Saturday, August 27, 2016

Journey to the East: Kathmandu

I am walking across Ratna Park in the middle of Kathmandu on this early, sunny morning, the smell of beadies in the air, the sounds of broken mufflered vehicles in the distance. I step around a pile of shit, not dog shit, human shit. This city is just an adjustment for the people of the mountains. Some of them shit here as they would in the meadows and hills. “God made man, man made money, money didn’t make man, don’t think about money” chants the fortune teller. He is a student of the occult from India. Dusty, dirty, selling glimpses of his truth to lazy, stoned Western travellers in sunny Ratna Park. We sit down on the grass, cross legged, facing each other. He presses a glass bead into my palm. “It is from Kashmir. Never let any but your loved one see this and it will bring you luck” My loved one. We stay outside of the city in the Chobar Valley in the second story of a house owned by a family who lives on the first floor. Last night, like most nights, we smoked a chillum with the father, man of the house and his smiling wife. By candlelight they giggled in disbelief when we told them that it was against the law to smoke hash in the West, that they put you in jail for it, went to great lengths to stop people from doing it. The husband and wife talked Nepalese to each other, gave us looks of sad commiseration when they concluded that we were telling the truth. On the road, in front of the house, we can catch the bus a few times a day. It takes about a half hour to take us to the centre of Kathmandu. The fortune teller continues his singsong spiel for ten rupees, his eyes unclouded by freeways, supermarkets and luxury. “Your heart is open and sometimes goes up and down. You will live to be eighty four, no sickness, no disease, no hospital, eating and sleeping, good health until you die” His stare holds my eyes. “Now, pick a number below five, sit properly, do not lie down” He presses a piece of paper into my hand. Led Zep music comes floating across the park from Freak Street. “Four” I pick. “Another, please” “Three” “There, I will write them down” He takes the paper from me, writes on it, gives it back to me. “Now, blow on the paper. If it is the same number, you will pay my fee?” “I already paid ten rupes, ten rupes is your fee, that’s it” It’s not hard to be firm and suspicious when you’ve been in Asia for six months and had almost everything stolen. The fortune teller is exasperated by my attitude. He decides to give me a break. “If the number is the same, you give me what you like. Don’t think of money. Man will die, God won’t die, money won’t die. You think too much. Don’t think of money” He takes back the paper, unfolds it. It reads thirty-one. “There, you see, the same. It means long life, happiness, a large family” “But they’re not the same, I picked forty three” He points to some other pencil marks on the piece of paper. “See, forty-three, the same. Give me what you will” He holds out his hand, waits. Some men near us, sit cross legged facing the barbers who shave them with long, straight razors. Kids wander over to us. A small crowd begins to watch. I give the fortune teller five more rupees. In better days, somewhere in the South, in the huge, teeming world of India (who knows how he got here?), he didn’t feel the humiliation of poverty and begging. He didn’t think of selling his truth to sceptical Westerners worried about rupees. I rise, make the namaste sign to him, walk toward the street. There is rice and milk to buy and the bread’s only available in the mornings. We’re meeting at the Tibetan restaurant where they make good lassi. Once we saw the smile on the Tibetan woman there, an unforgettable, beaming smile, we made that restaurant our regular rendezvous. Tomorrow we would begin our trek to Annapurna. Joyce has become friends with a Canadian girl, one of two sisters, who stay in a youth hostel on Freak Street. Shirley confides to Joyce that she is having an affair with Jay, the Nepali who runs the place. I hear later that the Nepalis do everything else in a crouch, on their haunches, so why not sex? The half sitting, half crouching position becomes comfortable after a while. It is not normal for North American knees, but becomes natural with practice. The feet splayed, tip of the rear grazing the ground, the convenient knees to lean on, quite natural after a few times. Seems a bit strenuous for sex to me, but to each their own. There are two main treks in Nepal, the one to Everest and the one we were taking, to Annapurna. The birthplace of Buddha is just a few miles away. The small, walking path winds upward through rhododendron forests, past spectacular waterfalls and impossible terraced paddies. Our eyes bulge at the sight of the huge burdens carried by the Sherpas. We look away from their thick, muscular legs as they pass us when we stop to wonder at the little building beside the path. It is a Nepali version of a Legion for Ghurkas. The silent, fearless killers, so admired by the Brits, deserve a Legion. Just didn’t think I’d see one here. Some travellers hire the Sherpas to carry everything so their hands are free to take pictures. They can’t survive without toilet paper and corn flakes with milk in the morning. The Sherpas are stolid beasts of burden. At the far end of the trek, as far as you can go, unless you intend to climb Annapurna, there is a windswept airstrip on a plateau. The same travellers who hired Sherpas to carry everything, take a plane back. They have other destinations to photograph, no use wasting film walking back. We stop at Pokhara as we descend. Many Western travellers just go there and stay there. The shore of the lake beside Pokhara sports restaurants with ‘Western Chinese Food’ and stereo speakers mounted in the outdoor dining rooms. The rock n roll never ends. Hostels are full beside the beginnings of a hotel there. The attraction, though, is the silent beauty of calmness, peace, as one floats in dugouts rented by the locals, by the hour. On sunny days, in the middle and all around the lake, float silent dugouts, some with two occupants, some with one. Snow capped Himalayas rise on all sides of the lake, descend from grey to brown to green. Valleys which end in the lake are carved by tributary streams descending from the hills. Giant white clouds float above terraced paddies built with patient hands and mud. Like some times and places in the Rockies, moments there are perfect. Back on Freak Street, in Kathmandu, we meet Billy Bob from Kansas City. Every year he manages to get his holidays and enough money to spend two weeks in Nepal. It is always coordinated with the arrival in town of the famous Manali hash from Northern India. This straight looking, short haired American was the stonedest of the stoned. He shared chillums with all who approached his gregarious presence on Freak Street as he spent his two weeks enjoying the stories of the travellers, the news of old, Nepali friends who he saw every year. He didn’t hesitate to demonstrate, with his passport, that Billy Bob was his real name. We had never met one before, must’ve blurted out our curiosity in a Led Zep soaked burst of coughing laughter as the chillum passed. Where the Bagmati River has flowed for ages in its journey to join the Ganges, a valley has been produced. The valley is below our house. When we sit on the balcony attached to our room, we can watch every day activities on the road in the distance, see the green, yellow, brown after harvest colours in the fields below, watch the cow and goat blink at the hawk circling above them. I was reading Henry Miller’s, Night of the Assassins, then. A combination of what he wrote and what I was thinking at the time, convinced me that constantly pursuing experiences so that you weren’t only thinking and talking about the world is, in the end, useless. As useless as the attitudes of people who think and talk about the world, but never experience it. Sitting on our rough balcony, getting ready for our imminent departure to Goa in the far South, I realized that I had come all this way for nothing. I was convinced that all the travelling, the learning, the questioning, was a waste of time. As addictive as it was, there was no more value in it than in staying safe and secure at home, watching it on television. Krishnamurti had something to say about that, too. It was a little surprising and humbling, but it made sense there, at that time. We stop in the Tibetan restaurant on our way to the train station. The smiling woman gives us lassi. We walk down Freak Street, saying goodbye to old and new acquaintances, cross Ratna Park. As we leave the park, I see the fortune teller again. His words rise above the Led Zep and muffler sounds, “Man will die, God won’t die, money won’t die. You think too much. Don’t think about money”

Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Fixit Man

Up at the crack of dawn, down to the hotel pool, few quick laps, room service coffee and paper, baseball scores, one more day. Check numbers... cops, cleaners, locker. Breakfast at the place downstairs, waitress with a nice ass, poached eggs on brown, slice of some kind of melon, more coffee. Shoe shine stall off the lobby, barber somewhere around. Taxi, watch out for those pedestrians, poor bastards, feels nice around the ears, nice barber smell. Chinatown, could’ve got the dope here just as easy. Better from a white man, even an ex biker. Neither would remember anything. Here. This is the number. Asshole taxi driver didn’t like the tip. Fuck him if he can’t take a joke. Chinese man, middle aged, used to gun em down in Nam. Not Chinese but close. Door opening, no one around, too early for the public. Trucks leaving with crews and piles of clean laundry. Chink wants more money for the coveralls now. What the fuck? Theirs, not mine. Brand new cleaner’s coveralls under the arm, car rental place, something utilitarian that won’t be noticed, something cheap and plain. Nothing memorable. Rental agent, somebody’s daughter with big tits, perfect teeth. Credit card. Alias. Cheap little economy number, one with reclining seats. Car rental girl, long legs, short skirt, know what would look good on you, baby? Freeway Macdonald’s parking lot, more coffee. Map. Silver Spur, ring road, freeway, industrial park. This is the way to go. Morning radio sports talk. Pitching wins championships. More pitching is needed at home. It’s obvious. Industrial park, business park, easier when they’re among a lot of other buildings. Silver Spur. Just opening. Dark, smell of vomit and urine and sex. Big pictures of strippers everywhere. Subdued rock music in the shadows. Waitresses setting chairs at tables. The noontime rush’ll be crazy. Owner in back office. Large, hairy, ex biker, accompanied by two heavies. Wants more for the packet. What the fuck? Theirs, not mine. Ex biker, men, snigger at the suit and tie. In the old days a little blood and a few broken teeth. Shock. Reevaluation. Factory next door, a few long blocks down. Parking lot, back, coveralls on, the southern entrance. Security guards with wands and tasers, cameras everywhere. Wink from the man checking ID. Through. Find a cart, push it around the giant floor. Hundreds of drones in blue smocks. Jesus Christ, how long is this assembly line? Chinese cleaners with the same coveralls nod, continue cleaning, talking to each other in Chinese. Locker room, change room. Empty. Locker number fifteen. Combination 43 -14 - 12. Open the door, stick the packet under papers on the top shelf, beneath the photo, wife and kids. This can be a lesson for the kids. Locker door locked, push the cart to an exit. Out. Remove the cleaner’s coveralls at the car. Drive to the nearest bin. A payphone. “Narcotics. Detective Randall speaking” “Detective Randall, I want to report drugs. Illegal drugs” “Yes, and what’s your name sir?” “That’s not important. I saw heroin. In a locker at work” “Heroin. That’s a serious allegation, sir” “You want the locker number?” “Who does this locker belong to, sir?” “James Thayer. Giant Computer. Boundary Road. The factory. Locker fifteen. Bye” Hang up, park the car a little closer to the fence, to the entrance the cops’ll use. Recline the seat. Few hours of shut eye. Sun found its way past the visor. Hot on the legs. Get out, stretch. Back in the car in time for the show. Grey ghost car. Parking out front. Two plainclothes cops waving badges at the security guards, hurrying into building. Emerging with James Thayer cuffed, confused, mid thirties, still in his blue smock. Pushed carefully into the car, whisked away. Satisfaction. Rent a car flying down the freeway to Chinatown. Dumped. Taxi back to the hotel. “Hello. It’s done” “Any trouble with security?” “No. The man was smooth as silk. Cops grabbed Mr Thayer within two hours” “Good. That should be the end of that union” “You think so? In my experience, they’re pretty resilient. Another one’ll spring up in a few years” “Not with a leader like Thayer, though. And we’ll be ready next time. Congressmen are working on it as we speak. They better be. Fuckin Commies. Anyway, I’ve got your number if I need you again” “Yes. Just leave a message at that number” “Well, thanks. The cheque is in the mail to that box number you gave me” “Ok. See you” Discard the suit and tie. Quick shower. Mini fridge. Ice cubes. TV. Sports update. “Hello?” “Hi babe, how are you?” “Oh, its so good to hear from you. You wouldn’t believe what happened” “Yes I would. Ryan’s dentist appointment?” “How did you know, dear? He needs braces. It’s gonna be thousands” “Jesus Christ, Emily.” “I know, honey. But we can do it.” “Fuck” “I know, dear, but it’s his future. We don’t want him going through life with crooked teeth” “What about Patsy?” “Well, you know she had that recital last night” “Hmm” “She did fine. She’s so buzzed about it. She wants to be a professional violinist now” “Yeah. Right. Till the next fad. Billy ok?” “He wants you home for the weekend, dear. They’re in the playoffs. He’s pitching the first game on Saturday. You can’t miss that” “Tell him I’ll be there. I’m finished here. I’ll be catching the first flight home tomorrow. There’s no need to pick me up. I’ll grab a cab. Just as cheap” “So your consulting must have been successful, dear” Swallow the cold, smooth rye. “Mmhm...very successful” “Ok dear, see you tomorrow. You’ve got a lot of messages on your line. See you then” “Ok Bye”

Saturday, August 13, 2016


We left Bombay on one of those trains you see on tv. Guys hanging off the sides, people sitting on the roof. We were travelling third class, the cheapest form of rail transit in India. Everyone in our class was packed into passenger cars with wooden bench seats which were quickly occupied by mothers with their children and a young Sikh military officer, off duty, to whom a crowd of young men passed a strong looking metal trunk through the open window. He had been smart, boarded the train, ruthlessly knocking old women out of his way, without his luggage, secured a window seat. The rest of us defended what little space there was near us and stood our ground through the swaying departure. Joyce found a piece of floor near our backpacks where she could sit. There was no point in talking. We were in for twenty straight hours, travelling third class from Bombay to Goa. I stood leaning against a window, bending over to watch the endless slums roll by as we left the city. A pair of Australian women began complaining as we entered the countryside. The difference stood out between the pampered Aussies and the stoic Indian mothers who sat on the floor for hours without uttering a bad tempered peep. The whining grated on my nerves. Chai wallahs appeared at the windows on the platforms of every stop along the way. You passed the money out, they passed the chai or sweets or Fantas, in. The Aussies loved the distraction, but their greed showed. They bought more of everything than they needed, shared it only with each other. They could not sit still and nothing was good enough. We somehow slumbered a little that night. I found myself standing at the window again as the morning appeared. Water buffalo looked up from wet paddies as the train sped by. “Hello, how are you? Where you from? I am a salesman from Bombay” I looked up to see a chubby, sweating Indian in a wrinkled suit and tie. He was smiling at me. When I told him I was from Canada, he laughed loudly. Leaning close, he waggled his forefinger in front of my nose. “Never trust an Indian” He winked, proceeded to outline the steps the Indian government had taken to obtain a nuclear reactor from Canada, all the while swearing it was for peaceful reasons, then produced a nuclear weapon from it. It was vague to me, I had heard of it, it had happened, but it was vague. I didn’t think it as hilarious as my Indian friend did. I felt embarrassed when he called Indians untrustworthy and thought, to myself, that I had about as much to do with the government of Canada as he did with the government of India. He talked with his hands, demonstrating telling signs of the naivete of Canadians and Westerners in general. He used comical facial expressions to emphasize slyness and brilliance. We chatted till he got bored and moved on. The vegetation grew lusher as we travelled toward the equator. The Aussies had been reduced to tears, then exhaustion. I was just glad they shut up. Joyce imitated the longsuffering Indian women. We didn’t find out till we were installed in a farm house, with a family, near the beach, that Goa was a European vacation spot. Famous celebrities from the West, rock stars, film stars, those in the know in Europe, with the means to travel to India for a one or two week stay, populated the seaside town during the European winter. I soon became addicted to the bean baji they made at the little restaurant in the main square where the buses stopped. The square was a leisurely stroll down the beach and dirt road from the farm. The Aussie couple who arrived in one of the local buses had “gone native”. They introduced themselves to us in the restaurant. She was the chai wallah and he was the chapati wallah. They explained that they had left home two years before and as far as they could tell, from the letters they kept receiving, their families were on the verge of hysteria. They were supposed to like India and travelling, but enough was enough. They weren’t expected to like it this much. They wondered if a family member would come over from Australia to try to find them in the teeming masses of India and take them back. At the moment, they were perfectly happy in India. They dressed like Indians and spoke to Indians in their own language. They liked the pace of life, the people, the country, the craziness. The guy pronounced “Boom shanka” in an experienced manner when someone shared a pipe of Manali hash. Goa had been a Portuguese colony until the 60s so they didn’t approve of dope smoking. There were less beggars there than in the rest of India and the locals still retained some Christian traditions like church and drinking scotch. Goan cops didn’t allow nude sunbathing. They took their time, walked slowly down the beach, looked carefully before telling German and Scandinavian girls to put their clothes back on. The “Boom shanka” was part of a religion which included sharing pipes of hash. We had seen, in the train station in Bombay, an Indian all dressed in red, red robe, red in his long hair, red paint on his face, sharing a pipe with a blond Westerner with thick dreadlocks down to his waist. They went through the boom shanka chants and held the smoking pipe up in front of them, as if offering it, before they smoked. The barefoot Indian looked fearsome, wild eyes, many necklaces of nuts and baubles, carrying a red trident. They said he was a worshipper of Kali, the goddess of destruction. The family matriarch, the grandmother of the family, questioned us one day. She gave Joyce a pitiful glance when she found out that we had no children. I had to admit that no, neither my grandmother nor my mother owned her own sambas. The grandmother was proud of her palm sambas. We lived among them. They were large plots of land like farmers’ fields full of tall palms bordering the beach. They produced enough wealth to keep the family independent. Women bent double in adjacent rice sambas for twelve hours, two dollars per day. Other women, those working for the grandmother, carried huge piles of palm branches to the walled in yard at the farmhouse. The branches were trimmed for firewood. The women, barefoot, casually killed the large rats which scurried from beneath the branches where they had their nests.. They were in a concrete trap and every one was killed. Those that weren’t crushed by the ends of branches wielded by the laughing women, were slapped sharply on the ground by the tail. When bullfrogs are hunted for frog’s legs, the same killing slap is used on the water. We wandered over mud paths atop the dikes which bordered the sambas by the white beach of the Arabian Sea. The wind rattled the palms and bent each stalk of rice. Spots of bright colour in the distance pinpointed women’s blouses. Luminescent blue and green birds darted through the dappled sunlight. For people used to traditional North American fare at Christmas, the shark steak dinner at the seaside restaurant was different. The cruel realities of the sea were displayed along the beach where we walked every day. Piles of sunfish lay rotting in the sun beside dead sea serpents, many poisonous. One of the indelicate but necessary realities of travelling in Asia is checking your shit. Yes, it’s unpleasant, but a tendency toward diarrhea, called “loose movement” by the grandmother, is a good indicator of illness. Travelling with a woman was much better than travelling with another guy or alone. The advantages were innumerable. Women related to women in the kitchen, food preparation was a common part of their lives. There were a lot of things which an Asian woman could never say to a Western man but which she could share with a Western woman. Joyce was learning to bake something from the women of the house just as we were leaving. It tasted good when we ate it for supper, but they left it out all night and I got the runs from eating more of it in the morning. We had to be very careful about cooking utensils in Goa because, as the women demonstrated, anything left out in the kitchen is an object to be examined and crawled over by the same giant cockroaches which hung around the toilet. The toilet was even scarier than the kitchen. When you crouched to defecate into the darkness below the little room beside the kitchen, the giant barnyard sow in the back yard could be heard grunting and trying to climb the concrete chute below you, to meet your turds halfway. When I started squirting brown juice, I couldn’t stand the sounds emanating from the depths of the toilet. I visualized a fat septic tank with teats waiting for my diarrhea. I found a place in the bush where I squatted, wishing for the cool Himalayas. The monsoon season was approaching, it was time to head north before the world was submerged.