8 January

Forest Meditation: How Old AM I? Can I go to Kolkata One Day?

by Jon Katz
How Old Am I?: Meditating with trees on India.

How old am I, anyway? What can I do and what can’t I do? What should I do and what shouldn’t I do? Lots of people – doctors, friends, insurance companies, nurses, busybodies on Facebook – have lots of advice for me, much of it contradicting the other. I am amazed at how many experts there are in such a confused and polarized world.

It is, of course, up to me. But it is important to see the world clearly as one ages, and to neither be too cautious or too reckless. A trip to Calcutta with Maria one day seems to exist right on the line. And I will be truthful, it breaks my heart a bit to think there are places – any places – I could not go with Maria.

There hasn’t been one yet.

Maria is going to Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) India next month and we have both agreed it is not a good idea for to accompany here, especially the first time. This your circus, I told her, not mine. Maybe next year, if she chooses to return.

We have been watching hours of videos from Kolkata, some horrifying, some exhilarating. The images make me want to go. Very much. I can only imagine the photographs. It looks (and I’ve also read) that this city is one of the most fascinating places on the earth, so rich in color, history, culture and poverty.

I’d love to go with my big camera.

But there are other voices in my head, and I need to be honest about them. I’m not sure I can go to Kolkata or should.

I have diabetes, although it is under  control. And I have heart disease. I had open heart surgery a few years ago, and have also have recently been diagnosed with angina, a type of chest pain and pressure that results in reduced blood flow to the heart, occurring especially when the heart is strained.

Kolkata, like much of India, is a wonderful, culturally rich, exotic, overcrowded, and in parts, horrifically impoverished place. It has 30 million people, many of them sick and poor to the point of starvation. Tens of thousands of people live right on the city’s vast garbage dump and there are thousands of children offered up for sale in the notorious Red Light district.

Maria is going to the city to teach some of these liberated children how to sew and make potholders and other things that can bring them a different kind of income and security.

There is the bad.

Maria has been getting shots for weeks now, including Malaria, and Tetanus and Hepatitis A and B,  Typhoid Whooping Cough, and Flu, she is bringing a prescription anti-biotic packet to ward off the infections many visitors instantly acquire just be breathing the air, fouled by vehicle pollution and thousands of daily human cremations. Any one of these things could cause me serious trouble.

There there is the good.

Kolkata is famous for its wonderful street food, but there are lots of worries for people with chronic conditions. I am prone to stomach viruses, and would not care to get one in India. I’m not sure how my angina would fare there, either the heart is affected by many factors – exercise, humidity, walks uphill, stress, temperature and some food.

Everyone by now knows about the water.

Here, I am very careful about what i eat, that is, in part, why my blood sugar is good. There, I wouldn’t even know what I was eating much of the time.  And I would definitely want to sample some of that food. I wouldn’t care to be imprisoned in a hotel, if I went, I’d want to wander and explore and take pictures.

I think my friends – many of whom are just old fussy Grandmas – would sound the alarm and say no. I have a young friend who is puzzled that I’m even thinking about it. Go, he says. Maria says yes also.

Is Kolkata really the place for an older man with diabetes and heart disease?  I take a number of medicines by mouth every day, and a couple by needle. I would have to take these fresh (and often refrigerated) supplies with me everywhere I went, and I would have to carefully research the help that would be available if and when I need it.

As is, I’m afraid to call my cardiologist, they are quick to rush people to emergency rooms. I’d love to photograph an emergency room in Calcutta, do I wish to be rushed to one there? I’m sure there are good doctors and hospitals there, but I suppose I do feel more vulnerable than I once did.

I am not a ride-around person, if I were in Kolkata, I would walk miles and miles with my camera bag until I could not walk any longer. I know that about myself. I do not really know how to be all that sensible. If I did, I wouldn’t be sitting on a farm in single digit temperatures for weeks and months on a farm and loving every minute of it.

I am no snob, I would love India, and I believe I could go there. But I’m not certain. Maria and I would love to explore a place like India together. But we could also go some place a little simpler – New Mexico, Florence. It is an important passage when someone says they are too old to go to a wonderful place like India with their spouse or partner.

As of now, I am leaning towards going. I’d have to prepare and take precautions – one camera only and two lenses! Getting older has no limited me, but opened many new doors for me. I’d like to keep it that way a good deal longer.  The answer right now is that I do not know, although I realize that if you have to think so much about it, that’s probably a bad sign.

So I’ve got to do a bit more research, and some more thought. Maria will have a better idea when she returns. Maybe I will also.

I am happy to be older, I am better at being old than being young. It has turned out to be a rich and rewarding time for me, a time of some wisdom and experience. I guess this is one of those times when I have to put both to some use. My heart is perhaps a bit under pressure these days, but it still works fine. It hasn’t spoken up yet about going to India.

I think it will tell me what to do.

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