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KINDA KATHMANDU

He’s sitting there, pallid and thin, staring out vacantly at Durbar Square. He’s wasted. He looked over at me and smiled. It was that same brainless smile I’ve seen for decades. I’m a bit sick of it now; the vacuity, the Woodstockian mindlessness of it all. I lived through the Seventies. I had to tolerate every fruit-loop loser in the spirit of the times. Now I just want to beat them to a pulp.

The kid was staying just round the corner, at some dive with a stupid hippie name. He’d only just arrived but had already found what he was looking for. He’ll stay in his fatal nexus of guest house, coffee shop and street. He’ll catch a glimpse of a historical site, a temple, a cow, stumble stoned through alleyways and lanes, plonk his skinny arse on a stool in the nearest tea shop and sit and smoke dope and crash out and say ‘I’ve been to Kathmandu…’

No, he hasn’t.

For this young man the mere act of getting here is sufficient. He’s done it, ticked it off on his list; countries I have been to; places I have seen. A couple of days here, a couple there, hurtling round at the speed of light; I’ve been there, tick, I’ve done that, tick, I’ve done it all – I’m so wise, I’m twenty-one, I’m a grown up, I’ve been to Kathmandu…

No, he hasn’t.

*

It’s difficult to imagine Dogster having a youth, a time where he was not all-wise and totally perfect – but there was once a brief moment when he did not know it all. In December 1971, to his utter confusion, Dog found himself in Kathmandu, barely twenty-one years old. He was lost in a psychedelic jungle, deep on the hippy trail – of course, he behaved accordingly. Puppy Dog had finally found what he was looking for.

The Inn Eden was painted blood red. Outside, just by the door was a reassuring sign: HOME MADE BROWN BREAD.  Over the window, printed in large red letters on a blue background, were these words: INN EDEN HOTEL. Each letter had white edging, as if it had recently snowed. Below this a darker blue sign: HASHISH GANJA SHOP 1st FLOOR, above the door a long thin sign, white letters on blue: EDEN HASHISH CENTRE. Just in case you couldn’t read, each word was separated by little painted chillums.

‘…The Eden Hashish Centre was the largest of several legal storefronts in Kathmandu that provided quality hash and grass to the tourists. Mr. Sharma, the owner, opened two shops. The original location was at 5/1 Basantpur in the famous “Freak Street” hippy district, a location that ironically now is occupied by a bank. The second shop was located at 5/259 Ombahal, said to be in the Thamel area.

Once inside he had an immediate choice; stumble up the stairs to the Hashish Emporium or take a left into the Coffee Shop, a dungeon with wooden benches and what appeared to be a pig-run under the stairs. Wee Doggie took a left, eased himself into a cubicle and ordered the hashish grilled cheese slices.

In late 1973, soon after the second Eden hash shop opened, threats of the loss of foreign aid from the American administration of Richard Nixon forced Nepal to outlaw hashish and marijuana. The two Eden Hashish Centres, the Central Hashish Centre and the others closed their doors and the pot and hashish business moved underground…’

He woke up nearly forty years later and stumbled outside. Things had changed.

*

There are only three kinds of people in Thamel – travelers, dumb tourists and those who make their living from the first two. Don’t look any further – that’s it. It’s a polluted backpacker crap-hole and getting worse – but we’d better take it seriously; for way too many travelers, Thamel is Kathmandu.

Thamel is a construct, built up around the backpacker brigade during the late-seventies and eighties to service their every need; cheap hotels, fresh coffee, donuts and German cakes, spaghetti and hamburgers, draught beer and easy, underground dope, just like Goa. The tourists created Thamel – now Thamel creates the tourists.

Things have been horribly out of control ever since; building piled upon building, burrowing, arching, searching for that elusive door to the street, all boasting a haphazard kamikaze of signage overgrowing alleys in a last desperate attempt to be noticed. In season the streets are chock-a-block – somebody’s making money. Every building is a shop; every doorway leads to a restaurant, a bar, a massage parlor, a barber, a jeweler and fake Adidas shoes. There’s more – mystery doors into mystery places filled with ‘cool Nepali dudes’ trading whispers with craggy trekkers; a thriving sex industry; hustlers galore.

In a perverse way I quite like the place; it’s precisely what you want Kathmandu to be – a little bit of Bali, the tang of Amsterdam, a strangled Nepali Marrakech overlaid with sweet Tibet. Thamel is no more ‘real’ Kathmandu than I am. It’s a distorted snapshot of what somebody once thought Kathmandu should be – long after it wasn’t.   And it’s all Richard Nixon’s fault.

*

January in Kathmandu is bitterly cold. Only the vampire prickles of Thamel bother with the tourists, rearing out of the damp like half-dead wraiths; hooded, shriveled, petrol-sniffing children; junkie youths hissing ‘smoke?’ ‘we-e-e-eed?’what you want?’, incanting the same carnivorous Om-m-m-m to indulgence as their long-dead, frozen forefathers did forty years ago.

January days are crisp, warm and clear. There’s a window of opportunity during the daylight hours. All fine, provided you wake up before 1.00 p.m., something Dogster consistently failed to do for the entire time he was there. He slept like a dead log, encased in a burrow of squash-you-flat doonas, suddenly in winter hibernation. My window of opportunity became rather small. Dogster never made it out of the hotel before two – by five p.m. it’s damn cold and when the last rays of the sun disappear the temperature plummets; by six it’s bitter, by seven I’m either somewhere warm or dead.

Better eat dinner early. Even on a weekend the restaurants in Thamel are shuttered by ten, the streets empty by ten-fifteen, just the last drunk tourist shouting their last drunk goodbyes. By ten-thirty Thamel is virtually deserted, only the glue babies left shivering in the dark.

*

Bandh disrupts life in Kathmandu

‘…In Nepal, normal life remained disrupted in Kathmandu valley today following a day-long bandh called by Rashtriya Janmorcha protesting against federalism. Major shops and business establishments remained closed and public transport were off the roads, affecting road communication between Kathmandu valley and other parts of the country. Cadres of RJN vandalised half a dozen vehicles including taxis, motorbikes and buses in Bhaktapur, Chabahil and Gongabu, New Bus Park and Putalisadak for defying the bandh call. Police have made tight security arrangements to maintain law and order…’.

Kathmandu Jan 10 2010

*

Even in arctic January, rust never sleeps in Nepal.

You can always tell when there’s a bandh, you wake up late to something missing; the hum, that buzz of business – all gone. Look out the window – nobody. As bandhs go, Sunday’s was very calm. Somehow, I missed the cadres of RJN youth vandalizing cars. The media certainly didn’t – you’d think the whole of Nepal was ablaze. Quite the reverse – it was all rather dull.

Information for a non-Nepali speaking tourist? None. Actually, nobody wants to tell you that you’re stuffed – because if you want to go anywhere, you are. A pre-dawn dash out of the capital has been known to work; backpackers recently reported colorful scenes hiking overland through the deserted streets to the airport – the wise tourist just changes plans and gives up. Thamel has an invisible cordon around it, rarely broken even at the worst of times. Even an enraged Nepali Maoist knows not to bite the hand that indirectly feeds him – be it criminal or tourist. Layers of Nepali sub-Mafia run Thamel – no matter what the politics, business will out. In a way, it’s probably the best place to be.

*

There was a small green sign on a large blue bus parked on the edge of Thamel. It read:

TOURST SUTTELE BUS

ONLY for TOURIST

Then it said the same thing again, hopefully in Nepali.

The suttele bus was straining with locals, intent on a lift out of town. How real tourists suttele to the airport during a bandh remains a mystery. There is no transport. Cycle rickshaws work in the Thamel area with trepidation, motorbikes zoom through, a rare, rare taxi cruises by – but that’s all. The shops are shuttered, every door, every window – not a chai, not a coffee, not a scrambled egg to be had. Some find it refreshing. I was hungry.

Generally, bandhs are most ferocious in the morning when the RJN cadres are fresh, enthusiastic, all primed to beat the bejeezus out of any errant shopkeeper, any greedy taxi-driver they see. They get a bit tired by mid-afternoon.

Everybody else just stands around, waiting for something to happen. I saw many bored policemen; they are sick of it; a bandh is a bandh is a bandh in Kathmandu.  As the day wears on the marauding cadres are too tired or drunk to continue, the shutters slither open, renegade chai appears in the street; by three p.m. you can buy bananas or hashish, by four a sticky bun. The Latest, Greatest Bandh of Kathmandu passed with barely a whimper.

It was a dangerous silence, just the same.   A month later the whole country shut down for a week.

*

Now, I’m older than Thamel – but then, I’m older than almost everybody in Kathmandu. For that matter, I’m older than practically everybody in Nepal. Average life expectancy hovers at sixty-three years. I was truly a very senior citizen.

Which didn’t stop the latest Jimmy catching my eye – he knew an old hippy when he saw one. A raised eyebrow, the slightest wiggle of his head, a hurried conversation and I was following him down the street. Jimmy was pretty out of it but benign. He was a regular. He reached into his pocket as we were walking down the street and pulled out a lump of hashish that made me stop dead in my tracks.

‘No-o-o-o, way too much. Lordy, put it away, it’s huge!’

The block of hashish in question was the size of two cigarette packets side by side.  It was a brick of golden brown, bigger than the hand that held it, easily the biggest block of hash I’d seen in my life. People pushed past us as we stopped near the taxi rank, dead centre of the main street.

‘It’s O.K.,’ Jimmy said, I’ll break some off for you.’

He rotated it for my inspection, completely unconcerned, then tore off a chunk from one corner and palmed it to me with a handshake. With rain starting to pour around us I returned too many Nepali rupees, said a hurried goodbye, threaded my way back through Thamel dodging junkies and motor bikes, cars and a particularly enthusiastic demonstration of screaming women who firmly believed that their shouting would remove China from Tibet. I settled into my new hotel doing what you do to the corner of a giant block of Nepali charas.

Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

*

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