Sunday, 24 August 2014

Where God Divided by Zero 3

              “Ginsberg, a self-proclaimed Dharma Bun, had seen the best minds of
                his generation screaming for release from the American dream.
                Presumably this spiritual bedlam led him to take a sabbatical in the
                city of Calcutta. To most Indians this would seem an eccentric is not
                totally mad decision. Calcutta is not famed for its serenity. The poet
                had his reasons. Calcutta, he announced, is the most liberated city in
                the world. The people have no hang-ups. They go around naked. It was
                a characteristically original view. No one before had suggested to the
                natives that their destitution was a sign of advance. But the Bengali
                resident of Calcutta love novelty and are predisposed to regard poets of
                all persuasions with favour.”
                                                                                      Gita Mehta, Karma Cola

Ginsberg saw the best minds of his generation destroyed by madness. Under his grey sun, on his mud stage, I found his Jessore Road homeless, sleeping in shit flood foul'd lairs and huge pipes, starving wet black angels in human disguise. There were monkey-sized sad groaning stunted starving silent newborns with swollen bellies on elderly nun legs, bony headskulls with big round eyes watching
the sky of the living blue hand itself, curled naked on thin laps weeping at my knees, hands to their mouths in prayer.
Where will we sleep when Our Father dies?
Whom shall we pray to for rice?

The black holes of nature are the most perfect macroscopic objects there are in the universe: the only elements in their construction are our concepts of space and time. But in the Black Hole of Calcutta, they were all pushing for space, and running out of time. After three days without food, they would vomit their next milk powder, lentils, and rice, unless they ate slow. There was no place to squat. Dysentery drained bowels all at once, into the open drains. Oxcart skeletons dragged charcoal loads
past watery flood ruts. Millions of babies in pain,
Millions of mothers in rain,
Millions of brothers in woe,
Millions of children nowhere to go.
The Red Shield was full across the street so I was checked into Modern Lodge, joining the freaks in the dorm. ‘An ideal place for foreign tourists.’ A few mosquitoes awakened the itch. The fan turned slowly. There were crickets awake in the ceiling. The gate was locked.
The street outside held sleepers, moustaches,
and nakedness, but no desire. Train
whistles and dog barks brought edges to the sweating and rotting teeth. Here, in this Black Hole, you would have to be careful not to get stuck in the corner of the universe, sticking morphine in your arm and eating meat. I slept like a dog in Calcutta.
The Modern Lodge was where Ginsberg, the Beat Generation and the Hungry Generation of Bengali poets had hung out. The poetry had fled, leaving heroin tracks, lost or sold passports, and missionary positions and emissions.
I awoke to find the Englishman selling his cache of batteries. His name was Ian. He told me that Button Nose wanted to see me.
We found ourselves back at the Fairlawn. Under the jungle foliage and bright-striped umbrellas of the garden terrace, we ordered tea, and waited. Kites flew spirals overhead. A Bo leaf floated to the maroon-colored concrete floor.
“I got a message from my boyfriend!” Resonated around my skull. I looked up to Button Nose and her new friend, who could have been her android double- mechanical mandible, with a broken connecting rod from the dashboard, plastic trim and plain interior. Long on miles, hard on fuel.
They both chattered uncontrollably as the sun went over the terrace.
“I bought a sari!” Said Button Nose. She wanted me to help her mail it. I asked her if that was why she wanted to see me.
“Let’s all go to a movie!” She said. But it was too late. I told her I was leaving Calcutta the following night. She asked me where.
“South.” I said. That’s when Ian and I left. To the Taj Continental, ‘where you get food of your choice.’ Our choice was mutton, potato and tomato, with rotis and coffee. Ian let me buy him cigarettes on my way back to Modern Lodge.
I found Doug and Mike had checked in, and regaled them with tales of Button Nose, and my plans of heading to Puri. They warned me that South African Sue was also planning to take that route, but I reassured them that the statistical probability of repeating my Button Nose fiasco was infinitesimal.
But, as they pointed out, it wasn’t zero. That’s what God divided by to get a black hole. Consideration of particle emission from black holes suggested that God not only played dice, but also sometimes threw them where they couldn’t be seen. And that’s where I was going.
I spent the next morning at the Indian museum, the nation’s oldest, established in 1814. The statuary and archaeology relics were decent enough, though poorly displayed, but the prizes went to the art gallery upstairs, and the natural history sections, whose display of Indian botanical and taxidermic butchery impressed by its sheer size.
My afternoon languished at Modern Lodge. I was reading in the aquarium room, when a young Canadian began to play his brand new sitar. David’s father wanted him to go to university, but he had chosen a more noble, and Nobel prize-winning, path. In 1983 Calcutta was still the iconic epicenter of poverty and overpopulation. David decided to do something about the first problem, and signed on with Mother Teresa. I told him he should have listened to his father.
Mother Teresa was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty. She had spent her life opposing any structural measures to cure it, the empowerment of women and the emancipation of them from a livestock version of compulsory reproduction, campaigning publically against abortion in a city of fourteen million hungry mouths. —“So you wouldn’t agree with people who say there are too many children in India?” She said, “I do not agree, because God always provides... And those little children are his life. There can never be enough.”
Her Missionaries of Charity, created as the blind dogmatic cult of a mediocre personality, based on death and subjection, promoted suffering to further its own financial ends. Teresa said that suffering was a gift from God, that it would bring people closer to Jesus.
A Mother Teresa’s ‘Home for the Dying’ was not a ‘hospice.’ A hospice emphasized minimizing suffering with professional medical care and attention to the expressed needs and wishes of the patient. There was no treatment at Teresa’s. You were there to die, even if you didn’t have to.
The order didn’t distinguish between curable and incurable diseases. Not because they couldn’t, but because they wouldn’t.
Instead of doctors who could have made systematic diagnosis, she used volunteers without medical knowledge to make decisions about care. A request to take a fifteen year-old boy to hospital was refused. Patients were transferred away from friends and family. Missionaries of Charity nuns were prohibited from seeking medical training or reading secular books and newspapers, and obedience was emphasized over independent thinking and problem-solving.
Living conditions resembled concentration camps. There were stretcher beds, but no chairs. Baths were cold, hypodermics reused, care administered on a prescribed schedule. On principle, no painkillers were administered. One could hear the screams of people having maggots tweezered from their open wounds without pain relief. It was God alone who would be expected to empower the weak and ignorant. Teresa preached surrender and prostration, and urged her poor supplicants to accept their fate, and quiet baptism.
Teresa’s donors thought their gifts were going to improve her facilities, but the primitive hospice in Calcutta was as run down when she died as it always had been, and her order always refused to publish any audit. Instead, she used her global contributions to open 500 convents in 150 countries, all bearing the name of her own sect. Rather than establishing real medical care and teaching hospitals and hospices, she chose self-aggrandisement. Rather than the relief of suffering, she chose its glorification.
Teresa portrayed the rich as favored by God, taking misappropriated money from the Duvaliers in Haiti, and from Charles Keating of the Lincoln Savings and Loan. When her own health began to break down, during bouts with heart trouble and old age, Mother Teresa checked into the finest and costliest clinics in California. According to Christopher Hitchens, she was a fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud. In the City of Joy, Mother Teresa was a Hell’s angel who was beatified into a sacred cow. Her God was a philosophical black hole- the point where reason broke down.
After a last supper with Ian at the Taj International, a fifteen- rupee taxi took me to Howrah station. I sat outside the first-class waiting room under the full moon, reading.

                           “California sunlight, sweet Calcutta rain
                             Honolulu starbright--the song remains the same.”
                                                Led Zeppelin, The Song Remains the Same

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Where God Divided by Zero 2

                                            “Black holes are where God divided by zero”
                                                                                         Stephen Wright

“I’m off!” She bubbled, slamming the door next morning. Button Nose had left me a list of chores, mainly to do her laundry and mail her postcards. These were completed without much enthusiasm and with some haste, as I had a date with a horse.
We trotted to the zoo, where I was enthralled by Himalayan black bears, red pandas, leopards, strangely helmeted multicolored fowl, and especially by Franka, the cute little tiger that scared the Tibetan morning momos back out of me. I rode to the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, to compare my exploits with those of better climbers, and on to the Happy Valley tea estate, for a lesson in cultivation. Darjeeling produced twenty million pounds of tea every year, and my guide told me how it was disbursed.
“We send the finest tips to the British.” He explained. “The rest of the leaves we market to the rest of India. And then there are the twigs and stems.”
“What do you do with them?” I asked.
“We send them to the Americans.” He said. I bought ten rupees worth of Golden T.P., and galloped my horse back in time. Button Nose was already at the Welkin.
“How was Kalimpong?” I asked.
“Where?” She queried.
“The town you went to today.” I said.
“Oh yeah.” She said. “I bought some silver earrings.” Except they weren’t. Later we met Doug and Mike at the Chowrasta Restaurant for a curry, and Button Nose’s percolating description of all the new addresses she had collected on her jeep ride. Doug gave me a small bottle of rum on the way out.
“You never know...” He said. “You may just want to set yourself on fire. Self-Immolation. Very Tibetan.”
The reason I had come to Darjeeling wasn’t to ride horses (or Button Nose), but to take the narrow gauge Darjeeling Himalayan Railway ‘toy train’ up to India’s highest railway station in Ghoom, and then down Hill Cart Road, to New Jalpaiguri, on my way to Calcutta.
Button Nose told me she already made a reservation at the Fairlawn Hotel in Calcutta, for two days hence. I told her about how fascinating the toy train was, with its 1889 British ‘B’ class steam locomotive running switchbacks down fifty-three miles and over two kilometers in altitude, along a two-foot wide track.
“I’ll take a taxi and meet you at the bottom.” She said. “Then we can go to Calcutta together.” My brain formed a mental picture of a small bottle of rum, and a match.
After a lukewarm bucket bath and a cuppa next morning, I told Button Nose that I would meet her at the Kwality Restaurant in Siliguri at seven that evening. I gave my Nepali toque to the Welkin desk clerk on the way out, and hiked to the train station to begin my excursion. During a patio breakfast I met two female missionary nuns, one from Singapore, the other Irish. I asked about qualifications. They mentioned celibacy and suffering. I told them I had it covered.
And then, for nine rupees, we stumbled into Lilliput. What used to be bullock carts and palanquins morphed into a whimsical cabin.
The first hour was a carnival of shunting cars and engines. Then, with a noise out of all proportion to the size of its blue locomotive, our little toy cabin gave a jerk, and started. A stocky railway worker sat perched over the forward engine buffers, scattering sand on the rails when the wheels lost their metal grip, with the din of a giant spring running down when the control had been removed.
Locals materialized from nowhere to hang on the outside, the whistle and steam blew incessantly, and coal dust coated my sweater. Sometimes we crossed our own track after completing a conic circuit. Sometimes we zigzagged backwards and forwards.
The fog descended as we ascended the Batasia Loop, at a steady gradient, to Ghoom Monastery. It was freezing, and only a quick chai saved me from terminal shivering. From the highest point on the line, a small push supplied all the energy necessary to carry us to the bottom of West Bengal.
The track simply followed the roadside. Long stretches of the road were surrounded with buildings, and the railway line often rather resembled an urban tramway than an overland track line.
Our engine was equipped with a very loud horn that could even drown out the ear-piercing horns of Indian trucks and buses. It blared without pausing for breath.
The first four hours were idyllic. Clouded views of the lush hills, close-up views of village shops, picking flowers out the window, and stupas, poinsettias and tea plantations in profusion.
The last five hours dragged. Button Nose passed and shouted from a cab. I shouted back that I'd be late. Down, down to a series of impressive switchbacks and loops as the sun dropped on the horizon and the full moon rose in sympathy. At long last we pulled into Siliguri Station, and I traded in my nuns for my anchoress.
“Oh, I’ve already bought my ticket.” She said. “You should get yours right away.” I returned to find that Button Nose had adopted another new friend, a tall lanky Englishman, dressed in purple, holding his head in his hands.
“What’s wrong with him?” I asked.
“My bag. It's been nicked. It's the end. Finished.” He said. He had lost his travelers cheques, a flashlight, and love letters.
“That’s really bad.” Agreed Button Nose. “Terrible. Awful.” She asked me to help him. I handed over my flashlight, tea, and a hundred rupees. I had love letters, but the line had to be drawn somewhere. I turned to find that Mary and Button Nose were jumping up and down with the glee that came from rediscovering each other.
“Let’s all get on the bus!” Said Button Nose. We got on the bus. She asked me to change seats with her. I gave her the window and, in exchange, I got a metal crossbar night of alternating between splayed and fetal torment. The agony was made even more exquisite by three obnoxious teenage Bengali boys, who flew into hysterical fits of sniggering whenever Button Nose’s sleeping head landed on my shoulder.
A red sun eventually rose to our left. We followed the east bank of the Hooghly River into India’s literary capital, the ‘City of Furious, Creative Energy,’ and the ‘Field of Kali.’ Kali, the black figure of annihilation, meant ‘time’ or ‘death’, as in ‘the time had come.’
On June 19, 1756, the time had come for 123 of 146 British and Anglo-Indian soldiers and civilians, who perished in the Black Hole of Calcutta. In a dungeon cell intended to hold only three men, they died of asphyxiation, heat exhaustion, and crushing. The fires raging in different parts of Fort William didn’t help. They raved, fought, prayed, blasphemed, and many then fell exhausted on the floor, where suffocation put an end to their torments. After the prison was opened, the corpses were thrown into a ditch. Robert Clive liberated the remaining survivors.
I liberated Button Nose off my man-powered rickshaw at the Fairlawn Hotel. The Fairlawn had been built twenty-seven years after the last emissions from the Black Hole reached Clive’s ears. The ruling Nawabs restricted Bengali construction materials to coconut palm and mud, but William Ford built his hotel out of pukka brick. Subsequent owners were seafarers, smuggling opium and textiles into and from China. In 1942, the place became ‘Canada House’, requisitioned by the Canadian Air Force.
Upper Canada Button Nose checked in, and I didn’t. First, in the poorest city in the world, I still couldn’t afford to stay here. Second, I was given the brush-off by the hybrid English-Armenian rani queen, too busy talking about Tony Wheeler’s recent visit. Her mother used to hide coins in empty kerosene cans, but I was untouchable. Finally, there was a push to break from Button Nose, and a pull to seek Calcutta. I headed for the Black Hole.

  “The black hole teaches us that space can be crumpled like a piece of
    paper into an infinitesimal dot, that time can be extinguished like a
    blown-out flame, and that the laws of physics that we regard as
    'sacred,' as immutable, are anything but.”
                                                                                                                           John Wheeler

Friday, 22 August 2014

Where God Divided by Zero 1

                      “In my third novel there is an actual black hole that swallows everything
                        you love.”
                                                                                                              Jonathan Lethem

Kathmandu was the traveler’s black hole. It bent light, defied time, and devoured mass unperceived, until no energy remained. The only thing the outside world ever saw was charge and spin. I spent another week in Kat, but I couldn’t account for all of it. A fever woke me, the morning after my thirtieth birthday. I hoped it wasn’t an inauspicious sign.
Dan and I cycled down to the Indian Embassy to get permits for Darjeeling, had my thangka authenticated at the archeology office, and spent the rest of the day repenting, consuming Hemingway as my candle consumed itself. Tenzing was trying to get me a permit to go with him to Bhutan, and Robyn and Julie would leave the next day for Rajasthan. It was our last daybreak. The dogs had howled all night.
We didn’t say much. Just after noon, I went with them to the bus station. The bus left two streams of tears as it pulled out. My batteries used the last electrons to get back to meet Tenzing at the Earth House. It would take twenty days to process his application. I told him I didn’t have it in me to wait that long. He told me we could go to Tibet instead.
Bruce and Terry were holding forth at a medieval banquet at Niryana’s that evening. I was at their table, but in a different place.
The next day Tenzing brought me good news. His friend in the First Secretary’s office at the Chinese Embassy could get me a visa to Tibet for a small financial consideration, six photos, and a fifteen day wait. I said that would be fine. The following morning he returned to tell me that, no, we couldn’t get to Tibet, but that was not a problem either. He would come with me to Darjeeling. I said that would be fine.
My fever broke the next morning. I came down the stairs into the Earth House restaurant, and couldn’t find a place to sit. The entire room was pulsating with overstuffed traveler’s consuming pancakes, cappuccinos, and platters of their own mythology. It was time to go.
At sunset Tenzing and I walked past the hanging bats and their soft migrations down Rajput, to buy a bus ticket to the eastern border town of Karkavita. Just one. Tenzing said he understood, but I could tell he had hoped this friendship would be special. And it was. Because I’m telling you now that it was. This heart, I know, To be long loved was never framed, For something in its depths doth glow, Too strange, too restless, too untamed. Tenzing said he understood, but it was a Tibetan understanding.
He met me at the bus next afternoon, and put a scarf over my neck.
“Tashi delek.” I said. Thank you. He grinned. And was gone too.
The rattrap was full of foreigners. There was Doug and Mike, two soft-spoken Midwesterners, a Dutch couple, an English traveler, and a Canadian girl with long blond hair and a button nose. I actually slept most of the night despite the chai stops, Hindi nyah-nyah music, and bone-jarring potholes and gear changes. An old Indian babu held us up for an hour to look for his shoe. It was gone. As were we. Our bus pulled into Karkavita just after dawn.
I called out the back of my rickshaw to tell Button Nose she had forgotten to get stamped out of Nepal. An hour later she arrived in time for the last seat on the sardine Siliguri Express. Before she even sat down, she had asked for my address. I was to discover that she was a collector. The second request was to change seats with me. Her third was for me to understand that she had a boyfriend. He had returned to Europe without her. I was to discover the logic of that that.
Button Nose was an Upper Canada rich spoiled helicopter ski brat, pretending to be a student in a Swiss private school, and a flounder out of water in India. This was not the garden party she signed up for, and I would end up wearing every weed-whacked shred of her disapproval. No matter where she was, she wanted to be anywhere but where she was.
In Siliguri we piled into a collective taxi for the last three-hour climb to Darjeeling. A chubby German girl filled the vehicle. Button Nose asked for her address.
We ascended through tea plantations and dense alpine forests of sal and oak. There were orchids. The snow peaks of the Mahabharat Himalayas appeared on the horizon, and Kanchenjunga loomed in the distance.
Our taxi coughed into the cold thin air of a colonial hill station. We plodded past the Planter’s Club and several mock Tudor residences, and shuddered to a stop in front of an old Gothic church. Button Nose and I walked through Chowrasta Square, to the fortress enclosure of the Welkin Hotel. There would be wired barbs inside the barbed wire. We put our packs on opposite sides of the room, and turned to face each other.
“Let’s go to a movie!” She said. OK. So I took her to The Rise and Fall of Idi Amin. It was a romantic comedy, compared to the vibe in the seat beside me.
We retraced our path, for sag paneer and a cup of cold tea, with Doug and Mike, at Gleneary’s. Button Nose got their addresses.
“You do alright for yourself.” Came the voice over my left shoulder. I turned to find Adera and Alan, from Naggar Castle, still trekking the Himalayas, trying to get home.
“I have a boyfriend in Switzerland.” Said Button Nose, not making it any better. Adera smiled. We left them later to roll out our sleeping bags. I turned to say good night but she was already facing away, zipped tight. The last traveler had left a book on my night table. Darkness at Noon.
It was even colder next morning. I awoke to the frozen fractals of my own breath.
“I need laundry soap!” She said, and bolted out the door. I shaved and showered, and emerged to find her back.
“They won’t take my rupees.” She said.
“They’re Nepali.” I observed.
“But they’re still rupees.” She insisted. I took her down to Grindlay’s to change money. She befriended two more travelers in the bank, a large pale English girl named Mary, and an American nurse, whose name got lost in her rapidly burgeoning collection of addresses. Somehow, we all ended up eating brunch with a petite, opinionated, and stubborn South African girl named Sue. Blah blah blah.
“Let’s all go to the tourist office!” This was where Button Nose discovered that a permit was required to visit Kalimpong. She didn’t really want to visit Kalimpong. She just wanted the permit. I waited for her in the square, and found a horse rental place. Now this was something I thought any blue-blooded silver spoon gentrified girl would enjoy.
“I’ve got some good news.” I said, when she returned, and told her about the equine excursion I had booked.
“Oh, no.” She said. “I never ride horses.” I was about to make some remark about hymen preservation, but the need for explanation would have been too difficult.
“Let’s go to a movie!” She said. All the adolescent Indian boys in the theatre watched Button Nose watch The Kidnapping of the President. I was pulling for the terrorist.

                               “Now there's a look in your eyes,
                                 Like black holes in the sky.”
                                                                Pink Floyd

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Ocean of Milk 8

Dean and Claire arrived from the campground, with a jar of their honey. There was wild boar left for them.
“Did they have myths in India, Uncle Wink? Millie Asked.
“Too many to count, Mil.” He said. “They had myths about wars and floods and other worlds and epics and gods and incarnations.”
“How many gods did they have”
“One for sure. And another thirty three crore. A crore is ten million. A few more than the desert religions.” Said Uncle Wink.
“How many hunters like Orion” Asked Sam.
There weren’t many hunting heroes in Hindu mythology, Sam. The one they had was associated with the constellation Orion, however. He was Rudra of the Wind, on a blazing chariot, who shot Prajapati, who had taken the form of a stag in order to seduce the Dawn. The arrow that pierced him is made up of the belt stars of Orion.”
“A blazing chariot?” I had Sam’s attention.
“Chariots were a big part of Indian mythology its epic heroes. One of the most famous symbols of the country, is the giant Chariot of the Sun God, built at Konarak in 13th century. It has twelve pairs of exquisitely ornamented wheels to cross the heavens with. The spokes are sundials that provide the exact time of day.”
“Was there anything else special about Indian chariots?” Sam asked.
“Quite a few things, actually.” Uncle Wink said. “ They were held together with twine, which gave them the flexibility they lacked without springs. My biggest hero compared them to a spiritual journey. The road it goes on is ‘Straight.’‘Without Fear’ is its destination. The body is called ‘Silent,’ And its wheels are right effort. Conscience is the railings, Mindfulness the upholstery, Dhamma the driver. And right view runs ahead. And whether it be man Or whether it be woman, Whoever travels by this vehicles hall draw close to Nirvana.
The most important part of a chariot was its wheels, and made so perfectly that, when set moving, would roll until they stopped upright, and not fall over. My hero thought of the chariot wheel as the Wheel of Life. It’s one of oldest symbols in India, and was used by Emperor Ashoka the Great, 2300 years ago, to represent the dynamism of peaceful change. The ‘Ashoka Chakra’ is on the Lion Capital of Sarnath, and in the middle of the Indian flag. Similar Dharma, wheels or Dharamachakras, are on the flags of Thailand and Mongolia.”
“What’s dharma?” Millie asked, just as the pavlova came out.
“I’ll tell you after dessert.” He said.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Ocean of Milk 7

                     “This is the way I like it”, he says. “You haven’t got the whole
                       goddamned society backing you up, you’re on your own: You have to
                       take responsibility for your mistakes, you can’t blame the organization.
                      And inevitably you make mistakes- you just hope they aren’t too
                                                                         Peter Mattiessen, The Snow Leopard

Our churning of the Ocean of Milk left a postscript in Pokhara. Papa Wingnut and the family welcomed us back, from three weeks and three hundred kilometers ago. They were celebrating the Festival of the Dog, and Rabies was the guest of honour, with a big red splotchdot bindi, pasted in the middle of his forehead. Everyone danced for Rabies, so much more uplifting than the Bataan death marches now sponsored for more contemporary causes.
I had my beard shaved off, played chess with Tim (who had also arrived the day before), and took in a Nepali bullfight with Terry and Bruce. The entire next day was eaten up by us, eating pie. Our bodies held a festival of their own.
We were still in shock. Our bus to Kathmandu, the following morning, was from another planet. All the people and traffic and noise and chaos churned up the sediment in the deep serenity we had acquired on the trek. We felt the ball bearings grinding beneath us, and we took it personally. Our bus arrived two hours late, but our disorientation made it irrelevant.
Our old room at the Earth House seemed too big and too small, at the same time. The mosquitoes seemed huge. My midnight forays to annihilate them, and the dogs barking in the empty streets outside, killed any idea of sleep.
The next day was my thirtieth birthday. John left for Calcutta, and Robyn and Julie surprised me with a beer and cheese lunch on Bert and Dan’s sunlit balcony. My birthday card was a Bo leaf with a badly painted depiction of Ganesh. We were joined by Tenzing, the Tibetan we had met between Ghosa and Kopchepani, who had come to invite us to the Living Goddess ceremony that evening.
“How did you find us, Tenzing?” I asked.
“The same way I found the Living Goddess.” He said, always the honey in the lion.
We went out of duty and stayed in fascination. The hospitality was of the highest Atithi Devo Bhavah Guest is God practice. Tenzing’s brother-in-law, Shalendrah, was honored in the same manner as Rabies had been two days previously in Pokhara, except that Rabies didn't have to give presents in return for the privilege of having red paste and curd plastered all over his forehead. We were given a tigam dab as well, along with the other thirty Nepalis in the small room. And the time flew into the raksi, food, and strange myth of the living goddess next door. After dark, she was carried in to meet us.
The Kumari is a prepubertal girl selected from the Newar Shakyas, the caste of silver and goldsmiths to which the Buddha belonged. She is believed to possess Kali, the black goddess of time and change and destruction, inside her, and is worshipped as a god until her first menstruation. Then she goes home.
Until then, she is not allowed to let her feet touch the ground, nor leave Kumar House, except for festivals. Taking her photograph is a criminal offense. I didn’t know. She didn’t tell.
Tenzing told me how she was chosen. All Living Goddess candidates had to be in excellent health, never having shed blood or afflicted by any disease, without blemish and not lost any teeth. Those that pass the first filter are examined for the battis lakshanas, or ‘thirty-two perfections.’
They must have a body like a banyan tree, a neck like a conch shell, eyelashes like a cow, thighs like a deer, a chest like a lion, a voice as soft and clear as a duck’s, very black hair and eyes, dainty hands and feet, small and well-recessed sexual organs, and a set of twenty teeth. The next round knocked out candidates with inauspicious horoscopes, or any family members with insufficient piety and devotion to the King. The final contestants are sorted by their serenity and fearlessness. On the Kalratri Black night, the finalists are taken into a courtyard inside Taleju temple, where 108 buffalos and goats are released, and then sacrificed. They must spend the night with the carnage. Whichever girl is showing the most serenity by morning, becomes the new Kumari. And she came to see us. I told Tenzing to tell her it was my birthday. She raised her hand.
“We know.” He said.
Robyn and I returned to the Earth House, intoxicated by the experience and the rakshi. As I fell asleep, I remembered the last words of my father, as I left on my odyssey, three and half years earlier.
“Remember.” He said. “A man is at thirty, what he is for the rest of his life.”
I’d just met my Destiny, and been blessed by the Living Goddess. I was good. The dogs celebrated long into the night.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Ocean of Milk 6

                 “Annapurna, to which we had gone emptyhanded, was a treasure on
                   which we should live the rest of our days. With this realization we turn
                   the page: a new life begins. There are other Annapurnas in the lives of
                                                                             Maurice Herzog, Annapurna

On the morning of the seventeeth day, across a large suspension bridge over the Ghar Khola, we climbed back up a kilometer and a half, along the Sadhu’s stairways. Our shadows were taller than our souls.
Arumgumam guided us to the skyline, five hundred meters to the top of a rocky spur, and a single sentinel house. For a rupee, Robyn and I bought what looked like an immense lemon. That's what it was. Even more dangerous further above, we had to cross a huge landslide of slick mica, threatening to carry us down into space with each unsure footfall. Gradually, we ascended into rhododendron forest over Ghorapani Pass, and magnificent views of Dhaulagiri, Tukche, Nilgiri, Annapurna I, Annapurna South, Hiunchuli and Glacier Dome.
Ghorapani meant ‘horse water’ like Tatopani meant ‘hot water.’  Stocky Tibetan men shouted to striking caravans of plumed horses. Silver bells warned of their approach, scattering us to find a safe place to wait out the herd’s momentum. Sharp hooves ground the trail to dust. And then it went up, and up, and up. Into and through old forest, with Spanish moss feasting like bats on dying trees, past scores of obnoxious Americans. The Stetson that one wore was louder than he was. We later found out he was the US ambassador. Arumgumam was faster than their daypack rummaging produced cameras, and they didn’t want photos of us.
“Galah.” We said in greeting.
“Galah.” They replied, behind us.
As we entered Ghorapani, Arumgumam took us to a lodge overlooking the town. Here we met Terry and Bruce, Canadian harmonica impresarios, who entertained us through our onion soup and rostis. We fell asleep to their wailing reed rhythms, cool fading into the cool late night. Around 3:30 am, nature drew me out under a star-studded sky Ocean of Milk, blue-black down to her foundations. Orion shone.
We picked strawberries along the trail next morning, before beginning a knee-crunching descent through the old forest. The drop took us along rhododendron-lined sparkling clear streams to Nayathanti and Bahunthanti. Below Ulleri, the path became even more punishing, until I could feel my heelbones rattling inside my skull.
Across two suspension bridges we rolled up into Tikhedunga, to find our sadhu having lunch with the American ambassador. I thought this a rather unusual détente, until I realized that Arumgumam was pretending not to speak English, a disposition that was driving the Stetson to even louder and more frustrated attempts at diplomacy. As he joined our departure, Arumgumam fired a big blue flame from his Bic into a Marlboro, and excused himself in perfect Etonian English.
“Galah.” He said, as he left.
“Galah.” Responded the dumbfounded ambassador.
After crossing and recrossing the Bhurungdi Khola to avoid the steep cliffs, we followed the bamboo forests and waterfalls of the north bank, down into Birenthanti. Arumgumam led us down a winding street of large flagstones and sidewalk cafés, to the four rupee Sunrise Lodge. A cold wash waited down at the river.
We said goodbye to Arumgumum next morning. He turned and smiled his last Jesus head bobble. A final blue flame fired out of his lighter, and he disappeared in a puff of smoke. Galah.
Robyn and I crossed the Modai Khola on a suspension bridge, to begin an abrupt switchback ascent up a dusty trail to Chandrakot. Perched on a ridge, the trail suddenly became miraculous. The long chain of the Annupurnas were impressive enough, especially Annapurna South.
But the prize went to the profile of the ‘fish tail’ mountain of Machapuchare, off-limits to climbers because of its sacred relationship to Shiva, poking its proud Matterhorn nose into the clear blue. Robyn and I followed a ridge to Lumle, up a set of wide stone stairs to crest at Khare, where we picked up a skipping eight-year old Nepali girl, who led us over the ridge into the Yamdi Khola, and our descent into Naundanda. We checked into Sherchan Lodge, and hung out with the chickens on the flagstone terrace.
“You’re going the wrong way.” Rang out above us. It was Dan.
The afternoon’s composure was shattered by the three Company men, who had gotten lost and were on the way back to Kagbeni. That shot the program. Robyn called them in.
The rest of the day faded away on the terrace of the Sherchan. The owner emerged to join us. He was a young man, with a moustache and a yellow pin striped polo jacket. From his coat pocket he removed a packet of cigarette rolling papers, I thought to roll a cigarette.
He started to lick and paste several together, until he had made a piñata rocketship, complete with fins and flanges. He had filled it with what he called a tola, which I knew as a traditional Vedic unit of mass, about 3/8 of a troy ounce. Akbar the Great had minted tola-weight coins, and the British had carried on the standard, with their gold bullion. The gold rocket he launched took us over Machapuchare and the vertebrae of mountain pinnacles. There were other Annapurnas in the lives of men, but these were the ones in mine. From here I could see the arc of the world, and our lives. Annapurna means ‘Goddess of the Harvests,’ and the dreams I had later were a singular vintage. I knew the Himalayas because I was the Himalayas. The dogs barked all night, in fluent Sanskrit.
The last day of the trek took us first deceptively skyward, and then straight down a broad trail to the foot of the Yamdi Khola valley, and across the river toward Phewa lake. We were supposed to reappear onto the raised mud dike walls of a rice paddy field chessboard. If there had ever been a track, it had left years before.
I went ahead of Robyn, and soon found myself out of earshot, and consumed by undergrowth, gigantic spiderwebs, and growing arachnophobia. My knees jarred and crumbled across expansive sheets of boulders through a tributary. When I finally emerged into the sun and paddies, a naked young boy escorted me to a spot on the river, just in time to see Robyn and Dan and Bert enter the scene.
We swam the river, giggling, and sun bathed on the far bank, relieved to be out of the old forest and near the end. A young ferryman took us on a hot hour-long paddle to Pokhara for seven rupees. As our socks dried on the gunnels, the Annapurnas closed in to complete our circle. We ran up onto the lake’s far beach, like claiming a new land. A westerner on a bicycle was peddling circles on the foreshore.
I recognized the man who had singlehandedly made the world of exotic places available to aspirant travelers, and then singlehandedly destroyed them, by making them available.
“Tony Wheeler.” I called out. He stopped.
“You wrote in West Asia on the Cheap that Canadians don’t need visas to enter Syria.” I said.
“And?” He asked.
“We do.” I said.
“I’ll fix it.” He said.
“It’s too late.” I said. “I’ve already met my Destiny.” He shrugged, and started peddling in circles again.
Dan and Bert and Robyn and I hiked the last few meters to the courtyard of the Snowland, to find John and Julie sitting with the Israelis. She had made it back down the other side, without any further misfortune. We all adjourned to the Hungry Eye café, and ordered one of everything off the menu. Dan ate five pieces of pie, without exhaling.
The tall Israeli was bursting.
“What.” I asked.
“We beat you.” He boasted, chest out. The other Israelis smiled their Israeli smiles.
“Yes, you did.” I said. “Did you see the Yeti?”
“Yeti?” he asked. “You saw a Yeti?”

Monday, 18 August 2014

Ocean of Milk 5

                      “In the longing that starts one on the path is a kind of homesickness,
                        and some way, on this journey, I have started home.”
                                                                   Peter Mattiessen, The Snow Leopard

It was all downhill from there, and more than a metaphor. The trail headed west, descending high above the Jhong Khola to Jharkot, a little Tibetan settlement with peach trees. The villagers made oil out of the pits. Peach kernels contain cyanide, just in case they got too comfortable with their oxygen levels.
Our feet took us under elemental desert colors- blue sky contrasting against white clouds, striking yellow bare hillsides, splashes of green where streams allowed cultivation, and the blinding white peaks of Dhauligiri and Niligiri. We were in the same geographical and climatic zone as Tibet.
Just past Khingar village, the trail began its steep descent into the world’s deepest gorge, and the Kali Gandaki valley floor. The winds that howled through our space between Dhauligiri and the Annapurna peaks carried us a little off the main trail, on a side trip to the fortified medieval Mustang village of Kagbeni. We climbed down past hundreds of small piles of rocks made by pilgrims to honor their departed ancestors, beside white rapids rushing over the river alluvium, and into a green oasis of Mongol women and young girls, winnowing wheat within stone wall-enclosed fields.
A large ochre-colored gompa perched high above imposing chortens and exotic mud houses. We hiked by shamanistic statues and prayer wheels made from old Caltex tins. Small children accompanied us through dark narrow alleyways, trying to extort candy along the way.
We escaped them through orthogonal carved windows, onto the open rooftop of the New Annapurna Lodge, a precious sunlit little place for three rupees a night. Robyn washed clothes and innocently poured the dirty water over the dahlia box and onto Dan. The wind howled its approval. After a plate of fried freeze-dried yak cheese, we ventured back out to watch the threshers. Migrating flocks of Eastern Great egrets flew overhead, before the Israelis put in a similar appearance. I was surprised to see they had made it over the Thorong La. They told us they saw Julie being escorted back to Manang by our porters, and asked where we were staying.
“That’s where we were going to sleep.” The shortest one said. “Many are called but few are Chosen.” Said Bert. They stared suspiciously.
“New Testament.” I said. Shoulders shrugged and separated. That night our Tibetan hostess baked us an apple pie. In order to make it from scratch, she had to first create the universe. Later that night, after Destiny went to bed, Dan and John and Bert and I sat directly under it, and talked about it. We decided it was infinite.
The Company got off to a late start next morning. At the time we blamed the slow breakfast, but in retrospect, I don’t think we wanted to leave. There was nothing outside Kagbeni that anyone should have wanted. And much that was there that had been lost or never existed elsewhere.
We left sadly, down the stone alluvium bed, past an old woman selling apples, and up and down into Jomson. Originally Dzongsam, New Fort, it owed its existence to the trade from the pink salt lakes in Tibet, until a decade and a half before we arrived, when imported Indian salt put the route out of business. The iodine in the southern salt also eliminated the large goiters that had previously distinguished Nepalese throats. A visible form of invisible grace, it constituted a mixed salt blessing.
The bank guard let me hold his rifle, while he posed for a photo. When Dan and Bert entered the scene behind me, he looked a little nervous, until I gave him back his gun.
The Company stopped in a sunny courtyard, drinking lemon tea, and eating apple pie and 5 star bars. Revived, we hiked south out of Jomson, passing trains of ornamented horses, blinding white peaks, brown and yellow cliffs, and bright green irrigated fields.
We had to rub our eyes on entering Marpha. Huddled behind a ridge for protection from the burning winds, it seemed at first that we had been transported to somewhere in the Mediterranean. The proud Thakalis lived in tightly packed whitewashed houses, rock walls and red window lintels plumbed perfectly straight, curving along flagstone streets, immaculately spotless, with an extensive system of subterranean drainage. Grains and vegetables dried on the flat rooftops. The narrow passageways were paved. Herds of goats and caravans of plumed horses moved efficiently down the main street. It was absolutely beautiful.
“Look. There’s John.” Robyn said. And it was. And we checked into a four-rupee double at the Baba Lodge, and ate two rostis with some Marpha apple rakshi, under the high snow pinnacles. Later that afternoon we crossed a suspension bridge to visit the Tibetan refugee camp. The women weaving carpets at their looms bent back and forth like they were praying to a wailing wall. No matter how many carpets they wove, it was never going to become a door.
The ablution block at Baba Lodge was on the roof, Tibetan-style. After our rosti and muesli breakfast, Robyn told me our toilet roll was missing. I remembered a Dutch guy entering, as I left, earlier that morning. I knocked on the Dutchman’s door. His roommate opened it and, sitting on their back shelf, was our loo roll. No words were spoken. I pointed. They retrieved, like duck hunting with hounds.
“What kind of man steals another man’s toilet paper?” I asked, leaving them with the answer they already had.
Robyn and I left with Bert and Dan, climbing to Sokung village around convoys of loaded donkeys. For a moment, I shuddered at the thought that, if one of them panicked, I could be hurled off the mountain path we were sharing.
Through an arid desert of scattered pine, cypress and junipers, we crossed a suspension bridge into conifer forest. The Israelis had left earlier, but we overtook them in Lete, dropping to a stream, and a further descent from mountain pine and birch to subtropical trees and shrubs, and our old friends, stinging nettles and cannabis.
We met a French Indian couple in their late sixties. He was a nuclear engineer, and she was an artist. They were a joy to hike with, still in love with life and each other. We weren’t so sure about a plodding American hiker, who was talking into a box as we passed him.
“It’s getting harder now...” He said. Huffing and puffing and panting, he was so self-absorbed, as to be missing all the precious beauty around him. Robyn and I looked at each other.
“Galah.” She said.
“Galah.” He replied, returning what he obviously thought was a local greeting.
Ghasa was the last southernmost Lama Buddhist village we would encounter and, after a seven-hour trek, the hot bath in the cold dark toilet was restorative. We found roasted peanuts and hot chocolate and warm sleeping bags and sleep.
The descent continued at a slower pace next morning, but another twelve hundred meters would fall away in just a few hours. Down through the chickens, mule dung, bloated smiles and bellies, women washing aluminum pans from back polyethylene conduits, and along slate flagstones, we paused in front of our next suspension bridge.
“Slowly slowly, Baba.” He said.
I turned to find Jesus in a saffron robe, and a string of gauri-shankar rudraksh beads, strolling barefoot beside me. The sadhu seemed to have levitated over the steepest and narrowest part of the canyon, cut through the solid rock and a short three-sided tunnel. He dematerialized in almost the same instant. In his place was a quiet young Tibetan, named Tenzing, who asked if we had seen a missing German, and invited Robyn and I to the Kumari festival in Kathmandu, nine days later. I asked him what the celebration was for.
“It is for the Living Goddess.” He said. I asked him how he knew the living goddess.
“The same way I know you.” He said. And as I turned to Robyn and back again, and he was gone too. I suddenly noticed the lizards, sunning themselves on every rock.
“Should be a unicorn along any minute now.” I said to Robyn. We crossed the lizards and a bridge to catch up with Bert and Dan, over lemon teas in Kopchepani. They had witnessed a helicopter evacuation of two Kiwi girls and an Irishman from Ghasa. They hadn’t seen my magical sadhu and Tibetan.
“Imaginary friends are as good as real ones.” Dan offered.
“Sometimes better.” I said. A mule train shuffled by.
We dropped to cross a wooden bridge over the steep canyon river, and climbed steeply to Rukse Chhara, and the foot of a spectacular waterfall, tumbling into a series of cataracts along the trail. Our descent continued, via the elaborately carved windows and balconies of Dani, through a small tunnel carved out of the precipitous rocky hillside, and finally, into Tatopani.
We were not prepared. For over three weeks we had slept hard, eaten rice and lentils, and our world had been constructed of earth and sky and water. The lemon meringue fault line had found us again, as we crossed the threshold of the Paris Café at Namaste Lodge.
A kerosene-powered refrigerator bulged with cold beer and coke and orange soda. A radio was tuned to Hindi nyah-nyah songs. A Frenchman was writing in his diary at a corner table. A Frenchman in the Paris Café. We were on our way back. We left to meet John at the Snow Tree Lodge. I told him of the sadhu and Tibetan imaginary friends.
“Just a little situation that happened.” He said, drawing on an imaginary cigarette. We all went to the springs for a long hot mud bath and short sock wash.
The Paris Café was empty at dinner, except for the Company and the Frenchman. He was still writing in his diary when we arrived. Robyn ordered the tree tomato soup. The Frenchman ordered the tree tomato soup. Robyn ordered egg fried rice. The Frenchman ordered the egg fried rice. Robyn ordered curry veg and boiled beans, a lemon tea and a black tea. So did the Frenchman. He was still writing in his diary when we left.
We had decided to spend an extra day in Tatopani, for the ambience and the amenities. I sat in the sun with John and the boys, losing a day and winning in chess. After a trip to the hot springs, we attended the opening ceremony of the first Bank of Nepal branch in town.
Barefoot children piggybacked each other, carrying bouquets of handpicked flowers for two thin cheroot-smoking officials, almost identical in their Dhaka topi hats, V necked sweaters, and running shoes. Robyn and I left the Company for lunch at the Paris Café.
Sitting where the Frenchman had been the night before, was my sadhu. I sat across the room, and pulled out a cigarette. He pointed at it furiously, and I thought, at first, he was offended at my intention to indulge. I had been under the impression that sadhus were renouncers, and had left all material attachments, to focus on the spiritual attainment of moksha. Apparently we were in Marlboro country.
I handed one over, and offered a box of matches. He waved me away and from within his saffron robes, produced a Bic lighter which, with the largest blue flame, just about burned my nose off. He ignited his own cigarette, drew in a long breath, and exhaled a final plume of ascetic exultation, through a vortex of spinning smoke rings, and the open ceiling.
His name was Arumgumam. His thin weathered stone-worn feet had carried him from the Mahesh Yogi’s ashram in Rishikesh to the temple in Muktinath, up his own personal stairway to heaven.
In my thoughts I have seen rings of smoke through the trees, And the voices of those who standing looking.
Ooh, it makes me wonder.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Ocean of Milk 4

                                   “At the top of the mountain, we are all snow leopards.”
                                                                                       Hunter S. Thompson

The day’s ascent, on the route to the pass, rose almost two kilometers in altitude, northwest up the Jarsang Khola.
We climbed through scrub juniper, into meadows of yaks and horses, past clusters of flat mud roofed herder huts, into alpine grasses and desolation. I remember a broken down stone house with a rusting biscuit tin of a roof, blowing back and forth in the wind.
Dan and Bert were in the lead with Robyn and I behind, and the porters and Julie trailing. She had developed another bout of dysentery, that or the first one had been only playing possum. She was taking a breath for every step. It wasn’t a good sign. The Israelis caught up with us at a makeshift little chai shop halfway. They were asking a lot of questions, like Israelis do. I told them I didn’t know the answers, and we would all find out together, something that ran counter to their experience with me, up until this point in the trek.
Along the massif, the last of the vegetation was replaced by streams of snow, and the bluegray icy river by sand-colored switchbacks up the slope to the lone ruin we would spend half a night in, before our final push over the Thorong La.
It was called Phedi which, in Nepali, meant the ‘bottom of a long climb.’ It should have meant the rock bottom of a long climb. The lone dwelling used to be a teahouse, but had deteriorated to the point you couldn’t tell.  The metal roof had long since blown off, the wooden door frames had been burned as firewood, and the toilet, repulsive as it was, was even more repulsive than that. The space inside the outside-exposed inside was noisy, crowded, smoky, and freezing. The French that arrived later had a loud rakshi party, until they finally slammed the corrugated tin door into place, and the remaining light and oxygen was extinguished.
Our porters woke us at three am, but we had been awake all night. After a quick bowl of tsampa, we walked into an immediate series of steep switchbacks up the moraines.
There was only just enough reflected moonlight to distinguish the trail from the snow. We placed our boots in front of each other up the rocky ridges, in and out of canyons, and over the many false summits that seemed to go on forever. I stayed behind Julie for encouragement, but her diarrhea was worse, and she was forced to dip behind rocks at shorter and shorter intervals, as the moon dropped off to our left, and the dawn diffused through the cracks on our right. Finally, she sat down on the trail, and cried.
Robbie had returned from above to prod her on a little further, but I finally said what was necessary to say. Julie’s breathing was labored to the point I could sense her starting to develop pulmonary edema. She needed to descend, and soon.
I hurried to catch up with the porters, waiting at the top of the pass. Bert was waiting at the stone cairn and chorten at the 17,800 foot summit. Its flags were whistling in the winds, and the views of the entire Great Divide, with the Annapurnas and Gangapurna to the south were breathtaking, if there would have been any left.
I paid the porters, and gave them instructions to return Julie to Manang, and ensure that she join another party to take her back to Pokhara, where we would hopefully meet up once we trekked down the other side of the Circuit. They went down one way, Bert faded off the other, and I sat at 5500 meters for an hour, waiting for Robyn to catch up.
When Destiny finally called, Chaos was still on the other line. Maybe it was the altitude. We were both quiet, and upset with the situation, the loss of Julie, and each other. She walked on over the pass, and I hiked into oblivion, stuck in knee-deep snow. The guttural sounds of Hebrew behind me finally propelled me onto the right path, and down onto the knee-punishing 1600m descent through the wind, to a teahouse halfway down the other side. I would win my race with Destiny. She had caught up with Bert and Dan. We ate spicy potatoes and drank herbal tea. I wondered how the owner could have survived, but it was now too powerful a word to be used in a simple commercial context.
The snow turned to switchbacks to and back to moraines. There were excellent views of Dhaligiri, as the grassy slopes merged into meadows. Our spirits rose as our lungs descended into more solid air. We dropped into a ravine that was the start of the Jhong Khola, down, down into the autumn-splashed arid valley that took us finally beyond a grove of trees to the small sacred temple of Muktinath.
Sacred to both Hindus and Buddhists, Muktinath was the only place on Earth where all five elements from which everything was made came together. The sky of heaven, the earth of saligram riverbed marine ammonites necessary to establish any other temple to Lord Vishnu, the rarified air of the Dakini goddess Sky Dancers, the freezing water from the 108 sacred streams, issuing from as many bullshead-shaped waterspouts, where devotees took their frigid baths, and the fire from the natural gas jets that produce the holy flame, inside the gompa. Here was a near naked mystic Sadhu, smeared with ash and carrying Shiva’s trident, worshiping beside a Tibetan woman adorned with such an elaborate headdress, as if she were, herself, made out of turquoise.
It was a crossroads. To the north was Mustang, the former Kingdom of Lo Manthang. To the south was the Kali Gandaki, and the way back home. Muktinath was Muki Kshetra in Hindi, the ‘place of salvation.’ Yes, it was.
The Tibetan trader who sold me an ammonite outside the sanctuary didn’t realize he was giving me the means to construct my own Lord Vishnu temple wherever I choose. It still sits on my windowsill overlooking the lake, preserving the universe against seemingly insurmountable odds.
“Look. There’s John.” Robyn said. And it was. And we checked into a 20 rupee double at the Hotel Muktinath, and went over to his Hotel North Pole for vegetable fried rice and Tibetan bread. After a couple of pulls on a bottle of Marfa apple brandy, John told us of a young European girl, who had died in her sleep here the previous night. She had made it over the pass. The Ocean of Milk sparkled against the black sky and white snow on the Himalayas. We were alive.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Ocean of Milk 3

                                     “The good shine from afar
                                       Like the snowy Himalayas.
                                       The bad don't appear
                                       Even when near,
                                       Like arrows shot into the night.”
                                                                     Uddalaka Aruni

The light had changed so slowly we hadn’t noticed. Gradually, in under a week, with just a few hundred meters of elevation every day, the edges sharpened. The lowland glow crystallized into altitude glint. Clarity infected every experience. Climbing hearts pumped the sludge out of the deep white matter of previous existence. The new light ether brought us into the present, leaving the grist of guilt and shame and worry far behind.
Robyn had discovered the pleasures of that cloudy beverage known as chhaang, in the late Chame night. The Nepalis consider it a cure for a range of maladies, including alcoholism, a little like decapitation, as a cure for headache. The revelational enthusiasm Robyn woke me with, was repaid with the gift of a morning migraine. This was apparently the cure for Chhaang. Ama and Tushi sent us off with eggs and coffee and Tibetan smiles. My morning ablutions had taken place with Annapurna II in the foreground. It was like God watching you shit.
We crossed a sidestream and the Marsyandi on a cantilevered wooden bridge, through barley fields to Talung. Past an apple orchard, we dropped across a bridge to a steep and narrow trail through deep forest cover. Another bridge in space took us up a near vertical path to our first views of the Paungda Danda escarpment, a colossal slab of curved rock rising almost two kilometers from the river. Over the ridge, we began a steep ascent to the upper Marsyandi valley into the lower portion of Pisang.
A yak, laden with baskets and household goods, walked by us on the path, alone. We crossed wooden canals, used to power the two mills in the main village and, on the other side of the bridge, found a rooftop to camp on for the night.
There were two new recruits to our company of adventurers, sunning themselves on their sleeping bags. Dan was a law student from Florida, and his buddy, Bert, an Albertan roustabout. They were lighthearted fun.
What John brought back for me from the upper village was not. He took me through the rock walls of a narrowing path, into a sickroom. A woman lay dying from, as far as I could see, a large tumor ulcerating into her throat. It may have been a thyroid cancer but, whatever it was, it was winning. The family looked at me, and then to me. I had nothing but some kindergarten painkillers, and compassion. In their world, despite my own feelings of inadequacy, it was enough.
There were six trekkers in the Company that left Pisang next morning- Robyn and Julie, Dan and Bert, John and I. We had a gorgeous day, hiking through pine meadows, with intermittent views of Annapurna II and IV, climbing onto a spur, to find views of the drier upper portion of the Manang valley. The sentinel of Tilicho peak stood at the end. After a short descent into a forested valley floor, we passed a herd of yaks and horses into a broad valley with the two Annapurnas in the distance. Across the Marsyandi, through kani entrances and exits, were the stone houses of Bruagu, stacked one on the other, behind a large rock outcropping.
A massive white chorten, decorated with rust-colored swirls and swastikas, a platform, and the sun and the moon, dwarfed the Company walking below it. We didn’t know about the five hundred year old thangkas inside, or we might have stopped. The arid scenery was dominated by bizarre cliffs of yellow rock eroded into imposing pillars, and by the soaring peaks of the Himalaya, across the valley to the south.
We trekked along the adjacent stretch of waist high mani walls, and their phalanx of tall tattered prayer flags, rippling forward of the wind at our backs, across a stream with several mills, and onto the plateau of Manang village. Here we would need to stay for two days to acclimatize, before attempting the climb over the almost 18,000 foot Thorong La, to the other side of this side of Nepal. One of our Company wouldn’t make it over. One, not of our Company, would make it over, but not beyond. Like arrows shot in the night.
Manang was a collection of medieval flat roof houses, and poles and waving flags, hoodoo hanging on a northern slope. Below were terraces of buckwheat, barley, potatoes, and beans. Two hundred years earlier, King Ranan Bahadur Shah had declared the place a free trade town. Yak tails, sheep skins, herbs, and deer musk were transported on yaks and horses over the Thorong La, in exchange for gold and silver and turquoise. Trade occurred as far away as Korea.
In 1950, Maurice Herzog came in a futile search for food for his party, only to return empty handed and starving to his Tilicho Lake base camp. He eventually went on to be the first to summit a peak over 8000 metres, Annapurna, in exchange for the loss of all of his toes, and most of his fingers, in emergency amputations in the field.
We were more fortunate. Following the Israeli mental map through narrow alleyways, we ascended a steep notched log onto the rooftop of Michung Gurung and Tshering Dolma’s house. Robyn and I dropped our packs in the room with the single bed, while John and Dan and Bert and Julie remained transfixed at the panorama of the Annapurnas and Gangapurna summits, less than eight kilometers away.
The ceaseless noise of the huge icefall rumbling and crashing on the flanks of the peaks sent cracking chills and grinding shivers into our marrows and up our spines. It would wake us in the night, as if to warn us of the dangers to come.
I found a Nepali sarangi stringed instrument and, tuning it to a major chord, gave a minor concert on the rooftop. The Company ate good soup and salty chow mein, and came together under a full moon to watch the ceremonial dancing below. Every four years there was a fertility festival in Manang. We had arrived in time for prom night.
It was just the opening ceremony. The next afternoon, after a rock climb up the north face for views of the Glacier Dome and Annapurna II and IV, we descended into the main event. White vertical rectangular flags whipped furiously on long poles in the wind, above the cube shaped Tibetan rock dwellings on the edge of the high desert field. Throngs of locals crowded the rooftops to watch the festival. Old women in colourful costumes and headdresses, danced in slow motion to drums and cymbals.
All the eligible males of Manang had been blindfolded, packed together, and encircled with a long thick rope. Clusters of blushing girls teased them from different compass points, until the pandemonium of the body of blind bound bucks, pulling in various directions, tumbled them all over the rocky ground. If they could grab and hold the damsel they were chasing, she was honor bound to accept his advances. The festival occurred every four years, and we counted ourselves fortunate to have seen it.
There had been a more ominous festival every three years, called Badhe, during which everyone slept outside, and twelve virgins were sacrificed to the gods, to free the village from enemies, evil spirits, disease and natural calamity, and to ensure security, peace, and prosperity. I suspect the supply of virgins hadn’t kept up with demand. The surrounding snow covered mountains watched over the spirits of the exposed, taking the shame out of the shamanism. It was innocently beautiful.
The din of the afternoon left quietly. In the gas lantern miasma of Michung’s cellar dining room, we ate our fried potatoes in silent solemnity. Even the Israelis were as subdued, as I have ever seen Israelis subdued. We were all aware of the risks of crossing over the Thorong La. We knew about the strong winds that would come if our timing was off, the cold, avalanches, frostbite, the physical demands of the ascent, the chance of wandering off the trail into deep snow, and the possibility of Acute Mountain Sickness. We didn’t know that over thirty percent of trekkers were afflicted, and the only reason more of them didn’t perish was because of the rapid descent on the other side. The driest rarified air on Earth would do its unlevel best to quickflood your lungs and brain with water, and maybe kill you. Our next three days would be fueled with Tibetan bread, lactic acid, exhilaration and tears. We hardly slept.
The two porters, that Robyn and Julie and I had hired to carry our packs, descended into the cellar at six next morning. They were late, but it was just as well, as we had to wait for the Israelis to finish their tsampa, before we could get ours. We had met them on the rock climb the previous day. They were reserved and a little withdrawn, and I could see how they could be taken advantage of by the less scrupulous. I remember reading an article in which a Bavarian climber had stated that his party ‘hadn’t suffered any losses, just one porter was killed.’ I remember how angry it made me feel, that the death of a porter was no loss at all. The greater loss is what had died inside the Bavarian while his porter lived. For a hundred rupees, ours would prevent the loss of one of us.
Thirty years after we trekked the epic ten glorious days to the base of the Thorang La, they built a dusty road to Manang over where our footprints used to be, cutting the time to two industrial days, and the Annapurna Circuit in half. The gain of eight days and three vertical kilometers, came in exchange for the livelihood of village tea houses, porters, guides and craftsmen on the way, trekker acclimatization and most important, their formation of an irrepressible emotional attachment to this land and its people.
But the death of a porter was no loss at all. Like arrows shot into the night.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Ocean of Milk 2


                   “This is closer to my own idea of freedom, the possibility and prospect of  
                    ‘free life’, traveling light, without clinging or despising, in calm
                     acceptance of everything that comes; free because with defenses, free
                     not in an adolescent way, with no restraints, but in the sense of the
                     Tibetan Buddhists’ ‘crazy wisdom’, of Camus’ ‘leap into the absurd’
                      that occurs within a life of limitations.”
                                                                Peter Mattiessen, The Snow Leopard

Julie and Robyn and John and I were on the trail by six next morning, armed with an egg, glug coffee, and a mental map of the cosmic Ocean of Milk. Every muscle complained, loudly with each step. We made our way down to the river where we encountered our first obstacle. The river. It was churning. A ford in our future. We only found out about the suspension bridge a little upstream and a lot too late.
The morning percolated through rice paddies, one we lost our direction in, and on, through a hot flat mudslog that finally dissolved us in a river swimming hole to cool down. We climbed up a hill and across another suspension bridge, for a lunch of good dhal bat in Bhote Oralo. When our energy caught up, we set off high, above and then through a tapering wooded gorge, and finally across another bridge, into the Wild West town of Phalesangu, mid-afternoon.
Along the narrow flagstone main street, with its raised rock slab sidewalk, were double stories of shuttered windows and eaves, overhanging a continuous line of grimy whitewashed buildings. The yellow sign announced our destination, Hotel Lila, no relation to the beauty parlor in Kat, or my mother. It was the first name on the Israeli inventory, and for three rupees, we took the only rooms. The only water was the town tap, back across the bridge, next to the thatch-covered woodpile.
Refreshed and drenched and stripped to my shorts, I squinted down at the Grand Prix of soap bubbles, slithering down into a stream under the holes in the rock, and up to find the glint off the gold earrings of two bashful Nepali sisters in colorful dresses, watching my every move with all three eyes. Their mother stood sideways with a coiled headscarf, half-amused, clutching her sickle. All three were serenely beautiful.
Later, writing by the light of a kerosene lamp, waiting for dhal bat at the Moti hotel, we greeted the tired Israelis on their arrival.
“Are you staying here as well?” The short stubby one asked. I told them we were staying at Hotel Lila. He told me it was the best place.
We were up again stiff and early the third day, hobbling past the old fortress palace of Gaonshahar to the west, two hundred years after its fall to the kukri knives of the Gorkkhas.
A steep descent had to be repaid with a near vertical climb, along a deep river gorge. Huge conifers hung off and onto the cliffs, like a battalion of green trolls, charging up the bluff while trying to keep their heads down. A tired old suspension bridge, over the Khudi Khola, groaned beneath us. The few tin and thatch roofed houses that lingered around its anchors was the Mongaloid Gurung village of Khudi.
A wizened bearded Gurkha captain, with a hard silver, coral and turquoise tobacco pouch hanging from his waist, tried to sell me his kukri. There was something very sad about a failing warrior having to sell the source of all his youthful pride and strength.
We tramped on in silence to Bhulebule, and a nice inn on the river. The Israelis wondered how we knew.
Views of Himalchuli on the horizon crossed a suspension bridge to the east bank, and past a two hundred foot waterfall, on the morning of the fourth day. Manaslu and Peak 29 followed us through the stone settlement of Ngadi and across the Ngadi Khola scrub forest, to the horseshoe villages of Lampata and Bahundanda, the ‘Hill of the Brahmins.’ Our boots took us down to Khane, and then high above the river, in and out of side canyons, across a suspension bridge to Syange and back to the west bank.
We climbed further above the winding torrent, on a terrifying trail carved into near vertical cliffs, where only thirty years earlier there had been just a series of wooden galleries, precariously tied to the face of the rock. Forests of rhododendron and pine and nettles and cannabis swallowed us on the other side until, later in the day, we emerged, hobbling, into Jagat, and a room for four in the barn. John found the chickens. The Israelis failed to materialize that night, and had obviously settled some other promised land, further back along the track.
They snuck around us, through the fifth morning, before we left. After a clamber back into mountain forest, up a rough rocky path, we emerged under a huge boulder that formed a tunnel over the trail. It seemed the only inhabitants beyond the steep ridges of the east bank of the Marsyandi were lizards and stinging nettles, until we entered a picturesque open plateau, to the foot of a large waterfall in Tal village. Where Tibetans once hunted musk deer for their aromatic animalic glands, was a broad valley of buckwheat and barley and potatoes, and stone walls and rough timber houses. We had penetrated into the lower Manang region.
A stone staircase on the other side of the valley took us towering above the Marsyandi, cresting on a spur. The trail undulated up and down through oak and rhododendron, and spruce and hemlock forest, forcing us into an ascent across a suspension bridge, and under a kani archway to Dharapani. A final burst over a trailspur and past five exhausted Israelis, brought us into the hamlet of Bagarchap, the first village with typically Tibetan architecture and feeling.
Most of the closely spaced stone houses had flat slate roofs piled high with firewood, and only a few had sloping shingles. There was a whitewashed gompa with Tibetan Buddhist paintings and statues. John and Julie and Robyn and I found the family memorialized on the Israeli road map. Their laundry hung like prayer flags. They offered us a room big enough for six in their three-sided courtyard. It was a good thing. It was bitter cold at dusk. The temperature continued to drop, even below the spirits of the Israelis who, when they arrived to find us warming ourselves with vegetable noodle egg soup, and the fire that had been their inspiration for getting up early, frosted over to a less commodious dwelling. They were beginning to wonder.
Day six had us now walking in rhythm with each other’s steps, west up the Manang valley, with views of the high Himalayan peaks of Lamjun and Annapurna II, through the trees to the east. Summited only twenty years before our view of it, Annapurna II was the eastern anchor of the range, five feet short of the over eight thousand club. In contrast, Manaslu, a hundred and fifty feet high than that, materialized as a dramatic backdrop to the pine and fir tree-filled valley. Our entire world became a horizontal striped flag of blue and white and green. The bright sun threw silver steam off the white peak.
We trekked along the mule track, in the oak forest near the river, climbing and descending amongst river-worn boulders to Kuparkodo village, in a meadow surrounded by pine and spruce. My left knee began to throb, a torn medial meniscus injury I had never done anything about. It was too late now. Robyn took my pack, and I hers. I was amazed how well she shouldered it, just one of the many amazing qualities I was discovering. Maybe it was those mountains that gave me the clarity. Maybe it was Destiny herself. Even with my lightened load, I still gradually fell behind the others.
A thunderous roar landed with a spinning behemoth on an outcrop around a corner. The helicopter pilot had jumped out of his cockpit to take photos of Lamjung and Annnapurna II and IV. We shared our different perspectives. He had just completed a medical evacuation, and was heading back to Kathmandu. Almost as an afterthought, remounting his beast, he turned and opened his door.
“Hey, you want a loaf of bread?”
“Sure.” I said. He tossed it out the door.
“Baked fresh in Kat this morning.” He said. And his rotors started turning. The loaf was in the top of Robyn’s pack before he was airborne. I limp lurched to catch up with my tribe.
We arrived in the settlement of Chame by early afternoon. John was the first to find the Israeli-favored accommodation, among the closely spaced stone dwellings. There were barking dogs and scurrying rats, the smell of woodsmoke, and far too many bones hanging from the rafters but, compared to the other choices, Ama and Tushi’s hovel was a solid five star Himalyan Hilton.
With plenty of time to unwind, we immersed our aching into a delicious bath, in the two small hot springs across the river. In my pack was a can of Canadian salmon, and one of baked beans. I opened them both, heated the contents of the second, and served them out with thick slabs of fresh sliced bread. We sat on the steps in the horizontal fading sun.
I looked up into the ten eyes of five wasted Israelis. You could see the trouble they were having, figuring this out.
“How did you know to stay here?” Asked the tall thin one.
“Why are you so clean?” Asked one of the girls.
“Hot springs.” I said, with my mouth full. It was rude.
“You have hot springs?” She wanted to know.
“What are you eating?” Asked one of the other girls.
“Salmon sandwiches.” Said Robyn. Frankly, I thought they would ask about the salmon. I think it’s because of what they could smell.
“Bread?” The last one, full interrogation mode. “Where did you get bread?” I had been waiting all day.
“Off the helicopter.” I said, chewing slowly.
“Helicopter. You have a helicopter?”
We continued to eat quietly. Some are more Chosen than others.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Ocean of Milk 1

                         “Pure heart is compared to the Himalayas, to the ocean of Milk, to a
                           chariot for the Divine.”
                                                                                                   Sri Sathya Sai Baba

Every culture has its legend of the origin of the species. In the Hindu creation myth, the nectar of immortal life came out of the churning of a cosmic Ocean of Milk. Gods and demons had each taken opposite ends of a gigantic serpent, wound him around Mandara Mountain, and pulled him back and forth in opposite directions, like a cosmic blender making a cosmic milkshake. The tug-of-war lasted a thousand years. When the milk ocean finally began to froth, the giant snake vomited a terrible poison, threatening to contaminate the sea of life. Shiva rushed to swallow it, but his consort, Pavarti, ran to choke him. Shiva’s throat turned blue forever. The Physician of the Gods, Dhanvantari, finally emerged from the Milky Way with a bowl containing the semen souply elixir, accompanied by the moon, Goddesses of Fortune, Misfortune, and Alcohol, a bevy of Apsara nymphs, a wish-granting divine cow, a white elephant, a divine 7-headed horse, the most valuable jewel in the world, holy basil, night-flowering jasmine (with blossoms that never faded or wilted), a powerful bow, a conch, an umbrella, a pair of earrings, and sloth. It must have been quite a party.
Our own rediscovery of immortal life began only after most other things had stopped churning. The Goddesses of Misfortune had become more fortunate, the Physician of the Gods had bought tickets on the chariot of the divine, and the moon faded behind us as approached the sharply rising mountains of the widening Seti Gandaki valley.
Until the completion of the Siddhartha highway, fifteen years before our bus pulled alongside the Phewa Tal shoreline, the two hundred kilometer trip to Pokhara had been only accessible by foot and mule caravan. It was still that beautiful green subtropical idyll when we arrived.
In no other place on Earth did mountains rise so quickly, from the bottomless canyons that the river had dug into the valley floor. Inside of thirty kilometers, the elevation soared from a thousand meters over seven times higher. With this sharp rise in altitude came four thousand millimeters of rainfall every year. Our year was no exception. It would be five days before the sky opened a hole big enough for us to walk through. Robyn and Julie and I walked our packs through an ocean of milk, looking for the Garden Guesthouse, another recommendation from Smiling Steve.
Finally, down a long muddy path, we found our family. The short Sherpa father sitting under the banana tree, wore a tall Dhaka topi cap, and a perpetual sunbeam, between his wingnut ears. Mother was thin and elegant with white dress and stone necklace, blue cummerbund, and a vermilion bindi to match her carmine shawl. She walked on air. Her four little girls smeared their own blood red dots on each other’s foreheads, as they flew by each other on their homemade swing set. Robyn helped bathe their baby brother in an aluminum bowl. We asked the name of their mongrel puppy.
“Dog.” Papa Wingnut replied. We called him ‘Rabies.’ As the drizzle turned to deluge, we piled further inside our rough brick and thatch lodging. Smiles and plates of dal bhat appeared under the eaves.
The next four days ran watercolors. We took guest house bikes uphill into town to cash travelers cheques, to pay for our trekking permits and gear. I bought a sweater, hat, gloves and socks, and rented boots and a compass. We met Thomas again without Tim, but with a new friend named Reine. We played chess over cake in the Babu, buffalo steak in the Cuckoo, and lemon meringue pie in the Swiss restaurants. But then we found Hungry Eye coconut pie, and our rainy day tournaments became serious. In the evening I played scrabble with the girls in the cozy comfort of our room at the Garden. On the 12th of October the downpour finally stopped, but it was too late in the day to start. Not so the next morning, though. Chasing angels or fleeing demons, go to the mountains.
Robyn was already up and packing at 5:30 am. Papa Wingnut had brought us a quick coffee, and we caught a slow bus to Dumre, where we forded the Nahala Khola, our first river of the trek.
“Namaste.” Rang out across the rice paddies, as we passed Newari smiles and hands folded in prayer. It was hard to maintain our balance and a consistent forward momentum with our loaded packs, on the hot mud paths between the wet terraces, especially when the Himalayan foothill backdrop wouldn’t let go of our eyes. We passed long thatched houses with covered annexes of stacked firewood. There were baskets everywhere.
Fluffy clouds and crisp-angled sunshine floated over green fountains of bamboo, mango and banana trees, and sal forest. A homemade ferris wheel hung ripe with kids. Mammoth banyan and pipal trees watched us from the side of the trail, offering occasional shade.
Our arrival in Turture, mid-afternoon, was drenched with sweat. We found the owner of the Nirjala Hotel, who opened up a dark crooked wooden room. I don’t know why we put our lock on the door, you could walk around the frame, but it made us feel more secure. We asked for a menu at the Beauty Hotel restaurant, up the stone path.
“Dal bhat.” He said. It was a geological epiphany. We had crossed the lemon meringue faultline. Across from us sat a Manchu moustache with coke bottle glasses, rolling a cigarette. He slid his tongue along it like he was playing a harmonica, and, firing up, exhaled with an extended hand.
“John.” He said. “Thunder Bay.”
“Wink.” I replied, shaking it. “Kenora.” We nodded like Northwestern Ontarians do, at snowmelt. We were going to travel together.
A group of five Israelis hunched over their diaries kitty-corner, clearing their throats like it was a form of speech. The tall thin one had been watching John and I, and started a conversation.
“Where are you staying tomorrow?” He asked.
“Dunno.” I said.
“You don’t know?” He asked, like Israeli’s ask when they’re not quite sure they heard right. “Why don’t you know?” He pulled his glasses down a bit.
“Do you know?” I asked.
“Of course I know.” He said, surprised I didn’t know he knew. And told me where they would stay. Of course.
“Where are you staying the day after?” He asked.
“Dunno.” I said.
“How can you not know?” He asked.
“How can you know?” I asked back. He told me they had this notebook, you see. From an Israeli friend who had just done the trek. Who wrote down the best place to stay in each village, on the twenty-day hike around the Annapurna Circuit. I told him I didn’t believe him. He showed me, but only for a moment.
My mother always boasted of my photographic memory.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Only Little Cholera 2

                                                “Rewards a long day's toil
                                                  Pulling into Katmandu
                                                  Smoke rings fill the air
                                                  Perfumed by a Nepal night
                                                  The Express gets you there”
                                                        Rush, A Passage to Bangkok

Kathmandu was named after an ancient three-storied temple in Durbar Square. Legend has it that it was built from a single tree, without any support. In Sanskrit, the structure was called Kasthamandap, or ‘wood-covered shelter.’
Tim and Thomas and I were looking for another, and we weren’t getting much support either. We had already been to the Kathmandu Guest House. The staff there finally found the note that Robyn and Julie had left me, indicating their relocation to the Om Guesthouse. The clerk at the Om said they had moved to the Earth House, so that’s where we headed. There's a one-eyed yellow idol to the north of Khatmandu,
There's a little marble cross below the town; There's a tender-hearted woman and I followed every clue,
And the Yellow God forever gazes down.
Julie met us on the stairs to tell me Robyn had been ill. We entered to find her still afflicted with the chip butty-resistant Varanasi strain of the flux. I pulled out my new stethoscope, and went to work.
“She’s got diarrhea, Wink.” Said Thomas. Tim just whistled.
“This never occurred to me.” He admitted.
“When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” I said.
Tim and Thomas agreed to meet us later, and I had a long shower, a game of Scrabble with Julie, and a successful search for antibiotics through Serendipity for Destiny. They had bought me a present of Bo tree leaves, to commemorate my return from the journey.
Tim and Thomas arrived in the rain, sharp on six, dragging a tall guy with a black beard, red baseball cap, blue t-shirt, and a Kashmiri leather bag in tow. It was my double, Neil, from Delhi, jazzed to have found us, a little despondent because Jan was laid up with dysentery. He said he knew a place, and we went.
Around the corner was a restaurant, named after a short novel, The Ascent of Rum Doodle, written by W.E. Bowman in 1956. It was a parody of the story of the first ascent of Annapurna. Sir Hugeleley Havering led an expedition to Yogistan, in an attempt to climb Rum Doodle, the world’s highest mountain (elevation 40,000 and ½ feet). The exploration’s physician, appropriately named ‘Prone,’ endured a never-ending series of illnesses. Everyone in our company had also experienced, or was still afflicted with, some form of enteric pestilence or another. We were all in dire need of a safe ingestion site in a stare-free environment for one special evening. Rum Doodle, despite its extreme elevation, or because of it, decorated with pictures from the book, was a staging point for expeditions to Everest, and for us, the end of the Indian famine. There were buffalo steaks and chips and salad, and mile-high apple pie.
Later, back in the warmth and wood and Japanese lanterns of the Earth House, we had a traveler’s jam session, with all the songs that had led us here. And there was Neil’s shaggy dog rendition of the falling sky, starring Chicken Little, Cocky Locky, Ducky Daddles, Goosey Loosey, Turkey Lurkey, and Foxy Woxy. And they went along, and they went along, and they went along... There was better family for some than we had left, in the congenial kinship of the open road. Despite the wee hours fatigue, Tim was right: ‘They happen only rarely like this.’ We had become the Rum Doodle Society. No one could have taken the minutes from our meeting. Mosquitoes whined, dogs howled, roosters crowed. We slept.
The twisted dusty streets of Thamel threw that high altitude sun square into our faces next morning. The air smelled of freeze-dried shit at altitude. Our eyes squinted up at ornate carved wooden windows and multistoried temple roof struts. Kabuki cartoon eyes, with sinuous eyebrows, watched our every move. Instead of noses, under each third eye of the Buddha, was a corkscrewed question mark, actually the Nepali character for unity, symbolizing the one way to reach enlightenment, through the Buddha's teachings. It is the loneliest number, is it not? Pigeons and cows intermingled with images of gods and goddesses. The benign benevolence of elephant-faced Ganesh looked across to the blood red drippings from the teeth of the larger-than-death Durga bas-relief, with her six arms, potbelly, and fierce compassion. Tantric demons peered at us from masks and shop calendars. Among the monastic courtyards, pagodas and palaces, in this Hindu and Buddhist mélange promise of paradise, tourism was extruded as the third religion. Out of bulging storefront entrances issued enticements, of intricate thangka paintings, carved sculptures, mixed metal bracelets and other jewelry, Tibetan carpets, tall Nepali caps, shawls, Balinese jackets, beads, puppets, bags, herbs, prayer wheels, T-shirts, incense, and posters. One proprietor gave me one that wasn’t actually on sale, an advertisement for a nearby establishment, just down from Lila’s Beauty Parlor.

                                      ‘Let Us Take Higher
                                       Oldest & Favorite Shop in Town
                                       Serving you the Best Nepalese Hash & Ganja
                                       (Available Wholesale and Retail)
                                       Come Visit Us Any Time for All your Hashish Needs’
                                                       Eden Hashish Centre, Prop. D.D. Sharma

For if one didn’t have time for more formal lessons in enlightenment, the option of instant mind expansion was also available. And that indulgence would be guaranteed to stimulate the search for the perfect lemon meringue paradise in Freak Street’s Pie Alley. For all your hashish needs.
After I took Jan to the hospital and found her amoebas, Tim and I bicycled out the south side of the Bagmati River, to the third century Mallan city of Patan. Inside the bamboo scaffolding, and along its powdery streets, were over a thousand medieval monuments, Hindu temples and Buddhist vihars and royal palaces, with exotically carved gateways and windows, especially in the main Durbar Square. Witch doctor Jhankris, with their drums and feather hats, had come to bathe under the spouted conduits of the stone water tanks. We returned to play a late afternoon chess tournament with Neil, and an evening of enchilada experimentation at KCs.
By this time, Robyn and Julie and I had decided on a trek, and had chosen the Annapurna Circuit, out of Pokhara.
We purchased seats on the Swiss bus for the morrow, and spent the last day in Kat cycling the eleven kilometers out to Bodhnath, one of the most ancient and largest spherical stupas in existence. It had been constructed by the four sons of Jajima, an apsara in her previous life, but the wife of four unlucky men in this one. Each of her sons was from a different father, a horse trader, a pig trader, a dog trader, and a poultry trader, in that order. She had worked her way down the matrimonial menu.
The stupa the sons built ascended from earth to water to fire to air to space, up through the thirteen rings on the path to enlightenment. Om Mani Padme Hum was carved on the prayer wheels. Thousands of multicolored prayer flags tied to the top, like structural and spiritual supports on a microwave tower, fluttered in the wind, carrying mantras and prayers heavenward. It made perfect sense. Because that’s where we were going.