Before and After

A successful trek, then a tragic accident: trying to put it together
By Pat Murphy
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Himalayan peaks at dawn near Annapurna

We were driving to Katmandu from the small town of Hille, down the winding mountain roads, laughing, Claire and I. That was, of course, before the car went off the road.

* * *

"We'll tell people that you must walk in from Jiri and back to Hille to get the total experience," Claire said. "To get a feel for the culture of Nepal, you just have to hike down through the Arun Valley. And cross all those bamboo bridges. If you miss those, you're just a tourist."

I laughed. For the past week, we had been hiking through tiny villages on a trail that crisscrossed the Arun River. To cross the river, you had to balance precariously on an arching span made of a few stalks of bamboo, lashed together with fraying twine. The bamboo shifted and creaked underfoot and the white water rushed beneath your feet. A terrifying experience, but now that it was behind us, those bridges would make fine travel stories.

"Yes, and the food is not so bad, once you get used to it," I said. "Dahl baat can really be quite tasty."

Claire hooted. Along the main routes, travelers had their choice of many dishes: oat porridge and chapatis and fried eggs and tsampa porridge and musli for breakfast; Tibetan momos, fried eggs, noodles, and, of course, dahl baat, the rice-and-lentil dish that is a staple in the Nepali diet for lunch and dinner. In the Arun Valley, our choices had dwindled, until we were eating rice for breakfast and dahl baat for lunch and dinner. When, in one small village, we found fried chapatis, we were ecstatic.

"And hiring a car is the best way to get back to Kathmandu," Claire added."You see so much more of the countryside."

We laughed some more. Back in Kathmandu, when we had arranged for the car to pick us up at the end of the trek, we had considered taking the bus from Hille to Kathmandu.

The bus trip took twenty-four hours—if you were lucky. Twenty-four hours squashed in a bus with people and chickens and sacks of grain; twenty-four hours with occasional, only too occasional stops, with no place to pee; twenty-four hours of swaying down mountain roads at frightening speeds. In the end, we had decided that going by car would give us a chance to see the scenery along the way.

It was already late afternoon, and the sun was setting as we made our way down the mountain, through a series of hairpin turns. It would soon be dark, and we would see nothing of the rivers that the road crossed or the jungle of the Terai.

"Oh, yes," I agreed. "The car ride is an essential part of the trip. It's the only way to do it."

We grinned at each other, happy to be in the backseat of a Toyota after more than a month of hiking through tiny villages, far from any road or automobile. Kumar, the guide who had been with us from the start of the trek, glanced back at us and smiled, not certain what had amused us so, but willing to share in the joke. The driver, the driver's younger brother who had come along for the ride, and Kumar, were all crammed together in the front seat of the small car.

This was, you know, before the car went off the road.

* * *

Claire and I had started in Jiri, a town about six hours northeast of Kathmandu. Kumar had showed us the trail and Kaji, a cheerful young man who spoke more English than he let on, had carried our pack.

We hiked along a well-traveled trekking route to Gokyo, a high-altitude location that provides the most extensive view of Mount Everest. Then we hiked back down to the lowlands along a route less commonly traveled by non-Nepalis, through the Arun Valley to the village of Hille.

All in all, we had walked over 140 miles and climbed over 14,400 meters. (Since Mount Everest is 8,848 meters at its summit, you can think of us as climbing the mountain one and two-thirds times.) Obviously, our hiking involved a lot of ups and downs—we'd climb a pass, then descend into a valley, then climb up out of the valley again.

It had been hard going, some days. Claire had asthma, and the trip had been a personal triumph for her.

We had, at several points along the way, considered turning back. There was the day we hiked from Kharikhola to Surke, up through what seemed like an endless rhododendron forest. Sometimes, I would see what looked like a crest ahead, but always the trail turned and continued ascending. It was muddy and slippery, and far below us, we could hear the sound of water: the Dudh Kosi, or Milk River, named for the whiteness of its rushing water. Late in the morning, Claire stepped on a rock that gave way beneath her foot, sliding off the trail. I was ahead of her, and I heard her say, "Oh, shit!" and looked back to see her clinging to a stalk of bamboo that grew beside the trail, dangling over the edge.

I grabbed one arm. Kumar, our guide, grabbed the other. We hauled her back onto the trail, muddy and scraped.

That evening, in a teahouse in Surke, Claire confessed, "I've decided that I don't like hiking." We talked about flying out of Lukla, the high altitude airport that was near our route. We told ourselves we didn't have to hike for the entire month. We could turn back. But by the time we reached Lukla, the disastrous trail had become an amusing story to tell to fellow trekkers. No need to turn back.

Then there was Tumlingtar, the largest village in the Arun Valley. Kaji, our cheerful porter, joined another party of trekkers in Tumlingtar. That party needed a cook, and Kaji wanted the position. Being a cook was a big step up from being a porter. And so he left us and Claire and I were sad. We still had several days walking to go, and Kumar would have to hire a stranger to carry our pack.

For weeks, we had been walking with Kaji, teaching him English as he taught us Nepali. We would tramp down the trail shouting. "Goat. Bacra. Cow. Gai. Dog. Kukur." We tried to get him to pronounce "th," a sound not used in Nepali. We'd say "something" and he'd say "someting" and we'd shout and laugh. And I would shout "Hos garnos," which means "Be careful," but apparently I wasn't saying it right and Kaji kept correcting me until I finally started shouting "Moose garnoose" instead. If you can't get the words right, you might as well butcher them entirely.

It wouldn't be the same without Kaji, we agreed. He was such a puppy. Kumar was older and very serious about everything. Without Kaji along, the last few days on the trail just wouldn't be as much fun.

There was an airport in Tumlingtar. And we thought about turning back. But we were almost done. It seemed wrong to take the easy route home, so close to the end. And so we kept walking.

Then there was the day we hiked to Tengboche, a long steep climb up another muddy trail. Kumar and Kaji had gone on ahead, and Claire and I sat by the trail, exhausted. We talked for a while about our koan—we had been reading Peter Matthiessen's book, The Snow Leopard, in which he goes on at length about his koan, which was a poetic and slightly mystical unanswerable question. We decided that our koan was somewhat less mystical, but equally unanswerable: "What the fuck are we doing here?"

We were three-quarters of the way up the hill and we did not want to continue. "We could just stay here forever," I suggested.

"Sure," Claire agreed. "We could beg for food from people passing by. And maybe Kaji would bring us chapatis." "Eventually, we'd make the news," I said. "Two American women who are halfway up and halfway down. Maybe Weekly World News would do a story on us."

"And they'd bring us food," Claire said.

We sat by the trail for a while, and talked about food. Food had, by that time, become a recurring topic of conversations. After a few weeks on the road, we longed for the taste of home: for pasta, for Chinese food, for cheeseburgers, for french fries.

* * *

"Tomorrow morning, we can have breakfast at Mike's Place," Claire said.

The sun had set and we had crossed the Tamur Khola and the Sapt Kosi, two rivers spanned by substantial bridges. We had passed through a few towns, marveling at the electric lights. So strange not to have to rely on our flashlights any longer.

"Absolutely," I agreed.

Mike's Place was in a garden off a little alley across from the Hotel Annapurna. The restaurant had pancakes and waffles and eggs and all sorts of wonderful things—or so some British trekkers had told us. (We were not the only trekkers who had become obsessed with food along the way.)

"We'll take hot showers," I mused. "And get all our clothes washed."

"Oh, yes."

We lapsed into happy thoughts of food and cleanliness, two commodities that had been in short supply for the last month. We were tanned and thin, hill-hardened and in shape.

"Dinner?" our driver asked as we drove through one town. He was a tall, dark-haired man who seemed to find Claire and I, and our enthusiastic attempts to speak Nepali, infinitely amusing.

We agreed that it was time to have dinner, and we stopped in an open air restaurant for dahl baat. Then we kept driving, along rough dirt roads that grew worse with each mile. We were crossing the Terai, the lowland jungle area of Nepal, near the southern border with India. The air was warm and muggy. Claire and I slept in the back seat, twisting our bodies into unnatural positions and waking when the car jounced over a rock or into a pothole.

At some point (I can't tell you exactly when; my watch stopped working after being drenched in a rainstorm on the second week of the trip), we stopped. I blinked sleepily through the window at a dirt lot, crowded with buses and trucks, illuminated by headlights and a few distant electric bulbs. My back ached from sleeping curled up in the back of the Toyota.

"Why are we stopping here?" Claire asked the driver.

"Check point," he said, peering out the windshield at a small building in the distance. Then he turned to look back at us. "Fifteen days before," he said in careful English, "a bus was kidnapped by a man on a horse in the jungle. Eight kilometers." He waved a hand at the other vehicles—a few trucks, a few cars. "We wait and go together."

Claire and I nodded, agreeing that we would be happy to wait and travel in safety and avoid equestrian hijackers. Then we grinned at each other. "A bus was kidnapped," Claire said softly. It was an adventure, driving across the southern lowlands of Nepal at night, through a jungle where vehicles caravanned for protection.

We got out of the car then and went off together in search of a place to pee. In America, it's easy to take restrooms for granted. In Nepal, finding a place to pee is never easy. On our trek, Claire and I had cataloged the toilets along the way and sent the list to the friend who had supplied us, prior to the trip, with pee funnels. A pee funnel is a device that lets a woman pee standing up like a man. Claire and I had, at the time we wrote the letter, peed by the side of the road, peed out a teahouse window when we were locked in for the night and had no other option, peed by the side of the trail, and peed in latrines of all kinds. Our favorite latrine was in the village of Bung, where the floor overhung the pig pen and you could hear the pig grunting below.

Claire and I wandered away from the other vehicles. With the help of the driver, we asked the policeman at the checkpoint if there was anywhere to pee. He waved a hand into the jungle. You could pee anywhere you wanted.

Together, we picked our way through the brambles. There was a stone wall marking some official boundary, and we followed that for a short distance, until we were just out of sight of the checkpoint and the parking lot. There we squatted and peed together. "Watch out for porters," I said as we peed.

Claire laughed. For weeks, we had been joking about the porters who invariably appeared the moment Claire squatted to pee. On trail or off, at any time of night or day, the act of urinating seemed to bring people trooping down the trail. Once, when Claire got up to pee at four in the morning, she was interrupted by porters, appearing out of the morning mist and tramping past her on the trail.

No porters interrupted us as we peed by the wall. We returned to the car and the driver started off, keeping our place in the caravan of trucks and cars.

We were in the jungle proper now; on both sides, trees loomed above the car. Our headlights reflected from tree trunks. Easy to see how a rider could appear from the darkness and intercept a bus. Once our headlights caught a jackal by the side of the road—a thin long-legged dog with ears upright and alert. The animal watched us approach, then faded into the forest.

It seems to me that we saw other jackals, passed through other towns. We met no bandits on horseback. I must have slept for a time, relaxing into the endless darkness of the jungle, happy to be moving in a car, no longer trudging through the mountains, heading for clean clothes and good food and a bed at the Kathmandu guest house.

I remember that the sun rose. We were out of the jungle then, and we'd left the flat lands behind. We were back in the mountains, the road twisting and curving as it climbed around one bend and then another.

I wasn't fully awake; I was drowsing, half asleep. But I opened my eyes and saw three barrels—metal oil drums—painted white. They served as a primitive highway barrier, marking a sharp curve of the road. I opened my eyes and saw the barrels marking where the road curved. The car went straight, through the barrels, over the edge, and into darkness.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 3 Dec 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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