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KINDA KATHMANDU

He’s sitting there, pallid and thin, staring out vacantly at Durbar Square – wasted. He’s looking at me and smiling.

It’s that same brainless hippy-shit smile I’ve seen for decades – a vacuous, empty-headed, I’m-a-bit-stoned smile. I lived through the Seventies. I had to tolerate every fruit-loop loser in the spirit of the times. Now I just want to beat them to a pulp.

The kid was staying just round the corner, at some dive with a stupid stoner name. He’s only just arrived but he’s found what he’s looking for; lurk in a nexus of guest house, coffee shop and street; catch a glimpse of a historical site, a temple, a cow, stumble stoned through alleyways and lanes, plonk his skinny arse on a stool in the nearest tea shop, smoke dope, crash out and then say

‘I’ve been to Kathmandu…’

No, he hasn’t.

For this young man the mere act of getting here is sufficient. He’s done it, ticked it off on his list; countries I have been to; places I have seen. A couple of days here, a couple there, hurtling round at the speed of light; I’ve been there, tick, I’ve done that, tick, I’ve done it all – I’m so wise, I’m twenty-one, I’m a grown up, I’ve been to Kathmandu…

No, he hasn’t.

The Inn Eden was painted blood red. Outside, just by the door was a reassuring sign:

HOME MADE BROWN BREAD.

Over the window, printed in large red letters on a blue background, were these words:

INN EDEN HOTEL

Each letter had white edging, as if it had recently snowed. Below this a darker blue sign:

 HASHISH GANJA SHOP 1st FLOOR

above the door a long thin sign, white letters on blue:

EDEN HASHISH CENTRE.

Just in case you couldn’t read, each word was separated by little painted chillums.

*

In December 1971, to his utter confusion, Mr. Dogster found himself in Kathmandu, barely twenty-one years old. Of course, he behaved accordingly.

‘…The Eden Hashish Centre was the largest of several legal storefronts in Kathmandu that provided quality hash and grass to the tourists. Mr. Sharma, the owner, opened two shops. The original location was at 5/1 Basantpur in the famous “Freak Street” hippy district, a location that ironically now is occupied by a bank. The second shop was located at 5/259 Ombahal, said to be in the Thamel area.

Once inside he had an immediate choice; stumble up the stairs to the Hashish Emporium or take a left into the Coffee Shop, a dungeon with wooden benches and what appeared to be a pig-run under the stairs. Wee Doggie took a left, eased himself into a cubicle and ordered the hashish grilled cheese slices.

In late 1973, soon after the second Eden hash shop opened, threats of the loss of foreign aid from the American administration of Richard Nixon forced Nepal to outlaw hashish and marijuana. The two Eden Hashish Centres, the Central Hashish Centre and the others closed their doors and the pot and hashish business moved underground…’

He woke up nearly forty years later and stumbled outside. Things had changed.

*

There are only three kinds of people in Thamel – travelers, dumb tourists and those who make their living from the first two. Don’t look any further – that’s it. It’s a polluted backpacker crap-hole and getting worse – but we’d better take it seriously; for way too many travelers, Thamel is Kathmandu.

Thamel is a construct, built up around the backpacker brigade during the late-seventies and eighties to service their every need; cheap hotels, fresh coffee, donuts and German cakes, spaghetti and hamburgers, draught beer and easy, underground dope, just like Goa. The tourists created Thamel – now Thamel creates the tourists.

Things have been horribly out of control ever since; building piled upon building, burrowing, arching, searching for that elusive door to the street, all boasting a haphazard kamikaze of signage overgrowing alleys in a last desperate attempt to be noticed. In season the streets are chock-a-block – somebody’s making money. Every building is a shop; every doorway leads to a restaurant, a bar, a massage parlor, a barber, a jeweler and fake Adidas shoes. There’s more – mystery doors into mystery places filled with ‘cool Nepali dudes’ trading whispers with craggy trekkers; a thriving sex industry; hustlers galore.

In a perverse way I quite like the place; it’s precisely what you want Kathmandu to be – a little bit of Bali, the tang of Amsterdam, a strangled Nepali Marrakech overlaid with sweet Tibet. Thamel is no more ‘real’ Kathmandu than I am. It’s a distorted snapshot of what somebody once thought Kathmandu should be – long after it wasn’t.   And it’s all Richard Nixon’s fault.

*

January in Kathmandu is bitterly cold. Only the vampire prickles of Thamel bother with the tourists, rearing out of the damp like half-dead wraiths; hooded, shriveled, petrol-sniffing children; junkie youths hissing ‘smoke?’ ‘we-e-e-eed?’what you want?’, incanting the same carnivorous Om-m-m-m to indulgence as their long-dead, frozen forefathers did forty years ago.

January days are crisp, warm and clear. There’s a window of opportunity during the daylight hours. All fine, provided you wake up before 1.00 p.m., something Dogster consistently failed to do for the entire time he was there. He slept like a dead log, encased in a burrow of squash-you-flat doonas, suddenly in winter hibernation. My window of opportunity became rather small. Dogster never made it out of the hotel before two – by five p.m. it’s damn cold and when the last rays of the sun disappear the temperature plummets; by six it’s bitter, by seven I’m either somewhere warm or dead.

Better eat dinner early. Even on a weekend the restaurants in Thamel are shuttered by ten, the streets empty by ten-fifteen, just the last drunk tourist shouting their last drunk goodbyes. By ten-thirty Thamel is virtually deserted, only the glue babies left shivering in the dark.

Even in arctic January, rust never sleeps in Nepal.

You can always tell when there’s a bandh, you wake up late to something missing; the hum, that buzz of business – all gone. Look out the window – nobody. As bandhs go, Sunday’s was very calm. Somehow, I missed the cadres of RJN youth vandalizing cars. The media certainly didn’t – you’d think the whole of Nepal was ablaze. Quite the reverse – it was all rather dull.

*

Bandh disrupts life in Kathmandu

‘…In Nepal, normal life remained disrupted in Kathmandu valley today following a day-long bandh called by Rashtriya Janmorcha protesting against federalism. Major shops and business establishments remained closed and public transport were off the roads, affecting road communication between Kathmandu valley and other parts of the country. Cadres of RJN vandalised half a dozen vehicles including taxis, motorbikes and buses in Bhaktapur, Chabahil and Gongabu, New Bus Park and Putalisadak for defying the bandh call. Police have made tight security arrangements to maintain law and order…’.

Kathmandu Jan 10 2010

*

Information for a non-Nepali speaking tourist? None. Actually, nobody wants to tell you that you’re stuffed – because if you want to go anywhere, you are. A pre-dawn dash out of the capital has been known to work; backpackers recently reported colorful scenes hiking overland through the deserted streets to the airport – the wise tourist just changes plans and gives up. Thamel has an invisible cordon around it, rarely broken even at the worst of times. Even an enraged Nepali Maoist knows not to bite the hand that indirectly feeds him – be it criminal or tourist. Layers of Nepali sub-Mafia run Thamel – no matter what the politics, business will out. In a way, it’s probably the best place to be.

The suttele bus was straining with locals, intent on a lift out of town. How real tourists suttele to the airport during a bandh remains a mystery. There is no transport. Cycle rickshaws work in the Thamel area with trepidation, motorbikes zoom through, a rare, rare taxi cruises by – but that’s all. The shops are shuttered, every door, every window – not a chai, not a coffee, not a scrambled egg to be had. Some find it refreshing. I was hungry.

Generally, bandhs are most ferocious in the morning when the RJN cadres are fresh, enthusiastic, all primed to beat the bejeezus out of any errant shopkeeper, any greedy taxi-driver they see. They get a bit tired by mid-afternoon. Everybody else just stands around, waiting for something to happen. I saw many bored policemen; they are sick of it; a bandh is a bandh is a bandh in Kathmandu.  As the day wears on the marauding cadres are too tired or drunk to continue, the shutters slither open, renegade chai appears in the street; by three p.m. you can buy bananas or hashish, by four a sticky bun. The Latest, Greatest Bandh of Kathmandu passed with barely a whimper.

It was a dangerous silence, just the same.   A month later the whole country shut down for a week.

*

Now, I’m older than Thamel – but then, I’m older than almost everybody in Kathmandu. For that matter, I’m older than practically everybody in Nepal. Average life expectancy hovers at sixty-three years. I was truly a very senior citizen.

Which didn’t stop the latest Jimmy catching my eye – he knew an old hippy when he saw one. A raised eyebrow, the slightest wiggle of his head, a hurried conversation and I was following him down the street. Jimmy was pretty out of it but benign. He was a regular. He reached into his pocket as we were walking down the street and pulled out a lump of hashish that made me stop dead in my tracks.

‘No-o-o-o, way too much. Lordy, put it away, it’s huge!’

The block of hashish in question was the size of two cigarette packets side by side.  It was a brick of golden brown, bigger than the hand that held it, easily the biggest block of hash I’d seen in my life. People pushed past us as we stopped near the taxi rank, dead centre of the main street.

‘It’s O.K.,’ Jimmy said, I’ll break some off for you.’

He rotated it for my inspection, completely unconcerned, then tore off a chunk from one corner and palmed it to me with a handshake. With rain starting to pour around us I returned too many Nepali rupees, said a hurried goodbye, threaded my way back through Thamel dodging junkies and motor bikes, cars and a particularly enthusiastic demonstration of screaming women who firmly believed that their shouting would remove China from Tibet. I settled into my new hotel doing what you do to the corner of a giant block of Nepali charas.

Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

*

The lady with the fly-away hair sat bewildered in the corner.

She had what we used to call ‘horsey’ features – her face collapsed in an innocent crinkle, illuminated by kind, easily hurt eyes. Shy, sensitive and self-effacing, she’d moved into retirement without remembering to collect a life for herself on the way. Aunty Esme still had a lot of love left and no one to give it to – so she became a volunteer in Nepal.

Aunty was at the coal-face – as uncomfortable, as cold and isolated as a human being could be, volunteering for a cause that still escapes me in a village that didn’t want her there. All around her well-dressed career women from the UK and America babbled their stories, unraveled their projects and their lives in a non-stop explosion of enthusiasm. Esme just sat quietly, looking around. She had the sweet reticence of someone who had just spent a long, long time alone.

Auntie Esme had slogged twelve hours by bus to get to Kathmandu from a tiny village that starts with ‘B’ somewhere south in the borderlands. Within ten minutes of arrival, she was propped up by cushions, sitting back on a red velvet sofa with a beer in her hand, having her first conversation in English for months. She was smiling. The Hotel Courtyard likes to look after its guests.

Her martyrdom appeared to be for the stolen circus orphans of Southern Nepal. Child life in Nepal, particularly female, runs cheap these days. You can buy a child – from her father – for 1,200 rupees. Bought or spirited away for a life of trapeze and sin, these utterly naïve children are used up and discarded. Preventing children being stolen for the circus was a noble cause, but to my eyes, kinda specific. However it works, it’s all achieved with mosaics.

‘I don’t go out very much,’ she whispered, ‘everybody stares…’

Aunty Esme wasn’t a handsome woman, nor had she ever been a pretty girl – but to my eyes she was the most beautiful thing in Nepal.

HOTEL COURTYARD is a very eccentric hotel hidden deep in Thamel. It’s almost a tourist attraction. If it’s right for you, you’ll know on arrival and forgive all the rest – but if you expect anything faintly resembling five-stars – it ain’t your cup of chai. I could tell you about the rooms – but that isn’t the point. Go look at the pictures. By the time you’ve even made it into one the magic wand will have been waved over your head – even if the floor falls out from under you, you won’t complain.

Check-in can be a lengthy process – some guests cheerfully report gaps of several hours between arrival at the hotel and appearance in their room. One of them was a Mr. Dogster. He arrived at two p.m., made it into his room by six, went out at seven-thirty and finally got back at midnight – already seduced by beer, dinner and conversation with his newest, best-est, instant friends.

The owners have realized the simplest of simple things: travelers like to talk. Our sophisticated western culture has removed the mechanism to meet. All we want is permission, a host, an introduction, a location and the occasion. Hotel Courtyard has got the lot.

Backpackers share hovels and gossip with great simplicity – yet up-market you struggle to meet a soul. Mid-range there’s an interesting crowd that is attracted to the idea of chatting with like-minded strangers in Kathmandu. I had good luck. My fellow guests were flawed – but they were Absolutely Fabulous.

The clientele seemed largely female, fearless, highly intelligent, articulate and fun. There were more solo travelers than couples; in my six days I counted twenty-two visible singles, four pairs and one silent family. Of the singles only six were actually traveling to see Nepal. Fifteen of them were ‘good works fairies’; research workers, advisors-to-be, PHD students, incoming volunteers or their ‘facilitators’. The compassion industry has come to Nepal.

The women of the Courtyard in January 2010 were a formidable alien breed – although from which planet I was never really sure. Wherever it was, it was a long, long way away from here. All were so focused on their ‘projects’ they barely noticed they were in Kathmandu.

Neither, for my stay at the Courtyard, did I.

*

‘Meryl Steep or Kate Winslett?’

We were discussing who would play her in the upcoming movie.

Margaret was a marvelous killer-babe from London, a barrister, an enthusiast, political-insider, innovator, wild ideas woman with connections everywhere. I liked her enormously.

Quite what strange force dropped her and her team into the middle of Kathmandu is still a bit of a mystery to me. She spent a lot of time enthusing about some Nepal-enhancing scheme, a God-given technique that aimed to build the leaders of the future, corrupt them on the way up the ladder then exploit them at the top. The elixir of success? Debating skills.

‘It doesn’t matter, as long as they’re poor,’ she snorted, waving a bejeweled wrist vacantly over the table, ‘poor and smart.’

In a deliciously candid pitch of the pitch, she regaled me with the raison d’etre for her sudden, energetic arrival in the library of the Hotel Courtyard. That none of it made any sense at all was beside the point. She could sell sand to a beach.

‘It’s not the debating… it’s the top one or two percent. They go on to be the members of parliament, prime ministers…’

That she was talking about the U.K. was of no importance at all. Margaret believed with all her mouth that Nepal would be exactly the same.

‘We only want the best of the worst; kids from the most destitute of the poorest rural areas of Nepal. We can transform lives!’

She was brilliant. She could pitch like a Yankee, hurtling spit-balls of wisdom, candor and enthusiasm into the crowd with wild energy. Of course these days, in the time-starved days of Very Important People, a great pitch and a personality are all you need. I was getting a one-on-one demonstration of hers. The barrage left me greatly enthused.

It was a great show, right down to the tremble in the voice, the clasp to the breast, the life-changing moment, the ‘I gave it all up to do this’. To all intents and purposes, judging from the names she dropped, everybody from the Pope to David Beckham supported this luvvie-friendly, good works enterprise. No wonder. She was like a pinball machine on speed, endlessly pinging your P.C. buttons, lighting the light in your dumb punter eyes.

Having exhausted the condescension, she cut to the chase.

‘I’ve been negotiating the screen rights,’ she stage-whispered, ‘it’ll be ‘Sherpa Slumdog’ meets ‘My Fair Lady!’

Was she serious? Things were very intense. Conversation raged around us as if we were in some SoHo loft, everybody was showing off, wild and wonderful tangents led us both on and off track. Some people were drunk.

‘…and the book rights,’ she was saying, ‘the merchandising, the musical – it’s all ready to go.’

What did this have to do with Nepali debating? Was I in an episode of ‘Ab Fab’?

‘Meryl Steep or Kate Winslett?’

It had to be Meryl.

Of course, Kate will get the job.

Room 406, three a.m. Dogster’s bladder demands attention. I reach for the light – nothing. The heater is cold. It’s freezing. Power cut – there seems to be a regular one between two and eight a.m. Decide now, Dog – bladder or warmth, warmth or death – go-o-o-o bladder!

Out of the burrow. I heave the doona off me and sit on the edge of the bed, head still swimming from Everest Beer.  It’s colder than death and pitch black. I get up and walk directly into the wall. I feel along, along and find the light switches. Click, click – nothing, nothing; click, click, click – nothing, nothing, black nuttin’. I’m lost. Fumble left and find the door. No, don’t go there, that’s the corridor. Go left, bathroom is left. Like a blind mime negotiating a plate-glass window, Dogster ventured forth.

A blast of frigid air yawned at me from the bathroom. The tiles are like ice. Freezing. Complete blackness. I can not see my hand in front of my face. Bladder. Bladder. Bladder. Where is the bloody toilet? Bladder. Bladder. Bladder – right now!

*

Alice was in her Wonderland.

‘I’m here from C****** University to co-ordinate and lead a Multi-task force starter group to advise on Marketing and Manufacturing techniques on the bio-fuel industry and feeder production in the Nowheri region of Nepal,’ she blurted, thrusting a leaflet at me.

Well, something like that.

Alice was reciting the grant application, a gobbly-gook of politically correct catch-phrases rattled off in rapid succession – whatever it all meant she believed in it with all her heart. She rolled on with her spiel, an enthusiastic academic finally in the field, brimming with emotion.

It turned out to be a marketing plan for a community-run, equal-opportunity, village-based hand-made paper ‘factory’ run by a lesbian dwarf.

Well, something like that.

This co-operative produced brick shaped lumps of something they called Bio-Erk which, when drowned and pounded into lumpy bits of sludge, eventually dried and was called ‘Ethnic Hand-Made Paper’.

So, did these guys apply for a grant from C****** University?’

‘No-o-o-o-o,’ she replied gaily, ‘we just gave it to them…’

All she needed was somewhere poor, somewhere on the sub-continent – anywhere would do. All she needed was a place that ticked the P.C. boxes, somewhere picturesquely deprived, some photogenic urchins with running noses, lives soon to be transformed with wealth and cyber-expertise, courtesy some ‘good-works’ target in some ‘good-works’ budget of some good-hearted University in Somewhere Good, U.S.A.

Dogster wasn’t the only one pissing in the sink.

*

‘Forty-two’.

Dale was dressed in a T-shirt and beanie with a delicate golden pair of women’s flip-flops dangling from his big New Zilland toes.

‘Forty-two dresses,’ he said, jerking his head at the woman beside him, ‘she’s bought forty-two dresses – all like that…’

She sat with her breasts tied up in Rajasthani bundles of beads held up by a shoelace round her neck. Her shoulders were bare, her back naked right down to the small. Her feet were graced with a lattice of string and the merest slither of leather. Samina was a stunning Pakistani/Bangladeshi/Aussie creature with olive skin and black Bollywood eyes. Her neck reached out like a tortoise, framed in flashing long dark hair.

‘I like to be a woman,’ she purred, ‘I like girly things…’

Just one problem with this idyllic scene – it was the dead of a Nepali winter. They were surrounded by a table-full of tourists in hats, scarves, overcoats, stupid Nepali ear hats with bobbles on top, gloves and running noses, hot breath steaming out in clouds around them. We were huddled around a table over a candle, waiting till the power came back on.

I was living in an endless Andy Warhol movie with no plot, set nowhere, achieving nothing; engrossed in the Big Brother house with a rotating cast of Fabulous Nobodies – including, most definitely, me.

‘We’ve been traveling for five months,’ Samina said gorgeously, ‘India-a-ahh… Nepaw-w-w-w-ll…’

Dale the dress-adder was stony-faced.

‘We went to Goa,’ he said dryly, ‘flew in direct – never left. Three months.’

In my youth, the verb ‘to party’ had not yet been coined – having fun was something you did accidentally on the way to work. Dale and Samina gave new meaning to a new verb, perfect Goa-fodder; young, gorgeous and wonderfully dumb. Three months went by in a snap.

‘Well, we were in New Delhi!’ she protested.

Eventually, lugging her forty-two dresses, they left Goa and caught the overnight train to Delhi. After three months on the sub-continent spent partying in a charmless tourist enclave, it was their first actual exposure to India.

‘We walked straight into it,’ Dale mumbled.

She’d imploded, burst into tears amid a welter of vexatious taxi drivers, gleeful porters, beggars, pickpockets and all the other low-life who love a scene, then folded loudly into a neat, limp, Princess heap in the arms of big Dale from New Zild who had no idea what to do either.

‘Oh my god, I ha-a-ated India,’ she gushed, ‘we were stuck in Delhi Railway Station for four hours, oh my god, those people surrounding us, screaming at me…’

‘Does she cry a lot?’ I asked, not very innocently.

She didn’t stop weeping till they and the forty-two dresses got to Nepal. On arrival, in a fit of madness, the intrepid couple and her wardrobe went trekking in flip-flops.

*

The Tuk-tuk Goose was from Egypt, in the prime of his energetic thirtieth year.

Rommy arrived in Delhi two weeks ago, transited to Kathmandu at that unfamiliar airport in a suitably reasonable period of time, pausing only to be directed out through immigration where his single-entry visa was stamped, then ushered back in through a different immigration to check onwards to Nepal. He didn’t know why, either, but he was. His single entry visa was used up in a two hour lay-over.

Not that he noticed. His great enthusiasm of the moment was some epic idiocy involving a tuk-tuk, eighty other idiots and a race from Pokhara to Cochin. So he and his team located each other, their tuk-tuk, their fellow racers and the whole traveling madness, prepared, stumbled to the starting line, drove across razorback ridges from Kathmandu all the way, overnight on hell roads, then overnight again into Sunauli, the exit point at the foot of the mountains, where Nepal bleeds into India.

He and his companions cruised up to immigration waving their tuk-tuks, madness and visas. Rommy was stamped out of Nepal and crossed no-man’s land to the Indian side where he learnt, in the middle of a tuk-tuk race, that a single–entry visa is just that. He had no visa, no options and that was that.

Enraged, in a fit of madness, he leapt into the tuk-tuk and tried to run the border. He was jumped on by five Indian police, arrested, talked down, eventually make friends with the border cops, was scolded and turned back, un-shot, to make his lonely way all the way back to Kathmandu.  As he’d been arrested on the border he was in Nepal illegally so first he had to wait and, after a groveling letter of apology to everybody, apply for a Nepali visa.

Then he could get an Indian visa.

Then he could get a flight. He just wasn’t quite sure where.

All this time his tuk-tuk buddies were heading down, down, ever onwards into India – linked only by technology. He was aiming for a moving tuk-tuk target when I last saw him. I hope he hit dead centre. If there was a more determined man in Kathmandu, I didn’t meet him.

*

‘Oh my god, I ha-a-ated trekking…’

Princess Paris Hilton lasted just four days. Altitude sickness, food poisoning, fatigue, near-death by car, sherpa and local tour company led to her subsequent delivery to the Hotel Courtyard. Dale dragged his trekking dreams and her dresses into the foyer.

‘Can I help you?’

‘I hope so,’ sighed Dale, ‘look at her.’

Samina was in a terrible state.

‘What do you need?’ asked the host in that soothing Nepali way.

‘A steak!’ she gasped and fell, sobbing, onto a couch.

They arrived in their Goa flip-flops and six weeks later, had neither left the compound nor bought warm clothes, socks or shoes. They woke up and stumbled down to breakfast around lunchtime, then retired to the Courtyard Home Cinema, dedicated to their task of watching every one of the giant pile of DVD’s that towered over the guests in the library. They busily watched movies all day, pausing for a late lunch in the hotel restaurant, only venturing out for dinner with the other guests, always dressed for Goa. December slid into January, the temperature fell to zero, villagers froze to death in the hills – yet still those flip-flops stayed on.

There are a thousand shops in Thamel, all selling the same knock-off North Face items, there are ten thousand pairs of gloves and socks and stupid Peruvian woolen hats all selling for a dollar just a few feet down the street.

‘Why don’t you just buy some warm clothes and throw them away?’ I asked.

‘Oh, I hate to throw clothes away,’ she said blithely.

‘She collects them instead.’

Secretly, Dale was full of rage.

‘Who carries the forty-two dresses?’ I asked.

‘He’s the man,’ she purred and stroked his arm.

*

The Courtyard Cabaret will never close; the show will run forever.

Aunty Esme’s hair carried her across the courtyard. Two men laden with boxes followed. She’d slept in a warm bed for two nights with a heater and a television that worked, talked in English with strangers, bathed in a hot shower; Esme had even been to the Charm Beauty Parlour [Ladies Only] – she was glowing. Her hair was clean for the first time in four months and had taken on a life of its own. It swept out either side of her face like two grey wings ready to lift her back to the lonely place on the border that starts with a ‘B’.

She stopped for a moment, stared at me with those crinkled, gentle eyes and sighed.

‘Oh well,’ she said wistfully, ‘back to the real world…’

Me too.

It’s always best to leave before you’re voted out.

*

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