18 August 2008

Nepal: Return to Pokhara

More sketches from Nepal, early last year ...


Saturday 17 March 2007

I ate at the Bella Napoli again in the evening, sitting at one of the tables next to the footpath. The middle-aged French couple I met several times on the trek walked past, and in a spontaneous act of bonhomie, I called out, “Bonjour!” It probably should have been “Bon soir!” but it was enough. I think they had even less English thanMorning, Phewa Lake my French, but we managed a rudimentary conversation, mostly about where we were intending to go. I liked them; they felt like friends, yet I have almost no basis for feeling this way.

A big flight of termites. In the headlights at dusk they're like flakes of snow, eddying in the wind. I free several from the condensation on my bottle of Nepal Ice, their wings trapped by the moisture. Others have already shed their wings, leaving them lying useless, spent, delicate, discarded on the table under the lamplight. I know why these insects are trapped by the light. They believe it's the moon and fly at a constant angle to it, but because it's so close they end up spiralling around it, and finally into it. Simple, mechanical, and mistaken. Are we more complex but no more mysterious—and just as mistaken? Is all our behaviour just mechanical—the inevitable outcome of physical laws? Am “I” no more than an illusion, a survival mechanism produced by my brain?

When we shed our wings, do we too go into the dark?


After dinner I sit on the steps of Lali's shop, just happy to talk a little with him. He really wants to sell me a bus ticket but I haven't decided where, nor when, I want to go. Two Korean men come up and Lali introduces me as his “boss” — a term he uses freely, applying it to friends, clients, kids; in fact, anyone he's met more than once. One of the Koreans asks where I'm from.
“New Zealand,” I say.
“Whooaah!!” he says, his delight lubricated with what seems like a generous dose of alcohol.
He explains, with very limited English, that New Zealand's a very nice country and that he's visited there. The usual places of course. He's very happy and it's a nice way to end the evening.

Sunday 18 March 2007
I think I'll go to Chitwan on Tuesday. I feel like a tourist.

I also feel worn out by travelling. Thinking a lot about family and friends. Feeling a little alone, too. Mieke left with Kamal on her trek to Jomsom this morning but I missed seeing her off—not that we were more than acquaintances. Instead, I think it's the knowledge that by the time she returns I'll be gone from Nepal, probably gone from India, probably—all going well—in Ghana. As is inevitable, while travelling you meet people, you become friends to varying degrees, then you go different ways, mostly never to meet again. The strangeness of this is that it's the people I'm less close to who seem to have this effect on me more than those with whom I get along very well. Perhaps I can't believe that the people I really like and seem to connect with strongly are those I'll never meet again; perhaps the degree of connection convinces me we'll meet again or at least remain in touch. Perhaps the degree of connection surmounts geographical separation.

Who will I meet in Ghana, in South Africa, in Malawi?


A large group of middle-aged to elderly foreigners troops in. Their language, what I catch of it, sounds Germanic but I'm really not listening; instead, I'm enjoying a beer and a quiet time. But I do hear a thud—something out of place, not right. One of the men has collapsed; he lies on his back on the concrete. I rush over; the first there. He's conscious, trying to sit up. I support his head and ask if he's all right as several of his friends hurry over. We help him to his feet, unsure whether he fainted or just tripped. No one seems to speak any English. He stands, apparently all right, talking to his friends. Then his expression turns blank, he begins to lean backwards, and, perfectly straight, falls onto his back onto the concrete, his head missing a sharp-edged concrete step by millimetres. It all seems so slow—time for me to see the step, think his head will hit it, think we'll have a dead man at our feet. Time to hear the horrified gasps from his friends, yet no time to react.

How he survived those falls onto concrete, I have no idea—the impact should have fractured his skull. But after his friends have fussed over him and put pillows under his head and propped his feet up on a chair, he recovers, gets up and joins the others at the big table. There are no more incidents. I eat my fried rice, finish my beer, and return to the hotel, where I continue reading John Man's Genghis Khan and feel again the call, the pull of Mongolia. But, is it Mongolia calling or those marvellous people I travelled with?

Monday 19 March 2007
During the night I wake with a mild cramp in my gut; more a feeling of discomfort than pain, but enough to disrupt my sleep and confirm the twinges I've been having aren't just my imagination. They continue, on and off, through the day, although I think—and trust—they've begun to disappear. But they've added to my indecisiveness, my inability to carry out the simple act of booking a bus ticket to Chitwan tomorrow. I suppose in the back of my mind I have visions of struggling with a crook gut on a six or seven hour bus journey, and while I could dose myself with drugs to survive the trip, I want to do more than that. I want to enjoy it. Mostly, I love bus journeys; the opportunity to look out the window, to see, to think, to wonder.

But mostly I think it's the enervating effect of feeling slightly off-colour. I'd suspected my low mood over the last couple of days might have been a symptom of a low-level illness, and now I'm more sure that's the case. Ironically, it's like a sense of relief—it's easier to downplay a low mood when there's a clear, or at least likely, cause, and the best way I've found of dealing with low moods is simply to accept them for what they are, treat them as being of as little importance as I can, and just wait for them to pass—as they always do. As this will.

I did the sensible thing, too—I took it easy. Rested, relaxed in my room, finished Genghis Khan [1]. It's an excellent book, one of those accomplished blends of scholarship and personal anecdote; where something of the process gets explained also. And John Man isn't afraid to offer opinions—well-reasoned opinions, but the sort of subjectivity that's usually frowned upon and rejected by academic editors.

Now, of course, I have nothing to read but the largely uninspiring or, at best, frustrating Lonely Planet guidebook. Perhaps I'll pick up something else to read tomorrow.

Having left it too late to book a ticket to Chitwan, I took a risk and ordered a steak for dinner. After almost 5 months of vegetarianism, I felt reluctant to eat animal, but I think I need some good quality protein. I got it—tough but flavoursome—and trust it won't aggravate my dodgy gut.

Tuesday 20 March 2007
On the eve of departure from Pokhara, to travel to the lower, hotter terai, to Chitwan National Park, away from the mountains, further from the possibility of remoteness, I buy an old copy of The Snow Leopard [2] and begin reading it once more. Perhaps this is because when I talk about this book, I'd like to speak at least in a small way from personal experience. Perhaps I'm here not just for myself, but for my family also, the way I visited places like Rudraprayag, Naini Tal, and Kaladhungi because of Corbett's place in our family's mythology. I like to think, too, that maybe one day—perhaps even after I'm gone—J or H might visit these places, might stand and look at the small memorial at Rudraprayag or begin a journey from Pokhara and think, “Pete was here.” This is how mythologies—I can't think of a better word—develop; this is how lives and events link to form something that survives beyond the events and beyond the lives. What will J and H add, and who will remember it and build on it? What will be lost? And what will be added that did not happen?

I finally made it to Koto, the Japanese restaurant, for lunch—the most expensive lunch I can recall having paid for in four and a half months. A can of San Miguel and a teriyaki beef. The meat was called fillet—“fillet teriyaki”—and that was all it was. Strips of marinated beef—almost Man-eating leopard memorial, Rudraprayag, Indiacertainly not fillet—on a lettuce leaf. Flavoursome, tasty, but tough. Still, I enjoyed it—mostly, I think, because of the attempt at elegance. Most of the food I've had in the last 4–5 months has been ... how do I describe it? Quantity seems to have been the main characteristic, and the food, while often enjoyable, might better be called comfort food—simple, tasty, easy to eat—than cuisine. The sameness of the food and the menus left me wanting something different; something fresh, flavours from the food itself rather than from the added spices (I suppose, on reflection, beef teriyaki was an odd choice); food with at least a little finesse. Koto offered at least the idea of those things, but mostly it gave me a glimpse into another culture where those qualities I've mentioned are commonplace, and sometimes taken to extremes.

I sat at the table in the almost deserted restaurant thinking about Japan and Mongolia. Of the countries I've visited, those two most strongly draw me back—something I'd mentioned in an email to Debbie when I told her about John Man's book. I'd replied to P.E.A.'s recent emails also, pointing out my agreement with her about how what's a big adventure for some people is mundane for others. Jono and I had discussed this via email a couple of years ago, and, as I pointed out to P.E.A., what some of my friends see as my own great adventure often seems to me to be ordinary and unadventurous compared to the journeys of many of the travellers I've met. Somehow, that led to my suggesting how true courage is often more truly found in the lives of people like my mother, who, from god knows where, found the strength to support us and provide us with every opportunity she could. I suppose the cynical and mean-spirited would call it martyrdom, but to me—to all my family, I have no doubt—it was sheer courage rooted in unconditional love.

A Nepali man laughs to himself as he walks towards me and passes by. Just beyond, a foreign woman stands next to a man who's crouched by a low wall on the far side of the street. He's just thrown up and is recovering his breath and composure, but neither seems to be returning fast.

A flight of white egrets in the humid evening over Phewa Lake; white birds against a sky threatening storm; white birds blown about in a sudden gust. After an apocalypse leaving Pokhara silent and overgrown, inhabited only by ghosts and wild things, perhaps these white birds will still fly in an angry sky at dusk, over the silent lake, over sunken boats and lost memories.
Kids at Leopard memorial, Rudraprayag

1. Man, J. 2004. Genghis Khan: Life, death and resurrection. London, Bantam. 431 pp. ISBN 0 553 81498 2. Sue Bradbury reviewed it in The Guardian on 20 March 2004.
2. Matthiessen, P. 1979. The Snow Leopard. London, Harvill. 312 pp. ISBN 0 00 272025 6.

Photos (click to enlarge them):
1. Crow in rain cloud at Chhomrong on the Annapurna Sanctuary trail, Nepal. I'm reasonably sure this is a jungle (large-billed) crow, Corvus macrorhynchos.
2. Morning at Phewa Lake, Pokhara, Nepal.
3. On the road between Kathmandu and Pokhara.
4. Machhupuchare from the outskirts of Pokhara.
5. At Phewa Lake.
6. The memorial marking the spot where Jim Corbett shot the man-eating leopard of Rudraprayag. Uttaranchal, India.
7. Kids at the leopard memorial, Rudraprayag, Indian Himalaya.

Photos and words © 2008 Pete McGregor


Zhoen said...

Had the same kind of fast friendship with military folks, still can't quite believe I'll never see them again.

All flavors of courage, thanks for sharing yours, I'm a lousy traveler, but you take me all over.

Ruahines said...

Kia ora Pete,
What heart felt thoughts to share about friendship, family, and courage, thank you. I would love to hear more about the family connection the Corbett as I remember that story. Your observations are always so very astute. I'm sorry but I can't help but laugh when you describe the Germanic fellow taking a dive nearly killing himself, and his mates all very non chalant about it all. Then he gets up and carries on. Kia ora Pete.

P.E.A. said...

NO, dear nephew - I'm sure there is no such word as 'mundane' in my vocabulary! All journeys are significant, be they internal or external. I'm trying to recall the quote about one man's small acre being another man's great estate.
What a lovely tribute to your mother.

pohanginapete said...

Thanks Zhoen. It should be possible to rejoice in having shared at least a little time with people you call friends, but at the time of parting it can seem like a pretty hollow consolation.

Robb, I'd like to think the German(?) guy suffered nothing more than a headache, but I'll never know. His friends were so caught up in their concern for him that I seemed to be invisible. As for my family's "Corbett mythology", it's nothing more than having grown up with his books — we all knew them and used to refer to him in all sorts of contexts, particularly when we'd just survived some kind of (to us) terrifying event. In fact, none of the family had been anywhere near India, let alone Corbett territory. The mythology's purely literary and imaginative, but strong nonetheless.

P.E.A., you're right of course — the significance of a journey (or anything else) is what you believe about it. And thanks for all your support and encouragement; I appreciate it greatly. :^)

Kathleen said...

Hello Pete!

Black birds patrolling the UCI campus last night evoked the same kind of thoughts as yours about the white egrets. How they manage to settle themselves in splendid array on top of eucalyptus and across the lawn, as if to produce a photo op, is a great mystery- earth will be stunning long after the observers and artists are gone. Maybe we are reflections of the creator. Or maybe what we think is beautiful and seems right is because it's the natural order of things.

ACK, I would rather just enjoy than puzzle, probably not really the philosopher I fancy myself to be. And certainly not the traveler my friends think I am either. I've been many places but compared to those like Richard Burton, who had to have people carry him blind from sickness back from his search for the head of the Nile, our high tech hiking boot, modern drug, and bus padded journeys seem almost silly.

And I know KTJ suffers more in Africa than she lets on, always returning a stone lighter and with a grimmer face. Still nothing compared to the refugees who go for weeks on only tea made from who knows what.

I'm grateful for my lot in life and for those like you who share their journey with me on the road and here.


pohanginapete said...

Kathleen, that last sentence of your comment says it for me as well. How could I not be grateful for my life? And, while I loved so much about Africa, it'd be an appallingly insensitive person who returned from there without feeling grim as well as appreciative. Thanks for your thoughts, Kathleen.