21 Jul 2014 1974 in Nepal
I spoke to my father above the roar of the Kathmandu streets, narrow and complex as veins. “There wasn’t a single car in Kathmandu when I was there,” he said, his voice light with disbelief. I told him about climbing to the top of one of the temples in Durbar Square, and a wiry boy running up and down the steps to deliver five rupee chai, boiled in a vast silver bowl atop a failing flame. I told him about the marigolds strewn across the square: prayer’s debris. But it was the traffic we spoke of the most, the sign of our distance and the years between us.
My parents lived in Nepal in the seventies, as part of a Southeast Asian odyssey. They were hippies who had previously been part of a commune on a small island off the coast of New Zealand, and this adventure was another way they affirmed themselves in the world.
My mother passed away when I was nineteen. When someone is gone, you do anything to draw them back into being. I had heard so many stories of my parents’ travels that I think I believed that I might actually find her there: lily-sinewed, young and blushing with adventure.
As I drove into the Nepali town of Pokhara on a rickety bus, clutching someone’s child in one arm and a baby goat in the other, while Justin Bieber’s Baby played over the sound system, I sought their house frantically. I knew that they had lived in a yellow shack, somewhere near the airport, and that was all. I didn’t find it, of course. I looked for my mother everywhere, but I didn’t find her.
Suddenly realized just how desperately I had been looking. I’m an inherent disbeliever: an atheist, a realist, a grudging voter. But when I called my father from Pokhara I was disheartened and confused about my journey. I thought I was going to find something to believe in. I found only a thicker fog of doubt.
I was twenty-four years old, female and alone in a country where so many people need or feel entitled to things from you. I had believed that I was brave. But I felt so small, and so wrong.
Mostly, I was lonely. Solo travel is not for the faint hearted, especially in the less developed parts of the world. No matter how many peaks I summited; no matter how many sunsets I watched, as golden and viscous as molasses, and no matter how many Facebook posts garnered hundreds of ‘likes,’ I was, essentially, alone.
I called my father from Pokhara I worked to keep the quaver from my voice. I think he heard it anyway. “Spin a few prayer wheels for me and your mum,” he said. “We walked those same streets all those years ago, in nineteen seventy four.” I didn’t know what to say. I said thank you.
That afternoon I wandered down into the town, and found a tiny bookstore, brimming with paperbacks. The one I chose was a battered copy of Kerouac’s On The Road.
As I left Pokhara and rode buses across Nepal and down into India, I clutched that book: an almanac of letting go. I read about people who did things just to know what it was like to do them. I scrawled in the margins about my own journey, and what the towering gods at the roadside had started to mean. I understood “the flush of homecoming joy in her face” in a way I never had before: I had left New Zealand, my home country, five years prior. I thought I would never return. I had run from the absence of my mother and the grief of my father for what I thought was forever.
But it was the literature, rather than the litany of my parents that made me believe in something again. Because everything changes: Kathmandu is thick with the vehicular roar of a people moving on. Their closeness was in their absence. It let me write my own adventure.
The next time I called my father, I told him that I loved him for the first time in years. Bravery doesn’t always mean wandering into a far away place. Sometimes it means looking back from that place, and seeing all you chose to be blind to.
“The road is life,” claims Kerouac. And the road is infinite. And I have stumbled. And I have been lapped by my own history.
But the most important thing Nepal taught me was to keep walking. Keep your suitcase packed and at the ready for that great and endless adventure: the arduous and worthy mountain peak that is your life.
About the author: Kirsti Whalen is a poet from in Auckland, New Zealand, by way of Melbourne, Australia and a few other places besides. Formerly a camel farmer, laughing yoga instructor and castle-dwelling au pair, she now studies creative writing at Manukau Institute of Technology, and works in disability advocacy and support.
Ready to go to Nepal? WSGT found these travel books and gear to help you prepare.
Lonely Planet Nepal: The best guidebook there is to Nepal
Trekking in Nepal: Nepal is the best place in the world to see amazing peaks!
Nepali Phrasebook: Learn a few phrases in the local language!