Ripples Following Ripples ~ THE ANNAPURNA CIRCUIT

Our bus left on time, and we had a good run to Dumre, where we stopped for a while, and I got off to buy some mandarins, not re-alizing that the woman I bought them from was Ashok’s mother! She also didn’t recognize me. I then bumped into someone who remembered me from the previous year, and who told me that Ashok was waiting for me, hoping to go with me on the trek (I’d been in touch with him by email, you see). He took me back to Ashok’s mother, and I explained that I already had a porter and couldn’t take him, but that I might call in and see him on the way back from Pokhara. He should have been waiting in the market, though.

There was a delay on the road to Besisahar and when we got there, I had to get off to show my permit. Then, because the bus was going on to Khudi, we stayed on, but the road the rest of the way was almost as bad as that to Syabru, with the bus rocking like a boat on a rough sea! Several times, I was sure we would go over the side. Khudi was the end of the road, and from there we walked to Bulbule, to stay overnight. It was quiet and peaceful.

November 3rd ~ the day of the dreaded U.S. election, the results of which I did not learn until some days later ~ we set out on our first full-day's trek, but hadn’t gone very far when who should catch us up but Ashok; he’d followed us from Dumre the previous day and stayed overnight in Besisahar, walking from there. This put me in a dilemma, as I already had Subha with me, but he so wanted to go that I decided to take him, paying for his food along the way. He carried some of our baggage, making it easier for us, and we reached Syange at noon, where someone tried to persuade me to stay in his lodge; I wanted to continue to Jagat, but knew that Subha and Ashok were tired, so I flipped a coin: heads, we go on, tails, we stay. It came up tails. But then we discovered Ashok had forgotten his identity-card, and to proceed without it would be potentially dangerous, as we would pass several army check-posts, and he might be suspected of being a Maoist rebel. Not willing to risk trying to talk him through such check-posts and explain that I'd known him for 10 years already, we decided that he would have to go back; the army did not have a good record as far as human-rights were concerned, and was as guilty of un-warranted brutality and summary executions as their opposite counterparts, the Maoists. I gave him some money for his return trip, and we set off in different directions. On our way, Subha re-vealed that Ashok had told him during the night that he earned Rs5000 per month at his job at a Dumre furniture-factory, whereas he’d told me ~ as he had done last year, too ~ that he earned just Rs1600; and this was for an 8-hour day, 5½-day week. I’d wondered how anyone could survive on just Rs1600 per month, let alone support a wife and two kids on it! I'd sent him money several times to help him out. Now, Rs5000 isn’t a for-tune, but many people in many countries manage on that amount and less, as a matter of having to.

The manager of the lodge was named Naru, and by joking about the mythical Yeti, I soon found a way to turn our conversation Dharma-wards. Beside his lodge ~ and indeed, almost all along the trail to the highest point ~ ran a roaring river; we were seldom out of sound of this river until we parted company with it on the 7th day out. I told him that, in my childhood home there was a grand-father-clock with a sonorous tick-tock, tick-tock, but we had grown so used to it, and it was such a part of us, that we didn't hear it unless we made a special effort to do so. Just like this river be-side your lodge, I said: you probably don't hear it or pay attention to it anymore, as it is here and you've grown used to it, whereas visitors like myself, are very aware of it. This river, however, is your guru, constantly teaching and reminding you that life is like a stream, never still for a moment, but always changing. Listen to it now and then, especially when you are sad or things don’t go as you would like them to, and try to understand that all things come and go, arise and pass away.

Naru ~ like both Subha and Ashok ~ had several small children; he also had to deal with complete strangers on a daily basis and try to satisfy their needs and wants, and sometimes, some of these strangers ~ of different cultures and temperaments ~ aren’t easy to deal with; his life was not simply a matter of providing them with what they wanted in exchange for the money he needed from them. When I spoke to him about the river, inter-spersing my speech with a key Sanskrit word now and then, I could see that he was receptive and could understand, although he didn't know I was a monk, as I didn't tell him, and I wasn’t in monk's attire. When I left him the next day, there was a light in his eyes that wasn't there when we'd arrived; I'd touched him.

This is known as the 'Annapurna Circuit Trek,’ Annapurna being the main peak of a group of mountains in Central Nepal, many of which rise to over 7,000 meters asl, and Annapurna itself to over 8,000. The Annapurna Circuit is apparently the most-popular trek in the world, attracting people from all over ~ all a little crazy, like me, to want to do this in the first place, otherwise they wouldn't risk their lives so ~ and sometimes, the trails are quite crowded; with most people going up to Thorung-la, and few coming down; I was to understand why this should be later. The weather was warm, with clear skies; it was to remain so most of the way.

We passed several groups of porters busy cooking lunch beside streams ~ “Oh, we’re just in time,” I joked, but they didn’t invite us. Other times, I asked people what time was the next bus; some realized I was joking, but others didn’t.

I held a kitten along the way; it was so trusting and affectionate. You don’t see many cats in Nepal; Nepalese don’t seem to like them ~ they prefer damn barking dogs!

High on a narrow path, with the river far below us, we met a mule-train coming down. Unwisely, I took the precipice-side of the track, and would have been alright had not one of the mules lurched slightly as it passed me, and one of the bundles on its back caught me just a little off-balance, tipping me over the side. Down I went, but luckily, at this point, the drop was not great ~ only a meter or so ~ and my fall was halted by a tree and some brush and stinging-nettles; only my dignity was hurt. Two mule-teers quickly hurried to haul me back up to the path, and I was left to pick half the jungle out of my clothes and woolen hat!

We frequently met or overtook mule-trains, and the paths were lit-tered with their droppings; now and then, we came across mule 'piss-stops,' where the ground was sodden and brown from mule-pee. These animals are docile; hard-working and uncomplaining, they carry huge loads, and in return are fed very meagerly. Often, they are led by boys as young as 12 or 13 ~ no school for them! ~ and they cover greater distances in a day than I did during my 5 - 7 hours. I saw two mule-trains loaded with empty beer-bottles, the result of a demand by mainly trekkers to indulge in what is a distinct luxury in these isolated places; in Kathmandu or Pokhara, a bottle of beer might cost Rs100 or so ~ having no interest in it, I really didn’t know ~ while up in the mountains, it would be double that. But at least glass bottles have some value and are recycled, unlike the plastic 'mineral-water' bottles, which are simply thrown away, to litter the landscape for countless years. On my treks, I carried several half-liter plastic Coke bottles, which I filled with water and added purification liquid to each; this was enough, ap-parently, to kill most of the microbes and harmful bacteria. Before setting out in the mornings, I generally made two bottles of coffee ~ cold, of course, but tasty, nevertheless ~ using Nescafe and powdered-milk; these usually lasted me until I halted for the day.

The trails, for the most part, were uneven and rock-strewn, and seldom or for very long did we have the pleasure of smooth and even patches. The rocks on them varied in size from huge boul-ders, down through head-sized, to pebbles that crunched and slid underfoot; the hardest to deal with I found to be the irregular-shaped, cobble-sized stones, which could twist and roll danger-ously when stepped on.

Through and in the vicinity of some villages, people had set flat stones in place to create steps, making for easier walking, while in others, nothing at all had been done to improve upon what na-ture had created. Once, rounding a bend in the track, I saw an elderly man tossing loose stones from the path. There were no cameras or reporters around to record this; was he doing it be-cause he saw a need and cared about others? It was the only time I saw anyone doing anything like this. Numerous times, I saw and heard people cutting trees in the ever-dwindling forests, but not once did I see anyone planting saplings to eventually re-place them. How might it be, I wondered, if the lamas came out of their monasteries ~ such as exist in some places along the trails ~ and set an example to the people by working on the tracks and planting trees instead of merely chanting twice a day and other-wise whiling away their time on frivolous pursuits such as playing cards and flying kites, as I sometimes observed them doing?

Landslides are common in the mountains, and we often had to scramble across debris of scree, dust and shale where once there had been a path, and which, at any moment, could shift again, sending us down a slope or over a cliff to almost-certain death. And at the best of times, the paths we trod were rarely more than a meter wide, with great drops on one or sometimes both sides. From time to time I wondered at my foolhardiness in undertaking such a venture, when limbs may easily be broken, days away from any medical assistance, where even helicopter-rescue ~ very costly, when it can take place ~ is not an option. Moreover, like the people who live in these regions, I have no in-surance, and am vulnerable; and knowing this, I still do what I do.

We were above the tree-line by this time, surrounded by snow-capped peaks, with frozen water-falls hanging down their sides. As the sun began to sink behind the mountains, almost immedi-ately it became very cold, even though it remained light for a while. Some lodges had electric-light, powered by solar-panels.

Sometimes, during four or five hours of hard trekking, I might take only one break, although I told Subha to stop and rest whenever he felt like instead of trying to keep up with me all the time, and indeed, he heeded my advice and was often half-an-hour behind me, although towards the end of the trek, spurred on, perhaps, by me saying that he seemed to be getting older while I was getting younger, he made a distinct effort to reduce the gap between us, so that I joked more with him and said I was having a hard time keeping up with him, even though he was always behind me. It was good to come to a settlement and halt for the day at some lodge, with the possibility of a hot shower ~ such a luxury! Only once did I pay Rs100 for a room, and that was at 'High Camp' when there was little choice; sometimes, I paid Rs50, but usually, only Rs40. Understand, though, that rooms were tiny, often with paper-thin walls or gaps between the boards, but good enough, with a quilt or two, for a night; and fortunately, nowhere did I en-counter bed-bugs, fleas, or lice. Also, the toilets ~ mainly of the squatter-type ~ were remarkably clean, if simple, and only once did I come across one that was dirty, and this was in a lodge named Nirvana, strangely enough! This toilet-cleanliness is un-doubtedly due to the requirements of the trekkers, as the locals aren’t noteworthy for their hygiene, and indeed, were we to think too much about it, we would hesitate to eat anything.

Now, I don't know what I smelled like at times, but I think not too bad, as I'm pretty sensitive about such things. However, I came to see that Subha, though he’d been serving trekkers for 4 years, wasn’t very fond of water, and I had to urge him to take a shower when such was available, as he quickly came to smell decidedly pungent, and was unpleasant to be near. At one point, I asked if he had any soap, and when he said he didn't, I gave him some of mine, just as I gave him some of my socks when I saw his one-and-only pair was worn out. Although he had money to spare from the Rs200 I gave him every day this time (followed, at trek’s end, by the full amount), he was reluctant to spend any. He was seldom charged more than Rs50 for his large rice-meals, which he ate twice a day, while I paid upwards of Rs120 for the same thing; he was also served free tea. But if I’ve noted some of his less-positive qualities, I must hasten to say that he never complained about anything, or asked anything more from me than what we’d agreed upon. I knew he considered my pace fast ~ and indeed, we completed the whole trek ~ from when we started in Kathmandu to our arrival in Pokhara ~ in just 13 days, when most other people took at least 16. I did this, not because I was in a hurry to finish it and get out of the mountains, but because I wanted to push myself and see what I was capable of, and I felt fit and well because of it.

Needless to say, as we progressed up the trail, it got colder and colder until at night, the temperature fell well below zero. Still, the weather remained fine and clear, and no snow fell. Even at alti-tudes of 3 - 4 thousand meters asl, however, there were mice in the lodges, and several times, I became aware of them getting at the foodstuffs in my bags.

Of course, the views from up there ~ as they had been from other places ~ were fantastic, and worth all the bother we’d undergone. As I mentioned earlier, the weather really favored us, and we hardly saw a cloud until the final 3 days. The mountains were so clear-cut against the empty blue sky, except when the sun, beat-ing down on them, occasionally caused spume. Sometimes, we would see eagles soaring above, and there were the ubiquitous Himalayan choughs. Other forms of wildlife were rarely encoun-tered ~ no snow-leopards or bears, and hardly a yeti in sight! Yetis, to be sure, often came up in my conversations, and when asked if I were married ~ a frequent question ~ I used to say, "Not yet; I'm too young for that; and anyway, I'm looking for a nice young yeti-girl first." Well, since there's next-to-no-chance of find-ing one, I guess I'll continue to escape, and remain single!

We passed through various kinds of terrain, from cultivated ar-eas, thick jungle, oak- and pine-forests, and barren heights above the tree-line, where almost nothing grew ~ almost nothing; there was always some kind of hardy vegetation, clinging to and be-tween the rocks, even if it was only moss or lichen, beautiful upon close examination. Numerous waterfalls cascaded from riven cliffs, some of them for hundreds of meters, some raging torrents, and others like fine-combed hair, just drifting down.

Each day, as we ascended, we soon found it necessary to shed our jackets, hats and gloves, and before long, our sweaters, too, which we’d donned before setting out; we became warm from our exertions, as well as from the heat of the rising sun. There was a great difference in temperature between light and shade, and we knew, as we watched the shadows retreat before the advancing sunlight, that we’d soon be warmer.

After a few days of paying the menu-prices in the lodges, I found it was possible to haggle, and upon arriving at a lodge, I would first ask about the price of a room, and was usually able to get a small reduction, from Rs50 to Rs40 (I’d had good training in the flea-markets in England, where haggling is expected; everyone likes to feel that they've got a bargain), and then asked how much dahl-baht cost, and when told, the expression on my face often caused them to ask what I would like to pay, and this was quite a bit less than the menu-price. Sometimes, I paid Rs70 or Rs80, rather than the marked price of Rs150/Rs180.

Once, I was stopped by a young hippy-looking guy who claimed he was a Maoist and demanded money, but I concluded he had either been smoking dope or was drunk, so went on my way. Reaching Tal, I came to a hotel named EVERGREEN, which re-minded me of Bet in Manila, so took a room there as the only guest. I had a chat with someone who’d been on the same bus from Kathmandu with us. He wasn’t working at Evergreen but was attached to the medical-center as a doctor. Slowly, I was able to open his mind somewhat, and he expressed a desire to accompany us to Dharapani the next day. When pressed as to what I did, I told him I am a monk, but on the condition he didn’t tell anyone else, as even Subha didn’t know. I told him what I thought of Christians trying to convert Nepalese, and he was in complete agreement with me; he said he was an atheist.

We met the doctor at his hotel, and his company along the way was quite pleasant; normally, because Subha’s English was only rudimentary, I walked in silence. We reached Dharapani in just under 2 hours, and he left us to make a phone-call. I registered at the check-post, then we stopped to rest a while a little further on.

As I mentioned earlier, there were many foreign trekkers on these trails, but I noticed, as I’d done on other treks, that a great per-centage of them never greeted other trekkers when they met or passed, but went along with unsmiling faces; sometimes, they did not even return one's greeting when addressed first, and I often wondered why this should be, until near the end, I felt like shouting at them: 'Good bloody morning!' Nor was it only the foreigners who behaved like this, but Nepalese, too, until I calculated that only about 10% of the people met along the way ~ native or foreign ~ would deign to wish others 'Namaste' or 'Good Morning' ~ except for little children, who had learned to tap-into the tourist-trade, and whose Namaste was usually a prelude for a request for "One pen", "Sweet/chocolate", or "One rupee".

The campers or people trekking in groups were the most stand-offish ~ as well as their guides and porters, who seemed to have been instructed not to speak to anyone but the people they were escorting. They appeared to be insulated not just by warm cloth-es, but in their attitudes. Of course, to put together a camping ex-pedition must cost a lot of money and logistical-arrangements, as they carry ~ at least, the porters do ~ all they require, including all their food, cooking-gear, kerosene, and even toilet-tents! Their porters are extremely strong, and commonly carry 50 kgs or more, by a strap around their foreheads. Perhaps they are in-duced to do this by the trekking-agencies, for extra pay, but it is still inhumane to expect and allow them to do this, as it reduces them to beasts of burden. The agencies in places like Kathmandu or Pokhara who organize such expeditions for foreigners are only partly to blame for this, wishing to maximize their profits ~ some-thing common all over the world ~ but the campers themselves must also share responsibility for seeing it every day and allowing it to go on before their eyes, when they could easily employ more porters to share the loads. Would the campers themselves ~ could they ~ carry such loads as they expect their porters to carry all day for even 50 meters? If they could not, then they shouldn’t expect others to do it for them, regardless of the fact that they can afford to pay them. The pack that I paid Subha to carry for me weighed no more than 15 kgs at its heaviest, and got lighter as we went along; my own stuff, divided into two smaller bags, weighed about the same.

One day, I greeted a group of middle-aged women, and was so surprised by their cheery response ~ they were Australians ~ that I felt I had to comment on it, and told of my observations; they said they had noticed it, too, and also didn't understand.

I did make some friends on the trek, though. Reaching High Camp ~ the last of the lodges before the Pass ~ The Pass, which I’d been kind of dreading, and I'm sure I wasn't alone in this ~ I fell into conversation with some Norwegians, somewhat younger than me, but we seemed to have much in common (one was a therapist). I lingered over lunch with them ~ two men and a woman ~ and later had dinner with them. The hours passed quickly in their company, as they tend to do when you're enjoying yourself, and we exchanged books and email-addresses.

The previous year, when I did the second-half of this trek, smok-ing was permitted in the dining-rooms of the lodges ~ or at least, tolerated ~ where people would gather in the evenings and sit around a fire of some sort before retiring to their unheated rooms; the smoke there was often so thick that I would soon leave in pro-test. This year, however, it was different; the lodge-keepers must have decided to conform to the standard of lodges on other trails, where smoking in the dining-rooms was not allowed. Progress!

The sandals that had borne me throughout the Langtang trek were in need of repair, but being a veteran traveler, I carry with me things that enable me to deal with such contingencies, and over two days, I had them almost as good as they'd ever been. In my baggage, I had a spare pair, and higher up the trail, I switched to wearing these, and indeed, wore them to cross the pass; need-less to say, I wore socks with them, and my feet weren't cold; the sandals didn't let me down.

Again, like at high altitudes on my other treks, I couldn’t sleep more than 10 minutes at a time ~ probably because of the thin air ~ and found it very hard to sleep again; some nights, I slept no more than an hour, but the strange thing was, I wasn't at all tired, and in fact, felt energized. After the night below the high pass, we climbed 600 meters to the top, some of the way on iced-over paths, then descended 2,200 meters to our next rest-stop, a total of 6 hours; this was really moving! No need to say that there was quite a change in temperature. Gasping and panting as I plodded upwards, with numerous stops to get my breath, my lips and tongue were so cold that I couldn't speak clearly; it felt like I'd just been to the dentist and the anesthetic hadn’t yet worn off.

Now, I said that no snow fell while we were trekking, but there were some patches of old snow on both sides of The Pass ~ some of them over 100 meters in extent ~ which we had to cross. The actual path in these places was iced over and very risky to cross, and the smallest slip could send one plunging over the edge, so we had to climb onto the snow-covered slope above and make our way very cautiously. Others had done this before us, so there were footprints in the 20 cm-deep snow for us to follow and use, and the snow, though still crisply soft, wasn't wet, so our feet remained relatively dry. I was greatly relieved when we were over these snow-patches, and for the rest of the trek, we didn't have to deal with any more hima ~ (Sanskrit for snow).

Descending on the other side was harder than going up, and I could see why most people did the trek in an anti-clockwise direc-tion, as the trail varied from rocky through gravel to dust, with treacherous patches of ice and snow to traverse; it was often very steep. Far below us, we could see several small settlements.

We stopped an hour short of Muktinath for our first sit-down rest of 15 minutes, then continued, with a short break at the temple to see the ‘eternal’ flame, and reached the check-post at Muktinath, 5 hours after we set out; we were the first of those who’d left the High Camp that morning, and had made excellent time, consider-ing that the norm was 7 hours. We’d seen the last of the snow.

Passing on, we stopped at Jarkot for dahl-baht, and might have stayed there if the lodge-keeper had lowered his room-rate. We continued, stopping at a couple of wayside lodges to check rates before settling for Nirvana, where I got a bucket of warm water for shaving and washing, and felt greatly refreshed.

It was very windy there but became calm as the sun set; we were near the Kali Gandaki Valley, where strong winds blow from noon until night. I tended my feet, which had become sore again from the long descent; my fingers and thumbs were also cracked. I did not know how Subha felt about my pace, but he didn’t complain.

Down we went, reaching Jomsom, where I registered at the check-post, and stopped a while before going on to Marpha, just over an hour further on; by the time we got to this picturesque place, it was very windy and rather cold. I checked into Snow Leopard Guest House, outside of which was a sign listing the facilities, one of which was ‘Modern Ammonites’ ~ a bit of a contra-diction in terms! They meant amenities, of course. I got a nice room there and washed some clothes. My nose was sore from excess mucus; it seemed to freeze in my nostrils.

I don't remember how many bridges we crossed, but it was a large number. Many were modern steel suspension-bridges of recent construction, and these were easy to cross, but others ~ though also strung on steel cables ~ had only boards to walk on, and in some cases, the boards looked as if they could give way at any time, sending you hurtling into the foaming stream far below. Yet other bridges were simply logs across a stream, and without a steady sense of balance, you could easily fall into the icy water; fortunately, I managed alright, although there were times when my feet got a bit wet crossing small streams running across the path ~ and there were many of these ~ by means of stepping-stones that were not always strategically-placed and sometimes didn’t even reach the surface.

Reaching Tatopani, I checked into the hotel I’d stayed in before, and went down to soak in the hot water. For Rs10, you may lie there for as long as you like and soak the dirt off your skin and the aches from your muscles and bones. I soaked for over an hour, during which time Subha appeared, never intending to go in himself, even though it was his 3rd time in Tatopani. After much urging on my part, however, he got in, and as a result, my olfac-tory nerves were not bothered by his b.o. for a while afterwards.

From Tatopani, we made the long climb, taking 7 hours ~ during which, we rose 1,600 meters ~ to Ghorapani, and by the time we got there, it was wreathed in cloud. I thought it would rain, but this interpretation was incorrect, and it didn't; it was certainly very cold up there, however, on that, our final night out.

Halfway to Ghorapani, a young boy in a village asked me ~ in quite-clear English ~ for medicine. When I asked what for, he in-dicated one of his toes, the nail of which was torn and infected. Well, having suffered similarly myself and knowing how painful it could be, I gestured for him to sit on a low wall nearby, while I took out my medical-kit, applied some antiseptic cream to the nail, covered it with gauze, and taped it up. He winced a bit while I was doing this, but when it was finished, he got up and walked away without a word of thanks. Now, I'd known for some time, but never understood, that Nepalese ~ and Indians ~ rarely say thanks; it doesn't appear to be part of their culture, as it is with ours. This boy knew enough English to be able to ask me for medicine, so he ought to have known how to say thanks, too. I'd not tended his wound with the idea of being thanked, but his non-thanks was quite glaring. Gratitude is an admirable quality, and you would expect it to be part of any culture.

(Over many years, I observed that Indians seldom say things like, 'Thank-you; please come again', when I visited their shops or res-taurants in countries where they’ve taken up residence. I saw it so many times in Australia, Malaysia, Singapore, the US and UK; it was/is so rare, that when it does happen, it stands out! If this really is the custom in India, surely they’d notice the contrary manner in other countries, where they adopt ways and adapt to other things different from what they knew before ~ and some-times negative things ~ so why not this more-courteous way?)

As had happened on my other treks where there were long and steep descents of hours and hours at a time, so, too, on this one: my heels, bearing the brunt of my weight, cracked and became very painful. Luckily, I had ointment for it with me this time, and at our halts, would apply it and bandage the affected parts so that there was some relief and improvement instead of further deterio-ration. Several places on my right thumb and fingers also cracked ~ perhaps due to constantly gripping my staff ~ and I frequently noticed people looking at the colored electrical tape ~ green, blue, yellow, or red ~ that I used instead of band-aids, as it stayed on longer. Because of the pain from these cracked heels, I could walk only slowly when I first started off in the mornings, but after a while, fell into my usual stride, and the pain receded.

I had no trouble with my weak right ankle until the last day, when, during the long descent of 6 hours from Ghorapani at 2,750 mts to the motorable road at 1,580 meters, it started to ache, causing me to cry out at times. However, it didn't give way, and I was able to maintain a good speed.

Before starting this trek, I had heard that, towards the end, Maoist insurgents were intercepting trekkers and extorting as much as Rs4000 each from them, calling it a 'donation'. As we went on, we continued to hear such tales, and then a new one ~ that the army had been in and cleared them out. This report was later modified ~ that they had merely moved the scene of their modus operandi, and were, in fact, better placed to make their 'collections'. As we approached this area, therefore, I was more-or-less prepared to have to pay, as I'd heard that a refusal to do so would result, at the very least, in being turned back and not allowed to proceed any further. I wasn’t petrified by fear, though, and as we went on, deeper and deeper into rebel-infested territory, no-one made any attempt to stop us, and we got through without seeing a single Maoist ~ or at least, none who identified themselves as such.

And so, my longest trek in terms of distance drew to a close, and sooner than I expected. We reached the road all of a sudden, as it were; it was a bit of an anti-climax to get back to 'civilization' and find taxis waiting to take people like us to Pokhara, 35 kms away. That day, Nov 14th, happened to be the culminating day of the Hindu Festival of Lights ~ Deepavali ~ and if any buses were running, they were nowhere in sight. After waiting in vain for some time, therefore, I negotiated with one of the cab-drivers and agreed upon a fare, but before getting into his battered vehicle, I gave my staff to a tea-shop owner, saying that if he saw another trekker who might have some use for it, he could pass it to him. With that, we started on our first car-journey in two weeks, and within an hour, had checked into a hotel in Lakeside. I got Subha a room at half-rate, but having slept free the whole trek, he wasn't happy with my negotiations on his behalf, even though I intended to pay for his room myself. He spoke about a place down the road where he could sleep for free, but by this time, he’d availed himself of the shower, so I told him he could not leave now. I paid him off, giving him the $50 bonus that my friend, Victor, had re-quested me to, and although he was surprised by this, he hardly thanked me. He left for Kathmandu the next day, while I stayed in Pokhara to rest for a few days.

Internet charges had come down to a reasonable rate since the previous year, so I soon began to write an account of this trek, as I’d done about the other one, and when I’d finished after 2 days, sent it off to a number of people. Some days later, I was sur-prised to get an email from Betty Dunstan, of all people; we re-sumed our correspondence for some months, until I grew tired of sparring with her; she was like a dog at a bone in an argument.

When I’d had enough of Pokhara, I bought some pastries from a local bakery, where the young guy was friendly and polite, and with these for the trip, got a bus to Kathmandu. It took ten long hours! There were two stops for food, and several checkpoints, with backed-up traffic; and such is the mentality of these people, that so many try to overtake and squeeze through, causing a greater jam. And all this time, I’d been holding on, careful not to fart, as I’d had diarrhea in the night and early morning. I got to the hotel and dashed for the toilet, just in time!

Fed-up with the bike I’d bought, I went to look at some others, and seeing one I liked, took it for a test-ride, and knew this was the one. I negotiated with the shop-owner, and although the price was rather high, I bought it. The other one I managed to sell at a loss, but was glad to get rid of the cheap thing!

I called the Sakais, and they invited me to visit them the following Sunday. In the meantime, I took several long rides, including up to Nagdhunga and down the other side to Naubise and beyond; the bike went well. I got a new bell for it, but it was a waste of money, as no-one paid any heed to it, and later, when I met a young guy who complained that even with a degree, he couldn’t find a job, I told him his degree was like my bell ~ useless!

I weighed myself on the street, but when the dial read 76 kgs, I thought it must be wrong, so went to another, and the reading was 70 kgs; was there a conspiracy of scales against me?

One morning, I scolded someone in a cyber-place for repeatedly sneezing explosively and told him he shouldn’t share his bacteria with others. I got stuck in a traffic-jam on my way to Patan, and was amazed at how many people tried to squeeze through, not seeing that they were only making it worse! Kathmandu has be-come so congested; there are far too many vehicles of all kinds on its narrow streets.

Sakai-san met me on his bike at the agreed-upon place, and led the way to his home nearby. There, they told me it was their 12th wedding-anniversary, and invited me to join them for lunch in a restaurant at the museum at Durbar Square; I felt honored that they should share their special day with me. The food was very nice; they joined me for vegetarian. Back at the house, I weighed myself on their scales, and was pleased at the reading of 70 kgs (if only it would remain at this!) I arranged to come a few days later and stay overnight.

Planning to go to India, I needed a visa, so duly got in line outside the Embassy, waiting for it to open. I got talking to a Jewish-Croatian woman from the US named Vlasta, who said she’d just done a course at Kopan; we had quite a lot to talk about, and were later joined by a guy from Tasmania named Ian, who said he was captain of a research-ship operating off Palawan. The time we had to wait ~ some hours ~ passed rather pleasantly. We exchanged email-addresses. I was told to come back again in a few days to apply for the visa; that morning was only to pay a fee of Rs300 to cover the cost of a telex which they claimed they had to send to one’s homeland to check that one had no criminal re-cord or anything, but I suspect it was just a scam to squeeze more money from us. Anyway, had they not heard of computers?

What could I do but go along with their silly and unnecessary game-playing? I applied for the visa, and paid the fee, and was told to come again to collect it the next afternoon. I went to the Sakais’, taking with me a bag of stuff to leave there until I re-turned from India. I thought I would be back after their upcoming vacation in Thailand, where they would stay on a small island near Phuket. After breakfast on the roof, I took my leave of them, and later went for my passport. I was too early, and had to wait an hour outside, but eventually got it.

Thinking to visit Kopan, and see how it looked 30 years after I was there, I rode to Bodnath, but it had changed so much since I was last there, and had become a night-mare. I took the wrong way and got lost, ending up on a different hill, from where I could see Kopan, but by this time I was tired so returned to Kathmandu. Checking my email later, I got one from Vlasta, saying she’d like to accompany me to Pokhara the next day, and asking me to call her as soon as possible. I’d already got my ticket, so I went to the bus-office again to make another reservation, and call and leave a message for her.

Back at the hotel, I paid my bill, and left early in the morning. The bus was waiting, and Vlasta turned up. My bags and bike were loaded, we left on time, and had a good trip, talking most of the time. She told me that Ian was already in Pokhara and was wait-ing for us to contact him when we got there. It was a while before I began to wonder why she’d suddenly decided to leave in the middle of her meditation-course and go to Pokhara. Was she chasing one of us? She told me she’d been married twice, and both times ended in divorce; was she on the hunt?

We got off the bus in the town, and stopped at a cyber-café to email Ian; I went outside while she did this, and who should come by just then but Ian himself! We were surprised to see each other! We all walked down to Lakeside, where I checked into a hotel, and agreed to meet them later for dinner; Ian was staying some-where above the lake, and Vlasta found a hotel somewhat nearer. We met at the appointed place and sat talking until our food came. I’d ordered spaghetti, and Vlasta had fish, even though she claimed to be vegetarian. Before I knew it, she had dumped a piece on my plate, saying, “Here, try this!” I told her off. When it came time to pay, I was embarrassed that we all had to ‘go dutch’; if I’d known earlier, I would have offered to pay for all. We then went in our different directions. My correspondence with Blasta ~ as I’d come to think of her by then ~ didn’t survive, as I told her I didn’t want to continue. She had many fantasies and ideas, and was always changing her mind; she also had the nasty habit of trying to manipulate people; maybe it was her husbands who had pressed for divorce! Ian also escaped her clutches.

The next day, I went to visit Santosh, my guide from the previous year; since then, he’d got married, and I gave him a gift of money. It was good to see him and his family again. At the bakery, the young guy was happy to see me again; his name was Liladhar. He said he would make something sugar-free for me.

I contacted Bishal, the boy who’d helped me with my dislocated shoulder, and he came to see me, out of work. His wife had given birth since I last saw him, and he asked me to help him set up a small business, but I was tired of people trying to fleece me, so I bought him some provisions instead of giving him money.

On the way back to town from a long ride one day, a motorbike turned right in front of me without looking to see if anything was coming; another inch or so and I would have hit him. It wasn’t the last time this would happen.

After some long rides in and around Pokhara, I got ready to leave for India. As I was about to get on the crowded bus, a young guy somewhat plaintively asked if I wanted a guide-porter; he could see that I was about to get on the bus and wouldn’t need a guide, but still he asked, obviously hard-up; he stayed in my mind and I wish I’d given him something). It was a nine-hours’ trip, and I was tired when we got there.

I‘d passed through Butwal before but without staying. I soon found a hotel, and haggled for a room, before going out on my bike. Then, something happened that would have far-reaching ef-fects: overtaking a rickshaw, my right pedal hit the kerb and bent; the chain also came off. I searched for a place where I could get the pedal straightened, but no-one could do it; eventually, be-cause they were so cheap, I had new peddles fitted, not knowing that, like shoes, they were right-and-left specific.

I caught a bus to Nepalganj the next morning, not wanting to go to Gorakhpur again. Like the previous day, the trip took 9 hours, and upon arrival, instead of loading my bike up ~ quite a job! ~ I got a rickshaw to carry my bags to a nearby hotel, and gave him Rs20; he seemed pleased enough, and asked if I’d like him to take me to the border, 8 kms away, in the morning, for Rs40. I told him to come at 6:30. It was much warmer there on the plains than in the hills, and I was able to shower in cold water.

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