POSTCARD FROM POLAND — and now for a spot of travel writing

Amigos, it’s been a long, long time since I last blogged, and here’s the reason for this: as many of you know, I… sorry — Richie, has been totally absolved in finishing the first draft of the new novel, LOSING THE PLOT.

The last chapter hit the screen a week ago and it’s now with my editor, who will shortly be applying copious amounts of red ink to my baby.

Enough of that — more about the book in the next blog.

This blog is about travel writing; specifically about the most fascinating country I have so far visited — Nepal.

Why, you may well ask… or there again, you may very well not ask.

The reason is that I am a member of InterNations, an ex-pats’ group based in Wroclaw and a fellow member has recently initiated a Writers’ Group, and the remit for this evening’s meeting is travel writing.

Of course I’ve been blogging about Poland for around a year now, but as this has been mainly negative stuff telling you what a dump Brzeg is and how I’d fallen asleep on the train from Wroclaw and ended in at Katovice, or some other random city, I thought I’d share one of my more positive travel experiences with you and with the group.

And so that everyone can appreciate it, thoughtfully I put it on my website.

So… here goes:

Title:  If you go down to the Pashupatinath public toilets, you’re in for a big surprise.

Kathmandu is a city like no other. But even an eight-week Everest expedition could not prepare Richard Grainger for the shock of what he saw behind the Pashupatinath public toilets.

Kathmandu — “There’s a one-eyed yellow idol
to the north of Kathmandu…”

Leaving aside what goes on behind the Pashupatinath public toilets for just one minute, there’s no shortage of things to do in Kathmandu and the beauty of it is that none of it costs the earth.

We spent the first two days after our return from Everest doing all the things we had dreamed of for the past eight weeks. Washing, eating, shopping, catching up via email and the internet and becoming depressed by the fact that the civilised world has become no better a place than it had been when we’d left it.

Then there’s more washing and more eating. I’d lost over a stone and was determined to put it back on by the time I boarded the place for Heathrow in four days time.

But mainly we do nothing. We lounge in the warm sun on the terraced rooftop cafes stealing

Kathmandu airport — flight from Lukla in a Twin Otter is not not the faint-hearted

wistful glimpses of the foothills; behind them, the snow-capped 8000 metre peaks of which we are now proud veterans.

Surviving the Everest Marathon gives us the hard-earned right to do absolutely nothing.

But after two lugubrious days of drinking the local beer, haggling over worthless trinkets, ridiculous clothing and being ripped off by perma-smiled street traders, we grew bored and so the following morning we took a sightseeing tour of the city.

Hotel Shanker — post colonial opulence

Boarding the bus outside the post-colonial splendour of the Hotel Shanker where obsequious attendants sweep non-existent leaves from our path, it occurs to me that this is the first time that I have travelled inside a bus since arriving in Nepal.

Everest Base Camp — close to Gorek “Get Down” Shep — the start of the Everest Marathon

Two months ago, the nine-hour trip from the city to the road-head at Jiri, had been endured entirely from the roof of the bus. This is the way to travel, although over-zealous officials try to prevent Westerners from roof riding. A fistful of rupees generally
silences their protestations and leaves the inside of the bus free for locals travelling to market with chickens, goats and assorted farmyard animals. At Charikot a small leathery man had boarded the bus accompanied by a large sharp-horned cow, of which he was clearly very proud.

Seated on the roof you are away from the bedlam below and left in relative peace to absorb

If it’s your day to die — so be it

the drama of the scenery unfolding before you. Safer too, we figured.

Nepalese bus drivers have a curious attitude to Health and Safety that is best summed up thus: “If today is your day to die – so be it!” At least on the roof you would be flung down the hillside and left to takes your chances with the gods of the mountains should the driver lack the necessary precision to negotiate the hairpin bends that he approaches at improbable speeds.

Back on our tour bus, after half an hour of chaotic progress through the crowded streets, we get out and walk.

The city of Kathmandu is a vast colourful tapestry, little changed since medieval times. Close your eyes, step into a time machine and embrace the sounds, sights and in particular, smells, that overload the senses — musk, manure and marijuana compete with the stench of death and burning rubbish — there is no facility for the collection of domestic refuse. Heck, you don’t even need a time machine.

Witness an intricate web of narrow streets and alleys with wood-carved balconies spilling over open shop fronts. The squares are like living museums packed with monuments and temples that ooze antiquity, heritage and history.

Not another bloody temple?

But behind the Pashupatinath public toilets, a small crowd has gathered. Quite why the toilets existed at all was anyone’s guess to judge by the amount of excrement and other detritus on the muddy terrace 40 feet above the Bagmati river.

The stench is awful. In addition to the ever-present smell of human faeces is the acrid stink from the riverside funeral ghats which the wind blows this way.

There’s a sense of anticipation as an ascetic little man, dressed only in a brown loincloth resembling an oversized nappy, appears and begins to negotiate with the crowd. People jostle for position, sometimes sacrificing a superior vantage point for an area which has no evidence of human waste – and sometimes not.

The leader of the tourist group, a man in his forties of military bearing, leads the negotiation.

‘Forty ruppes and that’s your lot, mate’.

‘Not likely’, comes the response, ‘You think I’m prepared to risk my life for that?’

‘Shakespearean,’ someone comments.

‘Two hundred rupee and not a rupee less!’

The crowd grows restless and the sandy haired negotiator in the khaki shorts and trekking boots agrees a price of 100 rupees.

‘It’d had better be bleedin’ worth it,’ he says.

Again the crowd inches forward.

‘Bugger,’ yells someone, close to the front, ‘I’ve just stood in more sodding shit!’

The little man disappears around the side of the toilets to the consternation of the throng, fearful that they may have trodden in excrement for nothing. Seconds later, he reappears, carrying a huge concrete breeze block.

‘Oh-my-god,’ he gasps, struggling to move under the immense weight.

‘Herculean,’ mutters another cynic.

‘You try!’ yells the little man.

The cynic sidles forward and picks up the block.

‘Shit, that’s well heavy!’

The man produces a piece of rope and attaches it to the block, binding it tightly. The rope is now about waist height against his diminutive frame. The tension is almost unbearable.

He then removes his loincloth and stands completely naked.

‘This has got to be worth it!’

The crowd takes a collective breath.

‘I’ve left my bloody video on the bus’, says a man near the front in a broad Mancunian accent.

The little man ties the rope to a wooden splint which he fixes to another piece of rope. This piece of rope he fixes to the end of his penis. He squats, grimaces, places his hands together as if in prayer, and slowly lifts the entire block clear of the ground, using only his organ. The crowd gasps, then fall silent momentarily as they digest the magnitude of what they have just witnessed.

‘Good… God’, says someone, breaking the silence.

‘You want more?’ the organ lifter asks his stunned audience. This was his moment. ‘I lift more block for more rupee!’

And then the chant begins behind me, softly at first but gaining momentum as the crowd joins in.

‘Two blocks!… two blocks!…TWO BLOCKS!’

This is Kathmandu. Mystical, magical and utterly mad.





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