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|
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.|
|White men can't Monk|
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|
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.