I can’t sleep. Did I drink too much coffee at the café yesterday? Smoke too many cigarettes? What a disappointment. First afternoon off the meditation retreat and I immediately binge on three of my favorite chemicals: caffeine, nicotine and sugar.
The self-recriminations creep in from the shadows, shadows cast by the mountains against the pale light of a gibbous moon. Why can’t I control myself for more than a minute? Why can’t I maintain a positive state of mind for more than sixty? Why can’t I just sleep when I go to bed, like everyone else?
Why, why, why.
Ten days of meditation didn’t make a dent on this thought pattern, I guess! They say it takes 30 days to form a habit or break one. No way I could’ve held out for another 20.
Was it worth it, taking the time to come over to Nepal? Spending all that money on the flights? Not sitting my ass in one place for a more than a few months, and holding down a job like everyone else?
Questions with inaccessible answers. No answers you can trust. Therefore: bad questions. No point in asking them. Experience is what you make of it. Who cares what everyone else is doing. You’d be miserable like you always were back there in the square life. Leave that to everyone else and find a different path. Even if it’s terrifying to be lost.
You can’t chastise yourself out of a bad mood. Sometimes you can distract yourself out of one though. I grab my phone off the desk and pull up some poetry. Lines from Keats’ “To Sleep” were echoing in my head all retreat long, and I resolved to fill in the blanks and memorize the whole thing when I got back. Memorizing would occupy my obsessive mind, and this particular incantation was so deliciously germane, I had a chance of it working.
O soft embalmer of the still midnight, Shutting, with careful fingers and benign, Our gloom-pleas'd eyes, embower'd from the light, Enshaded in forgetfulness divine: O soothest Sleep! if so it please thee, close In midst of this thine hymn my willing eyes, Or wait the "Amen," ere thy poppy throws Around my bed its lulling charities. Then save me, or the passèd day will shine Upon my pillow, breeding many woes, Save me from curious Conscience, that still lords Its strength for darkness, burrowing like a mole; Turn the key deftly in the oilèd wards, And seal the hushèd Casket of my Soul.
Damn you, curious conscience! Damn you and your burrowing! But thank you, John, for putting good words in my mind. It’s nice to wield another’s words against your woes. That last couplet was the first part that stuck with me, years ago. The mere suggestion of key makes feel I can almost wrap my attention around something inside me that, with a gentle twist of the mind, locks me in a dream world behind those oilèd wards. Better to do it myself than wait for Sleep herself to pay me some attention.
It isn’t enough though—the magic is tired too.
I look at the clock—4:30 am. Earlier in the night I cleared my RSS feed, dispatched all the easy emails. I’ve still got two hours ’til breakfast, and poetry asks a bit too much of my higher mental faculties. I need another diversion, perhaps a prose one, but the only book I have with me is Mindfulness in Plain English and the last thing I want right now is more meditation. I’d planned to reread some of the book in the lead-up to the retreat, but inspiration never came. I’m short on inspiration now too, but I guess it’s either lie awake in bead, read about meditation, or actually meditate. The internet is way too slow for the heavy-duty diversions—streaming media, book downloads, etc. I’d rather than read than meditate, so I open to chapter 1.
There are some other possible explanations, besides the chemicals, for the state I’m in. I’d had an unusual day. I’d spent a lot of time on the zabuton thinking about what I was going to do, immediately and long-term, after the retreat. The Want-To-Do List (a more empowering variant on the To-Do list I thought of supra zabuton I developed for Day One was:
- fruit lassi
- vegetable juice
- chocolate chip cookie
- copy notes from gauze pad wrappers
The first three I took care of almost immediately upon arriving in Lakeside, the lovely tourist ghetto. I stumbled off the bus within a stone’s throw of what I heard was the best coffee joint in town, AM/PM Organic Cafe.
Usually, I make a point of not stumbling off buses. However, it had been a brutal ride. I peaced out of the meditation center at around 11 with the sun on my shoulders, a pack on my back, and a smile on my face. I even had some fresh naan the cook insisted I take with me, though I planned to toss it at the first trash bin so I could resume eating gluten-free. Free of the cloister and gluten-free is just the thing for me.
In Nepal, a “mountain” has a snow cap; a big rock without one is merely a hill, though these hills dwarf most of the named mountains back home. I started the 4 km walk down the hill to the bus stop in Begnas, and soon as I came off the center’s access trail, cell service locked in and I became one of the last Americans to hear about Obama’s reelection. An excellent start! After a kilometer or two, though, the novelty wore off and my mind wandered forward once again to my afternoon of deliciousness. “Wish I could get there faster,” I began to think, but before I could finish, a motorcycle pulled over in front of me and the driver, a sharply-dressed Nepali guy, turned around and said “Need a ride down the hill?”
Yes, yes I do. I hop on the back.
The wind is a delight, and I’m traveling 10 times faster than I have in a week and a half. He leaves me off at the bus stop and points me toward my bus; I promise to stay at his guest house next time I’m out this way. I board the bus, which is almost empty. A good sign. The conductor tells me the fare is 30 Nr (about 35¢). A good price. I calculate that this is 1/50 what it cost to get out here in a taxi. Bad sign. With a generous allowance for diminishing marginal returns on my rupees, I figured I was in for a ride that was at most 1/10 as pleasant. It turned out that my calculation was generous.
Several Americans here have told me that Nepalis are the worst drivers in the world. This is true; they could not possibly be worse. It has nothing to do with their hand/eye coordination, or intelligence, or anything innate. Naturally, Nepalis are used to this. I am not. Every motor vehicle ride I go on gives me agitation bordering on agony, as drivers ignore every rule of the road and passenger comfort that I am used to in the States. They treat the road they way pedestrians in NYC treat the sidewalk: use any space available to you in any way you wish. Want to go faster than the car in front of you? Pass it, regardless of oncoming traffic. See some space between vehicles? Fill it—it’s wasted space. Turning? Why signal? People have eyes. Or ears: a honk doesn’t mean “Hey, you’re doing something wrong!” but rather just “Hey!”, and it’s not really optional, because constant honking substitutes for having rules and following them. If everybody knows where everybody else is and adjusts for it, then you can do almost anything you want without danger.
And it works, it really does. It squeezes much more bandwidth than US regulations would out of the narrow, bumpy roads overfilled with cars and buses and motorcycles and pedestrians and dogs and chickens and cows (which, like the sacred idols Hindus believe them to be, move for no man). But for the western traveler, especially one who loves orderly systems, it comes on like a constant violation of your serenity. And that’s without considering the exhuast quality. This is not a place of high emissions standards, so if it runs, it’s running, and any additional maintenance is a waste. Plus the gas doesn’t burn as clean because it’s been adulterated with kerosene, which fills the air with black smoke while it destroys the engines. No wasted space, only wasted hydrocarbons. So if you’ve got nausea coming at you from the motion, the deep breaths that would normally help will only make it worse. O culture shock! O doggy bag! Travel on an empty stomach and wear your filter mask.
Through those streets I rode to Pokhara. And, again, in a local bus not a cab, so it stopped every 50 meters plus whereever anyone flagged it down, honked like a street party, maneuvered like a boat, and filled up like the NYC subway tunnels during Hurricane Sandy. My serenity was tested, and it failed. I caved; I ate the naan.
Seventy-five minutes later we pulled into town, but not my part of town. A woman directed me to the next bus I need in broken English. I thanked her in broken Nepali. Bus #2 was more like a van and moved more like a roller-coaster. I was standing, so the excitement was multiplied. The air got better as we approached Lakeside, but I was losing hit points to the marauding walls and roof.
Two hours after I left the meditation center, I arrived, with a hundred good excuses for a stumble (though nobody cared). I proceeded directly to AM/PM, ogled the pastry case, ordered coffee and a mixed fruit lassi, dropped my bag, and popped into the store next door for a bottle of water and some cigarettes. Without a doubt I was caving to craving with the smokes, but I’d decided, supra zabuton, to prioritize working on other bad habits: overeating, not meditating, drinking, et al. Sorry mom! I sucked down the coffee, the lassi & a cancer stick, then put pen to paper.
Two hours, fourteen pages of notes, a vegetable juice, a masala chai and a second cigarette later, I was reinvigorated and rather buzzed on stimulants. Want To Do list status: 4 of 6. Time to find a bed. En route to a nice little inn I’d read about, I snagged some chocolate chip cookies from the German Bakery. They’re terrible, but I love them anyway. 5 of 6.
After ten days of cold showers and colder nights, I couldn’t have have cared less about paying more than necessary for a room if it meant guaranteed relaxation. The exchange rate was still ever in my favor. I showered, I changed, the sun slipped behind the hills. Only one thing left to do before dinner and a long sleep.
There were two massages places that I had my eye on. The first specialized in Ayurvedic healing massages, but they closed at 7, and it was 6. Appointments were available the following day, but this couldn’t wait. I had a Want To Do list to finish. At second place, all the therapists were deaf & dumb. From a great massage at the hands of blind man in Taipei back in ’06, I was comfortable with the idea that the loss of one sense enhances the others. However, after walking the whole strip twice, I couldn’t find it. I didn’t want to have a late dinner and no way was I getting a massage on a full stomach, so I settled for the massage place with the brightest lights and the most prominent location. I assumed I would overpay, but I figured it couldn’t truly suck and also stay bright & prominent.
Warning signs, in order of revelation:
- Shabby everything
- No other clients
- Seedy menu
- They made me pay first
I came up with rationalizations for all of these and dove into a “Special Trekkers Therapy” which was the recommendation I got from the girl at the front after I told her I like strong massages.
- I was recommended the most expensive treatment.
Whatever, $20, just touch me.
What ensued was one of the most physically and emotionally abusive experiences in my life. From the stocky dude’s first touch to when I finally stopped him way, way too late, not a single muscle in my entire body had actually been massaged. Rather, I was forcefully compressed chunk by chunk by his meaty, senseless hands, which he moved mechanically around the surface of my body with complete disregard for the underlying anatomy or the reactions he elicited. I gave him the benefit of the doubt. Different types of massages start with different “warmups” and since I had no idea what a Special Trekkers was supposed to be, maybe it pushed you around a bit at first in order to make the subsequent softness sweeter. This was not the case. A trained massage therapist might be able to execute a strategy that subtle, but if this guy had any training in anything all, it was kneading pizza dough, or crushing underripe grapes to make shitty wine, or executing low-grade torture orders for small-time loan sharks. But even then I would expect a perceptible level of professionalism, a sense that the had any idea what the fuck he was doing. A better explanation might be that he had never given a massage before; never received a massage before; had his peripheral nervous system damaged by a few years of jackhammering pavement, dulling him to any ideas of what might feel good to a body; and then, when the last masseuse got disgusted by the ownership and walked out, his sister at the front desk asked him to fill in last minute, interrupting him halfway through a six-pack:
“But I don’t know how to give a massage. And I’m drunk.”
“Ah, these dumb trekkers don’t care. Just do what you do to those girls with low self-esteem you keep dating, but avoid the genitals. Thirty minutes front, thirty minutes back. I’ll buy you more beer.”
When he massaged across the spine with pressure, I realized how screwed I was. I should’ve bailed then and demanded a refund, but I was so upset, so stunned, and I’d already paid. I wanted to salvage something, anything from my $20 (double what I pay for a dreamy massage in Kathmandu). I was paralyzed, or about to be. His phone rang, and he picked it up. After a chat, he carried on chatting with the girl from the front, over the dividers. He wasn’t just unable to notice how I was doing, he wasn’t even paying attention—more blind than a blind man. I tried to not pay attention also, but then an errant squash nearly broke ribs. The first of several, I needed all my attention and abdominal strength for protection.
I should’ve left. I should’ve should’ve should’ve.
After turning me onto my back, he excused himself to take a piss, giving me time to gather my thoughts. He can’t possibly do much more damage here, I thought, I can make it. And he didn’t. Until he’d worked his way up to my head, put his palm on my forehead, fingers spread, and shook his hand side to side, bouncing my temples between his fingers, my head rolling on the table, back and forth, back and forth, for about 15 seconds. In a massage full of shockers, and some mediocre massages over time, this was without question the most uncomfortable, the most abusive & degrading, the flat-out dumbest thing that had every been done to me on purpose. Then he did again.
“Stop it,” I said.
“What?” he oafed at me.
“Stop it. I don’t like that.”
But by then the hour was up anyway.
When I walked out, the front of the house was empty, so I couldn’t complain and ask for my money back, though I had the sense it was long gone already. I thought about standing outside and dissuading others from coming in, but I was too disgusted with them & myself, and too hungry to spend another minute in its aura. I needed to escape, I needed dinner, and I needed a drink.
I took this picture of the place so I could slam them online, then set off down the street for my nice dinner, needed now more than ever. A cab darted into an alley in front of me and I dodged behind it without breaking stride, a man on a mission. Then the cab backed up into my legs.
This was too much. No damage was done, but the improbability of the insult floored me. I got hit by a car. I got hit by a car and it was merely a punctuation mark on an evening of abuse by Inattention. I’d become the punching bag of an indifferent universe. I was going to need two drinks. The day had started so well too, changed so drastically… the only response I could muster was a to fake a laugh (fake it ’til you make it) and call home. I never call home when I need emotional support—usually I just get a coffee and a croissant—but I was at the end of my rope, at the roof of the world.
Dad got a good (real) laugh out of the flash version of the story and encouraged me to get those drinks. I hung up on the steps of Newari Kitchen, where I’d dined on the eve of the retreat. Two terrible/perfect glasses of red, a banana lassi, a hearty Newari stew, and some Bhaktapuri yogurt work their magic and all of a sudden I’m buying dark chocolate in a corner store and heading back to my room to sleep the day off.
With so much much to shake off that night, no surprise I was having a hard time doing it.
This is Part I of the story. Read Part II here.