I n 1988 Bruce Chatwin was lying in the Tropical diseases in London. He was dying slowly from something he caught in one of China’s remotest regions. To the book that was born out of the last year of his life he called:” What Am I Doing Here?”
A book of travel stories that conclude the prosaic journey of a travel writer who all his life read and wrote travels. In one of the stories he tells of a sick friend that is lying in her flat in Munich. Warner Hertsog, Hearing of her sickness, pack his rucksack in Paris and starts walking., full of confidence that walking the Trans – European road shall bring comfort to sickness and misery. When Hertsog gets to Munich – the friend is fully recovered.
Is the road the remedy to all sickness? Is the fantastic movie that people see before they disappear from the glimpse of mercy, which is called, life is the last journey? Is there a Road to happiness?
Happiness, maybe, is in the road itself.
It is possible, that Chatwin, in his final year, went for a last journey, rolling the film in slow motion, using his bank of memories, in the song lines he weaves, in the wind struck rolling hills of Patagonia, Africa, Australia and Europe, challenging the end, arranging the books at the end of the road, stepping another small step.
I n October 1982 blew up the front wheel of the Indian bus I was traveling. The vehicle turned to the slope that fell sharply into the void of a high pass in the Zanskar range one of the ranges of the Himalayas.
Most of the passengers were killed. If I was killed on this road which was 2 days of journey from any friendly asphalt – I wouldn’t have known. Life was not storming in front of me when the bus was flying the 80 meters to crush the first time on the frozen slope, taking off again, crushing the second time and when it landed the third time, it was spread on the sharp rocks under the white glacier tongues.
All the passengers but three, lye dead or wounded on the slope. Those who did not die in the accident died during the night. Miraculously I remained alive. Full of pains, cut. Beaten, but alive. I climbed the slope, to Indian lorries that appeared out of nowhere. They shouldn’t have been there, climbing to this pass only one in 3 days. Four days later I was sitting in a Shikara, sailing on the green soft water of Dal lake, The house – boats of Srinagar floating in the calm water, red kites in the blue sky, fish between the algae, the Shikara sailing under the sweet sun, nuts, chocolate and sweet Cannabis is offered from neighboring boats. I lie down on the Shikara’s floor and closed my eyes under the warm sun, feeling the body gathering strength, feeling up with vitality.
There, on the bottom of the Shikara, I understood for the first time that when you die you do not know it. The sweetness of life was so great. I could feel life, to bite it in the bread, to taste it in the milk tea that the Kashmiri fox, in the boat house I was staying, was serving me. In the evenings I was sitting in the light breeze on the terrace above the water, the Patu light and warm, wrapped around me, planning the next stages of the journey, happy to be alive, aware of the thinness of the skin and to the unbearable lightness. To the full happiness that can come only on the background
Or on the shadow of what lies after it all.
Were we alive, as Peter, the Australian who walked with me for two weeks from Lamayuru to Padum, because we hardened from the track that led us over 7 passes 4-6 KM high? Was it luck? Peter came to Israel a few years after the accident in Zanskar. Life as is. Glowing of happiness and warmth, surrounded by the instant affection of women, of friendliness of men.
Two years ago, a letter arrived from Australia. It was not his name on the envelope. I am sorry to write you that Peter has died. How many friends does a man have in his life? Certain people tend to get to certain places. One can assume that with those you met on the road you shall share full happiness like you shall never sense during the long times one sits in the sedentary circle of life.
He went accompanying the big cattle drove from northern Australia as a photographer. He came down from the horse just before the sun set, to photograph the cattle crossing the red dust in the soft light. He fell to the ground – fatal heart attack. He was 36. Is the journey eliminating us? Is happiness measured and once you had your share you shall die?
Is there anything more brutal than a letter that break the news of a dead friend? Is the private death being so terrible?
When Milan Kundera’s book: “The unbearable lightness of living” was translated into a movie, I was wondering on the possible journey between book to movie. On the obvious disappointment. In the last seen of the movie Tomash & Theresa are driving back to the village. Everything is taken from them – freedom, profession, trust. The road is full of sun, they are driving to their death after a full night of happiness. A convoy of Russian army trucks is waiting for them at the end of the slope and their old truck breaks will not stop on time. Are you happy? Asks Theresa, Yes Says Tomash, I am happy and Theresa leans on him. The road is bright warm sun, the trees are golden green, man and woman in their love driving to their death.
It is one of the few times a director aimed to the same place I would have aimed.
I don’t know any greater joy then traveling. A private one-man journey. The cool quiet road in the oasis after the night bus from Tijuana to Saint Ignasio in Baja California. Thousands of palms, the calm lake, the birds, the church that was built by the Jesuits in the 19th century, the hot cafe in the piazza, the broken American that lives with the Mexican shark’s fisherman in the lonely bay of San-Franciskito. The vivid “Bouenos Dias!” of the old man who passed me on the road to the village when I lowered my rucksack on the palm leaves between the water canals and lie down in the shade to rest in the early morning light.
In these moments I fill a great happiness in me. And the happiness, coming from the road, from the dis attachment from the place I was before, from the knowledge that it doesn’t meter to where I shall get or what shall happen to me, as long as it shall happen – are filling the holes of restlessness that puncture me when I am inside a city.
In these moments I don’ care if I die. Because if one should die, then I prefer to die happy, knowing that the road does not achieve any goal and that there is no real purpose and no forthcoming knowledge of the preceding death, that if it is due to come – let it come now, in the middle of this great happiness.
The end of the journey is always a disappointment. Just as the first step is hopeful and full of obscure promises. Nothing is the same when the traveler is back. The frozen time he left behind, the fast-flowing time which he roves in while he is traveling. Is the movement inside the fast-flowing time, the ruthless challenge with destiny, time, remoteness, carelessness is happiness?
It is. The road.