The (very) long road to Chitwan

The ride is cold and wet, then cold and damp, then cold and dusty.

No amount of stopping for milk tea and chicken momo can fortify my body against the onslaught of a Nepalese highway — two maniacal, unpaved lanes choked with motorbikes and trucks and baby goats and bushel-burdened women emerging through the mist from the hilly flanks beneath the highway.

The road curves along the Seti River, which grows in size and force as we descend from the high mountains. Rolling hills give way to rolling fields and valleys, and as a few warm rays of sunshine bring relief, I feel like Apollo descending Mount Olympus in his chariot.

We stop at Deepak‘s sister’s home, a small convenience store where they sell Coke and cigarettes and SIM cards. Five men sit perched on tiny, hand-woven stools outside the store. They can’t help but stare as we dismount with some difficulty, my legs stiff after so many hours on the motorbike.

And although he probably hasn’t seen his sister in a year, and most likely didn’t tell her he was coming, let alone coming with this white woman in tow, there is this wonderful ease in the way we are received — a Nepalese way of welcoming guests that says, “Of course you’re here, of course you’re welcome, let’s not make a big thing of it.”

I nod and smile mutely, and Deepak offers a few words of greeting in that same nonchalant, “of course I’m here” tone.

“We take lunch?” he asks, smiling at me warmly. He stops short and looks at me, alarmed.

“You wash the face,” he says.

“What?” I think maybe he’s using the wrong word for something.

“We wash the hands and face,” he repeats, and I think maybe I’m learning about some new ritual that must be followed before each meal.

“I’d really rather not wash my face, Deepak,” I say. “I have makeup on.”

Deepak looks confused, grabs a bottle of water, and begins pouring it onto the grass. He holds one hand underneath the stream until I offer to hold the bottle for him. He rubs his hands together as I pour. He withdraws his hands from the stream, shakes them off, and says, “Your turn!”

My mind is racing as I rinse my hands underneath the water, trying to keep a polite smile on my face. Is this supposed to count as washing our hands? Where is the sink? Where is the soap? Is this how Deepak always washes his hands?

In the touristy area of Pokhara, where I first met Deepak, there was always soap in the bathrooms. And toilet paper. And Western-style toilets. It had never occurred to me that things would be different outside of the city.

Maybe I’m overreacting. Maybe that was just a pre-rinse.

“Now your face?” frowns Deepak, pouring bottled water over his cheeks. “Is very dirty.”

“I am? Very dirty?” I ask, alarmed. I fumble in my bag for a mirror and can’t believe my eyes — no wonder everyone is staring at me. It has nothing to do with my white face, which is invisible beneath a thick mask of black, caked soot. I look like Zorro, if Zorro had decided to go all-out with a full face mask.

There doesn’t seem to be any kind of emissions regulations for vehicles here. I counted at least five times during our journey when I had to hold my breath as we plummeted through a cloud of thick, black smoke expunged from a careless, farting truck.

Embarrassed, I ask for the bathroom. I’m led into the back room of the house, past the cots where Deepak’s sister and her husband sleep, which are in the same room where the Coke and cigarettes and SIM cards are sold.

I lock myself into the darkened bathroom and choke on the dank smell of mold and urine. There is no light, and by the light of my phone’s flashlight, I see that there is no soap and no sink.

It’s an indoor outhouse, and the only water in sight is in a bucket used for flushing the toilet. After you’ve done your business, you must pour water down the chute to send your waste God-knows-where.

It takes an entire package of tissue and half a bottle of hand sanitizer before I begin to feel like it might be safe to eat with my hands, as is customary in Nepal. Unable to remove the mask of Zorro completely, I now look like a tween who doesn’t realize she’s chosen a shade of makeup three shades too dark.

Deepak waits for me patiently, sipping tea and chatting with the men.

“We eat?” he asks when I emerge.

“Great!” I say, trying to appear cheerful and grateful and non-judgmental.

His sister has prepared dahl bat for us (or more likely for herself and her husband, but is now giving it to us since we’re here). It’s a mound of white rice served with a variety of flavorful toppings in little tin cups — spiced lentils, curried vegetables, plain yogurt. We sit on tiny painted stools facing the interior of the shop and use the glass case containing Coke and cigarette cartons as our table.

It is from this position that I first notice the flies. They are the happiest, fattest, most exuberant flies I’ve ever observed, buzzing joyfully between the piles of rice and the pots of steamed vegetables.

“No big deal,” I think.

We dig in to the dahl. I watch Deepak with envy as he effortlessly mixes the ingredients together with his fingers, spoons them into his mouth, and somehow manages to finish with perfectly clean hands. He gently corrects my technique as I add the toppings to the rice, squeeze my fingers into a scoop-shape, and shovel the mixture into my mouth.

Something deep within the innermost cavern of my belly is growing more alarmed with each bite. I know this, I feel this, and not wanting to be rude, I keep eating anyway.

When Deepak is finished and it becomes apparent I won’t be able to, I apologize profusely, saying “I am so full” and “I think I ate too much at breakfast.” The only thing worse than being served food by someone who barely has enough food for themselves, and then not finishing it, is the way that food is making me feel right now.

I do not want to go back into that bathroom. I do not want to go back into…..

Crap. Literally. Well, at least it’s coming out that end. Perhaps it was a one-time expulsion and we can continue on our merry way and —

Crap. My stomach is churning and gurgling, my thighs trembling as I squat over the hole in the floor. I worry about how I’m going to time this should things start coming out of both ends simultaneously.

I vomit. I rinse the regurgitated dahl bat down the hole, wiping my face with a T-shirt since there is no toilet paper and I’ve used all of my tissue on the first movement in this symphony.

My kingdom for a toothbrush, a shower, a bar of soap.

But back on the motorbike I go, thanking Deepak’s sister for her hospitality and whispering to Deepak that I feel “a little bit sick.”

“It’s the weather,” says Deepak, a mantra that seems to be repeated throughout all of Asia to explain everything from chronic tardiness to sexually transmitted infections.

The long road to Chitwan just got a helluva lot longer.

The armed guard watches me from his high tower with a mix of curiosity and disgust as I vomit for the third time.

I am knee-deep in the tall, dried grass of an open field that connects one part of the Chitwan National Forest to another. A river cuts the field in two, rolling gently beneath the bridge that leads to Deepak’s house — or it would lead to Deepak’s house, if I could just stop puking long enough to stay on the motorbike until we got there.

I wonder if the guard will descend from his perch to give me a fine or a ticket of some sort since I’m defiling government land.

“Just a second” I call, trying to puke as quietly as possible. My head throbs, and I bend from the waist in agonized anticipation of the next wave. It’s full-blown food poisoning — from the flies, from the dahl bat, from no soap since we left Pokhara.

Through the haze of this hot, shameful, disgusting mess, I notice a small, speckled insect crawling on a leaf in front of me. The wind is threatening to blow the insect away, but it soldiers on, determined to get to the top of the leaf. Its determination is futile but it pushes against the wind, putting one tiny stick-like foot in front of the other, without complaint.

Deepak waits patiently, pushing buttons on his flip phone as he leans against his motorbike. He also does not complain. And when I vomit into the grass again, and along the road, and outside his mother’s house, in the place where she washes the dishes, because I thought it was the right place to go, but it was not, neither did she.

Author. Speaker. Storyteller. Co-author of WHERE WAR ENDS: A COMBAT VETERAN’S 2700-MILE JOURNEY TO HEAL.

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