RIVER OF STONE, RIVER OF SAND
A Story of Medicine and Adventure
In the pre-dawn darkness, the Pan Am 'round the world Jumbo Jet lowered its flaps and backroared its way down onto the tarmac of New Delhi's International Airport. Cabin lights came on, sleep-fuggy passengers reached for coats and gear, and the forward door opened outward. Inside that door was America, and I wondered if I was leaving her behind forever. As I knelt on the economy-class seat, and stretched awkwardly up to reach the overhead bin, I tore the seat seam of my seersucker pants from stem to stern. Half-asleep, I wondered how it was going to look when, upon being initially greeted at my final destination, the mountain kingdom of Nepal, I shook hands with my right and clutched my pants together with my left. We passed quickly through the formalities of the darkened and near-deserted airport, and negotiated a taxi for the half-hour drive to Palum, the subsidiary airport from which flights departed to Kathmandu.
The air was cool but wet. A light breeze preceded dawn, with only a hint of the searing heat and choking dust of the coming August day. The bumpy tarred road had few cars or trucks at that hour, but bullock carts half-on and half-off the road slowed our progress. In the half-gray light, wraith-like figures were everywhere clad, as near as could be made out, in white robes and loincloths, squatting by the roadside or in the bushes, scurrying in and out of the gloom. Hundreds of tiny cookfires glowed like oversized candles among the trees and shadowed huts as we passed. Our headlights opened a tunnel through a phosphorescent ocean within which we seemed to glide with a constant, slow, smooth movement.
We had come from New York's Idlewild Airport through Frankfurt, Rome, and Istanbul. Now we were as if upon a different planet, headed for the still-more strange and distant asteroid of Kathmandu.
At Palum, we shuffled through one line, and then another, and then out onto the runway to board a Royal Nepal Airlines Dakota DC3. Twin-propeller workhorse of the world's backwaters, queen of a million dirt strips in a hundred thousand half-forgotten places scattered across the globe, cargo-hauler and rough-trade passenger carrier, the DC3s seemed to keep flying forever: military, civilian, smuggler, whatever was needed. There probably are still a few out there, flying on fourth-generation replacement parts. It was not the Jumbo Jet, but the Dakota, that built the Global Village.
Dawn slid under us as we winged eastward, across the sere brown summer plains of northern India. Smoke from thousands of hearths rose straight up, lazily, to meet the climbing sun, itself casting diamonds across the distant Himalayan snows. We flew on across the narrow jungle strip that forms the southern border of Nepal, and then suddenly we were flying through, and not above, gaps between green terraced ridges, their crests hanging above the level of our wings. And then, breaking through a gossamer mist, before and below us lay the Kathmandu Valley, and the immense snow peaks beyond.
It was, from the air, a child's picture book scene: the flat green, rice-paddied valley bowl, tipping up to terraced hills on all sides, with the snow mountains looming to the north. Earth-brown and cement-grey buildings clustered here and there. The valley itself lay bisected by the muddy Bagmati River. The city's structures were densely and haphazardly packed, but few buildings rose above two or three stories. As we circled closer in, one could see, fed by the maze of narrow streets, innumerable town squares, each with its multiple roof-level pagoda temple structure. Dotted here and there on the city outskirts were the dome-and-steeple stupa shrines. Upon the steeple base of each was painted a pair of eyes, Buddha's eyes, gazing in serene patronage over the green valley.
As the DC3 banked and swung into its approach turn, my mind's eye could see an illustration from a worn favorite book of childhood poetry, the young boy swinging up, back and forth, higher and higher, above a secret garden.
We bumped down onto a tar-seamed strip with a blockhouse control tower and squat terminal on one side of the runway. Thin figures pushed a baggage cart and a plain-rail staircase toward the aircraft. A small knot of individuals was standing on the tarmac. I descended the stairs, keeping my upper thighs as close together as possible under the circumstances, my small steps masking my great embarrassment.
“Hi, I'm Harry Barkely, Deputy Chief of Mission, the Ambassador's dogsbody I guess you could say. Welcome to Kathmandu, Doctor Joseph.”
Harry was tall and thin, with a high forehead topped by straw-colored hair. He was New England WASP to the core. He looked straight at me and gave a firm hand. Harry was career Foreign Service, and seemed clearly destined for higher things, which he eventually achieved. As I was to learn, he did the work, ran the Embassy day to day, and was somewhat unusual for diplomats of the time in that he did not look down on the Peace Corps types as rank and bumptious amateurs. He and his wife would actually befriend the odd Volunteer who wandered in from the outlying hill country into the Big City of K'du, or he would trek out and visit them on-site in distant villages. He had a good lop-sided grin, which he tried to keep buttoned-up, but usually failed to suppress, as he had probably failed to suppress it from boyhood up through his late thirty-something years. He gave the impression of trying to be stuffy in true Brahmin (Boston, not Indian) fashion, but being equally unable to quite pull it off. Harry was completely unflapped by the flapping of my pant-sails in the prop wash, pretending not to notice at all. I, on the other hand, kept circling as we made small talk, keeping face-on to him, and was certain that I must look ridiculous.
A more chiseled and compact figure stepped forward: Willi Unsoeld, the Peace Corps Director and my new boss. “Hi, Steve, welcome. Not to rush you, but you have five or six Peace Corps patients and a couple of Embassy types wanting to see you today. Seems everybody wants to check out the new doc. We'll get you settled first, though.”
Willi was of middle-size, built of some light-weight but tightly-sprung unbreakable and shiny alloy, brush-cut and with piercing blue-flint eyes. I soon learned that a year or so earlier he had temporarily left his Peace Corps job to join the first American Everest Expedition. Willi and Tom Hornbein formed the first team to reach Everest's summit via the previously-unclimbed West Ridge. They got caught in a blizzard coming down and had to bivouac overnight, up much too high and much too cold. Willi lost most of his toes, took six months or so off to recover, and then came back to his former position as Peace Corps Director, Nepal.
There were a few other Americans from the Peace Corps staff in the greeting party, and one Nepali. He was light cherry wood skinned, with thinning white hair, fresh and trim in a suit and vest and a black short cylindrical topi, the national hat, worn at an angle over his smiling eyes. Dhruba Bakti, the Peace Corps office manager, fixer-upper and confessor, old enough to be the father of most of the volunteers, and father himself of the two extraordinarily beautiful daughters who were the well-guarded and unattainable delights of the dreams of all Peace Corps males. Getting anything done in Nepal was, I came to learn, a matter of “bohli-parsi” (“tomorrow or, perhaps, the day after tomorrow”), but if there was a way to short-circuit the system, Dhruba would know what it was, and make it work.
The small, square, two-story pink stucco house, with an upper verandah catching a view of the snow mountains, was located in the middle of a rice paddy, now rippling with tall green stalks. Several sarong-clad women curved over the plants, barefoot in the muddy water of the paddy, their bodies accenting the curve of their short sickles as they tended the ripening grain. A low-walled garden encircled the house, flowers in front and vegetables in the rear. A single-lane dirt road led from the house, winding through the paddy on a banked dike for a hundred yards or so, directly to the two-story whitewashed Peace Corps Office, which itself fronted on a tarred road heading north from the center of town. There was a telephone in the Peace Corps Office, but none in “the doctor's house,” The proximity had the advantage that they always knew how to find you, and the disadvantage of being sometimes too easily reachable at any hour. This was abetted by the siting of the Peace Corps Hostel, for visiting volunteers from out-of- town or from other countries, within hailing distance of both the office and the doctor's house. It was a good setting for an old-fashioned general practice, which is what I figured I had, and what my adolescent fantasies had always wanted. A separate upstairs bedroom in the house served for taking care of those patients who were neither sick enough to be sent to the Mission Hospital across town, nor ill enough to be commercially airlifted accompanied back to the States (with me accompanying them), but who needed more medical supervision than they could get by being off on their own. A robins-egg blue, front-seat-only, soft-top jeep completed my major logistics.