Sitting outside my hotel – I use the term in its broader sense – on the wide street of Bhalubang on the west bank of the Arjun Khola river enjoying a welcome beer after the day’s exertions, I took pleasure in the animated scene of a community socialising at the close of the day. It was 7pm and dark. Yellow light shone from windows. Young couples strolled by, cafes and tea shops were busy with teenagers, televisions glowing silently in a top corner of the room. Near to me some kids were playing under a streetlight. Four of them, including a girl, were playing Hacky sack in a tight circle very impressively with what looked like a small bag of tied up straw. A four year old was skipping, her sister was practicing balance with a box on her head. She was a very good skipper. Then they swapped. No traffic passed. National elections were to be held the following day and the country was reportedly in lockdown, with suggestions of public disturbances and possible violence.
Seven months on the road and my destination Burma was now more than an aspiration. Looking at the map to see my progress since beginning the journey in Ireland, I was halfway across Nepal. It was getting closer and more real. An increasing effect of this I noticed, was a greater ‘destination’ focus, I was more conscious every day of the distance covered towards my goal. That was it – the goal was within reach.
It was true there were other factors as well contributing to this growing inclination. The lowland scenery in the eastern part of the country was not so interesting – fairly flat, more intensively farmed and increasingly densely populated. And having spent quite some time in Nepal in a previous life the novelty wasn’t really there. I recognised a falling off in the sensation of ‘wonder’, a quality present so far on the journey.
A thousand kilometres cycling across the lowland Terai in Nepal would bring me to the east of the country, where I would pop out in West Bengal and Assam, back in India. I had abandoned my tent and cooker to lighten the load, throwing myself to fate and the chances of finding a bed each night. What didn’t help was my tendency to leave it til quite late in the afternoon to start thinking about where to stop. It was the end of November and daylight was shrinking. Of course all I had to do was go to bed early and rise before dawn. Best of intentions. Accommodation could usually be found in larger towns and cities but on a bicycle it was not always likely I’d reach one at the end of the day.
Hotels were generally of the concrete built-in-the-last-decade variety, rusted rebar sticking up from the unfinished top floor for possible future expansion, upwards. Arriving a number of times after nightfall – I was aware of not wanting to make this a habit – if I was fortunate enough to get a ‘hotel’ it ranged in standard from the comfortable to the rank. Often bedroom walls were light board, the yellowed paint faded and stained. A cot with a stiff board and mattress would serve as a bed. The town of Kawasoti was one of those experiences. I’d had an extended lunch with two election observers from Cyprus and Slovakia, enjoying their conviviality and interesting tales on assignment (and wondered how I could get a job like that!). After which I was faced with a long climb before the next decent sized town with a chance of lodging. I was pleased with myself having still achieved 110 kilometres for the day. Directed to the only hotel it was, as written in my notes, “a kip”. The room I was given had such a tang of urine another was offered which wasn’t so bad. I flopped on the bed with a relieved sigh after the hard day’s cycle. But the whiff off the floral Chinese-made, acrylic blanket had me struggling back on my feet instantly. It had an overpowering smell of stale dirty hair, from the natural oils produced by the human body gone rancid. Bed linen was obviously considered incidental in this hotel and blankets not washed. Was it my delicate Western sensibilities, or surely others would find that unpleasant too? This is where my sleeping mat, silk liner and bag were handy. But the hotel had wifi. And they willingly brought me up a bucket of hot water for a wash.
Strung out along the Mahendra Highway the towns and villages passed – Kohalpur, Kusun, Ryar, Chanauta, Gorusingh. In the western part of Nepal, to vary things the generally easy terrain was interrupted occasionally by fingers of the Himalayan foothills reaching down across the lowland strip of forest. I did not enjoy climbs, my route from the beginning of the journey actually being influenced by the alternatives when possible. But I had become familiar enough with them at this stage not to be intimidated. From days on end in first gear labouring up the Karakorum and Himalayan range I’d found that whatever the pace, time passes and with that so do the kilometres. Plod along with a steady effort and you make progress. But I still didn’t like them.
In Nepal I found some trucks were that slow the temptation to get an ‘assist’ was too much to resist. Toiling uphill, I’d recognise the sound of a slow truck coming up behind me. A quick glance back would confirm its speed was suitable, and as the sound grew closer I’d push a bit harder until, passing me, I’d pedal furiously and reach out for a handhold on the rear corner, my left hand guiding the handlebars. And off we’d go, cruising uphill with no effort. I have to say I got quite adept at judging it, and confident. And got a buzz out of it. Was it cheating? Any inconvenient qualms were dispelled as stolen altitude was gained. Sometimes I’d have to reluctantly let go when the road became narrow and the truck would be too close to the edge. The trick was to keep a constant eye on my front panniers so they wouldn’t touch against the rear wheel. That wouldn’t be a good outcome.
Lumbini in the central lowlands of Nepal was a detour, birthplace of Siddhartha Gautama more than two and a half thousand years ago. A prince who had a sheltered upbringing, when discovering that a life of wealth and privilege did not guarantee happiness he renounced his noble status at age 29 for the life of an ascetic in his search for understanding. After six years renouncing worldly comforts he was none the wiser and resolved to sit under a Bodhi tree until he understood how we as humans should live. There the penny dropped. A strict lifestyle of self denial was misguided and he realised ‘the middle path’ was the direction to follow. He understood the nature of being and became enlightened. As the Buddha he spent the rest of his life on the road teaching his message.
And what did the Buddha discover? The four noble truths. That life is indeed difficult – we are all subject to pain, loss, getting old, death as well as psychological suffering such as fear, anger, frustration, etc. That’s the human condition. There is a cause of this suffering. It is our craving – for example for physical or material comforts, other’s approval – or aversion, to pain, discomfort, etc. When this is understood these can be overcome and true happiness and contentment are possible. And the Buddha described how we can attain this true happiness.
The path involves – living a moral life, training the mind on being fully aware of our thoughts and actions, and developing wisdom by understanding the four noble truths and developing compassion for others. Meditation is an important part of the method, a conscious way of taking control of your mind so that it becomes calm, concentrated and focused, instead of the usual jumping around in a stream of thoughts. Fairly simple – which is not the same as easy!
Hetauda was a pretty town with, unusually, tree lined streets. I rolled into the Avocado Motel more in hope than confidence – it was a lovely colonial looking building in its own grounds and surely beyond my budget. On this long of a journey I had to watch the pennies – generally about four to six dollars a night would get me a basic but usually clean room with shared bathroom. Happily the Avocado had an annex with modest rooms at an affordable price.
Crucially it also had wifi. And I was in a hurry to find out how Ireland was doing in the game against the All Blacks. It was twenty minutes into the match by the time I had the Irish Times website that updated its live report every few minutes with a few lines of text describing the previous passage of play. What was this, Ireland were leading 19-0?? There must be some mistake. Rugby was the fourth sport in our small country and New Zealand were world champions and perpetually acknowledged as best in the world. We had never beaten them. But it was true, Ireland were – deservedly it appeared – beating the best team in the world. This was unbelievable, what excitement. I was in the hotel bar and an elderly man was sitting alone reading. He had the appearance of an Antipodean. But not New Zealand he replied with a smile, “Strylia mate”. A finance guy volunteering for an NGO, at least he may be pleased to hear their rivals on the rack against the minnows of Ireland. Sadly he expressed little interest in rugby. No-one to gloat over or share my excitement with.
The second half commenced. It was gripping stuff, watching the screen intently, waiting for the next update detailing the unfolding drama. As the gap in scores crept closer and closer I held my breath for every three line bulletin. It was getting very tense. In the last minute of play Ireland were in possession, recycling the ball in the forwards running down the clock, no taking chances. We were going to do it! Then thirty seconds to go and a penalty to the All Blacks with a controversial decision. After 14 phases and well after the clock had ticked down they scored a try in the corner to level the game. Despite a suspected forward pass referred to the video ref. I couldn’t believe it. Our chance at beating them for the first time gone. A draw was of little interest, even as the kicker missed the touchline conversion attempt. To rub salt in the wound the referee ruled he retake the kick due to an Irish player charging the kick prematurely, which this time he converted to win the game. I was left bereft and deflated and imagined my countrymen at home just the same at this exact moment. This was cruel. To Irish rugby supporters it was a familiar feeling, gallant and spirited losers. A moral victory. But this time was somehow worse. We were so close to a deserved victory over the best team in the world. It would be remembered as one of the great games.
Day followed day as I made eastward progress towards the border with India. Sample notes… “Name of nice town last night was Hetauda. Tonite, Bardebas I think. Hotel nice, tho room a little dearish for common bathroom. But again a bucket hot water sorted for a small ‘gratuity’. Heaven. Dont remember the last real shower I had”… “Tired, but good tired. Not many breaks. Toughish day started with 2 hour climb, ended up over 7 hrs in the saddle, 130 kms. Which is pretty long for daylight ending about 5…”
My diary notes that the nicest hotel was in Itahari – really clean, polished tile floors, and well decorated. The Pativhari Guesthouse was run by a Nepali and his lovely Malaysian wife who chatted fluently in English with a refreshingly frank take on her life as an expat. On her recommendation around the corner on the main street I had a haircut and a shave in surely the nicest barber’s in Nepal. A very clean – I would nearly say fancy – shop with red flock wallpaper and full length mirrors. The one hour experience included a satisfying head and shoulder massage. The ridiculous price of $2 had to be augmented with a decent tip. My notes also record the Hotel Gautama in Bardibas was fine. And in this the more densely populated eastern half of the country I was getting used to internet access every night. The rest of the towns I stayed in were dusty uninspiring places along the east-west road across Nepal which I’d started on two weeks previously.
The border town of Kakarbitta was more like the border towns I was familiar with – scruffy, busy with trade and an air of transience and hustle. But this was Nepal and I liked it. On the road across the border there was no barrier and no-one checking passports. But I knew if my passport wasn’t stamped it could cause problems, maybe somewhere down the road in India or entering some other country. In the Immigration building the fact that I had overstayed my visa by five days was seized upon as an opportunity. I was informed it was not possible to give me an exit stamp. It would be necessary to go to the Department of Immigration in Kathmandu to have the visa officially extended before they could allow me be stamped out. I knew the score. This man behind the counter would be adamant, with a dismissive shake of his head say it would be “not possible”. Waiting for the tourist to become exasperated, knowing the last thing s/he wanted was to take a day’s bus journey to Kathmandu and queue at some government office. And so it was, the Immigration officer stated the position in a bored manner. There would be no negotiation. It was plain it would be a waste of effort arguing my position so I shrugged my shoulders and turned away from the counter. I didn’t know what to do but wasn’t stressed about it .Yet. Let’s see what happens. As I hung around the door wondering what my next step was, a long haired young guy – the cool types found in Nepal that Westerners like to hang out with – opened conversation with me in fluent, hip English. He quickly grasped the situation and offered to help. For a consideration. Of course. We agreed a fee of $3 per overstayed day and $30 fine. Job done, everyone happy.
My feelings were mixed about leaving Nepal. I was looking forward to the hustle and bustle of India again and was becoming more excited getting closer to Burma, but I was also a little sad to be leaving this relaxed, lovely country – between the intensity of the Indian plains and the snowy peaks of the Himalayas. During a pleasant chat the previous evening with a guy on the street he remarked that “we Nepalis are rich. We don’t need much money to live.” How many people can say that I wondered.