Thursday, August 11, 2011

Who Put the Adventure Into Today's Easy Itinerary?

Two kilometers of mud near the Nepal-Tibet border separated me from the sealed road to Kathmandu.

Today was supposed to be an easy day. Cross border. Board bus. Arrive in Kathmandu and check in at the newish hotel, Ganesh Himal, which got good reviews on TripAdvisor. 

But this mud, which presumably resulted from all the rain washing the road out, presented me with a novel dilemma. Namely, how to cross it. 

But where there is a dilemma, there are entrepreneurs working out a solution. And here on the Nepalese border, local residents had become impromptu porters and guides. 

"You can ride piggyback," announced a helpful young man when I eyeballed the mud and then looked at my utterly inappropriate footwear. (My Tevas were uselessly packed away.)

I laughed and rejected that idea outright. I'm a hulking giant in this part of the world. Okay, not giant, but I definitely weighed more than this guy did. And anyway, I wasn't riding piggyback for two kilometers. 

I took off my shoes, laced them together, put my socks into them, and looped them over my arm. I rolled my jeans up to my knees.

I tested out the mud with my bare feet. 


"I'll carry your bag," announced my helper. "And I'll guide you through the mud to a taxi on the other side." 

That seemed like a reasonable plan, aside from one problem. 

"But I only changed my leftover yuan and have just enough to get to Kathmandu. I don't have enough for a tip. Only a hundred rupees." 

He considered this. 

"Well, whatever you have, I guess." 

I eyeballed the muddy pit lined with stalled trucks that lay ahead of us and knew 100 wouldn't be enough. He was hoping I had more money stashed away. I had no choice but to proceed and hope it worked out, that I could negotiate with the taxi driver to take my money at the end when we reached an ATM in Kathmandu. 

My helper put on my backpack and stepped across the rushing stream in the middle of the road. I gingerly followed him, carefully avoiding the rocks. On the other side, I sank in inch-deep mud and hit a rock.


"You can wear my shoes." My helper offered me his plastic sandals. 

"No. Then what will you wear?" 

He had to acknowledge I had a point, and settled for holding me by the elbow so that when I jumped from stepping on a rock, I didn't jump far.

I'd hoped we'd find a 4WD on the other side. 

We didn't. We found a muddy path, which used to be a road. We followed it for a kilometer, the mud squishing between my toes. 

I was laughing the whole time, even when I stepped on rocks. This was such an unexpected twist of fate, me squishing through the mud when I'd planned on being on a bus. My helper could see the humor in it and soon he was laughing too. 

In the end, we didn't have to hike both kilometers. After a bit more than one, we came to a crowd of stalled vehicles that could go no further until something was done to the road. One of them turned out to be a share-taxi which had just delivered a group from Kathmandu. 

He was looking for fares for the return trip. 

I paid my guide with four crisp US dollar bills—he was right that I was hoarding more somewhere—and got into the 4WD via a door over a puddle where I could wash my feet. 

"You're first, you get the front seat." 
"I'll move. I just need my feet to dry first."

I rolled over into the front seat and put on my shoes. The driver started up the 4WD and got us out of there, doing about a hundred-point turn to get around all the trucks and pedestrians. The truckers sat bored. They weren't getting to China anytime soon. 

The Indian-American family of Tibet tourists walked by, looking unhappy about the mud. 

The driver—a cheerful beer-bellied Nepalese man in a striped shirt—hawked his taxi, and soon we filled up. Way up. Two Indian guys (one in the front next to me), one Nepalese woman, and soon four college-age Chinese backpackers approached. 

"Come with us," I called to them. "We're going to Kathmandu."

They jumped in and we started up, slowly driving through the mud for 20 kilometers, then hitting regular road. We covered fifty kilometers in a hour and a half, which was pretty good given the mountains we were traveling through. 

"Where are you staying," asked the Chinese backpacker in hipster horn-rimmed glasses. 

"I think I'm going to Ganesh Himal tonight," I said. "Tomorrow I'll look for something cheaper." 

He nodded and looked it up in his guidebook, which was from a Chinese publisher.

"Are you guys from China? Why do you all sound American?" I already thought I knew the answer from the other Chinese backpackers I'd met, but couldn't be sure until he answered. 

"Our teachers are American. They teach us English and all about the world." 

We were a team now, me and the Chinese backpackers. Because we were alike in our world views and our goals for today. These kids stay in budget lodgings side-by-side with European, Japanese, and American backpackers, where people will speak to them freely without worrying about punishment from some higher authority. They aren't on canned bus tours and they have access to everything the wider world has access to. Not to sound overly dramatic but China is in for some changes on the censorship and information fronts.

Our driver didn't go into Thamel, the backpacker's ghetto. The roads there are tiny. He dropped us off on the outskirts.

Not surprisingly, he'd called ahead to his friends who owned a guesthouse. These men tried—and managed—to separate me from the Chinese backpackers by leading us through crowded back-alleys of Thamel. They went to work on both of us to get us to stay in their lodge.

"I know a place," said the tout who had adopted me, calling back from the single file we'd had to take to get through a tiny path that cut across the middle of a block.

"I'm sure you do," I said, laughing.

"Just look at it. It's cheap."

"Fair enough. Let's go look."

One look and I was out of there. Cheap, yes. Simple, yes. But I wanted a bit of comfort, something less rundown. I walked to an ATM, got some money, realized I had no bearings or idea where I was, and hailed a taxi.

"Ganesh Himal, please."

Which turned out to be a lovely place with new rooms.

But they only had room for me for a single night. I'd have to move tomorrow.

No problem, I thought. I rinsed out my laundry in the sink and sat down to go on the Internet to my heart's desire. No one blocked me or crashed my browser. Twitter, Facebook, my work servers, all open to me here in Nepal.

I gave the finger to the general direction of China, which couldn't touch me here.

Up yours.

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