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.