By Richard Denham
From the airport we travelled by taxi through Kathmandu, along a pothole-filled road crammed with red-brick houses on either side. Some were plastered and painted bright colours and covered in verdant green plants, high walls enclosing their neat, cool courtyards. Others were crumbling, half-up half-down, about to topple. In the background, massive, concrete-grey apartment buildings loomed half-built; skeletal structures pointing to a hoped-for future. Stray dogs slept here and there on the side of the road.
I remember the colours of the clothes that the women wore – pink, burgundy, turquoise, electric blue, greens and golds – carefully hand-washed, their vibrancy not diluted by machines.
The word REVOLT was painted toweringly on the side of the wall. A billboard for a cellular network leant precariously from a rooftop, displaying a group of young, attractive people using mobile phones and looking pleased with themselves. Revolutionary socialism and consumerism both jostling to offer a form of escape; both coming off as somewhat incongruous with the surroundings.
In the mid-afternoon on our second day we went up a tower in the centre of the city, built 200 years before and opened recently to the public. From the narrow balcony at the top, we looked out on many rows of tall, narrow, higgledy-piggledy houses, and little matchstick figures playing football and cricket on the yellow-thirsty grass of the parks and sports fields. The faint silhouette of the surrounding mountains seemed to fade almost imperceptibly into the hazy grey low-hanging sky; the constant honking and beeping of the crowded streets was audible, yet distant. A father and a son were pointing somewhere and discussing something in good-natured contention, most likely the location of a certain place.
Later on we were sitting in a bar in the tourist area when a white man in his thirties or so stood in the middle of the street outside, alone. He held a transistor radio, and looking up towards the sky, he began singing something softly yet imploringly in a North American accent. Cars honked at him to get out of the way, yet no noise seemed to penetrate the trance-like state he was under. Two or three Nepalis watched from a nearby shop doorway, smiling curiously.
As we sat in the waiting room for the jeep that would take us out of the city, there was a toddler in a bright fuchsia dress with puff sleeves, her eyes coated with thick black make-up, ears pierced with thick gold rings. An empty wrapper of instant noodles had blown in from somewhere and she laughed happily to herself as she chased it, pitter-pattering across the grey concrete floor.