Saturday, October 14, 2006

The Problem of Pain

I use some screwy, modern combination of my upbringing, haunted by the formidable ghost of John Calvin, and recent years of yogic study, to tolerate suffering. I take it two ways at the same time. The first way; not only do you deserve this, it's good for you. You're a sinner and whatever the problem is, it will only purify your pustulent soul. The second way; life is the game of games, so play it well. If you don't learn your lesson now, you'll just lose again and again, in the same way, until you do. Metaphysical end results aside, both yield the same practical application: keep your wits about you, because complaining doesn't help.

So when, a few hours after my vaccinations, all the energy in my body joined forces to create a throbbing in my arms, hepatitis on bass and typhoid playing the snares, I tried my best to ignore it and go to sleep, hoping for a brighter tomorrow. We had a long drive that day, about 6 hours, and didn't get out ot Delhi until around 5 pm. I sat for a few hours, and then slept for a few hours, but when the driver, Mr. Sharma, tired himself by 10 pm, pulled into a petrol station for a nap, mosquitoes immediately attacked my ankles, and I could no longer sleep. So I sat, and I waited, jerking my arms and legs spastically each time I felt a sting. When we finally reached my hotel, there was nobody to answer the gate. We rang the bell and waited, we honked and waited, and finally we went to another hotel on the other side of town and awoke the owner, who accompanied us back. It was a charming place, with a garden courtyard. But by the time I got there it was all I could do to get into bed.

The next morning I felt better, and I was physically, although not emotionally, sound, for a few days. But in Jaisalmer, on the third night of my trip, I accepted food against my better instincts, out of courtesy rather than hunger, even though I had accidentally seen the kitchen, a few burners on a dirt floor. By the middle of the next day, driving through the desert on a motor bike, I started to have stomach cramps. They were tolerable, and they came and went infrequently, leaving me feeling that I needed to empty my stomach, but actually unable to do so. I kept on enjoying myself, hoping it would pass. At 5 pm Damien and I were on our way back to Jaisalmer, and we stopped at the only restaurant between the abandoned village and the city.

I was having excruciating cramps by this point, and so as we entered the courtyard, I headed directly for the restroom, to no avail. When I came out Damien was at a table with the restaurant's owner, who sat like a lord in his wicker chair. I said hello, took a seat, leaned back, and then took another seat for my feet. Over the next 15 minutes I didn't join the conversation at all. I listened, when I could, as a distraction, but I spent most of the time wincing and waiting for a cramp to complete its path from my pelvis to my ribcage.

gas station fire precautions

When things reach their worst, they can only get better, and I, at that moment, had reached several lows. This was the most intense and continuous pain that I have ever experienced, as far as I can remember; and I was at the absolute end of my tolerance of Indian people. During my 6 days in India, I hadn't met a single Indian who was not aggressively, annoyingly, or sneakily, trying to sell me something. But the owner of this restaurant had been talking intelligently and enjoyably about Indian architecture and history for some time now, and when noticed me going white and breaking into goose-pimple sweats, he told me about isabgol. This is something that grows with anise, possibly the husk, that Indians take regularly for intestinal health. He told me to eat it with yogurt for diarrhea, milk for the opposite problem, and water for everyday maintenance. Then, the waiter offered me opium. At first I flatly refused, but the intelligent owner told me it is a common remedy for stomach problems; if you drink it, your cramps disappear for the entire day. I really considered it, and I asked the owner the price, but he told me that the opium in those parts is impure and advised against it.

When we left the restaurant, I wasn't sure I was going to be able to drive back. But, with a massive exertion of will, or maybe only an acquiescence to necessity, I held it together, or held it in. We returned our bikes, and as I walked through the gates of the fort, I knew that I had better find a toilet, now. I walked into the first restaurant I saw. I asked the waiter for the toilet, which turned out to be full. Walking somewhere else was not an option, so I positioned myself by the sink outside of the bathroom door. Of course, there were three waiters there to stare at me, and after standing for 5 seconds, feeling my skin tighten as if I had just stepped outside in winter, I turned to the sink, bent over, and vomited loudly, several times, mainly from pain. I hope you enjoyed that, watchy waiters.

take your time, lady

I went back to my room and asked someone at the hotel to bring me some isabgol, and then I laid down, rolling over each time a new cramp set in, and shivering under the mess of the woolen blanket that I didn't even have the wherewithal to spread. After three of thrashing around amongst the contents of my backpack, which I had emptied on my bed in the morning and couldn't even push out of the way by the time I returned in the evening, somebody finally showed up with my yogurt and fiber. I ate it, and the boiling in my stomach became a mild simmer. I finally slept, and I woke up at 1 am. I went to the rooftop to watch the dogs of the town on their nocturnal rounds. I went back to bed, and I was ok, although shaky, in the morning, although I didn't eat anything but yogurt and fiber for the next 2 days. When I read the box of isabgol, I realized that it is what we call psyllium, a homeopathic remedy that can run you 30$ a bottle in capsule form. Here, it cost me about a dollar.

You'd better like this picture, because I paid these kids a dollar for it!

During the last year, I realized that, due to a faith held together by spit and masticated bones, I am not afraid of death; what I am afraid of is pain. And I have soothed that fear by telling myself that physical pain is really not so bad, because once it is over I cannot recreate its feeling. You feel it, and then it's over, and life goes on. That is still true; I cannot recall the actual sensation, all I can think is, in a general way, "Man, that hurt!" Still, I may have been taking the reality of pain, and the blessing of health, a bit too lightly.

4 Comments:

Anonymous maryeats said...

Seriously, stock up on natural remedies in India. They are cheap cheap cheap.

5:55 PM GMT-5  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Of course you had to plan your way around our house! 4 little kids and/or a sick father lying in the middle of the floor - well you get the picture - control over your own pathway was about it for predictability in your life !! Fortunately you have such great opportunities to see beyond control. Joy arises from spontaneity and we miss so much when even our footsteps are planned. There's a lot of history behind the statements you made - and I'm sure you're well aware of it. Sharon is in practical "panic" over you traveling by yourself, so be assured that you are being prayed for daily! Maybe I'm too naive, but it was great to talk to you, and I still think you're in no more danger than NYC - love . M.

8:36 PM GMT-5  
Anonymous maryeats said...

Are you riding around in one of the cool, but uncomfrotable cars, or a new one?

6:02 PM GMT-5  
Blogger Desiree said...

I'm riding in a new one, so its neither cool nor particularly comfortable. Those white, vintage-looking cars (Ambassodors), they still make them. Today was my first day sans driver, and it was like getting out of jail...literally. I took a public bus, and it was so crowded I opted to ride on top. I had to lay down and hide when passing police check-points, just like an escapee.

12:42 PM GMT-5  

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