INTO THE MOUNTAINS

We flew on Air Buddha to Pokhara, which used to be a pretty, quiet town on a lake with nice dusty lanes to wander. Now its streets are paved, engorged by motorcycles and trucks. I can’t get away from it fast enough. We drove a long time to the trailhead the landscape getting more and more precipitous, green hills/mountains covered with trees or terraced into rice paddies or cornfields but everything verdant and high so that one feels enclosed by the hills, wrapped in greenness. It is thrilling countryside. As Ethan commented, “It is enough to make you believe in God.” We stopped in Nayapul, which I remember from earlier treks.

We picked up our porter here, Sere, a young man, late teens, early twenties, with either Chinese or Mongol ancestry, judging from his eyes, cheery, as are almost all Nepalis.

It is a town facing a river in one direction and the road in the other which means it is full of business and bustle. There are a series of restaurants cum general stores cheek by jowl along the roadside selling the usual range of goods from batteries to Coke. Each has its own clean but smelly squat john. The road through town to the trail is a complexity of muddy ruts and all the women barefooted or flip-flopped walked faster than I.

We walked out of the village passing houses and fields, going up slowly, a gentle rise. There is a steel arched bridge, which crosses a tumbling, tumultuous, beige silted river. On the other side, houses climb up a hill. One, with flowerpots full of geraniums and marigolds blooming wildly, has a restaurant that looks down on bridge and river. We had lunch there.

After eating we started to do the endless steps passing through villages, rice fields and isolated houses. The Nepalis build steps on their hills out of rocks yanked from the soil. Villages maintain them, pulling out rooting trees and weeds, resetting stones in spring and fall. No two steps are the same height. I find them more difficult than a steep path whether going up or down. The stairs twist and turn endlessly up the mountainsides.

About three in the afternoon, a light rain began to fall. This was not unpleasant at first as it was misty rain. But then it became more vehement, pelting down with spitball force. We pulled on raincoats that were plastic and, therefore, made us perspire. One way or the other we were drenched in rain or our own sweat. We continued up the stairs down which ran rivulets of rain. For a little while we had a road, muddy but with a more gently slope than the stairs.

At this point Sere stopped, put his foot up on a rock and lifted his drenched pant leg. My heart sank into the snake pit of yuck and ugh. I know that gesture. He was looking for leeches on his ankles. I put my foot up on a rock and also looked. So far no leeches.

We continued on in a state of sodden misery for about two more hours, finally turning a corner to see a flight of well made, uniform height stairs down which water was cascading. We had arrived in Gandruk. I squished my way along the deserted stone path through the village to our guesthouse where there were a number of depressed looking, sodden Australians. Trekking misery was full blown amongst us. Ethan took it without comment.

From the window of the WC I could see a dozen large orange tents, two-person I think. My room was the usual Spartan affair, two beds with crisp sheets, pillow and blanket, white walls and linoleum floor that was about to become the site of a massacre. As I unlaced my trekking sneakers I saw my socks were splotched with bright red. Raising the cuff of my drenched trousers I saw the black bodies of leeches slowly bloating up on my blood.

I hate leaches. I detest leaches. I loath leaches. I execrate leaches. I abhor leaches. I abominate leeches.

I took off my soaking trousers tearing off one or two along the way. I then started brushing them off. What I should have done, of course, was to go down stairs to the dinning room in my wet trousers and get salt. This would have shriveled them up and prevented them from leaving their mouth gear in my flesh as I swept them off. The mouth gear causes infections. As I brushed them off my ankles they clung to my fingers, more embedded mouth gear between my fingers. As I got them on the floor, where they hunched up and elongated like caterpillars, I pounded them into sanguine oblivion with my shoe. By the time I was through and leech free the floor was awash in rain wet from my sodden shoes, trousers, plastic raincoat and blood, my blood. But they were all dead. I wiped up the floor with toilet paper, then painted my ankles and between my fingers with iodine. Iodine is indispensible for trekking because it kills bacteria and disintegrates leech mouthparts. It can also be used to purify water.

Dinner was some kind of chicken curry, quite okay, and so nice to have meat since sometimes there is no meat. The bed was dry. I painted my ankles with iodine again before climbing into my sleeping bag, which was also dry. I bought a rainproof backpack some years ago.

We woke to mountains at first only vaguely visible behind clouds. I could make out Macchupuchare behind its cloud. Others in the Annapurna massif revealed themselves, white and huge, in morning light. Clouds opened and closed the view with their white. Trousers, shirt, socks and shoes were still sopping but after breakfast Sarosh took us off on a little tour giving our clothes time to dry, although my shoes remained sodden for the next two days.

We walked up to a little unlit museum. It was a charming excursion through the village and its houses; however, as we came around a corner we surprised a group of just barely, barely being the operative word, prepubescent girls washing themselves and their hair. Most wrapped themselves up in whatever was available but one, with nothing available, let out a tiny squeak, a very small mouse cry of alarm, and then crouched down putting her green plastic basin in front of her. It was very cute but she was genuinely upset. We all sedulously looked away.

The museum was quite good, although totally unlit. Ethan opted out. I followed Sarosh around as he lighted things with his phone. They had all the right stuff on display—various kinds of baskets and copper pots, a loom, clothes, various plows, big flat baskets for winnowing.

The woman next door who may or may not have been in charge of the museum had a business renting clothes and jewelry to dress up in. Sarosh and Sere had a good time looking local.

I had noticed as we walked through town that the carrying bag that men slung across their backs was made from the hand woven fabric I had bought on my Annapurna trek with Sarosh. A friend had designed a dress for me that showed off the embroidery and fringe, which are a distinctive feature of these clothes. When I wore it on the next trip to show Sarosh, he had been enthusiastic about the old in a new use.

We pick up our packs at the teahouse and started on the endless journey down stairs to the river. The views are spectacular over terraced fields with houses perched in their midst. We passed a number of European trekkers, but as we came down to cross a dirt road there was a large group of what I took to be Indian teenagers sitting and standing on the stairs. The boys would not move to let me by. I had to skirt them by going off the path. I made a comment to Sarosh who said they were Nepalis. Obviously wealthy Nepalis considering their shoes. It was unpleasant that they were rude but good that they were trekking. We ran into them later, several times, and at each encounter, to my interest, they became less rude.

We stopped to rest at a house with a wide porch where Sarosh bought a giant cucumber that he sliced and salted for us. Slurping this up we watched an infant playing near her grandmother who was washing clothes. When grandma moved on to other tasks she was put into a homemade playpen where she gazed soulfully over the rail. At another house on a post we saw a basket that was almost a closed ball of weaving. Peering in, we were glared at by a setting hen, who obviously considered us paparazzi. At the river we stopped for lunch and then started the serious climb up the other side.

In a village on this eternal climb we passed an open building where a woman was weaving the cloth used as a carrying bag and just after that a basketball court. We couldn´t stop for Ethan to play, which was too bad since he is 6 feet 4 and he would have created an interesting imbalance to the game.

As we came into the town of Tolka on a road which was a relief after the stairs, we were passed by a middle aged couple, the man striding along in a natty grey Nepali suit, the Nepali hat in pink and grey and a pink scarf swung elegantly about his neck. His wife, also very nicely dressed, but carrying, with a band across her forehead, a huge and heavy basket, followed him at the appropriate distance. She nattered constantly as they walked. He appeared to be listening.

As we turned a corner people pointed out to us an enormous congregation of small birds lined up on telephone wires, flying on and off in flutters of wings. Small, black and white, there must have been a thousand of them. Sarosh looked them up later. We decided they were Himalayan Swiftlets.

At the guesthouse Ethan had a chance to play soccer for a while, which was good since he had missed his chance earlier to play basketball.

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