As we hiked we sang. Rushann Veridee (phonetic spelling) is a traditional Nepalese song and the fact we learned it off by heart is testament to our guide’s great patience and the oodles of spare time we had. Five days into our Annapurna trek we had formed a loose schedule of activities; Apart from the walking there was chatting, snapping, listening to tunes and singing. Perhaps singing is too kind a word. Maybe polluting an otherwise pollution free environment with our noisy clamor would be closer to the truth, but nobody complained. There was no one around to complain, until we saw her coming from the opposite direction. We stopped singing – more out of shock than consideration.
Like us she had a backpack, hiking boots and jacket. She looked to be in her early twenties.
Although we had never met the woman before we greeted her like an old friend. Each night it was just Garry, Ganesh and I checking into an empty hostel. It was a relief to know we weren’t the only ones hiking during off season. I bombarded her with questions that overlapped her answers; Where are you from? Have you met any other tourists? How are the hostels? Is it tough being on your own? Where are you going?
Her name was Martha and she was from Germany, but she was not a tourist. She lived in a nearby village. How had that come to pass?
Well, turns out, Martha did the Annapurna circuit the year previous with a crew of outdoorsy Germans.
One day, they stopped in one of the unpretentious tea-rooms that dotted the trek path and provided temporary rest to weary walkers. They crowded around the table – their noise and size filling a room that was near empty moments before, only for a group of local lads. Martha sipped green tea. Her eyes wandered around the room. She tried to gauge the mood of the local lads. Were they perturbed by the German invasion?
That was when she saw him. He was gorgeous. Suddenly his brown eyes met hers. He held her gaze for a few moments until she dragged her eyes back to her mug. Her heart fluttered, she felt a thug in her stomach and craved a cigarette. She tried counting to ten but only made it to five. She cast her eyes about the ceiling, casual like, and then swooped down towards him. His eyes darted away. She caught him looking at her. She supressed a smile. She sipped her tea and tried to centre herself but it was no use for she was all aquiver. Daringly, she raised her eyes again and this time they carried a question. Yes his eyes answered. The feeling was intense. She felt a further communication passing between them, but someone tapped her elbow and the telepathy was interrupted. She looked about her table and nodded as if everything was normal when, in reality, everything had changed. Changed utterly.
She assembled a cigarette with shaky fingers.
Bills settled, chairs screeched and backpacks were slung around shoulders. The crew was moving on but Martha wasn’t ready to leave. Panic gripped her. Was there something between her and this man? She fiddled with change, and placed the cigarette in her mouth, then behind her ear. Max waited patiently for her while she stalled. She was praying for some sort of sign.
‘Are you okay?’ Max asked, seeing her distress.
She mumbled something. He got the hint and gave her space. She walked slowly towards the exit. Each step was a battle against her instinct. She looked in his direction one last time. The Nepalese man looked back with calm, clear eyes and a slight smile. She smiled but she was convinced she looked like a mad woman. Outside Max had caught up with the group. She staggered on, a storm of thoughts and emotions whirling inside her.
For the remainder of the hike she was often withdrawn and prone to daydreaming. Max’s brand of goofy, awkward flirting became more and more irritating. She longed to be away from the pack. She struggled to fake the chummy camaraderie they prided themselves for. She didn’t like these feelings but they were undeniable, as were thoughts of those secret moments in the tea-room. She tried to push foolish ideas out of her head. She could carry on, but couldn’t stop wondering.
The hike got tougher as they ascended. The altitude made every breath a battle. As they gained on Thorang La at a height of 5416m, there was a dip in hostel standards. In the lodging before the final ascent the blankets provided were damp. Colds and crankiness spread amongst the crew. Martha observed how snooty her compatriots were towards the locals. The polite, dignified calm of the natives inspired her and the private idea forming in her head.
On reaching the summit, some of the crew wept with relief. The worst was over. But going downhill was no picnic either (safe for the parts where they actually had picnics). It was hell on the knees. When they finished everyone spent the day in bed, then gathered in the hostel bar, got roaringly drunk and wrapped themselves around each other. Martha had to rebuff Max’s advances. He found solace in another’s arms. Yup, she thought, that’d be about right.
The next day the crew hit Pokhara for the long desired and much deserved three day’s rest and good food. Martha went back to the start of the circuit and began again. Alone.
When backpacking abroad you are stripped of your comforts and routine. Having a group to roam with softens the blow. You have people with whom you can share the joys and frustrations of travel. The downside is – it also breeds a type of laziness. You can take a back seat. If things go to shit it’s everybody’s fault. The herd dulls the instincts and diminishes responsibility.
Alone, you are captain and crew. It’s all on you. There’s plenty of silence. Thoughts, positive and negative, with no chance of being aired, reverberate around your head. Martha tried to stay positive. It was, after all, her decision. Still, she sank a few layers within herself to the extent that interaction became difficult. This perhaps explains what happened next.
She made it to the village and went straight to the tea-room. She sipped coffee, wrote in her journal and waited and hoped and doubted. Finally, he arrived. Her eyes followed him across the room. It was him, breezing by like it was no big deal. He stood at the counter bantering with the waiter. Martha tidied her belongings into her bag. She pushed her chair back quietly. Voices screamed at her to move but her bum stayed in the chair as a thousand nameless fears gripped her. He breezed back out of the tea-room, oblivious to her journey, her distress, her intention.
She woke the next morning determined to make contact. She had a lead before breakfast. The hostel receptionist knew him. His name was Nabin. He cared for horses and provided treks for tourists. Nabin would be at the local fair later that day and the receptionist offered to do the introductions. They arranged to meet in the lobby at three.
Martha was beside herself with excitement and nerves. Nabin. Horses. An introduction. Oddly, it seemed to be happening so fast and she wondered if she was ready. She made herself look pretty. Well, as pretty as the contents of her backpack would allow. Which was just the right amount of pretty for a fair in the mountains, she hoped.
She was all set by 11am.
Time dragged. She constantly checked herself in the mirror. She thought about what she was going to say. She paced and fretted. She tried to lose herself in a book but the words were not hitting the target and hadn’t been for two weeks now.
When they finally met the encounter was hampered by an unforeseen and inconvenient language barrier. The receptionist kindly acted as translator. Martha explained everything. Nabin said he remembered her. He assumed she was gone forever.
Despite lacking some essential prerequisites for a bond to build, a bond was built, and Nabin and Martha spent the rest of the summer hanging out together, arching many an eyebrow in the process.
The Nepalese countryside is a place where everything moves slow but, affairs of the heart, it seemed, gathered a frightening momentum. When the summer ended Martha went home and declared she was in love with Nabin and wanted to move to Nepal to live with him. Her friends were whisked up in the romance of the story but once the wistfulness wore off, some of them, the genuine ones, laid out their reservations.
‘The time is right. I don’t want to always be wondering,’ Martha replied.
Her folks skipped the ‘romance of it all stage’ and proceeded into confusion and rage. There was pacing and slamming and wringing of hands while they pleaded, ‘Think of your studies Martha,’ but they knew they had raised a strong willed girl and eventually they arrived at a grudging acceptance. The studies at the University of Dusseldorf were put on hold and Martha returned to Nabin.
When we met her she was six months settled with Nabin and his family.
‘I love how he loves me,’ she told us. ‘In Germany you are with someone for a few months. Then someone else. Then the next one. In Nepal it is not like this.’
I asked her how she was finding living with Nabin’s family.
‘Good days and bad days. The farming is tough and I am not used to their way of cooking. The local girls…they are jealous of me because I am with Nabin. But my Nepalese is getting better and I think his parents are beginning to accept me. And, unusually , there is another German girl living nearby.’
We wished her well and carried on our separate ways. Garry and I replayed the whole story and debated the wisdom of Martha’s choices. What will become of them? Will they overcome the jealous girlfriends, cultural differences and suspicious parents?
‘It will not last,’ Ganesh said dismissively.
‘Why not?’ we asked with due deference to his local knowledge.
‘He is not learning German. She is learning Nepalese. This is a sign. And his parents would prefer for him a local girl. In Kathmandu maybe parents might accept, but here …’ Ganesh shook his head.
Alas, all these years later, I am none the wiser how things turned out for Martha and Nabin. She may indeed live to regret her decision, but, in fairness, she won’t die wondering.