Ryan Ramirez is finding his way, perhaps dictated by his grandmother, perhaps not. Where-ever his road leads, it’s not anywhere that Ryan may want to go. After all, he’s just a simple guy loooking for his soul-mate.
The Trials Of Ryan Ramirez
#1: Needle In A Haystack
Somewhere in Northern China/Inner Mongolia, August 2009
“So, let me get this straight, Ryan. You’ve come to the second biggest country in the world with the second biggest population in the world, looking for your soul-mate—while you’re gonna be living in a monastery…in the desert? That’s like looking for a needle in a haystack in a tornado. Think maybe, the numbers are against you, pal.”
I wasn’t about to argue with the loquacious, tall driver who insisted on being called Tony. Out on the edge of the Gobi Desert, I was less certain of the conviction—no, the compulsion—that had brought me this far. Everything had seemed so clear and simple back home. Driving along, even the desert didn’t look the way I’d imagined. Instead of rolling orange sand-dunes stretching away into the horizon or long empty stone-strewn plains of grandma’s old encyclopedia photos, all I could see was sparsely vegetated hillocks clutching their shrubs like someone with a phobia of mice spotting some furtive movement down a shady corner of the room. The former sand-dunes exposed ankles of sand hinted at their former beauty. Any other time I’d have been charmed by this arid landscape and its implied offering of adventures, but just then, I felt…weird. And with only the cabbie to talk things through…
Six days ago I’d left home—left Grandma. No use pretending I didn’t already miss her, even if we hadn’t parted on the best terms. I mean, I was doing this more for me, not her. Right? Don’t get me wrong. Grandma’s not one of those perpetually controlling emotional blackmailers or manipulators. She’s usually quite cool about our mutual freedom to do and be ourselves. Except for taking Arnis lessons, this is the only thing she’s requested I do for her. Yes, those were her italics, not mine. And with that look in her eye, I’d be a bad grandson to have said no. At least she didn’t try talking me out of my translation studies. Besides, all things considered, her advice was generally good, and her suggestions excellent. She always found a way to kill two birds with one stone.
I looked up at the sky and felt better. The crystal clear indigo was almost the way I’d imagined it to be, with a high band of strato-cirrus winding along for a few kilometres bringing to mind a giant dragon laying claim to its territory.
“Where’d you say you’re from?”
I hadn’t yet. Tony’s English still surprised me even though I’d heard him speaking for almost an hour already. He sounded almost exactly like the cabbies back home and even his car was a yellow VW Jetta. His coal-black eyes fixed on me. I’d been taking too long to reply, as usual. “New York,” I said, omitting: by way of Peru and Johannesburg, by way of Ottawa (Canada) my home-town.
“No kidding, man! I was in New York for three years studying English. Best way, I found, was taking and driving cabs. Was the best, man, the best! But, you know, I missed the old place. Nothing like being out here. Just the desert and the sun. Real sun. Not that pale stuff you get in NY. So now, I have the best of both worlds—the desert and driving tourists around. But you know what I miss? Do you know what makes me go nuts at night just thinking about it?”
I shook my head, sure it wasn’t the subway or Central Park.
His thin face filled with longing. “Pastrami on a nice hot bagel with double pickles and cream. And a double doppio. Man, what I wouldn’t give for those just now!”
I didn’t hide my astonishment. To find such conversation in, well you know, the middle of the Chinese desert. Then again, what else might we talk about? “So, you get many tourists out here?” I tried, guessing ‘tourist’ would include anyone living more than fifty kilometres away or who were resident for less than ten years in the region.
“Yeah. Well, a bit more than you’d think. Enough to make a living…”
My interest piqued. Was that a hint of shiftiness? I sat up straight, putting our heads at the same level, and assessed him again.
He changed topic quickly. “So, you here to find your soul-mate or are you just kidding? ‘Cos I gotta tell you that’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard.”
“Really?” I’d heard crazier, especially from Grandma and Wilfred.
“Yeah, really. Yeah. I mean, leaving New York for its millions of babes for this?” The cabbie used both hands to gesture. Sensing the loss of its reins, the car accelerated towards the stony verge of the dust road. My mouth dropped open. Should I scream a warning? But Tony was already wrestling us back into the middle of the long wide, empty road. No other vehicle had passed us since leaving Mizhir. No other vehicle was likely to, though the odd donkey cart plodded obliviously by as we zipped past, missing them by inches.
I considered Tony’s answer from his perspective. “Well, I guess it does sound kinda crazy, but it’s true. I’m here to find my soul-mate.”
“Why, man? You into all that hippy, new-age stuff?”
“My grandma told me to.” He wasn’t far off the bat in describing her, though.
He stared at me, disbelief and pity plastered on his face. “You do everything your grandma tells you to?”
“Yeah.” Now, that I thought of it.
“How old are you, man? Like five?”
I slouched down and went back to meditating on the sky, judging the tone of the conversation would only sink further. I sensed Tony’s glance at me. He shook his head, then turned up the music, singing along to AC/DC for the rest of the two hours it took to get to HuiShan—Black Mountain.
* * *
I climbed out of the yellow cab somewhat deafened, eardrums tender and bruised. Tony dropped my two bags at his feet and waited for payment. I counted out the agreed amount in Yuan and thanked the man formally. Grandma always said being polite cost you nothing but could gain you the world. Though, to be honest, I think I’d seen enough of the cabbie’s world to know it didn’t sit well with me.
A monk, in traditional robes and a bun, was already racing down the mountain, zigzagging down innumerable stairs. He waved and called delightedly to me when he was almost half-way down the last flight. I stood almost in a stupor following the descending figure’s progress, turning back once to watch against dark angry clouds the beige column of dust raised by the retreating yellow cab. My first day in the desert and I was going to get caught in a thunderstorm!
Amazed, I turned back to the mountain, then looked up to find the monk, still excitedly making his way down, had made little apparent progress in reaching me.
The mountain appeared foreboding now, made more so by the fading stormy light. A rarity in this region, Black Mountain was formed on an intrusion of basalt—just like Edinburgh Castle, my first-year knowledge of Geology told me. But what the hell was it doing out here in the sandy, shale-strewn, sandstone-only region? No other mountains or hills were visible. Black Mountain was the only one rising majestically, and somewhat ominously, up to touch the sky in this particular dust-bowl. Lightning danced around me. The strengthening wind smelt of damp earth. Rain was approaching fast.
The monk, taller and thinner on the ground than expected, greeted me enthusiastically in rapid Chinese which I found incomprehensible even with my formal Mandarin. He picked up one of my bags and indicated we should begin the climb up at once. I nodded, smiling through my uncertainty, hefted my backpack onto my shoulders and followed the cheerfully prattling monk up those steep stone-stairs winding dizzyingly up. Naturally, the storm hit before we made it up to the precincts of the monastery. Naturally, I spent my first night on Black Mountain on the Staircase of Waterfalls, buffeted by high winds, shocked by lightning, deafened by thunder and pelted by large unforgiving raindrops. At least, I was in the comfortable, cheering company of Liu Su, the abbot of the monastery, though I didn’t know it at the time—like I didn’t know so many other things pertaining to my life.
Read the whole of #1 The Trials Of Ryan Ramirez or download the epub sample on my Patreon.