It's five days since I returned from my mammoth trip to the subcontinent. 13 towns and Cities throughout Northen India, Nepal and Bhutan in 30 days.
My body clock is still out I reckon and it's taking me longer than expected to return to normal bedtime habits.
It is unfortunate, because last night, at just before midnight, I intercepted the text from my darling sister Fiona, informing me that this Thursday, she begins chemo.
You would have thought this piece of news would have meant that there was no good night's sleep for me afterwards. But that is not the case. (Had my stupid dog Spunky not awoken me at 5 am to let him out for his wee, I would most likely have been awake chirpy and bright at 7 am).
In fact, I slept more soundly than I might have because in truth, throughout my absence overseas, my concern was not that Fiona WOULD have chemotherapy, but that she wouldn't.
You see, Fiona, unlike me, has studiously avoided most pharmaceuticals since her marriage to Richard, a chiropractor who generally favours natural therapies.
They are firm believers in good nutrition, exercise, healthy living. They are into supplementation, yoga - they are annoyingly vital people.
In fact, if anyone should have been least likely to get cancer, it should be Fiona.
But, as seems to be my theme these days, folks, may I say again, there are no guarantees. It is simply hubris to believe that you are inviolate from life's travails.
And, even if you feel you have already endured your share of life's travails, there is no guarantee that there isn't an even bigger lump of shit coming your way.
However, after my journey to the spiritual heartlands of the sub-continent there are two lessons I have learned that tell me that, in this environment of inevitable 'shit-hauling', there is a bright side.
Firstly, in India, a great realisation came from the shit that is intrinsic to the traveller's experience of this vast, beautiful and captivating country. Of course there is the shit of biological origin, usually involving an intestinal tract and, at last, an anus. It was an encyclopaedia of shit I discovered on the crowded pavements of this land of rogues and rajahs - cow, sheep, elephant, goat, dog, duck, chickn, pigeon, buffalo... human - no living creature can exist without shit.
So in the first instance, let us just accept it. I don't care if you are Nelson Mandela, Miranda Kerr, the Pope or Leonardo Da Vinci. No, not even George Clooney. Since the dawn of time, man and animal have had the need to shit and be honest, you too have an anus.
Yes, yes, you may like to look at your life as a centre-spread from Home Beautiful. You may be stunning, beautiful, handsome, articulate, successful, intelligent, deeply interesting, the Source of All Things Truly Magnificent.
But Descartes was wrong. "Je pense donc je suis"? Non, non, non. For truly, what he should have said is "Je chie donc je suis". I shit therefore I am.
Or more accurately, I argue, "Je transport la merde, donc je suis."
India proved to me that creating and hauling shit, in the biological and philosophical sense, is the nature of life. It is inevitable. It's unavoidable.
But what is not inevitable is how you deal with this fact of life, this fact, indeed, of BEING.
How you deal with it is YOUR CHOICE.
In India, here is how they deal with it. In a nation where I experienced thieves, beggars, liars, snake-oil merchants and a sea of people where the only thing charmed seemed to be the odd cobra or three, the luckless are lifted above their situations by an amazing and wonderful quality that is Hope (but not Vander Poorten). Their choice is to hope.
In chaotic traffic where vehicle drivers choose not to wear seatbelts, carry entire generations of families on roof racks as they careen down steep mountainsides, navigate rubbled roads with no identifiable signs of traffic control and can't see the need for tyres with tread, safety is reduced to a hope in the form of their various gods and deities who take pride of place on peeling dashboards.
Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Sikh, Ba'Hai, even a visit to the Home of Mother Teresa in Kolkata - I met people with a variety of beliefs in my travels and realised that without a spiritual connection to SOMETHING, these people would simply not survive.
In short, I realised the one thing that lifts some of us above Great Shithole that is much of this planet, the one pure and incorruptible thing truly, is the ability to Hope.
Give up hope and you may as well pick up stumps and just admit Sri Lanka really is a better cricket team than India.
But there is that second learning, and it is a big one. A really big one - 8,848 Metres of it in fact.
For this epiphany emerged out of a combination of experiences - a scenic flight over the Himalayas, then on a commercial flight to and from Bhutan, and then from the highest hill in Darjeeling - as I first cast my eyes on the most incredible of this world's many wondrous spectacles (and no, it was not George Clooney in a G-String).
Mount Everest as you know, is a not insubstantial hill, the Earth's highest mountain located just inside the border between Nepal and what should be Tibet but is now, alas, actually China.
First conquered by Hilary on May 29, 1953 and named for Sir George Everest, the former Surveyor General of India, what can you say about this mountain other than it is fucking huge... yes, I know, I am a poet after all. (For the record, George Everest opposed the name because it could not be translated into Hindi).
But as the majesty of this mountain was eventually fully comprehended, I was struck by the Great Metaphor it represents for each of us.
For you see, in the great plain that is your life story, it's not the pretty flowers, the glorious grasslands or the rapturous rivers that captivate and fascinate. It is the mountain.
Your mountains are what defines the country that is you. It's your highest mountain - the one YOU climbed - that the people in your life admire. It's the climb and the conquest that will define your life. Because this the beacon to your character.
For all we know, Edmund Hilary may have had other great achievements. He may have saved a baby seconds from being hit by a speeding car. He may have been fluent in 85 languages. His children may have duxed their subjects and achieved such glorious fame that a replica of his wife's loins were cast in gold and donated to the Indian Museum so that all of us could genuflet before this incredible organ, the one that squeezed out such fabulous progeny.
However, what history honors and remembers is the daring, the focus, the tenacity, and for all of them - Hilary, Tenzing and his 35 Sherpas who first conquered this peak - the courage.
I mention the Sherpas too, because history makes so little mention of the teamwork that accompanies any major achievement. No great mountains are climbed alone and none of life's great challenges are ever overcome alone.
Where would I be without my family and friends? How can one accomplish such feats unassisted?
That's why I know that, no matter what, I would drop everything to hold Fiona's hand through what is coming, her own great climb. I don't know if I will be her Tenzing but surely, I will be one of her Sherpas.
And the best thing I know thanks to my recent travels, is this.
As my journey through the subcontinent wound down, Lee and I landed in Darjeeling where, from its tallest hill, you can spot Everest on a clear morning.
But guess what? From this vantage point, from a part of your journey miles away from where it all began, Everest is hardly compelling. It's reduced to a molehill!
Here is a picture (taken with my dinky digital camera with its crappy zoom capacity) to prove it.
|From the top of Tiger Hill in Darjeeling, you may think that Mt Everest is that tallest peak. |
In fact, it's the one in the middle
The point is that in time, your perspective on what you believe to be YOUR biggest peak, your hardest climb, your penultimate challenge alters.
What might have once appeared to be so impressive and even fantastic, becomes just another mountain in a range of peaks.
And so, this is my message to my sister Fiona.
Climb that mountain, then keep going for no one knows how far we have to travel.
Importantly, have faith - have HOPE - that your decisions are good ones.
One day, you'll look back and wonder what all the fuss was about.
The view changes from a different window and one day, sooner than you realise, the only thing you'll know for certain is that Life really is Good.
La vie est vraiment bonne.