There are five things that ensure mental and physical wellbeing. Exercise. Garlic. A clean conscience. Moderation. And faith in one’s own health.
A shepherd from the mountain plains of Ethiopia
A pilgrim on his journey, like an animal in the wild, is safe from illness, for no ailment can harm him. What’s more, any malady that afflicts him at his departure is sure to abandon him soon, washed by the first rain into a wayside ditch, and left to fade powerlessly in the distance. Wandering the wilderness has healing powers. It is a peculiar game, indeed. The less you worry about your health, the more indomitable and diamond-edged it becomes. You can walk for weeks in wet clothes and shoes without the slightest runny nose. At night you may shiver with cold, but in the morning, you are as fit as a fiddle. At home, it would be the death of you. Constantly monitoring yourself, swallowing pills and going for massages, you inevitably fall ill. But there is no time for illness when you travel, so you simply pay it no heed. Perhaps one day, when we shed our mortal coil and God holds us in the palm of His hand, we will come to regret all of that heedlessness, but until then, farewell first aid kits and soap and towels and band-aids and snake repellents and tissues and pills and enemas. We can go further without you. Yet this is no gambler’s game. On the contrary, far from civilization’s medicines and bandages, we are less rash, more cautious, and entirely self-reliant. Your health and wellbeing depend solely upon you. If you break your leg, bandages and medicine are far away. If for pride or ignorance, your kidneys catch a chill, there is no one to sympathize with you or give you the cure. Respect your health, but do not fear for it.
You need it for the journey, that is why you have it. Knowing you must not get sick, you don’t. A diamond-edged game.
Health and hygiene are sisters – good servants, but bad masters. Just as worrying too much about one’s health is counterproductive, being overly sanitary is also harmful, my squeaky-clean little brother. A reasonable amount of dirt is good for one’s health. Those who live too cleanly fall to the first illness they encounter. To gain the proper immunity, you must sometimes scrounge for food in garbage cans. And drink with sheep from rivers. And lick dogs. And not throw away bread that has touched the station floor. Then nothing will kill you. For cleanliness is relative, a graded scale from the toxic sterility of fretful ladies who sanitize the most luxurious of Paris hotel rooms to the Nenets of Siberia who, always healthy, dwell in muddy yurts among the remains of rotting fish. I am somewhere in between. The Nenets could not tell me apart from a starch-collared senator, and the senator, upon meeting me at my journey’s end, would think me a Nenets. Hygiene is viewed differently from culture to culture, custom to custom, era to era, upbringing to upbringing. Western culture is no panacea. Just think of the barbaric custom of storing snot in a cloth in your pocket. Nothing tops the good old Asian method of smacking your phlegm on a rock. There, all taken care of, all clean. Before your journey, have your teeth fixed and clip your fingernails. On your voyage, have plenty to drink, urinate regularly, and do not sit your sweaty buttocks on the cold ground. Garlic and a bit of alcohol will clean you out inside and send any little germs scurrying for cover. Do not weigh your pack down with nonessentials, my hygienic little brother! One bar of soap for all is plenty, river sand is nearly everywhere. And a single toothbrush. Forget about combs, towels, mirrors, tissues, and razors. Beards itch only between the eighth and ninth day. And bring no extra clothing either. Wash your clothes the ancient way, on warm river rocks, the day your shirt stiffens and sticks greasily, unbearably to your back. The day you begin to disgust yourself. The day your own billy-goat musk engulfs you, and you can no longer resist a bath. Here, too, applies that if you wish to feel gloriously clean and refreshed, you must first be as greasy, dirty, and sweaty as a buffalo. The dirtier you are, the greater the relief of the wash. All itches, bumps, exhaustion, and rashes vanish after a bath, it is that simple.
I still remember the most delightful wash I ever had. Heavily flea-bitten, I had thumbed a ride from the eastern reaches of Slovakia to the town of Liptovský Mikuláš. My shirt was ripped half-way up my back, and the heat, itchiness, weariness and stench sent me staggering. Suddenly, down a side street, I spotted the sign for a municipal bathhouse. A rather dubious looking place. And then a crazy idea occurred to me – why not take a bath?
Inside the building, clean, though antiquated, bathing chambers furnished with bathtubs, soap, and emerald bath salts awaited. I poured a bath. To its brim. There was the sparkling effervescence of bubbles and salts. I jumped in. It was like being struck by a fiery blade, unrepeatable. I roared. Hundreds of flea bites burned, but their sting was sweet. Like in lovemaking, when you cannot tell the difference between pain and pleasure. I roared with burn and bliss. My body flowed with sweat from the Slanské Hills, dirt from Branisko, fetor from Partium, fleas from Fričovce u Prešova. What a glorious, intoxicating sensation, such blissful absolution of corporeal filth. The bath, a fiery confessional.
On the square, I bought curd cheese, garlic, and a new shirt – what incredible luxury. Outside the town, I bid my old shirt – aged, decrepit friend – farewell. I hate throwing old things away. It’s like losing family.
Yellow with black stripes, it had journeyed with me for years, growing ever more threadbare with each journey. Happier thoughts now – garlic and fresh curd cheese. Heavenly, diamond-edged manna. I hitched a ride in a truck. Standing outside on the bed, I gulped in good health, cleanliness, and warm wind. A fragrant banner of garlic blew in the breeze behind me, wafting down the river Váh. All of Liptov Comitat and the Choč Mountains were swathed in that glorious metallic smell – my diamond-edged greetings to the northern Hungarian lands.