To Hong Kong!


After nine days in the wilderness, rafting the River of Gold, I spent three days in Thamel, the tourist centre of Kathmandu. The first night back, the rafting group took a few of our guides out for dinner and drinks. The rest of my time in Thamel was occupied with travel admin, catching up on emails and Skyping home – looking even more beardy and bedraggled than on previous calls.

Thamel is so ghastly that I don’t even want to write about it. The fact that this is all a lot of tourists see of Kathmandu and sometimes of Nepal (and that this is what Nepalis think tourists want), is even more depressing. I was glad to leave.

And what a chasm I was about to cross. Here was ending a chapter of my quest: one in which I had experienced nature’s beauty and wrath; had scaled Himalayas and collided with their cold waters; had seen religions and ways of life so different from my own; and had experienced poverty and generosity, and heard about corruption, all so far removed from home.

All of this I left behind as the Sun was setting and the rich peach light cast long shadows across the garish colours of Kathmandu’s ghettos and suburbs. My Kingfisher flight to Delhi (and then Hong Kong) took off pointing south-west, but quickly turned almost north-west and my window seat on the right of the plane was given a final farewell: the entire Himalayan range, illuminated by almost horizontal pink-orange sunlight, as we lifted above the low clouds that embraced the hills and fields around the Kathmandu valley. Such dramatic lines, so fundamental, continued to pass by my 600mph window for nearly half an hour. I said aloud,

This is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.

It was incredibly difficult to take a photo through the tiny, pressure-proof but apparently not grease-proof or scratch-resistant, aeroplane window; and there was no way I was going to be able to get a picture that could transmit the majesty of the experience; but here are some photos of the Himalayas, taken from three-quarters the height of Everest.

Leaving Kathmandu

Leaving Kathmandu

Himalayas from the Air

Himalayas from the Air

More Mountains

More Mountains

This was the first time I’d taken a flight that did not involve the UK as either the initial or final destination. From one foreign land to another. Away from poor, corrupt, stuck-in-the-1970s-brown Nepal and towards mega-rich, luxury, recently-given-back-to-China Hong Kong. I’d read that Westeners say how Chinese Hong Kong is and Chinese say how Western it is. It seemed an ideal place to visit for a Londoner with a mild case of sinophilia.

Originally, my stop in Hong Kong was simply to avoid the enormous cost of flying direct from Kathmandu to Australia. I knew I wouldn’t have much money left by the time I got there and I was off to earn my first Australian cash and pay Australian taxes as an Australian citizen – exciting! As it happened, a not-too-distant cousin on the Dutch/German side of the family has been living in East Asia for eleven years (four in Tokyo, the rest in Hong Kong) and was astonishingly generous to let me stay at his apartment while he was away on business. I’d never met Godard (pronounced GO-D’T, not GOD-ARD), but my father had stayed with him and his family in Germany when they were both in their late teens. That was pretty much the last major contact we’d had with Godard until we knew I was coming to Hong Kong. As seems to happen often with family, however, in the twenty minutes I was able to meet him as we crossed paths in Hong Kong International Airport, we instantly got on and felt so familiar and comfortable in each other’s company. I am so glad to have rekindled that contact.

With accommodation kindly provided by my cousin, I’d extended my stay to a week, which meant now Godard would be coming back before I left and we could spend more than twenty minutes at the airport getting to know each other. While I was looking forward to that, I was also looking forward to getting some sleep, so I made my way straight to Godard’s apartment.

To Hong Kong!

To Hong Kong!

In Nepal, one of my favourite rooms was a plywood box at nearly 3,000m. I was genuinely happy in that room. But here was a new experience: the Four Seasons. Next to the Four Seasons Hotel is an identical tower called Four Seasons Place, which houses their serviced apartments. Where I was to be staying, alone and for free, for the next week. As I walked from the incredibly clean and efficient airport shuttle service, through the incredibly clean and mega-expensive IFC shopping mall, towards the incredibly clean, green and brass Four Seasons Place lobby, I stood out like a donkey in a zebra herd; with a crumpled M&S white shirt, red-clay-and-oil-stained trekking trousers, a beard, long hair in a colourful hair-band and a blue-duct-tape-covered rucksack still depositing sand inconvenient places. Bentinck had arrived.

Mercifully not intimidated by being under-dressed, Bentinck collects his room key and takes the black marble and brushed steel lift to the fifteenth of sixty floors (noting, on his way, the rooftop pool and gym). Gliding through the over decorated corridor, he spots his room/apartment and deftly wiff-waffs the keycard and plunges himself and his bags in to a suite. A suite in the Four Seasons (with a kitchenette). A suite in the Four Seasons with floor to ceiling windows in both the sitting room and the bedroom. With a bath AND a shower in the bathroom that’s bigger than the kitchenette. That has a bloody dining table, coffee table and desk. Oh and a flatscreen TV in the sitting room and the bedroom and the bathroom. Perhaps “astonishingly generous” was an understatement.

Without a functioning phone and with a distinct lack of practice at luxury hotels, I wandered off in search of an internet café to let my parents know I was safe. (And to brag about my accommodation.) Finding a Starbucks about 20 feet from the hotel in the IFC mall, I secured my free 20 mins of Wifi by buying an over-priced coffee. Managing to flirt so outrageously with my cute red-bobbed server-girl that I almost had an out of body experience. I was really tired. She asked my name to put on the cup so it wouldn’t get mixed up with the other fifty thousand cups of coffee they were making. This had never happened to me, so I asked if she wanted my number as well. If I was in a film it would have been super-smooth. I was in a Starbucks.

Emails sent, I went back to the hotel to sleep for a bit before assaulting the streets of Hong Kong with my I’m-not-a-tourist face. TRAVEL TIP: If your only way of accessing the internet is your Kindle and the only light entertainment you have is your Kindle, then you shouldn’t sleep with your Kindle under your arse. Especially when you’re not in the UK, so they can’t replace the Kindle you broke by sleeping with it. I had somehow managed to sort of wake up and use my Kindle for something and then dropped it on the bed in my no-sleep-for-32-hours slumber, before rolling over on top of it and cuddling up with the duvet; enjoying dreams of delightful Kindle-use in a meadow, no doubt.

That bed was a vicious temptress. You entered the room to find a glowing white quadrilateral of heavenly softness, bordered by angelic nymphs, beckoning you to lie with them. As you rest your weary body among their glorious coos and alabaster heartsong, you dissipate your soul and it mixes with the bedclothes until you feel as if sleeping in Aphrodite’s bosom. Then you wake up and find you’ve broken your fucking bastard Kindle.

So I had something to do that afternoon. Adopting my favourite way of discovering a place, Wander Around Aimlessly (WAA), I quickly found an electronics shop and asked politely if they fixed Kindles… Still dizzy from the shock of the Hong Kong attitude to service, I left the electronics shop with a map of Hong Kong, detailed directions of how to get to where they fix Kindles and the number of all the buses I could take, which stop to get off at for the metro and apologies for not being able to take me there himself.

Continuing to adopt my favourite way of discovering places, it took me a while to get to the place where they fix Kindles and I was quite tired by the time I got there. Trekking in walking boots through jungle and mud is easy compared to walking on concrete or other hard surfaces for me. I get a very tired, achey lower back after an hour or so due to my rubbish feet. So when I found that the place that fixes Kindles was now a place full of rubble, dust, broken strip lights and builders doing nothing, I was a little irked. So I had a McDonald’s.

If you have ever thought Wouldn’t it be awesome if McDonald’s delivered? OR Man, I’m really stoned OR Man, I’m so fat I can’t go outside, then you should go to Hong Kong – where McDonald’s is 24 hour, delivers and is really really cheap. Large Big Mac Meal = £1.80 (this, apparently, is much more expensive than it used to be before it was 24 hour). If, however, you have ever thought I like drinking alcohol then be wary of going to Hong Kong – where alcohol is more expensive than in London.

Returning to the Four Seasons

Returning to the Four Seasons

After my wander round Hong Kong island (I’ll get to the geography of the place in another post, so you can feel equally as lost as I did at the time), I somehow managed to find my way back to the hotel to have a shower and get ready for going out. I’d actually had a really lovely day, despite breaking my Kindle. I was amazed to find that it simply hadn’t broken my incredibly good mood at all. I thought I really love Hong Kong, why is that? and I couldn’t answer myself. I was determined to find out.

I’d walked along main roads with skyscrapers before, I’d seen signs with Chinese characters on them before – perhaps I liked Hong Kong because it reminded me of Chinatown in London, where I’d worked and partied for years? I’d seen skyways and incredibly futuristic-looking transport systems in sci-fi films and in my mind’s eye while reading sci-fi – perhaps it was the Blade Runner feeling that caught my heartstrings? I’ve lived in a big city all my life and I’ve always liked Chinese culture and language – perhaps the British occupation has made this city undeniably, but subtly familiar? I couldn’t work it out there and then. Anyway, I had a date.

Being an International Man of Mystery, I’d organised, whilst in the Himalayas, to meet with a Shanghainese girl, in Hong Kong. Being now a Luxury Backpacker, we met at the Grand Hyatt hotel, in the restaurant above the entrance. The entrance is so big that there is space to put an entire restaurant above it. The lobby is as big as a train station. But, being an International Man of Mystery, I sat in the restaurant, waiting for my slender, pretty young Chinese date to arrive, sipping on a glass of tap water because the booze was so expensive. Then she arrived and made her excuses to leave again; she worked at the hotel and things were going on a bit longer than expected. Dream shattered. International Man of Mystery credentials shot. I waited for hours, reading the (very interesting) Hong Kong newspapers, eating the absolutely most delicious buffet ever and slugging back relatively cheap wine, all at her expense, thanks to her staff account/discount.

I’m still not sure whether I actually did well out of this exchange. It felt great for the first hour or so, then I thought Bugger this, I’m off, then realised that, of course, I had absolutely nothing better to do and so sat and read more of the paper. I went for a cigarette, leaving a note saying that I’d gone for a cigarette. I came back to find a note, helpfully telling me that I’d gone for a cigarette. I read some more of the paper and drank some more wine. I would have eaten some of the really expensive chocolates I’d bought her (two of each) if she hadn’t taken them away and put them in her office, never to be seen again.

She was jolly pretty though.

Once she finally finished work, she told me to meet at the staff entrance in five minutes. I took this opportunity to have another cigarette. Outside, a very pretty young Chinese girl came up and asked my name. Then asked where I was from. I obliged and found, after a few attempts, that her name was Cherry. Right. I asked her Chinese name and was startled by how startled she was that I knew what a Chinese name was, or how to pronounce one. I was even more startled when she asked if I wanted to take her number immediately after asking which hotel I was staying in. Either “Oh, the Four Seasons” has incredible pulling power, or she was working that night. Thanks to discussions with Godard later in the week, I’m now beginning to think that my automatic assumption that it was the latter might have been wrong and that it was a third option – I might have had an interesting time, albeit one where I was guarding my passport(s), with Cherry. Either way, I made my lightning quick excuses and legged it.

I had a midnight tour of Hong Kong island from a nervous and closed-off girl, who had been so open and forthcoming in Nepal. Tired and clearly not getting anywhere, I went to bed. This time without any company, not even my Kindle.

Rafting the River of Gold


Reputedly one of the world’s top ten rivers, the Sun Kosi – the River of Gold – flows 272 km through the untouched countryside and small villages of the beautiful Mahabharat Lekh Mountains of the central Nepali Himalayas. The start-point lies three hours east of Kathmandu at Dolalghat and the end-point is at Chatra, near Dharan in the Eastern Terai.

The Sun Kosi’s volume increases considerably as it combines with seven big tributaries to become one of the major rivers of South Asia. The first few days offer fun class II-III rapids and allow time to learn the skills and team work needed for the much larger, far more challenging rapids to come. From the third day onwards, the whitewater builds into great, thundering class III-IV rapids. The Sun Kosi presents the chance to see a very special part of Nepal that is rarely seen by outsiders and, with it, billions of gallons worth of heart-pumping, world-class whitewater action.

Holiday Nepal | Definitions of Rapid Classes | Map

We slowly gathered at 7am, ready for our intrepid adventure down the Sun Kosi. Not knowing if we’d have the opportunity to change, we’d all worn various stages of it’s-OK-if-this-gets-wet undress. I’d opted for a t-shirt and swimming shorts, with the emphasis on ‘short’; a style apparently adhered to by my European compatriots – Andrea the Swiss and Charles the Frenchman. The Canadian – Logan – and the Aussie and Kiwi couples – Brent & Tara and Steve & Holly – had, unsurprisingly, better wardrobes for adventure water sports.

After a decent amount of Nepali-time had passed from our hard deadline of 7am, we walked our kit a few minutes out of the narrow streets of Thamel to a nearby main road, where our bus was waiting, with all manner of serious-looking stuff strapped professionally to the roof. We piled on board and set off on a three hour trip to our put-in point.

I dropped in and out of the swapping-stories conversation during the journey, which Logan dominated as the most travelled of us all. His restless and youthful energy to travel and see the world has taken him to every continent except Antarctica. I had begun to understand his wanderlust, even after only a short time travelling myself, but felt that the ‘sell everything and just go’ attitude was a little beyond my reach.

Leaving Kathmandu on the road to Tibet, we quickly were up in to the foothills of the Himalayas and trundling along the now familiar precarious mountain roads. We were twice stopped and checked by Gurkhas, whose blue and black camouflage in a green and brown country serves quite the opposite purpose. Our guides told us that we were being searched for cedar-wood, which is illegal to export to China. I think ‘cedar-wood smuggler’ has to be one of the worst criminal titles – not something to show off about at parties.

We arrived at the put-in around midday, thanks to our Nepali-time departure, and watched the two rafts being inflated and set up. Then suddenly lunch appeared (cold pasta, coleslaw and tuna mayo), which we ate off steel plates with steel cutlery and drank juice out of steel mugs. We were already living rough. Three of the five boys already had full grizzly-bear beards. (To save confusion, we hadn’t just grown beards thanks to the utter manliness of eating off steel; we’d actually brought them ready-made, Blue Peter style.)

Put-in Point

Put-in Point

Our safety briefing consisted of one lesson – if you fall out of the raft, get back in the raft – broken into three sub-lessons: (i) if you’re next to the raft, then hold on to it and wait for someone to pull you back in; (ii) if you’re not next to the raft, then grab the oar that someone will extend to you, perhaps by hooking the oar you cleverly remembered not to let go of onto their oar, and then do step (i); (iii) if you’re really far from the raft, then catch the rope that someone will hopefully throw to you and then do step (i).

After this, we were taught how to be rescued by one of the safety kayaks, which essentially involves having sex with the kayak.

Our final lesson was the White Water Position, which is on your back, feet pointing downstream and oar held across your chest. Oh, and that if you get caught in a ‘hole’ (a big dip where the water churns back on itself like a washing machine), then roll into a ball and you’ll probably be spat out of it; otherwise you’ll just be rolled over and over and die.

Bother.

And then we set off. With a very fast current and Suren, our guide, paddling from the stern, pretty much the only paddling we did for the first two days was practising following Suren’s Germanically straightforward commands about how to paddle. Which we were utterly incapable of following. “FORWARD TEAM!” was about the only one we could manage; but with the synchronisation of an experimental jazz band and the finesse of a drunken spider with a missing leg.

Suren, Our Guide

Suren, Our Guide

I’d chosen this river over the more aggressive Karnali because it begins easy and gets harder. Perhaps this was a wise decision; or perhaps the Karnali’s baptism of fire (or baptism of crashing torrents of death-water) would have smartened us all up into efficient rapid-conquering paddlers. I will only find out by returning to Nepal and running the Karnali. Which I fully intend to do. You should come too.

Aside: As I write this in the light of the setting sun, beside the Derwent river in Tasmania, the half-Moon hangs almost directly above me in a darkening blue sky. To my left, a bright pinpoint of light sits just above the horizon where the Sun just was. To my right, at almost the same height, sits another. They are the only lights in the sky. I believe this is the first time I’ve ever seen Mars, because one of them must be Venus.

If you have any idea how to check this, please let me know. I was at 42.781240 South, 147.054427 East at 20:30 EST on 04/11/2011.

So, the first couple of days were a bit of a non-event in terms of white water (or ‘swift-water’, opposed to ‘flat-water’). We weren’t always floating along on fast-moving calm water (Class I); sometimes the water would get a bit choppy, like a slightly windy day in a harbour, with regular waves sometimes a foot or two high (Class II) – the kind of thing hips trained by dancing, gymnastics, martial arts or riding would see you through with an upright torso as the raft pitches and rolls.

Rafting the Sun Kosi

Rafting the Sun Kosi

We’d do between three and five hours of rafting each day, stopping for lunch (cold pasta, coleslaw and tuna mayo) on one of the many fine white sandy beaches that gazillions of gallons of gushing mountain water, over hundreds of millions of years, have washed, rolled, bashed, eroded, ground and deposited for our blissful enjoyment.

There is something peculiar about sitting on a beach, sunning oneself after a delicious lunch, with waves lapping against the shore and then realising that you’re in a land-locked country and this is a river. That the waves are not rhythmic, but erratic, caused by an ongoing war between gravity and big rocks, where water draining from the tallest mountains in the world is beaten and bashed on its way to the Ganges.

It is particularly peculiar when the Sun’s gone down, but the Moon is not yet up, it’s only 6pm and you’re sat waiting for supper made on a gas stove that’s been carried over rapids on an inflatable raft manned by a lone rower with ten-foot oars. When you can see the Milky Way because the only other light comes from the seven single light bulbs you can see dotted around the valley; in houses to which there are no roads.

We’d pitched tents, supplied by the company, and after a delicious supper (these guys could cook!) we talked and drank some of the booze we’d brought (not included in the price). Then the Moon rose over the hill on the other side of the river and suddenly the beach lit up. We no longer needed our head-torches, as the Moon had been full only the night before and the clear sky afforded us a complete celestial illumination from the Earth-child’s reflected Sun-rays. I’m being a bit over the top for a reason: it was powerfully chest-filling; that way that a thought can be so big and natural and beyond oneself that it overwhelms and induces an almost-dizziness. The combination of the imagined scale of the solar system, the aeons and ages that humans have experienced moonlight and the vastness of the small fraction of the globe we were traversing, all mixed with the unusual experience of a naturally illuminated night, was cause for a gasp.

Every night except the first and last we made a fire out of driftwood. This quickly became a competition to see who could carry or drag the biggest tree back to camp. Which Logan won, being more like a bear than any person I’ve ever met. And not like a teddy bear either; like an actual Canadian bear. One evening we ended up with enough wood for three fires; which instead became one fire and several benches.

Camp Fire

Camp Fire

After three days of relatively easy going, we embarked on what was promised to be a more active day’s rafting. It wasn’t really, especially as the one rapid we had to ‘scout’ (stop to check if it’s runnable) was so horrifically violent that we instead sat back and watched as the guides pulled the rafts through with long ropes. One of the kayakers did run it, however, and as he hit the first wave, flew several feet into the air, before landing in another wave and then somehow managing to just avoid the gigantic hole that promised to swallow him up, then tiptoeing his way through the remaining raging vortices of angry foam. His absolutely expressionless face remaining absolutely expressionless. While the previous few days of sedentariness had me overly keen to run this rapid, in retrospect I’m glad we didn’t. We were really really dreadful at following Suren’s orders and we would have been lucky to come out of it with even one person in a probably upside-down raft. That was the only Class IV+/V rapid we saw during the whole trip; I’m also glad we didn’t run it because the extra on-the-spot insurance I’d bought had only extended my cover to Class IV. They don’t insure Class V.

The previous day’s lunchtime (cold pasta, coleslaw and tuna mayo) had seen a fantastic addition to the trip. Brent mentioned how great it would have been if we’d brought a Frisbee. I looked down at the steel plate in my hand and made a suggestion. The steel plate flew gracefully; and so was born Platesbee – which we played almost every day; always, somehow, managing to recover the plate when it inevitably found its way in to the river and quickly sank.

That day, we had also discovered what it’s like to have to get back in the raft. Not because we’d flipped or run a dangerous rapid, but because we’d all decided to go for a swim during a particularly calm stretch; which had a small rapid at the end of it that would have dispersed us almost irretrievably. I was about fifteen metres downstream of the raft and swimming as hard as I could until I couldn’t any more got me about a fifteenth of the way. I at once appreciated the power of the river and what, if I was so unfortunate, it would do to me given the chance. The dragon Sun Kosi was lying in wait.

Valley View

Valley View

The fifth day was a rest day; and we were glad of it. I think we’d all had the thought that questioned why we’d signed up to any more than four days of what had risked, at times, being monotonous. The rest of the group went for a short trek (which included a booze run in the middle of nowhere), while I opted to stay and write my journal. This also meant I had the chance to practice in the kayak while no one was looking. In trying to explain to the Nepali kayaker what experience I’d had, I’d felt I’d talked myself up a bit. Journal writing was brief, as Pradeep, the kayaker, asked about my tattoo.

I have several different answers about my tattoo, depending on the level of interest I gauge after saying ‘it means infinity’. Pradeep seemed pretty interested and I ended up giving a maths lesson with a stick in the sand. Because the symbols are global and Pradeep knew a lot more maths than most, I was able to communicate much better about countable infinity, cardinal and ordinal numbers, and transfinite numbers than I was with most things in English. Although when we got to uncountable infinities, neither my knowledge of the maths nor my miming skills were up to the task of explaining the density of the continuum. So we went kayaking.

Having not done any advanced kayaking for at least ten years, if not fifteen or more, I was not expecting to pick up the Eskimo Roll immediately, but had hoped it would come back to me. The minute I dipped into the water, however, I had no confidence in my lungs and I panicked. Eventually I couldn’t continue, as my panic would no longer subside between attempts. While Pradeep was complimentary about almost every aspect of my roll, we both agreed that my panic and shortness of breath were the Achilles Heel to any further progress. Disappointed, I vowed to improve and spent a little time later in the day holding myself under the water, training my breath and discovering my limits. Once everyone had returned from the trek, I had another go in amongst others having their first go. I was much more calm and confident, and I improved; but still couldn’t roll. In my determination to do so, I ended up hogging the kayak and Pradeep as the Sun was setting. Sorry guys.

Kayak Training

Kayak Training

Aside: My list of Things to Do When I Get Home now includes a flat-water kayak instructor course and a white/swift-water kayak course. This is part of the rekindling of my plan to take some friends and some kayaks to the lakes and rivers of Canada; which will involve kayaking from Birmingham to London on the canal as part of the training. For this trip I will need kayaks and, of course, interested friends. It will take some time to plan, so if you’re interested (you don’t yet have to be a friend) please register your interest here and we’ll start planning in the new year. If you have expertise (or even basic knowledge) in any of the following, please let me know, so that I may pick your brains: kayaks, Canadian rivers and lakes, Canadian wilderness, survival and sports nutrition.

As we were enjoying our kayak lessons, our supper was approaching. From the other side of the river. On four legs; and extremely upset. As the little pig was led, dragged and carried by the rope tied to its hind leg, it squealed a cry of fear that one’s bones could understand; and feel. The valley amplified and augmented the sound till it ran through your ears, heart and soul. I can’t imagine what it would have been like for Tara, the only vegetarian, whose distress was silently as loud as the pig.

Ferried across the river in the hollowed-out tree trunk the locals use for transport, our supper settled down once it was tethered and left for a while. I was invited to watch the killing and, having missed the spectacle of sacrifice during Dasain due to a confusion of days, thought it was a thing I should probably witness. Suren explained that the process would not be quick or painless, as they didn’t have the right equipment, but that the technique they would use was the best they could do. Taking a sharpened sliver of bamboo, about six inches long, our chef for this evening (a local friend of Suren) would jab precisely in to the beast’s heart – something only an expert could do without piercing a lung. With the first swift and delicate jab, the bamboo snapped and missed the heart; the subsequent twenty-or-so violent and blind thrusts and attempt to recover a dreadfully botched job. The pig died very slowly and in great pain.

While the pig was gutted and prepared for the barbeque, the boys and I busied ourselves with the more important task of using our head-torches and the long exposure on my camera to draw willies with light; and write words.

Writing With Light

Writing With Light

The meat was delicious, prepared in a moreish marinade and barbecued to perfection. The skin was a little stubbly, but that only added to the experience of munching on a recently slaughtered pig, on a beach, next to the River of Gold, in the Nepali wilderness. Blissful.

Which is a word I can use to describe the whole trip. Every aspect, from gracefully floating along to crashing through erratic eight-foot waves; from lying under the stars in front of a blazing camp-fire to fending off a pack of wild dogs; from playing Platesbee in the sand to eating recently slaughtered BBQ Pork; all of it was truly and completely blissful. Perhaps it was the lack of concern or even thought for the outside world – we speculated that we were unlikely to even be aware of nuclear war; perhaps it was the great company and instant group cohesion – Pradeep told us that we were the best group they’d ever had, as we were straight away like old friends and made their job much easier and more enjoyable; perhaps it was the natural beauty and balance between the serenity of the hills and the ancient power of the river – almost unaltered by human influence. I think it was all of them and more, but you’ll have to try it yourself to find out.

~

Oh, OK. I won’t just pass by, nonchalantly dropping the phrase “crashing through erratic eight-foot waves” without exposition. I will tell you about Class III-IV rapids – if you didn’t see it earlier, here are the Definitions of Rapid Classes. By my reckoning, the main difference between Class III and IV rapids is fear. Class III rapids are four- to eight-foot waves that, paddling hard, you crash through or over, depending on your timing. They are fun, exciting and something like a roller coaster that, if you don’t hold on with your toes, you might fall out of. Class IV rapids are somewhat similar, except that your paddling seems to have no effect at all and you begin to remember how the dragon Sun Kosi lies in wait. Still fun and exciting, but fun and exciting because you’re probably going to get a lungful of ‘buffalo soup’ – what we called the river water due to the propensity of water buffalo to conveniently die and rot at the water’s edge – and not have a raft to sit on any more.

To illustrate this further, on our last day we were so blasé about Class III that we continued our game of I Spy DURING our combat with a sequence of large waves, which we deftly surmounted to the cries of

“Rapid?”
“Rainforest?”
“River?”
“Rope?”
“Rocks?”
“FORWARD TEAM!”

The 23-Hour Day: Third Day of Trekking


Day 15

The alarm went off at 4am (I heard it through the plywood wall) and the refreshing interchange of

“Will?”
“Yes?”
“I feel like shit.”

prompted another 15 minutes’ kip.

We finally dragged ourselves out of the hotel, layered with thermal undies and equipped with torches, at about 4.45am. We were climbing from 2,890m to 3,210m in the dark.

The next hour was harder than expected, most likely due to sleepy metabolisms and no breakfast, but we didn’t find it as hard as some. When taking a break, the eerie sight of a caterpillar of head torches creeping a slow concertina procession up the hill was an oddly welcome distraction from the heels of the person in front, which was all you could see when walking.

The guidebook mentions the ‘stampede of sunrise seekers’, but it was difficult to imagine the full meaning of that phrase until we got to the top. The sheer number of people was staggering; and it quickly continued to fill up. A little stall sold hot black tea with mole-hills of sugar in it. The metal observation tower ached and screeched under the weight of its passengers and their cameras. Everyone had a camera: some on tripods, some against their faces and some, as is common these days, at 3/4 arm’s length, as if trying to get as far away from the reality of their subject as possible.

View from Poon Hill

View from Poon Hill

Were it not for the clouds, the view would have been mind-numbingly wonderful and awesome (I’m annoyed that those words don’t mean “filled me with wonder and awe” – perhaps I should say wonder full and awe full). As it was, the view was just your common-or-garden staggeringly breathtaking: as the sun rose behind us and illuminated the mountains hundreds of kilometres in front of us, a sense of unimaginable scale became momentarily imaginable. And then I saw a kilt.

Heathrow Man, as he had become known, was one of the many people we were surprised to see at 5am, 3km up into the Himalayas. It felt like everyone we’d seen or met over the last two weeks was here. But Heathrow Man was the only one in a kilt.

I first met Heathrow Man in the queue for check-in at an airport. I forget which. He (the only other person in the queue) asked if this was the flight to Delhi, which it was, and lo! our destinies were entwined. I next saw him on the plane; then in Delhi Arrivals security; then in Delhi Departures lounge; then sat leisurely in business class on the flight to Kathmandu; then on the streets of Boudha, more than once. Then I didn’t see him for the few days that we went east; but then I saw him in Pokhara, more than once. Then we didn’t see him while we were trekking; and now here he was, on Poon Hill. In a fucking kilt.

And I am really not making this up: he just walked in to the café I’ve been writing in for the past few days and sat down at the table across from me. I really want to talk to him, but I’m afraid I’ll break the spell: me and Heathrow Man, destined to always be in roughly the same place at roughly the same time, but never to know each other. I haven’t even made eye contact with him since he first graced me with his lilting Scottish serrated knife of a voice, back in Heathrow Terminal 4, all those aeons ago. The only thing I know about him, and ever want to know, is that in the cold damp pre-dawn hours of this day in late September 2011, Heathrow Man wore a kilt to climb a mountain called Poon Hill. In the dark. And he didn’t look very impressed with the view.

Once we’d managed to get our cameras to expose correctly for the dawn light on our faces and the bright sunshine reflecting off snow hundreds of kilometres away, Ben suggested we leave before everyone else, if only to jump the queue for the showers (of which there were two).

Annapurna South, Just Waking Up

Annapurna South, Just Waking Up

Once we got back to the hotel, we decided there was no point to showering, what with another eight hours of trekking ahead of us. We sat down (having already done a three-hour trek over 640 vertical metres) for breakfast at 7am. We’d already done a trek comparable to the World Peace Stupa; before breakfast. This was going to be a long day.

We took a very leisurely couple of hours for breakfast and packing, wanting to be as ready for the day ahead as we could. The first hour or so after our departure at 9am was a climb to the same height as Poon Hill, but not as steep. One would imagine this to be easier, but legs tired from a pre-breakfast hike and full packs completely outweighed the slight decrease in steepness. This was harder.

Our ascent was through a sea of yapping Chinese and loud, aggressive, staccato Russian – two large groups that, I mumbled to Ben, had turned the mountain Red.

At the rest point that marked what looked like the top, I began to feel a little vertiginous for the first time. As we progressed across the rising ridge, this was not a feeling that left me until we got back in to the jungle; mainly because the track was thin, my legs were tired, my pack set me off-balance and the clouds occasionally would suddenly clear, exposing a 1,500m drop through dense undergrowth into a rocky ravine. Ben was caught slightly off-guard when his regular trill of

“How we doing, buddy?”

was met with a matter-of-fact

“Really not happy: quite terrified… Let’s just keep going.”

Really High Jungle Mist

Really High Jungle Mist

In the forest we finally started going down; and the roles reversed. On our descent from Poon Hill, I’d discovered that Ben came down hard and jarring on his front foot, as he transferred his weight forward with each step – as you do when walking on the flat or ascending. I suggested he try keeping his weight on the back leg and bending it in a kind of in-the-middle-of-sitting-down-cross-legged-my-trousers-have-ripped-and-I’m-not-wearing-any-knickers way. He quickly saw the advantage of lowering his centre of gravity into the hill and we saved him a lot of knee pain.

While we’d found a way to give Ben some knee-relief, that didn’t mean he was happy with the whole process. I was now the fast one, employing years of delighted youth, skipping across Mediterranean boulders, rock-formations and stones in flip-flops, sure-footed as Billy Goat the Superglue Salesman.

Ben’s superior strength and fitness meant he could bear the punishment a slow descent has on your legs; a skipping, trotting, jogging approach is much easier on the muscles and joints – but also more dangerous. The steps were wet and he rightly feared that skipping down was more likely to kill or seriously maim, him if he slipped. Stupidly, I felt no such fear, so had a lovely time skipping down through astonishingly beautiful scenery, decidedly oblivious of the horror that would befall me if I fell.

The descent got steeper and steeper until it was almost vertical. We pitied those coming up the other way, who had to suffer steps that were waist-high for some. And then it started raining; out of nowhere came rain like someone had just emptied a lake out of the sky.

I slowed down. Ben slowed down. I didn’t slow down as much as Ben. Our exhaustion caused a little bickering – just a little – but we both noticed. Here is another reason why I was fortunate to be with Ben: we both instantly recognized what was going on and stopped to marvel at the scenery. We had descended about half way into an incredibly deep river gorge, the sight of which, when we looked back up, was superbly restorative. It was beautiful and, as we were now getting used to, beautiful in a way quite unlike anything we’d already seen.

Ben Gets Overtaken By a Skipping Man Carrying a Grocery Stall

Ben Gets Overtaken By a Skipping Man Carrying a Grocery Stall

Ben in Charge of a Waterfall

Ben in Charge of a Waterfall

Everywhere you look in Nepal (at the natural scenes) is magnificently beautiful, but each new place is completely unlike any of the previous. As we took stock of this new beauty, our spirits raised enough for us to continue joking and laughing and we quickly arrived at the bottom of the gorge.

We settled in for a decent break, but quickly realised we were running short on time. Almost everyone else was finishing their day in Tadapani, but we had decided to break the back of the descent today, to give us an easier time tomorrow, our final day: we were going another 2-3 hours further than everyone else. If it was another 2 hours to Tadapani, we’d be getting in to Ghandruk (assuming an hour for lunch) just before nightfall. We decided to shove some Snickers down us and charge on, aiming to get to Tadapani for 2.30pm, giving us some leeway for lunch and the final descent to Ghandruk.

We set off across the levelled-out river bed, crossing the river back and forth, before returning to the now familiar track-through-jungle-on-side-of-mountain. It was so familiar that I absent-mindedly took us on a wrong turn and nearly got us both killed.

The path I’d chosen (although I really didn’t see another path) got thinner and thinner, until the vegetation on both sides was touching our boots. The steps over exposed roots of trees became much bigger; we sometimes had to actually jump down. Then we had to walk over a slippery fallen tree and avoid puddles of mud that we had no idea the depth of. All of this with a few inches slip to the right being an unending fall to our inevitable death. Imagine being unsure of your footing in a jungle. Now tilt that jungle 80 degrees to the right and put it so high that the clouds seem a long way down. It was like that. Except it was real.

We’d pretty much decided we’d gone the wrong way when we saw, 20m above us, people walking along the proper path. They cheerfully waved at us and my terror mixed with embarrassment and muted the cry for help that was slowly building in my gut. I saw that our animal track, or whatever it was, went up a fair bit ahead and decided that we’d have to climb the rest, expecting that the proper path would sensibly remain level.

With our hearts firmly grasped between our teeth, we gave it all hell and charged vertically up, brushing through dense, wet undergrowth – fuck leeches, I want to live! Without the slightest mishap we had found our way back to the well-worn, flat, wide track and saved ourselves from a silent tumbling death. Being English, we said “That was scary” and set off marching again, fearful of being late. I’m glad we did, because had we stopped to take stock (as I’m uncomfortably doing now), I’m sure we’d have had some difficulty continuing. It was utterly, completely terrifying.

Our path went down again, down the side of another valley and, at the bottom, Oh fuck. More stairs. it inevitably went back up the other side. For me, this ascent was no different from any of the other thousands and thousands of steps up which I’d dragged my wilting body over the previous couple of days: just put one painful leg on the next step and heave. For Ben, the pounding descent he’d suffered for most of the day had taken its toll, so he now also found it really tough. He blamed it on the cigarette he’d had just before the ascent (despite my warnings, tut tut), but I think that’s giving the cigarette too much credit. Thoroughly exhausted, we rested half way up; both assuming the pray-heavens-open-and-consume-me position, leaning against our packs.

After more bloody stairs, we reached Tadapani and settled in for some lunch, well-deserved. We’d arrived half an hour early, but still managed to instantly find some people to moan at in the cynical tones of one who’s given up on the joy and simply lives for the experience to continue to its bitter end. Luckily, the British are good at cynicism and our new companions fell about laughing. Tori, 21, and Kelsey, 18, were sisters from Colorado, having now been in Nepal for four months, staying with a Nepali family and proficient with the local lingo. They were so entertained by these two sweaty, deflated, whingeing Brits that they checked out of the room they’d checked in to only an hour before in order to join us for the rest of our trek. While we were worried they’d be much faster than us and that we’d hold them back, the idea of two bundles of youthful female energy keeping us company seemed as good a morale booster as any. If they turned out to be really dull, we could blame their demise on the bears or tigers or snakes or monkeys that reside in the jungle we entered with them; past a sign warning us not to walk in the jungle alone.

The girls were a dynamic duo of delightful liberal American teenage brilliance. I was humbled by their level-headed and immersive experience of Nepal; finding them an inspiration, especially as my admiration was amplified by their youth. They were fun, interesting and intelligent; were joyful company on the descent through yet another kind of beautiful scenery; and were too young for sexuality to intrude into the blossoming friendship. Not that my imagination was, at the time, considering thoughts any more adventurous than “I hope there aren’t any more bloody steps”. Which there were.

As we arrived in Ghandruk (we knew we had, because a delightfully incongruous map suddenly appeared, all Cheshire Cat smile) there was a meticulously crafted flight of 500 steps (someone counted). This was immaculately regular (as it led up to a temple) and we found that trotting down was the only way to overcome the distinct lack of any sliver of strength or stamina remaining in our legs. In the photo, notice that the stairs go down, but the town is up. We had to go back up again. Up more stairs.

Straight Stairs to Ghandruk

Straight Stairs to Ghandruk

Settling to the first guest house we came across, the girls quickly made friends with the owners (in Nepali) and we settled in to a really lovely set of rooms. The only other guests being two early thirties Irishmen, Brian and John, who had shot past us on the descent from Tadapani, practically running all the way.

Our four new companions (we’d left the old ones back in Tadapani) were a real highlight to the trek. The six of us nattered all night, ate at a single table with the Nepali family, played Shithead for hours and retired to the balcony outside our rooms to drink and talk into the night. Ben and I made the mistake of continuing this revelry until 3am.

We’d been awake for 23 hours, 11 of which we’d been trekking.

The Jungle at Altitude: Second Day of Trekking


Day 14

After The Staircase of Death the day before, our second day of trekking beginning with more sodding stairs was reasonably demoralising. I’m sure I’d made the quip about my first property purchase being a fucking bungalow about fifteen times by this point; but I made it again. We had, however, been told that this day would be much easier and we’d seen the worst of it already.

Oh Fuck. More Stairs.

Oh Fuck. More Stairs.

The trail did level out somewhat and we ploughed on. When we weren’t climbing steps I was absolutely fine and we marched on, overtaking groups quite often. When we were climbing steps, those groups would trickle back past us; a nightmare for morale, but one I kept in check. Ben’s encouragement, though I could see he was beginning to flag too, was invaluable.

We’d turned down an offer in Pokhara of one of the girls we’d met to join us, on the grounds that this was likely to be the last time Ben and I saw each other for some time; and we’d have the opportunity to talk. However, we hadn’t said a single word that wasn’t trek-related in over 24 hours and weren’t to for almost the entire trip. This was really tough for us both.

I remember surprisingly little of the trek on this day. I can only assume that I had settled in to a zen-packhorse trance and had disengaged less vital parts of my brain – like those that experience or remember. We had reached the jungle however (at about 1,800m above sea-level) and Ben’s previous experience with leeches (ask him) made us fastidious in protecting ourselves. We’d even brought half a kilo of salt. We didn’t get any leeches: it was far too sunny.

Here Jungle Be (at 1,800m)

Here Jungle Be (at 1,800m)

About two thirds of the way up, I felt sick and had a headache that wouldn’t go away, no matter how much water I drank. Worried about altitude sickness, I asked for us to stop and we settled in for lunch. It turned out simply to be exertion, but my over-cautiousness included my first ever foray into the wonder that is garlic soup – a remedy for altitude due to its vasodilating properties. You must have garlic soup (with a little tomato), it is quite delicious.

Learning from our trek to Nagarkot not to pay much attention to how long people say things will take, we set off for the remaining anywhere-from-an-hour-to-three-hours to Ghorepani. We made good time, having found a rhythm we could maintain. A rhythm that would serve us well the next day.

Ben Doing Our Rhythm

Ben Doing Our Rhythm

Arriving in Ghorepani was a relief; countered somewhat by the knowledge that we were actually going to Upper Ghorepani and the sight of another snaking, seemingly never-ending fucking staircase. “One last push.” At least the umpteenth time Ben had said it that day, but it felt a little more graspable this time.

At the top, we checked in with the police (a Gurkha called Ben) and went to find the Sunny Hotel, which had been recommended to us. Another two plywood rooms for NRS 50 (about 40p) and the odd experience of showering in the dark (power cut) set us up for an afternoon of sitting at a table too exhausted to even discuss the day’s events.

Something that is particularly odd about trekking is the end of the day. We’d set off at 9am and here, after a long, hard day’s trekking, we were sat at 3pm, quite ready for bed. We didn’t know what to do with ourselves. While we were planning on getting up at 4am to catch the sunrise, we still had hours before a sensible bed-time. So we sat and we chatter a little with the Germans and the Scot and a new British couple, Nick and Amy, project manager and vet, who were very easy to get on with. As the afternoon ploughed on, the clouds began to clear and we got our first sight of the spectacular view. Dhaulagiri, the world’s seventh highest mountain, began to peek through the clouds and suddenly our end of the restaurant (the window end) became the place to be.

Cheeky Peak Peeking

Cheeky Peak Peeking

It was about this time that Ben and I realised we were one of very few (if not the only) groups to have neither guide nor porter. We also had much heavier packs than most. Our having kept up with these people buoyed us for the next day. We were going to need it.

As the evening drew in, we joined an intense game of Shithead (with new rules) with Kat and Limor. Kat (a North London Irish rose) had met Limor (a late-twenties ball of Israeli energy, with a Bachelor’s in Electrochemical Engineering and embarking on a Master’s in Neuroscience) while on the full Annapurna Circuit; of which they were now in their closing days. These girls took cards very seriously, which was a delight for Ben (hugely competitive) and me (lover of games and cards).

We got to bed early, although not as early as we’d have liked, and Ben bravely volunteered as timekeeper (the one mobile phone alarm clock) and so the responsibility of waking us up at 4am to trek for over an hour from 2,890m to 3,210m in the dark.

The Staircase of Death: First Day of Trekking


Day 13

Confident that Drew would be happy by himself, shopping, drinking, sunning himself and getting a Swedish massage, while Ben and I pushed ourselves through four days of self-inflicted endurance torture, we’d settled on the Poon Hill trek (usually five days, but as Tempa T says “Go hard or go home”).

Leaving some stuff with Drew, but not too much, we set off in a pre-booked taxi 80km west to Naypul. Two hours of bumpy mountain road later, we found ourselves in what was apparently Nayapul: a few shacks on the side of the road selling water, snacks and hot food. We were expecting more, as it is the beginning of one of the most trekked routes in the Annapurna region.

After some brief faffing with kit, we set off in to the unknown: two intrepid explorers (we had special I’m-not-using-a-guide-because-I’m-a-hardcore-LAD documentation – ironically called FIT: Free Individual Trekker) ready for anything the Himalayas could throw at us.

The first thing thrown at us was an enormous landslide blocking the only path. It slowly dawned on us that we’d have to climb over it; which we did with some delicacy. By the fourth landslide, we were practically skipping across like seasoned mountain goats.

Landslide

Landslide

Speaking of goats, over the next four days we were to pass lots of goats, hundreds at a time, coming down from the restricted area of Mustang on the Tibetan border. They were all being brought to Pokhara to be loaded on to trucks and distributed across the country to be sacrificed for the festival of Dasain. We saw thousands and thousands of goats. Each one fetches upwards of NRS 7,000 ($90) and will likely not even be eaten, as Nepali Hindus (especially high caste) are predominantly vegetarian.

Doomed Goats

Doomed Goats

We had set off at quite a pace. I think we were both of a similar mindset: this trip’s only four days long, so I’m going to make the most of it, no matter how much it hurts. As we started climbing steps, however, it became clear that Ben’s gym attendance was more regular than his modesty would let on; and my occasional game of squash just wasn’t cutting it. And so began Ben’s saintly patience in the face of my demonic auto-torture. As we crossed beautiful gorges and regularly passed heavenly streams, waterfalls and rivers (and, of course, more goats) we also started climbing lots more steps – a few at first, then they grew into flights and soon I was really struggling.

I’ve never been a great fan of stairs; but my relationship with them was considerably altered in late 2002, when my cardiac consultant told me I absolutely must not climb stairs. I’d had an influenza-induced acute myocardial infarction (the flu gave me a heart attack) and my three-month recovery was essentially “Don’t do anything. But especially don’t go up stairs.” I followed Doctor’s Orders to the letter (I’m a sucker for a buxom consultant) and my heart recovered, better than it had been originally, but I’ve always remained slightly wary of stairs.

So, when we arrived at the base of what one happy trekker termed The Staircase of Death, still tired from the kindly placed practice flights we’d just surmounted, I was less than enthusiastic. The stairs up to Ulleri, where we were planning to stay, number 3,280 without a break. The staircase up the inside of the Empire State Building (which has breaks every floor) to the 102nd floor observatory has only 1,860 steps. The tallest structure in the world, Burj Khalifa in Dubai, has a pitiful 2,909 steps over 160 floors. And I’m fat, unfit and chose to carry a heavy pack.

The further we went, the more often I had to stop. I waxed and waned through immovable determination, utter exhaustion and zen-like delirium. At times, I’d take 15 steps before sitting and leaning back against my pack, head dropped back and body limp. Other times I’d push really hard, just to remind myself that, no matter how much my body was telling me otherwise, I still had lots left in the reserve tanks; those times I’d stop with a wail or an animal groan. I think I may have worried Ben on a few of those occasions.

I eventually broke through a wall and began to simply plod along, but without the need to stop so often. This relative respite gave me the opportunity to reflect on my situation and three things occurred to me: (i) Ben was right, I wouldn’t rather have been doing this with anyone else: we’re one hell of a team and I’d go anywhere and do anything with him; (ii) regardless of the pain and the disappointment in myself for not being stronger, I felt in control: I knew exactly how much I could give, how much to give and how much I was benefiting from the experience; and (iii) I hope tomorrow isn’t bloody like this.

We finally got to Ulleri and checked in to the plywood boxes that serve as rooms in these hills. A surprisingly decent shower and change into comfy clothes and we sat for supper among other groups of trekkers. Ben exclaimed that he’d never seen me so deflated. I couldn’t remember being so exhausted. I was almost vacant. We joked with the others about how difficult it was, which bits were the worst and how much it hurt. It didn’t occur to me at the time, but we’d be spending every evening with these people, as each stop is fairly predetermined.

Over the next few days we’d get to know the Scottish woman who, travelling by herself, found any and all opportunities to engage people in her subjective monologue of a conversation. We’d spend some time talking to the two Aryan Germans, probably in their late-thirties and, if they weren’t gay, then their matching (sorry, identical) kit, fit bodies and mincing glances and Ben and me (who are often mistaken for a couple) were a jolly good attempt at pretending. Later, we met James and Lisa, an English pair (not couple) with a bright, fun sense of humour and some new rules for the card game familiar (I suspect) to all travellers – Shithead.

Briefly, Shithead is the game that spawned Uno and it involves specific cards producing specific outcomes. What those cards are and what they do being determined at the setting of the game. This sharing of new rules is a marvellous way to begin meeting people. “Ah, no we play that 3s are invisible and 4s reverse the direction of play, but you can’t play a 10 on a 7.”

Oddly, we managed to stay up relatively late (having arrived in Ulleri at about 5pm) and went to bed exhausted. I returned to my room to find The Beast of Bodmin Moor engaged in the somnoramble of a hippopotamus slowly choking on a dead dog in the ‘room’ next to mine. By which I mean on the other side of the 3mm plywood ‘wall’. Even after I put in my earplugs, his (or her!) eulogy to long-forgotten peaceful rest echoed through my brain. I was fortunate enough to be two-Empire-State-Buildings-exhausted.

Perspective, Humility and Risk


Day 4

The next morning I found myself again waking at 7am, even though I had a dreadful hangover. It was this morning that I worked out where all these early starts were coming from; as many of you know, that’s not my normal pattern. Both of the double windows in my room opened out on to the road and I couldn’t close them. In Nepal, everything has shut and the streets are dead by 10pm, but it’s all screaming, shouting, tooting horns and nattering – right outside my window – from 6am. Annoying, but beneficial.

As we nursed our varying levels of toxic shock at the breakfast table, Ben reminded us of what he’d got up to during the monsoon the day before. I’d been a little worried about him when he hadn’t returned in time to meet Drew; and then still hadn’t returned by the time Drew had settled in. Eventually, once the rain had subsided, Ben stomped into the courtyard reasonably dry – he’d taken shelter as I’d suspected. I couldn’t have ever guessed where he’d sheltered though.

Ambling out of the massage parlour, glowing warm with Thai man-handling, Ben had been asked by a young woman, begging with a little boy, if he would buy her brother some milk. While earlier that day I had said, “No, sorry” to the same girl asking them same question, Ben instead said “Of course” and then in the supermarket asked her about her situation, why she was begging and where she lived. I learn more about the charity and generosity in Ben’s character every day on this trip. She showed him her hand-made shack in a shanty town over the main road (a five-minute walk) and just as he felt he’d better be making a move, what with being English and therefore uncomfortable accepting overt hospitality, the rain came in. Trapped by the weather, he ended up teaching the girl, Rena, to read the back of the packet of powdered milk he’d bought for her family. His description of this entire experience was accompanied by a light behind his eye I’d only ever seen when we were working on our project to send graduates to teach English in Syria. It was humbling; especially as I had simply passed her by.

This morning, as we moaned and groaned about how much beer we’d drunk, we talked over the fact that all the money we’d spent on beer would have help this family immensely. Ben took us to visit them and we were welcomed with open hearts and immense generosity. I was humbled further by their hospitality. We had, of course, discussed the possibility of it being a trick, us being conned, or even worse. We were on our guard.

One of the things that made the whole experience more genuine was that Ben had also met a Cornish chap called Eric who does a lot of work in this shanty town. He and Rena had just covered all the shacks with waterproofing: his money, her effort. She told us how she took responsibility for sharing food and resources throughout the town; and how Eric had adopted her and was organising for a visa for her to visit Germany with him (apparently it’s easier for him to get her a German visa than a British one).

We were cautious with all of the edible offerings that were lavished upon us, but probably not careful enough – not wanting to offend. The family was Rajisthani (Hindu) and served us very milky, very sweet tea; chipati with saag; and lassi. Then bottles of Fanta were produced, which were deferentially cap-popped in front of us. In this tiny shack, decorated with drapes and religious symbols, were gathered ten children from newborn to teenager – some with immaculate English, who had spent a year or two at school thanks to Western philanthropy, some with none at all. As well as sisters, aunties and grandmothers, we were soon joined by brothers of an older age bracket, come down from working the street to meet us and lavish us now with praise and compliments. (Apparently my hair is so silky I look like a Bollywood movie star. Shucks!)

We were slowly deciding between us that we wanted to do something for this family. Our inquiries about how we could help were met with deference and embarrassment. We insisted and were told that one of Rena’s brothers had had his shoe shining kit stolen, including the box that contained it, and where the shoe rests, which we were told was the only way he could make a living and bring in a steady income. Otherwise they had to rely on single acts of kindness. Give a man a fish, etc. If we could buy them a box with all its accoutrements, then that would help them in a way a cash donation or purchase of food would not.

We agreed to see the man who sold the boxes and my concern was aroused when he appeared quicker than expected, box and bag of bits at the ready for demonstration. We were taken in by his spiel. We asked him a price and considered it. We talked it over and felt we were doing some real good. We said we’d go away and talk about it more and return the next day with a decision. My concern was further aroused when he said he was leaving that day – the oldest trick in the book. We decided to spend some time away from the situation to try to gain some perspective. We went back to the guest house and thought it through, asking locals for advice and attempting to cynically pick holes in the salesman’s story. We did; and we were relieved to have not fallen all the way down his well of deceit. Again I was humbled by the maturity and level-headedness we all managed to mix successfully with open hearts and charitable desires.

More rain delayed our return, but Rena shocked us by turning up at the guest house. Ben and Drew (I had retired, worried about the gurgling and pain in my tummy) told her that we weren’t going to buy the box, but that we’d like to give her three month’s rent (about GBP 20 between us). She simply wouldn’t accept the money and so the boys took her back to the supermarket and spent the money on food for her and her family.

I’d felt a feeling in my gut that I’d only ever felt when I’ve been conned or tricked. I’d only felt that with the sneaky, wheeler-dealer box salesman; not with a single one of Rena’s family. We all agreed that while Rena was clearly not naive to the scam, we never felt pressured into giving them anything. In fact, they did all they could to shy away from our generosity. While it may well be that the whole thing was a set-up, we’ve come away trying not to think ill of anyone but the box salesman.

It wasn’t even a new box.

Day 1: Travelling


15 September 2011, 22:00 BST – Flight IT0002, 37,000ft

I’m sat (with a free seat next to me!) on the plane from Heathrow to Delhi. I’m rather emotional, but much calmer than I was earlier (see my last post).

My experience with Kingfisher Airlines has been exceptional; except that my state-of-the-art (their words) touchscreen cinema, games system, emailer thingy doesn’t work and my reading light keeps turning off.

On my Kindle, I managed to get a free copy of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and bought the complete poems of John Donne; both of which I’m immensely looking forward to reading.

~ Aside ~

I just paused for a curry. On a plane. It was pretty good too. I now have a large whiskey sat next to my faux-leather-bound journal and I just rolled my white shirt sleeves down, while I’m surrounded by dozing Indians – feeling quite colonial (hat tip to my namesake, Governor-General of India 1828-1835). I may put the travel blanket over my legs and start rambling on about a war – no particular one, they all blend together old boy.

~

Last night, I came home feeling tremendously valued and warm with happiness (thanks to the brilliant David Crane, Executive Director of IDEA-UK and present-giver-extraordinaire) and anxious excitement. Packing was a doddle and was good fun, reminding me of all the sensible travel advice that had been drilled into me by the ex-paratrooper medic that joined us in Kenya in 2000; and some of the less sensible advice. The debit card fiasco ruined all that, however. As it does with many things, just getting on with it helped and I was soon on the tube to Heathrow (paper ticket, because of course my Oyster card was lost with my debit card). Reading on the tube was a welcome distraction.

I got my rucksack security wrapped at the airport, which is an experience I recommend (although it cost GBP 7 – this keyboard doesn’t have a pound sign) and check-in was easy-peasy (one person in the queue). Security was time-consuming, but only because they had to double check a few bags in front of me; I was almost completely ignored. On the other side I changed some money and bought some water purification tabs.

As I got on the plane, it was like an oven. Having sat, I took off my boots and upzipped the bottom part of my trousers, so that I was now in shorts, socks and a thin shirt: although still baking hot and sweating uncontrollably. We soon found out that the air conditioning wasn’t working, but would be once the engines got going. So half an hour later, having not moved an inch, I was somewhat distressed. And wet.

After we finally started taxiing and slowly started to cool off, the cabin crew were strapped in and we turned the corner on to the runway. The chap over the aisle from me was still nattering away on his phone. So I politely, but firmly, tapped him on the knee and in true British style said, “I’m sorry, could I ask you to turn your phone off?” to which I added the nonsensical politesse, “Just while we’re taking off.” Because of course I’m quite happy to fall out of the sky once the air conditioning is working, but I simply couldn’t bear a fiery end in this monstrous sweatbox.

Thankfully, this chap obliged (and actually looked quite intimidated by my bizarre request) and now the air conditioning is so strong that I’ve put all my clothes back on, my jumper and the travel blanket.

I think I might have a nap.