Peaks and Valleys, 2 of 3
On our second day in Nepal, Raju drives us one hour outside of Kathmandu to Chandragiri, a Shiva temple ringed by restaurants and playgrounds on the top of a mountain. It’s part of the itinerary devised by Raju and my Mom with our youngest traveler in mind – five-year-old P, who loves not only playgrounds but also one-hour car rides, because they facilitate Mario Party marathons on her Nintendo DS. But I’m surprised they chose Chandragiri, because getting to the summit involves a cable car, and Mom is afraid of heights.
Our Nepali-Canadian blended family scrambles into the red bubble-shaped car as it swings slowly around the lower station. The kids have been sitting in a hot car for an hour, so it’s hard to get them to settle down; P’s younger “sister” N especially does not want to sit still. Mom sits rigid, facing forward, as the car begins its 2.4-kilometer upward trek. “Please make her sit down,” She says hoarsely. Later, she will describe her dread, irrational yet crystal-clear in her mind, of three-year-old N somehow getting sucked up through the tiny vent window near the top of the car, then plunging into the forest below.
I can relate. Long before we landed in Nepal, I’ve harboured visions of disaster. It’s not heights in my case, nor anything so specific, which is partly why I’m confused by Mom’s decision to get on the gondola. If I could protect myself from my anxieties, I would. Except that’s a lie; if I’d chosen to listen to my fears, I never would have brought P to Nepal at all.
Little N settles down, but my brain stays restless. We’ve been in Nepal for 24 hours, and nothing has gone wrong, but that still leaves six days for P to get kidnapped by Maoists, or bit by rabid street dogs, or to contract a devastating stomach bug from eating unwashed apples, or for all of us to perish in the next big earthquake. What would happen to this cable car, I wonder, if a ‘quake hit now? I would probably have about five seconds in which to learn the answer.
Mom was in Nepal for the monster ‘quake in 2015. She has returned twice since. When she meets others who survived it with her, they speak about it almost fondly, as if it were a rite of passage. Although she sometimes has a brief flash of panic when a heavy truck trundles by, she clearly isn’t scared of earthquakes the way she’s scared of heights. I guess I get it; my own natural distaster/trauma was the Montreal ice storm of 1998, and it didn’t stop me from returning to Montreal. In the summer.
The cable car arrives, quakeless, at the summit, and the kids race ahead of us in search of food and fun. After we eat, I take some promised time to write in my journal on a park bench, but I am interrupted by a young Nepali man who wants to practice his English on me. This is common; sometimes the conversation is limited to “Hello!” but this kid is annoyingly articulate, and knows a surprising amount about Canada. Nepalis are friendly, approachable, and eager to help. Rationally, I know there is nothing to fear here. But I excuse myself after a few minutes to go check on my daughter.
The trip back down is likewise uneventful, but once we’re all crammed back in Raju’s car, something goes wrong. The engine overheats, and Raju pulls into a dusty gas station – as is often the case in Nepal, it’s hard to tell if it’s still in operation – to confirm that his fan has broken. Almost immediately, a group of dudes materialize to do what dudes do in this situation: stand around the broken part, stroking their chins and shaking their heads. They confirm Raju’s suspicion that the part is irreparable. We’re stranded here.
I work hard not to panic. We have cell phones and plenty of water, and the Nintendo DS battery still has a charge. If Mom can handle the cable car, then surely I can handle this inconvenience. But the stifling heat of afternoon is yielding to the cool of desert sunset; in the time it takes a taxi to find us, the sun will have set behind the mountains. P is practically oblivious to the situation, and I feel like it’s my responsibility to keep her that way. If she gets wind of how completely screwed we might be – stuck in the middle of nowhere in a strange land, stalked by auto dudes of questionable intention…No. Calm down. The taxi is on its way.
I’ve been in this mental trap before, confusing inconvenience for genuine calamity. Maybe if I had lived through the ‘quake, I’d understand what small potatoes this really is. Maybe my luck in avoiding honest-to-goodness disasters has ill-prepared me for life, leaving me neurotic and paranoid in my attempts to ward off threats to my child. On the other hand, Mom never suffered a fall, or watched another person plummet. Her acrophobia just happened, and took root. Fears and anxieties don’t explain themselves, they just elbow their way into your cerebellum and make themselves at home.
After an hour, the taxi shows up, and six of us squeeze in. There are no seatbelts. P splays across my lap, her skull striking my clavicle with every bump in the unpaved highway. It’s dark by now, and the taxi’s headlamps show only a soup of dust, out of which other headlamps loom suddenly, like lambent rocks in a sea storm. The cabbie talks on his cell phone while he drives. I sit rigid, imagining a thousand fates and wishing I were anywhere but here.
My fears will follow me. And it won’t matter. Tragedy transcends “I told you so”s.