We were all nervous so I went first. The nurse walked me to a world map where I pointed to Nepal’s remote north-west and explained that the other teacher, six Lakefield College School students and I would be enjoying a two-week rafting and kayaking adventure down the Karnali River.
“Well then,” she said, “let’s not worry about the rabies shot because it’s just meant to keep you alive for a few hours until you can reach a hospital. But if you’re way out there then by the time you get to a medical facility you’ll be dead anyway. So I suggest you stay away from crazy-eyed monkeys.”
I promised to do my best. When properly stabbed I told the first of what would be several white lies; the little stories for which parents and teachers forgive themselves when protecting kids from being afraid of things they can do nothing about anyway. “Good news,” I said, “the needles are painless and we don’t need the rabies shot.”
Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan airport is the perfect introduction to Nepal. We deplaned down rusting metal stairs and as we crossed the cracking tarmac we grouped a little closer upon entering the cacophony of the small terminal. Pimple-faced kids not much older than our young charges slouched in ill-fitting army uniforms with the universal look of sullen teenaged boredom and enormous automatic weapons slung over slender shoulders.
There is always a point, a precise moment, when you realize that the carousel will not produce your bags. I stood in a long line of disgruntled tourists until finally able to tell the disinterested young woman behind the old card table about our mixed up connecting flight in Los Angeles and the promise that our bags would be properly transferred. She had me fill out a long form and then drop it into a tall, wooden box that must have contained at least two hundred others. With a glance over her John Lennon glasses she promised to call our hotel if the bags arrived. If.
Stepping into the bright sunlight, we were staggered by the line of shouting cab drivers, hucksters and sign-wavers , the sudden sting of heat and the pungent smell of diesel and cow shit. We stumbled to our bus and after swerving around a large and sickly looking cow lying casually in the middle of the road were soon on our way to the tourist district.
A jaunty guide told us of the city. The green lawn and white gleaming splendour of the Narayanhiti Palace was a jarring sight after miles of shabby brown buildings and dusty brown streets. It was March, 2001. On the day of our arrival, the long-suspended parliament reconvened only to be suspended again when members immediately fell into a bench-clearing brawl. A few months after our departure, a young prince interrupted a palace dinner by spraying gun fire and killing nine members of his family including his father the king. A few days later the prince died mysteriously which put his uncle on the throne. This would happen later, of course, but the chatty guide that day said of nothing the country’s current political chaos or of the Maoist rebellion that was sweeping the countryside.
Our hotel was a clean and pleasant three-story concrete bunker. We enjoyed dinner on the roof, awed by the spectacular view of the city bathed in the gold of the gigantic sun sinking slowly behind the mountains. We met our lead river guide who promised to loan us camping gear while delaying our departure so we could buy clothes.
Armed with useless maps and pocketsful of rupees we navigated the district’s narrow winding streets. We found that stop signs were merely suggestions, mangy dogs were everywhere, the diesel fumes were suffocating, and the packed, tiny stores with their negotiable prices invited claustrophobia. We drank it in. We loved it all.
After leaving the group to find something a little different, one of the students and I hopped into a small, three-wheeled cab. After a minute I tapped the driver’s shoulder and suggested that he was going the wrong way. “Short cut,” he insisted. A couple of minutes later I said, in a little firmer tone, that we really needed to turn around and he then confessed that we were on our way to his uncle’s “very special” store. I whispered to my young friend and then on the count of three we leapt from the moving cab, disappeared under string of colourful saris and ran until the driver’s shouts faded. Safely back at the hotel our guide told us that we were indeed probably being kidnapped.
The next morning found us standing together in stunned silence before a small Tata bus. It was a Frankenstein of a rusty hulk, obviously cobbled together from long-gone others. The back of my cracked, vinyl seat scissored me forward at 75 degrees or so and its legs were secured by two concrete blocks. This was our home for two days.
The countryside was spectacular. The jungle was dense, the valleys deep and vast and the enormous sky was a brilliant clear blue. We had seen Everest piercing the clouds as we flew in and now the Himalayas were a backdrop to overwhelming beauty.
The villages along the way were small, poor and dusty. Around noon we stepped over an open sewer to an outdoor restaurant to enjoy our first of many plates of Bhat, Nepal’s staple diet, consisting of rice, lentils and curried vegetables that you dip into one of three fiery hot sauces. Our guide had warned that we would adjust but only after first falling ill after a day or so of Bhat. The vomiting soon began with a green and moaning girl hanging her head out the window of the rickety, bouncing bus.
We slept that night in the third floor rooms of another bunker hotel. The lone toilet was bolted to a cement porch surrounded by plywood walls, a ceiling open to the sky and a hole beneath it that allowed deposits to plop loudly into a large barrel on the ground far below. I spent most of the night alone on the roof with its cooler, fresher air and making frequent jogs to offer Bhat to the barrel.
The next day saw us on increasingly narrow roads carved into mountain sides that dropped into deep, rocky chasms. A boy of about ten years of age had joined our group and was hanging out the side of the bus and from time to time tapping on the roof. The driver explained that his tap indicated when the tires were nearing the edge of the abyss. I decided to neither distract the boy nor explain his job to the others.
We were all riding on the roof when stopped by a makeshift barricade. The driver had us climb back inside while he spoke with a small group of folks. I was a little shaken to see a man appear wearing shorts and flip flops like everyone else but also an alarmingly out of place powder-blue button-down oxford shirt. In his left hand he casually toted an automatic weapon. The driver said that he was a Maoist rebel and was demanding a fee for us to continue. I reached for my money but the driver said he could negotiate. He waved off my objection and disappeared with oxford man into a small hut. I told everyone that the driver was just paying a toll but waited to hear shots and wondered what I could possibly do if oxford man then returned for us. In five minutes that seemed like hours the driver was back. He had bargained the price of our lives and freedom down to about three Canadian dollars.
The twelve days on the river were magnificent. The guides were skilled and friendly and every night around the fire we shared songs and stories. An Australian told us of his love for the outback. An Isreali spoke of his military service and his desperate hope for peace. An American told us of the vastness of Montana and his love for horses, rivers and adventure. Each of us was far, far from home and yet when each day’s thrill of rapids and serenity of floating through the dazzling valley was over, it was thoughts of home to which each of us returned.
After our short flight back to Kathmandu the rest of our group enjoyed a tour in which they saw temples and even a little girl who was celebrated as a living God – but I was at the airport. Not surprisingly, my form was lost but after ascending several rungs of the bureaucratic ladder a man was escorting me to his office when I glanced through an open door and into a gym-sized room strewn with suitcases. I spotted my big green pack perched high on one of the piles. I eventually found all of my group’s packs and secured a cart to haul them away. The gentleman never consulted a piece of paper or had me sign a thing. I guess he either trusted me or didn’t care.
All travel is time travel and all travel is good. Few minds that travel remain small. How invigorating and instructive to allow even a brief immersion into a society where one’s rules, assumptions and expectations no longer apply. It is to be humbled with the twin reminders that people wake up every day everywhere and do the best they can and that other cultures are not failed attempts at being you.
Last night I sat on my deck and stared up at Orion glittering in the heavens. It was years ago now that I gazed up at him every night from the banks of the Karnali River. Shortly after our return, the Maoists won their revolution and swept aside Nepal’s monarchy and the planes that struck New York and Washington swept away much of the west’s blind innocence. But tonight, in my safe little Ontario village, there is Orion reminding me of how much that truly matters remains the same. And waiting for me somewhere is a crazy-eyed monkey that I will meet someday in whatever form he decides to appear – but not tonight.
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