Our time spent in Varanasi did do some good for our mental recovery. Just after leaving town, our horn’s electrical contacts disintegrated and caused the steering wheel to seize up. Using nothing more than a Leatherman tool and a piece of bailing wire, I was able to reconstruct new and functional horn contacts,
verifying that we were at least mentally aware, and that I still clung to my American roots. Bailing wire! ‘Merica! Yee haw!
In the early afternoon we emerged from the dilapidated highway and into another featureless garbage heap of a town. We would have passed right through without incident if the villagers hadn’t taken it upon themselves to build a ten- foot-high brick wall right across the highway in the middle of town. But they had.
“What the fork is this? What the FORK?!”
“Fork! You have to be forking JOKING!” It was Sheena. She too had
snapped and gone off the deep end. I was happy to know that I wasn’t alone.
We consulted our GPS as people quickly packed themselves around
Nacho to stare at us. The map seemed to show a possibility of getting around this
demonstration of idiocy by taking a small track along a levy. We backtracked
and found the trail, nothing more than a motorcycle path crisscrossed by deep
channels where the levy had failed. After some time, we emerged down a steep
drop-off into the middle of a small slum. The inhabitants of the slum stopped
what they were doing and stared at us as we drove through their front yards and
back to the so-called highway, and in doing so, we smashed our oil pan in a
cataclysmic way. I got out to check it and realized that, in addition to smashing
the hell out of our delicate oil pan, the impact had caused our three-inch-wide
steel bumper support to sheer completely off, and now our bumper tilted
backward at a thirty-degree angle. Calling once again on my American roots, I
attached a ratchet strap to the bumper and secured it to the top of our rear door.
The road from there onward proved to be the worst section of the whole
drive. We continued on through the wasteland at five to ten kilometers per hour
—a walking pace—well into the night, desperate to get out of India. We
repeatedly smashed our oil pan, but by now I had stopped checking it.
Subconsciously I knew that a split oil pan would cause engine failure, which in
turn would give us an excuse to quit and go home. India had broken us.
As we ascended a hill in the dark, we noticed that two semi trucks had
driven off the side of the road and smashed into the forest. This seemed pretty
normal, as Indian truckers couldn’t keep their rigs on the road even if their lives
depended on it. We’d seen at least fifty accidents since we had left Hampi. As we
passed, however, we noticed that they’d taken someone with them. Underneath
one of the semis was a motorcycle, and its rider was dead on the side of the road.
That made three motorcycle casualties in five days.
Around midnight we found a petrol station where we would camp for the
night. We were still ten kilometers from the Nepalese border: an eternity. I was
covered in grime and desperate for a shower, so I squeezed myself under the
nozzle of a rickety hand-pumped well in the corner of the parking lot and took a
bath. It was at times like this—my mostly-nude body contorted underneath a
rusty spigot, scrubbing grime off of myself before an audience of silent Indian
truck drivers— that I would stand back and ask myself, how did it come to this?
In the morning we set off at first light. Given that this road wasn’t all that
important to India—it was used only for frivolous things like international trade
—it had been abandoned and allowed to be overtaken by nature. We crept
through craters and over enormous ridges for two hours to complete the scant ten
We reached Raxaul, India’s border town, and found our way to the
customs office. We handed our Carnet de Passages and passports to the customs
agent and watched him write out all of the information from our documents by
hand, which took nearly two hours. He painstakingly inspected and reproduced
the curvature of each individual letter. When he had finished, he carried all of
the documents over to a decrepit photocopier and copied them, and then stapled
them to the page he’d just finished reproducing by hand. I opened my mouth and
almost allowed myself to bellow a string of profanities at this blatant waste of
time, but thought better of it. After sixty-five solid hours of driving at an average
speed of just twenty-two miles per hour, we were free.
As we prepared to leave, David and Regina arrived and walked excitedly
into the office. We gathered our things and headed out the door, and just as it
closed behind us I heard Regina’s exasperated voice speaking to the customs
“Excuse me, but what is taking so long? This is a very simple task!” The
corner of my mouth went up in an unfamiliar shape. For the first time in six days
I was smiling.
We got in Nacho and headed North through no-man’s land, lost in a swirl
of dust. Motorcycles zipped in and out of our view, we bumped through deep
potholes, and then we saw it. Through the dust an ornate arch appeared. It was
beautiful. No, it was the most beautiful sight I’d ever seen. It was the entry to the
Mountain Kingdom of Nepal.
When we crossed under the arch it was instantly quiet. No horns. No
dust. No potholes. Nobody stared at us like we were in a zoo. A few people
walked around smiling. Smiling . We parked and walked into the quaint customs
house set back in a grove of gum trees. I couldn’t be sure, but I could have sworn
that the customs agent was wearing a white robe and glowing.
“Take a seat,” he said calmly, putting down his book. “I hope you’ve had
a good trip. Welcome to Nepal.”
Tribhuvan Rajpath to Kathmandu
Crossing India had been an exercise of endurance on the worst roads,
with the worst drivers in the world, and the roads had been pancake flat. Upon
reaching Nepal, the roads were suddenly maintained. Within a few miles of
crossing the border, we began winding through foothills, and then climbing into
the mountains. The terrain rapidly transitioned from low, hot plains to grassy
valleys, to alpine meadows with crystal clear, meandering streams and evergreen
forests. Sheena and I sat in the front seats swaying to the curves in the road, our
faces cramping from the maniacal smiles plastered across our faces. Nepal was
the country we had looked forward to the most when we left our driveway, and
after two years of driving, we had finally made it.
“It feels like a ton of bricks has just been lifted from my chest!” Sheena
exclaimed, and then made a joyous squeal. She followed it with another joyous
squeal and I wondered if she would pass out.
It was the same for me, but without the joyous squeals. A sense of great
pleasure and adventure had swept over us. Every jagged rock and towering tree
was our best friend. Teddy bears danced in the tall grass beside the road,
rainbows shot across the late afternoon sky, and a herd of unicorns sipped water
from a crystal clear brook. I gave in and let out a joyous squeal of my own.
Within an hour we came to what we thought would be a shortcut to
Kathmandu at a tiny crossroads, and pulled over. A police officer and a few
people lingered at a bus stop, and I asked the officer about the road. He verified
that it was in fact a shortcut to Kathmandu, although quite mountainous and too
narrow to be used by larger vehicles.
For lovers of the mountains, Nepal is heaven on Earth. In our home state
of Arizona we could drive 130 miles from Phoenix to our home in Flagstaff,
ascending the Mogollon Rim, which brought us from the southern deserts into
the northern mountains – an elevation gain of about a vertical mile. Arizonans
brag about the variety of climates that can be experienced in such a short
distance as a result of the 5,000-foot elevation gain of the Mogollon Rim. In
Nepal, over the same 130-mile distance, the elevation rises from 193 feet to
29,021 feet – a change of five and a half vertical miles. Nepal is quite literally
the most extreme place in the world.
We took the shortcut, and before long the narrow road snaked its way
onto a steep mountain spine and began spiraling into the sky. At the edge of each
hairpin turn the road gave way to a sheer cliff. It was steep enough that our old
engine wouldn’t have been able to pull us up; the upgrade had justified our
decision on the first day in the Himalayas. By the time we crossed the summit
and began winding down the other side into the Kathmandu Valley, the sun had
set and darkness had fallen. We picked our way along the steep, rocky one-lane
road, a crumbling wall to our left, and a black abyss to our right.
When finally we emerged from the mountains and into Kathmandu, we
found our way to Dhobighat, a colony on the southern end of the ring road.
There aren’t any residential addresses in most of Nepal, so it was impossible for
us to know where we were going. Our good Nepalese friend Baroon, whom we
had met back home in Flagstaff, had told us that his family would be happy to
put us up when we got to Kathmandu. Thus, throughout the evening we
attempted to navigate by cryptic directions delivered over the phone by Baroon’s
cousin, Pesal. When we got close, the all-knowing and ever-wise Pesal met us on
the ring road, welcoming us with a smile and a wave. As we pulled over, he
turned and led us into the maze of backstreets on foot until we arrived, finally, at
his family’s home. The Rai household, where Pesal lived, would be our home
base in Nepal. Things were looking up.
Nepal’s economy had never been strong, and in fact, it is one of the
poorest countries in the world. The average worker in Nepal earned just $645 per
year. Yet despite its troubles, Nepal felt rich by developing world standards. The
roads were generally in decent shape, there wasn’t garbage strewn everywhere,
every village had toilet facilities, and most people had access to clean drinking
water. Most of these things weren’t even true of Nepal’s richer neighbor to the
south. Even life expectancy was higher in Nepal. Of all of the developing
countries we had visited, Nepal’s people were the happiest. And if you are
happier than your neighbor, who really cares who has more money?
Nepal had endured a rough recent past, which made its widespread
happiness seem even more commendable. In 2001, only a few months before
9/11, Nepal suffered its own horrible setback. Distraught over the King and
Queen’s disapproval of his choice of wife, the King’s son stormed into a family
barbecue and murdered the entire royal family, and then shot himself. This
further weakened the struggling monarchy, and by 2008, after a long civil war
against the violent Maoist rebels, the Nepalese Constituent Assembly formally
dismantled the long-standing monarchy. What followed was a continuation of
Maoist revolt and violence, a period that the people of Nepal are still attempting
to put behind them. Upon our arrival, despite having signed a peace deal with the
Maoists—Nepal’s devious communist party—the country still hadn’t agreed on a
constitution and was still plagued by periodic Maoist assaults.
Over the course of our first week in Nepal, we got to know our new
family: Bharat the patriarch, ever-inquisitive, reserved, and well-read; Durga, the
sweet and always-smiling mother whom we came to call “Auntie Durga;” Uncle
Laxman, inquisitive and always willing to join us for tea; Manika, the young and
painfully shy girl from the family’s village whom Bharat and Durga had taken
upon themselves to educate and eventually send to nursing school; and Pesal,
fresh out of the university and bound by his honor to be our trusty tour guide and
confidant during our stay. The melding of our customs with those of our Nepali
family was amusing, and gave Bharat endless entertainment.
In Nepal, people eat twice per day: at ten o’clock in the morning and at
eight o’clock in the evening. Dal bhat is served for nearly every meal, which
consists of a generous helping of rice accompanied by lentils, dry vegetable
curry, pickle, chutney, papad , and once per week, a meat curry. It should be noted
that only tourists use silverware in Nepal, so we quickly adapted to the Nepali
method of eating messy food properly with our hands. Bharat would
occasionally stop by to harangue me about the intricacies of my food handling
“Brad,” he would say, his stern face slowly panning between my plate
and my hand. “What are you doing?”
“Um. I’m just eating the food, Bharat.” There would be a moment of
awkward silence, my gooey fingers suspended mid-air, dripping bits of dal –
covered rice onto my jumbled pile of food.
“People will think you are very unconventional eating like this. You are
eating like a savage.”
“A savage? Well what do you suggest?”
At this he would describe the exact way in which a Nepali would eat,
how only a little bit of each ingredient would be added to a corner of the rice,
and then finely sculpted into a food pellet before being cleanly pushed off the
fingers by the thumb into the mouth. Before long, I was garnering compliments
and thumbs-up by old people at restaurants for having mastered “the Nepali
system” of cutlery-free eating.
Knowing that Sheena and I are American, and thus accustomed to eating
three meals per day, Pesal woke us up every day around nine o’clock—it should
be noted that the recovery from our drive across India took a very long time—
with a breakfast of hard-boiled eggs, bananas, and tea in bed. Breakfast was
quickly followed by more tea, and then at ten o’clock it was time for a lunch of
all-you-can-eat dal bhat , consumed using our newly learned “Nepali system”
eating method. The ensuing ten hours of foodlessness passed unnoticed on
account of our morning gluttony, and in a short time we had weaned ourselves
off of breakfast altogether.
In Nepal, “where guest is God,” guests are customarily given the royal
treatment. By convention, guests eat first and are waited on by the host, and only
afterwards will the host eat. This meant that for the first few days, Sheena and I
ate alone while someone from the family appeared periodically to add more food
to our plates. We explained that, while we appreciated the gesture, we would
very much like to eat with the family. As a compromise, Pesal ate his meals with
us from then on. It was at this time that we discovered that Nepalis are much
faster with their hands than we cumbersome Americans.
“Jesus H. Christ, Pesal. Are you already finished?” Our plates still
contained 92% of their original ingredients as we painstakingly formed food
pellets with our gooey fingers. Pesal sat patiently, his sleek hand poised on his
empty plate like a freshly cleaned spider.
“Nepalis are fast eaters. I am the fastest of the fast,” he said, matter-of-
On occasion, Bharat would enter the kitchen to harangue me about my
food handling skills and see Pesal already finished. “Pesal!” he would say,
“You should eat more slowly like these people.” He would then look
disapprovingly at my frighteningly mucky hands and slowly shake his head
before leaving the room.
After a while, we taught Pesal some appropriate English terms to use
when leaving the table while others are still eating, so that he wouldn’t have to
wait for us after his bouts of speed eating.
“You can take your sweet time,” he would say, and then get up and leave
It would at first seem that eating the same thing for every meal would get
old, but Durga is the best cook in Nepal, as verified by extensive field research,
and each day she made variations to the side dishes that accompanied our dal
bhat . We couldn’t get enough. We spent each day in a dal bhat -fueled happy
trance, spritzed with a squirt of endorphins on account of the perfect weather and
the fact that we had made it out of India alive.
We passed our days in Kathmandu eating copious amounts of dal bhat ,
drinking tea nine times per day, and visiting points of interest around the
Kathmandu valley with our tireless guide. Pesal, always looking out for our best
interest, was concerned about the legality of us driving Nacho in Nepal, as the
law disallows older vehicles in an effort to curb emissions. We assured him that
it was okay, but just to be safe we spent the first week exploring Kathmandu by
public minibus. This proved to be what one might refer to as a “cultural
experience,” for better or worse. At one point I counted twenty-seven full-grown
adults in our clapped-out minibus – a bus that, I will point out, was smaller than
Bharat tracked me down every morning and afternoon, inviting me to the
outdoor terrace to talk. We sat on short wooden stools and waited for Pesal or
Manika to bring us tea, and then we would stare at each other, sipping in silence.
At first I felt self-conscious in the silence, that perhaps he was disappointed that
he hadn’t been delivered a better conversationalist. He would tilt his head back
and forth as if ruminating an idea, hold his breath as though he were about to
speak, and then breathe again. After a while he would face me and pose the
question that had been on his mind.
“Mr. Brad,” He would say, tilting his head back and peering at me
through squinting eyes. “What do you people think of the Maoists?” He used the
term “you people” to refer both to Sheena and me, as well as to Americans in
general. In the case of my people’s view of the Maoists, I explained to him that
most Americans couldn’t find Nepal on a map, let alone hold an opinion about its
subversive communists. Bharat hated the idea of communism, although it took a
fair amount of coaxing to get him to tell me his ideas; he spoke very little, and
always wanted me to do the talking.
“Bharat is always reading and thinking,” Pesal had said. I explained my
thoughts on Marx and Mao, and Bharat told me that communism was the wrong
answer for Nepal.
“Speaking of the Maoists,” I said, “why is it that after all of the trouble
they’ve caused, they still have so much support in Nepal?” Elections were
approaching, and in the morning paper that Pesal had brought me with my hard-
boiled eggs, I had read that the Maoist party still enjoyed widespread support in
Nepal. He explained that the Maoists would go into remote areas where the
poorest people lived, and where outside communication was limited, and
promise them that under communism they could be as rich as everybody else.
The very poor saw communism as a way of rising out of destitution, but given
their isolation from the outside world, they weren’t aware of its grand failures.
Pesal later told me that Bharat had been a communist in his younger days, and
had since become vehemently opposed to it.
Each morning and afternoon Bharat had a different question for me, and
he would roll one question into another until I had no more information to
deliver. When I asked questions of him, he gave short answers, or else ignored
me altogether, and then asked me another question.
“Mr. Brad,” he said one afternoon while we sipped tea on the terrace. “In
what year did America give its women the right to vote?” I always tried to be as
insightful as I could, but despite my best efforts I often felt as though my
answers were something of a letdown. I took another sip of my tea.
“Hmm. Yes, of course, women’s suffrage. Well I say, it was a very long
time ago. Must have been, oh, the mid-1800’s? Yes, I would imagine it must
have been around 1840. Don’t quote me on that, but I believe it was, yes, 1840.”
He leaned back and seemed to take mental notes as I spoke. His silence
often caused me to ramble on until I tired myself out. He pulled one cheek back
into a smile lowered his chin into his neck, creating a row of tight wrinkles on
his throat, and then he spoke.
“You people gave your women the right to vote in 1920. It is the
nineteenth amendment to your constitution.”
Bharat must have thought I was such an idiot.
“Really? That seems terribly late,” I said.
“In Nepal our women didn’t vote until 1947, and in India 1949. Your
women have many more rights than Nepali women.” He paused and sipped his
tea, and then tilted his head back and continued. “In America, men and women
have equal rights?”
“Yes, they do.”
“Your Hillary Clinton will be the first woman President, I think so.”
“Possibly,” I said.
“India had a woman president, but do you think women got more rights?
Their position in society did not change. In India and Nepal, the women still do
all of the work.” He thought for a minute, and then let out a short giggle. He
sounded like Yoda when he giggled.
“Look at me. I am retired, but Durga still works. I just sit around all day
and I do nothing. But when Durga comes home from work, she is expected to
cook me dinner. That is not right!”
The solution seemed obvious to me. “Well then why don’t you just cook
dinner while Durga is at work?”
He scrunched his brow and lowered his chin, and then laughed his Yoda
laugh. “This is Nepal! What would my friends say?”
He said that it was too late for his generation, that young Nepalis would
have to demand change, just as Americans had. He expected it would happen
soon, since the new generation could see how it was in the West, and would
want the same for themselves.
“The problem,” he continued, “is that the Nepalis who would lead the
movement just go away and live in other countries. It would take too much work
to change Nepal, so they just go live in America or Europe instead.” He
shrugged his shoulders. “I told Pesal that he must stay here to take care of us, but
he will probably go away, I think so. Our young people have a saying, have you
heard it?” I said that I hadn’t.
“They say ‘American life, Japanese wife.’” He rolled his eyes, and then
he scrunched his brow and explained that young people saw these as the
ingredients to a perfect existence; Americans had the best lives, while Japanese
women were the most loyal. If you could have an American life and a Japanese
wife, you had it all.
Bharat had recently retired as principle of a public school, and so he was
excited to bring us to his old school in Bhaktapur to give us a firsthand lesson in
Nepali culture. We all loaded up in Nacho one day, Bharat, Pesal, Sheena and I,
and made the trip to the neighboring town. On the way, while navigating traffic
on Kathmandu’s dusty, tumultuous ring road, a rogue public bus driver with
questionable depth perception sideswiped Nacho’s passenger-side mirror, and
Pesal caught it in his hand from the passenger seat. I watched helplessly as the
bus pulled away, and then turned to Pesal.
“American life, Japanese wife,” I said, shaking my head.
“That is not the appropriate saying for this situation,” he said.
The school sat atop the highest mountain in Bhaktapur, with a long view
of the Kathmandu Valley. When we arrived, the new principal guided us into the
courtyard and we parked Nacho amid a throng of scurrying children in matching
blue uniforms. Our arrival seemed to be much anticipated, and several of the
staff ushered us into the principal’s office for tea. Bharat had seemed nonchalant
about bringing us to the school, but I could see that a lot of planning had gone on
behind the scenes, and he had probably really hoped that we would come. We
found this typical of Nepalis; they would go to great lengths to ensure our
comfort or entertainment, but they would just as soon abandon all of their hard
work if we felt like doing something else, and we never really knew if they had
planned something until we showed up.
The staff—all women wearing matching baggy pink outfits—sat on a
bench under the window and laughed as they caught up with Bharat, their former
boss. They teased Pesal, who sat smilingly amongst them under the windowsill,
interrupting the rays of light that descended to the carpeted floor. After tea, the
teachers led us into the courtyard where Nacho was parked; a tent had been set
up over a carpet to create a stage, and dozens of chairs were set up under a
canopy facing it like bleachers. Students filled the chairs, and then someone
turned on the music. Song after song blared at eardrum-splitting volume, while
several students and some female teachers dressed in colorful outfits performed
energetic traditional dances.
It was absolutely fantastic, the type of unusual experience that few
visitors to Nepal are lucky enough to stumble into. By the end of the afternoon I
had sacrificed Sheena to the vibrant throng of dancing teachers, and they brought
her on stage to get down with the rest of the Nepali dancers. Sheena doesn’t
count dancing among her preferred pastimes, and therefore relies on a limited set
of moves. In order to satisfy her obligation to dance, she repeated a motion of
bending her knees, straightening them, and then pretending to knead bread with
her hands while making fish lips. Bend-straighten-knead-fish lips-repeat. The
people within her general vicinity promptly imitated her white girl dancing
skills, probably assuming that they were “hip” and “up to date,” and before we
knew it, everybody had fish lips and was kneading bread while bouncing up and
down at the knees. Right now in some bar in Kathmandu there is a new dance
craze growing from the deranged seed planted by little dancing Sheena.
At the end of the day we all piled back into Nacho—with the addition of
a few teachers who needed rides—and Nacho’s Taxi Service coasted back down
the hill to Kathmandu.
Around the end of our first week, we received an email from an
acquaintance. He was a fellow writer from our home state, who had been in
Nepal for over a month and had just found his way back to Kathmandu after
having ridden around the Annapurna range on his mountain bike. He emailed us
the name of a bar in the old kingdom of Patan and told us to meet him there. We
set out with Pesal, our trusted guide, and using a combination of foot and taxi
travel, found ourselves helplessly lost in the ancient back lanes of the old
kingdom. Nearly an hour late and just about ready to hoof it back home, we
accidentally stumbled into Mokshe Bar.
Hidden away from the disheveled ancient alleys that surrounded it, the
bar was ambient and inviting, and a dozen shiny mountain bikes decorated its
outdoor terrace. It was as if we had stepped into another dimension. It just
happened that Commencal, a high-end European mountain bike manufacturer,
was holding a new product launch there. The French owner of the bike company
sat alone at a patio table while several outdoorsy-looking foreigners milled
about. From within the bar I heard a voice.
“Brad! Sheena!” We turned to see Chris bounding toward us with the
slight limp and the crazy eyes of someone who had just spent twelve days alone
with his bike in the Himalayas. He spoke with a kind of permanent awe stamped
on his face, as if he’d just seen God out there in the mountains. In many ways, he
“This experience has changed me, man. My life will never be the same.”
As we talked to him, he repeatedly came up short in trying to describe in words
the kind of awe that he’d experienced out in the Himalayas. He talked
disjointedly about aimless wandering, two-day climbs that terminated at
impassible glaciers, and the resulting self-conversations of a crazed man with a
bike at the top of the world. His hair was messed up. “I’ve been thinking a lot
about how I’m going to write about this,” he said. “There’s so much to say, but I
don’t want to come off sounding like a douchebag, you know? I mean, nobody
will be able to relate to this, no matter how well I describe it. It’ll be a long-ass
time before I can sit down and digest the last two weeks.”
It was refreshing to hear this kind of speech after so much time away
from home. We hadn’t been around our people in a very long time, and we felt a
twang of homesickness as he went on about bike riding, describing what was
going on with our mutual friends back home, and using a crass-but-funny dialect
that I only then realized is unique to certain pockets of people in the United
States. But more than anything we felt a sense of aching excitement, because in a
couple of short days we would be making our way west to stumble face-first into
our own circumnavigation of the Annapurna range, only on foot instead of bike.
For the first time since we had pondered it years before, the 150-mile trek didn’t
fill me with nervous dread, but rather with a feeling of warm anticipation.