Lost in the Himalayas
Excerpt from my book - the journal I kept during my junior year abroad (University of Wisconsin) living in Nepal in 1986-87. Chapter 18 “Lost in the Big Rocks”, pages 123-128.
[It was Christmas / New Years break. Two other students, Mike, Jonathan, and I spent a week in Tuck’s village. Tuck was the guard at our school’s office in Kathmandu. We stayed in his family’s home, actually outside the home which was a small hut on one of many terraces, roughly six Himalayan mountains from the end of the road. In this passage we were returning to the town of Daumoli to catch a bus to Kathmandu the next day.]
Early the next morning, Mike, Jonathan and I prepared to leave the village by ourselves. Tuck was staying with his wife a few more days. Thus, the Americans would wander into the world and somehow find their way back to Kathmandu – alone. Tuck assured us we would have no trouble, so off we went, down the sixth mountain from the road.
After trudging along the rocky terrain for nearly an hour, the path forked. One trail went down, the other went up. At the intersection, the three of us stopped and debated the situation for a long while. I was certain we needed to go left, down, but Mike and Jonathan thought we should go right, up. Of course, I was out-numbered by two men, so we proceeded - the wrong way up the hill.
Mike and Jonathan walked ahead of me, making all navigational decisions without my help. After more than an hour of up-hill climbs, random turns and overgrown paths, Mike and Jonathan finally admitted we were lost, very lost.
We yelled to every farmer we passed, “Daumoli ka han cha?” Where is Daumoli? In Daumoli there was a road that had cars, trucks and busses to Katmandu. The villagers in these remote parts worked in their terraced fields. They responded with gestures. The first man motioned that Daumoli was over the mountain to the east. The next man pointed over the mountain to the west, and the third pointed straight ahead - south. Other people pointed to the sky, yelling, “Over there.” Like a joke on us, they seemed to be sending us in circles over enormous and steep Himalayan Mountains that had un-crossable raging rivers, deep inside the wide valleys below.
The twisted straps on my red bag were shortening my temper and so was the fact that we were going nowhere.
“I’m not having a good time,” I said out loud without thinking.
The American men on the trail ahead of me stopped and set down their backpacks to rest. We silently drank our orangish-brown colored water from our water bottles. We used iodine to chemically treat for parasites, and it tasted like iodine, too. Using these simple tablets we could drink the local water without getting sick. As the hot sun beat down, we sat on a low rock wall along the path, avoiding each other’s glances.
Then suddenly Jonathan told me what he was thinking. “I do not like your long awkward silences,” he said. “I wish you weren’t here.”
Did I hear him correctly? “Fine!” I said. “I’ll find Daumoli by myself.” I strapped my silly red bag to my shoulders. “If you don’t want me here, I will leave!”
“That’s a good idea,” Jonathan responded. Then his exact phrase was: “Your presence in this group is unattractive.”
“Fine!” I said again, walking down the mountain toward the raging river alone. I wasn’t about to turn around. And it didn’t seem like they were about to come after me either. The air was hot. My mind was racing. I was so angry. My friends were not calling me to come back. How dare they let me go! How could they allow me to go alone? We knew we were quite lost.
The path I was on plummeted down the mountainside. Without stopping, I hiked down and down. I knew I would soon be stuck. How would I get across the river? And if I could cross, the prospect of hiking up the other side was even more horrible. Suddenly and not so bravely, I wanted to cry.
Maybe there were no bridges, maybe not for miles. Maybe, if there were a bridge, it was the kind with missing boards. Maybe I’d fall into the river and never be heard from again. Maybe I was crazy to be walking alone.
After a long way, I finally stopped my determined steps. The sight of the mountains surrounding me on all sides made me feel quite small. Trapped, I stood in the dirt path, completely lost and alone, in a strange and rugged place.
I turned around and climbed back to where I had left my friends. But they were gone - nowhere to be seen. Vertical acres of terraced fields lay ahead. I followed another path along the edge of a muddy rice paddy and noticed an old woman way up on the ledge above. She stood holding a walking stick, watching her grazing cows.
“Excuse me,” I yelled to her in Nepali, “have you seen my friends?”
Old Woman and Grazing Cows
She pointed in five different directions without speaking. I continued to plod along, hoping not to fall into the mud or rice crops or over the side of the terrace. My choice was either up or down. The path never remained flat. I looked for cars in every valley, but nothing moved except tree branches in the wind and the distant river’s turbulent waters.
The unpredictable path led me to a house. No one was there. As I turned the corner in front of a large open shed, to my surprise, there were ten giant water buffalo standing, eating hay in silence, looking at me. Did such animals ever fear people they didn’t recognize? Would they think to attack? Would they come running out in a mad stampede? I stared at them cautiously. They stared back, chewing. Moving slowly, I passed without incident.
At the house next door there were people, so I asked one man to explain how I could get to Daumoli. Lucky for me, his family of seven was eager to help me. The little ones ran in circles, calling for me to join them. The adults smiled as the children played at their feet. The father even invited me into his home for dinner.
“No, I need to get to Daumoli,” I said. “But thank you.” It was already five in the afternoon, and I didn’t know how much longer it would take to find the one and only paved road. The family surrounded me as if to protect me, probably wondering why I was alone.
I noticed the smallest girl, maybe she was four years old. She carried an old cutting board made of wood. She held it as if a prized possession.
Girl with Board
“What’s that?” I asked the shy little girl.
“That’s her baby-doll,” her mother answered, patting the back of her daughter’s round head. “She’s named it Tara,” the woman said with a smile. The family looked at me with special fondness. I wanted to spend more time with them. Maybe someday I can return to explore these hidden villages again. With the villagers I felt very safe.
The father took me to a vantage point to show me the highway I’d been searching for. There it was like a snake winding through the next valley floor.
“That road goes into Daumoli,” the man said. “Go this way,” he advised, pointing to the correct trail. “Follow this path, and you’ll be in town within two hours.”
I thanked him, feeling sorry I wasn’t staying for rice. “Namaste,” I said to everyone, including the little girl’s board. “I respect the divine qualities in you.”
The family’s directions were accurate, thank goodness. Before long I was comfortably drinking Coke and eating Chinese noodles in the hotel room in Daumoli. I waited there for three hours! And still no sign of Mike or Jonathan.
I was happy I beat them.
Later, as I curled up in my sleeping bag on the wooden bed, there was a knock on the door. Jonathan apologized, and the next afternoon we were back in Katmandu.