began with a ragged postcard from an old college friend. The
card had come to me from India, and judging from its appearance,
it had been in transit for some time.
“This last year was pretty good to
me. I was a lucky bastard (not counting three self-diagnosed
cases of giardiasis - I won’t indulge you with the tell-tale
symptoms). I only had to pay baksheesh once at the Pakistani
border, but that’s a long story.”
The card ended abruptly, hanging in my hands
like more of a clue than correspondence.
However, a couple weeks later the blanks
were filled when I received a call. Indeed, the postcard had
been in transit for some time. My friend was back at home in
Florida for a spell and eager to tell of his year exploring
the back roads of Asia.
Apparently, mom was paying because he rambled
on for a couple hours.
He told of his traverse across Europe, crossing
the Bosphorus and his first descent into the Middle East. Courtesy
of duel citizenship, he was able to skip through Iraq and was
eventually welcomed into Iran, where he holed up for four months
in the land of Ayatollah Khomeini. During that time, he was
asked to marry a 16-year-old female, seriously considered converting
to Islam and, as testament to this urge, slaughtered a lamb
to celebrate the end of the Islamic month of fasting, Ramadan.
He elaborated on crossing Pakistan by bus,
his life in the hands of a driver who habitually smoked heroin
as he sped along narrow passes with elevations in excess of
our highest peaks. With glory in his voice, he mentioned transcendent
experiences on the Baltoro Glacier, the home of K2 and the Gasherbrums.
He finished out his tale and his journey
in India, speaking highly of Ladakh, a hold-out of Tibetan Buddhism,
and not-so-highly of Siddhartha’s birthplace, now a crime-ridden
So ended his trip and our conversation,
and after two hours, I realized that I had barely spoken. My
half-assed comments were mainly kept to “wow,” “all-right”
At the time, it didn’t seem right
to speak of skiing powder at Wolf Creek, spending long weekends
in canyon country or bringing a new human into the world. At
the time, my experiences felt empty, and I was honestly more
than a little envious. He was living a dream that I had once
embraced, the dream of endless wandering and bumming across
the globe. I was the guy who gagged down three-and-a-half years
of Arabic and countless eastern religion classes. I thought
to myself that I should have been at that Ramadan, walking the
streets of Tehran and on that bus to Baltoro.
But after I hung up the phone, I thought
twice about the tone of his voice and desperate nature of his
words. It was true that he had lived a great dream, traversing
Asia by foot and bus. But I realized that living that great
dream had come at a heavy price.
He set out with limited knowledge of Asian
culture and no understanding of the half dozen languages and
hundreds of dialects he crossed. He was not wandering, but staggering,
and it seemed that in his extravagant exploits, he had but scratched
the surface. Throughout he remained only a visitor, a tourist.
And judging from our conversation and his
diarrhea of the mouth, he was very much alone during those 12
months, very much apart from humanity. During a simple phone
call, he latched onto me like a drowning man, starving for companionship
and teetering on the brink of madness. Rather than the jovial
friend I remembered, I was treated to a one-sided lecture from
a man who was fresh out of 365 days of solitary.
And thinking back on our conversation, I
should have expanded my comments well beyond “wow”
and “cool.” I should have spoken of the beauty of
sharing a random conversation on Main Avenue, told of venturing
on seemingly endless rides with great friends and mentioned
the pleasure of waking to look out at the same red cliffs and
noticing new alcoves. I should have explained that in my experience
some of the best learning comes from exploring one place in
depth and mentioned that it’s best to put your roots down
in people. I might have done this and more.
But, I know that friend of mine is still
out there, cut loose of entanglements. The last I heard he was
off to teach English in Japan. And there’s still a big
part of me that wants to be at that border crossing or squeezed
into that tight bus.
But I take solace in knowing that I’ve
found a big piece of what I’ve been searching for. I hope
that one of these days he finds his.