Trek Take-Off

As we organized our backpacks in the Kathmandu Guest House the evening before the actual trek began, Brenda offered me plastic bags to keep my things organized. “You know, one for the heavier clothing, one for the laundry,” blah,blah,blah.
I thanked her and then threw everything willy-nilly into my backpack.

The thing is, I wasn’t even going to have to carry all this stuff by myself. Brenda had arranged for a porter to carry a share of our stock. “Come on,” I had protested at first,”we walked the whole Camino Santiago, 800 kilometres, me with blisters so bad until the two hundred kilometre mark that every step was agony,not to mention Machu Picchu, where I was Rachelle’s packhorse as well and now you want to go the British aristocrat route with some poor, what do they call them, sherpas, carrying everything ? Is the poor devil gonna have to call me Bwana Dave as well ?” Despite my well-earned reputation as a scoffer at all things millenial, I’m an egalitarian at heart. Brenda was used to my bellicose bluster after more than thirty years.Taking your spouse with a grain of salt helps make most anything a little more palatable. “Look,”she said, “the Camino is a summer trek. Lighter clothing. We’ve got a lot of heavier supplies this time around. We’re hiking up the Himalayas, reaching almost 5000 metres. And you’re almost sixty two years old.” She hadn’t quite finished. “And what about those arthritic knees that you’re always whining about?”

The porter’s name was Sunil and he was eighteen years old. The same age as our daughter, our youngest child. It didn’t seem that long ago that I was carrying her bag on Peru’s Machu Picchu trek.
Where, by gum, have the years gone ?
We were to leave by six a.m. the next morning. There was an A.T.M. at the exit to the Guest House and although it had been empty the night before departure, we were assured it would be stocked with hundreds of crisp new rupees by the next morning. Actually, we had arrived with plenty of American dollars, good as gold anywhere in the world we had always found, but our travel coordinator Chandra wanted to be paid in cash, as Visa always takes five percent from the merchants. Brenda was responsible for the money. “I organized the trip,” she responded when I mouthed my mild protests. She also claims I’m not wary enough of pickpockets, too much of a soft touch with beggars and not a hardnosed negotiator while haggling. But despite her usual sagacity with a dollar, Brenda seems to be a soft touch with Buddhists and Hindus. She takes a harder line with Christians and Muslims, and me. Must have something to do with past lives and karma working itself out. We had even tried to get a cash advance on our Visa card the day before, making the rounds of the banks. No luck. Every banker looked at us in bewilderment as we profferred our Visa, as incredulous as if we were offering them Canadian Tire money. Visa may be everywhere you want to be, except in Nepal. That Morgan Freeman is full of shit, man.

So it was back to the ATM that morning of departure. I inserted my debit card at 6:15 a.m. Nothing happened. There was a security guard standing nearby. “This machine worked a couple of days ago,” I informed him. “Do you know what’s going on?”
“They don’t bring the money until 8 a.m.” Wonderful. We were supposed to have put in the first hour of our bus ride by then.

Sunil still hadn’t arrived by 6:30. We put in a call to Chandra, who had hired the guy for us. “He’s on Nepal time,” was Chandra’s explanation.

When he showed up at 6:45 a.m. Sunil’s bloodshot eyes made it look like he had already spent his first day’s pay on some Nepalese celebratory liquor. No big deal. We wouldn’t be doing too much hiking this first day anyway. We hailed a taxi and while loading up either Sunil or the cabbie slammed the trunk on one of the backpacks’ clasps, leaving it inoperable. The sun hadn’t even come up yet and already we were departing late, short of cash, with a hungover porter and now a partially-disabled backpack. But if we were quick we could still catch our bus at the terminal by 7:00 a.m.

At 7:30 a.m. we were still seated on the bus in the terminal parking lot, going nowhere. We were joined by two other apparently lost souls. Brenda finished her second banana of the morning and looked over at the bus driver. “Where’s the garbage?” she asked. He merely looked out the window at the litter, a trash-strewn parking lot. “Oh, okay.”

After an hour-and-a-half wait sitting on a near-empty bus we started to see some action. The bus was almost full by the time we pulled out at 9 a.m. but the drive getting out of Kathmandu was agonizing. Apparently we weren’t the only bus leaving the city. The bus drive, while slow, was very civilized however, with a washroom break after an hour and a half and then a stop for lunch. The dal bhat buffet was very impressive and service was carried out with friendly smiles. The friendly smiles remained constant for the three week trek, but my gastro-intestinal system did not stay as cheery.

Seven hours later the bus pulled in to Bessarabi, its last stop. Not one of the tree ATMs was working. I asked our porter, Sunil, if any of the villages we would be hiking through in the next few days had any money machines. He shook his head, sadly. Well, no matter. We had been in worse predicaments and the universe had not yet pulled the plug on either of us. It was getting dark and it was supposed to be a three and a half hour walk to Bulbule, the village where we planned to spend the night before our first full day’s trek. We found four other hardy souls who were on the same mission and hired a jeep that started out on roads that would have been right at home in battle-scarred Afghanistan. A little more than an hour later we rolled out of our seats and I spotted a guest house right beside a suspension bridge and a woman who seemed anxious for our business. We were in no position to argue. I’d had enough for one day. Even if we were heading into the House of Horrors I wasn’t going any farther and Brenda realized that.
We shouldered our backpacks and made our way to the front door. Outside the kitchen there was a small man peeling potatoes and laughing non-stop.
Maybe he knew something we didn’t.

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