Day 12: Pokhara – Kathmandu

Rafting day! Sadly none of us have slept enough. We walk into breakfast like zombies. I can’t face a veggie cutlet today. The checking out and formalities are done. I am sorrowful about leaving the Fishtail Lodge behind. Can’t take it along, silly. For the last time we are pulled in that stately raft by rope. I watch as the man drops the rope in neat coils like murukku. When we pulled it on earlier occassions, we only managed to drop in a messy tangle… anyway goodbye Fishtail Lodge, goodbye Macchapucchare, goodbye Phewa Lake. We pile into our 7-seater van with our luggage. It feels like a long never ending ride to the rafting point. We play dumb charades which is sort of fun. My heart’s not in it. My brain feels fried, and nausea threatens – the hilly van ride is too much after an almost sleepless night. We see the Trishuli all along the ride, flowing in a gorge below, and I keep expecting us to stop any minute and head to the river.

Finally we pull into our destination. There’s a knot of people getting ready for rafting and waiting about. From the generic knot it takes me a while to make out individuals. A very pretty white woman, two large tanned men whom I later find out are Aussies, a bunch of Nepali youngsters, a Chinese couple. An ugly ape who seems to be part of the rafting outfitters, insists on walking around with his vest pulled up, exposing a little bit more pectorals than others would have wished to see. Gosh he must be on some kind of drugs if he imagines he’s making a pretty sight.

We seem to be waiting for a honeymooning Indian couple to join the rafting gang. We know these people by sight from the Fishtail Lodge. We have nothing but catty remarks about them. The man struts about always walking ahead of her, never once talking to her. They seem so… matter-of-fact about each other, indifferent, not even like there are any negative vibes. There are just no vibes. They’re the strangest newly weds I have ever seen. Having waited for over half an hour, the rafting outfitters decide to leave them behind and we all walk down to the water, suitably attired in life jackets, ill-fitting plastic helmets, and carrying our yellow and blue oars proudly.

The pretty white woman turns out to be French, and travelling by herself in India and Nepal. She’s wearing a pair of low-slung jeans, a sleeveless black top, a smart pair of sun glasses, lots of junk jewellery around her neck, long dangling earrings, bangles. (For rafting??!! I wonder) She falls into step beside me and strikes up a conversation. Her name is Kadee (pronounce with a cute French lisp), she speaks some English and in the short walk from the road to the river (about 7 mins all told), she tells me a good summary of her travels so far. Banaras, where the mighty Ganga flows (she says the French pronounce it “ganj”). She’s full of awe and reverence for this sacred river, that I actually stop to think about it for a minute. She is a PhD in Micro Economics (which she pronounces “meecro” and looks at me questioningly). The other three stay away from me, and are probably thinking “There she goes again!”.

At the river bank, the rafting guide introduces himself (Rajguru) and another guide (Jamal) and the basics of rafting signals, what to do if you fall into the river, etc. I take a quick peek at Shiva’s face – impassive as usual. I seriously wonder what she must be thinking… Once the instructions are done, we divide up into the two rafts. Dr. Kadee, the Aussies, and the bunch of Nepali youth are in Rajguru’s raft. There seem to be about 100 of them, but there may be only 7 making enough noise for a 100. The rest of us are in Jamal’s raft. The Nepali youth in the meanwhile, have been showing off like monkeys in courting season – doing cartwheels, screeching, diving into the shallows… all I presume for the benefit of Kadee. She looks at me and quaintly raises an eyebrow, shakes her head and smiles. The rafts take off finally with the native bunch in high spirits and not seeing a need to hide it under a bushel.

Murphy’s Law strikes as soon as we take off – we get word that the honeymooning couple have arrived. So Jamal is forced to wait. The other raft is slightly ahead, and we signal for them also to wait. Jamal has made the Chinese man and Shishir take the front two positions. I am on the left of the raft, behind the Chinese guy. I request to swap seats with me, and he sweetly agrees. I love being in the front – firstly because of my height, and also for the adrenalin rush of going headlong into rapids. After what seems like ages, the honeymooners are down by the river, she in her red and gold bangles and unsuitable sandals. Well why not! If Kadee can wear junk jewellery so can the Bharatiya naari wear gold.

Now our configuration is – on the left, me, Chinese guy, Shiva, honeymoon man. On the right, Shishir, Nitya, MShah, Chinese girl, honeymoon woman. Jamal at the back. We pull away from the bank. For the first half hour, we paddle through gentle rapids. Jamal has said we’ll be seeing class 4 rapids, but nothing so far is indicative of that. Nitya and I compare this to our earlier rafting near Sacramento and feel this is quite tame. I don’t mind tame right now, as the sleeplessness is still telling on me. Then we hit a couple of rapids with more spirit. Wakes me up, that! Shishir and I are not in synch. It’s all about timing and eye contact. He does catch my eye once in a while and smile, but the oar is all wrong. Nitya tells me in Tamil how to coach him to be in synch J. She tentatively asks me a couple of times if she should be in front, but I am not sure about making that decision for her.

We hit a few more good rapids. I love the feel of dropping into a void in the middle of a rapid. That moment when the raft’s nose is sticking in the air, poised to dive in… I wait with lifted oar, to dig into the crest of the next wave. The waters of the Trisuli are a dull green. In the rapids, they are a deeper green with white caps, foam, bubbles. Churning and frothing. What’s a raft full of humans to the Trisuli? Can’t hear Jamal’s instructions in the roar of the water. There’s no control in the rapids. You just keep digging your oar in and go with the flow. My arms feel wrenched from their sockets. Somebody shouts an instruction passing it on from Jamal – “paddle faster!” I don’t think I can, but somehow I comply. Suddenly we’re out of the rapid, into the calm river, as if nothing happened. Only the roaring of the rapid behind us, fading slowly. Wow. I love that feeling each time. The whole rapid lasts what, 2 mins? Max 3 mins. But there’s no concept of time if you’re in it (preferrably in a raft!).

I am on my own trip. Instructions and others are all sort of there but not there. The blue sky with some clouds, the green waters, the brown hills on either side. At a couple of places, there’s a rope strung from one bank to the other, drooping on the water’s surface. We each have to pick it up and pass it over our heads to the person at the back, like one of those childhood games.

We float in and out of a couple more rapids and then lunchtime! Paddling furiously we reach the shore and pull up at the lunch stop. It is nothing more than a blanket spread on the pebbles, with bread, cutlets, sliced cucumber, onions, tomatoes, a sort of “Ceaser’s Salad” with shredded cabbage and other unidentifiables, a bottle of jam, biscuits, slices of cheese. I am feeling quite sick with the hyper-activity and lack of sleep. Just don’t want to eat, but stuff some 3/4ths of a cheese sandwich down my throat. The food looks pretty unhygenic. Moreover, there are a lot of local children (from 4 years to 14 years) hanging around and asking for scraps. I give them some biscuits and stuff, but there’s too many of them – perhaps about 30. I sit on the pebbles, next to the younger of the Aussies and chat over lunch (can’t take that out of me, even if I am dropping dead!). He and his pal have also done some trek – is it the Everest Base Camp? I forget which. He’s stripped to his waist, drinking beer most casually. He makes the mistake of handing around beer to the bunch of Nepalis on his raft. They are slobbering all over the place, drinking and eating in an uncouth manner. Their already wild spirits are now getting out of control. After a while I sit next to the rafting guides, who are cursing those boys in crude Nepali which is not difficult to follow. Kadee comes over to complain about the bad behavior, we shake our heads and shrug in camaraderie.

Right. Time to get back in the river for part II. Nitya decides she wants to sit in right front now. MShah behind her and Shishir third. We start off quite peacefully, but oh boy! what a part II this turns out to be! Nitya and I have perfect co-ordination, we are thrilled and tripping about it. After a while MShah wants to sit in front, so Nitya and she swap places. We run through a couple of rapids. Then in one which Jamal later tells us was called “Upset!” all hell breaks loose.

Towards the end of the rapid, I watch MShah go over board as if in slow motion. I see her head disappearing, then her knees, then her feet… and she’s gone! Under the raft for a few chilling moments, but soon she’s being dragged faster than the raft and has moved clear of us. There’s a tangle of MShah’s limbs, clothes, and green water to the right of the raft. Our raft is full of panic. I don’t notice then that Jamal is also panicking. He wants us to paddle in her direction, we try, but don’t have the collective physical strength to reach her. The water has taken her to our left by now… far to our left. She can’t swim. Only the life jacket is keeping her afloat. She’s floating head first downstream, which is the absolutely wrong thing to do… but now is not the time for lessons on floating. My throat is dry and heart is beating wildly. I’ve got more than the required shot of adrenalin by now. I don’t dare look at Shiva’s face. In fact all faces and screams have all blended into one frenzy of panic in my mind. Jamal throws her the life line – she doesn’t even see it. Later she says if you were bobbing up and down in rapidly flowing water over your head most of the time, you come up for a gasp of air, and go under again, you wouldn’t see any lifelines too!

Our raft has by now moved ahead of her. But wait – she’s raising two fingers in a “V” sign to indicate she’s okay. That definitely calms me down a bit… The other raft is thankfully behind us, and they paddle over to her. I have never been so relieved to see a boatful of men. They pick her up like a wet rag doll out of the water, and within minutes she’s almost back to her usual macho self. We have meanwhile pulled over to a shore, and they come by and hand her over to our raft. The macho miss takes her front seat again! She may have taken a dip but so what! Nothing’s broken (including her specs), she’s still got ahold of her oar tightly through all the drama, and she can still row.

We go along calm waters for a bit. Then in a wide section, another seemingly plain looking rapid is spread across the whole width of the river. This one is called “Surprise!”. Before our eyes we see the other raft completely over-turned, and its contents “swimming”. As we go into “Surprise!”, I tell myself we can’t afford to lose anyone from our raft as there’s no backup to pick them up. After the rapid is over, it is a long and tedious fishing exercise. We paddle furiously to reach some of the swimmers, and some others who have managed to reach a shore. Kadee is stylishly floating by, and the honeymoon man has to be literally whipped into action to reach out and pull her in. Once whipped though, he catches on quickly – gets his chubby arms around Kadee and unceremoniously drags her head first into our raft. We pull in a couple of the ruffians from her raft as well. One of them, a thin bespectacled ruffian, the minute we pull him in, brags about how he saved “Her” (pointing to Kadee). I want to laugh and smack his face at the same time. A nice back handed slap… ummm. He’s not lost his specs, Kadee is still hanging on to her sun glasses, all her jewellery is intact, but she’s lost her sandals.

For the rest of the trip Kadee just sits prettily next to Jamal. He, poor thing, is distracted to hell. Almost in childlike wonder he’s running his hand along her white arm. I catch Kadee’s eye and she doesn’t seem to mind. No instructions, no navigating, no nothing from Jamal now. The other girls with me are furious, they call him all sorts of names – they will not agree about this “childlike” bit. Jamal’s caused a bit of confusion because of this – MShah deciding to be captain and shouting instructions, and me asking her to shut up. Just like software development, when something goes wrong all process breaks down. Totally we’ve picked up five from the other raft. They’re all so full of beer that none of them has had the sense to hang on to their oars like our brave missy did. We spot the other raft beached on the right bank slightly ahead of us. We paddle furiously again to reach it and just about do. I ask the Aussie how they are doing, he smiles and says “I’m fine”, and pointing to his pal and the guide Rajguru, says “He’s fine and he’s fine”, “But dunno about the rest”. The five climb back onto their raft, and we are back on the river. I think a swimmer (whether he knows swimming or not makes no difference) in a rapid looks a lot worse than he feels. MShah and others have assured me that this is so – once the initial shock is over, they actually enjoy being carried by the water. But I only know that from the raft, seeing them partially submerged, it looks really dangerous.

Jamal is by now no good as captain. He’s got a glazed look in his eyes, he’s scanning the river for floatilla – my patience with him is also running out. He’s shouting in Nepali to the little urchins that are swimming in the river who are also looking for “collectibles”… such as beer bottles (the morons had more of those in their raft), sandals, anything. Jamal seems more worried about collecting all the stuff from the river than navigating. He later curses and mutters that they’ve managed to lose 3 oars, which are apparently quite expensive. At one point the Chinese guy in our raft actually fishes out a beer bottle, but finds half its contents leaked into the river. Did I mention our raft has a water proof drum in the front, where people from both rafts have kept their wallets and cameras and stuff? That blasted drum is digging into my right knee – or rather, my knee has to dig into that drum to keep me snug. It’s beginning to get on my nerves. Thankfully there are only a few minor rapids after this, so we get by them without too much navigation. It occurs to us four that Rajguru, being annoyed by the ruffians, tipped over his raft on purpose. That rapid was not anything for the whole raft to tip over… this seems the only likely explanation. The ruffians definitely deserved it. It sure quietened them down – after that, they are a sorry bunch of kids with tails tucked between legs. However, the rafting guides seem totally unprofessional to me (maybe here’s Nitya’s chance to call me “Bloody American!”).

I am by now simply willing the rafting to come to an end. The thought of clean white sheets is the only thing that keeps me paddling. Jamal belatedly tries to enthuse us by getting us to do a “high-five” with our oars – I only want to smack him with the oar. We get to our put-out point without further incident.

I learn that Kadee has signed up for two days of this stuff. I wish her luck. She’s bravely walking up the slope bare-footed. Jamal gives her his sandals. She’s in reasonably high spirits, so are the others. I seem to be the only one feeling cranky. We are shown a shady changing room which we reach by some very dark and shady steps under a building. After changing into dry clothes I feel a lot better. Having dry sandals would have helped but oh well. I can atleast be barefoot in the van. Shishir has organized some tea with specially burnt milk in it, which I leave untasted (after the comments from the others). MShah has taken Kadee’s email id, and passed on mine to her. Kadee is taking a million years changing into dry clothes. She’s still in the changing room when our van leaves.

All the adventure is over for the trip. We’re on our way to Kathmandu now. A winding down trip. No one has the energy to play dumb charades. I sleep for a bit, but wake up in time to know clearly and consciously when we leave the clean mountain air and drive into the pall of pollution that is the suburbs of Kathmandu. Reality check. It takes us for ever to reach the Royal Singi through the schmucky mess of Kathmandu traffic.

We reach, checkin, recharge, and the others go down to dinner. Resilient cows. I am still slightly cranky. Besides, all sorts of muscles are making their presence felt. I refuse dinner. After a hot shower I crawl into bed. Nitya makes good her threat of sending me some dinner to the room. When I see the tomato soup and garlic bread, I realize I am hungry. I quickly polish it off and go back to sleep. I don’t hear when Nitya knocks later that night. Finally MShah has to call my room phone to tell me that Nits is waiting outside my door.

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