Monday, May 02, 2005

Dr. Ho

My last day in Li Jiang, I was still feeling the effects of the awesome but energy-draining Tiger Leaping Gorge. As good a day as any to see a doctor, I went to the nearby village of Baisha to see Dr. Ho, the man made famous by travel writer Bruce Chatwin. My taxi pulled off the main highway into the small, dusty village sitting quietly under the looming presence of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. A few locals stood inside their open shops, waiting for the possibility of a sale from one of the few tourist buses that came to see the village frescoes, the only attraction in the village -- unless you count the doctor himself. Few took notice of me. Even the few children I saw, playing in the street, failed to even look my way.

I walked down the street, slightly afraid to ask anyone where to find the eccentric man for fear of being just another backpacker tripping across China in search of the meaning of life from a wispy-bearded elder. I bought a bottle of water from an old lady to justify my need for directions. She pointed me around the corner and down the street.

An old man stands outside as if he knew precisely when I would arrive, as if I had made an appointment. In front are dozens of newspaper clippings of various languages prominently displayed for passersby to peruse. But nobody actually passes by-- people come here, to Baisha, to this very spot on which I stand to meet Dr. Shi-Xiu Ho for anything from his beloved special tea to the meaning of life. Dressed in a long white coat and hat, he has an energy that belies his age that I put in the early 80s. "Where are you from?" he asks in broken but completely understandable English and immediately points out the English articles faster than I can read them as if he was showing me his resume. I first think he is bragging and become skeptical, but the honesty in his gleaming eyes and the kindness and eagerness in his voice show him to be one of those rarest of creatures -- a genuinely good man. I follow him inside.

I sit down behind the counter as Dr. Ho pushes more articles and letters in front of me before disappearing, some from American doctors, one from the Mayo Clinic, but most from past visitors around the world requesting more of his tea to help with their various ailments. Quite a few of the letters are from an American who considers the doctor to have cured him of leukemia. I'm in no position to doubt him.

He reappears with a teapot and cup and introduces me to his renowned tea, a mix of flowers and plants he personally collects from the mountain. He sits across from me as I drink cup after cup. I have come to see the doctor to discuss my health in particular and I start to grow impatient, as much as one can grow impatient under such benevolence, because we had yet to talk about me. I remind myself that he probably has people come visit him solely because he's mentioned in the various travel guides and that I'm probably being lumped into the whole lot.

Finally, he reads my hands for about fifteen seconds and silently nods to himself. "You have many problems", he tells me and beckons me to his back office.

I walk in and find the old man bent over, rushing back and forth between large red plastic vats, each filled with a different powdered flower or plant, personally collected from the snow-capped mountain above. Scoop after scoop, the mixture grows until he hands me a plastic bag filled with powdered hope, which I'm to drink three times a day to remedy my poor circulation, which he says has been plaguing me for a while. The advice doesn't end there.

As I hand him my donation, his only source for funds to operate the clinic, I ask him if the tea is really all I need and, as if he'd been listening to Bobby McFerrin before I walked into town, he tells me the secret to good health and long life: "Don't worry, be happy". He speaks the words as if it's just that simple, as if all the illness in the world can be attributed to the unhappiness in which we often live in the present just so we can hopefully be happy someday in the distant future. It never seemed so backward to me as it did right then and there.

"Just be happy", he repeats. I smile and tell him I'll do my best, not sure whether I feel excited at the contents in the bag I'm carrying or whether I merely had an interesting experience, talking with a kind old man over a pot of tea.

As I turn to leave, a tall German man walks in. When the doctor can't place the face, the man says he visited him seventeen years ago. The look of surprise and happiness on Dr. Ho's face as he disappears into the back room to make another pot of tea is one that stuck with me the rest of the day.


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