When travelling I’ve always found that the places where I meet interesting, inspirational or just downright insane people are the places that stick the most in my mind. It’s often their faces I remember, those wine-soaked nights out or the spontaneous deviations from travel plans that come from starting a conversation on a cross-border bus, being invited into a local’s home or bonding with a Brit over missing decent (and decently-priced) cheese in Asia (or America or Africa or Australia, actually).
They are often people that you’d never naturally meet at home, like finding an unexpected friend during a moment of hell during an activity that makes you realise you’ve bitten off far more than your muscles can actually chew or just before you jump out of a plane and it suddenly occurs to you that this was perhaps not your brightest idea.
From the 17-year-old backpacker’s high on Khao San Road’s cheap clothes and beer to the travelling forty-somethings, revelling in a mutual lust for food, travel and foreign culture or re-inventing themselves and their professions abroad or the pensioner on their last hurrah, blowing the kid’s inheritance on one last, intoxicating swoop around the globe. From the Nepalese chef and the Amsterdam-dwelling nomadic writer to the Norwegian dog mushers and Chinese potato sellers, pocket-sized Philadelphia line dancers and the Japanese business man who thew in the corporate towel and intended to spend his foreseeable future island hopping.
Faces not Places is my attempt to record and remember these people that put certain destinations on the map for me.
Peace Eye, Pokhara, Nepal
I’ve already mentioned The Peace Eye Guest House in a rose-tinted Review Postcard, but it’s worth repeating that for me, and for my then boyfriend, despite memories of Pokhara being made up of cloud-clogged skies, boat graveyards and seemingly endless rain, it was also where we meant some incredible travellers who brought colour to the grey scape.
Billy never offered a surname and we never asked for one. He is and always will be, simply Billy, like Madonna, or Jesus. When we met him he claimed that my boyfriend and I were surrounded by an aura of love and he must be born in December (he is) and I must be born in the Spring (I’m not). He looked puzzled and shrugged, claiming that I must be from the southern hemisphere then because I definitely looked like Spring. Apparently Billy was a seriously big deal on the 90’s DJ scene and if his hollow, spaced-out eyes and jittery gestures were anything to go by then it’s clear that the decade wasn’t kind to him.
Billy was hired by a club in Nepal to do their new year’s eve gig – techno, trance and dance have taken a firm, throttling grip on the Nepalese music scene … that and Beiber anyway. Billy never left Nepal and can be found either philosophising in Peace Eye, stoically playing chess in a herbal haze outside the distinctly lascivious Bar Santana, or physically coercing customers into buying his beer.
Tim is a sardonic American writer whose speech has a touch of the Bill Murray drawl. He grew up in Indiana in the conservative American Mid-West and, against his mother’s wishes (she still refuses to read his books in protest), he quit his job as a teacher and left with his wife to cycle around the world. He has been travelling for nine years and claims he can’t go back for another four, until his mortgage on his house is paid off back in America. So he drifts from place to place writing travel journals and self publishing them. You can read about his exploits at downtheroad.org
He was full of happy little tales like the time his wife went into an ashram in the foothills of India and never came back out. The last time I saw him they were in the middle of an acrimonious divorce. He offered me nuggets of wisdom gleaned from his years of travelling such as: ‘You’ve got to always look for the Adam’s apple man’ and ‘Every Euro girl needs a crazy American Uncle. It’s just the law.’
Jack is a Kiwi conservationist who seems to have lived in every continent on the planet and still maintains an insatiable wanderlust and genuine passion for exploration. He seemed to be El Capitan of Peace Eye, the ‘Red’ of Shawshank – all requests or queries went through him, he’s a man who knows people and who can get things. He shepherded and welcomed new comers, drawing them into his close-knit, random collection of friends. He works with wild tigers.org helping to protect and cultivate habitats and national parks and to stop illegal trading and poaching of wild animals in northern Nepal and across South East Asia. He is like the BFG, 6’5 and can be frequently found hunched at his ‘desk’ in the Peace Eye coffee lounge, huge hands tapping away at his tiny netbook, planning his next escape back into his natural habitat.
Jack’s ‘Petit Croissant.’ The delightfully French Cecile was Parisian, without the pretence or the intimidating polish. She was reluctant to talk about her work and was pleasingly mysterious in her conversation. All I knew was she didn’t have to go back to work for another year and was about to visit her pregnant sister in Spain. Cecile gave up TV eight years ago and read voraciously instead. You’d often find her curled up with a book near the fire in Peace Eye, or softly talking with Jack in the corner, sharing plates of cheese and bottles of Chilean wine, smoke from her imported cigarettes curling around them as she giggled to punctuate each carefully phrased sentence: Je ne sais quoi doled out in snatches.
Paul looked like the outdoors. His skin was burned nut-brown from endless exposure to the elements. He was built like the knotted trees of Pokhara and smelt of sickeningly good health (he is a tea-total, vegetarian, non-smoker whose only vice is coffee). He comes from Hackney and trains TV camera crews and presenters to climb mountains and prepare for wildlife and adventure documentaries. Essentially he is personal trainer of the extreme sports variety and is, naturally, astonishingly fit. He casually mentioned that he had been to base camp – this is supposed to take 14-16 days – three times in two weeks. It only took him four days each time. Paul was an interesting bag of secrets who disappeared one morning without a warning or goodbye.
There were others who drifted in and out: Simon the middle-aged Palestinian who came to Pokhara to learn to para glide and who had just been reunited with his adopted son who grew up in Amsterdam. Katrine, the Danish student studying for her masters in molecular biology who came to climb mountains and Shieran, the then-owner of Peace Eye who yearned to play the guitar. He had a brilliant back catalogue of old rock, jazz and blues including Nora Jones, Eva Cassidy, Django Reinheart, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash and spent all day baking bread and brownies.
Peace Eye became our rose-tinted bubble, vaguely anaesthetised and tinged with gold. The prospect of leaving it and venturing out into the big, scary expanse of greater Pokhara seemed a terrifying prospect. I felt like the Lady of Shallot there, looking out of the windows, observing and documenting the passing world beyond the wooden frames without ever touching it, never leaving for fear of dying on the outside.
We would venture out in groups to have lunch and read by the open fires in the restaurants along the river front: Mexican food in Maya against a moody soundtrack thrumming with bass and trumpets like a Frank Miller movie, fiery cocktails with names like ‘Monk’s Ruin’ and Mango Madness’ that burnt away brain cells in Love Kush, drinking beer and listening to abysmal Nepalese cover bands butchering Queen and Nirvana songs while drunk Russians formed mosh pits at Busy Bees.
Time slipped then stuck there in a vacuum of blank space but that hollow feeling that comes with wasted time was strangely absent. I was content to sit, to talk and to rest as the days faded and until the light retreated and the lanterns appeared. It was fabulous inertia, drug-like and soporific.
Of course all good things come to an end and mine ended one night with the return of a familiar bite of melancholy and itchy feet. There was a cyclical pattern to being with these people of WANT NEED HAVE WANT. I wanted to travel, so I did, but it wasn’t enough. There was always this debilitating sense of inadequacy, of insatiable and infuriating restlessness. I wanted to go and save tigers in Badia like Jack. I wanted to climb mountains in Patagonia like Paul. I wanted to live in Paris like Cecile and immerse myself in my own idea of being French; of drinking pernod and café au lait and swearing in thick, lyrical français. I WANT I WANT I WANT.
These people seemed aeons older than me. They were essentially roamers but they had jobs, reasons and responsibilities for being in Nepal and in Pokhara, and I envied them that – that complete assurance in their own purpose. As Jack whispered to Cecile as he hugged her goodbye at the bus station: ‘We both knew it had to end, this was part of the plan.’ But I’ll always have Peace Eye and all those who stayed with me.