Once again, walking out of the vipassana centre, the world seemed like a brighter, better place and this was confirmed when I discovered that a week earlier, the US had elected as their next President, one Barack Obama – the hope of the globe.
With my visa expiry date drawing nearer, it was time to run back to Nepal and do battle with the Indian bureaucracy in an attempt to get a renewal. I arranged to leave the King Brown at Dhamma Bodhi and packed light, looking forward to traveling like a ‘normal traveler’ for a short while. The arduous, two-day journey to Kathmandu would show that there is no ‘normal’ way of traveling in these parts. Following one hour standing on the rear fender of an auto-rickshaw for a net gain in distance of 13km, the fallacy that local information is the best information was confirmed yet again. I was asking around about how long the train takes from Gaya to Patna, 90-odd kilometres away. In their efforts to give any answer at all, even if a ridiculously inaccurate one, one guy told me “8 or 9 hours,” while another assured me it was “45 minutes.” It took four hours. So I guess if one takes an average of all the wild guesses they receive, local information is just about on the money.
For the duration, I was forced to sit on the hard, metal floor with my knees pressed against my chest, locked in by tired but durable-looking men and women. Sitting cross-legged, unmoved except for the sway of their bodies in tune with the train, they put my one-hour sittings of strong determination of the past ten days to shame.
At one point, a very ill-looking, bloated-bellied girl, wrapped in a thin, brown blanket was nursed onto the carriage by her mother and elder brother. A space was cleared for her on the floor near my feet where she curled her fragile body into a ball. She glanced up at me with her sad, sick eyes, the whites of which shone a bright yellow, and then closed them in a manner that suggested that if they were to never open again, she was resigned to it. I felt a familiar knot of helpless sympathy form in my stomach and two familiar accompanying words form in my mind; ‘Damn it.’
I am not sure why it is these words that naturally arise in such situations. Perhaps I am damning a world where a severely ill child who clearly needs medical attention is forced to travel on the metal floor of an overcrowded train. A world where a double amputee is forced to push himself through the dirt on a cart with almost square, wooden wheels. A world where an unconscious young man lies on a rope bed outside a medical clinic, with an intravenous drip in his arm, under the sun, beside the Grand Trunk Road while cars and trucks race by, spitting up dirt and dust, just metres away. A world where a dirt and disease-riddled little girl is raised in a slum home constructed of other people’s garbage beside the railway tracks, with little to no hope of ever escaping.
Perhaps I am damning the fact that despite my good bill of health and relative wealth, I still feel so utterly helpless.
The image of those sick, yellow eyes and that look that I construed as being an acceptance of death have been burned into my mind for life. My own eyes can not help but moisten at its recollection.
As expected, the train was greeted in Patna by a throng of people on the platform with their sacks, crates and parcels, desperate to get a highly-valued seat, while everyone in the carriages with their bags, boxes and babies, were desperate to escape the tin can. I have always loved my contact sports and I would be lying if I said that I did not enjoy this part of the trip.
I squashed myself into another auto-rickshaw to the bus stand, where I booked myself on a ten-hour night bus to the Nepal border, assigned to unlucky seat number 13. True to superstition, my window was missing the very thing that makes it a window; a pane of glass, and I was blown to bits by the cool night air. I rugged up however, rested my head on my burly neighbour’s shoulder and surprisingly, got a good few hours shut-eye.
Arriving in the dusty border town of Raxaul just after the sun had greeted the new day, I stepped off the bus straight onto a cycle rickshaw, the driver of which worked up an early morning sweat transporting me from bus stand to immigration office to immigration office to bus stand. Not five minutes later, I was stretched out on the back seat of a scabby bus heading for Kathmandu.
I should have known that such comfort was to be short-lived, for all of these rattling, tattered cans are what I call ‘long distance local buses.’ They accommodate those doing the long haul as well as everybody in between, whether kids on their way to school or women doing their shopping in a neighbouring village. As one load disembarked, another would file in, filling the bus to breaking point, much like my knees that were jammed against the seat in front of me for nine hours.
We eventually descended into the dramatic Kathmandu Valley and pulled up in the outskirts of the chaotic capital city. I stiffly tumbled out of my torture chamber and into a microbus whose driver and I obviously had a miscommunication. It was a friendly, independent youngster practicing his English on me who pointed out that I was traveling in the opposite direction to my intended destination and guided me to a second micro. In the wild night of lights, noise and bodies, I overshot my stop and was left with a half-hour walk through the lively streets. I did not mind though, for after forty hours on the go, the next best thing to heaven was awaiting me; a hot shower and a fat mattress covered in crisp, white sheets.
From the floor of the Kathmandu Valley to the colossal 7000+ metre giants of the Annapurnas to the pancake flat Western Terai to the extraterrestrial heights of the Tibetan desert to the bare Ganges plains, it certainly had been six months of extreme vicissitudes. Thus, in the name of consistency, I decided to combine my ‘business trip’ to Nepal with a week of pleasure by once again taking advantage of the nation’s and indeed, some of the world’s, greatest natural features.
Being the season for trudging through these amazing landscapes, I wanted to steer clear of the popular treks such as the Annapurna Circuit and Everest Base Camp, which can see up to 300 people starting on them every day, at times forming a great conga line of gore-tex, trekking poles and hiking boots. I opted for the Langtang and Helambu regions not far north of Kathmandu.
While not having the epic, roof-of-the-world, land-of-the-Gods feel of Annapurna, the trail held a more subtle beauty, while still managing to thrust me up to 4,600m over just two days of walking. I climbed through thick, dark forests to the dry, rocky heights that take ones breath away; a sensation that I have come to adore because of the mind-blowing sights and sense of freedom that invariably accompany it.
I started with and maintained an air of stark casualness, trekking with hands in pockets, swaying from side to side as I looked to the next foothold. Slowly but steadily. Stopping rarely.
The highlight of this little, seven-day tramp was to be the holy lake of Gosainkund; a stunning pane of deep blue nestled in a coarse bowl of bronze. A series of smaller, surrounding lakes had frozen over, though on first glance I could not believe it, for they gave the impression that I was moving through a world frozen in time. I needed confirmation and hurled a small rock at the flawless sheet only to hear it go *skittle skattle skittle* when it should have gone *plop*. This of course, preceded the challenge to throw a big enough rock far enough to make it go *crack*. There was a certain destructive satisfaction in cutting a wound in Her – a sense of debasing perfection. She kindly laughed at my efforts as if I were a young, naïve child, knowing that She will be healed by morning. I felt a sense of dread knowing that I have six billion friends with shit far nastier than rocks, who are willing to inflict a much deeper wound. It will also heal eventually, but only long after She has kicked us all out for treating Her house, our home, like a garbage can.
Once over the Lauribinayak Pass just beyond the lakes, I began a long, painful descent, followed by a series of tiring undulations as I climbed up and over the many ribs connected to the sharp spine I had just crossed. If I had any talent as a whistler, a melodic tune would have been the perfect accompaniment to the way I ambled along, tip-toeing from rock to rock on the downhills and unhurriedly pushing from one to the next on the ascents. It was perhaps this manner that found me way off the path, bush-bashing with a stick, thinking, ‘Oh this isn’t right,’ a couple of days later.
I had been happily walking along a trail in the forest, mildly bemused that I had not seen a single person for a couple of hours, when I came to a fork in the road; one path going up, one down – one east, one south. I followed the advice that I had frequently given to Jarda all those months ago and ‘took the high road.’ Out of the forest and into an open field, following a faint set of boot prints, the sense of something being amiss was growing stronger with every step. I climbed to a high ridge to get my bearings and a view of the surrounding landscape, but the valleys below were filled with a puffy mass of white fog. I decided that the high road was just plain wrong and backtracked to the fork. The faint low road convinced me that I had been too harsh on the high road and that I should give it another chance. Walking along the top of the ridge, the foliage became thicker and thicker until it was brushing against my legs and I was having to bash it out of my way with my walking stick. I could see a small trail on the next rib, but I knew that it was further than it looked and that if I bashed much more, I was going to lose the only thing I had going for me; the knowledge of how to get back to the shelter, blankets and food of the previous night. My mind kept returning to the story of an Australian man who had been found alive in this area some years back having been lost for five weeks. I did not think that I would make it that long, for when packing for this trip, I had somehow decided that I would not need my sleeping bag and thermals in the mountains of Nepal at the start of winter. I had packed my boardies though!
Eventually I conceded defeat and headed back to my safety net, disappointed that I would have walked all day and would be sleeping at the same icy altitude as the night before, as well as absolutely baffled as to where I could have gone wrong. After an hour or so, I came to another fork; one path leading ‘home’; the other down an enormous, rocky staircase that insulted me with its glaring grandness when compared with the piddly path that I had taken that morning. It could not have been more obvious if at its entrance there was a neon sign and two bikini models saying, “Right this way Mr Antonio.” I skipped down the staircase with a light sense of relief and within minutes, tuned into the first voices I had heard for three hours.
Somewhere in this experience, there may be a lesson about trekking alone, but I must have missed it. I got the one about trekking with one’s head in the clouds though!
It was only with two days to go that the trail showed its first signs of ‘life’ when a group of children expertly skipped past me over the rocks, dressed in uniforms with schoolbags clinging to their backs. Up until that point, it had felt as though the trail existed for the sole purpose of serving the trekking tourists, unlike the Annapurna Circuit, which one could see was alive long before the first trekkers and would live on regardless of us. As I strolled, I once again enjoyed watching farmers tilling their land, long lines of pack horses carrying supplies, women chatting while washing clothes or dishes squatted on their haunches and a group of about twelve kids lined up on a hillock for school assembly. An American I was trekking with at the time said, “I wish I went to a school where I didn’t have to wear pants,” pointing to a young lad, lined up with his finger in his nose, wearing nothing but a white, buttoned-up shirt.
Out of the woods, thirty minutes jammed in a micro and I was back in the jungle of Kathmandu, which did not seem nearly as chaotic as when I had first arrived from Thailand seven months prior. Indeed, after five months in India, it was rather tame and I felt very relaxed walking the chilly streets at night where vendors sold ‘buff’ meat momos, bakeries sold goodies for half-price after 8pm and signs outside clubs with names like ‘Tunnel Bar,’ displayed pictures of Alicia Silverstone and advertised their ‘Shower Dance.’ I mused at what a Nepali shower dance would entail and imagined a bouncer to the side of the stage spraying some poor, hopeless girl in a bikini with a garden hose.
It is very easy to spot a traveler who has just visited the Indian Embassy; their forehead is creased with stress; their eyes, red with anger; and their body, limp and stiff at the same time with hopeless frustration. It is just as well the immigration officer is protected by a thick pane of glass or it would be one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, due to the very high risk of being impulsively throttled to death.
Because of the sheer amount of time spent there, the embassy is the best travelers meeting point in Southern Asia. In my first six hour visit, I ran into, among others, the crazy Russian whom, when I first met him in the Western Terai six months earlier, had been cycling a cheap Indian bicycle bare-backed, bare foot. He told me that he had recently become quite lost in the mountains, resulting in three days without food or water and sleepless nights shivering in his hammock, while snow fell and piled up around him. There is letting go and there is madness.
I also found my old comrades, Gerry and Marta, in a furious battle to attain a second six-month visa and we enjoyed catching up over paneer paranthas and chocolate cake over the next few nights.
On one warm, sunny day, I decided to visit the burning ghats of Pashupatinath where the funeral pyres are ablaze 24/7, cremating stiff, cold bodies that had been flowing with life just hours prior. I sat in the viewing area looking down over the Brahmin’s platform where I had seen a young bare-chested boy being photographed while applying the flame to the pyre of his late mother. I mused over how ‘everyday’ death was here, how exposed to it children are and how it may not be such a bad thing to have it instilled at a young age that death is a part of life – it comes to us all and is nothing to fear.
It is often said that attendees at a burial funeral attain big wisdom (even if only temporarily) when they see the casket being lowered into the earth and realise that every material thing that this person grasped at, attained and fiercely clung to their whole lives has eventually been separated from them with inevitable ease. I believe that there is potential for even bigger wisdom at an open cremation, for one sees that even this vehicle, this thing that we would point to if we were to point to the entity that we call ‘I’, to which we have no greater attachment, is eventually reduced to nothing but a pile of ash, able to be blown away by a stiff breeze.