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Published: June 23rd 2013
Frank opened an eye, and there was Ungel with a welcome mug of tea in his hand. This was their routine 'bed-tea', with which they began each day. And today, when they had readied themselves, Ungel presented them with bowls of steaming porridge.
They began descending, forever it seemed, down towards a river. They could see no way of crossing it, but a little way along from where they were standing they saw some villagers in mid-stream, shooting at fish with home-made arrows. They tried to wade across there, but the current made their crossing precarious and they were in danger of losing their balance. The fishermen came to their aid, steadying them with a firm grip on their arms as they escorted them across.
They passed fountains of bamboos, springing from the ground on thick, sturdy legs and then falling back at the top as the mass of the leaves weighed the thinning stems down. Often, one or two very long shoots stood far above the rest of the plant, and looked like the antennae of a giant insect. Bamboo was a precious resource for the villagers. In the fields, clusters of four or more large bamboo poles had been erected to support the harvested maize cobs which were stacked tightly half-way up to keep them away from vermin and damp. Roofs for shelters and animal quarters were all made from bamboo. Inside the houses, bamboo was used to make mats and large, square trays called gurma
which were placed on the wooden platforms above the household fire for drying clothes on or smoking meat.
They caught up with about thirty men staggering along under the weight of a huge suspension bridge cable. The men stood in pairs on either side of the cable in intervals along its vast length, sharing the weight of a wooden pole attached by a rope to the cable. The movement of the porters was dictated by the leader, who blew on a whistle to indicate the beginning and end of each rest. At a blast of the whistle, the men stopped simultaneously and sat on rudimentary wooden shooting sticks. This had to be done every few steps, so heavy was the cable. Every particle of that bridge would have to be carried over the mountains by porters.
“How on earth did they get over our log bridge with all that?” mused Hamish.
“There must be another road-head. Maybe they came from Pokhara.”
“I wonder where they're going?”
“We'll probably find out where in due course. They seem to be heading in the same direction,” said Frank.
“Let's divert them. Our river of terror needs a bridge as much as any other.”
“Oh, I think crossing log bridges is much more fun than crossing proper suspension bridges, don't you?” Frank said. “It's character building.”
“I'd rather have no character than have it and be dead,” said Hamish.
“Let's just relax and enjoy the present. We'll get to the bridge soon enough.”
It was time to stop for the day, and they waited in the dying light for Ungel and Anpoorba to join them. Ungel found them accommodation for the night, but it was less than ideal. Although there were others in the house, they were told the owners were away and that there was nothing but potatoes to eat. Hamish and Frank fell into a silent rage, which even a plateful of potatoes baked in the fire by Ungel, couldn't assuage. Frank took out a packet of Knorr soup, and they drank it grimly, ignoring all attempts at conversation by the others. In contrast, Ungel and Anpoorba were as happy as larks, and chatted and joked without stop.
“Potatoes!” Frank exclaimed. “How can they live on bloody potatoes? We're walking seven hours a day. How are we going to survive on nothing more than potatoes? ” An idea stopped him in mid-rant. He plunged into his rucksack and pulled out a tin of cheese. “At least let's have some cheese,” he said, but he momentarily left the tin open on the floor, and a dog came over and licked the contents. They fell into a renewed bout of sulks.
Their Sherpa companions had fallen silent, and were gazing dreamily into the embers of the fire. Misjudging his moment, Anpoorba, pleasantly replete with his belly-full of potatoes, and not in the least concerned about the nutritional profile of his meal, turned to Hamish, and said: “Now tell me your philosophy.” Hamish was in no mood for this, but feeling he ought to make the effort for politeness's sake, he cleared his throat.
“Well, as far as I'm concerned the only truth is truth about the things you can perceive through the senses.” Anpoorba was looking at Hamish quizzically. “You know, the things we see or feel or hear or touch or taste,” Hamish added, irritated by Anpoorba's failure to understand instantly. “In other words, scientific truth.”
“The only truth?” asked the lama incredulously. “But we cannot see real world,” said the lama. “We think world is like this or like that, but it is not. Only when we enlightened, then we can see true world.”
“Well, without scientific knowledge, you wouldn't have a radio,” Hamish said, choosing not to address what Frank thought was an interestingly pertinent point. Anpoorba glanced anxiously at his radio. “How d'you think the sound from Kathmandu reaches your radio?” Hamish asked. Anpoorba scratched his head, and smiled apologetically.
“Maybe wind carries it,” he said waving his hand.
“Well, that's your guess. Then we have to test whether it's a good guess. Does your radio work when there’s no wind?”Anpoorba scrunched his face up as he scoured his memory.
“I think 'yes'. Sometimes.”
“Well, then your hypothesis - that's what scientists call a guess - isn't right. In fact, sound travels in waves, like waves on a lake.” Hamish waved his hands to reinforce the image. Anpoorba looked around expectantly. “Well, you can’t see them,” said Hamish testily, unreasonably annoyed that he was having to explain everything. “They travel through the air invisibly.”
Anpoorba looked at him blankly. “Waves? I see,” he said nodding as though the concept had rung a bell. “But you say I must see them before I can believe them?”
“Well, yes, but we have instruments that can help our eyes to see and ears to hear. Like binoculars,” said Hamish, finding an example of a scientific instrument that Anpoorba was likely to have encountered. “But I haven't got the right instrument to show you these things right now.”
“But if you have instrument, then I can see waves?”
“Well, not exactly,” said Hamish irritably. He took a deep breath to keep his unreasonable temper under control. “You'd see a representation or picture of the real thing. Like a photograph. No-one can actually see the real thing.”
“Not real wave?”
“Not exactly,” said Hamish regretting the tone he was adopting, but still unable to curb the anger that had nothing to do with Anpoorba or the topic of discussion, but originated in how he had evaluated his meal. “But it doesn't matter. With this knowledge we can capture the sounds in Kathmandu, and send them to your radio and enable your radio to receive them and then play it to you,” he explained. “The radio works which means that our knowledge is right. Or at least, we can say we know enough about sound to make a radio work.”
“Very good. Thank you for excellent explanation of scientific philosophy,” said Anpoorba humbly, yawning loudly. He'd had enough, and started twiddling the knobs on his radio, leaving Hamish to stew in his own ill humour. Failing to get any reception worth listening to, he gave up and took out his rosary, and started counting off the beads, murmuring 'om mani padme hum'
all the while.
“You weren't being very patient,” Frank said to Hamish.
“I know. He chose the wrong moment.”
Frank poured some coffee out for all of them, and then got into his sleeping bag and read the Dhammapada, a collection of sayings of the Buddha, annoying Hamish by reading uplifting verses aloud for his benefit. And then he turned the torch off and lay for a while in the darkness thinking of Sunita. He caught himself smiling at a happy memory, and wished he could be with her. We had just five weeks left to enjoy each other’s company, and yet I abandoned her for four of them. So selfish. What on earth will she make of that? That I don’t love her? Will she write me off?
He groaned out loud to smother these painful thoughts.
“Do you mind?” said Hamish who'd been dozing off.
“Sorry. I've got a headache.”
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