(Excerpted from Chapter 27: A Circle Complete: The Grateful Unrich…)
Kathmandu, Nepal 6-30-10
We get 15-day visas for $25, change money and book a hotel/taxi combo inside the airport. Soon we are off to the Annapurna Guest House. The ride brings smiles to our faces. Oh, the hustle and bustle, the sheer business that is Asia.
We negotiate a weekly rate of $8/night for a corner room with satellite TV and bath. Already, Nepal is so much easier and cheaper than expensive and difficult Africa. I can take expensive but easy. I can do cheap but difficult. But expensive and difficult is a little much. After the woman who owns the place is finally convinced we don’t want to buy any hash from her, I can finally relax. And I get sick.
There are worse places to be sick than Kathmandu, where things move very slowly. There are all kinds of international foods in Thamel. One favorite is the lemon cheesecake. We find a great coffee shop called Gurung’s, where a stiff Americano runs $.50 and a two-egg omelet sets you back another $.30. After a few mornings, the owner begins giving us our second cup of coffee free. The people of Nepal are still some of the nicest in the world.
We buy our tickets to Bangkok on Royal Nepal Airlines – now known as Nepal Airlines thanks to the recent demise of the royal family. We sell some warm clothes and Jill’s old pair of boots. Lunch is often mangos or bananas from a favorite fruit vendor combined with various bakery treats. Dinner is frequently on the rooftop of our hotel on the heels of an Everest beer – usually egg curry with garlic nan or rotis for $1.50/each. There are worse places to be sick than Kathmandu.
We walk to Monkey Temple to celebrate our friend Greg’s 49th day after death. The Buddhists believe that a person’s soul reaches its destination on this day. We’re actually a day late because it’s been pissing rain, but we think Greg will understand. We cross the Baghmati River. It has become a huge garbage dump, reducing downstream flow to a trickle. This city has exploded from a population of 1.5 million when I visited in 1989 to more than seven million today. And it shows. The air is horrendous, only outdone by the nasty tap water and the insane traffic.
We climb the hundreds of steps, passing numerous mother monkeys nursing their babies. We pay admission and set about spinning the giant prayer wheels in honor of Greg and all of our ancestors. When we get back to our hotel my left foot is killing me. I immobilize it.
For the next few days we breakfast at Gurung’s and order room service milk tea and soup. A Sri Lankan Muslim gem dealer named Faiz has taken up residence in the room across the hall. He brings tiger balm, gauze and an ACE bandage when he hears about my foot. He goes off on Bush and Israel. We concur. I tell him 911 was an inside job with Israeli help. He agrees. He says that after the tsunami that hit his country in 2005 – killing over 100 of his family members – people noticed that everything touched by the water seemed to corrode at an oddly rapid rate, implying that some chemical had been put in the water.
Faiz is having his famous Sri Lankan rubies and blue topaz made into jewelry here. He says Nepal does the best 92.5% silver work in the world these days. And they do it cheaply. He lives near Hikkadui. His stories get more far-fetched the longer we talk. He says he is from one of the ruling families in Sri Lanka and invites us for kimchee at a Korean restaurant. When we get there he tries to sell us gems.
My foot is not getting better. I can barely walk on it. I start to wonder what I did. I look for holes in the bottom of the shoe. Did I step on a snake? Finally I realize that it is the top of the foot that hurts. I notice a needle-sized hole in the top of my shoe right where the pain is worst. I wonder about the brown-coated guy and his thugs. Did they stick a needle in my foot after I fell asleep at the Zimbabwean border? Were they trying to poison me? Who is this Faiz guy ? Another Dennis? Another spook?
I pay for six more nights this morning, so it looks like we’ll spend our entire fifteen days here in Kathmandu. That’s fine, since the monsoon has started and it is rainy and humid – not a good time for trekking. Besides, I can barely walk. At least my 103-degree temperature has gone down and a trip to the pharmacy has knocked out our diarrhea. It’s an interesting enough city. I have a small amount of regret about not continuing north in Africa, but after doing some figuring and realizing that we’d spent nearly $2,800 in June, I’m confidant our decision was the right one.
It’s good to be back on the cheap Asian slow boat. Here we can recoup some costs. Travel here is osmosis. You let it come to you, wash over you and soak into your soul. Empathy is the only requirement. People’s lives here are difficult, in many ways worse than anything we saw in Africa. In Africa we could drink the tap water everywhere. Here, I wonder if it’s even safe to take a shower.
Room 202 has a good view of everyday life on the street below. In the building across from us, 40-50 Muslim men gather each evening for prayers. Clad in white robes and black skull caps, they prostrate themselves West towards Mecca. Next door two older men and two young boys share a room with a two-burner stove and lots of water jugs for hauling water.
Above the Muslims, a man and his wife take showers behind a makeshift curtain that doubles as a sari. Next to them a women walks on the metal roof collecting laundry before the monsoon returns. One floor below an old man wearing white shirt and pants, a brown vest and a brown tuk coughs his way through another Surya cigarette while leaving bread crumbs for the ravens. Just below him a middle-aged man wears a sack cloth rag below a mop of wild hair and scraggly beard. He hangs his equally ragged blanket out each day to air out. He never leaves his apartment.
Next to the caveman, one of the men living with the boys builds furniture in a shop. Next to him a woman sells cloth. Next to her is the beer and whiskey shop, then a kiosk selling candy bars, laundry soap and telephone cards. There are no Wal-Mart’s here, just lots of free enterprise. Nobody makes very much. Everybody makes something.
The hash-slinging owner of this hotel is a lazy Indian Brahmin. All the young employees are poor Nepalese kids from the country. There is one Tibetan girl. They do all the work while the Brahmins sit around watching television, collecting money and pushing “tours”. They’ve long since given up on selling us one. The whole scene is an apt metaphor, since first the British and now their well-trained Indian surrogates have colonized and exploited the good people of Nepal.
This morning I go to Gurung’s alone since Jill’s stomach is not up for it. I get the second Americano free and with a smile. Gurung’s counters the Annapurna Guest House as a metaphor for all that is good about Nepal. I loved the place twenty years ago and I love it today, despite the growing pains. The owner tells me he learned to be a barista while working at the Gloria Jean’s chain in the UAE – where we had flown in from with a load of his fellow Nepalese migrant workers. He makes the best coffee in Kathmandu and his all-Nepalese customers know it.
We talk politics. I say at least maybe the Maoists have forced the Nepalese to get off their knees and stand up for themselves. The monarchy is history and that’s good in the 21st century. I say they should nationalize the water and protect it since it’s their biggest resource. We rail against Indian influence and the Tata and Birla families, which ultimately control both India and Nepal. The international bankers are not spared. Nepalis are generally very well-educated.
I walk back to the hotel. My foot is a little better, but now Jill has diarrhea again. This place is not sanitary. Even the bottled water is suspect. I begin to wonder if there are better places to get sick than Kathmandu. The infrastructure here is in decay. There are one or two power cuts every day. There are more touts than before, too. People are desperate and just barely staying above water. I’m glad Jill got to see this place. But I’m also ready to go.
There are military checkpoints all the way to the airport. My heart sinks. The Maoists now have a majority in Congress, but have quit the government over disagreements with the military about integrating Maoist fighters into the armed forces. This place could blow at any time. We have to get out. It has that Lima bus station at 4:00 AM feeling – complete with intrigue, disease, filth, paranoia and uniforms.
I breathe a big sigh of relief when we finally reach the airport. Our flight is delayed for two hours. We meet a Canadian school teacher while we wait. When boarding begins, a mash of South Asian teenagers crams the gate. I don’t think they’ve flown before. They are going somewhere to be exploited. We see Mt. Everest as we fly out of the Kathmandu Valley. The food and Scotch are below average, but at least they are free.
Four hours later we are circling over the brand new Suvarnabhumi International Airport east of Bangkok – an architectural wonder surrounded by rice paddies.
Dean Henderson is the author of five books: Big Oil & Their Bankers in the Persian Gulf: Four Horsemen, Eight Families & Their Global Intelligence, Narcotics & Terror Network, The Grateful Unrich: Revolution in 50 Countries,Das Kartell der Federal Reserve, Stickin’ it to the Matrix & The Federal Reserve Cartel. You can subscribe free to his weekly Left Hook column @www.hendersonlefthook.wordpress.com