Post note to Trekking Nepal: Having been reassured that altitude sickness was not a concern on the trek we were taking, with elevations reaching only 10,500′, I barely looked into the symptoms. After our return I researched the condition more fully and discovered that everything that was occurring for me falls within the list of symptoms for acute altitude sickness: insomnia/wakefulness, lack of appetite, nausea, dizziness, tiredness/muscle weakness, shortness of breath. A couple of other symptoms that I didn’t experience are headache and vomiting. It is recommended that persons experiencing these symptoms at elevations not climb higher for 24 to 48 hours, then reassess. Severe altitude sickness is the next phase and can be dangerous, involving symptoms such as irrational behaviour, coughing up frothy liquid, seizures and death! Had I read this before my trek I may have made a different decision about going forward. Because I am here to tell about it, and did not need to be flown out by helicopter for about $1000 – I am glad I went onwards, upwards and completed the trek. I did learn the hard way that it is important to pay heed to that key phrase in the trekking world – ‘slowly, slowly’.
For further information on altitude sickness go to altitude.org
Trekking in the Himalayas – does it get any more exciting than that??!! As the date for departure to lofty places grew near, we could hardly contain our anticipation. We had been travelling and living for 7 months in boiling hot Asia, and were far from equipped for mountain temperatures or climbing. Fortunately Pokhara, Nepal, our jumping off point, houses a wealth of trekking shops where equipment can be purchased or rented. Being caught in sudden and torrential downpours during this two day shopping excursion caused a flicker of anxiety but certainly did not douse the fires of our trekking fervour.
We would be a party of four: my partner, Aaron and me, our guide, Karna, and our Sherpa, Rudra. The route of the 5 day trek would begin with a taxi ride from Pokhara to Nayapul (1070m) where we would begin hiking and arrive at Tikhedhunga (1540m) on the first day. The following days would cover Ulleri (1960m) – Ghorepani (2860m) – Poon Hill (3193m) – Tadapani (2630m)- Ghandruk (1940m) – Nayapul, with another ride back to Pokhara, spread over the five days. This little hike is considered the baby of trekking routes, compared with the Annapurna circuit or Everest Base Camp which can entail three or four weeks of trekking to elevations of more than 17,000′. It was even suggested that we could do this little stroll without guide or sherpa. I have to admit I was feeling uncomfortably pampered at the prospect of some other person carrying most of my supplies, especially after I saw Rudra, our porter. He stands about 5’3″ and weighs about 120 lbs. However, I consoled myself with reassurances that I was fuelling the Nepali economy by hiring its citizens to ‘accompany’ our trek. Not that we needed them, they need us! We packed light, a fact confirmed on the trek when we noted the enormous loads under which many other porters laboured.
Day One we set off in a taxi to Nayapul, bumping along the mountain road, cramped, and clammily warm in the tiny 90s vintage car. I’m proud to say I kept my cookies for the entire one and a half hour joggle. We had a bright day for hiking and set out with spirits high. When I say bright, I suppose I mean bright for this area because, although the sun shines abundantly, the viewing experience is often akin to looking through a gauze curtain at the mountains and distant scenery. Our thirty days in Kathmandu and Pokhara included itchy, burning eyes and raspy chests, just part of the package. Sad and disappointing in a land so ripe with natural beauty. A week or so later we were told by a local man who lives up a mountainside overlooking Pokhara, that the air was perfectly clear when he was a boy, just 30 years ago and Pokhara was all village and farmland, without the tourist infrastructure that exists today.
Nevertheless, off we marched from Nayapul, spirits aloft, along the riverside for the first leg of our journey. Bucolic scenery kept our hearts light as we wound along the riverbank, marvelling at groups of pack animals – ponies, donkeys, water buffalo – meandering the trails with their shepherds. We were thrilled to witness Indigenous people going about their daily lives, marvelling at how hard they work to carry provisions up and down the steep trails – farming, gardening, forging a life out of the land. It seemed every step was an education, with a new astonishing sight to marvel at. Our guide, Karna shared his ample supply of information, gleaned from a lifetime in Nepal. At one point we passed an entire family, men and women of all ages, up to their elbows in the butchering of a buffalo. Karna informed me that they were of the Margar tribe, one of five tribes which inhabit these mountains. As we continued along, he pointed out plants which are used in local medicine, including moss used to promote healing of a flesh wound and another leaf crushed to make a natural paracetamol for headache, fever and pain. No pharmacies are to be found in these mountains. Imagine living so self reliantly!
We arrived slightly tired but fully satisfied with our first day, at the Chandra Guesthouse in Tikhedunga, delighted with the brilliant display of orange honeysuckle covering the buildings. A dozen loaded ponies clattered through the narrow streets past our small but adequate room and I wanted to pinch myself at the novelty of such an experience. After a cool (brrrrrr) shower, I was introduced to Roasty, a garlicky refried mashed potato dish with veggies, yak cheese melted on top. Yum, who knew the Nepalese have comfort food at its best? Yak cheese is a mild but tasty, hard yellow-white variety of cheese which is widely used in Nepalese cooking.
Day Two we set out filled again with high energy and bright spirits, despite the wakefulness of my night. Arriving at a tea stop we were astonished by our first views of mountains as snow capped Annapurna South sparkled and winked at us. It was a surreal moment for me. Though we had planned and hoped to do amazing things on this Asian adventure, in that moment I was deeply astonished to find myself actually in the Himalayas, witnessing such a spectacular scene. Of course no reproduction can ever do the original justice.
I must admit at this juncture, that I had a different, perhaps naive idea of what a trek in the Himalayas would be. First, I had imagined the four of us, pioneers hiking in solitude for miles and miles with not another soul to be encountered, only the sounds of nature tickling at our senses, except perhaps a few hard working Indigenous people and their donkeys appearing in our landscape from time to time. While we did encounter many local people and had the privilege of witnessing their daily lives, and we did take a few solitary steps, there were, in fact, many other western Trekkers seeking the same experience as we were (of course!). It actually proved enjoyable to confer with some of them along the way, sharing stories and travel experiences (while sneaking a break from the sometimes gruelling work of trekking). Another misconception I entertained was that we would find ourselves eating every meal of dal and rice – sitting in a circle on the floor in some mountain people’s home, and that sleep would be on a mat on the same family’s dirt floor. Actually, we got to order our food from a menu at a guesthouse each meal, and sleep in an austere but private room. Another area in which I was greatly mistaken is the actual terrain. For some reason I was picturing open hillsides and wilderness with little growth, ice capped mountains towering beyond. In fact there was a lot of forested area, including an entire two days of meandering through a glorious rhododendron forest, trees towering as tall as forty feet high and blossoms radiant with colour! Another surprise was the almost constant development to be found along the way – homes, barns & gardens (terraced) of Indigenous people, guesthouses catering mostly to Trekkers, small provisional stores or craftspeople & farmers with their products arrayed for the viewing and purchasing pleasure of passersby. Sadly, another factor of which I have already spoken, the vision of pristine views and sparkling clean air was shattered by the daily haze of smoke and smog which blankets the Himalayas. The final surprise was the seemingly endless winding stone stairs. For days we climbed both up and down these stepped paths. I was awed that most of these stairways and paths were ancient; people had built them centuries ago in order to carve out a life of farming and foraging from this mountainous land. What incredibly tough people! Karna, our guide and information man, told me that although the average life span in Nepal is about 65 years, indigenous people in these mountains tended to live much longer. I can easily believe this with the constant cardio workout and natural diet lacking processed junk foods consumed by these mountain people.
As Day Two progressed, and afternoon waned, the sky darkened with clouds and gusts of wind slapped at our cheeks. Exhaustion dragged at us as we lifted our bodies ever higher. The first sprinkles brought out our rain protection as we soldiered onwards, stairs stretching and winding upwards forever it seemed. Rubbing a slight tarnish to our buoyant spirits – why hadn’t we found a way to keep up our exercise routines and stay a tad more fit while travelling these past six months – we were anxious for the work of trekking to be done. Just when I thought I couldn’t lift myself up another stair, a sign welcoming us to Ghorepani loomed large ahead. Oh yes! The sky opened at about the same time; icy, biting raindrops splashed over us and I somewhere found the energy to gallop to the top of the stairs where our guesthouse awaited us (or did I just imagine I was galloping?).
Rudra our ever faithful porter, had gone ahead and prepared our top floor room for us, bathroom and hot shower included (!). As we entered, the panorama of snow packed mountains that lambasted us through massive windows rendered me speechless. Were we at the Planetarium having a virtual viewing experience or was this real? After drinking in my fill of the splendid vista, I collapsed onto the bed, staring in wonder at the rapidly forming icicles that dripped from our eaves. My breath puffed from my mouth in steamy clouds. I swore I could not climb those stairs again – such was my exhaustion – however both hunger and cold eventually drove me down to the warmth of the dining room where a wood stove in the shape of an oil barrel radiated and glowed in a friendly way in the centre of the room. Starving from calorie burning activity, I reverted to my standard craving for carbs, and guess what – pasta was on the menu! Who thought, in Nepal? As I hungrily dug into my first mouthful, it was all I could do to force myself to swallow the saccharine sweet, candy-like glob of congealed muck that lay upon my pallet. I really should have known better. This was far from my first experience of disappointment with Asian versions of western food. I picked at what I could, worried about offending the cooks and went to bed thoroughly unsatisfied. Oddly, being so depleted, I still found myself starkly wakeful yet another night.
When the knock on our door came at 5 a.m., I dragged my clothing on and grabbed my hiking poles. This was the morning to witness the sun rise resplendently over the mountain peaks from Poon Hill, the highest point on our route. I first attributed my sluggishness to lack of sleep and food as I forced my body up the steps behind the others. Kind Rudra, minus his porter’s load, stayed beside me and, seeing my difficulty, offered to carry my small pack. Glimpsing the others in the darkness above, I laboured upward. At some point I realized that this complete absence of bones I was experiencing, the barely resistible urge to lay down on a cold stone stair and drift happily off to sleep, this dizziness, shortness of breath and emerging nausea – it just had to be more than simple lack of sleep and nourishment. Could I be experiencing altitude sickness? I had been reassured that this would not be a concern on this route so it hadn’t occurred to me until that moment. Discussion with the expert (Karna) ascertained that this was the most likely explanation for my malaise. In the daylight that had broken meanwhile, it was clear that there would be no view at Poon Hill due to overcast (and smoggy) skies. It was decided that climbing on to the summit was unnecessary. After slowly making our way to the tower at the halfway point, we returned down to Ghoripani.
After a scant breakfast due to my lingering sensations of altitude sickness, I had a powwow with our guide, Karna, and he laid out the options. Continuing on meant climbing yet higher before descending, not a recommended course of action when altitude sickness symptoms are present, yet he claimed it to be a possibility if one went ‘slowly, slowly’, a phrase we’d been hearing from the outset of the trek. Other choices involved heading back the way we came – downhill, or spending a day acclimatizing at Ghoripani before going on. The very mention of going back brought a lump to my throat and the threat of uncontrollable tears. Ruin everyone’s trek? Never! The layover day option did not suit my impatient nature. So we agreed to forge onward – slowly, slowly – and see how it went. It turned out that ‘slowly, slowly’ was just the ticket, and, while dizzy at times, my body rallied and I enjoyed another day of spectacular scenes of nature and culture. A large part of our trek this day three was through the aforementioned rhododendron forest – spectacular! We reached the (new) highest point without mishap and I declared my victory over the mountain with a photo op.
A stretch of rugged hiking remained in Day Three’s route, so onward we forged – up, up, up then down down, down and then again some more of that. While my little crisis seemed to have been overcome, we had not anticipated the wear and tear those long downhill stretches would take on Aaron’s fairly new knee replacement. Arriving at Bhanthanti (10,700′) for a late lunch, those knees desperately needed a rest. Though the decision to stay or go was with Aaron this time, I did a silent happy dance in my head when he chose to stop overnight rather than continue to our scheduled point. I was beat! Besides, at this guesthouse, a pony lived under the restaurant; we could see her through cracks in the floor, smell her horsey aroma and hear her neighing. Who wouldn’t want to stay at such digs? Truthfully, I was so done in that I climbed into bed fully clothed, unshowered, intending to rest just a few minutes. I did not rise again (no dinner, an unheard of phenomenon in my world) until morning. Now this is not to say I slept. Unbelievably, I was still – after several virtually sleepless nights – unable to fall into a good slumber. Exercise, fresh air – isn’t that the recipe mom always gave as a sure-fire insomnia remedy? To top these conditions off, a new health concern had arisen after lunch in the pony cafe. Poor, poor Aaron! Rushing outside every half hour to vomit, he slept not a wink either. Seems something he ate at the Tranquility Inn did not agree with him and he was not feeling so tranquil.
We arose the next morning, Day Four – haggard, stinking, throbbing with pain – and were a sorry, pathetic company that set off trekking that day. I don’t know what our guide and Sherpa were thinking at that point – perhaps some phrases that would include ‘old geezers’ and rolled eyes had they been thinking in English. At least I didn’t have to get dressed before setting off, having slept fully clothed from the previous day. It seemed truly miraculous that Aaron trekked at all that day after the night he spent. I have no doubt that each nausea inducing step took every ounce of his will to execute. I know that when we arrived a couple of hours later at the previous day’s destination, Tadapani, and mountain vistas that were absolutely to die for, he – quintessential photographer, naturalist and mountain lover – lay his head down on his arms and moaned softly, deliriously for the hour or so we spent there. And did I see his lip tremble slightly when Karna announced it was time to set off again? I’m pretty sure I did.
Somehow we got through that day – it was gruelling for both of us though downhill most of the way, we plodded along. We arrived at Ghandruk, a hillside village overlooking terraced gardens and pastoral valleys. A hot shower would have been welcome but alas there’d been no sun that day so the solar power that heated water was not to be. We satisfied ourselves with a light wash, light dinner and bed.
I slept! Finally I slept. Upon arising on Day Five of our trek, mostly recovered from our collective litany of woes, we both felt like a million bucks, bright and ready to seize the Trekkers life with a vengeance again. We set off for the short hike to Nayapul, a skip in our step, a song under our breaths. We had survived the worst and were into our final day of trekking. Arrival at Nayapul found us questioning that assertion a few times on the harrowing taxi ride down the dirt mountain track. Views over the cliffs were dizzying and I found myself wondering about the maintenance of this cranky old taxi, especially the brakes.
Nonetheless, we arrived safely to Pokhara and, though it seemed like weeks since we had set out on our ‘little’ trek, – I felt satisfied that we had gone, we had seen and we had conquered, with the help of our guide and porter. And – though some might be inclined to think I just described the trek from hell – well, I prefer to think of it as a great metaphor for life: We plan with specific expectations – The actuality pretty much never turns out as we had envisioned – Our lives are enriched.
While staying at Bodhnath, a large Tibetan community near Kathmandu, Nepal, we hired a taxi to go to nearby Bhaktapur and were taking the day to explore the ancient village. It had been badly hit by the earthquake eleven months previous, and the devastation was in clear evidence, yet the charm of the village and resilience of its inhabitants was as resoundingly evident. Without the air of desperation that can be so redolent in some local shopkeepers, taxis, etc, wishing to earn a few rupees that day, the merchants of Bhaktapur made it clear they were open for business despite this major setback. The attitude seemed to be that their culture had a lot to offer us westerners and it would be our privilege to accept the offer. I appreciated this perspective.
We were ambling along, debating which narrow stone path would lead us to Pottery Square, when a young girl walking in the same direction struck up a conversation with us. She was wearing a crisp blue and white school uniform, as was her younger brother, and I presumed they were returning home at the end of a school day. In very clear English, she asked where we were from, how long we were staying and if we liked Nepal. She introduced herself and her brother, Purnima and Yaman, asking for our names in return. When she learned that we were headed to Pottery Square, with a confident air she offered to lead us there and invited us to visit her family’s home. So off we went following the children, myself thinking once again how very very different things are in Asia than in the western world. The innocence of children initiating conversation with strangers and leading them to their home? An unlikely scenario back home.
When we arrived at their home/shop, a small brick enclosure with shelves of pottery items on display, the children’s mother was waiting with a warm smile, surprised but clearly pleased to see tourists in tow. Did I detect a look of pride directed towards Purnima? The mother, Larimi Keshari, set to making tea while, Purnima and Yaman went to change clothes. Their father, Binod appeared from the back room and introduced himself, clearing a space and gesturing for us to sit on short stools. I was delighted at this warm welcome as I had so many questions swirling around in my brain. How had the earthquake affected them? Binod looked up, gesturing with his hands upward and replied, “Before earthquake? My home is six floors high. Now – this.” It was a one level brick hut with shop in front and living quarters in back. Binod told us that each family member had had their own floor before the earthquake, now they all live in the one room behind the shop. He smiled and shrugged with resignation. “It will take time,” he told us. Although there is government money promised for rebuilding, none has come yet and it will not be enough to replace what was there. When asked about the day of the earthquake, Binod told us that he and his daughter were alone in the shop when the earth began trembling. They ran away and were massively relieved to find that all four in the family had survived unscathed. Only their home was razed to the ground, leaving a dusty pile of broken bricks. Their home and shop had been rebuilt in the small footprint of the original six floor building.
Binod embarked upon a lengthy explanation of the pottery making process, showing us the manual pottery wheel that he had devised for times without power. It was made from a vehicle wheel, and spun with a wooden stick. Yaman, though shy and silent, stayed near his father and assisted eagerly in demonstrating use of the manual wheel. An interesting side fact that we discovered about present day Nepal: The country does not produce enough electric power for 24 hour use, therefore the electricity is turned off for 13 hours of each day, during different hours each day (leaving minimal essential power, ie. bathroom light). We never did quite get used to this, but had to accept that our various electronic devices would not always be available for use. Not so bad for us, but for those who use power for their livelihood, this could prove very challenging. From different local sources we heard that the government is working on deals with the Chinese and Indian governments to increase availability of electric power, there being an apparent ‘power’ struggle between the two countries to have influence in the struggling Nepal.
Having been curious about the hair style of some Nepali men, in which one lock of long hair is left at the back, I had to ask Binod about this. He shared that it is a Hindu custom, tied in with religious beliefs, and that all the men and boys have their hair cut into this style together during a ceremony and that it is a very expensive process. He and Yaman graciously posed for a photo displaying their hair.
We were more than happy to buy a few pottery items from this hard working, optimistic family and publish their address and phone number for future travellers to Bhaktapur. The Prajapatis reinforced for me yet again the amazing fact that has been demonstrated to me across my seven month travels in Asia – that, despite tremendous hardship, even tragedy, the human spirit to survive and thrive, to be happy with their present day world, to be grateful for their loved ones – that this is the predominant force which reigns in their lives, rather than the tragedy that altered their world in such enormous ways.
Larimi Keshari, Binod, Purnima and Yaman Prajapati can be found at:
Tanaka, Bolachhen – 12
Little did we know, as we set out from Pokhara, Nepal, for the nearby Tibetan refugee settlement, Tashi Palkhel, that we would find ourselves so charmed by our encounters there. Travelling by taxi, we arrived in about 15 minutes and, after passing a row of craft stalls, women calling to us to ‘just look’, we began our self tour at the Jangchub Choeling Gompa, the monastery at the centre of the village and home to about 200 monks. As with the many temples we’ve viewed in Asia, the physical presence of Buddhism there is so much more colourful, shiny and decorative than how it is expressed in Western culture. A giant Buddha statue looms in the temple, along with numerous other graphic images. Prayer wheels are a major theme, with an enormous red and gold one being housed in its own room.
Other prayer wheels of various sizes are stationed around temples, used unselfconsciously by local Tibetans in their daily prayer rituals as we walked about. Also ubiquitous in this community were locals walking with strings of prayer beads, chanting prayers as they ambled along. It brought to mind for me the Catholic ritual of reciting the rosary.
We see prayer flags at varying ages and stages of decomposition festooning all corners of the settlement, as we stroll the narrow streets. A young Tibetan woman wearing a t-shirt stating ‘I can’t unlove you’ greeted me with ‘Namaste’. In the conversation that ensued, she shared that she’s Canadian too, home for a one month visit from Toronto.
For me, our visit truly begins when I round the corner of a small prayer wheel temple and come face to face with a tall and toothless elderly man. He greeted me with hands in Wei or prayer position, smiling broadly and asked me where I’m from. When he heard ‘Canada’, he became animated, motioning me to follow him, miming drinking from a glass. I get that I’m being invited home for a drink, and follow, gesturing to my partner down the path to come along. Arriving at a low building with an even lower doorway, we are welcomed into a small spotless room arrayed with raised sleeping beds covered with colourful Tibetan carpets. Buddhist and family photos are arranged on the walls, including a prominently placed photo of the Dalai Lama. As we introduced ourselves, this man held my hands in his, looked into my eyes and leaned his forehead against mine gently, a somehow beautiful honouring gesture. He then disappeared through the doorway for a time.
A much younger man then arrived with glasses of dark, bubbling liquid and placed them in front of us. I panicked a little thinking perhaps this was some local hooch, and since I don’t drink, I dreaded offending these sweet and welcoming people. A surreptitious sniff convinced me that it was nothing more than coca-cola. The next anxiety that niggled at me was whether the glass was clean or would I get yet another round of tourist tummy? However, looking around at this home, humble and tiny as it was, I felt confident about drinking the generous offering. Coca-cola is an expensive drink in Nepal.
We were able to discover through the younger man – who turned out to be the elderly man’s 23 year old grandson – that the excitement about meeting Canadians was about the old man’s daughter who lives in Toronto. He showed us a photo of her and her husband, pointing happily to her and to himself, then to us. He seemed delighted to point to our commonality. He told us that he is 82, smiling warmly with every difficult English word he expressed. He introduced us to his wife who arrived home from visiting the woman next door. A bowl of fruit was placed in front of us. We ate, chatting with our friend’s grandson whose English was excellent. He had completed high school and was looking for a good college. He shared his frustration that employment is difficult for Tibetans living in Nepal. They are not allowed to gain citizenship or work in public service. The Nepali government has entered into trade deals with the Chinese government under which they have agreed not to recognize Tibetan refugees. What kind of future can there be for people in this position, especially youth? Yet they smile cheerfully and welcome us into their community.
As we leave the home of our new friends, Tibetan community life swirled around us. Another toothless gentleman invited us to see his store. When I agreed he, like a magician, whipped a blanket off a few jewellery items and handicrafts that he had arranged on a cement stair, proudly displaying his ‘store’. He had just the copper and brass bracelet that I needed!
A mangy dog displays her pinto-like patterned skin, pink and black, shuffling from sun-bathing spot to shade and back again several times. I suspect she is a community dog, living on whatever scraps come her way. I also suspect she is not the only one, mangy dogs being plentiful here in Nepal.
As we climb into the taxi for the trip back to Pokhara, giggling, joyful chatter of children reaches my ears. This is a sound which spans across all cultures – children gleeful to be out of school for the day. In the small things we find common ground, yet what Westerner can truly understand the landless, oppressed experience of the Tibetan refugee?
I always find it a discombobulating experience to arrive to a new destination after darkness has fallen. It was especially so arriving after midnight to Colombo, Sri Lanka. Flying through foreign, empty streets in a taxi, then having to awaken the groggy-eyed, mumbling night clerk at our hotel was surreal and somehow unsettling. The only fitting response was to roll directly into bed, though I could not help noting vaguely as I drifted off that – yet again – the bed lacked a top sheet and the question of whether the blanket had been washed between users loomed large and suspicious. Nonetheless I was exhausted enough to sleep fitfully for a few hours.
It was our intention coming to Sri Lanka to find a beach paradise to plant ourselves at for a few weeks, as our six months on the road in Asia had left us somewhat dusty and road weary. With this goal in mind we packed up and headed to the Colombo train station where we would ride (standing room only) a creaking, swaying and bumping train south to Hikkaduwa, a beach village which had fared well in trip advisor reviews (Note to self: a review is just another person’s opinion). Two days later – after finding prices high for substandard hotel conditions and restaurant fare, murderous traffic on the sidewalk-less highway that threads narrowly along just a hair away from the beaches, raging surfer waves (we are snorkelers) and a monumental lack of that ‘paradise feeling’ – we found ourselves again heading to the train station.
Since it had proved impossibly complex to find a train schedule or even a person that seemed to know anything about schedules in Hikkaduwa, and online purchasing did not work that day, we jumped into a tuk tuk to get to the station, hoping to find a train leaving soon. After buying our tickets to Matara on the south coast – all of a couple of bucks each for the two hour train ride – we stood in the hot sun with our ridiculous amount of baggage, anticipating a baking hot one hour wait. It was then I noticed a stout Sri Lankan man leaning on a cane, hovering nearby. His smile was welcoming as he asked where we were going. We told him and, straightening visibly, he said that he is the train station’s information man and was there to help train customers. Sweat pouring down our flushed faces, he guessed our need and eagerly led us to the coolest place to wait for a train, a shaded bench beyond the buildings with a lovely cross breeze to cut the heat. He was spot on with this recommendation, and we settled ourselves with relief to wait for our train. We were surprised when our new friend joined us, introducing himself as Saleem. Colourful in loose cotton pants, he raised his injured leg onto the bench for support. With little encouragement, Saleem, Hikkaduwa train station’s information man, revealed his own intriguing story.
Saleem, Information, Man Hikkaduwa Train Station
“It was 2004, December 26,” he began. “I hear a sound ‘Whoooooooo’, so big noise, and I look out at sea.” Saleem lived with his wife and children in their home on the beach just 32 metres from the ocean. He told me that during December a two metre wave was a possible sight, “but this I see this day not normal, not like this.” He looked to the sky and described the enormous wave that was the tsunami that devastated parts of Asia, as the entire world was to know of through news stories and live footage in the following weeks. Saleem did not know what he was seeing; he had never heard of a tsunami. In terror, and thankful that his family was away inland at the historic town of Kandy, he ran to his back yard and clutched to a tree. When the wave hit, this tree was plucked from the ground like a tiny weed pulled from a garden. Saleem was tumbled violently about underwater before the wave receded again and he was set down on the beach with a crushed and bleeding leg. All around him lay the stillness of death. “I am only one alive,” he pondered, “why, why I am only alive?” While he was being tossed by the wave, “Some big stones come break my leg,” and he was unable to move even after the wave was gone. Saleem pulled up his pant leg then to show me scars from the injury given him by the tsunami, and I thought that it was truly amazing that he could walk at all, even with a cane.
Saleem’s scar from tsunami injury of December 2004
Raising his finger for stress, Saleem went on, “Tsunami come at 9:20 morning. Till 8:30 night I am on the beach alone, no one care for me. At 8:30 I see torch, big light, and I wave with my two hands.” Monks from a local monastery were searching for survivors. They came to him and used a piece of robe to tie a tourniquet on his leg to stop the bleeding. The monks carried him to the temple one kilometre away and cared for him there for two days. His family was finally able to return from Kandy and, relieved to find him alive, took him to Galle where they expected medical care at the hospital. Again Saleem used a raised finger for emphasis, “Hospital all full bodies, no doctors – six days I stay there with no medicine! My leg so big infection, hurt very much.” A pained frown darkens his face briefly but instantly transformed, he beams, “But anyway I am very very rich man. I have my wife, my children, right now three grandchildren.” A warm smile shines from his face as he speaks of his family.
Eventually he was taken to Colombo to hospital where he stayed for weeks and had an operation on his leg, but he would never walk without a cane again. His family home was rebuilt in the same spot and together they follow a new path, taking the huge fork that appeared in their road.
“Many people die here Hikkaduwa!” Saleem described the train that was cast into the jungle just north of his village, saying that every person on the train that day died, 1000 people, and that train remains in the jungle where the tsunami dropped it. Saleem’s own house was nowhere to be seen when the wave receded. I try to imagine all the many businesses and guesthouses along the beach, picked up like Lego toys, smashed to matchsticks and littered back along the sea’s edge. Unfathomable.
“Normally I am post man with bicycle. I lose my job, can’t walk, ride bike for work. I can’t get my pension because I was not postman for 25-30 years, I work only 7 years. I am 56 and right now I am information man at train station. Sometime they pay me 3 – 400 Rupee per day ($3 – $4 Canadian); I living with that. I can buy the medicine for my wife, she sick and need pills. One pill cost 160 Rupee, she need three each day.” Saleem pats his pocket and takes out a small bag with pills, saying, “First I go buy, THIS in my pocket, after that everything. THIS in my pocket!” He smiles broadly as he tells me this, proud to be taking care of his wife despite their misfortune.
“I giving my karma, living good. I talk the people, tell my life, my story. They know about my life so they understand, not complain. Information man is good job, good for me. Otherwise thinking, thinking all the time, not good for my heart. Telling stories, different stories. I’m happy, they are happy. I am making people happy with my stories.” Saleem spoke of his Buddhist practice, saying he goes to temple sometimes but more important is the altar in the home. “Every home have altar to Buddha, we pray at home everyday.”
“Right now I’m getting old. I make this pain because I have plastic pin inside my leg, hurting. I’m not going to ask anybody, I am not begging but I try in myself, what I can do, I try my best. I work my best, people say, ‘Saleem doing good to us, okay, thank you.'”
“Still my house in the same place, I stay 32 metres from the sea. I worry about they built my house on the same spot now I have a big good family, hope no more tsunami come, that’s a big feeling sometimes.” Saleem places his hand over his heart and again his face darkens but changes as swiftly to a smile as he exclaims, “I throw it away, that feeling, like a smiling man! I know I am very very rich man!”
My time with Saleem left me feeling optimistic about life and humanity. If a man who has experienced such major misfortune, pain and difficulty can remain positive, smiling, optimistic and not beaten down by life, then he truly is a very rich man. Warm, smiling, open-hearted, he is willing and eager to share his life experiences with others. He asked that I publish his email address: firstname.lastname@example.org with this story and let people know that he welcomes email correspondence.
When our train arrived, Saleem directed us to the correct car and on we trundled with our cumbersome bags. Somehow the whole gritty travel experience we’d been having – difficulty finding a suitable resting spot in Sri Lanka, cramming ourselves onto overloaded trains and buses, night travel, blistering heat, hair-raising near misses with tuk tuk drivers – all paled in comparison to the experiences of our new friend, Saleem, the Information Man at Hikkaduwa train station. We are very very rich people.