I realise I haven’t really written very much about the things you can see here – temples covered in elaborate carvings, ancient palaces, gold-topped Buddhist stupas and hills covered in forest, flowers and swarms of butterflies. But whenever I sit down to write, the encounters I have had with different people and animals are the things that first spring to mind.
You see a lot of animals here. In fact, a street dog just wandered into this internet cafe a few minutes ago, apparently intent on checking its email. During the day the streets are full of dogs lying fast asleep in attitudes of complete snoozily repose – they look very sweet until you remember that they are exhausted now because they have been up all night barking like maniacs. Some sort of unholy nocturnal gang war is going on between different factions of dogs here – they kick off in the middle of the night and keep it up for hours.
Several dogs have adopted me for a while since I’ve been here. If I sit anywhere for long, I’ll look down to see one or two curled up companionably by my feet. In quieter places they trot along next to you for a while until something distracts them and they wander off. When I first went to Swayambhu, a magnificent hilltop stupa, two of them followed me about for ages and watched, heartbroken, when I eventually made my way down the steep steps away from them. I kept looking back to see them still watching me from the top. When I went back a second time I saw one again and he recognised me, trotting straight up with tail wagging.
The second time I went to Swayambhu wasn’t as good as the first. It was a Saturday, the stupa’s busiest day, which destroyed the peaceful atmosphere although it did allow me to see more of the stupa’s ritual activity. It was also appallingly hot. My bottle of water was stolen by a monkey who took it right from between my feet as I sat on a bench. It dragged it off to a safe distance then expertly unscrewed the cap and knocked the bottle on its side to drink from the ensuing puddle. Swayambhu is overrun with monkeys, lending it the dreadfully disrespectful tourist nickname ‘Monkey Temple’.
I also got into a row there with a seventeen year old trainee monk who wanted me to make a large donation to his monastery’s orphanage, then became very un-Buddhist when I refused. It was difficult to explain to him that an ATM is not a magic lamp of money that all foreigners can draw from without limit whenever they want.
You can see a fair few cows in Kathmandu, but far more in Pokhara, where they wander about the place, having thoughtful conversations with each other in the middle of the road until someone deferentially shoos them out of the way. On my last morning one of them gave me a very loving lick on the elbow with a hot rasping tongue. Ducks, chickens and goats are also a fairly common sight. Yesterday I went to Bhaktapur with an Australian beekeeper, but he was reluctant to pay the extremely steep entry fee to the town so I went round it by myself. I got intoxicatingly lost in the back streets of the town, which is breathtaking – a well-preserved medieval city full of intricate wood carving and beautiful temples. Ducks and chickens milled around in the narrow alleys, as well as the odd goat. One tiny baby goat lost its mother in the middle of a square and stood on knobbly legs shouting out to her for ages until someone took pity and ushered it off in the right direction.
The vast majority of the Nepali people I’ve met have been lovely – very friendly and eager to offer advice. I’ve lost count of how many older brothers and sisters and fathers I now have. I keep getting adopted into families when people find out I’m here alone. Last night I went for dinner with one of my adopted families – husband, wife and two children. It was a lovely, quiet, laid-back evening: they really did treat me like one of the family, not like a strange guest from far away. We watched Tom and Jerry cartoons on TV and I read to the kids – a girl and boy – and played silly games with them. They are at an English school & speak English very well, though with a strong posh-Indian accent that sounds very funny on a six or seven year old. We ate dal bhaat sitting on the floor – I copped out and used a spoon, though the proper way to eat it is to scoop it up with your right hand.
Of course a lot of people, like the trainee monk, also see me as a walking cashpoint. Luckily I have been here long enough now that I’m no longer followed everywhere by requests that I buy things – tiger balm, rickshaw rides, woolly hats, Tibetan singing bowls, badly enamelled pendants, hashish, lychees and mangoes. Of that list the only thing I’ve bought are the fruits: small, fragrant, sweet mangoes and slightly disappointing lychees. The drug dealers are all scrupulously polite: “Excuse me madam? You want high?” Then when you say no they say “very sorry madam” and vanish like cats.
The other travellers here are a mixed bunch. You could divide them roughly into those with something to prove and those without. Those without something to prove – to themselves or to the world – are straightforwardly friendly and interested in everything and everyone, and I’ve had plenty of fascinating chats with people like Steve the beekeeper mentioned above.
Those with something to prove are hard work. There are hi-tech trekkers in expensive North Face clothes who only want to compete about who has done the most hardcore trek – which is lost on me as I haven’t trekked a bit. You also see a lot of extreme hippy types who are too absorbed in finding themselves to pay attention to anything else, or even to return a smile. But my least favourite are those who are obsessed with the difference between a traveller and a tourist, casting themselves very much as the former. They stroll about in self-conscious pseudo-Eastern clothing with expressions of great moral superiority. If they deign to speak to another Westerner (they seem to be in fear of contamination) it is only to prove how much cheaper and more authentic their food, accommodation and choice of transport is. ‘Authentic’ is a very important concept to them – as though the people here really think there’s any significant difference between one type of foreigner and another.
In fact, the most genuine traveller I’ve seen since being here was a sixty-something year old, badly dressed man with a tour group. I saw him in one of the squares in Bhaktapur yesterday. He was wearing criminally bad shorts and swathed in camera cases, cameras, bags and water bottle holders – almost the archetypical ‘tourist’, and certainly someone the Proper Travellers would sneer at.
What made him stand out to me was the rapt, delighted expression on his face. He wandered about the square in childlike joy, head turning this way and that as he tried to see every statue, building, every detail, and absorb it into himself. He was completely, unselfconsciously carried away with the wonder of everything he saw and experienced. I hope I can learn to be a traveller like him.