This is the story of a journey that filled me with dread: through out the many kilometres and continents I've been unable to sleep. I lived in fear of authority, violence and death. For I was thinking, constantly, of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse-Christendom's clean-up crew, the chaps who ride on to the scene when we've made a total hash of things.
It began when I left the far side of the world, bound ultimately for Nepal. On the radio in Toronto, a litany of woes-more deaths from the pestilence known as SARS, interspersed with the "liberation" of an Iraqi people who seemed ambivalent at best, downright annoyed at worst. Not to mention injured, made homeless, killed, starved, deprived of water. Three of the horsemen alone gallop unhindered through the Iraqi desert. Their three names, according to the book known in the Christian bible as Revelations mythical dream, are "War, Famine and Death" but can anyone seriously argue that many of their victims deserve what has happened to them?
Across the Pacific Ocean, I flew on a jet full of people masked like surgeons or bank robbers. Beneath my own mask, I coughed and felt a tickle in my throat: a sign of certain death from the dreaded SARS. I was positive. Sleep deprivation and paranoia are old friends. In Taiwan, a transit point, the news was mostly about Big Brother China was covering up SARS cases and how the evil United nations was denying the plucky little island due recognition for its own efforts against the plague.
"Pestilence", for that is the other Horseman, was a frequent flyer between Canada and Asia, it seems. For decades, a nationality that brought me good will or blank stares now caused health officials eyes to narrow in suspicion. It didn't help that I was sniffling, suppressing the odd small cough. I argued my way into Thailand, pointing out that I didn't have a fever and had no breathing problems. Not long after, I had a chest X-ray that revealed a small patch on the left lung, "a pneumonia," said the doctor to my horrified glare, "but not SARS." It was not one of the great ways to bring instant relief but the penicillin did.
Nepal too is singling out Canadians for special attention so feeling guilty I filled out my form and handed it to the official. I was still wearing my mask. Behind me, dozens of Nepali workers from Hong Kong moved blithely through the line. The dry, dusty air of the kingdom got us all coughing.
What struck me most, depressed me most, was the pall of gloom or deliberate denial that seems to be settling over the places where our Horsemen ride. On television news, war snapshots vary from channel to channel, reporter to reporter, minute to minute. SARS too shows the weakness of global information systems. In Canada, they treat it with immense gravity and seem to have curbed its spread. In Thailand and Taiwan, they worry-rightly, up to a point-if harsh measures don't deter what war tourism remains. In China, they cover up or search for conspiracies and do nothing about the horrific cause of the SARS outbreak: the unacceptable proximity between people and pigs in the poor countryside.
Pestilence. War. Death. And there's plenty of Famine out there too. Some aid agencies predict one in Iraq. They often do, but lingering hunger is enough to destroy lives for generations-you don't actually need starvation deaths. No, I don't believe that the Horsemen will literally ride out and bring about the Apocalypse. I'm not even a Christian, let alone one of the fundamentalists who take such delight in the apparently drug-induced Biblical dream sequence.
But sleep deprived, I'm fearful. Something feels wrong, very wrong. And occasionally, you can hear the thunder of hooves.