Nepal is one of the jewels of the international bohemian trail. I have been there twice and I would probably be happy to spend the rest of my life there, even with the crown prince machine-gunning his entire family and Maoists at the gates. The crown prince massacre, by the way, occurred about a month after I’d left, allowing me to miss history yet again.
What attracted me more than anything, at least at first, was the weather. Up there in the mountains, you don’t get that fierce, unyielding sun searing down, chasing you from awning to umbrella from 6 am to dusk. After that, I liked the country’s casual attitude toward recreational drug users, at that time, anyway, which a lot more countries need to adopt.
My first time in Kathmandu, I stayed in the area called “Freak Street,” an aptly named neighborhood of sin and immorality that also happened to bring in hard currency from all over the world and no shortage of jobs for the Nepalese. It has since been gentrified into Thanet, a place of more grown-up tourist shops and far less sin. Naturally, I preferred Freak Street. I enjoy sin, as a matter of fact. I like dark streets, shady characters, loose women, noir films, beer and marijuana and, for the longest time, unfiltered Camels. My true destiny was probably that of a minor character in a Loren Estleman novel.
Kathmandu is actually more medieval than noir. And the medieval flavor of the city can get too authentic. They kept pigs in the city. In pigpens. Pigpens are bad enough in the country; in the city they are almost as offensive and unsuitable as freeways. They give out a sharp, aggressive stink that carries for at least two blocks. They go a long way in explaining why the holy men of the Jews and Muslims have banned that animal’s products from their diet. Anything, they must have reasoned, that lives like this and smells this bad cannot possibly be good for you. In fact, could this be the root of the phrase, “stinks to high heaven?”
Yeah, so, even with that, I enjoyed Kathmandu, and stayed as long as my visa would allow. Every night, in the town square around Freak Street, there was a free concert of local music, just a harmonium and tablas. Both players were superb, and I would smoke a chillum with some total stranger—my preferred method of socializing—and listen to the sounds of the land, in the land, mellowed by the smoke of the land. Not much different from tossing down a tequila and listening to mariachis in Mexico.
The second time I went there was in the year 2000. I was working for the Washington Times and I was supposed to meet some regional movers and shakers during an international energy conference. A more incommensurable set of circumstances can hardly be imagined. I wore a suit every day I was there. I stayed in at the Dwarika Hotel, a hotel that was built around the classic Nepali window boxes. It also had, in the courtyard, reserved rent-free workshops for artisans to create some of the disappearing Nepali arts & crafts. It brought to mind the film Bedtime Story, with David Niven and Marlon Brando, in fact it was life imitating art. In the 1959 movie, David Niven played a successful European gigilo who used some of his ill-gotten loot to support disappearing European arts & crafts. There was a pretty good remake, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, with Michael Caine and Steve Martin.
I was considering a trek, which is a walk through the Himalayas. One of the jumping-off points was a village named Pokhara, in those days a true village, an idyllic-beyond-belief little spot, at the foot of the Annapurna mountain range. It now has over 400,000 people, 140 hotels, an airport and basket weaving classes. It is the most expensive city in Nepal, and four times the size, in area, of Kathmandu.
At my time there wasn’t any of that. It was utterly peaceful, the traffic consisting of bikes and oxcarts. There were a few restaurants and an all-night teahouse. There were a lot of Tibetan refugees, Pokhara being one of the first “metropolitan” areas they would encounter after sneaking into Nepal. They sold Tibetan curios to the tourists, and I picked up a human bone trumpet. This, if nothing else, at least qualified as a gift for the man who has everything.
The day I arrived, I had a return bout of dysentery, and for two days I could barely stand up. A doctor in India had told me that if this should happen, the only thing to do was rest, so I rented a room in one of the little thatched roof Hobbit-era houses a bit off from the Phewah Lake.
I stayed in bed all day long, reading and retching–a punk rock song title if I ever heard one–and stumbled out at night, aiming for the all-night cafe. There, I met locals and tourists, who were all smoking hashish and sipping tea and singing Nepali folk tunes until about 4:00 or 5:00 am.
I always wondered what the hell the late-night Nepalis did for a living. My experience in the Developing World would generally involve following the sun; getting up at dawn and retiring a bit after dark, but this was an entire new strain. Were they dope dealers? Could 12 or 13 full-time purveyors of Nepali hashish make their living in a small town that based its economy on healthy hikers and mountain climbers? If they were smugglers between Nepal and Tibet, what the hell could they be smuggling that was worth anything?
I never found out, as I still considered it bad manners to ask such things. I was just glad they were around, as their business supported the all-night teahouse, without which I probably would have gone nuts. The songs were fun–Bol Toddy bol toddy bol toddy ay / Ay Krishna Adnay noddy boam a tsebhat ay was the chorus of one, and chanting it all night long is a fairly good defense against retching.
This was also my first experience with the medical properties of marijuana. I’d had no idea that cannabis had any healing properties. I just liked listening to music or walking down the street while smoking it. But I don’t know what I would have done through all that dysentery-based agony without smoking hashish. It somehow settled me, and I could at least get through the night without moaning in agony. The locals called it Shiva Medicine, and they weren’t kidding.
I would really enjoy putting some of the dickhead drug warriors in the same position for a while, and see how they liked Just Saying No to that.
It took every atom of strength I had to make that crawl from my Elizabethan hut to the coffeehouse, and by the time I made it back home, I was a half inch from being dead. I would plop on the straw mattress, mumble thanks to Shiva and that would be that.
Until the night that I made my bones.
Making your bones is a cop/thug slang that entered the mainstream, so far as I know, through the Godfather novels. It simply means that you have successfully passed through or done something difficult and proven to yourself and your contemporaries that you have grown up. You can be trusted to do difficult assignments, and you are no longer in danger of wimping out at the first hard jab. I’d always associated this with big city stuff. I didn’t think that an adorable, Biblical-looking village at the foot of some holy mountains, where the women dressed like the Virgin Mary and the men were mostly dope-smoking folk singers, would put me to this sort of test.
To quote Max Shulman, one of the brightest and funniest writers of the 20th century, “Somebody Up There chuckled.”
I had no idea of the drama that was taking place in that picturesque little cottage with the thatched roof. For, up in the thatches, I had roommates. I didn’t know them, or anything about them, but they were there, and it was their ancestral turf when I was still learning the treble clef:
Hissy and Squeaky were lovers. Oh Lordy how they could love. Hardly a night went by that they didn’t go to it right then and there, and to hell with anyone who might be watching. And soon, this gave them a family. Soon came the arrival of little Stinky, Barfy, Crappy, Nasty and little baby Yech. They started to spread out, seeking bigger pastures. Soon you couldn’t toss a twig without hitting one of this clan, especially after Pukey, Zilch and Dipshit came along. It was inevitable that this would bring the usual squabbles and territorial claims. Stinky was running around all night, disturbing little baby Yech. Nasty kept on stealing stuff from under Pukey’s bed. Crappy was–well–never mind…
Sad to say, Squeaky had had, by this time, quite enough of Hissy. She was always doing something domestic. The glistening body that he had once found so attractive was by then merely slick, even slimy. Her constant sniffing around was more suspicion than affection. Her voice was starting to grate, and she was using it, more and more, simply to complain.
Hissy felt pretty much the same way about Squeaky, and it was in fact one of the few things they agreed upon. Squeaky was running around all night long, sometimes, slinking back home smelling like he’d been tossed into a garbage dump. He told her that the little brats could find their own fucking food from now on. Finally he’d told Hissy the same thing.
It all came to a head one night. The outer door slammed at 4:00 am, waking everybody up. That accursed downstairs renter was muttering about some stupid folk song. Hissy had just reached the end of her patience.”I can’t stand this life anymore!” she hissed.
“Well, why don’t you just leave?” Squeaky snarled.
“You think I won’t?” she cried.
“Here,” he squeaked. “I’ll help ya!” And he bashed her a good one, right in the chops.
Hissy fell to the ground. But not immediately. On her way down, she landed on the face of the downstairs renter, who was semi-deleriously going into another rendition of “Bol Toddy.” She scrambled away from this creep, scratching his cheeks with her claws. And her body, it turned out, really was slimy.
The renter shrieked. The renter shrieked like no renter has ever shrieked before. He had instantly realized what had happened, which only made him shriek again. “I just had a fucking rat fall on my face!!” he yelled, over and over again.
Soon the renter was making more noise than all of the upstairs neighbors and their kids combined. He was stumbling around the room, lashing out with a stick, trying to light his kerosene lamp, hollering very rude things like “Fucking fucking fucking fucking god-damned fucking shitheel fucking rats!!” and “Fucking rats picked my roof to have a family feud in!!” And eventually, “So that’s why those old fashioned beds had canopies!!”
The next day, or actually, later in that same day, after the sun came up, the renter could be found sitting outside, in front, in a blanket, muttering. But toward the end of the day, he began to smile. His dysentery was letting go. The unmistakable rush of good health was coming through. Perhaps the shock of the falling rat had driven the dysentery out.
Not only that, he suddenly realized that he was no longer squeamish. He wasn’t squeamish about anything on earth. No longer afraid of anything on earth. He had just been awakened by a slimy, aggressive rat falling on his face. How could people scare him after that?
He stretched and gloried in the Himalayan sunshine. It was time to enjoy paradise. He had made his bones.