| Outside magazine, October 1997|
"And the wildest dreams of Kew are but the facts of Kathmandu."
It's late for Kathmandu, already almost midnight, and I cling to the shoulders of photojournalist Tom Laird as we lurch down deserted, shuttered alleys on his motor scooter, cruising Sherpa pubs, two queris on the chhang trail of the Snow Leopard. Queri is Nepali slang for Westerners; it means "white eyes," a coy play on the word quero, meaning "cloud." Queri ayo, villagers might say mischievously, spotting a group of trekkers: The clouds have come.
Chhang is Tibetan-style homemade barley beer, and Laird, a veteran of the rock-and-roll raj, lingers in the doorway of each dim establishment we visit, vacuuming up the sweet fermenty harvest-fragrance of the brew, barking at me to Smell it! Smell it!, not hearing my recommendation to Drink it! Drink it! But the sad fact is that each chhang bar we come to, the Snow Leopard has already been there before us and closed it down. Wobbly proprietors open their doors to wash us in the after-aroma of Sherpa revelry and tell us, "He was just here drinking, he just left," and then recede into their own fog.
I guess you could call Laird a Sherpaphile — who isn't in this town, the world capital of adventure, the Rome of the hip universe, where the Grand Tour in the sixties and seventies traveled east to become the Great Trek and the Great Pilgrimage, where 335 outfitters and agencies compete with the city's thousands of shrines, icons, and strange objects of veneration, squares and courtyards to rival the Piazza Navona, and enough public art to choke a Vatican curator with envy, or an art thief with greed.
Laird lived for several years up in the Khumbu region below Everest, home ground of the Sherpas, recording the community's traditional songs and folklore, chumming around with high-altitude heroes like the Snow Leopard. The Snow Leopard is the nom de guerre of Ang Rita, the man who's summited Sagarmatha, the Nepali name for Mount Everest, more times than anybody else, alive or dead — ten times altogether — and last week, on the north face with a team of Russians, Ang Rita turned back a couple hundred meters short of his 11th triumph, leaving behind a pair of queri corpses from another expedition.
A prodigious achievement, but the excitable photographer doesn't really approve, single-mindedly disgusted by the Sherpa rate of attrition up on the summits. "Those peaks are sacred!" Laird rants over the whine of the scooter. "The white guys came in and bent the Sherpa world view from mountain as god to mountain as goal. The Tengboche lama says he never gave anybody permission to climb Everest. He says it's a sin and always will be. The Sherpas know they're not supposed to be up there, but how can they say no to the money?"
We pull up to the entrance of a courtyard flanked on one side by a shabby concrete apartment building. Laird's eyes narrow behind his wire-rimmed glasses and he whips off his helmet, swinging it in a wide arc to emphasize his point. Even with the engine turned off, Laird is loud. I sort of like it when he yells; I like the passionate investment in the issues, the suddenly inflated meaning of everything.
"I'll hire Sherpas to haul my ass up Everest," he says, "when people start killing their caddies to play golf."
I don't know where we are exactly — some centuries-old neighborhood on the edge of Kathmandu, the low skyline broken by the fabulous tiered roofs of pagodas. We've been getting closer and closer throughout the night, and now we've come to the end of the trail, a clean, brightly lit, two-table restaurant with silk kattas draped along its walls and around the necks of its sunburned, wind-raked clientele. They just poured him into bed, Ang Rita's bunkmate tells us, pointing to a window across the courtyard. The Snow Leopard's plastered, wasting no time on his first day down from the upside. "The queris are leaving tomorrow, and he's got nothing to do," explains another Sherpa guide; they each have raccoon eyes from wearing snow goggles. Here at the end of May, with Ang Rita safely back in his bed in Kathmandu, the heavyweight climbing season is over for another year, and it's time to binge on glory.
Despite the mountain caddies turned into blocks of ice in the service of other people's obsessions, and even though Laird insists that just because the Sherpas have played along with our goals doesn't mean they've accepted them as their own, one thing's for certain: The queris have been very, very good for Sherpas. In the 30 years that travelers have been storming Nepal, barrels of hard cash have rolled into the Khumbu region, and the Sherpas have used it to strengthen their community and fortify their culture, sinking money back into their shrines and monasteries. They've made an entrepreneurial assault on the biz, too, starting their own trekking agencies, running teahouses and lodges, leasing Russian Mi-17 helicopters from Tatarstan for $1,000 an hour (with crew) and charging twice that to whisk climbers and hikers up to altitude. And of course there's the psychological payoff. Working for the queris, the Sherpas have earned a reputation as the world's most agreeable but tenacious studs, so much so that the word Sherpa itself, as Laird reminds me, has entered the English language as an adjective to describe anyone with particular skill and prowess who prepares the way for others. Not the worst of all possible fates for an isolated Central Asian mountain tribe living in one of the planet's most impoverished countries.
Another round of chhang for my men and horses.
Our feet scuff a free-market strewing of happy-hour handbills as we walk through Thamel — ground zero in Kathmandu's tourist boom — headed for the Maya Pub, the only place that seems to be open, clomping up a steep, narrow flight of stairs to the funky bar. "Don't you just love that smell of shit and incense?" Laird says happily. Hepatitis has kept him away from Thamel drinking establishments for ages, and he squints through the murk, mildly shocked by the presence of three young Nepali women, their red-tipped fingers gliding over half-full bottles of San Miguel beer. You wouldn't have seen Nepali girls in a bar ten years ago, but since Laird has been teetotaling, Kathmandu's changed, become more cosmopolitan. Women have stepped a bit closer to the forefront of society, although it's questionable whether the first Miss Nepal contest, held in 1995, is evidence for or against this trend.
As recently as 1947, Nepal was the largest inhabited country on earth yet to be explored by Europeans, and the life expectancy was a prehistoric 24 years. When you enter the second half of the twentieth century as a medieval and in many ways pre-feudal kingdom sandwiched between a newly independent India and a newly communist China, and make a conscious decision to modernize, you probably ought to expect some whiplash. In rush the not-always-farsighted do-gooders, outfits like the World Health Organization, to take one example. They set up clinics, eradicate disease, train people to take better care of themselves, make a dent in the infant mortality rate, accomplish noble, generous objectives, but my goodness, someone forgot the birth control pills, the population triples, and here comes a housing shortage, a food shortage, accelerated environmental degradation, unemployment, and a bloated bureaucracy slurping on the platinum teats of the Lords of Poverty: competing donor nations, international developmental aid organizations such as the World Bank, self-righteous NGOs and vanity charities, carelessly recycling Big Money through the Third World. And Big Money, folks, leaves Big Footprints.
Thanks in part to the global homogenizing of this subtle but virulent form of colonialism, Nepal's seemingly endemic problems are not especially unique. You give us your problems, we give you ours. The nature of migration only intensifies the dynamic. Adventure tourism: an outflow of the affluent into the tribal world. Immigration: an inflow of diversity into the established mainstreams. Two sides of the same postmodern coin. Yes, the gap between the haves and the have-nots in Kathmandu is widening, but that's true for London and New York, Moscow and Zurich, as well. OK, Kathmandu is filthy and traffic-clogged, but compared to Mexico City or Bangkok or New Delhi it's downright user-friendly. Yes, the environment's under pressure, but on a day-trip stroll up the Annapurna trail, which hosts 50,000 trekkers a year, I spotted only a single gum wrapper littering the footpath. Yes, the culture is eroding, but so is France's, so is everybody's as they ingest American pop culture, the most narcotic substance in the galaxy.
Still, it's tricky, this not-always-sincere experiment called development. Once you let the Coca-Cola out of the bottle, the landscape is going to change regardless of any effort to preserve it, but how much for the better and how much for the worse? Suppose you run a charity and decide to bring electricity to all the monasteries in Mustang, which have somehow managed to survive without a hot plate for hundreds of years. Is this good or bad? What are the social parameters for such dramatic change? Hard to say. You want to help, but what if you hurt? Suppose you're an overconfident altruist who wires the Tengboche monastery at the base of Everest for electricity, yet maybe you overlook the necessity for a fire extinguisher on site, and you forget to instruct the monks in the proper use of space heaters and circuit breakers, and the monastery burns to the ground. Gosh, that's bad, we can all agree, but the intention isn't, is it? In 1992, almost 95 percent of Nepal's energy needs were still being met by firewood. The percentage hasn't decreased that much in five years, despite the fact that this is the country with the greatest hydroelectric potential per square mile in the world. Burn a monastery, save a forest?
In the eighties, Tengboche became something of a microcosm of what adventure travel had done to Nepal. During the high season, a thousand trekkers a day were cruising through; monks would just throw off their robes and join the expeditions, and the lama was hard-pressed to deal with the situation. Today Tengboche, rebuilt since the 1989 blaze, is no less a freeway. Apple pie, peanut butter, brandy, satellite uplinks, fax machines, Everest has it all, and somewhere along the trail the concept that there are pure places that require a pure presence from us became too heavy a load.
"Democracy," says Laird, "has unleashed the floodgates of desire without any of the structures to fulfill them!"
"What?" I stare at my immoderately eloquent companion over a glass of local vodka. "What did you say?" Laird, I think, must stand in front of a mirror and practice these lines.
Nepal's infant democracy, in fact, has been the photographer's ticket to ride. From the eighteenth century until 1950, power in the kingdom was jockeyed between two dynastic families, the Shahs and the Ranas — not exactly a civic-minded bunch. An India-sponsored mini-revolution ended with the creation of a coalition government in 1951. Nine years and ten governments later, the king turned off the lights — too much hubbub in Nepal's fledgling democracy — and the lights stayed off until 1990, when Nepal's outlawed political parties decided they were destined for greater things than life underground. Throughout the country there were marches, protests, the mass defiance only ballooning when police began to shoot demonstrators. On April 6, the Movement to Restore Democracy rallied 200,000 people, who surged down Durbar Marg toward the royal palace, where the police opened fire. Weaving in and out of the demonstrators on his scooter was Tom Laird, the only queri photographer to document the bloodiest day in the history of modern Nepal. The official death toll was ten, including a young British tourist. Laird, however, had photographed the police beatings and had had heard, as many had, of the police hauling off truckloads of bullet-riddled bodies. Several days later the good King Birendra "converted" to democracy, elections followed in '91, and the new prime minister, G. P. Koirala, mentioned to Laird that Nepal owed the brave photographer a favor. Name it, said the PM. Taken by surprise, Laird couldn't remember his dream-come-true list and declined the offer.
After a sleepless night, he got back in touch with Koirala. In 1952, the Swiss geologist Toni Hagen had been the first and virtually the last Westerner permitted to visit Mustang, the magical high-desert valley north of the snow peaks on the old salt-trade route between Tibet and India. But with the end of the Cold War, the gates to off-limits border areas were being cautiously unlocked by erstwhile foes. That spring of 1991, Dick Blum, the well-heeled chairman of the American Himalayan Foundation, a fellow who apparently cannot be identified without the encumbering appellation "the husband of Dianne Feinstein," became the first queri to see Mustang in decades.
Laird wanted to go to Mustang, too, record the antiquities with his camera. Done, said the PM, have a nice trip, and Laird became the first foreigner ever to live in Mustang for a year, and the first to get a permit to cross the border to visit Mount Kailas, Tibet's most sacred peak. For years, the people of Mustang had been begging the Nepalese government to open up the valley for a piece of the touristic pie, and now it happened, the ancient kingdom intimately married to the world for better or worse, richer or poorer, in no small part because of Laird's collaboration with Peter Matthiessen, who later joined the photographer in Mustang and wrote the text for the published collection of Laird's mesmerizing images, East of Lo Monthang. But nobody, not even the rabidly sensitive Laird, can go to such far-flung places without dragging in the microbes of transformation. His own demand to prohibit the use of outside porters caused the price of wheat to double, and he frets, however belatedly, that Mustang will soon become an anthropological zoo.
Nepalese politics have continued to be steadily unsteady, as befits a newborn democracy. In 1991 the Nepali Congress Party won a majority in the elections, but despite the dismantling of Marxist-Leninist regimes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, the Communist Party of Nepal placed a red-hot second. Six years later, even as Laird and I sit in the Maya Pub, ballots for another election are being tallied, and the Communist Party is walloping the opposition.
But there's more. Among the reds is a splinter group of pyscho-rad communists who identify themselves as Maoists and broadcast nothing but contempt for their houseboy compa˜eros. Thus in early 1996, to gear up for the forthcoming election, the lunatic faction announced it was starting a people's war. For the last week, every time I picked up a Kathmandu paper, I was treated to alarming headlines about Maoists terrorizing voters and disemboweling local functionaries with Gurkha khukris.
The geopolitics of tourism can tilt either way: the foreigner as valuable friend and ally (Tibet), the foreigner as enemy, scapegoat, and pawn (Kashmir). "Is it true," I ask Laird, "what I've been reading about the Maoists?"
"Yep," he nods. For the moment at least, the terrorists have been operating mostly in the jungles and in the midwest, nontourist regions, though he recently heard about a Maoist demonstration at Jiri, the roadhead for the Everest trek. I had been told that the American embassy was under pressure from the Nepalese government not to publicize Maoist shenanigans, allegedly because it might put a damper on plans to launch a nationwide tourist campaign in 1998.
"Is it true," I asked the secretary of tourism and civil aviation, the affable D. P. Dhakal, who sat behind his desk in Kathmandu's palatial parliamentary compound, jiggling his head in that curious way Nepalis have, "that you're trying to start a tourist campaign over the top of a Maoist insurrection?"
"Tourism is a thing which is totally aloof from politics," Dhakal said with the fine assurance of a man who works and lives in the capital of a country with a centralized government. "Yes, the Maoist thing grows, but it cannot be there forever. They did it for elections. They did it for attention." Surprisingly, Dhakal cited the "positive" example of Sri Lanka, how the violence there was never targeted at the tourists, who flew in and headed straight for the beaches. "Here, even if we have an insurrection," he said, "the foreigners will not be affected."
When the minister sighed that "the attention of the media gets attached disproportionately" to negatives, I mustered a thimble of sympathy and let the whole mess drop, wondering instead what sort of push he was involved in to inaugurate Visit Nepal '98. (Motto: "A sustainable habitat through sustainable tourism."). He shrugged and sat back cavalierly in his chair. "Our society is not built up to do our homework," he said. "Even for me, I can only plan for this week, not next week. Revolutions here are only planned 15, 20 days in advance.... Tourists are going to come anyway."
As I left his office, Dhakal had urged me to put the Maoist situation into the "proper perspective," whatever that perspective was.
The Maya Pub closes down around us, people stumbling toward the door, and we're back on the streets of Thamel, swarmed by insomniac teenage ricksha drivers. "Come on," says Laird. "Let's drive around."
We glide down twisting alleys, lines of freshly outdated election posters crisscrossed above us like the city's forgotten laundry. Laird points out the former Cabin Restaurant, infamous during the Nepal Gold Rush for its hashish menu. We cruise Freak Street, park, duck through a doorless entrance, and Laird proudly shows me where he used to live in the Third Eye Lodge, only now this section of the hostel has fallen down, his room a pile of rubble. Taped to the wall is a photocopied advertisement: "Attention Adventure Seekers. Karnali Video Expedition — My name is Matthew from Australia. Our expedition requires over-the-top enthusiasts who don't mind getting themselves bent out of shape. I guarantee this adventure will be well catered." Yeah, right. Fly-by-nighters like this drive the more responsible agencies crazy. "Things are going down-market," Steve Webster, the director and sales manager for Mountain Travel Nepal, one of the oldest firms in the city, told me. "The free market has allowed anybody to open up an agency, so quality has eroded. People are running trips out of their homes-no overhead, one or two groups a year, very little profit — and that seems to be enough for them." Webster wants less mass-tourism backpackers, more top-end clientele. "We'd prefer to see fewer people paying more money," he said, "because it has less impact on the environment and less impact on the culture."
"You can't imagine how far away this was in 1972," says Laird, peering into the dark at his memories, his face aglow with nostalgia. "Santana was booming out on the street the first night I spent in this room. You can look around and just see those fucking pyschedelic hippies coming out of the corners. We were so desperate to get somewhere. When you came over and saw those mountains, that was it, this was the end of the world."
Ah, Freak Street, the epicenter of the countercultural fantasy, the Haight-Ashbury of Asia, where the rock-and-roll raj reclined on pillows of dreamy hash, having traveled the overland route from Europe across Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Goa into the Buddhist heart of the biggest playground ever. Freak Street, where yesterday's hippies came to lose themselves in one set of myths and coincidentally started creating another. Shiva's Slaves Motorcycle Club, the brothers astride Indian-made Enfields. Peace Corps puppies overassimilated into goofy enlightenment. Dharma-droids and born-again Buddhists. Hump-a-Yeti Trek Agency. Too-Loose-To-Trek Outfitters and Guides. What fun to be a ne'er-do-well in Kathmandu. If you were a freak afoot in the world in, say, 1968, this is where you stopped, this was the end of an imaginary beginning, and there was nowhere else to go unless you were totally off your rocker: China and its Cultural Revolution, Southeast Asia and its wars-too far fucking out for this world or any other.
Kathmandu became Asia's emblematic antithesis to Vietnam and the lurid Conradian lust for darkness, the apparent antidote for all the bad knowledge Western civilization seemed to be coughing up like blood clots. Light was Kathmandu's essence. Butter lamps instead of napalm. Puja instead of paranoia. Here in Kathmandu the exotic was timeless and transcendent, inherently hospitable (and therefore inherently exploitable), hinting of eternal life, in serene opposition to the exotic as a hostile plunge toward the death of the soul. Apocalypse not now or ever. That was Kathmandu's self-defined identity, and it made perfect sense to blond-haired kids raised on The Dharma Bums, the Beatles, the draft, the dope. You could get a room for less than a dollar a day, a bowl of dal bhat cost pennies, and the reefer was like a spiritual can-opener, prying open the tin of your consciousness to the sublime, mystical weirdness of the place. "Another willing convert," wrote Gita Mehta in Karma Cola: Marketing the Mystic East, "to the philosophy of the meaningfully meaningless."
Finally Laird scoots me back to the Kathmandu Guest House, legendary for being the Ritz of the downscale queris all those many years ago. The proprietor has just built a deluxe hotel in Nagarkot, on the ridgeline above the city, which gives you some idea about how eagerly the people of Kathmandu have embraced the adventure travel phenomenon. Dawn comes with a village sound track — roosters crowing, laundresses gossiping in the courtyard, the interminable wake-up call of the cuckoo bird — and when I emerge, bleary-eyed, for breakfast, the hallway is blocked by student types lined up in front of the computer room, waiting to E-mail home, and an ensemble of Eurotrash slackers have hunkered down on the vinyl-covered couches in the lounge, their expressionless faces turned toward the TV, watching an Elvis Presley movie.
From the Kathmandu Post, May 22: "MORE FANFARE THAN DEVOTION MARKS BUDDHA'S ANNIVERSARY.
"It is not only political chaos which hindered the people of the land of the Buddha from celebrating heart and soul the 2,541st birth anniversary of Lord Buddha, the light of Asia.... Most of the pilgrims at Swayambhu were there to freak out than to celebrate the holy day. Vendors selling cold drinks, music albums, pictures and handicrafts got prominence than devotees, and the stalls were the focus than the stupa. People's indifference to Buddhism here will certainly lead our existence to the pit, a monk complained."
In the quirky English of the subcontinent, the lament still sounds all too familiar. Even the divine takes it in the cosmic balls when insular kingdoms get drop-kicked out of their pasts into the nuclear age.
On the outskirts of Kathmandu is a modest hill called Devbhumi, "Home of the Gods," and it lifts the shrine of Swayambhu toward the nearby heavens, which reproduce the immensity of the stupa, magnifying and multiplying the dome of whiteness into the most soul-boggling horizon on the planet — the snow peaks of the Himalayas. The land of the Eight-Thousands, blasting up from sea level five miles into the atmosphere. And all those divine wannabes — countless other mountains exceeding 6,000 meters — tightly accordianed into a crest known as the Roof of the World. Roof of your mind is more like it.
This is Nepal, where you climb a hill to expose yourself to the sacred, not shelter yourself from the profane — not Tuscany, where you might reasonably expect to find a fortress atop this breast of land jutting skyward off the valley floor. Kathmandu — never actually invaded, never actually colonized — has been forever too preoccupied with its conversation with the gods to have bothered much with defending itself against the material designs of men. Three million deities, or 30 million, or even, say some texts, 330,000 million of them in the Hindu pantheon, not to mention Buddha and the bodhisattvas or countless trickster woodland spirits in need of constant propitiation. "It's like Greek mythology," I heard Dubby Bhagat, another one of the city's resident infatuees and a manager at the Everest Hotel, say, "only it's happening now. That's the fantasy we should be selling." Karma, not cappuccino.
Devbhumi is where I'm headed this muggy afternoon to do something Kathmandu's expatriate community seems loath to do, which is walk, walk anywhere in the urban morass, sucking in a dun-colored haze, the diesel fumes and the wood smoke and the dust and the atomized holy cow shit all bottled up in the valley's thermal inversion to plunge Kathmandu's air-quality index to a level synonymous with black lung disease. But even polluted Kathmandu has rivers of eucalyptus purity running through its metropolitan groves, downdrafts of alpine freshness, the brisk exhalations of mountains, that leave me buoyant on my grateful march through the ever more endangered enchantment of the city.
I step past the rug merchants idle on their stoops, past Pilgrims Book House, its window full of trekking maps, and the Himalayan clinic whose lucky American doctor has just choppered down from an inaccessible part of the Tibetan border with Dick Blum following a walkabout around Mount Kailas. What fun to be a do-gooder in Kathmandu. Helicopters, advocates argue, don't leave footprints — but they're infamous for collateral damage. Not just ruined potato fields-cum-landing pads or hopping up to altitude without proper acclimatization, but the troublesome compression of experience, like the one-day junket a French television station sponsored for its advertisers. They flew the boys in from Paris, helicoptered them up to the base of a 6,000-meter peak for breakfast, whisked them down for a riverside lunch among elephants and one-horned rhinos, and then brought them back to dinner at a Kathmandu monastery, where the lamas chanted prayers for the executives' long lives.
I cross Durbar Marg, one of the city's most westernized boulevards, past pricey artifact outlets, the jewelry stores and gem retailers and vacation wholesalers, past Wimpy hamburgers with its coterie of hometown punks — McDonald's execs are in town, paving the way for the Himalayas' first franchise — and on up toward the royal palace, where Nepal's constitutional monarch, King Birendra, sits a-brooding behind the sky-high spears of an iron fence, its most contemporary function to keep the rogue elephants of democracy at a comfortable distance. A few blocks westward I step around a woman emptying a pan of goat's blood into a gutter drain and walk into Thamel.
If Thamel has changed much since its halcyon days, I couldn't know and wouldn't care. You shoulda been here 20, 30 years ago, the graying remnants of the hip community say with dismissive smiles and the sagging body language of bittersweet loss, staring off into a Felliniesque kaleidoscope of images that compose their collective past. The increasingly geriatric veterans of the countercultural road trip have wearied of all that drug nonsense; they're decamping back to the States, putting their kids into college, retooling their ambitions to become swashbucklers of the free market or heading into the foothills to become cave-dwelling mystics, reserving beds at Om's Nursing Home on Lazimpat should they need a place to cool out, come the millennium. Right — I should have been here a hundred years ago, I wish I could be here a hundred years hence, but I seem to be one of the few queris around unwilling to bitch about Kathmandu. Be here now, I know, works better when you're not part of the crew responsible for popularizing a place.
"We discovered these places, Afghanistan, Nepal, Goa," an old hippie named Jasmine told the writer Gita Mehta. "When we arrived everybody loved us. Now the whole damn world is on the trail we opened up, and the same people who loved us, fucking hate us. There's too many of them.They're not in the same class as those of us who got here first."
As far as life on the planet goes, we are certainly the last of the last generations to get there first. We boomers, Kennedy's children, heirs to the Boeing 707, presided over the deconstruction of any and all frontiers and the death of myriad traditions. We are the last to see true wilderness, the last to see life as it had been lived for centuries. Thirty years ago I was a high school junior with my first driver's license, the roof of my thirdhand Volkswagen stacked with surfboards, rolling down the wild empty beach from Sandbridge, Virginia, to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, all but deserted except for the families of migrant fishermen who had worked the tides for 300 years. We surfed ourselves silly, strutted around bare-assed, built bonfires as big as dump trucks, grilled bluefish given to us by the migrants, and slept in World War II bomber-spotting towers in the midst of sand dunes peppered with unexploded ordnance dropped in practice runs. I have never since known such freedom, never since known such a wide-open America.
Now the rickety wooden towers are gone, replaced by condos and private clubs and tony restaurants, you can't drive on the beach from Virginia to Carolina, the migrant fishermen exist only in history books, and I moved out of Hatteras forever ten years ago. Be here now? You can't, not in a place where you have a history, however short. That's the traveler's ace in the hole — no regrets, the irrelevance of hope. Jasmine's more right than not; it is an internecine class issue among restless, shameless consumers. The irony is souring and self-indicting: Hatteras, the last good place on the East Coast, is ruined, for me at least, and I mourn it, but I'll take Kathmandu any way it's delivered.
So I walk, making the city my own. I turn down Tridevi Marg, deep into Thamel, one of many neighborhoods in Kathmandu which have transformed themselves into base camps for Adventure with a capital A. Shingle after shingle of local and international companies — one for every thousand of Nepal's visitors each year — hawking their services for trekking, rafting, climbing, mountain biking, hot-air ballooning, hang gliding; armies of guides and porters to shepherd you through wildlife parks and high-altitude death zones. Mr. Dhakal's apathy toward the Visit Nepal '98 campaign was a bit disingenuous. His Majesty's government and the private sector have whipped up dozens of "tourism products" to bolster the effort: wildflower walks, snow leopard treks, angling trips, a monkey watch, honey hunting, fossil hunting, elephant polo, and 34 other "culture" offerings, including ethnological tours, festival tours, yoga tours, even a brewing tour that will schlepp you around to local moonshiners to sample chhang. The exotic as free-for-all growth industry, the global capitalization of adventure.
But where might you start to prevent Nepal's macrocosmic drift toward cultural decline and deracination? Is tourism the problem, is adventure travel a form of designer imperialism? Hard to say, when tourism is just about the only industry Nepal can depend on to democratize its rural economy and spread the wealth, rupee by rupee.
"Nepal has to have tourists," says Nirmal Chabba, manager of the famed Hotel Yak & Yeti. (If you're the sort who likes to dress elegantly and piss away money, the hotel has its own casino. Richard Gere and Bernardo Bertolucci prefer to rent the luxurious fairy-tale Tibetan palace suites on the seventh floor and meditate on their private terraces overlooking the city.) As I've heard so many Nepalis say, thank God for Everest. No tourism would turn us into beggars.
In Thamel, every few steps someone's hawking a khukri, a brass idol, a baseball hat embroidered with Buddha's eyes, but Nepalis are either too proud or too shy to hit you with the hard sell, and history has so far spared Nepal from a culture of resentment toward foreigners. At the end of Tridevi Marg, I veer south and arrive at the old pilgrims' junction that leads west out of Thamel, where I am ceremoniously joined by eight-year-old Sham, merry-eyed ragamuffin, and we indulge in a not always rewarding game. "I'll show you the way," Sham offers when I answer his question about where I'm going, but I know the route myself and decline his service. Just in case I'm bluffing, as a courtesy Sham briefs me on the route — "Down, right, over, up" — and tells me that Washington, D.C., is the capital of America. "Are you sure?" I tease. Oh yes, he read it in a book. Sham flits around me like a snot-nosed hummingbird, an adroit combination of urchin charm and beggarly boyish cunning. He's not annoying, he's brilliant, wonderful, yet still I want him to go away, earn his future without me.
"When you leave," he says, an identical silky black gleam to his eyes and hair, "will you give me your extra shirts and pants?" Sham's head only comes up to my belt buckle, but the discrepancy doesn't faze him. All over the mountains, porters are walking around in tattered oversize down vests and tattered undersize sneakers. He's used to wearing big clothes, he tells me, but the thought is so absurd we both laugh.
"OK, no clothes," says Sham. "Milk."
He wants milk. How coldhearted do you have to be to say get lost to a kid whose final appeal in this most clichëd of Third World shantytown vignettes is for milk? Still, I'm skeptical. I insist on accompanying Sham to a nearby shop to make the purchase myself, but it's not a 20-cent pint carton he wants. He points behind the wooden counter to a top shelf holding a huge, family-size box of powdered milk.
The little bastard is probably working for the Milk Baba, a local Hindu ascetic who for 16 years has squeezed out a life for himself by refusing to put any nourishment other than milk into his body. "What are you planning to do, break it down into dime bags to sell to four-year-olds?"
Sham doesn't miss a beat. He's got a shitload of brothers and sisters who apparently do nothing but sit around wailing for him to bring milk. "It is my duty," he says manfully.
I balk at the price — 300 rupees, a fortune in the shadows of Kathmandu's kiddie economy. Sham will probably grow up to be one of Central Asia's biggest criminals, perhaps even prime minister. "Why am I letting you talk me into this?" I wonder out loud, pulling a wad of bills from my pocket.
"Because it's Buddha Jayanti and you are going to the monkey temple."
Good answer. It's Buddha's birthday and I'm going to Swayambhu. Far be it for me, on such a day, on such a journey, to be the one to impede the flow of milk into the mouths of babes, innocent or otherwise.
"Are you a buddhist?" the expats i pal around with in Kathmandu eventually get around to asking. They are, I'm not, but the answer's never so simple. I confess I feel disconnected from the great theologies of man, abandoned to the scientist's god, Technologia. I have no place reserved inside myself for Catholicism, the religion I was raised with, and little warmth for Christianity in general, finding nothing in its central image of crucifixion to stir my devotion. The unforgiving severity of Islam appalls me, and being a Jew is not something you simply sign up for.
Despite Buddhism's ubiquity, Nepal has ordained itself the world's only Hindu kingdom, but as religions go, forget it. On my scorecard, Hinduism is the biggest freak show ever conceived, one carny act after another. I do, however, feel that cremation should be a spectator sport, especially for death-defying Westerners, and whenever I'm in Kathmandu I make a point of visiting its most holy Hindu shrine, Pashupati, on the banks of the sacred, scuzzy Bagmati River. This trip, on an early-morning pilgrimage to the temple, I sat on the Bagmati's eastern bank along a row of stone monuments, each housing a linga, a polished marble phallus, the ancient Hindu symbol of masculine power. I was quietly appreciating Pashupati's essence as a living place of worship when I was approached by a sassy, twentysomething sadhu, dressed outrageously in blue satin pajamas and a pink silk vest, who wanted to bum a cigarette. "You want to see my dick?" he asked. He was one of those afflicted, grotesque ascetics who renounce their carnal passions by tying heavy stones around their penises to "break" the erectile tissues. As we talked, an old woman across the river lost her footing on the slippery steps leading from the cremation ghats to the main temple, cracked her head on the stone embankment, and to the mortification of her family, expired then and there. The sadhu burst into weaselish laughter. "What's so funny?" I asked. "She's very lucky," he snickered. "She died in a sacred place." Attention, sinners: Hip and holy are a poisonous mix.
I try to explain my feelings to the Kathmandu crowd — my relief in the presence of the Buddhist sense of humor, the lightness of the pleasure I find sometimes in a monk's guileless grin, my appreciation for Buddhism's spiritually generous posture of whateverness. Yet what I find most profoundly compelling about Buddhism is predoctrinal, postdogmatic, and has little to do with monasteries or myths or received wisdom. I'm in love with the exquisite Buddhist tension between the animate and the inanimate, the aesthetics of the mountains. The sight of a row of prayer flags rippling upward toward the snow peaks astounds me, penetrating deep into the marrow. The juxtaposition of the colorful, weather-shredded flags and the floating Himalayan snowfields is the only beauty I have ever witnessed that did not ultimately make me melancholy. That's what Buddhism is to me: the graceful simplicity of its attempt to articulate the never-to-be-comprehended Himalayas, the mountains that fit no earthly scale of proportion and explode into the spirit with rupturing disbelief.
"Oh!" Heads nod. "Then you're a Buddhist."
Well, not so fast. An affinity is not faith, nor need it be, and there's plenty about the religion I find disheartening. I believe in mountains and oceans, billowy flags whispering our frailty to the void, the accrued sanctity of places like Swayambhu, and I try — an effort made significantly easier by the Nepalese — to believe in the goodness of people. All the rest can be nicely gift-wrapped into the Hindu concept of maya — trivia and illusion and dream — starting with the tasty Buddhist baloney about nirvana.
At the foot of Devbhumi I cross a bridge and fall in step with a parade of celebrants headed up a low ridge under a leafy canopy of trees. The entrance to the shrine looks like a refugee camp on holiday. Groups of families rock on their heels, sipping tea from thermoses, munching on fried dough or snow-white crescents of coconut. Laughing children run about with no sense of direction or purpose other than to be laughing children. Through the gate, a prayer wheel the size of a wine cask creaks in perpetual motion and three immense stone Buddhas the color of marigolds doze at the foot of the 365 breath-robbing steps that ascend the steep gradient of the hill. Mothers grip their toddlers by the shoulders as they slide down the long, scary iron handrail separating the up and down traffic.Three hundred steps to go and already I've soaked through my shirt, but this is why I'm sold on Swayambhu, the hill and the ascent and the summit a perfect metaphor for the sweaty elation of the trail. Everything holy in Kathmandu has been built with visual devices to divert the eye upward, Dubby Bhagat suggested to me, "just mysterious enough to tempt you further."
And perhaps no greater proof of such temptation than the daunting approach to Swayambhu: when you drop back your head and raise your downcast eyes, so attentive to your feet, and finally notice the pair of shikara, monolithic stone-and-brick towers like fat white rocket ships, stationed on each side of the highest landing. Shikara translates as "mountain peak," and their forms are architectural expressions of the soaring peaks of the Himalayas. It's hard to look at shikara without thinking ice ax, rope, oxygen. Desire, fear. Where the steps terminate, it's not the ready-to-launch shikara you first see, but what they frame: a gigantic gold thunderbolt, called a vajra, the Buddhist symbol for the absolute nature of reality, or in my own rescrambled interpretation, the absolute reality of nature.
I hump upward, my ears slowly filling with a glacial splintering of sound, the gravelly crackle of hundreds of human beings in motion. My eyes slide along the hemispheric curve of the stupa, along rising and converging lines of fluttering prayer flags, like permanently suspended confetti, toward the inevitable symmetry of the shrine's little metaphysical joke. When you set your sights high enough, you're looking at the Buddha-dude and the Buddha-dude's looking at you: the all-seeing eyes of the supreme enlightened one painted on each side of the square base of Swayambhu's golden spire, gazing out across the Kathmandu valley toward each cardinal point of the compass, each pair of eyes like a parasol balanced on the red curling staff of a stylized question mark signifying dharma, the path to self-awareness. Today, the path is being shared by soft-drink vendors doing a brisk business under a makeshift awning. Awareness, I'm forced to conclude from my own dust-parched mouth, is preceded by great thirst for the real thing, ice cold.
I sit down on a stone ledge, my sweaty back against the wall of a tiny shop and its interior breath of coolness, trying to get a fix on how it is, amidst this chaotic swirl of humanity, that one celebrates Buddha's birthday in the land where the historical Siddhartha himself was born. For anyone who has tied his or her piety to churches or mosques or synagogues, Swayambhu and its robust venerations probably won't click. Round and round the pilgrims flow in clockwise circumambulations of the stupa, slapping the hundreds of copper prayer wheels that ring its base, poking their heads inside the small dark shrine rooms recessed into the dome, flinging in offerings of rice, vermilion, incense. Like a huge, gaudy caterpillar, a saffron-vested monk crawls into view in the circling tide, sprawls flat on his belly, arms extended in front of him, pushes himself slowly back on his feet, takes a few steps forward and falls again, trailed by a white man snapping pictures. The monk has flat wooden blocks strapped to his hands to protect the skin of his palms from the friction of incessant, mechanical supplication.
From Kathmandu's quasi-punk point of view, Swayambhu is a terrific place for girl-watching. In the courtyard in front of the rest house the Nepali loverboys congregate, sniggering at a trio of fornicating dogs, their horny eyes tracking cliques of young women. With muffled snaps, a breeze steers the prayer flags toward the north and east, toward Everest, where climbers are bottlenecked at the South Col, where they are making it or not making it. Yesterday a member of a Nepalese youth expedition made it. Last week, five others — four foreigners, one Sherpa — died trying, one of them simply blown off the peak into space.
The wind lifts the dust and flies. Trash blows across my feet. There's birdsong and the bumblebee buzz of throaty chanting. Bells ring always but without a pattern; bells like Sunday church bells, like fire bells, like dinner bells, like we-have-another-winner. Out of nowhere, suddenly, monkeys scamper onto the stupa, playing Tarzan on a limp rope of old prayer flags, swinging their mangy selves up to the fretted tin roofline above the prayer wheels. The prostrating monk reappears on his circuit, rising from his knees more slowly, a white-haired old man, a slowly tumbling rock in a racing streambed. Another monk, in a porkpie hat, enters the herd holding a fat bundle of burning joss sticks like a smoke bomb, and it's this smell of junipery incense that tells me, as much as anything else, that I've returned to the Himalayas, a promise I keep making to myself. The wheels never stop spinning, the flags never stop lifting, the beasts never stop fucking but stagger between the legs of the celebrants. In this holiest of shrines, it is the joy of existence, the ascendent laughter of its everydayness, that makes the loudest statement. Just as on the mountains one glimpses with the deepest and most self-questioning awe the stunning dimension of death, at Swayambhu, from this summit, one views the miraculous, astonishing expanse of life, the light within life.
As shadows lengthen, aproned Tibetan women begin filling the four tiers of brass butter lamps that ring the base of the stupa, a signal for me to unfold my legs and wander over to the observation platform that overlooks the valley and watch the sunset. But it's the northeastern view that most engrosses me, out across the city, beyond the knob of otherworldly Bhaktapur and the honey-colored sweep of terraced fields, toward the valley's rim, 4,000 feet above, where, were it another season, one could reasonably hope to see the clouds opening and closing on the high peaks, the illusion of ideal worlds appearing and disappearing.
Here's the story of Swayambhu, and it begins with a geological fact: Once upon a time, the Kathmandu valley was an enormous shimmering lake cradled by its present-day bowl of mountains, where the first Buddha pitched a lotus seed. Eighty thousand years later, the darn thing blossomed magnificently, rising out of the water as big as a chariot wheel, a thousand-petaled flower bursting with light: Swayambhu, the light of the self-created. For the next however many aeons, the first tourists, gods and kings, crowded onto the surrounding mountaintops to check out the paradisiacal radiance of Swayambhu for themselves, adding to the future Nepal's growing expat community of dieties, since plenty of the drop-bys determined the lake-filled valley with its dazzling lotus to be a pretty good place to settle down. Then one day another Buddha, Manjushri, showed up and smote the valley rim at its lowest point with his sword, creating the Chobar Gorge at the valley's south end, through which drained the lake. But the immutable light of Swayambhu remained, its lotus transformed into a hillock upon which, sometime around the fifth century, Buddhist monks began to build a stupa, burying the god-sent light beneath a stone slab to protect it from the dark age that humans have dwelled in ever since.
A fine tale, of course. Another cartoon-colored, hallucinogenic panel in the frescoes of Kathmandu. And yet what did the sage Dubby Bhagat tell me? "It's the mythology that keeps this country together — the stories, the narratives of the people."
I stare off across the luminous nightfall of the world's most exotic valley to observe another Swayambhu levitate in the east above the storybook kingdoms of Bhutan and Sikkim, a glistening white stupa that swells and completes itself and becomes the full moon, and I suddenly recall that the wonderful Spanish phrase a dar luz — literally, "to give light" — means to be born. Buddha is 2,541 years old today, which is about how many butter lamps, now lit, encircle the shrine, the spectacular birthday cake of Swayambhu, innumerable tiny petals of flame winking in homage to the awakened self, like the firelight within jewels, or within Kathmandu's ancestral heart, a mystery so consolingly beautiful you never want to have to explain it, or hear it explained.
The night turns milk-blue, ghostly, vaporous. The city animates light, and amplifies everything within a life.
Filed To: Snow Sports