If my life in the monastery hadn’t taught me about chance and accident, my return to the world would have. I could have gotten to Pakistan at any time, weather permitting. But getting home from Pakistan, without papers, without money, without a coherent story explaining how I’d arrived there, might have been a trick. As it happened, God took care of the problem. It was just a matter of timing.
Mr. Conway set a dozen monks at a time to copying out my memoir, dividing the job among them, so that the monastery would retain my story after I carried the original over the mountains. (The original, I should mention, is considerably longer than this version. Discretion, necessity, and economic constraints have all mandated that I leave out great slices of my experiences there. I particularly regret having to remove many, many of my conversations with Mr. Conway and Mr. Barnard.) Within days of that final, nighttime conference, we—three young Tibetans and I—were on our way over the mountains.
Even after 15 years, I cannot detail how we traveled. Lives still depend on my discretion. The Chinese still rule Tibet. Suffice it to say that together we made our pre‑arranged meeting with members of the Tibetan resistance, and made our way undetected over the border into Nepal. There, after fulfilling a duty laid upon me before I left (a duty that was an honor for any friend of Tibet), we got back over the border into Pakistan. Once safely inside that country, my companions left on their long return journey, and I was on my own. And suffice it to say that getting to Islamabad from the border proved unexpectedly difficult. I arrived November 21, 1979, to find a mob attacking the American Embassy.
Welcome back to civilization, Mr. Chiari.
I stood in the street, dressed as a Pakistani among Pakistanis, watching in dismay and puzzlement as the crowd rushed the embassy I had come so far to surrender myself to. I saw the hysterical mob attack in great surges, beating at the gates. I had a glimpse of a scared young Marine guarding the grounds, and was relieved to see him recalled into the building. Then I realized that, incredibly, the mob meant to burn the building. And I absorbed the fact that there were no police to prevent them from doing so.
I faded out of the crowd, and walked the streets in shock and blankness until I came with great relief to a building flying the Union Jack. This had to be the British embassy; an American would be safe there.
And thus I completed the first phase of my long journey back to the world I had known, and another that I couldn’t imagine. I announced myself to a British sentry, rather than to an American sentry, telling a straightforward and believable lie (that I had been attacked in the streets and had lost my papers and almost my life) rather than the clumsier lie (involving an accident in a river up‑country) I had expected to rely on. Maybe my earlier lie would have worked. I doubt it. In normal times it certainly would have come under close scrutiny. The authorities frown on people who sell their passports and turn up claiming that they lost them in improbable accidents.
Because of the rioting, my story of being set upon and robbed was plausible.
Because the embassy had been burned to the ground, complete with all its records, embassy officials were left with no time, no way, and little inclination to counter‑check my claim to have legally entered Pakistan some months earlier.
Because Washington promptly chartered an airplane to bring home embassy dependents and other U.S. nationals, I had a way home without having to provide airfare in cash and without having to provide identification. Thus I was able to get back into the States (under the name Hugh Conway) without attracting official attention to myself.
Quite a lot of compounded coincidence, if you insist on insisting on them. I don’t. I may not be the brightest guy in the world, but I can learn from experience.
As I said earlier, publishing this memoir is not the only reason I was sent back to this world. However, even though 15 years have elapsed, I must leave the other responsibilities entrusted to me undescribed. All I can say is that they had two aspects: one public, one private.
The first part of the public aspect seems to have been successful to a wholly unexpected degree: The world today is farther from nuclear war than at any time since 1962. But the more difficult, if less immediately dangerous, portion of this task remains before us. It is easier to defeat external threats than internal errors. The private aspect might be described as continual composting. This is as immediate—and as difficult—as it was at Shangri‑la.
There is not a day in which I do not miss that cloistered world. That long shipboard journey on the roof of the world taught me what voyagers always learn: we may fill in for one another in role, but we are irreplaceable in essence. Yet I am fully aware of how much I have, beyond those walls. My life has lost length, not depth. God is as near here as anywhere, and my friends are still my friends, regardless of time and distance. My home, too, is still my home, wherever I may be.
It is pleasant, in difficult times, to think of the lifeboat’s silent existence. On those nights, at a certain phase of the moon, when Mr. Barnard knows to expect a radio message from me, I can talk, if not listen, knowing my words are bridging the gap opened by experience and geography. Our lives know many endings, but they do not cease to flow along the unending river that is time, and the deeper river that is behind and beneath time.
Of all that cloistered world, what remains to me physically are those companions my friends also see: the sun, the planets, the stars, the moon. Some nights I look up at the moon, as I looked out at it on my long night’s homeward flight eastward over the Pacific, or as I used to look out at it from a particular window or a particular courtyard, and sometimes it seems I can almost smell the strong, sharp smell of Mr. Barnard’s cigars. I take the moon as Noah took the rainbow: as a covenant. It says to me that the force that brought us together once will bring us together again, in its own good time. Better, it says we are apart only physically. I look at the moon and I know that Sunnie was right: I carry them with me.
Yet it is true that the physical distance between us is a dull ache, sometimes only half‑noticed, but never absent. I think, sometimes, of how we parted: Mr. Barnard’s fatherly, surprising embrace; Sunnie’s motherly kiss; Mr. Conway’s warm handshake that, like Mr. Barnard’s, had turned into an abrazo. And I think of other farewells.
Some years earlier, moved by a similar ache for my family (yes, for Marianne), I had sat up half one night putting my longing into verse. Staring out at the moon that seemed to sit so tranquilly, I wrote of the only bodies that my distant friends could see as well as I.
When the silent, watchful lunar face,
From far beyond death‑dark, winter‑dark,
Evening‑dark cloud reaches to your place,
Do you know that I am there?
When afternoon sun descends toward night,
Slowly withdrawing from city streets,
Emptying sky with darkening light,
Do you know that I still care?
When, in strengthening light before dawn,
Pale Venus and other morning stars,
unmoving, remain, though seeming gone,
Know that I remain behind the glare.
Whenever sun, moon, planet or star
Is seen by one, the other is there.
Our earthly distance holds us apart;
No one sees the life we share.
Now I am on the other side of the mountains, in a world that thinks me naive, or superstitious, or merely eccentric. Yet I am back in my native land, the country that shaped and nourished me, that formed my ideals and beliefs, that educated and protected me and opened opportunities for me. If it has gotten so far off the track as to find my way of seeing nearly incomprehensible, that merely underlines the great need, the importance of the effort. In any case, it doesn’t depend on me. Miss Brinklow would understand that thought.
Tomorrow night the moon will be full again, and my eyes will automatically seek it out. It will be there regardless what happens to me or to America or to the human race or to the world. As it always has, it waxes and wanes and waxes again, following its cycle as do the planets and the seasons and life itself. And, like life, it never sails through the same space twice, any more than the earth does, for the earth pulls the moon along as it circles the sun, and the sun pulls the earth, and the rotation of the galaxy pulls the sun, and on and on. All that cyclical motion: No wonder we can’t ever return to where we were.