And then I get this role and I end up in East Africa. I go out to the forest in Uganda. There's this woman. She brings me deep into the forest, to this cave made from the roots of a tree – the entrance is made from the roots of a tree. You go inside and there's a well in the ground, a little well. This is where they say the first man lived. And I'm sitting there. I've got my shoes off and I'm thinking to myself, Touch the ground, man. Touch the wall, feel your feet, smell it, don't forget it. Let it be inside of you.................... Forest Whitaker, Esquire interview
It’s taken me a while to figure this place out, at least in the way I can enjoy it and not be pushed into dismay by constant honking and random streetside carts full of goat legs. I’ve finally fallen into the hidden currents of Patan (consider it southside Kathmandu, but with a 2300-year history of its own), sometimes bored and a bit uncomfortable, but hey, that’s what I signed up for.
The turning point was Wednesday, the day after I wrote my previous entry and made the decision to leave Patan and, perhaps fatefully, the first day of the chariot pull. This is an important festival here, all of Patan turning out to pull an 80-foot tall, bronze and wood and sapling-laden chariot through tiny streets and alleys, and yell “AISTE!” During the procession I met a Nepali named Bal, who invited me to his house to have coffee, then later surprised me at my guesthouse at 8 am two days later to ask pertinent info for my horoscope.
On the way back from a sunset coffee and awkward conversation on Bal’s rooftop, I saw a small woman walking along in a rough horizontal, pushing a cart with 15 containers holding 10-20 liters of water each (an aside: I don’t understand how women are not allowed to pull the chariot, but this kind of backbreaking work is fine). She turned out to be Dilmaya, and she was so grateful for my help (and, I suspect, my interesting presence) that she invited me for dinner the next night and hasn’t stopped blowing up my phone since. I’m amazed that she does this route on her own, as it took us 15 minutes to get this cart through cracked, unlit streets, and then it was still a walk-up and two flights to her apartment.
When I came back for dinner the next night, they had invited the whole neighborhood out. Iswor, who keeps texting me with the question “How r you bro” was there, as were a steady stream of people staring in from the shared balcony. Awkwardly, I was the only one eating, and the meal I had come out for was of the take-out variety, comprised of the two greasy staples of Tibetan-Nepali fast food cuisine — dumpling-like momos, and 1950s American-Chinese food-like chow mein.
Sitting next to me, carrying his roll of canvas and poetry books under one arm, was the night’s most interesting product, Asim Sagar. He showed me the two books of ghazals (lyrical poems, usually set to music) he’d already published, with another five on the way. He showed me the mountain landscapes he’d painted from postcards, having never been to see them himself. They were simplistic and beautiful, with charmingly naive details like yaks and peasants added to each one. He told me about a poetry contest he’d entered, and come in 6th out of more than a thousand.
At first I waited for the inevitable sell, but as the night progressed I changed my disposition. For some reason or other I was an attraction here, someone to impress and confide in. Most people did this by introducing their wives and cousins, showing me photographs and cell phones. But Asim’s pride was in his artistic creations, and he wanted to show them to someone who understood. In some simple twist of fate, I did.
On my way back home, I stopped off at a “cold store” for a beer. People were hanging out in the courtyard accessible through the other end of the store. I drank beer and raksi, a fermented rice spirit, and partook in some weird raksi-accompaniment, tomato-soaked fish out of a can. With some of the fellas I went for a nighttime inspection of the chariot, housing maybe the same hold man who implored the crowd to “AISTE!” at other times, bathed in the light of devotional candles.
Friday was a wash, but Saturday I bartended Sattya’s one-year anniversary party, which was nice, and gave me some insight into the organization that had lured me all these many miles. I made a green tea-honey-cucumber-mint punch to complement the 6 liters of raksi they’d gotten donated and it went over pretty well. Getting back into a familiar rhythm was also a nice thing, and I was pleased to see Sattya do something exceedingly well — which hadn’t been my experience with the cancelled workshop I had been slated to teach.
Here’s what I wrote on coming home that night:
How fucking gorgeous was tonight? It ended in getting a surprise ride home — a bigger thing than you’d imagine at 10:30 pm, the hour that everything is usually desolate and stray dogs start getting growly ideas — and getting dropped off on the edge of devotional, tea-candled Saturday night in Patan. Among these tea candles were two giant chariots, and they contained all the secrets of the world. The first thing I saw on this round was a guy clearing all the candles off a cross-bar of chariot with a sweep of his hand, and a boy trying to pull the children’s chariot until I told him no, to the delight of his parents.
And that was just the afterglow. What really happened is I got involved with the thing I’d been seeking, the alternative pulse of this regimented city, and was welcomed. I got to fuck off a bit and eat free pasta, and was still appreciated. I forget how much I enjoy being a bartender.
Sunday I went to my favorite cafe here — Higher Ground, get the carrot cake — and ran into a girl I’d met at the Sattya party. We exchanged numbers and some insight struck me — right, this is how things go when they’re going. We tried to meet up at the chariot pull, but I decided last minute not to be a bystander. I pulled the massive thing, along with 300 other able bodies, through a canyon of apartment buildings, one of whose sides the 15˚-bent tip of the chariot got snagged on. From a full stop we would grunt and pull at the three ropes tethered to it, then run in a mad dash for 50 feet or so over uneven streets that spat bricks into our path, trying not to get trampled. In these moments, I leaned on the rope as much as I pulled on it. I had three separate conversations of “Where are you from?… Having fun?” When I eventually broke off, after about 500 feet of this, I was blown away by the level of adrenaline I had coursing through my veins, and the feeling of accomplishment I got from having participated in such an incomprehensible and sacred thing.
Yesterday I went to the hospital for the stomach thing (diarrhea!) that is keeping me off trekking for a few more days. I had one of those utterly alien experiences that I like when I’m not feeling threatened by it, with the same people who were crowding the doctor’s door that I was waiting for excitedly stepping onto a scale, treating it as more a novelty than a diagnostic tool, having their their children bend down to read its scratched-up window. I eventually got some good, compassionate advice, and a $2 booster shot of Hep B immunoglobulin (note to the savvy — getting a rare tropical inoculation like Japanese Encephalitis here instead of in the US would have saved me $500!). I went home and watched some movies.
And today, waking up after 11 hours for some guesthouse lobby french-toast-and-internet, I made a new friend. She has a remarkable English vocabulary for a 6-year-old Nepali, but she still was no help with the crossword. So I proceeded to bang my head against the wall while letting her fast-forward her way through How to Train Your Dragon, The Aristocats and Fantastic Mr. Fox. She would rewind certain sections to an extent that made me pull her hand away from the button, and a few times she counted along with the time signature. And still I was pretty amazed whenever she would laugh at something, it would pull me out of my smug little over-the-crossword watch and get me engaged. Kids are pretty magical in that way.
vietnamese shirt that woman initially wouldn’t let me take take pic of because of resultant bad luck of me not buying it…. i convinced her that the pic was to send to my girlfriend to ask her opinion, i do have misgivings about that….
As of about an hour ago, I informed the two founders of the Sattya Media Arts Collective that I won’t be teaching the course I’ve come to Nepal to teach. I did this after considerable soul-searching, I did it via text message (although let it be known I called before sending). I still haven’t received a reply [ED: it took them 24 hours].
It was a lot of things, but mostly a matter of timing. Their timing, with a one-year anniversary party coming this weekend, a $9,000 kickstarter half-fulfilled and entering that 10-day do-or-die period, and some personnel things seemingly in flux (i.e. I was given a flyer advertising the position of the guy who brought me in to stick to bulletin boards alongside my workshop flyer). My timing, with 6 weeks left to make something transcendentally memorable of my time here, which was so far consumed by 2 great weeks with my dad, and 2 more recent boring weeks at a quiet, out-of-the-tourist-district guesthouse. The prospective students’ timing also wasn’t right this week, when I was originally supposed to run the workshop (was told is was exams, maybe), and might not be right in the still-TBD future, while I cooled my budget jets in this strange, early-to-sleep city with no real friends.
And still I could have gutted it through, and it might have been amazing. The workshop still gets me amped — a 5-dayer that demonstrates my quirky methods in the service of idea generation and “honing the tools of curiosity.” This I thought about over another boring weekend, head held down by the kind of depression which indicates: You have a decision to make. And in the end, this city without a coalesced, active art scene (that I’ve seen) can’t compare to a month-long trek through the Himalayas, with stops for random monasteries and burning the leeches off of my feet.
It’s one of those things that isn’t a perfect solution, with the only one of those existing in before-the-fact theory. This week, I’ve been thinking a bit about another difficult — and as it happened, disastrous — decision, made by (of course) my favorite calamity-prone basketball team, the NJ — soon to be Brooklyn — Nets.
At the start of their NBA tenure, they were faced with a difficult situation — as one of 4 teams selected to make the jump from the carnivalesque, always precariously-financed ABA, they had to come up with nearly $5 million 1977 dollars to pay the NY Knicks for metro-area territorial rights, and $3 million to pay the NBA. Their owner, Roy Boe, a vaudeville type who’d bought the team for $1.1 million in 1969, was squarely in over his head. The solution he found has been regretted by generations of Nets fans since — he sold off the team’s best player, Michael Jordan before there was a Michael Jordan, to the Philadelphia 76ers for $3 million. Julius “Dr. J” Erving, the godfather of playing above the rim, won an NBA title with Philadelphia in 1983, after two with the ABA Nets. The NBA Nets never won another.
As New Jersey’s team becomes Brooklyn’s, an era marked by losing, poor decisions, tragedy, bad luck and comical antics comes to an end — and many people trace this right back to the selling of Dr. J (the “curse of”?). Rightly or wrongly, Boe is the godfather of a circus — which they once had to give up their arena and forfeit a play-in game for the playoffs for the literal sort of!
A lot of memories about the team are going around this week, but one is not — the alternate history one where they kept the game’s most exciting player and had an entirely different fate. But if we’re going to construct alternate histories, we have to deal with the facts of the time, the facts which led Boe to find an unconventional solution to a lose-lose situation, and enabled his team to move forward with the pieces that were left.
Just to be clear, I am not in any way equating my decision with one that led to a generation’s worth of failure.
-battle cry of the funky-mustached, wild-eyed drummer, before launching the band into a number that had me pogoing in a pool of sweat on a cold night, hand slapping the ceiling
The energy in the room pulsated like a West Philly basement on a good night. Children, ex-pats, French dudes in sherpa hats and a friendly, middle-aged Nepali in a fez skanked to the dutty island rhythms and aggressive sonic drones of self-described Himalayan ska punks Naya Faya (wow, who knew?). People bounced around, high on the manic energy in the room, cascading off of drums and funky vocoder licks, sloganeering (“this song is dedicated to the fucking plastic bags everywhere”), more spandex and cross-dressing and skin than you’ll see on a typical stage out here. People smiled through the body heat and driving, endless grooves, shining with the feeling in the air that we were sharing a good moment on a good night. And of course it was a good night — it was new year’s eve.
For me — lover of all kinds of music, recent taker-in of a string of mediocre cover band performances in the far-flung corners of the world — these guys were a revelation, as well as a fuck-you to the city powers-that-be that ensure that every night ends at 12 am. Supposedly, you could hear these kids all over Thamel.
I still haven’t heard a good explanation of the police-enforced shutdown of the city at 10 pm or 12, or a defense of the trickle-down effect it has on other things, like the last minibus that leaves my nearby city for Kathmandu at 7, or my first-night guesthouse with the 8 pm curfew. It’s been refreshing to wake up at 7 am everyday, feeling crisp after a night that didn’t end in the early morning, and stare out my window at the nearby mountains. But these rules also serve to enforce a monoculture — one which, in the absence of a stable network of friends and family or reliable non-touristy activities to take up the endless daytime hours, pushes most travelers into the pandering jaws of touristy Thamel.
But tonight, me and my new friends took to the night with different intentions — one of which, I’d been promised, was staying out until midnight (this hadn’t been the case the night before, which had ended with taxis and lame excuses at 9:15). We put enough whiskey into our bodies to ensure that we’d be useless the next morning. And we caroused, our manic energy not exactly fitting the next spots, the three noticeable tweakers bouncing off the dancefloors of urbane and sophisticated lounges.
We hit one place, then wandered off in search of another. We got to the Attic at 11:50, and piled onto the vacant dancefloor to soak up the last bars of “Billie Jean.” We didn’t stop shimmying between songs, and ramped it up further when the band went into “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.” After that, the lead singer went into countdown mode, and I was surprised to look down at my phone and find the world still ensconced in the old year. 11:58, not even close. When I held my phone up to the singer she just sneered, and flashed her past-12 wristwatch.
The bar stayed open a little later than usual, and by the time me and Weena — also without a close-by bed — started looking for a hotel room, everything was closed. Not just closed, but unreachable, behind locked doors, shuttered, barricaded. We met a Finnish guy in a similar situation, but with an already occupied room, and a roommate who was just then crawling over a wall to bridge the jerry-rigged obstruction mechanisms of the place and get his friend in. And us, as it turned out.
We stayed up till 3:30 talking about mostly forgettable things, then shared skinny beds with our new Finnish friends. And I finally realized the New Year’s insanity that I’d being trying to tap into all around the calendars — the Jewish, Gregorian, Vietnamese and Chinese ones — but in all of the wrong places, finding it in the most unlikely of locales.
I leave my friends at 7 am the night of my leaving party. I’m home in time to get 3 hours of sleep, and then some frantic packing done. Actually,maybe frantic shouldn’t describe my first steps toward Nepal; perhaps it’s a word better left in the land of motorbikes.
So I get on my Air Asia flight to Bangkok, a city I’ve never been to, and won’t be going to now. Instead, I stay in the airport for the 11 hours of my layover — bridging the time the metro closes, but barely. I make a friend on a shorter layover. We drink. He tells me about a bachelor party he’s organizing where the theme is to dress up like ’80s wrestlers. We laugh. Then he tells me about a girl he’s going to meet in Florida, where his stepdad lives.
He met her two years ago, and not since. They sometimes email each other 4 or 5 times a day! Admittedly, he’s the one who’s kept it going, and he’s worried that this next meeting will put too much pressure on her, especially with some of the things he’s said. He tells me he’s going to marry her, at least he hopes so. Even as my attachment alarm is going off, I still feel a pang of envy for something — anything — so lasting.
He gets on his plane and I start looking at the fascinating people all around. I hatch a plan to photo/interview those whose stories I can’t guess — like a middle-aged Germanic looking couple with a 17-ish daughter, her identity obvious in her subtly impatient stance and lack of talking. Who isn’t so obvious is the 20-something Asian girl in club clothes who comes out to the smokers’ curb with them, then stands apart just long enough to make me feel their walking together was just coincidence. Then they walk back together, mother and father and daughter and Asian girl, before I can engage them. I fall asleep on a metal bench.
I wake for the flight to Delhi, the highlight of which is getting a thing of sunscreen onto the plane unchecked, making a persuasive argument to the TSA checker with a touch of my scar and some basically true words.
The Mahatma Gandhi Airport is beautiful, lushly carpeted in this weird Hindu way that you wouldn’t think would jibe with a hub of duty-free consumerism. I get on another plane. This one finally takes me to my destination — which makes me so unreasonably happy, it reminds me what travel can be like.
There are the predictable shenanigans with the taxi hustlers, and some unpredictable ones with the sim-card lady who takes my picture, my father’s and grandfather’s names, and my thumbprints. But then I get into the city, and things change into a shimmering, chaotic, handpainted sign wonderland. I’d forgotten how much beauty can affect me, and here is some of the strangest types I’ve ever seen.
I make it into Sattya, the non-profit I’ll be volunteering to teach workshops for, and am greeted enthusiastically and likemindedly. The guy who I’ve been in touch with there, Galen, shows me around the office, the rooftop screening room, the future reclaimed garden space, the outdoor walls in the beginning stages of being covered in color. We share some words about the need to foster creativity in people, and I think it’s going to work out alright.
After our meet, Galen suggests a walking route past Patan’s royal square, towards a nice guesthouse. I can’t stop taking pictures. All around me is this crazy life, bright clothes and crooked driving patterns and arcane temples and lots of smiles. It’s alive in a way I can’t explain and I’m not used to, and I think I’m going to like it.
I venture out that night to find someraksi, a local fermented rice spirit that I’ve been told is cheaper than the strangely expensive Nepali beer rates. I find some at a corner store, and a few new friends. I drink it there, but my hanging-out buddies decline — supposedly the cops are a bit less circumspect about harassing locals than tourists.
The raksihas a nice effect on me as I wander among the night dogs, scampering in the shadows of decayed palaces and temples. The city shuts down at 9 or so, giving my experience a sense of intimacy. I smile at the few people passing in the street at this hour. Then I find the rooftop terrace of my guesthouse and put on a jacket for the first time in months. The wind comes off of the mountains, and I feel good to be alive.