A ride through the Nepali Terrai into India:
KTM to Nepalgung (Indian border) – 508 km
KTM to Gonda (India) – 636 km
Kathmandu to Mugling Bazaar – 110 km
Mugling Bazaar to Narayanghat – 34 km
The story so far:
On his search, Mr Felix has ridden through Hell, died in the bathroom, been visited by the Ghosts of Lovers Past, fallen down a mineshaft and found the Green Gibbon. He’s now on the roof of his hotel in Narayanghat, taking a 5 am tea break and thinking about how all of this began. It’s November 1974…
Part 13: Kathmandu – Day 2!
I wake up at 7 am ablaze. It’s my first morning in Kathmandu.
I was up in the middle of the night with the runs, stumbling around looking for the light switch to the toilet and finally giving up and squatting over the hole in the pitch black, which can sure bring you back to yourself, in a number of ways.
But why worry? I’m in Kathmandu on my way overland to London, with Abdul’s blessing.
The ticket I’d flown in on was a rock bottom, no frills, no-refund affair and I’d gotten it from Turkic Star Travel, deep in the ethnic enclave of Melbourne, on the recommendation of a friend.
“Go and see Abdul at Turkic Star, Feely,” said my friend Peter. “He’ll set you up and he’s a real character!”
“You’ll like him!” he added breezily, and the last person Peter had said that about was a friend of his girlfriend’s and I’d loathed her on sight - we’d loathed each other on sight. It was hit and miss with Pete.
Nevertheless, eager to save a few bucks, early one Saturday morning I boarded the tram to grubby inner-city Brunswick, home of Turks, Italians, Greeks, Lebanese, lost dogs and anything non-Anglo that walked the Great Southern Land.
“Feelexmyfrend, Calcutta ees dirty, steenking hole! Why you go dere?” said Abdul, about a minute after I’d taken a seat in his dingy little office and enquired about flights to India.
“Ah, well, Mister Abdul.. Abdul,” I said. “I wanna go overland to London, and I, ah, thought Calcutta might be a good place to start.”
The truth was I hadn’t done much up-to-date research and Calcutta was simply the former home of the East India Company, the current home of Mother Teresa and where the Black Hole had been. Throw in a few teeming millions and bingo, let’s start there.
Coming from the ‘positive thinking’ end of town - read: nobody had a clue, my flimsy plan had to date received all round airborne praise and nothing more negative than a blank stare and a ‘you gotta be kiddin!’
Certainly no one had challenged it with any authority, and here I was not a few minutes inside Turkic Star Travel and Abdul was already out with the club.
It was daunting, but everything about Abdul was daunting - his coarse three-day growth, rumpled suit and meaty hands, it all screamed, “I’m a Turk!” in a bulky, hairy foreign accent, but not bulky like Hulk Hogan, nor hairy like Skippy.
Even his bonhomie was bulky and hairy and he kept prefacing everything with ‘Feelexmyfrend!’ and what did ‘myfrend’ mean in Turkish?
On the back wall of his office just above his head loomed a large poster of a comely Turkish girl in a field of yellow flowers under the imaginative slogan: ‘Come to Turkey!’ and dotted around the room were peeling pictures of the Istanbul skyline, Roman ruins and Turkish mosques.
I felt like I was in deepest, darkest Asia already, with a bear.
“No!” said Abdul, opening his palms wide and grinning expansively. “Feelexmyfrend, I am telling you, you travel over by thee land to London, better you start Kathmandu! Calcutta steenking hole, Kathmandu many heepees! Yoolike!”
He arched his eyebrows, lent back in his chair and said, “Wot you tink?” lifting his chin in a short, sharp motion and it was clearly my turn to speak.
Abdul was obviously a man of wide experience and knew a lot about ‘heepees’ and, I guessed, a few other things, and it was plain to both of us I knew nothing, so what was I to say?
‘Wot you tink?’ was a challenge as much as a question on tourist destinations, and as I sat back and looked, despite the fact that everything in my brain was saying ‘leave now’, I felt myself warming to him.
I felt that if I stood up and threw a punch he’d take it, swing with it and laughingly throw it back. There was no need to fear him the way I feared a lot of other men.
Abdul was a good bet.
After a little while I said, “Sounds like good advice, Abdul!” as evenly as I could.
He smiled and relaxed. Despite the rather large Anglo handicap I labored under, I’d plainly made the wise choice.
He deftly unfolded a map of Asia and lent forward across the desk, motioning me excitedly towards him like we were about to go over the jolly plans for a bank robbery.
I leant in close.
“So!” he said, wriggling excitedly in his chair, “You fly Bangkok!” and stubbed a stocky middle finger directly on Bangkok. “And then you fly Kathmandu!” and stubbed again, and I looked at the map and thought, “All right! That’s where Kathmandu is!” but said nothing.
“Then you go Lon-don by thee land and we fly you back Mel-born,” he said. “Seemple!”
Abdul’s use of the word ‘we’ suffused me with a warm and unexpected glow, and I said, “Hmm, sounds like a pretty good plan, Abdul!” as evenly as I could.
I took out my passport and filled in a few forms, while Abdul busied himself with airline timetables and made a phone call, and just like that I was ‘in’ - and whatever ‘in’ was it felt a damn sight better than enrolling in ‘Advanced Reinforced Concrete Slab Theory’ at the university.
Roll on Kathmandu, roll on ‘heepees’ and bye-bye reo.
As I was getting up to leave, Abdul motioned me forward again and said, “Feelexmyfrend, I give you two piece advice!” and paused. Ah, the strange voice from a strange land speaks again. I lent in close.
“One!” he said, and abruptly lifted a thumb in the air. “Whatever you do, do not go to thee Greez! They are very bad peeple!”
I knew that Greeks and Turks hated each other with pathological venom, and I figured it was best to stay out of this one, so I nodded soberly and kept silent. (When you’re a piece of white tissue paper flapping in the breeze, go with the flow.)
“Two!” he said, and held up the other thumb so it now looked like he was giving me the ‘two thumbs up’. “Forget Ee-ran, forget Syr-eea, forget thee Lebanon!” which was somewhat mystifying as I would have to go through at least one of these countries to get to Turkey (and I couldn’t miss that) and on to Europe.
“T-u-r-k-e-y!” he said, slowly rolling the ‘r’ with great relish while his eyes glowed big and black. What the hell was he on about? I stared back.
He flicked his eyeballs up at the comely girl in the poster above his head and gradually his lips opened into a wide, lascivious smile, and as much as I fought the dawning, rising consciousness, I was moved.
Into my mind rushed an image I had seen a few months previous of a curvaceous, naked, Oriental woman with eight breasts.
I’d stumbled across the picture in a book on ‘medieval European myths of the mysterious East’, and one rainy afternoon had sat in the university library devouring the text and the engraved image of the mythical Oriental woman had made a big impression.
Naturally I didn’t tell anybody about it and had simply stuck it in my bag of secret desires along with the rest of the unacceptable, but here it was rising unbidden on Abdul’s desk. Who would have guessed?
Abdul followed me out on to the footpath when I was leaving, arching his shoulders and scratching himself through his crumpled suit, a man in control of his world.
“Well maybe, Feelexmyfrend,” he said, patting me on the shoulder, “Do not forget thee Lebanon.”
“But Abdul,” I replied, in a voice an octave higher than I would have liked, “Isn’t there a war going on there, and hijackings and killings…?”
“Pta!” he said and flicked his head back and waved his right hand dismissively.
I thanked him profusely, shook his hand and climbed on the tram and breathed out for the first time in forty minutes.
An hour later I was rattling through the suburbs of Melbourne, that endless run of neat plots and shining California bungalows, easy and familiar, clutching my air ticket, a long list of visa requirements and Abdul’s business card.
Despite the excitement of the moment, I still labored under the kitchen table idea that this impending trip was a boomerang; I’d go sailing out, whiz around a bit and then return to my point of origin, refreshed but unchanged, and then get on with building large, glorious, multileveled concrete carparks.
And what a fucking depressing thought it was, and why was I so angry?
I sat on the steps of my guesthouse in Kathmandu and wrapped my fingers around a glass of hot, milky chai.
It was still early in the morning and chilly, and in front of me, in a dusty, stone courtyard enclosed on three sides by tall, mud-brick buildings with their distinctive Newari style latticed bay-windows, Kathmandu was coming alive.
Little girls in pigtails played hopscotch under an arch and over by the wall of a small temple, noisy boys in ragged tee-shirts played marbles.
Old women were walking purposefully back and forth across the courtyard carrying bundles of sticks wrapped in cloth and a man emerged from a doorway, yawning and scratching his naked belly.
I was so absorbed in this people play unfolding around me that bubbling up came the words, “I love this…” but just before I mouthed them, cutting straight across from the right, I heard my father’s voice, loud and commanding, as if someone had turned on a loud speaker.
“Don’t love these people!” said the disembodied voice and I started in surprise. What, Napoleon was now telling me who to love and who not to?
And I’m hearing voices?
Maybe it was just my imagination but it sure sounded real. I looked up and before me, in the air, hung two moving pictures, side by side.
To the left was a young boy of about 8 peering intently at me, and troubled - it was me as a boy.
I shifted my gaze across to the right and saw a picture of myself as I was now, at 21, standing sideways and looking down with an expression of what? Aloofness?
Whatever it was there was something wrong with the eyes, and as I puzzled on this, a deep voice I didn’t know started suddenly from the inside my head and said, “If you take the left path you will find your vitality, and if you take the right path you will suffocate! Choose!”
I looked back and forth between the two images a couple of times and knew instantly, quicker than I could mouth the words, just what the choice was: Did I want to live a life, or live a successful death?
Just as my engineering training was kicking in and I was about to say, “Well, let’s look at the options…” the voice in my head said with great force, and a hint of urgency, “Choose now!” and I said, rather meekly, “The left one!”
And then everything went back to normal.
The girls played hopscotch, the boys played marbles and the old women came and went, and I sat on the stone steps cradling my chai and knew there was no way back.