My parents were in love in a small town in Nepal. On the edge of a lake, in the cup of the held hands of the Himalayas, they skinny-dipped in waters now infested and read each other poetry. I went there to find them. There is a certain sadness to a young woman traveling alone in places she’s been told she must not go. And she rides buses all night and wants more time alone, to think, and she clutches the journal falling apart in her hands, written in handwriting she learned from, but never mastered.
I called my father from Kathmandu, and he couldn’t comprehend the roar of the cars outside my hostel window. There were no cars, he said, when I was there. Not one. Has it really changed that much?
My room was small but perfect. Far from third world, I had a wooden writing desk and bright yellow walls that invited the winter sun to stream on in. A silent man brought eggs and porridge to my balcony each morning, and I sat under prayer flags, wrapped in a down jacket, building the courage the face the streets and their cataclysmic passaging.
So yes, I imagined that much had changed, but I cannot describe a past I wasn’t part of. Though if I admitted this, perhaps it would make my journey futile. So I told him the butcher had the same pig’s head languishing outside his shop for three days, and whispering men kept trying to sell me hashish. I told him that in the evenings I climbed my favourite temple in Durbar Square, ordered chai with a flick of a fingertip, and sat lofty as a wiry boy ascended the steep stairs to my lookout point. The passing foot traffic carried marigolds, and tourists stopped often to photograph cows. I wrote poetry. Ah, he said. Good. I told him that Freak Street was just a tourist haunt these days, filled with tattoo parlors and restaurants offering momos and plastic bunting slapping the sky without the casual grace of a prayer flag.
One day you’ll be old like me, he said, and you’ll look back on your life and it’s all gone by so quickly. It seems like yesterday. But… and we both know what but means. She’s gone. And that’s not even a chapter, that’s a whole life re-shelved and begun again, from scratch. Except that I’m seeking their footprints.
On the bus into Pokhara I placed a hand upon the cool window and closed my eyes. I thought I would see it. Their home. Thought I would know it the way my Uncle Niels used to know the rain was coming, seeking it out with his nose and a light unraveling of the cells on his fingertips. The way you know a boy is going to kiss you, after studying the placement of your arm on his thigh, judging it just right like you learned it when actually, it was taught to you, by association, from birth. I was nervous, properly nervous, and it felt good to feel something so much. I saw the tiny runway and remembered that he said something about light planes and influxes and I saw a market and I remembered something about carrots and there were carrots. I wished I were the kind of person who wore glasses so I could put my glasses on and could no longer blame my eyesight for something I may have missed on prescription.
But I met Pokhara like the boy you think you have the capacity to adore, who writes poetry but never writes about himself: who prays, but you don’t know what he’s praying for. It was a yellow house, Dad said, sort of near the airport. The paint was peeling. Maybe you can find it. But there are cars now, and buses, and street signs and tourist shops peddling a seventies dream to branded trekkers slouching away from the foot of the mountain they wanted to meet. The books come in cheap paperback. I bought On The Road. I called my father and told him I was reading Kerouac. He laughed. That book, it was like our bible. We studied it, you know? It was a whole philosophy for us.
It might have been enough.
When I return, it’s the summertime. We’re down at the beach and I trawl my father’s bookshelves searching for beat poetry. I’m dressed in a cotton shirt printed with Buddha, prayers and words I don’t try to understand. There are crystals around my neck, so, I’m defined, in the way a self-congratulatory wanderer can be: lost, but, like, loving it. I find a hardback copy of a Field Guide, an almanac of New Zealand’s endemic bird species. I open the cover, and an inscription is written in childish hand, decorated with felt-tip flowers. To Lloyd, on your birthday, and because you make me happy. Love always, Trudi.
I read the book cover to cover, trying to swallow the oystercatcher’s call and indoctrinate my throat with the things they used to know together. My father sees me reading when he comes into my room to adjust the DYI mosquito screen he created for my window when I was young. He raises one eyebrow, but says nothing.
I think my heart fluttered and kicked like a baby goat gamboling on the drive into Pokhara because I wasn’t looking for her. I was looking for him. I was looking for my father, bearded and kaftaned, poetry book in hand, falling in love.
I wasn’t looking for her, but for the girl who smoked ganja and drank rum from the bottle and prayed and wore the rosary beads James K Baxter gave her, and was looking for something.
The kind of girl who would fall in love with him.
The kind of boy she’d fall in love with.
I hired a canoe for ten rupees and paddled out into the lake. Instead of reading her journal I wrote a poem to a god I’d never met. I thanked him for my view of Annapurna. On the opposite shore I bought earrings I didn’t want from refugees from Tibet, because one of them said she was a mother.
When I returned to Kathmandu I stayed for longer than any other traveller, finding a quiet contentment in a city that held no particular appeal for anyone. I turned the wrong way out of my hostel gate each day and danced through the cars roaring down the thin street, hands glued to their horns. I walked away from the tourist quadrant until people stopped assuming and started staring, until the streets were filled with half-naked children and trios of cows marching like visions in the blank, white winter light, which sat against the horizon.
Last weekend my brother and I went to the supermarket in a wealthy suburb of central Auckland. I was wearing a blue silk dress that I bought in Nepal, my crystal chakras around my neck, my feet in jelly sandals. I don’t like coming here, I said, it’s just so middle class, or something.
Kirsti, my brother replied, you went to the third world to find yourself. There’s nothing more middle class than that.
But I didn’t find myself.
I returned to Pokhara on the way to somewhere else for one last day. I cleaned the bookstore out of Kerouac. I went down to the lake, and sat there until the sun went down, reading a wild and reckless manual in how to let go.