A Butterfly Flaps Its Wings in Nepal
The friendship bridge from Nepal to Tibet spans a deep luscious green valley. But the natural beauty contrasts sharply against the crumbling concrete of the bridge, the mildew stained buildings and the mounds of discarded rubbish that look like a festering wound that will leave a permanent scar on the landscape.
Travellers rarely visit border towns, they merely pass through them and as if by a self fulfilling prophecy border towns are rarely inviting enough to make people want to stay. A small crowd milled around and on the bridge, doing what people do in border towns, waiting until they can leave; momentary pauses in a travelling itinerary. The majority of people were colourfully dressed Nepalese returning from trying to make their fortune trading goods in China. The women wore heavily patterned saris and were adorned with gold rings through their noses and a painted Bindi between their eyes. Compared to the seemingly grey attire of the Chinese the Nepalese people were a riot of colour.
As we crossed over the bridge and approached the closed iron gates that barred entry into Nepal the crowds became denser. An armed guard saw the three of us approaching and ordered the people to make a path so that we could pass through. A short woman spotted her chance to jump the queue and slipped in-between Dorothy and Tanja and managed to pass by the guard undetected. We were now in Nepal but as yet nobody had checked our passports and it was up to us to ask around to find out where the immigration building was. It took us three attempts to find the correct building' had we wanted to we could have carried on walking to Katmandu unbridled; it was all very laid back and relaxed. I already had a good feeling about Nepal.
You pick up all sorts of useful tips from fellow travellers and their advice, recommendations and warnings form a supplementary guidebook. Stories of having to bribe officials no longer surprise me and without passing judgment I've accepted it to be an unfortunate part of daily life in many parts of the world. So when a French man that we had briefly befriended, who was doing the same trip, advised us to put a $10 note in our passports for the immigration official, I thought no more of it than I did the official visa fee of $25. He had friends that had refused to 'help' the official and the official had then 'forgotten' to put an entry stamp in their passports causing huge problems when they tried to exit the country. So whilst we were being bumped around in the mini van through no mans land we had each slipped a $10 note into our passports; subsequently I was told it was all my idea.
One after another the immigration officer opened our passports, and with a trace of what could have been mild amusement removed the $10 notes and left them sitting on the counter. After he discovered and removed the second note I recovered sufficiently to at least make an attempt to cover our botched bribery attempt with an explanation:
'Oh look, there's that $10 I owe you for the taxi.' Passing the note to Tanja.
Unbribed the immigration officers stamped our passports and we were ready for our Nepalese adventure. None of us knew very much about Nepal except that immigration cared not for our money and that a taxi to the capital Katmandu should cost about $30.
Not surprisingly the taxi driver waiting for fresh tourists in the immigration building wanted to charge us $15 more than the taxi driver that did eventually take us. The long distance taxis in Nepal are old 1980 Toyota Corollas. Jammed in the back with a backpack and Dorothy and with a tape of Nepalese and Indian pop playing I felt as if I was in a boy-racer's car sometime in the 1980's.
The day's memories started to flash through my mind: images of the morning, waking up with blankets frozen to faces; Mount Everest; The Himalayas; The sun burnt faces of the Tibetan people; driving across frozen rivers; the cold; the layers of clothing being removed every time we descended 500 meters. An amazing contrast of images captured over the briefest of 12 hours. The sound of a wet-season downpour crashing against the roof of the car jolted me back to the present, to the sub-tropical. A smile consumed my face. I was flooded with happiness. I felt alive.
The road from Kodari to Katmandu passed through the mountainous region of Central Nepal and was potholed at best and in many places the monsoon season had caused mudslides that had washed the road away completely. We made a brief stop at our driver's family house, which was down a dirt road and overlooked narrow rice-paddy fields sculptured into the walls of the valley. Much of the journey was through heavily forested areas with beautiful wooden houses which were colourfully painted. The rain had caused an explosion of green everywhere, the depth of which created a wonderful feeling of serenity and was the topic of conversation for much of the journey, although it is rather difficult to have an in-depth conversation about the greenness of things and our conversation probably bordered on the banal and insane. 'Green'. 'So green'. 'Look at the green'. 'It's all so green'.
The heavy rain finally stopped leaving the air fresh and scented from the wood and foliage of the forests. A light mist covered the roads as the rain already started to evaporate, continuing in its cycle. There were few private cars on the road, the traffic mainly consisted of heavily overloaded and antiquated trucks ferrying goods to and from the border and equally old and heavily overloaded buses. All available space being taken up inside the buses people nestled themselves in-between bicycles, boxes and bags on the roof. The buses and trucks were lovingly decorated with colourful lights, mud flaps and chrome. Lively patterns had been painted onto the bodywork. An ingenious language of honks on the horn told other drivers that we were overtaking, the other drivers responded with another series of honks to let us know whether it was safe to overtake. On the rear of the vehicles a safety sticker read 'Honk Please'.
We passed through small villages of teak shop-houses lining the road; splashes of yellow, blue and the light tan colour of weathered teak. It was getting late and this was already the second journey of the day from the border to Katmandu for our driver so we made another stop to refresh on some bottles of Coke in a small village. Sitting on some chairs and tables by the roadside outside an open front shop drinking our Cokes, we were soon surrounded by the children of the shop owners and the children from neighbouring shops. They were keen to practice their English, which as with our drivers was exceptionally good. We told them where we were from and where we had travelled from. They all got very excited when Dorothy started taking their pictures and showed them the image on her digital camera. They asked if we had any Chinese money but received a sharp rebuke from their mother when they held out their hands to take the money, their mother didn't like it that it looked like they were begging. A boy wanted to trade something for Tanja's lighter, which he thought was really neat as it had a torch on it, Tanja offered to give it to him for free but he insisted that he give her something for it. An older woman spotted Tanja's nose ring and in no uncertain way told her it was on the wrong side, as with Hindu tradition it is worn on the left side. The rear of the shops overlooked a deep fissure and beyond that we could see glimpses of chrome and glass passing through the trees as the buses and trucks continued their journey circumnavigating the mountains and valleys. We downed our drinks and climbed back into the taxi, the families from all the shops waved us off down the road.
Our conversation with the driver touched on the economy and politics and it was refreshing to have a conversation with someone able to speak their mind freely and free enough to form their own mind. By now we had been driving for 3 hours and whilst the sun had been setting the traffic had become heavier and the forests had retreated, quietly defeated by the encroaching towns. The teak of the sleepy villages had been replaced with red brick. The air became heavy with the noxious fumes of diesel as we sat in traffic on the outskirts of Katmandu. The gentle sound of the wind through the open windows of the taxi was obliterated by the fog of car horns. We could see the pollution hovering in the air in a thick layer a meter above the road, as we edged our way through the rush hour traffic to the center of the capital. It had taken 6 hours to travel 70 miles.
The backpacker area is in the Thamel part of Katmandu and that was as much as we knew about where we wanted to stay. Our driver was kind enough to wait for us as we checked out a few guesthouses and hotels, driving us somewhere else when they didn't come up to scratch. After the third stop we felt guilty for keeping him any longer and thanking him for his warm welcome to Nepal we set off on our own. Tanja continued the search leaving Dorothy and me guarding the bags and being entertained by 2 young teenage boys trying to sell us hash, their blood shot and drooping eyes a simultaneous advertisement and health warning of what they were selling. Tanja soon returned having found a place that whilst tired and shabby looking was run by an amazingly hospitable family. The rooms were well within our budget and we could have afforded a little more luxury, but the owner Madan radiated a warmth and serenity that promised a welcoming stay. I had started to want to make purchases not based so much on price or condition but because of the people. Medan checked us in with a smile, a gentle wobble of the head and a generous overlooking of the fact that we looked as if we hadn't washed in 72 hours, which indeed we hadn't. We paid $8 for a cosy double room with bathroom and with its small garden, first floor balcony and rooftop terrace and the irrepressibly cheery and accommodating Medan the Souvenir Guesthouse was the perfect place to stay. Nothing was too much trouble for Medan who responded to our requests with 'as you please' or 'and why not' both accompanied with a wobble and a huge smile. He organised our brief trip to Pokara, a beautiful area near the Himalayan and Annapurna range, in order for us to strap ourselves to a stranger and then run off a mountain with a sheet above our heads. I found the whole paragliding experience bizarrely relaxing whilst Tanja felt sick from the moment her feet left the ground.
The skyline of Katmandu isn't framed by high-rise apartment blocks or glittering office towers, in the Thamel area the tallest buildings are only 8 or so storeys high. The newer buildings, still a far cry from being modern, are of alarmingly poor quality and that they have reached 8 storeys amounts to a miracle and a disaster in the waiting. In parts the concrete of the load bearing columns has crumbled away completely revealing the now rusting re-enforcing rebar. The walls are built up using the now familiar red brick, although the thickness of the cement doubles that of the bricks themselves. Gaps in the brickwork were accommodating enough for pigeons to nest. The older buildings although even more rickety and disregarding of horizontals seemed sturdier, having already stood the test of time. They seemed to crowd over the narrow streets, buildings from either side of the lane lent towards each other as if in a conspiratal whisper. Detailed fretwork adorned the windows and the low front doors of solid teak were carved in equal detail. The single lanes are without pavements and are in desperate need of pedestrianisation or at least being made one way. Small white 2 door city taxis, motorbikes and rickshaws competed with each other for right of way. Each claims any right of way over the pedestrians who have to constantly dodge the relentless traffic. I watched the locals who I quickly realised were incredibly adept at dodging.
I stepped aside to avoid being run over by a rickshaw, the rickshaw driver was standing on the peddles to gain some traction and was heading straight for me, keeping his eyes on me as he passed he whispered 'Rickshaw. Hashish. Treking' and then he was gone. I then had to jump out of the way of a motorbike that had joined the main road from a side lane, for me to move was the only option. A street hawker selling hand carved wooden instruments spotted me and started to walk alongside me playing a simple tune on the small string instrument, with each step and shake of my head that signified that I didn't want to buy it, he lowered his price by 50 Rupees, once he had reached his lowest price with me still shaking my head, he said nothing more and found someone else to walk with. The fruit sellers sold mangoes, oranges and bananas from huge woven grass baskets attached to their bicycles. As we walked past they would peel a banana inviting us to 'just to taste. No buy.' As soon as we had finished the banana they peeled an orange and offered us a segment. Whilst savouring the taste they placed a handful of oranges and a bunch of bananas in a bag, made a big show of weighing it and then announced a ridiculous initial price, a price which from the mischievous look on their face said they doubted they could get away with it either. In the end though they made their sale.
People greeted us with the customary wobble of the head, I found it completely infectious and by the third day I felt I had perfected a reasonable head wobble of my own. The wobble was more than a greeting, it was a way of saying that everything's fine, whatever was acceptable.
From the open fronted shops wafted the sweet smell of sandal wood incense sticks being burnt. The shops were heavily stocked with local handicrafts: richly embroided wall hangings and blankets; silk pashimas; silverware and carved teak ornaments. The Nepalese owners stood at the front of their shops incanting spells to entice passers-by into their shops. They were impervious to our protests of not wanting to buy anything.
'Excuse me sir. My shop. Just looking please'
'No thank you'
'No?' They would respond as if it was a challenge,
'No? Really? Are you sure you won't buy something?' As if they secretively knew better.
We had this conversation with numerous shop owners and we would actually walk past with no intention or desire to buy anything. Then somehow we would find ourselves back in the shop just looking please. The incantation complete we would find ourselves going through lists of family and friends for whom we could buy gifts.
The beguiling shop owners and hawkers, the narrow streets and the way the sunlight cut through the dusty air and highlighted the buildings, the open air markets selling rock salt, herbs and spices all added to the mystical charm of the place. But there was a sadder side. Street children could be seen huddled together alongside the darker streets, I spotted several with their grubby hands clutching a small paper bag, a tell tale sign that they were sniffing glue. Some children tried to sell drawings and paintings that they had made themselves. We befriended a little girl of 10 who spent her days and nights selling small hand embroided bags for 100 Rupees each. Sova's family couldn't afford to send her to school and she had to supplement her father's income as a rickshaw driver. Despite the poverty of her life I saw an optimism in her young eyes and she often wore a bright white smile, she always greeted Tanja with a big hug. We saw Sova towards the end of our stay in Katmandu and she was close to tears, she was holding her stomach and was in obvious distress. Sheepishly with embarrassment she told us that she was in desperate need of the toilet but had nowhere to go as the restaurants shun the street children from using their toilets. We took her to an open air bakery for a drink and a pastry, then seeing that she was now a customer, we told her she was free to use the facilities. Over the course of that pastry and a bottle of Fanta she must have thanked us twenty maybe thirty times. I bought a bag each for my two nieces Frankie and Charlie. Charlie is the same age as Sova. Two 10 year olds from completely different worlds, all thanks to their first moment's chance. I call it the luck of the womb. On our last evening Sova saw us walking along the street. She knew it was our last day and was sad enough to make us realise that the warmth we had shown her was probably a rarity. She kept throwing herself at Tanja in big hugs and then gave each of us a gift, a small bag and a purse. Sova wanted nothing from us except our kindness. Her act was a good kick start to my heart which since Tibet had felt heavy and constricted by my powerlessness to effect good. Tanja took off her silver necklace and hung it around Sova's neck; somewhere a butterfly had flapped it wings.
By Stratford Blyth