Looking for Kathmandu

Jeff Greenwald finds gossip, chickens and sex in an excursion off the beaten track near Kathmandu.


Jeff Greenwald
February 27, 1998 1:00AM (UTC)

"It doesn't matter about the trucks, spewing their plumes of black exhaust up the steep incline of Lazimpat," I wrote when I arrived back in Nepal a month ago. "It doesn't matter about the trash heaps piled like purgatorial snow mounds along bustling Dilibazar, or the crush of taxis and auto-rickshaws and motorcycles on the road leading past my corner Ganesh shrine to the Bhatbhateni Supermarket. The dogs howling at night, the long-dead rats flat as papyrus in the roadsides, the perpetual scum of green algae carpeting Snake Lake ... These things matter not at all. All that matters is that I'm home, back in my beloved Kathmandu, snug in this howling silly and sometimes fantastic Buddha-realm -- deep in my diesel heaven."

So I wrote; but then I somehow lost it. My affection for this place, my home-away-from-home since 1979, went the way of my car keys, or a mislaid sock.

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I know it's around someplace. I've caught glimpses of it: gap-toothed kids rolling metal hoops past the taxi stand near my neighborhood Ganesh shrine; throngs of shoppers backlit by the low afternoon sun as they press through Asan bazaar; mysterious ripples radiating across the surface of Snake Lake. It might even be right here, at Mike's Breakfast, where the waiters (I'm the only customer) fan out through the courtyard and methodically shake the trees. (The gardener follows with a short straw broom, sweeping the fallen leaves into a pile. It always amazes me, how people here can sweep leaves across a grassy lawn; I've tried it, entirely without success.)

I find a taste of the old kingdom on Page 2 of the Kathmandu Post, in a story that recalls the gleeful newspaper surfing that Nepal's expat community relished back in the 1980's:

Radio Sagarmatha Temporarily Stopped

KATHMANDU -- Radio Sagarmatha, Nepal's first independent broadcasting effort which has been developing the taste of Kathmandu listeners for quality public service broadcasting has temporarily stopped transmission effective Thursday, a press release said. The station was forced to take the drastic action after its transmitter caught fire 35 minutes into the programming on Tuesday.

There are a host of similar headlines: "School Locked Up"; "Telephone Service Inadequate"; "Arnas (i.e., wild buffaloes) Destroy Crops." "The Surkhet District Police office arrested two persons red handed," another story proclaims, "while selling the mutton of a she-goat from local market place."

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The papers are fun, but shallow. The fact is that, despite my best intentions, it's getting harder to find the magic and humor in this place. Those were the qualities that seduced me when I first visited two decades ago, and that keep me coming back year after year.

But maybe -- at long last -- the changes have transformed the Kathmandu Valley too drastically. Maybe it's finally crossed the line and become too much like everywhere else. Ten years ago, it was a thrilling challenge to live here; a phone call to the States could take two hours, while shopping for a spiral notepad could take the better part of an afternoon. The most recent rock tape in the cassette shops was "Hotel California." These days, you can spend your mornings posting Wanderlust stories at K@thmandu (aka the Cybermatha Tea House), get Post-It notes at every stationery shop and find CDs of Nepali rave music at the Mandala Book Point. It's a miracle, of course -- the Global Village, and all that crap -- but I miss the old days. I miss living with less. Sometimes I really do.

In the Tibetan Book of the Dead, sound is used as a tool for navigating the Bardo, the chaotic interregnum between death and rebirth. Sitting behind a pot of Nescafe at Mike's Breakfast, I try it. I close my eyes and let the sounds of the neighborhood focus my attention. It's a tough meditation; I find myself confronted by a strangely rhythmic composition, as layered and complex as a Peter Gabriel song.

At first I'm nearly deafened by the birds. Invisible chirping radiates from a thicket of orange trees, from the wooden rafters above the Indigo Gallery, from the mimosas and holly bushes and sal trees. Beneath the birds I hear the restaurant's stereo: Jean-Pierre Rampal and Lily Laskine. The Japanese melodies sail over the rickety tables, drowned out by the buses lumbering up an adjoining lane. Concentration on internal combustion engines opens up a new universe of ambient sound: the locustlike revving of two-stroke motorcycles at the petrol station across the street; the tangle of bicycle bells on the road between; the horns of the taxis twisting around the blind corner near Snake Lake.

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Metal doors bang shut. A badam (peanut) seller walks by, shouting. I hear the monotonous twang of a dark-skinned mattress-maker from Matarai, plucking the long, single-stringed instrument he uses for refluffing cotton. As the wind shifts, another layer of sound is excavated from the din: the manic chattering of a hundred kids at the elementary school by Naxal junction. They've started their lunch break; I can make out the thumping of drums, and the galloping click of ping-pong balls against cast cement tables.

The most immediate noises, oddly, reach my attention last: a black cat whining for scraps and the refined voices of two British Embassy officials discussing Prince Charles' upcoming visit. I open my eyes, amazed at the thick woolen sportcoats the Brits are wearing; I'm stripped down to a T-shirt. But their fresh lemon sodas look good, and I wave my hand toward the counter. Suddenly, inexplicably, Nepal is thrilling again. For the moment, at least, I've won it back.

I'm sharing a ranch-style brick house with a friend named Chrissie, a
lithe British woman who runs a yoga studio in the converted warehouse
next door. Her class schedule leaves her plenty of free time. Yesterday
afternoon, when I got home from Mike's, we climbed into her rust-mottled
1984 Accord and drove beyond the Ring Road, bound for the greenery of
Raniban.

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Chrissie has just quit smoking, an achievement that smacks of
irony here in Kathmandu. We made our way toward the Queen's Forest
within an umbra of soot and dust, chugging uphill behind
motorcycles, blue Vikram tempos (banned in India for their heavy-metal
exhaust) and huge panel trucks spewing black diesel fumes into our
windshield. The trucks were gaily painted, and upon their mud flaps
appeared a cheery request: "Horn, please." But the old Honda honked like
a geriatric goose and none of the vehicles gave way.

Past the Balaju Water Gardens and the Zoo, the traffic eased some, but
the road got worse. There were no potholes; the road itself was a
pothole, with occasional patches of asphalt. We rattled over the dips
and skidded through loose gravel, the car shuddering and creaking. By
now we were thoroughly exhausted.

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"It's incredible what you have to go through," sighed Chrissie, "for a
bit of fresh air and exercise."

I nodded. "It's as if, to achieve sexual fulfillment, you had to spend
45 minutes rubbing yourself against a cheese grater."

We arrived at the border of the Raniban. A funky map marked the main
gate, but we parked at another entrance a mile or so beyond. A narrow
dirt trail led into the forest. An old man in a yellowed darwa sarwal
ran up to sting us with a five rupee (about seven cents) admission fee.
We paid him, took our admission chits and walked off into the forest.

For the next few miles we saw virtually no one, just a few young girls
mincing along the trail with bundles of freshly cut firewood on their
backs, supported by tumplines drawn across their foreheads. Scythes
hung from their waistbands. The sight surprised me. Cutting in the
Queen's Forest is tightly controlled; most of the trees we passed,
stands of narrow birch and rough-barked sal, were undisturbed and had
been so for generations.

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After an hour of walking we came into a clearing and saw a small
village perched on a ridge ahead of us. It looked astonishingly rural
for being so close to the city; there were maybe two dozen mud-walled
homes, some with tin roofs. Chickens, dogs and throngs of half-naked
children (the bottom half; it saves on diapers) ran around -- as far as
they could, that is, without falling off the edge of their world. As we
entered, a dilapidated shack caught my eye. Plants sprouted from the
tile roof. The worn wooden door was marked with a single English word,
written in cursive script: Beauty.

It was corn season. We found the adults squatting around mats in a sunny
central courtyard, winnowing big yellow kernels in a woven straw nanglo.
They greeted us without suspicion, but quizzically; as if we'd taken a
wrong turn on our way to Goa.

I pronounced a few words in Nepali, and their mood changed to boundless
hospitality. We had arrived, they declared, in Sunigoan, or Surigoan, or
Sudigoan: a bit of nasal confusion there. Whatever, it was a real find,
a village of characters. A middle-aged woman with smart eyes jangled a
dozen keys on a cord; nothing in the whole place, however, seemed to be
locked. An old man pressed a bag of corn in our hands; his smile
revealed a single, central tooth, long as a piano key. His rakish topi
-- the traditional Nepali cap -- was so frayed and faded it might have
been sewn from Methuselah's loincloth. It had a wizened perfection, like
an ancient Japanese bonsai; I wanted to buy it right off his head.

Inspired by my current reading -- Saul Bellow's "Henderson the Rain King"
-- I turned to Chrissie. "This is really a great bunch of Nepalis," I
said. "I love them."

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Still, there wasn't a lot to do in Sunigoan; even less, no doubt, at
night, which explained the hordes of children. After making a full
circuit of the place (which took less than five minutes), we departed the
way we had come. A crowd of kids lined up to see us off; it worked out
to about 40 per household.

"I'll come back," I promised the old man, "and bring you a new topi."

"You might take a case of condoms as well," whispered Chrissie.

This set us to thinking about Sunigoan by night. There couldn't be a lot of
privacy. The love grunts of one's neighbors, we reasoned, must be as
familiar as their voices; on summer evenings the place probably sounded
like a pond full of bullfrogs.

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"A village named Beauty," Chrissie reflected poetically as we left. I
didn't tell her I'd also spied the word "Parlour," tucked behind a
hedge.

Walking back, I had a nagging feeling. Something about the village had
struck me as odd. After a few minutes, I put my finger on what it was.
"Chrissie -- that's the first village I've seen, anywhere in Asia, that
doesn't have a Coca-Cola sign."

She stopped in her tracks. "My God! You're right."

Fifteen minutes later, we saw three men walking up the trail toward us.
One of them carried something odd; it looked, at first, like a narrow
silver trombone. As we got closer, the true nature of this cargo
revealed itself: a television aerial. It could only be going to
Sunigoan.

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It was indeed, the men nodded with satisfaction. Today the aerial; three
days hence, the television. No longer need villagers content themselves
with gossip, chickens and sex. Beginning Friday, they could watch "The
X-Files" as well.

"Well," noted Chrissie, "one thing's for sure."

"What's that?"

"There's enough popcorn to go around."

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The encounter made us feel giddy, as if we'd snuck in under the wire.
Like seeing Robin Williams before he got famous, or visiting America
three days before Columbus. We bumped back into town as the sun melted
behind Nagarjun Peak, the layers of noise thickening around us.


Jeff Greenwald

Jeff Greenwalds latest book, "Future Perfect: How 'Star Trek' Conquered Planet Earth," was recently released in paperback by Penguin.

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