I take a cycle rickshaw (fortunately there are not many motorised vehicles in circulation here in Janakpur), and I set out to see the numerous sacred tanks in the surrounding area. We go along paved roads leading through a tropical landscape with palm trees and banana plantations to these ponds with a temple on their edge.
After I go to the bus station to make my booking. There are as many private bus companies as there are coaches, it seems. I first go to Milan Travel, but they no longer have any free places. So I choose another company and book a seat on the 5 p.m. coach this evening. A night journey scares me a little, but let's hope for the best!
July 18th: Return to Katmandu
Half an hour before it is due to leave, I'm already seated on the bus, which is filling up little by little. At a certain point, and when all the seats are taken, a Tibetan woman with a small baby boards. Seeing that no-one shows any sign of giving up their seat, I get up and signal to her to take my place. She accepts with a smile and once seated starts breast feeding the baby. She seems rather concerned, though, regarding the contents of a sack she has left in the gangway and she is quick to shoo away anyone who tries to sit on it. She has told me she runs a shop so it's likely that she's come to Janakpur to stock up and the sack could well be full of such things as packets of crisps, pop-corn or other junk food of the kind which, alas, is becoming popular even here.
After we've been travelling for a couple of hours, we stop to take on huge sacks of Nepalese cucumbers. Judging by the huge effort it takes to heave these sacks up onto the roof of the bus,I guess they must weigh a total of several hundred kilos. “Let's hope the tyres are good and strong!” is the comment of one of my fellow passengers. I can't help thinking that in fact the bus is already packed to overflowing and considering the condition of the roads . . . . .
Unfortunately my fears prove not to be unfounded! Less than half an hour along the road one of the rear tyres literally explodes. Two or three men take advantage of this unscheduled stop to get out and go for a 'comfort stop' taking a torch with them. Not one of them stops to provide some light for the poor devil who has to change the wheel in the pouring rain and pitch darkness. I get off to provide some light and find I have to get into the most uncomfortable, twisted position in order to shine the torch beneath the bus to where the spare wheels are chained right in the middle under the floor of the bus. The operation of releasing and fitting a spare wheel takes the best part of half an hour and by the time it's done I'm soaked to the skin. Unfortunately the tyres will deflate and have to be replaced four more times. Since we don't have so many spare tyres, we're obliged to stop twice at service stations to get the tyres mended on the spot. However, on these two occasions I merely hand my torch over to those involved without leaving the bus. Kindness is okay, but not at the cost of catching pneumonia.
Despite the dangers and being beset by accidents, this mainly nocturnal journey was wonderful; going through villages lit only by candlelight or oil lamps was like being in one of those Christmas crib scenes.
When we stop at Bardiwas, a very sick woman comes aboard; she is being taken to hospital in Katmandu. The youths and men around her are chain smoking showing no regard at all for this poor woman who can hardly breathe. By the way, I'd like to suggest that the saying “to smoke like a Turk” be rephrased to “to smoke like a Nepalese”. In all the countries I've visited so far I've never seen such dedicated, persistent, hardened smokers as the Nepalese.
It continues to pour with rain and I can't see anything through the bus windscreen. It suddenly dawns on me – this bus has no windscreen wipers! The bus carries on blindly through a wall of water. There seems to be nothing for it but to close my eyes and try to sleep to avoid further shocks. It's not long, however, before I can feel I'm being shaken by someone. Opening my eyes I see a man, looking and sounding upset, saying: “Foot down! Foot down!”. At first I can't quite understand what he's getting at, but then I realise that he wants me to move my feet which I had put up to rest them. In the Hindu religion feet are considered to be the most impure part of our body and therefore they are to be kept in a low position as far away from the head as possible. Religious taboos frequently coincide with rules of hygiene, or in any case with life conserving rules, but in this case the opposite was true. Anyhow, I do as asked and close my eyes again.
But I am fated not to sleep. At one of our many stops a rather well-made woman gets on who, having pushed my luggage even further away, plonks herself down on me and on the passenger seated next to me. At first the whole thing seems just too absurd to be true; there's simply no room for a third person on these small seats and she can hardly expect to travel on our laps for the rest of the trip. I first attempt to make her understand this with a smile, but, when I see that she has no intention of moving, I push her away. I'm usually kind to the Nepalese to the point of self-denial, but I can't stand arrogance either here or anywhere else. And in this case I don't even have any qualms about depriving a local of a seat. The bus is privately owned and there is a no-charge booking service. I wonder what kind of woman she is: she boarded the bus alone in the dead of night; she is talking, laughing and joking with the male passengers, in a country like Nepal where women do not go out and about alone, even in daylight and near home, and they would never dream of speaking to strangers, let alone men . . . . .
When she finally goes away I try to go to sleep again but the precipices I can make out just inches from the bus wheels are not inducive to relaxation.
Evidently, though, my final hour has yet to come since I arrive in Katmandu safe and sound. It's eleven o'clock and I've been travelling for eighteen hours. The sacks of cucumbers are unloaded; the fish, which has travelled with us hung out of the bus window, is delivered and its receiver sniffs it repeatedly before finally carrying it off; the sick woman, looking even more deadly pale, is helped into a cycle rickshaw.
And it is with these last images in my eyes that I go off in search of a three wheeler, happy for once to plunge into the traffic of the capital.
July 19th: Back in Katmandu
My grandfather always used to say: “There's no better sauce than hunger to make the food appetising!” I think this is exactly my case right now. I decide to go and have something to eat and drink at K.C. In fact, apart from the bones of the tandoori chicken and a little rice, I didn't have anything to eat at Janakpur.
At the table next to mine there's one of those tourists that begs the question: What on earth do these people come to Nepal for? Why don't they go and have a nice holiday in Switzerland?
This one is French. For one thing K.C. is a restaurant tailor-made for tourists; in fact you see only tourists here. International cuisine, drinks in sealed bottles or cans, disinfected vegetables; in short nothing to complain about.
This French tourist starts by asking for a fruit juice and then when it arrives wants to know what make it is. The waiter obligingly brings the tin for her to see. She takes a look, shakes her head and sends it back, ordering some mineral water instead, but provided the bottle is well closed, for goodness' sake! The waiter returns with the mineral water. She feels the bottle: “But it's too cold!” The waiter, with admirable patience, takes this bottle back and returns with another at room temperature. She looks as though she is about to remark that this bottle is too warm but bites back her words only because the friend who is with her is clearly extremely embarrassed at this point. Then begins the 'window test' on the glass. Clearly the result leaves a lot to be desired regarding the cleanliness of the glass seeing that she picks up her napkin and starts rubbing the said object both inside and out with determined energy.
I have seen other tourists like her around here; they stay in Katmandu for their entire holiday or, at most, they venture as far as Pokhara in the tourist minibus. They get up around ten in the morning, breakfast in the restaurants of Thamel, then, all dressed up, wander around the shops looking for some exotic object to show off at home, or a bargain to boast about with friends. They leave Nepal with a very limited experience of the country, an experience which, furthermore, is misleading and false, and having caused harm more than anything else.
July 20th Quid Pro Quo
Walking around with my faithful companion, 'Lonely Planet Guide', looking for 'Mike's Breakfast'. In vain. No-one seems to know where it is. So I opt for the 'French Bakery', which is on the same street. This is an American style eatery, all green plastic and rock music blaring. The prices are rather steep but, well, I'm here hungry and thirsty . . . . .
What's more, I'm willing to go to any length to get away from the stink of the innumerable piles of rubbish.
Having ordered the usual pot of tea and the usual omelette, I decide to make a last attempt to locate the elusive restaurant by asking the waiter if he can help. “Do you know where 'Mike's Breakfast' is?” I enquire. He looks very apologetic as he replies: “Sorry, madam, we only have these breakfasts”, pointing to the paper place mat on which there are pictures labelled 'Tom's breakfast', 'Jack's breakfast' . . . . .
What an incredible coincidence; the only time I've ever found breakfasts called by people's names.
K.C. is closed today so I go to the restaurant opposite. There I fall into conversation with a woman who is eating alone and who turns out to be English and Jewish – at least I deduce the latter from the Star of David pendant she's wearing round her neck. But over this there's another symbol I don't recognise and I ask her what it means. She explains that it's the symbol of a movement for the freedom of lesbians. She goes on to say that right here in Katmandu she's discovered a Jewish Italian writer, Primo Levi, and has bought the English edition of his 'Se non ora, quando?' ['If Not Now, When?'] in one of the second-hand bookshops. I tell her that Levi was from Turin, my city, and that he committed suicide some years ago. As tears come to her eyes, I hastily change the subject.
The time has come to leave behind the relative luxury and comfort of Katmandu in order to go and share their 'uncomfortable' life with the Sherpas.
July 22nd - 23rd On the way to Shermatang.
At ten o'clock, Laghkpa, Didi, Kelly and I leave for Banepa on a very old and run-down bus. Having stopped at Bhaktapur, which I know already, then Dhulikel, Panchal and Bahunpati, we arrive at Banepa a little before midday.
A quick lunch and then off again to Malemchi Pul. The road is horrendous, the bus is packed, we arrive exhausted.
To get back on our feet, so to speak, what better than launching at once on a steep climb in the driving rain? Thank goodness Kelly helps me to slow their pace, otherwise I'd never manage to keep up with the two Sherpas.
The scenery is splendid, but we never stop to admire it. What's more we are obliged to keep our eyes on the path, which is extremely slippery due to the rain, and take care where we put our feet. My heart is bursting, I'm gasping for breath, but nevertheless my pride won't allow me to give in.
After an exhausting four hour relentless climb, with not a moment's pause, we stop at a small shop which has a room with two straw mattresses in it. It is here we spend the night. By now it is dark and a thick mist has come down. We are soaked to the skin and in need of a good fire to dry us out.
Unfortunately the stove in the kitchen gives out more smoke than heat. So, after a supper that I can't manage to eat, we take off our wet clothes and hang them out before crawling under the quilt.
My whole body tingles, but I decide to ignore it and try to sleep. Sleep doesn't come. I peep out of the windows anxiously awaiting the first sign of dawn. As soon as I see a glimmer of light, I get up in the hope of beating the others to be able to have a proper wash instead of the usual 'face-only' one. What a vain hope: the family whose guests we are is already up and about and there are already people setting off down the valley.
I collect my clothes that I had hung out on the verandah last night hoping that they would somehow dry. They are dripping. I get into them all the same and go down for some tea.
The mist is really thick and the humidity very high. Coming to the Himalayas at this time of the year calls for an iron will and constitution!
We set out again around ten, the rain having replaced the mist. About three hours later we reach Shermatang and Laghkpa's house where we find his aunt who is a Buddhist nun.
The house consists of a ground floor store room and a single room on a mezzanine floor. The furniture is basic: two beds, a dresser and a small stove. Prior to the family moving to Katmandu, twelve people lived in this one room.
We are offered Tibetan tea while the potatoes are cooking. Perhaps because the firewood is damp, or perhaps because the stove has an inefficient flue and there's little draught, the atmosphere is so smoky that it makes the eyes burn.
In no time at all news gets around in the village that Laghkpa, Didi and two foreigners have arrived and everyone, friends and relatives, come to say hello.
Kelly and I take it in turns to go to the spring and draw water for the tea and to wash the cups and plates. At the rate of today's visits, this soon becomes a full-time job.
These Sherpas, distant cousins of those more authentic ones of Solu Kumbu, are cheerful and talkative: despite the language barrier, they manage to involve us in the conversation and fire all sorts of questions at us.
By seven o'clock it's already dark and we eat rice and lentils by the light of a small candle.
Towards ten we retire.
Tomorrow we have an early start.
FIRST IMPRESSIONS OF THE HELAMBU SHERPAS
(they call themselves Sherpas, but really they are Bhotiyas)
In a film I saw some time ago, the teacher in an American college suggested to his students that they should always have an original and different point of view when facing reality.
The Sherpas show this kind of originality in their use of the tools and gadgets of everyday life. Here are just a few examples:
they use a piece of wood chewed at one end to clean their teeth, while their toothbrushes are kept for cleaning and shining the pots and pans; the sponge for washing the dishes is used to clean the red clay floor; the aforesaid floor is ideal for sleeping on, while the bed can be used to rest clothes and sundry other items on; the floor cloths are, for them, a perfect cushion, while the cushion makes a very good stopper for the cracks and the window openings – there's no glass in the windows, just the wooden framework – during the colder months . . . and so forth!
July 24 th
Awake at 5 a.m. Outside all is dark and foggy.
We drink two cups of tea, eat two boiled potatoes and are off to the vegetable patch to dig up some more.
When you read in guide books that the core ingredient of the Sherpas' diet is the potato, you don't really realise just how literally true this is!
Our duty done, we set off for Tarke Gyiang, a large village at 2,747 metres above sea level and the seat of a Buddhist temple and monastery.
Along the way I learn more new things. Yesterday Laghkpa said that whenever we came across any'chortens' we must leave them to our left. Today we come across little 'stupas' and we have to walk round them three times anticlockwise before going on our way. We see yaks immersed 'up to their nostrils' in pools either side of our path. How I envy them!
No breaks for us; it is imperative to steam ahead non-stop!
When there is a break in the clouds, we get a glimpse of the peaks of Langtang Himal. We reach Tarke Gyiang where we visit (at a charge) the Buddhist temple, drink some tea and pay the outrageous sum of 30 rupees for 3 chapatis which are so disgusting as to be uneatable.
It is now two o'clock in the afternoon and pouring with rain: we decide to go on to Malemchigaon. We would like to get as far as the area of the Lakes: Gosainkund, Saraswatikund, Bharabkund. Somewhere between Malemchigaon and Gopte we stop for the night at the home of a Tamang family.
We are counting on arriving at Gopte, 3,430 metres, today, and then, once there, deciding what to do. In order to reach the lakes we have to go over a pass at 4,600 metres and both Kelly and I have reservations about our chances of making it. We are not equipped for anything of that sort, given that this was decided when we were already at Shermatang, from where we had thought we would go on some brief excursions in the area, and not on these mountain climbs, that's for sure! My gym shoes look as though they are about to give up the ghost and I haven't even got a haversack, just a large bag of the kind that travel agencies supply their customers with.
Wisely we decide to change course.
Instead of trying to reach the lakes where, what's more, we would miss the Hindu pilgrimage by a few days, we decide to go back to Tarke Gyiang and from there go down to Kakani, Kiul and Taramarang, along the Malemchi Khola Valley.
The landscape is somehow reminiscent of that between Shermatang and Tarke Gyiang, which I am already familiar with and love: oak woods and daphne, the oak bark being used to make cellulose, and great swathes of immense rhododendrons, while the song of unfamiliar birds accompanies us on our descent.
Laghkpa was petrified by the idea that we might run into bears, especially towards evening, while on the contrary I would have loved to see one, but not at close quarters, that is.
Too Good to be Understood.
“Could I have a fresh lemon soda?” Kelly, a Londoner, asks in her impeccable B.B.C. accent, addressing the Sherpa managers of these miserable tea shops. They in turn gaze at her with puzzled looks. It's more than likely that they have never seen a lemon in their lives, not to mention the soda, which can hardly be called a common drink around here.
August 1st On the road to Pokhara
Eight delightful hours spent in conversation with Werner, a German from Stuttgart and a teacher of religious education in a secondary school. I already know the road as far as Mugling as it's the one I travelled along on the way to Janakpur. This time, however, it's drier and travelling is easier. The second part of the journey is through a beautiful area of hills, trees and paddy-fields.
Being with Werner on arrival means I am able to avoid being subjected all alone to the assault of guest house vendors. A man on a cart pulled by a horse is passing at that moment and Werner stops him and negotiates a price for a ride to Lakeside. I'm amazed yet again: this man looks more like a peasant who was going about his business, rather than someone whose job is taxiing tourists around on his cart. Anyway, we get on and the old jade sets off at a pace which is little more than standstill! Along the road we meet a Japanese man and ask whether he is heading for Lakeside too, and would he like to share our rather unusual means of transport. He joins us and we set off again. Both the Japanese man and Werner have various guest house addresses. The first address – one of Werner's – is not to our liking; the second – suggested by our Japanese companion – can't be found. In the end we choose the Butterfly guest house which we find in my guide book: very basic, inexpensive and with a nice garden. However, the Japanese man, whose requirements are more pretentious, opts for one nearby which is grander and more expensive. After a quick shower, I go out to a restaurant recommended to us by the guest house owner with our Japanese friend, while Werner stays behind to smoke hashish with an American girl who is another of the hotel guests.
The saying 'When in Rome do as the Romans do' might be re-phrased 'When in Japan . . ! with what happens now. From the menu we choose lake trout and a large bottle of beer to be shared between us. As soon as they bring the beer, my Japanese friend pours me a glass [which, once the froth settles, is only half a glass] and then proceeds to drain the rest of the bottle himself in huge gulps. When the fish arrives there is nothing left to drink. This fellow is not without resources, though, and heads determinedly for the bar, and while I mistakenly entertain the idea that he has gone to order another beer, he comes back with a glass of boiling water in his hand which he puts down before me. “What's that for?” I ask. “It's for you”, he replies, “to drink with the fish; it's safe!”
How kind! After devouring the fish at a speed even greater than that at which he drank the beer, he jumps up again, all of a sudden: it's his jerky way of moving; he either stays perfectly still or he suddenly springs into action. It can be quite shocking. Now he seizes the mosquito repellent spiral which is smouldering on the floor near our table, and lights his cigarette from it and while I am patiently finishing the fish, which is full of small fish bones [did they all end up in my fish? or is he perhaps immune to them?], he blissfully smokes his cigarette.
His show ends when it is time to settle the bill: extraordinarily quick to calculate our parts fifty-fifty – despite having drunk almost all the beer himself – he determinedly fishes the change necessary to make up the sum of the bill from the palm of my hand. Not for nothing is he a professor of mathematics in Tokyo!
They say that the Japanese who come here to Nepal are the not-so-well-off: those who can afford to do so come to Europe or go to the States. I don't know whether it is so, but what is true is that the Japanese one meets here are odd. There's the one who spends his days under the pergola of the Yeti restaurant drinking beer and wine from the early morning. Not very tall, but powerfully built, surely a practiser of martial arts. He treats his lovely five-year-old son arrogantly and sadistically. It is plain to see that the child is afraid of his father. This morning, while I was having breakfast, he arrived with his wife, his son and the taxi driver he has hired full-time. I was talking to a Nepalese boy and I stroking the kitten he had on his lap. The Japanese boy who, for reasons best known only to himself, did not like my stroking the kitten, gave me a karate blow on the wrist, right on my wrist-watch. At this point, the boy's father, wanting to show off the power he had over his son, dragged him over to a pillar, pushed his face against it and ordered him not to move. My attempts to intervene on his son's behalf only served to spark his anger. “Mind your cat!”, he yelled at me, “This is my cat and I do whatever I like with him!”
When breakfast was over and it was time to go, he called his son, making him jump to attention. He shouted harsh phrases, in military tone, to which his son replied contritely, his head bowed. He took hold of his son's head under the chin and lifted his face in order to give him two loud slaps before pushing him into the car. His son didn't shed a single tear him: it must have required a tremendous effort, the slaps were painful, but he plucked up courage and held back the tears. Fruit of a repressive upbringing or are we really genetically different?
I later learned that this man habitually used violence not only on his son, but also on his wife and on the Nepalese he crossed and with whom he used blows to settle accounts. One morning I saw the owner of this same Yeti restaurant arriving covered in bruises, with front teeth missing and without his usual sunglasses. He told me that the previous evening, being the worse for drink and drugs himself too, he had quarrelled with the Japanese fellow and they had come to blows down by the lakeside. The Japanese had thrown him into the lake and had held his head under the water in an attempt to drown him. “Dangerous man!” he added “very dangerous!”.
At six, as usual, I go to have breakfast, alone. There's a large group of Italians at the guest house with whom I share my days, but this is decidedly too early in the morning for them. Last night one of the Italians, a Neapolitan, having heard that I'm in the habit of getting up at five o'clock in the morning, remarked: “But you must be sick in the head!”. Instead I find the early morning hours the best part of the day: there isn't that heat that from ten in the morning till six in the evening saps your energy, there's silence, peace . . . . . In any event, at the Yeti restaurant I find Valerie who's having breakfast whilst waiting for the bus back to Katmandu. [I shall run into her again in New Delhi a fortnight later]. On consulting the seven page menu we are undecided between the 'light set', the 'heavy set', the 'Mexican set', the 'German set' and some other dozens of 'sets' . . . . . I glance at the book she's reading: the author's name is Dahl. Easy pun: Dahl for the spirit after so much dhal for the body!
It seems that the knee-breaking treks of Langtang are not enough for me. Yesterday I arranged with a local guide to be accompanied to Sarangkhot. This involves a climb to 1,600 metres along a very regular and well-kept flight of steps, to a look-out point from which it's possible to admire the Annapurna chain of mountains. There's also the ruins of a fort, 'kot' in Nepalese.
On our way down, from the northern slope, some teachers from a primary school approach me to ask if I would like to make an offer of money to help the school, which is not financed by the state. I hand over 200 rupees, perfectly aware of the futility of my gesture.
August 16th Kahun Danda
Kahun Danda lies to the east of Pokhara bazaar. In Nepalese 'danda' means mountain chain.
We take the bus to Mahendra pul, we cross Phulbari and from there climb to the top. Here there are the ruins of a fortified tower in which millions of flies reside.
“Flies guest house!” my guide says. Is this a joke of his own or has he heard it from some other foreigner he brought up here previously?
August 17th Mahendra Gufa
This lies to the north of Pokhara. We take the usual bus and then walk the final stretch in torrential rain.
At the ticket booth they try to make us take a guide for the caves. Marcello, my Roman companion of misfortune, is about to give in, but I, having read my Rough Guide [one of the four guide books I always have with me], don't think it's necessary. It should be a small cave. In fact: we can scarcely believe that such a small ugly 'hole' can be included in a guide book. It's pouring even inside. When I slip on the damp ground my dreadful curse echoes around the 'cave'. It is at this point that I realise just how much fear I've been keeping bottled up inside me since the two frightful falls, which could have had fatal consequences, during our trekking.
I read my Rough Guide more carefully: these caves were famous for their limestone stalactites, which have all been taken by vandals, though. There's another cave near here, but, the guide book says, it is more dangerous and for 'serious spelunkers only'. Let's forget it! I'm more interested in going to Batulechaur, a village famous for its 'gaines', a kilometre from here. The 'gaines' are minstrels who sing serenades at ceremonies, accompanied by the sarangi.
A local youth takes us to a house with a small porch. The head of the family emerges, instrument in hand. In a few minutes, a crowd of men and women, old and young, all singing, gathers around us. I begin to suspect the worst and I say so to Marcello. Because, after so many journeys in Asia, Africa and South America, I am nobody's fool, I tell our local guide that we have no intention of paying out a huge sum for their songs. Also because he keeps repeating and stressing that the owner of this house goes frequently to play in the hotels at Lakeside [including the Fish Tail, $150 a night, do you know!] and he is very successful. Given that every Nepalese firmly believes that all tourists are wealthy, you often find yourself faced with requests for money, which would be ridiculous if they were not in fact deadly earnest.
Despite my having been explicit, the final request is for $20.
“Okay”, I reply, calmly with a smile, “however, you will have to take into consideration the cost of my own performance, which is $25. Which means you owe me $5, but I'm willing to wave that.”
In fact I, too, had pulled out my repertoire of Italo-Nepalese songs and had started to sing!
Then, I put my shoes back on with great dignity and left.
Before going back to the hotel, we went to see the waterfall they call Fadke or Devin's/David's Falls, a couple of kilometres south of the airport. David, from the name of a tourist who fell into the falls with his girlfriend, so we are told.
The falls are, in fact, an underground river which emerges just before falling into another river, and at the point where the falls are the river goes down into a hole in the earth and disappears.
This waterfall is close to a refugee camp for Tibetans: the women leave the camp in the morning and pester tourists all day long to buy their products.
The village is called Tashiling Tibetan and, surprise, surprise, working the looms there are numerous Nepalese!When there is unpleasant, boring, laborious work to be palmed off on those who are less fortunate, all the world is the same!
Well, yes: today has marked the end of both my umbrella and my gym shoes. The umbrella has been my faithful travelling companion for fifteen years, sheltering me from time to time from the rain in China, Russia, America . . . . .
The gym shoes, bought in Genoa ten years ago, have accompanied me a bit in all the continents. Although they are practically in pieces, Prem, my Nepalese guide, has asked if he can have them. He says he will sew them up again and wear them. Actually those he's got on his feet at the moment are even more the worse for wear than mine! As this is the only pair of shoes I've got, before giving them away I have to acquire another pair. I've seen sports shops near the bus station. I borrow Govindan's bike and go. It's a bit windy today and so, thanks to the uphill road and the weight of this Indian bike, I arrive at the shop panting. For 165 rupees I buy a Chinese umbrella which breaks two hours later; for 600 rupees I buy another pair of 'Adidas' gym shoes. Could they be genuine 'Adidas'? In Italy they would cost four times as much. Caught in a consumer raptus, I buy a dozen sponge rings for my hair. They cost one rupee each: thirty lira!
And this isn't the end of my spending spree: on my way back to the guest house, I stop and go into the lake-front shops to buy some 'Timotei' shampoo. It doesn't seem to be so easy to find: I've already searched for some in vain on previous days. In about the fifth shop I enter, the owner answers my enquiry with another question: “You want a tomato shampoo?”, without in the least losing his composure, unlike myself struggling to hold back my laughter.
Almost electronic scales . . . . . or, the art of managing
The usual little lady brings her carp fish to the Yeti restaurant. The one she has today weighs several kilos and she has just one weight of one kilo. So she picks up the largest stones she can find lying around on the ground, weighs them, then uses them as weights adding them to the one true weight she has. The fish, weighed in this original way, is just over five kilos. Marcello and I reserve it for dinner, grilled, certain that it will be brought to us cooked in exactly the same way as yesterday when we ordered it steamed, and as the previous day when we asked for it to be baked. In fact the various ways of cooking it only exist on the menu. In reality it is always stewed, covered in a thick layer of sauce, sauce which we have regularly asked them not to put on the fish, but to no avail.
4.55 p.m. I buy a pineapple from the fruit-seller, who also has a small electric blender, and I ask him to make me a fresh fruit juice with it.
5.00 p.m. the fruit-seller finishes peeling and cutting up my pineapple, as he puts it in the blender the power suddenly goes off.
I get him to return the pineapple chunks to me, it means that I'll eat them as they are. To be honest, he did offer to use the hand fruit squeezer, but it looks so dirty and rusty that I don't trust it.
I'm on the point of going away when an Italian woman arrives to enquire about the bus which stops opposite. We start talking and, without our realising it, two hours go by. The power comes on again, so I give my pineapple chunks back to the fruit-seller who puts them in the blender again. He fills a glass with the juice and offers it to my Italian friend. As he starts juicing the remaining pineapple, there's a second blackout! By now it's seven o'clock: I now take back the unused chunks of fruit once and for all and, in pitch darkness, make my way back to the guest house.
August 20th On the road to Tansen
Today is a beautiful sunny day, which highlights the lushness of the scenery. I am the only foreigner on the bus, despite the fact that this is a tourist route since the road links Pokhara to Sunauli in India. None of the tourists, though, makes the detour of a few kilometres from the main road to Tansen. This, after all, is for the good because it means that the town has remained unspoilt, with its authentic life, untouched by the all-destroying, all-corrupting tourism. The bus acts as the postal service and this does nothing to accelerate our average speed, which, I believe, is around thirty kilometres an hour. As soon as we arrive in the various villages the bus driver's assistant slings the blue postal sack, with all the correspondence in it, out of the bus window and catches the one thrown to him by the man waiting for us in the village.
After about three hours' travelling, I see the same driver's assistant arm himself with a stick. This stick is generally used to clear the road and make way for the bus when there are flocks or herds blocking the way. But this time the stick has quite a different use: along the road there are swarms of schoolchildren who clamber agilely up onto the roof of the bus to get a free ride to school, the school which, strangely, is out in the country some distance from the village. Leaning out of the rear door of the bus, the driver's assistant manages to take his stick to the children and stop them climbing onto the roof.
We get to Tansen in the late afternoon. The hotel recommended by 'Lonely Planet' is right on the square that doubles as a bus station. I go in: the receptionist is fast asleep. I try calling him, shaking him, but nothing succeeds in waking him. This is a phenomenon I've already come across several times in India: the sleep of these Indians is a kind of coma, from which it is extremely difficult to bring them back to a state of consciousness. I am about to give up and go to the other hotel recommended, which, though, is quite some distance from the village and also quite expensive, when a middle-aged woman, rather plump and quiet looking, arrives and pulls me inside again by the sleeve. She speaks not one word of English, but she goes to call the owner of a shoe shop under the hotel and, partly by words and partly by gestures, we manage to understand each other. They show me the room: it is one of the filthiest I've ever seen, and also noisy because of the buses which are right outside. I decide to stay anyway and never did I make a happier decision. In fact, I've spent some of the most enjoyable days of my stay in Nepal, in this very hotel. To start with, the plump lady and sleeping beauty, who, I've discovered, may be her nephew, owners of the hotel, turned out to be delightful people, so kind and friendly. Yes, there was a lot of dirt, but this is explained by the fact that is intended for the Nepalese and not for tourists, and Nepalese standards of cleanliness are what they are . . . . . For instance: the room next to mine was occupied by what surely was a honeymoon couple, who at night when the noise from the buses tended to die down, saw to it that I was kept awake by unmistakeable noises . . . . . What's more, they had brought with them, willy nilly, about fifteen family members, between the ages of ten and eighty, who were all camped in one room on the other side of the corridor. I think, however, that the privacy the separate rooms guaranteed the newly-weds was an exceptional circumstance in the life of a Nepalese . . . . . I was saying about cleanliness: well, I glimpsed the rooms occupied by these Nepalese and I can assure you the sight was disgusting. A layer of rubbish of all kinds [fruit peel and cores, rice, left overs of vegetables and sauces, ash and cigarette butts, waste paper, chewed betel with respective spittle . . .] covering the floor like a thick carpet. So it is quite understandable that even after this mountain of rubbish has been removed, the state of the rooms remains what it is. Not to mention the sheets . . .
In the evening when I went down into the restaurant, who should I find there but Ante Tokic, a twenty-three year old Croat who biked here from Croatia crossing Greece, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and India.
This Croat, almost two metres tall, is a naval engineer and has fled his country because of the war. I ask for news of Croatia, not having heard anything since leaving Italy, almost two months ago. He spoke to his brother last night and the news is tragic. The war rages and there are numerous dead, among which civilians, and including some of his friends and relatives. His brother is about to flee the country too, to seek his fortune in the United States where they are planning to meet up again. I can imagine the desperation of this and many other families that have been forced by the war to split up and disperse.
We spend three days together: the first day we go to Rani ghat, the second into the Shrinagar hills, and the third we spend visiting the missionary hospital and going around Tansen.
At last I've found someone else with my rhythms. At 5.30 a.m. We are already out in the street, even though it is still dark. The bus station square is lively, the tea shops are open. We have a 'curd' and some tea before setting off. The walk is delightful, slightly downhill [at last!] and the countryside around us is varied and beautiful. There are numerous streams to cross: at first I take off my shoes and socks and cross bare foot so as to keep dry, but then the crossings become so frequent that I tire of undoing and doing up shoe laces and give up, wading through as I am. As a rule the water is never more than knee-deep, it's only when we cross a tributary of the Kali Ghandaki, on our arrival, that the water comes up to my waist.
Anyhow it was well worth it: this huge palace built for the last Rana in neo-classic style but now,alas, in ruins, is fascinating. And the countryside we came through to get here is equally so in its alternation of tropical plants, paddy fields, waterfalls and small villages.
I can well imagine the effort required to bring all the building material here, I wonder whether they transported everything along the river. A Nepalese man informs us that, should we be interested, in a few years' time we could buy the palace, seeing that the one hundred years required by law in order for the property to change hands and be bought by a private owner, will have passed.
One of the nice things about waking in the morning, something which only happens to me when I'm on holiday, is to find some song going round in my head, a tune that somehow has surfaced in my mind by who knows what interior route. This morning it's the turn of 'As Time Goes By'. Could the reason be not psychoanalytical at all but rather to be found in the fact that yesterday I saw a Nepalese bunged into the film 'Casablanca' as Humphrey Bogart?
I get up humming this wonderful tune to myself. It's a quarter to five, it's cold, outside it's pouring with rain. I walk round the hotel, everyone's still sleeping. I need the toilet, but the one on my floor is out of use because it's being restructured. I go up to the next floor, but between the corridor and the toilets there's a room which is occupied by the Nepalese and they are still sleeping. Down in reception they have told me to have no scruples about waking them, but I don't dare. I'd love to go and have a cup of tea to warm me, but first I need a toilet.
Eventually the people in the room wake and get up, so I can at last use the bathroom, and then I make a beeline for the tea shop. The bus station is livelier than ever. This is the time when the drivers of the various departing buses give vent to their wildest passion: that of stepping hard on the accelerator to make the engine run as fast as possible, sending out clouds of fumes and a deafening noise. To escape this kind of torture, I think I'll make the most of my free time this morning [this afternoon I'm going into the Shrinagar Hills with Tokic and Siddharta] to go and see the Cottage Industries. These are part of a foreign aid project and, judging by the placard on the main road advertising them, they are a recent creation.
Coming to see for myself some of these projects of cooperation with developing countries, was one of the motives for my journey in Nepal. Before leaving on this trip I had read several things, one of which was the interesting book by Charlie Pye-Smith 'Travels in Nepal – The Sequestered Kingdom'. Other things I read in the British Library in Katmandu. Discouraging: here are the aims that the first American projects set themselves in the 1950s:
1) increased production of food, fibre and housing material
[also to have an exportable surplus];
2) elimination of disease;
3) school for all;
4) sufficient roads to move agricultural and industrial products;
5) hydro-electricity for enough light and irrigation;
7) landownership to the tiller;
8) agricultural credit system;
9) development of sense of unity, of love of liberty, respect of the individual.
One could hardly say that any of these aims have been achieved!
Among the comments made below this list of aims, there is the following: “in a Hindu society not only would life always be as it had been, but any attempt to interfere with the unchanging cycle of life would be sacrilegious”. As the first obstacle to be overcome, that's not bad! I believe this sentence sums up the difficulties for a continually changing culture like ours to relate in a correct and respectful way to an unmoving culture like the Nepalese one. Unfortunately foreign interventions, instead of bearing this situation in mind, have superimposed and also imposed, with the effect of sweeping away their values and obtaining disastrous results. It suffice to say that many of these projects, instead of stimulating activities, have created an economic dependence, getting the local population used to receiving money, without the corresponding work. That is why in another interesting book, 'Foreign Aid and Politics in Nepal' by Eugene Bramer Mihaly, taking stock of foreign intervention, the final summing up is this:
“The impact of foreign aid has probably harmed rather than furthered Nepal's long-range prospects for economic growth and political stability.”
I get into bed, covering myself with the pashmina I've bought and with the filthy quilt. The latter is so smelly that unless I recover quickly from this sudden illness, I shall most probably suffocate. For the moment it dulls my senses and I fall asleep.
I wake again around midday, it's beautifully sunny outside. I get up and go in search of Ante and Siddharta and we set out for the Shrinagar Hills. First, though, Ante wants to drink his usual daily ration of whey.
There's a delightful breeze, which revives me. We sit for a while in the shade of some pine trees. Two Nepalese boys in school uniform come and sit down near us. We start talking and we ask them some questions, but their English is not good at all. They show me their English books and I can see that the texts are geared to people who already have a good knowledge of the language: passages from literature, from social analyses, and from history, followed by very demanding questions to which they also have to give written replies. I ask them who has written the answers and they say that they themselves have done so. I don't believe them: most Nepalese buy second-hand school books and this is the only obvious explanation for the discrepancy between their very scant knowledge of English and the knowledge needed to answer the questions.
We set off again. These hills, once wooded, are now almost completely bare except for some pine woods. Alas, the high rate of demographic growth in Nepal has led to intensive exploitation of all the country's resources, with timber in first place. Unless a reforestation programme on a grand scale is started very soon, in a few years from now the damage will be irreparable.
We go through a tiny village. In one of the houses there's an old lady who is weaving by hand, and also by 'foot' [seeing that she's using the big toe of her right foot to keep the warp taut], those strips that they apply to their baskets in order to carry them 'hung' on their foreheads. I buy two for ten rupees; the colours are magnificent, I shall join them to make a belt.
A bit further on a delicious smell comes wafting through the air: a woman is cooking mushrooms for the family. Scornful of danger, Tokic and I send Siddharta to ask the woman if we can have three small portions. Smiling, she agrees.
I'm increasingly won over by these simple, kind people who greet and satisfy the 'strange' requests of foreigners with a smile. How many of us Italians would do the same towards foreigners?
In spite of their colour, which is that of our poisonous mushrooms, the taste is excellent. And, after so much rice and lentils, I appreciate them even more.
We are about to go on our way, when a Nepalese man with a military step arrives. I get Siddharta to ask him whether he has been in the Gurkhas.
“Yes,” he replies, looking surprised, “how did you guess?”.
I later discover that he is as drunk as a lord, with 'chang', a fact which,however, does not at all affect his balance in moving and walking over this uneven terrain. Regardless of all the alcohol he has already downed, he asks a woman who runs a sort of tea shop for another glass.
“She ought not to give it to me”, he says looking surreptitiously around, “it's illegal!”. And he makes me promise that I won't say anything about what I've seen to anyone.
I have to admit that I amused myself a bit at this man's expense. Seeing that he was impressed by the fact that I guessed something about his past and because he's not fully with it, I answered his questions paradoxically and deliberately exaggerating things. When he enquired about my age, I told him I was fifty-five. “How can that be possible”, he replied, “if my wife here is only thirty-five and yet she looks much older than you?”.
So then I made him believe that it was thanks to my magic skills that I kept young. In a country like Nepal where magic plays an important part in everyday life, it's relatively easy to make people believe such a thing. “Why then don't you use your magic art on my wife and rejuvenate her a bit?”, he asks. “My magic powers have very definite territorial limits, unfortunately”, I reply, “the good spirits that help me lose their power once they go outside the borders of my own country.”
A large group of Nepalese, men and women, laden like mules with sacks of rice and salt come into sight. We decide to go along with them as we are headed in the same direction. When they are obliged to stop, exhausted, needing to catch their breath, they look us in the eyes and their features, drawn by the effort, relax into a marvellous smile, almost as if apologising for their limitations.
We've been walking for three hours now and we decide to turn back. I stop to photograph some lovely sculpted stone graves in Anglo-Saxon style. A cemetery for foreigners or for rich Nepalese with a craze for things Western?
In Tansen, Tokic goes to collect a huge Croatian flag; one he ordered from a studio of local artists. He intends to use it for the photos he will have taken at the various stops he'll be making on his journey around the world.
Today we are going to the Missionary Hospital 'United Mission'. It is some distance from the village, in an attractive valley and the road there goes through varied and interesting countryside. I'd really like to be able to give you an idea of it by giving an accurate description which is not boring instead of a limited and repetitive one, which seems to be all I can ever manage.
Each time I find myself needing to describe a scene, the following ditty comes to my mind: 'Son salito sul Gran Sasso, son rimasto ammutolito' [I climbed Big Rock mountain, I was struck dumb], which, although paradoxically, gives an idea of the difficulty of the undertaking.
It is only the truly great writers who are able to attempt the task of re-creating the emotions felt on seeing a certain landscape, by reconstructing it in words. And even they do not always succeed. I can remember on more than one occasion skipping pages of description in masterpieces of literature.
This is the time when the children come out of school: some of the older ones have climbed up onto the highest branches of a tree which stretches out over a precipice. I try to persuade them to come down, but they, in reply, laughingly throw a branch laden with fruit looking like our cherries, but far more sour and bitter, at me. It is precisely this fruit that they have climbed the tree for.
We pass herds of cattle returning to the cow sheds to be milked, women carrying basins of clothes washed at the spring, hoisted onto their heads.
We arrive at the hospital. Outside there's a terrific throng of people, due to the fact that for each Nepalese admitted to hospital there are on average a score of relatives who stay around the area. To show solidarity, of course, but also to swap news with acquaintances, to arrange marriages and business. This, too, is an important social occasion!
We go in and while Ante asks to see the manager to enquire whether there might be some chance of a job, I look around for one of the European doctors.
I'm directed to Dr. Alison, Irish. She's extremely busy, but nevertheless politely answers my questions.
I ask her what the most common illnesses they have to treat are. “Gastroenteritis”, she replies, “tuberculosis and fractures.”
These conditions seem to me a true mirror of the conditions in which the Nepalese are obliged to live.
Because she cannot give me more time now, she suggests I wait for her in the guest house of the hospital where I can drink tea while waiting, but Ante, who is disappointed that he hasn't found work, wants to leave. But what sort of work could there ever be for a naval engineer like him, here amongst the crocks?
August 24th Departure from Tansen
Alarm at five, at five thirty I'm at the bus station. I track down the bus for Pokhara, but it has broken down.
I adopt the national attitude, which is that of waiting. Seeing that at the ticket office no-one can tell me how long the wait might be, I, too, move over to the café where all the other passengers have collected.
A little thin Nepalese fellow, who looks only about eighteen but must be considerably older since he's an expert agricultural technician, suggests I go with him: his idea is to walk the two kilometres to the main road from Bhutwal, and wait there for the first bus, which shouldn't be a long wait. I check this out with an American who happens to be at the bus station. He confirms that it's a good idea, it's what he would do in the circumstances. So we set off down the most uneven, slippery, difficult path I have come across in my by now two months of walks in Nepal.
I manage to stay on my feet only by dint of proceeding very slowly and cautiously. Nepalese women, bare foot, pass me left and right. I observe their feet: they are quite different from ours, they are practically triangular, very wide at the front, with toes which are strong and prehensile and grip the ground well. We, with our little buttery feet, outcome of an 'evolution' [or involution?] towards 'civilisation', can't dream of keeping up with them!
My Nepalese cavalier walks half a metre or so in front of me, half turning around, ready to leap into a sort of rugby tackle should I slip.
When we are in sight of the main road, I suddenly hear the sound of a bus.
As Oman shows no sign of accelerating, “Quick!” I yell, “run down to the road and see whether it's our bus!”. In four leaps he's in the road. It is our bus, and, of course, it's packed.
But the kindness of my fellow traveller and companion in misfortune is such that, before leaving the bus, [he gets off after less than an hour of the journey] he finds out where the various seated passengers are going to. Then, he points out the one who will be getting off first, suggesting that I stand next to his seat, ready to take it when he gets up.
I look around me: the bus is the usual one crowded with schoolchildren with school bags in the same style as mine when I used to go to the primary school, women nursing babies, men with sacks and various goods just bought or to be sold.
At the same bus station where I manage to get a seat, someone comes aboard who, despite my careful scrutiny during the bus journey, I can't definitely make out as male or female. This person looks extraordinarily like Caravaggio's Bacchus, full face and black hair in a page boy cut. 'She' is handicapped and speaks with difficulty. She asks everyone for money. An old woman starts making fun of her, and soon the whole bus is laughing at her. She reacts in the only way she can, with a threatening expression and weakly punching the people who are mocking her.
This makes her even more the target of jeers: everyone laughingly avoids her fists and, still laughing pretends to return her punches to provoke her further. After a little more than an hour, this person, who was not asked to pay for a ticket, gets off the bus for no apparent reason. She probably left the bus in order to get away from all the mockery, but at the stop she looks around her in bewilderment, it seems that this stop or any other makes no difference to her, after all she has nowhere to go and no-one waiting for her to take care of her. In all likelihood she was abandoned by her parents, as happens to children of poor families, especially if they are handicapped. It's often the law of the jungle: anyone who is unable to go about providing for his own upkeep and not be a burden to the family from an early age, finds himself abandoned to his fate.
HOW DO THEY MANAGE NOT TO HATE US?
In Nepal I broke one of my basic rules when travelling abroad: never enter an Italian restaurant or eat Italian dishes adopted by other restaurants.
I've always been curious to try new tastes and many of the Asiatic countries like China, India, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia have high quality, creative culinary traditions. But not Nepal. Apart from the usual rice and lentils or boiled potatoes, there's nothing. Tourist restaurants have adapted: they offer Mexican, French, American and, of course, Italian dishes.
One day while sitting out on the terrace of the Snow Land in Pokhara sipping a glass of iced St. Miguel [!] beer and running my eyes over the menu looking for something appetising, I happened to see a first course called 'Spaghetti Milanese'. What might this be? I ask the waiter. He explains that they are Chinese noodles with yak cheese, fresh tomato and beef, served directly in the pan. I decide to try.
The waiter goes down to the kitchen to put in my order, then he comes back and we start talking. He's a Gurung, a numerous ethnic group here in Pokhara. He's been working here for two years and earns 300 rupees a month for 14 hours work a day, seven days a week. One of his fellow waiters who has been working here for seven years earns 650 rupees.
The owner of the restaurant is a Tibetan and, for my spaghetti and beer, has taken 150 rupees, half Ram's monthly wage. How can this waiter be so kind and sweet to me when he's just seen a sum which he would have to work 70 hours to earn, paid for a single meal right under his nose? It's also true that to pay him more there would have to be fewer staff. In fact in this low tourist season there are more waiters than clients in this and other restaurants. Employing fewer people, would mean leaving even more people without work. Unfortunately only those braggarts who begin their talks with “. . . Eh, if I were in charge of the country!”, are able to solve the problems of the world at one fell swoop.
This does not mean that the robbery and dishonesty that have left the country in bad shape, the royal family leaders in this field, are to be ignored or,worse still, justified.
And it will certainly not be the American volunteers with their 75,000 dollar annual salary and the park with all the sports equipment at their disposal right opposite the Royal Palace, who will help the country to improve its economy.
August 25th Return to Katmandu
Celebration of the Cow Festival
The Cow Festival, called 'Gai Jatra' in Nepalese, is dedicated to all those who died the previous year. The Hindu believe that a cow will guide them to Yama, the god of the hereafter, and they consider it especially lucky to die holding the tail of a cow.
On the day of the festival the cows wander freely around the city adorned with garlands of flowers, and when there are not enough cows, children are disguised as them.
The festival also commemorates an event which occurred during the reign of Pratap Malla. The queen was sad, having lost her son, and the king offered rewards to anyone who could make her smile.
The next day, a crowd of people went to the Royal Palace disguised in the most outlandish ways: the queen smiled and, ever since, on that day, all the people dress up in the strangest ways.
Characters met on my travels [sketch]
At the Marco Polo guest house in Katmandu, there's a Parisian university student with ambitions to become a journalist. Gifted with enterprise - without, however, the necessary experience to go with it – ease of manner and pluck, he has been swindled in Bangkok by sellers of precious stones. In Katmandu misfortune continues to dog him. He has been suffering from diarrhoea for two weeks, and he has finished all the medicines he had and is no better. I give him some of my remedies, which equally produce no result. At this point I advise a natural remedy of huge doses of lemons [nimbu], garlic and Betonite clay, which I've brought with me from Italy. Two days later the worst has passed. But his troubles are not yet over. On July 12th the Banque du Crédit Commercial goes bankrupt. He has with him only traveller's cheques from this bank, which now, obviously, no-one will accept any longer. He spends whole days between his Embassy, the Immigration Office [his visa has expired], banks, the International Telephones centre. Eventually a compromise is reached and the situation is solved, and he's able to leave for his solo trekking holiday on the Annapurna Massif. Let's hope all goes well!
In Pokhara, while I'm accompanying Ante Tokic, the Croatian I met in Tansen and who, having returned from Katmandu, has passed by here, to the bus station, a fellow on a bike approaches, looking rather breathless. He stops, gets off his bike and asks me if I speak French. When I say I do, he asks me to go with him into a trekking agency to help him understand what they are trying to tell him seeing that he doesn't speak English. I go with him and Ante waits outside for me. This fellow has in mind a short trek of three or four days, but not only does he have not the least idea regarding a possible itinerary he might like to follow but he knows nothing at all about the geography of Nepal. I translate for him the routes the owner of the agency is suggesting he take; he chooses the shortest one and then says he has to go back to the hotel to get his money to pay the agency. He jumps on his bicycle and pedals off quickly. Did he ever go back I wonder?
In the restaurant I'm watching an Indian guru with a Western girl. I've seen others already. Usually the arrangement is: she pays the hotel, restaurant and other expenses, and he, in exchange, passes on to her the profound messages of the oriental philosophy, which provide for a simple life, perhaps a bit uncomfortable, but as long as it is only theory . . .
This guru has a wide-brimmed straw hat and is drinking tea leaving both the tea bag and the teaspoon in the cup. Drinking tea under these conditions becomes a highly acrobatic exercise. But isn't the guru perhaps someone who is beyond the conditioning of common folk?
One of my favourite pastimes is people-watching. That's why I get so bored in Pinerolo: 40,000 conformists have nothing interesting to offer the eye.
But here in Katmandu it's quite different. With Nima I am learning to distinguish people by their ethnic group. Something which is not at all easy!
Jane and Ibrahim have decided to invite the Nepalese guide who has brought them back safe and sound from the Annapurna Circuit, to dinner. I go along with them; it's our last dinner together. We choose the Utze, a Tibetan restaurant. The guide tells us that a month ago, while he was on Annapurna, his wife gave birth to a baby boy.
“What will you call him?” I ask. He hasn't thought yet.
This reminds me of my father, who, five minutes before I was baptised still didn't know what name to give me. Not that my mother had any clearer idea than he did.
The story goes that it was a sister in the hospital who finally chose a name. I have never liked my name, but when I think that the sister might have had a weakness for names like Orsola, Veneranda, Adelaide or Ermelinda, I count myself lucky!
A friend who was in Nepal ten years ago, says that lepers could be seen in the streets with open wounds and bleeding flesh that fell in pieces in the street. I didn't see any of that. I did, however, see illnesses I've never seen anywhere else in the world.
I particularly remember, at the Pokhara bus station, a man whose face was just a mass of fleshy growths. In place of a nose, eyes, or a mouth there were spheres of flesh as big as golf balls. Where his mouth should have been a hole had been opened in these small mountains of flesh to enable him to feed himself. He was guided by a boy and was begging.
I've also had to learn to check my reactions when faced with unexpected deformations. Once, while we were in a restaurant in Pokhara and were looking over the menu that a boy had brought us, a woman came up to our table. When I looked up, I saw that her face was horrendously deformed by a hare-lip. The cleft, from her nose to her upper lip, was wider than I had ever seen or even imagined before.
I often recall the beggars of Katmandu and the abandoned children who live in the street close to rubbish deposits.
I remember the paralytic man who was always outside the Immigration Office, passing point of many tourists. He was brought there towards nine o'clock in the morning and laid on the ground – his legs were completely atrophied – with an umbrella set up over his head to protect him from the sun and the rain. He was given a percussion instrument, a tambourine with a handle and two stoppers at the top of the strings. He kept turning this tambourine all day long, accelerating the movement each time a tourist came by.
Pokhara – Butterfly guest house
3.00 p.m. : I'm in bed and dozing, to recover a bit from yesterday's walk to Mahendra Gufa. All of a sudden there are doors being slammed, enough to make the whole house shake, shouts, dreadful insults, things hurled out of first floor windows into the courtyard below [my room is on the ground floor]. What on earth's happening? I get up and go out to see: the couple from Como are having a bit of a squabble. Strong insults are being hurled by both parties, she's trying to shut him out of the room, he's determined to knock the door down. As is typical in Nepal, within five minutes there are a few hundred curious people standing around, entertained by this unexpected spectacle. Govindan, the owner of the guest house is green, both because he fears for the damage to building and furnishings, and because of the talk this will cause. Anyone who has never been to Nepal can have no idea what it means in this country 'to poke your nose into other people's business'. Suffice to say that when that same afternoon I decided to go for a walk in the town to get away from the disgrace of the scene back at the guest house, dozens of people I'd never seen before and didn't know stopped me to ask what had happened that afternoon at the Butterfly guest house. When I returned that evening the storm had died down. Balance of damage: her passport ripped to pieces, his glasses smashed to smithereens. These were the less easily repairable damages, then there was more. They have been given separate rooms, seeing that they wouldn't hear of accepting Govindan's invitation to pack up and leave. The best of it is that two days later they were once more in love and accord!
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
In the guest house next to mine there's an Afghan who's blonde and blue-eyed. He has great plans for the future, he wants to become a South-East Asia correspondent for some important German newspaper. At present he's living with his mother, who's separated from her husband, in Germany. He's well-informed and he doesn't seem to me to be a boaster. But he's over-fond of spending his evenings smoking hashish until late and then not getting up next morning till midday. The day I left Pokhara, he was to have caught the same bus to Katmandu but, as usual, he overslept and missed the bus. He can't be lacking money if he's able to squander it in such a way. The bus fare to Katmandu is 100 rupees!
In a guest house some distance from the town, in a really beautiful location by a lake, very inexpensive, but with the drawback of having the guest rooms on the ground floor,
directly under those occupied by dozens of hens, there's an English couple from Devon. They are in a bad way, their clothes are quite dirty. At home, they tell me, they live in a caravan, parked in the country. They wash in the stream and use candles for light. Here, to save the rupees a guest house costs they are looking for a cabin to rent from a Gurung [one of the thirty Nepalese ethnic groups], over on the other side of the lake.
A LITTLE OF EVERYTHING
random notes and considerations . . .
In many Nepalese hotels and guest houses I've found the mirrors hung at stomach level. Is anyone able to explain why?
About strange and amusing misspellings. The sentence:
'TAKE A PONY RIDE THROUGH THE SPOILT NEPALESE COUNTRY'
reported by the Lonely Planet guide, has now been corrected. What a pity!
The richest sources of misspellings are the menus, though. Here are a couple: breakfast, corn flex; for sweet, canned leeches.
I have to say that having had plentiful experience of these disgusting creatures on the mountains of Helambu and Langtang, this misspelling made me shudder . . .