Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Back in Black

Back in two ways, and black in four…

Hello again, friends. I’m back in Kathmandu from nearly three weeks of the most incredible backpacking in the Langtang and Gossainkunda regions of the Himalaya. The scenery was superbly stunning – I’ve provided some photographs, but they don’t do it justice. If you want the full effect you’ll just have to go and see for yourself…

Ganesh Himal

Although the trip was spectacular, it’s good to be back in crazy Kathmandu (just in time for the Buddha’s birthday party!) where European-style bakeries cater to the tourist and trekking crowd. I’ve got some calories to replace after being on the tsampa porridge and dhal bhat (rice and lentils) diet plan, so I’ve been putting away the pastries like a champ.

OK, so one way I’m “back” is being “back” in Kathmandu. The other way I’m about to be “back” is in Oakland for the summer. I wasn’t having much luck getting work projects set up for the summer, and the idea of getting back in the pool, getting in shape and rockin the open water scene with my posse this summer sounded oh so good. And there’s no good beer to be found here anywhere. I’d sell my soul for a Boont Amber Ale at this point…

So if you’re gonna be in the Bay Area this summer, look me up. I’ll be holdin it down in OakTown, or, as I call it, “the center of the mutha-grabbin universe.” You can find me throwin a wicked butterfly stroke at the Temescal pool in the evenings, or at any one of my favorite waterin holes afterwards…Lanesplitter, Cato’s, Ben n’ Nick’s, Pacific Coast Brewing Co., etc. Might even have to restring the ol’ mando and rip out some hot breaks at McGrath’s pub in Alameda at the Monday night bluegrass jams…

So there’re two ways “back”, and now four ways black. What do I mean by “black”?


The concept of death came up in my life four times in about twenty-four hours. So I figured I should pay attention and maybe mention something here.


The first way was a murder in a Nepali village outside of Trisuli, about halfway between where I came out of the mountains and Kathmandu. This is all hearsay, but what I gather is that a woman murdered her daughter-in-law, who was possibly pregnant. The village revolted and demanded justice from the police, who perhaps did not respond immediately to arrest the woman. The details are very sketchy. The only reason I know anything is because in order to get the authorities’ attention the village blockaded the road to Katmandu, stopping all bus traffic, including the bus I was on.

So a group of us seasoned trekkers abandoned our buses and walked the several kilometers through the village and their peaceful demonstration. Surprisingly, it was quite an ordeal making the decision to walk – you wouldn’t have believed that people who had just spent two or three weeks walking eight hours a day over high mountain passes would be so reticent to walk a few lowland kilometers along a paved (!) road. Of course, it was a snap decision for all the waylaid Nepalis. They slung their luggage on their backs with the standard forehead strap and were off down the road while the Austrian and Israeli tourists were still bickering over whether to walk, wait, or try to hire a local minibus.

Without waiting around to hear the end of the debate, I and a few others set off to walk an unknown distance to (hopefully) meet buses stopped on the other side of the roadblocks that would (hopefully) turn around and take passengers back to Kathmandu. We walked for perhaps an hour, and then a guy drove by on his tractor with a flat-bed cart on the back and offered us a ride. He took us as far as the roadblocks (tree trunks, piles of stones, one remains of a burned motorcycle). From there we walked another half hour to the stopped buses.

After a lot of confusion and, from what I could glean, arguing (not sure what over) among the Nepalis, a large number of people and at least one goat climbed into and on top of one of the buses and we began the four-plus hour slog over the foothills to Kathmandu. I was on top of the bus, which I prefer as inside the buses it’s hot, smelly and cramped, and besides many Nepalis and Tibetans aren’t used to riding in cars and the roads are rough and windy so there’s a lot of car sickness and puking going on. So I rode on top, which was nice, but it was crowded even up there and I had only a bit of the luggage rack to put my butt on, tie my backpack to, and to hang on to at the same time. It wouldn’t have been so bad except I swear the goat was taking up more than her share of room.

Anyway, my story is rambling like the bus ride – and crazy delayed bus drama is super-typical in Nepal, so as to be hardly worth mentioning. The point is, this whole thing – the demonstration, the road blockades – happened because of a murder. Because the people were upset, and rightly so, over this crime in their village. But think about your average city in the US – think about Oakland. How many murders did we have in Oakland last year? 150? What if the people of Oakland blockaded the roads every time there was a violent crime? In what sense might we have gotten used to these kinds of tragedies happening so often? In what sense do we just accept violence as an unfortunate but inevitable product of “modern” society? Here in Nepal, murder is a big deal. I don’t know what the official national murder rate per capita is, but I bet it’s lower than the US. Even with the Maoists stirring things up every now and again.


Thinking about murder in the US and specifically in Oakland reminded me that a good friend has been, for the past several weeks and will be for a good deal more, on the jury of a murder trial there. I know this person has had a really hard time doing this job – the whole court situation is complicated, sketchy, pretty gross apparently. Of course I can’t know any details. But I can only imagine. Really horrifying, for everyone involved.


And speaking of horrifying, I (belatedly of course) just got the news about the shootings at Virginia Tech. Another weird, horrible tragedy. Actually, thirty-two weird horrible tragedies. What is going on? What’s with all this violence? Our military is bombing people in Iraq and our citizens are going on rampages back home. What the hell is going on? Are we losing it as a species? In the twentieth century, we killed over one hundred million people with our wars and violent crimes. Are we trying to break that record in the twenty-first century?


And finally, the last incident of death I’ll mention here is that of my favorite author, Kurt Vonnegut. Through his books, that man opened my eyes and my mind to many of the more disturbing and ridiculous aspects of the human condition. His writings are morose, hilarious and incisively critical all at the same time. Reading his stuff changed my life profoundly. He will be missed – so it goes.

With these four instances of death showing up in my life, I feel like I should have something more profound to say about the matter at this point. I really don’t though, beyond the simple and kind of cliché recognition that life is short and uncertain, and so, for one, use what life you have to do what you love with the people you love, and two, don’t be so attached to your life. For this last it maybe helps being in a Buddhist country where non-attachment is one of the main virtues people develop. Bodies die, but consciousness lives on. Some believe it gets reincarnated after a period. Whatever happens, nothing is permanent. So don’t get attached to the illusion of permanence of your life. And don’t wait until sometime in the future to start living. Do it now. Now is the only time you’ll ever have, so now is the time.

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