Saturday, May 6, 2017

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”

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