Words and Illustrations by Chris van Ryn
“I’m feeling faint.”
“Rest for a bit,” I manage between gasps. I hand Adeela a water bottle. “It’s probably all the blood rushing to your legs.”
The track up the mountainside rises abruptly ahead of us. Our legs are burning, our enthusiasm challenged. But I have a determination to reach the top. I want to see the prayer flags on the famous Buddhist stupa. And perhaps, with a bit of luck, have some of their magic rub off on me.
Adeela and I had got up early and travelled the seven kilometres from Kathmandu to Mount Nagarajuna in a clapped out faded blue Nissan that threatened a tantrum at every intersection. Ang, our driver and mountain guide, had had to hold the gear stick in fourth with the side of his knee to prevent it flicking malevolently back into third.
Ang is a slight young man with a wave of jet black hair and eyes as dark as coal that flicker nervously, watching us closely. Nagarajuna is guerrilla territory, we have been advised. The mountain is a place where rebel forces looking to depose the monarchy of Nepal are holed up. And we are travelling in a time of unrest.
At the base of the mountain we had passed through a checkpoint of soldiers. They wore grey uniforms patterned with mottled blue-grey patches and matching caps. Three sat in the back of a Mazda utility, looking bored and smoking, their rifles slung carelessly over their shoulders. A fourth man stood nearby, hands clasped, arms pushed out behind him, yawning.
The initial ascent had been steep. We had set out slowly, one gritty step after another, each step pushing into the saturating humidity. In a short time we were surrounded by dense tropical forest.
Now, after 40 minutes of climbing, Adeela sits down abruptly. Her face is flushed. She has tied her singlet in a knot, exposing her midriff. She takes a long swig from the bottle.
Our guide is waiting up ahead, staring into the trees.
“It’s too much for me. You go on. I’ll head back down and wait.”
“I’m feeling it myself,” I say, kneading my thighs.
“How about we rest for a bit, then go on?”
She shakes her head.
“Well … shall I go on ahead?” I ask.
“No. No. It’s not possible.” Ang is back by our side. “It is dangerous. I cannot leave you alone.”
“Oh. Well, do you want us all to go back down Adeela?”
She hoists herself up. “No”. Her voice is a little clipped. “Let’s go on for some time.” She gives a half-hearted grin.
We are on a warm brown dirt track about a metre wide that is ribbed with furrows ploughed by monsoon rains.
“Watch you don’t sprain your ankle,” I say to Adeela’s back.
She gives a grunt.
Twenty minutes further on the trail widens and the dirt steps become smaller. Our footsteps are softened by a mottled brown carpet of orphaned leaves. Thick grey mist hovers like smoke between the trunks. The pace has picked up. Adeela seems to have found her second wind. My breathing has developed a meditative regularity. The in breath is hungry, sucking in oxygen through my nostrils, swelling my chest. The outgoing air pushes against pursed lips. I move in rhythmic syncopation. Breathe – step – push. Breathe – step – push. Breathe – step – push. And I’m placing my footsteps in exactly the same locations as Adeela’s, like for like, as if it were a game. Each time she raises her foot I place mine in the earthy depression she has left behind. Each time a foot leaves a depression, the earth squeezes in from the sides, as if trying to reclaim its territory.
There is a build up of moisture over my chest and my forehead is rimmed with beads of sweat. The back of my throat feels dry.
Then we pause. Up ahead, coming towards us are five brown-skinned children about 12 years of age. They each grasp the sides of a strap wrapped over their foreheads, securing towering loads of gathered branches to their backs. The sticks poke out at awkward angles, high above their heads and sides. They are all looking down in concentrated focus, measuring each of their steps and zigzagging from one side of the track to the other.
As they reach us, I raise my camera. One little girl with a nose stud and head scarf, pauses for a photo. She has a rounded face, which mirrors her round, deep brown eyes. They stare with what seems like bemusement into the lens, her mouth slightly ajar. Then she moves on wordlessly, picking her way down the steps, foothold by careful foothold, in pursuit of the others. I turn to watch the large bundles of wood swaying like lumbering baby elephants, from under which only their little legs can be seen.
We see no evidence of military occupation on the mountainside - apart from a small section off the side of the track surrounded by barbed wire. I wonder if there are soldiers well camouflaged in the bushes somewhere.
Suddenly, about two hours into the climb, we encounter a most extraordinary event. As if passing through an invisible barrier, there descends upon us a barrage of insect noise. The sheer volume of the cacophony - easily as loud as a chainsaw - halts us dead in our tracks.
“Just listen to that!”
The sound comes in long oscillating waves. At one level it is simply chaotic, a haphazard collection of notes - at another, the combined sound transcends into a mesmerising rhythmic music.
Adeela stares intently into the surrounding trees. I stare too, scanning the foreground. But these tiny creators of stupendous music are hidden.
Enveloped in the lingering blue-grey mist and dense jungle, new to the primeval smells of the damp and the unfamiliar sounds around us, the experience of the moment is exceptionally vivid.
As we listen, individual sounds begin to emerge: a vigorous percussion section, a deep-throated tenor producing a froglike croak, a stuttering soprano, a clicking, ticking and rasping.
And rising above all is the particularly strident piping of an individual attention seeker, the Pavarotti whose gifted performance rises above all others in a magnificent, soaring solo.
A tiny insect’s clicking of wings or scratching of spindly legs on its own may bring forth a tiny note. But the collective voice of thousands produces a vast and intensely powerful work - a Ravel-like composition of layered instruments, each with their own vital voice, gradually increasing in momentum to a captivating, hypnotic and collective Bolero.
All this, for an audience of three. Encore, encore!
I reach for my mobile phone, face it in the direction of the sounds and press record.
Finally, awestruck, we move on, and, as suddenly as we entered the sound garden, so too it disappears from us, the sound falling away as if the notes had disappeared over the edge of a cliff.
The top of the mountain is bejewelled with colour. From an octagonal tower on the summit, long cables like clotheslines are drawn to the surrounding trees, and then to more distant trees and then further to even more trees, upon which hundreds, perhaps thousands of primary coloured prayer flags flutter. They circumnavigate the clearing, bathing the summit in a transparency, colour and softness.
The prayer flags represent the elements sky, air, fire, water and earth. By virtue of willing believers, these flags are empowered to produce health and harmony.
I could use some of that.
When a prayer flag is placed, it is a gesture for all humankind, for they are of the belief that the wind will brush the surface of the fabric and carry the peace, compassion, strength and wisdom from the flags to all those it caresses as it moves across the surface of the world.
We arrive on the summit in a rain of colour. People crowded on the tower platform are throwing hundreds of small squares of red, yellow, green, blue and white paper. They morph from squares to diamonds to squares and flip flop in lazy sloppy arcs pushed around by currents of warm air through the blue-grey mist and down upon us. It is a magical experience to stand not just under a shower of colour but under a shower of belief. When the squares come close I snatch one out of the air. It is “Earth” and is inscribed with a mantra. I secure it in my pocket.
At the base of the tower is a throng of people: Buddhist monks in red T shirts and over the shoulder wrap-around purple robes - more uniforms, like the soldiers at the base of the mountain - a dozen tourists, including an iPodded tourist in a black T shirt with a Diesel logo, knee-length shorts and a small backpack; a wrinkled woman wearing a bright red robe embroidered with gold leaves. She has two distinctive red dots on her forehead and a splash of red powder on her hair.
Groups of men squat around several fires where the embers glow in the mist, surrounded by leaf wrapped food parcels. And apples. There are lots of apples. The smoke of the fires amalgamates with the smoke of the many sticks of incense and all of it rises to blend harmoniously with the smoky mist.
There are a number of yellow painted Buddha statues with three heads, six arms and big white, wide, aware eyes with round black pupils and sharply raised eyebrows, producing a look of eternal surprise. They are surrounded by burning candles in brass containers, flames flickering in a pool of golden melted wax.
One monk has a round chubby face like a baby. He grins widely beneath large black plastic rimmed glasses with lenses which swell his eyes to a disproportionate size. He sits on a small wall, his rounded tummy pushing against the purple fabric of his robes, a small Sony vidcam in his hand.
Adeela and I are caught up in a contagion of grinning, smiling and nodding at the monks, who seem ready receptacles for this sort of behaviour.
The air resonates with incense, wood fire smoke, celebration and silent salutations.
Finally, I become conscious of our impending downhill tramp.
We turn from the scene and begin to move on down the mountainside. The perfumes linger in our clothes and hair.
The track from the summit squeezes into dense forest; the air around us grows gloomy. Our track is flanked by long stems of bamboo.
Thirty minutes later we reach a plateau. The air is thick and clingy. Our ceiling of foliage has been replaced with a brooding and uneasy sky. Its mood quickly darkens.
Plop. Plop. Plop. Large individual drops like marbles splatter on the ground, displacing the leaves around us.
“Better put our cameras away!” I call out. I cram mine into a plastic bag and shove it into its case. As I draw the zip around, the rain becomes torrential. Heavy warm continuous strands descend upon us with a mighty roar. In seconds we are soaked through, our clothes shrugging off their dry-time shape, clinging to skin and undergarments.
Adeela grins shyly. Her bra is showing through her wet singlet. I hand her my shirt.
In no time, small rivers are born all around us, water cascading down natural channels in the earth. Sticks and leaves are powerless to resist the water’s urgency. Our track becomes a highway for seething monsoon waters which greedily feed on the path ahead, guided by gravity through the natural geography. Water swells to our knees. Pools collect in our boots, our toes squishy in our socks.
“Watch it!” Adeela slides a metre on her bum.
“Aghhh!” she cries out but she is laughing.
And all of a sudden I am laughing too.
“Yee ha!” Everything feels good. An immense happiness emerges. Joy in the earthy smells of the forest. Joy in the wetness. Joy in the sounds of the insects. Joy in standing on this mountain. The moment is drenched in a joie de vivre.
My mother is smiling. I am playing in the rain in the backyard outside the family home, my little red gumboots stomping and splashing in the growing puddles.
Now we are running down the mountain, slipping and sliding, our falls cushioned by exuberance, holding our camera bags under our arms, our backpacks slapping left and right. And, unlike our cautious uphill climb, here we run with an abundance of confidence, bounding recklessly, as if we are assured of our every footing.
When we emerge from the forest the rain has stopped, the sulking clouds, from which lightness has emerged, shunted along by the wind.
We are beside a roadway. Ang sets off to collect the Nissan. On the other side of the road a group of village women are standing under the umbrella of a large tree. They are watching us. I take off my singlet and wring out the water. Then I puff out my chest and pump my arms, body builder style. They erupt in giggles, hands pressed to lips, eyes cast downwards. I laugh and give a little bow.
Around us the trees are waving. The air feels cool against my wet skin. There is a small gust of wind and a sensation surges through me.
Adeela and I look at each other and smile, still breathless. Strands of her hair are blowing in the breeze and her face is speckled with mud. I reach across and tease out a small twig entwined in her hair.
The sensation in me grows. By the time Ang arrives it is glowing like the embers from the fires on the summit.
I look back up at the mountain, where the prayer flags are flying.