Tuesday, April 8, 2008

A Different Kind of Charm

I have no idea what time zone my body is in or really the soil and soul to which I’m now attached, but when I arrived in Kathmandu, Nepal, yesterday, Monday, at 1 p.m, you’all were still in Sunday church. Somehow I had spent over 24 hours on airplanes and seven hours in airports waiting for flights and losing a day in life.

Saturday afternoon at 3:30 when most people were focused on NCAA Final Four basketball, I arrived at Memphis International with four big duffle bags of clothes, gear and gorp, plus two carry ons. The place was pratically empty, or at least Northwest Airlines was. No cars at the drop-off spot, no line at the ticket counters, no line at security, and not even a single customer at Starbucks, so I breezed in and had longer to wait than I had needed. An agent vowed it wasn’t the basketball game, but the normal Saturday lull.

Flights were good, on time, and packed. Royal Thai Airways, once I trekked through the under-construction Mayor Bradley International Terminal in Los Angeles, proved to be a meritable business class experience with lay-flat bed-chairs and tons of movies I needed to see. On the 17 hours looping across the globe like a shot-put or a three-pointer basketball goal, I slept restlessly for five hours and watched five movies. My guide Jim Williams, whom I had met up with in LA, slept almost the entire way. I’ve never known anyone who could sleep fourteen hours. He said it’s a knack he has that helps a whole lot in his constant travels. I crossed the International Date Line (the one we are concerned with only on New Years Eve as we watch the first minutes of the New Year being celebrated with fireworks) for the first time in my life, and didn’t even know the moment.

Finally, we arrived softly in Bangkok, Thailand, at one of the most modern and versatile airports on the planet. With the exposed giant pipes and wall to wall windows and dome shaped terminals it possessed a minimalist gray and white interpretation of the George Pompadeau Art Museum in Paris. I was suddenly thrown into a tangled atmosphere of every type of Asian citizen, so many handsome children, so many glamorous women dressed in incredible, silk ensembles, colored scarves and saris, all shopping for the same things we feel we must accumulate. The unifier was everyone seemed short. Jim and I spent the layover trying to generate the email and internet connections because electronics actually can work in Bangkok. We still had three more hours to Kathmandu. Finally, the flight called, we entered an enormous open space that was filled with people dressed as if they were ready to hike somewhere. There were two Thai monks in ochre robes who were given first priority when boarding began. (Thai Buddhist monks shave their eyebrows and heads.)

Kathmandu airport was still in another time wrap - like the days when we once exited and entered planes through push-up steps. The descending masses race to immigration for a series of stamps and fees, but everyone - and this seems to be the bain of travel - had to wait almost an hour to find luggage. Mine, as usual, were the last to arrive on the treadmill. Then we braced the crowds of screaming, pushing people, mostly salesmen trying to get you to take their taxi, their trekking outfit, their tour, their bookmark. I kept my head down, followed Jim until we were found by his trekking arrangers, bearing bright yellow and orange marigold leis. Welcome.

I’ve been in many noisy, dusty, dirty, traffic impaled cities. But Kathmandu has its own "nth" degree of abuse. Narrow roads, cars on the British driving system (try to cross the street???) fighting for space against lineups of motorcycles (fancy ones with helmeted drivers) that looked like the offensive line of a football team, and antique bicycles, rickshaws (primitive metal ones with painted backs and powdered by bent bicycles as well), and just people pushing through. I was amazed there weren’t more hips thrown out or accidents. There are no fat people, only skinny kids darting in and out of you and everything else. The continual beeping of the horns competes with night’s swarm of blackbirds and other noisy birds landing in trees to hunt for
insects. Peace in Kathmandu is an impossibility.

It’s tense here not only because of the turmoil in neighboring Tibet and China, but because Thursday entertains crucial elections, requiring everyone (like the Holy Family of our gospels) to return to where they were born to vote. There has already been a badly placed car bomb. The dilemma is on Thursday from midnight to midnight no transportation is allowed. (How do you get home?) And just to press some point I’m not quite sure about, the government turns off the electricity now and then every hour or so - If you are in an elevator, just hold on a bit. Businesses have big generators outside on the sidewalk as they prepare for difficult times as a new way may take over Nepal’s royal-based leadership.

The most dangerous thing I’ve done in thirty years has been to walk through the afternoon streets of Kathmandu with Jim leading. Prevention of being clipped by vehicles, looking at the masses of items for sale everywhere, snapping photos and trying to keep a healthy pace in my hiking sandals was unruly. Think Calcutta. Old City of Jerusalem. Think Hell. Broken streets are lined with every kind of unappealing thrown-together shop and shop salesman, its wares hang outside - Indian skirts, saris and pants, shirts and fancy embroidered men’s jackets that look as if Kings might sport, hiking and climbing gear, Hindu images, bronze Buddhas, unblessed Tibetan prayer flags of every size, flags of communistic symbols in red and white, carvings and black samurai swords with brass handles, elephants and Hindu symbols in wood.

I finally saw two mature Buddhist monks wrapped in red wool blankets, one shoulder nude, reading with half-glasses on their noses, heads shaved, and frankly resembling photographs of the true Dalai Lama. Groups of skinny, barefooted "wachos" (we call them in Uruguay) were up to no good on the busiest street corners - filthy dirty, so very young, with no place to go, no ability to read, write or work because it seems they, like the street youth in Rio de Jainero or Memphis, have given up on the future they don’t have.. One asks for a coin. The rest aren’t concerned. Skinny old men in a strange costume of a religious figure, emaciatingly thin, want you to give them a coin for an orange good luck charm. I don’t look, and what runs through my head, as evening arrives, is I don’t count on luck, just faith. That’s how my God works.

The beauty and grandeur of the Himalayas are often hidden by pollution of the city deep in the valleys, Many women pull their long silk scarves across their mouths and spit into the streets. But as I tried to explain to the bar tender how to make a limeade (squeeze limes, bring a cold bottle of mineral water, and a small packet of Equal), I realized the hope and spirit is in the people. Although I could hardly get the energy (lack of sleep), our first outing through the streets was visiting friends he knew who owned mountain gear shops and book shops. Put hands in prayer position and bow. This is how to properly greet someone in South-East Asia, where revolutions are constant and not too far from where our service man lost their lives in an earlier wretched war.

Now Al Jeezara television competes with CNN — (just to let you know, the electricity just went off in the hotel but I’m pushing on) and many Indian and Nepalese channels on television - even an India American Idol show and cricket games on three different channels). In the early morning hours, I’m watching U of Memphis-UCLA basketball game that was last Saturday (I cannot find out how the Finals went on Monday night) trying to recycle my cycle for this fascinating corner of the world. And I’ll know it soon, if I can just get used to brushing my teeth in bottled water from a glass, even in a good hotel like Yak & Yeti.

Photos: Passing through Bangkok airport, Bangkok airport; traffic in Kathmandu; Birdmen on Kathmandu streets.

No comments: