Sunday, January 15, 2006

From the Cave: Back to a Changed Place

Culture shock can at times cause a sudden realization that the world is a changing place. In my absence from this place, did I age. But the streets changed. I was not aware of how far they have taken place.

I was minding my own business, when I rounded the corner of the Oxford Learning Centre. From a side alley, almost at the very point that I crossed the next building, three teenaged guys appeared. One, the lead guy, was wearing a hat not unlike mine. Specifically, he had on a cap that I have not seen for awhile. They were only similar in style, not appearance.
I blurted, “ I had a cap like that, but not that one.” Instead of shock. I figured he understood ramblers, he certainly looked like one anyway. I thought nothing of the fact that these guys were walking behind me. Some of the meanest streets I have previously walked vary. The crowded night markets of Bangkok. The sewage and trash clogged streets of Bombay’s business hotel district. The alleys of Istiglal in Istanbul. The farthest depths of the Khan Al Khalili. The dark waterfronts of Aswan. The dry deserts of the Rub Al Khali. The swampy docks of the eastern Malaysian Coasts. It was only here on Quinpool Road, that I realized what it meant to be not on one’s guard in one’s own country, can often be a fatal mistake if not handled correctly. Correct. What it meant.
Throwing or pushing an empty forty gallon water bottle at my back. Such a foreign experience in one’s own homeland. I am already some sort of camel. It is never a straw with camels. Touching the back of an Egyptian’s neck is never a good idea. The closest ever before was a tiny slit, cut with a razor blade, in the backpack pocket of a bag that I paid a quarter to have sewn up. Or the zipper on another. Close calls, a profit for the tailors who knew why such repairs are made. The oranges, bananas, mangoes, the old ones accept them. Young beggars never know the value of food. To seek the quarters I keep in my back pocket for such repairs. The eyes in the back of my head, which are usually busy, have grown a little weary and came here to take a break. That in some way, what happened this night was the kind of thing I thought I was getting away from by returning here. It was not even eight thirty. It was not my back that hurt. I have squeezed among Hindu, Muslim, Christian, and Buddhist, this was not an affront to personal space. It was someone trying to take away the pleasure of walking here and what I thought I earned.
Now I can understand how people get rushed. To live a healthy life, even among strangers, you have to trust people until they give you a reason not to. Or else you become a paranoid, who never meets kind strangers, because in that case, every stranger is suspect. The streets I have walked, the harshest have only had muddy babies running and playing near speeding trucks, or lepers dragging themselves, if they are lucky, along with bits of plastic and rubber to keep the earth from tearing open their wounds. It is unbelievable to me that such a blessed place, with virtually every opportunity man could invent, could result in me having to turn back, and face these three kids, who obviously never met up with a class five mountain climber before, who has yearned for the pleasant mountains and valleys of South Korea for three years sitting in the flat desert. My reaction. It was surprise, at first, thinking they had made some kind of unintended mistake.
You can tell what I look like, from the kinds of clothes that I like to wear. Shoes, which might classify as boots, which absorb stones, rocks, roots, loose ice, craggy scree, sand, hard pavement not so well. Jeans that are meant for being worn days on end, in a climber’s pack they are a luxury, because they become heavy with sweat, they do not compact easily, to make a good seal in a pair of boots, they need to be extra long. Rolled up, they catch the dust, bits of twigs, and keep the shoes dry, often if there is snow falling. Jeans are far from practical. But they take years to rot away. It takes me only a couple of weeks of anger and frustration, normally, to get used to new clothes.
My coat is green, because it is easier to fade into the background of trees, to observe the wildlife that tends to stick around if one walks quietly and carefully enough. To follow the birds. Climbers are easy to spot on streets. For the most part, we forget how to walk flat upon our feet. The arch is a gift from God. In youth, capable of absorbing the downward thrust of a leg in descent, at the pressure and speed of a falling rock, somewhere in the region of thirty ton per square inch of force. For me to remember that the point of walking is the walk. And I am self-conscious. A climber’s leg, could be considered the weapon upon which a man may ascend, rightfully to view sunrise or sunset, in seasons of colour. It is a weapon to carry his own weight. In many hillsides a gun is even more often a form of a walking stick for old men.
My coat is light enough to draw the weather away from the generating heat of my engine. An engine that fortifies itself upon the stacks of ancient tombs, or near the sacred relics of histories past. But I learned some kids in Halifax think to test a mountain among others even wise men. While my travels were few on these feet, I saw what was worth seeing. I saw the difference between my hat and his. Where I was taught to carefully bind to faces of the rocks that I climbed, with three points at all times, to look above, to struggle up every step was all that I could show him. I am still ready.
Whatever he thought of mine he though could be his, he would follow me and learn, and sleep, then speak, and give up. If he saw deep into me, he saw that my greatest fears were upon mountains I had already climbed, not worth death, or war, or violent struggle. But love for peace, and what it was worth to me. Here I came back to a changed place. The gloves and hat I wear today, were given me by a loving and gentle father. Rare. I stood eye to eye with hyenas worldwide.
I did forgive, wanted to believe that this precious land was mine, and yours. The words I spoke first were, “ I don’t think I would do that again.” I struck my brother once. I remember it forever. This stranger thought it meant nothing. Or he could not lose face. I even pointed, as teachers sometimes do. To he who was teaching.
Gently they did cross the street, it was an apology but I could not lie. My ears burned for the lesson to be given. Free. To punctuate the lesson well, I climbed a sign, well to the second stage, I clung with what my feet can do, after first a skipper’s gesture of fuddle. What do you want from me? My will? My inner eye? You think I carry money in my back pocket? My folder is empty. The delivery was long ago made. To you I gave. Not enough, as I could hear more not less. This was not finished as I could see, time to unleash the chapel, the roar of the dune. It is a pity, too many do not know the words I spoke were my own. I roared them to the moon. “Eat shit, go study, go to bed” In French.
At least now when I walk, I know the difference between my hat and his. Then passing, I know that what he saw in my eyes was something like care, that scared him too close. Then a young woman passed me, and in her soft eyes, I know them. From a block away, she had heard. A healthy, unwounded pride and love in my voice. Sacred. A prayer. Even a small part of it, where if it had not been given in a snapshot, I could never have known such love as I gave them. Let her see me again. To be marked by her so well could heal everything I saw that night, it took me to pass near her, even the once. I could forgive and forget. Here I came back to a changed place. She was so lovely, she held me up, and my back was so ready to finally relax and trust.

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