Days 17 to 27
And then I was alone. Well and truly by myself for the first time ever. Having been ill after our trek, I’d not spent much time with Ben and Drew on their last few days in Pokhara. They were returning to Kathmandu a few days before their flight home, but I had chosen to stay in Pokhara to write and reflect on the various adventures we’d adventured and experiences we’d experienced. And the fact that I was alone. A long way from home.
I’d been pretty nervous about the whole thing; especially as Ben is a considerably more experienced traveller than me (he’d never let me say he was ‘an experienced traveller’) and has some gusto and courage that either I haven’t yet developed or won’t. His descriptions of what he’d do with the time and freedom I have, were things that didn’t appeal to me; mostly because they scared me: they were too adventurous. The expectation on myself to be equally immersed in cultures and an interested and wandering spirit was intimidating. Although I realised it was an entirely self-inflicted expectation.
All alone in a foreign land
Adventurer, Explorer, Coward.
Waiting for bravery’s guiding hand,
Inspiration filtered or powdered.
Blood says no, brain says yes.
Formalities borne of a mould
To be tinkered and torn with a guess;
Moving away from the old.
By land, by sea, by air.
Immersed, entrenched, indifferent.
My momentary ailment.
Home is where the world isn’t;
But here is the world, not home.
This feeling, coupled with a very basic homesickness / fear of the unknown, was my underlying state as I said goodbye to the boys (while still a little ill) at 7am on Monday (3rd October, Day 19). I was very sorry to see them go. We’d had a lovely holiday, but I must continue this Quest alone. Although, I still don’t have a sword – perhaps I’m a mage or something: I can do a few card tricks.
I spent the next week sitting in cafés in front of Fewa Lake, writing down all of the previous week-or-so’s events. I’ve certainly found some sort of a calling: I’ve never been happier. I hope you enjoy reading this even a quarter of the amount I enjoy writing it.
However, sitting in a café writing does not make for interesting reading, so I’ll pick out some of the more enjoyable moments from my week on Lakeside.
As the boys and I had been spending most of our time together, we hadn’t got the full blast of Gopal and Indra’s (hotel managers) hospitality. Once the boys had left, however, I was welcomed in to their generous hearts like an old friend. We sat and talked over lunch some days, with coffee (sweet and black Nescafé) in the mornings and, on my last night, over a bottle of whiskey. We talked about Nepal and the UK, about charity work, and about poverty and corruption. By my last day I had seen a striking similarity between their relationship and mine with Ben: Gopal being the open-hearted Good Samaritan and Indra being the more cautious user of (his words) ‘micro-analysis’.
Gopal regaled me with stories of his good work, which included me meeting one of the beneficiaries of an educational bursary from the Mountain Trust, of which Gopal used to be president before he resigned due to corruption in the ranks. The chap I met is now top of his class, studying Computer Science at one of the best universities in Nepal. Gopal also told me how 95% of NGOs in Nepal are corrupt: fiddling accounts, pocketing income and employing family and friends to cover it all up. According to Gopal and Indra, there are orphanages looking for sponsors and donors that will pay women to get pregnant, then buy the baby from them. Any money donated to the orphanage or sponsorship for a particular child will not go to improving that child’s situation – happy children don’t make money.
How much of these stories is true, or how many, is something I’m unable to discern; but what is clear is that both Gopal and Indra are very good men, struggling to help other people in a country full of people trying to do the opposite.
Indra invited me to join his family to celebrate Dasain. I was welcomed in to his hime, ate with his family (a great honour, by many sources) and received tikka from the matriarch. Tikka is a mixture of red powder, rice and yoghurt that is stuck to your forehead as blessings are spoken to you. It should be given by someone older than you, so it was a further honour to be receiving it from the most senior member of the family.
Once the more formal procedure of honouring the guests (I shared this experience with two Japanese, friends of Indra’s brother) was complete, I was grateful to witness the rest of the family going through the ritual with more teasing and laughing, as deference and respect were humbly deflected and insisted upon in a battle of giggling wits.
This charming scene was interrupted as friends arrived, complete with garish red rice stuck to their foreheads, as the process goes on all day; families visiting friends and extended family to give and receive blessings. The more red paste you finish the day with (provided it hasn’t fallen off), the more friends and family you have. This I realised later in the day, having proudly worn my square inch of red around town, only to find acres of the stuff plastered across the full width of most foreheads. I felt like the girl who hit puberty last.
Sitting writing all day for a week is not a great way to meet people. Although apparently it does get one a reputation. The people I did meet (like almost everyone in Pokhara) were either about to go trekking or had just returned. Being a lone, inactive man for more than a couple of days is anomalous in Pokhara, especially as my reason for sitting in a café all day was that I was writing. Eventually I started responding that they did good coffee, which seemed to get a better response. But some would say they’d seen me and were curious; others would ask how my book was coming along; although most would stick to their groups and occasionally stare.
I’d also been researching finding my way to Hong Kong by land. I wanted to hop over the border (and the Himalayas) to Tibet and then take a three-day train in an arc around the whole of China. Unfortunately, there are severe restrictions on tourism in Tibet. You have to join a (very expensive) pre-arranged group tour; you can’t deviate from that itinerary; and you must leave the area with the same people with whom you entered it. You have to get a group visa, whic eliminates any existing Chinese visa you may already have. And it’s either a long drive through the Himalayas, exceeding 5,000m above sea-level more than once, or a very expensive flight. All this compared to a relatively inexpensive flight to Hong Kong via Delhi. It’s easier in the other direction, so I’ll do that next time.
I’d fancied the idea of white water rafting since I’d first read about it in the Rough Guide back in the UK. I’d discussed it with Ben and Drew and, while there was some hesitation, we were still considering it while in Nepal. You may remember me getting quite excited about riding crashing torrents of death-water in an earlier post. We never ended up doing it, but I was still keen. I looked at the two- and three-day trips and then started reading about the nine- and ten-day expeditions. Having never done any white water before, I wasn’t sure about the longer trips; but one stood out: the nine-day expedition down the Sun Kosi (Golden River) was advertised as one of the top ten river expeditions in the world and is unique in Nepal, as it starts off easy and gets harder. Over a week of floating down a river through spectacular scenery and camping on white sandy beaches sounded blissful. Add in a pinch of adrenalin and the trip sounds perfect. I bit the bullet and paid up. I was to leave the next day.
Back at the hotel, I settled up but was short a few thousand rupees. I popped off to the cash machine, but it wouldn’t give me any money. Unsurprisingly a little worried, I checked on-line to find more than sufficient funds. Mentioning this to Indra, he said not to worry and that I could send him the money whenever. Clearly this friendship business was more than just good business.
The next morning, I popped back to the ATM, thinking the problem may well have been a withdrawal limit after stumping up a ton of cash for rafting. I was right and my panic was over. It was at this time (6.30am) that I realised I didn’t have a bus ticket to get me back to Kathmandu. Panic restored. I walked up to the rafting office and asked for my bus ticket. I was greeted with the acutely helpful response: “It’s nearly 7am, you should get going or you’ll miss the bus!”
Ticket in hand, I grabbed a taxi and rushed back to the hotel. I as greeted by Indra and Gopal, leisurely taking coffee. We sat for a while (a while that I was worried I would be late) and talked some more about Indian-Nepali international relations, until Gopal got out his Honda and I realised I was about to have my first ever motorbike ride in the road. On a Nepali road. Bother.
Hesitantly, I slung my 15kg rucksack across my back and my 2kg daysack across my chest, then placed myself carefully on the pillion seat of Gopal’s bike. He got a helmet. I didn’t.
With all 110kg of my weight settled precariously behind Gopal, we wobbled away on to the relatively busy streets of Pokhara. A smile briefly fractured my this-is-probably-not-a-good-idea grimace, as I remembered that the bus park wasn’t too far. I activated my recently acquired Avatar of Amygdala Absence, but it only half-worked. Especially as all I had to hold on to was the tiny handles tucked awkwardly under my buttocks; which would have been sufficient to balance me, were it not for my heavy rucksack pulling me backwards.
A bumpy, beepy ten minutes later, we arrived at the bus park and I gladly dismounted. Goodbyes and thankyous and promises of future contact and then I was on the tourist bus to Kathmandu. On the way here, we’d taken the Greenline bus, but this time I’d chosen to take the standard tourist bus ($3 instead of $18), as Drew and Ben had the week before. The only noticeable difference was that every seat was occupied. And there was no free lunch.
I surprised myself by filling the 7hr journey with just my thoughts: no book or music or entertainment of any kind. I didn’t sleep, I just sat and though about stuff. Having been given the middle seat of the back row, I had no trouble with legroom and I was now used to the bumpy ride. I was almost pleasant, in fact.
Returning to Kathmandu, which I’d been so glad to leave, was made worse by the place I’d chosen to stay. The rafting office that I was to report to was in Thamel, the tourist centre of Kathmandu. It, unlike Lakeside in Pokhara, had no delightful view to make up for the heaving hustle of head shops, hemp clothes and trekking equipment. Oh, and lots of sodding travel agents.
I found a basic, but alright hotel (the Karma Hotel for all you millennium bug hip hop fans) and then got to the rafting office at 6pm for my briefing. I didn’t learn much that I hadn’t already read or been told, but I did get to meet the other seven rafters. We all went our separate ways to reconvene at 7am the next day.