Author Bio Bits 3: Kathmandu (1980-1984)
How do I even begin to describe living in Kathmandu, Nepal? It is not as if I am at a loss for words, far from it. The risk is that I spend the next year or so writing about it.
I was ten when I arrived; the English I had mastered as a five-year-old in Thailand was so dormant I couldn’t have found it in a matchbox even if I tried. The Netherlands were far away. Though we lived in the capital city of Nepal the main communication was by air mail. There was no internet yet (though our school did at one point get three Apples which burned green letters into your retinas), regular power cuts which lasted for days on end and the telephone system was highly unreliable; trying to phone home usually ended up in listening to somebody jabbering away in Bangladesh or Sri Lanka. Dutch newspapers brought by travellers were avidly read weeks after their publication. There was no Dutch diplomatic presence in Kathmandu at the time, which was fortunate because the Dips tend to form exclusive little communities as remote from the local populace as possible. My father worked as the administrator of the Dutch overseas volunteer service. There were some 40 young men and women who came to work in the hills and whenever they returned to Kathmandu they stayed at our house (they earned local wages). It was like having much bigger brothers and sisters around almost continually and we got involved in much of the fun there was to be had. It also meant that we received their visiting family members and tried to badger as much cheese and Dutch liquorish off them as possible. In due time my father became the honorary consul and that swallowed up both his time and my mother’s time for she did a great deal of that work as well.
It is ironic that those who come with liberal ideals to do good end up with a house full of servants. It embarrassed my parents. Our local neighbours advised us to beat the servants regularly to keep them in line but we didn’t do this and consequently some of the servants saw us as softies and took advantage of that. I didn’t have a clue as to etiquette with regard to ‘servants’ and befriended them all, often visiting the little one-room homes they lived in all over Kathmandu Valley and meeting their families.
Although I took to living in Kathmandu like a fish takes to water there were times when I perceived the incredible benefits of being a Westerner. I recall an epidemic reaching the valley and all of us being rushed to an American organised emergency inoculation for expats. People were literally dropping dead on their feet in the valley; here and there were wrapped-up corpses by the roadside waiting for pick-up. Nepal was the first place where I saw dead people – or people in advanced stages of leaving life. We were cycling on the Ring Road once, probably for a visit to the amazing hill temple of Swayambunath, and encountered the occupants of a small Toyota which had collided head-on with a Tata truck. They had already been dragged out of the cart; seven of them including a toddler and an infant. Their positions were grotesque, arms and legs bending in all sorts of impossible angles. On treks we would sometimes pass through areas where the crop had failed and I discovered that the despair of severe malnutrition and starvation is something that can not only be seen, but smelt and heard too. You can even touch it on the very air around these people as they seem surrounded by an aura of decomposition.
Other odd moments were the blood sacrifices which were made at some of the festivals. Usually goats which were beheaded at temples and shrines though the bigger durbars would also see large number of buffaloes offered and the streets would run red with blood. Much more to our liking was the paint festival when it was absolutely fine to throw water balloons filled with coloured inky water on somebody or hands full of powdered paint over those already wet. Just as new to me were the American celebrations of Halloween and Thanksgiving; for we attended an American orientated international school, called Lincoln School, and that meant an introduction to a whole different perspective of the world. I think there were about 136 pupils from thirty-two different nationalities at that school; with the Americans forming the biggest block.
I was naïve, learning my way around different cultures at once and though my English improved rapidly it took longer to grasp the nuances of the language and read in between the lines. The best part of school were the School Treks; a veritable institution to my mind. Once a year it’d be a week and once a year it’d be two weeks. 20+ kids and two or three bemused teachers spending all that time together well away from the beaten tourist track, pretty much roughing it along the way. That was the Lincoln School way.
The educational goal? Supposedly a report we made on an individually chosen subject relevant to the trek: Architecture, the caste system, pottery, clothing, language etc.
What we really learned though, was to rely on each other.
Stressful situations too, as I recall getting lost with a small group during a blizzard in the highlands around Darjeeling.
Himalayan Highlands; we had been hovering around the edges of 4000 meters above sea level. It's where the danger zone starts and our bloody brilliant teachers had the guts to bring us close enough to its edge so that we learned about the jaggedly painful aspects of the high mountain country where we lived. Social Issues too; these were our Gandalfs herding a tribe of hobbits through what was essentially a medieval social landscape.
Their reward: Having to deal with a terrified eleven-year-old who was certain the planet was going to implode on a clear starry night because all the planets were perfectly lined up for scenes of apocalyptic destruction (mea culpa). Later that year I had gotten my hands on a mug of warm rum during a school trek and I do believe I was roaring drunk; I vaguely recall being cursed by everyone and being chased through the camps while I was howling dirty Dutch ditties at the top of my lungs (mea culpa).
Having to deal with a twelve-year-old who was quite furious that we hadn't been allowed to fight a forest fire which we had skirted. Weren't even allowed to watch for the teachers were hell-bent on moving us away as fast as possible. By nightfall most of the now opposing mountain slope was ablaze and one lad was certain that he and his mates could have heroically extinguished that fire. He was convinced it was bloody unfair (mea culpa).
Having to deal with a whole camp of hysterical kids one night when we discovered – well into darkness– that we had pitched up our tents in a veritable metropolis of blood-sucking leeches who were happily burrowing their way into tents…and sleeping bags.
Having to deal with two fourteen-year-olds, Carol gets to share the mea culpa here, who devised a cunning plan to thwart the furious pace we felt was being set by going on strike and walking at a very leisurely pace about 400 kilometres behind the rest. I think it was Mr Mateer who was sent to deal with that one. In the end four of us spend a very memorable few days guarding a base camp of sorts while the rest trudged higher up into the cold under the impossibly cool supervision of Steve Lonsdale.
My top-five list of best teachers ever includes four from Lincoln School. That school was –on the whole- a bloody good educational institution. Still, you had to be careful during lunchtime, because monkeys could –and did- scramble down from the trees around the playing areas to snatch your lunch or simply sit up their disdainfully whilst they bombarded you with their faeces.
Looking back I regret that I took so much for granted and never thought it strange to be there, Nepal was normality for me. My parents worked till late and although my brother and I were expressly forbidden to wander into the old medieval town centre we could be found there just about every afternoon. I sometimes took friends (girls even!) with me and we’d have to keep a wary eye out on other expats as they too were outside of their allowed bounds. Sometimes the non-Americans would be invited to the American club where they had real grape Fanta and chips as well as a swimming pool. I watched Empire Strikes Back there, on an improvised movie screen which billowed a bit in the breeze as a battered projector rattled and sighed behind us. It was a magical experience; I had a lot in those days, both in Kathmandu Valley and in the Nepalese countryside (read a narrow strip of tropical plain and the Himalayas). There were bears to be wary of, and tigers though the biggest danger were the snakes which could be found everywhere - including your doorstep (they liked to bask there in the sun) and the school auditorium (panic!). There was a cobra in a strawberry patch which frightens me still, the beastie had me hypnotised and I was pretty much screwed when something distracted it. I roamed around the rice paddies outside of the residential areas a lot, always feeding the stray dogs so that a short whistle would mean a small protective army would come bounding over the paddies to my rescue if I got into tight spots.
During holidays we would go on treks, or rafting down the valley rivers to the tiger parks in the south. A few times we hopped on a plane to nearby India, Thailand, Singapore, Hong Kong and Indonesia. More magic there and together with the Thailand experience it created a deep appreciation of Asian people, cultures and food. Even today, if I cook a meal, nine out of ten times it will be rice based and include spicy elements.
In short, these were important formative years for me and it would take a long time to work out just how much living there influenced the person I am today, though I have no doubt that the degree of influence is formidable.
Though I got interested in girls and became aware of a changing body towards the end of our stay, there wasn’t much tantrum and angst till our four years were up and I had to adjust to a totally alien and unknown world: Condemned to go back to the Netherlands.