Die Initiation des Jaguars

Die Wohnungstür öffnete sich und eine kleine asiatische Frau in den Dreißigern mit einem großen Lächeln erschien in dem Spalt, aus dem der seltsame Geruch von Weihrauch herausströmte.

„Du Meister suchen?“, fragte sie und schob, ohne auf eine Antwort zu warten, den Jungen hinein. Dann verschwand sie hinter einem Vorhang in einem Raum auf der rechten Seite.

Er starrte in die Dunkelheit, die mit den Nebelschwaden der vielen Räucherstäbchen, die wie rote Zwergsterne in der Dunkelheit glühten, erfüllt war. Der lange, schmale Flur erstreckte sich vor ihm in Richtung des Türspalts. Ein weißes, glitzerndes Licht leuchtete aus dem Spalt und beleuchtete teilweise den Durchgang. Der schmale Flur war überfüllt mit Stapeln voller Zeitschriften, Büchern, Leinwänden – sowohl bemalte als auch jungfräuliche – und alten Filmplakaten auf beiden Seiten, die fast bis zur Decke reichten. Ein Tuch mit bunten Farben mit geheimnisvollen, unergründlichen Stickmustern hing wie ein himmlischer Baldachin von der Decke.

Er nahm seinen ganzen Mut zusammen und machte ein paar vorsichtige, kleine Schritte in den Flur, wobei er auf einmal über eine Schüssel Katzenfutter auf dem Boden stolperte. Er versuchte, seinen Fall abzufangen, indem er sich an einem Zeitschriftenstapel festhielt, der aber gefährlich zu schwanken begann und zahlreiche Exemplare der Zeitschrift Tattoo Artist ausspuckte. Sie fielen wie ein Wasserfall auf seinen Kopf, wie ein Schwarm bösartiger Fledermäuse, die mitten in der dunklen Nacht Beute angreifen. Er bedeckte den Kopf mit den Armen, hockte sich auf den Boden und wartete, bis der Angriff vorüber war. Als er seine Augen wieder öffnete, befand er sich in einem gigantischen Wirbel, der sich zu einem unendlich weit entfernten Punkt von hellem weißen Licht erstreckte. Plötzlich erschien eine Katze von hinten, die hastig zwischen den Beinen den mystischen Tunnels entlang rannte und in dem strahlenden Schimmer einer anderen Welt verschwand. Vorsichtig, um keine weitere Destabilisierung im Wirbel zu verursachen, arbeitete er sich bis zur Tür am Ende des Flurs durch und drückte sie auf.

Das helle Licht aus der Küche blendete ihn. Als seine Augen sich endlich akklimatisiert hatten, entdeckte er, auf einem Stuhl sitzend, den nackten Rücken eines über und über tätowierten, kräftigen Mannes mit einem Jaguarkopf. Der Mann wandte sich ihm zu, während er eine zweispulige Tattoopistole in seiner rechten Hand, die in einem Handschuh steckte, hielt und mit seiner Linken auf einen freien Stuhl am Ende des Tisches zeigte.

„Setz dich, Kind“, sagte er mit einer tiefen, knurrenden Stimme.

Fast in einem Schockzustand setzte sich der Junge nieder. Gleichzeitig entdeckte er den fetten nackten Oberkörper  eines grob aussehenden Mannes mit einem teigigen, unrasierten und aschgrauen Gesicht, der zusammengesackt auf einem Küchenstuhl saß und dessen massives Hinterteil aussah, als ob es gerade dabei wäre, den Stuhl langsam zu verschlingen. Der Meister trug gerade die letzten Schattierungen auf einen der beiden großen Totenköpfe auf, die auf die wabbelige, weiße, haarlose Brust des Mannes tätowiert wurden, der seine letzten zwölf Jahre für den bewaffneten Raubüberfall einer Post in der staatlichen Justizanstalt in Mahanoy verbracht hatte, demselben Gefängnis, in dem Mumia Abu Jamal für den Rest seines Lebens eingesperrt sein wird, nachdem die Staatsanwälte im Jahr 2011 vereinbart hatten, nicht mehr die Todesstrafe für ihn zu fordern. Der rechte Totenkopf, der in groben, dicken Linien eingefärbt war, befand sich einem sehr aufwendigen, fast holographisch aussehenden Totenkopf gegenüber, der einem der berühmten vorkolumbianischen Kristallschädel ähnelte und von dem ein gruseliges rötliches Glühen von frisch gereizter Haut, einem Heiligenschein ähnlich, ausging. Der Junge beobachtete schweigend und starrte auf den Jaguar, der trotz seines aufgepumpten Muskelkörpers und der groben pfotenähnlichen Händen die Tätowierpistole wie ein Chirurg seine Skalpelle und Instrumente bewegte.

„Leben! Jetzt haben wir Leben!“, rief der Jaguar, wobei er seine Arme in die Luft warf, von seinem Stuhl aufsprang und mit dem fetten Glatzkopf auf dem Stuhl herumtanzte, der ein zufriedenes Grinsen auflegte. „Magie wird dir verliehen!“, schrie er. „Steh jetzt auf! Stehe auf und umarme die Unsterblichkeit. Wiedergeborener Sohn, du sollst jetzt wieder zum Leben zurückkehren!“

Unter erheblicher Anstrengung stand der Mann von seinem Stuhl auf, unterstützt vom Meister, und stand wie ein Berg in der Mitte der Küche. Er nickte dem Jaguar dankend zu, bevor er langsam seinen massiven Körper zur Tür bewegte und in dem Strudel verschwand. Ruhe trat in der Küche ein. Der einzige Ton, den der Junge ausmachen konnte, war das laute Schlagen seines Herzens, das in seinen Ohren hämmerte. Eine Ewigkeit lang beobachtete er den Jaguar mit seinem mächtigen Kopf, der sich langsam und sanft von links nach rechts und zurück mit geschlossenen Augen bewegte, als ob er in eine absurde Vision der Unendlichkeit starrte. Schließlich öffneten sich die Augen des Meisters und er wandte sich dem Jungen zu.

„Wozu bist du gekommen, was suchst du?“, brüllte seine Stimme mit einem dunklen Knurren.

Der Junge zögerte, sprachlos. Schließlich murmelte er: „Ich bin hierher gekommen, um ein Tattoo zu bekommen.“

Der Meister antwortete nicht. Er zog die Tattoopistole auseinander, säuberte sie, warf die gebrauchten Nadeln weg und zog schließlich die weißen, mit dunklen Tintenspritzern gefärbten Plastik-Chirurgenhandschuhe aus, die er getragen hatte, und warf sie in ein Behältnis auf dem Boden.

„Wer hat dich geschickt?“, fragte er den Jungen, ohne ihn anzusehen.

„Niemand“, sagte der Junge und fügte hinzu: „Ich habe in der Schule gehört, dass Sie Tattoos machen, und herumgefragt, um Ihre Adresse zu bekommen.“

„… Tattoos machen?“, wiederholte der Meister auf eine leicht spöttische Art und Weise.

Nach einer langen Stille drehte der Meister die helle Tischlampe, die normalerweise auf die Haut seiner Kunden leuchtete, direkt in Richtung des Jungen, so dass sein Gesicht wie bei einer polizeilichen Befragung erleuchtet wurde.

„Wie alt bist du?“, fragte er den Jungen.

„19.“

„Raus hier!!!“, brüllte der Jaguar. „Sofort raus hier!“

„Es tut mir leid, es tut mir leid“, antwortete der Junge und hob seine Hände in einer schützenden Geste vor sein Gesicht. Dann gab er mit einer fast unhörbaren Stimme zu: „Ich bin 14.“

Der Jaguar schaute den Jungen eine Weile lang an und dachte über seine Antwort nach. Er war damit zufrieden, denn es war die Wahrheit.

„Nun, da wir festgestellt haben, dass das Lügen sicherlich keine Methode ist, um ein Tattoo zu bekommen, wie wäre es mit einem Tee? Ich könnte jetzt wirklich einen gebrauchen.“

„Ping!“, rief er mit einer Stimme, die nicht süßer sein hätte können. „Liebling? Wo bist du?“

Ein paar Sekunden später kam die thailändische Frau, die die Tür für den Jungen geöffnet hatte, mit einem großen Lächeln auf ihrem Gesicht in die Küche, offenbar erleichtert, dass der Meister mit der Arbeit fertig war. Sie ging direkt zum Ofen, schaltete ihn ein und begann, Wasser zu erhitzen.

„Magst du Tee, guten Mate, gut, gut“, fragte sie den Jungen, der als Antwort nickte.

Ping nahm aus ein paar Stofftaschen, die an einer Schnur in der Küche herunterhingen, einige getrocknete Blättern, legte sie in eine Holzschale und zermalmte sie mit einem abgerundeten Holzstab zu einer groben Mischung. Sie gab den Inhalt in eine seltsam aussehende Schale, die mit einer Art Stammesmuster verziert war. Dann bedeckte sie die Öffnung mit ihrer Handfläche, drehte sie auf den Kopf und schüttelte sie zuerst kräftig und dann immer sanfter. Sie drehte die gefüllte Schale, in der sich der Yerba Mate abgesetzt hatte, geschickt wieder zur Seite und bewegte sie weiter mit einer sanften Seitwärtsbewegung. Dann fügte sie ein bisschen kaltes Wasser hinzu, um die Tee- und Kräutermischung einzuweichen, bevor sie vorsichtig einen langen, leicht gebogenen silbernen Strohhalm mit vergoldeten Ornamenten in die Schale legte. Sie nahm die Teekanne vom Herd und trug sie an den Tisch, wo sie bis zum Rand heißes Wasser in die Schale schüttete. Dann wartete sie etwas, bis sich die aufgewirbelte Mischung beruhigt hatte, und trank sie dann in kleinen Schlucken durch den Strohhalm.

„Ich mag!“, rief sie, füllte die Schüssel nochmals mit heißem Wasser auf und gab sie an den Jungen auf ihrer rechten Seite weiter, der, da er unsicher war, ob er das, was für ihn wie Hexengebräu aussah, annehmen oder ablehnen sollte, zögerte.

„Es ist Mate-Tee mit ihrer speziellen Mischung aus allen Arten von Kräutern. Er kommt aus Südamerika“, erklärte der Meister. „Probier ihn, er schmeckt dir bestimmt.“

Ermutigt durch die Erklärung griff der Junge nach der Schale, empfing sie mit seinen beiden ausgestreckten Händen und führte sie zu seinem Gesicht, wo sein Mund einen ersten Geschmack von diesem einheimischen Gebräu, dessen Ursprünge Jahrhunderte zurückliegen, erhielt.

„Wow, das ist gut!“, rief er und gab die leere Schale an die „Cebador“ zurück, die heißes Wasser nachfüllte und sie dem Meister anbot, der sie  mit einem großen Schluck leerte.

„Ich bin Alex“, sagte der Jaguar.

„Ich bin Ping“, fügte die thailändische Frau mit einem großen Lächeln hinzu. Sie  packte seine massiven, tätowierten Arme und streichelte sie, als ob sie Welpen wären. Dann fügte hinzu: „Er mein starker Ehemann“, und beide lächelten und lachten.

Der Junge begann sich wohlzufühlen und sich in der seltsamen Atmosphäre dieser Küche, die mit komischen und geheimnisvollen Objekten vollgestopft war, zu entspannen. Alte Holzregale krümmten sich unter dem Gewicht zahlreicher Gläser und Töpfe mit nicht identifizierbaren Inhalten. Knoblauch- und Zwiebelzöpfe hingen von der Decke, und Taschen vollgestopft mit exotischen Kräutern verströmten einen angenehmen Duft und überfluteten die ganze Küche mit einer Aura von Mystik und weit entfernten Kulturen.

Inmitten all der Fremdartigkeit entdeckte der Junge eine Pinnwand aus Kork, die mit Bildern überladen war. Einige Bilder zeigten Alex und Ping, die an exotischen Stränden Händchen halten oder auf einem Motorrad sitzen, immer lächelnd und glücklich, und eindeutig die gemeinsame Zeit genossen. Bilder, die nackte Frauen in allen Positionen zeigten, hingen an jeder Wand; einige von ihnen waren sehr höhnisch und voller sexueller Anspielungen, mit dynamischen Pinselstrichen und bunten Farben.

„Ich bin Maler“, sagte Alex, „aber vor einigen Jahren begann ich mit dem Tätowieren, da ich den menschlichen Körper so gerne als lebendige Leinwand benutze.“

„Das ist genial!“, rief der Junge und sein Gesicht leuchtete auf. „Darum bin ich gekommen, um Sie zu sehen. Ich möchte, dass Sie mir ein Tattoo machen, etwas, das Sie entworfen haben, in vielen Farben, ich … “

„Nicht so schnell“, unterbrach ihn der Meister und lachte so laut und kräftig, dass sich die ganze Küche anfühlte, als ob sie von einem Erdbeben durchgeschüttelt worden wäre.

„Laut Gesetz musst du 18 Jahre alt sein, um ein Tattoo zu bekommen, ansonsten könnte es als Angriff auf einen Minderjährigen betrachtet werden. Und die Polizei wieder im Haus zu haben ist definitiv nicht etwas, worauf ich scharf bin.“

„Aber … ich will so gerne eins“, bettelte der Junge. „Ich wollte schon so lange eins. Es bedeutet mir so viel. Ich kann den Schmerz ertragen, ich habe keine Angst davor.“

„Ich sehe, dass du ehrlich bist“, gab der Jaguar zurück, „aber der einzige legale Weg ist, wenn deine Eltern das Zustimmungsformular unterschreiben, das von jedem Kunden, an dem ich arbeite, gesetzlich vorgeschrieben ist.“

Sogleich wollte der Junge ihm sagen, dass er am nächsten Tag das unterschriebene Zustimmungsformular bringen könnte, aber dann erinnerte er sich an die Reaktion des Jaguars, als er ihn beim Lügen ertappte, und seine augenblickliche Begeisterung erstarb und machte der Resignation Platz.

„Sie würden so etwas nie unterschreiben“, antwortete er mit einem traurigen Blick und starrte vor sich auf den Küchenboden.

„Ich kann dir jetzt kein Tattoo machen, erst wenn du 18 Jahre alt bist. Aber du bist immer willkommen, wenn du nach der Schule mal vorbeikommen und zuschauen möchtest, wenn ich an meinen Besuchern arbeite.“

Er hatte zwar nicht bekommen, war er wollte, aber er wusste, dass es unmöglich war, Alex umzustimmen, und war daher gerne mit dem Vorschlag einverstanden. Er versprach, nächste Woche wiederzukommen.

Unbeirrbar – wie ein junger Baum, dessen Wurzeln sich schließlich in frischen, nährstoffreichen Boden gegraben haben und der jetzt kurz vor einem Vitalitätsausbruch stand, bei dem die ersten jungfräulichen Blüten aufzubrechen begannen,  die den Frühling seiner Jugend begrüßten – besuchte der Junge den Meister und seine Frau fast jeden Tag nach und oft auch anstatt der Schule.

Ping führte ihn in ihre Welt der kulinarischen Zauberei ein, enthüllte ihm die Geheimnisse sorgfältig ausgewählter Zutaten, lehrte ihn über ihre richtige Textur, Komposition und die richtige Menge und schuf vor seinen Augen Gerichte von extravaganter Konstanz, jedes ein eigenes Meisterwerk. Gerichte tauchten wie von Zauberhand vor seinen Augen auf mit orientalischen, fernöstlichen Gerüchen, oder verhöhnten seine Geschmacksknospen mit einer exotischen Würze, die Tränen in die Augen und Schweißperlen auf seine Nase trieb. Einige ihrer Kreationen verwirrten seine Sinne, die damit zu kämpfen hatten zu entscheiden, ob ein Gericht nun süß, sauer oder scharf war.

Ein großer hölzerner Löffel, der durch das Hineintauchen in unzählige Saucen aus Curry, Kokosnüssen und Chilis, in Nam Phriks, Pestos oder Guacamolen, in würzige Fische, Hühnern oder heiße Bohnensuppe, die von einem herzhaften Gulasch gerötet und von Gelatine glasiert wurden, schon ganz alt aussah, war ihr magischer Zauberstab, den sie jetzt auf den Jungen richtete, damit er ihre köstlichen Gebräue und Zaubertränke in jedem Zubereitungszustand probieren sollte. Eine Aromaexplosion versetzte die Geschmacksknospen des Jungen in einen euphorischen, ekstatischen Zustand, von dem er niemals geträumt hätte, das einfach nur mit Essen zu erleben zu können. Ob es durch Backen, Kochen, Schmoren oder Blanchieren, Pochieren, Köcheln oder Dämpfen, Dünsten, Grillen, Braten, Frittieren, scharfes Anbraten oder sogar Fermentation der Zutaten in großen alten Keramikgefäßen war, ihr Essen glich stets einer Hymne oder einem von den Engeln, die als kleine, zerbrechliche Porzellanfiguren auf ihrem Küchenregal saßen, gesungener Segen. Pings Fröhlichkeit war in jedem Bissen zu schmecken. Sie flößte der Nahrung, die sie so gerne zubereitete, ihre Lebenskraft tief ein; ihre Liebe zeigte sich an den unbeschreiblichen Aromen, die von ihren Gerichten ausgingen, die Küche durchdrangen und ihre Magie auf alle Anwesenden – sei es Alex, der Junge oder ein Kunde, der gekommen war, um ein Tattoo zu bekommen, aber am Ende zu einer faszinierenden Mahlzeit eingeladen wurde – ausgossen.

Der Junge machte es sich zur Gewohnheit, zur Tür zu stürzen, sobald er die Türglocke hörte, und öffnete sie der interessantesten Mischung an Charakteren, die er je gesehen hatte. Es waren Personen, die gewöhnlich im Einheitsbrei von doofen Gesichtern verschwinden, die Normalität verkündeten, während sie vorgeben, die ganze Nation zu verkörpern, aber nichts weiter als die vulgären Todesmasken einer verfaulten Gesellschaft in ihrer letzten Phase der Zersetzung sind.

„Es geht um eine Gesellschaft im freien Fall. Auf dem Weg nach unten sagt sie sich immer wieder: ,So weit so gut, so weit so gut.’ Aber wichtig ist nicht, wie man fällt. Wichtig ist die Landung. “ Diese wenigen Worte, die er in einem französischen Film aufgeschnappt hatte, den er eines Abends mit Alex und Ping angeschaut hatte, wurden zu seinem Mantra, das ständig in seinem Kopf herumgeisterte. „So weit so gut, so weit so gut“, beruhigte er sich und versuchte, ruhig zu bleiben. Oft öffnete er Männern, selten Frauen, die Tür, die, freiwillig oder nicht, über den Rand der Gesellschaft gefallen waren, die kein Interesse mehr daran hatten, Teil des Hamsterrades zu sein, nach Geldscheinen zu jagen und große Zahlen mit vielen Nullen auf dem Bankkonto anzusammeln oder zu versuchen, prächtige Häuser mit mehr Schlafzimmern als Bewohnern zu kaufen. Es waren diejenigen, die das Gesetz wie Vampire mieden, die tagsüber scheu sind, diejenigen, die von ihrer täglichen Drogenstimulation abhingen, um mit allem fertig zu werden, und diejenigen, die gerade nach Monaten, manchmal Jahren in Gefängnissen freigelassen wurden, wo sie die erstaunlichsten Körperfarben erhielten, oft selbstgemacht oder von anderen Insassen gemacht. Prostituierte, Schriftsteller, Künstler, Liebespaare, die Herzmotive mit dem eingearbeiteten Namen ihres oder ihrer Lieben wollten, und gelegentlich sogar ein Seemann aus einem weit entfernten Hafen wurden vor der winzigen Wohnung angeschwemmt und holten sich ein weiteres Tattoo für ihren eingefärbten Körperanzug.

Bald wurde es für den Jungen zu einer Routine, auch die seltsamsten Besucher in der Höhle des Meisters zu begrüßen und sie in die Küche zu führen, wo man schweigen musste, um den Drachen nicht zu stören, dessen ruhiges Atmen von einem unheimlichen, höchst süchtig machenden, durchdringenden Klang der schnellen, präzisen Bewegung der Nadeln begleitet wurde, die Schönheit und Schmerzen zugleich darstellten. Ein kleiner Tisch war für bescheidene Bewunderer, neue Anhänger oder bereits Hardcoresüchtige der Körperkunst daneben gestellt worden, damit sie einfache Anweisungen in gedämpfter Stimme von dem Jungen erhalten können, der das viel besser machte als Ping, deren Sprachgebrauch allerhöchstens eine bizarre, unerklärliche Form von Thai war, vermischt mit einigen englisch klingenden Wörtern, die fast den Anschein hatten, als ob sie zufällig aus einer Enzyklopädie herausgerissen worden wären.

Nachdem das Wesentliche mit den Kunden geklärt war und sie über die allgemeinen Regeln, Stundensätze und die Wartezeit, die nie weniger als ein paar Monate betrug, informiert worden waren, gab er ihnen eine große Mappe mit Hunderten von Fotos von Tattoo-Kunstwerken des Meisters, den Ping zusammengestellt hatte. Dieser war nach Motiven sortiert und mit winzigen bunten Stickern verziert, was Alex nur mit dem Hochziehen seiner Augenbrauen, einem gepressten Lächeln und dem Hin- und Herwackeln seines Kopfes kommentierte. Der Junge schrieb alle Details zu den Kundenwünschen in ein kleines Notizbuch, markierte die gewünschte Stelle und die Größe des Designs auf einer fotokopierten Silhouette einer menschlichen Figur und rief dann Ping, um einen Termin für eine kostenpflichtige Beratung mit dem Master auszumachen, in der Regel eine Stunde bevor Alex mit seiner täglichen Tätowierungsarbeit begann. Jedes Design, das der Meister machte, war einzigartig. Während er mit den Kandidaten sprach, etwas über ihre Lebensgeschichte erfuhr und sie nach ihren Gründen fragte, eine Tätowierung zu bekommen, nahm er sein Skizzenbuch heraus und begann, ein paar Bleistiftstriche auf das weiße Papier zu bringen, wobei er nur kurz aufschaute, um einen Blick in die Augen der Kunden zu werfen und tief in ihre Seelen einzudringen. Während dieser ganzen Zeit saß der Junge bewegungslos da, mit seinen Augen starr den schnellen Bewegungen des Bleistifts folgend, deren Linien sich zu Drachen, Totenköpfen, Rosen oder manchmal surrealen Kompositionen zu formen begannen, die direkt aus den Tiefen des vereinigten Bewusstseins von Meister und Lehrling kamen.

Bei den höchst intrinsischen und feinen Muster, die auf Papier fix festgehalten und dennoch mit einer dynamischen Energie durchtränkt waren, hatte man das Gefühl, als ob sie sich jeden Moment von der Seite lösen und herausspringen und zu ihren eigenen Rhythmen tanzen wollten, die im Notizbuch des Meisters entstanden waren. Immer mehr Teile wurden hinzugefügt, leere Stellen wurden schattiert, Umrisse wurden immer wieder in unzähligen Kreativitätsebenen gezogen … keine Linie wurde jemals gelöscht und plötzlich kam alles zusammen. Ein Entwurf war entstanden, auf Papier ersonnen, wenn sich Genialität mit unbändiger Kreativität gepaart hatte. Es kam nicht ein einziges Mal vor, dass ein Kunde das Design, das Alex hingekritzelt hatte, nicht gemocht oder um eine Änderung gebeten hätte; der Meister wurde lediglich angefleht, noch mehr Details hinzuzufügen oder es zu vergrößern, so dass es einen breiteren Teil der Haut bedeckte. Danach wurde Ping gerufen, die das Datum für die Tätowierung ausmachte. Das einzige Mal, als der Junge Alex und Ping streiten sah, war, als sie mehr Zeit mit ihrem Mann verbringen wollte. Der Meister war besessen und hätte auch das Wochenende mit Tätowieren verbracht, wenn Ping es nicht verhindert hätte, indem sie diese Tage mit einem großen roten X auf ihrem Kalender durchstrich.

Die Monate vergingen, und der Junge gewann Ping und Alex sehr lieb. Er wurde Teil ihrer kleinen Familie und übernahm Aufgaben im Haushalt. Er begleitete Ping oft zum Obst- und Gemüsemarkt mit seinen kleinen, exotischen asiatischen Geschäften, die in den Nebenstraßen versteckt waren, wo sie auf der Suche nach den ungewöhnlichsten Zutaten waren, von Yum-Wurzeln bis hin zu Ginseng, ihre Nase in scharfe Kräuter steckten und ihre besonderen Aromen genossen, manchmal einen getrockneten Pilz probierten oder die Challenge einer Ladenbesitzerin annahmen, dass ihre Chilis die stärksten auf dem ganzen Markt seien, indem sie in eine hineinbissen und ihre starke Würzigkeit alle Sinne überwältigen ließen.

Die Mutter des Jungen nahm sich niemals die Zeit zum Kochen. Für sie war das nur eine lästige Pflicht, die sie so schnell und mit so wenig Aufwand wie möglich hinter sich bringen wollte. Die meisten Mahlzeiten, die sie zubereitete, kamen entweder aus der Mikrowelle oder waren irgendwelche herkömmlichen Fertiggerichte wie Nudeln, Schweine- oder manchmal auch Rindsschnitzel, die sie in kochendem Wasser kochte, bis sie die Konsistenz eines alten Schuhs hatten. Abgesehen von einem Salzstreuer und einer alten Pfeffermühle, die auf dem Küchentisch Staub sammelten, gab es keine Gewürze im ganzen Haus – ein starker Kontrast zu Pings Küche, die voller exotischer Gewürzen und Kräuter war, die die Küche in eine Wolke sich ergänzender Düfte hüllte.

Wochen vergingen, bis der Meister den Jungen bat, ihm einige Desinfektionsmittelpads zu reichen oder ihm zu helfen, zur Vorbereitung auf die Tätowierung die Brust oder den Arm eines Kunden zu rasieren. Eines Tages während eines Lebensmitteleinkaufs sagte Ping zu ihm, dass Alex sie gebeten hatte, ein großes Stück Schweinebauch zu kaufen, was recht ungewöhnlich war, da er niemals Wünsche zum Essen äußerte und ihm jedes Essen, das sie kochte, vorzüglich schmeckte. Doch heute wollte er, dass sie ein großes Stück Schweinebauch kaufte, nicht zerhackt, sondern an einem Stück. Sie kauften das Fleisch beim Fleischhauer und Ping reichte es dem Jungen, wobei sie ihre Nase angewidert rümpfte. „Du trägst Schweinebauch, igitt“, sagte sie und reichte ihm die Tasche. Als sie wieder in der Wohnung waren und der Junge gerade im Begriff war, den Einkauf wegzuräumen, sagte Alex, der gerade einen Kunden tätowierte, zu dem Jungen, dass er das Schweinefleisch nicht in den Kühlschrank legen, sondern es auf den Tisch liegen lassen solle. Ping kommentierte: „Jetzt er dong dong“, bevor sie in ihrem Zimmer verschwand.

Als der Kunde gegangen war, begann der Junge mit der Reinigung, eine tägliche Routine, die er gerne machte. Er zerlegte die Tattoopistole, desinfizierte alle ihre Teile, entsorgte die verwendeten Nadeln auf sichere Art und wollte gerade das elektrische Fußpedal wegräumen, als Alex einschritt und ihn bat, sich hinzusetzen. Mit einem platschenden, wabbeligen Ton landete das schwere Stück Schweinebauch vor dem Jungen.

„Hol das alte Tätowiergerät heraus und lade es auf“, sagte er. Der Junge zögerte, weil er seinen Ohren nicht glaubte.

„Worauf wartest du?“, grunzte Alex. Der Junge sprang auf, lief hinüber zum Schrank, wo er nach einigem Suchen Alex’ erstes Tätowiergerät fand, das er zum Tisch trug und zusammenbaute. Er schloss die beiden Elektrizitätsklammern an, kontrollierte noch einmal, ob sie eh richtig gepolt waren, und richtete das Fußpedal aus. Als er die Tattoomaschine zum ersten Mal in seinen Händen hielt, war er überrascht, wie schwerfällig und unbeholfen sie sich anfühlte. Er musste sich ziemlich anstrengen, sie in seinen kleinen Händen richtig zu positionieren, damit er einen festen Griff hatte und trotzdem noch flexibel genug ist, um die Nadeln genau zu bewegen. Alex rieb Vaseline auf den Schweinebauch und drückte dann ein Papier, auf das er ein paar einfache Muster gezeichnet hatte, dagegen, rieb es vorsichtig daran, damit das Design auf die Fleischoberfläche übertragen wurde.

„Bitteschön, Kind“, sagte er. „Beginne mit dem Zeichnen der Umrisse, die Schattierung zeige ich dir später.“

Von da an nahm der Junge jeden Tag Unterricht in Tätowierung und besuchte den Fleischhauer so oft, dass dieser sich über den seltsamen Jungen zu wundern begann, der immer ein großes Stück Schweinebauch kaufte, das nicht geschnitten, sondern an einem Stück sein musste. Sogar Ping fing an sich zu beschweren, da ihr langsam die Schweinebauch-Rezepte ausgingen, und zeigte oft auf Alex’ wachsenden Bauch mit der sarkastischen Bemerkung, dieser gleiche mehr und mehr einer „Muh“. Alex schenkte dem Jungen einen Notizblock, der zu seinem meistgeschätzten Besitz wurde. Er trug ihn ständig mit sich herum und füllte ihn mit Ideen, Resten und Designs für immer schwierigere Muster und Tattoodesigns. Der Meister war ein sehr kritischer und strenger Lehrer, der oft über seine Arbeit schimpfte und selbst die kleinsten Fehler fand, aber seine barschen Bemerkungen immer durch viele Informationen ergänzte, so dass sich die Fähigkeiten des Jungen in nur wenigen Wochen deutlich verbesserten. Ungeduldig begann der Junge, Alex immer öfter mit der Frage zu nerven, wann er endlich ein einfaches Design auf seinen Arm tätowieren dürfe, was Alex kategorisch verweigerte. „Es ist noch nicht so weit, Kind. Noch nicht“, erinnerte er ihn.

Es war während einer langweiligen Mathestunde, die sich ewig hinzog, dass der Junge einen Zirkel zur Hand nahm und ihn durch eine runde Tintenpatrone mit blauer Tinte stach, die er aus seinem Füller herausgenommen hatte. Seine Hände hielten den Zirkel wie eine leichte Tattoopistole. Wie in Trance drückte er seinen Unterarm gegen den Schreibtisch, so dass die Haut leicht gespannt war, und trieb die Nadel tief in seine Haut. Er tauchte die Nadel oft in die Tinte und nach kurzer Zeit wurde eine kleine, dünne Linie sichtbar. Da er wusste, dass er mit diesen primitiven Werkzeugen nur sehr einfache Entwürfe machen konnte, stach er mit der Nadel weiter in sein Fleisch, bis die Zahl „23“ auf seinem Unterarm deutlich sichtbar wurde. Als er sich gerade an den Feinschliff machen wollte – denn die obere Kurve auf der „2“ musste noch verbessert werden – wurde ihm der Zirkel plötzlich gewaltsam aus seiner Hand gerissen.

Auf einmal türmte sich Frau Bartl, die Mathematiklehrerin, über ihm auf wie ein tödlicher Cyborg. Den beschlagnahmten Beweis für die angebliche kriminelle Handlung hielt sie mit einer Hand fest umklammert, während ihr anderer Arm axiomatisch nach seinem Handgelenk griff und es fest auf den Schreibtisch presste, um zu verhindern, dass der Junge vom Tatort flieht.

„Was zum Geier denkst du, dass du da machst, Junge?“ Ihre schrille Roboterstimme klang wie das kreischende, qualvolle Gequietsche des Stahls von den Bremsen und Rädern eines überladenen Berggüterzuges, der zu einer Notbremsung gezwungen wurde.

„Das wird schlimme Konsequenzen haben“, fügte sie hinzu. Sie zog ihn von seinem Stuhl auf und zerrte ihn an seinem Handgelenk wie eine Siegesbeute, während sie mit hoher Geschwindigkeit aus dem Klassenzimmer und in Richtung des Schulleiterbüros abdampfte.

Der dunkelbraune Eichenschreibtisch des Schulleiters füllte fast das ganze Büro und keuchte unter seiner eigenen Mächtigkeit und seinem Gewicht. Er hatte vier kleine Holzstümpfe auf der Unterseite, die das einzige Merkmal waren, das ihn von einer ganz normalen Holzkiste unterschied. Ein rundes, fettes Gesicht mit winzigen dunklen Punkten als Augen und einer Nase, die wie ein Hammer geformt war, hob sich kaum von der dunklen Oberfläche des Schreibtisches ab. Am Ende eines Arms war ein Kreuz, das er in einem seltsamen Winkel hielt, damit es aufrecht schien und es fast den Anschein hätte, als ob es auf dem Schreibtisch stehen würde, während der andere Arm, der auf den Jungen zeigte, überraschend dünn und gelenkig war und ständig unruhige Bewegungen machte.

Fräulein Bartl präsentierte den beschlagnahmten Zirkel und eine halbleere, mit Löchern übersäte Patrone, dem mächtigen Rektor, der die Gegenstände mit einem Grunzen zur Kenntnis nahm. Sie fing an, ihre Aussage zu machen, in der sie darauf hinwies, dass der Junge in der Vergangenheit immer ein Unruhestifter gewesen war, aber dass dieser Akt der Selbstverstümmelung während ihrer Mathestunde solch ein unverschämtes Verhalten war, dass es streng bestraft werden müsste. Auf einmal riss sie den Arm des Jungen – den sie noch immer in einem engen, skelettartigen Handgelenk-Fingerschloss umschlossen hielt – nach vorne, wo die Ameisenaugen des Rektors über die frisch eingefärbte „23“ nachzugrübeln und jeden Zentimeter in jeder Richtung sorgfältig zu untersuchen begannen, was dem Jungen ein unangenehmes Kitzeln bescherte.

Als die Ameisen-Untersuchungsaktion keine Ergebnisse in Bezug auf die Bedeutung der Zahl „23“ lieferte, warf der Rektor Fräulein Bartl einen strengen Blick zu, der sie für einen Augenblick unterwürfig vor ihm kriechen ließ, bevor sie wieder ihre verklemmte, beherrschte Körperhaltung annahm.

„Schüler, warum hast du diese Nummer in deinen Arm gekratzt?“

Der Junge schwieg, denn er wusste nicht, was man auf  eine so dumme Frage antworten sollte.

„Schüler, antworte!“, wiederholte sie mit einer Stimme, die scharf wie ein Messer war.

„Ich … ich … kann es Ihnen nicht sagen … es ist ein Code … Sie würden es nicht verstehen“, antwortete der Junge.

„Ein Code … eine Nummer … vielleicht eine Telefonnummer“, vermutete die Mathematiklehrerin laut, bevor sie zu dem Schluss kam, dass die einzige vernünftige Erklärung für „23“, wie für jede Zahl, die auf ein Körperteil geschrieben werden soll, wenn auch in den meisten Fällen nur vorübergehend, nur die sein kann, dass es die ersten Ziffern einer Telefonnummer sind, die für die Person wichtig ist und aufgeschrieben werden muss, bevor man sie vergisst.

„Wessen Telefonnummer hast du auf deinen Körper gekratzt, Schüler?“ Ihre Stimme war wie zwei aufgeladenen Schlangen mit hocherhobenen Köpfen, die sich um den Arm des Jungen schlangen und in sein Gesicht zischten.

„Aber … es ist … keine Telefonnummer“, sagte der Junge. „Es ist ein Code.“

„Ein Code? Was für ein Code? “ Die Lehrerin setzte die Vernehmung unter den winzigen dunklen Augen des Rektors fort, die in ihre Löcher zurückgekehrt waren.

„Illuminatus!“, versuchte der Junge zu erklären. „Es ist ein Buch, in dem es über die geheime Bedeutung der Nummer 23 geht. Sie sollten es lesen!“, fügte er fast begeistert hinzu.

Die verwirrten Augen des Rektors lauerten aus der Dunkelheit der Eichenoberfläche des Schreibtisches, außerstande, die Tatsache zu begreifen, dass jemand Bezug auf ein  ihm unbekanntes Buch genommen hatte.

„Ist dieses Buch auf der offiziellen Schülerleseliste?“, wandte er sich mit seiner dunklen Stimme an Frau Bartl.

„Natürlich nicht!“, antwortete Frau Bartl. „Das Schulkomitee würde niemals ein Buch billigen, das dazu führt, dass die Schüler dazu veranlassen würde, sich selbst zu verstümmeln.“

Sich dem Jungen zuwendend, fragte sie weiter: „Woher hast du dieses subversive Buch?“

„Man kann es aus dem Internet herunterziehen …“, versuchte der Junge zu erklären, bevor er unterbrochen wurde.

„Also ist dieses ,Illuminatus’ eine illegale Raumkopie?“, schloss die Lehrerin.

„Nein … ich meine … ich bin sicher, dass man es auch online kaufen kann, aber mein Vater gibt mir keine Kreditkarte.“

„Ich denke nicht, dass wir noch irgendeine weitere Erklärung brauchen.“

Damit beendete Frau Bartl ihr Plädoyer und wandte sich an den Rektor: „Ich fordere die strengste Form der Strafe für diese kriminellen Handlungen.“

„Hast du etwas hinzuzufügen, Schüler?“, wandte sich die schreckliche Stimme des Rektors an den Jungen.

Da er wusste, dass es keine Möglichkeit gab, zu erklären, warum er „23“ als seine erstes Tattoo gewählt hatte, und befürchtete, dass weitere Untersuchungsfragen ihn dazu zwingen könnten, Alex und Ping zu verraten, antwortete der Junge fast unhörbar:

„Nein.“

„In diesem Fall befehle ich dir als Rektor, deinen Körper niemals wieder zu verstümmeln noch andere dazu anzustiften, dasselbe zu tun. Deine Eltern werden sofort informiert und ich werde ihnen raten, medizinische Hilfe zu suchen, um die Markierungen auf deinem Arm zu entfernen. Zu dem Buch, das du illegal erworben hast, gebe ich dir eine strenge Anweisung, es sofort zu zerstören und es nicht wieder zu erwähnen, sonst muss ich es den Behörden melden. Du wirst mit sofortiger Wirkung für eine Woche von der Schule suspendiert. Du darfst jetzt gehen.“

Mit einer triumphierenden Geste drehte Frau Bartl schnell ihren Kopf zu dem Jungen, hob ihre Augenbrauen und forderte ihn auf, das Büro des Schulleiters mit ihr zu verlassen. Der Junge folgte ihr. Er fühlte sich wie ein geschlagener Hund und biss die Zähne zusammen, um zu verhindern, dass sein Zorn ihn übermannen und er die Lehrerin rücklings erwürgen würde. „Nun rufen wir deine Eltern an“, sagte sie auf fast melodische Art und Weise. „Ich bin sicher, dass sie nicht begeistert sein werden.“

Der Junge wurde für eine Woche von der Schule suspendiert, während seine Eltern beschlossen, ihn während dieser Zeit in seinem Zimmer einzusperren. Für den Jungen war dies keine zusätzliche Strafe, denn er war erleichtert, dass er ihre Wutanfälle nicht weiter mit ansehen musste. Das Einzige, was den Jungen traurig machte, war, dass er Alex und Ping eine Weile lang nicht besuchen konnte. Zum Glück hatten seine Eltern seinen Notizblock mit den Entwürfen, das er unter dem Bett versteckt hatte, nicht gefunden.

Gleich nachdem seine Strafe aufgehoben worden war, ging er zu Alex und Ping, denen er über bei einem Glas Mate den ganzen Vorfall erzählte. Alex hörte sich alles schweigend an, während Ping etwas in Thai murmelte, das niemand außer ihr verstehen konnte, das sich aber anhörte, als ob sie alle schlechten Lehrer, Schulleiter und bösen Eltern auf diesem Planeten verfluchte.

Der Junge nahm seine Nachmittage am Tattoo-Tempel wieder auf und bald kehrte das Glück wieder zu dem Jungen zurück. Eines Tages kam der Junge zwei Stunden früher als üblich – er hatte nämlich die Unterrichtsstunden geschwänzt, die er so unerträglich langweilig fand – und traf Alex mit seinem Notizblock vor sich an, obwohl kein Kunde in Sicht war.

Er wollte Alex nicht stören, der sehr konzentriert und in seine Arbeit vertieft zu sein schien, und setzte sich daher einfach neben ihn. Dennoch war er neugierig. Als er auf den Notizblock spähte, sah er ein Bild von einem wunderschönen Drachen, der ein seltsames Symbol, das wie ein dreifaches Yin Yang aussah, was er noch nie zuvor gesehen hatte. Der Drache hatte einen freundlichen Blick und drückte Kraft und Stärke aus. Es war ein junger Drache voller Energie, Neugier und Eifer, seine Flügel auszubreiten und die Welt zu erkunden. Der Stift hörte auf zu zeichnen, Alex blickte auf und ihre Augen trafen sich, was ihm wie eine Ewigkeit vorkam.

„Sag es niemandem, Kind …“, sagte der Meister.

„Oh wow, wow, es ist so schön“, japste der Junge. „Ich danke dir sehr.“

Genau in diesem Moment kam Ping in die Küche. Der Junge sprang von seinem Stuhl auf und warf die Arme um sie herum und hielt sie an der Taille und wirbelte sie voller unbändiger Freude in der Küche herum.

„Es ist so weit …“ sagte der Jaguar. „Es ist Zeit für deine Einweihung, du bist bereit.“

Ping, die immer noch von ihrem spontanen Tanz mit dem Jungen zitterte, kritzelte in ihrem Terminkalender herum und legte den nächsten Samstag, einen Tag, der normalerweise für sie und Alex reserviert war, als Tag für die Einweihung fest. Sie kreiste ihn mit ihrem geliebten Hello-Kitty-Stift ein.

Am Freitagabend war der Junge so aufgeregt, dass er nicht schlafen konnte. Endlich würde er sein erstes echtes Tattoo bekommen, etwas, worauf er seit Monaten gewartet hatte. Alex hatte ihm eine Kopie des Entwurfs gegeben, den er nun in seiner Hand hielt und die Umrisse seines Drachen streichelte und sich dabei vorstellte, wie der Meister ihn tätowieren würde. Die Aufregung, die schnellen Nadeln zu spüren, die süßen Schmerzen, die seine Haut durchdringen, sie mit Farbe tränken, der Klang, den die Tattoopistole von sich gab … der Junge glitt in einen tiefen Schlaf.

Am Samstagmorgen sprang der Junge aus dem Bett, duschte sich schnell und rannte zur Wohnung von Alex und Ping. Er war fast zwei Stunden zu früh, als er an der Tür klingelte. Sie wurde von einer sehr schläfrigen Ping geöffnet, die er aufgeweckt hatte.

„Du zu früh. Ping geht wieder ins Bett“, murmelte sie vor sich hin.

Der Junge stürzte durch den Flur vorbei am Bad, wo er Alex duschen  hörte. In der Küche richtete er das Wasser für den Mate-Tee her, den ein überraschter Alex dampfend auf dem Tisch vorfand. Er war gut gelaunt und lächelte den Jungen sanft an.

„Heute ist ein wichtiger Tag für dich“, sagte der Jaguar. „Heute trittst du in eine neue Welt ein. Du bist schon seit vielen Monaten ein guter Schüler und jetzt bist du bereit für deine Einführung.“

Ping, die nicht wieder ins Bett gegangen war, kam in die Küche, nahm die Mate-Schale im Austausch für einen Morgenkuss aus Alex’ Hand und betrachtete den Drachendesignentwurf, den Alex erst am Vorabend fertiggemacht hatte. Er sah großartig aus.

„Mangon!“, rief sie plötzlich.

„Mangon“, wiederholte sie und sah den Jungen mit scharfen, aufmerksamen Augen an, die tief in die Tiefen seiner Seele durchdrangen.

Da ihr Ausbruch keine Reaktion hervorzurufen schien, zeigte sie mit ihren dünnen Fingern auf den Drachenentwurf auf dem Küchentisch und sagte: „Jetzt bist du Mangonjunge … der Drachenjunge.“

Das Gesicht des Jungen, der jetzt Mangon war, leuchtete auf und er wiederholte den Namen ein paar Mal, wobei er dessen Klang genoss.

„Mang-o-n“, wiederholte er langsam den Klang seines neuen Namens.

„Ja, ich bin Mangon, ich bin der Drachenjunge“, rief er, sprang von seinem Stuhl auf, zog sein Hemd aus und wirbelte es über den Kopf, während er auf eigenartige Weise durch die Küche tanzte. „Ich bin Mangon, Mangon, der mächtige Drache, Mangon!!“, schrie er laut, was Alex zum Lachen und Ping zu hysterischem Kichern veranlasste.

Es dauerte fünf Stunden, um den Drachen auf seinen Rücken zu tätowieren, was schmerzhafter war, als es sich Mangon vorgestellt hatte, aber er genoss jeden Moment seiner Einweihung. Als das Tattoo fertig und die Haut gereinigt und desinfiziert war, erhob sich der Junge schließlich vom Stuhl und zum ersten Mal in seinem Leben fühlte er, etwas großartiges und wichtiges getan zu haben.

„Sei unerschütterlich wie ein Drache“, sagte Alex.

„Das werde ich immer sein“, antwortete Mangon.

Von Fluss-Tanten-Aerschen

Das triste Dämmerlicht eines hinter den niedrigen Hügelketten Pittsburghs aufgehenden, bleichen Mondes, taucht die alte Eisenbahnbrücke in das gespenstisch dunkle Rot getrockneten Blutes und wandelt den trägen, zwischen Pennsylvania und West Virginia dahinfließenden Monongahela, mit seinen ausgebeulten, tief ins Land gefressenen Venen, in schwarzes, tödliches Gift.

Jeder, der jemals von diesem 130-Meilen-Fluss gehört hat, nennt ihn einfach nur “Der Mon”, ohne sich um seine sechsundzwanzig Indianernamen zu scheren, welche vom französisch klingenden „Malangueulé“, über die verschiedensten Schreibweisen, von „Meh-non-au-au-ge-hel-al“ und „Mo-hong-gey-e-la“, zu schmucklosen, wie „Monna“ oder „Muddy River“ reichen. Sie bedeuten entweder „ein ältliches, sich, auflösendes Flussufer“ oder „ein bejahrter, vom Schmutz ausgehöhlter Fluss“ oder „ein alter Fluss, der seinen eigenen Dreck verliert“, was, in Mangon’s grasgeschwängertem Gehirn, das kotzelende Bild eines alten, von Inkontinenz geplagten, Fluss-Tanten-Arsches, heraufbeschwört.

The Ghost in the Tree

                ghosttree

Nicky’s face plunges back into its bleak hiding place between his knees rendering his answer inaudible to the ghost whose ectoplasmic body stretches a tad too much causing it to fall off the overhanging branch, a super-sized blob hitting the boys like a brisk cold gush of sticky musky mist and covering them—from head to toe— in ghost.

Tibetan Madness

spiti

The rattling old bus arrives in Kaza laden with Mangon, local villagers and a handful of young backpackers seeking the thrill of experiencing breathlessness on the high mountain passes, which brought them for the first time in their lives into heights above 5000 meters in a barren treeless mountain wretched valley spiked with dangerous narrow curves dropping off hundreds of meters to a wild glacier river. The barren and treeless mountain, reaching over 5000 meters, has a valley spiked with dangerous, narrow curves that drop off hundreds of meters to a wild glacier river.

They all share a vision of Tibet, a love for the mystical country hidden in between the highest mountains of the world, a country whose existence was basically unknown to the west until Heinrich Harrer wrote down his account of Seven Years in Tibet. Most of the young teenagers on the dangerous roller coaster ride through the high mountains only saw the movie, starring Brad Pitt, but Mangon, when he was just thirteen, had stumbled upon this book in a second hand book store. He had read it over and over again, each time fueling anew his passion to experience the mystery of Tibet. Throughout his teenage years he daydreamed of meeting enlightened lamas, drinking rancid butter tea with lone traders who crossed the remote areas with their yaks, eating momos and thukpa, listening to stories of yetis, high lamas or mystical men who meditated for years in caves high up the mountain, only coming down the mountain to receive a bag of rice or wheat from villagers who revered them as holy beings.

Mangon’s plan is to venture deep into Spiti Valley, where only a few settlements consisting of simple stone and mud homes, clustered around small monasteries, seemingly untouched by the modern world for hundreds of years, lay dormant for most of the year as travel is only possible during the brief summer when the only road is not blocked by meters of snow and ice. Spiti valley lies in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh which forms a border with Tibet and is surrounded on all sides by the soaring ramparts of the Himalayas forming a remote, high altitude, cold desert region of sheer cliffs and barren slopes. There are plunging gorges and towering ridges, created by layer after layer of ancient twisted rock, which the force of the continental drift has pushed up and whose ocean floor now forms the roof of the world.

The highest, frozen summits pierce into a brilliant, deep blue sky. The sky, rarely blessed with rainclouds as India’s life-giving monsoons cannot surmount the solid mountain barrier of this valley. Winter sees a meter or two of snow, a source of water, during spring and summer-time which villagers use to irrigate the patchwork of tiny, yak-ploughed fields perched on the narrow strips of fertile land which the river has spit out. Snow may lie on the fields for six or even seven months a year making the survival of the 10,000 inhabitants of the valley every day a tough challenge.

The monasteries and the small communities around them largely depend on supplies and tourists which come through only during the few months of the year when the winter deity lets the valley out of its fierce grip. They come on the only road which runs from Manali over the scenic, almost 4,000 meters high, Rohtang Pass all along the Jammu and Kashmir border. Then, turning south to rub shoulders for a few kilometres with Tibet, it bends westward again towards Shimla, another popular tourist hill station.

As no tree can survive in this rough desert climate, dried yak dung remains the main source of fuel for cooking and for heating the medieval looking stone houses during winters when temperatures drop down to -35 degree Celsius. Cut off by nature with great mountain barriers and by long winters that disrupt road traffic, Spiti became even more isolated when its close ties with Tibet were suddenly snapped by the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1959.

The remoteness and barrenness of this mysterious high mountain valley shielded it from the world and protected it from the Chinese communists who, on Mao’s orders to eradicate all religions in China, sent out their mighty armies who swapped over Tibet like a tsunami destroying every monastery in its wake, killing or abducting thousands of monks, forcing the Dalai Lama to flee to India and destroying in just a decade a thousand-year-old Tibetan anachronistic traditional society which embraced in its core the values of Buddha’s teachings. India restricted access to Spiti Valley until 1992 due to its proximity of the adjoining border to China. This isolation left Spiti undisturbed for centuries, a hidden spiritual Shangri-La which economically was still stuck in the middle ages.

Travelling by bus into the remote Spiti Valley, where he wants to visit the ancient Tabo and Key monasteries would be the closest Mangon could get to fulfil his childhood dream of experiencing life in Tibet. For years he fantasised about the moment he would spot his first yak and see Buddhist monks dressed in red robes chanting prayers of the sacred Tibetan mantra OM MANI PADME HUM, during the early morning prayers in Tibetan stone and mud temples, built a thousand years ago withstanding almost undisturbed the test of time.

Kaza, a tiny village with 3200 inhabitants and only a few guesthouses, is the first stop on his way into the valley, after a gruelling two hundred kilometres long bus journey from the relative comfort of Manali, where he had stocked up on food and traded his watch for a pair of old mountain boots and a thick sheep skin jacket to keep him warm in case winter decided to cut the summer season short, which could happen any day during this time of the year. When word reached Kaza that the main steel bridge had collapsed during last night’s heavy rainfall, cutting off the rest of the valley from the outside world, making Kaza the end of his journey, Mangon was determined not to give up his lifelong dream.

While other travellers enjoyed a few days in one of the tiny but overpriced guesthouses sitting together in one of the few restaurants of the village, complaining over the missed opportunity of having experienced almost the “real Tibet,” before altering their travel plans to leave on the first bus back to India where they will continue to freak out monks, invade ashrams of Indian gurus, smoke joints in every lassi shop they can find  or dance to the psychedelic Goa rave tunes in the backwaters of Kerala and Goa.

All those things are not the reason why Mangon came to India. He is determined to continue to follow an inner voice which kept telling him to keep on looking for something he couldn’t even put into words.

A kind of inner peace, clarification about who he really is and an answer to the same question he had asked himself since he was a young boy: “What is the meaning of my life?” He had crossed South America from Mexico into Patagonia in the south, following the long curved spine of the Andes, through jungles, highlands and desert, but was unable to find an answer to his question. Deep inside Mangon felt that he must go to India, the cradle of spirituality in the world and seek out wise men and women who had realised what they preached. He read countless spiritual books and absorbed many often contradicting teachings and world views of gurus, babas, ascets and other holy men of ancient times. He knew that he needed to find a teacher, one who was enlightened, one who had realised the true nature of reality and who was able to teach his disciples.

He is ready to exchange the wild rough life he had led in South America, where drinking, smoking weed or snorting cocaine until sunrise became his daily ritual, in order not to think too much, get mad and kill everyone with his machete in a dark night; where he travelled from country to country, always on the search for shamans and medicine men who would take him on journeys into the realms of their forefathers, calling upon spirits and ghosts during holy peyote, san pedro, or mescaline ceremonies; where he was high on magic mushrooms or went far, far away on Ayahuasca trips which sometimes lasted for days, lifting him up after having been able to peer into a world so unknown and so bizarre, before crashing and ravaging his body, which already looked much more worn than the twenty three years it had survived until now.

Mangon shaved off his wild mohican hair and left it back in a dirty sink in a Delhi guesthouse. He had also traded his old leather jacket for a lunghi, a couple of t-shirts and a second hand backpack with a filthy and happy Kashmiri seller, who spread out his merchandise, consisting of dirty and used cloths and a few torn and outdated travel guides directly on the dusty road near Palika Basar.

After Mangon’s plane touched down in the hot and incredibly poor and filthy, but buzzing capital city of Delhi, many young backpackers came together in one of the run down guesthouses in the Pahar Ganj area, which absorbed most of the budget travellers coming into the city with little money but a firm determination to “do the Great India thing” which was to cross the entire Indian sub-continent on as little as possible during their two months of summer holidays before returning into the safety of their expensive dormitories on university campuses. They would brag then to their fellow student friends about the dangers they had survived in that wild and strange country. Almost all of them were struck down by the immense heat of an Indian summer, a boring fact which they had skipped over in the introductory section of their lonely planet India guidebooks, eager to discover where India’s best beaches, craziest babas and wildest parties could be found instead. Many decided to beat the heat by escaping to the highlands in the north, to Manali, McLeod Ganj or Dharmsala where his holiness the Dalai Lama took refuge after he had to flee from Chinese Communists in 1959. There they would spend their days sightseeing in numerous newly constructed Tibetan Buddhist temples, battling hordes of tour guide vultures who would talk them into expensive trips to remote destinations in Ladakh and Kashmir, promising the “real” Tibetan feeling, which they claimed could not be found anywhere else on the Indian sub-continent other than in the destination they were able to offer.

Dharmsala is comfortable, a place where western travellers would sit for hours in darkness on old wooden chairs, glued to the latest Hollywood blockbusters on bad quality pirated DVD’s from China, consumed on big screen TV’s which were hauled all the way from Delhi and which were hooked up with a cranky stereo, running on a generator during the daily power cut times.

When waves of hippies flooded to India from the west, they created this unique vision of an India with all its superficial stereotypes which are still repeated in many books and movie plots today. Today plane loads of young middle class teens, mostly couples or group of best friends arrive to India, shedding off their designer jeans and expensive sneakers, forgetting about their university studies for a few weeks, and happy to have escaped the safetyof their parent’s home for the first time in their lives. They would dress up in colourful clothes rich with psychedelic patterns, Indian saris or wide fishermen trousers and the crucial pair of sandals. For the first time in their lives the guys tried to grow beards while their girlfriends had their shiny hair braided, hoping it would turn into a genuine rastafarai look by refusing shampoo and soap.

Many come to India just to get stoned, be high on marijuana or the best dope from Manili. Where they would hang around all day in teashops, drinking chai, (the local much too sweet milk tea), reading books about spirituality, kundalini yoga and or autobiographies of famous Indian yogis, following the adventures of Madame Blavatsky and her encounters with powerful mystical Tibetan lamas who knew the secret location of Shangri-La, instead of hitting the hot dust and dirt roads of rural India to see for themselves if the new world they had discovered in their books was fiction or reality.

Mangon met those excitement hoppers, those holiday adventurers, backpackers on their trip of a lifetime, lasting a mere few weeks, on the rooftop restaurant of the simple guesthouse he was staying. Like them, he had just arrived to India a few days ago and was overwhelmed by all the dirt and smell, overcrowded streets, hordes of begging children cluttering around the moment one left the security of the cheap guest house, cows with bellies swollen from eating plastic out of overflowing garbage bins in Pahar Ganj and a countless procession of sellers trying to sell badly torn books, carpets advertised as handwoven by their grandmother in Kashmir or, drugs, of whom most were of extremely bad quality and overpriced.

When evening approached and the hot sun descended, allowing Delhi a brief break from the intense heat for a few short hours, Mangon sat on an old cushion pillow decorated with many tiny mirror fragments, before an old short table onto which travellers had scratched their names and home countries and enjoyed reading the wise talks of Krishnamurthy when a young couple from the UK, asked to join his table. Soon a solo traveller from Japan with his tablet and outfitted from head to toe with expensive gear from a Japanese travel shop asked permission to sit down on the pillow chairs too, followed by a group of three Americans guys, college kids from Oklahoma who had placed a bet with friends back home that they would roam and conquer India and who were now eagerly texting their friends back home, sending them pictures they took earlier this afternoon just outside the guest house.

The kids must have fought heated debates over the dinner table with their parents, when they revealed to them their plan to go on a real adventure, which did not mean borrowing daddy’s car and driving up to Vegas or getting a Eurail pass to explore the culture of Europe. Their children suddenly got the insane idea in their heads to backpack in India during their summer vacation, a sub-continent of which they knew only was overflowing with 1.5 billion of poverty and lepra stricken people. It was time for the kids to prove to their parents and themselves that they had what it takes to stand on their own feet, which were soon covered by expensive hiker boots with money they successfully had managed to extract from their parents.

Witnessing the worn outfit of weathered and experienced looking travellers, a mixture of torn jeans (stiff with filth of thousands of miles of Indian roads) and t-shirts full of burn holes from joints passed around camp fires, they realised immediately upon arrival that their stylish traveller clothes branded them instantly as newcomers, thus making them the preferred target for every street hawker and tour guide they encountered. Within days they spent good money on authentic looking second hand clothes and low quality Indian rags with locally fabricated sandals keeping only their backpacks, laptops and mobile phones as a last security to call Mommy for help in case their Indian adventure turned into an Indian nightmare. “Love it or leave it,” is the unofficial motto for travels to India, and many determined not to give up and be defeated by the strangeness of this immense country, dragging themselves from one big Indian city to the next. Endless hours spent in crappy and dangerous buses with their expensive luggage strapped on the top, train journeys which last not hours but days, coaches crammed with far too many people all sweating and smelling badly in the never-ending hours of a continental heatwave.

Soon complaints about the stink and filthiness of the beggars have caused them, about slimy sellers who tried to drag them into their little cashmere shops where they asked exorbitant prices for some Indian rags, tam tams or a chillum which the Indian babas use to pray to Shiva by getting high, make the rounds at the table, to which Mangon chooses not to contribute. When he lit his pre-rolled joint with the sweet aroma of the blackest and best Manali, which he had bought this afternoon in a dark side street behind a small carpet shop and a local barber, having bargained fiercely with a young dealer who could have not been older than 14 or 15, filled the air on the guesthouse terrace, it was immediately noticed by the three American college kids who look up simultaneously and stare with big eyes and an open mouth at Mangon. They encourage each other with a quick punch with their elbow into the ribs to dare and ask the wild looking stranger to share his joint with them.

“Mind a toke?” the tall, red-haired kid, his delicate white face with freckles sunburned, eagerly asks Mangon.

Mangon looks at him quietly, studies him, tries to guess the world the kid must live in, a world which he had left many years ago. He takes a deep breath and passes the joint on without saying a word.

The three guys began to giggle like school boys while passing the joint in between them, commenting on the good quality and exquisite aroma of the dope, giving away their inexperience by coughing vehemently. The Japanese man politely refuses his turn after confirming with the Americans that it is indeed real marijuana. A sinister and cold stare by his girlfriend makes the British lad pass on the joint too, without having taken a puff, back to Mangon.

“Where ya heading?” the redhead asks.

“Shimla,” Mangon replies, after a while.

“What can one do in Shimla?” the short, chubby one with the thick spectacles inquires.

“Gateway into Spiti Valley,” Mangon answers briefly, not keen on continuing the small talk.

“Never heard of it,” the short one comments, turning to the third, who, wearing a much too tight Yankee University t-shirt, takes out the latest edition of their Lonely Planet India from his leather hand bag.

He searches by alphabet, finds an entry about Spiti Valley and leafs briefly through the introduction.

“Man, that sounds cool!” he exclaims, passing the guide book on to his friends before accepting the offered joint from Mangon.

“Is this where the Dalai Lama lives?” one of them asks.

“Nah, I read he is up in the north, Dharmsala or so,” answers the redhaired boy.

“What ya’ planning to doing there?” he asks Mangon, who doesn’t feel like continuing this interview.

“Nothing,” he gives back.

It has been several years now that Mangon has been constantly on the road, his home in Pittsburgh being only a faraway memory, having turned into a travelling nomad with no place of his own and only one destination: forward. Ten years on the road has made him tough, and has made him forget about his past, which he never mentions to anyone. Sometimes when he thinks back about the time with Nicky, he feels lonely and misses a companion. Other than the occasional dogs he picks up and who travel with him sometimes for weeks, he has had no one. He survived more adventures than those kids in the guesthouse rooftop could ever make up when bragging to their friends. He has looked into the barrel of guns and it was more than once he has taken out his knife (which he always carried hidden under his trousers and strapped to his knee), to show crooks and bandits he encountered that he knew very well how to take care of himself.

He still clings on to his knife despite his intention to avoid any form of violence. Instead of mobile phones and Facebook status updates to stay connected with friends and family back home, the knife is his only lifeline, one in which he has more trust than in anything else. His mission in India is not a simple one for a westerner, an outsider. He wants to learn from the real India with its traditions and religious schools going back thousands of years, with millions and millions of Indians constantly on the search for enlightenment, leaving their families and all their worldly lives behind, to finally understand reality and break through the infinite cruel circle of life and rebirth. Their present incarnation has placed them in India, into a life of poverty and hardships unimaginable to anyone from the west, but still, despite all, most Indians bear their heavy karma with an unexpected lightness and offer a smile at anyone who directs a friendly word or gesture towards them. Many believe that the outside world is just an illusion, a dream from which they hope to awake one day. Daily they worship in complicated ceremonies with their many gods, of which some have the form of an elephant or a monkey, others which look like fierce half humans with eight arms and a mad expression, carrying skulls around their necks, performing a dance on the bodies of the death.

Less than one percent of the 1.5 billion Indians are Buddhists and even fewer follow the teachings of the Dalai Lama, the spiritual head of the Tibetan Buddhists, who fled into exile more than fifty years ago, creating in the far north and south of the Indian continent, small enclaves where they live together in tiny Tibetan villages or study in one of the famous monasteries, rebuilt near Mysore. The Dalai Lama recognises that the dinosaur of Tibetan Buddhism, which was based on a feudalistic system to extort the poor, died when the Chinese invaded his country. He succeeded in the difficult task of giving the Tibetan Buddhism, with its many strange rituals, a PR makeover. Thanks to prominent Buddhists and friends among actors and politicians, soon it was chic to hang up Tibetan thankas and watch videos of his Holiness and meditate together in silence about his words of compassion. Many of the young Tibetans have managed to get a scholarships from schools in the US and Europe where they eagerly study, returning years later not only with a knowledge about the west and a perfect command of English, but also knowing about the attraction their small eyes, slim muscular bodies and distinct Asian faces have on white girls. The next generation, the hope of many Tibetan parents who hope that their cultural identity will survive, is busy chasing young tourist girls in the streets of Dharmsala, convincing them that sex with them is an enriching experience.

In the south, the big and famous three monasteries of Tibet have been rebuilt and house thousands of, more or less, hard studying monks who live secluded from a modern India with its tantalus efforts to rise up from the exploited and backward ravaged country which the British left behind when they left in 1950. Bombay and Bangalore are modern cities by Indian standards and the price of living has skyrocketed, but yet daily millions and millions of poor Indians from all over the country stream to the big cities, whose slums grow by the thousands every day, on trains or buses sleeping on the pavement in front of modern office buildings or in side streets around posh four star hotels, unaffordable dreams for many whose only possession was their lunghi, a piece of dirty cloth, worn around their waist during the day and serving as a blanket at night.

It is this sight of extreme poverty most travellers to India try to avoid at all costs, the moment of being confronted with the reality of the daily fight for survival of India’s poorest, when stepping out of the hotel and being surrounded by a group of begging children in rags who ask them for “country coins,” tearing on their shorts and skirts, indicating with a gesture from the belly to their mouth that they are hungry. Most give a ten rupee note before rushing into the safety of a taxi, and only a few have the dignity to take those kids on their hands and invite them for a meal in a small restaurant or food from a street seller on the road.

With most travellers gone, having taken the last bus out of Spiti Valley back to the relative comfort of travelling in India with its banana pancakes, cheap guesthouses and air-conditioned coaches, Kaza turned into a quiet rural community again, hurled by the sudden destruction of the steel bridge on the only road leading into an early winter sleep which will last a few months. The magic of the valley transformed it into Shangri La, a mystical land roamed by wizards and spirits revered by followers of Bon, an ancient almost pagan form related to early Buddhism.

Its remoteness and inaccessibility for most of the year had protected the Tabo monastery for over thousands of years despite the continuous threat from the Chinese and many other marauders who periodically fell into India.  The monastery is built out of stones and mud, simple ancient walls, and has been continuously repaired and expanded whenever the spare funds allow it. Today more than thirty-five monks study the words of Buddha, debate in the courtyard about different philosophical aspects, and chant and pray in a way which hasn’t changed in hundreds of years.

Mangon had an unstoppable longing to reach Tabo and Key monastery to receive lessons from monks and lamas. Even the risk of becoming trapped in Spiti Valley all winter long with no connection to the outside, was a risk he was willing to take. If no vehicle could cross the damaged bridge, he would balance over the remaining steel skeleton in the river and continue his journey on foot. He estimated that it will take him two full days of walking the forty-five kilometres from Kaza to the Tabo monastery. He traded his watch, a “gift” from one of the street kids in Rio de Janeiro whom he had hung out with for weeks, for an old sleeping bag, a gas cooker with a used pot and some provisions. He purchased a thick sheep wool pullover from a local woman, which was itchy wherever it touched his skin, to keep him warm during winter nights when temperatures dropped far below freezing point. Consulting an old map on the wall of the tiny guesthouse in which he had stayed for a few days, he knew that it was almost impossible to get lost, he simply had to follow the only road which ran sandwiched between Spiti Valley and the Kashmir and Tibetan border to reach the Tabo monastery.

The sun shines bright in the cloudless blue sky, the midday air is fresh but has already warmed up so much that he takes off his pullover and carries it strapped over his small backpack. The stony unpaved road ahead of him lies deserted, quiet in the absence of trucks, buses or Jeeps with tour guides and tourists.

He covers his mouth with a scarf to avoid the fine dust from getting into his lungs, which the wind blows relentlessly into his face. He has walked for five hours already and feels the pain of blisters from the pair of uncomfortable hiker boots which he found left behind by a tourist, but he knows that he has to break them in as sandals will not last long on the sharps rocks on the road.  Mangon decides to take a break, sitting down on his backpack and absorbing the unbelievable beauty of this remote mountain valley which has enchanted him since the moment he laid eyes on it.

In less than one hour, the sun will disappear behind the tall mountains, bare of trees or even shrubs, and darkness will fall over the valley in which an angry river rages, his only companion for his first night under the stars.

He estimates that the Tabo monastery is still about thirty kilometres away and his only way to reach it tomorrow is to rise up early and walk in darkness in the short morning hours before the sun will climb anew over the unusual dry high altitude desert.

For Mangon it feels like he is on a holy pilgrimage, a yatra–voluntarily hardships undertaken by millions of Indians who seek a way for enlightenment. Bloody feet are witness to the determination which makes him set foot after foot ahead of himself, swallowing the pain as a sacrifice to the gods who hopefully will grant him a deeper insight into the mysteries of life when he finally reaches the monastery.

With experience acquired in surviving on jungle treks in South America, he lights a small fire with the little burnable wood he managed to collect during the day and begins to boil rice on the small gas cooker, his only meal today. He takes off his shoes and feels happy and free. In his thoughts he recalls the many stories and adventures he experienced through his long journey which brought him to camp alone under this beautiful night sky at an altitude of over 4000 meters. This is the freedom he found and lives every day but it hasn’t brought him silence or quietness in his mind. This absence of thoughts is the basis to begin to perceive the true reality behind all the appearances. He feels that his life is still lived only on the surface, but that deep inside him is a flame, a fire of aspiration which grows stronger by the day, which calls him to India to find a teacher, who will show him how to look inside, discover a new world within, a world of which he only heard in spiritual books. Mangon read about big Tibetan lamas who possess miracle powers which helps them survive the cold by generating inner heat, about old saddhus with long rasta locks and skin like yellow leather, thin arms and starved bodies, with the ability to sit for hours, unmoved, in a perfect meditation pose, on a small rock in front of their Himalayan mountain cave, their minds still, experiencing oneness with the breath of the whole universe.

He can bear no longer the endless nights which he spends awake in his sleep, tormented by a myriad of thoughts, which seem to come from all sides constantly. When they become too much, he drowns himself in alcohol, cocaine and any other drug he can get his hands on. He feels trapped in a body which he often perceives as only looking to the outside with the eyes of a young child eagerly wanting to explore the world.

There is no happiness in him, no light-headed joy. Life has worn him down, always keeping him on the bare edge of surviving, every day is a struggle to get food, money or just stay alive.

The rice takes a very long time to cook as the high altitude renders the gas cooker almost useless, forcing Mangon to still his hunger with undercooked rice which he eats with just a bit of rock salt he carries with him. He takes out a big piece of dark Manali charras and rolls a joint. The temperature drops quickly after sunset so he crawls into the old sleeping bag, happy he traded it in, despite its stink. Lying on his back, enjoying the sweet aroma of the marijuana flushing through his body, his gaze wanders along the brightest night sky he has seen since hitchhiking through the Atacama desert. “It’s full of stars,” he wonders. That’s where he longs to go, further and further into the infinite. “But wouldn’t it be more of the same life as a nomad, a mere drifter on the surface of a planet?”

Throughout last year he has been moving from place to place, staying only as long as he wanted or until the circumstances forced him to continue his journey into the unknown. He barely works, sometimes he offers to clean a kitchen or wait a few tables for a hot meal and the right to sling his hammock outside of the restaurant for the night. He became an expert drug dealer who sold cocaine, weed or sleeping pills to newly arrived tourists, eager to explore the real South America and the joys of being high on cheap drugs. Mangon knew the dangers for a gringo trying to buy drugs from locals, but as he spoke fluent Spanish and always hung around drug pushers, it was rare that someone tried to roll him. He rented a room in one of the tourist guesthouses mentioned in the Lonely Planet Guide, traded or stole a few good books and sat most of the day in front of his room, reading and getting high. It was obvious to even the greenest gringo that this was a guy who knew about drugs. Every day he was approached by groups of young teenagers from the US or Europe who asked him where to buy the cheapest coke and the best weed. Mangon knew the street corners and dark alleys where he met his suppliers and, when asked, pointed the drug-curious kids in that direction, adding that it might not be a bad idea if they brought their gun with them. Realising in an instant the danger of buying drugs in South America the college teens and newly arrivals would naturally ask him if he wouldn’t have anything to sell them. Mangon always had stock and even he charged fifteen dollars instead of one for a gram of coke, which he had nicely pre-packed in tiny, artfully folded paper envelopes which he kept in between the pages of the book he was currently reading. All of his buyers expressed outrage when they heard his price, but Mangon’s only answer was, “Then go outside and buy the shit yourself.” It was a persuasive argument which they accepted. Most of them only bought one package of coke or good weed, but he knew that they would come back. All he had to do was to sit, read and wait for them.

The small fire he lit from the little wood he managed to find during the day had died out and, with temperatures dropping under the freezing point, Mangon crawled deeper into his sleeping bag, closing it over his head. He knows that he will survive the short night despite the icy temperatures before continuing his walk to the Tabo monastery. Scrunched up in the darkness of the sleeping bag with the hostile surroundings closed off from him, he feels a bit like an embryo, protected in the womb of a mother. It is hard for him to recall now the early years of his childhood which were never a happy one. At one point he just could not bear the life at his parent’s home any longer and he ran away without keeping up any contact.

He knows that he could never possibly go back to a life his parents have envisioned for him, a life in which he would have finished university, would have met a sweet innocent girl, married her and bred kids for his parents to play with whenever they felt like it, spoiling them with sweets and gifts out of guilt for the many cruelties that had inflicted upon him. Mangon never held a steady job nor would receive any pension upon retiring. A life exhausted in front of a TV screen in an obese body, fattened by decades of fast food and worn out by work. He would die with his shoes on, maybe on the side of the road with a body riddled by bullets, shredded by knives or thrown off a train.

Mangon begins to realise that his life up to this point has been an escape, an escape from everything he knew, from his home, family and country, but he never managed to run away fast enough to escape from himself.

Who is he?

He is still the young rebel his parents had witnessed in horror growing up, then he became a vagabond and streetwise. He learned to survive under the harshest conditions, dragging his body along, from country to country, an endless journey without a destination.

He knows that he cannot not run away from himself. He knows that instead of escaping in new adventures and drugs, the time has come for him to face himself, to finally find an answer to the one question he always asks himself.

Soon Mangon drifts off into a deep and short sleep, waking up at five o’clock with his body shivering. He lights the gas stove and makes some tea the way the son of the innkeeper in Kaza taught him, adding a big slice of frozen butter and a bit of salt. This brew will give him the power to walk the rest of the distance, reaching the safety of the monastery before the mountains get angry, a story the villagers told.

After three o’clock in the afternoon the gods don’t want to be disturbed and, to discourage travellers, they rain down rocks onto the road, which often amount to dangerous landslides dragging down vehicles and drowning passengers in the icy river below. Hot air rises up creating an air vacuum which results in strong winds blowing over the valley. Because of these strong winds, they move the loose rocks on the mountain top, and they start to fall down, hitting other stones on their way down until there is a landslide. Mangon does not intend to make the gods angry and begins to pack up his few belongings, put on his hiking boots and continues his way in the darkness towards a slowly rising sun.

A few square mud buildings decorated with Tibetan prayer flags, barely discernible from the rocky ground of the narrow Spiti Valley, appear in the distance and the famous over thousand years old Tabo monastery comes into sight. It is surrounded by the bright green glow of a few fields which the villagers had managed to wrestle from nature during the short summer months, when the valley takes a deep breath of life.

Mangon sits down on a rusty oil barrel with white painted stripes on it, a marker of the edge of the road which drops down dangerously steep to the Spiti river ravaging through the narrow valley and signalling the imminent approach of the Himalayan winter, which will seal the whole area off for months. He stills his thirst with the last water and chews hard on a dried chapati, which he brought with him from Kaza. He watches in silence the majestic Himalayan mountains in front of him extending for hundreds of miles eastwards climbing higher and higher towards Mount Everest whose summit marks the border between Tibet and Nepal.

The sun has already reached the highest point on the zenith when Mangon reaches his destination. Tabo monastery is nothing more than a few stone houses but is the oldest Buddhist monastery in India and an important study centre for young monks. It is the place where His Holiness the Dalai Lama intends to live out his final years in silent meditation. Generations of villagers lived in this small valley the same way they survived hundreds of years ago, isolated from the rest of the world, cut off by road, under deep snow during heavy winters which could last for as long as eight months.

Only one guest house and one overpriced hotel, called Hotel Grand Dewachen, with prices only rich travellers can afford, are the only accommodations in this remote area, but Mangon knows from other travellers that it is possible to stay in the monastery. He hopes to make contact with his first Tibetan monks there, some who have risked the dangerous flight into exile from Tibet.

Mangon finishes his short break and begins to descend towards the village, passing by piles of stones with prayer flags that travellers erect to pray to the gods for a safe passage or to protect their homes from evil spirits. In front of the entrance to the monastery, surrounded entirely by a mud and stone wall, are a few young monks, all boys between six and thirteen, kicking up dust, while chasing after a ragged football. They briefly interrupt their game and stare at Mangon, not expecting the arrival of a tourist after word about the bridge collapse reached the Abbott, who informed the assembly of monks and lamas during their early morning prayer.

A thirteen-year-old monk, dusty and dirty from head to toe, runs over to Mangon and introduces himself as Yeshe. He adjusts his red monk robe, which is flung over and knotted around his waist for the football game, before inviting him inside. They cross several tidy courtyards and duck through low gates, pass old temples whose scarce beige coloured walls hid hundreds of years old Buddhist treasures, walk by the relatively new assembly hall and monk quarters before Yeshe unlocks the bolted door of the tiny monastery guesthouse already closed in anticipation for the coming winter.

“You only tourist,” he informs Mangon in rough English. “You can stay here but pay money or stay my room for free. I like foreign people. I like to learn English better. You help me?”

Mangon did not expect such wonderful hospitality and accepts gladly, immediately feeling that this could be the beginning of a friendship with the young monk in his dirty robes and a head which needs a proper shaving.

“I am happy to stay with you,” he answers.

Yeshe leads him around the back of the monastery where currently thirty-five monks live together in small dormitories or occupy simple single cells, a privilege usually reserved for older students. He proudly opens the small wooden door into a bare room with only a small bed, consisting of only a few wooden planks with a thin bamboo mat and a blue sleeping bag on it on.

“Gift from Canada friend,” Yeshe says, pointing at the sleeping bag. “You sleep on bed, I sleep floor. I don’t mind cold, I am Tibetan!” he exclaims with a broad smile on his face.

Spotting a calendar with the image of his holiness on the wall, Mangon shouts out, “Long live the Dalai Lama!”

“Pssst. Quiet please,” Yeshe advises him, holding his finger over his lips. “Monks studying and Abbott maybe not like that you staying in room. But if he not know, no problem.”

He laughs while Mangon drops his backpack onto the stomped mud floor.

“How long you stay?” Yeshe asks.

“Don’t know. It all depends if winter arrives before I can continue. Then I might have to stay in your room until spring time,” Mangon jokes.

“Always welcome in my room. We can become friend and you teach me English very well,” Yeshe replies excitedly.

“I plan to be in Hoshiapur in two weeks to find the legendary palm leaf library,” Mangon explains to the clueless Yeshe, “but let’s see! Show me around the monastery!”

To Mangon’s surprise, Yeshe takes his hand and leads him out of the monks quarters. Two males walking, holding hands is not an unfamiliar sight in India where it is a gesture of a puritan friendship, a show of deep affection between two friends and not merely a sign of an intimate relationship like in the west. Mangon realises that it has been years since he walked hand in hand with a boy. He remembers Nicky, who must have been the same age Yeshe is today. But this contact feels different and is for Mangon a warm welcome to the mystical world of Tibetan Buddhism which he vows to experience in its totality.

Yeshe’s tasks consist of studying every day the wise words of Buddha, which means memorising endless prayers in Tibetan, a task he finds infinitely boring; guiding tourists around the monastery and explaining to them in proper English the history and importance of the Tabo monastery, a monologue which he learned by heart and begins to recite to a fascinated Mangon who is eager to find out more about this holy place.

“Tabo monastery was founded in 996 which is the year of Fire Monkey for Tibetan people,” he starts. “The great Rinchen Zangpo, a famous Tibetan Buddhist translator and king of the Himalaya Kingdom of Guge founded this monastery which is now the oldest Buddhist monastery in India and Tibet. Our monastery has a priceless collection of thankas and manuscripts and many statues of deity and gods and there some big murals on almost every temple wall.”

“But some already quite old and not in good shape because of raining too much and Abbott doesn’t have money to repair,” he adds, remembering that one of the reasons for the sightseeing tour was to collect donations from wealthy tourists.

“In 1975,” Yeshe explains, “a big strong earthquake destroyed the monastery almost completely but many monks who worked very hard and rebuilt it. They made also the new Du-kang, our assembly hall. Two times already in 1983 and 1996, his holiness the Dalai Lama came to Tabo to make secret Kalachakra ceremony.” He proudly shows Mangon a small medallion with the picture of the Dalai Lama on it that he wears on a leather string around his neck. “I love him very much,” Yeshe says with big glowing eyes.

“Did you ever meet him?” Mangon inquires.

“Yes, already two times!” he answers, excited. “First time I don’t remember as I was still a young baby after my parents brought me to the monastery, when I was three. Second time he come for secret meeting with his friend, our Abbott, and gave me blessings.” Yeshe remembers and bursts out laughing.

“Why are you laughing?” Mangon asks.

“He told me to be good boy and not make the Abbott angry always.” Yeshe tells Mangon and continues to tell him with a smile. “I am sometimes naughty monk. The Abbott has car before. Very nice car. Old car, but look strong and can drive fast. I like cars very much, but only one monk is allowed to drive the Abbott’s car. I ask him if he will teach me how to drive but he says that I have to be older and ask permission from Abbott.

“I know he will not allow me to drive his car as my study is not very good and I often fall asleep during prayer. It’s too boring sometimes and I am too tired.” Yeshe’s face lights up.

“What happened to the car?” Mangon asks.

“One day it was park behind monastery. I go and have a look and see that Tenzin Lama forgot key inside. I think nobody will see me and I start the car. I don’t know how to drive. I press down my foot but the car was not moving. So I try all pedals and suddenly the beast wake up. It go faster and faster. I don’t know how to make it go slow again. Then it crashed into the house of Tenzin Jigme and a window and part of the wall came falling down on the car. The car was badly broken and I have broken arm and lots of blood coming from my face.”

He shows Mangon small scars on his forehead.

“The Abbott was very angry with me and he give me severe punishment. He said I have to take care guesthouse and show tourists our monastery. And he told me to do a lot of prayers, as I created lots of bad karma when stealing and crashing his car.”

“Twoccing,” Mangon blurs out. “You did a joy ride!”

“Joy riding?” Yeshe repeats slowly, trying to remember the term. “What does it mean?”

“It means that you take someone’s car and trash it after riding it around for fun.”

They both giggle.

“Now you are my English teacher….joy ri-di-ng,” he repeats and both laugh about Yeshe’s unique pronunciation.

Mangon and Yeshe spend the whole afternoon together. Yeshe shows his friend nine temples, four decorated stupas and points towards “too many cave shrines in the hills around the monastery.” Mangon talks with Yeshe about his hometown Pittsburgh, which Yeshe pronounces as “Pissburgh” to the delight of Mangon. The afternoon goes by quickly with talks about baseball, fast cars, “Lam-boa-gini” and Yeshe’s demand for Mangon to try to recall the names of over a hundred TV channels in his childhood home from memory, an impossible task.

“You have travelled a lot,” Yeshe states. “When I am finished study I also want to travel too and see USA and South America and Europe. I want to see the whole world!”

With the sun disappearing behind the high mountain range and the cold evening winds beginning to descend into the valley, Mangon’s stomach sends out a loud alarm reminding him that he hasn’t eaten all day.

“When is dinner?” he asks.

“Dinner is in the big hall after the evening prayer.”

“And when does the evening prayer end?” Mangon inquires carefully.

“I don’t know,” Yeshe laughs, “I don’t have watch.”

“You will hear big gong,” Yeshe adds.

Yeshe can see from Mangon’s face that his answer did satisfy Mangon whose hunger has made him feel dizzy.

“You come with me, we go to kitchen and see if we can get something there,” he suggests.

Mangon finds himself in a smoke-filled kitchen with only a tiny window. There is a big cauldron filled with water, blackened from brick tea, hanging from a metal over a strong fire. An old woman emerges out of the shadow in the corner, slowly shuffling through the dark room in shoes made of sheep skin, carrying a small bag of wheat. Yeshe begins to speak to her in Tibetan using a loud voice, as the old cook was hard of hearing. After what sounds like grumpy complaints to Mangon, Yeshe gestures to sit down on the tiny kitchen table laden with bowls full of strange ingredients and herbs.

“She will make some tea and momos for us,” he says, clearing away some stuff on the table.

“I love momos, tried them once in a guesthouse in Delhi,” Mangon replies.

“Pema-ma cooks real Tibetan momos,” Yeshe points out, while the old woman sits down two bowls of steaming hot soup in which a few perfectly done momos swim.

She returns to the table holding two metal cups with a strong smelling brew which she has dipped from the cauldron over the fire. Yeshe, noticing the disgusted look on Mangon’s face when the strong smell of rancid butter creeps up his nose, encourages him, “Drink. It’s good. It’s butter tea made of yak milk.”

Mangon knows from his chemistry lessons in school that the acid in rancid butter was the same as in human vomit and smells terrible. He peers suspiciously at the beige coloured liquid before lifting it to his mouth, blowing a bit to cool it down and defuse the bad smell and then takes a first careful sip.

It tastes stranger than anything Mangon has ever tasted before, but something deep within him is exalted and excited, stimulated by the strangeness of the taste, like a long forgotten memory which suddenly bubbles up to the surface.

“I can get used to it!” he exclaims with a smile on his face.

“Every Tibetan drinks it especially during cold winter,” Yeshe informs him.

The old woman stands beside the table quietly listening to the conversation between the two but doesn’t understand a word.

“What is the foreigner saying about my tea?” she asks Yeshe in Tibetan.

“The foreigner dear Ma says that your butter tea stinks like Lama Rinpon’s piss,” Yeshe replies laughing.

Pema grabs a nearby broomstick and hits Yeshe over and over on his back while hurling insults in Tibetan.

“I am sorry! I am sorry Pema-ma,” he apologises, adding, “Pema’s tea is the best from Tabo until even in the Potala.”

“Stop speaking such a nonsense,” the cook scolds him.

“Tell the foreigner that my family makes tea for this honourable monastery for many generations. His Holiness always asks for a second cup,” she reveals proudly.

Yeshe begins to translate.

“We use only highest quality tea leaves which are brought in from Sikkim and Darjeeling, the same one’s the British brought from China.”

“It’s not an easy task to get the tea just right,” she adds. “It’s a long process.”

“Will you teach me how to make good butter tea?” Mangon asks.

“No one has ever asked me to reveal this old family secret. You must cook it saying the holy mantra,”she begins before chanting in a murmured voice, “Om mani padme hum. This is the mantra our lord Buddha has given us. It’s important to say it with love and compassion in your heart.”

“OM MANI PADME HUM,” Mangon repeats.

“Good…good.” She nods, satisfied.

“The tea has to boil for at least half a day,” she adds, pointing to the cauldron over the fireplace.

“My father and before him his father have used it to prepare butter tea for the monks.”

She crosses the kitchen shuffling into the storeroom, from which she emerges moments later carrying a strange looking wooden cylinder with a long stick.

“I use butter from my brother’s yaks, take a piece of rock salt and pour hot the dark brown tea over it, right here into the …” She calls Yeshe over, “Come and show the foreigner.”

Yeshe, not happy about Pema’s order, but not daring to oppose her, stands up slowly and begins to churns butter by gripping the long stick with both hands and moving it up and down with slow movements under the watchful eye of the cook.         

“When it turns thick like oil and the colour is a bit purplish then the butter tea is ready,” she explains.

Yeshe begins to move the long stick faster and faster, up and down in the wooden cylinder.

“You can stop now, Yeshe,” she orders him.

Yeshe ignores her and continues to stir even faster and begins make obscene noises while laughing wildly.

“Oh! You… you unholy devil! Stop at once or I make you!” she shouts at him.

The boys hold their bellies while laughing and Pema carries the butter tea cylinder back into safety.

“You are very naughty,” Mangon mocks Yeshe, “We are similar.”

“Same as you?” Yeshe grunts. “Impossible! Lama Yeshe is the naughtiest in all of Spiti Valley,” he says.

“Let’s go back to your room and wait there until evening prayer,” Mangon suggests.

As they walk, a strange calming sound, a cacophony of murmured prayers and low pitched throat singing flows from the mouths of the monks who sit in rows in the ancient Tsug Lhakhang, the Great Assembly Hall, filling it with intense vibrations permeating Mangon’s whole body and pacifying his mind. He is fascinated by this dark and dramatic place, with only a little light entering through small ceiling windows directly over the main altar, by the big number of very old statues and paintings covering almost every wall, a semi dark space where every form dissolves into each other, filled with vibrations of countless generations of monks, who have spent their days here in peaceful meditation and prayer.

He learns later from Yeshe that while all the monks abide to the same simple basic rhythm in their prayer, it’s up to each individual monk to say the prayer he wishes by going out and coming in on certain parts, using their voices to inflect sound and create thus a syncopate of many sounds merged together in an always unique and new oneness.

Dinner is taken together in the dining hall and consists of tsampa which is basically roasted barley or wheat flour. It is the Tibetan form of convenience food for many sherpas, nomads and travellers who venture through the Himalayas. The preparation is fairly easy: leave a bit of butter tea at the bottom of your bowl and add a big spoonful of tsampa, stir it gently with the forefinger, then knead it with one hand, while twisting your bowl round and round until one ends up with a large dumpling like object which is washed down with even more butter tea.

Mangon peeks over at the young apprentice monks who stuff little bite-sized portions of tsampa into their mouths. All Mangon is able to produce is a semi-liquid paste which sticks to his fingers—a clear sign he is lacking the high degree of manual dexterity and daily practice of getting the tsampa just perfectly right to form neither a lump of desiccated dough nor a soup of butter tea. Yeshe who witnesses his friend’s dilemma helps out by tossing a few perfectly rolled tsampa balls from the other side of the table into Mangon’s food bowl. Some land on the robes of an astonished young monk to the laughter of the whole table.

“Silence,” an authoritative voice of the beloved old Abbott warns the monks, who immediately halt their laughter and continue their meal in silent concentration.

Not long after dinner, back at Yeshe’s room, Mangon begins to yawn, feeling the tiredness of his aching body overwhelming him. Soon he is sound asleep in his sleeping bag on the bed. Yeshe extinguishes the sparse flame of the yak butter lamp and curls up in his sleeping bed on the floor, happy having met a new friend.

It is still dark outside when Mangon is awoken up by the noise of Yeshe getting dressed in the dark and falling over his backpack before rushing out of the room. Mangon, who is still tired, is happy being able to drift back to sleep.

“Where did you go this morning,” Mangon asks his friend later while they enjoy a simple breakfast made of rice soup and butter tea.

“That’s another one of the Abbott’s punishments for me,” Yeshe sighs, “Every morning at 4 am for a full year I have to say prayers.”

Mangon is curious. “Why not just stay in your room and pray there?” he asks.

“Can’t…I have to do it in the secret temple…to protect the monastery from harm,” Yeshe explains.

Now Mangon’s senses sound an alarm. “A secret temple?” he asks. “Didn’t you show me all the temples yesterday?”

Yeshe’s face shows that he is not comfortable to answer this question and reluctantly adds, “All temples are for everyone to pray, but only people who are protected by a special prayer are allowed to enter the Gon-khang.”

“What is so secret about a temple?” Mangon asks, unable to hide his curiosity.

“I can’t tell you, it’s a secret!” Yeshe says.

“Come on, my friend, I won’t tell anyone!”

“No, I can’t. The Abbott forbids me to speak with anyone about it and  he is very serious about it.”

“Did you ever hear of someone dying when trying to enter the temple?” Mangon asks, anticipating the answer.

“No, but nobody would be so foolish and not obey the rules. And now let’s go. I want show you the caves in the mountains, where many lamas have meditated.”

“Secret caves!” Yeshe adds, before running off.

With no showers or running water available in the whole monastery, Mangon suggests they take a dip into a small side arm of the river close by the monastery. Yeshe, who has a strong dislike to the idea of swimming in ice cold water simply cannot understand why Mangon has a need to wash his body as he is, in his eyes, completely clean, compared to himself who hasn’t seen a bath in over two months.

“You are dirty and you smell,” Mangon tells Yeshe, “You need a shower.”

“I will take one in spring time, when the tourists come again,” Yeshe answers sniffing his arms. “No need to smell good if nobody comes to visit and if no lady is around,” he jokes.

“That’s not right,” Mangon scolds him in a tone a big brother would use.

“You can be a poor monk with no girlfriend but at least you should be a clean monk. Come now, let’s go to the river.”

Knowing his friend already so well that he knows Mangon won’t stop nagging him, Yeshe agrees to come along as he doesn’t want to see him drowning in the strong river currents.

“I know a good place for you to take a bath,” he tells Mangon.

“You mean for us to go for a swim,” Mangon corrects.

“Water is cold…” Yeshe tries to voice a last protest.

“I don’t care, we are taking a bath and wash our cloth, that’s it. End of the discussion.”

Yeshe leads Mangon to a secluded spot where the river has filled up a natural rock basin a few days earlier when the water level was high. The scenery of this bath is stunning, set in front of a panorama of high mountains standing out in a bright blue sky and a wild raging river behind, it is the favourite place where villagers and monks come together for an ice-cold bath. As the day is still early, nobody is around. Mangon strips naked and wades into the pool.

“Fuck! It’s fucking freezing!” he shouts out in a painful voice to Yeshe who still hopes to avoid a bath.

“I told you, it’s too cold to bath, we should wait for spring time,” he says.

“No way! Come in, chicken!” Mangon mocks him.

“I am no chicken, just not stupid to get cold,” Yeshe says, defending himself.

“Chicken! Scared chicken!” Mangon keeps on mocking Yeshe while lifting his elbows up and down, imitating a hen.

“Ok, I am coming!” Yeshe concedes and begins slowly to take off his dirt stained monk robes and wades into the icy water.

Encouraged by Mangon’s cold water splashes, Yeshe dives into the cold water and returns the attack. Soon the two boys jump around and play like wild children, enjoying the moment. Yeshe, to Mangon’s surprise has brought soap with him and soon they help each other out rubbing each other’s back and sitting side by side on the edge of the small pool, washing their clothes and leaving them out to dry on big boulders which the early afternoon sun has warmed up. The arrival of the freezing cold and strong three o’clock winds bring with it dark Monsoon clouds, which push them in from the west, from the Indian lowlands, bringing them back into the relative comfort of Pema’s kitchen whose butter tea warms them up instantly.

Shortly before the evening prayers, the heavy rain sets in. A rain unlike any Mangon has ever experienced despite living for months in tropical rain forests of the Amazon river basin. Hour after hour, a massive a wall of water comes pouring down onto the thousand-year-old monastery liquefying mud walls, slipping through the roofs, slowly creeping down walls with hundreds of ancient painted Buddha images. Every temple, the dormitory and even the Abbott ‘s quarters are soon soaked with rain water. A small wall near Pema’s kitchen collapses while the courtyard in front of the assembly hall turns, to the delight of the young apprentice monks, into a mud bath. Rain continues to fall during the whole next day until the Abbott invokes an ancient rain deity to stop the downpour and surprisingly just one hour later the rainfall subsides and brings back a cloudless sky.  The sun turns the whole monastery into a humid soaked mud mess which will take weeks to dry out again completely. Winter begins to lull Spiti into the start of a long, cold and deep sleep. Mangon wears his sheep skin pullover even in the sleeping bag while Yeshe freezes in an old anorak, a gift from another friendly tourist. With nothing much to do in the evenings, they soon crawl into their sleeping bags and drift off.

As usual, Yeshe gets up at four in the early morning, almost trips over the butter lamp and drags himself, still half asleep, to perform his daily prayer in the secret temple, which is also called the “Temple of Horror,” as Mangon has found out. He follows the shine of the lamp, unseen by his tired friend, who unlocks the solid red wood door with a big key he wears around his neck and disappears into the darkness inside.

Mangon waits impatiently in front of the gate into the “Temple of Horror” until he hears the familiar voice of Yeshe murmuring in a fast pace the daily prayer of protection. Mangon knows that Yeshe will spot him immediately upon entering, but is confident that his friend will not dare to interrupt the prayer to his fearful deities and gods.

He enters in almost complete darkness, the silhouette of his friend sitting cross legged in front of a prayer book and the flame of the butter lamp dancing beside. With horror Yeshe discovers the intruder and motions him to leave gesturing with hands holding a dorje, the symbol of the thunderbolt of the gods and an old bell. Mangon responds with a broad grin and sits down in the centre of the tiny temple, surrounded by darkness. Yeshe threatens to strike Mangon with the thunderbolt and continues to recite the prayers with an even faster pace.

Mangon feels a strange and powerful energy, unlike anything he has ever experienced before when shamans and witch doctors performed their ceremonies. The energy which he senses is not calm and peaceful, but wild and mysterious like being surrounded by savage beasts. Mangon takes out a torchlight from underneath his pullover and turns it on.

“No!!” Yeshe hisses before resuming his prayers with an eye on Mangon who begins to shine his torch around the temple. What he discovers is unlike anything he has expected. Shamanic masks with cruel animal faces, angry looking deities, fierce gods and demons with broad grimaces seem to unload their wrath upon everyone who set eyes upon them. The protectress deity of the monastery, along with her retinue, stare at the intruder from a large panel on the east wall of the main entrance.

No wonder they call it the ‘Temple of Horror’, he thinks.

Apart from the scary masks on the walls and a small altar, there is not much in the room, apart from an old, heavy wooden cupboard, a pile of dirty cloth, a few ceremonial items like candle holders and very ancient thankas, which have accumulated centuries of dust.

That’s the real stuff, Mangon thinks, that’s why I came into this remote area.

Yeshe finishes his hurried prayer, jumps up and demands Mangon in a hushed voice to leave the temple so that he can lock up again, hoping nobody has noticed the uninvited intruder.

“Just a moment,” Mangon says, “Look! Everything is completely soaked in water.”

Yeshe is in a state of slight panic and does not listen.

“Come on, I don’t want anyone telling the Abbott,” he insists.

“Just look!” Mangon says, pointing his flashlight at the dripping wet protective deity of the Gelukpa sect which has suffered considerable damage from the recent strong rain.

“Even the old thankas are completely wet. If we don’t take them in the sun to dry, they will be completely destroyed.”

Yeshe steps closer to inspect the wall and agrees with Mangon.

“You are right. I will tell the Abbott after the morning prayer, but for now, let’s get out of here!”

He locks up the entrance, hides the key under his cloth and they crawl back into their sleeping bags until it is time for the morning prayers. Yeshe informs the Abbott ,who is busy organising repairs of the leakage on the roof of the assembly hall, about the rain damage at the Gon-khang temple.

The Abbott, worried after hearing about the damage which threatens a Unesco World Heritage temple, accepts Yeshe’s suggestion to take out everything to dry in the afternoon sun.

“Tell your foreign friend to be careful. Many of the relicts are very old and fragile,” he tells a stunned Yeshe.

“I am sorry,” he apologises in a low voice, but the Abbott turns and leaves.

“I am damned, he knows,” Yeshe says to himself.

“What did the Abbott answer?” Mangon asks.

“Just that you should be careful when helping me,” a perplexed Yeshe replies.

“Cool, then let’s do it!”

“Now?” Yeshe asks, hoping he can return to sleep for another hour.

“Yes, why not,” Mangon encourages him. “Come on! It will be fun.”

The light of the morning sun has just began to peak over the mountain and shines through the wide open door of the Gon-khang temple, soothing the horror of last night and bathing the temple with its warm light. Ancient masks and statues, dirty with wet dust, replace gruesome fierce dancing deities who cursed the nightly intruder. They look like spirits and gods of the ancient Bon religion which is said to anticipate even early Buddhism and is still very much practiced by locals and in secret even in some monasteries. Mangon and Yeshe begin to carry out old monk robes, soaked in mud and water, all kind of cushions, prayer books and other religious dorje and bells, and lay them out to dry on the stones in the courtyard which slowly heat up in the strengthening rays of the morning sun. Mangon finds a small square shaped red carpet embroiled on all sides with little frays.

“What is this carpet for?” he asks his friend.

“I can’t tell you,” is Yeshe’s answer.

“If you can’t tell me then surely it means that I can sit on it,” says Mangon and sits down on the small red carpet on the floor.

“Get up! Get up now!” Yeshe shouts in panic, fearing that once more the Abbott will hear about it.

“Please, my friend, get up and I tell you about the carpet,” he reasons with Mangon who agrees, stands up and waits for Yeshe’s explanation.

“It was used for levitation…a long time ago,” he says in a hushed tone.

“Levitation? You mean it’s a flying carpet?!” Mangon asks.

“It’s not the carpet which can fly,” Yeshe throws in, “but some high lamas in the past who have acquired certain powers through their meditation.”

“…but did you see a flying monk yourself?” Mangon interrupts him.

“No, of course not,” Yeshe says, “the Abbott doesn’t teach these things at the monastery.”

“Then why is this carpet here?” Mangon inquires.

“It must have belonged to one of those wandering lamas of the past who use to walk around the Himalayas and visit our monastery from time to time. They are powerful sorcerers who know all kinds of magic.”

Mangon is fascinated. “Did you ever meet one of them?”

“Once, when I was still very little, maybe eight or nine years old.  The Abbott told all novice monks to come together in the assembly hall. He said that a high lama would visit our monastery and maybe choose one of us to come with him. He told us that those lamas follow a rare practiced form of tantra which is extremely dangerous and can kill anyone who is not ready for it.”

“Wow! What kind of tantra is this?” Mangon inquires.

“I don’t know,” says Yeshe, “He did not choose me! But what Lama Tensing told me about it is that it is some secret form of ancient tantra which only a few chosen ones can be initiated in. It’s a form of tummo where they use the body’s life energy to warm up your body and learn all kind of siddhis.”

“Siddis? What’s that?” Mangon asks.

“It’s a yogi’s magic powers,” Yeshe explains while walking back into the temple room, which is now almost cleared out.

Mangon follows, urging him to reveal more. “Tell me more about those magic powers.”

“I don’t know…all kind of magic powers. Some lama can see into the future or heal, some can fly and cast powerful spells and when they die they can do it while sitting in the lotus pose and their bodies remain. They don’t die and their bodies don’t rot. It’s spooky stuff and dangerous.”

The Abbott warned us not to practice any of these things without guidance of a guru.”

“Did that magic lama choose a boy when he came into the monastery?” Mangon asks.

“I am uncomfortable telling you secrets of the monastery,” Yeshe says. “You are still a layman and not a monk,  “Still… I know you will not stop pestering me.

“We were all sitting very still together in meditation when he arrived. He was wearing monk robes but the folds on his robe did not match the any of the four big sects.”

He points at his robe and shows what he means. “The way it is folded indicates which sect you belong. I took my vows and found refuge with the Gelukpa sect, that’s why I wear my skirt folded like this.

“But that high lama didn’t seem to belong to any sect and his hair was very long, all the way down to his shoulders. He carried only a small pouch but no sleeping bag or stove. Not even food. They say that during the winter he does not eat at all. He uses pranic energy to survive and can do all kinds of powerful things.”

“Wow, that’s awesome. I want to meet one of those guys!” Mangon exclaims in excitement.

“You can’t meet those lamas. They live high up the mountain plateau and cross freely between the borders of Tibet, Nepal and India on their journeys. Only every few years one might come by to our monastery.”

“What happened to the boy, which was chosen by the lama?” Mangon wants to know.

“I don’t know. He went with the lama and we have never heard from him again.”

“What do you think that lama will teach him?” Mangon asks.

“How should I know?” Yeshe says, “I only know of tales which say that those high lamas will test their apprentices hard. They will take them on their journeys which often lead them high up the mountains. If the young monk survives, then the lama will find a cave for him and instruct him in special tantras. He has to do a lot of prostrations and tapas, all kind of stuff.”

“You mean the boy will live alone in a cave?” Mangon was shocked about the toughness of the training.

“Yes, sometimes up to ten years until he is ready to come out. If he survives it. Then he might have gained enough wisdom, the same Lord Buddha had realised and taught, but that’s the hard core way. Not sure I can do it. I am too lazy.” Yeshe giggles.

“Ten years until enlightenment?” Mangon inquires.

“That’s what they say. But not everyone is able to follow that path. It’s very rare and one must have had good karma in a past life. The boy was my friend and a good football player. We should play football this afternoon!” he says, excitedly.

“Yeah, why not,” Mangon replies.

“I will get some hay and we can spread it out on the floor so it dries up. Then we can go and play football!” Yeshe pushes.

“What about that cupboard?” Mangon asks and points to a heavy wooden cupboard which once was clean white, but is now covered over and over by a thick dust which the heavy rain has turned into a paste of dark, sticky dirt.

“Far too heavy,” Yeshe says, “It will break if we carry it out and then the Abbott will have a reason to be angry with me again.”

Mangon ignores Yeshe’s concerns and begins to inspect the empty cupboard with his torchlight.

“We can move it together,” he says.

“No way!” answers Yeshe and leaves the temple.

Mangon, not a bit discouraged, sticks the torchlight in between his teeth and grabs the old cupboard to move it away from the wall. It is much heavier than he expected and gives away a suspicious squeaking sound indicating it might crash any second.

Mangon’s muscles only manage to move the heavy wooden cabinet a few inches away from the wall when instinctively he can’t resist the strange urge to stick his hand into the dark gap. Something in him knows that there is something hidden behind that cupboard.

He takes the torchlight out of his mouth and shines it into the narrow gap between the back of the cupboard and the wall.

Indeed! There is a small opening in the wall. He tries but cannot get a better look. He uses all his power once more to move the cupboard a bit further away from the wall and sticks his hand into the gap.

He feels something.

His fingers tough a big round object.

He grabs it and squeezes his hand back out the narrow gap.

A conch shell, richly decorated with silver ornaments and a few stones lies in his hand.

Almost like in a trancelike state he goes outside to the courtyard, sits down on the red carpet and blows away centuries of dust.

The morning sun shines brightly on the big old conch shell. It has a mouthpiece and the opening is worked in massive silver which had turned black over time. On it is a roughly shaped green turquoise and some red coral cabs are set.

Mangon puts the conch shell to his mouth and blows in as hard as he can manage.

A sort of farting noise and a lot of dust emerges from the shell but its sound is enough to make Yeshe, who has just been piling up hay in the courtyard, look at him.

“I told you not to sit on the carpet!” he shouts at Mangon while running towards him.

Mangon doesn’t answer and stretches out his arms to show Yeshe his discovery.

“A Dkung-Dkar! Where did you find that?”

Mangon tells his friend about the opening he has discovered behind the cupboard. Yeshe, completely forgetting that Mangon is still sitting on the magic carpet, becomes excited. “This is one of the holy treasures of our lord Buddha!” he gasps. “This is very precious. We must tell the Abbott immediately about it!”

“Can you play it?” Mangon asks.

“I know how to make a sound, but it’s very old and surely very precious, I don’t dare,” Yeshe replies.

“Oh, come on! I want to hear it,” Mangon says.

To prevent another attempt from Mangon trying to blow the conch shell himself, Yeshe holds it up, murmurs a quick prayer, pumps his lungs full of air and blows into the Dkung-Dkar.

A long, monotonous and gentle vibrating sound begins to flow from the conch shell, filling up the empty courtyard of the Tabo monastery with its intense and warm energy. A sound which hasn’t been heard for a very long time, a time when the shamans of the Bon religion, long before the arrival of Buddhism, used shells to call the spirits to help grow cattle and plants and to banish evil spirits causing illness and destruction.

The sound alerts several monks who find Mangon and Yeshe in the court yard staring at them from a distance.

“What should we do now?” Mangon, who has jumped up from the carpet when he saw monks appearing in the courtyard, asks.

“We have to bring it to the Abbott immediately or he will scold me if I play around with it,” Yeshe answers.

A dozen monks have approached them and gather around the two friends, taking turns holding the conch shell, admiring its beauty and simple dignity.

“It could be even a thousand years old and Master Rinchen Zangpo might have used it,” a monk comments.

“Maybe it has something to do with the prophecy,” another chimes in.

“What prophecy?” Yeshe asks.

“Better ask the Abbott about it,” the monk replies, then adds, “I overheard him once talking about it a few days ago when news arrived of the bridge collapse.”

The Abbott arrives a few minutes later at the courtyard being informed that something extraordinary happened in the Gon-khang temple and asks Yeshe about the details of the incident. While Yeshe briefs him about the find, he glances at Mangon who holds the conch shell in his hands. They walk with the Abbott into the Temple of Horror and point out the exact spot where Mangon found the relict.

The Abbott instructs monks to remove the cupboard from the wall, which collapses at the attempt and sends a big cloud of dust into the air. The small opening in the wall does not contain anything else, but reveals that during the construction or during one of the many renovations of this temple, a secret hiding place had been made to conceal a sacred object.

The Abbott turns to Mangon and tells him in surprisingly good English,

“Today is a very auspicious day for our monastery. You have indeed discovered a treasure. I would like to speak with you in my private study before the evening prayer.”

“I will be there,” a perplexed Mangon replies.

After the crowd leaves, Mangon and Yeshe sit outside in the courtyard and lean their backs against the temple wall which has heated up in the midday sun. They sit in silence for a while until Yeshe asks, “So no football game today?”

“Sure, why not?” Mangon replies. “Let’s wait until the sun has dried the old stuff and then we will clean out the hay from the temple. Once we have put all the stuff back in, we can have a game and I will show you the power of my football skills!”

Yeshe rejoices at this idea, leaps onto his feet and tries to drag Mangon up.

“Come on, let’s finish this quickly, then we can play longer. I am Diego Yeshe Maradona. Feel my might!”

The afternoon passes quickly, leaving a handful of novice monks and Mangon covered from head to toe in dust and dirt. Despite Yeshe’s protests they take another quick bath in the river, knowing it’s better to arrive clean to the Abbott ‘s invitation.   

Mangon tries hard to sit in a perfect lotus posture while waiting silently in the study for the arrival of the Abbott, but pain in his knees forces him to kneel in a more comfortable position. Geshe Sonar Wangdui is the lead lama of the Tabo monastery, enthroned by His Holiness the Dalai Lama with whom he shares a long friendship. The Dalai Lama, who is an incarnation of the God of Compassion, has announced that he will retire to the Tabo monastery to spend the last years of his earthly life meditating upon nirvana before leaving his body, a time the two friends are looking forward to.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama once stated that when he reached ninety he would consult the high Lamas of the Tibetan Buddhist traditions and the Tibetan public and other concerned people who follow Buddhism and re-evaluate together with them if the institution of the Dalai Lama should continue or not. The Chinese government has installed an unrecognised 10th Panchen Lama, who traditionally confirms the identity of the next Dalai Lama and insists that it is up to them and not for the Dalai Lama, nor the Tibetan people to decide upon the fifteenth incarnation. Tenzin Gyatse, the present Dalai Lama, said that he would leave clear written instructions of how, in case it is agreed that another incarnation of the Dalai Lama would occur, he can be found and recognised. He reminds the world that no recognition or acceptance should be given to a candidate chosen for political ends by anyone, despite the People’s Republic of China’s irrational claims for it.

He said once, “Naturally my next life is entirely up to me. No one else. And also this is not a political matter.” Tension Gyatse is known for his sense of humour and even hinted that he might incarnate in the body of a woman. “If a woman reveals herself as more useful, the lama could very well be reincarnated in this form. If the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation is female, she must be very attractive. The reason is so that she will have more influence on others. If she is an ugly female, she won’t be very effective, will she?”

Suddenly the door of the head lama’s office opens and a procession of senior monks and lamas enter, followed by the Abbott who takes his seat in a decorated chair. Mangon is seated directly in front of the Abbott  and looks with fascination at the conch shell which looks like a real treasure after the monks have spent all day cleaning it thoroughly.

Yeshe sits down beside him to act as an English translator if needed.

The head lama of the Tabo monastery addresses Mangon directly.

“What is your name, visitor?” he asks in a formal tone.

“My name is Mangon.”

“What is the purpose of your visit to the Tabo monastery?”

Mangon thinks for a while before answering shyly, in a low voice, “I am looking for teachings to find peace in my mind and love in my heart.”

The Abbott seems to be pleased with his answer.

“Very well.”

He closes his eyes and meditates a few minutes in silence before continuing to ask.

“Do you want to take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha?”

Mangon hesitates and takes his time before answering, carefully choosing his words.

“I don’t know well the way of the Buddha. It would be best for me to live for a while in the community of the Sangha and listen to the teachings of lord Buddha before taking refuge.”

“Very well,” the Abbott says before adding, “Please remain our guest in this monastery for as long as you wish. I heard that Lama Yeshe and you have become friends. Be aware that he is a very wild monk.” He laughs, changing his solemn face.

“Thank you, dear Abbott,” Mangon answers politely.

“There is one more thing I have to inform you, something which might be very important for your future.”

Mangon looks at him astonished.

“There is a prophecy by his Holiness, the Dalai Lama. He blessed our small monastery with his visit many years ago after strong rains had washed away the old bridge outside of Kaza. He predicted that this bridge would be destroyed in total three times, upon which a blessed soul from a foreign soil would come to the Tabo monastery. Due to auspicious karma in his past he will find a long lost treasure and return it to the monastery. This would be a strong signal that Buddhism is renewing and strengthening.”

Mangon cannot believe what he had just heard and looks around confused. It all sounds so unreal and just too insane to be true.

Who is he after all?

Everyone sits in silence for awhile, but Mangon’s mind is racing with the craziest thoughts.

“If my mind could just be quiet for a minute, it would be the peace I long for so much.” Too many things have happened in such a short time. He had hoped to get in contact with some Tibetan monks to learn about Buddhism and meditation, but now he is sitting face to face with an important head lama of one most influential monasteries in India and who has just revealed to him that he might be someone important after fulfilling a prophecy by the Dalai Lama.

The Abbott senses that Mangon is overwhelmed with the events of the day and informs him the audience is ended, but invites Mangon to attend a very special ceremony in the Gon-khang temple in a few days. Mangon feels honoured and politely accepts the invitation.

The next few days pass quickly. Mangon enjoys the attention he gets from the Sangha. Word spreads about the prophecy and soon villagers ask him to bless their children and call him “white lama” whenever he strolls with his friend Yeshe through the village or explores the meditation caves high above the monastery. He asks Yeshe if he can wear his old set of monk robes. First Yeshe hesitates, but remembering how affectionate the Abbott was towards Mangon, he does not deny him this wish. When it’s time for Yeshe’s tonsure, Mangon asks for his hair to be shaved too. A senior monk shaves off their hair in the courtyard in front of a crowd of curious onlookers. Mangon refuses to have his eyebrows shaved off, but overall he now resembles a monk who has taken refuge in the Buddha.

They observe the preparations for the upcoming ceremony in the Gon-khang temple. There is an air of secrecy among the monks who have sealed off the temple and, to Yeshe’s big relief, even took over the early morning prayer duty. During the evening prayer the Abbott announces that the astrologist, a senior monk who has spent his whole life within the walls of the Tabo monastery, has determined that tonight is an auspicious time for the special ceremony and that he has invited a handful of senior monks to join, while asking the others to come together in the assembly hall and give their support by praying and meditating during this special night.

“What do you think is going to happen tonight?” Mangon asks his friend.

“No idea. It’s the first time that something like this has happened in the ten years I am living here,” he answers.

“What do the other monks say?” Mangon inquires.

“I asked the assistant of the head lama, whom I met when helping with preparations in the temple, but he said that even he is bound by oath and will not reveal anything. Very strange.”

“Guess we will find out soon,” Mangon says.

“Yeah, better get ready,” Yeshe replies. “This afternoon the Abbott from the Key monastery and some high Rinpoches came all the way from McLeod Ganj to attend this ceremony. We should be careful not to screw up,” he adds.

“All right,” says Mangon.

They go back to Yeshe’s room and tidy their monk robes and nervously wait for the gong to summon the monks. The small group of selected senior monks, not more than a dozen, have assembled before the richly decorated entrance of the Gon-khang temple awaiting the arrival of the Abbott and his dignified guests.

The entrance door has been sealed with paper strips and is now cut open by the head lama. Everyone enters the small dark temple which is only lit by a few butter lamps. Mangon is shown a place of honour on a cushion placed in front of what looks like a statue, and has been covered with a richly ornamented cloth.

The Abbott and his guests take their seats on the left and right side of Mangon while the rest of the monks, including Yeshe, cram into the dark back of the small temple room. Soon the silent murmurs of prayers fill the room adding to the spooky atmosphere with grim looking masks and protective deities surrounding them. A few monks begin to play traditional Tibetan instruments which ring bizarre and strange in Mangon’s ears. He feels nervous, a bit insecure and uneasy sitting directly in front of the covered statue, surrounded by important lamas and Rinpoches with no clue what to expect next.

The Abbott stands up and places the Dkung-Dkar, the old conch shell which Mangon found, in front of the covered statue.

Slowly he proceeds towards the back of the statue and lifts the veil.

What happens next is so unexpected, so unbelievable, so insane, and so horrific, that Mangon almost jumps up and wants to flee.

He gasps and cannot believe his eyes.

In front of him sits the perfectly conserved body of a deceased monk who must have died a long time ago.

As he risks a closer look, straining his eyes in the darkness, he realises that it is not a mummy in front of him, but the body of a man wearing monk robes which did not deteriorate after his death.

The monk chants become louder and louder. Offerings are burned and fill the air with smoke, causing Mangon’s head to spin. He feels dizzy. The shock and initial horror begins to subside aided by the warm soothing vibration of the chants which begin to embrace the whole temple.

Who was that guy, he thinks and strains his eyes to get a better look at the body.

He must have been an important lama and lived long time ago, he concludes judging by the colour of the skin which looks like leather. The markings of two ropes have dug deep into the skin without breaking it and are visible on the torso. His hands are held in the form of a mudra, symbolic hand gestures Tibetan monks use during their meditations.

Mangon assumes that this dead monk must have been the previous owner of the Dkung-Dkar, probably a high lama who had left his body while meditating and which was preserved due to the dryness of the high altitude desert. But why would the monastery keep the body of a dead monk? Mangon had read stories of mummified bodies of holy people who are relics for people to worship, a practice which especially Christian religions in the middle ages were keen to use to extract money from naive believers. But he never heard that Tibetans would make efforts to preserve bodies as even important teachers which are usually cremated and a commemorating chorten containing their relics is placed above it.

The singing and humming sound coming from the monks begins to pacify Mangon. He closes his eyes. A strange calmness comes over him, a calmness he has never experienced before. A silence invades, which is a complete absence of his thoughts. He observes himself marvelling in the wonderful peace which he feels pouring stronger and stronger over him. He opens his eyes and studies the body of the monk which looks so much alive…like he just passed away a few hours ago.

The monk seems to have died in a state of complete peace, sitting upright in a perfect lotus posture and a benign face radiating love.

“No!”

It can’t be!

He can’t believe what he is witnessing.

Slowly, very slowly the eyes of the monk open!

The dead body is actually alive!

Mangon is in shock. Thoughts like “This is impossible” bombard his mind.

He begins to take deep slow breaths and slowly the terror recedes taking with it all thoughts. Peace overcomes him. For the first time in his life he feels truly at peace. He breaths in and breaths out. He is in the here and now with a feeling of perfect happiness and content flowing from his heart. Timelessness has filled up the whole room.

It is not a trick of light because the other monks have also noticed that the dead lama has opened his eyes. One by one, the Abbott and the dignitaries stand up, approach the dead lama with reverence, bow deeply and lay down gifts in front of the motionless body. The Abbott looks at Mangon and signals him with his eyes to take the Dkung-Dkar which rests on a ceremonial cushion and present it to the dead lama. Mangon takes the conch shell and presents it to the high lama.

A silent meditation begins.

How long Mangon remains in silence he doesn’t know. If it was minutes or hours, he cannot tell having lost all sense of time and space. For the first time in his life he experiences a state of meditation opening the doors to a new infinite world inside of him. It is a gift the dead lama has given him. In an instant, Mangon has realised that true happiness and peace is not found outside one self, but is always present deeply inside him. He has experienced a fleeting glimpse of what true peace and happiness could mean, barely scratching the surface of the edge of infinity, but he knows that from this moment on his life will be different. He knows that his real journey has only now begun. He always had been looking in the wrong places for true happiness and peace which were always inside him. Now it is up to him to dive deeper and deeper inside, finding the tranquillity and identify with it more and more.

During the next few days, Mangon spends many hours in silent contemplation. He asks Yeshe to show him how to practice real meditation but without success. Whenever he tries to silence his mind, an infinite chain of thoughts cross instead.

“Be patient,” Yeshe advises. “Thoughts are like clouds in the blue sky. Let them pass. Don’t pay any attention to them.”

The advice is simple, but impossible for Mangon to follow, who becomes angry and frustrated with himself.

“But when will I be able to experience peace in my mind? How long will it take me?” he asks Yeshe.

Yeshe shrugs. “Nobody can tell. It depends on the karma from your past lives and how many hours of boring meditation you put in it. But you must be a special incarnation, maybe even a tulku, otherwise you would have never found the treasure nor would the high lama have bestowed the blessings upon you. But still it might take lifetimes to reach enlightenment and become a Buddha.”

“Enlightenment?” Mangon has never heard this term before.

“It means to wake up and to understand the reality of everything,” Yeshe replies.

Mangon looks confused so Yeshe explains more, “One needs to free oneself from the endless chain of birth and rebirths to be free from suffering, disease and death and to attain Nirvana and dissolve into nothingness.”

“I think I still have a long way to go,” says Mangon, resigned to his fate.

“It can take many lifetimes, but thanks to our Lord Buddha and many who follow his way, enlightenment can be achieved,” Yeshe explains.

“But is Buddhism the only way?” Mangon asks.

“No, there are other ways, every religion has a way, but many ways are clouded. Buddhism is clear and the way we practice in our monastery…” Yeshe says.

After a while he adds,“…will you stay with us and take the vows to become a monk?”

Mangon didn’t expect this question.

“I don’t know yet,” he says, “I really don’t know…”

“We could study together and play football! Maybe you can teach me how to drive a car!”

“Maybe,” Mangon answers, lost in thoughts. “Maybe.”

Night after night Mangon lays in his bed unable to sleep. He has realised that he has arrived at a crossroads and that he needs to make a decision. Truly what he has witnessed is nothing but a miracle and he knows what he has experienced is real, but does this mean he should spend the rest of his life in a remote monastery high up the mountains, separated from the outside world for most of his years? Would he be able to live up to the strict monastic vows which demand of him to give up all temptations he has enjoyed so much, mostly sex and getting high on drugs? He is scared by the thought of exchanging a freedom which he has enjoyed so much for a life confined within the mud walls of a monastery near the Tibetan border. Is he strong enough to bear the life of a monk?

Early next morning he decides to climb up the steep side hills of the mountains alone. The high altitude makes the air so thin and every step up demands considerable effort, but he is determined to climb high enough to have the whole valley in his view. Out of breath, he sits down on a rock and looks into the valley. The famous Tabo monastery and the tiny village appear small beside the wild Spiti River. He needed to get away for a short time from the monastery to clear his mind, knowing he has to make a decision.

A Himalayan golden eagle soars in the distance over the valley. It glides majestically in its flight, barely moving its enormous wings, carried forward by the strong winds which push over the mountains. Seemingly without effort, it moves through the sky climbing higher and higher towards the sun.

It is in this moment that Mangon understands that his way is like the way of an eagle.

He realises that he has to embrace freedom in his heart and follow wherever it will lead him.

It is not his destiny in this life to study in a monastery trying to fit into the life of a monk. His eyes have opened and he has seen in a vision the destination of his journey.

All he needs to do now is follow his heart.

Graffiti Bridge

train

A pale moon rising behind the low hills surrounding Pittsburgh in a somber gloom saturating the old railway bridge in an eerie colour like dried blood turning the Monongahela River underneath into black poison creeping along battered veins who have dug deep into the land, separating Pennsylvania from West Virginia. Everyone who had heard of the 130 mile river just called it “The Mon” as nobody bothered to remember its American Indian name which came in twenty-six different varieties from the French sounding Malangueulé to various spellings of Meh-non-au-au-ge-hel-al and Mo-hong-gey-e-la to easier to digest names like Monna or Muddy River. The meanings of its different names ranged from a simple “falling banks” to “the dirt caves off” and a blander “it has a loose bank,” which conjured images of an old incontinent river lady’s ass in Mangon’s stoned mind.

The clock had indicated the start of a new day, July 23 when Mangon opens the window in his bedroom on the first floor without a sound and climbs outside, balancing on the small apron while holding on to a ladder on which roses in all shades of red climb towards a clear warm night sky. In a skilled movement, he pushes the window closed, leaving an almost invisible gap which will enable him to re-enter his room after yet another night out. Mangon’s family had purchased a small, one family house, one of many newly assembled coloured boxes in the SouthSide Works, a recently converted residential area near the grounds of the former Jones & Laughlin steel mills which produced much of the wealth upon which Pittsburgh flourished.

Mangon sneaks to the garage door and opens it silently using the emergency spare key which his parents had hidden in a fake plastic stone, a trick, according to the wisdom of his father, professional burglars surely wouldn’t know. He takes a spare towing rope from the shelf which is needed for tonight’s big adventure.

He leaves the house after putting the key back inside the stone and steers his mountain bike along a completely deserted Oakley Way whose residents were either hiding behind sixty inch plasma TV screens watching sports or their favourite soap opera or having gone already to bed, exhausted from a long boring day of work in the many cubicles and offices of technology companies. Companies who had set their headquarters in Pittsburgh after the steel industry had collapsed, reducing the population from six hundred thousand to nearly half of that.

Mangon could smell the distinct wild river scent of the Mon, descending on the neighbourhood at night when cars were few and tranquillity returned to its banks for a few short hours until sunrise. He takes the underpass at Steve Seventy Street, crosses into Carson and arrives in Hot Metal Street where at the 19th and 77th crossing, the big white bald eagle of the American Eagle Outfitters HQ spreads its wings, a symbol of the greedy corporate whore America has become.

He dismounts at the edge of the small Monongahela Park and pushes his bike past the grotesque dark red steel monument on the Three Rivers Heritage Trail, which he tagged just a few weeks ago, but had already received a new coat of paint.  Mangon lifts his mountain bike over a low fence which separates the steep grassy river bank from the neatly trimmed park and hides it under the scrubs of a bush. He leans his back against the fence and watches the Monongahela River flow lazily downtown where it meets the Allegheny and where Pittsburgh, like a whore with spread legs, gave birth to a first settlement from which later grew the city centre with its cold industrialist heart of steel and capitalist skyscrapers that looked like gigantic voodoo needles stuck into something which should have grown to become the American Dream.

In front of him the 321 foot long Hot Metal Bridge, one of the over 400 bridges which gave Pittsburgh the ridiculous title of “Word’s City With the Most Bridges” stretches its camelback arches into a clear night with countless stars.

Built in 1887 as Monongahela Connecting Railroad Bridge and expanded in 1900 into a twin with the Hot Metal Bridge, connecting parts of the J&L Steel mill on both sides of the river, it carried, during its heyday at the turn of the last century, an endless succession of molten steel from the blast furnaces to the rolling mills on the opposite bank.

The monster of World War II which needed to be fed with iron and steel for its weapons of war saw fifteen percent of America’s steelmaking capacity crossing over the Hot Metal Bridge in open wagons, like iron devils spurting hot iron sparks into the dark night and down onto the Mon River which flowed unruffled by it for centuries in its peaceful wake.

The origins of the Hot Metal Bridge dates back to 1843 when a canal line manager named Benjamin Franklin Jones arrived in Pittsburgh and, upon recognising the importance of steel as the life blood of America’s industrial revolution, sold his interests in the canal business to invest in iron and steel making. By 1850 he had formed American Iron Works which claimed the south bank of the Monongahela River while the American Steel and Iron Works, Keystone Rolling Mill and the Soho Department turned the virgin forests around Pittsburgh into industrial ground zero. Jones found a partner and soon the Jones and Laughlin Steel Corporation continued to expand and thrive until its peak during World War II. It contributed to build the US navy fleet, supplying steel for many warships that went out to free the world from the horrors of Adolf Hitler, while clandestinely erecting its global empire praying on weaker and smaller countries which they aimed to bring under its control and drench of vital resources to still the hunger of America’s economic wonder.

The decline and eventual death of the Steel Industry in Pittsburgh lead in 1984 to the closure of the former J&L complex, forcing Mangon’s father, who had just married his high school love, to search for a new job as office worker or clerk, abandoning a pathetic family history of blue collar slaves. After the old buildings were razed, the city decided to build and sell tiny little houses with neatly trimmed green in front of them on the area of the former Steel Works, an opportunity the young couple happily took up.

Mangon opens the dark red backpack with its strange metallic sheen of which he is quite fond. It is filled with Krylon cans in various shades of the tricolours of Old Glory: Ford Blue, the light Blue Glowz, Red Devil, Firelane Red and a few cans of Chalk White. The few stores which have spray cans on sale were on strict orders from the Mayor in his ongoing battle against graffiti artists to refuse to sell them to teenagers or anyone who looked like he might vandalise the city. Mangon had no other option than to nick them which he did meticulously during the lasts preparing for tonight’s big piece.

Despite it being a warm summer night, he pulls out his black hoodie which is tainted with traces of nocturnal past activities and helps him to conceal his identity from the eyes of the ever growing army of CCTV cameras. Mayor Tom Murphy has positioned the cameras all over his city to catch the hooligans who desecrate the walls of buildings, to bring them to justice in a court that sentences the victims to either jail or endless hours of humiliating community service based on its “No mercy for vandals” policy.

Mangon’s mother is a member of the city’s beautification committee, hoping to climb step by step up Pittsburgh’s steep society ladder and his father is an obedient office worker, who preached to Mangon about obeying all laws and following orders without questioning them, he could not risk being identified and caught, especially not now, when he was about to commit an act of utter defiance and rebellion against his hometown whose conservatism and hypocrisy he despised.

He is wearing some of his favourite shoes, battled and worn out red Rebook Answer IV sneakers with a zip. Mangon thought the zip was an incredibly cool design. Black super-low stretch Levis jeans and a red baseball cap complete his outfit. In the Attic Mangon found an old weight belt which his father had used many years ago, when he still worked out at the gym, maybe to impress his still young wife with a well-trained body. Now a big hairy beer belly and man boobs have replaced a former lean fit body, an outward expression of his father’s continued degeneration and progressing depression. He simply has given up the fight for anything in life, waiting on the arrival of the first day of his retirement which he foolishly declared as the beginning of real freedom, which he probably will spend sitting in front of his TV, his obese body filled with chips, popcorn and beer.

The weight belt, transformed with a bit of rope and lots of gaffer tape into a makeshift harness, will suspend him in the air while dangling from the Hot Metal Bridge, trying to spray his big piece on the centre pillar which rises up in the middle of the stream. Mangon hopes this act will bring him fame and full acceptance into the NakedLunch Crew. It is a risky plan as he could be easily spotted by anyone on a late night stroll with their dogs along the Three Rivers Heritage trail, but if he succeeds, his first big piece will be dope and without doubt the local TV station would be keen to report about the latest act of vandalism on one of the city’s most cherished heritage monuments. For the town rulers it symbolises the riches and rise in power of those who have come before them, who have shaped and manipulated Pittsburgh according to their views and needs, while at the same time obliterating any notion of the thousands of hard working steel workers and their backbreaking work as slaves of the industrial age.

If he were caught and identified it would be disastrous not only for him, but also for his father who would see his son’s deed as a personal attack and an attempt to bring shame upon his immaculate family name. For generations his family have been faithful servants and obedient to whomever ruled over them. His mother, who sat in monthly meetings of the beautification committee of the city council, demanded stronger punishment for “offenders against good taste.” She and her beautification committee took the liberty to decide upon the ruling out of graffiti as an accepted public art form and declared it as a direct affront to the “good people” of Pittsburgh, refining taste of how their beautiful city has to look.

Tonight would be a night of victory or utter defeat, of either becoming an accepted member of the NakedLunch Crew, one of three of the city’s most famous graffiti groups (who fought an ongoing battle among themselves to become all city, covering as many places as they could with their ever increasing bold tags and pieces) or sink and disappear in anonymity after fifteen minutes of fame being paraded around as one of Pittsburgh’s notorious “vandalizers.”

If he succeeded, he would step out of the shadows of a long line of immigrants who, in the same way as his forefathers, having arrived in 1872 on one of the Quakers ships to the New World and achieving absolutely nothing during their pathetic lifetimes of averageness and service, had been whipped into obedience first by their European masters, later chose to obey out of their own accord under the rules and principles of an ethical and moral life under their Quaker god whose name they were proud to point out, expressed the relationship to their creator, as it meant “trembling in the way of the lord”.

The only historic reference to the existence of their Irish family name – McBloom – is a record in one of the Immigration Passenger lists among 25 million other immigrants who had emigrated from Europe to the USA hoping to find fortune and happiness. His forefathers had originally settled in Philadelphia, which served once even as the temporary capital of the United States while the District was under construction.

The story of how the Quakers came to the New World was another of many quirks of history going back to the late Admiral Penn who fought many battles at sea for Cromwell’s Commonwealth and to whom the king of England, then James II, owed sixteen thousand pounds, probably gambling debts. William Penn, son and heir of the Admiral suggested to the king to cancel the debts of the crown to his family in exchange for a huge piece of land in the newly discovered overseas colonies, land onto which the King of England had never set foot on, land which he never had conquered just claimed belonged to him after having received word of its existence. Penn who was a member of the “Society of Friends,” a name the Quakers called themselves, feared prosecution by the Church of England whose head the king was as well and who could with one word ban and prosecute the blasphemous who dared to reject all sacraments, rituals and even the Bible, robbing priests of the power to extract coins from sinners, a system which had worked profitable for the church for centuries, since the day Jesus was nailed onto the cross.

Penn sailed to the new world in 1704 but after a pub brawl in which he took offence, decided to leave the new colony which he now owned, to fight on his own and return to England with orders to hold up the Quaker’s pacifist stance and purchase the land from the Native Indians.  He exchanged coins which were worthless for Indians for the land they had lived on for uncountable moons. Thus the power of capitalism had arrived to the new world and Indians were cheated out of their own lands and pushed westwards to what later became the 1763 proclamation line running along the Appalachian Mountain range in a deal which made the Quakers feel better about their new land and the Natives without fertile grounds to raise their families.

Mangon’s great grandfather, a certain Leopold McBloom, whose name meant “a bold person” from Ireland had arrived in America in 1872 where he made Philadelphia, for a few years, his home and where he met his later wife, Anna Livia, another immigrant with German roots. They were a hardworking couple with the intention to create a better future for their many children who had begun to pop out of Anna’s constantly pregnant belly when they heard word that the steel works in the Pittsburgh area were in dire need of new labourers.

They arrived in Pittsburgh in 1887 where McBloom found work helping to build the Hot Metal Bridge connecting the two sides of the Mon River to allow molten steel to be transported from the blasting hot furnace ovens to the steel mills. After the second part of the twin truss bridge was constructed, he stayed on as mill worker being considered one of the few labourers who were deemed loyal to the owners and not a member in the AA Union. Leopold Bloom, who had dropped the “mac” out of his family name to make it sound more American and to show to himself that he was no longer just the son, but his own man and able to feed his ever growing family of eight children, of whom six survived to the day forming later the six solid branches of the Bloom’s family settling all around Pittsburgh.

The Bloom’s family motto which was held in reverence among all members was: “Wessen Brot ich else, dessen Lied ich singe,” an old German saying dating back to Medieval times which translates as “Whose bread I am eating, those song I am singing” similar to the English saying “He who pays the piper, calls the tune,” which for Mangon sums up in just one sentence everything he revolted against.

Mangon cannot accept what he calls his family’s “slave mentality,” which they adopted to justify their cowardice attitude towards life, their obedience to anyone who had more money, more powerful friends or who claims to have the law which they bent like a rubber, on their side. Mangon’s mother had taken her husband’s family motto to the extreme, sucking up to everyone whom she considered even just a bit superior to her, anyone whom she thought was standing a step up on the social ladder, in order to gain acceptance and become a member of those privileged circles of society, which in her naiveté, considered the meaning of her life. While her husband was forced to comply and appear at his wife’s side on numerous local social events, each boring him to death, Mangon was simply disgusted by her.

“You are nothing more than a society whore!” he once shouted at his mother during their frequent squabbles which ended like most of them with a brisk bitch slap and him being suspended to his room for a few days.

Mangon’s father works as a clerk in a bank which is located in Pittsburgh’s sterile downtown city centre. In order to reach his workplace he has to cross the Hot Metal Bridge every single working day.

It brings a smile to Mangon’s face to imagine the reaction of his father if everything goes well and he can pull it off and spray the big piece all over the centre pillar of the bridge. He envisioned that after hearing about it in the local news, his father would get a red head out of anger and with his fatty fingers bolstering down on the family dinner table he would bring up this blasphemous act of vandalism, demanding the harshest form of punishment for those criminals, supported by silent sobbing nods from his mother, the secretary of the district beautification committee.

Mangon remembers a sunny Friday afternoon, almost exactly two years ago, when he was still only thirteen. It was another 23, possibly June, when his mother had forced him to put on a clean white t-shirt, tugged into his trousers, combed his hair neatly to the side and made him wear a pair of uncomfortable black leather shoes instead of his beloved sneakers, in order to look, as she called it, “presentable” for the inauguration of the Hot Metal Bridge, which would be opened for public traffic after years of renovation. His mother took pride in the fact that Mayor Murphy had listened to a bold suggestion of her beautification committee regarding the installation of historic looking street lamps on the bridge, something which she regarded as a personal acknowledgement and invitation to the elitist circle of Pittsburgh’s high society. Despite Mangon’s protests he was dressed up as the perfect son of a perfect American family and forced into the family car, driven off to attend the ribbon-cutting ceremony of the bridge which had been staged under an arch of red, white and blue balloons.

“The bridge is a link from the past to the future,” Mayor Murphy said in the inauguration speech, praising its symbolism. “It signifies our steel-making history and provides our connection to high technology.” He conveniently forgot to mention the gruesome and poor lives of the steel workers whose sole purpose was to fill up the bank accounts of the owners, banks and politicians who kept strict control over their property. The inauguration was followed by a parade of former steelworkers and public officials who paraded over the bridge after the ribbon-cutting, each one holding and waving a small American flag.

“Utterly pathetic,” Mangon thought, refusing to join his parents at the parade over the bridge, preferring to wait in the car for their return.

Mother’s side of the family included Mum’s brother who moved to Germany, but whom Mangon refused to acknowledge as an uncle as he was a known NAZI, glorifying Germany’s Hitler and his fascist thugs, even owning a German shepherd dog, whom he had named ”Blondie”—the same name the Fuehrer had given his beloved dog.

Mangon still remembered when he was quite young, not older than six or seven years old and his mother had dragged him for the entire two months of his summer holidays away from his friends to stay with his maternal grandparents. They lived in a tiny and simple house without TV, miles away from the next little town in Vermont and surrounded by a dark forest which scared the crap out of him.

He recalls the face of his grandmother full of painful bitterness, sorrow and suffering and underlined by the same strict sober black dress she wore every day. She spent many hours on her knees in front of a small altar which consisted of several pictures of the Virgin Mary and memorabilia from pilgrimages she had chosen to endure, and a big plastic cross which lit up and blinked when it was plugged in during prayer time.

Mangon didn’t remember a lot of things of his grandfather, but there was something that stood out: his strange smell, which he found at the same time repulsive yet interesting. He was unable to identify it for many years, until he bumped by accident into a drunken hobo on the street. It was the same mixture of cheap alcohol and tobacco which in an instant made everything about his grandfather clear for him. It also explained his grandfather’s many trips during the day into the cellar, to re-emerge a short time later sometimes accompanied with loud singing, then grabbing him more forcefully than carefully, speaking with him in a language he could not understand, while rubbing his old bony fingers all over the boy’s legs and crotch.

His grandparents had only recently immigrated to the US and came from Carinthia, a small region on the southern border of Austria, where they belonged to a Slovenian minority which speaks Windisch, an amalgam of Slovenish and Austrian German. It’s a language impossible to understand for the majority of German speaking people who lived in the tiny villages on the slopes of the Carinthian Alps. Nobody ever told Mangon the reason why this odd couple, who lived isolated in their small house on the edge of the village decided to pack up and emigrate to the States, unable to speak even one word of English and when, after their arrival, refused to assimilate. It was only many years later when Mangon heard from a cousin rumours about the real reason for their sudden departure to the US. The rumours spoke of an alleged sexual assault by his grandfather, who was accused of having sexually molested a young school girl in the village on her way back from school.

When word got round and the crime was discovered, the men of the village went to his grandfather’s home and confronted him, roughed him up and demanded his immediate arrest. It is said that early the next morning he fled with his wife and children to America, leaving his dark past behind him. He continued his isolated life, refusing to make contact with anyone but his family and died a few years back in a hospital, surrounded by five of his children, Mangon was ten. After months of abominable pain, his grandfather’s back had begun to rot for unknown reasons, probably because of some form of cancer, which had been eating him alive.

It was just after Mangon’s fourteenth birthday, when he had run away for the first time from his parents, during the whole two months of his summer holidays as his parents had tried to force him to work in one of the big factories which hung on Pittsburgh like leaches on a man’s leg. Mangon’s refused to succumb to the pressure from his parents and even his school teachers, who considered fourteen the perfect age for a young teen to start experiencing the “real” life as they called it. Instead, he chose to run away and found himself on the road, completely on his own and without any money for the first time in his life, hitchhiking all the way through several states down to Florida when he suddenly perceived a strange notion…almost like a calling from his grandmother…whom he hadn’t seen nor thought of for many years.

He used a payphone near a highway petrol stop to call his grandmother, but was informed by another relative that she had been admitted once again to the hospital. She had battled her whole life with cancer, diabetes, heart disease, thrombosis in both legs and high blood pressure, all diseases which she saw as being sent to her by her God, not as punishment, but as means of purification of her and her husband’s dark soul, so that they would be able to enter the promised kingdom of their Lord and creator.

Mangon managed to reach the hospital in Montpelier, the tiny capital city of Vermont a few days later after a long series of hikes all the way up from Miami. When he opened the door of the room in which his grandmother lay he was greeted by a weak, yet through and through bitter, mean voice “Cut that long hair! Only bad boys have long hair,” were the only words she spoke to him during the long hour Mangon spent with her. He regretted the visit the moment he had opened the door. Grandmother died soon afterwards. Mother, who was devastated by the tragic news of her death, demanded Mangon accompany her for grandmother’s funeral, which he rejected vehemently without mentioning his recent visit in the hospital.

Mangon refuses to identify himself solely as a product of his parents, he refuses to believe he was only the result of the mixture of the genetic pools of his father and mother, genes which came heavily laden with cowardice, falsehood, obedience and religious madness, all characteristics which he hated to the bone.

His childhood could be called ordinary on the outside, from kindergarten up to high school, playing sports and video games with his friends, but they were years spent with an intense pain inside, more and more frequently hiding in his room, listening to depressive old vinyl’s on his record player and refusing to go out even when his friends came by to pick him up.

When he was twelve he befriended a few students among the smokers who met in secret every lunch break behind the school, out of sight of teachers on guard duty, with whom he shared Marlboros and Camels, later joints. Soon they roamed the neighbourhood as a small gang with their mountain bikes and skateboards, creating havoc among the shopkeepers from whom they stole chewing gums, cigarettes or sometimes even CD’s.

But now being fifteen years old, he finds those random acts of criminal behaviour ridiculous and meaningless, moreover extremely selfish, having learned that companies calculate a certain price increase into their goods based on average loss because of theft by customers, and more frequently, its own staff. It was all part of the system and wouldn’t change a thing in society.

He had come in contact with a small group of older guys, all around seventeen, eighteen, who were members of a graffiti crew, all dressed in tight dirty trousers with wild coloured hairs, piercings and always a hoodie. When night descended upon the city they come out and meet in secret spots all over the city, which they communicated to each other in encrypted chat rooms, to fight the battle of Pittsburgh with three other big crews. They were involved in tagging wars, which were played out all over the city, leaving their distinct marks on houses, subway cars, factory walls and even government buildings. The traces of their battles were visible the next morning all over town and prompted many dutiful citizens to pick up the phone and complain to the police who, on direct orders from the Mayor, had to set up their own task force to bring those young criminals to justice.

The increased police presence on the streets with cops looking out for young teens who fit the description of a graffiti kid, which could be any young person wearing sneakers, jeans and a hoodie, just increased the thrill factor and added additional danger bonus points for pieces sprayed on public buildings monitored by recently installed CCTV cameras.

Mangon strains his eyes staring for a long time at the centre pillar soaking in every detail of the Hot Metal Bridge which he has chosen as target for the big graffiti piece he thought up and outlined in his piece book for weeks. It will be a massive piece widely visible on the middle pillar of the bridge which rises out of the Mon River. He knows that if he pulls this off, it will not only make the headlines in the local town paper or even have the Local TV station report about it in their daily Pittsburgh news summary, but he will without doubt be accepted as new member into the NakedLunch Crew. A few meters away from him, the Mon River flows by silently, a dark body of water which cuts through the land century after century of being a quiet witness to the slow regular changes nature commands, turning leaves in various colours or covering everything under a thick layer of snow. Only when men replaced trees with giant furnaces and steel mills, everything changed dramatically, when on both sides of the river the heat and noise of steel manufacturing disturbed the quiet night, the river became its victim. Its wild river beds were fortified with stones and straightened; it was poisoned with everything the plants along its course spit out. When on dark moonless nights devilish iron wagons, straight out of hell, laden with hot molten steel are sent from one side of the river to the other, red sparks of hot iron rain down into it, baptising the once proud Monongahela River with poisonous holy iron water before it disappears, merging with the Allegheny to become the Ohio River.

After the steel furnaces pushed Pittsburgh into the top ranks of one of the most polluted cities in the whole US, the steel industry crumbled and finally disappeared, replacing them with technology companies and bank guaranteeing to generate six digit bonuses for their CEO’s.

Pittsburgh was built on the foundation of steel which Andrew Carnegie, a Scottish American industrialist brought to the area growing the city’s population from 86,000 in the 1870s to over 600,000 before the whole steel industry collapsed leaving the city without any identity. In the late 1880s Carnegie Steel became the largest manufacturer of pig iron, steel rails and coke in the world, spreading his empire along the Monongahela River by buying the rival Homestead Steel Works in 1888, just a few miles up the Mon River which not only came with an extensive plant served by tributary coal and iron fields, but also a 425 mile long railway and even a line of lake steamships. He combined all of his assets and those of his business associates and launched in 1892 the great Carnegie Steel Company, the biggest and most powerful steel manufacturer in America. Despite his many public proclamations in favour of a free market without government interference he used his power and influence to lobby for better steel tariffs and pressure US congress to amend laws and allowing him huge tax saving and other advantages.

“Measured by the standards of 19th century tycoons, Carnegie was not a particularly ruthless man but a humanitarian with enough acquisitiveness to go in the ruthless pursuit of money.” While he lived a life of the rich and famous, the contrast to the hard lives of many of his workers who had to survive on minimum wages was stark. Nevertheless Carnegie declared himself a philanthropist and wrote a “Gospel of the Wealth” in which he condemned the worship of money and encouraged fellow rich people to cap their yearly income to an amount which still allowed them to live a life of luxury and splendour while giving the surplus away to help society, mostly by granting money to build universities and libraries in their names, something a worker who had to feed his many hungry children was not able to appreciate, nor ever benefit from.

“Maybe with the giving away of his money,” commented one biographer, “he would justify what he had done to get that money.”

Carnegie was the first who introduced cheap and efficient mass production in the rising steel industry adopting the Bessemer process which allowed a much faster production thus sending the price of steel plummeting, leading to an increased railway network which began to spread like a spider web all over America. He was vehemently against the imperialist inclinations of the still young US, which after the Spanish American war, annexed the Philippines, and using the power of money, bought the whole country from Spain for twenty million, something which he countered with a personal offer of the same sum to the Philippines so that the Filipino people could buy their independence from the United States. Of course the offer bore no fruits and was simply ignored by the US, who already then began to spread their powerful arms all over the world to grab as many resources as they could steal from weaker countries.

Mangon never understood why the city celebrated and commemorated the filthy rich industrialists and not their own workers whose hands, full with calluses, had built Pittsburgh’s steel empire and generated vast riches for the owners, who were ruthless and ignorant to the rights and demands of the workers.

Carnegie was no exception, while he put a lot of efforts in keeping up a public profile as humanitarian, sticking his name on every public building he erected, as pacifist against the aggressive US war policy, and as philanthropist who gave away most of his money to foundations he considered being beneficial to society; he was absolutely opposed to the right of workers to form unions to stand up in one strong unified voice to company owners whose only goal was to run their factories for maximum profits.

The steel workers in the Pittsburgh area organised themselves into the AA Union and demanded from him a thirty percent increase of their meagre wages after Carnegie’s company profits at the Homestead Works had risen by sixty percent. Henry Frick, a business associate whom he had installed as plant manager rejected the worker demands on orders of Carnegie who objected them on principle of his economic theory that higher wages would only increase production costs, thus contributing to an overall price increase, hurting the simple workers in the end. The conflict between the workers of the AA Union and the owners of the Carnegie Steel Company soon escalated and became in 1892 one of the most serious bloody labour confrontations in US history, lasting 143 days.

Carnegie crossed the ocean back to the old world shortly after the beginning of the Homestead Strike into the safety and comfort of his Scottish castle, leaving the cold hearted and evil Frick, who soon became famous as the most hated man in America, and was later named the worst American CEO of all time, in charge to deal with the AA Union workers which he did with an iron fist.

Today was the 23 of July 2002 which was exactly 110 years to the day that Alexander Berkman, an anarchist, attempted to assassinate Frick in his office where he sat with the vice president of the plant by shooting him several times in the neck and stabbing him with a poisoned knife. The local newspapers reported then that the first bullet hit Frick in the left earlobe and penetrated his neck near the base of the skull, while the second one hit him in the neck and caused extensive bleeding. Only then was Berkman subdued by his business associate and other office employees who had rushed into the office. Berkman spent the next twenty-two years in jail while Frick, despite having been seriously wounded, returned to work a week later.

When Mangon found a book about Emma Goldstein in the school library, another anarchist, lover and consort of Berkman he learned that the assassination attempt to rid the world of corporate evils like Frick was a so called “propaganda deed” defined first by Johann Most, who advocated publicising violent acts of retaliation against counter-revolutionaries because “we preach not only action in and for itself, but also action as propaganda.”

Mangon had read Duval and liked especially one quote in which the author famously declared: “Theft exists only through the exploitation of man by man…when Society refuses you the right to exist, you must take it…the policeman arrested me in the name of the Law, I struck him in the name of Liberty.”

While Mangon rejects violence in all forms and adopted “non-violence” as his basic attitude towards society, it doesn’t mean that he was condemned to inaction and passivity towards society. On the contrary, it inspires him to actively pursue ventures which allow him to shake up people around him through non-violent means. The most powerful of them is graffiti which he considers not only an act of pure art forced into the public’s face, but also a way to communicate that he is still alive and has a voice. He planned this night for many weeks and chose the day carefully: July 23 to honour, in his view, the selfless act of Berkman and to wake up the masses to the evil of capitalism, despite the violence it inherited, which he chose to accept as necessary and viewed the assassination attempt as the direct consequence of the killings of nine union workers and injuring seventy during the Homestead Strike.

Mangon is ready to commit a pure propaganda deed by spraying a message on the centre pillar of the historically saturated Hot Metal Bridge, (which was actually a song title by the Gorillaz) but which he finds as being the saddest statement a human possible could utter and ultimate consequence of any human activity if it is based on the greed for power and money. If he succeeds with tonight’s plan “EVERY PLANET WE VISIT IS DEAD” will rise in huge letters out of the middle of the Monongahela River widely visible for everyone whose eyes fell upon one of Pittsburgh most important landmarks. It will be his way to finally let the world know that he existed, to show to himself that he could step out of the long shadow his family had cast by generations of generations of being law obedient parts of the big machine. His big piece will be a direct affront to his mother and her beautification committee, it will become a raised middle finger in the face of his father on his way to work, but it will definitely guarantee him becoming an accepted member of a graffiti crew.

Mangon stares at the bridge and the Mon river which flows undisturbed by his thoughts underneath him. Tonight is the night which will change everything forever or, something which he did not dare to think about—will be the end of his freedom. If he would be caught by the cops, not only would he have to bear the punishment the juvenile court would impose on him, but he would also feel the wrath of the whole Bloom family coming down on him, for daring to humiliate and soil their family name by becoming a vandalising criminal.

Tonight the river lays stretched lazily almost like a woman on a recliner in front of him, flowing slowly like black poison in the veins of a man who had been condemned by a cruel society to death for crimes questioning its legitimacy to impose their rules over the freedom of individuals.

There are a few times a year when the river suddenly swells, when it becomes a wild and dangerous animal trying to break free from the muzzle humans forced on it in an attempt to tame it and bend nature to obey their greedy will.

There are a few rumours and fairy tales ranking around the Monongahela River, one of which speaks about a strange river monster, half man, half fish, the Monongy. Named so by local Indian tribes who told stories around the campfire about it eating and killing everyone, especially young children, who had come too close to its treacherous banks and fallen into the river. There are legendary accounts from British soldiers going back as far as the French and Indian war, who have spoken of encounters with the Monongy in the Monongahela River.

There were so many sightings of the river monster reported during the 1930s through the late 1950s that the city even created their own police task force whose sole purpose was to investigate sightings of the creature. Of course no evidence had ever produced and evil tongues whispered that money for the task force only made the local donuts shops prosper supporting the fact that Pittsburgh’s police force consisted of officers who looked like fat stuffed pigs riding around town in their matchbox cars.

Another river mystery is that of the missing airplane, a B-25 in route from Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, which crashed early in the morning of January 31, 1956 and which, despite the relative shallowness of the water, had never been found and remains to the day one of the Pittsburgh’s regions unsolved mysteries

Mangon snips the rest of the joint into the river and watches it being carried away slowly. He turns his head to the right, upstream, towards the next bridge which the honourable city of Pittsburgh has named “The Pinkerton Landing Bridge” to commemorate the murderers who were set free after killing nine Homestead workers while injuring scores, among them many women and children.

Mangon checks the gear for the last time, getting ready to avenge the AA Union workers of the Homestead plant and honour the victims whose blood turned the Monongahela red, 110 years after the assault and murder of nine people: AA Union workers, women and children.

After 143 days of strike, which was technically a lockout, Frick, while continuing to pretend to negotiate with the worker’s representatives, had ordered the Pinkerton’s to retake the plant which he had turned into a fort to protect it from the strikers who had managed to occupy it. The Pinkerton National Detective Agency was a private army with more agents than there were members of the standing military forces of the US and was hired by filthy rich business magnets to infiltrate unions, supply guards, keep strikers and suspected unionists out of the factories as well as recruiting goon squads to intimidate workers. Knowing that the Pinkerton’s would get the job done, he equipped them with Winchester rifles and sent them on two fortified barges up the river on July 6 1892. Once the 300 men army of private detectives would have chased the AA Unionists from the Homestead plant, Frick, on behalf of the owner Andrew Carnegie, would bring in cheap labourers whom he had hired from as far away as Europe and many blacks from the South to have them work the steel mills for half the unionists wages and completely under his control as they were not allowed to become union members.

Once the towboat with the two barges passed the Monongahela Connecting Railroad Bridge, which was still missing its Hot Metal twin part, and before entering the almost perfect 180 degrees curve the Mon, drew in its elegance as a last salute before dissolving to become the Ohio River, word had reached the strikers of the impending approach of the heavily armed private army.

They responded with a small flotilla of union boats which were sent downriver to meet the barges. After the strikers fired a few random shots at the barges, but then withdrew, the plant whistle was blown at two-thirty am and a scream tore through the silence of the night, waking up thousands of men, women and children from the surrounding homes who came rushing to the plant to support the strikers.

The Pinkertons had attempted to land under the cover of darkness at around four am. A few shots were fired at the tug boat and at the barges, but no one was injured. Some people in the crowd had begun to throw stones at the barges, but the strike leaders shouted for restraint. The mercenaries were undisturbed even by the sight of women and small children on the banks of the river and prepared to disembark, upon which the first shots were fired. The first two who went down were the Captain of the Pinkertons, one Frederick Heinde, and William Foy, a steel worker and union member.

The Pinkerton agents aboard the barges fired into the crowd, killing two and wounding eleven among them women and children. The crowd responded and a battle ensued, killing two agents, while wounding twelve in a firefight which continued for about ten minutes.

While the strikers huddled behind the pig and scrap iron in the mill yard, the Pinkertons had cut holes in the side of the barges so that they could fire on anyone who approached them. The tug boat had departed with the wounded agents leaving the barges stranded. Hundreds of brave women crowded the riverbank forming a human wall between the strikers and the agents, calling on the strikers, among them their husbands, friends, lovers, sons and uncles to “kill the Pinkertons.

The strikers continued sporadically to fire upon the barges. John McLuckie issued a proclamation at six am asking for townspeople to help defend the peace upon which over five thousand people congregated on the small hills overlooking the steelworks.

Downstream, a few miles away in Pittsburgh, thousands of steelworkers from other plants had gathered in the streets, listening to accounts of the attacks at Homestead and upon hundreds decided to get armed and began to move towards the plant in Homestead to assist the strikers.

At eight am when the sun had risen over the Mon River, the Pinkertons attempted again to disembark and storm the plant which resulted in the death of four more strikers. This attack was prevented by the workers who had been holed up at the Homestead plan vowing to defend it to death. Fear began to crawl over the Pinkertons when they felt the strong will of resistance of the AA Unionists and many agents refused to participate any longer in the firefight. They crowded on the barge which lay stranded farthest from the shore. Despite warnings of the senior agents many abandoned ship and swam away trying to flee the impending disaster.

At ten-fifty am the tug came back and attempted to retrieve the barges, but was only greeted with gunfire and driven off.

Three hundred riflemen, composed of unionists and sympathetic townsfolk, positioned themselves on high ground and kept a steady stream of fire on the barges. Just before noon a sniper shot and killed another Pinkerton agent.

As the resistance of Frick’s private army was still not broken, the strikers resolved to a new tactic: floating rafts with timbers soaked in oil towards the barges. The Pinkerton agents panicked and the captain threatened to shoot anyone who would dare to flee. Luck was on their side when the fire burned itself out before it had reached the barges. Another attempt to float a railroad flatcar with drums of burning oil failed as it too burned out long before it became any danger to the Pinkerton army.  Someone threw dynamite at the barges, but only inflicting little damage. In their desperation the workers decided to pour oil into the Monongahela River but all attempts to set the oil slick alight failed.

The representatives of the AA Union worked hectically behind the scenes to avoid further bloodshed and to defuse the tense situation. At nine am, the president of the unionists had rushed to the sheriff’s office to ask to meet Frick, who refused, coldly calculating that the more chaotic the situation would become, the more likely it would force Governor Robert Pattison to call out the state militia in his support.

It was only the next day when the sheriff sent a telegram to the governor describing how his deputies had been driven off and stating that workers and their supporters now numbered over five thousand people preventing the landing. Pattison still refused to act immediately, hoping to avoid getting involved in this violent labour dispute which threatened to become even more bloody.

At four pm more than five thousand men, most of them armed mill hands from other steel works, had arrived to the Homestead Plant in support of the brave workers and townspeople who had held their positions since the previous night. One Union leader urged the strikers to let the Pinkertons surrender, but his pleas were drowned out as the strikers began to bombard the barges with fireworks left over from the recent Independence Day celebration. The head of the union strike committee spoke to the crowd and demanded that each Pinkerton agent should be charged with murder, forced to turn over their arms and be removed from town. The crowd shouted in agreement.

The spirit of the Pinkertons was broken. They wished to surrender and at five pm raised a white flag while sending out two agents to speak with the strikers. They were guaranteed safe passage out of town to which they agreed readily. Once they disembarked their embattled barges, they were stripped of their arms and forced to pass along two rows of guards armed with Winchesters. A crowd of angry man and women threw sand and stones at the agents, spat on and beat them, clubbing some into unconsciousness. In a fury they ransacked the barges and burned them to the waterline. Those acts of violence by the crowd was immediately picked up by the media causing public opinion to turn quickly against the strikers.

It was July 7 when a special train had arrived at twleve-thirty am carrying the Pinkerton agents to their final destination in Pittsburgh, accompanied by an AA lawyer and several town officials.

When the agents arrived, the state officials declared that they would not be charged with murder but released immediately without charges. Another train whisked the agents out of the city and away from the betrayed workers.

The strike committee sent an urgent telegram to Governor Pattison to convince him that law and order had been restored in the town and at the plant, but it came too late. Another attempt of Union officials who met Pattison on July 9 in Harrisburg failed as well to prevent him from sending in the state militia.

The governor was concerned that, as the union controlled the entire city of Homestead and most of its citizens were sympathetic to the strikers, if he ordered his troops to take the town by force, a massacre would occur. But Pattison felt Carnegie breathing down his neck, whose political machine had helped him get elected governor of Pennsylvania and now his masters demanded him to follow their orders. He obliged and soon six thousand state militia poured into Homestead at the small Munhall train station. Commander Snowden made no secret to the local officials who welcomed them on friendly terms that they sided with Carnegie and that he was now in control, having an army of four thousand soldiers who had already surrounded the plant while another two thousand camped on high ground overlooking the city. Within just twenty minutes the soldiers had displaced the picketers and by ten am the next morning the company officials were back to their offices. Just three days later, on July 18 1892, the town was placed under martial law, which was another disheartening blow to many of the strikers who began to give up hope.

Because of the government’s army and their show of force with loaded guns, the strike was broken, the plant reopened and filled up with new workers, who were not union members, mostly blacks from the south who were willing to work obediently for much lower wages than the former AA Union workers had been willing to accept. This triggered a race war between non-union black and white workers in the Homestead plant whose mill furnaces had been relit on July 15 1892.

Mangon stands up, pulling the black hoodie deep onto his face, a headlight strapped on his forehead, a respiration mask dangling around his neck, a harness around the legs near the waist and closes the backpack out of which he has taken the towing rope. He is ready to strike, it is all or nothing now. Mangon waits until the last car passes and begins to walk fast with the rope in his hand to the bridge and along the narrow vehicle lanes towards the centre pillar in the middle looking like a robber who haunts the houses of the good people of Pittsburgh at night to rob them of their valued possessions.

He stops in the middle of the old truss bridge where its arched top chords touch down onto the deck, ties one end of the tow rope around it and peers down onto the dark black Monongahela River. Mangon connects the other end to the harness in which he intends to sit suspended hanging freely more than forty meters above the Mon.

Today was the day, he was ready to kill or get killed.

He turns on the headlight and leans over the railing to get a closer look at the centre pier which looks like a plow that cuts through the river waters, creating whirls and turbulences on its way. His breathing is laboured and heavy through the respirator mask which is essential to protect him from the toxic fumes of the spray colours and also helps him to cover his face from the many CCTV cams the Mayor has set up all over the city. He is sweating in his black hoodie as it is another of these hot and humid July nights when the winds from the east avoid Pittsburgh and cause sleeplessness and unease for its residents.

Mangon lifts his legs over the railing, carefully testing the rope’s strength before trusting it and lowers his body slowly into the river abyss below him. Despite everything it is much easier than he feared when he had gone over this moment in his mind a hundreds of times, his hands are wet with sweat and his heart is racing. He is aware that the next hour will change his life forever.

He opens the backpack which he has strapped in front of his body and takes out a black spray can. He pushes his body away from the bridge with his legs to get a better overview of the dimensions of the area, which would take up the whole upstream side of the pillar. He begins to spray the outlines of the blockbuster letters. “EVERY PLANET WE VISIT” soon appears in big letters in a sophisticated and complex style which he has developed during the last weeks, and  resemble exploding steel beams, filling them up in shades of blue and combined with grey, giving them a three dimensional appearance.

“So far, so good,” Mangon thinks, his intense concentration on the work has succeeded in calming his nerves. Everything appears to be quiet, the cars which pass periodically overhead do not notice anything nor is he spotted and reported to the police as a vandal by a zealous passerby. Two more words to go. He lowers his body a few feet down the rope and uses again black to write the letters “IS” which take the shape of two twisted knives seemingly piercing through the back. He proceeds to apply a lot of white as a background between the interwoven letters to make them stand out even more against the dark tone of the stone pillar.

Now only one word is left: “DEAD” which he intends to spray with Krylon Devil Red in the shape of letters which look like they are drenched in blood. It will be the altissimo of his big piece. He lowers his body a bit more and begins to spray the first three letters “DEA” which are an abbreviation for America’s Drug Enforcement Agency, a funny pun. Suddenly he becomes aware of light flashes which begin to dance in front of him reflecting on the fresh paint of his graffiti. He looks up and meets the eyes of two police officers who are leaning over the railing staring down while gesticulating for him to climb up.

He has been caught.

Game over.

Panic sets in. Cold sweat begins to cover his face.

His biggest fear becomes a reality the moment the cops begin to pull slowly up on the rope which he is hanging suspended over the river.

He cannot not give up now. He knows, if they catch him, he will have to face the full punishment for his act of rebellion, he should face it at least for the correct message. He has to complete his mission. He stems his legs slightly upwards against the pillar with his head hanging down in an attempt to slow down the police men, who began to pull harder. Even almost out of reach he sprays the last letter on his master piece. “EVERY PLANET WE VISIT IS DEAD” appears on the historic Hot Metal Bridge … His mission is complete even it means getting caught and being severely punished for it.

The policemen, who had doubled in numbers, are uniting their strengths and pull with new vigour on the rope, lifting Mangon upwards in short violent intervals. He is so close that he is able to stare into the eyes of the cops who, with red faces, are sweating profoundly while cursing him. A few more feet and they will be able to grab him, pull him over the railing and subdue him on the floor, handcuffing him while reading out the rights to him. He will be arrested and it is just a matter of hours before they will have found out his identity and call his parents. He will appear on the local news the following day his name forever branded into the minds of Pittsburghers as being the vandalising criminal who has defaced their beautiful city.

Mangon’s eyes open wide when he looks up and in an instant becomes aware of the sheer immensity and beauty of the night sky with its billions and billions of stars stretching infinitely in all directions. He is just one young man suspended on a rope between the heaven’s and the dark river which will carry his body away with deadly force sending his soul up to merge again with the stars.

Mangon takes out the knife from the front pocket of the backpack and cuts the rope with one slash.

He falls into the darkness of the river.

Do you know how pale and wanton thrillful

Comes death on a strange hour

Unannounced, unplanned for

Like a scaring over-friendly guest you’ve

Brought to bed

Death makes angels of us all

& gives us wings

Where we once had shoulders

Smooth as raven’s

Claws

Jim Morrison, The Severed Garden

The Initiation of the Jaguar

Screen Shot 2015-04-08 at 13.51.15

The apartment door opened and a small Asian woman in her thirties with a big smile appeared in the gap from which the strange smell of incense oozed.

You looking Master?” she asked and, without waiting for an answer, shoved the boy inside and disappeared behind a curtain into a room to the right.

He stared into the darkness, filled with the fragmented mist of many incense sticks glooming like red dwarf stars in the blackness. The long, narrow corridor extended ahead of him towards the gap in the door. A white, glistening light shone from the gap, partially illuminating the passageway. The narrow corridor was crammed with piles of magazines, books, canvasses; both painted and virgin; and old movie posters on both sides, reaching almost to the top of the room. Cloth in vibrant colors with mysterious, inscrutable embroidered patterns hung like an ethereal baldachin from the ceiling.

Summoning all his courage, he took a few cautious, small steps into the hallway, suddenly tripping over a bowl of cat food on the ground. He tried to catch his fall by holding onto a column of magazines which began to sway dangerously, spewing out numerous copies of the Tattoo Artist Magazine. They came cascading down onto his head like a swarm of vicious bats attacking prey in the middle of the dark night. He covered his head with his arms, crouched down and waited for the assault to be over. When he opened his eyes again he was inside a gigantic living vortex that stretched towards an infinite point of bright white light. Suddenly a cat appeared from behind, running hastily between his legs along the mystical tunnel, dissolving in the radiant gleam of another world. Carefully, so as not to cause another destabilization in the vortex, he made his way to the door at the end of the corridor and pushed it open.

The bright light from the kitchen blinded him. When his eyes finally acclimated, he discovered, sitting on a chair, the bare-chested back of a over and over tattooed, sturdy man with the head of a jaguar. The man turned towards him, holding a two-coil tattoo gun in his gloved right hand while his left pointed to an empty chair at the end of the table.

Sit down, kid,” the said in a deep gnarling voice.

Almost in a state of shock, the boy sat down. At the same time, he discovered the plump shirtless body of a rough looking man with a doughy, unshaven and ashen face slumped on a kitchen chair whose massive ass seemed to be in the process of slowly devouring it like a gargantuan blob. The master was applying the finishing shading touches on one of two big skulls which were tattooed on the wobbly white hairless chest of the man who had spent his last twelve years for the armed robbery of a post office in the State Correctional Institution in Mahanoy, the same prison where Mumia Abu Jamal will be jailed for the rest of his life after in 2011 the prosecutors agreed to no longer seek the death penalty for him. The right skull, inked in crude thick lines, faced a very intricate, almost holographic looking one, which resembled one of the famous pre-Columbian crystal skulls emanating an eerie reddish glow of freshly irritated skin like a halo. The boy watched silently, staring at the Jaguar who, despite his pumped up muscular body and crude paw like hands, moved the ink gun like a surgeon would guide his scalpels and tools.

Life! Now we got life!” the Jaguar exclaimed, throwing up his arms in the air, jumping from his chair and dancing around the fat bald guy in the chair who put on a satisfied grin. “Magic is bestowed upon thou!” he shouted. “Now rise! Rise and embrace immortality. Reborn son thou shalt now return to life!”

With considerable effort the man stood up from his chair, aided by the master, and stood like a mountain in the center of the kitchen. He sent a silent nod of thanks to the Jaguar before slowly dragging his massive body towards the door and disappearing into the vortex. Silence befell the kitchen. The only sound the boy could make out was the loud beating of his heart pounding in his ears. He watched for an eternity the Jaguar with his mighty head moving slowly and gently from left to right and back with his eyes closed like he was staring into an absurd vision of infinity. Finally the master’s eyes opened and he turned towards the boy.

What is it you have come to look for?” his voice roared in a dark growl.

The boy hesitated, lost for words. Finally he mumbled, “I have come here to get a tattoo.”

The master did not reply. He was taking apart the tattoo gun, cleaning it, throwing away the used needles, finally taking off the white plastic surgeon gloves he had been wearing, stained with dark ink splatters, and dumping them in a bin on the ground.

Who sent you?” he asked the boy without facing him.

Nobody,” the boy said and added, “I have heard in school that you are somebody who does tattoos and asked around for your address.”

“…does tattoos?” the master repeated in a slightly mocking way.

After a long silence the master turned the bright desktop lamp, which usually shone on the skin of his clients, directly towards the boy so that his face lit up like during a police investigation.

How old are you?” he asked the boy.

19.”

Get out!!!” roared the Jaguar,“Get out now!”

I am sorry, I am sorry,” the boy replied, raising his hands in a protective gesture in front of him then admitting in an almost inaudible voice, “I am 14.”

The Jaguar looked for a while at the boy, considering his answer, satisfied it was the truth.

Now that we have established that lying is certainly not the way you get a tattoo, how about some tea? I could really use one now.”

Ping!” he called out in a voice which couldn’t be sweeter. “Darling? Where are you?”

A few seconds later, the Thai woman who had opened the door for the boy came into the kitchen with a big smile on her face, seemingly relieved that the master had finished his work. She walked directly to the stove, turned it on and began heating up water.

You like tea, good mate, good, good,” she asked the boy who nodded in reply.

Ping took out of some cloth bags, which were hanging on a string in the kitchen, an assortment of dried leaves, put them in a wooden bowl and crushed them with a rounded wooden stick into a rough mixture. She transferred the contents into a strange looking gourd decorated with a sort of tribal pattern. Then she covered the opening with her palm, turned it upside-down and shook it first vigorously then more and more gently. She turned the filled gourd in which the yerba mate had settled skilfully around again to a near sideways angle and continued to move it with a gentle side to side motion. Then she added a bit of cold water to soak the tea and herb mixture before carefully placing a long, slightly bent silver straw with gilded ornaments into the gourd. She took the teapot off the stove and carried it to the table where she poured hot water into the gourd, filling it to the brim, waited until the disturbed mixture had settled down before drinking it in gentle sips through the straw.

I like!” she exclaimed, refilling the gourd with hot water and passing it on to the boy on her right who, unsure if to accept or refuse what looked to him like a witches brew, hesitated.

It’s mate´tea with her special mixture of all kind of herbs. It comes from South America,” explained the master. “Try it, you might like it.”

Encouraged by the explanation, the boy reached out for the gourd, received it with his two outstretched hands and brought it to his face where his mouth received its first taste of this indigenous brew which dated back centuries.

Wow, it’s nice!” he called out, passing back the empty gourd to the “cebador” who refilled it with hot water and offered it to the master, who emptied it with one big sip.

I am Alex,” the Jaguar said.

I am Ping,” the Thai woman added with a big smile, grabbing his massive tattooed arms and cuddling them like they were puppies, adding, “He my strong husband,” and both smiled and laughed.

The boy started to feel comfortable and relaxed in the odd atmosphere of this kitchen which was crammed with strange and mysterious objects. Old wooden shelves bent under the weight of numerous glasses and pots with unidentifiable ingredients. Garlic and onion plaits hung from the ceiling, and bags stuffed with exotic herbs emitted a pleasing scent, inundating the whole kitchen with an aura of mysticism and far away cultures.

Amidst all the strangeness, the boy spotted a cork pin board overloaded with pictures, some showing Alex and Ping holding hands on exotic beaches or sitting on a motorbike, always smiling and happy, clearly enjoying the company of each other. Paintings hung on every wall showing naked women in all positions, some of them were very taunting and sexually charged, composed with dynamic brush strokes and vibrant colours.

I am a painter,” Alex said, “but years ago I took up tattooing as I love to use the human body as a living canvas.”

That’s wonderful!” the boy exclaimed, his face lighting up. “That’s why I came to see you. I want you to make a tattoo for me, something you have designed, in many colours, I….”

Not so quick,” the master interrupted him, laughing out loud and forceful making the whole kitchen feel like it was being shaken by an earthquake

The law requires that you are 18 years old to get a tattoo, otherwise it might be considered assault on a minor and getting the cops on my ass again is definitely not something I am keen on.”

But…I really want one,” the boy begged. “I’ve wanted one for a very long time. It means so much to me. I can take the pain, I am not afraid of it.”

I can see that you are honest,” the Jaguar gave back, “but the only legal way is if your parents sign the consent form which is required by law from every client I work on.”

Immediately the boy wanted to tell him that he could bring the signed consent form the next day, but then remembered the Jaguar’s reaction when he was caught lying and his momentary enthusiasm died down and then gave in to resignation.

They will never sign something like that,” he replied with a sad face, staring in front of him at the kitchen floor.

I can’t make you a tattoo now, not until you are 18 years old, but you are always welcome to come by after school and watch when I work on my visitors.”

Not having gotten what he wanted, but knowing that it was impossible to convince Alex otherwise, the boy happily agreed and promised to come by again next week.

Steadfast, like a young tree whose roots have finally dug into fresh nourishing soil, leaping into an outburst of vitality, just about to break open the first virgin blossoms greeting the spring of his youth, the boy visited the master and his wife almost every day after and often also instead of school.

Ping introduced him to her world of culinary sorcery, unveiled for him the secrets of carefully chosen ingredients, taught him about their correct texture, composition, and the right amount, creating in front of his eyes dishes of extravagant consistency, each one a chef-d’oeuvre of its own. Dishes magically appeared in front of his eyes with smells of the orient, the Far East, or taunted his taste buds with an exotic spiciness forcing tears in his eyes and sweat on his nose. Some of her creations confused his senses, leaving them struggling to decide if a dish was sweet, sour or hot.

A big wooden spoon, aged by dousing it in countless sauces made of curry, coconuts and chilies, in nam phriks, pestos or guacamoles, in spicy fish, chicken or hot bean soups, reddened by a hearty goulash and glazed by gelatines was her magic wand, which she used now on the boy to have him taste her delicious brews and potions in all states of their creation. An explosion of flavor sent the boy’s taste buds into a jubilant euphoric state of ecstasy, something which he never dreamed of being able to experience simply with food. Whether it was through baking, boiling, braising or blanching, coddling, simmering or steaming, stewing, grilling, frying, roasting or searing or even letting the ingredients ferment by themselves in big old ceramic jars, her food was always like a hymn or blessing sung by angels sitting in the shape of small fragile porcelain figurines on the top of her kitchen shelf. Ping’s joyfulness lived in every bite. Her life force was deeply instilled in the food she loved to create, her love caressed the indescribable flavors which emanated from her dishes, permeating the kitchen, casting her magic upon everyone who was present, be it Alex, the boy or a client who had come to get a tattoo, but ended up being invited for a captivating meal.

The boy adopted the habit of rushing to the door the moment he heard the doorbell chime, opening it to the most interesting assortment of characters he had ever seen, individuals who usually vanish under a uniform mass of dimwit faces proclaiming normalcy, while pretending to embody the entire nation, but are nothing more than the vulgar death masks of a rotten society in its last phase of decomposition.

It’s about a society in free fall. On the way down, it keeps telling itself, ‘So far so good, so far so good.’ But it’s not how you fall that matters. It’s the landing.” Those few words which he had picked up in a French movie he had watched one evening with Alex and Ping became his mantra, swirling constantly around inside his head. “So far so good, so far so good,” he reassured himself, trying to keep calm. Often he opened the door to men, rarely women, who voluntarily or not, had dropped off the cliff of society, who no longer showed any interest in being part of the rat race, chasing after dead presidents on paper, accumulating in their bank accounts large numbers with a lot of zeros or trying to buy sumptuous houses featuring more bedrooms than occupants. There were those who avoided the law like vampires who are shy of the day, those who depended on their daily drug stimulation to be able to cope and those who were just released from months, sometimes years in prisons where they received the most astonishing body inks, often made by themselves or other inmates. Prostitutes, writers, artists, lovers in pairs, requesting heart motifs with the name of their beloved one woven into it, and even occasionally a sailor from a faraway harbor washed up in front of the tiny apartment and added another piece to their inked body suit.

Soon it became routine for the boy to welcome even the strangest visitors into the master’s lair, guiding them to the kitchen, where silence was essential to avoid taunting the dragon whose calm breathing was accompanied by an eerie, highly addictive piercing tone of swift precisely moving needles betrothing beauty to pain. A small table had been set aside for humble admirers, new devotees or already hard core addicts of body art to receive basic instructions in a muffled voice by the boy who did a much better job than Ping, whose command of language, was at the most, a bizarre uncommunicable form of Thai intermingled with a few English-sounding words that seemed almost torn out randomly of an encyclopaedia.

After establishing the basics with the clients, informing them about general rules, hourly rates, and the waiting time which was never less than a few months, he passed them a big binder with hundreds of photographs of tattoo art work of the master which Ping had arranged. It was sorted by motifs and decorated with tiny colorful stickers, something which Alex only commented on by raising his eyebrows, forcing a pressed smile and wiggling his head from side to side. The boy wrote down all the details of the clients’ wishes into a small notebook, marked the desired spot and size of the design on a photocopied silhouette of a human figure before calling Ping to arrange a date for paid consultation with the master, usually set an hour before Alex started his daily tattoo work. Every design the master made was unique. While he spoke with the aspirant, learned about their life story, and asked them about their reasons to get a tattoo, he took out his scratch book and began to throw a few pencil strokes on the white paper, only glancing up briefly to catch a look in the eyes of the clients, piercing deep into their souls. During all that time, the boy sat aside motionless, his eyes transfixed, following the quick movements of the pencil whose lines began to form into shapes of dragons, skulls, roses or sometimes surreal compositions which arose directly from the depths of the combined consciousness of master and apprentice.

The most intrinsic and delicate patterns, immobile fixed on paper, yet sodden with a dynamic energy that every instant they felt like they would jump off the page and dance to the their own rhythms, formed in the masters notebook. More and more parts were added, blanks became shaded, outlines drawn over and over in countless layers of creativity…no line was ever was erased and suddenly it all came together. A design had emerged, conceived on paper when genius had paired with unbound creativity. Not once had a customer disliked the design Alex had jotted down nor asked for modifications except to beg the master to add more and more details, extend it so that it covered a wider part of their skin. After that, Ping was called in, who arranged the date for the tattoo session. The only time the boy saw Alex and Ping quarrelling was when she wanted to spend more time with her husband. The master was obsessed and would have tattooed even on weekends, had Ping not prevented it by crossing out those days with big red X’s on her calendar.

Months passed by and the boy grew very fond of Ping and Alex, becoming part of their small family and taking over household duties. He often accompanied Ping to the fruit and vegetable market with its small exotic Asia shops tucked away in side streets where they hunted for the most unusual ingredients, from yum roots to ginseng, sniffing pungent herbs and savouring their peculiar aromas, sometimes tasting a dried mushroom or taking up the challenge of a shopkeeper that her chilies are the strongest in the whole market, by biting into one and letting its vigorous spiciness overpower all senses.

The boy’s mother never reserved time to cook food, she just saw it as one of her duties which she tried to get over with as quickly and with as little effort as possible. Most meals she prepared were either microwaved or were some easy-to-fix traditional dishes like pasta, breaded pork or sometimes beef, which she cooked in boiling water until it had the consistency of an old shoe. Apart from a salt shaker and an old pepper mill, which gathered dust on the kitchen table, no spices existed in the whole house—a sharp contrast to Ping’s kitchen which was overloaded with exotic spices and herbs, bathing it in a cloud of complementary fragrances.

Weeks passed until the master asked the boy to pass him some disinfectant pads or to assist him with shaving the chest or arm of a client in preparation for the tattoo work. One day during a food shopping trip, Ping told him that Alex had asked her to buy a big piece of pork belly, which was unusual as he never made any requests concerning food and was always delighted with every dish she produced. But today he wanted her to buy a big piece of pork belly, not chopped up, but in one piece. They bought the meat at the butchers and Ping handed it to the boy, crinkling her nose in disgust. “You carry yuck pig belly,” she said and handed him the bag. Back at the apartment just as the boy was about to put away their shopping Alex, who was tattooing a client, told the boy not to put the pork in the fridge, but leave it out on the table. Ping commented, “Now he ding dong,” before disappearing into her room.

After the client had left, the boy started to clean up, a daily routine he was happy to do. He disassembled the tattoo gun, disinfected all of its parts, safely discarded the used needles and was just about to store away the electric foot pedal when Alex intervened and told him to sit down. With a splashing wobbly sound, the heavy piece of pork belly landed in front of the boy.

Take out the old tattoo gun and load it up,” he instructed. The boy hesitated, not believing his ears.

What are you waiting for?” Alex grunted. The boy jumped up, ran over to the cupboard where, after some searching, he found Alex’s first tattoo gun, carried it over to the table and assembled it. He hooked up the two electricity clamps, double checking they were poled correctly, and adjusted the foot pedal. When he held the tattoo machine for the first time in his hands he was surprised at how heavy and clumsy it felt. It took some effort to position it correctly in his small hands to allow a firm grip while still remaining flexible enough to move the needles precisely. Alex rubbed Vaseline on the pork belly and pressed a paper onto which he had drawn some easy patterns against it, carefully rubbing it so that the design was blueprinted onto the meat surface.

There you go, kid,” he said. “Start with drawing the outlines, the shading I will show you later.”

Every day from then on the boy took classes in tattooing and visited the butcher so often that he began to wonder about the strange boy who always bought a big piece of pork belly, not cut but in one piece. Even Ping began to complain, starting to run out of recipes for pork belly and often pointing to Alex’s growing belly, she sarcastically stated that he resembled more and more a “Moo”. Alex gave the boy a notepad as a gift which became his most prized possession, carrying it around with him constantly, filling it up with ideas, scraps and designs for always more and more intricate patterns and tattoo designs. The master was a very critical and harsh teacher, often scolding his work, finding even the slightest mistakes, but always supplementing his harsh comments with a lot of information so that the boy’s abilities improved significantly in just a few weeks. Impatiently the boy began to nag Alex more and more often, always asking when he finally would be allowed to tattoo a simple design into his arm, something which Alex categorically denied. “It’s not the time, kid. Not yet,” he reminded him.

It was during a boring mathematic class which dragged on and on, when the boy took out a pair of his dividers and poked it through a round ink cartridge filled with blue ink, which he had removed from his pen. His hands held the dividers like a light-weight tattoo gun. As if in a trance he pressed his forearm against the desk so that the skin lightly stretched, and sank the needle deep into his skin. He dipped the needle into the ink often and soon a small thin line began to become visible. Knowing that using these primitive tools he could only make very simple designs, he continued to poke the needle into his flesh until the number “23” became clearly visible on his forearm. As he was about to set the finishing touches, improving the upper curve on the “2”, the dividers were suddenly snatched forcefully from his hand.

Suddenly Miss Bartl, the mathematics teacher, towered over him like a death swat cyborg. She clasped the seized evidence of the alleged criminal act with one hand while her other arm extended axiomatically towards him, securing a tight wrist lock pinning his arm firmly to the desk to prevent the boy from fleeing the crime scene.

For crying out loud, what do you think you are doing, boy?” her shrill robotic voice sounding like the screeching, excruciating steel cries of brakes and wheels on an overloaded mountain freight train forced to make an emergency stop.

This will have severe consequences,” she added. She pulled him up from his chair and dragged him by his wrist like captured bounty, as she steamrolled, at high velocity, out of the classroom and towards the headmaster’s office.

The dark brown oak desk of the headmaster filled almost the entire office and was breathing heavily under its own might and weight. It had four small wooden stubs on the bottom which were the only feature which distinguished it from a plain wooden box. A rounded face, fat and bold with tiny dark dots like eyes and a nose shaped like a gavel was barely discernible from the dark surface of the desk. One arm ended in a cross held at a strange angle so that it would be appear upright, almost appearing to stand on the desk while the other arm, which pointed towards the boy, was surprisingly thin and flexible and was constantly in nervous motion.

Miss Bartl presented the pair of seized dividers and a half empty cartridge riddled with holes as evidence to the mighty desk who acknowledged the items with a grunt. She began to present her statement by pointing out that the boy had always been a troublemaker in the past, but that this act of self-mutilation during her mathematics class was such outrageous behavior it needed to be punished severely. She suddenly jerked the boy’s arm—still held in a tight, skeleton finger wrist –lock—forward where desk master’s ant eyes began crawling all over it, poring all over the freshly inked “23”, meticulously scanning every inch in every direction, causing an unpleasant tickling sensation for the boy. As the ants’ scouting expedition didn’t yield any results in regard to the meaning of the number “23”, the desk master threw Miss Bartl a stern look, making her grovel for a moment before resuming her uptight, composed posture.

Student, why did you scratch that number into your arm?”

The boy remained silent, not knowing how to answer such a stupid question.

Student, answer!” she reiterated with a voice sharp as a knife

I…I…can’t tell you…it’s a code…you wouldn’t understand,” the boy replied.

A code…a number…maybe a phone number,” the mathematics teacher hypothesized loudly before concluding that the only reasonable explanation for “23”, as for any number to be written on a body part, even in most cases only temporarily, must be that it can only be the first few digits of a telephone number important to the individual noted down not to be forgotten.

Whose phone number were you scratching onto your body, student?” her voice was like two snakes entangled around the boys arm, heads high up and charged, hissing into his face.

But…it’s…not a phone number,” the boy said. “It’s a code.”

A code? What code?” the teacher continued the interrogation under the tiny dark eyes of the desk master who had returned to their holes.

Illuminatus!” the boy tried to explain. “It’s a book which talks about the secret meaning of the number 23. You should read it!” he added almost enthusiastically

The bewildered eyes of the desk master lurked out of the darkness of his oaken surface, impossible to comprehend the fact that a book, unknown to him, had been mentioned in a reference.

Is this book on the official students reading list?” his dark voice addressed Miss Bartl.

Of course not!” Miss Bartl replied. “The school committee would never approve of any book inciting students to mutilate themselves.”

Turning towards the boy, she continued to inquire, “Where did you get this subversive book?”

You can torrent it from the internet…” the boy tried to explain, before being interrupted.

So this ‘Illuminatus’ is a pirated, illegal good?” the teacher concluded.

No…I mean…I am sure you can also buy it online, but my dad does not give me a credit card.”

I don’t think this needs any further explanation.”

With this Miss Bartl ended her prosecution statement and turned towards the desk master adding, “I demand the strictest form of punishment for these criminal acts.”

Anything to add, student?” the desk master’s dark voice addressed the boy.

Knowing there was no way to explain why he had chosen “23” as his first tattoo and fearing that any more questions of the inquisition might force him to reveal Alex and Ping, the boy answered almost inaudibly,

No.”

In that case I, as desk master, order you to never mutilate your body again nor incite others to do the same. Your parents will be informed immediately and I will advise them to seek medical assistance to remove the markings on your arm. About the book which you have acquired illegally, I give you a stern warning to destroy it immediately and not mention it again or I have to report you to the authorities. You will be suspended from school for a week with immediate effect. You may leave now.”

In a triumphant gesture, Miss Bartl turned her head quickly towards the boy, raised her eyebrows, summoning him to leave the headmaster’s office with her. The boy followed her, feeling like a beaten dog, clenching his teeth to prevent his anger from taking over and strangling the teacher from behind. “Now, let’s call your parents,” she said in an almost melodic way. “I am sure they will not be amused.”

The boy was suspended for a week from school while his parents decided to confine him during that time to his room. The boy didn’t perceive this as additional punishment, being relieved at not having to watch their tantrums any longer. The only thing which made the boy sad was that he could not visit Alex and Ping for a while. Luckily his parents had not found his notepad with designs which he hid under the bed.

Immediately after his punishment was lifted, he went to see Alex and Ping whom he told over a glass of mate´ the whole incident. Alex listened to everything silently, while Ping muttered something in Thai which nobody apart from her could understand, but which sounded very much like she was cursing all bad teachers, headmasters and wicked parents on this planet.

The boy resumed his afternoons at the tattoo temple and soon happiness again returned to the boy. One day the boy arrived two hours earlier than the usual time; he had skipped the classes which he found unbearably boring to attend, and he found Alex with his notepad in front of him but with no client in sight.

He didn’t want to disturb Alex, who seemed to be very focused and immersed in his work, so he just sat down quietly beside him. Yet he was curious. Peeking at the notebook, he saw a picture of a wonderful dragon, holding a strange symbol which looked like a triple yin yang, something which he had never seen before. The dragon had a friendly look and expressed power and strength. It was a young dragon full of energy, curiosity and eagerness to spread its wings and explore the world. The pen stopped drawing, Alex looked up and their eyes met for what seemed like an eternity.

Don’t tell anyone, kid….” the master said.

Oh wow, wow, it’s so beautiful,” the boy gasped. “Thank you so much.”

This exact moment Ping entered the kitchen. The boy jumped up from his chair and flung his arms around her, holding onto her waist, whirling around the kitchen full of unbound joy.

It’s time…” the jaguar said. “Time for your initiation, you are ready.”

Ping, still shaking from her spontaneous dance with the boy, was busy scribbling in her appointment calendar, assigning next Saturday, a day usually reserved for quality time for her and Alex, as the day for the initiation and circled it in red with her favourite Hello Kitty pen.

On Friday evening the boy was so excited that he could not sleep. Finally he would be getting his first real tattoo, something he had waited on for months. Alex had given him a copy of the design which he held in his hand, caressing the outlines of his dragon, visualizing how the master would ink it. The excitement to feel the fast needles, the sweet pain penetrating his skin, impregnating it with color, the oozing sound of the tattoo gun….the boy drifted away into a deep sleep.

Saturday morning found the boy jumping out of his bed, taking a quick shower and rushing to the apartment of Alex and Ping. He was almost two hours early when he rang the doorbell. It was opened by a very sleepy Ping, whom he had awoken.

You too early. Ping going to bed again,” she mumbled to herself.

The boy rushed through the corridor, passing by the bathroom where he heard Alex having a shower. In the kitchen he prepared water for the mate´ tea, which a surprised Alex found steaming on the table. He was in a good mood, and quietly smiled at the boy.

Today is an important day for you,” the Jaguar said. “Today you are entering a new world. You have been a good student for many months and now you are ready for your initiation.”

Ping, who did not go back to bed, entered the kitchen, took the mate gourd out of Alex’s hand in exchange for a morning kiss and looked at the dragon design blueprint which Alex had only finished late last night. It looked magnificent.

Mangon!” she exclaimed suddenly.

Mangon,” she repeated and looked at the boy with sharp perceptive eyes piercing deep into the depths of his soul.

As her outburst didn’t seem to elicit a reaction, she pointed with her thin fingers to the dragon blueprint on the kitchen table saying, “Now you are mangon boy… the dragon boy.”

The boy’s, now Mangon’s, face lit up and he repeated the name a few times, enjoying the sound of it.

Mang-o-n.” he repeated slowly enjoying the sound of his new name.

Yes, I am Mangon, I am the dragon boy,” he exclaimed, jumping up from his chair, taking off his shirt and whirling it over his head while performing a strange dance around the kitchen. “I am Mangon, Mangon, the mighty dragon, Mangon!!” he cried out loud, which caused Alex to laugh and Ping to giggle hysterically.

It took five hours to tattoo the dragon onto his back, which was more painful than Mangon had imagined, but he enjoyed every moment of his initiation. Finally when the tattoo was finished and the skin cleaned and disinfected, the boy rose from the chair and for the first time in his life, felt like he had achieved something big and important. He had taken a huge step forward.

Be fierce as a dragon,” Alex said.

I always will,” Mangon replied.