Some months ago, a friend suggested that the journey isn’t about the undiscovered places, but about the undiscovered people.
Who could have predicted a chance encounter with ‘Bamboo’?
One afternoon earlier this week, it was yet another picture-perfect day, warm but not scorching, clear skies, with my spot on a relatively-isolated stretch of the beach with sarong, book (The Book Thief, a brilliant novel about a young German girl growing up in WWII Munich, narrated by Death) and fresh coconut awaiting my return.
I had just finished back-to-back yoga classes, the second one being kundelini yoga – focusing on energy and chakra opening … it was a pretty intense class, and I was still processing the feelings that arose during the session, specifically, noticing how my efforts around my Burma fundraiser (frustration because I thought a LOT more of the folks in my network would be able and willing to contribute $10) paralleled my early work at the Creamery (hitting my head, literally, against the wall trying to figure out how to sell more milk) and even aspects of my love life (if I’m persistent enough, maybe she’ll like me).
I was taking a short swim (more like a cool-down splash) in the Arabian Sea, when a young man, about 25 years old or so, swam up. I initiated some conversation-starting small-talk and what followed was unquestionably the single-most fascinating and disturbing encounter of the past (almost) nine months of travel.
An Indian from the northern Punjab region, ‘Bamboo’ introduced himself as a Special Forces sniper on mental health leave.
Perhaps I should have taken that as a sign to beat a hasty retreat, to immerse myself in the novel, but I had been getting frustrated with my ex-pat-centric conversations over the past days – easy in a tourist-oriented community in which the vast majority of the locals are trying *constantly* to sell you something, to the point that it gets easy to shut down and ignore normal Indians for fear of being sold on yet something else – and Bamboo clearly had a fascinating story … little did I know …
Bamboo had been drafted into the army three years before and volunteered (“What the f#$% was I thinking??!!) for the Special Forces unit … he described his work as going behind enemy lines, in the freezing -20 F degree snow-capped mountains - where his rifle often jams – bordering India and Pakistan. He also was tasked with killing ‘bandits’ (aka ‘domestic terrorists’) in eastern India.
His story, which lasted about 30 minutes, was occasionally interrupted as we hopped over and swam through crashing waves.
It was also continuously interrupted by maniacal laughter, with his otherwise calm, dark eyes – set beyond the three parallel scars on his right cheek – simultaneously breaking into wild, frenzied twitching.
“I hate those f#$% bandits … I just want to kill them … kill them all!”
“I have five girlfriends here in Arambol Beach. But they know that I can’t open up … I don’t have any emotions. I feel totally dead. I also don’t get aroused … well, only when the girls give me a big push and get angry or aggressive.”
I asked him about his leave of absence … was it helping?
“I’ve been here for two weeks, and was supposed to be hear for three months, but the Army is called me back to duty next week.”
Does swimming help? The sun? The women?
“My mind is never quiet. I always hear the sound of loading and firing my sniper rifle.”
Throughout the conversation, we both try to steer the conversation to lighter topics. “Okay, okay, enough … let’s talk about something else” he says with an edge of frantic pleading. But, moments later, unprompted, he’s back … and always with one of his gut-wrenching, soul-destroying laughs indicating either the beginning or end of the conversational transition.
“Nothing helps quiet my mind,” he says, in his near-perfect, barely accented English. “Only drawing.”
He sketches all the time … apparently a very talented artist who has a job waiting for him with an on-line gaming company as soon as his tour of duty finishes in early 2012. It doesn’t need to be said, but it’s obvious … waiting, if he survives.
“I’m f#$% crazy, man. I f#$%ed a goat once. When I was really drunk, with some friends in the army. My friend (insert more maniacal laughing) f#@$ a f#$%ing yak with his rifle.”
It wasn’t clear whether he, too, had used a rifle with his goat. And I didn’t ask him to clarify.
“Okay, okay … let’s change the topic.” Laughter. Wild eyes.
We talked a bit about my work on environmental issues and with NGOs, and the difference of being on the ground vs. behind the desk.
“Your job is better. You’re in management. On the ground is hell. Your work is more like a handler. My handlers just don’t get it. ‘Hold on’ they’ll say, ‘just five more minutes.’ We don’t HAVE five f$%% minutes .. get us out of here NOW!”
I looked in his eyes, for what was the last time. He wanted to go swimming again, in likely another futile effort to quiet the ghosts that had clearly ripped his mind and sanity to shreds. His eyes kept wavering between calm and stormy. He asked where I was sitting on the beach, and said he’d be over later to exchange emails and Facebook info (though he never has time for email, in the mountains picking off enemies of the state, one at a time).
As he swam away, I suddenly remembered my uncle Geert (my mom’s older brother). A tall, lanky, brilliant man with a wicked sarcastic sense of humor, always stooping through the low-slung doorways in our farm house when he came to visit from the Netherlands … always with generous quantities of Droste, Lindt and Toberone chocolates – this was in the late 1970s and early 1980s, long before these were available in U.S. markets.
Geert, along with mom, Aunt Anneke and my grandparents, escaped the Netherlands in February 1940, just three months before the Nazis invaded and subsequently murdered nearly all the Jews that weren’t lucky enough to flee. According to Wikipedia, of the 140,000 Jews that lived in the Netherlands prior to 1940, only 30,000 survived the war.
(In the 1990s and 2000s, I computerized our extensive and complicated family trees … so many branches, across so many centuries and countries … and I can’t recall how many times I had to enter, into the ’cause of death’ data field “Died in XXX Nazi concentration camp” – that was the fate of most of my mother’s relatives – those who didn’t see the writing on the wall.
My grandfather *did* see the writing on the wall and applied to the American consulate for visas in the fall of 1939. As my mother told the story, the Dutch Jews were a proud people, and when asked to state the reason for their visa application, they always answered things like ‘business’ or ‘visiting relatives.’ Not my grandfather. Hugo (after who I was middle-named) answered the American officials “My family and I are Jewish. I’m afraid for our lives.” The official was impressed by the fact that my grandfather was the first person all week who had told the truth, and visas were granted on the spot. A few days later, Geert, Anneke and mom all contracted the measles, and it wasn’t safe for them to travel. They family had to wait nearly three months before they could flee to the United States (where they settled in NYC, in the Forest Hills neighborhood of Queens).
Geert, who wasn’t drafted by the military, volunteered with, I believe, a British Intelligence unit. His job interrogating German spies in Holland … apparently, it’s VERY difficult to learn and speak with Dutch without an accent … and Geert was the Spy Detector, pin-pointing Nazis who were trying to pass themselves off as Dutch civilians in post-war Europe.
Sometime during the war, he’d take a grenade fragment in his face – surgeons accidentally severed nerves in his right cheek and I’ll always remember him I remember him standing in our kitchen with a kerchief, wiping tears from his eyes – uncontrollable tearing caused by the surgery – and his caved in, stroke-like sagging right cheek.
Geert married late in life, to an American with three children. He adopted them as his own, and I remember playing with them - Jocelyn and Leonerd - in the garden out at the farm. I seem to remember that my childhood friend Jothan hooked up with Jocelyn.
Anyways, Geert died from an Alzheimer’s type degenerative brain disease in 1983 and his wife and children settled in the Netherlands. Some years later, we got the news that one day, when the mom came home from work, Leonerd took a kitchen knife and stabbed his mother to death.
For many years, Leonerd lived in a mental institution for the criminal insane but then, was later released. My mom made sure we had no further contact with him, despite apparently some outreach by him.
Until now, that was my closest encounter with the murderously insane.
All this flashed across my mind in about seven seconds, as I watched Bamboo swim away.
If he ever showed up to exchange contact information, I’ll never know. I have nearly 1,450 Facebook ‘friends … and for the first time, I decided that I didn’t need one more.