Bidding farewell to that little mongrel was not easy for any of we pilgrims. Those boy monks, hair all shorn, scalp dappled under the Burmese sun, cradled him like they would a baby, in the folds of those tatty robes of saffron red. Watching the eight of us trundle off, backpacks adjusted, into the cool of a highland morning, the boy monks looked more than equipped for the important job that lay before them. That in itself brought hope rising with another dawn.
For the Buddhist, love for even the smallest of things matters as much as carrying the entire weight of the world on a single fingertip. That much we saw there in their dark eyes, in their serene expression, in the oath of kindness they had taken from such a tender age to do the lion’s share of the caring that the rest of the world had given up on long ago in the pursuit of personal happiness.
A youngling may sleep easy when secure in the love that permeates the air. Now an accident-prone bundle of pup might not be the most astute of characters, but when an accident-prone bundle of adult human who has learned astuteness the hard way sees those four paws splashed across the chest of the apprentice ascetic, you just know that that dog has landed well and truly on his feet.
Yet, the creature’s journey through life did not start out with such providence. Nowhere near. When he crashed into us but a few short hours before, his destiny had appeared no different from so many other benighted souls in fur coats: born in a litter to parents who fucked but not out of enduring love, alive for no other purpose than to survive on slim pickings for a few years and then die alone on the packed earth of a litter-strewn back alley.
The solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short life envisioned in Hobbes’ state of nature looked very much on the cards for this three month-old puppy. His only salvation seemed to be his obliviousness. But life has a funny way of confounding even the most pessimistic among us. For that happy and pitiful creature the winds of fate had turned full sail in the space of one day. We all saw with moistened eyes a feat that should offer a sense of calm to all our weary souls.
We started the morning early in a traditional Shan village deep in farming country. The Shan people of Myanmar, the long-isolated nation that British rulers called Burma, are a proud and self-sufficient lot. They occupy the central-east of this vast country where it abuts northwest Thailand and southwest Laos. Farmers, tribal confederates and a people proud as the chillies growing red on blanketed hillsides, they had been our hosts for the night.
Compared to other fraught margins of the republic, their land is considered safe enough to qualify as classic trekking country. From the former British hill station of Kalaw the walk takes the walker on three days of mostly gently terrain to Inle Lake, Myanmar’s second biggest. Through open countryside, on soil tilled and loamy for maximum crop yield, from that village the trek crossed a road and settlement before ending the second day in a secluded monastery on a wooded hillside.
We pulled in at a house-cum-diner for lunch. There where the plates came thick and fast, a steady parade of fellow trekkers filled up before pressing on. The undoubted star of an otherwise nondescript event was a puppy. Plump, carpeted beige and with a short black snout he could have been half-ursine. Unlike other strays, bony, coats dull from vitamin-deficiency, their natural beauty bred out of them, this one glowed. His cuteness and his daftness captivated all who entered, all except the local family who ran the show. Ignoring the sharp rebukes he received every time he bundled through the doorway and into us, this yogi was not your average bear. All the tourists could see that. We wrestled him on the floor and generally delighted in his brazenness and total lack of the kind of wariness that sets your average stray apart from your average family dog.
Upon leaving, our group assumed that this dog came with the furniture. Any fool could see that an addition like that would bring tourists from doggie-mad countries of the west flocking. But no, one man’s meat is another’s poison. We saw the local kids kick and threaten to maim him. Sadism is as sadism does. If indeed cruelty does come on the coattails of childhood, there was no adult on hand enlightened enough to show them the virtue in compassion.
Perturbed by this turn of events (myself and a lieutenant in Dutch Armed Forces, in particular), we first politely told them no, then beseeched them to treat him well. When that policy failed and still the puppy yelped, then coming back for more because he did not know as yet of man’s dark nature, our voices took on a more menacing and authoritative tone. Here we go again, I thought, another bullshit, untutored corner of the world that misguided Westerners take to be all spiritual and the panacea to all our industrial materialism if only we could be there and breathe it in. Here we go again, I intoned, supercilious arsehole backpackers from Western countries standing on judgement with dark-skinned lesser mortals exactly as the old colonials had.
And then, after no more than a smattering of words exchanged between our wonderful local guide and the family of villagers who would steal the innocence from that bundle of joy, we had ourselves a passenger. No more than five-foot-nothing in her stocking souls, she took that little dog in her arms and walked it right out of that village. Taking turns to carry the bundle, some miles out of town, on the margins of a field where things looked safe enough, that dog was gently lowered onto the banks of a gentle, swirling river where the girls got undressed and the wappy delirium of his reaction was enough to restore the faith of the most doubting of all doubters. In that moment, I could see that the Dutchman was falling hopelessly in love, and it wasn’t with any girl in our entourage. As was I.
Other than a heart-stopping minute or two whereby the pup went AWOL in the bushes, we kept a trained eye on him throughout. Through cultivated land, over grasses concealing a whole weaponry of reptilian delights, we pressed on, him trotting along demented with excitement then in our arms overwhelmed into sleep by it. By nightfall our destination had come upon us: the monastery. Rarer sights there were few, fewer still in the rich realms of my experience.
Checking in with our newfound trek mate, our group settled in for an evening of food, drink and merriment in the longhouse where pilgrims come to exchange life stories. There the bungling little fellow did it again, crashing parties, receiving honorary VIP status quicker than an A-list Bollywood star. In the dimness over drinks the Dutchman and I conspired to wrest the little guy away from the tight grip of a German sitting at the next table.
‘Typical,’ he lamented, ‘first they invade my country, now they have the cheek to take my dog.’
‘It’s not your dog,’ I protested. ‘It’s ours. It belongs to us.’
‘Okay. Seeing that Britain did its bit in the war, you deserve a piece of him, too.’
Emboldened by our joint declaration, we invaded the neighbouring table. The kindly kidnapper in question was none other than the German who had offered me brandy in our guesthouse two nights previous. We Europeans, I mused, we should stick together. The dog might be our common interest, but I demand, like a good contrarian from Albion, nevertheless to take back control from those dastardly Europeans. All the while, the puppy curled up, stretched out, did what puppies do in other parts of the world where they are loved. Ignorance can be bliss when you stand twelve inches above the ground, where the world is for big licks and sniffing, snaffling and capers.
When finally the time came on the following morning to pack up and go, we were left with more than a minor detail. What now? Today is New Year’s Eve, the culmination of a three-day stroll in the back country of Burma, the end of a long year of trails and trials and tribulations that tried the patience of not one but a pantheon of saints. We had snatched the dog from the grip of misery. That very deed cannot, must not be sullied. Anything less than a happy ending would be a sad and treacherous affair. Not to undermine the quiet heroism of our guide – who was a gifted young woman, in every sense the inheritor of a new Myanmar reacquainted with the world at large after decades of self-imposed exile from the world at large (the new Aung San Suu Kyi in the making?) – came up trumps again.
Acceding to her request for its sanctuary, the monks agreed to take our dog and to raise him and raise him well, in a loving and trusting community where he would grow to be wise and great among dogs. Given enough time, given enough chanting of mantras, our puppy may even be born again human.
That day, as we headed out on the trail to watch the monastery become the forest, the forest become the lake and the lake become the closing of something special, we knew among us, without needing to iterate, that the experience with that little dog had made us all in the process a little more human.
What does a man do with his life while he’s waiting for the real thing to get underway? He can start by picturing all the different scenarios of how it’s going to be, this life he envisages. He might take stock of where he is, what he’s got, where he’s going. He can even look around asking himself was I really meant for this? Did fate get the wrong man?
I never thought for one solitary moment it would cut this way. Never did I imagine I’d end up here by accident, far less on the permanent basis that it actually is. I remember seeing this land ten years back now. I was en route at the time to somewhere else, some place so unimaginably different, in every conceivable way, that I did not know that such a place as this one i was merely transiting through could exist on such a hot, barren and dusty land. When I set foot on that baking tarmac at that fast-expanding international airport it must have been for no more than a hour of getting off one big bird and onto the back of another. It seemed fitting that this place be the staging post and not the destination, for who would choose a destiny as this?
I can still see it now in the backroom of my mind. I visualize taxiing down that apron. The size and scale, not just of the surface area of the airport itself but of the ambitions that had gripped the powers-that-be in that young nation, were such that the bus from the jet to the terminal felt about as long as the flight from England to the airport had been. Even though there buzzed a certain energy to the place, I was not faintly interested in sharing their vision. To think of human history in an accelerated phase, the town was gripped in a frenzy of development, development of the kind that reminds you of a new pharaonic Egypt, built with hot haste and grandiosity by a vast army of freemen slaves under the discreet and watchful gaze of those city fathers plump with fabulous wealth and riches beyond the comprehension of the average Joe. Still, they could keep their gilded city at the edge of the empty quarter as far as i was concerned.
Distinctly unimpressed, I vowed not to miss that connecting flight. This transit town, although abuzz with the bold ambition of a late arrival eager to impress, would never be revisited by me as I saw it then. I and it were just too incompatible for a lengthier reunion. This place left its calling card alright. That card most closely resembled the king of diamonds, glittering the crassness that unlimited amounts of money can buy. That stench of ephemera. Even then I could see that it wouldn’t end well. Ozymandias writ large. What was now about to shine on the world stage would in the nearness of time (while London and Paris held on into a graceful senescence) be reduced to Shelley’s ‘colossal wreck, boundless and bare.
Nothing besides remains, not in a desert at any rate. When sand is ground down there is only dust.
The high entropy of all that sand would eventually rearrange the cosmetic face of this transit town, erasing all trace that we were once here. Nature’s infinite crystals would bring down man’s vanity, his attempts at immortality. At least, in my fertile, jet-lagged mind, that’s how I saw it. Fast forward ten years and those grand human designs were for the most part realised. That army of hired labour has been busy in the decade that intervened. The skyline is now a bric-a-brac effort of borrowed personality and epic proportions. My prophesy of never returning to a place so at odds with what I valued and how I saw the course of my own life rang hollow. But blown on the wind of globalization I did come back to that transit town to work and live. Oh the irony of it. Maybe if I vow never to set foot in the Redwoods of Northern California, I will end up there, too.
Well maybe it is just the time of year, Or maybe it’s the time of man, I don’t know who l am, But ya know life is for learning. Praise be, Joni, for sparing me the effort of summing it all up. Never knowing where the wind will blow us, we float. From place to place, time to time. And life is for learning. Look at me now sitting in this fancy apartment, not sixty miles from that transit town. Those cranes like derricks engorged with oil, I see them now as I was climbing the steps to board that plane. It could have been all my yesterdays ago. Like giant mantises praying on the far edges of the desert under a shimmering, jaundiced sky, I witnessed with fleetingness the birth of a nation. I am its age which, given the immortal life of the rock and sand on which it stands, sounds somewhat absurd.
So, the staging post became the destination. And the destination continues to elude. Life is funny that way. Not making its intentions clear until often it is too late to disagree.
There’s a place high in the North Atlantic where day by day America and Europe grow further apart in matters unrelated to politics. It’s no fun being the subject of a custody battle between mother Eurasia and father America.
Tectonic limbs all wrenched and popped from sockets by the selfish jostling of parents who should know better, this ‘kid’ is a work in geological progress. Only Hawaii experiences growth spurts like this.
There but for the grace of an ever-widening Atlantic goes it. It, of course, is Iceland. It, in its physical manifestation, looks like a green and white lesion on the skin of the Earth when seen from space. As lesions go, this one’s made of tough stuff: of gabbro, rhyolite, andesite and all the inanimate stuff of inner Earth, stuff whose quality reassures in both its lastingness and the sure-footing it provides our little feet on these hair-raising trips around our parent star.
When least expected, the lesion seeps hot puss onto Earth’s skin in the form of hot mantle rock. By night glowing rivulets of lava channel down from the frigid heights to where nature spins this rarely seen material on the loom of time. What spent aeons riding the currents of the hot, viscous ocean under the earth’s crust is now cooled under grey skies in these sub-polar environs. Evidence of it lies strewn everywhere, petrified fragments of magma now little charcoal-coloured sponges dissolved full of holes.
Iceland is rightly known as the land of fire and ice. There, hot geothermic forces that on most landmasses remain under a 70 km cap of insulating crust bring the insanely-hot upper mantle so close to the surface that green mountains blow jets of steam from their flanks. The sight is akin to seeing the smouldering embers of dozens of hillside campfires, except water is the fuel, and not the smouldering remains of firewood. Correspondingly, in rural Iceland, which is practically all of Iceland, drainage trenches cut into the roadside verge create curtains of hot vapour steaming up, making the driver feels he’s driving on a whistling kettle made of tarmac.
Known as Thule to the ancient Greeks, this place of black sand, ice-capped highland, stunted trees and primeval lime moss below the Arctic Circle is by no means mythical in spite of a temptation to deem it so. For to be mythical is to be ancient, and compared with granny Scotland to the south, Iceland is a geological laddie. Plus, its status is real enough to have a runway on its southwest peninsula bringing in an ever-increasing number of people curious to see what all the fuss is about. Not far out of the airport, and one can see why. A volcano, constructed by nature only yesterday so perfect is its conical shape, stamps the country’s character almost immediately.
The south cape of Iceland is a sight like no other. Giving the savage beauty of the cape a human face is the village of Vik. Man, this is one cape that makes Superman’s look pointless. With its super-cooled hexagonal columns of basalt (think Fingal’s Cave in Iona, Scotland) propping up grass-coated cliffs that double as high rise apartments for legions of fulmars, puffins, terns and other tenants, the magic oozes right from the word go. Then there’s the headland that juts fearlessly into the freezing Atlantic. The sea stack at the outer perimeter of the headland is carved into the perfect stone arch which reaches high into the sky and through which a ship could pass unhindered. Pushing south into the North Atlantic, this point is the nearest Iceland will be to warmer waters, that is until it spews more submarine eruptions that give it that extra-territorial reach. No other island can undergo geology’s answer to a cosmetic makeover quite like this one. Stay alive long enough and you’ll see it morph into something else.
The innards of the earth ground down to grains, its black sand beaches stretch away into the past one way and into the future the other. We’re standing on a convergence point of time as it was, as it is, as it will be. All a bit disconcerting, in the nicest possible way. Behind it all looms the presence of the same Eyjafjallajokull volcano that belched thousands of transatlantic flights to a standstill five years ago. Iceland’s famed ponies stand in a huddle against the sheet rain. An endless supply of fresh grass is their only recompense for finding themselves stuck shivering in steel-grey of the mid-Atlantic.
All is not what it seems. Unlike most other places, where heat originates from above, Iceland feels it from below. A skein of hydro-thermal pipes run over old lava fields turned to moss. Blink and the pipes could be running oil. Denuded of trees, this place could be the hellish twin of the Persian Gulf, with its crude oil pipes running over equally barren lands. And like the deserts where winds blow sands into new arrangements, in Iceland it’s the restlessness of what lurks beneath that ensures that timelessness is no more than a cruel illusion. At least, Tolstoy would back me on that one if he were still around.
(The photograph was taken in Vik, on Iceland’s magnificent south cape).
What better way to compare key stages in the evolution of a single human lifetime than with the strange life of the atom. The radioisotope of uranium-238 has a half-life of about 4.5 billion years, the current age of the Earth. Put in laymen’s terms, half-life refers to the amount of time taken for half the atoms contained within that radioactive material to decay (capture and lose their subatomic particles, and the likes) and through that process transform into some other element. Uranium-238 into lead-206, you and me into a likeness of our former selves. We are the same but not. A brass rubbing of our younger selves. Like the isotopic decay of a uranium atom, in the course of a whole life we too reach cardinal points which I suppose could be called a half-life. In decaying, we gain and we lose. Most we carry forth but some details are left in the impression made by the rubbing.
To emphasize the quirkiness of the half-life, take the whole life of the woman who would go down as the first to win a Nobel Prize. Marie Curie died discovering it, never living long enough to see half the atoms in radium-226 decay into radon gas over a period of 1600 years. To put chemistry on a scale of civilisation we can all appreciate, a half-life of 1,600 years is the equivalent age of Islam. The life of the prophet Mohammed unto the present day, the life of the prophet-metal radium unto the gas radon.
Marie Curie did some of her most exciting research on radioactive decay half way to a death ascribed to over-exposure to radioactive decay, aged 71. That gave the Warsaw-born scientist, in one sense, a half–life of about 35 years, for it was in those middle years that she hit a key stage in her own intellectual development. It was then she made breakthroughs that would have ramifications on both herself and the wider world. Those cardinal points we talked of were reached on the trajectory of Curie’s life in a chronology of major life and death events clearly divisible by two: 35 years of age and the year of her death, aged 71. This point needs elucidating.
I decayed into being 44 last week, affording me a half-life of 22 years since I embarked on the first of many physical (not to mention metaphysical) journeys that have come to characterise my life hitherto. All have been life-changing and atom-smashing in their own right, yet still this first was a paradigm-shift in the manner in which I started looking into the interior and onto the exterior world. In the time-space of 22 years I have undergone fundamental atomic change. Half of me has turned into something else elemental, I’m damned sure of it. What that element is and in what form – gas, liquid or solid – it takes is something yet undefined. Notwithstanding the elemental decay and reform that a human life takes between its halfway stage and now, it pays not to forget that for all the radioactive decay that time gives to human life, halfway to total change signifies that the other half of what we once were still remains.
I remember being that young man, a stable isotope of 22 years old, with the whole world at his feet. A road trip across the continental United States – destination San Francisco – had been on the cards since the second year of undergrad. Doing it had become the king of obsessions among a realm of princelings. Wearing flowers in one’s hair was optional when dressing for the big trip-cum-pilgrimage, but wearing a badge of free thought and experimentalism was mandatory. In the year that Rwanda and Bosnia were being ethnically cleansed, driving from DC to San Francisco was a spiritual cleansing, a means to salvage precious hippie cargo from the wreckage of anti-capitalism libertarianism. And that 3,500-mile road trip across a dozen states to California was the least that could be done on that salvage mission.
While the old reminisced about their lost youth and the remorseful lamented the opportunities squandered when age was still on their side, we lucky few, who were anaemic enough to want enlightening and curious enough to override the instinct to disappear in plain sight of a world numbingly familiar, grabbed the proverbial bull by the horns and rode the fucker past the Pennsylvania turnpike and into the great wide open. Crossing the great divide to edge closer to uniting oneself was a feat of natural engineering. To be able to make our own minor contribution to the mythologizing of the West was like engraving your own name on Arlington Cemetery wall to join the ever-expanding pantheon of American heroes by virtue of simply being there to retrace the footsteps of Lewis & Clark. And so we wrote our glorious epitaphs before we had even learned to live.
Now 44 I am hostage to the desert half a world and three decades away, decades in which the substance of things, even the great God Zeitgeist himself, has transformed utterly (and frankly not for the betterment of what it is to be sentient and self-aware). So far from the hippiedom yet so near to being able to afford the back-to-nature dream of the Sixties, with a 21-century spin, I look around and out ahead. The next time i can take a chronological leap by a multiple of two, fate-permitting I will be 88 and frail growing frailer.
As I take my dying breath the year will be 2060. The Earth is busted flush. The thermostat gone haywire, the half-life of all wild things has brought biodiversity to a point where half of all things have decayed and disappeared forever due in no small part to the destructive path left by man. Our once beautiful Earth is neurotically trying to cool itself with ocean-bearing storms of such magnitude that half the coastlines of the world have been wholesale abandoned. The interior too has turned infertile from the nutrient-depleting process of a failed global agriculture where not even a world governing oligarchy run by the board of Monsanto can succeed in feeding a human population consisting of more mouths than spoonfuls to feed them. Remaining populations subsist on semi-coastal strip at the high latitudes between 50-100 kms inland. Human population has gone into irreversible decline. Boom populations (Bangladesh for one) have gone boom in an implosion. Negative growth populations like Denmark weather the weather change that bit better.
Hardest hit is the Persian Gulf. So long the chief benefactor of the economic system that landed us in this terrible morass in the first place, the region is now practically uninhabitable. What were unbearably hot midsummer days in 2016 are by 2060 normal winter’s day. Only a few super-wealthy elites from families who got the best from oil, who saw the writing on the wall while all others had their faces turned to Mecca and car showrooms, survive in subterranean networks and domed city-states. Thermally-adapted aircraft whisk them off to cooler climes in northern Europe when the post-catastrophe sheikhs and sheikhas are not busy lording and ladying it over the captives of their desert city-states. Now all that exists outside the dome are a few hardy brigands, sandmen from Tatooine, and their genetically freakish camels that can walk on burning coals. Only the suicidal exit the airtight gates of the Dubai city-state. Those, and the old who are expected to end it gracefully so that others may occupy their bed space. Naturally, realty is even more premium sought after than it is in 2016.
In 2016 the media was ablaze with stories of ancient city-settlements lost and found. Thanks to aerial laser mapping, archaeologists revealed buried platforms belonging to the Nabateans of Petra. Raised mounds and embankments, barely visible under a mop of vegetation, hinted at a Khmer super-city adjoining the ruins of Angkor. They flourished and then were no more. Unlike the postmodern city-state on the firing line of global environmental catastrophe it helped to foment, at least the lost and found ruins submerged under the sands of Petra lasted a good few hundred years.
Who would have thought it would be so short-lived? In this early 21st century civilisation built on the riches of 20th century oil, what now from my 18th floor window seems tranquil and permanent has been wholesale abandoned by 2060. The grid pattern of the coastal city has been reduced to geometric outlines visible from the air that draw a faint outline over a lifeless and skeletal coastline. Even the toughest, savviest survivalist, the stray dog, no longer barks his woes in the night. For hundreds, even thousands, of square miles all that remains of what once was are these domes. They are what used to be the caravansarais of yore, except only the wealthiest traders are now welcomed in. A vast acrylic parasol glimmering from far, distant dunes, Dubai is one such haven of life. Abu Dhabi another. Life holds on because the closed climate system is powered by huge air-conditioned units that were they to fail would result in the slow cooking of every last inhabitant, as the interior of the dome succumbs to an equalizing of temperature with that of the outside. There is no escaping the unremitting sun, nor the dust that coats the exterior, for which the criminal class pay with their condemned lives by facing the outside to dust and hose the acrylic clean.
22-44-88. The years multiply. The physical decay that started aged 22 will continue. Life experience will transform us all, into what state only slow and inexorable decay will decide. Still, a half-life is better than no life at all.
There’s a land long long time locked away, behind the keyhole, Mandalay.
Peasants in the fields time slowing ticking, planting their rice making slim pickings.
The landscape stretches on and on, the monks’ flowing robes, the roosters at dawn.
Everything grows every vegetable every fruit, music from the earth, Thieving Magpie, Magic Flute.
Fields of Scotch Bonnet, Indian Red, magic lemon that numbs the mouth, nondescript things that go off in the head.
No room in the cupboard to describe it all: ginger, jujube , jasmine, the creeping sprawl.
Magnolias, primulas, tea leaves & teak, minute into hour, day into week.
Slow goes the river thru the Irrawaddy plain, nothing really matters, what was will be again.