Column #52 Kathmandu, Nepal
July 1, 1998
The Indian Airlines Airbus A-340 touched-down gently at Tribhuvan Field outside Nepal. The temperature was a welcome 75 degrees, downright chilly compared to my last stop in the sweltering New Delhi heat. Around me the Himalayan mountains disappeared mysteriously into the top of the sky.
I simply don’t have the words to describe how it feels to land at the foot of the highest point on earth. For years I have read of the exploits of climbers who’ve touched down at this very same spot with backpacks and a dream of climbing the world’s tallest mountain.
To everybody but a few Sherpas the mountain is known as Everest. To the Sherpas however, the peak, and the path to it, will always be known as the “silly people’s walking place.” Who can argue? Over the years countless brave men and women have lost their lives trying to reach the clouds, trying to reach their dreams. But others have made it. They’ve chisled and huffed and clawed their way five miles into the thin air of the heavens and somehow returned. And when they did, of this I am absolutely certain, they celebrated with a bit of the bubbly.
And so began my own oddessy at the base of the “silly people’s walking place”, to follow in the steps of the brave — or the foolish — to drink where they drank and to achieve my own dream of finding and conquering the best of the Sherpas at the line in the Thamel district of Kathmandu. I’ll betcha Phil Taylor’s never done this!
As I departed my hotel I was met immediately by three feuding rickshaw drivers, all vying for my business. Two of them, middle-aged men, had pushed the third, a small seven-year old boy, out of the action. As they continued to argue over who saw my wallet first, I slipped away quietly and climbed into the back of the child’s rickshaw. The boy, Raman, insisted he knew where to find a dartboard. But after an hour or so of circling the same block I climbed back out of Raman’s contraption, paid him the handsome sum of 50 Nepalese rupees (about 75 cents) and headed off on foot. Strike one. I have no doubt that the older drivers stole Raman’s earnings later that day.
I next approached some locals and gave them the international sign for the sport of darts. Puzzlement swept across their faces. One asked why I was looking to throw marijuana joints. (The evil weed grows in abundance along the sides of the road throughout the city.) Strike two. I moved on.
I climbed to the balcony of the Maple Cafe, ordered a pitcher of Tibetan beer and surveyed the scene outside. On the dirt street below two teenagers peddled “ancient” masks which only hours before had been rubbed with shoe polish to disguise their newness. I inquired of my waiter if he knew where a weary traveler might find a quiet game of darts. “I know American game”, he offered. “I love Michael Jordan. Best dart player in the world.” Strike three.
As the skies opened wide to welcome me and my already watered down beer to the impending monsoon season I paid my bill and headed into the storm. I did not travel ten thousand miles to listen to stories about basketball and ganja projectiles. I needed to regroup.
The street was now mud. I flagged a covered taxi to transport me back to the hotel. We came upon a cow, oblivious to our presence, munching a cardboard box and enjoying a shower in the middle of the road. As half the Nepalese population is Hindu and the punishment for purposely harming a cow is something like ten years in the clink, my driver could only idle in the downpour.
At some point I became aware that the cow was staring at me. For a strange moment our eyes met. My mind drifted to a story a friend of mine, a former White Hunter named Lorenzo Capellini, once told me of his last African safari. The buffalo appeared from behind a crop of bushes. It stopped, startled. It looked at Lorenzo, who had it centered between the cross hairs of his scope. The animal didn’t run or charge. It just watched. It watched as Lorenzo’s bullet moved towards it through the air. It stood motionless as Lorenzo’s bullet ripped through its heart. But the buffalo didn’t fall. It didn’t move. The proud, majestic creature just continued to stand — and to stare — at its killer, my friend. And then the eyes of man and beast locked. As Lorenzo relates the story, at this very moment he knew that with his next shot, his final squeeze of the trigger, his twenty-year career as a hunter was to end. Today my friend is a wildlife photographer. He swears that the buffalo “spoke” to him, that in the millisecond their eyes connected the buffalo communicated with him — that it asked “why?”, offered its understanding and forgave him for needlessly taking its life. Lorenzo simply could never pick up his rifle again.
Perhaps it was a kind of epiphany. I found my eyes focused directly beyond the cow’s head. There, just off the curb to the left of my taxi, stood a hole-in-the-wall tavern called the Carpe Diem. Reflecting on the moisture of the window of the little establishment was the glistening mirror image of the cow’s side. And, believe it or not — I swear this is true — shining back through the window from the inside of the tavern, reflecting back through the reflection of the cow on the glass, were the unmistakable concentric circles of a dart board. The cow had tipped me off. The cow had spoken.
I paid the driver immediately and leapt from the back seat of the taxi. I sloshed through some puddles and zipped up the slippery steps of the Carpe Diem. Except for the bartender, who was sprawled asleep on top of the counter, and one lonely patron, the place was devoid of life.
“It’s his nap time”, the man informed me. “He sleeps now. Can I get you a beer?” I was dumbfounded. “Do you work here?”, I asked. “Only when he sleeps”, the man laughed. “I am Ang Bok. I am waiting for my client.”
While I sipped my beer, Ang Bok told me of his trekking escapades into the Himalayas with western clients. I asked him if he’d ever climbed Mount Everest. Ang Bok laughed again. “I am not a stupid man. Just because I am a Sherpa, does not mean I am crazy.”
“Do you play darts?”, I inquired.
“I know this game, yes” he said, “but I like football better.” Ang Bok, of course, was referring to European football, or soccer. Nepal has built quite a respectable team and, apparently due to their acclimation to the Kathmandu altitude, their stamina has brought them great success. I wonder if the Sherpas could have beaten Iran?
Ang Bok declined to throw with me, asking instead if I would mind tending to the bar and its sleeping owner for a short while so that he could go find his client. Ang Bok had provided a three day service as a guide and his client had apparently skipped-out on his porter’s payment. What could I say? My cow had found me what was probably the only joint with a dart board in all of Nepal.
With the place to myself and the owner prone on the bar I couldn’t help but take a snoop around. Clearly the Carpe Diem had seized its day a long time before. It’s a quiet joint. Small. Cozy. Which is all just a polite way of observing that except for a few bottles of beer, a handful of tables and a lonely dart board on the wall to the right of the entrance there’s nothing in the place.
I walked over to the board and, upon inspection, found it to be covering a gaping hole in the side of the wall. Water-logged from the many monsoons it had weathered, mildew covered the sisal and grabbed at the corroding wires.
Still, committed to being able to say I threw darts in the Himalayas, I paced off the distance, moved a couple of chairs and lined up. I let my first dart rip. And I watched sheepishly as my Hammerhead squished into the bull and the board came crashing to the wooden floor. Left behind were the few wads of sticky tape that had been used to affix the board over the hole in wall. Strike four!
The noise woke up the owner. He eyed me briefly from his position on the counter and then closed his eyes again. So I pulled up a chair and simply looked at the old man. His tired features covered the face of someone who had seen better days. He could easily have been have been 100 years old or more.
When he awakened again he had little to say. He offered a grunt or two and pointed me, possibly his only customer in days, to the door at about the same time Ang Bok returned from seeking out his client.
Ang Bok ushered me onto the street and thanked me for watching the place. “Old man is very unhappy. Maybe you find another place to drink tonight.” I asked the Sherpa what had happened to the old man, what had caused him to become, seemingly, so sad, defeated and mean.
“You know of Kashmere? On the other side of Nepal?” he asked. I told him that I was familiar with the disputed Indian states of Jammu and Kashmere, some 600 miles to the west. Ang Bok explained: “These people, they come here to bring money back to Kashmere for fighting. These people, they force the old man to pay bribes to them to keep him safe. They take his money and when he cannot pay, they make his customers too scared to stay. He goes poor and is now very sad.”
Ang Bok went on to explain how the Carpe Diem, once a busy little tourist haunt, is now one of several establishments in Thamel which is under the control of the Kashemerie mafia, who are trying to raise money to fight their battle for independence from the Indian government. They apparently extort from locals, sell drugs and trade in endangered animals, all of which yield high profits and little or no jail time in Nepal. They then send their loot back to Jammu, where the primary battles for independence are being fought. Days after I returned home, I learned that twelve people had been killed in a bombing there, the third in less than a year.
Ang Bok suggested that I try a few other pubs. He said that some of the smaller guest houses had dart boards and a fresh supply of San Miguel and Tuborg, a Turkish beer.
But I was done for the day, worn, wet, hungry and, admittedly,a bit shaken by Ang Bok’s tale. I returned directly to my hotel, carefully avoiding the glances of several suspicious characters who watched me part company with Ang Bok in front of the Carpe Diem. I couldn’t help but worry that they were calculating how much money I dropped during my several hours in the place — that, like the older men earlier in the day who surely ripped off Raman, they were just waiting for me to turn the corner before collecting from the poor old man with nothing to sell or give.
I left Kathmandu the next next morning, sorry to have had no time to take in another darts bar or two. Sorry to have had so little opportunity to explore the beauty of Nepal. Still, I had witnessed something in Thamel that few people will ever experience.
The following day India detonated the first three of five underground nuclear tests in the Pokhran desert, mightily flexing its muscles at Pakistan which has been in a cold war of its own with India over the disputed Kashmere region.
At the time of this writing, Pakistan has now detonated its own nuclear weapons and escalated tensions across the whole of Asia.
Meanwhile, a little old man sits in fear in a bar in Kathmandu, but a pawn in a crazy tug-of-war, exchanging his income for his safety and sleeping away the time he has left until some terrorist destroys what’s left of his sorry world by lobbing one of their despicable darts at him.
From the Field,
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