The ride is cold and wet, then cold and damp, then cold and dusty.
No amount of stopping for tea and momo can fortify my body against the onslaught of a Nepalese highway – two maniacal, unpaved lanes choked with motorbikes and trucks and baby goats and bushel-burdened women climbing through the misty morning.
The road curves along the Seti River, which grows in size and power as we descend from the high mountains.
Rolling hills give way to rolling fields and valleys, and as a few warm rays of sunshine bring relief, I feel like Apollo descending Mt Olympus in his chariot.
We stop at Deepak‘s sister’s home, a small convenience store where they sell oranges and cigarettes.
5 men sit perched on tiny, hand-woven stools, Nepal’s answer to the infamous plastic chairs of Hanoi, or the bean bag chairs of late 90’s North America.
They can’t help but stare as we dismount with some difficulty, my legs not wanting to work after so many hours in the saddle.
The river hugs the road leading to Chitwan
And although he probably hasn’t seen her in a year, and most likely didn’t tell her he was coming, let alone coming with this white woman in tow, there is this wonderful easiness in the way we are received – it’s this very Nepalese way of welcoming guests that says “Of course you’re here, of course you’re welcome, let’s not make a big thing of it.”
Because to make a big thing of it would be to point out how long it’s been since you’ve been gone, and that could get awkward. The Nepalese don’t like awkward.
I nod and smile as best I can, and Deepak offers a few words of greeting in that same casual, nonchalant, “of course I’m here” tone.
“We take lunch?” he asks, smiling at me warmly.
Suddenly he stops and looks at me closely, a bit alarmed.
“You wash the face.”
“What?” I think maybe he’s using the wrong word for something.
“We wash the hands and face” he repeats, and I think maybe I’m learning about some new ritual that must be followed before each meal.
“I’d really rather not wash my face, Deepak, I have makeup on.”
One of the loveliest benefits of being around people who don’t understand English is that you get to say somewhat intimate, embarrassing things to your partner without anyone else realizing you’re doing it.
I’ve often wondered if people around me speaking Vietnamese or Lao or Khmer are actually saying things like “I think I have a hemorrhoid, will you take a look?”, or “Just wait til I get you home tonight, you sexy thang.”
Deepak looks confused, grabs a bottle of water, and begins pouring it onto the grass. He holds one hand underneath the stream until I offer to hold the bottle for him. He rubs his hands together as I pour, my sense of alarm growing by the minute.
My fears are confirmed when he withdraws his hands from the stream, shakes them off, and says “Your turn!”
My mind is racing as I rinse my hands underneath the water, trying to keep a polite smile on my face for everyone’s benefit.
Is this supposed to count as washing our hands?!
Where is the sink? Where is the soap? Is this how Deepak always washes his hands?
In Pokhara there was always soap in the bathrooms. And toilet paper. And Western-style toilets.
It had never occurred to me that things would be any different outside of the city.
Maybe I’m overreacting. Maybe that was just a rinse.
“Now your face?” asks Deepak, as he pours bottled water on his own.
How is water alone going to wash my face?
“Very dirty” says Deepak.
“I am? Very dirty?” I ask, alarmed.
I scramble for a mirror and can’t believe my eyes – no wonder the sister and her husband and his posse had stared at me like that!
It had nothing to do with my white face, which was invisible beneath a thick mask of black, caked soot. I looked like Zorro, if Zorro had decided to go all out.
No wonder everyone in Nepal wears masks! I thought it was merely the pollution in Kathmandu that required protection. The air Pokhara is clear, but the air on the roads is not.
There doesn’t seem to be any kind of emissions regulations for vehicles here, and I counted at least 5 times when I had to hold my breath as we plummeted through a cloud of thick, black smoke expunged from a careless, farting truck.
Embarrassed, I ask for the bathroom. Deepak may be fine half-assing his hygiene, but I am washing these chemicals off of my face with soap, dammit.
The bathroom is back there if you can find it.
I’m lead into the back room of the house via a tour that last about 10 seconds. I realize with some alarm that both husband and wife must sleep in the same room where they sell the coke and the cigarettes and the SIM cards.
I lock myself into the darkened bathroom and take a deep breath – an exercise I immediately regret as I choke on the dank smell or mold and urine.
There is no light, and by the light of my phone’s flashlight I see with much dismay that not only is there no soap – there is no sink.
It’s an indoor outhouse, and I’m on my own. the only water in sight is in a bucket meant to be used for “flushing” the toilet. After you’ve done your business, you must pour water down the chute to send your waste god-knows-where (quite likely directly into the water supply).
It takes an entire package of tissue and half a bottle of hand sanitizer before I begin to feel like it might be safe to eat with my hands.
Unable to remove the mask of Zorro completely, I now look like a preteen who doesn’t realized she’s chosen a shade of makeup 3 shades too dark.
I’m terribly uncomfortable and do my best to hide this fact from Deepak, who apparently sees nothing out of the ordinary with his sister’s set up. He waits for me patiently, sipping tea and chatting with the men.
“We eat?” he asks when I emerge from the soapless dungeon.
“Great!” I say, trying hard to appear cheerful and grateful and non-judgmental.
His sister has prepared dahlbat for us, or more likely for herself and her husband, but is now giving it to us since we’re here.
We sit on tiny painted stools facing the interior of the shop, and use a glass case containing coke and cigarette reserves as our table.
It is from this position that I notice the flies for the first time. They are the happiest, fattest, most exuberant band of brothers I’ve ever observed, buzzing joyfully between piles of rice and pots of vegetables and everything in between.
“No big deal” I think.
We dig in to the dahl, and Deepak watches me like a delighted father, correcting my hand position as I form my fingers into a scoop and shovel the rice into my mouth.
I’m amazed at how easy this is for him to do, and watch as he effortlessly mixes the ingredients together with his fingers, spoons them into his mouth, and somehow manages to finish with perfectly clean hands.
I’m able to get most of the rice into my mouth, but the odd grain or 7 still manages to slip through cracks, falling to their deaths on the plate below.
It’s within the first few bites that I feel it.
Something deep within the innermost cavern of my belly saying “Wait, what?!” and then “Excuse me! What the hell are you giving me, here?”
I know it, I feel, and I keep eating anyway.
When Deepak is long finished and it becomes apparent that I won’t be able to, I apologize profusely saying “I am so full” and “I think I ate too much at breakfast.”
The only thing worse than being served food by someone who barely has enough food for themselves and then not finishing it, is the way that food is making me feel right now.
I do not want to go back into that bathroom. I do not…..
Crap. Literally. Well, at least it’s coming out that end. Perhaps it was a one-time expulsion and we can continue on our merry way and –
Crap. My stomach is churning and gurgling, and I begin to worry about how I’m going to time all of this. And Deepak is waiting for me….and they all know I’m in the bathroom for the second time in 15 minutes!
It’s official. I rinse the regurgitated dahlbat down the hole, wiping my face with a t-shirt since there is no toilet paper and I’ve used all of my tissue on the first movement in this symphony.
My kingdom for a toothbrush, a shower, a bar of soap.
But back on the bike I go, thanking the sister for her hospitality and whispering to Deepak that I feel “a little bit sick.”
“It’s the weather” says Deepak, a mantra that seems to be repeated throughout all of Asia to explain everything from the migration of birds to sexually transmitted diseases.
He takes the burden of the backpack off my shoulders, and I wrap my arms around my own pack as we bump our way back to the main road. The long road to Chitwan just got a helluva lot longer.
This post is an excerpt from My Week With Deepak: A memoir of Nepal, available February 2015 from THP Publishing. To pre-order your copy, click here!
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1. Don't eat food if you see flies, even if it'd be really rude not to.
2. When you eat the food with flies because you didn't want to be rude, don't get on a motorbike afterwards.
3. When you get on a motorbike afterwards because there's no other form of transportation, be sure your backpack is well-stocked with tissue, toilet paper, towels, soap, and hand sanitizer.
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