And the sign at the airport still reads: “Visitors are allowed: Cigarettes-200 sticks; cigars-50 sticks; alcoholic liquor- no more than one bottle; one binocular; one movie camera films 12 rolls; one tape recorder with 15 tape reels or cassettes; one perambulator; 10 disk records; one tricycle; one stick; and one set of fountain pens.”
Nepal is a land that had always been on my list. For years it had tempted and tourmented me. Everything about a place that you hear of, but that no one really knows anything of, just sounded like magic. How many people do you know that have been there? Exactly. Need I say more?
Years ago I had made plans to spend a semester abroad there. I had hoped that it would afford me the kind of time to unlock some of her mysteries. However, at said time the Moaists decided they needed to mix things up a bit and I was swayed to let it rest for awhile.
Of course the Himalayas were always on my mind, but I could never find the chance to go until I moved to Korea. One of the fine hobbies that a traveler develops is spending their free time trying to figure out what it would cost to land somewhere off the map. Turns out, Seoul to Kathmandu is pretty reasonable. And just like that, this rust belt boy had found his way.
Knowing I had to get to Nepal was easy. Knowing what to do from there was quite hard. Though a small country, it is as diverse as they come. Within her borders you’ll find the highest peaks, and jungle safaris. No easy choice. Thankfully a friend had issued me a challenge. That tends to resolve most problems in my world.
Upon hearing of my impending trip, an old travel buddy shared a story of her time in Nepal. It seemed she had lived on a coffee farm high in the mountains outside of Pokhara. It sounded like a magical place, one that had become her home and that she still thinks of often. At the end of her story she mentioned that the woman who had looked after her was about to have a birthday, and that it would mean the world to her if I could deliver a gift. Clearly I was curious and asked to know more. Turns out those were the details. Everything else would depend on some savvy navigation and a bit of luck. Clearly this had to be done!
Quickly I began to set myself up for the adventure ahead. I found the quickest route to Pokhara (a 30 minute flight from Kathmandu) to ensure that scheduling would not be the reason to fall short on my promise. From there I would set out. My directions consisted of a name, and little more than, “take a couple of buses before getting another bus into the mountains, from there, get off and keep going up.” However it was the rainy season and most of my roads would be dirt. I had no idea if any of this would be possible, even with GPS directions. (I would later find that this place was really on no map, let alone a GPS.) Considering the weather I developed a plan B, though that was just as vague.
Upon arriving in Pokhara, I rendezvoused with a friend from Korea who happened to be passing through. Over coffee I explained my quest. While watching her eyes grow wider with each word I had the feeling she would be along for the journey. That night, we ate at a small place on the banks of Phewa Tal. We could not see the mountains, but were still in awe of them. There is no feeling like only knowing adventure is ahead, nothing else. No plans. No details. Just adventure.
The next morning, in my haze I went to pull the curtains in our room to find this staring back. It was the first time I had seen them. I still cannot describe it, but I knew something good was about to happen.
After breakfast we set fourth. One bus after another, the city slowly melted away and the mountains, somehow, grew larger. It was no small task trying to find which bus was which, but after awhile you just start to follow your gut and see where you land. Before we knew it, we were in the heart of Bagnas Tal. A Small village at the foot of the mountains. I was told there would be a bus leaving from here. There was not.
We waited for a bit, wondered the two streets in town, and still no sign. We asked what we could, where we could, but nothing. Just as it seemed the end of the line had been reached, a giant Soviet made bus came lurching down the hill. It was covered in mud, and people. Our ride had arrived.
Still not knowing if this was the route to take, we boarded the bus and waited to see what would happen. I contemplated riding on the roof. Once we started the ascent, I was grateful to have opted against.
It had rained heavily the day before and the road showed it. It’s one muddy lane rounded curves up the mountain with sheer cliffs on one side or the other. At certain points we would dance around another bus or a cow or two. Other times, our driver would simply let the bus slide around curves or dangle at 60 degree angles to keep momentum. If i can ever afford a driver, I’m hiring him. With fear in her eyes, Frederique (my friend) noted she had never seen anything like it. In truth, I had not either. I did not tell her that. Instead, I told her it was just like this road or that in countries I had been to before. Perhaps it helped.
During our ascent a conversation was struck up with the man sitting next to me. His English was good and he seemed to know of our final destination. We had our guide. Soon, he would show us exactly where to get off and where to begin our hike. He was very kind, and happy to help. He stuck with us for a long leg of the trip, though he would eventually prove too damn well at ease with the terrain for our weak western lungs. After a valiant effort we had to separate, more to save face than anything. It was clear our frequent rest stops were wearing on him.
Despite the shame of having to rest often, it did yield some rewards. Stopping for a breath here is never a bad idea.
At long last, we had wound our way near to the summit of our mountain. Several people had pointed us higher until I stopped to question an older man one more time. “Adihikari Coffee,” I asked. He smiled wide and simply said,”that’s me!” Finally, we were home.
He led us down a path to his house. Still smiling bright, he introduced us to his wife, the woman I had been sent to find. We were to call them Aama and Bua and we would be known as Sister and Baboo. Before I could even explain why we were there, we were ordered to stay with them. More than once I tried to dig out her gift from my pack, but was always interrupted by a conversation or some fresh Chai tea.
Here we found life to be beautiful, and simple. Our hosts, whom I now consider family, live in a traditional mud and rock house that had been built nearly 100 years before by Buas grandfather. He was born there, and is determined to die there. Our room was upstairs. It had two wooden beds and open windows. We slept over the goats.
Our days were spent lounging and working, though it was hard to tell them apart. The social place was the porch. The entire village would pass through. Some to talk, others to work. Aama and Bua were clearly the paternal figures of the village and we were happy to be among them. On this porch we would talk about life, theirs and ours. All of the food preperation was done there and and most meals would spill out from the kitchen. (I will die before I find words to describe how good the food was.) It was wonderful to sit there at night under the soft light, when there was power, or to wake to the sounds of Buas meditation in the morning. And it was on that very porch that I would set up shop as the village doctor.
Every chance was taken to be part of things. If it was helping cook dinner, churning the yogurt or clearing the damage from the rains, nothing was missed. Before long, my small first aid kit had earned me the title of doctor. People would wonder down to the porch to show me their wounds. I did the best I could to patch things up with some bandages and neosporin. Aama was endlessly grateful. She explained to me these were the first signs of medicine they had seen in months. I left them everything I had.
Sadly our time with Aama and Bua was limited. We only had 2 days to spend, but not a moment felt wasted. Our conversations were real and deep. It was a true honor to sign their book of visitors. We came to find that the names and faces in the book were not of people passing through, but of their ever-growing family. A fmaily we were now a part of. Aama had taken note that I was sick at the time, and treated me like any mother would. She scolded me, “Baboo, you should be resting!” Then she made me tea with fresh honey.
On the morning we were to leave, Aama told us that she would be heading down to the city as well, to shop for the farm. It was good to know we would have a few more hours to spend. Before heading off, Bua placed bindi’s on our foreheads for a safe journey and sent us on our way. Aama held Frederique’s hand for most of the walk down.
The rest of our time in Nepal was full, yet never felt the same. We would come to find that no one in Nepal seems to like the city. Everyone loves to ask where you’ve been. Upon telling them of the farm, they would all say it was the REAL Nepal, and always with a tone of longing.
Kathmandu is a special place. Beautiful and exciting. The 8 hour drive back is a fitting build-up(keep in mind that 30 minute flight I referenced earlier, welcome to the mountains). But it speaks very little to the total aura of the country.
Nepal is somehow different from everything else. It sucks you in. Everything about it bleeds adventure yet makes you feel at home. People do not go for quick trips. At customs, they accept answers with “-ish” attached. For those looking to get lost, it is ok to not have words. You are not the first, you will not be the last. If danger is your middle name, it is a country where the bold are respected and idolized, even in great poverty.
At it’s simplest, the tourism board’s slogan for Nepal is, “Once is never enough.” They got it right.
(Photos courtesy of Frederique Huard Vanasse)