Tag Archives: Kinja

Zombies & Witch-Doctors – Nepal – Chapter 5

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Route = Kinja (1600m) – Goyom (3220m) – Lamjura Pass (3520m) – Jumbesi (2680m)

Date = 08-09 March

 

D:  How are you feeling?

L: Feverish.

L: And dizzy.

L: And weak.

L: And queasy.

D:  Anything else?

L:  I’ve got a splitting headache.

D:  Drink this.  It’s hot lemon tea.  I’m going to cure you.

D inspects the contents of his first aid kit and pill boxes.  He hands L a handful of tablets.

D:  Here.

L:  Which one?

D:  All of them.

L:  Oh – OK.

She gulps them back, grimacing and retching into her hot lemon mug.

L:  What were they?

D:  Lemsip Max-Strength.

L:  Good.

D:  And one of those magic anti-nausea pills.

L:  I like those ones.

D:  And a Valium, just in case.

L:  Blimey!  I like those ones too.  Will that help?

D:  Dunno.  But I’ve got to get you up a very big hill.

P1020078 (2)D&L wait patiently outside the guesthouse for Angtu, Phurba and the hostesses to finish flirting and taking selfies with each other.  The sky is cloudless but a little hazy.  They climb steeply passing isolated dwellings in impossibly inaccessible places, frilled all around by the narrowest of terraces – some barely a metre wide.  Under one spreading tree – a cloud of white blossom – a man slowly drives a pair of cattle and a wooden plough through the dusty earth.

They are passed by an incongruously dapper image, walking fast downhill, dressed in a tight-fitting cream suit, and carrying a spear with woollen tassels hanging off it.  They look enquiringly at Angtu.

Angtu: Shaman.  Witchdoctor.

D:   Where’s he going, d’you think?

Angtu looks a bit puzzled.

Angtu:  Back to the village.  Every village has a shaman.  It gets passed down from father to son.

D:  But what do they do?

Angtu:  They help people with their problems.  Sometimes a physical problem, sometimes mental.

L:  Does your parents’ village have a shaman?

Angtu:  Of course.  One of my aunties, my father’s sister, died young.  She had left the village because of her marriage, but was brought home and was buried on our family land.  But our village shaman said that my auntie was a witch, and that because we had buried her on our land, it would make our family and the village sick.   And then our whole family and the village became sick!  Then the shaman said my auntie would have to be cremated.   So they dug her up again.

L opens her mouth, wonders what on earth she should say, and closes it again.

Angtu:  And they found that although her body had decomposed, she had beautiful white shiny teeth and beautiful clean curly hair.  The shaman told us her teeth had been biting everyone and her hair had been choking our digestion, and that is why we had all become sick.  So he smashed up her teeth with an axe.  Then my auntie was cremated and our family and the village all became well again.P1020079

Angtu beams at them, pleased with his story.  D&L are riveted and a little bit horrified, and don’t know quite how to respond.  No words are needed though.  Angtu has another tale.

Angtu:  I don’t fully believe, but I don’t not believe either.  Once I was ploughing in our village, when I got bad stomach pains.  Terrible, unbearable pains.  I drank water and tried everything I knew, but nothing worked.  So I went to the shaman.  The shaman pressed the pulse at my wrist.  Then he pressed the centre of my palm.  Then he gave me a mouthful of uncooked rice and raw ginger to eat.  I was afraid of eating it, but I managed to, and within 20 minutes all the pain had gone.

D:  So it worked?

Angtu:  Yes, it worked.  Lots of cultural and spiritual beliefs were part of my life growing up in the village.  A part of the lives of everyone, my friends, my family….  We tried to understand.  In our village, the shaman could see a spirit that no-one else could see.  A boy with long hair, scary teeth and his feet on backwards.  When I was young I would go out at night, on my own, with a light and a little knife, to find this spirit boy.  But I never found him.

L:  That was very brave!  How old were you?

Angtu shrugs.

Angtu:  Maybe 10.  When we went to school, we would ask our science teacher to explain it to us.  We had seen backwards footprints by the river, so the spirit boy must be real.  Our teacher would say – maybe they are forwards footprints.  He would try to help us see things another way.

L:  And now what d’you think?

Angtu: Now I am partly in the Western world, working with tourists for many years.  I believe a little of everything.  Rai people are mostly Hindu, but we are also connected spiritually to the Earth, the sun and the moon.  Shamans help many people.  Sherpa Buddhist practices help many people.  So I visit the shaman, I take Western medicine, and I pass mani stones and prayer flags to the left.  Just in case.

They walk uphill all day.  L moves at a good pace, but becomes more and more zoned out as the morning progresses.  By lunchtime she is almost, literally, asleep on her feet.  They stop at a lodge in the village of Sete.P1020092 (3)

D:  Are you hungry?

L:  Sleepy.

D:  You need to eat.  Soup?

L:  Porridge.

She lies down on a bench inside the empty dining room and falls promptly asleep.  D wakes her up, she eats, and immediately goes soundly back to sleep.  D wonders whether the Valium was a step too far.  As Angtu prepares to set off again, D nudges L again.

L:  I’ve been having the freakiest dreams.  About witch-doctors!

D:  No.  That was real.

The afternoon becomes overcast, and as they get higher, the cloud gets lower.  Their destination drifts in and out of the gloom above.   L staggers zombie-like, onward and upward.

Goyom is not really a village, but a series of dwellings spreading out along a ridge, each one isolated from the next.  Vegetation is sparse, the trunks of trees chopped for firewood stand 2 metres tall, like ghostly figures in the mist.

They are now at 3,200m and it is a great deal colder than it was 1600 metres lower where they started the day.  In their room they make a nest of sleeping bags and duvets.   On one wall is a dim solar-powered bulb, but the corridor has none.  After dark, a journey to the squat loo requires a head-torch.

In the dining room, Angtu has saved them the bench closest to the fire and has been smilingly shooing other trekkers into chillier corners.  Their host announces that his wife has gone to a meeting and so there is no-one to make supper as he is a teacher and a businessman, but not a cook.  Phurba steps in and competently prepares dal bhat for everyone – as well as working as a porter, he says he’s sometimes an assistant cook too.

***

P1020112 (2)Unlike yesterday’s balmier climes, it is 4°C in their bedroom this morning.  They poke their noses out of the nest of bedclothes.

L:  You smell!

D:  Thanks.  It’s not me – I’m being dripped on.

They stare at the ceiling where a wet patch is dripping intermittently onto D’s side of the bed.

L:  What is it, d’you think?

D:  It smells like beer.

Over breakfast, they tell Angtu who in turn tells their host.  His wife has returned and Phurba is off kitchen duty.

Angtu:  He says it’s cat pee.  Definitely not beer.

D:  There’s way too much for cat pee.  And it smells of beer.  Maybe he’s brewing upstairs and one of the bottles burst?

The host looks sheepishly at his wife and shakes his head.

Angtu:  Definitely cat pee.

At 3520m, the exposed Lamjura Pass is not a place to linger.  From the pass the trail slides between a pinch of rubble and rock to descend steeply and interminably through a tall forest of fir and moss-covered rhododendron trees.  L realises that she much prefers uphill to down.  They rest every 30 minutes as, despite her walking poles, she starts to stumble.

L:  Stop, stop, stop.  My legs are jelly.

D:  Angtu?  We’re stopping.  Again.

P1020148 (2)Eventually the terrain flattens and opens into wide alpine meadows with cattle enclosures.  At the edge of Taktor they pause at a tea-house.  On a wall is a large basket – a doko – full of rhododendron leaves collected from the forest for cattle fodder.  Indoors a cat sits on top of the hearth, next to a cauldron of hot water.   Their hostess prepares noodle soup – feeding the fire carefully with wood, and removing it again once it has served its purpose – preserving it as a scarce resource.

On the approach to Jumbesi they pass under a vast cliff painted in bright colours with Buddhist mantras.  A group of teenagers saunter by, returning from school, in immaculate uniform, laughing and chatting and sharing a packet of sweets.  They’d look at home on any high street anywhere, and yet are a world away from the nearest strip of asphalt.  At their feet beside the stony path grow clusters of purple primula.

Jumbesi’s houses are large, tidy and prosperous looking.  At its centre is a school originally set up by Edmund Hillary.  They’ve pre-booked a place that they’ve read about.  They pass one after another smart-looking lodges – none of them the right one, and head out to the scruffier far edge of the village.  It starts spitting with rain.  Their hearts sink.

As a last resort they work their way around the back of the Gompa, the monastery.  Ahead is a newly whitewashed building with beautifully carved windows and a row of bright prayer flags festooned along its front.  They have arrived.   D inspects the rooms with Angtu.  L sits listlessly in the foyer – too exhausted to care what it’s like.  It starts to pour with rain.  D returns.

D:  It’s nice.

They are shown into a large cosy bedroom of varnished wood, with a double bed.  Their hostess points out the electric blanket controls.  L almost weeps with joy.  It is bliss.  They can’t waste a minute of it.

L:  The blanket’s on!  It’s actually warm!  Quick, let’s get into bed.

D:  It’s half past two.

L:  It’s raining.

D:  Oh alright then.

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Porters & Pencils – The Trek Begins – Nepal – Chapter 4

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Route = Shivalaya (1784m) – Deurali Pass (2705m) – Bhandar (2104m) – Kinja (1600m)

Date = 06-07 March

It’s a pleasant 12°C as L cleans her teeth at an outdoor sink, spitting toothpaste into the dirt.  She can’t spit into the sink as their host is washing his trousers.

She watches Phurba tie rope around their 25kg kit bag, add his own much smaller backpack and then pick the whole thing up suspended from his head by a band of webbing.  He leans forward into the weight and lopes off, arms hanging down in front of him as counterbalance.  L is aghast.

L:  Angtu!  He can’t possibly carry all our stuff like that!  From a single point on his head!  Hanging by a piece of string!  We must do something!

Angtu looks a bit surprised.

L: I thought he’d have a rucksack.  We must get him a rucksack!

Angtu:  He doesn’t want one.  He prefers it like this.  All porters carry like this.

L:  Surely it would be so much better to spread the weight through his shoulders and hips.  What about his poor neck?  And his back?

Angtu shrugs and smiles politely.

L is mortified.  She wonders if she should turn herself in for human rights abuses.  She can’t bear to look at Phurba – at what she has done to him.  D steps in.

D:  It’s a tumpline.  People have used them to carry stuff, all over the world, for ever.

L:  But not any more!  There are modern alternatives.

D:  Patagonia uses them.

L:  The country?

D:  It’s not strictly a country.  Never mind.  The posh outdoor equipment company.  Their founder swears by them.

L:  Oh.

D:  Look – if you don’t know what you’re doing, and you need to carry a weight, you’re less likely to injure yourself with a backpack.  But if you do know what you’re doing, it’s a different story.

L:  What d’you mean?

D:  The general opinion is that it’s physically healthier and more efficient to use a tumpline.  You need to learn the proper posture and technique, and to build up your neck and back muscles.  But once you do, it’s better for you.

L:  How can it be?

D:  It spreads the weight evenly down the strongest bits of your body.  And it doesn’t squash your lungs.  And in an emergency it’s a lot easier to throw off than a rucksack.

They look ahead to where Phurba is stepping lightly and sure-footedly up the trail ahead of them, singing loudly to himself.

L:  So d’you think he knows what he’s doing?

D:  Looks that way to me.

Under a clear blue sky, they climb the hillside high above Shivalaya, the blue and silver of corrugated tin roofs glinting below their feet in the sunlight.  Strains of music from a wedding procession drift up from the village – the steady beat of drums and the unruly joy of a trumpet.  At one end of the river valley, in the far distance, snowy peaks rise up, beckoning.  As the gradient steepens, the terraced fields become ever smaller, like vertical ripples in a pond of vibrant green buckwheat.  Fruit trees are in blossom and the white petals of huge magnolias speckle the forested hillsides.

P1010959 (2)Angtu sets a steady, sustainable pace, leading the way, and L is relieved that she can keep up.  Phurba walks with them, and the two Nepalis chat and laugh their way up the hill.   They cross, and recross, and briefly follow the road.  The road is not actually a road, but a road-sized sandy ribbon, winding its way ever deeper into these hills, promising long-awaited access for remote villages to schools and doctors, markets and jobs.  For now though, the only people on it are builders and engineers and surveyors.  Those on foot keep away – there is too much dust and not enough shade – and no-one has a vehicle anyway.

On a grassy slope a handful of goats and cattle graze.  They pause at a tidy paved courtyard between low wooden buildings and venture inside.  The small room is blackened with smoke from an open fireplace which has no chimney.  On the walls hang tin mugs and gleaming pots & pans.  They sit at a bench and sip hot sweet tea.  Angtu acts as go-between as their hostess offers a taste of curd – a slightly fermented yoghurt – and a ricotta-type cow’s cheese she has made. P1010974 (2)

Angtu:  We have a very special type of cattle here in Nepal.  Very high milk yield.  Called Jersey Cow.

D:  Oh!  We have those!  They come from an island, just off the coast of Britain.  Called Jersey.

Angtu looks sceptical but says nothing.  Their hostess tells them they keep the cow for milk and goats for meat.  They grow buckwheat, maize, potatoes and vegetables.   They talk about the road.  Progress has come swiftly to this area – in just a few years they have also seen the arrival of hydroelectric power, satellite TV, and wifi.  Sanitation, though, remains simple.  Most dwellings have a separate wooden outhouse, with a hole in the floor, placed at the edge of a field.  The waste collects below and is then raked onto the field and used as fertiliser to grow potatoes.

They carry on, ever upwards, on stony paved and stepped paths, now through scrub woodland, to reach the dusty expanse of the Deurali Pass.    A few buildings and lodges huddle in the stiff breeze.

Angtu:  Left!  Go left!

D pauses, startled, looking for hazards in the path.

Angtu:  Look – you must pass to the left here.  Always clockwise.

At the centre of a clearing are five long double-sided mani walls, hundreds of metres of carved stone tablets inscribed with the sacred Buddhist mantra “om mani padme hum” or “hail to the jewel in the lotus”. P1010985 (2)

L:  Why left?

Angtu looks at her in astonishment, then explains patiently.

Angtu:  Because that is the path of the world, of course.  Everything in our universe moves clockwise.

L:  Of course.  Stupid.

D:  Stupid.

It’s time for lunch.  D&L sit determinedly in the sun, adding layers of clothing and eating dal bhat.  Angtu and Phurba head indoors to sit by the warmth of the kitchen hearth.

As they begin their long descent into the huge green Bhandar valley, D stops.

D:  Take a photo!

He stands excitedly beside a small lopsided signpost announcing “Way To Everest”.

L:  But it’s only day 1.  We’re over three weeks walk from Everest.

D:  I know, but we’re on our way.  The signpost says so!

Later Phurba stops and rests his load on a wall.  He points at a long low wooden shed with a tin roof, and says something to Angtu.

Angtu:  It’s a school.  For your pencils?

P1020003 (3)L&D have filled their pack with coloured pencils and crayons to give to village schools.  They walk across the dusty yard, where a number of tiny children in lilac shirts and dark trousers are emerging from the building.  They have crocs on their feet and a few are wearing ties.   L&D greet the three female teachers.  They rummage in their pack and hand out pencils and crayons as the kids crowd around them.  The teachers explain that the school has 25 pupils aged between 6 and 15, though today there are only 20.  They seem younger, none of them much older than 9.

The children are arranged into rows.  Despite the interruption it is time for their exercise class.  One of the older boys stands at the front and calls out numbers in English, one to nine, as he leads them through a series of star jumps, squats, toe-touches and stretches.  D joins in.  The children begin to stare, then giggle.  The caller proudly continues his routine and his audience follow, but all eyes are on D.  The teachers laugh out loud and get out their camera phones.  Angtu and Phurba look on, amused.

P1020023 (2)Bhandar is idyllic – a widely spaced scattering of attractive stone buildings on a gentle slope of green meadow.  It was badly damaged in the earthquake of 2015 and lots of rebuilding is going on.  The lodges around the central square are full of road-building engineers, so they continue to the very bottom of the village.  At their whitewashed, blue balconied lodge, sunshine streams through the windows.  The mattresses are very thin.  Downstairs there is one indoor squat loo, but no water has been provided.

L:  Angtu – umm…is there a bathroom?

Angtu:  Outside.  Toilet and also a shower.

On a paved terrace sit several girls, one braiding the long dark hair of another.  Beyond them is a tin outhouse with two doors.  In one is a squat loo, bucket of water and jug, and in the other a concrete floor and electric shower.  At a corner of the terrace is a concrete sink and cold water tap.  These facilities are shared between all guests and family members.  L has a shower.  The water is tepid and the overwhelming smell of pee from next-door makes her gag, but she is not to know that warm water from a shower head will become a rare treat indeed.

Having eaten dal bhat once today already, they opt for pasta for supper.  It’s a mistake.  They are still feeling their way.

***

The next morning they sit on the terrace in bright sunshine.  Angtu looks bleary.

Angtu:  I am so sorry.  Very bad night.

D:  Really?

Angtu:  Very drunk Nepali.  I think he was an engineer.  All that talking and singing and snoring.  Then he would stop.  Then he would start again.  This is not normal.

D:  We thought maybe it was always like that.  We just put in our earplugs.  We slept well.

P1020027 (2)They drop towards the river, peeling off layers of clothing as they go.  The day is warming up under a strong sun.  A track winds around the hillside, where deep red rhododendrons and pink-blossomed fruit trees are in flower.  They descend through wet, irrigated gullies of cardamom plants.  As they dash to dodge the sprinklers Angtu explains.

Angtu:  They need a lot of water!

L:  Do Nepalis use cardamom for cooking?

Angtu:  No – they sell it all to India and China for medicines.

D:  It’s one of the most expensive spices in the world.  I think only vanilla and saffron cost more.

L:  That’ll be why they don’t use it themselves – it’s worth too much.  Like saffron in Italy – it’s quite difficult to even buy it where it’s grown – it’s all carefully packaged up and exported.

Further on, they spot a toddler clinging to a rock built into a stone wall on the steep bank above the path.  She appears to be alone.  Angtu speaks to the little girl.  She replies eloquently, with great dignity.  Angtu scrambles up the bank, carefully picks up the child, gives her a gentle pinch on the cheek, and lifts her over the wall.  He puts her down, she turns and thanks him and scampers off as her mother appears.  She had been looking for a good piece of firewood and got stuck – unable to either get back up the wall or down the steep bank.

They reach the village of Kinja at lunchtime and eat dal bhat outside a smart-looking guest-house.  A sign boasts “hot shower” and “attached bathroom”.  That does it – they decide to go no further.

Angtu chooses their room, which needs cleaning.  He attempts to rally the chatty young hostesses, then does it himself with a dustpan and brush and Phurba.

The hostesses prove to be better at sign-writing than provision of service.  The “attached” bathroom is attached to the building, not the bedroom.  It’s downstairs, with a squat toilet and shared with the rest of the building’s inhabitants.  “Hot shower” translates to “washing up bowl of boiling water into which you add cold water from the loo flush bucket and stand in a shower tray next to the squat loo”.   D&L bathe in the washing up bowl and are careful not to step barefoot into the adjacent squat toilet bowl.

P1020054 (2)Kinja sits where a confluence of rivers force a widening of the valley floor.  There are enormous boulders strewn about, possibly ancient remnants of glacial moraine, as they do not appear to have tumbled from the mountainsides above. The village was badly shaken by the earthquake and there is plenty of construction taking place.  A couple of boys clatter past, to and fro along the neatly paved alleys, with wheelbarrows full of building stone.   The end wall has fallen off a house nearby, and another is crumbling and abandoned, used only to tether a goat from a doorpost.  Laundry is spread out on a woodpile to dry, and a solar kettle reflects the sunlight from its enormous mirrored dish to a blackened pot suspended at its centre.  Flowering nasturtiums crawl over a low wall and a cactus tree provides an incongruous foreground for the distant snows beyond.

They are now drinking local water – sourced from it hardly matters where.  D first carefully squeezes it through a filter and then adds purification tabs for good measure.  It is failsafe and tastes no worse than London water.   Over the course of their trek it will stop them needing to buy and dispose of around 120 plastic bottles of water.

As the afternoon wears on, L begins to feel feverish and cold.  She wraps up in excessive layers of clothing and has porridge for supper.

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