It’s a rainy, dreary day here in Pokhara. My first.
At 12:30 the streets are atypically barren, traffic-free aside from the occasional optimistic cabbie pulling alongside a moisture-beleaguered tourist, cajoling, hoping against hope for a fare.
I see no takers.
This constant, cold, persistent rain drives people indoors in search of warmth and the comfort of dry, sheltered places–whether alone, in their private dwellings, or together, in public spaces. As I make my way southward along Lakeside, the bookstores are teeming with folks looking for ways to pass the time, as are any cafés or restaurants with nooks and crannies large or enclosed enough to provide adequate insulation from the damp and cold. There is enough chill in the April air that many exhale hot breath into cupped hands, rubbing them together for warmth. Hot tea and hot coffee sell briskly. Once, I scent the aromatic spiciness of cinnamon lingering in the damp air, vaguely reminiscent of the Glühwein sold at Germany’s wonderfully kitschy outdoor Christmas Markets. Trekking suppliers, on the other hand, are not faring well at all, and outfitters’ shops remain empty, lifeless.
I’m heading to the Olive Café for the best espresso in town, beans and machine imported directly from Mama Italia. I also need a break and a bite to eat after a morning spent with laundry and emails and honest-to-goodness, for-profit software development.
Wandering along in the rain, I take shelter from time to time beneath an overhang with other waterlogged refugees. Twice I huddle next to one of many cows crowded under the eaves like everyone else; they eye me with placid suspicion, then return to whatever bovine thoughts cows lose themselves in, doing their best to evoke Gary Larson’s The Far Side. I become certain they walk on their hind legs when I’m not looking, whispering behind my back, judging me. I name the second cow “Bob” and attempt to strike up a conversation, but Bob isn’t interested in my thoughts on the weather, or on the women here (who, for the record, are impossibly sensual and beautiful and earthy in their ubiquitous Global Hippie attire.) For that matter, Bob isn’t interested in much of anything I have to say, so I take his picture and move on (that’s Bob glaring at you from the top of this post). At least he doesn’t ask me for a donation.
At the OC, things are in full swing. A loud table of Germans drink beer from large chilled glasses and erupt at intervals into some jovial Lied you might hear in a rowdy Brauhaus on a busy night, and for the second time in an hour I’m back in Deutschland, this time at the exuberant Päffgen Brauerei in Cologne (Ahhhh Köln: Wer hat gern ‘ne Kölsch?). I presume they’re singing in dialect, because I can’t distinguish a single word before the tune disintegrates into rowdy laughter. This happens several times, but never persists for more than a few measures.
In stark contrast to the Germans, Olive’s soundsystem pumps out a constant, seamless stream of European club music, subtly flowing and ebbing in a way which somehow fits the weather-muted mood perfectly. I find myself unconsciously bobbing my head, leaning slightly forward in time with the kick, and, slowly, noticing I’m not alone in this. I’m adrift in a Sargasso Sea of unwitting, shoe-gazing hipsters moving together as one, to music most don’t even realize they’re hearing. It’s a great stoner moment, and I imagine my friends from yesterday would be most pleased; such music was the only thing missing from that vignette.
Perusing the menu, my appetite sez to reward myself for the successful conquest of things lingering and intestinal and nasty; to ditch my primarily vegetarian diet for a satisfying helping of comfort food. It seems determined, my appetite does, to consume some form of mouth-wateringly delicious Sacred Cow, and so I obey. (Is it abundantly clear to all that no offense to Bob was intended, and was neither expressed nor implied by my decision?)
[A saxophone loop drops on top of a gritty, bluesy, minor-key grind, already in progress; I’m definitely digging this track.]
What any of this has to do with anything, I can’t really say, but it’s rain that is the defining feature of my day. Rain that cloaks and defocuses things, slows them down, adds a diffuse, hazy glow. Rain that demands laziness–curling up in front of fires with books or in bed with lovers or in front of the television with the dog and a great movie. This rain arrived before all life on the planet; it is primordial (to use a clichéd word), its effects upon us myriad and mysterious (to use two more.) Some posit that we are descended from aquatic apes, and if so our bond to water is both primal and urgent. Rain has its own origin stories and has been celebrated or worshiped by every people and tribe and religion and mythology we know of, and in every language. It is fascinating and complex and romantic whether viewed from the perspective of legend or of poetry or of science or the inside of a tent during a thunderstorm. Only fire commands a comparable hold on our imaginations and attention and–at least from within the Gaian equilibrium of our terrestrial biosphere, looking outwards–flame is hopelessly outmatched by the sheer enormity of water. All you Sun-worshippers be damned.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, the rain is my excuse for rambling. It’s this rain–falling without judgment or bias on everything, binding it together and unifying the otherwise disjointed–that is the only continuity I’ve got, friends. Everything is fair game because nothing escapes its touch and influence, like the snowfall, general all over Ireland, in the overtly musical, brilliantly rhythmic final paragraph of Jame Joyce’s short story “The Dead.”
[The sax loop makes a shocking shift, troping tango, lifted from Pugliese via Otros Aires. Just a few bars.]
My burger arrives, totally first-rate and comparable to those from Adair’s Saloon or the Angry Dog back in Deep Ellum (my home of nine years, recently abandoned–like so many other things.) Honestly. It’s that good. The tomatoes are bright, juicy red; the bun homemade and ciabatta-like; the meat Grade-A. But for me, two unlikely ingredients put it over the top: a sprinkling of tangy, shredded dill pickle and–of all things–garden variety French’s Yellow Mustard from the good ol’ U.S. of A. The taste of home. I muse briefly on the transglobalist implications of this heavenly hamburger; on having ordered, and having been served, an animal sacred to the majority of Nepal’s residents. My appetite pays this musing no mind.
[I need to know what song this is, so I ask the waitress. She immediately ejects the CD, killing the vibe instantly and startling pretty much the entire establishment. The Germans go momentarily silent, and this massive disruption of everyone’s mood is rewarded with a homemade disk unhelpfully labeled “Mix #1.” Great.]
The OC, like pretty much everywhere else in town, is full of tourists staring blankly into the bluish glare of laptops, tablets, and smartphones. These devices and their lifeblood, the internet, have irrevocably altered what it means–and what it feels like–to travel. It occurs to me that this connective tissue became a little less vital the other day as my own U.S. House of Representatives passed the abhorrent CISPA–quite literally over the dead body of internet activist and boy genius Aaron Swartz. I wonder if my fellow patrons either know or care about such things. Admittedly, it’s harder, here, to do either.
Time has slowed wayyyyy down. I’m drawn from these reveries rarely, when new customers arrive, shedding wet jackets, smelling of rain and trailing eddies of cold air that disturb the cocoon of warmth settled around me.
Outside, the hills surrounding Phewa Lake are shrouded in mist, like something out of Jurassic Park or The Island of Doctor Moreau or the end of Apocalypse Now. Panchassee is invisible, and Sarangkot Launch completely engulfed in low-hanging clouds. Another first for me.
Two weeks from now I will wander these same hills with a friend from the States. I’m hoping we’ll have a day like today–passing time in some tiny mountain lodge, keeping warm by an indoor fire, practicing my fledgling Nepali and eating homemade dal bhat, sensing the overwhelming presence of nearby Dhaulagiri and the Annapurnas. I demand nothing shy of joyful magic, illusion incarnate–a walk inside legendary snowglobe images crystallized around the great mountain cultures of the world–the Alps, the Andes, the Caucasus, the Karakoram, but most of all the Himalayas. I will be spellbound.
[By now the music has returned, but there will be no disruptive inquiry this time. My lesson’s been learned.]
Of course, I’m also an idiot–an utterly average, naïve, 21st-Century flatlander seeking adventure and meaning and friends and experiences in the best, most quixotic, helplessly Romantic tradition. And I’m ok with that.
Rain is, after all, also the stuff of dreams.
Sometime later, back in the room, I’m awakened from my nap by a tiny stab of sunshine. The first of the day. Looking out my window, upwards toward Sarangkot, I see a village re-emerging from behind its veil. Here, along Lakeside, scores of scooters appear, bleating angrily at the slightest provocation; there are screaming children with hula hoops and tweeting birds, cautiously returning from beneath eaves as the rooftop’s rivulets slow, sputter, run dry. Tractors blast black clouds of billowing exhaust, offended by the clean, freshly-scrubbed air and belching defiance; Tatas with their rainbows of fading color unload and take on impossibly large crowds of locals. Life, grudgingly, exits the coffee shops and guest houses and internet cafes and bookstores, crawling back out onto the streets and sidewalks of Pokhara.
Still no takers for the cabbies, though; and my friend Bob is nowhere in sight.