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The road to Pokhara

I woke up at sunrise to catch the bus to Pokhara—no easy feat for a nocturnal scribe. I was so dizzy and groggy and befuddled that I left my glasses on the bathroom counter and had to wear my contacts for four days straight. I remember very little before walking out the door, although it must have involved much grouchy eye-rubbing and none too few expletive yawns. As I pulled shut the ornate brass door handle of Sundhara House, every crumb of crotchet melted in the blissfully cool morning zephyr drifting through the dawn-gilded alley. Joel was already posted at the corner, bless him, waving and wearing that effulgent grin. We set out for the Greenline bus depot briskly, at a clip that was never thwarted by the usual onslaught of people and traffic, the hangups and hurdles and hordes. The city was bathed in a mellow golden light, sedated by a leisurely ether. The haze that always veils the Kathmandu Valley had overslept the alarm. The sepia dust clouds were still sleeping soundly, unprovoked by the storm front of movement and mayhem that hadn't yet reached the waiting streets. Without it, the magic that breathes beneath the chaos was visible to the naked eye. The spirit of the city was a pellucid song and not a whisper stirring softly in the din. Schoolchildren skipped down the uncrowded sidewalks, arm-in-arm and laughing at the sky. The faithful knelt in silent reverence at the shrines, lighting butter candles, laying down offerings, celebrating the morning with their prayers. They dressed the gods in flower petals, surrounded them with rice, bathed their foreheads with crimson gulal. The air was laden with the sultry smell of incense untempered by fumes and exhaust.

I arrived at the depot becalmed and uplifted, steeped in gratitude and peace. Maybe that is why Siraj Khan picked me, or maybe it was my kyanite necklace. The well-to-do jeweler appraised it instantly, admiring its color and cut. I was glad to find out I hadn't been overcharged by that eccentric shopkeeper in Australia. For whatever reason, he chose me, charmed me, and charged me with protecting his daughter. Simran was a strikingly beautiful girl, probably twelve or thirteen, with delicate features and a tranquil mien, en route to her mother in Pokhara. Raj, as he already insisted I address him, would have flown her but she'd lost her school ID. She didn't speak much English yet, but that didn't stop us from conversing in laughter and gesture. Before long, we'd crafted a comprehensive dialect from eye contact and broken sentences. Raj handed me his card, patted Simran's shoulder, and sauntered off to open the gem shop. The mountain pass out of the Kathmandu Valley was a dizzying ascent to the roof of the world. The jouncy, circuitous, and sheer-sided roads didn't take long to blitzkrieg my zen. Unperturbed, Simran curled up against my side and promptly fell asleep on my shoulder. I tried to synchronize my breathing with the cadence of her soft respirations, but every time I'd start to get the hang of it, the bus would careen around a hairpin cliffside and dodge another absurdly bedazzled construction truck, this one embellished with a rainbow sequined Shiva, the next one with an homage to Bob Marley. After several attempts at serenity thus bungled, I decided to deploy my secret weapon: the sound that out-nirvanas all other sounds, the music that melts all madness. The aural medicine that heals all hardship, the draught that diffuses all doubt. The timbre that outmaneuvers all anxiety: the voice of my friend Daniel Katsük. Nothing beats the real thing, but he didn't fit in my backpack and my ipod does a damn good impression. So I selected the Daniel folder, initialized shuffle, and waited for the universe to speak. I got Roadside Assistance, a song about letting go, rendered in highway metaphor. Before long I was giggling into the wind, oblivious to the antics of the driver. A few tracks in, I snuggled up to Simran and fell asleep to the lay of Daniel's flute. Arcadian dream sequences coalesced with the music and danced with half-conscious glimpses of the countryside, the broad, empty valleys rimmed with high green mountains and ribboned with distant silver rivers. We were dropkicked awake by the force of the heat when the driver disabled the air conditioning. It was a rambunctious heat, and if not quite unpleasant, it beat the gentle heat of Kathmandu by at least ten torrid degrees fahrenheit, and it didn't leave much room for dozing. A few minutes later, we clattered to a stop in a steaming cloud of gravel and dust. Through the settling murk, I could make out a lonely little java stand adorned with the darnedest sign: "Coffee keeps me busy until it's time to be drunk." I realized I hadn't had a drink since China and made a mental note to order one with dinner.

I bought an iced latte without the ice cubes and Simran bought a box of mango juice. We loitered in the heat until we were gleaming with sweat and then climbed back onboard to soldier on. We stayed awake for awhile, watching little towns bounce by in a whirlwind of garbage and dust. Simran was every bit as bewildered by the poverty of them as I was. Many homes were just shacks cobbled together with found objects. They had sheet metal roofs held in place by cinder blocks, bricks, detritus, and tires. The front doors were often nothing but curtains, the floors carpeted with hay, if not dirt. But the barefoot children still danced and waved, full of laughter, curiosity, and joy. Two hours down the road, we stopped for a lunch of curried vegetables and hearty dal bhat. "Dal" is a lentil broth spiced to perfection and "bhat" is basmati rice. It's impossible to explain its deliciousness, its substance, but all over Nepal the tourists buy T-shirts emblazoned with the following attempt: "Dal bhat power 24 hours". Silly, but it's really that good. When our lunch break was up, we wandered outside, but our carriage was nowhere to be found. After 15 minutes of unmitigated meltage I retreated to the shade of a tool shed in the parking lot and peered through the glare at Simran. She was speaking to a guard in rapid-fire Nepali and she joined me with unfortunate news: "Bus broken. Not here. Gone to fix." The minutes crawled by in igneous time, scorching and viscous and drowsy. But finally the bus reappeared through the mirage, A/C running full blast. Feeling saved, if singed, we schlepped to our seats and fell into refrigerated dreams. We arrived in Pokhara just in time for the regular evening performance of crash-dazzle thunderstorm theater spectacular and the clouds were at the top of their form. One little breakdown and just an hour late: not bad for a road trip in Nepal. But due to the delay and the meteorological pageantry, Simran's mother had given up and gone home. After several calls on my Nepali mobile, we reached the AWOL Mrs. Khan, and in the meantime I commissioned my hotel driver to escort my charge to her house. Raj, you chose well; after eight short hours I came to love your daughter as my own. It took a lot of work not to let spill the tears as I watched her recede into the rain.


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