by Keith Addison
Hong Kong Life magazine Oct. 1994-Jan. 1996
The Valley of the Lost Decade
How to Spend 12 Weeks in Bed
Pass the Doggie Bag
If Pigs Could Fly They Wouldn't Need Cars
Stealer of Souls
On the Slow Train with a Skinful of Wine
The Neighbourhood Dragon
From 1994 to 1932 in Only Three Minutes
Singing and Laughing
Have Nose, Will Follow
Harrods to Sell Elixir-of-Life
Galahad's Secret Mission
Escape to Shangri-La
Put it in Your Pocket
What Johnny Should Have Said
The Cockroaches Went in Two by Two
A Complaint to the Inspector of Thunderstorms
The Valley of the Lost Decade
I was sitting in a pie shop in Kathmandu, waiting for my contact to arrive. My pie had already arrived -- a lemon-meringue pie of superior dimensions and quality.
___Not typical Nepalese fare, you might think, but, for the sudden floods of hippie travellers in the 60s, the ideal antidote to the serious attack of the munchies that followed an encounter with the local hashish and what it can do to a person's blood-sugar was a lemon-meringue pie.
___The Nepalese smile a lot. And they mean it. They are very obliging people. They shake their heads and say Yes. (Try it.) You like pies? We will make pies. You like pumpernickel? A German bakery emerged, and still thrives.
___Travellers in London and Amsterdam in 1970 told me tales of lemon-meringue pies and rock music in Kathmandu cafes, and now I was sitting in such a cafe, eating such a pie, surrounded by beaded longhairs with nose-rings and so on eating scrumptious pies, cheesecakes, Black Forest cakes and other munchie-cures from the heart of Western culture, served by smiling Nepalese while the sound system played Alvin Lee and Ten Years After, though it was 25 years after already.
___Nostalgia's not what it used to be, but this wasn't nostalgia, it was a time warp, and I liked it. Whatever happened to Alvin Lee? I wondered. My attention jerked back to the 1990s -- James Bond wouldn't be wondering what happened to Alvin Lee, he'd be wondering what had happened to his contact by now. I checked the joint, but everyone was listening to Alvin Lee playing the blues, including me. No foreign underground agents. And if James Bond spent a bit of time eating lemon-meringue pies and listening to Alvin Lee he might be a better man for it, I thought.
___In London a few months earlier I'd got involved in a TV project concerning dangerously clandestine investigations in a country not far from Nepal. I was planning a trip to Hong Kong and foolishly agreed to stop over in Kathmandu in order to do something dangerously clandestine. But the team, reaching Nepal a month ahead of me, found that things weren't as they'd seemed in London and what they'd set out to find probably wasn't there. And also their cover was probably blown and they'd be walking into a deadly trap.
___Undaunted, they pressed ahead, caring nought for deadly traps. Or at least one of them pressed ahead. I wanted out of all this, but by the time I heard about it in London, she (it was a she) had already vanished intrepidly into the Himalayas on a horse, with a disguise-kit, cameras and a bunch of foreign underground agents disguised as smugglers disguised as local nomads. But my ticket was booked, so I stopped off anyway to see what happened, and also for a pie.
___At the next table a woman was writing postcards. She looked up and asked: "What's the date?"
___"The sixth," I said.
___"Thanks -- what month?" she laughed.
___"September," I said. "But I'm not sure about the decade."
___She got up and joined me.
___"Want some pie?" I offered.
___"I'm going cold turkey on the pies," she said. "It's hell, but it's the only way."
___She'd been trekking in the mountains and told me about the great time she'd had. She was an American and her name was Alice. Alice was a walking goldmine.
___"I'm a dowser," she said when I asked.
___"You find underground water with a stick?"
___"Not water, gold. And I use an aeroplane."
___"You can sense gold underground from the air?"
___"You've actually found gold?"
___"Yes," she said. "I've got shares in two mines."
___I digested this, along with my second piece of pie.
___"Are you going cold turkey on dinner too?" I asked.
___She laughed. "God no -- but they're only small gold mines."
___"We'll have a cheap dinner then," I said winningly. She agreed, since it's quite hard to find one that isn't cheap. And with so many different kinds of visitors to be obliged, you can have more or less anything. One cafe offers "Tibetan and Mexican cuisine".
___An hour had passed, my contact wasn't coming. I left Alice sticking stamps on her postcards. Outside in the street a teenage hustler fell into step: "You want marijuana? Drugs? Change money? Good price?"
___"No," I said.
___"Okay," he said obligingly, and walked off. I stared after him, baffled -- that was a hustle?
___It was a bustling market street in the Thamel area, which is anciently arranged with the same sort of street planning as you might find in a rainforest. There is however a system of street addresses, and I was looking for No 64, but I couldn't find it. I asked a stallkeeper. He discussed the issue with another stallkeeper and his wife; some passersby joined in, and after a while, nodding his head in remorse, he said: "We don't know." I walked on and found myself at No 64, only a few metres from where they didn't know.
___This stallkeeper was sleeping behind his counter against a pile of striped cloth carry bags and looking very comfortable. But his weight on the bags had exposed the stall's till -- bunches of banknotes bulged out of one of the cloth pockets in the pile. He woke and smiled at me, and noticed the state of his till, but didn't move to do anything about it. He said his friend hadn't come to the pie shop because one of their friends had arrived from the north in poor shape, and two others were somewhere or other in jail. They'd know more tomorrow -- if I could go to Bhaktapur?
___When I left him he still hadn't hidden the till, though there were lots of poor people in Kathmandu. There are lots of poor people in Nepal, it's one of the poorest countries in Asia. Alice told me later that one morning on her trek she'd left her camera at the resthouse, and a villager ran about 10 miles along the trail to give it back to her.
___The next day I went to Bhaktapur, a "beautifully preserved medieval city" on the other side of the valley. A taxi driver named Raju took me there. He stuck a tape in the tapedeck and a traditional Hindu song started playing. He turned it up and sang along as he negotiated the narrow streets with the hooter. Did I mind the music, he asked when we hit the open road. I preferred his singing, I said. But he couldn't sing, he said (while shooting the car at 40 mph between a 20 mph scootercab and a 1 mph water buffalo followed by a pig, a dog, and a peasant woman carrying a baby, none of which seemed fazed at being missed by about an inch), because he had to concentrate on the driving. "Okay, the tape," I said quickly. He turned it up again to compete with the hooter and sang along cheerfully.
___"Don't you drive on the left in Nepal?" I asked carefully.
___"Oh yes," said Raju, shaking his head. "But it is easier to drive on the right because then I can see what is coming."
___He used the brakes rather than the hooter to avoid an oncoming car on our left, each car swerving back just in time. I tried looking the other way, but that was worse. "Please hoot" read a sign on the back of a lorry speeding along in front. Raju hooted and roared past. A loud, deep hooter honked from behind and Raju veered left, giving way to a speeding bus. Raju veered out again to follow the bus.
___There are more than 33 million gods and goddesses you can pray to in Nepal, but did they have a God of Hooters, I wondered. Slowly I relaxed. It was terrifying, but like a fairground ride, somehow not threatening, more shriek-and-whoop than scream-and-panic. And indeed, we arrived in Bhaktapur without dying.
___The old city is a delight of glowing red brick and intricately carved wooden temples and palaces rising in tiers above the dusty streets, and no concrete. And ferocious hustlers that make their cousins in Kathmandu look like goldfish. Most are little girls. I watched three cute kids aged about 10 accosting a middle-aged German couple in the central square, posing with big smiles for the camera, and zoomed my camera in to sneak a picture of them. But they saw me, and I fled. One stayed to fleece the Germans while the other two chased me, catching me round the corner. I paid up, I was no match for them.
___I found the coffee shop and made contact with the pie-shop spy, who told me that herself and her heroics had proved such a peril that they'd driven her a thousand miles back to the border and dumped her on this side of it. Obliging folk, I thought, they could've just shot her like most guerrillas would do, and like she'd said would happen if the other guys caught her. Anyway, she was on her way to Kathmandu, claiming she'd been kidnapped by bandits who'd stolen her car.
___"What car?" I asked. "I thought she went by horse."
___"Did she get any film?" He shrugged again, nodding his head for No.
___"Poor Ugya," he said, nodding his head even more.
___"What happened to Ugya?"
___"She bit him."
___So she was alive, at least. And the timing was good -- when she reached Kathmandu I'd be gone.
___I had it figured out for the trip back: taxis are cheap enough but the local bus is both cheaper and faster, buses having much bigger hooters. The bus driver sang all the way, the bus rocketing down the right-hand side of the road with the hooter blasting while the passengers smiled and clasped their chickens and stuff, or sang along with the driver, and I watched passing scenes of peasant farming that hadn't changed much in a very long time. It's still the 1960s in the pie shops, but almost everyone else is still in the 1690s.
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