You can hear the sound of cultures clashing.
The thing about Nepal is: it’s a theme park. At least, that’s how it’s sold to you. The newcomer in Kathmandu is immediately presented with an exhaustingly long list of thrilling and life-changing adventures to experience during their time in Nepal. “Trekking, kayaking, canyoning, bunjee-jumping, white-water rafting, mountain biking!” the travel agents chorus. “Horse-back riding, jungle safari, elephant bath!” Who needs a country when you can have a fun activity?!
And if Nepal is a theme park, then Thamel is that hideous food court area where the fat kids come to gorge themselves on chips and donuts and play arcade games between rides.
Thamel is the tourist section of Kathmandu, a bewildering maze of neon lights, travel agencies and identikit bars playing Eric Clapton covers. Everyone here is either preparing for a trek, just back from a trek, or trying to make money off the enormous crowd of trekkers.
Everyone except the crazies and drifters you find floating round the edges of every place like this, the refugees from reality who washed up here on the tide and were too mad, bad or sad to leave. People like Mickey, the acid-crazed musician who lives on a diet of vodka and sedatives and whose life is a tangled mess of bizarre stories that may or may not be true. People like Thomas, the German butcher/aspiring reikki master/lonely old man with nowhere better to go. And, I guess, people like me and my friend Alison – kids who came traveling to find ourselves, and somehow got lost on the way.
I am only still here because of Raju. Raju is a gandharba – untouchable caste Nepali whose birth dictates that he must spend his life making, playing and selling Nepali classical instruments. And as no-one wants Nepali classical instruments any more apart from tourists who take them home and put them on the mantlepiece as a fun souvenir, Raju is also cursed to spend his days wandering the streets of Thamel.
Often I walk with him while he plays the sarangi, a stringed instrument with all the sweetness of tone of a high-pitched seagull. Although whether this fault lies in the instrument or Raju’s ability to play it is open to question. Raju, bless him, is a musician by birth, not by talent.
Raju, like most of the young gandharbas, is in a state of permanent identity crisis. They come to Thamel from villages in the middle hills of Nepal, working through the tourist season to make money to send home to their families on their little farms. Until they come here, they are taught to believe without question that they are inferior, and this is the only life they can ever have. Raju tells me that when he was a kid he had to wipe the sides of a glass after he touched it, in case someone of a higher caste touched it after him and was made impure.
Then suddenly they find themselves in Thamel, where everything goes, alcohol flows like water, and none of the tourists know or care that they are untouchable. And they meet people with a thousand possibilities of what they could do with their lives, people who were brought up to believe they can have anything they want. The old world crashes sharply into the new and they are caught in the middle.
Although, as they tell me over and over again, everything is going to be different now. The Maoists have taken over and Raju comes back from rallies flushed with victory and hope. The Maoists are promising equality for women and untouchables. The world is changing, Raju assures me. One day, his children will choose their own careers.
Raju wears flip-flops, luridly coloured Hawaiian shirts, and bizarre accessories that invariably clash violently with the rest of the ensemble. Today it is bright orange feather earrings. His English is distinguished by his compulsion to make every second word either “the” or “fucking”.
“The fucking monsoon is fucking coming,” he tells me. “All the fucking tourists go back to the fucking home now and no-one buy the fucking sarangi. All the friends go too. Even the Mickey and the Thomas are fucking leaving. Soon I have to go back to the fucking village.”
I remember a story he told me once. The sarangis are made out of a particular type of wood, which doesn’t grow on the tiny plots of land the gandharbas in his village own. So he and his cousins go on night-time missions to steal it from the land of higher caste families. Once they were caught, and Raju spent the next few weeks in Kathmandu jail.
“I’ve been thinking about it too,” I say. “I’ve already killed so much time in this place, and my money isn’t gonna last much longer. There’s no jobs left here now tourist season’s over. I’ve gotta leave soon as well, find work somewhere new.”
He gives me a pitying look. “We can get the fucking money,” he tells me, like it’s amazingly obvious. “We ask the fucking people, yes?”
And he bounds up to the nearest tourist, declaring in the sort of clearly enunciated voice one might use with a slow child:
“Excuse me – we want to be together, but we don’t have any money. So, you may give us 10 rupees, 100 rupees, 1000 rupees, as you wish.”
The woman looks nervous and backs away, giving us the widest possible berth as she walks past.
“This one is the fucking bitch,” Raju decides, and I only just manage to stop him trying it on another one.
“Raju, stop scaring tourists, it’s bad for business. Sell your sarangi. I’ll go give out some fliers.”
As I walk away, I hear him accosting another one with the line: “Hey! HEY! You want to BUY the FUCKING sarangi so I can get the SHIT to FUCKING smoke?!”
I feel a tug on my arm. “Hungry, hungry”. A stoned giggle.
He looks up at me with bloodshot, unfocussed eyes and takes another huff of glue from his bag. Anil’s eyes are always mocking me, daring me to tell him off. All day in Thamel you hear the refrain of a hundred trekkers telling their guidebook-carrying wives: You can’t give the street children money, darling, they’ll only spend it on glue.
They’re right. They probably will. But Anil knows me, he knows who my friends are, and he knows the back-alley raksi shops where we hang out, getting trashed on the cheap Nepali rice wine after a day of hassling tourists. He’s a sharp kid, and when he looks at me like that, the parallels between the two of us seem uncomfortably clear. I wonder what the same tourists say about me and Raju.
You can’t give them money, darling, they’ll only spend it on bad alcohol and marijuana…
I buy him a plate of momos and tell him to stay off the glue. He laughs. I knew he would.
A Permanent State of DéjÃ Vu
The longer I stay in Thamel, the most distanced from reality I feel. Wandering round the bars giving out fliers for Raju’s nightly concert, (No-one will come. They never do.) I’m in a permanent state of déjÃ vu. Every conversation I overhear I feel sure I’ve overheard before.
Two men in a bar:
“I just trekked the Annapurna Circuit. It’s recommended to do it in 21 days but I did it in 16.” (Did you know, I have really quite a large penis.)
“I did it in 15. And I was carrying all my own gear.” (Oh really? I’m pretty sure I have an even larger penis.)
“Well I would have done it in 12 but I took a detour to climb a 6000m peak on the way. And I was carrying all the tents and food supply for my whole group as well.” (My penis is so inconceivably massive you would cry if you even tried to imagine the size of it.)
I wonder if these people actually enjoyed their treks – if they ever sat back to admire the views or speak to people on the way. Or if they missed it all in their desperate haste to beat the next guy.
I finish the stack of fliers and head back to the rooftop where we’ve been staying. Mickey is there, resplendent in his fluro-orange shorts, headscarf, bandages (unfortunate spliff-related incident), and enormous fly-goggle sunglasses. He’s crouched as close to the screen of his laptop as he can manage, legs curled up to his chin, hugging his knees like a little kid in front of Cartoon Network. I’m told he’s been watching his favourite DVD of Phish live in concert on continuous repeat for 5 hours now, and any attempt to distract him provokes an explosive bout of swearing and threats to throw everyone off the rooftop. Every 5 minutes or so he pops another valium, to which he seems to have developed near-total immunity.
Thomas stands a few metres away, flailing his arms and legs in a rather alarming manner. He has, he explains, created a reikic force field in which he can move with super-human speed and strength. I decide not to press the point.
Alison is lying on her back, ‘beetle-dancing’, with a pink glow stick pressed to her face. And there is an unconscious Nepali guy on the floor, though no-one seems entirely sure why.
A German transvestite punk comes up (one of Mickey’s friends, no doubt) and produces a bottle of acid. From the rooftop we move out into the city, weaving our way through roads where agonisingly bright lights hang threateningly overhead like neon snakes. We’re sitting on some grass, somewhere, and Mickey is fixating me with a demonic stare and telling me how, man, like, EVERYTHING is music, there is only BASS and everything I will ever SEE or TOUCH or DO is just a BYPRODUCT of the never-ending BEAT of the UNIVERSE. DO I UNDERSTAND?
It seems to make sense and I nod speechlessly, wondering if his eyebrows have always been so… hypnotising… At some point Raju appears and pisses off some girl, who gets very righteous about something-or-other, and tells me my boyfriend is a crazy asshole. It’s all getting a bit much for me and I retreat into spliffs and silence while Raju explains to me at great length that it’s not his fault he’s crazy, and I should move with him to his village and learn to make daal bhaat.
“I know always you want to be free,” he tells me. “But I’m the fucking gandharba. I’m fucking stuck here.”
I sit and contemplate the life of a Nepali housewife, trying to ignore Thomas doing ninja leaps backwards and forwards behind Raju, and the fact that everyone’s face is green. And I wonder which world is better. The old world that condemns intelligent men to lives of inescapable inferiority, and intelligent women to lives entirely centred around daal bhaat and babies? Or the new world that spreads Thamels around the globe like parasites – materialistic, hedonistic, and ultimately fake? Then I realise what I should have realised a long time ago. Raju and I are from different worlds, and I’m doing him no favours by staying here, taunting him with visions of a life he can never have. Thamel is bringing out the worst in both of us. It’s time for me to leave.
It’s a relief to realise that sometime, somehow, I have ended up back on the rooftop. Light is seeping back into the sky, and I climb onto the water tank on the highest point of the roof to watch the sunrise. The whole city is spread out below me. Beyond the lurid glow of Thamel, the streets are dusty and quiet. To my right is the hill where the temples of Swayambunath are clustered, draped in prayer flags. The beautiful stupa with the gold top and Buddha eyes. The room where the monks let us sit in on their meditations until all doubts and fears are smoothed away by their hypnotic chanting. I strain my eyes, trying to see Pashupatinath, where the smell of the funeral pyres brings back memories of Varanasi, and the saddhus we sit with seem to have something very urgent to tell us, if only we spoke enough Nepali to work out what it is. And I hope that somewhere there is a middle road. That while the old world develops and sheds the nastier of its traditions, at least some of its beauty, wisdom and mystery can be incorporated into the new. That complete Thamelisation is not yet inevitable.
Alison clambers up and sits beside me, and together we watch the dawn slide in over Kathmandu.