‘About three months to get going again,’ she said.
Given the devastation I’d seen on the news reports, I found this astonishing, but when I finally got to Thamel I saw almost no sign the city had been so badly smashed – if indeed it had been. The mainstream media had, as usual, focused on the worst-hit places, and those reports suggested Nepal would take the better part of a decade to recover, but all I saw of the aftermath was a ruined brick building visible only through my bathroom window.
Much had changed, but much had stayed the same. The streets seemed familiar without being identifiable; I kept coming across places I was sure I remembered from two years earlier, but the shops in those places had changed. I recognised the names of some cafés and bakeries and restaurants, though.
I chose the Roadhouse Café for an evening meal, mostly because I wanted a change from dal and rice. A pizza – so characteristic of anywhere catering for even occasional visitors in Nepal or India that it had become authentic Nepalese or Indian fare in the 21st century – sounded good; a beer sounded even better. I wasn’t fussy, so I ordered a margharita with black olives and a Gorkha beer, which turned out to be a 650 ml bottle. The pizza was similarly huge, but I surprised myself by eating the lot. I surprised myself even more by feeling unaffected by more beer than I could remember drinking in a long time (and that wasn’t because I’d drunk so much I couldn’t remember how much I’d drunk). I found my way back to my room without getting lost and without even stumbling – no mean feat in Kathmandu after dark, even when completely sober.
At breakfast in the dining area of the Hotel Holiday House, an Australian milled around in a T-shirt and puffer vest, his hands thrust into his jeans pockets and his shoulders hunched against the cold. A woman from the US joined him, her hair still damp from the shower.
‘A bit cold for short sleeves,’ I said, as they seated themselves at the table next to mine.
‘Yeah,’ he said, then, realising an admission he was feeling cold was at odds with the persona he was attempting to project, added, ‘but after you’ve come down from the mountains, everything feels warm.’
They appeared to be acquaintances, recently met, maybe even on the same trek. While I wrote and attended to breakfast, they competed for dominance in the most-accomplished-traveller category. It was impossible not to listen. He took a nil admirari approach: nothing impressed him; everything was yeah, whatever. She took the more common approach of listing achievements and apparent insider knowledge. When she mentioned she had a keen interest in tea, I began actively eavesdropping but lost interest when she failed to mention anything that might have confirmed her claim. No mention of Darjeeling or Oolong, or even green or black tea; no detail at all, in fact. I suspected her interest lay in herbal infusions rather than traditional tea.
Despite this competition, there was no aggression or irritation in their conversation, and they seemed comfortable in each other’s company.
On a crowded street in the morning, a tall, lean, man in a pale shirt, dark slacks, and polished shoes marched along with a small, fair-haired child sprawled on his shoulder. He kept turning around and telling things to the two women who followed several paces behind. Both wore long skirts and had black headscarves pinned to their hair. One also had a small, fair-haired child looking back over her shoulder, while the other held the hand of yet another small child of similar age and appearance to the other two. The group moved with purpose along the street, led by the man. They appeared to be on a mission.
I stopped at the famous Pumpernickel café and bakery for a vanilla swirl and a cappuccino. Both were good and I didn’t have to wait long. A diverse clientele almost filled the place but I found a spare table in the courtyard. During my entire stay, a young woman with a US accent talked animatedly to her laptop screen. Skype had been a novelty on my first visit to India; now it was a convenience whose absence could be an annoyance. Two tough-looking but laughing Nepalese men joked about one’s thinning hair, which contrasted markedly with the long, thick ponytail of the other. They looked like wild but good-natured guys: the sort who could get you into a lot of trouble but would get you out of it, too.
An elderly couple sat at a table nearby, drinking Everest beers. I had no idea what nationality they might be, but they looked relaxed, enjoying the beer and each other’s company in that easy way two people who’ve liked each other for a long time understand each other. Further away, two women, one middle-aged, the other much younger, sat smoking cigarettes. The older woman had short hair with a mini-mullet; she had the gaunt, sallow look of someone ravaged by a lifetime of smoking. Both women – mother and daughter, I guessed – had an air of ennui approaching depression. I couldn’t help wondering whether they’d ever smiled or laughed, but maybe I was judging them unfairly and they were just worn out from long travelling.
I was writing and not minding my own business, although I was trying to be kind in my thoughts but not always succeeding, when two attractive young women came up to my table and asked if they might share it. Of course, I said, and shuffled my plate, mug and notebook further across the table to give them more room. They began talking in what sounded like French; I thought I recognised a few words, but sometimes I thought I heard Spanish, too.
‘You are from France?’ I asked.
‘Almost,’ one said, laughing a little. ‘We are from Portugal.’
I threw up my hands in horror and apologised.
‘No, no,’ she insisted, ‘it’s all right. People often make that mistake.’
I told her how people usually guessed I was from Australia but I was actually from New Zealand. They exclaimed with delight. They had a friend who had recently moved to New Zealand with her partner, and they were intending to visit soon.
I asked about their travels.
‘Are you going trekking?’
They’d just got back and now weren’t entirely sure where they’d go next, although eventually they’d re-enter India and go to Sikkim. Their journey – India, Nepal, India – was following the same pattern as mine, although they were spending longer in Nepal: one month.
Their names were Nadia and Ines. Nadia had just bought a hard-covered notebook made from handmade paper and intended using it to record her travels. She’d been keeping very brief hand-written notes, she said. Ines picked up the notebook.
‘It’s so light,’ she said.
It didn’t look light to me, but when Ines handed it to me I had the same sensation I’ve felt when holding a small bird – that the thing felt far lighter than it had any right to be: a kind of cognitive dissonance. It was my turn to exclaim with delight. Nadia looked pleased. I hoped she’d fill it with wonderful stories; I, however, was content with my Moleskine cahiers and my fountain pens, which wouldn’t at all suit rough handmade paper.
She looked across at my cahier and complimented my calligraphy. I thanked her but pointed out it wasn’t calligraphy, just handwriting. She smiled and shrugged.
Eventually I said I was just finishing and would leave them to their lunch. I’d enjoyed talking with them, and I left Pumpernickel thinking that despite my love of solitude and the company of animals and wild places, perhaps I fitted the true definition of an extrovert, even if I was far from the popular misconception. I’ve never been the life of the party, but meetings like that with Nadia and Ines often leave me with renewed energy.
The hotel manager had suggested a taxi to the airport would take only about 20 minutes in the morning. I found this difficult to believe after the trip to the hotel from the airport had taken about an hour, much of that stationary in Kathmandu’s infamous traffic. Consequently, I arranged an early taxi, but the manager was right. I’d forgotten it was Saturday, and the roads were almost free of traffic. I arrived at the airport for my flight to Nepalgunj at 6.40 a.m., comfortably within the final check-in time, only to find the Yeti Airlines counter for Flight 421 would open at 7.30. If I’d listened to the manager, I could have enjoyed a leisurely and comfortable breakfast at the hotel.
I settled down to wait, thankful for the small, grimy pad of blue closed-cell foam I carry on most of my journeys – every overseas trip, and every Ruahine trip for as long as I can remember. The cold metal airport seats were apparently designed for maximum discomfort, and I have no natural padding. That little blue pad, and the small roll of black electrical tape that’s fixed everything from holes in mosquito nets to adapter plugs falling out of wall sockets, are the most useful travel items I know, other than money.
In the seats in front of me, a group of middle-aged Japanese made last-minute adjustments to their carry-on bags. All wore trekking gear: down jackets, quick-drying trousers, light walking boots. Some carried serious camera gear. A distinguished-looking man in a silver puffer jacket looked out the windows and exclaimed in Japanese, pointing as he did so. A woman turned to look then got to her feet and hurried to the window.
A troop of macaques was running past. As the woman reached the window, a baby macaque sprinted past to catch up with the other monkeys. The woman called out in delight and crouched for a better view. After the monkeys had passed, she turned back and I smiled, showing I’d enjoyed the sight also.
She stopped and, searching for the words, said, ‘Monkeys. I think is very rare.’
I nodded, although I knew they were common.
‘In India, many monkeys,’ I said. It was all I could think of as a response.
She leaned towards me, listening carefully.
‘Ah so,’ she said, nodding. The phrase sounded so stereotypical it took me aback, and I didn’t know whether she understood. But that was beside the point: we’d shared the moment.
‘People are reluctant to pay you to go to interesting places and take photos,’ he said. ‘Now everyone’s got their own camera or phone and they want their own photos.’
I agreed and pointed out the risk of killing the thing you love by trying to earn a living from it. He nodded. He was obviously serious about documenting his travels, and on several occasions he GoPro-ed sections of our journey: from Nepalgunj airport into town, where he tried unsuccessfully to withdraw cash from four different ATMs; on the bus leaving Nepalgunj; and on the bone-jarring, dust-drenched jeep ride from Ambassa to Thakurdwara, the village on the edge of Bardia National Park.
He was quiet, with a relaxed, gentle manner, and he looked a little like Matt Damon. After Bardia, he’d be doing a 14-day vipassana silence meditation. The contrast with Kathmandu and Nepalgunj couldn’t have been greater.
He showed me his book of postcards. Each page comprised the outline of an illustration to be hand-coloured, then the page could be removed to make a post-card. He opened the book to a picture of an octopus grasping a treasure chest.
‘I’m not artistic,’ he said, ‘so this is something I can do to show the person I’m writing to that I’m thinking of them.’
The colouring – fine and careful, with thoughtfully chosen hues – looked artistic to me, and I didn’t doubt whoever received one of his cards would know Joe had gone to great lengths for them. I told him about Monica and how she wrote postcards and loved writing by hand.
‘Some of my friends see me writing my postcards,’ he said, ‘and they say, “Pen and paper? Really? Does anyone even do that anymore?’
The plane departed over an hour late but neither of us was in any hurry. The flight ascended through Kathmandu’s choking brown smog into a clear sky; on the starboard side, the Himalaya shone huge and jagged. I recognised some mountains – Machapuchare, the Annapurna massif, Dhaulagiri – and watched as they slid past the window until eventually they ended abruptly and the horizon faded into low, blue hills. I knew the Himalaya continued far beyond, and on the edge of vision a few more big mountains rose like hope, but the apparent sudden end to those legendary mountains felt like the ending of a glorious age.
I couldn’t look at the Himalaya, particularly the mountains around Dhaulagiri, without thinking of Matthiessen and The Snow Leopard, and the memory afflicted me like grief. Matthiessen had gone now; he had become part of the history he created, and I wondered who could ever again travel the way he and Schaller had. The world is hyper-connected, sponsored, and commercialised, and everything is visible from space. Vanishing from the world the way Schaller and Matthiessen did might still be possible, but it would require such a deliberate effort that the essence would be lost. The time of the true explorers has gone, and perhaps that, too, is the end of a glorious age.
At the bus station in Nepalgunj, I walked fifty metres down the road to sit in a tiny dhaba and drink chai and watch ‘Animal fights’ on a small, grubby CRT TV. A young guy fiddled with the back of the set to try to improve the reception and yelped as he got a mild shock from some live wiring. The two girls at the back of the dhaba, laughed; so did I, and he joined in. He had enough English with which to hold a short conversation but very quickly exhausted his vocabulary, and in any case the bus conductor had come to fetch me.
The long bus ride provided plenty of opportunities for photographs, and I enjoyed gesturing to ask if I might photograph. The response was always positive. I showed one of the first photographs to a woman vendor crouched on a blanket where we stopped for a long time on the outskirts of town. She’d smiled at me and pulled two of her children close to be photographed, and when they saw the photograph on the camera’s LCD, the other children swarmed around, wanting to be part of the action. I obliged, and one little girl stood up, put her hands together high in front of her face and said, very clearly and deliberately, ‘Namaste.’
I returned the compliment. Her mother smiled, a tired, beautiful smile, the whole time.
I photographed others, too, and during the remainder of the journey I began thinking about returning to Nepalgunj and spending a few days there, getting some prints done and trying to find the people I’d photographed so I could give them the prints.
I ended up jammed in a backwards-facing seat, my bag on my lap and a young woman in pain leaning forwards resting her head on the bag. I think she had a bad toothache, so, assuming the woman sitting next to her was her mother, gave the older woman the remains of a packet of ibuprofen. It was all I could do and was little more than a gesture, but I wanted to do something.
I’d been receiving a lot of smiles, including many from women, which I’d found unusual in India. Later, back in India, I was to discover that this avoidance of eye contact wasn’t as obvious as I’d remembered, and I began to think perhaps I looked old and worn out enough to be harmless. One woman who smiled at me on the bus held a beautiful little baby with kohl-blackened eyes; the infant wore a faded red hoodie not unlike mine.
Subash and the jeep driver, whose name I never learned but whom I liked a lot for his good humour and obvious knowledge about the animals and birds, were waiting for us at Ambassa. We dropped Joe off at an intersection in Thakurdwara with instructions about how to get to his lodge, and I gave him one of my contact cards. We shook hands and I was once again a lone foreigner.
1. This all seems a long time ago now, even though it's only about a month. I'm now back in Delhi, moving on to Bharatpur tomorrow. I'll try to catch up a little with the posts, but delays will be inevitable.
1. Preparing street food in Thamel, Kathmandu. I'm annoyed with myself for not including the food in the photograph!
2. One of the wider, better-maintained streets.
3. The Himalaya from the Yeti Airlines flight from Kathmandu to Nepalgunj.
4. Our rickshaw passed another on the way from the airport to Nepalgunj. I waved the camera, got some laughs and nods, and managed a few photographs.
5. Typical street scene in Nepalgunj. Maybe a little quieter than typical, though.
6. Family at the bus stop on the outskirts of Nepalgunj.