Nepalese picking at the mounds of debris for anything they could find.
Chuckles explained that it was a ritual they were performing because of the drought. Not only were the men soaked, but the ground beneath them had become a muddy, dung filled foot bath. It seemed to me a strange waste of water for people suffering through a drought. ‘You’ll find it a little weird at first – they even slaughter goats and chickens as a sacrifice to motor vehicles to prevent accidents on the road’ exclaimed Madam’s big brother.
Madam, flabbergasted, exclaimed, ‘God they’re filthy, but haven’t they got incredible physiques?’ Madam was into incredible physiques which often made me wonder how Robert the ex husband – a tub of a man with beautiful eyes, myself, a six foot three inch beanpole with claw toes and a whole string of other variables, ever found favour. Anyway the Sacred Cow finally moved its arse and we creaked and backfired our way through several miles of foot traffic.
Women carried large steel urns on their heads. Boys rode wobbling bicycles that looked as though they had been nicked from outside 1930’s butcher’s shops – heavy old black metal with metal break levers and worn out brake pads. Not for them the Sturmey Archer three speed gears to help them navigate the incline, and our driver beeped and honked all the way as assorted meandering bodies swayed from our path.
We arrived at the house of Charles Henry Ford who was packed and awaiting our arrival before leaving for New York with Indra, one of his boy servants. A New York novelist and poet in his late sixties with bulbous eyes, wearing a mouldy denim shirt and jeans – he was anxiously awaiting a cheque from Madam before catching the daily flight out of Kathmandu. In years gone by Ford’s circle of visiting friends from abroad included Orson Welles, E. E. Cummings, Cecil Beaton, Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí.
Ford’s other servant – Pye (Indra’s brother) was our runner along with two girls – Laxmi and Moona who took care of the cooking and cleaning. As we walked into the small hallway at the bottom of the stairs leading up to Ford’s main living area the two girls briskly brushed dust and dirt around each step with brushes that looked like witches’ brooms. I noticed they didn’t actually clean up the muck, just spread it around a bit. No doubt they would be sweeping the same bit of dust around every day till the end of time. It is customary for the woman of the house to sweep the home clean before breakfast, starting from the bottom storey and working up. The other way around would have made more sense to me, but apparently this only happened on a day that a death had occurred in the house. Despite what seemed to me to be a less than efficient way of going about domestic duties, the house was really rather tidy. It was quite bare, and fairly clean in a grubby sort of way.
We exchanged a few ‘Namaste’s’ (a Sanskrit word which means ‘I bow to the God within you’). It is a truly admirable custom. Can you imagine Westerners showing each other that kind of respect? Putting our hands together as if in prayer and telling our fellow man that we recognise the God within him. Not exactly part of our daily routine unless you are some kind of bull-shitty yoga teacher from Hollywood, Los Angeles.I always find it quite strange how easy we English find it to ignore another human being walking past us on the street just because they don’t happen to be a personal friend or acquaintance – a custom particular to certain parts of the South. It is a definite talent that many people have been able to cultivate – that of being able to look straight ahead or even through someone walking towards them without acknowledging them in any way. I mean really, if you were a piece of steaming dog droppings he would definitely give you some measure of credit by guiding himself around you taking great care not to bump into you. But no, you don’t even add up to a section of pavement that has been graced with the dump of some scraggy mutt. Therefore placing your hands together and bowing to this oncoming zombie and telling him that you ‘recognise the God within him’ would no doubt result in any one of the following. A) You are totally ignored. B) You are considered a crazy member of some off shoot Jehovah’s Witness type sect and totally ignored. C) You are beaten to a pulp for getting in his way.
Anyway, as you can probably tell I was very impressed with this mark of respect which everyone seemed to show each other and I guess we could all learn a thing or two from it.
Madam immediately decided that she wanted Charles Henry Ford’s bedroom for herself alone. It had a carved walnut wardrobe, a chest of drawers and a double bed draped with a large mosquito net. Two windows with warped shutters looked out over the neat garden below and past the large rusty corrugated metal gate that divided our comparatively palatial plot from the maze of mud, brick and concrete houses that stretched out for a couple of miles. Prayer flags shimmered in the breeze at the doors of the homes of those who wished the Gods to look down upon them with favour. Dogs barked incessantly, crickets cricketed non-stop and the smell of Jasmine drifted up from below. I decided I would sleep in the main living room on a divan bed, as I didn’t want to be accused of elbowing Madam’s Freddie Nichol nose job in the middle of the night.
After unpacking, Chuckles suggested I accompany him on a shopping expedition for vegetables. Just outside our large metal gate was a Stupa – a Buddhist shrine, sometimes containing prayer wheels, incense and always flowers. I followed Chuckles who started walking clockwise around it. He told me it was a sign of respect. One was supposed to walk around the Stupa three times and pray. I asked him what it was that we were meant to pray for, and he replied,
‘Pray that they’ll have some vegetables and bread left when we get down to the shops.’
The rush hour traffic verged on insanity. Cars with bald tyres and missing doors and windows swerved through endless foot traffic – goats, cows and ox carts with wooden wheels looking as though they had come straight from the pages of the Bhagavad Gita. Since there was no Highway Code in Nepal, the direction of the traffic was not uniformly observed. Horns blasted without cessation and you could taste the dust filled air. At times two and three vehicles and a motorcycle would stagger up the hill almost side by side, their clapped out engines producing more noise and fumes than power. By the time we arrived at the fruit and vegetable store at the bottom of the hill, I felt like I’d just climbed out of a vacuum cleaner dust bag.
The local fruit and veg store looked like a hundred-year-old rotting garden tool shed sitting at the roadside. A small, skinny Buddha with a YAK cigarette in his mouth sat on a cushion amidst a sad selection of forlorn looking legumes. The side of some dead animal (possibly a goat) hung on a hook and was covered in flies. I retched as Chuckles and I waited our turn to be served. After parting with a few Nepalese rupees we took a bag of assorted beans, rice and bluebottles and trundled on down to the ‘Krishna Loaf’ – a much more up-market establishment with a tin roof and a shop counter – for our daily bread. We returned to Gyaneswor with something resembling a Geordie stottie cake and if you are not familiar with Tyneside baking techniques, don’t worry, you’re not missing much in the way of a culinary orgasm. We also purchased a bowl of curd, which was actually a kind of yoghurt mixed with the odd insect and fingernail. It was such a delicious after-dinner dessert.
We sat down to dinner in the dimly lit kitchen/dining room, which had a big wooden table surrounded by an assortment of chairs, stools and benches. At one end of the room was a long thin table on which stood the household water-purifying vessel, which was topped up from time to time with water and Puritabs. A tap attached to a siphon poured the water down through a muslin cloth deterring a substance called Mica from ending up in your tea and making you a prime target for magnets from miles around. Mica – a rock chiefly composed of the silicate of a metal – was extremely common in the Kathmandu Valley.
At about 8.30 p.m. all the lights in the house went out leaving us to prowl around in complete darkness searching for matches and candles. Pye’s voice floated across the ether offering assistance, ‘I have candle in my room, you stay – I bring.’ All the lights in Gyaneswor had gone out owing to an overloaded junction box at the corner of the lane. Madam and I felt our way up the stairs to look out of the main room windows. There wasn’t a glimmer of light for miles around. The smell of jasmine travelled up the outside wall to the upstairs windows and I could hear voices coming from the path outside the gate arguing in Nepalese, probably discussing the merits of using a five-amp fuse to light the entire district.
Madam suggested we retire as we were both completely pooped. I reminded her that as yet I had nothing on which to sleep. ‘How about that?’ She pointed through the gloom to a rug on the living room floor, ‘Chuckles is sleeping in the little box room just off the other end of the living room so maybe you’ll be alright down there on some cushions Charley.’
There were no cushions to be found anywhere so my carpetbag became my pillow and I slipped into an old nylon sleeping bag left over by some long forgotten hippie trekker. It smelled like hell of body odour and dust but I didn’t care too much, I was too exhausted. As I drifted off to sleep the thought crossed my mind that had I been a softly stuffed dead dog I would have qualified to share the bed with Her Majesty.
After what seemed like only a few minutes but was more likely to be hours, I was awoken by what sounded like an army of dive-bombing, blood sucking, kamikaze mosquitoes. I felt as though I were being gnawed at from head to toe. I tried to smother myself down into the old, dusty nylon cocoon but became asphyxiated by the smell of old guru’s feet and came flying out again lest I turn into a chrysalis. Chuckles appeared at the door of the box room with a spare and very necessary mosquito net, but there was nowhere to hang it up and so I just draped it over myself. Of course the little bastards simply crawled in underneath to continue their feast whilst I tossed and turned to the tune of their relentless humming till the cocks crowed.
When the cocks crow in Kathmandu they crow by the truckload, along with about a million dogs barking for attention. In amongst the din I could hear someone shouting something that sounded like, ‘Aminyaah, aminyaah!’
I thought it was someone performing their early morning Poujah (praying around the stupa) but it turned out to be a little shrimp of a guy pulling a barrow full of very ripe mangoes. ‘Aminyaah! Aminyaah!’ he yelled again. A breeze teased the prayer flags over the rooftops and at the gate downstairs Chuckles appeared dressed in his Dhoti (a kind of wrap around skirt). He purchased about half a dozen fat mangoes for something like two pence each.
‘Hey Chuckles, I like your skirt’ I shouted down to him from the open shuttered window. He smiled uncomfortably in my direction and made for the kitchen. Still cocooned in the awful sleeping bag, I hopped – as if taking part in a sack race – towards Madam’s bedroom. It was the first time she had slept anywhere that didn’t smell of stale piss pots. As I fell through the bedroom door I could see her propped up on several cushions that she’d brought with her from Holland Park. Wherever Madam went her duck down pillows accompanied her. Through the haze of the mosquito net over Charles Henry Ford’s bed she lay motionless – the obligatory frownie stuck in place on forehead, broken nose plasters on nose and head wrapped in some old headscarf. She looked like a sort of withered old Bette Davis in a scene from ‘What ever happened to Baby Jane’.
‘Good morning Charley did you sleep well,’ she said, smiling with everything but her eyes – ‘Yeah great, apart from being consumed by little fucking, buzzing, bastard mosquitoes all night long!’ – I made a beeline for the shower room, hoping that the water tank on the roof had been filled enough to dribble something cool over my now extremely itchy body. I peeled off my clothes, which smelled like a whore’s armpit, dropped them in a neat pile on the shower room floor and stood under a rusty, battered shower nozzle. I pulled on a string and the thing began to drip cold water down my back. It seemed like the harder I yanked the string the less it dribbled – maybe it was empty, or blocked, or maybe this was as good as it was going to get!
My body had more spots on it than a leopard and when I stared at them long enough I could have sworn that I could see them getting bigger. Perhaps I had caught some horrible thing from the sleeping bag, or Calcutta crabs from the previous day spent seated on the floor of the airport lounge. One way or another I had to get them looked at – they were itching so much I felt like tearing my skin off.
I heard Chuckle’s voice calling from downstairs, ‘Madam! Charley! Your breakfast is served’. After toast and boiled eggs and several ‘Namaste’s’ to our servants, Chuckles moved his things down to a spare room next to the servant’s quarters. I moved my carpet bag and surplus luggage into the box room. My new bed was a 6ft 6in by 3ft wooden box with a one inch thick straw mattress. It wasn’t any different from lying on the hard floor except that I could drape the mosquito net up over the top of it, then tuck the sides neatly under the mattress to keep those blood sucking little bastards out once and for all!
All the plumbing in the Charles Henry Ford establishment banged and creaked. All the taps eternally dripped and all the lavatories refused to flush. Every time someone took a dump they’d be running around with a kettle of water to throw down the hole and wash all those nasties away into a nearby cesspit, which was probably dug some eighteen inches under the back garden vegetable patch. It is no wonder that dysentery, typhoid, hepatitis and a host of other ailments are immediately available to you here should you wish to eat your vegetables raw, without first boiling them to a pulp; should you forget to peel off the skins or accidentally swallow a mouthful of water from the swimming pool at the local Hotel Anna Perna. If you happened to be one of the planet’s carnivores and were you to eat a dead hen or goat for supper, then you had better hope that it hadn’t first been hanging outside the local vegetable stall for a week wearing an overcoat of bluebottles and tsetse flies.
Over breakfast another rather terrifying threat came to light when Madam pointed out an article in the 6 page daily newspaper printed in English, “The Rising Nepal”. It was entitled “Rabies Scare!” and told of a pack of wild dogs from the mountains that had attacked a village biting cows, sheep, goats and other dogs. Apparently the whole village had become infected. This was a particularly alarming tale since every family in the area seemed to own at least one dog, one goat and an array of hens and other animals. I began to regurgitate my extremely hard-boiled egg and considered veganism.
After breakfast Chuckles took us on a guided tour of part of the city. Darbar Square market place and the surrounding streets were a mass of traders and hustlers selling knives, leather nik-naks, paper birds on sticks and endless trinkets of brass and tin. Everywhere you looked there were people – masses of people – wandering around at a pace somewhere between neutral and first gear, this was something that struck me very noticeably after years of London living.
Old temples containing Buddhas stood on every corner epitomising the religious and cultural life of the people. There was a gigantic figure of Kal Bhairaw – “God of Destruction” looming over our heads and a building that housed two huge drums some eighteen feet in diameter.