Falling In Love With Kathmandu | Robin Sparks

Falling In Love With Kathmandu

Robin SparksI am in the garden one morning reading the Himalayan Times surrounded by flowers and vines just outside of the crimson doors which lead into the house which has been my home for the past four months. The doors are flung open to receive another day. The flowers in our garden: dahlias, geraniums, peonies, roses… A vine droops over the front doors, heavy with passion fruit. The papaya tree outside my bedroom window stands straight and strong, its newly pruned limbs sprouting tiny green leaves.

A white grapes vine is growing over there, and a juniper bush here, bright pink chrysanthemums, marigolds, snapdragons, coral hibiscus, royal purple dahlias, yellow roses, mums, golden irises, squash vines, a mango tree, and a statue of Lord Shiva, with fresh cut flowers in his lap and petals scattered over his head. By 11 AM, Nepal is a kiln.


Travel writer, Pico Iyer compares travel to falling in love. In the beginning, Kathmandu was a lover I wanted nothing to do with. Its air was so thick with exhaust I could taste it. The microorganisms in its water and food were at constant war with my body’s defenses. Its infrastructure wasn’t there. It had noise pollution beyond belief, government officials who looked after only themselves, a Maoist insurgency, and worst of all, an attitude of general resignation and despair by the very people who called Kathmandu home.

But under the despair, there was something enchanting about the tiny Himalayan Kingdom. And so I relaxed into its flow, (or more accurately allowed myself to be jarred and jangled along) in an effort to find what it was that makes people fall in love with Kathmandu.

Political Update

In the last story I left you with us (Nissa, Lori, Phuntsog, Ike, and me) in Kathmandu, waiting out the bandh, a Maoist sponsored strike. We were prepared to walk to India if forced to evacuate.

By the third day of the week-long bandh, businesses had begun tentatively to open their doors. A few taxis and buses — their drivers’ faces masked, license plates covered, and signs taped to the windows that read “Tourists Only” — ventured out onto the streets. By the fourth day, Kathmandu was back in business again — the people of Nepal had finally stood up to the Maoists. We did not have to walk to India.

When the Maoists announced there would be another bandh, the people of Nepal simply shrugged their shoulders and ignored them. They looked to the government to pull the country back to its feet, but instead of joining forces against the Maoists, government officials turned on each other. The Prime Minister was suddenly deposed. He in turn deposed the Parliament. New elections where announced. Meanwhile next door, Pakistan and India began to threaten each other with nuclear bombs. The State Department advised Americans to leave India. Nepal sat downwind of nuclear fallout if the unimaginable happened and that is where our house was, a place we called the Yoga Hotel.

The Expatriates Of Kathmandu – The “Lifers”

I arrived at the Yoga Hotel for the first time four months earlier to discuss renting a room from the landlady, Lori. The part-time expat from America gave me a tour of the two-story house fronted by a lush garden.

The walls in the “dance room”, in the sitting room, and in the kitchen were scrawled with colored chalk drawings and musings. “It’s what I do late at night when I can’t sleep,” Lori explained. Buddhist icons and photos hung in every room and there were a variety of musical instruments, old and new, propped throughout the house. The bed in what was to be my room was a 4-inch pad of foam on the floor. A few feet outside my bedroom window was the generator of the massive Yak & Yet Hotel. There was no hot water and the toilets had to be flushed, Lori demonstrated, by standing on a stool and pouring water from an upturned bucket held high over her head.

I’d take it, I said.

She showed me a book she had written, told me she’d produced a musical CD, and invited me to her music video release party the next week. She told me she was a musician, a singer, a painter, an actor, a model, a textile designer and entrepreneur, a journalist, a one-time radio station owner and announcer, a poet, and a dancer. (It wasn’t until the next day when a friend told me she’d looked Lori up on the internet, that I learned that not only was everything she’d told me true, but Lori was also the daughter of a well known U.S. politician.) The prospect of living with this human dynamo in a “real” home complete with the comings and goings of expatriate friends, not to mention a gardener, a cook, and a houseboy were too good to pass up. Lori stood at the gate as I left that day, striking a pose, dead serious, her arms swaying sinuously above her head, her fingers curled just so, in a classical Hindi dance send-off. I took an immediate liking to this waif-like genius of a space cadet who made me look like a librarian.

When I moved into the house the next evening, there was a party in progress. Flickering candles lined bothsides of the walkway leading to the front door. Lori and her friend, Alec (one of Kathmandu’s oldest expatriates) had succeeded in getting a much sought after ticket to the Promised Land – an American Visa — for her driver. The house was full of Tibetans celebrating Aashkas’s good fortune.

Lori, who was in Bodhanath that day putting the finishing touches on her new music video, arrived late. The Tibetans gathered around her, bowed, and placed ceremonial yellow Kataks (a traditional Tibetan symbol of honor) around her neck. Dinner appeared from the kitchen and was spectacular, especially the spicy marinated peanuts, but also the dal bhaat, the momo’s, and the chapati. Lori, who designs ethnic clothing from saris she collects in Nepal, ducked in and out of her bedroom, emerging each time wearing a new outfit. Hours later, after everyone had gone home, I staggered upstairs to bed, leaving Lori dancing alone in the dance room to Michael Jackson. Early the next morning I heard a car starting up in the driveway, and so I straggled out of bed to see who was up so early. It was Lori, off to see her lama.

There’s an acronym in Kathmandu for folks who don’t make it in Kathmandu, Lori told me later that week. “PUTA. It stands for ‘psychologically unfit to travel in Asia’. And there’s another, ” she added. “PUSA – ‘Psychologically unfit to stay in America’. That’s me!” Lori says. “I only want to live here or in India.”

The day before Lori leaves (she is going home for her father’s 75th birthday and retirement party), she invites me to the Shiva’s Slave Ride and Picnic — Nepal’s version of the Hell’s Angels.

We begin the day at Alec’s house. He is sitting on the floor at the head of a massive, low Indonesian table when we arrive. The Fuji’s and Lauren Hill rap from the stereo. Tall windows frame a brilliant garden. Alec, an expat from Holland exports Asian rugs and furniture. “DHAI!” he shouts, “Bring this woman a coke with ice!” The young Nepali man runs off to do his bidding.

A woman, with gray hair gathered in a bun enters and the two greet each other in an easy manner. . She has the sweet wavery voice of a grandmother and she hands Alec a bag containing potato salad. “I won’t be going to the picnic this year,” she says. “I’m training a new driver today. I’ve driven these old streets alone long enough.”

If Bangkok in Thailand is an outpost at the far edge of the modern world, Kathmandu is the distant frontier far beyond the edge.

After the others arrive, we walk together down a narrow dirt lane and enter a street mangled with honking taxis and people. Twenty or so motorcycles are lined up at the curb, gleaming in the sun. A large crowd of Nepalese gaze admiringly at the classic machines owned by the foreigners. The Shiva’s Slaves are donning their helmets.

I ride in the roomy backseat of Alec’s 1963 gold-painted Checkered Cab; an automobile originally built for the king and purchased by Alec seven years ago for $2000. Between Alec, and me sits Ron, an expatriate from New York. Resham, the driver navigates the long nosed automobile around rickshaws, between cows and pedestrians, and past food vendors. Alec pops open three Tuborg beers and puts a tape into the 8-track tape player behind his head. We lose sight of the Shiva’s Slaves almost immediately but we’ll meet up with them at the Botanical Gardens where the Ride will end and the Picnic will begin. Joe Cocker is singing “I Get by With A Little Help From My Friends” as we climb the hills out of Kathmandu.

Ron, a social worker tells me, “Unlike many expats here, I’m not a trust fund baby and I didn’t arrive with a stash of cash. I have to make a living.” He does that by writing and doing consulting aimed at abolishing the sex trade in Asia. I happen to have read his latest book the night before — a beautifully photographed and poignantly written documentary about sex trafficking in Asia — and tell him so. Ron tells me that in America, women didn’t believe that a male could be an effective advocate, but in Nepal, the mostly low caste women who make up the sex trade, are thrilled that a man has taken up their case.

One by one the Slaves roar up the hill, climb off their bikes, and stand around discussing the Ride. They fiddle with their machines. Nepali children immediately surround them hoping to sell freshly picked flower bouquets. I hear a ZZ Top look-alike say to the Nepali friend he has brought along, “Yeah, it’s been running pretty rich. Better to look it over now then after you’ve had a couple of beers.”

Most of the motorcycles are classics, ten years and older with names like Endfield, Yamaha, and BMW. I wander over to one with the letters BSA on its tank. Mike, its owner, a bearded, baseball cap wearing American, informs me that his motorcycle is a rare 1970 British Birmingham Small Arms Bike. For the past fifteen years, he’s been running motorcycle tours in Thailand, Nepal, Tibet, and Bhutan.

The Slaves and their entourage eventually meander down a trail where they lay out their blankets and eat their food on a grassy knoll next to a river in front of eighth century Shaivaite temples. The occasion for the annual Shiva Slave Ride is the much celebrated Hindu holiday, Shiva Ratri, a day when thousands of pilgrims make their way to Pashupati, to pay homage to Lord Shiva.

Later that night, the Shiva’s Slaves meet for dinner at a house they rent each year to drink Carlsberg beers, eat dal bhaat, freshly steamed cauliflower, and roti, and engage in at least three conversations simultaneously. There’s lots of laughter and reminiscing.

Ike regales the group when he recounts how Lori, who rode on the back of his bike today — her first time in the Ride — raised her legs high in the air and whooped with joy, almost tipping them over several times. Dan shows off his father’s World War II military badges and his Uncle Glenn’s from World War I. Someone says, “What do they say?” He says, “In Honor of, of…. Damn, don’t have my glasses.”  Someone says, “I’ll bet it doesn’t say in honor of killing thousands of people.”

Six or so of us leave the party early to catch the last few hours of celebration at Pashupati. We walk through the dark towards the voices chanting, horns blowing, bells ringing, drums beating, and wailing flutes. Peering over the walls, we see monkeys leaping from temple to temple, swarms of people floating surrealistically through a purple-hazed mist, fires burning in altars, Sadhus wearing almost nothing, and air thick with sweet incense. Shiva Ratri is the one night of the year when mind-expanding drugs are imbibed by many of its celebrants, where the weird is the
norm, and where anything goes in the name of Lord Shiva’s birthday.

We wander into a small temple wooed by the sound of classical Hindi flutes and settle in to listen to the men on the stage seated cross legged in a semicircle. And for the first time since I’ve arrived in Kathmandu, I feel a bit of the spiritual magic that drew so many of these expats here decades ago.

The Yoga Hotel is eerily quiet after Lori leaves. I browse through her photo albums; there are photos of Tibet. Lori in villages, Lori painting, Lori with Tibetan children, multiple photos of American expat parties, Lori, Lori, Lori in ethnic dress, in hippie dress, and in trekking clothes. Then suddenly there she is in a photo, dressed in a conservative black pantsuit in front of a stately home, her adolescent son on one side, and her parents on the other. A hippie in Kathmandu one day, dutiful daughter of an American politician the next… Is that the essence of the life of an expat? To be able to flit with ease between lives — the dream and the one that fuels it?

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