Shedding all that's worldly: काठमाडौं, Submergence, Swayanmbhu & plush penguins
Dear Internet, Kathmandu—July 11, 2013
This morning we Yeti-Aired from Lumbini ... both ways cloudy so never saw the Himalayas (though we scrambled for seats on the side of the small plane where supposedly you can get a good view ... if it's clear). Now in some funky boutique hotel (Royal Penguin) in the annoyingly touristy area of Kathmandu. Lots of tacky kitsch, horrid color schemes, driftwood furniture, gaudy chandeliers, neon lights, shag carpet & stuffed animals (that you can request to sit with you in the lobby cafe if you don't get enough of the ones all over the beds)—plush leopards, deer, pandas & of course penguins.
You can also choose the level of staff sociability ... From high sociability («the staff will be delighted to maintain a conversation on any topic, to make a joke or share interesting news with you») to stealth mode («the staff will provide brief answers in a friendly manner but will never speak to you first»).
Our second day in Lumbini we went back to Buddha's birthplace with j & her colleague (who now reads 5cense .. hi R!) ... this time didn't see a scorpion on the stone where Buddha was born.
The town of Lumbini was a nice break from the chaos of Kathmandu, good to be in a rural place around animals ... buffalos, goats, dogs & bulls. Lots of rain & flooded fields. Chicken chili, momos & sandhe ko badam (our new favorite dish of spicy peanuts) & cold Tuborg, then walking back in the dark in the rice paddies with the sounds of frogs.
Waiting at the ramshackle airport, finished reading Submergence by J.M. Ledgard. Didn't like it nearly as much as his brilliant debut, Giraffe (which we read in Ethiopia). For starters, the tone is too perfectly worldly in that Jason Bourne or James Bond way ... the jet-setting characters always comfortable in whatever environment, saying the right things in whatever language, ordering the right dishes from fancy restaurants, having the smooth pickup lines, etc. Fish out of water situations, or when a person is uncomfortable & awkward & doesn't have all the answers, are more interesting to us. Sure, the main character, James, is in a rather uncomfortable bind ... taken hostage by Somali Jihadists in totally crappy & dangerous environs. He is a spy (under the guise of a water expert) that in order to cope with his dire situation, imagines himself swimming in luxurious hotel swimming pools, or reflects on a corny love affair he had the year before in a coastal resort in France with a woman named Danny.
If we ever sound all smug & worldly like Ledgard, we hope someone will tell us, or better yet, shoot us.
Perhaps this is just a recent peeve of ours ... we had the same adverse reaction reading Don Delillo's The Names ... also written in that elitist, all-knowing tone of the privileged intellectual. It's just not believable or interesting. It's like Ledgard is preaching to you in Submergence, showing off his researched knowledge (he is a journalist after all) that perhaps he couldn't fit in his Economist articles so he figured he'd force them into this novel.
The parts where he talks about Nairobi were interesting only in that he frequented some of the same haunts that we did (or places we went to once or twice before becoming disgusted with ourselves) when we lived there. In fact, we think we may have sat next to him at Java House or the food court at Village Market or that Italian restaurant in Muthaiga ... we distinctly remember eavesdropping once on a journalist interviewing some UN bureaucrat about the security situation in Somalia ... but then again, we knew more than one such journalist type living there at the time ... sure there are hundreds.
We never were comfortable at those ex-pat dinner parties & never were comfortable around people comfortable at such dinner parties, in places like Nairobi ... with servants & security always in the periphery. Not that we are one to slum it with the locals either.
The Somali hostage situation is half the book ... the other half is about deep-sea exploration (Danny's field of study). Ledgard goes back & forth between these 2 threads, as well as mixing in all sorts of other political & scientific facts ... nothing of which seems to have to do with anything. It's like Ledgard jotted down a bunch of notes & had grand ambitions to have these disparate threads eventually coalesce ... but Ledgard gets lost & forgets what he is getting at (or can't communicate the connections to us) & we are left with a bunch of dangling & unresolved threads.
Yeah, we get it, he is trying to draw parallels between the isolation of deep sea diving & being kidnapped by Somali Jihadists ... as he himself spells out for us 3 pages into the book (in case you didn't get the subtext):
And this isolation is supposed to be resolved by love ... but sorry, this just doesn't cut it for us. This is how Ledgard sets it up, but he isn't able to carry through & deliver. Which is unfortunate, because Giraffe was the opposite ... concise & relevant in it's execution.
It wasn't all that bad ... we were intrigued enough to finish it (granted we didn't have any other books with us). There's some good descriptions & passages, like this:
As for the story about being taken hostage by Somalis, you may as well read this real account about Judith Tebbutt that was in The Guardian a few days ago.
... & speaking of worldly, it seems you, The Internet, think that Kathmandu is in the United States ... or a suburb of DC or something. Some funny conversations here in broken English with thick accents ... when asked who the most famous person in Nepal was we were told it was someone «who was elel-teetee ...» which upon further inquiry we found was someone who was LLTT ... i.e. looking London, talking Tokyo ...
There's a book exchange at the Royal Penguin so we swapped Submergence for Notes from the Underground (to reread in a pinch) & Arresting God in Kathmandu by Samrat Upadhyay, which from what we understand is the first book by a Nepalese written in English, which, ok, is commendable as such, and interesting to read in Kathmandu, but we got bored of it after 3 or 4 of the stories ... mostly contemporary dramas about infidelity (as a reaction to moral suppression).
One thing the book did confirm for us is that rain on your wedding is considered a good omen (this month is the month they have all the weddings in Nepal, which we thought strange considering this month is also the height of rainy season). Here's some video footage we took of a wedding procession getting caught in a downpour.
Being bookless with a 24-hour travel day ahead of us, we went out hunting for a bookstore ... in particular to get a copy of Ulysses to re-read (in light of the new 'SSES" project we've embarked upon), which we found at Pilgrim's Book House (along with Junky & The Odyssey (both of which we've read but picked up since they were only $2 each) & Youth by J.M Coetzee)). Pilgrim's is awesome ... not just for books, but it's a veritable museum of antiques & old Nepalese art (though most of the art was out of our price range). The original one burned down a few months ago, but they've relocated to a new location just down the road.
We are ready to reJoyce in Ulysses. In this 1956 interview, Faulkner said:
He also said:
Kind of what we were talking about with Ledgard being too smart for his own good.
Being in Thamel (your typical Asian backpacker area with youth hostels & cafes & pesky vendors & touts) has only reconfirmed what a shithole Kathmandu is ... we've experienced more dangerous & threatening traffic, but never have we seen people become such dicks when they get behind the wheel of a motorized vehicle. It's seriously life or limb threatening just to walk around, even in the smallest of alleys, even in the touristy areas. And it's filthy ... garbage everywhere, rivers of shit & plastic. It's like Kathmanduers have no regard for their environment or fellow people. There's shittier shitholes, but the situation here seems exceptionally sad ... maybe because it's otherwise such a naturally beautiful place at the foot of the Himalayas.
Yesterday we walked to Swayanmbhu ... another Buddhist stupa perched on a hill on the outskirts of town ... saturday morning so all sorts of pilgrims walking up the mountain & eating chick peas & receiving benedictions of some sort.
Tomorrow headed back home on the pineal-tweaking redeye ... will be sure to wear a hoodie coming thru US customs ...
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