NAMASTE from the top of the world

The pine acts as an intermediary
it grabs onto the mountain
it reaches into the sky
As do I
I'm on the mountain
I'm in the sky
I'm here, now

Andy's trek begins Thursday March 5th 1998 ... from Varanasi, India's holy city on the Ganges
This morning it is cloudy. That is a new phenomenon. I guess the state of the clouds and the view becomes important if you've come to look at the hills. On the 300 km drive north from Varanasi I had expected we'd come into some mountains, and now that I think of it we should at least have seen some hills. Nothing doing. Big flat fields with mustard in the grain crops. The agriculture doesn't look so organized! Maybe things are fallow? The area is a poor poor part of India. Maybe the soil is of poor quality. The few stops we make for lunch or chai are dusty dirty places. The cities we pass through are sprawling, crowded, dirty north-India.
Of course stepping across the border hasn't changed much. And yet maybe it has. Things feel different. It all feels smooth and easy. My first Nepali contact I meet before we get on the bus. Once he learns I'm to take his bus he puts me under his wing, completely. He even comes along to help me purchase cookies. The only time I'm at all uncomfortable with my new friend is after lunch, when he expects me to pay for both of us. It is his expectation which hurts a bit. I don't think he is so much taking advantage of me, since any fruit he buys he happily shares. When we arrive here he steers me through the jungle of touts and we resolutely march to the border. He is faced with a problem. After three months he is rushing home to surprise his mom. Yet I have official formalities to contend with. I press his hand and send him off to mom. He has a wonderful smile, sorta child-like and innocent.
The Indian exit procedure: fill in a form, stand around the table. I'm quite comfortable maneuvering past as many of the package tourists as possible. They just love forms. The clerk reads everything, makes letters and numbers clearer, pokes around the passport. A ritual, I'm reminded that for a few minutes he controls my destiny. He is temporarily god in my eyes. Petty officials! Here there is a word for them - lala. A quasi term of respect.
Now for Nepal. I have no visa, but that is no problem. I fill in the form and in a few minutes it's all done. The passport photo I'd gotten in Varanasi wasn't needed. People without a photo are not bothered. What a difference from the Indian office in Vancouver. There I'm sure the lack of the photo won't be overlooked. There you don't have a visa inside of 15 minutes!
There is a young tout right there. In fact most of the people I seem to deal with here are young men less than 25. The whole scene is very western and very easy. The tout provides a room - clean, cheap and with a diesel generator right outside the window which kicked in at 5 am. He provides a bus ticket to Pokara, and he exchanges money for me.
One difference I see is that foreign products are available. Most everything in India is made there. Here I see the candy bars from home, and yesterday, the beer from Denmark. A Carlsburg sure tasted nice as we are counting money and arranging tickets. So pleasant. I'm thinking Nepal has gone into the service industry as a country.

Friday 6th ... Sunauli to Pokhara
My bus to Pokhara pulls up, I flew off. Bag on top, me up front, some fellow demanding 20r bag money. A brahmin leans in, gives me a handful of marigold flower petals, puts some red stuff on my forehead (my first tika), then he positions the offering plate under my nose. Pleasant? Not really. My bus ride is on the most comfortable bus I've been on here. Seats, which at one time reclined. The driver is sectioned off from the rest of us. Interesting. About 10 people also ride up in his section. I wonder if it is an honor. It is noisier, dusty, vibrating. Or so reports the bank manager who takes refuge beside me later on.
I had been sold a ticket for a minibus, going direct to Pokhara in six hours. Reality was longer and slower, stopping at every cow shed along the way. The trip yesterday seemed much more arduous ... and yet. The flat land continued until lunch. Some hills could be seen from time to time when the clouds were positioned helpfully. Huge rivers, many of them only beds. Gravel and sand, a few women doing their washing in the water that was there. The water must come tearing down those 300 yard wide beds at times. Sometimes there was no bridge, the road went right over the river bed. A sign suggesting not to proceed during a flood seemed unnecessary. You'd not be proceeding across but down. We pull in for lunch, and then it all changes. We've entered the hills.
We are crawling along beside a river. This one has water, rapids, and even rafters. At times I feel I'm walking up Deep Creek yet exploded in size. The sides, the gorge, the walls are very steep. The road is clinging. Farms have been carved and chiseled out of the hills. Terraces only a couple of yards wide. Stone cow sheds positioned up high on a ledge. The whole gig is enchanting, in places like a chinese painting.
Many of the houses are of stone, a material which is not in short supply. What I'm guessing is the traditional design is very similar to Thai. There is a roof coming out on four sides and then another level rising in the middle, with a similar roof. Some roofs are done in shale, some with a local grass and many in tin. The farms are spread out from each other, their terraces, a few buildings, a path down to the river. There I see skinny, long boats. A young boy easily steers his craft across the rushing waters. I wonder if they are so sleek so that moving upstream is easier.
I feel so excited. Its being in mountains. I love it. The hills, the shadows, the complications. The life of these folk must be fierce. Those tiny fields which they've cleared of stones may not have much fertility. I see a suspension bridge spanning the gorge. The steps down from the highway are an eroded path, some rocks, red earth. These people must be really close to the earth. The bus continues to follow one river after another. We pass through market towns and villages. At any stop a group push their way off, and another bunch cluster around the door. Not everyone is allowed on. It seems quite arbitrary. It seems silly. There are only about three roads in Nepal, anyone on our side of the road is going our direction.
I'm comparing Nepal to India. For a long time I was just considering Nepal another Indian state. Probably not a good idea. The first thing I notice is that so quickly we see more mongoloid features. You'd not think a border would impose such a definite line, a line people seem not to have reproduced across.
The dress is different. The sari disappeared almost instantly. Many, most, people are dressed any old way. Pants, sweaters, skirts, Kurta pajama, and even a dhoti. Eclectic. An older man is waiting for the bus. He has flip-flops, a dhoti, shirt, dress vest and dress coat. So weird.
The women are different. They will sit beside men. They will sit beside me. I see them out with their husbands at the restaurant. They are dressing a bit more conservatively, some obvious tribal women with pierced septums and colourful dress. I even see women smoking, smoking on the bus. A gaggle of young women gets on, rides for a half hour and gets down for a morning in town. Rarely would I see independence like that in India. The leader is wearing jeans and a t-shirt.
The look reminds me of Thailand. The women are very beautiful, in my opinion. Three generations get on together. Grandma, maybe great grandma is tribal. Her daughter or granddaughter is my age. Beauty itself. She holds her daughter, who has two crazy pigtails sticking straight up, held in place by a couple of yellow elastics from the bakery shop.
The whole country is more spread out. Shops stand back from the road, the road is not a market place and sidewalk. It is really only vehicles. People's homes stand along and so do the people. Different.
We pull into town. Maybe an hour before I thought I saw a city. I had a sinking feeling. On the bus, though uncomfortable, I'm on the bus. I know where I "stand". Once we arrive somewhere though, I'll be forced to act and interact. It gives me a bit of a sinking feeling. Arriving in a new town is always a bit of stress. I'm also here blind, in that I have no guide book. It also means I don't have the blindness of a book. My problems are solved before we arrive. Touts boarded the bus with an hour to harangue the travelers. We are maybe a dozen. I agree to accompany both of the young men who approach me. The first on gets the O.K., then he puts a man on me. I wonder how he feels when I accept the other man's card. "No problem" he says. It is like shopping by phone. We get a nice room, mountain view, possibly a bath all before we get to town.
The room and hotel are super. Hot shower, super room which at first makes me think of the swanky place I stayed in Hong Kong. It shows my memory is slipping. by far the nicest in 3 1/2 months. Two clean sheets, and a blanket. And there are two beds, so I could have clean sheets tonight as well. The only complaint I have is that a western commode does not work for water-bum-cleaning. Alas, the trials. My other complaint is that people are overly helpful. Or, they'd like to help. The scene is that you should become a vegetable. The employees here will arrange my trek, my permits, get a guide, maybe a palanquin as well! They are too obsequious. Or maybe I'm just too used to India: the intensity is now my yardstick. Here everyone will happily ease my trial. And few are happy with a "no thank you".
I can't believe one week ago I was in Hampi. Wild! Once I saw those hills yesterday, and I started thinking about my time in Nepal, I was forced into making a decision. What will I do with respect to the Vippasana (ashram) deal? I don't know if I have a place. I'll have to phone. The problem is the retreat would mean a couple of 5 or 6 day treks. Now I'm thinking "forget it!" Now I'm thinking I'll set off for 3 weeks of walking. I'll walk around the mountains I'm now looking at. A serious effort. Do I really want to walk about for three weeks. I think the answer is yes.
The over-the-top pleasantness is sorta scarring me here. There is such an oversupply of what I might want. Dozens and dozens of hotels. Tourist shops side by side for a mile. Restaurants serving everything. Where is Nepal? Right now that is my feeling. Nepal is like a chameleon. It has changed to suit what the big spenders want. Anything I want is just minutes away. I must ferret out local food. That seems silly. Probably I'm just in the wrong part of town. I'm in the huge travelers zone. I'll march up to the local bizarre, which is a safe 3 km away. There I'll stock up on walking gear. I feel silly, getting a whole raft of stuff I have in storage back home. And then there is the list of stuff I'll rent. Right down to the boots. I'm up for it This morning, after a night of drizzle, out my window, bang - the highest mountains in the world. Hundreds of miles of paths, with villages where I can rest, feed, and look about. I just need to take a deep breath. Ah, the air is good. And the birds !.
To Nepal Pokhara One Two Three Four Five Six Seven Nine Eleven Twelve