An Education Conference in Kathmandu
Up at the crack of dawn to catch the connecting flight from Manila to Kathmandu. I play Spot the Head and find myself sitting next to a guy reading an article on Key Stage Three so I think it a fairly safe bet to ask if he is in education. He looks amazed at my perspicacity. Creep into business class to get a window and a view of the Himalayas, so this time playing spot Mount Everest.
There is so much bustle on arrival that I am missed by the pickup, but eventually make my way to the conference hotel, Dwarika’s, which is a fabulous reconstruction of an Indian style palace using mainly original materials. My fourth floor room is huge and definitely palatial with Tibetan style red white and blue cushions and settees, an enormous bed and a marble and slate bath, shower, twin washbasins and shower – all separate.
I am met and welcomed by Sandj, the Kathmandu School Head and Ann, the Head from Hong Kong. We drive through the streets of the city to visit Boudnath Stoupa, the biggest stupa in Nepal. It is twelve years since I have been to Kathmandu and it has changed considerably. There are many more buildings and it is far more touristy – loads more shops but it still retains its character. It’s definitely smoggier.
The stupa is huge, decorated with large staring eyes, garlanded with Tibetan prayer flags and encircled by brass prayer wheels of all sizes. Pilgrims move continuously around, nudging the wheels, women in saris, monks, in saffron robes, shaven headed youths twirling their own prayer wheels and gnarled old men with long scruffy grey beards. It is surrounded by fascinating small bazaar style shops selling jewellery and artefacts. It is a festival day and a procession of monks and acolytes arrives and maintains the clockwise movement to the beating of gongs and drums.
After joining in the procession I part company with thirty dollars in a jewellery shop. Silver earrings are three pounds a pair and a choker is five. Beautiful soft pashmina shawls for thirty pounds each in literally every colour of the rainbow.
Out later to the backpacker Thamel area for dinner, with about a dozen heads, in Rum Doodle’s, the climber’s restaurant its walls plastered with autographs. Excellent curry.
This morning an unforgettable flight with Buddha Air over the Himalayas. Ground service consists of jerks of the thumb and a meditating mechanic (and some monkeys) is ensconced in the middle of the tarmac. We fly along the edge of the mountains right up to Everest; superb views of the highest point on earth and all the surrounding giant mountains sprinkled with snow. It is only on the descent that we notice the pile of wrecked small planes hidden behind the hangars. Radar is comparatively new here and there is a crashed Chinese jet too – birds in the engines. Then tales emerge of the Royal Nepal flight that arrived from Pokara last week minus any baggage. Apparently, they failed to close the luggage hatch properly and it all fell out into the lake after take-off.
On to Bhaktapur, the oldest town in the valley, together with a group of heads. The place looks positively medieval, but the oldest parts are actually more recent seventeenth century. The architecture is mainly wood and intricately carved. Numerous pagoda style temples vie for the attention, as do the even more numerous shopkeepers. Nepalis wander past in traditional costume carrying buckets on yokes, drying rice in the streets and chasing chickens. The odd cow meanders down the lane. All the shops are playing exactly the same track from a CD of Tibetan chanting. Everyone barters for one at different points and prices vary from 400 to 250 rupees so I am very pleased to get one for 200 rupees, though another shopkeeper says mine is counterfeit. I suspect they are all counterfeit and it eventually becomes obvious that they are playing the same track because it is the only track.
I also buy lots of cards and notelets and venture through an agricultural area to a river temple where various supplicants have puja offerings set out on little coloured cloths. All the food and flowers are subsequently tossed into the river or devoured by passing dogs. there are even more cows in evidence here, so it must be a Hindu temple.
We are finally invited for lunch to the home of a Nepali, Prem. We climb three floors of wooden stairs to the earth-floored kitchen and squat on the floor. His hospitality is very generous and there are mounds of dahl and curried vegetables, all washed down with the local version of Schnapps. They call it rum and it is served in little saucers. I partake liberally in the hope of overwhelming any local bacteria. Last time I travelled via Kathmandu I ended up in the Chinese hospital suffering from stomach bugs. I have another brandy when I get back to Dwarika’s, just to make sure.
Then a massage from an American girl who says I have the best view in the hotel - courtyards, rooftops, and in the distance the airport.
The Conference and My Birthday - November 20th
Probably my strangest birthday ever. Out to dinner at the new Hyatt hotel. Champagne cocktails first, on the terrace, with views over the lights of Kathmandu.
Then out to a very seedy bar, with what seems to be an opium den above, and onto the Dynasty disco. This it transpires was the scene of a recent shooting. It is crammed almost entirely with gyrating men who don’t seem to mind which gender they dance with.
The three men I'm with fight to dance with me as they get badly groped by male Nepalis if they dance on their own. The music is good and I have a whale of a time. We leave at 2.30 a.m. and I go to bed only to be woken mysteriously at 4.30 a.m. as the stereo in my room begins to play Indian music.
A bleary eyed tour of the Kathmandu school which is based in a rented Rani's palace and has a large duck pond. there are clear powder blue skies and complementary huge red poinsettias outside. then, lunch in Patan town with yet another picturesque medieval style square. This is a buffet at the back of the museum. Two heads retire, complaining of feeling sick. The remainder of the business meeting seems interminable and my stomach begins to ache as well. Oh no not again.......
I have stomach pains all night, so I phone down to say I will miss the first part of the conference. I'm not entirely sorry. I drag myself out of bed to go down and say farewell to those who are leaving that day. I abstain from lunch, but determined not to miss too much so go for walk round a large Hindu temple complex with one of the heads. Funerals are taking place, bodies being cremated by the water and there is an interesting sight round every corner. Men are charging for photos of a cow with a fifth leg sticking out of its side.
My stomach has now got so bad that I cannot walk, so I retire to bed. The remaining heads are attending dinner at Sandj’s house in Patan that night. By the time of their departure I have a sinking feeling that I am not very well at all and not wanting to be left on my own or deal with doctors alone I get on the coach with them and go to Sandj’s. The longest, bumpiest, most painful journey of my life. Once there Sandj phones a doctor friend who advises that I should decamp immediately to hospital. There the diagnosis of appendicitis is rapidly confirmed. The pain is now so bad that I am beyond caring, but the sight of Ann telling the nurse off for wiping her thermometer on the curtain is not reassuring. She does subsequently insert it under my arm, but the swarms of spectators marching in from the waiting room to watch me take my clothes off do not add to my comfort. Ann shoos them all out only to discover that she had also dispatched the radiographer waiting to cart me off to X-ray.
I am not too far from consciousness to note that the surgeon has nice eyes while Ann mops my brow and gives a running commentary via the mobile to the Heads at the party. Martin, the American GP friend, tells her that the only alternative is to put me on heavy antibiotics and fly me out in the morning. He adds that the chances are that I won’t make it. No choice then and Ann signs the consent form as my 'sister'.
I wake some time later in a hospital room. Sandj and Ann are sleeping on benches and, miraculously, the pain has gone.
Sandj arranges a shift of people to keep me company. Henrietta, a large Dutch nurse, Rachel, the Chair of Governors and a teacher’s wife come in shifts and bring magazines. Repeating the tale to everyone takes some time. Martin had got three surgeons out to operate and the chief surgeon comes in to see me. It’s the one with nice eyes. I have the best room in the B and B private hospital. I’m not sure what B and B stands for (someone suggests Blood and Beastliness) but it isn’t bed and breakfast, as food is not provided. The room is comfortable enough, but basic, and the whole of Nepal seems to lurk in the corridor outside, wandering in whenever they feel like it. The floor is cleaned three times, but the bathroom is not touched.
I read my horoscope in the November Indian Cosmopolitan. It says “Watch out for a stomach bug!”
A Surreal Life
My friendly surgeon is persuaded that I will be nursed just as well at Sandj’s. All the nurses do here is take your temperature and change the drip. All my bedding is from Sandj and the last drip came out yesterday. I rebel when it jams up yet again and the nurse tries to open up my vein with a hypodermic needle.
Through the thronging streets of Kathmandu, in a four-wheel drive. I am wearing a baggy green winceyette nightie of Sandj’s and my little black leather boots. On arrival I am laid on the settee in front of a roaring log fire. Then Sandj arrives with speaker Chris Woodhead, (Ex Chief Inspector) back from trekking in Pokara. So I sit and make polite conversation and sip champagne. I own up to not having been able to change my attire for three days. CW confides that this is fine, as neither has he. Sandj is trying on scarves ready for a reception with Princess Ann, who is also visiting here. My life has become totally surreal.
Meeting Princess Anne
My first outing since the op but worth the effort as HRH is visiting the school today. I sit with parents in a roped off area outside the school and watch her drive in, wearing a pink suit the same colour as the pashmina I have on. I cause minor security chaos by asking to go to the toilet and am fascinated by the Sandhurst wives sitting around me. Finally, I am introduced to Princess Anne who is patently trying to avoid talking to any of the children. She wishes me a speedy recovery. Mum will love the photos.
I am very pleased at my fortitude and my reception. I seem to be more famous than HRH – everyone has heard of me! Retire to bed.
Shopping and Eating In Kathmandu
I can't go back to the Philippines. I have to recuperate and I'm forbidden to fly. So there daily outings to arcades of expensive little shops and cafes. The Indian shop is particularly damaging to the wallet. We drink tea on a rooftop looking across the teeming square to the white-capped peaks towering behind. The air is clear and the view spectacular. Rachel drives carefully past no entry signs with gay abandon and bicycles and mopeds career over all the roads.
A quick excursion to the town square, Durbar, and into the bazaar, Indra Chowk. Many more towering temples and crowds attending another festival with chanting music and monks sitting on a stage. There is pigeon feeding taking place too and the whole evokes a scene from the Hitchcock film. Fakirs and wizened old men wander round in red woollen robes, daubed with paint hoping someone will take their photo so they can ask for money. Then, into the local version of a shopping mall. Dirty escalators creak past rows of bazaars and dingy shop fronts.
In the evenings outings too. Sandj's husband, David, takes me to a screening of the Sixth Sense with Bruce Willis at the International Club. Another surreal experience as I sit by a brazier, sipping mulled wine and watching the film being projected onto a large sheet above the swimming pool.
Tomorrow, I am setting off on a recuperation tour to spend a few days travelling to Tigertops, round the Terai plain and relaxing by the mountains.
Back to Manila
On my return, I am met by Laxmi’s husband, Prakash and whisked back to Sandj’s house. There is great excitement as Maoist terrorists have threatened to kidnap children at the school. It has been shut for the next few days and may not be able to open until after Christmas. Politics here is also becoming exciting. All the hotels will be shut from Sunday onwards, as the staff are going on strike.
Laxmi helps me pack, for my return to Manila, which is a major endeavour after all the shopping. We just manage to cram everything into my two bags and an extra duffle bag. Sandj sees me off at the airport. I am allowed to return business class because of the comfort (and also lack of seats, due to the strike and to Christmas). Thirty-five kilos just squeaks through. A final view of Everest from the plane.