There’s really little to say today, except that it’s been long. Really long. It’s entailed lots of waiting: waiting to fly to Delhi, waiting for our flight to land in Delhi, waiting in Delhi for our flight to Amsterdam. This being India, our flight west wouldn’t depart til 1am, so we sat in the airport all night and didn’t begin the boarding process until midnight. By the time we got on board for the eight-hour flight, we were pretty beat. We slept most of the night away, as our airplane took us north through Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Russia, and then west through the Baltics, Poland, and Germany, before arriving in Holland.
This concludes my original journal entries. I’ll try to post our story of our day in Amsterdam, as well as my final thoughts on the trip, a little later.
November 28, 1996
There’s really little to say today, except that it’s been long. Really long. It’s entailed lots of waiting: waiting to fly to Delhi, waiting for our flight to land in Delhi, waiting in Delhi for our flight to Amsterdam. This being India, our flight west wouldn’t depart til 1am, so we sat in the airport all night and didn’t begin the boarding process until midnight. By the time we got on board for the eight-hour flight, we were pretty beat. We slept most of the night away, as our airplane took us north through Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Russia, and then west through the Baltics, Poland, and Germany, before arriving in Holland.
November 27, 1996
I still wasn’t feeling too great, but I was well enough to travel back to Madras. There was an extended break in the rain that morning, so we hired a taxi. The two hour ride back to Madras was smooth and comfortable. This was to be our last night’s stay in India, so we decided to splurge and make it a comfy one. We stayed at the Ambassador Pallava Hotel, one of Madras’ flagship four-star hotels. Though it was quite lavish by Indian standards, in retrospect I’m not sure if it would have been worth $100 in the states, but after some of the places we had stayed over the last 21 days, it was well worth it at that moment in time.
We chilled out in the room and at the hotel cafe before heading out to the Sri Kapalashwaram temple. An autorickshaw took us to the temple, which was no more than 10 minutes away. It was a typical Dravidian gopuram-style temple, shooting up into the sky like a tall Remington Microscreen electric shaver. The temple was adorned with thousands of brightly painted statue miniatures, which gave it the appearance of a cross between a Grateful Dead album cover and a Heironymous Bosch painting. The rains had departed for a few hours, but the clouds made it difficult to get any pictures. We also weren’t allowed inside the temple (Hindus only), so after 15 minutes or so, we were ready to move on to our next stop, Fort St. George.
The fort was set up by the British in the early 1600s, and was the Crown’s first outpost on Indian soil. It’s still used today as a military and state administrative complex, and because of all the hustle and bustle, the fort felt more like a modern military base than a piece of Raj history. The fort’s museum was a ragged display of British weapons, uniforms and documents. Upstairs, though, we found an old ballroom that had been converted in to a portrait hall. 20 large paintings of former monarchs and local Maharajas filled the walls, including a rather famous portrait of a young Queen Victoria. A few buildings south of the museum, we entered St. Mary’s Church, the oldest Anglican house of worship east of the Suez. It was a simple stone church with wooden pews and dozens of small marble plaques and memorials, including one to Elihu Yale, former governor of Madras, as well as the eventual founder of Yale University.
Somehow the day had flown by, and it was getting late. The sun was bearing down on my weary body, so I went back to the hotel and rested. It was an anticlimactic last night in India, but I figured I better rest for a healthy trip back and a fun overnight stay in Amsterdam.
November 26, 1996
There’s little to say about today, except that I spent most of it in bed with a fever and a stomach ache. I certainly wasn’t deathly ill, and I wasn’t running to the bathroom every 10 minutes, but still felt like hell. As I kept asking Susanne, “Who will rid me of this dreaded malaise?” as if I were Peter O’Toole complaining about Thomas a Becket (I must have been really ill). So I slept a lot.
The only story worth telling from this day is from when Susanne dragged me to lunch at the Temple Bay Ashok Beach Resort, about a kilometer south on the beach. After eating, we waited in the lobby for the rain to break. I noticed in the bushes outside that a small puppy had run for cover and was crouching under the leaves. So when the rains let up, we eagerly investigated. In the bush we found this poor, drenched puppy, no more than a few weeks old, shivering and looking scared to death. It was very upsetting, so we broke our cardinal rule over never touching animals in India and picked it up. I took it to a sink by the pool and rinsed it clean with warm water, and then we held it for a while to help raise its temperature. Eventually, we saw another dog, one that we had hoped would be its mother. She made eye contact with our puppy and her ears pricked up. We put the puppy on the ground, and instantly, it took on new life, running over to the mama dog, snuggling it and eventually trotting off side by side down the stone path.
I had done my good deed for the day. Back to bed.
November 25, 1996
We slept pretty late and had a dull breakfast. The restaurant at the Tamil Nadu Beach Resort was horrendous, largely because of its indifferent service. As a state-run hotel, it doesn’t worry much about putting the best foot forward, because no matter what, they’ll still get subsidized. The staff was slow and lazy, and only tried their best when they wanted to get us to exchange dollars through them or to arrange a private taxi. While at $20 a night, the resort was still a good deal, but its employees left an awful taste in my mouth.
We walked down the beach in the rain. It was a light sprinkle most of the time, so we didn’t need to use our umbrellas for the most part. The cold rain actually felt good in the humidity and 90 degree morning temperature. Susanne commented on how strange she felt needing an umbrella on a beach. Being a Floridian who lived less than a mile from the shore, I just felt like I was at home during the late summer rains. We paused for a couple of Cokes at the Luna Magica restaurant, a new place that had just opened on the north end of the beach. We didn’t get any meals, but still enjoyed the cozy atmosphere. A fisherman who was temporarily marooned because of the rough seas entered the restaurant and nonchalantly joined us at our table. At first I assumed he wanted us to change money or something, but he turned out to be a really nice guy who just wanted to talk and practice his English. He was about 25, very thin, and extremely dark, with short curly black hair and thick eyebrows – classic Tamil features, I thought. We talked about the monsoon, fishing, and of course, that perennial favorite topic, the weather in America.
As noon passed we left the restaurant and headed down a small street into town. We followed the sounds of a drum and horn ensemble that was playing up-tempo Tamil music. We were curious to see what the celebration was all about. After snapping a few shots of the band as they stood on a street corner, I noticed that to their right was a lean-to attached to a stone and mud hut. There was a group of four or five women in a circle, sobbing and wailing, and in the center of the circle lay a withered body wrapped in garlands of flowers. We had stumbled into a funeral. I was so embarrassed. It wasn’t that I minded walking through the street as the funeral got under way – lots of locals were doing just that as well. I just felt awful about how we approached, cameras planted on our faces, snapping away at the band. I hope no one noticed us. We proceeded across the street and were largely ignored by the families in attendance.
We returned once again to Arjuna’s Penance, hoping to get a better look at the details of the bas-relief. There was a break in the rain which was nice, but the thick clouds continued to loom overhead, thus once again preventing me from getting any good pictures. The first thing most people probably notice about the Penance is the herd of large elephants on the right panel of the bas-relief. The two adult elephants were life-size, and they dominated the panel. But just below them, you could make out baby elephants as they played, nursed, and even yawned. The realism undertaken by the creators of the Penance is just stunning. I also could make out dreadlocked sadhus smoking hash. One of them was reaching towards the sky, and his ribs protruded under his emaciated flesh. Not far from him, a woman washed her hair in a steam. The relief also had its share of gods, goddesses and epic heroes, but its portrayal of everyday people and animal life was what impressed me most. I’m glad we returned for a second look. There was so much to see, it would have been a shame to have given it only a single chance.
The rains picked up again, but undaunted, we returned to the granite hill behind the Penance in order to explore the small shrines and temples that had been carved into its rear face. On the far west side we found a semi-flooded dirt path that appeared to encircle the entire hill, se we decided to follow it. About half way round, the rains really came down on us, se we took shelter in a shrine whose stone inner sanctum provided ample refuge for us. From inside our 7th century hiding space, we could see a large flooded plain and hundreds of palm trees in the distance. I really began to appreciate what the monsoons were all about as we sat there, watching and listening to the storm.
We remained in the temple cave for a while until the rain let up, and then continued down our mud path. The large pond next to the path was full of frogs, and we stood by its shore for a brief time, watching the amphibians leap through the water and splash around. On the other side of the path, small trees and bushed served as the home for a variety of butterflies. We actually tried to get a few close-up pictures of them. It was an interesting challenge – all the good butterflies would flutter about as soon as you got close, while the plain and ordinary ones seemed more than happy just to sit there on a branch and strike a pose for the camera.
At an intersection in the road, we were approached by a young man. I figured he was just another stone carver trying to sell his goods, but nevertheless, I didn’t shoo him away. He decided to start a conversation with us. As I suspected, he was indeed a stone carver, and he claimed he had studied Italian marble carving in Europe. He soon invited us to his studio at his house down the street to see his work. He said time and time again our visit would be “not business” and “only for fun.” I seriously doubted this, but then again, it was our first invite to a village home and I was willing to put up with a hard sell just to get the experience.
We walked further down the path, past the lighthouse and an ancient Shiva that stood on the peak of the granite hill. We then weaved through a series of mud and stone huts, naked children, and women washing clothes, before we reached his house. It was a small brick structure, very modest, but quite clean. He asked us to remove our shoes; neither of us felt too hot about it, but once we did take them off, we only had to step around the corner to reach his studio. Inside it were dozens of granite and marble statues, most of them Hindu gods, each no more than six inches high. The workmanship was truly incredible – you could see the tuning knobs on Saraswati’s sitar, or a long string of pearls that were frozen in a wind-blown pose around Parvati’s neck. As we admired his work, he then began to quote prices, mostly $40 and up. Ouch. If they had been ten bucks each, perhaps, well I might have considered buying one or two. But at these prices, no way. We politely declined, yet he continued to pitch. After a few minutes of these pressure tactics, we stepped outside and put on our shoes. As we tried to leave, he began a typical Indian merchant guilt trip, to which I responded, “Look, you said over and over that this was ‘not business, only fun.’ I agreed. Now you are breaking your promise to us.” This really ticked him off, but at least he gave up, turned around and went back into his house.
Susanne and I continued onward to the Shiva Temple. It was perched high above us on the granite hill’s peak, almost parallel to the top of the lighthouse’s observation platform 100 yards away. Like most of Mahabalipuram’s ancient structures, the temple itself was from the Pallavan period, 7th to 8th century, but was much more worn away than the other temples in town. We admired the view from the top, but the temple’s rock floor was wet from the rain, and I didn’t feel very comfortable with the traction. So as the winds picked up, we took it as a sign to get back on flat ground. We headed down and started to make our way back to central Mahabalipuram.
On our way to town, that stone carver guy walked by us. I didn’t realize it was him at first, until he said, “Go back to your hotel and listen to the BBC. Cyclone is on its wait. It will hit Mahabalipuram tonight.” He then walked off. What? We had heard no news about a cyclone, which are the monsoon season’s answer to hurricanes. And not unlike hurricanes, they don’t just pop up overnight. But just a few weeks earlier, the worst cyclone in 10 years ravaged the coasts of Andhra Pradesh and northern Tamil Nadu, killing thousands, so we were well aware of the dangers. Assuming he was telling the truth, there was little we could do about it, so we decided to go eat and ask the people at the restaurant if they had heard any news about a storm.
We ate at a nice veg restaurant at a hotel in town. The maitre d’ assured us that no cyclone was on its way. This only infuriated Susanne. “How dare that jerk tell us that!” she said.
(a side note: two weeks after returning from India, I read a story on the CNN website about a huge cyclone that was battering Bangladesh. The report said the storm had formed two weeks earlier in the south, off the coast of Tamil Nadu, and then abruptly turned north to Bangladesh, and was now heading south again. So perhaps that stone carver was indeed telling the truth. Who’s to say…)
We ended up eating a huge dosa platter, and later, some ice cream. I would live to regret it, though. Back at the hotel, I felt like crap and went to bed.
November 23, 1996
The Old Kenilworth didn’t serve breakfast, of course, so by 8:30 or so we were at the New Kenilworth – a modern hotel down the street. They had a price fixe breakfast for three dollars a person, all you can eat buffet. It was more than we normally spent in India for food, but it was worth every rupee, since we could safely enjoy juices and fruit, along with everything else. Before we left the New Kenilworth, I made arrangements with the doorman to watch our bags for the afternoon – the Old Kenilworth would charge us RS50 per bag, which was outrageous. Before going to check out and get our packs, we first headed to south Calcutta to visit the great temple of Kali, the Kalighat.
Kalighat is the namesake of Calcutta, and is its most important temple. We reached it by taking Calcutta’s metro – the only metro in all of India. It was eerily reminiscent of Boston’s T system, except this one had the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore scrawled on the walls. From the Kalighat metro stop, we walked up and along Temple Road, which was filled with pilgrims and merchants who bought and sold goods of all kinds, from walking sticks to sunscreen to even small goats for sacrifice. The temple itself was surrounded by dozens of stalls which were linked together in a series of covered markets. Thousands of Hindus were queuing up to enter the sanctum sanctorum of the Temple. Since we weren’t allowed there anyway, we entered through a minor gate which brought us into the main inner courtyard. We couldn’t get inside any further, but we were at least in the middle of the action now.
Sadhus were pacing all over the place, begging for alms and smoking enormous quantities of dope. Men sheathed in orange garlands stood transfixed in front of mini-shrines of Kali. Women marked each other with fresh tikas. Such commotion, in every direction. Photography was strictly limited to certain areas, but we still managed to get some shots of some pilgrims. I got a great close-up of a sadhu – I’m really pleased with it. We then saw a large crowd gathered around a small walled enclosure. A woman was pouring water onto three small goats which were tied to Kali shrines. A man walked in, wielding a large scimitar. It was time for the morning goat sacrifice. Susanne didn’t want to have anything to do with it, and when I saw the size of the sword and heard the goats begin to shriek, I figure that was enough for me. I could leave the rest of it to my imagination.
We briefly explored the market stalls surrounding the temple before crossing the street to Mother Theresa’s Home for the Dying Destitute, a hospice for Calcutta’s dalit population. Susanne wanted to make a donation, so we entered and found a room with several dozen beds, most of which were filled with emaciated, gravely ill Untouchables. A group of sisters told Susanne that they couldn’t accept traveler’s checks here, so we had had to spare cash rupees in order to give. After leaving a donation, we returned to the Old Kenilworth to check out, making a quick stop at the local KLM office to reconfirm our flights to Amsterdam and Washington. We dropped our bags at the New Kenilworth and then walked through the Chowringee neighborhood to the maidan, Calcutta’s central park.
Our first stop was St. Paul’s Cathedral. Not an impressive cathedral by European standards, but a fascinating place nonetheless, especially considering its location in the heart of south Asia. So we made our way to our next destination, across the street at the southern end of the maidan – the Victoria Memorial. The memorial is a massive marble monster of a tribute to the good queen and Empress of India, who died in 1901 after decades of British rule. It reminded me of an English version of the Reichstag or something. We made a circuit around the memorial, trying to stay cool under the hazy, oppressive Calcuttan sun. Eventually, we retreated inside the memorial, where we were moderately entertained by a lackluster museum on the rise and fall of the British Raj.
The museum grew old fast so we started the walk north through the maidan up to Sudder Street, which was where the Fairlawn hotel was located. The maidan was an odd place – wide gravel paths, fields of grass, gardens, memorials, and fountains, with highrises looming in the distance. Susanne and I agreed that it was a dusty and humid clone of Grant Park in Chicago. Very strange. As we walked along, we passed what appeared to be a military ceremony welcoming some brigadier general as commander of some division. It seemed quite British, with all of the pomp and circumstance, though one group of soldiers were parading around on short stilts. Further afield, we saw match after match of cricket. Whether it was a bunch of ragtag kids using tree limbs as bats, or a club of young professionals in freshly pressed uniforms, the cricket matches dominated the activities on the maidan. I just wish I understood how the bloody game was played.
We crossed east back into the northern end of Chowringee to reach Sudder Street. After a brief search, we found ourselves back at the Fairlawn. Since we couldn’t stay, we figured we’d at least stop by for some tea or even lunch. After the concierge from the night before recognized us, we were soon greeted by the hotel’s owner, Violet, and her husband. She profusely apologized for the mixup. She then said if she had been there the night before, she would have physically prevented us from going to the Old Kenilworth. “It’s a disgrace,” she lamented. “50 years ago, it was a jewel of a hotel, but when the owner died, her daughter Joyce inherited it and hasn’t bothered to fix any of it since. She’s ruined it by letting it fall apart. A disgrace.” We talked for a while over a cold drink, and she then suggested we stay for lunch, which would be served in about 20 minutes (a uniformed waiter would announce lunch by banging a small gong – how quaint).
At the sound of the gong, we sat with an English couple from Yorkshire who had been traveling around India for two months. They had just returned from a lovely stay at the beach resort of Kovalam, on the southwestern coast in Kerala state. They strongly suggested we go if we got the chance. We were then joined by a fascinating older gentleman from Ireland named Andy. He looked as if he were in his late 70s, his face weathered and unshaven – oddly reminiscent of Timothy Leary in his last year. Andy had ben traveling to India regularly since 1964, and talked at length about Varanasi and the cities of Tamil Nadu. Susanne mentioned she was from Chicago, and Andy said that he had worked with Frank Lloyd Wright in the 1940s. He had traveled the US extensively (probably more than we had), back in the days when “you could hitchhike your way for weeks at a time through Arizona, trading places with the driver and taking shifts while one of you would steer while the other would hold the loaded pistol – just in case…”
Andy was a great fan of the States: “Even though it’s changed much over the last 50 years, it’s still a place where strangers will help another person in need when they really need it.” This, he added, was quite unlike India, where he thought, that there was little regard for human life, sadly. He cited the suffering of street lepers in Calcutta, and how they are ignored by everyone as an example. Andy also discussed the short-sightedness of Jawaharlal Nehru and Muhammad ‘Ali Jinnah when they decided to partition the subcontinent into Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan. “It was the greatest and most foolish political tragedy of the century,” he lamented. “India has never recovered from it. It probably never will. They were arrogant men and their countries paid for it.” Lunch, desert, and tea were long gone by this point, but Andy kept talking. He was wise and reflective on history, and loved to argue over the course of events – I respected that. As we finally departed, he said, “Andy, Susanne, my dear, if we ever meet again, and I hope we do, I may no longer be able to remember your names, but I promise that your faces and this conversation will be committed to memory. I promise you that.” Upon these words, he put on his hat and walked away.
We lingered a while longer at the Fairlawn, sitting in the sunny garden courtyard. I couldn’t believe we were in Calcutta. I had expected a city as dismal as Delhi, but instead, I’ve found it to be a relaxed, cultured, and dignified place, with wide boulevards and green gardens. Of course, poverty ran rampant around the city, but yet there was still something in the air which had everyone smiling. I always thought the nickname “The City of Joy” was a joke. It certainly isn’t.
Back at the New Kenilworth, we picked up our bags and taxied over to Dum Dum Airport (whose name comes from the local Dum Dum Barracks, where the infamous dumb-dumb bullets were made). Leaning over to pull my backpack out of the trunk, I hit my head on the trunk door, right on a rusty corner. Good thing my tetanus shot was up to date, because it was a nasty gash. We then entered the domestic terminal – a clean, modern facility that was by far the nicest airport in India. Check-in and security was a breeze, and there was plenty of time for me to wash clean my new wound. We then wrote in our journals as we waited, until the plane was ready to depart. We left on time, just before 6pm.
It was pouring rain when we arrived in Madras, just after 8 o’clock. Unlike the rest of the subcontinent, which had tried out the month earlier, Madras and Tamil Nadu state were just hitting the peak of their second monsoon of the season, averaging about half an inch of rain a day. Because of the storm, the taxi drivers all wanted to charge us an extortionate RS250 for the trip to our hotel, the Broadlands. There wasn’t much we could do about it, so we grabbed a cab and headed north. It rained on and off throughout the drive, but when we pulled into the street that led to the Broadlands, the driver told us to get out and walk because the street was too flooded for him to drive down it. Soaked to the bone, we slogged our way through the running rapids that had once been a street til we entered the hotel.
Once there, we were lucky in the sense that we got the last available room. Then again, we were unlucky in the sense that the rooms improved as the number of the room increased, and we were stuck with Room 1. It was dirty, damp, and the toilet wreaked. It was only five dollars for the night, but I was beginning to question how LP goes about choosing hotels for recommendation. Susanne and I were both in a pissy mood from the rain and the lousy accommodations. We decided then and there to get outta Dodge as early as possible the next day and head south to Mahabalipuram, the small fishing village and beach resort famous for its 7th century temples. It may be raining there, we figured, but at least we might get some peace and quiet.
November 22, 1996
At 8am, Susanne was well enough to join me for breakfast downstairs. I took this as a very positive sign. The Tibetan woman at the restaurant was very pleased to see Susanne up and around. Susanne thanked her for all of her help. As we ate we talked about sending her something from America as a thank you present – she certainly deserved it.
After breakfast, we began our last mad dash shopping spree in Thamel. Susanne had seen a sweater she liked and she wanted to go back and buy it. I desperately needed some t-shirts for my family. We went back and forth between all of the major t-shirt shops on Thamel’s main drag. It was obvious there was some collusion going on between the shops, because every shirt carried the same price from store to store, and bargaining was next to impossible. I eventually bought three shirts for my brother and parents, as well as one for myself. Susanne got that sweater she had liked – it fit perfectly. I also grabbed a nice long wool scarf in the sweater shop – at three dollars, a good deal, I thought.
At our final stop, Susanne had her eye on a beautiful leather shirt and a vest for her mom. The Kashmiri shopowner drove a hard bargain, but he eventually settled with her for a reasonable deal. There was a bit of confusion over the exchange rate, but that only delayed us for a few minutes. Back at the hotel, we packed up our bags. The backpacks appeared as though they were about to burst, thanks to our free spending. But I was pretty sure that by this point we had purchased as much as we had planned to for the entire trip, so our lack of any more room in our bags was of little consequence. My only problem was that Kashmiri papier mache plate – it wasn’t safe for packing, so I’d have to carry it by hand for the next week. Ah well – vita brevis, ars longa…
We said our goodbyes to our friends at the hotel restaurant and left for the airport around noon. When we reached the terminal, though, I realized that our flight was scheduled at 3:40, not 2:40. This gave us an extra hour to kill at the overpriced airport lounge. Eventually, though, we checked in and went through the efficient immigration process. This left us in the departure lounge for a couple of hours. I was concerned that our flight wasn’t listed on the departure monitors, but the airport staff assured me that there was indeed a flight to Calcutta, and that it would be listed as soon as the flight arrived at the airport. So it was running late, and there was nothing I could do except relax, watch CNN and write in my journal. Our plane arrived at 4pm and our new departure time was set for 5pm. I didn’t like the thought of arriving in Calcutta so late in the evening – our reservations at the Fairlawn Hotel had been for the day before (it was screwed up because of that cancelled flight) and we were unable to call from Nepal, so we’d have to keep our fingers crossed.
As we taxied along the tarmac, we caught a spectacular view of Bodnath stupa with Ganesh Himal soaring in the background. The sun was setting so it was particularly enchanting. I was also quite glad to see Bodnath one last time, especially as my last view of Kathmandu on the ground. We had wanted to go back to the stupa one last time before we left, but Susanne’s illness prevented us from making it back. Seeing it was we coursed the runway was a special moment.
But our wonderful views were only beginning. We took off facing east, and once in the air, the plane made a slow 360-degree turn before heading southeast to Calcutta. This circle offered us a tremendous above-the-clouds view of the Himalayas – we could easily see from one end of Nepal to another. And with the sun so low in the sky, the shadows that reflected off each jagged peak were particularly breathtaking. As we made our final turn to the south, we got what we had been waiting for – a view of Mount Everest. We recognized it immediately. Though it’s set back further north than the surrounding peaks, its profile was unmistakable. For a brief time earlier that day, I had regretted our decision not to take a special mountain flight at $100 each just to see Everest. Well, the sight of the world’s highest mountain as we departed Nepal did more than make up for it. We had now seen Everest and the entire Himalayas, all aglow from the setting sun in the west. I was content.
The flight to Calcutta took a little over an hour, and we were on the ground by 6:30pm. Immigration and customs were a snap, but our luggage took a bit longer than I would have preferred. We hired a prepaid taxi for RS100, but our driver, a slimeball named Mr. Singh, said the drive to Calcutta would take at least two hours, but that he knew a shortcut that would take less than an hour, if it was worth it to us. Obviously, this guy was trying to scam more money just to take the regular route to town, but I told him to just get us there quickly. If there were any problems with him liking my tip, tough luck. He then took off like a madman, swerving through traffic and driving in breakdown lanes. Twice he had to slam on the breaks to avoid hitting trucks (“No problem, no problem…”) He also wouldn’t shut up. We finally got to the Fairlawn, at which point I gave him RS50 extra and walked away. He started to yell at me in Bengali, but I ignored him.
The Fairlawn is a lovely green Victorian establishment run by the same English family since the 1930s. I had heard great things about it, so I hoped we’d still be able to get in for the night, even though our reservations were for the night before. Perhaps playing ignorant would be enough. Unfortunately, my luck ran out at the reception desk. Full booked, no exceptions. I played it up by pretending that our reservations were supposed to have been for that night, and that there must have been a mixup. No dice. There were no rooms left, so we’d have to stay elsewhere. The reception clerk was nice enough to make some phone calls for us, and we asked him to ring up the Old Kenilworth Hotel to see if they had any room. They most certainly did. The LP guide recommended it as an aging mansion full of character, and with an eccentric English/Indian proprietress, a Mrs. Joyce Purdy. We decided to give it a go.
Outside the Fairlawn we tried to hail a cab, but none would accept us for less than 60 rupees- an outrageous fare considering the short distance we had to travel. Then, a rickshaw-wallah approached us on foot and offered us a ride at 30 rupees. Susanne and I looked at each other, dumbfounded – have an old rickshaw-wallah walk us to the hotel with all of our bags? We had previously talked about Calcutta’s rickshaws, one of the last bastions in South Asia where these poor skinny men actually pulled a giant rickshaw while they ran on foot. Susanne had said she found it to be a humiliating profession and didn’t want to patronize is. I too had serious reservations with it, but I concluded that this is how they make our living, and I’d be sure to give him a generous tip for his troubles (besides, Susanne would kill me if I gave the guy anything less than 50 rupees). So, we decided to go for it.
We climbed on the rickshaw seat and held our bags tight. The man then lifted the two polls on each side of the rickshaw and began to run, jingling a small bell with his right hand as we went. I immediately thought of the film City of Joy, which takes place here in Calcutta. I always wondered why in the movie the rickshaw-wallah always jingled that damn bell (it was very loud in the film and got annoying after an hour or so). Now I understood – without that damn bell, we’d be squashed by an oncoming TATA truck or some other form of oncoming traffic. Indian drivers use horns as sonar devices, alerting others of their presence, no matter if it’s an emergency or if they’re just passing by. Rickshaws were no exception, so the bell jingles and the rickshaw-wallah’s precious cargo remain unscathed.
We arrived at the Old Kenilworth 15 minutes later. Let me emphasize the word Old in Old Kenilworth – the place was a decrepit, rundown mansion that was creepy as hell and looked like a backdrop from the Addams Family. We were met inside by Mrs. Purdy, the aforementioned eccentric lady discussed in the LP guide. At first, I thought she was from New York or something – she had an odd, un-British accent, and she looked very Italian or even Jewish. I suppose the blend of an English and a Bengali background will do that. We checked in by signing an enormous old registrar’s book that looked like one of those old leather-bound atlases you only see in good libraries. We were given Room 4, a giant suite with antique wood furniture, a vaulted ceiling, and an old-fashioned ceiling fan that hung off a pole that was at least 12 feet long. The room had the potential of being glorious, but the paint was peeling off of the walls, the wood needed a good polishing, and the bathtub, well it just needed to be replaced. No shower for me tonight, thank you very much.
The room was about $30 – typical for big Indian city accommodations. It would have been worth it if the hotel had been kept up, but because of the Kenilworth poor state, I was somewhat frustrated. But it was getting late and we only needed to spend a night there. At least it had character – that much was true.
November 21, 1996
3:30am. Somehow, we managed to get up. Our taxi to Nargakot was to pick us up around 4am. I wanted to leave at 4:30 or even later, but the travel agency that booked the ride for us said that taxis will leave only on the hour, and that 5am would be too late to catch the sunrise. Our driver actually arrived 15 minutes early, but we didn’t head down until the appointed time.
It was cold and dark in Kathmandu as we drove east. Nargakot was well known for having the best views of the Himalaya’s Langtang Range, even though it was a mere 30km east of Kathmandu. Overall, the ride was fairly dull; Susanne commented that it was so dark and nondescript outside that the streets of Kathmandu could have easily passed for a suburb in the U.S. “I think we’re in Downer’s Grove,” she said. I disagreed and said, “Skokie.” Yet as we began the ascent up the small mountain that lead to Nargakot, the ride turned into a series of treacherous hairpin turns which made me feel like I was dangling over the precipice each time we steered left or right. Around and around, higher and higher we went. And the drop down was getting steeper and steeper. I was actually glad it was so dark out – otherwise I would have been scared to death if I could have seen over the edge of the cliffs. Over and over, our driver would pass a truck or a bus on this single lane road, spinning around 300-degree curves, and with a 600 foot drop down at any given moment. Yes, darkness was my friend this morning.
By around 5am we arrived at the top of Nargakot – 8,000 feet above the valley floor. While Susanne hunted for a bathroom with our driver, I climbed up to a large grass and dirt plateau next to a hotel. It was clearly the best viewing point – high in the air, a broad view of the Himalayan horizon, and not much man-made lighting. Thousands upon thousands of starts were in the sky. I hadn’t seen this many stars in years, probably since the last time I spent a weekend in the mountains of northern New Hampshire at my Uncle Jerry’s house. All of Orion was visible to the south. I could also count all of the seven major stars of the Plaeides. And due east, a planet shone brightly, marking the precise spot where the sun would soon appear.
The only problem was the temperature – it was freezing, probably no warmer than 40 degrees. We hadn’t brought our warmest jackets since we planned to trek back to Changu Narayan and then to Bodnath – a six hour walk that would have us hiking through the warmest part of the day. So there I was, on this large hill in the Himalayas, freezing my butt off in a Yale sweatshirt and not much else. I grimly reminisced about our climb to the top of Masada a year ago in the West Bank. It was just as cold that morning, just as windy, and we had no food or water on our pre-dawn ascent. We climbed 1000 feet straight up just to get a view of the sunrise over the Dead Sea. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Susanne got really sick afterwards and it nearly wrecked our last week in Israel. Would this sunrise adventure do the same?
I assumed not. There was no wind to speak of on the hill, so it could have been far less comfortable there. Also, we were smart enough to bring an ample supply of bagels, croissants and mango juice, which would provide much needed energy. I was sure I’d be just fine. But then there was Susanne. She appeared to be getting sick again. The rough ride up the hill had made her carsick, so was very fortunate to have found an open restroom at 5am in the hotel across from our hilltop plateau. She was back up on the hill with me now, though I’m sure the cold and the lack of sleep wasn’t going to make her any better. We now had 90 more minutes to kill before that damn sunrise.
Susanne sat rather quietly, wrapped in a tight bundle. A group of dogs, five of them black and one of them yellow, joined us as well. The black ones appeared to be cold and pissed off at the world, so our driver kept shooing them away with shepherd’s calls every time they got a little too close. The yellow dog, with its long fluffy tail permanently curled over and around its back, looked like some kind of scrawny Siberian mix. It was very friendly, though, and stuck close by us, avoiding the pack of black dogs.
I spent much of the spare time talking with our driver, whose name, unfortunately, I can’t recall. He was a Newari man, about 30, medium height and build, with strong Mongoloid features. I could picture him on horseback riding the Central Asian steppe northwest of Tibet. His English was limited, but he possessed a strong enough vocabulary for us to carry on a conversation. He asked me about where I lived and what the weather was like in different parts of the US. He apparently had a friend in Atlanta, so we talked about the south, Coca Cola, the Olympics, and CNN. I also asked him about Newari culture. He said that they were the original inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley, and that very few of them could be found outside this area. Since the Valley had become a crossroads for several major empires, Newaris intermingled with other ethnic groups, which eventually led to a variety of facial features. He, for example, looked Mongol, but many other Newaris look Chinese or Indian, yet they all still consider themselves Newari.
Newaris, he explained, believe very strongly in community life. They build houses around a shrine or a stupa, thus forming a neighborhood courtyard. This explained the abundance of small squares in the residential neighborhoods of Kathmandu. Other local ethnic groups, like the Tamang and Langtang peoples of Kathmandu’s hill country, tend to live in isolated houses or farms. They also prefer to carry large loads on or around their heads, supported by a think cloth strap, while Newaris transport things by balancing them on two sides of a pole, carried over a shoulder. We had seen both methods quite often in and around the city.
He then asked me if Americans really ate cow meat. I felt guilty saying yes, even though I personally don’t eat red meat. I told him that America was a beef and pork culture, though chicken and fish were also popular. I asked him what other food Newaris wouldn’t eat. Dogs and monkeys were both off limits. Monkeys are the agents of the god Hanuman, while dogs were more of a practical issue – they make good pets and house guards. Cats, interestingly enough, are the ‘dirty’ animals of Newari culture. Nothing is worse than a cat, he said. When I told him that casts were almost as common as dogs as pets in America, he appeared shocked and puzzled as to why on earth we would do such a thing.
The stars had vanished and the sky was a dark blue, which lightened to softer tones as you looked towards the point in the east where the sun would soon rise. The dogs had left the hilltop, but they were soon replaced by a large group of tourists from India. Then came the Germans, the Australians, the French, and then a few Americans. Before long, a group of at least 100 tourists had gathered and were crowding up our once peaceful mountain top. It was like an outdoor cocktail party without the cocktails.
We could now begin to see much of the Himalayas across the northern and eastern horizons. To our left, facing west, the Annapurna Range could just be made out. Much closer to us we could see the Langtang Range, including Gauri Shanker, Ganesh Himal, and Manaslu, which at around 25,000 feet is one of the ten highest mountains in the world. Further to the right, facing almost east, we could barely see the Everest Range. And somewhere, hidden amongst those snow covered peaks was Mount Everest itself, but at this distance, we were unable to tell which was which. Hopefully, our flight to Calcutta would give us a nice view of it. The blue sky lightened even further and then turned almost white, then orange. The sun was still a few minutes away, but the indirect light created marvelous shadowing effects on the eastern face of Ganesh Himal and Gauri Shanker. I took a couple of pictures but decided to hold off on any more shots until sunrise. It was now 6:30am, and still no sun. Rise, dammit! Rise!
Finally, close to 6:55, the sun finally came up a brilliant orange, in what was probably only a matter of seconds. And just as I started to point my camera eastward, everything through my EOS Rebel’s lens went out of focus. This brand new camera had a great autofocus – what was going on? I took the camera away from my face and looked at it. A huge fog bank had spontaneously materialized on top of us! Previously, only the valley below was blanked in pea soup. Now it was on top of us too, and my poor camera (as well as my glasses) were completely soaked with dew. I was really ticked off.
Meanwhile, poor Susanne looked awful. Apparently 24 hours of good health ended abruptly here at Nargakot. We agreed that she was in no condition to walk anywhere from here, so we informed our driver that we’d be joining him on the way back to Thamel. No problem, he said, since we were paying for the round trip just to get there in the first place. We briefly stopped at that tea house Susanne had visited early for a bathroom. The tea was expensive, but hot and delicious. I even broke my no milk rule and enjoyed some hot cream with it, for the tea was so dark if tasted thicker than black coffee. The fog had diminished by this point, so we took a few more pictures outside before beginning the 50-minute drive back to town. I hadn’t expected driving down those hairpin turns again, but after the yummy tea, I was calm and relaxed. We drove through Bhaktapur before reaching the hotel around 8am.
Susanne wisely went to be while I visited the restaurant for a hot bowl of porridge and more tea. When I returned upstairs, the phone rang. Who on earth could that be? No one knows where we’re staying. It was the tour agent who arranged our ride to Nargakot. He said, “There is a problem, please come to my office.” I asked him to tell me what the problem is over the phone. He refused. I figured he was trying to take advantage of the fact that we had gotten our money’s worth out of the return fare by going both ways instead of one – less commission for him. Since he probably figured I’d give him money if he could confront me behind closed doors, I told him that if he couldn’t explain the problem over the phone, then clearly there was no serious problem, was there? Once again, he refused to explain it. Have a nice day, I said, and hung up. What a jerk.
Susanne continued to sleep, so I headed out for a couple of hours to shop in Thamel. Didn’t find anything too exciting. I returned to the room around noon to see how Susanne was doing. She wasn’t getting sick or anything, but looked very tired. I suggested that we go for a walk to sit in a garden and eat some tea and toast. We went to Le Bistro in Thamel again, but by the time we got there, I realize that it had been a terrible idea. Susanne looked white and sweaty, walking almost in a daze. “I’m having headspins,” she said. I knew immediately that the headspins were being caused by dehydration, just as if she had a serious hangover. Unfortunately, it was because she had thrown up so much she wasn’t retaining any fluids. I’d have to get her to a doctor if I didn’t do something quickly. I got her back to the hotel, where she got very upset, saying that she thought she had ruined the whole trip by being so ill. I assured her that this was crazy, and I’d stay with her as long as it took to get her back on track so she’d be able to enjoy the rest of our stay. But first, I needed to find rehydrating salts, so I went on a hunt for a health clinic.
I discovered a clinic just behind the hotel, as it happened. After I described the symptoms, the nurse there agreed with me that Susanne needed to be rehydrated, and that this was probably her principal problem. I bought several packets of electrolyte solution, enough to make five liters of the stuff, and returned to the hotel. I gave Susanne a liter of the solution and told her if she didn’t drink it, she’d just have to be sick for the rest of the trip. I didn’t like giving her the tough love treatment, but she was tired and being stubborn about drinking. The only way she’d get better was if she would drink two to three liters of the solution a day, so I laid down the law and described what would happen if she didn’t rehydrate herself.
We spent the afternoon and early evening at the hotel, resting, talking, and drinking plenty of fluids. The mineral solution was having profound effects – Susanne was no longer disoriented, she could keep food down, was relaxed, and could sleep without sweating through her sheets. She also started a three day regimen of Cyproflaxin, an antibiotic her doctor had given her for emergencies. This, we decided, was an emergency. The combination of therapies seemed to do the trick, and by 8pm, she was ready to eat some rice – which I had brought up to the room, of course. The Tibetan woman who ran the restaurant was only happy to bring food and other supplies up for Susanne. Every time I saw her downstairs, she’d ask how my ‘wife’ was doing. I assured her she was better, and that her kindness was most appreciated.
We ate our rice and went to bed early. It wasn’t exactly the way I wanted to spend my last full day in Kathmandu, but all things considered, we had to count our blessings. The city had been very good to us, and even though Susanne got very sick, Kathmandu was a great place to recuperate. Hopefully she’d be feeling well enough to walk around the next morning before our flight to Calcutta.
November 20, 1996
When I awoke around 8am, Susanne was already getting out of bed, much to my surprise. Apparently her fever had broken and she hadn’t gotten sick in the night. This was quite a relief. We ate breakfast – my usual porridge and sundries while Susanne braved a pancake as her first real meal in days. I told her about the interesting walk I had taken the day before, so we decided to go back so she could see some of the sights as well. The markets south of Thamel were crowded as always, though this time I noticed more spice dealers setting up impromptu shops on the street corners. Since it was still early in the morning, the sun had yet to rise to a point that would make picture taking desirable, so we left our cameras alone for a bit and enjoyed sights and smells of Asan Tole.
We continued to the Sweta Machhendranath temple, the Hindu/Buddhist shrine that had entranced me so much the day before. Today, instead of finding old men chanting through puja ceremonies, we saw a group of seven or eight kids who were horsing around on the smaller statues and chaityas. Significantly more merchants were there as well, mostly selling flowers, rice and other offerings. The swarm of pigeons was still hovering over the same spot, as they were fed diligently by the same man from the day before who threw pints of rice and corn into the air. The iron cage that surrounded the main temple was quite deserted, so we decided to go inside for ourselves to take a look around. Why this metal fence enshrouded the shrine, I’m not sure, but as we walked around, the intricate molding of the iron caused hundreds of detailed shadows to play tricks off of the temple’s walls. A small statue of Machhendranath stood at the front and center of the temple. It looked like a four-armed Buddha. Prayer wheels were mounted in the inner frame of the iron cage, so we spun the wheels as we walked clockwise around the temple.
At the end of the circuit was a blind monk holding a large brass bowl. I politely placed a five rupee coin inside of it. On my next circuit around the temple, though, a Newari woman who was walking ahead of me approached the monk, reached into the bowl, and pulled out a handful of rice, which she promptly tossed into the charcoal fires that burnt next to the Machhendranath statue. The monk wasn’t a beggar after all – I felt so dumb. In a funny sort of way, I consoled in the fact that the monk was blind, so at least he wouldn’t be able to see who this naive American tourist was.
We continued south to Durbar Square. A small family of rhesus monkeys was hanging out on a wooden shrine just next to Nasal Chowk, the old palace square. The papa monkey, big, fat and slow, roamed where he pleased, stirring through trash bins and scaring the hell out of the local pigeons. Two mama monkeys watched after their rambunctious youngsters, who squeaked a lot and hung off of anything on which they could get a good grip. One of the mama monkeys had a lame hand, and was in a pretty bad mood. Two Nepalese schoolkids kept taunting it by rushing back and forth in its direction. The monkey would show its teeth and even charge at them. Personally, I rooted for the monkey.
After taking a quick peak into the Kumari’s courtyard to see if the living goddess was around (she wasn’t), we crossed east into Basantapur Square to the large souvenir flea market. I started to look at some Tibetan prayer books – handwritten rice paper manuscripts loosely bound by two blocks of carved wood. I found one remarkable specimen that contained ten separate rice paper panels, about 5″x16″ each. I asked the merchant how much it would cost. He said “$140 dollars – very old.” “140 bucks! Outrageous!” I retorted, and started to walk away. He then grabbed me by the shoulder and began what was to be a long, drawn out haggle. After 15 minutes of serious fun, I purchased the prayer book for $30. Who knows what it was really worth, but to me, it certainly deserved 30 dollars just as a cool keepsake. It’s a remarkable piece of art and I’m really glad I got it, though I have yet to figure out how on earth I’ll get it framed.
Susanne wanted to briefly check out Freak Street. We were just north of it, so we took a quick walk. I, thanks to my habitual morning pot of hot tea, needed to find a restroom, so we stopped at the Oasis Cafe to take advantage of their facilities and, of course, get another pot of tea. In retrospect, it would have been faster for me to have just run into the closest guest house, acting as if I were a guest there, and then gone to their bathroom, since every cheap guest house has at least one shared restroom on each floor. But hey, this was a chance for more tea, and I was not one to turn down such a chance. Even though tea would just lead to more bathroom stops. Ah, who cares – I shouldn’t dwell on such endless cycles. That’s what god invented Buddhist monks and koans, I guess.
We finished our mint tea and Sprite and cut through Basantapur to the southwest corner of Durbar Square. Here we found the enormous wooden pagoda, the Kasthamandap Temple. Kasthamandap is one of the oldest pagodas in Kathmandu – so old, in fact, that the city derived its very name from it. Susanne and I spent a few minutes admiring the pagoda, and then decided to begin a walking tour of the southern side of Kathmandu. Before we got started, though, a tall blonde man approached us and asked somewhat sheepishly, “Are you as lost as I am?” I showed him where we were on his map. He was Canadian and was just passing through Nepal after a six-month gig in Australia. We asked him what he did for a living and he said he was “a vet,” at which point I had a vision of this lanky Edmontonian diving for cover in the Australian bush. Of course, he was really an animal doc, but the image was pretty funny. Anyway, he had literally just arrived in Nepal that morning and had seen nothing in Kathmandu, so we sent him packing northeast to the rest of Durbar Square. Meanwhile, Sus and I headed south and walked a long circle that took about 90 minutes to complete.
The communities south of Durbar Square were typical Kathmandu – courtyards of Newari neighbors that appeared quite poor, yet teemed with life and activity. There were a few small temples and stupas along the way, but all in all, this was a residential walk. Eventually, we completed the circuit and found ourselves back at Kasthamandap. I was about to make a comment about our Canadian friend being lost in the alleyways north of Durbar, but I looked ahead of me and saw him, standing exactly where we had first found him. I asked what had happened, and he said had spent the time around Durbar and was now trying to figure out how to head west to the stupa at Swayumbunath. Once again, we pointed him in the right direction and sent him on his merry way. We haven’t seen him since.
We walked back through Jyatha and into Thamel, having lunch at our hotel. Being the healthy one, I wanted to venture off elsewhere for lunch, but Susanne, being the recovering one, called the shots and insisted we stuck with what we knew would be safe. After eating, we decided to go shopping. First, we’d need to cash some traveler’s checks, but before we could do that, one of the boys from the hotel came up to us and said he needed our passports. The hotel had sent him to reconfirm our flights, but apparently the airline office needed to see our passports with our tickets. He headed off to finish the job, passports in hand, but this left us waiting in the lobby for some time, writing postcards and working on our journals. I also read some entertaining anti-Chinese propaganda published by some pro-Tibetan movement. 30 minutes later, the boy returned with our passports and tickets. We tipped him and got ready to shop.
While I normally don’t consider myself an avid shopper, it’s hard to resist the hundreds of stalls and stores around Thamel – an endless Filene’s Basement of cheap wool, rugs, art, and random souvenirs. Thamel is a crossroads of so many cultures that you can buy practically anything here, from Tibetan thangkas to Swiss army knives, all at great prices. First we visited a Kashmiri shop to find a shawl for Susanne. Because of the recent violence at home, many Kashmiris have moved their businesses to Nepal and now appear to be doing quite well. Susanne found her shawl while I fell in love with a large papier mache place that had been hand painted with an incredible Mughal-era seen of a royal hunting expedition. At $50 dollars, it was a treasured find. I just hope I can find a way of getting it home in one piece.
Next stop: clothes. I had wanted to get a light Nepalese windbreaker or perhaps a good wool sweater. There were many items to choose from at every shop. At one store we found several cheap jackets, all ranging from about $5 to $25. The more expensive ones were really amazing, but after feeling the fabric I began to question their durability. I then found a heavier, multicoloured jacket from the kingdom of Bhutan. It almost looked Andean in its many patterns and colors. I asked the store owner how much he wanted for it. He said $40. Once again, I began haggling with the man, and eventually was able to buy the jacket, along with an incredible green and white vest, for about $20. Another shopping success.
Susanne still needed some gifts for her family, so we found a small sweater shop in the heart of Thamel. Susanne saw a nice cardigan for her mom, cheap at around $14. I of course wanted to haggle, but the owner of the shop had a horribly cleft lip, and I could tell Susanne felt bat about negotiating with this poor man over a couple of measly bucks. She bought it for $13. My last purchase of the evening was a Tibetan prayer wheel. I found a style I liked at an open-air stall. The seller quoted a price of $30. All the stalls next to him had the same style of prayer wheel, so I went down the row, quoting the previous seller’s price just to see how low I could haggle. I was doing well until I got the price to about eight bucks. It would go no further, so I bought it and proudly claimed victory (even though it probably cost less than 50 cents to make).
After dinner, we hung out at the hotel, admiring our purchases and trying to figure out how we’d be able to pack it all. Then it was off to bed. Tomorrow morning, we’re being picked up by a taxi at 4am to take us to the remote hill town of Nargakot, an hour east of Kathmandu. It supposedly had the best morning views of the Himalayas in the valley. But 4am? Ugh…
November 19, 1996
Our alarm went off at 8am. I was feeling significantly better; unfortunately, Susanne appeared significantly worse. She wasn’t able to keep down even the piece of dry toast she had for breakfast, while I successfully (and somewhat guiltily) scarfed down a full course meal. Because of Susanne’s condition, it was pretty clear that she was in no shape to wander about just yet. So I agreed to head out on my own for a couple of hours and then check back in at 1pm to see how she was doing.
I spent a bit of time in Thamel browsing for potential souvenirs. Lots of ideas, but nothing stood out and screamed at me. I started to head south to Thahiti Tole, one of the many market squares between Thamel and Durbar Square, but instead of continuing down my usual route south to the palaces and pagodas, I hung a left and walked southeast into uncharted territory. The street and its alleyways were similar to the rest of Thamel – lots of trekking shops, t-shirt stalls, thankga galleries, and curious in every window. But after a couple of minutes of walking, the crass commerce died down and a more traditional Asian market atmosphere rolled in. Women sold huge bouquets of flowers (most of them real, of course, but I did spot a silk flower shop); stall after stall offered fine earthenware, brass and iron crockery. A man squatted under a thin doorway, hammering and polishing gold rings held on a wood rod between his feet. Small crowds gathered to watch two young teenagers playing a game of chess, cheering and passing money back and forth each time a player took one of his opponent’s chess pieces, while just across the street, two old men played their own game, in full concentration and bothered by no one.
I slowly strolled the main road, talking it all in as I observed the crowds. The noise level increased steadily the deeper I went, until it peaked at a huge square and intersection. I had found Asan Tole, a major gathering place for commerce and religious ceremonies. Asan Tole is the crossroads for six major streets, always jammed with shoppers, merchants, and worshippers, no matter the time. Situated in the middle of the square was a temple to Annapurna, the goddess of prosperity and abundance. Whether Annapurna brought prosperity to Asan Tole, or Asan Tole brought in Annapurna to celebrate its prosperity, who’s to say. There were also two other temples, both very small. I didn’t recognize the god in one of them, but the other shrine’s elephant-headed deity gave it away instantly as a Ganesh temple.
I stood awhile by a massive spice shop, inhaling the fumes of the essential oils as men used mortars and pestles to grind cumin, tamarind seeds, anise and coriander. Somehow I managed to get into a brief argument with a bicycle rickshaw-wallah who insisted that I had no business walking around on such a nice when I could instead be enjoying his services as my chauffeur for the day. Once he had moved on, I took advantage of the hustle and bustle of the square and took numerous pictures of people going about their business. Vegetable vendors were the easiest target, and only one of them asked for baksheesh in return.
From Asan Tole I headed southwest to Kel Tole, a much smaller square that bustled with activity, despite its size. As I continued, I noticed a gate and a passageway to my right which appeared to lead to some kind of courtyard shrine. I walked in and there in front of me was a magnificently ornate, two-tiered pagoda, guarded by statues on pedestals and a collection of smaller chaitya shrines. A group of eight men were sitting in a semicircle among the pillars and shrines. They were performing a puja of some sort, throwing rice into a wood and charcoal fire. The men were sporting what appeared to be armor-like vests and crowns that distinctly looked like Burger King paper crowns. To the left, three women in saris chatted away while filling several hundred small pottery cups with rice and drops of tika powder. And just behind them, a huge flock of pigeons swooped and swarmed as local devotees through offerings of corn in their direction, which the pigeons would dive for with every handful.
Where on earth was I? I hadn’t read about this place in the LP. I pulled it out as I sat by the pigeons, whose collective wing flapping emanated a surprisingly strong draft. I flipped through LP’s walking tours of Kathmandu and eventually found a map that seemed to coincide with the route I had just taken from Asan Tole. Aha – there on the map I saw a marking for a shrine. I was at the Sweta Machhendranath Temple, a shrine dating back to at least the 16th century, revered by both Buddhists and Hindus, who interpret the statue of a Buddha-like figure on the main pillar as Buddha himself or an incarnation of Shiva, depending on who you ask. I spent a good deal of time at this temple, walking around the shrines and observing the ongoing rituals. I was the only westerner around, and no one seemed to mind my presence. I was even encouraged to take pictures by some of the people there.
Eventually, though, I backtracked to Kel Tole and hung a left toward Kilgal Tole, a rather dull plaza that served as the entry point to a square that supposedly had several points of interest. I entered a large white courtyard, the Yitum Bahal. Compared to the rest of the neighborhoods adjacent to it, Yitum Bahal was deserted. At the far end of the square was a small stupa, on which three young kids were playing. Behind it, a woman sifted grain into large circles. Just to the right of the stupa, I found the entrance to Kichandra Bahal, a small, but ancient courtyard dating back to the early 14th century. There was a minor pagoda inside it, and on the right was a kindergarten where I could see several dozen kids playing and singing with their teachers. Just above the school were brass plaques of the demon Guru Mapa, including a rather hilarious frieze of Mapa eating a small child, literally seizing the kid’s head by his teeth, while a rather surprised-looking mother stood by, helpless. I can only imagine if the teachers at the kindergarten take advantage of this 600-year-old image for reinforcing discipline among the students.
From Yitum Bahal, I took a couple of shortcuts to reach Durbar Square. I had planned to relax for a while here, but I felt some rather unusual rumblings in my stomach, so I figured I’d better high-tail it over to a restaurant with a bathroom, just in case disaster struck. There were no places to go on Durbar Square itself, so at the southern end, I headed east across Basantapur Square, with its flea market assembly of souvenir sellers, and then cut south on Jochne, more commonly referred to as Freak Street. In the 60s, Freak Street was the place for hippies to hang out, listen to western music, and smoke unimaginable amounts of hash. Nowadays it’s a quiet neighborhood, with most westerners having adopted Thamel as their new place of choice for food and shelter (minus the hash shops, courtesy of a 15-year-old crackdown by the government). There are still a few old restaurants and guesthouses here, so I went into the Kumari Cafe to find that bathroom I thought I needed so desperately. But by the time I got there, the pains had subsided, so I sat down in the cafe for another pot of black tea. At first, the restaurant played classical Indian music, which was what attracted me into the place from outside. But just as my tea arrived, they changed the radio station and began to blast bad Nepalese pop music. For the first time in Kathmandu, I didn’t finish my entire pot of tea. The music made me do it.
It was now around 1pm, so I returned to Jyatha at a brisk pace to check on Susanne at the hotel, stopping only for another roll of film and a few more pictures around Asan Tole (the lighting was irresistible). Back at the hotel, Susanne looked like hell. She tried to get dressed for lunch, but gave up and told me to leave and get lunch on my own. I ended up sticking around the hotel, having a bowl of Tibetan egg drop soup on the roof terrace. It was quite good, but I added a dash of Tibetan chili oil, which transformed my pleasant soup from the mildness of the Dalai Lama to the hot-tempered ruthlessness of the Gang of Four. A mistake made, a lesson learned -hot damn!
I returned to the room to give Sus another opportunity to head outside. We had wanted to return to Swayumbunath to be there for the 4pm Buddhist prayer service at the monastery next to the stupa. Susanne said no way and told me to go on my own, which I resisted at first. Again she insisted, so I agreed, shut off the lights once again, and began the trek through Chhetrapati and across the Vishnumati river to Swayumbunath. The climb to the top was much harder then I remembered. Perhaps it was because I was starting my trip up late in the day, with the sun bearing down on me. Anyway, I was popped by the time I reached the stupa at the summit, and I dropped myself by the railing to recover my breath. It was about 3:30pm, and I could hear the monks making a racket in the monastery. I entered the temple and stood in front of their large golden Buddha, who towered a good 10 feet above me. The chanting and music was emanating from behind the Buddha, so I assumed that the ceremony was in a private chamber. Then, about half a dozen Japanese tourists appeared from around the corner. I decided to go from where they came to see what I could find.
The monastery was certainly not designed for tour groups, I soon concluded. It was painfully obvious: around the corner was a long thin corridor, and at its centerpoint stood a door to the right, which led to the main prayer sanctuary. The monks were in the middle of a service there, and a huge group of tourists, mostly Asians, had jammed themselves around the doorway to get a view of the service. I decided it was hopelessly crowded, so I found a another corridor that ran parallel to the sanctuary and positioned myself by a window that opened up into the sanctuary at its midpoint. It would have been the perfect observation spot if it hadn’t been for a thin curtain on the other side of the window that obscured the view. Nevertheless, I stayed for a while to listen and peer between the curtains to watch the monks perform their rites.
Then, I saw the entire tour group enter the sanctuary and walk through its center, taking pictures of the monks with flash cameras. It seemed rather rude, but the monks didn’t even miss a beat. The good news was that the tourists’ intrusion had opened up the space around the main doorway, so I made myself comfortable in the corridor and enjoyed the rest of the ceremony. The monks performed a cycle of activities, starting with a round of low-toned chanting, then a drink of butter tea from large bowls, a blast of horns and cymbals, and then back to more chanting. At one point, they broke out a pair of Tibetan alpine horns, which created tones so low that the floorboards rattled. There were also many young monks in training, probably around 10 years old or younger. Most of them were sitting off to one side, trying to keep up with the chanting. One boy served as a waiter, vigilantly refilling the monks’ bowls with fresh butter tea. Another boy swept the floor, though instead of dragging the broom along the ground, he pushed it ahead, which seemed to make the task more difficult than it needed to be. Perhaps that was the whole point.
It was now well past 4pm. When I returned outside to the stupa, I could see dozens of rhesus monkeys, apparently reclaiming Swayumbunath from the tourists. Being territorial primates, they would screech at people who got too close to their space. At one point I wanted to walk between two chaityas, but when I tried, the monkey who stood guard on one of them showed me her teeth and leaned toward me. None shall pass, apparently. By 5pm, I was growing tired of playing Jane Goodall, so I began the 30-minute walk back to the hotel.
Susanne was half asleep when I arrived, so I sat downstairs for an hour, reading the International Herald Tribune and writing in my journal. When I returned to the room , she was awake and getting dressed, apparently feeling significantly better. Her fever had subsided and she was hungry, so we had dinner downstairs. I had more momo soup and some fried rice, while Susanne stuck with plain rice and lemon tea. I also had a Tibetan desert of hot rice pudding topped with cold custard and raisins. It was very good. The rest of the evening was spent reading, writing and talking about tomorrow’s plans. Considering Susanne’s earlier condition, I was glad to see that the next day was going to have a plan in the first place.
November 18, 1996
We got up before dawn to get a fresh start for the day. Well, at least I did. Susanne’s stomach problems only seemed to worsen as time passed, so while I showered, she stayed curled up in bed, a bottle of Pepto by her side. At first, she told me to go to Pashupatinath and Bodnath by myself. I refused. It was one thing for me to go wander the streets of Kathmandu on my own, but for me to conquer new places while leaving her behind at the hotel, well, that dog don’t hunt. So with a bit of prodding, she acquiesced.
From Thamel, we caught a bicycle rickshaw to Pashupatinath. I figured a slow bike ride wouldn’t unsettle Susanne’s stomach as much as a motorized vehicle would. In that regard, my instincts were correct, but what I misjudged was the hellishness a poor bicycle-wallah would have to endure in order to get us there. The hills that lead to Pashupatinath were so steep, the poor wallah couldn’t peddle up to the top. So we took mercy on him and walked the last several hundred feet, as he turned around and coasted back to Kathmandu.
Pashupatinath is to Nepal as Varanasi is to India – it’s one of the holiest Hindu sites in the subcontinent, and the river that bisects it is used for ritual bathing cremations. Unlike Varanasi, though, Pashupatinath is much smaller and less crowded, and rituals occur on both sides of the riverbanks. The Bagmati river is only 100 feet across at its widest in Pashupatinath, so a series of small bridges allow pilgrims to cross with ease. Most visitors come to see the Temple of Pashupatinath, but like so many other Hindu sites, we non-Hindus weren’t allowed inside. We observed the goings-on from the east side of the river.
On the ghats across from us, five women wailed uncontrollably as they prepared the wrapped corpse of a loved one for cremation. Technically, photography is still allowed here, but I refrained from getting too close to the ceremony. I considered the reverse: if I were about to bury someone and a busload of tourists from Hyderabad pulled over and started to take pictures and videos of my family, I’d be pretty ticked off.
A series of small shrines lead up a hill to the top of Pashupatinath. There was a sadhu sitting by one of them, strategically positioned to get the best photograph (and in turn, the best baksheesh from tourists). I knew he was worth a picture, so I took the shot, at which point he said, “30 rupees.” Unbelievable – in Nepal, that’s two day’s salary for the average person. I gave him five rupees and he glared at me for a minute, but then returned to his peaceful demeanor as soon as the next tourist approached.
At the top of the hill we found more white shrines, many with bells that could ring out for great distances (I tested one while no one was looking). A playful dog followed us around for a bit, but by the time I got out my camera, he became bored with us and left. There was a small squatter’s camp on the hill’s plateau, and behind it we could see a large wooded area. We walked into the woods and looked around – it was a serene, yet strange place, with dusty sunrays falling between the leaves and branches, and a pair of monkeys challenging each other’s territory. The trees were large, knotted and bent. I could imagine Buddha himself sitting under one of the banyan trees, contemplating the road to enlightenment.
Eventually, we returned to the path and headed down the other side of the hill, where we found another temple at the foot of the riverbank. From there, it was about a 30 minute walk to Bodnath, the largest stupa in Nepal and one of the holiest Tibetan sites outside of Tibet. The walk led us through a semi-developed, semi-rural community. Lots of young kids in school uniforms were trotting their way to school. Farmers tended their crops while a group of teenagers played a game of Tigers and Goats (the national game of Nepal) at an impromptu cafe stand. The LP Guide wasn’t very detailed in terms of how to get to Bodnath, so I was a bit concerned that we might be getting lost. Then, dead ahead of us over a hilltop, I could see Bodnath in the distance, its mesmerizing gaze almost pulling us forward.
We continued up the unpaved road for another few minutes until it terminated at a bustling thoroughfare full of rickshaws, goats and Coca-Cola stands. An elaborate metal and wood gate stood across the street, marking the main entrance into Bodnath. The gate led us up a short step path to the stupa itself, over 150 feet high and occupying at least an acre of space.
At the north end of the stupa, we found the main stairwell that would allow us to ascend the three tiers of the stupa’s platform. We walked around Bodnath, its gargantuan white hemispherical body to our right. High up on the stupa I could see several men who appeared to be doing some kind of maintenance work, fastening new streams of prayer flags and tossing buckets of rusty red water that streaked down the side of the stupa, adding flairs of color to its immense whiteness. A monk approached us and asked for a donation to a refugee charity. I have no idea how much money I handed him – I was so absorbed by the experience that he could have probably asked me for a credit card successfully. We made a circle or two around the highest tier of the stupa and then returned to the ground for a climb to the top of a terraced restaurant, the Stupa View. Stupid name, stupendous view. The tea was weak but sat for an hour drawing pictures of Bodnath.
Ever since the Chinese invasion of Tibet, there’s been a large refugee presence in Kathmandu, and many of these refugees settled in the neighborhoods surrounding Bodnath. Because of this, the shops around the stupa were some of the best places to find a solid variety of Tibetan goods and artifacts – albeit at highly inflated prices. We decided to look around and see if they had anything unusual. There were the usual prayer wheels, singing bowls and gurkha knives that you could find everywhere in Nepal, but I eventually found a nice little paper shop, where I bought a handmade notebook just in case I ran out of space in my journal.
We returned to Thamel and had what might have been the worst pizzas on earth at La Dolca Vita. This probably didn’t help Susanne’s stomach, as she almost keeled over in the street. We took a slow pace and walked south through Thamel toward Durbar Square. Susanne had regretted not purchasing a thangka as I had in Patan, so we browsed through several shops until we found one that had a similar selection. We were so impressed with their collection that I ended up buying a second picture along with her.
Once we reached Durbar Square we climbed up the Maju Deval temple, sat ourselves down and began to draw. Susanne tried to capture random individual images, while I attempted to recreate the entire panorama, from the Shiva-Parvati temple all the way to my left to the Kumari Chowk over to my right. During the hour we sat there, numerous kids joined us to check out our work. Most of them were content on watching us draw, while only one or two approached us for “one rupee, one rupee, school pen, or bon bon.” A cute 10-year-old girl taught Susanne the Nepali word for eyes – “akka.”
As the sun began to reach towards the horizon, the temperature plummeted with it, so we returned to the hotel to try to warm up. We got caught in the rush of the late afternoon markets, as hundreds of people bearing fruits and vegetables made their way along the main road and square, Indra Chowk. We stopped at a chemist on a lark to see if they had any Actifed for our cold symptoms – he did, at about 1 rupee per dose. I bought 100. I figured that was more than enough to get both of us through the trip, and they were a steal here compared to the cost of Actifed in the States. There was a tradeoff, though – these pills weren’t coated and tasted absolutely vile. They were so bad we rushed onward to another stall just to buy toffees to get that damn taste out of our mouths.
It’s a slow night at the hotel. After a day like this, I’ll sleep well.