Saturday, December 27, 2008
Monday, December 22, 2008
I am accompanied by Brant Wilkinson, a teacher at
For the duration of the wedding. We do this merely to avoid confusion and questioning. Older generation Indians simply refuse to understand how two people of opposite genders who can marginally tolerate one another and have some reasonable amount of compatibility could fail to marry one another. Any explanation we could offer would be met with the international sign of complete confusion, recognizable in the thizz-face-like expression of the befuddled local who will not “wipe that stupid look off [his] face” until you tell him something he can understand like “we’re waiting to get my father’s permission” or something. Telling people you’re already married can avoid awkwardness in any culture really. For me, a source of great bitterness and heartbreak is the recent memory of Jason Goldman’s wedding wherein I was questioned as to when I was going to marry my then girlfriend (whatsername I forget) to which she immediately replied without hesitation or remorse “oh us? We’re not getting married.” It’s better just to get married for a few days and live in a romantic fantasy world and then return to reality.
The taxi moves through the alleyways in the small town of Sundarna, and Brant notices that “it’s so crowded! It’s almost like there’s 1.2 billion of them. Where’s Vikram?” They’re all little Vikrams, and as much as this sounds like a racist comment, it’s quite true as all of these people are related to Vikram in some obscure way. We find the real Vikram next to a cow with his cell phone in hand, the perfect image of the modern Indian anachronism. We exchange introductions and greetings, and then we begin a process which will take several days—the process of meeting the family. After awhile, Vikram introduces people using a clever trick which absolves us of the obligation of actually learning their names. He simply says “John this is my other Uncle.” It makes sense.
We arrived at just about the right time for lunch. In the massive courtyard which has been temporarily converted into a dining hall, there is a large full-color banner which displays Vikram, his brother Jayvir Patel (the betrothed) alongside their mother and grandmother. Above the family, there is a little floating head of someone who looks photo-shopped into this family portrait. I ask Brant if he recognizes this man whom we have not met but is displayed as an integral part of the family unit in this portrait. Brant tells the story of the Patel American Dream, which he recounts according to his best memories of the event(s).
The Patel Family moved to Salinas California when Vikram and Jayvir were children, or perhaps before they were born, I don’t remember. They immediately purchased a convenience store, apparently unconcerned about reinforcing that old stereotype. This was of course in the worst part of town. After several years of the type of happy living that’s possible only for the recently immigrated that are working toward a “better future,” life took that tragic American turn, and there was violence in the East Salinas Kwik-E- Mart. Mr. Patel dove in front of a bullet to save his son and was killed, which explains why I have not yet heard the words “John this is my father.”
But the enormous family soldiers on, benefactors of the cultural stoicism that has witnessed death and hardship since before the time of Buddha, and ever since. I am not surprised when I don’t hear the words “John, this is my step-father.” Vikram’s mother is a widow for life, evidence of the triumph of the old world over the new world, a battle just as ambiguous and unresolved as the battle between nature and nurture.
As Laurel is whisked off to the “girls’ side” of today’s festivities, we realize that old world wins as long as the relatives and the ever watchful eyes of propriety are present. And they will always be present. So for the moment, despite her arrival into my life just a night earlier, after a 3 year absence, Laurel is gone to begin preparing for the wedding with the girls, and to talk (no doubt) about whatever it is girls discuss when they are doing each other’s hair. I think this may have been a good thing despite my reluctance to part with her, because Laurel has purchased three Saris and has no idea how to wear them.
Brant and I wander around the wedding ceremonies for awhile, absorbing the old world wedding music which has live singers, horns of some kind, and an assortment of drums. When the song ends, the mooing of cows complements the brief silence before the next song begins. We follow the band as it marches down the street in the fashion of a spontaneous parade, until we are strong-armed off the street and into the house of yet another relative.
We sit and drink Chai-Tea in this new and unfamiliar house belonging to Vikram’s other aunt, and are received as honored guests there as well. As we sit and pour tea from the cup to the saucer, slurping it loudly as per the custom, we notice that people from the village are walking in and out of the house freely without warning or invitation. During a wedding, it is explained to us, the whole village is as communal property. This presents a unique contrast to Salinas where walking into a neighbors house unannounced is likely to result in a shooting. It seems quaint and warm to me, but that is only until someone walks into the room where I am changing into my wedding clothes. All notions of privacy that I have heretofore relied upon are gone now, and I must ready myself to share the floor where I will sleep tonight alongside12 strangers.
As we sit and talk with the relatives, we can’t help but bring up some of the infamous events in the history of Gujarat, and Ahmedabad, the closest large city. Although this region seems peaceful now, we are told not to stray too far into the “Muslim area of town.” As recently as two years ago, a band of Muslim zealots hi-jacked a train and slaughtered it’s occupants as a protest over India-Pakistan relations, which many interpret through the lens of Muslim-Hindu relations. As revenge for the massacre, Hindu residents of Gujarat went to every Muslim household and killed the father of the family, in many cases burning them alive in front of their families. The women and children were made to march out of the province and into Pakistan. Owing to the fact that civil servants in India are intolerably corrupt, the police did nothing. The events seem almost forgotten now, beyond the warning to stay away from the Muslim areas. Even in this volatile environment, members of this family fear America and love their home, a sentiment that is mirrored by my American friends in reverse. "I'm mortified that you're in India" was one reaction to my travels. I'm sure that someone in the Patel family could be heard uttering "I'm mortified that you're going to America" to the young married couple, in the relatively obscure language of Gujarati, somewhere past the braying sound of the cows.
Friday, December 19, 2008
Which pretty much describes our sentiments after about 2 and a half hours.
A word on culture-- Since we understand neither the language nor the folkways that inform Indian cinema, we have to continually guess at meaning. I assume that the female protagonist in the movie is falling in love with the "hot" version of her husband, but she is struggling to remain faithful to the Steve Urkel version because of the culture she lives in which is extremely sexually conservative. It's so sexually conservative that they simply assume that there will be no infidelity. This frees them from the poisonous prison of jealousy and suspicion, or so I assume from watching this movie. In one scene, the female protagonist comes home and tells her husband that she will not be sharing the meal she has prepared for him because she has just had an eating contest with her dance partner (also her husband--are you following this ok?) and is no longer hungry. To continue the ruse, dork husband has to sit through the meal and act as he is enjoying the food even though he too has just stuffed 50 somosas down his maw to celebrate their dance victory (as his alter ego- and therefore unrecognizable now). This sets up a bit of comedy as he then goes down and lays on the bed and groans for a very long time at his over-stuffed belly. The interesting thing though, is how husband and wife are able to openly talk about what essentially would amount to infidelity in a westernized culture (just because of the possibility for sex to follow). I find it interesting that the woman in the movie makes no attempt to conceal her relationship with her dance partner (which is way too intimate for comfort) simply because it's so unspeakable that she would cheat on her husband. This is of course entirely a huge assumption on my part, since most of the time I have no idea what's going on in this movie.
I thoroughly enjoyed watching this film. Not because of the film itself, that part was absolute nonsense, but because of the experience of inventing an explanation for the events as the film progressed. I had no idea what was going on moment to moment, so I had no choice but to construct reality as I went. This led me to a profound realization about myself-- that I simply prefer my version of the truth to the actual truth which is perhaps more true.
Thursday, December 18, 2008
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
We sit in the front of a 20 foot-long skiff and glide slowly upstream through the languid river in the fog. In the middle of the river, I cannot see either bank, and I can barely discern the upright figure of the boatman who propels us across with a 10 foot bamboo pole which lightly graces the silt on the river bottom. The fog seems to absorb all light, and the only sound is the lazy current lapping over the gunwale. It's not just quiet; it's silent. This is intolerable so I say "alright everybody-- we're on Safari now-- Australian accents all day long. Crikey!" For my companions, this is funny. At first.
Maybe it's the wild red berries or maybe I'm just due, but what Americans euphemize as "nature's call" is strong and I've forgotten my bogroll! I have to go to the dunnie way bad mate, and there's nothing here but croc infested swamp and high grass concealing all sorts of venomous snakes! It's very treacherous!
"Eloise! Do you have any toilet paper?" I plead.
"A real Australian would just use a leaf." she mumbles.
"Well, I'm not..."
Oh yeah. I suppose I have some shortcomings as an Australian, but it's still my first day and there's a learning curve. I can't go in the bushes! There might be bugs in there! Whatever! I know who I am! I walk over to the military post where we have stopped and ask them which way to the bathroom. My face must have betrayed my urgency, because they laughed heartily and pointed. Whatever again! I'll just do this and then go back to being a real bushman. As I wander over to the loo, I wonder whether I've crossed the line with my shenanigans. Will Eloise tell her friends that I was "cheeky"?
Even though I repeat my mantra of "no worries," these and other worries propel me back into my American wuss-dom.
Tuesday, December 9, 2008
I hope this letter gets to you ok, because the mail service out here leaves something to be desired. I am sitting in a crowded bus station waiting for my train to Delhi. As with any spiritual journey, I have many questions profound and significant. Why is that woman lifting her young son in the air so that he can pee in the water fountain from which others are drinking? Why is there a cow inside the indoor bus station? I didn't think there was any room on this bench-- why is this strange man attempting to sit on my lap? Is that a dead body over there?
As I walk to ponder these questions and many more, an extremely loud car horn startles me and I look up momentarily instead of watching my feet as I go. Bad move. I step on something soft. It's a dead rat. There are many people peeing in the street, not very discreetly.
But it's the gross things you don't expect that are truly gross. I expect excrement of every concievable sort in the footpath. That's normal. I expect people of all ages and descriptions to regurgitate giant wads of multicolored phlegm onto the street. That's ok. I expect dead things all over and giant piles of burning garbage. Yeah. Somehow I find it shocking though to see an 80 year old woman playing with her naked breasts in the middle of the road. That was a little weird.
I'm having so much fun! I'm wishing you a Merry Christmas, and I hope everyone is well!
Oh yeah, and could you remember to feed the fish? Speaking of fish (and other animals) even though people are starving to death in the streets out here, no one messes with the cows who wander around and disrupt traffic, eating trash all day. Isn't that strange? I find it very interesting. The label on my water reminds the consumer to "kindly crush bottle after use" so I crush it up with great love and care and then toss it into the street.
Miss you! Say Hello to everyone for me!
Sunday, December 7, 2008
I thought I would be the only reporter at the World Championships of Elephant Polo, but I was scooped by some jackass from Playboy. Nonetheless, I consider it an important task to chronicle this event for The Fuck-It List, being that it was exactly the sort of postmodern fiasco I was directly seeking. So here goes:
When Hemingway said "there are only three true sports; Auto Racing, Bullfighting and Mountain Climbing. All the rest are children's games at which men play," he was definitely full of shit. A real man's game is elephant polo.
I enlisted the assistance of a Nepali friend of mine to journey to the outskirts of Royal Chitwan National Park, where we would catch the finale of this bizarre sport. We arrived a little late and our driver parks next to a long row of bicycles. Strangely, these are the only other vehicles aside from our Datsun with a statue of the many armed Vishnu glued to the dash. Apparently, people come from as many as eight miles away to watch the death-defying competition!
The game has already begun. We watch a pack of elephants lumber from one side of a square field demarcated with white chalk at the perimeter, chasing a tiny ball which white people swing at with sticks that must be about 12 feet long. The elephants shuffle over to the other corner of the field, and not very quickly I might add, after one guy successfully hits the ball. A loudspeaker announcer chronicles the action in a stuffy British accent. My companions and I ponder what is going on, but our different interpretations of the events remind me, ironically, of the parable of the blind men and the elephant. "I think he just scored a goal" says Eloise. "I think he just got scored on" says Rob, and we fight about it.
We are very unclear on who to root for. There is a USA team, but they were eliminated yesterday. Nearest I can tell, it's one Nepali team, the "Pukka Chukkas" versus another Nepali team, the "Tuskers." I burst into laughter when one elephant pauses to relieve himself. This takes quite awhile, and when the elephant is done, three men run onto the field with a stretcher like one would use to evacuate a wounded football player and scoop the giant turds away and off the field. Play continues as this operation is performed, since the turd scoopers (are they members of the "untouchables" caste?) will have plenty of time to move out of the way should the elephants chase the tiny ball and plod in their general direction.
The experience for me is a bit poignant because I can remember the exact situation wherein I last witnessed an elephant relieving himself. I was at the zoo with my father, in a time when the zoo was a very convenient and enjoyable Saturday activity, and thoughts of "are the animals happy in the zoo?" did not yet plague my seven-year-old brain. One of the elephants stops making noise or shuffling around to entertain the onlookers, and begins delivering what would remind anyone of military footage of a B-52 delivering it's payload over some civilian city proclaimed an enemy of America. "Pile it on there pal" my dad says, which is sufficiently hilarious for both my brother and myself to laugh in unison for the next 5 minutes, briefly forgetting that he put gum in my hair and he told on me and he did it first.
The elephants chase the polo ball and become entangled in one furious clump of 12-foot-long sticks swinging. One polo club breaks and someone rushes onto the field to replace it. The announcer notes that "this is the third broken stick in the last three minutes." This is because all of the elephants are now in one big stick swinging tussle, and no one is moving. Uneventfully, the game ends. We have no idea who won, our feelings of nationalism quelled by our disappointment in the American team who had lost 2 days earlier. I'm not surprised as it would be just as implausible for Americans to practice their sport with real elephants as for Jamaicans to practice on real ice. I find out later that they simulate elephant polo by riding atop their landrovers and swinging clubs.
We move in the general direction of the great waves of onlookers, thinking there must be some pomp and circumstance yet to be witnessed. It's the award ceremony where the British announcer guy is calling for "three cheers for Jim Edwards" who is the pith helmet wearing Brit who founded the sport, head of WEPA (World Elephant Polo Association), and owns "Tiger Tops" the prestigious hotel where many of the elephants are housed. They actually do the "hip-hip-hooray" three times, which conjures up another childhood memory—I won't say which one, and Jim Edwards, "the most chivalrous man on earth," comes out to give a speech. He gives out many awards, one to the reigning champions, the Scottish team who are led by their number one player, the Thirteenth Duke of Argyll. Of course all of this is hearsay because I can't see through the crowd.
All of this talk of chivalry inspires me to lift Eloise onto my shoulders so at least one of us can see. She says "there are signs. They say 'live with chivalry.' The elephants are lined up in a row. They seem to be giving some sort of prize." Seeing our genuine desire to be part of the action, our Nepali friend "Hup" suggests we muscle our way through the ropes and into the inner circle. After all, we're white—we'll get away with it.
We sit behind the New York team, recognizable by their metro-sexual style uniforms. So far, the ceremonies have lasted longer than the actual game. The "Master of the Royal House in Scotland" presents the "Golden Moment" award. I wish my brother was here. He'd say "golden moment? That's my favorite kind of porn." The award itself is a sort of trophy depicting a polo player atop an elephant, leaning aggressively off the side of the beast, as if at high speed, something we didn't see anyone doing. They give the Nepali team a prize for winning, but instead of a trophy, they give the team captain a goat, which he hoists into the air. He's stoked to have a goat, and I'm sure he wonders why the Brits in the background are chuckling in their restrained way.
The German woman seated next to me asks me to explain this word "chivalry." I try my best, not really understanding the concept very well myself. I try to tell her that it means "politeness" but to me there are extensive connotations of sexist behavior, the sort which women often appreciate, as if to say "yes, I like the chair scooted out for me and then pushed in once I have seated myself." I say "it's good manners, especially toward women" and I explain that the knights of the round table used to protect the queen and they had this code, and as I'm saying it, I can't recall how much of this "knowledge" I'm preaching is pure elephant shit.
The "New York Blues" as they're called, go up to the front to accept their "best dressed award." They look silly in their matching white pants, aviator shades, red ball caps and blue vests, but I can assume that this look was carefully planned. Compared to the pith-helmet guy they are the best dressed. "We couldn't go home if we didn't win this one," one of them leans over and says to me.
Lastly, they pay tribute to the "packies." I assume this is less a British slur for Pakistani and more an abbreviation for Pachyderm. Jim Edwards salutes the elephants with "ramro hati, dane baht" I think, which means "beautiful elephant, thank you." All of the elephants hoot or snort or whatever you call that noise they make. A host of zoo related memories once again churn through my elephant brain.
We shuffle over to the car, and I open the door for Eloise, having just learned the importance of chivalry and proud, by virtue of my skin color, to be part of a vast imperialistic tradition.
Monday, December 1, 2008
I was never a very good teacher. This was mostly because I refused to take the job seriously, and I always insisted on having fun, sometimes at the expense of the educational experience I was paid to provide. But my idiosyncrasies as a teacher, despite the personal shortcomings they revealed, were ironically what attracted many of my students to my classroom. I was always surprised when the pain-in-the-ass student who made my life hell all day long would inevitably say at the end of the year “this is like, my favorite class” like some sort of awkward thankyou or reluctant religious confession. As one student put it in a note she wrote to me at the end of the year “from your choice of wardrobe to your unabashed refusal to wash your car, your whole demeanor was something completely foreign to me. You as my English teacher were someone I simply couldn't understand for a very long time, maybe not until it was too late in the year for it to matter.” That pretty much sums it up.
When some friends of mine in Kathmandu suggested that I volunteer at a remote school near the beginning of the Everest trek, I hesitated thinking that I could screw these kids up really bad. American kids are resilient; they’re used to the lack of sanity displayed by their adult counterparts in the schools. Nepali children might not bounce back from being exposed to an English teacher like me. But when my friend Ritik voiced his intention to teach them the theme song from “Family Ties” I figured I might fit in with plans like that.
On the morning when we were supposed to leave for the village of Deusa, I read the following article in “The Himalayan” an English-language newspaper in Kathmandu.
Wild Boar in School
NAWAL PARASI—A school was shut on Monday afternoon after a wild boar suddenly came out of the jungle and ran amok on the school premises. Teachers of Bhimsen High School in Devchuli vacated the staff room at the sight of the wild boar. Though the wild boar was overpowered, nobody has come to collect it from the forest office or Chitwan National Park, said a school source.
As my companions for this educational exchange mused on what mishaps they could expect out of this adventure, I pointed out how funny I thought it was that the writer of this article used the phrase “wild boar” repetitively, when many synonyms exist. “You are an English teacher” said the girl. “Not any more” I replied, and as they discussed the various logistics and their apprehensions regarding the trip, I spaced out and quietly mused on how funny I thought it was that the three brands of bottled water that sat on our table at the cafe were called “Thirst-Pi,” “Thirst-TA,” and “Aquasoon.” That shit cracks me up.
Chapter 2.5 : Fear
Chapter 3: Short attention Span
We were guided along the trail by several teachers from the school who probably should’ve been at work. Who would teach the children? What about the children? Don’t these people care about the children? They introduced themselves and we noticed that most of their names ended in “Rai” which meant that they were from the Rai tribe, ethnic group or whatever. They were not Sherpas, which meant that they were probably even more impoverished than the porters up-valley toward the Everest massif, who make a good deal of money from tourists like us.
I’ve heard it said that there are three national religions in Nepal—Hinduism, Buddhism, and Tourism. When we finally arrived at the place where we would lodge ourselves for the next 7 days, we found out that the hotel proprietors adhered to none of these, but rather had been introduced (rather unfortunately in my opinion) to the religion of the white imperialists, Christianity. Unwilling to give their newborn a traditional name, but apparently completely willing to make her a pariah for life, they had christened her “Evangelina.” I knew they were not Hindu when I did not observe the many depictions of the various deities of Hinduism, as is typical in Hindu households. Later when we discovered a huge hairy spider right above the bed where I was to spend the night, we asked for assistance from the hotel proprietor to help this lovely creature on its way. He saw the spider on the wall, and promptly removed his shoe which he used to end the inherently miserable life of said spider. This is when I learned that they weren’t Buddhists.
What followed the next day was possibly one of the strangest experiences of my life.
We walk 45 minutes to the school accompanied by one of the teachers, Tej Rai, who has insisted on guiding us. As we approach the schoolhouse , we notice that many students are lined up on a soccer field sized grassy area enclosed by the school buildings which resemble the “portable” trailer style classrooms that everyone complained about at Salinas High, except they’re made out of mud. “Why are the students lined up there like that?” we ask. Tej Rai, an English teacher whose English sounded abysmal to us (like how I imagine an American Spanish teacher must sound to the ears of a Spaniard) replied that the students who come to school dirty or late must line up like this every day. “That’s a lot of dirt late kids” we remarked as we plodded down trail. We found out soon that Tej Rai had lied to us. Those students were lined up like that so that they could meet us.
The students then marched to their various classrooms to the furious beat of a drum, and we were ushered into the staff lounge where we sat with the other teachers with no particular sense of urgency. Eloise picked up a Nepali-English dictionary, and performed what I like to call a “dictionary-dip” wherein the “dipper” opens the book to a random page and points at a word with his or her eyes closed. This word will foretell your immediate future. The word was “non-conformist.”
Eloise asks Mohan Shrestha, another English teacher educated in Darjeeling, what the plan is for the day and he replies with frantic hand gestures “no, no, no, no plan.” This is more in line with my philosophy, so I’m ok with it, but Eloise looks mortified. Mohan says “ok, lets go” and we march over to a small mud room with a tin roof and a big red 8 painted on the wall. It’s the eighth grade, but the students range in age from 13 to 18. As we enter, all of the students stand and greet us in unison with something that translates to “hello master.” Mohan introduces us in Nepali, tells them to sit and then grabs me by the hand to take me elsewhere. Eloise and I attempt a protest, not wanting to be separated in this strange place, but he insists and I depart for the ninth grade as she sends me a look of desperation which communicated “don’t leave me here” very clearly and urgently. But I was dragged away to another classroom to do what I do so well-- torturing students without having developed a plan in advance.
What is your name?
Where do you live?
Do you have brothers and sisters?
How many animals do you have?
These were things which they all had in common as the Rai men and women are breeders and no family is smaller than 10 people. They also seem to have extensive knowledge of animals. This discussion led to a lesson on singular versus plural because none of the children seems to have a very good grip on these concepts. I wrote the following sentence on the board as an example: I have three chickens, four goats, one cat, one dog, two cows and four…” I paused in writing the sentence when I realized that the plural of “ox” is not “oxes” but “oxen.” Dammit! These are the kinds of things that really confuse a non-native English speaker. A bell rang and another teacher arrived to take my place.
I went to the next classroom, as it is the custom for the teachers to move from class to class rather than making the students move around, and wrote Sonnet 14 (“shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”) on the board. I made them copy it and say it in unison, which seemed like a good way to work on pronunciation. When Mohan arrived and saw what I had done he said “John, I would like to discuss your teaching.” I had heard this several times before from principals and department chairs, and it was usually not a good thing. Once, it heralded the arrival of the secret service. Another time, a student who thought me to be irresponsible reported to the principal that I had delivered a sexist joke. In the meeting with my principal that ensued I defended myself in the manner of Alberto Gonzales claiming “I do not recall” over and over when questioned as to what I had said. I never admitted that I said “with so many battered women out there, why am I always eating mine plain?” Dear reader, lest you decide to judge me, I’ll swear it was related to our curriculum.
Turns out Mohan wanted suggestions. He led me out into the courtyard for lunch which consisted of a giant pile of oranges. As testament to the landfill of mental garbage that clutters my mind, I couldn’t stop thinking about an incident from a tv show I had recently witnessed. Mohan droned on about planning and teaching and such and I thought about this woman on television being asked to name a word that rhymes with orange.
Interviewer: name a word that rhymes with orange.
Woman: Ummm…. Morange?
Interviewer: ok. Can you define ‘morange’?
Woman: more oranges? Please?
I looked up from my pile of peels and Mohan was looking at me having just asked a question, awaiting my answer. “Umm, yeah. I think you’ve got a good school here.” He looked at me skeptically and we ate “morange” is silence.
Chapter 7: Busy
Luckily, the next day was a holiday. Of the seven or eight days we spent in Deusa, at least half were holidays. They work hard there, but they can play hard too.
We were brought to a big rock outcropping above the school where they believe holy things reside. There was a tarp with bamboo poles at the ends which created a makeshift shelter which sheltered several “Shamans” from the unforgiving mountain sun. The Shamans wore ceremonial garb consisting of a feather headdress, long robes with bells attached and colorful strings of beads. Before Rob And Ritik arrived, both ER doctors from Seattle, these holy men were the healers for the village. When we arrived at the festival they were busy healing themselves with copious amounts of “chang” a homemade rice beer, which isn’t bad—not bad at all.
Thursday, November 20, 2008
It was Fabrizio’s birthday and he was spending it in a tent that was meant for 2 people, but now held three. I occupied the awkward but not unfamiliar honor of official third wheel. Luckily, Fabrizio was ready and willing to provide birthday entertainment.
We all lay there in our sleeping bags trying not to move around too much and get comfortable in our claustrophobia at 20,000 feet. We observed three tent rules: no snoring; no coughing; everyone turn over at the same time. These rules aside, everyone was free to perform any number of disgusting bodily functions from blowing snot all over a sock or another handy piece of clothing, to urinating inside a bottle without leaving the comfort of your sleeping bag being careful not to overflow or spill, to grooming your beard with a fork. One member of our tent would not groom a beard that night.
Corinne Favre had proven herself to be an incredible athlete and a worthy candidate for a summit attempt on the Southwest Ridge of Pumori, a peak just over 7000 meters near the Everest area of the Nepal Himalaya. She had won titles in the French Mountain Marathon and in ski mountaineering, and was as fit of an athlete as I’ve ever climbed with.
Fabrizio keeps the both of us entertained with a little game. He listens to his IPOD and attempts to sing whatever song is playing. Fabrizio admits that he is not a good singer, but I suspect that he purposefully is attempting to butcher these tunes even worse than necessary, and soon he has me in a fit of laughter that lasts for several hours. Corinne borrows one earbud and joins in, and in a French accent, the situation is way more hilarious than before. “you’re beautifow! It’s trew! Ah foun’ your face in (mumbles) place an I don know whah to dooo!” I have never laughed so hard in my life. I know that part of this is altitude, but right at that moment I recognize that Fabrizio has a gift.
I myself have spent many birthdays in the mountains. One time on Denali my partners for the West Rib got me a singing birthday card which we could not figure out how to silence. I remember listening to “happy birthday” through the snow where we failed to bury it deep enough. On other occasions we may have been near a bar or just returning from the mountains but I always found it depressing to be away from loved ones when I turned one year older. If Fabrizio was depressed, he didn’t say so and he kept us laughing until well into the night. Strangely, it was one of the best nights I can remember having in the mountains. I listened to the ipod as I feel asleep with Jerry Garcia crooning “when life looks like easy street there is danger at your door.” Little did I know how true this would become for us in the next 24 hours, as more than one of us would be desperately clinging to life physically and emotionally.
All through the night, Corinne broke rule number two, the one about coughing. In the morning it was clear that she needed to descend instead of climbing to Camp 2 as planned, up the mixed snow and rock on the Southwest Ridge. Fabrizio said he would descend with her and come back up the ropes that night so that he and I could go to Camp 2 the following day. I was to stay at camp, dry the sleeping bags and organize the contents of the tent because “alpinism is about discipline” and our tent looked very undisciplined with clif-goo stuck to the floor, pee bottles mingling confusingly with bottles of gatorade, instant meal wrappers strewn about and a host of other messes to take care of.
As I watched them rappel from the lines fixed out of camp, I worried about Corinne because she looked shaky and fearful, perhaps displaying the first signs of altitude illness. A moment after they left, Fabrizio peeked his head in and said “maybe you’d better come down to basecamp with us” and we agreed that I would follow them in an hour or so.
I prepared to descend. When there’s no rush, I am famously slow. Once, when abandoning camp in the Paron Valley of Peru’s Cordillera Blanca, I was taking my time and chatting to my climbing partner while chewing Coca leaves, and complaining at how they weren’t affecting me. “Maybe I need to chew more?” I asked my climbing partner, to which he replied “would that make you tie your boots any faster?” The only person slower than me is my Dad, and I’m probably the only person he knows who doesn’t nag him about it. So it could’ve been almost 2 hours from the time Fabrizio left with Corinne to the time I followed, zipping up the tent and shouldering my pack as I rappelled.
I didn’t want to take my time descending the fixed ropes under camp one. The terrain is exceedingly steep, nearing vertical for a few bulges of snow and ice. I handle this kind of terrain very boldly, having been on similar ground many times. The complexity of the snow formations on a steep face can be a frightening array of flutings and precarious gargoyles that taunt and threaten and dwarf the climber. I have spent time tunneling, straddling, or using pickets to climb snow like this, and I didn’t dawdle in my descent. I looked over my shoulder down the ropes and saw a tiny dot in the snow which I thought was Fabrizio and Corinne sitting on the less steep glacier below the headwall I was descending. After awhile though, the tiny dot on the snow hadn’t moved. I rappelled past what I didn’t realize at the time were blood stains on the snow.
When I reached the low angled glacier which traverses left to a series of gulleys which lead to the toe of a rock buttress where Advanced Basecamp sits, I found that Fabrizio and Corinne had tethered their packs to a picket for the traverse. I didn’t have much weight, so I repacked their gear into my pack and continued traversing. I rounded the corner, and that’s when I saw her. She was sitting in the snow with her helmet pushed back on her head, blood on her face and in her mouth--on her teeth which were visible as she moaned and gasped for air. “I need help!” he cried as I frontpointed over to their position with haste. She was slumped in her harness and having a hard time standing. Fabrizio didn’t explain right away except to mention that “it came from the left, from above” and “big piece of ice.” He downplayed the fact that the ice had struck him too and he soldiered on, engineering the entire rescue with a radio to basecamp telling our cook to climb to Advance Base Camp with a rope. He barked orders in an officious manner which was essential to the situation, not allowing for the all too well known rescue situation malady known as “analysis paralysis.” He took charge, instructing me to grab her harness and help to lower her onto the fixed lines. Several times he carried her when she couldn’t stand, exhibiting the kind of superhuman strength reserved for people in crisis situations whose blood chemistry is altered to contain massive levels of adrenaline-- the kind of people who lift cars to save a loved one. It was like watching something like that.
My job was to rappel and watch above constantly for falling rock and ice. When we reached the end of the ropes, I took the radio down to basecamp to try to organize a recue carry with Sherpas from another expedition who had arrived earlier that day. By that time, Lhakpa-Tshering Sherpa, our basecamp cook and sirdar, had arrived with a tumpline and basket. Over the next few hours, he and another Sherpa took turns carrying Corinne down the steep boulders and scree to basecamp.
Back in basecamp, the Sherpas from the other expedition made me eat some food and then they went in separate directions, one to get help and the other to help with carrying Corinne. I had the duty of awkwardly introducing myself to a friend of Corinne’s from France who had recently arrived in basecamp for a visit and had not yet heard the news. He insisted in participating in the rescue and left with me for ABC, where we could see them descending. I found the medical kit, the satellite phone, her passport and personal effects, the bag with the expedition’s money, and carried them up again to Fabrizio.
When I met them, Lhakpa had the tumpline across his forehead and Corinne was in the basket atop his back, and he was stumbling down the trail. I met Fabrizio who had sat down to rest for a moment, and I attempted to talk to him about his own injuries. His eyes had not the ten mile stare you would expect, but instead a keenly aware and panicked expression. He looked at me and said that he watched her tumble down the slope head-over-heels after she was hit by a falling piece of ice the size of a coffee table. “It just rag-dolled her” he kept repeating. “When I reached her from the fixed lines below and tried to resuscitate her, I thought she was dead” he told me. Long into that night, as we carried her into the town of Gorak Shep, where we tried to arrange a helicopter, he cried and broke down and asked if there wasn’t something more he could’ve done.
The Sherpas labor over Corinne, taking turns carrying her as she sits like a drunken queen inside the basket. We try to support her and prevent her from moving around too much as she moans and tries to find a position of comfort. I help by holding a Sherpa’s hand to support him as he struggles over the boulders. He is only 5 feet 5 inches tall and can’t weigh much more than 130 pounds himself. Sherpas are known for this kind of strength but sometimes their work overwhelms them. On Mt. Everest alone, Sherpas account for over a third of the deaths.
Corinne arrives at basecamp in time for Dave to stride up the trail. Dave has been sick for almost a week, and has been absent from basecamp affairs until precisely this moment when his training as an EMT becomes exceedingly necessary. He does a full exam while I fill in a soap note and he notices a large mass in her abdomen which is extremely alarming as it is a sign of internal bleeding. I am most worried about Corinne’s head injury, and I monitor her for signs in mental status as we load her onto a plastic SKED, which we have borrowed from the new arrivals in basecamp who stand there, mouths agape. The light fades, and we begin carrying her to Gorak Shep.
I hold one of the handles of the SKED alongside a Sherpa who has borrowed my headlamp so that we can both see. I carry one water bottle. The trek to Gorak Shep is arduous and crosses the unstable moraine, weaving in and out of huge boulders. We stop every few minutes to assess our patient, and some of the Sherpas drink chang “to keep warm” they say.
We arrive outside the lodges in Gorak Shep and we lay Corinne on the ground where a crowd of onlookers surrounds her and gapes, none of them needing to be there. I try to clear them away, but it is like shooing ravenous birds from a pile of sunflower seeds. They converse in languages I don’t understand while we look for a doctor. We rush into the tea house where there are maybe 50 guests. We ask for a doctor and several hands shoot up. We specify a doctor that speaks French, the language with which Corinne has the most ease in conversation, and a few hands remain in the air. These people’s occupation for the next 12 hours will be to attend to Corinne and prevent her death, which grows more and more imminent as she struggles to breathe.
The doctors work on her in a small and dimly lit room in the back of the tea house. The pulse oximeter tells us she has a blood oxygen saturation of 40 percent, which is dangerously low. My job becomes to go on a search for oxygen.
I run to a nearby lodge where I know Tim Rippel stores his equipment for Mt. Evferest expeditions in the Spring. I make a phone call to a lodge in another village and Tim comes to the phone but informs me that he has bottles, but no mask, so there is no way to put Corinne on oxygen using his supplies. I buy a Chinese made aerosol can of oxygen and return with that. Fabrizio gives me a look, and we put the primitive device to use by shoving a small tube up her nose. Her oxygen saturation rises by two percentage points for 10 minutes and then drops once more.
Things look grim until a mysterious Nepali gentleman arrives and offers to sell us his oxygen for 400 dollars. He is the deus- ex- machina of the moment, and Corinne has a chance now, the doctors say. I go to sleep on the small bench next to Corinne in Dave’s sleeping bag. He won’t need it, because he’ll stay awake all night to monitor her vitals. I lay atop some sliced sections of a once beautiful Kashmiri rug tailored to fit the narrow bench. My eyes scan around the room to the French doctors to the Kerosene can dangerously next to the fireplace which burns dried yak dung, to the poster of the Japanese guy dunking himself in the frozen lake with Mt. Everest in the background and a sign reading “Happy New Year 2008.” My gaze comes to rest on the poster of Ama Dablam’s Camp One, a frightening perch which seen alone as a snapshot of climbing presents a very exciting picture indeed and does not represent at all the doldrums that I myself experienced on that mountain in 2001. Perhaps, I think as I drift into sleep, a better portrait of climbing would be to picture a guy looking bored with a copy of War and Peace torn in thirds to limit weight.
The next morning I awake and find my friends still attending to Corinne with the French doctors. At considerable personal expense, Fabrizio has arranged for a helicopter evacuation. As usual, it is several hours past the estimated arrival time, being as how this is a country where nothing operates on time. Ask 3 different people on the street in Kathmandu for the time, and the answer will differ by up to 30 minutes, no doubt.
The helicopter touches down to a throng of onlookers. When we load Corinne into the helicopter, the pilot tells Dave that he cannot take additional passengers, so Dave’s plan of going along to make sure Corinne is in good hands and makes it to the hospital is impossible. He gives the pilot a note for the doctors. This note is never seen again. The helicopter takes off and stirs a cloud of dust from the empty lakebed that serves as a helipad. It struggles to get off the ground, and flies toward trekkers, who run away and for a moment we think it’s going to crash to earth. It gains a bit of height and flies over the nearby rooftop, clearing it by inches, then disappears down the valley. Later doctors tell us that Corinne had only a fifty percent chance of surviving that helicopter flight due to the change in pressure alone.
Fabrizio and Dave go to the tea house and sleep on the benches. Fabrizio’s tears do not serve to diminish my vision of him as a great hero. We repeat that there was nothing more he could’ve done, but he started walking back to Kathmandu later that night because he is determined to make sure that Corinne lives, as there have arisen many logistical problems relating to her care in the hospital. He left Dave in charge of money, told us what to pack in his bags and went running down the trail in the darkness.
Days later I find myself alone at camp one packing up Corinne’s remaining belongings from the tent. As I climb up a very steep chimney filled with ice I wonder why it wasn’t me that day. Why have I survived when others have not? At the exact point where I stand at this moment, a friend of mine, a Sherpa I climbed with on two expeditions, fell 1000 feet when the rope he was clipped to failed. As I clip the fixed rope, the only logical answer I can muster to this nagging of question of “why wasn’t it me below the icefall that day?” is that someday it will be. "Fuck it" I think and I snap a photo, turning around and thinking about the difficult task of descending with our supplies that now faces me.