It was May 4th, our wedding anniversary. I’d forgotten about that earlier this morning when we were shivering over our lumpy porridge in the dirty guest house in Macha, 340 kms from La Paz. My wife and I were in the Bolivian Andes, 4000 metres above sea level. Macha, normally a sleepy town with immense mountain vistas, was erupting with violence, dancing and music. It was the Tinku festival. Takako had insisted on witnessing the carnival dedicated to a goddess who demanded blood in return for a good harvest.
The usually placid locals were in a frenzied state. The police presence was woefully inadequate to deal with the spontaneous fights erupting all around us. Everyone had a maniacal look in their eyes, even the kids; especially the kids. Shouting and strange ululations rose above the noise of cane flutes and charangos plucking out hypnotic two cord rhythms as whips, slingshots, clubs, boleadoras and fists were fiercely wielded.
We were crushed by the crowd which surged back and forth as circles formed around combatants wildly swinging fists. I implored Takako to stop her foolish rubbernecking and return with me to the guest house. I feared for our safety; I feared for my safety. She looked at me her jaw clamped in grisly determination. I didn’t catch the look in her eyes as I was too busy looking for an avenue of escape from the armed and dangerous throng. And then my growing desperation was replaced by a searing, white hot pain in my side. I momentarily passed out.
I opened my eyes to see two policemen shouting at the blood thirsty crowd to give me some space. Takako knelt over me, smiling and whispered in my ear, “Happy anniversary, darling.” I knew what I had forgotten. For a moment I forgot about the pain and fear and felt cheap for forgetting what day it was.
I passed out again.
I woke up in a busy hospital ward that smelt of urine and antiseptic. Ten beds lined up down each side of a long room with peeling white paint. Each bed had someone with bloodied bandages lying in it softly groaning. Where’s Takako? I panicked slightly and started shouting for help. Two nurses came to restrain me. I could feel the wet blood oozing out of the wound in my side. The nurses were kindly but didn’t speak any English. The effort to sit up sent bolts of pain to my brain and soon exhausted me. When I collapsed back into a reclining position, the older nurse left my side.
Ten minutes later she returned with a doctor in a yellow-stained coat. He was an indigenous Quecha Indian with a brown leathery face with deep wrinkles around his mouth.
“How are you feeling Senor Barrow? Are you in pain? I can give you more morphine if you want to rest.” His words were kind, but the tone of his delivery and the pitying look in his eyes were ambiguous.
“What happened to me?” I croaked. My mouth felt dry and my chest hurt with the effort to talk.
“You were stabbed at the festival, Senor. You are very sick. Please give me telephone number of your family. We found your passport. You are from Britain, yes?”
“Yes. Where’s my wife?”
He shook his head as he told me that no one had asked after me. To cover his discomfort he busied himself taking my pulse and checking my temperature with the back of his hand. Finally, he stood over me again and said in a quiet voice, “Senor, please give me telephone number. Arrangements must be made. I will call your consulate in la Paz.”
All through my life I had always been a victim of slow realization. It seemed whenever someone made a joke I was the last to laugh. Whenever someone insinuated a nasty truth it never properly dawned on me until much later what had been revealed. I was slow on the uptake. However, this time even I could read the ominous signs around me. And then I remembered, Takako’s beautiful oval face leaning over me and saying, “Happy anniversary, darling.” I knew I would never see her again.
We had met on the twelve hour bus journey from Golmud to Lhasa. I was on my own. I had just finished a year’s teaching contract in Datong in China. The other foreign teacher in the college had had enough of China and had taken a flight back to the States within a week of the school term finishing. He was a Christian and wound up too tight. The alien-ness of it all had driven him to increasingly frequent bouts of alcohol abuse. As the alcohol abused him so he abused the locals. He had even managed to alienate his students (which was a hard feat, since professional incompetence was pretty much tolerated in those days and anyone with a modicum of charm was loved by his or her young charges). In his sober moments I used to tell him about some of the unfortunate things he had said and done in his bouts of bingeing on cheap white spirits. My accounts of his behaviour only fuelled his paranoia and lead him to take solace and refuge in the bottle.
So in typically Asian style the issue was resolved without being confronted. Although Richy was spiraling slowly but surely out of control, it was decided that nothing would be done. I (to my shame) concurred in this conspiracy of neglect and oversight. He only had a few months left on his contract and so we would all carry on as if nothing was wrong and try and limit the damage.
Richy slowly became a persona non gratis around the campus. The students stopped visiting him. His already threadbare teaching hours were reduced and he was never invited to banquets or teacher’s meetings. I felt guilty at the time. We were the only two foreigners in the college and had an unspoken pact to help each other out. In the end I just couldn’t reach out to him and instead my concern for him gradually faded until I was avoiding him whenever possible and watched with an increasingly dispassionate attitude the spectacle of Richy going to the dogs.
I said goodbye to him at the train station. We sat opposite the entrance to the station drinking warm, weak local beer and tried to keep up a cynical and false good cheer. He drank quickly, ordering again when I was only half way through my first stale beer. When it came time for him to queue for his train he held out his hand, gave me a sharp reproachful look and turned his back on me.
That was the last I saw or heard of Richy. I pushed to the back of my mind the uncomfortable feelings of culpability and cowardice and caught the bus back to my spartan apartment and busied myself with packing. I wasn’t going to let some alcoholic yank bring me down on the verge of my long awaited holiday to the ancient Himalayan Kingdom of Tibet. It had been one of the reasons I had accepted the job. The pay was lousy and although Datong had some famous Buddhist statues, it was a notoriously nothing place based around open pit coal mining and a low life expectancy. Of course I didn’t know this when I accepted the job. All I cared for and saw was a way out – the college would hire me over the net and pay for my flight from the UK. It was an opportunity to escape the dole back home and start an adventure; and now, with a money belt full of traveller’s cheques and RMB I wasn’t going to let my plans for cultural discovery be soured by the weakness and folly of someone I had only known for a year.
And so I departed on good terms from the college. The students and teachers gave me several farewell parties and presented me with stuffed animals and carved masks and other such tat as they could afford from the poorly stocked shops. The President of the college followed by his shadowy communist counterpart also came to my apartment to ceremoniously show their gratitude for my efforts. Since Richy had become the ‘bad guy’ my ‘good guy’ quotient had sky rocketed. All the flattery and adulation had made it easier to ignore my feelings of negligence towards Richy and allowed me to leave the college on a high note, feeling good about myself and my modest achievements.
Two long and painful train journeys got me to Golmud and after sleeping a day and a night I left my noisy spring mattress and rough woolen blanket to buy a bus ticket to Lhasa. Official tours were sold to foreigners from one travel agent based on the ground floor of an ugly hotel. I argued in my broken Mandarin with the officials about the exorbitant price and exhorted the overweight and uninterested agents to give me the Chinese price. I pulled out my working documents from the college in Datong and showed them my resident’s card. After a year of haggling and stubborn refusals to be ripped off the whole charade had become second nature to me. My twenty minute rant eventually secured me a 10% reduction. Not much, but still something and any recant from officialdom felt like moral vindication.
The bus left early evening and was only half full. There were a handful of Han Chinese on the bus but most of the occupants were backpackers from Europe. I was one of the last to get on the bus and so I had missed the opportunity to get two seats to myself. I looked up the aisle considering where to sit and I saw a beautiful girl by herself. After quickly scanning her appearance and luggage I came to the conclusion she wasn’t Chinese. I asked in English if I could have the seat next to her. She looked up from her book and smiled sweetly at me and nodded her head.
We soon struck up a broken conversation in English and Chinese. Her name was Takako. She was Japanese and she was traveling alone. As she spoke she held eye contact with me. I was mesmerized by her big sad eyes and flawless pale skin. I wanted this woman. After a year of celibacy I was sick of auto eroticism. My students had been off limits and the female teachers at the college behaved like giggling imbecilic virgins (even the married ones) and here was a woman with true gravitas to her soul who didn’t retreat behind a cupped hand to the mouth; a woman with a tight torso and ample breasts and porcelain skin who laughed at my jokes and stared sincerely into my eyes. While the other passengers groaned with each bump that lifted them from their reclining positions, I was tip toeing through a flirtation with Takako, feeling anxious like a teenager for fear of making a dumb comment or inadvertently offending.
That all felt like a life time ago. Nurses came and went and changed my bandages and gave me injections. Awake I stared at the pock marked ceiling and tried to convince myself she hadn’t done this to me. Asleep I saw her face – sometimes the strangely determined visage of just a few hours ago; and sometimes the calmly sympathetic countenance of the 23 year old on the bus to Lhasa whom I had instantly lusted after, and whom I had eventually married. I couldn’t stop myself remembering.