Spoiled Rotten

The scene looked something like this: a couple dozen people stretching, shuffling back and forth through the narrow aisle, carefully and not-so-carefully removing rolling suitcases and duffel bags from overhead bins, milling about with a restless energy, waiting to deplane after a five and a half hour traverse of the continental United States, ocean to ocean in a single morning. One passenger, a tired and travel-worn looking man of twenty-seven, swimming through a tsunami of emotions, sees a gap in the aisle as a woman in the row ahead of him ducks down to check the seat pouch for any belongings she may have forgotten and squeezes past her. As he does, he hears a sharp, sarcastic admonishment.
“There’s usually a process to this. Usually you wait for the people ahead of you.”
“Oh really, is that how it works?”
“Yes. You are absolutely the rudest person I’ve ever met in my entire life.”
“Really? Your entire life?”
“Yes.”
The young man wants to retort: “Well, I’d apologize, but if the rudest thing you’ve ever encountered in your entire life, your entire life, is somebody being a bit too eager to get off the plane, then you’ve lived a pretty charmed life, and I’m not inclined to feel a lot of sympathy for you. In any event, I have ten million things going on in my mind, and your indignation at being, I don’t even know what – mildly inconvenienced for, like, half a second? – doesn’t even come close to registering as something that I could possibly care about today. Oh – and I appreciated the condescending and mean-spirited way in which you reflexively voiced your wholly inconsequential complaint. That was classy. Saying, ‘excuse me sir, but could you please not cut ahead of me’ would have demanded too much composure in what I’m sure must have been a quite the taxing ordeal for you just then. Have a nice day, and fuck off.” But the young man holds back. Unfortunately, he is not constituted so as to be hurtful to people, or make biting comments towards others, even when they would be appropriate. He balks at anything situation that hints at pointless conflict. Perhaps a weakness more than a virtue in contemporary society, but such is his temperament. And so he ignores the hateful woman on the plane and continues on, trying not to let her spoil his long-awaited homecoming and reunion with his family.
Later, at the market, he witnesses a similar occurrence. A man, standing in line at the check-out register, floats over to the impulse buy rack and mulls over the chocolate bars. A woman, not noticing the man, steps up and takes his spot in line (which I guess, technically speaking, the man had vacated). This egregious breach of shopping etiquette, apparently, could not be tolerated. Rather than politely informing the woman that he was actually in line there, with a kind word and a smile – or better still, just not giving a shit, because it’s one spot in line that will cost him a grand total of about 30 seconds in the long run – he scowls and snaps at her, “Hey lady, I was standing there!” No, asshole, you weren’t.
The sad common thread of these two events is that, in all likelihood, the “aggrieved” parties – the woman on the plane and the man in line – probably let the events sour their day. I imagine them dramatizing their hardships to their friends and family, ad nauseam: “…and then, this horrible kid nearly bowled me over as he bulldozed his way down the aisle, pushing people left and right to try and get out of the plane because he just couldn’t wait…” The irony being, of course, that apparently she couldn’t be expected to wait, either.
I’ve been asked several times since I’ve been home what the strangest part about being back in the United States is. I don’t really know how to answer that. But I can say that the aspect of American society that strikes me the most, that stands in sharpest relief to my somewhat refreshed eyes, is just how spoiled Americans are, how childish, how frivolous. And I don’t just mean our obvious vapid obsession with celebrities and pop culture, where trending Google topics, Jennifer Lopez’s performance contract with Vegas, a YouTube video of a bear cub moseying around a pharmacy, and Renee Zellwegger commenting on her new look gets broader and deeper coverage on the morning news than a terrorist attack on the Canadian seat of government. No, the cupidity of Americans runs far deeper than that. Americans let themselves get outraged about things that don’t matter, like losing a spot in line. Lines don’t even exist for the most part in Nepal. Now, I’m not saying we want to emulate them, but my point is: just calm down, folks. It’ll be okay. No need to snap at someone and ruin somebody else’s day – which is far more legitimate and likely to happen – because you got huffed at something for two seconds. Take a breath and let it pass.
In Nepal, you’re lucky to get a seat on the bus. If you don’t have someone leaning over you half the time, or chickens or goats in the next seat, or another passenger hurling up his breakfast into a plastic bag right in front of you, or your head slamming against the roof or luggage compartment, it’s a good trip. And here you are, getting off this plane – this smooth, comfortable flight, where you get a headrest and blanket and people serve you FREE beverages of your choice and you can access wi-fi because heaven forbid you be disconnected from the internet and your insipid social network for any length of time, this flight that transported you some 2500 miles across an entire continent in a matter of a few hours like goddamn magic – and that’s not enough. You’re complaining because somebody is pushy – not even pushy, just not following, I guess, the proper protocol – getting off the plane. And you yell at them. You don’t have the maturity or fortitude to check your anger, to give it a moment to abate, to think about whether it is really worthwhile to make a knee-jerk snotty comment at somebody for doing something that had absolutely zero practical impact on you, to consider what reasons he might have for doing it. Maybe he has to vomit, and is trying to get to the lavatory. Maybe he hasn’t seen his mom and dad and brothers in over two years and is just really excited to get off the plane and hug them, and a million apologies for not being quite as considerate of the “process,” as you put it, as he should have, but who cares?
Americans, apparently, do. The worst quality of Americans is not our boisterous jingoism or our ignorance about the rest of the world or how impossibly fat so many of us are.  It’s the fact that we are spoiled rotten. Embarrassingly so. Another question I’ve fielded a lot lately is, “Do you think Peace Corps is an effective organization? Do you think it works?” That’s a complicated question that I could write an entire book trying to answer, but if it opens up stupid, cave-dwelling Americans’ eyes to how trivial our complaints are, to how ridiculously charmed most of our lives are, and allow us to appreciate it even just a small fraction more than before, then, at about $375 million dollars a year, I’d say that Peace Corps is a steal at ten times the price.

Raamrosanga basnus,

TO

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Peace Corps Moon

Blast-off!

My shuttle to the Moon launches in T-12 minutes, according to the pleasant yet firm disembodied female voice floating through the intergalactic terminal at National. David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” is humming somewhere nearby, as if embarking for two years in Peace Corps hasn’t already burdened my mind with enough anxiety.  Not exactly the song you want to hear right before blasting off in a hundred ton rocket.  There’s a TV just to my right; maybe they ought to show clips of Apollo 13, or better still, loop images of Challenger or Columbia blowing up.  But it’s a settled point now, so why bother worrying?  I quit my job, sold my car, hastily loaded all of my crap into my mom’s garage, and accepted PC’s invitation to answer life’s call. Soon I’ll be hurtling through the cosmos, preparing to touch down on the Moon and take my first unsteady steps on a voyage that will take me some 250,000 miles from home.  Or I’ll be drifting ever outward like Major Tom.  More soon!

The dangers of using a toilet on the Moon

Hi everyone! No, I didn’t get sucked into the dark, cold, endless void of space.  Here’s a rundown of my first few days on the Moon:

We spent our first two days sequestered in the PC office in downtown Moonopolis, the capital of the Moon, enduring a moon-otonous (ka-cha!) succession of tedious power point presentations about the history of PC, the history of PC Moon, the political situation on the Moon, security concerns unique to the Moon – contingencies for, say, meteor showers, which, far from being the beautiful spectacle of nature they appear as from Earth, cause some serious shit on the lunar surface. You know, because of no atmosphere.  Also, we learned that we are barred from riding Moon dragons, the most popular method of public conveyance on the Moon.  Between sessions, they fitted us for our moon-suits and vaccinated us against all the horrible diseases endemic to the Moon.  You don’t even want to see the needle they plunge into you for the inoculation against Neptunian brain parasite (a microscopic organism that burrows into your cerebral cortex and induces an unpleasant obsession with exterminating all life on Earth).

At least the language classes and cultural sessions were somewhat stimulating. We’re learning the Moony alphabet, and how to sign some useful phrases (Moony is silent, owing to the lack of any medium upon which for sound waves to travel).  We also have learned lots of details about the differences between Lunarians and Moononites, the two predominant social castes.  And we learned to never refer to them generally as Moonies.  They fuckin’ hate that.  Moononites occupy the “lower-tier” of the hierarchy, and poverty tends to extend wider and deeper amongst them, though in the context of the solar system at large, even the wealthier Lunarians aren’t particularly well-off.

And on the third day, PC did issue unto us our moon-suits, and gave us time to walk around outside the artificially pressurized environment of the PC office to adjust to the challenges of ambulating in low-gravity conditions. I feel like an Olympic long-jumper every time I take a step.  The next day they piled us into vehicles and dropped us off at the settlement we’ll inhabit for the next twelve weeks of training, and I had my first experience using a squat toilet in low-gravity.  I’m getting real fluent at signing “sorry about the mess.”

I also committed my first mortifying language gaffe during the ceremony at which we met our host families. I introduced myself to my new host mom, taking special pride in being able to sign my name.  The room exploded with a riotous bout of laughter.  Turns out, my name translates into Moony as “one who has conjugal relations with sheep.”  Wish someone would’ve given me a heads up about that, but whatever.  No doubt, more such embarrassments lie ahead.

Subterranean cheese-sick alien

I’m starting to appreciate just how difficult are the lives Moonies lead. Today, after language class, I accompanied my host dad out to a large cheese quarry.  The Moon, it turns out, is indeed composed of cheese, and this provides the inhabitants of Earth’s lonely satellite with their exclusive means of subsistence.  But we’re not talking about pansy-ass camembert or brie, or even good old fashioned American Kraft singles.  No, no.  Moon cheese is hardcore.  Take a Willy Wonka jawbreaker, marry it to a pungent hunk of muenster, take the offspring of that union and roll it around in the dirt, and let it dry out in the sun for about a week, and you’ll have a reasonable facsimile of Moon cheese.

Every joint in my body aches; every muscle is screaming in agony. Quarrying Moon cheese sucks.  Eight hours of hoisting a sledgehammer over your head and bringing it thundering down on a practically indestructible boulder of Moon cheese – I swear it must rank somewhere in the neighborhood of diamonds on the Mohs scale – and I was about ready to trade places with John Henry.  Seriously, my right shoulder feels like I just pitched a thirty-inning ballgame.

But this demanding task puts food in stomachs. Twice each day – once at about 8 am and again around 4 pm – the host dad distributes a hunk of Moon cheese to all the people in the household.  Being an esteemed guest from another planet, I always receive the most generous helping.  I appreciate the sentiment, but this ends up just causing me greater pain, as it takes me so long to gnaw down the colossal hunk they give me that I’m typically still working on my morning piece by the time afternoon rolls around.  At least my mouth is getting exercise.  I’m going to have the jaw muscles of a saber-toothed cat by the time two years are over.

The Dark Side of the Moon

As I sit here, crammed in a storage shed with the rest of the male members of my household, my host brother’s tentacle jabbing into my chin, I realize that every day I’m piecing together a more complete understanding of Moon culture. It’s like those worksheets you get in elementary school, where a picture is segmented into various cells each assigned a number that corresponds to the answer of some math problem, and each number has a designated color, and as you solve more problems you color in more of the cells and get one step closer to revealing a picture of a tiger wearing ice skates.  Remember those?  Those were fun.  A lot more fun than squeezing into a storage shed to which my high school gym locker was palatial in comparison with five Moony men who haven’t bathed ever while we wait for the “week of hell” as they’ve dubbed this monthly ritual to pass.  I made to leave once, just to stretch my legs, and was met with a chorus – albeit a silent one – of frantically twitching antennae and a sea of horrified faces.  One of my host brothers asked me outright if I was nuts.

What could possibly be so terrible that the men voluntarily consign themselves to this every month – because I have gathered that the men do this voluntarily, not by cultural or religious fiat – rather than carry on in the world outside? I’m not quite sure yet.  But apparently it happens every month and has something to do with the matriarchal system that exists on the Moon.  I’ve caught, with my marginal language skills, an oft whimpered phrase along the lines of “all of them at once, all of them at once” which usually precedes a bout of nervous eye twitches and hyperventilation.  I hope to find out more about this curious phenomenon.

UPDATE:

Two weeks have passed since, to the relief of my olfactory senses and circulation, we quit our miserable chamber and walked back out amongst the living world. Things felt normal for a while, but I have to say, the men all seem to have been in exceptionally high spirits these past couple of days.  I notice a definite spring in my host dad’s step that wasn’t there before.  And the women are behaving oddly as well.  Everyone’s acting like they won tickets to the “This Is It” tour.  In unrelated news, I must be struggling more with the language than I thought.  My host dad, a few days ago, signed to me something about the weather; I think he was saying something about an upcoming heat wave, or something like that, but he seemed positively giddy about it.  And the weather hasn’t been appreciably different.  I must have misunderstood.

Michael Jackson didn’t die, he just went home

Had my first night out on the town tonight in 3 months with my fellow PCTs – excuse me, now PCVs – to celebrate the completion of our training. I’m a little drunk, but that’s more because you get drunk quick in a zero-atmospheric pressure environment than because I overdid it.  Moon beer, by the way, is distilled from moon cheese, and tastes like moon piss.  Good think you get drunk in a hurry, otherwise the nauseating flavor would make anyone moon vomit.

We went to a bar in Moonopolis, and it was wild. A dude from Uranus bought all of us a round of drinks.  I wasn’t sure if I was just totally sloshed, or if he actually did have six eyes.  Then we danced our asses off to Michael Jackson’s greatest hits.  Michael Jackson is a huge sensation on the Moon.  I really can’t do justice with mere words to the extent to which that guy is a cultural obsession here.  Every five year old can do the moon walk.  Fashionable young men and women walk around sporting a solo white glove.  Androgyny is chic.  As is squealing “Ow!” loudly and thrusting your hip out at random intervals throughout the day.  And the shirts are awesome.  I saw this one just today:  Michcel Jacksnn This 1s It tour 200888887.

The night got wild. Three PCVs got arrested for trying to steal one of those decorative potted trees from a restaurant next door to the bar.  Most of the volunteers partnered up with somebody by the end of the night, either another PCV or a tourist or ex-pat or, for the really adventurous, a Moony.  Two of my buddies spent the better part of the evening slavishly fawning over a pair of self-dubbed “goddesses” from Venus, though their persistence, as I understood it, remained unrewarded, as I think they both ended up going home with a pair of Plutonians.  Now, I don’t mean to demean Plutonians, and I’m sure that underneath that thick coat of insulating fur they’re lovely people, that’s not exactly my flavor of ice cream.  I ended up alone, which is why I’m writing a blog post.  But on the bright side, I won’t wake up tomorrow with Mercurial gonorrhea or anything like that.

Do I LOOK like I’m from Jupiter?

Can’t Moonies EVER stop staring? It baffles the mind to comprehend how the mere sight of someone who looks marginally different from yourself provokes such constant apparent bewilderment, particularly on the Moon, inundated as it is with development agencies representing nearly every celestial body in the Milky Way.

I was out for a walk, bounding along and minding my own business, and every time I passed a Moony, he or she stopped whatever he or she was doing and gazed at me slack jawed, as if I was the most unusual sight any of them had ever seen. Their jaws hit the floor – not exaggerating, by the way.  My species has been here since 1969, okay?  Our worlds share intimate gravitational ties.  Maybe it’s time to get over that I look different.  I mean, you’d think I was from Jupiter.  It’s as if I had two heads or something.  Not to slag those cats from Jupiter – fuckers may look weird as hell, but they all seem to know how to have a good time.

Worst of all are the throngs of children who swarm you when they get you in their sights. Since I’m an Earthling, I must be just loaded out the ass with money I can mindlessly toss away.  You would think that, anyway, based on how the kids horde around me demanding money from me, hands and antennae flapping about wildly.  It also blows my mind that they can understand each other with their antennae wheeling about all hysterically.  I’ll never have the mastery of the language to follow all those rapid antennae spins and flicks.

It’s not easy being green (if you’re an Earthling, that is)

Racial prejudices don’t die easily, and the Moon presents a tragic case study of just how they can reinforce cultural perceptions of beauty, and how not-so-subtle advertizing can in turn reinforce racial prejudice.

One of the most ubiquitous products on the Moon is “green-ing cream.” You can’t buy soap, sun block, deodorant, toothpaste, anything that you put anywhere on your body that doesn’t contain an added agent to turn your skin green.  How does this reinforce racial biases?  Lunarians are green, not dissimilar from Martians (though less scaly).  Moononites, who if you recall sit upon the lower rung of the Moony social ladder, have a more violet color.  Billboards, TV commercials, posters, everywhere you look, the culture is saturated with advertisements for green-ing creams.  These ads feature attractive (I’m guessing) Moonies – to be read Lunarians – seductively posed, antennae sensually erect, objects of lust and desirability.  And what makes them desirable?  Their iridescent green skin.  Bad guys in TV shows invariably have violet skin, unless they have to be Lunarian characters, in which case their green skin is depicted as a darker, moldier green, in contrast to heroes and heroines, who possess that coveted reptilian hue.  The less than subliminal message:  green beautiful and thus good, violet ugly and bad.  Woe unto those Moononites who are ultraviolet, as if they don’t have a hard enough time of it already.

For my part, I use the green-ing cream not out of choice but because you simply can’t avoid it (if you want to bathe, at any rate). I look less like a hunky green hulk and more like a cartoon character suffering stomach flu.

The other ET

I’m frustrated. Nine months at site and what do I have to show for it?  Aside from resentment of just about everyone in my community; a permanent neck cramp from our monthly sequestrations; an impressive catalogue of movies watched; and a strange oscillation between constipation precipitated by my cheese-exclusive diet and explosive diarrhea precipitated by, well, it’s Peace Corps; not much.

Turns out, bugger the mind as it might, the people in my settlement were not interested in learning how to build gardens or boil water. It’s hard enough for Moonies to keep water in a liquid form here.  They don’t need any help boiling it.  They don’t care about HIV, because, well, they aren’t human.  I talk to people about “sustainable change” and they politely shoo me out the door.  I don’t understand why empty platitudes aren’t enough for them.  To make matters worse, a Martian volunteer lived in my settlement a few years back, and I just can’t hear the comparisons enough.  Oh, Narglob signed Moon language so well, why don’t you? Oh, Narglob just ate so much moon cheese, why don’t you?  Oh, Narglob built a nuclear atmospheric stabilizer and helped install three class-C de-atomizers, why don’t you?  Narglob, Narglob, Narglob.  It makes me want to pull my hair out.  Thankfully I have this glass helmet encompassing my head every second of the day.

I had always heard that PC/Moon had a high ET rate, which in this case stands for early termination, not extra-terrestrial. A few of my friends have availed themselves of this built-in escape strategy, and the allure of it grows on me every day.  And yet I can’t quite make myself think that it’s beyond hope, that I can’t still salvage some meaningfulness from my time here.  But my endless solitary hikes around the crater are growing tiresome, as is the boredom that never abates.  I’m cursed with a restlessness I can’t slake.  My mind drifts to far off places.  Was this all just a huge mistake?

Vacation!

Happy Holidays everyone! The first holiday season of my PC career is upon us.  All the volunteers in my cohort are planning our vacations.  Most of the men (and, I have to say, more than a few of the women) are taking their holiday on Venus.  You know, for the good weather.  And the atmosphere there keeps you at pretty much a constant buzz, or so I hear reported.  I know at least one volunteer is looking into going to Mars, but it’s a bitch to get a visa for Mars.  If you’re interested in exploring some of the tourist spots on the Moon, the Neil Armstrong Footprint Museum is a good bet.  I’m more into the adventure scene than the bacchanalian or cultural pursuits, though, so I’m going for a trek in the Asteroid Belt.  I wanted to try Pluto, but since Earth demoted it from planetary status and closed our interstellar embassy there, PC won’t let me.  Bummer.  Still, Asteroid Belt should be awesome!

There be dragons

As you know, PC, for safety reasons, prohibits volunteers from travelling by moon dragon. Most volunteers ignore this rule.  Dragons are simply a much more convenient mode of transportation than walking or giant moon worms.  Plus, it just looks badass to soar through the – is it the air?  vacuum of space?  the firmament? – on the back of an eighty-foot dragon with an epidermis formed entirely of deep space metallic alloys (although the badass-ity of it is slightly diminished by the fact that a hundred other poor saps are also squeezed onto its back.  And clutching onto the tail.  And dangling from the wings.  And the mouth).

But seriously, folks. Dragons are a lot faster than moon worms, and the novelty of bounding several yards in a single step when you walk has kind of lost its novelty.  What can I say?  You become pretty jaded in PC.  And really, they aren’t all that dangerous.  Okay, so hanging from the jaw of a moon dragon poses some risks, especially on longer trips, because the dragons do get hungry, but only on the rarest of occasions has a moon dragon crashed from being overloaded with passengers.  There really ought to be stricter regulations about the number of passengers that can ride a dragon at any given time, but such is life on a developing satellite.

But aside from those minimal risks, which one can mitigate and even, practically speaking, eliminate, by being selective about which dragons they ride and where on the dragon they ride, they’re totally safe. And it’s a lot of fun.  My host brother just got back from Mercury, where he works construction (can you imagine a worse place to do manual labor?), for a short vacation, and has been teaching me how to break-in the young dragons.  My host dad never let me because I’m an Earthling and thus don’t know how to do anything, apparently.  This annoyed me at first, but let’s be real – he’s right.  But I am learning how to ride those dragons.  I get thrown most of the time, and have had to call PCMO (that’s our Peace Corps doctor) a few times to get treated for dragon bites, but it has been a great cultural experience.

In the event of total annihilation…

The volunteers in my region recently had to practice consolidation, which is our protocol for assembling in a single location so that PC can account for all of us in the event of a natural disaster, which typically portend unfathomable devastation. You think wildfires are bad?  Try being engulfed in a solar flare.  It doesn’t seem like the most well thought out plan to have all the volunteers in one spot in such a case, as it would only ensure that all of us got wiped out in a single catastrophic blow, but there we were anyway.  And I appreciate PC’s commitment to volunteer safety, but it strikes me as somewhat incongruent with the aim of PC to have all PCVs abandon site likes rats scurrying for the exit on a sinking ship in the case of a natural disaster, as it usually follows that people are at their most vulnerable, and thus in greatest need of assistance, in the direct aftermath of something like, say, an apocalyptic meteor strike, or a settlement being overrun by man- and moony-eating giant alien spiders.

The consolidation was fun for about two days, until we all started to get on each other’s nerves.  If there’s one thing PCVs do well, it’s drink (though we got nothin’ on the Jupiterians).  So what happens when ten PCVs who have been isolated in the deepest darkest craters of the moon for two months with literally no human contact get together in a hotel with a bar?  Chaos exceeding even spider apocalypse ensues.  I’m too embarrassed to share the full extent of the destruction we rendered upon this poor, unprepared lunar town.  Suffice to say that, at one point, a number of volunteers streaked down the main street and, ahem, well, I really shouldn’t go into too many details.  I wonder what the Moony consolidation plan is in the event of an invasion by rambunctious, repressed Earthlings?

Termination shock

I finish PC service in a few weeks and haven’t yet begun the daunting task of organizing all my belongings, sorting what I want to keep, what I want to trash, what I want to give as gifts to my Moony friends, how I’m going to ship back souvenirs for my family, or the ten million other details that attend uprooting one’s life of two years and moving back across the solar system.

I tell myself it’s because the thought of leaving makes me sad, but honestly my hesitation to accept this impending reality stems more from a pervasive anxiety about going home. I don’t want to face the questions, the enormous task of finding a job, the hefty burden of gravity, the long process of recovering lost bone density.  How will I learn how to walk again?  How will my system adjust to fruits and vegetables and grains and water?  I only recently mastered the low-gravity toilet; I seriously have to readjust to a sitting toilet that flushes and everything?

I always thought that PC would clarify my future ambitions, but all it’s done is open up new doors and stir everything into a muddle of confusion. I’m torn now between being a travel writer, which I always imagined to be my dream, and pursuing a Master in Intergalactic Health.  The program at the Saturn Institute looks really exciting.  Ugh.  Why does PC have to end?  In so many ways I long to go home, but PC ending means I have to actually make up my mind about the future.

Most of all, I think I regret a lot of things I didn’t do. But as I reflect more, I realize that the scope of PC service exceeds a mere catalogue of trainings delivered or projects completed.  You don’t measure success by tractor beams installed or the number of moisture compressors you find a way to donate to your community.  The PC experience transcends any lame effort to quantify it, because it is, in fact, life in its totality.  This wasn’t just a job that I performed with varying degrees of success and failure.  It was two years of my life.  Two years spent flying on moon dragons (sorry, PC) and learning a new language and making friends and losing friends and exploring a different world, seizing upon new horizons.  Literally.  You can’t unpack it.  You can’t walk away from it.  I’ll come back from these two years of lunar-cy (I’m sure you’re all glad I haven’t lost my dorky sense of humor) imbued with memories and scars and green skin that contribute to the chemical and biological composition of who I am, that will inform the decisions I make in the future and the ultimate path my life follows.

Also, if PC teaches anything, it’s to appreciate all the comforts and conveniences of home. Like oxygen and gravity.

It’s been a zany couple of years, and I thank you all for sharing it with me. I would have to say that, while my service may not have helped pave even a small step ahead for Moony-kind, it certainly was one giant leap for this PCV.

Tremendous thanks go to my fellow PCV and dearest friend Andrea, the visionary who conceived of Peace Corps Moon and shared with me its wonders.  This post owes its existence to her fertile imagination.

Reading List Vol. IV

And here we have it friends; the final booklist of Peace Corps Tom. Happy readings!

The Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif – This book lapses into sentimentality at times, but not so often as to blemish its overall quality. Soueif captures the beginning and end of the twentieth century in two skillfully interwoven stories unfolding amid the social upheaval of both early 1900s and contemporary Egypt, drawing upon the parallels of history to construct symmetry between two narratives nearly one hundred years distant from each other.  What’s more, she renders the historical piece in a literary style authentically Victorian in its rhythm and diction, as if she had channeled the Bronte sisters in its drafting.  Good for lovers of history and politics and improbable love stories all the same.

Forget Kathmandu: An Elegy for Democracy by Manjushree Thapa – Nepal still suffers the intense labor pains of birthing a new democracy, a process that Thapa chronicles with astute awareness of the transformational moment she currently lives in. This is no dispassionate, academic history; Thapa’s frustration, despair, fears, and boundless hope explode from every page.  I don’t think I’ve ever read through 300 pages as quickly as I raced through this book.

A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah – Keeping with the (quite coincidental) theme of this list, Beah’s memoir recalls the years he spent crawling through jungle, dodging bullets, and taking human life as a child soldier in Sierra Leone’s civil war of the mid-90’s. One day in 1994, young Ishmael, all of twelve, set off from home with a few schoolmates to attend a talent show at a school thirteen miles away.  He would never see his parents or siblings again.  This stirring personal history documents his amazing rehabilitation, as well as how much work we still must do to extend human rights and ensure basic human dignity to all people on the planet.

Three Sisters by Bi Feiyu – A novel about – can you guess? – three sisters coming of age in Mao Zedong’s China, it follows the fortunes (and more often than not misfortunes) of Yumi, Yuxiu, and Yuyang Wang as they navigate their roles as women in a developing China. The ubiquitous Chinese proverbs and casual narrative style lend it an air of a yarn being spun by a stovetop fire in a rural Chinese village by a wizened elder rather than a novel.

Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James – Don’t you judge me.

Raamrosanga etc etc

TO

Once Upon a Time in Nepal

The following is based on a true story.  Names of people, places, and animal characters have been changed in compliance with PC policy.

Once upon a time in the middle hills of Nepal – not so long ago, really – there was a small village called Jamlakhola.  The name meant “Twin Rivers” in Nepali, and the village was thusly named owing to the fact that it perched on the steep flank of a hill overlooking the confluence of two small rivers in a wide valley below.  In the rainy season a quilt of lush green rice paddies and ripe yellow maize stretched out over the valley and the water surged along in the two rivers with a soft rushing sound.

Life in Jamlakhola was quiet, and its people were content.  When they weren’t toiling in the fields during the planting and harvesting seasons or out in the forest cutting fodder for the goats and buffalos, the men sat in tea shops playing cards and chatting about politics while the women gathered under the shade of a big mango tree and discussed their children and the latest village gossip.  During monsoon, the corn grew high up above their heads and there was always plenty of water to flood the rice paddies and still have enough to cook and clean and drink.  Yes, the people of Jamlakhola were happy – except, that is, for one young man. 

His name was Sushil, and Sushil was, shall we say, different.  He did not like to sit around with the men and play cards and drink tea, and whenever the men would tease him about finding a nice girl to marry, Sushil replied that he was not interested in getting married.  Also, because of a condition which caused his skin to be fairer than the rest of the villagers, he was not allowed to go work out in the sun, because when he did his skin flushed a bright shade of pink, and the people of the village believed that the sun made him sick.  As a result, though the community cared for Sushil, he felt like an outsider.  He spent most of his time alone, reading, which the people of Jamlakhola also found to be highly peculiar behavior.  He read all the books he could get his hands on, books about far-away lands and important ideas and people, and he found himself feeling restless.  He longed to leave his small village, and have an adventure like the characters in his books, and do something worthwhile.  Most of all, though, he simply wanted the people of his village to see that he had value, and was capable of doing all the things they could do.  He would set down his book when he was finished reading, gaze out across the valley at the distant hills and the snowy peaks of the mountains beyond, and sigh.  He felt trapped, and it didn’t seem that he would ever have a chance to escape.

Now, the women of Jamlakhola rose every morning before the sun, even before the first crow of the rooster, and went to fetch water from the tap, the first of their many household chores. It took several trips to bring back enough water for the whole day.  Then they stoked the fire and set water on to boil for tea, then scrubbed down the porch, washed the laundry and hung it up to dry, and when the sun finally peeked up over the hills, blinking the sleep from its great golden eyes, the women would playfully scold it for its laziness. 

One morning, though, the women went to the tap and twisted the nozzle, and were surprised when nothing came out.  This was puzzling, because it was the middle of the month of Saun, the high point of monsoon.  While it had been a drier monsoon than average, there still should have been more than enough water to fill their copper vessels.  What’s more, there had just been a big rain the night before.  The women of Jamlakhola were smart though, and always planned ahead, and so fortunately they had water left over from previous days to boil for tea and cook rice and wash laundry.  Still, they carried their empty water jugs back to their homes, shaking their heads in confusion.  That afternoon, as they sat under the mango tree, all the conversations were about the mysterious lack of water.  What could be the cause?

The next morning, the women returned to the tap, and found it dry once more.  Now they began to be concerned.  There was still a little bit of water, but they would have to do without their afternoon tea, and they wouldn’t be able to wash laundry, and the vegetable curry that evening would have to be dry.  But if this kept up any longer, there would be a problem.  They would have to hike down the steep hillside to the river and carry water back up, as their grandmothers had, and their grandmothers’ grandmothers before them.  The women of Jamlakhola were strong and resilient, and would do what needed to be done, but during monsoon, the path the winded down to the river was slick and treacherous, and carrying up a heavy copper jug filled with a few gallons of water was dangerous.  The tap had been in the village for many years now, and only the oldest, grayest, most wrinkled of the women remembered having to make the difficult trek down to the river to fetch water in the mornings, and they bemoaned their poor fortune loudest of all.  “The Gods must be punishing us,” they whispered, though none of the women in the village could imagine what they had done to so offend the Gods.

When the women returned on the third day to find the tap dry once more, they decided that something must be done.  A group of men volunteered to climb up to the water tank at the top of the hill to investigate the problem.  Sushil volunteered to go as well.  “The path is difficult Sushil, and it might be dangerous walking through the forest.  You should stay here,” they said, but Sushil was resolute.  He wanted to help, and prove his worth.  So the men, chuckling and shaking their heads, agreed to let Sushil come along.

They tramped through the terraced fields, then climbed the steep path up the cliff side. 

“Be careful, Sushil, the path is slippery,” they warned.  Sushil simply sighed and followed the men up the hill. 

They came to the edge of a dense forest, climbing ever upward, and sloshed through the ankle-deep water.  Occasionally, a man would stop to peel a leech off of his foot.

“Watch out for leeches, Sushil.”  Sushil caught a few leeches of his own, and would reach down and pluck them off like the other men.  He tossed the leeches aside and showed the other men that the slimy little black creatures did not bother him any more than they did any of the others, but still the men were fraught with concern whenever they saw that one had clung onto his calf or ankle or between his toes.  “You should go back, Sushil,” they said.  “One of us will walk back with you so you don’t get lost.”  But Sushil insisted that he would continue, and so, reluctantly, the men carried on, cringing every time a leech got hold of Sushil, or whenever he brushed the stinging nettle.

Finally the men came to a small clearing in which there was a waterfall and a large cement tank with plastic pipes poking out of it and running down the mountain in all directions.  They saw immediately what the problem was.  The pipe that directed water from the tank to Jamlakhola was missing, and water was gushing out through the gap where the pipe once was, flooding the ground around the tank and turning it into a soggy marsh.

“Where could the pipe have gone?” cried the men, looking this way and that for any trace of it.  A jumbled murmur arose as they were all clamoring at once about the missing pipe.

Suddenly, a loud screech cut through the din of their voices, and the men all looked up to see a monkey swinging wildly from branch to branch through the trees, until he came to rest on a low hanging branch above the water tank.  It was Kumar Baandar*, a notorious prankster.  He wore a grin from ear to ear, and was tauntingly shaking something long and black in his right hand.  The men realized that it was the missing length of pipe, and they all began to shout at once.  Then the village headman stepped forward and angrily called up to the mischievous monkey, “You rotten thief!  Give us that pipe!  We need it to provide water to our village.”

The monkey just smirked wider and howling with laughter replied, “Just climb up here and take it from me, if you want it so badly.”

The men fumed.  Though they were all skilled climbers, none of them could reach the branch from which Kumar Baandar was hanging, and the trunk of the tree stood on the other side of the waterfall.  It would be too dangerous to try to walk across.

“Please,” called out the headman, softening his tone a bit.  “Without the water from this tank, the women of our village will have to make a long and dangerous trek every morning down to collect water from the river.  In the old days, many women were hurt making that trip, especially during monsoon.  You’ve had your joke, now won’t you give us back the pipe?”

Kumar Baandar scratched his chin and cocked his head to one side, his lips curling into a mock pout.  “Well,” he began, “Kumar Baandar is a compassionate soul, and he will give you back your pipe on one condition.”

“And what is that?”

“Kumar Baandar has long coveted the Sacred Coconut, which that slithering scoundrel Suroj Sarpa+ holds deep in his cave on the other side of the mountain.  If you could fetch me the Sacred Coconut, I think I might be able to give you back your pipe.”

A collective gasp escaped the men as they listened to the monkey’s demands.  The men of Jamlakhola, like all people around this mountain, feared the great serpent Suroj Sarpa more than any other beast of the forest, and none dared even approach his cave dwelling.  All the children of all the villages for miles around grew up with tales of foolish children who went into the snake’s gloomy pit, never to return.  The men were outraged at the monkey thief’s chicanery, but when they considered the task required to restore water to their village, their courage failed them.  The men just stood around, muttering in defeat, while the crafty monkey chuckled to himself.  “Will none accept Kumar Baandar’s terms?  What a shame.  I guess your poor women will just have to make that dangerous hike every morning.  I hope you can explain to them why.”

Just then, Sushil stepped forward.  “I will go,” he declared, his chest out, his head high.  The men, despite their terrible predicament, broke into a round of laughter.  The headman approached Sushil and placed a paternal hand on his shoulder.

“Sushil, please.  The bravest men of our village do not dare to enter the serpent’s lair.  It is a long journey to the far side of the mountain.  If it is too hard for our bravest and strongest men, it is too hard for you.”

“If the bravest and strongest men of our village will not go to save our water, then perhaps they are not truly the bravest or the strongest.”  As he said this some of the younger men, whom the headman and Sushil obviously had been referring to, bristled at this slight upon their bravery.  Yet none spoke up, and none stepped forward to assume the challenge.  “I am not afraid of the serpent.  I will go and bring back the Sacred Coconut and return water to our village.”

“Sushil,” began the headman, in the tone one would use to address a silly little boy whose imagination had run away with him.

“No,” Sushil said, brushing off the headman’s arm.  “I am not a child.  I am a man just like the rest of you, and you cannot stop me.  Now, who will be brave enough to join me?”  He looked around, but none stepped forward.  Many of the men hung their heads sheepishly, afraid to meet Sushil’s gaze.  “Fine, then.  Wait here for me.  I’ll be back before dark.” 

And so Sushil set off alone into the forest.  He pushed on, splashing along flooded clay paths, climbing up toward the top of the hill.  It was a difficult trek, and as he trudged ever deeper into the forest, the canopy of the trees above grew thicker and thicker, until only the narrowest slivers of light poked through.  Everywhere, Sushil could hear the forest alive around him: the chirping of insects, the scuttling of a lizard or bird through the undergrowth, the screech of other unknown creatures that called the dark recesses of the forest home.  Meanwhile, the path grew less clear until it was completely overgrown, and Sushil found himself tearing and hacking through the thick vegetation until finally he arrived at a clearing and came out onto a small mound of grass above the tree line.  He had reached the top of the hill.  He paused to look out at the sweeping vista unfolding in all directions below him.  He felt like he could see forever.  Hills thrust violently upward from deep gorges, while others gently sloped down into broad green valleys.  Houses of orange clay and others of cement coated in blue and green paint dotted the landscape.  Sushil imagined, on a clear day, he might be able to see all the way to India, and beyond even.  He might see all the way to those distant, fantastic lands that existed in black and white on the pages of his books.  The crown of the Himalaya stood ominously in the distance, shrouded in a gray.  Black storm clouds brooded in the east, and in the great distance he could hear the rumble of thunder. 

He knew from the many stories he had heard as a child that the cave of Suroj Sarpa lay on the far side of the hill, behind a great waterfall in a deep ravine below Kalika Mandir, the temple where the people of his village traveled to offer a goat during the Dashain festival each year.  The annual trip to the temple was the only occasion on which his family would allow him to leave the village, as it was a sacred obligation from all Hindus to worship during Dashain.  Ironically, Sushil did not believe any of the old stories about the Gods and their heroic deeds, but he went because it was his only chance to explore the world beyond the boundaries of his village.  He found the temple from his vantage point and made a path to it.  The deep roar of the thunder sounded closer every time it echoed over the hills, and Sushil wanted to hurry and be able to return before the big rain came.

As he descended the opposite side of the mountain, a loud sound rocked the forest.  It sounded like thunder, but much closer, and Sushil knew it couldn’t be thunder because it had come from below him.  He froze, listening intently for the sound, which came again like an explosion.  It had definitely come from the direction he needed to go.  There was nothing else to do but muster his courage and march onward towards whatever was making the deafening sound.  Every meter he advanced brought the sound closer and clearer, and he noticed that all the creatures of the forest were skittering in the other direction.  Finally he came to the source: it was the fearsome tiger, Bhimsen Bahadur Baagh#.  The tiger was crouched low, his head rolled back and erupting with the ferocious roars that had resounded throughout the forest.  Then his eyes caught sight of Sushil.  Sushil froze in his tracks.  At first, his heart raced with fear, until he noticed that the tiger was carrying his front right paw in an unusual, gingerly way.  A realization dawned over Sushil, and he approached the great beast tentatively. 

At first Bhimsen Bahadur recoiled, and emitted a low growl to warn this human to stay away.  The great tiger knew all about people.  They were violent, dangerous animals who liked to kill for fun, and many of his ancestors had been murdered by these strange two-legged creatures.  In fact, only a few of his kind even remained because this most deadly of creatures had stolen all of their land to build their houses and plant their crops.  But Sushil put out a kindly hand, and said, “Don’t be afraid of me, great tiger.  I don’t want to hurt you.  I understand why you are roaring, and if you let me, I’d like to try and help you.”

At first Bhimsen Bahadur was suspicious of Sushil.  He had never heard of a human simply helping another animal, for no reason.  “And what do you expect in return, human?”

“Nothing,” said Sushil, quite astonished.

“Then why do you wish to help me?” growled the tiger.

“Because you are in great pain and discomfort, and as a fellow creature that walks this earth, you are my brother, and it is my duty to help you if I can.”

Bhimsen was, needless to say, perplexed.  He had never heard a human speak this way, and yet he sensed that Sushil was telling the truth.  He bowed his head as a sign that he would allow Sushil to approach.  Sushil stepped boldly towards the tiger and took his paw into his hand.  He pressed softly over different areas, asking where it hurt.  Finally he found the cause of the pain.  A sharp thorn had lodged itself in between Bhimsen Bahadur’s claws, and was wedged in so deeply into the narrow crevice that, despite his best efforts, the tiger could not extract it.  In fact, every time he tried, the thorn wriggled deeper into his paw, causing greater agony.

“Hold still,” Sushil said.  “This might hurt quite a bit for a moment, so try not to dig your claws into me.”  The tiger just gazed the Sushil and said nothing.  Sushil spread out the tiger’s claws and reached in, getting a hold on the butt of the thorn.  Then, Bhimsen Bahadur felt a searing pain for an instant as Sushil yanked the thorn from his paw.  In the flash of pain, he almost forgot to keep his claws retracted, but in a second the pain was gone.  He couldn’t believe it.  He looked at his paw, then at Sushil, who stood smiling with the tiny thorn still pinched between his thumb and forefinger. 

“Strange that such a tiny object could cause such terrible pain to a mighty beast such as yourself, isn’t it?” Sushil said.

Bhimsen Bahadur didn’t know what to say.  He was not accustomed to other creatures offering him help, or even not running away from him in terror.  He nodded his head.  “I am indebted to you, kind human.  If ever you need me to return the favor, you need only ask.”  And then he bounded off into the forest.

As Sushil watched him disappear with a rustle into the dense foliage, he heard the approaching grumbling of thunder, reminding him of his mission and speeding him along.  It was a hard journey, but finally he arrived at the waterfall which hid the entrance to Suroj Sarpa’s cave.  He stepped through the curtain of water and into a dark, murky cavern.  He walked to the edge of the light, and then stopped as he decided it would be unwise to walk into the pitch black of the deep bowels of the cave.  Yet he needed to find the Sacred Coconut.  He thought of all the stories he had heard of children trying to sneak into the cave to steal Suroj Sarpa’s treasures, only to meet an untimely end as a midday snack for the treacherous snake.  Suddenly, he knew what he had to do.  All of the people whom Suroj Sarpa had gobbled up had tried to sneak into the cave, like burglars.  Sushil took a deep breath.

“Suroj Sarpa,” he boomed out in his loudest, most confident-sounding voice.  “I’ve come for the Sacred Coconut.  Show yourself, snake.  I have no fear of you.”  He hoped his voice did not betray that, now that he found himself in the snake’s lair, he did in fact feel a bit of apprehension.

“Who daresssss disssturb my sssssslumber?” came a hissing voice that bounced all around the cavern, followed by the great snake himself.  The serpent slithered out of the shadows, winding himself between Sushil’s feet.  Sushil stood his ground, determined not to show any fear to the snake, certain that if he did, it would be his doom.

“My name is Sushil, and I have come from the village of Jamlakhola to seek the Sacred Coconut.”

“And what do you desssire with the Sssssacred Coconut?” hissed the snake.

“Kumar Baandar has stolen the pipe that brings water to our village, and will not return it unless we bring him the Sacred Coconut,” Sushil explained.

Suroj Sarpa hissed in disgust.  “That ssssssilly monkey.  He’sssss wanted my Ssssssacred Coconut for many yearsssssss.”  Then the snake paused, and considered Sushil.  This human had come into his home and announced himself boldly, and had not cowered in fear when he had shown himself as all the others had.  He decided that this brave soul had earned the right to have a chance to live.  “Well, let’sssss make a deal.  We’ll play a sssssimple game.  If you win, I’ll give you the Sssssacred Coconut.”

“And if I lose?”

“If you lossssssse,” began the snake, and his forked tongue flitted out, “If you losssse, then you musssst ssssstay, and I will eat you for sssssupper.”

Sushil swallowed.  He was worried now, but what could he do?  His village needed the Sacred Coconut.  He had to accept the snake’s terms.

“Deal.  What’s the game?”

“Jussst a sssssimple riddle.  If you sssssolve it, the Sssssacred Coconut issss yourssss.  But if not….” His voice trailed off as he coiled up around Sushil and met him eye to eye.  Sushil refused to blink. 

“And what’s the riddle?”

The snake unwound himself and slithered over to the entrance of the cave.  “A conundrum, really.  A farmer findssss himssself in a ssssticky ssssituation.  He comesss to a river, which he musssst crossssss.  He isss bringing with him a tiger, a goat, and a bundle of grassssss to ssssell in the market.  There isss a boat on the sssshore, but it issss only big enough for the farmer to crossssss with one thing at a time.  He can only take either the grassssss, the goat, or the tiger with him on each crosssssssing.  But here’sssss hissss predicament.  If he leavesssss the grasssss unattended with the goat to take the tiger acrossss, the goat will eat the grassssss.  If he leaves the goat unattended with the tiger to take the grassss acrosssss, the tiger will eat the goat.  He mussssst get all three to the market, and there issss no other way acrossssss the river.  What doesssss he do?”

Sushil thought hard.  It seemed an impossible situation.  It was obvious that the farmer should take the goat across first, leaving the goat on one side with the tiger alone with the grass on the other.  But then what?  If he took the tiger over next, it would eat the goat when he went back for the grass.  And if he took the grass, the goat would have finished it off before he could get back with the tiger.  There seemed to be no answer to the riddle.  Suroj Sarpa slid over from the mouth of the cave and began entwining himself around Sushil’s feet in a figure eight.  He could sense that the human was failing to find the answer.  His tongue fluttered out again as he anticipated the nice meal Sushil would make.

Sushil, however, would not let the snake perturb him, or distract him.  There had to be a solution.

“Time’ssssss almosssst up,” whispered the snake into his ear.  It opened its jaws wide as it positioned itself above Sushil’s head, ready to enjoy this nice morsel.  Yes, this meal would leave him satisfied for quite some time.  Just as he was about to clamp down, though, Sushil spoke up, “I’ve got it.”

Suroj Sarpa retracted his head and gave a frustrated hiss, but put on a polite smile.  “Yessss, well?  What issss it?”  Surely the human was just playing for time, but it wouldn’t work.  He remained coiled around Sushil’s body. 

Sushil spoke calmly.  “Well, the farmer can’t just take them over to the other side and leave them there, because no matter what, either the grass or the goat will be eaten.”

“Yessss?”  Suroj Sarpa closed his eyes and imagined what the human would taste like.  It had been so long since he had enjoyed man-flesh.

“So the only option is to not leave them on the other side.  He must take the goat first, and leave it on the other side of the bank.  There it will be safe, and the tiger will have no interest in the grass.”  The snake was barely listening.  Other humans had worked out this most obvious first step, but none had been clever enough to reach the final solution.  He was just waiting for Sushil to stumble so he could sink his teeth into him.  “Then, he must go back and get either the tiger or the grass, it doesn’t matter which.”  Suroj Sarpa paused.  “Say he takes the tiger.  He gets out of the boat on the other side with the tiger, and then brings the goat with him for the journey back to the first side of the river.  So the tiger is alone on the far bank, the grass alone on the other, and the goat is in the boat again with the farmer.”  Suroj Sarpa recoiled.  Impossible!  The human must have tricked him somehow.  “Then, the farmer leaves the goat alone on the first side of the river and takes the grass across, and leaves it with the tiger, where it will be safe.  Then, he goes back across the river, alone, this time, and finally collects the goat.  When he crosses again, he’ll have all three safely on the other side of the river.”

The snake hissed in fury, and almost struck down on Sushil in anger at besting him at the game.  No human had ever matched his wits before.  “I’ve won the game, Mr. Sarpa.  Now, a deal’s a deal.  Bring me the Sacred Coconut.”

It was true.  Suroj Sarpa could not argue.  Fuming, he released Sushil and slithered off into the dark, and when he reemerged he was carrying the Sacred Coconut.

“Take it,” he hissed angrily.  He flung the Coconut up to Sushil, who caught it and rushed out of the cave.  He did not want to spend one moment longer than he had to inside the snake’s lair.  When he came back out into the forest, he saw that it was darker than before.  He knew he had not been so long that night should have fallen.  Just then a thick glob of water plopped down on his forehead.  He looked up and saw a blanket of angry looking dark clouds overhead, and felt a steady trickle of rain build up.  He raced back through the forest, past where he had helped Bhimsen Bahadur Baagh, past the vista point at the top of the mountain, pausing only for a moment to see that the distant Himalaya were now completely obscured by thick storm clouds.  He rushed back down the slippery mountain path.  By the time he reached the water tank, a heavy rain had begun to pour down from the sky.  When he emerged into the clearing at the waterfall, he noticed that many of the men had gone.  Those that remained, including the headman, cried out in shock when the saw him break through the trees.

“Sushil, we were so worried.  Many of the men returned to the village to tell everyone that you had been eaten by Suroj Sarpa.  They –” he stopped talking abruptly when he saw the Sacred Coconut in Sushil’s hand.  “You got it,” he said in a barely audible whisper.  He was stunned.  How could Sushil, so fragile, so peculiar, have accomplished such a tremendous and difficult feat?

“Yes, I’ve returned with the Sacred Coconut, as I said I would,” Sushil declared, then turned to Kumar Baandar, who was no longer smiling nor laughing.  He held out the Sacred Coconut to the monkey.  “Okay, thief, it’s time for you to honor your word.  I’ve brought the Coconut, now give us the pipe.”

The monkey, too, could not believe his eyes.  How could this human, whom all the other silly humans clearly held in such low regard, have survived the treacherous stretch of jungle, and managed to outwit Suroj Sarpa and get his hands on the Sacred Coconut?  He was flustered, but regained his composure quickly, he still had one last trick in his bag.

“Fine,” he said, bowing low, pretending to show deep respect for Sushil.  “You are clearly a man of great intelligence and ability.  Throw Kumar Baandar the Sacred Coconut, and he will return the pipe to you.  Kumar Baandar is a monkey of his word.”  Sushil tossed up the Coconut and Kumar Baandar caught it with his free hand.  As he did, he let out a triumphant cackle.  “Ha!  You foolish human, you thought I’d give back the pipe?  You may have outsmarted that bumbling snake, but none are more clever than me, Kumar Baandar.”  The monkey erupted into a fit of riotous laughter.

Sushil felt his heart sink into his stomach and his face flush.  He couldn’t believe, after everything, that he had fallen for such a simple trick.  How could he be so naïve?

Just then, a rustling came from the dense bushes just beyond the clearing, and out sprang Bhimsen Bahadur Baagh.  The other men shrieked in fear of the mighty tiger, some collapsing backward onto their butts.  Kumar Baandar gasped and cowered back further up on the branch.  Only Sushil stood his ground.  The tiger bounded across the clearing and leapt up onto the branch with Kumar Baandar. 

“You’re going to give these humans their pipe back, and restore water to their village, and if I ever find out you’ve played such a trick again, I’ll be very angry,” he snarled.  Kumar Baandar was shaking in fright, but he managed to nod and toss the pipe to Sushil before springing off with a terrified screech into the depths of the forest.  Bhimsen Bahadur turned to Sushil, nodded, and pounced off in the other direction, and was gone. 

The men all came up around Sushil, in awe of his great bravery.  He had shown that he must be very clever to have survived the lair of Suroj Sarpa, and he did not back away in the presence of Bhimsen Bahadur Baagh, showing he had great courage.  The headman approached Sushil and placed a hand on his shoulder once more.  This time, there was nothing patronizing in his manner or tone. 

“Little brother Sushil, you have saved our village.  I am so sorry for doubting you all this time.  You are a clever, brave, strong man, and the hero of Jamlakhola.  Please forgive us all.”

Sushil simply smiled, took the headman’s hand in his, and said, “Come, older brother.  Let’s go home.”

And Sushil’s brave act became a legend in Jamlakhola and all the villages for miles and miles, and he and the rest of the people of his village lived happily ever after.

THE END

Raamrosanga basnus,

TO

*Baandar – monkey

+Sarpa – snake

#Baagh – tiger

Universally Speaking

Learning Nepali is fast and easy!  Anyone can learn this exotic language in just a few short lessons, regardless of experience or perceived level of facility with picking up new languages.  You can get started with these common expressions, spoken in everyday conversation by real Nepalis (helpful English translations in parentheses):

Relax garnus (relax)

Date fixed bhayo/bhaena (the date is/is not fixed)

Ma Nepal Red Cross Society-ko Field Supervisor ho (I’m a Field Supervisor for the Nepal Red Cross Society)

Bored laagyo? (are you bored?)

Bored feeling? (same as above)

Tension chha? (is there tension?)

Tension na garnus (don’t do tension)

Time pass hunchha (passing time)

Last time (last time)

Ekdam fast (very fast)

Ekdam high (very high)

And my all time favorite:

Last minute-maa plan change bhayo? (Can you guess this one? Great job, you got it: plans changed at the last minute?)

There are many, many more!  Don’t waste another moment, start learning Nepali today.  You’ll be amazed how similar it is to English!

Seriously though, folks.

Obviously, these are meant to be comical (though 100% real life) examples of English words and expressions that have managed to imprint themselves upon the Nepali parlance.  Nepali is actually an exceptionally difficult language to learn, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts.  But a joke any Nepal PCV will get is that you can say something entirely in English and draw blank stares, but if you add a “chha” or “bhayo” or “garnu” to the end of the sentence, suddenly everyone readily understands you.  Now, of course that’s not really true, but this phenomenon speaks to some interesting (and, depending upon your perspective, either encouraging or regrettable) truths about the world.

As I was sitting at breakfast this morning in Pokhara, trying to ease myself back into Nepal after the lavish accommodations at the resort PC that put us up in for our close-of-service conference totally ruined me for the hard mattress and no a/c that I’ll return to in my village, I noticed a group of Chinese tourists sitting at the next table (at least, they sounded like they were speaking Chinese).  The Nepali server approached to take their order, and three of them funneled their orders through a fourth girl – the only one of their group apparently who could speak English.  It’s amazing, if you really think about it.  Here were four girls from China, communicating with a man from Nepal – two countries that border each other in Asia – and the medium through which they communicated with one another was English.  I feel so fortunate to be a native English speaker.  Watching that little scene unfold, it hit me just how flat out impossible it would be to travel anywhere, really, in the world, without knowing at least some English.  English has become, for better or worse, the universal language. 

When I went to Tibet last September, I witnessed groups of tourists from all over Europe, Asia, even South America, following guides who spoke in English.  The only other language I heard guides speak (other than Chinese, of course, for the hordes of Chinese tourists who swarm the sacred sites of Tibet, like billions of grains of salt being scrubbed into a festering wound) was French.  Fitting, since French is, geographically speaking, the second most widely-spoken language in the world.  Behind English.  In tiny, rural villages on the Tibetan plateau, under the shadow of Everest (the English name, of course), we, almost incredibly, met a smattering of shop owners and others who knew a handful of words in English, even if it was just a few numbers.  Not impressed?  Raise your hand if you can count by tens to one hundred in Mandarin – or even better, Tibetan.  Anyone?  Anyone?  Bueller?  Bueller?  Bueller?

I remember a similar occurrence to the one I witnessed at the restaurant this morning from when I was eating at a restaurant in Paris.  I couldn’t help but overhear the conversation of the group of people sitting at the next table.  There were six or seven men and women, all about my age.  And I distinctly remember: one was from Germany, one from Sweden, another was Danish, and though I can’t remember which other countries were represented by that mini-EU, I do recall that none of them were countries in which English was the first language.  So what language were they chatting in?  French?  We were, after all, in Paris.  No, try again.  It was English.

Want to take a guess at how many signs in Nepal are written bilingually in Nepali and Spanish?  That would be none, except perhaps at the embassies or consulates of Spanish-speaking countries.  But even then I’m not so sure.  The sign for the Pakistani Embassy in Kathmandu is written in English and Nepali.  No Pashto or Urdu or Farsi or Arabic or whatever is the primary language of Pakistan to be found.

Some lament this inevitable effect of globalization.  I understand that sentiment.  It’s sad to see indigenous languages dying out around the globe, including at home in the U.S., as some Native American languages move closer and closer to extinction with each generation that passes away.  At the same time, English didn’t even exist (at least not in any form that would be comprehensible or even recognizable to a contemporary speaker) more than a millennium or two ago (which is not a considerable period of time in the scale of the human species and the existence of spoken language).  Languages, like culture, like all living things, evolve.  They change over time.  A number of different factors will influence how our language changes, which languages will swallow up others, which will succeed and flourish and which wind up going the way of the dodo.  Conservation is good.  Preserving heritage and passing on “endangered” languages and the cultures they represent to successive generations are desirable goals.  But I just can’t get myself worked up about the tragedy of dying languages in the same way that some of my friends do.  It’s not the same as species dying out, and changing ecosystems, and actual destruction.

My main point though is to all those fools out there who shout until they’re blue in the face, usually on conservative propaganda platforms like Fox News, about the need to make English the “official” language of the United States, to “protect” the English language, to “preserve American traditions and values”, because God forbid that immigrant kids who come to the States be allowed to study in a public school  in, say, Spanish, a language in which we have no shortage of competent and fluent teachers, so that these children – children, mind you – can continue to learn math and science and history and be able to keep up with their peers while they are also learning English, because you can’t just learn a new language overnight, and it’s not a child’s fault that his parents decided to uproot him from home and bring him – legally or not – to a brand new country where he has no friends and doesn’t understand anything and he shouldn’t be punished and deprived the basic human right to better himself through education because of laws that his parents may have broken.  But back to the morons who are so terrified that we’re all going to be speaking Mexican or Chinese or whatever someday: are you for real?  Get out and explore the world.  Come to Nepal and be reassured: English ain’t going anywhere anytime soon.  Tension chha?  Just relax garnus.  Everything will be ekdam okay.

Raamrosanga basnus

TO

The Live Blog (sort of)

Hi folks!

Today I have a special treat for you (sort of). I’m blogging to you live – except not really – from Himalayan Java (which, in English, means “ridiculously overpriced coffee”) in my favorite city, Kathmandu. I’m here to meet with PCMO – that’s Peace Corps Medical Officer – to see if we can get to the bottom of the mystery of why it is I can’t walk more than 10 minutes without feeling a paralyzing pain just below my right knee. I’m not optimistic, but you never know.

So, usually, when I post a blog, it’s something that I have written (and perhaps edited) several days before I get around to actually posting it on the internet. There are a number of reasons for this, the primary one being that I don’t have internet access in my village. But, as I’m hooked up to the net with just about as fast a connection as I’ll ever get at these coordinates, I thought I’d go ahead and blog my thoughts to you in “real time”. Which means I’ll post immediately after I’ve finished writing. It also means that you’ll get, more or less, an uncensored stream of consciousness from your least favorite blogger, me. So let’s begin, shall we?

As I sit here, my attention is divided between writing this blog and watching the tape delayed soccer match being broadcast on Ten Action Sports, one of South Asia’s major sports networks. It’s a war of attrition between Dortmund and Munich in the Bundesliga, Germany’s premier football league. Scoreless early in the second half. I’ll keep you posted (I’m sure you all care a great deal).

Let that serve as my segue into the first topic I want to talk about in this blog – World Cup 2014 in Brasil. Yes, I’m going to be that guy and spell it with an ‘s’ rather than a ‘z’ as we do in American English. Specifically, I want to rant a bit about U.S. manager, and fellow Californian, Jurgen Klinsmann. If you think that’s a funny name, it’s because he’s a German national, so it’s really not his fault. I had been a vocal proponent of naming Klinsmann as head coach of the men’s national team ever since U.S. Soccer sacked Bruce Arena back in 2007. The U.S. Soccer Federation finally heeded my advice in 2011, and, needless to say, I was right. Klinsmann has ushered in a new era of American soccer, guiding the team to an easy victory in the 2013 Gold Cup and a record 16 wins last year, including a dominating performance in World Cup qualifying. And yet, I have to slap my forehead with an open palm and shake my head vigorously back and forth at one of Klinsmann’s decisions regarding our final 23 man roster for Brasil.

How, oh how in the world, do you exclude Landon Donovan from the final 23, Mr. Klinsmann? As one of U.S. soccer’s biggest fans, I demand an explanation. Don’t give me this “he’s lost a step” bullshit. I agree fully with Bruce Arena, who currently manages the L.A. Galaxy in MLS – and who happens to be, as Donovan’s club manager, in a unique position to evaluate his abilities – if there are 23 guys who are better than Landon Donovan, than we should win the World Cup this year. It’s that simple.

There are not, and we won’t. And that will be the crux of my argument.

By the way, going on 70 minutes, and Dortmund and Munich are still locked at 0.

I love U.S. soccer – probably more than anybody you know. When my soccer-adoring American friends are all abandoning their country because it’s more fashionable to cheer for England or Germany or Brasil or, ugh, Italy (excuse me while I go puke), I have always stood firmly by the old Stars and Stripes. Perhaps it’s a shock, but yes, a bleeding heart liberal who fiercely advocates for marriage equality, socio-economic justice, amnesty for undocumented immigrants and public education can also be a strong patriot. Wow, imagine that. I have tremendous pride in the men and women who represent our nation in the various levels of international athletic competitions, from the Olympics all the way down to the Little League World Series. And this passion for U.S. national teams takes its most feverish form when it comes to our national soccer teams.

Great save by Munich’s keeper to keep it deadlocked at nil-nil!!

But, I’m also a realist. And, barring a miracle, the United States of America is not going to win the World Cup this year. We should definitely advance to the elimination rounds of the tournament, but in the given field, with the draw shaping up as it did and potential matchups being what they are, I’ll be satisfied with a quarterfinal run. And so I ask again: why not put Landon Donovan on the final 23 bound for Brasil?

It’s to his great credit that most of you probably know Landon Donovan’s name. Seriously, having any name recognition at all is a huge achievement for a soccer player in our country. Raise your hand if the name Eric Wynalda means anything to you. No? He’s the guy who’s international goal record Landon Donovan has absolutely obliterated (Donovan has scored almost twice as many goals for the United States as Wynalda did in a long, distinguished career). In fact, another U.S. player has also since eclipsed Wynolda’s mark. Anybody know the name Clint Dempsey? He’s been the U.S.’ best player for about three or four years now. But he still doesn’t match up with the greatness of Landon Donovan.

Well, shit. The power went out. Hopefully it comes back on before – yay! It’s back on.

All sports fans will understand that there is a difference between the guy who is the best player at any given time (i.e. LeBron James in the NBA right now) and the greatest player of all time (Michael Jordan). Clint Dempsey is the best American player right now, but Landon Donovan is the greatest American player of all time. And it’s not really even all that close. So why not give Donovan a swan song in Brasil? At 32, he won’t get another bite at the World Cup apple, especially since the team that the U.S. will be fielding in Brasil has an average age of about 12 – seriously, if Donovan, at 32, doesn’t make the cut against a bunch of teenagers, how will he compete at 36 against a whole crop of kids that are in the prime of their careers?

As an aside, this World Cup was also my “last bite at the apple” as it were, and I can sympathize with Landon about not getting to go. That might seem silly to some, and obviously I will have plenty more chances to be in the grandstands at a World Cup match, but there’s a difference in the whole experience of going when you’re a more or less irresponsible 27 year old than when you’re 31 or 35 and have, or are starting to have, a family to take care of. Of course, since women tend to avoid me like an infectious disease, it’s possible that the idea I’ve always sort of carried around and just taken for granted that I would be married and either have a kid or be starting to get ready to have kids by the time I’m 30 (the next World Cup, in Russia, will take place a couple months after my thirty-first birthday) might not come to fruition. So, hell, if I’m a lifelong bachelor, which doesn’t seem like an unreasonable assumption at this point, I guess I’ll never be timed out of going to a World Cup. But, as usual, I digress.

What the f…? They’ve changed the channel now. So instead of watching a pretty good soccer match, we’re watching highlights from past Wimbledon championships. Awesome.

Anyway, Donovan ought to be on this World Cup team. As I said, the U.S. won’t win anyway, so what does it matter? If the argument is that you want to field the best 23 players that there are, even if we grant your absurd premise that Donovan is not among those 23, if those 23 can’t win the tournament (which they can’t) then what’s the harm of leaving off one guy who will likely spend the entire tournament warming the bench to give America’s greatest soccer hero (and, I’ll argue in a bit, greatest sports hero, period) a chance to end his brilliant career the way he has spent the last 15 years earning? Why not leave off Julian Green, who is 18 and has a full career ahead of him and will probably only see a few minutes anyway, in favor of Donovan – who, by the way, has notched more World Cup goals in his career than England’s superstar Wayne Rooney, Argentina’s hero Lionel Messi, and Portugal’s (and reigning FIFA world player of the year) Cristiano Ronaldo COMBINED? Not impressed? Those guys are internationally renowned players. Everyone in, say, Nepal, knows who they are. They have appeared in a combined six World Cup tournaments. Landon Donovan has appeared in three. Even if Donovan has lost a step, the value that comes from his experience, particularly on a very young U.S. team, which includes three kids below the age of 21, more than outweighs what he lacks on the field (and again, I’ll go back to Bruce Arena’s statement on the matter – if there are 23 guys who can play better than Landon Donovan, then we ought to win it all).

So now we’re watching I don’t know what but it’s something from a past Wimbledon tournament, and there’s a guy with a microphone singing and clapping, and judging by their hair styles it was some time in the eighties – o my God what were you guys thinking with those hair styles?

If the argument is that Donovan has lost a step, why include Damarcus Beasley? He’s the same age as Donovan, and made his World Cup debut with America’s greatest soccer star at the age of 20 way back in 2002, in the Korea/Japan tournament. I remember well. Both of them were expected to herald a turning of the page in the history of U.S. soccer, to put our country on their backs and carry us from the second tier of soccer nations into elite status. Landon Donovan did his part. Beasley faded into mediocrity, yet always seems to pop up on the World Cup roster. He was a footnote in Germany 06 and South Africa 10, when he was 24 and 28 years old, respectively – a time at which he should have been playing his best soccer – and yet we expect him to be a game changer in Brasil? The team had to book extra cargo space on the plane for Beasley’s oxygen tank and walker. I respect the man and all he’s given to the national team, which hasn’t been unsubstantial, but he’s been a has been for quite a while now. And he simply isn’t half the player Donovan is.

I applaud Klinsmann’s efforts to showcase the new generation – if you’re someone who has followed U.S. soccer for the last fifteen years you’ll be familiar with “Project 2010”, the generation of players that includes Donovan, Beasley, Dempsey, and long-time goalkeeper Tim Howard, and that turned out to be something of a failure – but it just doesn’t make any sense to exclude Donovan from what would surely have been his last World Cup. Klinsmann should have let Donovan take a bow in 2014 and been focused on building what we might dub “Project 2018”, a crop of players that, overall, looks even more impressive than the 2010 crew and might have a chance to bring home soccer’s highest glory four years from now. Seriously. While I’m convinced that 2014 won’t be our year, 2018 should feature the best team our nation has ever fielded – names like Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, Mix Diskerud, Aron Johansen, and Brek Shea (who also, despite being a hero in the Gold Cup and World Cup qualifying, quizzically did not make the final cut for Brasil) all at the height of their careers. It’s hard to predict the future in soccer, perhaps more so than in any other sport, but I believe fully that the young crop of players that Klinsmann is taking to Brasil are capable of hoisting the cup – in four years.

But it won’t be this year. The team is too young, and there are too many hurdles. Germany will beat us. Brasil, a perennial favorite to claim the crown (they’re like Hunger Games’ Careers), will beat us. Spain, defending world champs and back to back defending Euro champs, will beat us. So why not honor Donovan’s remarkable and unparalleled career by giving him the chance to cap it off at the highest level of competition?

I promised a few graphs ago to explain why Landon Donovan is the U.S.’ greatest sports hero. Here it is: you may think Michael Jordan, or Joe Montana, or Babe Ruth, or Jaromir Jagr (just kidding – and he’s not even an American) when contemplating who our greatest athlete of all time is. Or Michael Phelps. The fact is that no athlete has dominated his sport the same way that Landon Donovan has. If we consider “U.S. soccer” to be the context, nobody even comes close. It took years of steroids for Barry Bonds to nudge his way past Hank Aaron’s home run record (and, along with his entire generation of players, spoil our national pastime for anyone born after 1980 – thanks guys). Landon Donovan holds the record for international goals among U.S. players with 57. The previous record was 34. He also is the only player in the history of U.S. soccer to tally over 50 goals and over 50 assists. He is the all-time leading goal scorer in MLS – our domestic professional league – despite not playing his entire career in MLS, with 137 goals, a total he achieved in 53 fewer games (that’s about 2 full seasons) than second leading scorer Jeff Cunningham. He has five World Cup goals, the most all time for a U.S. player (and, as I noted before, in half the number of World Cups, more than the combined total for contemporary global superstars Wayne Rooney, Lionel Messi, and Cristiano Ronaldo). So, statistically speaking, no other athlete, save perhaps Phelps, can claim the dominance in his field that Landon Donovan can. And Donovan upstages Phelps in one crucial issue. Outside of the Olympics, despite Phelps’ brilliance, nobody watches or gives a rat’s ass about swimming. Sorry to any competitive swimmers out there, but it’s true. When Landon Donovan appeared on the scene in 1999 (when, by the way, he became the only male U.S. player to win player of the tournament honors for a global tournament at any level of competition, having led the U.S. under-17 side to a best-ever fourth place finish at the 1999 U-17 World Cup), that’s the condition soccer was in. Despite having hosted the damn tournament earlier in the decade, a pitiful performance in France 98 and lack of an impressive domestic league – and various other culturally motivated reasons for why Americans don’t support soccer – relegated the sport to niche status in our country. Today, while some will argue that it still lags far behind the apple pie trio of baseball, basketball, and football, soccer has firmly entrenched itself as our fourth spectator sport, and enjoys a wide following. Every meaningful national team game is broadcast live. Soccer junkies no longer have to subscribe to expensive cable channels to get their fix – they just have to watch ESPN. An entire section of the ESPN website is dedicated to soccer. David Beckham be damned – the fact is, the huge surge in soccer’s popularity can be entirely attributed to Donovan. He is the first ever true superstar that the United States has produced in the sport, and no athlete in any other sport ever in the history of American athletics – not Ty Cobb, not Red Grange, not Wilt Chamberlain, not Jack Dempsey – can claim that. He single-handedly took his sport from obscurity to the mainstream. And for that alone, even if he had to play from a wheelchair, he deserves to be on the final 23 going to represent our country in Brasil.

So I guess the point is, write your congressman, and demand that Donovan be reinstated to the national team for Brasil 2014!!!

Just kidding. Your congressional representative probably doesn’t give a damn.

Now we’re watching cricket. Nothing can cure insomnia like a good cricket match.

Okay, so enough with my panegyric about Landon Donovan. What else is going on in Nepal?

Some Nepali guy just walked by wearing a shirt with a capital F followed by the Nepali letter “Ka”, which in effect should be pronounced, well, I shouldn’t use so much foul language on this blog. Kids might be reading it. The volunteers for N-201 are getting their invitations and preparing to embark for two crazy years in Nepal. Good luck to them. I won’t get to meet any of them, because my ass will be out of here by early November, well before they swear-in and ship off to permanent site, but I wish them all the best. I hear a couple of married folks will be in the new group (and that one such couple is following my blog now – thanks a million, guys!). Serving with a spouse must change the PC experience dramatically. I guess I’ll never know though, as I’ll likely never have the pleasure of having a spouse nor will I ever serve in Peace Corps again.

Yes, perhaps I’m sounding a tad bitter about the ‘significant other’ thing, but I’ve always been an old soul, and I’m coming to the age when I’m starting to want someone to share my life with. Since today was Sunday, and I can’t meet with PCMO until tomorrow, I had the whole day to explore Kathmandu. I felt a bit like a traveler going to some of these places like Swayambhu (KTM’s famous ‘monkey temple’, where a monkey snatched a peach out of my hand – bastard owes me four rupees) and Boddhanath, but all I could think of at the time was how much I wish that I could be sharing it with a certain special someone. Unfortunately, she isn’t with me here in the nation’s capital, and it doesn’t seem like she’ll be with me after COS either. Why is it that when you are single, and especially single and longing for someone, it seems that everywhere you look you see people in the passionate throes of love? Especially when you’re a “tourist” as I more or less was today. Travelling to exotic lands and seeing amazing things can be awfully romantic, and while it’s great to travel on your own and have time with your thoughts and all, when your thoughts constantly center on the person you wish was with you, the whole solo adventurer thing loses its appeal.

And so much for trying to be frugal on this KTM trip, so that I might net a bit of money from the reimbursement. Granted, I went to two temples today, but that actually didn’t impact my expenses significantly, as I walked (my leg is killing me). No, the problem is that PC only grants us a KTM per diem allowance of NRS 1000/day. That’s about $10/day. A meal at your average tourist restaurant costs about NRS 500, so that volunteers can have two meals per day under our current per diem rate, which is crap. Most of us will eat three meals a day (the PC per diem for official travel should cover 3 meals/day anyway, even though Nepalis only eat 2 meals/day), which means that we have to find places to eat cheap. That’s hard to do in the capital, particularly in the two areas in which our approved lodging is located, though it can be done. Unfortunately, the only way to do it is to eat street food, which is incredibly unhealthy. So PCVs in KTM must choose between economic concerns and health concerns. It’s completely unrealistic to expect PCVs who spend the majority of their time in villages eating daal bhaat twice a day to not choose the more expensive tourist options when they come into the capital.

Well, this is getting on towards my longest post ever. I didn’t intend for it to be entirely about Landon Donovan, but that’s what happens when you blog off the seat of your pants – you just never know how it will turn out. As always,

Raamrosanga basnus,
TO

27 Seconds After the End of the World

A short bit from a piece of fiction I’ve been writing. The full work is called Cold and Alone at the End of the World. Enjoy!

Ten years ago.

We chased the falling sky, splashing through pools of moonlight that imbrued our flesh with its deathly pallor. We blinded the stars and made the dawn blush. Ancient monuments crumbled under our fingers and their false gods trembled before us. From dizzying heights we watched eternity unravel. At the edge of the night, where the darkness bled into the feeble light, we joined hands and raised our fragile voices into a chorus that echoed down the centuries.

I tasted the ashes upon your lips. Under a blanket of dreams, we laughed as they fell to their knees over mere ephemera. You held me close and we melted into one and abandoned our old forms to decay into the earth. They never knew our secret.

A black rain fell and washed away all that had come before. You walked out into the deluge, turned, and with terrible passion written in your eyes, invited me to join your apotheosis.

Ten years later.

He pulled the envelope from a box that had been collecting dust since God knows when. Traced across its front, in filigreed script, were nine words, “Do not open until the end of the world.” It aroused in him a sudden sense a familiarity. He knew the hand that wrote those words, though he knew too that this was impossible. It had been locked in an old chest that hadn’t been opened since well before he was born. And still, he saw something in those delicate lines. It was a face, but indefinite, like the vague impression of a wet footprint that has almost dried out under a high sun.

She whispered to him, “I will come back to you. I promise.”

The wind shook the leaves in the old oak tree that stood over the meandering stream. He held the envelope in his hands, gazing past it into an infinity he could not comprehend. Backlit by the westering sun, he saw that it was empty. No, it wasn’t empty. He knew it wasn’t empty. Something rested inside.

She bent low and kissed his chilled brow. A single tear dangled from an eyelash and plunged into the vacant space that stretched between them like countless lifetimes. She pressed her warm cheek to his. “Come back to me.”

He saw it move in the shadows, little more than a flash that dissolved instantly into memory. He walked over to the window, pressed his face against the glass, and searched for it, but it did not reappear. The envelope sat patiently upon the desk. He had to know. He pulled away the rose and looked upon the hidden mysteries within.

He took her hand, weaving his fingers into hers, as she rested her head upon his shoulder. As they stood upon the precipice, looking out over the endless span, a voice floated up to them, carried across the sea by the crashing waves, like a memory.

“I will find you, always.”