I’ll be the first to admit that I am no fan of flying. While it might not rise to the level of phobia precisely, I have had my fair share of white-knuckle afternoons at the hands of an A320-Airbus (Have anxiety, will travel). Therefore, I am sure that it is with no small amount of irony that I chose a profession, and a field-site, which requires days of air travel and at least two small propeller plane jaunts through steep mountain valleys to reach. However, as fate would have it, the monsoon rains here in Nepal have been preventing all flights between Pokhara and Jomsom for days (stages 1 and 2 of my route to Muktinath respectively). Yesterday morning, I sat in the waiting area of the Pokhara Regional Airport, and not for the first time in a string of days at the crack of dawn, waiting to hear if the day’s flights would be able to leave. As it had been for nine days running, my flight was cancelled yet again.
Then I had the fortune of meeting two Hindu pilgrims, just a few seats down, anxiously awaiting the same news. They were originally from south India, they explained, but now resided in North Carolina. What is more, having encountered a box of Shaligram stones just recently in a shop in lake-side Pokhara, the husband (who, for the sake of this entry, I will call Raj), had been suddenly reminded of a number of fond childhood memories involving his father’s and grandfather’s Shaligrams. He had not inherited any Shaligrams, and at the shop-keeper’s behest was left to wonder where the ones in his family had gotten off to. Now, he and his wife Priya were taking a rather spontaneous journey to Muktinath to explore the inexplicable pull of these memories further. Sadly, it looked as though there would be no flights that day and they would not be able to reach Mustang in time for their departure home.
But serendipity works in mysterious ways, and as we chatted there from the discomfort of our molded, plastic, seats a new plan began to take shape. Rather than wait for the storm clouds to finally grant us the blessings of safe passage, we decided to split the cost of renting a Jeep and driver and road-trip our way across the Himalayan foothills to Jomsom. Nine hours and several very sore tailbones later (it is a profoundly rough ride through rocky, narrow, mountain roads!), we made it. Flight time from Pokhara to Jomsom is only about 15 minutes. Our 180km drive lasted from 9AM to 6PM and involved fewer than four total stops: 2 for brief bathroom breaks, 1 for lunch, and 1 to check our permits at the Tatopani police checkpoint overlooking the Mustang border. So while we remained cheerful in each others unexpected but welcome company, it was a long trip on a number of levels. Not to be discouraged though, as I was happy to take Raj and Priya Shaligram hunting on the Jomsom shores of the Kali-Gandaki that evening (wherein a particularly lovely Krishna-Gopala Shaligram was discovered!). A calming end to a challenging day.
Challenging indeed. I have been in the field now just 15 days, but only a week in, I lost my beloved grandmother whose funeral was only a few days ago. I sent a letter to be read at her memorial, but that was all I could do from here. Without a doubt, it has weighed on me heavily. But even as the end approached, she didn’t want me to come. She wanted me here, in the high Himalayas, doing the research I love and working towards the PhD she so proudly spoke about to anyone and everyone who stopped long enough to listen. She kept every article of mine, every academic paper, every mention she could find. And usually multiple copies, since she couldn’t risk lending out her own (it might never come back). Every time I visited, she always wanted to know how much longer until I was a doctor (professor would also do, she used to tell me), and then should would marvel at the years that ticked by faster and faster. 2 years of a Masters degree done. 5 years to the PhD, and then 4, and soon enough 3. Now, only 2 years left.
Such a short distance, but it takes a long time to get there.