Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Saved by a Piece of Shit

It is 1997 and we are on the 15th day of a planned five week medical mission in Central Tibet.  It is almost noon.  Dr. Baum and I are walking along hard, dry, uneven earth between a small 6 house settlement and a large blue lake in the distance.  We've been on the road since 0600 from our last deserted location and if there is a middle of nowhere, we have found it.  The sky is the color of blue usually reserved for Carribean seas and fast moving  crystal colored clouds form and disperse in the time it takes to blink an eye. Everything else is brown and dusty.  The air is so dry that your tears evaporate before they ever hit the ground. The last unpronounceable Chinese city we came from was the last bit of civilization we'd seen for the eight hour drive over dirt and gravel roads. We drove through dried riverbeds with boulders the size of small children that shook the Toyota Landcruiser like a big rattle.  We attempted to tie our Tibetan prayer scarves (called Kata's) from the door handles and around our bodies as make-shift stabilizers, but this didn't work.  Eight hours on the road and we felt like we'd been beaten with sticks.

Our Chinese driver (we  decided to call him "Chuck") was clearly an outstanding and seasoned pro behind the wheel.  He was a machine.  He knew every centimeter of the Landcruiser, negotiating stretches of land with roads carved only for Yak  and farm equipment.  He never smiled and he chain-smoked local unfiltered Chinese cigarettes.  He had driven Westerners before and even brought along his favorite Western music cassette tape specifically for our listening enjoyment.  We listened to hour after hour of timeless classics like "She's a Barbie girl in a Barbie World," Let's Talk About Sex" and our personal favorite, "You Got To Lick It..........Before You Stick It."  If the tape ended he just turned it over.  When he'd get distracted Dr. Baum or I would reach over the front seat and switch the tape to some Tom Waits. We wanted to give him a little musical pay-back.   Chuck was not feeling Tom Waits.  He would just scowl  and shake his head.  After fifteen minutes he'd change the tape back.  International Road Rules:  If you've got the wheel, you choose the tunes.  
Santa is alive and well and hiding in Tibet

This was my first international medical mission and I'm forever indebted to Dr. Baum for recommending I join the crew of doctors on this one.  This group, SEVA Foundation, is a sight-saving group and generally only brings along Ophthalmologists who can set up a make shift operating room in a school auditorium and crank out 75-100 cataract surgeries in a single sitting.  I do not do eye surgery, but I suppose they wanted a doctor along who could handle everything else that happens medically below the nose and above the ground.  This was  good luck for me.  Usually a neophyte  international medical man would have to climb his way up through dull medical missions like doing physical examinations in New Mexican Indian reservations or vaccinating the masses in Chiapas, Mexico.  These are pre-requisites before even considering skipping levels to the exciting and exotic less-trodden charity zones of Africa and Asia. Working in Tibet was the dream.  Everyone wants to work in Tibet, but there is a well-worn path towards getting to this kind of NGO experience.  Luckily I've never been good at waiting and I was in the right place at the right time. Grabbing Tibet for a first medical mission is like seeing the Superbowl for your first football game.  The Buddhists in Tibet would just call it Karma.  

Tibetan Mastiff:  The Clubber Lang of Tibetan dogs
But  here in the middle of the Tibet plateau, deep in the desolate and beautiful Nakchu region, our Karma had just turned south.  As we stood in the middle of the Chang Tang  tundra, 16,000 feet above the sea with nothing but blue sky in all direction, we were suddenly staring face to face with a snarling, angry eighty pound Tibetan Mastiff. And he was charging straight at us.

Chang Tang is Tibetan for "lonely place."  It seems like the perfect location for someone who wants a 100% guarantee to never be found or the ideal place for   anti-social personalities.  Your neighbor would need to make a 6 week plan, including carrying provisions, to pop in on you unannounced.  And if he did make this plan, you would  have a full week of preparation to pull the shades and pretend that you are not home because you can see him coming from fifty miles away. There are no trees here in the Chang Tang and there is no place to hide.

Nam Tso Lake.  Get here at your own peril.
By the time we'd gotten to the Chang Tang, the Tibetan work day was just about over.  There's no electricity out here so the day starts at sun up and ends after lunch.  Also there's very little to do at all here so in reality the work day is done by 10 am.  Boozing on local wine and baking your skin into a leathery brown color seems to take up the rest of the waking hours.  As this was the 1990's, there were no Ipods, Iphones, Ipads and people had not yet developed unnatural attachments to their laptops.  Dr. Baum and I decided to do what people used to do  back in the day and took a walk.  In the distance we could see Nam Tso Lake, famous for being the highest saltwater lake in the world.  It was magnificent.  The lake is massive and the color of the turquoise water looks even more vivid against the pale brown surrounding color of the dirt and snow-tipped foothills behind it.  There were a few dark woven nomad tents and a couple of big, shaggy yak between us and the lake and almost nothing else.  We had no idea how long it would take to make it to the lake on the cracked, uneven dried mud, but this was summer and the sun stayed out until late into the night.  We figured we had plenty of time. 

White men can't Monk
Dr. Baum and I had known each other for over 20 years and for good friends this was the bonding trip of a lifetime.  Just the guys out in the middle of nowhere, checking out places where white men had never been and doing a little Buddhist service along the way.  Dr. Baum lives in Hawaii and we had met at Los Angeles airport to make the long trip that would take us ultimately to Tibet to join the other members of the team.  To get there we had to pass through Seoul, Kathmandu, Lhasa (and Bangkok, but that is another story for another time).  For the trip I had decided that adopting the look of a Buddhist monk might be appropriate for Tibet and had shaved off nearly all my hair.  It was a bad idea.  I looked like an idiot.  When I met Dr. Baum in the airport I saw that he, independently, had  the same bad idea.  We just pointed at each other and laughed.  

Back in the Chang Tang we walked and walked across the open, dried plain making a course toward the great blue lake in the distance.  After two hours of walking we were no closer.  In fact we seemed to get further and further the more we headed straight for it.  What kind of Tibetan magic was this?  At 16,000 feet one hour of walking feels like six.  Even brushing your teeth at this level is exhausting.  "Screw the lake,"  I said, "lets head back.  I'm hungry (although all we had were some nasty, dried, processed Chinese noodles)."  This was when one of two auspicious events occurred, the dog I mentioned previously being one of them.  The words "auspicious" and "Tibet" often collide in the same sentence.  Ask anyone who's been there.

We turned around and headed back the way we had come.  I looked up and noticed that the clouds were moving ten times faster than we were walking and twenty times faster than the earth was turning.  It was disorienting.  They were moving  so fast that when  focusing our sight up into the sky we almost  fell forward onto our knees.  Was this lack of oxygen or Tibetan auspiciousness? I can't tell for sure, oddly enough these things happened at least once a day in Tibet.  And while we stood there dizzy and debating this illusion we stopped looking forward.

Enter auspicious event number 2:  eighty pound, charging, fangs-out,  Tibetan Mastiff.  He was 100 feet away and had come out of nowhere. He was running like he was in a race and we were the white meat prize.  In his defense, he was probably not used to visitors.

This dog was used to breathing thin air at 16,000 feet and we were not.  Ten steps at a mild jog and we'd be piles of collapsed, wheezing, de-oxygenated meat for the dog.  I looked at Dr. Baum.  He looked at me.  He said:

"What do we do?"
"I don't know.  Stand still?  Pretend we're not here?"
"I don't think that's going to work.  Shit."

Fifty feet and closing.........................

"This is bad, man," I said surprisingly calm, "really bad."  In my brain I  quickly tried to work out the closest possibility of getting Rabies treatment (if the attack was not fatal, of course) and the best I could get it down to was an 11 hour drive and a 5 hour flight. Also this was counting on the reliability of travel logistics in mainland China AND our Karma picking back up. I decide we were fucked.

Awaiting try-outs with the Dodgers
At twenty feet away something happened.  We had been so focused on the charging dog that we had not noticed a small mud house with a  string of torn, faded Tibetan prayer flags hanging in the front yard, just a short distance to our right.  A tiny Tibetan woman pops out of the cracked wooden front door and squints at us.  She looks like she's about 75, but probably is only 50.  She cannot be more than four foot nine inches and all of 85 pounds.  Her hair is hanging down in long intricate braids with turquoise and amber stone amulets throughout.  (It's amazing the detail you remember when you are frozen stiff with fear and about to shit  yourself). Without a moment of hesitation she bends down and picks up a small, disc-shaped piece of yak shit.  She nonchalantly throws the turd like a side-arm fastball and it smacks the charging Mastiff square in the nose.  He lets out a  WHELP and stops in his tracks.  He eyes the three of us, turns around, and sulks away.  The old woman smiles a three-toothed smile at us. She waves and walks back into her shack.

I look at Dr. Baum and he looks at me.

"Did you see what God just did to us?"  We both start laughing.  I'd borrowed that line from the book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but it was still funny.  We looked ahead and saw our Landcruiser about a half hour's walk ahead of us. "Chuck" was sitting on the back bumper.  We wanted to tell him what had happened, but there was just no way it was going to translate.  We headed for the car.
Stop squinting!

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