Dear readers, this is a story of how my friends and I – quintessential urban couch potatoes – ended up running down a Himalayan forest road, at night, with our feet covered in blood.
It all begins with the eight of us sitting around a giant map Aditya somehow procured from the nearby bazaar. We are in Jiri, an alpine Himalayan valley in Eastern Nepal. In contrast to the popularity of nearby Kathmandu, Jiri is humble in size. There are hardly a hundred houses encircling a Buddha shrine, giving the place an aura of surreal serenity. A giant meadow extends from the north end of town steadily upward to the base of a mountain. The morning sun peeks over this mountain, grazing the needle leaves of the forest, the crisp, cold air of the valley, and the hotel’s spacious windows, landing right onto us.
Even without the sun, we would be glowing brightly today. After 25 days of working relentlessly in a nearby village, we have earned this much-needed retreat. Intending to make the best use of the time we’ve got, we carefully weigh the options that the map presents.
“Look at this, guys!” Anupama, the history buff of our team, points excitedly at a cheese factory two hours uphill from the hotel. Considering what we’ve endured in the past few weeks, the hours of walking don’t seem too intimidating. But Rohan objects, saying we’ve done plenty of climbing already and proposes visiting a glistening lake shown on the map instead. Krishna and I, however, like the idea of Lawoti Jharna better. It’s a large waterfall, about a two-hour flat hike from the hotel. After much thought and multiple sessions of rock-paper-scissors, we agree on the waterfall. We plan to set off immediately after breakfast on Mission Lawoti.
Following the hotel owner’s advice, we take a quiet road from the west side of town, lined on either side by forests of pine and juniper. Small brooks and waterfalls traverse our path, as do occasional blush-red rhododendron trees. After about a half hour of hiking, singing, and taking pictures, we arrive at a crossroad not shown on the map. The team is divided on which road to take, but thankfully, just then a woman walks out of the woods right toward us.
“Namaste didi,” we greet her gleefully. “We were wondering if you know the way to
Lawoti Falls. Apparently there’s a fish farm nearby. It’s supposed to be along one of these roads,” Anupama says.
The lady’s face twitches into an uncanny expression. Then, in an unexpectedly loud voice, she says, “Ah, here for the falls, are we? Go this way, of course.” She points fiercely toward one of the roads. “Just an hour that way. My little brother goes there all the time, the falls. It’s beautiful, with the green forests and all. Nice of you to visit! Hurry along, now!”
With this, she suddenly walks away. According to the hotel owner’s description, the waterfall should still be an hour and a half away. Krishna and Neha suggest that we wait for someone else to arrive, but I insist that we trust the village lady. We ultimately decide to follow the path she showed us. After all, everyone knows rural, middle-aged women are nice, right? At least, this is what I keep telling myself as we venture down the road.
None of us notices anything fishy at first. The views are spectacular, and the cool breeze tickling our skin is almost therapeutic. But when two hours have passed, we haven’t seen a single house, and the waterfall is still nowhere in sight, we begin to worry. Krishna starts making his I-told-you-so faces at me, but thankfully, an old man suddenly appears on the road. Although Neha is adamant about not talking to any more strangers, there is simply no other option for us than to ask for directions.
“Buba, yo Lawoti bhanne jharna jaane kata bata hola?” I ask in as clear a voice as I can muster.
“Lawoti!” he exclaims. “Well, you’re on the wrong side of the hill, kids! Go about an hour downhill, and you’ll find a crossroad, then go uphill from there. You’ll reach the waterfall in another two hours or so.”
I halfheartedly thank the man, and look at everyone apologetically. They do not respond, but start making their way downhill, and I follow. All along the road, Prasanna and Aditya educate me on how I should never trust village women, no matter the age.
After forever, the crossroad finally appears. Instead of climbing uphill, however, Prasanna comes to an abrupt halt, as though some sort of a spell has just worked on him. “Guys, I’m done. Seriously. That waterfall can watch itself. I’m going back.”
We throw a ton of “No, bro!”s and “Come on man!”s at him, but to no avail. He takes the road back to the hotel alone, while we
continue forward. Aditya and Neha, being from India, don’t have the climbing genes
naturally embedded into the rest of us,
with our Nepali blood. They soon trail
behind. Nevertheless, they are following along steadily with the determination Indians are naturally gifted with. In fact, our concern now is Rohan, the baby of the group. He’s started throwing tantrums, constantly reminding us how hungry we are and how dangerous unknown mountain roads (and ladies) might be.
As though the anti-adventure gods have been listening all along, a massive, muddy puddle makes an unwanted appearance in front of us, swallowing the entire road. With utmost care, Anupama, Pukar, Krishna, and I cross it, hopping over slimy rocks. Rohan, however, manages to sink knee-deep. “Well, folks, sayonara!” he shouts flamboyantly and hurries back the way we came without giving us a chance to protest.
We continue along. It is pretty late in the afternoon, and we are quite hungry. But being the competitive kids we are, we see the obstacles as a challenge set by the waterfall, one we hope to win by reaching it before sundown.
Well, dear readers, I’m sure you’ve all been waiting for the vampires to show up. Let me tell you, what we’re about to encounter is much, much worse. For millions of years they’ve roamed the planet, perfecting the art of bloodsucking – often without the poor host even knowing until the damage is done.
In our story, it begins with Krishna noticing blood on Anupama’s shoes. There’s no sharp object or anything nearby, just a tiny hole in her ankle, and it’s bleeding rapidly. Being medical students and all, we turn this into an experiment to find out her clotting time. Five minutes pass, but she curiously does not stop bleeding. Not quite understanding the problem yet, she cleans the lesion and seals it with some medi-tape.
As she’s mending the wound, Aditya and Neha catch up to us. The moment she sees the blood, Neha’s expression suddenly darkens. “God, no. No. NO! This can NOT be happening on our freaking retreat day!”
Seeing the dumbfounded look on our faces, she squeals the devil’s name:
“Don’t you see, she got bitten by a leech! It probably sucked all the blood it needs and dropped off somewhere on the road. It’s a good thing the rest of you are wearing closed shoes.”
Aditya looks down upon hearing this and mumbles, “Uh, Neha – you might want to give your own feet a look.”
Neha herself is wearing sandals and has two bleeding spots on her feet. Aditya immediately goes into protective mode and helps her with the wounds, telling us it’s probably best if they return to the hotel. We don’t argue, especially Anupama, who’s more determined than ever to show the waterfall what she’s made of.
We hurry along the road. Sunlight is slowly dimming, and it is secretly making us all worried. But our obstinate, competitive (and clearly idiotic) selves keep us from taking the sensible option of turning around. After an hour and a half, we finally see a waterfall.
It is not as big as the one shown on the map, but broad and wispy, making the rocks appear as though they are wearing a veil. We take a few pictures, relieved that we’re on the right track. Another waterfall appears minutes later, this one much bigger than the last. We all jump into the water, enjoying the cool shower, with Anupama videotaping the whole thing. But all of a sudden, she screams. Her wide eyes are transfixed at her feet – and then we all see it.
Leeches. Hundreds of them. All over the ground, on the rocks, on the grass, and about seven actively sucking Anupama’s feet. We hurry back onto the road and try to get the bloodsuckers off, but they are attached tightly. Sometimes when we pull, the body comes off in our hands and the head remains attached to the skin. Sometimes the leech attaches to the finger trying to pull it away.
Pukar, Krishna, and I, initially confident that out sports shoes are good enough to keep the nasty vampires out, decide to give our feet a check, just to be sure. Pukar discovers that he’s been serving about five of them dinner on either foot, while Krishna seems to have not received a bite yet. I roll my own jeans up slowly, praying under my breath. At first I feel relief to see no blood, but then I spot the biggest leech I’ve seen all day, firmly attached to my sock and trying to slither in. Panicky, I quickly take my shoe off, and then the sock, only to see the bloodsucking monster literally standing erect and rotating its body in search of a meal. Disgusted, I throw the sock as far as I possibly can, and put the shoe back on.
Even after all this, we have still not come to our senses, and we decide to continue. The road is clearly full of leeches; Krishna suggests we jog so they don’t have time to jump onboard our feet. Thus, on an empty forest road in the middle of nowhere, we are running with bloody feet just to see a waterfall.
Minutes later, the great Lawoti Falls does appear, much bigger than the previous ones, and louder too. But nobody is that excited anymore; we don’t even stop to take photographs. We turn back immediately and run along, using our phones as flashlights.
The trek back is, of course, not simple either. Apparently all that we have endured today is not enough for the gods, and they decide to add another obstacle – fog. Thick and dense, it erupts out of nowhere. The whole forest is soon enveloped in a white coat, reducing visibility and converting the trees into a scene straight out of a Tim Burton movie. We hop along, anyway, through the leechy roads and the giant puddle, and the dark pines, deciding it best to look at the massacre of our feet only after we’ve reached our hotel.
Great are the rejoicings when we return, our heroic tale of fighting vampires already told and retold to the rest of the gang by Aditya and Neha. Pukar apparently had served 13 bloodsuckers that day, Anupama 12, while miraculously no leech in that sea of monsters seemed to have considered Krishna and I to be worth a taste, much to his disappointment. We laugh about it throughout dinner, and sing and play cards until midnight. We finally go to bed, sure we do not wish experience anything like this ever again, but glad it happened nonetheless.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.