Nepal: Madmen, Hellhounds, Urchins and Hookers

I was a very bad traveller in Nepal. I saw Kathmandu and Pokhara and did a 5 day trek in the Himalayas and that’s… that’s it. The rest of the time was spent eating and drinking, socialising and relaxing. But that’s not to say I didn’t have an adventure or two.

[This is quite a long one. But you’re gunna fuckin’ love it.]

You’ll have to pardon me if this last Nepal article is a little free form – the days in Pokhara and Kathmandu blur into one amorphous blob of time, and I can’t remember how I passed half the days there. I spent almost three weeks lounging in Pokhara living a lifestyle that was so indulgent and lazy that I think I’d have gone insane if I stayed a day longer. Pokhara lies in the foothills of the Himalayas, and one small arm of the city is wrapped around Phewa Lake, and this picturesque little neighbourhood – cut off from the rest of the city – is where you’ll find all your backpackers and trekkers and hippies.

I met up with Dave there, after going our separate ways in Dharamsala three weeks earlier. Dave had entered Nepal overland and had made his way east on a variety of nightmare buses all delayed by mudslides and road closures. When he arrived it was in the early hours of the morning under a torrential downpour, and I found him at reception, soaked to the skin, arguing with the girl on shift because she wouldn’t let him sleep in a 14 bed dorm – she was adamant that despite there being other beds free, he must sleep in a more expensive 6 bed for the night because he arrived late. Note to travellers: Pushkar Backpackers Hostel in Pokhara will rinse you of every penny you have, and smile empathetically while doing so.

But anyway Dave told me of his adventures, and they were typically Dave. He’d volunteered on some eco project for a week or two, and had learned a shit ton about farming and vegetables and told me earnestly that he had realised that spiritualism is phony and the truth lies in the soil. That’s Dave: solemn infatuation then caustic disillusionment, then on to the next thing, again and again. He’s searching for something, I’m sure of that, I just don’t know quite what.

Dave told me that while at the eco project commune thing he took part in a protest by accident while baked, and ended up marching across a bridge alongside elephants wielding placards, and eventually met a man in a suit who he chatted to for while before learning it was the Prime Minister of Nepal. To be honest, at this point I’d be more shocked if Dave hadn’t met the Prime Minister.

We spent a week or so together, drifting from cafe to cafe getting high with a slowly rotating wheel of peripheral characters from our hostels. Along with the mischievous Colombian, Samy, we would eat breakfast in a hippy joint called The Juicery, where everybody sits on cushions and spends hours eating and talking about chakras and energies and all that shit every morning. I discovered shakshouka there, a delicious Israeli dish that’s essentially a lasagne with olives and runny egg and dippy bread.

Dave and Samy were the two constants, but elsewhere my ever-changing circle included Pontus, a kindly Swedish guy who would lecture us endlessly on Buddhist teachings, Jonathon, a handsome Israeli stoner who would sit back and laugh at everyone’s silly conversations, Alex, the sarcastic Aussie girl I went trekking with, Grace, another Aussie freshly back from her silent vipassanā of 10 days and apparently still reeling. There was also Katy, Tatiana, Phillip, Ajay, Denise, Neha, Sofia, Claire, Rhiannon, Egly, Ash, and by chance the two Argentinians from Goa, Max and Seb. I met a guy who called himself Jermaine the Storyteller, and admitted that he got sectioned a few months ago because he did too much acid and lost his mind. 18 years old. So many names, so many life stories shared, so many lazy days on the lakeside watching the sun move across the sky.

*****

Cecilia, James, Matt and Shane were a foursome who had climbed to Everest base camp successfully and had come to visit Pokhara for a couple of nights. I’d known Cecilia in Delhi and met her again in Kathmandu, and now in Pokhara. Whatever she does, wherever she goes, she wears the kind of dress you’d find in a cocktail bar, coupled with full makeup and red lipstick. She sticks out like a sore thumb among the hordes of scruffy backpackers. She says she enjoys proving people’s assumptions about her wrong when they judge her on her appearance.

The five of us got a rowing boat one day and crossed the lake, where we found a small lagoon and spent an hour skimming stones. The heavens opened on the way back and we got soaked to the bone rowing across the lake in a thunder storm. Cecilia had to use a plastic cup to bail water out of our little wooden boat as I rowed us back to shore. The rain peppering the water’s surface cut off all distant motors and horns and birdsong, and in the middle of the lake under black clouds the only sound was millions of raindrops, each one sending its own ripples, and the droplets that were so meaningless individually became powerful enough en masse to turn the previously choppy lake completely flat, like a sheet of metal beaten into shape by the wings of a million butterflies. It was beautiful. We warmed up in a bar nearby after, watched the royal wedding on TV, and got to know one another.

Matt was a really interesting guy. He looked a bit like Hugh Jackman – his eyes had that same look – kindly, warm, while at the same time something in their gentle stare assures you they’ve seen some shit. And well, turns out I was right. Matt is 35 years old and a recovering cocaine addict. He’d spiralled and spiralled after a brutal divorce, and has now got clean, started his life over, and completed a hike to Everest base camp in order to achieve a lifelong goal. We went for beers that evening, just the two of us, and bonded over music, drugs, a lifetime of poor decisions, and a mutual dislike of Shane, who infuriated us both with his constant interjecting and contradicting and general pretentiousness. Matt was great though; honest and damaged but optimistic, with hard earned wisdom and that special kindness  born from regret. I loved Matt.

*****

Meanwhile, Dave and Samy and I had all ditched Pushkar Hostel and their money-grabbing, and found other lodgings. Samy and I were at this gorgeous oaken place called Forest Lake Hostel, all fresh smelling and with incredible thick mattresses. Dave being Dave, he found shelter at a local indie climbing wall, where dreadlock-sporters climb and smoke during the day and sleep in the crash matts by night. It was only a quid a night to stay there, but after roughing it across India I just wanted a comfy, clean bed.

*****

My friend Jamie text me one day while I was in Pokhara. It was about Thor, the alien mystic madman I found in Kathmandu. You see, after the brothel incident – in which Thor accidentally took me for drinks in a bar brimming with pimps and prostitutes and I was forced to flee – I bumped into the mad bugger again. I was walking through Thamel in Kathmandu with Jamie, telling her about Thor and the weird evening, when two great hands clamped down on my shoulders. I spun around and found the beaming face of the Norse god himself.

We went for reunion drinks, Jamie in disbelief that the character I’d actually told her about was real. Thor was far more lucid this time around; gone were the wild eyes and grinning nod, absent was the abstract storytelling and the gravel voiced prophesying. Thor now introduced himself as Shep, and was perfectly pleasant and told us his life story. Whereas days earlier he’d told me he was an ancient deity who once sailed a boat with Ra, now he told me he lived in Coventry and had been travelling for a couple of months. I suppose the acid had worn off.

He told me he was fearful for me, and was thrilled to have found me after I disappeared from the brothel. After I left, Thor had apparently come to the conclusion that the prostitutes had kidnapped me and began grilling them. The pimps didn’t like this, and six of them took him outside to give him a good shoeing. Nepali men are quite small, luckily, and 6’4 Thor was able to fend them off until the police came. Unfortunately the police tried to beat him up too, until a pack of stray dogs attacked and Thor had a chance to flee, not a scratch on him. I had no way of verifying whether a word of this bewildering story was true. I sat listening to this story with my mouth agape, wandering if my leaving was the catalyst for the brawling or a lucky escape from it. Mostly the latter, I imagine.

Thor joined us back at our hostel that night, and decided he would join Jamie on her trek to Everest base camp. I thought this sounded a bit mad on Jamie’s part, but hey – maybe she fancied a more outlandish trip. I didn’t hear anything from them for a couple of days then, until Jamie text me in Pokhara. She told me told me she’d met up with Thor during the day to plan their trip, and things had gone south. He’d attempted to take her to his hostel, forgotten where it was, and asked local people for directions. Every time they told him where to go he would head the opposite way, telling Jamie that local people are not to be trusted and will lead you astray on purpose. Eventually they got so lost that Jamie got unnerved and took her leave, deciding it might not be best to scale one of the most dangerous mountains in the world with a man who can’t remember where his own bed is and thinks little old ladies in the street are trying to murder him.

Oh, and before they parted ways, Thor informed Jamie that he had some excellent information for her regarding trekking. He had apparently been sat up talking with a Sherpa until 4am the previous morning, and had taken down reams of invaluable notes for the pair of them. He then whipped out a folded scrap of paper and handed it to her. His long-researched checklist read, verbatim:

  • down jacket
  • socks
  • bamboo pole
  • some kind of oil (?)

*****

We broke up a fight one night. These scrawny kids were beating each other – viciously. Usually when kids fight its all slaps and tears, but these children were out to hurt one another; savage cracks to the jaw. I was walking to a bar with Samy, Pontus, Claire and Rhiannon, and as we came upon the fight Samy and I swooped in to break it up. It wasn’t hard – skinny eleven year olds weigh next to nothing. We scattered the buggers, and were left with one boy sitting on the pavement with his eye swollen shut. Samy and I sat side by side with him and stroked his back, and he began to cry.

Local people were milling around watching, and when the other kids came back for round two, the police stepped in to stop them. But nobody did anything to help the crying boy. Samy got angry at the apathy of the townspeople.

“It’s a fucking little kid, man. He’s hurt. Why is nobody doing anything?”

A policeman roughly examined the boy, declared that he was fine – despite the fact he couldn’t open his eye – and looked at us like we were crazy. He shrugged.

“These street children. Fight every day.”

“But he’s just a fucking kid-”

I cut Samy off and told him not to bother. If we started arguing with the policeman we’d have to argue with the whole town; the whole society. Sometimes when travelling you see things you hate. You can help as much as possible, but anger will only cause trouble.

And then something happened that, for me, encapsulates my disillusionment and anger with religion and ‘spiritualism’. Pontus told Samy and I to leave the kid and head to the bar. He said there was no point. The child was sitting alone, crying, in the midst of twenty indifferent adults. He rested his head on my shoulder and sobbed, and Samy dabbed at his eye with a tissue he’d wet with cold water. We told Pontus there was no fucking way we were leaving until the kid was okay. The tears eventually stopped and turned to sniffles, and I gave him a little money for sweets, and with some reluctance we left him sitting on a street corner after perhaps 20 minutes.

We argued with Pontus in the bar. He’s a lovely guy, but our group was split on the issue. Rhiannon was especially angry as to why he was so happy to leave the child alone. He said that Buddhism teaches us that everything is perfect, and that even imperfections are perfect. He waxed lyrical about forms and existence and reality and – come on man. The only reality you need to worry about is that crying kid. Get down on your knees and check that he’s okay. Use those holy scriptures as tissues for the bleeding; get some actual use out of them.

That’s something that pissed me off about the hippies I’ve met while travelling. I’m tired of sitting in bars listening to white people with dreadlocks talk about their journey of self discovery, only for them to yell at the waiter to ask why the hell their salad is taking so long. What’s the point of your ten day meditation retreat, of learning to cleanse your mind of noise and to transcend reality, if you’re gunna have a shouting match with a foreign taxi driver over 50 rupees? Thor, as mad as he was, told me something that struck a chord: finding yourself is selfish. Spiritualism-induced apathy can do one. There’s a whole world out there, and there’s infinitely more to reality than your own experience of it.

*****

Anyway on one of my last nights in Pokhara I got mauled by a hell-hound. I’ve never been bitten before and it shit me up proper. In the cruellest of ironies, Samy and I were actually mid-conversation about how much we love dogs when I stooped to stroke this big fluffy sad-looking thing lying by the roadside. It watched me approach with complete disinterest, yet when my outreached fingertips were a centimetre from its head, the thing turned wolflike in a nanosecond. I can’t emphasise enough the speed and power and ferocity with which the dog clamped down on my poor old fingers, a horrifying growl in its throat and raw hatred in its eyes; the eyes that I had mere seconds earlier found to be lonesome and forlorn. I felt so betrayed.

I screamed and snatched my hand back, wrenching the mutt’s fangs free of my flesh. It stood there, on its feet in a heartbeat, hackles up, staring me down with its horrid sharp teeth bared. We left it in a hurry and my fingers began to bleed. My hand was throbbing with pain, both lacerated and crushed at the same time by those horrible jaws. I was shaking from adrenaline as I applied alcohol cleaning rub from Samy’s backpack, and with a sigh declared that our evening plans would have to be postponed, because I probably had rabies now.

We found a pharmacy a fifty metres up the road, and to be fair to Nepal, they don’t fuck about. Within ten minutes of being bitten I’d been cleaned up with iodine or some shit and been given a rabies shot and a tetanus jab. I have to get my next injection in 7 days time. I’ve not stroked a dog since, which is sad, because I’ve always adored them. Oh well, it’s my own stupid fault. Don’t stroke the dogs in third world countries, Dan. That’s like… rule number one, man.

*****

I spent a few final nights in Nepal back at Monkey Temple hostel, drinking with Jamie and Denise in familiar surroundings. I wrote the following while sitting one night alone, staring around me:

It is my last night in this country. In an incredible coincidence the young Nepali boy that I met in the street, Asis, is here, and he remembers me buying his rice three weeks ago. I suppose his parents force him to hustle tourists. The hostel staff are sitting together at the bar smoking and playing guitar and singing beautiful mournful love songs together. Denise is sitting on the phone to the boyfriend she hasn’t seen in four months, and won’t see until August. The two hostel cats are now one; Tarzan was killed by dogs while I was in Pokhara and now only Jane remains, a kitten, still young and sweet and curious in spite of the demise of her brother. Over on the cushions, handsome Sam from Egypt and pretty Ioana from Romania are lying side by side, falling for one another for one night only; Sam will leave in the morning. I am sat alone, but for once it feels as though I am not alone in my confusion, in these wild pendulum swings of emotion as I travel the world. Bittersweet is the feeling in the air here, and I sit breathing it in; so familiar. But then, I suppose a bittersweet shiver upon pulling on your coat is a sure sign you’ve been somewhere wonderful.

*****

Well, that concludes my diaries in Nepal. And where is next on this strange journey?

Why, I’m in Japan, old sport!

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