I met the old man twice, the first time when he had been a widower since six years, living off a government pension and money sent from a son working in the States. He had inherited a large, worthless farm. The encroaching desert covered his fields with a foot of loose sand. He lived alone except for
a dog but was strong in his faith.
The strange thing was, he spent most of his money on bowling balls. Yes, bowling balls and even billiard eight-balls, rejects from a ball factory twenty miles away. Over the years thousands of black balls were dumped by his shack. Several times a day He would load about ten balls in a wooden wheelbarrow and trudge out to his desert domain.
I accompanied him on that first visit, and he took along a shovel, a yardstick and in his pocket a creased, newspaper photograph. I got just a quick glimpse of the picture it was of a chubby, jolly man. Anyway, he measured his way out with the yardstick and stakes and proceeded with the dog to bury the balls at precise locations just under the surface. This bizarre behavior continued for 15 years until right before his death. Occasionally a sandstorm blew through causing him an extra months toil to sweep off the excess sand.
I saw him a last time on his deathbed. I was in the area as a rescue worker after the 2002 earthquake. The Richter 8 quake and following tremors had rattled the area for a week, and I arrived to find the broken but strangely happy man lying outside his flattened abode.
A year later I read about the fruit of his labor in the Times. Tourist flights from the capital to the Great Wall were being diverted south over his 100 square kilometer farm. The passengers would stare with open mouths at a huge, halftone Buddha consisting of black dots that had been magically shaken to the barren surface.