This novel is the story of a twenty-three day trek in Nepal in 1978. It is a classic story of perseverance and transcendence of the members and staff.
The trek around Annapurna is one of the iconic hikes in the world, from the hot and humid lowlands though terraced fields and villages reachable only on foot. It culminates by crossing the formidable Thorong La at 17,700’ before entering the high desert of the upper Kali Gandaki River flowing south from the Tibetan Plateau.
This novel, in contrast to my first one, has taken more than a year to write and is still getting its finishing touches. Three editors have had their say, and it has been rewritten a number of times. The story is an important one, full of exotica from a remote corner of the world with hopefully a message for every reader.
The first fifty pages are shown below. At this time details of publication have not been agreed to, but I will take orders that will be ship as soon as it is available. Send an email to me and I will put you on the list.
the first 50 pages of my LATEST novel.
James Ellison Wills
Jerry pressed his hands together in front of his heart and blinked a tear away. Dawa put a white scarf around Jerry’s neck and they bowed to each other. The silk kata was a blessing. This was goodbye.
He waved at his friend, swung his pack on and started walking. Jerry had the choice of hiking a few days to the road head and taking the bus to Kathmandu. Or, he could walk a few hours to Phaplu and wait for a clear day and a flight, this might mean a week of waiting.
He needed to walk, he needed to walk hard, and walk it out. So he chose to hike to the roadhead at Jiri and travel by bus the rest of the way to Kathmandu. He left his home of the past two years under a cloud.
His neighbor, artist and monk friend, Dawa, painted traditional Buddhist thangkas. Jerry spent many mornings drinking sucha, butter salt tea, at Dawa’s house, asking questions. The language barrier was high when the conversation went to philosophy.
His blue eyes welled up with tears once he was out of sight of the village. Jerry’s lanky frame was strong, living at high altitude on steep ground made him fit. His sunburned nose and his red hair bleached from the sun were testimony to the time he spent outdoors.
He left Dawa with twenty kilos of rice as a gift. He donated his small library to the school. He gave his collection of household items to Rinzi, his helper. The water system he designed and built was his main gift to the village.
He took away more than he left. He understood things he’d never even knew mattered. He took the Buddhist teachings with him from the stories in Dawa’s paintings. Living next door to Dawa gave him the chance to learn things unknown in the suburban world of his youth.
At the center of the Wheel of Life, or more correctly, The Wheel of Deluded Existence, one of Dawa’s classic paintings, he saw the boar, the rooster, and the snake. These are Buddahist symbols representing ignorance, greed and aggression. Purifying syllables emanate from this same center, om, ah, and hum. The message was too much for Jerry to comprehend but easy when he saw the paintings.
His two year enlistment in the Peace Corps was almost over. Compounding the physical dislocation, the last letter he’d received from Lisa set him adrift. He needed all the wisdom he could find to help him through the loss. Lisa, the girl he left behind in California, had given birth to a child and was now married to his best friend. Jerry’s heart was full of broken dreams. She waited far too long before telling him and made it even tougher for him. Finishing his time in Nepal was extra hard.
He walked fast past the monastery and followed the trail up over the pass. The summit cairn at Trashindo hosted dozens of sun-bleached prayer flags in tatters from the wind. The big pile of rocks marked the top of the ridge between the Dudh Kosi and Solu Rivers. He hiked down though the pine and rhododendron forest and crossed the river at Ringmo. He climbed the steep trail to the top of the ridge near the Yak cheese factory.
Jerry walked fast with one ski pole as a walking stick and wore scuffed mountain boots. Though early afternoon, he’d walked a day’s worth when he came though the Sherpa village of Junbesi. At the center of the settlement was a Buddhist stupa. It’s white dome was near the river and a few water-powered prayer wheels turned, sharing the blessing.
He was making good time and needed to push his body to slow his mind. He needed to work though his pain and not hold to the loss. He knew if he got tired enough his heartache would be less.
Jerry stopped at a village house. He sat on a stool by the kitchen door and ate a plate of boiled potatoes with lima beans. He dipped them into the hot sauce and licked his fingers. He asked for more beans, the earthy flavor was a poor man’s meat, and he needed the nutrition.
After his late lunch, Jerry started again and walked at the end of a line of porters returning to Jiri. He stayed with the small group so as not to be alone. He was slow on his feet after eating and struggled to keep up with them, even though they carried loads.
His threshold for pain was high. The ache in his heart was greater than the pain in his feet and legs. He was lucky to be numb when a cloud of freezing fog enveloped the trail and it started to hail hard. He hid in the exposed roots of a tree trailside with two of the porters. They sat close and held a towel overhead. The large hailstones stung Jerry’s ears and shoulders. The storm didn’t last long. And when it stopped, the air was cold.
As soon as he started walking again he slipped on the accumulated hail and fell flat on his face. He got a few scratches and a bloody nose. His walk to Lamjura Pass was a test of his endurance and concentration. He was clumsy as the afternoon turned into evening and he kept walking with the porters past sunset. It was almost too dark to see the trail. They stopped in Sete after passing a Cardamom plantation.
Accommodations were in a village house full of smoke from the cooking fire. There were low wide wooden benches serving as beds. Jerry slept in his sleeping bag on his thin foam pad. The old man of the house had a bad cough, it carried on all night.
Jerry’s feet hurt, he had one blister. He changed socks and padded the sore spot with moleskin from his first aid kit. He rubbed his calves and he hurt enough to forget his heartache.
The old man from the house ask him if he was alone, eklaai. Jerry nodded “yes” and the man shook his head to say he was sorry. In Nepal there was nothing worse than being alone.
The next morning he limped on the trail. He found a walking stick to use with his ski pole to take the weight off of his blistered foot. He still had two days left to walk to Jiri before the bus ride to Kathmandu. The punishment from pushing it too hard was pain and slow going.
Eight months later
Pan Am Flight 002 landed in Tehran, just as night had fallen. The captain instructed passengers to keep their window shades closed and not take photos. The Shah’s rule was ending and the air was full of tension. Only a few passengers departed and fewer yet boarded for the onward leg to New Delhi.
Once airborne again, Jerry pressed his face against the window. Nothing to see, nothing above, nothing below. He bounced his knees and rubbed his legs. The long flights were hard, it took all his patience to endure them.
Two Pan Am flights circled the earth on a daily basis. Flight 001 flew west from San Francisco and flight 002 flew east from New York. In 1970s the Pan Am “Clippers,” were synonymous with adventure to far-flung destinations. Jerry’s air ticket had an open return date. He had no idea how long he would be in Nepal, and only a general idea of what he would do there.
He had accepted a job offer from Kathmandu to work as a trekking guide. There wasn’t anything keeping him in the Bay Area. He had taken a break from his studies at Cal Berkeley. This new job was exciting and gave him an excuse for leaving. He was young and needed to find something new.
With nothing to do, his mind ran away, exactly what he didn’t want. He thought of his lost friends and his frail dreams. Karin, Randy and Brett had all died in separate climbing accidents. As part of a Yosemite rescue, Brett rappelled off the end of his rope. He fell 2,000’ as the result of not tying a knot at the end of the rope. Karin died from a 95’ fall from Rixon’s Pinnacle, behind Camp Four in Yosemite. She was one of the first casualties of free climbing. Randy drown in the raging Kings River during the approach to Tehipite Dome. The searchers found his body, with his pack still on, two waterfalls below where he had slipped..
His lost friends were now only memories. Their careless cocoons were shed. Jerry hoped they had found the perfect mountain. He hoped they were in the pure land and they all had attained liberation from the cycle of rebirth. He hoped for them what he hoped for himself.
Back in the Bay Area his ex-bride to be was with her new daughter and husband, Jerry’s long time friend. She was against Jerry going to Nepal from the start, it was too long of a separation for her. While Jerry was in Nepal doing his work, the thought of a life with Lisa sustained him. He was crazy in love with her. But no more.
The black continued out the window. Jerry drifted off to sleep, his head leaning against the cool plastic.
Mingma stood next to a mountain of pots and pans, kitchen utensils, rolls of toilet paper and all the gear for a trek. He studied his list of provisions. He sorted the jumble of canned foods, fresh vegetables, bags of rice, and sugar. Today he was in the business of determining the loads porters would carry. Each load would fill a dhoka, a cone-shaped large basket woven from split bamboo. Each load needed to be near the same weight, about 64 pounds.
Tony, the trekking company’s boss, had assigned Mingma Sherpa to be the sirdar for Jerry’s group. The young, ambitious Mingma, spoke fluent English. He was ernest and sensitive. He had dreams far beyond the trails and campsites. At 5’3” he was not tall but had a infectious sense of humor and was quick to smile. He was the in the first generation of graduates from the schools built by Sir Edmund Hillary, the first Everest summiteer.
The title of sirdar applies to the local leader of the trek. He is the organizer, the chief guide and top man in the trekking staff. The sirdar is in charge of the budget and handles all the money. It is a serious job, and a sirdar can make or break any trek or expedition.
Mingma took the big job of sirdar to heart. He had worked for Tony twice before. Though he hadn’t been on the Annapurna route, he had proven himself. The Annapurna area had just opened.
Mingma told Renzi, kitchen boy, what to put into each dhoka. Mingma hefted every one to make sure the weight was right. No extra compensation for odd shaped items. It was the luck of the draw for the porters.
One of Mingma’s jobs was to try to economize wherever possible. As the loads got lighter, there was consolidation and porters dismissed. Only the most essential porters stayed with the group when they crossed Thorong La Pass.
His notes were on one piece of paper, neat with lines and rows, written in pencil. This document served as the main inventory of goods for the trek. Written on the local soft and durable handmade paper, it lasted the entire trek.
Mingma packed the 25 baskets of provisions and equipment. The entire party including porters was 50 people.
Baskets weren’t the only thing on his mind. There was last minute shopping to do and transportation arrangements needed confirmation. He noted what was missing and gave Renzi 500 rupees with a list of items to buy in the bazaar. Mingma called to confirm vehicles for the first day of the trek, a minibus and a large Land Rover.
This trek was important for him. He was full of ambition, and this trek was a major test. He needed to show competency before his family would loan him enough money to take flying lessons abroad. His dream was to become a helicopter pilot in the Nepalese Army and he needed a pilot’s license to start.
Mingma studied his list and continued to sort dhoka loads late into the night. He only stopped working when he saw Rinzi had fallen asleep. Mingma cleared a place on his cluttered bed and stretched out. He hoped he hadn’t forgotten anything.
The sound of the big zipper closing was pleasing to Virginia. Her duffel bag was full, she was ready to go. She was glad Carlos gave her a ride to the airport, she needed the support. She smiled and zipped up his pants as they were exiting the freeway for the Sacramento airport. Virginia pulled a lock of wispy blonde hair out of the corner of her mouth. She wanted a place in his memory.
The day had come, her departure was at hand. She still had a chance to back out, but didn’t want to. Virginia was 29, sometimes a drinker and an occasional smoker. She acted out her fantasies with a cast of anonymous men met late at night in Sacramento bars. Today she was acting out a different and bigger fantasy.
No one in her division at the Department of Motor Vehicles knew about her sexual adventures. She was a hard worker with a good nature. But in dark of night, she was unpredictable, hard to pin down, an adventuress with a cool confidence.
In the lunchroom at the DMV, there was a conversation about a climb on Everest. She mentioned to a coworker she might like to join a trek in Nepal. The story got confused. Virginia received so much attention about her fictitious trip, she actually made a real reservation. A letter came back, telling her Everest treks were full, and asking if she might consider Annapurna. She threw caution to the wind and reserved a place. She had never been camping or slept in a tent before.
Little Dorji was in a hurry. He ran down the trail, moving fast, dancing from rock to rock. The game was dangerous. If he actually slipped and fell, depending on where he was, consequences could be dire. The trails were steep, often with a cliff face on one side and precipitous drop on the other.
He was on his way to Kathmandu. He had a bright smile, dark eyes, and was quick to learn. Little Dorji had a job on a trek waiting for him working as a kitchen boy. He was already two days late.
He’d seen the older Sherpas swaggering with their mountaineering gear and money. And he wanted to go for trekking too or maybe for climbing. His second cousin, Mingma, was sirdar on this trek and had offered him the job. He was twenty-two years old and left his wife and two children at home to care for the livestock and fields. Little Dorji hoped to bring home sweets for his kids, cloth for his wife and some cash.
He had finished fifth class in school and was ambitious. This was his second trek. His first was to Langtang Valley last year. He returned home with no sweets or cloth. He lost all the money he earned in a card game on the last night of the trek.
Little Dorji was a Sherpa. A member of the clan whose homeland is in the valleys at the base of Mount Everest. The word “Sherpa” is often used to describe a job or post. This includes the duties of a guide or a bearer of loads in high mountains. In fact, the word describes a member of an ethnic group of mountain people. They are Buddhists, traders, shepherds and farmers.
Since the first ascent of Mt. Everest in 1953, the Sherpas’ well-earned reputation as mountain guides, precedes them. Little Dorji had a lot to live up to. The trekking business was a path with promise beyond life in the village.
The influence of the modern world had started to impact the Sherpa Buddhist culture. As with change anywhere, traditional values clashed with new ways. In the old world of tradition and faith, loving kindness and wisdom were the highest value.
People were self-sufficient and didn’t want much. Little Dorji grew almost everything his family needed. He grew potatoes, millet and green vegetables. He had cows and a cow yak crossbreed called Dzo. Little Dorji collected mushrooms during the rains of the monsoon and made his own beer at home. His was a simple, happy, tough, mountain family life. It cost him, in hard cash, about 100 Rupees per month for his entire family. There was nothing to buy in his village. In 1978, the necessities of life were all for barter.
The market town of Jiri, at the end of the road from Kathmandu, was Little Dorji’s first destination. His journey to Kathmandu took four days on foot and one by road. He walked up and down against the grain of the mountains until he reached Jiri. The ridge tops were cold and covered in dense forest. The river valley bottoms were warm humid and tropical.
The unexpected death of one of his uncles delayed him. Little Dorji stayed for the ceremony and cremation. He watched when the shaman came and danced around the dead man. The rhythm of his drum transcended time and space. Little Dorji walked with the funeral party, bearing the corpse in a palanquin to a high ridge top. Cremations held at high places are closer to the sky and the openness of the universe. They were favored by Buddhists. An umbrella covered the dead uncle, providing him refuge. A thick blanket of cold fog enveloped the small procession at the high ridgetop. The cremation pyre was large and crackled with hot flames. Spectators warmed themselves from the heat of the fire. Doing so is auspicious. It was important for Little Dorji to attend, he knew Mingma would understand, it was his family too.
The sun had set when Little Dorji arrived in Jiri. The light bulbs were like small golden stars in the windows of the shops. Jiri was at the end of the road from Kathmandu. For the villages in the Everest region, it was the closest road. Jiri was a frontier town. It was a mix of entrepreneurs from Kathmandu and Indian merchants selling stainless steel dishes and household goods. It was a fuel depot for the shipment of kerosene into the mountains. It was the starting point for porters to gather their loads for trips to the roadless villages.
Jiri was the beginning of the trek to Everest. Often it would be the first place western trekkers would begin to actually walk in the Himalaya. It was the start of the first uphill hike on the Everest trail. Shops sold cloth, others packaged goods, others had tea and biscuits.
Little Dorji immediately made his way to a Sherpa house to warm up and feed his hungry belly. He saw a friend, Ang Dada, and sat next to him on a bench eating momos. The steamed water buffalo meat-filled dumplings came with a hot sauce and were a local favorite. The pair dipped them in sauce and discussed the weather, life and trekking. Little Dorji later removed his shoes and slept on the same bench
In the early morning Little Dorji was ready to leave for Kathmandu. The truck carried a consignment of yak cheese and passengers. The large driver’s cab had two rows of hard seats. Little Dorji’s spot was behind the driver. Nine other passengers jammed in. An extra ten were on the roof. When close to Kathmandu, low-hanging electric wires were a hazard and they kept a sharp eye open for low tree branches too.
The truck rolled out of Jiri at 6:45am and rolled into Kathmandu at 7:25pm. Little Dorji paid $3 for his ticket. He endured all the stops: the toilet stops, the tea stops for the driver, the mechanical stops for the truck, the police checkpoint stops, the stops on tight corners to let other vehicles pass. He thought it was a wonder to travel such a distance so fast. It was almost 75 miles from Kathmandu to Jiri and took just a day.
Little Dorji arrived at the Kathmandu central transport terminal past sunset. The dusty lot was chaotic. He made his way through the rickshaw drivers, porters carrying loads, arriving and departing buses and trucks. He carried a small backpack containing personal items and walked about thirty minutes to Mingma’s house.
During the few days before the trek, he helped with whatever Migma needed. He packed, cooked, washed dishes, and ran errands. The food was good and life was lively in Kathmandu. But he knew he had to stay away from card games and drinking too much chang, the local home brewed beer. He swore to bring something back to his family this time.
It started with innocence, hardly the place for suspicion. It was neither intentional nor was it mean spirited. They all had known each other since high school days. It started as just talking, over coffee. Lisa and Bert would meet and talk about her fiancé and his best friend, Jerry. Six months had passed since the start of Jerry’s service with the Peace Corps. She was looking for companionship and wanted to talk about how much she missed him, Bert did too. They sat at Peet’s coffee in north Berkeley. They talked about things Jerry mentioned in his letters.
“He told me his neighbor in the mountains was a monk who paints. He says he spends time with this painter when there isn’t much going on,” said Lisa.
“Sounds like most of the days, from what he writes me. I get these long rambling letters. Some of them full of philosophy, like he doesn’t have anything else to do except write letters. I guess talking to the painter is better than reading the same book over again!” Bert laughed.
They both chuckled at the thought of their hyperactive friend with so little to occupy his time.
Lisa and Burt’s relationship deepened after attending a few performances. They both enjoyed theater. Jerry couldn’t sit still though a performance, or would fall asleep and snore. Bert was a computer and math major at Cal Berkeley who loved the shows. He was kind and goofy enough to be one of Jerry’s’ friends and had a disarming charm.
One night after a rousing performance of Midsummer Night’s Dream at the university theater. Bert and Lisa drank a couple of glasses of wine, and friendly sex occurred in Lisa’s dorm room. It was sweet, but wrapped in guilt. She had a serious talk with Burt, and both agreed to forget their indiscretion and stop the whole thing. They loved Jerry. There was no more sex and they saw each other less. Burt valued Jerry’s friendship plus Lisa had proclaimed her love for him.
Lisa discovered she was pregnant a month later. She didn’t know what to do and Bert was no help. A baby was part of her dreams and one was in her belly. A month of soul searching passed and Bert and Lisa married.
Maya was born after a long and painful labor. Lisa kept any news of this child from Jerry. She answered his soulful letters with quick notes. He had dropped out of Lisa’s reality. She kept saying she would tell him, but put if off too long. Finally, she wrote the letter.
It came to him at his Peace Corps address in Kathmandu, he retrieved his mail when he came for meetings. He hadn’t picked up his letters for two months and had a lot to read. He kept Lisa’s for last as he looked forward to it the most.
He couldn’t believe it and read it again and again. He returned to his host village in state of shock. On the surface things were the same, on the inside, the center did not hold. He spent more time with his neighbor, Dawa, the painter and looked for a way to forget.
Dawa’s talks with Jerry began to make sense. He began to understand the detached view and recognize the non-material values. Dawa taught him about how the people of the village saw the sacred nature of the air, earth, water and fire. This education was found nowhere else and became Jerry’s own secret teachings. His restless curiosity produced many questions. It took cups and cups of tea, before he came to understand the poisons of ignorance, greed, and aggression.
Dawa’s thanka paintings were valuable for Jerry to understand the Buddhist teachings, the dharma. The stories behind the paintings stuck with him. It was how he learned the purification syllables of om, ah, and hum. It was how he remembered the descent into mental hell of beings snared by demons of compulsive action. It was how he remembered the ascent on a rainbow path, of the pious, to teachings from an enlightened Buddha. The pictures stayed in his head, told the stories, and provided him refuge.
Jerry could escape by living in the present. In the mountains, where people are few and entertainments rare, people stop along the trails and talk. There is no hurry in the hills. Discussions about the weather, anything new, crops, trail conditions, and gossip would drone on for far too long. Things got done, and life moved on, at the pace of foot traffic, far from Berkeley.
After Jerry’s Peace Corps tenure ended, he returned home to California. The combination of reverse culture shock, plus his emotional trauma, left him directionless. He worked odd jobs and lived in his tent. He had no money, he labored enough to just get by. He didn’t know what to do. Getting a full-time position working in hydrology, was too much effort. Plus, he needed to finish his masters degree for a real future in the field. He bounced back and forth between the Bay Area and Sierra Nevada high country.
Part time work was available in the Bay Area. Jerry wore himself out loading shipping containers with fresh cherries and watermelons bound for Hawaii. It was physical, Mexicans and Blacks took the work, it paid in cash at the end of the day. This suited Jerry while he slept in his car or on the couches of his ever dwindling list of tolerant friends. Or he went to the mountains and he slept at a campsite in Tuolumne Meadows away from the crowds of Yosemite Valley. He needed something to do take his mind off of his own self pity. Drinking beer took away some of the pain, but not the shame from betrayal.
He fidgeted in his seat, unhooked his seatbelt and tried to relax. Jerry continued to search for any light on the ground. After this flight, there was just one more leg to complete his journey to Kathmandu.
Jerry always thought of human history in terms of rivers and oceans. He didn’t see borders drawn on a map. He saw mountains and river drainages with tributaries. It was all about water for him. Nothing held Jerry’s attention more than moving water. The concept of a drop from the edge of a glacier joining countless others on its way to the ocean, fascinated him. He was not a typical tourist and knew not only geography but was a student of history.
On this night flight, he played his own geo-history game. He visualized the ground below and imagined its past. He knew there was a big river below, the Jellum. Tonight’s flight path passed over the place where Alexander the Great’s army stopped, 2,000 years ago.
It came down to a battle in 326 BC on the banks of that same Jellum River, in what is today, the Punjab of Pakistan. During the battle, Alexander received a wound and his beloved horse, Bucephalus, was killed. King Raja Purushottama’s son, with a smaller force, had taken a heavy toll on Alexander’s army. It was their first encounter with war elephants in combat and a grim introduction to impaled on tusks and crushed beneath heavy feet.
In the next confrontation, Alexander moved past the Jellum. He faced the Nanda Empire from western bank of the Ganges River, planning to invade India. His weary fighters faced 80,000 horsemen, 200,000 foot soldiers, 8,000 chariots and 6,000 war elephants. This force waited for him on the other side of the deep and wide Ganges River. Alexander’s troops mutinied and refused to go farther east. His march across Asia was over. Jerry closed his eyes and imagined it.
There was a change of pitch, an engine vibration on a different wavelength. In harmony, the sound of the jet engines signaled the descent into New Delhi. It was almost midnight.
Dr. Dave looked at his packed duffle bag and checked his list. Per Dave’s request, one of his residents had prepared a first aid kit for Dave to bring on the trek. The young doctor had packed it with enough supplies to do minor surgery. It fit in the duffle bag with no room to spare.
Tomorrow Dr. Dave departed for Nepal and a trek around Annapurna, a trip of a lifetime. This would be the longest walk he had ever taken, 23 days on the trail. Most of the clothing he packed was brand new. The last half hour he spent snipping off the hang tags as he packed his duffel bag. It seemed like a lot of warm clothes, but he had followed the packing list from the trekking agency.
He worked as an administrator at a hospital. He reviewed data from patient records and called doctors on the carpet. Most of this was in confidential meetings. Dr. Dave hadn’t seen a patient in years and wondered why he was a doctor. He spent his time living up to the responsibilities of administration. He had no wife and work consumed him. One of his reasons for taking this trip was to shake himself up and get a new perspective and maybe a new direction.
Dr. Dave had a distinguished appearance with flecks of grey in his dark hair. Long distance running made him light on his feet, he was trim and athletic. He planned to grow a beard on the trek and had started by not shaving on his last day at work. He was quiet and good natured, and trusted by everyone he met.
He was an avid hiker and enjoyed the outdoors. One of his co-workers at the hospital had taken a trek in Nepal. His rich experience sparked an interest in Dr. Dave to do the same. The initial conversation was over a year ago and the seed of the idea had grown into reality. Tomorrow was the departure.
Dr. Dave called his answering service and requested a wake-up call. He also wanted to let them know he would be unreachable by phone for the next four weeks.
A selection of boots, socks, rain jackets, sleeping bags, water bottles, bags of candy, toothpaste, shampoo and more were in neat stacks behind the two duffel bags on the floor. Carolyn and Earl worked in the recreation room of their palatial Denver home. They were assembling gear and packing for their upcoming trek in Nepal.
The duffel bags arrived in the mail with little fanfare but grew in importance. The duffel and the trekker would become friends.
Each trek member had to to fit all their personal gear into one duffle. If it didn’t fit in the bag, it couldn’t come along. Two of these bags, packed full, were one load for a porter.
The bags were heavy nylon and were extra large with strong handles. They were waterproof with an industrial grade zipper. And designed to endure the punishment received on the trail and in transport.
Carolyn had booked the trek as a get-away with a chance to experience something different, to get a new view. Earl was reticent but agreed to go on a dare from her.
Her fine brown hair tied behind her ears in a ponytail stayed out of the way for the sorting and packing. At 5’10” she had gravitas, people listened when she spoke. She was in good condition, beautiful, frequented her health club and played tennis twice a week.
Earl was overweight, did little exercise, but was arrogant about his physical superiority. At 6’4”he usually got his way by sheer dint of his size. He was a handsome man with a perfect nose and small ears.
Carolyn shuffled through some of the toilet articles.
“Earl, I didn’t realize it would be so hard for you to get the bags packed.” Her voice had a familiar weary sarcastic tone.
“I am getting tired of your attitude Carolyn, how about if I just stay here and forget this whole trekking business,” Earl said.
She turned and faced him and started in a low tone. “How about if you do forget it? It would be fine by me, but I know you can’t stand the idea of your wife going on her own. You can’t stand the idea of your wife doing anything on her own. I am so tired of it.”
He bristled. “I don’t know where you get this crap. I work hard for us. I need to get back down to the office. You were the one who wanted to sit down together and go through all the shit we’re taking with us.”
“If you don’t want to go, you don’t have to,” she snapped.
Earl made her weary. It was the same old story. Carol wasn’t appreciated and Earl wanted to dominate.
She had arranged this trip to Nepal to have an adventure. She wanted to mix things up and loved to travel. She felt at home in nature, and hiking was her favorite activity. As a young girl she had walked with her father on the Appalachian Trail in the north Georgia. She always enjoyed her time in the mountains. She found peace and truth in the hills.
Earl stomped out of the room. Carolyn didn’t even look up. Earl was having his own second thoughts as the day of departure drew near.
Newell flipped through the rack of expedition-style parkas. He needed to get off his butt and get ready for his trip to Nepal. He needed to confirm with a friend about watching Newell’s two Jack Russell Terriers while he was away. He loved his dogs and they were loyal to him. He fed them scraps from his lunch wagon. He also needed someone to water his house plants.
Newell ran a lunch truck business in Los Angeles and sold heroin. He made good money. His food customers bought from him because there was no other choice. His addict customers bought from him for the same reason.
The dope transactions were quick, almost a slight of hand trick for five or ten dollars, a nickel or a dime bag. Everyone paid cash. He made exceptions and traded heroin to the prostitutes. He liked their desperation before they got their fix, they’d do anything he wanted.
He needed another supplier. He needed to be closer to the source. Story was, in Kathmandu, the pure Afghan heroin was for sale. He got this straight from the hashish dealer. Who got it from a friend of his, who returned from a trek in Nepal. He packed his tent poles with a kilo of black Nepalese hashish. This prompted Newell’s trip to Nepal. He thought he’d ditch the trek if things got too hard but it would make a great cover in customs.
He imagined his conversation with the U.S. Customs officer. “Yes, sir, I am just coming back from a trek in the Himalaya. I’m an outdoors type and would never have drugs in my gear – check out the smelly socks and dirty boots just to make sure.”
Newell selected a parka from the mall. It was a ski jacket with some poly filling and piping. It wasn’t real down filling, but it did have kind of a puffy look, maybe puffy enough to hide what he planned to bring back from Kathmandu.
Jerry saw faint brown lights on the ground and began to identify roads and moving vehicles. The leg from Tehran east was in the dark. It seemed forever before the captain announced the approach to New Delhi. There was turbulence as the plane got closer to the warm earth, but the descent was short. The 747 landed, taxied in, and rolled to a stop. The engines wound down in the dim light.
The tarmac was still soft from the hot day and the humid air was warm and dusty even at midnight. It was late April and the heat was upon India.
Passengers disembarked into a old bus bound for the international departure waiting area. The building was squat with no style. It was a vintage left over from the British Raj and was in need of maintenance and cleaning. It featured smelly toilets and peeling paint.
A small duty-free shop and kiosk were open. Jerry bought the limit of two cartons of 555 cigarettes and two bottles of Johnnie Walker Red. Both were worth double their price in Kathmandu and made great gifts.
He was hungry and looked at the snack selection at the kiosk. There wasn’t much. The homemade plastic bags were oily to the touch. They were of questionable origin but they were the only game in town. He bought a bag of “Indian Snack” made from a variety of seeds fried in mustard oil with turmeric and salt.
When dawn came, there was movement among those who’d spent the night on the hard seats. New passengers came into the waiting area. The flight to Kathmandu would board in two hours and everyone was anxious to go. Jerry crunched his seedy snack and surveyed the other passengers. He saw nobody he knew. His lips turned yellow from the turmeric and they matched his fingertips.
The jet to Kathmandu waited far from the terminal. Its passengers stood in line for the transit bus and ride out to the plane. They climbed the well-worn stairs at the rear of the 727. Baggage was in rows on the ground for pre-boarding identification. Passengers pointed out their bags. The ground crew hoisted them into the hold. This was normal practice for boarding flights in India. The process went without incident, until it was Jerry’s turn.
He had made eye contact with station manager. And had given him the Nepalese greeting “Namaste” with hands folded. The manager smiled at the foreigner with the yellow lips and returned the greeting.
“Sir, if you might kindly point out your baggages, we are making sure we have every piece.”
Jerry looked at the baggage lined up on the tarmac. “I checked in eight duffle bags, two are here, the brown one and the blue one. All the others bags were green and I don’t see any of them.”
“Oh sir, we will find them, I am sure.”
Jerry searched the line of suitcases, boxes bound with rope, and cases of goods, all waiting before loading into the belly of the aircraft.
“Sir, all other bags are identified by other passengers. To be sure, take one look in the hold.”
Jerry climbed inside but didn’t see any of the missing duffels. He shook his head as he let himself down and walked over to the station manager.
“I am missing six duffle bags!”
Jerry heard the words “lost luggage” from one of the baggage handlers. A wave of anxiety washed over him and his stomach knotted. He dropped his jaw, formed a circle with his mouth and shifted his head down a notch. The yellow lips gave him extra impact though less credibility.
“Shit…” He froze for a moment.
Jerry knew the phrase “lost luggage” was ominous. Especially if they were irreplaceable trekking gear imported at substantial cost. Not to mention that his new boss had asked him to shepherd these duffle bags from the States. Jerry paid extra for them and had to have them when he landed in Kathmandu.
He explained the gravity of the situation. The station manager listened with his full attention. His head bobbed in acknowledgment and frustration. The station manager’s even-tempered, measured tone reassured Jerry. This was just a mistake, nothing nefarious, no one had stolen them.
“Sir, this is our duty to respect the passengers’ property. I know from my own personal experience the staff here are in the highest regards with honesty. In all frankness do not think the bags were stolen. Go back to the terminal and see if you can find them, I will hold this plane for a while longer. What is in the bags?”
The station manager explained how every piece was accounted for. Articles from international flights would go to lost luggage if their destination was unclear. Or if the date had passed. All such bags go to the warehouse one day after arrival at the airport.
The words “lost luggage” resonated with him. He knew if a traveler became separated from their luggage, the chances of reunification were slim. Depending on what was in the bags, the effort may not be worthwhile. A duffle bag of tents is not a big loss. A pair of expensive broken-in hiking boots and quality mountain gear, is difficult to replace. In truth Jerry had no idea what was in the duffles.
Pan Am’s flight had landed at 11:30 p.m., and he had spent the night in the transit lounge. Maybe the connecting flight on the next calendar day threw the baggage off track. He only knew that his first assignment was to bring duffles with him. Time was running out, the engines were running and passengers had almost finished boarding.
“Sir, your only choice is to go back to the terminal and look.”
She was ready for the trek, she needed a break. Ruth was a prosecutor for the State of California and had given her life to the law. There was to place for distractions in her world. Running kept her mind clear and her body fit. She ran no matter rain or shine, everyday.
She knew she had worked too long without time off and was wound tight. She needed a vacation. Tomorrow she’d be on her way to Kathmandu.
The night passed in an instant. Waking in a start, she realized she’d overslept. She was late for her flight. She called a taxi, dragged her bags downstairs, and left for Asia in a hurry.
Out on the New Delhi airport tarmac, a taxi waited next to the Kathmandu-bound 727. Jerry guessed there must be a frequent demand for transport from planes to the terminal. It was ever industrious India, so no possible opportunity for earning was ignored.
The driver waited, engine off, conserving every drop of fuel. The taxi was a black Ambassador, an Amby. The British left India a generation before, but their car was still running. In 1978, the king of the road in India was the Ambassador.
Jerry lowered his frame and made eye contact with the taxi driver. The driver said “unknown cost,” hands up, shaking his palms. Jerry made quick work of the negotiations by flashing a US 20 dollar bill. They raced across the runway to the front of the building holding lost luggage.
Once inside, he saw baggage stacked floor to ceiling. This was the property of unfortunate travelers. Not knowing what else to do, he held his luggage tags against his forehead and walked in. He was hoping for mercy from someone.
Thanks to the Peace Corps language classes, he spoke in simple Hindi with his yellow lips. Jerry explained his situation and the baggage guardian told him how things worked. Bags were stored by date.
“I am glad to show you the bin if you like, sir,” said the guardian in excellent English.
They walked into the musty smelling valley of bags and into a corridor of more. The guardian stopped and pointed to the tag and the bin’s date.
“See, only two small suitcases bound for Goa. No duffle bags and no Kathmandu tags. I am sorry you have lost your baggages, sir. You will have to take up complaint with the issuer of the tags.”
Another wave of anxiety washed across Jerry’s stomach and he gave a small burp. He dropped his head trying to figure out what to do and grimaced. He had to go or he would miss his flight. The duffles weren’t there. There was no argument with the facts.
He began walking back to the door. As they turned into the entry area, two men pushed a loaded cart around the corner. Jerry gave them a passing glance, continuing to the taxi. It was time to go.
He took the turmeric fried seeds snack bag out of his pocket and put a handful in his mouth. His lips turned a deeper shade of yellow.
The lost luggage guardian was present in the moment. He saw Jerry’s lost bags passing on the cart. He saw six duffels, not just one cart, as Jerry did. He called to Jerry to identify them. Each had a tag and a waxen seal affixed with a piece of twine. His stubs matched the luggage tags.
“This is great, let’s get these into the taxi and on the plane!” bellowed Jerry as he slapped his thigh and smiled his biggest yellow smile.
The baggage attendants started pushing the cart to the waiting taxi. The guardian of baggage had a brief conversation with one of his co-workers. He gave a loud quick whistle. The baggage handlers stopped.
“Sir, I believe we may be in need of extra documentation for this baggage. Commercial shipments must clear customs before entry into India and approved before re-export. The handlers of baggage claim one of your duffels is chockablock full of wrist watches. It seems this is a commercial venture.”
Jerry’s face froze. He had no idea about how or why the duffle in question would be full of wrist watches. Regardless of what was in them, he had a plane to catch and needed to get going. He wondered what the baggage handlers were doing opening the duffle in the first place. He remembered he hadn’t locked the zipper pulls together. He still had the keys and small locks in his pocket.
Questions aside, Jerry saw where this was going and was blunt.
“What can I give you for this whole process to pass without delay?” His mouth snapped open as his whole face came into a full grin.
The guardian, disarmed, smiled back. Jerry hoped he had a deal. He needed to make an offer. He was definitely at a disadvantage in negotiations. Everyone watching was aware that his plane was minutes from take off. The room was silent, everyone waited to hear the details of the deal.
The guardian of the baggage had no chance to make a demand before Jerry suggested a carton of cigarettes. The offer met with a renewed smile. Jerry pulled out a carton of 555s.
Everything stopped. Something was missing. The staff all looked toward the supervisor’s office. After a few moments of unnatural silence, he emerged from his den and made his approach. He wore his hat at a jaunty angle and his uniform was ironed to perfection. He was well nourished and chewed betel nut pan with a red stain dripping from the right corner of his mouth. He carried a paper cup and spit the pan juice into it.
“How about one carton for my boss?” the guardian countered.
Jerry noticed the approach of the man with the power.
“How about a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red instead?”
This upped the bet as alcohol was prohibited in New Delhi.
The supervisor stepped next to the baggage guardian. He tilted his head to listen to the story from his subordinate. His face was without expression but he cocked his head just a bit. The gesture might have gone unnoticed but the crew understood.
Jerry didn’t know what to think. He looked around, grinned his best grin and handed the whiskey and cigarettes to the guardian.
Duffels went to the Ambassador. The romantic strains of Meri Sanson Ko Jo Meheka from a Bollywood film, blared from the radio. They sped along the edge runway.
Jerry jostled around and moved the duffels in the back seat and put the little locks on all the zipper pulls. They would stop casual browsing of the contents but wouldn’t stop a determined thief. Jerry couldn’t help but wonder what he had got himself into.
Tim and Jan were a cozy couple from Boulder, Colorado. Tim ran a sporting goods store, and his wife was a grade school teacher who meditated on the weekends. In summer, they climbed Colorado’s peaks over 14,000’. They had bagged 36 so far. In winter they skied and snowshoed. Both had adapted to life at altitude and cold weather.
Sometimes they went to Buddhist lectures in Boulder. After seeing a slideshow of one person’s pilgrimage to the Himalaya, the seed started to grow. They thought a trek in Nepal might be worthwhile for their practice. Plus they loved mountains.
Tim was a strong skier and Jan was a marathon runner. He was tall and taut with muscle, she was short, with brown hair and solid. They were in the good physical shape and were a dream couple of sorts, handsome and well cared for. They had their moments from time to time but were close to a perfect match.
Two Gurung sisters from Benichop, lived where two rivers came together. It was hardly a town, just a few houses and a tea shop. It was ordinary and boring.
The two sisters, Devi and K.K., had discussed about going on a trek with the white sahibs. They wanted an adventure. A trek offered a chance to earn money and experience something different. They were old enough to go on their own. And old enough to be married, but they were head strong and hard to control. Their parents gave them permission after persistent arguments.
It was a two day walk to Dumre, the village at the trailhead for the trek around Annapurna. Dumre was also a staging area for goods moving into the roadless areas along the Kodari Highway.
The girls had never seen a place such as Dumre before. The town was full of people coming and going. In a short time, they found another Gurung family from a village near theirs. They ask to stay with them while they waited for the trekking group. The family welcomed them and the sisters helped with chores. They were happy to be in Dumre and didn’t mind a wait. There was so much activity compared to their village.
The girls inquired in one of the local tea shops about trekking groups. They discovered there was one coming, bound for Manang. The chaiwalla, tea seller, said he didn’t know any more specifics, but when he heard, he’d pass it along. He offered the sisters tea at no cost and they accepted. The tea stall owner chuckled as he looked at the two girls.
He asked, “Are you two planning to go up into those high mountains?”
“Yes, uncle,” they replied with respect.
“Well, I hear it’s cold up there. Make sure you are ready for it.”
“Yes, uncle,” they smiled again.
Devi and K.K. squatted near the shop’s entrance, split sunflower seeds with their teeth and spit the shells on the ground. They watched as the big trucks from Indian drove past. The girls looked at each other and smiled. This was the beginning of an adventure.
The station manager came down the gangway with his final passenger count. The baggage handlers were all gone. The passenger transit bus had disappeared, but the cargo door on the jet was still open. The station manager gave an affirmative nod as Jerry’s eyes went from his duffels to the cargo door.
Jerry climbed into the hold and grabbed the duffles as the taxi driver hefted them up to him. He counted and double counted the six, plus his other two. He handed the driver the twenty dollar bill with discretion.
The station manager was ready to say goodbye.
“Namaste! So glad you got your baggages! You can take any of the open seats once you are onboard, but hurry kind sir, this iron bird needs to fly.”
He watched the station manager close and latch the cargo hold door. Jerry climbed the rear stairs into the 727. Only half the seats had passengers. He surveyed the seat, wanted to sit alone and took a window seat on the left side. Maybe he could catch a distant glimpse of the main body of the Himalaya on the approach to Kathmandu.
His mind was on duffle bags and wrist watches, not on trekking. He thought, “Was Tony in on this? He must have been. All six came to my parents house before departure, I hadn’t inspected them. I know that these knock off watches from Hong Kong cost a dollar and sell for twenty in Kathmandu. It’s not drug smuggling, but it is still smuggling.”
The 727 taxied into takeoff position, the wheels turned and the engines roared. The maroon robed monk in the aisle seat across from Jerry started chanting at a low volume. His mala beads clicked marking each mantra. Jerry recognized it. He’d heard it so many times during his Peace Corps stint.
“Om Mani Padme Hum. Om Mani Padme Hum. Om Mani Padme Hum.”
The jet started its takeoff roll and the monk’s chant increased in both volume and speed. It reached a crescendo just at lift off, then settled into a quiet, deep, background sound. The thump of the landing gear retraction brought out a louder “Om.”
The ground slipped away and the 727 gained altitude, escaping the heat and haze. It was late April, pre-monsoon season. It was a good day to fly and leave the hot plains for the pleasant climate of Kathmandu. Jerry noticed the threadbare seats and scratched overhead cargo bins. They served as testimony to the miles this plane had flown.
Jerry thought, “Of course Tony knew what was in those duffle bags. And I am the stooge. Shit, I have to get these duffles past Nepalese customs before I can even get a chance to talk to Tony. This isn’t a good start for us”
The Thai Airways 747 rumbled into takeoff position at the end of Seatac runway. It was second in line behind a United Airlines 727 now lifting off.
Captain Supranil waited for air traffic clearance.
“TG 741, cleared for takeoff on runway 28.”
The captain replied, “Seattle tower, TG 741 rolling on runway 28.” He eased the throttle forward and released the brakes.
“TG 741 switch to 124.8 for departure frequency.
“Seattle tower, TG 741, roger.”
The quartet of Pratt and Whitney engines spun with power and the 747 rolled down the runway. Captain Supranil eased his controls back when it reached rotation speed. The bonds of earth broke and the load of 276 souls and baggage were airborne.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome aboard our flight today. After climbing to cruising altitude of 38,000′ we will proceed to Narita, Japan and on to Bangkok, Thailand. The flight to Japan should take 10 hours and 45 minutes. Please relax and enjoy your flight.”
From seat 38A, Dr. Dave just lost sight of Mt. Rainier’s snow capped peak. The Olympic Range hid beneath low clouds. Beyond those coastal clouds, the Pacific Ocean was calm and flat and went on forever. Shreds of clouds drifted low over the water, casting inky shadows on the surface.
John Slipman’s seat, 26H, saw the same morning over the Pacific. To him it was a sumi painting on water, silver and black. This was his first trip to Asia. He was sleepy and closed his eyes.
John had fallen in love with Seattle and the surrounding area on an early college hiking trip. He treasured the greeness, the rivers, and the mountains. It was so different than the west Texas he had grown up in. After his oil business apprenticeship in Houston, he jumped at the offer of a transfer to Seattle. John didn’t care about advancement in the corporate world, his passion was the outdoors. Hiking, camping and being in the mountains all made him glad to be alive. This is what had brought him to Nepal.
John’s wasn’t a ladies man, he was shy and had bad teeth. He was an introverted engineer and wasn’t interested in the sexual aspect of females or males. He had blond hair, cut in a military style, freckled skin and light green eyes. He was a solid and able hiker and was an active conservationist. He lead hikes for the local chapter of the Sierra Club and balanced this with being an executive at an oil company. The contradictory aspects of his occupation and love slipped passed him. He didn’t connect all the dots.
It was also Dr. Dave’s first trip in Asia and a chance to have time to himself. He stared out of the window. Found himself with nothing to do, no meetings to attend, no phone calls to return, no crisis to manage. It was liberating and unsettling.
Dr. Dave ate the whole airplane meal. He then read everything he could find in the seat back pocket. He watched a movie and then wandered around the darkened aircraft in a state of mid flight limbo. He knew that at least one other trek member was on this flight but didn’t search them out. He would meet them soon enough and he savored the time alone.
Jerry accepted the offer of work from Tony and had two weeks before returning to Nepal. He met with Lisa on her porch, in Berkeley, for one last talk. The Victorian style house stood behind a large redwood tree. The front porch was a quiet corner.
During their talk there was almost no eye contact. Lisa couldn’t bring herself to look deep into Jerry’s eyes. Their conversation was brief. Any thoughts Jerry had about reunification were hopeless.
“Jerry, it is not what it looks like. This wasn’t something we thought about, it just happened once and then I was pregnant. Bert and I started meeting each other to talk about you.”
Jerry didn’t know what to say. He was angry and heartbroken but couldn’t bring himself to vent on her. He still loved her, but it was over.
Lisa continued, “I heard about your climbing friends. I’m so sorry. Bert said he knew two of them.”
“Yea, I told Karin how stupid it was to climb like that, no ropes, no protection. There’s always somebody that can do it and everyone else thinks they can too. I’m headed back to Nepal. I have a job taking groups into the mountains.”
“I hope that works out for you.” Said Lisa.
She continued, “I said the separation was too long for me. I told you that before you left. Plus I told you how I wanted children. And when Maya came along, I saw her as a blessing. What is done is done.”
“How can I argue with that? I don’t want to argue with you, I just wanted to say goodbye.”
He had lost his touchstone and didn’t know what to do. He’d loved her so. She spoke in a calm tone, her hushed words sounded like a secret. He was heartsick. He needed to be on his way, and had to leave his anchor left behind.
Two different groups of people came together to make the trek. Those who paid and those who earned, the members and the staff. There were more guides, cooks, kitchen boys and porters than there were members. The old Nepalese folk saying goes, “the stomach makes a man do many things.” It was so for the trekking staff. Each came from places with no chance for earning. They came from self-sufficient farms in small villages, days from the nearest road. Trekking was one of the only chances to earn cash.
The Kingdom of Nepal was not a cross road. It was not an easy place to get to, it was expensive to do so, it was far away from Europe or America. It was where the hippies ended up after their overland crossing of Central Asia in a haze of hashish smoke. It was a place where bold mountaineers came to test themselves against the tallest peaks on earth.
The Nepalese believed the tourists were rich, and they were right. The cost of the air ticket alone was more than most Nepalese would earn in ten years. The combined equipment for each trekker was worth more than the average Nepalese would earn in a lifetime.
No one in the group, with the possible exception of Earl, viewed themselves as rich. But for the Nepalese it was only an argument about who was the richest. Even to visit Nepal, these tourists had to be rich.
The members of the trek tended to view the Nepalese in simple terms. They confused educational achievement with intelligence. And they confused the emphasis on non-material values to be a lack of ambition. They saw the villagers in a happy world full of smiles and traditions. They ignored the complex social, historical, ethnic and religious aspects of life in Nepal. Their superficial knowledge combined with a linguistic and cultural barriers, prevented in depth communication.
A trek is not a clash of cultures, it is a melange of commerce, curiosity and adventure. The ancient ways and the modern world were beginning to know each other. Like a honey bee, collecting and sharing pollen, there is cross pollination.
The influence goes both ways, from the members to the staff and from the staff to the members. The pollen changes the bee as the bee changes the pollen.
Jerry relaxed and collected himself as he neared cruising altitude out of New Delhi. This was the final leg. Wristwatches or not, he was on his way back to Nepal. His first stop would be Kathmandu where he would wait for his group to arrive.
The Kathmandu Valley is 4,600’ altitude and has a mild climate. Banana trees, bougainvillea, and bamboo all flourish. As far south as Miami, Florida, the valley’s fertile soil produced plenty of vegetables. It was also the home of hundreds of ancient temples and shrines, a mix of Hindu and Buddhist traditions.
The valley of today was a lake a million years ago formed from collision and uplift of tectonic plates. Scientists claim the lake drained after the last ice age, 10,000 years ago. The Buddhist story is that the lake drained from a cleft cut by the sword of Manjushree, a Buddhist saint.
The country was never colonized or occupied by European troops. Nepalese didn’t fear or hate foreigners. The Kingdom of Nepal opened its doors to the outside world with the coronation of King Mahendra in 1958. The citizens welcomed the first tourists with sincere hospitality and kindness.
The geography unfolded below his flight path. Jerry’s mind wandered watching the Gangetic Plain below. The brown haze of the season obscured the detail of the land. He knew he was near where the two great plates collide.
This slow motion crash of the Asiatic and Indian plates create the Himalayan range. Its glaciers feed the rivers, bringing water to the plains. The monsoon comes as rain in the lower altitudes and as snow and ice high above. The great frozen reservoir feeds the streams for the hundreds of millions of people who depend on the water.
The range increases in height every year as one plate dives beneath the other. And the tension caused by the movement creates massive earthquakes. Houses and temples topple, avalanches of rock and snow rake the mountain valleys. Glacial moraines collapse and lakes drain.
Kathmandu sits on its own ruins from previous earthquakes. In 1934 over 8,000 people died as the result of an 8.0 magnitude quake. And one, of a dozen other major historical quakes, had an estimated magnitude of 8.8, in the year 1505.
The powerful geography makes for tough people. These upland folks cling to their mountains, believe in their own gods, welcome travelers, and are happy. Attempts at political unity have failed. There are dozens of languages across hundreds of almost inaccessible but populated valleys. The mountain people are brothers and sisters of the heights, cold, snow, wind, and rain.
The plane’s descent began. Jerry could hear the tone of the monk’s mantra change and knew the flight would be over soon. Flying had always been a refuge for him. And now it was time to come back to earth.
As the Mahabharat Range rose up from below, the 727 continued its initial descent to Kathmandu. It dropped into the valley, surrounded by terraced hills and snow covered peaks to the north.
Jerry saw the white dome of the Boudhanath stupa on final approach. He saw the downtown and could make out Tony’s house near the north section of the Ring Road. He hoped he had made the right decision by coming back to Nepal.
The good pilots brought the jet in for a smooth landing. The monk across the aisle increase the volume and speed of his chant, as the ground came closer. Rolling down the runway, the sound got softer and slower. As the iron bird came to a full stop, the last “Om” trailed off.
Back in Kathmandu. With some hesitation, he looked forward to seeing Tony and starting his new job. It was a trial for both parties. Tony loved the trekking life and was an outdoor adventurer. He was an entrepreneur, blunt, funny and unfiltered. How this would translate into a boss was another question. After all, there were the wristwatches.
The eyes of Buddha stare from the great stupa at Boudhanath. These eyes look for the good in men. Almond shaped eyes with heavy lids that never blink. Jerry hoped the eyes didn’t focus on the airport that day.
The landing drew a crowd of spectators. They lined the fence near the small terminal building. Jerry kept thinking about the wristwatches and the $7,000 in travelers checks he carried in his fanny pack. He had no intention of declaring the currency, though his customs declaration form instructed him to declare anything over $2,000. Nobody checked.
He saw the ground crew open the cargo hold of the plane. He made sure saw his bags before heading to the terminal. The air was sweet and clear and the sun was bright.
First stop was immigration, to show passports and check visas, slow going. The process moved at a calm and measured bureaucratic pace.
Second stop was in the chaos and litter of the baggage and customs area. Looking out through dirty windows, Jerry saw the first crew of men pulling a baggage wagon. He didn’t see any of his bags and began to worry about a repeat of New Delhi. The baggage wagon loads came one by one and his were on the final wagon. The eight duffels lay in a row on a low table for customs inspection.
The officers stood in small groups. They talked, smoked, and were in no particular hurry. One of the female uniformed officers nursed her baby. The area had a low ceiling and the interior was stuffy. Jerry was sweating. He clutched his duty free bag and kept a hand on his fanny pack. He had nothing he wanted to declare.
The customs man stood across the low table with all eight duffel bags in front of him. Jerry grinned from nerves. The officer grinned back.
“Namaskar.” Jerry replied with the respectful and more formal usage.
“Sir, do you have anything to declare? Is your form complete?”
“I have personal goods, trekking equipment, some tents, boots, dry food, jackets, basic trekking goods. It is all on my form.”
“Would you please open these bags?”
The bag with the wristwatches was first. Jerry’s throat went dry. He started coughing, almost choking.
“Sure, no problem, I have keys for all the locks.”
He pulled a envelope from his pocket and produced a handful of small keys. They all looked the same except for the two keys of his own personal bags.
Jerry pushed down on wristwatches in the duffel bag in front of where he was standing. He fumbled with the keys, trying different ones. And couldn’t find one for the lock. He moved to the next bag, one of his own personal duffles. He found the familiar key and opened the lock.
The customs official lit a cigarette, took a puff and waited with patience. The zipper jammed and wouldn’t open. His hands were shaking and he massaged the zipper, finally getting it to move. On top were three large bags of M&Ms. One of them had split open and its contents spilled out. Everyone leaned forward to see. The customs officer looked at the small bright candies. New questions came up.
The M&Ms started a line of questioning about whether they were medicine. No, they were food, not exactly, actually they were candy. A friendly gesture was in order. Jerry reached in the split bag and pulled out a hand full. He dropped a few into the hands of the customs officer and others nearby. He gave his best grin to the entire group and they grinned back.
“So sweet, ekdam gulio,” said the customs man and everyone nodded in agreement.
As instructed, Jerry opened his other personal bag packed with boots, down jackets and tents. He went to the next bag that didn’t crunch like wristwatches and opened it. It was full of tents and ski poles.
The customs man looked bored. He flicked his cigarette on the floor, ground it out with his foot and marked all the bags with a chalk signature. He waved his hand low saying “OK, go on, you, finished.”
Jerry dipped his head, it pounded with stress and he grinned again, a most sincere grin. He then turned his attention to collecting all the bags and exiting without delay. The choke point was the small door and the crowd waiting outside. He motioned to four porters in the baggage claim area. They took two duffle bags each and headed right into the mob outside.
The crush at the door was a mix. There were taxi drivers, friends looking for friends, devotees waiting for their gurus and hanger-ons. This door spat out international passengers a few times a day. Everyone had to push to get out and keeppushing until they were well clear of the door.
Jerry kept all his baggage in sight and spotted Mingma and Little Dorji waving for him. He knew them from Tony’s house and from the village. He pointed out all the bags and shook his head in affirmation to Mingma, then saw the extended hand of his new employer, Tony Smythe.
“Glad you made it in one piece with all the baggage.”
Jerry cracked a grin. He had to shout over the crowd at the door. “What time is it? Oh, no, I don’t have my wristwatch on. Maybe I’ll look in the green duffel and see how many times I can answer the question.”
Tony understood and tried to contain the damage, he couldn’t help but flash a smile no matter how inappropriate.
He said, “All’s well that ends well, right? You are through customs, that is true, may I add, and no harm no foul – well maybe a little harm. How about a bonus of fifty dollars for every trekker you bring back alive? Plus a free wrist watch?”
Tony’s crude attempt at humor made Jerry grin again. He knew he wouldn’t stay angry with Tony for long.
Jerry kept moving and was now free from the melee at the arrival door. Mingma, Little Dorji and Pasang had taken the bags from the porters. They were lashing them on the roof of the old land rover. The direct sun was hot.
The ride to Tony’s place was in awkward silence. Tony kept trying to strike up a conversation. Jerry didn’t speak until they passed the place in the road where there was a short detour, meant to keep the Holy Banyan tree on their right.
Every driver followed the rules and circulated around the tree in the correct direction. While touching his forehead with his fingers the driver made a hard left, then a hard right and another right over dirt and broken bricks, all to get around the tree. Jerry chucked about the detour and listened to Tony.
“All is ready for the trek. Supplies have bought, Mingma is getting porter loads together. I am set to get trekking permits once we collect passports from the members. Vehicles are ready, the return air tickets from Pokhara are OK, but can only confirm eight seats for now. You have to do go to the bank and cash the $7,000 in travelers checks you brought. You need to meet the members at the airport day after tomorrow. I’ll give you their applications when we are back at my place and you can start reading up on your clients.”
Tension eased once dinner was over. After two large beers and a chicken curry with rice, Jerry had forgiven the wristwatches. But he couldn’t keep his eyes open and kept falling asleep while they were talking. Tony finally relented.
“Get yourself in bed and get some sleep, tomorrow we can talk, my friend. I’m off for my card game and talking to you is hopeless. Good night.”
One of Tony’s houseboys showed Jerry to his room.