I’ve been thinking about writing fiction. I love a good story.
But so far, it’s just not happening.
It could be because I’m busy right now. (Busy isn’t really the right word, but it will have to do.)
It could be because my bar is set really really high, like up there with JRR Tolkien and Terry Pratchett. So I don’t have time to create an entire language or cosmology at the moment.
And it could be that reality is just so hard to beat.
It’s hard to be more tragic or comic, more kind or brutal, more magical or intense, than the world we live in right now.
Last weekend, I had some blessed moments sitting in the shade with friends, listening to stories from a recent trip to the Hawaiian Islands. It brought back a fantastic memory, as large as life. Like this…
I had been in Tibet, in the winter. It was grueling to be there, in the dusty cold high elevation, and the work we were there to do was even harder than the climate.
My heart was turned inside out. The reality of the Chinese takeover is evident in the health of the Tibetan people. Their hearts are broken, their country is broken, and their bodies follow suit. Some genocides don’t happen all at once. But their beautiful spirit still shines through. They wrapped me in their love, and outside the cities I was fed by the indomitable vastness of the land. We drove half way across the province, down roads that seemed to barely exist on the edge of sheer plummets to beautiful hard valley floors. Icy switch backs that culminated in mountain passes, covered in prayer flags, with nothing to see but snow covered mountains, without end, amen. Icy rivers of green water, churning around dramatically shaped stones a the foot of the mountain. We set up medical clinics in the villages we visited, screening for tuberculosis and rickets. People walked for miles to come fetch the paper packet of pain killers that we could offer them. They gathered at the windows of whatever building we set up in, watching quiet, curious, hopeful. By the time I left I was full to the brim with beauty, tragedy, and sweetness, and at the same time crushed by the feeling of being in a heavily occupied territory, the sense of surveillance, everywhere. It is difficult to explain how tangible that feeling was and the effect it has day after day. There are so many things that I learned to not say. So many things I knew no one could ever ask out loud – especially in the presence of the men in long dark coats who sat in the corner of every restaurant, not eating, but definitely listening.
When our work session ended, I went to Nepal, where my soul breathed a little easier in the air of religious freedom and philosophical curiosity. But I was not ready to return to the mainland US, and I knew it. So I took a flight to the Hawaiian Islands. I worked at a beautiful ginger farm on Molokai for a bit, which was perfect. Molokai is pretty much like being in another country. There were more people with brown skin than with white, and I had grown very comfortable with being a minority. But being young and still more than a little restless, I moved on to visit a friend on Kauai, the Garden Isle.
At first I thought I had made a grievous error. The privileged white kids (myself included) shunning their roots, living on the beach, trying to buck “the system” – it drove me nuts. But not nearly as nuts as the wealthy people in the huge SUVs on the manicured golf courses overlooking the ocean. Food that didn’t fall from a tree cost more money than I imagined food could ever cost. I was deep in culture shock.
Fortunately, my friend had enough experience with the island to set me on my way up the Kalalau Trail. I took a day pack and stayed for a week.
The trail itself is nothing short of breathtaking. I hiked alone, letting my thoughts wind away over the ocean or into the forest until I didn’t really need to think any more. It was enough to breathe, and walk. The few other hikers I met seemed to be content in their solitude as well. I basked in the warm wet sunlit air, so different from the cold, dry air of the Himalayas.
I slept the first night out on a high overlook. I was tired from the hike and went to sleep easily. I dreamed of the Chinese military, bombing those beautiful blue green purple mountains, the dust falling into the villages and rivers, the people scattering and mourning. When I woke I could still hear the bombs – they were the waves crashing on the cliffs below the campsite. I was so grateful to wake and feast my eyes on the beautiful view of the vast Pacific ocean. A whale, headed north into the deep blue, breached, one, twice, seven times, on its way out of sight. I packed up and started back down the trail.
Rainbows spilled down the mountains into the ocean. The landscape changed and changed again. The hills became dry and open and the trail gravelly and rough. I began to feel as though I was on another planet. I began to wonder if the valley at the end of this trail was as green as my friend had promised.
But just over another rise, there it was. It was more than green. Layers of trees in a lush living jungle tumbling down from the steep heights – a waterfall in the distance. Breathtaking. And still a ways off.
The trail had helped clear my head and heart. I felt good and ready for whatever was to come from being in this place.
At the end of the trail was the beginning of a more formalized campground. There was an unoccupied ranger’s hut and a helipad. There was another stunning beach and a small waterfall. There was a tree with a young man sitting underneath it. I knew where he was from. There was no mistake in my mind. I walked up to him, dusty and covered in sweat, fresh from the trail and fairly amazed at the sight of him. He looked up from his book, smiled, and extended his hand. He said, “Hello! My name is Ugyen Wangchuck, and I am from Bhutan.”
It was as if the whole world just grabbed me in a hug. I had traveled out from the high mountains, a quarter of the way around the world to the blue ocean, to meet a citizen of the high mountains once again. It was as if the trail had been laid out before me and I had no idea I was following it. I couldn’t explain to Ugyen, but was so grateful to be his friend in what was surely just as strange and wonderful a place for him as it was for me.
If I was writing a piece of fiction about a young woman’s travels into the far-flung places in the world, could I have made that up? Maybe. It’s a wonderful twist. But I don’t know that I could have created the integrity of his innocence, his bright smile. His gun-toting sponsor with the grand plan to bottle Bhutanese spring water and sell it to Americans? Wow. I don’t need to make it up, because it’s real.
I chatted with Ugyen and his friend under that tree for some leisurely moments before a kid in ragged cut offs ran by yelling something about rangers checking camping permits. My friend never told me anything about camping permits. I looked once more at the comfortable flat campsite by the beach, turned around, and headed for the woods.
I guess I’m still there. Or here, rather, in these woods now, exploring this far-flung piece of our planet. When I can conceive a piece of fiction fine enough to make a parallel to this slice of reality, I’ll tell you all about it.