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on the edge

The tires were pretty bald. That was the first thing I noticed. Certainly the tire over which I was sitting was, and the fact that it was poised right on the edge of a dirt road with a several hundred metre drop beyond it was the second and decidedly important fact that I noticed. "Are we close to the edge?" My companion asked.

I considered this for a moment, trying to frame a reply. As I did so a thumping and a whistling came from the corner of the bus, as a small boy hanging precariously from the roof communicating the exact status of the wheel's location to the driver.

"Yes, you could say that."

I was distinctly aware of the fact that the bus, or coach (it was hard to tell) was probably as old as the mountains we were traveling over, and that the exact level of maintenance conducted on it was minimal to say the least. I had, unfortunately, made the mistake of inquiring about this element of the journey earlier in the day and was not best pleased, if unsurprised, at the answer.

There was more whistling and banging and my eyes were drawn to the outside world, leaving behind the overly full space within the bus, gazing out over green valleys and a young, vigorous mountain range. The seats within were cramped, even for me, and at one point my companion and I had a child each happily sitting on our laps, with people perched over us, stood upon the many sacks and boxes that filled the aisle between the chairs. I had noticed earlier that the chairless space beside the driver (no more than thirteen passengers) had been crammed with at least twenty women and children.

At checkpoints the bizarre ritual of the disrobing of the bus would occur, with the overhead occupants of the roof jumping off, hurrying past the checkpoints before climbing aboard once the bus had been waved through. Theirs was a journey of open air and swaying, gentle vistas. Mine was cramped and suffocating, and to some extent I envied them their place, perched above on bags and produce, kings and queens of their own small mountain.

The wheel clung to the edge of the road, inches from the edge, and more banging and whistling sounded out, the slap of small hands on metal coming from both ends of the bus. I craned my neck, peering through to hubbub of bodies to see that we were trying to pass a lorry that was coming the other way, a feat that seemed impossible given the finite width of the road compared to those of the two vehicles. The banging and whistling grew more frenzied and my companion closed her eyes.

Finally, after what seemed an age, we passed the lorry and trundled on, winding our way up the near vertical sides of the mountain. I ached and needed to stretch, but it was impossible, and another four hours or more stretched out ahead of us. Patience and stoic acceptance of discomfort became the virtues of need, an acceptance of the reality of such travel helping to dispel the all too common moments of terror and ambivalence.

We broke down once, then twice, then three times, immobile at a steep angle whilst repairs were carried out; brief opportunities to stand, stretch the legs and see what there was of the world to see. Mountains stretched out before us, an expanse of unimaginable mass and wonder, escaping off into the distance. It was warm and had been hours since we had eaten, a small roadside cafe in the middle of nowhere, serving massive helpings of delicious dal bhat for a few rupees, rewarding you afterwards with the most disgusting and horrifying squat toilets ever encountered.

Eleven hours after leaving Kathmandu we crawled into Dhunche, tired, hungry and anticipating the following day, when we would finally head off into the mountains on our long awaited adventure.

All these years later, despite the grandeurs and experiences, the incredible views, the pain of the up and the pain of the down, despite much needed marathon bars and great bowls of fried rice, despite 'showering' out of a bucket in a swiss cheese of  stone hut with frigid howling winds cutting through me, despite the achievements and laughter and quiet reflection in the presence of something 'more', the memory that keeps coming back to me is the one of looking down over that precipice. Looking down, seeing the tire and the distance and all that space, hearing the whistles and the thumps and knowing that I was trusting in factors and people beyond my knowledge and control. And for those moments it was a truly wonderful feeling.

irving penn, national portrait gallery, london

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