I am still in the men’s room at the Rose Garden, but I’ve finished the joint and stopped sniveling. No one in my state of mind should fool with this stuff, I explain to myself as I roll another joint. The thing is, you get addicted to the emotional roller coaster. It becomes a fascination to see how the great Ferris wheel of Self gets stuck with you strapped into the top seat with your legs dangling over the void.
How different would life have been if I had not flown to Nepal that morning? Totally, totally different, I mutter as I take a toke. Would you do it any differently today? I ask the haggard face in the mirror with the funnel-shaped joint hanging from its lips. No, I tell the poor distraught fellow staring back at me, for then I would never have met Tietsin. With the detachment of the truly psychotic I start to cackle, then double over, whether in genuine hilarity or some caricature thereof is hard to say: I wouldn’t have missed him for the world, I say, cackling and shaking my head, not for the world, damn him. And all of a sudden he is there, large as life, in the men’s room with me, in his old parka jacket unzipped at the front, his long gray hair in a ponytail, his straggly beard somehow comic, his eyes rolled back, revealing only the whites. “Your problem is you’re not remembering in enough detail,” he explains. “Your Western blood makes you superficial-go deeper in. What have you got to lose?”
“Oh, nothing,” I say with theatrical emphasis. “Only my mind, and there’s not much left of that, is there?” But of course he was a hallucination and has disappeared like mist.
• • •
In Nepal we don’t fly through clouds, because the clouds have rocks in them.
The guidebook used this quote from a Royal Nepal Airlines pilot to open the section on Nepalese geography. The poorest country on earth is also the most vertical. Anyway, why would you worry about national resources when you have Everest? Overachievers from developed countries pay tens of thousands of dollars to get frostbite, lose limbs, and die at twenty-nine thousand feet, so they can call themselves summiteers. I also learned, for the first time, that Mr. Everest was a humble surveyor of the British Empire who really did not want the biggest rock on earth named after him, and neither did anyone else within a radius of ten thousand miles, since they had had their own names for the mountain for a good five thousand years before the ever-ready Everest turned up with his theodolite: Chomolungma (Mother of the Universe) in Tibetan; Sagar-martha (Goddess of the Sky) in Nepali.
Take a tip from me: if you’re approaching Nepal from East Asia, try to get a window seat on the right. I’d never seen the Himalayas before, and they come up on you disguised as clouds, delicate white wispy things at first, you think, until it dawns on you: it’s not a cloud, it’s not a mountain, it’s fifteen hundred miles of wall many miles high built by gods as a six-star dwelling place (there is no other rational explanation). As we landed I felt Vikorn’s genius and influence evaporate after holding my spirit prisoner for more than a decade. He was vicariously out of his depth too.
But as a cop, I could not help falling in love with the airport. It’s the only one I’ve found that insists on throwing your luggage through a security machine after landing; but the good news is the machine doesn’t work, probably never has, and anyway the guy with the knitted topi on his head sitting behind it chatting to a friend probably wouldn’t know what to do with a sizzling little electronic device if he found one. Outside, there was the usual collection of hustlers, hotel runners, half-legal taxis, and ragged people who like to watch planes land and take off. On a whim I grabbed a taxi hustler with a rag tied around his head and such an array of astrological charms and charts all over the windows and roof of his cab he put your average Bangkok cabbie to shame. His eyes were black oil wells with insane flecks of red. His name was Shiva, of course.
Shiva wanted to know where I was staying. After studying the guidebook I narrowed the short list down to two: the five-star Yak & Yeti (I was most tempted by the name), which used to be someone’s palace, or the downmarket but internationally loved Kathmandu Guest House. To make a decision I really needed to think about the psychology of my business partners. I mean, in your line of work, farang, everything depends on projecting the right image, correct? Which was exactly my dilemma. On one hand, I was here to arrange a high-value supply-side contract, which would normally mandate the Yak & Yeti as the only joint in the whole Himalayas qualified to provide the appropriate ambience; on the other hand, it was not exactly my style and I was dealing, if my information was correct, with a mind master of considerable skill and insight-didn’t he just destroy the life of Rosie McCoy and put one huge crimp in General Zinna’s operation, without, apparently, leaving his cave? No, I didn’t think the Yak & Yeti was a smart decision; with guys like Tietsin, you better go naked or not at all.
“Kathmandu Guest House,” I told Shiva.
“Forget it, it’s full, anyway very overpriced. How about the Himalayan Guest House?”
“How much commission does the Himalayan Guest House give you, per customer?”
“Okay, I’ll give you five percent if you get me a suite at the Kathmandu Guest House.”
Shiva stopped the taxi for a moment so he could wai a Hindu shrine (much gaudier than the Buddhist equivalent, and with more flowers, not all of them boring white lotus, either-I do love marigolds), before saying okay. It turned out the Kathmandu Guest House was only at 50 percent occupancy, so I got my suite and Shiva got his commission, and I found I liked his wacky taxi and dirty head cloth so much I hired him for the rest of the day for the knockdown price of five dollars. “Swayambunath,” I told him, as soon as I’d checked in.
Some smart-ass Tibetan Buddhist prophesied about a thousand years ago that when iron horses ran around Kathmandu on wheels, that would signal the end of Buddhism. Well, it did. About the same time as the iron horses started to appear in this town, the barbarian Chinese invaded Tibet and the D.L. had to flee. The problem I had with the iron horses at that moment was more prosaic: the pollution was (believe it or not, farang) even worse than Bangkok ’s, and Shiva’s rear nearside window didn’t close. (He’d taken the lever out of the door; of course, these windows had never seen electricity; the car was an old Indian Ambassador.) The silver lining here, though, was that the open window enabled a welcoming committee of very skinny cows to come and pay their respects. One shoved her massive head into the back of the cab during a traffic jam, enabling me to fondle her shaggy, black-velvet jowl and wish her good luck in her next incarnation, which, after such patience, was likely to be celestial.
Swayambunath is generally known as the Monkey Temple, for the simian thugs who seem to run the place. They’re everywhere, and they keep their beady eyes on you while you’re climbing the million and one steps, sniggering at your feeble strength, openly deriding you for forsaking the rain-forest paradise and your hairy superbody for this pathetically inferior bare-skin version, which had me gasping for breath halfway up. It didn’t help that Shiva, who decided to make merit by accompanying me, and who was an authentic third-world chain-smoker of a cigarette so foul they made our humble L &Ms smell like havanas, effortlessly took the stone stairway two steps at a time and patiently waited for me while I leaned on the iron rail that divided the steps, coughing my heart out.
Farang, I am ashamed to admit (but I know you’ll understand) that my first thought on finally reaching the temple on the high summit was that my cell phone would surely work from there-it had been acting up since I arrived, and I hadn’t been able to make contact with Tietsin. Well, it did work, and I told someone on the other end who promised to tell Tietsin that I was staying at the Kathmandu Guest House. That chore over with, I was ready for Shiva, Vishnu, and Buddha, for they all had holiday homes right here.
Forgive me if I’m teaching my grandmother to suck eggs, farang, but when you do your tour of a stupa or chedi, please do so in a clockwise direction. I don’t want to be responsible for the bad luck you’ll accrue by going the other way-I know how perverse you can be. And remember to spin all the prayer wheels; it’s your tendency to leave out the middle bit that got you stuck with a human body in the first place. At the top of Swayambunath this simple formula will introduce you to all the Hindu gods; then lead you inexorably to the Buddhist enclave, where, as like as not, you will find the Tibetans in their plum robes chanting their hearts out, when not engaged in territorial disputes with the Hindus; then-hold your breath-the nirvanic moment when the heavens open and you find yourself staring across the Kathmandu Valley at the greatest geological show on earth: the mountains, the mountains. With them as stark white backdrop, there is not a lot else to talk about. We are a miniature chorus in a theater built by the gods. And all the time I was thinking, Tietsin, Tietsin.
When I’d done my three and a half turns, I asked Shiva if he wanted to eat, but he shook his ragged head; perhaps he found my company impure, or perhaps he didn’t like the way I spun the ancient brass prayer wheels. (Hindus are easily offended, but at least they don’t decapitate you like Muslims, or ruthlessly exploit your natural resources for three hundred years like Christians.) I said, “Pashupatinath.”
It’s on the Baghmati River and is said to be the second most sacred Hindu site on earth, after Benares. Suddenly eager to show his country in its best light, Shiva took me to an elevated platform where a yogin lifted a five-pound rock with his penis. (I don’t want to sound deflating here, but he didn’t do it by means of an erection-now wouldn’t that have been divine?-but rather prosaically tied a string from rock to flaccid cock while squatting, thereby inexorably raising the phallic burden when he stood up.) The yogins here, by the way, really look the part: magnificent heads of uncut hair tied up in chignons liberally anointed with russet dye, a whacking great third eye called a tikka outlined on the forehead in a bright crimson stripe between two white ones, tridents and alms bowls, the whole shebang. They even have their own bijou hermit stations made of stone, with full views of the bodies burning on the ghats down below. Shiva and I watched the brawny fire tenders with their ten-foot bamboo poles prodding the flames while the white-shrouded corpses burned, surrounded by close relatives. When someone’s brains exploded with an almighty bang, widow and children jumped back a yard or two, then laughed gaily.
I looked at Shiva and said, “Bodnath,” in an innocent tone which did not betray my stage fright, for I had no doubt at all that Tietsin was there and would know I had visited, even though our first meeting was scheduled for the next day. Shiva surprised me by saying it was within walking distance.
Stupas may be Buddhist in this epoch, but their origin predates Gautama by many thousands of years. Probably the Aryan invaders brought them ten millennia ago, along with their Vedic mysteries: those were the days, when farang knew more about magic than Asians. The stupa at Bodnath is a gigantic pure white breast about forty-five yards high and a hundred in diameter, surmounted by a pointed nipple and an all-seeing pair of eyes each about a yard wide; but what hits you the most are the prayer flags strung on great long cables that form a parabola from the earth to the top of the stupa. Blue for sky, white for air, red for fire, green for water, yellow for earth, generally in that order.
The flags, which carry the texts of a thousand prayers stitched into the cloth, are intrinsic to Tibetan Buddhism, and you find them all over the Himalayas. The wind takes the healing meditations of the holy monks and carries them all over our tortured world; to use the wind and earth as a kind of machine to broadcast the way of transcendence is to me one of those sublime cultural achievements: would you forgive me for suggesting it beats landing on the moon? I found the eyes particularly hard to look at. Sure, anyone can simply glance at something like that without suffering psychic overload, but try absorbing its significance on a deeper level-okay, okay, farang, you don’t want to know about that, you want to know about sex, drugs, and murder, I understand. Anyway, I did my three and a half turns without neglecting a single prayer wheel, all the time surrounded by Tibetans, most of them monks and nuns-professionals, in other words-who talked on cell phones, chanted and gossiped and spun the wheels and laughed and ate (they seemed to be compulsive snackers, like Thais) their way around the fantastically oversized stupa like Canterbury pilgrims. I was at first offended by an elderly nun who begged me for a few coins. This was strictly un-Buddhist and for a moment very disappointing: the true meaning of alms is not to keep the monk or nun from hunger, but to provide an opportunity of grace for the lay donor. She should not have asked; she should have simply stood there to let me make merit. She was pretty decrepit, though, and perhaps not all that smart, so, feeling like a sucker, I dipped into my pocket to give her a bunch of coins and notes. Actually, I did my usual trick of not looking at what I was bringing out of my pocket. When I calculated how much I had given her it amounted to more than five dollars, a fortune for her. She took the money indifferently, as if it was no more than her due, then gave me a look which, in my mildly disorientated and slightly paranoid state, seemed to say, What kind of international drug trafficker are you?
Then that name flicked across the screen behind the forehead which some call the third eye: Tietsin, it said, in bright flashing neon. Tietsin.
On an impulse I went to find Shiva Taxi. The whole stupa was surrounded by teahouses, thanka shops, souvenir collections, and a thousand places where you can get your digital pix loaded onto a CD or access the Internet. It took me thirty minutes of running around the gigantic compound before I found him and told him it was time to go. He stared at me, wondering why I was suddenly exhibiting signs of stress.
When I got back to the hotel I found a message waiting. Tietsin’s people would come for me about ten o’clock the next morning. Feeling restless, I left the hotel to walk on Thamel.
Which has a way of exploding in your face. Less than twelve inches from the perimeter of the guesthouse, a couple of trishaw drivers pulled up and almost trapped me against a wall; a woman who might have been Tibetan held a dead baby in her arms while she thrust out a hand and sobbed; taxies honked as they tried to get past the trishaws; runners from some of the other guesthouses tried to persuade me to relocate; a young man almost in rags whispered that he had hashish as a couple of men in black leatherette jackets drove up on a mid-range Honda motorbike and offered the same thing at the same price, though with infinitely more gravitas. Someone-a man whose face I never saw-asked if I wanted a girl or two tonight. When I squeezed past the trishaws and crossed the street, I was accosted by chillum and pipe salesmen; craftsmen who had spent the day carving chess sets wanted to sell me their masterpieces; and it all happened against a specifically Hindu soundtrack of honks and yells and men making their habitual ablutions, which included some elaborate hoiking, right there on the street-but you can’t really blame them, for the dust gets everywhere. Then there were the farang backpackers who moved heavily with their towering burdens which must have contained clothing for six months and medical accessories for a year. Some had aluminum tent poles sticking out. Quite a lot of them were single women or women traveling in pairs, both young and middle aged; Nepal was supposed to be safe, all the guidebooks agreed. I saw clones of Rosie McCoy. At the same time Nepali women in traditional dress (mostly saris, although a lot wore tapered pants under a long upper garment) were rushing in and out of shops and carrying groceries wrapped in gray paper, or cooking over gas burners in the open doorways of their medieval homes, taking care not to jostle the bony cows who also emerged to enjoy the evening. Then there was the music. Om mani padme hum boomed out from CD stores along with Robbie Williams and Ravi Shankar, and one corner shop never stopped with the deep-throat, low-note Tibetan chants which formed a kind of long-wave whale chorus to the whole zoological moment. Of course I was thinking, Tietsin.
I woke just after dawn, took a stroll around town, refused marijuana five times-only because I was meeting Tietsin-and gave some money to the woman still holding the dead baby; so maybe the baby wasn’t really dead. When they came for me, the elderly nun from Bodnath to whom I had given money and whom I had thought decrepit was in the back of the minivan. She smiled warmly and mischievously. The driver seemed to be Nepali and didn’t speak. “We’re going to a lecture on Tibetan history,” she explained with a smile in perfect English.