The Memory of Water

“I want to know what it says,” he answered, looking steadily in her face. “The sea Floy, what is it that it keeps on saying?”
She told him that it was only the noise of the rolling waves.
“Yes, yes,” he said. “But I know they are always saying something.”
Charles Dickens – Dombey and Son.     

 

Water inspires reflection – we project our thoughts and preoccupations upon it, and they come back to us reflected in its depths. Looking into the still, calm waters of Lake Phewa Tal in Pokhara I remember all the other bodies of water that I have sat in front of, quietly contemplating: the chill pebbly seethe of the North Sea on a beach in England; the vast, deep Pacific blue in Australia, the heat of the sun and the surface fragmenting into countless silver ripples; a glassy mountain pool in Connemara which reflected perfectly the rounded forms of the peaks that surrounded it. And I remembered the preoccupations and anxieties that I had at the time – where to go, what to do, if this didn’t work then would that? How distant it all seems now, how silly the worries. I look into the water in search of answers, and of course find none.

In his film Bitter Lake (2015), Adam Curtis refers to an old Soviet sci-fi movie called Solaris (1972). In it, a group of space explorers discover a vast sea, and in an attempt to influence it they bombard it with X-rays. What they don’t realise is that the sea merely reflects the rays back at them, irradiating them in turn, which causes them to experience a series of deja-vu memories so powerful that they no longer know what reality is. Curtis uses Solaris as a metaphor for the West’s policy towards Afghanistan – one where western politicians created a narrative that seemed to work because it had clear cut roles of good and evil. In the words of one British officer who fought in Helmand, “If they are shooting at us, they are Taliban”. But that was to grotesquely distort the endlessly fluctuating and evolving allegiances of localised Afghan politics, in which the British became just one more actor – one who, as an outsider, numerous groups with different aims united against. And the more this happened, the more heavily the British drew on their preconceived narrative, thus creating a vicious circle. As Curtis says:

Few [in the West] stopped to think that what had happened to the Russians 20 years before might also happen to them. That in a strange way, Afghanistan has revealed to us the emptiness and hypocrisy of many of our beliefs, and that we may be returning from there also haunted by mujaheddin ghosts, knowing that underneath, we believe in nothing.”

Bitter Lake is a strange, disturbing and beautiful film. It is quintessential Curtis, making connections, putting things in a context in such a way as to highlight the paucity of the mainstream media and their endlessly episodic coverage with a total absence of context, like a baying mob rushing off in one direction to cover a story, then dropping it and rushing back the way they came to cover something else. The Guardian’s review praised it to the skies; The Telegraph rather grudgingly acknowledged its stunning footage, while criticising the simplicity of some of its conclusions (without being able to actually challenge any of them specifically). And there’s certainly some truth in the accusation, that in the wake of so many political ideologies, and the rise and fall of governments and regimes, what do we in the West actually believe in any longer? The free market? Badly dented, I’d say. Liberalism? We can’t even agree on a common meaning of the word between the United Kingdom and the United States. Shopping? Possibly. We may criticise the jihadis for their nihilism – Australian PM Tony Abbott’s laughable phrase “death cult” makes them sound like a bunch of teenage satanists – but in fact is there not a nihilistic void at the heart of the West these days too? The old simplified narrative of good vs. evil hasn’t served us terribly well these last ten years or so. As for being haunted by those ghosts, they grow in the fertile ground of Western society – in its freedoms (which governments immediately rush to curtail in the wake of an attack), and in its emptiness.


Sitting on the balcony of Sacred Valley Inn feels like being in a treehouse – the limbs of a strangler fig loop through the balustrade and curl around the pillars. Branches and foliage are within arm’s reach, a green bower through which numerous small birds flit and chirp. One of the trees has a cascade of flowers perhaps 20 feet long, a curtain of orange hanging downwards past the balcony, and the sunlight filters through the leaves in dappled patterns of green and gold. In the distance the summit of Machhapuchhare spikes the horizon like an incisor, a perfect isosceles peak of dark grey granite and permanent snow – Himal, in Nepali. It has never been climbed, due to a prohibition on doing so for what might be termed spiritual reasons. Off to the left looms the ominous bulk of Annapurna. From Sarangkot hilltop in front of it a small swarm of paragliders spiral slowly, hanging in the air like midges. Pokhara is said to be one of the best paragliding sites in the world, due to a combination of spectacular scenery, calm conditions and abundant thermals. Indeed one company offers parahawking, where you follow specially trained raptors to the thermals, the birds periodically returning to your glove in mid-flight for a small snack.

I like to stay in a place for three nights, as a rule, to get a feel for it. After the initial relief of having found somewhere to recover from a long journey, you settle into a place and begin to observe the subtleties of day to day life, observing the routine. I had initially checked in to the Hotel Tropicana, which lay towards the northern end of the lakeside strip, and was marginally quieter and cheaper than the busier places along the central section. Its rooftop offered a spectacular view out across Lake Phewa Tal, hillsides descending to the water in serried ranks like folds of cloth, the dark green forested flanks becoming hazy and pale until they dissolved into the distance in shades of muted grey. Of the two rooftop rooms, the other was occupied by a man in his early 50s who gave me a nod of acknowledgement as I ascended the spiral staircase, but seemed short on conversation. It turned out Thierry was French, here for the paragliding, and was rather embarrassed about his lack of English. We agreed that he should try to speak it, and I would speak French, thus putting us both at an equal disadvantage. We named the rooftop terrace between the two rooms Le Channel. Vive l’entente cordiale.

The Tropicana has been going a long time – it got a mention in Lonely Planet 20 years ago and has been trading on it ever since. There was no restaurant, but the rooms were in reasonable condition, and they had thoughtfully placed a wifi router on the roof so it was possible to get internet in every room. The first night, in search of a place for dinner, and wanting to avoid the crowds and loud music of the central strip, I found a small family run restaurant called Laughing Buddha, and had the usual Nepalese staple of dal bhat – a thin lentil soup, which one tipped over a big mound of rice, mixing it together, vegetable curry, and a spicy kind of pickle, all served in a compartmentalised metal tray. It cost about 100 rupees – remarkably cheap for the area. I decided to head back there for breakfast the next morning, and bumped into Thierry on the rooftop; he appeared to be doing some sort of yoga facing the lake. I asked if he’d had breakfast yet.
“Not yet. But my friends too can come? I shall invite. It’s good, this place?”
“Oui, c’est pas mal. Meme petit dejeuner mais moins cher, you know?”

The owner, a cheerful Nepali lady wearing a number of shawls, was happy to see me again. She was even happier when Thierry’s friends arrived – eight of them, all Frenchmen in their 40s or 50s. We commandeered most of the seats in the place, and she did a valiant job of sorting through all the different orders. The conversation, which was all in French, was mostly about paragliding, and I joined in as best I could – although due to a minor confusion on my part between embouteillage and atterissage, I asked them how one got stuck in a traffic jam at the end of the flight. I was the last to finish, as the others had to get ready for the day’s flight, and as I was paying the owner asked me: “You are Russians?”
I laughed. “No – I’m English, but my friends are French.”
“French.” She frowned. “But same language?”
“Different. But I am speaking French.”
Her husband, who had been loitering nearby, asked her something in Nepali. She translated: “France. It’s near America?”
“No, is far across the sea. The Atlantic Ocean.”
“Oh, Atlantic!” She smiled. “Thank you for coming.”

Towards nightfall the northern end of Lakeside developed something of a village atmosphere. Groups of people crouched around small fires at the edge of the road, men, women and children all enjoying the warmth. There was something very sociable about this life lived largely out of doors, and it’s something which one notices the lack of in Europe, where everyone retreats indoors at nightfall. Previously I have put it down to weather: in the tropical parts of Asia it feels natural to be out of doors late at night, rather than in the chill of a northern European winter. But in Pokhara at night the temperature drops to three degrees. It’s not the weather – it’s a different cultural climate. The dogs that ran wild everywhere formed allegiances, had scuffles, went trotting off all together on barking expeditions, and returned to lay down and sleep in a bundle in a shop doorway. Occasionally a cow would wander past. A small child that had been standing near a fire had a tantrum, and picking up a wicker stool, threw it into the road; it was indulged with benevolent laughter. The stool lay in the centre of the road, and a passing motorbike slowed, the pillion kicking the stool out of the lane. It came to rest a few yards away. A bike coming from the other direction swerved around it, then did a U-turn, the rider kicking the stool back where it came from. Meanwhile the group around the fire watched the progress of the stool up and down the road impassively. Finally a shopkeeper on the other side of the road wandered across, picked it up and returned it to the fireside.

I needed a haircut, and found a place on the main drag. A few days earlier Bishnu at Sacred Valley had told me that all the barbers in Pokhara were Indian – as well as the vendors pushing bicycles laden with fruit – and this turned out to be correct; the barber was from Bihar, one of the poorest and most badly governed states in India. He asked me where I was from, and on hearing London, grinned broadly and said: “Nice!” Yeah, it’s alright, I told him, mentally picturing him working in a hairdressers on Old Street or the like. He would, I decided, pretty quickly lose the sparkly knitted tank top in favour of a black T-shirt with some gnomic logo of wry postmodern wit. The short-back-and-sides would be replaced with a mass of gelled spikes. The sandals exchanged for trainers and nylon slacks for skinny jeans, soon he would outwardly resemble a hip young Londoner – but beneath the surface he’d still be a skinny boy from Bihar. He was young, in his early 20s by the look of him, and had a kind of robust peasant resilience at odds with his small frame. Offered a choice between a long, medium or short haircut, I erred on the side of medium, and he began snipping away with an enormous pair of scissors that looked more like garden shears. An expensive-looking gold watch dangled from his thin wrist – that would go too, I decided, in favour of an iPhone. As with all the Indian haircuts I have experienced, this one seemed to take an inordinate amount of time, and I came to realise that in the absence of any other customers, time wasn’t really of the essence – he seemed to be more concerned with doing the best possible job, while making the most of the marketing opportunity of having a westerner in the shop in full visibility of the street outside. To this end he spent a great deal of time trimming around the neck and the backs of the ears. Then, climbing on a nearby chair, he fetched down a large bottle of murky brown liquid from a shelf overhead.

“What’s this?” I enquired, wary of brylcream or the like.
“Vile, sar. Hair vile. Very good.”
“Alright then – but not too much.” He slapped some ‘vile’ on top of my head and smeared it in. India (and Nepal) must be one of the last places on earth to use hair oil, and indeed moustache wax, until the advent of the hipster. It smelled vaguely medicinal but not unpleasant. He began massaging my head, tilting it back in the chair and drumming on top of my crown, periodically giving finger-snapping flourishes rather like a cocktail barman putting on a show. It felt pretty good.

“You wanting shaving, sar? Very nice, clean blade, hard water?”
I eyed my greying stubble in the mirror, and thought… in for a pound (or a pound fifty). “OK, shaving,” I told him. Happily he went off to fetch various shaving items – a large cut-throat razor into which he inserted a new blade, proudly showing me as he did so. A shaving brush and soap which he worked into a lather. And a small pot of water into which he would periodically dip his fingers, prior to wiping them carefully over my face. It made me think of the brahmin concept of ritual purification, where even a finger-flick of water could purify a room. Having deftly passed the blade over my increasingly shiny jowls a few times, wiping the lather off on his thumb, he took what looked like a rock out of a drawer, wetted it a little with a few droplets from his fingers, and rubbed it over my face. It stung.

“What is this now?” I asked.
“Alum antiseptic. Very nice.” My face was burning. Fortunately this state of affairs did not last long, as he took down a bottle of bright green liquid, splashed some liberally into his cupped palms, and smeared it over me. It felt immediately cool, but then the fumes began to hit me. An eyewatering smell made its presence known. I squinted, trying to make out the label on the bottle without my glasses on. “Dettol?”
“Denim, sar. Very good aftershave. Full power!”
“I’ll say.”
Finally it came, as I was expecting it would. “How can I working in London sar?”
Inwardly I sighed, not wanting to dash his hopes, but more importantly not wanting to encourage them. What illusions did he have? What mental picture of that grey city? I thought about the Greek Cypriot who cut my hair in London for fifteen quid a time, spoke about nothing but the varying fortunes of Chelsea football club and went on holiday to a caravan park in Essex. “It’s very difficult. Almost impossible. You have to know someone.” That put it in terms he could understand, at least, and he silently contemplated it as he snipped away.

Getting to Pokhara had meant stopping overnight in Kathmandu again. Marooned by a strike on a hilltop in Nagarkot overlooking the Himalayan range, things could’ve been worse. It was another bandh – no taxis or buses were running to Kathmandu, and even Bhaktapur, only 15km down the hill, was out of bounds: “Very tight bandh,” the receptionist at the end of the universe informed me. So I sat and looked at the mountains, watching them change subtly throughout the day, different peaks appearing as the cloud lifted, others vanishing from sight until their presence was only an imprint on the memory. At the end of the universe, the world came to you. Various people arrived throughout the day – a group of taciturn Russians, two American girls who had set off a year ago for Budapest and were now somehow in Nepal, and planning on heading to Tibet, and another American lady who had been at a conference in Delhi. India had been something of a shock for her – the noise, the pollution, but most of all the hassle, and she was soaking up the tranquility of Nagarkot. She looked pretty frazzled by it all, and spoke in the mildly disbelieving tones of a survivor of some disaster:

“So I had this list of places I wanted to go: Red Fort, Qutub Minar, Jama Masjid, you know. And I figured I’d go to the Red Fort in the morning with my colleague from the conference. Well, nobody spoke English! And every five yards it was ‘Madam, taxi? Rickshaw? You look in my shop?’ We got a taxi to the Red Fort, and it took like an hour and a half to get there! Then there were these guys – kids, really – who just followed us the whole time, making these comments in Hindi. And we got jostled a bit.”
I made sympathetic noises – she appeared to be on the verge of tears.
“And having to haggle over everything. I just hate it. My husband always did it, but I just give in and end up paying way too much.” She seemed a gentle soul who was severely conflict-averse; even the play acting involved in haggling was too aggressive for her.

At this point, the waiter brought her bill. One small pot of tea. 120 rupees. She only had a thousand note. The waiter went searching through his wallet for change, and then called over the receptionist. Together they checked if they had the correct change, but they didn’t. I thought I might have a five hundred, and pulled out my own wallet. Another of the employees wandered over to see what was going on, and pulled out his own bundle of notes from a shirt pocket to helpfully join in. Protracted conversation in Nepali ensued. While we were doing this, she got more and more apologetic and flustered, writhing in embarrassment at having caused all this fuss. “It’s fine,” I told her. “It’s all part of the fun. Participatory paradigm.” Eventually she got her change somehow, and with profuse thanks she fled.

After a few days in a place you not only get to see the routine; you come to know the characters as well. There was the local guy who was a head taller than the others, emphasised by his ramrod posture – there was something military in his bearing. He wore a tracksuit top with the word “Georgia” across the back – or rather, what had once been the word Georgia: the white laminated letters had all peeled off apart from the G and part of the E, leaving just a pale outline. In the early morning chill he used to wear a scarf wrapped around his head and tied under the chin, like a man with toothache. You could hear him coming across the flagstones of the patio, the measured click of his worn heels on the stone. With chiselled features and a strong jawline he could have been described as handsome, and despite the worn, hand-me-down clothes, and the odd-looking scarf arrangement, he exuded dignity in everything he did.

There was another local who was quite different in his manner. He was young, in his mid-twenties perhaps, and he had an adolescent cheekiness, as if he didn’t really give a toss and wanted you to know it too. He’d bring tea then pour it out carelessly, slopping it over the table, and his eyes were laughing at his own insolence. I laughed straight back at him, especially when he poured it over his own shoes. He was clearly angry about something – not in the way that you sometimes encounter in a society of great inequality; the kind of ‘why do you have so much and I so little’ that you can sometimes experience, particularly with young men, but something deeper. He thought he was above all this – that was the vibe he gave off, and so his every gesture was marked by a subtle insubordination, even when none was merited.

I tried to talk to him, to figure out what was going on with him, but there was a wall. He was well informed, talking about the cost of living in different cities – he knew that Sydney, Tokyo and Oslo were all said to be more expensive than London, and was contemptuous of many Nepalese who dreamed of going to such places – but it was all part of the general conspiracy against him personally. His manner was so at odds with the rest of the staff, who were all courteous and friendly without being overly deferential, that I commented on it in my diary. As it turned out, I wasn’t the only one who had noticed.

The next morning I heard voices raised. The boss, who had been away in India, was tearing a strip off someone. It was all in Nepali, but then I caught the English words: “Too clever for your own good.” I knew at once who it was – the sentence summed it up exactly. There were a few more words exchanged and then the sound of feet running heavily away, down the stairs that led to the road. Later I learned from another staff member that some foreign guests had left an iPhone behind some weeks earlier. The angry young guy had pocketed it, then intercepted the emails from the owner to the hotel requesting its return. This had become more and more convoluted when the hotel management replied, as he played the part of the phone’s owner, asking for it to be sent to an address in Kathmandu. But the receptionist, checking the emails on the hotel computer, became suspicious of the distinctly Nepali-sounding English in the intercepted mails, and notified the manager. The whole thing was uncovered, and he was dismissed on the spot, and told he was lucky not to get arrested.

The receptionist was also young, in his twenties, but something set him apart. He had a softness of manner and a quiet intelligence, and dressed differently to the other staff members – more stylishly somehow, “like a Westerner – I thought he was another guest at first,” as one person pointed out. One night, sitting in the lounge during a power cut, just the two of us alone lit by a solitary candle, I asked him about himself. Perhaps the darkness conferred a kind of confidentiality, but he spoke quite openly about his life, all the time in a low murmur that made me lean forward in order to hear:

I grew up in a village not far from here – you can just see it in the valley there. It’s very small. I went to school for a while, but it was bad – the teacher was often absent, and I know now that the English lessons were not good, because my English is very bad. I began to work in the bazaar in Nagarkot, selling things sometimes, then later as a hotel tout. I would wait at the bus stand all day, and if a bus arrived with foreigners, I would go to them and say – excuse me, there is a good hotel, hot water, power, very good price – and if they came with me the owner would give me a small commission. Always to this hotel. But there were many other touts, and you see me – my body is very small! – so they would push me away, sometimes even they are beating me. But I knew this was a good hotel, and the owner rewarded me. I did this for a few years. Then later I got a job in the hotel kitchen, just washing things, you know, fetching from the market. I didn’t like the kitchen. But sometimes the cook was away, and I would cook. Then I would take customer orders from the table, and be a waiter sometimes. Many years I did the waiting on customers, and I enjoyed it – I talk to many interesting people from all over the world. I learn about the places where they are from, and slowly I come to improve my English. Then one day I cover for reception. That first morning the telephone rings: it is a foreigner who wants to make a booking. I am so nervous I am shaking! But I find the diary and I check the dates and I make the booking. The boss is very pleased. So he puts me on reception. It is an honour – I am the first person the guest sees when they come in. The owner now, they know they can trust me, and the guests too. ‘Customer is king’, we say here. I have been on reception five years now. And I am happy – serving the guests. This is all I want to do.

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The Hotel at the End of the Universe

The valley is full of stars. The sky overhead is a deep, midnight blue, and the first pinpricks begin to appear, planets hanging silent in an icy firmament. As the moon rises it shines silver on the snowfields, improbably high ramparts across the sky, a serrated outline of summits and shards as jagged as a broken mirror. Far below the first lights emerge from small settlements in the valley, little golden dots of light in clusters across the valley floor, the outflung constellation of a village high on a ridgeline shimmering in the night air. Above the mountains the cold white stars in the dark chill blue of the sky; below the reflected golden stars on the warm velvet black of the land.

 

Mr Lama sang softly to himself as he drove, clutching the steering wheel tight and peering nervously through the cracked windscreen at the mad Kathmandu traffic. I learned to recognise it as a sign of agitation: at the chaotic intersections, upon sight of a traffic cop, or as a large truck inched closer and closer he’d begin murmuring fragments of devotional hymns, a few snatched phrases offering a modicum of general karmic protection, periodically breaking off to shout at other drivers performing a particularly crazy manoeuvre: “No rules! Nepali driving very bad!” I told him India was even worse.

“Excuse me sir, but India very shit. Too much dirty and stealing.” He was distracted briefly by the sight of camouflage off to the right. “Nepali Army! Very strong. Gurkhas!”

I looked at the shambolic drill taking place on the dusty patch of scrubland off to our right, surrounded by razor wire. A couple of hundred Corporal Joneses wheeling and stamping, each slightly out of time with the next. No Gurkhas in evidence here.

Mr Lama had driven me to Patan a couple of days earlier. I liked his cautious driving, and the fact that he’d quoted me a reasonable fare. He was a middle-aged man with worry lines and a gold tooth, a wife and two kids to support, and a battered Maruti taxi with a suspension that chirped like a pond full of frogs. I asked him to pick me up the next day for the 15km run to Bhaktapur – another capital of the old city-states of the Kathmandu Valley, and a World Heritage Site whose Durbar Square and surrounding streets had banned motorised traffic, making it infinitely more tranquil than chaotic Kathmandu.

The next morning I was packed and ready to go by 9am. But there was no sign of Mr Lama. The streets seemed strangely quiet. The receptionist eyed my backpack with surprise. “Checking out sir? But where going?”

Bhaktapur, I told her.

She waggled her head. “Not possible I think. Bhaktapur closed.”

“What do you mean closed?”

“All Nepal closed. No bus, no taxi. It is banned.”

“Banned?”

“Bandh, sir. Strike.”

 

I’d heard about this before – the entire country shutting down. No public transport ran, shops closed, and private vehicles ventured out at their peril; occasionally they were stoned by demonstrators. The government laid on special buses with bars over the windows and a police escort to meet incoming flights at the airport. I imagined some hapless tourist clearing immigration only to be herded into a prison bus with wailing sirens, their mounting panic only subsiding when they were deposited at their hotel. Welcome to Nepal.

The streets of Thamel were eerily silent, with little traffic about. Groups of men stood around, reading newspapers tacked to billboards, and there was a high police presence. One felt a certain tension, a minor political crisis in the air. But most people made the best of it, treating the whole thing like a rather inconvenient holiday. “It is bandh,” they’d say with a shrug. “What can you do?” I later learned that it was called by a coalition of 30 opposition parties led by the Maoists – “The Moists”, as the receptionist called them – in protest at the failure of the government to draw up a new constitution within a year’s deadline. They had three weeks left, and the newspapers were doing a countdown each day. I resigned myself to another day in Thamel: coffee at Phat Kath, window shopping for trekking gear, and a stroll around the Garden of Dreams – an Austrian-led reconstruction project modelled on the gardens of an Edwardian country house, which was populated almost exclusively with young Nepali couples sitting close together and sometimes chastely holding hands, in search of the privacy they couldn’t find at home.

45 minutes of motorized mayhem later, Mr Lama deposited me at the entrance to Durbar Square in Bhaktapur, beneath a large billboard advertising Attitude vodka. The entrance fee to the square – or more properly Bhaktapur itself –  was a steep $15, but this was used to preserve the temples and provide all manner of municipal services otherwise lacking in Nepal: a daily rubbish collection, sewerage and the other utilities which we take for granted in other, more prosperous societies. The ban on motorised traffic was only occasionally flouted, and by nightfall, when the daytrippers had headed back to Kathmandu, it was possible to imagine yourself in another era altogether: the tiered roofs of the temples were silhouetted against the sky, there was the soft clang of bells from within one of the temples, and the scent of incense coiled about the square, perfuming the night. People moved softly as shadows, speaking in low voices, hunching their shoulders against the deepening chill. Groups of teenagers sat on the steps of the temples, playing on their mobile phones. Half a dozen middle-aged Nepali men in leather jackets who had been drinking in the cafe – Attitude vodka, perhaps – stood around a scooter conversing in low, growling tones before convivially parting company with robust backslapping, one rather unsteadily clambering onto the machine and kicking it into life, his friend climbing onto the back. They set off with an alarming wobble, the taillight disappearing into the night. Silence fell.

Small town Nepal goes to bed early. As the temperature plummeted, so did I, donning knitted bonnet and matching woollen bootees in a minor regression to infancy, and burrowing under the bedclothes. There was a television in the corner of the room and I clicked idly through the channels, which seemed to either show music videos from India featuring sari-clad beauties fending off the pestering attentions of men with dubious moustaches, or Nepali news channels showing elderly men in quilted trekking anoraks and traditional hats sitting in interminable meetings while one of their number spoke loudly into a microphone with the acoustic effects one usually associates with a public swimming pool. At first I thought it was the same programme on different channels, until I realised that I was actually observing three different meetings – a fact that only became clear when the newsreader made an appearance. On one it was a lady with a dot between her eyes who scolded the audience in a style that could only be described as declamatory. On the other was a young man in a shiny suit whose spectacles reflected the studio lights continuously, rendering the lenses completely opaque, as if he were a cartoon character called ‘Brains’ or similar. I found consolation in a local music channel where folk dancers cavorted and stomped in sylvan Himalayan glades to a wailing tune while maintaining smiles of a startling rigidity.

The front steps of Shiva Guesthouse offered a perfect eye-level view to watch the goings-on of Bhaktapur’s Durbar Square. Most of the tourists in evidence seemed to be Chinese clad in counterfeit mountaineering gear, armed with impressively large telephoto lenses. They mostly seemed to take pictures of each other, in a quite unselfconscious way. They walked differently to the Nepalese, with a kind of stiff-legged, shoulder-barging waddle, as if they were perpetually muscling their way through crowds. The Nepalis instead seemed to have more of a languid slope; the sight of a group of teenagers walking past reminded me of the low-kneed, ponderous gait of a herd of camels, an effect most likely caused by wearing overlarge sandals which kept threatening to slip off. The Shiva temple opposite the guesthouse opened its doors briefly twice a day, morning and evening, marked by a clanging of bells. A small dog with a curly tail trotted in and out freely, and devotees touched the doorstep carefully upon surmounting the stairs before stepping over the threshold. Many emerged wearing a small daub of orange in their hair – marigold petals. The narrow alleyways were lined with stalls selling wood carvings, knitwear and prayer beads, and echoed to the sound of serene singing from music shops – not the inevitable Om Mani Padme Hum of Thamel, but a far more varied repertoire, which, combined with the perpetual scent of incense, gave the town something of a spiritual atmosphere.

Most Nepalese seemed to treat each other with great courtesy, with a frank, open gaze and calm manner. To be harsh or aggressive is seen as crass in this society, and great store is set on being measured and dignified in one’s dealings with others; it is rare to hear a voice raised in anger. The exception to this seems to be the waiters who are forced to bear the brunt of various customers’ sense of self importance. Waiters are addressed as “bhai” – brother – which in itself seems courteous enough; far more so than the French garcon, or “boy”. But the more important the customer, the more abrupt they were: “BHAI!” they would bark at some hapless local. And barking was the word. Soon I came to mentally substitute it: “BARK! Bring two cappuccinos. And one bottle of water. BARK! And an ashtray. BARK! Here, take this rubbish. BARK! BARK! BARK!” The waiter would flinch like a puppy that had been kicked. The sight of all these pompous nonentities woofing at underlings managed to be demeaning to both.

I had felt it coming for some time – that telltale itch an inch up my right nostril. Soon the accursed sneezing fits began. I had caught a cold – my first since Alice Springs four months earlier. In the oven-like heat of Central Australia it had burned itself out in a few days, but here, in the frigid temperatures of a Himalayan winter, it was worsening by the day. With no heating in the houses people blundered about in padded jackets and woolly hats, drinking endless cups of tea to keep warm. I sneezed my way around Bhaktapur miserably, waiting for the afternoon when the solar-heated water would be warm enough to take a shower. Having a perpetually dripping nose in a country where few people use tissues posed its own problems; I’ve never been entirely happy blowing my nose with my fingers in the local manner. Fortunately at a small beauty shop, which advertised itself with a hoarding which offered “fairness” cream for men – skin-lightening bleach – I found a six-pack of Tempo tissues. They were marked as being “Durchschnupfsicher” in German, which I translated as “through-snort proof”. They sounded just the thing, and I bought the entire stock, to the total mystification of the sales girl.

The minibus from Bhaktapur to Nagarkot left at 2pm, and carried a mixture of locals and tourists. The driver was a squat Nepali with unusually prominent earlobes, wearing a colourful cap which emphasised them nicely. The conductor had swept back hair, a beard that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Shoreditch, and a waistcoat beneath a suit jacket with wide 70s-style lapels. As soon as we set off a thumping techno soundtrack began, slightly surreal in the context of the small mountain villages we were passing through. I pictured the two of them on the dancefloor: the driver, I decided, would jump about like an enormous frog; the conductor, flares flapping,  would cut slick disco moves in the style of Saturday Night Fever. Perhaps it was the altitude that was responsible for these hallucinatory visions, or perhaps I was developing a fever myself. I felt most unwell.

I had asked on a whim to be dropped at the Hotel at the End of the Universe, chiefly because of the name. The minibus dropped me at a junction and the conductor pointed up the road. “Ten minutes, no more.” Shouldering the enormous backpack which felt heavier every day, I trudged up the hill, wondering why it was exactly that I did this sort of thing – I remember slogging round Shimla with a stinking cold a year or two earlier looking for a hotel, when all I really wanted was to be at home in bed. A motorbike with two young guys stopped next to me.

“You want hash?”
“No thank you.”
“I have good hash, sensetronic, ergonomic, catatonic… what you want?”
“I don’t smoke.”
“I give you good price. Finest quality, Himalayan herb.”
I stood there with dripping nose, feeling a sneeze coming on. My face contorted, but not before I got the words out: “Smoking is very bad for the health. And I am very healthy person.” I sneezed tremendously.
The guy on the back of the bike said to his friend: “I don’t think he’s going to buy any.”

The Hotel at the End of the Universe sat on a hilltop with an incredible view of the mountains stretching right across the horizon. But they were fully booked. “We do have a tent,” suggested the receptionist helpfully.
I pictured some luxury en suite safari lodge tent such as one might find in the Okavango. “OK, let’s see it.” Together we went up and down numerous flights of stairs, until we emerged into a clearing in which stood a sagging blue A-frame tent, of the kind one might put up in the garden on a summer’s day for the children to play in.
“It’s freezing at night here. If I sleep in there I’m going to die,” I told the receptionist. He waggled his head. I headed back down to the road in search of another hotel. I spotted one sign saying Green Valley Hotel, which sounded pleasant, and made my way along a dusty track towards it. It lay around the other side of the ridge to the Hotel at the End of the Universe, and had a view of the mountains from a different angle – perhaps even more imposing. I was shown several different rooms, and picked the one with the best view, which was $20 a night. It was tidy enough, although freezing cold, but there were a heap of blankets on the bed and an en suite bathroom. Unfortunately I didn’t inspect the bathroom too closely due to a power cut – in the gloom I made out the outline of a shower in the corner which looked serviceable enough. As it turned out, it wasn’t. There was no hot water until late afternoon, the walls were covered with interesting spirals and whorls of mould, and the shower head was broken so that it sprayed jets of frigid water in all directions other than downwards, until it fell off completely, creating a torrent akin to standing under a waterfall. This was a shame, as it was otherwise a nice hotel, and had thoughtful touches such as a sachet of “anti-hairfall” shampoo in the calamitous bathroom, and a complementary bottle of mineral water (sadly the seal was broken, so I discarded it as a precaution). There were a few Chinese tourists staying, and three New Yorkers who had just arrived in Nepal a few days earlier. I decided to just stay for one night, and try my luck at the end of the universe the next morning.

I felt marginally worse the next morning, and didn’t fancy lugging the backpack up hill and down dale to the end of the universe, so I decided on what I thought was a culturally appropriate solution: I would offer a strong young Nepalese a certain amount to carry my backpack, in the manner of a Sherpa, as I walked along beside him. Mentally I had decided on a dollar – a hundred rupees – not a bad wage for 15 minutes’ walk. I asked at reception if they knew of anyone available, and they said they’d ask around, but most of the men were engaged in carrying a large generator down several flights of stairs – a feat they achieved by inserting three scaffolding poles through it and physically manhandling it. I contemplated the scene, and compared it to a similar operation in the UK, where a crane would be required, the workers would be attired in safety boots, helmets and hi-viz vests, and half a day would be needed to complete the paperwork. Instead we had a group of Nepalese in flip flops carrying over a tonne of generator down a hill on their shoulders.

A group of Chinese were leaving by minibus, and it was proposed that they carry my backpack on the roof and drop it off at the hotel. I wasn’t keen on the idea – perhaps something would be lost in translation and my bag would end up in Kathmandu. An alternative was suggested – a man would come on his motorbike and I would wear the backpack and sit on the back. I was even less keen on this; like many motorcyclists I hate going on the back with a passion – I’d rather walk. Eventually a third way was found – I would set off walking and a motorcyclist and passenger would carry my bag. Sure enough, that’s what happened, and the entire negotiation process took barely an hour.

So I ended up at the Hotel at the End of the Universe, in a small stone cottage in a grove of bamboo. The water was hot in the morning, the nights were utterly silent, and the staff friendly and easy-going. Aside from a group of young Nepalese guests who began playing syrupy auto-tuned pop music at 7am and a couple of other foreigners, I have the place to myself. The wifi comes and goes, which has made typing up this blog particularly haphazard, but with views like this it doesn’t really seem to matter.

 

 

 

 

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Boudha

Don’t trust anyone. Act like a boss. Get a second opinion, and a third. Fake it till you make it. All the various banal aphorisms that come to mind apply. You’re in freefall, cut loose from all the ties that bind you and the pillars that support, with nothing between you and the abyss but the honesty of your smile until it starts to falter and whatever inner resources you happen to possess until they run out. Travel is upheaval, and upheaval is necessary for growth… to strip away the extraneous, the superfluous, and get a step closer to just being.

The Hotel Florid had one glaring flaw in an otherwise charming place. Noise. It was unspeakably noisy. In part this was due to the building that was being constructed next door, with consequent hammering and drilling all day. Mostly it was due to the underground car park opposite, which closed the metal sliding door at 9pm. Anyone arriving after that time and wishing to extract their vehicle had to hammer on the metal gate in order to wake the guard, usually while shouting. The guard would emerge blearily from his cabin, and then, because the gate had come off its runners, would insert a stick between the gratings and pry it one shrieking foot at a time, like giant fingernails scraping down a blackboard, on and on and on. This happened around half a dozen times a night, and was easily audible through Australian YHA earplugs. This, coupled with the Englishman who made an obnoxiously loud phone call at 1.30 in the morning from the hallway outside my door (“Well really it’s a question of available funds, haw haw!” he brayed across three acres of chilly foyer in that phony self-effacing way that marks out a certain type of Englishman – 50-something, public school, obnoxious and of dubious inclinations). I decided I had to find somewhere quieter at all costs.

Don’t trust anyone. That is to say, seek a second opinion. The Lonely Planet Book of Lies mentioned the site of Boudha, also known as Bodnath, as being a tranquil escape from the bustle of Thamel. “Stay on after the daytrippers have headed back to the city and you’ll virtually have the place to yourself!” it enthused. There were a number of small guesthouses listed, mostly used by visiting pilgrims, and at random I selected Pema Guesthouse solely on the strength that it lay next door to Lotus Guesthouse and therefore had a plan B close to hand. I asked the helpful receptionist at Florid how much a taxi would be. “Not more than 700 rupees,” he said.”Maybe 600″. I pictured some peaceful village just 5 km outside Kathmandu, topped by a golden stupa. It sounded perfect.

But before I made my way there I was due to meet a Nepali friend from university at the Himalayan Java Cafe near the Garden of Dreams, and headed there by taxi. He was working in the development sector, and as we sat on a sunny balcony over cappuccinos while traffic roared by on Kaser Marg below us he spoke of million-dollar budgets, projects moving from the proposal to the implementation stage, seniority gradings of P5 through to P7, and many other things I hadn’t encountered since university. It was nice to encounter a familiar face again, and we discussed mutual friends and reminisced about life in the UK. Taking advantage of his local knowledge, I asked how much he thought a taxi might be to Boudha. “Not more than 300,” he said adamantly.

Turned out he was exactly right. The first taxi that pulled over, I asked the driver – a young guy wearing a surgical mask – how much to Boudha. “300 rupees sir.” For the sake of form I said 200, but he pointed to the snarl of traffic ahead and said again 300. It seemed fair. Squeezing into the back seat beside my enormous Kathmandu rucksack we set off into the mayhem. We drove around potholes that would have taken off a wheel, played chicken with trucks on intersections, scraped round tight bends – he did a three-point-turn to get round one of them, and crossed a bridge over what looked like a sewage drain which was lined with small shacks. In an eye-watering, throat-scorching haze of fumes and dust a mother sat with a baby next to the road. Every time someone walked past the baby banged a small tin in its hand. We sat in gridlock a few metres away, and in that time 20 people walked by without giving her anything. How does this happen? What calamity had befallen them, led to this hellish location as being the only option for her? What could be done about it? All the experts with all their degrees, all the worthy social workers and the endless academic papers on poverty, and still this is someone’s life. I realised that I had become hardened to the sight in an entirely false way – a way that suppressed human empathy, because the sight made me morose.

In this rather gloomy frame of mind I surveyed the scenes of awful poverty that unfurled beyond the window. Everything appeared ramshackle, cobbled together, dirty. The people made the best of it that they could, but it was dispiriting. A crowd of people stood waiting for a bus, one young man standing with feet planted wide apart, hands in his pockets, and as the bus drew alongside he leaned forward and let loose a dribble of spittle into a gutter choked with refuse. Two scabrous dogs scuffled in the dust in complete silence. A man shuffled by with matted hair wearing a blanket and fancy slip-on leather shoes which had split so that his enormous, calloused toes stuck out of the ends, the soles flapping as he trudged along. We passed a stink of effluent so powerful that I tied my scarf over my mouth and nose. And then, suddenly, the driver was turning left into a sidestreet. “Boudha,” he announced.

Here? It couldn’t be. But then I saw a hand-painted sign saying Boudnath Stupa. Was it a different one? “Pema Guesthouse,” I told him, hoping fervently that the guesthouse was indeed in some idyllic village up the hill. He asked a couple of people and was met with bewildered shrugs. Spotting a couple of foreigners I put down my window and hailed them. “Hi. Namaste. Do you know Pema Guesthouse?”
The man halted. He was tall, bearded, and had a thick Russian accent. He was trying to remember English, I could see. He shook his head. “Not,” he said. “Sorry.” He smiled.
“Where do you stay? Is it nice?”
“Umm… monastyery? His name is…” – he conferred with his friend – “Dolpo? Kangpo? I don’t know, sorry.” He smiled again.
“OK, thank you.” We drove on, down increasingly narrow lanes.

Spotting another foreigner I put down the window, and hailed him: “Namaste.”
“Namaste,” he replied. “How you goin’?”
“Good. Do you know Pema Guesthouse?”
“No mate, sorry. I’m staying at the monastery – but it’s a whole course. You’d have to book in advance.”
Monasteries. I wasn’t ready for that. Yet. Out of curiosity I asked him, “Are you Australian?”
A flicker of something like pain flashed behind his eyes, as if wincing at a memory. “Yeah. Australia. Long time ago now.” He was turning away.
“OK, thanks anyway. Go well.”

Soon there was a 90 degree bend that even the small Maruti taxi couldn’t get round. The driver’s eyes, just visible above his surgical mask, met mine in the mirror.
“OK, here is good. Stop here, thanks. I’ll walk it.” I could see his relief. I extracted myself from the back seat and pulled out the enormous, ridiculous rucksack. Swing it on, lean forward, hip belt first, then the shoulders, that’s the way. Paul showed me that at Outward Bound in Scotland 25 years ago, standing on a 45 degree slope of wet rock on a mountain called Bla Bheinn in the rain. I wonder if he knows I still remember it every time I put my rucksack on. What am I doing here?

A group of Tibetan monks were coming down the lane – young men in maroon robes and with shaved heads. Expecting mild mockery at the sight of the harried foreigner bent double under a vast orange backpack I grinned ruefully, but they didn’t even notice me – they were laughing and joking with each other. I headed up the hill, emerging onto a muddy lane with a battered bus seesawing its way along it. Half-finished concrete housing lined the road; it looked like some ghastly unfinished housing project in Tirana or Sofia. “Pema guesthouse?” I enquired at a tea stall. Blank shrugs. One man shouted to a guy across the street in Nepali. “Pema?” No luck. OK, thanks anyway. I plodded along. Well, you wanted freedom. How’s this? Nobody has the faintest idea where you are – including yourself. It wasn’t so bad. The day was warm, but not hot. The bag was large, but not heavy. I could carry it for hours. Then one of those things happened that make you think they are meant to happen. Preconceptions being overturned, prejudices shattered, that sort of thing. I was passing another tea stall, and leaning against the counter was a man on crutches. His legs dangled withered beneath him. Now in Asia that usually means one thing – avert your eyes, because if he sees you looking, he’ll ask you for money, and you’ll feel a swine if you refuse, and utterly inadequate with the few rupees you do hand over. He caught my eye.

“My friend! Hello my friend!”
“Namaste,” I replied. “How are you. Do you know Pema Guesthouse?”
He detached himself from the tea stall counter and swung over to me. “Pema. No, I don’t know it.” He called to the owner. The owner didn’t know it either. “Why do you want Pema? Do you have a booking?”
“Yes,” I lied, fearing an offer of another guesthouse at a special price.
“No problem,” he said. “We’ll find it.” He swung in beside me. His legs were tangled together, growing round each other like a liana, and they swung as he thunked along on his crutches. As we went down the lane, he talked. I don’t remember it verbatim, but it began to dawn on me that this was no elaborate hit up or request for a tip – this was an intelligent guy who was enjoying a chat. “Ego!” he announced. “We are all a bunch of egos. We cannot see each other, only how important we wish to appear.” I thought about billion dollar budgets, salary scales and experts. “Everyone has lives full of jealousy, anger, hatred. We must overcome these feelings in order to see.” Together we thunked along down the lane, halting occasionally for passing motorbikes. “Pema?” he called out to someone, and got a headshake in return. We carried on.

“Do you remember the last time you felt angry?” he asked me suddenly.
“I do,” I laughed. “It was this morning. There was this English guy who kept me awake by talking loudly on his phone.” I felt embarrassed at the thought.
“Well, that can be annoying,” he conceded. “But are you angry about it still?”
“No, of course not.”
“See? The anger was an illusion. It passed. It was a demon, but you didn’t command it.”
We came to a tea stall just outside the entrance to the stupa. I could see the golden dome above us, and those watchful blue eyes. Turning to him I said: “Can I buy you a tea?”
“Thank you, no. I am fine.”
“I’m going to have one. I’d like you to join me.”
“Very well.” He negotiated the steps and arranged himself into a chair. The owner, a slow-moving Tibetan, set down two menus before us. “Namaste,” he murmured. Then I heard a small, piping voice. “Namaste!” It was his little daughter, aged about five, bright-eyed and curious. She placed her small palms together. We returned the gesture and greeted her in turn. Namaste: I salute the spirit in you. 

I sat sipping my tea, facing him across the table as he talked. Silence fell – an easy, comfortable silence. It was as if time in the room had slowed down. The little girl was sitting on her mother’s knee eating rice from her hand. The owner moved around at a measured pace, appraising everything with slow, far-seeing eyes, as if he was looking somehow beyond the confines of the room. In the background we could hear chanting as the pilgrims circled the stupa. My friend on the crutches was talking on in a low voice, about grief, and sin, and remorse, and the circle of life. I felt like a child who had lost its mother in a crowded street – a childish sadness welled up inside me, and I immediately pushed the sensation away, then slowly allowed it to return, exploring it. Losing my bearings, cutting free the moorings. I felt lighter, easier. My rational mind returned. Had my tea been spiked? Was this some elaborate setup? No, it wasn’t, and how ridiculous such a petty suspicion seemed. I felt calm, and relaxed, and didn’t care any more about Pema Guesthouse or anything else.

“I would like to walk around the stupa,” I said suddenly, surprising myself.
“OK, then you should,” said my friend.
I got to my feet, and swung the enormous rucksack on while he watched. Wordlessly he held out a hand and I shook it, then simultaneously we placed our hands over our hearts in the Afghan manner – not a common gesture here – and then both smiled delightedly. Was he an expert observer, predicting my reactions? No. Just something synchronized and spontaneous. I made my way out of the tea house and into the lane, which was bustling now with pilgrims and monks. Occasionally a tourist would go past in their trekking gear and daysack; I felt ridiculous with my huge backpack, but didn’t know what to do with it. I couldn’t leave it. The tide of people carried me into the space and we began a slow, clockwise perambulation of the stupa. Ahead of me were maroon robes, to my side were a group of women, off to my left was a tall tourist in an Andean hat. Nobody paid me any attention – I was just another person in the crowd, I carrying my burden, they carrying theirs.

I never found Pema Guesthouse. I didn’t stay in Boudha, but I can say that I went there. A fork in the road, a chance meeting, a path not chosen and another one taken. My task, if I can claim to have one, is a little at odds with the contemplative existence: I seek to document, to understand and to explain. After circling the stupa however many times I found myself in a daze back on that traffic-snarled road climbing into a taxi which carried me back to Kathmandu as I sat in the back seat feeling a strange lightness, and it took me to a guesthouse with hot water and power and wifi and chai, and I sat down and wrote for three hours. Where am I going next? I still don’t know. But having felt lost for months I know I’m on the right path.

Salad Days

Hotel Florid, Kathmandu – 8th January 2015

It was 4 degrees C this morning in Kathmandu – quite a change from 44 in Victoria last week – and was too cold to hold a pen in the unheated room at Pilgrim’s Guesthouse, so I put on every article of clothing I possessed and went to sit in the courtyard: fleece top, Shetland sweater (to think I almost left it as a present for Pepper the Doglet in her basket! Well, it is disgracefully holey), Barbour jacket (even more holey, these days), Afghan scarf and tweed cap. A woman at a pashmina stall I passed pointed to the scarf and called out: “Afghanistan!” How on earth did she know? It was even more impressive than the guy who sidled up to me in Thamel when I was walking along and said: “Australia shoes” on spotting my Blundstone boots. Naturally he wanted a dollar for being so clever. I failed to oblige.

The included breakfast at Pilgrim’s consists of scrambled eggs on a curiously dessicated square of white bread, a spoonful of fried potatoes, and two bits of toast with jam. This morning, unaccountably, I also had a garnish – half a tomato and an inch-long sliver of lettuce, which I carefully pushed to one side. Having run the water for five minutes I had another brief and lukewarm shower, then waited for the sun to creep over the rim of the tall, narrow building opposite which looks as if it has been constructed of bricks without using any mortar in between them. Putting up with these minor discomforts is so much easier when it’s warm.

Thamel is the backpacker centre of Kathmandu, narrow streets lined with small shops selling those kind of wool Andean hats with earflaps, T-shirts with stoner iconography, and lots of counterfeit trekking gear. In between all this are stalls selling tea, spices, and more traditional carvings and statues. Small white Suzuki taxis, very battered, trundle along the lanes hooting incessantly, fighting a constant duel with the motorbikes which zoom past them with – not even inches – barely an inch to spare. It makes walking anywhere a fairly tense experience. Sometimes taxi drivers, on spotting a tourist, will halt and call out “taxi!”, subsequently blocking the entire road. If you decline, his next sentence will inevitably be “marijuana?” One man drew alongside me as I was walking and began reciting a litany of things which made little sense to me, but occasionally a half-formed recognition at a word would surface from a long, long time ago: “sticky bud, corn flakes, sensemillia, special K, skunk weed, rice krispies, charras, captain crunch, manali cream, weetabix, temple balls, fruity loops…” So it went on, undeterred by my brusque “no thanks.” He got bored eventually. Some rickshaw drivers have picked up a new and annoying habit; they spot you coming and swerve in front of you, thus blocking your path. Trapped by the passing tide of incessantly honking motorbikes (horning is boring, guys), you carry on a tetchy rebuttal which escalates the longer you are there: “No thank you, no, go away, that’s quite enough now, get out of my way, sod off now, there’s a good chap…” And he will reply, inevitably: “Durbar Square? Swayambunath? Hashish? Acid? Heroin? Opium? Boy? Girl? Something?”

Speaking of hash, I met a guy last night from Switzerland who I heard speaking fluent Hindi. I complimented him on it and he said: “Well, I had to learn it really. I was in jail in India for four years.” He had been living in Himachal Pradesh, where hash doesn’t so much grow on trees as just pop up wild by the roadside, and developed quite a smoking habit. The police caught him with one-and-a-half kilos – all of which was for personal use, he told me (and he had no reason to lie). Delicately I asked him if there had been any opportunity, in retrospect, to perhaps offer a bribe to the police to get them to drop the charges.

“I tried, of course,” he said. “I offered them everything I had on me. And that was my mistake; I offered 12,000 rupees (about $120). It was too much. They were just rural Himachali cops and they got scared by the amount and called their inspector. He was hungry for promotion, and that was that…” he shrugged. “And the stupid thing was, when we used to go to court, the cops in the prison van were all smoking it.” He seemed remarkably philosophical about it all.

I met an Aussie couple who had taken a taxi from the airport the other day. As they were pulling away the passenger door opened and in jumped a little Nepali guy. “My friend,” said the driver. “OK to give him lift?”
“Yes, of course,” reply the Aussies.
Along the way the friend regaled them with stories of his family, invited them to his home, and promised to come and collect them the next day to take them to some hidden temples “not in guidebook.” Meekly they agreed. When I met them they had spent the entire day being ferried around a series of shops with this guy, and during a brief absence on his part, were discussing in frantic whispers how they might get rid of him without hurting his feelings.
“First time in Asia?” I casually enquired. It was.

I happened to mention this anecdote to the Swiss. “Learning to say no,” he said. “You have to. It’s why there are so many Japanese heroin addicts in India. They hate to seem impolite – it’s against their whole culture. Offer them anything three times and they will accept.”

I made a bit of a beginners error myself last night. It was an upmarket restaurant full of tourists – the kind of place where a main course is $4 – and after a diet of nothing but eggs and toast for breakfast, and chicken and rice for dinner, I was craving greenery. My dinner came with a side order of salad. It had dressing and everything! Well, after a moment’s pause I started munching my way blissfully through the foliage like a foraging ungulate. I know the old colonial adage – if you can’t cook it, peel it or boil it, chuck it. I knew but was undone by gluttony. The salad was my downfall. Four months in hygienic Australia lowered my resistance to such things.

Well. 2am and the first ominous rumblings began. But still I was in denial. I looked askance at the bottle of water I had bought – the cap had been suspiciously easy to open. What if it had been filled straight from the tap? I might as well head straight to hospital – it would be like drinking neat sewage to my pampered plumbing. Was I developing a fever? I knew two people who had contracted typhoid in India the year before. Surely I was vaccinated? I couldn’t remember. Rumble rumble rumble. Thank goodness I had paid extra for an en suite bathroom – a grimy cubicle a metre square with tiles in duck-egg blue. But what’s this? Woe is me: my earlier shower had soaked the toilet paper. Oh well, when in Asia…

There’s no glamour in travel these days. No dignity or grace when one is stricken. Two degrees C, no electricity, and I squat, wearing only flip flops, under a freezing trickle of water soaping my nether regions while holding a torch clamped between my teeth till the onset of lockjaw as an icy drip from the shower head strikes the back of my neck with monotonous regularity. I have become a mere husk of a man… a shadow of my former self… an empty vessel. Oh god, what was that scuttle in the corner of the room? What if I literally turn myself inside out, like a discarded surgical glove? They will find me here, on the floor of this fetid Nepali cubicle, a sadly inverted sack of skin with no contents. “Well, he was a traveller. At least he died doing what he loved.”

I survived the night somehow, and gingerly emerged onto the terrace in the morning for a pot of black tea with sugar. “You wanting breakfast sar? Eggs bowelled or scrumpled?” Just the tea thanks. Well it had to happen sooner or later. Thank god I didn’t get on that seven-hour coach to Pokhara. Apart from aching all over as if I were somehow expertly beaten up in the night, I’m feeling better already. Learn from my mistake. Don’t eat the salad. Just say no, kids.

Durbar Square is Kathmandu’s centrepiece – three squares, in fact, all surrounded by temples and elaborately carved wooden architecture with tiered roofs like wedding cakes. On a sunny Saturday morning it was bustling. Flocks of pigeons endlessly took off and resettled themselves upon ornate eaves. Tourists carrying enormous telephoto lenses, young Nepalese hanging aimlessly around, and assorted individuals sitting around who could only really be described as being ‘the dispossessed’. A ticket for foreigners comes to 750 rupees ($7.50) and gives you a day pass, in effect, plus entry to the museum. The museum itself was guarded by musket-toting guardsmen in turbans and black uniforms; the one who checked my ticket had his dignity only slightly undermined by the bright yellow socks which showed above his shoes. But behind him were more serious soldiery – a couple of Gurkhas, standing at ease, each with an arm behind their back and a hand on their khukri – the large curved knife that is so iconic. I remember a former British army officer who had served in the Falklands telling me that there had been repeated attempts by one British regiment to storm a hilltop held by the Argentinians, without success. The Gurkhas arrived as reinforcements, and proceeded to unsheath their khukris and charge uphill while uttering bloodcurdling screams. Apparently all the Argentinians very sensibly ran away. These two were guarding an old series II Land Rover, which had a plaque next to it: “Royal Land Rover destroyed in bomb attack”. I looked at the very much intact Land Rover. It appeared to be in better condition than many of the vehicles in Kathmandu.

Just off the A12 in Suffolk, a little way outside the village of Blythburgh, there’s an off-road motorcycle track. You can see it from the road – a series of armoured riders on special dirt bikes zooming over ramps and negotiating dips and humps. It bears a striking resemblance to Leknath Marg road in Kathmandu; substitute the armour-clad riders for entire families aboard Honda Hero motorbikes, add a few minibuses with conductors leaning out of the doorways, and a few rickshaws and bicycles, and there’s not much to choose between them. In the taxi to Swayambunath the driver, after a particularly bumpy section, laughed and said “Very bad road in Kathmandu.” As my head was thumping rhythmically against the doorframe at the time I was unable to nod in agreement, so I just laughed.

We crawled in first gear across what looked like a building site, until we came to a steep set of stairs which led up to a gilded stupa with a pair of blue eyes steadfastly gazing out across Kathmandu. Crowds of locals endlessly perambulated the site clockwise, and there was something of a holiday atmosphere – couples took selfies of themselves against a backdrop of the city, children chased the monkeys and were chased in turn, elderly pilgrims prostrated themselves at small shrines. At one of these I watched people crowd around a small doorway, the devotees taking pieces of paper which they touched to a flame then placed in a shallow dish. They would reach up and touch the lintel above the doorway, then place their hand briefly on their forehead. A man came forward carrying a small child – no more than two or three years old. He held the infant aloft, and it extended a small, ski-jacketed arm out to the lintel then patted itself on the head. It was set down and toddled off, its attention caught by the flames that licked at the edges of the curling paper prayers, and stood watching solemnly until they turned to ash and the breeze swept them away.

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Kathmandu

Malmsbury is a small town stretched out along the road – a village, really – with a couple of galleries, a couple of antique shops and a couple of cafes on one side, and across the road the fire station, police station and a couple of other buildings. In the evening the police car pulls up outside the station, the policeman reverses carefully into the garage, and a little later reappears in shorts and a T-shirt and carefully puts his wheelie bins out on the pavement. He’s a burly bald guy in his 50s, and he’s been here since the 1980s. I don’t suppose there’s much in the way of crime in Malmsbury, although there is an investigation going on since the body of a female in her 60s was discovered at a nearby river, where it had lain undisturbed for some months.

Outside the Post Office and general store is a noticeboard which gives some insight into the priorities of the community: “Bass player wanted for Linda Ronstadt tribute band.” “Missing dog – answers to the name of Winslow” (answers how? Barks upon being addressed, raising a paw aloft?). “Funeral Celebrant – specialist in celebrating the life of your Loved One.” And taking centre stage, “Rats of the Sky”. Not pigeons, as they are known in London, but Indian mynah birds. A CCTV camera observes the three plastic tables and chairs outside the general store, which also does takeaway food. Last night I had a burger from there with “The Lot” – an Aussie speciality, involving bacon, egg, beetroot, pineapple and cheese atop the burger. And a minimum chips. Other slightly bewildering things appearing on Aussie takeaway menus are a “Kransky” – apparently a type of hot dog with cheese inside – and “Pluto Pups”: deep fried mini hotdogs, if I understood correctly.

I checked in to Melbourne Central YHA for my last night in Australia, as it lay just round the corner from Southern Cross station and the airport shuttle bus. Melbourne on a sunny Sunday afternoon was all but deserted. I met a group of young Swedes on the rooftop terrace of the hostel. First big trip overseas, that kind of thing. They had hired a car and were setting off along the Great Ocean Road the next day, then the Grampians, and maybe up to Alice Springs. They were very excited. And where was I going tomorrow, they asked?
“Kathmandu.”
A brief silence. Did I mean the outdoor shop on Collins Street? Then slow nods. “Cool!”

At Southern Cross there was a minor delay when a woman was prevented from boarding the bus with her takeaway coffee. “No hot drinks allowed!” admonished an official. I looked out at the suburbs of northern Melbourne through the blue-tinted window, at people going to work. It was 6.30 in the morning. Bev and Mick’s tavern. Happy hour. Live sports. Bungalows. White wooden buildings. Corrugated iron roofs. A cartoon kangaroo on a billboard. A ute with P plates (L plates in the UK) zigzagging from lane to lane in a boom of exhaust. White SUVs like refrigerators. A truck went by driven by a guy in shorts, hi-viz yellow polo shirt and Blundstone boots. The iconography of Australiana. I saw the Calder Highway exit and the sign to Bendigo, and felt a small twinge. It’s not exactly the loveliest of cities, but it was somewhere I had been just a day or two earlier. Kangaroo Flat shopping centre (which I always dubbed Flat Kangaroo mentally), with its Coles supermarket and its Big W and Pet Centre and Hungry Jacks. Was it really possible that I was leaving, after four months here? Yes. Time to go.

Air Asia Flight D7215 to Kuala Lumpur was half empty, and there was a fairly sombre mood on board. Only a few days earlier one of their planes had gone down, crashing into the Java Sea, over which we would be flying. Many of the cabin crew wore little white ribbons on their lapels in memoriam. It was unusual to be on a flight where there was almost no chatter, no passengers interacting; everyone seemed lost in their thoughts. We hit turbulence crossing the northern coast of Australia and rain spattered the windows, but soon we emerged again into dazzling sunlight. After eight hours or so we began our descent to Kuala Lumpur. I’d been here before many years earlier, but wasn’t stopping this time – I had an hour and a half to connect to the next Air Asia flight to Kathmandu. Fortunately, Malaysia being a civilised sort of place, the airport had a smoking room – the usual tiny space where it was possible to make out a few figures congregating around the walls through the eye-watering fug. I topped up on nicotine and tea, then made my way to the next gate. Here the demographic had changed: everyone was Nepalese, the plane was full, and there was a general air of high spirits at going home. As befitting a country that lies between Tibet and India, their features ranged from the smooth broad faces and oriental eyes of the Tibetan plateau through to the hawkish features and dark skin of India. Jostled by a series of shoulder-high, smiling men in leather jackets with no concept of personal space, I felt myself back on the subcontinent at last.

The two Chinese stewardesses were driven to distraction by the chaos – people taking on suitcases as hand baggage, others choosing to sit with friends instead of in allocated seats, and a sudden rush for the toilets as we were taxiing down the runway. After four uneventful and generally unpleasant hours, the minute the pilot announced that we were about to begin our descent to Kathmandu and that we should keep our seatbelts fastened and refrain from using our mobile phones, half the passengers leapt to their feet, got their bags out of the overhead lockers and the plane was filled with the beeping of text messages as we came into phone signal range. The stewardesses did a heroic job, alternately nannying and scolding; a few seconds before the wheels bumped down on the tarmac one man made a dash for the toilet, but was tackled and escorted back to his seat. It was all great fun. Baggage reclaim took two hours, and involved a kind of good-natured pushing and shoving where, if you were not in actual physical contact with the person next to you, someone else would insert themselves into the space until you were. Parched with dehydration, cursing the fact that I had passed a perfectly good water fountain in KL without filling my bottle, and beginning to get a little weak at the knees with fatigue, I pulled out my phone and saw that it was 3.30 in the morning in Melbourne. I had been on the move for 21 hours. Having finally reclaimed my large orange rucksack, I was halted briefly at Customs. “Baggage tag?” the officer enquired. I had no such tag.
“What is your name?” he asked.
“Mr Jeremy.”
He waggled his head. “OK, you can pass.”

What if I was called Steve, or something?

I woke at six in the morning to the sound of handbells and the scent of incense. The old gods are still alive in Kathmandu, it seems. It was cold. After a chilly barefoot scamper to the bathroom, where I had to embark upon some minor plumbing work by torchlight in order to get the toilet to flush (brand name “Splash”), I dived back under the covers and listened to the sounds of Kathmandu coming awake: assorted hoicking and flobbing noises as people underwent their ablutions, the first snarl of motorbikes and hooting traffic, and the cry of a vendor rising and falling. Picking my way past the sleeping forms of the staff in the guesthouse lobby I emerged into the courtyard and had the first chai of the day. Soon a Nepalese guy appeared with a bucket, filled it from the fountain in the centre of the courtyard, and disappeared down an alleyway. Music began to play: the familiar Om Mani Padme Hum chanted chorus that played in a never-ending loop in the Wonderland restaurant in Ladakh. It was fitting; things have come full circle. I am back.

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