The day hike up to the World Peace Pagoda, roughly two hours each way, was my first ‘trial run’ for trekking, and although it wasn’t hassle free, I’m feeling no pain afterwards. It is the only day so far that I’ve been able to catch even the faintest glimpse of the Annapurna peaks in the background – at least I think I saw them. The outline was so faint that I initially paid no attention, thinking it was just a distant cloud formation. But it was enough of a view – or a mirage – to inspire me to hike the much higher peak of Sarangkot. I’m thinking Phewa Lake might be responsible for much of the haze; perhaps the outline of the famous mountain range will be more visible with the lake at my back.
In addition, Sarangkot is a sensible second test of how well the knees and ankles will hold up – four hours to the top, spend the night, four hours back. So I pack an overnight bag with a change of clothes and a couple bottles of water and head out.
You can start hiking right from the front door of your hotel, heading north along the lakeside path until reaching the village of Sedi Bagar. There are a couple of cafes clustered around the trailhead, which starts out as a stone road heading into the forest. This road ends near a school and the ‘trail’ continues up a dry creek for a couple hundred meters. Then the real work begins.
A good two-thirds of the route consists of hiking up stone steps. You pass through several hamlets on the way up, houses crowded tightly around the path that, even now, is the main thoroughfare. Goats are the street cleaners here, munching away at any growth or rubbish that might impede the pathway, and you might even encounter a monkey or two. In spite of the power lines that occasionally appear overhead, it does seem like you’re hiking back into the past.
It’s hard for me to completely enjoy the scenery, as I’m a sweaty, out-of-breath mess half an hour in. I take long breaks every twenty minutes or so, gulping down what water I have, gazing at the red-roofed villages far below in the valley. Still no snow-capped peaks in view. There are no other hikers in sight; a rough dirt road snakes up the eastern side of the mountain, and I’m guessing the dozens of paragliders I see in the sky must have come up that way.
I do, however, encounter several local women on the path, hiking up with groceries from the market below. Each one stops, smiles, practices a bit of English, laughs, moves on. I’d like to think they are flirting with me, but more likely they’re amused at how sweaty and out of breath I am. People living in these areas are of necessity remarkably fit – everything from water to cooking fuel must be carried up on their backs, probably several trips a day. These young ladies manage to do so while dressed up in the latest fashion, never breaking a sweat – an incredible feat. For some reason, I see none of the local men – either by chance occurence, or more likely, going to the market is culturally what women do, not men.
At the top of the mountain is Sarangkot village, a collection of perhaps two dozen guesthouses and restaurants. The road is more or less paved here, and the main lookout point is further up a long stretch of concrete steps. My legs, shaky from the thousand or more stairs I’ve already climbed, convince me to follow the gentle incline of the road. Just beyond the main village is newish guesthouse, rooms for $8 a night. I’m sold.
It’s very noisy during the day, as heavy trucks seem to be using the ‘garden’ as a turnaround point. However, the bed is soft, the shower is hot, and there’s an alternate lookout point just a hundred meters from my room, a natural bald just big enough to land a helicopter. It is the perfect place for a quiet sunrise meditation, provided, of course, that no one is actually landing a helicopter there – it would not surprise me in the least. If I’m lucky enough to have a clear sky tomorrow, there should be an amazing panoramic view of the Annapurna range.
There isn’t a damn thing to do once you’re here but wait for the sunrise. A falling boulder, bigger than a house, has apparently knocked out the powerline, so there’s no internet and no cold beer, my two favorite pastimes. However, the brothers that run the guesthouse have great English, and seem eager to chat, so we share a warm beer at a table on the veranda and pass the time. The older brother has a baby on the way, a situation which obviously consumes his every thought. The younger one is hoping to find a way to go to college in the US. He’s got a friend working at a restaurant in Houston, and is astounded by the fact that he can make a hundred bucks a day in tips. He’s hoping to do the same thing.
There’s also a very attractive sister, twenty-something, who occasionally appears in the doorway to snap at her brothers. I assume she’s snapping at them, that is – I don’t actually understand the local language. But I do recognize an annoyed woman when I see one. One or the other of the guys will disappear with her for a bit, then return to pick up our conversation where we’d left off. Every half hour or so, this routine is repeated, until it’s too dark for any of us to see much of anything.
We move inside to a small dining room in order to escape the mosquitos that have started to bite. The younger brother brings out candles, and the older suggests I order something for dinner – apparently the cooking is done by gas. I think I’m the only guest here, so not wanting to be too much of a bother, I say I’ll eat whatever it is they are cooking for themselves. Dahl baht it is, with another warm beer. We settle back into conversation.
When dinner is finished, a neighbor with a flashlight pokes his head through the front door, talking excitedly. I’m told by my hosts that there’s been some effort to get the electricity back on tonight, and that their help is required. I’m not quite sure if they’re rolling the boulder down the hill or re-routing the power around it – or why they’ve waited until it is pitch black outside to do so. But with a bit of luck, I’ll be able to check my email before bedtime.
Before they can get away, their sister comes in to chastise them once again; from her gestures, I think it’s for neglecting to clear the table. Feeling a bit guilty, I begin to help stack the plates.
“No, no, no!” she says. “You’re the guest. My brothers are the lazy ones.”
“I’m happy to do it,” I reply. I notice one of her hands is bandaged. “Besides, it looks like you’ve hurt your hand. Let me just carry these into the kitchen at least.”
“I am not helpless,” she laughs, grabbing the plates away from me with her uninjured hand. “Sit!”
I do as I’m told.
She disappears into the kitchen with the metal plates and returns a moment later to wipe down the table and replace the candles, while I pretend to read. She then sits opposite me and gives me a long inquisitive look, as if she were examining a strange new kind of fish at the market, not quite sure what to make of it. She is quite stunning – her thick black hair falling across the delicate features of her face. Her eyes are large and ferocious, tiger-like, the candlelight reflecting glints of green, gold, and brown.
I’m suddenly a bit smitten, to tell the truth.
Her gaze is so intense, I feel compelled after a few moments to answer with a gaze of my own. I do my best to mimic hers, to mirror her stare back at her with the same strength, same sense of appraisal. She laughs, suddenly aware that she has been staring.
“Is that what my face looks like?” she asks, still laughing.
“Oh no,” I answer. “My face could never compare to one such as yours. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a face that could.”
Wow. Where did that come from? Kind of a cheesy thing to say, and at the same time – sounds pretty damn smooth, I’m thinking. She smiles back at me, her expression conveying that she’s flattered, and that, at the same time, yes, that was pretty thick.
We begin to talk, first about her brothers, then about her graduate studies, her ambitions, finally about my travels. I show her the photos I have on my phone of Cambodia, Korea, and Japan. When I tell her I plan to go to Lumbini next, she shows me pictures from her recent visit there. We talk, non-stop, for nearly an hour. The candles begin to flicker as the wicks burn down to the melted wax.
Suddenly, the intense, questioning gaze returns. “Why do you come here,” she asks.
“To Sarangkot? To see the sun rise over the mountains,” I reply.
“Not only to Sarangkot,” she presses. “To Nepal, to Asia, to this side of the world. You are American, no? Have you no mountains or sunrises to see there?”
I laugh. I like the way she cuts through the small talk and just asks what she wants to ask. It’s actually refreshing to meet people who don’t just talk about themselves.
“It isn’t only about seeing new things really,” I explain. “It’s about being in a place for a moment in time, living in that moment, realizing that moment passes, never to return.”
She looks at me as if my answer doesn’t make any sense. Perhaps the ‘moment’ stuff is too Buddhist.
“How many gods do Hindus believe in?” I ask.
“And each and every one of them has very large eyes, yes? I’m told this is because it is the desire of every person to be acknowledged by the gods. When you go to the temple, you want to know with certainty that the gods have seen you. Is that right?”
“Yes,” she agrees, nodding.
“Travelling around the world allows me to be seen by the gods. Not just one or two or even thirty-two. To have my existence acknowledged by all the gods.”
She laughs. “That’s a really good answer.”
Suddenly, the room is filled with light as the electricity comes back on – quite literally with a jolt.
We’ve been so engrossed in our conversation that we’ve moved ever closer together in the candlelight, our knees nearly touching, our faces maybe only a foot apart. In the glaring fluorescent light, our intimacy is suddenly awkward. We both jump up from our chairs, laughing, embarrassed. We were in the moment, together, the lack of light shutting everything else out – and now the moment is done.
The brothers come stumbling through the front door. The older one, sensing a vibe of some kind in the room, begins to look at me with suspicion. His sister scolds him once more, for good measure, and wishes me goodnight. I head to my room.
I rise before dawn the next morning and climb the path to the clearing. A profusion of gray clouds, bearing the distinct smell of rain, hug the rocky lane. There will be no view today. In fact, I’m convinced the rainy season has arrived in Nepal a month early; there will be no view for months. I stand at the edge of the precipice, and search in vain for a break in the clouds. I can hear a voice or two from the main viewing point a few hundred meters away. At least I have this spot to myself, alone with my thoughts and the mists. At least there are no helicopters. I spread my mat on a flat spot facing where the mountains should be and meditate.
I hear applause in the distance. I open my eyes and see a tiny ray of light piercing the clouds, only to be swallowed up again a moment later. Moments arising, passing, gone. The unhappiness of wishing things to be other than what they are.
I go back to the guesthouse afterwards hoping for a coffee, perhaps some toast. Older brother is giving me a decidedly cooler welcome than he did yesterday. The coffee is cold, the toast is not toasted, and it is served without conversation. I had similar experiences in India years ago – if your waitress smiles at you, one of the dozen or so male relatives around will notice, and she’ll be relegated to the kitchen until you leave. Of course I was young and dangerously handsome back in those days – didn’t think a guy with more white in his beard than black would be seen the same way. I’m guessing I could stay another week without a chance of seeing Miss Ferocity again.
Rain is in the forecast for the afternoon, and I’ve got a long, knee-destroying climb back down the mountain in front of me. After that, buses to catch, schedules to keep. I shower, pack, check out. Both brothers are at the reception desk, and I thank them for their hospitality. I let them know how much I enjoyed our conversation, and that I will definitely come to see them again in the autumn or winter, when the clouds are gone. I give my email to the younger brother, and tell him I’d be happy to help him in his quest to study in the US any way that I can.
Older brother is looking a bit sheepish now. I do that gregarious, American handshake thing, with a firm grip and my left hand on his shoulder.
“Tell your sister I said goodbye.”
I walk out to the veranda and sling my pack onto my back.
“Wait, wait!” he calls after me.
I turn around — and she’s standing there.
“Tell her yourself.”