“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!”
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.