When Will McCarthy retired at the age of 55 from his job as a vice president of a meal voucher systems provider, he knew exactly what he would do – see the world by bicycle. In the 12 years since his retirement, he covered about 68,000 km by bike, almost exclusively in subtropical and tropical countries of Asia and Latin America, and almost always during the cold winter months that plague the upstate New York, where he normally lives.
Will is an old friend. He recently stopped off in Prague with his bike to say hello, the first time we’d seen each other in 40 years. He has cycled through many countries, from China to Peru, but Nepal, he said, “might be the most beautiful country I’ve visited. I rode about 1,000 miles and few of them were ugly or boring.”
The country’s capital, Kathmandu, was also an exciting place to get a haircut.
“Barber shops there are tiny holes-in-the-wall with a room for two chairs and two barbers,” he said. “My chair the was closest to the alley, up three steps from street level. After a few snips the barber stopped cutting and started talking to a guy, who I assumed was his friend; they were both smiling. Then not smiling, then arguing, then fighting. The fight was serious and soon landed in my lap. I was pretty much pinned in the chair before they landed on me – the only easy way out of the chair, a heavy wooden one with high arm rests, was for the barber to move it, so I wasn’t going anywhere. I dug my knuckles into the visitor’s ribs until he jumped into the alley and took the barber with him.”
But that didn’t stop the fight. “Once they were on the street, their friends separated them, but just for a minute,” Will said. “The other guy came charging back and the barber grabbed his razor. I was out of the chair by then; it was time for me to leave. So I walked around with half a haircut, had lunch and went back to see if things had calmed down. They had; the barber was laughing when I got there and singing while he finished the haircut. Singing and looking over his shoulder every ten seconds.”
Biking long distances through exotic places requires stamina, a good and robust bike, up-to-date maps, decent roads, and basic communication skills. In Nepal, when Will was trying to cycle from Kathmandu to Janakpur via Dhulikhel and Shindhuli, all those requirements were severely tested.
He said he spent a lot of time in Kathmandu studying maps and talking to mountain bike and trekking guides to see if he could leave the city by riding southeast. “Some maps show a road that runs all the way and on some maps there was a gap between Dhulikhel and Shindhuli,” he said. Everyone had a different opinion about his chances. “The most encouraging version of no problem was ‘My brother go home that way for Diwali on motorcycle, 4.5 hours,’” he said. “That’s the answer I was waiting for, even if it was a lie.”
It was a lie. “It was 128 kilometres from Dhulikhel to Shindhuli,” Will explained. “The first 30 were paved and had beautiful views of the Himalayas, the next 10 were an okay gravel road and then, in Nepalthok, a tiny village, the road ended, literally; it collapsed into a riverbed. For the next 3 km, the road was a stream; when it resumed it was 45 kilometres of one-lane dirt track that followed the Sun Khosi River – but not at river level. It would climb about 500 meters to the top of the gorge and then drop back down to river level, on grades that were often too steep and too sandy to ride up or down.”
It took him four hours to travel 10 kilometers from Nepalthok, so he flagged down a bus. “When I asked the conductor if the bus went to Shindhuli, he didn’t actually say yes,” Will said. “He wiggled his head, the subcontinental horizontal wiggle that looks like a ‘no’ to Westerners but usually means yes, or something in the yes family. In this case it meant ‘in that direction’. I rode that bus for over two hours; it never got out of second gear. And then it stopped. It didn’t go to Shindhuli. It stopped at the end of the line, 10 more kilometers of terrible road and maybe 45 minutes of daylight left.”
Will had made it a point to learn Nepali numerals, so he could read kilometer markers and street addresses. “And when I stayed in a room that had a mirror,” he added, “I practiced the head wiggle. I don’t think I ever got it right. I got it in theory. In the Nepali version, the top of the head moves left or right, on a plane with the shoulders, and then returns to the center while the chin stays centered. The motion is always the same; it’s the eyes, eyebrows and context that convey the meaning and there are plenty – too many – of those.”
Here is Will’s (partial) list of Nepalese head-wiggle meanings:
If you say so
Are you sure?
Are you kidding?
I don’t understand
I don’t understand but will carry on as if I did
You’re most welcome
Don’t come back
I’ve enjoyed overcharging you
Eventually, Will did make it to Janakpur, due to another essential requirement for the global bike traveler – luck. But the bike he used on that trip, and for the first 10 years of his adventure, was eventually lost. It was stolen – from the porch of his home in upstate New York.