"The sublime and the ridiculous are so
often nearly related, that it is difficult
to class them separately. One step above
the sublime makes the ridiculous, and one
step above the ridiculous makes the sublime
Mount Everest rises 29,035 feet into the sky over Nepal. Its Nepalese name Chumolungma means "Earth Mother." For me, this culture was a dramatic change from anything I had ever experienced. Riding through the streets on my bicycle in Kathmandu, Bachtapu and Patan was distressing to my sense of balance. These cities thrive with human misery beyond most westerners' comprehension. Even for those who have enough to eat, the squalid conditions of great numbers of people left me gasping for understanding. Children with deformed bones and bodies looked up with pathetic eyes and uplifted hands for a few rupees from passersby. Trash and garbage lay everywhere in a profusion of chaos. Freshly killed chicken and water buffalo meat were presented to the public on wooden tables in the street, accompanied by a cloud of flies. In a short time, I had to swallow my sense of trying to understand this strange land, and accept it. Otherwise I would have been emotionally torn to pieces.
One of the good things in Kathmandu was the cheap price for lodging. I met Lance Hill an Australian push-bike rider at the Star Hotel. We stayed a week, exploring the nooks and crannies of the city. Bright colors were everywhere. Women’s' costumes brightened the market bazaar with reds, oranges, greens and yellows. Temples featured Buddha's eyes glaring at every person walking by. Vendors offered an array of fruits and vegetables we had never seen. Merchants displayed metal works, cloth and beads along the streets. Boys on tricycle taxis stared at us when we passed. The poverty overwhelmed us, but Lance pointed out that it wasn't any different than inner city New York. He was right. Nearly every society has poignant forms of human misery.
We decided to ride to Pokara about 180 miles away. That city was the beginning of many major trekking routes into the Himalayan mountains of Nepal. The climb out of Kathmandu was a killer. Combine altitude with steep grades, and my lungs gasped for oxygen. My legs suffered too.
The second day into the ride, we stopped along a river to watch a funeral (on the other side of the water) of a young Sherpa boy who had died from a fall. His family had placed him on top of a pile of sticks. He was bound in linen, except for his face, which was covered later. People walked by his body to pay their respects. His parents gave his belongings to relatives. They sang a song of celebration. No one seemed to be sad during the ceremony. Finally, they covered the boy's face before throwing more sticks on top of his body and lit a fire. It quickly consumed the corpse. After it was thoroughly burned, several men used poles to throw the remains into the river.
"I reckon that's the most sensible way to finish a bloke's time on this earth," Lance said. "That's the way it's supposed to be anyway. That's the way I'm going."
"That makes two of us," I said. "I can't see taking up a lot of room after I'm gone anyway."
What we had seen was one of the most natural ways to dispose the dead. The longer I stayed in Asia, the more I understood their customs. They may be thought of as Third World, but they live in sublime connection with the nature. Their lives are basic to the earth, in balance with it. I felt a new kind of peacefulness in Nepal, a sense of present moment living—in harmony with life.
Two days later, we rolled into Pokara. Around us, stunning mountain scenery with snow-covered peaks jutted into a clear blue sky. The sun's intensity bore down on us and we were hungry as we moved into the city center.
"Let's get a good hot meal," Lance suggested, as we rolled through the dirt streets.
"There's a place that looks as good as any," I said, motioning off to our left.
"Let's do it," Lance added.
We stacked the bikes in tandem against the glass windows of the restaurant. Stacking made theft more difficult. We could never allow our bikes to be not watched for a second. Gear vanished when unattended.
Lance had a table before I walked into the cafe. Wooden tables and chairs were the only furniture on a dirt floor. I threw my camera down on the seat next to me. A bearded fellow came over to take our order. We asked for Dahl Bott, a rice, bean and leaf green food plate. It was the standard staple foremost people in Nepal. They allowed extra helpings which was the custom. It was less than 50 cents a meal. Add some unleavened bread, and we were happy riders.
When our waiter walked away, a thin, white turban covered man dressed in a linen Serapis walked through the door carrying a stick over his shoulder. At the end of it, hung a medium sized wicker basket secured with rope. The Indian man sat down ten feet away from us. He placed the basket in front of his folded legs. At first, we didn't pay much attention, but then something caught Lance's eye.
"Bloody hell mate," he blurted out, pointing down at the man.
"Look at that thing flare up," I gasped. "Is this a joke? Look how big it is! Hey Lance, that damn thing's coming our way."
Before us, slithering ever closer, a six foot long, fully flared cobra held our complete, undivided and total attention. It kept moving closer, flicking its tongue. We sat there, a captive audience of two, looking into the snake's eyes, transfixed by the motion, solidly riveted to our chairs.
"What's the deal here?" I spoke ever so clearly. "This guy would be arrested back home."
"We're not home," came Lance's sobering reply.
I was transfixed by the snake. It crawled across the dirt floor of the restaurant toward us. What were we supposed to do? Nothing in my life ever prepared me for being in this scene. I was taken by surprise, unable to react. This stuff happens with Indiana Jones in the Temple of Doom, but not to a couple of small town bicycle riders. Right? Wrong!
Seconds later, because we hadn't responded, the man let the snake crawl to within 24 inches of our legs, which brought an immediate response from both of us. We leaped up, sticking the chairs in front of us to fend off the cobra.
"What's the next move?" I asked, totally confused.
"No moves at all, unless you wanna' die," Lance said.
"What IS this guy's problem?"
As if to help us understand, the man thrust his free hand into the air with a few pieces of rupees.
"Money, ah yes, the bottom line, he wants money," Lance said.
"Here, give 'em whatever he wants!" I said.
At that point, I would give him my last dime, just to save our lives. This was extortion by terror. We slapped a pocketful of coins onto the chair and shoved it toward him. He grabbed the money, then gripped the snake by the back of the head and shoved it into the basket. Seconds later, he tied the knot, stood up and walked out to the street, vanishing quickly into the crowd. It happened so fast, my cocked camera lay on the table, leaving me with the only pictures--in my mind.
Excerpts from: Bicycling Around the World: Tire Tracks for Your Imagination by Frosty Wooldridge, Copies available: 1 888 280 7715 www.frostywooldridge.com
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Frosty Wooldridge has bicycled across six continents – from the Arctic to the South Pole – as well as six times across the USA, coast to coast and border to border. In 2005, he bicycled from the Arctic Circle, Norway to Athens, Greece. He presents “The Coming Population Crisis in America: and what you can do about it” to civic clubs, church groups, high schools and colleges. He works to bring about sensible world population balance at www.frostywooldridge.com He is the author of: America on the Brink: The Next Added 100 Million Americans. Copies: 1 888 280 7715