Tea, Truths and Travellers: The Heart of Kathmandu, Nepal

Tea, Truths and Travellers: The Heart of Kathmandu, Nepal

tea vendor looks at me as he ladles our chai into two tall
glasses. The fuel of
. His mouth is fashioned into a wry curve and his eyes are
fixed. They are royal eyes – the eyes of a king – part magnanimous,
part contemptuous, part expectant. They tell the truth, his eyes,
for there is no attempt to hide his disapproval. They are the eyes
of a mind made up, the eyes of someone who believes he knows all
worth knowing and so looks no further. A look of conviction: that I
am just another visitor in this city – a temporary patron – and in
a week or so I will leave.

The shop is the size of a small bedroom, set into the wall of a
traditional-styled building – one of the few that defied the
earthquake. Wooden masks with widened eyes line the walls,
encircling the hole where the vendor passes the steaming tea. They
are his council; an extension of his scrutiny. He insists on his
stare and I stare back, smiling. I do not feel uncomfortable
because the eyes are honest. To compare his stare to the automatic
light flickering in the eyes of a barista back home is like
comparing a one-word answer to a question with a fumbling of hands
and excuses; it is easy and straight and honest. I enjoy the
tethering between our pupils because it is real – a genuine look of
a contempt is better than a smile twisted by servility.

It is morning, and nothing is open except the shops selling tea.
Aside from the murmurings of sellers assembling their wares on
fraying rugs, Durbar Square sleeps. I am seated on the wall of a
dry fountain with the hot glass pressed to my palm. A lazing dog
enjoys the early sun that extends beyond the silhouette of a
pagoda. I sip, slowly and consciously. There is no rush.

Ali looks out of place in Kathmandu. He is six-foot-four and two
heads above the crowd. I laugh at his figure lofting through the
busied streets; hands open at the base of his long arms; people
parting like gazelle navigating the march of an elephant. In the
Nineties, he was a rafting guide here, returning now when he can
for a “walk in the big hills”. I met him crossing a high pass in
Sagamatha National Park (in the Everest region), whispers of techno
reaching out like a handshake from the speaker strapped to his
pack. He is 50 years old, Scottish, and one of the coolest people
I’ve ever met.

It is difficult getting anywhere with him. Swathes of old Nepali
friends stop us as we mooch between bakeries, corrugated shacks –
where elderly women fan omelettes onto iron hot plates – and shops
displaying cream-filled doughnuts on sticky, varnished shelves.
“Lambu!” calls yet another voice – Tall Man -“Lambu, we’ve been
waiting for you!” The shouts precede a small, energetic man who
dives into a handshake. The two old friends converse in Nepali,
maintaining an elevated intensity throughout the conversation as
though his wife had just borne a child, before the man departs. The
excitement in his eyes, as they dart between the two of us,
stretches my mouth into a taut smile. I smile because it is a new
experience – no one gets this excited seeing a friend.

The man reaches into a pocket and pulls out a block of hash. He
breaks off a pebble – a few grams – and hands it to Ali before
shaking our hands again and rushing off into the sea of people, his
Dhaka Topi hat still visible amongthe heads like the fin of shark
cutting through a surface of water. Ali smiles without surprise and
fingers the hash into his trousers. “They might not have much, the
Nepali’s, but they have big hearts.”

We’re eating cake in Ali’s favourite bakery. The walls are
tattooed with the preachings of hippies past; their dreams of
changing the world, cracked and tired like the paint. Dry sun beats
through the window, conflicting with the shade and the soft bulbs
inside, making the bakery feel like a cavern, an oasis – a refuge
from the heat outside. The air is filled with the sweet smell of
cake and cigarettes, the smell of a lost luxury: the forbidden
fumes of tobacco with notes of chocolate, banana and sugary coffee.
If colonialism had a smell, this is how I imagine it.

“This was the place to be, Snowman Café,” Ali tells me. He talks
of times before the Civil War, where people came here instead of
Thamel: an array of restaurants and expensive eats, a few bars and
a crowd of booking offices; avenues of prayer flags and cheap
fabrics; Kukri knives and incense. Thamel is the new tourist centre
of Kathmandu. People normally spend a few days there before
trekking to Everest Base Camp, or heading West to Pokhara and the
Annapurna range. Because of the war, the travellers left Freak
Street – they left Nepal – leaving behind the inscriptions on the
walls and a vast library of cassettes; entombed now behind the
glass of the counter, left, not to entertain, but as a reminder of
what was.

“The crowds have definitely changed in here,” laughs Ali. The
occupants are younger, he tells me, and now predominantly Nepali:
schoolchildren meeting with friends, couples sharing a slice of
something on a disposable plate; a congregation of mini-speakers
contesting for the air. A few interspersed tourists from the last
generation of travel – people like Ali – sit alone. No longer
really travelling, but revisiting; journeying to the places where
they not only discovered the world, but themselves. Sitting now,
years, decades, later; the same tables, the same cassettes, the
same cake; enjoyed by friends of a past life, of lovers forgotten
about and forgiven; the echoes of conversations: honest, exciting
and optimistic – all that could have been. They are not travelling.
They are reacquainting with their souls.

“The locals have kind of reclaimed it…” Ali muses, “which is
nice, actually – keeps our man busy.” He gestures to the man
fluttering between the tables with cake and coffee: Raju –
successor of his father, Ram, the man who opened the bakery and
whose mother is head chef – indeed, the only chef – churning out
cakes faster than they can be consumed. I imagine her a fantastical
lady: tireless and particular; communicating through meticulous
fingers; through kneaded dough, featherings of sugar and
orchestrations of nuts, the attentiveness, the care and the love of
a grandmother.

“The tea used to come through a hole in the ceiling,” Ali
continues, “but they’ve remodelled a bit. The coffee machine is
new, and the music has died. The hazes of hashish smoke have
dissipated, and the floor has grown more cracks. “But it is still
fricking Snowman!” concludes my companion excitedly, fanning hands
facing upwards from his cheekbones to the table top, as if
displaying the conclusion of argument in the lines of his hands.
Anywhere else would have seen the walls repainted, the tables
stripped and refitted, and the dormant tapes removed.

Despite the suffocating density and absent amenities, the
Nepalis cohabitate with humbling ease. After the 2015 Gurkha
Earthquake, thousands lived for weeks on the streets of Kathmandu.
Durbar Square, now an enclosure of scaffolding propped up by
international aid – the expanse of sandstone floor where I enjoy my
morning tea – became a permanent residence, where people lived
among the rubble and the remnants of their history with little
relief. Following the disaster, the National Reconstruction
Authority failed to devise relocation plans for the misplaced until
July 2016 – over a year later.

It is only through their connection to each other, their love,
their hearts, that you begin to see how these people could endure
such suffering. I see it in the honesty of a tea vendor; the
generosity of a hurried man; the acceptance and respect given to
the graffiti – the history – left by travellers never to return. It
is not eastern mysticism, the placidity of poverty, or the colour
of culture. It is heart.

It is humanity.

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