Perspective, Humility and Risk

Day 4

The next morning I found myself again waking at 7am, even though I had a dreadful hangover. It was this morning that I worked out where all these early starts were coming from; as many of you know, that’s not my normal pattern. Both of the double windows in my room opened out on to the road and I couldn’t close them. In Nepal, everything has shut and the streets are dead by 10pm, but it’s all screaming, shouting, tooting horns and nattering – right outside my window – from 6am. Annoying, but beneficial.

As we nursed our varying levels of toxic shock at the breakfast table, Ben reminded us of what he’d got up to during the monsoon the day before. I’d been a little worried about him when he hadn’t returned in time to meet Drew; and then still hadn’t returned by the time Drew had settled in. Eventually, once the rain had subsided, Ben stomped into the courtyard reasonably dry – he’d taken shelter as I’d suspected. I couldn’t have ever guessed where he’d sheltered though.

Ambling out of the massage parlour, glowing warm with Thai man-handling, Ben had been asked by a young woman, begging with a little boy, if he would buy her brother some milk. While earlier that day I had said, “No, sorry” to the same girl asking them same question, Ben instead said “Of course” and then in the supermarket asked her about her situation, why she was begging and where she lived. I learn more about the charity and generosity in Ben’s character every day on this trip. She showed him her hand-made shack in a shanty town over the main road (a five-minute walk) and just as he felt he’d better be making a move, what with being English and therefore uncomfortable accepting overt hospitality, the rain came in. Trapped by the weather, he ended up teaching the girl, Rena, to read the back of the packet of powdered milk he’d bought for her family. His description of this entire experience was accompanied by a light behind his eye I’d only ever seen when we were working on our project to send graduates to teach English in Syria. It was humbling; especially as I had simply passed her by.

This morning, as we moaned and groaned about how much beer we’d drunk, we talked over the fact that all the money we’d spent on beer would have help this family immensely. Ben took us to visit them and we were welcomed with open hearts and immense generosity. I was humbled further by their hospitality. We had, of course, discussed the possibility of it being a trick, us being conned, or even worse. We were on our guard.

One of the things that made the whole experience more genuine was that Ben had also met a Cornish chap called Eric who does a lot of work in this shanty town. He and Rena had just covered all the shacks with waterproofing: his money, her effort. She told us how she took responsibility for sharing food and resources throughout the town; and how Eric had adopted her and was organising for a visa for her to visit Germany with him (apparently it’s easier for him to get her a German visa than a British one).

We were cautious with all of the edible offerings that were lavished upon us, but probably not careful enough – not wanting to offend. The family was Rajisthani (Hindu) and served us very milky, very sweet tea; chipati with saag; and lassi. Then bottles of Fanta were produced, which were deferentially cap-popped in front of us. In this tiny shack, decorated with drapes and religious symbols, were gathered ten children from newborn to teenager – some with immaculate English, who had spent a year or two at school thanks to Western philanthropy, some with none at all. As well as sisters, aunties and grandmothers, we were soon joined by brothers of an older age bracket, come down from working the street to meet us and lavish us now with praise and compliments. (Apparently my hair is so silky I look like a Bollywood movie star. Shucks!)

We were slowly deciding between us that we wanted to do something for this family. Our inquiries about how we could help were met with deference and embarrassment. We insisted and were told that one of Rena’s brothers had had his shoe shining kit stolen, including the box that contained it, and where the shoe rests, which we were told was the only way he could make a living and bring in a steady income. Otherwise they had to rely on single acts of kindness. Give a man a fish, etc. If we could buy them a box with all its accoutrements, then that would help them in a way a cash donation or purchase of food would not.

We agreed to see the man who sold the boxes and my concern was aroused when he appeared quicker than expected, box and bag of bits at the ready for demonstration. We were taken in by his spiel. We asked him a price and considered it. We talked it over and felt we were doing some real good. We said we’d go away and talk about it more and return the next day with a decision. My concern was further aroused when he said he was leaving that day – the oldest trick in the book. We decided to spend some time away from the situation to try to gain some perspective. We went back to the guest house and thought it through, asking locals for advice and attempting to cynically pick holes in the salesman’s story. We did; and we were relieved to have not fallen all the way down his well of deceit. Again I was humbled by the maturity and level-headedness we all managed to mix successfully with open hearts and charitable desires.

More rain delayed our return, but Rena shocked us by turning up at the guest house. Ben and Drew (I had retired, worried about the gurgling and pain in my tummy) told her that we weren’t going to buy the box, but that we’d like to give her three month’s rent (about GBP 20 between us). She simply wouldn’t accept the money and so the boys took her back to the supermarket and spent the money on food for her and her family.

I’d felt a feeling in my gut that I’d only ever felt when I’ve been conned or tricked. I’d only felt that with the sneaky, wheeler-dealer box salesman; not with a single one of Rena’s family. We all agreed that while Rena was clearly not naive to the scam, we never felt pressured into giving them anything. In fact, they did all they could to shy away from our generosity. While it may well be that the whole thing was a set-up, we’ve come away trying not to think ill of anyone but the box salesman.

It wasn’t even a new box.



Here are few photos of things that didn’t quite fit in the main posts.

Delhi airport from the air

Delhi airport from the air

Some sky

Some sky

Kathmandu valley from the air

Kathmandu valley from the air

My room at Shechen Guest House, Boudha

My room at Shechen Guest House, Boudha

First Days in Kathmandu

Continuing from the previous post, in which I flew from London to Kathmandu and found myself in a micro-bus on roads with no rules…

Getting away from the hustle and bustle, Danesh and I approached the Shechen Guest House; which Ben had chosen for his arrival the week before and had directed us to, in favour of the more centrally-located lodgings we’d planned from the UK. I’m indebted to Ben for this decision – Shechen is a tranquil, well-kept garden, surrounded on three sides by two floors of spacious, just-comfortable-enough rooms (well, mine was spacious, as it was a three-bed by myself), which is owned by the Tibetan Buddhist monastery next door. Having encountered my first ever Buddhist monk as he was charging his laptop in Delhi departures lounge, I was suddenly surrounded by the mahogany and sunflower enrobed, little boy to ancient master.

Ben was there to meet me as I arrived, having just returned from a trek. I was quickly introduced to the handful of Canadians, Germans, Brits and Dutch he’d befriended in his short stay; his engaging and generous character clearly a boon when travelling alone. Having had a couple of hours sleep in more than 24, the rest of the day (I arrived at 4pm) was rather a blur; but I was introduced to the stupa at the end of the road, did my first kora and had dinner with six people I’d never met.

The stupa in the reason to be in Boudha, the district of Kathmandu valley in which we were staying. In my journal, I’ve written a lot about it, but then I realised that it was an amalgamation of stuff I’d been told and stuff I’d read in the guidebook – about a different stupa. So, I’ll instead just give you a link. So, every twelve hours, at five, monks, locals and tourists take part in kora, where everyone walks clockwise around the outer wall of the stupa, spinning the prayer wheels. Walking around the stupa earns you merit. This being such a large and exceptional site, considered to contain remains of Buddha and objects he used, as well as being of unknown age or origin, you earn a lot of merit taking kora here. It is said (in the guidebook) that a single spin of any of the numerous prayer wheels embedded in the outer wall is equivalent to repeating the mantra inscribed on it 11,000 times. You’re supposed to dedicate your merit to someone else, as you can lose it; so some of you have some motherloads of merit on its way.

Kora at Boudhanath

Kora at Boudhanath

Day 2

The next day, I was surprised to wake at 7am and found Ron (a 64-year-old Canadian, who’s at the beginning of extensive travels, having packed up and set off only a week ago), who I joined for breakfast. Ben slept in a little (we had been up discussing ethics the night before, which can be tiring), but once roused was keen to get on with the first time we’d been able to spend together for more than a few hours, in over eight years.

After a bit of a wander, we settled in for some lunch at about 1pm and didn’t stop taking until we went to bed at 1am. A lovely day, but not much to tell. Oh, except for the bizarre cabaret/talent show we came across, where the MC spoke in a hodge-podge of English and Nepali.

Talent show dancing

Talent show dancing

Day 3

Another bizarrely early start on Sunday was occupied with trying to scale the mountain of my banking problems. Lunch with Ben, Ron and Jen (young Canadian student of Tibetan language) ended as the heavens opened and the tail end of the monsoon season made its presence known. I sheltered in an Internet café, where I was able to call my credit card company on an Internet phone. For a ten-minute, extremely helpful call to the UK, I was charged all of 35 Nepalese Rupees (NRS); which is about EUR 0.35. In the meantime, Ben had gone for half an hour of Thai massage and the Canadians had gone their separate ways. I wandered back to the guest house once the rain had subsided, to wait for Ben to get back and for Danesh to drop Drew off from the airport. And then the sky fell on our heads. The rain was phenomenal and unrelenting.

Poor Drew: his first experience of Nepal was Danesh’s fun-ride from the airport, with added monsoon; and it got worse. Ben and i took Drew to supper that evening, at our favourite restaurant ‘Toast’. Having ordered some beer, we sat joking about how Drew had brought such dreadful weather with him. Then there was a rumbling and vibration that I dismissed as either distant thunder (which echoes around the valley in an eerie way) or a passing heavy vehicle. It then occurred to me that it felt more like a tube train passing underneath; then the ground actually shook and I interrupted Ben’s description of the lovely vegetable thali to say,

I think that’s an earthquake.

As the ground shook more frequently and violently, my mind, struggling to comprehend, raced through three comparisons: first I was reminded of the tiny earthquake I experienced in Cyprus many years ago, except this was considerably bigger; my second thought was of the fun house at a fairground where you stand on a platform that wobbles and you have to stay standing up, except I couldn’t get off this ride; finally, the only thing my mind could settle on as a comparison was walking down the aisle of a plane during turbulence, except there were no seat-belt signs and there was a five-storey building perched perilously close to us.

Once Mother Nature had got the twist out of her knickers, we took the moment’s respite to run outside and find some open space; which, of course, everyone else was doing. And there isn’t any. The buildings are tall, close together and have yards of low-hanging tangled power cables strung between them. It was then that a thought entered my head that was not to leave for hours: how dreadful for my parents that I should die in an earthquake on the other side of the world; how dreadful for my friends. This thought overtook me and elbowed my fear out of the way. Taking up residence with shock and awe, it put me in a quiet and distracted mood.

Knowing nothing of how earthquakes work (nothing since 1934 in Nepal), a period of uncertainty rolled across the crowd like dry ice during a David Copperfield show: we were waiting for the reveal.

Luckily, the trick was over. We settled back in at Toast and proceeded to dampen our nerves with cool, refreshing beer. I’m afraid I didn’t hold up as well as the other two and found myself often zoning out of the conversation, my senses smothered with worry, fear and the thought of friends and family.

After a few beers, the jokes began to flow more freely: about Drew certainly getting his money’s worth of experience, him bringing dreadful weather AND natural disaster and, of course, how ‘shook up’ we were. We ended up having a lovely evening. It hasn’t stopped being lovely.

Tucking in after the 6.8 earthquake

Tucking in after the 6.8 earthquake

I haven’t written any more yet, but just as a teaser: We nearly got conned, we climbed a huge mountain, dined at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe and saw the sun rise over the Himalayas. Oh, and thank you very much to Ailish for giving me the image of Mother Nature with her knickers in a twist. Wxxx

I’m Still Still Alive; Much to Everyone’s Surprise

19 September 2011, 16:00 NPT – Shechen Guest House, 1,500m

So much has happened since I arrived that writing it all down has continued to seem a mammoth task.

It’s Monday and the last time I wrote anything was Friday morning. I did write a list of things to remember to write about, but most of them have been superseded: like the fact that there was an unnecessary amount of security at Delhi airport or that the flight from Delhi to Kathmandu was both the most turbulent I have ever experienced and the one with the best view (photos to follow, if I ever get that working). Some things on the list need to be written about though.

Day 1 (continued)

Ben had organised for a chap called Danesh to come to pick me up from the airport, which was quite an experience. As I walked out of the terminal, with my pack still heavily wrapped in security plastic, I was presented with a tiny road, on the other side of which was a tightly-packed throng of thrusting men, young and old, some with signs, some with promises. As my eyes scanned across them for any clue, a short, rather plump, unassuming Nepali man unfolded a crumpled piece of paper, which, to my great surprise, had my name painstakingly inscribed on it in faltering felt-tip pen. A simple point with my finger (which I’ve since found out should be done with the chin) was enough to indicate that I was the droid he was looking for and we set off in silence.

It was only at this point that I noticed the searing heat and saturating humidity, as he silently offered t carry my daysack (hand luggage) before, without warning, asking me a series of questions, the answers to which he clearly didn’t understand – a consequence of very little sleep or practice leading to my responses being rapid, mumbled and colloquial – but he nodded away silently anyway. Stopping at a roundabout, he went off to pick up the car and bring it round. On 2 July 2000, I had the experience of riding on the back of a pickup truck from Nairobi airport to Kibera, the largest slum in Nairobi (and possibly in Africa). The comparison to my journey through east Kathmandu struck me as we set off in a micro-bus, which in Kenya are called matutus, complete with coughing exhaust, dilapidated interior and a distant memory of seat-belts.

Just before I left England, my father had told me about a BBC programme on dangerous roads around the world and that Nepali roads are among the wors. I was not, then, quite so surprised by the genuine free-for-all that ensued. As my mind tried to think about other things, like the enormous amorphous piles of rubbish I’d read about in the guide book and reminded me so much of Kibera, I continued to be jolted back to reality by the frequent harsh change of diection and whisker-thin near misses Danesh calmly but enthusiastically executed. The main roads were just about flat, with some blisters, pimples and orifices to keep things fun. The side roads presented some more extreme surfaces and the constant jostling for position on the flatter bits (even if they were on the other side of the road) was merciless.

To be continued…

I’ve run out of time and am off to do a bit of trekking now. There’s a lot more written, which I’ll try to get published in a few days. I miss you all. Wxxx

Day 1: Travelling

15 September 2011, 22:00 BST – Flight IT0002, 37,000ft

I’m sat (with a free seat next to me!) on the plane from Heathrow to Delhi. I’m rather emotional, but much calmer than I was earlier (see my last post).

My experience with Kingfisher Airlines has been exceptional; except that my state-of-the-art (their words) touchscreen cinema, games system, emailer thingy doesn’t work and my reading light keeps turning off.

On my Kindle, I managed to get a free copy of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and bought the complete poems of John Donne; both of which I’m immensely looking forward to reading.

~ Aside ~

I just paused for a curry. On a plane. It was pretty good too. I now have a large whiskey sat next to my faux-leather-bound journal and I just rolled my white shirt sleeves down, while I’m surrounded by dozing Indians – feeling quite colonial (hat tip to my namesake, Governor-General of India 1828-1835). I may put the travel blanket over my legs and start rambling on about a war – no particular one, they all blend together old boy.


Last night, I came home feeling tremendously valued and warm with happiness (thanks to the brilliant David Crane, Executive Director of IDEA-UK and present-giver-extraordinaire) and anxious excitement. Packing was a doddle and was good fun, reminding me of all the sensible travel advice that had been drilled into me by the ex-paratrooper medic that joined us in Kenya in 2000; and some of the less sensible advice. The debit card fiasco ruined all that, however. As it does with many things, just getting on with it helped and I was soon on the tube to Heathrow (paper ticket, because of course my Oyster card was lost with my debit card). Reading on the tube was a welcome distraction.

I got my rucksack security wrapped at the airport, which is an experience I recommend (although it cost GBP 7 – this keyboard doesn’t have a pound sign) and check-in was easy-peasy (one person in the queue). Security was time-consuming, but only because they had to double check a few bags in front of me; I was almost completely ignored. On the other side I changed some money and bought some water purification tabs.

As I got on the plane, it was like an oven. Having sat, I took off my boots and upzipped the bottom part of my trousers, so that I was now in shorts, socks and a thin shirt: although still baking hot and sweating uncontrollably. We soon found out that the air conditioning wasn’t working, but would be once the engines got going. So half an hour later, having not moved an inch, I was somewhat distressed. And wet.

After we finally started taxiing and slowly started to cool off, the cabin crew were strapped in and we turned the corner on to the runway. The chap over the aisle from me was still nattering away on his phone. So I politely, but firmly, tapped him on the knee and in true British style said, “I’m sorry, could I ask you to turn your phone off?” to which I added the nonsensical politesse, “Just while we’re taking off.” Because of course I’m quite happy to fall out of the sky once the air conditioning is working, but I simply couldn’t bear a fiery end in this monstrous sweatbox.

Thankfully, this chap obliged (and actually looked quite intimidated by my bizarre request) and now the air conditioning is so strong that I’ve put all my clothes back on, my jumper and the travel blanket.

I think I might have a nap.

I’m Still Alive; to My Surprise

WARNING: This post contains the word ‘arse’.

If you’re reading this, then you can stop worrying: I made it; although I certainly made a right hash of it.

  • Half an hour before I leave for Heathrow, I realise I’ve drunkenly misplaced my debit card the night before. Of course they’ll send me a new one, but that will arrive after I’ve left. Arse.
  • In the confusion and distress of this situation, I lock myself out of telephone and Internet banking for my current account and graduate account; and then out of Internet banking for my credit card, the only remaining payment method I own. Arse.
  • In an absolute state, I realise I’m now half an hour later than I wanted to be. My father kindly sticks some money on my credit card to keep me going and I’ve got some cash (mainly lovely going-away gifts), so on to the obligatory photo on the front steps (TB – please post this photo as a comment, or send it to me) and off I go; however, I’m much more nervous, anxious and generally upset that I had intended to be. Arse.
  • Having arrived in Kathmandu (the interim story will be another post), I try to log in to my Google account and it locks me out because I’m in Nepal: I’m presented with two options to prove who I am, both of which are unavailable. Arse.
  • Utterly incredibly, my boss gave me a Kindle as a leaving present. In the confusion of losing my debit card, I never got to buy any of the books Kat recommended for me. Having got to Nepal, of course I’ve cancelled my debit card, so no matter how much wi-fi I can find, I can buy no books. Arse.

So, not a good start. However, as you’ll see from my next post, everything else has been absolutely wonderful: blissful, in fact. (And quite a few of the above problems have been sorted or averted.)

I keep looking up from whatever I’m doing and thinking, “Bloody hell! I’m in Nepal.”