TBC - Part I

Trip Start Apr 07, 2010
Trip End Oct 11, 2011

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Flag of Nepal  , Central Region,
Tuesday, May 17, 2011

I made my way down from the road to camp, where I was greeted by a young Nepali guy, who seemed a little perplexed about my arrival, and didn't quite know what to do with me. He quickly solved the problem by gesturing to the cushions stretched out on the floor of the bar, followed by a few sleepy grunts which I interpreted as "sleep here." He returned to similar cushions on the other side, and was immediately asleep again. I followed cue, and this was how I spent my first night at The Beach Camp.

By this stage, I'd been on the road for a little over a year, and when I say on the road, I mean just that. In all that time I've had no break from the road, continuously moving from place to place - my longest stay had been in Dubai. I was pretty exhausted from this type of travel, and well due for a break from it all - a holiday from my holiday. It was time to leave a dead patch of grass somewhere and rest my weary shoulders.

I thought it would be fun to share my experiences at The Beach Camp (TBC) on this blog, by writing about how they do things just a little bit differently over here Nepal.

When I started at TBC, I had no idea what things were going to be like. My expectations about camp were as far from reality as my clothes were from their last decent wash. If I'd stopped to think for a second, that I was going to work, in a camp - in the third world, maybe the addition of these two things would have made me stop for a second and re-adjust my expectations. It wasn't until I woke up the next morning that I even realised that in fact, last night I'd just slept in the bar - that's hardly professional is it?

I want to give you an idea of what Nepal is like, in terms of its development, or lack of development I should say. I looked up some interesting statistics, which I thought I would include in order to help
you imagine the condition of the country.

-         The average yearly income is $440 (US) and 55% of the population lives below the  international poverty line. Nepal easily fits in the bottom 10 countries for lowest GDP (though different sources put it in different places, in all it scored within the bottom 10).

         The adult literacy rate is 58%, and only an estimated 3% of the population are internet users

         There is a 55% rate of child labour (though I am not sure how this is defined, from my observations I would have estimated higher. I even found a postcard of a cute little boy carrying a heavy load of bricks on his back)

         There are only 3500km of bitumen roads, and I would easily rate them amongst the worst roads I have ever traveled on.

         If I interpreted some road statistics correctly, 1 in every 161 (0.62%) of vehicles on the road will result in a fatality. Bus accidents result in 39% of annual road fatalities, and 60% of serious injury.

Now you have a cheerfully coloured picture of Nepal in your mind, I want to explain how things at camp work a little. TBC offers a small range of activities, rafting, kayaking and canyoning. There are several different packages guests can chose from: one day rafting, 2-7 day long kayaking courses, the "action" package which combines all activities. The most common activity, this time of year (due to it not being peak tourist season) is the single day rafting trip - and most surprising is how popular it is with young Nepali's from Kathmandu (KTM). On the weekends we're always full with the Nepali crowd, some stay the night at the camp, and others leaving shortly after going down the river.

The camp is situated along the "highway" between KTM and Pokhara (Nepal's second largest "city"). It lies 85km from KTM and 115km from Pokhara - to put a bit of perspective on that for you all, Pokhara is 4-8 hours away - if you manage to get that distance without ending up in the ambulance. In Nepal, you're 30 times more likely to be involved in a traffic accident than in a developed country. In fact, the day before I arrived, a car went off the edge of the road, and  tumbled down the cliff into the river. The guys at TBC tried a rescue - as they've done before - but all 4 occupants were already dead. A few months ago, a whole bus went over the edge - the guys managed to save 10 people from drowning, but they wouldn't say how many had died. In my time here, it was common to look up at the road and see a long line of traffic stretched along the road - a sign that there had been an accident up ahead.

Its location along the highway makes the trips down the river far from being a wilderness journey; however the area still feels pretty remote. The highway was the first to be built in Nepal, and was only finished 40 years ago. Before the road, it was a week’s journey on foot to KTM. Some of the locals around the area can remember the times when getting eaten by a tiger was more dangerous then getting eaten by a passing vehicle. Electricity arrived just 4 years ago, while the other side of the river received it just last year. As it is, the electricity is still a bit of a joke, more on that later. If any accident happened around here, it’s a 3 hours drive, absolute minimum, to the hospital in KTM, riding in a comfortable ambulance that seems to be on loan from the city’s history museum. It’s basically just the cheapest old van anyone could find with a slightly crooked and flaking red cross slapped on both sides. The hazard lights are used in a commendable yet frivolous effort to part the unforgiving traffic which honestly doesn’t really care.

The camp consists of several buildings as well as a multitude of tents, the quantity varying according to how busy things get (or if they blow away in the wind). TBC also offers other accommodation for those Western guests who like more than a thin layer of canvas to bed down under. Their accommodation comes in the form of 8 bamboo huts, stretched in 2 lines of 4 across the camp, facing the river for great morning views. Spread all around the huts is a nice garden, blossoming in yellows, oranges and blues.

My accommodation was to be none other then my very own tent. It has seen me safely through many a night so far, and was to now become my permanent lodging, providing me shelter and homeliness for my stay. Some might think it strange that I should refer to my tent as homely, but it is. It might be small, it might leak, creak and reek – yet I wouldn’t have it any other way. Everything inside is covered in sand from the beach and every night as I lie sweating myself to sleep in the heat as I swat at the ants and spiders crawling over my bare skin. But that is life when you live outdoors, and I was living 100% outdoors – it was great. Working outdoors, sleeping outdoors, showering outdoors - I never had brick and cement confining my space.

Living in a tent at TBC proved an interesting experience though. It felt like I was camping in an unusual place - somewhere I was actually allowed to be. Not much of my camping has been that way really, usually I am "covert camping," pitching in the darkness in the most hidden place I can find, before leaving again at first light. The problem with this is that in my mind I was still not supposed to be here. I felt very exposed and it took me a while to get used to the concept that I was actually safe here, out in the open. For example, during my first week, it happened several times that I startled awake in the morning to the sound of people approaching, speaking fluidly in a foreign tongue. My heart starts pumping immediately, as I think of the trouble they might cause me. “Oh no!” I think, “Someone has found me camping here! Who knows what trouble they are going to bring.” I hold my breathe as I wait for them to approach – hoping they will just pass me with nothing but a comment and cause me no trouble. Then reality slowly sinks in. Oh yeah…right, I am here at TBC – that’s Himal’s voice outside.

I had a dream one night that I was camping in a local park near my house back home (Hanna Park for those who know it). I wake at about 6 o’clock, and the dream carries on into my woken world. It’s light outside – crap… that means I should be up and out of here already! I start quickly dressing, then packing my stuff, clumsily cramming it into my bag. I begin rolling my sleeping mattresses up when I realise that there are 3 mattresses, for extra comfort. Huh? Where did they come from? I wake up - for the second time, this time to the real world. Relieved this means I can go back to sleep now, I do so. An hour later I wake again, but it takes me a little while to remember what had just happened. I stare around in a daze of confusion– why am I wearing my clothes, and why is my bag packed?

My mind seems to be particularly vulnerable when I first wake in the mornings; I am left at the mercy of my still dreaming imagination to interpret things around me. One morning I woke to a shock thinking that TBC was being bombed. My fear only lasted a few seconds before the booming roars ripped through my tent to shake me to my senses, as I realised it was a freak thunderstorm – they never occur in the morning. There was no rain, but the thunder echoed between the cliffs, shaking the boulders loose and roaring as it split cracks through the very stone itself. Well, that’s what was happening in my still half asleep mind anyway.

 Such storms often provided the evenings entertainment, as we watched nature's symphony like mesmerized ants before a marching parade. She spat wicked razor light from the clouds to dance in the sky like electric puppets. You don’t need a TV when you can plug into that every night.

 The worst place to be during a storm is the kitchen, which is up the top of camp. The kitchen is complete with a mud floor, and mud-"fortified" bamboo walls – it was nice of them to think of adding that extra bit of strength. The kitchen does have a real roof though, as miraculous as it sounds. Despite the fact Nepal has a monsoon season, whoever designed this place didn't really think about drainage or elevation. Big storms see the kitchen completely flooded. On one occasion, I recall Furpa struggling to prepare a dinner for 50, while swimming around in water just below his knees, as his mud domain slowly crumbled around him. Vegetables floated languidly between his legs, as the storm turned the kitchen itself nature’s brew. The rain lashed and slashed at the mud walls, blasting a sludge of shrapnel from the walls in every direction. The rice had a particular earthy taste that evening.

Despite its structural problems, the kitchen is where all the good things go on, though I'm NOT referring to the food. I just mean the general atmosphere and flavour of things. It's the place no customers are allowed, so it is nice and laid back. Furpa is always waiting there with his golden smile and a dish that funnily enough looks exactly the same as what I have eaten the last 5 meals in a row...

Cross a little bit of lawn from the kitchen, and you come to the storage hut, a duplicate of the kitchen, the life jackets probably tasting about as good as Furpa’s cooking.

A little down from the storage hut is the Vishnu shrine. For those a bit rusty on the 330 million different Hindu gods (not an exaggeration), Vishnu is the blue skinned, multi-armed guy who is the preserver and protector of the universe. His role is to return to the earth in troubled times and restore the balance of good and evil.

Quiet often the shrine contains a mattress accompanied by a sleeping body - worship is hard work you know. The shrine also happens to be the favourite place for the guys to go and play cards, or smoke some Ganja (weed). A very holy place indeed.

I never understood why it is called weed, until I was in India, and especially TBC. It's a weekly job to "weed" the garden, if you get what I mean. The stuff grows everywhere, taking up its namesake. It pervades every garden bed and open ground in the camp, even all the way down on the beach you can find a few shoots coming through. Along the main flowerbed running across the front of the camp, the 'weed’ is kept under control. However elsewhere it is allowed to grow freely, in fact I was instructed not to weed the ‘weed.’ Ironically, the largest number of plants can be found in front of the shrine, and when I was there, they were all just small saplings - suggesting that there had been a recent harvest...

There are no lawn mowers at TBC. Not even any of those old manual lawn mowers. This is a  place where things well and truly get done by hand. A hand scythe is used for any "mowing" around here. The local goats and cattle graze the front of the camp, so it’s not so bad there. But the middle and back sections don’t get any eating, leaving it up to a pair of hands to bring it back to good measure.

Last of all, situated in the center of camp is my territory: the bar - if you could call it that. After waking up that first morning , I was de-briefed by Pia, mostly about boring little things, like how many spoons of milk powder goes in the tea, and how to fix the water when it decides to stop flowing (the answer is to get someone else to do it). She included none of the useful tips, like  where to sit so the birds living in the roof don't shit on you, your food or the book you're reading. Or, the best place to pitch my tent so that when I wake up in the morning I don't find a colony of ants have made a home out of my flip-flops right outside the front door. (Sorry my dear Australians – but my vocabulary has gone international. Some readers could get the wrong idea if I wrote about having “thongs” lying on the ground outside my tent).

I met Pia's husband, Ram, who grew up just a few kilometers down the road from camp. When he was a boy, he would skip school and got work on the river as a "bucket boy" with the Westerners who had come for rafting expeditions. These were the days before self-draining rafts. The water gets in, and someone has to take it out. This was the beginning of Ram's life on the river, and from here he taught himself how to paddle, and became Nepal's first kayaker. He now owns the camp, and during summer (which is low season because of monsoon) heads to Sweden where he owns a kayak school. I had arrived this weekend in order to meet them both, because they were leaving for Sweden in a few days, and wanted to meet me. With them gone, I would be the only non-Nepali left in camp, and Bishnu, who was Ram's brother, was left in charge of things.

While Ram has grown the business from his skills, charisma and natural business sense, Bishnu has come to power as a result of lineage rather that any actual ability to actually do anything. When you are trying to sell "fun," it requires a certain instinct to run things smoothly, but the only instinct Bishnu has is trying to squeeze as many bank notes into his pockets as possible. He is like a young son inheriting the throne, yet unable to lift his father’s sword. He always keeps a smug grin glued to his face and smiles his way through uncomfortable situations (like when squeezing extra pennies out of people). He wears a silly, bright red rafting helmet when he rides his bike, and expensive sports sunglasses way too big for his head, despite doing absolutely nothing physical, except perhaps pressing buttons on the computer without seeming to really get any work done, and lifting a heavy cup of coffee up to his fat lips.

Well, needless to say, I didn’t like Bishnu much. I don't want this blog to turn into a whine session, so therefore I am not going to include any more about Bishnu, or several other aspects of my stay, which I felt were far from just. I am just going to try focus on the fun stuff. However, I do want readers to be aware that my time here was not all fun and games, and there were rather unfair and immoral affairs running in the background, though I won’t bore you with the details. But I guess everyone has their price – and mine was getting a chance on the river.

Now, back to the bar. At TBC, the bar is probably not like the “bar” you're imagining. Let me paint a picture for you. It's a bar where you can sit back and watch some live entertainment, maybe some bulls fighting it out on the beach, while you relax to a cold drink and listen to the prayer flags idly flapping. As you're distracted watching the bulls fight, some stray dogs might sneak in and grab a bite off the table, whilst simultaneously you hear a soft "plop" and look down to find the birds have shat in the drink you were just enjoying - again. You ask the barman (me), who is sitting around somewhere with his dirty bare feet propped up on a table, for another drink. Only you are told that there is nothing cold left in the fridge, because there has been no electricity in the last 2 days. So, with a sigh, you sit back down, only to realise that the stray has just finished your lunch, gobbling away on the last chunk. Hey, that’s fine though - it didn't taste good anyway. And heck, who can complain, your chilling out in Nepal next to a river which your about to raft in and have some wild fun. Life could be worse.

This is the kind of bar run at TBC.

I decided to name the bar "Bill's Bar." Bill was the first guy I ever saw hanging behind there. He's a quiet little fellow, with short, grey hair, and big pointy ears. He tends to be a little on the shy side, and chooses to spend most of his time alone. He's a fast runner, and doesn't like seeing any food go to waste (regardless of how bad it tastes), he will always volunteer his efforts to help finish off leftovers. He is the bar’s only permanent resident, though quite often all you will glimpse of him is his long pink tail as he dashes back inside his nice cozy mouse hole, which is the prime bit of real-estate up behind the glasses shelf.

Keeping Bill company in the bar’s menagerie is the flock of birds who live in the straw roof. Someone had been silly enough to put a bird box up for nesting – inside the roof of the bar. I’m sorry, but what were you thinking? One family lives in there, then another few families in the ends of the open bamboo poles, and a family of what we call back home, “Indian Mynas,” lives in what is a perfect nest around the base of the pole at the apex of the roof. When I arrived, every family had chicks, who would chirp away all day long inside of their bamboo castles. There comes a day though when every bird must learn to fly. That was interesting. The girls no longer pointed and exclaimed, “aaaaw, how cute!” as soon half a dozen baby birds were zooming around like newborn kamikaze pilots. You’re eating your meal, when a bird whizzes down, landing face down on the table, skidding across like a baby giraffe on ice. You stare at it, and it stares at you. He flutters away in embarrassment. No problem that a few ceiling fans wouldn’t solve though.

The work I do can’t really be described as ‘work.’ This time of year, pre-monsoon, is off-season, and sees few tourists visiting Nepal. There are not many people to serve. The idea is that someone should be in the bar at all times, to look after any eventualities that may occur, everything from unexpected customers, to chasing flying tents. With me in the bar, it means that the camp can run at full capacity, with all the guides out on the water if need be. Otherwise a guide needs to babysit the place, and that means a slower turnover of customers and profit. So - while I may make fun of my own sometimes seemingly useless position, I am still a valuable team member; I allow the camp to function a bit more smoothly. Well, at least I would like to think I’m important anyway.

When the groups come back from being out on the river a meal is usually served up, so it's my job to get the gruel from the kitchen down to the bar and see to it that everyone is served their share of slop. In the evenings, there are sometimes some guests staying on overnight or on multi-day packages, and it's my job to see that any needs are met, that they are comfortable and also to give them someone to talk to. A little bit of cleaning gets done, if I'm in the mood, but nobody ever tells me to do any real cleaning other then a quick tidy up every now and then. These guys didn’t really grow up in the cleanest of places – they don't really care about inconsequential things, like Bill's droppings on the tables that the guests eat off.

The deal was that in exchange for my passive hours attending the bar, I would get the opportunity to learn some white water kayaking. Ram told me I would be able to run the entire river if I got any good, and eventually I did manage to run it all - even if some parts were done upside down.

So, on my second day I went rafting down the Trisuli, to dip my toes in the water and get a feel for the rapids. From what I could vaguely recall of the little white water kayaking and rafting I've done before, the rapids were reasonably big, with one big 3+ ominously named "Upset." I would find out a few weeks later that Upset is one hell of a carnivorous monster, with a thirst for easy prey such as novice kayakers. When we finished running the river, Himal who is the head guide, kept his helmet on as we rode the pick-up truck back to camp. I asked him why he didn’t take his helmet off, to which he grins and replies, “My friend – river is grade 3 or 4. Road…road my friend is ‘bout a grade 6.” Class 6 is as high as the grading system goes, and they carry the warning “danger to life and limb.” He had a point. At that stage I decided to count how many people the twin-cab, “5 seat,” pick-up truck was carrying. There had been 2 rafts, each had 6 people, plus guide, the safety kayaker and the driver and a random local from near camp had come down as well. There were two rafts, one kayak, 17 paddles, helmets and lifejackets, 4 customers, Himal and I in the cage on the back. A few legs dangled down from up top. Himal opened up the gear bag, reached down and offered me a shiny red helmet. I put it on.

The day after rafting, I had my first opportunity at running the river in a kayak. We were going to the upstream section, not down the rapids I had been rafting in – they were too big for now. Pradip was taking a Lee (a customer) and me, to a put in point about 15km upstream from camp.

Pradip is a funny character. He is a little river ninja, who likes wearing his hair up in a topknot, and doesn't like wearing a shirt. He likes to have a laugh, and has a girly little giggle, which is accompanied by a face, which probably resembles Bill when he is nibbling on some cheese.  His repetitive jokes never get old - at least to him. This often consisted of his favourite English, "fucking," and "eh," both of which he cleverly combines in an absolute mastermind of English creativity, to create rhetorical questions. These were always used at every opportunity. When we go for a swim, "fucking cold, eh?" Run a rapid, "fucking good eh?" Raining, "fucking rain, eh?" Sunny, "fucking hot, eh." Like I said, he’s a real genius of creativity.

This day it was “upy-stream, fucking excited, ey?” as Lee, Pradip and I carried the boats up to the top of camp. Pradip also adds “y” to lots of word, like “upy-stream,” “downy-stream” and “sweepy stroke.” Up top there seems to be no vehicle in which to transport the kayaks, so I ask him, “How do we get them upstream?”

“Eeeeh, bus!” I look around. I don’t see any bus. But, we keep walking until we hit the road, where Pradip drops his kayak, and Lee and I followed. A flying chunk of beeping metal zoomed past – on the wrong side of the road. Pradip pointed and said “seee! Bus!” I soon realized that we would be waving down a local bus. Since there was no room inside for the kayaks, I figured they would be put on the roof.

We waited up on the road, while Pradip signaled to passing vehicles, using the local bus/passenger sign language. It turned out that trucks were up for grabs as well. One or two stopped, but they want a higher price than we could afford, so Pradip let them pass. After 30 minutes, we get our ride. The “Bus Boys,” as I call them (every bus has “helpers”), jumped out and climbed up onto the roof to receive the kayaks and paddles we passed up. They then quickly jumped down and I realized that they hadn’t secured them with any rope. I didn’t have time to ponder it further – Pradip did a little jump, getting hold of a window sill with his foot, and pulled himself up onto the roof. He looked down, and waved for me to come up too. Oh, I get it – we were the ropes!

I copied Pradip, but as I clumsily hauled myself up, I accidentally smacked a lady inside the bus with my foot. Lee followed in an equally smooth motion. I was still clambering into position, and Lee was still climbing up, when things were put in gear and were on the way! I sat where Pradip pointed, in between the rail of the roof rack and one of the kayaks, and held on tight. This was my first time riding the roof. I’d seen it done before – but I’d never had the chance to try it out.

A few hundred metres down from the camp, there is a narrow bridge right before a blind corner. In Nepal, that makes for a great place to overtake, and overtake we did. The force pushed the kayak into me, and I braced myself against the metal rail, pushing back. This action repeated every 10 seconds or so, as I held on for dear life with the kayaks bullying me towards the edge.

There’s nothing quiet like it. After the initial shock, I couldn’t help but let out a wide grin as we shot through the first village. Everything seemed so far down! Wind in my hair, I felt part of everywhere. No mess of metal and dirty glass dividing you from the scenery – I felt like I was the scenery. I didn’t pass by it – it passed by me. It was wonderful, the forest blurring by on both sides, the river a shiny glaze down the steep cliffs, and zipping past buses within arms reach of other roof-riders.

“Fucking nice, eh?” yelled Pradip over the wind. On the bright side, I guess holding on was a good way to warm up the muscles before hitting the river!

It took around 20 minutes to reach the put in point. From there we carried the boats down off the road to the river. In we got. Now the biggest challenge in the beginning for my any kayaker is learning the "Eskimo roll." For those not familiar with the term, it is the main form of self-rescue when a kayaker has capsized – the trick is to roll the kayak onto the top of the water whilst remaining inside. It is a technique that can be difficult to learn, but once mastered feels effortless. It involves moving the paddle in a coordinated effort with your body to come round on top of the water again.

So after a few failed rolled attempts from both of us, we set off down the river. Although couldn’t roll, I think I had managed to maintain my sense of balance and could paddle in time – something Lee seemed to be greatly lacking. At the first rapid he went completely off line, floating sideways, helplessly trying to avoid the hole which made short work of him. The "line" that I talk about is the route chosen to navigate through the rapid. The guide chooses the best line, and we try to follow as best we can - at least that's the plan. A "hole" is a particular type of rapid, or wave. They are the beginner’s enemy, but also a good paddler’s play spot, as the liquid hydraulics are toyed with for a fun time.

A "hole" is formed in a rapid when the water drops in elevation after pouring over the top of an underwater obstacle, such as a rock or ridge. The drop in elevation causes the water to accelerate as it flows down, creating a smooth ramp, which then plunges deeply into the water below. The downward force of the water crashing creates a "hole," in which a point which has a lower elevation then the surrounding water is created. Behind the hole is a pillow of turbulent water and since the pillow is higher than the hole, some of the water flows back upstream and into the hole. So, as you paddle through you are hit in the chest and face by a powerful current flowing back upstream. This is dangerous because it can easily push a kayaker back into the hole waiting behind, which will quickly grab the boat. Unless you know what you’re doing, you will soon be given a chance to practice your roll - or swim.

The way to run through a hole is always head on, gathering momentum as you approach and paddling hard, especially down the ramp. The trick is to lean forward into the impact and plunge your paddle deep into the water below, so it is buried within the water flowing downstream, not upstream. This gives your stroke power and brace, rather then having your paddle flop behind you as the upstream water gives you no grip, rendering your stroke useless. In this way, a hole can be "punched" through by a kayaker, as he pulls himself through the backwash with his momentum and anchored paddle stroke.

The kayaks are fitted with a “spray deck”, or “skirt,” which fits tightly around your waist, sealing the boat off. This way, no water can enter the boat, and it is this that allows a kayaker to roll without having the boat filling up with water. Lee had performed a “wet exit,” by which a tag is pulled on the skirt, releasing it. The water rushes in, and you are free to swim out.

At the next rapid – Lee performed another wet exit. It was slow going as we made our way down, Pradip and I in our boats, and Lee upside down in his. It felt really good to be out on a river. I had really missed kayaking since I’d started traveling; I was finally getting a chance to spend time out on the water again. This was great. There’s a special feeling I get from paddling through the white water which you can’t get from anything else. Waves tumbling through you as you crash head on, paddle buried deep in the turbulence, wrestling to break through. I won’t deny that I like a dose of adrenaline, and nothing gives me a better hit then fighting it out with the water. So I was hooked from my very first paddle. I knew I’d be spending some time here. This wasn’t an opportunity I was going to give up lightly.

So I would spend about a month of my time here at TBC, working and living with the guys here at camp and on the river. The TBC team is made up mostly of young guys, with all the guides in their 20's. You have already heard about Bishnu, Ram and Pia, so next in line of authority is Himal. Himal is the senior river guide, who is in charge of things out on the water and in camp, when Bishnu is out. He is like a little boy stuck in an adult’s body; an energy machine set to full power. He is the one who makes TBC what it is. He gives the place an undying flow of energy, a relentlessly vivacious charm. Put it short, without Himal, TBC would feel dead. Just a few guides lazing around waiting for customers. Himal brings things to life, as he puts it, he’s "an entertainer," and can NOT sit still.

Luckily enough, he spoke the most English out of everyone at camp, and was the only person I could actually converse with in proper sentences. He was therefore also vital for my sanity while staying at camp - one can only speak so much broken English. While he might be able to communicate with Westerners, at heart, Himal is still a villager - as are all the guys who work here. I mean no offense to them by saying this; I just mean as they say, "you can take the boy out of the village, but not the village out of the boy." That's one thing travel has taught me. It’s not absolute – but it’s a pretty good rule of thumb. He still believes you get what you get in life, and your fate is not for your own making. And like all the guys, he does not fully understand the importance of safety as you or I might. In fact, Safety is a word seemingly non-existent in the Nepali vocabulary. As with the word "hygiene," the Nepali's use the English word, a worrying suggestion that prior to Western influence these concepts were unknown to them.

One day Himal came and sat in the bar, humming a jaunty tune like always. He placed his helmet down on the table, pulling out several stickers which he placed next to it. He started trying to figure out the best way to fit the stickers over the helmet. It looked like he was thinking to hard about a thing of trivial importance, so I wondered what's up.  I went over and asked him what he was trying to do. "My helmet is broken," he told me, as if that explains it all.
"So...?" I questioned, but he still seemed to think it was pretty obvious what he was doing and his previous sentence explained it all. So I prompted, "What are you doing with the stickers?"
"Trying to fix it!" He replied, as if I had lost all common sense by asking such silly questions. He showed me several cracks - one of them quite large, which made the helmet look like an immediate right-off to me. He obviously hadn’t thought so. After the careful application of several large stickers, things looked as good as new, "seeee Tim, no problem my friend!"

As I said, Himal is a busy guy, and I really don't know how it's possible for him to burn so much energy. One morning I woke around 7, crawling out of my tent to start the day. Himal strode past, with a shovel casually hung over his shoulder. "Gooooood morning TIM!" he sang. I looked at him, asking in a clumsy, half asleep manner,
"What are you doing with the shovel?"
"I just finished digging that trench over there," he pointed to a long drainage trench, maybe a foot deep and wide, probably several meters long. I may have just woken up at what felt like a reasonable time, while Himal had just finished digging an entire trench as I had practically slept next to him. I knew he had gone to bed much later then I did – I had heard him singing and partying with the customers. He's incredible.

Himal believed his role was to "please the customers," and would stop at nothing to achieve this. Getting drunk down on the beach around a fire - right next to the raging river - no problem! If the customer is happy, then Himal is doing his job well. If people want to be stoned as well as drunk around the fire, next to the river, then that's no problem as well! In fact, Himal would even make sure you have a supply of Ganja to see you through your time at TBC, because, as he says, "it's my job to make people happy!"

As I said, ‘safety’ is not something that comes naturally to the guys at camp. The only line I ever saw Himal draw was when he took 6 Israeli's rafting one day. Halfway down, they took off all their safety gear, popped out the hip flasks and started smoking joints in the boat. He kindly asked them to paddle to shore to enjoy their smoking on dry land. Naturally, Himal was gravely concerned for the safety of his boat, with those joints being passed around, their tips hot and heavy. "If they want to smoke, no problem, but not on the boat - they will put holes in it!" he told me that evening back at camp. He made sure they finished off their supply on dry land before continuing.

Himal claimed his energy came from "Dal Bhat full power!" Dal Bhat is the staple Nepali diet. When I say staple, I mean it's the only thing they eat, a Nepali will eat Dal Bhat 2 or 3 times a day. 365 days a year. For their whole life. At the average life expectancy of 66 years, that equals approximately 72,270 Dal Bhats in a lifetime - give or take. What's in it? Well essentially it consists of Dal and Bhat – that’s about it. Dal is lentils, served as a soup, and bhat is rice. At camp and other tourist places, it's served with a tarkari, basically a little bit of a curry made from whatever vegetables are at hand, normally potatoes and green beans.

Ask any non-Nepali what they think of Dal Bhat, and they will roll their eyes and give you a look of disgust at the mere mention of it. The green, morbid Dal soaks into the rice - producing a sludgy, sloppy muck that I’m quite confident doesn’t change in appearance after it's been inside your digestive system for a few hours. Then there's the Tarkari to go with it - the only advantage of this is that it will burn your mouth bad enough so that you’re no longer able to taste the runny mess on your plate. If that doesn't satisfy your appetite, there's some chicken to wash it all down with, if you’re daring enough. Also seasoned in several seasons’ worth of chili and spices, by my estimates less than half the chicken is actually edible, the rest being a greasy mess of bone, skin, fat and cartridge.

OK, Dal Bhat is not this bad everywhere. Furpa is the one to blame for this. I've had a few servings outside camp, and while they were way off being appetizing, I would at least put them into the "edible" category. I don't know what Furpa did to get his job as camp cook, but it definitely didn't involve someone tasting his cooking. Furpa was one of the kindest hearted people I have ever met, but unfortunately his kindness is inversely proportionate to his cooking ability.

Chicken was the only meat served at camp, everything else being too expensive. Anyone after some beef would have difficulty, considering the punishment for killing a cow in Nepal is 2 years imprisonment (they’re gods remember). One day, the guys got together and bought some pork – I was really looking forward to what would be my first serving of red meat in about 2 months. However, Furpa has a knack of extracting every morsel of flavour and hiding it behind a wall of fire. By the time he was finished with it, it didn’t taste like red meat – in fact it didn’t taste like meat at all.

When it was not Dal Bhat, it was pasta. Sounds like an improvement you would think - well, I guess everything is relative. After a week or so, the thrill of eating pasta every day starts to wear off. Especially when it is exactly the same every time – Furpa hardly excelling at Italian cuisine. Maybe once a week a fried noodles or something else will come out of the kitchen and it was complete bliss when it did. Breakfasts were good though, I always tried packing as much as possible inside my burnt gut. It was the only meal with any variety, ranging from potatoes, rice pudding, soggy bread with jam and honey, Nepali pancakes (millet, flour and water), scrambled eggs, boiled eggs, and boiled fried eggs (Furpa's invention. I know what you’re thinking, and the answer is that no, they don't taste good. Boil an egg then fry it and find out for yourself). The bread would go stale, sitting up in the kitchen for a week or so, but Furpa solved the problem by serving steamed bread – nice and soggy, just the way all the Western guests like it. Furpa was a big fan of oil as well, and any eggs or pancakes were always cooked with enough oil to do an eskimo roll in.

Most days at camp, the best flavour I tasted in my mouth was when I brushed my teeth.

When he was doing anything other then cooking, Furpa was a real pleasure to be around. He would great me with a friendly "Namaste!" every time I would walk past. While I may have rated Furpa's English on about the same level as his pasta, his kindness and generosity transcends any language barriers. He had a golden tooth which always shone, the result of his constant merry smile.

Another thing the cook was missing in his pot was the concept of hygiene. One day as I walked past the kitchen I saw a sponge of wet fur lying stiffly outside the entrance, which soon revealed itself to be a drowned rat. I bent over to get a closer look (not satisfied with the charming sight until the specimen is viewed up close), and Furpa saw me. "TIM!" he yelled in elation, happy that I'd seen his catch, "look," he said as he pointed to the slick fur. "In-kitchen...rat...bucket...water - DEAD!" He seemed real happy with himself, like a proud fisherman showing off the catch of the day. "Wait - photo!" he told me, and dashed back inside. He came out beaming – armed with the tongs.

No...Surely he isn't going to do that, I think to myself. Those were used for cooking! I stared aghast as he tenderly picked up the limp body, "photo!" he prompted again. As I clicked the button he pulled a stern expression – he was a courageous hunter, proud of his mighty kill. With a gracious flick, the hunter discarded the carcass into the nearby shrubs, leaving his weapon with the dishes, to get "washed" (hah!). I won't go into details about the "washing" process, but let me tell you, the next week I was checking my food for hair.

The other guys were all in the same boat when it comes to hygiene. There was Raj, who was relatively new, he had only been learning on the river around 5 months. One day there was a cockroach on the bar counter, and I thought it might be interesting to ask him, "What do you do with cockroaches?" I had said it jokingly, implying that there was something reasonable to do, other then disposing of it. He obviously hadn’t seen it that way. He spoted the invader, lined up a swift flick which sent it flying back onto the shelf where the tea cups were kept. "No problem," he told me.

Now, Raj was a nice guy, but he would do the most annoying thing. He had a real gift for creating uncomfortable silences from nothing. Usually uncomfortable silences are something people try to avoid, but they seemed to be something Raj particularly enjoyed. Say I was just waiting behind the bar, maybe keeping an eye out for anyone who needed something at dinner time. Raj would come over and stand really close, or lean in on the bench towards me - and just stood there. He wouldn’t say anything; he just stood there awkwardly, looking into empty space, occasionally glancing at me. If you caught his eye he would hold it longer than is comfortable, before looking back into space and maintaining his silence. If you made a comment to him, you always get a quick reply as if he was in a hurry to return to his mindless stares. He was a strange character. I couldn't help but notice that every time there were any female customers around, he always made sure all the front buttons of his shirt were undone to expose the muscle underneath…

Muscle is something none of the guys were short of at TBC. Nepali's seem to be incredibly strong natural athletes. It makes sense genetically, coming from such a mountainous region. The hardships their bodies endure are practically impossible for any westerner to imagine competing with. Himal told me of one head Sherpa carrying an 80kg raft for 2 whole days, to a remote put in point on a river in the Himalayas. I took a break from TBC to go trekking for 3 weeks, and the things I saw people carrying were unbelievable. Nature has made Nepali's a tough bread, and the guys here reflect that. Take Kalo for example. He had also only been at TBC for 5 months, and was just 18 years old. It seems strange to me that he was about the same age as me - because we were so physically different. His body was just one raw, contorted ripple of muscle. Anyone would think he spent hours working out every day - but I never saw Deepak do even a single pushup. The only exercise he ever got was on the river and around camp.

I met Kalo for the first time when, on my first day, Himal had asked me to come and help him with “the garbage.” He took me behind the storage building, where I saw a mass of assorted rubbish. He picks up a raft paddle and helps Kalo, who is scooping loads into cardboard boxes. There are all sorts of things here, plastic bottles, glass bottles, paper, cardboard, plastic wrappers. Curiously, I asked, “What do you do with it all?” Himal looks up, propping himself on the paddle as he replies in a straight voice,

“Burn it all.” He must be joking I thought. All that plastic! No way.

Well he was joking – but only about the glass, not everything else. I was handed a few boxes to balance as I follow Kalo over to an out of sight corner of camp. We soon stumbled upon what was obviously the site of many burn offs. Charred bottles lay in mutated forms along the edges, crippled black from the previous burn off, yet not quite finished off. He kicks a few into the middle like they’re contorted footballs, before dumping his boxes down, and telling me to do the same. I did, despite the tremendous feeling of guilt it brought. I felt helpless as I watch him light it up and admire his nice little flame grow, dissolving the problem before him. What could I do about it? Sure these guys didn’t know any better and it wasn’t the first time I’ve witnessed this solution. The worse part though was that the place was owned by a Swede.

I noticed that only 10 meters away, following the slope of the hill, lay a small stream carrying on into the Trisuli. These guys weren’t just poisoning the environment; they were poisoning themselves.

The only recycling that was done in camp was done by the local kids who would sneak in and go treasure hunting through the bins.

I soon discovered that Kalo's real name was actually "Deepak," Kalo was just his nickname. It literally means "black." I can think of places where that wouldn’t go down so well. He had unusually dark skin for a Nepali, hence the nickname. It was nice to be in a world where you can call someone black and think nothing of it. I was given my own nickname, which was likewise inspired by skin colour. One day Pradip started calling me "Michael Jackson," and that was that. 

Some might think Michael is the King of Pop - but not in Nepal. Here the award went to the soft and sappy Bryan Adams, with runner up handed to everybody’s favourite teen, Justin Beiber.  I lost count of the mornings I woke to hearing Bryan telling me "Everything I Do, I Do It For You." Unfortunately, for some reason we have a very loud sound system consisting of 2 very decent amps, and another smaller speaker. Why we have 2 expensive amps and an empty first aid kit beats me, but that just the way things were around here. This meant that when no customers were around, I was able to listen to my favourite Bryan Adams and Beiber songs, from wherever I was in camp. There was no hiding from it. If I was down on the river, practising my skills, I could hear Bryan telling me that he "Finally Found Someone," from all the way up in the bar. Or Beiber wailing that there will be “One Less Lonely Girl.” Nothing better to paddle to than hearing Bryan tell me what it’s like "When You Love Someone.” Needless to say, the music selection probably considerably improved my rolls – under the water was the best place to be when Deepak was DJ.

It was a bit of a joke, that these hard and tough river warriors were singing along to such soft, emotionally wet pop music. Guys who fought out on the rivers everyday, guys who could eat grimy Dal Bhat without a grimace and guys who knew what hard work was but not soap – all of them listened to this rubbish. Perhaps the funniest part was that they have no understanding of what they were singing along to. Himal understood a little of the lyrics, but that was about it. Pradip probably had the second best, I know he understands more than he can speak – but still, not enough to catch Adams dribble.

In fact, Pradip’s English and communication skills had gotten more than a few customers in strife. As you can imagine, communication was very important in this line of work - in fact your life, and the life of others, could depend on it. The guides couldn’t really communicate on the level they need to in order for things to be as safe as they could be. One time I was canyoning with Pradip, and a customer had just begun a 40m abseil down a waterfall. Nothing to be taken lightly. His head had just disappeared from view, and he was maybe a few meters down. We were 15 or 20m away. Pradip had briefed us about how to do each section, where to get left, right and all that, to make it as easy as possible. He had said at the beginning, we had to go left; otherwise there is a slippery spot right above a big overhang of rock, which makes it quite dangerous. The customer was mistaken, and shouted out "don't go left?" Pradip yelled back, "yes!" - Not hearing what sounded to me to be a quiet obvious "don't" at the beginning of the question. The poor guy kept going straight down, slipped on some moss, swung under the overhang and almost knocked himself out. Same thing happened out on the river in the kayaks, Pradip got his left and right mixed up, and sent an innocent learner right into a nasty patch of water that saw him washed out of his boat and swimming for shore in seconds. Had that same communication error have occurred in a more dangerous rapid, say one of the ones I was running with him at times, a wrong left or right could get you into some serious trouble. 
While I'm on canyoning, I should mention foot wear requirements. Well, there aren't any. Just as long as you are wearing "footwear.” Want to go in your flip flops? No problem, be our guest! No one is going to stop you. I went canyoning in my boots, however, when on the river it is a different matter. Here's another unbelievable thing which slips past the safety radar. Surely, when you are jumping down a sheer face of rock, you want your customers to have enclosed footwear? Surely, when it's possible your customers will end up going down a river, with fast, raging water, and sharp, jagged rocks – feet first – you would want them to have something on their feet? Apparently not. No footwear is required to go on the river, only about half of the customers we get have appropriate water footwear, the rest just go bare foot.

On the topic of raft and river safety, I should mention that these people will not only be in dangerous water with bare feet and jagged rocks – but most of them won't be able to swim either. The foreign customers can swim, but the time of year I was there most of the business came from Nepali's. Now, there exists what I call the Nepali Swimming-Rafting Paradox, which is that any Nepali who can afford rafting cannot swim, and any Nepali who can swim, cannot afford rafting. This is because the ones with money live in the city, and the only Nepali's who can swim come from villages on a river. Even the guides here at camp couldn’t swim when they first started out on the river only a few years ago.

Everyone wears a lifejacket, so it shouldn't be a problem you would think. Well let me tell you, a life jacket isn't necessarily a life saver. I once saw someone almost drown, while wearing a lifejacket – in the still water. It was an Indian guy and Indians go like Nepali's - most Indian's who can afford a holiday don't have any need in life to swim. We had gone down a few rapids, and were being carried by the current on a calm, straight stretch. It's safe to get out of the boat and have a swim around, so me and another customer did so. After we had returned to the boat, the Indian guy must have thought it looked like fun, and decided to give it a go himself. He timidly slipped into the water, let go of the boat, and started to slowly drift away with the current. Then he started panicking. He began flailing his hands around in the water, until he built some sort of up and down momentum and soon he was pushing his head under the water, then pulling it up, only to push himself back down again by the way he was flapping his arms about. He was hyperventilating in his panic and breathing in water when he was under.

Luckily he was only a few meters away from the boat, and we managed to bring him back in before any damage was done. But, I make my point. That same customer was in the raft when it went through some big rapids, if he had fallen out then, he would have struggled to stay alive. But none of this matters of course, as long as we are getting money out of the customer...

When it comes to raft safety, I have to give the award to Biijay. Biijay is a bit rounder then most Nepali's, but I don't doubt the strength underneath. Like Pradip, he liked his topknot - though he couldn’t really pull the look off, and was left with a worse hair style than my own! He was pretty easy going with things, and made sure he didn’t work too hard. Like his peers, he tried to make life as dangerous as possible for himself and others around him. After I returned from my trekking, there was a little "gear shortage." This gear shortage was in fact caused by all the gear going up in literal smoke. The storage shed had burnt down. It was pretty harsh for all the guys who lost all there own personal gear which they had bought. When you only earn $10 a day, they had a lot of value that went up in smoke. Anyway, to get back to it, Biijay didn't seem too fussed by all this - his solution was just not to use any of the gear!

At first he wore the crappy red helmets we give the customers, one of the few that was left. But I guess he got a bit sick of them after a while. And the lifejackets. On my last trip down the river (a journey I shall talk about later on), Biijay stopped wearing his helmet, after only 10 minutes in the raft. The jacket stayed on until maybe 15 minutes – tops. We were going down a river with grade 4 rapids, and one particular 4+, and the guide of the raft was not wearing any safety gear. An award winning performance from Biijay. 

I want to return to the before mentioned fire. In fact, nobody even thought to tell me that the building had burnt down when I returned from my trek. I assumed it had just been removed so the new building which was being built could begin being used for our storage. It was only when I enquired to Pradip where all the gear had disappeared to, that he said, "you know, fucking fire." That was about as much as I could get out of him. I enquired further with Himal, after all, he is (or was) the camp's un-official electrician.

I was first enlightened to Himal's electrical know-how one afternoon, as I was walking past and saw him, bent over, lifting a large rock, and fiddling with something underneath. Naturally I was inquisitive as to what there is to fiddle with underneath a rock, besides some worm’s maybe Furpa would want to improve his cooking.  I discovered that, of course, under the rock is where the wires were all connected! Himal wanted to add an extension board to the circuit that was connected to a lamp post. I asked him where he had learned to be an electrician, and he told me proudly, "I taught myself."

These words came back to me, after I had interpreted what Himal told me to mean that there had been a short circuit in the storage shed. 

That day, Himal had further explained that he does most of the electrics around camp. The wires were held together and contained within a mess of sticky tape, and the wires are just wrapped around one another. After any job, the tape is re-applied, preferably messier then before, and the large rock is placed back on top to keep them nice and safe. I guess he forgot that last step up in the shed. Though, another possibility is that Kalo brought the burning spot to the rubbish instead of the rubbish to the burning spot.

I had heard about another fire on my last day in camp, before leaving for trekking. I had decided to take a break from TBC and spend a few weeks in the Himalayas. I would return after my trek, though I sure for how long. This last day was the day I was supposed to get my chance running some bigger rapids. We had a customer, who wanted to raft down the up stream section. In a raft, it is OK to go further then we start in the kayaks, up to where there are a few bigger rapids, some grade 4’s. I was pumped to finally be getting out on the big water. After spending 3 weeks preparation I was ready to see what this river had in store for me. It was an early start – up at 5 in the morning to be on the road by 6. Except, no one was sure if it would go ahead, as it happened to be a strike day.

A strike means something different in Nepal. Back home, when people “strike,” it is ultimately the individual who decides if they are going to work or not. They usually only exist in one profession at a time, in isolation – such as teachers strikes (of which I have such fond memories). Individuals in that profession might feel pressure – but this does not extend outside the immediate zone of influence. The strikes in Nepal are a little more serious, they are political strikes. For anyone unaware of Nepal’s recent conflicts, the country was in a civil war for some time, before the current system was instated. Naturally, that means a certain proportion of the population are rather unhappy with the way things run. Combine this was a totally in-effective, joke of a police force and you have problems.

So when a strike is called in Nepal, you had better strike – or there will be consequences. The country shuts down in a state of fear. Anyone brave (or stupid) enough to open their shop window, will have it smashed and burned down. Anyone who drives down a street that has been declared a no-go zone had better have a bloody good excuse. I had experienced this last fact first hand when I was in KTM. A friend gave me a lift on his bike on a strike day; through what was a strictly enforced vehicle no go zone. What the hell he was thinking I don’t know, but it was an incredibly stupid thing to do. If it was not for the fact he had a white guy sitting on the back of his bike, he would have been smashed to pieces by the group of angry men who forced us to a screeching halt as they formed a human wall in front of us. Strikes are scary.

The reason why no-one was sure if we would be going up stream to run the river was because no one would know until the day if the road was open, or if it would be taken over and blocked off (it’s not hard to block off the roads when there is in fact only one road). Our pick-up never came after we waited over 2 hours for it. Sure enough, a road block of trees and stones had been made, and he was unable to pass. But 2 frustrated bus drivers had tried to do so. Naturally, as you see someone trying to drive over your wooden road block, what do you do? That’s right, you set them on fire! Now that is how you strike in Nepal.

It was this strike though that gave me the chance to ride some even bigger waves that day. The road was opened up in the afternoon, and so we were able to run the down-stream section. Already being offered a go at the big waves up-stream, I had asked Himal if I could still tag along for the down-stream run. He said yes. I had finally gotten my chance to ride the big waves down stream!

Click to continue to Part II
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