Digging the Du

  • Author: Jim Toner
  • Date: Nov 28, 2013
  • Location: Nepal

We can’t help it.


We humans are all about comparison, all about understanding something new based on the recently old. Allen likes his new Harley because it rides more smoothly than last year’s model. Susan likes her new office because the last one was too loud. We dislike Modesto because it’s not Sonora—a place of hills and fresh air and sparse population.


Is anything absolute? Is everything understood in relation to other experiences, or can something be loved or hated on its own merits alone?


Well, not on this trip and not by unenlightened me, and certainly not as we settle into our new world of Kathmandu, Nepal.


We’re giddy! We’re sleeping on sheets (vs. the scratchy bottom sheet and no top sheet in India). We’re drinking out of clean glasses (vs. glasses in India that you don’t let touch your lips). These roads are paved, and the cars are waiting in line at a stop light, and no one—NO ONE—is blaring his horn and NO ONE is playing a game of chicken on the road! And wait a minute, could that be right? People are SITTING in seats on buses, not crammed into a thick airless jumble and not sitting on top of the bus itself.


This air—I can breathe it! There is no yellow haze that dulls the colors and poisons the lungs, and the distant range of mountains can be seen in all their vividness.


Sidewalks? Are those sidewalks I see? You mean, I can walk in this country? Wait, where are the auto rickshaws, those 3-wheeled spewers of black exhaust. “No, sir,” our taxi driver says, “they are bad for the air so our country no have.”


No cows on the street. No men peeing out in the open. No open sewers that make you gag and cover your nose. No mounds of trash. No heaps of rags alongside the road that reveal themselves as humans. No fetid streams so thick with trash and waste that a man must stand waste deep in the center hacking away at the muck with a hoe. No more use for the word “squalor.”


“Oh brave new world,” says Miranda in the Tempest, “with such wonders in it!”


That’s us in Nepal, three Mirandas (a name that means “wonder”), amazed on our taxi ride from the airport that the roads are passable and the traffic orderly; amazed at our hotel that the toilet isn’t cracked in half; amazed that we can walk in this tourist district called Thamal and marvel at the merchants who don’t harass us, marvel at the bright shops that sell quality items, marvel at the liveliness and the skip and the look in eyes that tell some other story than the fatalism of India.


We’re loving it. We’re digging the Kat—or better, we’re digging the du, as in Kathmandu.


But it makes me wonder: What if we’d flown into Kathmandu straight from months in Europe, straight from Istanbul as we did with India. Would we see a different world? Instead of Mirandas, would we be Calibans—all savage and dirt?


Maybe. Maybe I’d cringe at the trash in that stream down there, or the bumpy roads, or the light haze in the air. Maybe I’d recoil at the many electrical wires that loop low over the roads and then gather at poles in such a wild tangle that you wonder how it could possibly work. Maybe that squished rat in the road would rush me back to California.




But I’m not.


We’re not. We’re all Digging the Du big time. We sit in an organic vegetarian restaurant eating a dinner that our cells are sucking up. Gone are the pesticides that make it possible in India to feed its billion people. In its place are baskets of fresh vegetables that the owner displays on wooden racks as you enter the restaurant. Our dinner talk is full of sighs over this brand new world, and full of relief at stepping away from India for two weeks.


Or are we stepping away? Our dinner conversation is all about that, about whether we should move on to Sri Lanka and leapfrog India altogether.


“I’d be sad,” Dolora says. “I’d be leaving India with a bad impression, and maybe we need to give it one more chance.” She paused. “Or maybe not.”


“I’m ready to move on,” I say.


“That’s what I need to hear,” Liam says. “You’re the one who always says to give a place more of a chance, that Mommy and I want to leave a place before we’ve even arrived, so if you’re ready to go, then so am I.”


I tell them that it’s a perfect time to leave India, that we just spent a glorious week in the best that India has to offer in the town of Rikikesh. “Besides,” I say, “we’ll get more of Indian culture and cuisine in Sri Lanka, and the beaches that are luring us to Goa and Kerala are even more exquisite in Sri Lanka.”


It’s decided. I cross the street and exchange all of my Indian rupees for Nepalese rupees. Back in the hotel I buy three tickets from Kathmandu to Colombo, Sri Lanka on December 11th. I go to a bookstore and trade my Lonely Planet book of south India with a guide to trekking in the Annapurna range of the Himalayas.


Let the great world spin us… to Kathmandu.




I don’t know their proper names. We visited two religious sites in Kathmandu on opposite ends of the city—one a monkey temple, the other an enormous Buddhist stupa—that were spectacular, that stirred in both Dolora and me a spiritual longing that’s been dormant for many months, especially while in India and trying to make sense of mystifying Hinduism. As is usually the case with me, spirituality came through the vehicle of beauty: the beauty of these grand white domes, of the alluring and peaceful eyes painted on the sides of the domes, of the smaller statues of Buddha and the red and yellow dust on his forehead from offerings.


Beauty. The stirrings of these feelings made us realize that India is not beautiful, is not interested in architecture or statues. Yes there is the Taj, but otherwise the temples are plain and the images of the gods more cartoonish than inspired. To look out onto the panorama of Jaipur or Pushkar or Bundi is to look upon a jumble of scattered apartments without design or color. The forts and palaces are tattered and without anything ornate or splendid.


From there to here, to this monkey temple that fills us with awe, that slows our breathing and steadies our eyes. Even the monkeys seem more at ease than the monkey temple in Jaipur, where the monkeys had hardened looks like criminals.


At both spiritual sites there are prayer wheels that surround the stupas. We joined the many worshipers and walked in a clockwise direction, spinning each wheel and pausing at four spots to bend in prayer at the small shrines to Buddha. It’s a lovely way to pray, and as I walked and spun the wheels I thought, on this eve of the American holiday of Thanksgiving, of all my gratitudes: of Dolora and Liam, of our health, of our ability to travel the world, of all my friends (I’m talking to YOU!), of Joe and Lainie and their two boys, of my fabulous teaching job at Columbia College, of this sunny day with the temperature in the 70’s.


Later that night we returned to the same organic restaurant and sat at the same table on a terrace that overlooked a crazy jumble of wires and then the tourist street below. We reflected once again on India. Though she was a struggle and was an overall disappointment for Dolora, we were grateful for…. for the dozens of kind and generous people that helped us along the way, for the food, for the Taj, for river rafting down the Ganges, for a week of yoga, for camels, for the pilgrimage at Pushkar, for the rough faces, for the splendid colors of the saris.


“And I’m thankful,” Liam said, “that it was just bad enough to get us out of there.”




The next morning we boarded a bus at 7am to transport us far to the west, to Pokhara, to the start of our trekking for a week in the Himalayas.


How did that happen? What are we even doing here, here in Nepal, when it was never part of the vague outline of our world tour? Well, the stars lined up in just the right way to nudge us away from one world and into this one, and because none of this trip is planned, because we make decisions and buy plane tickets as we go along, we’re always in a position to alter our journey in midstep.


All that altering brought us to seats 21, 22, and 23 on the bus to Pokhara on Thanksgiving Day itself. The 8-hour ride was bumpy but spectacular, full of some vistas of the high peaks but more full of a surprise sight: lots and lots of rice fields, terraced down from the mountainsides. It was harvest time, the rice stalks being cut and then carried in high comical stacks on women’s heads to a central mound. There the water buffalo trampled the kernels off the stalks in their slow, circular walk.


It was lovely, it was beautiful, this scene of industry and community, this scene of such an elemental grain—rice!—being readied for our plates. Rising above these terraces were mountains and then higher mountains, and beyond them still higher ones with jagged snow-capped peaks. The Himalayas. I repeat the word—“the Himalayas”—to help stir me from the disbelief that on a Thursday in November this is what I see.




We’re now in the town of Pokhara, and in 24 hours we’ll take a taxi for an hour’s drive to the start of our week-long trek. In some ways this is crazy. We have no clothes for a trek in the Himalayas, no shoes beyond our Keen sport sandals. No hats, no down jackets, no wool socks—nothing beyond our tour of the world in the temperate to tropical zones. We know nothing about yaks or tea houses. We know nothing about the type of trail, about its severity, about whether there’s electricity out there, whether we should hire a guide or a porter.


So we start to read and to talk. We find out that all clothes and equipment can be rented by the day here in Pokhara. We find out that the best trek for us is a moderate one that reaches 10,000 feet, a circular trek through stunning scenery. We learn that we need to bring about $25/person per day out there, and because there are no ATMs, that means I have to get about $500-$600 of Nepalese currency together today.


Today. Today is a planning day here in Pokhara: buying, renting, preparing our packs, arranging a taxi, getting money—and yet there’s already a big hitch in our plans.


Dolora is sick. Right now she’s in a fetal position on the bed, clutching her stomach for 5 minutes before she has to run yet again to the toilet. This is the first time in our four months on the road that any of us have been knocked down by sickness. Queasiness, yes, but full-on squirts, no.


She has to get better or the trek is off—or at least delayed. Such is the thin edge we walk on this trip of ours.


Ok, time to close this up. A few quick random shots:


+ Liam awoke us at 7am with his nose pressed to the window. “Executive order!” he said. “Everyone up and see what I’m seeing.” And so we did, and there rising up are these astonishing peaks, rugged and snow-capped and befitting the word “Himalaya.”


+ We’re not seeing very many saris in Nepal. Dolora, who wore a sari on the night of Diwali, says that they’re terrible, confining, impractical—and so praise goes to Nepal for not insisting that its women wear saris and instead wear punjabs or more Western dress.


+ Hinduism believes that your fate today is the result of past lives. That explains why India’s citizens accepts their life, no matter how dire it might be, and why there is very little drive to improve one’s condition within a lifetime. Compare that with America, where this life is it, so live it up and keep making it better.


+We waited in the Delhi airport for our flight to Kathmandu next to a flight to Kabul, Afghanistan—the country that is at war with America. Right there, just a few feet away, were men of Afghanistan just like in the photos: long white beards, gray turbans, Punjab pants, long faces with deep creases. I want to talk to one of them. I want to step up to one and extend my hand for a shake and say, “Hi, I’m an American, and if you have a minute I’d like to chat about our sons and what you eat for lunch and what makes you laugh.”


Okay, have to run. I should point out that our posts from now through the next 6-9 days may be erratic or, more likely, none at all while we’re trekking through these remote villages of Nepal.


Don’t leave us. We’ll be back.

















  1. Susannah

    I can’t wait to read more! I am also so sorry that Dolora is sick, she has all of my sympathy and well wishes. Safe travels!

  2. Susan Day

    So glad to hear you are letting yourselves move on. Hope Dolora feels better soon. And that the trekking part of your journey can happen soon and that it is filled with wonder and beauty and that you three are safe. Blessings.

  3. Leslie Joslin

    Happy Thanksgiving to all of u,so sorry Dolora is sick,please give her my best!I am excited to hear about Nepal,wow!!!

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