Cassie has my Kindle in one hand, grumbling at Scrabble words that refuse to cooperate. In the other hand is a large Gurkha beer, only 150 Nepalese rupees. We take turns grabbing it, and we’re like a sitcom version of a young couple pretending to be an old couple. Our two layers of blankets cover us, protecting us from the Nepali night. Banana trees serve as a foreground for looming snowbound Himalayan peaks. It’s warmer in subtropical Pokhara than it was in Kathmandu, but January insists on making its presence known.
The hum of the generator in the background means that for once, we could flip one of the twenty light switches in the room to get instant fluorescent light, but we prefer the dim glow of the candles we continually purchase anyway. The power is off for 14 hours a day, and there’s no such thing as a heater.
For all the lack of comfort – weeks without a hot shower, no heat, smelly laundry, and freezing cold nights – Pokhara still represents a decadent indulgence. It’s our first chance on this trip to chill out together with no sense of urgency. We feel a bit guilty as we pass our days sipping lattes and alleviate it by planning to go for a hike or a boat ride “maybe the day after tomorrow.” Our relative lack of movement means our minds work overtime for our bodies, and a constantly changing, overwhelming physical landscape is replaced by a mental one.
What will life look like when we get back? What job will I take? How will we adapt to stationary life after a year on the road?
I find my thoughts drifting. In one moment, it’s drifting to another cold night by a fire in the common room of the guesthouse in Kathmandu, where we listened to Marco, a Nepali from California, tell us about his work as a journalist in Nepal. “Pokhara’s nice,” he said, unambiguously communicating that it was worth visiting but missing the bigger picture of this country. “I mostly work reporting on depressing stuff. Poverty, Lack of government. That kind of thing. Where in the States are you from?” We tell him, and it ends up being a nice conversation, but missing the bigger picture.
Cassie and I both finish chewing our way through the book Freedom at Midnight, the story of India’s independence. We sip lattes across from Phewa Tal, a beautiful Himalayan lake, as we read stories of Sikhs severing bucketloads of Muslim penises, Muslims raping Hindus by the thousands, and Hindus setting Muslim businesses on fire. I plow through Into Thin Air while Cassie reads Touching the Void, and we gaze up at the snow-capped Annapurna range while we envision mountain climbers struggling for their lives.
Eventually we start itching for adventure of a more physical variety, so we walk to the location of a motorcycle training shop. We discover it’s closed, because the owner is being treated for cancer in Singapore. We learn that it’s possible to walk around the lake and up to the World Peace Pagoda, so we walk. We are joined in our march by two young boys, and they offer to show us the way and warn us of the dangers of being robbed as we pass a sign saying the same thing. We accept their offer, and they show us through the forest, past a pair of suspicious looking guys dressed in military fatigues, who exchange a few words with the boys and then pay us no mind.
We crest the hill and are greeted by a sweeping panorama of the mountains, the lake, and Pokhara. The boys pose for a few pictures with us before their inevitable request for money. We give them what we think is generous and fair, and it’s not enough. They ask for more, and we decline. They reluctantly say goodbye and we continue to a gleaming white dome adorned with gilded depictions of the Buddha. A white man in one of those floppy, touristy, wide-brimmed hats walks circles around the stupa and murmurs to himself. Clouds envelop the mountains and they disappear, and we think of the many travelers who come here without ever glimpsing them. We descend and take a placid boat ride back to town.
Cassie plows through Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and giggles uncontrollably at the absurdities of Douglas Adams’ universe, and I observe a group of Russians booming with laughter at the onomatopoeic stories of their companion. One of them sees a dog next to their table, and carefully spoons a bit of his drink out, pours it over the dog’s head, and repeats until it scurries away. We eat a generous helping of delicious dhal bhat and plan for our move up the hill to Sarangkot.
At dawn, we find ourselves in a taxi climbing, climbing, climbing. It lets us out at a stone staircase, and we climb in the dark, passing groups of huffing and puffing Chinese people. We arrive at the top and a man asks for our tickets, which we show him. Past an army encampment and a radio tower, we reach the other side of the summit of our small hill and suddenly see how small it is. A 26,000 foot peak is tucked behind other, “small” peaks: only 24,000 feet or so. A bit of timid pink light changes the color of the glaciers hugging their summits, and the disc of the sun starts creeping over the horizon. Clothed in layers of crimson hues, it casts its dim light through the shroud of pollution from Nepali “heaters” – thousands of small fires fed by garbage.
The otherwise tranquil morning is disturbed by loud chatter from Chinese people who fire their cameras at the mountains like machine guns. A trio of ultralight planes passes overhead and buzzes above an immense valley toward the stark, barren peaks. I give Cassie a squeeze and utter a Namaste to a smiling Nepali.
Life is good.