Setting off, from Kathmandu, on my five day tour of Tiger Mountain properties. in Nepal. First to Tigertops. I miss returning to hospital by an inch, as the taxi overtakes a swerving bus, which is, in turn, overtaking a truck. Cyclists topple like dominoes. Once more, with trepidation, to the domestic terminal. I am directed to climb through the luggage weighing - in station to gain entry through a curtain and security, to the departure lounge. The security guard is so impressed by my tiger postcard boarding card she forgets to search my bag or me. Yeti Airlines and stunning views skimming along the edge of the Himalayas, over green terraces stacked right up to the peaks, finally coming in to land over farmland and pointed haystacks at Megauly airstrip. Picnickers scatter as the plane bumps in. The terminal is a rattan hut.
Next, a very bumpy bus ride to the riverbank. Here we take a dugout boat ferry crossing. The boat is tipping badly to one side till one very large lady gets in. “That’ll sort it” says one American sotto voce and it does, but not before she nearly lands in the water. Then a jeep ride, fording another blue, blue river to Tigertops – a rattan three storey building on stilts, frequented often, I’m told, by royalty.
Lunch is served on a lawned terrace overlooking waving elephant grasslands and grazing spotted deer. This is followed by a visit to the elephant camp where eleven elephants are confined; they devour huge heaps of green stuff. We are instructed on the difference between Asian (not Indian) elephants and African and told the number of muscles in an elephant’s trunk (40,000). A tusker is in musk and is chained by all four legs so he can’t rampage through the camp as nature intended.
Now the elephant safari. Because of my status on the wounded list I am allocated an elephant all to myself and perch aloft, packed in with cushions. Two Americans, Jeff and Jonathan, sycophantically tell me I look like an Indian princess. The safari is great fun. More deer, birds and several rhinos. The mahout takes the elephant up really close until the rhinos (notoriously bad tempered because of their poor sight) take fright and we go lumbering through the elephant grass after them. We follow an armoured mother and baby for some time, eventually emerging along the riverbank. The elephant makes a wonderful swishing noise as it moves through the water and the peace as we sway along the banks and through the long grasses is tremendous. But no tigers.
Dinner is taken in a rondavel with a central fireplace, after a slide show commentary on the Royal Chitwan Park. The food is surprisingly poor, but I am gratified to find that I am now recovered enough to put away four margaritas. (After instructing the bartender on how to make them). I am hugely entertained by Jonathan and Jeff. The former is a painter, apparently of some celebrity and Jeff is a former broadcaster who owns a ranch in Washington State. They tell me that they are loaded, but Jeff is more loaded than Jonathan, so he flies first class and Jonathan only business class. So now I have met my American millionaire and am pleased to let him buy all the drinks. They are on a round the world tour – two days in Nepal, four days in China. However, they flirt with me both outrageously and competitively all evening – great fun. Predictably I much prefer Jonathan, the less affluent of the pair. He is less obvious and has gorgeous eyes.
Not a very good night. The sounds of people and the jungle permeate the thin walls and the alcohol reaps its effect. The rooms are lit with electrically wired kerosene lamps and are dim. I am very grateful for my two hot water bottles.
I can’t face breakfast but go with Jonathan and a guide for a jungle walk, this time praying not to see a tiger. There are fresh tracks though and deer, wild boar and more birds, very calm and yet exhilarating. The Americans leave to go onto their next land, promising to email me my Princess photos. I am transported on my own individual safari to Tharu Lodge on the edge of the Park.
First, by jeep along the river, stopping to admire the slumbering crocodiles, mouths ajar, teeth glistening, draped on logs almost as if arranged specially for tourists. Then a half hour dug out boat ride, me and my escort of four, drifting along, through mini rapids, past eagles and more crocodiles; the elongated snout fish eating variety this time. Expanses of blue sky all around and again, extraordinarily peaceful. Another short jeep ride to the Lodge, this time constructed of two native plaster longhouses on a high riverbank.
I am the only guest, so all tours are individually made. To begin, an ox cart ride around the local Tharu village. The oxen are pure white, Indian and hump backed and determined to take the most erratic path possible, so we are in constant danger of rolling into the ditch. We lurch past a series of picture postcard rural scenes. It is rice harvest time and small oxen are driven in circular paths around posts to thresh the grain. The separated hay is pitched onto high ricks. Women and children squat with the animals round small fires and tiny chicks scatter, squawking as the cart rattles on. Past a patch of sugar cane where a recalcitrant rhino is hiding, to the terror of the villagers, and school children reciting the relentless chant “Good bye – gimme pen”. I wave slowly, like the Queen, as we parade along.
Now another elephant ride, just me and one elephant. It is very uneventful, with the animals spotted count totalling zero. Dipendra Kali, the elephant, provides the entertainment however, rebelliously stopping to eat at every opportunity, pulling at the vegetation with her trunk and trumpeting loudly when punished with a prod of the mahout’s stick.
Later, about twenty villagers dance just for me. I plead my scar as an excuse for not joining in and eat dinner at tables placed round the central fire with Amy, the manager and Andreas, the farm manager and his wife. Amy is telling of a Nepali who has been found after having been savaged by a rhino and left to lie outside all night. She has arranged hospital care but is having trouble trying to get the locals to participate. Apparently, at forty he is considered too old to bother with.
An individual early morning call, a Nepali playing the flute outside my door, armed with a cup of steaming lemon grass tea. A Jeep ride through more rural scenes to Nagarkota, a bustling busy dirty town, to catch the Green Line bus to Pokara. We drive along riverside precipices, but I am delayed by two hours, as the intersecting bus does not arrive. Gradually, snow-capped peaks come into view. Another temporary hitch as I am deposited in a car for the wrong hotel, and then, the most terrifying, jolting jeep ride so far, up the mountain, to Tiger Mountain Lodge. It is perched a thousand feet up, steep terraces and the valley dropping away below. Vultures swoop ahead and the mountains are shrouded in mist. I hope the view will not be as elusive as the tigers.
My bungalow faces the peaks and has its own mountain terrace. there is a delicious dinner and rum punches round the fire with the delightful Guest Relations Officer, Els, and her KLM pilot husband. There is also an American medical student travelling with his Aunt (shades of Graham Greene). “Have more butter Tucker”.
“Drink your coffee Tucker”.
I awake at 6.30 a.m. and catch a glimpse of mountains from the bed. I stagger outside, with a blanket wrapped round me, and am captivated. The mountains are slowly revealed in all their glory – Fishtail, Annapurna, and other 8,000-meter peaks, immense and awe inspiring. I am too excited to go back to bed and dress quickly to ascend to the Lodge and take in the view of the whole range. I devour chilli omelette and potato cakes while the whole valley unfolds beneath me. Then out to the swimming pool, reflecting the peaks in the blue water, to write my Christmas cards in the sun. Tranquil and again, very surreal. Fishtail is sacred and has never been climbed (officially) - the government refuse to give any permits
In the afternoon to Pokara in the Land Rover, just me and my guide – I’m getting used to this. Pokara is dirty, sprawling and unimpressive. First, a trip to an equally unimpressive waterfall. Then the Tibetan refugee camp. Women are knotting carpets in the dim, creating incredibly complex patterns. The inevitable visit to the saleroom follows, made bearable by the plethora of cheap Christmas presents available. On to the lakeside – a little dingy with strips of fruit festooned juice bars and trekking shops as well as the usual craft stalls.
Dinner with the pilot, Kees-Jan, and an American NASA aeroplane wing designer. The latter admits that he is terrified of flying and Kees Jan agrees that this is a perfectly reasonable state of mind. Now I’m really looking forward to my trip home. Also at the table are Charlie and his retired colonel father. Charlie is going off to Chitwan to play elephant polo. Kerosene lamps light the way back to the cabins.
A wake up call at 6.30 a.m. to watch the sunrise again. this time down to the helipad to watch the rosy glow creeping over the mountains. The sun, rising behind me, changes colour rapidly from red to yellow to white. The first time the sun has really looked to me like the huge fiery ball that it really is. I sip tea on the terrace, to take in the view until the very last minute before the flight back to Kathmandu.
Over the river on a precarious suspension bridge “One vehicle at a time”. Below a collection of buses is standing in the water to be washed. More motoring manoeuvres through flocks of sheep, grazing buffalo and oncoming motorcycles to the airport. Security interview conversation here:
“First time in Nepal?”
“You like Nepal?”
“You have husband?”
“Oh I am sorry”
Sign in airport lounge “You are strongly prohibited to spit elsewhere spittle pot”.
Another fantastic flight along the edge of the snowy Himalayas. Mountains as far as the eye can see in both directions.
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.
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.
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!”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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