Sunday, September 11, 2016

Nepal 1982

Bangkok 1982
So there I was sweating buckets at the old Bangkok Airport, standing in front of a photo counter in the duty-free zone that I hoped sold slide film. Earlier, I had checked my travel pack in, got my boarding pass and had passed through security and x-ray machines. I was getting ready for the trip of a lifetime to the mountain kingdom of Nepal, and had been counting on buying slide film at a duty-free shop.
Some experienced traveller I was.
I had been told earlier by more ‘learned’ Aussie traveller that I would be able to find Kodachrome 64 and 25 ASA film at the Duty Free shops. However, upon asking this shop keeper for any slide film, the blood drained from my face when he said he didn’t have any.
Now what to do?
Some professional photographer I was too!
Dreams of taking incredible shots of the Himalayan trek were dissolving.
What’s the point of going to Kathmandu and doing a trek if I don’t have any slide film?
I hummed and hawed for a few minutes as the reality of not having slide film weighed heavy on me—me a photographer no less.
I was reminded of something that my old Winnipeg Tribune photo editor told me just two years earlier: “You can run out of time on a photo shoot, but under no circumstances, come back here and tell me that you ran out of film—always carry extra” he said chomping on a stale stogie. Well I had flunked that one, hadn’t I.
I looked at the time of departure—Christ I still had two hours to boarding time and I already had my boarding pass. I had to make a quick decision.
Could I find slide film outside the airport?
I decided to go for it.
I had to show my passport and boarding card and plead with the Thai army security guys to let me go back out and try to find some film. After a bit of persuasion, Canadian style, they allowed me to go, but I had to leave my boarding pass with them.
I ran like hell out to the Arrivals area and crazily flagged down a taxi that had just dropped off some passengers. I jumped in the passenger seat and yelled at the guy— “I need to find a place where they sell film!”
Luckily he understood some English as Thailand had recently experienced a boom in tourists—this was 1982 after all.
I looked at my watch and realized I only had an hour to find a camera shop.
Just as we pulled away, I yelled at him, “If you get me back here in less than an hour, I’ll give you a $20 US tip on top of the fare,” I said waving a fresh $20 bill at him.
He seemed to like that, mind you twenty bucks was quite a nice chunk of change back then and a hard currency at that.
He drove like someone out of Mad Max, honking at everyone that blocked our path, careening all over the road. He took me to the first shop with a Kodak sign, but they only had colour negative film—no good for me. Then to another shop, but they only did printing.
You would think I would be a little more organized what with being on the road for eight months.
The clock was ticking. I got fed up and just asked the shop keeper where I could get slide film. He muttered something in Thai to my driver and off again we went and eventually came to another shop with a huge Fuji film sign. It was a professional camera and film shop. This time I was in luck as they had a few Kodachrome 64 (without mailers) but mostly Ektachrome slide film—the supposed professional film.
 At this point, I didn’t care anymore and was just happy to find any slide film. I bought all he had (15 rolls). The film wasn’t cheap either and I cursed that fellow traveller for leading me astray.
We had an equally scary ride at breakneck speed back to the airport and arrived with 10 minutes to spare. I paid the cabbie the meter rate and gave him the $20 dollar bill. I thanked him profusely. I hurried back through security, saw the security guys again and showed my passport and retrieved my boarding pass. I was all sweaty again but relieved to have film.

On to Nepal.
A few weeks later in Kathmandu, between myself and American fellow trekkers, Dan Callaway and Brian Stern, we had organized a 31-day Annapurna Circuit trek along with a host of Nepali guys from the Tamang tribe.  Our guide, Kalam Singh Tamang, had worked as a cook on larger Sherpa-led expeditions, but now he wanted to form his own trekking company employing his in-laws as porters.
Also, I didn’t want to be encumbered anymore with the finicky Nikon Nikonos camera I had bought in crazy Tokyo just eight months ago. I thought I was being smart buying an underwater camera that would be dust proof and water proof—silly me! It had knobs for guessing how far away someone was and another for the light meter, it was unlike my OM-1 and OM-2 that I had stupidly left back home.
I had checked out some camera shops in Kathmandu and had chatted up the Nepali Hindu guy at the counter to swap my underwater camera for a used Olympus OM-1 he had on sale. The picture quality on the Nikonos was good, but not as sharp as a 50 mm Zuiko lens on this old OM-1. I swapped, thinking I had got the better of the deal.
It wasn’t until I was riding on the top of our crowded Nepali bus to Pokhara and in trying to take a picture, that I realized that the light meter didn’t work. I checked to see if the battery had been put in wrongly, but then was horrified to find—no battery at all.
Good grief now what to do.
Neither Dan nor Brian had an extra battery—who would carry such a thing?
It just so happened that on our crowded bus also rode two fellow Canadians that I knew from Banff. Earlier, I had run into Booby and Roki Bernstein on Freak Street as they were stocking up on clothes, trinkets and whatnot for their groovy import shop called “The Source”.  I hadn’t seen them in almost a year and in chatting with them on the bus, I told them of my plight of not having a battery for the light meter. The camera still worked, but the light meter didn’t.
Before I could say anymore, Roki kindly offered me her battery from her camera, but when I tried it—no luck. So there I was, in a smoke filled bus, heading off to where we would start our trek, with my x-ray bag full of slide film, but with a camera that had no light meter—Geezuz!
Not a great way to begin the trek of a lifetime.
Despite the bus taking over an hour, we had only managed to go 50 kilometers from Kathmandu. I had to make a decision. Above the din of the bus, I talked with our guide Kalam, then with Brian and Dan again about me returning to Kathmandu in the hopes of finding a battery for my light meter.
As it turned out, Dan had picked up a stomach bug and was feeling proper poorly. It was agreed that our gang could hold up at Dumre just for today, pitch camp while Dan recovered, but would start off on our trek tomorrow morning bright and early—with or without me.
We were only half way to our starting point at Dumre and since it was midday, there was the likelihood that I might still be able to catch a bus returning to Kathmandu from Pokhara. At the next bus stop, I left my heavy Lowe Kinnikinnik travel pack with the guys and was lucky to catch a bus heading back to Kathmandu.
Once back in the Kathmandu bus terminal, I grabbed a taxi and off to Freak Street, back to the shop where I had swapped my camera.
Unfortunately, the guy did not have any batteries that were new or would fit my OM-1, nor did any other camera shop for that matter—bugger! What options did I have now? I decided I could guess at the exposures or ask someone else with a working light meter for their exposures. What a pain in the ass I would be on the trek now.
In the fading afternoon light, I hurried back to the bus station hoping to catch a bus back to Dumre. Unfortunately there was no overnight bus service to Pokhara, but there was a bus that was heading to Pokhara that would stop for the night along the way.
Luckily, I got the last seat on that bus.
One has to bear in mind that darkness sets in early here in the Himalayas and after an hour or so, we pulled into a guesthouse for the night. At a roadhouse in Mugling, I ate some tasty daal bhaat tarkari (rice, lentils and curried vegetables) by hurricane lamp then a Nepali police officer and myself were the only customers to go upstairs to sleep. Unfortunately, our sleeping area was nothing more than a row of army surplus cots in a huge dorm with a cheap tin corrugated roof which reverberated when a sudden downpour came. We were up around 4,000 feet so it was quite chilly and all I had to keep warm was my Helly-Hansen fleece and my Gore-Tex MEC jacket and some flea-ridden wool blankets. To add to this chilly encounter, there was a plague of rats that crawled on the roof and on us which made it quite a fitful night of sleeping.
The cacophonous bus horns woke us from our crappy slumbers and after a quick breakfast, we were herded back onto the bus and off again on the next part of my sub-continent adventure.
The Nepalis love their cheap cigarettes and I was soon feeling nauseous because no one opened their windows. At the next bus stop, I’d had enough and fought my way past the throngs on this crowded bus and climbed the outside rickety metal ladder that led to the roof. Once on top and with the cold Himalayan air buffeting me, I quickly donned my Gore-Tex jacket over top of my fleece as it was a tad nippy here in the mountain air. I had just come from balmy Bangkok after all.

The air was bracing and the mountain scenery unforgettable, but I had absolutely no idea what ranges and peaks I was looking at. One of the gigantic burlap bags I leaned against had broken open probably caused from the lads flinging them up to the roof. The bag was full of little sealed bags of bite-sized chevda—a spicy mix of peanuts and other tasty fried things—the Indian equivalent to our nuts and bolt, but with a little chili heat. I munched on a packet to pass the time of day. I was the only brave soul riding the roof and I felt like a pasha up here surveying all I controlled.
The bus eventually arrived at our starting point of Dumre in the early afternoon. Thankfully, Kalam had left one of the porters, Osman, behind, so we headed off at a fast pace in the hopes of catching up with everyone by dinner time. We had only walked a couple of kilometers when I heard some voices yelling at me up ahead. It was Dan and Brian who were sprawled out on blankets either writing in their journal or reading a book, but apparently waiting for lunch to be prepared.
Thankfully, I had made it here after all with or without a light meter.

The real trek would begin tomorrow.

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