Dead for a Snickers bar. Put that on my tombstone. You’d think running for your life — in the prime of your life — a person wouldn’t be some damn slow. But there you are, an underfed chain smoker in 20 below, cinder block boots half sliding on packed-to-ice snow, expecting that knife to puncture your back any minute now.
The dead eyes of the people watching your lead-legged run add to the absurdity. It’s the middle of the day in the arrested heart of this God-forsaken town. Passersby look on with the impassivity of cows chewing cud while you — cowardly you — cry out for help without an ounce of conviction.
You’d always heard life was cheap here. What, you think that don’t apply to you? Turns out the crew of flat caps didn’t get the memo regarding your American exceptionalism. Lungs already burning. Just wait til’ the first stick — air whooshing out the bubbling red.
You hang a left past the market. The home that isn’t home is more or less straight ahead. Thinking about the ossature-heavy warren you’ll have to cut through to get there. That’s where they’ll cut you. Toss your corpse in a culvert to be flushed out with the melting snowdrops of Spring.
So this is how it ends. Rather, this is how it begins.
A bus hurdles down nearby Barakhamba Road; engine roar seemingly red-shifting forever until auto rickshaw bleats punch holes in the rumble. The leaves continue to rustle soundlessly through glass. The palms stand at attention. The partially eclipsed gulmohar paints an orange aura of flame around the evergreen leaves. A wire dangles overhead.
Amid these wide-landed tree canopied streets of New Delhi, I get a hint of what peace could be. Sometimes the sing-song chatter of the orange-faced, black-masked mynahs is the most noise I contend with.
Other times it’s pigeons scrapping claws across stacks of air conditioners in the throes of dead, read-eyed passion above my balcony. Those same air conditioners click on and rumble like John Deeres racing a short track on a gravel lot, spurring the birds to scatter.
But in that sweet spot of time on the crap-covered mirador when the compressor cut out, the Old Monk kicked in, the cooing birds had yet to return and the smoke was breathed in — it was heaven.
Staring out at that angry red sun as big as god getting swallowed by the pollution-steeped sepia sky, I knew I was 10,000 miles away from that Kazakhstan death run of a decade prior. But all those steps were merely scales on the back of the Ouroboros in this flat circle of time.
“You f* our girls, we f* you!,” the one with the gun said.
Fenced in by a horseshoe of mob-deep middle-aged men, I scanned the decor of the hollowed out bunker this provincial nightclub passed off as a bathroom. Rough concrete walls, no sinks, one flickering light and a few partition-less holes to piss and shit in just about covered it. A clerestory window or two could have worked wonders for the place.
My blurry eyes returned to the scally-capped shooter as my heart remained stuck in my throat.
“I’m not trying to f*** your girls,” I replied in pulverized Russian. “I only want to dance.”
They all just glared at me. Was this just a warning, or was the actual f***ing about to commence?
At that moment my friend Owen began pushing his way through the flimsy door, which was being blocked by one of the crew. He saw the circle of heavies around me and immediately knew the score. I don’t know how, but he managed to negotiate my escape. My poor Russian and high blood alcohol level kept me out of the loop on what was actually said. Perhaps circumstances had sealed my relatively auspicious fate.
Around two dozen Peace Corps volunteers had descended on this provincial nightclub in Taldykorgan to celebrate Thanksgiving. A beating — a blood letting — would have been far too conspicuous. There were too many Americans to bear witness. With megaphones for mouths, the world was sure to have heard. So they let me go. Maybe they just wanted me gone, one way or the other.
Three weeks later, my would-be captors would try to finish the job they never got to start.
When I touched down in Delhi on an early April morning, a driver was unexpectedly waiting for me at the airport with a little sign bearing my name. I had to push my way through a throng of touts pulling at my bags to reach him. Some were scammers posing as taxi drivers who en route to your hotel would claim the military had shut down your street or some other tripe, only to take you to a fake tourist center that would send you on some exorbitantly-priced package holiday.
Others were unsolicited porters looking to carry your luggage for a 10 rupee tip. Somewhere in the mix was a legitimate rickshaw driver or two. Not needing to negotiate with that mob was a relief. So I was promptly whisked off in the back of an SUV, sun rising over the dust and dearth on the edge of near-endless sprawl.
Sleepy eyed, the ride passed like a dream until we reached the city proper.
But to my surprise, the driver didn’t take me to the much-maligned apartment of the sojourning Moscow stranger who had invited me over on a whim.
Rather, approaching a round about in the heart of the city, we pulled off the road into an aisle of luxury. Emerging into a cloud of burning diesel and burnt plastic stench, actual porters pounced on us post haste, taking up perhaps the worst kept luggage to ever be offloaded at Claridges Hotel.
The jasmine-infused lobby cut a sharp contrast to the Eau de smog outside.
“Mr William, your room is ready sir.”
I was promptly escorted to the luxury lodgings I didn’t know I had. Deposited outside a door, garlands of flowers adorning corridors cut from the past, I turned the handle and stepped inside.
It was all mahogany, imperial art and black marble — a replica Raj-era oasis. Curtains were drawn over the private terrace. My paramour was in bed feigning sleep.
The remains of that year would be the best of my life. The culmination of nine years in Russia, a diversion precipitated by my Kazakhstan collapse, had finally come to an end. I was in the anteroom of life’s second act.
If only I had had the patience to wait around a bit longer. For there is no going back.
Fear and delusion drove me to Kazakhstan in my 20s. The place didn’t need me; I had nothing to give. But there I was, two months after some expedited “training”, dropped off into a provincial backwater in a swirling cloud of dust.
I will never forget that first day standing on the side of the road by my new home. What now, what now…
I was a site pioneer — the first and only volunteer to grace the place — largely on account of me. Graft was the name of the game.
Getting a bunch of computers donated by the feckless Yanks to be sold off by school administrators and similar schemes were rife. Few volunteers were in any position to help. We had neither the connections nor savoir faire for the job. Some certainly caused more harm than good. A few were genuine stars. In the end, it was all about resume building and filling the future ranks of spooks and State. As with any mass expansion, we were apples that had fallen far from the tree Kennedy planted.
To make matters worse, I’d never had an interest in Eurasia. Few of the volunteers did. Many were literally trying to get as close to Russia as possible, seeing as Peace Corps had gotten the boot there two years prior. My mind had always drifted farther East. A spot in Thailand was my dream. But after rejecting an assignment in Mongolia, it would have been months before a position opened up somewhere outside of Central Asia. And at 24 I was antsy to to get on with my life. Funny how years, decades can be shaped by choices we make when unable to wait. Virtues are virtues for a reason.
Nestled in the foothills of the Tian Shan mountains, my town-cum-village was all depopulation and dilapidation. It was named after the Kazakh poet and writer Ilyas Zhansugurov, who was executed in 1938 — five years after a disastrous man-made famine wiped out some 40 percent of the natives.
Everyone you met was the product of some sort of tragedy. The Chechens deported in 1944. The much-maligned Uhyghurs who fled neighboring Xinjiang during the Great Leap Forward. The Russians fearful of retribution after a mass exodus left them a minority in a once occupied land. And of course the Kazkahs themselves, whose blooded fed the soil after the “catastrophe”, which was by and large forgotten by history.
A nomadic people scattered across the steppe bisected by the Silk Road, there was very little on the way of settlement save the ruins of a few way stations from antiquity and the Mausoleum of Khawaja Ahmed Yasawi commissioned by Tamerlane.
The mountainous southeast where I lived and the vast steppe beyond was thus widely marred by Soviet brutalism — clusters of crumbling five-story apartments stuck in the middle of a thousand nowheres.
That Fyodor Dostoyevsky was exiled to the northeastern wasteland of Semipalatinsk was telling. It would later served as the Polygon nuclear testing ground — irradiating the locals Lavrentiy Beria claimed were not there and “tearing apart” the air.
My town, for all of its privation, had never suffered such a harrowing fate. But its fate was bleak all the same. Numbering just over 8,000, Zhansugurova had shed over two-thirds of its population since the Soviet fall, with the collapsing pre-fabricated skeletons of buildings bitter reminders of a time when growth was on the horizon. Instead, it was far more reminiscent of war-torn Afghanistan.
There was hardly anyone there between the ages of 18-40. Young people left. Those who stayed had already given up on life before it started. The future was gone. And yet there I was, an uneducated “teacher” with self-aggrandizing plans to develop the community.
Their loss was deeply punctuated by the monuments of Soviet futurism left to rust in ramshackle parks and soulless public spaces.
It took years to discover the word to express the sombre longing it evoked in me — retrofuturism — the past’s idea of a future that will never be. Weary people now spent their lives under the shadows of dead dreams.
Locals used to joke that I had been sent to spy on their sugar processing plant. The only thing one could really document was ruin porn. But claims of espionage were rife and are believed to have played a part in the Peace Corps’ pullout from the country in 2011. So were the disproportionate rates of physical and sexual assault suffered by volunteers, which made us infamous among our regional counterparts.
Before I became just another statistic, I learned everything you could learn about tedium. No internet or smartphone, no friends, no ability to communicate; just frustration, meaningless work and a huge chip on my shoulder. I realized just how long a second could be if subdivided into infinity. I also learned the perils of torching a newspaper for light in an outhouse and then being stupid enough to throw it into the shit pit below. I will say this — Gehenna burned in my eyes that night.
I learned to fear many a moon as the sun rose. I learned to fear the wolves as it fell. I learned to fear man all of the time.
People there chain smoked and binge drank with reckless abandon. They routinely victimized each other, fueled by the inherit violence of their own lives.
With no venues for entertainment or dining out, sans a solitary concrete bunker with plastic chairs where beer was served in big plastic jugs, the only options for escape were to set off for the sun-scorched hills above, or drown in the valley below.
I smoked an impossible amount of cigarettes to make the time pass. I relished books, reading hundreds of pages in a single setting. Nothing was better than literally shedding skin in the banya — your first bath in weeks and 40 below snow staked up around the dimly-lit steam shack. Afterwards came homemade wine and cheese, the only true escape from endless days that ended all the same.
I miss that intense focus and joy such privation brings. Knives always have to be plunged deep to suck out all the marrow of life. But then my mind has already edited out the sad parts. You can simply never relive the feeling of waking up and looking to kill every passing second with no end in sight. Yet transient moments of elation forever haunt your consciousness.
Such is the grand lie of the past. So much is left on the cutting room floor, while the present is nothing but a series of dailies in all their stark reality.
Our minds are made for post production. No wonder they search out any time but now.
Leaving our apartment on Hailey Road, I walked past the Agrasen Ki Baoli — a magnificent 108 stepped-well descending into green water pond, and past the Iranian embassy onto Barakhamba Road.
Hemmed in by characterless office complexes that swallowed up the majestic bungalows of another era, there was always something distinctly Soviet about this “twelve pillared” thoroughfare.
After the chaos and grit of the world above, the high-ceilinged, modern feel of the metro station gave me a false sense of security. It was mostly empty. Maybe that crush of humanity above had not yet taken to the trains and tunnels en masse. Oh how I was mistaken.
Three stops later and hands pulled me into a rugby scrum pack as we clashed head on with the testudo formation trying to break our lines and push onto the train. I wanted to tell them there was a better way, but then my headphones got ripped out of my ears and as i turned around, a woman offered a smile to complement her elbows in my kidneys.
Never turn around in a stampede.
From that point on the inertia takes you over and you just ride the wave onto the escalator. Then the eyes find you, and they never let you go. You are ejected into the open sewage smell of the ‘moonlight market’ in Old Delhi, where a few neo-colonial buildings and tumble-down Havelis are mostly overshadowed by the crumbling cardboard box feel of not-so-high rises being quartered by a massive tangle of cross cutting wires. One giant hand on that mass of cable could make the whole thing rise or fall depending on the decision to push or pull. A hand just like that had found its way to neighboring Nepal.
The Red Fort frames the scene in the heat-haze distance. It’s all street food, stray dogs, rickshaw drivers, shoppers, walkers, errant tandoori-baked tourists; ammonia stench, soot, exhaust and wet shits; mosquito-coil cancer, camphor and incense burn a miasmic soot cloud swirl in a Mughal urn.
So you dive into the swirling dust like Pig-pen being mauled by the Tasmanian Devil, make a b-line through a sea of makeshift stalls, and find yourself in the splendor of the Jama Masjid, where beggars line stair cases ascending to the northern gate.
The candy cane minarets of red sandstone, white marble and perfect gumdrop domes are glorified by the blue sky.
The overhead eagle swarm is awe-inspiring. The legion eyes swarming on you, less so. The massive stone courtyard sucks up the sun and cooks your feet for those stupid (or tough) enough to ignore the trail of cloth snaking its way around the complex. I plead the former.
While walking back through the madness on sole-burned feet, my mind tried to trace a line between Shah Jahan and Tamerlane. An entire world had come out of Temüjin Borjigin’s overcoat.
The more you see, the more your ignorance is cut in sharp relief. From Central Asia to the subcontinent, I walked in the shadows of emperors and dynasties of which I knew nothing. Oh the irony! The smaller your world, the larger your place in it.
And running down that iced-over, crumbling street, I could scantly believe the center of my solipsistic world could ever die. I was almost proven wrong that day.
Headed towards the town center, powder crunched beneath my feet; a gauzy cloud cover stuffed between the sun and light. Snow sprinkled the foothills and mountain ridge beyond. I was on my way to the post office to call my then-girlfriend — another volunteer.
A remnant of Soviet modernization, post offices served a broader function than their American equivalents, with telegraph and telephone services, along with utility bill payments, folded into one place. Seeing as we had no phone at home, it was one of my few connections to the outside world.
Unlike the drunk heading up the family who lodged me, my girlfriend’s host father was an Akim or mayor. He had a phone to go with his villa in a town 900 miles away near the Uzbek border.
We were all searching for clout in the hardship Olympics and she was rounding out the bottom of the pack on that count, much to her chagrin. It doesn’t surprise me I was reading Into the Wild at the time. We were all chasing the same fevered dream of Thoreau:
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
Fetishizing experience in Spartan-like digs, reducing life to its lowest terms, all for status in a pre-social media age, was the name of the game. Our technologies change but our base instincts remain — me over the other, at all costs, even if that cost is me.
Looking back, I probably should have read The Beach first and saved myself the self-defeating search for “authenticity.”
I should have done a lot of things differently…
As for me and the object of my coup de foudre, an American-made refugee of the Islamic Revolution, most of the time we did our best to make an already difficult situation impossible on each other. But those few minutes on the crackling line were brief intermissions of hope which ended in infinite longing.
Truth be told, after the heart-jump feeling of hearing each others’ voices, there was never enough time to say anything of substance. There was the awkward settling in, the guarded intimacy as strangers stared at the foreigner prattling away on the only phone, and the obscene price making every minute worth its weight in gold, while the words themselves were aerials.
Then the click and the great big empty to follow. Nothing but cold, white light and the whistle of wind outside. It was just before noon and there was nothing but nothing ahead. So I headed back out, down the road and past collapse, to a poorly-stocked corner store on the edge of nothing.
When I arrived, Sveta, the middle-aged Russian woman behind the glass counter, smiled an upturned gendèr at me.
During the course of her affable interrogation designed to probe the limits of my Russian, I noticed a Snickers bar behind the counter. I hadn’t had one in ages. Supply chains were like everything else in this neck of the woods — broken. Excitement welled immediately. Life is all about the little things, like diabetes.
Struggling to maintain a conversation, I barely noticed as the bell on the door rang upon opening. I jovially told Sveta that I’d be taking the Snickers — the one and only Snickers — along with cookies and a Coke. A gruff voice behind me said he wanted a Snickers too.
I turned around. A hard-boiled Kazakh man in a black leather jacket and matching cap had locked his eyes on me. I thought he was joking and turned my attention back to my bounty. Settling up, I took my things and left. A mellow yellow Lada was parked outside. I tried to ignore the seated-men in black rubbernecking me.
But my self-contained world was already under attack. After crossing the street, a hellion began hollering at me. I did what people normally do, pick up the clip as the adrenaline kicked in, hoping they’d keep their discontent at a distance.
I was mistaken. The man from the store began running my way. I kept my brisk pace but didn’t speed up. I was still trying to wish the confrontation away. A strong arm wrapped itself around my jacket and began patting down my chest in search of my wallet. I looked over as the mugger snarled incomprehensibly between clenched teeth. I couldn’t even tell if he was sibilating to me in Russian or Kazakh.
Much like the fire in his black eyes, all I could glean was unadulterated hatred.
I kept walking with the weight of his arm on my neck as the car from the store came barreling down the road. After passing by it swung back and cut us off at the pass.
“Get in the car!”, the man screamed, this time clearly, in Russian.
I pushed him off of me and pushed on, as if I were trying to call his bluff without saying a word. I mean it was the middle of the day, in the center of town. People don’t get robbed, killed, in the middle of the day! My shove prompted a guttural scream. I looked back and saw he had drawn a knife and was coming at me.
Turns out I didn’t know one lick about propriety in perdition. And for a fraction of a second I stared at the monster in man as if I were in a day-lit dream. That fraction of a second nearly cost me everything.
I don’t remember my 25th birthday. A couple of months after returning home with a broken heart — a broken life — I slept away a good four month period of my life back home in Tennessee. My whole soul shook like a toothache, though I could not hear myself sing.
Somewhere in there I flew up to Chicago and absolutely blew a job opportunity in Japan after staying up all night with a captain and a few flight-less attendants chasing the depths of escape.
Some of my volunteer friends had headed off to India that summer, as we had talked about many a time. But I was as far away from there as there could be.
I spent that time on a well-worn bed keeping my eyes shut until the sun set. I slept until my body could countenance sleep no more. And then I whiled away the hours until I could sleep again.
In October I would make my way to Russia, thinking I needed to return to a place adjacent to my sense of loss. I just wanted to be anywhere but here. But who knew here was everywhere? Who knew you’d one day miss the you who could hurt so much for anything at all?
Ten years after a day I cannot remember, I met my 35th year as the sun rose on a mountainous road to Dharamshala, home of the Dalai Lama. From a mountain holler in Tennessee to the top of the world, I would render myself through sky funeral and study the scatterings for the sake of extispicy.
I was a still a chain-smoking Bukowski loathe to eat, pray and love. Kazakhstan had already taught me the perils of turning others into self-serving set pieces. The older I got, the smaller I got. That was a good thing. The scale of everything around me grew to infinity. Miraculously, I was a part of it all. So there I was, interdependently arising with the sun. And despite watching the remains of my youth dissipate, I was happy.
In all of those Himalayan days the sun did shine on me. The permanent days unending of a decade prior did end. And I did my best to pull long-gone me out of his hole to show him the heights to which he could ascend. Sure, the fall would come again. But the real struggle is learning to play the long game of leveling out.
I was too afraid to look back and too tired to go on. I’d never make it back home. I knew once and for all, if they caught me in that warren, I was a goner.
So after rounding the corner, I took shelter in a store. Scared to death, I was expecting that gang to come charging in any minute. I frantically tried to explain to the skittish shopkeepers what was happening. They insisted that I take my troubles elsewhere. The propriety of the proprietors’ request aside, to acquiesce would have sealed my fate.
And then I remembered my counterpart at the local school was married to a cop.
It took some convincing, but the store owners begrudgingly agreed to call her at home. And her husband did come and pick me up. The thing I remember the most about the good officer was that he had somehow managed to lose his ring finger while drunkenly falling out of a bus. The symbolism was not lost on his wife. He had learned little in the way of responsibility since.
I’d later discover that prior to my call, he’d just slaughtered a horse for some sort of celebration. After taking me home, he went right back to the festivities without a second thought.
After Peace Corps learned about the whole fiasco, one of his superiors caught wind of his dereliction of duty. For the sake of appearances, there was hell to pay. To my misfortune, the Keystone Cops were called into action.
I was brought into the station to file a report the next morning. The shit their boss took had clearly rolled down hill and they were laying it thick on me.
My statement, which was elicited via interrogation, took forever to complete. They then proceeded to drive me around town dragging random (and soon-to-be irate) men from their homes in a wanton fishing expedition.
By sundown half the town absolutely hated me. Ironically, Sveta likely knew exactly who was behind it and wasn’t talking. So in perfect post-Soviet fashion, the statistic became more important than the crime.
The cops would later visit me at night, pressuring me to say I’d filed a fake police report. Otherwise, the case would remain open forever, and they’d be forced to work it in perpetuity.
It was all one big con. Being the young, idealistic American I was at the time, I refused to comply. The calumny came hard and fast.
My name was mud in a place that had already tried to kill me. My paranoia grew beyond bounds.
I remember being in the back of a car with a few Russian toughs that a truly concerned neighbor had charged with taking care of me.
Stuck in the middle seat tumbling down a snow-covered but unpaved and unlit street in the dead of night, I was certain I would die there. And “I” did die. And from then on I learned just how many times a man could be reborn in a single life.
[May 2005: Some shitty bar in Arlington, Virginia]
Jeremy: “Someone tried to kidnap you? Are you f***ing serious? Jesus Christ! You f****king Peace Corps volunteers. Do you know how many times I almost got blown up in Serbia?”
Me: “I wasn’t trying to compare…”
“Jeremy: “Dude, JUST F*** OFF!”
Jeremy was right. But he didn’t have to be such a dick about it.
The years will make a mockery of you. It’s inevitable. Earlier iterations of yourself wrapped in a cocoon of defense mechanisms, fueled by narcissistic avoidance and steeped in stupid pride. Time does it dance. Consciousness expands. And then you begin to catch a glimpse of how others once saw you — a you you were incapable of seeing.
Then the memory hits you. The sting of shame in your overfed belly. But all that shame and pain can prove to be the golden joinery of a shattered soul if you let it. Though learning its lessons and then letting go is another matter altogether.
Just before leaving Kazakhstan, I took a car to the capital of Almaty. After months of snow, the culmination of the cold season had come and gone, even as I was approaching the winter of my life.
The March air was filled with life and light that I had forgotten. Cumulus Humilis was strewn across the cerulean sky. Uncovered grassland ran to the craggy feet of giants. After so much struggle, the world on the cusp of rebirth, I would forever regret that I never saw the spring.
If I’d know I’d never be able to return, perhaps it all would have played out differently. But I think it’s been playing out the same way for eternity.
My face pressed to the cold glass, the infinite beyond me, I was in awe of my own sublime disgrace — the ecstasy on the boundary of the “impossibility of living”.
Oh, how amazing it is just to be here. Even if here is gone.