Boom…Boom !! – Sometimes It’s Better Never to Know

| March 17, 2011 | Comments (1)


My friend, Ralph, is a world traveler. Since we retired from the United Nations over a decade ago, unlike me who’s had it with travel, he is constantly on the road. When our paths cross in  the gym on those rare occasions he is in New York City, I can always tell he is back from somewhere. Sporting a deep tan in mid-winter, he will regale me with tales of an Amazon odyssey; seeing him rail-thin he will roll his eyes and tell me about his travails with Delhi Belly or Faroukh’s Revenge.

I recall nearly ten years ago, in the Fall of 2001, seeing Ralph rather pasty-faced and looking like a walking  sack of potatoes. He had just come back from Russia. The trip was so-so, he said, but getting there had been the voyage of a lifetime.

He  had set out from Beijing in the early days of September 2001 aboard the Trans-Siberian Express. Ralph said one of the amazing things about that epic train ride was the illusion of timelessness that seizes the traveler, how Monday melts into Tuesday and Tuesday into Wednesday, losing  track of any semblance of time  and how long one had been moving over the vast Eurasian expanse.

Resolved to start a journal of his travels, Ralph was  at a loss to settle on what the date actually was, but  somehow  found himself able to count how many breakfasts he had had in the dining car and from that make-shift culinary calendar to establish that it was September 12th.  As he sat waiting for the surly attendant to bring breakfast tea,  he gazed out the window of the diner and saw that the train was clickety-clacking through what he believed to be Mongolia. The night before, a film had been shown in the first-class club car. It was the story of Mongolian herdsmen and their camels. One camel in particular. 

In grainy color, the movie depicted how despite the herdsman’s best efforts at husbandry, his young female camel would not reproduce. With economic and emotional ruin about to descend on his family, a lute-player was summoned. Travelling for days by camel-back over the steppes,  a small old man, slight as a shadow, arrived at the encampment. After a night’s rest, the musician set to work. Sitting on a stool next to the barren camel, he played his lute for hours. The big-eyed, long-lashed object of his serenade, stood impassively  flicking her tail and moving her ears. At the end of the day, the musician packed up his instrument, boarded his dromedary and headed off into the Mongolian horizon. Thirteen months later, a camel was born.

Lost in thought, dreaming of lutes and camels, Ralph was accosted at the breakfast table by a man of non-English-speaking persuasion. He seemed agitated as he spoke and gestured at Ralph. Of all the languages Ralph spoke and despite the supposed universality of English, no common tongue could be found in the dining car to bridge the linguistic gap that caused the uncomprehended speaker to grow increasingly more bombastic. Hands circulating  wildly above his head, the man sputtered what sounded like, “Boom, boom!”

Increasingly apprehensive, Ralph tried to withdraw into the safety of  the book he always carried, but his excited breakfast companion would not relent. Grabbing a pad and pen from the passing waiter, the man hastily sketched what looked like two tall towers surrounded by puffs of smoke. Little stick figures were falling from the buildings and an airplane was flying into one skyscraper. The childish artwork was just that to Ralph. None the wiser, he excused himself and retreated to his compartment to contemplate the Mongolian vastness.

Emerging later in the day, Ralph returned to the dining car where he encountered an English-speaking  German couple, who recognizing his American accent, poured out their sympathy for the horrid event that had just occurred in New York City,  the attack on the World Trade Towers. Pulling the crumpled piece of  art work from his pocket, he contemplated the  simple drawing and now understood what his frantic breakfast companion had been trying to tell him.

With three days left before his train journey ended in Moscow, Ralph reflected on the tragic news that had unfolded in an almost comical way. As dusk gathered over the great Russian heartland in what he came to call the “blue hour”, Ralph gazed out his window and  sadly concluded, “When terrible things happen, maybe it’s best never to know .”

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  1. Candace says:

    I did the Trans Siberian from Vladivostock to Moscow in 1971. In those days it only traveled in daylight. At night it stopped at some remote locale and one would sleep. In our day Gov. Wallace of AL was shot in the back. This we found out when we emerged from our train ride. Great article.

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