A traditional way of dealing with middle life and its problems is termed ‘finding oneself’. I’ve never been too sure what this means or entails, but going to Nepal appears to be an integral part of it and in autumn 1997 I did just that.
It wasn’t an auspicious start. The two hours travelling time from the heart of Yorkshire to London on “The Great Northern” were fine. But it took another two hours to get to Terminal Three at Heathrow, initially by tube, and then the final mile on foot. I was hot and I was late. A solitary man, bearded and wearing shorts and open-toed sandals, wÊaved a greeting from across what appeared to be a deserted room. Was I too late? He recognised an anxious holiday maker.
‘Paula’s just gone to phone your wife. We thought you weren’t coming. Are you OK?’
Had I held everybody up? Were we still going? Who was Paula?
‘I’m OK. if you are.’ I lied.
‘Good, you’d better book in.’
Where? How? Panic.
‘Take your ticket over there to Qatar Airways.’ This was Pete, our guide, easing me in gently. I was on my way to Nepal.
The car park at Katmandu airport was choatic: hawkers and beggars, arrivals and departures, and hangers-on who simply stood and watched.
We were met by a local in western dress: collar and tie, slacks and dark blazer. ‘Namastay.’ A Nepalese greeting, with hands in the preying position, accompanied by necklaces of orange flowers. ‘Welcome to Nepal. Your transport is over here.’
The bus journey gave our first view of this new world. Crowds, cows, dogs, dust and traffic and the incessant hooting of motor horns. Pragyalal Shrestha Pee-el, or PL for short, was our Nepalese courier.
‘We have a saying in Nepal⁄,’ (they actually have several),
‘Good horn, good brakes, good luck.’
I imagined, after a while, that the cars and motor-bikes were simply talking to each other. The hoots were not all angry. Overtaking on a blind bend takes courage and a little reminder for any unseen vehicle to gently move over might save a life.
That first ride showed us the poverty, the business and the idleness of the Nepalese people. There is 35-40% unemployment here, and yet those who have something to do, appear fully occupied. Many of the houses seemed unfinished.
Constructed of reinforced concrete pillars and brick walls, the upper tiers were eerie, often no more than a floor and four corners of steel rods. Apparently there is a tax on housing, payable by storey. Those who cannot afford, leave the top off.
The second part of our hour-long journey to the hotel, after traversing the Kathmandu valley bottom, wound up to seven and a half thousand feet, all through farm land. I thought I was in an agricultural museum. It was harvest time and everything was being done by hand. Reaping, threshing, winnowing and milling were on view, like a demonstration. We were looking at a traditional way of life. Pl. dragged me back to the present.
“Nepal has an agrarian economy. There is no heavy industry. The land is very fertile and there are four crops per year. You are now seeing the rice harvest. We are very devout. We think we are the only truly Hindu nation – India has several religions. 80% of our people are Hindu and the rest are Buddhists. Both believe in reincarnation. We must do well in this life to prepare us for the next. There is no animosity between the religions. Ireland could learn something.”
The farm land didn’t stop as we climbed, it converted from fields to terraces, cut from the hillside, as Pl. would say, “steps to heaven”. Small mud-walled houses were dotted haphazardously about the slopes.
“The top floor is the kitchen and the ground floor houses the animals, a built-in central heating system in the winter. The mud is mixed with cow-dung, giving off methane, helping to keep insects away.”
The bus could go no further than Nagarkot village, leaving us a mile walk, uphill, to the hotel – this to be our first experience of exercise at altitude and a shock for some. Then that first view of The Himalayas. Awesome and empty, beautiful and inaccessible. I was looking at a picture-post card. I was surprised by my lack of feelings. Why had I come to Nepal if the mountains were to leave me cold? It happened again at sunrise the following morning. Stunning and changing oranges and yellows, reflected off a small number of clouds. And then the sun itself, highlighting the eastern faces of the mountains. Yet nothing stirred for me. Whichever part of me moves remained unmoved.
The first evening meal was a tentative affair, exploratory and nervous. We were identifying likely chums. Those who may be similar to us. Those who may be different. It seems to start with a range of informal signals, body language. Those first contacts set the pattern for most of the holiday, so powerful is our non-verbal communication skills. Non-verbal that is except for Keith, who needed to chuckle a lot. I dined with Paula and Pl. We shared being on our own.
Those first contacts also provided clues to why we were there. Many were retired and responded impulsively to an advert – myself included. Yet the early hints of reflection and wonder that were expressed suggested deeper needs beyond an impulse. There was concern about materialistic values. Some, like myself, had experienced key events. The 50 years of age questions were being asked.
Paula was in her mid-thirties I guess, a Scandinavian living in London. A wedding band was never talked about. Her first job, as a guide, was with horses. She denied any competence at walking, admitting to only to a minimal degree of fitness. It soon became clear that her spiritual home was here in Nepal. Pl. lived here, in Patan. He was a management graduate, fluent and self-taught in English, even colloquial English. He took pride in quoting Shakespeare at some length. Whilst with us, he would miss his two daughters, from an arranged marriage. We talked of
living and dying in the third world, of meditation, of Buddhism and Hinduism and of our needs to examine and question western assumptions about progress and achievement. How could personal growth take place on the M25? How does the incessant ring of a mobile phone contribute to private thought and reflection? We had no answers, yet something between us had germinated.
Our first day of walking was steady downhill, through the hillside farmland terracing.
We were soon tight up against the Nepalese rural way of life. PL. had described it the day before, today we lived and walked in it. Both beautiful and appalling, a haven of sanity and the worst kind of exploitation of the workers. Beautiful in its simplicity and purity. From their point of view, they had what they needed all around them. There was contentedness rather than resignation. From our point of view, the poverty and tolerance of dirt were appalling, the close proximity of domestic animals and their excrement, the lack of material comforts and our second glimpse of begging children. I was walking next to a short bald-headed guy. The sight of the children must have set something off.
“I blame the parents. Back home the kids these days don’t seem to have any discipline.”
There must have been a preamble to these statementsx, but I wasn’t paying much attention. I came to, remembering some of my upbringing. Glum faces at the end-of-term report, smiles when I had done well, grumpy father who would play cricket mostly on demand, arbitrary physical and verbal slap-downs, older brother who ignored and cared, who risked protest. Great times, Christmas and beach holidays. Bad times, battles, anger, no rights. I had successfully adapted to that world, but now I wanted something different.
“I wonder sometimes whether children become what their parents expect or how much say they have? It might look like indiscipline, but is it?”
My companion didn’t comment, and a quiet moment suggested respect for other ways of seeing the world. However it was impossible for him to stay quiet for long.
Pl. halted the group. He had got permission for a visit to a wayside temple devoted to Kali, her of the many arms.
“Kali is the goddess of justice and destruction. Disputes are discussed and resolved in front of the shrine. We cannot lie in the presenceof the gods. It saves on all the lawyers fees. Animal sacrifice still takes place, perhaps a goat. The priest sprinkles powder over the beast, and when it nods its head, permission has been granted for the sacrifice to take place.”
There was an empty seat under an eave, book and pipe abandoned. I noticed a small pile of tobacco.
“Here’s where a holy man sleeps. He is out in the woods just now. He smokes marijuana. Here is the plant.”
PL. pointed to a green weed growing in the temple flower bed. Thea, our only confessed overt smoker, took a sample. How convenient, she rolled her own.
I wasn’t sure how I≈ would play the game of getting to know you and being known. I actually hadn’t given it a lot of conscious thought until now. I had shared some dreams with Paula and Pl. I had tentatively disputed a prevalent concept about modern families. But who was I? I knew I wished to be mysterious, for a short while anyway, something in the academic line. I didn’t feel my (medical) background was an early runner, though perhaps some teasing glimpses. I was avoiding those embarrassing questions about early retirement which I had come to expect.
“Oh! you’re young to retire?”
After some ‘umming and erring, weakly, “I needed a change. I had to move on.” This would deter the mildly interested from probing further. “I wish I could retire, but of course I couldn’t afford. Now my brother-in-law………,” and the topic, as focused on me, had died.
Some people persist, with the dreaded, “Oh! what were you,” and then after the reply, “The pressure I suppose. My brother-in-law…….”
Deflecting and changing the subject is less easy with those in the same line of work, especially,
“Huddersfield? Do you know so-and-so? We were at thingy together in the fifties.” An image of a stuffy powerful out of date institution. Yes, I knew so-and-so, sturdy overworked insecure.
Inevitably ,“We visit regularly, I’ll mention we met.” He will then know the public version of my story and digest so-and-so’s interpretation of it. It will help them break the ice after separation and will soon be discarded once the memories of thingamy are retold and embellished. I wouldn’t be there to correct the factual errors. I wouldn’t tell of my pain and suffering. Just another casualty who couldn’t hack it.
There were no former colleagues on this trip. I could be myself, but when and which bit of me? I got into step with Margaret,
“I overheard you had family in Australia,”
“Yes, we visited last Christmas,”
“Just outside Sydney. They’ve moved now. We’ve only seen pictures of their new place.”
“Sounds like a good excuse for another holiday,”
“I suppose it was Christmas on the beach and the ‘barbie’,” my limited view of Australian life during our winter.
“We didn’t actually. There was an evening meal, cold meats, and a massive dish of prawns. They were gorgeous. It was a shame. Some went to waste, we couldn’t eat them all.” A simple family picture, joy and disappointment, and not a muscle-bound life-guard in sight.
My mind had wondered. Vaguely ,”and of course it’s the young ones who pick it up so quickly, I wouldn’t know where to start,”
“Indeed,” we’d moved on, time to talk about myself, “I find mine invaluable, for research,” a small glimpse of my world.
“Oh! what’s that about?”
I gave the facts, a peephole. How does a frightened soul learn something of benefit
in those fast thirty minutes or so of contact with someone committed to helping? I recalled a recent conversation with a local rheumatologist.
“My sister-in-law suffers from schizophrenia. Its terrible you know, its devastated the family.”
“Yes,” I saw them, carers, powerless fearful tired spirits. I knew so much, and said so little. We moved into single file, temporarily disengaged.
The walk ended at a well-known Hindu Temple, Changu Narayan. A narrow, slightly uphill approach, lined with vendors, goats, chickens, refuse and children. A sunken communal water tap and bath, ladies washing their hair, bodies, pots and clothes. I shivered. Unfamiliar and unsanitary. The temple, a pagoda, occupied the centre of a large square of pretty basic two-storey terraced houses. Living here was a privilege, and lots did. Pl. kept us informed.
“Here is a shrine to Ganesh, the elephant. Ganesh removes obstacles. Business men will come with a new project, young couples wanting to have children, a single women looking for a husband.
Here is a ferocious incarnation of Vishnu, with a ?lion or tiger’s head, disembowelling ?something and seated or stood on ?something. The practice was outlawed fifty years ago. The last one was held in Patan when priest was sacrificed. He was in a trance and would have progressed spectacularly in the next life.
These photographs nailed to the doorway are of sick relatives, seeking better health.”
We quietly took in the information, awed, respectful, mingling with devotees and visitors, achingly poor beggars and “cripples”, schoolchildren and the very occaisional wealthy citizen.
Back to the bus and our first shopping expedition, a craft cooperative, jewellery, wood carving, painting and carpets. Pl. advised us on the need for negotiation. The value for money seemed reasonable for hand-made goods and yet we never knew the real bottom prices. Both sides of the transaction were happy, but I was left occaisionally with some anxiety about overpaying. Were the vendors more happy than me? This was my way of seeing the world, a fixed way, a grudgingly letting go of hard earned cash way, but not a something for nothing way. Negotiation is a relationship and there lies the anxiety. Will someone see me as I am, vulnerable, worried and not in control. I had spied Val taking the plunge and so did I. Pains-taking hand-painted mandalas, coaster sets and an intricately carved wooden owl.
Back on the bus, waiting for stragglers, Keith and Margaret to be exact. They arrived with a carpet which cost a lot and paid for by card. Unanswered questions in my mind. What do they need such an expensive carpet for? So early in the holiday? Are they regretting the last ten minutes? My questions from my world. I was a little rueful about my last ten minutes. Spending money isn’t easy, and yet I had permission. I had a list of people to buy for and enough funds. We jollied each other along, exhibiting our purchases. Thea was interested in my paintings,
“What are mandalas?”
I knew a little and Pl. supplied the rest. “Symbols of unity. Usually circular and symmetrically partitioned with a representation of Nirvana in the centre. Buddhist figures everÀywhere. Aids to meditation.”
Our next stop was Bhaktapur, capital of one of the three ancient Kingdoms in the Kathmandu valley. The Potters’ Square, earthenware and rice drying in the sun, medieval houses and temples, historic narrow streets bustling with animals and people. And round the corner, avoiding a motor cyclist, a satellite dish. More negotiation and much easier. I soon adapted to fluid prices, morning prices, first customer prices, discounts for more than one item. I compared my deals with those of my companions. I heard an inner censor and a mediator.
“Childish, silly, buying all those things and bragging about how he got the price down.”
“Let him have some fun.”
I had fun but I also looked at myself, a western materialist haggling over very small amounts of money. Much needed cash for Nepal, presents and mementos for me.
The bus did the long climb back up the hill. Bhaktapur had been a wonderful place.
The second day took us tƒo a local photographic vantage point. It involved some hill climbing and we were aware of easily being on the edge of breathlessness. Most of us accomplished the task without major problems. The slow section really only contained Val. She was also the one-woman complaints committee. A well made lady with two ski-poles, she was always dressed head-to-toe in black. In the summer conditions everyone else was in shorts. I often think, uncharitably, that ski-poles are something of a designer accessory, but Val was possibly an exception. I guessed that her hips were suspect. Val’s smile was a rarity, a collector’s item. Her usual face was expressionless, or a scowl which occaisionally developed into quiet thunder. We stopped for a mid-day break. After five minutes later Val noticed that Keith and Margaret had not ordered drinks.
“You not having a drink then?”
“We’ve left our money at the hotel.”
“We’ll lend you some.”
“No, really, we couldn’t hpossibly.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, honestly.” A short uncomfortable silence as we ate chicken fried in batter, a boiled egg and a cheese sandwich with no butter of margerine. It was a dry affair, especially for Keith and Margaret. They seemed to be punishing themselves. Perhaps that carpet?
Val then she turned to me,
“Your knickers are showing, David.”
A strange luncheon overture. My imagination stirred. Had I committed a faux-pas? Did Val think I was displaying part of my underwear? Was she trying to point out a fact of which I was unaware? Did she find the sight distateful? Was an excuse needed? N Was my embarrassment showing?
“Being a robust sort, I wear cycling shorts to prevent friction rash. They do tend to show.”
“They always do,” Margaret, with a hint of irritation. I recognised I felt fine with my “knickers” showing, but for Margaret, the exchange had been unnecessary, and she had come to my defence. Was there a feeling of being “put down” about? Whether she knew it or not, Val had found some of our weak spots.
Thea and smoking pot -ability to listen
Sunrise at six thirty, breakfast at seven. Bacon, omelettes, sausages and toast. I’m late. An ever-present house-boy attends to me. Where are the women? Tilling the fields and building the houses? Looking after children?
“I’ll just have coffee.”
“Not a lot to say for yourself this morning,” enquired Keith, inevitably chirpy and talkative.
“All this relating is a bit much. I’m not really with it until I’ve had four mugs of coffee. I generally come round about half past ten.” Things went quiet.
I was not allowed to continue with my own company. Within minutes of setting off on the day’s walk, I was joined by Keith. Two or three local men slowly ran toward us, each with a full churn of milk on their backs, secured by a band of material wound round their foreheads. We stared, and for once Keith shut up. We were walking downhill.
The chat meandered with the path. Tales of farming, sport, some potted philosophy from Keith. Erudite, or so I thought, summaries from me.
“That Jonah Lomu is amazing, isn’t he? suggested Keith.
“To come back from kidney failure takes some do¯ing,”
“Well, he had nephrotic syndrome. It doesn’t necessarily mean kidney failure. Sometimes it’s reversible, and no after effects. I guess that’s what’s happened to him.” Another glimpse.
The previous night a number of the party had gone down with a traveller’s ailment, and we were about half strength. Brian, whose wife had remained in bed for the day, got onto education for some reason. Thea was just in front.
“What about all the students that can’t get jobs? They seem to carry on for ever at college and we are paying for them.”
I wasn’t sure how to frame a reply, “I guess I would think about that in two ways. I agree thay many courses don’t have a job automatically at the end of them, and this would appear to be wasteful. But I am also thinking about these experiences as personal development for the students.” I hoped this was assertive and wouldn’t offend.
“Yes, that’s just happened to my daughter. Actually she had a rest period during her studies and decided to change courses. She started with occupational therapy.”
“College of Ripon and York St. John?”
“I’ve just completed a course there.”
”What was that in?”
“Counselling. I did a two-year placement as a student counsellor. A lot of students begin to question their courses during the first year.” I quickly reviewed my own history. Busy school, busy college, busy life, no time for questions until it was almost too late. That important space to start asking weighty adolescent and young adult questions happened at 42 years of age. Medicine’s grip on my life began to loosen when I volunteered for local day-release followed by a residential programme, both on management skills. Then a support group, and an introduction to counselling. There were no answers for six years, only an increasing sense of unease and tension. The final critical spell of elbowroom was inevitably provided by illness. Two months of virtual solitude can be a long time. It proved to be pivotal.
“What does the little wife do?” enquired Brian. I didn’t have a little wife. I wasn’t sure what I had.
“She started as a nurse.” She actually started life as a small and vulnerable single child in a somewhat suffocatingly caring family.
“She was a staff nurse in Leeds for a while, in paediatrics, before moving to an intensive care unit in Liverpool. She went back to college then for shorthand and typing. A spell as a gp. receptionist, research sister in a Cardiff Teaching Hospital and another receptionist post in the Uppermill surgery, near Oldham.”
“Multi-talented?” Until now we hadn’t seen it that way.
“Then retirement when our first child came along. Louise is now seventeen. Our middle child is autistic. Sheila became interested in helping children with learning problems. There has been work as an assistant teacher for kids with Down’s syndrome. It’s voluntary work at the moment, reading coach in a local special school and a gym class in a social centre.” I saw this almost for the first time, an outsider’s view. A significant˛ life of suffering and sacrifice, joy and caring. The pieces were the same, but they were put together differently somehow. I still wasn’t sure what I had, but there was time to find out.
I never did discover what Brian did. We had arrived at Sakhu, the lunch-stop, and our first sight of the pig-keepers, the untouchables, living on the outskirts.
The afternoon was devoted to sight-seeing at Buddhenath, a Buddhist temple in the outskirts of Kathmandu. Pl. defined it as a “Stupa”. A huge solid white dome, decked with prayer flags, it reputedly has a relic of Buddha buried deep within it. Buddhist monks were in abundance, particularly , boys. Apparently second sons come here for instruction. Such opportunities have high status, and the boys are not expected to continue into adulthood as monks if they are unsuited for the role. We “circumnambulated” in the required clock-wise direction, inevitably buying souvenirs from the many shops surrounding the temple. The stupa has a small tower on the top painted on all four sides with the eyes of Buddha and a nose in the form of a question mark. The eyes represent the all-seeing, unblinking eyes of Buddha. with the emphasis on the present. No need to concern ourselves with the past or worry for the future. The question mark asks about the degree of personal responsibility we take for our lives. I was reminded of the Buddhist influences on western philosophy, and gestalt came immediately to mind. I came across a small section of the party gathering prior to departure.
“He’s collapsed and taking a rest in one of the cafes.” Another casualty.
“Did you manage to get anything.”
Margaret dropped her gaze, then looked up ,”I haven’t enough cash.”
“I’ll lend it you, don’t be silly,” from someone.
“Would you? I need about five hundred, that’s all.” Keith and Margaret had overcome their reluctance to borrow money.
Wherever we went we were dogged by children. They are beautiful and cute in the country, somewhat more streetwise in Kathmandu. They could use “namaste” as a greeting, but often preferred “hallo”, clearly when they would have no knowledge of our nationality. Barefoot, ragged, green candles coming from their noses, they would happily follow us a mile or two. Initially they sought rupees and sweets, but many older ones, particularly around Pohkara wanted pens and pencils. Our first refusal was usually enough. Every so often they would persist and we had to admit to some irritation.
In Bahktapur a young man attached himself to me.
“Hello, where are you from?”
“I know England very well. I learn very good at school.” He had excellent English. We chatted for a while and then came the pitch.
“Our school very poor.”
“120 rupees buy a Nepal-English dictionary – very cheap. You buy me.”
“No. I have spent all my money.” The truth.
This exchange took place as I absorbed the sights and sounds of busy Bahktapur. I was enthralled, and my conversation was very much on automatic, automatic no. The amount he wanted was very small, the cause a good one. Had I not been distracted, I might have weakened. He wandered away eventually without 120 rupees. I was left with a small corner of regret.
We moved into a cafe overlooking one of the squares as it grew dark and ordered a beer. I told Pl. of my encounter.
“You see David, what they do is get you to buy a book, a dictionary for 120 rupees, and when you have gone they go back to the shop and sell it for 100 rupees. The same book gets sold several times a day. It goes round and round.” Pl. smiled apologetically.
My jaw dropped. I’d nearly been had. My sense of regret disappeared, replaced by a mixture of compassion and indignation. “Well of all the ………” The conversation shifted, the episode forgotten, but I would be tougher about begging Nepalese children from now on.
Short, stocky and smiled a lot would be my initial impression of Keith. He also talked a lot, to anyone who would listen. Silence was not allowed. Affable, verging on the bland. He came from a line of Lincolnshire farmers, bonded to land and stock. Family was his catchword. His visions for how life worked and didn’t work were rooted in the family. He seemed to touch something in many of the group when he spoke. They all nodded wisely anyway. It was a simple philosophy that appeared to work for him. I for one was not about to challenge it. Yet Nepal had affected him, perhaps disturbed some things he took for granted, and he was going to share it, several times.
“You know, David, we have lost something.”
“The locals seem so happy. They have nothing.”
There was so much to say and I said nothing. I feared being misunderstood. I had none of Keith’s certainties, his answers, his solutions. Yet Nepal had got behind them in a small way. I wondered how long his queries would last, whether his world view would alter? I had rejected the notions of “normal” family life, natural justice, fairness and truth some time ago, painfully. I was still around to tell the tale, but I didn’t. It was a tale for a selected audience. I was quiet and edgy, keeping those thoughts to myself. I didn’t wish to disrupt something that worked. I responded weakly.
Keith completed the discussion for us, words I shamefully didn’t hear.
Later, that day or the next, he shared an observation.
“David, I’ve just been saying, the children never seem to fall out.” I wasn’t the first to hear this. Ruefully I recalled a scrap or two that I had witnessed, raw temper and tears aplenty. What could I say? I sensed he was developing an ideal picture of Nepal childhood, which just maybe differed from rural Lincolnshire.
Once again I became preoccupied with not giving answers, my answers. Nepal childhood may not be that different. Did people really need to come to the third world to ask questions about materialism and western values? Had it never been discussed at home? I felt impatient and churlish. Keith filled the silence, as he always did.
I’d been tight with my thoughts. I have an image of a card-player with a good hand. Quietly confident, holding a secret advantage. I cannot allow this. A more acceptable image is of cards which may or may not be strong. The game is to find out by playing them.
The second part of our holiday would be in Pokhara, requiring a ‘plane journey of half an hour or so from Kathmandu. My memory of the bus journey to the airport is of Pl. describing arranged marriage,
“The caste system is officially banned in Nepal, but unofficially many of its elements
still apply. Arranged marriage still occcurs. Each family investigates the prospective bride or bridegroom and photographs are exchanged. The private enquiries are needed since it is still possible to send photographs of a young pretty sister when the bride is actually an older less attractive prospect.
Sutti was the practice of the wife jumping on the funeral pyre of her dead husband. This was outlawed some 50 years ago. Once someone has died the family cannot eat until the cremation is over. A nail is driven into the door way. The wife wears white for so many years –seenotes.health and educaution crime”
The group was split into two, the second group visiting the crematorium next to the airport, known as Pushupanitath. There are a series of piers overlooking the river, each pier reserved for a particular caste. Only Hindus are allowed across the river to the temples which occupy a series of terraces behind the piers. Our vantage point was something of a marketing opportunity and a freak show, holy men with legs behind their ears smoking cannabis, snake charmers, music groups and the inevitable craft stalls. We had a good view of the cremation process which seemed continuous. The men of the family deal with the lighting and stoking of the funeral pyre whilst the women grieve at home. The ashes are then brushed into the river. It is very visible, practical and communal, not the western private undiscussed ritual.
We had an extended wait at the airport, sitting, reading, walking around the departure lounge. Pete and I reflected a little on things so far.
“Its my first experience of traditional culture. What worries me is when do they say no? There are signs of change, the influences of western ways, pollution, satellite dishes. Having things means there are those who don’t have things.”
Pete had no answers, but he seemed equally concerned to ask the question.
“Is he your dad?” asked Keith of Pete.
We realised we must have looked like relations, both stout, with red beards and thinning hair. Embarrassed smiles.
The ‘plane was a twelve seater, and we needed to be friendly. We were almost in the cockpit. I wondered why the stewardess brought lumps of cotton-wool round. I stuck them in my ears anyway and then heard the sound of the engines. We were OK. but the stewardess was sick.
The afternoon was spent shopping and sightseeing along the lake in Pokhara. It is very commercial, yet still very cheap. Embroidered T-shirts were very good value. In the evenings when the shops eventually closed we could still see the lights on behind the shutters and hear the sewing machines clacking away. I walked up to the edge of town and negotiated a trip back on the lake. My boatman was quite a bit older than me, but fit. He needed to be. The mist concealed the Annapurna mountain range. As we neared the end of the trip, the light was disappearing. I became aware of a dark mass jutting out of the clouds. It was massive – “Fishtail”, a peak that remains sacred and unscaled. That early evening glimpse added to its sense of awe and mystery.
Before dinner we watched a troupe of traditional dancers, supported by a man squeezing a wind-box, an early form of portable organ, and a girls’ choir. The choir was mostly two, swelled from time to time by those dancers who weren’t needed. Between numbers these two chatted, giggled and ignored everything else. There was a wealthy Indian family watching with us, three generations. Gran walked with a limp and I had noticed an earlier solitary struggle with stairs. She was gratefully seated for the dance with her grandchildren fussing on her lap, such as it was. I guess it was the beer, but I was overtaken by a powerful sensation of regret. This still occaisionally surprises me, not surprisingly. Within the last two to three years we have lost three parents and two children. The parents died, my daughter left home on her sixteenth birthday and we needed to let go of my son’s behaviour. We have a different and better relationship with these kids now, but it was tough for a while. These feelings were not on the agenda. I couldn’t conceal my distress.
Keith was concerned. “Are you OK?”
“Yes.” I was far from home and turned away. I didn’t do or say anything. Keith didn’t press it further.
I sat at dinner with Denise and talked of Andrew. The beer was still flowing and somehow it didn’t matter about the violence, the lack of help and the guilt. Louise’s protests and her departure. Denise listened closely and at one point her eyes filled up. She would have a story to tell. I listened, but I didn’t hear it.
After most of the group had gone to bed, Pete, Paula, myself and Pl. sat up for a while swapping stories. I told the prison joke-book story. Each joke was numbered and all the inmates had to do was shout one or fifty-two and the prison would fill with laughter. A new prisoner tried with no success, to which his cell-mate remarked, “It’s the way you tell’em.”
Pl. asked, “David, how is that funny?” Despite intensive coaching, during which the humour disappeared, Pl. failed to see how it was funny.
The morning after and a headache with self-recrimination. The 5.30 am. view of The Annapurna range. Stunning and yet I wasn’t moved any more than my first sight of the Himalayas at Nagarkot.
“Are you alright?” enquired Paula. I felt rough, and must have looked it. I guessed she was checking whether I was going down with a traveller’s complaint. I couldn’t face breakfast or the group and missed picking up my packed lunch. The bus trip to our drop point was a bit of a trial.
At the start of the walking day we were met by some Tibetan refugee traders who must lie in wait at the beginning of this trail. Their goods seemed no different from the Nepalese, apart from Tibetan friendship bands and belts. I bought a couple of pieces from one woman who then gave me a band. As we set off, three Tibetan girls with haversacks kept pace with us. At our lunch stop they promptly set out their stalls on the path side.
I shared the trail with Val for a while.
“Do you have any children David?”
“Yes, three. The two eldest have left home now. My middle son has a form of autism with learning and behaviour problems. He became such a handful we weren’t able to cope. He lives in a hostel and comes home regularly. He wasn’t diagnosed until he was nine, so we had several very difficult years. I’m sure he was a big reason why my daughter left at sixteen. Still he’s doing fine now, and Louise comes home fairly regularly too.” For some reason this series of misfortunes came out a lot easier today.
“I work for the local authority. We have a number of schemes for the handicapped.”
“Yes, facilities are improving all the time.” I remembered the absence of help at home and the lack of appreciation of our struggles. ‘Middle-class families always find it hard. Their expectations are too high,’ to quote Andrew’s headmaster. One social worker after another with no effective resources for relieving our distress. Noone to listen to our guilt at not being able to cope. Nobody to ease the pain of letting go. It still hurts to recall the day Andrew first went away. Almost an unfurnished room, a cell, Sheila fussing to make it better, loss and shame mixed with relief. Andrew has a large extended family now, a rich life and a good grounding in independent living.
“Andrew is brilliant now.” Leaving us with permanent regrets, a hole that will never be filled.
“We don’t have any children. I couldn’t have them. The doctor said my blood pressure condition was too dangerous.”
”Oh.” I’d overheard Val talk a lot about a couple children, presumably neices.
“We tried for adoption, but they said my personality wasn’t right.”
“Our first two children were adopted, but I don’t remember any personality tests. Did you agreed with them?”
Val was about to respond, but a reorganisation in the walking formation prevented her. The moment was lost and I would never hear how Val didn’t adopt. Fleetingly I looked back and saw us awake with a phone-call late one night. We had been selected for a baby, six weeks old. It was Christmas and birthdays all rolled into one. Come and collect on Sunday. Friends coming for the weekend, sudden large amounts of shopping. Mum and dad buying a pram. Relatives appearing and disappearing. We had applied to foster. There had been classes and forms, but no suggestion of adoption. So different when Andrˇew came. An early return from holiday because of bad weather, a phone-call as we arrived home. Baby one day old, can you pick up tomorrow? Good weather and it would never have happened. Beautiful child, a horrendous family story, needs a home. We know now that far more support is available for adoptive parents, but it wasn’t then. A social worker came a few times, when they were young and we were blooming. We got cut adrift somehow after that. As they say, the rest is history.
Everyone chipped in with bits of their lunch, so I wouldn’t go hungry. How to accept graciously? Did I deserve their kindness when I’d stayed in bed with a hangover? Were they genuinely interested in my plight? My hunger, such as it was, and me.
I stumbled and coughed, “That’s very good of you, thankyou. Its kind of you.” Too much in the end. The Tibetans were getting their stuff out.
Later on we had a disappointing view of “Fishtail” from Sarankot. Clouds which eventually came our way, the first rain of the holiday. We climbed down a very long staircase to the lake. For some reason I was talking with Keith about impropriety.
“What’s another word for that?” He asked.
“Do you know, I can’t think of one.”
“Ah. Got you there.” A triumph for Keith. My vocabulary had finally run out.
“Thea, what’s another word for impropriety?”
Her eyes twinkled, “Rabellasian.” Thea somehow didn’t fit the mould of an ex-headmistress. Here was a glimpse of a fun and intemperate life.
“That says more about the person who chose the word, than about impropriety.”
Thea chuckled and walked on, looking pleased with herself. Keith went quiet, eyes unfocused.
Keith half turned, “You seem to have a lot of medical knowledge.”
“That’s because I used to be a doctor.”
A light dawned somewhere on Keith’s face, followed by an expression that suggested he’d just kicked himself.
“It’s not something I generally volunteer.”
“Why ever not?”
Margaret answered, “He doesn’t want bothering with medical problems when he’s on holiday.”
I wondered about right and wrong answers. The real reason was about being labelled, neatly placed, sorted. The quick stereotype, a bit like Margaret’s answer, just didn’t fit. The bit of me that cared, still did, but the bit that was infallible had defected.
We came off the hill to early evening in the rice fields. A low golden sun, long shadows, scattered rice stalks, recently harvested and now drying, grey soil and grassy borders. A dirt road beside the lake lead back to Pokhara, passing a fishing village. Eight shacks, teeming with people, eating, mending machines, washing, getting on with something. The sun had gone when we got back to the hooting car horns.
The last day and we were offered the first day of a trekking circuit. We would actually have to go uphill. I was aware of feeling much less breathless, and saw an opportunity to check out some fitness. I also enjoy, in a child-like way, exercise and the buzz it produces. I was streets in front of the rest. I had no idea of the gap. I was very soon on the top. There were two of the guys who matched me on certain sections. I sensed some competition and resentment, mild.
“Here comes the fast group.”
“You are going the wrong way. “ laughter.
“I went for a fitness assessment. They classified me as having the stamina of an international hockey player. I’ve never played hockey. Have you?” This was Denise’s husband, Martin. They always wore impressive walking gear and designer casual evening wear. Their luggage must have been enormous. They didn’t bring T-shirts however, “We planned to buy them over here,” Keith couldn’t keep quiet. A penny had dropped and switched him on, “You’d have thought we could have thought of that.” I wasn’t sure whether it was a topic of conversation or he was being gently hard on himself. Earlier in the trip I’d chatted to David and Alison, a couple in their late twenties. Alison turned to look back up the road, “There’s your dad, David, is he wanting something.”
“He’s your dad?” This was Martin who certainly didn’t look like a mature dad.
“He keeps himself well.”
David had walked back, “Yes he does. A bit over the top sometimes. He won’t drink a lot of things. Beer’s OK. Food is the same. A bit health conscious, you know.” David and Alison were both in pressure jobs associated with cigarettes and racing cars. My imagination wandered over a childhood and an early life with a health freak.
I had never played hockey seriously or had a fitness assessment. I remember being regularly selected for the “440 yards” in the annual inter-house track and field. I always went well until the final bend when for some reason my chest burst and my legs turned to rubber. The power running was there, but twenty yards or so – just what was needed for the short rugby burst. The guy who always won the “440” played for a rival rugby team. Today they are all in perpetual motion.
On the top of that walk, breathless, sweaty and exhilarated. “You silly boy, showing off like that. What will the others will think of you?” Quiet now. “Let him be, its only a boy letting off a bit of steam. There’s no harm in it.” Meekly joins the back of the group.
Sandra, who’d been a travel casualty earlier in the week, “What do you think of the walking, David?”
Modest and rebuked, “I was a bit nervous about my knees and the altitude, but I have more confidence now.”
“Its been taster then?”
It had been many things. “Yes,” the many things left unsaid.
Keith joined me on the next section. He’d taken to discussing medical conditions in the family. He couldn’t help himself. I was never sure where it was leading. “How would the answer to that question help you?” I said eventually to an enquiry about physiotherapy. Its a bit like “The House of Commons” question time. The first question, an innocent answer, and then the “my wife, mother, son had that”, and suddenly the innocent answer contains a massive timebomb. Yet a clarifying question can be intimidating. Huffily, “It doesn’t.” Its all too hard to explain. Iµ weary at the millions of misunderstandings. Keith recovered, he never lay down for long, “We had my dad for a while. He had emphysema, and got so he couldn’t get his meals.” A picture of someone’s final months. Suddenly I thought of the closer ties that may happen at such times, and the loosening when the inevitable happens.
I had turned Keith’s offer of help down the night of the dance, “I would like to be a little closer to my brother,” an invitation to explore my world.
“We had a large family.” Keith was part of an interesting brood.
– meeting an old friend – Keith corrected Margaret – waht are you doing now.
Keith and bad neck
Debbie falls – cross with keith
A lingering coffee with Paula dreams and sadness
Keith – Jake Thea – Mae Terry – Graham I – Andrew “Andy”
The ‘plane was late. I buzzed and shuffled about the airport lounge, unable to settle.
“Are you the official seat-tester around here?” asked Keith.
I finally came to rest, too wound up to read. Perhaps I could write. For over an hour I indulged in my dreams and in my sadness. I discovered that I feared saying good-bye. It felt like a final test.
Thea banged her head on the doorway of the ‘plane, when it finally arrived.
“Are you OK?” asked Terry.
“Had a nice ring to it,” I remarked.
“I suppose that would pass for Yorkshire sympathy,” this from Keith.
We dined out that evening. The rest would depart the following morning at 6.30, leaving me to lie in and continue my journey down to the Indian border later in the day. This was farewell. At the restaurant it happened – my worst nightmare. I was the odd one out in a world of couples, left to sit on the edge. This was the real world. We had left an easy off-balance back on the hills. I hurt somewhere and yet it helped me to say goodbye. My new friends were not rejecting me, nor were they testing me. I had passed the test back there at 9000 feet. A test I had set for myself. My good, the bad and the ugly had gradually been revealed to those who wished to see, and they had liked what they saw.
We shook hands and kissed on the hotel stairs as they made their way to bed. I went to the bar for a nightcap.
“I’ll have a scotch,”
“I’m sorry the bar’s closed sir. Would you like a beer?”
That last night I felt warm and safe, glowing. I had touched and been touched. For a short time we had held each other. It was that intimacy that I had sought, and had found, in Nepal.