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Published: June 11th 2013
As the battered Land Rover laboured its way up and down the poorly surfaced mountain roads, made slippery by the night's rain, Frank and Hamish gripped the backs of the seats in front of them. The rain had triggered landslides, and in places their driver had to manoeuvre around rocks strewn across the road, some of which were as big as their vehicle. In one place, part of the road had given way leaving a small remnant, just sufficient to allow them to continue their journey.The raw wounds in the mountainside where the rocks had been ripped from their sockets, the newly undermined rocks teetering above them waiting to be sent crashing down onto the road by the next downpour, the wreck of a bus far below them,reminded them of the perils of road travel in Nepal, especially during the monsoon.
At Ramchap, the village at the road-head, they stopped at a shabby, unappealing café for their final restaurant meal. A pile of unwashed plates, stacked by the roadside, was being licked clean by the street dogs.Their fellow diners wanted to know everything about them, who they were, where they were coming from and where they were going to, questions they would have to answer, and ask in return, every time they encountered other travellers on the trail. Having got the pleasantries out of the way, the villagers warned them against making the journey. They listed a multitude of dangers including leeches, unfriendly villagers en route, even heat-stroke. They had heard of a holy lake called Chandrapal Pokhari,
but knew nothing more than that it was a pilgrimage site. Undaunted, Frank and Hamish bought some biscuits, and strips of dried goat meat and oranges at the village shop, and set off up the track.
The predictions of doom seemed to have been exaggerated. They passed through villages full of friendly villagers asking where they were coming from and where were they going to, there were clouds shielding them from the sun, and leeches gave them a miss. They began to relax.“It's lucky we didn't let those villagers persuade us to abandon the trek,” remarked Frank. Hamish concurred.
The going was easy and uneventful until they got to a gorge containing a turbulent river, swollen by the monsoon rains, and no other way of crossing it than over a couple of slippery looking logs that had been thrown across in place of the bridge that lay in ruins in the river bed.They looked at each other, and then again at the bridge.
“There's no way I'm going to cross that,”said Hamish.
“Me neither,” Frank said.
“Look sahib!”said Ungel, and, laden as he was with his heavy basket, he ran across it. They saw how the logs bounced under his weight, and how the log on the left bounced differently from the log on the right. The river bed was far below, or so it seemed, and surely no-one would have survived a fall. Being used to such crossings, Ungel hadn't given the bridge a second thought. He stood there on the opposite bank with his hands on the straps of the basket to relieve the weight and his head bent forward to counterbalance the load, waiting impatiently for them to follow.“Come!” he shouted. But Frank was surveying the logs. They were narrow and hadn't been planed flat. Rough bark and wet moss still covered them. They didn't lie rigidly across the two banks of the river, but sagged in the middle. And there was nothing to hold on to. He wondered how many people had fallen to their doom before them.
“If we don't do it, we'll have to go back,”Frank reasoned.
“Let's go back,” said Hamish. “I never really wanted to go to this stupid holy lake of yours anyway.”
“We can't go back,” Frank said, tentatively putting his right foot on the right log. Then he put his left foot on the other log, and set off shakily across the bouncing logs, with his arms outstretched for balance. He was moving too slowly. By the time he had reached the sagging mid-way point his knees were trembling so much he had to stop. The logs were registering every tremble. He looked down at the river tossing and turning restlessly below and could see the stricken bridge draped across the rocks far below between his legs. He toyed with the thought that it would be less problematic to fall than to continue. But continue he did and finally, with a helping hand from Ungel, reached the other side. He stood for a few seconds panting deeply. His heart was beating, and he had a headache. Then he turned round to face Hamish, and shouted:“Don’t look down! Just cross without thinking!”
Hamish stood there unable to make a move. Ungel and Frank urged him on. Then, suddenly, he ran briskly over the bridge, and slumped to the ground.“Never again. Ever,” he said. His fiery Scots face burned more fiercely than normal.Frank said nothing, but they both knew that they had no choice but to face it again on their return. He took out a cigarette and pulled on it furiously. His hand was trembling. They sat and Frank watched him finish his restorative smoke, not daring to speak.
Finally, Hamish stood up, pulled on his rucksack, and trudged off without a word, ignoring his companions. They followed at a discreet distance behind him until he indicated that he was ready to break the silence. They started talking excitedly, hysterically even, about the crossing, re-living and embellishing every terrifying step. And then they fell silent once more and trudged mirthlessly on reflecting upon the danger they had placed themselves in merely to continue the journey.
As if to confirm that their luck had changed for the worse, it started to rain, and they were now having to step warily on slippery mud and wet stones. Exhausted by having to use their wits to avoid falls, and depressed by the rain, they could barely speak civilly to each other or to Ungel.They stopped at a poor village, with dilapidated houses, and miserable looking inhabitants. An elderly villager bent double under the weight and bulk of a wicker basket filled with logs came by, and they asked her where they could find a place to stay the night. She stopped and peered up at them. After a few moments of thought, she suggested a house at the other end of the village, and there they were invited to sleep in an outhouse.
The outhouse was where cattle were kept in the winter months. There was straw on the ground, but little else, apart from a large wooden rice de-husker, that looked a little like a see-saw with one end for the foot of an operative, and the other with a kind of hammer-head for pounding the rice. The night was going to be freezing, so they changed into their long johns, and put on all the cardigans that they had brought with them. In spite of the cladding, they were relieved to be invited into the relative warmth of the house for a meal.The house was made of mud and straw slapped onto a lattice of bamboos to make a solid wall. They crossed a veranda to go inside. At first they could see nothing. The room was dark and smoky. As their eyes adjusted, they could make out a fire to the left of the door, and above it there was a wooden platform hanging from ropes set in the ceiling, with one corner supported by a stick set in the ground to stop the structure swinging around. The platform was being used to dry clothes on and to smoke meat. There was no chimney, so the smoke was everywhere: in their eyes, and hair and clothes. Everything smelt of sweet wood-smoke.
A woman and her daughter cooked them a supper of roti
, and vegetable curry, which they ate with their hands. Hamish was inexperienced at eating without cutlery, and the household had some laughs at his expense as he fumbled with the food, and let it fall out of his scooped roti and onto his lap.Afterwards, they lingered in the warmth for as long as they could, listening to their companions' desultory chat, and watching the women of the house tidy up, and dispatch the leftovers through a hole in the wall below the one and only window.
Tiredness and boredom finally drove them back to the cold outhouse, and their sleeping bags. They settled down as best they could, but became conscious of a foul, pervasive smell emanating from above their heads. They tracked it down to a lump of cow dung that had been placed in an alcove in the wall. Ungel came to the rescue, clearing it out with his hands, and this reduced the smell by a factor that was sufficient for sleep. They settled down again, and Frank was dozing off when the silence was broken by a squabble of squeaks from above, followed by a shout of horror from Hamish. A rat had plopped down from the rafters. The torch was put into action to scan the ceiling for more, and an enormous spider was caught in the beam just next to him. Hamish tried to eliminate the creature with the sole of his boot, but it scurried away into the straw of the roof.
By now they were too alert to sleep. Hamish sat up and pulled out a cigarette, and a nervous conversation ensued for more than an hour.“Why did I let you persuade him to do this trek?” Hamish asked.
“I thought it was you who persuaded me,” Frank said.
“Rats I can understand, hateful though they are; but how on earth do perfectly normal human beings get to a point in their cultural development when they decide that what they need is a lump of cow shit in a special alcove in their barn?”“Cows are important. Don't you remember the Gai Jatra festival in August? The locals believe that the gate to heaven can only be opened by the horns of a cow.” Hamish would have known that when a man has died during the year, on the occasion of the Gai Jatra festival the family dress his eldest son up as a cow and escort him to the family temple.
“Well, sort of. They look more like clowns than cows. Anyway, what's that got to do with cow shit?”“I suppose for a Hindu everything about cows is holy, including their shit.”
“So, what are you suggesting? The stink’s a kind of incense?” asked Hamish.
“Well, .. I don't know about that, but cow pats do make great fuel when they’re dry.”
“Well, useful or not, letting them wander the streets and get in the way of everything seems grossly over-indulgent,”Hamish said.
“Well, they're holy and people will go to any lengths to avoid upsetting the gods,” Frank said. “I even met one wandering along the corridors of the Singha Durbar.” This was the huge white palace where the Nepalese civil service was based. He had been on his way down a corridor to find an official, and had to make way for a cow that had wandered in unchallenged off the street.
With his quest for the truth in mind, Frank had brought along an anthology of Hindu and Buddhist texts to get him into the right frame of mind for his hoped-for encounter with God. Lying on his back in his sleeping bag, with the book held up on his stomach, and the torch moving up and down on his chest, he came across the following quotation from the ancient Rig Veda, and read it out loud for Hamish's benefit: “The cows have come and have brought us good fortune. In our stalls, contented, may they stay! May they bring forth calves for us, many-coloured, giving milk for Indra each day. You make, O cows, the thin man sleek; to the unlovely you bring beauty. Rejoice our homestead with pleasant lowing. In our assemblies we laud your vigour.” He looked at Hamish, who was reading something less elevated.
“Don't you think that's charming?” he asked.
“Very nice,” he said ironically, “but I draw the line at cow pats in the house.”At last fatigue got the better of them, and they slept until 4.30am when the clarion of a cock's crow dashed cold water over their dreams. An old woman was pacing up and down the road flashing her torch at them and muttering. She wanted to start pounding the rice with her de-husker, but couldn't because the three trekkers were in the way. They had no choice but to abandon the warmth of their sleeping bags.
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