Monday, February 11, 2008

A 100 pound sack of flour, donkey plop, cow urine, sore wrists, and stinging nettles.

So it's been a while since I have used this space to tell a story, well I guess it has been a while since I've used it at all. Hopefully the following story will give you a portal into my sometimes very strange life:

Every month we have to earn our coming meals by carrying up our full month's supply of food up the hill to our kitchen. Doesn't sound too bad perhaps but realize at the minimum, there are 16 people in our ashram, so times two rather large meals a day times 30 days times 16 people, it equals a very sore back. The bags of food range from 20 kilos to sixty (for reference, I weigh 75 kilos).

To add to the fun, our ashram is located on top of one of the steepest parts of the trail on our side of the month, a path cobbled by awkward jagged rocks. Once you pass this treacherous terrain, then you must walk up a series of steps that are basically flat stones built into the walls. These wall stairs look harmless, idyllic maybe, but with a hundred pound sack of rice on your back, not the case. One memorable experience, the first time around, I fell with a sixty pound bag of potatoes on my head, much to the delight of the three laughing girls behind me. Oh the other thing is nettles love to grow on these walls as well, adding another factor of fun. Many a time I have fallen off these walls carrying something to find my load spread across the field and two very itchy legs.

So I was trying to explain this to friend, Ben as we walked down the hill to gather our rations, a lesson I had planned in my head to explain how not to fall on the treacherous path. After about the time I finished explaining to him the subject of the forthcoming lecture, I found myself disoriented laying on the path, sore knees and wrists, on a pile of donkey plop. So, in probably one of the most ironic moments of my life, I had caught my foot on a stray rock, sending my body airborne on a very steep part of the hill (you could probably imagine my body being perfectly horizontal), to fall onto the rock path below...all the while, explaining to a friend how not to fall. And just to my luck, donkeys were carrying dry cement up the hill (lucky are those who have the horses do their dirty carrying work) leaving a feces trail behind them. I happened to fall atop their plop. Luckily, if one can adequately apply this word properly in regards to falling in donkey shit, it was old and dry. I guess it could have been worse, smelly and demoralized is much better than the itchiness and uncomfortableness that would have occurred if the feces were nettles, or gasp, feces on top of nettles.

Now think of what a caring friend would do if you were walking aside your bud during this horrendous event. Offer you help and support? Help him up and brush him off? Perhaps even offer to wash his sweatshirt while his swollen wrists heal. All very probably responses to a dear friend.

What do you do if you are a friend named Benjamin? Such a good friend, once perceived, that someone would lovely alter this name to Friendjamin. Well of course you would fall to the ground in hysterics. Yup. Jerk.

But it is fine, I brushed the donkey shitdust off my shirt and hobbled onwards, two swollen wrists and knees in tow. So the body is injured, but I am no sissy, and it makes no sense to give up on the task at hand with some scratches. Not to mention the fact that the women and children carry here in the mountains carrying similiar heavy loads daily, and they don't have the choice to give up. If they give up, then their families don't eat, their cattle go hungry, their family shivers through the night. I live in a much more cushy situation, so what is a little extra pain here and there, perhaps it would make me a stronger person.

Ben and I reach the rations room, the only thing left is about 120 kilos of atta, the flour we use for chapatis. The man I am, trying not to show my weakness, decided to take a probably 60 kilos sack (again I weigh 75 kilos), sling it over the old shoulder, and hobble, more cautiously, up the hill. Pretty soon, I realized my weakness as I huff, puff, waddle, waggle, drag, drudge, trudge, juggle, stagger about half way up the path, then collapse on a wall, with two very sore shoulders, two very swollen wrists, and one very broken ego. But not as broken as it could be.

Sir ji, my mentor who probably weighs 55 to 60 pounds, roughly less than the sack; a very small, ascetic, seemingly meek man, saw my situation and asked if he could assist me. I thought about it a bit, said no a couple times, but then, looking up at the rest of Treachopath, I agreed. Then I looked down from Treachopath at my very small mentor, then over to my heavy bag, and immediately regretted the decision. The offer was obviously an sympathetic gesture by an extremely nice man, with probably no idea that the recipient would allow him to share in on the torture. Upon the realization of what I had just said,I tried to grab the bag but he intercepted me, damn it, and in true Indian fashion, he sacrificed his comfort for mine, slugging the bag up the hill. I only let him take it up a quarter more of the way.

But in this process, he let me in on a little pahari secret: The middle space between the shoulder blades makes an excellent resting place for ridiculously heavy bags while navigating uphill paths, and effortlessly stabilizes the carrier's weight. Much better than the haphazard, sling it to one shoulder until the pain is unbearable, now sling it to the other, repeat, repeat, repeat, collapse. With this insight I was able to make it up the rest of the path surprisingly with ease. But the damage had been done, not just because of my body, but because I had revealed the secret; I was injured. The doctor went to work.

Now Sir ji has two treatments: stinging nettles and piss. If one shows internal symptoms, the former is to be slapped for an unnecessarily long period of time on the affected area by a conspicuously smiling Sir ji, the latter is to be discreetly rubbed on the affected area after production. If the problem is external then one is spared from the former, and the latter is to be taken orally (you read that right, one should drink their own piss). If the problem is acute or in advanced stages, replace one's self production with that of a sacred cow's, urine purified by processes way outside my cultural experience. But the substitution of animal urine for one's own raises interesting questions about the morality of methodology, or at least levels of disgustingness or of which one will induce vomit more rapidly.

Until this point Sir ji's remedies have remain merely a comical occurrence, something that I never immediately had to deal with, but could watch as other's squirmed in accordance to the above prescription. Sir ji is the resident doctor and his office hours tend to be either before or after meditation. Therefore I am privy to the ailments of my fellow ashram mates and have grown quite accustom to the Sir ji treatment:

"Hmmm... you have a gashing wound, It's become infected... Urine, it looks pretty bad, better take it from a cow. After the urine is dried, I slap you with some nettles."

"Hmmm... Sore throat, bout a week now... here stand still, nope can't get any nettles down there, better gargle some cows urine."

"Hmmm... tennis elbow, eh..."

Well I guess you probably get the point by now.

So I always secretly laugh in my head when anybody asks for remedies, telling myself, 'Is it going to be nettles or piss' then I admire my incisive wit. I duck the coming wave of piss/nettles whenever I am sick or injured by simply not complaining to anybody, something very difficult for me, given my proclivity to complain about anything to any ear available. But one must adapt in new dangerous environments.

But Sir ji knew what's up; he could see the limping, he could see the pain in my eyes, and I knew I could no longer duck it any longer. I would have to cross my fingers, pray not for piss and throw my piss/nettles dice into the piss/nettle crapshoot, hoping for the best.
'What happened Chad?'

'I fell. But it's not bad.' I added at the last minute, hoping to maybe influence the decision towards my prickly foe, over my salty one.

'Hmmm... swollen wrists. I'll slap some nettles on it.'

Pheew. Crisis averted, I could go to sleep to night without a tangy aftertaste in my mouth. After a quick meal I retired to my room and collapsed under my covers. Once my body was at rest the pain all over my body began to swell and I discovered the complexity in which I fell, unveiling areas of pain which I didn't previous think was possible. There was no way I was getting up for some time and passed out for twelve hours, missing that evening's and morning's meditation.
The next morning after our meal, I went upstairs to used the computer for some emails. The door was open to the outside and I could see Sir ji pacing back and forth outside. I knew he had one thing on this mind. Damn. I thought he had possibly forgotten. He finally peaked his head in the door, shoving a fistful of nettles into the room, with a big grin on his face.

'Time for nettles?'

'Not yet, I am typing emails and I think adding more puff to an already puffen hand might make the task very difficult.'

'Very well, let me know when you are done.'

Damn. But at least I had bought myself some time, our computer is ridiculously slow, it takes on average about an hour or hour and a half to send a email some days. Or like this day, you sit in the cold room for two hours and the phone keeps booting you off so you get nothing done.
But when the power finally went out, no more excuses, I had had to face my pending itchy hand. I summoned Sir ji and he came nettles in hand. I stuck out my arm, lifted up my sleeve, turned my head, closed my eyes and starting wincing. Sir ji slapped the nettles against my wound for about two minutes. It hurt, but surprisingly the pain subsided shortly thereafter. Some mildly itchy lumps remained on my wrists but nothing too serious.

Also, surprisingly after a couple hours, the swelling in my hand went away and my wrist was much more mobile than before. Had it worked? I think maybe so. Now don't go scouring the forest in search of nettles to slap on your chap lips just yet. I asked the resident med student in the fellowship program, Miss Vaani, about the Sir ji nettle treatment. The response I got was more or less a dubious look and a shoulder shrugged 'eeehhhh.' Maybe the power of a nettle slap is beyond the scope of western medicine. We might have to do a series of tests on this.
But in the mean time, I am going to use the nettle treatment when need be. I'll keep you posted on the efficacy of nettles on which region.

All also let you know...gulp...about the piss treatment if things get really bad.

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