The Top of the World

January 19. After leaving Paris, our Air India flight shows a film on basic w.c. behavior, evidently for the enlightenment of people who have never been in one: how toilets are flushed, how hot and cold water can be conjured from a faucet, how to use a wash basin, how hands and faces are dried with towels.

January 20. New Delhi. A stultifying, soul-corroding airport. Older men squat on their haunches near the walls, while young ones in ill-fitting red denims go through motions of sweeping the floor. During a seven-hour wait for a constantly delayed Royal Nepal plane, we can do little in the dim light except watch the ebb and flow of other arriving and departing herds. “Have patience, have patience,” a ticket agent says, joining his palms together (the namaste) as if to pray. Most of the people in the boarding-area “lounge” have Mongoloid features, but turbanned Sikhs are here, too, Hindu women in saris clutching strings of “rosary” beads, and American hippie counterculture types, with backpacks and trekking gear. An alluring young woman, long braid, bangle bracelets, suckles her baby on the floor in the lotus position.

Launchings of new Nepali airplanes are accompanied by the ritual sacrifice of animals. Mercifully not detained for such ceremonies, our Caravelle rises steeply over sprawling tenements and parched, rutted land intersected by irrigation ditches. The stewardesses—violet saris, flowers in their hair, the vermilion tikka on their foreheads, collyrium on their eyelids—remind us to advance our watches fifteen minutes, an odd, Through the Looking Glass differentiation; but, then, today in the Nepali calendar is the seventh in the month of Magh in the year 2046.

Halfway to the Nepal capital, the Himalayas burst into view, the white top of the world. In reddish late afternoon light we descend over green hills, terraced rice paddies, and—surprisingly, since Katmandu is southeast, not north, of Delhi, but also appropriately, since the form originated here—a pagoda. Tribhuvan terminal is new, but the brown filigreed woodwork is in traditional Nepalese style. We buy rupees and surrender our bags at Customs where they are ransacked, a consequence, no doubt, of yesterday’s interception of a cache of heroin from Hong Kong. Five rapacious porters, one per bag and two dollars each, push their way toward a small taxi, leaving us to scrimmage against a wall of outstretched hands, like those of tantric Buddhist gods with a superhuman multiplicity of arms.

Theoretically, traffic is to the left, but the road is indivisibly narrow and we encounter only one other automobile. The city streets are unpaved, dust-clouded, choked with people and animals—sacred cows (given wide berth), goats, pigs, chickens, dogs (but no cats: they embody evil spirits)—through which Hondas honk and bicycles weave like figure skaters. In the absence of street lights, the driver takes bearings from cooking fires and the candles of the small shrines and temples that are on every block. The doorman at the Yak and Yeti Hotel brings Gunga Din to mind, perhaps because…

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