Monday 27 April 2015

Letter from the Border

Like everyone who's ever visited Nepal, I've found it hard to process the terrible news of the death and damage caused by the earthquake of April 25th. Recently, I was working on an account of my trip there in 1992, but put it aside because my real-life haplessness and ridiculousness seemed to rather stretch the reader's credulity. If you manage to enjoy the story in spite of the idiot protagonist, please donate whatever you can to Oxfam's Nepal Earthquake Campaign or DEC or your own preferred charity.

Letter From The Border

Dear all
I’m fine and there’s absolutely definitely nothing to worry about, but I’ve just had typhoid. Do not panic, it’s more or less gone now, I can eat and drink and walk almost normally.  The Nepalese doctor said I got it in India, but the Indian pharmacist reckons I must have caught it in Nepal.  I don't care, I just don't intend to let this trip be ruined by a stupid bacterium in the first week. I am still feeling incredibly lucky, being able to go and see the world.  Mainly the world's toilets and hospitals so far, but there's still time.

We were up a mountain when I got ill, and there were no roads, or access for vehicles unless you count donkeys. After I’d spent a week in some unlucky family’s guest house, dragging myself between bed and the toilet, throwing up every sip of water I had, we realised I wasn’t going to just snap out of it. I didn’t have two thousand dollars for the emergency helicopter. Tracy asked some locals what to do - they asked for fifty dollars deposit and then, to my feeble horror, they started weaving a huge basket which would strap to their backs. The only way to get me to a doctor was for me to be carried down the mountain by Sherpas.  I know you are now worrying, please don’t.  The Sherpas will be fine, they were very strong and used to heavy loads, and almost certainly immune to typhoid.  

They had plenty of tea breaks and usually just put me down facing a wall somewhere. I did get a bed at one point, when we stopped overnight at someone’s guesthouse. This next bit may have been a hallucination, but I remember an endless parade of grannies all queuing up to try their home remedies on me. Real or not, I felt a bit guilty every time I sicked up the ginger tea they kept giving me.  They also seemed very keen to tie various lengths of coloured string round my middle, but that didn’t work either. I got the impression it might be a way of asking for divine intervention, and I expect the deities round there had more important things to concern them than my welfare. The people were doing their best for me, and I felt like I was letting them down by not getting better. Let's hope my Sherpas passed some of their earnings on to whichever of the old ladies did actually exist. Tracy was great, she shooed away lots of other tourists who wanted to take photos of me crying and throwing up. Honestly, that’s the Himalayas right there in front of you, in all their icy majesty. Why would you be pointing your camera at a vomiting backpacker?

When we finally arrived at a place with roads and a hospital, a nice young doctor told me that I was obviously English, my national football team was doing very poorly that year, and that I had typhoid. I noticed his stethoscope was inscribed with love and fond memories from everyone at Glasgow Medical School. As Nepal is basically the Scotland of the subcontinent, this makes perfect sense - a small mountainous country full of mysterious culture and warriors, who fear nothing but the local old ladies. The doctor assumed I was delirious and gave me some serious antibiotics. My body dutifully began to get better.  It didn’t even slow us down that much, really; me being ill. Our plan was always to go straight to Benares, so all I had to do was sit on a bus for a few days, even someone with typhoid can do that.

We had to change buses when we got back into India. It was exciting to be back there - India is so many things - but I was sorry to leave Nepal. It’s not just lentils and scenery, even if dhal bhat by a mountain lake is something that would take an infinite number of Heston Blumenthals to recreate properly. Nepal is full of interesting and kind people. Before I got ill, we’d celebrated Diwali with them in Kathmandu. Everywhere was covered in candles and mandalas and flowers, and we started to understand what a festival of lights means when your home belongs to the dark in winter, when sometimes a distant star turns out to be a cooking fire in the sky on the side of an impossible mountain. I told some schoolboys we met that in the west we’ve always had a winter festival of lights too. They said: ‘you are the same as us, then, big sister’, and I was proud.

 The border at Sunauli is just a desk at the side of the road with two policemen sitting there.  You can stand with one foot either side of the border and hop backwards and forwards over it, if you’re not just getting over typhoid and in a massive rush to get to a toilet. While the policeman who was awake was stamping our passports, I noticed that a Buddhist monk was trying to get my attention.  He was pointing at my backpack.  You remember before we left how long it took me to pack? The “Definitely” pile, the “just in case” pile, the “lucky” pile? I did so much crying and swearing trying to cram my whole life into something from the Milletts sale.  Well this monk was carrying nothing at all.  He mimed me staggering under the weight of all my stuff, then he did a twirl to show that all he had were his orange robes, then he pointed at me again and laughed and laughed and laughed. I thought at first he was telling me off, but he wasn’t. He was happy just to be him and to let me be me.  He was so delighted with his joke that I started laughing as well, and so did Tracy, and I think even the policeman did a little smile.

We got on our bus to Benares, and the monk waved us goodbye, still laughing.  I hope he's well. I hope our paths cross again one day.

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