I Think I'm Going to Kathnandu, 1987
In Sickness and In Health - April 1987
After the bus ride from hell debacle (Darjeeling to Kathmandu), we find ourselves in the Nepali capital, taking a much-needed break from the rigours of Third World travel on the cheap.
We stopped at a small cafe for some much need nourishment. We hadn't even begun to fathom this exotic and exciting place. I was still shaking from the near brush with death aboard the 18 hour bus journey and the encounter with thugs and mob behaviour.
Nearby, the famed Freak Street, where young folk had gathered in the late 60's and 70's after the arduous overland Hippy Trail from Europe across Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and India, continued to be as a popular place to stay for young western backpackers.
We decided to seek out a better class of accommodation in the new traveller's centre called Thamel, about a half hour walk from the Freak Street. The streets were packed, mostly Tibetans and Nepalis, with a mix of dark-skinned Indians. Although the scene was colourful and alive, we were totally drained of energy, simply wanting a place to lay our bags and weary bones.
We'd arrived near the end of peak season; most hotels were full. After several starts and stops, we secured inexpensive rooms at the Venus Guest House. Most hotel names were pretty cosmic, since the first western invaders into Kathmandu were the hippies.
As we unpacked in our unspectacular room, we noticed our tent poles were missing; normally attached to Elaine's pack, they must've fallen out when our gear was unloaded from the roof of the bus. We'd carted this tent more than halfway around the world, yet it was useless in Asia, as accommodation was dirt cheap everywhere. But for the European leg of our journey, we'd hoped to save money by camping. Now, all we had was a tent without poles.
We met many old hands who moaned about the coming of yuppies to Nepal. They reminisced about the bad old days; not so long ago, the only way to reach the capital was by the arduous overland trail, much like the one we'd been on. As one of the chief cash crops in Nepal is hashish production, many freaks thought they'd died and gone to heaven.
We soon discovered Kathmandu was one of the most filthy cities on the planet (after a point, how much worse can it get?). As we walked around to better acquaint ourselves with our environs, we passed open sewers reeking of human feces. The locals didn't seem to have any qualms about shitting by the side of the road, joining the holy cows which deposited massive pies in every quarter. Kathmandu was not a good place to wear sandals, because sooner or later, you were gonna step in it.
Down along the main river, which ran through the heart of the city, we were taken aback by the scene. A dead cow's deteriorating carcass was stuck in the mud. The smell emanating from the stream was intense; upstream, bodies were cremated at the ghats, the Hindu practice. And obviously, a lot of human waste went straight into the water, for we could see squatters speckling the banks with their excrement.
Despite this, we noted women washing bright orange carrots and giant beets in the stream, which put us off our dinner.
By the look of the crowd in the many cafes and restaurants, Kathmandu had become an "hot" destination. Many of the travellers seemed to have lots of money, judging by their attire, a different crowd from what we'd experienced to date. The international airport had only recently expanded its runway; jumbo 747's could easily land, bringing the glorious mountains to the masses.
Hash smoking culture was especially lively in the cafes. Kathmandu was one of the world's great food centres to cure the munchies, prices so cheap as to be ridiculous. Menus suggested pastas, lasagnas, filet mignon, Mexican food, pizzas, German foods; and the desserts: cakes, cakes of many flavours, custards, pies, fresh breads, cheeses, etc...
For those of us who'd arrived via the old dusty trail, Kathmandu represented food nirvana. To the Euro's who'd flown in then taxied to their hotels, it was likely blasé. Why couldn't more destinations along the SE Asian trail offer such earthly delights.
It felt like a long time since Koh Samui, feasting on the beach; we found another food paradise in Kathmandu.
We'd been warned food preparation was unsanitary, but our eyes were bigger than our stomachs. Despite many notices in the restaurants and on the menus regarding food "is always washed in iodine(!?!) water," we dined to our hearts content.
Elaine had come down with a head cold, likely due to the dry and dusty conditions in the city. Dust clouds swirled, carrying a millennia of spittle and God knows what else in the air. Many locals took to covering their face with handkerchiefs, to prevent some dust from entering their lungs. Flies were quite common and abundant; who knows where they'd been!
Soon, our entire party became infected with the dreaded Giardia. The only one from our group to avoid it was Ian, whom we figured possesed a cast-iron stomach. Giardia are active bacteria that swim around one's body, creating much sickness and unpleasant experiences at the loo. The disease is accurately described by Stan Armington, in Trekking in the Nepal Himalaya:
“Upper abdominal discomfort, 'churning intestines'', foul smelling burps and farts, and on and off diarrhea are the main characteristics...it seems like it's going away, only to recur in a few days."
He forgot to mention yellow dumps in the loo, which were disgusting. It was necessary to stay within a twenty foot zone of a toilet in case of attack. We'd become adept at controlling our bowels over many long journeys; but when the Giardia struck, it was immediately time to seek out the mandi.
Giardia certainly put a damper on our plans to regain lost weight by stuffing ourselves silly. We had to lay off food for a few days to allow the disease pass through. Then, we decided to treat it with the local cure, Tinaba, which cleared things up. Of course, we then feasted on a beautiful lasagna and cheesecake; then it started all over again.
When we couldn't eat much, but we could delight in beautiful garden settings. Since Kathmandu was 11 degrees north of the equator, a great variety of tropical plants, including the ubiquitous bananas and papayas thrived in cafes to provide a soothing environment. We spent much of our time convalescing in the cool shade of these trees, reading books, playing backgammon, listening to old hippy favourites like Jimmy Hendrix and Janis Joplin. We may not have been in great physical condition, but this did wonders to soothe our frazzled nerves.
We decided to spend eight more days in the capital, as we wanted to organize our Bangkok-purchased gemstones set into silver for resale upon our return to Canada. Jewellery makers John and Colleen provided us with a contact in KDU; he didn't want to handle our small order. He suggested a small shop around the corner, down a narrow lane. After some effort, we found the inconspicuous silver smith, sitting at his bunson burner creating jewellery.
"Good morning sir," I began, "can you make some jewellery for us."
It soon became obvious he didn't speak much English. With the help of a nephew, we determined he could set some of our stones in silver.
"Silver come from India after the Breeteesh leave. Good quality Breeteesh silver," he repeated several times.
"How long will it take to make our order?" I enquired.
We wanted all stones set in rings, earring, pendants etc...
But as his creations were produced piecemeal by hand, it would take about three weeks for an entire order. Our plan was to move on to Pokhara for trekking; we didn't really want to return to the capital, as this would entail more Nepali buses than we could bear.
Eventually, we settled on an order that would require eight days. We negotiated a very good price for the settings, left a small deposit and the stones, trusting we'd made a wise move. We figured hand made jewellery set with Thai gemstones would be popular in Canada, would help us to get back on our feet when we returned, as we wouldn't have any source of income after over a year on the road.
We checked in our silversmith's progress every couple of days, and were very impressed with the quality of his work.
As we now had time in the city, we hoped to take in some local sights. The souvenirs created by local artisans were pretty of very fine quality: beautiful bags, clothes of all kinds, silver jewellery, yak and wool knits, carvings, laquerware, hash pipes and much more. Many boutiques crowded along the road into Durbar Square, to entice the westerners to part company with his rupees.
There was an active black market; anyone with US dollars could make an extra 15-25% on their money. Unfortunately, we were travelling on the Canadian dollar; later, in Pokhara, we were offered 20% above the exchange rates to cash traveller's cheques at our hotel instead of at a money changer. In one of the cheapest destinations in the world- the extra rupees went a long way.
So many hustlers on the street, trying to convince us to change money, buy hash, come to their brother's jewellery store or what have you. By now, we were fairly adept at dealing with the ubiquitous Asia tout; we would sneer at them as they came close.
British Steve found a great deal on some hashish: streetprice $50/kilo, very potent, world-famous Nepali black. Euro's, Aussies and Kiwis smoked huge spliffs rolled in with tobacco. I found this disgusting, and kept asking why they would mix the primo smoke in with cheap tobacco. I don't think I won many converts to pipe smoking, however.
It seemed everyone was smoking hash in Kathmandu that year, despite it being illegal. A police force was non-existent, although we read things got pretty heavy later during the riots which occurred in 1989. As most of the locals were impoverished, hash was a method of securing some cash, which went directly into the little guy's hands, unlike the hotels and restaurants, which paid their staffs a pittance.
Kathmandu is known as the city of temples; many fine historic wooden building stood after many hundred years. The temples in Durbar Square and down every other laneway were extraordinary, while the brightly painted ever-seeing third eye gazed down upon us.
In small squares, Sherpas, Tibetans and Nepalis prayed at holy sites, intoning incantations we'd never heard. The people were devout, spending much of their days making offerings to Shiva. We were amazed at the difference between living conditions at the travellers' centre compared to local life. Whatever the King was doing with all the tourist dollars being pumped into the local economy, he certainly wasn't using it to improve the lot of the average citizen.
Living conditions for most residents best be called appalling. Many sleep out on the street, using the river to both bathe and defeate.
Unfortunately for us, the state of our belly forced it to keep near the loo, as there was sp much to explore see. One day, we tried to climb up to a monkey temple, but it was so hot and dusty, and our bellies rumbled in unison. While there were bemos to all the sights, we were too frugal to appreciate how inexpensive this option was. One of the great disadvantages of travelling on the cheap: sometimes, you don't realize how much more sense it makes to employ local taxis and bemos, instead of walking, trying to save a few rupees. A good rule of thumb for all travellers in SE Asia and the sub-continent is to walk as little as possible in the cities, for cheap transport is always available. But remember to bargain hard first!
By the eighth day, we'd had our fill of Kathnandu's heat, dust, filth and noise; we were anxious to pick up our jewellery and head to the lake at Pokhara.
The day before we departed, British Steve came by with disturbing news.
"Listen, did you hear there's a outbreak of meningitis?”
"That's a pretty fatal disease, isn't it?" Elaine replied.
"Yeah, some German guy just died from it. I guess it strikes pretty fast: headache at nine, dead at noon. The government is giving free shots at the health clinic, they recommend all travellers get inoculated: I think we should all get one.”
We all poured into a taxi to get a free vaccine at the health clinic. These were added into our yellow health cards, which were standard in those days. Kathmandu did appear to be a place where something nasty could be picked up.
We'd run into many friends from the old hippy trail, including faithful fellow travellers Lou and Sue, a couple we'd partied with on Thailand's Pai Pong beach, a French couple we'd met in Yogjakarta amongst many others. Kathmandu was a magnet for round-the-world travellers, so if one stayed in the capital long enough, it was possible to renew old acquaintances.
British Steve was on his way to Everest, as he wanted to trek on the world's most famous mountain. He'd purchased a giant hand-made yak sweater, a pair of gloves, strapped on his trekking boots, and was ready for the journey. Susan refused to board another old Nepali banger bus, so her and Ian were flying to Delhi then on to London in a few days time. Lou and Sue were on their way to the terai at Chitwan, to ride the elephants in search of the wild rhinos. They promised to catch up to us in Pokhara, but sadly, this was the last time we saw them. Michelle and Sandra decided to head off to Pokhara with us, so we all bought tickets on the so-called deluxe express Swiss Bus.
With a tinge of sorrow, we gathered in Nirvana Restaurant's idyllic courtyard, trying to eat some food, quaff a few beers beers, and reminisce about our many near-death travel terror tales. We'd all experienced insane close calls, but now, we were about to part company, in all likelihood never see to each again. Despite the sadness often associated with parting company with newfound friends, it reinforced a theory I'd developed about travel.
I felt travel was like life sped up. Every day was such a totally new experience. We met people, had great times together, and then parted company. We'd never see them again, as a rule, but we'd have lots of great memories to remind us of who they were.
The day before our departure, as we sat in the cool shade of a peaceful cafe, Elaine recounted a sight which had disgusted her (yes, it was still possible to be disgusted, even after all we'd witnessed in Kathnandu).
"I had just bagged up all the garbage from our room," she began, "mostly old Kleenex I'd used from my rotten cold, then placed it in the bin in the hallway. I was appalled to see one of the silent gloomy teens working at our guest house and in the restaurant below start poking through it."
"Next thing I knew, he was eating a bit of a bun I'd thrown away. He left when Chris walked out of the room to take a shower, but was soon back to drink the remains from our water bottle. Little did he realize I had peed in that the night before to save a trip to the loo!"
"Well, you know, these kids all work in the restaurants preparing foods," said Sandra, "and it's no wonder we all get crook (sick). They probably never wash their hands, and who knows how much garbage they go through in a day."
Such a cheery thought!
Next Stop: Poking Around Pokhara