Thursday, November 17, 2005

Kathmandu to Gonda Pt.14 - Back on the road!

A ride through the Nepali Terrai into India:
KTM to Nepalgung (Indian border) – 508 km
KTM to Gonda (India) – 636 km

The ride:
Kathmandu to Mugling Bazaar – 110 km
Mugling Bazaar to Narayanghat – 34 km
Narayanghat to Dumkibas – 63 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. After five days of rock and roll in Narayanghat, he resumes his journey west.

Part 14: Back on the road!

I roll out of Narayanghat at 10 am and Raja stands on the steps of the hotel waving me off. After almost five long days, the certified nut case in room 104 is finally leaving.

I ride past the bus depot and head down beside the market and can’t stop chuckling. Asia! If I was Raja, I’d be throwing rocks at Mr Felix as he pedalled off down the road to the next hotel and lucky houseboy, but no, he’s been attentive all morning and seems genuinely sorry to see me go.

I’d put my arm around him before I climbed on the bike and said, “I’ll never forget you, Raja!” and meant it.

I turn on to the highway into the morning traffic and weave through a long line of squeaking rickshaws carrying bundles of schoolgirls in crisp white shirts and blue skirts, and stand on the pedals and accelerate past gangs of wide-eyed schoolboys on bikes.

“Hello mister!” they chime, and I ring my bell, put on a burst of manly speed and feel the wind clipping at my cheeks.

I’m back on the road.

The highway out of Narayanghat is paved and wide and heads southwest for 60 kilometres, running just to the north of the Royal Chitwan National Park, before it crosses the Binai Khola (Binai River) and heads due west to Butwal, today’s probable destination, a further 60 kilometres on.

It’s a mainly flat run but I’m leaving today’s schedule wide open. If I flag or the weather turns bad, I’ll pull in and spend the night at one of the small guesthouses dotted along the road.

After the fun and games of the last few days, and especially last night, I know better than to be headstrong and antagonise the gods.

I stop for a late breakfast a few kilometres out of the city at a roadhouse of sorts, and when leaving almost skittle a lone brown duck that’s taking it’s usual, I guess, leisurely morning constitutional between the petrol pumps. “Sqwak!” goes the duck, highly indignant, flapping its wings, and it pays to concentrate.

I look over my shoulder to see if the owner isn’t standing on the driveway shaking his fist, also highly indignant, but no, it’s Asia, and they don’t do that sort of thing, so on I ride.

Twenty kilometres down the road the traffic drops off to a trickle. There’s dense forest on both sides of the highway and I sit high in the seat, coasting down the centre of a green tunnel while my front tyre goes ‘rrrrrrrr!’

I ride through a small village where young children call to their mothers from darkened doorways and arrest time in a squeal and a jig, and old men sit immobile under shady verandas and give me a quick salute, reminding me of my destination.

I cycle past a herd of cows and pretty girls in wrap around skirts turn their bright, hopeful faces in surprise, splashing light all over the road, and what is this landscape I move through?

There’s rain clouds up ahead – big, floating, white and grey hulks, expanding and billowing slowly upwards into a rich, blue sky, silent and as yet, benign.

On I ride.

Off to my right the thin blue line of the Himalayas comes and goes through the trees and every few kilometres I roll down sharp curves through crisp air into verdant, shaded river valleys, across sparkling streams or the odd wide brown river, and work my way over the bridge and up the other side, pushing on the pedals, leaning over the handlebars until the road levels out again, and I puff and sweat and settle back into rhythm.

Just after one o’clock I cross the Binai Kola and roll into Dumkibas. It’s a small, forgettable village with a few brick houses on each side of the road and a couple of earthen floor chai-shops.

Coming over the small crest down into the town I could see a steep, deep green ridgeline of mountains cutting straight across the road up ahead, and unless we’re taking a rather long detour, it looks like I’ve got some climbing in front of me.

It might be time to take on refreshments.

The chai-shop has the usual rice, dahl and chapatis laid out in pots and metal plates over the woodstove and after this morning’s brisk ride it smells like real food. Thank the sweet Lord for an appetite and a body.

While I’m sipping on a chai and waiting for the daal-baht to arrive, a small, thin man with wide, staring, fragile eyes wanders into the shop. He’s dressed in rags, says nothing and acknowledges nobody, and pads silently through to the back and takes a seat by the wall.

He looks about fifty or so and is possibly Nepali, but judging by his face, build and polite body language I’d swear he was Japanese, or had been at some point before he got deeply lost in Asia.
Nobody in the shop pays him the slightest attention, so I guess he’s a regular, and he sits, staring into the shadows, as weightless as a ghost.

After a few minutes, curious, I reach over and offer him a cigarette, but he looks blankly at the pack and turns away.

The daal-baht arrives and I spoon it into my mouth but in the face of such pointed human loss it’s hard to eat with any gusto. Still, I brought it on myself, so no use complaining, and thank God for Asia. If this was the West, we'd have cured the poor guy by now.

“Come now, Fujisan, you can’t go wandering all over the place like a madman!” says the nice man.
“No, please, leave me alone!” pleads Fujisan, as they drag him out of Starbucks.
“No, you’re lost and we’re just taking you…”
“But I like being lost!” he shouts in defiance, and so proves his madness.

According to the chai-shop owner, who speaks a little English, there’s a fruit shop over the road, a guesthouse just up the road, and right up the road there’s a steep climb through the mountains for either 7 kilometres, or 14, and I can’t decipher which.

“You mean seven up and seven down,” I ask, “or fourteen up and fourteen down?”

“Yes, fourteen!” he says. “Take three hours on bicycle!” he adds helpfully, which confuses me even more.

“Very steep?” I ask, and plane my flat palm at a ridiculous angle to the table and he says, “Yes!” whatever that means.

I can’t wait for iBlab, the portable digital voice translator to be released on to the market, but until then international cycling will remain an inexact sport, it seems.

By the time I get back out to my bike the clouds are hanging low in the sky and hugely pregnant, and if the ride up the mountain turns out to be the full 14 kilometres it’s going to take me over an hour, and from the looks of it I’m going to get dumped on real bad.

“Ah, no,” I decide. It’s a bit early to pull in, but so be it.

I cycle off up the road and turn right into the guesthouse, which is no more than a raw brick box with a few windows and a sign, but the owner is helpful and his wife flaps gently around making me comfortable, and this looks like home for tonight.

I take a quick, cold shower and by the time I emerge refreshed in my clean sarong the owner has kindly placed a comfortable wicker chair on the rough concrete platform at the back of the guesthouse under the first-floor overhang, and his wife is smiling shyly and holding a tray of hot black tea and a couple of biscuits.

It’s the Ritz, and I’m a fortunate man indeed.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Kathmandu to Gonda Pt.13 - Kathmandu Day 2!

A ride through the Nepali Terrai into India:
KTM to Nepalgung (Indian border) – 508 km
KTM to Gonda (India) – 636 km

The ride:
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.