Kathmandu, Diary Entry
Today I arrived in Nepal. Nothing could have prepared me for all the marvelous colours – a Caribbean cocktail – dusty colonial-style buildings, gorgeous jungle clad mountains, and the seething, chaotic streets.
To say that I feel dazed today is an understatement. It is one of those days which for me often pre-dates or arrives during the menstrual cycle, in which I feel truly disembodied. I have often wondered why this was. These are dream days, always lonely, and in their way quite depressing. I simply feel very tired and incapable of anything. Energy levels are rock bottom and it feels like I am experiencing reality through a dense screen. I am incapable of enthusiasm or drawing imaginative conclusions. Everything appeals to me with a sort of weary objectivity, even my own existence. Dangers feel closer, and I am aware, more acutely than is usual, of my difference. It may be because I am exhausted and didn’t sleep last night. I feel distinctly boring and lack the energy to make new friends. It is a mood anathematic to that required of the solo traveler. Hopefully by tomorrow it will pass, and I will feel alive and capable of interest again.
I have not thought of W so much today. This is not coincidental. The day after the night I met Kareem, I realized with joy that I barely thought of him at all. How quickly new interests rush in to replace old ones!
I love how swollen and ripe I feel before my menses. I even love the physical incapacity and pain it causes me and the low abdominal rumbling which ensures that you always feel aware of the process – aware of the fact that you are a process. I hold my belly like a fruit, the bloated seed of my soul and sexuality. It is a flour, a rising loaf. Rain begins to patter outside.
The dark clouds were gathering for some time. At least I managed to get back before nightfall. Despite the power cuts, the tatty carpet and chipped wall of my room, I love it here. I have French-style windows that open wide and give out onto the garden below. It has sunflowers in it, arranged in concentric circles. In my room the sole article of furniture is a bed. I am lying on it now. The air is not stale yet, though I have closed the windows so as to limit as far as possible the plague of insects that no doubt will be attracted to the only light in the immediate area. The man next door is queer. He has large, pornographic posters up on the walls of his room. I have the feeling that he has been here for quite some time. I am in Nepal.
See how easily I was led away from the sworn subject matter of this journal! You see—perhaps he is leaving my mind. I am no longer stung, as I was before, by the thought of him and R. Now the specificity and acuteness of the thought have been mellowed and softened. Like my stomach. Like the rain outside. Like the fresh sheets on the bed.
I am filled with a sort of ruminative sadness and sense of human folly, but no specific recriminations and no specific grievances. All specificities have left me. It is as if the reality of the situation itself is no longer of interest to me, or I no longer have the energy to sustain an inquiry into the nature of it. Something is distancing, something is moving off into the horizon. I am exhausted, but I am still alive.
A Sketch: Kathmandu, Nepal
I do not really date my arrival in Nepal to the first week that I spent in Kathmandu. That week – that I spent alone and unfriended, now fogs my mind with bad associations. My first mistake was to take a room in the cheapest guesthouse I could find recommended in my guidebook. Though the Tibetan Peace Guesthouse initially pleased me (with its courtyard of bright flowers and sleepy, empty rooms), at night the atmosphere was threatening and strange. I had a neighbor who walked around the cement-laid corridors with a wooden staff. One morning I peeked into his room and saw that he had large glossy porn posters blue-tacked to the walls around his bed.
I met another pernicious shaman in the guesthouse ‘lobby’ on my final evening at the guesthouse. As I was alone I did not venture out onto the streets at night. I was sitting on a sofa. It was a warm evening, we didn’t need any windows open – which was just as well since there was no glass to speak of in the small wooden building that adjoined the restaurant of the Tibetan guesthouse. Suddenly I was joined by a tall man in a white cotton gown. He had a long, blonde beard and large, pale blue eyes.
He began to speak to me. Initially he seemed kind and well-meaning, but then his stories ballooned from the improbable to the insane and megalomaniac. He claimed he was being followed by the American police and that he had been gang raped by a group of Nepali women in the countryside. He said that the distribution of ether and other powerful anesthetics was widespread and that locals often contaminated food with feces. As each xenophobic and delusional claim followed furiously on the heels of the last, he last he drew me into a conspiracy which spanned the continents, governments, people and even the hypocritical and deceitful Hindu gods. ‘They will try and steal your life force’ he warned me, in a carefully calculated display of protective prognostication. I was terrified of this crazy man but feigned politeness in order to escape him as quickly as possible.
Enervated and haunted by the memory of this night, I fled Kathmandu as soon as possible. In retrospect this was a shame. It was a wonderful city and unlike anywhere I had ever been on earth. Its central square – Durbar Square – boasted objects and monuments of priceless antiquity dating back to the twelfth century, yet they were urinated on by dogs, climbed over by children and leaned against by the residents of the city. Every shrine and temple was covered in a faint gossamer-trace of bright paper, litter, and tiny translucent beads of rice. I smirked when I thought of how our national treasures were preserved in the sterile and austere setting, for example, of The British Museum. These precious, ancient monuments and sarcophagi, every bit as significant as the Elgin Marbles, were still being incorporated into the everyday life of the city. They were covered in microbes and dust-motes, choked with polluting dirt and the ooze of city life. The Unesco World Heritage label announced by a plaque of blackened and neglected brass, seemed like a futile attempt to protect and embalm an aspect of Asian history that was still very much integrated into the bloodstream of Nepali culture.
I made short tours of some of the other sacred sights of the city – the so-called ‘monkey mountain’ of swayambunath – topped by a vast statue of Buddha staring blank-eyes across the mountains and hills that surround the capital. I also went to a neighboring district, a holy complex of temples devoted to the Hindu deity Shiva, called Pathupatinath, lined with tourist shops, that was the site of yet more ancient and profoundly holy relics. It is an architectural landscape that was almost entirely new to me, with petalled obelisks, sunken square terraces, fountains and relief carvings. Several memories return to me, swathed in the colours of powder-red and tumeric-yellow. The vision is of a square courtyard and hundreds of white-breasted pigeons eating and feeding from the mess of litter, of rice, shreds of bright paper on the floor. Children playing with water in their undergarments. The swarthy white breasts of young doves bottom-feeding, the outlines of starved homeless dogs.
I remember one ceremony very vividly. It was the hourly appearance of the Princess or ‘Living Goddess’ appointed by mystic ritual at one of the quadrangles by Durbar Square from out of one of the traditional, newari-style windows of her home in the Kumari Bahal. She was about seven years old. These reincarnations of the goddess Durga must change as soon as the young girls begin menstruation, then a new Princess is appointed. My guide explained that in order to identify the heir, holy men gather together a group of promising young candidates aged between 3-4. The child which correctly identifies the belongings of the last Princess is the newly appointed heir. They then spend the rest of their early years in the secret, cloistered rooms of the ancient Shah palaces with the exception of the flitting appearances at the window, where like Bonaparte, or the pre-revolutionary kings in the court of France, cast momentary, imperious and suggestive glances down at the curious crowd below. I remember her face clearly – her girlishly sharp, well-defined cheekbones – the carnation red rouge smudged on her lips and the thick fish-tails of charcoal fanning out from the corners of her eyes. They flashed briefly at me, coquettishly, full of sarcastic knowledge.