At least its paved. Though you might be forgiven for thinking such was not the case if you close your eyes and attempt a nap. It’s not uncommon to be thrown out of your seat and to be airborne. I watch the face of the driver in his rearview mirror when that happens – the squeals from the back of his van trigger a broad grin across his tanned face.
We cleared Kathmandu after a twenty minute scramble through the suburbs. If our walk through Thamel was an eye opener (and it was) then this trip through the suburbs is doubly so. A massive contrast to anything at home – it’s hard to know where to begin. Burning rubbish smoulders in the gutters after sweepers have coaxed it into heaps of dampness. Beggars. Bright yellow sari covering perfect poise climbing stairs. Teenagers dressed like teenagers do, off to school in mobs, jiving and jinking on their way. A chip and water seller jumping at our window – all of eight years old. We decline and he shames us with a bright smile and a ’thankyou’ as he waves us off, then a ‘have a good day’ before he bounces off to the next window. Sweet sellers. Brass plumbing fixture sellers. Young girl with a baby on her back. Those Chinese tractors growling around. Crumbling buildings. Impressive buildings. Laundry on the roadside drying. Other laundry being washed under water points or in bowls. Tata trucks by the bazillion belching black smoke. Some of them are rusty wrecks. Others are beautifully decorated, often with little sayings of inspiration and self help. Mangy dogs are everywhere. They are easily the most ubiquitous animal here. Young man abluting at a communal tap. Mango sellers, with a wire frame mounted on a bicycle from which they sell. Crops of corn. Vegetable patches. Soon we clear into spectacular country.
Spectacular if not a little alarming. The road drops about a thousand feet through steep (very) green hills and via tight hairpins and an oncoming flood of trucks and buses. We uncover terraced hills of rice and boiling rivers of brown water, small villages lining the road and an unending panorama of human enterprise at its most mundane and its most exotic. The team are fascinated by the suspension bridges and the flying foxes though Dylan is quick to declare that this is nothing that he wants to be part of. We will see about that – we cross a suspension bridge tomorrow.
I should note the road trip has been marked by the observations of the team about how others live. They are working through the day to day issues of what confronts these people and what they need to do to survive. We watched families work their buffalo ahead of ploughs in rice paddies and women working other paddies while their children slept elsewhere in hammocks. How much do they need to produce to stay alive and to make a little profit? Clearly childcare is not a commodity like it is at home. These people rise each day thinking about food. We rise and think about everything else except food – its just there in the fridge. A truck slips into a ditch. What does that mean for the sole trader? How many weeks of profits does that represent? Does he lose that cargo? And how on earth does he get the vehicle extracted? What does that cost – no road side assistance here to call. All these and other issues are rolled around in the back of the van and I love that they are thinking of these things.
Just when we thought we needed to prod the driver to stop for a pit stop we swing into a roadside café at Dumre and grind to a halt. We assume lunch (a great assumption) and end up eating a strange but tasty mix of vegetables and meat. Dried fish are on the menu, complete from nose to tail. Ellen and Sarah prove courageous eaters and chew into the things whole – it helps to have set them an example of what to do and not have me convulse to death in front of them. But it sure is a novel experience. Just one in a day fully loaded with experiences. Here too the introduction to the not so sanitary toilet arrangements, something of a surprise to everyone. We will have some weeks to get used to squat toilets, or perhaps none at all. Back on the road and our little bus growls on up to Besisihar.
Ellen notices that the river beside the road is now running the other way to what she had seen before lunch. Well spotted. We had in fact swung away from the earlier river and had started to climb into the foothills towards Besisihar. There is seemingly more agriculture, and there is certainly a lot more rock crushing going on – those alpine river boulders are cracked up for road fill and, I suspect, cement. It’s another hour of rice paddies, forests, roadside stalls, choking diesel, the occasional urgent braking to avoid an accident or old lady in the middle of the road and then we are in Besisihar. It’s a bigger town that we were expecting and we can see what all those trucks are about – stall after stall of every kind of commodity a rice farmer (or any farmer for that matter) in this part of the world might need.
We pull up at the lodge I was advised we were to stay at and at which we were to meet our guide and porters. Lila is there alright, along with the requisite porters but this is not where we will be laying our heads. Off to north Besisihar to another lodge where we settle in. We brief and then are briefed by Lila on the next day’s activities. I am pleased to hear that the proposed program I have sent on ahead of us is “excellent” and will ensure we will get across the pass. Indeed, he is very confident that this timetable and his own management will see us through. I am encouraged by his confidence.
For me the arrival in Besisihar is an event which I welcome with some relief. The scenery and sights and sounds are all well and good – I love them all. But to have gotten the group up here without any gremlins in the works is enormously satisfying, though satisfaction is swamped by relief if I am to be honest. We have a way to go yet but this is an excellent start.
Briefings finished we performed the first haircut of the trip. The Besisihar haircut honour goes to Peter Irving who has his locks cropped by a pair of blunt scissors in the finest Bulyaninnie Dylan Dunkley tradition. I carried this out behind the lodge in a grassy patch of ground overlooked by numerous other houses. The locals must have wondered what the heck was going on. Alex, very keen to have his hair untouched as he wanted to go ‘dreadlock’ was grabbed in an impromptu plan and given a clip as well – though in his case he wanted a mohawk so he now sports something that might look like a Mohawk if its gelled up. Both were a team event and another ‘story’ that will remain with everyone. It’s so important to build a group identity around these sorts of things.
As we finished the Alex woolclip the rain slid off the mountain that looms over this place and set in, just in time for us to walk up the single, main street. How do I describe this and do it justice? Stall holders face off against each other, not with a sense of competition but with a sense of community. They all chat to each other and call across to each other in a dense matrix of communication we could never decipher. But we do understand there is a depth of community and a warmth of interaction that is absent from the big towns we all know. We have a lot of fun interacting with with a whole range of people. Sibena, all of 14 or 15 is bright as a button and calls out to us. I go over to speak to her and she looks over at Peter and sings out “You are handsome”. He can’t make her out so comes over. She repeats the compliment and adds ‘You are charming’. Handsome and charming. She is a good judge of character as far as we are all concerned. The rest of the crew turn up and we buy stuff from her stall we do not need – including lipstick which Gershie applies much to her amusement and shouted delight.
I wander on and the group scatters. Down a lane and in the far distance I spot a muddy game of football underway. I step down the lane and prop on the ground to get some distant shots. A couple of the others follow and Dylan runs back to catch Chris who had indicated before we left town that he wanted to be told of any local games he could join. Chris picked his way across the paddy dikes and was soon immersed in a game of football in a very muddy rice paddy terrace. The local boys thought it was a hoot and so too many of the adults who were all soon gathered around in all sorts of vantage points to watch and laugh and join in. Alex and then Ellen joined in as well. And soon the whole community is agog. Our team members retire, very happily covered in mud and worn out and a little bit exultant at their ability to connect with these people in this way. They have every right to be and I am very proud of them.
The postscript to the game is the appearance of three of the boys at dinner time. They had figured out where we were camped. They wanted to see the photos we had taken and asked if they could take a copy of them. Of course. How are we going to do that? One of them produced a memory card and soon we had transferred a gig worth of images. They openly and happily declared that we were a nice bunch of people and very friendly. I caught the eye of Lila who smiled his open faced Nepalese smile, a smile of approval.
We repair to the lodge for dinner then discover that our financial arrangements had altered so we were off to find an ATM at 9pm in a darkened Besisihar. We stumble over one a kilometer or so up the road. But its another little adventure. There are no street lights and the only light over this rain washed scene spills from houses above stalls and shops from which flood laughter and chatter, music and football matches, crying children and the murmur of conversation. Cooking chillies, smell of woodsmoke. And a back drop of lights so high above us someone thinks they are stars and is surprised when told they are the lights along the ridge above us.
We return and settle down for the evening. Our rooms sport one, two or three beds apiece and are very spartan. But they are secure and dry and a fan beats the mozzies away in the damp heat – at least for as long as we have power. Which is for only part of the night. I lie down and feel very relaxed – we are off to a good start. I have all the trekkers in Besisihar at the start line. Chris will kick in tomorrow as the trek master and lead our day to day trek and I will follow up as sweeper/trek leader/tail end charlie. It will be good to share the load. I’m looking forward to finally getting on the track.
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