Return to Nepal

1997: Just when I thought I might never get back to Nepal, I received an invitation from the U.S. Information Agency to return for a month as “an academic specialist.” I owed this favor to Marilyn Callander, my Fulbright predecessor five years earlier. She and a friend had rented a house in Patan, which was once a separate city but is now just a cross-river continuation of the Kathmandu sprawl. Marilyn persuaded the USIA that a month-long assignment of an ordinary American would be more useful than a flying visit of a celebrity. And because her house was available, the cost would be no greater.

June 12: It is great to be back here, but I am surprised by Marilyn’s house:

1) It is far away, in Manbhawan, near the southernmost curve of the road that rings the entire city;

2) It is enormous--four bedrooms, office, five bathrooms, huge kitchen, two living rooms and two (yes, 2) dining rooms. But it is a mere cottage next to the nearby house of Muni Rana, who owns the whole compound.

Nepal is full of surprises. Many of the phone numbers have been changed, including mine. When you dial it, you get the shriek of a fax machine. I have to phone (expensively) to U.S. friends to make the correction.

You never know what you will be asked to do in Nepal. Shreedhar Lohani, my department chairman from 1992, has a long list: lecture undergrads on Coleridge and on “The Wasteland”; conduct an American Studies seminar; counsel doctoral students; consult with various English departments about curriculum; read proof of his textbooks for secondary schools.... “Of course,” Shreedhar adds, “you don’t have to do any of these things.” I have seven weeks at most, so I decline Coleridge and start worrying about the rest.

In 1992 I had the luxury of a car and driver. Now with neither, I brave the world of Kathmandu taxis. Most of them are now equipped with meters, but if you are heading out of the main city, you may need your bargaining skills. It helps to know what the fare should be. To the University campus, my top was 120 rupees (just over $2.00).

The English Department library still has the books that I brought for it five years before, and a number more, purchases and donations.The leaky roof has been repaired. Several state-of-the-art computers have been added, thanks to the generosity of Marilyn Callander. The bad news is that they have been little used; one even remains in its packing carton. The buildings retain their red-brick shabbiness, and the toilets their scent.

With much apprehension, I lecture about Eliot and “The Wasteland” to some 50 undergraduates. It seems to go well, but who can tell? Nepali audiences are always so polite.

The monsoon blows in from India: Two days of non-stop rain. (Had I been able to choose my time to visit, this would not have been it.) After this heavy start, the rains settle into a pattern--at least some every night, with showers most days. So it is always hot, wet, or both. Unpleasant, but manageable.

My principal assignment looms: the American Studies seminar. Unprepared for this, as for most things in Nepal, I scout out documentation about my own country. The English Department has a little, as does USIS. The best resource by far is the new American studies collection at the main university, one of 60 such collections provided worldwide by a recent and uncharacteristically enlightened act of Congress. Included are dozens of Library of America volumes in their uniform black dust jackets.

I spend several monsoon days in Marilyn’s study, reading and taking notes. I decide to talk about race, sports, post WWII politics... As in 1992, my audience is varied and constantly changing. It includes the current head of the English Department--Shreedhar’s cousin M.K. Lohani, a former ambassador to Bangladesh--as well as junior faculty, some of whom had attended my American Literature course in 1992. Much curiosity about America, e.g., Are U.S. prison truly luxurious? Such speculation is likely due to the spread of television in the country.

I am still uneasily carrying $900 in cash intended for the brother of a Sherpa friend. The contact phone number has of course been changed; the new one is unknown. Kathmandu houses are not numbered. All I can do is head for the neighborhood of Chabahil in search of Himalayan Sherpa Adventure, the trekking agency where I can contact the brother. I remind myself that things always work out in Nepal, but this may be an exception. An hour of wandering reveals only one unrelated trekking place. They speak little English, don’t know the agency I want, and a phone book elicits only the same wrong number. Apparently nothing can be done, but I sense that I should not leave. After tea and a 15-minute hiatus, I am escorted through a maze of muddy streets, through a Buddhist temple and into the office of Phurba Gyaltsen Sherpa.

Phurba is a member of the growing class of entrepreneurial Sherpas in Kathmandu. He has organized successful treks for friends of mine. He is visibly prospering. His apartment is furnished for comfort. The television is larger than my own. A hundred yards away, his new house is rising. Its ground floor will be his office, the next two will be rental units. He will live on top, with his wife and two children.

The next night I return to Phurba’s for dinner. A crowd of children are doing their homework in front of the television. It displays a Hindu movie relayed from Hong Kong. I happily hand over the $900, along with some equipment for a Sherpa climbing school and a tiny knitted sweater for Phurba’s recently-arrived daughter. Food and beer arrive. By the time I am done, it is past 9:00 p.m., late for Kathmandu taxis. So I stay over, sleeping fitfully because I lack ear plugs against the city’s roving cohorts of dogs. They bark only at night.

Kathmandu continues both to modernize and to deteriorate. The worst problem is the pollution, far worse than in 1992, even though because of the monsoon there are few tourists being motored about. Vehicles now need a green sticker to enter the city. This is supposed to indicate clean emissions, but.... Spiffy white electric tempos (3-wheelers) have joined the fleet, but the fare is relatively high. There are only about 25 of them, partly because the government persists in levying a hefty tariff on the batteries.

Building continues relentlessly; most of it is flimsy brick that will tumble down in the next earthquake. Communications, however, are much improved. Fax and e-mail outlets dot the streets. I used Last Minute Communications, ten minutes from the house. After removing your shoes, you enter a small room with a single pc. You get into Windows and type, just like at home. Because Nepal still has not established a satellite link, your bits and bytes follow the telephone lines to Singapore. This produces a fee, significant for most Nepalis, on both sending and receiving. The phones work fine, but are also expensive, especially for calls originating in Nepal.

July 8: with unerring timing, Susan has chosen to arrive the day of a bandh--a serious one, which means absolutely NO motorized transport. The motives for this strike lie in the obscure recesses of Nepali politics. I walk 90 minutes to the airport, passing burning tires that have been placed on the road to discourage scabbing. For the return trip I negotiate for two bicycle rickshaws, one for us, the other for Susan’s luggage. They cost about $6.00 each--an extortionate sum, but there is no alternative. Two Nepalis come with each rickshaw: one to peddle, the other to push uphill.

Without cars, lorries and tempos, the city’s air is amazingly clear and can even be breathed. Five hundred students were arrested in the day’s protests. There have been 34 bandhs since 1990, seven of them in a 30-day period the past August and September. A poor advertisement for the country, which is trying to make 1998 a big tourist year. Tourism has slipped a bit lately; a demoralizing symptom was Lufthansa’s termination of its direct flight from Frankfurt. Allegedly, economy was the only class that sold.

Susan is immediately put to work, leading a meeting of the American Studies seminar on women’s issues. Her account of the wedding of two American male friends causes a stir. Later she is drafted for an emergency family therapy consult.

Monsoon and trekking don’t go together, but Phurba arranges a hike up Shivapuri, a 9000-foot hill just north of Kathmandu. Led by a young Sherpa on break from college, we visit an active Buddhist gompa, with monks busy at prayer; then on and up through rain forest. Steady work. Nepali trails have switchbacks only when unavoidable. On the summit is an encampment of soldiers protecting the watershed. The descent by another route is relentless. Near the bottom Susan says she cannot continue, but does. A succession of taxis--one of them “borrowed” from a group of Frenchies--and a public (that is, crushingly crowded) tempo return us to the city.

Vacation time: Susan, Shreedhar and I travel west to Pokhara on a “tourist bus” that takes less then seven hours to cover the 120 miles. The conductor is a teenager who climbs onto the roof while we are in motion, solicits prospective passengers with a shout, and pounds the side to tell the driver to proceed. The bridge just east of Pokhara, which was broken in 1992, is still broken. From the bus stop, we are driven to the Noble Inn, where Phurba has booked us. Clean and basic accommodation; bring your own toilet paper. Off-season, the hotel and touristy lakeside feel deserted.

One of the occasionally mixed blessings of Nepal is that you never know what happens next. The following morning, a friend of Shreedhar’s appears with a car. We do the sights, as I had in 1992: lakes and caves. In the evening we are taken to the lavish New Chrystal Hotel. A Nepali dance performance ensues. Most of the small audience are Japanese. When invited onstage at the end, they look gigantic next to the Nepalis.

The next morning another tourist bus takes us to the Royal Chitwan National Park. Contrary to much belief, a great deal of Nepal is not high. Kathmandu is lower than Denver, and the southern plain, including Chitwan, is tropical. The Machen Resort, which has a hundred guests a night in the high season, is almost empty in the heat and damp. Fellow visitors include a Danish journalist and daughter, a bunch of noisy Catalonians, an Indian doctor and her Indian dentist husband. Shreedhar is the only Nepali. He refuses to try the tiny swimming pool.

Chitwan’s prime attractions are tigers (hard to see) and elephants (tame). We ride the latter but find none of the former. A typical elephant costs at least $20,000 and eats more than 6000 pounds of vegetarian food each day. Also drinks ten gallons of water. These animals have their own HMO. We watch a vet check them out, administering injections and listening to their complaints. An elephant ride is a bumpy experience, but we are rewarded by the sight of one-horned rhino, barking deer, and many birds. The next morning I fail the expert elephant-mounting test, which involves standing on the lifting trunk. It wasn’t the elephant’s fault. Evening brings another Nepali dance.

Our third and last tourist bus returns us to Kathmandu, which feels cool. We celebrate with dinner at the Japanese-managed Hotel Himalaya. The only other diners in the expansive room are an American who has a lot of drinks and a party of Japanese. After dinner, yet another Nepali dance.

It is now mid-July; much remains for the final two weeks. Shreedhar must make the most of my time. I give a talk about computers, “consult” about curriculum development, and talk to the Literary Association of Nepal about Arundhati Roy’s marvelous novel, The God of Small Things. No one else had read it; but it won the Booker Prize and became an international best-seller.

Even though my stay had been brief, there are the customary dinner invitations and farewell parties. I arrange a party of my own at Mike’s Breakfast, a restaurant run by a 1960’s Peace Corps volunteer who never went home. Thirty guests, mostly members of the seminar. I have a big 60th-birthday cake. Nine large beers and 45 sodas are consumed, along with pizza and chicken sticks.

July 19: time to leave, all too soon. As the taxi leaves for the airport, we have a startling view of the Himalayan peaks previously concealed by clouds and murk.

We know that we will be back.

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