Monday, January 16, 2017

NOTHING BETTER THAN PIZZA by Peter Nolan Smith

Back in 1995 I left the USA after the death of my younger brother. My plan was to visit the holiest places in Asia to expiate Michael's sins. I was a non-believer, but felt this pilgrimage would help his soul on the other side.

By late August I was residing in old Yunnan city of Lijiang in Southern China. My hotel room had a view of the Jade Snow Dragon Mountain farther up the valley. Most travelers visited the old stone city with its traditional Naxhi influences and then head off to hike the Tiger Leaping Gorge on the Yangtze River.

I skipped the hike down the swollen gorge. It was rainy season and the footing was treacherous on the dirt paths.

Returning backpackers reveled each other with the legend of a lone Israeli hiker who fell from the trail and broke his leg. His cries for help were drowned out by the rushing rapids and he died of starvation within 20 feet of the trail. The story sounded like a myth, since the nationality, sex, age, and year changed with each telling.

Still I refused many offers from passing tourist to join their trek.

I was happy in Lijiang. The stores sold cold beer and I was friendly with two Frenchmen laying fiber optic cables between Lijiang and Dali, another tourist destination to the south. They asked why I was here. I explained how my younger brother had died of AIDS. We drank beer in Michael's memory. They said that they had been working on the project for a half-year without a break. I suggested a day's holiday.

"Go where?" Jacques had driven most of the roads on Sichuan.

"Chengdu is twelve hours away." Yves had driven back and forth to pick up a transformer. "All through the mountains and the food is the same as here."

"My guide book says there is a ski slope on the Snow Jade Dragon Mountain, but none of the locals know anything about it."

"Pas vrai? Le ski ici?" Yves laughed in my face.

"Maybe they have a chalet with fondue."

"Fondue. Je reve du fondu." Jacques whimpered with an often dreamed desire. "Could it be possible?"

"Only one way to find out. We can drive there."

"Non, let's bicycle." Each of us had rented a bike to travel around Lijiang. It was a fairly flat town.

"On Sunday?"

Yves and Jacques were off both days of the weekend and they dedicated Saturday to recovering from a fierce Friday night of beer.

"Weather permitting." The Snow Jade Dragon Mountain was the end of the Himalayas. The vast expanse of Tibet lay across the province border. Storms brewed in the high peaks at all times of the year.

We agreed to this plan and on Sunday morning the three of us met for a quick breakfast of rice and eggs.

"On y va." Yves led the pace. He was very fit. Jacques and I pedaled at leisure up
the slightly ascending road with the wind in our faces.

The mountain to the right.

Clouds wrapped the snow fields. We rode the twenty miles in three hours. The thin air restricted our conversation to grunts. At the pass a badly designed billboard announced our arrival at the ski slope. It was a chute for toboggans.

The restaurant was serving rice and noodles in a chicken broth. The Chinese tourists happily slurped at the warm food. Jacques oared his noodles in the bowl.

"So much for the Jean-Claude Killy ski resort.

"At least they have beer." Yves had built up a good thirst after the long bike ride.

The ski slope ended up being a sled run. Skiing in Yunnan was a lie, but that came as no surprise, since the Chinese version adapted many western trends to their culture without shame.

The Frenchmen and I rode dirt trails back to Lijiang. Passing through small villages and by abandoned monasteries Jacques' and Yves' conversation turned to food.

"Je morts de fain." Jacques was heavy-set, but his clothing were noticeably loose.

"The food's better than most of China." Lijiang fare was consisted mostly of noodles and rice with a high quality of vegetables, but after a month's stay my belt was clinching tighter.

"I can't live on noodles and rice." Jacques came from Nice. "I want Oysters and bottle of cold vin blanc."

Yves countered by extolling the oysters of his native Normandy, while Jacques praised his hometown's bouillabaisse. I spoke out for Lobster Newburg from Boston's Durgin Park. I had been eating at that Haymarket finery for almost forty years.

"Oysters, bouillabaisse, Lobster Newburg." Jacques spat on the ground. "China has none of that."

"They don't even have simple foods like a baguette and cheese." Yves licked at his lips with a watery tongue.

"There's no cheese in China or baguettes, but there is a pizza shop in Kathmandu."

"Kathmandu? That is thousands of miles away." Jacques frowned at this choice. "We will not be going that way."

"But I will and I'll write to tell you all about it, because there is no better food in the world than pizza. My younger brother and I ate pizza at Villa Rosa in Wollaston once a month. I hoped that they served it on the other side of life.

"Peut-etre." Yves wasn't a true believer, but Jacques said, "J'adore le pizza."

"Moi aussi."

A month later I bid fare-well to the Frenchmen. They were stuck in Lijiang for a half-year.

"Write us about the pizza. We will be waiting." Yves wished me well.

"Better yet, mail us one. It can't be any worse than noodles." Jacques was serious and gave me $20.

I waved good-bye from the bus and traveled north to Chengdu, where I caught a flight to Tibet.

I stayed in Lhasa two months.

Everyday I lit candles at temples, circled the Jokhang every day counter-clockwise and clockwise, and spoke with rinoches or reincarnated monks. I told them about my dead brother. They said that they would pray for Michael. I wrote a letter to the Frenchman telling them that the food in Lhasa was even worst than that of Lijiang.

"Burnt hairy yak meat and rancid butter tea loaded with salt. Next week I'm heading to Kathmandu for pizza." My visa for China was at an end.

I hitchhiked on the Sino-Nepal Friendship Highway across the bone-dry desert to the rim of the Himalayas. A tourist van picked me up in Gyantze. The highway wound along the Bum-Chu River. The only signs of civilization were the Chinese checkpoints. We passed through Tingri and the road climbed 16,900 feet to the Yakrushong La. The snowy peaks stretched from east to west without a break. The pass was higher than any mountain in Europe. It was almost impossible to breathe.

The driver stopped at a caravansary.

Noodles and broth.

I ate nothing. The walls of the inn were covered by dusty flies. Even the beer looked dangerous.

By evening I passed through customs and booked a cheap room in a cheap hotel in Zhamgnmu. The filthy dining room served rice and noodles. I drank beer from the bottle.

In the morning caught a mini-van bound for Kathmandu. I refused all food on the road. Pizza was on my mind. We reached Nepal's capitol within five hours. I checked into the Yeti Hotel. The cheapest room was $20. I asked about the pizza. The desk clerk gave me directions and I hired a rickshaw to drag me to Fire and Ice on Tridavi Mag.

The restaurant was located in a new building close to the Royal Palace. The clientele was divided between rich Nepalis and homesick westerners. The menu offered l'Americano with pepperoni. I ordered a small pie with a Chinese beer. The waiter brought a glass filled with ice. I wasn't scared of amoebae. I had survived yak meat in Tibet.

A half hour later the pizza came with a knife and fork.

I stared at the plate for several seconds. The Villa Rosa served something else.

"Is there anything wrong, sir?" The waiter must have seen my expression of disappointment on the face of other pizza lovers.

"Nothing at all."

The pizza was nan covered with clouts of goat Nepali cheese topped by a thick ketchup sauce. The pepperoni sweated on the heated pizza. I lowered my head to the plate. It smelled like pizza and I picked up a piece. My first bite told the truth. This was Nepal and there wasn't any better pizza within several thousand miles.

"How do you like the pizza, sir?" asked the waiter.

"It's the best in the Himalayas." I had eaten every crumb. My younger brother must have been laughing from the other side, but I asked the waiter, "Can I have two to go and packed them really well."

"Yes, sir."

I reached the Kathmandu Post Office ten minutes before closing.

The clerk secured the pizzas in a shipping box and I wrote the Frenchmen, "I love pizza."

And the pizza in Kathmandu certainly tasted better than yak meat, then again anything tasted good when you're hungry.

Three days later I was stricken with giardia. My intestines had been poisoned by bacteria. The source of infection couldn't have been the pizza and I accused the ice for the beer.

It was the usual suspect in the Orient.

I suffered an assortment of unpleasant effects for a week: diarrhea, abdominal cramps, nausea, loss of appetite, passage of gas from more than one orifice, and horrible weakness. My planned trip to Annapurna was delayed by the illness. The hotel staff was very helpful. They dealt with giardia on a daily basis and knew of one cure.

Tea and toast was my diet for 7 days.

Once I was better, I put myself on the scales at the hotel.

175 pounds.

I had lost nearly 15 pounds.

And my first real meal was pizza l'Americano.

Beer.

No ice.

Nothing was better than pizza and my younger brother knew that too.

Especially at the Villa Rosa.

In this life and the Here-After.

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