My plan to escape a possible bus crash in Nepal was met with laughter. If we had to wait much longer, we’d save time by walking, I explained to Jess and Bimala. Then later, if the bus passed us, we could just hop back on. Brilliant idea, right? Instead, we waited an hour until the traffic dispersed. When the chain of cars and trucks dissolved on the snaky Himalayan road it was time to get back on the bus.
Weary rooftop passengers, including Jess and me, squealed as the bus flew up and down rocky terrain. Our nerves were shot, our bodies were sore; we were all exhausted from fighting not to fall off the bus for seven hours.
Relief washed over me when we finally made it to the trekking gateway town of Dhunche. Despite the trash on the ground, I was ready to kiss the earth.
We spent an hour looking for a guesthouse that didn’t resemble our lovely lodging in Tirsuli and eventually came across some digs that sufficed, i.e.: they weren’t filthy and home to various species of bugs and critters. Hotel Langtang View even made claims of hot water (which it certainly didn’t have), and offered a stunning view of Langtang peaks from its rooftop patio.
From the market across the street we bought some warm Nepali beer and took a seat at a table outside our guesthouse. Jess and I each poured out some of our frothy beverage into a mug for Bimala, who, we quickly discovered doesn’t drink, ever, and can’t handle alcohol in the least.
This would be the first of a few instances in which Bimala got drunk, revealing her half-alarming/half-hilarious Bimala-isms, which were mostly stereotypical outlooks on different ethnicities of people. Here are just a few of them:
“Russian women are prostitutes; they really are actually. They are different category woman. They like sex too much.”
“Russian men, very sneaky.”
“Israeli women are very naughty. They don’t like you to talk to their boyfriends.”
“Israeli boys are very nice.”
Jess and I couldn’t believe our ears. This woman was an alleged mountain guide interacting with travelers from all over the world, yet she lacked even the slightest bit of social decency or cultural sensitivity.
The next morning Jess was feeling ill and could only stomach a piece of toast for breakfast despite the long day of trekking that lied ahead. Her symptoms would only worsen throughout our strenuous first day hiking in the foothills of the Himalayas with very little water.
On this first day we would encounter, and run from, angry bulls on the trail; sip sugary, milky Nepali tea at a few mid-mountain teahouses (well, I would at least, while Jess sat quietly in pain) and get a little closer to some of the towering Langtang peaks. Much to our delight, we also met up with some of our friends from the bus ride.
Scenes from the trail, day 1
When we arrived, after about eight hours of uphill hiking, to the tiny mountain village of Sing Ghompa (elevation 11,483 feet), host to a few lodges, one Buddhist temple, a yak cheese factory and Hotel Sherpa, the sun was descending behind coniferous-dotted peaks, leaving in its place a chilly, vaporous sky. Our packs feeling much heavier than they did at the beginning of the day, Jess and I collapsed on the wooden chairs scattered on Hotel Sherpa’s veranda.
Milling about on the veranda in neon puffy coats and Crocs were a few unwelcoming faces – preoccupied trekkers in their 20s and 30s speaking French, German and Flemish. My smile was greeted with looks of indifference. Well, at least the sign at Hotel Sherpa was welcoming.
Nailed to Hotel Sherpa’s façade was another wooden sign advertising an unexpected surprise: a solar shower. It would be the only shower and working bathroom on the entire trek.
A meager stream plastered my sticky hair to my head. Aware that water is a prized commodity in this high alpine locale, I hastily rubbed soap on my skin. I didn’t get very clean in the wooden, cobwebbed shower. But the warm water on my angry muscles was sedating.
Despite the icy stares, I joined Jess, who sat with wet hair and a lingering smile left over from her shower, on the front veranda while a group of Nepali boys wearing wool hats shouted at burly horses they were trying to break. “Yaw!” Back and forth, back and forth, they paraded the young horses in front of us, slapping them hard on their sides.
Jess wrote in her journal while I sat intrigued, gazing at the young boys and their horses. What must life be like for them, I wondered, living on this isolated mountaintop, unable to communicate with the hordes of trekkers exploring their backyard? Did they go to school of some sort? Were they destined to be guesthouse owners or mountain guides? I decided their minimalist mountain lives were probably a little happier than the lives led by city kids in the West, obsessed with scoring material possessions; glued to ipads, iphones and video games.
That evening, after I annihilated a plate of pasta and vegetables and Jess – whose condition continued to decline – donated her pasta to the young Israeli men, a fire coughed and crackled in the wood stove. I scooted closer to the heat, a mason jar of mystery liquid in my hand. The hazy libation stung my throat as I fought to choke it down. After my first punishing day trekking, I was desperate for a buzz. Sitting across the fire from me was a stout sherpa named Ima. His white teeth gleamed as he belted a Nepalese country song, raising his glass of rakshi in the air. Haunting and beautiful, his voice brought a few of us closer to the fire to reflect on why we were there.
But despite our seemingly similar goals and interests, many that evening in the balmy dining room of Hotel Sherpa were keeping to themselves. To Ima’s right sat an attractive, snooty French couple, which Jess and I encountered at a mid-mountain teahouse earlier that day. I remembered thinking how aloof the two had been and wasn’t thrilled to meet again. Over by the windows a trio from Germany, two lanky men and an ivory skinned woman, was playing backgammon, while a Belgian couple outfitted in the latest techy apparel sat quietly in the corner, sipping tea and surveying the crowd. Dennis and his friend, who Jess and I had met on our death defying bus ride the day before, sat beside us, while some young Israeli men sitting at a nearby table clapped to Ima’s chants.
As we gathered closer around the fire with the weary contentment that can only come from physical exhaustion, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed. Here we were in the middle of nowhere, deep in the foothills of the Himalayas, with no electricity, no technology, no distractions, yet all of these different people traversing on the same path were completely closed off from one another. As if he had read my mind, Dennis disappeared from the dining room for a few minutes returning with the guitar case he’d been lugging through the mountains. As he started strumming, one of the guesthouse employees, a cheery 20-something Nepali, brought a guitar out and joined him. Soon, the French man was playing, too. They quickly established a formula: one person would play a song and the other two, whether they knew the song or not, would try and play along. And with each new score, the mood in the room shifted. Registering a faint smile, the French woman moved closer to the fire as her companion got deeper into song; the Belgians softened their stares, making eye contact with other travelers. The Germans turned away from their game, clapping their hands and the Israelis moved giddily around the room; Jess looked relieved and I felt lighter.
Some heavy feelings of familiarity and gratitude took hold of me when one of the guitarists began playing “Hey Jude.” I guess the song had a similar effect on everyone else because upon the chorus:
“Nah nah nah nah nah nah, nah nah nah hey Jude,”
all of the weary trekkers opened their mouths and erupted into song. And for a few moments we were on the journey together, singing in unison to The Beatles, repeating the chorus over and over again.
That we needed a song from popular culture to come together might be a sad commentary on the human race, on our dwindling communication skills. Or it might just be that some music, particularly that which contains messages of hope and optimism – like that of The Beatles, deeply resonates with all kinds of people and reminds us of our greater purpose.
And then, the song was over, and just as quickly as we had come together, everyone retreated back to their posts and I went to bed a little more hopeful of the journey ahead.