Cross-Cultural Discovery by Tucker Clark
A cross-cultural discovery of a medicinal cure that also opened the Peace Corps volunteer to its spiritual-based usage. With a charming account of an ancient herbal remedy, we share a very human moment with holy men and elders in the remote villages of the Himalayas.
It was the winter of 1968. I had freshly graduated from college at the University of North Carolina to become a volunteer with the Peace Corps, doing agriculture work in Nepal. Peace Corps Nepal had received a scare when over-zealous visiting US congressmen had tried to have several of the new volunteers drafted to fight in Vietnam rather than serve as volunteers in our 2 year PCV jobs Their rationale was that Nepal was just a haven for dope smoking draft dodgers and they were going to yank us out and make an example of us, despite the thousands of dollars they had spent training us and getting us over there. A countrywide Peace Corps protest stopped them, but all of the volunteers were made to feel paranoid about any consumption of marijuana, no matter how remote the setting.
I was stationed in my small agricultural community at the foothills of the Himalayas in the Terai, where the village landlord had given me lodging in his Pukkha cement front room. Since I was a cow eater from the West and impure by Brahmin standards, I was not permitted to go into the innards of the house nor eat with them. In every other way I was the village novelty, was on permanent exhibition, and was enjoying my post despite the strangeness. I had prided myself on my iron stomach, eating what villagers ate, the dhal bhat tarkari (sometimes called paste and pepper or rice and lentils depending on your preferences) twice a day and lots of tea, and became increasingly bold in my cavalier attitude about local water. The negative forces soon had their field day when I got bacillary and amoebic dysentery, Giardia, malaria, and whatever else was the common experience of Peace Corps workers. We were famous for sending our shit in the mail to have it diagnosed by Peace Corps doctors but we had a quart of anti-diarrhea medicine in our first aid kit, and a supposed wonder drug called Lomotil to take as we awaited their findings. For a very long four days, I was pissing, puking and shitting substances from every orifice and was so weak I couldn’t make it to the fields. Kathmandu Peace Corps headquarters had sent me an anti-Giardia medicine and were contemplating helicoptering me to the hospital if I didn’t improve. Giardia, the roommate disorder, as we laughingly called it, made one fart for minutes at a time and some of the constantly gazing, sometimes empathetic villagers found my trumpeting still very amusing.
The spirited Brahmin priest landlord who, much to his credit, was getting me a dispensation in the caste bound village (he had worked it out that American cows weren’t their cows and therefore I wasn’t as heathen as the outcasts and Muslims who took of the burger), came to me in my misery, leading a Hindu holy man, a Saddhu, with him. He was a mendicant I had not seen before. I would have remembered him, with his dreadlocks, ash-covered face, Shiva trident on his forehead and loincloth; begging bowl and walking stick his only accoutrements. He came and squatted down in front of me and stared, something I had gotten used to as the odd Sahib in this remote area. He soon started touching my belly, felt my pulse and looked at me with his ebony-pooled, mystical eyes. With a great deal of embarrassment, I released one of my 30 second farts, accompanied by village-kid laughter. The solemn Saddhu, with his eyes piercing through me, gave me the most empathetic smile, and reached for his begging bowl and pulled some ganja buds from it. The Brahmin who had been keeping a running monologue about me, was silent and responding to a nod from the Saddhu, went to the landlord’s kitchen and came back with cloves, powdered ginger and other spices and a pulverizing rock. The Saddhu spread the herbs out in front of him, proceeded to pound them together and without any ceremony, wrapped them in a betel leaf and gave it to me, motioning me to eat it like the common, bazaar-bought concoction that everybody chewed called Pan.
The Brahmin silently said for me to eat it (the universal cupped hand to the mouth sign), and made motions about my disorders and used his big, dark, hands to push them off into the horizon. Believe me I was at the end of my rope and a bit fearful that I had contracted something potentially fatal. Enough so that the landlord, seeing my condition and worried, too, for my health, had alerted the Gurka military camp on the Indian border that I would need a flight out to Kathmandu. To my amazement, the concoction was very tasty and on my empty stomach it was quickly absorbed. I had made several protests in different villages about smoking ganja in their chillums with the wise men and saddhus so that my Peace Corps image would not be tarnished, but in this case I made no acknowledgment of the ganja.
That was until my piercing headache just vanished like a cloud and I became very light-headed, something the Brahmin saw; he made motions to the effect that I must be feeling it, to the villagers’ amusement. To my amazement, after a week of western medicines, cure-alls, etc. I was feeling the immediate medicinal effect of marijuana and almost as a giant send-off to my malady, the final fart lasting a good minute blasted out of me. I suddenly felt healthy and happy to be alive. I sat on the landlord’s porch, while half the village scrutinized the Saddhu’s handiwork, and actually clapped at my relieving blast. I couldn’t believe how good I felt, physically and mentally. I ‘namasted’ the holy man, gallivanted around the village, as they clapped about my relief from a disorder all of them had experienced and all had some degree of fear about.
That night, I wandered the dirt paths in my village and came to the mango grove, next to my fish pond project. Around a rice chaff and cow dung fire the Saddhu and a bunch of old men were passing the chillum and regaling each other about the beauty of Kali, and the power of Shiva, singing and smoking in the mystical light of dusk.
When they all saw me, they motioned for me to come over. They extended the chillum, and motioned for me to partake. I realized that this marvelous substance had literally saved me, and there was no way – even with Peace Corps drug prohibitions being what they were – that I would turn down the gracious offer to join my village wise men in their ritual peace pipe.
The demon drug was certainly not that, and it amuses me and saddens me today to see how we have infected the world with our drug wars’ prohibitions, economies and mentalities. Whenever I think of marijuana I think of the saintly old Saddhu, offering me the lifesaving concoction that all of the western solutions and remedies had failed to equal in its curative wonder.