Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Pokhra: Out of Time Paradise

A friend and I needed a break in life. We needed time to find meaning and space to get perspective. A well travelled friend suggested Pokhara in Nepal. He promised veritable paradise. We packed at the speed of light and in true spiritual fashion decided to travel by land knowing there is no shortcut to heaven.

‘A train to New Jalpaiguri, a taxi from the train station to the border at Kakarbhitta, an overnight bus from border to Pokhra. Simple.’ – I explained to my friend. The shrug in her shoulder showed she was already in paradise and I should not bother her with worldly logistical issues.

Reaching NJP in the morning, we took a taxi to Kakarbhitta immediately. We spent the day at a dingy hotel in this border town and waited for the bus till evening. ‘It will take 14 hours and the bus has push back seats.’ – informed our slime coated travel agent. ‘You must book a hotel from here. It is very difficult to find hotels there. We have deluxe rooms which will cost you only 400 Indian’, he continued without a break. His smile reminded me of the jackals from childhood fables. But our belief in karma, our determination to live only in the moment and prior information from the evolved friend not to trust anyone at the border, deterred us from making any such advance moves.

The bus turned out to be a lemon and the seats as straight and firm as heterosexuals. As we left the dirty border town into greenery all around and hills at the horizon, a downpour started. Inside the bus it was dripping-all-over wet. Soggy smell of people mixed with diesel and kerosene fumes. Nepal is going through an acute fossil fuel crisis at the moment. So the bus was carrying gallons of fuel from India to be sold in black. Outside the window it was green and lush. Dancing springs and rivers criss-crossed the land in rhythmic intervals. We kept our spirits high with the German beer that we wisely carried. Paradise was not far from us.

What happened and how between is the beginning of an experience that dismantled our concepts of time and space forever. But that’s a long story. To cut it short, a local boy we befriended on the bus told us he has travelled many times from Kakarbhitta to Pokhara in his life. But he does not know how long it takes. He was right. One road block due to accident, one technical error, one road blockage by protesting students later, we reached Pokhara sometime next evening. We did not know how long it took and no one around us seemed to care. Time, we realised, is not understood the same way in Nepal.

At Pokhara, we were hoarded into a taxi by the bus guys and promised they were taking us to a hotel with the ‘best lake view’. It did have a lake view but it was dark by then. We decided to have a look around town and grab some more beer. The signs of imported beer brands on the way had caught our fancy already.

Pokhara, the other city of Nepal turned out to be quite a spot. Nestled around the mammoth Phewa lake, the small town has a tourist part that is obviously influenced by hippy westerners. Shops selling colourful clothes, second hand books and souvenirs and the ubiquitous hippy favourite German Bakeries are obviously not Nepali invention. There were so few cars on the streets that at first we thought there must be another strike going on. Post elections, Nepal, as any new born democracy, is going through a period of unrest stemming from long standing dissatisfaction in people and numerous political divisions.

Our first stop was at a night club called Show Girl. We entered feeling adventurous but unsure, prepared for male leer that we are so used to in India. We came out with changed notions about men and patriarchy. The men were so polite and non-intrusive, it brought tears to our eyes. But then, Nepal has its own concepts of time and space as we learnt again and again. That night we fell asleep into a summer breeze after dinner at one of the many restaurants that serve delicious Nepali dal, bhat, sabji and real chicken.

Waking up to a bright sunny morning, the weather was warmer than we thought it would be. The town is small but getting commercialised with concrete hotels all over. We looked longingly at the hills on the other side of the lake that looked so green and empty. ‘If we could live on those hills it would be perfect’. – said my friend looking longingly over the beautiful lake. ‘I have friend who take you there. There is place to stay in village. Very nice. You wanna go?’ – asked the waiter, granting us our wish.

Half an hour later we were on a boat, our back packs finely balanced, being rowed by a beautiful Nepali boy, going to Other Side of Lake (as the place is called). The boat landed on a beautiful spot, tucked away in a nook of the hills, away from the town, over-looking the lake. A local resort promised ‘active leisure’. Next to it is another place that has ‘Beer, Nepali Food and Fresh Fish from the Lake’. We found our paradise.

What to do now?

Nothing. Stare at the trees, the hills around the lake, swim in the lake, float around with life jackets, eat fresh fish, drink good beer, go for a ride on a boat, walk about the village, score intoxicants if possible, follow the butterflies and dragonflies, lie about shamelessly.

We were in paradise for a short time; we decided to do nothing at all. And while we floated on the lake, looking at the clouds passing by or playing with the endless hills around or snoozed in the shade of old mango trees, Time, we realised, actually does not exist in Nepal at all. Someone, when we asked how long it will take him to come back, answered puzzled, ‘How long?? As long as it takes to go and come.’

At some point we did a pilgrimage to the other part of the village called Anadu, where this paradise is. Looking for spiritual, medicinal herbs, we landed in a beautiful house with a well tended garden and met the owners. Their dream like idyllic home is also a guest house. We drank tea, made friends and promised to ourselves on the way back, ‘Next time we are surely staying here.’ Each house of the village has a view of the lake and the mountains and a boat and few oars. People on this side of the lake use boats the same way we use motorbikes or cars. We saw school children hurrying in the morning, young couples taking romantic rides in the evening, young women going out in the evening to town, old people going out in the day and people drifting around aimlessly enjoying the sunset and the evening breeze, all on boats. Everyone carries an oar along with their bags, wallets and mobile phones when they go out. . In the village, whoever we met and said hello to, told us, ‘now is not the right time, in season you can see the Himal (Himalaya in Nepali) from ‘heeeere to theeere’, pointing to one end of the sky to the other.

‘I do not believe’, announced my friend after we nearly squinted our eyes trying to look through the clouds that covered the famous Annapurna range that we have read and heard about so much.

We attempted to walk up to the Buddhist stupa you can see from everywhere in Pokhara. We were told this stupa has been made by the Japanese and the view from top is stunning. Sadly our attempt had to be aborted due to an attack of the leeches. Half way up there when we felt creatures crawling on us and saw them getting bigger sucking our blood, we retreated. ‘That too’, we promised again, ‘we have to do next time in season.’ ‘And where are the bloody mountains?’ demanded my friend, ‘Can’t they come out for one day at least?’

We decided to come back and spend the rest of the day on a boat. We hired a boat, went to town for lunch and spent the entire day rowing through the lake. As evening dawned and the sun, clouds and the mountains played a colourful drama, lost in a maze of water hyacinths on the silver water our trip to paradise was complete.

As our time to leave this paradise closed in we were paralysed by two thoughts – 1. How will we cope with the hustle-bustle of the crowded cities with our dismantled notions of time and space? 2. We did not get to see the Himalayan vista even once!

The last night in our paradise, we went to sleep heavy hearted. Early in the morning I opened my eyes to a startled cry from my friend. As I sat up, I saw my friend’s gaping mouth and through the window a line of giant mountains standing where there have been clouds so far. Their snow cover glistened in the morning sun while the clouds moved away for us to see. In front of us stood some of the tallest peaks in the world from Annapurna II to Machu Pichure (Fish Tail as its known). We stood there mesmerised. Our desires fulfilled, our selves humbled, we said, ‘thank you for being there, thank you for letting me be.’

Back to Babylon:

Once again as if to repeat our lesson so that we do not forget, the bus that brought us back to the world defied time. A few stops for crisis, fuel, breakdown and protests later when we reached a small town called Jhapa in the morning; we were told the bus would not move from there till the evening. There is a strike going on. We travelled the 17km from Jhapa to the border by cycle rickshaw. Our well learnt lessons came in handy as we tried not to fret about missing our train back from NJP. We kept calm saying, ‘Time is a western creation. In a non-mechanised world, time does not matter.’ Indian railway proved us right by delaying our train by 5 hours that day.