The Kites of Kathmandu

by Ant Stone on October 27, 2007

in Nepal

‘Look at that man cuddling the little chicken, all together now, aww…’. Cluck cluck, whoosh. Everywhere we looked in Kathmandu, animals were – quite literally – losing their heads. ‘Ahem’, I overlooked the mishap and calmly continued, ‘look at the fluffy sheep’. Baa baa, swoosh. ‘Hmmm, look at the goat’. Bleat, bleat. Slash. ‘Ohmigod, there’s a water buffalo in the square! Don’t look at the buffalo! Don’t look at the…’, thud. ‘Too late’. We’d arrived in Kathmandu amidst the biggest Nepali festival of the year, Dashain was flooding the streets with colour – a thick, lively red colour.

To summarise the reasoning behind the beasts beheading, Dashain is a 15 day festival celebrating good over evil, God over demons, jam over marmite, Arsenal over united. The main celebrations represent the goddess Durga’s battle, and subsequent victory over the ferocious demon, Mahishasura (who took the form of a buffalo – “mahisha” means buffalo). The first nine days symbolise the battle, the 10th day Durga won (ergo, a selection of modern day buffaloes lose their heads) and thus the next five days are a celebration for the people, bringing families together from far and wide. So. In a nutshell, a woman (ahem, yeah right) beat up a water buffalo and we were all saved from impending doom. Hallelujah. I haven’t quite worked out what the chicken did wrong though. I hasten to add, I don’t particularly agree with the massacres I witnessed, sure one or two to symbolise the myth but we’re talking about thousands simultaneously suffering the same fate and their heads often sit, skinned, beside ‘survivors’ outside the city’s butcher shops. The head is severed – for those that are interested – by a single blow to the neck with a sword, and their blood smothered upon the city’s streets and squares to keep Durga drenched.

In contrast, this is Kathmandu – a city in one of the worlds poorest countries, where ‘The Boy’ calls me ‘Sir’ when I’m ordering my Everest Beer or breakfast burrito. A city where east meets (what it interprets as) west. A city where candy floss is sold aside wonky North Face. Walking through the narrow streets, avoiding the scooters and small white cabs which hunger for my life I politely decline hashish, chess sets, wooden flutes, women, white water rafting touts, tiger balm, rogue trekking porters and the standard tourist offering in Asia, the ever present rickshaws-of-death. As I write this from the heart of the notoriously touristic, Thamel district, I can hear Dire Straits being performed – amazingly – by one of the local bands flaunting their talent to the thousands of tourists who have poured in. After I finish this post, I’m going to the cinema to watch a Hindi film. Yesterday morning I watched a stunning Nepali film actress strut her stuff in front of hundreds of admirers. Yesterday afternoon I spent reading, in the sunshine drenching the Edwardian influenced Garden of Dreams. The point I’m making, is the most noticeable absentee here in Kathmandu, is the Nepalese culture itself. It seems, somewhere amid the years of political turmoil, it’s forgotten who it is.

Last week I visited an orphanage. My intention was to ‘make a difference’ but almost immediately I realised the orphanage was more luxurious than my own hotel (which is admittedly uber basic), in fact more luxurious than the home I left behind in England. The kids spoke extraordinary English and I soon learned they’ve developed a ‘snob’ culture to their counterparts on the outside. Looking down from the third floor balcony the view was amazing, upon the basketball court four orphan boys, wearing new clothes and glowing healthily flew traditional kites high up into the smog bitten sky. There orphanmates amused themselves with paper mache, a pond, a library or the huge grass lawn. Just metres away, separated by the barbwire fence, local kids dressed in rags, stood in a field and flew their kites alongside the invisible privileged. The kite strings could not of led to two more different scenes. Looking down, I felt I was the wrong side of the fence. Volunteer work is something I’m considering while here in Nepal, but somewhere I can make a difference. The opportunity on offer here was more akin to babysitting, but this is not a negative view, in fact its a testament to the great work of the founder and all those that have donated. Those sixteen kids have an opportunity that others, close by, can only dream of.

Alas, my short term plan differed to that of two close friends – Reb and Mark. Along with a new Floridian friend, Sharon they are currently stomping around the Annapurna Circuit, a 21 day trek around Nepal’s mystical mountain regions. For a range of reasons, I didn’t join them, and the result was a surreal farewell. I’ve traveled with Reb for two months, she holds a spirit for life that I will carry throughout The Trail, yet she has a rare ability to keep me on track. Her last mission involved her lancing a pimple off the top of my foot. Reb’s an amazing person, and I’m grateful of the time I spent with her, though know it won’t be the last. Mark, a combination of trust and adventure, slotted into a duo of laid back mindsets, and I know he’ll carry these qualities with him to ensure the trios journey is a magical experience – and one I look forward to hearing over a cold beer and a breakfast burrito in the future. One of his last missions, was expertly removing a tick from my back. It’s not often you’ll find me sentimental over those human things on this trip, but I champion these two – especially Reb – as the finest you could possibly meet along your way.

So I’ve cut the apron strings in a country that I’m struggling to grasp. The brief history I know of talks of royal massacres (not just the one in June 2001 – where the Crown Prince went doolallay and gunned down almost every member of the royal family) and countless plots to gain power, which usually culminates in an untimely death at the hands of the opposition. It seems that the idea of democracy has always been there, at times it’s almost stuck around, but ultimately it seems Nepal just isn’t ready for it. It’s above my station – and knowledge – to start a history lesson but it’s a really interesting place to be taking one. I’ll soon leave Kathmandu, and not before time. It’s not been my favorite place, but I won’t lose any sleep over it – and I certainly hope, I won’t lose my head over it.


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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Rachael October 28, 2007 at 10:34 pm

Hi Have you found the underground bars? I was there in Nov 01 (due to the shootings, it was an “at risk” time). Less tourists so was good :0) Police with guns every few metres and a 9pm curfew (until we discovered underground bars via a friendly rick-shaw driver who had obviously visited it earlier that evening…and who kindly let us drive the bike while he sat in the back). Are you planning to go to the jungle? Name escapes me now. Was also quiet, but interesting. I found the Nepali locals less “in your face” than Delhi indians and on a par with the rest of india. Great place to have clothes made too.

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Becki November 1, 2007 at 2:27 pm

Glad to see ‘Ergo’ is still weaving it’s way into your vocabulary!
Awesome piece of writing there Mr Stone, by far my favourite! Have you got a book deal yet? Can I be your editor/tagalong?

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Mum & Dad November 9, 2007 at 11:46 pm

Hi. Just spent the last hour or more catching up with all your exploits, adventures and experiences. You certainly seem to be packing them in. We are busy, busy busy trying to get ready to fly to Calcutta. Whats the weather like in your part of the world? Hope we are leaving the cold, damp and windy weather behind us??? See you soon and keep writing. It makes very interesting reading and gives us a little insight into the world at large. xx

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reb November 17, 2007 at 12:46 pm

Hey you,
Got back yesterday and had to catch up on your tales…..i love reading your stories. Thanks for your kind words…..did i pay you enough?!? Mark says when he dies can you say a few words at his funeral…….!
Love and hugs rebxxx

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