Pushing my bike in the Himalaya
My sense of time/chronology has never been particularly good or accurate. Especially when traveling, l rarely have any idea what day of the week, month, or sometimes even year it is. So while l was aware it was winter, it’s not very surprising l had no sense of when the big winter holydays were. It happened that l was wandering the street (there is only one, but it is long) of Sallerie looking for denatured alcohol (also known as rubbing alcohol, methylated spirits, and in latin america simply as alchol (usually not denatured)) to fuel my (homemade) stove on december 25th, when l was alerted to that fact by a hindu shopkeeper’s daughter (complete with thilkia or bhindi on her forehead) who wished me a “happy christmas.” I smiled and wished her a merry one, before doing a sort of mental double take, and wondering if it was indeed christmas day.
My pocket computer concurred, and l was disappointed to realize that being 12 hours off of california time, l had missed my opportunity to phone the family christmas gathering. So l sent a round of emails and made my way back to my hotel (the town was dry of denatured alcohol) where l was almost immediately befriended by a group of well-to-do Nepalis, who were three sheets to the wind, drinking gin and hot water. It turned out that they were doctors at the mission hospital in nearby Okaldunga and were on some sort of christmas holiday vacation (due to the christian nature of their employer). They were educated (which here also means english speaking) intelligent (drunk) and wanted to talk about religion. So l spent my christmass drinking (terrible) gin in hot water (which didn’t improve the flavor) and talking about religion, and tolerance, and such until the wee hours of what turned out to christmas eve on the other side of the planet.
I knew that were about 12hrs apart, but my concern with/sense of time is such that l neglected to consider, how that affected the date. So when the internet started working around midday, l received a flurry of messages, informing me that ‘l was living in the future’ and today was christmass in california. Naturally timing was such that l still missed the family gathering, but managed to call and talk to a large percentage of my family — two christmases are better than one anyway. I bought some diesel fuel (for my stove — and a sardine can to use if that worked better) and peanut butter — and rode out of town, pleasantly surprised to find that the first bit was a road (or at least the sort of jeep track that qualifies as a road around here) which turned into a trail when it reached a ridge, both of which were totally rideable.
A trend which continued all the way to Buddhidada, where the trail literally plunged off a cliff down the precipitous stone stairs that the trails in this part of the world are rightly famous for. The last bit coming into town was quite steep, and rocky, and narrow, just on the edge of rideable for me and my bike. The passive suspension provided by my fat tyres make monster-trucking over this kind of jumbled loose rock doable, but it’s still difficult, and sometime you just have to hold on and hope you don’t get bucked off (the cliff). So though it was still early in the day, i decided to stay in the last lodge in town right on the edge of the cliff where the trail tumbled over and abutting a ruined stone temple (which was evidently still in use). The proprietor who was young enough to be as-of-yet childless, and his friend a government health worker (from the plains on the other side of the country) quickly recruited me to hang out with for the rest of the day. And seeing as they accounted for approximately 90% of the english spoken in town, l didn’t really have any other choice any way.
I was invited to have some toungba (the doctor not being from a culturally tibetan part of the country declined) so l sat around sipping fermented barley tea. And answering the Nepali question set. Countries/cultural groupings shape the thinking of their constituents, such that for any given place/group there will be a fairly consistent set of questions that occur when confronted by me and my various eccentricities. Everywhere in the world l get asked about my tyres and my lifestyle, but in Nepal they are particularly curious about my feet and marital status. Around here if you’re not married, and procreating by 30, something is wrong — which from a sociologist’s perspective makes sense. This rural agrarian society, has a relatively short life expectancy, strong family values, and not much in the way of entertainment, so the more babies the better, in most people’s opinion. The shoe thing l find more confusing.
Not least because the shoe of choice around here is the cheapest rubber flip flop imaginable. Which as far as l can tell mostly serve to make walking on steep rocky trails more difficult — and certainly don’t do much for cleanliness or protection. But judgements about the quality/utility of the prevalent footwear nonwithstanding, there is still the fact that everyone removes their shoes inside, despite the fact that the floors are often mud — well swept to be sure, but mud none the less — and even more importantly, there is a living generation of people here whose feet have never known footwear. To be sure they are great grandmothers and fathers mostly, and coming to the end of this incarnation — but they are around, and no one so much as blinks at their feet.
The best l can come up with is it is a manifestations of the poverty-conscious conspicuous-consumption which is a driving cultural force here. As it was explained to me, its only in the last 10 years that luxury items like watches and radios have come within reach of the general population (thanks to importation of cheap chinese goods). So porters who make 3 – 5$us a day all carry smart phones (but buy minutes 50cents at a time) mostly to play music with as they carry their loads along grueling trails. And ragged grubby kids have t-shirts that proclaim things like “iphone” and “steve jobs.” All of which seems odd to me — which means the cultural gap goes both ways. And l guess its not too surprising that people who see status/success in terms of certain symbolic possessions, might have a hard time understanding voluntary shoelessness, since l could surely afford some really fancy shoes.
In any case these particular companions were worldly enough, to ask the burning questions only once, accept my clearly unsatisfactory answers — and move on to tell me about themselves, their paths and aspirations. A change so pleasant that when they informed me that tomorrow was to be a christmas celebration by the local christians, and urged me to stay l said yes without a thought. At which point we went to dinner at his parents house (it seemed his young wife didn’t like to cook very much) where they were making momos in my honor. So we 3 generations at least sat around the main room of the house on the polished mud floor, while the matriarch made steamed dumplings over a fire in the middle of the floor. And stopped by a construction site on the way back (the workers were camped in front to the large house they were building) where they seemed to be celebrating something — whether it was the days work, or something more profound l’m not sure. The apprentice carpenters were dumping large piles of wood shavings on the fire with great concentration (every board is both hand sawn, and planed around here) while the builder danced by himself around the fire singing along with gusto to songs emanating from someones ‘mobile.’
The christmas event was set to begin at 9 or so in the morning, but my hosts assured me l didn’t want to be there all day — which l knew to be true — so the plan was for me to spend the day at the clinic, where l gathered things were usually quite slow, so we would have plenty of time to hang out and talk and eat the oranges, which being in season, every patient brought as gifts. As it turned out an old woman with a nose-ring like an inverted pineapple, which hung over her mouth and rested on a shiny spot on her chin, was ill enough to require more or less constant attention/supervision. So l sat in the sun and watched the local kids try to ride my bike (one of their number had asked politely — and knowing full well what l was getting into — l said yes). Actually it was pretty surprising how many of them knew how to ride a bike — l don’t think there was another bicycle for at least a hundred miles in any direction. Until 3 oclock when the clinic closed. By which time l had cut the kids off (when it became clear that they would never tire of circling the school house — the only flat spot in town) and turned my attention to a cool book called “where there are no doctors” belonging to the clinic’s library. Eventually we were free to go, and made our way toward ‘christmas.’
Which turned out to be something like an old time ‘camp meeting’ but with an asian flavor. A large temporary structure of bamboo had been erected and covered with a collection of blankets, tarps and woven mats. Inside there was a ‘stage’ area and an audience. On stage there was a choir complete with battery powered electric keyboard and a preacher with a microphone. All of which was surrounded by a semicircle of well dress older men all wearing the official Nepali hat, and a white offering/welcoming scarf around their necks. In front of this assemblage on blankets and mats arranged more or less in lines was an assemblage of what l assumed to be the devout — more or less paying attention as the preacher droned on. Little kids dressed in their finest clothes to whom no one seemed to be paying any attention, ran in all directions, passing in and out of the tent area through the walls, even occasionally on stage. To one side of the tent meeting there was a kitchen set up, where enormous quantities of dal bat were being prepared in cauldrons over several fires. And ringing the scene were knots of onlookers, watching the goings on with idle curiosity, unless something more interesting came along.
I was headed toward the (mostly) free lunch, when a portly, and distinguished looking gentleman more or less dragged us (the doctor and l) into the tent, and after some bowing and namasteing, and being welcomed with white scarfs, we were escorted on stage into the ring of chair two having been mysteriously vacated. So l sat, included, but not part of, a religious service in a language l didn’t understand. Eventually the preacher (who was also the keyboard player) stopped talking — the audience perked up, and started singing what were clearly hymns, though not any l recognised. After a few songs, my friend the doctor decided we had stayed long enough to be respectful, we stood up and without adou wandered away. He headed back to the lodge, and l to the outdoor kitchen. Stomach growling, since l had had nothing but a cup of tea and some oranges all day.
For some reason they don’t eat breakfast in this country. Everyone has some tea, butter, or salt, or sugar — with or without milk, black pepper and or other spices — depending on local custom, or their means. But though they get up before dawn, a couple cups of tea is all they consume untill 10:30 – 12:00 depending on household/work schedule. When everyone eats dal bat the national food, which consists of a pile of white rice, a bowl of watery lentil soup, and one or more curried dishes, vegetarian or otherwise. The only Nepali l have seen eat something more substantial in the morning are the sherpa, who often prepare chang (cloudy barley beer) and mixing it with some tsampa flour into a thin porridge (on one occasion — the elderly woman who lived on top of salpa pass — l saw some one add cold rice to the mix). So the sherpa at least weren’t confused when l asked for food in the morning — which l did whenever possible, for l am a consummate breakfast eater. Most important meal of the day and all that.
I never did try the chang drink, but l had alot of tsampa porridge — usually served as a bowl full of dried powder, which you mix with tea in what ever proportion you prefer. It has a pleasant nutty flavor, being roasted barley flour, and fulfilled my desire for breakfast fairly well. But in non sherpa areas, the only thing available at ‘such an early hour’ of the morning, was instant ramen — which in my opinion doesn’t count as food. So l usually opted to wait as patiently as possible for lunch, ingesting too much tea (which l don’t even really like — though sucha or butter tea is pretty good, having as it does, butter and tsampa flour in it for some substance) and becoming more and more ‘hangry’ until food (the word is synonymous with rice here) is served. At which point l overeat one (dubious) virtue of dal bat is that it is almost always all you can eat. All of which adds up to a bloated late start, and is part of the reason l prefer camping/cooking for myself.
By the time l made it back to the hotel from my extremely late breakfast, l found most of the young men of the town there, gambling at cards — playing some (to me) incomprehensible form of poker, with great concentration. Wining and losing great sums of money (at least from the perspective of someone who earns at most 3$ a day). I watched for a while,trying to figure out how exactly the game worked — until the chain smoking drove me out. Then I worked on my bike, and sipped whiskey (with the doctor) as long as l could, before pointing out that they were in my bedroom, and l’d like to get some sleep. With one last game they sheepishly filed out, and l settled in for the night, doubling an extra blanket underneath me (the blankets are usually thicker than the mattresses). And so ended my third Nepali christmass.
I got my standard late start on the first day of what would turn out to be more than a week of pushing and carrying my bike over grueling terrain. So difficult and relentless that l removed my left pedal (to facilitate pushing) and wore my foot-gloves so l could focus exclusively on my bike and the rocks/trail, without having to consider my feet and their placement. So it was due more to exhaustion than intention that l ended up in Bung, for the annual rai (actually l don’t think it was rai — but l can’t remember which caste) new years festival. A three day event alot like a county fair. The fair grounds was at other times someone’s rice field, and like all fields in this extremely vertical corner of the universe, was terraced. The fair had several levels, each with a 4 or 5 foot drop between (with no stairs or other provision for ascending/descending, people being so used to such things) People the whole district was coming to the biggest part of the year, so all the hotels were full, and the fair grounds was crowded with bamboo huts offering food and drink. I was feeling antisocial, so l probably would have visited the fair at all, except that my hostess was busy making donuts to sell at the fair, (deep frying them one by one in a wok) so it was clear that dinner wouldn’t be ready for a while, so l ventured out into the growing dark to see what sort of entertainment was to be had. I had barely reached the grounds when l was accosted by a group of young trekking guides (who spoke english and lived in kathmandu) one of whom l had met in Buddhidada. They enthusiastically invited me to join them in the shortest toungba drinking session l have ever witnessed. It was, here you go — drink up — we’re going dancing in five min.
And so it was, we made our way through the patchy darkness, down a couple of levels to the stage, which despite being in the dark was crowded with seemingly random people (perhaps it was just a good place to sit). In front of the stage there was a sort of coral, with some tarps laid out on the ground inside. Which turned out to be the dance floor. When we arrived the music had jsut started so our crew was alone inside the dance cage for a while. The music was the same nepali pop that every one in the country seems to listen to. One of the interesting (to me) aspects of ‘traditional’ rural, family focused societies, l have visited, is that music is transgenerational, and their are practically no sub-cultures. The party was being “dj-ed’ by an ancient dell laptop, with evidently pirated songs — the tracks were full glitches and pops and missed bits, in mono through a speaker set on the ground. And while love to dance, l wouldn’t normally have been inspired to do so by the music or the situation — fortunately one of my companions, a fellow by the name of Ram, the only nepali l have met with an afro, seemed born to dance. And what with his adidas track suit and disco moves — it was infectious.
So I danced the night away, much to the delight and curiosity of the un-dancing crowd outside the cage, as the corall filled up becoming a strange sort of circle pit. Everyone male, dressed to the nines, a head shorter than me (except for Ram and his afro) and singing along while jostling quickly in clockwise circle. Eventually it was so packed inside the cage that dancing was out of the question, so our crew retired to one of the many booths for some special local version of chang. Served in bowls, it was even more chunky and unappetizing than usual — and l quickly discovered why, it seemed to have bits of rotten egg floating in it, and much more sour than usual. With everyone watching to see how l was enjoying their local delicacy, did the only polite thing, and drank it down in one go, leaving just a bit in the bowl so l could refuse refills by saying l was full. Sensing it was about dinner time, having had my fill of the fair l slipped away, and headed for ‘home.’ Discovering a human powered, wooden ferris-wheel on the way.
Everyone enjoined me to stay another day at the fair, citing enticing attractions like singing and dancing contests — but party pooper that l am, one day of new years was enough for me. And carrying my bike through the himalaya sounded like more fun — and besides l was only half way to the nearest road, with a 4000m pass ahead, and the promise of some riding on the way down. To my chagrin, Salpa pass wasn’t interest in giving me any presents, for christmas or otherwise. Except snow and the steepest cobblestone side-walk ever. Sort of like the yellow brick road except nearly vertical, with almost 3000m of drop. So it took 5 more days of pushing, and carrying to reach the paved! road in Tumling tar. Where l spent several days doing nothing except entertaining the local kids and trying to type on a computer without an ‘E’ key. Vowing to folow main roads for a while when l left, in hopes of letting my bike carry me, rather than visa versa — for awhile at least. A promise l promptly broke. Or mabey it was just my sense for time — one day on pavement balancing out a month and a half of bike pushing?