Tourists were few in the Kathmandu of the Sixties
Surprising experience with hot water causes switch in hotels
Ellen Morton Hamil
(While on a two-year assignment with the CIA in Laos, the writer took a trip to India and Nepal in October, 1964, that was described in a letter home. The first part appeared in Rye Reflections last month. This is the continuation and final part).
We finally got to Kathmandu (Nepal) and here again our Israeli friend met us at the airport. He was fascinated with my friend Helen whom he met in New Delhi and had asked to see her tickets. He changed his itinerary to go to the same places but got the dates wrong so was always one step ahead of us.
The plane ride from Benares through the mountain pass is exciting. We could see snow-capped mountains that appeared to be in the heavens. The Nepalese man sitting beside me was not accustomed to flying and clutched my arm for most of the trip.
Author tests out pilot's seat before flight from Kathmandu to Bangkok.
The first two nights we stayed in a hotel that catered mostly to indigenous guests … in fact, the last Americans had been there in March 1963 and the desk clerk got out the register for us to see their names and ask if we knew them. There was no hot water in our bathroom, and, when Helen asked for hot water, it was delivered in a bucket with flies floating on top. We moved into another hotel which catered more to Westerners, but we were still roughing it. The people were honest, though. I discarded an old pair of shoes at the first hotel, and they showed up a day later at our new hotel.
The food here leaves a lot to be desired. We never acquired a taste for yak’s butter and a few other local specialties. But regardless, it’s worth the inconvenience because Kathmandu is wonderful. It’s a combination of the East and West. It looks like Switzerland only with rice paddies. It also looks like something out of a storybook with darling little houses with elaborately carved wooden beams, doors and window sills. The streets are narrow and made of brick, and the men and women dress now as they probably have for centuries, with one exception: The men wear a Western sports jacket over their national dress. In comparison to widely traveled tourist routes, this is really off the beaten path. Actually, it has only been open to tourists for about the last 12 or 13 years, and, because it is out of the way, hasn’t received that many. What an experience.
Our first full day here we took a trip outside the city and up to a peak in the foothills in a hired jeep. There were six of us … the Israeli (driving), Helen and me, a Dutchman whom we met in the hotel and an American couple returning from a year in New Zealand. He was a teacher and she a physical therapist — they were about 28 and 30. I hated to think of Dad when we left as the Jeep had a bad-looking front tire, and we had no spare. We no sooner reached the top when it went flat. We tried to patch the hole with some resin I had purchased to glue on sparkling forehead ornaments as the local women do. That did nothing. No one enjoyed the ride down on the narrow road with one flat tire, because if we had to make room for an oncoming vehicle we got too close to the edge and looked down into deep valley. We somehow managed to get back to our starting point, although we were riding on the rim.
Helen and I had been to the commissary here and bought tomato juice and cheese crackers, so we had something to appease our mountain appetites. From the peak we had a beautiful view of the valley, but it was clouded so we couldn’t see the snow-capped mountains. While resting and snacking, about six small children came bounding over … just like mountain goats … to ask us for a cig-a-let. I gave one to a small girl and offered her a light, and she proceeded to puff away and then pass it on to another child. They all wanted our empty cans of tomato juice. We would have given them food, but we were afraid it would make them sick. (Cigarettes didn’t make them sick, so it’s doubtful the food would have.)
Posing with Peace Corps volunteers in Nepal.
The rest of the week we rented bicycles and peddled around. It was just cool enough during the day so you could peddle comfortably without a sweater. At night it was cooler and we usually wore wool or corduroy skirts with sweaters. We met a lot of Peace Corps volunteers from East Pakistan and two American girls our age who were spending a year going around the world. We explored the city with these new-found friends.
We didn’t know it, but we arrived here in the midst of a big (15 days) annual festival called Dashain. It is a special festival to the goddess Durga, and one day they made hundreds of sacrifices of goats, sheep and young buffalo. The sacrifice ceremony goes like this: First they take cow’s dung and wash the area where the sacrifice is to be made. Then they outline the area with a brilliant red powder (lead oxide I guess) and then they draw a picture of the knife to be used (which is the kukori carried by the Gurka soldiers). Next a piece of old wood is laid on the ground (the head is to be cut off over this piece of wood.) Then they prepare the animal to be sacrificed. This entails decorating it with flower petals and this red oxide, and then the animal must make the sign that it is willing to be sacrificed by shaking its back. In order to get it to shake its back, they throw water on it and when the animal shakes it off, it’s his license to death. Then with the kukori a piece of fruit is cut in half. and then, with one stroke of the knife, the head must come off. If it doesn’t, then it’s bad luck. The head is then taken to a temple where it is kept for one week, and the body (which is now holy) is cooked and eaten. We were at the courtyard at 7 a.m. to view the ceremonies, but Helen left just before the slaughter began. I stayed to watch, but I couldn’t look unless I was looking through the lens of my camera.
We were fortunate to be invited by a Nepalese young man (a bright guy who is applying for a scholarship to study at the East-West Center in Hawaii), to visit his home and met his family. They served us tea and some Nepalese cookies and then had their own sacrifice of two goats. This is how we learned so much about the ceremony. They had a village priest (or whatever he is called) come in to prepare the area and goats. Then a man from a lower caste arrives to do the killing. We learned a lot from this young man about the people, the caste system, the government, etc.
We were also invited to a Nepalese home for dinner (through a hotel employee). The two other world travelers went as did a Peace Corps volunteer from Nepal and a girl from the American Embassy … these latter two knew the family. We were served a dinner of rice, hard peas that tasted like peanuts, green beans (quite spicy), potatoes, spiced cucumbers and holy goat’s meat. We sat on the floor and ate with our fingers.
You must remember to use only your right hand when eating as anything you touch with your left hand is considered dirty. I didn’t find it very delectable but managed to force most of it down when the mother came into the room to see how we were doing. Everything was served in separate dishes made out of a strong, rubbery leaf. This is only done during the festival. After dinner they bring around a pan and a pitcher of water so you can wash your right hand, their version of a finger bowl. Oh, before dinner they served us a cocktail of homebrew … juniper gin … whew!
When we were ready to leave Nepal and at the airport with our luggage checked on Indian Airways for a flight that would take us to Patna to Calcutta and on to Bangkok, we saw a U.S. Mats plane and were told it was going straight to Bangkok, however, no one seemed to think they would allow us to tag along. I went looking for the Commander and he said they’d love to have us on board, so Helen and I scattered off in different directions to find our luggage and cancel the other flights. It was a 4-engine C-130 turbo-prop and what a smooth ride. We flew high above the clouds and saw Mt. Everest and the other mountains peaks. We were given the first class treatment and even treated to a steak dinner in Bangkok.
The Thai custom officials at the airport in Bangkok wouldn’t stamp our passports, because we arrived on a U.S. military flight, so we couldn’t fly out of Bangkok back to Vientiane. Instead we took an overnight train to Nong Khai where we crossed the Mekong River into Laos – no custom officials for either country here! (Once back in Vientiane we gave our passports and a few kip (money) to a trusted Lao and got the stamps necessary to balance our entry/departure stamps in our passports.)
It was the most exciting trip I have even taken. It was great to be away from Laos and see another culture. And, oh those mountains.
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