What happens when you spend more than a few weeks abroad? You begin to miss little things, like the tea you have during your morning walks. Try as you might, you will never find a similar joint in any other country. The relaxed atmosphere that you are so used to is impossible to find, at least not in that setting that you so love. You may come across a swell, clean coffee shop but there’s nothing like sitting outside under the blue skies (most often it’s white but nevertheless you are out in the open) in Kutu Bahal with a cup of tea made to order. The familiar voices and the smile of the sauni matters as well. Then there are those regulars who come by and say, “Good morning Dai!” It all adds up. The kids who come to buy sweets, or eggs or Lays to take to school sweeten the ambience further.
We Asians are generally tea drinkers although in America we turn into coffee drinkers out of necessity. But there’s nothing like a good cup of aromatic tea and let’s thank the Brits for introducing us to a habit that nobody has ever found anything negative to say about. In fact tea is supposed to be good for you. As for me, I don’t feel right until I’ve had my cuppa. And if you watch Indians drinking tea, especially Bengalis, you would come to the conclusion: nobody savors tea like the Indians. Morning, afternoon, evening, the tea seller is kept busy.
But this piece is not really about tea. So moving on, what else do I miss? I miss my Saturday walks up in the hills surrounding Kathmandu valley. Yes, those hills are unique and each one of them presents you with a very different view of the valley below. Walking in that pristine air, enjoying views of Kathmandu city and the valley is another sensation that can’t quite be duplicated. Discovering villages, people and forests you didn’t even know existed is exciting and then coming across paths that may lead to some place few have traversed is another welcome prospect. Yes, most of my discoveries of trails have been quite accidental. Making a mental note of a new route I find, I always go back later and explore further. That’s how one day I discovered the gravestone of Kalu Panday on a hilltop and stood there in amazement. There is so much history behind that simple memorial plot of land. Nobody had ever talked about the existence of such a unique monument, since Hindus don’t make gravestones. Or the time when I stumbled upon the memorial statues of victims of a plane crash. From a distance the white figures seemed absurd and I found myself asking in my confused head, “What the hell is that in the middle of nowhere?” Discovering a crystal clear pond in the middle of the Shivapuri National Park was thrilling to put it mildly and watching the excited village kids who’d hiked up with me take a dip was pure delight. Then the accidental discovery of the source of the Bishnumati River when in fact I was lost in the forest was an amazing experience. Then to be told that a man had been mauled by an angry bear in that very forest added a dangerous element to my adventure. I call them “Rewards of a hike”. When we went for Tiger Tops’ annual picnic to Tribhuvan Park (much to my disgust because of all the noise) I went for a walk and discovered the route to Chitlang which opened up a whole new world for me.
So what else do I miss? For anyone who’s lived in Kathmandu for forty years, the absence of Newars is pretty striking. I’ve been surrounded by Newars for most of my life in the valley and they have become part of my life. Some of the first friends I made in the valley once known as Nepal were Newars. We remain close friends to this day and are always there when I need them and vice versa. There were always Newars in the offices where I’ve worked. At Plan International, one of them was a sister of the famous martyr Ganga Lal Shrestha and one became my girl friend whose friends became my friends and we hung out every day after office mostly at Anan Restaurant which was in Khichha Pokhari back then. Savoring hot kothey they would teach me Newari but I was never a good learner. Then there are the talented Newar musicians I’ve played music with, especially at Dwarika’s. And 70% of the musicians who formed our band for the Pink Floyd tribute were Newars. There are the saujis I deal with every day, who’ve become close. The first local friends to invite me home were the Newars of Kathmandu who lived in Ason, Bhotahiti, Jhonchen and New Road. By chance we were introduced by a Sri Lankan. Surprisingly even my female colleagues from the office would invite me home and introduce me to their families. Yes, my life has been enriched by my friendship with Newars. I even did Mha Puja with a friend’s family and received Bhai Tika from my adopted Newar sister!
Kathmandu is known for its exotic food quite unmatched by any other city. Where else can you find such diverse cuisine concentrated in a small area that’s the heart of Kathmandu? It must have started with Continental, Chinese and Indian food. Then we got Japanese, Thai, Italian, Korean, Singaporean, Malaysian, Russian, Burmese, Vietnamese you name it. I miss Momotaro’s soup momo, Kwality Kitchen’s Palak Paneer, Momo Magic’s Buff momos, Korean Kitchen Picnic’s Lunch Box, Kwancha’s Mixed Bara, Sankyo’s Katti rolls, Fire & Ice’s pizzas, and so much more. ‘Even the Wai Wai made in Nepal tastes better’ they say. I still love the Sweet Corn soup at Utse and the Club Sandwich served by Nanglo Bakery and Helena’s Kitchen’s Pork Chop. Then there’s Chikusa’s organic coffee; I could go on and on... I’ve been to quite a few countries but never saw anything quite like the diversity we see in Kathmandu’s eateries. Yes, I do miss the great food.
I miss the gullies of not just the old Kathmandu but also Handi Gaun where I recently discovered interesting alleys in my quest to avoid the pollution in the streets. Walking right through peoples’ houses is an amazing experience in this old city. The wise people who built Kathmandu long ago left pathways through the houses, yet pedestrians going through cause no disturbance to the dwellers as the paths are totally sealed off from the main house. They are so cleverly designed to act as shortcuts through the houses as you will find in Maha Boudha, around Ason, Guchha Tole, Thahiti; it’s the same all over town. If you know your city, you’ll find your way around. Just keep walking.
You may find yourself in a beautiful city like Florence with all her artistic splendor, or lively Bangkok, spacious Honolulu with endless beaches or sunny, lazy San Francisco, but they don’t have Jhochen, Basantapur, Thamel, Jhamsikhel or Patan which you can’t quite describe in words. There’s a lot you miss which we normally take for granted while living in the Valley of the Gods. That’s what they used to call Kathmandu.