Sixteen Years from Albuquerque8:14 PM
By Rudolfo Carrillo
I had to get up very early for the flight from Kathmandu to Jomsom. That was just fine. There was a dog barking nearby all night before I left. The mutt was making a ruckus somewhere down by the alley that connected Baluwatar to the main road into Thamel. Its lonesome howling made for a fitful sleep whose own flight into the breaking dawn I gratefully obliged with a cup of instant coffee laced with powdered milk.
The week before, I gathered all sorts of camping gear together; a sleeping bag, flashlights, a first aid kit, and a shovel. I used Nepali Rupees to buy the gear in Tridevi Marg, a gaudy tourist district on the other end of the alley of mournful barking.
Palm trees lined the main avenue into town, which was adjacent to that rough road. They were usually filled with huge fruit bats. The bats had faces that looked just like little brown foxes.
The money I told you about earlier had pictures of the King of Nepal or his father printed on the bills. They both looked just like Peter Sellers.
In the early morning light, I hauled the whole lot of ramshackle equipment down to the auto-rickshaw that was waiting for me, buzzing and vibrating in neutral. The operator peered through his sunglasses, smoking a thin cigarette while I descended from the third floor of my luxurious accommodation.
At the airport, which was also named for the King that looked like a character from I Love You, Alice B. Toklas, I bought a Coca-Cola and wondered out loud about the fancy helicopters that were busy whisking away some of the other tourists and pilgrims and curious adventurers.
It turned out those whirlygigs were army surplus, mostly reliable, but relatively slow and loud. Some of them were still outfitted for military travel. They had tiny, steel, form-fitting buckets for seats. There were ragged rubber straps to hold on to, while in flight. Apparently, these factors made for a rough experience, for a flight into a place were one would be better occupied considering nature in its most majestic complexity and not retching or wishing for other forms of gastronomic relief amidst the din of two fifteen-hundred horsepower General Electric CT58-140 turbo shaft power plants.
It happened that missing out on the helicopter ride worked out just fine. The plane I took to get to the Mustang Province was a modern turboprop whose pilot zipped us up through the increasingly, forebodingly deep Kali Gandaki Valley with a sort of magical confidence that, in reality, just meant he relished his avionic duty. The pilot knew the mountains' twists and turns as if those grandiose topographies belonged to his favorite lover.
At nine-thousand feet, the lush Himalayan flora, first tropical, then alpine, gave way to a wide valley surrounded by vast arid reaches. Up here was a spot by the river, almost a plateau, with an airstrip and helipad. The whole affair looked damned sketchy because it was on such a small plot of land whose boundaries dropped off precipitously into a rugged abyss. The mountains seemed to crowd in on all sides and everything looked waxen from the air, but we lit on the packed earth tarmac as if dropped gently out of heaven by the hand of Hanuman himself.
We came to a stop and the aeroplane started unloading. I shook the pilot’s hand and winked at him as I exited into the autumn wind.
Jomsom was cold and blustery that day. About a dozen townfolk came out to meet the arriving flight. Some of them were kids who wanted a look at the flying machine itself, to marvel at its bravery and perfection. Others were adults looking for work as porters and guides. Most of the passengers, excepting me, engaged the latter and began glorious discussions about their plans to conquer the Himalayas or to find the truth at the edge of the Tibetan plateau.
I just kept on walking. During the flight out, I had decided I was going to take a trek without porters or guides. The trip inside and back out would be between fifty and seventy miles, depending on the routes I chose along the way. Somehow, I would end up near a place called Birethanti in two weeks. There was a paved road there where bus supposedly stopped by every couple of days, pausing momentarily on its crawl through the mountains and valleys, back to Kathmandu.
One of the porters ran after me as I approached town. He came off as friendly and guessed out loud and in good English that I was American, British or Israeli. He decided I couldn't be Canadian or German because of my long dark hair. I told him thanks and said I would be okay without him. That's when he stopped in his tracks and yelled back to his comrades, "Indiana Jones!” They all pointed at me and laughed. One of them rolled on the ground, then got up, danced around the others and lit a joint.
By then, I had crossed into the village of Jomsom, a dusty rock and adobe town replete with buckwheat, lentil and marijuana fields, apple orchards and plenty of huge furry yaks. Besides the sky machines, the only other motorized vehicles I saw for the next fourteen days were the small, Chinese-made utility tractors the farmers used to drag around bags of grain, their kinfolk and to till their smallish portions of land.
I ended up at a building in the middle of the main road. It was called the Moonlight Lodge. I could have stayed in a place down by the river that advertised itself as the location where Jimi Hendrix had once taken refuge from fame and celebrity. But I chose Moonlight instead, urged myself towards its threshold because they had a placard out front that said the kitchen served the best Mexican food in Mustang.
The tortillas were coarse and grainy. They were filled with lentils and it was all covered in greasy yellow yak cheese, which sorta tasted like Swiss, but with a heavy, rustic tang. There was no chile anywhere within 1000 miles of the Moonlight Lodge.
For toilets, they had rooms with singular and dark holes in the ground. The beds were made from wooden planks, so the sleeping bags came in very handy. I stayed up that night and plotted my journey using an old oilskin map and a US Army surplus compass.
Outside, a band was playing disjointed, droning tunes while the Milky Way hovered brightly overhead, forming an arc that began somewhere in the Annapurna range and ended just over the horizon, in the direction of Albuquerque.