Kathmandu, October 29, 2000
Another thing about birdwatching – it tends to be the same wherever you are. (Obviously the birds are different, otherwise you wouldn’t be there in the first place. You know what I mean). There you are, trying to find one green leafbird in a tree with ten million leaves of exactly the same shade, while the person next to you is irritatingly saying "it’s right in front of you – just next to the bendy branch with the leaves on it". You might be facing an arctic gale or in the last throes of terminal dehydration, but the experience is always pretty much the same. One reason why birdwatching has so many adherents is the way in which it focuses your mind while making you forget your surroundings. And it’s legal.
Which is why it always comes as something as a shock when, just after asking "what do you mean the Greater Racket-tailed Drongo’s on the bendy branch with the leaves on it?", you find yourself confronted with a herd of cows covered in blue and red polka dots. (And we’re not talking about the side-effects of Lariam here, either). There you are, birding away, when you suddenly say to yourself "Holy crap – I’m in Nepal!" Sadly, this comment is usually followed with "what do you mean the Greater Racket-tailed Drongo’s on the bendy branch with the leaves on it?" There’s no cure.
The reason we ran into a herd of brightly painted cows was because we were birding in the middle of Diwali (or Tihar or Deepawali), the second most important Nepali festival of the year. On this particular day, cows and money were being worshipped by villagers in an effort to increase their numbers of both. That night, as we were driving back to the insanely expensive tented camp we were staying in, the villages we passed through were illuminated by thousands of tiny candles while bonfires blazed and little kids set off deafening fireworks. (What were we doing in an insanely expensive tented camp in the exact middle of nowhere? Do you have to ask?) It was a festive, if smoky, picture, and lent a cheerful aspect to the mud and straw huts that comprise the tribal villages. Even the guys that worked at our camp were extra-jovial that night, and the little candles they put everywhere made it easier for us to find our way to the mosquito-infested toilets. So it was a good festival for us as well.
We went to sleep listening to the locals drinking and singing, and woke up to more of the same – and then they went to work in the fields. How do they do this? Perhaps there really is something to be said for the pre-industrial lifestyle. OK, so there’s no dental care, but maybe the sense of community makes up for it; although I doubt if even the most devoted fan of Rousseau would trade places with them.
At the time it struck me as a kind of Nepali Guy Fawkes night, but when we returned to Kathmandu a couple of days later I realized it more closely resembled a combination of November 5th, July 4th, Christmas, New Year’s Eve, Halloween, and a luau. (But then, we all have festivals at harvest time don’t we? I’ve seen Halloween dummies on porches in New England that have to have something in common with the unlucky Mr. Fawkes, a name which means nothing in the USA. Our Guy is probably just a modern variant of the wicker man, who is himself a substitute for another guy – a very unlucky human sacrifice. Possibly).
Anyway, back in Kathmandu bands of musicians went from door to door receiving gifts of money, food and sweets, kids ran into every commercial establishment and chanted maddeningly until given a few rupees to sod off, exploding M-80s kept you on your toes, people everywhere were festooned with garlands of flowers, and dogs were blessed with vermilion tikas on their foreheads. It was quite wonderful, and luckily we were so knackered we were able to sleep right through it.
Dennis Cooper strikes back
One rule of travel which we have learned quite rapidly is: Never intentionally book a flight from hell. The obvious reason being that any flight has the potential to turn nasty on you, and if it’s already a bitch it will now be a bitch squared. In short, we were asking for trouble when we booked a flight from Istanbul to Kathmandu that included a four hour stopover in Bahrain and a seven hour all-night thumb-twiddler in Delhi. There is apparently no easy route from Istanbul to Kathmandu, but this one wasn’t made any easier by the cancellation of the previous flight from Delhi, resulting in hordes of irate mountain-climbers trying to pinch our seats. Nor was it made any easier by an additional eight hour delay, but on the plus side it did give us a chance to become well acquainted with the delights of Delhi International. Not much of a plus, I admit.
Which is all just standard RTW travel stuff, really. If you don’t expect this kind of thing now and then, you should stay home, and moaning about it on your website is as dull as it is self-indulgent (although at the time it might make a day at the office seem quite appealing). The only real drag about the preceding fiasco was that by the time we got to Kathmandu we’d missed a day and were more than a little fried. It did guarantee a good night’s sleep, however, and the next morning we awoke in a strange and wonderful land, a sensation you don’t normally get after college.
Our hotel – the charming Ganesh Himal - is located in Chhetrapati, dead center between the mesmerizing tourist ghetto of Thamel and the temple-rich splendors of Durbar Square. As we walked out of our street – more like an alley, really – and onto the main drag, we turned right instead of left and found ourselves in Durbar Square, where dozens of temples coexist in equitable harmony. One of them even houses a living goddess, and she seems to get along fine with all the other gods who reside there in a more symbolic fashion.
We had arrived right in the middle of the preceding festival – Dasain, the most important of all – and the hordes of people paying homage to the various deities may have been greater in number because of this. (All we knew was that we had just managed to avoid the day when hundreds of goats are sacrificed to Durga. No disrespect to the wonders of cultural diversity, but there are some things we’d rather not see, although there were still a disconcerting amount of goat’s heads nailed to butcher walls when we arrived. While I’m on the subject of mortality, I’d also like to add that the dead rats you see now and again on the streets of Kathmandu are no match for the hare-sized one I accidentally trod on while walking down Delancy Street a couple of years ago, prompting me to leap up into the air and yelp in a most embarrassing way. Quite like home, really).
So there we were, jet-lagged and slightly stunned as people rang bells, spun prayer-wheels and walked clockwise round temples, fruit vendors spread their wares on the ground and little kids played gambling games under the roofs of the shadier temples. And these were the quieter aspects of the place. Welcome to the middle ages, a voice in my head said, while another one said Jeez! It’s just like Jabberwocky! If it weren’t for the modern dress of the men, it could have been six hundred years ago. England must have been just like this, except our clothes might not have been so colorful, and I sincerely doubt if our religion was as much fun.
It would have been just like the middle ages if not for the other tourists of course, the more hale of which would hike up the larger temples in a somewhat disrespectful fashion (although Nepalis seem remarkably tolerant and didn’t appear to mind). Nepal is an amalgam of dozens of different cultures, races, ethnic and language groups, and they are all represented here on the streets of Kathmandu - in addition to a sizable population of Tibetan refugees. Consequently, the people watching here is amazing. A constant parade of beautiful faces passes by, a reminder that Nepal is at the nexus of Asia, the Indian subcontinent, and the steppes of central Asia. Or something like that, I don’t know. But it’s a wonderful mélange. And then there’s the tourists. Large, pink, and often stinky, towering over the delicate locals, carrying a Nepali year’s salary around their necks in hardware while trying not to meet each other’s eye and break the illusion. It’s an odd experience being a time traveler.
Kathmandu, November 1, 2000
Rhinos and Tigers and Ticks - Oh Christ!
Despite having hardly any uncultivated land left, Nepal has plenty of wildlife to offer, apart from its rich variety of birds. Chitwan is most famous for its tigers and rhinos - two animals that, despite their admittedly fascinating qualities, we were less than keen to encounter while birding. Tigers really present no problem to tourists, being mainly nocturnal and extremely elusive, especially if you really want to see one. You're much more likely to meet one if you live in a nearby village and the local tiger becomes old or infirm and is displaced by a younger individual. And even then you'd probably only see it briefly before becoming supper, and that's not a very attractive prospect whichever way you look at it. We were told that, even when a man-eater is known to be in action, the government still forbids killing it and will instead try to capture it and relocate it to a zoo. Full marks on the ecological front, but pretty harsh on the local villagers. You wonder if their case might be given a better hearing if tigers didn't bring in so many tourist dollars. We were happy, while birding in the park, to be shown fresh tiger tracks and to know that these beautiful animals are doing quite well in the face of almost total habitat-loss. Coming face-to-face with one was neither likely nor high on our agenda. Perhaps we'll have a closer encounter in India.
Indian one-horned rhinos, however, are a different story. These animals are quite common in Chitwan and can be extremely aggressive - one reason why you're not allowed in the park without a pair of guides. We were told about a fanatical English birder who insisted on going far too deep into rhino territory and was subsequently flipped high into the air after being charged from behind. (Probably while on the point of identifying a particularly rare bird, but there you go). He survived, as did the two German ladies who, while smoking pot at 20,000 Lakes, failed to control their dog and also got badly injured after he started yapping at a passing rhino. (Now, taking on a charging rhino to protect your pet is an admirable and heroic action, but I have to ask - what kind of an idiot takes their pampered pet into an area known for its dangerous beasts and then lets it roam at will? This puts quite a hole in the argument that pot doesn't cause brain damage). When we did see a rhinoceros, we were quite content to be on one side of the river and to have him on the other. That was fine with us. At Koshi Tappu we were just as happy to avoid bumping into a wild water buffalo, reputedly the most aggressive animal in the world (apart from the blonde republican pundits you see on Politically Incorrect). It would have been nice to have seen more of the incredibly rare Gangetic dolphins that we caught a glimpse of at the Koshi barrage, but we were grown-up enough not to expect them to come over and shake hands with us like Flipper would have done. Just.
Of the two types of monkey here, the common langur is the easiest to deal with, given his modus operandi of staying up in the trees and looking cute. Perhaps the only negative aspect of his personality is the way in which, now and again, he will appear to be a really impressive bird for a second or two, before resuming his natural shape. His cousin, the rhesus macaque, is of a different order entirely. He is much tougher, and will relieve you of your foodstuffs faster than you can say Jack Robinson - and who's going to argue with him about that? At Swayambhunath - commonly referred to as the more easy to pronounce monkey temple - I was chased away by a female who apparently thought I was sitting down a little too close to her youngsters. In her defense, I have to say that the scratch on the arm she gave me was expertly judged - strong enough to encourage me to leave quickly, gentle enough not to draw blood. Later on, when I was trying unsuccessfully to feed a Twix bar to a pathetic pariah dog (being invincibly and inevitably English), another monkey rushed over and pragmatically dealt with the rejected candy. A good thing I wasn't hungry myself at the time.
Today, at Nagarjung park on the outskirts of Kathmandu, we encountered a less mercenary troupe of Macaques. We were walking back after doing some birdwatching when we ran into several mothers and infants by the side of the road. The children cavorted delightfully while the adults scratched their arses and looked bored. What is the correct etiquette for an occasion of this nature? Do we simply walk by, tipping our hats, or do we cower where we are, in deference to their impressive canines? Ms. Post is unfortunately silent on this one. We opted for cowering for a while and then slowly moving forward. Very slowly. They responded by watching us with seeming indifference, and then gradually moving away from the road. Very gradually - it probably took us twenty minutes to walk as many yards. In the end there was just one monkey left, and, feeling a bit more confident with the odds, we elected to walk past her. As we approached her, she turned and instead walked past us. Very civilized, really.
So much for the cute animals. Nepal also has an impressive array of creatures who are bent on one thing only: drinking your blood. Their mosquitoes are fairly robust, (though no match for Canada's black fly, an insect of pure evil). A liberal dousing of DEET will usually keep them off. Leeches are also somewhat deterred by this appalling stuff, though less successfully - in my case, at least. Doreen has so far managed to keep them at bay. Monsoon is the best time for finding leeches, if you're that way inclined, but a few linger throughout the last months of the year, apparently hoping to find some good British blood to snack on. When I found evidence of leeching on my calves, I impressed everyone - myself, mainly - with a display of the kind of sang froid that made the Empire great. (Great as long as you weren't one of its foreign subjects, of course). There were no African Queen scenes of me screaming "get 'em off me, get 'em off me!" Probably because they were already off me anyway, haven drunk their fill. No, much worse than finding leech marks on your leg is the unmistakable sensation of a tick sinking its teeth into your groils in the middle of the night. That'll make you sit up and pay attention, make no mistake.
Up till now we have managed to remain quite tick-free in life. Fear of Lyme disease has kept us out of the undergrowth for many years, preferring to bird from pathways whenever possible. Lyme disease being one thing you don't have to worry about in Nepal, at Koshi Tappu we blindly followed our guide as he crashed into the jungle. It was good when we eventually found five species of Drongo in the heart of jungle darkness, less good when I found at least one species of tick where the sun don't shine. Quite repulsive really, but on the other hand they have to make a living too. It just puts a bit of a dent in the theory about the old guy with the white beard thinking all this stuff up.
The Big City
What a wonderful, incredible, indescribable place Kathmandu is. It can drive you crazy if your defenses are low, but it's impossible not to love it. As you try and dodge the traffic long enough to cross the road, you can't help but be entranced by the women riding side-saddle on the backs of speeding motorbikes, beautiful saris immaculately clean as they fly over the piles of garbage in the street. And how can you not love a place with so many temples that even a bump in the road has become holy, or where the guy whispering "marijuana - hashish - opium" in your ear stops to pay his respects at a shrine and to sprinkle some sacred petals on his head? At the long-distance phone and internet store downstairs where we've been uploading this site, we arrived the other morning just as the owner was opening up shop. While we were booting up he calmly splashed water outside and onto a picture of some god or other, before lighting some equally important incense. What can it mean to be a Hindu? Buddhism is somewhat accessible to the western mind, but the Hindu panoply defies comprehension, to me at least. What is evident is that it pervades every aspect of people's lives here, that it is a very real, living religion that obviously provides something very important. How lucky these people are to have such faith in their day-to day lives. In another marvelous juxtaposition, Nepal is one of the only countries in the world to have ever had a democratically elected Marxist government. The hammer and sickle is still proudly graffitied all over the place, creating a splendidly retro 20th Century feel. There are so many fascinating things happening all over the place that it makes it easy to ignore the rubbish heaps that seem to occur wherever they want to, growing to monumental proportions over the holiday period when the only people who seem to be taking some time off are the refuse collectors. Those must be government jobs.
November 14, 2000
Fear and Loathing in Kathmandu
The penthouse suite at the Hotel Ganesh Himal is so cozy that we have a hard time dragging ourselves away at the best of times. The fact that it has cable TV (including BBC World and CNN) made sure we planned on returning from Pokhara in time to catch the results of the American presidential elections on TV. At least, that was the plan. As everyone in the world knows - the manager here agrees with us that the vice president is the "more gentle" of the two principal candidates - the wheels of democracy continue to grind.
The time difference worked for us in that, as we awoke at around six a.m. (normal birder's hours) on November the 8th, the polls were still open in the US and we had all day to watch the results come in. While people back home must have been compelled by increasing exhaustion to eventually stop watching, we were in the unenviable position of having all day to watch the whole mess evolve. As the saga has continued we've tried repeatedly to tear ourselves away, but with little success. As pure drama, it's compulsive viewing, a bit like Survivor on a grander stage.
In a typical twist of the democratic process, we were hoping that the only candidate we liked would do badly, ensuring that the candidate we disliked least would beat the candidate we really hated. In short, we hoped for Tweedledum over Tweedledummer. So we were quite cheered when, shortly after we woke up, the media called a result apparently based on how people thought they had voted. Like them, we hadn't counted on the newfound fondness of elderly Jews for extreme right-wingers. As the day wore on, of course, we became progressively glummer, and were ready to resume our trip and get on with the important business of birding when the concession was conceded and everything started getting really interesting.
Since then we have been trapped in a self-imposed limbo, staring ashen faced and slack jawed at the TV in the corner as the twists and turns continue to unfold. It's an experience which is eerily reminiscent of watching England in an endless penalty shootout with Germany - you know who's going to win, but there's always that glimmer of hope that keeps you watching. We feel lucky to have missed the campaign, and are therefore a lot less sick of this than everyone else - probably why we differ with those who just want this thing resolved either way, just as long as they get some closure. A friend e-mailed us from England that Harry Shearer said the whole election had been so boring that the American people deserved all this entertainment, and we must agree. As fascinating as it has been, though, we're glad to be setting off for India tomorrow, where we will be able to stop obsessing about this charade and get on with birdwatching. I hope we can kick the habit - I have nightmare visions of us in the jungle, cursing as the reception fades in and out of our short-wave radio.
Last thoughts of Nepal
This is such an amazing country that I could go on forever about it. So what if there are no ATMs? At least there are some machines which might let you make an advance on your credit card, and they at least work some of the time. Passing one yesterday I noticed a Buddhist monk gesturing at me. Now, in Kathmandu (or New York for that matter) you get used to ignoring people trying to attract your attention, but when a monk starts waving I tend to take notice. It turns out he had been entrusted with the company credit card, but had no idea how to use the cash machine. I was enlisted to show him how to insert the card, key in the code, select the amount , and so on. (I of course averted my eyes as punched in his secret pin number. I don't want to piss off anyone in high places). A day later it occurs to me that perhaps he shouldn't have had the card in the first place - but he did know the code number, so I feel fairly confident that he was on the level. As he explained to me, it was his first time using a cash machine, and I was happy to help, wondering if I might gain extra merit on top of that which I attained by walking to the top of Swayambhunath. In fact, heartened by this experience, I went back and managed to successfully get some rupees out of the machine, a first. So maybe that was my reward.
Tintin appears to be one of many local deities in Kathmandu - perhaps the patron saint of tourist income. Like millions of others, I grew up endlessly rereading his adventures, and 'Tintin in Tibet' must have been the first time I ever even heard of Nepal. It paints a wonderful picture of life here and in Tibet, featuring levitating Buddhist monks and even the Yeti. OK, so it's a little exaggerated, but overall it does the place justice. Copies of that book are on sale everywhere here, (even in the supermarket), and you can get virtually every panel emblazoned on a T shirt - though not the one we lifted for this website, oddly enough. I wonder how many of the tourists wandering around are here because that book made such a vivid impression on their young minds. Or maybe it was Brad Pitt that did it.
So many other moments crowd my mind, with far too little time left to write them all down.... Random images, like that of another Buddhist monk chuckling softly to himself as we squinted at some tiny birds high in a tree, while he himself was swinging a hand-held prayer wheel.... Or the cheesy pop interpretation of Om Mane Padme Hum which we first heard on an endless loop by the banks of the Rapti river, and has followed us around ever since. (For the first few hours I was convinced it was mysteriously chanting the Spanish obscenity 'Oh Marnie! Vendejo!') As you walk the streets of Thamel, this song tries hard to drown out Tracey Chapman and Portishead, but has a distinctly inauthentic quality, as if it was cooked up by some Californian whose only knowledge of Asian music came from watching reruns of Kung Fu.... And while we're on the subject of Californians, I'll never be able to forget the individual behind me on the bus to Chitwan who, upon noticing that all the buses in Nepal have the brand-name 'Tata' emblazoned across their hoods, informed his girlfriend that this was a slang name for an Englishman. What a maroon.... Nor will we be able to forget the gilded cage of Aqua Birds Camp at Koshi Tappu, where we paid five times more to sleep in a tent than we did to live in luxury in Kathmandu. Fair enough, we had a great guide, use of the jeep, park entry fees, meals taken care of, etcetera, so it was, in fact, not a bad deal. But the outrageous mark-up they charged on beers prompted me to empathize with Tennessee Burt Ward, the refrain of 'I owe my soul to the company store' running through my mind as I plunged through the jungle in search of Bazas.... And spare a thought for the famous Gurkhas - I grew up knowing that they were fearsome warriors with a place of honor in the British army, but that was about it. I now realize that not only are they from Nepal, but they are mercenaries, plain and simple. Pretty smooth, getting people from underdeveloped countries to do your dirty work for you, isn't it? Most Gurkhas are recruited from the area around Pokhara, and the lovely owner of our hotel there (the New Pagoda, in Damside) was an ex-lieutenant who served twenty five years. Imagine that. When I asked what he thought of the English weather, he responded with his recollections of the winter of 1962-3, yet another occasion when Britain was brought to its knees by the elements. That winter would have been far worse than anything he was used to in Nepal. One of his sons had followed in his footsteps, and ended up in Kosovo, poor sod, although he was now safely in Brunei. Makes you think a bit more about UN peace-keeping forces, thinking of mercenaries propping them up. But then, I suppose very few people ever join the army for reasons other than poverty and lack of opportunity.
Two last thoughts on the local wildlife: it's nice to be walking along a bustling thoroughfare and realize that an elephant just passed you by, but the thought of these incredibly intelligent creatures being condemned to a life of servitude is quite distressing. By booking our trip to Chitwan ourselves and not going with a package deal, we avoided having to suffer the indignity of the compulsory elephant ride. Unfortunately, while trying to squeeze the last cent from our park admission fee ,we took the canoe ride along the Rapti - which was great - and ended up at the elephant breeding center - which was not. Wild elephants are reported to be extirpated in Nepal, but that would be news to the people who manage the tame ones in Suaraha. While we were there, a rouge male was trying to get at the captive females, and we would occasionally hear a sudden gale of noise as people would try to chase this guy off, with him trumpeting in anger. Learning from the experiences of a nearly deceased German who almost rode his bicycle right into this loner, we never strayed to far when birding in that area.
Moving from mammals to reptiles, in Pokhara we graduated from crocodiles to snakes. While casually watching a Pond Heron, we realized he was standing next to an extremely long constrictor of some kind. This was OK with me - the miracle of optics notwithstanding, there was still a long way between us and him - but for Doreen, with her deep dread of snakes, it was quite alarming. A couple of days later, while she and I took slightly divergent paths through the forest, I had the vague sense that something dead was nearby, as well as noticing a few unusually fat flies buzzing around. Thinking little of it, we sat beneath a banyan tree for a while (it was an abandoned village) to see if any birds were around, then walked back. This time we both took Doreen's route and, looking to my right, I noticed that I had previously passed right by a dead snake, all seven or eight feet of him hanging from a tree beside the path. Obviously snakes are no more popular here than anywhere else - a sad fact for them, and also for us, who would rather let them get on with their lives a good distance from wherever we might happen to be, and thereby avoid the prospect of walking into any dead ones.
Finally, I have to thank the great and wise Robert Sheckley for his concept of metaphoric deformation, and it's attendant panzaism. Basically, if being quixotic means seeing giants where there are only windmills, panzaism can be defined as seeing windmills instead of giants. There is a danger that the more you travel, the more your senses might overload and cause you to hallucinate the everyday instead of perceiving the extraordinary. This first hit me in Pokhara, when we jumped into a cab being driven by Ice T. Unless it was just the Lariam.