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.