After five nomadic months of wandering the entrails of Asia, figuratively and, true to the region, literally, it feels nice to be at last domesticated. For little apparent reason I floated from the cramped tenements of Mumbai, which henceforth shall not be named, to the scorching dunes of Rajasthan and its sadistic modes of transit, to the tranquil dystopia of Kathmandu and its hilly utopian retreats, to the ravenous debauchery and breathtaking isles of Thailand, to the palatial hospitality and mind boggling contradictions of Kuala Lumpur, sponsored by your tax dollars, to the remarkably anti-climactic spot where I sit now, fatigued to my fucking core. That this twisted journey is still nine-months from over makes my weathered skeleton cringe, truly, but at least I have a mailing address, a stable Internet stream, and the promise of impending adventures, however exhausted I may be. If my emaciated frame weren’t telling enough, my unyielding cough coupled with the residual bags under my eyes paint me as the poster child of Meth. But I digress.
Its reached that point, dear reader, where I commence my hazy retrospective of events long past. So sit by my feet why don’t you, grab a cigar, preferably one more sumptuous than my own, and humor me with your feigned interest in the prior happenings of my life.
Towards the end of my Indian Odyssey I fled the mindless squalor of Mumbai to find some vague sense of meaning, or picturesque tranquility, in the Northern Muslim State of Rajasthan. What can I say? There was a lot of sand, a lot of profoundly misguided aggression and simultaneous comradery, wherein every rickshaw driver confessed to me the many infidelities they’ve committed, and a lot of very beautiful sand swept temples and ornate monuments to vanished empires and wasteful conquests. The constant sun exposure bleached most of my memories of what should’ve been indelible moments in my life. Fortunately, that was the only point in my travels where I had a camera (having had mine stolen before, and immediately after), so there remains the lingering recollection of a good time. The trip summated in a three day dehydration camel trek tour through the deserts of Jaisalmer on the border of Pakistan, where we slept on dunes beneath the stars and spat wads of chewing tobacco while conjuring chauvinistic jokes in a hybridized English/Hindi pidgin.
On the fateful return train to Mumbai, somewhere in the depths of my 18-hour stint, and in a state of extreme duress, I spit on some stranger whose smug grin, which at the time I detested more than anything else in the universe, I’ve long since forgotten. A week of the most vile food sickness imaginable ensued, likely as an immediate karmic payback for said spitting, and I found myself in Kathmandu.
Soon after my arrival my friends and I made the voyage to Tang Ting, a remote Gurung enclave right beneath the Annapurna Himalayan range. In Tang Ting, a sizeable chunk of the village’s men are abroad, earning meager sums in distant deserts to send to their half-frozen loved ones. But their absence doesn’t seem to hinder the overwhelming jolliness of Tang Ting. The steepest damn city you’ll ever trip over. Gravitationally challenged and geometrically impossible, the muse of Escher, of terraced fields slipping off 90 degrees slopes, where water buffaloes trot on clouds, where unattended infants crawl along bottomless chasms, all to the magnificent backdrop of the in-your-fucking-face Himalayas. And when the cold sweeps in, as it did when we arrived, exhausted, drenched in sweat, teeth chattering and shivering profusely, without any place to board, an utterly cinematic, raspy gremlin drawl beckons you in harsh Nepali down a steep labyrinth of steps toward her abode; smoke billowing out its narrow door. You step inside and are met by a blast of warmth and a cliché triage of smiling weathered faces illuminated by the most primal comfort of fire. There is no discussion of recompense or origin, or even intent – just a bottomless glass of wine and a steaming platter of rice and spinach – and the neighboring grandmother, irrefutably the jolliest women in the whole world – brings a sizzling bowl of fire-cooked chicken over, just to make sure “babu” is fed. Your eyes totter on the brink of collapse; you are graciously ushered to a mudroom with a warm cot and you sleep for a thousand lifetimes.
I’d forgotten what an unnerving and simultaneously thrilling place Tang Ting was. Just above my longhouse was Annie’s, whose host grandmother, Aamaa, a shriveled creature the size of a Labrador, greeted me every morning with a shrill and inhumanly adorable “Babu, utheko? Shabaas!” [Small child, you’ve woken up? Congratulations!], in the least patronizing tone and without a hint condescension. She’d usually issue me a flower afterwards, and consequently a glass of hot rice wine every twenty to thirty minutes after that. After confirming that you’ve eaten, of course. (Should you mention you’re hungry, you will find yourself prey to what lurks inside her quaint cottage home).
Upon waking up I elected to join the village women on their endless pursuit of sustenance for the village’s lethargic livestock, who rely on their human domesticators to bring them mountains of grass from the precarious slopes below. The women become the new beasts of burden. Meanwhile, their husbands and water buffalo alike salivate in anticipation of feeding time. So we venture down into the thick Rhododendron forest dangling over rivers a thousand feet below. We hack up all the vegetation in sight whilst keeping an eye out for marauding velociraptors, before divvying our harvest into fifty-pound bundles and lugging the stocks of our labor right back up for prompt consumption. My efforts are rewarded with my fourth cup of wine and an obligatory “Shabaas” (congratulations!) from Aamaa.
I develop a stalker in Tang Ting, too. A timid golem-like creature adorned in the finest silks, sandals and Gore-Tex that Rupees can buy. I spotted him last time, coiled behind a window or hunched beneath a doorframe, but didn’t give him much thought, as he hardly stood out amongst all the other supernatural denizens of Tang Ting. This visit, however, his reclusive tendencies turned to hourly visits; he’d drape himself on a fence post, coyly buckle his wrists inwards, willfully hue his cheeks red, ask when I was going to dance, play cards, drink tea or take photos, then flee before a reply could be stuttered. He delivered me flowers, complements, unsolicited glances and involuntary tours of town, often times without my knowing. One time he even led Annie and myself astray into the rain, likely a desperate move to kill me off lest his love go unrequited, but fortunately a mystical Aamaa appeared, a silhouette of billowing scarves amidst an icy downpour, and squawked a “Chorri!” (Baby) at us, thereby guiding us to refuge.
The stalker’s name turns out to be Ashish, and after indulging him in a game of cards and a haphazard question and answer session, in which I mistakenly revealed my trajectory towards Malaysia, Ashish’s flimsy demeanor and listless crushing turned into belligerent jealous-girlfriend behavior, first manifesting in a daily phone call or two (after returning to Kathmandu), and escalating into full on forty-missed-calls-fiascos, in which he’d begrudgingly inform me that I was his heart, his husband, his life; he went so far as to demand that he was going to Malaysia with me, making the trek to Kathmandu just to acquire a passport to allow this dream to slip into reality. After gently dissuading his behavior I had to put a harsh and abrupt stop to his possessiveness, which incidentally elevated his manic cries to the beat of sixty-missed-calls a day. All this to say that Tang Ting breeds a very strange variety of human – and rightly so – as the bus ride back down to pseudo-civilization was so phenomenally stressful that it caused the grown man next to me to sob uncontrollably as our overcrowded bus, goats aboard and all, hovered over a cliff’s edge, on a slippery and non-existent road, for the better part of two hours. Fortunately, his ominous sobs were quelled and transformed into gags when the child across him emptied his bowels via his esophagus – on just about everything in site – for the remainder of the journey. A tsunami of vomit was the first thing to leave the bus once the doors at long last opened.