Friday, March 21, 2008

Kathmandu, the cat's scribbles are due

My temporary homestead of Freak street, as the Jhochen Tole street is affectionately called by locals since the 1960's when backpacking hippies flooded the area. Freak street is kinda dead these days, dead & empty of the freak and hippie vibe that it once had.
There now hangs a spirit in the air that contains a whiff of ironic nostalgia in the body of cliche clothing shops for young western travellers following the footpath of the 60's. But beside that there are at least some good cheap local eating spots.
It's not that the place gives bad vibrations, on the contrary. The quietness and peace is true bliss! Much better than the congested Thamel area, the main tourist hood of Kathmandu, where the generalisation of everything western and touristminded really touches nerves beyond irritation through loud bumping music, heckling shopkeepers, tigerbalm hawkers and whatnot. Hence I was happy to be on Jochen Thole, just like other western folks who chose the same pick.

Durbar square, the famous square with about a double dozen wooden-roofed brick temples in different sizes.
Scene. Tour-touted tourists on the side of a nearby square gather around, watch. Photocamera's around their necks, white sneakers and gucci sunglasses. I see a bearded baba in an orange robe screaming out loud against this flock. Did he not receive but but one coin from them or does he experience the apocalypse in his own mind? Poor fella. The tourists step away from him, as if he doesn't exist nor wanting to acknowledge his persona of shouting bravery.

On one of the first days I rented a good mountainbike with suspension to go into the Nagarjun forest. So I did. 16 km's uphill to the top on a dirt road with loose stones. I guess I just like the pain of cycling up to mountain tops. It gets me into this bizarre trancelike state that feels like a thumping meditation while all kinda thoughts cross my mind and I go over them one by one. I reached the top, aching and thirsty as hell. There stood a Tibetan stupa, a place for buddhist pilgrimage. A lot of Tibetan monks and families were gathered next to it, eating self-made food that they had brought in big pans. They saw me in my exhausted state and laughed at me. They kindly offered me food and tea and all the while, especially the sweet elderly, laughed at me and it made me grin too. Laughing at me was a thing they liked doing and afterwards a western buddhist told me that Tibetan people always laugh when they find something sincerely interesting. Riding a bike up to the stupa and being white was a combination of interest apparently :)
On the way down the mountain, I rushed with vivid speed. Cutting corners, shrieking brakes and jumps, adrenaline extravaganza wow! I saw a wild deer who jumped off the road and into the bushes and from high up peeked at me untill it dashed away. I also saw 2 pair of wild lemurs (those sort of monkey styled cats) clutching around a tree.
Back before it was dark, back into the smoggy nastiness of Kathmandu traffic and I was happy to have bought a mouthcap as you do need it, unless you revel in choking on fumes. In the evening, the sisters from Tasmania also arrived in the same hotel as we half had agreed upon back in Pokhara before the Chitwan trip. It's fun to be around people you know better, even just for a little while. For that reason it was also no coincidence that the sisters bumped into some friends that they met in India months before. And so a little group of freak streeters was formed.

Next day I cycled to Patan, a more medieval and quieter city attached to Kathmandu which also has a Durbar square with a whole bunch of temples. Nice place. There were big crowds of local youths hanging around the well, as they were eyeing the young females who were all in line for collecting water for the family home. It was the day before Holi and the young males were bombaring the females with waterbags. Quite a scene, some females took it for granted, some did chase a single male and beated him if they could. Revengeful girl power in effect. At some point when a military police officer got hit wet and the fun was abruptly over as they chased all the youths away. The women were safe again to collect water without becoming immersed in it.

Holi, 21st of March. The day that everyone warns you about; westeners do it with a sense of suspicion and fear whereas the locals speak about it in a gleefully and joyous way. As said in last post, we, the freak street tourists, had prepared and bought an abundant amount of powder and plastic bags to counterstrike in a joyfull manner and so happened. After I left the internet shop in Thamel, I cycled back to the hotel and from the first moment was bombared from all angles with colored water, hilarious! I stopped at some group of teens and got paint smeared allover my face and shirt. It was better get over your western neatness and give into the experience than getting frustrated by it like many tourists did. What gives. There were some real annoyances for the western women though, as many local teens took advantage in the paint smearing on the street by groping their bodies on unwished spots and feeling them up. Not so fun. Some of our female friends threw some righteous punches back at them, whack.
Back in Freak street I went to the hotel rooftop where everyone had gathered from various other hotels and we started our Holi celebrations upon the locals, young, elderly and anyone within range. We did more our best to aim at tourists, especially the clean ones and on the moment that an elderly tour group walked by with umbrella's, well, they had to run for cover. From their safe spot they looked at us with disbelief and you could hear them say "it are white folks!" as if they only expected locals. Some of them probably damned us for being such crazy colorful hippies spoiling their day, while others could see the fun of it and gave us thumbs up. At the end of the afternoon, the colour war came to an end, more from lack of bags, water or powder
Introducing Holi in the west for all, that would be fun for a change. The colours and the general craziness make it a pretty bizarre and splashing day, so next time join your local hindu's back home hah!

The other days in Kathmandu. All in all I was there for 9 days and the days went fast and I did several other day trips.
The day after Holi, I went to the huge Pashupatinath Temple complex, the famous Hindu temple of Kathmandu and they were still celebrating Holi there, but in a mild manner. I sat down for a while with elderly musicians who played temple music with a Holi theme and recorded their songs. They gave me donuts and chai as a blessing and got another rice thika smeared on me.
Then up to Bodhnath, Boudha or either one of the many names it gets called. My luck was that I got lost to find the stupa and instead heard music coming from a buddhist temple. When I entered, it was completely packed with buddhist monks, lama's, guru's and pilgrims, even up to outside! An elderly bald female monk who must have been in her 70's, gave me a pillow and with a nod she asked me to sit next to her. Suddenly the monks in the prayer chairs started chanting their mantra's, clinging their brass bells and the air became filled with a fuzzy vibrations. Then, the hornblowers with their long trumpets in all corners blew their high tones while several big drum of about 1,5 meters were hit with thick sticks. An echo travelled throughout the whole room and its high ceiling, bouncing down from above and back from the walls, such sensation! I felt goosebumps allover and quickly got my recorder ready and so I stayed for more than hour, recording bits and pieces from the whole ceremony. The monks served yak butter tea and little biscuits to everyone and also dropped a spoonfull of liquid of alcoholic nature in the palm of your hand, which you had to lick up. Bittersweet alcohol that tasted like african honeywine. As soon as the ceremony ended, The elderly monkesse had been viewing my recording device with interest and I made her listen to just-captured sounds, which sparked her eyes and made her laugh. I said goodbye to her and she gave me a big hug. Outside I sat down, still reeling from the sensation of sound of the powerfull air vibrations. One of the important guru's came up to me and gave me a slap on the back with a hearthy laugh. He was a short and heavy fella, roundbellied indeed as a cliched buddha. "Are you a saddhu?" he asked me in Hindi and ended it with a loud laugh, pointing to my long loose hair and my shiva shirt. Had a talk with for a little while while he played with some little kids, touching them up in ticklish manners and they hung over him as a playhouse.
I did find the stupa in the centre of town and walked around it, clockwise. Ate at a little Tibetan canteen in a backalley away from the westernised cafe's, getting smilingly stared at by the Tibetans.

On another day I took a southern route away from Kathamndu, to again drive over some hills, mountains and past gorges. It was the road to Pharping, another place in the Kathmandu Valley where many Buddhist monasteries and temples are, as well high numbers of Tibetans. It was a 14 km ride to it and 10 of it was uphill, which was tough on the legs again but way better than the stone track of Nagarjun. At least on the way down it would be a quick ride. The scereny down on the valley and into the gorges were brilliant. I saw some of the temples near and in Pharping, went into some grotto where a lama had once sat for 10 years, ate momo's, let a kid drive my bike (as they all want to). The usual ;) On the way down I halfway stopped to take a picture. A girl stood in the doorway of her house and signalled me to come to her. Normally I'm easier to kindly wave back and drive on, but I stept off and walked down to the house. She introduced herself as Krishna, 22 years old and wanted to talk a bit in English. She told me that she once had met Hilary Clinton and her daughter Chelsea who were walking along this trail and directly she showed me a picture as proof. Indeed, there she stood so, as a small and young Nepalese woman amidst tall western women. I talked with her about the battle Clinton and Obama are having right now in the pre-elections, telling her of my own preference for Obama. She told me that she had been an orphan before being taken in by her foster family and it was a subject that straight went to her emotions as her eyes became shining from the tears that she withheld. She also spoke about her study to earn a Phd degree and that her college costs had all been funded by an elderly Dutch man and his wife. The man had died last year of cancer, with his wife now fallen ill too. How good intentions can backfire on people in unexpected and such unfair ways, one can't explain.
It was getting near dusk and I had to go back to Kathmandu before it would get too dark. We exchanged email and adresses to stay in touch as friends, for Krishankali to improve her English and hoping to find a way to study in Holland.

9 days came to an end and I was about to take an early morning bus at 4.30 to Kakarbitta, the easternmost bordercrossing into India, to go to Darjeeling.
On the last night we went out and ended up in a pillow-seated restaurant where there was a folk-fusion night. Good music. I must admit that although Thamel is a shit place otherwise, a few cafe's like OR2k and Full Moon played good music and had a good relaxed athmosphere compared to all other tourist places where only coverbands played western rock and reggae, or just plain bad eurohouse. I quickly became late and at 3.30am, I hastily was back in the hotel, packed my bag and to the bus station without any sleep. Sleep I saved for the bus ride, as it would become a 16 hour ride.

Quick overview of Nepal.
The Nepali's do like to idle themselves by saying that they are better than the Indians, since they speak in despising tongues about their southern neighbours. After all the chaos and hassle of India, Nepal does feel more relaxed and 'westernised'. That is perhaps the keyword that lulls mosts tourists into believing the Nepali hype, which sometimes is more seen through pink glasses rather than through their own eyes. Western women always speak easily about the hassle and over-attention they receive throughout India, though most of the foreign females I was with in Nepal were just as well hassled by the local Nepali's on various occasions, meaning those traveling without male company. Some even got more hassle in a few weeks Nepal than months in India! Holi was ofcourse the day par excellence that weasely men could run sleazy and up-touching amok on foreign women, which made it less pleasurable for them to be on the streets celebrating, than say, the local women. All in all, as much as Nepali's want to idle themselves, they are just like Indians but with different traits. The most kind people were always the Tibetan people or the mountain folks like the Gurungs and other Tibetan-Burmese ethnic groups, as they were more reserved and sincere in their approach so that you quickly felt comfortable in their company.

The elections are approaching fast too, on the 8th of April there will be the all important government elections and it seems to be a very open race because people are not happy with the current elected government that overthrew the royal family. I haven't looked into all the different parties, but I know there's a party that carries a green banner of a tree (I reckon they're not a Green party like we know it back home), then the Sun party, who has banners with a red striped sun on it (see pics in the Palpa post) and then there's the Communist party with the famous red sickle, which are the Maoists. To me, it seems that the Maoists actually might win it as any building where low-class workers live/work/gather are covered with Maoist flags. Flags that you see striding in the air more than of any other political party.
On the other hand, a lot of people see the Maoists as terrorists since they do still carry out little fights in remote places whereas in the big cities and important area's the cease-fire is respected. The rebels and the politicians however are not one and the same group but do have links with each other. I guess it's best to explain it in terms of the IRA and Sin Fein in the North Ireland.
Should the Maoists win, it will be interesting to see what would happen/change in Nepal on a social and economical level. In regards to tourism, there won't be a severe change as Nepal thrives on tourism and any political party will not want to waste this segment of the economy.
When I was in Patan the day before I left, I stopped at a gathering of Maoists sympathizers, who were getting ready for a normal election march like I've seen any of the political parties doing (either by foot or by car/jeep/bus). I was received with a smile and talked with several people who just wanted a more socialist government, equal pay and better working conditions and pension schemes (as only retired Gorkha soldiers or government workers get a pension). One guy gave me his cap of the Patan communists. 'to keep *sun* away' he said, as a great pun aimed at the Sun party, haha. One election souvenir for the road.

Ah the Nepali folk pop music, how I will miss it. I really have taken a liking to it, especially the modern folk stuff that is Lok Geet and Tis Geet. These newer and mostly classic folk songs are produced through sampling and electronic engineering though they still keep the sound as original as they can, with the effects nor the vocoder having taken control like in a lot of the over-done Hindi and Arabian folk pop. It's bouncy uneven pace and the up-and-down vocals form a good partnership where you can cleary hear the Asian influences being melanged with the Hindi vocal style. The Nepali 'riddim sound' gives a very urban and folkloric feel at the same time, more than any other Asian music style has ever sounded to me. Before I had already compared the faster Lok Geet to certain reggae riddims and a paced, bizarre form of dubstep. I think that a Nepali variation on ragga or dubstep could work really well, if someone's up to it to create it into a unique blend.....

On the cassettes industry, the sleeves are designed with a humble form of tackiness compared to the symbolic designs of Pakistan and the overly colourful ones of India (especially Rajasthan). It's a tackiness that looks quite plain and simple and that perhaps can mislead you on the style of the music if you're not a local.
Photo portraits of the vocalists, a photoshopped background drop with a mountain on it and somewhere a folk scene or a kid in the corner.
The small beauty of the designs of these sleeves is that they put pictures of buses on it, clearly marking it to be designated for bus play and proud of it. 1-0 to the Nepali truck/busdriver musicians for keeping it more real!

-more Nepali music to be uploaded later-

Big hug to the sisters, Krishankali, Ri, Aretha, Aki, Roxanne and all the other fine folks from UK, South Africa, France, Canada, Australia, Mexico etc. etc. during those 9 days...

-more photo's to be uploaded later-

Holi, just at morning time. We were still relatively clean then

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