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Going to Dolpo

1 The Lowlands

Imperfect music and literature Ark Arts



Kali and I left the hotel and taxied to a wayside station on the outskirts of Pokhara. From there we rode in the backs of lorries crammed with standing passengers. The trucks bumped and jerked over the road. The passengers inhaled the dust and their faces drooped and then stiffened while their bodies jiggled and bounced with the galloping vehicle until the end finally came-a road construction site between Kusma and Baglung. The driver jammed his foot against the break pedal, the engine hissed and the truck slid to a stop inside a cloud of dust. We jumped off the back. Just ahead a line of men broke the ground with pick axes and faded brown dust ascended and settled on their thin arms and shoulders. The road builders didn't groan or heave or gasp. They swung their axes and the ax heads glanced off the earth and they swung them again.

We ate rice and lentils at a makeshift eatery for the laborers. Then we set out for the day. Our destination was the highland area called Dolpo. We walked and the road abruptly became a footpath leading into a green valley cut down the middle by a river. It was mid-day and I stepped awkwardly under my pack through the heavy air and the heavy sun. Faint drumbeats, an oboe-like sound slithering out of several shehnai and the crashing of cymbals rose from the forest. Soon the music clattered all around us but Kali and I saw no musicians. Then Kali grabbed my arm and pulled me to the side of the trail and a parade of stern young men marched through. Wedding party, said Kali, they go to the girl's house, as the groom and his entourage strode past with their arms full of gifts and food.

Kali and I continued through a landscape of terraced fields and thatched-roofed villages. Five barefoot porters approached from the opposite direction. They carried their loads in large wicker baskets on their backs and they walked bent slightly forward at the waist. As they passed us each man rolled only his eyeballs up to glance at me and then Kali before looking down, stepping to the right and moving on.

We removed our rucksacks and rested on a stone wall underneath a banyan tree. We sat quietly and then started again. I breathed long breaths and short breaths. My feet fell everywhere and I stopped often and looked-at the river, at the ground, at the sky.

While passing through a village a man called to me in English. He wore a baseball cap and jeans.

Where are you going?

I didn't say anything. Nepalis had warned me against telling others where we planned to walk. Their reasoning was that if the local people or stragglers knew the long distance we were traveling then they might try to rob us of our money and belongings.

Where are you going? he asked again, smiling.

We're going ahead for a few days.

That's all? You should carry less. You look like you're going on a mountain expedition.

No, just ahead and then back to Pokhara and Kathmandu. I turned to leave but stopped. Where do you live? I asked him.

I live in Kathmandu.

Ok. See you.

Just before dusk we crossed a suspension bridge and entered the village Beni. Kali asked a shopkeeper where we could sleep and the man offered his house. That night we sat cross-legged on the clay floor with our hosts and ate our meal of rice, vegetables and lentils. Later I studied my maps. Kali looked on for a moment and then rolled onto his back and stared at the ceiling.

When I put my head down to sleep I thought about Lieutenant Ibanez, an Argentinean mountain climber who led an expedition to Dhaulagiri in 1954. Well into the climb something happened that resulted in the loss of Ibanez's crampons. Unable to descend he waited as high velocity winds blew upon him. His feet began to tingle and string before going numb and painless as the heat in his body withdrew like a shrinking aura in the direction of his heart. After four days his companions found him out of his mind. With the aid of ropes they got Ibanez off the mountain and brought him here to Beni. In the warm air blood rushed into his feet and he howled at the onset of the waves of electric strings burning and pulsating in his extremities. They discovered gangrene and cut off his toes and then set out with Ibanez for Kathmandu. A month later the expedition arrived in Pokhara and they removed part of Ibanez's left foot. When they got to Kathmandu they put Ibanez in a hospital and three days later he died.

The companions of Ibanez had carried the dying man through these heated valleys. Time must have moved like drops of water that gather and eventually fall from a leaf and hit tin roofing with a ping sound. Footsteps on the trail, the rush of the river below, a vulture circling overhead, a glass of tea, the red coals of a fire turning to gray flecks of paper that disintegrate in a light wind. Walking, eating, resting, drinking: a crowd of screaming and dying images: flashing, gone, flashing, gone: images of death seizing them like a hand around the throat, enveloping their minds like water caressing a fish, rubbing the skin and stroking the hair, breathing, death and sex massaging their brains like waves off a calm sea. The present intrudes. They listen to the babble of Ibanez. They are tired. They want to eat. The terror of death leaps out again, the images booming into their minds. One. Two. Three. Then silence descends like a gray mountain wall floating in the mist, the other side unperceived, and the climbers adrift again on the current: stumbling on a loose rock, the sting of a mosquito, a hurting back, a rash, irritation, boredom, hope, resignation; knocked back and forth and up and down; posturing, grasping, recoiling; the weary round again. Did they really want it? Did they ever know about the reel the spins?

They smelled the wounds of Ibanez. They fought off the flies that buzzed in their ears. Then they got to Kathmandu and watched Ibanez die and his death was like one of those drops welling up and falling and making that ping sound. And they saw in the death of Ibanez who they really were and they hated what they saw, if only for a moment. Then they forgot about it and grieved, talking about how hard life could be and what a good man Ibanez was-unaware of the dreadful and intolerable shattering, of the fragmentation that clings, of the voices jumping and shouting inside their brains, of the particles existing each moment, arranging and scattering like clouds on the wind, like sand through the hour glass, the companions of the dead man clutching the rope as they swung through void.




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