Feb 1, 2012

Encountering an Army of Buddha

Seeing Mount Everest. What an intriguing thought.

In 1985 a fellow cameraman and colleague at the CBC asked if I’d like to join him as he was filming the Sherpers and guides of the high mountains in Nepal. It took just two seconds for me to jump at the chance to tag along. Four of us went, but the others weren’t able to leave as early as me. So, I traveled on ahead.

Before I left Canada, I learned of an outbreak of meningitis in the Kathmandu Valley. Meningitis is an extremely deadly disease, so protection is essential. I first phoned the Canadian health travel clinic, but they had no vaccine. They suggested I find a clinic in Kathmandu, or perhaps I could try the British National Health in London en route. I then phoned a London clinic and spoke to a doctor who immediately ridiculed me about, not only the urgency, but the validity of my request. He told me that they didn’t have the vaccine and I probably wouldn’t need it, but if I really wanted to have my arm stuck with a needle, I could probably find a clinic in some backstreet in Kathmandu. I couldn’t imagine that the British Health System hadn’t heard about the deaths involved in this outbreak; or perhaps it was just this rude doctor. To my mind, it’s a serious flaw to be so flippant and cavalier about such a deadly disease and the health risks involved, especially with travelers.

My first afternoon in Kathmandu was spent treading the streets, looking to find a clinic, or at least somewhere I could get medical information. The clerks at the hotel desk weren’t very well informed, so I was out on my own into the excitement and confusion of this bustling Himalayan Capital; the life, the colour, the people, the circus, the posters. Yes, I saw a poster, in English, that told of a mass immunization at 7 am the next morning. Decision made ... show up.

Kathmandu at dawn is mystical. The atmosphere is quietly strange as the morning haze slowly dissipates from the waking city. Then a thin, brown dust permeates the air. Pollution, sand maybe? I was following a city map bought the previous day, exploring the narrow and colourful streets being carefully swept for the bustle ahead. Sweet smells of Indian spice graced the air as shopkeepers uncovered and displayed their aromatic wares. The trinket sellers were spreading blankets to hold depictions of Buddha, Lord Krishna, Shiva and all the other gods, prophets and icons for sale. Here I was in the capital of Nepal, trekking down the street for an injection, on my way to an address I had only read on a poster. This was the last type of adventure I could have envisioned on my first full day in Kathmandu; but exciting it was.

Streets began to populate, and I noticed groups of Buddhist Monks robed in their dark red/burgundy/orange colours passing by, heading my way. Probably on their way to a temple for morning meditation, I presumed. But as I neared the address of the clinic and rounded a corner, my gaze was drawn to what looked like a large unpaved, gravel parking lot teeming with an undulating throng of shaved heads and Buddhist robes. It was like the army of Buddha descending in one place. There were hundreds. I had never seen so many monks before. Perhaps a conference, I thought, as I looked for the address. But this was it, the place for my 7 am meningitis vaccine. It didn’t look like a clinic, more like a cattle call in the movie industry.

Slowly, I snaked my way through and around chatting groupings of gathered monks, over to a section where I could ask if this indeed was the place.

“With the monks,” came the reply. “Line up with the monks.”

I walked to the end of the line, but it wasn’t long before I was surrounded, bathed in a sea of dark red/burgundy/orange, and organized chaos. These were the holy men of the Himalayas, the followers of Buddha and perhaps the Dalai Lama. They were delightful and courteous people with smiling faces, gentle dispositions and early morning yawns. There weren’t any other westerners, so I stood at least four or five inches taller than most of their shiny, bald heads. In the cool morning it was a shiver of excitement, an atmosphere like a scene from an epic movie.

One young monk spoke to me in very broken English. He told me of their week-long trek, down from the high mountains to get vaccinated. They, indeed, knew the wisdom of these injections. After the needle, they were headed back to the mountains. A head monk (Abbot or a High Lama) who was way over at the front of the line, noticed me among his brethren and asked his team to guide me to him. I slid slowly past the obliging men and thanked them as I walked to where he stood.

“You first,” he said.

He was being polite, letting me go ahead of his multitude. But one thought did occur to me. Was I the guinea pig?  I confirmed that this was indeed for the meningitis shot and I asked how much I needed to pay.

“No no,” he said. “It’s free.”

Then it was my turn. A clean swab, a new needle, a sharp jab; the medicine was administered, an adhesive bandage was stuck over my wound, and it was all over. We exchanged pleasantries, I bowed in thanks and I was on my way, passing even more monks who had gathered. I stopped to wave goodbye to all my new found friends, and in a flash I was back in the early morning traffic of Kathmandu.

It was as if I had been touched in a most profound, yet very human way. I strolled back to my hotel and fell into peaceful slumber, as if bathed in a spiritual glow.

A few days later, the others in my party arrived, and I told them of my experience. But they all declined the vaccine. Then, we were off to the high Himalayas, to Mount Everest, for an adventure of a lifetime.

Sometimes we have to go out of our way to find a special moment. Sometimes those moments come to us. But most times it's a combination. Travel really does help bring opportunities and possibilities together to connect the two. Meeting new cultures should always be mind opening, in turn we get to understand that others are just like us.

Life really is filled with wonderful, unforeseen moments. This is one I shall always cherish.

“All the world's a stage.”
- William Shakespeare

“All experience is an arch wherethrough gleams that untravelled world whose margin fades for ever and for ever when I move.”
- Alfred Lord Tennyson

“There are moments of existence when time and space are more profound, and the awareness of existence is immensely heightened.”
- Charles Baudelaire

“You cannot create experience. You must undergo it.”
- Albert Camus

“We can live without religion and meditation, but we cannot survive without human affection.”
- Dalai Lama

“There's a one-eyed yellow idol to the north of Kathmandu, There's a little marble cross below the town, There's a broken-hearted woman tends the grave of Mad Carew,  And theYellow God forever gazes down.”
- J Milton Hayes - The Green Eye of theYellow God