If you have an Internet habit, Nepal is the place to come to cure it. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, blogs, news and general browsing – whatever your inclination, it will soon be cured after weeks of sporadic connectivity. Sometimes there will be connectivity, but it will be between the hours of midnight to 6 am. You will soon succumb to no longer trying to browse anything, as half an hour to view one page becomes a lesson in diminishing returns. You blame it on the millions of Facebook users here, although you are also one too.
It looked like a scene from Oliver Twist. A dingy dining hall with concrete floor with tables and benches full of children and young adults bent over their food eating. The pots in the kitchen were the size of bathtubs – huge metal beasts full of tea, thin soup or black beans in a watery paste.
On the hike to Annapurna Base Camp I’d kept having flashbacks to 19th century England. We’d pass a collection of grey stone houses with whitewashed walls and suddenly I’d think I was in the Lake District a 100 years ago. The hay piled up in the sun merely reinforced this image.
And here was the 19th century again. Only this time it was in a Tibetan Monastery full of monks in maroon.
As I looked at the dining hall, the opening sentence of the novel The Go-Between popped into my head, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” It was good to know I could still dredge up opening lines when needed. It was not for nothing that I’d slaved for hours over Penguin Books’ first line competition 30 years ago and still lost.
The Tibetan Monastery wasn’t all Oliver Twist. As soon as you stepped away from the dining hall and kitchen, it became one part Oliver Twist one part Boy Scout summer camp. In the afternoon the monks played volleyball or soccer and after dinner they crowded around the Tuck Shop with a few younger monks buying Kit Kats, Snickers or cookies. This was definitely not the 19th century after all.
Note to self: Do not leave your black leggings beside other people’s black clothing when you go to a hot springs filled with 100 people.
On the last evening of the Annapurna Base Camp trek we walked down the stone steps to the river where a hot springs bubbled into three concrete pools. The first pool was stuffed with only Westerners looking like french fries cooking away, though that may have been my less than stellar eyesight at dusk. The middle pool was less crowded but had only Nepalis in it and two Koreans. The third pool was further away, too far to see who was in it but Paul was there. It was also further to walk to, shivering after the mandatory shower that the Nepali protector-of-the-hot-springs man was enforcing.
The kids assessed the pools and then climbed into the middle one. Joining Dad would mean too much suffering from the cold air, and the other pool much too full. And then began a happy mixing of people courtesy of Aaron playing with a Nepali guide and a Korean guy. Sometimes I think that everyone should go around every minute of the day with an extremely social 7 year old sidekick who sees absolutely no boundaries between skin colour or class. Though the occasional spitting habit, kicking of doors and random throwing of nearby items might get embarrassing at business meetings.
But enough reflection: onwards with the pants story.
The kids clambered out of the hot tub, expressing disgust at the “travelers” towels we’d brought. Basically, a strip of felt about the size of a scarf. There is simply no way you can wrap it around you and not feel hypothermia setting in. They made do as best they could, and then put their sweaters over their wet clothes while I went off in search of my black leggings.
When I was still searching five minutes later an uneasy feeling crept over me. It seemed I was not the only one to have black clothes. More than half the people here had also turned up in some form of black attire. I found black cotton t-shirts, black polypropylene t-shirts, black shorts, black pants, black shoes, black fleeces, black bags but no black leggings. I wondered if they’d fallen into the river and were now on their way to Pokhara. I asked the old protector-of-the-hot-springs to help me, but still no luck. Soon people were asking what was I looking for. In about ten minutes I became the “girl-who-lost-her-pants-at-the-hot-springs.” I wrapped Paul’s shirt around me as best I could, decided not to become the Western girl who makes a big fuss of disappearing clothing, and stalked off up the stairs.
Today we finished the Annapurna Base Camp trek. It took us eleven days there and back, with ten of the days involving much cajoling, carrying, pushing and pulling Aaron up mountainsides and through valleys to Annapurna Base Camp. And the only reason it wasn’t eleven days of cajoling was because day ten we hired a porter to carry Aaron in a bamboo basket for most of the day.
Taking a seven year old to the Himalayas at 4100 metres turned out to be a journey in unrealistic expectations. It was truly a miracle that we made it to the top. We’d begun the trek believing that Aaron would march along happily, just like he does on a one day hike back home in BC. But after he plonked himself down on yet another step time and time again, refusing to walk, I felt intensely frustrated at the little bugger. We would then pour all our energy into cajoling him to stand up and I would pull him along or stagger along carrying him for a few minutes.
Walking hour after hour and day after day quickly lost any appeal for him and he really would rather have stopped and poked at the bugs, caterpillars and streams along the way. Instead, after a minute of poking at some red bug or other, we had to hurry him along if we were going to reach Base Camp at all.
If we believe that every endeavour is going to go well with no hiccups at all, then disappointment, impatience and anger are heading our way as reality naturally sets in. This was what we had set ourselves up for on the trek. Aaron not wanting to walk was simply a fact of his seven year old nature and we weren’t going to change that. After much exasperation and wringing of hands eventually I had to accept that he wasn’t going to be walking unless there was some major distraction. This quickly turned the trek into the Oreo cookie trail, as in “you walk up that hill and there’s a strawberry Oreo for you.” Forget worries about junk food; it was time to haul out the cookies by the bucketload. It worked well enough to get us to Base Camp. The only other option was to throw money at the situation and hire a porter: hence day ten.
The morning of the 9th day we woke up at Base Camp to see sunrise over Annapurna I, Annapurna South, Fishtail and Hiunchuli, but Aaron decided he’d much rather scream over the state of the guesthouse’s Asian toilet than stare at snow-covered Himalayan peaks at daybreak. It was about at that point we decided to cut short the peak gazing and hustle to the next lodge ninety minutes back down the mountain in hopes of encountering a Western toilet. There is an order to the universe, and constipated child beats out Himalayan peaks. (I use the word “hustle” relatively though because there were icy streams along the way to bash with a bamboo walking stick.)
It’s so easy to have unrealistic expectations creep up on you and fill your mind. Then impatience and anger are just around the corner, and they are not pleasant feelings. Every day when you wake up if you can cultivate the awareness that today will bring challenges and that very little goes entirely smoothly, this can help to avoid these unpleasant emotions. You can tell yourself that you can deal with whatever comes your way, and know that there is a passage through no matter what, even if it involves strawberry Oreos.
The jungle was truly alive. Crickets, frogs, birds, lizards, all breathing in rhythm in the dark jungle at night. Each one inch square patch of jungle was literally teeming with sounds as soon as the sun went down.
When we’d arrived at the farmstay up on Mount Batukaru, Bali earlier that day, I knew we’d found the right place. I felt instantly happy here. This place really had some magic. You could feel it. It was one of those places where the peace invaded you, like a hum that took over your mind and restored it to its original state.
I stepped into the bathroom in our little hut and turned on the tap. A centipede a foot long shot out of the pipe and into the waiting bowl of water. There were also monster wasps making their home in the eaves of our cabin and slugs living in the toilet bowl.
The jungle was disgusting as well as beautiful. I was entranced by the jungle and repulsed, all at the same time. It was an interesting feeling, like standing on an international date line where beauty and ugliness coexisted in the same moment. It was as though the universe was giving form in this place to the thought that God favours neither beauty nor ugliness, because both are only complete with the other.
Labun Bajo on Flores, Indonesia was where I first noticed my clothes were moldering away. It was baking hot but dots of black mold were working their way across my shirts. The air was so humid that no laundry really dried unless it was in direct sunlight. And give your clothes a day or two stuffed in your backpack and bingo, mold.
My clothes fell apart quickly when I’d brought only three shirts to wear, and one of them was for 10°C weather that I had yet to encounter. I’d gone overboard on balls of wool and pieces of felt but skimped a little on the wardrobe. I vaguely wondered if wearing polyester might be the answer but being wrapped in plastic might not be the best approach in 30°C weather.
I contemplated borrowing my daughter’s clothing and attiring myself in tween wear. T-shirts with hamburgers on them, skorts that come up to your bum, jean shorts with lace fringe. It was either tweenybopper on the loose or crumbling traveller. I wasn’t sure what was worse.
Next time I came to Asia I vowed I would go Victorian and bring perfume. Especially if I brought children, who waste no time telling you that you smell. In crowded restaurants of course.
“You stink,” Nerys said at fairly regular intervals. “You smell like beeswax.” “Is beeswax so bad?” I asked her. “Real beeswax isn’t bad but it’s bad on you,” she replied, said as only someone under legal drinking age could.
I’d also made the mistake of joining the modesty patrol and bringing only shirts with sleeves. While other travellers romped through the heat in tank tops, my one t-shirt with short sleeves wasn’t holding up so well from perpetual wearing. “Is that shirt wet?” Paul asked me. “No, that’s a stain,” I replied. To be honest, a large part of me simply didn’t care what I looked like. “Is this what getting old is?” I wondered briefly. But only very briefly.
Each place in Indonesia had their own particular brand of night noises. In Bali it was chickens and roosters that started at 5 am, as well as gongs and chanting at 6 am if you considered yourself lucky to be close to a temple. At Lena’s House in eastern Flores it was pigs being butchered under our bungalow, as well as the sound of crunching dry leaves as the same pigs raced away from whoever was relentlessly pursuing them. I don’t know who needed bacon at 3 am but somebody did. When you woke up, the peculiar thing was that there was still the same number of pigs as the day before.
In Moni, it was geckos. By day these geckos were the cute little things tourists liked to point at. By night they turned into beasts that never slept, making burping noises through a loudspeaker and then banging on doors with steel clubs at odd hours. I was glad I’d locked the door in case 50 geckos pushed the door down and burst into our room. I tried not to talk to the girls about what happened to the geckos at midnight but it was beginning to remind me of Twilight, take 6.
In Bajawa, the only noise loud enough to register on the Richter scale was the mosque that went on for an hour around 4 am. I wondered at a religion that woke people up in the middle of the night. Wouldn’t these people really rather stay in bed? C’mon folks, let’s be honest here.
Labunbajo combined mosque loudspeakers with an Indonesian rock band every night. You got minaret meets Bryan Adams. The saving grace was when the power went out at midnight every night and extinguished the rock band.
No matter what went on in the night though, we still woke up at 6 am. Which was a good thing, as you got 90 minutes of normal temperatures then before the heat hit. Did we make the most of getting up at 6 am? No, we stayed in our rooms like the clever people we were, making sure the sun was almost at the height of its powers before we hit the streets. You try getting kids out the door before 7 am every day unless there’s a school principal involved. No, I was not that mother after all.
We walked down the steps to the natural hot spring near the traditional villages on the edge of Bajawa. We passed a sign that said “You pay for Kelimutu lakes, Rinca and Komodo island. So why not Bajawa hot springs? Only 10,000 rupiah ($1) per people!” So someone could speak English around here.
There was a small bamboo change room but Nerys refused to go in it after she saw the world’s biggest living spider in a corner. After she was revived from the trauma this caused, we were ready to go swimming. We were the first tourists to arrive around lunch time, then another couple came. “Do we just put on our bathing suit and go in?”, a German girl asked me. “Yes,” I said, “but I’m going to wear a sarong to swim.” I didn’t want to clamber into the river in a bikini when women in Flores do not go swimming except in their clothes, if at all. I wanted to be respectful of their culture. I got in with my sarong and then noticed the German girl decided to go in with her swimsuit.
With my sarong floating about me like some kind of giant lily pad, Paul, Sabine and Nerys teased me mercilessly. Then a few other tourists arrived and they all got in with their bikinis. Perhaps they thought that I had crossed the line and gone native, a rare disease that does occasionally strike a few Westerners every year.
The hot spring turned out to be the best natural hot springs I’d ever seen. Two currents, one hot and one cold, met in the middle of a fairly fast river, and it was lovely to swim in the warm river and follow the current.
After the swim we sat on a bamboo mat and the man who I presumed was the owner of the little sign about payment popped out of his bamboo house to cook a simple but delicious lunch of rice and vegetables. There was a menu by the mat, and I saw that he offered coconuts. “Boleh kami minta kalapa? (May we have a coconut?)” I asked him. “Well,” he replied, “It rained this morning and if I climb the coconut tree, my wife will have to kill a pig and a chicken for my funeral, which would make my child unhappy and that wouldn’t be a good thing.” This was definitely the guy who wrote the sign.
I showed my old photos of a village to him and asked if he knew which one it was. He knew immediately. “Those are Nio village. And that’s my aunt,” he said, pointing to a woman called Dominca in one photo. “And right there is where my father lived. Nio was my father’s village.” Our driver came over to have a look at the photos. “Can we go there this afternoon?” I asked him. “Yes,” he said, “it’s close.”
“Not another village!” the kids complained.
“We’ll never be back here again,” I said, “so try to enjoy it.”
We set off down a dirt road about 10 or 15 minutes from the hot springs. The road ended and there was Nio. The driver drove right into the middle of the village and parked at the far end. It seemed odd that he’d driven his shiny black car straight into the village grounds, rather than off to the side.
We got out of the car and I walked towards a house where a couple of men stood on the porch. They watched me walk towards them. I rummaged around in my bag for the photos and handed them to one of the men. I didn’t use a lot of words and figured the photos would do the talking. He looked at them, his eyes getting wider and then he started talking quickly to the man beside him. He knew immediately they were old photos of his village. I told him I was here before, in the year of the earthquake because I didn’t know how to say 1992 in Indonesian. He knew a little bit of English, but not much.
Soon everyone in the village, from kids to the old people, were crowded around the photos, pointing, talking. I don’t know what they said, but they were all excited.
The man who I’d first spoken to looked at one of the photos – of a white man sitting beside two Indonesians – and said “Mister John.” It was a British couple, John and his wife Tracy who had taken me and a German guy to Nio, where we’d stayed the night. John spoke excellent Indonesian and had spent a year already in Indonesia when I met him all those years ago. He was adored for his respect for Indonesians and for his fluency with the language.
“Ah Wolfgang,” the man said as soon as he saw the photo of the German. “He cut his hand,” pointing to the fleshy part between thumb and forefinger. I remembered now. “Machete?” I said. He nodded.
Back then there’d been no road. You had to hike in on dirt paths and walk between villages. We’d walked out down to the sea near Aimere with a crowd of the younger men from the village, where we’d met a truck to take us back. This had taken all day. There were really no private cars around Flores then and much less scooters about than now. Dump trucks were how you got about on roads that weren’t covered by little bemo buses. (Now you get there in less than an hour by car from Bajawa but you pay a lot for that.) I remembered Wolfgang had arrived in jeans and left in an Ikat sarong. Another one gone native.
“Do you know what happened to John?” I asked. “America,” he thought. Maybe, maybe not. “Did he ever come back?” “No,” he said, “Tidak kembali.” He never came back.
“We have a school now,” he told me, “just over there. Australians helped build it.” I asked him, “How long ago was it built?” “It’s already been 3 years,” he said. “That’s better,” I said. Better to have a school now, because this village looked quite a bit poorer than Luba or Bela, and I wondered how many guides took people to this village. The kids weren’t wearing any shoes and quite a few had runny noses.
Then Dominca, a woman from one of the photos came up. She was probably in her late 50s. Then another, Marta. I’d taken a nice close-up of her in 1992, holding what I guessed was her first son. She was still holding a baby today, in the exact same pose as her photo. She told me she was 43, so she’d been 19 in the photo. She said she’d had two sons and that one had left the village for Surabaya. She’d been pretty then, and she was still attractive. We looked at each other. But she knew no English and my Bahasa Indonesian was not good enough for more than a few sentences. What could we say to each other about the 20 odd years that had passed through us? I wished then that I still had Mister John with me. Instead, I said, “You want the photo?” and handed it to her.
I tried to ask the man about what it was like here in those days. “Did you have money here then?” He shook his head, but I don’t know if he understood me. Those days were slipping away fast. Now only people in their fifties would remember the days before the villages were discovered by Westerners.
Then the conversation petered out and I went to see what the kids and Paul were doing. They were around the corner, watching a kid play with his tied up pet monkey. This kid was like the monkey whisperer – he was about 4 years old. No one else could come close to it or it would start flinging its arms around.
Then it seemed time to leave. There was more to say but how to say it was the issue. I thanked the older man and shook his hand. Then as suddenly as we’d arrived, we left in our big black car, which seemed so incongruous to the dark earth and thatch houses.
The next morning we ate banana pancakes for breakfast at the homestay while the kids smothered theirs in overly sweet chocolate syrup. We made a plan to hire a driver and visit some traditional villages and a hot springs. I had a few photos of people from villages I’d been to in 1992 and showed them to Ryan, one of the guys working at the homestay.
“That looks like Naga village,” he said.
The driver arrived then, a polite looking guy without any tattoos, shaved head parts or dyed hair. His English was minimal but we figured we’d make do at the villages with our Indonesian dictionary and my broken Indonesian.
We stopped at two villages in the morning: Bela first, then Luba and walked around. The villages looked exactly like the villages I’d seen all that time ago. They were kind of otherworldly – like a village you’d see in a dream. Thatch and bamboo were used in many ways – whole, split and woven – to make houses with peaked roofs, about 30 houses around a rectangle-shaped central area. There was no grass, just hard packed earth.
Had we ever lived like that, say in Europe 600 years ago? It was like stepping back in time, yet not fully, for people in the village had electricity now and there may have been a few cell phones lurking about.
They had their animist thatch structures in the middle of the village, the ngadhu and bhaga. The ngadhu represented the male ancestors of a clan, and also showed the number of generations of the clan. The bhaga represented the female ancestors, as well as the sanctuary of the home and female body. And right beside them were graves with the cross of Christianity. The Portuguese brought Christianity here over 300 years ago but animism was still woven through it, like the ongoing practice of animal sacrifices and reading people’s fortunes in chicken livers.
Both villages were quiet, with only older women and men and children under four, and most were on their porches out of the sun or in the houses. The villages seemed to be quite organized for visitors – a donation box, a book to write down where you were from, and a slow trickle of tourists.
At Luba I stepped onto a porch and sat down beside one old woman weaving Ikat who told me her name was Sabina. I told her my daughter’s name was Sabine and we chatted. Every so often I’d look up a word in my dictionary and ask her another question. She told me it took her two weeks to make an Ikat. Then a village mom and her little girl joined us. I told them my name was Anne but my name seemed to confuse them. They repeated it like the letter “n”.
The key seemed to be to not rush the conversation. The silences between the talking was okay. We could just sit there together, worlds apart, people living in different decades or even different centuries brought together by the madness of modernity. Yet united by the truth that each of us shares the same human emotions; no matter if we indulge them or not, they are there and shared by us all.
Then a French guy and his Chinese girlfriend popped their heads under the low roof. They were surprised to see me there. We did some more introductions – they told us their names were Baptiste and Nancy – and I left them to continue the conversation on the porch. They spoke no Indonesian but the Chinese girl had a sparkly manner about her and I could tell she would make herself comfortable anywhere.
I found Paul and the kids on the edge of the village. Aaron ran towards me and pulled me up a short hill towards a tiny old woman talking to the kids in a language that wasn’t Indonesian. (Some of the older people and younger children don’t speak Indonesian but their own native language.) She wanted to give him a papaya. He took it and she said an ardent blessing over him, making the sign of the cross and muttering many words over him. She then grasped my hand tightly and told me her name, “Anna”. I realized that was the Indonesian version of Anne. I told her my name was the same and she smiled enormously. She shook my hand and kept clutching it as we walked to the car together. I hope I gave her something in return.
I got in the car and Paul said “Thank goodness you dealt with that. She was coming towards us like the walking dead and there was no way I was going to take that papaya.” Give him spreadsheets, stock prices, plumbing, carpentry and cheap flights to book and Paul was brilliant. But please no old women muttering foreign languages with betel nut stained red mouths.
We decided it was time to keep heading west to Bajawa, about 5 ½ hours away. I had a vague uneasiness that we were leaving too early, but Paul was eager to push on. Moni was one of those places that at first glance offered only Kelimutu but you had to peel back the layers and see it for the treasures it did have. Lopez and Gemma had complained to us that many people come to Moni and only stay one night.
We arranged a ride with an easy-going friend of Lopez, another Rasta. Since there were five of us, it turned out again to be only a little more expensive to hire a car and driver rather than brave the bus.
Rasta man told us the road before Ende was only open from 10 am to 10:30 am, then closed again until noon for roadworks. But the ten minutes we took to wander around the market in Moni meant we arrived when the road was already closed, with a bamboo pole across it and a line of traffic behind it. We had ninety minutes to wait for the road to open again.
We passed the time eating nasi goreng at a roadside stand and laughing about silly things. Then it was time to head off again. The kids amused themselves in the car plastering beeswax onto their nails and shaping them into talons of various colours. They’d discovered the beauty of beeswax at the equator. Here, you never had to put it in your armpit to warm it up.
We bought sate sticks at a quick stop in Ende and then continued driving. The road was again like a snake, and Nerys had a lot of trouble with car sickness. We stopped several times along the way for her to recover, but she ended up throwing up just before our stop at Blue Stone Beach. Luckily she’d given us advance warning and we’d already got out of the car.
Blue Stone Beach was exactly that: a beach with turquoise blue stones. It was deserted save for a skinny guy crouching at the top of the path near piles of turquoise stones sorted by size. We assumed they were his, but who knew where they ended up.
Around 5 o’clock we arrived in Bajawa and thanked Mr. Rasta for the drive. The kids and Paul stayed on the street with our bags while I went around checking guest houses. The first hotel I went to was clearly the poshest place in town. It was large, clean, overpriced and deserted. We looked at the rooms and I asked the girl at the desk if she would lower the price. “No,” she said. Why make money when you can sit empty?
I checked out another that was an okay price, but the people seemed not too friendly. The third place was a homestay off the main street. As soon as I walked in I was greeted with a welcome smile.
“I found a place,” I told Paul and the kids.
“Is it the place where they talked to you the most so you liked it for that?” Paul asked. He knew me well.