched immensely during these two, too-short weeks, but the present has now become the past. Somehow I must learn to let go, and to do so without diminishing the gift.

I walk on, stepping through the moon shadows, watching for dogs, listening to the knock of my poplar pole on the stony path, and wondering whether I will always be beset by the restlessness that hopes that at last it might find what it did not know it was looking for.



Notes:
1. '… the books of Jim Corbett …': Corbett, in whose honour Corbett National Park is named, was famous first for shooting numerous man-eating tigers and leopards in the region now known as Uttarakhand; later he was a vocal proponent for conservation in India. His first major book, Man-eaters of Kumaon, was published in 1944. 
2. 'Men and women come and go …': a reference to a whakatauki (loosely, a Maori saying), one version of which is ' Whatungarongaro te tangata toitū te whenua: People perish; the land remains'.
3. 'The thought of home …': 'He who returns,' Neruda said, 'has never left.' 

Photos: 
1. Getting closer to Leh on the second day of travel from Manali.
2. This tandoor bakery is reputedly 600-700 years old.
3. Dog-skull fetish, Leh Old Town.
4. Leh gompa.
5. Old town door, Leh.
6. Last light behind Leh, from the prayer flag knoll.
7. Chukar calling at Rumbak.
8. Early morning, Leh. A water carrier wheels his empty load back up the hill. On the the way down, that load will weigh the better part of a couple of hundred kilos, over 160 of those in the 44-gallon drum alone. I asked one of the men how often he did this each day. 15 times, he said.



Photos and original text © 2014 Pete McGregor