• Joel Koechlin

ONE LOCKDOWN AT A TIME (E1) - A Short Story, In Two Episodes And One Epilogue


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, incidents, places and events are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner.


PART ONE, THE MOUNTAINS

Her entire body burning under the punishing sun, Merytaten looked up from under the large visor of her green military surplus cap. Two hundred meters ahead, another upcoming hairpin disappeared among the pine trees. She could see that Charlie had stopped at the bend. He had parked his cycle against the black and white zebra-painted low wall that was guarding the left side of the steep road against the deep abyss plunging below. Thousand feet under the minimalistic wall, a wild, muddy river was pushing huge wooden debris among its powerful swirls.

Merytaten was enraged at her partner. She was sweating profusely. Her legs were hurting, her thighs felt like tree trunks, her buttocks were inflamed and her back was broken to the point she wondered how long she could go on. She was using the shortest gear out of the twenty-one available on her Chinese-made cycle and despite this, she found it hard to progress up the slope. Meanwhile, this fool was not even paying attention to her distress. Even from a distance, she could see he was upset by what he thought was her snail-like pace. At last, she caught up. Still breathing hard from the effort, she parked her cycle on its side-stand, sat on the wall, pulled a water bottle out of her backpack to drink a few sips and avoid looming dehydration. On purpose looking the other way, she set herself into an unbreakable sulking stance. Right on cue, Charlie pretended not to see her, intently gazing at the tormented waters rushing below. The mood was sepulchral.

A recent signboard had announced the upcoming Nepali village of Mulkhot in another three kilometres.

It was the third day into this intense cycling journey, and they had covered only one hundred kilometres, that is one fifth of the distance to their intended destination; a small town on the far eastern Indo-Nepali border going by the name of Kakarvitta.

Three days earlier, in the gloomy dawn, under a persistent monsoon drizzle, wheels splashing across the puddles of muddy water that scattered the broken street, Merytaten and Charlie had left the Thamel district of Kathmandu at first light. They had rigged most of the luggage onto the cycles the previous evening, late into the night. They wouldn't admit it to themselves yet, but they were overloaded; this was not a casual touring cycle trip, planned well in advance, long awaited with a prospect of discovery and enjoyment. Quite the opposite. Circumstances had left them no choice: this was an improvised, desperate lockdown escape attempt. An escape from a military-clamped Nepali metro city, and a sealed country.

About mid-March 2020, evolution at a planetary scale came to a sudden halt. The entire world turned mad. We all remember this childhood game: kids run all over the place and one among the children shouts, "freeze!" Most of the time, the ensuing panorama of scattered child-statues turns out to be hilarious.

In the same vein, countless countries had been cheerfully dancing their happy-go-lucky dance, unconscious of an incoming catastrophe. Then, in March 2020, the world froze; each country caught in its own absurd stasis.

But it wasn't fun for anyone.

A pandemic was around the corner, one was told. Sure enough. But in retrospect, much later and deep into it, it would appear that induced fear and political manipulations would have produced more long-term damage than the universally blamed virus. One could have argued that the poor thing just wanted to replicate itself and ensure the survival of its own species — that's what it did, a perfectly legitimate goal shared by all creatures on this planet. Besides, when we look at the human species with honesty, during recent history we haven't done better. In a few short centuries what have we done if not replicating ourselves with insanity, devouring all resources to the point of rendering our planet sick? Perhaps to a point that it is not reversible. And so, we might very well kill our host, just like the virus does, although with a difference. Maybe we have made the planet sick... of us! Let's not kid ourselves, we will not kill the planet — she is far more resilient than we think. We will only kill her abilities to sustain us, our kind, and in the unfortunate process, an awful lot of creatures sharing a similar biology, too. As for the planet, then set on a slightly divergent path, she will live and prosper, setting herself into her own alternative ways, developing some novel evolutionary scheme in which an extinct humankind would shine by its total absence.

As for the immediate future, let's not worry about the so-much-spoken-about damaged economy: it will fix itself, fast. Let's not worry about time wasted: time is unimportant when measured in months or even years. What is worrying is this awful impression of being a witness to humanity's social evolution moving backward — at a planetary scale.

Sealed countries falling prey to isolationism and extremist nationalism.

Fascism and authoritarian regimes resurgence.

Collapse of democracy, as an institution that, although not perfect, may give way to far worse systems of governance.

The return in strength of extreme fundamentalism in religions and political doctrines.

Outrageous monitoring of the world's population and exponentially growing inequality.

Globalisation falling apart; Marco Polo was travelling with ease (if not as fast) as when compared to us in our times.

And more than anything else, individual freedom eroded like under the vicious attacks of a dry, sandy desert wind.

Tornadoes of power, greed and conservatism roam the plains in quest of easy food: freedom of movement, freedom of expression, freedom over one's body and sexual inclinations, respect of individual privacy. All such qualities pertaining to what we have taken for granted under the label of modern democracy, have retreated by many years or are under siege. And in these matters, half a century does count because it touches the core of humankind's evolving spirit.

Nepal, during the first six months of the COVID-19 pandemic, became one of the world's most strictly locked countries. No incoming or outgoing international flights, no domestic flights — the Tribhuvan airport at Kathmandu was just... closed. No local or inter-district busses, no taxis, no private vehicles allowed at the exception of a very few special permits issued to VIPs or people with influence. Only trucks for essential goods were allowed. And of course, land borders were sealed, with many instances of clashes at the southern border between two-way migrants (from and to India) and the Government Forces, leading to occasional shooting and death.

One would have expected these strict measures of isolation would be implemented on a temporary basis, with the positive purpose in mind of using that time to gear up the country to defend itself against the virus' spread, and educate the general population on how to prevent contagion. But with the lockdown continuing month after month and precious little being done on this front (except perhaps convincing people to wear a mask), it became apparent that the hidden, primary concern of Government officials was to prevent the virus to reach them in person. The old wigs at the helm were all within the range defined as vulnerable elderly citizens; any form of concern or empathy for the population at large seemed absent, unless it was aimed to serve the latter purpose.

June was coming to an end. Like many visiting foreign Nationals — trekkers, climbers, tourists and business people — Merytaten and Charlie had been stuck in the capital three and a half months, most of the time locked between four walls, with the simplest and essential amenities of life shrinking day by day as a reflection of their dwindling resources. (Let's not ignore the economic advantage provided to the Government of Nepal by delaying repatriations: in the absence of incoming tourism, the thousands of foreigners unable to leave would represent a sizeable source of income for the country.)

It was time to take a decision.

The solution to the problem had come almost by chance. About two weeks earlier, in a bid to extend his radius of action during the few brief hours that saw the curfew lifted, Charlie had candidly bought... a bicycle. On a day which in retrospect appears auspicious, he had obtained a closed-door meeting with a cycle-shop owner; this through a friend of a friend of their modest-though-decent-guesthouse's manager, in the heart of Thamel. Once in the shop, with the metal shutter pulled down, closed behind them, the shopkeeper and him started rummaging trough the chaos of cycles of all brands, colours, and sizes, piled up in the tiny shop space, all unsold because of the persistent lockdown. At the end of a fair amount of shuffling, Charlie pointed to a bright orange machine that looked right like the mount he needed, and, being China-made, available at an equally fair price. The deal was stricken here and now, and soon enough, Charlie went off, gliding swiftly across the empty streets, a wide grin across the face.

Awww! Following so many months moving on foot, this mountain-bike sporting twenty-one gears (a necessary feature for, unlike the Netherlands, Nepal is not renowned for its infinite flat plains), gave him the glorious, elated feeling that he was riding a stallion in a world of scattered pedestrians: he was the king of the road!

An hour later, he was proudly showing his new acquisition to Merytaten, who stared at the orange marvel, jaws dropping. A few days earlier she had had a vivid dream, seeing both of them cycling across the mountains, she told him. Could it be a premonition of events to come?

It took a while to show, but with days passing a fresh evidence began to emerge. Each time one of them was using the cycle for some errand, it was becoming noticeable that cyclists were not stopped at check posts. That was odd. Trucks were stopped. Cars and motorised two-wheelers were stopped, and unless the driver or rider was able to produce some valid official document allowing for his movement, he would be sent back to where he came from. Even pedestrians would sometimes be questioned. But not cycles. Given time, it became clear that cycles were not being noticed. Perhaps the authorities had neglected to include them among the vehicles defined within the guidelines of control, or perhaps they thought bicycles were likely to move only a few hundred meters at a time and would not be worthy to bring under a restriction scheme.

Whatever the reason, the strange fact became every day more apparent: cycles — and by extension, cyclists — were invisible!

Would it be so throughout the country? That remained to be seen.

Once this axiom became clear, many times corroborated day after day, a new wild idea germinated in Charlie's mind, and little by little grew into reality as a practical plan, with enthusiasm shared by Merytaten still infused with the meaning of her dream. The important point to note here was that travelling in this manner would involve nothing illegal; it just happened that the laws regulating the lockdown movements were not including bicycles as vehicles. It couldn't be helped... And the key to the plan was simple:

CYCLES ARE INVISIBLE!

It took no time to get in touch with the cycle shop owner again. It took even less time to buy another bike (identical, but black this time), along with a paraphernalia added of luggage carriers, saddle-bags, waterproof plastic sheets and lots, lots of bungee cords. Given a few more days, they had gathered the additional equipment, such as raincoats, a small emergency tent, maps and other essential items needed to undertake a dubious journey fraught with uncertainties and question marks. Considering the locked-down condition of the country, would there be places to take shelter at night, such as open hotels or guesthouses? Would there be open restaurants and food available on the road or even clean drinking water? In the absence of incoming travellers, reliable information on these topics was unavailable, and they had to be content with rumours and guesses.

There were even more unquantifiable and mysterious parameters such as, what will it be like at the border with India? Crowded or deserted? Friendly or hostile? Sure enough, the southern border was a no-go. Rumours of clashes and police firing on groups of migrants were reaching Kathmandu, and this was by no means appealing. By contrast, the eastern border seemed calm and devoid of incidents. And lo! Let it be east! Of course the distance to ride was more than triple, but what was the point to show-up at a border that felt like a war zone, they reasoned. Besides, along with this option came a positive by-product: following months of inaction, it would keep them fit! Kakarvitta, thus, became the point in space and time where, at the end of a long effort, all would be won, or lost.

On occasion, they shared their intentions with some of their stranded friends, sitting at some rare cafés still open despite the lockdown. The usual reaction was to look upon them, mouth agape as if they were a pair of lunatics. Cross Nepal's full width by cycle in the middle of a Nation-wide lockdown? Are you out of your mind? What's wrong with you people? Tired of being laughed at, they ended up keeping the project to themselves. Regardless of the uncertainties and the sarcasms, both Charlie and Merytaten had faith in the plan; both were enthusiastic at the prospect and both knew that what really matters boils down to a simple question of inner attitude.

"LET'S TAKE A FIRST STEP. This step will lead to the next step, which will call the next, and the next. Given time, one may turn back and, in awe, see clearly delineated the hidden silver thread that linked all the steps together, inevitably leading to the goal accomplished."

As of now, three days into the journey, they had been lucky. It was a tough take for sure, in this mountainous region where steep climb alternate with equally steep descent and the rare flattish terrain in-between. Climbs were perceived as Hell, descents as Paradise; sweat, crawling pace, short breath and muscle pain gave way to exhilarating races at full speed, leaning into the hair pins with the fresh breeze blowing through the face. Whenever the morale was running low, they kept in mind the classic motto often displayed on yellow-painted metallic boards across Himalayan back roads:

"When the going gets tough, the though gets going!"

To their relief, the cloak of invisibility seemed to work everywhere. They had crossed many check posts, one after the other, always with the same attitude: pedalling at a steady rythm while showing no attempt to hurry, slowly moving past the line of queuing vehicles, reaching the barrier keeping one's head low, looking straight ahead (never sideways) and passing through the narrow space on the barrier's left side, reserved for pedestrians. No guard would pay attention. No questions would be asked, ever. It always felt kind of weird and magical. But it worked every time.

In addition, against all expectations they had found food and shelter. A few tea shops were open here and there, and vacant hotels had opened their doors for them at night in small localities. Dhulikhel, a small hill station, during normal times favoured on weekends by Kathmandu's residents, had been left behind two days ago. Like in a ghost town, they had hardly seen a soul walking the streets. Having found a hotel for the night, while stretching their aching limbs on the bed, they mused. The hard way, they had discovered the hardships to cycle uphill with a heavy load. Thus, they began to shed weight in the form of unnecessary clothing and other penalising items of luggage. It subsequently became a trademark that at every overnight stop, some items would be left behind, gifted to a friendly hotel owner. Such adverse circumstances make one realise how few are the real bare necessities of life, to paraphrase Baloo the Bear!

Having reached Mulkhot, 60 kilometres deeper into the mountains, Charlie was having some serious concern. A high range of mountains was to be crossed next — with an incoming, unabating, steep climb of nearly thousand meters, extending over thirty-five kilometres of quasi-continuous hairpins. He could see the awful state of exhaustion affecting Merytaten; he could not ignore it, and this was worrying him. And to be frank, he was in no better shape either. It would take them three days at least, to reach the top of the pass at Sindhuli Gadhi, and on this stretch of rugged mountain landscapes, there would be no food and no shelter for sure. The unstable monsoon weather, rain, fog and cold would be an additional issue to deal with. Gosh! This WAS crazy. There had to be some other way...

As often happens when circumstances tend to become impossible, Destiny seems to stretch out a helping hand from an unexpected direction. A young man they met in the only tea shop open in the village, shyly started a conversation with them; he later appeared to be an angel in disguise (with beard and no wings). Soon realising their predicament, he first called a friend willing to accommodate them in his otherwise empty hotel. He then came up with a staggering suggestion. He had another friend (he seemed to have many friends) who owned an autorickshaw. A quick call to the man revealed that, despite the lockdown, for a handful of Nepali rupees, the rickshaw-wallah would be willing to take Charlie and Merytaten to Sindhuli Gadhi, on top of the mountain. That was splendid news! But, "what about the cycles?" asked Charlie. "Not an issue," was the reply, "they can be loaded and tied on the roof of the auto."

The next morning, a four-hour ride in an autorickshaw turned out to be the most pleasant part of a cycling journey! By noon they were sitting on two bright-red plastic chairs, at a tea shop on the highest point of BP Highway, with great satisfaction sipping a cup of sweet milk tea accompanied by a few Khari biscuits. It was freezing and misty, but they were smiling: from here on, it was going to be swift sailing all the way down to almost sea level, and the high Himalayan mountains would be left behind.

Still, a 300 kilometres long ribbon of asphalt was waiting for them in the Indo-Gangetic plains of Nepal, with a new, unforeseen enemy: the aggressive monsoon wind coming from the east. Directed straight at them, always present if only varying in intensity, stubbornly casting its malvolent bursts.








PART TWO, THE PLAINS


Second episode, here

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