Makalu-Barun, part I: To Khandbari with Sandy
Trip Start Mar 21, 2005
351Trip End Ongoing
Show trip route
The news: Maoists and the coalition parties have reached an agreement that will end feudalism and the monarchy in Nepal, if all goes well. As I write this entry, my heart hopes that this agreement will hold.
This Makalu this black sentinel this mysterious land...this place is where we went. Makalu, at 8463 meters, is the fifth highest mountain in the world. From the northern boundary with Tibet, it overlooks deep river valleys, glaciers, and the foothills of eastern Nepal.
The "we" in this story is Sandy Scott and me. I met Sandy over a decade ago in a terrestrial ecology laboratory at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Our job in the lab consisted of sorting leaf litter from forests around the world in order to determine specific nutrient and carbon cycling. The sorting was a tedious zen-like process, picking apart small bits of spruce seeds from fir needles using tweezers. We would talk and laugh during this process.
When I had all my wisdom teeth removed and they all became infected as dry sockets, Sandy nursed me to health with soups and pain killers. She was my mother away from home. Her husband, Harry, who is now a forester in South Carolina, lived in Nepal for five years and was in the Peace Corps here. Although Harry could not make it, Nepal was in his heart, irregardless of the saddening changes brought about from tourism, modernization, and the Maoists.
Sandy arrived at the Kathmandu Guesthouse on a sunny day as I drank Nepali tea on the outdoor terrace. We stayed in the Thamel area, the tourist ghetto, for several days: making plans, getting ready.
On the last day in Thamel, I saw a foreigner slap a Nepali man. Although I didn't see what provoked him, it didn't matter: I was tired of Thamel. The interactions between Nepalis and tourists revolved around money and desire, not kindness for the most part.
One taxi slowly bumped me in the leg as I walked, trying to push me along--"you must be kidding!" (I didn't slap him)
A garbage strike left the streets a smelly mess.
Kids, women with babies, and shoe shine men tried their scams, including one kid who faked a terrible limp. Once I had passed by, he walked normally. He saw me looking at him afterwards. Where's your sense of dignity? You must have lost it in the gutter of touristland.
But if you want rock and roll, good deserts, steak, spaghetti, mini marts, and a whole convenient suite of rafting, trekking, and mountain biking options, you've come to the right place.
To get to the Makalu area, with time to spare, we boooked a flight on Gorkha Airlines. We had several choices, most of them conjuring mysticism and history: Yeti Air, Cosmic Air, Sita Air, Gorkha Air, Buddha Air. Someday maybe I'll fly on Yeti Air. Naming an airline after the abominable snowman took imagination and courage.
Soon, we were in the air above the rugged foothills of the Himalayas. Through the clouds, the Himals periodically peered through. Contoured terraces and villages hugged the hillsides as clear rivers flowed south.
We arrived at Tumlingtar airport 45 minutes later. There we met Maila and Surya, meaning "Middle Brother" and "Sun," respectively.
Maila was Sandy and Harry's porter many years ago, for a couple of treks. As Nepali's call one another by their relationship to one another Harry was the oldest brother, Jetha; Maila was the middle brother, and a third porter was the youngest brother, Kancha.
Surya was Maila's son. Sandy and Harry, over the last decade, have funded Surya's education and have kept in touch through letters. When Sandy saw him last, he was five years old.
Now he was a tall fifteen year-old boy. He and his father gave us khatak scarves, flowers, and tikkas for the emotional reunion and welcome.
"It's very good to see you, mum," Surya said.
Maila had learned a few words of English over the years, too, although Surya did most of the translation. They were so thankful for Sandy and Harry and their generosity over the years. "They really feel like family," Sandy would tell me later.
"We love your father very much. Because of who he is we were able to support you. I'm so proud of you...You're English is so good," Sandy said to Surya.
We hiked north and uphill during the afternoon towards Khadbari, their home, in the hot sun and cooling rain: weather changes quickly in the Himalayas.
In the evening, we relaxed at the Arjuna Hotel, where the toilet brand label was Shitpi, covering both uses nicely. There we ate our first meal of local dal bhat--rice, lentil soup, curry, pickle. We would stay in Khadbari for two strange nights before heading to villages and mountains further north.
After dinner, they insisted that I stay for the night. Darkness prevailed, and without my Tikka headlamp, I would have a hard time making it back to the hotel. Sandy would not worry too much, I hoped. I sang them an "American song", at the request of brother, Rajesh, deciding on "Hotel California" since it was the American song I have heard the most in Asia so far. They brought out the family drum as fifteen people fit into a small room and the doorway.
"You America go I," said Kalpana in broken English.
At dawn, everyone in the family was awake. I helped to fetch water with Kalpana. As few homes have running water, people must walk to and from the nearest water spring, carrying jugs with them and thanking Lu, the god of springs, for what he offered. A small pipe spilled groundwater onto a concrete platform, where people washed clothes and bathed in their saris and shorts. I washed my face in the cool, fresh water.
Later that morning, I returned with half the family to see Sandy at the Arjuna. Sandy hadn't called the search party yet, but was about to. She joked: "she's a little young for you to marry!" We also met Surya, Didi, and Maila and went to their house where Ama, mother, was preparing a meal. We ate together while Ama waited in the next room, as is custom: wives do not eat until everyone else in the family has eaten.
After eating, Surya put on his school uniform as a bullfrog jumped out of his shiny black shoes. Soon, we were also at the Surya Secondary Boarding School, where Surya was in class nine. We walked with the principal, Padme, from class to class, meeting the friendly, enthusiastic students as they greeted us with "Namaste."
On the second strange night, Sandy and I were talking in our room when the son of the hotel owners came in, as if it were his bedroom. He told us stories about hurting himself and other bad stories.
"Can you tell me a happy story," Sandy asked?
"Tell me about playing cricket, Shelove" I asked. Shelove, as in "she love's me, yeah yeah yeah," liked cricket.
"Here comes our prime minister," said Shelove. A small man brushing his teeth in a white tank top and boxers entered the room. He wasn't the prime minister, but he was their parliamentary representative. Tanka Rai was his name. As his last name described, he was part of the Rai culture, the majority group in the Makalu area who practice ancestor worship and harmony with nature and transmit oral myths.
"The Maoists burned my house down two years ago. The other day, I returned home for the first time...seven army guards in plain clothes and some friends went with me to protect me."
"Now the Maoists are asking for fifty percent of the revenue from our government office. They stay in the countryside, the forests...the people suffer."
"I think you'd be a good prime minister," I said, after listening to his thoughts on a peaceful, prosperous Nepal.
That night, fireworks lit the streets, marking the beginning of the Tihar festival, which celebrates Laksmi, goddess of wealth, and Yama, god of the underworld.
Tomorrow, we would leave for our trek. Sandy and I would walk together with Maila, Surya, and a porter for a few days, then Maila and I would continue into Makalu-Barun National Park for some exploration.
Where I stayed