Saturday, February 23, 2013

Escape From Arkhet Bazaar

I walked into our coffin of a room at the Arkhet View Guesthouse, one of only 2 in town, neither one good, to find Abby wide awake, cocooned in her 0 degree F mummy bag and perched on the edge of the bed as far from any of the walls as physically possible.  She looked terrified and miserable.

"I'm not going to sleep a wink", she announced quietly.  Her discomfort was palpable, and well-earned.  The room was not clean.  Less than 10 feet square, it had no window and barely enough room to stand up, with a 10 inch gap between the top of the door and the bottom of the door frame.  The carpet was sad and worn, and filthy.  A used band-aid had been discarded by a previous occupant very conspicuously near the door.  The sheets were old, stained, and tattered, and the mattress was more of a suggestion than an actual pad.  In addition to the challenging sleeping arrangement, we hadn't had a shower, nor anything more than a cursory splash for that matter, in almost 2 weeks.  Our clothes hadn't been laundered in even longer, and we'd spent the last fortnight walking up and then back down a trail littered with donkey scat landmines and pockmarked by pools of donkey urine.  It was humid and sticky, and we felt disgusting. 

"What can I do to make you more comfortable," I asked. Maybe I could help.

"You can start by getting rid of the giant spider waiting to attack me from the corner of the room," she replied.  "It's bigger than my hand."  She struggled to free an arm from her sleeping bag, and pointed up behind me.  I followed her finger, and discovered that her hyperbole barely fit the definition - the spider was only as big as the palm of her hand.  Ever the chivalrous husband, I sprang into action.  Grabbing a wad of toilet paper and a plastic bag shield, I hopped onto the bed and lunged after the giant arachnid.  I made a few stabs, but it was too quick and I missed every time.

"No!  Stop!" Abby cried.  "I've been watching it scrabble back and forth for the past hour and it's too fast for you."

Unfazed by her pessimism, I lunged again.  Again I missed, and the spider scampered through a large void between where the top of the wall stopped and the makeshift roof started, disappeared and out of reach.  There was no way that gaping hole was going to be filled by anything less than a large-scale renovation project, but I stuffed the toilet paper-plastic bag assembly into the space in a futile attempt to keep the now-angry spider from coming back.  I turned triumphantly to face my wife.

"Anything else I can do to make you more comfortable?"  I got a sad laugh of acknowledgement then crawled into bed.  It was a long night.

We passed the night dozing off and on, just waiting for our watches to formally signal an end to our misery.  When the alarm went off at 5:30 am, we sprang out of bed and were packed within 2 minutes.  We'd set our alarms bright and early in order to avoid a repeat of our experience getting to the trailhead.  Two weeks prior, in Gorkha, we'd arrived at 6:30 for the 7:00 am bus to Arkhet, only to discover that all of the seats were taken and it was standing-room only.  No problem - we'd hopped eagerly aboard, experienced chicken bus travellers all, and endured the most agonizing 5 hours of our lives.  It was a tortuous hell ride along a muddy, bumpy, treacherous road through the mountains, all to travel a measly 42 kilometers.  Standing-room-only meant stuffed-to-the-gills, and for any non-Nepalis it also meant hunched-over-room only.  I was a full head too tall for the bus.  At one point I found myself sitting on the dirty, garbage-strewn floor next to a local woman who was getting car-sick into a small plastic bag.  None of us were willing to repeat it, hence the 5:30 am wake up.

We shuffled down the stairs, exhausted but eager to get out of Arkhet, and walked into the dining room.  Instead of the empty room we expected to find at that time, we were greeted by a room full of Nepali men crowded around a small radio on the counter, a conspicuously empty bus ticket booklet lying between them all. Trying to assess the situation, I sidled up to a familiar face from a dinnertime conversation the night before.  "What's going on," I asked.  "We see if today more strike," he replied.  "Yesterday Maoist convention, no bus.  Maybe no bus today."  Apparently, the Maoist party, nominally in control of the inherently and famously dysfunctional Nepali political system, had announced a country-wide strike the day before.  No business ventures of any sort were permitted, and those defying the decree had been harassed, vandalized, and even beat up by the activist cadre branches of the party, we were later to find out.

We waited apprehensively on the margins of the group, trying in vain to understand the news stories crackling through the cheap little speaker.  As the stories went on, each separated by the unmistakable musical interlude that separates radio news stories the world over, conversation amongst the Nepalis slowly picked up, their attention wandered, and no outcries were made.  Bus tickets started being sold, and we left the hotel with precious seating arrangements in hand.  Our escape was imminent.  Gorkha, watch out!

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