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Roommate In Kathmandu

“Are you looking at that flyer?” A small Asian woman asks looking up from her own notebook as she busily jots down numbers from off the cork-board.

We were in fact looking at that flyer. It was the only one on the board that was looking for a roommate, or had a place to offer. The rest were attempts to find rooms, “Need housing, please contact,” “European looking for housing,” “Neat, tidy woman seeks apartment near Boudah.” And this one flyer, “15,000 a month, spacious apartment, need roommate to split rent with.”

“Yea, we were,” I answer curiously.

“Oh! This is my flyer, I’ve only just posted it.” the woman grins at us. “Do you want to look at the place, it’s just right around the corner.”

Tamara and I look back and forth at each other and shrug.

“Right now? Yeah.” Tamara says.

“OK”, and we hustle out of the hall way down the stairs of the school.

“I’ve just moved from Tibet, maybe a few days ago. My cousin, he lives in Nepal, he find this apartment for me to study at the school. It’s very nice, very nice, but just too big for me and too expensive for just one. I saw it and thought, ‘oh I don’t need such a big space’ but, maybe to share it’s good.”

We nodded anxiously as we walked out of the monastery  where these two girls would be going to school. There are monks milling about here and there, some hanging out of windows or lounging in door ways, some just young boys, some old men, they nod as we pass or ignore us.

“Yea that sounds great, for us the cheaper the better,” Tamara says and we pass by the closed doors to the puja room. They’re decorative and painted beautifully bright red and I’m reminded of Tamara earlier that day as we sat on the steps in front of those doors.

“How could you feel bad about going to school when the place is this beautiful.” she had said.

The doors in to the puja room

We step back out onto the slate streets and start walking down away from the stupa, bouncing a little in our step.

“I told my cousin I don’t need such a nice place, but he got a good deal and payed already for three months, now I have to pay him back, how could I say no?”

The street is very clean and calm, by Kathmandu standards. There are only a few motorbikes here and there and an occasional truck, hardly any honking, people are sweeping in front of their shop fronts and selling fruit from carts. I love the chaos of Kathmandu, the busy, hungry, craziness of it all, but have to admit a feeling of relief as we gently stroll through this pleasant neighborhood.

Darting to the left down an even smaller street we round the corner and pop through a little gate.

“This is it, brand new building,” she says.

It’s a four story tan building with little balconies and the kind of place that has funny decorative pillars, but has a little yard with grass and bushes and looks simple enough. I’m surprised, in fact, that it’s so nice. Up two flights of stairs we open the door to a gigantic living room. There is funny green carpeting laid down that looks like astroturf.

“See, so much space, I don’t need all this,” the woman says.

She guides us into an equally enormous kitchen with a wrap around counter that is barely higher than my knees. She opens a door that leads onto a tiny little balcony over looking roof tops with prayer flags flapping in the wind. A beautiful Kathmandu scene with gigantic hills rising in the background and a young boy flying a kite from a roof top. I can see cows munching grass in a lot next to another large red monastery with golden roof tops.

Our Kitchen

We duck back in and she shows us another room. There’s a bed with purple flower sheets and blue carpet with blue curtains. The monastery is out of the window and the cows munching away and over the roof tops I can just see the tip of the stupa. Tamara and I are now nudging each other excitedly.

“So what do you think?” The woman says.

Tamara and I look at each other. We had this fantasy before coming here. We would find the smallest moldy room we could, buy a hot plate and become minimalists. We would eat nothing but rice and lentils and drink black tea. Maybe we would wear all black, read nihilist philosophy and only burn candles at night. But here it was, a beautiful apartment, cheaper than anything we’ve seen and more room than we knew what to do with.

“I don’t know, what do you think Jack?” Tamara asked me smiling from ear to ear, and then in unison, “I think we’ll take it!”

Out our window

“I mean if that’s ok with you?” Tamara asked politely.

“Of course! Great ok!”

“I’m Jack, by the way,” I interjected and shook the woman’s hand.

“Tamara.”

“My name is …” she uttered something and I stared blankly at her.

We stared at her blankly for a moment and she smiled and laughed, “In Tibet we have no first and last name just you are given one name. I think that it might be rather long for you, so you can just call me Wang-mo.”

We laughed and nodded.

“Wang-mo,” I repeated. The sound is not like w-A-ng but an ‘ah sound with a soft g, Wh-ah-n-g-moh. It’s a little difficult but after a repeating it a few times we get it and she smiles.

“Which room would you like?” she asks.

She’s already set up all of her things in one room. That room has a it’s own shower and two balconies slightly larger than the one in the kitchen.

“Oh we’ll take the empty one of course,” I say. We explain that our stuff is in Thamel and we’ll move in the next day and blissfully flee down the stairs with pleasant goodbyes.

 

When we arrive the next day Wang-mo is there. She greets us warmly though we’re a bit late from dragging both or packs, a guitar, an accordion, and two day bags through the hot sun on our way back up. We drop them in the room and lay down pulling all of the curtains shut. The blue curtains light the room with a bright blue color and with the blue carpet we laugh and say call it an underwater room. I take a shower and the water is nice and cold in the hot day. As I’m getting out though I realize that I’m not sure what Wang-mo is comfortable with. Maybe she’ll be shocked if I dart from the shower into our room in just a towel. I hesitate for a moment listening to see if she’s in eye sight and when I feel it’s right take the chance. Luckily I make it back into the room undetected.

Our Blue Room

Then I laugh a bit. I’m not sure what is expectable for roommates in Tibetan culture. She seems quite modern and lived in an apartment in Beijing, China before this, but she’s still very traditional. I notice Tamara and I being a little more polite than we might necessarily be in our own home. We’re both a little uncertain and test the waters with her. She seems so accommodating, but is that really the way she feels or is she overcompensating for our brash, crude western ways?

Over the next day or two we decide on some household items. We buy the bed and help her pay for some of the wears in the house; the stove, the curtains, the carpet. When she got here it must have been a bare concrete hole. We struggle with the idea of buying things we might not have gotten for ourselves, still trying to hold on to our minimalism, but the place is pleasant and we like living here so we help her with the expenses.

Her cousin’s friend, another Tibetan named Duk-la who’s lived in Nepal a while, comes over and we all go out shopping for a dinning room set. We go from store to store, Wang-mo, Tamara and I discuss different options for tables as we peruse the little shops, mostly filled with the same furniture. They have a little lumber yard and are building these things themselves, but for some reason every store you walk in is selling the same tables with fake laminated wood grain tops. It’s the same with most shops. They all sell the same colored plastic buckets, aluminum pots, pans, steamers, Kwix chips, and individual packets of shampoo. You might walk past 100 stores and not see one thing that wasn’t in the other stores. Wang-mo translates what we talk about to Duk-la, asking, “with a discount please, we’re students,” and then Duk-la translates it all in to Nepali to the store keeper and each one gives us a price, and then we talk it down.

We buy a small coffee table for a few hundred rupees and some cushions to sit around and we’re all very pleased that night when we gather around the tiny little table Sitting on our pillows drinking tea and eating.

 

It’s still a bit difficult with Wang-mo after a few days. We’re not sure of Tibetan tradition or what would be appropriate and what wouldn’t, and several times we’ve over stepped our boundaries. She doesn’t get upset, but we have philosophical differences that accompany cultural practices that just make things complicated.

Tamara bounces her doubts about Buddhism to Wang-mo who was raised in the religion.

“So if there’s no such thing as a soul, why are people held accountable for their past lives?” Tamara asked one night over dinner. We eat at the same time, but separate meals. Wang-mo insists if she doesn’t eat meat she’ll be ill, but is shocked that we Tamara killed a cockroach.

“Well, there’s no soul, really, they taught us that. And they tell us the story, but I don’t know how. They tell us, that you can make an aspiration for the future and then you really will get it, but maybe just in the next life,” Wang-mo says.

Tamara is uncertain about the whole buddhist philosophy and tries to get answers from Wang-mo, politely, but she wants real answers. When I talk to Tamara about it I can’t hide my skepticism, so I try not to get too involved so she can get an unbiased opinion from a real buddhist.

 

We explained Couch surfing to Wang-mo and told her we were excited to host people, having been hosted ourselves and never having an opportunity to give back. She said that would be ok, and I was quite excited. Having bizarre worldly faces showing up all the time and going on mini-adventures with them while Tamara was at school sounded like the perfect way to take up my time. But after one eager french man, who spoke mandarin to Wang-mo, and was very polite, and then a couple of Polish girls called ‘the hot toddies’, Wang-mo was done.

The Hot Toddies in a Kathmandu Bus trip

She explained that having guest in her culture was overbearing, that they were to be treated as Gods, and she felt uncomfortable with the idea of them just lounging around on the couch (our couch is two single foam mattresses one leaned against the wall) and making their own dinners. We explained that it was ok, they didn’t expect anything from us, but she felt uncomfortable.

 

A whole mess of events led to ‘the hot toddies’ taking our room for 10 days while Tamara and I escaped Kathmandu, and Wang-mo first said it would be fine, and later told us that she didn’t want to host couch surfers anymore.

We were frustrated. We wanted Wang-mo to be our close friend. We tried to bond with her. Money issues of renting together and for uncertain lengths of time muddled our feelings. Tamara’s confusion and dissatisfaction with buddhism confused her. She doesn’t drink because women don’t do that. She doesn’t play cards because the Dalai Lama said something about an evil symbol on the cards. It’s hard to bond when we just operate differently.

One day Wang-mo had pulled up some Youtube videos of Tradditional Tibetan dancing and was trying to learn them with Rin-chin watching nervously. She has three movies she bought and talks about, Seven Years in Tibet, Kundun (a movie about the Dalai Lama’s life), and the BBC documentary; The Lost World of Tibet. She doesn’t know who Bob Marley is, or the Beatles.

Monks playing volley ball outside our window

But when we returned we felt relieved, plodding up the stairs, to be home. And though there was palpable discontent with each other when we left, Wang-mo opens the door smiling and laughing, and telling us about how she ran around grabbing anything solid in the streets during an earthquake, and we all three laugh. I feel a bit of relief in our short little talks in the hall way. They can be a bit long and we don’t talk philosophy much anymore, but I’m glad she doesn’t think we’re strange musical, boozing, card playing atheists who let strangers into their home and don’t make them dinner every night.

I am all those things, but also, I’m Wang-mo’s roommate in Kathmandu.

 

To hear more about our lives check the lovely Tamara’s Blog!

www.letmenowild.wordpress.com

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Prelude to Kathmandu

In a whirl wind, Tamara and I, met, fell in love, made promises, and chased down some work to make enough to run away to Kathmandu together.

We took one last romp across the United States, from Key West, Florida where we had amassed our meager fortune, to Las Vegas, Nevada, where she flew home to visit her family before we set flight across the pacific.

This is a bit of what that trip looked and sounded like.

If this don’t make you want to travel the states, I don’t know what will.

The Chill-Out Hotel

The Chill-Out Hotel

A young boy helps us haul all of our stuff up the stairs and into the room. He looks about 12 years old and is constantly smiling, laughing at us or with us we can’t tell. He opens the door and we set all our stuff down. He mills about the room looking at things, straightening the sheet and turning the water on and off and on and off and on and off until we hand him 50 rupees. He thanks us and leaves the key.

The door shuts and Tamara and I look at each other, then around our room. There are two twin beds, a dirty carpet and a pungent oder of age and moisture. The toilet we learn needs an extra bucket of water dumped in it to flush, which is ok because there is always an extra bucket of water sitting next to it collecting water from the leaky shower head, which is located in the middle of the bathroom and empties onto the floor in typical nepali fashion, but the drain isn’t quite doing the trick so the floor is wet and tracks water on to the carpet, which might be one of the reasons that there’s black mold growing all up one side of the wall near the window, which looks out over the front of the hotel and into the street, which is still bustling underneath us with the insistent honking of rickety vehicles off all shapes and sizes having near death experiences.

We laugh a bit and collapse on to one of the small stiff beds, looking at each other excitedly and anxiously, talking about the man, and the boy, and how we ended up in this funny hotel and grab hold of each other.

It’s rude to be touchy and kiss in public here so we make up for lost time. Finally, a place that’s as overwhelming as we are for each other.

A little later we take cold showers in the dank little bathroom and head up to the “chill-out” restaurant to have a beer and relax.

On the roof the young boy is there with what looks like his brother, just a year or so older.

“Namaste,” The older brother says handing us some menus.

“Namaste, I’m Jack,” I shake his hand.

“Tamara,” she says and shakes his hand.

“Suzin,” he says and points to himself. Then waits for us to order something. I ask for a match to smoke a snipe I’ve found and two beers.

“Nepal Ice?” I ask

“Yes, of course.” He nods his head.

He goes in to the kitchen and phones someone else and I hear him ask for Nepal Ice.

“Oh you should just order a cigaret,” Tamara says. “You can buy just one here, you should do it. Just for fun.” Tamara says.

I’ve been trying to quit smoking and usually only smoke cigarets I find. Tamara frowns every time I do but doesn’t scold, so I take the opportunity and decide to have a nice full smoke. When he returns he has a box of matches and no beers and is out of breath. I ask him for one cigaret and he looks at me.

“Ok sir,” he sighs and nods his head.”

It’s only then that I realize he’s had to go down the stairs to get the matches and is heading down again for the cigaret, at a full run.

A while later he returns with two cigarets and I thank him guiltily, but I don’t think he understood that I felt bad that he had to run twice down and up again. A little while later he runs down the stairs again and returns with the beers. I’m not quite sure, but I think he had to order everything from a liquor store and then run down to get it.

The beer is cold though, a typical Iced beer at 7% with the usual slightly foul iced flavor, but we pour it in glasses and slurp it down as we stare in wonderment at the colorful roof tops around us and talk about our plans for the day, the week, for years to come.

A group of four or five men stroll by us.

“Namaste.”

“Namaste.” We greet each other genuinely and then they gather around a table in the corner of the rooftop where there are two other white looking men.

The sun starts to fade and with the night a bit of rain starts in. The other men go inside but Tamara and I don’t move despite prompting from the two boys. We’re still a bit dazed from the 34 hours of travel and confinement on a plane only to be released in such and active and chaotic place that we just sit and take it all in, including the rain. But when it starts raining a lot harder the boys usher us inside quickly and we sit next to the group of men, now packed closely in the small restaurant which consists of three tables but plenty of chairs. They’re all laughing and speaking in English and rolling up spliffs from taylor made cigarets.

“You smoke?” is how we’re introduced, and I chuckle as I look up at the freshly painted little sign that says “chill-out.”

It doesn’t take long before we’re all laughing and talking and sharing anecdotes of where we’re from and where we’ve been and what we’re doing here. Three of the men own the hotel. They’re young looking, maybe early thirties and laugh a lot. The two white people are from Spain and Canada and are staying in the hotel and smoking a lot of pot, rolling and passing and rolling and passing it around.

“Never ask a Nepali about politics,” one man answers our pry about the political situation here. “You’ll only end up more confused,” he laughs.

“We once had a man, who lost two elections in two separate places at once and became the prime minister,” Another man added with a chuckle and a shake of his head. “Yeah, this is true.”

“Look, our prime minister had made a commitment to step down today, because the negotiations for a constitution are failing, and he did not,” another man said pointing to a cartoon on the front page of a glum looking prime minister.

“Everyone is corrupt. Everyone. We have so many different types of people in Nepal different politicians, they’re all corrupt.”

“For instance, there is a dam in Nepal. Every year it floods Nepali villages, because gates closed. Kills 100’s of people, but every year the gates stay closed. Because, Nepal has no say, when to open the gates, India is decides. If it’s open, the flood is in India, so they stay closed, even though the dam is in Nepal.”

“What can you do, all is corrupt.”

We laugh darkly.

I soak up everything, hardly saying a word as these men go on. There is so much to learn, and listening is hard because they have heavy accents and we’re talking across other people talking, and sometimes they break into Nepali mid-sentence to answer someone else. I feel a great gap in my understanding get wider as I learn more. There is so much missing context so much history, and I wish I knew the language, or had studied more. They tell us about Nepali food, and tradition, and villages, and Kathmandu, and we drink and smoke and laugh. More men enter the room and we’re all talking over one another and through one another learning and telling stories and always laughing until it feels very late and Tamara nudges me and asks If I’d like to go have a look around Kathmandu.

We say our good nights and head down stairs.

In our room our heads our a daze and we needed something before we went out but we’re not really sure what so fall back into each others arms. At some point we say goodnight and both fall asleep.

At three a.m. I notice Tamara restlessly shuffling around the room. I try to stay asleep, but, to no avail, and she quickly notices I’m not really asleep.

“Hey, you want to go out for that walk?” she asks. “We have no water and we haven’t eaten since the plane. I’m starving, and so thirsty!”

I listen to the streets for a moment and hear nothing. They’re surprisingly quiet. For a city that was a virtuoso din only hours ago, it’s dead silent now.

She climbs into the bed again next to me encouraging me to get up though we both doubt that  there would be anything open at all, but once she’s laying next to me it doesn’t take long for us to both fall back asleep.

We wake up early and head back up to the restaurant. We’re not sure if it will be open at 6 a.m. but there are the two boys standing around in the kitchen and they seat us at a table. We order a plate of mo-mo’s, which are like pot stickers, some Nepali tea, and pancakes, to share between the two of us. After 20 minutes or so the tea comes. We look at each other anxiously, having missed two meals. Another hour later the boy approaches us with a plate.

“Mo-mo’s not possible at this time,” he says with a nod and sets down the plate. There are two pieces of white toast with butter and jelly.

We thank him, laugh while eating the toast, and head to another restaurant for breakfast.

After breakfast we explore the streets. We wander around chasing rumors of a mud-fight festival but end up lost for hours wandering around a mad city. We find another hotel for 350 rupees, much smaller, with no restaurant but a bigger bed for the two of us and much cheaper so we take it, but I feel guilty for leaving our friends at the “chill-out.” So when it’s time to leave Thamel and move up to Boudha, where our new apartment is, we go back to the chill out restaurant for dinner.

Out on the roof, everyone is there. Now more Nepali men then before, and also an older man with his much younger wife. They are sitting around a table while she chops some sausages.

“This is an old friend of ours from the Ukraine,” they introduce us. “He stayed here, three months and has just come back with his new wife. They brought us some sausages.”

The woman is pouring rum over the sausages in a bowl, telling the man what she needs in Ukrainian and him repeating it back to the group. Tamara and I order some vegetarian Dahl Baht from the boys and they trod off, while Tamara and I laugh knowing it will be at least two hours before the food comes. The woman then tries to light the sausages with a lighter, pulling her hand away quickly expecting the rum to burst into flames. We all laugh and help try and to help her light the rum.

“In Ukraine, Vodka, POOF,” she says. Making the sound and motion of an explosion.

It’s another regular party at the chill out and they bring out vodka and hand around cigarets and offer us sausages.

“Vegetarian?” one man says laughing and looking down at their sausages while he sets up a grill to make Korean barbecue. “Have as much cabbage as you like!” he points to the plate of steamed cabbage on the table.

We all laugh and, just as before, the rain comes and drives us all inside. They’re are more of us then there were the last time so the small room is packed and a man in a cap commands that I sit in the chair next to Tamara as I try to stand and make room for someone else.

“You are our guest.” he says and pours more vodka into my glass. They pass around more pot and tell us more stories of traditions and Nepal.

“Vegetarian?” One man asks and stuffs my hand full of potato chips.

We can’t tell how long it’s been, and Tamara is starting to get hungry nudging me and laughing about the absence of the boys since our order. I kind of hope that they have forgotten the food, as my mouth feels dry from smoke and my stomach tight from vodka.

At one point the man in the cap says they’re going to get more booze and that in Nepal everyone contributes. I’ve already been feeling a bit guilty for taking so much of their hospitality and jump at the chance to contribute, but open my wallet to only find about 80 nepali rupees and a 500 bill which we had to use to pay for our food. I hand him the 80. He looks at me for a moment unsure.

“This is very small money,” he says. “Here no you keep it.”

I try to explain that we have a little more, but have ordered dinner and so need the money for the meal, and he can gladly have the change.

He nods his head sort of and takes the small bills. When he returns he sits next to us and opens the bottle and tries to pour us more vodka but I refuse.

“At ‘chill-out’ you are at home, yes? Where ever you go, that will be your house, but now ‘chill-out’ will be your home. Yes? Ok!” he laughs hard and shakes my hand.

“We have the best job in the world,” a visibly drunk man says. “I stay in one place, every night we are here, but we meet people from all over the world. They are our customers, yes, but also, our friends. In Nepal, in the villages where we come from, there is no have and have not. You need milk, and I have it, I give you milk. I need food, and you have it, you give me food. This is the Nepali way.”

I start to feel queasy and uneasy, having brought nothing to this group of men, who so heartily want to give. I know he’s just trying to tell me that it’s no big deal about the money and wants me to enjoy ourselves, but I still feel uneasy. I think that I live that way too, and it’s a beautiful way, but want to be on the giving end, to share my milk, but have none.

They spend every night in their hotel, drinking and eating and giving to those who stay there, so that the people who come there enjoy themselves. They’re so proud of the name, “chill-out” hotel and ask us what we think.

“Chill-out, what you think? When you come here, just, chill-out,” they laugh and congratulate each other on the name. Slapping their backs and drinking and smoking more.

Our food comes. It must have taken three hours and I’ve lost my appetite completely. Here are these men who want to make friends and run a business while doing it, and i’ve brought, “small money.” But the plate is huge, a giant mound of rice and lentils and soon they bring out bread to eat with it. Tamara digs in with her hands the Nepali way and I follow in suit but only feel sicker with the food my stomach full of queasy booze and uneasiness.

“Ah, when you eat this way,” the drunk man says. “It reminds me of my home.” he says referring to the villages where there are no ‘have’ and ‘have not’ ” he says, but It makes me sicker to remind him of his home and of ideal practice, and I try to wolf down as much as I can.

“This is “chill-out” special!” one man says as one of the boys puts down another plate. “Potato-chips!” They laugh and chat more as I pour the soggy fried potato chips on the dal and force more down trying desperately to not be rude. My fingers sticky and my stomach bulging.

Finally, Tamara pushes her plate away and says, it is too much she can’t finish, and I do the same. She’s been to Nepal before so I follow her lead in trying to be polite but we both know that it’s rude to not finish and half of our plate is still a mound of lentils and rice.

My head is a whirl now, stuffed, nervous, confused, guilty, stoned, drunk, unsure and wanting these men to be my longtime friends. Maybe I’ll leave and come back with some sausages someday. But we only stayed one night, and we brought nothing, and barely enough money for the food and drank and smoked freely. So I swallow hard when Tamara signals to me that she wants to go home. I wanted to wait, wait for some perfect timing when the men had gone to bed and I could discretely pay the boys and hand the rest to the front desk to be held for the man who bought the liquor, but I knew there was no way. It would take all night, and neither Tamara or I with cloudy head and dizzy body and convex stomach could play that waiting game. So we stood up and started to say goodnight, and thank you thank you thank you, to the men, and where are the boys so we might pay them?

“No!” the man shouted, “No you don’t pay now, please you can pay with room.” and my biggest guilt was realized. The man thought we were still rooming there. We argued back and forth that we should pay now, and that we want to contribute to the booze, and no he was sure that he didn’t want us to leave that money and we must pay with our rooms please. I could tell he didn’t want us to feel like we were paying for their generosity and I didn’t want to feel like that either but we only had one bill and no room tab and they wouldn’t take money. And then, with a heavy heart, I tried to explain that we had no room at the hotel that we just we’re coming by for dinner and to see them, our friends, but the man didn’t understand and Tamara grabbed the money  and dropped it on the table, saying “just leave it,” and made to leave and he jolted up and pushed the money back in my hand and I tried to explain again. He looked at me so earnestly and said “please..”  and I almost made to leave, thinking he should make his gesture, and I’d leave the money with the front desk on the way down, and then the other men burst into shouting as well in Nepali and they were trying to talk over one another, to explain to that man, or what they were saying I don’t know but I dropped the bill on the table again and the man looked me squarely in the eye.

“Please, no pay now.”

But he didn’t understand, and the other men were shouting and everyone was drunk and mixed up. I said thank you again thank you thank you, good night, I’m sorry and we rushed down the stairs into the street me in a fit of confusion to go stay in our other hotel, for 350 rupees, much smaller, with no restaurant but a bigger bed for the two of us and much cheaper.

Boudah

“Boudah, Boudah, Boudah, Boudah, Boudah, Boudah!”

Ratna park is jammed with people. The whole place is pulsing, thriving, people selling combs and watches, people roasting corn on a bed of coals, people selling socks and pants, people selling rings and batteries, people frying balls of dough to be stuffed with sauce, and all around them people milling around or talking or eyeing goods or laughing or fighting through the crowed. There are lines and lines of micro busses, little things half the size of a VW bus filling up and pulling away and pulling up and emptying out and then taking off again into the busy hectic streets to maneuver their way up the stream of honking vehicles.

“Boudah, Boudah, Boudah, Boudah, Boudah, Boudah!”

The food smells sweet in my nose and I pause often to look down at the blankets on the ground.

“I shouldn’t have bought that underwear before we came,” I say to Tamara gazing down at some “macho” brand briefs.

The people are gruff but not unkind. When I meet someone’s eye I smile and nod and mostly they don’t respond, but everywhere men are holding hands and hugging and touching each other in a friendship that is so taboo back home.

“Boudah, Boudah, Boudah, Boudah, Boudah, Boudah!” a boy with dark curly hair is shouting, hanging out of one of the busses. Tamara is the first to hear the chant, just barely over the roar of the crowed and the shouting salesmen and the hundred other busses shouting different destinations.

“Jack, this one!” She says and in one motion we negotiate a price, hop aboard and the bus roars away. It’s a tiny bright blue bus. All the seats have been replaced with benches around the edges and we’re the only ones inside as the bus sputters through traffic, but only for seconds. The bus immediately pulls over again a three well dressed young men in pale blue, yellow, and pink shirts get inside.

“Boudah, Boudah, Boudah, Boudah, Boudah, Boudah!” He screams again as the bus careens to the curb nearly hitting a group of old women. He jumps out of the open door while the bus is still moving and slaps the side to signal the driver to stop. The women pile in and off we speed again.

“Boudah, Boudah, Boudah, Boudah, Boudah, Boudah!” The boy is leaning fully out of the bus holding onto a cloth handle as the bus speeds around a corner and onto a narrow slate street.

“Boudah, Boudah, Boudah, Boudah, Boudah, Boudah!” He slaps the side of the bus again and a young women on her cell phone gets in and shows the boy her student ID. He nods.

“Boudah, Boudah, Boudah, Boudah, Boudah, Boudah!” The bus is surely full now but we keep packing in more, 8,10,11,14, and still the bus rattles up to groups of people standing on the street and packs more in.

“Boudah, Boudah, Boudah, Boudah, Boudah, Boudah!” I can’t wipe this stupid grin off my face as we swoop back onto crowded streets, packed jowl to jowl in the bus and pulling, within inches, along side other busses packed just as thick. A woman in another bus catches my eye and laughs, and I laugh too and then we zoom away again.

“Boudah, Boudah, Boudah, Boudah, Boudah, Boudah!” and then Tamara taps me on the shoulder.

“We’re here.” And I push my way out stumbling and laughing again as the bus vanishes.

The street looks familiar despite the hour long journey. Same store fronts selling, red, and blue, and green plastic wear. Tiny little restaurants making mo-mo’s in giant steaming vats. Crowds of women in beautiful kurtahs, and men holding hands. Piles of brick lay on the sidewalk for construction projects. An old crippled beggar. The occasional tourist with a large camera draped around their chest wearing silly “traditional” nepali clothing. Mud and garbage lining the gutter.

My head is always a curious daze in Kathmandu. In a place where you need to look where you’re going, I’m constantly bumping into people or stepping on Tamara’s heel, as my head spins with wonder.

Then we’re sucked through an huge decorative gate I hardly even noticed, tucked in between photo shops and produce stands, despite the beautiful detailing with yellows reds greens and blues and two lions on either side with great big round tits in a roaring, licking pose.

Tamara infront of the stupa in the rain.

The scene changes almost instantly. A music shop is playing a loud Buddhist chant and it washes over me. It’s all of a sudden clean and quitter, the shops sell beautiful beads and clothing and my eyes fallow the motion of people up to the gigantic stupa and meet the eyes painted on the side. It stares at me. An enormous round building, not a building, a dome, not a dome, a temple, but not a temple and we fall into the rhythm of the stupa. All around it there is a wall lined with little prayer wheels draped with red and yellow and green banners, and as people walk around and around it, they spin those wheels, while turning and turning handfuls of little prayer beads, and it all creates momentum and I’m swept right into it.

At some point we sit at a bench facing the stupa and gaze up. There a long strings of prayer flags leading up to the tip of it. The tip is a bright gold that descends into a sort of hat resting above huge painted eyes, that look down over the three levels until it settles back behind the wall and the prayer wheels and the people walking around and around it.

Tamara and I look at each other. I want to hold her, but I know it’s rude so just sit close and exchange looks between long wistful gazes at the stupa.

“Tapika nam ke ho?” I hear someone struggling over the words. It’s a young girl sitting on a bench near us as she’s struggling to talk to the old Nepali man sitting next to her. He doesn’t understand and she tries again.

“Merro nam es Ashley,” pointing at herself. “tapiko nam ke ho?” she asks the man again. There’s a moment of silence and I can’t help but laugh a little. It’s all too familiar. Trying to communicate in such a foreign place, and I look longingly at Tamara. No one wants to go abroad and just meet English speakers, so white looking people tend to ignore one another as if it would make their time there more authentic if they were the only ones there. But still, it’s such a struggle to have any meaningful interactions with just the bit of language we can pick up from software or lonely planet phrase books and a sluggish American tongue. I feel so grateful for Tamara, someone to share the struggle with. Tamara and I get up and start to walk away and I catch eyes with the girl and we give each other knowing smiles and a nod.

Tamara and I climb up some small stairs tucked in the corner between some shops to the restaurant up top. A young man brings us tea and we order a plum sauce pancake with raisins, sugar and rum.

The stupa from our safe vantage

“Today is a very special day,” he says. “Today there is a great festival, it’s to celebrate, when the farmers have taken all the wheat, there is just mud. Boys will dress as girls and girls as boys and it will be very funny.”

As we finish our snack on the roof top, the rain starts in, gentle at first and we watch it pour off of the stupa, but then worse and harder until it drives us inside. There, another young man is holding and plucking at a guitar. I ask him to play something and he refuses, asking me if I play. I pick it up and look at the song he’s been eyeing. The guitar is out of tune and I try and put it back the best I can. He’s trying to learn a song about people using alcohol to kill themselves by Brad Paisly and I try to strum it as they play it for me on the stereo. Then I ask them if they know any Lead Belly, I don’t know why, but thought they might like it and play “In the Pines.” Then Tamara suggests maybe Johnny Cash but they haven’t heard of that either.

“Lupe Fiasco?” one asks. “John Mayer?” Tamara and I kind of laugh and say no. I want to play songs they know and think maybe I’ll learn to play some Brad Paisley. I would never do that back home, but it’s not cheap to these boys. They don’t see the goofy country music industry, they don’t feel a resistance to the modern music industry the way so man Americans do. In circles I run in, we hate that kind of factory produced pop country. Here, it’s fresh and original, a way for them to break the traditional and I can support that. They’re glad I played the songs I did and say to come back anytime.

As the rain clears up we go back out into the square and the crowds are starting to gather around the makeshift stage they’ve erected in front of the stupa.

There’s loud music playing and I poke my head over the crowd gathered around. There are big drums pounding and several trumpet players, the clarinet player is pausing now and then to drag his cigaret and in a big circle a man in red traditional looking robes and a big wooden mask with huge toughs of hair flowing out of the top is dancing wildly whipping the hair back and forth and to and fro and jumping at the crowd.

Just then a motorcycle roars up behind us and a man in a rubber monster mask is sitting on the bike in all leathers with a fresh cow skull strapped to the front of the bike still dripping blood from it’s nose as he whirls a whip over his head and shouts at the crowed and roars off again.

Hell Ridder

We make our way up on top of the stupa where already there are big crowds but figure it might be a better vantage.There are already some men wearing dresses arriving waving and blowing kisses and children dressed as poor farmers chasing one another. It’s not long before the rain starts again. It’s light at first and we try to tough it out just like before and just like before it starts to come down in buckets and we join a crowed of those unprepared with umbrellas running down the stairs, so we head back up into the restaurant.

“We saw you down there,” our waiter laughs and we laugh too. We order a ginger, lemon tea, rum drink with honey called the Mega Mix or something like that and sit down to watch from the window.

People in costumes keep arriving but they run under the cover of the stage, now packed thick with people dressed like bushmen and cows and policemen. The rain still pours but people stand all around, under umbrellas laughing or dancing in the rain. We wait a long time laughing as a man dressed as a woman sits on a bench with an umbrella, or a little boy jumps out into the rain and then darts back under the stage until finally the rain eases and the people mill back into the square.

Wet, beautiful, Nepali... women?

Now the biker is back and he’s got some friends. A man in a skull mask and one, shirtless with green paint on his chest and wild hair brandishing a big foil sword. They roar through the crowd get off and throw themselves at the crowd forcing them back. Young boys in rags with a yoke on their shoulders drag a cookie tin from a rope held by another boy with a basket on his back full of grasses. They run along the edges of the crowd and people scream and run away.

“They have a very dangerous plant in those grasses, if it touches you, it’s like a bee sting, oh, very painful,” our waiter says also leaning out the window and laughing at the crowd.

Dangerous bushmen

A man wearing rice bags on which is written, “fishing man,” is throwing a big pink net at the crowd and then dropping an eggplant on the ground and picking it up out of the net as if he’s caught it out of the crowd. A man has a vest and two different shoes on, shorts with long socks pulled up, a wide brimmed hat and sunglasses with a sign on that says, “Kathmandu 2011 tourist.” He kneels down low getting all sorts of angles with a mock fancy camera that looks like it’s made of cardboard painted black. He stops people, pointing his device at them and then shows them the picture he’s taken, there’s a picture of a woman taped to the back. He looks up at the window we’re leaning out of and takes our picture.

Nervous demons

Two little boys, painted blue and one wearing devil horns like little daemons, are holding hands looking worriedly at the crowd. There are people dressed as deer, and there is a man and his son dressed like traditional Nepali men pretending to dance drunkenly. Two men arrive, all painted, and stand facing each other pointing up to the sky with big wooden masks on,

“Those are Tibetan gods,” Tamara says, then laughs hysterically noticing they’re holding enormous stuffed cocks in their other hands.

New costumes keep arriving and we keep howling with laughter as they chase one another, or drive the crowd back again or dance. It’s too funny. What a wonderful practice, to have a festival to celebrate but for it to be so silly, and it just grows and more people arrive and gather around and we laugh more.

A hard on for buddhism

After hours we tell the boys in the restaurant we’ll see them again and head down stairs, the square is still packed as we make our way back out of the stupa and another bus swoops us up off the curb.

“Ratna, Ratna, Ratna, Ratna, Ratna, Ratna,” A boy is leaning out of the bus as it tears away, and me with that stupid grin on.

My Ol’ Girl

Just a diddy I wrote and recorded while Tamara was at school.

We Arrive

The airport in Kathmandu is totally unlike any I’ve ever been too. Usually airports are huge monuments to modern achievement, a sort of bragging entry into a country, with technology showcased on the walls, in shops, billboards, cultural art and pictures of national scenery, in the context of gigantic planes humming about through huge pane windows in an enormous parking lot transporting people from one end of the earth to the other. Airports are one of the most in-depth symbols of inherent striving for global community. We all want to see and know each other, but there’s just too damn many of us and we’re too far apart.

We taxi up to an old brick building about the size of a typical industrial wear house. There are maybe four or five other planes and a barrage of old beat up trucks and vans with stairs attached to their tops. One of these trucks pulls up to our plane and we head out. A group of women in beautiful kurtas wearing yellow caution vests stands at the foot of the stairs ready to clean the cabin when we leave. There are weeds growing up in the middle of the runways and around the edges and Tamara looks around in a familiar awe as I just take everything in.

We all load up into what looks like an old city bus, but most of to seats have been removed so we stand, as the buss wheels all the passengers 20 yards from the plane to a long hall way. It’s dank and damp in the hall, well worn with age, and there’s windows looking out at the patches of weeds and grass on either side of us.

“Yes! See, this is why I love Nepal Jack,” Tamara says as she leans toward me. She’s looking at another group of women in kurtas and vests this group is sitting on the ground behind the building and chatting as one women picks the callouses from her feet and they smoke and laugh.

They’re so comfortable, and something about the place makes me feel comfortable as well. The way the building was allowed to age, and nothing is manicured, laminated or preserved. Men are digging trenches for water lines with their hands and a shovel in flip flops, just doing it the way that comes naturally. Not at all like the Korean airport we stopped through on the way. It was pristine, the carpet looked untouched, the walls glaringly white and crisp, the traditional Korean furniture in the hall way, beautiful, but untouched, like a ghost ship never used but full of people. There were walking conveyor belts swiftly taking people out of the gates, where somehow a huge shopping mall had grown all around them.

We go through immigration and the man takes our information, writes it on a piece of paper, hands us a carbon copy and we pay him $100, there is no computer record of us having entered. I can only imagine where they store all those bits of paper and how they would find mine if asked. How refreshing to get back to something tangible, like slips of paper, they crinkle and tear as he hands me my copy.

Our bags are already off the plane and are sitting by some men who work for the airport. Against our wishes they grab our bags and put them on a cart for us smiling and helping us out, the door. As we’re walking the man leans in close to me.

“Tips sir? Just some tips?”

I try to explain that I have no money to give him and try to find some Korean money from our layover but find nothing. He scoffs a little but says it’s ok, and smiles, before walking away.

Immediately we are bombarded by people standing around the exit.

“Where are you going?”

“Trekking sir?”

“Oh, Nice guitar!”

“You want an adventure?”

They are all friendly and speak english, smiling and laughing with one another and curious of us.

We pay the set rate for a taxi and are handed fists-full of business cards as we cram into an old rumbling taxi.

“Tibet Peace House please.” Tamara asks the driver and we zoom off.

A well dressed man is sitting in the front seat next to the driver. The driver says nothing but the man turns around and smiles.

“Ok. Sure. We take you to your hotel m’ams no problem. But first maybe we stop by another place I know. It’s nice, m’ams and sir’s, very good, you just look at it, if you like it, you can stay, if not, no problem, we take you to your hotel. No pressure.”

Some typical meanderings in the streets of Kathmandu

The taxi sputters and weaves in and out of traffic, we pass around bikes and motorbikes pass us. We dodge into on-coming traffic now and then to get by a stopped truck or buss, or pull into the middle of an intersection, stop and then dart through just in time. I can’t help but laugh a little. What good style. “Just try not to hit anyone,” I imagine the rule of the road is. American traffic laws seem to assume everyone is an asshole. Really the rules are just made to prevent people from killing each other, but it’s condescending to those who have no intention of killing anyone. Here you have to have a certain amount of trust, and fearlessness to be in a car.

“But I assure you that this hotel is much nicer and I’ll get you a good price, no problem. I know you think maybe your hotel is a little cheaper, but only a little, and I’ll get you good price, I’ll just show you and then I’ll talk to the man, no problem. You’ll see It’s very nice I just don’t want you to feel like I’m pressuring you, we go okay?”

Building with what you got

We pass a cow munching grass standing in the street, and muddy alleyways speckled with litter, street dogs chasing one another or lying on the sidewalks next to old women and men selling produce out of carts or off of blankets. It’s as if nothing is really planned, organic, like the city just grew, and more people came and it grew more, and more people came and it grew more. Just like ivy grows and spreads, naturally, large and thick, seemingly out of control, but beautifully so. People are carrying bricks in baskets on their backs up half finished flights of stairs to mortar them with their hands. There is a three story scaffolding made of lashed bamboo. Getting something done is so real here, just do it, get some bricks and make it. There’s hardly any big machinery, no crews of 30 men lifting pylons with cranes and pouring tons of concrete at a time. Just a few guys, or women, doing it the simple way, not the easy way, but the simple way.

“Really Ma’ms I think you like this place much better, it’s very nice and I’ll get you cheap rate ok? Yes, no problem, you are looking for something not so expensive, and this place is also very nice. We have a rooftop restaurant. It is called the ‘chill-out.’ There, there is no problem. Just, no pressure, we just look.”

Men are shouting selling wears off of blankets or out of suitcases and we dart into a packed little part of town where the buildings rise four, five, six stories above our heads. Each building is lined with people selling Nepali Goods; curved traditional knives, woolen blankets and clothing, mountaineering gear, cultural art, singing bowls and everywhere there are people and bikes and rickshaws and motorcycles and taxis and trucks and tractors, shouting or honking at one another.

Tamara leans over and says, “This is Thamel. The Tourist area.” as I stare out the window or bend my head down to look way up at the roof tops littered with prayer flags and clothing and plants and water tanks, giddy with the freshness of it all.

Hanging out.

“You are here for trekking? Or, just to see some sites? Anything you want to do maybe, I have the right connection, know some people, I help you.” the man tells us.

“No, I’ll be going to the University in Boudah,” Tamara says.

“Ok mam’s for teaching english or…”

“No, I’ll be studying, Tibetan language, history and Buddhism.

“Good, good. I am a student at the university. I am working now on my masters. Yes, next year I will be finishing, and will be finishing my masters degree. Yes, in social studies.”

I’m a bit surprised but, I’ve heard that it’s this way in Nepal. That even with a degree there are simply no jobs to be had and you often run into a highly educated person sitting in a taxi cab trying to convince you to go to the hotel he works for. He explains, that someday, he hopes he can own his own hotel.

“So, this hotel I’ll take you, It’s called The Diplomat, or maybe we call it the ‘chill out’ hotel, yes?. It’s very nice. If you don’t like it, no problem, we take you to tibet peace no pressure, I just think you like this hotel, ‘chill-out.”

And I’m a bit disappointed. In that moment I wanted to have talk to him about education and schooling in Nepal. About, how he studies so hard and for so long and how obvious it is that the money to be had here is in this hotel idea and what a shame it seems to have studied so hard only to be trying to get money out of people like me, and I don’t even have a formal education… or money.  But we digressed instantly back to the role of salesman and the buyer, and I grin at Tamara as we shrug are shoulders and tell him we’ll see his place.

We pull up to a building and get out. The man first shows us one room with two beds, then another, bigger with three beds and two bathrooms suggesting we’d really like a bigger room. We insist that the smaller room is fine. We head back down to the original room and settle on the price of eight dollars, which comes out to 527 nepali rupees. The man says if we need anything we can call him.

Resting in a hotel room

“Like smoke maybe?” he says quietly, raising his eyebrows and dragging sharply on his fingers pressed to his lips. “We have a nice roof top restaurant, ‘chill-out,’ means no problems.”