It is true, this year we were not seated along Danville Boulevard cheering on the fire department, the Mustang Under-12 Soccer League girls, our favorite bleachy-smiled local real estate moguls, and the rich old guy from the Rotary Club with the stars-and-stripes-clad Porsche convertible. Nay, we were not lying on San Ramon Central Park’s perpetually moist grass waiting for the East Bay’s foremost Kool & The Gang’s Greatest Hits cover band to shut up so we could get through the “Proud To Be An American”-serenaded fireworks extravaganza our friends and girlfriends dragged us to. And neitherest of all were we curled up on the sofa dabbing our drippy eyes with Kleenex during Bill Pullman’s inspiring speech for TBS’ third or fourth showing of Independence Day that night.
But no distance from our patriotic hometown or palatable French Fries would stop us from reveling abroad in and generously sharing our love of Freedom with whosoever Democracy-less heathens we might encounter.
We awoke in a cheap wooden dormitory full of fellow travelers — two Israeli girls, a French kid, a caveman-haired Germanic oaf we’d dubbed Oogabug, and a self-described yet suspiciously Francophone-accented Citizen of the World — not exactly a Red-White-and-Blue-bleedin’ bunch. Naturally, our inherited Protestant work ethic drove us two up and at ’em first, and our day began with a bowel-blast each and a swift pre-dawn walk back to the bus, for Leg #2 of our journey to Leh.
We climbed aboard the familiar rickety green Government rattletrap, slipping past the Sikh driver and conductor wrapping their turbans and dressing themselves in the seats they’d slept on, and stashed our bags, but not before removing from them our trusty Boswell’s made-in-China 50-cent mini American Flags and securing them firmly into the proudest buttonholes our shirts could sacrifice.
As expected, the bus didn’t leave at the sternly promised 4:30AM-sharp deadline, so we spent the next half-hour or so watching passengers filter back on, balled fists rubbing the sleep from eyes that clearly hadn’t had burned in the minds behind them the image of a proud, soaring and indefatigable Bald Eagle. When we’d recovered from our vomiting, we heard a plop in the seat in front of us, opened our eyes and spied the bristly crew cut of Shimshi — a name we recalled easily due to its phonetic proximity to “HimShe” — the butchier of the two Israeli girls. “Well,” we justified, “she’s no Apple Pie eater, but at least she’s an ally.”
Alliance or not, this was July 4th, 2010 — not 5 Lyar, 5770, dammit! So when HimShe finally could not longer snooze through our independent and oblivious whistlings, hummings and mumblings of partial songs, it was time to let her join our celebration. We knew the list of wonderful things America had that Israel didn’t that we kept adding to aloud was incomplete. We’d covered Steven Spielberg, Jerry Seinfeld, David Ben-Gurion, Hebrew National Hot Dogs, F-16 Falcons, and speaking terms sort-of with Iran, but what could HimShe contribute? Merely some laughter and, later, a question for Steve: “How do you get him to stop?” Some ally! We prayed that she’d develop a better attitude when she was back home busy protecting America’s Holy Land and set our lens on someone else.
Actually he set his on us. It was an Indian man, and he was going seat-by-seat, filming every single person on the bus, a good move so that if he ever forgot anybody who’d happened to be randomly going the same direction as he that one time, he could just watch the video. And enjoy 4th of July any day of the year, thanks to his footage of us waving our Flags — not limiting the gesture just to our own seats, either — and faux-fellating each other every time the camera pointed our way.
When he finished or gave up his cinematography, what’s fair was fair, so Steve hopped up with the reflexes of an American Shorthair cat and slipped an American flag into his hand, and I got out our own camera. Giddily, he waved it around a spell while we snapped away, but then he gave it back. That was alright, we agreed; in America we were used to Indian givers.
Later, after the bus ignored the detour signs and half-slid down a rocky serpentine pass into the gompa-dominated Lamayru, a semi-attractive Viennese couple in their late twenties got on the bus and sat behind us. She was a plumpish, doughy grad student; he was a svelte, stylish recent doctor. Hmm, we mused, not quite the pinnacle of On-Paper Equality we’d expect on our Independence Day. There had to be a catch.
Then, over biscuits and chai (them) and leftover water filtered from a putrid guesthouse sink (us), after some hearty mutual complaining about theocratic Islamic societies and their anachronistic aversion to scientific reasoning and consequential social progress — a cathartic topic once Westerners pass through Kashmir — it came.
So are you a specialist in anything, we asked? “Not yet. What I’m trying to do… it isn’t very commonly done in Austria. You see, science doesn’t answer everything,” he said. Ok, no problem, we figured; plenty of doctors back home are good God-fearing yet technologically savvy Christians, too. “What I want to do,” he went on, eyebrows rising higher, “is get people to understand the power of the self-intelligent field that exists between all of us. This field, this matrix, we send information into it, and it transfers it to someone else. Like, like right now. I am speaking, but not to you. My words, they enter the field, and it chooses to send them to you. It is the same with healing. It does all the healing. I… I as a doctor do nothing!” Alright, getting there.
“You see, the field speaks to us in different ways. You may have a pain in your neck. So then, I may see a bird, a bird that flies out of your throat towards me. It looks hungry. So I give it a nut. And then you respond to this. Maybe you feel good and laugh, maybe you fall onto the floor crying and screaming. It is different for everyone. I’ve seen it.”
Aha! Equality was achieved.
So we spent the next half-hour hearing about this Matrix, which had cured his brother’s leg, which had reconstructed his mother’s arthritic doctor-condemned hip, in which a sunglasses-clad Morpheous figure was disappointingly absent, and which had been “discovered” by a Colorado chiropractor thirty years ago; then waved our Old Glories and gave three cheers for the idyllic American health care system.
And for our bus ride, which only had about four hours to go with this bunch of prepackaged convenience store tater saladless nincompoops.
However, halfway into the last crooked, deformed, elephantitis-afflicted leg of the journey Steve noticed the small crack in the window had spiderwebbed its way across the whole of the pane, was pitching wildly over each bump, and was about to shatter onto my head, possibly opening his jugular on its gravitacious path down to his groin. It was then that I realized the flies that had been landing on his right hand were in fact small chunks of glass jumping ship from the eye of the gash.
Doing the sensible thing, Steve went and told the conductor, and sat up front atop someone’s luggage. Doing the insensible thing, the conductor rushed back, stuck his finger in my face and accused me of breaking the window.
Although I patiently explained the physics of how windows break, and that the impact on the window was clearly on the outside, perhaps from a rock — perhaps one of the billions we’d run over and kicked up on this terrible journey — the conductor was not open to such a parley. “No. You do this. Why you do this? This is very expensive. You do this.”
Soft diplomacy failing me, on my own nation’s birthday, I got indignant. “Are you kidding me? That’s impossible! Why would I do that? How could I do that from inside here? No.” I searched the back of the bus for support, but met only the neutral, if not disapproving, eyes of the Global Citizen, scanning my own, then jerking quickly down to the Flag coiled in my buttons.
Refusing to be perturbed, I thought of Tom Petty. He was an American. So was I. He liked American Girls. So would I, if they gave me a chance. More importantly, if he were in my sandals, he sure as hell Would Not Back Down.
The next time the bus stopped, at a Sikh temple so the conductor and driver could disappear for the better part of an hour and eat free food, I got out and waited for it. Sure enough, “Why you break this window? This is very expensive.” So “Listen,” I said. “Come look. Come on!” And led him over to it. “I didn’t do this. A rock did this. Here,” I picked up a rock and like some Japanese bunraku puppeteer acted out its path from the wheel up to the window and back down into the dirt. “That’s what happened.”
“Oh! No problem!” And with that, the conductor backed down.
But stand us up at the gates of Leh, America did not. Not then, not on the 4th of July, not ever.
[See Next Post to read how well this strategy worked at a party full of hippies and drunken Brits!]