Exactly 20 years ago I was living in Nepal. Mostly I lived Kathmandu, in a hilly neighborhood called Baluwater, but by the end of October 1996, I’d be back in Burque for good.
There are embassies in that part of the capital of Nepal and government residences too. A long and broad boulevard lined with palm trees marked the western boundary of mi vecino. The palm trees were filled with dates and big fruit bats that had faces like little brown dogs.
The Chinese Embassy and the Mexican Consulate were just a few doors up the street, and the vast estate housing the Prime Minister and his family took up most of the lower end of the area where I lived.
Across from my apartment there was a beer shop that offered ice-cold liters of San Miguel Beer and packets of Triple 5 cigarettes. A huge marijuana plant took up a quarter of my front yard, which was otherwise filled with marigolds and crab grass. I shared the place with a British friend of mine who worked for the Nepali government.
On October 1, 1996, after little preparation and training, we took a flight on Trident Airlines to Pokhara, a small city on the edge of the Himalayan Mountains. There’s a trail there that follows the Kali Ghandaki River up a steep valley to a mountain outpost named Jomsom. After spending the night at the Shamrock Hotel in Pokhara, we decided to fly to Jomsom in an old Soviet Helicopter that had metal buckets for seats.
From Jomsom there was a trail up into the mountains. At about 9400 feet in elevation, hikers could choose to bear west into the Kingdom of Mustang on the edge of the Tibet or head east, away from the river toward the Thorung La pass at about 17,000 feet.
It was cold and windy in Jomsom (elevation 9000 feet) when we arrived in the late afternoon. Somehow the environs seemed barren yet fertile at the same time. The terraced hillsides on either side of the valley were cultivated with apples, buckwheat, lentils and marijuana.
The valley was surrounded by unimaginably huge mountains; years later I have difficulty comprehending how big and looming they really were. There was an army outpost at the edge of town and down by the river was a bank and the travelers’ lodge where Jimi Hendrix supposedly stayed in the late 1960s.
Yaks as big as cars and donkeys decorated with bells roamed through the cobblestone streets, shaking their heads. They were pulling loads of beer, flour, cheese and bottled water up the trail and toward Lo Manthang or Lhasa. Twenty years ago, there was little motorized transport and no paved roads in the area; merchants and pilgrims had traversed the trail following the Kali Gandaki into Tibet on foot or by hoof for centuries though.
After wandering around the place for about an hour, my friend and I took rooms at an inn called the Moonlight Guesthouse because there was a sign out front saying they served the best burritos and apple pie on the Annapurna Circuit.
My room was spartan with whitewashed walls and a small bed, table and oil lamp in the corner. To this day, I like to keep my room at home like the one I had in Jomsom; plain with no decorations and comforting in its simple attestation to the need for rest.
That night I dined on a burrito of yak cheese and lentils that had been folded into a tortilla made from a sort of buckwheat fry bread. It was decent fare all right, but the cooks at the moonlight lodge didn’t have any chile. When I asked after some sort of piquant salsa, one of them told me there was a can of tomato sauce somewhere in the kitchen; they had given up on spaghetti night a few years back because travelers didn’t fancy the buckwheat noodles on offer.
So the slice of apple pie that followed the highlight of my meal and I could’ve eaten the whole pastry, but I didn’t want to give my American identity away. Afterwards a band of Tibetan immigrants came around and played music while we smoked hashish out of a long pipe made from a water buffalo horn.
We stayed in Jomsom two days because it was so damn inviting there; there was a small museum housing a photographic history of the region as well as ammonite fossils—believed by many Hindus to be divine objects—found along parts of the nearby river bed. An enclave of German agriculture experts living on a hillside south of town could talk for hours about the apples, buckwheat and cannabis they were studying while working to introduce methods that would enhance traditional practices and increase crop yields. Jomsom was a bright, windy place—a point of transition and intersection located at the very edge of the world.
On the third day I checked the maps, flashlights and shoes, calibrated my lensatic compass and carefully loaded my pack and sleeping bag. On the way out an older, tanned Swiss man approached and asked if we needed a porter or guide, wondering if we had the proper permits to continue. I produced two government issued cards. My friend told him we were going to go it alone. He looked over his glasses at me and shook his head. And we walked away from Jomsom headed for the mountains.
Next Time: Kagbeni and Muktinath
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Eddie sure as hell didn't want spend the rest of his life in Burque, but it sure seemed like it would go that way as he loaded another pizza into the Pontiac. And the moon shone down on the elms and cottonwoods, the cicadas buzzed and nineteen-hundred and ninety-six was not a bad year.
He came back to town like a lightning storm from the Caribbean that January. A man with a scar across his belly and hands like starfish held a knife across Eddie's throat in Tobago because Eddie told the dude his haircut made him look new wave. The way it was tied up on his head like an abandoned coral reef made Eddie think it was just a convenient disguise; the kind the po-po used when they wanted you to be comfortable because they needed more information before they stepped in with machetes drawn and handcuffs at the ready.
He got to walk away from that incident on two accounts, the first being his fluency with slang and the second having to do with the civil war presidents that hung out in his left front pocket.
After that he wandered through town cursing his luck and studying the night sky. The next morning he left Crown Point with acid burning a glorious hole in his gut. The 10 seat Cessna that bore Eddie away made for the coast of the southern continent.
The Isle of Margarita was better, some of the streets were lined with orange trees, but even the good hotels had plumbing hanging out of the walls. Eddie hired a car and headed for the coast. The cabbie tuned in to a station that was playing "Stairway to Heaven" over and over. The sea was grey and despicable. At dinner an old European couple hit him up for a threesome. Eddie feigned shock and wandered back to his cabana alone.
Two days on and he was stranded in the student ghetto again, reading want ads in the Daily Lobo, smoking rolled up frajos made from butts found by the front door of the Frontier Restaurant.
Eddie finally scored a job as a substitute teacher. Shorn and shaved, wearing his old man's cast off business attire, it was easy enough to think he might be a teacher.
The year was burning by kinda like a rocket to the moon might look like from the proper vantage point. In May Eddie took a full time gig at the school.
He liked all the responsibility; the pizza in the cafeteria kept his spirit calm. But at night his head was still filled up with the mountains and seas and people that made up a faraway earth he reckoned he ought to conquer while youth permitted.
When summer school ended, he walked away from the job and rang up an old flame. Lorraine was living at the edge of the Himalaya mountains and goddammit if it didn't sound fine and picturesque where she was, with fruit bats a flyin' and the monsoon petering out to reveal an infinite, mountainous majesty that beat Burque to hell by comparison.
Since he needed some feria to get out there, Eddie took a temp position at the same college he had run screaming from four years before. They were pleased as punch to see his sorry ass and let him get their internet connections sorted out. Then he was in charge of dispensing keys and also sat in the front office typing memos.
Every night he would tumble out of there and walk downtown. He'd spend everything he could come up with drinking with acquaintances and coaxing beautiful strangers back to his pad for jazz cigarettes and strong coffee.
As summer waned he ran into a gal he had known in the 1980s. She was a townie with yellow hair and hands like a clock. They ended up back at Glenda's house where she wept while telling Eddie about her life. All Eddie could think about was that woman's mother sleeping in the next room, the scent of her dead father's shoes wafting solemnly through the family home.
Eddie picked up the phone at work the next day.. It was a trunk call from Nepal. The operator asked if he wanted to be connected. The voice on the other side was dulcet, was like velvet. Come out here, the voice said and we will make it work this time.
Eddie was all torn up. He liked the yellow-haired woman, even though she said he dressed like a punk and should trade in his patronage at Pacific Coast Sunwear for the comfort and cultural cachet of Macy's. And he had a history with Lorraine, could not resist her Oxford accent—especially given the hot dry air, the crackling insect desert, the dull clerk's identity he had gathered up into a bag called Albuquerque.
One morning after a party at Glenda's, he borrowed her car and drove over to Allsup's. Eddie bought a burrito with a Grant and poured the change—196 quarters—into the pay phone so he could tell Lorraine what exactly he had decided to do.
Eddie returned the car, took his skateboard and left. He withdrew all of his money from the bank, skated over to his favorite tavern and got good and drunk.
That night he fell alseep in a friend's back yard. When the short night had ebbed he hauled his sorry ass over to a travel Agency by the Sunport and bought a one way ticket to Kathmandu. He sure as hell hoped it would work out this time.
Six month's later when he returned for his mother's funeral—thin and worn with a head full of incense—Eddie took a job delivering pizzas. The third delivery ticket was for an address in Nob Hill; it was Glenda's house. He took her the pizza. She stood at the door, staring at the stars and weeping. As Eddie held the pie out toward Glenda her hands moved around and around in small circles exploring the space all around them.
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