I begin writing somewhere over the South Pacific Ocean more than a week after I suggested to our editor that I would submit my latest piece.For 23 days I have been away from home and my partner--but not my work, thanks to my iPad and fairly consistent internet access--on a 25,000-mile voyage of discovery that culminated in participating in the 2014 mega-conference of the International AIDS Society (AIDS 2014) in Melbourne, Australia.
The event is not only the largest HIV-related gathering worldwide, but also the largest global health and development conference, where interests in disease prevention and treatment, human rights, maternal and child health, sexual and reproductive rights, housing, and clean water and sanitation intersect.
My original intent had been to resurrect a piece on death written just before Doug McColeman's untimely passing, and then the downing of flight MH 17 occurred just as AIDS 2014 was about to begin. A period of grief and mourning enveloped the conference and the city, not just for the dozens who would not join us in Melbourne and the others killed through a reckless act of aggression, but also for everyone who had ever been lost to HIV.
In a flash, post-traumatic stress disorder seemed to visit many of us -- hyper-vigilance in a new-to-you city is exhausting. I found myself consoling friends, other conference attendees, hotel workers, taxi drivers, and local fellow Rotarians in the face of lives cut short, offering the notion that many of the MH17 passengers died in the midst of work that was their passion, an end which I would choose over simply passing in my sleep. As many speakers would say, our greatest tribute to the researchers and activists lost would not be to mourn long, but to carry on and to re-commit ourselves to finishing the work of ridding the world of HIV, tuberculosis, and other diseases of inequality.
Had it not been for my two weeks of travel to arrive at AIDS 2014, though, I doubt that I would have been prepared for the existential challenge which I encountered. In plotting since AIDS 2012 to attend AIDS 2014, I knew that I would be literally travelling to the other side of the planet; and, damn it, there were other things I wanted to experience, namely, authentic Asian foods and Buddhist temples. So, with a trove of frequent flier miles to use and some negotiation with my workplace management, I booked travel to Melbourne via Mongolia, South Korea, and Thailand.
First on my itinerary, Mongolia left by far the most lasting impression. I spent five days in the capital Ulaanbataar (not Ulan Bator!), a city designed by the Russians for 500,000 and now home to over 2,000,000, with gleaming luxury apartments and condos going up adjacent to crumbling Soviet-era housing blocs.
One day I took a day trip well outside the city for nature and a remote Buddhist temple.
On the hike up to the temple my guide encouraged me to turn the Wheel of Fortune to determine my destiny as described on placards beyond it. The number on the wheel came up 9. The passage corresponding to 9 read: "The Buddhas have already achieved their own goals but remain in the cycle of existence as long as there are sentient beings. This is because they possess great compassion. They also do not enter the immensely blissful abode of nirvana like the Hearers. Considering the interests of sentient beings first, they abandon the peaceful abode of nirvana as if it were an iron house."
My guide asked "So, I am guiding a descended Buddha?!" I replied "Maybe, but that's some pretty hardcore cosmic [expletive] to lay on a guy on vacation!"
"So, Sir, please spin the wheel again."
We walked back. I spun, and it came up 9 again. "Fine! However, I thought that I had much learning to do about compassion."
We continued the climb through thorny fields and across rope bridges, arriving at the temple atop a long staircase. The old caretaker had seen our approach and unlocked the temple door just as we reached the top step. My guide and he exchanged some words in Mongolian, and my guide turned to me saying "He is excited to see you and wants you to come in. He never interacts with tourists. Please talk with him, and I will translate."
I thanked the man, and he took my hand to lead me. "I am humbled that you are with me again," he said. "You must sit and tell me where you have been and why you have come here." He led me through the ring of benches in the center of temple to one of two chairs for teachers. In clear English he declared "Sit!"
I actually pinched myself hard enough to leave a bruise to be sure that I wasn't dreaming.
I explained that I came from the United States and was on my way to Australia for an HIV conference. My visit to Mongolia was motivated by my desire to deepen my understanding of the Eightfold Path, specifically as it pertains to compassion, and to help find my place in an increasingly interconnected world. I took from my bag one of the very old tin reliquaries, vessels said to hold pieces of the Buddha's bones, which I found almost hidden in a store on my first day. "Finding this confirmed that I was on the right path. After all, it should have been destroyed in [the Communist purge of] 1921." He told me that I had all the compassion necessary and that visiting him was evidence of it.
I asked why he treated me like a long-lost friend. He said that my spirit was very old and good, and that I had been his friend and teacher when he was a young man: together we secretly studied Dharma and shamanism under Stalinist oppression. He asked when I was born. His friend was killed by soldiers three years before.
We hugged tightly as the man wept. My guide stood speechless, and I wondered "If the Wheel of Fortune is accurate, what do I do? Can I just call an end to this existence and ascend?"
Those questions stayed in my mind as AIDS 2014 approached and unfolded. My daily meditations focused on an end of suffering for those who would be opposed to me and those who would do "bad things"--I would hope that those who shot down MH17 did not mean to kill civilians unrelated to their struggle, and their suffering from their misdeed must be immense.
And, then, the drunk and the helpless came my way.
In the wee hours of Friday morning of AIDS 2014, as I walked back to my lodging from the "No Pants, No Problem" party supporting the International Community of Women living with HIV, a much older woman stumbled up behind me. "I've theen yoooou at the confrenth," she slurred with a thick Aussie accent. "From your tote bag and buttons, I bet you have," I replied. She handed me her hotel room card and asked if the place was near. It was on the opposite side of the convention center from where we stood and well out of my way in the cold, but I walked her to the doorman there, even as she grabbed my buttocks at every intersection.
Hoping for an early departure from Melbourne bound for Sydney, I headed to the airport late Friday morning ahead of the conference's formal closing event. Qantas, however, held me to my itinerary on a cheap Economy fare; and I wandered the domestic terminal for a few hours admiring the diversity of the Australian adult male form from various coffee bars.
Once my departure gate was posted, I parked across the concourse at an empty lounge area with Dab the AIDS Bear perched atop my carry-on bag. A woman with a halting gait came by and sat next to Dab, inquiring after several minutes about the time. I offered the time from my phone, and she asked if I was going to Tasmania. I winced inside with recognition that this was a person with intellectual disabilities set adrift somehow, explaining that it was the area for Alice Springs and recalling a departure for Hobart from the board.
The woman didn't have a boarding pass--you aren't checked for one to clear airport security in Oz--but the itinerary pulled from her tote bag told the sad truth: she had missed her Jetstar flight. I dashed a few gates down to the next Qantas flight to Hobart and explained the dilemma to the airline agent I saw. Soon, a cart whisked my Tasmanian devil away, and I was assured that she would be cared for until and throughout her eventual flight.
Perhaps the old man was right.