The previous day’s walk was a saunter in comparison to Thorung La, and today was no different: the steady, even ground once again paired nicely with our sore legs.
This time around we joined up with Tal – a German trekker who we had previously synced up with on the trail – and had helped coin the group of weed smoking and weed seeking Australian guys we ran into a few days prior as “The Dudes”.
While he was managing his own bag fairly well, what may have been heavier baggage for Tal was his growing worry about germs and unhygienic food preparation. It was a fair point. The thought of being struck with food poisoning on top of an already physically demanding route was awful.
But apart from ensuring you dropped chlorine tablets in your water and wait the prescribed 30 minutes before drinking it, the rest was out of our hands. You could only hope your dhal bhat was boiled beyond bacteria, and even at that, it was something I preferred not to dwell on.
Unfortunately for Tal it colonized his thoughts – admitting this was the first time he’d traveled in a developing country, and that he was his own worst enemy, compiled with worry. He said he knew he had no control over it, yet there it sprang out at him everytime he sat down for food: “Is this the dish that’s gonna get me?”.
I’m afraid of flying, and empathize with anyone who has anxiety over anything – it can be frustrating as hell to grapple with, particularly knowing that you’re doing it to yourself, and hold both the lock and key to the problem.
On this morning as we were taking a break on the walk, Tal caught up to us with a worried look on his face:
“Did anybody eat the momos last night?”, he said.
I had eaten them and felt okay, which made me wonder if it was something else.
“Did you have tea? Maybe it was the tea”, I suggested, sympathizing with him, but also realizing it could equally have been his anxiety tying his stomach in knots.
As he turned over the possibility in his mind, I took a swig of water and it tasted exactly how I hoped: like a swimming pool, which with Tal sorting out his own woes, was a welcome assurance that, at least today, water wouldn’t be my assassin.
After swallowing down my early dose of chlorine, we all hiked on, passing this massive rock etching:
which, I think is a Buddhist chant saying: “Om. Mani. Padme. Hum”, but tell me otherwise if not.
Soon after, we encountered a formidable foe – WIND.
Gusts. Gales. We were in an impromtu wind tunnel. And facing the wrong way.
To add to the fun, sand joined the ouragan, which if you wanted to remove a tattoo on your neck, face or hands would have been incredibly helpful. Without, however, the force of the sandblasting just stung all over. The only possible upside was that it provided some justification for why I was carrying a 500mL bottle of moisturizer on my back as part of our weight – which, after our sandstorm battering would also act as spackling, filling in the microscopic divots on our faces.
Eventually we trundled into Jomson for a break – a mid-size town with ATMs, bus terminals and one of these:
As we watched planes take off and careen over our heads, twisting their flight path to head between mountains on either side, I surpassed Tal’s worry with my own, thinking how happy I was to be on the ground.
Nevermind I was busy spitting sand out of my mouth and exfoliating the inside of my nostrils as I blew my nose. At that moment looking at the planes wending their way through the hills, which I now thought resembled more paper airplanes as they shifted and dropped according to each gust, to truly cap off our shifting roles, Tal said:
“That looks fun!”.
And, I swallowed harder than normal, saying a bit shakily: “Yeah. Great”. Hello anxiety, my old friend.
It was also here that I sent an email to my sister and family, which I thought was innocuous at the time, but would become the last, fateful communication they’d get from me until I had Wifi reception in a few days to reassure them we were not close to the Nepal avalanche (arriving in two days).
Hey tout le monde,
Just want to say we’re ok – we’re past the high altitude worries and are safe on the other side of the mountain, finishing the second half of the trek.
In it I hadn’t specified where we were, which might have made things a little clearer, though ironically at the time (not knowing a deadly avalanche was en route) I thought too much detail just seemed extraneous – i.e. Is it really relevant that I say I’m in Jomson? Who cares?
Obviously a much different picture standing now in the future, but there you go.
We hung about in Jomson for a bit, the girls getting information on their bus tickets, while I admired all of the Indian tourists arriving who were headed to Muktinath for a pilgrimage. As they got off their planes and loaded up in jeeps, I lacked any compassion or understanding, thinking instead – “Whatta bunch of wimps! Fairweather travelers. We walked that. And you just fly in, la-dee-da “.
Ignore the fact that many of the travelers were elderly, not everybody had the luxury to take 12 days to get to a place, and I had elected to walk in Nepal as sport.
Go on. Ignore those clearly winning arguments. I did for a whole five minutes, until reality won out.
The remaining walk was also straightforward with nothing exciting until we arrived in Marpha and were settled into our guesthouses.
Here’s what happened. We kept crisscrossing this guy on our walks who reminded me of some guys I would see on a ski hill in Canada: guys who show up with no proper outdoor ski gear nor real skill, but get on the toughest mountain anyway carrying only enthusiasm and a big smile.
This particular guy was a guide who had the same carefree, who-gives-a-shit spirit, and had worn a variation of the same outfit for the past two weeks: a tye-dyed tank top and shorts all the way through below freezing temperatures.
Whenever I saw him he always had a big grin, or if he didn’t it was right under the surface.
Okay – so here we are, now in Marpha, walking the streets, and guess who shows up in front of us. Once again his tye-dyed tank top and shorts are on display and his slightly pudgy face and body made him seem like a Nepalese doppleganger for Sammy Hagar. I half expected him to be holding a bottle of tequila.
As I spot him, I get excited and turn around to tell the girls about this guy who I’ve seen along the route, observing him, but had never, until this point talked about. It was like spotting Santa Claus: I was so happy. But in my jubilation I took my eyes off where I was walking: so when the girls asked: “Which guy?”, and I spun around to show them:
My toe connected with a raised stone on the path.
It hurt, and I knew it was bad. I looked at my sock, and saw the blood stains forming on my toe. As it happened we were on our way for an afternoon tea and apple pie (a Marpha specialty of which we’d see the real thing the following day), and I didn’t want to look at it until afterwards.
So, after having a cup of tea and a bite, I peel off my sock and there it isn’t: a portion of my big toenail is gone, now replaced with blood. Great. But the consolation was that, at that moment, I looked up and look who’s walking in:
The tye-dyed guy!
I look at him smiling, while holding my toe. I couldn’t believe it. He smiles back not really knowing how happy I was to see him at that point. While I wouldn’t do it over for the sake of seeing him at that exact moment, it did, in some way, make it a little easier to manage.
My real concern now was how was I going to walk in my boots, which no matter how much I try to temper my steps, I will hit them against rock, and in turn my toe will hit the inside of the boot, not making it an easy stroll.
Eventually I figured out that a Band-aid and a lot of duct tape would work, and became my go-to cushion for the remaining few days.
As we sat that night in the restaurant of our guesthouse, playing cards, a group of bikers came in, which from the sounds of it were – American, Australian and I think German. Not cyclists. These were guys who were taking motorbikes across Nepal and maybe as feeling pumped up about themselves as I was seeing tourists come off planes in Jomson – seemed to feel pretty proud of themselves, and wanted to celebrate their awesomeness.
They ended up drinking and getting louder, and louder, all answering each other in a tone that suggested they had all the answers, and really, life was just a mere distraction to use up before they died.
Now beer bottles littering their table, they ordered hard booze to match the hard rock on their portable stereo: and while I can’t remember the specifics, they kept coming up with outlandish claims about things like:
(this isn’t what they said. only examples of the craziness)
“I know a guy who can time travel, Bud.!”
“It’s weird. Somehow I can drive much easier drunk here!”.
“My cousin knew Michael Jackson!”
It was hilarious. And became the soundtrack to our night and, sadly, the Australian sisters last night, who were heading off via bus the following day.
Off we went to bed, as I heard the American guy say to someone else: “Nonesuch Records! As in, none such bullshit, man!”.
Aah, the sweet lullaby.
Next stop off roading – as we manage to walk way off course – and hitch a ride to make up for the time.