house of happy

Life adventures in prose and verse. Explorations of places, people and words. Stories and fun.

Monday, 13 March 2017

Geo Terror

I've tried all sorts of tricks and trivialities - even house work, unsuccessfully - in order to avoid a topic so closely linked to Nepal that there's no writing about one without mentioning the other. The country sits atop the geological equivalent of a pressure cooker; it straddles the line where the Indian tectonic plate is pushing Northwards, against and under the Eurasian plate, something quite common and necessary in geological terms, but rather ominous for the ants on top: us.

In the (unimaginable) past, this jostling of the earth crust created the Himalayas. Now, the Indian plate slides under the other 2 inches every year - but gets stuck for decades. Pressure builds up. I don't know how to say these words so that they may reflect the kind of pressure, or the forces at work. And I have no words for the terror I feel, writing this.

On 25 April 2015, there was a sudden release of this built up underground power; a sudden move, a thrust, an earthquake. It had more energy than 20 nuclear bombs - the equivalent of 200 years' of Northward movement of the Indian tectonic plate. It pushed the Himalayas southward, and lifted the Kathmandu valley, shifting it 3 meters to the South, like shaking a heavy carpet. It lowered Everest by an inch (to be measured more accurately this year...); I have all this data from a National Geographic documentary I forced myself to watch.

The earthquake - and its most severe aftershock, on 12 May - killed 10,000 people and injured 22,000. It triggered avalanches and landslides that obliterated whole communities, in the Langtang valley and around Everest. It displaced more than one million people, and destroyed invaluable cultural landmarks - temples, both Buddhist and Hindu; not just empty museums of a foregone age, but very much part of Nepalese daily life and spirituality.

Footage from the earthquake shows some of these buildings falling. It shows flocks of birds darting across the sky, and - like in a mirror - flocks of people underneath, rushing already to help the victims. Rescue teams, human chains, incredible survival stories.


Lives saved, lives lost, lives changed: we watch this from afar and wonder who makes the choice, who's doomed and who's spared. Two years later, it's still hard to see all the impacts and links, the full tapestry - but some shocking details stand out. How human traffickers moved fast, in the chaos after the earthquake and ensnared countless young girls for the Asian "markets" (filth that they are, both clients and suppliers, and may they please rot between tectonic plates for all eternity). How violence against women increased, and how single women found it harder to get help - food and shelter - after the earthquake. How their children - deprived of food at a crucial stage - are now stunted for life. How a whole generation of young Nepali men are still migrating to the building sites of the Persian Gulf - which makes the rebuilding of their own country more lengthy, tricky and costly. And as for this rebuilding of Nepal - how homeless people couldn't wait for their government to help and cobbled their houses back together, more unsafe than ever.

There is another narrative, the "could-have-been-worse" viewpoint, supported by some striking statistics: the earthquake happened at lunchtime, on a Saturday. Children were not at school, people were not indoors, but out and about. A year earlier, an earthquake forecast for Nepal had imagined as many as 40,000 dead; in April 2015, four times fewer people lost their lives. A report, after the event, declared at least 10,000 children saved by the fortuitous timing.

I cannot tell you how much I love this fact; it's more than the normal degree of joy, that things turned out well for these children. The truth is, I feel part of that tribe of children, saved. On 4 March 1977, a Friday night, I slept in my bed, sick with a fever. A nuisance: my parents had to cancel going to a dinner party. The earthquake woke me up: the room shook, lamps swayed and broke, the floor - or was it the earth itself? - groaned as if a giant was waking. The door batted open and shut like a wing, catching my mother's face as she ran in to grab me. The fridge - in the hallway outside - fell with a colossal thud. Above my head, the walls were splitting open, plaster rained on my bed and I rolled away from it, until I fell on the floor. A moment later I was in mama's arms, and then it was over.

At the other end of town, the building with the dinner party, and half of my family, were gone. Two tribes - the lost, the saved; and earthquakes blindly herding us into one or the other; and still we go back and trust the same buildings, the same earth crusts to hold us safe, and we accept forces and odds we can't begin to understand.


Some say that the 2015 earthquakes in Nepal did not relieve the full stress amassed between tectonic plates, miles beneath Kathmandu. Ominous voices whisper, "there will be other earthquakes..." Sure, any infant could tell you that. But I must say, having watched people in Kathmandu go about their business, along those narrow roads, with those crumbling buildings overhead, and a sky full of dust from all the building sites; but witout a sign of anxiety or fear; and trusting the land with their children, their frail and ancient parents, their pregnant bellies; and always with those easy, wide smiles narrowing their eyes like too much sun: whatever it is - short-sightedness or wisdom - it's also a kind of resilience; these people know earthquakes and choose to have fun in between.





If you got this far, maybe you'd consider leaving me a short message - it's lonely to keep writing without anyone stopping to say hi. 

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Geo Cache

Two days ago I took my flu up the hill. Face chapped, throat dry and stinging, and my left eye never stopped streaming. A clown, in schoolgirl-navy coat and someone else's gloves. The only thing that made me recognisable at all was the notebook in my pocket, and the pen (walking is where I get ideas and words, both - I can say that now - a professional necessity. So I never walk as much as go scouting and reaping...)

Photo by Magnus Wolfe Murray, proving that January can look like June

I sat down on a rock, with my pen and my notes (and my crying left eye and my snot). Despite these clear signs of plague, would I be left alone, eyes closed, chapped face turned to an equally pale sun (the kind we used to call "sharp-toothed"...)? Would there be a blog if I had? 

"Ehm, hello?" (strident voice). I jumped.
"Sowy. Can you take pictuwe?" A man, Asian-looking, holding out his phone. 
"And one mowe?" after I took a baker's dozen.
"Sure."

Another couple, I should mention now, loitered on a grassy ledge. Did they want pictures taken too? No - they just stood hunched over their phone, then took three steps one way, consulted the phone again, changed direction, counted steps, asked the phone, and so on. They were just being weird. I resumed my meditation-on-the-rock (sometimes ideas wanted to be chased at a trot, other times, lured and trapped. Besides, closing my eyes stopped the one-sided tears, I had noticed, and the nose). 

"Can we borrow your pen?" 
I jumped again. It was the young man of the loitering couple, an American. (Did one of them have dreadlocks? Was one of them bald? Did any wear jeans? Was there a backpack slung over a shoulder? I remember nothing. They credit writers with great observation skills. I repeat: I remember nothing. So depressing. Draw your conclusions. All I write, I make up.)

The Americans took my pen, unscrewed a muddy tube and extracted a rolled-up paper. While they scribbled, to pass the time, I asked:
"Time capsule?"
"Geo-caching" one of them (I don't remember who) replied. ("Geo-catching" they said to be precise, and I googled it and found that they had meant cache, definition: hiding place) Apparently it's what you do, these days, when you don't play Pokemon Go. Geo-caching involves a smart phone, an app, some coordinates, some clues, in other words a treasure hunt; when these two found their cache, they wrote their names, marked it on their phones as found, and hid it back. It was their first in Scotland, they said, but they had found 178 in the States (I don't remember the number; I made it up. I'm sure it was almost 200.)

*

There was no peace for me that day, or pause from sniffing and sneezing, and no cache of ideas, or poetry, or Vora moments on the hill. But what if?.... 

And so I did: I took a page from my notebook and wrote down a little poem (a small silly one I had written in that very spot, 22 years ago); then I "poem-bombed" the American's cache; hiding, in other words, the poem in the tube.


*

I went back today, to check on it. I saw my poem as a kind of blogging-minus-the-internet; I imagined geo-cachers' surprise and pleasure; they would add words, make notes, draw. I would have an audience of weird big children with phones and dreadlocks and hiking boots. We would start a world-wide trend. 

The muddy tube was there, minus my poem. Oh well. Some things go viral. Others just go missing. 

Saturday, 11 March 2017

White Turkey

It gradually becomes apparent that the Famous Farm has many other inhabitants; there are telltale sightings and smells. At some point we find ourselves aware of them, amused, finally fascinated.

It's a holiday for some...

...and labour camp for others.

And then the Incident happens. Black Dog and Brownish Dog spring into action - demented barks, bunched muscles, mad dash to a squat stone wall overlooking a lower terrace. I spill my lemonade. It is beyond me how anyone would fail to see the events that follow.

Black Dog and Brownish Dog are chasing a white turkey. It speeds up along the wall until its body, being heavier than its stick-like legs, achieves more speed. Wings are employed at this point and a sudden change of direction. White Turkey flies off the wall and out of sight. The dogs take the stairs and hurtle onto the lower terrace, in hot pursuit. Sounds of a scuffle ensue, barks and squawks.

'Gosh, did you see that turkey?'
'Goose,' says M. who hadn't seen a thing.
'It was a white turkey,' I declare, icily.
'I think you are mistaken,' he says, 'it was a goose.'
'I think you will find it was twice the size of a goose.'
'Nonsense.'
'And it had a bald head. With all those hanging skins...'
'Gross.'
'Come on!' I implore the universe. 'It was a TURKEY. Someone must have seen it!'
'I saw it,' says Shane, but only mildly - whereas, everyone knows, you need fire and steely conviction, with M.
'Yeah. It was a goose,' M. says now, as if by repeating it, he makes it true.
'Trump tactic,' I accuse.
'You can't prove it was a turkey...'

And, just like that, I've got a turkey to prove.

*

On the lower terraces of the Famous Farm, I am investigating. I find a clump of white feathers, but no turkey and no dogs. I find some useless witnesses.

"No, madam, we're not hiding anyone. Namaste and see you later..."

I harrumph back into my chair. The manager brings more lemonade.
'Have you got a white turkey.'
'Aaah, yes, we had two... the male died a few months back...' (long story follows, about the death of the male turkey).
'But you still have the female?' I ask. Whose is that shrill voice, I wonder. Mine? Mais non...
'Yes, she's very old, very old... at least twelve...'
'But she's still here.'
'Yes, madam...' he agrees.
'SEE..?????' I shout, triumphant.
And what does M. have to say?
'Sure. It was a goose.'
I need a bloody white turkey. Or any form of evidence, a picture, a drumstick, DNA...

*

On the morning of our departure, still nothing. Before I have finished my coffee (and that says something), I ask the manager:
'Can I see your turkey? The white one? The female...'
He takes a solemn stance:
'Oh. I must regretfully inform you that the white turkey is deceased.'
'What?'
To my left, and just outside slapping range, M. is laughing.
'Oh yes, madam. My employees have informed me this morning. It was a wild cat.'
'A wild cat what?'
'Got it, madam. A wild cat got the turkey.'
I'm speechless. I seethe.
'...it was a very old turkey,' the manager consoles.
'Where's the body?' I hiss.
'Who can tell?' he spreads his arms wide, to span the entire hazy valley and, in the distance, the Everest too.

*

Lesson? That I see white turkeys where the man sees geese? That we must agree to disagree? That sometimes the truth travels unseen, minced inside a wild cat? If I had time, I'd look for wild cat droppings because if that's the case, then that's what one must do.

Friday, 10 March 2017

The Famous Third

Yes, I know. I left one story out of the previous blog. It just seemed to come to an end, a bit like a sleepy child you can't keep awake, then you can't move or wake up again - so you must leave them crumpled on the restaurant chair, looking angelic.

Besides, I remembered the camera during the next part of the trip - so this is more photo-journal than blog. I wonder if it means it will be 'read' more... (Sorry, couldn't resist that.)

We're staying at a lovingly restored old farm in Nuwakot, the 'Famous Farm'. A two-hour journey if we take the Kakani road' M. says. Why doesn't that sound reassuring? 'What's wrong with the Kakani road?' I ask. 'A bit bumpy,' he says breezily. 'But the Pokhara road is sooooo busy... we'll be stuck there all day...'

We end up on neither road, but a third, which seems to surprise all of us, including the driver. Enter the Tokha road, the unimaginable, gnasher of bones, destroyer of spirits. I haven't clutched M's hand so tight even when giving birth. The car seems to float between the ragged cliff above our heads and a shimmering line that seems to call like a mirage, even as it suggests an end to the horizontal ledge upon which we perch and a long, long fall until the next. I find that the best is to close my eyes.

This is only the part that tests the nerves. Reaching a dusty valley, we discover the other. It's like driving over an ocean frozen mid-storm. The car takes off and crashes back, scrapes the road and shudders. We, the contents of the car, shake with it and fly and crumple back into our sweaty seats. We pass villages destroyed by the earthquake and slowly being put back together. We pass rice paddies, and drive along a thin river for a while. Every time M. moans a little I say the words "Pokhara road"and he recovers his fortitude. We get to the Famous Farm too late in the day to see it.

It's even more glorious in the morning. Traditional rooms with low windows and wooden shutters (no glass), flowers and balconies, dragon-guardians and breakfast in the garden. Nuwakot castle in the distance, and a faint outline of mountains.

We're here with good friends, and here is the most glorious thing of all: the thought of the last weekend we spent together 11 years ago, most likely on Lohifushi, a small island in the Maldives where we all worked. And here we are and the kids are huge but we're the same.

We walk to the castle, accompanied (the whole way) by a large black dog and (part-way) a drunken villager. The villager shouts, at times: 'My house! My land!' and we take up the chant. We get to a concrete tower - an ugly, unfinished structure at the top of the hill. I bound blithely up the stairs and freeze. Devastating vertigo. How the hell do I get back? It's too scary to contemplate. M. saves me the indignity of shuffling down the stairs on my bottom and thus gains instant pardon for yesterday's Tokha road.

Walk companions and terror tower

The dog meets his family - two almost-grown pups and a surly black bitch. He appears terrified, possibly on account of getting the lady pregnant about a year ago and flaking out.

He's been sunning himself at the Famous Farm, fed on the finest thali, and providing no support, no weekends or holidays with the bambinos. Any surprise that they're all chasing his butt around the crumbling Nuwakot tower?

Black dog spotted...

Black dog chased.
But we all make it back to the Famous Farm, Black Dog leaving the wife and kids down in the village, with another hollow-ow-owww promise. Of course, he's soon back to his old ways:




... while we dine (and Dixit), fuelled by moonlight and margaritas.



One Weekend, Three Oases

Almost two weeks in Nepal, but only one weekend when I was more or less awake and functional, i.e. not jet lagged, dizzy, overwhelmed or lost.

It started with a walk to Patan Dhoka. Dhoka means gate. It divides a warren of chaotic streets from more of the same. But there, in a noisy, nondescript corner, is the the First Oasis, a cafe in a walled garden. We discover it by chance (in the shape of Moona being nosy and pushing the metal door open). It reminds of Kuch Khaas in Islamabad - down to the lassi and pancakes they serve, and the newspapers we clutch. Only the articles are different. Obama was in the White House on those golden Sundays at Kuch Khaas, and we hadn't heard the word Brexit.

Cafe Cheeno is M's way to ease me gently into the weekend whirlwind he's planned. Friday in a place called Shivapuri on the northern rim of the Kathmandu valley, a brisk hike, inspecting a pottery place and some more driving around before the 'real drive' tomorrow to another place in Nuwakot (read: much further and along a way more perilous road). I'm contemplating this (while my stomach contemplates the lassi) when we're almost run over by two cyclists. They're friends of ours (and clearly mad: they cycle in this city!), we chat, they make a suggestion: "why don't you stay the night in Shivapuri, instead of drive back here?"

And there we find it: the second oasis. M. sends an email to a guesthouse called Chandra Ban. Yes, they'll give us a bed for the night. Instructions are sent, quoting a temple of the sleeping Vishnu, a village school, a 20-minute walk. Some time later and somewhat bedraggled we arrive - met by a memorable St Bernard, Tsering (St. Bernard size, puppy heart) and three memorable words from the landlady:

"You're my cousins."

What? The implications (and the plate-sized paws on our shoulders) threaten to topple us.

"What?" M. manages.
"There's no doubt. There can't be many with your name. Besides, you came to my wedding. I'm Camilla," the lady adds. Their mothers are first cousins, it turns out. She smiles, and I see the resemblance with my mother in law. M. remembers the wedding, in Venice. He's been in Nepal for over a year and had no idea Camilla was here. And she has been here for about two decades. I'm trying to feel superior, but then I remember I myself have no clue what my second cousins are up to, except in the vaguest terms, and I doubt I'd recognise them in the street.

Camilla and Luca are charming, and so is Chandra Ban. It feels like home, instantly. We walk (M. sprints, I huff) half-way to a nuns' monastery. A ginger dog walks in front, a Nepali man with a radio a few steps behind. The radio emits flute melodies of such loveliness that the forest around (a sparse, stoic side of hill) seems to vibrate. In contrast, the man looks like a prison guard - squat and unsmiling. Eventually my fitness level dictates that the prison guard should overtake. When he gets on a level with us (M. sprightly, me the shade of a nicely ripening aubergine) he bursts into a blinding smile and insists on showing us the way (the path we're on, i.e. the only path). The flute trills and fades in the steep distance. In turn, we pass the ginger dog, who's having a nap.

Back at Chandra Ban, Tsering is not having a nap, no sir: he wants to play - so sweet and funny that I forget he weighs half a ton. Some time later, and with creaking lumbar discs, we dine and restore two decades to the family history. Lower in the valley, the city throbs with noise, fumes, the temporary madness of the Shivaratri festival, strangers, strangeness. Here is family. I don't want to go away.


Roads

Every journey reveals more of the meaning of courage, grit and sacrifice. 

Good quote? I've just made it up. It doesn't refer to life journeys, goals, self-discovery; but venturing around Kathmandu, even the shortest errand. Meeting friends for lunch is a heroic dash. The thought of seeing any tourist sights beyond the immediate neighbourhood is exhausting - even the ongoing Shivaratri festival, somewhere on the outskirts, with all the promised sightings of Sadhus smoking piles of hasheesh. We talk often, but never make it, to the improbably named 'Garden of Dreams' - it's not far, but remains beyond our energy levels.

I would compare any such journey to wrapping a foam noodle around your waist and jumping in the wildest river you can picture, with rapids, frothing water, jutting rocks; and letting it take you wherever it desires, with only a vague but fervent hope that it would spit you out eventually.

In fact, if you like that mental image, you might as well replace water with dust. Dust, as I said before, is ubiquitous. A friendly taxi driver explains "it's just Melamchi". Melamchi, on enquiry, turns out to be a vast urban water project that has been going on for the past 27 years. There is a final push to finish it this year (and here the taxi driver laughs and laughs). But this burst of activity means that they've dug deep ditches besides the relevant roads, making them narrower, letting loose all the dust. Add all the construction work - rebuilding after the earthquake - and we have the perfect storm in the Kathmandu valley.

Survival in the dust bowl demands my whole attention; but when I have the chance to look beyond these ferocious streets, I find a gentle, beautiful city. Not just buildings and temples - the people strike me as friendly and kind. There's poverty, but hardly any beggars. Against all odds, they seem upbeat and stoical. Weddings, it appears, involve a brass band marching along the streets, with the guests in tow. It's loud and festive, everyone dancing and shouting, resplendent in their bright clothes. Several times I found myself dashing down four floors just to see these processions, having heard them from the roof terrace. 'What am I doing?' I would ask myself, running down the stairs, but joy is infectious and here was a chance of seeing Kathmandu at its best, without braving the traffic.

One taxi driver pointed to the royal palace - tall fence, somber building - and a friend told me later that I could have gone in. "You can see the bullet holes", he said, referring of course to the last 'party' at the palace, on 1 June 2001, when the Crown Prince killed his parents, the King and Queen of Nepal, his sister and younger brother, a handful of other relatives, and himself. Forget bullet holes. Fine dust hung and hovered over the gardens of the palace. You could almost see the royal spectres gliding around.

Outside the city, traffic gets marginally better, roads get exponentially worse. We make two journeys into the countryside; along short stretches of tarmac - so narrow and pitted with deep holes they might as well scrape them clean and start again; the rest, earth and dust and bumpy enough to scramble your internal organs to a haggis.

Oh, and these roads are usually carved into the edge of one or other chasm. Turning each hairpin corner, there's an eerie whistle of wind and eternity. I still hear it as I write this sentence, on a rainy day in Edinburgh. I'm so glad to be sitting here, writing this sentence.

So glad to be writing the next: that, if you have the grit to brave those country roads, and the courage to open your eyes, and if the haze allows, you see the mountains. The real ones, the ones they see from space. How lucky and how wondrous is that?

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Kathmandu at Work

Monday morning. M. gets ready for work. This involves cereals for breakfast - an interesting concoction of everything-he-can-think-of, with milk. Coffee, an article of the New York Times, delivered daily (in three copies for some reason) to inspire (triple) fear. There's a new protocol, with newspapers, I realise. We unfold them, scanning already for horrors, Brexit, US, the T-word. What's he done now? What more, worse, cringing and scandalous could he have come up with - to plumb the latrines of history?

M. leaves for work. I have a sleep on the roof terrace, in the sun. I wake up to find three workers eyeing me from the top of the neighbouring building. This they are in the process of expanding upwards. Two new floors have been added already. 'Bye-bye view', I heard M. say earlier - although the only view is a milky, unhealthy-looking haze.

I watch the builders - they're very young, and in no hurry. They carry armfuls of rebar and secure it in place, very slowly; one does, to be precise, and the other two, on their haunches, watch. They hardly speak to each other. The active one places a rebar collar over the other bars, presumably to keep them in place. Then, very slowly, another, before crouching next to his mates. Together, they regard the work. After a few minutes, another worker gets up and begins again, more collars over the same bunch of bars, at a sloth's pace. Satisfied that this will take a while, I get up and make myself another coffee.

We're staying in an old house, four floors, many windows - each protected with thick wooden shutters. Our bedroom is dark, pierced by one ray of light, where the sun has found, for a few minutes, a hole in the shutters. A shaft of blinding gold - as if the Lady of the Lake has risen to hand it over, for a yet unclear mission (and rises daily around 9.15). Fine, I accept! I lie on the bed and shuffle about until my face lines up with this single ray. I wait for it to warm up my eyelid. What shall I do today, I wonder.

Dust motes dance inside the straw-thin burst of light. Dust fills the house, the street, the valley. If I dived off the roof, I almost feel that dust would carry me like surf, for all the sight-seeing I set myself today. But first, I have another mini-sleep.

I'm out finally. Ten seconds later, I can say with certainty that I have escaped death at least a dozen times. The streets are barely wider than a train compartment, and shared somehow by cars, mopeds, bicycles, building materials, school children, fruit carts, temples, mounds of roasted peanuts, cows. Motorised vehicles appear to have the same MO: move silently until they're level with a person, and then and only then expel a blast of noise. The honking and trumpeting never stop. I jump out of my skin so often, I am more out than in.

People seem to exist, work, walk, wed, and generally keep their sanity in this mayhem. Older people sit on stone steps with all appearance of relaxation. A calf is having a siesta. A young woman paints, outside a craft shop. Dogs lead rich dog-days, dog families, a whole dog city; I see a group of about seven big puppies, dusty and boisterous, playing and rolling about through the spokes of bikes, past exhaust pipes and car doors, how do they survive?


It doesn't look likely that I will. The wind knots my hair and lifts my skirt, yet another moped brushes my shoulder, with a deafening beep. I sit down on a stone bollard (possibly a little dragon) and make an emergency call. I only need to survive another 20 steps, M. assures me on the phone. We have a lunch date at a street stall (always the romantic, that man, and prone to luxury). We sit on stools and eat from banana leaf plates. Momos - my favourite kind of dumplings - and an odd pancake, onto which we pile some greasy veg. The food is so spicy that I'm beginning to think the dust of the city is part-turmeric, part-chili, straight from our breath. Three schoolgirls are eating next to us. I weep with the fire of the spices, unable to stop eating, it's so good. The girls laugh. M. repeats a word he hears from the cook, the girls laugh again. 'That is dirty word,' one of them explains. We all laugh. The air is thick with dust and noise, the city gathers itself to a crescendo, a roar, a daily storm. How on earth am I going to get home through this?

Back on the roof terrace, the builders are gone. I try, again, to see the big mountains - the Everest is somewhere that way - but there's only fog, smog, white cloud and dust. Another short sleep is required, I think. Eyes closing, I remember what the writer Thomas Wolfe said to his editor, Max Perkins, in his final letter. Wolfe talked about a moment he would always remember, when they went to the top of a tall building "and all the strangeness and the glory and the power of life and of the city was below."

He may as well have been talking about Kathmandu, today.