4: daggers, coach crashes,
puke, daggers, yuppies, litter
From Darjeeling to Kathmandu is an authentically Indian journey. We kicked off with another jeep-share down from the hills. This time round we got to share with an unsavoury looking guy who fell asleep first on Jane's shoulder, then, when she wisely switched seats, mine. After that he threw up (thankfully on neither of our shoulders) and his lack of savour became such that the jeep's owner chucked him out.
Next up was a taxi ride to the border in one of those stylish old Hindustan Ambassadors. Again, shared, because things are so much more 'real' this way. In this case 'keeping it real' involved a normal yuppie bloke, an evil looking guy with dead eyes and an 18 inch dagger tucked in the small of his back and a pair Indian Iggy Pop look-alikes who were enthusiastically chewing the vile local speed substitute. Funnily enough, at the innumerable army checkpoints - for these parts are restive - the soldiers hardly gave the amphetamine freaks or the dagger-toting maniac a second glance; while the yuppie received a good frisking every time. Thinking back, I guess as a polite well-dressed chap, he stuck out like a sore thumb.
At the Nepali border we boarded a 'luxury' coach, an even looser use of the word than when it is applied to Ford Cars and Barrat Homes. A Nepalese bus is a feudal affair run by a team of borderline schizoid drivers and their various lackeys. Our team were more confused than is normal in these parts and our coach briefly became another coach before reverting to its original status, although for some reason everyone on the right side of the aisle had to move to the left and vice-versa. After a while, such inexplicables become so normal you hardly notice them.
Here's an interesting thing. India's reputation for squalor is well deserved and sometimes you wonder if anyone has ever heard of litter bins; in parts the whole landscape resembles a landfill. Ten metres over the Nepali border and it all stops. I have no explanation for this: Nepal is even poorer than India. I'm not sure it can even be a religious or cultural thing as apparently you experience the same phenomenon when you cross into Pakistan. One thing is certain however: compared to India, Nepal resembles a well-manicured park. Whereas the former needs a whole army of Ted Bellinghams.
the coach crash considered as a spectator sport
Much to the chagrin of its tourist board, Nepal has a problem with Maoists that just won't go away. Thus our journey was interrupted regularly by army checks. But the army had no interest in us so after a while, I started dozing and so slept through the only genuinely exciting search. Around midnight Jane said, soldiers found three guys hiding at the back and dragged them off by their hair, thus effectively challenging the stereotype that all Nepalese are smiley people with apple - red cheeks who do nothing but tend yaks and build prayer wheels.
With dawn came a different sort of on-board entertainment. We were lurching along a spectacular gorge and our driver kept pulling over ever twenty minutes or so. Each time he stopped a dozen or so men got out, to relieve themselves, I assumed. But no: when my turn came to answer nature's call, I discovered we were actually stopping to gawp at the wrecks of other buses - some disturbingly recent - in the river 200 metres below. Indeed, coach crash spotting appears to be something a spectator sport in Nepal. When I asked a bloke who spoke some English what was going on he explained that our fellow passengers were knowledgably discussed driver errors, fatalities and culpability like Brits discuss football or cricket.
Kathmandu is an agreeable enough place, a little like Darjeeling writ large. The Nepalese are charming and solicitous; even the guy who picked my pocket was not without his redeeming points. An invite into a gem shop for a cup of tea - which had 'credit card fraud' written all over it - was exactly that. Great food, too. Unlike the rest of the country where dahl bhat is the normal fare, the chefs of the capital - long inured to catering to western whims - will whip up any dish you want.
By contrast, the westerners I met elicited less warm feelings. In India most other tourists/ travellers/ whatever they like to call themselves at least smiled and said hello. In Kathmandu, they look at you with disdain or even blank you. Why is this? I suspect that much of the problem is that Nepal tends to attract the type of person who believes they are on a unique journey of 'inner discovery.' So it must be pretty galling for them to travel all this way to 'discover' that they are carbon copies of the 10,000 or so pointless alternative twats wandering moodily round the city. As they say - 'Of course you're unique, just like everyone else.' Amazingly for some people this comes as a genuine shock which likely accounts for the paucity of good cheer.
While I was disliking my countrymen, Jane spent her time in Kathmandu in fairly intimate contact with our (thankfully, western style) toilet. Which left me to organise everything from our flights to the Himalayas to takeaway food for my bed-bound-beloved. I am not a good organiser and Jane is not good at being organised; the result was a state of unease and anxiety.
I also got to eat in restaurants by myself a lot. At lunchtimes, this seemed to involve sitting in pleasant cafes where there was always an American tapping away self-importantly on an Apple PowerBook which would have taken the average Nepali several decades' wages to buy. I don't know how it is possible to detect bumptiousness through a person's typing style, but it is. If you got talking to these guys or gals they'd always be working on some "personal praah - ject" or other. Although I tried to show polite interest, I soon realised that these projects were personal in the sense that nobody else could possibly be interested in them. That is the problem with PowerBooks. Buying one gives you the tools to make near professional home movies and multimedia presentations. But it doesn't give you the talent.
lesbians And motivation
Left in charge of the tickets, I naturally elected to fly the macho-sounding Yeti Air, rather than BA (Buddha Air). And, at six in the morning in the departure 'lounge' at Kathmandu airport, we found the usual assortment of vaguley adventurous types. A few grizzled mountaineers; a couple of Germans in several thousand Euros worth of matching his 'n' hers Berghaus kit; and some outdoorsy looking types from Newcastle. Our attention however was soon seized by a group Jane dubbed the 'motivational guys' (best said in an American accent). In fact they turned out to be English and appeared to be engaged in an overpriced team bonding exercise of the kind favoured by City firms. At the centre of their huddle, one guy, clearly their maximum chief was doing his best to whip his team into an orgiastic frenzy of bonding and achievement.
To his right was a man who had chosen to express his individuality by wearing a Stetson. A classic beta male, he had obviously decided that if he couldn't be number one, well, he'd be just a little bit crazee! They must love him back at the office. But the twat in a hat couldn't hold our attention for long - over by the doors a pair of German lesbians were necking vigorously...this, I decided, was extremely offensive, partly because Nepal is a very conservative society, but mainly because they were real-life lesbians, rather than the attractive porno kind. Disgusted, we looked back to Mr Motivator who was now motivating his team so loudly his stridently managerial tones were ringing round the tiny terminal. Was it working? I guess he must have been onto something because I was experiencing a strong motivation to punch him in the throat.