Jan Cornall and I worked out during our recent Himalayan sojourn that we probably met in 1979 when we were both working at the Pram Factory, a theatre company in Carlton. She was doing a show with her musical partner Elizabeth Drake and we must have got to be friends then.
Over the intervening years, and in particular, for the last couple of years, I would get broadcast emails from her about writing workshops that she was conducting in Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Morocco and other places. Everything seemed to be in alignment when she popped up with a series of workshops in Nepal and Tibet. “Why not?”.
Without much further thought I replied that I would love to come and Jan sent me the forms and the account to get me in the list which I promptly paid and got in return an information kit that included an itinerary and some of the local issues that we might face.
There would be bottled water as the local tap water was not safe for foreigners and some other medical issues that needed further study. I went to see my GP, Tanya, who decided I needed a battery of tests and some specific drugs for malaria, cholera, altitude sickness, the runs, rehydration etc etc. It came to a second large toilet bag just for the meds. I checked in with Jan and she said ‘we aren’t going to a cholera or malaria area but do get the altitude sickness medication, you might need that, Diamox I think.”
Tanya referred me to a travel clinic at the Alfred hospital and for a lung function test in the same hospital. Thorough. I thought it was over the top but she had my back.
I was in town a few days later, in the CBD, Melbourne. I had got a quote for the air travel including a four day stop in Mumbai and a similar recovery stop in Singapore on the way back. As I was walking to see my accountant I happened to pass a Flight Centre travel shop and thought it worthwhile to get a comparative quote. My original quote came from the aunt of a friend who had always been solicitous and knew a number of my friends. I was amazed to see a few minutes later that as a complete stranger asking for the same travel plan that the quote was $2,000 less. And that was the one I took.
The flights to Mumbai were overnight to Singapore, then a layover for a couple of hours and a change of plane to Mumbai.
Arriving in Mumbai was a smack in the face of heat and humidity. I quickly found a cab and explained that I was going to Malabar Hill Country Club where a mate had booked me right next to the apartment building that his family lives in. The drive there went past the sea on our right and to the left were burnt out shanty dwellings although they didn’t seem to have anyone living in them. I asked if people went swimming at the beach and the driver laughed.
When we got to Malabar Hill he started circling obviously not knowing where the Club was. I suggested he ask a local and as it turned out we were virtually in front of it. After I checked in and got my bags in the room I made contact with Andre’s sister who told me to come over and that the apartment was next door. The apartment was gated and had security guards at the front and at the entrance to each block. Finally I got to 3C and Andre’s sister met me at the door. Andre was asleep but he soon showed up. During the course of that day I asked him about the swimming and why the cab driver had laughed at my question. It turns out that the sewerage from Bombay, where there is sewerage, is pumped out into the bay but only about 100 metres and, “if you go down to the seashore early in the morning tens of thousands of homeless people are relieving themselves there so the water is toxic.” Andre was a member of several clubs which had large inground pools for safe swimming. The club I was in had been in his families membership for years but now cost US300,000 to join. So there it was. The constant smell of shit on the lowlands and the exclusive and expensive club a little higher up.
The comfort of strangers was a film from 1990 directed by Paul Schrader and starring Natasha Richardson, Rupert Everett, Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren. It was not quite a horror film but it was nasty.
I am not sure why but that title came to me and stayed with me for the whole trip.
In contrast the comfort of strangers on this trip was a blessing and a great deal of comforting went on.
On June 7 eleven of us met in Kathmandu where we joined our tour leader Jan Cornall and our local guide Bikram and driver Setan (Saytan). Kathmandu was still showing the signs of the disastrous earthquake that struck in April 2015 which killed almost nine thousand people. Many of the important world heritage buildings and structures became rubble. Driving in our mini bus was hazardous as Setan manouvered skilfully to avoid tears in the fabric of the roads. There were many such obstacles and difficult no go areas none of which seemed to disturb the controlled chaos of the traffic and the seeming complete disregard for what we are used to in the West of agreed traffic rules. Or perhaps we didn’t understand the local version. It didn’t take long to relax in the knowledge that Setan was very good at what he did and his van had not a single scratch that would evidence a different conclusion. I didn’t know any of the others but we soon got an understanding of each other as we shared the travel, workshops and pieces that we wrote and read out to the group.
Durbar Square which had been a major attraction for its temples and sculptures is now rubble. There are three Durbar Squares in Nepal and the name refers to the fact that they are royal palace squares. We visited another Durbar Square where the destruction was evident but not as bad as the main one in Kathmandu. As with all natural events the quake can be interpreted from a Hindi or Buddhist point of view. Or there is science. The pushing of the tectonic plates beneath India as it continues its northern journey meets the opposite force of the Eurasian plates which not only formed the Himalayas some fifty million years ago but can and did create earthquakes as a manifestation of their opposed forces. All very well if you aren’t in the midst of it as it occurs!! Don has explained this better in his piece.
After four days travel in Nepal we came back to Kathmandu to get a flight to Lhasa, Tibet. We all had prepared ourselves for the sudden increase in altitude and read material on the problems of altitude sickness. We all had the prescribed medication and began taking it the day before the ascent. We were all looking forward to this part of the trip.
As the plane taxied to a halt and we disembarked I noticed that even in the land bridge the temperature was cooler than it had been in Nepal. By the time we headed toward immigration I started to feel dizzy and my companions noticed that my complexion had been drained of colour. Swiftly Rob grabbed my rucksack and camera and Jenny gave me her arm to steady me. As there was a queue to get our documents looked at and Jan had the group visas we were pushed to a different queue and I was promoted to the front behind her.
The overwhelming physical sensations were nausea, dizziness and headache. Someone from the group gave me another Diamox which I swallowed with some effort. We all carried bottled water as we knew that the tap water in both Nepal and Tibet would not be kind to our guts. A headache came on and didn’t subside for the whole trip in Tibet. The smell of shit, so pervasive in Mumbai and Kathmandu, was now gone except in the toilet blocks we stopped at in our journeys.
We were met by our guide Dekyi and driver. I was sat in behind an oxygen tank and given a mask and breathed in the oxygen all the way to the hotel. Once in the room and with my luggage having been delivered I took off some things and lay down. Dekyi had provided me with some cans of oxygen and I used these at regular intervals. I felt crap but thought take the meds, acclimatise and in an hour or two or by the morning all will be well. Every now and then I would pull some congealed blood from my nose.
Over the next eight days we eleven, plus Dekyi and the driver, drove around Tibet. The contrast to Nepal couldn’t be greater, the roads were new and sealed, the river beds were mud and the glaciers had melted. We passed a new looking huge high rise apartment complex. “Who lives in these?” “nobody, they were built for Tibetans but they traditionally live near their temple and running water.” The temples are now Luna Parks and the rivers and glaciers are gone.
We heard about the Panchen Lama, the one who was appointed from Beijing. We were warned before arrival not to carry books by the Dalai Lama or pictures. Indeed in May someone had climbed Everest from the Tibetan side and planted a Tibetan flag and picture of the Dalai Llama at the summit so Beijing had closed access to the mountain from that side.
The temple visits, of which there were many, made me feel awkward. There were lots of people but being a tourist in somebodies holy place didn’t seem right to me. Yes, I have been to the Vatican to look at the Michelangelo and da Vinci works and I wasn’t totally comfortable there either. When I was in Prague in 1987 working on a film, my younger son came over to visit for a week. I took him to the Alte Neu cemetery in the centre and we were approached by a local guide who offered to talk us through the history of the place. He said at one point that a lot of Jewish people used to come there and in fact Rabbi Loew, who had supposedly brought the golem to life, was buried there. I asked, knowing the answer, why Jews didn’t come anymore. “Ah”, he said rubbing the his index finger and his thumb together indicating that they had left to chase money. Inside the cemetery were the names of ninety thousand Jews who had perished during the Holocaust sent to Theresienstadt and Auschwitzch concentration camps where they were murdered.
Lou and I made our way to a synagogue nearby. As we stood there taking it in two German speaking tourists came in talking loudly and taking photographs with their flash cameras. It is a difficult balancing act to show respect and to visit cultural icons. I am still not sure how you get this right.
Bob Weis has been one of Australia’s most highly regarded drama producers for more than three decades, with credits including quality television mini-series such as Seven Deadly Sins (1992), Women of the Sun (1990), The Petrov Affair (1986), Waterfront (1984) and The Dunera Boys (1984).Read more here.
Photos by Jan Cornall except where indicated. All the photos in the slideshow below are by Bob
This article was also published on Medium: https://medium.com/himalayan-kora/the-comfort-of-strangers-d6ed58a18b00