Sunday, August 15, 2010

Heart of the Monsoon

It's always hard to say goodbye. The students. The teachers. The goat that would occasionally wander into the classrooms, waiting expectantly for me to chase it out. That lone eucalypt planted out the back of the orphanage twenty years previously to induce in me a mild homesickness during my stay. The old women on the way to school whose job it is to carefully handcraft with a hammer and chisel each particle of concrete aggregate for maximum adhesion.

Despite the constant barrage of propaganda stuffed into these kids about the inherent evilness of alcohol I was invited to share a couple of beers with the manager on my last night, seeding doubt into the watching kids’ little heads about exactly what in their textbooks should be believed.

And then came the gifts. Whenever I try to think about how anyone could possibly associate 'backpacking cycle tourist' with 'bulky, fragile dioramas' I have to reboot my brain. I can still see the blue screen of death illuminating the inside of my skull. And yet this is exactly the choice hit upon by not only the orphanage but also two different classes at school - completely independently of each other! Two of the three cumbersome and brittle dioramas, mostly depicting scenes of Nepali life, feature unpostable glass panels. But thank you, thank you. I shall treasure them always.

Procuring a room in Kathmandu at the funky Red Planet Hotel (I couldn’t walk past a name like that) I started checking off the things I'd skipped while staying in the orphanage. Spending six solid days ploughing through Leo Tolstoy’s bulky Anna Karenina was first on the list, as well as visiting Patan’s Durbar Square. But first I needed a new camera, as my old one had carked it once more in an orphan-related incident and I was sick of getting it repaired.

But, lo and behold, when attempting to extract the cash required for said purchase, I found my ATM card had expired – and that very day! Embarrassingly, the expiry date was written on the card itself. Running out of cash fast, I got my dad to send me a few hundred bucks through a money transfer (thanks Dad!) while my new card arrived through snail-mail. In the meantime, my dreams of a second trek were put on hold.

Waiting for my new card was a drag. I’ve found that I often get stressed out when idle – only constant activity can actually relax me. My backpacking buddies always want to just sit around and chill out. Don’t these guys realise they may have as little as fifty years left to live? That’s practically this afternoon!

As part of my need to expend energy, I attempted a geohash in a nearby graticule. Riding my bike the 65 kms towards that day’s location, through the psychotically hilly Nepali landscape, I ran my front wheel over a can on the road. Sadly, my new front mud-guard caught it, flinging me over the handlebars and onto the asphalt – yet again redesigning the scar on my right knee which saltates through the shapes of various countries of the UN (it now mimics Thailand). A nearby villager kindly helped me to my feet and stuck a band-aid over the gritty wound, but infuriated me by demanding 100 Rupees for his mercenary efforts. And to top it all off, facing cliffs of despair, I failed the geohash!

Hammering home Nepal’s unofficial national slogan, ‘Suck the Tourists Dry’, the next day, extending my expiring visa on the way, I cycled to the ancient city of Patan, now absorbed into the expanding Kathmandu. Noticing my hair growing to engulf my entire body in a self-portrait I took with my new camera, I tried to ask a no-frills hairdresser there how much a quick pruning would cost, but he initiated my haircut ignoring the question. Imagine my surprise as he announced it to be a whopping 2000 rupees! That's about double the cost of any haircut I've ever had in any country. I acerbically lobbed 200 rupees (still a rip-off) in his vicinity and stormed out. It was especially rich since I'd been the one to go to all the effort of producing the hair in the first place - all he had to do was get rid of some of it. How I miss the construction industry! "Invitation to tender: The removal and disposal of excess production of hair in sector 1 (see attached diagram). Environmental management requirements not stringent. The winning tender will be the lowest bid."

But armed with my spiffing new haircut I was ready to attend Kathmandu’s Australian Embassy to vote in our federal election. Standing on my own at the ballot box, without any How-to-Vote cards to guide me, I numbered the boxes and gave my voice to the clamour of confusion. Usually, to maximise the effect of my preferential vote, I construct a conceptual cartesion plane placing the parties for their policies and popularity, so my vote flows through all the left-wing candidates one by one and then stops. But this time I couldn’t resist being a part of history and just voted Green for the seat of Melbourne – the first time I’ve ever voted for a winning candidate.

Annoyingly, an Australian right-wing creationist couple staying in my hotel only learned through me of the existence of the election so my efforts to vote were canceled out and reversed – but I do believe in compulsory voting so I can’t complain too much. The male component of this couple would frequently engage me in arguments about how science is actually a religion and agonised about how the journal Nature was biased because it wouldn’t accept his paper describing a perpetual motion machine he thought up. At least they were nice enough to take me out to dinner, which, despite the perpetual proselytising, was actually quite enjoyable.

Finally, receiving my new ATM card in the post, I was free. I employed this freedom in visiting the Chitwan National Park on the Nepalese flatlands with a Texan girl who was staying at my hotel. Apart from taking an elephant ride through the jungle, taking a canoe ride through the crocodile-infested river, and being a leech ride along a monsoonal rain-walk, we basically did our own things. It made me feel guilty that she spent so much time hanging out with the locals, like all this time I’d been traveling wrong.

For my part, I took a bike-tour of the 20,000 Lakes (I could only count one) in drenching, yet pleasantly warm, rain, superfluising the morning’s hot-shower; and got myself hopelessly lost in a swamp in the middle of the night returning home from a cultural stick-dance experience – idle threats that this would lead to me being trampled by rhinos proved unfounded. The next day I planned my Kathmandu return – poorly timed to coincide with a Nepal-wide general strike, canceling all transport. Only one bus was operating and I and several other tourists found ourselves having an absolute ball riding home on the roof – we even enjoyed a beer while dodging low-hanging branches.

My next roof-riding experience came two days later during the 14 hour nightmarish bus ride to the long-anticipated Langtang trek. I sat on a roof packed with dozens of other travelers, mostly in the rain, having to walk across waterfalls and landslides (and police check-points: bus-surfing is illegal, but the cops just make you get off and walk through their field of vision). At one stage my head actually came into contact with an overhead power line. Judging by my continued state of being the region was experiencing one of Nepal's frequent power outages (okay okay, the power line was probably insulated).

This is a good time to wax philosophical on the subject of safety. Now, if quantum physicists have anything to say on the matter, and it sounds like they do, at each point in time the universe splits off into an uncountable number of parallel universes, and we have no control over which ones ‘we’ find ourselves in. If this is the case, then by taking any risk at all, whether or not it eventually turns out okay for ‘me’, I have in fact already doomed trillions of parallel Felixes to death in universes with different outcomes. This gives me a responsibility to look after not only the Felix in ‘my’ universe but also all those other trillions of Felixes out there in their universes, so from now on even a close call must be considered a failure. On the other hand, those trillions of Felixes still need to have an awesome time, so calculated casualties are acceptable. Of course, as a physical object in a mechanical universe, ‘I’ don’t ultimately have any control over ‘my’ actions anyway, but that’s a separate issue.

On the roof of the bus I met an interesting ex-US military Spanish guy named Antonio who had converted to Tibetan Buddhism and now lives in the small Nepalese village of Thulu Bharku. He invited me and the four French people also on the roof to a sacred Himalayan Hindu/Buddhist full moon festival at the altitudinous Gosaikund. I and the French guys endeavored to cram in the Langtang trek in the meantime.

This trek was wet. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that it rained all of the time. And the leeches! There were so many leeches the frequency of picking them off could best be measured in Hertz. At the end of the trek I became a human shower-head of blood. There was no view to speak of, it being cloudy and foggy the whole time, but the immediate scenery of deep green mossy vegetation, stupendously powerful rivers, an unreasonable number of waterfalls and exploratory leeches wobbling at us from protruding leaves was spectacular enough on its own. Since my four french companions largely lacked excellent English skills I had to take a crash-course in their language (they did outnumber me) and spent much of my time conjugating irregular verbs (but being merely a degeneration of its classical ancestor I could almost be understood if I just spoke Latin badly).

On the first day of this wet and hilly trek one of the girls, Sophie, became exhausted and out of breath. When she soon recovered I gave her the blankest look my facial muscles could muster: she was an asthmatic smoker exerting herself in a low-oxygen environment. However, the incident did somewhat absolve my friend Seb’s comment on a favoured route of mine that, “We can’t go that way – we have girls”, as though they were some kind of embarrassing foot disease. On the way back the two girls, Sophie and her sister Elise, decided they just couldn’t hack the further trek up to the festival at Gosaikund, and headed back to Kathmandu.

But not before I experienced a genuine ‘John Hurt’ moment at Antonio’s village of Thulu Bharku. For the next trek, Antonio had procured for us tents and sleeping bags from Kathmandu, as well as a new recruit in the form of a Hungarian dude named Adam, whose main claim to fame was his sheer terror of leeches. As we were planning the trip around the breakfast table, I saw everyone slowly turn towards me as blood oozed out of the front of my t-shirt and some writhing serpentine creature tried to poke through it. The bloated leech feeding off my stomach elicited a blood-coagulating scream from Adam that came straight from the script of Alien. Luckily, Adam, alone, escaped having to share his blood with our annelid cousins.

During the ascent to Gosaikund I was getting my election coverage from my tall friend Alex by SMS who was, ironically, also way up in his own mountains – climbing Victoria’s Mount Feathertop for the annual Midnight Ascent. The times we live in, eh? It was amazing that we both had phone coverage, especially as my phone had filled up with water to the extent I had to read his seat tally through an aquarium. My excitement getting the better of me, I took issue with Adam for completely lacking political opinions - he claimed politics was “All bullshit”. Not being politically engaged is an abrogation of one’s civic duty. But maybe I'm just starved for a decent argument not involving the bill.

Other than the unbearable election tension after finally leaving phone coverage on the three day climb to Gosaikund, this bizarre pilgrimage was an amazing experience. We hung out with both terse Tibetan Lamas and high Hindu Sardus, laughed at our black French companion getting frustrated at constantly being confused for a Nepali, discovered a fantastic yak cheese factory (I and the Frenchmen bought 3 kgs of the fromage superbe), saw one of our most spectacular sunsets ever witnessed as we poked above the cloud layer to spot distant snowy peaks previously obscured, and finally joined the thousands-strong throng on the precipitous winding ledge leading to the Gosaikund lake for some even wilder times.

At this loud and colourful tent city there was crazy dancing, free-flowing rakse, frigid lake dipping, and constant driving rain. Yes, ten out of ten for the awesome idea: a massive multi-faith festival of the full moon during the heart of the monsoon, at 4.5 kms above sea level in the Himalayas near the Tibetan border, but the actual reality? Frickin’. Freezin’. However, it was an epic cultural experience. The only other westerners there were some more French guys, and a Welshman who had somehow ridden (or carried) his touring bike up there.

In the morning the two Frenchmen and I left Antonio, Adam and Antonio’s Tibetan friend Thasi to climb over the 4.7 km high Laurabina La Pass and down the Helambu trek back to the capital – none of us able to face another 14 hour bus ride. Pushing our way below the cloud layer we found ourselves among the spectacular scenes of cloud-filled valleys surrounding Kathmandu.

Descending 3 kms in a little over two days took a serious toll on my knees, but it allowed me to intercept a few messages from Alex about the election for the first time in days: a hung parliament. That was it – I had to get to the internet. Ignoring the pain I stumbled down the mountain towards civilisation. At this stage my knees were starting to impair the progress of our party, so I had to let my French friends finish the trek ahead of me. That night from my saddle-topped hotel, I was granted an awesome astronomical sight: a clear sky, the brightest Venus I'd ever seen, and even a rare minus eight or so magnitude Iridium flare, taking me back to when Dad and I used to go flare chasing around the countryside soon after the those satphone sats were launched (yes, I am that much of a nerd). Not sure what the locals think of them. upon waking I hobbled the second last day’s 35 kms to Kathmandu’s outskirts, and then the final day’s 20 km stroll back to my bike at the Red Planet Hotel.

Upon which I then rode to India.


  1. This is a convenient point to mention that...


    I'm booking flights as we speak.

  2. I would have thought the plural of Felix is "Felices"

  3. I'm pretty sure the plural of Felix is actually "Felici", being a 2nd declension adjective assumed to agree with a singular nominative masculine noun. You might be thinking of the more usual -ix ending of a 3rd declension noun, in which case the plural nominative masculine ending really is -es, as in radix -> radices (root). Out-pedant that!