Thursday, 17 September 2015

God is Watching

High up in the mountains, a vast forest of pine trees and the occasional horse feces found me camping by a gushing angry river with freezing cold waters coming from a melting glacier.

As the sun set after a long, long day, I sat at a pre-identified spot to photograph the stars as they slowly lighted up the sky. The spot was on a bridge spanning across the river where I could photograph the milky way over the gushing river.

To call that particular bridge is the overstatement of the year, if not the century. The bridge was nothing more than a piece of old withered flimsy log placed carelessly across the river. Walking across the "bridge", one can experience first hand the movement of the tan, sin & cos wave.

And so, on that very bridge I sat with my camera attached on a tripod as the darkness of the night slowly enveloped me. 

You know how the wind blows up in the mountains? Bitter cold wind comes in sudden strong gusts buffeting you left and right. Hence, I was dressed in multiple layers of warm clothing to keep warm. 

Truly enjoying myself, I photographed absolute beauty and I remember thinking: "I wouldn't mind doing this for the rest of my life." And it was at that very exact moment, an enormous gust of wind came blowing, buffeting me and wobbling the "bridge".

And in front of my very eyes, my camera together with the tripod fell right into the river!

I was stunned for 1.342 seconds and when I recovered I immediately used my torch to pierce the absolute darkness, trying to at least catch a glimpse of my camera in the rolling and gushing river. And by some miracle, I saw it floating not 10m from where I stood. At that moment I knew I had only 2 choices, to jump in the river or to bloody jump in. 

The million of stars hanging out in the sky that night were surprised to see a guy dressed in layers of thick clothing suddenly plunging into a freezing mountain river in the black of the night. But with all the crazy things the stars have seen humans do, they probably didn't think much of it.

The moment I jumped into the river, the layers of clothing absorbed so much water that the weight dragged me underwater for a moment. It took all my strength accumulated since birth, to bring my head to the surface and stay afloat.  

The short moment I was underwater was enough to disorientate me. Using the North Star to reorientate myself, I started my search for the camera. 

Banging into rocks and boulders as the current swept me down river, I used my torch to desperately try catch a glimpse of the camera. And lo and behold! I suddenly saw it washed against some rocks not far from me. Using the light from my torch to illuminate the direction I had to head to, I swam toward the camera as if a crocodile was after me.

According to Murphy's Law, "Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong, at the worst time possible." And so it was at that moment my torch that is waterproof and shockproof decided to be neither. Thus, in pitch blackness I swam in the direction of the rocks and blindly stretched out my hand....

The feeling of bliss and relief when my hand closed around the leg of the tripod is indescribable. I myself couldn't believe that I actually manage to get back my camera. The way I felt then is probably best summarise with the following picture:

So swimming one hand against the current, I manage to get back to the shore and fell down totally exhausted. Lying on the shore, freezing my butt off and bruised all over my body, it occurred to me that it probably wasn't the smartest thing to do jumping into the freezing river in the middle of the night all for the sake of a camera.

Throughout the years of my life, I've done a fair share of stupid things, things that wouldn't be done if I actually stopped and think for a moment. My name "Shimri" means God is watching. I think that the only reason I manage to survive thus far is because God is watching over me and I'm pretty sure he is entertained over the years by my various stupid antics.

Not surprisingly, my camera is not working anymore after its swim in the river. Tried immersing it in uncooked rice when I came down the mountains. After a week of immersing it in uncooked rice, it managed to revive the camera but it went kaput after a while. Thus bringing my journey in photography to a temporary halt. The good thing is that I bought insurance for the camera so I'll be getting a replacement soon. 

So till then.. :)

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

The Pilgrimage

Two months ago, I flew to the north of India for my elective posting in Apex Hospital Pvt Ltd. With state of the art facilities and a wide array of specialties, Apex Hospital was supposedly the best Hospital in Jaipur.

Image from Apex Hospital website

For the following few weeks, I was attached to the orthopedics department with the privilege of observing the many orthopedics problem which plague the Indian population. The cases seen were more or less similar to the ones seen in Malaysian with the only difference being that diseases that are almost eradicated and rarely seen in Malaysia are still very at large in India. For instance, tuberculosis (TB). 

Such a vast amount of the population is infected that various presentations are seen instead of the normal pulmonary symptoms. Poor management and even poorer compliance has resulted in the birth of a strain of the bacteria known as the Totally Drug-Resistance TB which makes treatment of TB an enormous hassle.

Most of my time was spent either shadowing the doctors or assisting in the Operating Theatre. With my vast vocabulary of Hindi and an even vaster English vocabulary of majority of the patients, communication between the patients and me involved many blank stares and confuse expressions. With all the hindi being spoken, it did feel a little like in a Bollywood movie. At times, I half expected everyone to drop everything and start dancing and singing. 

Of all the cases I saw in India, one that really left an impression was this particular case:

An elderly Indian woman came to the emergency department with a grossly distended abdomen. The swelling has been there for almost 2 weeks and 1 day ago she developed severe debilitating pain in the abdomen. The pain was so severe that she couldn't eat and drink nor could she defecate or pass flatus. She even had trouble breathing and moving without feeling crippling pain. 

After a series of investigations, the doctors diagnosed her with a strangulated umbilical hernia. Which means part of her intestines or in this case a large part of her intestines has protruded through the umbilical opening in the abdominal muscles and has been strangulated by the small opening causing the intestines to necrose and decay. If you notice the dark patches on her abdomen, those are signs that the intestines have started to turn gangrene. 

Back in Malaysia, this situation would have been an emergency! The patient would have been sent with all haste to the operating theatre and an emergency surgery would have been done to try save the patient's life. The patient wouldn't have survived the night without the surgery and even with the surgery, the patient only had a 50% survival rate. 

But what happened was after the doctors explained the situation to the patient and the family members and strongly advised for an immediate surgery, the family members decided to hold an annual grand meeting. 

So after the minutes of the previous annual grand meeting was read and the proper greetings were given, the debate on the best course of action to take started. And after hours and hours of debating they finally came up with a verdict...

They decided not to do the surgery and instead wanted to seek for alternative medicine or more specifically they wanted to bring the patient for a pilgrimage in hopes that God or some other higher power would grant them mercy and heal the patient. 

And that did not make sense to me at all! I mean, the pathology of her condition is crystal clear and the treatment even clearer. Why would one decided not to do the surgery and put one's life in the hands of some unknown deity??

I was extremely curious at what this pilgrimage was all about and wanted to see what kind of pilgrimage was this where terminally ill patients would rather go for the pilgrimage than seek proper treatment. 

I asked around and got to know that the pilgrimage was to a Holy Lake high up in the mountains found extremely north of India. And thus I packed my bags and headed north, extremely north.

I rode buses when they were available, hitched hike when there was none. For days I travelled across unfamiliar lands, meeting people of foreign cultures and eating what I could carry in my bag. In this fashion, I arrived at the foot of the mountain where the Holy Lake was said to be found. 

Braving the cold, the desolation and the exhaustion, I followed the footsteps of the strangulated hernia patient up the mountain. 

Carrying all my photography gear (camera, lenses, flash, light stands, soft box, umbrellas), tents, sleeping bags, warm clothing, books and food, my bag weighed at least 25kg. I kind of realised I over packed when the weight of my bag fractured both my clavicles, dislocated my shoulders and herniated my intervertebral disc. 

So lugging all that weight for days, I painstakingly made my way all the way to the Holy Lake, which was high up in the mountains where the air is thin and cold.

The thing that strikes you the most when you arrive at this holy alpine lake is not the beauty, not the cold nor is it the exhaustion. Don't get me wrong; it is breathtakingly beautiful and freezing cold! But the thing that strikes you the most is the silence. A heavy cloud of silence, so quiet that you not only hear your every heartbeat but you hear right down to the cellular level. Every single ATP being produced by your mitochondria is clearly heard... 

And it was in this blanket of silence when I finally understood why the herniated patient chose to come for this pilgrimage instead of undergoing the surgery.

The destination itself wasn't the main point of the pilgrimage nor was getting healed any part of purpose of the trip. Instead the journey to the Holy Lake was what made the whole pilgrimage what it was. Many a days were spent walking high up in the mountains, above the clouds and living off the land. 

They hunt with the mystical eagle hunters, drink from cold mountain springs and sleep under the stars. 

And when they arrived at the Holy Lake, they can finally die in peace after savouring pristine unspoilt beauty of nature, the very best this world has to offer. And through this experience, they have truly lived at least once before they pass on from this world. 
What better way to leave this world?

If I were terminally ill, I would make the same choice. I would rather travel one last time and witness unparalleled beauty instead of lying on the operating table with the probability of dying and the last thing I see would be the doctor's face.

What will your choice be?