house of happy

Life adventures in prose and verse. Explorations of places, people and words. Stories and fun.

Friday, 10 March 2017


Every journey reveals more of the meaning of courage, grit and sacrifice. 

Good quote? I've just made it up. It doesn't refer to life journeys, goals, self-discovery; but venturing around Kathmandu, even the shortest errand. Meeting friends for lunch is a heroic dash. The thought of seeing any tourist sights beyond the immediate neighbourhood is exhausting - even the ongoing Shivaratri festival, somewhere on the outskirts, with all the promised sightings of Sadhus smoking piles of hasheesh. We talk often, but never make it, to the improbably named 'Garden of Dreams' - it's not far, but remains beyond our energy levels.

I would compare any such journey to wrapping a foam noodle around your waist and jumping in the wildest river you can picture, with rapids, frothing water, jutting rocks; and letting it take you wherever it desires, with only a vague but fervent hope that it would spit you out eventually.

In fact, if you like that mental image, you might as well replace water with dust. Dust, as I said before, is ubiquitous. A friendly taxi driver explains "it's just Melamchi". Melamchi, on enquiry, turns out to be a vast urban water project that has been going on for the past 27 years. There is a final push to finish it this year (and here the taxi driver laughs and laughs). But this burst of activity means that they've dug deep ditches besides the relevant roads, making them narrower, letting loose all the dust. Add all the construction work - rebuilding after the earthquake - and we have the perfect storm in the Kathmandu valley.

Survival in the dust bowl demands my whole attention; but when I have the chance to look beyond these ferocious streets, I find a gentle, beautiful city. Not just buildings and temples - the people strike me as friendly and kind. There's poverty, but hardly any beggars. Against all odds, they seem upbeat and stoical. Weddings, it appears, involve a brass band marching along the streets, with the guests in tow. It's loud and festive, everyone dancing and shouting, resplendent in their bright clothes. Several times I found myself dashing down four floors just to see these processions, having heard them from the roof terrace. 'What am I doing?' I would ask myself, running down the stairs, but joy is infectious and here was a chance of seeing Kathmandu at its best, without braving the traffic.

One taxi driver pointed to the royal palace - tall fence, somber building - and a friend told me later that I could have gone in. "You can see the bullet holes", he said, referring of course to the last 'party' at the palace, on 1 June 2001, when the Crown Prince killed his parents, the King and Queen of Nepal, his sister and younger brother, a handful of other relatives, and himself. Forget bullet holes. Fine dust hung and hovered over the gardens of the palace. You could almost see the royal spectres gliding around.

Outside the city, traffic gets marginally better, roads get exponentially worse. We make two journeys into the countryside; along short stretches of tarmac - so narrow and pitted with deep holes they might as well scrape them clean and start again; the rest, earth and dust and bumpy enough to scramble your internal organs to a haggis.

Oh, and these roads are usually carved into the edge of one or other chasm. Turning each hairpin corner, there's an eerie whistle of wind and eternity. I still hear it as I write this sentence, on a rainy day in Edinburgh. I'm so glad to be sitting here, writing this sentence.

So glad to be writing the next: that, if you have the grit to brave those country roads, and the courage to open your eyes, and if the haze allows, you see the mountains. The real ones, the ones they see from space. How lucky and how wondrous is that?


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